TECHNIQUES - insect flight photography

equipment and fieldcraft


hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus m                                                         © robin williams

I can comment only on my own techniques, gathered after years of trying different equipment. It is very much a prejudiced opinion, but it suits me although there are always other routes to the same results. All the insect pictures have been taken in the field using standard camera-mounted or built-in flash guns. The object is to show the creatures in their own surrounds, behaving naturally, without any possibility of harming them. Any form of restraint causes unnatural behaviour; while much of the enjoyment comes from being outside in the insect’s own environment, as events unfold. I have never used chilling or freezing as a technique, it produces unnatural, potentially harmful results and should never be employed.

My particular interest, photographing insects in flight, depends on careful planning and an ability to react quickly. There is no way that a camera can latch on, focus and take a picture, if it is not almost in focus already. Careful observation of the creature's habits is the secret of success. Insects often tend to fly a fairly set route, or take to visiting the same flower or nest hole at regular intervals. Once this is determined, the camera should be focussed on some point close to where the insect is expected to pass. The finger hovers over the shutter-button, ready to react when something happens. Even lightning-fast modern autofocus will not adjust quickly enough if it is not close to the space where the insect is flying when the shutter is pressed. However brilliant the camera, there is a slight delay between pressing the button and the shutter, so a degree of pre-emption is required. Constant practice increases success in pre-determining that critical moment.

I believe the most important element for simple and effective photography of wild insects is the use of flash. My technique has evolved over the years and now I use two separate systems, one for photographing insects at my drilled logs in the garden (the 'flats'), the other for taking out on walks in the countryside,s where lightness and rapid reactions are important. My original insect outfit, still in everday use at the logs, consists of an old Nikon D300, a no-longer available Sigma 180mm f5.6 macro lens, together with a veteran Metz 40MZ3 flash, used on ‘auto', not TTL. 

Nikon D300, Sigma f5.6 180mm & Sigma CU lens, Metz flash

The camera shutter is set on ‘manual’, at 1/250th second (the camera’s flash synchronisation speed), and ISO 200 (the flash sets the actual speed at which the picture is taken). This works perfectly generally using stops between f14 and f16. depending on subject, distance and background. This provides optimum, high resolution depth of field. By adjustments on the flash control panel, a flash-speed of around 1/8000th of a second may be obtained. This freezes the wing motion, yet still maintains the impression of some movement, which I wish to retain. TTL flash, as found on digital cameras, is effectively fill-in flash and, as a result, may show some double-imaging in sunlight. The 'auto' setting ensures that the insect is illuminated almost totally by the flash, not daylight, giving close control of the whole process.

This particular flash-gun is perfect, as it is set low on the camera and the head projects forward, not far off the end of the lens. It is a curious fact that the closer the flash is to the subject, the softer the light on the object, reducing potentially harsh contrast. However this outfit is heavy, which does not matter in a more or less fixed location, using a monopod to take the weight. Autofocus on this particular lens is loud, slow and rather clunky, but very accurate. The important factor is that I am completely familiar with all its quirks - I am totally used to it. It suits me perfectly and it is remarkable in its ability to capture insects in flight with great sharpness and accuracy.

mining bee Anthophora plumipes m                   © robin williams

All pictures are taken using the RAW format. Exposure is set on 'spot', while AFC focus is used with a single central focus point. In this way, dark backgrounds or bright ones do not affect the accuracy of exposure and focus on the insect itself. It may seem wrong to do without the available sophisticated matrix system, but only the insect-subject is important at this stage, further work on the background may be undertaken later on the computer. Looking at a large set of RAW pictures, it is clear that this method produces reliable, well-exposed, sharp insects.

Recently I bought a Sigma 150mm f2.8 APO macro DG HSM lens, with modern silent autofocus. To keep it light and easy to handle, I added a new product, an American Rogue Safari, which fits over the camera's own pop-up flash and is said to increase the flash-power by up to eight times, while adding little weight. With this, I use flash-settings of f16 at 200 ISO, in conjuction with spot metering and a single central focus-point, giving splendidly accurate results each time. The camera flash is set on TTL, with the camera on 'manual'. The result is perfect exposure for every frame, even coping with insect flight pictures. This lens is paired with a lightweight Nikon D5200 camera. The outfit is used regulalarly on walks or during our 'invertebrate' days, where it is not easy to pre-focus. Modern autofocus copes with this situation better than the earlier slow and ponderous 180mm lens. In conjuction with a the lightweight camera, it is a handy outfit to carry round. Flash intensity is all that is claimed, providing perfect coverage of the subjects even at the closest focus of 1.5 X lifesize. Nevetheless, I will be retaining the heavier, less-automated outfit, as I understand every nuance of using it, while the results are quite predictable in the most demanding of flight photography. The newer outfit has the flash head set further back, which may bring limitations for certain conditions - time will tell how it fits into my technique.

Sigma 150mm with Safari flash aid, on Nikon 5200

Safari flash extender, showing flipped up camera flash below

All digital images are taken in RAW format and ‘developed’ on the computer in Capture NX2, Nikon’s own image capturing and editing software. It is an excellent program to use, simple to start with, containing virtually anything needed for future use. RAW photography produces an image with the highest possible capture of information, which remains untouched as a ‘virtual negative’, whatever corrections are made, whether it is converted to another format such as TIFF. In practice, remarkably little further correction is needed for the final result, apart from sharpening the image. Whatever program is used, the important factor is to become thoroughly familiar with it. Earlier pictures, using Kodachrome 64 film, were taken on an Olympus OM2SP camera, using a Zuiko 135 macro lens and extendible tube, together with a single Olympus macro flash head. When scanned, these pictures tone in remarkably well with modern digital images.

For a long time I tried to take succesful pictures of mason bees Osmia spp. as they approach the logs, especially the males, which dart in and out at high speeds as they search for the first females to emerge. Results were often poor, as the flight is erratic and rapid. For many species, such as hoverflies, autofocus works perfectly, as good pictures depend on being able to pre-focus on a regular flight path. However, this does not work with Osmia, too often the focus shoots past to the background close behind, leaving a blur. One solution is to set the focus on 'manual', then pre-focus on an area alongside the expected log location, requiring rapid reactions but it can work very successfully  In fact the majority of my pictures are taken using full autofocus, which is extremely fast and reliable in modern cameras. Many insects carry out their searches to a set routine and will re-visit certain holes or resting places. The system works well, so I concentrate on refining the process to suit. For instance, I find a monopod takes the strain off neck and shoulder muscles, and steadies the camera without affecting the flexibility of directing the camera. Without it, pictures are lost because of nervous movement.

Some bird photographers usie a ‘back-button’ technique, so I decided to try it out. It took time getting used to the new orientation, but I gave it a good trial on bird and insect photography. The technique involves separating the 'focussing' function from the 'taking', using the ‘AF-ON’ button, where it may be operated by the thumb. (This works with both Nikon and Canon cameras, see the instruction book) The two functions are then independent. Then it is  possible to leave the focus static between shots, rather than the normal focus+shutter act which often leads to the focus shooting into the background, when trying to catch a jinking insect in the centre of the viewfinder. Some recent results have justified this method, using manual focus rather than automatic but they still rely on rapid reactions. For most situations I find full autofocus the most reliable and satisfactory.

I found this technique helped when photographing bees coming back and forth to a nest hole, for example. It is much more controllable and ensures more successful results. However, I did not find it a help in bird photography. I cannot explain why? Others speak highly of it but, for me, the normal combined system is much more instinctive with the larger bulk of a bird. I suspect that the exception to this might be when small birds are flying back and forth to feeding stations or nest holes, a similar situation. Like so many things, it is a question of trying it out. I feel it is worth exploring for tricky shots, but be warned that short-term use may bring frustrations, as it takes time to co-ordinate finger and thumb instinctively.Mining bee Osmia bicornis m                               © robin williams

IN THE GARDEN - it is good to sit on a chair or stool to make life more comfortable. Elbows act as a natural tripod but increasingly I use a really light carbon-fibre monopod to steady the lens, though it is surprising how effective high-speed flash may be in capturing a shake-free image, hand held. As the years go by, a monopod has become an essential part, a faithful companion for the act of taking a picture.

IN THE FIELD - much the same rules apply. The camera may be carried around all day with the flash switched on, hibernating without apparent electrical consumption, yet it comes to life instantly when the button is touched. High-speed flash freezes most insect movement bar wing beats, leaving just enough movement in those to appear true to life. However, it is important to understand that the flash will not freeze wing motion at the same rate all the time. The insect wing is virrtually stationary at the start and finish of the beat, but accelerates enormously in between, so some pictures will show an almost perfect image of the wing, while others become a total blur, perhaps all but invisible. Bumblebees flap their wings at around 200 beats per second; some flies may flap move faster than this. Isn't modern tecnnology remarkable?

I must mention one final piece of equipment which I find essential nowadays, as joints stiffen and mobility suffers, and that is a rucksac with a built-in stool. These are available from firms serving inland fishermen. I came across it first when a bird-watching magazine offered one as a prize. It struck me as a perfect insect photographer's companion. Often, the most succesful pictures are taken watching a clump of flowers favoured by flies or bees. The obvious method is to sit comfortably in front, camera on a monopod, and wait for the opportunities to arise. I tried a superb Swedish stool previously but, since it had three separate legs, these sunk into our predominently peaty ground and soon threw you off. The stool on my rucksac has each pair of legs joined togetther so will not normally sink in. It can be irritating to shrug the sac on and off, but it has paid off in terms of better pictures, less stress on the back and providing a place to eat lunch, whatever the state of the ground. Once on the back, the rucksac is really comfortable and adds little to the feeling of weight - a marvellous gadget.

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