Occasionally, people will ask for advice on taking insect or other close-up photos. My first advice is always to pay attention to light and to look for subjects when/where that light is attractive. But my second piece of advice is to take lots of photos when you come across a subject you like. Sometimes, that’s not possible with invertebrates because they don’t hang around long enough. When they give you the option, though, take advantage of it!
Taking multiple shots of the same subject (also known as ‘bracketing’) is helpful in a few ways. It helps you make sure you get at least one sharp image, which can be tough with tiny subjects that move (and are moved by breezes, etc.). You can also try multiple camera settings to see what exposure works best. Perhaps most importantly, though, you can experiment with lots of different camera angles and perspectives.
Many times, my initial idea for a photo is fine, but as I start working, I come up with other, better ideas. Alternatively, might go for an easy photo first to make sure I get at least one shot before the creature leaves the scene. If it sticks around, I can start having more fun. Sometimes, that just means getting closer, but it usually includes looking for a face-to-face shot, trying both back lighting and front lighting, etc.
Here are some recent invertebrate photos that show just a few of many different perspectives I experimented with.
When I spotted this damselfly, I liked the blue body on the red smartweed stem. It was cool and had some dew on it but I wasn’t sure if it would sit long. As a result, I took my first picture from a comfortable distance and then edged closer and closer. Once I realized it wasn’t going to immediately fly away, I swung around to photograph its face.
Here’s another recent damselfly series. This one was also taken on a cool dewy morning and the insect let me get close. These are just three of many images I took by moving my tripod just a few inches one way or the other.
Another tip for insect photography is to get the camera down to the level of the critter, rather than staying above it. It usually creates a much more intimate look at the animal. Camera height can also have a big impact on the background behind the subject too. Sometimes getting below the insect means background vegetation is further away (or thinner), giving you a cleaner background. Or you can even include some of the sky, which can also be nice.
It can be helpful to experiment with lighting angles too. Since the sun isn’t moving (much), you have to move yourself and try photographing the creature with front, side, and back lighting. Below, the first three dragonfly images all show front lighting (but with subtle-but-significant differences in framing – notice how the background changes too). The fourth shows a kind of side-back lighting that is really different. Sometimes different is good (I like this one) and sometimes not, but with digital photography, what are you losing by trying?
I’ve been photographing a lot of garden spiders this fall. When I saw this one, I decided to start with a fish eye lens because I thought I’d be able to show the landscape behind the spider. It worked well. But then I threw the macro lens on and worked on a few other angles that focused more on the spider and its captured prey.
The last series shows a katydid nymph at the Platte River Prairies last week. When I first saw it, it was facing away from me and into the sun. I liked that angle, so I just went with it. I also didn’t want to swing around in front of it immediately in case that spooked it. Once I had the first photo (which I took many times to make sure I got the eye in focus), I shifted around to the other side of it. Its sunflower perch was high enough that I could easily blur out the background but I played around with that background quite a bit, especially with some goldenrod that provided some nice color. I also tried to show at least most of its long antennae while still being close enough to show the other details of its body. I think the third shot is my favorite, even though it’s not the closest. While closer is often better, sometimes the image is more about the subject plus its background than just the subject.
I hope this is helpful to a few of you. If not, at least you got to see a bunch of invertebrate photos, so that’s a good thing. For me, it was nice to have an excuse to include multiple versions of each photo instead of having to make heart-wrenching (that’s a little overdramatic, I guess) decisions about which to include or exclude.
That is a downside to taking lots of photos. Having lots of options means a better chance of getting the perfect focus and framing, but it also increases the risk of ending up with tough decisions about which version you like the best. Ah, the tribulations we bug photographers face…