Photo Tip of the Week: How to Shoot Great Action Macro Photos

Docking at terminal two! Canon EOS 450D; Canon 100mm
f/2.8 USM Macro lens; 1/200 s @ f/5.6; Canon Macro TwinLite,
manual @ 1/16 power, diffusers.

Docking at terminal two! Canon EOS 450D; Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens; 1/200 s @ f/5.6; Canon Macro TwinLite, manual @ 1/16 power, diffusers.

10 Feb 2012

Shooting action or movement in macros is one of the toughest assignments photographers can undertake. Pete Wilson-Jones took the challenge one step further by shooting images of bees.

There’s very little doubt that macro shooting can be an immensely rewarding area of photography – just ask a convert like me! Whether it’s the ‘arty’ feel of a shallow-focus water drop or the intriguing, alien-like beauty of a flying insect, it’s still possible to regularly surprise with macro – so often revealing rarely seen views of the world that we trample through every day of our lives. For the dedicated macro shooter, finding new challenges and extending your ability is important as you grow into the medium. Incorporating action and movement into macro is one way I’ve found to do that, and to help all those keen macro shooters, this article will show you how to inject some new excitement into your work.

Setting Up

Through trial and error I’ve found a couple of settings which are very useful when shooting action macro scenes.  Bees and other bugs can move fast. For a start my Canon 450D is permanently set to spot focusing (centre AF point). I also use AF Servo mode, which, combined with my Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM lens, provides constant, high-speed refocusing. This has proven to be a great combination of settings and gear which allows me to track insects in-flight, resulting in an overall increase in the number of good shots. Of course, there’s also little doubt that repeated practice at tracking them pays off, and that is also contributing to the increase in my success rate with good images.

Although I almost exclusively use the centre AF point for focus, choosing one of the bottom-centre AF points can be handy for capturing bees as they take off vertically. If you plan to use AF Servo mode in the way I’ve described I’d recommend you buy and pack a spare battery for your camera, as you might only get around 400 shots before it needs changing! An effective flash unit is important, too. All the photos in this feature were taken using a Canon Macro TwinLite flash unit. I can’t emphasise enough the benefits of using fill flash with macro – especially for action shots. Good pro training enables me to balance these two sources – daylight and flash. Read on to learn how!

A delicate operation. Canon EOS 450D; Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens; 1/200s @ f/5.6; Canon Macro TwinLite, manual @ 1/16 power, diffusers.

 Flash & Ambient

For critical control of your different light sources, and with the need to shoot using the fastest possible shutter speed, it’s essential to fire in manual mode for macro shots in the field, and very often to use flash – which when used correctly adds real zing to your shots. Even if you don’t normally shoot in manual, don’t be daunted! It’s relatively straightforward and only takes a minute or two to get set up at a new location. As long as there is no significant change in the amount of daylight, this procedure only needs to be done once for any given location.

1. At the desired shooting location set your camera to shutter priority mode and set the speed to 1/200s. Make sure your metering is set to evaluative.

2. Compose a shot and half-press the shutter to take a reading, noting the suggested f-number displayed.

3. Set your camera to manual with the shutter at 1/200s and the f/stop the same as noted above in step 2.

4. Do test shots and adjust only the aperture to fine-tune the exposure (if any adjustment is required).

5. Finally, turn on your macro flash and set it to manual mode. Adjust the output to 1/8 – 1/16 power as a starting point and do a test shot. Adjust the flash output as necessary to get it perfect – and remember you don’t want the flash to dominate the ambient (daylight) lighting. When considering the position of the sun, it can be very effective to use the available light to backlight your subject.

Final approach, “Lavender International Beeport”, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Canon EOS 450D; Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens; 1/200s @ f/8; Canon Macro TwinLite, manual @ 1/8 power, diffusers. 

Take More Shots

Success in capturing action in your macro images requires a few items besides the gear and camera settings mentioned above.

These are patience, perseverance and an eye for ideal light! Whether you’re waiting for a bee to fly into a carefully composed shot (and they often just won’t), or trying to track and shoot them mid-flight, these qualities are highly useful to the macro shooter. Knowing where the insects are also helps, of course! I’ve spent many days without even getting one decent shot, and had to return time and again before eventually snaring a great image. Some days you might get three or four good shots, others none. That’s the lucky dip of ‘macro on the fly’ which appeals so much to me. You really have to work hard to get something out of the ordinary, and even then there’s no guarantee all your hard work will pay off. My advice is this: plan to take as many shots as your card will hold, because it’s also a bit of a numbers game. And whatever you do, don’t give up! You’ll be surprised how fast it can all come together – but you have to practise.

 Essential Gear

For action macro there are three ‘must-have’ items – a DSLR camera, a good-quality dedicated macro lens and a macro flash unit. I have a couple of macro lenses, but my favourite by far is the Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM macro. With macro, everything is so highly magnified it’s really a ‘warts-and-all’ affair. Any shortcomings in the lens design and build (chromatic aberration, fringing, etc) will really stand out, ruining the effort you’ve put in to taking what could otherwise be a great image. So if you’re serious about your macro, a fixed length, high-quality lens is definitely worth the one-off investment.

A macro flash unit is also an essential piece of kit. There are a range of choices and prices, at least for Canon and Nikon users. Both companies have reasonably expensive macro twin light units available, with Canon also offering a cheaper ring-light version. Sigma also has a ring-light flash to suit both Canon and Nikon cameras. Prices range from around $600-$1400.

 Other Useful Gear

There are two more pieces of kit which should be on your list – a monopod and a good camera backpack.  Lightweight, quick to set up and more versatile than a tripod, a monopod provides a steady support base, helps to minimise camera shake and assists in eliminating the arm fatigue that will inevitably have you packing up early.

With macro you’re dealing with depth of focus measured in mere millimetres, and you’ll quickly realise a device which helps stabilise your camera is a good thing. But a monopod can still be re-positioned quickly, whereas a tripod is much more difficult to move around. I use and recommend the robust Manfrotto Automatic Monopod (334B) and the optional Quick Release Head (234RC), which allows you to shoot horizontally and vertically. Another good investment is a camera backpack – for all the gear you’ll need to be lugging around. Having tried all sorts of bag solutions, I have settled on the Lowepro Flipside 300, which comfortably contains all my macro gear, and also has a holder for my monopod. That’s very important!


Peter Wilson Jones' macro kit (from top): Manfrotto Quick Release Head (234RC); Manfrotto Automatic Monopod
(334B); Canon 100mm f/2.8 US M macro lens; Canon MT-24EX Macro TwinLite flash.

Check The Weather!

The most annoying weather condition facing the dedicated outdoor macro shooter is wind! Any wind over five knots makes macro field photography extremely challenging and in a word, frustrating!

The shallow depth of field inherent in macro photography will mean that even small movements in your subject distance will result in a blurred or out-of-focus shot. So it’s important to keep a close eye on weather forecasts in the 24 hours up until you plan to head out. For my purposes I have three very useful web pages bookmarked.

The general forecasts page at the Bureau of Meteorology provides fairly accurate information up to a day or two ahead ( If you’re shooting near the coast the Marine Weather page – also at the Bureau of Meteorology – provides more specific forecasts for the wind. I also use Seabreeze ( This website provides real-time data on the wind, and has monitoring stations in most capital cities, as well as many other locations around Australia.

Shoot Action Macro Photography
A close inspection. Canon EOS 450D; Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens; 1/200s @ f/8; Canon Macro TwinLite, manual @ 1/8 power, diffusers.

 Why Should You Use RAW Format?

The way I see it, a RAW file is the digital equivalent of a film negative, whereas a JPEG is like an old Polaroid or passport photo. What you get is what you’re stuck with! Shooting in RAW mode gives you extra flexibility to do minor corrections to exposure, sharpness (and much more) without actually physically changing the original file. RA W processing is non-destructive. At any time you can alter or revert to the settings you have applied to a particular frame, depending on the intended output for your image.

Using the ambient/flash setup described in this feature, inevitably there will be times where some minor tweaking of the shadows or highlights will be required. Shooting action macro requires moving with the subject, so you don’t always have a lot of say in how the background is going to exactly expose – especially if you move over a darker or lighter area of foliage. That said, these changes for me are only minor – when required at all – such is the efficiency of the lighting setup I’ve described in this article.

Shoot Action Macro Photography
Shooting in RAW mode allows you to correct exposure discrepancies non-destructively, and it's great if you plan to output your images to different media (publishing, art prints, posters, web).

Shooting Summary

• Shoot in RAW
• Invest in a quality prime macro lens with USM/HSM (fast focusing).
• Use spot focusing mode or single AF point mode for framing off-centre.
• Try using AF Servo mode for moving or flying critters.
• Keep the shutter half-pressed in AF Servo mode for continuous refocus of moving or flying insects.
• Use flash to balance the contrast and shadows and provide essential fill light.
• Use a monopod for extra stability.
• Look for unusual angles and viewpoints.
• Focus on the eyes, especially the one closest to the lens.
• Pay attention to the background.
• Take a bin liner or mat to lie on in the wet!
• Invest in a spare battery for your camera – it’s handy when using AF Servo mode.

Article first published in the August 2010 issue of Australian Photography magazine.






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