How to improve your insect photography

Pro photographer Ross Hoddinott explains how he got his best butterfly shot – and shares his top photography tips.

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Small pearl-bordered fritillary photo © Ross Hoddinott

Butterflies are among my favourite subjects, and I’m often out hunting for them on fine spring mornings. However, photographing insects can prove frustrating. They can be tricky to locate, even if you know where to look, and are very wary.

There are also technical challenges. Shooting at a high magnification results in a shallow depth of field, and the smallest movement appears greatly exaggerated through the viewfinder.

Once a butterfly is on the wing, I have no control over where it will stop or what’s in the background, so I try to find one that’s still asleep. In June, this means a 5am start. I take extreme care when walking – a careless step could kill your subject.

One morning, I came across a handful of pearl-bordered fritillaries. This individual was in the best setting, with the bluebell adding interest and colour. I used a tripod and positioned the camera with a low, parallel viewpoint. I cut away some distracting blades of grass and bounced light onto the butterfly’s underwing with a reflector.

I got the shot without disturbing my subject. Minutes later, the first rays of sunlight struck the fritillary, and it woke up and flew away.

Ross Hoddinott’s top wildlife photography tips

1. Consider your background

What you exclude from your image is often as important as what you actually feature. Always make sure to keep an eye on the background – a messy, cluttered or distracting backdrop will draw the viewer’s eye away from the subject. Selecting a large aperture will help to throw the background nicely out of focus.

2. Manipulate natural light

When shooting close-ups, light can be limited. But if you are mere inches from your subject, then flash can prove impractical, harsh or unnatural. Where possible, use reflected light. Employ a small reflector (or sheet of card covered in tin foil) to bounce light onto your subject. Vary the intensity by moving it closer or further away.

3. Place your subject in context

It can be tempting to fill the entire frame with your subject, but placing it in context with its natural surroundings will often create a stronger, more aesthetically pleasing image. Using a shorter focal length and intentionally including a slice of the subject’s environment also helps to create a feeling of scale.

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