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Photographing Insects


Insects are mostly small, and a surprising number of them want to avoid being eaten. These two factors lead to one of the greatest problems facing insect photographers: finding your subjects. Some insects such as Monarch butterflies are deliberately colored to be highly visible, in order to warn would-be predators that they taste noxious; however, most insects rely on concealment and flight to escape their enemies, so you need good powers of observation to find them. If you're walking through an area with trees, or even lots of leafy plants, then you'll soon realize that it's like looking for a lot of needles in a huge haystack. If you walk at normal speed, then you'll miss at least 90% of what's out there, so it makes very good sense to slow right down. If there's interesting habitat on both sides of a path you're walking down, then concentrate on just one side at a time, and you'll probably see more than if you split your time between both sides.

You'll also get more and better insect photos if you concentrate on places where it's possible to take photos! There might well be butterflies on the tops of leaves halfway up a tree, but you can't take a good photo of it up there, so you're better off looking at head-height and below. In the same way, if you keep the sun behind you as much as possible, then not only will searching be easier on your eyes, but you won't have problems with backlighting when you find something.

If the insect you've found is shy, then the single most important skill you need is to be able to move very slowly towards it. This might mean taking only one small, slow step every 15 or 20 seconds if it's a very jumpy critter like a butterfly, dragonfly or some types of beetle. It's not at all unusual for a dedicated insect photographer to spend 10 or 15 minutes stalking a single insect before even starting to take photos, and many times the prey will escape before any shots are taken! When you're moving towards the insect all of movements need to be slow and smooth, which includes moving the camera slowly and smoothly up to your eye. You can obviously see that it's a pretty anti-social form of photography, and could be downright embarrassing to significant others if you have to crawl belly-down in public places to reach your target!

Another good idea when approaching insects is to avoid having your shadow move across them, since this will often make them fly away. If you move slowly enough and carefully enough then the payoff is that you can sometimes get amazingly close to the insect. If you've done it right, then even jumpy butterflies will sometimes allow you to manipulate their perch in order to get a better angle or backdrop for the photo. I always carry a small pair of nail scissors with me, so I can trim away blades of grass and small twigs to get an unobstructed photo.

Here are some specific hints for photographing different varieties of insects:



Almost all butterflies are very sensitive to movement and will fly away if approached too quickly. They seem to be most sensitive immediately after they land, so if you see a butterfly land, wait 30 or 60 seconds before slowly moving towards it. However, if the butterfly lands on a flower or on scat, then it's probably pre-occupied with feeding, and you can approach it more easily.
Surprisingly, a few species like the Mourning Cloak butterfly are territorial, so if they're disturbed they'll return to the same spot after a few minutes, first flying back and forth past you to check you out - so stay very still. The most territorial butterfly I've encountered was a Comma, which actually rushed me several times and struck me each time!



There are two types of dragonfly: those that are very difficult to photograph, and those that are impossible to photograph! Since they hunt by sight, dragonflies are very sensitive to motion, and will fly away as you try to get close, making them difficult to photograph. And then some dragonflies fly all day long without landing, making them next to impossible to photograph, though not totally impossible!
However, many species of dragonfly are territorial, and they will often return repeatedly to a favorite perch after sorties lasting maybe 30 seconds to a couple of minutes. So if you place yourself near this perch while the dragonfly is away hunting, then stay perfectly still, there's a very good chance that the dragonfly will land back at the perch and allow you to take a photograph.



Different spider species vary in their tolerance to approaching people. Many orb weavers, like giant wood spiders, have very poor eyesight and are totally unfazed by human approach, whereas jumping spiders, which hunt by sight, will usually retreat to the rear side of a leaf when you come close.



Text by Richard Seaman (www.richard-seaman.com)


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