In flight entertainment

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One of my photographic obsessions in the last couple of years has been capturing insects in flight. Particularly bees and hover flies. I have by no means mastered this art yet. But I have bagged a few shots that I like and I have learned a few things along the way.

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I suspect that the best way to get really superb shots is to find a flower that the insects frequent, set up the tripod, lock focus on the flower and use a remote shutter release to fire off a load of shots every time a bug comes near. I can see the attraction of this laid back approach. I imagine a deck chair, comfy cushions, a cool glass of Pimms… But you would need that kind of still summer’s day that only happens in this country in Evelyn Waugh novels. Even the slightest breeze can move a flower. So, ditch the tripod.

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I prefer to shoot flying bugs in shutter priority, set to 1/640 or 1/800, with the camera set to AI servo and continuous shooting. Any faster than 800 and you risk freezing the wings. I prefer blurry wings. They’re moving, and I want my picture to show that. Compare the two shots below:

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The first shot is probably better quality but I prefer the shimmering wings in the second.

While blurry wings are good, blurry bodies are not, especially eyes. I use centre spot focus; my manual focus skills just aren’t up to the job. If yours are, go for it. For those of us who rely on auto, you should aim to get the centre point over the eye. Yes, it’s tricky. But put in some practice and you will be able to do it. Softness in the rest of the insect matters less if the eyes are clear.

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I won’t use flash; I don’t want to ‘bug’ the bugs. So having such a fast shutter speed reduces my depth of field somewhat, or a lot! Therefore, I always use ISO 400 for these shots. That gets me more depth. Really bright direct sunlight that would allow a lower ISO is usually fairly ugly light anyway. On the upside, a wider aperture means nicer backgrounds, smooth and undistracting.

Background is half the battle. Compare the next two shots. In the first the bee is nice and sharp but the background is ugly. In the second, the bee is frankly too soft but you just have to love that fresh green background. Which do you think is the more pleasing image?

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Oh, and I mustn’t forget to mention metering. I use spot metering. I want to expose for the bug and it is too small in the frame for the camera to expose for it in the default, evaluative metering mode.

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Finally, it helps to learn a bit about the habits of your models. After a while of crouching in the bushes with ants crawling up your trousers you will start to notice that, while honey bees tend to approach flowers in a business-like straight line, bumble bees live up to their name and bumble all over the place. Certain hover flies, particularly the marmalade fly, hover beautifully, while others zoom around oblivious to the fact that they are supposed to be hover flies and are frankly not worth your trouble until they settle.

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Finally, be prepared to get very funny looks from a lot of people if attempting any of this in public. Good luck!

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Many thanks to The Goat that Wrote for the idea for today’s post.

PS Before someone asks, I use a 100mm macro lens on a full frame camera. But you could do this just as well with a cropped sensor and another lens.
And, no, I have never been stung.

PPS I have shown some of the images in small size because of problems with downloading really long blog entries.  All of the images stand up to scrutiny at a larger size.  You’re just going  to have to trust me on that 😉