Insects in White Boxes

My grand plans for finishing a blog post about giant water bugs this weekend were thwarted by a migraine.   So, today’s post is going to be quick and easy instead!  I’ll prep the water bug post for next week.

I have always admired photos of insects and other animals taken in white boxes.  There’s something about putting animals in front of a white background that I just love.  There is no competition for the subject, so your eye is drawn immediately to the part of the photo the photographer wishes to highlight.  And, they’re really fun photos to take!  I’ve taken white box photos for over a year now, but when I attended BugShot 2011, I learned how to use my flashes to brighten my white box subjects much more effectively than I had done in the past.  Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun with the technique and have spent a fair amount of time practicing.  Today I’ll give you a few examples.

My favorite white box subjects are palo verde beetles.  There’s a huge adrenaline rush associated with bringing a very large, heavily armored, angry insect indoors, stuffing it into a white box, and then flashing the hell out of it.  This was taken last summer, a few months before BugShot:

Palo verde beetle

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

This mantispid (aka, mantisfly – you can probably tell how this insect got its common name!) was taken at BugShot:


Green mantisfly (Zeugomantispa minuta)

The green on this insect was stunning, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive taken in nature as it blended nicely into the environment.  The white box brings out the bright green colors so perfectly.

This photo from BugShot features a dobsonfly (or fishfly, depending on who you ask – I call them all dobsonflies) as it spread its wings to fly:


Dobsonfly (Chauliodes sp.)

I know it’s not a perfect photo, but I really love it for some reason.  It’s my favorite of all the photos I took at BugShot actually.  Figures I would pick the big, scary looking aquatic insect as my favorite!

The next few photos were taken about a month ago after collecting giant water bugs for my research.  This caterpillar was crawling up the leg of my friend’s husband as he drove us home:


Hualapai buckmoth caterpillar (Hemileuca hualapai)

All those little spikes are stinging hairs, or, as we entomologists like to call them, urticating spines.  My friend wisely decided to scoop the caterpillar off her husband’s leg with a plastic bag leftover from my lunch rather than pulling it off with her hands, so she didn’t get stung.  It was an absolutely stunning caterpillar though, so into the white box it went!  These were also present in abundance at the same site:

Cicada molt

Cicada molt (Tibicen cultriformis)

I came home with the shells of several cicadas (shown here) and an adult that I found dead in a stream.  These are BIG cicadas!  That shell is over an inch long.  I might eventually do a post about this cicada with the sound clip that I recorded while we were collecting that day.  The song builds as hundreds or thousands of cicadas each make a brief call after they hear their neighbors calling, creating a sort of wave of sound that builds up, washes over you, and then recedes into the distance.  Imagine people doing the wave at a baseball game, then imagine the sound equivalent – that’s what it’s like.  It’s amazing!

Even though it’s not exactly the same technique, I like taking photos of aquatic insects using a sort of pseudo-white box technique.  Put a live aquatic insect into a white bowl, shine some lights into the water, and shoot!  You can only get photos from the top this way, but they give me the same lovely, bright white background as the white box photos I love so much.  An example is this creeping water bug photo:

creeping water bug

Creeping water bug (Ambrysus sp.)

White box photos are so fun!  I love the way the colors of the insects pop and how you’re instantly sucked into looking at the fine details of the insects.  There is a downside though: while pretty, these photos show virtually nothing about the environment in which the insects live or the behaviors they exhibit.  Take the creeping water bug.  If you didn’t know it was aquatic, would you be able to tell that it was from the photo?  I think not.  The caterpillar didn’t do anything except wander around the white box, so it was wholly uninteresting behaviorally, even if I did get several nice shots of it.  Still, I can’t help but love the aesthetic of white box photos, so I keep taking them.  You just need to know where and when to use them most effectively.

Speaking of using white box photos, Alex Wild at Compound Eye recently posted about a conservation group that is trying to raise awareness of plants and animals by photographing them in front of white backgrounds.  It’s not exactly a white box, but the group has created a system that several different photographers take out into the field with them to shoot with similar results.  The images are gorgeous, so I highly recommend that you read Alex’s post and visit their website, Meet Your Neighbours.  It’s like walking into a visual candy shop for me!

Does anyone else shoot white box photos of insects?  I would love to see some of your work if you care to provide some links in the comments section!  And look for that giant water bug post next Monday.  I’m excited about posting it, so I hope you will all enjoy it.


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8 thoughts on “Insects in White Boxes

  1. Some nice (and rather ugly :p) ones there. Personally I shoot all my bugs in their natural environment but there’s always the option of letting the background go black, kind of the same thing only opposit.

    • Although I do enjoy the white box photos, I still take most of my photos in the field without the white box. I’ve got thousands of photos of insects taken in the field and a few hundred taken in white boxes, so you can see where my preferences usually lie. I do find the “white box” photos very useful for aquatic insects though! I don’t have a waterproof system for any of my cameras, so it’s very difficult to get decent photos of them in the field. Bringing them inside or dumping them into a white pan for photos is a great way to get decent shots that show enough detail to bother with. Terrestrial insects are a lot easier to photograph in their natural environment!

      BTW, I looked at your bug photos. Nice! I like.

  2. I’ve not done many bugs in a white box but after trying it at BugShot I’ll definitely do more of it. While I highly prefer a natural environment shot there are some advantages to white box as well. For identification purposes there can definitely be some advantages. As you say it’s easier to isolate the insect from the background, it puts all the focus on the insect, and it can be easier to isolate or highlight a specific part of the insect. I’m trying to work out something to allow me to photograph some of the smaller aquatic insects from the side. I was trying to shoot some Phantom Midge (Chaoborus) larva the other day and I am going to have to come up with a better way than a bowl or aquarium.

    • Yeah, I really need to look into figuring out a way to waterproof one of my cameras so I can work in natural aquatic habitats. Or buy a waterproof camera now that there are a few that fall into the macro range I insist all of my cameras have. I’d be interested in hearing what you come up with for your phantom midges and see your photos! Those things are so cool…

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