They make up the majority of life on earth but mostly go unnoticed by us lumbering humans — macro master Alan Henderson reveals the best way to explore the big, tiny world of bugs
Some of us are scared of them, some disgusted, others irritated, and many of us simply ignore them, but invertebrates (including non-insects, such as spiders) play a much larger and more important role in our world than they are generally given credit for. That’s why Australian photographer Alan Henderson has made it his life’s work to raise awareness and appreciation for what he calls ‘minibeasts’ and the work that they do.
“Without these animals, we’d end up grinding to a halt, because they play all these important roles that allow the bigger animals, including us, to do what we do,” he explains.
Not only are bugs extremely important to the natural world, but they are also endlessly fascinating if you bother to pay attention. That’s why they hold such allure for macro photographers.
“You get up close and see that detail through the macro lens that you don’t see with the naked eye,” says Alan. “It transports you into another world.”
IN THE WILD
One of the great things about shooting insects is that you are never very far from a wealth of subjects. Living in the rainforest-based village of Kuranda in Queensland, Australia, Alan is more than spoiled for choice when he wanders his backyard in search of interesting bugs — but that’s to be expected when you run a nature centre like Minibeast Wildlife. But even those of us in less abundantly wild locations have access to plenty of minibeast action.
“Everyone will have some of these animals around where they live; just have a look through the leaves, and you start to enter that world,” says Alan.
The key is to have your camera with you wherever you go. A simple trip to a friend’s house could lead to discovering some amazing invertebrate behaviour in the back garden, ripe for an impromptu macro shoot.
Of course, it is not unknown for an insect shoot to be less than natural. Bugs will sometimes be moved onto backgrounds and sets to achieve a certain effect. Alan even offers a wrangling service for various film productions. But if you’re going to be moving a minibeast, you have to be careful both for the animal’s safety and for the sake of your shot.
“When you’ve worked with these animals for 20-odd years, you recognize what is natural and what isn’t,” says the photographer. “I see quite a few shots that just obviously are not — the bugs are clearly out of their element: legs and arms sort of caging under itself, or it’s half-dead.”
UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL
Once you’ve discovered your miniscule subject, one of the big challenges in bug photography is getting close enough for a good shot. Obviously, humans are not the most graceful at navigating the tiny world in which these animals live, and many of them are extremely sensitive to even the smallest change in their environment.
“I find I don’t breathe,” says Alan with a laugh. “After I’ve taken a few photos, I’m absolutely puffed out, and that’s because I’ve been holding my breath. I don’t even think about it.”
Not only is this helpful for camera stability, but it also ensures that the minibeast you’re focused on doesn’t get scared away by a stray puff of breath. Moving extremely slowly and carefully is of utmost importance, but this doesn’t mean complete stillness is the best approach. Alan says that moving like something natural to the environment, like a swaying leaf, for example, is surprisingly effective.
“I’m sure onlookers think this guy is nuts, but it works. If you’re trying to move up to a fly in a straight line, even if you’re moving really slowly, they will get the heebie-jeebies and off they’ll go. But if you sway fairly obviously, they let you get really close.”
This emphasizes how important it is to really know your subject for a successful bug shoot. When you understand the inner workings of the minibeast world, you are not just able to move in without startling them, but are able to anticipate behaviour to get the best shot.
It’s things like mating, feeding, predator–prey interactions, shedding exoskeletons, and laying eggs that make for the most dynamic shots. But you won’t get these without knowing exactly how an insect behaves in the wild, Alan cautions.
For example, different varieties of orb web spiders interact with their food differently: the golden orb weaver will run down the web, grab its prey, and haul it back to the web’s centre before starting to silk it up, whereas the Saint Andrew’s Cross spider wraps up its prey immediately, and it’s all over within a few seconds. Knowing the difference is all that sits between a brilliant shot and a missed opportunity.
And, along with knowledge, the other prime virtue of an invertebrate photographer is a calm, forbearing demeanour: “Patience is really important. Some people don’t quite get it; they’ll thump around or move really rapidly, every movement is sharp — you can’t afford to do those things.”
CRAFT AND GEAR
Once you’ve found and moved in close to your tiny subject, and they are performing the way you want, it’s time to capture the shot. To do so, you will need the right equipment.
Many cameras offer a ‘Macro’ shooting mode to assist with close-up photography, but, if you’re serious about exploring the world of insects, a dedicated macro lens, which provides 1:1 magnification (meaning that the subject is projected at life-size on the camera’s sensor) is the way to go. These can be costly, but you don’t necessarily need the latest and greatest; Alan still works with his Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens from some 15 years ago.
Additional equipment might include extension tubes, which increase the distance of the lens from the sensor, allowing for even greater magnification, which is great for very, very small subjects. But don’t go too crazy with your magnification, Alan warns, or you might lose the impact of your shot: “You can sometimes get in really close up and think that’s fantastic, but the average person doesn’t understand what it is; they just think, what the hell is that? So, you really need to get close but not too close, or you take away the evidence of what the creature might be.”
For lighting, Alan uses an off-camera flash with a handheld diffuser and often incorporates a small reflector into the mix. It is a versatile system that allows him to highlight the amazing elements of various insects that might be hidden in natural light alone.
“With the handheld flash and diffuser, I can front-light or I can backlight, depending on the subject that I encounter. If it’s a transparent animal or has fine hairs or antennae, backlighting really helps with highlighting that.”
Regardless of the animal’s other fascinating attributes, it is its face that is most important. These minibeasts can often seem incredibly alien to us, but, if you can get their eyes sharp, there will always be a point of relation for the viewer.
“It’s just like human photography — if you mess up on the face, people aren’t going to say, ‘oh yeah, the elbow is sharp, that’s great’,” explains Alan. “It’s the same with these animals; if the eyes aren’t sharp, I’ll ditch it straight away.”
Focus stacking is a popular technique for ensuring all of a tiny subject remains in focus, despite working with an incredibly slight focusing plane. Some cameras have a function that automatically handles this — quickly taking many images at slightly different focal lengths and combining them together — but, on the occasions Alan finds stacking to be necessary, he does it manually. With his camera in hand, he picks a spot on the insect’s body and moves slightly back and forward, capturing just a few frames that can be aligned and combined in Photoshop later.
In the end, there’s no single right way to capture the astonishing world of invertebrate life, but this advice will hopefully steer you away from some of the obviously wrong paths. Alan hopes that the more wonderful bug imagery is seen, the more appreciation people will have for the essential work of minibeasts within the natural world.
“At the least, I hope they think, OK, they are amazing animals, I’m not going to squash the next spider that crosses my path.”
To check out Alan’s latest publication, Minibeasts: True Rulers of Our World and the Key to Our Survival, along with his other photographic, conservation, and education work, visit minibeastwildlife.com.au.