As my recent Butterfly Photography Tips article here on Writedge got some nice comments, I thought I’d push my luck and expand the subject matter a bit to offer tips on photographing other insects and bugs. Butterflies are a safe bet as they are classically beautiful and everyone loves them, but most other insects and bugs, by contrast, have a face only a mother could love. Still, they’re fascinating in their own way and using the macro setting on your digital camera, even if it’s a relatively inexpensive compact camera, can produce fascinating pictures of bugs – if you like that sort of thing, of course.
You could be forgiven for thinking that, since butterflies are also bugs, the photography tips will be much the same. Well, yes and no. Technically, they are the same as those given in my butterfly photography article, but there’s an important difference. Butterflies are all pretty much the same size and behave in much the same way. Usually, they flit and flutter around and land for a few seconds before taking off again. Some other flying insects do that too, but some others – flying and non-flying, will sit for ages in one place or move slowly. Some insects are also a lot bigger than others so you may have to adjust your distance.
First a brief reminder of the technical aspects of the camera.
As tripods aren’t very practical for this type of photography, (chasing after live bugs like a crazy person), you need to use a high shutter speed (e.g. 1/250th of a second) to reduce the effects of hand-held camera shake and also to freeze any subject movement. Keep in mind, though, that a high shutter speed reduces the amount of light available.
A narrow aperture setting (such as f 16) increases the depth of field meaning that more of the subject will be in focus from front to back. Again, though, keep in mind that a narrow aperture, like a fast shutter speed, reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor.
If the available light isn’t enough to provide the correct exposure, you can increase the camera’s sensitivity (ISO) value. The higher the value, the more sensitive the sensor will be to the available light. It comes at a cost, though. An ISO value of 400 or above can spoil the quality of the image by introducing the unsightly grainy effect known as ‘noise’.
In dull conditions, such as indoors, flash can be very useful but tricky to use at close distances. It’s bright enough that you can use optimal shutter and aperture settings to freeze subject movement and eliminate camera shake. On the other hand, it can be too bright and over expose the image if the distance to the subject is very small, or, depending on where its positioned on the camera, it can miss the subject completely by shooting over its head. On-board camera flash is designed to illuminate people a few feet away – not small bugs an inch or two away.
Use the camera’s highest resolution (pixel count) as this will allow you to crop the final image and let the bug fill the frame. The cropped image will be much smaller but still large enough to produce an impressive image on a computer screen.
Different types of insects and other bugs require different strategies.
The smaller the bug, the closer you have to get in order to fill the frame. Ants are about as small as you can get without specialised equipment. With bugs smaller than an ant, it’s hard to capture enough detail without specialised ‘macro’ lenses. Keep in mind, though, that if it’s a colony of ants, those ants not in the shot will proceed to climb over your camera and your hand, biting as they go.
On the other hand, larger bugs can be photographed from a greater distance. This improves focus (depth of field) problems and also allows you to present just a part of the bug – like this head and shoulders view of a cockroach. This shot was possible because the cockroach had managed to get itself flipped over and was unable to right itself until I helped with a flick of my shoe and it scurried off. That was its model fee.
Flying bugs are usually too difficult to get good shots of when they’re in flight. When they land on a juicy piece of discarded fruit, though, like the wasps in this photo, they tend to ignore you and your camera and you can get lots of shots from different angles.
With crawling bugs, the challenge is to get their face in the shot as they’re very close to the ground and hard to see. Keep the camera as low as you can in relation to the bug.
Ants feeding on dead bug
Dead bugs are easy to photograph, but there’s no satisfaction in that unless they’re a natural part of the scene, such as the dead bug above providing dinner for a colony of ants. Dead bugs can be handy for practice purposes and for testing various angles and exposure settings, but that’s all. Some photographers capture live bugs and put them in the fridge for half an hour. When they come out they’re too cold to move quickly and so are very easy to photograph. That’s not what this type of photography is about. The whole point is to enter the normally hidden world in which the bugs live and photograph them as they go about their daily business in their natural surroundings. Don’t kill them or chill them – Keep it live! Keep it real!