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How to Photograph Insects in Flight

I have spent years capturing insects in flight, and hopefully with the following tips and insights you’ll be able to create some amazing in flight captures as well.

There are three important things to consider when photographing insects in flight. Firstly, persistence is key. Shooting insects on the wing is a skill that will take a while to develop – don’t expect magic on your first day of trying.

Secondly, patience. Sometimes I will watch a bug I am trying to capture on camera for half an hour before I even take my first shot. You need to take the time to get your lighting and background right, and to understand the behaviour of your subject.

Finally, practice makes perfect. Get out in the field as often as you can, and try different settings and approaches until you find one that works for you.
Honey Bee

How to photograph flying insects

Here are some of my top tips for how you can capture shots of insects on the wing.

1. Focus on the eyes

Insects have the most amazing eyes. They have unique textures, shapes, and colours. Get these sharp and they will form the centrepiece of the image. However, it is not always easy.

2. Timing

Insects are a little slower in the morning and this will buy you more time to get the image you want. A good example of this is with the honey-bee. They are a lazier around the flowers in the morning. It might be the cooler temperature, or they may just be a little sleepy, but you can use this extra time to your advantage.

3. Behaviour

Study your subject first. Each species of insect behaves differently, and once you know how they move and fly your goal of capturing them in flight is one step closer. Get to know their habits, behaviours, when they are active or docile, and their flight patterns.

Honey bees on a red flower

The ideal types of insects for in flight photos

1. Dragonflies

Dragonflies are great subjects, especially early in the mornings and late in the afternoon. At this time of day, they are a little slower as they are looking for food. This gives you extra time to catch them, but again make sure you study the habit of all your flying subjects.

Dragonfly

Dragonflies mostly hang around a pond with lily pads and reeds, so that’s a great place to start. One thing I really enjoy is to get your equipment setup and just sit by the pond, watching and listening.

Take note of whether they tend to bunch at any particular spots, and what path they fly in on to get there. Is there a pattern? Dragonflies, and all insects, may seem to be flying randomly at first, but with a bit of time you will often see a pattern you can use.

Dragonfly in flight

2. Honey Bees

The best time to capture a honey bee is when it’s pollinating, not collecting nectar. Honey bees are very fast at collecting nectar, ducking from flower to flower. They are busy, focused, and hard to catch.

Honey bee in flight

However, when pollinating they pause in the air to brush off the pollen – they will get covered from head to toe sometimes. This pause is your chance to shoot and capture them with golden balls of pollen.

3. Butterflies

Butterflies love to flutter above the flowers looking for nectar, which is a great opportunity to catch them with their proboscis out.

Just try to focus on their eyes and you will be sure to get lucky with a full flight capture. Needless to say, they look amazing with their wings at full stretch.

Read more: How to Photograph Butterflies & Insects

Black Butterfly flying

4. Wasps

Wasps pause before they enter their paper or mud nests. That’s the time to capture them. Find where they are, wait, watch, and capture. But just remember they all have certain movements and times when they pause.

If you can set up in the right position and wait then you are onto a winner. It will be hard at first, but the results will start happening.

European Wasp

5. Blue-banded bee

You will develop your favourite subjects, and this is one of mine. The blue-banded bee, mainly found in my home of Australia, has flying behaviour that is unique to the species: it pauses in flight and takes two steps forward, then one backward. Perfect for a snap in flight.

Blue Banded Bee

It has another habit that is useful for photographers. It will go into a flower and turn around. You can time your shot to capture it as it comes out and prepares to fly, or is just flying off.

Position yourself looking directly into the flower and you’ll be able to capture it flying straight on. A great tip is to pre-focus on the flower that your subject is entering, as this helps to get sharp images as you will need minimal adjustment to your focus ring to get it super sharp and in full focus.

Read more: The Real Reasons Your Photos Aren’t Sharp

Blue Banded Bee hovering by purple flower

6. Hover-flies

I must say the best insect to first study and capture is the hover-fly (flower fly) as they pause regularly as part of their flight patterns. This makes them great to practice on.

Hoverflys mating while flying

Equipment for flying insect photography

You will need:

  • A DSLR or Mirrorless camera
  • A standard lens 70-300mm with NiSi close-up filter (optional for a budget set-up)
  • Or a macro lens capable of at least 1:1 macro
  • Tripod or monopod
  • Diffused flash (optional)

I use a Nikon D850 and D500 camera. For lenses, I have the Nikon 200mm Micro, Nikon 105mm f/2.8 Micro, and the Laowa 100mm f/2.8 2x Ultra Macro.

Suggested kit for beginners

With macro photography, you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to capture those tiny moments. A beginner can start with a newly released product called a NiSi close-up filter that you can mount to your standard lens.

For around $140, you can screw this on the front of your lens and it will convert it to a very good macro lens. It is especially good with a cheaper 70-300mm lens, which when set at 200mm gives you a true 1:1 macro ratio. I’ve been testing these with great success.

Read more: NiSi Close Up Lens Kit NC Review – Macro Field Test

Suggested kit for advanced macro photographers

For the more advanced macro shooter, the equipment should be a good quality camera with a dedicated macro lens, around 100mm in focal length. I do recommend a minimum of 100mm for in flight shots as you need a little distance away from your subject.

Personally, I highly recommend crop sensor cameras for macro. Crop sensor refers to any sensor smaller than the 35mm film frame. The common types of crop sensor include APS-C and micro 4/3 systems. The advantages are that they are cheaper and have around 50% more reach than a full frame camera. For example, it would give you 150mm on a dedicated 100mm macro lens which really helps you to fill the frame with the subject.

Read more: The Difference Between Full Frame & Crop Sensors

Cabbage white butterfly in flight

A good quality full-frame camera would give you flexibility when shooting. If you can afford two cameras, it’s worth it for the more advanced macro shooters and professionals. The full-frame camera has more megapixels, meaning you need to crop in a little bit more than an APS-C camera, but it really comes down to your personal preference. I have both, and both systems work really well.

I highly recommend a monopod or tripod to mount your camera on to keep your camera still and give the sharpest image.

Backgrounds

Even though most of the focus will be on your subject, hopefully its eyes, the background you shoot against will make your subjects stand out from the crowd. I highly recommend finding a good, colourful garden bed for your bees, wasps, hover-flies, and butterflies.

Hoverfly flying against colourful background

If I can’t find a good backdrop in place, I usually bring some coloured props with me; you can usually come up with something on site. Sometimes l find colours, like a yellow post for example, and use it behind the plant and bug to make my subject pop. A black background can look attractive too, especially when using a flash – it all comes down to your creativity.

Honey bee hovering above a red flower

Camera settings

Getting your shutter speed right is the second most important part of in flight captures, after insect movement. Get this right and you are nearly there.

The shutter speed I recommend for beginners is around 1/2000th of a second; you can use speeds up to 1/4000th for fast subjects. Once you get a little bit more confident you can get down to 1/800th.

Aperture, which controls your depth of field, requires a delicate balance. Keep your aperture as low as possible to let a little bit more light into your sensor, but remembering not to go too low as it affects the sharpness of your subject across its body.

ISO is probably best kept at auto as changing conditions can affect the light and you don’t want to miss a great shot fiddling with this setting.

Moth photographed in flight

Timing can make or break a photograph. Knowing when to push that shutter button is essential. But most cameras have another tool to help you with that perfectly-timed shot: burst mode.

Put your camera in continuous shooting (Burst Mode). On some cameras, burst mode is abbreviated CL and CH (for continuous low and continuous high respectively). Burst mode really helps with in flight capture as it shoots 7+ frames a second (depending on your camera) to help get that super-fast insect.

A flash can be used, but is not recommended when using (Burst Mode) as it will have trouble keeping up with shutter on your camera. However, a flash can make it possible to get down to 1/250th for the advanced user and it can produce great results. It is always worth a try but remember to put the camera in continuous low to help the flash keep up and not overheat.

Mud Wasp

Focusing the shot

I believe manual focus is the best way to learn to get insects super sharp. With your camera fixed onto the tripod you are able to slightly move the focus ring in and out on your subject, holding your finger on the button ready to capture it in all its glory. This is a great way to follow your subject, panning with it left to right.

Another really good tip is to use fixed or manual focus on a certain point, such as a flower, and then use a rocking motion forwards and backwards to bring the insect into focus rather than adjusting the ring. This method works really well when using the camera in handheld mode in those awkward places you can’t get to with a fixed tripod.

Insect photographed in flight

I don’t use autofocus, but for a beginner it can make sense to start in single-point autofocus mode. This is particularly so if the subject will maintain the same distance from the camera throughout. You can use AF-S or One-Shot AF  if it is remaining still on a flower or branch.

For all in flight captures, if the subject is moving towards or away from the camera, set your camera to AF-C or Al-Servo mode. This will follow your subject, although I believe it to be less accurate than manual focus. However, it is a great starting point for the first-time shooter.

Checklist for setting up your in flight insect shot

  • Set your camera up on a tripod or you may prefer to try hand-held. This allows you to move fast but you need a very steady hand.
  • Put your camera into aperture priority or manual whichever you prefer.
  • Preset your camera with a shutter speed of a round 1/2000sec; try to keep aperture around about f/5.6-f/8 for a starting point with auto ISO.

Dragonfly

  • Try to get as close as you can to your subject without scaring it away.
  • Use the time you spent studying your subject to pick a zone where you will try to capture it. Get your focus set around where it pauses, hovers or enters a flower.
  • Switch your camera to manual focus; try to pre-focus on a leaf, flower, or something around about the same distance as your subject will be.
  • Make sure your camera is in burst mode.

Blue Banded Bee hovering in flight above yellow flower

  • Once you see your subject flying around in your plane of focus, try to focus on its body – aiming for its eyes.
  • Make sure you review your images in the field, checking the screen for sharp, non-blurry images. Never delete in the field as the viewfinder is not always 100% accurate.
  • Continue again and always remember persistence, patience, and practice.

In conclusion

The macro world takes some getting used to. It can be frustrating and it can take time to develop the skills you will need for that special shot. By practising the methods in this article, and with patience and persistence, you will be able to get that in flight insect shot you’ve always wanted.I have spent years capturing insects in flight, and hopefully with the following tips and insights you’ll be able to create some amazing in flight captures as well.

There are three important things to consider when photographing insects in flight. Firstly, persistence is key. Shooting insects on the wing is a skill that will take a while to develop – don’t expect magic on your first day of trying.

Secondly, patience. Sometimes I will watch a bug I am trying to capture on camera for half an hour before I even take my first shot. You need to take the time to get your lighting and background right, and to understand the behaviour of your subject.

Finally, practice makes perfect. Get out in the field as often as you can, and try different settings and approaches until you find one that works for you.Honey Bee

My name is Aaron Molenkamp from Nightfall Photography. I specialise in macro photography, especially in-flight subject captures, showcasing the beauty that can be found in the macro world. I am a semi-professional photographer and a Nikon School Lecturer. I have had my work featured with BBC Earth, Australian Geographic & Nikon, and published with the some of the leading photography wildlife magazines.

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