Taking Spectacular Macro Photographs of Insects Without a Tripod

You can get excellent results by using this technique

I really like getting up close and personal with wildlife whenever I can. When I shoot insects and other small animals, I like to shoot them with a macro lens. And, I try to achieve an underexposed (i.e., dark) background so as to get a strong separation between the subject and what’s behind it and to make the subject “pop out” of the picture. Getting these results requires the use of a macro lens, manual exposure, and a ring flash – along with some trial and error.

Now, getting an extreme closeup/macro shot of an insect separated from its background is tough enough even with a tripod. Without one, keeping the camera steady can be a challenge. You can use a monopod, if you have one. Either way, part of the solution is to use an external flash along with a high flash shutter sync speed.

Here’s the technique that I like to use to get crystal clear, razor sharp images that really pop:

First, these are some examples of the equipment to use:

Here’s the technique I use during daylight hours.

  1. First, set your camera to manual exposure.
  2. Turn on your macro ring lite. You can leave this in E-TTL Auto mode for now (or the equivalent with other manufacturers’ flashes).
  3. Set your ISO to 100.
  4. Set your aperture at f/11.
  5. Set your shutter speed to 1/200 sec.
  6. Set your focus to manual. Autofocus may be OK, but I find I get better results with manual focus.
  7. Get as close as you can without disturbing your subject. In fact, try to get to the minimum focal distance for your lens.
  8. Focus on your subject and hold steady.
  9. Take the shot.
  10. Now, review the shot on your camera’s LCD display. If the subject is too dark or too bright here’s what to do:
    • If the subject is too dark, increase your ISO to 200 and try again. If still too dark, increase your ISO to 400. At this point, if the image is still too dark, I recommend that you reduce the shutter speed one or two stops and try again. Keep playing with the settings until the subject is is properly exposed. Note, if you know how to use your ring lite, you can manually increase the flash exposure compensation to add more light to the subject.
    • If the subject is too bright, first try stopping down your aperture to f/16. If still too bright, then try stopping down your aperture some more. If that isn’t enough, decrease the flash exposure compensation to reduce the light on the subject and try again. You can also switch your flash to high-speed sync to allow you to use shutter speeds even higher than 1/250 sec.

These steps are a starting point and, as you can see, a little trial and error will help you get it just right.

Here are some examples of the insect photos I’ve taken using this technique:

Green Wasp on Flower in the Everglades
Green Wasp Covered in Pollen
Daggerwing Butterfly in the Everglades
Daggerwing Butterfly in the Everglades
Swallowtail Butterfly in the Everglades
Swallowtail Butterfly in the Everglades
Bee On The Job #2
Bee On The Job

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