Larger Than Life - Insects

Extreme or Ultra Macro Insects.

After showing the flowers off it's the turn of the insects.  The majority of fauna I point the macro rig at are either spiders or insects.  Occasionally snails or slugs or other invertebrates, but at this scale it tends to have 6 or 8 legs.  These pose exactly the same issues as the flowers, but movement is even bigger as a problem, because the movement doesn't just come from outside, such as being nudged or the wind.  Additionally supplementary lighting rarely alarms flowers, but it can lead to the subject getting up and going elsewhere in a huff.  

When preparing this essay I thought I had relatively few images at higher magnification compared to the flowers, but not only do I have a lot more than I thought, they go right the way up the magnification scale as well.  There is a large number between 1:1 and 1.7:1 where the Raynox 250 has been used and the lens prefocussed to 1:1.  I have included some of these, but not too many, rather I'd like to show the higher magnifications.

Compared to the flowers few of these are focus stacked, most use a small aperture, but it is still possible with a willing subject and luck to get usable stacks.


Nothing really to add here.  The bellows are seldom used, with the 60mm being prevalent.  Attempts to use the Mitakon as a field lens have been disappointing in general, but as you will see it can work.  Lighting tends to be flash, but continuous lights make stacks more possible.

Camera Settings.

The key thing here is that ISO has been pushed higher more often.  While I tend to force it to 200 with the flowers, I let the camera decide with the insects usually, depending on the lighting, which is usually, but not always flash.


To open with this is a moth that fell asleep on an internal wall.  Out of the direct sun it was dark and difficult to get to, but using the tripod to support the LED panel for lighting I managed to get the lens up against the wall and take a series of stacks handheld but braced against the wall.  The moth did flick its antennae around right the way through and Helicon struggled with the fur and background.  This was the best of them using the 60mm on extension tubes (26mm, 16 plus 10mm Kenko tubes).  Magnification is around 2:1.  Even with the LED the ISO was high to minimalise movement and make the automated brackets quick, but as you can see it can be controlled via stacking and post production.  I've found that noise reduction before stacking gives the best results where the images are noisy, but if noise is low, then the order is less important.


Moving outside into the field, I've started walking around with the Raynox in a belt pouch ready to clip onto the lens.  Using the extension tubes is a bit more of a faff, since I dislike changing lenses in the wild, but if I start with them inline, the Raynox is just there for additional magnification.  This was with both, pushing through leaves to get below it.  The square crop is pretty much full frame height and I would guess this is about 3:1 magnification.  One of the things I really would like is some kind of EXIF annotation tool or better information on the optics chain.  It's almost impossible after the fact to know what combination were used, as the teleconverter with a chip in it doesn't even record with the 60mm, let alone the extension tubes or the Raynox.  This predates the teleconverter modification earlier this year, so is only extension tubes plus the Raynox.  Since modifying a tube to work with the teleconverter I've tended not to use them alone as I found the teleconverter seems to fix the slight loss of image quality you get with the tubes alone.

King of this Leaf

I was completely surprised by this.  Dragonflies and demoiselles both have a habit of being quite wary unless they are eating.  Recently I've had both just grab something out of the air, and land in front of me to dine.  In both cases I've been able to get close with the 60mm, and in this case with the Raynox fitted.  Despite the sun, which was very bright, the flash did fire as a fill in, even at 1/250 and f11.  While I do like the low key dark background look, the need for flash to freeze movement rather tends to force you into it in many scenarios.  It's great when the flash is just a fill, but that happens a disappointingly few days of the year.

Demoiselle Dinner Time

I find the use of aphids as we might keep a dairy herd fascinating.  It is a behaviour that seems very human and yet probably predates humanity.  The farm on a scrub oak is novel, previously I've only seen them on thistles, so I came back and set up lights and clamps and so on to get the very best blurry unstackable movement filled images I could take, interspersed with video clips and occasional good single frames like this one.  The aphids seem still, but are breathing, the ants are never still and the wind was flexing leaves a foot away and moving the branch in the clamps.  Despite that I did get some good video of ants milking aphids, stroking their abdomens with their antennae till a clear droplet is emitted, which the ant drinks.  I presume it is a digestion of the tree sap and rich in nutrients.  In technical terms this was all done with the 60mm with teleconverter and usually the Raynox too.  The proximity was not a problem, but even on a sunny day, with the big LCD panel, there was scarcely enough light to freeze movement at low ISO.  For stills I think I definitely should have switched to flash.  I'll upload the video when I have another video editing mood.

Ant Farming Aphids

This fly was happy to sit as the camera got closer and closer, but movement in the mouth parts meant no successful stacks.  Instead a single image showing lots of details.  Again the flash, Raynox on 60mm combination whilst out walking.  Only around 1.7:1 magnification, I could have possibly gone higher handheld with the teleconverter, but I didn't have it with me.

Fly face

Photobombing by a hover fly.  I was shooting the gladioli in the garden when this landed in the middle of the flower adjacent vertically to the one I was shooting.  A quick move of the centre column, a turn, a dial in of focus with the rail and one of a handful of frames captured.  The magnification is about 1.5:1, not high, the depth of field is a bit shallow, another stop or two would have been perfect, but the colours are amazing, so who cares about the detail on the front or rear legs.  The lighting was still set up for a different flower though, so it was lucky to get the light on the fly so neatly, if I'd lit this intentionally it would have been lit completely, not just on the fly and parts of the anthers and stamens.  Luck plays a big part in getting good animal photos, and being lucky can balance a lot of technical issues, or a lack of patience.  

Hoverfly in Gladiolus

More serendipity.  I had the camera with flash and Raynox on to shoot spiders and this young lady chose to rest in easy reach, on a platform that made getting a stable position for handheld stack shooting easy.  I think she must have emerged that morning, as she was very sleepy and accommodating.  I've seen so many shots of dragonfly and demoiselle faces along with long essays about getting up in the night, being in a field before sun up, or as I like to think, just after bed time...  To get this in broad daylight was wonderful.  It is clearly possible to get close to dragonflies and demoiselles while they are awake, either when they're feeding or like this one hot and sleepy.  You don't need to get up in the dark and stalk fields looking for sleeping insects before they awake, but I would guess that you might get rather more of this kind of shot than I have in the last few years.  Magnification is just over 1.5:1, and a 22 image stack.

Immature Female Blue Tailed Demoiselle

Speaking of sleep cycles, butterflies go to sleep at sunset or at least the marbled white does, and it hangs off grass till the sun rises to warm it again.  Or on some occasions it sits on a surface, and sleeps while you slide a lens up to its face and shoot its portrait at point blank range.  Magnification is about 3:1, the image being cropped slightly because I needed to rotate it.

Marbled White Face on

The Mitakon in action at 5x magnification in the garden.  These gnats sleep on the outhouse wall and are easy to get close to.  Here the focus bracket was created manually, hence some unevenness to the steps and blurry bits, and it stops where the lens hit the wall.  Shot with natural light this is 15 frames.  When inspecting the frames it looks like there is almost something out of focus between the lens and subject, like shooting through a gauze, but that is cleaned up in post using a levels adjustment.  Obviously there wasn't anything in between, there was hardly space, and given the rendering of dust you get with this lens, it would not be out of focus.  This rather highlights the need this lens has for lots of light.  I'd use the flash I think for this next time, though next time it would be likely the 60mm with Raynox and teleconverter since that is easier to get close and easier to get stacks.

Non Biting Gnat

Though with high ISO, it is possible to get great single frames with the Mitakon.  Perhaps oddly this is not a stack, and stopped down for depth of field.  Looking at it, it looks like it should be a stack.  The off camera flash is in use, with the original intention being to shoot the seeds forming.  Once I saw all the aphids and flies though the direction changed.  This is low magnification, somewhere between 2 and 3:1.

Fly on Acer

From the same shoot this is right in at 5:1 on one of the aphids.  Again high ISO compensated for with Topaz Denoise.  The Mitakon can be great, but it needs work and understanding of the limitations.  Lots of light, lots of unsharp mask to clean up aliasing (or introduce it) and you can get results.

Aphid on Acer

Another flower shoot photobombed by an interesting insect.  This is the sorrel from the garden which had several green aphids or green fly on it.  The flower itself is only a few millimetres across, so the green fly are perhaps 1 mm in size and were not noticed with the naked eye.  30 image stack lit using the Manfrotto continuous lights.  This was an early attempt to couple subject, lighting and camera position in the studio, using the boards I clamp the rail to together with a cheeseboard.  This gives better control of relative position, and makes adjustment easier.  So often I've gone to adjust the camera and nudged the lights or the subject and had to abandon a run and start over, often with a completely new composition.  I read an article on using T frame extrusions to create a vibration isolated rail, this is less robust, but far, far cheaper.  The main cost was a drill bit and tap for ΒΌ 20 holes in the wood, the other parts I had, all the mount screws and the cheeseboard.

Green Aphid

Many years ago in Scarborough I took a picture of these on slide using the bellows, the big Metz flashes, on the big aluminium tripod down near the seafront on the cliffs.  The gear must have weighed 20lbs plus and was slow and awkward to set up.  This was taken on the 60mm with Raynox and teleconverter with the flash, a rig that weighs about a tenth of that, and is quick to use.  The results are different too.  Although the magnification is similar, the grain of the slide didn't really capture any detail of the mites, whereas this shows the hairs on it.  In some ways this has been a long journey to get back to where I started, but as you'll see in the gear article when I post it, the ease of use and quality has improved enormously.  With the bellows I could never have tracked this mite, so I would never have got this shot, this was tracked handheld using focus peaking to know when I could fire the shutter.  Such a difference.

Red Spider Mite

The fact I can track targets at 5:1 magnification means I can get mundane shots of them trudging over stone walls, or when they get to something interesting I can capture behaviour.  I could not have predicted that this insect would climb the moss, or appear in front of such a photogenic scene.  This is 5:1 magnification, single frame, flash lit, and exactly the kind of field photo I have always wanted to take.  A tiny bit of invisible nature getting on with its life, in glorious technicolour.

Tiny Green Insect

Finally, back in the studio with the new microscope objective.  I had used a moth trap (light on a white gauze on a moonless night) to encourage moths to come up to the studio skylight.  The next morning there were a number sleeping, including a couple of footman moths.  I persuaded one gently to step onto a piece of card which I then clamped (the card, not the moth) in front of the camera.  I took a few with the 60mm, then seeing as the moth was very happy to ignore the camera I decided to have a go with the microscope on the bellows.  This is the absolute maximum magnification I can reach without adding in extra extension tubes.  I could maybe go another 50mm of extension and get to maybe 25x, but that puts strain on things.  As it is, this is less than 1cm from the moth.  I had to be incredibly careful with the objective not to accidentally crank it too close and touch the moth.  The position was set coarsely by carefully cranking the Novoflex rail in with the fine control knob fitted, then the actual stack is a series of exposures where the Manfrotto rail is cranked in using the precision knob and an allen key.  The steps are about 5 degrees of rotation of the knob.  One full rotation advances by 1mm, and I counted 72 frames in that.  This is 89 frames stacked, so approximately 10-15 microns per step, and it needs to be smaller, say 3-5 microns, and more reproducible.  I have no depth of field control over the aperture, so smaller steps it is.  To make effective use of this magnification, using the camera as the eyepiece of a 20x reflection optical microscope I need to source a very precise stage to either move the sample, or preferably the camera.  More on this in gear, but despite the flaws in this image, I love it.  This may not show behaviour, but it shows details of something the eye cannot grasp, which is I would say the main definition I use for macro photography.

Moth Scales

Post Processing.

Nothing new compared to the flowers, though I use the inpainting and clone tools a lot more to remove micro movements like antennae flicks.  I also tend to be more tolerant of poor stacks with the insects, because of the difficulty of getting the images in the first place.


I have more images, of spiders, of textures, abstracts and so on at greater than life size, but I think the two articles so far on flowers and insects show what can be done with some kit, and support the gear article to come.  I will probably do some more essays on larger than life photography, but either make them totally technical on gear and technique, or just a series of hopefully pretty pictures.

One last thing I want to emphasise.  NO animals were harmed in the making of this.  I confess that some were relocated, usually inadvertently, and I'll plead guilty to cutting flowers, but no animals were harmed and if any felt any discomfort they were free to move away.  For example I shot one out of 7 moths in the 'trap' close up.  The others were not happy to sit, and were not coerced or stuck in a freezer till compliant.  There may have been more moths there in the dark, these were only the ones present when I checked in daylight.  The 'trap' is perhaps a misnomer.  The lit fabric is a lure, that they can choose to settle on.  Or not.  There is no compulsion to stay, there is no trap, it is merely one man made light out of many and a hope they will be happy enough to pose the next day.  

One of the reasons I publish nature photos is a hope that people recognise the beauty in nature around us, and realise that they are surrounded continuously by the most breathtaking wonders, without needing to run up as many air miles as Sir David Attenborough.