Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Our new AP expert Heather Angel discusses how she captured this artful shot of a hoverfly and shares some useful tips on composition.

An internationally renowned photographer of

the natural world and author of more than 50 books,

Heather brings her expertise to AP.

Shooting with a macro lens opens up a plethora of compositional possibilities. It concentrates your eye into a small area almost as though you are looking through a tiny window into another world.

This image is from my Wild Kew book for which I spent a year photographing at the Royal Botanic Gardens. On this occasion I was photographing in the early evening and the light was soft and appealing. The advantage of early evening is that you avoid really contrasty light because the sun is not directly overhead, which can burn out detail.

Hoverflies don?t fly straight to a flower. Instead, they hover above it and this predictable behaviour makes them easier to capture than most other insects. You have time to stand back and think about how to compose your shot (see Talking Technique).

As with photographing other insects up close, you mustn?t make any sudden movements otherwise they will fly away. When taking a shot you have to move slowly and carefully.

The flower pictured is ragwort, a biennial plant that is toxic to horses, livestock and wild animals, and can be harmful to humans. I used a 105mm lens with my Nikon D3. It?s a great lens because you don?t have to get as close to the subject as you do with a 60mm macro lens.

Thinking carefully about how the light falls on your subject is especially important with macro. I look at my subjects closely and decide the best way to make the most of the light. Whether your subject has a shiny surface or is translucent or textured, when you look at it, it should say to you ?use direct flash? or ?try using a reflector?.

I decided to use fill-in flash to give the image extra sparkle. The flash didn?t freeze the wings because it is not high-speed flash, but it has brought out the colours of the flower and insect. I took this at 1/250sec, which was the fastest shutter speed I could use when using flash with this camera.

I manually meter all my shots. Green foliage gives a good average tone so I meter from this, making sure I am metering in the same light in which I?ll take the picture. I?ll be constantly metering if the light is changing.

On this occasion I used a monopod to steady my Nikon D3. I could have handheld this shot, but where depth of field is so critical it?s crucial to make sure the camera is still. I pushed the ISO to ISO 1600 ? and the quality is incredible. With this camera I know I can use high ISO settings when handholding and still achieve good quality images. Increasing the ISO meant I could use a smaller aperture ? in this case f/10 ? and so ensure my image was sharp.

Talking Technique

I don?t always have a preconceived idea of how I want my composition to look, and with moving insects you won?t know how to compose the image until you are there.

My original image was horizontal with space either side of the subject, but I cropped to a square because I love square format. I find it helpful to allow extra space around the main subject as insects often move around in the frame. You can always crop afterwards if you want to.

When photographing insects up close there is an element of anticipating what the insect will do. While you don?t need to read in-depth essays about insect behaviour, it?s helpful to have an idea about their activity. Ultimately, it?s a case of using your eyes to study what the insect is doing and think about how you can best frame the shot. I wanted to capture the hoverfly doing what it does best and in this instance the composition formed itself.

I like the diagonal line that runs from the top right-hand corner to the bottom left-hand corner ? it helps shape the composition. I wanted to keep the background simple and in this instance the darkness contrasts with the brightness of the flower. I try to use backgrounds that aren?t busy, as this can take attention away from what you want the viewer to focus on. Macro photography is about tuning into different combinations of shapes and colours, and training your eye to notice details.

To see more images by Heather, visit Heather currently has an exhibition at Kew Gardens based on her book Wild Kew (published by Royal Botanic Gardens, priced £9). The exhibition runs until 5 September 2010.Visit for more information.

Heather will also be holding a macro photography seminar with Amateur Photographer on Wednesday, 17 November 2010. To book a place, call 020 3148 4326/4321.

Heather Angel was talking to Gemma Padley