Throwback Thursday: My First Digital Insect Macro Shot

I missed Wordless Wednesday yesterday, so today I bring you a Throwback Thursday shot instead!  If you have been living under a social media rock (I know lots of people who do!) and don’t know about Throwback Thursday, it’s a day each week where people post old photos of themselves, their families, anything from the past.  I’m not going to start doing this every week or anything, but today I have a lovely little shot for you, my very first insect macro shot taken with a digital camera.  This beauty was shot in 2003 with a Nikon Coolpix 995, my first digital camera, shortly after I took the camera out of the box and long before I read the instruction manual.  That was the camera I got, but swore up and down to myself and everyone else that I was going to keep shooting film with my retro-riffic 100% manual Nikon F and use the digital camera just for insects and shots that I didn’t want to waste film on.  Ha!  The roll of film that was in my Nikon F at the time is STILL IN THAT DARNED CAMERA!  Someday I’m going to finish that roll and get it developed.  It has a bunch of lovely shots of the Tetons on it…

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.  Without further ado, here it is, my very first digital insect macro…

blurry vespid

Whew!  What a stunner!  With a photo like that, it’s a wonder I didn’t win the National Geographic photo competition that year.  Magazines should have been knocking down my door to take advantage of my obvious natural genius.

I keep all of my photos.  I think I’ve maybe deleted 100 digital photos since I got that first digital camera, and I’ve never thrown away a negative or print from my film camera.  I probably have close to a quarter of a million photos at this point, and I won’t lie: a lot of them suck.  But, I keep them all so that I can learn from my mistakes, gauge how much I’ve improved over time, and remember the moment that I took them.  That photo above is total crap, but I remember that I took that photo of an insect that’s in a display behind me as I type this, that I took it in the living room of my first apartment as I sat on the horrid brown carpet on the floor, that the background is the antique Filipino coffee table I got from my grandparents a good 5 years before my dog chewed it up, that my hedgehog was running happily in his wheel at the time and my gerbils were chewing up a toilet paper tube in that adorable way that gerbils devour paper products.  I was so incredibly happy to have that camera that I would have loved this photo if it were even worse than this!  That photo also helped me learn something about photography and cameras that made me the photographer I am today.  I like that photo.  It marked the beginning of an era of journey into insect photography.  An apparently blurry and improperly white balanced journey, but a journey nonetheless!  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Photographing Aquatic Insects

I ended up getting this up a few days later than planned, but better late than never, eh?  Today I’m going to share my current aquatic insect photography setup!

About a year ago, I wrote about the aquatic insect photography setup that I was using at the time.  I liked some things about it (easy, small, relatively portable), but the really thick, cheap (i.e. flawed) glass was a problem and the narrow container made it difficult to keep the glass clean.  After that post, I realized that my container just wasn’t working, so I thought back to the setup used by Steve Maxson, the man who had introduced me to the idea of shooting aquatic insects through glass in the first place (thanks again Steve!).  He uses a little aquarium with very thin glass and gets much better shots than I was.  So, I went out and bought the smallest glass aquarium I could find to improve my technique.  One trip to PetsMart and $15 later, and I had a new setup!

This is what I’m using currently:

Tank setup, side view

My tank setup

As you can see, this is a seriously high tech design!  It’s just my little aquarium, about 1/3 full of water (I use tap and let it sit a couple of days before I put things in it – more on this later) with some natural elements in it.  I usually just use the rocks on the bottom, but sometimes I get fancy and put a plant in too.

The main reason I liked the itty bitty aquaria I was using before was because there was only an inch of space between the two panes of glass.  A 2.5 gallon aquarium, while small, still gives the insects a LOT of space to move around. You don’t want to chase insects around, but also I’ve found that the more water you shoot through, the less crisp the final image. Happily, my aquarium came with the world’s worst lid, a sheet of glass with a little plastic handle.  I stuck the whole thing inside my aquarium as a barrier:

Tank setup, top view

My tank, from the top

With this extra sheet of glass, I can keep everything close to the front of the aquarium.  I hold the whole thing in place by jamming a pair of feather forceps between the handle of the lid and the lip of the tip of the aquarium, because I’m fancy that way.  I tend to keep all of my decorative/substrate elements near the front, though you can add plants and larger rocks behind the barrier or prop a printed blurry image of greenery behind the aquarium to give it a more natural look.  I alternate between using a printed background, using a plain sheet of paper (gives the resulting image a bit more of a white box feel), and opening my curtains and letting diffused light backlight my little tank.

As for my camera and flashes, because you definitely need flashes to make this work, I’ve been keeping things really simple!  In the past, I was using my Nikon with my wireless twin flashes blasting diffused light through the water from either side of the tank.  Recently, I have been using my Canon 7D and MP-E 65 lens.  Because I don’t have a good way to mount my diffused Canon twin flashes to the sides of the tank (they’re not wireless like the Nikon flashes), I just mount them right onto the lens like I would if I were shooting terrestrial insects.  I hand hold my camera, then try to shoot straight through the glass.  If you angle the camera more than a little from head on, you not only get flash glare on the glass, but you start to get some crazy glass aberrations.

I feel like I’ve been getting some good results from this setup.  Here’s a freshly hatched giant water bug nymph:

Giant water bug nymph, Belostoma flumineum

Giant water bug nymph, Belostoma flumineum

… and a damselfly:

Damselfly nymph

Damselfly nymph

This highlights the wingpads on a Tramea dragonfly nymph:

dragonfly nymph wingpads

Dragonfly nymph’s wingpads. Notice that you can see all of the veins of the wings developing inside!

Here’s a water scorpion head:

Water scorpion head, Ranatra nigra

Water scorpion head, Ranatra nigra

And this is a water strider with a deformed wing, sitting on top of the water:

Water strider

Water strider

I also tried shooting with my little Canon Powershot G15 camera with this setup and got some interesting shots! I’m feeling good about this one.

There are some things to keep in mind with this technique.  You’ve got to keep the glass as clean as you can.  Don’t touch the front of the glass and try not to scratch it.  You also have to keep the water as clean as you can, so avoid adding a lot of algae covered items and other stuff that will muck up the water. Air bubbles are a HUGE problem if you don’t let the water sit for a while.  Don’t try to shoot the same day you put water in the tank or you’ll get a thousand little air bubbles that will show in your images.  If you let the water sit, not only will the chlorine vaporize, but the air bubbles will largely dissipate. You can get rid of any lingering bubbles by giving the side of the tank a good tap and shaking the water a bit.  However, you also don’t want to let the water sit TOO long.  Once the water evaporates, you’ll get buildup above the water line if you’ve got any impurities in your water and those will show up as streaks through your images. I dump all the water and clean out my tank periodically to get rid of the buildup. I scrub the entire interior of my tank with a nylon dish scrubber and a mixture of equal parts Dawn dish soap and vinegar.  It smells absolutely terrible, but I end up with sparkling clean glass!  Just be sure you rinse really well, and then use a microfiber cloth to dry the outside of the tank so you don’t get too much lint.  I usually fill my tank as soon as I clean it so I don’t have to bother drying the interior.

So that’s my current setup and I know it will be easy for lots of you to duplicate! I am sure I’ll change things up again at some point, but this is working for me now and I’ll likely stick with it for a while.  Please feel free to try this for yourself. If any of you end up using this technique – or have others you’d like to share – I hope you’ll share the results with everyone in the comments! It would be fun to see what other people are coming up with!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Best of the Dragonfly Woman 2013

Alex Wild has called on all nature loving bloggers to once again share their favorite photos from 2013.  Because I can’t resist that sort of fun, I’m going to make a contribution.  Here goes!

This has been a crazy year for me and I haven’t been able to blog as much as I normally like to.  My dad’s passing in March was an especially difficult blow – don’t think  I realized how much energy and life that sucked out of me until several months later – but a series of other less than ideal things have happened since.  I’m hoping 2014 will prove to be a better year than 2013, but it wasn’t ALL bad!  And even when things weren’t going quite like I might wish, I found myself turning to my camera over and over as a way to focus my mind on something else for a while – and I got some shots that I’m proud of.  I haven’t shared more than a tiny fraction of my photos for the year with you all, and certainly not as many as I would have liked, but here are my best of 2013, arranged in approximate chronological order of the events in which they were taken.

Windowsill Insects

I became fascinated with the dead insects in windowsills in January this year, after finding this beauty in the windowsill in my boss’ office one day:

Sculptured pine borer

Sculptured pine borer

I’ve since collected and photographed many windowsill insects.  It’s an especially great activity to do in the winter when there aren’t all that many live insects outside to photograph.

Science Online 2013

I have wanted to go to Science Online ever since I learned of its existence, and I was able to go this year!  My favorite moment was not at the actual conference however, but a trip to a local bar with several entomologists that were attending the conference.  This photo isn’t great, but I love it because it reminds me of a fun night, and depicts two lovely, wonderful entomologists,  Alex Wild and Matt Bertone:

Alex and Matt laughing

Alex Wild and Matt Bertone – this is what most of us looked like during our entire outing

A lot of you already know that Alex is an amazing photographer, but so is Matt! If you haven’t ever seen any of his images, please look him up on Flickr.  It’s well worth it!

A Trip to Washington D. C.

My husband and I went to D.C. for a few days in May, just to get out of town.  I took this monarch photo in the butterfly exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History:



That was my first decent monarch picture, though I have since gotten others in the wild that I like just as well.

Dragonflies Emerge in the Pond

I’d never had a camera with me when I’d seen a dragonfly emerge before I got this shot:

Eastern pondhawk emerging

Eastern pondhawk emerging

… and this one:

Carolina saddlebags emerging

Carolina saddlebags emerging

I watched and photographed six emerging dragonflies for over an hour.  It was so serene and peaceful, and it was a beautiful day.  It was just what I needed, a magical experience I’m going to remember forever.

The New Camera

I bought myself a present in June, a Canon 7D with an MP-E 65 lens.  I absolutely LOVE the camera!  The MP-E 65 lens has a bit of a learning curve, but it was everything I hoped it would be.  Here are some of my first shots:

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Blue dasher

Blue dasher

I think this is my favorite shot of the whole year actually:

I just love the way that beetle is peeking his head around the siding on my house!

National Moth Week 2013

The second annual National Moth Week took place in July.  I attended a moth workshop, a blacklighting event, hosted a moth night at work, and visited my porch light every night.  Part of my zeal for moths this year was driven by the purchase of my new camera, but I got several shots I really liked.  These were both shot during the day with just my point and shoot at the moth workshop:


Luna moth

My first ever luna in North Carolina!  And then there was this imperial moth:

Imperial moth

Imperial moth, Eacles imperialis

First ever sighting of that species period.  I think this, however, was my favorite moth from the week:

Small tolype moth

Small tolype, Tolype notialis

It’s a small tolype, which I’d never heard of before I looked it up in my field guide the night of my moth night at work.  I just love this moth (as a friend of mine would say, it’s fuzzylicious!), and I think I may have been the only person to see it that night.  Somehow that makes it even more special.

My First NC Lethocerus

I found my first large giant water bug, Lethocerus uhleri, in the pond at work one day in late summer.  I was teaching some 4 and 5 year olds how to collect some citizen science data in the pond when I found it.  I was SO excited that I started jumping up and down.  Those kids thought I was nuts, but look how spectacular this insect is!

giant water bug eyes

Wow.  I hadn’t ever really looked at their eyes that closely until the day I got this photo, but they are stunning.

Butterfly Count 2013

We do an annual butterfly count at Prairie Ridge, part of a larger county-wide count.  We only had a team of two this year, but we saw some fun things.  This was my favorite photo from the count:

Horace's duskywing

Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatius

Skippers aren’t always the most stunning butterflies, but this was my first Horace’s duskywing and I thought it was rather beautiful.

Visit to Duke Gardens

Did my first visit to the Duke Gardens in late summer this year and it was amazing!  Caught this pair of amorous soldier beetles there:

Soldier beetle lovin

Soldier beetle lovin’

Dragonfly Migration 2013

We never did get very many green darners at the pond at work this year, but there was a nice little surge of them during the migration, which just happened to coincide with an educational dragonfly walk I led.  We caught several dragonflies in nets to get a closer look, and this was one:

Green darner on my knee

Green darner on my knee

I took this one with the cruddy little, VERY cheap digital camera we have at work, which served to remind me that the camera you have with you is the best camera, regardless of the quality.

Winter Aquatic Insects

It’s been chilly in North Carolina recently, so there aren’t many insects out. So, I’ve started bringing aquatic insects home to photograph in my aquatic “studio” (an aquarium with a piece of glass inside to limit the movement of the bugs).  There are my recent favorites:

Photographing aquatics like this takes a lot of patience, but I think it’s well worth it in the end.

So those are my favorites for the year!  If you have your own list of your favorite science and nature photos from 2013, Alex Wild is collecting links to posts and/or collections over on his Scientific American blog, the Compound Eye.  I hope you’ll consider making your own contribution!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: New Toys!

I mentioned in the post I wrote just before my recent trip to California that I had gotten some new toys: new cameras.  Most excitingly, I have long coveted the Canon MP-E 65 lens, so I bought myself my first Canon DSLR!  I couldn’t be happier with that purchase.  I knew the lens would have a bit of a learning curve as it doesn’t have a focusing ring, but I LOVE the lens!  You’ll be seeing a lot more photos taken with that camera, I’m sure, but this is one of my favorites from my very first Canon DLSR shoot:

Green lynx spider

Green lynx spider

That’s a green lynx spider sitting on one of the black-eyed susans that’s awaiting planting in my native plant bed.  I can already tell that I am going to get a LOT of use out of my new toy.  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Steve Maxson’s Photos

Guess what? After I shared my aquatic insect photo setup on Monday, the wonderful photographer I learned it from, Steve Maxson, got in touch with me and said I could share a few of his photos with you! So, I wanted to give you a sample of the images that inspired me to start photographing aquatic insects the way I described in my post on Monday. I think you’ll be impressed, as I am!

First, a giant water bug, genus Lethocerus:

giant water bug with mites

Giant water bug, Lethocerus sp., with mites

All those little red blobby things on the bug are mites, sucking away at its blood. (Aside: for whatever reason, I see tons of mites on Lethocerus and very few on the back brooding giant water bugs, Abedus and Belostoma. Wonder why…) The mites are always kinda gross, but I can’t help but be fascinated by them. Mites. They’re pretty cool little arachnids! And did you know that Lethocerus have eyelashes? Okay, they’re not like our eyelashes, but there is a dense fringe of hair behind their eyes that certainly looks like eyelashes. You can see it in the photo!

Next up is a photo of a predaceous diving beetle larva breathing at the surface:

predaceous diving beetle at surface

Predaceous diving beetle breathing at the surface, Dytiscus sp.

I think that is a fantastic photo showing a really cool larva doing a neat behavior. I love this shot! And here’s an adult predaceous diving beetle, doing essentially the same thing, without the really long tail:

Predaceous diving beetle

Predaceous diving beetle (Acilius sp., I think)

Predaceous diving beetles are beautiful, unbelievably graceful insects. I mean, look at that beetle! She’s amazing, and I think Steve captured her beauty wonderfully.

And last but not least, here’s a water boatman:

Water boatman

Water boatman

According to Steve, this image is a focus-stacked composite of 19 shots, done in Zerene Stacker. Super cool! You can see the little scoop-shaped front legs, the long, oar-like hind legs, and the air bubble that helps it breathe really well in this shot. These bugs always remind me of T. rex: itty, bitty front legs! But those legs are good at what they do too, scooping up algae and holding it near their mouthparts so they can eat. Unlike most other aquatic true bugs, there guys are vegetarians.

Steve also sent a photo of his aquatic insect photo studio setup, in case any of you are interested in seeing how his differs from mine:

Steve Maxson's aquatic insect photo setup

Steve Maxson’s aquatic insect photo setup

He uses a bigger aquarium than I do (2.5 gallon), so he uses a piece of Plexiglass to keep the bugs close to the front of the aquarium. You can see that sticking out of the top. Also, Steve likes to have natural vegetation in his shots, so you can see the plants in the aquarium. I rarely use plants myself, but I have to admit that, looking at these shots again, they do add to the ambiance of the images quite nicely. Might need to reconsider my “no clutter” stance! Finally, you’ll notice that this is located in a garage or workroom and isn’t sitting on the dining table like it is at my house. I’ll bet my husband wished I didn’t take everything indoors! It would certainly cut down on the number of times I find escapees, like the one I shared yesterday. :)

So those are a few shots by Steve Maxson, the inspiration behind my current aquatic insect photography practices! If you’d like to see more of his photos, and I highly encourage you to do so, he’s got a whole gallery of aquatic insects that you can view on You’ll have to make a Bird Photographers account to view them, but I think it’s worth it. Lots of other great aquatic insects to see!

Thanks, Steve, for letting me share some of your photos. I really appreciate it!

Update: Steve’s wife tells me that his tank is actually in their basement and they do occasionally find loose aquatic insects flying around their house. Guess I’m not the only one with this problem! :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Aquatic Insect Photography Setup

Over the past few years I’ve had several people ask me how I photograph aquatic insects.  I think it’s time I share my method!  Hope this will help some of you take some amazing aquatic insect shots – and I hope you’ll also share links to your own aquatic insect photos/photo setups so we can all learn from one another.  I’m sure my method isn’t the best out there, so I would love to hear about alternatives!

For the first few years I had my blog, most of the aquatic insect photos I took were either taken with a camera mounted on a microscope or in a white bowl full of water.  Either method works okay, but there are major problems with each, especially with the equipment I had to work with.  I got a few decent shots with both, but I never got the kind of jaw-dropping, awesome shot that I was hoping to get.  I was beginning to despair.

Then I went to Bug Shot in 2011.  There I had a conversation with Stephen Maxson.  He showed me some of his amazing aquatic insect photos and how he set up his equipment to take the shots.  It looked easy, so I was eager to try it out when I got home.  It was revolutionary!  Suddenly I was getting a lot closer to getting the kinds of shots I wanted of insects in water.  So, thank you Stephen Maxson for teaching me your method!  And if you reading this ever have a chance to see any of his photos (he posts them on bird forums, not a blog or a personal website, and I am having a bear of a time tracking one down to share…) I know you’ll enjoy them.

So, here’s my setup, which has only very minor variations from what Stephen showed me:

My aquatic insect photography setup

My aquatic insect photography setup

It’s really simple!  Just a small aquarium, a couple of diffused flashes set on either side of the aquarium, and something to prop up a background with.  I use a small photo album for the latter, and use either a piece of fabric or paper as the background.  You can also print indistinct, blurry images of pond plants or other natural scenes to use as a background for a more natural look (what John Abbott does for his awesome aquatic insect shots!), but I personally like using solid colors.  Totally up to you and your personal tastes!

The aquarium is the most important part.  In my experience, you want to keep the insect as close to your lens as you possibly can, so minimizing the space in which the insect can move is a plus.  You can either use a piece of glass or Plexiglas to push the insects toward you in a purchased aquarium or make your own.  I used the custom aquarium you see in the photo for some research I did in Arizona and found that it worked marvelously for photographing insects in water.  I built a similar one as soon as I moved to North Carolina so that I could continue photographing my aquatics.  Building a custom aquarium is simple: just buy some glass, have someone cut it to the size you want, and assemble the pieces with aquarium sealant.  Easy!  My only piece of advice is that you use thinner glass than I did (1/4 inch).  The glass isn’t perfectly clear, so between that and the water, there are always distortions in the photos I take with my custom aquaria, both the ones I left behind in Arizona and the one I built here.  Thinner glass is more fragile, but should result in sharper images.

Diffusing the light is important as well so you don’t have a harsh, bright glare glinting off your bugs.  I use Alex Wild-style diffusers, little sheets of frosted white mylar.  I connect them to my Nikon R1 flash system flashes with nylon ponytail holders and then set them on their stands on either side of the aquarium.  That way, you have light shining on the insect from both sides and can eliminate as many of the shadows as possible.  My flashes are tiny, so I have to bump the intensity up, but they’re conveniently wireless.  If you have a Canon or other camera, you may need a remote flash trigger to make this work.

Then it’s just a matter of propping a background up behind the aquarium, filling your container with water (I used filtered whenever possible to keep the water as clear as I can), dropping the insect in, and snapping some photos!  You can add other pondy things to the water to make it look more natural – larger rocks, algae, floating vegetation, cattails/reeds, etc – or you can leave the water clear.  The more stuff you have inside, the less light is likely to hit your subject, so I tend to leave the water clear.  But then I also don’t like to have the clutter of other things in my shots.  Again, go with whatever works for you!

And that’s it!  A little glass container, a couple of flashes, a piece of paper, and a camera and you’re set!  With my setup, because I have such thick glass in my aquarium, I can’t get perfectly clear, crisp shots, but it’s a huge improvement over what I was able to do in the past.  For example, compare this shot of a predaceous diving beetle taken through my microscope…

Predaceous diving beetle under microscope

Predaceous diving beetle under microscope

to this shot taken with the setup above…

Thermonectus nigrofasciatus

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.

There’s really no comparison.  Likewise, here’s a caddisfly I shot in a white bowl…


Caddisfly in white bowl

… and here’s one shot as described above:

Phylliocus aeneus

The caddisfly Phylliocus aeneus wandering around the rocks.

The insects look SO much better in the aquarium, shot through the side with soft, diffused light, than I could ever manage with my microscope or bowls.  I am still no Jan Hamrsky and there’s always room for improvement, but I think at this point I’m going to focus on improving the glass in my aquarium rather than adopting a new setup because I like this one.  It’s easy to use, relatively portable, and produces nice images – it works well for me and my style.

If you have your own setup for aquatic insects, I’d love to hear about it!  Just leave a comment below and tell me about your setup.  And if you haven’t ever tried photographing insects, give it a shot!  I think it’s a ton of fun, so see what you think.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Leggy

When I went to Bug Shot in August, I came across dozens of different spiders.  I almost walked into the web of this one, and caught sight of it just before I ended up with a spider on my face:



Now I’m not entirely sure how I would respond to having a spider on my face, but I used to be really scared of spiders when I was a kid (I had recurring nightmares about them being in my bed!) and I suspect that would come pouring back out if face-spider contact had occurred.  Thankfully, I noticed it in time and snapped a few shots of this beauty rather than screaming like a little girl and making a total idiot out of myself in front of all the other bug lovers at Bug Shot. :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth