Working with Light

Compare these two images, both of the same swarm of mating ants:


What's the difference?

The lighting, of course. In the first image I stood facing the rising sun so that the insects' translucent wings glowed, while in the second I moved to shoot the swarm from another angle, the sun hitting them from the side. A much plainer result, to my eye.

Managing light is the most important aspect of photographic composition. Entire books (as well as some fantastic blogs) have been written on the subject. I can't compete with that level of detail in a short blog post, so let me instead distill the topic down to this:

To take better photographs, a good start is to think about light.

As we can see from the flying ant example, the direction the light comes from dramatically changes the mood of an image. But there's more to light than just direction; the intensity also alters the photo's character.


The top beetle photo was lit with a pair of plain flash heads. The second was done with the same gear and same settings except the flash was diffused through tracing paper. The diffuse light softens the colors but removes the harsh glare and strong shadows.

In 2007 I spent a day shooting Pseudomyrmex acacia ants in Panama. I tried lighting the ants in different ways.

Here's a silhouette done in natural light, in the field, with the ants in the shade of their tree:


Closer in, with a diffused flash from the front and above:


And with one flash head held behind the thorn, to light the ants from the back, with the other turned up just enough to give a faint fill from the front right:


That evening, in the comfort of the hotel room, I rigged a miniature studio from a cardboard box and some printer paper. A flash bounced off the inside of the box gave a smooth light on the thorn nest:


Same subject, different lighting, to very different effect.

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Same subject, different lighting, to very different effect.

..and none of them "wrong". That said, what kind of lighting do entomologists, editors and other professionals prefer for their subjects? I can appreciate that the silhouette image is not too useful for them other than as a mood-setting bit for a popular book or such, but for that red beetle above I could imagine a case to be made for either image being the "better" one as far as documenting the insect.

Great post. It clearly drives home the point that its not just about providing more light but providing it in the right places.

damn! all your pictures are amazing, but seeing the differences that different techniques make - very very cool!
thank you!

The second photo strongly reminded me of swarming birds, the first photo of mayflies lit by lamps.

Do you know why the ants carry the abdomen beneath the thorax? I don't recall seeing that before, but it reminds me of crabs doing the same thing, I guess to move sideways quickly.

Sometimes the simplest of "techniques" can also yield nice insect photographs: The wasp pictures on the top of this page, for example, were taken with a compact camera from just centimeters away, using the built-in flash - which has a substantial parallax from that distance, but that actually helped by illuminating the beasts with more scattered than direct light.

I started putting a single small ply of tissue (crumpled) in a sto-fen bounce head. Softens the flash really nicely. I haven't tried it but crumpling some aluminum foil and then flattening it out on a sheet of cardboard should be a good reflector. The crumbling softens the reflective properties of the foil.

In the case of the beetle, the first pic looks a little flat, because of the strong, dark shadow. The second pic is in my opinion better. The diffuse light softens the shadow under the beetle, allowing it to visually "float" over the leaf...

Thanks a bunch for this info on light management! Your photos are incredible, as usual, but your willingness to share your experiences in macrophotography is exemplary!
Another great job!

By Henry W. Robison (not verified) on 20 Apr 2009 #permalink

As we can see from the flying ant example, the direction the light comes from dramatically changes the mood of an image. But there's more to light than just direction; the intensity also alters the photo's character.ttanks...yes