Words and pictures Peter Madeley
|Much has been written about the techniques and
equipment for insect photography. As such this article is not intended to
be a comprehensive guide but does however bring together all the tips, tricks
and techniques I collected during my insect photography last year, concentrating
mainly on butterflies and dragonflies. All the photographs were taken at
local nature reserves, Heysham NR and Gait Barrows NNR using daylight as
the main lighting source. I have in the past tried flash photography in
butterfly houses, but for me it offers less of a challenge and much less
of a thrill to capture a sharp, well exposed and imaginative portrayal of
one of nature's most spectacular creations. Man has never managed to adopt
the remarkable technology of flight employed by these amazing insects. If
you want to be truly astounded by the physics of flight of butterflies and
dragonflies, you should look at the high speed flash photography by Stephen
Dalton, undoubtedly the master of the genre.
|Equipment for insect photography
There is specialist equipment available for insect photography which
can cost many hundred of pounds but the chances are that if you are just
starting your journey on insect photography then you possibly already have
equipment which can be pressed into use for close up photography. Many digital
cameras have a close focussing or macro option which enables focussing down
to just a few centimetres. John Shaw's book Nature
Photography Field Guide has one of the best discussions I have found
on the use of lenses, extension tubes, teleconvertors, close up diopters
and flash brackets in my extensive search for background information.
In it Shaw recommends spending a wet afternoon, when you really can't take
pictures, with your close up equipment laid out on a table and experiment with
different combinations by shooting some test shots. You might be surprised how
a telephoto zoom with a close up filter set makes a terrific starting point
for this type of photography. There's a guide to the type of gear you can buy
Up equipment buyers' guide.
|So to the equipment that I have been using. When
the insects are approachable, I prefer to use a 100mm macro lens with either
a 1.4x or 2x teleconvertor and a 12mm tube as a spacer between the lens
and convertor. Using the teleconvertors both increases the working distance
and narrows the angle of view of the lens which is helpful in isolating
the subject from the background at reasonably small apertures. This coming
year I will use a digital camera body which has a 1.6x magnification, effectively
making the 100mm macro into a 160mm lens which will make separating the
subject even easier.
|During the day insects are more active and you
need to be very mobile, so a monopod makes an ideal support. I like using
a telephoto zoom with a close up diopter (100-400mm lens/500D) to increase
the working distance still further and reduce the risk of shadowing the
subject. Most insects have compound eyes which are very sensitive to movement
so when you get to within 3m of the subject, slow movements are necessary
and you MUST avoid casting your shadow over the subject. This will either
cause them to rearrange their position to find the light or to take flight.
This can be very awkward with butterflies in particular as when you set
up a tripod, the ideal viewpoint you need often casts a shadow of the camera
or lens across the subject and away it goes. The insects are also sensitive
to temperature and bask in the sun to warm their flight muscles. A warm
breath can increase the insect's temperature enough to cause them to take
flight so be careful to breath down and out and not directly towards the
|If there is no wind, then a slow film setting
is ideal for resolving as much detail as possible. Even the slightest breeze
can make an insect photographer curse, so I very often up-rate film speeds
to ISO200. A tripod of the Benbo design is very suitable for this type of
photography and for very low angle shots of roosting butterflies on grasses
a beanbag can be useful. A blip of fill flash, around about -2 or -3 stops
can help to restore colour balance and give a sparkle in overcast light.
With a still subject I will nearly always stop down to f/11 or f/16 to give
enough depth-of-field and use the mirror lock function on the camera as
the shutter speeds tend to range from 1/30sec to one second.
When photographing insects, control of depth-of-field is critical as the zone
of acceptable sharpness is very often just a few centimetres. Very often photographers
go straight for their smallest aperture. Whilst a small aperture does ensure
a large depth-of-field, this may not always be the best way to portray the subject.
Instead of battle with getting enough depth-of-field I use the narrow band of
focus as a creative tool to isolate the subject from its surroundings. depth-of-field tables and calculators are widely available on the internet but I find
them impractical in the field. Instead I start shooting at f11 to give a reasonable
depth-of-field and hand-holdable shutter speed, then check the image on the
back of the camera using the zoom in function. Many cameras have depth-of-field
preview buttons which stop down the lens, but I find the viewfinder image goes
so dark I can't see clearly what is sharp and what isn't. The preview button
is helpful for spotting intrusions into the image and the effect of highlights
in the image. After a few shots you will get to know what aperture on your camera
gives the effect you most prefer.
I have found that a low viewpoint using a beanbag helps to isolate a perched
insect against more distant grasses so the background becomes a diffuse blend
of grassy colours. Getting the a butterfly's wings parallel to the back of the
camera allows a wider aperture to be used to create a narrower depth-of-field,
which helps to separate the subject from the background and also increases the
shutter speed. I find a hot-shoe spirit level a good starting point to help
get everything lined up.
When to photograph insects
By far the best time to photograph butterflies is early morning or late afternoon
when they bask in the first or last rays of the sun before going to roost. Some
background knowledge of the food plants of your chosen species is also helpful
as it enables you to plan how the photography will be done. I use Richard Lewington's
to identify Butterflies. For instance, small skippers at my local quarry
tend to sit basking on the highest section of an area of Yorkshire Fog grass
and the trick is to get the tripod or monopod is position without disturbing
the perch. The longer lens can help you get the magnification you need without
getting too close. By planning a strategy before getting close I can increase
the chance of getting the image I want.
Dragonflies can be photographed from above with wings outspread, composing along
the diagonal, but there is scope for a more creative approach by using a narrow
depth-of-field and using the wings as an out of focus lead in to the picture.
The resulting images won't appeal to the traditionalists but they do portray
the alien looking nature of dragonflies especially if the compound eyes are
the main focus of the image. Even an aperture of f16 is not normally sufficient
to provide enough sharpness throughout the image for these shots as close up
depth-of-field is normally measured in millimetres. I happen to like the result
of shooting in this way.
I have found the females more willing to settle on the vegetation. Once again
a cool, damp summer morning just as the sun is coming up is ideal as the insects
have not yet absorbed enough heat for the flight muscles to activate and this
makes photographing them so much easier than during the day when the slightest
movement will cause them to take flight.
I would highly recommend that you contact the warden or ranger of your local
butterfly/dragonfly location as these people can save you a huge amount of time
in identifying the best time of the year and precise locations. Many reserves
have local experts who would gladly share their wealth of experience in exchange
for some prints.
For flash photography I would recommend you read the Complete
Guide to Close Up and Macro Photography by Paul Harcourt Davies. There is
a good discussion of the various options for close up and macro photography,
a good summary of using flash for lighting and some very useful charts in the
appendices for depth-of-field.
For ambient light photographs one of the finest books I have seen without doubt
up on Insects - A Photographer's Guide by Robert Thompson. The author uses
medium-format equipment to create some spectacularly beautiful photographs which
show the insects in the most natural and beautiful way possible.
John Shaw's book Nature
Photography Field Guide also contains a very helpful summary of the options
for close ups giving practical advice on their use, advantages and disadvantages
in a range of field situations.
Richard Lewington's How
to identify Butterflies Collins is a great identification guide and includes
information on foodplant, habitat and behaviour