Shooting bugs

The right equipment is just part of the formula for identifying insects in the field.

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A bee-fly in the genus Villa, a conclusion drawn because of the clear view of the wing veins. — Photo by Matt Pelikan

Photography in general, and the study of insects in particular, has been revolutionized by digital cameras. Examination of a specimen — usually a dead insect — remains the route to a definitive identification. But as field guides, reference websites, and amateur knowledge all advance, a good photo or two, compared with known examples or emailed to an expert, often suffices for a firm ID.

When I first began the serious study of insects, about 25 years ago, my camera had manual focus and exposure control and was loaded with Kodachrome 64 slide film. Film and processing costs were daunting on my graduate student budget, so I tripped the shutter only when everything seemed perfect; two dozen frames represented a busy day in the field, and if one of those images was a good one, I was ecstatic.

These days, I routinely shoot 10 times that number of frames, since they don’t cost anything. Modern long-zoom “bridge cameras” or digital single-lens reflexes with telephoto lenses can produce respectable pictures of larger insects from 10 feet away. Even cheap digital “point-and-shoots” or the cameras in modern smartphones make a decent insect image far easier to obtain than it was with my beloved Pentax K1000 film camera.

But a key thing to remember about photography of any kind is that equipment is only part of the battle. The right camera and lens, and the right settings, make the most of your opportunities — but the opportunities themselves are still created by the photographer. Just blasting away still won’t do it; you need to think not only about how to optimize the quality of your images, but about what those images should consist of.

I leave aside the question of how to make an artistic image of an insect (a wonderful goal but not necessarily the same as taking an identifiable photo). For identification, you need not just a sharp image, but one showing the right details. Regrettably, what details are “right” depend on what group of insects you’re working on, and while a good overall view often suffices, there is no substitute for experience in knowing what details are most important in any particular case.

For bees and flies, for example, it’s helpful to have a photo showing the wing veins clearly. For beetles, the antennae are curiously useful for ID; for spiders, the eye arrangement. Details of facial structure can be important, and the number or location of spines on the body or legs may matter. For katydids, the reproductive appendages at the tip of the abdomen are the crucial thing. These are the kinds of characteristics that govern insect taxonomy, and the more of them you can capture (in multiple shots, if necessary), the more precisely you’ll be able match a bug to pictures in a field guide or on a reference website (my favorite is BugGuide.net).

The amazing powers of digital cameras notwithstanding, the best images still come from shooting in bright light, holding the camera rock-steady, getting as close as you can to your subject to minimize the “zoom” length required for a frame-filling shot, timing your shots to avoid motion of your subject (either from its own movements or from wind), and making sure the camera is focused on the right details.

Once you’ve attended to these basic rules of photography and settled on camera settings that produce a good compromise (it’s always a compromise) given the prevailing conditions, you need to think about your camera in relation to the subject. Move slowly as you approach as close you can — just a few inches, if you and your camera can manage it, for a small insect. Broad surfaces such as wings need to lie in the same plane as the camera’s sensor if you’re going to get the entire surface in sharp focus. Your view of the insect, of course, should be unobstructed by vegetation, and your angle of view needs to foreground the details you’re seeking. Often, this means a combination of patience and contortion; be ready to sit, kneel, or lie down in order to hold the camera steady from the right angle.

I don’t mean to discourage would-be bug photographers; on the contrary, nearly everybody has a camera that can do an adequate job shooting larger insects at least, and I’m heartened by the number of people who seem interested in trying. But the ease of digital photography means that many people have lost sight of, or never learned, the laws that govern capturing images. And the nuances of identifying insects once they’ve been photographed were never widely known. The study of insects by means of photography is within anyone’s reach — but you need more than just a blob to work with!