A close-up of the head of a Black Tailed Skimmer dragonfly (Orthetrum cancellatum)
Photographing insects and other invertebrates can seem quite challenging but if you follow some basic suggestions then good photos are quite easy to take, and the best bit... it can be free as many of the subjects can be found in your garden or local park!
Here are a few hints and ideas to use when trying to photograph invertebrates:
- Keep your shadow off the creatures you are trying to photograph - many are light sensitive, e.g. butterflies and flies.
- Move slowly to avoid creating air movements, these may cause the invertebrate to move away or its perch to sway making it hard to get a sharp photo.
- Take photos in good light - if it is too dim then you will need a slow shutter speed and could get camera shake or the subject will move, leaving you with a blurred image.
- If the shutter speed is too slow then use a faster film or digital setting - the ISO of the film or digital camera, a larger ISO number represents a faster (i.e. more sensitive to light) film than a low ISO number. The downside to fast films is that they produce a much grainier picture than slow films and detail is lost, this is also true of digital cameras (although digital noise replaces grain). Films can also be 'pushed' to a higher ISO but remember to tell the people that process the film.
- Look for interesting light, often at the start or end of the day the light is warmer and the invertebrates are a bit slower.
- If light is very poor then use a flashgun - make sure it is powerful enough to light the area you will take, remember that if you are working close up then the lens can obscure the flash leaving you with a dark semicircle in your pictures. To overcome this problem, cameras that can take external flashguns on their 'hotshoes' can be fitted with a ringflash which provides even lighting all around the end of the lens.
- Wait for a frosty morning to capture invertebrate photos before they move around, this is especially good for dragonflies, damselflies and butterflies - look for the ice crystals or dew drops on their bodies.
- Use a tripod wherever possible, but there are situations where using a tripod will disturb the creatures you are trying to photograph. If a tripod is impossible then you could try a monopod or handholding the camera, but the shutter speed must be fast enough to avoid camera shake. There are new lenses available now which can correct some camera shake - these have various names but are often known as 'image-stabilising' or 'vibration-reduction' lens, if you can afford them they are excellent and can make a big difference to photographing things while holding the camera by hand.
- Sit and wait for flying insects to come to you, it is often easier to prefocus the camera on a flower and wait for something to arrive than to try and focus on something that is moving around. To do this, pick a flower and concentrate on it, it is easy to get distracted and keep swopping to a 'better' flower that seems to attract more insects - only do this if it really does attract more!
- On macro lenses and settings the depth of field (i.e. the amount of the picture that will be sharp) will be less than normal lenses and settings. Keep the subject at right angles to the camera and you will have a better chance of getting it all in focus, this is especially true of butterflies.
- If you are using a compact film camera or a digital compact without using the lcd screen as a viewfinder, make sure that you aren't too close for the camera setting. Most cameras have a minimum focussing distance so if the subject is too close then they cannot focus on it. If your camera has a macro setting (often shown as a flower symbol) then use it as it tells the camera the subject is close and adjusts the lenses to suit.
- If the subject is very small then the camera might not be able to focus on it and will instead focus on the background. To overcome this try focussing on a larger subject the same distance away (and that looks like it is as bright as the main subject) and holding the focus while you recompose onto the invertebrate. Most cameras now have a 'focus lock' where you press the shutter button down halfway to hold the focus, pressing the button down the rest of the way will then take the picture.
- If you are using an Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera then using a true macro lens will be ideal, if you don't have one of these then there are several adapters which can help. Teleconverters fit between the body and the lens and increase the focal length of the lens so that the subject becomes bigger in the viewfinder. These are normally used for photographing distant subjects, they are ideal for close up photography because they increase the focal length but do not change the minimum focussing distance. Extension tubes fit between the body and the lens and allow the lens to focus closer, these often give good results when used with bigger telephoto lenses as they allow you to get a good photo without getting too close to the subject. Close-up adapters look like a filter and screw on to the end of the lens, these also make the lens focus closer but can cause a reduction in quality (although I've always had good results from them).
- If you keep invertebrates as pets then these often make ideal subjects although you will have to be careful to get the background looking natural! If you rear any moths or butterflies then photographing each stage can be very rewarding - look for them emerging from their chrysalis and photograph their wings expanding - this looks brilliant as a series of pictures.
- Experiment! Try different techniques and set ups to get original results - anything goes!
- Remember, you don't need an expensive camera to get good results, but follow the cameras instructions and these notes to give you the best chance of getting good results.