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