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Insect Macro Photography Made Easy

written by: Larry M. Lynch•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 8/18/2009

Is insect stock photography for you? You've seen your share of insects. They creep, they crawl, they slither and climb. They sting, pinch, and bite. They're also highly challenging and profitable digital photography subjects. Insect stock photography can be an ongoing income stream.

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    Don't be Afraid of Insects

    You could hear her screams from three rooms away. I descended the stairs three at a time and bolted into the kitchen to see what the problem was.

    What’s wrong?" I barked, almost out of breath. My heart pounded and adrenaline raced through my veins like liquid smack.

    It ran somewhere under there", she panted back at us pointing below the kitchen sink.

    What was it?" I blurted out, assuming attack position.

    Obviously woozy and near to fainting, she managed to stutter, “I don’t know".

    Orlando had just entered the room, attracted by the commotion. He and I just looked at each other, mystified. Down on our knees now, we peeked into the darkened space under the kitchen sink and cabinet. There “it" was, moving slowly, almost un-hurriedly. It was a spider. Not even a particularly big one at that, although obviously more than big enough to get her hormones to pumping.

    According to entomologists, there are in excess of 800,000 known insect species world wide. Doubtless you’ve seen your fair share of the critters yourself. They are the largest class of animals in the world, outnumbering all other types of animals put together.

    Insects in general are easy enough to identify. Their general characteristics are that they:

    - Have a body with three body segments; a head, a thorax and an abdomen

    - Have an exo-skeleton (a hard outer shell instead of bones inside)

    - Often have two extended antennae

    - are omnivorous, that is, consume both plant and animal matter

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    Note: Spiders are “arachnids", not technically insects which are classified as “arthropods".

    Spiders have a body with two segments and eight legs, not three segments and six legs as insects do.

    All this of course, meant less than nothing to “screaming Mimi" when she saw that spider.

    Among numerous other characteristics, insects, spiders and such also make fascinating subjects for digital photographers. That is, if you’re not too squeamish. Getting good digital images of bugs, spiders, butterflies and numerous other tiny creatures can be quite a challenge though. So here are some suggestions on how to successfully go about insect macro photography.

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    Digital Photography Equipment Required for Taking Photos of Insects

    The two most important digital camera settings for insect photography are macro imaging setting and your telephoto lens capabilities. Some cameras can also use close up lens attachments for shooting macro images up to one inch from the camera lens. A small but sturdy tripod less than one foot in total collapsed height is also on the needed items list as are a flash and an external or slave flash unit if you have one available.

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    The Life Cycle of Insects

    butterfly feeding closer IMG 4070 Here's a quick word about the life cycle of insects for digital photographers. Briefly, there are four key stages in an insect’s life cycle. These are helpful to know if you’re going to try your hand at getting digital images of insects like flies, mosquitoes, bees, wasps and an assortment of “creepy crawlies" and “wriggling things" from your yard, home, kitchen cabinets, pantry or basement.

    1. An adult insect lays fertilized eggs on their medium of choice

    2. The eggs hatch into worms, caterpillars or larvae with the larvae of flies being called “maggots"

    3. The larvae feed voraciously for a period of time before they molt or change into young insects which resemble the adults. With butterflies, the larvae called caterpillars, weave a cocoon around themselves to complete a process of physical change, called “metamorphosis", from the caterpillar stage into adult butterflies.

    4. Young insects grow into adults, mate and lay eggs to repeat the life cycle

    That’s pretty much it. Not too complicated, is it? Knowing these insect life cycle stages helps insect macro photographers to better understand just what they’re photographing.

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    Insect Macro Photography Shooting Tips

    The following general procedures should get you nicely setup to take detailed images of a wide variety of insects under controlled conditions:

    1. Mount the camera on a tripod and select macro image settings or attach close up lens

    2. Use a wide aperture setting for good definition and color saturation when shooting in macro or close up modes

    3. A fast shutter speed will help to stop the motion of a live insect you are photographing

    4. Focus on the insect’s eyes or body, as often, depth-of-field is limited in macro photography

    5. If your camera flash “over shoots" the subject, use an off-camera or slave flash unit, or reflectors, for added lighting or fill flash.

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    Note: If you are taking live insect photos in the field, be sure to exercise proper precautions. Some insect species can be dangerous, are poisonous, toxic and aggressive or have a particularly nasty bite, pinch or sting. An example of one to be very careful with is this Rhinoceros Beetle (a subfamily, Dynastinae, of beetles in the family of scarabs, Scarabaeidae) I filmed in Quibdo, Colombia. An as strong as an ant species, many Scarab beetle species can lift up to 850 times their own weight. If you could do that you’d be able to lift up to 76 tons! Just think, you could go back-packing with your entire house, car and furniture, everything – on your back! Wear heavy cloth or thick rubber gloves to protect hands, wrists and fingers when shooting in the field. Use high top heavy boots and wear a hat, scarf or cap to keep potential “guests" out of your hair – literally.

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    You'll get more insect macro photography shooting tips on the second page of this article and learn how to set up an insect macro photography staging area to help keep the creepy crawlies under control while you shoot their portraits.
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    Setting Up a Staging Area

    A contained insect macro photography shooting area can also be set up for getting better insect and other tiny creature digital images. For this, use a shallow pan with high sides to contain the insect’s area of movement. Set the camera on a tripod outside the shooting area. Arrange light colored cardboard or paper to reflect additional light into the shooting area or to deflect the light from your flash unit to the subject.

     

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    Using a Telephoto Lens for Insect Photography

    The photo from the first page and a couple of additional great butterfly digital images were shot from nearly ten feet away. To physically move closer to the stand of flowers this butterfly was flitting among would probably have scared it off. I chose instead to brace myself and my camera and “zoom in" on this beauty to get this striking image. If you have a ten-to-one or greater zoom on your camera, this can be an excellent option for getting “close up" digital images without actually being able to get close up to the subject. An automatic setting can be used, but I like to open the aperture up (f5.6 or f2.8) and take photos using a very high, 1/1000th second or faster, shutter speed to help keep the subject focused, throw the background well out-of-focus and “freeze" any motion.

    Remember when “zooming in" on a subject, “camera shake" is amplified, so any extra precautions you can take to minimize it will pay dividends in sharper images. Use a tripod or other camera-stabilizing device, brace yourself against a solid object and hold your breath momentarily when you press the shutter button all help to get razor-sharp photographs.

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    Insect Images: A Fascinating Genre of Digital Photography

    James Daniel Steele 104 Bugs, spiders and such make fascinating subjects for digital photography. If you’re not too "squeamish", that is. Even though taking good digital macro images of insects, spiders, butterflies, caterpillars, worms and numerous other tiny creatures can be quite a challenge, by following these how to tips and techniques you can develop a lucrative set of photos for your personal use, professional portfolio or for sale as insect stock photography. Get your “studio" set up, gather a few insects and get started in the fascinating genre of insect macro photography or insect stock photography starting today.