Insect photography: it’s all in the wrist

I’ve been trying to up my game, and I’ve learned a few things. In the end it’s all about ergonomics.

Halactid bee
Halictid bee

In macro photography with a high reproduction ratio – like 1:1 – you’re always stuck with razor-thin DOF. But for insects, that’s ok because you actually don’t want too much. An insect is a busy subject, and a cluttered background kills it.

Going to apertures beyond f8 – to get more of the bug in focus – mostly just makes the background more distracting, and reduces sharpness because of diffraction.

Sharpness is king in these photos – the interest is in all that amazing structure and fine detail. To make the photo click, there has to be “enough” of the insect in sharp focus – but if it’s a good composition, “enough” doesn’t have to be lot. I think the one thing you absolutely need is the eye, and that’s what I go after.

macro photograph of a Great Golden Digger Wasp

Plants are hardly ever totally still and neither are insects – even if they’re not zipping in and out, their appendages and antennae are in motion. For hand held photography at macro distances, tiny camera movements have big consequences.  Success depends a lot on how steady you are (and I have a friend who owns coffee shop about a mile from my house, so my caffeine level is more than adequate).    Many insect photographers use lights, but I think flash takes the life out of a photo of the natural world, and I hate being noticed when I’m out shooting. So I say go right to 1/1000s and don’t fool around with anything less unless you’re in fading light.

At that speed you might have to push the ISO. Noise in the background is no problem, but it will noticeably degrade sharpness of the fine detail in the insect, the things you really want. So I expose on the high side and if I blow out some spots in the background, and can’t fix them in post, I might just paint them out in Photoshop. Don’t tell anyone.

Shallow DOF, plus the goal of sharpness in the eye, combine to make focus a challenge. Autofocus is of little help because even today’s best AF can’t find the big faceted pupil-less eye of an insect. AF is most likely to pick out something else in the photo, causing the eye to be lost.

Manual focus has worked best for me. I use Focus Peaking, do a rough focus, try to get the eye where I want it in the frame, and move quickly in and out while watching for the flickering flash of red (in-focus indication) on the eye. Then I shoot a burst, accepting that I may fail, because I’m moving and there’s a slight delay in the EVF. I’ve used autofocus but it’s tough to get it focusing where I want it, quickly enough, even using that little joystick to move the AF point.

macro photograph of a Monarch butterfly

Automatic exposure metering doesn’t work well either, because the camera doesn’t know that the only really important thing in the photo is the insect, which might be dark and not that big in the frame. I don’t care if the background goes high key, but I do care if the bug gets underexposed, because then I’ll lose detail due to noise. So it’s manual all the way for me.

My usual formula is f8 (maybe f11 in bright light) and 1/000s if at all possible, then twiddle the ISO up and down as needed, as the light changes. Fortunately Nikon’s control layout makes that easy.

Every insect photo is a compromise. The DR in a tiny outdoor scene can be extreme, high ISO may be required, maybe not much ends up in sharp focus, and I may have to crop a lot. But these aren’t landscapes or formal portraits. It’s really only about something that was interesting, beautiful and even startling for a single brief moment, in an insect’s world.

Photography of an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly insect

All my insect photography can be seen here.

Update: I recently picked up a ring flash and am finding it can be useful as ‘fill’ without making the image look flash-y.

2 Replies to “Insect photography: it’s all in the wrist”

  1. My only issue with ring flash is the tendency to make your subject look flat. I typically use a speedlight with a flat, round modifier like they sell on fstoppers, but not theirs.

    1. Agreed. The light I’m using isn’t very powerful, and I always shoot in bright daylight, maybe with a bit of cloud to soften it. So the ring light is never my primary light source and I avoid that flat, flash-y look of a subject illuminated mainly from the front.

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