Discover the hidden world of insects

Reveal the secret lives of tiny creatures with advice from close-up photography expert Pierre Anquet.
A close-up of a brown jumping spider.

"Before starting macro photography, I honestly wasn't a big fan of insects," says French photographer Pierre Anquet. "But now I think they are very beautiful if you take the time to look closely."

"I started out shooting landscapes and portraits, but I saw a video by American macro photographer Thomas Shahan, and that was it: I just fell in love with macro," he says.

Incredible close-ups might seem like the territory of experienced photographers with the most expensive kit, but they can actually be achieved on a range of budgets. You can experiment with close-up focusing using your kit lens before upgrading to a dedicated macro lens.

1. Take creative close-ups with a kit lens

A mantis hanging from a leaf.

For shooting macro, it's not about how close you are to the subject, it's about magnification levels. "If you want to shoot close-ups but don't have the budget for a macro lens, you can take this zoom and get some really interesting shots," Pierre says. Taken on a EOS 90D with an EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens at 55mm 1/3200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO640. © Pierre Anquet

Although a true macro lens offers incredible magnification, a standard zoom can focus close enough for excellent shots of larger insects.

"For these shots, I found a species of mantis called Empusa," Pierre explains. "It's roughly 3-4cm long, which meant I was able to fill the entire picture using the Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM lens. The biggest challenge will be getting close enough to the insect to take the picture – I'd recommend waking up early, as dawn is when they are less active."

The EF-M 28mm f/3.5 Macro IS STM and EF-S 35mm f/2.8 Macro IS STM lenses have built-in macro ring lites, which put interesting and creative lighting effects that were previously the domain of professionals into the hands of beginners.

As an alternative method to using autofocus, Pierre achieves maximum magnification by zooming the lens to its longest focal length, switching to manual focus and turning the focusing ring until it's at minimum focus distance, then gently moving the camera backwards and forwards to bring the subject into sharp focus.

Pierre prefers shoots without a tripod but they can come in handy for shooting macro as any camera shake is accentuated. "They are way too large and get in the way. The 18-55mm lens is perfect for shooting handheld, as it's very small and the Image Stabilizer is really useful."

2. Go one-to-one with a macro lens

A close-up of an orange-brown spider on a branch.

Pierre used an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens to photograph a jumping spider: "It was smaller than the mantis, but this allowed me to include more of the environment in the shot." Taken on an EOS 90D with an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM at 1/250 sec, f/8 and ISO500. © Pierre Anquet

A close-up of a mantis hanging on a branch.

Pierre used focus stacking for some of his photos. "The highest number of shots I took for a single focus stack was 28. The mantis was on a branch, and I wanted to have the entire insect in focus. By taking lots of shots and moving the camera, I could have the head, legs and the body in focus." Taken on an EOS 90D with an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM at 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO200. © Pierre Anquet

A compact, razor-sharp lens like the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM is a great entry point into the world of macro. It gives life-size (1x) magnification when it's set to its minimum focus distance, which means details will be focused on the camera sensor at the same size as they are in reality.

One thing to consider when shooting close up is that the depth of field is wafer thin. Using smaller apertures, such as f/11 and f/16, will increase the depth of field but also reduce the amount of light. This leads to slower shutter speeds, which can result in a blurred image if the camera or the subject moves.

To combat this, you can increase the ISO to give shorter exposure times. "With the EOS 90D, I can go up to ISO2000 without any problems whatsoever. But you need to expose the image correctly – if you try and increase the exposure later in software, you get a lot of noise."

A close-up of a buffalo treehopper's head with a water droplet on it.

Pierre recommends using a Speedlite for 3-5x magnification. "The main light is still the sun," he says. "But having the flash adds a little bit extra to make the subject pop." Taken on a Canon EOS 60D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 90D) with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens and a Speedlite 430EX II at 1/250 sec, f/10 and ISO400. © Pierre Anquet

Focus stacking is a popular technique that macro photographers use to increase the depth of field. This involves taking a sequence of identical pictures and manually shifting the focus position for each one. The in-focus areas of each image can then be combined in software to create a photo with more sharpness.

The Canon EOS 90D has a built-in focus bracketing feature that can automatically take the shots you need to make a focus stack in Canon Digital Photo Professional . "With practice, it's easy," explains Pierre. "I select the continuous drive mode, set the focus manually on the closest part of the subject and then slowly move the camera closer to the insect, as I fire a burst of shots."

3. Beyond life-size with a specialist lens

A close-up of a jumping spider on the ground.

The Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo is a unique lens that allows you to shoot subjects at up to 5x life-size magnification. Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/250 sec, f/9 and ISO800. © Pierre Anquet

A macro shot of a mantis' face.

The MP-E 65mm lens is very versatile, enthuses Pierre. "At 1x magnification you can fill the frame with a larger insect such as a butterfly or a cicada, and then you can go to 5x magnification and shoot very small insects." Taken on a Canon EOS 90D with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/160 sec, f/8 and ISO2000. © Pierre Anquet

Accurate focusing is critical when working at such a high magnification as 5x, as any errors will be equally enlarged. To ensure accuracy while photographing insects, Pierre monitored the image using the large rear display of the Canon EOS 90D. "I can zoom in manually and see exactly where I'm focused," he says. "First I turn the ring on the lens to set the magnification, then I move closer to the subject, and when I see on the screen that it's perfectly in focus, I take the shot."

You can get started in macro photography by shooting objects at home, whether it's a pattern in a carpet or a house plant on a windowsill before moving on to capturing detailed insect shots.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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