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.