8 Great Tips For Photographing Bees

For the macrophile in search of fascinating subjects, colorful backgrounds, and technically challenging photography, look no further than the nearest stand of pollinating flowers. There you will invariably find buzzing, herky-jerky bumblebees bouncing from one flower to the next collecting pollen. How do you shoot something that is so small and in perpetual motion? After much trial and mostly error, here are some tips based on what’s worked for me:

  1. Choose overcast, shady, or tree-filtered light on warm days.
  2. Flash is a must for helping to freeze motion and giving pop and catch lights to an image. After trying dual- and ring-flashes, which proved great for tripod work but bulky for hand held close-up shooting, I use a Speedlite on-camera, bent to 45 degrees with the white card pulled out about an inch.
  3. I use a macro lens with 32 mm of extension tubes on my Canon 5D Mark II. A bit slow on the trigger, but the camera more than makes up for it with 21 MP, great processing, and the ability to crop without an appreciable drop in quality.
  4. Settings: f/11-f/16 (sweet spot of the lens and still great bokeh with this setup); ISO 800 (move up or down depending on how much background you want seen); Aperture mode; 1/60 sec (sufficient speed combined with the ETTL flash set near 0 EV)
  5. Focusing trick: use live view with manual focus holding the camera out and moving it quickly to focus range using live view as a fast guide. I know, seems impossible when bees move from one flower to the next every one or two seconds, but even a 1 in 10 chance of hitting the mark is infinitely better than the 1 in 100-200 I was getting before. Remember, focus on their eyes!
  6. Choose your light, color, and background ahead of time when possible. Set up and wait for the bees to come to you. Watch how some flowers require slower work by the bees, which gives you more time to shoot.
  7. Anticipate. Bees have a perceptible rhythm and habits. In the time it takes to depress the shutter, the bee may have already moved so sometimes you may want to shoot “before” they move in order to catch them in flight. Even then, though, it’s hard. Some bees are slower and more deliberate than others. Follow them.
  8. Shoot lots, weed later. Always have extra camera and flash batteries.

The payoff for shooting bee and flower images can be great for those willing to fail a lot and triumph occasionally.

 

 

8 thoughts on “8 Great Tips For Photographing Bees

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Barry Grivett

Thanks for sharing your especially concise tips & your web site!

I’m a bug guy sometimes & especially enjoyed your Large Nicaraguan Insect shot––not just for the subject; but, for the perspective (I’ve been wanting to do).

If you go to my website link, you’ll see I’ve also enjoyed doing plant galls which hold still (without a breeze).

As tips go, for bugs/insects which refuse to stay still, I mount my camera on a monopod: adding stability, taking the weight off me & enabling me to prefocus at some convenient distance and easily rock the camera (& flash) into focus.

Finally, I’ve been using a Lumiquest device to bounce & diffuse my flash.

Ken Stolz

Great photos and great tips Steve. But I don’t know what you mean by a Speedlite “on-camera, bent to 45 degrees with the white card pulled out about an inch.” Thanks for clarifying.

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Steve Russell

Hi Ken, I was referring to my Canon Speedlite 580EXII, which has the ability to rotate and bend in the middle from about 0-90 degrees. I was taught to pull out the plastic diffuser and white card just behind it, then shove the diffuser back in and leave the white card out for the flash to bounce off of and aid in getting a catch light in the subject’s eyes. I think it helps when shooting bugs, too, although lately I’ve been enjoying the wonderful benefits of a dual macro flash, which gives me many more options in terms of direction of light. Much more diffuse and balanced and fewer blown out spots using the dual flash. But for bees, the Speedlite allowed me to keep an eye on them without obstructing my view like the dual flash would sometimes. I’m going to try the Lumiquest device that Barry, above, suggested. Thanks for your comments!

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Steve Russell

Hi Barry! Thanks for you comments and I took a peek at your amazing photos – Oak Treehopper?! Incredible! Where in the world do you find such strange creatures? Just loved looking through your shots. And I’ve toyed with the idea of using a monopod in certain situations. Lately I’m off bees and back to shooting with a tripod and dual macro flash (way better than the Speedlite when there’s room) and absolutely loving the clarity I can get under the right conditions. I’ll check out the Lumiquest device – thanks for the tip.

Ken Stolz

Thanks Steve. I have a 430, so the white card threw me – now I understand. I’m guessing you are using the Canon MT-24EX macro twin lights? That’s on my list, as soon as I sell my MR-14X ring light (light is too flat, but it’s pretty easy to manuever).

But before I get the MT-24EX, I’m going to experiment with my new 320EX and 270EXII in their new slave modes – with my Kirk macro bracket and on-off the hot shoe, etc.

Thanks for getting me inspired on this again. I go out to take flower pics and then seem to spend more time on the crab spiders and bees and ……. Maybe it’s a sign ;-).

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Barry Grivett

Hi Steve & thanks for your kind words; but, you have no shortage of great spider & insect images –including Leafhoppers–on you web site. You inspire me to keep at it; although, in California we actually have a shortage of photogenic insects compared to, say, Florida.

Delighted you singled out the Oak Treehopper: one of my all-time favorite images; and, it was shot just several blocks from my home (in San José)!

The Joys of Using Canon’s Macro Twin Lite (MT-24EX) Flash : Paper Airplanes

[...] Following my adventure with bees, I put away the Speedlite, screwed on Canon’s dual macro flash (with diffusers), and haven’t looked back. The versatility of being able to so easily adjust the intensity (exposure compensation) and direction of light along an arc has opened up new possibilities for lighting and clarity in my macro images. [...]

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