Madera Canyon Magic

Broad-billed Hummingbird at cardinal catchfly bloom.

Broad-billed Hummingbird at cardinal catchfly bloom. | Beebower Productions

If you want stunning hummingbird photos head to the magical Madera Canyon in Southeastern Arizona.  At any given time, 15 different types of feisty little hummingbirds pass through this mountain oasis.

These little birds have their own magic act.  Their speed makes them appear and disappear as fast as Harry Houdini.  They can fly forward, backward, side-to-side, straight up and even hover.  They are fascinating little creatures.

Our first trip to Madera sprang from Dad’s quest to perfect the art of hummingbird photography.  Dad didn’t just want a picture of a hummingbird, he wanted to see every colorful feather and stop the wing action.  But the birds’ amazing flight speed, agility and small size made them hard to photograph. 

In order to fine-tune his shooting, Dad needed lots of willing hummingbird models.  Madera had them by the hundreds.  Over the next couple of years we would repeatedly visit the canyon.


Santa Rita Lodge | Beebower Productions

Madera Canyon and the Santa Ritas are part of a sky island chain, mountains that rise up out of the desert floor creating several habitats that support an astonishing array of plants and wildlife.

Madera Creek provides a seasonal supply of fresh water that draws bears, bobcats, mountain lions, coatimundi, deer and over 250 types of birds.  You won’t run out of stuff to photograph here assuming you can actually find all of these wild guys.

Our base of operation each time we visit this mountain sanctuary is the Santa Rita Lodge.  Not only do we have a cabin overlooking the creek, the owners have created a huge feeding area that attracts hummingbirds, woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches and a plethora of migrating birds.   Since the birds are used to stopping by the lodge, it’s a cinch to attract them to your cabin’s backyard.  Put out a few extra feeders and potted flowering plants and your yard is irresistible to hummingbirds.  Get a recipe for hummingbird juice here  .

The first time we visited Madera, it was a trial run of what Dad thought would work to photograph the hummingbirds. He’d run successful test shots with the birds in his own backyard and figured he was ready for Madera Canyon.  Nothing prepared him for the hordes of hummingbirds that began showing up at our cabin.  That sounds like a great thing, right?  Our plan was working with one little problem.

An early version of the Hummingbird Set.

An early version of the Hummingbird Set.

Dad said, “I thought, ‘Holy mackerel!  Look at all of the hummingbirds coming to our feeders.’  But I found out really quickly how frustrating photographing hummingbirds can be when they show up in mass numbers.  We had to revise the lighting and the feeder, move the stands and recalculate the distance of the camera from the background.  It was challenging.  But I finally found a combination that really worked.”

Bringing out the full array of iridescent feather colors requires light to hit from many directions.  To capture these glittering jewels of the garden, Dad experimented with many lighting and background options. 

In the end he devised a custom-made light ring that holds five Canon 580EX Speedlite flashes set at 1/64 power.  The light ring sits in front of the modified hummingbird feeder.  Two additional flashes illuminate the green-screen background located behind the feeder.  Dad uses one flash on the camera with a Better Beamer Flash Extender to light up the front area of the bird.  Phottix Strato II radio signal devices trigger all of the flashes.

Broad-billed Hummingbird at yellowbell bloom.

Broad-billed Hummingbird at yellowbell bloom.

The Canon EF 400mm/2.8L IS II USM lens with a Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II helps Dad fill the frame with these tiny powerhouses of the bird kingdom.   On average his camera settings were ISO 250, f/22 at 1/500 of a second.  This combo gave Dad his favorite Madera shot “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell”. 

Does all of this sound complicated?  It is!  In November we’ll be unveiling a downloadable hummingbird diagram with instructions in our store.  The diagram will include set-up pictures and information like the distances between the camera and light ring, flash instructions and hardware resources.  OK.  That’s the end of our shameless commercial. 

Over the next couple of trips to Madera, we learned some valuable lessons.  Always use sandbags on your light stands.  You never know when a nice gale-force wind might whip down through the canyon. 

Bring lots of umbrellas, scrims or flags.  There are plenty of trees shading the cabin backyards, but throughout the day you’ll have periods of choppy light hitting your photo set.  Blocking or softening the light creates better images.

If you run out of umbrellas or flags, you can race down the mountain to Wal-Mart in Green Valley and buy several patio umbrellas on clearance.  Just remember those gale-force winds might shred your recently purchased emergency umbrellas.  So keep an eye out for wind changes. 

Use radio signal devices on your flashes.  That annoying choppy light can really mess with infrared triggering systems.  Dad had to switch to the radio signals because the sun would set off half of the flashes before he fired a shot.  Premature flashes drain batteries quickly.

Bee on a Wildflower | Beebower Productions

Bee on a Wildflower | Beebower Productions

Baby Squirrel | Beebower Productions

Baby Squirrel | Beebower Productions

One other lesson, don’t forget to enjoy the rest of Madera Canyon.  The hummingbirds are amazing but we had other creatures like baby squirrels and acorn woodpeckers hanging out on set with the hummingbirds.  Taking a hike through the wildflower meadow while butterflies dance around you, following the soothing sounds of Madera Creek and eating an ice cream bar while enjoying your porch swing have their own magic.

If You Go

  • Stay at one of the three lodges or the campground in the canyon to save you valuable shooting time in the morning and evenings. Make reservations well in advance as everything in the canyon books up quickly.
  • Fill up the gas tank and buy food in Green Valley, AZ.  Bring lots of water.  There are no stores to buy supplies in the canyon.
  • The best time to see large numbers of hummingbirds is during the spring and fall migrations in March/April and September/October.  You also might get to see migrants like elegant trogons, lazuli buntings, grosbeaks, tanagers or a variety of warblers.
  • Make sure you pay the $5-a-day U.S. Forest Service use fee.  Rangers actively patrol and will ticket you.
  • Watch out for rattlesnakes, mountain lions, bobcats and bears.  The most common of these guys are rattlesnakes.
  • If you’re not used to a 5,000 foot and higher elevation, take it easy for a day or two and drink lots of water.  Some people aren’t bothered at all and others feel terrible.  Among other things, you can develop shortness of breath, headaches and sluggishness.
  • Cell phone service is spotty in the canyon.  Plan accordingly.