7 Tips For Photographing Insects And Other Little Crawly Things by Todd Henson

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Photographing close-ups of insects, spiders, and other little creepy crawly slithery creatures can sometimes be a challenge. But with a little know how and lots of patience and practice it’s possible to create some really pleasing images. Below are 7 tips for creating more successful close-up images.

1. Move slowly to avoid startling the insect or creature. Some insects and creatures are very skittish and will move or flee if they see sudden movement around them.

2. Use a telephoto lens to give yourself working distance. This will also help avoid startling the creatures. The photo of the pair of familiar bluet damselflies was shot with a 105mm macro lens. Sometimes I use longer focal lengths, such as 200mm, 400mm, or more.

Pair of damselfly photographed with a 105mm macro lens.

3. Try to position the camera’s focal plane (effectively the back of the camera) parallel to the subject. This will help keep more of the subject in focus.  Telephoto and macro lenses tend to create shallower depth of field, so keeping the camera parallel to the subject assures as much of the subject as possible is within the acceptable depth of field. In the photo of the damselflies the camera was positioned parallel to the pair, allowing me to capture as much of them in focus as possible.

Notice how little of the snake is in focus. The camera is not parallel to the body of the snake.

Notice how much more of the snake is in focus now that the camera is parallel to the body of the snake.

4. Stop down the aperture (use larger f-stop numbers) to increase depth of field enough to capture as much of the insect in focus as you want. As mentioned, telephoto and macro lenses tend to create shallower depth of field, so stopping down helps increase the depth of field.  But watch your shutter speed as you stop down. If you stop down too much you’ll get a very slow shutter speed and risk a blurry photo.

This assassin bug was shot at f/3.5, a very wide open aperture, using my 105mm macro lens. Notice the very shallow depth of field. 

This time the assassin bug was shot at f/14, a much smaller aperture, again using my 105mm macro lens. Notice the much greater depth of field.

5. Increase the ISO, only if necessary, to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture a sharp image. If you increase the ISO too much you may see increased noise in the image, depending on your camera model. But a little extra noise is usually better than a blurry image.

6. Use a tripod, if possible, to help keep the camera steady. This will help create a sharp image, provided the shutter speed is fast enough to freeze any motion in the scene. In some cases it may be better to hand-hold, especially if the insect or creature is moving and you’re trying to track it.

7. Shoot in short bursts, especially if you’re unable to get the shutter speed fast enough, or are shooting hand-held. This can increase the chance of getting a sharp image. Sometimes one of the images in a burst will be sharper than the others. You can delete the others, if you don’t want them.

So grab your camera and give these techniques a try. Go out there looking for damselflies, snakes, or any other insect, creature, or flower you’d like, and create some beautiful images.

Pair of Familiar Bluet Damselfly Mating by Todd Henson

Pair of Familiar Bluet Damselfly mating

Damselflies have a fascinating method of mating, as seen in this image of a mating pair of Familiar Bluet damselflies. The male damselfly is blue and the female is green. The male produces sperm in an organ near the end of its abdomen, on the underside. It then curls its abdomen and transfers the sperm to a secondary organ at the other end its abdomen, again on the underside, just behind the shoulder and wings (notice where the end of the female’s abdomen is attached to the male in the image).

After the male has attracted a female it clasps the female behind her head using claspers on the very end of its abdomen. The female curls her abdomen segments, attaching the rear of her abdomen to the male’s secondary organ where it deposited its sperm. They form an interesting patten when attached to one another. I’ve seen them perched this way on branches, as in the image, and I’ve also seen them sometimes fly together in tandem. It’s an amazing sight.

Later the female will remove her abdomen from the male and deposit her eggs somewhere, typically on submerged vegetation. The male usually continues to clasp the female while she deposits her eggs.

I love observing behaviors of various species in nature. There are such varied, and sometimes complex, behaviors out there, it never grows old, and there’s always more to see and more to learn. This is an example of why it’s important to re-visit the same locations throughout the year. You can observe different behaviors at different times.

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Familiar Bluet Damselfly - The Story Behind the Image by Todd Henson

Final image of Familiar Bluet Damselfly

I’d been hiking through a park looking for insects to photograph. I observed and made images of dragonflies, spiders, butterflies, and moths, but I was most drawn to the light blue Familiar Bluet damselfly. Damselflies are fascinating creatures. They are smaller and more delicate than dragonflies, but otherwise look similar. The Familiar Bluet is light blue with patches and stripes of black. It has a long, straight abdomen that can be quite flexible.

What drew me to the Familiar Bluet this day was the nice contrast of the blue damselfly in front of a pale green background of out of focus plants. So I started looking for damselflies with good poses in front of workable backgrounds. The first couple images I made did show the damselfly against a green background, but the background was somewhat busy with blades of grass crossing the frame.

Familiar Bluet Damselfly against distracting background

Better background, but still distracting

Another image I made has the damselfly posed on a curling leaf. The damselfly looks good, but it’s not a very attractive leaf, with several holes and dark spots. One of the holes is lined up with the head of the damselfly, which I find distracting.

Familiar Bluet Damselfly on leaf. Still not what I'm looking for.

Finally, I found a background that seemed more promising. The damselfly had landed on a plant with small narrow leaves that in some ways reminded me of the damselfly’s narrow body. But my first images in this environment had a busy background with a large branch directly behind the damselfly. I found the light areas of the branch distracting, so I kept looking for a different position, watching and waiting as the damselfly would fly from perch to perch.

Familiar Bluet Damselfly. Getting better.

The key to these situations is patience. Stay in one area for a while. Work the scene. Watch the behavior of the insects. Observe how they sometimes return to the same perch over and over again. If this perch happens to be a good one then set up the camera aimed at the perch. Get everything ready and then wait for the insect to return. It often will. That’s what occurred in this situation. I’d found what I felt was an attractive perch. The perch was far enough from most of the rest of the background to keep the background nicely out of focus. The background was light green that contrasted well with the light blue of the Familiar Bluet damselfly. I was able to line up the damselfly parallel enough with the focal plane of the camera to get most all of it in reasonable focus. I’d also stopped down the aperture to f/13 to help give me enough depth of field to cover the damselfly but not too much of the background. This proved to be the image I was most pleased with.

Final image of Familiar Bluet Damselfly.