Photography...

Nature - Macro Moths

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Fig 1

Common Quaker

Common Quaker © Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net

When it comes to macro photography one of my favourite subjects to shoot are moths, there are just so many different species (in the UK alone there are hundreds of Macro moths and into the thousands for micro moths) that can easily be attracted into your garden using moth trap of some kind (I currently use a travel trap from the guys at THE ENTOMOLOGICAL LIVESTOCK GROUP but there are plenty out there). Moths come in a vast array of colours and sizes from the gaudy pink and green Elephant Hawk Moth to the dull Clouded Drab, but photographing them is not always easy, and presents a number of challenges (beyond the initial capture), which I hope to help with below.

Style

I?m going to assume you have caught your moths, or know how (explaining this would take up a lot of space but I can recommend visiting the website http://www.back-garden-moths.co.uk for information and tips, as well as a great and helpful community).

The first step in moth photography is to decide the style of photographs you wish to take. One very popular style (in the mothing community) is known as voucher photographs, this is where you photograph the moth from above on a plain coloured (probably best to choose a 18 percent grey card background, the reasons for this style, while not being the best compositionally, is to show diagnostic features at their best (using a grey card means you can keep images correctly balanced to show colours correctly). While this is useful tool in identification and for websites and books, it is kind of dull, so other people will opt to instead, try and create a naturalistic image, photographing the moth on leaf litter or wood as the background. This certainly creates a more appealing end photograph (at least in my opinion). I personally like to shoot from different angles on clean white backgrounds sometimes as well just to be different; you don?t see many high-key moth pictures.

Fig 2

Hebrew Character

Hebrew Character © Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net

Lens choice

Once you are over the style hurdle and your chosen style has been selected, the next section I want to discuss is to do with lens and camera choice. It is often the case that a decent point and shoot camera will produce really good macro images, and this is definitely the case with moths (not that I use this method) it has something to do with the sensors and focusing of these consumer type cameras. This is great but I can't claim great knowledge using this method and so I intend to talk about photographing moths from a DSLR point of view.

Your choice of SLR camera here will not alter the images much, but your lens will! In order to achieve true macro (1:1 ratios) you will need a dedicated macro lens, these are great for close focusing as well. It is probably advisable to use a longer lens from the macro family I would suggest something around the 100mm mark or even more sometimes. This allows you to get a good, close picture without gluing the moth to the end of your lens (a little distance helps sometimes). Remember these are wild creatures that may spook easily. Ideally you want the moth to feel comfortable in its photogenic position while still getting close enough to get a true macro shot.

Tools

So what else will you need? Well in many (if not most) cases a sturdy tripod is a must as some of the settings we may be forced to use will often require a slow shutter speed and a steady support will help avoid camera shake, this can be a large specialist macro tripod (the type with long out stretched neck running parallel to the ground) or a small table top type.

A flash unit can also be a really useful tool in macro photography (preferably a dedicated macro flash or some form of ring flash but these are not essential) this will need to be defused as many moths have silvery tints that get blown easily by un-covered flash units, and preferably usable off camera in some way as when shooting macro with flash the closeness you need to get to the subject can sometimes cause the lens to get in the way of the flashes burst. In the same vein as these tripods and flash units a remote shutter release may also be of benefit to help in eliminating camera shake.

A few smaller items you may wish to consider are: A small artists paint brush, this is used to help coax the moth away from the egg box used in trapping; A ruler is useful when taking voucher shots to show size etc. and finally secure moth storage boxes to stop you catch disappearing prior to your photographing them.

Fig 3

Shoulder Stripe

Shoulder Stripe ©Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net

Locations

Once you have trapped your moths it is probably a good idea to look at a location to photograph them that is enclosed, but well lit. Enclosed areas will aid in a number of aspects, firstly be reducing wind movement of either the moth or the tripod and camera, it will also make recapturing the moths, if they take flight, easier. A conservatory, greenhouse or Polly tunnel are ideal locations, as they will offer great amounts of natural light. While I used to use a conservatory I now do most of my work outside, as I like to use the tree in my garden as a backdrop.

Settings

Right so I guess now is the time to talk about what settings to use. As we are working in macro it is important to remember that your depth of field will be tiny when using small apertures, you will need to use a minimum of f/8-f/11 but probably much higher in order to get the whole moth in focus at the same time (if that is your desire, some interesting images can be had if you risk lower apertures though, see Fig 3 & 4) I'd advise reading our understanding aperture page if you are not already confident in how apertures work.

My advise here is to recommend setting you camera to aperture priority mode as this will allow you to choose the aperture you require while not having to worry so much about the other settings, at least to start with. Experimenting with which aperture or f-stop works best for your style. You may find that shutter speeds start to get very slow (depending on lighting where you are shooting) so stepping up the ISO or using flash often becomes necessary (as mentioned earlier if using flash it needs to be defused to try to alleviate some of the glare and not create such harsh shadows).

Fig 4

Agonopterix-heracliana

Agonopterix-heracliana ©Ashley Beolens http://www.fatphotographer.net

I fully believe that depth of field is the most important aspect to get right in moth photography so using aperture priority will usually lead to the best moth photographs. To work out what sort of aperture you need to use for the desired depth of field, and in conjunction with your lens length, there is an excellent calculator found at http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html I?d recommend using this to learn where to focus and how much of the image will be in focus if you do not already understand aperture well.

In order to get the best out of your photographs I would suggest that you shoot in raw or work with manual white balance, this means you can have a better chance of maintaining accurate colour representations, something that you will probably want in nature photography like this.

Tips on backgrounds

When trying to create a natural background it may be worth using a large plastic tub of some kind and adding leaves, moss or bark to the bottom, this should create a more appealing backdrop for the moths to be photographed on, having plant stalks available also helps as a moth resting on a plant stem will appear more natural than posed. This is especially important if photographing inside (where as mentioned earlier) you will have less wind and are more likely to be able to keep hold of the moths for photographing (believe me there is nothing worse than having a great specimen in the trap only for it to fly before you got the photo of it).

Although I wouldn't recommend outdoor photography of moths is not recommended (unless you have no choice) there is the option of using a nearby tree as a resting spot for the moth while you take their photo, and this often can work to reassure the moth it is safe, and it will often sit stationary for longer periods.

Further reading

If you are serious about photographing moths then I highly recommend you have a read of this article on the Staffs ecology website, it covers the subject in great depth: http://www.staffs-ecology.org.uk/staffsmoths/articles/Photographing%20Moths.pdf

You can see more photographs of moths I have captured and read more about my moth trapping exploits (should you wish) at my blog Mothin' in the Garden