Best way to take photos of insects at night?

Sorry if this is a totally newbie question but I am inexperienced with photography and previously felt that photos at night were not worth the hassle. I currently only have a smartphone and a head torch but manage to get some pretty decent photos of insects at night. My phone camera isn’t anything special ( * Primary: 48MP 1/2″ sensor, 0.8 μm pixels, f/1.6 aperture lens, AF, OIS) and I use Google Camera Port software. I typically use “portrait mode”. This basically creates a depth-of-field effect at 2x digital magnification. I posted some examples below so you can see they are pretty good quality (at least I think so).

First I am wondering if anyone has any technique for taking photos of insects at night without a flash. Is there a lumen/brightness sweet spot? I have thought about buying a floodlight but then much of the time I am blocking the light and I don’t know if flooding the area is any better than the focus of my head torch.

Second, if I were to upgrade to a proper camera for this, would a flash solve my problems or would I spend a similar amount of time fiddling with the light? I’ve really enjoyed taking photos of insects at night but I am hesitant to get all the gear and if the gains would be worth it.

Conehead
Zebra Acacia Katydid
Sundevall’s Writhing Skink
Merenius spider
This one is probably the smallest insect that I can take a decent photo of…
Ant nest beetle

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Here is a moth that I photoed last night. I uploaded two images because of the difference in light. Which do you think better represents the true color?

Angle Moth and Allie

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Phone camera with a head torch is my go to setup for insect photos. I recommend wrapping the band around your hand so that the light sits in the base of your palm iron man style. Then brace the phone against your it but above the light so there is no shadow cast over the subject.

My other recommendation is to invest in a cheap macrolens clipon for your phone. I love this one https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07NXZL19H?psc=1&ref=ppx_yo2ov_dt_b_product_details

Heres some nocturnal photos
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/180735030
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/181661978

Ah yes, I forgot to mention that I also implement the Iron Man-wrist-head torch technique. One huge annoyance with this is if I want to tap on my phone screen to focus in a certain area it messes up the lighting and the entire shot, or my hand that is holding the phone is stretched to a really awkward angle.

I’ve thought about those add on lenses but haven’t invested due to being unsure how good they are. Thanks for your input, I see they are pretty cheap so might as well try it?

Nice shots, for this observation which photo do you feel more accurately represents the true color?
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/180735030

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Another question: I have a wooden pole near to my porch light. I end up taking a lot of photos with insects on it. I was thinking of painting it a color that would help with the lighting; is it better to paint it white? Black? A neutral color?

@carrieseltzer had an awesome suggestion a few years ago (can’t look up her post right now, sorry) to use a selfie ring light. It’s a circular array (i.e. a ring) of LEDs and the smaller ones are 10–15 cm in diameter and clip onto your phone such that they surround the camera lens. Coupled with a clip-on macro lens, they illuminate small targets with a nice, even light.

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Wow, selfie ring looks brilliant. Has anyone used this technique?

Edit: I am also now looking at the rings that surround the entire phone or those that are surrounding only the camera or a top mount on the phone. I assume the circular design surrounding the phone gives the most even light but I think I will go for the top mount since many of the larger circular designs recommend tripods and I need to be portable.

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I got this clip-on macro lens with ring light a couple of years ago and it does a good job on insects. My biggest complaint is that the switch is hard to find by feel but easy to bump accidentally so that it kills the battery while it’s in your backpack.
https://www.amazon.com/Camera-Rechargeable-Android-Photography-Recording/dp/B08VD5JK2G

Here is a moth that I photographed with it (photos 3-6 with the ring light.) https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/72914861

I have a little clip on light that I can attatch right to my phone. I can also adjust the brightness level on it. it looks kind of like this:

In my experience, camera flash at night is less pleasing to look at, and messes up the colors. However, my camera is older than I am, so more modern cameras might be better.

In my opinion, a clip on light is the best and cheapest way to go. here are some pictures I took with mine:



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Probably the first shot. Usually I if I have multiple shots I put the most identifiable (in my opinion) as the first image

I have used a small LED camera light instead of a headlamp. A light like this produces more diffuse/even lighting than typical headlamps, which are usually more “spot” like (hotter in the center). This is the one I’m using, it has adjustable brightness/temperature and is nicely palm-sized: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08GK6F9C7

I have not had great luck with the cell phone clip-on lights - they seem great in theory but in my experience don’t have enough power + battery life to be super useful.

edit to add: If you upgrade to a proper camera (Mirrorless/DSLR) flash is 100% the way to go in my opinion. Most “serious” macro photographers use flash basically all of the time, even in daylight. It allows you much better control of the lighting and helps to “freeze” the subject. Shooting at f/16 or similarly small apertures, you need a lot of light to avoid long exposure times (or high ISO settings) - flash fixes this. Micael Widell on Youtube has a lot of videos that cover basic technique/equipment for insect macro photography: https://www.youtube.com/c/MicaelWidell

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My phone has night mode, but I haven’t tried it for tiny critters yet.

I have been known to put a small paper at an angle and shine a flashlight on it to defuse. This works for tiny objects.

Maybe these will be good for night macro observations?

It’s too cold for me to go test right now.

The LED torches - especially cheap ones - can be problematic as the light coming from them is simply bad. It is usually too blue and contains just a few colors instead of being continuous as it should be. This results in wrong colors for the subject. This can not be sufficiently corrected by white balance setting.

The light from the flashes is usually good, but the white balance has to be set correctly. The problems start when you try to add some light with flash to almost sufficient normal light. The two light sources have completely different color and then there is no way to set a correct color for the whole image.

As mentioned flashes usually need some kind of diffuser for more pleasing effect. I’ve used a translucent plastic plate with the DSLR in-built flash to reasonably good effect. I just used Dremel to make a hole with the lens hood bayonet in the middle of the plate. I also added a couple of weak LEDs to see the subject in the dark, but that could be handled some other way as well.

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Hello everyone, I wanted to follow up on what I decided and share some examples!

I ended up getting a cell-phone clip on light (like the one giannamaria posted) as well as a macro lens. First off, the cell-phone clip light is great BUT it really adds a lot of weight and makes holding the phone awkward. Add on the macro…and it’s a bit of a production.

I’ve found that the macro lens requires too much light and is not useful at night. That being said, this is the best photo I’ve managed to take thus far with the macro and the light:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/199286914

Here is an observation at night with only the light, it really does wonders:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/196968147

So overall I would recommend an attachable light and the macro is not of great use to me. I think that it requires you to be too close given the added weight and dimensions of the light extension and lens extension.

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I haven’t tried this yet so don’t know how well it would work, but have thought about doing it when trying to photo something at night while alone. Attach a standard flashlight (torch) or headlamp to a camera tripod or some other free-standing portable stand. Wrap a piece of white paper around the light to diffuse it. You can then position the light source to best illuminate the subject and still have your hands free to use your cellphone. Might be a cheap workaround to more expensive and cumbersome light rigs.