Insect macro photography offers a different set of challenges to bigger wildlife. Forget auto focus. Light is low at close up distances. Depth of field is narrow. When it all comes together its though its wonderful.
“If human beings were not so impressed by size alone, they would consider an ant more wonderful than a rhinoceros”
– E. O. Wilson
Back yard bugs
Your most local habitat for insects is your own back yard. Nectar plants will bring in bees, butterflies and other pollinators.
Even an apartment balcony can house a pot plant.
By ensuring nothing is behind the plant you get a nice clean background from the out of focus grass. This makes the butterfly ‘pop’ as nothing is competing for our attention.
Photographing Insects in flight
There’s no denying you need a lot of luck for photographing insects in flight. Hoverflies are a good one because as their name suggests they hover for periods. A fast shutter speed is essential and don’t even bother trying to auto focus. Set your camera to its fastest drive setting and fire away. This was in my back yard and came after many failed attempts.
The image below was taken with a compact camera. They offer a wider depth of field than DSLRs. This worked well for capturing this hoverfly as it circled this plant for nectar. This only worked because it was flying quite slowly in a small area. Compacts tend to have a costly time delay between pressing shutter and capturing image.
Depth of Field
Depth of field is usually narrow in insect macro photography. This was taken at f/32 which is the smallest lens aperture my macro lens can stop down to. All the detail of the bee is there as you would expect at this tiny aperture. However the background is cluttered. There is so much depth of field that the twigs and grass are too prominent. Not to mention the shutter speed is 1/2 seconds so any movement from this bee would blur.
At the other extreme f/3.5 is the biggest aperture for this particular lens. The background is out of focus but the bee is looking ‘soft’ at this depth of field too.
This is why we seek angles where there is nothing in the background. Here we can use f/5.6 because there are no distractions in the frame to worry about.
A macro lens is not essential for insect macro photography. I have photographed the larger insects such as Dragonflies using a telephoto lens and extension tube. An extension tube allows the lens to focus closer meaning you get a more frame filling image.
That said a macro lens opens the door to so many more insects. Some are just too small to capture without a dedicated macro lens. Macro lenses give 1:1 magnification. This means an insect would be the same size on your camera sensor as it is in real life.
Read my round up of macro lenses here
We’ve talked about how opening and closing the lens aperture reduces and enlarges depth of field respectively. There is another way to maximize it. Getting the whole insect parallel to the lens.
In other words if the back of the insect is about 2 inches away from the lens then the front should be 2 inches away too. Here the other insect is not in focus.
This is not just because the aperture is too big. Going smaller than f/4 to say f/16 would bring the lower insect more in focus. It will also make shutter speed too low. Background twigs will also come in making the image busy.
You must have enough depth of field with f/4 because the top insect is in focus. So move carefully and get into a position where the other insect comes into the plane of focus.
Buzzing after bees
It is easy to fall in the trap of chasing bees around getting nowhere. No sooner have you moved position to another flower than the bee is off to the next one. Insects are not too different from bigger wildlife in that picking your spot and having patience is best. Choose a flower, focus on it and then wait for a bee to visit.
When choosing a flower I observe which one has had bees visiting the last few minutes. I check the background to make sure it is clear. Try to get side on so you can see the eye.
Spending lots of time outdoors you never know what you’re going to see. While photographing some butterflies I heard a loud buzzing. Looking down I got a surprise. It can be a scary world if you’re the size of a butterfly.
This wasp had attacked a ringlet butterfly and engaged in quite a struggle. The wings eventually fell to the ground and the wasp consumed the rest.
Just because insect macro photography is all about close ups, don’t feel like you have to frame so tightly every time. This image of a soldier beetle benefited from a step back and taking in more of its surroundings. It appears to be peering from the top perch overlooking its kingdom.
There are plant stems in this picture. Composition wise things tend to look better in threes.
If you imagine a grid overlaying the image splitting it into thirds – the soldier beetle is on an intersecting third.