Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

An online talk by Nigel Hicks, given live on 21st April 2021

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants is the title for my April 2021 online photography talk. A recording of the talk has now been posted on You Tube, and you can watch it right here. Just click on the image below.

A world of macrophotography

The Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants talk introduced many of the techniques needed for insect and plant photography, focussing most especially on the areas of overlap. This particularly applies to the area of close-up, or macrophotography, the skills needed for the photography of small subjects.

Obviously, this does not apply to the photography of entire or larger plants, but is important in the photography of flowers, particularly the smaller wild flowers commonly seen in the UK’s woodlands and pastures.

The essential problem – especially when photographing insects – is that the subject is usally so very small. You might be tempted to try to shoot using a telephoto lens, but you quickly find that such a lens has a minimum focussing distance that is just too long. It won’t allow you to come close enough to get an insect or small flower large enough in the final image.

There are two solutions to this problem:

  1. To use a dedicated telephoto lens that is specifcally designed to have a very short minimum focussing distance. This the classic macro lens.
  2. Or you can use an extension tube. This is a very small piece of kit, simply a ring containing no lens, that you insert between the back of a standard telephoto lens and the camera body. This lengthens the focussing distance between the back of the lens and the camera’s sensor, allowing the light rights to be focussed correctly.

The first is an extremely versatile, high quality piece of equipment, while the latter is much cheaper and smaller to carry around, quickly converting an ordinary telephoto lens into one that works at close-up distances.

Welcome to the world of macrophotography, as applied to wildlife photography: insects and plants.

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

Too close for comfort

So now we can get close to our subject to make it large in our final image. But close enough for us may well be a bit too close for many insects. As you shuffle in with your macro kit it is very easy to frighten off such sensitive animals as butterflies and damselflies, thus completely defeating the object of the exercise. Needless to say, this problem doesn’t apply to flowers, so here we can come in as close as we need to!

So how do we solve the problem of insect shyness? Firstly, there’s the way you approach them, with a couple of does and don’ts:

  1. Never put your shadow across the subject;
  2. Tread very lightly – the slightest vibration through the ground will disturb the insect, especially one that is on the ground;
  3. Absolutely don’t brush against any part of the plant that your subject is resting on;
  4. Don’t rush, just move very slowly. There are times when an insect can seem to accept your presence, but don’t bet on it!

Secondly, there’s the equipment, the right choice of which can help you keep your distance. If using a macro lens, don’t try using one with a focal length of less than 100mm when shooting out in the field. Macro lenses of shorter focal lengths will entail you having to come in just too close for a timid insect to tolerate. Even a 100mm lens is pushing it, and a 150mm lens might be better.

If using an extension tube, you might normally couple it with a 100mm telephoto lens (or equivalent zoom lens). However, if this is making you come in too close then consider coupling it with a longer focal length lens, such as a 200mm or even 300mm lens. Doing this will enable you to stay a reasonable distance from your subject (as much as a metre if using a 300mm lens), helping to soothe its nerves.

If your lens has a hood, think about not using it. Having one of these on the front of your lens greatly shortens the lens-subject distance, thus increasing the problem.

As ever, there is a trade-off. The longer the focal length of your lens and the further you are from the subject, the lower your magnification. If a high magnification is essential to you then you may need to persist with the much closer view.

Keeping it sharp

One of the biggest challenges of macro photography is that of depth of field – the amount of an image that is sharp. As you come in really close to a subject the depth of field becomes really tiny – often less than a centimetre. So focussing is critical. A couple of steps to help this include:

  1. Keep your lens aperture really narrow – no less than f/11, and preferably f/16 or f/22. This will maximise your depth of field (though it will still be tiny!);
  2. Set the lens up so that it is at right-angles to the main surface of your subject (such as a butterfly’s wings), thus maximising your chances of having everything sharp from the head to the tips of the wings.
Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

Photography on the move

Given that any insect subjects will be constantly on the move, you will need to be too. Don’t try using a tripod – just setting one up will be enough to frighten off your subject. So hand-hold your camera.

So this means having to use a shutter speed fast enough to have no camera shake, which of course creates a conflict with the need to keep the lens aperture really narrow. A narrow lens aperture inevitable means a slow shutter speed (for any given ISO setting) as the amount of light reaching the sensor must remain in balance. To have a fast shutter speed you will need to open the lens aperture to allow in more light. This conflict is a difficult one to solve, but here are a couple of methods:

  1. Put up the camera’s ISO. This makes the sensor more sensitive, and so will need less light to be correctly exposed. The problem with this is that as your ISO goes up so image quality deteriorates. However, with the latest generation of cameras this is much less of a problem than it used to be. So if you have a newer model this is a worthwhile approach;
  2. Use a flashgun. Firing a flash will allow you to use a somewhat slower shutter speed than would otherwise be possible. With it firing to balance with the ambient light, it will also put in some fill-in light on your subject, helping to remove any awkward shadows, particularly on a sunny day.

A bit of flash

A bit of fill-in flash is a highly useful tool for insect photography, but I really don’t recommend it for plants – it can all too often put harsh shadows in around the plant, and may cause white flowers to burn out.

It has to be done with a good quality flashgun, however. Because your subject is very close, the gun must be able automatically to quench its power output down to quite low levels in order to avoid blasting the subject with far too much light. You will often need some manual override too, so you can turn it down even more if necessary.

Furthermore, it is usually better not to fire the flash directly at the subject, but to bounce it off a reflector (attached to the top of the flashgun), thus softening the light.

If your camera body has in in-built pop-up flash, resist the temptation to use it for this technique. It is not sufficiently versatile, it can’t be fired indirectly, and because the subject is so close to the end of the lens it may well put a shadow from the lens across the subject.

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

What about the plants?

Most of what I’ve said so far has concentrated on insects. So what about the plants?

There is plenty of overlap in techniques. For small flowers, macrophotography techniques and equipment apply, though of course not the part of about them possibly running or flying away! Also I do not recommend the use of a flashgun, although occasionally it can be useful.

You may be much more likely to use a tripod with plant photography, thus making sure you can use a narrow lens aperture (ie a high f-number) while keeping low shutter speeds and ISO. It also ensures that you keep exactly to the chosen composition, something that is hard to achieve if shooting hand-held.

Of course, a low shutter speed only works if there is no wind to blow the plant around, and many are the occasions when I have had to wait a long time for a lull in the wind to give me a motionless plant!

A wide-angle alternative

One method that applies only to plant photography is wide-angle photography. Of course, the main method of coming in close relies on macrophotography, which is perfect for showing close-up details of the plant. However, it is useless if you want also to show the plant’s environment.

This is where the wide-angle technique comes in. Bringing a wide-angle lens in as close to a plant as its minimum focussing distance will allow, can result in a reasonably close view of the subject plant, while at the same time showing a good chunk of environment in the background.

You won’t be able to come as close to the plant as a macro technique will allow, and for it to work at all your wide-angle lens must have a quite a short minimum focussing distance, something that not all such lenses have.

When it works it is really very effective.

Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants

A final word

Some of these macro techniques are not easy – particularly the photography of insects on the move – and initially success is hard to achieve. But with practice and a lot of failed images success will slowly come. It is worth it because the results can be quite stunning.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this summary of my Wildlife Photography: Insects and Plants talk, and I hope you will/have enjoy/ed watching it.

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.