How to Photograph Sunbird in Flight

Sunbirds are small and fast-moving birds. So photographing them is a challenge. But it is not that hard either. With proper techniques and planning, you can make amazing Sunbird photos. This article is a step-by-step guide about how to photograph a Sunbird in flight. These are the ways I followed to get the photos below. Also, note that this is about how to make use of the natural light without using flashes. After all, it is fun photographing these little beauties.

Lotens Sunbird in Flight - Birds of Kerala
A female Loten’s Sunbird in Flight – Rainy day – Nikon D7100, 200-500mm, ISO 3200, 1/500s, f/5.6, 460mm

1. Prerequisites: The Gears you need

  1. Any DSLR which can shoot in burst mode will suffice. The higher the fps, the higher the chance to capture the correct moment. So in my opinion, 5fps or more is good.
  2. A telephoto lens with 300mm or more focal length. It helps to keep enough distance while producing a soft background.
  3. A tripod is not a must but helps a lot. A ball head or gimbal head is more convenient for quickly changing directions.

2. Learn about the species to photograph

First of all, it is important to have some knowledge about the sunbird species you are going to photograph.  You can look for Sunbirds in your area and select one. For example, Loten’s Sunbird and Purple-rumped Sunbird are the two common species here in Kerala.

These are nectar feeding birds from the Nectariniidae family. They usually have a particular spot or plant where they visit every day. So watch them and find this routine and their behavior. They often hover in the air while feeding on flowers. It only lasts one or two seconds or even a split-second. It is the time frame in which we are going to photograph.

How to photograph Sunbird in Flight - Loten's Sunbird
Loten’s Sunbird (M) – This is the same frame as the previous, 30 minutes later. Both birds came to the same flower – Nikon D7100, 200-500mm, ISO 3200, 1/500s, f/5.6, 440mm

3. Planning: Choose the spot

These small birds are common in Asia, Africa, Australia and some Pacific islands. After selecting the species and place, you need to choose a particular plant because we need to anticipate which flower the bird will visit. They usually feed on all the fresh flowers in one visit to the plant. That is their behavior. So select the flower in such a way that:

  • You are pointing perpendicular to the direction of the flower. So you get a good side view of the bird.
  • In the morning, you should be facing west so that light is from the rear.
  • Try to keep an eye-level.
  • The background is soft, green and distraction-free.

The plant you see in these photos is the Firebush (Hamelia patens). It is definite that Sunbirds will come to these plants.

Above all these rules and guidelines, use your creativity to find the best composition.

Best time to photograph

Sunbirds are most active in the dawn. And they are less active in the afternoon. So if it is a sunny day, the morning hours before 9:30 am are good.

If it is a cloudy or rainy day (which is the best), you can shoot anytime since the light is soft. These are relevant to all types of wildlife photography.

4. Set the camera to photograph Sunbird in Flight

These are baseline settings I use for sunbird in flight photography. I suggest playing with the settings to find the best combination for your lens, camera, and the environment.

  • Manual Mode (M) Helps to set the required aperture and shutter speed.
  • Shutter Speed – Minimum 1/250s. At least 1/2000s is required for completely freezing the wings. But I prefer showing some movement. Anyway, eyes must be sharp. Shutter speeds below 1/500s give an artistic feel to the photos.
  • ISO Auto or Manual – Remember that we are shooting in natural light without a flash. So select the ISO in such a way that you don’t underexpose. It may not be relevant if your camera is nearly ISO-invariant. Expose slightly to the right. It helps to decrease the noise. I have used ISOs from 800 to 3200.
  • Metering mode – Use spot metering on the flower. Also, expose about 1/3 stops to the right. Adjust the ISO or shutter speed accordingly. If you have an even lighting throughout the frame, you can use matrix or evaluative metering also. But usually, in most cases, the background will be dark. In that case, lower the ISO to avoid too much overexposure.
  • Focus Mode – I usually pre-focus (see the next point). You can also try AF-C or AI-Servo if the lens is fast enough.
  • Use Burst mode – Set the highest fps available in your camera.
  • Use back-button focusing – So you can use the AF-C any time. Also, you don’t mess with the focus while pressing the shutter release.
Purple-rumped Sunbird in the morning
Purple-rumped Sunbird early in the morning – Notice the use of slow shutter speed – 1/250s, ISO 2000, f/5.6, 400mm

5. Use pre-focus technique

Pre-focusing a flower has worked very well for me. Reassure the focus just before the bird comes. Don’t focus too early. Because by the time the bird arrives, the focus may have changed due to the wind.

Purple-rumped Sunbird (Female)
Purple-rumped Sunbird (F) – Overcast day – 1/1250s, ISO 1600, f/5.6, 400mm

6. Take some test shots

Take some test shots to ensure the composition, light, and focus are as you expect.

7. Start photographing

Now it’s time to click. Be prepared when the Sunbird comes near the focused flower. Look outside the viewfinder also. And start pressing the shutter release button as soon as the bird start hovering. Take care not to touch the focus button (we have pre-focused using back-button).

So these are some tested techniques to photograph sunbird in flight. Have you ever tried to photograph them? If yes, how was your experience? I am also in the process of learning. So if you have a better method, kindly share it in the comments.

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