Primer on Mike Quinn's Photographic Techniques

Return to Texas Entomology - Compiled by Mike Quinn

Problem: Given that there are an estimated 30,000 spp. of insects in Texas including 7,500 beetle spp.,
what is the best method to get as many high quality photographs of as many live insects as quickly as possible?

Overview of options on documenting and dispersing images and info of N. Amer. entomofauna - 2015 PDF

Here's my solution:
  • Field Collecting

While in the field, we put critters we want to shoot into a clean live (no kill) vial with a tissue or other material for them to crawl around on. I keep using the same vial until it gets so full that one or two bugs nearly escape, then I switch to a fresh vial. I segregate the really predacious stuff which, I learned the hard way, most definitely includes trogossitids.

Photos of a wide range of insect collecting techniques. Note that live insects are mostly collected via beating, sweeping, blacklighting and rearing. The various trapping methods shown (in the first link) generally collect insects into killing/preserving fluids.

  • Logistics

When on an extended trip, we generally shoot everything each night that we caught that day. This can make for a *very* long days particularly if we blacklight after dark. We generally eat a hearty supper (to keep energy up after usually a light lunch) so shooting can last until 1, 2 or even 3 a.m. Then we get up and do it all over again.
  • Lens, Flash, Tripod?

I shoot everything hand-held almost exclusively using Canon's seminal MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens. - Wiki - Canon - Review - Ento Blog (w/50+ replies) - Adorama - Amazon

The MP-E is a rather heavy manual-focus lens that's shooting range is limited to 1x to 5x or from life size (1x) which is about the size of a larger-than-average postage stamp down to 5x which is about the size of a grain of rice full frame. (For critters bigger than a postage stamp, I use a 100mm macro lens.)

I have used both the Canon and the Yongnuo ring flash with two strobes. I set one strobe at 1/4 to 1/8 power of the primary strobe to allow for some modeling or a shadow effect. I try to have the primary flash towards the anterior of the bug (its head) but occasionally the subject is uncooperative and its rear end receives more light than its head... (Note, the Yongnuo flash is much less expensive that the comparable Canon flash.)

I focus by looking through the viewfinder and I never use a tripod as I mostly shoot live bugs which are frequently on the move.
  • Camera Settings

I shoot everything in manual mode, 100 ISO, 1/250 sec. and at f16 (though the effective f-stop is higher at >1x magnification). I overexpose nearly everything ~2 stops due to the white background. Note that the camera's light meter adjusts itself as if it was looking at an 18% gray scene. If you don't "over expose" two stops, then the camera will turn the nice white background into a dingy neutral gray. This is one of *the* most common errors (not correctly adjusting the exposure) that I see for critters shot against white backgrounds.

If I'm shooting at 2, 3, or 4x, I back off on the F-Stop using f13 or f11 to avoid diffraction issues that would result from using a tiny aperture. Note, the Effective f-number = f-number x (magnification + 1). See discussion here.

I initailly shot everything simultaneously in both JPEG and RAW, but now only shot in JPEG format.

By day's end, we may have six, eight, 10 or more live vials. We generally put the vial of waiting-to-be-shot critters on top of a hotel ice bucket.* This naturally cools the critters down a little bit, often long enough to get off a  few shots before they start accelerating.

*(If you want to store live critters in a hotel room refrigerator, make sure to check the refrigerator's temperature setting as it's likely on the coldest setting which may be fatal to your bugs.)

Photos of home studio, equipment, camera and flash - Field studio set up in Motel 6 - Field and studio gear consolidated into various bags

To get started, I place the insect in the middle of my shooting surface which now is a 20" x 32" white matt board (from an arts & craft supply house). The bugs generally then make a "run for the border" of the my shooting surface. Each time they reach the edge, I (or an assistant if I'm lucky) will recenter the bug. I can usually get off 3 to 4 more shots before it reaches the edge again.

I generally shoot straight down on the bug for the primary shot. As the bug crawls around, I follow it with the camera perpendicular to the surface it's crawling on. 

After the first series of pix, I enlarge the images on the back of the camera to check the condition of the bug as they sometimes have debris on them, often from the tissue in the vial. If such is present, I rub a finger over the top of the bug which usually is sufficient to clear the insect of unwanted debris. While checking the first series of photos, I place a suitable bottle top over the critter to keep it in place.

It helps to have an axillary light source to keep the bug well lit as opposed to using the flash's weak focusing lights (which have to be turned back on after each shot if one is using a Canon ringflash). When on the road, I'll ask my assistant to train a flashlight on the subject. At home I use two lamps set on either side of the shooting platform

I can often get a nice shot after about four or five shots, though occasionally I may shoot a dozen pix. Occasionally, I shoot head shots, lateral shots, etc. if it seems warranted. (If it's gonna be a long night, I usually stop after getting the first reasonably decent dorsal shot.)

Lord knows it helps to have the likes of Ed Riley spurring you on, assuring you that "this is a really good beetle!", while deep-sixing the common stuff that you already shot one time or another. (Unfortunately, Ed's drive doesn't diminish in the morning, and we usually get to the breakfast table before the grad students drag in!)

If you have time, one trick that occasionally works for calming down bugs is to put it under a dark bottle bottle cap for a few minutes. Lift the cap and they often stay put momenarily.

For the fastest (least cooperative) bugs e.g. many carabids, we often put a glass vial of EtOAc on top of them until they seem to slow down enough for our purposes. While this is generally effective, it also often (understandably) leads to excessive grooming on the bug's part once the vial is removed. If a particularly large dose of EtOAc is required to slow them down, they sometimes loose functionality in their hind legs... This condition may or may not be readily apparent in the resulting photos.

For large fast bugs, I often switch to the 100mm macro lens which has auto focus. I can usually get off a shot before it reaches the edge of the platform.

A quick dose of EtOAc also acts like smellling salts to "wake up" tightly curled up beetles.

After getting home, I process the images in freeware PhotoScape - Review - Download -

After selecting the best photos for each subject, I try to crop everything square if possible. Sometimes this means cropping part of a hind leg (or less preferably an antenna) to get a tight shot.

Next, I generally lighten the white background until just before it washes out. After the 2-stop overexposure and further lightening, I sometimes boost the shadows slightly to compensate the dark areas which can get muddied.

I almost never use the "sharpening feature."

I also turn the image if necessary, 90 or 180 to get the bug as vertical as possible (with its head up) to facilitate side-by-side comparison of like species.

I formerly initially posted my photos to Google+ which is now defunct. I post my photos to BugGuide where I am among the top contributors and now am working to retroactively cross post my better images to iNaturualist.
  • Thumbnail Webpages

For creating my webpages filled with thumbnail photos, I simply cut-and-paste the thumbnail photo in BugGuide that I want into KompoZer, which is a freeware WYSIWYG HTML editor. (WYSIWYG = What You See Is What You Get)

Hope this helps, Mike 

Mike Quinn, entomologist, bug photographer
Austin, Texas 
512-577-0250 - cell

15 Jan. 2023  Mike Quinn / / Texas Entomology / Texas Beetle Information