Introduction to Insect Macro Photography (Part I)

Photo by Huub de Waard / Portrait of a little fly: Magnification 8, f/8, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec

Photo by Huub de Waard / Portrait of a little fly: Magnification 8, f/8, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec

This is a guest post by Huub de Waard, an exceptional photographer who specializes in close-up shots of insects. After reading his post, be sure to check out more of his awesome photos at his website. And, if you’re also interested in writing a guest post here on PhotoNaturalist, please contact me, thanks! –Steve

One of the most popular books that I read during my childhood was Eric in the Land of the Insects, written by the Dutch author Godfried Bomans. In this humorous fantasy, nine-year-old Eric enters the landscape painting that hangs on his wall and he discovers a world of man-sized wasps, bees, butterflies and other insects that is stunningly similar to the world of humans. Once photography became a part of my life and I purchased the Canon extreme macro lens MP-E 65 mm f/2.8, which has combined with a 2x teleconverter a maximum magnification of 10:1, my world was populated with grasshoppers, spiders, snails, flies, dragonflies and butterflies—Eric’s world.

Magnification describes the relationship between the actual size of the subject and the size of its image on the sensor of the camera. Photographing a 3 cm (1.18 inch) long blue-tailed damselfly so that its image size is 1 cm (0.39 inch) on the sensor means that the magnification is 1/3 (1:3) life-size. Dividing the size of the subject’s image on the sensor by the actual size determines the magnification. At 1:1 life-size, the size of the subject on the sensor is as big as it is in real life. Macrophotography is restricted to magnifications in the order of 1:10 to 1:1 life-size. Microphotography is the extreme form of macrophotography, dedicated to the photography of small objects from life-size to modest enlargements of up to about 20.

Larger than life-size

Photo by Huub de Waard / Frontal portrait of Meadow Froghopper: Magnification 8, f/10, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec

Photo by Huub de Waard / Frontal portrait of Meadow Froghopper: Magnification 8, f/10, ISO 100 and 1/250 sec

Strictly speaking, a lens is categorized as a macro lens only if it can achieve this 1:1 magnification. Microphotography can be undertaken by normal macro lenses equipped with modestly specialized equipment. A lens’ minimum focusing distance is the closest distance your macro lens will allow you to get to your subject while still maintaining sharp focus.

A low-budget method to decrease the minimum focusing distance is to extend the distance between the lens and the sensor by inserting extension tubes or a continuously adjustable bellows. Both the extension tubes and the bellows do not contain optical elements. The further the lens is from the sensor, the closer the minimum focusing distance, the greater the magnification, and the darker the image given the same aperture. Tubes of various lengths can be stacked, decreasing lens-to-subject distance and increasing magnification. Extension tubes and bellows can be used for different lenses. A small disadvantage is that the use of extension tubes and bellows may not preserve autofocusing, auto exposure and auto aperture operation.

The maximally obtainable magnification can be calculated with the following simple equation:

(D(length of the set of extension tubes or the bellows) + F (focal length of the macro lens)) / F = magnification.

For Example: Adding a set of extension tubes with a total length of 60mm to a 60mm macro lens will give maximally a magnification of (60+60) / 60 = 2.

By adding a teleconverter, an even greater magnification can be achieved. Application of a 2x teleconverter produces a maximum magnification of 4 and 2 stops loss in light intensity. Adding more glass means a drop in quality and quantity of light transmission, the extent of which depends on the quality of the particular teleconverter you’re using.

Placing an auxiliary close-up lens (or close-up “filter”) in front of a macro lens is another option. Inexpensive screw-in or slip-on attachments provide close-focusing at a very low cost. Some two-element versions are qualitatively very good while many inexpensive single element lenses exhibit chromatic aberration and reduced sharpness of the resulting image. When you use macro lenses with different diameters, for each macro lens a close-up lens has to be purchased separately. Most close-up lenses are marked with a +d number in diopter unit, the power of the lens. The diopter (or power) of a lens is defined as 1000 / Fd, where Fd is the focal length of the lens measured in mm. Thus, a lens with a focal length of 50mm has a diopter of +20 = 1000 / 50, and a +4 diopter close-up lens has a focal length of 250mm = 1000 / 4.

The maximally obtainable magnification can be calculated with the equation(2F + Fd) / Fd.

For Example:coupling a +20 diopter lens with a 60mm macro lens produces maximally a magnification of (2*60 + 50) / 50 = 3.4.

An interesting alternative is the reverse lens technique which can be accomplished by mounting a lens with focal length Fr in reverse, in front of a normally mounted lens of greater focal length F, using a macro coupler which screws into the front filter threads of both lenses. The maximally obtainable magnification can be calculated with the equation F / Fr. Depending on the quality of the reversed mounted lens, a drop in quality and quantity of light transmission may negatively influence the image quality. All discussed techniques can be used in conjunction to obtain even larger magnifications.

Next week, we’ll publish part II of this series on insect micro photography, where Huub discusses how to approach insects without scaring them away. Make sure you don’t miss it by signing up for our free weekly newsletter.

About the Author: Huub de Waard is a Dutch wildlife photographer who specializes in insect macro photography. He photographs very small invertebrates so close-up that they are transformed into large subjects. Through his images, he aims to highlight the different characteristics of a variety of species—and their individual charm. His specialty is called microphotography, which is the extreme form of macrophotography, dedicated to the photography of small objects from life-size to modest enlargements of up to about 20. He does not apply focus stacking and all of his pictures are single images made in his own garden. His work can be found at


  1. I do not agree with your definition: “Macrophotography is restricted to magnifications in the order of 1:10 to 1:1 life-size. Microphotography is the extreme form of macrophotography, dedicated to the photography of small objects from life-size to modest enlargements of up to about 20.”

    Most serious macro-photographers adhere to the definition of macro as at least 1:1 magnification (life-size) on senor, up to 10:1 mag (10x life-size). 1:10 mag (1/10 life-size) up to 1:1 mag is defines as “Close-Up” photography, and can be easily achieved with lenses other than designated as true “Macro”. Micro-photography, on the other hand, requires quite a bit more sophistication in optics. The minimum magnification on a jeweler’s microscope is 10x. The industry accepted minimum for micro-photography (or photo-micrography) is 10:1 mag (10x life-size). Too many manufacturers engrave the word MACRO on both prime lenses and zoom lenses, which are not able to actually reach 1:1 magnification, as stand-alone lenses, nor able to capture ‘flat field’. This inaccurate description is a marketing ploy to sell more lenses to novice photographers unaware of true macro-photography requirements. As educated photographers, we should strive to present accurate information to novice photographers, not perpetuate diluted & expanded definitions originated by those with commercial interests.

    • Huub de Waard says:

      Dear Douglass,

      I agree with you that a lot of unclear terminology is used on the Internet. To prevent confusion, I always use the online version of the Dictionary of Photography and Digital Imaging by Tom Ang, published in 2001. This dictionary can be found at

      In this dictionary, macrophotography is defined as photography in the macro range i.e. between approximately 1:10 to 1:1 magnification.

      Close up photography is not defined in this dictionary, but the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary defines close up photography only as photography where a photograph is taken at close range, which is very general and does not mentioning a magnification range.

      Micro-photography is defined by the Dictionary of Photography and Digital Imaging as “photography of small objects from life-size to modest enlargements of up to about 10X. Such photography can be undertaken by normal cameras equipped with modestly specialised equipment e.g. bellows attachment and reversal of lenses. ” Due to the advance of technology in the last decade, I have changed 10X to 20X.

      Kind Regards,


  2. JohninRockville says:

    I’ve been seriously involved in photography for nearly 10 years with nature photography being my passion. I’m also a retired science teacher so while I realize the importance of the math involved in comparing lenses and attachments, what most people are curious about is what they are going to see. Many articles I’ve read have stressed the importance of using a macro lens for close up photography and I’ve got to say I’ve taken far more good close up pictures with a zoom lens that my 100 mm macro lens. The zoom allows much more flexibility, you can be a yard from the subject to get the same frame filling image that the macro needs to be only a foot away. In photographing live, wary subjects distance is an all important factor. For extreme close ups one can even use a tube to get right on top of the subject while the zoom still offers a great deal of flexibility in composing the shot while with the macro you’re moving the camera and tripod multiple times to get the same composition. Frankly I can’t imagine a single situation in which a good zoom can’t get get the same composition as a macro in less time and fuss. As far as the number crunching – I’ll leave that to the engineers and rely on what I see to get the image that I’m after.

    • To date, no zoom lens can match the IQ of a primary lens at any given focal length, especially a macro lens. While long zoom lenses are convenient for bird and animal photography in general, they provide little advantage for true 1:1 magnification (life-size) image capture. Image resolution is important for final image cropping and other post processing procedures, and a true macro lens will always provide the best lens IQ.

      ALL of my field macro-photography is hand-held: . Tripods have there place, but are not necessary for good macro-photography. When I photograph bees, butterflies, and other insects on flowers, or similar, I am usually 6-inches to 12-inches working distance, not 12-feet. At MFD or close, I have much better control of my DoF than a zoom lens at distance. I would like to see how “flexible” your zoom lens can be when photographing ants on the ground, at 1:1 mag or higher. My Nikkor 105G is practically welded to my 24 Mp Nikon D5200, and my field macro set-up gives me all the flexibility and complete illumination control that I need, as well as credible pixel count for post processing my raw images:

      The “number crunching” to which you refer is just one tool used to compare any two lenses. I am not an engineer, but I certainly see the value of bench testing lenses, etc. The proof is in the images. Mine are linked above.

  3. JohninRockville says:

    Indeed the “proof is in the pudding”. A number of my pictures can be seen at ViewBug web site under my name – JohninRockville. Most of the close up images were taken using a Canon 28-200 mm lens and the picture of the weevils hatching from eggs which were only 1 mm in size was taken using the 28 – 200 with a tube extension.
    I’ve been participating in professional photographic salons around the world for nearly 10 years and many of those close up images have gained recognition in the form of acceptances and awards.

    Regarding those “specifications” as furnished by the camera manufacturers – they are just numbers and not every lens is identical. I had a Canon lens with which I never managed to get a truly sharp image some years ago. A worker at a local camera store had an identical lens and took pictures with a pro grade body using both lenses at identical settings. There was a very obvious difference in sharpness of the images from the 2 lenses and I eventually sold the lens to purchase another.

    While you no doubt take excellent pictures with your macro – I am more then satisfied with the images I get from my zoom lenses and maintain that the zoom is far more flexible in use than a fixed macro and would certainly recommend it to a beginner over a macro. I’ve used my 28-200 to shoot everything from hatching butterflies to portraits to panoramas that I’ve printed to canvas over 6 ft in length. I’ve also use the same zoom to shoot panorama images of small objects. The large spider displayed was made up of 3 shots – top to bottom, then joined to form a single large detailed image that I printed on canvas about 3 feet in size while the actual size of the spider was 5 inches.

    While I am certainly aware of the characteristics of different lenses and fixed lenses are generally ranked superior to zoom lenses, my own experience has led me to favor my zoom in most situations. I do have a 400 mm Canon lens that is outstanding in my bird photographs.

    In short – you do your work your way and I’ll mine my way, but my gripe is that many professional photographers insist that one needs a macro to do quality close up work, and that just isn’t so.

    John W. Sheridan AFIAP, FAPS

  4. Very nice discussion. My daughter has an inherent love of nature and art and I would love to get her a nice camera with attachments for her 8th birthday. If you can make some recommendations for both zoom and macro set-UPS, that would be awesome. Age is not an issue as I’ll certainly work with her. Price point needs to be sensible but not restrictive.
    A quality printer setup would also be appreciated.

    Last summer we took pictures with my 8 megapixel camera on my HTC; everything from baby Grey’s Tree Frogs to Carolina and Chinese Mantids. It’s become a tradition that I let her keep a female mantid or two just prior to the first fall frost. I had Vinyl Fatheads made from our photos for Christmas, and she LOVED them.

    I need to fuel her passion and this seems like the next step. Thanks!

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