Outdoor Photography Tips 31 - Shooting Ghosts - Insects in flight

OK. So I am sipping on my usual chocolate banana milkshake when (LIGHT BULB!!!) I cooked up this great idea. I would like to capture some insects with my macro lens. Not necessarily a new or dramatic idea, so I upped the mark just a bit and added the caveat, they have to be in flight, or just taking off. Ah, that is much better for the challenge.

Setting the milkshake down, I immediately sat down and tried to plan a way to shoot an insect in flight, without the expensive high-speed shutter, (which is very difficult even if you have one – which I do), so I could share this with you fellow wildlife enthusiasts. But many people I have talked to,desire answers to complicated questions without the expensive solutions. This is where I often excel. My wife calls it being cheap, but I think of it as being resourceful, thrifty, and other more pleasant words.

So, the first task at hand was planning to contain and capture images of subjects that could potentially vanish in a “blink-of-the-eye” - a camera ghost as it were. Now you see them, now you don't. I had to construct a chamber, or containment container with specific functions or attributes. Considerations? The container has to be portable (to take into the field if necessary, and not difficult to add or remove subjects. It has to be able to let light in from any direction so as to change the mood of the scene or subject, or even to apply light from a specific flight direction.

So these were my basic formula parameters. Designing and fabricating museum exhibits in the past has prepared me for one simple premise when planning a project – think of as many things that could go wrong before designing or buying the materials. With this in mind, my concept of transparent materials provided me with two possibilities -clear acrylic or glass. Acrylic is easier to fabricate into specimen containers. It also doesn’t suffer from the ease of breakage. It can also add a slight tint or color balance shift to the images - not something desirable but fixable in post possessing..

Glass, on the other hand, has no flexibility, and can be somewhat fragile if not properly handled in the field. But here is a significant advantage in favor for the use of glass. It is very hard - compared to acrylic. Scratches and abrasions from even wiping the acrylic clean will affect the images seen through the plastic. Bursts of light from an electronic flash illuminate any small scratches or abrasions on the surface and are a nuisance, if not destructive part of the image gathering. Glass, on the other hand, can be used over and over again. It can be cleaned, and unless you are taking sand or metal to the surface, it will last you a lifetime of shooting.

When purchasing glass, you can go to your local glass store. They replace windows, mirrors, bathroom doors, etc., and usually have anything you need in supply. The other advantage to glass is that it is less expensive to purchase than acrylic. Ask for Photo Frame glass. This is important. You want clear glass, do not get the non-glare surface. It will degrade the images. I chose Photo Frame glass. It is approximately half the thickness of window glass, but if you handle it properly, you will not find yourself breaking it. The thiness aids in light transmission too, and from, the subject.

The drawing below illustrates the photo chamber for small insects. You can make larger containers for small vertebrates such as: lizards, frogs, toads, mice, and the like, so consider glass when designing the chamber for invertebrates – mainly insects and spiders.

As you can see, the chamber has two sides and a bottom that are attached - or fixed together, and a front and back. The bottom has a 1” hole. I will explain the use of the hole later as it is an essential component. The lid is entirely removable, and slightly longer than the width of the container. (see figure 1)


Chamber dimensions are on the drawing. The chamber's depth is very narrow if you hadn’t already noticed. This provides the subject with enough space to move around, but limits the movement nearer and farther from the photographer, while providing ample room left to right and up and down. You are shooting with a limited DOF, so it is well and good that you have the subject in an environment that you will be able to restrict movement closer and father away. This provides you with more shooting opportunities as the insect takes wing.

Now why the one inch hole? This opening is the place where selected subjects enter the chamber. Specimens are captured in the field and placed in a small bottle with a 1” neck and lid. Since many insects and spiders are toxic and have a few different methods of delivering venom, you can reduce the possibility of the animal being released where it shouldn’t be. I have this ongoing discussion with my wife about venomous snakes as well. It seems she does not want any releases of snakes, spiders, scorpions, wasps, etc., into our house. Go figure, huh?

After capture, place the small bottle under the glass chamber and let the organism climb up and into the chamber via the hole from the bottle. This method provides both you and the subject protection from each other.

So why have a wide lid? Many flying insects are not particularly interested in staying in the container you place them in, thus they will be shooting right back out the opening if it is wide. And I must add, usually faster than you will be able to close said lid. But what the wide lid facilitates is your ability to clean the entire glass surface with your hand as it will fit inside easily from the top.

The second purpose for the hole is to provide you with an interchangeable backdrop. You will have a small piece of cardboard with an insect pin sticking perpendicular though the cardboard surface. This pin is used to hold small leaves, twigs, etc in the center of the enclosure for the insect to climb upon - usually before they decide to fly. This works for many of the beetles, as they prefer to be slightly elevated when taking off.(see figure 2)


I used silicon to adhere the 4 sides and bottom of the container together. It is easily acquired at a hardware or building supply store, and it sticks well to the glass.

Now go outside and collect your specimen. HINT: Hanging around your outside lights at night can be advantageous. It will usually provide more opportunity for captures.

Now for the camera gear. I don’t really care what camera or lens you use, but I will describe what I have set up, and you can work with what you have or modify the setup until it works for you. The techniques are as important, if not more important, than the equipment.

I use a 105mm micro lens for most of the high-speed shooting. It provides me with a bit of distance between me and the subject so I can observe what is taking place and better time the shots. I also incorporate a full-frame body. I have an older full-frame body I have dedicated for just this work. I purchased another 105mm micro lens for the other bodies I use in the field.

Let us now get to the lighting set up. If you are shooting the organisms in flight, it is really great (and basically essential), to have an electronic flash system of lighting. Good even lighting will be best delivered by a minimum of two (three is better) lights. I use four, and sometimes five speedlights for my shooting. They are inexpensive and also very portable. Manual units are the cheapest, and once you set the flash distance for the f/stop you intend to use, nothing really changes. Even the lens is set on manual focus. I fond autofocus useless in these situations.

Why do I use three flash units? The glass container resides inside a softbox to spread the light evenly, but a third light, really separates the target from the background. Behind the subject, I place one below or above the chamber.(see Fig 3 below Softbox with Lighting).


Now for the stage(as seen in Fig 2). Take a small piece of cardboard and stick an entomology pin through the center of it. The reason I mention and ent pin is they are very thin and you will be able to impale very thin and small leaf specimens without splitting them. Find a small leaf (small enough to fit through the hole in the bottom of the chamber(by folding if necessary). The leaf will now provide you something to focus on and adjust your lighting.

Move the flashes in and out to adjust to the f8 or f11 you have chosen to shoot with. Since you control the light distance, I pick the slowest ISO for the images. Doing so increases the effectiveness of the flash, while the lower ISO negates the ambient light from the exposure. Remember, when shooting with diffused lights, keep the flashes at least 6” from the diffusion material. Otherwise, having the flash right up next to the softbox material does nothing more than reduce your light output, not spread it.

Try to use the lowest light output settings on the flash. These can be 1/128th, 1/64th, 1/32th of a second. With one of those settings chosen, your flash duration should be shorter than 1/10,000th sec. This is what enables you to freeze the wings so you can see some of the detail. The camera should be set to manual; you choose the f/stop (I use 8 or 11).

When setting up the stage for the capture, it is very helpful to be able to control the subject’s movement. I don’t mean popping the insect in the fridge. What I am saying is an insect will have a infinite numbers of directions to move and your Depth of Field (DOF) will be very shallow. You need to control this three-dimensionality within the frame. Most insect will attempt to fly towards the better lit area when placed inside a container. This is behavior study. I always plug the photographer with “Be patient and watch the subject before shooting”, and the advice works here as well. If it is a bee or a fly, they will fly FACE FIRST against the glass. You should have your lens pre-focused on the space just beyond the back of the front glass window. Pull back and have the magnification about 1:3. An area 2” x 3” or even 3” x 4” will provide you with a much better chance of capturing an insect quickly skirting across the frame, against the front glass. Don’t attempt to capture a macro short of the insect in flight if you aren’t using a triggering system. Be sure to pull back some.

This is also why I use a micro lens instead of just a regular camera lens. The plane of focus is very flat for the micro and special macro lenses. Since your subject is flying parallel to the flat glass, they should be in focus quite often through the whole frame. You control the focus plane and reduce the three-dimensionality of the target. Also important is to shoot with the plane of the glass being parallel to the back of the camera. The more angle you shoot through(even though glass is better than acrylic)the more you increase the refraction and distortions you will view.(See camera setup photo below Fig 4). And be sure to have the flashes off to the side and not next to the camera. They will bounce the light right off the glass back into the lens.


If you are shooting beetles taking off, move the leaf so that the edge of it touches the front glass. Many of the insects will literally “climb the walls” to get out of the container. They will climb on to the leaf many more times if it is touching the glass walls, than they will find the stem in the center of the enclosure and climb it.

This is the important moment. Technique and behavior study is everything with this method of capture. When they climb on the leaf, is the time to be most attentive. Beetles have an elytra (the shell that covers the wings). The wings are folded up inside. When you witness that launch of a beetle, you are first presented a glimpse of the elytra opening, then the wings unfold, then the flapping. This moment, though brief as it is, is a lifetime, compared to a fly taking wing or a jumping spider leaping.

That brings up the subject of jumping spiders and flies leaping and taking off. You aren’t fast enough to capture one of these events without a trigger/high-speed shutter combo, or capturing a frame from an expensive slow motion camera. You could get lucky and capture by just anticipating when they are about to jump, but luck be with you on that one.

Well there you have it - a way to inexpensively capture some high-speed targets. Watch out for those bees and wasps getting loose in the house though, and, as always, happy ghost shooting.

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