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Macro Photography In Motion – Tips for Shooting Moving Objects

Photographing moving creatures encompasses two different possibilities. The first is photographing them while they are on a plant or something similar. Second is photographing them while they are in flight or otherwise on the move. Getting animals on the move adds a more dynamic quality to your shots. It also helps to tell the story of your subject. In this article we are going to take a look at both scenarios.

If you want to shoot insects or other animals they will be on the move and you have to have a game plan to photograph them. Learn the habits of the creatures you want to photograph. Be able to predict their behavior, understand why they do what they do. The more you know about your subject the greater the chance you will capture the photographs you are striving for.

We are going to look at two different strategies for shooting moving creatures. First is to wait where you know the subject will be. The second is when you spot a subject you are interested in, track it as best you can taking photos along the way as they become available. Both have their advantages.

Pollen collectors make great macro subjects

A bee collecting pollen from a blooming Rose Of Sharon. The pollen covered bee makes for a great shot.

Everything needs to eat. Know where it eats and thus know where it will be. I have found this to work very well with bees. As a plant comes into bloom bees are all over it as they collect pollen. This is the bee’s job in the ecosystem. They collect nectar to make honey, pollinating plants along their travels. Look for a plant starting to bloom and there they will be. Blooming plants will attract all manor of insects.

Pollen covered bee

Images with both blacks and white can be tough to balance. Sometimes you will have to lose detail in one to preserve it in the other.

Even when insects are on a plant they are still very active. The subject is moving as it feeds. It will be in and out of flowers or walking around on top of them. Find plants with many blooms to give yourself more subjects to work with and a greater number of angles to the light. I try to use as much natural light as I can, giving some fill as necessary.

While you are waiting for a subject to arrive plan the angle of your shot. Play with the composition through the lens and know what shot you are looking for when an insect arrives. Know the exposure you will use. With blacks you will have to over expose a little to get better detail. With whites you have to under expose to preserve detail. If you have both which way will you go with the image? With the bee above I shot natural light with no fill. I had to give up a little detail in the black body of the bee to keep it in the pollen and white flower.

Get close to your subject. Try different angles during different times of day. Experiment with things like back lighting, side lighting or even shaded areas. Some days I will pick a spot and stay there for an hour or two in the evening to see what comes. I take the photos that present themselves. I also learn a lot about the habits of the insect visiting the plant.

Hummingbird Moths don't stay still

The Hummingbird Moth does not stop flying to feed, they hover as they eat.

When photographing animals on the move you add another level of complexity to the process. You need a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject in motion. You can leave some blur in the wings to convey the sense of motion but you want to freeze the movement in the body. You also have to be able to focus fast enough to account for the changing distance to the subject in the very narrow depth of field macro gives you.

For me this is where my decade plus of sports photography work comes in handy. Being able to track your subject, keeping it in focus and maintain your composition is an art unto itself. Tracking is moving the camera with your subject while keeping it where you want in the frame. It is a skill that takes practice, patience and a good deal of trial and error. Practice with your kids or pets running in the yard to get the fluid tracking motion you need. Match the speed of your subject. Be fluid with the motion, don’t jerk on your starts and stops.

Hummingbird Moth

The Hummingbird Moth hovers as it feeds from the Butterfly Bush. I love how the orientation of the wings has changed to allow for hovering. Being able to show this teaches the viewer something about the behavior of the subject.

Tracking insects in flight is a challenge regardless of how many times you have done it.  It is also one of the most exciting when you get the shot.  Insects can change directions without notice.  One trick I have found over the years — on a sunny day watch their shadow on the ground and use it as a guide to follow them when you are not shooting.  It will not get you any shots in flight but it does let you follow them to their next destination.  I have captured some cool shots using this technique when I get to a spot where the opportunity finally presents itself.  When tracking an insect sometimes they are flying too fast or too high to get a shot.  Don’t lose them, be patient and be rewarded when the shot presents itself.

Fast shutter speeds freeze insects in flight

When photographing insect in flight you will need a fast shutter speed to stop the action. In this shot there is just a little blur on the wings.

You will need a fast shutter speed when photographing moving subjects. You will also have to be mindful of your aperture. Because of the narrow depth of field you have with macro you don’t want to limit it any further by using a larger aperture than absolutely necessary. The newer generations of digital cameras have great higher ISO performance. Go to 800 or 1600 ISO if you need to. 1000 to 2000 of a second and F/8 to F/11 is where I often have the camera settings. I shot a lot in aperture priority. Set the aperture and the ISO to get the shutter speed where you want it and then keep an eye on it as you go.

Getting the hang of shooting moving creatures is a matter of practice. Get out and shoot as many moving subjects as you can in the beginning. The more experience you get the more natural it will feel as you are doing it. By shooting this way you can get great dynamic shoots. Strive to add as much action into your shot as you can to help tell a story.

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