Macrophotography on the cheap

Taking pictures of insects, particularly tiny insects, is much different from photographing, say, guests at a wedding reception. The thing is, to get pictures of tiny objects you really need to be pretty darned close, and not all cameras can do this.

So, the big question we have first is, what sort of camera can do this without spending a fortune? Sure, if you are really serious about it, a nice digital SLR with interchangeable lenses would be great for taking fantastic pictures, if you’ve got one or two thousand dollars to drop on it, and are willing to devote the hundreds of hours needed to learn how to use it properly. But, for most of us who are not trying to do this professionally and have to stick to a budget, is it really necessary? As it turns out, it is possible to take pretty decent insect pictures that show a lot of detail with the cheap digital camera that you already have: Macrophotography with just a consumer-grade point-and-shoot

This is all fine and dandy when you are trying to photograph largeish insects on the spur of the moment, but what about when you have some tiny little mite or fly that just isn’t within your camera’s capabilities? What then? Well, you just need some better glass to put in front of the camera: Improvising a Macro Lens

The next thing is the light. The flash on your camera, used straight, is pretty unsatisfactory for macro photography, and so something has to be done so that you can get something other than a black picture, or a blur. So, what you need is light. Lots and lots of light, and from the right directions: Lighting

Once you have the pictures, it is nice to be able to clean them up a bit (crop, rotate, resize, maybe adjust the brightness range and contrast, things like that). While there is expensive commercial software to do this, there is also some pretty adequate freeware that serves the same purpose: Post-Processing

While equipment and technique are important, none of it does you any good if the small creatures run off before you can get set up for a picture. There are a few things that can be done to try and take care of this: Getting Them to Hold Still

Of course, after doing this for a while the limitations of a consumer-grade point-and-shoot will start to get on your nerves. The chief annoyances being the lag between pressing the shutter button and taking the picture, and the inability to mount really good macro lenses. But, the upgrade to an actual nice camera doesn’t have to be a budget-buster now that there are a lot of decent used digital cameras available, all you have to do is take advantage of the leavings of those people who are willing to spend a lot more money on cameras than you are: Macrophotography on the Somewhat More Expensive

It is also very nice to have lighting solutions that you can actually take into the field, which is why I invented the the Cone Macro Flash Concentrator.

21 Responses leave one →
  1. December 18, 2007

    Here via InsectPOD…

    Another thing you could try for CO2 anesthesia is a small CO2 cartridge of the type used in paintball guns. Those cartridges are designed for quick, powerful release, but you may be able to rig it for slower release instead. (Like, for example, releasing its contents into a larger container which still keeps pressure on the CO2, but not nearly as much.) You don’t want to end up blasting the bug across the room, after all.

  2. December 21, 2007

    Wow! Thanks for posting this.

  3. December 21, 2007

    I linked to this and borrowed one of the photos. Please let me know if this is OK. If not, I’ll take it down immediately, but leave all the links to your excellent blog. Here’s the linking post.

  4. December 21, 2007

    KT Cat: You are most welcome to borrow the photo, and thank you for the very complimentary writeup!

  5. tim permalink
    June 4, 2008

    I just discovered your website. You’ve got some wonderful photography here. The microscope idea is great…gotta get myself one of those. What a good idea too to use grid paper underneath to get a sense of size of these little beasties.

  6. June 4, 2008

    The microscope is really nice in most respects, but it does have one niggling problem that I need to solve: it works great for shooting straight down from the top, but not so good for side or face shots. I haven’t really come up with a good solution yet. Some way of tilting the stage might be nice, but then there is the whole problem of everything sliding off. Suggestions are welcome.

  7. Bernard permalink
    August 18, 2008

    For CO2 try a small bicycle tire inflater that uses CO2 cartrages the size of your thumb. Put insect into ziplock bag, screw inflation needle used for basketballs etc. into gadget, poke needle through bag and inflate.Instant CO2 chamber. Cost less than $20 and very portable.

  8. William G. Curtaz permalink
    March 11, 2009

    For taking photos of small insects, have you ever heard of a QX5 Digital Blue Microscope? The microscope attaches to your computer (B port) and you view the specimen on your computer screen. It has a 10X, 60X, and a 200X power selection. You can take a snapshot of the subject, save it to file, email it to someone. It only runs about $100. We use it in our Master Gardener office. Check out the website. Let me know what you think of it.


  9. March 12, 2009

    I’ve seen little microscopes like that, and I’m tempted. I’m a little concerned about the resolution, though – it sounds like it puts out VGA video, which is a lot lower resolution than the imaging chip in a typical digital camera. I’m also not so sure how good the optics actually are. I’d want to try one out and see how well it works for myself before spending the money on it.

  10. April 4, 2009

    I do not understand this photo was made by the microscope or with a more?

  11. April 5, 2009

    Alex: The photos were taken through a reversed lens from an old SLR film camera, which acts as a pretty high-magnification macro lens. The stand is from a microscope, but none of the optics are. It’s not quite a microscope, but it’s getting there. For scale, the squares on the graph paper visible in the pictures are 1 millimeter.

  12. July 25, 2009

    Great macro photos! Thank you for your detailed description of your technique. I suspect solid old microscope stands are hard to find, but an alternative might be a “macro focusing rail.” You can get one for around $80 and up. It has the advantage of controlled micro adjustments in two directions, but would not have the illuminated stage of the microscope stand. Here is a URL to one such rail.

  13. Arun permalink
    December 19, 2009

    Hi, I’ve been using the A95 for over 5 years now. Great little cam. Takes good macros too. I use it for street photography because of the swivle LCD. Sensor broke but got replaced under waranty but they messed up the AF light. Guess Canon service is like that. Nice article. I use a minitripod with the cam controled by the PC for macro shots.

  14. Arun permalink
    December 19, 2009

    If you want flash when doing a macro shoot, you can cover the flash with a piece of white paper, that will act as a crude soft box.

  15. January 31, 2010

    Is it possible to communicate with you other than through these topic-specific, publicly posted form boxes? You presumably have my e-mail address. Let me know.

  16. Della3 permalink
    February 27, 2010

    The Adorama Macro Focusing Rail looks good, but for shooting from the side of the insect or for a face shot you would need to mount it on something that allows you to rotate the top of your shooting assembly down towards you 90 degrees and lock into that position and then put your bug on a different stage in front of the lense. The same could be done with your current device if you are able to separate the top portion of the microscope from the base. The base is giving you stability and holding the stage for you and those are its only functions, so it really is not needed for your purposes if you can find or devise something else that would give you that rotating ability. It’s either that or chop off the pointed end of a round toothpick and glue your bug to the end of it. If you want to set the bug free afterward you could cut theoretically cut the toothpick off with some small precision wire cutters, such as are used in the electronics industry. It would leave a tiny portion of toothpick on the bug, but maybe it could still function normally. For smaller bugs you could use a nylon filament, such as fishing line or a sewer’s nylon thread.

  17. Della3 permalink
    February 27, 2010

    I forgot to mention that the wire cutters I am talking about have the two blades meeting each other exactly, so that you yet a clean flush cut. They do not have a scissor action.

  18. Scott permalink
    March 19, 2010

    You can also anesthetize them with ether. Be careful not to leave them in the jar with ether soaked cotton balls for too long or you will EUTHANIZE them instead of anesthetize them! 30 seconds to a minute is all you need.

  19. August 27, 2010

    Today’s modern compact camera’s are making inroads for macrophotography, my Lumix lumix dmc-zs3 takes the occasional good close up, here’s a sample shot of a caterpillar with pretty spectacular details:

  20. September 4, 2010

    Fascinating set-up! I do wish I had space to try some indoor shots and to experiment with equipment…I get most of my photo ops in the field and it’s a matter of “point and click, realize I forgot to set macro mode, cuss, adjust camera, point and click again before critter moves, oh wait, it’s gone already.” Not always fun.

  21. Dylan permalink
    November 6, 2010

    In college entomology class we used non-acetone fingernail polish remover to knock out and/or euthanize bugs. It just depends how long you leave them in the environment (for instance, a glass jar with a ball of cotton moistened with the liquid) whether they’re temporarily stunned or killed. Same as ether though much more readily available, at any drugstore.

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