A male Xylocopa virginica carpenter bee hovers in an Illinois forest, keeping an eye on his territory.

Few insects so conspicuously mark the arrival of late spring in North America as Xylocopa virginica carpenter bees. Males are especially visible as they raucously guard territories around females' wooden burrows. Because carpenter bees are common, nearly an inch long, not easily spooked, and tend to hover in place, they make ideal subjects for dramatic photographs of insects in midair.

This post is a tutorial for capturing aerial images of these photogenic animals. The project is at an advanced level, requiring an SLR kit with telephoto lens, off-camera strobes, and experience with manual operation of focus, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. Plus, a healthy dose of patience.


Ingredients

1 population of busy Xylocopa carpenter bees

1 tripod

1 small flash stand

2 strobes with wireless or remote triggers

1 dSLR with 200mm or greater telephoto lens

1 lens hood

1 short extension tube, 12 to 24 mm

Locate a site with plenty of hovering bees in an aesthetically appropriate setting. A lightly overcast day is best.

Mount the extension tube between the lens and the camera, like so:

The camera/lens lineup for this shoot is a Canon 7D, a 12mm extension tube, and the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II USM with a lens hood.

Why the extension tube? The Canon 70-200 is not a close-up lens. The tube provides the dual benefit of allowing the lens to focus much more closely, and preventing it from getting distracted by background trees of little interest. In essence, the tube moves the world of the lens in closer.

Turn the camera on, set the aperture to moderately wide (around F/3.2 to F/5.6), enough to blur the background but not the bee, and set the shutter speed to at least 1/250. Adjust ISO and shutter speed upwards as your lighting conditions allow. Use the camera's manual focus.

Without any added light, a hovering bee captured with these settings should look acceptable, but not terribly dramatic:

A test without flash. F/3.2, 1/640 second, ISO 2000

To add much-needed zing, you'll need backlighting. Mount two strobes facing the camera, one high on a tripod, and one near the ground on the small stand.

The little unit on top of the Camera is the Cowboy Studio NPT-04, which allows the camera to coordinate with strobes mounted on remote receivers.

Set flash power to moderate (1/8 is a good starting point), enough that the bees will have a visible halo but not so strong as to overwhelm ambient light. Attach the lens hood. Shooting into the strobes can cause washed-out photographs if the front element isn't shaded!

The forest studio at work, blending ambient and artificial light around the hovering bees. The insects were nesting in burrows drilled under the wooden bench, at left. (Shot with a Sigma 10mm fisheye lens)

Dial the shutter speed down to maximum flash sync speed so as not to miss the strobes with an overly fast exposure. In most cameras this will be around 1/200 to 1/250 of a second. The slower speed may cause motion blur, but this will be partly counteracted by the freezing action of the strobes. The slower shutter speed and added light should allow you to drop ISO down to a less noisy setting and decrease the aperture by a couple stops.

You will likely need to adjust flash power and camera settings as dictated by your first results and by the ambient light levels. With patience, a quick hand on the focus ring, and cooperative bees, you should start getting shots like this one:

A successful capture of a hovering male bee. The backlighting from the strobes is present, but subtle.

A moving subject makes a difficult target, of course, so most exposures will be throwaways. For perspective, here are a few of mine.

A few of the 400+ failures I took on the way to a handful of keepers.

When you've got a selection, post-process to suit your tastes.

Mating season, when hovering males are most active and easy to find, should last another few weeks. Good luck out there!

How to tell males from females? Male carpenter bees have enormous eyes and yellow faces.