100 Steps to IYP – Lesson 10 – Insect Photography

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Ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the world around me. I kept asking so many questions about stuff all around that my folks gifted me a multi volume encyclopaedia and said that I would find all my answers there. And so I did. I was particularly interested in bugs, but honestly, I was terrified when I would see one. I had a major phobia of cockroaches till about a year or two ago. It was only after I got into photography that I got over my fear of insects, because I was and still am very intrigued by nature’s miniatures. In fact I was shocked to discover that I spent about 15 minutes taking pictures of a bee that was sitting on my shoulder. A couple of years ago, I would’ve run off screaming at the top of my voice!
I am also often surprised at the fact that most people find insects disgusting. This is verified by their reactions when I show them the insect pictures that I take. But personally, I find them to be amazing creatures. Have you ever closely observed the structure of a dragon fly? Design marvels they are. Such fine balance… This post is for those who share my love for insects and wish to capture them (in pictures please, not otherwise!). I’ll be sharing some tips that’ll help you take better pictures of the lil’ buggers.

TIP 1: Use the right equipment
Once again, the equipment to be used is of utmost importance. Since you’ll be shooting really tiny creatures, you should ideally be using a dedicated macro lens. However, if you don’t have a dedicated macro, you can use what is known as the poor-man’s-macro lens. This isn’t a cheap quality sad lens, but basically a reversed lens that acts like a macro. A 50mm prime with a reversal ring should do the trick. You can add closeup filters and teleconverters if you want to increase your working distance, but know that every added piece of glass decreases the quality.

TIP 2: The Treasure Hunt…
Night vision high magnification insect sensing goggles – not what you need to find a bug that you want to click. All you need is an eye for little things. Snoop around, scan plants, hedges, flower beds. You’ll find a whole bunch of different bugs, from butterflies to dragon flies to damsel flies to spiders to firebugs (I actually found all of these within a radius of one metre in my own flower bed after a shower). What I’m saying is, you don’t really need to go to a rainforest to find bugs. You’ll find plenty in your backyard. You just need to look very closely.
Also, early mornings and evenings are the best times to go bug hunting. You’ll find millions of them out looking for their own breakfast. And if you start really early then that’s even better because that is the time when they’re in a relatively dormant state.

TIP 3: Be patient… Be very patient…
This is where insect photography is a lot like wildlife photography. Your subject tries to keep as far away from you as possible, which can be really frustrating at times. But the good thing about bugs is, and I say this by experience, that most of them will let you come surprisingly close, if you do it very slowly without making any sudden moves. Even flies, one of the most active insects, will let you come within an inch or less if you go slow. Of course, there are the extra social kinds that don’t have a problem accepting your offered finger as a path to tread (like ladybugs and caterpillars). And then there are those that would rather use it as food (like hungry beetles).

TIP 4: Set up your stuff beforehand…
Most insects will not pose and wait for you do set up your camera and then click. You should have your camera ready to shoot before you start looking for a subject.
The ideal settings to use would be shutter priority with a high shutter speed, and focus on manual. Since the subjects are really tiny, the lens might have trouble focusing on its own. Also, the depth of field isn’t much so focus is critical hence manual focus. The shutter speed is obviously in order to freeze your subject. If the insect is a slow moving one, then shutter speed need not be a priority.
Also, since you’re very close to the subject, the amount of light entering the lens will be very limited. Although most macro lenses are made keeping this in mind, there will always be situations where you’ll need to make adjustments to compensate for the low light. This you can do by boosting your ISO, using a wider aperture (which reduces depth of field, making focus even more important, hence manual is recommended), or by using a flash. The point to note here is that you should avoid using the flash as much as you can because some insects get disturbed by the light. There are some that are flash resistant though, especially spiders (at least the ones I encountered). If you have to use a flash, diffuse it. On camera flashes tend to cast a shadow (courtesy the lens), so I would advise an external flash. A ring flash that fits around the lens is a good idea because it provides even illumination. Alternatively, you can use a reflector.

TIP 5: Capture a moment…
Insects mate, insects feed, insects prey, insects fight (insect fights are absolutely AWESOME!) and sometimes they end up doing stupid stuff that looks hilarious! Thing to do: capture a moment like this. Close ups and detail are very enthralling no doubt, but when captured in the middle of an activity, the little critters are even more appealing. For example, a spider with prey, firebugs mating, a bee in flight, a butterfly sucking nectar, and so on and so forth.

TIP 6: Know your enemy, or in this case, your subject…
If you’re ignorant, your subject might just turn into your enemy, and a dangerous one at that. Many insects, especially spiders, can be venomous. And a bite from one of those isn’t really the kind you get from your girlfriend. If you encounter a bug that you’re not familiar with, avoid the temptation of getting too close. You can visit sites like whatsthatbug.com or insectidentification.com to check out how safe your discovery is.

Once you get used to the wait and the approach, and your equipment of course, then you can start playing with the composition and framing. The same bug can look surprisingly different from different angles, so try shooting from a variety of angles.

I hope you enjoyed the post, and look forward to your comments :)

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