Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard

Huub de Waard shares his knowledge on microphotography of insects with us.

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All images © Huub de Waard

Huub de Waard is back, with more top tips on insect microphotography images. This time, we're focussing on practical tips for the photographer. Take a look at Huub's first article, Microphotography Tips and Information, if you're new to the subject. 

Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard : Huub de Waard

Compound eye of Common Damsel Bug. Magnification 9, f/7.1, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec. Canon 7D, Canon macro lens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, Canon 2x teleconverter and Canon macro Twin Lite Flash MT-E 24EX.

Somewhat Predictable

Insects generally have two things in mind: to get on with the task at hand and avoid getting eaten. The task at hand might be finding food, mating, or just basking in the sunshine. This means that insects are somewhat predictable. Bees, butterflies, and similar insects, for example, might be just bumbling about from flower to flower. Introduction to Microphotography describes microphotography as the extreme form of macro photography, dedicated to the photography of very small objects from life-size to modest enlargements of up to about 20. Working with these large magnifications means that the subject is only a few centimeters in front of the lens. Most of my micros are made at a working distance of a few centimeters.

Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard : Huub de Waard

Small leafhopper with a size of 1.5 mm. Magnification 8, f/8, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec. Canon 7D, Canon macro lens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, Canon 2x teleconverter and Canon macro Twin Lite Flash MT-E 24EX.

Seasonal Creatures

Most insects are seasonal creatures and the larger ones are most plentiful during spring and summer. If you begin looking in late autumn or at the end of winter, you will mainly find insects that measure only a few millimeters in size. Larger than life-size magnification is required to reveal the structure of the compound eyes of such small insects.

The time of day you choose to go out hunting for insects can have a dramatic effect on both the number of insects you encounter and the quality of their demeanor when you photograph them. I take only micros during the day time when the insects are actively foraging and moving from feeding place to feeding place. Do try to be as prepared as possible, because during these daylight hours they are only stopping for very short periods of time.

Insects and spiders are literally everywhere and in immensely vast numbers. Walk through any flower garden and your first attention is probably drawn to the beautiful blossoms. But on closer inspection, you’re also likely to see and be amazed by a myriad of insects that are enjoying the flowers right along with you--bees, hoverflies, and any number of unrecognized insects flying around or walking upon the petals and blossoms. All you have to do is to know for what type of insect you’re looking and a little bit about that insect’s behavior and you’ll know where to start.

Damselflies, dragonflies, and mayflies like water, so if you want to find them, start at a pond or lake. Butterflies and bees like blossoms and blooms, so if you want to find them, go where the flowers are. Grasshoppers like to hang out in groundcovers like grasses. In order to see these small “models” you have to become fairly “narrow minded” with your vision.

Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard : Huub de Waard

Frontal portrait of springtail with a size of 2 mm. Magnification 10, f/7.1, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec. Canon 7D, Canon macro lens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, Canon 2x teleconverter and Canon macro Twin Lite Flash MT-E 24EX.

Approaching Insects

Although most insects do not have orifices in their body for picking up sound vibrations, many use parts of their body, such as their wings, antennae, or special hairs, like TV antennae to detect vibrations in the environment or in the air. Any errant movement on your part could cause you to lose a shot, so be sure to tread carefully when approaching your subjects. Your job is to make yourself non-threatening. The first thing you want to do is to move very slowly. Look before you move, look at where you place your feet, look at where your equipment is, and most of all plan where you are going to put the front of your lens. Many potentially good shots have been ruined by the front of a lens bumping a branch or leaf where an insect was resting, causing it to flee.

Most insects have a view of the world that is very different from ours, because their eyes are built unlike those of vertebrate eyes. Insects such as the housefly, the hornet, the butterfly, and the beetle, have what we call compound eyes. These eyes are made up of many separate units called ommatidia. Each ommatidium samples a small part of the visual field. Having multiple ommatidia allows the animal to easily detect motion. Some, like the dragonfly, have as many as thirty thousand units per eye, each with its own lens. With a compound eye the insect sees a mosaic image. This looks something like the highly magnified dots of a newspaper photograph. Because the lenses in the insect's eyes have a fixed focus, and can't be adjusted for distance, insects see shapes poorly.

As an object moves across the visual field, ommatidia are progressively turned on and off. Because of the resulting "flicker effect", insects respond far better to moving objects than stationary ones. Honeybees, for example, will visit wind-blown flowers more readily than still ones. Houseflies and dragonflies have eyes that cover most of their head. This gives them almost 360 degree vision, enabling them to see predators coming from any direction.

Most insects can see some colour. While our eyes see a full spectrum of wave lengths from red to violet, many insects see a limited range of colours. The colours they detect are the ones most useful for finding food and shelter.

It is known that insects, especially flying insects, will try to escape from a predator by a simple escape reflex based on the direction and the velocity of a moving shadow or object. If a critical velocity is exceeded, the insect will try to fly away from the direction of the threat. Slow moving objects or shadows often do not trigger this reflex. The lesson learned is that the best way to approach an insect is to move slowly and gently. Most of all, avoid casting your shadow on the insect.

Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard : Huub de Waard

Portrait of a small crab spider. Magnification 10, f/6.4, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec. Canon 7D, Canon macro lens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, Canon 2x teleconverter and Canon macro Twin Lite Flash MT-E 24EX.


Composition is more difficult for macro photography than for other types of nature photography. Your subject might be a flying insect or an insect sitting on a leaf at a very funny angle. Add the fact that you need to approach very carefully to not disturb your subject and you have a bit of a tricky situation. There are no golden rules to help you solve this one. Play around with composition until you get something that works. Photos at high magnification have a corresponding shallow depth of field, so precise control over the location of focus is critical. This requires not only artistic decisions about what part of the subject should be tack sharp, but also technical decisions about how to make the most of this sharpness.

Fortunately, the location of sharpest focus appears much more pronounced in the viewfinder when the subject is under high magnification. However, just because it's easy to see doesn't necessarily mean that it's also easy to position. Even small errors in a camera's autofocus can be disastrous for an image. This should only be used as a rough guide; precision adjustments should almost always be done using manual focus. It's almost a universal rule that the subject's eye(s) should be the location of sharpest focus and should have a well-chosen position within your composition. For maximal sharpness throughout, adjust the angle of your camera so that the plane of sharpest focus aligns with the head/plane of your subject. If you’re off by a fraction of a degree, the complete subject disappears from view.

In macro photography and microphotography, the background is often so out of focus that it appears as a solid or smoothly varying patch of color. It's important to choose a background which complements the color and tone of your foreground subject. Fortunately, one can often pick a different background by simply shifting the camera's vantage point. One should also take care to avoid placing distracting out of focus highlights or other objects behind the subject.

Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard : Huub de Waard

Frontal view of green bottle fly. Magnification 6, f/11, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec. Canon 7D, Canon macro lens MP-E 65mm/f2.8, Canon 2x teleconverter and Canon macro Twin Lite Flash MT-E 24EX.


Due to the small working distance (the distance between the lens and the subject) involved with large magnifications, it is not practical to use a tripod. Because I am hand-holding a relatively heavy and bulky setup, it is not possible to focus using the lens focusing ring, which also determines the magnification. Rather, I pre-set the focusing ring based on how much magnification I want. Once the focus is set, I will physically move the lens, mounted on the camera body, back and forth until the facets in the compound eye(s) of my subject are in perfect focus in the viewfinder. This is the tricky part, obviously, as a fraction of a millimeter can significantly affect the focus. For instance, at five times life-size the depth of field of the MP-E 65 mm at f/16 is 0.269 mm. For higher magnifications, the situation is even worse. In order to stabilize the whole setup, I’ll rest my elbow on my knee or both elbows on the ground. As soon as I see perfect focus being achieved, I’ll press the shutter button to take a photo.

If you’re on the path to taking macro or micro photos, be patient and enjoy the challenge of capturing these images. It opens the doors to an entirely new world of photography.



Microphotography Tips From Huub de Waard : Huub

Huub de Waard is a Dutch wildlife photographer who specialises in insect macro photography. He photographs very small invertebrates so close-up that they are transformed into large subjects.Through his images he aims to highlight the different characteristics of a variety of species - and their individual charm. He does not apply focus stacking and all of his pictures are single images. 


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