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Hillcrest Camera Club insect-hunting

When shooting insects in nature, one faces a number of challenges. One is the eternal trade-off between motion, light and depth of field. Another is focussing on a small moving target.

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Bright sunlight is nice, if you can get it. Here are three different amazing flower chafers. Yes, it is spring time!

Depth of field

When the camera is very close to the subject, as in macro photography, the depth of field can shrink to a mm or less, and it becomes difficult to get the whole insect, or even part of the insect, in focus. Here are several solutions:

1: Set the F-stop as high as possible: nothing less than 11, better nearer 20, ideally more – depending on other factors, like the size of the insects and available light.

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2. To get more of the insect in focus, align it side-on.

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3. Line up all the important bits so they are the same distance from the lens, and allow ‘extraneous’ bits get out of focus.

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In this (braconid?) wasp the feelers, eyes and sting are all essential features. Lined up exactly at 90 degrees to the lens, they all end up in focus. The feet are less important.

4. Stacking: take two (or more) photos of the insect in the same position, but focus at different levels, then copy the sharp bits from one photo to the other. This usually only works when the insects is sitting still.

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1+2=3

A form of ‘stacking’ can even be done on two completely different images:

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The firefly’s face was pretty in (1), but its bum was better in (2). So I copied and pasted the rotated light organ from (2) onto the behind of (1). Cheating? Yeah. I guess so. A little.

Motion

Macro photography magnifies movements: whether it is the insect that moves, or a breeze blowing the leaf it is sitting on, or your hand that shakes because you are squatting in an awkward position…

1. Speed: turn up the speed, ideally to over twice the focal length of your lens (i.e. a 100mm macro needs at least 1/200th of a second, ideally more).

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This photo, taken with a 100mm lens, at 1/200s, shows different levels of movement: the flower is stationary, the beetle wiggling slightly, the butterfly in full motion.

 

2. Fridge: some people like to refrigerate insects to slow them down temporarily. I don’t find this method very useful. One, where are you going to find a fridge when you are out in the bush? Two, how long do you leave it in for? Three, they end up in unnatural, dead-looking postures. Four, they warm up real fast, so by the time you have ‘arranged’ their limbs to look more ‘natural’, they are waking up. Having said that, I have used this method successfully on one or two occasions.

fridge beetle
By the time I had taken this beetle from the fridge in the kitchen out into the garden and arranged him comfortably on a leaf in the sun, I had a few seconds left before it woke up and scuttled away.

3. It is more useful to trap the insect under a glass, on a suitable substrate, and then simply watch and wait. They do eventually get tired from all the rushing about. In the meantime, get your camera ready and focused. When the insect stops to catch its breath, carefully remove the glass and shoot. When they start running, simply put the glass back. Repeat, until you get the perfect shot…

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This busy mutillid wasp – a wingless female – was running errands. Under a glass she eventually paused – just long enough for a photo or three.

4. Hyper-active insects can sometimes be subdued with a bribe: place a drop of sugar water on the substrate (in this case I had chosen a smooth stone) and move the jar over the drop. Wait for the insect to start drinking, then carefully remove the jar and take your shot.

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Is it wrong to shoot wildlife at a watering hole?? An energetic mutillid wasp – this one a winged male – did not stop buzzing around until I gave him a drink .

5. To shoot insects on flowers or leaves, when there is a breeze, operate the camera with one hand and hold the flower with the other. Just don’t jerk the flower in an unnatural, non-breezy way that will startle the insect.

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Light

High speed and high F-stop settings reduce the amount of light available, resulting in an underexposed photo in all but the brightest sunlight. What to do?

1. Increase the ISO setting. At super-high ISO the picture ends up grainy, but often photo clarity is still totally acceptable at ISO 2000 or even higher. Play around with your camera so you know what results to expect.

2. Insects often have shiny exoskeletons which reflect the sunlight unpleasantly, hiding interesting patterns and colours. In such cases muted sunlight or light shade works better, if you can arrange it.

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When bright sunlight doesn’t work.

 

3. In the absence of sunlight, the obvious – and often the only – solution is using a flash. However, the flash comes with its own set of problems (more about this in the next installment).

 

metallic darkling
Problem situation: a busy, dark, shiny, metallic beetle on a darkly overcast day. The flash fails completely. The dark integument absorbs most of the light, except for a few brilliant reflections, and masks the beautiful metallic sheen. But without flash, automatic settings (in this case 1/125s, F6.3, 400 ISO) simply don’t work: the colours are fine, but depth of field and motion is hopeless.
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The next time went better: 1/160s, F10, 1250 ISO.

Combining these in the field

I usually start by taking a ‘recording’ photo’ (“I saw this insect”) using a flash with the following settings: F22, 1/200s, 200 ISO (on my 100mm macro lens). Easy numbers to remember.

Then, if there is enough light, I set ISO to auto, and take some more photos at F11+, 1/200s (or more if there is a breeze) – assuming the insect is still there of course.

If light conditions are such that the ISO goes above 6000, I set the camera to manual: 1/200s, f-stop 11 (or 8 in an absolute emergency), ISO as high as possible without ruining the photo due to graininess. If the photo ends up vastly under-exposed, this can often be fixed in an imaging software.

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An extreme case of bad photo conditions: overcast day, deep shade in the undergrowth, strong wind, busy beetle. I maxed out the ISO (6400), upped the speed to 1/400s, set the f-stop to 10, and then processed the grainy and under-exposed photo. Result: not perfect, but usable.

Focus

I use the auto focus only on large insects that are sitting still. For instance when shooting basking butterflies with a tele lens.

The rest of the time I ‘lock and rock‘ in manual focus. Meaning I focus approximately, then fine-focus by moving the camera back and forth ever so slightly, closer and nearer to the insect. (I don’t try move my entire head with the camera. Such movements are too clumsy. I keep my body still and move the camera closer and nearer to the eye.)

If the insect is perching on a branch or flower, I may operate the camera with one hand, and fine-focus by moving the perch with the other.

It is terribly easy to jerk out of focus just as you ‘pull the trigger’. The trick is to keep  one’s body dead-still, by sitting or kneeling good and proper, not squatting precariously, by leaning on elbows or against something, by leaning the camera against a solid object, or using a spare hand, wrist or knee as a temporary tripod.