Sunday, 15 February 2009

Macro Insect Photography

Macro Insect Photography Tips

Welcome to Macro Photography for Beginners. My last post was an investigative report on the perspective of Black and White Macro Photography (a.k.a. monotone). I’m starting a new series of articles now that are directed towards the warmer months. It is still winter in the UK at the moment but there are one or two signs that spring is on the way. I watched a pigeon love-dancing on top of a wooden fence yesterday. Mating rituals are a good sign that the seasons are beginning to change. When the warmer weather arrives it brings with it a whole host of interesting subjects for the macro photographer. I’m talking about one of the most fascinating wonders of nature…insects! This post is all about Insect Macro Photography…It is quite a long article so I suggest that you put the kettle on (and your glasses if you wear them).

Some people call them bugs whilst others prefer the term insect. I’ve heard people call them Creepy-crawlies, Critters and more recently Mini-beasts. The only term that I don’t like being used to describe insects is “pests”. They are small and interesting living creatures that are part of the eco-system. I’ve never studied entomology but have several really good insect field guides. In fact most of them are no longer in print which is another indication that I am getting old and grey. I mention field guides because I believe that research and study are important aspects of insect macro photography. Finding a good field guide for the insect or creature that you are most interested in is an important step. It may be possible to track down field guides that are out of print by searching second hand book stores and internet market places/auction sites. I have compiled a list of species (followed by their taxonomic order) that may be of interest to the avid insect photographer. Please note this list refers to Britain and Northern Europe – and is not a definitive list but posted as an example only. Another good reason to learn the scientific names and orders - it will help you spot internet forum “know-it-alls”. They usually select an obscure scientific name as their username.

Mayflies (Ephemeroptera)
Dragon Flies (Odonata)
Stoneflies (Plecoptera)
Grass Hoppers and Crickets (Orthoptera)
Stick Insects (Phasmida)
Earwigs (Dermaptera)
Web-spinners (Embioptera)
Cockroaches and Mantids (Dictyoptera)
Termites (Isoptera)
Psocids or Booklice (Psocoptera)
Biting Lice and Birdlice (Mallophaga)
Sucking Lice (Anoplura/Siphunculata)
The True Bugs (Hermiptera)
Thrips (Thysanoptera)
Alder Flies, Snake Flies and Lacewings (Neuroptera)
Beetles (Coleoptera)
Stylopids (Srepsiptera)
Scorpion Flies (Mecoptera)
Fleas (Siphaptera)
Two Winged Flies or True Flies (Diptera)
Butterflies and Moths (Lepidoptera)
Caddis Flies (Trichoptera)
Bees, Wasps and Ants (Hymenoptera)

There are lots of other small animals and creatures absent from this list such as spiders, molluscs, reptiles etc.

I have posted this list so that you can see the importance of selecting a subject of interest and becoming proficient in one or two subjects. If you were to select a lesser known subject from this list (or from your own locality) it will be easier to become known as the expert in this particular field. Please note that most of these orders can be split again – for example there are different types of bees in the UK including solitary bees, bumble bees and cuckoo bees. There are lots of photographers interested in taking pictures of butterflies and moths where I live. I have met quite a few of them on my travels but have never met anyone who specialized in Thrips! So we have learnt that there is a possible opening for a good Thrips macro photographer in the UK.

Insect Photography (or perhaps photographers) can be divided (although probably not physically) into two distinct categories.

Scientific Macro Insect Photography
This technique does not gain its name because the images are captured in a scientific way. You do not need to wear a white laboratory coat and protective goggles to take scientific images (although you can if you really want to). A scientific photograph is taken by a curious photographer who wants to learn more about the species captured in the image. The photograph is taken in a way that will capture as much information as possible about the species. This is where education and guide books are useful. If you already understand the important aspects required to separate a rare or unusual species from a more common species you have an advantage from the beginning. It is often later in the process when a photographer realises that he (or she) has failed to capture the most important details. This can be frustrating for the photographer when it comes to identifying the species that they have photographed. This problem appears often on nature and wildlife websites were the photographer has gone for an artistic approach but also wants to know the species in the image. This gives experts in entomology a real challenge in narrowing down the species, often with very little information. The key point to remember here is that if you want to identify the species photographed take the scientific approach. There is nothing to stop you taking a few frames of both but make sure you take the scientific images first.

Remember that this is definitely not a case of “never the twain shall meet” because a photograph can be scientific and artistic at the same time. A photographer aiming for a scientific image can produce artistic images by chance and good fortune. In the same way an artistic photographer can capture all the required details in their work to add scientific merit to their work. The point is really to understand that both types of photography exist and to aim for one or the other to meet your own needs.

Insect Macro Photography Technique
The main principle of taking macro photographs of insects is not any different to taking other subjects. The major difference is that living subjects do not usually want to pose for the camera. This makes life difficult for the macro photographer and is also the reason why great patience is required. The most beneficial insect photography tip that I can offer is to begin early in the morning and finish late in the evening. Avoid taking outdoor images in the heat and harsh light of the mid-day sun. At this point in the day the sun is very high in the sky and is known to create very harsh light. This will make images have very hard edges which is not a desirable effect in photography.

I once read a photography forum post where an avid insect photographer was discussing his digital camera set-up. He stated that a particular piece of equipment was not adequate for him because he likes to chase after bees. Afterwards I realised that it was not the equipment that was inadequate but his photographic technique. Nature is notoriously difficult to capture and most photographers do not have what it takes to live up to the challenge. It is only my opinion, but I think this insect photographer would have got better photographs by not moving around quite as much. As crazy as it sounds, sitting and waiting (provided that you are in the right place to begin with) often yields far better results. When you move around the insects (particularly flying insects) will also move around and always be just up ahead or settle just out of reach. When you take up a good position and concentrate on a smaller area nature just comes to you! Another benefit of this approach is that it is easy to be still (after being still) than trying to be still after racing about like an absolute lunatic for 20 minutes. (I hope that this makes sense).

The overall aim of insect macro photography is the same as any other form of photography. To get a sharp image of the insect (first) and a pleasing composition (second). If your purpose in life is to photograph insects I would suggest using a regular flash gun (covered with a diffuser) and the entire assembly fixed to a bracket. This is the set-up that most bug photographers prefer to use. This will allow you to add fill-flash to the ambient light (or day light). Fill-flash does not really alter the exposure of the image but helps to pick out more detail. The flash will reveal areas that might otherwise be lost to shadows. This can make a lot of difference to the quality of an insect macro image. If you are venturing into insect photography in a less dedicated way, you may be able to get away with using your camera’s pop-up flash (which can also be diffused with a piece of toilet (or tissue) paper or section of plastic milk bottle). A ring-flash can be used but does not always provide the best results (can also be diffused but is more difficult to achieve and is slightly hit and miss). Even if you go the extra mile and purchase a state of the art twin-flash system you may still need to find a way to diffuse the light for the best results.

Most insect photographers develop a technique that suits their style. This may be based on your size, stamina and several other factors. I can not help you with this because we are all different. The fact is, with time and some practice, you will begin to develop a preferred style of your own. Sometimes I like to use a tripod and get the sharpest image as possible but this often leads to lost opportunities. Whilst I set up the tripod the subject is often taking off and could be over a mile away before I even notice that it is gone. This is why most successful insect photographers either us a mono-pod or take their shots hand-held. Like I said above it really is your own choice but I recommend that you try a few different methods, review the results and see how you get on.

Hand Held Insect Photography Tips
The technique of photographing insects with a macro lens is quite simple in principle. Insects generally reside outdoors and macro photographers generally photograph them in day light hours. Set the camera at a fast enough shutter speed and aperture value for a good exposure. If you are interested in a particular spot, for example a rock pool, take a few test shots to assess the ambient light in advance. Set the camera lens to the ratio that you want to use, for example true macro 1:1 and wait until the subject comes into view. There is a method of locking your elbows into your rib cage. Place your left hand flat under the camera and use your right hand to operate the camera controls. Gradually move the camera forwards until the subject is sharp in the frame and then depress the shutter button (fully) all in one swift action. Repeat until you feel you have exhausted the potential of this subject and composition. Use any natural features available to assist in keeping the camera steady. It may be beneficial to take and hold a deep breath whilst operating the shutter. Do not forget to exhale afterwards as this may cause you to go blue in the face.

Remember that understanding the life cycle and biology of insects and animals will increase your chances of getting good macro photographs of any individual species. Something that you will discover, as does anyone who becomes interested in nature, is the amount of variation within the same species. Field Guides are useful but have their limitations and you will soon learn that the species in your photographs do not resemble the pictures in your books. This is nature…Obviously you do not have to be an insect expert or be a student of entomology to get good pictures of insects. The point I’m making is that the best insect photographers that I have come across usually know their stuff. It is also the case that as you learn more your interest grows. This means that you will be more likely to remain interested and therefore take more insect macro photographs. I often set myself a target of capturing several specific species each season. Most seasons so far I have failed to reach my targets but have also taken some good shots by using this motivational technique.

There is something else quite strange that keeps my interest in macro photography alive. My neighbours are a bunch of low-life scumbags. They make my life a real misery, loud music, drug taking, vandalism, aggression towards members of my family etc. Despite this they also give me the motivation to continue writing, taking macro photographs and generally working hard. When it all gets too much, I pick up my binoculars and camera equipment and head down to the local nature reserve. Evidence if needed that macro photography can be good for your health and mental well being! Thanks for visiting my Macro Photography for Beginners website. In my next post I will be looking at Wild Flower Macro Photography.

Marvin Africa


Anonymous said...

great article. thanks for sharing the info. there are a lot of young photographers who always wanted to learn macro photography and im included...

again.., thanks a lot.


Marvin Africa said...


"Internet Marketing Services" Thanks for the comment. BTW You do know that Blogspot is no-follow. If you want to find do-follow blogs to comment on you could try using Fast Blog Finder. I'm not suggesting that your comments are not genuine. Just trying to help you in your quest for backlinks - which we all need to survive in the bear pit of the internet these days.

Anonymous said...

thank, looking forward to your next writing about flower macro.

-- jp

roentare said...

This is seriously amazing article in deed! I found your writing so professional and constructive

Marvin Africa said...

I've already written the next post about flower photography but have not got around to posting it yet.

Thanks for reminding me to get on with typing it up!

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Reontarre,
Thanks for the positive words of encouragement. I do quite a lot of writing these days.

I agree with you about Shawshank Redemption (in your blogger bio). That is a very good film in my opinion.

You certainly have a long list of blogs in your follow list. I didn't see mine in the list though. Maybe because I'm too lazy write any new posts!

...and it looks like you already know your way around a camera.

Thanks for visiting my website.

Lee R. said...

Hi Marvin,

I came across this article while tediously going through every bit of online advice about insect photography I can find.

I have been taking bug photos for about 4-5 years using a digital pocket camera.

I was happy. I knew nothing about digital cameras or photography. I got lots of neat bug pics. I posted a ton of them online.

After almost 5 years of this, I started thinking about upgrading to a DSLR system. After all, better equipment means better images - right? LOL.

Now I own a brand new Nikon D40X with 2 Nikkor AF-S VR lenses (18-55mm & 55-200mm). I also managed to borrow a Nikon 105mm macro lens. After almost a week of trial and error, I started asking for advice where ever I could and reading whatever I could find that seemed appropriate. I am not at all happy with the new system. I understand I have a steep learning curve to overcome but even after 2 weeks of countless shots, I have no idea what I am doing. The only lens I can consistently get a usable image from is the 18-55mm stopped down to f22, at the 55mm end, with ISO 200, shutter speed of 1/200, and using the flash (with -1.3 flash compensation). I have added a set of close up lens and a set of extension tubes but they just confuse the situation any further. I also started using a tripod but that just complicates things.

Your article has been the most straight forward discussion of this topic that I have come across and I have been spending a lot of time going through google search results. Your experiences, situation, and approach all rang true to me because I have been there and done that, lol.

I would be very interested in your honest appraisal of the quality of my pocket camera images and any advice you would be willing to offer with regards to the new DSLR setup.

I have bookmarked you and will make it a point to read all of the articles you have posted that pertain to this and related subjects.

You can see my images at ( under the name of "leeco") It is a free online community art site that has a photography section}.

Thanks you for such an informative article.

Lee R.

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Lee

That’s an interesting comment you’ve written…I’m not really sure where to begin. I’ve had a quick look through your gallery and thought it was very impressive. I like the scientific approach to nature.

The transition from a digital point and shoot camera to digital SLR might take a while. A lot of the problems you have encountered are covered on my website although admittedly not particularly easy to find.

I would recommend researching Aperture Values, Shutter Speed, Exposure and Depth of Field. Understanding how all these are related should make using the Digital SLR much easier. It will still go wrong but now you will know why.

Also consider shooting in RAW. This will give you an opportunity to make adjustments to your original captured images before converting them to JPGs.

I would forget about filters, extension tubes and tele-converters for now as they all reduce the amount of light reaching the camera sensor. You can place a layer of tissue paper over the pop-up flash (with an elastic band) to diffuse the light. Try using larger apertures (smaller f number i.e. f11) and focus the lens manually. Autofocus is unreliable for macro photography.

I hope this does not add to the confusion! Hopefully it will not be long before you are happy again. I’ve been using a digital SLR for years and still get it all wrong sometimes…

I suppose if else fails you could buy a book! LOL

shutterspeed said...

Hi Marvin,
I read your articles with great interest and have just begun on macro photography. I have been quite passionate about other forms of photography (i.e portraits and events) and finally decided to pursue macro since I've always been fascinated with nature and its beauty.

Just bought a Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro a few days earlier and took it out to the field the next day for some test shots. Would love to show you some of the shots and have your feedback, if you don't mind..

Anyway, I've also bookmarked your site and will be looking forward to your next tips. Keep up the good work and thanks!

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Shutterspeed, (I like your username!)

I’m glad that you found my articles of interest and hope that you are enjoying the strange world of macro photography. The Tamron SP AF 90mm f/2.8 Di macro lens always gets good reviews. It is a good choice of lens for a beginner to macro photography. I would have thought that your previous experience of portrait photography will help with composition etc.

It is surprising how many people ask for my opinion on their photographs and I always respond the same way. It is more important what YOU think of your photography than what other people think. However, if you upload some images to an online gallery (for example flickr) I’d be quite happy to have a rummage through them!

Let me know how it goes…


Unknown said...

I am really enjoying your blog which is very informative but easy to understand. I wish I had found it ages ago...
However, having discovered it now, I shall contunue to read further. Btw the touches of humour are excellent, I can see myself running around chasing butterflies initially... hehe
I still do if it is those confounded clouded yellow's but as you say, setting yourself up in a good place is usually much more useful. Right...I am off to learn some more ~ Chrissy

Marvin Africa said...

Hello Chrissy,
I've had such a lot of positive feedback recently that I'm now considering writing some new articles for this blog.

Thanks for your comment and I hope you managed to catch (not litterally) one of those clouded yellows!