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My interest in macro photography has led me to me to meet a number of entomologists and seize an opportunity to visit the Canadian National Collection (CNC) of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes (the latter is an amazing national treasure started in 1883 it has more than 16 million specimens).
In an earlier post I mentioned a number of sources that help me identify what I see, but more importantly I am on the path to knowing where to look for various insects and spiders. (Just to illustrate how ignorant I was I had no idea that spiders were not insects, and bees are related to ants.)
Many books on butterflies give examples of the kinds of bushes or plants that a given type of butterfly will find attractive. It is not always the case for other insects and local knowledge seems the key, hence my searching out and meeting entomologists and other nature types. They can help you discover, for example, that tiny (8mm) ambush bugs, like goldenrod and what damage they can do to you (painful but harmless injections etc.)
Most modern macro/micro lenses are only going to get you a life size shot which fill the frame with your subject, at its closest focus point. In other words the longer the lens the farther you are from your subject at your maximum magnification, which is a good thing if the insect is not pleased. You can shorten the focus distance and improve your magnification with extension tubes. I use a 105mm lens with Kenko extension tubes. As far as insects go you are probably as close as you want to be!
Strange things happen in macro photography, your depth of field becomes minuscule even at F11, and as you step down past F11, you can soften the photo by an optical phenomenon called diffraction. Secondly, light is at a premium and you will need some form of artificial light. In an early post I suggested where to go to learn about these things (especially how to create the tools yourself – an entomologist I know uses a pop bottle and some paper to focus his flash).
Photographing insects in the wild is challenging but fun and if you are lucky you get to meet interesting people like entomologists
The other day my post was on Macro photography. I am sure the impression was given that this is a highly technical field, and it can be. Here is a simple method that works fine in many instances to get a taste of what is possible.
Have a look at the closest focusing distances of the lenses you have. The shot above was taken with a 70-200mm lens, not what you would think it was intended for, but it works, even at distance of five feet away with a bit of cropping.
Wide-angle lenses are even better. You can get within millimeters of a plant or a compliant bug.
Sure a Macro/Micro lens is preferable and there is less cropping but while you are figuring out if you want to invest in more gear, experiment with the close focusing of your lenses. zoom or prime lens, it does not matter.
My only recommendation is if you do decide to spend money, be wary of close-up filters. They can be expensive and may not deliver the quality you would expect. I have never tried using bellows, I do use extension tubes with a 105 mm macro lens.
Experiment with the lenses you have, its worth the effort.
Last summer I had some fun with taking macro shots of insects. I sat in on a session with an entomologist and a professional photographer who has done a few books of insect photographs. Here on WordPress I followed a few people who take macro shots and entomologists who study and take photographs (such as http://beetlesinthebush.wordpress.com/, http://bugphoto.net and http://macrocritters.wordpress.com ) but there are many, many others that focus on photographs of insects and spiders.
I found myself taking pictures of things I could not identify and discovered http://bugguide.net where entomologists professional and amateur review your photographs and help you identify the subjects. I read up on optics and formulas on http://www.cambridgeincolour.com. Entomologists, mostly want lateral or top down shots (the better to identify animals). In my case I prefer portraits and to see the critters in context.
So I set my standards high in an area of photography where the challenges of narrow depth of field, lack of light, and need for a speedy shutter is important. My rules today are animals in context, not behind fences or in cages, at feeders, glued, pinned to a board or fast frozen. What this has meant is several days of effort on a single series of photographs, sometimes weeks (see my galleries on Ambush Bugs or Grasshoppers at www.rakmilphotography.com ). The variables that made it time-consuming were not just my ignorance in macro photography, but wind/rain, accessibility and a need for patience often in uncomfortable positions.
You have to find the little guys and most books and experts are far from clear on their habits etc. Once you find them, you need to think of their size versus your ability to get close and magnify; your ability to steady your gear and get light on subject. Then there is the skittishness of the bug involved. Think of Gulliver hanging over you with a menacing claw, and flashing light.
You need to know your subject, your gear and the circumstances in which you are going to work. There are lots of photographers who are entirely opportunistic and do a great job taking spectacular photographs even of bugs. There can be equal pleasure in taking the time to tell a story, providing more than one viewpoint, learning a new skill, and to do one series of photos well. Having been primarily an opportunistic photographer, I am now trying to build series (not just macro photographs), to stretch myself. I think it has been worthwhile and rewarding. Of course the penalty is never having the right equipment with you for all the things you might want to shoot.