Photographing Insects in Flight
Insects in flight are a great photography subject if you want to challenge yourself and sharpen your photography skills. Insect photography is normally part of macro photography. We try to look more closely at small creatures and see some of the amazing detail. Often this can be made more interesting by having them sitting on a flower, for example. However, once you start to get the hang of it, you may want to try something more adventurous. You could try focus stacking to bring out even more detail. Or, you could try photographing insects in flight. This is not an easy option. But, it can bring you a great sense of satisfaction when you get some good images.
To begin with, I would suggest not making your life any harder than it needs to be. Choose subjects that are slightly easier to photograph. For example, look for insects that are of a reasonable size. The smaller they are, the harder it will often be to keep up with them. Also, look for insects that hover. That way you have a chance of being able to focus on them while they are not moving around, but they are still flying. Large bees such as bumblebees can be a reasonable starting point. Look for flowers that have quite a few bees on them – for example something like foxgloves attract quite a few and you also have time to see them going in and out of each flower. Before trying to take any photos observe carefully. You need to get a feel for their behaviour. Look out for times when they are more likely to hover or when they are moving more slowly. You might find that it is easier as they are taking off or landing rather than in a long flight. If you would like to try butterflies I would again suggest you go for larger, slower butterflies to make it easier. By all means move on to more difficult subjects once you get the hang of it. But you don’t want to get too frustrated right from the start. Be prepared to be very patient, whatever subjects you choose!
Photographing insects in flight – technique
To increase your chances of a good image, you need to pay attention to your camera technique. As we are dealing with fast moving subjects, it is vital that you use a fast shutter speed. Depending on your subject and how fast it moves, you should use a shutter speed of around 1/1000th to 1/2000th of a second. Sometimes you may need it to be faster. Occasionally you may get away with 1/800th of a second for a hovering subject. The shutter speed you choose should be a balance between keeping the insect sharp and allowing a little blurring of the wings to suggest movement. Too fast a shutter speed will freeze the wings completely, which you may want for butterflies but not for bees. Too slow a shutter speed and your image will be blurred. Experiment and adjust to find the most suitable speed.
To begin with, I would suggest using a reasonably small aperture of around f/8. This will give you more chance of getting your insect in focus. You can go for a wider aperture to separate it better from the background, but this also means that you have to be more precise with your focussing. Start with a smallish aperture and then go wider once you are able to get sharp shots. Find a spot with good light if you can as otherwise your ISO will need to be quite high. It can be useful to set your aperture and shutter speed in Manual mode and then activate Auto-ISO. That way, you can control the speed and depth of field and let the camera compensate for the loss of light by choosing the ISO for you. It is possible to keep the ISO down by adding in flash. The downside of this is that you cannot do rapid fire as the flash won’t recharge fast enough so you have to be very precise with your timing.
There are several different ways of focussing on insects in flight. The method you use will depend on what your camera allows and what you find most natural and works well for you. Personally, I find it helpful to switch to back button focussing. This means using your AF-On button if you have one. Or, you can set your AE-L/AF-L (exposure/autofocus lock) button to work as an AF-On button. This enables you to focus by depressing the button with your thumb instead of half-depressing the shutter button. That way you can track your subject more easily and have more control over when you fire the shutter. I also find that it helps to stop my hand getting as stiff when shooting for longer periods. It is a technique often used by sports photographers. The next choice is whether to use single point or area focus. Normally, I tend to use dynamic area autofocus with 9 focal point active. This keeps the subject in focus if it moves slightly from your highlighted focal point. You could use the 21 or 51 point versions of dynamic area, but sometimes it can lock and not refocus quickly enough if there is anything else near to your subject. Auto area autofocus and 3d tracking modes tend to be too unreliable in my experience. Make sure you set your autofocus to continuous so that it keeps readjusting. If you are able to change the speed at which is re-adjusts, then you might like to set it to be as responsive as possible. You can set focus priority in your autofocus settings to try and minimise the number of out of focus shots you take.
Use your continuous release mode (rapid fire) to increase your chances of getting a good image. Otherwise, you have to be extremely confident in your timing and need a lot of luck! Insects in flight are not always that predictable so you need to give yourself better odds by shooting several frames quickly. If you find that your camera slows down after just a few frames at high speed then I would advise using jpg files instead of RAW. Another option if your camera has it is to reduce the frame size using crop mode. This only works if you don’t need the outer part of the frame, of course!
There is no “correct” lens length to use for photographing insects in flight. A telephoto lens of some kind is best, but different lengths of telephoto lens work. I tend to use a 105mm macro lens that gives me the option of getting in closer. A longer lens may help blur the background more if you are using a small aperture. I find that the 105mm gives me a good working distance that enables me to see nearby plants and flowers. You may find it helpful to keep your eye that isn’t using the viewfinder open as well. Usually you would close it, but in this case it can help you see if there is any incoming insect nearby. Bees often land on flowers next to other insects such as butterflies, causing them to fly off. So, if you can spot it in time, you can fire off a set of frames that may enable you to get one or both insects in flight.
- Photographing insects in flight is hard – be patient!
- Observe first – try to get familiar with your subject if you can before you try photographing it
- Start with larger insects and ones that hover to make it easier
- Make sure you use appropriate settings – shutter speed is vital for fast moving subjects
- Think carefully about your focussing set-up – try a few and use what works for you
- Use a telephoto lens or long macro lens
I hope that you will have a go at photographing insects in flight. It is not easy, but it is a great feeling when you get some good pictures. Why not make it your summer challenge to yourself and make the most of all the insects at this time of year?
You can get help identifying insects from these online sources:
- Identifying British butterflies
- Identifying British dragonflies
- Identifying bees and bumblebees
- UK Beetles
© Joe Lenton, July 2015