Hopping on Board With Macro, Shooting the Critters

f5 1/200 ISO 200 – Grasshopper in the November Garden – 105mm macro

When you think of how many insect species inhabit the earth, it is staggering. There are over one million that are accounted for, and countless many that are still unknown. As gardeners, we run across many arthropods in our gardens. Everything about them is fascinating, from the spiders to the grasshoppers to the bees.

f9 1/125 ISO 320 60mm macro

Urban Critters Sing Louder

Before I get into photographing grasshoppers,

I ran across an interesting study on them.  It found that urban grasshoppers sing to their mates louder and at lower frequency than their counterparts in the country. My hoppers are all city dwellers.

The study found the boost in bass tone helps the males to be heard over the prolonged noise of traffic. They noted that the males captured from urban areas sang loudly in a quiet lab when introduced to female grasshoppers just like they did in the city environment serenading their prospective mates – suggesting “it is not a spontaneous behavioral adaptation to noise but a long-term effect.” (source) Pretty interesting how nature adapts.

f8 1/125 ISO 200 Nikon D80 18-135mm

I chose the grasshopper as a subject, not because it is pretty, but because there was not much else moving in the garden at this time of year. Next macro post you will see a lethargic bee and some from summer flying around. The grasshopper is interesting though with all the movable and armor-like parts, whether it is in the field or in the city.

f5.6 1/1250 ISO 1000 55-300mm zoom

I am using a macro lens in many of these shots and if you recall from last post, that is a 1:1 relationship. I also used zoom lens too.

f3 1/15 ISO 400  Not an Arthropoda, but a closeup with my compact digital Nikon P510 set on the flower mode (macro). Point and Shoots can take very clear and wonderful images. It is especially helpful that iron frogs don’t move. 1/15 is almost impossible to hand hold the camera, which this image was. I am not even sure how I was so steady. Luck I guess.

It is snowing outside or I would have went on an insect safari in the back yard. The frog is about 3 inches high and 6 inches long.  Lighting was through a window in my office.  Two weeks ago when the images for this post were shot, it was 70° outside and very sunny.

Use What You are Comfortable With

Don’t feel if you just had better equipment, you will take better photos. It is a fact that the cameras out there with fancy features will yield better image quality generally, but a good photo comes from the person taking it, not the camera. Many folks with point and shoots take wonderful macro images.

Shoot with the camera, lens and equipment you are most comfortable. You will have more fun and be more successful. One thing I want to mention though. Many of you don’t use the macro mode (the flower icon) on your compact cameras and should give it a try. You will be very pleased. Even froggy above is a nice looking portrait, almost like a studio shot.

If I took a guess at how many of my bug shots are usable with my macro lenses, I would say about one-third. My guess at using the zoom lenses increases to about 90%. But the more interesting shots have always been with the macro lens which I am still getting familiar to using.

For the longest time, I was not using the 60mm lens because I just could not be consistent and had many failures. But with practice, I came to love the macro lenses far more than the zooms for closeup work.

The macro images that are poor in quality are the ones where the subject just flies out of the frame, especially the bees. Other reject images are poorly focused or inadequately lighted. Many macro bees went to the trash for a dash out of my frame. The macro lenses take a while to get accustomed to, especially handheld. Holding the camera is where I am most comfortable, and macro fights you with focus on hand holding.

f3.5 1/80 ISO 200 – 105mm macro

In these images, I did not use a tripod. I feel the need to have the flexibility that lets me photograph these tiny creatures how I choose. For instance, I was low to the ground shooting up in the image above. You might need to be able to adjust just a mere fraction of an inch to frame the subject how you want. Honestly though, the images would be a bit sharper if I was using a tripod because with the macro lens, you have limited depth-of-field.

f8 1/125 ISO 200 – 18mm-135mm zoom

If you have been following my series, often a common mistake is always having the subject in the center and lots of environment around it. In most of my photos, I prefer to isolate my subject from the background and have it a bit off-center. I also try to have the eyes of the insect in the sweet spot of the rule of thirds, like in the two images below, one with the grid and one without.

f6.3 1/1600 ISO 1000 – 55-300mm zoom

I learned something really important from a professional nature photographer. Don’t discount and dismiss those center shots so readily. It is better to capture the whole creature, especially if it is in flight, than have part of it fly out of the frame. So any insect or bird that hops, flies or scurries, it is better to have them in the frame, than not.

Going in close becomes about discovery, seeing things you would normally not notice. For instance, I never knew grasshoppers were fuzzy! Well, I did know all insects have hairs, like I found out in my post, Snapple Capped the Buzz on Bees, but never looked that close before.

f5 1/200 ISO 320 – 105mm macro

You can see throughout this post, I am not wedded to any particular settings. I do prefer f5 through f8 though. A bit more is in focus without sacrificing too much light. Plus f8 is where many lenses are their sharpest.

Depending on your camera and lens, it will determine whether or not you can fill the frame with the insect or zero in on a portion of the insect’s body, like the head or the abdomen. Below, I was much closer with a zoom lens and got a well focused hind end. I like this image  though, even better than the one below from the front. Don’t go on that though, most photographers would probably say the front image is better.

f8 1/200 ISO 100 – 18-135mm zoom

I find the bodies of arthropods really fascinating architecturally. They are colorful and the segments look like body armor. Even the legs have enormously interesting detail.

f5 1/200 ISO 200 – 105mm macro

The best shots have the focus on the eyes, but including their tiny world can make for a nice image.

f8 1/400 ISO 320 – 60mm macro

The spiders look so much more at home in their webs for instance. Or the grasshopper munching flower petals below.

f8 1/125 ISO 100 – 18-135mm zoom

Choose Your Background

Background plays an important part in macro photography to put the focus on the subject. Choosing them may be as simple as you moving where you are standing, or pointing your camera in a different direction.

Contrasting color is usually a safe bet if you can get it, but the background should not be busy and compete. The out of focus background will make the insect stand out and focus the viewer’s attention on the insect. The problem with grasshoppers is they are the color of their surroundings. Where a butterfly contrasts as brightly colored, a grasshopper looks like the grasses and leaves they cling to. This makes blurring the background more important.

f3.2 1/80 ISO 200 – 105mm macro

Be careful of the closest focusing distance of the lens you’re using. If you’re closer to your subject than that limit allows, your image will be fuzzy and unclear. I was very close to completely unclear in the image below having no zoom. But I just had enough detail to make my photo have some interest. With a macro lens, you move back and forth until your subject is focused. The focusing ring does the detailed focusing.

f3.5 1/80 ISO 200 – 105mm macro

The Technique

To isolate the subject from the background is to use shallow depth-of-field using low f-stops, so here is the skinny on the f-stops.

  • The lower the f-stop in number, the larger the opening in the lens. This equals the less depth-of-field and the blurriest background.
  • The higher the f-stop, like the high numbers, the smaller the opening in the lens. This equals the greater the depth-of-field and the sharpest background.
  • Also be aware, how close your camera is to the subject (working distance) plays a part, as does the lens you are using. With the low f-stop, the example above shows all three factors in play.

f7.1 1/125 ISO 200 – 18-135mm zoom  Lots of green environment, not all that close at less than 10:1. Not a true macro.

The f-Stop Also Affects Shutter Speed

  • Using a low f-stop means more light is entering the lens and therefore the shutter doesn’t need to stay open as long to make a correct exposure, therefore, a faster shutter speed. Faster is good with a handheld camera.
  • Using a high f-stop means that less light is entering the lens and the shutter will need to stay open a little longer or a slower shutter speed. This is where you should use a tripod if the shutter speed is below 1/60 second.

f3.2 1/100 ISO 200 – 105mm macro

Reasons to Blur the Background

  • Focus and depth-of-field to direct attention to what is important in the photograph.
  • Use lack of focus to minimize distractions that cannot be eliminated from the composition.
  • Make a more interesting shot, add a sense of art to your work.

F6.3 1/80 ISO 500 60mm macro

Similar to Blurring the Background

A technique often used is to position the camera so that a brightly lit subject is photographed against a dark background. Exposing for a well-lit subject, under full daylight for example, or flash, will cause a dark background to go underexposed and approach black, hence the subject is isolated like in the example above. It was bright daylight with exposure on the Dandelion. When you shoot like this it is almost like a studio shot. Behind the dandelion was distracting road and houses, which I eliminated by forcing the background towards black.

Keeping close-up images simple can give the most dramatic and beautiful results.

Next post is The Buzz on ISO. We got bees in November too.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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55 Responses to Hopping on Board With Macro, Shooting the Critters

  1. Alice says:

    I hope to have a good camera again soon to learn this wonderful ability. Gardens and cameras go together.

  2. Donna I will have to investigate my camera a bit more as I love taking macros. We had a steady week of night temps in the 20s the week before Thanksgiving. Then when I was away this past week the highest temp was 60 with 30s at night so few insects here…a couple of frogs except now…the snow and cold has put them all to rest…amazing you had temps of 70….

  3. A.M.B. says:

    These are wonderful photos! Up close, you really get to see the grasshopper’s elegance. They are too small and too fast to observe it otherwise.

  4. Julie Gomez says:

    Beautiful macros, Donna! Also, Let’s Be Wild (via Twitter @letsbewild) is having a macro contest this week. If you, or any of your followers are interested, here is their link. Happy shooting! http://www.letsbewild.com/photo-challenge/wild-weekly-photo-challenge-7-macro-photography/

  5. That last tip on getting rid of the background is one I may have an opportunity to try soon. Thanks for the great post!

  6. Just amazing pictures, as always. Afraid I don’t understand much of the technical photography stuff.

    • That is OK. I have such varied readership that not all posts work out for all. This series of posts is aimed at beginners though. I may have to dial it back a bit it it is too techy. do have one coming on the point and shoot though. It will be a while yet on that one. I am saving it for my trip to have better photo subjects.

  7. Indie says:

    Some pretty photos – I love seeing the legs of the grasshopper in detail. So interesting! I remember seeing some sort of website where it showed amazing macro photos that someone had done with their point-and-shoot. I definitely rely on my fancy lens, which I am still learning about! So much to learn!

    • I would love to see that website. I am doing one also with my little Nikon and would love to see how they approached shooting. I have my ideas, but I bet there is even more tricks to using the small cameras.

  8. nicole says:

    You are so talented! I have so much to learn!

  9. Patrick says:

    What an expansive lesson but the I think the most must heartening insight is its not about the camera, it’s the quality of the operator who can always improve.

    • I learned that a long time ago. It is a very humbling thing to understand. Finding out that equipment is really not what makes you better should keep people from buying what they will never understand or use. But it doesn’t. It is the same with skiing. I used to teach beginners. They would show up with pro equipment they could not master, thinking it made them look like they knew what they were doing. It also gave a sense of excess. It was harder for them to learn using things beyond their abilities.

      I still do not own a pro digital camera (I do have a Nikon F2 film camera). I hope to shortly, but I always believed you had to know what you have inside and out first, to even see if you need better. The only reason I will get a full frame camera is that I did invest in the lenses. I do want to have images those lenses were made for at some point.

  10. Reblogged this on Lichtarbeiterin und Curandera und kommentierte:
    So schöne Bilder

  11. Victor Ho says:

    Great post again! Nice shots. Good insights. I think the macro shots are more interesting. Maybe it’s because I leave my macro home and wing it with the zoom. The extra effort shows.

    • I think so too. I still have to get some long time experience on them. I know there is much more they can do. I wasted all last summer not using my 60mm. I needed to use it all the time, and finally bit the bullet and did. Then I got the 105mm and really loved it.

  12. I too move around a lot when photographing wildlife and thus find it difficult to use a tripod. I use my standard 55mm lens which has its limitations. Many of my insect shots are with a telephoto lens so I don’t scare the subject away. But I have a 105mm macro lens on my Christmas list and hopefully that will expand my repertoire.

    • You know, I bet you could reverse the 55mm. This technique reverses the lens by turning the lens around so that the rear element points outwards, and the front element faces the camera body. It works by using a special adapter to attach the reversed lens to either your camera body or another lens. It is an economical way to do macro, and also gets you in much closer than even a standard macro lens. The only problem is how close you need to be to the subject.

      • Thanks Donna! I will check that out. It sounds like an interesting/less expensive alternative! And, I love getting up close/in their face to my subjects when they allow me to but sometimes I can be a bit scary to those small creatures!

  13. Love the detail and the tiny subjects you film. Amazing shots! Don’t know a thing about photography but find the enlightening descriptions fascinating!

  14. terry says:

    dear donna,, i looked at these photos earlier and i was just too stunned to even say a thing…who would have ever known that grasshoppers are such beautiful creatures?…oh what lovely clothing that god has outfitted them. with……they almost look like knights in armor!..
    now i won’t feel so stupid…..when we lived in my beloved manitoba on the air base, they had a huge swimming pool for the base children and because the land was so flat and the surrounding lawn so dry, there were lots of grasshoppers and didn’t those little critters keep jumping into the swimming pool where of course they would surely drown.?..i must tell you donna that a midst the other kids laughing at me, i would spend most of the time “rescuing” those tiny of god’s creatures from the water and then putting them on dry land again….
    donna have you taken photos of caterpillars too?..they would be really pretty, eh?
    i have just a small digital camera the i just shoot ….why should i buy a better one when i can go to yours and ronnie’s site and see such beauty in the photos that you take.?..i think i am on the lazy side!
    would you mind if i share this posting with my sister betty.?..she has taken several photography courses in niagara college and i am sure she would love this!..she has all of the equipment!

    thanks for sending me this post donna……………………….terry

    • I enjoyed your rescue story. I am guilty of saving insects myself. I cannot even squash one inside the house, all get transported back outside, even the ones that sting like the wasps. Your little camera can get in close too most probably. My little Nikon can get to less than 1 inch from the subject. You might need to have the camera steadied for this close, but that is really close. Try the little flower icon mode. I am not sure if Canon or Sony uses a flower icon, but they have something to represent closeup photos. You will be seeing close in no time.

  15. terryshirkie says:

    hey donna!..i just enjoyed this pictures again as i scrolled down and showed them to bernie…he was fascinated too…one thing i really noticed this time was the big black shining eyes on these little creatures…..and and whenever i comment i see at the end that smart little snobby bird gazing at me and for all the world wanting to know what is going on…i wonder if he would like to eat one of those juicy grasshoppers..ha………..terry

    • I just read that many birds feed insects to their young rather than seeds, up to 90 percent of their diet. That is where all the caterpillars must go. One bird was documented capturing 1400 caterpillars in a day’s time. That must have been a big brood of nestlings. I do have many images of caterpillars, but I cannot remember if I ever showed any. I really have to make a section or tab for my insect photos. Same with birds. There are many varieties that I never posted.

  16. HolleyGarden says:

    Good pointers. I’m going to have to experiment with my little flower icon setting!

    • I read somewhere a very low percentage of compact camera users try the macro mode. I think it is because either the camera does it automatically (like my P510 set on auto) and the person does not realize it, or many just never try turning the dials to see what the cameras can do. Most consumers that own the bigger, yet lower end DSLR cameras, never get off using the various modes and try manual shooting. I could never understand this, but it maybe is because on the DSLR it is easier to find the setting and on the little Nikon you have to ‘hunt’ for it to put it into that mode.

  17. Marguerite says:

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on the macro lens. We have considered buying one here but ultimately decided the cost of a new small portable camera with a macro function was the best use of our money. Sometimes though that macro lens still calls to me.

    • I love the macro lens, but you can see that it really is limiting in many regards. I can make those really soft and dreamy backgrounds, but the fall off from the insect is so quick. It is a balancing act of how much you get in focus. The shot I took with my little Nikon in low light really surprised me. It has been a while since I used this camera and I forgot how good an image it can produce.

  18. Thanks for the tips–I always learn so much from your blog posts! I have more luck with the macro settings on my camera than the landscapes. That’s what I really need to practice. You’ve offered some excellent tips on landscape shots, too, and I’m trying to apply them to my photography. Thanks, Donna.

    • The landscape shots have so much to do with two things I think. One is great lighting and two, is composition. Both have to be spot on for a good photo. I myself struggle with the big landscape shots. So much information is in them and to find that view that really enhances the property is always a challenge. Also, to not shoot midday almost never happens, even in my own garden. By afternoon the sun leaves my garden.

      I have a landscape lens, wide angle, and it both helps and hinders. It makes those crisp shots, but again it is about what and when I choose to photograph.

  19. catmint says:

    thanks for this Donna. I am gradually learning and it’s starting to come together. I am totally fascinated by insects and realize I must get a macro lens. So many useful tips. I don’t enjoy the tripod either, find it very limiting. Wonderful shots, inspirational.

    • I am going to show some other options and techniques in the next few months. There is equipment that can be added to get in close, without the the expense of these lenses. But really, the lens are the best option. They produce really clear images, even if it is only in a small area of focus. I do use them for landscape work though. They shoot to infinity as any prime lens does.

  20. terry says:

    hi donna…i came back again to see these grasshoppers and to read the comments…donna you are such a tender soul…you have encouraged people that have only point and shoot cameras that they can succeed in taking great photos….donna, i think that even though you don’t go for contests that you should..betty is a shy person but one time she entered a contest and her picture ended up in a camera magazine…we were all so proud of her!

    the way that we save the hornets is bernie takes a cup and captures that wasp. once it is in the cup, he shoves a piece of paper at the opening and then takes it outside and lets it go…sometimes when we have been in wendys, he has saved a few and my!,,,,how the customers look!….a couple of years back, he was really heart broken when he had to spray a nest of hornets that were in the garage…as long as they hadn’t bothered him, he let them alone but then they started to sting. and so he had no choice
    i am looking forward to your next post!……………….terry

    • Wow, wonderful Betty got such an honor. I am not shy, but I try not to have attention brought to me. Even in my architecture and art. I have gotten awards in both and never felt comfortable being ‘on stage’, literally and figuratively. I have displayed art in galleries and was never one to meet and greet. My photos have never received any acclaim and I am fine with that. I purposefully don’t promote them, except to use them on my blog. Maybe someday I will have a local show at our botanical garden. I did talk with the lady in charge on this.

  21. Andrea says:

    These are very helpful Donna. I will be back to read all the comments, later! Thanks again.

  22. b-a-g says:

    Great explanation and examples of different f-stops. That’s the most photogenic grasshopper I’ve ever seen.

  23. Emily Heath says:

    It’s been found that urban birds also sing extra loudly to make themselves heard over traffic. I’ve always been really pleased when I’ve spotted a grasshopper, never mind managed to photograph one! Amazing stuff.

    • I did know that on some species of birds, but never realized is happened in lesser creatures like insects. I never got a grasshopper in flight. I got them with wings a flutter, but never jumping. Even the wings move really fast.

  24. terry says:

    dear donna …i understand what you mean about not wanting to be the centre of attention.
    i consider that we are really privileged that you give us the photos through your blog…it is quite and honour and by the comments that you receive, it is clear that you and your photos are both loved……..terry

    ps…how about that, eh?….spell check tells me that centre and honour are spelled wrong…..but you see canadians spell those words a little differently…..ha!

  25. Donna, Many times when I am taking a macro shot with my point and shoot camera I would like to blur the background. I know I can use the camera on manual so I wonder if that is the answer. Maybe some photography lessons in St. Lucia! Carolyn

    • You don’t need lessons, but your Coolpix can get the blur. We can work on that, but I am expecting a lot of beach time. I am getting so excited. I talked to Barbie and asked her for some photos. She is incredibly busy right now with guests, but will try to get some for us. I will pass them on if she does.

  26. flora says:

    lovely pictures ..especially with the yellow flower!

  27. Wow, love the hopper on Perovskia just off-centre, and how the flower is focused to the right of the grasshopper so you get all the visual weight in the centre just by the focus. Very lovely.

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