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Tools of the insect photography trade

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On popular request, I present my full kit of photographic gear.
Lenses are the heart of any kit. My line-up includes (from left to right):

  • Canon EF 70-200mm f2.8L IS II. This fast, sharp telephoto zoom is the one lens I own that hasn’t yet paid for itself, partly because it is expensive, and partly because, well, I mostly sell insect photos and this isn’t a close-up lens. Still, I love it. I use the 70-200 mostly for photographing roller derby. [sample image 1, sample image 2]
  • Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro. The single most important piece of gear in my kit, the MP-E is responsible for over 3/4 of my images. It is a quirky, difficult lens, but it allows for extreme close-ups of very small insects. [sample image 1, sample image 2]
  • Canon EF 17-40mm f4L wide angle zoom. A reasonably-priced, well-built zoom lens for wider shots. The 17-40 is my go-to lens for landscapes and general walking-around. I sometimes pair it with a 12mm extension tube for wide-angle macro. [sample image 1, sample image 2 - with extension tube]
  • Tamron 11-18mm f4.5-5.6 Di II ultra-wide zoom. This is an inexpensive ultra-wide zoom for crop-sensor cameras. The 11-18 focuses more closely than other zoom lenses in its class, which is why I bought one, but as it has weird barrel distortion effects at the low end I prefer to use the 17-40. [sample image 1, sample image 2]
  • Canon EF 1oomm f2.8 USM macro. An excellent, sharp general macro that doubles as a portrait lens. I use it for insects larger than honey bee size, and it is the second most-likely lens you’ll see on my cameras. [sample image 1, sample image 2]

Lighting is of utmost importance to insect photography. Most of my images are illuminated by combinations of the following three flashes:

  • Canon Speedlite 430 EX II. I have a pair of these versatile, inexpensive strobes (my second one was used to illuminate this photo, so it doesn’t appear here). The 430 EX II is small, lightweight, yet more than powerful enough for close-up shooting. I usually arrange these off-camera with the help of remote triggers.
  • Canon Speedlite 550 EX. This is my most powerful strobe and my go-to flash for general work. I’m a couple models out of date- Canon’s newer top-line speedlites are more versatile, but the 550 EX performs well enough that I’ve not felt the need to upgrade.
  • Canon Macro Twin Lite MT24-EX. An ideal flash for pairing with the MP-E 65mm 1-5 macro lens. The twin heads can be moved around for creative lighting.

The cameras themselves.  I shoot Canon mostly to take advantage of the MP-E lens.

  • Canon EOS 50D. Solid. Currently serving as my backup body.
  • Canon EOS 7D. I bought the 7D primarily to take advantage of the excellent video functions, but it is an excellent machine for still photography and is my primary camera back for macro work. The sensor’s coating renders this camera much less susceptible to dust than older models, saving me a great deal of processing time. Sometimes, the little features turn out to be the important ones!

Assorted gear.

  • Opteka external flash battery pack. When attached to my other flash units, the strobe recycles more quickly, indispensable for action macro sequences. Excessive use can burn out a speedlite, though, so the pack should be used sparingly.
  • Giottos Rocket Air Blower. Great for removing dust from lenses; doubles as a cat toy if I accidentally leave it out.
  • Canon RS-80N3 remote switch. Allows me to take a photo without touching the camera, an absolute must for delicate work with long exposures. I also have an intervalometer (basically, a fancy timer) that also serves this purpose, but that gadget missed yesterday’s photo shoot and is not included here.
  • Cowboy Studio NPT-04 remote flash receivers and trigger. These inexpensive little units allow me to place my flash units anywhere. When I started using them, they opened up a whole world of creative possibilities. Freedom, in exchange for $30 on eBay. Not bad.

More assorted gear. These are small, inexpensive items that all SLR photographers should own.

  • 12mm extension tube. Reduces the focusing distance of any lens. I mostly use this to turn my 17-40 lens into a wide-angle macro, or to give a magnification boost to my 100mm and MP-E macro lenses.
  • 72mm Circular polarizing filter. Great for removing reflections and for adding a bit of zing to landscape shots.
  • Adorama eTTL2 coiled flash cord. Allows me to move a flash unit off the camera.

Flash diffusion is essential for taking the edge off the strobe and coaxing artificial light to appear natural. I use Lastolite’s EZYBOX softboxes. These are more expensive than similar units but they are especially sturdy.

Supports, and similar.

  • Manfrotto Magic Arms. I love these. I have two, as you can see, and should probably add another. They are strong enough to hold a heavy camera in any position, and the other end can be clamped to anything in reach: tripod leg, table, tree branch. I mostly use these to arrange flash units in the studio and the field.
  • Velbon macro rail. Allows for fine-scale focusing adjustments. If I did I lot of focus-stacking I would probably upgrade to a sturdier unit, but this entry-level rail is adequate for occasional work.
  • Not pictured: Manfrotto tripod.

More assorted gear.

  • Canon Photo Backpack. I really wish it didn’t come with a STEAL-ME-I’M-FULL-OF-EXPENSIVE-GEAR Canon logo on the back. Otherwise, it’s great.
  • Asus Eee PC netbook. My trusty field computer. Not as sexy as a tablet, but it is inexpensive, durable, lightweight, runs Photoshop, and the 200GB of drive space means I can back up 3 weeks’ worth of field photos.
  • An off-brand light stand. Holds strobes in the studio.

You may notice I don’t often have the newest model of any given class of equipment. For example, I am still shooting with Canon’s 100mm f2.8 USM, rather than the newer Canon 100mm f2.8L IS USM.  My main flash is the dated Canon Speedlite 550, instead of the 600.

The case for stodgy gear is straightforward: it works well enough for the subjects I shoot. If I happen across enough cash to upgrade, I have to ask myself if spending it on gear is a better investment than spending it on a plane ticket to some tropical jungle. In most cases, it isn’t. New photographic subjects add more value to my portfolio than the same old subjects shot with incrementally newer technology. If I don’t have a pressing need for the latest and greatest, I’ll preferentially invest in travel.

Finally, here is an iPhone snap of the impromptu studio I used for the gear photos above:

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. jbohland 4:56 pm 12/7/2012

    Thanks for this Alex. We have a lot of overlap in scientific and aesthetic interests. I have two of the Canon lenses that you have (100 mm and 17-40 mm. I paid for my glass habit doing portrait work on the side using a 5D body. Anyway it was very interesting to see you whole gear bag and I wish you much success in your scientific and aesthetic pursuits.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Dubravko J. 5:48 pm 12/7/2012

    Man, ant-hunting is not a cheap sport at all, is it? :D

    Link to this
  3. 3. Dragonfly Woman 11:05 pm 12/7/2012

    I fixed the STEAL ME I’M FULL OF EXPENSIVE GEAR problem by cutting off the fabric Canon labels and sewing a souvenir patch over the plastic Canon badge near the top on the front. (I added a few more patches too, just for the heck of it.) Now my pack doesn’t advertise the camera gear inside – and has the added benefit of making my pack easy to pick out of the sea of identical backpacks at events like BugShot where EVERYONE has the same one.

    Great post!

    Link to this
  4. 4. Alex Wild 11:15 am 12/8/2012

    Thanks, guys!

    Dubravko- insect photography, expensive as it is, is relatively affordable compared to wildlife photography: https://www.google.com/shopping/product/12506606777951053420

    Dragonfly Woman- That’s a great idea!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Dubravko J. 12:56 pm 12/9/2012

    Well, I guess, as expensive as it is, it’s totally worth it :D

    Link to this
  6. 6. TheHymenopteran 11:03 pm 12/9/2012

    Thanks Alex, probably one of my favourite posts and a very helpful one for an amateur photographer trying to find out where to start.

    Link to this

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