When it comes to macro photography, as regular readers of my blog (or my old blog Mothin’ in the Garden) will know one of my favourite subjects to photograph are moths.
There are unbelievable amounts of moth species in the world (in the UK alone there are hundreds of Macro moths, and into the thousands for micro moths, the really tiny ones). These can easily be attracted into your garden using a variety of the techniques for trapping them. it all depends on what you have – more details of how to trap moths can be seen in my post – How to Trap Moths. Best of all moths come in a vast array of colours and sizes; from the gaudy pink and green Elephant Hawk Moth; to the dull Clouded Drab. Don’t let anyone tell you all moths are dull and grey.
But photographing them is not always easy, and presents a number of challenges (beyond the initial capture), which I hope to help with in this post on How to Photograph Moths.
How to Photograph Moths
I’m going to assume you have caught your moths, or know how, so we won’t go through this here. This is just about How to Photograph Moths.
When it comes to moth photography you will need to decide the style of photographs you wish to take. A very popular style (within the “mothing” community) is known as” voucher photographs” this is where your photograph is taken from above of the moth on a plain coloured (it may be best to choose a 18 percent grey card background as the most common reason for this style of photography is to show diagnostic features at their best, and placing a ruler alongside the moth, using a grey card means you will be able to correctly colour balance your photos).
I personally use a white background most often to create a High Key style of image. I think this is a great way to highlight the moths colours etc. Personally I use a light table for this. Other people will prefer, and therefore opt instead, to try and create a naturalistic image. Photographing the moth on leaf litter or wood as the background. This certainly creates an appealing end photograph. The final choice will be your own but don’t be afraid to try something different.
Scarlet Tiger – Milton Keynes 2014
Once you have made your initial choice on style, the next section I want to discuss is to do with lens/camera choice. Something many people won’t believe is that often a decent point and shoot camera will produce really good macro images (sometimes even better than an SLR), it has something to do with the sensors and focusing of these consumer type cameras (I’m not really clear on the full details to be fair, if anyone has more knowledge here then please let me know in the comments). As I said my knowledge isn’t great here and so I intend to talk about photographing moths from a DSLR point of view (It’s what I know best after all).
Buff Tip – Milton Keynes 2014
The reality is that your choice of SLR camera here will not alter the images much (maybe you will be able to print larger or in a different format but not else will change the reality is that it is your choice of lens that makes all the difference. In order to achieve true macro (1:1 ratios) you will need a dedicated macro lens. These types of lens are great for close focusing so it is probably advisable to use a longer lens from the macro family I would suggest something around the 80 – 110mm 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 especially with lighting).
Remember these are wild creatures that may spook easily (although often the moths will be sluggish early in the morning). Ideally you want the moth to be relaxed and comfortable when you have placed it in its photogenic position, but still allowing for you to get close enough to get a true macro shot.
Buff Arches (natural Pose) – Milton Keynes (2014)
What other tools you will need will depend a lot on your chosen technique but in many (if not most) scenarios a sturdy/stable tripod is a must have as some of the settings you will want to use will often require a slow shutter speed, 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 really whatever you have can be put to use.
A dedicated flash unit can also be an extremely useful tool in macro photography this will probably need to be defused in some way (often just bouncing it off the ceiling will do) as many moths have metallic tints that easily become burned out highlights by un-covered flash units. You may well want to use the flash off camera in some way, as when shooting macro using a flash as the distance (or closeness) you need to get to the subject may cause the lens to get in the way of the flashes burst.
A few smaller items you may also want to consider are: A small artists paint brush, this is used to help move the moth away from the egg box etc. used in trapping; A ruler may be useful if you plan on taking voucher shots (to show size etc.); and finally secure moth storage boxes (small plastic pots) to stop your catch disappearing prior to you photographing them.
With your trapped moths it is probably a good idea to have a location to photograph them that is enclosed, but well lit. Enclosed areas will aid in a number of aspects, first by reducing potential movement of either the moth or the tripod and camera caused by wind etc. and secondly it will make recapturing the moths, if they take flight, a lot easier. A conservatory, greenhouse or Polly tunnel are ideal locations, as they will offer massive amounts of natural light. I use my garage so lack natural light, but using a light table helps me here.
Five Spot Burnet (Photographed wild not after trapping) – Milton Keynes 2014
Camera Settings for How to Photograph Moths
OK so now it is time to talk about the real heart of the matter what settings to use.
As we are working in macro it is important to remember that your depth of field will be very narrow. If you are close and using small apertures getting everything in focus can be tricky. Best practice would be to use a minimum of f/8-f/11, but probably maybe even much higher. This will allow you to get the whole moth in focus at the same time. If that is your choice, some interesting images can be had if you are willing to risk lower apertures. A narrow field of view can create some unique photos. I’d advise really getting to understanding aperture if you are not already confident in how it works.
Pebble Hook Tip – Milton Keynes 2014
To begin with I would advise setting you camera to aperture priority mode. This will allow you to pick the aperture you want while not worrying about the other settings. You may find that with larger apertures shutter speeds start to get very slow; 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.
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
Elephant Hawkmoth – Milton Keynes 2014
If you plan on using natural looking backgrounds then creating your own is the only way to go. Try creating something using a large plastic tub of some kind (preferably shallow) and adding leaves, moss or bark to the bottom. This should create an appealing backdrop for the moths to be photographed on. Having plant stalks available for the moth to climb will help as it will appear quite natural. This is especially important if photographing inside where you will have no natural areas for the moth to rest.
Although I wouldn’t recommend outdoor photography of trapped moths 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. This often can work to reassure the moth it is safe, and it will often sit stationary for longer periods; but you are taking the risk that you will lose your quarry.
Flame Shoulder (photographed on a tree in my back garden) – Milton Keynes 2011)
Further reading on How to Photograph Moths
If you are serious about photographing moths (and once you start you will quickly become so) then I would recommend you have a read of this article found on the Staffs Ecology website. It covers the subject of moth photography in even greater depth than I have here (its a good read):