How to Take Macro Photography of Insects
Insects creep out many people, that’s true. But for macro photographers, there might not be a better subject. Creepy as they may be, insects are also very photogenic if you get close enough. They offer spectacular colours and structures.
Trying out insect photography will be like discovering a whole new world. Not to mention how easy it is to find them in nearly all environments. In the woods, fields, at a lake, at a swamp, in our homes, in the garden, at streams, at ponds, the list can go on forever. You just have to watch closely.
What Is the Best Time to Photograph Insects?
The best time to photograph insects is probably in the mornings. The temperatures are low and the insects are still asleep and less active. It is harder for them to move if it’s cold which means you can take the best possible photo of that insect. After a cold night in the spring, you will find thousands of dew-drops on the insects. This will add a nice extra to your macro shot.
In my experience, photographing insects during the day is the worst time to choose. That’s when insects are most active and this will make it difficult to approach them. Most insects depend on the surrounding temperature to regulate their own body temperature. They need hot temperatures to be active.
Autumn and spring are better for daytime insect photography. It’s usually cold and humid, and the temperatures are low.
Early and late evenings after the sun has set and temperatures have gone down are also a good time to photograph insects. This is when the insects start resting. You also have magical light and beautiful colours, due to the golden hour.
Once the insects have settled down on a plant, they will stay there for the whole night. I would definitely recommend marking the plant where they rest. It will be much easier for you to find the insect the next morning and continue photographing it.
Camera settings for handheld macro photography
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula or set-up that will work for every subject. You will need to vary and tweak your camera settings depending on the subject, the level of magnification, its surroundings, and the result you wish to achieve.
However, it is essential that you are in control of the depth of field, so I would recommend selecting Aperture Priority mode – or Manual if you prefer. I will typically select the largest practical aperture that still allows me to keep my subject acceptably sharp – typically my starting point is f/5.6 or f/8.
Whilst smaller f-stops will provide a larger zone of focus, the corresponding shutter speed will be slower and the subject’s surroundings will be less diffused and more distracting. Therefore, I often find a larger aperture is more viable when working without a tripod and I only select a small f-stop if there is sufficient light (or when I wish to achieve a more environmental feel to my close-ups).
Focusing in macro photography
Having got within picture taking distance, you need to efficiently achieve sharp focus. As mentioned previously, depth of field is incredibly shallow when working at magnifications close to 1:1 life-size (which is not uncommon when photographing smaller creatures).
Quite simply, there is no leeway for error when focusing. Whether you decide to focus manually, or use autofocus, it’s very much down to the individual and the situation.
With larger subjects, like dragonflies, autofocus should have no problem locking onto the subject. I prefer using a single AF point and moving it to my desired focal point – typically the subject’s eyes. However, AF can struggle at higher magnifications (or in low light), failing to lock-on to your subject and ‘hunting’ for focus.