Insect macro photography techniques – an ongoing experimentation (part I)

1/125sec. F11, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

When I first ventured into photography, I started with insect macro photography, and it quickly became an activity I indulged in often. Macro photography, I think, is one of the more technically demanding types of photography, and is a good, if masochistic, way to learn and get all your photography basics right. In addition to different techniques to gain magnification, you have to worry about accurate focus, proper hand-holding technique, and the use and control of additional lighting and lighting modifiers.

After a recent attempt at insect macro work (for the OM-D E-M10 Mark II review), I found myself with a renewed itch to hunt for insects to photograph. This in turn lead to me writing this article sharing my techniques for insect macro photography.

Before we proceed, some caveats to keep in mind:

1) For photography beginners – do not skip the basics. If you still struggle to understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO, then make sure you master these fundamentals first, before venturing into macro photography.

2) The techniques I highlight below are not entirely my design, they are based on gathering information, observing other macro photographers and my own experience. Each time I shoot, there is always plenty of trial and experimentation. I consider this to be a perpetual work in progress, which means my techniques are not perfect but a good starting point.

3) My techniques may not work for you. There is no right and wrong, and there’s more than one way to accomplish the same goal. Pick what works best for you.

Required Gear:

1) A camera, of course, and my camera of choice at the moment is the OM-D E-M5, though I also use other OM-D cameras. For this set, I have used the new OM-D E-M10 Mark II. But all you need is a camera with a viewfinder and wireless flash control capability. If you are using a fixed lens camera, the lens will have to be able to focus at macro distances.

2) A macro lens – I use the Olympus M.Zuiko 60mm F2.8 Macro. You need a true macro lens for larger magnification. With the Olympus 60mm, I get 2:1 magnification in 35mm equivalent format. 1:1 would be ideal but not absolutely necessary.

3) External flash which can be fired off camera. In my case, it is the Olympus FL-50R. I have tried both wired and wireless triggering systems for flash use in macro photography and find wireless to be ideal and most practical. Most insects don’t just sit around on a leaf posing for you, but hide underneath leaves, behind branches, or are found on tree trunks. With a speed light mounted on my camera, I have no control on the direction of the flash. Moving the flash off camera gives me flexibility and control over the direction of light and allows me to shoot at very difficult angles.

4) Mini Softbox attached to the external flash unit. I recently acquired the Gamilight Box 21, which works well for me. However, in the past, I have created my own diffusers or reflectors, from all kinds of materials, including shoeboxes. While they are cheaper to make, they don’t last very long and it is easier to purchase one if you plan to do this often. The Gamilight Box 21 was the only one I could find within short notice, and it was not expensive, and got the job done decently, but there are other options out there.

1/80sec, F5.6, ISO640, no flash used

1/160sec, F11, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/125sec, F7.1, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired. Note: image rotated 180 degrees. The spider was originally under the leaf (as seen on the leaf structure)

1/125sec, F13, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/160sec, F16, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired
Note: image rotated 180 degrees. The spider was originally under the leaf (as seen on the leaf structure) I decided to rotate the image because the image made more sense this way. 

My Macro Photography Techniques:

1) I hold the camera with macro lens attached single-handed with my right hand (my dominant hand).

2) On my other hand (left in this case) I have the flash, with the soft box mounted.

3) The camera is set to manual focus, and I decide what magnification I need before I shoot. The smaller the insect, the larger the magnification that I need, and most of the time I’m at 1:1.

4) I shot through the Electronic Viewfinder all the time (make sure you calibrate the diopter settings to fit your eyes perfectly. Or else everything will appear out of focus. Especially at these magnification levels). Here comes the tricky part, I then move the camera closer to the subject, until I have the insect in focus. I usually need to rock myself back and forth slightly until I can lock focus on the exact area of the scene I’d like in focus. Focusing is extremely important, and crucial and unlike still life macro, you don’t have the luxury of a tripod. The electronic viewfinder has sufficient resolution and sharpness to help me nail focus, and is in fact much better equipped than a traditional optical viewfinder.

5) The flash is usually positioned above the head of the insect, simulating light coming from the side of and above the head (much like what a photographer would do for shooting a human portrait with a one light setup). You can of course get experimental with light, but this is a good place to start in the beginning.

6) Ideally, you want to get the shot within the first or second exposure since insects don’t stick around. If the exposure if off on my first frame, I make some quick adjustments shoot a couple more frames. The burst mode (or if possible, burst with e-shutter) is useful in shooting a rapid burst of images to ensure accurate critical focus.

7) Focusing is the most difficult thing to achieve, but with sufficient practice and experience, it can be done quite efficiently and quickly.

Camera Settings:

Full Manual Exposure: No exceptions, because I want everything in control. I do not trust the camera to make creative decisions for me.

Shutter speed 1/80sec to 1/160sec: I use a lower shutter speed if I need more ambient light (so as not to turn the background into a sea of black every time).

Aperture f8-16: The closer I am to the subject and the tinier the insect, the larger the magnification I need which means as small an aperture as possible to maximize depth of field. Diffraction is an issue, but can be offset to some extent by sharpening in post.

ISO200: Which is the base for the OM-D cameras. You want to use the lowest setting possible.

Flash set to wireless TTL, controlled and triggered wirelessly: While I use flash exposure compensation to adjust the power as necessary, I generally find TTL to be accurate most of the time. In that rare occasions that this does not work (about 1 in 30 shots) I will default to manual settings for the flash.

Live View Boost on: This is more camera specific. If available but disabled, you’ll have a black screen in the shade in live view at F16, ISO200 and 1/160sec.

Manual focus: I set focus based on magnification factor, which is usually indicated on a macro lens (1:1 full magnification, 1:2, and so on).

Bonus tip: For most cameras these days, you can save these settings to a shortcut menu (I, for example, assigned it to the ART option in the mode dial). So I can access these settings quickly during on the field. Another benefit of using buttons for customized settings is when I see something else I may want to shoot which require a different set up. All I do then is turn the mode dial to, say, Aperture priority and fire away with autofocus and other standard settings that I use.

All the photos of me below show me putting this techniques in practice. Images were taken by fellow friend and photography blogger Tian Chad. 

Photo Credit: Tian Chad

Holding the camera + lens on one hand, and viewing through the EVF to confirm focus, while my other hand holds the flash with mini softbox mounted. Flash was fired wirelessly

Photo Credit: Tian Chad

Varying the distance of the flash from the subject can affect the outcome of the photographs.

Photo Credit: Tian Chad

Very, very important to review the images! Chimping is mandatory in shooting insect macro photography. YOU MUST CHIMP.

Photo Credit: Tian Chad

That was a pass. Moving on to the next shot.

1/160sec, F10, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

A few final notes and facts to consider:

I recommend using these techniques with smaller camera systems: If you have a traditional full-frame SLR, you may want to consider other stabilizing techniques such as using a tripod or monopod, and different methods of lighting – instead of holding the flash with your hand. Holding the camera single-handedly works well with the Olympus OM-D, because of its small size, the versatility of built in 5-Axis Image Stabilization, and burst with e-shutter capabilities.

Insect Macro Photography is physically challenging: Insect macro photography is physically demanding if shot hand-held. You need to stand, squat and everything in between resulting in the most awkward positions, to get your shot as the subject rarely stays stationary or at eye level.

Invest in a Macro Lens: If you want to venture into the deep end of macro photography, a word of advise – invest in a macro lens. I have tried various methods like a reverse lens mount adapter, close up +4 filter and extension tubes on non-macro lenses. The results are rarely acceptable, or the setup extremely difficult to use in real life conditions. You can add extension tubes to increase magnification on a true macro lens, but having a macro lens to start with will save you so much trouble.

For beginners to photography, learning macro photography will improve your technical knowledge and control of the camera: You will need to deal with extreme magnification, stabilizing the camera by using proper hand-holding technique,  using advanced flash controls with the aid of diffusing or reflecting light. All of this can be applied across other photography genres. Some people ask me how I can consistently achieve critical focus while shooting on the street – its due to time spent honing these skills in the macro world. Likewise with exposure and lighting. My street photography, at least the technical aspects, have benefited from my macro experience.

Stay hydrated: Be prepared to sweat a lot while out in the field or garden shooting insects. Hydrations is a must, just like in any other physical activity. (This is at least true in hot, humid tropical countries like Malaysia)

1/80sec, F4, ISO1600, No Flash used

1/160sec, F13, ISO200, Wireless Flash fired

1/160sec, F8, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/125sec, F7.1, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/125sec, F8, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/125sec, F16, ISO200, Wireless Flash Fired

1/200sec, F4, ISO250, No Flash used

I hope you found my thoughts on and techniques for insect macro photography useful. The technique is not difficult to execute, but requires patience and practice. My technique is still a work in progress, and I will keep you guys updated with any improvements in future articles.

The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 60/2.8 Macro is available here from B&H

The Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II is available here from B&H

__________________

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Images and content copyright Robin Wong 2017 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. The 60 mm macro says 1:1 on the barrel; why do you refer to it as 2:1?

  2. Any comment on focus merge?

    • Robin Wong says:

      I think you are referring to focus stacking. It is not practical for my technique,as you need the subject to be completely static and you also need to use a tripod.

  3. Nice write up and lovely photos. Two questions:

    (1) You mention shooting bursts. But you’re using a flash?

    (2) How do you deal with the limitations of triggering the flash optically? My understanding is that Olympus does not support radio trigger. I’ve never triggered a flash optically, but it strikes me as unreliable and difficult.

    • Robin Wong says:

      I do not shoot with burst at all for my insect macro. I understand that it was mentioned in the article. Ming Thein must have edited that to add in a useful tip on getting critically accurate in focus shot. I almost always shoot with single shot.

      The flash is held very close to the camera (we are talking about less than a meter away). There should not be any difficulty in triggering the flash. The limitations of the optical trigger is usually distance, and working line of sight. Typically that will be an issue when you place the flash wirelessly far away from the camera. No such problem in my macro shooting.

  4. Nick Baker says:

    I thought you might comment on in-camera focus stacking. It seems that it might be an advantage of the OM cameras right now, and I’m curious whether you find it so…

  5. Hi, Robin,

    Great post as always. I have the same macro lens and am slowly learning to use it. You’re right; it’s a tough skill to acquire but worth it. I picked up a cheap ring light although I’ve not actually used it yet. What are you thoughts/ suggestions on its use?

    Thanks.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Great that you have picked up macro photography. I think ring light is a no frills way to get even and good light on the macro subjects. However, for insect macro they usually appear too even, creating flat images. I prefer my images to have more contrast (brighter in some parts and shadows in some areas, to create depth and shape). Hence the use of directional flash.

  6. Thanks for sharing your techniques. These are most helpful tips.
    A couple questions: Can you confirm that the OM-D cameras trigger the flash in e-shutter? Second, do you recommend a rule-of-thumb flash power and/or distance for illuminating the subject? Thanks!

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks and I am glad the tips are useful.

      No, you cannot use electronic shutter when shooting flash. You can use the electronic first curtain, or known as anti shock (set to 0 second for no delay). And since I am using TTL, I do not need to worry about my distance from subject, the TTL will compensate accordingly.

  7. Lorraine says:

    I always enjoy reading your blogs and tips Robin. Wonderful photos. I have an Olympus 60mm macros lens and my new EM5 II arrives tomorrow so I’m definitely going to try and find some suitable subjects to photograph – although I hate spiders! Lol

  8. bryan Evans says:

    Thanks for the tips, have just started out in the insect photography world, and found your insight and explanations extremely helpful

  9. steven boesky says:

    Very useful, even for the more experienced… Thanks!
    https://goo.gl/photos/SrB9kSmENEaGV6yW6

  10. Bill Walter says:

    Robin… A very entertaining set! Thanks for posting.

  11. Outstanding work and post Robin. The small Oly mirrorless really suits your macro run-and-2gun technique, I cant imagine doing it as efficiently with a big DSLR rig. I wish we had as many interesting bugs to shoot here in the US 😉

    • Robin Wong says:

      Thanks for the kind words. I am sure you can find something interesting, maybe a park or garden somewhere?

    • Jeff Semprebon says:

      US has fascinating insects and arachnids. One of the great benefits of macro photography is that you can find interesting wildlife nearly anywhere in the warmer months.

  12. Hello Wong, love this article!
    Being a omd em5 user and having had some adventuring in macro with my limited material at hand, this is a little goldmine to me.
    Thanks for sharing!

  13. Fabulous work! I love the complexity and creativity that insects exhibit! Thanks for sharing!

  14. KALAI SELVAM says:

    Simple yet wonderful macro images.I agree with your techniques & setup. Thanks for sharing.

    • Robin Wong says:

      Hey Kalai,
      Glad to hear from you again! Thanks for the kind words man. If you want to shoot insect macro you know where to find me!

Trackbacks

  1. […] is a follow up to the last article on insect photography but unlike in that, I will not discuss techniques today, but rather why I find the Olympus Micro […]

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