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

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!

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