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Photographing aphids and other small insects

How we get the best ultra-macro-photographs from a DSLR

Brightwell, R., Dransfield, R.D., & Featherstone, A.W. (July 2018)
On this page: Summary Traditional methods Post-digital Common problems How to solve them Some practical issues Examples of equipment

Very very briefly

Macro photography is extreme close-up photography. (In the past the term was sometimes used to refer to taking very large photos!).

For digital single lens reflex (DSLR) ultra-macro photography of insects: Use flash. Minimize aperture. Minimize ISO. Set everything to manual. Save to hi-res jpg. And learn to take control.

If none of that makes sense to you, read on...


A little history: traditional insect micrographs & macro-photographs

A micrograph is a photograph taken using a microscope. (Beware: Canon describe some of their macro-lenses as micro-lenses).
A T-mount is effectively a light-excluding tube, with non-reflective inner surfaces, which enables a camera to be fixed to a lens-assembly such as a microscope.

Photography showing details of very small insects started with micrographs of insects permanently mounted on glass microscope slides. The technology for these has changed little since the mid-1900s. You require a microscope with good quality lenses, suitable illumination, a camera, a T-mount - and an appropriately long exposure time...

Such images, given the optics of light-microscopes, have little or no depth of focus - so are usually of suitably prepared, immobile very-flat dead specimens, sometimes clarified and stained to reveal key features.

For example, this micrograph shows an adult viviparous (live-young-bearing) wingless female Rhopalosiphum padi, the bird cherry - oat aphid.

Image of clarified permanent mount courtesy PaDIL. Copyright Simon Hinkley & Ken Walker (Museum Victoria) under Commons Attribution 3.0 Australian License.

This dead, alcohol-preserved, insect was boiled in (among other things) alcohol and potassium hydroxide - in order to remove fats, oils, waxes, internal organs and suchlike.

The resulting ghost-like aphid outer-skin is mounted on a glass microscope slide.

As a result the aphid is almost completely flat and semi-transparent, enabling you to see both its dorsal and ventral features.


From the 1930s onwards, electron microscopes (which use electrons instead of light) enabled scientists to produce exquisitely detailed high-contrast high-magnification micrographs. Transmission electron microscopes (TEMs) give little or no depth of focus, but scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) can give a high depth. All EM micrographs are in greyscale (black and white) unless their images are artificially colorized.

For example, this scanning electron micrograph shows an "aphid on a wildflower" obtained using an JEOL 35C scanning electron microscope.

Image public domain, by Louisa Howard, Rippel Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College, UK.

This insect was flash-frozen whilst still alive, then metal-coated to reflect the electrons used to obtain this image. In order to prevent those electrons being scattered by air molecules, the prepared specimen was scanned under vacuum.

Thus, whilst it may appear alive, this aphid was most emphatically very dead indeed.

The image is grey because colour is a property of photons (light visible to the human eye), not electrons.


Electron microscopes are not suitable for an individual field worker to carry around in their backpack. Nor are they cheap. They range from £95000 for a (new) transmission microscope to perhaps £700000 for a (new) scanning electron microscope. Also, until quite recently, electron microscopy tended to cook biological material.

Digital cameras record images onto re-usable memory, rather than expensive single use film - and include all manner of clever software to automate your photography.
The advent of digital cameras had little impact upon photographs taken using a microscope - albeit camera-equipped mobile phones are used for 'quick-and-dirty' low-resolution shots.

Until recently live aphids required very specialized equipment and personnel to photograph. This was usually done under controlled conditions - aphids being very small 3-dimensional objects, and liable to move. The same points apply to specimens in liquid preservative (known as wet-preparations), except they do not move - at least not under their own volition.

Macrophotography of live aphids under field conditions, using photographic film, was even more difficult - but, if you wanted usable close-ups, they tended to be frighteningly expensive and time-consuming. In addition, colour photos generally require more light than black and white ones.


How digital changed things

The advent of digital photography, especially digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras, has improved matters considerably for macrophotography of live aphids - but several issues remain.

Modern sensors have more pixels per inch, but lots of pixels don't compensate for poor lenses.

Full frame sensor cameras have a physically large image sensor (hence more pixels) - so are bulky. Most DSLRs are crop sensor.
To obtain top-quality photos of live aphids in the field, professional photographers prefer a full frame sensor DSLR, with a long focal length macro-lens, and lens mounted flash(s).

Whilst DSLR results can be very good, they require a suitably deep pocket, and a certain amount of photographic and biological knowledge.

This camera is a Canon EOS 6D crop sensor DSLR, with a Tamron 90mm 1:1 macro lens.

Image by nubobo from Iwata, Shizuoka, Japan, Copyright CC BY 2.0, via via Wikimedia Commons.

Bridge cameras fill a niche between the single-lens reflex cameras (SLRs) and the point-and-shoot camera. They usually have an electronic screen rather than an optical viewfinder, and are of similar size and weight to the smallest DSLR.

Recent bridge cameras can also yield good macro-photographs but, whilst sophisticated and user-friendly, they are not suitable for ultra-macro work.

Aside from the virtual disappearance of professional photographers, for aphid photography the advent of mass-produced digital cameras has produced two very different outcomes:

  1. A huge number of very poor-quality images from mobile phones and their ilk are passed around, lodged on gardening websites, social-network sites, and some of the more popular insect identification sites. In many cases, if not the vast majority, the aphids are simply unidentifiable.

  2. Wildlife enthusiasts (both amateurs and professional biologists), equipped with crop sensor DSLRs and (usually) 90 mm macro-lenses, are producing quite a number of photos - often under field conditions - some of which are strikingly good.
This is the aphid Liosomaphis berberidis taken with a Nikon D3300 DSLR camera, a Tamron 90mm 1:1 macro lens, and two Jessops DG2X teleconverters.

Photographed at F/64, at 1/200 second, ISO 200, using flash, manual exposure and auto white balance.

Image by InfluentialPoints, Copyright CC BY 3.0

Since ultra-macro-photography is a rather specialized field, whilst we expect the technology will continue to improve, it is possible to greatly improve image quality with that sort of currently-available and modestly priced equipment - given a little knowledge.


Common problems

  • The most common problem is insufficient magnification. If your subject occupies less than 5% of your photograph, then no amount of enlarging and editing will give you a worthwhile picture. You cannot reveal information which is not there!

    With old-fashioned paper photographs there was no confusion regarding image size, quality, and resolution. With digital images people often confuse image size in inches (or cm) with image size in pixels (or dots) with image size in bytes (or kilobytes or megabytes) with its file size following image "compression".

  • The other common problems we observe are poor lighting (either inadequate or excess lighting), partly out-of-focus images (often with very little depth of field) and artefact-ridden images (full of lines and ripples).

    These partly arise because, with modern technology, "anyone can take a photograph" - and, for everyday purposes, it can work pretty well. For non-everyday work, it helps to know what you are doing. Note that having the camera sharpen the image prior to saving merely introduces additional artefacts! Many images get sharpened several times over: first by the camera's auto sharpen, then by image auto-editing, then by sharpening-during reduction...


How to solve those common problems

Solving those issues need not be especially expensive - provided you ignore much of the conventional wisdom for macrophotography.

Most photographer's idea of macrophotography is a close-up of someone's face. Wildlife photographers view it as photographing an insect which is between 10 and 50mm across. But aphids (and many other groups of insects) are much smaller - in some species the adults are less than 1mm long, and the details you need to be able to see for identification (such as antennal hairs) are very small - from 0.1 to 0.01 of a millimeter, or less. To see what is needed to identify an aphid, the insect should fill about 50-70% of the picture and be sharply in focus.

    Macro lenses offer at least 1:1 magnification - and, as opposed to telephoto lenses, are specifically for photographing small, close, objects.
  1. You first need a good 90 mm macro lens (such as a Nikon, Canon or Tamron) with a reproduction ratio of 1:1 or better.

    Our own preference for focal length is 90mm, as this means the distance between the object and the lens is not so small as to render good lighting difficult. If you have a Canon camera, you have the option of their new 5x macro lens which (for a price) gives you (nearly) all the the magnification you need in one go.

  2. An extension tube is a light-excluding tube between the lens and camera body, which increases magnification, but reduces lighting and depth of focus. Modern DSLRs require "auto-extension tubes", so your camera and lens can communicate.
    A teleconverter is a magnifying lens assembly between the camera body and the existing lens. It slightly reduces lighting, and may introduce aberrations.
    For users of other cameras, to improve magnification you will need to interpose either an extension-tube or a teleconverter between the 90mm lens and camera body.

    Whichever you use, ensure it has electrical contacts so that you can control the aperture of the attached lens (most DSLR cameras require this).
    Extension tubes can be less expensive, and are theoretically better because they do not introduce distortion, but a good teleconverter is easier to use (unless you have arms like a gorilla and cordination a gymnast would envy).

  3. A xenon-flash produces a very brief high-intensity flash - but is expensive on batteries.
    An LED flash produces a comparitively-long low-intensity flash - but is cheap on batteries.
    To improve lighting, you need to use a xenon-flash rather than sunlight or artifical light (or an LED flash) - preferably arranged as close as possible to the aphid(s).
    A ring-flash has a circular light-producing element, fitted with a light-diffuser, and mounted around the far-end of the camera lens.
    Camera flash diffusers scatter light, making its source effectively larger, which reduces shadows - but also the flash intensity. If all else fails a hankerchief is sometimes used.
    One or a pair of such flashes are better than a ring-flash unit, or a single-flash with diffuser.
    The camera's built-flash may suffice, if you bring it forward via an internally-reflective extension tube (albeit these are not commercially available).
  4. The auto-settings of a digital camera do the thinking for you - so are OK for the novice, given a set of common requirements. Aphid macrophotography is not a common requirement.
    As far as possible use manual settings rather than automatic settings.

    Digital camera ISO is akin to ASA of film. A low ISO yields sharp images, given enough light. A high ISO-setting needs less light, but gives less sharp, more grainy, images.
    The auto-focus, shake-reduction, auto-exposure, auto-aperture, auto-ISO, auto-sharpen and auto-noise-reduction were never designed for this sort of thing.

    With a bit of trial-and error you can produce far better results without them.

  5. jpeg (=jpg) is a "lossy" image-compression format. A high-quality jpeg compression looses little information, and introduces few artefacts, but takes more space (=kbytes, or Mbytes) to store.

    Low-quality jpeg images require less storage space, but have low resolution - and introduce, largely unremovable, jpeg artefacts.

    For most purposes, it is best to set your camera to save your images as "high-quality jpeg" files.

    Low-quality, highly-compressed jpeg files are generally a waste of time when photographing aphids.

    Uncompressed, "raw", TIFF, or other lossless-format files may be better in theory, but require frightening amounts of storage.

    Note: the image sizes quoted by image-selling websites are the image size (in MB) of a bitmap-file of equivalent size. For example if a camera has a 10 Megapixel (MP) sensor, at the conventional colour depth of 8 bits per pixel bitmap-format, each image would require about 30 Megabytes (MB) of storage.


Some practical issues

Since we are sometimes contradicting conventional wisdom, a few words of explanation are in order.

  1. Magnifying the image arriving at the camera's sensor enables you to "fit it to the frame" and obtain the best image resolution - and a correspondingly sharper image.

    Using several extension tubes or teleconverters increases the magnification, enabling you to photograph smaller objects. But - using these reduces the amount of light reaching the camera, and reaching your eye when trying to focus - they also mess up many of your digital camera's built-in auto features, including its response-time once you press the shutter release.

  2. By using a short-duration flash, you avoid motion blur (by reducing exposure time).

    F-stop is a measure of iris aperture. F/4 is a wide aperture, F/32 is a narrow aperture. A wide aperture permits more light to reach the camera image sensor, allowing shorter exposures, at a lower ISO. Narrow apertures give more depth of focus.

    Macro-photographers commonly advise using a large aperture to blur the background, and to use sunlight. That is very bad advice for aphid photography, given the issues described above.

    Flash also enables you to minimize the ISO (giving the least grainy image), and obtain a directional light source (which, unlike a ring-flash, gives some shadows and hence a less "flat-looking" image). Flash also compensates for including teleconverters or extension tubes - and allows you to minimize the aperture (ideally to F/32 or F/64) and obtain the best depth of focus.

    Diffusers can be used to "fill-in" unwanted shadows, but too much diffusion removes too much shadow - and reduces the light reaching your subject.

  3. Given a sharp well-lit image with adequate depth of focus, modern and relatively inexpensive image editing software (such as Adobe Photoshop Elements) can produce far better results (in your hands) than the automatic facilities designed for amateur or inexperienced photographers taking everyday shots.

  4. The background is still important! In "normal size" macrophotography a common approach is to blur the background by using a large aperture, so that your subject stands out. When photographing aphids, the situation is very different. Given the limited depth of focus inherent in using high magnification, using a wide aperture may mean you only get part of the aphid in focus. The background will often be out of focus, even when using a small aperture. Even if the background is not in sharp focus, avoid using an artifical background such as white cloth or netting. Photographs of aphids in their natural setting tend to look much better - and in addition the aphid's host plant and leaf architecture can be important. Bear in mind that features such as hairs may be more visible when taken against a contrasting background - for example when viewed in profile.

  5. Field or studio?? For most wildlife photography, photographing the animal in its natural environment is preferable to an artificial "studio" environment. For aphids there are many photos where the shot will have to be taken in the field.

    Aphids that feed on the trunk of a tree, such as the giant willow aphid, are a good example - taking part of a tree trunk back to the studio is a little problematic, even assuming the aphids stay in place. Photographing interactions with ants can often only be done in the field - especially with wood ants, which seldom behave naturally in the studio.

  6. Sometimes there are big advantages to taking the aphids on some cut plant back to the "studio" (= whichever room is available). The cut plant is needed to keep the aphids alive, and to provide a natural background. Wind and rain both make photography in the field problematic. Although most aphids are relatively immobile, at least when feeding, others are very active. Out in the field you will not have much choice about the matter, but back in the studio half an hour in the fridge will slow most species down, albeit not for very long. But watch out for condensation forming on the insect's body - it fooled us into thinking one species of aphid was wax covered when it was not!

Examples of equipment

A professional photographer's set-up

Camera body: Canon 5D Mark IV (30.4 MP sensor, £1900-3250 new) full frame sensor
Lenses: Canon MP-E 65mm f2.8 Macro 1:1 to 5:1 lens (£670-960 new)
    [or, not shown here, a Canon EF 100mm f2.8 Macro 1:1 lens (£520-600 new)]

Flash: Canon MT-24EX Macro twin lite flash unit (£650-900).

Image copyright Alan Watson Featherstone all rights reserved.

Alan Watson Featherstone:

"The twin lite flash unit is especially designed for macro photography, and provides good flexibility in terms of positioning the flash units to give optimal lighting.

All auto camera settings are disabled or set to manual, including exposure. To minimize ambient lighting, shutter speed is set at 1/200 of a second and, to get maximum depth of field, aperture is set at the smallest possible for each lens. For the 100 mm lens this is f32, and for the 65 mm lens this is f16. The under/over exposure function on the flash unit is varied to get the correct exposure.

With the 65 mm lens, especially at its maximum 5 times life size magnification, the depth of field is extremely limited and the image is quite dark when seen through the viewfinder, because of the long extension to the lens at this magnification, and the small diameter of the lens' front element. It is quite a challenging lens to use, and at 5 times life size it can be very difficult even to find the subject when looking through the viewfinder.

Almost all of my aphid photography is done with the camera handheld, but occasionally I'll use the 100 mm macro lens with the camera on a tripod, particularly if I want to shoot some video footage, in addition to taking still photos. - I've developed a technique of holding the subject in the fingers of my left hand, with the front of the barrel of the lens resting on my left hand, and I can then use the position of my hand as both a guide to find the subject through the viewfinder and to minimise the movement of the subject relative to the camera, so that it stays in the plane of focus.

With the 65 mm lens I will often take several photos in quick succession (determined by the flash recharging time) to make sure that I get an image where the subject is in the plane of focus."

A relatively low cost studio camera

Camera body: Nikon D3300 (24.2 MP sensor, £290 new) crop sensor

2 or 3 Teleconverters: Jessops DG2X N/AF

Lens: Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD (£440-580 new) with aperture conversion ring

Flash: Nikon close-up speedlight commander kit (2 lens-mounted directional flash, £520-659 new).

Image by InfluentialPoints, Copyright CC BY 3.0

Compared to its contemporaries, this excellent crop sensor DSLR has an unusually large sensor (ie. lots of pixels). The Tamron lens is also regarded as one of the best in its price range. Jessops teleconvertors are surprisingly good and reasonably priced at £40-80 (used) - they are sadly no longer manufactured, so look on e-bay. Kenco DG N/AF auto-extension tubes are £90-120 (new) but we prefer the teleconverters: partly because, in order to obtain an equivalent magnification using extension tubes, the assembly becomes over-long - and strains the couplings.

The Nikon close-up flash is specially produced for close-up photographic exposures, and is the least satisfactory component of the gear - it is overpriced and poorly engineered. The combined kit is too unwieldy, vulnerable and clumsy-to-use for field photographs - but can give remarkably good photos under studio conditions, albeit the flash kit is somewhat battery-hungry. This combination also has an annoying, unexplained, 1 second wait before each shot - even when everything is set to manual.

We take most aphid photos using two x2 teleconverters which means that (with experience) it is still fairly easy to find the subject in the viewfinder. This will produce a full frame picture for alatae of the larger species, and for a group of two to three apterous aphids (wingless adults). Adding a further teleconverter to give 8x will produce a full frame picture of an aptera, but finding the subject is difficult and depth of field is restrictive.

For maximum flexibility we grip a piece of plant hosting the aphids in a hobbyist's clamp, and steady the camera on a bean bag. We occasionally hand-hold, but never tripod-mount this camera - aside from its weight and unwieldyness, a tripod-mount puts too much strain on the lens couplings and camera body. To avoid unwanted heat, we use an LED anglepoise or LED desklamp to illuminate the sample when focussing.


A field camera

Camera body: Nikon D3200 (24.2 MP sensor) crop sensor

2 Extension tube sets: Kenko DG N/AF

Lens: Tamron SP AF Di 90mm 1:2.8 MACRO 1:1

Flash: Nikon speedlight SB-400 (£95-150 new)

Image by InfluentialPoints, Copyright CC BY 3.0

This camera body and lens are the slightly older counterparts of those above - with similar advantages (and no 1-second wait). When mounted in the camera's hotshoe, the flash only provided enough light for shots at ISO 400. Mounting the flash on the telephoto lens with a lead to the hot shoe greatly improved performance. This kit is good for field shots.

Prior to this camera's internal flash dying from overuse, we used an internally-reflective extension tube to concentrate the flash close to the subject. This inexpensive home-made device was made of plastic, and hence lightweight, rugged, did not need extra batteries and generally allowed us to shoot at ISO 100. It was as long as the lens, lined with aluminized mylar, held together with sticky tape, attached to the camera with elastic and velcro - and covered in "Fragile" tape (in case it was knocked off).


A low cost rig for wet preps

Camera body: Nikon DS80 (10.2 MP sensor) crop sensor

2 Extension tube sets: Kenko DG N/AF
 +  Extension tube set: unbranded non auto chinese-made
 +  Extension tube: home-made, card, black inside - to reduce reflections

OM B auto bellows (with Nikon to OM adapter)

Lens: Zuiko Macro 38mm

Flash: Centon FG30d with home-built extension lead.

Image by InfluentialPoints, Copyright CC BY 3.0

This rig is shown in its normal operating position. Note that, whilst having what is by current standards a small sensor, the DS80 will tolerate (contactless, inexpensive) non-auto extension tubes and old high-voltage-triggered flashes such as the FG30d. The Zuiko lens, which includes an F1 to F/16 iris, was intended for enlargements (as was the auto bellows). We modified the auto bellows camera-fitting from Olympus to Nikon.

Whilst not for field use, this inexpensive home-assembled combination of items - assembled vertically - is useful for shots of specimens in alcohol on microscope slides. All shots are taken using flash at F/16, and usually at ISO 100, with extension tube combinations from 30mm to 500mm. It fills the gap between ultra-macro shots, and micrographs using a microscope-mounted camera (which have little depth of focus). Specimens are immersed in 100% isopropyl alcohol (IPA), between a plain glass slide and coverslip, with one or more spacer rings.

Image by InfluentialPoints, Copyright CC BY 3.0


If you want to see what sort of kit others are using, flikr have a page called Show us your Macro gear.


Our thanks to the numerous people who contributed ideas, information, and the varied questions which prompted us to write this page. We especially thank Ian Dawson, whose comments about aphid photography and photographic equipment provoked much useful thought.