Photographing insects in the field requires faster shutter speeds, a steady hand, and a smaller aperture to ensure sharpness.
On warm summer days, insects are mobile and easy to find. However, they offer minimal opportunities to carefully compose a picture – they are too busy with flying, feeding, and living. Choosing a complementary background for the image is a rare privilege that the insect grants the photographer. Nor can the photographer hope for good quality light, which occurs most often in the hours around sunrise and sunset, when the insects tend not to fly.
From time to time we may be rewarded for our patience with an insect that briefly settles in between feeding or hunting. In order to unfold a tripod and compose a picture, we are aware that this fleeting moment passes in the same breath, so we work timely and hope for the best.
Insects tend to visit habitats of abundant growth – a hodgepodge of contrasting lights and shadows that distract rather than compliment our busy subject. My least favorite background is the leaves of fleshy or wood-stemmed plants like blackberry, iris, and thistle – no matter what the color of the insect, mixed green foliage is too overwhelming a background color.
Even if a relatively comfortable background is found, shooting with a smaller aperture while capturing the sharpness of the insect can capture the background as a chaotic mix of overwhelming sharp / fuzzy vegetation. I tend to avoid such areas and choose habitats that offer a softer background, such as meadows or clearings where vegetation is interspersed. This tends to result in a cleaner, more appealing image.
So how can we use good lighting and a background that makes the star of the show glow to capture sharp images of insects? Well, it’s very simple. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, more precisely in Ireland, insects get into a frozen state overnight by perching on grass or on stalks in a meadow at sunset. Here they are easy to find in the hour after sunset or the next morning.
The early morning dew adds magic to the scene and that’s why I prefer this time. The insect cannot move in the morning until the sun warms its body. Instead of chasing insects in the heat of the day with mixed results, set your alarm clock to a very early start.
If you find an insect in the dull morning light, be sure to set up a tripod, pull up a portable seat, focus and play with the camera settings – while enjoying a hot cup of coffee from the bottle. The insect won’t move. If heavy dew has accumulated overnight, the body and wings can shine – similar to a Swarovski chain – choose the butterfly or dragonfly design! This is quite a spectacular natural wonder.
Time is our friend now. The insect is static. So it’s time to add more magic to the scene by opening the iris of your best Fast Prime.
This year I used a Zeiss 135mm f / 2 APO Sonnar lens instead of my Nikon 200mm f / 4 Micro and it has the following advantages:
1. The use of an aperture of f / 2 instead of f / 4 makes the background foliage / grasses as pure, unadulterated bokeh – beautiful.
2. The insect now dominates the scene instead of being lost / indistinct / inserted in the background.
There is a challenge – better handled with some camera / lens combinations. And that challenge comes from shooting wide open – only part of the insect is brought into focus in a single shot – so multiple images are required. Focus on the next wing tip and work back slowly – take 2-8 pictures, depending on the angle of the insect in relation to the sensor. Knowing that the insect is not moving is a huge benefit. The only other consideration is to choose a relatively calm day.
To complement this approach, I experimented with giving the background much more space within the frame than the subject. Of course, the background needs to be filled with pretty nice tones for this to work well.
To put it simply, I asked myself the question: How small can the insect be in the picture without it being unrecognizable as a motif in the photo? Well – very small is the answer I subtracted – but this depends on a very faceless, pastel colored background – see photo below. So the resulting image is one of the motifs that is completely enveloped in their living space.
My post-processing workflow is pretty simple. In summary, I use the Camera Neutral profile (Nikon) in Lightroom. As a general rule, I tend to cool the temperature down very slightly and then add a touch of magenta over tint, but this depends on the original temperature of the image. The goal is to have a range of warm and cool tones. I open the image in Photoshop CC, duplicate the layer. Here I work on removing any distractions from the background – too dark foliage (dodging) and removing distractions (like blades of grass etc) via content-aware fill to simplify the scene.
If the background is too strong, I use Tony Kuyper’s (TK7) control panel to use a color mask instead of a brightness mask. When the insect needs to be lightened or darkened based on personal preferences, the Subject Selection feature works very well – just add a mask that will automatically apply the adjustment to the selection. And that’s it.
I hope you found this overview helpful!
About the author: Jimmy Mc Donnell is a landscape and wildlife photographer based in Co Wicklow, Ireland with an ongoing passion for capturing images that reflect the beauty of nature. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author only. You can find more of Mc Donnell’s work on his website and on YouTube. This article was also published here.