Photos of insects on white backgrounds

Sometimes I see posts consisting of photos of butterflies, moths, or other insects on plain white backgrounds… does that indicate that the poster has captured and killed the specimen?

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maybe. or, they found it dead, or, its alive and happens to be on a white background. i havent captured any specimens myself yet but have various arthropods on white backgrounds either because i picked up a dead one or its on a wall, floor, or other white surface. it really depends. do they look pinned?

Don’t know much about insects, but when I find nudibranch sea slugs (especially the more difficult ones), I place them on a white card for ID photos. They are still very much wild, alive and in-situ. Must be the same for some of the insect records you ask about, I guess.


You can usually tell the dead insects, their legs fold up as the proteins shrink. It can be a capture and release kind of thing, where the insect is held in a container and photographed against a wihte background, maybe without the lid if it is relatively sedentary. It still counts as wild, no need to mark as captive in these situations unless there is a reason to doubt the pin location…


I have a lot of those, but that’s because the walls of my building are white, so when I take photos of insects that have gotten inside I wind up with species X on a white background.


I photograph a lot of moths on plain backgrounds, although I prefer light green or brown cardstock to white paper (looks more natural to me). They are very much alive. A lot of moths are surprisingly tame after being at a UV light. They will let you pick them up and move them quite easily. I didn’t believe this until I tried it, but it works! I hide them in trees and bushes afterward so the birds don’t get them.


I will sometimes use a white background for things I have either found dead or collected and chilled for a photo since in theory the camera will focus better on the subject. In my own recent experiences I have seen though that my camera focuses better on a green backing. My preferences are to photograph in situ but there are occasions where that is absolutely impossible to do and the subject must be captured for a short time in order to document it.

When I’m looking at the observations of people I follow on iNaturalist, I often see many photos in a row like this, all taken on the same day. Usually, that means the observer attracted the insects to a sheet at night, with bright lights or a black light. I’ve only been to 3 or 4 such events, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen people collect the insects. Obviously, people who collect do use lights to attract insects, but even then not all, or even many, of the insects are collected, unless it’s the kind of set-up where the observer leaves a collecting container below the lights and comes back in the morning to sort through what was trapped in the container.


Many are often done with a blacklight. Moth enthusiasts put up a light and then a white bed sheet for them to land on when attracted to the light. Then generally they are free to fly off unharmed.


Also look for the ‘Meet Your Neighbours’, a global conservation photography group which aims to highlight species by photographing species against a white background.


One advantage to shooting against a white background is that it’s easy, during processing, to ensure that you’ve got the white balance correct in the shot.


As others have said, a white sheet (or t-shirt) is often used with a UV light to attract and photograph moths and other nocturnal insects

A few of my insect observations have a white background, usually for one of two reasons:

  1. I found the insect on a white wall, like this braconid wasp, but due to the flash or blurry effect (from the clip-on macro lens for my cellphone) it’s harder to tell it’s a wall.
  2. I carry around a plastic jar with white on the underside of the lid; sometimes I’m able to coax insects onto it like this mayfly and this millipede. I will admit to having occasionally used the jar to ‘catch’ quick fliers to snap their photo once they’ve calmed down, like with this fly and this stem sawfly. (Both eventually left under their own power.)

A fairly common scientific method of surveying insects and spiders etc is to lay a white sheet under a tree or bush and then beat it or shake it vigorously so that any inhabitants drop onto the sheet, where they can be counted/logged/collected/photographed. Similarly with moths and nocturnal insects, you can do surveys by shining a light on a white sheet, thus attracting the insects to a place where they can easily be logged.

Also, I frequently use white sheets of paper printed with a 1cm square grid on which to photograph insects and spiders, so that their size can easily be determined accurately. I wouldn’t describe this as “capturing” the specimen really; I just transfer them to she sheet for the photo, and then release them where they were found.


I perceive “captive/cultivated” to mean the persistant state of existing in that manner, so for example a bird caught in the wild for the purposes of putting a band on the leg, released soon after at the same location, is most definitely wild, not captive… even if the photo shows it in someones hand while they are putting the band on…


If it has an obvious pin sticking in it, .am I supposed to note that somehow?

Specimens are valid as observations and not considered captive or otherwise as long as they are recorded with the place and date of collection, not their current location.

See the section here


I have hundreds of photos of moths, beetles, wasps, spiders, etc taken against a white sheet pinned to the outside wall of my cottage at night. They will fly to and cling to the sheet. I usually use a UV lamp to attract them, but I photograph with a DSLR, macro lens and a ringflash from an inch away. WIth the ringflash I can shoot everything at F22 and get excellent depth of field.


Thank you for the interesting replies. I understand that some people kill/collect butterflies and moths for their private collections. Is that not prohibited or discouraged by inaturalist?

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I leave my porchlight on at night for several occasions and many insects are attracted. Photographing them on a white background serves only for convenience and they are released once the “good enough for inat” photos are taken. Sometimes I find dead bugs and I put them on a clean sheet of paper to photograph them.

Collecting is a standard and necessary practice for a wide variety of applications (also true for collecting herbarium specimens of plants) in the interest of science- it’s not just people collecting butterflies to put on their wall because they’re pretty. Unnecessary collection of vulnerable species or groups should be discouraged in general (not just on iNaturalist), but conventional sampling by collection is in no way frowned upon by iNaturalist. Many insects can’t be identified well by photographs taken in the field anyways.