Insect Photographs - How To?

Can someone point me to a good tutorial on how to photograph fleeting insects? Horse Flies for instance? I’ve got a camera with macro so I can get sort of close, but of course they fly away. I imagine that there are kill and no-kill options, but where to start? Thanks.

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if you can catch them, supposedly putting them in the fridge slows them down for a while

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Have you searched for this subject?

There are a lot of results and tutorials in a variety of formats at your fingertips with a quick search.

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Move slowly. Try not to let you or your camera’s shadow cross the insect. Many will still fly away. If you use flash, some flies (like Family Dolichopodidae) are especially sensitive and will jump during the TTL pre-flash. Using manual flash can solve that issue by eliminating the pre-flash. Dragonflies will often take off and come right back to where they were if you stay still. I also suggest get close enough to get a good enough ID shot in case it takes off, then move closer to get a good detail shot if you can.

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I recently had success with a horsefly using a method that I’m not sure I would recommend and am not very proud of. The horsefly had been buzzing around me for awhile and finally bit me. When it bit me I swiped at it and it landed on either on me or my camera, I can’t exactly remember. I had lost my patience at this point and hit it so hard with the back of my hand slamming it down to the ground. It wasn’t doing too well at that point, seemed really concussed and could barely stand. I couldn’t pass up those eyes in a now cooperative subject so I put it on a stick and got some photos.

Would I do it again? Probably if one was trying to bite me. I wouldn’t do this to any living thing that wasn’t out to get me though.

Here is the observation from that encounter:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/55245856

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They say the best camera is the one you have with you, that’s cheesy but its true. To add on to that, the only way you can get better is to just continue taking pictures (practice makes perfect). That way you also learn how your camera operates and that can help you make more informed on-the-spot decisions (will save you precious seconds and hopefully will get you that shot before the insect flies/crawls away).

That being said, here are a few things to consider (that I have learnt along the way):

  1. If you spot an insect slowly creep up to it making as small movements as possible. Try to take some far away “safety shots” (may be good for inat!) as you inch closer.
  2. If you manage to get close enough, remember to hold your breath and keep your balance (by putting your limbs as close to your body as possible, or by finding an external support) as you take photos.
  3. For insects, highly recommended a dorsal and ventral shot, but in general know what sort of shots to take for ID purposes, in addition to the ones that please you aesthetically. I believe there is a topic or two about this.
  4. Take into consideration the lighting. I haven’t gotten the hang of that part at all.
  5. Wind sucks.

Late edit: I just use my iphone with a clip-on macro lens.

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Just be sure it’s the fridge and not the freezer, and that time doesn’t get away from you. I made that mistake…more than once. :frowning_face:

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Lol. Those are awesome photos btw.

To add on to @robotpie 's tips, if it’s not in flight or speeding along, I think you could take several macro shots (individually, burstshot, or video and isolate frames) and stack them.

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I actually do this with mosquitoes sometimes. I will trap them in a cup and slam the cup down on a hard surface just hard enough to throw them off for a few seconds. The mosquitoes are fairly frail and they still manage to recover quickly, sometimes too quickly if i’m too gentle.

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If you do it all just for the sake of getting a “pretty” photo of an insect, I don’t understand why do this at all, just unnecessary stress for the insect (I know at least some entomologists do this in the field with a cooler if they need to take a photo of a more active insect that doesn’t seem to want to stop or something that they know very well that they need to stay still to get a photo of a specific area/angle of to be able to ID it from a photo, but they do it for a different reasons obviously).
I doubt that anyone catches birds or mammals (I know some do this with lizards and amphibians though), cools them to immobile them for a little while and then takes photos of them being posed the way the photographer wants.

Personally, I enjoy the “chase” and by chase I mean learning, by observing, to approach different insects different ways. Taking photos (as mentioned in one of the comments) from bit further away, from various angles because insects can get really tricky to ID, just in case the insect decides to take off before you get close enough, that way you still may have enough to get an ID and therefore an important observation of the insect, or any other faster moving arthropod for that matter.
When you manage to get so close to an insect that it feels safe enough to carry on with its normal behavior, THAT is what I enjoy and not cutting corner just for a photo or 2, which is honestly a major issue on many social media sites because people are more interested in the likes than the welfare of the animals and I have seen couple of those here too, even if there is no “likes” on the observations and I’m not saying that the person who started this topic is looking to take that type of photos, but was just stating it in general.

So my suggestion, is to just take your time with them. With many insects and other arthropods you can start seeing clear sings when they are about to take off and you can stop approaching for a moment and you can start noticing which species can be approached without even worrying about being bit clumsy etc, but granted there are still individuals that doesn’t do what most others of same species would do and of course weather, time of the day, location and situation itself affects it all.
It takes time and patience, but it’s not really rocket science when you get a hang of it. I still fail many many times approaching insects and spiders, especially when I get too excited to see something new, but you just gotta learn to live with the fails :)

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This is the excerpt from the book “Flies: the natural history and diversity of diptera” by Stephen A. Marshall. I hope this helps.

on P.550~551
"The biggest challenge in photographing a tiny animal like a fly is to get enough of your little target in focus, because the greater your magnification, the shallower the depth of field at a given aperture size. A close-up shot of a small fly taken at F8, for example, will be largely out of focus because the depth of field at that aperture will give you only one “slice”-perhaps one eye or a wing-in focus. There are two possible solutions to that problem. One is to take multiple “slices” and then stitch them together digitally, using one of many commercially available software programs-for example, Combine Z of Heilcon Focus-to make a composite image. This approach, called focus stacking, is great for laboratory photographs of mounted specimens, but generally impractical for field photography of active animals such as files. The other approach is to increase the depth of field by decreasing the aperture size.

Changing the aperture size is the easiest way to control depth of field, and understanding the effect of different aperture sizes is key to getting decent fly photos at different magnifications and indifferent light conditions. A low-magnification shot of a flower fly on a daisy at F11 is likely to look good because the fly and the flower will be in focus and the background will probable be pleasingly blurred out. The same fly shot full frame (at higher magnification) at the same aperture size is likely to be largely out of focus. Narrowing aperture, perhaps to F16, can address that issue by increasing the depth of field, but that creates a new set of problems. To ensure that enough light gets through that narrowed aperture to provide a properly exposed image, it is necessary to use one or more of the following tactics: (1) use a very high ISO, (2) hold the shutter open for a longer time or (3) Boost the light with a flash.

High ISO settings come at the cost of “noise” and lower picture quality; the very high settings needed for natural-light photography of smaller flies are not yet practical. This is changing with the new generation of digital cameras, but until microphotography will demand either slow shutter speeds or the use of artificial light. Slow shutter speeds are impractical for handheld photographs, because the shutter is open long enough for the camera to shake and cause a blurry photograph. Natural-light photographs of small objects usually require a tripod, which is fine for flowers but generally unworkable for small, mobile insects such as flies. It is much easier and more effective to use a fast shutter speed while ensuring that there is enough light to make the combination of a fast shutter speed and a small aperture work. In other words, fly photography is generally flash photography.

Fortunately, flash photography has been simplified by new flash systems that communicate with the camera, firing at just the fight intensity to give you the needed extra light. (….) One of the undesirable properties of high-depth-of-field flash photography is the creation of a black background, as the powerful flash units swamp the natural-light background. Sometimes this can be avoided by striking the right balance between depth of field and lighting; mitigated by moving a solid background such as a large leaf into position behind the subject; or solved by shooting at a higher ISO."

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I always put moths that I catch in the fridge for 30-120 minutes. I do not believe that this causes unnecessary stress. The fridge knocks them out in the first 10 minutes and when they wake up after they have no idea what happened. This can normally calm them down for 5 to 10 minutes after they come out of the fridge, but beware some small insects can start flying again in seconds.

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So do you need beautiful photos or photos for id?

Not an expert photographer and I just use an iPhone. But, I read a tip here about chilling an insect to get a photo. If it’s around my house, and I can catch it, I’ll try to cover it with a cup on a table or the ground . I have white dishes and always have ice packs in my freezer. I will put the dish on a frozen pack until it is well chilled then transfer the insect from the cup to the cold dish and leave it covered for a few minutes to let the insect go still from the cold. I take a few pictures and then let it go. Usually, they recover quite quickly and go on their way* .

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/58646808

*although, I did not release the termite due to its destructive potential (and, I confess I feel a bit conflicted about it).

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That’s a great summary. Thanks for posting it!

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I started out with a macro lens, but as you say, it needs to be very close. I also found that parts of insects were out of focus. I’ve got a 55-250 zoom now, and it lets me stay a distance away. Later editing - basically cropping - gives good pictures. The fridge trick does work - I’ve used it for years. Insects are poikilothermic, and at low temperatures just slow down. As an aside, even frozen ones can come back to ‘life’, leading a guy I worked with to coin the phrase “permanently dead”. A lot of flea beetles are often not permanently dead after freezing!

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If you go out early in the morning you can find immobile insects that haven’t had a chance to warm up yet. They are harder to find, but once you do find them you can take all the photos you want without them flying away.

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Heh, certain subjects are just very difficult. One thing few macro photographers tell you is how much time was involved to get good photos. It’s time consuming and frustrating but eventually you’ll get a few good photos.

Long macro lenses can be helpful. I have a 180mm macro that has a close focus of 23". It could get 1:2 magnification on 35mm film. I’m not sure how it works out for my DSLR, the sensor is smaller. I’ve also stacked a 2x teleconverter for more magnification. Flashes also help. All this gear was originally for chasing down tiger beetles. They’re not too tolerant of letting the camera get close.

Best of luck.

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I don’t have a macro lens, but here’s some general tips for DSLRs if that’s useful:

  • Keep your shutter speed high, like above 1000/s. Blur caused by low shutter speed is your worst enemy. Crank up your ISO if needed (though try to avoid making it too high if possible to avoid graininess).
  • Try to shoot outdoors in direct sunlight for lighting and exposure. Flash tends to startle things (though this is inevitable if shooting at night or using a small aperture).
  • Avoiding blur is more important than avoiding underexposure, as the later can easily be fixed in post.
  • Take way more photos than you think you need, and click the shutter several times in a row to increase your chances of a clear shot.
  • Do not use manual focus unless necessary - speed is the key here.
  • Avoid wind if possible.

As for the actual photographing: Try to find insects that are pollinating, as they usually will pay little mind to anything approaching them. Otherwise, the best way is to take a shot the second you see the insect, then approach very slowly (do not lower the camera, this will startle them) and take shots as you go. Even if the insect startles, you’ll have the closest shot you can get of them for record and ID. Moving slowly is the key - any sudden movement will startle them.

Try to approach from the back so you’re not in the insect’s direct line of sight. Once you’ve gotten close, slowly try to rotate around and get them from other angles (top, profile, front, and back are usually standard for IDing).

If the insect does startle, hold still as they may return to the same spot. You can also scope out the surrounding area to see if they’ve landed nearby. Sometimes the same kind of insect will also return to the same spot over the next few days, so continue to scope out the area.

I’d worry more about getting clear shots than trying to compose them nicely, especially because attempts to chill them and whatnot may cause them to flee the area completely. Some insects are easier to photograph than others, so you can always focus on composition with the cooperative ones. Likewise, just focus on general shots of the entire body before you do any extreme closeups.

Good luck!

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