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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org