Bees are one of my favourite macro photography subjects, because of their attractive appearance, the fact that their behaviours and activities are interesting to photograph, they are often found in scenic locations, and their movement patterns are easy to learn and therefore predict and plan for. Once you’ve found a location that has bees present, it helps to track an individual bee for a few minutes to learn how they move – how quickly they fly, how long they hover for before they land, how long they spend at each flower. When you understand these behaviours, it makes setting up a shot a lot easier.
My first bee photographs were full-flash photos (the exposure was reliant solely on light from the flash), using a Canon 430 EX speedlite. I did not use a flash diffuser at the time, so all my early macro photos had harsh catchlights on the body and eyes of my subjects, as well as unidirectional light. Nevertheless, these photos of bees collecting pollen from lavender flowers were some of my first proper macro photographs, so they were exciting captures.
Then I invested in a Canon MT-24 EX twin flash and starting making my own diffusers for it. Along with learning to practise a lot of patience during macro photography sessions, this softer light made a difference to the quality of my images.
Once I figured out how to follow a bee around and get photos of it stationary at a flower, I started exploring different ways to photograph them, namely through wide-angle macro. Capturing a bee on its journey, with its background also exposed, and partially in focus for context. This meant using smaller apertures, slower shutter speeds and higher ISOs.
I really liked the look of these images, I feel that they tell much more of a story than my first few photos. A few times by accident I’d been able to get a photo of a bee in flight, but it was often out of focus, blurry, or not composed properly. This is because I was not planning to get a photo of the bee in flight, but rather as soon as it landed and hit the shutter button too early.
My next step was to try and purposefully capture a bee in flight. Having recently purchased the Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Macro Lens, I was eager to try it out on some bees.
I went to the Emmarentia Botanical Gardens to look for bees and found a single bee flitting around some beautiful, low-lying purple flowers. I realised quickly that because the flowers were so low to the ground, keeping my eye to the eyepiece and following the bee through the viewfinder was almost impossible for the shot I wanted. So instead I set up the lens and flash for the exposure I wanted – aperture to f/16 (good depth of field without experiencing too much diffraction), a shutter speed of 1/100th of a sec (fast enough to minimise motion blur, slow enough to let in a decent amount of light), ISO 640. Then I started practising shooting “free-hand”. This involved learning how close I had to be to the bee to get it in focus, and what angle to point the lens to also get the flower in the shot.
I have to say that shooting in this free-hand fashion was a lot of fun, yielding angles and compositions that would otherwise have been impossible/very difficult to get.
Finally, after almost 200 shots, I got a sharp, in focus capture of a bee in flight, as it left a flower. I love the sense of scale that this image provides. We are at eye level with the bee, and the stalks of the shrub appear as skyscrapers. This is what I truly love about macro photography, creating a sense of scale that we cannot perceive with our own eyes.
I used the Golden Spiral overlay (by pressing O – Windows) to guide the crop in photoshop. The spiral starts on the bottom left, travelling up with the flower on the left, travelling downwards along the stem on the right and concluding with the bee at the epicentre of the diminishing spiral. This is not where I would normally place the subject of a photo, but with this image, it seems to work beautifully.
I recently picked up an Ubertronix Strike Finder Touch trigger, a device that can activate your shutter when the sensor picks up a lighting strike, motion or sound. Although the idea seems like cheating, setting the camera, flash and sensors at a flower and waiting for a bee to fly past would surely result in some interesting photos! Watch this space for those tests.