Palouse Outdoors – Bug Shots to Enhance Photography

Published in The Waitsburg Times, September 2nd 2021

Outdoor photography goes far beyond birds and mammals, even for this hunter who loves nothing more than trying to capture that perfect pairing of upland bird and pointing dog on the grasslands. We all have our muse, but the natural world in its entirety offers countless opportunities to capture Mother Nature’s splendor at home and in town.

Bugs and blooms are among my favorite practice photography opportunities because of their brilliant colors, intricate details, and the fact that they surround us every day. Flowerbeds and vegetable gardens attract critters like ladybugs with their bright red wing cases, black freckles, and stark-white false eye spots. Tiger swallowtail butterflies with their golden wings striped in black, and the blue band around the lower lobes where the “tail” extends from the wing have intrigued me for 35 years. And then there are the myriad bee species, like our native green leaf-cutting bee with its blue-green, almost holographic opalescence.

Bugs and blooms are the perfect media to begin photography and otherwise hone skills on setting, lighting, and detail. While flowerbed photography seems ordinary, practice is paramount to good photography. Even when shooting bugs, you will have a subconscious scene and details you are trying to achieve, and a few tips and tricks can help transform the ordinary into extraordinary.

A honeybee prepares for liftoff from a sunflower head while offering a capture of its shadow cast upon the flower petals

Camera Settings: First, become acquainted with the macro and other settings on your camera. If you have a more advanced camera, a macro lens is an absolute game changer. These settings and lenses allow you to get up close and personal with your subject and really grab those minute details, like the hairs or antennae on a bee’s face, and learn new features that can help personalize and enhance your photos.

Obstructions: Check the foreground of your shot for lighter-colored features like a leaf or twig that can distract from the image subject. Even something small can reflect light and show up as a blotch, distracting from the focus of the image. Photo editing software can correct this, but that’s a topic for another time, and its best to avoid this type of image-altering as much as possible to maintain photo quality. Case in point, it is virtually impossible to shoot hunting dogs without grass in their face, and I am continually disappointed in the results of even minorly noticeable blurry patches from editing to remove the grasses.

Exposure: Many insects have reflective exoskeletons and wings that can “blow out” or overexpose details, showing up white in photos. An example can be seen as a white “eye” spot on the image of the flying honeybee. Bug shots are best taken in the shade with lighting later adjusted with editing software later, if necessary. You can easily use your body to shade the subject, but beware of high exposure in the background affecting image contrast.

The tarsal claws on the hind leg of this Nevada bumblebee can be seen as they cast a shadow on the flower.

Angles: Use creative angles to show something you think is interesting about the flower, critter, or the interaction of flower and critter or multiple critters. Are they doing something that seems unique? Does a moth or butterfly feeding on a bloom have a really long proboscis? Look for the angle to best capture the image that tells that story.

Clarity: Using fast shutter speeds for moving or flying subjects is critical. Settings of 1/250th of a second or higher are important to achieve clarity and sharpness. Sport modes on point-and-shoot cameras are made for this but may be difficult to focus when shooting up close in a critter’s personal space. A flash can aid in capturing more fine detail in either mode. Shooting from a tri-pod and with a remote shutter control can work wonders for preserving the fine details, but can be difficult to maintain the desired angle on moving critters.

Intimidated? There are so many photography details, cameras, options, and adjustments out there that it seems impossible to figure it out, much less pay off the loan required to purchase much of the gear. Fortunately, camera technology has come so far that even smartphones have decent cameras and ability to play with these simple concepts and settings.

Outdoor photography is challenging and highly rewarding, and becoming a better photographer simply takes time and practice. Regardless of the gear you have available, developing an eye for your imagery can be done with any camera, allowing you to hone your skills with bug shots, right outside your front door.     

Nevada bumblebees share a purple chive flower. Ideally, the fencing material would not be prominent in the background.