On Wednesday night I went to a talk by Simon Croson at the London Beekeepers’ Association in south London. Simon had travelled all the way down from Lincolnshire to share his expertise in taking photos of bees with us.
He has taken an impressively quick journey from novice to small-scale bee farmer and bee photography prize winner. He started beekeeping in 2006 and then took his Basic Beekeeping exam in 2007. Since then he has won the Apimondia Gold medal for bee photography in 2011 and 2013 and launched his own honey company, The Artisan Honey Company Ltd. A tall, imposing man with broad shoulders and what I call a ‘badger beard’, he was previously in the RAF. See the article ‘Honey, I found a new career‘ to find out more about his progress.
Why take bee photos? (as if most of us needed much persuading!)
- Helps you get a better understanding of bees – why and how they do what they do
- Build your own teaching reference library to show others
- Photos make you question things
The first “real bee photo” Simon took was of varroa mites on his bees, which had been given to him by a certain supplier. Thanks to the photo, word got around that this supplier was selling varroa infested bees. Simon found himself being tapped on the back at a beekeeping event and asked by the supplier “What’s this I hear that you’ve been saying my bees have varroa?”. Simon showed him the photo, only for the supplier to say “So that’s what they look like!”. It just goes to show that even very experienced beekeepers can be ignorant of bee biology and diseases.
- Olympus DSLR, various lenses, ring flash
- Uses a 50mm macro lens for most of his work
- Recommends a purpose built macro lens rather than an adapter if you can afford it.
You can find out more about his equipment on his website at: sicroson.com/Sicroson.com/Olympus_Cameras.html
Simon’s tips for getting a good photo:
- Try to move in close rather than zooming in – get within a couple of inches of your subject.
- Move in gradually and slowly towards bees you are photographing, so you don’t startle them off.
- You might need artificial light – a flash on a camera could be shadowed out as you get close. Simon uses a ring flash, which produces nice diffused light to let you get lots of detail.
- Foraging bees are quicker but are less aggressive than when in the hives. Find a flower bees are visiting and wait by it.
- Put your camera on manual focus.
- Use f-stops to isolate the subject or increase the area in focus. F-stops range from 1.2 to 45 and control the size of the lens aperture.
- Use shallow depth of field with a low f-stop number to get small parts of the bee in focus. The eyes will usually be the most interesting part to focus on.
More on F-stops
A shallow depth of field using a wide aperture (low f-stop number – f2.8/f4 etc) to let lots of light in results in a soft and blurry background which helps draw the eye to the bees in the foreground.
F45 is really deep depth of field with a narrow aperture restricting light into the camera – you need an enormous amount of light around to be able to see much in the resulting photo. When using an f22 or higher stop Simon recommends using a ring flash, unless it’s a really bright sunny day.
- Understand how your bees react to cameras. Wear protection around bees at unfamiliar hives. Cameras generate electromagnetic fields which the bees can sense and might be bothered by.
- Get in as close as you safely can, don’t zoom.
- If wearing a veil, don’t press your camera close to your face to look through – a recipe for getting stung. Try to use your camera’s live view screen instead.
- No point using a tripod or monopod as bees move around too much. Instead brace your camera with your hands and hold it as tightly as you can to reduce shake.
- Use flash to freeze movement and add detail.
- During brood inspections, keep the frame as parallel to the lens as possible so that the cells are in focus. A ring flash is good for clear photos of eggs.
- Get creative – there are lots of cheap apps that let you convert parts of your photo to black & white and do other exciting special effects.
There are certain times when bees are easier to photograph. For instance, newly emerged bees are more docile and move more slowly on the frames. If you’ve accidentally broken brace comb during an inspection, resulting in exposed larvae or dribbled honey, the bees will be preoccupied in cleaning this up and often too busy to notice you. Foragers will clean their antennae just before they set off; drones clean their antennae and eyes when returning.
Simon is a big user of Facebook and posts photos there nearly every day, for instance in the community ‘From Virginia to Lincolnshire – Beekeeping Across The Pond‘. As he says, the great thing about photos is they can be appreciated by everyone, no matter what language you speak. He has 80,000 photos stored on his Macbook, so there’s a lot to post! A book is being planned, but he’s rather secretive about it.
After the talk I do feel inspired to have a go with Drew’s fancy camera, though he will have to explain to me how to switch between f-stops. All the technical terms are still a bit mysterious to me, think I really need a practical session experimenting with all the settings to understand them.
Some more excellent bee photographers:
- Rose Lynn-Fisher – never mind macro, Rose’s thing is microscopic photos of bee parts. They’re even more fascinating (and hairy!) up this close.
- Elise Fog – Elise commented below. Her close-ups of pollen showered bees of all kinds are spectacular. Checkout her camera setup, which she told me via Twitter weighs 5 lb 9 oz.
- Eric Tourneret, ‘The Bee Photographer’ – Eric travels the world taking beautiful photos of bees and beekeepers. There is probably no aspect of bee behaviour he hasn’t yet captured and his website has useful captions explaining each photo.
- Mark Berkery – Mark has a fascination and love for insects of all kinds, which he photographs up close, taking great care not to harm them. His posts are very philosophical as well as containing amazing photos.
- Stephen Falk – recommended by Philip Strange in the comments below. Nice closeups of native bees, flies and wasps.
- Zachary Huang – recommended by theprospectofbees in the comments – “Zachary Huang, an associate professor at Michigan State University, has a nice bee photography site at http://ww2.beetography.com/index.php. We do not know what all his tricks are.” I especially like his UV flower photos.
Photographers who blog about how to take good insect photos:
- Donna at Garden Talk Garden Walk – for example, her posts ‘Hopping on board with macro, shooting the critters‘ and ‘Isolating the subject in photos‘ have some great explanations of what she does.
- A Tramp in the Woods – This fun blog is a nature diary from the Forest of Dean, starring an astoundingly cute little dog called Fizz. Colin walks the woods with Fizz taking nature photos and has written this post – ‘How to take photographs 3‘ which explains his tricks in a simple way.
I know I’ve read some other great posts about taking insect photos, but can’t recall the authors/find the links now, so do comment and let me know about any others (even if you wrote them yourself, don’t be modest!).