Getting Started in Insect Photography

As you know, my primary focus in  photography is birds, followed by mammals, followed by macro and then finally, landscapes.  Up until the last four years, I hadn't really wanted to invest time into taking photographs of insects.  However, there are times now that I will pick up the camera and see what I can do with these little guys.  Make no mistake, however, I am not in love with the creepy crawlies, but you have to admit, they are incredibly designed.  The closer you get, the more amazing the detail becomes, and so I try to capture that detail when I can.

The Love of Macro
Macro photography and insect photography go hand in hand.  The more you love macro, the more tempted you become to photograph insects and spiders.  I do have a secondary love for macro photography in nature, and I crank out a few macros a year to supplement the endless shots of birds I create.  You need this love too if you are to be successful with insect photography.


Banded Orange Heliconian Butterfly, Canon EOS 7D Mark II, Canon EF 300mm F4L

Gear for Insect Photography

Lenses
The most important piece of equipment you will need is a macro lens.  Macro lenses are defined as having at a minimum a 1:1 magnification ratio.  That means that if you had a one inch sensor on your camera, your lens could take a 1 inch subject and fill that sensor from edge to edge.  Of course, this is at its closest focusing distance.

Insects can obviously see the photographer and that makes the insect want to jump or fly away from us.  For this reason, if you are serious about insect photography, I recommend a longer macro in the 150 mm to 180 mm range.  This will give you a better working distance, and you are less likely to scare the insect.  Later, in the techniques section, I will discuss how you can use a shorter macro in the 60 mm to 100 mm range to not scare the insect.  If you cannot afford the larger more expensive 180 mm macro buy a 90 or 100 mm macro.

The Butterfly Lens
There is one specialty lens that I need to mention here, and it certainly bears mentioning.  That is the butterfly lens.  So you are saying that you looked through the whole B&H catalog and didn't see a butterfly lens?  Well, you would be correct, but it is still in there nonetheless.

The butterfly lens was coined by several photographers including the famous bird photographer Art Morris.  You can classify the butterfly lens as any long lens in the 200 to 400 mm category that can close focus to at least a 1:4 image magnification. 

This butterfly lens was born out of the idea of needing a fast focusing, hand holdable and close focusing lens to follow butterflies from flower to flower and even capture them in flight.  The butterfly lens I use is the Canon EF 300mm F4 lens.  It has a 1:4 image magnification ratio and works great for this role.  The Canon EF 100-400 II has a 1:3.x image magnification ratio and fits nicely into this role.


Canon EF 300 F4 L (Butterfly Lens)

Camera Bodies
Ah, here is where things get really easy for you.  You do not, under any circumstances, have to have a great camera body.  Even a Canon EOS Rebel, Sony A6000 or Nikon D3500 will work.  This is where I depart from my normal wisdom of needing a pro body.  In bird photography, you really need a high end body, but for insect photography, you generally don't.  



However, if you want maximum image quality, I do recommend something full frame.  This will give you incredible details without suffering from micro-lens diffraction that APS-C sensors often suffer from.  A used Canon 6D would be a good inexpensive choice. As with anything we buy, there is always a trade-off.  Furthermore, I recommend that your camera have some kind of live view for focusing manually.  We will get into the focusing piece of the puzzle in the techniques section.

The Tripod
As with any nature photography, you need a good, steady tripod.  Don't waste your money on big box department store cheap tripods.  They simply don't provide a super steady rest for your camera.  I recommend looking at mid sized tripods from Manfrotto and Enduro.

Cable Release
I recommend using a cable release.  For those who do not know, a cable release is a way to release the camera's shutter without actually touching the camera.  You simply plug the cable release into the side and press the button on the cable release to fire off the shot.  If you do not have a cable release you can use the camera's internal timer.  The point is, that you do not want to be touching your camera, when making shots at a low shutter speed.  The vibrations from your hands will kill the shot!

Techniques for Insect Photography
This section will most likely get a little lengthy because there are numerous techniques involved in insect photography, so take a deep breath and read on.

Time of Day
As with most nature photography, the morning hours yield the best results for photographing insects. During the morning hours, before the sun has had time to start warming our section of the world, the insects are in sleep mode.  The technical word for this cold weather slow down is called torpor.  This is the perfect time to photograph the insect.  Remember how I said you didn't need a 180 macro?  Well, this is where you don't need that big macro.  You can get great shots of the critters during this time with a 90 or 100mm macro.  

Lighting
Lighting is something that will make or break any nature shot.  The best light, in my opinion, for insects is soft sun light coming from a cloudy day.  This type of light cast no harsh shadows and softens the image.  Also, insects are less apt to come out of torpor, because they don't have the hot sun hitting them.  Be aware that you will need to allow for the lower light conditions by adjusting your exposure.  More on exposure calculation in a little bit.  


Bumblebee - Canon 7D, Tamron 70-300 SP VC, Extension Tubes, Soft Lighting

Second to overcast days, is direct light.  This can be sun light directly over your shoulder or sun light at a 45 degree angle.  In the morning, the light will be low to the horizon and provide a softer and warmer tone.  This type of lighting is fabulous and quite easy to work with.  Just remember, the timer starts when that warm sunlight starts hitting the insect.

The final type of lighting is flash lighting.  They make special flashes called ring lights that attach to the end of your macro lens.  This flash provides a soft and directional light for very tight macro images.  This is a perfectly valid approach, but honestly is my last choice.  It might  be your first choice and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that!  Note that they also make rigs where you can mount two small flashes on a bracket at 45 degree angles on either side of your lens.

Location
Another great thing about insect photography is it doesn't require that you travel to remote areas of the world.  You can find great macro subjects in your own backyard.  That is where I recommend you start.  As you get better at photographing these insects, start looking for a meadow.  The meadow I am talking about is a field with maybe waist high weeds and flowers.  This is a great place to find insects in the morning.  Remember to watch your lighting and don't forget your tripod.  

Look very closely on the backs of leaves and the stalks of the weeds.  Insects are masters of camouflage and you can walk right past them.  Spiders, although not insects, can have large, dewy webs left over from the night hunt they were on.  This can be a great macro.  Shoot it with the sun behind it for great backlighting.  Obviously flower beds and botanical gardens are a great place for both bees and spiders.

Don't forget there are other places that offer photographers a perfect place to photograph insects.  There are butterfly farms that allow photographers to come in and photograph many different types of butterflies.  These are great locations for making images and for general practice.  Do not overlook these!

Exposure
What a can of worms!  You can have the lighting, location and gear, but if you can't tell the camera how to make the image, you will fail.  I am not going to go into all the theory on how to create the right exposure.  If you are reading this and you don't know about the exposure triangle, I encourage you to do additional research or check out Brian Peterson's book on exposure.

If you just want a non-perfect place to start, this is what I suggest for general exposure that will get you most of the way there.  However, please do yourself a favor and learn exposure the right way.  Learn how to manually adjust your exposure.  Now having said that, here is the quick and dirty way to achieve exposure.

1.  If you are on a tripod, set your lens aperture to F22
2.  Set your shutter speed to 1/125th of a second
3.  Turn on auto-ISO.  Consult your owners manual on how to turn on auto-ISO.

Now, do I use the above approach? Only on rare occasions.  I have always been a manual exposure guy.  The biggest takeaway above is the F22.  F22 will allow you to get as much of the image in focus as possible and still, you will only have a few millimeters in focus.  Macro work has very shallow depth of field.  This is why insect photographers often use advanced techniques such as focus stacking.  That is a blog entry for another day.

Focusing and Taking the Shot
1.  Switch your lens to manual.  Except in the case of chasing butterflies, I always use manual focusing.
2.  If you are using a DSLR, put your camera into live view mode so you can zoom in to see where to focus.
3.  Zoom in to the eye of the insect and focus.  You are looking for ultra-crisp details!
4.  Plug in your cable release or set your camera to use the 2 second timer.
5.  Check focus one more time.
6.  Fire off the shot.

Composition
Composition is a subject that I could also spend many pages of written text talking about, but there are two main points I want to drive home with you.

First, remember your subject.  Your subject is the insect and the perch that it is on.  If you have a great subject and a great perch you are halfway there.  Secondly, watch your backgrounds.  In the image below, you can see I have a perfectly clean green background which helps keep the attention of the viewer on the subject.  Busy backgrounds keep the viewer from experiencing the image to its fullest.  Also note, that a centered image is best for this square crop (IMO). 


Tiger Longwing Butterfly
Polydamas Swallowtail Butterfly
In the above composition, we see two things going on.  First, the subject is placed roughly in the left third of the image, while the lines of the leaf he is perched on draws the eye the rest of the way through the image and then back to the subject.  Dividing your image into thirds and placing your image near the intersections of the thirds is called using the "Rule of Thirds."  The lines of the leaves represent a concept called "Leading Lines."

Conclusion
This really just touches the surface of the world of insect photography.  I could probably write a book on the subject and many who do this daily have done just that.  Yes, I know that insects creep many people out and I get that, but give it a try. I think you will find it to be a whole new world within our world.


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