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

 

Dragonflies on sticks

Common Darter

Common Darter

For the last week or so, we have noticed lots and lots of common darter dragonflies around the edge of Betty’s Wood, our newly-planted area adjacent to the ancient woodland area.  At the edge of this site, we have a wide strip that is naturally-regenerating woodland, with a central area that has been planted.  Whenever we see a little sapling emerging, we protect it with a tree-guard and cane to help prevent it being browsed off by muntjac deer and rabbits, at least until it is able to take care of itself.  So we have a lot of these canes sticking up among the grass and wildflowers.  It is these canes that common darter dragonflies seem to love.

On almost every cane along the south-eastern border of the woods, in the shelter of the trees, sits a common darter.  Males and females are both sitting there, occasionally jousting for position on what is presumably a more desirable cane.

Dragonflies love to sit on dead stems of reedmace, sedges and other emergent plants in the ponds, but despite having a profusion of these emergent stems, the common darters seem to prefer the bamboo canes, and particularly like the sheltered section in the lee of the ancient wood, where there is little wind and lots of sun for most of the day.

I managed to take a few pictures of these beautiful dragonflies over the last few days in the midst of all our hay-making activity.

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

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.

Aliens and Dragons

The stunning, beautiful, complicated and undeniably alien forms that nature can take really intrigue me.   Here are a few from yesterday.

Common Darter Dragonfly

Common Darter Dragonfly

Alien bracken frond

Bracken frond
Fractal bracken frond