insect photography 101

Earlier this summer, Pablo from Roundrock Journal suggested that I write about insect photography sometime. I had planned to do so, but as so often happens, the good intention drifted off and got lost among everyday events. I’ll try to remedy that situation in this and (hopefully) several subsequent posts.

I thought it might be worthwhile to start out with a discussion on cameras. I’ve written about my own gear at least a couple of times in the past as I receive a fair number of emails asking me about the cameras I use, or those I might recommend to someone interested in macro photography.

Let me begin by saying that you don’t need anything too fancy to shoot insect photos. Many “point-and-shoot” type cameras are capable of taking excellent macro photos. You don’t need an DSLR with special lenses — although you might consider one if you prefer that kind of gear.

Regarding my own gear, I use a couple of point-and-shoot cameras for all of my work. I’ll have a bit more to say about why I use point-and-shoots down below, but the main thing to keep in mind is that I’m not really much of a camera gear junkie — I don’t keep “trading up” to have the latest, greatest camera models as they are released. Personally, to me, the make or model of a camera doesn’t mean a lot so long as it does what I would ask it to do. I barely give my cameras much thought while working — I like intuitive cameras that will do what I want them to do without much messing around. I’m also not very much into babying my equipment, so I don’t really want anything that can’t handle being banged around a bit on hiking or canoe trips. I *really* don’t like carrying heavy camera bags, so prefer gear that can fit in my coat pocket, be worn around my neck, or ride along in my knapsack next to my GPS unit and my lunch.

So, here’s a rundown of my current cameras: My older camera is the Nikon Coolpix 4500 (CP4500) which I have been using since 2002. My more recent camera is the Nikon Coolpix 8800 (CP8800), which I began using in 2005. I continue to use both of these cameras and often shoot a few photos of the same subject with each of them as they produce images with a bit different feel. The CP4500 is one of Nikon’s “swivel-body” cameras and can sometimes be used to get shots from unusual angles. As well, it can move in just a little closer than the CP8800, and very small creatures such as spiders or tiny insects or snails will fill the frame of the photo. To my eye, the CP8800 produces images that are a little sharper and with more authentic colour. It’s great for larger insects such as dragonflies or grasshoppers as it will capture all parts of the insect with very little distortion of blurring of legs, wings, etc… While it can shoot very tiny insects, it captures more of the background, so that requires more digital cropping of images to produce a photo comparable to that of one shot on the CP4500. A recent successor to the CP4500 is the Nikon S10 which shoots higher resolution photos. The only drawback about it that I’ve seen is that the minimum focus distance is 4 cm., while the CP4500 was 2 cm. — and believe or not, that does make a small amount of difference when you’re photographing very tiny creatures. The CP8800 has a minimum focus distance of 3 cm., so it falls in between.

Having given you a bit of background on my own gear, here are some points to consider when looking for a camera suitable for macro photography. If you’re looking at point-and-shoot type cameras, be sure to choose a model that has a “macro mode” or “close-up mode”. However, watch out for “close-up modes” that aren’t really that at all. In order to do good insect shots, you need a camera that has a minimum focus distance of a few centimeters — the less, the better. Personally, I wouldn’t consider anything that was more than about 4 or 5 cm. You can usually find the focus range in the specifications for a model. One place to check out specifications is on the Digital Photography Review (DPReview) website which I’ve linked to above for each of the models of cameras I’ve discussed. Most of the reviews include pages with sample shots taken with the camera, sometimes compared to sample shots taken with a similar class of camera produced by another company.

While researching prospective cameras, another useful way to do some background checking is to go to a site such as Pbase (a digital photo gallery website), and use their Camera Database page to view photos taken with the model that you’ve been considering. Keep in mind that the photos you will see have been taken by a very wide range of users – many of whom may not be particularly good photographers. The other way to find good images is to search for images of insects on a site such as Pbase, and then check to see which camera the photographer is using if this information is listed. That’s partly how I decided upon both of my Nikon cameras.

If you’re considering a point-and-shoot camera, one other feature which I would highly recommend is that it should have a good LCD screen — preferably one that can be flipped out from the body and articulated to various angles, or that is on a swivel body such as in the case of my older Nikon Coolpix 4500. Such an LCD screen will give you a good view of the insect as it will appear in your photo — and you can also watch the insect on the screen, getting a view that is not possible with the naked eye.

A few other considerations. For macro work, you need a camera with batteries that can hold a good charge as you’ll find that you will be doing a lot more shooting than someone who just walks along snapping photos of scenery. I would describe macro photography as rather intense and demanding of a lot of work on the part of the camera. I always carry fully-charged spare batteries for both of my cameras and often make use of them when I’m having a busy day of shooting.

After doing your research into cameras, the next step might include going to a camera shop to check out the models in person. I can’t give you a great deal of advice about stores, but choose one where the staff will get out the camera and let you give it a try. Take along a pocketful of little rubber frogs and insects and shoot a few photos of them using the prospective camera(s). If you can’t figure out how to get the camera to shoot in its macro mode, ask the store staff to show you how to get it into that mode. There is usually a bit of a trick to doing so for each model. This is the mode you’ll probably be making the most use of, so be sure that you know how to switch the camera into that mode.

Now, just a few words about DSLR cameras and lenses. I haven’t had much experience with working with a DSLR — I went from using an SLR to using digital point-and-shoots in 2002. Until recently, I haven’t been too interested in getting a DSLR as most didn’t have a “live” LCD screen for shooting. I find shooting through a viewfinder next to useless for taking insect photos — but more about that in a future photography piece when I get to the how-I-shoot discussion. However, the technology is changing. For example, the new Nikon D300 has a “Live View” LCD screen. You can read some more about how it works on this review. Other companies are also producing cameras with this technology, so I expect it will become the new standard. Now I’m interested. I’m not sure when I’ll make a switch, but probably before the insect season in 2008.

Okay, that’s it for my basic discussion of camera gear. If you have any questions, just send them along and I’ll try to answer. Also, if you have some suggestions for what you would like to know about how I shoot, how I work with the images after shooting, etc… send those along too as I could probably use some direction when figuring out what to write about in future posts.


No Responses to “insect photography 101”

  1. Dave Says:

    Thanks. If I buy a second camera, it will definitely be something along these lines.

  2. Ontario Wanderer Says:

    Great photo and interesting discussion. I am looking forward to more information to come.

    Just for the record, my partner and I are using FinePix cameras with Macro and Supermacro. The S7000 has the standard LCD screen that does not move. The S9100 LCD screen tilts but does not swivel. The tilt helps a lot but I would really like a camera that has a LCD that swivels.

  3. Wayne Says:

    Very nice discussion of what to look for in a camera for closeups.

    From my experience with the early Nikon Coolpix 990, that swivel camera feature is very useful, but only when combined with the LCD screen. The lack of both in my current SLR Nikon D70 has been a major handicap that has taken a lot of effort to get used to. I’m glad to hear that LCD screens are now becoming available for SLRs.

    I do like the ability to switch from my workhorse lens to a more telephoto-like lens, but I have to admit I don’t like to encumber myself with baggage and seldom take advantage of that ability. (In the same way I don’t usually take my GPS unit, but then I usually know where I am since I don’t go far afield for the most part. If I did I’d take it for return or reference purposes.)

    I agree completely about macro and distance. I’d add that the lighting will be important, so as to minimize the need for flash. Most cameras will not come with the sort of flash (like ringflash) that is good for getting to within an inch of the subject. There will only be a fraction of the field that is illuminated, especially with a SLR camera. And having said that I really need to go looking for two things, ringflash and LCD screen attachments, if they exist for the D70 body.

  4. bev Says:

    Dave – Well, there are certainly plenty of nice cameras coming on the market these days. It sure is a different scene than even a couple of years ago.

    OW – Thanks for posting a comment and mentioning your models of cameras. I think that’s very helpful for others when discussing cameras. I probably should have mentioned in my post that the CP8800 has quite a nice LCD screen – fairly good size, but what is best about it is that it can be flipped all around into various positions, maybe making it even better than the swivel body of the CP4500. The flexibility of the LCD screen angle is definitely important for insect photography.

    Wayne – Thanks for adding more info for this discussion. Yes, I think the new “live view” LCD screens are going to be a great addition to the DSLRs. For my kind of shooting, that’s really a necessity. Regarding lenses, I suspect that, when I switch over to using a DSLR, I”ll probably stick a macro lens on it and leave it there and use the camera as a sort of “dedicated” piece of equipment. I’ll also probably have to look at some kind of ring or clip on flash to get around the lens. I’m sort of torn about the new DSLRs — nice to have the very high rez images, although the CP8800 is not slouch — but the larger size of the camera and its lens also detract from the extreme closeness that is possible with the smaller cameras such as the CP4500 or S10. I can actually get pretty close with the CP8800 too – mainly due to it having such an articulated LCD screen, but it’s still not quite the same.
    Re: GPS units. I don’t generally carry mine around the farm unless I want to create a new waypoint for something, but I do bring it along when hiking at just about any other location. I don’t generally have much of a problem with getting lost, but it *is* a nice thing having the trackback feature if needed. Also, I do tend to create waypoints for any interesting sightings that I record in my field notes, so it’s a necessity for that.

  5. cloudscome Says:

    Thank you so much for this! I feel like I am just starting my education on macro.

  6. Wayne Says:

    Bev – regarding GPS, I think that when you really are going out into the field way away from your stomping grounds (as you so often do), it’s a great way to find your way back.

    I’m still looking back two years at my Nikon 990 and wishing most fervently for that swivel and LCD monitor. What great tools they are.

  7. bev Says:

    cloudscome – I’ll try to follow up with some more posts about macro photography fairly soon. I just have to think about what to write about next.

    Wayne – Yes, agreed, when traveling into unfamiliar country, a GPS is a smart thing to have along. I always try to remember to make a waypoint at the trailhead, and others at any really major changes in direction, so that I can find my way back if I get off trail. You don’t think that can happen, but a couple of times I’ve gotten distracted by things I’m photographing and actually been slightly unsure of which direction I was walking along a trail when it looks pretty much the same in both directions. Luckily, I’m a very observant person and even remember the shapes of small rocks, trees, fungi, etc… so it makes it fairly easy to retrace my steps. However, I wouldn’t want to try that trick after sunset!
    Well, you know… if you’re missing that Nikon 990, the Nikon S10 is a very reasonably priced camera these days. A friend has one and it takes pretty nice photos of insects. It might be one of those things that would be worth splurging on as a back-up to your DSLR. The S10 is so compact, that it sure makes a nice pocket camera for when you don’t feel like lugging around something large. That said, I have to admit that my current “wish I had one” list includes the Pentax Option W30 – a little pocket camera that can be used underwater. I was thinking of getting one before leaving for out west, as I thought it might be fun for use when visiting tide pools. However, I’m on an austerity kick these days, so it seemed too frivolous, so I’ll do without it (for now). Still, amazing what kind of camera you can get in the $200 to $300 dollar range these days.

  8. Dave Says:

    I wonder if I could buy a lens for my old (circa ’85) Minolta?

  9. bev Says:

    Dave – For those who want to buy lenses, good SLRs, etc.. I think it’s a buyer’s market these days. I know of a few camera buffs who have bought gear that used to be very expensive in the pre-digital days. Might be taking a look on eBay or at one of the local camera stores that deals in used gear.

  10. Dave Says:

    There’s a camera store in town I may visit and talk to. Thanks for the tip. Maybe being a pre-digital dinosaur has it’s benefits for once! BTW, Bev thanks for all the photo tips – you make it look very easy! :)

  11. Mary Carlson Says:

    Bev – thanks so much for the info. I, too like other commenters, feel like this was such good advice about macro photography. I am going to pass this info on to my daughter, too, even though she just bought herself a new Canon 40D. I still like my point and shoot camera – so much easier to carry, especially with binoculars (for birding).

  12. Laura Says:

    You do make it look very easy! Thanks for the tips, Bev. It’s nice to know that excellent shots are possible without all the fancy gear.

    Funny that my preference is to work without the LCD screen. I find them very disorienting for some reason. I do understand the benefit though, as the focus in so many of my close-up pics is not where I intended it to be… sometimes I find that leads to interesting results though.

  13. bev Says:

    Dave – Good luck with finding some pre-digital gear. It really should be quite affordable these days.

    Mary – I think there is room for all different cameras… point-and-shoots and DSLRs, and older SLRs for that matter too. For macro work, there are a few definite advantages to working with a small camera as you can get in close to an extent that just isn’t possible with a larger camera and lens.

    Laura – Well, I have been shooting insect photos for quite a few years now, so it feels easy to me, but I remember having trouble figuring it all out back when I started. I’ve heard that some people don’t like shooting using LCD screens. For me, I started out shooting only by LCD screen when I got the CP4500, so I’m very used to it now and take advantage of some of the edges that it offers (shooting around things that are blocking my view, or shooting at arm’s length). One time, I climbed as high up a tree as I could,
    and then held the CP4500 at arm’s length with one hand and shot photos of a Giant Ichneumon ovipositing into the wood. No way could I have ever gotten that shot through the viewfinder of the camera. By the way, sometimes I don’t even look in the LCD screen as I just “know” where my camera is pointed from having shot some many photos. I can also tell when my camera has focussed as much as it’s going to just by the change in sound that the lens makes, so I don’t have to keep checking. These are all things that I’ve learned from shooting many thousands of photos. My best advice to anyone who wants to shoot insects is to just go out and shoot plenty of photos as often as you can. Eventually, it will become easy and you’ll get the results you want. That said, I also think there’s a place for artsy photos or macros that have a sort of abstract quality. They can be very neat!

  14. angie Says:

    Interesting post, and I admit I was shocked to read you take all these fantastic images with a p&s! I have always hated them with a passion (I just feel a lack of control over what I’m doing when I use them), but yet had no idea there were some capable of 3cm focusing distances. The only downside to my SLR (I use the digital Canon Rebel XT with a 100mm F2.8 macro) is that there are times I just don’t take it with me due to the size. If I’m going out where my primary purpose is not photography, I often choose not to bring it and then wind up missing some great shots. It would be nice to have something pocket-sized that I never have to think twice about taking along. I’m glad you wrote this piece!

  15. bev Says:

    angie – Yes, quite a few people seem surprised that I get the kind of images that I do from what people consider to be “non-pro” cameras. I don’t tend to differentiate because I’ve sold a good number of my images to publications. Nobody ever asks what kind of camera I have, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s not biggie. Whatever camera you can coerce into taking the kind of photos you want is good enough. For me, the ability to get close to insects and spiders is most important — especially to do that without “intruding” on the insect’s activity so that it just goes about its normal business. Regarding “control” — there’s actually a ton of control available with point-and-shoots. Many can be switched to manual mode where the photographer must choose all setting. Additionally, many have aperture or shutter priority modes, and various kinds of mode or scene settings, as well as fully automatic. Almost all have AE (auto exposure) lock settings so that you can control exposure. Really, a good point-and-shoot has such a range of settings that it’s possible to do just about anything with them — especially the better ones that have excellent glass. And, as you’ve mentioned, there’s the size factor to think about, although in some cases, point-and-shoots like my Nikon CP8800 are actually quite large, so even that is variable. Anyhow, lots of choices for photographers these days.


    Me ha encantado tu se como llegue pero como un viaje en canoa ,relajado y disfrutando de la paz que envuelve tus frases.saludos desde malaga,carlos javier.
    ubi mors ibi spes.gracias,all the best.

  17. bev Says:

    Carlos – Gracias!

  18. skye Says:

    ca you please tell me the name of the photographer??? its not that hard to write your name…………………………

  19. bev Says:

    Skye – the photos and the above article are all by me (Bev Wigney)

  20. Clive Morris Says:

    Hello Bev,

    I am very “pleased to meet you”. I come from Australia, I will be living in the Philippines for the next 6 months and was wondering about why a praying mantis I was photographing in the Philippines had its tail curled up over its back. It is the first time I have seen this, whether here or in Australia. I “stumbled” on your site because of the praying mantis and have just been reading about which cameras you use. Your pictures certainly are beautiful. Do you “work” them in Photoshop at all? Or another photo programme? I have just taken delivery of the CS3 suite and the extended version of Photoshop is awesome.

    I started out in photography 50 years ago (I am 66 now) and went through the SLR stage, Pentax (ME) and then a Pentax manual with Sigma 28-80mm and 75-250mm zoom lenses, taking slides back then, sold this equipment and went to a little point and shoot.

    3 years ago (thanks to my sons) they presented me with a Canon A530 for my birthday. My first digital camera. I gradually learned how to use it, and I had great enjoyment with it. Not enough control over shooting, although I got some amazing pics (lots of close-ups — my world had changed into digital mode). My sons saw what I was doing so decided to get me the Canon S80 (lots of control over picture taking). The versatility of this camera is incredible, from 28mm to 100mm and good macro mode too.

    The A530 I am giving to a friend in Australia who is heavily into dingo research on Fraser Island, off the Queensland Coast, Australia, and she needs a little point and shoot (hers had died). She has been studying these much-maligned animals for the past 6 years and has just completed a manuscript and pics for a book she hopes to have published in the near future.

    I will have great enjoyment reading your journey. Thanks for sharing the same.

    God bless you, your hubby and your dog, and what a beautiful pic of the 2 of you!!!!

    Clive Morris.

  21. bev Says:

    Hello Clive,
    Thanks for the kind comments about my macro photography. You had asked whether I work my photos in Photoshop. The short answer is “just a little”. Actually, I use Photoshop Elements — and mainly for cropping images to a better size, and a bit of sharpening. Sometimes, I will use it to brighten or increase or decrease contrast in a photo. On rare occasions, I’ll use the cloning tool to take out something like a telephone cable across a sky shot of a building or something like that. I also use it for restoring old, damaged family photos from 50 or so years ago. Apart from that, I’m not much for working on photos.
    It sounds as though you’ve really taken to digital! By the way, I’ve seen photos of praying mantis such as you’ve described, but I don’t know why they curl their tails in that odd way.

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