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Wood Ant Photography Technique

Wood Ant Photography Technique - Photographer Edwin Brosens shares his wisdom on how to shoot wood ants effectively.

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For many years I've had an interest in photographing Wood Ants and at just 5mm these fast moving insects are a challenge to photograph.

There are a few things you have to know before you start taking photos of Wood Ants and this includes where a nest can be found and what equipment is needed. Let me start with the equipment: A macro lens is not enough, you need to use bellows as well. This tool makes the distance between the camera body and macro lens longer which means you can get closer to the subject, increasing the ratio so that the subject gets projected larger on to the CCD sensor of your camera.

You need a macro lens with the shortest focusing distance possible. I believe a 90mm lens is the best choice but you can also use a 50mm macro lens, you will just have to get close to your subject. You have to understand that the bellow can increase the distance between the camera and lens for a max of 10cm. So with the 90mm lens your shortest distance will be 20cm.

You'll also need flashguns to add much needed side light to the shots.

How to find Wood Ants:

ants nest
The nest of Wood Ants Sony Alpha 33 +sigma 10-20 mm/ 4.0 – 5.6 F/14 @ 1/20

I found a large nest in a nature reserve called "De Moeren" near my home. You can mostly find Wood Ants at the edge of a forest near an open field of vegetation. The Wood Ant is very important for the forest because the Ants clean all the mess up. When you look around the nest you can find very active workers as the next photo shows:

Ants on wood
Wood Ants Sony Alpha 33 + sigma 20 mm / 1.8 + Flash F/16 @ 1/100

I used a wide angle lens to shoot this photo and I placed the camera on the ground. I used the Live View feature and flipped the LCD screen to 90 degrees so I was able to look at the image before taking the photo. Be aware that ants are very small, so think carefully about where you place your camera on the ground. I also used wireless flashgun to add extra light to the shot.

You have to set the focus manually as the autofocus will often struggle to focus on such small, fast-moving subjects. Don't forget to also look at the background to ensure you have a good, interesting composition.


Ant with caterpillar
Wood Ant with caterpillar Sony Alpha 33 +bellow + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash F/14 @ 1/60

After visiting the nest for a few days I was lucky enough to capture this shots of an Ant and caterpillar. It wasn't easy to capture but with patience, I was able to take a shot that I was really pleased with.

When you look through the viewfinder or use Live View, you have to be patient. Don't press the shutter button too soon, otherwise you will be disappointed with the result. You have to really look at your subject to understand what shots will work and what won't.

ant with woodlouse
Wood Ant with woodlouse Sony Alpha 33 +bellow + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash F/14 @ 1/90

While I was shooting photos of the ant with the caterpillar I saw another ant with a dead woodlice. I tried to get as close as possible to the ant, took some shots and looked at the result. I did not have as much time to take this photo as I did with the caterpillar because this ant was in a hurry to get back to the nest! To increase your chances of capturing good shots, it is necessary to find the places where they get into the nest.

Flash techniques:

You will need two external flash guns or a ring-flash, I use two external flash guns and a Novoflex Flash-bracket.

Before taking photos of the ants I have to set the external flash guns to the right level. I took some test photos of some leaves first, and set the level of the flash guns at different settings. Once I had good light on the leaves, I was ready to take my shots. To speed things up I often use an exposure meter with my flash light meter. This is an expensive tool but it is worth every penny as it is better than the built in meter found on most cameras.

ants with fungus
Wood Ant Sony Alpha 33 +bellow + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash F/16 @ 1/50 For the above shot, I cut one ant off the photo to give a sense of direction to the shot. 

Wood Ants Sony Alpha 33 +bellow + 90 /2.8 Macro + Flash F/18 @ 1/160

Some practical tips:
  • Use an external exposure meter (for the flash)
  • Use two or more flash guns
  • Get close to the ground with the camera
  • Look at the background
  • Think about composition
For more information, visit Edwin's website.

Photos by Edwin Brosens.
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