When Stan Maupin retired and picked up his DSLR to shoot the hummingbirds in his backyard, he was “dared” to recreate Christian Spencer’s gorgeous prism photos.
Initially, the amateur photographer did not understand the “complexities of balancing shutter speed, depth of field, and lighting when photographing an incredibly fast and small object.”
“The results were not great at first,” 73-year-old Maupin tells PetaPixel.
But after he persisted and began to capture one or two good photos, Maupiun’s son told him about Christian Spencer’s shots of hummingbirds that capture a rainbow light shining through the tiny bird’s wings.
How to Capture a Prism Effect
Maupin explains that the sun has to be almost directly behind the hummingbird and the subject cannot be too far away from the lens.
“This creates several problems,” says Maupin. “You have to attract the hummingbirds to a relatively precise spot, get them to hover at an angle and position where they are not behind the feeder, take the shot while pointing the lens almost directly towards the sun, and keep it all within a narrow field of view as the sun moves across the sky.”
And this is before Maupin had to create a custom feeder for the birds which involved a tripod mount with a vertical column of styrofoam attached to block the sun. Several small caplets of nectar were attached to the side and top of the styrofoam with thin wire.
“The column blocked the direct rays of the sun [into the lens], and the mini-feeders provided a much smaller profile that allowed the bird to be unobstructed by the rays of the sun. This resulted in a much better ratio of useable shots,” he explains.
Capturing hummingbirds is notoriously difficult due to their incredible wing speed. However, the prism shots are essentially silhouettes making the camera settings a little simpler.
“Most of my shots are taken with a shutter speed of 1/6,400 or 1/8,000 and an aperture of f/18 to f/32 and the ISO can be relatively low,” says Maupin.
He uses a Nikon Z6 II with a Tamron GT 150-600mm with an FTZ adapter. But Maupin is well aware of the dangers involved with this type of setup.
“Since there is no mirror to block the light, pointing the camera into the sun runs the risk of burning the sensor,” he says.
“You should be extremely careful of both your own eyes and the eye of your camera. Also, be sure to clean the sensor often, as spots are tremendously magnified at the more closed aperture settings against a smooth blue or light sky.”
Three Summers in the Making
Maupin lives in Richmond, Virginia where hummingbird season is roughly two months over the summer.
“They are not plentiful here so sometimes there is a lot of waiting, and the angle of the sun limits shooting time to one and a half hours in the afternoon and morning,” he says.
“I hate mornings and don’t have easy access to the morning sun, so I shoot in the afternoons, but the morning would be much better because of the heat.”
Maupin says that before taking on the hummingbird challenge that his son put him on to he barely knew anything about cameras beyond the automatic mode.
“When COVID hit, I effectively retired and had time on my hands and no place to go. I started to play with my Nikon D7500 and learned a little bit about it,” he explains.
“One day I noticed the hummingbirds were out right before the sun went down and said ‘what the hell, might as well try it so I can say I tried.’ I didn’t succeed that day but got an idea that it might be possible, so I tried a few more times.”
Eventually, Maupin got a handful of what he calls “proof of concept” quality photos before the birds left in the last days of the month.
“The following summer, I spent about a month on it, but the issue was that only the clearest days will provide a prism effect and there were too many thunderstorms and cloudy days,” he says.
“This year  I had things pretty well together by the end of July and was able to shoot as often as I wanted at a hit rate that was acceptable for the rest of the summer.”
Maupin says the experience has left him with a lust for photography and he has made it into the final of the 2022 Washington Post Travel Photography contest.
“I now have a small presence in a local art center and I concentrate on off-the-wall subjects like hummingbird prisms, snowflakes, transitions of the space station across the moon, and Milky Way shots,” he adds.
Image credits: All photos by Stan Maupin.