Tricks of the Trade

Thrifty Thursday

Thrifty Thursdays feature photographs taken with equipment costing less than $500.

Guard bees at the hive entrance, captured with a Panasonic Lumix digicam

[Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3]

Small cameras like the Pananic Lumix DMC-ZS3 achieve macro not through magnification per se, but by allowing the optics to focus close to the front element. An insect sitting right next to a small lens will appear large in the resulting photograph.

A key specification to evaluate when purchasing a digicam for macro work, then, is the minimum focus distance. The smaller this distance, the more effective the magnification. The Panasonic can focus at 3cm, allowing me to cozy up to a bee.

Two other elements help the above photograph work. First, I shot this image in the shade to avoid glare and harsh shadows, allowing the bee’s color to stand out. Second, the inclusion of a second guard bee in the background turns what was a simple portrait into more of a narrative. This composition was simply a matter of taking 15 shots and selecting the one with the most interesting pairing of background with subject.

On photographing to the level of one’s equipment

On the previous Thrifty Thursday, James commented:

You continue to amaze with taking your equipment to the limits of its ability, Alex.

On the contrary. The Thrifty Thursday images work because I’m *not* taking the gear to its limits.

Instead, I’m tailoring each photo to the strengths of the equipment, planning each to sit in the comfortable middle of what the gear was designed to do. When I pick up a camera, I ask what sorts of images it excels at capturing. Then, I find a subject to suit. The resulting images hopefully bring out the best in the camera without appearing strained or stretched.

Of course, if the goal is to photograph a particular subject then it’s best to take the opposite approach: what tool is optimal for the job? But that’s not what I’m doing with Thrifty Thursday.

Thrifty Thursday

Thrifty Thursdays feature photographs taken with equipment costing less than $500.

Alex examines a grapevine beetle, Pelidnota punctata

[Logitech webcam C250 – $39]

The image quality of a low-end webcam is poor. To salvage anything usable the composition must be absolutely compelling.  Fortunately, Logitech’s C250 can focus exceptionally close to the lens, allowing a dramatic shot of insect and entomologist.

Photographing insects with a point & shoot digicam

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: (more…)

Overcoming MP-E lens failure

I mentioned earlier that my photo expedition through Ecuador’s astounding ant fauna was interrupted part-way by a tragic failure of my kit’s centerpiece: the Canon MP-E macro lens. The iris was stuck full open, inert, and the lens lost all depth-of-field.

Once plan B- an attempt to ship in a new lens- failed, I settled on four strategies.

1. Change the subject

I was still functional for shooting larger insects with my 100mm f/2.8 lens, as well as an extension tube + 35mm lens. I abandoned plans to photograph small ants in favor of, for example, grasshoppers: (more…)

BugShot 2011: Improve your insect photography with John Abbott, Thomas Shahan, and Alex Wild

I am pleased to announce BugShot, a first-of-a-kind weekend workshop for arthropod photography. The event is a photography course and weekend retreat scheduled for Labor Day Weekend 2011 (September 2-5) at the Shaw Nature Reserve outside of St. Louis, Missouri. We have chosen a long weekend and a central location to make the event as accessible as possible and have limited enrollment to 35 to keep the participant/instructor ratio manageable.

Depending on how the event unfolds, we may make BugShot an annual event similar to the famous Ant & Bee Courses, with rotating instructors and locations.

[download announcement] | [register online]

Who should attend?

  • Entomologists who aspire to improve their photographic skills for work or pleasure
  • Photographers who wish to learn arthropod- specific techniques
  • Naturalists & gardeners who enjoy the little things outdoors
  • Bug bloggers & bugguide.netters who’d like to spice up their online imagery
  • Anyone looking for an excuse to hang out at the beautiful Shaw Nature Reserve for a long weekend

Attendees are assumed to have an understanding of simple camera functions, including shutter speed & aperture, and should be able to operate the basic controls of their equipment. The course is geared towards SLR equipment, but most topics will also be applicable to digicams that offer manual control of important functions.

We are offering up to three registration fee waivers to current students, please email me (alwild [at] for details.

Who are the instructors?

We have arranged an instructor list that spans a diversity of photographic styles.

  • John Abbott, from Austin, Texas, is an expert on dragonfly biology & insect action photography
  • Thomas Shahan, of Oklahoma, is a master of close-up arthropod portraiture
  • Alex Wild is…me.

What will you learn at BugShot?

  • Macro-& microphotography equipment
  • Digital asset management & workflow
  • Composition
  • Lighting & flash
  • Working with live insects
  • Special techniques: focus-stacking, time-lapse & video
  • Field sessions in prairie, woodland & aquatic habitats
  • Evening photo-sharing presentations
  • and more!
click to register for BugShot 2011