Amazing wildlife photography opportunities can be found on your doorstep – Tom Mason looks at the best close-up subjects in May
All images by Tom Mason
It’s May and although we are still largely confined to the land close to home, the opportunities for wildlife photography are hotting up. In the hedgerows, the hawthorn is out in force, birdsong is filling the quieter air, and a certain hum of insects is back. Overhead, summer migrants are returning.
On my hour-long walk the other night, my binoculars – a true essential for any wildlife photographer – provided some stunning views of swallows and swifts, back over UK soil to breed. Right now, gardens are starting to brim with life on both a miniature and a mega scale, all offering great opportunities for nature photographers!
One of the joys of close-up photography is that even a restricted location can provide a wealth of image opportunities. In last month’s calendar we spoke about planting for wildlife, and here is where we can reap the rewards. In May, insect life is brimming. Butterflies are on the wing, bees are busy pollinating, and all kinds of beetles and bugs are emerging. Even in a small space, hours can be spent enjoying a miniature world, and the closer you start to look, the more you find. A patch of nettles can contain hundreds of individual insects – perfect for a garden photoshoot!
When it comes to gear for close-up work, it doesn’t have to cost the earth, and many photographers will already have all they need in the kit bag. Standard lenses with a decent close focusing distance can be a great option for larger insects and habitat-style images of flowers, while telephotos can be used for more skittish species such as dragonflies and butterflies. A true macro lens is fantastic for these ultra-close images, however often I find a telephoto with a mixture of a teleconverter or extension tubes can provide more flexibility. Extension tubes can be purchased rather cheaply and are a great addition to any wildlife photographer’s kit.
When it comes to photographing plant portraits, I often find that a longer focal length really helps in creating clean compositions. Framing up with an ultra-low angle on my tripod or beanbag, the surrounding grass and foliage are rendered out of focus, and with a wider aperture I focus the attention on the given subject.
If you want to get even closer, think about a reversing ring. A simple idea, the ring takes your lens and fixes it back-to-front on the camera for a high magnification macro lens. Wide-angles provide the best options for higher magnification that really can open up a whole world of shooting possibilities. Because of the lack of electronic communication, you’ll need a manual lens with an aperture ring in order to work this way, but luckily older MF options can be found used for bargain prices. I personally love my Nikon 28mm 2.8 AIS lens. It’s quite the sought-after optic for close-up work, giving ultra-close focus down to 0.2m when used normally, as well as having the capacity to be reversed for a 3x life-size macro lens, all in one tiny package!
Lighting is something that is key in macro photography, but luckily with the subjects being so small, it can be manipulated with ease, especially in the garden! Reflectors and diffusers are perfect starting points. Simple fold-out designs offer great solutions to add extra light to subjects and fill in harsh shadows. Gold-sided models offer that “last of the evening sun" feeling, while silver-sided versions give a more contrasty “pop”. In harsh light, a diffuser overhead can cut down unwanted glare and harsh highlights, extending photography hours throughout the day. One bit of kit that’s super handy is the Wimberley Plamp. A bendable plastic clamp arm, it’s a handy extra pair of hands for holding reflectors, diffusers and even plants in place while working.
For a more mobile solution, working with flash can provide some extra flexibility. A simple on-camera flashgun firing through a small diffuser can make for a great handheld rig. Diffusing the flash can make for simple wrapping lighting that is great for macro shooting. Often trying to get your flash off-camera with an arm or bracket can help to emulate a more natural look that doesn’t scream “flash” in the final images.
With insect life findable in almost any outdoor space, nearly all of us wildlife photographers have a range of possible subjects right on our doorsteps. Slowing down and exploring small patches of ground is also a great training exercise for those of us, like myself, who usually focus on the larger wildlife. Challenging our photographic eyes to pick out compositions, subjects and images in areas we would usually overlook. So even though I won’t be leading any tours to Africa this year, I’ll certainly be attending a few mini-safaris!
With time on our hands, it’s a great time to work on more complex and experimental images, such as using wide-angles for wildlife. Adding context to our subjects is a great way to add interest to images, developing the story within a single frame. The technique is arguably harder than working with telephotos, as in most cases you’ll need to plan and position the camera ahead of the subjects, not only predicting the framing, exposure and focus, but also the exact position your intended wildlife will turn up at.
When it comes to the kit, luckily, it's not that complex. A DSLR or mirrorless camera with a wide-angle or standard lens that can manually focus will do just fine in most cases. The additional kit is for triggering, and you have a few options. The first is a simple remote release; wireless options tend to be the most convenient, allowing for simple control over the shutter release from a distance.
Alternatively, using your smartphone or tablet with the Bluetooth capabilities of your camera can also work for remote shooting. The Nikon Snapbridge app, for example, allows me to control my camera remotely, not only for triggering the shutter but also exposure settings, allowing me to have the option to alter shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and even focus from a remote position. The drawbacks compared to a simple shutter release, however, include a slight lag and a transmission distance limit that reduces use for certain situations.
Also worth considering is an automated system deploying an infrared or laser trigger. These detect motion or breaks in a beam to fire the camera, thus not requiring you to trigger the image yourself.
Any of the above are great for different subjects or shoots, but to get started, I’d recommend the old faithful wireless radio remote.
A remote setup ready for the action to begin
When it comes to setting up your camera, the position is key. A location close to consistent wildlife activity is best, be it feeder that birds frequently return to, or a hole in the hedge where you know foxes appear each night. Often, I’ll position the camera and focus manually, working with an F-stop of around f/8 to f/11 for a decent depth of field. This increases the shooting opportunity window for getting those perfectly focused images.
Working in aperture priority, as I won’t be able to alter the shutter speed myself, I’ll often dial in -0.7 exposure compensation to protect any highlights the metering might miss, and then set my ISO to the highest acceptable level for the camera. This ensures a faster shutter speed and, again, longer shooting opportunities. Once complete, I’ll often stick a small piece of gaffer tape over the focus ring to ensure it doesn’t move and change my focus, before testing that the remote fires as intended, and retreating to my shooting position.
Some subjects are more shy than others!
Now it’s just a waiting game! When your subjects appear, be sure to wait until you know they are within your focus range and then fire slowly: a single shot, and then a few more as they become used to the sound. For certain subjects, you might only get one or two images a day, while projects such as garden birds will yield far more images. It can be a slow process, but well worth it for some unique images!
With so many wildlife photography options right on our doorsteps, it’s funny to think that we ever manage to get further than past the drive. Over the last four weeks, locked down at home, it’s been refreshing to explore my local natural world. Hundreds of different subjects and photographic opportunities have been keeping me busy, and although I’m missing out on some of the shoots I had planned for the year, the local wildlife is certainly keeping my spirits up and my shutter finger happy!
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