Get Buggy: Tips for Photographing Insects

Photographer Rob Sheppard shares his secrets for getting great close-ups of insects, spiders and other tiny creatures

07-29-2010 // Rob Sheppard

 

bumblebee on flowers by Rob Sheppard

 

I KNOW A LOT OF FOLKS who have traveled to Africa, India and other exotic locations for some amazing wildlife photography. I also enjoy getting close to wary animals, photographing unusual and striking wildlife, and even witnessing and photographing life-and-death struggles. I just don’t have to go far. I can do all of this close to home—sometimes even in my backyard.

I am talking about insect photography. (The techniques are the same for other small critters from spiders to centipedes.) Insects are the most common wildlife around the planet. They come in extraordinary shapes and sizes with stunning colors and patterns. When you view them up close through your camera’s lens, they quickly become dramatic and wonderful subjects.

Insects and similar small critters are readily available, but they can also be challenging subjects that will test your photographic skills. Here are some tips for your next backyard safari in search of life in a macro world.

1. Insects are most active when it's warm

This means you can more easily photograph them early in the day because they can be sluggish. On the other hand, they can also be harder to find.

2. Always check out flowers

Lots of insects use flowers for food, both directly, through pollen and nectar, and indirectly, by eating the other insects that come to the flowers for pollen and nectar.

 

ladybird beetle by Rob Sheppard

3. Telephoto lenses can help

Many insects are as wary as big wildlife and will not let you get close. In addition, some insects, such as bees and wasps, can sting, so having a little distance between you and them can be good.

 

4. Many telephoto lenses do not focus close enough for insects. 

Extension tubes are a relatively inexpensive way to turn any telephoto into a close-focusing “macro” lens. They also work with zooms. (A note on extension tubes: While they work with all normal and telephoto lenses, some lenses just don’t do well up close.)

5. Live view can help

Sometimes you can get your camera closer to insects by extending it at the end of your arm than by putting your whole head and body in close as you look through the viewfinder.

6. Stop and really look

Many insects blend in with their surroundings, even if they seem quite colorful when you actually spot them. Pause at a clump of flowers and really look over the blossoms and all around them. You will often find some surprising insects there.

7. Let companions know you are looking for insects

When you are out on a hike with friends, have them be your extra eyes as you search for buggy camera subjects.

8. Get to know your backyard and garden

plain grass yard is pretty boring as far as insect life goes, but if you have a lot of flowers, shrubs and trees, you probably have a lot of insects around, too. As a bonus, a garden with varied species of plants rarely needs insecticides (in fact, they can be counterproductive, as they also kill predatory insects).

 

Rob Sheppard is a photographer, writer and photography teacher in southern California. He is the former editor of Outdoor Photographer and PC Photo magazines. Visit his blog Nature and Photography for more photography tips.

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