Like many of you, I am new at photographing close-up images of bugs and butterflies. Here are some simple tips I rely on, to keep in mind the next time you are out shooting these little critters:
- Time of day is important. Early morning, when the air is cooler, is a good time to photograph bugs and butterflies. They can be very still, as they are cold-blooded and they require the heat of the day to start moving around. Once the day heats up, be prepared for a lot more movement.
- Research your location, to learn where the bugs and butterflies can be found, and to get more information on their habits.
- Consider using a plamp to stabilize the flower or plant the bug or butterfly is resting on, if you are shooting in the early morning when the bugs and butterflies are resting in one spot.
- Use specialized equipment which will allow you to focus more closely on your subject: a macro lens, extension tubes, and/or a close-up lens. A macro lens is a lens specifically designed to give you the ability to focus very close to your subject. An extension tube is a light-tight tube fitting between your camera and lens. Tubes come in different lengths and can be combined. A close-up lens screws onto the front of your lens like a filter. Tubes and the close-up lens can be stacked, even on your macro lens. Experiment with different combinations to achieve different magnifications. The more you stack, the more you lose stops of light and depth of field. Use extension tubes and close-ups lens with long lenses for even greater magnification. I use mine on my 50-140mm (equivalent to a 75-210mm). You can also try adding a teleconverter to your lens and experiment with the results. A teleconverter is a secondary lens attached between your camera body and lens, to increase the focal length of the lens.
- Keep your aperture small, F/16-F/22. Your shutter speed will depend on your ISO. I prefer shooting at ISO 200, and so my shutter speeds tend to be rather slow. If your bug or butterfly is moving, or if you are not using a plamp to steady a plant or flower, you will have to increase your shutter speed, depending on the movement, open up your F stop, and/or increase your ISO. This may affect your depth of field, and the area of sharpness in your image might be diminished.
- Use a tripod. Chances are you will be photographing at slow shutter speeds if you are photographing insects at rest. If you are not able to use a tripod, try using a monopod. It is very difficult to maintain sharpness within a magnified image, so stabilization is essential.
- Keep a longer working distance from your subject, by using longer lenses as your primary lenses. Your subjects will be less likely to be disturbed if you keep your distance.
- Photograph your subject’s body so that it is parallel to the back of your camera, for increased depth of field.
- Use a flash. Keep the flash off camera, if possible. You can hand hold it, or use a stand. The flash will have to be triggered remotely. Some cameras can trigger a remote flash with the camera’s pop-up flash. Other flashes will require a wired or wireless trigger. Set your exposure first, for the ambient light, without the flash. Then add the flash. Whether you are shooting TTL or manual, try different settings to see what works best. My flash is usually less than full strength, at the equivalent of -1.5 to -2.0. Some photographers prefer a ring flash, or a twin flash close-up flash, however back lighting and side lighting will be more difficult with these types of flashes.
- Try focus stacking, to increase depth of field. With focus stacking you photograph several images of your subject at different focus points. Then you use a third party software or photoshop to combine all the images together based on focus points, hopefully making one image with greater depth of field. (The butterfly was processed using Helicon Focus to focus stack.)
- Watch your background. Keep it distraction free and as blurred as possible.
- Pay attention to composition and the quality of the light, just as you would for any photograph. Watch the movement and behavior of the bug or butterfly and wait for interesting poses.
- Read a book on close-up photography. John and Barbara Gerlach have an excellent one. They also do a workshop in August in northern Michigan, that focuses on bug and butterfly photography in the early mornings. I just completed the workshop to better learn about shooting bugs. I put together these tips from what I learned. John and Barbara were very good teachers.
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