Published May 1. 2002

Digitizing flies, photographing

By Martin Joergensen (supported by Steve Schweitzer)


Buy the best 50-55 millimeter macro lens you can afford and a steady tripod.

Photographing flies can be anything from mere routine to a real art. Learn the basic rules here.

Equipment and lenses
Not any old camera
You can not use any odd camera for photographing flies if you want really good results. The most important facility you want is a macro lens. Some compact cameras have a macro setting and some zoom lenses have macro options, but the best solution is a true macro lens.
These come in different focal lengths, but a 50-55 millimeter for a 35mm camera is the best. You can choose a longer lens like a 100-millimeter, but generally you will not need the telephoto capability.
Get the best and brightest lens you can afford. F-stop 2.8 is good, but 3.5 will work. Anything lower (larger number) is not good. With every decreasing f-stop you loose depth of field and have to use a longer exposure, which leads to increased risk of blurred images.
The true macro is characterized by its ability to focus at very short distances - down to 5 centimeters or a couple of inches. This means that the object photographed can become very large on the film. A 1:1 relation between subject and image is desirable - for small flies a 2:1 ratio is even better - in other words an image which is twice the size of the original. To obtain this you will probably have to buy extension ring for your macro.


Most compact film cameras lack a sufficient macro capacity for fly photography. Modern digital compacts are generally better equipped in that respect.
The extension rings can be an inexpensive way to convert a normal lens to a macro. All the ring does is move the lens away from the film plane, leading to a greater enlargement of the subject and closer focus range. The rings are fairly inexpensive, and can usually transfer all functions including auto focus and aperture control.
Another alternative solution is a reversing ring, which you screw on the front of the lens. It facilitates turning the lens, mounting it backward on the camera, which, particularly enough, will give you a fine macro lens. It is only useful for a normal or wide-angle lens, the latter giving the highest magnification. Its drawback is that you loose all automation and will have to set exposure manually. You will also expose the sensitive inner glass surface to the outer environment, which can be hazardous.
Bellows are another solution, which will give some fine results. Bellows like extension rings convert any lens to a macro lens, and will in most cases let you keep all automatic functions. Bellows are a bit clumsy, can be quite expensive and have become a rarity in the catalog of modern camera manufacturers.
The common compact camera bought for the family shots is seldom suitable for fly photos. The common models usually lact proper macro facilities and manual controls.


 Keeping up
I will try to keep up with the rapid development in digital cameras, even though it is quite difficult. This section has been updated January the 12th 2004 and we have added a whole chapter on selecting and using a digital camera for fly photography. This page only tells the short version.
Being digital - an addendum
The development in digital cameras has been rapid and more and more cameras offer a realistic alternative for the fly photographer. Especially the Nikon Coolpix range has shown its value, but other brands and models yeilds surprisingly good results.
I have used my webcam - a Philips USB model - for making some fine fly pictures. Unfortunately the resolution is insufficient for really critical work, but the lens does extreme closeups and the camera and software is very easy to work with.

Extreme closeup done with a Philips webcam. The original photo is 800x600 pixels, but the quality is still not sufficient for critical work. Click on the picture to see a section of the original photo.
Digital cameras
Digital cameras have become still less expensive and still more popular during the last few years. They continue to be quite costly, but absolutely worth a consideration. The benefits are fast and direct transfer from camera to computer, ridding you of film and development costs and a lot of waiting time.

Unfortunately most digital cameras are useless for fly photography, because they don't have proper macro capabilities and exposure controls. There are models on the market with excellent macro facilities and an increasing number of sites and magazines use them for their fly pictures. But even those camera models that have a macro function are usually not good enough to compete with a fair macro lens on a 35mm camera.

Another reason for the potentially inferior quality of digital cameras is resolution and compression. Dated and inexpensive cameras have 1 to 2 megapixels capacity per picture or up to 1200 times 1600 pixels, while newer ones sport 3, 4 and more megapixels and can offer fantastic resolution.
2 megapixels is more than enough for web use, but only just adequate for print use. You will under all circumstances have to use the best possible quality to be sure about the final result. Many cameras use varying compression schemes which will make picture files smaller but also reduce quality.
If you want to photograph smaller flies like common nymphs and dries, the average digital camera is not a good choice. The better cameras will work well on most flies, but it takes a carefully chosen digital camera - and often a well-stuffed wallet - to get really good, magazine quality digital pictures of all types of flies.

All that said the one great benefit with digital cameras is the short production time. The latency from shot to looking at the picture on a screen is very short, and for web work the digital setup is really a blessing.
We certainly recommend looking into the digital process. More and more of the pictures on GFF are taken with digital cameras - and nowadays most of the fly pictures are purely digital.

Read this chapter on choosing and using a digital camera for fly photography for much more information.

Selecting the right media
The selection of film is far from trivial if you want really good pictures. One rule hovers above them all: when you have found a film you like, stick to that! Switching between many different brands and types will surely decrease your average quality.
The first big choice is between slides and negatives with prints. Slides are generally considered better by professionals, even though the last years has brought print films with almost the same tonal richness and contrast span as slides. Slides have on disadvatage: the need of a slide scanner. If you are not a slide addict and do not plan to buy a slide scanner, use a print film.

Slide scanner addendum
The development during the last few years has brought slide scanners into a price range, where they are absolutely afordable. Slide scans offer great quality - far better than that of paper prints scanned in a flatbed scanner. And the slide scanner scans color negatives as well as slides. The negatives will have a far better tonal range and contrast than any print can offer, and scanning your old color negatives will bring out details you did not know was there.
Many of the best photos on GFF have been scanned from slides and color negatives on an inexpensive desktop 35 mm slide scanner.

Select a 100 ASA film. You can opt for a 200 ASA multi purpose film, but for fly photography there is no reason to select a 400 ASA. The grainage of the faster films is not very pronounced, and will not show on the web, but the picture quality, color saturation and tonal richeness is better on the slower films. Use one brand, select a good, stable lab and have them develop your films the same way every time. This is the only way you can ensure consistent results. You might consider having your pictures scanned professionally and put on a Photo-CD. This is a safer and better alternative to home scanning, but also much more expensive. A cheap scanner will cost you little more than what a few good quality cd's cost.
Buy bulk and save money, but make sure the films are fresh and keep them in a refridgerator until the day you want to use them.

The setup
Selecting a background
Use a subtle colored background. Most fly photographers prefer baby blue, but pale yellow or cream will work nicely. Avoid harsh colors and black as they compete with the main subject of your image. Adjust the background distance from the fly to help minimize shadowing.
Fabric or cloth of some kind can be good alternatives, but cardboard is by far the easiest to handle. You can consider using different textured materials or metal plates, but beware of the demands this puts on the light setting. If your purpose is documentation, like illustrating tying steps or showing flies as true as possible, use the light blue or light gray background.

A ring flash (right) is an excellent flash for fly photography, but also an expensive alternative to a regular flash (left).

Proper contrast and light
Contrast and light in the original has to be as good as technically possible. Dark, unexposed spots or light spots that contain no details are a waste of film. They can never be salvaged unless you manipulate details in there in your photo-editing program. Likewise there's no reason to make flat pictures with too little contrast, not exploiting the contrast range of the film.
The easy way to obtain good lighting results is by using natural light or several lamps and white paper or tin foil. The paper can be used both as a softener and a reflector while the foil will reflect light in a random pattern.

Setting the light
You can decide whether you want to use a flash or common lamps. We recommend lamps because of the control you get with the distribution of light. Shine light at multiple angles to minimize shadowing. Since most of us


This is an example of projecting incandescent and fluorescent lighting from 2 angles against a baby blue backdrop. Notice the tripod used in keeping the camera still. Also notice the fly shadow is well below the horizontal plane of the fly. The shadow will not show up in the final photo.
can not afford studio-quality lighting, we are forced to use what the household can offer. Use both fluorescent and incandescent lighting to place a nice blend of blues and yellows in the lighting mixture. Low voltage halogen light has a whiter hue, which can be used alone. Unfortunately the lamps give a very sharp light, and some kind of softening is required.
No matter what type of light you use, you can always edit out the hues you don't like later. See also GFF's Tips for Calibrating your Digital Camera or Scanner
It will generally give better results than a flash unless you are very familiar with you flash system, preferably have several flashes, and you have a softening device for them.
A flash right on the fly will give very poor results, and the danger of the light fully missing the fly is greatly enhanced because of the short distance between subject and lens compared to the distance between the flash and the lens.
Ambient light or backlight can highly increase the aesthetics of the picture, shining through hackles, wings, fur, and fuzzy bodies.

Using nature
Natural light is a great alternative. Don't use direct sun, but find a bright place with no direct light. Overcast days can also produce a great light for your flies, and if you like pictures with the ambience of a natural background, an outdoors photo session will guarantee the light supply.
For backgrounds you can choose natural scenarios, plants, tree trunks, stones or whatever natural material you like. Be very careful that it does not spoil the clarity of the fly, which after all is the subject you want to be clear in the picture.

Holding the camera
Mount the camera on a tripod or clamp to steady it. Don't even think about trying to take a still picture free-handed! You'll get shaky results.
Most tripods will do, but a heavy and steady one is best while the flimsy, tabletop tripods or Grandpa's old antique specimen are not good choices.
You can also mount a tripod head on a clamp. This will allow you to set the camera on the edge of a table, the back of a chair or any similar place.

Holding the fly
Place the fly in a vise, and keep it away from the background. We prefer to have the fly in a vice, because it will give the familiar ambience to the picture, but a pair of tweezers, a pair of pliers or even a hackle plier can be a possible alternative. A clip mounted on a piece of flexible cord can be a good tool, as you can place the fly exactly as you please by bending the cord into the required position. The clip is not exactly charming in the picture, though.
You can also select various branches, pieces of bark, an old bamboo rod or a similar object, and just stick the fly into that. Use a clamp or clothespins to hold smaller foundations steady and in the proper position while you click away.

A comment
A very nice article on close up photography. There are a couple of things that you might want to consider:

1. It is normally considered a mistake to use any light source that is not close to the wave length daylight. The exception to this is when you are manipulating the colors for artistic purposes. Excessive color correction during during the production of photographic prints generally results in degradation of the image. There are several methods of avoiding this problem:
a.) Use a color corrected bulb that works in a standard screw in light base. These are available at most good professional photography stores.
b.) Use strobe lamps.
c.) Use indirect window light.

2. As a person becomes more adept at photographing flies, he or she may want to use a 2 or 3 light set up using a second light for the background and a 3rd light as a back light to highlight the edges of the fly.

Jerry Morton

Shutter and f-stop
Force the camera to use the highest possible f-stop. Between 8 and the maximum of the lens - typically 22 or more - will give you the best assurance of a sharp picture.
Let your camera decide the corresponding shutter speed. If you want to be sure about having at least one good picture, you take three: one a single step underexposed, one on the spot and one overexposed. White and black flies can be particularly tricky, and the three exposures can save the effort put into a photo session.
Most SLR cameras have a function, which allows manually over and under exposing pictures. Use that. In stead you can manually override the automatic exposure. If the camera says a 250th of a second at f-stop 8, take one picture at a 125th, one at 250 and one at a 500th of a second or vary the f-stop in the same manner - 5.6, 8, and 11.

Focus manually in order to get the center of sharpness exactly where you want it. Don't trust autofocus for this purpose unless you are forced! Use as high a shutter speed and f-stop as possible. If the setup is steady, prioritize a higher f-stop over the shutter speed unless you purposely want the depth of field to be small. Shutter speeds down to 125 or 60 will do, but lower will increase the risk of blurred pictures.

Depth of field
When you take a picture of a fishing brother holding a trophy trout he will usually be sharp. The background will usually also be sharp. Any branches or rocks in the front will also be sharp. Altogether the depth of field will be several meters, dozens of feet - even miles and kilometers. Within this distance everything is sharp. But the closer you go, the less this distance will be, and when you get really close within 30 centimeters or a foot, the sharp distance can be narrowed down to a couple of centimeters or less than an inch. When you get really, really close, the sharpness will not even be good enough to render a whole fly sharp. If the hook is sharp, the hackle tips will be blurred and vice versa.
You have a way of controlling this distance. By using the aperture of the lens you can increase or decrease the distance. The higher the aperture or f-stop is the better depth of field. Unfortunately this has a price: you will loose light, which again means increasing your shutter time. This again leads to the risk of shaking the camera and blurring the images.
The best SLR cameras and lenses have a small lever or button, which can activate the aperture before the camera exposes the film. This gives you a chance to check the depth of field in the viewfinder.

The rule of thumb is go close! A true macro lens or a lens with macro facilities is definitely the best for the purpose. Flies are small, and getting them to fill the frame is a must if you want good pictures.
The usual way of depicting a fly is seen from the right side - the head pointing to the right and tail to the left. This is good for descriptive pictures for use in pattern documentation. It does not show the three-dimensional qualities of the fly, which will only be visible if the fly is taken from an odd angle. Using odd angles can also be good for showing details or particularities of certain flies.



Awesome article! Thanks for the information.


Sheesh, Martin, I'm terribly sorry. For some reason, I never noticed your response until now (July!!) In any case, thank you for your advice.


Martin Joergensen's picture


Traditional slide scanners - like the Nikon CoolScans or Minoltas - are currently available at good prices because of the shift towards digital. Check out the used market. You should be able to find one at a reasonable price.


I have an HP flatbed scanner with an insert adapter for scanning slides, but the results are substandard. Can you tell me what "inexpensive" slide scanner you folks use on GFF? Thanks for your consideration.

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