By Jim Zuckerman
When I arrived at the ecolodge in Costa Rica last week, one of the guests told me about a hummingbird’s nest in the jungle. I was excited to see it, so he led me to a tiny nest hanging very close to the ground on the backside of a leaf. Hummingbirds will often tolerate people in close proximity to their nest, so I set up my camera about five feet away. After a few minutes, the little hermit hummingbird returned to the nest to feed the chicks inside. Every 15 minutes or so, this wonderful event repeated itself so I was able to have ample opportunity for photography.
When possible, I like to fill the frame with a subject, as opposed to taking a picture with the animal smaller in the frame and then cropping later. This has pros and cons, of course. The advantage is that the subject will be dazzlingly sharp in a print, but the downside is that with very tiny subjects like hummingbirds, depth of field suffers. You can see that the body of the bird is sharp but the wings aren’t. The flash I used froze the motion; the reason the wings aren’t sharp is a depth of field problem. Had I moved back from the nest, the wings would have come more into focus. However, there was so much vegetation in the way that I couldn’t do it. The number one problem in shooting jungle inhabitants is that it’s hard to get a clear shot without a lot of leaves and branches in the way.
The reason the depth of field is so shallow is because I used a Canon 500mm f/4 IS lens plus a 1.4X teleconverter, which equaled a 700mm lens. In order to make the lens focus so closely, I had to use three extension tubes as well. This reduced the light by three full f/stops, which is why I had to shoot wide open, and it made my depth of field about one inch deep.
I don’t like black backgrounds behind hummingbird shots because these birds are not nocturnal. However, in the dim light of the jungle the only way to balance the background greenery with the light on the bird was to use a longer shutter speed in addition to the flash. This was not feasible if my goal was to render the bird’s body as sharp as I could. I can use Photoshop to add a soft green background if I want, but what you see here is how I shot the picture.