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Nature Photography FuelTip: Choosing the Right Lens for Shooting Insects and Small Critters

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In this excerpt from Choosing the Right Lens for Nature and Landscape Photography, Rob Sheppard explains how to choose the right lens for shooting insects and other little critters.

Fuel Books

Africa is an amazing place filled with wonderful wildlife. Yet, you can find some incredible wildlife in places as close as your backyard. Butterflies, bees, and other small critters like spiders offer similar examples of life to Africa—life-and-death struggles, stunning beauty, herds of animals avoiding predators, hunting predators, and much more.

By getting in close, you explore a world that many other people never see. That immediately gives your images impact beyond the average photo. But this is tricky. It is not as simple as putting on a macro lens or even using extension tubes so you are good to go. Small wildlife can be just as wary as big animals, though on a different scale. Often they do not let you get close.

ISO 400, 1/250, f/5.6, 400mm (APS-C)

This Julia heliconian butterfly would not tolerate a close approach, so a long telephoto was needed. Everglades National Park, Florida.

I find that I need strong telephoto focal lengths most of the time for these critters. That allows me to put at least a little space between them and the camera. Yet, you often still have to work slowly and stealthily to get close. I will often put extension tubes on a telephoto focal length, typically 180-400mm for 35mm full-frame, 120-270mm for APS-C, and 90-200mm for Four Thirds.

There is a big challenge with such lenses up close: camera movement during exposure. When you are magnifying small details of close-ups with a telephoto, you are also magnifying camera movement that can degrade image quality. I have found that a lot of photographers on the Internet who think they have discovered bad lenses are in reality not locking down the camera sufficiently. Camera movement is causing the problem, not the lens.

Cameras today let you readily shoot with high ISO settings and get great image quality. Set your camera to at least ISO 400 (and higher might be better) then use f-stops that keep your shutter speed high. How high depends on if you are handholding the camera or using a tripod. If you are handholding, work for shutter speeds of 1/500 and faster to stop camera movement during exposure. Use any image stabilization you have.

If you are shooting from a tripod, you can shoot at much slower shutter speeds, though you still have to be careful because typically you will be following an insect with a loose tripod head. Use 1/125 and faster. Experiment with slower shutter speeds to see what your set up is capable of.

Avoid using very small apertures such as f/22 even if you think you need the depth of field. It is better to have less depth of field and a sharp photo than a fuzzy photo that has “more” depth of field.

ISO 400, 1/2500, f/5.6, 90mm (MFT)

A skipper butterfly poses momentarily in a garden in Los Angeles. A telephoto helps keep the butterfly relaxed.

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