Photographing Small Animals :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing Small Animals

by David Peterson 1 comment

We have all seen them - images like the ones in a National Geographic spread of oversized fly eye balls or gorgeous butterflies. The kind of photos that make you stop and marvel. Are you interested in taking close-up photographs? Do you like nature and want to learn how to photograph it? Small animals are a great place to start for someone that appreciates detail and beauty and doesn't mind getting down and dirty a bit.

Let me be clear that by small animals I mean really small. I'm not talking hamsters and bunnies but snails and insects. Those critters that can go unnoticed but are everywhere and have unique beauty particularly when photographed close up. The beauty of starting with small animals is that you don't need to go on an exotic safari; your subjects are in backyards and parks all over the world. It is amazing what you can discover when you get down and view the world from the perspective of a bug! Read on to learn about this field of photography that opens up a whole world of tiny subjects to be photographed!

Macro Photography

You may have heard the term macro photography. Exactly how this is defined depends on whom you ask, but macro photos are often described as images that are between 1/10 of life size and life size. Basically, you take close-up photos of small things that end up looking as large or larger than life in your image. This allows you to really show and appreciate the small details that would be lost in a more distant photo.

Point and Shoot

Before I move on to more sophisticated equipment and techniques I wanted to give a quick shout out to the capabilities of point and shoot digital cameras (and even some cell phones) when it comes to macro photos. There are a lot of point and shoot digitals that allow you to shoot something within an inch or so of the lens when in macro mode. This is a very close focusing mode that produces some larger than life images but not without issues of distortion and unnatural perspective. Macro mode is great but it usually takes away your control over aperture and shutter speed so that is not ideal. There are some newer, niftier point and shoot cameras that allow you to use macro mode with aperture priority, which is pretty cool.

Subject Choice

Choose your subject(s) wisely when beginning to photograph small objects. Don't pick a quick, darting insect for your first shots. Think slugs, snails... things that are not known for speed! You need a steady hand and a stationary subject to take good close-ups. Your images will be all about details, patterns, texture, so look for those things in your subject and make that the focus of your photos. Things that might normally gross you out take on a sudden cool factor when viewed up close and personal!

Options Without a Macro Lens

If you don't have a dedicated macro lens, you can still experiment with close-up photographs using your DSLR. I have seen beautiful close-up images taken with 24-70mm lenses and telephotos like a 70-200. If you are using a telephoto lens, it will surprise you how far away from your subject you need to be. Set your zoom to the furthest focal length to get the tight shot. With a telephoto lens zoomed, camera shake is a big problem so I suggest a tripod. If you have a cable release or are familiar with your camera's mirror lockup function, you can also try these tricks to minimize shake. An extension tube is another option that is the topic of a separate article!

One last trick that is often suggested for taking macro shots without a macro lens is to take off your lens and turn it around (any lens although I recommend a prime lens if you have one). What? Yes, turn the lens around which means it is no longer attached to your camera. The filter side is now pointing towards the body of your camera. Here is where an extra hand or two would be ideal. Now hold the lens in front of your camera, set up the shot, hold everything perfectly still and snap! Obviously, this technique takes a lot of practice and much of what you take will be destined for the recycle bin, but you may get some great shots too. Experiment with different lenses for different looks. I have heard people suggest using rubber bands to hold your lens in this backwards position but I don't really trust stretchy elastic bands to hold a spendy lens in place! Just saying. If you're not keen on hand holding the lens, you can purchase lens reversal rings. They don't cost a lot and may save you some grief and potentially dropping your lens!

Shooting Macro

Now if you have a macro lens, consider yourself lucky. If not you may want to consider renting one from your local camera store to try it out. When shooting macro you actually want a very narrow aperture. Choose aperture priority and stop your lens way down (which means use a high f-stop number like f/32). To compensate for a small aperture, you need a slow shutter speed to let enough light in. With a macro lens, which allows you to operate at closer than normal distance, you may only be able to get a part of your subject in focus. Compose wisely. You want the subject, or a key part of it, in tack sharp focus with a soft background. Many photographers use manual focus when shooting macro to have better control over what is in focus. You won't have a whole lot of background in your photograph but be sure that what does show is plain and not distracting.

With such a small aperture, getting enough light can be difficult. You will shoot outdoors so take advantage of the natural light available to you. Your on-camera flash will likely overexpose your subject so I would avoid it, but more sophisticated flash setups are a great option if you have them.

It may seem counter-intuitive but when shooting with a macro lens, it is optimal to be at a distance from your subject. For this reason 50mm and other short macro lenses are not the best. If you are too close you will get in the way of your own lighting, potentially annoy your subjects, and possibly create an unnatural looking perspective. Look for a macro lens that is at least 100mm or even in the 180-200mm range. This will allow for a foot or two of clearance from your subject.

With these tips in mind, get out and take some shots. There is beauty and interest all around. With a macro setup you can hone in on the intricate details of an insect's eyes or the texture and pattern of their wings. Macro photography opens up a whole new world, and the results are amazing!

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  1. renee zernitsky says:

    Thank you for your photo tips everyone of these situations have come to pass and I'm always wondering what is right what works best
    I'm always confused by stopping it down and opening it up and use a faster shutter speed I need examples to understand it better Your post that F32 is stopping it down helped - I will get it one day


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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+.