Macro Photography in the Milkweed Patch

The author takes macro photographs of a red trillium flower in the woods of Bushnell's Basin.

One of the best photography tips I ever received was to shoot close to home. I had traveled to take the photography workshop where I learned the tip, but took the advice to heart. Here in the Finger Lakes Region, there is no shortage of photo opportunities in this amazing place that we call home. We live our four distinct and beautiful seasons among a wealth of lakes, rivers, streams and waterfalls; interesting and frequently changing weather; sweeping panoramic views; and abundant wildlife. The Finger Lakes Region also exists within one of the most active flight lanes in the Atlantic Flyway, a migration pathway of millions of birds.

Even closer to home, in our own backyards, exist infinite opportunities to shoot macro (close-up) photography. This type of photography takes notice of the smallest of things that happen around us while we go about our daily lives.

One of my favorite places to find and photograph a wide variety of macro subjects is within the local milkweed patches. Milkweed is abundant, easy to identify, and can be found gracing roadsides, fields, gardens and parks throughout New York State. It is an unassuming plant, and because of its name, it is thought of as a weed. However, milkweed is of major importance to the Monarch butterfly, whose life cycle depends on it. Milkweed is also a favorite source of nectar for many other insects. Its blooms attract countless visitors each day, making it a great place to experiment with macro photography or to sharpen your skills.

If you frequent more than one milkweed patch, you may find that some have special or unique visitors. Milkweed patches near water may yield an abundance of dragonflies; plants in an open field may serve as a resting spot for grasshoppers and katydids. One of the locations that I especially like to photograph is visited often by hawk moths (pictured), an interesting and fast-moving pollinator that is often mistaken for a hummingbird.

Repeatedly visiting the same spots will help you find new and interesting subjects as the season evolves. Close observation of the many milkweed visitors will reveal that an entire circle of life is contained within the milkweed patch. It is common to spot spiders, insects, and even frogs involved in a variety of activities and in various stages of life such as predation, mating, egg laying, resting and hiding.

Macro photography doesn’t require special or expensive equipment. Most point-and-shoot cameras include a macro feature that can produce excellent results (refer to your camera’s documentation for details). Digital SLR camera users have additional options of extension tubes and macro lenses. Your local camera shop can provide advice on what will work best for you.

Here are a few tips and techniques to try for spectacular macro photos of your own
As with other types of outdoor photography, a bright overcast day creates optimal lighting conditions.

Use a fast shutter speed (1/800 or higher) to capture in-flight shots of insects and butterflies. Experiment to find what works best for you.

Try burst mode for quickly moving subjects. (Digital SLR feature – consult your camera’s manual for details.)

Be respectful. Do not attempt to manipulate or startle a subject. Remember that practice, patience and persistence are key to obtaining results you will be proud of.

Remain aware of your surroundings. Make sure that you are on solid footing and that you are not crushing or damaging other plants or insects. Bees and some other stinging pollinators frequent milkweed, and plants often grow in areas such as the edge of a field where poison ivy thrives.

Create your own outdoor photography studio in your yard or garden. For tips on growing milkweed on your own property, consult Monarch Watch by visiting monarchwatch.org/milkweed/prop.htm.

Photos accompanying this article 
were shot with Nikon D7000 and Nikon D7100 Digital SLR cameras, and the following lenses:
Micro Nikkor 105mm f/2.8
Micro Nikkor 85mm f/3.5
Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6


by Mandy Applin