all pictures © robin williams
insect flight photography
equipment and fieldcraft
hoverfly Episyrphus balteatus m - sharpness personified
How and why
These are my own techniques, gathered together after years of trying different equipment. They are prejudiced opinions, but suit me; there are always other routes to the same results. All images have been taken in the field, using standard camera-mounted or built-in flash guns. The object of my photography is to show invertebrates in their own surrounds, behaving naturally, as well as portraying their form and beauty. Any restraint causes unnatural behaviour. I have never used chilling or freezing as a technique; it produces unnatural, potentially harmful, results and should never be employed. My enjoyment comes from being outside in the insect’s own environment, watching events as they unfold, then recording these.
Observation & planning
Photographing insects in flight, a particular passion of mine, depends on careful planning, an ability to react quickly and knowledge of how they behave. There is no way that a camera is able to latch-on, focus and take a picture, if it is not virtually within focus at the moment the shutter is pressed. Careful observation of the creature's habits is the ultimate secret of success. Insects 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 needs to be focussed on some point close to where the insect is expected to pass. The finger hovers over the shutter-button, ready to react as something happens. Even lightning-fast modern autofocus will not adjust quickly enough if it is not close to that space where the insect is flying at the moment when the shutter is depressed. However brilliant the camera, there is a slight delay between pressing the button and the shutter opening, so a degree of pre-emption is required. Constant practice, increases success in pre-determining that critical moment.
Flash & the D300
In my opinion, the single most important element for simple and effective photography of wild insects lies with the use of flash. My technique has evolved over the years, and I have effectively used two separate systems, one for photographing insects at my drilled logs in the garden (the 'flats'), the other for use on walks in the countryside, where lightness, reach and rapid reactions are all important. My original insect outfit, still in everyday use at the logs, consists of an ancient Nikon D300, a years-old Sigma 180mm f5.6 macro lens and a 2-element close-up lens, together with a veteran Metz 40MZ3 flash. This outfit is clunky, heavy and outdated, but produces remarkably consistent results when photographing the tiny insects found at the flats, whether stationary or in flight. Why change something that works perfectly, where the whole process is part of thought, instinctive?
Nikon D300, Sigma f5.6 180mm & Sigma CU lens, Metz flash
The D300 shutter is set on ‘manual’ at 1/250th second (the camera’s flash synchronisation speed), and ISO 200 (the flash determines the effective speed at which the picture is taken). This works perfectly, using stops between f11 and f16. depending on subject, distance and background. It provides high resolution and best possible depth of field. By adjustments on the flash control panel, a speed of around 1/8000th of a second is set. This freezes some wing motion, yet maintains that impression of movement which I wish to retain. However, it is not possible to guarantee the freezing of such movement, only select a setting which usually produces the result you require. Wings move at enormously varied speeds during different phases of their stroke. At 600 beats per second, a bumblebee wing will be virtually stationary at the start and finish, with the highest acceleration point in the middle. Using the 'auto' setting on a flash ensures that the insect is illuminated almost totally by the flash, not daylight. My ancient Metz 40MZ3 flash is perfect in every way for this type of work, as it is set low on the camera, the head projecting 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). 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
All pictures are taken using the RAW format. Exposure is set on 'spot', while AFC is used with a single central focus point. In this way, dark or bright backgrounds do not affect the accuracy of exposure and focus on the insect. It may seem crazy not to use the available highly-sophisticated matrix system, but only the insect-subject is important at this stage, further work on the background may be undertaken later on in the computer. Examining a large set of RAW pictures, it is clear that this method produces reliable, well-exposed, ultra-sharp insect images.
Another approach - Safari flash-booster
Later, I bought a Sigma 150mm f2.8 APO macro DG HSM lens, with modern, silent autofocus. It has proved really sharp and well designed. This camera/lens combination (D300, D7200 or D7500) has an effective focal length of 225mm, providing sufficient distance between photographer and insect, avoiding disturbance to the subject. To keep the outfit light and easy to handle, I added the ultra-light plastic Rogue Safari flash-booster, which fits over the camera's own pop-up flash, rather than a heavy extra flash. It is said to increase the flash-power by up to eight times, while adding next to no weight. Experience has confirmed its effectiveness. Using the camera's own flash has not proved a problem for the Nikon camera battery, one charge easily coping with a busy day's use. To suit this combination, I set the lens at f14, the camera at 320 ISO, in conjunction with spot metering and a single central focus-point, giving splendidly accurate results each time. The camera flash is set on TTL, the camera on 'manual'. The result is perfect exposure for virtually every frame, even coping with tricky insect flight pictures. This lens is currently paired with a Nikon D7500 camera. The outfit is used regularly now in the garden and at the flats. Modern autofocus copes with this situation better than the earlier slow and ponderous 180mm macro lens. In conjunction with a comparatively light camera, it is a handy outfit to carry round. I use the light 180mm lens with the same Rogue safari intensifier when out for the day, where weight is really important. Flash intensity is all that it is claimed for the Safari, providing perfect coverage of the subjects even at the closest focus of 1.5 X life-size. To try to increase its effectiveness yet further, I tried a Sigma 1.4X converter, giving over 300mm focal length without any discernible loss of quality. Unfortunately, this affected the reliability of focus with flight photography, slowing the autofocus justthat vital fraction. So, reluctantly, I decided not to use the converter on the camera in the field, retaining the full versatility of the original outfit.
Sigma 150mm with Safari flash aid, on Nikon 5200
Safari flash extender, showing flipped up camera flash below
Computer & RAW
All mages are taken in RAW. Originally, they were 'developed’ on the computer using 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 success. Unfortunately, Nikon decided to cease supporting this program for the D7200 and subsequent range of cameras but introduced a pair of free programs to take its place, ViewNX-i and Capture NXD. All future pictures are developed using the new program. Why is this a problem? Unfortunately, the new programs are not, in total, as sophisticated as the old NX2, though first-class. Features for correcting noise, and improving parts of an image, are no longer available in the new set. But, since I had already bought NX2, these are still available when I import the images from the NXD set-up; others will not have this facility. Nevertheless, the new programs are easy to use and make an excellent effort at producing fine finished pictures, but they could be improved further with one or two extra features from NX2. As it is, the combination of these two programs does exactly what I want.
RAW photography produces an image with the highest possible capture of information, remaining untouched as a ‘virtual negative’ whatever corrections are made or if it is converted to another format such as TIFF. Whatever program is used, the important factor is to become thoroughly familiar with it. Earlier pictures, with Kodachrome 64 film, were taken on an Olympus OM2SP camera, using a Zuiko 135 macro lens with extendible tube, in combination with a single Olympus macro flash head - absolutely state-of-the-art at the time. When scanned, these pictures tone in remarkably well with modern digital images, though all need the tone lightened for on-line use.
For a long time I tried to take successful 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 consistently poor, as the flight is erratic and rapid. For many species, such as hoverflies, autofocus works absolutely perfectly, sharp pictures depend on being able to pre-focus close to 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. A 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. For nearly all my other work my pictures are taken using full Nikon autofocus, which is extremely fast and reliable. To take advantage of this, I note that 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 outfit at the required angle. Without it, pictures may also be lost through involuntary nervous movement.
For most situations I find full autofocus the most reliable and satisfactory method for consistently obtaining sharp pictures. Manufacturers have devised systems that are more accurate than my eye. Some bird photographers use ‘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 both bird and insect photography. The technique involves separating the 'focussing' function from the 'shutter-release', using the ‘AF-ON’ button menu. (This works with both Nikon and Canon cameras - see the instruction books), This new arrangement fixes the focus between shots, rather than the normal focus+shutter act which may leave the focal point shooting into the background when trying to catch a jinking insect. I found this technique helped when photographing bees coming back and forth to a nest hole. It is controllable and helps ensure successful results. However, I did not find it such a help as to change my whole system permanently. The importance of being totally familiar with controls overcomes any possible advantages of introducing a part-time system. New systems and ideas lead to hesitation when timing is critical. Others speak highly of the idea but, for me, the normal combined system is more instinctive. 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, thumb and eye without thought.
Mining bee Osmia bicornis m
Comfort in the field
I like to sit on a stool close to where the action is taking place, making life more comfortable. Elbows act as a natural tripod but increasingly I use a 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 of the outfit, a necessary companion for taking sharp pictures. I must mention one piece of equipment I find essential nowadays, as joints stiffen and mobility suffers, a rucksack with a built-in stool, as available from firms supplying fishermen. I came across one first when a bird-watching magazine offered one as a prize; it struck me as the perfect insect photographer's companion. I find that the most successful pictures are taken when concentrating on a clump of flowers favoured by flies or bees. I use the stool to sit comfortably in front, camera on a monopod, and wait for the opportunities to arise. The stool is extremely practical, light and comfortable. Each pair of legs are joined together, so will not normally sink into softer ground, though it can be a bit wobbly in rough ground and needs careful placement. It may be irritating to shrug a sack on and off, but it has paid off in terms of better pictures, less stress on the back, as well as providing a seat on which to eat lunch! Once on the back, the rucksack is really comfortable, adding little to the feeling of weight - a remarkable gadget which has helped improve my results.
Freezing the action
Light is everything in photographing insects. it is not possible to take the range of available images without carrying your own strong light source with you. Fortunately, a modern camera can be carried around all day with the flash switched on, hibernating without apparent electrical consumption, yet coming to life instantly when the button is touched. High-speed flash freezes most insect movement bar wing beats, leaving just enough blur and shape to appear true to life. However, it is important to understand that the flash will not freeze wing motion at the same rate throughout. The insect wing is virtually stationary at the start and finish of the beat, but accelerates enormously in between; so some pictures show an almost perfect image of the wing, while others become a total blur, even invisible. Bumblebees flap their wings at up to 600 beats per second; fly wing-beats may be even faster than this. Flash reveals the intricate structure and beauty of an insect's outer layer, with its hairs, spines, creases and structure catching and reflecting the light, razor-sharp where focussed correctly. This is what drives the insect photographer to yet another demanding session on some of the most exciting pictures imaginable, requiring sharp reactions, concentration and determination.