4 Tips for Photographing Bugs and Insects

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Sometimes the most interesting things to photograph are right under your nose, even though you might have to look a little harder to see them. Bugs, insects, and other creepy crawlies might not seem like compelling subjects, but if you take a bit of time to examine the smaller creatures who inhabit the world around us, you might not only come away with new and exciting photographic opportunities but a renewed sense of wonder and admiration for the beauty of creation. If you have never tried this type of photography before, you can get started right away without any special equipment and these tips for photographing bugs might give you a few ideas to try out along the way.

butterfly-flower

#1 Keep your eyes open

This might sound obvious, but the first step in learning to take photos of insects is learning how to see them in the first place. Our six and eight-legged counterparts are all around us, but they don’t usually announce their presence with a trumpet blast. You often have to look just a little harder to see them, but you can great shots of bugs and insects on trees, shrubs, rocks, benches, buildings, or almost anywhere if you just keep your eyes peeled. The next time you head outside, whether it’s in a park or just in your own backyard, spend a little time examining the world around you to see if you can spot some of the amazing little critters that often go overlooked by us busy humans.

bee-flower

I wanted to get a closer look at some magnolia flowers, and noticed that they were full of bees. It took a while, but I finally got a shot of one of them on his way to gather some nectar.

Most days I have a fairly predictable routine involving work and home duties, and sometimes I get a little stuck when it comes to scratching my photography itch.  It can seem like there is just nothing new under the sun worth photographing, and it’s times like that when bugs are ideally suited to draw out a bit of creativity.  Sometimes I will find myself crouching down on the ground, straddling a fence, or perched atop a ladder in order to get a better view of these small critters.  It’s fun, challenging, and a great way to get some fascinating photographs.

#2 Be patient

While insects are great at giving you unique photographic opportunities, they aren’t so good at following directions. Most of bugs simply will not listen to perfectly reasonable requests like “Hold still,” or “Turn the other way.” To compensate for their lack of cooperation, you often have to simply wait until a good photo opportunity presents itself. This could mean watching a cicada explore a shrub, keeping your eye on a beetle as it blazes a trail across your lawn, or waiting for dinner to fly into a spider’s web. The slightest sound can disturb our tiny little friends, so take care to move about quietly and not intrude on what they are busy doing. If your camera has a long zoom lens, you can use it to get right up close and personal even if you are far away, but unless you have plenty of light your shutter speed might not be fast enough to capture the action.  In those cases bumping up the ISO is a good way to compensate, though your picture might end up looking a bit grainier or noisier than you prefer.

spider-grub

This garden spider built quite the web next to a fence, and his handiwork was rewarded when another bug wandered over to investigate.

Sometimes you have to keep an eye on a critter for quite a long time, and even after all your waiting they might just decide to scurry off or fly away.  This can be an exercise in frustration as you wait for what seems like hours with nothing to show for it.  Nothing is guaranteed when you set out to take pictures of insects, but if you can find a balance between shooting and waiting, you might be pleasantly surprised at the results you get.

#3 Capture the eyes, not just the insect

This tip might seem a bit strange, and it’s not always easy to accomplish, but if you can capture the eyes of an insect it lends an entirely new dimension to your photographs.  As the saying goes, the eyes are the window to the soul, and while this certainly holds true for humans it also works for animals and even bugs.  When you can get a shot of an insect’s eyes it can be almost like the two of are sharing a moment, watching each other and allowing you to be in the other’s space for a few brief moments.  Even though the insect might not care one bit about you or why you are pointing a rounded lens in its face, capturing its eyes will add an emotional hook to the image that would otherwise be lacking.

I don't know what this wasp was thinking, but judging by the look on his face I imagine it was something like "Leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone."

I don’t know what this wasp was thinking, but judging by his expression I imagine it was something like “Leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone.”

katydid

This katydid seems like an inquisitive fellow, or at least that’s what I tell myself based on the expression on his face.

I’m no entomologist, and I have no idea if these insects were thinking anything at all when I took their pictures, but seeing their eyes and faces lends a significant amount of depth to what would otherwise be just another photo of just another bug. It takes time and patience, but if you try to capture your insect subjects’ eyes you can draw your viewers into your photographs in new and compelling ways you may not have considered before.

#4 Alter your perspective

One of the biggest mistakes you can make when photographing insects is to stand above them and point your camera down. You might get some pictures of spiders, beetles, or giant ants, but they will probably not be nearly as interesting, compelling, or engaging as they could be if you simply tried a different angle. I followed this cottonwood borer for almost a half hour as he climbed all over a pine tree, all because I wanted to get the picture from a more unconventional angle. I could have just taken a photo while he was on a branch or the trunk, but shooting him from a low angle while he was stretching out his front leg made for a much more engrossing photograph.

borer

This technique can also be used to transform almost anything into a more captivating photograph. People, pets, familiar scenery, even common household objects can take on entirely new dimensions if you examine them from new and unfamiliar angles. Of course it works great with bugs and insects, but the next time you pick up your camera try it with almost anything around you.

Of course one of the best ways to get photographs of insects is to invest in a macro lens for your camera, and even though they can be quite pricey the results they produce are absolutely astounding.  All of the photos in this article were taken with either a 35mm or 50mm prime lens, which have minimum focusing distances of about 12 inches. Macro lenses can focus on objects right in front of the lens, which can give you some outstanding pictures of insects, bugs, or anything else for that matter. But even if you only have the kit lens that came with your camera you can still get some amazing images. If you have any to share, leave them in the comments below as well as any other tips you might have for getting pictures of our small little friends.

Some other options for doing macro shots without investing an expensive lens:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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