How To Photograph Small Insects :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Photograph Small Insects

by David Peterson 11 comments

Insects are a subject with boundless possibilities, and you can find them everywhere you look. With summer upon us (and spring really close for those in the southern hemisphere), now is the time to get out there and take some amazing insect images. You don’t need the most expensive camera setup to take these interesting photos right from your back yard. I’ll show you how.

Before we get started, there’s one thing you’ll want to ask yourself right away. How much magnification do you want? I say this because it will determine the equipment you’ll need to get the shot. If you want a lot of magnification (up to three times lifesize, for example), you’ll need to invest in a digital SLR with a dedicated macro lens and some extension tubes. Otherwise, you should be fine using your point-and-shoot camera.

What’s the difference between macro and telephoto lenses?

Some of you might be thinking you can just zoom in with your telephoto lens, and it’ll work as a macro lens. This isn’t exactly true. Telephoto lenses can help you zoom in to fill the frame with your tiny insect subjects, but they don’t magnify the light that’s getting sent to the lens. You need something like a magnifying glass to do that.

A macro lens is like a magnifying glass for your camera. Most of them don’t even let you zoom in or out, but that’s not the important part. When you look through them, everything gets blown up. Even if you don’t have a fancy digital SLR, chances are you can purchase a macro attachment for your point-and-shoot that will make your insect images that much better. They even have macro attachments for smartphone cameras.

Extension tubes ramp up the magnification even more. They attach to the end of your macro lens, and they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, the length of the tube plus the focal length of the lens is equal to the amount of added magnification to the lens you already have attached. So, if your extension tube is 50 mm long, and the lens is 50 mm, then you get an extra level of magnification. A 2x lifesize macro lens effectively becomes a 3x lifesize macro lens.

As a final note, whenever I talk about magnification being two times lifesize or three times lifesize, I mean that the insect will appear to be twice or three times its size in the image as compared to real life. This is a handy thing to know before you leave the house with all of your gear. Perhaps you want an ant to fill 1/3 of the frame. It helps to know how much you want to magnify it so you don’t have to carry a bunch of camera gear with you.

‘Tis the season to be photographing insects

Spring and summer really is the best time to photograph insects. They are awakening from winter’s spell, and they’re ready for the summer ahead. In my experience, the mornings and twilight are the best times to photograph insects. Not only is the light much more favorable, but small insects tend to move around a lot less then.

You will find yourself fighting the tiny movements insects make throughout this entire process. When you’re using a macro lens and magnifying insects to twice their normal size, it’s often difficult to get the same depth of field that you would ordinarily get with typical subjects.

The depth of field, simply put, is the amount of the image that’s in focus. Macro lenses decrease the depth of field, meaning it’s often easy for a bug to move right out of the area that’s in focus. When that happens, you usually have no choice but to reframe the shot, and it can be incredibly time-consuming.

But that’s the fun of photographing small insects. They aren’t the most cooperative subjects. You usually have to sneak up on them to get the shot, and because you’re dealing with such small sizes, you’ll need to use a tripod to keep the shot still. Imagine creeping ever so slowly with several pounds of camera equipment, and you’ll get the idea. Keep quiet and don’t attract the insect’s attention, or it’s all over. This is true wildlife photography.

How to expose correctly for small insects

Exposure with tiny insects can be quite tricky, especially when you’re shooting inside of a poorly lit bush or other flora. That’s why a lot of insect photographers carry an external flash unit, and they bounce their flash onto a reflective surface so it’s evenly distributed by the time it hits the actual insect. Never shine a flash directly at an insect while photographing it. Chances are it will overexpose the shot, and you’ll get an unusable result.

Of course, you may not have all of this flash gear (okay, I didn't intend that pun!). If that’s so, you’ll probably need to take a somewhat extended exposure of the insect. That means dialing down the shutter speed so your camera captures more light. This is where the tripod is critical. Without it, your hands will shake the camera, and the entire shot will blur.

You’ll also want to increase your aperture as much as you can for small insect photography. If you pick something between F/16 and F/32, you should be fine. At these apertures, you’ll get the maximum depth of field possible for your macro lens. Since you’re already fighting to get the most out of the small depth of field that comes with your camera, this will definitely help.

Be patient with small insects. They’re one of the more difficult photographic subjects. But having said that, they’re also one of the most fun subjects to photograph. When you get a shot that really stands out, all of that effort is certainly worth it.

Oh, and don’t hesitate to share that image with me!

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  1. Sallie says:

    I have recently upgraded from a bridge to a dslr camera and find your articles helpful, straightforward and understandable. So pleased and relieved I found I found your website. Huge thank you.

  2. Bob Derval says:

    As usual a good article. Your articles are always clearly written and understandable. I just have to get out of my chair and start snapping pictures.


  3. Nico Kotze says:

    I hav a black scottish terrier and find it difficult to take good pictures of him. I have a nikon d600 camera with a 24-120mm f4 zoom lens. Please give me some advise

  4. Patti McBride says:

    I have a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi digital camera & I have 2 separate lenses, the standard Canon EF-S 18-55 mm IS lens and a Canon EFS 55-250 mm IS. The later says it is also a f-4-5.6 IS II. What does that mean?
    I also purchased a cheap Delux Super .5X Wide Angle lens with Macro. I'm interested on taking macro shots, but I'm confused about how to use this lens because it didn't come with instructions. Do I connect it to the 18-55 mm or the 55-250 mm lens? The wide angle/macro has 2 separate lenses. One saying 58mm 0.5X digital lens, while the other attached lens says W/Macro. I also invested in a tripod, which I know I need to use. I also purchased an independent flash & a
    Canon remote switch. Should I use them? I'm fairly new to all this digital stuff. Do I set my camera on the macro mode, & if so, how should I set my ISO & my f-stop?
    I purchased your book, 2012 Digital-Photo Secrets several years ago along with the book called DPS Bonus Books. I only got your book read to the chapter that talks about your picture in thirds. If there is a chapter in there about macro photography, I've over-looked it. I know these are a lot of questions, but spring is on its way & I'd really like to know this info before the
    little critters come out & play. Thank you very much.
    Patti :-)

  5. DonD says:

    Thank you David. Some excellent tips on getting the most out of my equipment and using some equipment that I never would have considered for this subject matter, ie. using the dispersed flash of an external flash to prevent under exposure in a poorly lit bush.

  6. Clive Brodie says:

    Thank you very much for your tips.They are always welcome and informative and help me in my quest to do better photography.

  7. Sandra says:

    This article was very good I enjoyed reading this and all the other articles your have published ,I accidentally pressed the boring tab ,so sorry as its all very interesting and I am enjoying reading it all

  8. Nicci says:

    Me too, thanks so much for writing this up, I learned a lot. Just got a NICE new camera and insects are defintitely on my list! :)

  9. sandeep says:

    amazing.i got so much knowledge

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.