In my photographic journey during the past year, I discovered that the most difficult thing in nature photography is to photograph a flying insect. Everyone loves macro shots from the small world, but they go “wow” when they see a well-done photograph of a flying butterfly, dragonfly, bee, or any other insect.
The difficulties of photographing flying insects
1) The small size of the insect will make it difficult for your lens to focus on it. More than enough times, the focus will fall on the flower, for example, – a bigger and steadier subject.
2) You need to get close to the insect in order to take a proper photo with blurred background (narrow DOF) and capture the details of your subject. You don’t want the insect to be a small dot on a large area of green grass, right? The problem is: when you get closer, the insect gets scarred away. I’ve literary spent hours chasing butterflies.
3) The insect is flying! So, it is a moving subject. Moreover, their flight patterns are erratic. Since you are very close to your subject, the movement will cause the focus point to change quickly, and, since you are in macro mode, your DOF is very narrow. This means you will loose the focus quickly.
Despite these obstacles and problems that you will encounter, clear crisp photos of lying insects can be obtained. What you need to do is applying at least one of the following suggestions.
1) Don’t run after the insects. Let them come to you. This means, you should just settle down next to the most beautiful flower from the field. If you can find one that is still full of pollen, then there are good chances bees and other insects won’t delay long before they come. But, if you saw, let’s say, a rare butterfly, you need to go after it. Take silent steps that won’t disturb the ground more than the wind does, and, try to anticipate where it will fly next. In the same way, observing the pattern of a dragonfly’s movements is a difficult thing to do, that requires a lot of patience, but it can increase your odds considerably.
2) Use a macro lens with a teleconverter. This will ensure you can keep a safe distance in order not to scare the insect away, and still provide the necessary zoom in order to obtain a decent DOF.
3) You can forget about using a macro lens, and use a close-focusing telephoto lens instead (up to 400 mm). This is harder to do due to the difficulty of focusing on the right subject, which brings us to solution number 3.
4) Use manual focus instead of automatic. This looks like an easy statement, but, since we are talking about a moving subject, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Basically, I found myself asking: where am I focusing when the insect isn’t yet in my frame? I have the insect coming into the frame, but I only have time to trigger the camera when that happens. Experience taught me that I have to anticipate where the insect will be when I will click the button, and, that this area is usually a little behind, or in front of the flower. Therefore, I focus on the flower and then move a little, keeping in mind where the focus area is, and I only push the button when I suspect the insect entered that area.
5) If you feel that you can’t anticipate the position of the incoming insect (let’s say you don’t have a waiting flower to relate to), then a fast autofocussing camera is a must. Let’s see Scott Fairbairn’s explanation on this: “Select the center point, continuous or servo AF, and use “focus” point expansion, but only to the points immediately surrounding the middle point. If you use too many points then you run the risk that the camera will focus on the background instead of your subject. To minimize this, I try to position myself so that I have as clean and uncluttered background as possible. I also prefocus at a distance that gives a subject that takes up about 1/4 the frame. Any larger , and it becomes very difficult to find in the viewfinder.” – source
6) You need a high frame rate of at least 6 frames per second. There is no guarantee that your first shot, or maybe third, will be the lucky one. Our mind is not like a computer that can calculate the speed of the insect and other variables in order to decide with precision when to shoot. Moreover, if you are are unprepared, and miss the moment, your insect will be gone – set off for another destination, another flower. As a result, it’s best to set your camera in continuous shooting mode and capture as many consequent shots as you can from the moment when the insect entered your viewfinder.
7) You also need a fast a shutter speed to get away with given the lighting conditions and avoid motion blur of your subject (suggestion: don’t go below 1/1000 sec). In some cases, you won’t be able to avoid the motion blur of the wings, but, you at least need the body of the insect to be crisp clear. Depth of field is very narrow at these magnifications, so you need to avoid a wide aperture (suggestion: f8 ).
In conclusion: there are a lot of factors to be considered in the complicated equation of flying insects photography. Even the most experienced photographer might miss setting up some of these factors, especially if he sees a rare specimen and goes under time pressure. Learning to quickly preparing at least several of these factors will increase your chances. And, don’t forget, it’s also a matter of instinct. Follow it!