Macro Nights

By Bryce McQuillan Back to

bryce mcquillan, macro photography Dew sitting on a blade of grass

I am 23 years of age, from New Zealand and I’ve been making macro photos for about three years now. I got into macro photography though another photographer who came around to take some photos of spiders I was breeding, and seeing the images he took of the spiders really interested me. I thought I would try it myself— not knowing how much was involved with macro photography.

I have always had a huge interest and obsession with bugs and spiders, so being able to photograph them has made my passion for them grow even more, as I am able to see find detail that our eyes are not able to see. Things like the eye arrangement on spiders and the variety of colors really interest me. Besides bugs and spiders, I enjoy photographing anything really. I find photography relaxing and enjoyable.

Becoming proficient at macro photographing certainly has its fair share of challenges, everything from finding the subject to holding the camera still enough to get the shot. Finding the subject is only a small part of making the photograph. A lot of bugs are quick to run, fly or jump away to hide, and everything from shadow, light and vibration plays a part in getting close enough to the subject. Once you are close you need to move slowly so as not to frighten or annoy the subject—you don’t want it to become aggressive and start attacking. When I do get a good shot, I find the harder for me to get close and make the shot, the more rewarding it is. Patience is a big part of macro photography, as you may have to wait a while before you get the photograph you are after. One suggestion is to get down to ‘bugs eye level’ as it makes the subject really pop out of the image.

bryce mcquillan, macro photography
Tunnel Spider

Tunnel web spiders are very difficult subjects as they are so sensitive to light, shadow and vibration—they are quick to move back deep down into their tunnels. But they are one of my favorite and most rewarding subjects. You might not realize that almost all of my macro photography is done at night. I find it easier to find subjects and there is also a lot more to see—you often see things you wouldn’t see normally during the day like the long-jawed Harvestman spiders.

During the winter a lot of insects and spiders go into hibernation, and the few species of insects that are out and about are quick to run, jump or fly away to hide and some are a lot more aggressive, as its either ‘kill or be killed’ for bugs during the colder months. So approaching the subject correctly and slowly is key to everything.

I try to do both an environment shot and composition/ portrait type shots with each thing I find, and I also try and get a complete series on the insect.

bryce mcquillan, macro photography
Queen Chinese Paper Wasp (Polistes chinensis) guarding her nest

Gear for Macro Photography
I currently use a Nikon D90 camera with a 60mm macro lens, and a Nikon SB-600 off-camera flash, using either an off-shoe cord or wireless transmitter with a home made flash diffuser. It’s important to diffuse the light since many bugs and smaller subjects are very reflective.

For closer shots of insects I use a Canon 50D camera and a Canon MP-E65mm Macro lens (1x-5x mag- nification) with a Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX. It’s a twin flash setup, and I use a concave type homemade flash diffuser that sits at the end of the lens, curling around it to some degree. Diffusing the light source can be very tricky—especially trying to find the balance between over and under exposure. You don’t want the subject to be too reflective or not reflective enough.

Using the Canon MP-E65mm f/2.8 lens can be a handful, as the lens itself is very heavy, so lens plus twin flash set up plus body is rather heavy and it can be hard to hold steady while shooting bugs on the end of a leaf or stick. You also need to get very close to your subject so a lot of bugs are quick to move away or become aggressive.

I carry a complete lens set when making photographs, as you never know what you’re going to come across, and that one time you don’t have the correct lens is the one time you will need it. At the same time you want to travel as light as possible because you may spend a lot of time looking for things to make photos of. Having a heavy bag sometimes ends up being more hard work than it’s worth. I always take both camera bodies, and an 18-55mm lens so I am able to do a bit of landscape photography too.

I find it is always good to document the areas I go to find certain subjects, and what I often find helps out other people who are also interested in bugs and photography. Sometimes I carry my Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 lens for shooting the odd bird or other wildlife and it is also good for shooting larger insects at a distance, or things like wasps nests where you don’t want to get too close. But there is a tradeoff—this lens is rather heavy to carry so if I don’t need it I won’t bring it. I also carry both macro lenses with the flash setups mentioned above. I find most of the places I go are uneven ground and the last thing you want to be doing is carrying a large bag of heavy gear around if you don’t have to. All my shots are handheld. I find a tripod harder work than it’s worth, by the time you have set the tripod up and got all the settings sorted on the camera, the bug has been and gone multiple times.

bryce mcquillan, macro photography
Female New Zealand Praying Mantis (Orthodera novaezealandiae) cleaning itself

In New Zealand we don’t really have a lot of dangerous wildlife, I guess the biggest thing I have to watch out for at night are wasp nests, as they can be hard to see and a lot of times it’s a little too late when you realize you have disturbed a big nest. The plus side to wasps is they are only seasonal nesters—the queen hibernates during the colder months and the workers die-off.

When photographing bugs and spiders you learn a lot about the subjects and how they behave and where their nest is located. Surprisingly, the other big issue I face is people, because carrying a lot of gear it does attract a lot of unwanted attention!

About the Author

Bryce McQuillan
Bryce McQuillan is a freelance photographer who lives in Hamilton, New Zealand. His macro photographs have been published in Amateur Photographer UK and New Zealand Geographic. photos/spidermanbryce2006/