Early Risers: Photographing Bugs at Sunrise

The Early Bird Catches the Bug

I’ve been taking photos for a long time. That said, I got in the bad habit of taking tons of disjointed photos. That is, I was not thinking of my work as project based nor was I using my photos to really tell stories. Over the last few years, however, I’ve engaged in more project-based work. Last summer, I created several photo stories of various insects and this summer, I tried something entirely new – a photo series depicting insects and spiders awakening to the sunrise.

There are a few reasons bugs are great subjects to photograph at sunrise. First, insects, spiders, and other invertebrates are ectothermic, meaning they derive their bodily heat from external sources. In other words, invertebrates need sunlight to warm up and get moving. Finding and photographing bugs at sunrise often means that they are slow and sluggish, making them a bit easier to photograph. Another advantage of photographing invertebrates early in the morning is dew. When conditions are right, dew forms on still insects like moths and on surrounding plant material and this makes for wonderful photographs. For the purpose of my Early Risers photo series, the addition of the sunrise in each photo is a highlight.

Green Lynx Spider
Owl fly

How I Did It

Equipment: For this photo series, I used my Canon 70D with a reversed Canon EF 40mm ƒ/2.8 STM pancake lens and a Vello Macrofier Reverse Mount Adapter with my camera’s on-board flash and a Graslon Spark Flash Diffuser. This setup offers a 1.2:1 magnification ratio and it’s lightweight, low profile, and easy to maneuver with just one hand while your other hand helps hold steady your subjects. This is the same setup I use with most of my macro work.

Technique: To shoot each photo, it’s important to not shoot in direct sunlight (you could damage both your eyes and your camera). I position myself so I’m shooting sunlight filtered through trees or shrubs. It takes a bit of guesswork to position the sunlight in the frame of the camera. Where you position the sunlight in your viewfinder is not exactly where it will be in your final shot, but with some practice it gets easier. I generally steady the subject I’m photographing with my left hand and rest my camera (held by my dominant right hand) on my left wrist. This gives me the stability I need to effectively shoot bugs at a close distance. For those unfamiliar, the reverse lens technique offers very little working distance. The end of my lens is just 2-3 inches from my subject and I lack infinity focus. I use only manual focus by moving my camera back and forth slightly to focus my subject.

Settings: For most of my photographs shot with the above equipment, I use ƒ/11 to maximize depth of field while maintaining sharpness. Anything over ƒ/11 starts to get fuzzy due to lens diffraction. My shutter remains constant at 1/250 (my camera’s max synch speed). I have found that shooting with white balance set for shady or cloudy conditions produces the most true-to-life colors, though I sometimes have to correct for color cast in post processing. ISO tends to be the only setting I change, depending on lighting conditions. I usually shoot between ISO 100-200.

It’s important to understand your subjects while shooting. For example, some species of invertebrates are more tolerant to being photographed than others. As you practice, you’ll start to learn what movements may scare your subjects away and how to avoid those situations. My best helpful hint for all macro photography of bugs is this – shoot for the eyes. When you can’t get an entire creature in focus, be sure to get the eyes in focus (this may not be wanted or needed if you’re shooting purely for species identification or other scientific reasons).

The Results!

Stinkbug Nymph
Soldier Beetle
Jumping Spider

*All photographs depict healthy, living insects and spiders in their natural habitat.

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