One to One
Close-up skills with Ross Hoddinott
It may be obvious, but insects are much easier to shoot when they are perfectly still – and this means shooting them at the right time of day. “I rely on natural refrigeration for most of my shots of butterflies and damselflies,” says Ross Hoddinott, “so I photograph them right at the end of the day or just after dawn, when it is cooler and they are resting.” Our plan, therefore, is to do two different shoots – one in the evening, and the next at first light the following morning – in two locations close to Ross’s home.
We start early afternoon, however, and head down the lanes on the Devon-Cornwall border to another of Ross’s favourite locations. In the middle of the day in the height of a warm summer, we’ll have to adopt a different approach, as the insects bask in the sun and fly around the reserve. It is 2pm when we park up at Meeth Quarry.
Surprisingly, one of the first things Ross makes us do is to apply insect repellant – to ward off ticks as well as horseflies, which can give you nasty bites as you hunt out the butterflies and dragonflies we are looking for. Ross knows these parts well. He has been photographing the local insects since he was a boy, when his family first moved to Cornwall. He took his first winning picture when he was just 11 in the BBC show Countryfile’s inaugural photo contest; it was of a pair of mating Hawk dragonflies, shot with a Zenith fitted with a 50mm standard lens and a close-up filter. He contributed to photo magazines from his teens, won Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year at 17, and effectively turned professional aged 18. He turned 40 in March this year.
Although Ross is best-known for his insect photography, he is also a landscape photographer. “People ask me which I prefer.
It is probably the macro work. Insects aren’t seen as glamorous, so there are fewer people shooting them than other forms of wildlife, and I have slowly become the go-to person for this type of photography. I enjoy the contrast between the two
genres, though. Landscape photography grinds to a bit of a halt in summer anyway, as light is harsh, and locations are crowded. So my emphasis switches to close-ups from spring onwards, and I turn my attention to landscapes when the insects disappear and the colours and mists of autumn appear.”
“I think switching genres helps keep my photography fresh. It is a challenge to take an interesting shot of insects – but it is also easier to end up with an original image than it is with landscapes.’
As we walk into the reserve, we spot plenty of butterflies along the path. “This has been the first year I have seen butterflies in any quantity for as long as I remember”, says Ross. He explains that one of the reasons for coming to the reserves during the day is to see what species are around, and where they are in the reserve – as they are much easier to spot when they are moving around. Each species is only in flight for a few weeks, so what Ross finds changes through the season.
There are a number of smaller brown butterflies around, but the star of this week’s show at this reserve is the Silver-washed Fritillary – one of the UK’s larger butterflies. As we soon discover, however, its size means that many of the specimens we find have wing damage. Finding the best specimen is only the start: it then needs to land on the rightlooking plant, in an accessible spot, and with a clean background behind it. And then the photography can begin...
Ross chooses his 200mm, the better of his two macro lenses for throwing the background out of focus. It is a bright day, but he pushes the ISO up to 800, so that he can use a shutter speed of around 1/1,000 sec. He is in Aperture Priority mode, and uses Matrix metering. Focus is adjusted manually, though – with fine-tuning done by rocking the camera to and fro the subject; this avoids any movement of the hand close to the butterfly.
“This is an addictive game,” Ross admits. “You never can be sure what you will see, and you are certain that there is something better to photograph that you simply haven’t spotted.” Ross seems to have eyes like a sparrowhawk, though. His seemingly superhuman vision, he claims, is just gained by knowing the best places to look.
On the way round the lakes of this old clay quarry, we spot caterpillars feeding on a oak leaf. It is time for Ross to get the full kit out. One tripod to hold the camera; www.digitalcameraworld.com
Finding the best specimen is only the start: it then needs to land on the rightlooking plant
Now at rest for the night, it is possible to manoeuvre slowly around the butterfly.
Ross uses the Focus Peaking option inLive View on his Nikon D850 to fine-tune the focus manually.
Searching for resting butterflies is the hard part of the job.