Photographing insects falls into the category of macro photography as a general rule, although there are exceptions.
It is definitely not the easiest art from and it can become quite complicated.
However, good quality photographs can be obtained using very simple equipment.
For quality images a DSLR camera with a reasonable resolution should do the job. Quality compact cameras and the so called ‘super zooms’ will often have a macro setting and this is adequate for close up shots of flowers and large insects. If you wish to shoot images of smaller insects or extreme close ups of an insect’s body, then a DSLR and a decent macro lens will be the preferred option.
Macro lenses can come in a variety of focal lengths. The most common and popular are 50mm, 90mm and 100mm. 110mm macros lenses are increasing in popularity and there is now a 200mm macros lens available, although this lens is very expensive. These lenses do not come with your DSLR camera if purchased new, but will an additional cost.
The advantage with the longer focal length lens, say a 100mm to a 50mm, is that you don’t have to get quite as close to your subject to fill the frame. This can be an advantage as it is less likely to frighten the insect before you have a chance to photograph it.
Kit lenses supplied with DSLR’s sometimes have a macro setting. This setting is useful, but will probably be only rated 1:2 magnification, whereas a true macro lens will be 1:1.
A tripod is a vital part of your kit, along with a flash. If possible, an external flash, not the one on your camera, is very useful. It enables the flash to be used at different angles which an in-built flash can’t do. This will ensure details in the shadows are not lost and the whole image will be illuminated correctly. The in-built flash can be used at times, but will necessitate a change in the flash settings to provide less flash, just so you don’t blow the whole image to a blank white picture.
Subjects are limited only by your imagination. Common subjects of in your backyard are bees, flies, spiders, locusts, praying mantis, ants, wasps and any number of other common gardens insects. The leaves of plants are excellent spots to locate insects and the natural background provided by the leaves adds to the image. Just make sure you have an idea what you are photographing and don’t touch the insect if you don’t have to.
Dragonflies and damselflies are excellent subjects and there hundreds of different varieties in dozens of different colours. At times, both species are quite easy to approach and they will often sit grasping a reed or resting on a log or plant for many minutes, allowing you to take several shots.
If the light is very good the hand held macro shots may be possible. This is much simpler and more mobile than using a tripod, but you must ensure high shutter speeds to freeze any movement and produce nice sharp images.
A tripod is ideal, as it virtually eliminates camera shake and allows you to use very small apertures to increase you depth of field and make sure the whole of the insect is in focus, if this is the effect for which you are aiming.
Patience and preparation is sometimes the key to obtaining nice shots.
There is a freshwater pond near my house and in the warmer months it swarms with dragonflies and damselflies. A successful method for photographing them involves setting the camera up on the tripod and, using aperture priority, select you preferred camera settings. Then watch what’s happening for a while and select a reed or any other area on which the insects are regularly landing. Get as close to this area as you can and set your tripod at the desired angle. Once it’s all set to go, look through your camera’s viewfinder and focus on the spot where you think the insect will land. Once you are happy with everything it becomes a waiting game, although you probably won’t have to wait long. As soon as the insect lands, focus and take your shot. Take as many shots as you can whilst it’s sitting still. Use continuous shooting mode if you are able, as sometimes the insect will move as you are taking a shot and this can lead to some interesting images.
It probably easiest to use aperture priority mode, although if the insect is staying put, you will have time to adjust manual setting if your wish. Autofocus on modern cameras is usually fast and accurate, but there is still a case for manual focus. In fact, macro is probably the best area of photography to practice manual focus. It allows you to adjust the focal point on exactly what section of the image you are interested in.
The same technique can be employed in your garden. Just choose a likely spot and wait.
If you prefer the handheld method, then be prepared to discard quite a few shots due to camera shake. Unless you are shooting in clear, bright light you are unlikely to avoid camera shake altogether.
Depending on what type of image you are after, don’t discount a shallow depth of field. Using an aperture of around f6 of even f8 will leave only a select part of your subject in focus, the rest being nicely blurred. These types of images can have a fair degree of impact if you get it right. Traditionally though, using a small aperture, around f16, is the norm, with the goal being to have the entire subject in focus.
There are so many subjects and so many different methods to photograph them that I doubt insect photography, or macro photography in general, will ever become boring. Granted, close up images of insects are not appealing to everyone, but the lessons learnt will make you a better photographer overall and the techniques used can be applied to other forms of photography.