Today's Guest Blogger Pat Porter Gets Up-Close-and-Personal with Bugs

Above: The Robber Fly
Canon 5Ds, 180mm macro, f/13, ISO 1000

I would like to start by thanking Rick for inviting me to be a guest blogger on his site. I'd also like to thank and Juan Pons, the co-host (along with Rick) of the DPE podcast, for his insights. Rick and Juan both have the heart of a teacher, and their many excellent podcasts have helped me improve my photography skills.

I work for Texas A&M University as faculty member in the Department of Entomology and am an agricultural entomologist. In my job I am surrounded by insects three seasons per year and get to see the devastation they cause, but also the beauty inherent in them. Insects can present special challenges for photographers and here are some of my techniques for photographing them.

Rick says that, “The name of the game is to fill the frame.” However, the 1:1 nature and minimum focusing distance of most macro lenses makes it hard to fill the frame when photographing insects, so the quality of extreme crops becomes important. In a bout of enthusiasm I purchased a Canon 5Ds body and headed to the field. The cropped robber fly image and the screenshot of the applied crop make a statement about the benefits of 50 megapixels.

Above: Whitelined sphinx
Canon 5D MkIII, 100mm macro, ISO 1,250, 1/2000 second

Almost all of my insect photography happens in minutes as I encounter things in the field; I am there to work on insect pest problems and don’t have time to set up gear like flashes and reflectors. All I carry is a tripod, camera body, 100mm and 180mm macro lenses and a 24-105mm (for general use). The 100mm lens has image stabilization and frees me from a tripod so that I can move around and react quickly, and the image above is an example of that freedom.

However, the 180mm, while not image stabilized and usually requiring a tripod, lets me stay a bit farther away from flighty insects. Another plus of this lens is that it accepts a 1.4x tele-converter, and I have not seen any quality reduction when using the tele-converter. Raising the ISO above 1000 allows me some freedom for a fast shutter speed and the reasonably good depth of field provided between f/11-f/16. F-stop values higher than f/16 usually result in image softness introduced by diffraction.

Above: Whitelined sphinx and skipper

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in insect photography is to capture action. Big and showy insects like in the image above are easy for most people to see, but there is also a lot of action that takes place on a less noticeable scale. I have a three-legged stool that I take to the field when I have a little extra time, and I have found that sitting quietly for five to ten minutes and looking carefully at the nearby plants often pays big dividends. When action shots are possible I do not hesitate to push my equipment beyond reasonable limits if necessary. This is because the action has entomological value in terms of behavior, and sometimes this is more important than a technically superior photograph.

Above: Collops beetle
Canon 5D MkII pushed beyond its limits; tiny 3/16” Collops beetle attacking an even smaller weevil. Canon MP-E lens, ISO 2000, f/14, 1/640 second.

Having said all of this about using expensive gear and lenses, I would like to conclude by saying that several simple point and shoot cameras can provide a much more pleasant and less compressed perspective for insects than can be attained with a macro lens. I attended the inaugural Bugshot insect photography workshop a few years ago and there were several older, established photographers who brought a fortune in camera bodies and lenses. And then there were entomology graduate students who brought empty pockets, point and shoot cameras and a knowledge of insect behavior and biology. 

At the end of the workshop when reviewing images it was easy to see that enthusiastic but knowledgeable people with “cheap” cameras took much more dynamic and exciting images than the established people with expensive gear.  

Above: Xylocopa wasp, Salvador Vitanza.

As an example of what a point and shoot can do, above is a photo taken by my colleague in El Paso, Dr. Salvador Vitanza.

For more of my work, please visit my website.

Click here for info on Bugshot Insect Photography Workshops.

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Thank you Pat for sharing your close-up photographs – and vision – with us. Amazing work.

Explore the light,

What's new? My 36th book: Creative Visualization for Photographers