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.