How to take macro photos

Wildlife photographer Leon Baas shares his expert tips. 

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Green shield bug in its habitat.

Insects can be frustratingly skittish, so plants are the perfect place to take your first macro shots, according to bug photographer Leon Baas. “Photographing plants allows you to try the key techniques required for macro photography,” he says. “Experiment with light and composition in your garden, and notice how the background changes with just slight movements.

“When you’ve had a chance to practise you can start to do the same with insects. Ladybirds are popular subjects because their movements are easy to predict. Get down on your stomach and find out what else is around: the longer you look, the more you see.

“Try to come at the bug from eye level, and get even lower because this can give you a more dominant image, which is especially beautiful with larger and narrower insects.

“Photographing invertebrates requires quick reactions, so it’s really important to set your camera up in advance. If you’re lucky enough to find an insect that stays still, it gives you an opportunity to experiment with lighting, composition and depth of field.

“The more you understand insect behaviour the more you can anticipate it. For example, an ant on a branch will stop when it gets to the end, so that’s the time to press the shutter, and a weevil starts kicking with its legs just before it takes off.”

 

LOOK OUT FOR... 

Camera settings Because you’re dealing with low-contrast light, it can be difficult for your camera to auto focus – so always choose manual. Focus on the eyes, doing as much as you can with the lens before moving the camera in and out to fine-tune. Set the ISO manually: a setting of about 400 ISO gives a good balance of light and noise in the final image. 

Fieldcraft The more you learn about insect behaviour the better your photographs will be. You can make your garden wildlife-friendly by planting flowers that attract bees and butterflies. You’re most likely to find macro opportunities in sunnier locations. A pond is also a great place for insects.

Lighting You get the very best light early in the morning: a beautiful warm glow with very little contrast. The best way to use natural light is to put your subject in the shade and make sure that light falls on the background. You can achieve this effect by putting a white umbrella over the subject or by using a flash to light up the background.

Depth of field Macro gives a limited depth of field: the stamen of a flower might be sharp but its petals out of focus. Use this creatively, with soft-focus backgrounds or grasses that frame the foreground. A small aperture (big f-stop) widens the depth of field, but requires slower shutter speeds. This will increase the chance of camera shake, so make sure you keep your hand steady.

 

BASIC MACRO EQUIPMENT 

A macro lens There are a number of compact cameras that offer macro functionality, but an SLR with a dedicated macro lens is still the best option. Don’t be tempted to economise too much on the lens – you need to invest to get satisfactory results.

A tripod This is useful for shooting early in the morning, but less so later in the day when insects are flying faster. Then it’s better to hand-hold and shoot without a support, because you need the flexibility and freedom of movement this provides.

A reflector This is a good tool to highlight your subject. Leon’s preference is always to go for a gold reflector because it gives off a much warmer light. He suggests purchasing a white umbrella to control the light falling on the insect. 

 

Be inspired by a gallery of Leon’s amazing images. 

Find out how to create the perfect wildlife pond in five steps. 

 

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