I use Canon cameras and lenses, mainly because I have used them for over 33 years, and have never seen reason to change. That being said, the AF capability of the latest EOS cameras is second to none, both in terms of speed and accuracy.
Over those years, I have always found the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ to be true. So I buy the very best gear I can afford.
“Life is too short to waste it on crap…’ – Andrew Johnson-Laird
For example, if you buy a cheap tripod, you will end up buying a more expensive *good* tripod. I can almost promise that. I did. Every other photographer I know did.
I have a lot of gear, and I look after it. But I do not worship it. They are my tools, not my icons of adulation. Again, this is where paying a bit more for higher quality is beneficial. Get gear that can take a little punishment – in that way you can concentrate on your photography, rather than your gear.
Canon EOS 5Ds R – I use this to be able to have an expanded field of view, and still be able to crop aggressively if need be. Hummingbirds are incredibly fast and erratic, so if I can shoot wider for the same resolution, I get less cropped wingtips etc. The focusing is amazing too. I am generally shooting high speed flash at an ISO of around 200, so noise is never a problem.
Canon EOS 1DX Mk II – probably my favorite camera of all time, (superseding the wonderful Rolleiflex 6008 Integral). It is superbly ergonomic, breathtakingly fast, the high ISO performance is staggeringly good, and the focus system is far and away the fastest and most accurate I have ever used. Sure, I wish it was about half the weight (and price!) but you can knock gateposts in with it, and use it in the pouring rain. Attached to a 500mm lens, and 2x converter, it still maintains all AF capabilities – so shooting hummers in ambient light becomes almost straightforward…. It is also fun shooting video of hummers at 120fps…
Now, if you are prefocusing on a flower, or using camera-trapping techniques, focus capability is moot. The Canon 80D and similar bodies produce absolutely excellent results when used within their constraints. Plus, the crop factor means you can shoot much tighter for a given focal length. Lastly, it has an integral flash, which can be exceedingly useful. Don’t expect it to last long in the rain, or withstand heavy knocks though.
Tip: If shooting around your home, use an AC adapter for your camera. You don’t have to pay a couple of hundred dollars for one either – use a Chinese knockoff. They are way cheaper and work just fine. Been using them for years and years… For example, the EOS 5D series cameras use an ACK-E6 AC adapter. The Canon version costs $144 and you can pick up a perfectly fine Chinese version for $21 – quite a saving.
I have used everything from 14mm ultrawide angle lenses to 500mm with 2x converters. If I had to choose a single lens for hummingbird work though, it would definitely be the Canon EF 100-400mm Mk II. It is about the best value, highest performing lens I have ever used. Sharp, fast, convenient. Importantly, and this feature is not talked about much, is that it close focuses to a little over 3 feet. 400mm at 3 feet turns this beast into a pseudo macro lens. You can shoot *really* tight on hummingbirds with it and get some great close up shots. As I mentioned above, buy the best lenses you can afford – they will make the most difference to the sharpness and contrast of your images.
Any wireless remote release that has the correct interface to your camera is an essential component for hummingbird photography. The ability to fire your camera from a distance means that your presence is not impacting the birds; they fear a stationary camera a lot less than a large, breathing human, and you can watch your subjects from relative comfort.
I do strongly suggest you research which remotes use AA and AAA batteries, for convenience. Some use button (hearing aid batteries) some use small 12V batteries. These types of batteries are much harder to find when you are desperately needing one!
I really don’t have a brand preference – there are so many, so just do a little research, read some reviews, and go from there. The ability to shoot in Bulb mode is an asset for other types of photography.
Simply buy the best you can afford. Do the research, read reviews, and purchase accordingly. The heavier your camera and lens combo, the more massive your tripod should be. I happen to own more than 10 tripods – some are portable carbon fiber versions, others are massive steel and aluminum models. If you are using flash, rigidity and flex are not quite so important, so they can be lighter weight. That being said, the tripod I have used most over the years is a very old Gitzo G 410. It weighs ton, and could probably withstand being hit by a bus….
A couple of years ago I purchased a Photo Clam heavy duty carbon tripod that is far and away the best tripod I have ever owned.
For my 500mm lens, I use a Wimberly Gimbal. They are the best. Smooth and bombproof.
For the 100-400mm I use a Wimberly Sidekick plugged into either an Arca Swiss B2, or a similarly sized Sirui – a much cheaper and remarkably smooth and nice version.
If shooting with a light camera-lens combo, I use a smaller, lighter carbon fibre tripod with a smaller head.
I don’t know where to start…. Flash photography is what I do – in the field, in the lab, in the studio. I have more than 40 flash units of various styles, sizes, powers, durations, capability, age….
Over the last 5 or more years though, I have used Paul C. Buff Einstein E640WS flashes for hummingbirds almost exclusively. They were easily the best bang for the buck for many years – cheap, powerful, fast, flexible, and almost perfectly suited to my work. They are studio monolights, and operate on AC power. As such, they recycle very, very quickly. When I am using them for high speed flash, they are set to 1/32nd power – the flash duration is then around 1/12000th of a second – fast enough to freeze wings. The really cool thing is that at such a low power level, recycling is essentially instantaneous. I can fire at least 5 frames on the EOS 1DX Mk II in high speed mode, and the flashes will keep up with the camera no problem. Plus, you can use a whole range of light modifiers to soften and diffuse the light. Wireless trigger too. The Paul C. Buff customer support is legendary. I always shoot hummingbirds within reasonable proximity of my home, so I use an AC extension lead out into the garden, and I don’t have to worry about batteries.
If I am having to shoot in the field, where portability is the main concern, I then use Speedlites. I do like the Canon 600EX-RT series, because they are wireless and can be controlled from the camera. (Though the user interface for controlling flashes in Canon cameras proves two things: 1) They have no field testers who actually use flash for day to day photography, and 2) The interface was created by folks who have never done flash photography. Sorry Canon, but that interface is truly deplorable). BUT! They are still pretty cool – powerful and compact. Plus, with the wireless capability built-in, you only have to worry about batteries for the flash – not extra transmitters and receivers. But the Canon Speedlites are expensive, and I am almost always shooting in manual mode.
Enter the Godox TT600 – a manual flash with inbuilt wireless triggering. These are $69 each on Amazon – astonishing value. Don’t leave them out in the rain, and treat them with great care because the build quality is not even close to that of the Canons. However they are without doubt, wonderful flashes for hummingbird photography. Each camera brand will have a Godox trigger (about $45 each) dedicated to it, but the cool thing is that even if you have a Nikon, Sony and Canon camera with the three different trigger transmitters, they can all use the same flashes! You can have flashes in different groups, and control the output of each flash/group directly from the camera. Extraordinarily convenient.
In the early 2000’s I ran a company called Fotronix. We designed and sold high speed flash units called StopLights – they were specifically designed for hummingbird photography. Weatherproof, fast, 12V and *safe*. These units were state-of-the-art until about 2009, and then the IGBT device was invented J I had already closed my company down, and Paul C. Buff took IGBT technology, applied it to the design of the Einsteins and the rest is history. Fotronix produced some other flashes too – see the www.humanstohummingbirds.com website for upcoming posts on some high speed flash gear history.
There are numerous ways of triggering remote flashes – wired, wireless, infrared, RF (Radio Frequency). Use whatever works with your system – If you are using Einsteins, their remote trigger system is excellent. Likewise Godox. If you are using Canon, consider using the Yongnuo equivalents.
Lightstands are lightstands. If you have flashes that don’t weigh (or cost) much, you can get away with really cheap, light lightstands. Else, you need to use something a bit more substantial, like a C stand. If there is a breeze or wind and you are diffusing the flash (you should be!), there will be a large surface area at the top of the stand, doing its very best to act like a sail. Thus, use sandbags to always stabilize and anchor your lightstands.
Flash diffusers and modifiers
Whatever you can get your hands on to soften the light! No need for me to describe anything more than that – look online for DIY as well as professional solutions. Small softboxes, diffusion material, handkerchiefs, whatever!
Automated Remote Photography Gear (Camera Trapping):
I use Cognisys gear for all my camera trapping and automated remote photography. Their new Sabre sensor is a state-of-the-art LIDAR sensor that is quite simply phenomenal. For laser sensors, and high speed photography, I use the Cognisys StopShot. Take a look at their website – www.congisys-inc.com for product information and some great images and tutorials.