Photographing insects with your phone

I was so pleased with my bee photos (previous post) that I shared them on social media, which led to this exchange:

Friend: Excellent pictures. I have the blue banded bee but, try as I might, I never get a good shot!

Malcolm: Most camera-lens combinations won’t get a big enough image of an insect to get this sort of detail. I use a DSLR with a 100mm macro lens (both Canon) and add a +4 close-up “filter” (really another lens but it screws on like a filter) for the really small stuff. And then I take lots of shots and throw most of them away.

Friend: And I use my phone

Malcolm: Some phone cameras are pretty good, but you have to get so close to the insect that you usually scare it away. Practice on small flowers – see what yours will do.

Friend: That’s a good idea. I do a fair bit of flower stuff for my Instagram but practicing on insects would be fun.

Malcolm: Slow insects would be next, then. Caterpillars patiently munching leaves, assassin bugs and spiders lurking in ambush, etc. Then work your way up to to ants and bees. Butterflies and dragonflies? Only while sleeping, I think.

Friend: Oh dear. I am really not in need of another obsession…

Malcolm: But this is one that can fill in your free time while you’re waiting for a bus or a friend to turn up. All you need is your phone, some sunshine, and any scrap of garden…

My phone is nothing special – mid-range Chinese and three years old – but after that conversation I had to take it for a walk around the garden to see what it could do.

Viewing these images in the light-box will reveal information about how much editing they have received.

What works best?

Rule 1: Get as close as you can.

I found myself holding the phone less than 15 cm from my bug or small flower to get a big enough image. Caterpillars didn’t mind at all but some spiders moved away, and tracking a moving subject at that distance was difficult. Depth of field (the range of distances at which the subject is in focus) is particularly limited, since it is proportional to the distance between the lens and the subject; if it is ten centimetres at one metre distance, it is only ten millimetres at ten centimetres.

Rule 2: Zooming in doesn’t help as much as you might think.

The zoom function is likely to be “digital zoom“, which makes your subject look bigger on screen but doesn’t capture any more detail.

The spider looks all right until we get too close, at which point we see the ugly effects of over-sharpening (which the phone did automatically) and pixellation. Don’t expect miracles.

Taking the photo at normal magnification and then cropping it is likely to give you somewhat better results than zooming in before you take it. Here’s an accidental example: the tiny beetle on the flower is clearer than the spider.

Rule 3: Be prepared to edit.

Even when you get as close as possible, a very small (5 mm) subject won’t fill the image. Cropping it drastically before sharing it may be necessary, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so since most of the images we share online are less than 1000 px wide and your original image is likely to be four times that.

Colour balance can need correction, too, since the phone camera assumes it is looking at people or landscapes. If on-phone editing can’t fix the faults, download the shot to your computer and use a basic image editor. (There’s no need to use Photoshop. I use Preview on Mac for nearly all the photos on the blog.)

Rule 4: Explore the camera’s automatic modes

I needed manual focus for very small spiders and found it under the “Expert” mode. And I found that the “fill light” flash mode worked a little better than “auto”. Your phone may be different, of course, and if you’re lucky it will have a Macro mode.

Is it worth the trouble?

Yes. Your best shots can be very pleasing photographs in their own right, as I hope my examples show, but other advantages are significant.

  • As with any photography, the thought we put into it sharpens our observational skills enormously.
  • Having a useable camera with you at all times improves your chances of getting a photo of anything interesting or beautiful you come across.
  • Citizen science: uploading directly from your phone to iNaturalist becomes so quick and easy that you’re more likely to participate.

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