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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
All images reprinted with permission.