Trying Something a Bit Flashy

I’ve been working getting a good library of photos built for stock photography sites and it’s been a humbling experience. The sites critique your work and the issues are very plainly stated. The artistic quality of a photo is not considered. It’s all about fundamentals.

Here on this blog I have been talking about pushing my photography in order to accomplish tasks like stopping the motion of a hummingbird’s wings or capturing the joy of an OCD dog in swimming pool. These exercises have pushed me to capture things I never really thought my micro 4/3 system was capable of. This has been great for me as a technician and I feel more capable of shooting things that I had not even considered before. The down side is that it has pointed out the flaws in the give-and-take when you trade shutter speed for ISO – the end result is more noise. Although this might be great for a photo that I would publish here or even one that I would sell a print of, it doesn’t cut it in the stock photography world. Noise is a no-no.

I’m also finding that my artistic leaning towards a very shallow DOF is not what these sites are looking for either – so I have culled my archives to find the best shots where the focus on the main subject is deeper – all-in-all I am starting to find the right mix. My autumn leaves seem to be hitting the mark as well as some wildlife and some flowers.

This whole process got me thinking – is there a way to get a very sharp image of a hummingbird (or any bird) in less than perfect lighting conditions? In motion? Without a lot of noise? I recently attended a family wedding and I brought my portrait lens. As the ceremony moved from a lakeside sunlit venue to a rather dark reception hall I was forced to take out my least favorite piece of photographic equipment – my flash.

I have never liked shooting with a flash. I don’t like the way it can change skin tones and the shadows it can cast. I prefer a fast lens and available light, but as the days start to get shorter, that means I might have to shoot only on weekends with great weather. The hummingbirds are here now – and they’ll be headed south by mid October. Although I find the flash intimidating, the time has come for me to give it a try.

All of the shots that follow were shot in overcast conditions after 6:00pm. Some were shot on the west side of my home where the house casts shadows on my shooting area after 4:00pm.

I’ll start with a hummingbird on a limb. I was concerned that once I fired the flash that my subject would bolt, but my worries were unfounded. I shout about 10 frames of this fellow and he was unconcerned with me. He was in the shadow of the house, backed by a cedar beam.

There is the problem of the flash needing to recharge between shots – so I have to go back to my process of stalking and waiting for a good moment rather than firing off dozens of frames – but I kind of like that.

Of course, there is still the issue of hoping to stop the action of a hummingbird in flight. The flash certainly helps…

This shot was taken at about 6:00 in the evening - I had to get a focus on the bird and wait for it to flutter backwards from the feeder to make the capture. Since a bird does this about 5-6 times when feeding you are lucky to get two chances while a bird is at the feeder with the flash recharging between shots.

This shot was taken at about 6:00 in the evening – I had to get a focus on the bird and wait for it to flutter backwards from the feeder to make the capture. Since a bird does this about 5-6 times when feeding you are lucky to get two chances while a bird is at the feeder with the flash recharging between shots.

There is something else the flash does that I hadn’t really considered. All that extra light assists the camera in getting some pretty tight focus…


I can see the veins of individual feathers in this shot, but the beak is what really got me. I have never gotten a shot this sharp of a hummer. The flash makes the wings transparent so that you can see her body through it. A shadow is cast of the wing on her left by the one in front.

This whole process has made me think about using a flash when I have plenty of sunlight. Can I get a really sharp image by adding just a bit more light into the mix? Or is that just too flashy?

47 thoughts on “Trying Something a Bit Flashy

    • That video is amazing – I had no idea. I have seen them flick their tongues, but had no clue it split like that.

      This flash thing is a mixed bag. I’m not completely sold, but when it works it’s pretty cool. I’m still learning 🙂

  1. I liked your ending. Interesting post as you describe how you are meeting this new challenge. I had heard that stock photography was quite demanding in those areas. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t pursued them.

  2. Great shots Lorri. I’m amazed how well lit the birds are (with the flash). I’ve never been a fan of flash photography on the rare times I have used it, so I suppose it must take a bit of practice.

    (I do have the ring flash on my shopping list for flower photography though). Now I have the plaster cast off my broken right arm, can’t wait for the day when I can manage to carry my DSLR – i am missing so many lovely Spring flower shots.).

    • Thanks Vicki, good to hear that you are on the mend! Overall I’m finding the biggest challenge is to get a good focus in low light. The cycling of the flash does slow you down. I have on,y a pretty basic flash right now. I want one of those macro rings too!

  3. Your humbling experiences with your pictures is like mine when I send in my stories some place. We think they are pretty awesome and so do others, but these places, neh not so much. Just makes us try harder! Great pics Lorri and your ‘experiments’ are turning out great!! 🙂

    • I follow several local photographers and I see so much work so frequently that amazes me that I have never been super confident in my photos – I have learned what people buy, but I always see the short comings. I think most artists do – and typically most non-artists don’t notice them. I think I was taken aback by the technical nature of stock photography – but that is pushing me to try new things, so it’s all good.

  4. Wow! The hummingbird shots are amazing. Thank you for sharing how you did it. I would never have thought to use the flash (it’s not my favorite piece of photographic equipment either).

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  6. Absolutely breathtaking! I have been trying to learn how to take great shots of hummingbirds and this is not only a great tutorial but beautiful as well! The bokeh is so creamy. What lens do you use to capture?

  7. Thank you for sharing not only great photos, but also the techniques you have used. We don’t get many humming birds where I live, actually we don’t get ANY, but I enjoyed the learning experience.
    Jude xx

    • No worries – I am shooting through my long lens. How does your FPS speed work with a flash needing to recharge. I may need a flash upgrade 🙂 I hadn’t considered focus tracking but I will definitely give that a shot – thanks for the tips!

      • I use the flash on manual and it goes up to 1/250 for shutter speed. Nonetheless, my camera (Canon 1-DX) is super-fast and, coupled with the Servo focus mode, has captured some neat images. If you aren’t using AI Servo, I highly recommend you do so as it will really make those “keepers” eye-popping. I wrote a couple of blog posts regarding my own photography with the hummingbirds and I also have a hummingbird gallery on my photo website.

        • Yes, mine goes up to 250 shutter speed as well. I think I can get 9 fps. My flash just won’t fire that fast though. I have a more complex one I need to read up on – perhaps that will do the trick. Basically before this week I used a flash to shoot interiors when I absolutely had no other option. But I have been reading up on using it for macro – this was literally a shot in the dark. I am trying continuous focus tonight for sure! Your hummingbird shots are awesome!

  8. Every September, the hummingbirds migrate through my part of southeast Texas on their long migratory route from Canada down to Central America and Mexico. My mother sets out feeders in her backyard and the hummingbirds swarm around them. I have managed to capture some awesome images using flash, a long lens (my Canon 100-400mm) and setting the focus mode on AI Servo so that the focus point keeps tracking the moving subject (aka the hummingbird). I shoot most of my images handheld but have used the tripod as well for these hummer images. It also helps to have a camera that has a fast fps – paticularly when shooting in Raw rather than jpg.

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