The first time you try to photograph bees, you may be disappointed. Capturing a stunning photo of a restless honey bee while you mess around with camera settings can be challenging, but it’s also fun and rewarding once you succeed.
With these tips, you can quickly improve your bee macro photography and take home great nature photos.
Know your topic
A bee is not just a bee. If you want to photograph bees, you need to know a little about them. There are many different species of bees, and you will find they have different behavioral patterns. For example, bumblebees behave differently from honey bees.
You don’t have to identify different species to get great pictures of them. However, it can be very effective to monitor their behavior before you start shooting with the camera.
Notice how it moves: fast, in a predictable straight line, or jagged in its flight. Where does it rest? How long before it takes off again. Which flower does it prefer, flat flower, open flower or semi-closed flower? Did it hover over the flowers before landing? How many seconds will you have to capture it or when it has landed?
Noting this helps you compose, frame and focus in the right places and be ready to hit the trigger at the right moment.
Insects are usually more active during the day when temperatures are higher than in the early days. The best time to photograph bees is probably early in the morning while the bees are asleep so they don’t move too fast and you can get the best possible pictures of the insect.
Another big advantage of photographing insects at sunrise is that the natural light is much softer than during daylight.
The most important thing to remember when composing and taking your photos is to get a scene where you can see at least one of the bee’s eyes. Usually top-down photos capture the back of the bee. Instead, go as low as eye level with the bee and compose from there.
Next, you want the background to be as static as possible. You can try to locate yourself so that the background becomes less busy.
If possible, aligning your subject with the rule of thirds often makes bee shots more interesting.
Finally, it is important to think about color in your composition. Can you get more color contrast between the subject and the background and make it stand out more?
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You can take stunning photos of bees with almost any DSLR or mirrorless camera. What matters is the lens you use and adding flash to your setup.
You can take pictures of bees with any digital camera. However, you will probably get the best images if you use a full-frame camera or a crop sensor camera.
That’s not to say you can’t capture a bee with a point-and-shoot or system camera. However, you will often get the best ISO handling and depth of field with a full-frame or professional crop camera. Ultimately, the key is that you can actually control things like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, and add an external flash.
Which lens to use
There are two types of lenses you can use for bee photography: macro lenses or telephoto lenses.
Personally, I like to use a macro lens to photograph bees. Devoted macro lens usually has a fixed focal length range. Focal lengths of 90mm or more are best. The larger the focal range, the farther you can work from your subject, so you don’t disturb the bee or scare it away.
Dedicated macro lenses let you get closer to your subjects with a 1:1 Magnification ratio.
If you need to get closer to your subject, you can experiment using extension tubes. However, a macro lens is enough to capture close enough details like pollen or pistil.
If you want to use a telephoto lens, the 200-600mm focal length is useful, as it allows you to zoom in close enough. The problem, however, is that telephoto lenses often have a minimum long focusing distance of over 1 or even 2 meters.
To fix it, you can use an extension tube in combination with a telephoto lens to shorten the minimum focusing distance. However, when using extension tubes with telephoto lenses, you won’t be able to focus at a distance, within just a few meters.
Using the telephoto lens also restricts you from using the flash, as part of the setup in many cases. I recommend choosing a macro lens, whenever possible.
When you use flash to photograph bees, you’ll usually get much better results. Regardless of the type of flash you use, like an external flash or a dedicated macro flash, you need to soften the light by adding a flash diffuser.
The diffuser allows you to take advantage of additional light and a “shutter speed” equal to the light emitted by the flash and still get a beautiful soft light.
To capture a bee in flight, you need a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 second, if not higher. However, without the flash, you may not be able to use this shutter speed. If you also want to “freeze” the wings of a moving bee, you’ll need to add a faster shutter speed.
The flash can give you shutter speeds up to 1/20,000. Flashes fastest when the flash output is set to emit less light, like 1/128 of full power. This also allows you to better balance the flash with the ambient light.
Even if you’re not trying to freeze motion, a subtle flash will help illuminate the scene and eliminate slight motion blur caused by a slight movement of the bee, the wind, or from you if you’re holding the camera.
Use a tripod or not?
Bees are fast-moving subjects and it can be difficult to focus, lock, and capture. You may only have a second or two to do it before a bee flies to another flower. Using a tripod in this case may seem like a big mistake, however it is a matter of approach.
By holding the camera tight, you may end up throwing away a lot of your images because they are out of focus or out of focus.
On the other hand, if you use a tripod, you can compose the image, focus on a flower and just wait for the bee to come close and land on that flower and shoot out the frames you need. However, it can take a lot of patience before a bee actually lands on this particular flower.
I can’t tell you which of the two to use, as it will vary depending on your photography style, your level of patience, but also the type of bees you want to capture.
I generally prefer handheld photography, but may choose to use a tripod from time to time.
Camera settings to take pictures of bees
I usually shoot in manual mode, no matter the circumstances. However, if you prefer to use one of the programs, I recommend using either the Shutter Priority mode or the Program mode.
Most cameras have manual modeand learning how to shoot in manual mode can help you in many situations. However, use Shutter Priority mode, if that’s what you’re most comfortable with.
So put your camera in burst mode and use camera settings below for best results.
When it comes to capturing bees in flight with a digital camera, you need to use a flash or a shutter speed of at least 1/1000-1/2000 sec. If you’re using an s flash, be sure to set your shutter speed to your camera’s recommended flash sync speed, which is typically around 1/200-1/250 second.
If your subject is just crawling around on a flower, you can move with a slower shutter speed like 1/500 second. I wouldn’t go much lower than this because of the risk of a slight breeze moving the flower and your subject slightly, resulting in a blurred image. Use the fastest shutter speed if the situation allows.
Aperture and depth of field
Aperture is a bit tricky, as you want enough light entering your camera to get a good exposure, while still being able to get a large enough depth of field for the entire subject to be in focus. In macro photography, this means reducing the aperture to maybe f/11-f/14. Again, this depends on how close you are to the subject.
If you are not at the macro distance but farther away, you can use an aperture of f/8 and still have the entire subject in focus. Open the aperture, even more, to get creative with areas of focus or when photographing bees that include natural environments.
You will find that both shutter speed and aperture are more important than maintaining a low ISO. You can set your camera to auto-adjust ISO and don’t have to think twice.
If you use flash, I recommend you to use manual ISO and start with ISO 400 and take a few test shots, and see if your background is very dark or even black. If this is the case then you should reduce the flash output or increase the ISO for better balance.
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How to focus when taking photos of bees
You can focus in two ways when photographing bees. You can try autofocus first, if the bee is moving relatively slowly. However, I usually prefer to use manual focus, but not when the bee is already there. Instead, I focused in front of the lens to the closest possible focusing distance of the lens, then moved back and forth a bit as the bee approached a flower where it intended to land. When the bee was in focus, I pressed the shutter button.
Photographing bees is not difficult when you know how to hold to get a great shot of these fast-moving bees always on their way to the next flower. So put on your best macro lens and find some blooming flowers, good lighting and take great macro shots of bees. Good luck and start spinning
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