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How to Photograph Insects and Other Bugs in Close-up
Although close up, or macro, photography is a highly specialised field involving expertise and expensive equipment, most modestly priced compact digital cameras nowadays have a close up facilty that can produce fascinating pictures of insects and other bugs in impressive detail.
Following a few simple guidelines, anyone can take interesting photos that, while not having the technical perfection required for commercial use, reveal minute details with surprising clarity.
Let there be light
The greatest asset you can have in obtaining decent pictures, apart from your camera, of course, is light. The more light available, the easier it is to overcome some of the problems that you'll face when trying this type of photography. Natural light is the best light. Onboard camera flash can be useful, and even necessary if it's the only source available, but camera flash is designed to illuminate objects a few metres distance from the camera. When photographing insects and other bugs that are just a couple of centimetres in front of the camera, the beam of light from the flash can miss the subject completely or, at the other extreme, overexpose the shot as the camera is unable to calculate automatic settings to deliver the right amount of light at such a close distance.
In the shot below of a dragonfly, flash had to be used as it was an indoors shot, A dragonfly had flown into the room and stayed in one place, no doubt while figuring out its next move. Because it was quite large for an insect, I didn't have to get so close. The flash and camera in combination could deliver and receive just the right amount of light. However, the reflection of the flash in the dragonfly's eye spoils the natural look to an extent.
At such close distances, the slightest movement from either the camera or the subject can result in severe blurring of the image. If from the camera, (camera shake) the whole image will be blurred; if from the insect or bug, parts of the image will be blurred. Unfortunately, the parts that are blurred are usually the very parts you want to be sharp.
The way to reduce such blurring, without going to such extremes as killing the insect or chasing it around in the hope that it will stay in place long enough for you to attach a tripod to the camera, is to use as fast a shutter speed as possible. A fast shutter speed opens the camera's shutter for a tiny fraction of a second and captures the image before any movement from you or the subject has a chance to ruin the shot. However, the disadvantage of a high shutter speed is that the amount of light getting into your camera will be reduced, resulting in a dark and underexposed image. That's where having lots of light to begin with is the ideal situation. The more light available, the higher shutter speed you can afford to use. On automatic settings, more light will make the camera automatically increase the shutter speed to ensure the correct exposure.
Anti-shake technology is included in lots of compact cameras. I tend not to use it though as I find the quality suffers in other ways, at least on my camera. Post processing in your computer with an image editor, such as Photoshop, can add apparent sharpness. Overdoing it, though, can cause a somewhat spiky effect as in the bluebottle shot below.
Depth of field
Depth of field refers to the range of distance from the camera lens that will be in focus before and beyond the actual distance that the camera is focused on. The greater the distance, the greater the depth of field. In macro photography we're dealing with very short distances, so very limited depth of field is the norm. Look at the shot of the common house spider below. While its face is in focus, its back legs aren't because they're too far away and beyond the depth of field. Depth of field is an important consideration in many types of photography and can be controlled, to an extent, by adjusting the aperture of the camera. The smaller the opening, the greater the depth of field. Bear in mind though that aperture and shutter work in opposition to each other. The smaller the aperture, the darker the image, and the more you have to reduce the shutter speed to compensate. So basically, you have to decide between parts being out of focus due to small depth of field or movement blurring due to slow shutter speed. Again, lots of light is the ideal situation as it allows both high shutter speed and small aperture. If you have to make a choice, choose the higher shutter speed because even with a limited depth of field, at least the point that you're focusing on will be sharp.
Don't forget you can always use your camera's sensitivity control (ISO) if there isn't enough light. Use it sparingly, though, as pushing the sensitivity introduces a grainy effect known as 'noise' in digital images. The lower the ISO value used (such as 50) the better the image quality, but the less sensitive to light the camera becomes. There's always a trade-off in photography.
Have a go
I hope you found this article interesting and that it inspires you to check out the macro setting on your camera (most have one these days). If bugs don't appeal to you, flowers make fascinating subjects too, and you don't have to chase after them - although you may have to wait until the wind drops. If they're swaying in the breeze, forget it.
Remember, this is a rough and ready approach. As I mentioned at the beginning, macro photography is a specialised field, and I'm sure there are lots of hubs here where you can learn how to do it properly. In the meantime, just do it. You'll be amazed at the results.