Your first attempt at bee photography might leave you frustrated. Getting a great shot of a honey bee that doesn’t sit still while you fiddle with camera settings can be challenging, but also fun and rewarding when you succeed.
With these tips, you can quickly improve your macro photography of bees and get home with some amazing nature photos.
Know your subject
A bee is not just a bee. If you want to photograph bees, you need to know a little bit about them. There are many different species of bees, and you will find they have different patterns of behavior. For instance, a bumblebee behaves differently from honey bees.
You don’t have to be able to identify the different species to get amazing shots of them. However, it does pay off to watch their behavior before you start a shooting spree with your camera.
Notice how it moves: fast, in straight predictable pathways, or jagged in its flight. Where does it rest? For how long before it takes off again. Which kind of flowers does it prefer, those with flat, open flowers or semi-closed flowers? Does it hover above the flowers before landing? How many seconds will you have to capture it in flight or once it has landed?
Taking notes of this helps you compose, frame, and focus at the right place and be ready to press the trigger at the right time.
Get Out Early
Insects are generally more active during the day when the temperature is higher than in the early days. The best time for photographing bees is probably in the early morning when the bees are still asleep so they don’t move so fast and you can take the best possible pictures of the insect.
Another large advantage when photographing insects at sunrise is that the natural light is much softer than during daytime.
The most important thing to remember when composing and capturing your shot is to get a view where you can see at least one of the bee’s eyes. Often top-down shots result in capturing the back of the bee. Instead, get down low to eye level with the bee, and compose from there.
Next, you would want the background to be as calm as possible. You can try to position yourself so the background becomes less busy.
If possible, placing your subject according to the rule of thirds usually make bee photos way more interesting.
Finally, it is important to think about colors in your composition. Can you get more color contrast between your subject and the background and make it stand out more?
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You can capture great photos of bees with almost any DSLR or mirrorless camera. What matters is the lens you use and adding a flash to your setup.
You can photograph bees with any digital camera. However, you will likely get the best images if you use a full-frame camera or a crop sensor camera.
That is not to say that you cannot get a good shot of a bee with a point-and-shoot or a system camera. However, you get better often get the best ISO handling and depth of field with full-frame cameras or prosumer level crop cameras. Ultimately, what matters is that you can actually control things like shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, plus add an external flash.
Which Lens to Use
There are two types of lenses you can use for bee photography: a macro lens or a telephoto lens.
I personally prefer to use a macro lens to capture photos of bees. Dedicated macro lenses often have a fixed focal range. A focal length of 90mm or greater is best. The greater the focal range the further away from your subject you can work, so you don’t annoy the bee or scare it away.
Dedicated macro lenses allow you to get much closer to your subjects achieving a 1:1 Magnification ratio.
If you need to get even closer to your subject you can experiment with using extension tubes. However, a macro lens is enough to get close enough to photograph details like pollen or flower stamens.
If you want to use a telephoto lens, then a focal length of 200-600mm is very useful, as it allows you to zoom in close enough. The issue though is that telephoto lenses often have a long minimum focusing distance of above 1 or even 2 meters.
To overcome this, you can use an extension tube in combination with a telephoto lens to shorten the minimum focusing distance. However, when using extension tubes with telephoto lenses, you won’t be able to focus far off into the distance, only within a couple of meters.
Using a telephoto lens also limits you from using flash, as part of your setup in many cases. I suggest that you opt for a macro lens, whenever possible.
When you use a flash for your bee photography, you will often get much better results. No matter what kind of flash you use, like an external flash or a dedicated macro flash, you need to soften the light by adding a flash diffuser.
A diffuser allows you to get the benefit of the extra light and a “shutter speed” equal to the flash light emitted and still get soft beautiful light.
To capture a bee in flight you need a shutter speed of at least 1/1,000 seconds, if not higher. However, without a flash, you might not be able to use this shutter speed. If you also want to “freeze” the wings of the bee in motion, you will need additional faster shutter speed.
A flash can give you a shutter speed of up to 1/20,000. The flash is fastest when the flash power is set to emit less light, like 1/128 of full output. This also allows you to better balance the flash with ambient light.
Even when you are not trying to freeze motion, a subtle flash will help illuminate the scene and get rid of slight motion blur coming from either the bee moving a bit, the wind or from you if you’re hand-holding the camera.
Use a Tripod or Not
Bees are fast-moving subjects and can be difficult to frame, lock focus, and capture. You likely only got a second or two to do that before a bee is off to another flower. Using a tripod in this scenario seems like a big mistake, however it is a matter of approach.
By handholding your camera, you will likely have to throw away a lot of your images because they are out of focus or the framing isn’t right.
If on the other hand, you use s tripod you can compose the image, set your focus on a flower, and simply wait for the bee to approach and land on that flower, and fire off the frames you need. However, it can take a lot of patience before a bee actually lands on this specific flower.
I cannot tell you which of these two approaches to use, as it will differ with your photography style, patience level but also with the type of bee you want to capture.
I usually prefer handheld shooting, but may choose to use a tripod from time to time.
Camera Settings for Photographing Bees
I usually shoot in manual mode, no matter the circumstances. However, if you prefer to use one of the programs, I suggest that you use either Shutter Priority mode or Program mode.
Most cameras have a manual mode, and learning to shoot in manual mode can help you in a lot of situations. However, go with Shutter Priority mode, if that is what you are most comfortable with.
So set your camera to continuous shooting mode and use the camera settings below for the best results.
When it comes to capturing bees in flight with your digital camera you need to use a flash or a shutter speed of at least 1/1000-1/2000 secs. If you use s flash, remember to set your shutter speed to your camera’s recommended flash sync speed, which is usually around 1/200-1/250s.
If your subject is just crawling around on a flower you can get away with a slower shutter speed like 1/500s. I wouldn’t go much lower than this because of the risk of a small breeze moving the flower and your subject a tiny bit, resulting in blurry images. Use as fast a shutter speed as the situation allows.
Aperture and Depth of Field
Aperture is a bit tricky, as you want enough light to enter your camera to get a decent exposure, while still being able to get a great enough depth of field for your entire subject to be in focus. In macro photography, this means closing down the aperture to probably f/11-f/14. Again this depends on how close you are to the subject.
If you are not on a macro distance but further away then you can likely use an aperture of f/8 and still get your entire subject in focus. Open up the aperture, even more, to get creative with the areas of focus, or when capturing bee photos which include the natural environments.
You will find that both shutter speed and aperture are more important than maintaining a low ISO. You can set your camera to auto-adjust ISO, and not give it a second thought.
If you use flash I recommend that you use manual ISO and start with ISO 400 and take a few test shots, and see if your background is very dark or even black. If this is the case then you should lower the flash output or raise the ISO to get a better balance.
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How to Focus When Photographing Bees
You can focus in two ways when it comes to photographing bees. First, you can try autofocus, if the bees are relatively slow-moving. However, I usually prefer to use manual focus, but not while the bee is already there. Instead, I pre-focus the lens on the nearest possible focus distance of the lens, and then move a little back and forth when the bee is approaching one flower where it intends to land. When the bee is in focus, I press the shutter.
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Photographing bees don’t have to be hard when your know the keeping to getting a great shot of these fast-moving bees that are always on their way to the next flower. So put on your best macro lens, and find some blooming flowers, good light, and capture amazing macro shots of bees. Good luck and start shooting
Hey I’m Peter. I’m the owner and editor of Photography-RAW. I make sure that you get the best articles about photography. Personally, I prefer to shoot landscape, nature and macro photography.
I hope you enjoy the site 🙂