How to Take Great Insect and Spider Photos
Insects and spiders are fascinating, but to many, terribly scary. Many photographers would love to take close up photos of such critters, but can not muster enough courage to overcome their fear.
I'm firmly in both camps, fascinated and also very scared. I usually run from spiders and insects with wings (or many legged insects like centipedes), but occasionally I can ignore my fear, grab my camera and get a few shots before I run away!
For me, conquering fear is the most important aspect of insect and spider photography. It is also necessary to hold the camera absolutely still.
However, I have more success when taking photos of flowers than I do with insects, perhaps I shake because I am afraid of the insects and spiders?
Being able to use macro lenses, or a macro function makes it easier to capture detailed photos - you must get up close and personal with the creepy crawlies.
Finding camera fodder
A healthy home garden provides the most convenient way to find insects and spiders to photograph. Even containers full of flowering plants encourage pollen-hungry fliers to visit. Plus spiders will love having a steady supply of insects.
City parks and gardens, especially those with flower beds, can also provide good access to subjects. It is best to go when the parks are not full of children - you don't want them chasing bees and making them angry!
Many people avoid looking for things that make them uncomfortable. If you are like me, you will find it difficult to focus and look for spiders and spider webs, or and trails. I usually instead focus on flower hunting, and have found that many insects will photo-bomb my flower snapshots.
Know your subjects
It is important to be able to identify when a spider or an insect is dangerous, and should be kept at a distance, especially if there are children around.
Having a good book to identify insects is a good idea.
Most books will also describe how to encourage (or discourage) such visitors in your garden.
Bees and wasps
When a bee or a wasp is focused on feeding from flowers, it is easier and safer to get closer to them. If they are flying purposefully I would avoid them, and definitely stay well out of the path of a swarm.
Clear sunlight is the best for bringing out the gold and black colours, and for capturing bees' fur. Dawn and dusk, while good for colour depth, may not provide enough light to capture flying insects. These insects are usually active when flowers are open and displaying their pollen. Many flowers only open after some time in bright sunlight.
Converting a colour photo of a bee or wasp into sepia or black and white, will bring out details that are normally hidden, especially of their delicate wings. Play with the light and shadow settings in your image processing software to find the best level of detail.
Ants are scavengers, there are often groups around a food source, and sometimes they will try to pull it in all directions at once.
Some ants will take whole leaves, twigs, or bits and pieces back to their nest as food or to construct a shelter. You can capture some interesting and amusing photos if you have such ants in your area!
Ants are often not in easily accessible places. Sometimes they are wandering up tree trunks, and then being able to zoom to get a closer (still detailed) shot is useful. Unfortunately, my camera is not very good at zoomed macro shots, and I'm not very good at holding the camera still enough.
I'm often reminded when trying to capture an ant in a photo, that humans are so large and have such a big impact on nature. When walking across a grassed area, it is likely that many ants (and other insects) die from being stepped on.
Moths, caterpillars, and other bugs
The double-life that caterpillars, moths and butterflies have is strange and wonderful to many. Children are almost always fascinated by butterflies, flitting from one flower to another, or by the caterpillar in its cocoon.
A butterfly house or sanctuary provides many opportunities to capture photos of butterflies that you would not see in your local area. Allow some time for the camera to acclimatise to the warm and moist environment before trying to take photos, or your photos will be foggy! Alternatively, you could plant butterfly-attracting plants in your garden.
Fast moving critters, such as centipedes, are difficult to photograph, and equally difficult to physically capture. You may need to sacrifice some level of detail and use a faster shutter speed. A detailed macro photo of a moving centipede will be very blurry. Be careful if capturing such insects, as some have painful bites or stings, and some are poisonous.
Black and white or sepia photos will bring out many details of beetle shells that would otherwise remain hidden, even to the naked eye. However, there are also many beetle shells that are delightfully opalescent, which can not be seen without colour.
When photographing these insects, I am always reminded that they have such a short life span. They live for the moment, making the most out of their short lives. We could learn a lot from this.
Spiders are fascinating and incredible - anything that can run on 8 legs and spin such detailed and fine silk webs is amazing. But they are also one of the most feared creatures.
When a spider is sitting still in its web it will rarely become aggressive. It is important to identify a spider to know how it will behave when a camera lens is positioned close to it. Will a spider rear up and attack (huntsmen / tarantula), or will it run away like the lightning-fast jumping spiders?
Coming from a country where many of the spiders are dangerous or deadly, and having lived in houses with nests of an aggressive species (white tails), I am dreadfully afraid of spider. Unless a spider is happily in its web, my camera stays in its bag.
Tripods are useful for slower moving insects, or for capturing a stationary spider in its web. Spider webs look stunning when misted with water drops, and a tripod certainly helps with capturing such details. A camera on a tripod can be focused on a flower, and then with luck, insects will visit, but then you are relying on a lot of luck.
It may be easier to photograph insects in captivity. An ant farm or a terrarium with captured insects, is a closed environment that you can better control. Some insects thrive in captivity, and are sold in pet stores. However, some captured insects and spiders can become very aggressive.
What is your least favourite critter?
A DSLR camera with a good quality macro lens will let you capture sharper photos. All of the photos in this article were shot with a point and shoot, which shows you don't need a pro camera and lens.
Photo editing software is more important for cleaning up insect photos than for other types of photographs - you will want to crop carefully, and play with light/shadow, contrast, definition and perhaps even colour settings to get the best level of detail.
What insects or spiders are you afraid of?
Can you overcome your fear of these critters and photograph them up close?
How do you get past your fear?
Let us know in the comments below!