How Modern Camera Tech Enables Ethical Macro Insect Photography

Pete Burford macro insect photography

Pete Burford is an award-winning macro photographer based in the United Kingdom who uses very specific camera technology to take remarkably detailed, incredible images of live, unharmed insects.

Fast Cameras Allow for More Ethical Macro Photography

Photographers not well-versed in macro insect photography may think, “Of course, the insects are unharmed.” However, some are not opposed to chilling or killing insects to make them easier to shoot, especially when using focus-stacking techniques that require shooting multiple images at different focus distances.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

However, Burford — an OM System Ambassador — is firmly planted in the other camp and only captures images of live, unharmed arthropods.

“I am a big believer in trying not to disturb nature as much as possible. Every now and again I may cut a leaf that an insect is sitting on to get the composition I am after, but I will gently place the insect back on the plant. I never grab them with my fingers or hurt them for a photo, and mainly use sticks if I need to move them. Sometimes they are happy enough to jump or crawl onto my hand. But I’m always respectful towards them, no matter the insect,” Burford tells PetaPixel.

Pete Burford macro insect photography
Pete Burford in the field.

The Right Tech for the Job

Burford says OM System’s technology makes this approach easier, namely when using handheld camera techniques and shooting focus stacks. Burford uses the OM System OM-D E-M1 Mark II, a 20.4-megapixel Micro Four Thirds camera released in 2017.

“This camera has great features for macro photography, including the focus bracketing and stacking feature,” Burford explains. “With macro photography, the more we magnify, the more depth of field we lose, so to combat this I do focus stacking, which is taking a series of images at the sharpest aperture of the lens, at different focus points/planes along the subject from front to back, then merging all these photos together in Helicon Focus or Photoshop.”

Burford’s OM camera allows him to focus bracket, which means that he selects a starting focus point and a number of frames, and when he presses the shutter, the camera quickly shoots a series of images with different focal planes. The E-M1 II can also merge up to 15 images in-camera, although many macro photographers opt for a manual approach on their computers.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

Burford is a relatively new shutterbug, having gotten into macro photography in August 2020. “I had no photography experience previously, and my hobby was working out at the gym. But with them being closed because of COVID, I was looking for another hobby.”

A Photography Journey Created by Instagram Ads

Funny enough, Burford was the beneficiary of targeted social media ads. After buying a framed entomology print from a tattoo artist that showed a death’s-head hawkmoth, Burford began being served suggested accounts focused on macro insect photography.

“I was then inspired to have a try with a cheap clip-on macro lens for my phone,” Buford explains. The following month, he bought his first camera. By the next summer, he was committed to improving his photography skills, learned how to do focus stacking, and began to search out new and interesting insects to photograph.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

Tips for Beginners

Given his rapid progression from non-photographer to OM System Ambassador, Burford is a great source of inspiration and tips for beginning photographers.

“The tips I would give to improve your photography is to keep determined and remember to be patient. The best shots I have taken have been situations where I have had to be trying to take photos of a certain insect for hours,” Burford says.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

“Sometimes I have gone back to the same spot for days trying to get a photo of a certain insect. The more time and effort you put into macro photography, the more you get out. Also, get some inspiration from other photographers within your genre, there’s always room for improvement, and looking at other photographers might inspire you to take a different direction or style,” he adds.

Photographers looking specifically to improve their macro photography should invest in a dedicated macro lens, Burford says. While some non-macro lenses offer decent close-up capabilities, photographers will be hard-pressed to do better than a lens designed specifically for macro shooting.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

“I’m currently using the OM System M.Zuiko Digital ED 90mm f/3.5 Macro IS Pro lens,” Burford explains. “It is an incredibly sharp which I have been enjoying a lot.” He also has an OM System M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm f/2.8 Macro lens, which was his primary workhorse before he got the 90mm lens.

When doing handheld macro photography, using a flash and diffuser is “crucial,” Burford asserts. He shoots using the Godox V860 III flash with a Cygnustech Diffuser, the same diffuser that fellow macro photographer David Joseph recently told PetaPixel he uses for his amazing close-up shots of spiders.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

The combination creates “a nice soft light over the insect” which Buford says helps bring out important details on his subjects. He says using natural light or a flash without a diffuser can blow out fine details and create harsh shadows.

Concerning time of day, Burford recommends that macro shooters go out early in the morning or at nighttime. “This is because insects are cold-blooded and need the sun and warmth to move. At night, they are roosting on plants waiting for it to heat up. This is the best time to take stacked images because they are still enough and won’t fly away.” This is similar to people intentionally putting insects into refrigerated spaces, but of course, Burford’s approach is natural and does not harm the bugs.

Burford often shoots at around 1/250 second, the highest shutter speed his camera syncs with strobes. Burford uses a good handholding technique to ensure stable images, especially during a burst for focus stacking. He uses the ground or trees to help keep the camera steady when possible.

Favorite Insects

Never one to shy away from a challenge, some of Burford’s favorite insects have been the ones most challenging to shoot.

“The tiger beetle is one of the fastest beetles on the planet. They run so fast they temporarily blind themselves. Everytime I have tried to photograph them I have been out for hours trying to get a portrait shot,” Burford explains.

Pete Burford macro insect photography

Another of his favorite subjects is the ruby-tail wasp. Buford needed to do a lot of research about the insect to find where it lived and be able to track it down. When someone saw the wasp in his area, he headed out to search. He ultimately saw it land on a wooden signpost after waiting a few hours, where it sat for about 15 seconds before flying off, not to be seen again that day.

More From Pete Burford

Pete Burford is very active on Instagram and has a YouTube channel. Alongside being an OM System Ambassador, he also won the Royal Entomological Society’s photo contest last year.

Image credits: All images © Pete Burford (@pbmacro)