Making Hummingbird Backgrounds

I was able to photograph hummingbirds in the weeks prior to their migration from the Southern USA to Central America. While many of the images of the birds themselves were sharp and poses were pleasing, the backgrounds I used in all but the last images were not complimentary. This serves as an excellent illustration of how important the background is to a great hummingbird photograph. Many photographers I know simply take an intentional blurred image of a natural background and then print that to a size of 18×24 or 20×30 and use that as a background. That’s an excellent idea. However, you will need your own large format printer as you will be hard pressed to find anyone that prints color images on matte paper. I have found only one such source,, and they charge  $25 for a 20×30 print. For me, I’d pay that if I can’t find another way to get a great background for less cost. If you are asking, “why not print on lustre paper”? I’ll answer with one simple word….sheen. The flash hitting the background will cast a sheen that will ruin your images. It must be a non reflective background.

My first attempt at a cheaper background was to purchase some fabric from a local store. While these worked in terms of a non-reflective background, they looked fake, more like portrait studio backgrounds. Did I like the images? Sure, but I wanted a more natural looking background.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Canon 7D | ISO 400 | 70-200/2.8 @ 200mm | f14 | 1/160

Ruby-throated Hummingbird. Canon 7D | ISO 400 | 70-200/2.8 @ 200mm | f14 | 1/160



For my next attempt, I purchased a flat matte tan paper from Hobby Lobby and some flat mat dark green, light green, and red spray paint. The paper itself cost just under $3, while each can of paint was just under $5. I then proceeded to spray lightly across the paper until I had a pleasing blend of colors (dark green, light green, tan, and red). The result was one that I really liked as the background was soft and looked natural (see image below). While my total cost thus far was about $18, I had a lot of paint that I could reuse on other backgrounds so back to hobby lobby I went.


At Hobby Lobby, I purchased a dark green, light gray, yellow, peach/orange flat matte papers from $.99 to $2.79 a piece. I already had the paint so I mixed and matched until I was pleased with the look. Why yellow and peach/orange? Well, you often see yellow,  orange, and red flowers in the landscape so I thought I’d use that and let it filter through the paint. Below are images of each background I painted. All in all, less than $3 per backdrop and I have plenty to choose from next time my small feathered friends come buzzing.

While my hummingbirds are gone now, I setup and photographed as if they were here so I could assess how each background looked. I think my yellow images need some additional refinement (more green) but the others are looking good. When the spring migration comes around next year, I’ll be ready.

Until next time, good light and keep shooting. — KEVIN


Light gray prior to any spray paint.


Light gray after spray paint.


Peach/Orange prior to any spray paint.


Peach/Orange after spray paint. Maybe needs a little more green?

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Fill Flash for Wildlife Photography

I don’t know a single photographer who owns “too few” accessories. The reality is that most of us are accessory junkies, accumulating some useful, but some quite unnecessary, things in the name of improving our photographs. However, one very useful and necessary accessory, particularly for wildlife photography, is an external flash. While many third party flash heads cost less and will work just fine with your camera, owning at least one dedicated flash is important, as it has been designed to communicate perfectly with your camera. Generally speaking, a single flash is rarely sufficient to act as a main light in wildlife photography. But we don’t really want our flash to be a main source anyway; except perhaps when shooting macro. For other wildlife applications, we simply want to use a flash as a fill light to illuminate some of the shadows and provide a catch light in our subject’s eye.

A great time to use fill flash is when the ambient light on the background is brighter than the light on the subject. You might be wondering if you could just adjust the camera’s exposure settings to make the subject brighter. You could. However, that would cause a new problem in that the background would also get brighter and potentially be overexposed. To avoid this, we need fill flash. The images of the nuthatch below illustrate this point. In these photos, the background is much brighter than the subject, which is lost in the shadows. A correct exposure for the background yielded an underexposed subject. Had I adjusted the camera settings to expose for the nuthatch, I would have overexposed the background and the viewer’s eye would have been drawn to the background since we know that our eyes are first drawn to the lighter areas in a photograph. To solve this issue, I simply added some fill flash. The result was a well-lit subject while the background remained correctly exposed. Notice the effect of the flash on both the bird and the bark. The shadows are filled in nicely and the details are brought out by the use of fill flash. Additionally, the catch light in the bird’s eye adds life to the image.

White-breasted Nuthatch. Canon 7D | 500/4.5| No Fill Flash.

White-breasted Nuthatch. Canon 7D | 500/4.5| No Fill Flash.


White-breasted Nuthatch. Canon 7D | 500/4.5 | Canon 580ex fill flash at -2 FEC

White-breasted Nuthatch. Canon 7D | 500/4.5 | Canon 580ex fill flash at -2 FEC



So how does one use fill flash in the field? All you need is a DSLR and a dedicated flash capable of automatic flash metering and output (Flash exposure compensation) control. Enable the flash head’s high-speed sync, which allows camera and flash to work together at higher shutter speeds. Shoot in Av mode (aperture priority), which gives you control over aperture while the camera selects correct shutter speed to maintain ambient exposure. Keep an eye on the shutter speed. As you adjust the aperture, shutter speeds increase or decrease depending on the aperture adjustment you selected. Make sure to maintain a fast enough shutter speed to avoid ghosting or blurred images. Use FEC (flash exposure compensation) to adjust flash up or down as necessary. As fill flash for wildlife I often shoot between -2 or -3 settings. On bright days, I’ll start with -2 FEC. On darker days or when I’m in shade, I’ll start at -2/3 and adjust as necessary. Since I am shooting at -2 or -3 FEC, I use a better beamer which projects flash a little farther. Again, I’m attempting to open up the shadows in the image.

NOTE: Keep in mind that Fill Flash can be overdone. If you add too much flash, your shots can look artificial and overexposed. Aim for subtlety when using a flash and you’ll really improve your shots. The second nuthatch image still has some slight shadowing evident on bird and bark, but the fill flash is just enough to brighten the foreground, giving prominence to the subject in the frame.  I hope you have found this information useful.

Until next time, good light and keep shooting. — KEVIN