Wildlife in May - the practical photographer's guide

The sun has finally made itself known over the last few weeks. It’s even been possible to go out without a coat on! This month it’s all about gearing up for macro and getting out to shoot bluebells and other smaller critters.

Gear up
First up we’re going to talk gear, and when focusing on the smaller (but equally) awesome parts of the natural world it’s all about getting close for shots with impact. Often this means picking up a macro lens for magnifying nature’s miniature creations.

A true macro is a lens that produces a 1:1 magnification of your subject for a life-sized representation on the camera’s sensor. They come in a range of focal lengths from 60mm to 200mm. Often for wildlife the longer the better, as the greater the focal length, the larger the minimum focusing distance is, reducing how close you need to get to your subject for maximum size reproduction. Perfect for not scaring those flighty dragonflies and butterflies away! Often a great compromise is around the 100mm mark, which offers great performance with a decent working distance for most subjects.

Due to the high magnifications camera shake can ruin images so most macro shooters tend to work from a tripod. However, with VR and IS switched on, some macro lenses (especially when paired with flash) can be used to take super handheld shots for greater flexibility when shooting.

If you’re working from a tripod, it’s best to get used to manual focus when working with macro, due to the tiny depths-of-field in use, and don't forget to use mirror lock-up and a remote release to get the maximum sharpness from your shots. If you constantly find you’re shooting at ground level, think about working from a ground pod for a handy solution to low level photography. Paired with a ball head, they’re often perfect.

Lighting, as with all photography, is key for macro and close-up work. For great results think about bringing a reflector along to throw a little fill light onto your subjects, or deploy a little fill-in flash to give your images pop.

Lastly, don't be afraid to switch it up and ditch the macro for a wide-angle or telephoto to work with the miniature wonders. When shooting dragonflies a 70-200mm with a 1.4x teleconverter can be perfect for those ‘in the environment’ images.

What to shoot
Bluebells are out in force in May and are a great subject for your wildlife fix. With their gorgeous colour, they make a fantastic subject for macro as well as abstract photography. Go in close to focus on single flowers, or pull wide to take in the landscape view. Around the country there are numerous locations of ancient woodlands with whole carpets of bluebells, perfect for nature photographers up and down the country. If the standard approach isn't for you, think about going abstract - panning with the lines of the trees can make some pleasing images full of colour. Painting with the camera is addictive and getting the right blue-to-tree ratio can be frustrating, but ultimately rewarding.

Butterflies are staring to get on the wing. Brimstone butterflies (the wonderful pale yellow ones) are already laying eggs, while species like orange tips, green veined whites and small whites are feeding between plants. For the best chance of getting close, set your clock for an early start, as cold mornings make them less active than after the sun has warmed them. For a handy chart of what’s around, check out http://www.britishbutterflies.co.uk/species-fl-May.asp for more info.

Keep an eye out for other small invertebrates. Good macro images can come from a range of species - flies, moths and many more offer some wonderful photographic options. In your macro photography look for colour to add impact to a frame. One of the great things about macro is that anyone with an hour or two to spare can take some great shots right on their doorstep, the garden often being the best location of them all.

Tom Mason is one of the UK’s most exciting young wildlife photographers and conservationists. He leads workshops and seminars and writes a monthly blog for the RSPB. See more of his work here