How to take incredible macro photos of bees

Three professional insect photographers share their tips for encouraging bees into your garden so you can capture them in close-up.
A close-up of a bee feeding on purple grape hyacinth flowers, captured on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III by wildlife photojournalist Christian Ziegler.

Bees are incredible creatures. Aside from being both cute and beautiful, they're also crucial to our planet's biodiversity. Bees pollinate plants and crops to sustain humans and wildlife, but unfortunately, they're under threat.

"Over the past 20 years, many more bee species have been facing extinction," says wildlife photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Christian Ziegler, who believes it is extremely important for himself and others to photograph bees to highlight their beauty and importance, and raise awareness of their plight.

But how can you photograph bees yourself? It's not easy, but with the right help it is achievable – even for beginners. Here, Christian and wildlife macro photographers Matt Doogue and Ingo Arndt give their tips for creating an insect-friendly environment for photographing bees in stunning close-up.

1. Create a bee-friendly garden

A close-up of a bee on a hawthorn flower, captured on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III by wildlife photojournalist Christian Ziegler.

Choose native plants for pots and borders, as they'll give you the best long-term chances of attracting bees. "Native plants spread out and grow in the right places, and they are stronger than non-native plants," says wildlife photographer Ingo Arndt. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/22 and ISO 1250. © Christian Ziegler

A bee hotel created by drilling holes into sticks and wood, captured with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens by wildlife photojournalist Christian Ziegler.

To attract solitary bees which don't live in hives, you can install a 'bee hotel' – essentially a wooden box with holes in it that mimics the nests that bees make for themselves. © Christian Ziegler

You don't need to travel far to photograph bees. If you make your garden as bee friendly as possible, they'll come to you, giving you lots of opportunities to take amazing photos. Better still, the steps you take to attract the bees will also help them thrive.

"My tip for creating a bee-friendly garden is to grow native plants with a lot of pollen and nectar," says Christian. "Plants such as lavender and sage attract bees as they flower for longer. And don't mow your lawn – even a small overgrown area provides a wonderful habitat for bees."

Matt says that native flowers are what bees have fed on for years. "Do your research," he continues. "Find out what your subject likes to eat, where it likes to be, what plants it mates on."

"Bee hotels are brilliant," he adds. "You can buy them in shops or make them yourself by drilling holes in some wood."

2. Keep your distance

Remember to stay safe. It is important to respect bees and keep your distance while photographing them in their natural habitat as they can sting you. "Bees fly away when you get too close, but it can be dangerous to photograph close to the beehive," Ingo explains.

The easiest way to keep your distance is to use a telephoto lens. Lenses with a longer focal length such as the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM, or zoom lenses with telephoto reach such as the Canon RF-S 18-150mm F3.5-6.3 IS STM or the Canon RF-S 55-210mm F5-7.1 IS STM, enable you to photograph the bees without having to get too close.

The Canon Camera Connect app is also a useful tool, as it enables you to control your camera from a distance.

Read our buyer's guide to find out more about the best starter kit for shooting macro.

3. Shoot at the right time

A close-up of a bee on a yellow flower with pollen covering its head, captured on a Canon EOS 6D by macro photographer Matt Doogue.

You'll have less luck photographing bees if you're trying to shoot when it's hot as they move faster, making them more difficult to photograph. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 6D Mark II) with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/125 sec, f/9 and ISO 160. © Matt Doogue

Golden hour – just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the low sun creates beautiful warm light and long shadows – is perfect for photographing bees. It's also a time when bees are slower and calmer, and therefore easier to photograph. "Bees are most active when it's warm," Ingo explains. "At midday, you also have the problem of very harsh light and contrast, which is normally not good for photography. My preferred times are an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset."

Go out even earlier and the bees might still be asleep. "Certain bees sleep on plants," says Matt. "They bite onto the end and won't move, so it's great for practising and for focus stacking [see below]. Bumblebees, for example, are often found on ragwort early in the morning. They're just warming up and don't move much, so it's the perfect time to try macro."

4. Look for colours and textures

A close-up of a bee curled around the stamen of a red flower, captured on a Canon EOS 6D by macro photographer Matt Doogue.

"When taking wider shots, try to incorporate a little of the environment to give the viewer a sense of where the image was taken – in a forest or in a flowerbed," says Matt. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/160 sec, f/9 and ISO 320. © Matt Doogue

A close-up of a honey bee dipping its head into honeycomb, captured on a Canon EOS 6D by macro photographer Matt Doogue.

The shape and texture of honeycomb makes an interesting backdrop for photographing honey bees at work. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/40 sec, f/10 and ISO 320. © Matt Doogue

As with any genre of photography, you'll want to look for and consider elements that make your images stand out. Plant textures and the geometric shapes of insect eyes are perfect, and Matt advises you look for vibrant colours such as reds, purples and blues. Think about flower colour when deciding which bee-friendly plants to grow, or maybe use a coloured backdrop in your garden or balcony to make it easier to shoot the insects in action.

Christian, on the other hand, looks for interesting patterns, textures and light. "But I'm guided by insect behaviour," he adds.

"Behaviour is great to capture," agrees Matt. "That's what makes a photograph. You can have a portrait of an ant, which is great, or you can capture it carrying another dead ant or bringing food back to its pile, which completely changes the photograph. It changes how we view it and we're more interested in it."

5. Capture bees in flight

A close-up of an orchid bee flying towards a yellow orchid flower, captured with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens by wildlife photojournalist Christian Ziegler.

Lenses with image stabilisation help you to keep shots steady when you're following a bee and shooting handheld. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM) at 1/80 sec, f/16 and ISO 400. © Christian Ziegler

Some of the most striking bee images show the insects in flight, but this can be tricky to capture because of how fast they move. "You have to be quick and use very fast shutter speeds to freeze the motion," explains Ingo.

Both Ingo and Matt suggest locking your focus on an area that a bee is likely to pass, such as a flower. "Pre-focus on an area in manual focus (MF) and wait," says Matt.

To capture bees in flight without flash, Christian suggests using Shutter Priority (Tv) mode and setting a speed of no less than 1/500 sec. He also advises setting a fast shutter speed when shooting in Manual (M) mode, and then adjusting the ISO to balance the exposure. "When you don't use flash, ISO is the solution," he says. "Without flash, you can go to ISO 8,000. I've even used ISO 25,600 and it works well."

6. Experiment with manual focus

A close-up of a bee in flight against a yellow background, captured by wildlife photojournalist Christian Ziegler.

Ingo suggests experimenting to create visual interest. "Play around, especially when you're learning – sometimes you get nice results," he says. "You can try a long exposure instead of freezing everything, or try following a flying insect with a longer shutter speed." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/200 sec, f/16 and ISO 1000. © Christian Ziegler

A close-up of dozens of bees between the honeycomb walls of a beehive, captured with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens by macro photographer Ingo Arndt.

The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM has a true magnification ratio of 1:1, which means that the object you're photographing in real life is the same size as on your camera sensor. Its RF equivalent, the RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens, goes all the way to 1.4x magnification. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens at 1/200 sec, f/16 and ISO 250. © Ingo Arndt

Matt, Christian and Ingo all suggest experimenting with manual focusing. "It's better to decide exactly where the focus is on the insect," advises Ingo, who recommends using a set manual focus so you can react more quickly to an insect's movements. "Most of the time, you have to be very fast," he continues. "I adjust the focus beforehand, find the right distance and then go to the bees and move my head forward and back to get the focus. I'm always moving myself or the camera, rather than adjusting focus on the lens. It's much faster."

To help check your focus, you can use focus peaking which highlights the focal plane. You can also use Live View to zoom into a frame and check the focus while composing. "It's a great thing to do to make sure you've got your subject in focus," says Matt. "Always double check, especially when you're shooting in manual focus."

Using the Canon Camera Connect app enables you to adjust manual focus on the lens from your smartphone.

7. Use diffused flash for lighting

A close-up of a bee on a wooden table with its reflection visible in water, captured with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS USM lens by wildlife photojournalist Christian Ziegler.

Ingo recommends using traditional Speedlites diffused with a softbox for reflections in insect eyes. "You can use a ring flash, but big insect eyes with the ring reflected in them look unnatural," he explains. "The sun's reflection would only be a little dot." Christian also uses this tactic in his photography. Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 100mm F2.8L MACRO IS USM lens at 1/320 sec, f/14 and ISO 320. © Christian Ziegler

At high magnification, it's difficult getting a wide enough depth of field to capture an entire insect eye in complete focus. The best solution is artificial lighting, such as flash, which allows you to expose sufficiently while using a narrow aperture for a wide depth of field, a high enough shutter speed to avoid blur, and a low ISO for the cleanest image.

Flash also affects the colours and impact of your photos. "It's much better to have artificial light instead of natural light to show insect eyes," explains Ingo. "Sometimes they are shiny or have rainbow colours. When you use flash, you get more colours in."

Ingo also advises using flash from above to mimic the light coming from the sun. "If you shoot in landscape, leave the flash on the camera. In portrait, hold the flash in your hand, positioned above," he says.

You can also position flash to the side, which casts lateral shadows on subjects for a creative look. Whatever your setup, Matt recommends diffusing the flash. "If you don't, you get harsh light," he says. "We want a nice quality to our light. Diffusing takes away that hard fall off between light and shadow."

Many Canon Speedlite flashes come with diffusers to soften the light, but you can create your own simply by putting a sheet of white paper in front of your flash.

8. Try focus stacking

A close-up of a bee, sitting on a pink flower and looking straight at the camera, demonstrating a shallow depth of field. Taken by macro photographer Matt Doogue.

Depth of field enables you to control how much of an image is in sharp focus and how much is blurred, making it one of the most important creative tools for photographers, especially when shooting macro. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/180 sec, f/4 and ISO 100. © Matt Doogue

You can also manage depth of field using focus stacking, although this only works for still subjects, such as sleeping bees.

"You can combat the lack of light by opening up your aperture and stacking your images," explains Matt. Focus stacking is when your camera takes a series of images, moving the focal point for each one, so you can layer in-focus sections. This enables you to use a fast shutter speed as well as a wide aperture but still have a wide focal plane, without needing flash or high ISO.

The Canon EOS R10, EOS R8 and EOS R7 feature focus stacking and depth compositing, which layers the focus-stacked images together so the final image is created entirely in-camera.

A close-up of a bee on honeycomb, captured on a Canon EOS 6D by macro photographer Matt Doogue.

It takes years of practice, skill and dedication to capture stellar macro photos. Matt, for example, has more than a decade of experience in the field, and he now uses his platform to raise awareness and support for environmental issues. Taken on a Canon EOS 6D with a Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo lens at 1/40 sec, f/11 and ISO 320. © Matt Doogue

Don't be too hard on yourself if your photos don't immediately look as impressive as the images in this article. Remember: it takes time to master any type of photography. What matters is that you're being creative, improving your skills and taking pictures you're happy with.

"It's hard, especially with social media, not to compare your photos against other people's amazing shots," admits Matt. "But if you keep going, keep practising and keep challenging yourself, you will get amazing photographs."

Written by Peter Wolinski

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