Macro Photography of Ants in the Field
of California, Davis
2. Ant Photography
3. Some Useful Links
First, the bad news.
photography of any kind is expensive. While a skillful artist
can make fantastic general photographs using as little as a home-made
pinhole camera, the unfortunate fact is that macro photography
requires a certain amount of equipment to achieve sufficient magnification
beyond the abilities of a basic photography set-up. This
equipment costs money. Often a lot of money. And unless
you regularly take thousands of photographs, digital equipment
only makes macro photography more expensive. So don’t say
I didn’t warn you, months from now when you find yourself destitute,
living in the street, your savings turned into lenses and flash
Now the good news:
makes everything easier, especially macro photography.
With digital equipment we gain instant verification of focus and
exposure in the field, complete control over our own image processing,
and we can take advantage of innovative camera designs that are
a great deal more flexible than film cameras. What's more, image
quality from the best digital cameras now matches that of 35mm
film, so the only cost of going digital is the price tag.
digital experience covers two very different photographic systems:
a mid-grade consumer digicam and a digital Single Lens Reflex
(SLR) camera. These each have advantages and disadvantages,
which I will discuss below.
Digicams: The Nikon Coolpix 995.
are great fun. They are small, self-contained point-and-shoot
cameras loaded with features from video recording to on-board
color correction and image sharpening. Most are designed
as idiot proof automatics, but also allow full manual control
over focus, aperture, and shutter speed. They’ve been freed
from some of the design constraints of traditional film cameras,
making photography easier and more flexible than the point-and-shoot
film cameras that they replace. Some of them take macro
photographs that are simply fantastic.
digicam is a Nikon
Coolpix 995. The 995 is part of a long line of Nikon
cameras that excel at macro. The 995 has since been discontinued,
but its successor, the Coolpix
4500, is a similar camera that has slightly improved resolution
and is a bit smaller and lighter.
What I like about the 995:
However, the 995 has some significant
- Macro capabilities. The
Coolpix lets one get within 2 cm of the subject, which allows
for powerful magnification. Achieving similar magnification
with an SLR system requires order-of-magnitude increases above
the 995 in system bulk and weight.
- Swivel design.
The lens part of the camera can swivel independently of the
camera that has the preview LCD, so I have the freedom to frame
a shot in the LCD without the bodily contortions needed to peer
through a viewfinder. I can hold the camera at waist or ground
level for shots of insects on low vegetation or the ground.
Here are some sample 995 images. They
have been compressed and shrunk down for web transmission. Click
on thumbnails to enlarge:
- Chromatic aberrations.
Little purple fringes at the edges of high contrast areas. Apparently,
this is a problem with most digicams, a function of how lens
aberrations interact with the sensor chip.
- Shutter lag of a second
or more between the time the shutter button is depressed and
the camera takes a photo makes well-timed action shots difficult.
- Low (3 Megapixel) resolution.
The number of megapixels determines how large an image can
be reproduced. 3 megapixels is fine for small prints, but anything
above 8x11" will pixelate. Bear in mind, however, that
3 megapixels is overkill for web/powerpoint use.
Paraguay. Nikon Coolpix 995. 1/30sec, f/6, natural light.
California. Nikon Coolpix 995. 1/2000sec, f/11, w/flash.
Digital SLR: the Canon EOS D60.
SLRs are little more than traditional film SLRs with a digital
sensing chip instead of a film back and an LCD screen that allows
review of images stored on the camera's memory chip. Photography
with digital SLRs is not terribly different than film photography,
except that images can be reviewed immediately in the field.
These are not self-contained units, as they require additional
lenses to complete the system. This can be a big plus if you are
already invested in a film SLR system and already have lenses,
flashes, and other accessories.
have a Canon
EOS D60. This machine has recently been replaced in Canon's
line-up with the similar Canon
EOS 10D, but my comments should apply equally to both. I also
have a pair of macro lenses, the Canon
EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Lens for general macro and the Canon
MP-E 65mm 1-5X Macro Lens for more extreme close-ups (really
useful for ants!).
What I like about the D60:
What I don't like about the D60:
- Image quality. Amazing!
- Flexibility in optics.
Lenses are interchangeable, so I have access to all sorts of
different lenses for different purposes. Canon makes some excellent
lenses, including fantastic macro lenses like the MP-E
- No shutter lag. Unlike
the 995, photos are taken the instant the shutter button is
Here are some sample D60 images.
They have been compressed and shrunk down for web transmission.
Click on thumbnails to enlarge:
- Size and weight. This
camera is a brick. It is not a simple little thing that I can
slip in my pocket and take hiking. Add in lenses and flash
unit and the system becomes very cumbersome.
- Sensor dust. Interchangeable
lenses expose the sensor to the environment every time I change
a lens. Dust builds up on the sensor over time, leaving
black specks on the photos that have to be cleaned in photoshop.
Cleaning the sensor is not too difficult, but it is inconvenient.
- No LCD preview.
This camera works just like a film SLR, and the mirror that
serves the viewfinder sits in front of the sensor until the
photo is taken. This means that pictures cannot be previewed
in the LCD. So it's back to lying in odd positions on the ground
to line up shots in the small viewfinder. Also, the image review
feature is not as good as it could be, although I hear that
Canon has improved this in the new 10D camera.
Canon EOS D60,
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x f/2.8 Macro Lens. Diffuse flash, 1/200sec,
Canon EOS D60,
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x f/2.8 Macro Lens. Diffuse flash, 1/200sec,
a general comment about both digicams and digital SLR's, the listed
price of the camera is short of what you will actually spend.
Most cameras ship with minimal memory and a single battery. Realistically,
you will probably need to acquire additional memory, extra batteries,
a camera case, a lens cleaning kit, and protective filters.
And that's just the beginning- you might want to invest in a good
photo inkjet printer, better imaging software, a tripod, a CD
burner for image storage, web server space to display your new
photos, plane tickets to exotic, photogenic locations...
in the field are difficult subjects compared to most insects.
The crux of the problem: small objects like ants need lots of
magnification to fill the frame. High magnification results
in a very narrow depth of field (for example, when the head is
in focus the rest of the body isn’t). Narrow depth of field can
be overcome somewhat by decreasing the aperture, but in order
to preserve the proper exposure with a small aperture we need
to keep the shutter open longer. Longer shutter speeds mean
that movements will translate into blur on the resulting photograph.
So we either get an ant that is blurry because the depth of field
is too narrow, or an ant that is blurry because it moved during
the ½ second that the shutter was open. The smaller
and faster the ant the more difficult the photo becomes. A good
shot of Forelius is darned near impossible!
are two solutions to this problem. The first is to find
immobile ants. (Unfortunately, Basiceros aren’t available
to most of us.) Some species will freeze briefly when alarmed,
every once in a while they freeze for long enough to line up a
shot or two. Ants can also be persuaded to sit still when
feeding from a drop of sugar water. The resulting photographs
appear remarkably natural, as the ants are bathed in ambient light.
But, this strategy leaves a lot in the hands of chance, and presumably
we don’t want all our ant photos to be either of ants drinking
or of ants looking alarmed.
sits still for the camera.
Nikon Coolpix 995.
A perfectly stationary,
alarmed Formica integroides.
Nikon Coolpix 995.
second option is to use a flash. Flash increases the amount
of light and decreases the amount of time that the shutter needs
to remain open for a proper exposure. With flash we can
get a crisp photo of a moving ant while still preserving depth
of field. The drawback, though, is that photos rarely look natural
with flash. The light can be harsh, producing glare on shiny
insects. Spot flashes leave dark, distracting shadows, while
ring flashes produce spooky, unreal images with no shadows at
all. These difficulties can be solved with the use of a diffuser,
or by bouncing the flash off of a white sheet of paper held above
the ant. The flash that I use is the Canon
MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite, but many other flashes work fine.
A diffuse flash is
necessary for ants with a shiny integument. Here is Camponotus
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x
f/2.8 Macro Lens. 1/200sec, f/13, flash bounced off a white
There are many ways to take ant
photographs, but here is a general formula:
1. DO NOT USE THE CAMERA'S AUTOMATIC
2. Select the lowest ISO equivalent
setting available. In most cameras, this will be ISO 100 or lower.
Higher ISO equivalents will introduce noise into the picture,
and while they allow for faster shutter speeds they don't result
in smooth images.
3. Manually focus the camera
for the desired magnification. Auto-focus has a very hard time
with the narrow depth of field in macro subjects and rarely focuses
where it should. Instead, set the focus to a distance near
the lens (e.g., .04 m in the Coolpix 995) and move the
entire camera back and forth to bring the subject into focus.
If you are using a digicam with zoom, set the zoom to about mid-range.
4. Set the aperture for maximum
depth of field. In the Coolpix, this will be around f/10-f/14,
depending on the zoom. In a dSLR, this setting will depend on
the lens. For the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X lens, this will be
f/13-f/16. Be wary of stopping down too far in the dSLRs,
because small apertures will cause a lack of sharpness.
The trick is to find the "sweet spot" where depth of field is
relatively high but the picture is still acceptably sharp.
5. Pointing the camera at the subject,
use the light meter to set the shutter speed for the appropriate
exposure. For most conditions, the shutter speed will end
up being pretty slow: 1/2 second to 30 seconds depending on the
ambient light. If you've got a stationary ant and a stable
camera, you are ready to take the picture.
6. If your ant is moving, or if
you are worried about camera shake blurring the picture, use flash
and set the shutter speed higher, to at least 1/125sec. How fast
the shutter speed can go depends on your particular camera and
7. Shoot away. Check the resulting
photograph on the LCD. Is it in focus? Is it too light,
or too dark? Is the ant doing what you wanted it to?
8. Keep shooting, after making any
adjustments to the settings. Film is free in digital, so
you may as well shoot until your trigger finger gets tired.
Some Useful Links
Mark Plonsky's insect macro tutorial. Mark is a master of
close-up insect photography and his gallery
is well worth a visit.
complete camera reviews, equipment discussions, and more.
Shaw's Close-ups in Nature- a very useful book on the techniques
of macro photography.
of Arizona- Dale Ward shows what can be done with a Nikon
my own gallery of accumulated ant and other insect photos.