Sneaking up on butterflies and other skills of macrophotography

Wildflowers are in bloom in Maine. Along roadsides, throughout meadows, and deep in the forest, their colors pop and demand attention. And as someone who enjoys wandering about in nature, I readily give them consideration — especially when I’m carrying my camera. But photographing flowers isn’t as easy as one might think.

It’s called “macrophotography,” to photograph small items and produce them so they look larger than life. I’ve been practicing with my Canon EFS 18-55mm MACRO 0.25m lens, with mixed results. The following is a group of images from an outing at Cascade Park and Saxl Park in Bangor, combined with some photos from my home in Hancock County:

First of all, there are better (and more expensive) lenses for macrophotography than the lens I use. But my lens was good enough for my skill level and interest. If you’re interested in macrophotography, I suggest you look to several sources for information. But while you’re here, I’ll offer some lessons I’ve learned thus far:

1. Get close to your object. With my 18-55mm lens, I zoom in as much as possible on the object, be it a flower or insect. I turn my lens all the way to 55mm. I then creep up to the object as close as possible — and there is a limit. It says it right on the lens. MACRO 0.25m/0.8ft means I can focus on an object if my lens is 0.25 meters (or 0.8 ft.. or about 9.7 inches) or farther from it. If the lens is closer, it will not focus. You’ll have to move back and forth to find that limit, when the bug or flower is no longer in focus because you’re too close.

WARNING: Butterflies and other insects are observant, and many are skittish. You might be driven insane trying to chase them for a photograph. My advice is to move slow, painfully slow. Creep up to the insect. I’ve employed this technique many times, and it has worked.

2. Decide how much of the object you want to have in focus. If the object is fairly flat (such as daisy), you probably only want a small depth in focus. Or if you want to just focus on the bug’s head, but not its body, you might want a small depth of focus. To do this, put your F stop number (aperture) as low as possible. On the other hand, if you want to have more depth in focus, you want a higher F stop number. For example, you might want every little detail of a beetle to be in focus, from its antennae to its back legs. You will need a greater depth to be in focus for that.

3. As with all photos, balance your ISO, F stop and shutter speed for the correct lighting. White flowers or bright flowers (such as buttercups) tend to blow out a photo.

4. If you want to freeze the movement of insect wings in your photo (or if it’s a windy day and you’re dealing with a flower that’s shaking), you will want to have a high shutter speed. To turn up your shutter speed, you actually have to set it at a lower number. The lower the number, the faster the shutter is. For example, a shutter speed of 2 will be 2 seconds long, whereas a shutter speed of 1/16 is 1/16th of a second long (a lot faster). When you turn up your shutter speed, you need to compensate by either turning up your ISO or turning down your F stop (aperture).

5. Some people use a tripod for macrophotography for better stability, and therefore clarity. I don’t do that, but I often find it helpful to stabilize the camera on something sturdy.

6. I didn’t go to school for photography, and I’m really just learning myself. So the best advice I can give you when it comes to macrophotography is to play with your camera settings and “think small.” When looking for small things to photograph, you’ll need to walk slow or not at all. Sit on the ground, peek under leaves, stare at the surface of a stream and inspect each flower blossom. The cool thing about macrophotography is that there are opportunities for an interesting photo almost anywhere you look. By getting close and magnifying the small things in life, you’re drawing attention to what’s often overlooked or not seen at all.

Please leave comments at the bottom of the page if you’re interested in macrophotography and have anything you’d like to share.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at