Let's say you just found a black widow spider living in your woodpile. Do you A) scream and run away B) scream and run away, then come back armed with a can of NAPALM and a flame thrower or C) get your camera?
The answer is "C" of course! And after you take that picture, what you do with that spider is of course up to you. Though I personally don't suggest NAPALM or flame throwers as safe extermination methods.
Of course I'm not really here to give you pest control advice. I'm here to tell you how to capture that spider with your camera. Because getting a great shot of a spider or an insect isn't just a simple matter of grabbing your macro lens and tripod. Insect photography requires some special tricks and techniques and yes, some sneakiness. Read on to find out how.
First it's important to have a healthy respect for those creepy crawlies. Not all spiders have dangerous venom, but some of them do. If you're photographing black widows, brown recluse spiders or insects such as bees and wasps, it pays to take precautions. Understand the behavior of the creature you're photographing (black widow spiders, for example, aren't usually aggressive but Sydney funnel spiders can be extremely aggressive) and take steps to avoid provoking or disturbing it. Wear protective gear if it's called for--gloves, for example, or a bee suit if you're planning to photograph a hive. If you don't know whether or not your subject has venom, it's always best to assume that it does. Or, stick with insects and spiders that aren't dangerous--jumping spiders, wolf spiders and, hey, why not butterflies?
Not all macro lenses are macro lenses. Huh? Yes, you heard me right. It's possible that that "macro" lens you've been using on your camera isn't a true macro. How do you know?
A true macro lens gives you at least a 1:1 magnification, which means that your subject will appear on the sensor at exactly the same size it is in real life. So, a true macro lens will probably advertise this ability right on the lens, or at the very least in the manual. Look for the designation 1:1 or 2:1 on your lens; unfortunately, the word "macro" isn't a substitute. "Macro" may simply mean that you can get closer to your subject than you can with a more standard lens, but without that 1:1 or 2:1 designation you probably don't have a true macro lens.
Another clue is in the focal length of your lens. Is it a zoom? Then it's not a true macro lens. True macros are always fixed focal length.
Now, all true macro lenses are not created equal, and all true macro lenses are also not suitable for photographing insects. If you're going to point a macro lens at a marble-sized black widow spider in your woodpile, you definitely don't want to be using a 50mm lens. Oh, no. You want to be able to hang back a little bit, because you don't want to spook your subject, and you also don't want that black widow spider to start thinking your camera might be a good place to set up shop. When shopping for a true macro lens for insect photography, you'll probably want to go with something in the 100 to 180mm range.
Bent-Line Dart Moth 2008 10 31 014 by Flickr user e_monk
Of course, it's possible you're not going to like photographing insects. You never know until you try. So if you just want to experiment you could try using extension tubes instead of splurging on a macro lens. Remember though that using these tools with insects can be tricky--less light reaches your sensor through an extension tube, which means slower shutter speeds or higher ISOs. With a moving insect, a slower shutter speed or a very shallow depth of field probably isn't what you want. The trade off with a higher ISO, of course, is more noise. And because extension tubes don't really do much to improve magnification on a longer lens, you're back to that problem of being too close to your subject.
Close up filters are another option, and the better choice for improving the magnification on a longer lens. These filters, though, may have an impact on the quality of your image. But if your goal is just to try insect photography to see if you enjoy it, investing in one of these tools first may be preferable over spending all that money on a new lens.
Know your bug
Like any other type of animal photography, understanding the habits of your particular bug is the key to getting good photos of it. Flies, for example, tend to be sluggish in the morning when it is still chilly outside; that makes it easier to photograph them on cold mornings. Bees tend to prefer some flowers over others--know which bushes attract bees before you attempt to photograph them.
If you don't know what your bug is, there are many resources online that can help you identify them. Try Insect Identification or What's That Bug. Google images can also help. Forums frequented by insect enthusiasts can be a good source of information, too--post a photo of your bug on one of these sites and someone out there is bound to know its name.
4 eyes? / 4 olhos? by Flickr user Chaval Brasil
Once you've identified your bug try to obtain as much information as you can about it and its habits. Find out if it bites or stings, find out what time of day it is active and see if you can get some information on where it likes to hang out. All of these details will help you get better pictures of it.
While you're at it, read up on the other bugs in your local area. Then go out on a bug hunt with your camera. See if you can spot some of the bugs you've read about in your local area. Knowing which bugs are most active during certain times of the year, and which environments are more likely to be attractive to those bugs is going to give you a leg up on capturing some amazing insect photos.
Autofocus is probably your go-to setting for most of your photography work. For insect photography, though, it may not be the right choice. For a start, autofocus is noisy. And fast. Two things that are likely to scare your bug away before you have a chance to get a shot of it. Instead, it's best to switch to manual focus--once there, you have two choices. Focus with your focusing ring, or set your lens to its maximum magnification setting and then change focus by making adjustments in the distance between your lens and your subject. With macro photography the later technique tends to work very well.
Remember that the closer you get to your subject, the less depth of field you're going to have. That's why it's better to use smaller apertures when photographing insects, unless having only part of your subject in focus is part of your plan. Start with f/16 and then go from there. You may find that your lens's smallest aperture will give you the best results--but remember too that small apertures may require the use of a tripod or a higher ISO.
Unless you are using flash (more on that below), there's almost always going to be a trade-off between what you can do with a tripod and a slower shutter speed and what you can do with a higher ISO. Many macro photographers prefer to keep that ISO low as it lets you capture more detail in your subject, with less noticeable noise. But if you're shooting insects outdoors on a breezy day, you're probably going to get some motion blur when shooting at low ISOs and slow shutter speeds. In these conditions, it may be preferable to turn up the ISO, sacrificing some detail for a tack-sharp image.
Wolf Spider Portrait by Flickr user e_monk
Also remember that the closer you get to your subject, the more magnified any movement of the subject or the leaf it's sitting on is going to be. So while you might ordinarily be able to hand hold your camera at a shutter speed of 1/60 or 1/30, you probably won't be able to get a sharp macro image at those shutter speeds without a tripod--unless you also add some artificial light.
Using a Flash
Many macro photographers add artificial light to their images, even when shooting outdoors during daylight. Artificial light means you won't have to decide between a slow shutter speed or a high ISO. In fact in many cases having a good flash can mean the difference between a mediocre insect shot and an excellent one.
You can use a standard flash unit if you are far enough away from your subject; too close and your lens is going to block some of the light, which will result in an unevenly lit subject. Because a standard flash is tricky to work with, many macro photographers prefer a ring flash. A ring flash wraps around your lens and provides even, shadowless illumination throughout the frame. The light from a ring flash is soft--some photographers will tell you it's too soft, resulting in some loss of detail. Another drawback to the ring flash is that it creates strange, ring-shaped catch lights in the eyes of your subjects--with insects, however, this isn't much of a problem because their eyes are less reflective than, say, the eyes of a tree frog. If you dislike the soft light from a ring flash, you can use a twin light system instead. These flashes are mounted on either side of your lens, which gives you more flexibility and a better light ratio. They also cost a lot more money, so you may not want to invest in a set until you know exactly how much you love photographing those creepy-crawlies.
The advantage to using a flash of any kind, of course, is that you can shoot at smaller apertures while eliminating the need to carry a tripod around with you. Tripods are useful but they also have the disadvantage of being clunky and taking time to set up and adjust--and anyone who has ever photographed living things will tell you that the more time you spend tweaking your equipment, the less time you spend taking photographs.
Peacock Butterfly in the morning by Flickr user HaPe_Gera
Tricks of the trade
Shoot during the early mornings and late afternoons. I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that the magic hour is the best time for shooting insects. That's not just because the light is better (though that's certainly one good reason), it's also because insects are affected by cooler temperatures and don't tend to move as quickly during those times of day. This makes it easier to capture them, especially if you are working with slower shutter speeds and wider apertures.
Move slowly and don't cast a shadow. Insects are smarter than you think. They know that a fast-moving animal is often a threat (think how quickly a bird will swoop in and strike at a juicy bug). When you approach an insect, do it slowly. And make sure that your shadow doesn't precede you. If your shadow falls over your subject, he's going to think a predator is coming to eat him. Always approach an insect in such a way that your shadow is behind you or on the opposite side from where your bug is.
Go out in autumn and spring. Bugs tend to be busier these times of year, and you also have the advantage of more beautiful backgrounds (spring flowers, fall leaves).
Be patient. Sometimes it's best to let the insects come to you. Stake out a location where you know your subjects like to hang out. Set up your gear and then wait.
In some ways, bugs are simpler to photograph than humans. They don't have to be entertained or encouraged to smile or do something interesting. They already are interesting, just going about their buggy business. In other ways, though, bugs are a challenge. They're elusive and they don't really like people. You're probably not going to get excellent shots of them right off the bat, but patience and persistence are going to pay off. Just take care with those black widows in your woodpile, and don't get too close. They're going to look great on your LCD, but not if they're literally on your LCD.
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