I have seen some super macro photos of things like butterflies and bees that left me wondering how the photographer is able to get so close to the subject long enough to take a photo.

Most of the time when I try sneaking up on a fly to swat it I get a few feet away when it flies away.

Does macro photography mean having to set up your equipment pointed at a flower or otherwise enticing lure and waiting for the subject to fly in and pose?

  • Look up Mark Plonsky (on your favourite search engine), who has info on his equipment setup on his website. I first saw his photos a decade ago, and they were pretty dang amazing.
    – user3419
    Jan 24, 2011 at 1:06

8 Answers 8


There are a couple things you need to get great super-close macro shots of insects.

The first, and supremely most important, is patience. You are going to fail to get the shot FAR more than you will succeed when trying to get 1:1 or better insect macros. Over time, two things will happen: As you hang around a location, insects will become adjusted to you, and will be less likely to fly away. Over the long term, if you observe carefully, you'll begin to learn the patterns of insect behavior, which will lean in your favor.

Second, you will need to be out photographing at the right time. Insects are cold blooded, so morning is a particularly good time to find sluggish, sleeping insects. They need sunlight to warm up, so before those morning rays of sunshine start warming your subjects up is an ideal time. When you don't have the option of an early-morning bug-hunt, an alternative method of "slowing" critters down is bait! Bees and many other insects love a sweet treat, and a drop of sugar water can give you the necessary time to frame and capture a bug out of bed.

Third, you will need the right lens for the job. Most camera brands offer true 1:1 "Macro" lenses. These lenses will magnify your scene at 1.0x size on the sensor (i.e. a bee 30mm in size photographed at MFD with a 1:1 macro will be projected 30mm in size onto your sensor.) More magnification will help you capture finer, smaller detail such that, when blown up in post processing, will exhibit more detail than you can see with the naked eye. If you own a Canon DSLR, you also have the option of using the MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Zoom lens, which can give you up to 5.0x magnification (5:1). Extension tubes can also help increase magnification, especially with a true 1:1 macro lens, also giving you larger than life magnification.

Fourth, a good macro ring flash will be extremely handy when trying to capture insects in less than ideal lighting. When out and about in nature, lighting can change often, especially if your subject is on the move. A macro ring flash is a hotshoe flash that mounts on the end of your lens (to the lens hood mount), and offers more pleasing illumination than a standard flash. It also gets that extra illumination exactly where you need it....right on your subject. There are a variety of accessories you can either buy or make for a ring flash as well, such as softening filters, or partial blockers to prevent flash from one side and keep it on another.

Fifth, a nice macro focusing rail mount or tripod head will be a huge assist to achieving the right plane of focus. Sometimes you have no option but to go hand-held, and chase your subjects around. If you are lucky enough to be out and about at "golden hour", sunrise before your buggy subjects have all warmed up started buzzing around, you will have more time to compose your shots and capture ideal moments. A macro focusing rail will help you maintain MFD (minimum focusing distance), without the hassle of manually moving your tripod or monopod around when recomposing. A good macro focusing rail will give you 4 degrees of smooth sliding freedom to frame and compose, without the composition-busting need to pick up the camera and move it yourself.

Another thing to be aware of when photographing insect macros is your DOF. At macro scale, depth of field can become vanishingly thin. Unlike portrait photography where you are always chasing that balance of widest aperture and ideal sharpness, in macro photography, you are always chasing the most DOF you can acquire without under-exposing. The sheer volume of fine detail available in a single insect eye is astounding, so noise and diffraction are your greatest enemies. Try to keep your ISO as low as possible, but don't be afraid at all to increase it beyond 100. You will often find yourself at ISO 400 or beyond, and a camera with good high ISO performance will make it a lot easier to get the DOF you need and still be able to expose correctly. For moving subjects, you may find that you use ISO as high as 1600. A ring flash is also a great way to help keep your ISO low and still be able to use motion-stopping shutter speeds.

Here are some macro shots from some of the great insect macro photographers on DeviantArt.com:

alt text Buleria: Tettigonia viridissima II

alt text Blepharopsis: I'll eat your soul...

alt text Macrojunkie: Butterfly eye at 5X

  • Both Canon and Nikon offer small flashes that can me mounted on the filter ring of the lens. With these, you have to option of varying the light intensity across the frame, thereby gaining some dimensionality. They also offer TTL.
    – gerikson
    Jan 22, 2011 at 15:14
  • 2
    Aye, I think I mentioned those. I called them ring flashes, as they tend to "ring" around the end of the lens.
    – jrista
    Jan 23, 2011 at 4:08
  • @jrista: ring flashes wrap the flash reflector in a ring around the lens; there's also a thing where there's a that attaches to the lens and holds two small flashes. Nikon's "R1", for example. nikonusa.com/Nikon-Products/Product/Flashes/4804/…
    – mattdm
    Apr 7, 2011 at 1:49
  • @mattdm: Canon has something similar, however I was thinking more of the Canon Speedlight MR-14EX Macro. That is often called the "Ring Light" or "Ring Flash", at least amongst some of the people who I know do a lot of insect macro photography. I believe it is an actual flash built right into the ring that clips right onto the lens's lens hood mount.
    – jrista
    Apr 7, 2011 at 2:04
  • 1
    Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "Patience young grasshopper"
    – fmark
    May 16, 2011 at 6:13
  • Long macro lens
  • Patience
  • Ninja training
  • Camp out a flower bed

Most wild things in general (birds, animals, insects) will let you take better pictures if you just hang around the area long enough to become a normal part of their environment.

Edit: Ninja skills or not, I don't recommend camping out some areas...like say...wolves dens...

  • 3
    I can understand catching a shot of a snail, but how much patience do you need to catch a shot of a bee or dragonfly? The only people with that kind of time are in federal prison.
    – kacalapy
    Jan 21, 2011 at 19:39
  • 2
    It also depends on weather, time of year, time of day, place, etc. For example, dragonflies are sometimes surprisingly passive, just sitting still and enjoying sunshine. As long as you don't cast a shadow on them, they let you shoot them. Jan 21, 2011 at 19:50
  • @Jukka Suomela - Indeed.
    – rfusca
    Jan 21, 2011 at 20:03
  • +1 LOL, ninja... Yeah, long macro lens and patience is the key, assuming you aren't the type to kill and photograph as some do.
    – Joanne C
    Jan 21, 2011 at 22:17
  • 1
    +1 for Ninja training and camping out in a flower bed. I regret that I have but one vote to give for this post. :-) Jan 22, 2011 at 5:13

Thomas Shahan made a youtube video on using an 80 dollar reversed lens to take excellent macro shots of insects: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqRn3at0H60

I like the top youtube comment: "You're like the Bob Ross of macrophotography" :) His macro insect shots are the best I have seen (http://www.flickr.com/photos/opoterser).

  • Thomas Shahan is simply marvellous
    – labnut
    Apr 7, 2011 at 8:11

The best way seems to be to set up and then wait for the insects to come to you. Look at this image and see if you can guess how it was shot:

The answer is rather mundane, I was sitting at my computer late at night and the moth came in and landed on my monitor. I left the monitor on and grabbed a macro lens and flash. The flash overpowered the monitor light so much that it appeared black, giving a nice reflection. The monitor light kept the moth placid and allowed me to keep snapping away for 15 minutes! Here's what it looked like by natural light:

  • GREAT shot! Really love the reflection...pretty amazing that the flash was able to entirely overpower the screen like that.
    – jrista
    Apr 7, 2011 at 6:04

Insects are cold-blooded, so they slow down if the temperature is low. Taking photos early morning is easier.

An other option (I've never tried myself) is to catch the insect and put it into the refrigerator for a few minutes. It will also slow down them. Try not to kill the bug of course.

  • 3
    Watches carefully around corners for PETA...
    – rfusca
    Jan 21, 2011 at 21:24
  • 3
    Putting the insect in the fridge for the photograph, is simply ridiculous! Jun 24, 2011 at 3:23
  • 1
    Putting the insect in a refrigerator is pure insect cruelty!
    – bearmohawk
    Sep 14, 2016 at 7:59

One of the best things you can do to photograph any animal, whether it be a bird, insect, wolf, or for that matter, human, is to learn about your intended subject. I've gotten some great shots of bees by learning where they hang out around my house, and what time of year they hang around. I'll share a few pictures, and answer how I captured them.

Butterfly This picture came when I was studying out my neighborhood. I walked by a particular bush, and it was just full of insects, of at least 4 kinds. This is my favorite shot of the group, and one of the few butterflies in the scene.

Bee Again, this shot came from knowing the time of year that bees are active in my area, and watching this one pollinate all of the flowers around.

Black Widow Sorry, it won't let me show the image to this one directly, but I'll just post the link... Anyways, this guy was on my front door. I caught her by simply paying attention to my surroundings.

Macro photography does have some tricks, and does require some patience, but it's more about looking for the unseen things around you than it is about techniques. Good luck in your endeavors!


I would suggest moving slowly, gradually moving closer to the insect and avoid casting shadows on the subject. Get down to their level. I've had success using this method with skittish insects even during their most active times. Ant


Apart from the other excellent responses (barring the refrigeration nonsense), I can definitely attest to: 1. Being patient 2. Being content with failing, see it as a journey 3. The right equipment (need not be expensive) 4. Learning about your subjects, and using the knowledge against them! (where they hide, what time they are least active). Of course, be respectful, don't disturb, kill, destroy their habitats.

Lastly, when it's dark, having a torch velcro'd to your rig is useful to do night time stuff (spiders, creepies come out to play later). Failing that, indoors, on the ceilings - a spider will always hang around somewhere catching mosquitoes.

Good luck to all, keep it real and respectful. Remember, any fool can be destructive :)

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