Cheap cameras or smartphones for taking pics of small insects at night in near darkness

Please advise me. I would like to buy very affordable, rugged cameras or smartphones to give or lend to schoolchilden in Botswana so that they can take photos of very small insects that are attracted to external house lights. Similar pics can be found in this project.

Here in Serowe, Botswana we want to encourage school learners to take part in the City Nature Challenge 2022 and observe the bugs and plants in their backyards.
What tools are best for them ?

A small pocket, point-and-shoot camera, the Canon Ixus at a cost of about $140 here in Botswana, has been used to take most of the pics, here in our village bug project. It can get as close as about 3 cm from an ant on the wall and take a reasonable photo in pitch darkness with its flash. Its not too difficult to use.

Are there better options ? Perhaps an even cheaper camera that can do the same job ?

Most Bots bugs do emerge and become active at night because the days can be just too hot for them !
I’ve noticed that here in southern Africa there are not many iNaturalists making observations at night of insects attracted to lights. Is it because of a lack of suitable affordable photographic gear ? Can this be reversed ? Many of us can never hope to afford expensive macro lenses and camera bodies and flash diffusers ! What are the best alternatives ? Thanks everyone.


You can consider getting Clip-on Macro lens for mobile phones. They are compatible to all brands of mobile phone and reasonably priced. A friend of mine use Ulanzi 75mm x10 Macro lens, and he managed to take very good pics of tiny stuff as small as 5-10 mm. Just need to practise with it and have steady hands, which is a must for taking macro pictures anyway. It is available online, for between US$25-35.

this link is from Amazon, but you can also look it up from your local online sales provider.

There are also other cheaper brands and also more expensive brands, depending on your budget.

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I would guess the cheapest option would be outdated used smartphones with clip on macro lenses. Such lenses often cost only $5 or so, and outdated smart phones with decent cameras are, in the US, often available for under $20. I have no knowledge of how these costs might differ in Botswana.

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You can also look up this topic about lenses for smartphones:

But how would the cheap 2nd hand smartphones with clip on macro lenses do in near darkness with their flash at close distance ? I have no experience at all with smartphones and only ith point and shoot cameras. perhaps becoz Im ancient.

Thanks, How would the clip on macro lens be for a ;‘cheap’ phone be in almost darkness at about 3 cm from the ant and requiring a flash on the smartphone ?

To get better lighting, you can buy a LED torch light, ideally a flood-type lighting, meaning evenly lighted and not the ‘spot light’. The typical ‘spot light’ torches may makes the subjects over exposed if you shine the torch on the subject. Still possible to use the ‘spot light’ torches if you can’t get the flood-type torches, but you have to hold the torch a bit further away from the subjects, so that the ‘circle of spot’ is wider and not too strong/bright.


Smartphones and clip-ons are new to me but how would they fair at focusing in near darkness and what would be the quality of the pics when their flash is used. I need a comparison with a cheap pocket camera.

I have a cheap phone and it is not good in daylight even to take birds on the lawn. They are blurry and it can’t zoom in w/o losing more resolution. I don’t think it would be good at night. It is good enough for flowers though, in the day.

I have a 10 yrs old ‘superzoom’ camera (from date of release), and it is excellent during the day for bugs, birds, whatever. At evening time it starts to struggle to get insects because the sensor is small, which is how it performs as a superzoom.

The plus is that it can zoom in enough on birds in trees to tell what they are. As I bought it used, it cost $250, and it has been invaluable, during the time I had it (it’s pretty much broken now).

You might consider a superzoom for some reach for bird-like things, but, if you don’t need to photograph these, maybe stay away from them instead - a large sensor might be better for somebody photographing in the evening.

My problem with my camera for bugs is the maximum magnification is not /very/ high, in that a small spider is still small. But, it /can/ capture small spiders up to maybe small crab spider size. No details on ants, but can do caterpillars, some seed bugs, Leucauge spiders, etc.

I had a nexus phone from google which was good for this, but it has been discontinued (years ago).

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Daylight examples :

iPhone 6 + hand lens :
iPhone 7 + Ztylus Revolver :

Low-light examples :

iPhone 7 + Ztylus, indoors with no flash:
iPhone 7 + Ztylus, indoors with inbuilt flash:

But it depends a lot on the phone. Newer iPhones overcome low light issues considerably but second-hand may still cost more than Ixus, so perhaps LED lighting solutions as @albertkang said better.

This is iPhone 7 + Ztylus, indoors, same subject as last but holding an LED torch on the subject:

The subject on the last link has a body about 5mm long, and you have to get within a few cm to shoot it. The LED light used is an LEDlenser MT18 torch.


There are circular flashlights that you clip to the phone too such as this

They are usually designed to youtubers/broadcasting people, but it should work for taking pics of bugs too.

Not sure how that works when used alongside with the macro lenses clip though.


These look great. They wouldn´t fit with any of the clip-on lenses I´ve used …

EDIT: But there are lenses with clip on LED solutions too:

I use a LGK61 for my photos of moths now, and before that was an old Acer cell. If you hold down on the screen while 3 inches away or so from the bug you want to take a picture of the camera will turn on the flash, focus, then wait for you to click again and it’ll be pre-focused. Feel free to check out my photos on iNat to see examples, but you can get some great stuff that way. Macro lenses or cheap LED lights are also options, but I would say old cell phones will probly be your cheapest option to get the kids out taking photos.


Another thing to consider which would allow you to get better photos is to hang a sheet and shine lights on it to attract bugs at night. Do a general web search for how to attract moths like this one:

If you have a white sheet with lights shining on it, whatever camera you use should have enough light. But, even a small flash on the camera would help.

And, experiment with the camera. With today’s digital cameras, you can take as many photos as you like with different exposure settings in a relatively short period of time. Practice by yourself with a sheet and lights so you can determine which camera settings work best.

I don’t use flash on my nighttime moth photos because the sudden bright flash tends to spook the moths. I just wear a cheap LED headlamp. It keeps my hands free. You can pick up a two-pack on Amazon for $16. I’ve actually found that the cheaper headlamps are better than ones with a more powerful beam. Weaker light seems to spook the moths less than a strong one.

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I’ve had no trouble taking photos with an iPhone 4 and a clip-on macro lens. The one pointer I would give is don’t try to take the photo in the iNaturalist app. Take it in the standard photo app and then select the best photos into iNaturalist.

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Amazon in the US is currently offering refurbished Pixel 3a phones for $150 (USD) and refurb Pixel 2 for $90. professional reviewers noted both of these phones as having among the best cameras available in smartphones at the time of each of their respective launches (before TOF cameras and big sensors started making their way into flagship phones).

these phones will have GPS, the ability to load the iNat app, a bigger screen (than the camera), and the option to take photos using a front-facing camera. the camera will have zoom and the ability to switch out memory and battery, and it probably will allow you to get a little closer to the subject. so each has pros and cons. if you’re going to get multiple devices, you could get some phones and some cameras to take advantage of the pros of each, as appropriate.

i take photos occasionally with my Pixel 3a, and here are some observations taken under different conditions:

i know a guy who pairs his Pixel 2 with a clip-on macro lens, and he gets decent macro photos of tiny fungi, mosses, slime molds, and that sort of thing. i’ve never tried a macro lens or seen anyone else use a macro lens at night. seems like it would block the flash, but but it might not matter if you have a good external light. (here, i can get a really powerful power bank with very bright led lights for $20-$30.)

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I wondered about this option too. Power banks are anyhow a must for any real amount of time iNatting on phone, so would make sense to use one with inbuilt LEDs.

One thing I found with the very cheap clip-on lenses is that they easily clip-off and fall to the ground when knocked. If you lend a bunch out to kids, wouldn´t surprise me if some lose the lenses.
Purpose-built ones which fit the body - like Olloclip or Ztylus - are far superior in that respect but tend to cost more. Perhaps there is a DIY solution (e.g. using laser pointer lens but super-glueing onto a phone case like this) which would still be super cheap… but more kid-proof.

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