How I photograph bees
People keep asking me how to photograph bees. I think this is funny—a little like asking your 911 operator how to do brain surgery. You see, I don’t know how to photograph like a pro, I just do it with dogged persistence. But since the requests keep coming in, I’ll play along. Don’t laugh.
I started this blog because I wanted to write about bees—not photograph them. After a few months of posting, I asked my friends for a critique. They all said the same thing: “You need more pictures.” Hmm. Even people I didn’t ask volunteered that little tidbit (you know who you are, eh?) so I began to work on it.
Before I get started, let me remind you that there are some excellent insect photographers out there. My favorites include Alex Wild, Kathy Keatley-Garvey, and Zachary Huang. After you read my nonsense, you can go to their sites to see some awesome shots.
What’s in the bag?
Okay, the first question is always about equipment. Since I shoot bugs for fun, I try to keep the cost down. None of my equipment is professional grade. I have a small backpack in which I carry all my bug equipment and here is a list of everything it contains:
- Canon EOS digital Rebel XSi. This is the bottom-of-the-line Canon digital SLR that they used to sell at Costco. It is my first digital camera, but I chose it because I’ve owned a succession of Canon EOS cameras since the 1980s and, miracle of miracles, all my lenses are compatible with it. That said, I only use one lens for bugs.
- Tamron 90 mm 1:1 macro. I love this lens. It costs about half as much as the Canon 100 mm macro, but it works for my purposes. It takes a lot of abuse and works like a champ.
- A 2x teleconverter
- One set of extension tubes: 12, 20, and 36 mm
- One set of screw-on diopters: +1, +2, and +4
- A circular polarizer
- An inexpensive ring light
- A spare battery
- Some spare memory cards
- A 50′ nylon cord (for tying branches out of the way)
- Two plastic containers with screw-on lids (for picking berries when I get tired of bugs)
- Sometimes I bring a 28-105 mm zoom just in case I run across a crime scene. (Did I mention that I once took a course in crime-scene photography?)
Not in the bag are:
- a leash that I wear like a belt
- a pocketful of dog treats
- a dog
- an innovative set of spare cuss words (which I use on the bugs, the dog, and myself interchangeably)
The advice I ignore
Lots of photography advice is available, and much of it has to do with macro photography. Here are some “rules” I routinely ignore:
- You can’t take macro shots without a tripod. Believe me, any bee that spots your tripod will laugh its head off. Bees move fast because they are pathologically camera shy. Some pros tell you to set up your tripod, pre-focus on a single flower, then wait for a bee to come by. Yeah, right—that’s fine if you like to watch the grass grow.
- You can’t take macro shots with autofocus. Sometimes autofocus works up close, and sometimes it doesn’t—you have to experiment. I find that if I’m using f-11 or higher, I can often get away with it. It seems that a little more depth of field gives you a little more focusing freedom.
- You can’t get good shots in bright sunlight. For most situations, this is true. But I find that bugs don’t cast deep shadows, bright sun sometimes makes them glow from within (very cool) and—all else being equal—the heat brings them out in droves. If you think your sunny shots are too shadowy, you can use a fill flash (although I seldom do.)
How I use what’s in the bag
- Ninety percent of the time, I use the macro lens alone. Occasionally I may use the teleconverter, or tubes, or diopters, but I rarely use them in combination. Of the three, I use the tubes most, followed by diopters, and then the teleconverter.
- I shoot with a large image size (lots of pixels). This allows you to crop significant areas of your photo and still have enough pixels left for a good image.
- I might use the ring light if the subject is very dark, but ring lights give a flat, non-lively feel to an image (although they are a must for crime scenes).
- I usually start shooting in “aperture priority” mode. That is, I set the aperture to a minimum of f11 or f13, the ISO to 800, and let the camera software figure out the shutter speed. Depending on the conditions, I adjust the aperture to what I can get away with. In my opinion, f8 is about the smallest number (largest aperture) you can use with a macro lens, otherwise nothing is in focus.
Techniques that work for me
- Having grown up with film cameras and typewriters, I’m convinced that the delete key is the most life-changing invention of the modern world. Sometimes I’m still hesitant to press the shutter button because I remember how much it cost to do it in the past. But here’s the thing: if you want good photos you have to keep taking them. Then delete, delete, delete. Do it soon and do it often.
- However, if your camera can be set to shoot without a memory card, be sure to disable that feature. The best picture I ever took was without a card . . . or at least it seems that way.
- Working with bees doesn’t give you much time. I used to spend a lot of time composing a shot, but with bees, I don’t care where they are in the frame. If I get something decent, I can crop it later.
- Insects slow down when they are cold. They are not nearly so zippy if you can find them early in the day while it’s still cool, although you will find fewer of them. Some books recommend catching a bug, refrigerating it for a few minutes, and then shooting it. I did this once with a bumble bee. The bee’s fur got condensation on it so it looked like it got caught in a storm. When I put it on a leaf, it was so stiff it fell over sideways. Then I blew on it to warm it a little and it wafted into the grass. By the time I found it, it was totally warm and flew off in a huff, tossing insults as it darted away.
- Bees are hard to approach because of all those eyes. When I photograph a bee on a flower, I start to shoot as soon as I can see it in the viewfinder, and then I keep shooting as I creep closer and closer. Sometimes I get quite close, other times the bee leaves after a frame or two. Surprisingly, I’ve gotten some good shots this way.
- For most shots I focus on the eyes. If the eyes are in focus our human brains tell us the picture is in focus. When the eyes are fuzzy, we reject the photo. This is a psychological thing that you just have to accept.
- As soon as your bee is in focus, press that shutter button. This sounds obvious but I often hesitate a fraction of a second (a habit “developed” from film). In this moment the bee may move out of focus, or fly away, or turn around. I have hundreds of what I call “butt shots.” These depict the back end of a bee that was facing me before I pressed the button.
- I shoot in “continuous” mode. If I shoot several frames in a row, I have a much greater chance of one of them being in focus.
- Avoid shooting from a bird’s-eye view. An overhead view usually shows the back of the bee. It’s like shooting the rear of your sister or the back of your cat—not all that exciting.
- Try to catch your bee doing something. As with most subjects, the action shot is more compelling than the still life (think of that semi-comatose refrigerated bumble).
- To get more of the insect in focus, move your camera around until the focal plane is parallel to the plane of the insect that you want in focus.
- When using manual focus, get moderately close to focus with the focusing ring and then move the whole camera in and out to achieve final focus. This is quicker and works better than continually twisting the ring.
- Creatures like spiders will often run to the back side of the flower when you get close. If you put your hand under the flower, they will often run to the top again. But be careful here: playing mind games with invertebrates can damage your delicate psyche—they tend to win more often than not.
- Black bugs—and this includes lots of bees—are hard to photograph, especially when they are sitting on a brightly-colored flower. The camera software tends to underexpose a dark spot surrounded by a lot of light, so it’s helpful to use exposure compensation at +1 or +2.
- If you don’t want to spend hours trekking around the countryside looking for bees, I highly recommend you plant a few bait bushes. Most of my bee pics were taken on cherry laurel, California lilac, oregano, and goldenrod. These bloom for long periods and attract a wide array of invertebrates.
So there you have it: lots of advice from someone who doesn’t know what she is doing. Still, it’s lots of fun and I’ve learned much about insects—if not photography—since I started experimenting. So go try. If you get a photo you want me to post, send me an e-mail.