Photographing Insects – my approach

Common blues

Mating pair of common blue butterflies – backlit

I love photographing insects.  Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too.  Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.

Equipment

Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens.  I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro.  I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens.  The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often.  I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily.  The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size.  It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish.  The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed.  The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is.  It is also harder to hand-hold.

A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake.  I don’t do this for three reasons.  First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good.  Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it.  Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint.  You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold.  Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.

The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures.  Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.

Southern hawker

Southern hawker dragonfly by our pond

Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.

Learn how to approach

The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!).  They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell.  You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them.  I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes.  It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush.  It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth.  Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind.  It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera.  It is worth practising this  without taking photos, until you can do it well.

Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.

Viewpoint and Background

Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that.  However you really do need to think more about it than that.  What viewpoint do you want?  Which bit of the insect do you want to feature?  Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect?  Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings?  This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly – dark damselfly, bright background

Likewise, how do you want the background to appear?  Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail?  Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour?  When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background.  Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor).  A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly in meadow


Lighting

Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging.  Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.

Common darter dragonfly

Common darter dragonfly on a cane


Exposure

Getting exposure right can be challenging.  You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting.  It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera.  This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision.  This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it.  As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust.  You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.

Banded Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle – challenging exposure!

Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge:  butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure.  Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing.  Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).

Male common blue showing iridescence

Male common blue showing iridescence


Learn to see the picture in your head

Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it.  Visualise what you want to see.  What details do you want to see?  How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal?  How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture?    How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark?  Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on?  How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes?  Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed?  How do you want the viewer to feel?  How do YOU feel?  Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?

Common darter shelters from the rain

Common darter on willow leaf, sheltering from the rain


You may disagree

This is my approach.  Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach.  It works for me.  In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win.  I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners.  Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.

Common darter in oak tree

Common darter in oak tree

Late Autumn Insects

Female common darter

Female common darter

Despite all the blustery weather, it has remained mild, and in sheltered spots there are still some insects about.  At the weekend we saw red admiral and comma butterflies, and quite a number of common darter dragonflies in the sheltered parts of the woods.  A small white butterfly was also on the wing, and there are still plenty of bumblebees, wasps, hornets and hoverflies in places, enjoying the late autumn fruit.  There are also quite a few plants still in flower, providing nectar for these insects – notably still some ox-eye daisies in flower in our meadow, together with clover, sainfoin, some late buttercups and late willowherb.

These are a few photos taken at the weekend.

Comma Butterfly

Comma Butterfly (pictured with point and shoot camera)

Male Common Darter

Male Common Darter basking on a log

Male Common Darter

Male Common Darter basking on a log

Backlighting

Backlit Spider

Backlit Spider

I confess to a weakness for backlit photos, as I just feel that backlighting, or at least light that is coming obliquely from behind, really brings out something mystical and magical about the subjects.  This weekend we were blessed with the most fantastic light for photography, with the autumn light coming in at a low angle and making the insects and plants shine in a way that it does not during the high summer.

Backlit Spider

Backlit Spider

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

I set out deciding to focus on this light and took some photos around our woods.  There has been something of a late summer revival in the weather, and it was very warm, with late speckled wood butterflies, large whites, brimstones and common blues on the wing, as well as emperor dragonflies, southern hawkers, common hawkers, brown hawkers and lots of common darters still basking and hunting around our meadows and ponds.

One particularly special moment came while I was photographing a lovely little spider, and a common darter dragonfly actually came down and landed on my hand.  I managed to move my hand and take one picture before it flew away.

Perched on my hand

Perched on my hand – a common darter dragonfly

Backlighting is special, although you need to make some adjustments to exposure or you end up with a silhouette – I use the exposure compensation setting to over-expose the pictures relative to the metred value, keeping the camera in aperture-priority mode to give me control of depth of field.  Sometimes you need to over-expose by more than you think!

Autumn is very fast approaching, but for the moment, there is still the opportunity to take some summery photos, and I was grateful for the light at the weekend to help me capture these backlit images.

Common darter

Common darter

Common darter

Common darter

 

Nature-watching

Common Wasp

Common wasp on angelica

I love birds.  And butterflies.  And dragonflies.  And reptiles.  And amphibians.  And wild flowers.  I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time.  Lots of people do this.  They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.

But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”.  My approach to wildlife watching is different.

Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there.  But I found this very unsatisfying.  There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived.  Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty.  So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what?  How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area?  Not a lot, really.

Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers.  They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed.  I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species.  I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live.  A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock butterfly – common butterfly, common ragwort, but very worth watching

Baby Wren

Little brown bird – baby wren

For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context.  Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there.  New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them.  They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.

I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure.  Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing.  I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys.  But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife.  It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.

This year we went to Doncaster for our business.  We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development.  And yet there was great wildlife there.  Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake.  Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined.  Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds.  Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.

It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common.  What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.

Great tit in the snow

Great tit in the snow – common, but beautiful

In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer.  I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else.  Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else.  For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful.  There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common.  I don’t.  I enjoy watching them all.

Insects on display

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

This weekend, the insects have been out again in great numbers.  Interestingly, both the butterflies and the dragonflies have taken to perching high up in the grass, or on available posts, canes, sticks and tables and seem to be on display.  Common blue butterflies are often difficult to photograph because they sit so low in the grass, or on low plants such as birdsfoot trefoil, and by the time you have got down there to get a decent view they have long-since flown away (at least if your knees are as bad as mine).

But this weekend they have been shining like lovely little jewels at the top of the stems of grass.  Choosing a sheltered part of the meadow, but with plenty of scope for their pheromones to blow downwind to attract the females, the males have been sitting, rubbing their wings, at the convenient (for photographers) height of about 2-3 feet.  Getting decent shots has not been terribly easy because of the breezy conditions, but there were just a few occasions when the light was perfect, and I managed to capture some more of these little jewel-like creatures.

We have also had a great display by the common darters, usually males but a few females.  These dragonflies like to perch at the top of something, and they are making full use of the bamboo canes we put into the ground to support self-seeded oak and birch trees around the margins of Betty’s Wood.  Not the most picturesque background, but for the most part they are quiet, using their wings like a veil, sitting and waiting, each claiming the territory around their own perch.

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Finally, a few sightings of the emerald damselfly, which seemed to be totally missing last year, but are present in numbers again this year.  We also spotted some new-generation brimstones feeding around our ponds on the purple loosestrife.  We hope the numbers will swell in future thanks to the alder buckthorn we have planted for their caterpillars.  The spectacular small copper butterfly has also made an appearance, feeding on the thistles around the field margin.  These are such beautiful little butterflies, but also very fast-moving, however I managed to get a few snaps of one.

Small Copper

Small Copper

Brimstone

Brimstone

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly

This year seems to have been brilliant for butterflies and dragonflies, and they are certainly on display at the moment.  They needed a good year after the last two have been so difficult for them.

Common Blue – Jewels of the Grass

Common Blue

Common Blue

I’ve always thought that “Common Blue” is not the right name.  This butterfly is an absolute jewel.  It isn’t all that common either – widespread, maybe, but numbers have suffered in recent years.  The Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus) is just beautiful as it flits along the meadows, verges and wastelands in search of both nectar sources and foodplants for caterpillars – plants which include birdsfoot trefoil, white clover, black medick, thistles and knapweed, all of which we have in plentiful numbers in Betty’s Wood, as well as in our main clearing in the ancient wood.

They have more than one generation a year.  Last year was poor for Common Blues, and we only spotted one or two of the first generation in our meadow.  Thankfully, the second generation has now emerged in good numbers.  The second generation, in particular, is spectacular.  I think this is because of the contrast of colours:  the yellows, browns, oranges of the drying and maturing grass and seeds and that stunning flash of blue from the wings of the male.  Complementary colours really do their best to set each other off.

The upper wings are beautiful, but I think the lovely little dainty spotted underwings with their flash of orange are the real treat.  Last night, all the male Common Blues had gathered in a small part of the meadow, in an area sheltered from the wind and catching the evening sunshine.  They were perched head-down, in typical fashion, high up on the grass stems and rubbing their wings to release the pheromones, presumably to attract the ladies.  I didn’t see any females, just 8 to 10 males sitting within a few feet of each other at the top of the grass.

I managed to catch a number of photos of these stunning little jewels of the grass.  I hope this lovely little butterfly will carry on coming to our meadow for many years to come – we are certainly doing all we can to encourage it.  It is a real pleasure and delight to behold.

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Common Blue

Baby Wrens, Thunderstorms and Brown Argus

Baby Wren

Baby Wren

Danger!  Baby Wren!
Danger! Baby Wren!

It is always a privilege to be out in the great outdoors, and an even greater privilege to share it with wild creatures.  I was recently doing some green wood-turning at the woods when I noticed I was not alone.  The loud, high-pitched tweeting noise that was coming from our broken-down old goat shed turned out to be a group of little wrens that had just fledged.  These trusting little creatures were flittering and fluttering around my head while I was working on the lathe and shave-horse.  One even landed on the shave-horse, not entirely sure yet of his flying, or where exactly he could go.  They hopped and skipped around as I was having my coffee and lunch, coming to sit on the pallets next to me, and flying in and out of the old goat shed, getting their bearings and learning what those wings are really for.

Baby Wren

Baby Wren

Some of them were so tiny that, as well as their baby gape, they still had tufty feathers on their heads.  They made up for lack of size with a lot of noise and enthusiasm.  It really is wonderful to watch this special moment in the life of a baby bird.  As yet, they had not developed a fear of humans, and I was thus allowed to be part of something that is rarely seen.  I felt like I was a member of this little flock that had placed their trust in me not to harm them while they found their wings and began to fly.

Thunderstorm Approaching

Thunderstorm Approaching

It has also been a good week for thunderstorms and thundery weather.  A lorry broke down outside our woods, and I was helping to direct traffic round it while a storm was approaching.  In a quiet moment, I managed to snap the sunny fields with stormy clouds on their way.  It looked like we were all going to get soaked, but the storm veered off at the last moment, and we only had a few raindrops on our heads.

As the storms left the woods behind, a quick walk round Betty’s Wood revealed a new hatching of Brown Argus butterflies.  These butterflies were one of the target species when we planted the woods and meadows, and we put in storksbill and cranesbill to attract them.  Unfortunately, the cranesbill has not appeared in great numbers in our meadows, although the storksbill has been more successful, but even in our first year, with poor growth, we managed to get the Brown Argus to move in.  We hadn’t noticed them this year, but they are now with us in some numbers, sitting in their lovely upside-down pose on our grass stems, rubbing their wings to release the pheromones and attract a mate.  We plan to add more cranesbill to the meadows this year when we mow (should be in the next week or two depending on the weather), so we hope to see even more of them next year.

Brown Argus

Brown Argus

Brown Argus
Brown Argus

Photographing butterflies – know your subject

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

It is wonderful to capture the beauty of wildilfe on camera.  The thrill of seeing a beautiful butterfly and getting an image that really captures the spirit of that fragile little creature.  I started out, like most people, just snapping butterflies in our garden on the buddleia bushes.  At the moment there are clouds of butterflies everywhere, making the most of the hot weather.  There are lots of people with cameras out, enthusiastically trying to snap them as they flit and fly around, defying attempts to approach, annoyingly fluttering away just as the camera is raised.  Then when the photo is viewed, it is often competent but there is something lacking.  The knack is to capture the spirit of the butterfly, to show something of its soul, of the ephemeral nature of its life and the world which it inhabits.

Ringlet

Ringlet on cleavers

You may be lucky if you take the opportunistic approach, and there are many fantastic pictures out there from people who have done just that:  they have had the camera ready at the right time in the right place, and snapped a great image.

What can get better results, however, is if you know your subject.  Which butterflies can be found in which habitat at what time of year?  Which plants need to be present for caterpillars and adult butterflies?  Where do they alight to feed – on what plants, in what lighting, at what height?  Where do they roost?  At what time of day will they be active?  Are they territorial, and therefore if they fly off, will they come back roughly to the same spot?  Answer these questions, and you have a much better chance of getting something special with your camera, and a much better chance that you capture the spirit of the butterfly, and not just its physical form.

Speckled Wood on Bramble

Speckled Wood on Bramble

Then there is the lighting and background.  Speckled wood butterflies, for example, flit around the sunny patches in a woodland, alighting on sunlit spots on trees, shrubs, brambles and on the floor.  It isn’t usually very interesting to take a picture of the butterfly on the floor.  The background is often cluttered, and the beauty of the butterfly is lost among the leaf litter and grass.  The lighting is often full-on and harsh.  It doesn’t usually work.  But get the butterfly on a beautiful leaf or flower, with a clear background, or one that can be blurred by selecting a low depth of field and getting in close, and you have a much better chance of getting a picture that enhances the beauty of the little creature.

There are a lot of skipper butterflies around at the moment in our meadow.  Now these little creatures flitter and flutter in a very moth-like way – indeed, many people confuse them with moths because of the way they rest with their wings half-open, unlike many butterflies, which rest with wings closed.  They are very skittish in the bright sunshine.  They often rest low down in the grass, making it very hard to get an uncluttered foreground, much less an uncluttered background.  How do you go about getting a picture of them?  One thing I noticed yesterday was that many of them were coming down to the edge of the pond to drink.  Not a brilliant background, but then they flew up and perched on the grass and flowers adjacent to the pond.  So, stationing myself near the ponds, in among the grass, daisies and birdsfoot trefoil, I was able to get some pictures.  The fact that there were many about meant I could choose the direction of lighting, and wait until they arrived where there was a suitable perch and background, and take a picture.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper on thistle

Another good way of getting pictures is to wait until they are going to roost, late in the evening.  This has a number of advantages – the lighting is not overhead, and is often warmer in quality, and obviously the butterflies are less active as the temperature falls.  The disadvantage is that they may be harder to spot when not on the wing, but you can quickly tune your eyes in to spotting them in the meadow, as long as you know their favoured roosting points.  The same applies to the rain – butterflies will be there, roosting, and if you can find them, you can often get a decent shot without them flying off.

Comma butterfly on bramble

Comma butterfly on bramble

Some articles on butterfly photography advocate trapping them, putting them in the fridge to cool them down and make them less active, then setting up what is in effect a studio shot with the butterfly in optimal conditions of lighting, and with a nice plain background.  I dislike this approach.  First of all, it disturbs the butterfly.  For a creature whose life may be numbered in days to begin with, you are, by trapping it and cooling it, taking up a significant fraction of its life-span just to get a picture, and limiting its chances of finding a mate.  Then where do you let it go?  Just let it out of the door?  Or do you take the time and trouble to take it back exactly where you found it?  Failing to take that time and trouble means it may well be released in an environment devoid of its preferred food, without caterpillar foodplants on which to lay eggs, and without a mate.  Not really a nice thing to do, just for a photo.  But more than that, I often find these pictures to be very false.  There is something of the spirit of the butterfly missing.  The butterflies are often perched in a way in which they do not perch in nature, and often on plants that don’t occur in their habitat, or on plants that they don’t roost on, even if they are present in their natural environment.   They may look nice, but they give me an uncomfortable feeling.  This isn’t really wildlife photography – it is studio photography, treating a living thing as an inanimate object.  I do not, and will not, do that.

Butterflies are alive.  Their beauty exists in the context of where they live and how they live.  Their beauty is a fusion of the butterfly and the surrounding environment – the plants, the flowers, the light, the shade, the sun, the time of day, the time of year.

If you know your subject, and take the time and trouble to spend time in their world, learning about them, then I think you will be much better placed to get pictures that are special because they capture the spirit of the butterfly, that exquisite, ephemeral beauty that characterises these lovely little insects.

Small Skipper

Small Skipper on grass