Portrait ant with a length of around 5 mm, made with magnification 8 and f/6.4.

Ants are social insects of the family Formicidae  and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera. Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the mid-Cretaceous period between 110 and 130 million years ago and diversified after the rise of flowering plants. More than 12,500 out of an estimated total of 22,000 species have been classified. They are easily identified by their elbowed antennae and a distinctive node-like structure that forms a slender waist.

Ants form colonies that range in size from a few dozen predatory individuals living in small natural cavities to highly organised colonies which may occupy large territories and consist of millions of individuals. These larger colonies consist mostly of sterile wingless females forming castes of "workers", "soldiers", or other specialised groups. Nearly all ant colonies also have some fertile males called "drones" and one or more fertile females called "queens"  (source: Wikipedia).

Exploring the Tiny World of Microphotography – (Part 2: Insects & Critters)

In Part 1, I gave an introduction to microphotography and the gear that you’ll need to take photographs on a very small scale. In this part, we will discuss the joys and challenges of working with tiny creatures and insects.

The world of insects, spiders and other small forms can be enjoyed on any beautiful day from early spring until late autumn. I can step out of my house on any sunny morning with a cup of coffee and leisurely browse the garden and see where the action is. Or I can choose my spot and watch and wait. And with a little patience, insects and spiders will show themselves and sometimes seem to pose for the camera.

Radical portrait speckled bush-cricket, made with magnification factor 8 and f/8. It looks now more like a raging bull. Made with a Canon 7D, a Canon macrolens MP-E 65 mm/f2.8 and a 2x Canon teleconverter. The speckled bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) is a flightless species of bush-cricket that occurs across most of Europe. The grass-green body, which is about 15 millimetres (0.59 in) long, carries minute black specks, as reflected in the common and Latin name of the species; in addition, the dorsal surface of the abdomen features a brown stripe; this is more pronounced in the male. A yellow-white stripe extends backwards from the eyes. The lower legs and feet are brownish. The antennae are twice as long as the body.The species is brachypterous: the male's forewings are reduced to small flaps, and those of the female are even more reduced. The hindwings are completely absent, and both males and females are flightless (source: Wikipedia).
Radical portrait speckled bush-cricket, made with magnification factor 8 and f/8. It looks now more like a raging bull. Made with a Canon 7D, a Canon macrolens MP-E 65 mm/f2.8 and a 2x Canon teleconverter. The speckled bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima) is a flightless species of bush-cricket that occurs across most of Europe.

Watching the world of gardens in this way quickly reveals that it is truly “a jungle out there” – a jungle of small predators and preys striving for survival. Microphotography can uncover amazing details of the mysterious world of insects. And yet, this amazing world of insects is right outside the door of virtually every home.

Working with Different Types of Insects

Portrait miner bee, made with magnification 6 and f/13 using a Canon 7D, a Canon MP-E 65mm/f2.8 and a 2x Canon Teleconverter. Andrena (Miner bee) is the largest genus in the family Andrenidae, and is nearly worldwide in distribution, with the notable exceptions of Oceania and South America. With over 1,300 species, it is one of the largest of all bee genera. Species are often brown to black with whitish abdominal hair bands, though other colors are possible, most commonly reddish, but also including metallic blue or green. Body length commonly ranges between 8 - 17 mm with males smaller and more slender than females.
Portrait miner bee, made with magnification 6 and f/13 using a Canon 7D, a Canon MP-E 65mm/f2.8 and a 2x Canon Teleconverter. Andrena (Miner bee) is the largest genus in the family Andrenidae, and is nearly worldwide in distribution, with the notable exceptions of Oceania and South America. With over 1,300 species, it is one of the largest of all bee genera.

Insects generally have two things in mind: to get on with the task at hand and avoid getting eaten. The task at hand might be finding food, mating, or just basking in the sunshine. This means that insects are somewhat predictable. Bees, butterflies, and similar insects, for example, might be just bumbling about from flower to flower.

One of the first things you’ll notice is that some insects are extremely skittish, like butterflies, damselflies, and dragonflies, while others aren’t bothered by your presence at all. You’ll see that some insects are constantly moving about, such as ants and bees, where others prefer to sit still for extended periods – many spiders and assassin bugs.

Frontal portrait hunting bug Nabis rugosus (Common Damsel Bug), length around 7-9 mm. The micro has been made with magnification factor 10 and f/8, using a Canon 7D, a Canon MP-E 65mm/f2.8 and a 2x Canon teleconverter. The insect family Nabidae contains the damsel bugs. The terms damsel bug and nabid are synonymous. There are over 400 species. They are soft-bodied, elongate, winged terrestrial predators. Many damsel bugs catch and hold prey with their forelegs, similar to mantids. They are considered helpful species in agriculture because of their predation on many types of crop pests, such as cabbage worms, aphids, and lygus bugs. Damsel bugs of the genus Nabis are the most common. They and other genera are most numerous in fields of legumes such as alfalfa, but they can be found in many other crops and in non-cultivated areas. They are yellow to tan in color and have large, bulbous eyes and stiltlike legs. They are generalist predators, catching almost any insect smaller than themselves, and cannibalizing each other when no other food is available (source: Wikipedia).
Frontal portrait hunting bug Nabis rugosus (Common Damsel Bug), length around 7-9 mm. The micro has been made with magnification factor 10 and f/8, using a Canon 7D, a Canon MP-E 65mm/f2.8 and a 2x Canon teleconverter. Many damsel bugs catch and hold prey with their forelegs, similar to mantids. They are considered helpful species in agriculture because of their predation on many types of crop pests, such as cabbage worms, aphids, and lygus bugs.

And others still, like leafhoppers and plant hoppers, don’t seem to mind being photographed, but will shyly turn their back on you, forcing you to change position constantly. The point is that you should invest some time getting to know the common behavior of your tiny subjects and how they sense their environment before firing the first frame.

Seasons and Time of Day

Detail head of male Brimstone butterfly, looking to the left side. It is a single picture made in our garden with magnification 6 and f/14, while the butterfly was alive and kicking. The larger version can be seen at http://www.huubdewaardmacros.com/   It is commonly believed that the word “butterfly” is a derived from “butter-coloured fly” which is attributed to the yellow of the male Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni), the female being a much paler whitish-green. The Brimstone has a most exquisite wing shape, perfectly matching a leaf when roosting overnight or hibernating within foliage. This is one of the few species that hibernates as an adult and, as such, spends the majority of its life as an adult butterfly. The distribution of this species closely follows that of the larval foodplant (source: http://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/)
Detail head of male Brimstone butterfly, looking to the left side. It is a single picture made in our garden with magnification 6 and f/14, while the butterfly was alive and kicking. The larger version can be seen at http://www.huubdewaardmacros.com/ It is commonly believed that the word “butterfly” is a derived from “butter-coloured fly” which is attributed to the yellow of the male Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni), the female being a much paler whitish-green.

Detail head of male Brimstone butterfly, looking to the left side. It is a single picture made in our garden with magnification 6 and f/14, while the butterfly was alive and kicking. The larger version can be seen at http://www.huubdewaardmacros.com/ It is commonly believed that the word “butterfly” is a derived from “butter-coloured fly” which is attributed to the yellow of the male Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni), the female being a much paler whitish-green.

Most insects are seasonal creatures and the larger ones are most plentiful during spring and summer. If you begin looking in late autumn or at the end of winter, you will mainly find insects that measure only a few millimeters in size. Larger than life-size magnification is required to reveal the structure of the compound eyes of such small insects.

The time of day you choose to go out hunting for insects can have a dramatic effect on both the number of insects you encounter and the quality of their demeanor when you photograph them. I take only micros during the day time when the insects are actively foraging and moving from feeding place to feeding place. Do try to be as prepared as possible, because during these daylight hours they are only stopping for very short periods of time.

A frontal view of to mating jumping spiders, made with magnification 4 and f/14.  The jumping spider family (Salticidae) contains more than 500 described genera and about 5,000 described species, making it the largest family of spiders with about 13% of all species. Jumping spiders have good vision and use it for hunting and navigating. They are capable of jumping from place to place, secured by a silk tether. Jumping spiders are active hunters, which means that they do not rely on a web to catch their prey. Instead, these spiders stalk their prey. They use their superior eyesight to distinguish and track their intended meals, often for several inches. Then, they pounce, giving the insect little to no time to react before succumbing to the spider's venom. They are capable of learning, recognizing, and remembering colours (source: Wikipedia).
A frontal view of to mating jumping spiders, made with magnification 4 and f/14.
The jumping spider family (Salticidae) contains more than 500 described genera and about 5,000 described species, making it the largest family of spiders with about 13% of all species. Jumping spiders have good vision and use it for hunting and navigating. They are capable of jumping from place to place, secured by a silk tether.

Insects and spiders are literally everywhere and in immensely vast numbers. Walk through any flower garden and your first attention is probably drawn to the beautiful blossoms. But on closer inspection, you’re also likely to see and be amazed by a myriad of insects that are enjoying the flowers right along with you–bees, hoverflies, and any number of unrecognized insects flying around or walking upon the petals and blossoms. All you have to do is to know for what type of insect you’re looking and a little bit about that insect’s behavior and you’ll know where to start.

Detail head red mason bee  (osmia rufa), made with magnification factor 6 and f/14. It is a single picture made in our garden, using a Canon 7D,  a Canon MP-E 65 mm f/2.9 and a Canon 2x teleconverter. The bee was alive and kicking. Osmia rufa is a species of solitary bee, also known as the red mason bee due to its habit of using mud to build small cavities within its nest. The species is most active during the spring and early summer although it can be seen as far as late June. Despite being classed as solitary, these bees are gregarious. The female is larger/broader than the male and has 2 large horns on the head.The female has a much smaller sting than honeybees or wasps.The male has no sting. The size is around 10 mm (source Wikipedia).
Detail head red mason bee (osmia rufa), made with magnification factor 6 and f/14. It is a single picture made in our garden, using a Canon 7D, a Canon MP-E 65 mm f/2.9 and a Canon 2x teleconverter. The bee was alive and kicking. Osmia rufa is a species of solitary bee, also known as the red mason bee due to its habit of using mud to build small cavities within its nest. The species is most active during the spring and early summer although it can be seen as far as late June.

Damselflies, dragonflies, and mayflies like water, so if you want to find them, start at a pond or lake. Butterflies and bees like blossoms and blooms, so if you want to find them, go where the flowers are. Grasshoppers like to hang out in groundcovers like grasses. In order to see these small “models” you have to become fairly “narrow minded” with your vision.

Approaching the Insects

Portrait springtail (Allacma fusca) with a size of around 2 mm, made with magnification factor 10 and f/7.1. Members of Collembola are normally less than 6 mm long. Most species have an abdominal, tail-like appendage, the furcula, that is folded beneath the body to be used for jumping when the animal is threatened. It is held under tension by a small structure called the retinaculum and when released, snaps against the substrate, flinging the springtail into the air. All of this takes place in as little as 18 milliseconds (ref. Wikipedia)
Portrait springtail (Allacma fusca) with a size of around 2 mm, made with magnification factor 10 and f/7.1. Members of Collembola are normally less than 6 mm long. Most species have an abdominal, tail-like appendage, the furcula, that is folded beneath the body to be used for jumping when the animal is threatened.

Although most insects do not have orifices in their body for picking up sound vibrations, many use parts of their body, such as their wings, antennae, or special hairs, like TV antennae to detect vibrations in the environment or in the air. Any errant movement on your part could cause you to lose a shot, so be sure to tread carefully when approaching your subjects. Your job is to make yourself non-threatening. The first thing you want to do is to move very slowly. Look before you move, look at where you place your feet, look at where your equipment is, and most of all plan where you are going to put the front of your lens. Many potentially good shots have been ruined by the front of a lens bumping a branch or leaf where an insect was resting, causing it to flee.

Portrait female marmalade hoverfly, made with magnification 5 and f/14 using a Canon 7D and a Canon MP-E 65mm/2.8. Episyrphus balteatus, sometimes called the marmalade hoverfly, is a relatively small hoverfly (9–12 mm) of the Syrphidae family, widespread throughout all continents. Like most other hoverflies it mimics a much more dangerous insect, the solitary wasp, though it is a quite harmless species. The upper side of the abdomen is patterned with orange and black bands. Two further identification characters are the presence of secondary black bands on the 3rd and 4th dorsal plates and of faint greyish longitudinal stripes on the thorax. E. balteatus can be found throughout the year in various habitats, including urban gardens, visiting flowers for pollen and nectar. They often form dense migratory swarms, which may cause panic among people for its resemblance to wasps. It is among the very few species of flies capable of crushing pollen grains and feeding on them. The larva is terrestrial and feeds on aphids. As in most other hoverflies, males can be easily identified by their holoptic eyes, i.e., left and right compound eyes touching at the top of the head (source: Wikipedia).
Portrait female marmalade hoverfly, made with magnification 5 and f/14 using a Canon 7D and a Canon MP-E 65mm/2.8. Episyrphus balteatus, sometimes called the marmalade hoverfly, is a relatively small hoverfly (9–12 mm) of the Syrphidae family, widespread throughout all continents.

Most insects have a view of the world that is very different from ours, because their eyes are built unlike those of vertebrate eyes. Insects such as the housefly, the hornet, the butterfly, and the beetle, have what we call compound eyes. These eyes are made up of many separate units called ommatidia. Each ommatidium samples a small part of the visual field. Having multiple ommatidia allows the animal to easily detect motion. Some, like the dragonfly, have as many as thirty thousand units per eye, each with its own lens. With a compound eye the insect sees a mosaic image. This looks something like the highly magnified dots of a newspaper photograph. Because the lenses in the insect’s eyes have a fixed focus, and can’t be adjusted for distance, insects see shapes poorly.

Frontal portrait of a ladybird, made with magnification 10 and f/7.1 using a Canon 7D, a Canon macrolens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, a Canon 2x converter and a Soligor 1.4 converter. Coccinellidae is a family of beetles, known variously as ladybirds (UK, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Malta, parts of Canada), or ladybugs (North America). Scientists increasingly prefer the names ladybird beetles or lady beetles, as these insects are neither birds nor bugs (ref: Wikipedia). Coccinellids are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches), and are commonly yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers, with black legs, head and antennae (Source: Wikipedia).
Frontal portrait of a ladybird, made with magnification 10 and f/7.1 using a Canon 7D, a Canon macrolens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, a Canon 2x converter and a Soligor 1.4 converter.
Coccinellidae is a family of beetles, known variously as ladybirds (UK, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Malta, parts of Canada), or ladybugs (North America).

As an object moves across the visual field, ommatidia are progressively turned on and off. Because of the resulting “flicker effect”, insects respond far better to moving objects than stationary ones. Honeybees, for example, will visit wind-blown flowers more readily than still ones. Houseflies and dragonflies have eyes that cover most of their head. This gives them almost 360 degree vision, enabling them to see predators coming from any direction. Most insects can see some color. While our eyes see a full spectrum of wave lengths from red to violet, many insects see a limited range of colors. The colors they detect are the ones most useful for finding food and shelter.

It is known that insects, especially flying insects, will try to escape from a predator by a simple escape reflex based on the direction and the velocity of a moving shadow or object. If a critical velocity is exceeded, the insect will try to fly away from the direction of the threat. Slow moving objects or shadows often do not trigger this reflex. The lesson learned is that the best way to approach an insect is to move slowly and gently. Most of all, avoid casting your shadow on the insect.

Next Time

In Part 3, we will discuss specific techniques such as composition, lighting, and fine focusing when it comes to microphotography.


Dr. Huub de Waard has a PhD from the University of Amsterdam and is a Dutch wildlife photographer who specializes in insect macro photography. He photographs very small invertebrates so close-up that they are transformed into large subjects. Through his images he aims to highlight the different characteristics of a variety of species – and their individual charms.

He does not apply focus stacking and all of his pictures are single images made in his own garden. His work can be found at http://www.huubdewaardmacros.com/.


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All images reprinted with permission.