Practical tips for successful macro photography
In this post, I’d like to tell you a bit about my greatest passion: ladybird photography. Many people think the little creatures make charming and attractive subjects for photos. But taking photos of ladybirds isn’t easy, as I had to learn the hard way. It did mean that I gained some useful experience in dealing with the animals and I’d like to pass some tips on to you here.
Ladybirds are technically known as Coccinellidae and are part of the insect family. The best-known type has a red shell with black spots. Despite what you may have heard, the number of spots doesn’t tell you the bug’s age, but the position and number does give you a clue about the species. Ladybirds feed on aphids and scale insects as well as other pests, which makes them a boon to gardeners. And as long as they can find enough food, they will leave other members of their species alone – but if they get hungry, sometimes the sweet little bugs will turn into merciless cannibals.
To be honest, it really isn’t easy to find a ladybird. You’ll always find someone who says they’re really easy to find because they always turn up in specific places. You can find many different opinions on the internet. From my own experience, ladybirds tend to like plants that are vulnerable to aphids, such as tomato vines, blackberry and rose bushes.
Ladybird season is from March to October, and sometimes there are downright epidemics of them (such as in autumn 2016, because it was a very warm autumn). At the beginning of the cold season, ladybirds often group together in warm, secluded places to hibernate. The next spring, they breed and die after laying around 400 eggs, which hatch into ladybird larvae. You can occasionally find these in the early summer. They’re almost threatening, with points on their shells. They can’t do much against their many predators, though – these include birds, frogs, spiders, and other insects.
It’s said that ladybirds are good luck charms. If you find one, you’re supposed to count the spots. The more spots, the more luck you’ll have. There are also lucky cents with ladybirds that have a huge number of spots. One thing is for sure: a gardener who has lots of ladybirds in the garden can always count themselves lucky.
Compared with other insects, the round, spotted ladybird is almost cute, although its red shell is meant as a warning colour in nature. Unlike the yellow and black wasp, however, they are not a dangerous species. Children love them and are happy to let them run around on their hands until they fly off their finger with the next gust of wind.
If you’d like to take photos of insects, you should get up early – however, this piece of advice isn’t very helpful when it comes to ladybirds. For other insects, it’s supposed to be easier to capture them in full-format, because the cold air makes them stiff and less likely to move. But ladybirds find a hiding place for the night, and for me at least, they are impossible to track down in the morning or late evening. So I usually look for them in the warmer hours of the afternoon. That’s when the light isn’t so harsh and direct like at midday, so it’s easier to avoid ugly shadows cast by the sun. You could use a diffusor to take ladybird photos at midday, of course, but since I’m usually out and about with just a camera and no other equipment, I prefer to avoid this time.
What do I use for ladybird macros? As you’d expect, a macro lens is ideal. I use the new Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD, myself. If that’s a little out of your price range at the moment, a normal wide-angle lens with a close-up filter will do in a pinch. This is how I started off with macro photography.
For ladybird photography, which is particularly demanding, you will usually need three extra things:
If you want to go a step further and get professional results, you can use a few other pieces of equipment:
Avoid shaking the camera! Ladybirds usually sit in bushes or shrubs instead of posing on flowers, even though this would make a better photo. This means that if you’d like to work without a tripod, you have to make sure your exposure time is short enough (e.g. 1/125s). Because that’s not always easy, I bring the ladybird on its leaf to a place where I can minimise the bush shaking (because of the wind) and the camera shaking (because of my hand). Usually, this means the floor, which is then my natural tripod. I get more stability this way, and the ladybird doesn’t get annoyed, because I’ve brought its leaf along too.
Don’t be too impulsive! Even when you have to work quickly: be as calm as you can and avoid touching the ladybirds. It will assume you’re a predator and want to flee. Ladybirds are particularly active during the warm afternoon hours, but a steady hand can achieve a lot. Focusing will be very difficult at first, since you’re working in the macro range. If the ladybird moves even a millimetre while you’re focused, the image will be blurry again. You develop a feeling for this over time, both for the insect’s pattern of movement and for the right focus point.
Photograph the ladybird at eye level if possible! Shots from a bird’s-eye perspective are relatively easy to get, but usually they’ll come out as boring snapshots rather than breathtaking masterpieces. They’ll lack depth and won’t reflect the world in which the ladybird lives. It’s more interesting to see the ladybird from eye level. This allows you to create the impression that the viewer is integrated into the scenery. It can mean your clothes get dirty, since you’ll have to lie down and see the world from the insect’s point of view. It’s worth the effort, though, because it’ll put a whole new depth in your pictures. You’ll also have a steadier hand when lying down because you can support yourself against the ground.
Watch the foreground! Make sure objects in the foreground don’t ‘unsharpen’ the focus point. You often have what you think is a perfect picture, but then a blade of grass appears right in front of the ladybird’s face and breaks the all-important eye contact.
Find the right light! Avoid direct sunlight. It makes for harsh and dark shadows without much detail. It’s better to look for a shaded area with indirect or ‘filtered’ light. For example, an ideal location would be under a tree of in the shadow of a bush – or just use a diffusor.
Go close! Really close! Don’t be shy. Ladybirds can’t sting or bite, so they can’t hurt you if they feel threatened. The worst that can happen is that they fly away. So, go as close as your nearest focusing distance allows. That will give you the largest possible image scale. Make sure, though, that you don’t rob your insect subject of light.
So that’s my experience with ladybird photography. I hope it fills you with enthusiasm for this somewhat specialised kind of macro photography. If you follow these tips and get a bit of practice with manual focusing, you can take wonderful pictures that let the viewer jump into the ladybirds’ world.
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