The Amazing World of Insect Photography

My greatest photographic love is macro photography. It is the type of photography that made me more serious about my work. I had purchased a small point-and-shoot digital camera (in the days when digital photography was in its infancy) from my brother. There I was happily snapping pictures of everything around me, blissful in my ignorance of exactly what I was doing, when I came across a man on the web that changed my world of photography forever.

His name was Mike Ash. Tragically, Mike is gone now, but his advice to me stays forever. Mike was a guy with a knack for photographing wasps. Now, he photographed many other things, but wasps were his specialty. He would take these tiny, misunderstood creatures and allow them to walk around on the tips of his fingers. Where most homeowners would have eradicated the wasp's nest entirely, Mike allowed it to grow. I visited his house once, and sure enough, there in the bushes were several healthy nests.

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Photo by Mike Ash

What Mike did was show me that something so ordinary was extraordinary when viewed through the lens. That which other people ignored or detested had value and significance in his camera's eye. He also gave me a technique for macro photography that pushed me forward in my own creative work.

Both Mike and I used point-and-shoot digital cameras. The macro distance of my camera was almost a foot and its greatest pixel size was 640x480. This didn't give me much to work with. Mike had overcome a similar problem on his camera using the cardboard center of a toilet tube, tape, and a small magnifying glass attached to the lens of his camera. With these simple, everyday objects, he halved his camera's allowable macro distance.

The photograph below is the first one I took to win a contest. I used Mike's magnifying glass technique to take it. This water lily grew in a small washtub right outside my front door. I walked past it all the time, but this day because of Mike's advice, I saw it on another level.

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Mike's willingness to share his home-built macro lens opened up an entire new world for me. I saw that there was so much out there that I didn't know and couldn't see. This next photograph is an example. At the time, I was photographing something else entirely, the lady bug, and didn't see what was really there (two of the tiniest of insects) until I looked at the photograph on my computer screen. Without Mike's advice, I would never have taken the time to look. He fostered in me a love for macro photography that I have to this day.

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Photographing Insects

Where photographing insects is concerned, over the years I have learned a few techniques towards more successful insect photography. Here are my top six.

1.       The eyes have it.

When photographing insects, 99.9% of the time the eyes of the insect MUST be in focus. The viewer will always look at the eyes first, so I make them my focal point. If the insect is off-center, then I focus on the eyes and shift my lens right or left for correct composition. Now, I realize that insects are always on the move, and sometimes you will only have a split second to capture the shot. But believe it or not, with practice you will have more time than you think to correctly compose the shot.

2.       Check your shutter speed.

When the insect is moving, be sure your shutter speed is fast enough to stop the action. This means paying extra attention to the available lighting. As a general rule, I do not use a flash for insect photography because it startles the insect and blows out your highlights.

The hummingbird moth in the photo below only feeds at dusk when there is very little available light. Because these moths move so exceedingly fast, to shorten my shutter speed, I increased my ISO. This allowed my camera to capture the moth mid-flight without blur.

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3.       Observe behaviors.

This brings me to my third point - observation. It was only because I had spent so much time watching what the hummingbird moth was doing that I knew what I must do to photograph it. Certain insects are found only on certain plants; others only show up at a particular time of day. You will not know either of these unless you take the time to watch the insect's behavior.

4.       Predict the path.

For a fast-moving insect, I have found I successfully capture more shots when I can predict where it is heading. A bee, buzzing from flower to flower, usually follows a certain pattern. Through observation, I watch where it is going, pre-focus on that location and am already there when it lands.

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5.       Use manual focus.

When your automatic focus just isn't working (this is especially true the smaller the insect and the busier the scene) don't forget to use manual focus. I will set my manual focus to an infinity distance and then physically move myself back and forth to achieve the sharpness I need.

Remember, you can rely on your camera to do everything for only so far. There comes a point when your knowledge of photography has to kick in! It's that, "Oh yeah, I could do this or that instead" moment. You "fake out" the camera, making it do what it doesn't think it can.

6.       Choose the right aperture.

In some situations, you will want to use the smallest aperture you can. In extreme macro photography, your depth of field is extremely narrow. With a smaller aperture, you have greater depth of field, and therefore, more of the insect will be sharp and in focus. I couldn't have photographed this cassius blue butterfly without using a smaller aperture. Because this butterfly is so small (smaller than a dime), it otherwise became "lost" in the grass. To get a clean shot with the most possible detail, I increased my aperture to F20.

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In other situations, a larger aperture is more effective. Look carefully at your background and foreground and ask yourself what you want to include or exclude from the image. In the hummingbird moth photograph I posted earlier, I would have liked to see less of the bush. I do like some environment in the shot. Often, it helps gives the insect a place in the photograph. However, too much background can be distracting. You want the image to feature the insect more than its surroundings.

One last piece of advice - it is most important to remember to respect the insect's environment. I cannot stress enough to leave things exactly how you found them. Nature has its cycle. Each plant and creature in that cycle depends on the other to survive. Therefore, I observe, photograph, and leave, knowing things keep spinning along after I am gone.

The best part of insect photography is that it can be done in your own back yard. I love gardening and so I plant flowers that encourage bugs. A field of un-mown grass is a real bonus to me! I encourage you to take the time to observe the amazing world of insects today. Perhaps you'll become hooked as I am, and perhaps you'll learn something as well!


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Suzanne Williams  Suzanne Williams Photography Blog

Suzanne Williams is a native Floridian, wife, and mother, with a penchant for spelling anything, who happens to love photography. 

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