Photographing insects with a point & shoot digicam

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Camponotus castaneus enjoying a peony in Urbana, Illinois - captured with a Panasonic DMC-ZS3 ($350)

I photograph almost exclusively with dSLR camera equipment. But many of you use point-and-shoot cameras or cell phones, with the result that much of the SLR chit-chat on this blog is not applicable to everyone. It’s time for a post on digicams for insect photography.

I’ll start with an example of what not to do. Here, for comparison, is a classic SLR insect macro:

Sawfly, captured with a Canon dSLR & diffuse flash (total equipment cost $3,500)

The SLR photo yields a creamy backdrop and a crisp subject. This sort of clean, well-lit image is the bread-and-butter of professional insect photography.

In addition to the heavy and expensive SLR kit, I also have a little Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3. It’s a much more convenient gadget: 1/10th the size, weight, and price of my professional gear. But if I simply swap the Panasonic in for the SLR and attempt to shoot the same sawfly on the same perch with the same backdrop, I get this monstrosity:

The sawfly as seen by a Panasonic DMC-ZS3 ($350)

This photo isn’t even 1/10th as good as the original. The flash is on-camera and produces harsh light from the side. The magnification isn’t as powerful. And the extended depth-of-field inherent to small lenses reveals that my beautiful red backdrop is actually just an apple.

What went wrong?

The trouble isn’t that the Panasonic is a bad camera. Not at all- I’m rather fond of it. It’s that I am a bad photographer.

I was using the point-and-shoot to mimic an SLR. In applying the camera to an aesthetic for which it was not designed, I was bringing out its worst attributes.

What I should have done with the Panasonic was this:

The sawfly in a meadow, in ambient light, captured with the Panasonic
Also with ambient light, by the chives

The trick to producing beautiful photos with a digicam is to play to the strengths of the equipment.

For insect photography, digicams have a particular advantage: their small lenses. Miniature optics better approximate a bug’s-eye view, and the smaller the camera (and some cell phones can get *very* small) the more insect-like the vista. Little cameras are ideal for portraying the world from the perspective of the very small, capturing both the tiny subject and a broad sweep of the habitat.

An ant's view of the California sunset (Nikon Coolpix 995)

Digicams can capture minute panoramas that are impossible in an SLR with stock lenses. If you shoot with a budget camera, rejoice in the ability to do this:

Getting this photo with an SLR would require some complex lens-stacking. With the digicam it's no work at all!

This wide-angle macro effect is achieved by setting the camera to macro mode (allowing it to focus right up to the front of the lens), and pulling out the zoom to wide (capturing the larger landscape). SLRs, eat your heart out!

A hover fly on golden alexanders (Panasonic)

To produce the most aesthetically powerful shots, here are my recommendations:

  • Use flash sparingly, if at all. The on-camera flash is harsh and not positioned well for most shots. The good news is that digicams require less light than SLRs for an equivalent depth-of-field, so there is less need for flash anyway.
  • Shoot on cloudy days or in shade for the most even light. Digicam sensors don’t have great dynamic range, but diffuse natural light makes the most of what’s there.
  • For close-in bug portraits, stick to the larger insects.
  • Be creative with background colors, contexts, and composition. The profound depth of field of these little cameras makes the backdrop ever-present in the photos, so you may as well use this to your advantage.
Fly portrait, or family portrait? The Panasonic will do both simultaneously.

There are limitations on what you can do with a digicam, of course. You won’t take those in-your-face insect portraits with a digicam, except with dragonflies, mantids, and other large subjects.  And because the sensors are small, noisy, and with limited dynamic range, poster-size enlargements and extensive cropping will show artifacts & digital aberrations.

The small cameras have a different creative space. Although digicams are less flexible as a photographic tools, the possibilities are not inherently better or worse than the creative space of an SLR. They are what they are. If you employ these cameras in the wide-macro realm where they excel, there is no reason why you cannot produce breathtaking images.

A digicam won't give a high-magnification macro of a tiny Tapinoma, but it excels at capturing the big picture of the ant's world.

23 thoughts on “Photographing insects with a point & shoot digicam”

  1. Thanks for the great tips!

    When I was in Ecuador, I rejoiced in my ability to sneak up on invertebrate subjects with my tiny canon powershot. And I tried to make up for the lack of precision with interesting perspectives. No matter what camera you use, if you play around and have fun, you’ll get good pictures, I think 🙂

      1. Ah yes! I was going to, but I haven’t updated my blog in a while… too busy… I’m planning to start up again when I get around to building my own website.

  2. I photograph exclusively using ambient lighting and a point-and-shoot (not that I wouldn’t LOVE a DSLR with a fancy-schmancy flash rig, but it’s not in the cards right now). It defintely creates some challenges and there are some limitations, but I think it’s also forced me to problem-solve and become more aware of things like light, DOF, composition. Thanks for including us non-SLR-ers in the discussion! 🙂

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  4. Everything TGIQ said! Thanks Alex, for giving us un-SLR’ed bums some recognition, and good advice, too!

    One question: did you use a tripod for these shots, or did you not need to?

    1. As alternative to a tripod look at a monopod. More sport photographers use them. While some tripods are quite bulky even when collapsed a monopod collapses down to a small single tube.

  5. Hi,

    in terms of magnification you can get a huge improvement by using a close up lense such as Raynox DCR-150.

    I shot this picture using my pansonic fz100 + this lense:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/62912252@N04/5721762673/sizes/l/in/photostream/

    Of course image quality doesn’t come close to the quality of pictures shot by a DSLR but it is also a lot less expensive. Some compact cameras even have a hot shoe so you can even use a macro flash or any other system flashes.

      1. Yes, the Raynox clip-ons are pretty nice. It can be hard to find a cheap camera that will accept it, though. My old Canon A95 had an adapter that would let me put on the DCR-150, but a lot of the newer pocket digicams don’t allow for such adapters. Although, maybe a bracket to hold the lens, that screws into the tripod mounting hole . . .

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  7. Great post Alex,

    Like TGIQ i’m basically 100% point and shoot (with the exception of when I can justify borrowing the department’s gear), and jealous of all the SLR photography I see in the bug-blog-o-sphere. It does make you think about how to get the most out of your gear (and these tips will add to that). I also find the really short working distance my camera has in macro mode (about 2cm if I want a ‘portrait’!) means you have to be good at ‘stalking’ bugs and start to learn their behavior if you wan to catch something great (which I routinely fail to do, but it’s the learning that matters!)

  8. Alex,

    any thoughts on which point and shoot camera’s do macro better than others ? I have been looking and pondering……

    1. There are so many cameras on the market that I’ve long since lost track of which are the best for macro.

      The key specification to look at is “Minimum Focus Distance”, as digicams achieve macro not through actual magnification so much as allowing the small lens to cozy right up close to the subject. You’ll want 2cm or less. “Zoom” is irrelevant, as are megapixels.

      I know Ricoh makes some nice macro-capable digicams, though I’ve not used them.

      Mostly, though, if I were looking to buy a camera I’d just browse through flickr to see which cameras are taking the sorts of photos I’d like to do.

  9. Great post, Alex – though I’m on the hunt for a digital SLR (for art as well as bug-nerding), so far all my pics are with a cheapie compact donated by a friend who upgraded. Re David Winter’s comment about the need for good small-game stalking skills, I know the feeling – sometimes a really nice shot of a flower was meant to be a really nice shot of a winged bug on a flower… BTW, love the fly/family portrait!

    1. Dave: one good place to get reasonably-priced used digital SLR bodies is KEH Camera Brokers, http://www.keh.com

      I got a Canon 10D camera body there for $250 last year, and while it isn’t state-of-the-art any more, it is still a pretty nice, capable camera. And it looks like they currently have Canon 20Ds for $289. Way cheaper than buying a new DSLR, that’s for sure.

  10. Piling on….. Thanks tons for the information! Although now I’ve got an excuse for putting off a dSLR purchase….

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