Thoughts on photographing Bees in flight

11/11/2014 - 13:53

 I have been asked many times how I shoot my bees and other insects in flight so thought it may be of interest if I briefly review how I do it. Please remember though, its what works for me, not a definitive article on the "correct" way to do it and in fact it is very different from the accepted best practise for this type of photography


I want to start at the very beginning, before we even consider equipment and technique and that is to take the time to observe, understand and anticipate the behaviour of your subject. I got into photographing bees because I was fascinated by their behaviour as much as the interesting detail of how they look. By taking the time to watch it is possible to discover the many and varied species we have and the fact that there are many different patterns of behaviour to be seen. Understanding this will make the process of photographing them much easier


Another thing that I learnt was that although bees are relatively slow moving in comparison to many other subjects, taken in the context of their size they move rapidly and erratically in the viewfinder. For me this meant that shooting from a tripod / monopod and / or using manual focus was too slow to allow me to record the behaviour I was interested in, so I learnt to shoot them hand-held using auto-focus. I also learnt that I need to use high shutter speeds, ideally in excess of 1/1000th second.


Depth of field is another area where I found my best practise deviated from conventional wisdom, most articles suggest working with small apertures, f11+ to get greatest DOF possible whereas I am now finding that I get the results I want shooting wide open or one stop down. I am also shooting short burst of high frame rate to increase the chance of getting the precise moment I want to record


As to the "Best" camera + lens system for this type of work, I am beginning to believe that this is of lesser importance than technique and understanding the behaviour of the subject. That follows from developing my skills using Canon APS-C (7D etc) Canon Full Frame (5Dmk2) macro lenses such as the canon 100 f2.8 LIS and the canon 60mm f2.8, moving on to the Olympus EM bodies, a nikon 1 V2 and a variety of different lenses for these. I now believe that what is necessary is a lens that has fast auto focus with good resolution. A relatively high resolution sensor with good noise control also helps as this type of photography (as I do it) invariably ends with a cropped image. (I have also seen many excellent images shot with what some disparagingly call "point and shoot" cameras and  "Bridge" cameras)


So, how do I do it?


I'm currently using both my Olympus EM-1 and Nikon 1 V2 cameras and with the EM-1 either the Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro or the 50-200 (mk1 and latterly SWD), with the Nikon 1 its the 70-300CX I use


The camera is set to aperture priority, wide open or one stop down most of the time, ISO is adjusted to give a target speed of greater than 1/1000th sec and I control the ISO to enable this up to a maximum of ISO1600 with both systems   (if the light  is bad and I am after a specific subject behaviour I will try at lower shutter speeds as necessary, accepting that there will be significant loss of detail because of digital noise and camera shake.)


I always shoot with IS enabled and with the frame rate set to 10 fps with the EM-1, 15fps with the Nikon 1 planning on shooting short bursts of around 3 frames to capture the precise moment of interest.

I always shoot using the EVF and not the rear screen and check that the dioptre adjustment is spot on, as I shall be using manual focus adjustment for the final step in focusing.

I select the smallest central focus point possible (so that I can isolate the subject in what is typically a very confused background of foliage and flower blooms) and do a quick pre-focus from a comfortable distance away from where I plan to shoot (anything up to 6 ft depending on the lens / body in use)

Now its a case of waiting for the subject(s) to come to the area in which I have previously seen them feeding (I always "scout" the area, typically my garden, to see if there are any bees and if so, what species are they, what plants are they feeding on and how they are doing it - maybe the subject for another blog?)

Having checked they are there and their feeding pattern I wait for them to come to me, (never "chase the Bee"). As they come into the viewfinder I use AF-S to get a quick lock on the subject, check size and placement in the EVF and move closer or further back to get the framing I want, re-focusing with a half-press of the shutter button as I do so.


Once I have the shot pre-focused to my satisfaction and locked with the half-pressed shutter button I rock my body and camera to get the focus on the critical part, usally the eye but it can be the proboscis, rear-end ot whatever the shot is planned to capture. Once this is the way I want it I fire off a short burst, typically starting just before the moment of critical focus / action (you will find that with experience it is quite easy to anticipate this, but I can't tell you how to do it, its a feeling you get)


That's all there is to it really, with practise the whole process takes less time to do than it will have taken you to read the preceding paragraph!


I have put some images to accompnay this article in a gallery here


I shoot in RAW + large fine JPG, using the jpg as a quick review and reject process and often for quick processing for the web. the RAW files are processed when I want the best image quality, for publication or competition





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