Pro Photo Daily | Nature Watch: Capturing the Very Tiny Creatures

By: David Schonauer
Publish Date: Sept. 9, 2017, 10:02 a.m.


Size matters in life.

Recently we featured photographs of creatures both big and small — winners of the fourth annual BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition, put on by the California Academy of Sciences. Today we’re featuring work that focuses only on the small, from plankton to bugs and other tiny sea-dwellers to bugs of various varieties. (Including the straight-snouted weevil, the velvet ant, the longhorn beetle, the sweat bee, and the robber fly.)

We’re doing this because in recent days we’ve come across several portfolios revealing the beauty of little lifeforms — which, it seems, are of big interest to photographers now.

Wired, for instance, has spotlighted Alex Wild, the curator of entomology at the University of Texas at Austin and a professional bug photographer who licenses images to publications like National Geographic and The New York Times. Wild sees the interest people have in bug photography and has created Insects Unlocked, a program that allows anyone to visit the university's bug collection, pick out specimen, and learn how to photograph it.

Meanwhile, National Geographic took note of photographer Ryo Minemizu, who has spent 20 years diving off the coast of Japan, perfecting a proprietary technique for revealing the intricate beauty of tiny sea life. (At top: Thysanoteuthis rhombus, a type of squid, by Minemizu.)

Here’s what we’ve learned: While tiny creatures are exceptionally beautiful, capturing that beauty isn’t necessarily a small endeavor.


Inside UT’s House of Bugs

Orchid bee by April Carrillo

Alex Wild, the curator of entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, tells Wired that his fascination with insects began at four years old, collecting ant nests in Allegheny State Park in New York, near where he grew up. Wild didn't start photographing them until 2000, when he was an entomology graduate student at University of California at Davis. “I needed photographs for my talks about Argentine ants—horrible little brown things—so I bought a cruddy digicam,” says Wild. “It was really addictive.”

Today he licenses his images of bugs to publications like National Geographic and The New York Times. But he’s taken his addiction to insect photography further, running Insects Unlocked, a program that allows anyone to visit the university’s collection of millions of bugs (including 150-year-old beetles from a school teacher in the 1870s), pick out a specimen, and learn how to photograph it in a photo lab next door.  All the photos are posted to the program's Flickr account, where they can be downloaded for free.


Chlorion syneum by Karen Perez


Robber fly by Christopher Johnson

Velvet ant by Christopher Johnson

Mason bee by Alejandro Santillana

“For aspiring bug photographers, Wild has a few tips,” notes Wired: “Work with soft, diffused light to highlight details on your specimen and, most importantly, photograph from the bug's perspective.” Says Wild, “If your point is to make people empathize with the insect and how it sees the world, get down on its level, shooting sideways or up at it.”

Life In the Darkness Below

A larval form of a flying fish

When you go swimming in the ocean, you probably don’t notice it, but you’re surrounded by tiny creatures — the larvae of fish, octopus, sea urchins, crustaceans, along with plants and other organisms forming the base of the marine food chain — notes National Geographic, which recently featured the work of photographer Ryo Minemizu, who has spent 20 years diving off the coast of Japan and perfecting a “proprietary technique for revealing the intricate beauty of these creatures.”

A larva of a sipunculid worm


A longarm octopus in the larval stage


A larval sea anemone from the Cerianthidae family

                                                                                         Limidae, a type of buvalve, in its larval form

“Visually translating this secret world from something barely visible to the naked eye to vivid, colorful portraits is an exercise in patience,” notes Nat Geo. “At sunset after a high tide, Minemizu and his team set up 30 color-rendering LED lights on tripods on the sea floor near the breeding grounds of migratory larval fish. He then waits for hours at a time while the lights attract the organisms and then depending on the size, uses either a macro or wide-angle lens to photograph them. The average size of the larvae is 1-4 centimeters, he estimates, with some as tiny as 2 millimeters.”

“I am surprised by the new discoveries I encounter every time I dive," Minemizu told Nat Geo. "I am also amazed at how these tiny creatures are able to adapt to often challenging conditions.”


 Tutorial: Photographing Bugs Against a White Background

If you get the itch to photograph bugs, you might want to look at a tutorial video from photographer Phil Torres of The Jungle Diaries, who shows you how to shoot bugs and other insects on a white background while out on location.

His secret: Using a diffused twin flash and some white acrylic for the star of the show to crawl around on. “[T]he flashes overexpose the background and give a true white backdrop to your shot,” notes PetaPixel.

“To be honest, though, the entire video is worth watching just for the moment he snatches a bug out the air with cat-like reflexes,” adds PP.