Macro photography affords us the opportunity to capture some unique images that not everyone is able to run out and shoot. Here, we look at the best way to photograph insects and arachnids, as well as some inspiration to get you bug-stalking in the garden.
What You Need
A Macro Lens (or Alternative)
Recapping on Inspirational Flower Macro Images and How to Make Your Own: A macro lens will let you focus really close up on very small things. They’re usually fast (a large maximum aperture) and come in a variety of focal lengths and prices. I find that prime lenses are sharper but be prepared to work harder to nail your picture.
A true macro lens will have the ratio 1:1 or greater on it, meaning it produces a life-size or larger representation of your subject. Some telephoto lenses (like the popular 70-300mm) will state they have a macro function, but what this really means is you can zoom in to a ‘near macro’ size. Of course the benefit of this is being much further away, handy if you were photographing insects, for example. The small apertures usually mean that this magnitude isn’t feasible for great quality pictures, though.
You don’t necessarily need a dedicated lens. There are other alternatives, such as extension tubes for your existing lenses, and even filters you can buy. A compact camera or phone camera with a small flower symbol on it may also take acceptable macro pictures, so you really can try this with almost anything! You can see more in the recommended reading about macro equipment, below.
- Macro Equipment: Getting Started With Close-Up Photography: Close-up and macro photography is achievable in many ways, even without a dedicated macro lens. Find out more in this tutorial.
- Full-Frame vs. Crop-Sensor Cameras for Macro Photography It’s a long-discussed topic: full-frame or crop-sensor camera, which is best? Well, there are a number of variables to consider and this article look sat some of the key ones and how they benefit (or don’t!) macro photography.
Little Things Need Lots of Light
When it comes to insect macro in particular, then a longer lens is useful so you can be further away from your subject. If you get too close, they’re going to fly/run away. There’s also the problem of your shadow getting in the way in this instance too. So for insects, longer lenses tend to better (but, I stress, not essential).
The more you zoom, the less available light you’re going to have, which can cause some depth of field issues. Bumping your aperture to the widest available at your desired focal length is always tempting, but you may just create a headache for yourself in terms of focus; if you don’t nail the eyes/face (unless you’re going for something completely different) then your image won’t look right.
A ring flash will also help with light, so you can use a faster shutter speed and a smaller aperture but it’s another factor that might scare off your subject. This is another reason I like prime lenses: they tend to be faster (have a wider aperture available) and as a result, sharper because you can get that fast shutter speed you require without losing all your light.
A long macro lens isn’t always the answer, it adds a great deal of shake, which is another headache for you to deal with. Macro photographers generally find something around 100mm is a good length, which gives you a working distance of around 4-5 inches. Lower than that and you’re practically sitting on the bug’s lap to get a picture, and too much longer than that means that every little breath or movement is exaggerated… good luck with that focus.
Insects, Arachnids… Bugs!
You need bugs.
Flowers are the best place to start. If you do a little research, you can find out which flower your desired bug is lightly to haunt. For example, my gran has a Buddleia (or Buddleja) commonly known as the ‘butterfly bush’ because, you guessed it, butterflies love it!
Please, please, please try to find creatures in their own habitat and where possible, leave them there. Many photographers take insects and put them in the freezer to make them sluggish and easier to photograph and I’ve even seen photographs where the subject has even been glued to the surface. Personally, I’d rather forgo a good photograph than get one this way. Not only would it feel like a bit of a cheat, but imagine if someone popped your cat or dog in the freezer to dope it up or glued it to the ground to keep it still; it just wouldn’t feel good or right to do that.
If sluggish bugs are what you’re after then consider your timing. Early morning is a good time to catch these bugs when they’ve not warmed up yet and are possibly a little ‘groggy’, particularly in very late summer to early autumn.
If you really do want to move something somewhere, be gentle and careful; these creatures can be very delicate and I always recommend you leave them where they are if possible.
This is a nice example of a shallow depth of field that works, but only just! The photographer was very close to having the ant’s eye covered by its antennae here, and maybe it was in 100 other shots, we’ll never know, but this is why patience and a steady hand are desirable skills when it comes to macro photography.
The muted colour palette in its earthy brown tones works really well with the subject matter and is a nice contrast the often heavily coloured insect macro photos we see.
- 4 Fab Forest Finds for Autumn Close-Up PhotographyMarie Gardiner06 Oct 2015
- Stéphane de Greef: Combining Nature Photography With DocumentaryJose Antunes28 Sep 2014
Butterfly on a Flower
A colourful butterfly on a bright flower is something we see a lot of but, for me, this one works well due to the fact that it’s not too busy. There are three bright colours dominating this image but the background is plain, so it gets away with it. The butterfly and flower are both well in focus here and the dark background helps the butterfly to really pop!
Spider and Web
A bug in its natural habitat often gives us context and this is the case with a spider in a web. I’m not a fan of central composition generally, but here the lens flare in the top right corner and dark blue in the top left actually works to throw us off a little, making the composition seems more three-dimensional.
I’m not sure whether the bokeh in the background is natural or a texture added in post-production, but it works in a subtle way to break up the background without distracting from the main image.
Remember keeping your background uncluttered and simple? Well throw that out occasionally for great results like this image of bees on a honeycomb. The higgledy-piggledy jumble of bee bodies here works wonderfully to keep our eyes skimming and failing to find a subject to rest on.
The yellow and black colour scheme is the reason this works so well, creating something that is almost abstract but yet still so clearly not!
A butterfly similar in composition to the earlier example but where that was bold and in your face, this has the opposite effect. The soft background bokeh is beautiful and has a little punch of colour in the top-left that matches the tones of the butterfly. There’s just the right amount in focus here to give us enough interest with no distractions at all.
Depth of Field Issues
One of the lovely things about macro photographs is a clever use of depth of field. Roughly speaking, the longer the lens you use, the more zoomed in you are, the shallower your DOF is. If you want an insect to be fully in focus, it may be that you’re technically no longer shooting ‘macro’, as you may come out of the 1:1 ratio by having to pull your zoom out to get your optimal plane of focus. Just to complicate things for you more, these differences will vary between a DSLR and a compact camera.
Focus Stacking for Extended Depth of Field: The good news is that there are ways around the limitations of shallow depth of field. Focus stacking is tough to do with moving subjects like bugs, who might not want to stand still for a few frames, but it's a handy technique to have in your back pocket nonetheless.
Make Your Bug Stand Out
Sometimes a tiny bug can be lost against a busy background of plants or flowers. One way to combat this is using shallow depth of field, but, as discussed above, that can come with its own problems. An alternative is to shoot your subject against a darker background, to make it ‘pop’. Expose for a brightly lit foreground to underexpose an already darker background. If you can’t get it dark enough, try sliding a piece of card or cloth behind, hopefully without disturbing your insect!
- Use Manual Mode for Accurate Exposures: Cameras have fairly accurate light meters that are getting better all the time but knowing how to expose accurately yourself is a real bonus.
Using auto focus when zoomed in close on a moving subject will surely drive you crazy. Manually focusing can be hard but it’s worth getting right; auto tends to ‘hunt’ when in so close and trying to focus on such a tiny area and you’ll waste time waiting for it to hit where you want.
If it’s difficult to get the focus before the insect moves off, why not position yourself first. I mentioned a Buddleia plant attracts butterflies: having your focus ready on one of the flowers in case a butterfly lands on it is highly likely to pay off. Then you only need to make small adjustments to accommodate the way your bug has positioned itself.
A fast shutter speed is essential, as mentioned above, but how do you know how fast is enough? Well, a good rule of thumb is to go with a speed that’s equal to or greater than the focal length you’re using. So if you’re at 200mm then 1/200 of a second or (preferably) above, should be a good speed.
Top Tips to Getting Macro Insect Photographs
- Use a fast shutter speed and try a ‘burst’ of shots to give yourself a better chance of getting your focus right.
- Getting your subject in their own environment, for example a spider in a web, adds context and helps with ‘story-telling’.
- A longer lens will prevent you frightening off your subject.
- Stalk a flower and wait for the bug rather than chasing them from place to place.
- Cardboard and cloth make good impromptu backgrounds if yours is too ‘busy’.
- Finding Macro Inspiration in the Garden: There’re more than just bugs in the garden!
- How to Make a Colourful Bubble Macro Photo with Oil and Water: If the weather’s bad or there are no bugs to be found, make your own macro shots indoors.
- 5 Inspirational Flower Macro Images and How to Make Your Own: Not into creepy crawlies? Try some flower shots instead.
There’s no denying that taking macro photographs of insects takes time and patience, but the results can be stunning. Macro photography is not exactly something that anyone can just pick up a camera and ‘do’, so there’s a chance to capture some really unique and interesting images that have a real, ‘wow, how did they do that?!’ factor.
Your time to shoot insect macro is limited if you want variety. The spring and summer are the best times, but don't rule out the colder, wetter seasons either. There’s plenty of interest to be found in an autumn woodlouse or frosty spider and its web and it’s less likely that the internet will be flooded with these kind of pictures because most people attempt it in the good weather!
Getting your focus right is key; if you miss the eyes or wings, or whatever point of interest you may be going for, then you might as well scrap your image as it just won’t have its impact without sharp focus. Consider the trade off between focal length and depth of field when setting up your shot. Is it worth getting so much of your subject in the frame if you have a narrow band of focus across the wrong area?
Like all things, it takes practice and a really great way to start out is to stalk a bug-enticing plant until you start getting the idea of the best settings for your shots. It can be frustrating and then very tempting to move the bug into your own environment to make it easier. Try and avoid doing that: I don’t think we’d be too happy with being picked up and plonked in an alien environment so it’s always best to steer clear of that if you can.
Remember to share your insect macro pictures with us in the comments below and we’re always happy to provide feedback or extra help if you’d like it.