As a professional photographer for nearly 30 years, I have learned how to make my cameras do just about anything I want them to. But, when I joined the Bugguide community last year, I found there was an area that I had not ventured far enough into. And that was photographing insects. Using my already acquired skills as a portrait photographer and the new challenges presented to me to try and capture insects to their best effect, I have added some new tricks into this old dog's repertoire. Since I consider myself fairly new on this site, I hope the tricks and methods I have learned in this short span of time will help other users with their insect photography. Can there really be anything more thrilling than to envision a certain picture in your mind and having the final image come out as good as you imagined?
That said, here are some of the most important things to keep in mind when you're aspiring to be the Ansel Adams of Ants:
1. Like any aspiration, if you want to take pictures, look at pictures and see how others have taken them, and learn. You can learn compositional techniques, lighting and shadow techniques, the most appealing distance to be from your subject, and depth of field and what it can mean to your photograph. Depth of field is the term for what part of the picture you just took is in the sharp focus range. Sometimes a shallow depth of field can look good when applied to the portrait of a person, but for the average insect, you want to try and get as much in focus as possible. An insect picture that is pleasant to look at is one that is reasonably centered, in focus and lit well. One that is all these things and
shows the insect to it's best form and detail is what Bugguide most wants you to post.
2. Know how to use your camera inside and out. This seems like something nobody needs to be reminded of, but how many people really know how to use their cameras to it's fullest extent? As an insect photographer, conditions change from minute to minute at times, so I need to be quick to adjust my camera's settings so as to capture whatever insect happens to fly past me without any warning. By being over-familar with your camera and it's functions, you can be assured of missing less opportunities. And, let's face it - sometimes insects don't give you a second chance.
3. Take many shots, for somewhere in that sequence you will have more chance of capturing that "perfect" shot. If you only take one shot and it's out of focus, you have nothing to fall back on. I take on average 300 Butterfly pictures a day. I end up keeping about one third of those images. I post maybe one or two a day on Bugguide. I have developed into actual paper photos only 60 or 70 of the approximately 20,000 Butterfly pictures I've taken. So, the key is to take many photos, even though you will not use many of them. It's what all professional photographers do. And as Chuck Entz reminded me - "Don't wait to take that first picture. While you're composing that perfect shot, your subject most times will probably move on. I take "insurance" shots as I move in toward the critter, knowing most will be discarded - if
I get closer before it leaves." This is very good advice and nobody will ever see these lesser quality insurance shots but yourself. I employ this method myself every day, and although I sometimes don't get a shot postable on Bugguide, I do get an identifiable image for my daily records.
And Chuck also jogged this idea back into my head, as for which views you should take:
Always try to include a view from above that shows the whole insect:
Other angles are ones from the side:
and ones that show the "face" are usually helpful:
If it has wings with visible veins, like flies, try to get a view where they're easily discernible:
For long-bodied insects such as Dragonflies and Damselflies, make sure the insect's body is aligned parallel to the camera's focal plane:
If you're limiting it to one shot, a diagonal off the "shoulder" view from the front will show top, face, and side:
4. In relation to rule 3, as far as posting on Bugguide goes, you should try to realize that however good you think your six Monarch pictures are, there are already plenty of them on the Monarch guide page. So, try to present only what you feel is the best single shot; or maybe two, if you are only showing the complete insect. Closeup views are fine for detail, but usually the more experienced users are more qualified for these kind of shots. The average new Bugguide contributor probably won't need to take such detailed shots if they're just trying to get a certain insect identified. And my personal preference is to try and keep my postings to a single shot - "keep 'em wanting more" comes to mind. You might end up posting less pictures, but your "portfolio" will have more quality photos with less filler. Bugguide is going for quality, not quantity.
5. Keep your camera always ready - batteries fully charged, lenses clean, and the accessories you're likely to use close by. It's also a good idea to carry extra memory cards and spare batteries in case you need them when you are out in the "wilds" where access to more is not close at hand.
6. Another tip when talking about compostion. As you line up that insect in your viewfinder, make a conscious effort to see everything in the frame:
The insect is reasonably centered and at a pleasing angle.
There is nothing such as a blade of grass covering part of the insect.
There is no tree "growing" up out of the back of the insect.
There is nothing that is vying for attention in another part of the frame that might distract the viewer from your insect, such as an unfocussed dark blob, a patch of white, etc. It is a very simple thing to slide just an inch or so to the left or right, or move up and down to change what the background looks like in your image.
And one last thing, what I consider to be the most important when taking any
picture: Your subject is the most important part of the picture, so make it that the viewer of your photo is drawn to looking only at the subject. This is hard to do at first, but in time, you'll start to grasp this very important rule of photography. Rules of example where the image on the left is preferrable over the one on the right:
Centured and at a pleasing angle
Nothing covering part of the insect
No tree growing up in the background out of the insect
No distracting, unfocussed blobs
Nothing else vying for attention - such as the house in the background
7. This can't be stressed enough: Clear photographs are better than unclear photographs. And this can start with the way you hold your camera. Maintain a firm grip and depress the shutter gently. This avoids any last second camera movement that could lessen the clarity of your picture. Bugguide wants pictures that clearly show what the insect looks like. The old rule-of-thumb applies here - "when in doubt, leave it out." There will probably always be another opportunity down the road for a better, postable shot, so keep that in mind.
8. In portraiture photography, it is customary to use a longer lens and be a fairly good distance from your subject. This lessens the distorted look. But for insects, however, the rule is the closer the better. Unless you've got a 5000 mm. telephoto lens that can do 1:1 macro, you're probably going to want to just position yourself closer to the insect. Sometimes a picture must be cropped
, that is to trim it so that more of the bug shows with less excess area around it, but if you start as close as you can get to begin with, you will have the minimum of your picture area that needs to be removed for that closeup Bugguide-caliber shot. A lot of insects can be skittish and make it hard for you to get close to them for that perfect shot, but I've usually found that with a lot of persistence, not just a little, you can eventually get to a point where the bug says "what the heck," and starts ignoring you. It's happened many times for me and I've gotten good shots simply by staying with the insect long enough. While different bugs take different distances, with a little on-the-job practice, you'll find that figuring out the best space between your camera and the insect becomes easier.
9. With over- and under-exposed images, you lose detail of the subject. Since Bugguide is about the detail, you want to capture as much of it as possible. If possible, learn to bracket and employ this technique as much as possible. When you bracket, that means you take several pictures in rapid succession, each with a slight varying degree to the exposure setting and/or shutter speed of the image. With time, you'll learn the average range for the conditions you usually shoot in and will have less throwaway pictures. They may start with the image much too dark to use, but will gradually get lighter and lighter until it gets washed out. Somewhere in that sequence, however, there should be one picture that captures the best balance between light and dark and shows the specimen in it's true glory.
And here are some tips I've found come in handy when you have next to no time to get that shot before the insect flies away or to make that finished photograph jump off the page (or monitor screen):
When using fill-flash, sometimes being so close to an insect like you have to be at times can cause the image to wash out with too much light. What I do is to take my forefinger and partially obscure the flash from the side and this takes away some of the light. With practice, you'll find what works best as to what amount to cover up. The lighter the bug, the more you may need to cover; the darker the bug, the inverse will be true.
Don't be afraid to lay on the ground to get on the level of that insect! A subject that is on the same plane as to what the camera is seeing will have more chance for being in focus. Clarity is everything!
Sudden movements can scare insects away. Learn to move in a slow and subdued manner when taking those shots and the insect is less likely to be frightened away. Move your bracing hand up to your camera slowly - I don't know how many times this action alone has cost me a shot. When going down on your knees to get closer to your bug, which I do a lot, place both knees down slowly, one at a time, being careful about the second one moving too fast. Trust me.... this action has cost me a ton of shots and I have grown conscious to watch for this bad habit of mine. Also be sure to secure your camera strap so that it doesn't swing at the last moment and knock the insect from it's perch. Even the simple act of bringing your camera up to your eye too quickly can catch a bug's attention, so be careful not to do that. The more chances you have to take the picture, the better the odds are that you'll have something you can post to Bugguide.
If your insect is sitting still for an extended period of time, (lucky you!) try taking pictures from several different angles. It may turn out that what you had originally thought was the best angle wasn't near as good as the experimental one you took. Here's a good example of what I mean. When I was on the same level as this Butterfly, it's legs were included in the picture. But, by moving down just a little, I was able to include the sky, which made a much better background than the field of grass that was showing when I was level with it:
Which image did you
look at first?
Try to think as professional as possible. If your image shows the insect well, but the picture is boring, people may not take much notice of it. But, if the picture is exciting to look at and shows the insect well, they might be inclined to stop and linger awhile and learn a little more about them than they had intended on. Think of your picture as a billboard. If no one wants to look at it, you don't sell much product. I'm sure Troy not only wanted nice pictures, he also wanted people to become interested enough in the pictures to want to learn more about the insects featured. What's not to love about insects!?
There are plenty of good programs to crop and edit your photographs once they're taken and downloaded from your camera. Personally, I prefer some that Adobe offers. You can lighten and darken images to counter conditions you had no control over, which is something that happens to all of us. I sometimes find that what an image looks like displayed on the monitor on the back of my camera isn't what it looks like on my computer's monitor. If so, a little color adjustment can bring the insect back to it's original glory. But, don't use too much and give it a false sense of color. This is not very helpful in the identification process, which is what your photo will become part of once it's submitted. This is a very important thing to keep in mind before you post that picture: This website is viewable from all over the world, by amateurs and experts alike. Once your insect is posted, it will be seen by potentially millions of people. Is it something you're proud of having your name attached to? If not, think twice before presenting it to the world.
All in all, there are a lot of tricks of the trade you should learn and try to employ regularly to make your photographs the best they can be. You'll be remembered more for a great shot than one that is unfocussed and far away. And Bugguide wants the best pictures it can get so that it can be the most informative and, at the same time, visually-stunning site relating to the insect world. (Ed. It already is, isn't it?)