Skippers, Species, and Fun with Macro
So I crouch along the edge of the marigolds, or the zinnias, or whatever is there, hoping that a cute little skipper butterfly or two will pose for a macro shot. The first time I attempted butterfly chasing, I tried to follow them as they darted hither and thither, but I am no match for a tiny, lithe butterfly; as soon as one lands on a flower, it disappears, or so it seems. Sometimes, the solution is to sit with the camera focused on a pretty bloom and then wait for a butterfly to land on it. Presto! Snap away. Is this the lazy way to take photos of butterflies? Absolutely. But it works. The point is, the macro world is a bustling, busy place. Every flower will have a butterfly or a bee on a regular basis. Crouch down. Bring a cushion. Get comfortable. And notice the skippers.
Here's what I noticed about the little skippers: They are pretty smart and can see very well. Even though I sit motionless for many minutes, they stay on the opposite side of the flower bed. When I get up and move to their side, they switch to the side I had just left. I have to be a little proactive if I want to get any shot at all, even though the lazy photog in me would rather just sit and wait. (I have to talk myself out of that option even though sometimes it takes a lot of convincing to get me to move.) Yet, move I must.
Another thing about my little skippers is that they sip in stages: 1) land, 2) uncurl proboscis, 3) insert in flower, and 4) move head up and down while sipping. I love capturing that proboscis while it is curly because it seems fairy-like. That's the beauty of the garden through a macro setting; everything becomes a storybook. What I used to think were just moths are actually little butterflies that skip and sip. When you see them up close, you almost want to take them in and put them on your bed pillows with your other stuffies, they are just that cute.
The macro setting on your camera makes it possible to see these things that ordinarily go unnoticed. And one need not have a fancy camera to enjoy such close-up photography. Although this is not what photography calls "true" macro, it is a great starting point.
After getting the hang of watching the little skipper butterflies, you may want to move on to other fascinating, small creatures. This is not difficult and can be accomplished simply by poking your camera into a flower bed or even into a clump of grass. That is how I discovered how rich and full the insect world is. It takes very little effort to photograph grasshoppers, katydids, praying mantises, ladybugs, and spiders because they are everywhere. You just need to get close enough to look. Sometimes you only see the tiniest insects after the photos are loaded into the computer and viewed on the monitor. That picture you snapped of a ladybug will likely also have grasshopper nymphs, ants, and miniature spiders in the frame.
One of the benefits of the Dave's Garden community is that there are experts available to help identify the insect, spider, or butterfly that is submitted by digital photograph to the Insect and Spider Identification forum. Once a positive I.D.is made, a bit of research by "Googling" the specimen on the Web can supply more information about the exact species of that creature. Also try the Bug Files here since it is a large photo database that is organized by insect order, family, genus, and species with lots of example photos to help pinpoint your specific find. If it's a plant or flower that you want to learn about in your macro photo, we have a Plant Identification forum. And just like the Bug Files, we have Plant Files, another large photo database.
Naturally, this leads to increased education for the photographer in the fields of botany and insectology (entomology) along with learning the scientific Latin names that classify each known organism. The brown skipper on the orange flower is likely a common roadside skipper (Amblyscirtes vialis) on a marigold (Tagetes patula). By consulting butterfly sites with information and photos specific to my region, I am learning how to identify the butterflies in my yard. It seems there are many species of skippers as yet unidentified, and many look-alikes within a species, but that's what makes the learning fun.
Why do we use Latin names for specimens? It makes it easier to research by scientific name to find out more about them. Moreover, the macro photographer may often contribute his or her photographs and new-found knowledge to scientific Websites and other nature-focused communities to help educate folks about the wonderful creatures we document with our cameras. This information is valuable to the scientific community and to everyone who appreciates nature.
I started with a Sony Cybershot DSC-H3 several years ago, and truth be told, I have not found a better 8-megapixel compact camera for detail in capturing flowers and insects at the macro setting. These days, the DSC-H3 can be had quite cheaply by searching the Internet or EBay. The advantage to using a compact, or "point-and-shoot" camera for close-up work is that you can place the camera's lens practically ON the insect and snap away. In addition, the macro setting on these cameras often blurs the background with a shallow depth-of-field just like a professional camera lens would. No matter what model camera you want to use for close-ups, be sure to check out the "specs" or "tech specs" and look for the macro range. Aim for a .5 centimeter range if you can find it; if not, 1–2 centimeters will be okay. (The DSC-H3 shoots at 2 centimeters from the subject.)
Others rave about the Canon G-series of point-and-shoot cameras, in particular the Canon G-12, now considered an older model but worth the investment.
No matter what camera is used, it is well worth the effort to find out how close you can get to an insect or butterfly before buying the camera. One good website where you can research both old and new digital cameras (and all the camera models mentioned in this article) is the Dave's Picks section of Imaging Resource at http://www.imaging-resource.com/WB/WB.HTM
Although many older cameras are absolute gems for capturing close photos, modern point-and-shoot cameras feature innovations only found in new models. A little bit of research turns up new trends in photography, even in the compact camera world. For example, the newer Pentax Optio models sport a ring flash that surrounds the lens, making close-up shots easier to illuminate. Then there are creative flash units that can be attached to any camera provided there is a tripod screw mount (and that's just about on every camera). To read more about modern trends in point-and-shoot macro photography, click on the B&H article here or at the link below.
There are always options for macro photography in the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) world if one is interested in a camera with interchangeable lenses. In that case, it would be necessary to get a dedicated macro lens in order to get a detailed macro photo at close range to a specimen.
For those not interested in having to carry around the weight of a DSLR, there are the Olympus PEN and Sony NEX series which feature interchangeable lenses without the bulk. The technology in the Pen and Nex models offers a slim camera body (without the traditional mirror) to which lenses are attached.
Finally, the photography world is changing by leaps and bounds these days with many folks using their mobile phones as their all-around, carry-everywhere camera. This is a great option for immediate sharing of a nature photo on the Internet. Project Noah has a nature website just for cell phone photos! Anyone can join in the fun by creating an account and uploading photos to that site for the purposes of sharing information about our natural world. What I like about Project Noah is that even if you still would rather use a traditional camera, you certainly may contribute to their image database the old-fashioned way via desktop or laptop. What's more, it is interactive; members share information about species "spottings" on the site.
One last tidbit: For anyone planning on printing their nature photos, I would recommend photographing specimens using a DSLR, known for its ability to render prints in high quality.
One more last tidbit: "Mouse over" the two stacked photos for the scientific names of the specimens.
Helpful Web Articles and Sites:
Websites that accept macro photographs:
Project Noah, especially for nature photographers using mobile phone cameras