Andrew McCarthy Photography

Photographing spring insects

After what seems like a very long winter indeed, spring is finally making its presence felt here in Devon, and my thoughts are finally turning to insect photography again!

One of my first targets in spring will be the lovely, but sadly now quite rare, Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly.  This specialist insect of heathy woods is on the wing from around mid-April onwards, and it can make a great photographic subject, since temperatures are often quite cool at this time of year, which makes for prefect photography conditions.  This species tends to fly in air temperatures from around 14 degrees, which means that there is a good chance of insects stopping to rest during the day, allowing a close approach.  This is in contrast to butterflies of mid to late summer when, as any novice macro photographer will tell you, butterfly photography can be very frustrating.  When the weather is warm insects will often not remain still for long, and a combination of hot sun and harsh light often sees me returning home from an early morning session in time for breakfast!

Other good spring subjects include the stunning Orange-tip butterfly (which can be found in marshy pastures from mid-April onwards alongside its larval food plant Ladies-smock).  Green hairstreak is a beautiful little insect of heaths which is on the wing from early May, whilst the stunning Brimstone can be seen from March onwards along woodland rides and hedges with Buckthorn and Alder buckthorn.  Dragonflies and damselflies also begin to emerge from April onwards.  The widespread Large-red damselfly is one of the earliest species to emerge and it offers a colourful spring target around ponds and wet flushes.  Of the spring dragonflies, Broad-bodied chaser is by far and away my favourite during May – in part because both males and females reliably return to the same perch time.  This means I can position myself in exactly the right place to obtain the perfect composition and background, whilst waiting for my subject to return.

In terms of field-craft, even the cooler conditions of spring demand the right approach.  I move very slowly when approaching wary subjects, keeping low and positioning myself so I don’t form a silhouette.  If I am using my Olympus 60mm macro lens I’ll often pair it with the STF-8 twin-flash to lift shadows or provide ‘punch’ to images on a dull day.  I like to keep the effect of flash subtle though, so I use manual low power settings – generally around 1/16th or less. I don’t use auto flash as a pre-flash will spook wary insects and the subject will be out of frame before the flash fires!  

Insects in crisp focus against soft, clean backgrounds have great impact for me, so I generally try and align the rear of the camera (i.e. the sensor) with the plane of the subject in order to maximise the zone of sharp focus.  This can take time, so I’ll often use a tripod for precision. I use a combination of initial autofocus (for speed) followed by manual over-ride with focus-peaking to make careful final adjustments.  If there is any breeze, I often use clamps on a small second tripod or ground spike to stabilise perches.  Don’t attach clamps to the camera tripod as your vibrations will transmit through to the subject. 

The alternative to using a tripod is to go mobile and get creative.  For hand-holding I like a bright overcast day with minimal wind – diffused lighting helps reveal colour and detail (and avoids risk of clipping reflected highlights) and bright conditions give a good shutter speed.  By contrast dull conditions dictate wider apertures and slower shutter speeds, which can make it difficult to stop wind-induced movement.  In such conditions I’ll often hand hold and use a shallow depth of field to create something more ‘interpretive’.  The Olympus 300 f4 lens is perfect for this – the lens has a great close-focus capability and is tack-sharp wide open.  I use the lens at its widest aperture setting to obtain a razor thin depth of field.  I will often shoot from directly in front of the subject, or through a gap in vegetation to create a soft out-of-focus haze around it. 

Regardless of approach I like to keep my compositions simple.  If I need to ‘garden’, I use clothing or equipment to gently (and temporarily) move vegetation out of the way.  I keep trampling to an absolute minimum – revealing stationary insects makes them much more visible to predators so it is important to leave as little trace of your presence as possible.  Second, I keep a watchful eye out for signs of insects getting stressed.  With mating butterflies for example I often see photographs of mating pairs with their reproductive organs revealed.  This is caused by stressed insects trying to pull apart, so move away if you see this.  Remember that the welfare of the subject is far more important than your shot!