Wild Advice for Shutterbugs

Photographer Alex Wild shares some tips for getting those insect glamour shots.

As a grad student in entomology at UC Davis, Alex Wild developed an obsession. He was studying the taxonomy of Linepithema, an ant genus that includes the Argentine ant (below), and bought a digital camera so that he could include photos of his ant subjects in his talks. More than 10 years later, he’s still taking pictures. “It got kind of addictive,” he says.

Soon after he began shooting, Wild started posting shots to a website he made. “I’m a bug nerd. I wanted to show my bug photos,” he says. Unexpectedly, offers to buy his work began appearing in his inbox. “I was really surprised when I started getting emails from textbook publishers and magazine editors,” Wild says. He now makes his living as a photographer.

Science Friday talked to Wild about the challenges of macrophotography, and asked him for some tips on how to get those insect glamour shots.

“Linepithema humile,” the Argentine ant. A native of South America, it’s an invasive pest in California.

Science Friday: What was your first camera? 
Alex Wild: I had used my parents’ SLR [single lens reflex] film camera and some point-and-shoot cameras as a kid. My first digital one was a Nikon Coolpix 995, a true classic. It’s a great little camera. No one has quite made one like it since. It’s wonderful for photographing little, tiny things.

What are you using now?
I use Canon DSLRs now. It doesn’t matter too much which system you’re using. They’re all really good.

What equipment would you suggest for someone who’s just starting out in macrophotography, but who only has a few hundred dollars?
If you already have an SLR back, the first thing I would do if you weren’t sure how much money you wanted to spend is buy a set of extension tubes. These are very simple devices. They’re just a spacer—I’ve actually seen them made out of old Pringle’s cans—and all you’re physically doing is adding extra space between the lens and the camera. And what happens when you do that is you change the focal distance of the camera so that the farther away the lens is, the closer in it focuses. Extension tubes can turn almost any lens into something you can use to shoot close up.

So you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars?
One of my photography friends, Thomas Shahan, who shoots mostly jumping spiders, uses an old Pentax DSLR. He buys these old film camera lenses at garage sales and figures out how to attach them to his camera. He’ll reverse-mount them. If you turn the lens backwards, you can suddenly add macro ability. It’s funny—his whole set-up is like $400, and it’s held together with duct tape. He does astounding work with it. I sometimes teach workshops with him, and it’s great to have him along because people do realize that it’s not the equipment you’re using—how you use it is the main thing, and Thomas is a great example of that.

It seems like the hardest part of macrophotography is getting the subject in focus. Any suggestions?
Always focus on the eyes. When you focus on the eye of the bug and the rest of it goes out of focus, a viewer is much more tolerant of that, for some reason. It adds an illusion of it being more in focus than it is.

Have you ever been bitten or stung by one of your subjects?

You can see more of Wild’s work, and read his musings on ants and other matters, at his blog.

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About Annette Heist

Annette Heist is a former senior producer for Science Friday.