Photography 001 mantis
This photo illustrates a camouflaged mantis, purposefully hiding under a leaf, in the act of eating a beautiful longhorn beetle whole. It is hard not to anthropomorphize. That pitiful beetle does look like it’s crying out in terror and pain, while the mantis appears totally unconcerned: “I’m eating. Come back later.”

After sharing on this topic at Hillcrest Camera Club in June, I thought it might be nice to publish something here – in a few installments. It’s a big topic. I’ll start with what I would call ‘philosophy’, then follow it up with technical considerations and general tips and tricks.

Arguably the most important consideration in any form of photography is the content. If the photo ‘tells a story’, all other photographic ‘laws’ and ‘guidelines’ may be relaxed. In extreme cases a photo may even break the number one cardinal rule – “subject must be in focus” – (many would disagree, and I admit I’m a bit squeamish about this one). As long as it is worth looking at. And that happens when the photo has something worthwhile to say.

In insect photography, I would say ‘telling a story’ means showing exactly what insect look like (detail/structure), where and how they live (context) and the amazing things they do (action). If the photo can replace or illustrate a paragraph of words, it tells a story.

If an insect has unique mouth parts, or specially adapted abdominal gadgets, that have a special purpose, then a photo showing these clearly, tells a story. If the insect does something special, then a photo showing it, tells a story. If they live in a particular place, or survive in a particular way, then … you get the idea. For me insect photography is about illustrating the fascinating things I have discovered about insects.

Not all my photos (by far!) manage to tell a story. Many are just ‘records’ of insects I saw. ‘Story photos’ can take time, planning, fore-thought, and of course luck. ‘Recording photos’ can become ‘story photos’ if you know what an insect’s distinguishing characteristics are, where they are supposed to live, what they supposed to be doing, and making sure you capture these in the photo.

The cover photo on my book is a good example of good context, action, even better interaction between species, details of anatomy, even drama.

Photography 000 cover
An assassin bug (a predator) devouring a honey bee, which has come to feed on the flower (location location location!). The ant is an aggressive opportunist. The sucking mouth parts of the bug and the biting mandibles of the ant (bared aggressively) are clearly visible. The bug, an ambush hunter, and the dead bee, are in perfect frozen focus, while the busy ant (an active hunter that also snacks on nectar) is slightly motion-blurred.
Photography 003 Potter wasp
Action: a mud dauber wasp is bringing a blob of fresh mud in its mouth. The progress of the construction can be seen in the growth rings on the mud vessel, the last addition still shiny and wet.  Something like this cannot be planned. This wasp happened to choose a spot of wall just above a sideboard in our dining room, where I was able to set up my camera while the wasp was away. Normally they build their nests high up under the ceiling. Construction took about three hours. On the one hand I could have missed the whole thing easily. On the other I couldn’t have stood on the top rung of a ladder for that long. I was just lucky. See full blog on this event.


Photography 002 Hosenose.jpg
A hosenose cycad weevil, vibrating visibly with the beating of the wings (action), is launching off the tip of a cycad leaf (correct context).
Photography 004 cicada
Incorrect context: a plant-sucking ‘green-wing’ cicada on human skin.
Photography 005 dung beetle
Correct context: a dung beetle in dung (as opposed to anywhere else).
Photography 006 moth
Context: bad (on tiles) – better (on a leaf) – best (on the pealing bark of a tree), which illustrates what those strange brown-and-green markings on this moth’s wings are there for: camouflage.

Sometimes it is necessary to do a proper ‘studio session’ with an insect. Some actions or contexts are not possible to capture in the natural (if you are not a BBC photographer with fantastic equipment, working on some documentary). These sessions, like all studio work, are carefully planned, set up and take a while.

Photography 007 cocoon
Studio session 1: I needed a nice photo of a caterpillar spinning a cocoon. I had to catch one, feed it until it was ready to pupate, transfer it to a glass jar, then take many photos until I got one that showed the whole thing nicely, without the light reflecting in the glass.
Photography 008 water scorpion
Studio session 2: to get this photo of a water scorpion I set up a tank with white gravel and a stone, and clean water to just the right depth. I moved it around a bit until I got the perfect muted daylight conditions I was looking for, and set up the camera. Then I had to catch a bee, move the bug into the correct position, introduce the (live) bee and wait for the bug to pounce. Notice that the refraction on the water surface allowed me to capture not only the underwater bug, but also the tip of its snorkel sucking in air, and showing how it breathes.
Photography 009 diving hopper
Studio session 3: Ground hoppers have the crazy habit of diving into water to escape danger.  They swim with powerful kicks and hold onto submerged vegetation until the coast is clear. This I wanted to show in a photo. I set up a tank with some water weeds, went into the garden, caught a ground hopper (which are quite common), and threw it in. I took many shots – from above, from below, in sun, in shade, trying to show exactly where it is and what it’s doing. The final (perfect) shot is actually an overlay of two photos: the submerged bits were in perfect focus in one photo, the bits sticking out above the water in the other.