Capturing little creatures

Story and photography by Bill Tyler

When most people think of wildlife photography, birds, large mammals, and possibly reptiles come to mind. But in the grand scheme of things, these are a small fraction of the picture. Insects and other arthropods constitute the vast majority of animals, both in numbers of individuals and numbers of species. These small creatures show huge diversity in anatomy and behavior, and make fascinating subjects for nature photographers. What’s more, they’re accessible. With millions of individual arthropods in a typical acre, you don’t have to travel far to find subjects. But photographing them requires different techniques than larger subjects. Here’s how I photographed a live centipede collected from my yard.

When possible, I like to photograph arthropods in their natural environment, unconfined. But that wasn’t going to be practical with this constantly moving specimen. I needed a way to keep it confined in a small area, rather than letting it run to the nearest shelter to hide. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to have a helper who can gently stop a subject from running too far. This time I was working alone, and needed a containment device of some sort.

I had a small petri dish over which I could place a large clear photographic filter as a lid, and I put the centipede into this enclosure. Photographing through the optically flat filter gave a clear, undistorted image, and the glass dish let light in from the sides, while the filter was too heavy for the centipede to lift and escape. A ceramic plate made a white background.

Photographing through a clear lens filter provided an undistorted image while keeping the centipede from escaping. A ceramic plate serves as background. © William B. Tyler

Photographing through a clear lens filter provided an undistorted image while keeping the centipede from escaping. A ceramic plate serves as background.
© William B. Tyler

I mounted a Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon 5D Mark III, then set up two flash units in softboxes, one on each side of the setup. I used manual settings for both the camera and the flashes. In a setup like this, where there’s no variability in lighting, manual settings allow precise control. Automatic exposure sometimes fails to read macro subjects correctly, so I prefer manual settings. Manual flash also allows the use of cheap, non-dedicated flash units. I used inexpensive radio triggers to avoid the clutter of sync cords. Once everything was in position, I took several test shots, looking at the histogram each time, to home in on the best exposure.

Two flash units fitted with softboxes and triggered by a Canon 5D III were placed on either side of the setup. © William B. Tyler

Two flash units fitted with softboxes and triggered wirelessly by a Canon 5D III were placed on either side of the setup.
© William B. Tyler

As the centipede scooted rapidly around the perimeter of the dish, it occasionally stopped and lifted its head, giving me an opportunity to focus and shoot. The stops were unpredictable and brief. A tripod would not have allowed rapid enough changes in camera position, so I hand-held the camera. This isn’t as difficult as seems. Your hands can perform surprisingly precise positioning when braced on something solid, like a tabletop.

The petri dish and filter combination worked well technically, but the centipede wanted to escape, so it constantly probed the edges, putting the black filter ring in every photograph. I wanted a cleaner image. There was an empty cottage cheese tub in the kitchen. I put the centipede inside it, with no lid. Some creatures can climb smooth plastic, but my centipede could not get traction on the smooth plastic sides, so it was now confined in a white background with just air between lens and subject, and no black filter edge. The all-white container added extra diffusion for the light coming in through its sides, and then bounced the light around for very even illumination.

The centipede searched the edges of the filter for an escape route, unfortunately putting the filter ring in every shot. © William B. Tyler

The centipede searched the edges of the lens filter for an escape route, unfortunately putting the filter ring in every shot.
© William B. Tyler

The printing on the outside of the cottage cheese tub showed through faintly, though it was removable using Lightroom tools. Acetone removes the ink, as I later discovered, and since then I’ve cleaned the ink from a few containers for future work.

The solution to having the filter ring in every shot was to switch the centipede to a cottage cheese tub. © William B. Tyler

The solution to having the filter ring in every shot was to switch the centipede to a cottage cheese tub.
© William B. Tyler

After a number of shots with the 100mm macro lens, I wanted to try for more magnification, so I changed to a Canon 65mm MP-E f/2.8 macro lens. This highly specialized lens works only at macro ranges, yielding 1x to 5x magnification.

For more magnifications, a Canon 65mm MP-E f/2.8 macro lens was used. © William B. Tyler

For more magnification, a Canon 65mm MP-E f/2.8 macro lens was used.
© William B. Tyler

Focusing is manual only. You set the lens for a desired magnification, then move the camera-lens combination as a unit until the subject is in focus. At higher magnification, it’s important to recheck exposure when changing magnification.

The Canon 65mm MP-E f/2.8 macro lens is focused by first setting the desired magnification and then moving the camera and lens combination to achieve focus. The procedure captured the centipede's head and fangs. © William B. Tyler

The Canon 65mm MP-E f/2.8 macro lens is focused by first setting the desired magnification and then moving the camera and lens combination to achieve focus. The procedure captured the centipede’s head and fangs.
© William B. Tyler

With this lens, I got a number of close-up shots of the centipede’s head and fangs. Finally, I released my subject, unharmed, into the yard.

Here are other examples of his work:

A Drosophila, better known as the common fruit fly. © William B. Tyler

A Drosophila, better known as the common fruit fly.
© William B. Tyler

Camponotus ant. © William B. Tyler

Camponotus ant.
© William B. Tyler

If this is a Harford's Sulphur butterfly, what was it doing in Tucson, Arizona, so far from its home in California? Vacation? Other guesses are a Southern Dogface and even an Orange Sulphur. © William B. Tyler

If this is a Harford’s Sulphur butterfly, what was it doing in Tucson, Arizona, so far from its home in California? Vacation? Other guesses are a Southern Dogface and even an Orange Sulphur.
© William B. Tyler

Bill Tyler enjoys photographing nature, when he’s not working at his day job as a software engineer. Recently, he’s been concentrating on insects, spiders, and other arthropods. Email: wtyler@gmail.com