As a result of their small size, the speed at which they move and the places where they hide amongst other things, taking photographs of insects is often a challenging and very annoying. Simply pointing a camera at an insect and pressing the shutter button is highly unlikely to result in a great photograph. Fortunately, there are some tips and tricks we can use which should result in some bright, colourful, detailed and interesting photographs of insects.
In an ideal world we would be able to set up a tripod, make all the appropriate settings on the camera, move the camera and the tripod in to position to ensure the best composition, fire off a few test shots to get the exposure spot on and then take an actual photograph of the insect. In reality it does not work like this and the insect would have flown off, scuttled away or moved on before the tripod has even been removed from its case. Some insects are lethargic and will remain in place long enough for a few shots but even these ones do not remain in situ for that long. A tripod is not the way to go and the only way to take photographs of insects is to use the camera hand held.
When taking hand held shots you need to ensure the shutter speed is fast enough to eliminate the chance of blurry images due to camera shake. The reciprocal rule is useful here, i.e. shutter speed is one over the effective focal length however it should only be used as a guide. If possible, use a shutter speed that is faster than this. If your lens has image stabilisation turn it on as this will also help eliminate camera shake.
Insects are small and the only way to get frame filling shots is to get close to them, which requires a stalking technique. When approaching the insect walk slowly and carefully. Sudden movements are more likely to make the insect disappear off than noise, so don’t make any jerky movements. Keep every smooth and fluid. A dedicated macro lens is the best lens for insect photography, however if you don’t have access to one of these a lens with the closest minimum focusing distance is second best as this allows you to get real close to the subject.
When getting up close to insects you may find your lens’ autofocus feature struggle as it starts to hunt to get a positive lock. When this happens turn the autofocus feature off and revert to manual focus for the best shots, which means you have to be comfortable with manual focusing techniques. Consequently you may want to practice manually focusing your camera quickly on a still subject, such as a flower, before you go out and tackle moving subjects.
The closer you get to the subject, the more light you will lose so this needs to be factored in. On dull and overcast days, or times of low light levels, you may need a bit of flash to get a good exposure. An on camera flash can be used however these often produce harsh light, which is not that great. A dedicated macro flash, such as the Marumi macro ring flash, is best for taking photographs of insects. To really make the insects “pop” and “jump out” of the photograph try underexposing the background by two thirds of a stop to a full stop.
Here we have the Marumi ringflash loaded on to a Canon EOS450D. The Marumi ringflash looks cumbersome and awkward to use, however with a bit of practice it really isn't that hard. The Marumi ringflash produces nice even and shdowless lighting.
Insects are found under rocks and stones, on the ground in the dirt and in the middle of foliage amongst many other places. Rather than taking a picture of the insect from above try and get as close to its eye level as possible. This means you are going to need to get down on your hands and knees to get the shot, so you have to be prepared to get dirty.
Photographing insects is a challenge however by following some of the advice above you should find your shots will improve in no time. It will take time, practice and a bit of luck to get great photographs of insects so don’t get too disheartened with your early attempts. Stick at it and persevere and you will soon get there.