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 virtually 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 is 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 for capturing the image.

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

For simple and effective photography of wild insects, I believe the most important element is the use of flash. My techniques have evolved over the years and I have two separate systems in use, one for photographing insects at my drilled logs on the wall, the other for carrying on longer walks in the countryside where lightness and rapid reaction are important. My original insect-outfit, still in everday use at the logs, consists of a now very old Nikon D300, a no-longer available Sigma 180mm f5.6 macro lens, with an old Metz 40MZ3 flash on ‘auto' setting.  The camera is on ‘manual’ at 1/250th second (the camera’s flash syncronisation speed), at ISO 200. This works perfectly, using stops between f14 and f16. depending on subject, distance and background. This provides reasonable depth of field and the highest resolution. By adjusting the flash control panel, a flash speed of around 1/8000th of a second is obtained. This speed largely freezes the wing motion, yet still maintains the impression of some movement, which I want to retain. TTL flash, as found on digital cameras, is effectively fill-in flash and, as a result, may show some double-imaging. My 'auto' setting ensures that the insect is illuminated almost totally by the flash, not daylight, giving close control of the whole process. This particular model of Metz 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 ina more or less fixed loca5tion, using a monopod to take the weight. Autofocus on this particular lens is loud, slow and rather clunky, but very accurate. The really important thing is that I am completely familiar with all its quirks - I am used to it. It suits me perfectly and it is remarkable in its ability to capture insects in flight with great sharpness and accuracy.

More 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. The outfit is used regualrly on walks or our invertebrate days out, where it is not easy to pre-focus. Modern autofocus copes with this situation better than the slow and ponderous earlier 180mm lens. In conjuction with a lightweight Nikon D5200 it makes 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.

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’ in Capture NX2, Nikon’s own image capturing and editing software. It is an excellent program to use, simple to start with, but containing virtually everything 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, or whether it is converted to another format such as TIFF. In practice, remarkably little 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, with a single Olympus macro flash head. When scanned, they fit in remarkably well with modern digital images.

mining bee Anthophora plumipes m                   © robin williams

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. 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. An excellent solution is to set the focus on 'manual' and then pre-focus on an area alongside the expected log location.  Though, In fact the majority of my pictures are taken using full autofocus. For many insects carry out their searches to a set routine and will re-visit certain holes or resting places. The system works, so now I concentrate on refining the process. For instance, I find a monopod may be essential to take the strain off neck and shoulder muscles, and to steady the camera out in the field.

D300/Sigma 180/Metz flash/carbon fibre monopod

Recently I read about some bird photographers using ‘back-button’ technique and decided to try it out. It took time getting used to the new orientation, but I gave it a good trial both on bird and insect photography. The technique involves separating the 'focussing' function from the 'taking' button to the ‘AF-ON’ button on the camera back, where it is operated by the thumb. (This works with both Nikon and Canon cameras) The two functions are then independent. It is possible to leave 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.

I found the technique invaluable 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 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, which is 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 not work well, as it takes time to co-ordinate finger and thumb instinctively.

Mining bee Osmia bicornis m                               © robin williams

IN THE GARDEN, it is sensible 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 electrical consumption, yet it comes to life instantly when the button is touched. This form of high-speed flash helps freeze most insect movement bar the wing beats, leaving just enough movement in those to appear true to life. In looking at the results, 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, even virtually invisible. Bumblebees flap their wings at around 200 beats per second; some flies may flap much faster than this. Isn't modern tecnnology remarkable?

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