Back to Basics

Macro Insect and Spider Photography: The Basics, part 2

You’ve been chasing the same insect throughout your garden for over 20 minutes. This particular insect caught your eye because you’ve never seen anything quite like it. You mentally envision the accolades you’ll receive when the world learns that you’ve discovered a new species (not likely). If only this darn thing would sit still long enough to snap a shot!

Two flies on a leaf
Two bottle flies perfectly composed on a leaf

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let the above scenario wear me thin to the point of stomping back to the house. I’ll lay my camera aside, too frustrated in the moment to upload any of the shots I took.

In part 2 of our four-part series on the basics on macro insect and spider photography, we’ll focus on why patience is key to producing great macro work. We’ll explore learning patience over time as you develop your skill, patience with less-than-cooperative subjects, and patience with yourself as you fail over and over again.

The Basics, part 2

Patience

Learning your skill: Patience over time

To be successful in macro insect and spider photography, you must learn patience. Patience is the ability to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry. Think about the last time you felt impatient either behind the lens or with photography in general. What caused your frustration? For me, impatience often stems from windy or overcast conditions or my inability to capture “the money shot” of a particular subject. I’ve also been impatient and frustrated over the veeeeery slow growth of followers on my Facebook page. It’s taken years for me to learn patience as I develop and and improve my skill.

Though I’ve been interested in close-up and macro photography from the young age of 12, it wasn’t until I was about 20 that I really started to develop my skill and it wasn’t until several years later that I took the time to really learn how to use my camera. After realizing that I wan’t getting the shots I wanted, I committed myself to using my camera in manual mode. This meant I had to start thinking about each and every shot I took and what settings I needed to choose for the changing conditions. Impatience grew as I stumbled over photo after photo, until finally, my photography began to visibly improve. Once I mastered my camera, I moved on to mastering other things like composition and lighting.

It took years of dedicated experience for my photography to improve. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. Patience was key in encouraging me to never give up.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give to new macro photographers is to find photographers whose work you love and begin to work towards developing your own unique style that draws from what you love most about the works of others. Read blogs, watch video tutorials, and practice as much as you can. Over time, you will start to notice results and let me tell you, it’s exhilarating.

I used to submit my photos regularly to a Facebook page called Macro Photography. The page invites photographers to submit their own work and they post the best images for all their followers (nearly 80,000 as of today) to see and share. For a few years, I posted my photos in the hopes that I would one day see my work displayed for tens of thousands of people, and one day it finally happened. That’s when I knew the hard work and patience was starting to pay off. After that, Macro Photography regularly posted my photos. Though it never resulted in much page growth for my personal Facebook page, the sense of accomplishment each time I see one of my photos is huge (and that’s all that really matters for me).

If only these darn bugs would sit still!: Patience with your subjects

Bugs are wildlife and, as any wildlife photographer knows, the creatures we photograph are more interested in survival than posing for portraits. As such, capturing a perfect shot of an insect or spider can be tough. Most bugs move quickly and when you’re dealing with an already minimal working distance and narrow depth of field, even the slightest movement can ruin a shot.

Long legged fly on leaf
Long Legged Flies are difficult to shoot as they rarely sit still!

There are insect and spider photographers who collect specimens to photograph in the studio. There are others who collect, freeze, and photograph their subjects. And still others who choose ultimate death to get the perfect bug shot. I got my career start as an environmental educator in a National Park. My intent with photography has always been, first and foremost, encouraging environmental appreciation and stewardship of natural resources. I do not kill, pose, or otherwise harm my subjects.

It can be tempting to manipulate your surroundings and subjects to get a good shot, but I encourage new macro photographers to photograph only the natural world with as little intervention as possible. Practice patience with your photography. Your subjects will be more relaxed and you’ll shoot better photos if you make a point to let the bugs be safe in their element. Sure, you’ll miss a lot of shots, but the shots you do get will be great.

Patience with yourself as you fail

One of my greatest frustrations in photography is thinking I captured an amazing photo of an interesting insect only to realize upon computer upload that I failed to get even a halfway decent shot. Moments like these can be shattering. It’s taken years for me to learn that every bad shot is a step towards perfecting my skill.

Dragonfly covered in dew
Early morning photo walks are great for beginner macro photographers as many insects sit stationary on plants until the sun provides them enough warmth to fly away.

Every photo you take is an opportunity to learn about what you could have done better. You have to take the time to look at your bad photos and learn from them. What makes them bad? Poor composition? Bad lighting? No focal point? If you have the patience to (sometimes painstakingly) review and critique your own photos, you’ll improve. Take note of the settings you used and mentally choose settings that would have been more appropriate for the situation.

In summary, patience is key in improving your skill as a photographer. Know that you will produce many horrible shots when starting out (and even after you think you’ve mastered macro photography!), but keep chugging along and your work will improve.

My next installment in this series on the Basics of Macro Photography will focus on the importance of learning about the behavior of insects and spiders. Stay tuned!

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