Photographing Insects: Techniques for Junior Field Biologists
By Alfred Daniel, J.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” says an old English adage, illuminating the importance of photographs. What an insect photograph is worthy of? Do you think like that? Are you a person not interested much in insect photography? I am here to trigger your interest through my experiences. Insect photography can fetch you recognition. Yes! You heard it right. I got recognition through my insect photograph, as I won the second price in the First Indian Entomologist Photo Contest.
Here in this blog, I would like to share my experience with photographing insects. First, let me confess that I am neither the best nor a professional photographer; however, I try to write a few cost effective field-level photographic techniques and tips which are useful for the beginners. Many photographic terms are still Greek and Latin to me. I am still a learner like many of us. I am not a DSLR user and don’t even have an expensive diffuser and dedicated macro lens. The macro lens (Raynox DCR 250) which I use is just 4,000 rupees which are very cheaper when compared with the macro lenses of Cannon/Nikon which costs around a lakh. The diffuser which I use is a hand made one (made by my friend Dinesh Hegde) using laminated trace sheets fixed between lens and the flash by means of rubber bands. With these cheap things, photos like these (Fig 1. Asilid Vs Syrphid) are possible.
Many of my friends ask me how they can change the settings to have a good insect photo. Some basic settings are as follows, for a photograph without flash and to have a very bright image the ISO value is to be increased (100-2500 will be optimum). As we all know that the shutter is used to bring the natural light into the camera we have to increase the shutter speed for an insect that is moving fast (shutter speed of 500-2500 will be optimum). Aperture is something that decides the depth of focus. Aperture between f/5.6 to f/11 will be better for taking images with a blurred background. For photos with flash, setting the ISO value between 80 to100 and adjusting the flash intensity will bring black background, etc., all these settings depend on many factors like, the camera which you use, the type of sensor in the camera, natural light intensity, the background of the insect, how close you are to the insect, how fast the insect is moving etc., so “practice makes perfect”.
What will bring a stunning insect photo is a major question. A dedicated macro lens? Or a well trained macro photographer? Or a high-end DSLR or a Mirror-less camera? Or expensive gears like diffusers, extension tubes, tripods, flash etc., Or it is just patience?
Let us accept first as biologists we need not be professional photographers because our prime motive is not to show others our photographic skills but to document the vast diversity of biological organisms. So, let us all abide by the following 10 basic rules, one should follow while photographing.
1) Focus on the interaction
Taking a photograph of an insect simply resting in a tree is not of great importance than having interaction photos (Fig.2a Ants attending membracids; 2b Rivalry among ants). Photos like this will give valuable information. Eg. Host record, nectar source, behaviour etc.
2) Go as close to the insect as possible
When you spot an insect, first have a record shot of it and then approach it very carefully inch by inch without disturbing or causing it to move away. One should be cautious in using flash, as flashlight may deter some skippers and some dipterans like Dolichopodids. If you spot a butterfly, first let it settle and then go near and click a good shot. If you are after a dragonfly focus the twig first which the dragonfly is most likely to settle.
3) Focus on the eyes of the insect
Eye contact is the best. Yes, indeed eyes are of great importance. The photo will not get much value or will not get many praises, if the eyes of the insect are not focused. No matter the whole insect gets focused but if not the eyes, the photo will loose it’s the greater value.
4) Give importance to backgrounds and colour combination
Always try to achieve good colour combinations such as green and black i.e., if an insect is green in colour, it will be so attractive if you produce black backgrounds. As a rule of thumb, black backgrounds are always attractive.
5) Don’t harm the insect
This is very important not to harm the Heroes - The insects. In earlier days, I use to disturb the insects to get a good pose. I mean, upon spotting a caterpillar, I used to bring it to a nice background or pat on it to get a once thought perfect posture; but later I realized all these degrade the value of the photograph by losing its originality, which is of prime importance to the biologists. I learned this principle of not disturbing the insects for photographing from my friend, Dinesh Hedge who accompanies me in several photographic trips who also presented me a Raynox DCR 250.
6) Try taking an eye level photo
Always better to bend down to the level of insects or kneel down or if the insect is in the ground just lie down on the ground to have an eye level photo. During my initial days of photographing, I just use to take photographs by standing straight or just by adjusting my hand up and down. My association with friends and experts of birds and reptiles, like Jude and Amirtha Balan, I acquired the skill of lying down and taking photos of insects that are in the ground. Believe me! Photos taken at eye levels will have a higher clarity and impact than those taken by just bending.
7) Patience is bitter but the fruit is taste
This quote of Artistotle holds good for animal photography. Patience is a must. Insects in general, are shy and not interested in posing for your great photo. Rather you need to wait and you need to approach with patience. Sometimes, your patience will be tested, as one has to wait for hours to get decent shots or to record an insect behavior. Of course, you may have to tolerate ants and mosquito bites in the course of time (Fig 3. Making of a zombie). For recording this, I have waited for nearly one and a half hours suffering all bites of mosquitoes and ants. But once you successfully record a shot, the satisfaction thereof is unmatched (Aristotle rightly said).
8) Record the surroundings also
As biologists we need to record the surroundings which are also important. I always remember my friend, Sankararaman asking me to take a photo of the host plant with flowers after having a macro shot of any interesting insects. So, after having a good shot just photograph the host plant and also have a photo of the habitat. You may need it later.
9) Make it a hobby
Photographing insects is a good hobby which will boost your knowledge on the diversity of insects and will let you observe its behaviour. It is a wise utilization of time and I have photographed nearly 2,000 images (from the backyard of my house) during these COVID lockdown times which is not only helping me to overcome the boredom but also making me to learn new things. Moreover, when we go out for insect photography we will be exposed to so many birds, reptiles etc, which will enhance your curiosity to become a naturalist. You need not to go into a deep jungle to take photos you can just concentrate on your backyard or any place with some vegetation. Just keen observation is needed. While going for photography it is better to avoid very bright and contrasting coloured cloths and use of perfumes. Prefer photographing in the morning time. Save your photos in RAW format if you consider editing it using photoshop. You can also save your images in .jpg format and can edit them by installing “snapseed” app in your android mobiles. If you are not good in editing get the helps or tips of some professional photographer because sometimes too much editing degrades the quality of the photos.
10) Share your observations
Having a good photo and storing it on your laptop will serve none. Share your photo so that it will trigger the interests of others to do such activities. In fact, the idea of writing this blog arose when I shared a photo of Chrysopids emerging from the eggs (on Facebook) which made Dr. Shashank give me a chance to write this. So, by sharing, you will get rewarded for sure (you can submit your photos to websites like https://www.bioatlasindia.org/ or https://www.inaturalist.org/ or https://indiabiodiversity.org/ etc., which encourages you to submit your observations and reward you with prizes. if you submit more). In the long run, after having enough photos you can aim for field guides. My chairman Dr. K Ramaraju always motivates me to write one. Always arrange your photos and categorize them (I used to categorize them on the basis of order, family) for easy retrieval. Never forget to save the dates, locality details of the photographs as it is very important as that of a label to a specimen. More importantly, identify the insects by sending the photographs to the experts in concerned groups as soon as possible.
Besides these, which is more important? Specimen or a Photograph? Let me explain this with an example. Once I had a chance to go along with Dr. Kumar Ghorpade for insect collection. Thanks to Dr K. Gunathilagaraj who arranged the trip and who always encourages things like these. During the trip, I photographed many insects and showed them to Dr. Ghorpade thinking that he will appreciate me for those good photos. But instead of appreciating the photos he scolded me and said “Alfred you are one among those lazy youngsters who developed the habit of photographing and left the habit of collection. Always carry a specimen tube” I just ignored his advice and days went-on. Recently I took a photograph of a spider (Cyclosa sp.) which is parasitized by an Ichneumonid. I took a pretty good photo Fig 4. and after some time, I send it to Dr. Donald LJ Quicke (Ichneumonid authority) for identification. He replied by saying that it could be either Polysphincta or Reclinervellus - both genera have never been collected from India so it could be a new species or at least a new record and he asked me to keep the remains carefully. I was surprised to see this reply and rushed to the spot with my friend Pavithran and we both searched for hours and came to know that within this time gap, it was eaten up by another salticid spider. Now the advice of Dr. Ghorpade seems to be more valuable to me. Alas! Nothing is more expensive than a missed opportunity. If the specimen would have been collected, it would have resulted in a paper. So, it is always important to collect interesting specimens (not just photographing it).
My interest in photography and understanding nature was derived from my UG teachers Dr. M. Ganesh Kumar and Dr. S. Karthikeyan. I brought a camera six years back and did not know to use it well until I met Nithin Sam who introduced me to the world of photography and right now I am using my third camera. My first two cameras were damaged during our expedition trips. My first camera was Canon Powershot SX 40 using which I photographed nearly 4000 photos of insects and it was drowned in a stream in Kodaikanal forest during one of our insect collection trips. The cost of the camera is around 27,000 rupees. Then I brought my second camera which is Panasonic FZ 300 which costs around 40,000 rupees using which I took nearly 18,000 decent images of insects. I lost it in a sea wave when I tried to photograph beautiful crabs in the seashore of Kanyakumari. The reason why I am saying is that think of my plight. What if I lost two high end DSLR cameras with macro lens? So as students we are not ready to face such huge loss and buying a high end camera after a camera will not be an affordable one and as biologists we have to explore wild and rough terrains where we can’t keep our camera carefully every now and then. The one more reason which I recommend point and shoot cameras is that, it will allow you to take photographs of birds from a distance which is not possible by a DSLR cameras. If you are a DSLR user, you have to change your lenses for a bird and an insect; carrying a telescopic lens and a macro lens for a larger distance during exploration trials will make you tired. That too if you have to simultaneously collect the insects then you need to carry collecting equipment like insect nets, vials, poison bottles, alcohols, aspirators etc., which make it even difficult to carry a heavy camera. I am neither against any brands nor any technologies. If you ask whether a DSLR with a dedicated macro lens will bring out a better photo? My answer is YES for sure.
Beyond these, you need to have compatible friends while going for exploration trips. If you go as a group, the chances of spotting insects are more. In that way, I am blessed with friends like Sankararaman H and Samraj J M with whom I have travelled much for insect collection. I take this opportunity to thank Sankararaman who allows me to take photographs of the insects first, though the specimens are of paramount importance to him. I thank Samraj for letting me go closer to the insects before he does, though the risk of insects getting disturbed when I approach closer and he may miss a chance of getting a closer photo.
Let me conclude this blog by saying Observing an insect, photographing it, and thereby identifying it is also an excellent way to build a ‘collection’ of insects. There are, of course, some significant disadvantages. Only for a few insects, a photograph is perfectly adequate for identification, but for others, it is not. Unlike a set specimen, the insect cannot then be dissected and is not available for examination at a later date. Photography should, therefore, be regarded as complementary to other techniques and not as a replacement. There is no reason why you should not do both! Thanks for reading. Happy Photographing.
Alfred Daniel, J. is based in Bengaluru and working as a Researcher at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. All photographs included with this article shot by Author. You can contact him by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org