Basic Macro Photography


Photographing Live Insects

Foreword:
As I mentioned before, I'm an amateur photographer and you should not use this as your only source of information if you're trying to photograph insects. What I will cover here is what's worked relatively well for me. When judging the quality of the images, remember that these were not taken with an expensive DSLR with a dedicated macro lens. These were taken with a point and shoot camera with an accessory lens. All of the equipment used here can be purchased for less than $500US as of the spring of 2007.

Live insects can be quite a challenge to photograph. Outdoors, they are more likely to be calm and at ease if you don't startle them. These are typically going to be the most beautiful photos (compared to those in a controlled environment) but you essentially have to take whatever the circumstances provide. Wind and poor angles make this less viable for technical photos (particularly for macro photography). As an example, THIS photo was taken in the wild and THIS one was in a controlled environment. The one in the controlled environment has better lighting and is more useful (technically) but the one taken outdoors is better from an artistic point of view. Neither is a great photo but it shows you the difference between the two. THIS is one that I feel turned out fairly well from an artistic point of view but as a technical photo, it's a miserable failure.

When photographing insects in the wild...

  • If there is strong light and your shadow passes over the subject, it will cause a significant change in the lighting on the insect. This will cause most insects to bolt.
  • It may take 10 or more shots to get one usable photo. For a truly wonderful photo where everything is prefect, it may take many hours to capture it. If you're looking for a fantastic photo of a particular insect, you may have to put in many long days to get it. I typically get only one 'decent' photo out of 10. I've only taken a few photos in my life that I really liked. Get used to having many less-than-perfect shots.
  • Large white flash diffusers seem to scare insects more than smaller diffusers. I have more success using the can-type diffuser than the bowl type diffuser. It's also easier to get it in-between small branches in the brush.
  • Taking the photos in the morning when it's relatively cool is somewhat easier than later in the day when it's warmer. Insects are typically less active when the temperature is cooler.

Using the Flash (or not):
Unless you're shooting on a bright, dead calm day, you will have to use the flash to prevent the image from being blurred. If you're shooting very small subjects up close, you'll need to use small apertures to get sufficient depth of field. This will require even more light. In most all of my photography, I use a flash. Many people don't like to use a flash but if properly done, the results can be very good. If you're shooting in strong light, you may try setting the camera to manual and using settings that will work without the flash. Then use the flash to remove some of the intense shadows. You may have to reduce the flash output to prevent the flash from blowing out the highlights.

In the next two images, I used the same setting (1/60 sec and F6.3). These were good enough for the lighting conditions but you can see that much of the dragonfly is too dark. For the second photo, I used the flash. Luckily, the subject was relatively cooperative so I had several chances to get the proper working distance for the flash (so it wasn't too intense). When I found the proper working distance, I took both photos. When I was closer, the flash blew out the lighter areas of the thorax.

Different Ways to use the Flash:
For those of us using point and shoot cameras (which generally have no hotshoe for a flash unit), the on-board flash will be used (generally with a diffuser). If you have a hotshoe on your camera or a slave trigger for an external flash, you have more flexibility in lighting the subject. I often use both the on-board flash (diffused) and an external slave flash that I bounce off of the reflective enclosure. Sometimes the slave flash is too strong and I have to partially cover its lens with a dense diffuser material. Be prepared to take many photos to get the lighting just right. After you get it right for the first photo, you will generally only need to make very minor adjustments for the rest of the photos.

Direct/Indirect Lighting:
The on-camera flash will provide direct lighting for the subject. The diffuser will provide somewhat indirect lighting. A reflective enclosure will provide indirect lighting. It's important to have the subject lit evenly (as possible) from all sides. This helps to reduce hot-spots and harsh shadows. Many insects will have a shiny body and hot-spots can be a real problem. As an example, I was photographing a click-beetle. It's body was very reflective and I kept getting a hot-spot precisely where I didn't want it (on a marking that I needed to show). The one on the left below shows the problem I had with direct lighting. The one on the right is how it looked after changing the lighting. I had to remove virtually all of the direct lighting and use bounced lighting from the slave to light the insect.

Additional Lighting to Assist the Auto-Focus System:
Many P&S cameras have a relatively weak flash. If you're shooting in a relatively small enclosure (to optimize the available flash output), your hands and the camera may block most of the room lighting leaving the subject poorly lit. This may prevent the auto-focus system from locking onto the subject. If you place a small desk lamp near the reflective enclosure (positioned to place additional light on the subject), your camera will be able to focus properly. If the camera's flash does not have enough power to completely swamp out the light from the desk lamp, the lamp may cause a color shift in the photos. To minimize this shift, use daylight balanced lamps. Something with a color temperature of ~5000K will work well.

Shallow Depth of Field:
As you know (if you've read through the rest of the site), you have a very shallow depth of field when you're shooting close-up at relatively high magnification. If the breeze is blowing, it may be almost impossible to get a photo that's in focus. Generally, winds are lighter when the sun is close to the horizon so you may have better luck early in the morning and later in the day. To maximize the depth of field, you'll need to shoot with small apertures (high F-numbers). This almost certainly means that you'll have to use a flash.

Bringing the Insects to You:
I've read that some people apply attractants (such as honey or sugar water) to a wall to attract flies and other insects. The flies will attract still other insects like spiders. This can be very good for somewhat natural photos. To attract moths and other insects at night, shine a bright light on a light colored wall. On remote locations, you can hang a white sheet. I believe I read that black lights work well for this. You can research it for yourself if you're interested. Moths are pretty easy to shoot. They don't spook as easily as many other insects and you often need only one photo to get an identification. A view showing the entire area of the wings is generally the best.

Photographing in a Controlled Environment:
I prefer to photograph insects indoors. This can present a challenge also. The insects are likely to be very agitated in the strange environment. If you have the time and patience, you can chase them around and eventually get some good photos. I've done it plenty of times. This typically leads to photos that have inconsistent backgrounds and don't look as good as they could when viewed together.

Cooling Insects to Slow Them Down:
I know that many people will be against chilling insects but this is necessary if you need the photos to be from specific angles and don't have a lot of time to work with each individual. Insects are cold blooded and generally can not regulate their body temperatures. Their bodies are essentially the same temperature as the environment. When it gets cold, they slow down. Some insects will slow down considerably when they are brought into an air conditioned room. Placing their holding container in front of an air conditioning vent is sufficient to slow them down. Others take quite a bit more cooling to get them to slow down. For those insects that are not affected by air conditioning, you can place them in the refrigerator. As I said before, I know many people will object to this but it's necessary for some insects. There have been a few that never slowed down and the only reason they quit moving is because they died.

They're Just Like Any Other Small Object:
For an insect that's not moving, the process is much like photographing inanimate objects. You generally want a good background and good lighting with few shadows. If you use something like the reflective enclosures you've seen elsewhere on the site, you can get good results. All of the photos used on this page were shot in a reflective enclosure.

Don't Immediately Discard Partially Out of Focus Images:
If you're taking photos of an individual for technical purposes and are not absolutely sure of what's needed for a proper ID, don't discard the partially out of focus photos until the individual is ID'd. For many insects, a small thing like a spur on the rear tibia or a few hairs in a particular location may be what's needed for the ID. Sometimes, you'll have that important area in focus while the majority of the individual is out of focus.

Get Photos From Various Angles:
I generally try to get 5-6 specific photos if I'm not sure what is needed for the identification of a particular individual.

  • Top - This is generally required for most all individuals. 
  • Side - This is also required. Try to get as low as possible. When photographing on a small raised stage like a petri dish, you can get the bottom of the lens below the surface that the individual is on. For the lenses I generally use, this allows me to get the center of the lens nearly level with the stage.  
  • 3/4 View - This is a good general purpose view of an individual. If you could have only one image, this would likely be the most useful.  
  • Bottom - Not Taken. There are generally two ways to photograph the bottom of an individual. If the insect is dead or chilled, you can take it directly. If the insect is active, you can generally take it through the bottom of the container (assuming that you're using clear containers). In a few instances, I've placed a specimen between two lenses. To provide added clearance, I removed the lens from an old UV filter and placed the metal ring between the other lenses. This worked well with +1 and +2 diopter lenses but didn't work well when one of the lenses was a UV filter. I'm not sure why the UV filter caused problems but it certainly did not produce any high quality photos. In the petri dishes, if you can get the individual on the curved side of the dish, the flash is less likely to bounce back into the lens.  
  • Front - This view is useless with this individual. For something like the blue mud dauber wasp below, it was very helpful for the ID.  
  • Tip of Abdomen - This is often important when trying to determine the sex of the individual. For dragonflies, it's often required to determine the species.  
  • Wing - Flies and other winged insects can often be identified by nothing more than the venation in their wings. If you're photographing flies, this is an important shot. When photographing the wing, try to get a shot without too much of a reflection from the flash. You want to be able to see the veins like THIS.  
  • Set-up - This is the set-up I generally use. I place the individual on the larger part of the petri dish and place the other half on top to keep the individual from escaping while I'm not looking. When I need to take the photos, I remove the cover (carefully - so I don't startle it). I can check for the proper distance and even take a few test shots through the dish to see if the set-up is just about right. This petri dish is ~60mm in diameter. The Midge is ~8mm in length. It's always good to measure the individual. For most insects, the body length (not including wings, antennae or abdominal cerci) is what's important.  

A Note About the Images Above:

  • As you can see, this individual is not in great condition, it fell on my desk as I was typing this so I decided to use it. If you look closely, it's missing a leg. If you have a situation like this, when taking the side shot, take it from the good side.

Images for Precise Identification:
In some cases like some beetles, you may need special images. Some beetle identification needs the number of tarsal segments (segments of the extremedies beyond the tibia) on each pair of legs. For example, one beetle may have tarsal segments on each pair of legs. Another very similar species may have 5 on each of two pairs of legs but the other pair of legs may have only 4. It's generally noted as 5-5-5 or 5-5-4 in the keys. Other times, you may need a clear photo of the claw on the end of the leg. When you know that you will need it, you can get a photo like THIS. When you have to find part of an individual that you captured by accident, you may end up with something no better than THIS. You may also need to get a good photo of the antenna of the individual. Many times, the number of segments and the type of segments are very important. For example, THIS antenna is very different from THIS antenna even though both are from beetles.

Try to Provide a Familiar Surface:
When photographing an insect, it may calm down if it can find something relatively familiar to rest on. I've used both toothpicks and bamboo skewers. I saw it done elsewhere on toothpicks and used the skewers for larger insects like THIS spider. I held it in place (standing up) with poster adhesive. I realize that there aren't a lot of toothpicks in the wild but wood is something that the insect can easily climb and hold (much like a twig or branch).

Holding Containers:
For small insects, I use plastic petri dishes as holding containers. If the petri-dish is considerably larger than the individual, I use it as a stage. I like the way the smooth surface looks. Photographing the individual on a movable stage will allow you to turn it to get the best angle. Whatever you use, it will need to be clear so you can see where the individual is and how it's behaving before you open it.

Backgrounds:
Many people use white backgrounds for their photos and that's likely the best. For the camera and lenses I use, the white background doesn't work well. Slightly out of focus areas (due to a shallow depth of field) become completely washed out. I generally use a black background (black foam from Wal-Mart's crafts department). The flash bouncing off of the foam gives a gray reflection on the smooth petri dish and generally looks nice. The foam is on the bottom and sweeps up the back of the enclosure. The rest of the enclosure is bright white.

DSLR vs P&S with an Articulated Display:
I've only used a DSLR a few times and they are great when you have the subject that's cooperative but the articulated display on my camera (and those like it) make it much easier to get shots from difficult angles. Most of the time, you'll rest the camera on your hands which are resting on the table or enclosure. This may not be in a position that allows you to view the subject through a viewfinder. It's even difficult to see it in a fixed LCD display. The articulated display (in my opinion) allows you to capture shots that would be nearly impossible without it.

Repairing Removing Dust and Scratches:
Dust and scratches on the stage can be a problem. It's best to remove as much as possible before taking the photos. Most of the photos I take are for technical use so I'm not generally concerned with it. The plastic petri dishes get scratched. This will happen unless you're really careful. The dust is not visible to the naked eye but it shows up VERY well with high magnification and a flash. To get rid of these, you can use various tools in the GIMP or Photoshop. The clone (rubber stamp) tool with soft edges works very well (especially on this type of setup).

Cropping:
For technical photos, you will need to crop the photo very close to the outer edges of the insect (for more artistic photos, you'll want to include more of the surroundings). In some instances, the individual will have very long legs which will make the body a very small part of the photo (when cropped to include all of the individual). You can re-crop it to provide a more detailed view of the body/head. This will be required for sites where the display size is limited. If your camera has relatively limited resolution, you may want to take two photos. One of the entire individual and one of the body (or other area of interest).

In the example above, you can see that the 'second photo' has more detail but the depth of field is somewhat shallow. If you want more depth of field, you should zoom out a bit. You have to find a good compromise between fine detail and the depth of field.

Identifying Individuals On Your Own:
If you want to identify an individual, do a Google search for the word s 'identification' and 'key' along with the type of specimen you have. Generally, identification keys ask questions and tell you where to go for additional questions to narrow down the possibilities. For example, it may ask whether it has 6 or 8 legs. If you choose '6', it may ask if it has wings or not. Many times, you'll get it wrong the first time through and you'll have to go back to a point where you were unsure about an answer to a question. The keys will generally get you to a general level of identification like the family or genus but rarely beyond that. Many species cannot be identified without examination under a microscope so you'll often have to be satisfied with a general ID.

Getting Help with Identification:
There are many sites that will help you ID an individual. BugGuide.net is a good site. Diptera.info is another.

The following photos were taken in a controlled environment setup as described on this page. Most of these were taken with the MSN-202 mounted on a LensMate adapter which as mounted on a Canon S3 IS. I'll include a few bits of information on the individuals below. If you find that I have something listed incorrectly, please email me. You can use Google to find more detailed information on any individual that may interest you. If you want to see more photos of the individuals below, go to THIS page.

This looks to be a Scudder's Bush Katydid nymph (juvenile). I haven't received a confirmation on the ID. As you can see, it was taken while the individual was on the foam instead of a stage. This was due to the size of the individual.

As a side note...
Most of these images have only been cropped and resized. Many could use a bit of post-processing. THIS is the same image as the one above but I've changed the gamma, contrast and sharpened it.

This is a stable fly. The long mouthpart and short palps (near the base of the extended mouthpart) are diagnostic.

This mosquito is a psorophora ferox. This is a male (you can tell by the antenna). As far as I know, no male mosquitos bite. They drink nectar. Females also drink nectar but need a 'bloodmeal' for their eggs to develop.

This is a mirid (plant bug). They generally feed on plants using their long proboscis. You can see it in this view of the individual below.

This is a rove beetle. Rove beetles are generally long skinny beetles. Some are mistaken for earwigs due to the cerci on the tips of their abdomen.

This is a jumping spider (Hentzia palmarum). Jumping spiders are fun to watch. I often keep a few of them in the summer when mosquitos are plentiful. They will readily feed in captivity. I haven't found that to be true in other spiders that I've tried to feed.

This is a syrphid fly. A view of the wings (from the top) is very important for identification.

This was identified as a biting midge. I haven't seen another like it anywhere.

This is an aphid. Aphids are generally identified by the two 'tail pipes' on the end of their abdomen. For identification, you often need to know which plant they were feeding on. Mine have always been found on the side of a metal building so an accurate ID is generally not possible.

This is a bagworm moth caterpillar. The caterpillar constructs the bag out of silk and debris. The males remain in it only until they emerge from pupation. The females never leave the bag.

This was identified as a flesh fly. There is a row of hairs just above it's rear leg that help solidify the ID. The most common way to ID them is by the 3 dark stripes on their thorax. THIS is a full series for another flesh fly.

This is an ichneumon wasp. They are parasitic wasps and are no threat to people. They are generally identified by the 'horse head' cell in their wings.

This is a long-legged fly. I believe it's a female (possibly gravid - pregnant). The males are typically more brightly colored.

This is a type of acrobat ant. Supposedly, the high attachment point to the abdomen is diagnostic.

I believe that this may be a ghost spider but I'm really not sure. Spiders can be tough to identify and I'm particularly bad at it. :)

This is a blue mud dauber wasp. This photo was provided to distinguish between it and a steel-blue cricket hunter wasp.

This is a cucumber beetle. As you can see, it looks a bit drunk. It was chilled and hasn't yet warmed up enough to stand. It escaped before I could get a complete set of photos.

I'm not sure which beetle this is. If you know, please email me.

I believe this is a male (not completely sure) long-legged fly.

I believe that this is a blow-fly but I'm not sure. Many (but not all) blow-flies are brightly colored.

This is a juvenile jumping spider.

I'm not sure what type of spider this is. It was only ~2mm long and very active so I didn't get many good photos of it.

Finally... This is a Tawny mole cricket. They burrow just under the surface of the ground and generally feed on the roots. If you find one, be careful if you handle it. They can inflict a painful bite.

 

Notes:
  • I'm not a professional photographer. If you have suggestions that will help me to improve this site, please email me.
  • You are free to use the images on this site for non-profit, educational purposes. If you want to use them for commercial projects, please contact me.


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