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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