Tips for high ISO hummingbird photos

Tips for high ISO hummingbird photos

Noise reduction programs have made high ISO photography not only possible, but usable. In the past if you cranked up the ISO in your camera to 6400 you were looking at some blocky pixels. Now, ISO’s of 12,800 and higher are looking good. This hummingbird photo was made using ISO 20,000.

Why high ISO photos?

Not everyone wants, or needs, to purchase flashes capable of high-speed sync for specialty photography that is part time such as the migration of hummingbirds. They pass through the area and are gone on the next high pressure system that will help them on their way.

With wings that regularly beat 50-75 times per second and up to 200 times per second for certain species during courtship. You gonna need a fast shutter speed if you don’t have auxiliary flash to freeze the motion. high ISO and noise reduction to the rescue.

Initial hummingbird photo capture straight out of the camera.

Shutter speeds

Shutter duration of 1/2500 to 1/4000th of a second are necessary to even have a chance to freeze the motion of these speed demons. That calls for ISO’s upward of 12,800 when photographing on a sunny day. Shutter for this image was 1/5000th of a second.

The kit

I used an Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III with a 40-150mm M. Zuiko f/2.8 lens. Because these birds are so small in order to help fill the frame a bit more a 2X Teleconverter was added giving me the equivalent reach and view of a 300mm full-frame camera. A steady tripod is mandatory when photographing with a long lens. A gimbal also is a huge help when tracking and chasing wildlife photographs. I used the Fotopro Eagle E-6L.

Note: I am a Fotopro featured photographer. That means I can get you a 15% discount from retail while I also make a few dollars.

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After an initial process using Adobe Camera RAW. Image noise was reduced using the Detail panel.

Focus tips

Since hummingbirds don’t hang in one place very long it can be difficult to get them in focus. This is where studying behavior comes into play. Before you even try to fire a frame spend time observing. When you do you will see patterns for how each individual approaches the feeder or flower. One may do a quick pause in a certain place to check things out then a dip to taste the nectar. Some will do the same but from another direction. They will also tend to return to the same perch repeating the pattern over and over. That’s your chance to pre-focus.

For this technique to work well use of back-button-focus is a huge help. If you separate the focus trigger form the shutter activation you are good to go. Set your focus then fire the frame when the bird flies into the space. High capture speeds are helpful as well. A solid sequence even at 20 frames a second can sometimes only give you one frame with wings in position and in focus.

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Remove distracting out of focus feeder using Photoshop’s Content Aware Fill. A quick loose selection, invoke the Edit and feeder gone.

One more idea to get that pre-focus spot nailed. If you see the hummer comes in about 3-4 inches away for their pause, move the camera back 3-4 inches, focus on the feeder, then move the camera forward 3-4 inches. This can be a lot easier than trying to grab a focus with these tiny creatures on the move.

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Photoshop Layers Palette for the hummingbird image. See the text for all the processing steps.


Photoshop and Lightroom now have a pretty amazing bit of noise reduction for RAW files built in. My first stop is Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) and the “Detail” tab. Images that I choose to work with take about 15 seconds to reduce noise and turn into a new DNG file. Once I have the DNG, I do an overall exposure and tone adjustment. Then, it’s to the Masking panel still in ACR. There I can easily create a mask using “Select Subject” and make adjustments only to the hummingbird with separate adjustments to the background.

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Final hummingbird photo processed and cropped. Compare with the SOOC photo near the top of the article.

Once I’ve opened the image in Photoshop it’s time for final tweaks. Remove the distraction of the feeder using Edit > Content-Aware-Fill. Add a bit of selective sharpening and another noise reduction using NIK Collection’s Define to smooth the background a little more. Smoothing an area next to another will increase the apparent sharpness of the subject.

Hope this has given you some ideas to catch these beautiful avian characters without breaking the bank.

Your in Creative Photography, Bob