Finding macro wildlife

A spider on the hunt is one of countless scenes available to photograph, if you know how to find them.

The arthropod world is virtually endless. With over a million recorded species - believed to be but a fraction of  the actual total - you can shoot ten different species every single day of your life and never get close to documenting them all. Finding them in their native habitat exhibiting natural behavior, however, can be a challenge for those new to wildlife macro photography. In this article I'll walk you through the task of locating and handling macro subjects in the field.

Elad and Bruno admiring two spiders in their natural habitat. The key for any successful macro photographer is to be able to closely observe a subject without disturbing its natural behavior.

First, however, I should point out that insect activity is influenced by climate and seasonal conditions, which of course vary greatly around the globe. Here I'll speak to my experiences photographing in countries with 'normal' winter/summer climates in which mornings are chilly and midday is considerably warmer.

Seasons

The first order of business is getting to know the best seasons of the year to find and photograph insects. While there are insects present year round in most climates, it is in springtime that the populations truly boom. Spring, in most species, is the time of year when the adult hatches from its cocoon, and starts frantically looking for food and for a mate. The fields are absolutely packed with invertebrates of all species, flying, hunting, mating - doing everything we want them to do to create an interesting shot.

Robber fly mating is precarious. The male often waits for the female to catch prey before he approaches, so he doesn’t become her next meal himself!

During summer months, insect numbers dwindle noticeably but there are still lots of subjects available. In the fall and winter, however, things are usually not as good. Most adult insects will have died out and the newborns will be in one of their larval stages.

Location

One of the most common questions I get is, 'Where are good places for finding little critters?' The answer is simple. Insects and other invertebrates are everywhere. They exist in almost any environment. And the more remote and wild the location, the higher the quantity and diversity.

The best locations though, are usually ones with damp earth, vegetation, and most importantly – water. I always recommend exploring areas near lakes or in fields with low growth. A body of water with a field beside it is just perfect. Some insects (such as dragonflies) are only found close to water, since their larval stage is fully aquatic.

A butterfly found in low vegetation. Be careful when you walk in the field: there are countless meticulously-built spider webs!

Many species of course, have no problem with a drier environment; robber flies and mantises, to name just two. Fields of low growth vegetation are much easier to maneuver in and generally allow for more pleasing compositions. All else being equal, you'll likely have much more success in a sparse poppy field than a densely packed sunflower plantation for example.

Time of day

Arguably the most important consideration of all is knowing what times of the day are most conducive to locating and shooting invertebrates. Time of day has a huge impact not only on subject activity, but obviously on the quality of light as well.
The best time to shoot non-active arthropods is very early in the morning. Why? Because insects are less active when the temperature is lower. Under crisp early morning conditions, not only will insects hold 'poses', they can be easily manipulated and repositioned by hand without causing them any harm.

Handling insects is easy to do if you approach them in their dormant hours.
Early morning is great for unique scenes, such as this robber fly warming its flight muscles.
Dramatic lighting is another important reason to shoot during the 'magic hours' of early morning.

Natural behavior

Finding insects is one thing. Getting close enough to photograph them at macro-required distances while they're exhibiting interesting behavior is another skill altogether. But its not as difficult as it may seem if you know some basics.

The first thing to know is that insects are highly motion-sensitive. Making sharp, abrupt movements close to an active insect will likely cause it to flee. The rule of thumb here is to plan your movements carefully and perform them as if in slow motion. In addition, you should know that insects’ eyes are ultra-sensitive to changes in light. This is clearly a survival response, since a sudden shift from light to dark could indicate a predator is approaching. By taking care to move toward the subject without casting a shadow near it, you increase the chance of it staying put for the shot.

An active butterfly can still be approached if we make sure we don’t frighten it by casting a shadow or making sudden movements.

Finally, it's important to understand the types of activities in which insects are more prone to remain stationary. A robber fly, for example is less likely to fly away if it’s carrying prey. A female spider will not run away from her egg sack, even at the expense of her life. Knowing even a few little details like these enables you to get very close to your subject.

A robber fly carrying prey is easy to get close to, if you approach it slowly. A female crab spider guarding its egg sack will never leave it, allowing an extreme magnification shot with minimal effort.

With these tips in mind, you can greatly increase your chances of creating unique and impressive wildlife macro imagery.


For more information on macro photography take a look at Erez's other articles:

The what and why of wildlife macro photography
What we want in a macro shot - Detail
What we want in a macro shot - Background
What we want in a macro shot - POV and special scenes
Macro photography: Understanding magnification
Depth of Field in Macro Photography
Composition Basics in Macro Photography


Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer and photography instructor based in Israel.
In January 2013, Erez will lead a winter landscape photography workshop in Iceland, where you can experience and shoot incredible icy sceneries. See Erez' Iceland gallery here. You can see more of Erez' work at Erezmarom.com and follow him on his Facebook page and deviantArt gallery.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 35
Taya
By Taya (Oct 4, 2012)

I love your pictures! I am a fan of macro photography.

1 upvote
ile rodrigues
By ile rodrigues (Sep 28, 2012)

very nice picture

1 upvote
rajramjiani
By rajramjiani (Aug 7, 2012)

good pitures i like the nature and pros of the pictures

1 upvote
Ehsaan Faramosh
By Ehsaan Faramosh (Aug 5, 2012)

Would love an article about lighting in this series.

1 upvote
soleda
By soleda (Jun 27, 2012)

i love the pictures the pixel are awesome you can see everything everything

1 upvote
phudson126
By phudson126 (Jun 26, 2012)

Gorgeous pics man. Never thought insects could be as beautiful as these. They are like some of the most beautiful birds around. I am not sure whether it is the quality of the cameraman or the modern cameras that makes such beautiful pics. But they are awesome nevertheless.

1 upvote
RoelHendrickx
By RoelHendrickx (Jun 21, 2012)

Nice article.
Thanks.
I can confirm that the ONLY (semi) successful dragonfly shoot I ever did (it's really not my thing, but the opportunity presented itself), was frighteningly early in the day:
http://roelh.zenfolio.com/p826838226

Roel Hendrickx

1 upvote
barondla
By barondla (Jun 17, 2012)

Wonderful articles. Love your work. The tips are very helpful. Please keep posting them. Since there are millions of insects do you have a favorite book or guide to help identify what has been photographed?
thanks
barondla

1 upvote
Wildbegonia
By Wildbegonia (Jun 17, 2012)

Like your advise OldArrow.

0 upvotes
Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (Jun 14, 2012)

Nicely presented set of good advices! Let me add an observation.
It is of utmost importance to emit peaceful, soothing and admiring thoughts when approaching any animal. Sometimes it makes all the difference! If you think fear, hunt, catch or similar thoughts, animals are very likely to sense those, and will probably try to mantain safety distances.
I learned this underwater. If you enter the water with a speargun, the sea in front of you will empty itself - not that the fish know about the harpoon, but they can sense "hunter's intentions". On the other hand, when you're carrying a camera, your intentions will be sensed as harmless, and the fish will not be alarmed at all.
I can't say that I understand the mechanisms involved, I only know it works that way, every time. There are several theories about that, but they are only theories. We may never know how... but the main thing is, it works.

2 upvotes
Bill3R
By Bill3R (Jun 14, 2012)

Love looking at your photos. Thanks.

1 upvote
mactheweb
By mactheweb (Jun 13, 2012)

Thanks. This is very helpful.

2 upvotes
thielges
By thielges (Jun 13, 2012)

Thanks for sharing your knowledge Erez! These methodology articles are very interesting and useful.

2 upvotes
Aleo Veuliah
By Aleo Veuliah (Jun 13, 2012)

Good article, well done

2 upvotes
adiprcike
By adiprcike (Aug 16, 2012)

Very well done indeed I would say.

1 upvote
fahad usman
By fahad usman (Jun 13, 2012)

one thing that I have learned from my own experience is that most insects return to where after a while, so if you stay near the point where you saw an insect, there is a fair chance that it will come back after some time

2 upvotes
hiro_pro
By hiro_pro (Jun 13, 2012)

great point. when i shoot dragon fly's, i find a place where there are a ton of them. i plop down in the middle and slowly wait for them to return . after a while they forget i am there. what doesn't work is chasing them around. find where they want to be, settle in and let the bugs come to you.

4 upvotes
JPMontez
By JPMontez (Jun 13, 2012)

These articles on photo techniques are really interesting and helpful. DPReview should invest more on this.

Thank you Erez Marom for another great article!

3 upvotes
Hugo808
By Hugo808 (Jun 13, 2012)

Beautiful photo's. I had a macro lens once, boy it's tough to get good results, makes me appreciate these all the more.

2 upvotes
jezza__1
By jezza__1 (Jun 13, 2012)

Great article! thanks :-)

Comment edited 8 minutes after posting
1 upvote
mauthbaux
By mauthbaux (Jun 13, 2012)

I used to take classes in entomology, so I've picked up a few pointers on finding insects that I thought would be worth sharing here.

1: Life prefers edges. You'll find a much greater variety of insects at the border between a forest and a field than you will in the middle of either. Treelines, pathways, and edges of streams are all excellent places.

2: Dress for the occasion. Wear bright colors and some fragrance, and the bees and butterflies are likely to come to you.

3: If you're looking for the bugs themselves, you'll have a rough time of it. Look instead for evidence of bugs. Chewed leaves, withered plants, dark spots on trees, rolled up leaves; most anything out of place.

4: Patience is key. Sometimes it's best to just sit by some flowers and wait for the bugs to come to you. Try not to panic when a few inevitably use you as a place to rest. Use slow, deliberate movements.

5: For nocturnal insects, light traps will make things really easy.

Good luck, Everyone!

17 upvotes
Tan68
By Tan68 (Jun 13, 2012)

These are good comments, thanks. I would add that I think bugs will become more easily observable over time.

I haven't ever hunted bugs. However, other times I have been in areas to observe animals and such I have not at first seen much. Over time, it became easier for me to see different animals.

0 upvotes
bokane
By bokane (Jun 12, 2012)

Yes, useful, but we're still waiting for the big secret of the series - how do you get them to stay still while you focus stack?

2 upvotes
stanic042
By stanic042 (Jun 13, 2012)

liquid nitrogen? :)

3 upvotes
dijstelberge
By dijstelberge (Jun 13, 2012)

try to find sleeping insects or as mentioned above guarding spiders. I like eating insects to.

http://www.mdsign.nl/fotos/D300/MDS15826.jpg
for more closeups visit blog.mdsign.nl

0 upvotes
QSMcDraw
By QSMcDraw (Jun 13, 2012)

Q.: How do you know the bug is sleeping? A.: Look for the little Zzzzz floating in a cloud over the bug's head.

Seriously, nice summer reading. Living in Florida, no problem finding subjects! Avoiding them is the challenge here!

1 upvote
dijstelberge
By dijstelberge (Jun 13, 2012)

its eyes are closed! duh!! ;-)

1 upvote
patrikkatona
By patrikkatona (Jun 13, 2012)

I always use focus stacking technique. The secret is you should get up before the sun come up. I often got up at 4 o' clock.
Some picture if you are interested:
http://www.flickr.com/patrikkatona

1 upvote
Lou Cohen
By Lou Cohen (Jun 16, 2012)

Best way to get 'em to stay still??? Hairspray! (JOKING!)

0 upvotes
Wildbegonia
By Wildbegonia (Jun 17, 2012)

What about hypnosis? No,really,the bussiness about wearing bright colours it trully works. I wore a long sleeve tiny flowers design shirt at a park in the Amazon,and, guess what, people arond me had a ball of fun taking pictures of a butterfly that would not stop crowling all over me. It wanted to make sure every flower in the shirt was scrutinized. Seriously!

Comment edited 41 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Wildbegonia
By Wildbegonia (Jun 17, 2012)

Thank you Patrik, i look at your very nice gallery, but i liked the photos of you in the field, sure here a photo is more explanatory than thousand words about how to go with the setting. Good work, boy and thank s for sharing.

0 upvotes
winniepoo
By winniepoo (Jun 12, 2012)

Thanks .Good tips and beautiful shots. Really enjoy them.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
1 upvote
dholl
By dholl (Jun 12, 2012)

bookmarked!

thanks for writing this :))

1 upvote
Bill Bentley
By Bill Bentley (Jun 12, 2012)

Good tips and wonderful images Erez. Your web site is very well done too. The gallery pages are very inspiring. Thank you for sharing both knowledge and images.

4 upvotes
design7
By design7 (Jun 12, 2012)

Excellent tips here! I plan to use this info right away in my outdoor macro photography. Thanks!

2 upvotes
Total comments: 35