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A Pro's Tips and Tricks on Insect Photography

Yep, I'll admit it; I'm a bug peeper. 

Being a nature photographer, I've always found insects to be some of my favorite subjects. I follow them around traipsing through my backyard or local nature center's flower garden with my camera in hand. They're fascinating to watch as they busy themselves nectaring on plants or sunning themselves on warm rocks.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed

As summer comes to a close here in northern Minnesota, dragonflies and butterflies (that's a male monarch shown above) are caught up in a frenzy of activity as certain species prepare for their annual migration. Monarch butterflies can be seen fluttering across roadside ditches as they make their way along the more than 2,500-mile journey to hibernate in oyamel fir trees in the mountains of Mexico.

Green darner dragonfly on a coneflower

The rather large green darner dragonfly (shown here on a coneflower), whose ancestors roamed the earth 300 million years ago during the age of dinosaurs, is also on the move. They dart about erratically as they chase live prey to eat as they fly. Like most dragonflies, darners have nearly 360-degree vision so very little escapes their hungry gaze. Mosquitoes, bees, flies and even other dragonflies are all fair game to the darner.

But they're not the only busy insects in late summer. Others include the Carolina locust (below) plus many bee and wasp mimics who nectar on flowers and other plants. These amazing little creatures do a convincing job of passing themselves off as dangerous, stinging insects to ward off predators. 

Carolina locust

The body markings of hoverflies and syrphus flies (below) even trick humans into thinking they are dangerous. Stop by any flower garden that's full of late-blooming purple coneflower, black-eyed susans or asters and you will find yourself surrounded by mostly harmless winged life.

Syrphus flies

So now that you've found your quarry, what camera equipment do you use? Most people think of macro lenses as the best way to photograph things like insects. Macro lenses allow you to get within inches of your subject and fill the frame allowing for some pretty amazing photos. They are probably the best way to work with really small subjects like beetles, ladybugs and spiders. 

The method I use for dragonflies and butterflies involves a long telephoto lens and an extension tube. What's an extension tube, you ask? Well, it's really not much more than a tubular spacer between your camera lens and the camera sensor allowing you to focus closer. With an extension tube on a 200-300mm lens, you now have a pretty amazing tool.

What sets it apart from the macro lens is you don't have to be inches from your subject. By adding the tube, you shorten the minimum focusing distance of your long lens and gain some working distance from your subject.

Mating green darner dragonflies

Butterflies and dragonflies can be pretty jumpy and will fly away in an instant if a shadow passes over them. For these insects it may be the last thing they ever see before a bird gobbles them up. They don't stick around to see whether it's a hungry blue jay or a crazy ol' bug peeper with a camera.
 
So instead of trying to photograph that skittish monarch a few inches away you're now 3 feet away and getting full frame shots. Pretty sweet, huh? 

The best part is that extension tubes are relatively cheap compared to the price of a good macro lens. If you already own a telephoto zoom, then picking up an extension tube is an easy choice.  I use a 25mm Canon brand extension tube, but you can buy one from a number of different manufacturers. I would recommend getting one at least as 25mm long. They are not rocket science, so don't break the bank on them. Just be sure it fits your camera mount and lens model. Pop it onto the lens, attach it to the camera body and you are ready to go.

Canon extension tube

One important thing to remember about extension tubes: They do reduce the amount of light falling on the sensor. You may have to compensate by increasing your ISO or film speed setting. Think of the tube as a tunnel between your lens and the camera body. The longer the tunnel, the darker it is at the back. Your camera body is now at the back of the tunnel and less light is falling on the sensor.

Being a bug peeper is nothing to be ashamed of.  Find yourself a compatible extension tube and give it a try.

Dudley Edmondson is a Minnesota-based freelance photographer and author of Black and Brown Faces in America's Wild Places who occasionally contributes to the REI Blog.

 

Posted on at 12:04 PM

Tagged: Photography, butterflies, dragonflies, dudley edmondson, insects and nature

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