Macro Insect Photography Tips
Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. My last post was an investigative report on the perspective of Black and White Macro Photography (a.k.a. monotone). I’m starting a new series of articles now that are directed towards the warmer months. It is still winter in the UK at the moment but there are one or two signs that spring is on the way. I watched a pigeon love-dancing on top of a wooden fence yesterday. Mating rituals are a good sign that the seasons are beginning to change. When the warmer weather arrives it brings with it a whole host of interesting subjects for the macro photographer. I’m talking about one of the most fascinating wonders of nature…insects! This post is all about Insect Macro Photography…It is quite a long article so I suggest that you put the kettle on (and your glasses if you wear them).
Some people call them bugs whilst others prefer the term insect. I’ve heard people call them Creepy-crawlies, Critters and more recently Mini-beasts. The only term that I don’t like being used to describe insects is “pests”. They are small and interesting living creatures that are part of the eco-system. I’ve never studied entomology but have several really good insect field guides. In fact most of them are no longer in print which is another indication that I am getting old and grey. I mention field guides because I believe that research and study are important aspects of insect macro photography. Finding a good field guide for the insect or creature that you are most interested in is an important step. It may be possible to track down field guides that are out of print by searching second hand book stores and internet market places/auction sites. I have compiled a list of species (followed by their taxonomic order) that may be of interest to the avid insect photographer. Please note this list refers to Britain and Northern Europe – and is not a definitive list but posted as an example only. Another good reason to learn the scientific names and orders - it will help you spot internet forum “know-it-alls”. They usually select an obscure scientific name as their username.
Dragon Flies (Odonata)
Grass Hoppers and Crickets (Orthoptera)
Stick Insects (Phasmida)
Cockroaches and Mantids (Dictyoptera)
Psocids or Booklice (Psocoptera)
Biting Lice and Birdlice (Mallophaga)
Sucking Lice (Anoplura/Siphunculata)
The True Bugs (Hermiptera)
Alder Flies, Snake Flies and Lacewings (Neuroptera)
Scorpion Flies (Mecoptera)
Two Winged Flies or True Flies (Diptera)
Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera)
Caddis Flies (Trichoptera)
Bees, Wasps and Ants (Hymenoptera)
There are lots of other small animals and creatures absent from this list such as spiders, molluscs, reptiles etc.
I have posted this list so that you can see the importance of selecting a subject of interest and becoming proficient in one or two subjects. If you were to select a lesser known subject from this list (or from your own locality) it will be easier to become known as the expert in this particular field. Please note that most of these orders can be split again – for example there are different types of bees in the UK including solitary bees, bumble bees and cuckoo bees. There are lots of photographers interested in taking pictures of butterflies and moths where I live. I have met quite a few of them on my travels but have never met anyone who specialized in Thrips! So we have learnt that there is a possible opening for a good Thrips macro photographer in the UK.
Insect Photography (or perhaps photographers) can be divided (although probably not physically) into two distinct categories.
Scientific Macro Insect Photography
This technique does not gain its name because the images are captured in a scientific way. You do not need to wear a white laboratory coat and protective goggles to take scientific images (although you can if you really want to). A scientific photograph is taken by a curious photographer who wants to learn more about the species captured in the image. The photograph is taken in a way that will capture as much information as possible about the species. This is where education and guide books are useful. If you already understand the important aspects required to separate a rare or unusual species from a more common species you have an advantage from the beginning. It is often later in the process when a photographer realises that he (or she) has failed to capture the most important details. This can be frustrating for the photographer when it comes to identifying the species that they have photographed. This problem appears often on nature and wildlife websites were the photographer has gone for an artistic approach but also wants to know the species in the image. This gives experts in entomology a real challenge in narrowing down the species, often with very little information. The key point to remember here is that if you want to identify the species photographed take the scientific approach. There is nothing to stop you taking a few frames of both but make sure you take the scientific images first.
Remember that this is definitely not a case of “never the twain shall meet” because a photograph can be scientific and artistic at the same time. A photographer aiming for a scientific image can produce artistic images by chance and good fortune. In the same way an artistic photographer can capture all the required details in their work to add scientific merit to their work. The point is really to understand that both types of photography exist and to aim for one or the other to meet your own needs.
Insect Macro Photography Technique
The main principle of taking macro photographs of insects is not any different to taking other subjects. The major difference is that living subjects do not usually want to pose for the camera. This makes life difficult for the macro photographer and is also the reason why great patience is required. The most beneficial insect photography tip that I can offer is to begin early in the morning and finish late in the evening. Avoid taking outdoor images in the heat and harsh light of the mid-day sun. At this point in the day the sun is very high in the sky and is known to create very harsh light. This will make images have very hard edges which is not a desirable effect in photography.
I once read a photography forum post where an avid insect photographer was discussing his digital camera set-up. He stated that a particular piece of equipment was not adequate for him because he likes to chase after bees. Afterwards I realised that it was not the equipment that was inadequate but his photographic technique. Nature is notoriously difficult to capture and most photographers do not have what it takes to live up to the challenge. It is only my opinion, but I think this insect photographer would have got better photographs by not moving around quite as much. As crazy as it sounds, sitting and waiting (provided that you are in the right place to begin with) often yields far better results. When you move around the insects (particularly flying insects) will also move around and always be just up ahead or settle just out of reach. When you take up a good position and concentrate on a smaller area nature just comes to you! Another benefit of this approach is that it is easy to be still (after being still) than trying to be still after racing about like an absolute lunatic for 20 minutes. (I hope that this makes sense).
The overall aim of insect macro photography is the same as any other form of photography. To get a sharp image of the insect (first) and a pleasing composition (second). If your purpose in life is to photograph insects I would suggest using a regular flash gun (covered with a diffuser) and the entire assembly fixed to a bracket. This is the set-up that most bug photographers prefer to use. This will allow you to add fill-flash to the ambient light (or day light). Fill-flash does not really alter the exposure of the image but helps to pick out more detail. The flash will reveal areas that might otherwise be lost to shadows. This can make a lot of difference to the quality of an insect macro image. If you are venturing into insect photography in a less dedicated way, you may be able to get away with using your camera’s pop-up flash (which can also be diffused with a piece of toilet (or tissue) paper or section of plastic milk bottle). A ring-flash can be used but does not always provide the best results (can also be diffused but is more difficult to achieve and is slightly hit and miss). Even if you go the extra mile and purchase a state of the art twin-flash system you may still need to find a way to diffuse the light for the best results.
Most insect photographers develop a technique that suits their style. This may be based on your size, stamina and several other factors. I can not help you with this because we are all different. The fact is, with time and some practice, you will begin to develop a preferred style of your own. Sometimes I like to use a tripod and get the sharpest image as possible but this often leads to lost opportunities. Whilst I set up the tripod the subject is often taking off and could be over a mile away before I even notice that it is gone. This is why most successful insect photographers either us a mono-pod or take their shots hand-held. Like I said above it really is your own choice but I recommend that you try a few different methods, review the results and see how you get on.
Hand Held Insect Photography Tips
The technique of photographing insects with a macro lens is quite simple in principle. Insects generally reside outdoors and macro photographers generally photograph them in day light hours. Set the camera at a fast enough shutter speed and aperture value for a good exposure. If you are interested in a particular spot, for example a rock pool, take a few test shots to assess the ambient light in advance. Set the camera lens to the ratio that you want to use, for example true macro 1:1 and wait until the subject comes into view. There is a method of locking your elbows into your rib cage. Place your left hand flat under the camera and use your right hand to operate the camera controls. Gradually move the camera forwards until the subject is sharp in the frame and then depress the shutter button (fully) all in one swift action. Repeat until you feel you have exhausted the potential of this subject and composition. Use any natural features available to assist in keeping the camera steady. It may be beneficial to take and hold a deep breath whilst operating the shutter. Do not forget to exhale afterwards as this may cause you to go blue in the face.
Remember that understanding the life cycle and biology of insects and animals will increase your chances of getting good macro photographs of any individual species. Something that you will discover, as does anyone who becomes interested in nature, is the amount of variation within the same species. Field Guides are useful but have their limitations and you will soon learn that the species in your photographs do not resemble the pictures in your books. This is nature…Obviously you do not have to be an insect expert or be a student of entomology to get good pictures of insects. The point I’m making is that the best insect photographers that I have come across usually know their stuff. It is also the case that as you learn more your interest grows. This means that you will be more likely to remain interested and therefore take more insect macro photographs. I often set myself a target of capturing several specific species each season. Most seasons so far I have failed to reach my targets but have also taken some good shots by using this motivational technique.
There is something else quite strange that keeps my interest in macro photography alive. My neighbours are a bunch of low-life scumbags. They make my life a real misery, loud music, drug taking, vandalism, aggression towards members of my family etc. Despite this they also give me the motivation to continue writing, taking macro photographs and generally working hard. When it all gets too much, I pick up my binoculars and camera equipment and head down to the local nature reserve. Evidence if needed that macro photography can be good for your health and mental well being! Thanks for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners website. In my next post I will be looking at Wild Flower Macro Photography.