Many professionals specialize in wild animal photography, yet not many extend their interest to insects. Thousands of good pictures feature large animals in the wild, like deer or giraffes, but there are few quality photos of relatively common species of insects — let alone rare ones. The immense variety of insects, their complex behavior, their appearance both beautiful and bizarre, surely make them great photographic subjects — so why do they receive such poor attention?
I believe this is partially due to the fact that while the basic principles of animal photography can be applied to insects, there is a significant difference in methodology. Insect photography not only requires much dedication and technical knowledge, but also specialized photographic equipment. One cannot make a great photo of a small living creature with a camera configured for other purposes — and vice versa; once the camera is made suitable for shooting live insects, it usually cannot be used for any photographic task except shooting insects without significant reconfiguration.
With traditional optical systems such as digital cameras, the laws of physics do not allow a sufficiently small object to be fully in focus while retaining high resolution at the same time. In macro, the depth of of field (DOF) is usually too thin to make a good photograph, and the aperture must be closed down. When the aperture becomes sufficiently small, optical diffraction starts to affect resolution. The diffraction takes its toll regardless of camera type, lens focal length, sensor density or other such characteristics, because different physical factors contributing to it tend to compensate each other. The subject’s color — more precisely, the length of dominant light waves it reflects into the camera— does matter, if only a little. A photographer who wants to minimize the effect of diffraction at high apertures may choose to shoot only blue-colored insects and ignore the rest. (Obviously, for most photographers this is hardly an option).
Here is one method I often use to increase perceptible DOF without sacrificing resolution. Initially, I select the subject’s features that should appear most prominently in a photograph that I have in mind. In the case of insects, it is usually their eyes and other parts of their bodies that would most likely catch the viewer’s attention. I carefully choose my position around the insect, until the imaginary plane containing these features is perpendicular to the lens axis. Then I close down the aperture just enough to get them all in focus. While this method is applicable to other kinds of photography, in macro it becomes critical due to optical limitations. When viewing a printed photograph, people tend to overlook nonessential details, so they may not even notice that only a small part of a picture is sharp.
Another method is called “focus stacking.” A photographer takes a series of shots of the same subject, incrementally moving the camera towards (or away from) it after each shot in small regular steps, so that eventually every part of the subject is captured sharply. The resulting shots are digitally combined so that the final picture includes only the sharpest details from each shot. This method allows for making good photos of very small insects, or interesting artistic effects, but also has important limitations. Obviously, the insect must be absolutely stationary and the camera stabilized.
Since live insects are usually cautious, the greater the distance you put between the camera and the subject, the better. Focal length becomes very important. I almost exclusively use telephoto macro lenses, often aided by extension tubes. Such lenses not only increase the chance of taking a shot, but also help to visually separate the subject from its surroundings. There is a price to pay for such convenience — the longer the lens, the heavier and bulkier the lighting equipment and tripod a photographer must carry. This is one of the reasons why many macro shooters prefer shorter lenses.
At apertures commonly used in macro, there is almost never enough natural light for hand-held photography. A tripod can be used, but its ap- plicability is limited by the fact that live insects usually do not remain still for long. For those photographers who want more versatility, an artificial lighting system is a requirement. With respect to lighting, all photographers have their own preferences, making it an area where artistic and technical creativity can be unleashed. Personally, I dislike ring-type flashes commonly known as “macro flashes.” Since these units are usually mounted too close to the lens aperture, they tend to produce shadowless, flat-looking photographs, and do not work well with telephoto lenses. Many insects have intricate three-dimensional structures on their bodies, which can only be revealed when the light source, such as a flashgun, is moved away from the lens axis. It must be softened by a diffuser or aided by other light sources; otherwise, it is likely to produce pitch-black shadows and blown-out highlights. Since most diffusers decrease flash output by 2-3 stops, depending on their size and other properties, a single flash unit may not be sufficiently powerful, especially if a number of shots must be taken in rapid succession. In such cases, a multi-flash system might be a solution.
Once a subject is found, a number of conditions must be evaluated on the spot. Here are some of them:
• Is the subject stationary? If it is, a tripod may be used, depending on other factors. If not, a flash system must be used.
• Is there wind? The absence of wind is a blessing for a macro photographer. Many insects prefer highly unstable substrates to rest upon, such as leaves, flowers, or blades of grass. Even the slightest breeze can make it difficult to focus and impossible to use a tripod. In such cases, either a flash system must be used, or the substrate must be fixed in place.
What are the subject’s surroundings? Photo- graphic rules imply that the background should not distract from the main subject. When shooting with a tripod, it is relatively easy to obtain a featureless, uniformly blurred background (particularly with a telephoto lens) because DOF is so thin. However, when a flash is used, the background may appear too dark, often marred by prominent irregular spots. Although I prefer natural surroundings, sometimes I place artificial backdrops (made from a piece of cardboard) behind the subject to hide a particularly obtrusive backstage.
Is there sunlight on the subject? It may seem controversial at first, but direct sunlight should be avoided when shooting insects. From a photographer’s perspective, sun is nothing more than a point-type light source. As such, it produces dark, sharply outlined shadows and unrecoverable blown- out highlights on reflective bodies of most insects — sometimes even when a flash is used. Attempts to shield the subject from sun usually fail; most insects do not like to be deprived of the sunlight and will be on the move in the next second. The best solution is to choose subjects that are already in the shadows— or simply go to photo sessions during overcast days when sunlight is naturally diffused.
What kind of shot and composition does the subject require? It is wise to avoid unnecessary moves and work as quickly as possible in the vicinity of a live insect; therefore, the camera and flash should be properly configured before the approach. I cannot think of anything more frustrating than to realize, after successful approach, that the system is not ready for the shot I have in mind — and then, while making adjustments, to scare off the subject. Experience is needed for this kind of judgment— but eventually it becomes second nature.
When all necessary preparations have been made, the subject can be cautiously approached. To focus, I start with a fixed focus point and slowly move my camera position to the insect, instead of rotating a focusing ring. This technique allows more exact focusing and minimizes the chance of disturbing the subject. Auto focus in macro should be turned off; it is too imprecise even on high-end cameras. When the image is properly composed, I usually take as many shots as the situation allows as quickly as possible. This is where a powerful lighting system pays off—time between recharges often becomes a limiting factor. Fortunately, with a digital camera the cost of the media is not much of a concern.
An Afterword on Ethics
Some argue that most of the difficulty can be avoided by bringing an insect to a photo lab where the light can be fully controlled and the stage arranged according to a photographer’s preferences. I think this can be compared to shooting animals in a cage—such animals, deprived of their native environment, do not look and act naturally. A trained eye can usually spot the difference between lab photos and those taken in the wild. Although no longer considered wildlife photography, the lab method is sometimes justifiable—but only if the subject remains unharmed and can be released after the session. Much worse is when photographers deliberately cripple insects or otherwise make them more docile to ease shooting. I believe such practice is unacceptable, and photos taken in this manner are worthless, except maybe to entomologists.
The process of sorting and retouching camera output is out of the scope of this article, because it is not macro-specific. Sufficient to say, it should be performed meticulously. After all the hard work, when the final result is printed in a large format, satisfaction will be immense—but wait until you see other people’s reactions!
Product Resources: Cameras: Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III, Canon EOS 5D; Lenses: Sigma 150mm F2.8 macro EX (modified); Tripod: Gitzo 2540EX Acratech Ultimate Ballhead; Flashes: Canon 580EX and 430EX; Other: Acratech Quick Release System, Canon Angle Finder C, Lumiquest Ultrasoft Flash Diffusers, Really Right Stuff L-plate and PCL-1 Panoramic Clamps, Kirk Focusing Rail (modified), Kenko DG Extension Tubes 12, 20 & 36mm (modified).