Tricks of the Trade

New! Personal, One-on-One Photography Lessons

Hover fly (Urbana, Illinois) - field photograph from a student session, April 2012

Although I’ve not mentioned it much, this year I started a fun new sideline this year to my little photography business: private photography lessons. I enjoy these. People have different interests, strengths, and types of equipment. As much as I like the bigger workshops, their requisite one-size-fits all approach cannot always meet every student’s expectation. Hence, the individual session.

Drone honey bee, focus-stack - photograph from a student session, April 2012

If you’re interested, here’s what we do:

Individual lessons are a fun, relaxed, and efficient way to improve your skills while adding striking new images to your collection. A typical day schedule runs 8:00 – 4:30, with lunch included. In the morning we visit local prairie and woodland sites around Urbana, Illinois to shoot seasonally active insects in the wild. In the afternoon we work with live animals in the studio, ensuring that you take home your own professional-quality fine art images.

A half-day session can be designed for either field or studio photography, as suits your inclination.

Sessions are personalized to match your experience and equipment. Available topics include the technical aspects of operating your equipment, field techniques for finding and working with live insects, the aesthetics of lighting and composition, and special techniques like focus-stacking and time-lapse videography. We can also target species of interest such as slave-raiding ants, stick insects, aquatic beetles, and honey bees in the hive.

That’s right! If you’d like to photograph slave-raiding ants in the field, or Strumigenys, or the workings of a beehive, or whatever else captures your imagination, we can arrange it. Just drop me an email.

One-Day Macro Photography Class: Chicago, July 8

If you are in Chicago and interested in learning the dark art of photographing insects, I’m offering a day course on July 8th. The session will include studio work with live animals. Here’s a preliminary schedule:

9:00 Entomology 101 (presentation)
10:15 break & discussion
10:30 Methods of Magnification (presentation)
11:00 Lighting a small world (presentation & practice)
12:00 lunch & discussion
1:00 Working with insects (practice)
3:00 Special Techniques: focus-stacking (practice)
4:00 Closing comments & discussion

For more information, and to register, follow the link:

(Note: don’t be spooked that the registration page lists Rick Katz as the instructor – that’s an administrative thing. I’m guest-teaching the macro bit for Rick’s series)

Better microscope lighting in 20 seconds

Consider the standard configuration of stereomicroscope and fiber optic light used to examine insect specimens:

Arranged like this, the lights provide point sources of intense light. A shiny ant specimen lit as above looks like so:

Undiffuse light from the fiber optic source leaves harsh glare and dark shadows, and the ant’s skin textures and hairs are difficult to see. How to fix it?

Instead of directing light at the specimen, arrange white paper or styrofoam under the scope and reflect the light off that:

Moving the fiber optic arms to bounce light off a white surface replaces the harsh points with a soothing sea of even illumination.

Diffused light renders the ant’s skin textures and hairs more visible. Same ant, diffuse light. Look at the difference- it is much easier to see key characters!


  • All photos taken with an iPhone 4s, including the specimen shots. The phone’s little camera actually works pretty well held up to the scope’s eyepiece.
  • For microscope photography, this quick diffuser will still be insufficient to produce publishable-quality images. Instead, you’ll want to up the diffusion with something like the styrofoam cup trick.

DIY Entomology Equipment

The following is a guest post by Tucker Lancaster of the Blue Egg Blog.

Flipping through the glossy pages of a Bioquip catalogue, you would think that entomology is a rather expensive pursuit. But, it doesn’t have to be. As an amateur entomologist, I’ve never had money to blow on equipment. Therefore, the majority of my collecting arsenal is home made from commonly available materials. I thought that I would share some of my creations here in the hope that will help others plunge into this exciting hobby without breaking the bank.

Let’s start with collecting equipment. When gathering small insects, such as ants, it is all to easy to accidentally squish your prize. That’s where an aspirator comes in. Though this is not a particularly expensive tool to buy, it is possible to make your own.

As you can see, the mechanism is quite simple. Two pieces of clear vinyl tubing are stuck through holes in the lid of a small jar or vial, and one is covered with a thin piece of cotton to prevent you from inhaling the insects you’re collecting. I used a small piece of cotton from a makeup remover pad, but something thinner would be easier to suck through. For example, fine wire screen or a square from an old pair of tights might work better. Just make sure the holes are small enough! To use it, you point the smaller tube at an insect and suck hard on the other. This pulls your query through the tube and into the vial, where they can be easily collected. This design was inspired the aspirator sold by Bioquip, and operates on the same principles.

Next up is one of my favorites, the Berlese Funnel. (more…)

How to paint ants

Andrew Quitmeyer has made a charming instructional video on how to paint ants:

Painting insects may sound arcane, but applying unique color combinations to individuals is a standard technique for researchers who need to keep track of the activities of each ant within the colony. It’s like name tags.

Coming soon to UC Davis: How to take better insect photographs

Another public appearance, this time on the west coast:

How To Take Better Insect Photographs

Alex Wild
12:10 – 1:00 pm October 26, 2011
122 Briggs Hall
University of California at Davis

cost: free

I am aiming this talk specifically at graduate students. Because scientists use images in many applications- from lab websites to posters and presentations- and because cameras are so available and inexpensive, I think basic photography should be as much a part of academic training as learning to assemble a poster or a conference talk. Thus, 50 minutes on simple tips for taking better photos.

I do hope those of you within easy travel distance can attend.

Portrait of a jumping spider

Spider Eyes
Phidippus jumping spider (Urbana, Illinois)

One of the joys of our BugShot 2011 photo workshop was learning spider photography from the brilliant young Thomas Shahan. To capture this image of a local Phidippus jumping spider, I drew from four of Thomas’s pointers:

  1. Approach the subject from below so that it looms large in the photograph.
  2. Arrange a backdrop to complement the colors of the organism.
  3. Diffuse the light to really bring out the character of the spider’s captivating eyes.
  4. Patience! This photo session took about an hour of experimentation and many mediocre shots before I captured the winner.

Here’s a less magnified view of the subject:

photo details:
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/160 sec, diffuse twin flash

Fruit as Backdrop

A dark green-yellow mottled background helps along this photograph of a swallowtail caterpillar’s defensive osmeterium:

Subtle & tasteful.

Scaled up for a larger insect, though, and the fact that I’m using a watermelon for backdrop becomes perhaps a bit too obvious:

A large papaya might have been better.