How to Photograph Insects for Art

Dragonfly – Four-spotted Chaser Libellula quadrimaculata
Sony Alpha 33 + Tamron 90/2.8 macro + flash; f/16; 1/160 sec.

We’ve all seen artistic images, paintings and drawings of botanicals on white backgrounds. They provide you with an unobstructed view of the flower or plant. I wanted to take this a step further and do the same with insects. Through simplicity of design, the photos provide the viewer with a clear representation of both their beauty and complexities.

If you have an appreciation for macro photography and insects, then you will find this process to be both challenging and rewarding.

Let’s get started with this step-by-step technique.

Because these models are alive, knowledge of insect behavior is of vital importance, along with a lot of patience and practice. These are the key ingredients needed to get them in the right position in front of the camera.

To photograph insects on a white background out in the field, a mini studio will need to be set up. The insects will become free from their environment and the white background affords you the opportunity to see all the details of the insect – even the small hairs on the body and legs. It’s just a click away and the photos become art.

The Field Studio

A picture is worth a thousand words…. To understand the setup, this visual says it all. To achieve the pure white background and get the insects completely within the light, I photograph the insects on a 38% opaque acrylic plate mounted on a mini open-top wood table and use two flashguns. It is very important that the light is spread evenly from below and above to avoid shadows under the insects. It’s just like studio photography with people, only with one big difference. These models are very small – from 4 to 80 millimeters in size.

Use a single acrylic plate that is approximately 20 inches square (50 x 50 cm). Add 8 inch (20 cm) vertical legs to get it far enough above the ground to allow enough space for a flashgun to be set from below. Use a flash diffuser that will be large enough to spread the light nicely up through the acrylic plate. I happen to use a falcon-eyes diffuser that is 4 x 6 inches (11 x 15 cm).

Using a tripod, set the second flashgun with an omni bounce diffuser directed towards the top of the acrylic plate.

The best results will be achieved by using an f/2.8 macro lens.

Be prepared. Have your camera at the ready close to the mini studio. You may even want to photograph an inanimate object of like size on the plate first, so your camera settings will be close to what will be needed.

Robber Fly Eutolmus rufibaris

Sony Alpha 33 + Tamron 90/2.8 macro + flash; f/16; 1/160 sec.

Getting the Insects on the Plate

First things first: It is important that you do some research on the various insects and learn about their behaviors, where and what time of the year is best and on what vegetation they will be found.

You can catch insects in your own yard or garden or in the wild. Be sure to do so in the early morning or evening when they are calm. It will be more difficult to catch and photograph them during the rest of the day when they are most active doing what bugs do.

Note: If photographing bugs is new to you, be sure to spend some time observing their behavior first. With this knowledge, it will make the process easier.

Once caught with gentle handling, place the insect on the acrylic plate. Slowly grab your camera and get in a low position close to the acrylic plate. Take care not to irritate the insect or it will move or fly away.

Photographing the Insects

Photograph in RAW and set the white balance of your camera to “Flash”, because you will be photographing the insects in 100% flash light. Make adjustments to the white balance according to the subject – each will be different.

You’ll want to get as much of the body and the segmented details of the insect as sharp as possible. Use an aperture of f/16. This means using a lot of flashlight, so you may need to experiment with the levels of the flashguns. It may take a bit of trial and error to get it right. Start with an exposure time of 1/100 sec. and experiment with up to 1/1250 sec.

Mating Soldier Cantharis rustica

Sony Alpha 33 + Tamron 90/2.8 macro + flash; f/16; 1/160 sec.


Use your image editing program, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, to make those final adjustments. If you find there is a gray cast to the whites, you can use Highlights and Curves to get the right balance of pure white.

Now it’s your turn to create those photos of insects with white backgrounds. Study and watch those bugs and then grab a few for yourself. Enjoy the experiments and challenges. It’s great fun.

by Edwin Brosens
All text and photos: © 2015 Edwin Brosens. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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