3 Days to Better Live Bug Photos

Hand Held Focus Stacking


Exposure Basics
Macro Obstacles
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Three Days to Better Live Bug Photography

The above shot was hand held between 2-3X magnification and stacked from 5 images - click on it for actual file

If you are willing to invest three days doing some exercises you can improve the quality of your live insect macro photographs dramatically. Even if think you know what the outcome will be from these exercises, do them anyway as the results need to sink in. Plus, if you do them later on if a photo fails you have a better understanding as to why.

One unique thing about macro photography is it always has to be exceptionally sharp. These exercises will help you find out how sharp of an image you can get with your equipment. They will also show you what you are trading off if you change aperture settings to increase depth of field. With macro photography virtually all options to increase magnification work well in component users hands.

Plus, If you cannot get consistently sharp images in a controlled environment you are wasting your time if you think you can do it in the wild where there are numerous other obstacles to overcome.


  • A DSLR with a method of getting to 1:1 magnification or higher

  • Tripod

  • Off camera flash

  • Flash bracket to get the flash to the end of the lens

  • Flash cable to connect the flash

  • Pencil

  • Optional – remote shutter release

Day One - The Settings for the Sharpest Image

The purpose of this day’s exercise is to prove that when a shot does not come out sharp it is not the equipment but the operator. If you skip this you will always blame the equipment. I can assure you it is not the equipment, it is you.

This is the most important thing you can do to improve your photographs and the one most people will never do is learn their equipment and its limitations. There are numerous ways to get to 1:1 magnification and higher, the method you choose does not really matter as long as you know the maximum quality that can be produced by it and how to get that quality. I mention this because it is easy to blame equipment when it is really the operator. Excellent quality images can be created by all the methods you read about, such as tubes, a bellows, a reversed lens, a stacked lens etc.  You can also get poor images with the most expensive macro lens out there if you don't know how to use it. For instance you will see a lot of impressive shots online that have been made with Canon's MPE-65. It is a great lens but don't bother shooting at f14 at 4X, it is just to soft at f/8 it is a completely different story.

If you have not done so already begin by opening the manual that came with your camera and read it cover to cover. Learn about all the options your camera has to offer and how to set them, pay particular attention to manually adjusting the aperture and shutter speed in the manual mode. Also learn to set it to shoot in RAW and turn on and off mirror lock up. If you are a real pro you have most likely have done this already and you can skip it.

I once did a workshop and asked the question how many have read their camera manual cover to cover - out of 25 people three raised their hands. Then I asked how many read the manual that came with their lens, two raised their hands. These were the best photographers in the group and they were retired professional photographers the others were amateurs/hobbyists. I only asked the question as when using a macro lens in the macro mode light falls off at different magnifications (bellows factor) and this is explained in the manual. It took me six months to figure it out on my own because I didn't read the manual.

Bring a pencil outside and place it on a table in the sunlight. Mount your camera on a tripod and focus on the pencil’s eraser; you should see very fine detail (the texture of the eraser). Shoot at different ISO settings and apertures, only changing the shutter speed to get the proper exposure. Always use the mirror lock up function or a cable release to remove any camera movement and do not use flash at this point.

Once finished shooting, transfer the photos to a PC and look for the sharpest one. To do so use the 100% view or higher. When looking for the sharpest one you are looking for the sharpest “portion of an image”. In other words that razor thin slice that is super sharp. At 1:1 it should be around 1-1.5 mm in width. You are not looking for the one that appears to be the most in focus but is not quite as overall sharp. Keep in mind that this is as good as it can possibly get, as you have control over everything at this point. You will find that it will be at ISO 100 and f/8 in most cases. Then look at f/11, f/16 etc and see how they compare. The reason is you want as much DOF as possible without sacrificing image quality. When comparing you will not see much of a difference between two consecutive stops such as f/8 and f/11 but you will notice it when you skip one stop and go from f/8 to f/16. What you are looking at here is diffraction, how much can you live with?

You will also see a little difference in ISO; very little but you are after the best shot possible at this point, not what you can live with. If you have a little extra time go online and look for sharp macro shots and take a look at what they used. The majority of them will have been shot at around f/11 and ISO 100 or 200. You will see some that look real nice at f/16 but they are not quite as crisp.

Please note this is based upon Canon’s settings and they don’t adjust for the Bellows Factor (light drop off) like Nikon does. So if you are using a Canon with a real macro lens or a lens that is entirely manual these settings apply. If you are shooting a Nikon with a real macro lens at 1:1 you need to add two stops. So in the Nikon display you would be at f/22 not f/11.

Next go online and look at shots of bugs and see if you can determine at what angle the camera was at when the shot was taken.

Day 2 - Camera Movement

Camera movement is the number 1 cause of poor macro shots and doing the exercises below will prove it and help you eliminate it.   Begin by bringing the pencil outside again and place it on a table in the sunlight. Hold your camera steady without touching the table with your hands or elbows. Set your camera to the best settings from day one. You will most likely be at ISO 100 and f/8 or f/11. Hold the camera as you normally would and focus by setting the camera to the closest focusing point and then move into the object. Take 5 photographs of the pencil at one angle and then try another angle each time focusing on the eraser. How many good ones did you get, with good being as good as yesterday’s when you used a tripod, any? What is happening is that you are getting camera movement and this has to be eliminated to get the exceptional sharpness that you want. Keep in mind you proved to yourself in Day One it is not the equipment and the only difference is the tripod.

Next, do the same again only with your right elbow tucked in, the eyepiece firmly placed against your head and with the other hand supporting the end of the lens with that arm's elbow tucked in as well. When you look at these shots you should have more good ones and it was just by holding the camera in a different manner.

Repeat the exercises above only this time rest your elbows or your hands on the table, push the eyepiece of your camera firmly to your head. Compare your results to those in the last test. You should have even more good shots, still not many but some. So, now we know, if possible to always put our elbows down on something or rest the lens on our hand or something else like a bean bag.

Next hold the pencil in your hand and rest the end of your lens in the same hand that is holding the pencil. You should have more good shots than in the previous tests. So now if we see the opportunity to hold the stem of a plant that the insect is on we know we have a better chance of getting a good shot, than if just using our hands or elbows for support. What is happening is that the camera and subject are now moving at the same speed, just like you do in panning. Some bugs will actually let you do this for quite a while, others will be gone as soon as you touch the stem.

Hopefully it has sunk in that it is exceptionally difficult to consistently get good shots when hand holding your camera in natural daylight. The issue is camera movement as it can be nothing else as we know our equipment's capability. Can it be done, yes, and the odds of getting a good shot can be increased by resting your hands or elbows on something for support. The odds are even better if you can hold the item and the lens in the same hand as they are both moving at the same speed. To increase the chances of a good shot even more you can add flash. By using these techniques and by adding flash you can actually shoot a stack of images and use focus stacking software to gain DOF.

Next, mount your flash to the hot shoe on your camera, set the camera to the highest sync speed (you learned this by reading the manual), and enter your desired aperture and ISO. Since you are shooting a pencil by the eraser there is a silver or gold band that is highly reflective. (Many bugs are highly reflective as well - that's why a pencil is used for these tests) If you have a little softbox or diffuser add that and take some shots in the flash’s manual mode adjusting the flash power to get the proper exposure.

If you don’t have a diffuser a paper towel, tissue paper etc. can be used as well. Keep on adding more diffusion until the spot is more manageable. When adjusting the flash output look at the histogram in the separate color mode after each shot to make sure no colors are individually blown out.

When using flash you do not want to shoot as far to the right as possible even if there are no blown out spots as some of the light bleeds over to the next pixel on the sensor and the images will appear to be not as sharp. This is when you really know your equipment as it is sensor specific.

Once you have a good shot, place the pencil at an angle to the camera and while slightly shaking the camera (on purpose) take some shots. Take about 30-40 photos like this and if there is no movement there will be that thin line that is razor sharp in each image. Naturally since you are slightly shaking the camera it will not always be in the same spot. But it doesn’t matter as the point is, it is not movement free, if it was one portion would be as sharp as the tripod shot. What you will find is that the perfect sharp spot is not in each image as camera movement still exists. In other words, flash does not always stop all camera movement and that is a fact - you just proved it.

Next use a  flash bracket to move the flash closer to the end of the lens and repeat the process. Since the flash is closer you will have to cut down on the flash exposure. When doing so what you are actually doing is cutting down on the flash duration (the time the flash remains on). As you move it closer your percentage of images with the crisp line will increase. Usually you will be about movement free at ¼ to 1/8 flash power depending upon the magnification. I have gotten camera movement at 1/32 power on a few occasions and once on 1/64 power. Keep practicing until all the shots are as sharp as the tripod one.

Now take some shots with a light background, a dark background and no background so that you get a good understanding of the flash power you need for these different situations. Now in the field if you elect to use ETTL flash you will still have a good understanding of what the flash duration is. 

Day 3 - The Magic Angle

Now it is time to go looking for bugs to photograph as you should have the ability to consistently hand hold your camera and get a sharp image. If you cannot, practice more until you can. 

The key to making the image stand out is the same in all photographs “Composition”. The difficulty is the bugs are live moving creatures and for the most part very uncooperative. When you see one pre-focus and move in and take the shot always focusing on the eyes. Once you start getting the eyes consistently in focus start looking for the “Magic Angle”. The magic angle is just the angle used to get as much in focus as possible and finding it initially comes from practice, and viewing other people’s shots.

It is not uncommon for someone teaching a class in how to take Portraits to tell the students to look at other peoples work and see if they can determine where the lights were placed. In macro photography when starting out view others work and see “what is the angle they used” followed by what “did they use for a diffuser” as you become more advanced.

With practice you will automatically know the angle you want but you may not be able to move into that position for numerous reasons. So you need to improvise. For instance the shot below, I would have preferred to be lower but the diameter of my lens was so big I could not place it lower, so I was forced to shoot at more of a downward angle than I would have preferred.

This shot was taken at f11 with a magnification between 2X and 3X. The entire spider is about 4-5 mm wide and perhaps 6-7mm long. When shooting at this magnification at 2X the DOF is at .594mm and at 3X it is .352mm. So it is around .45mm or a half of a millimeter.

To get a shot like this you focus on the eyes and rotate the camera left and right to match the angle of the eyes to the camera sensor so they will both be in focus. Next you tilt the camera up and down to get as much in focus as possible and then you have the “Magic Angle” for this shot. Although decent the shot is about .05 mm off on the left to right angle.

A closer look

Looking closer you can see that A, B, and C are in focus but the top of the right eye “D” is slightly out of focus but the bottom of it is in focus. I would be surprised if it was off more than 1/20 of a mm. Regardless it is off it would be better if B was closer to the camera so that the bottom of the eye would be in perfect focus.

Below is another with about the same magnification only dead on.

A closer look

You can clearly see the reflection of the hairs in both eyes and there is more in focus in the front of the eyes than in the back to draw the viewer in.

When you are not focusing on two eyes you pick the closest and angle the camera so that as much of the body as possible can be in focus.

A Closer Look

Now it is just practice as you have the mechanics down and when an image fails you know it is what you did wrong.