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Tips and tricks for insect photography

Venture into the insects world with a few helpful tips and tricks from our specialist wildlife photographer Peter Madeley

|  Animals / Wildlife
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  Tips and tricks for insect photography


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 focusing 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, teleconverters, 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 here: Close 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  teleconverter and a 12mm tube as a spacer between the lens and converter. Using the teleconverters 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.


Tips and tricks for insect photography


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 the 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 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 How 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 positioned 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.


Tips and tricks for insect photography


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.


Tips and tricks for insect photography

Book references
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 a doubt is Close 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

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