Exploring my garden with my macro lens allows me to capture a world that we rarely notice, until we come face to face with it. (THEN! we run screaming) Most people love to get up and close to butterflies or dragonflies and I’m no different. I also wonder about all the rest of the insects that from day-to-day, visit my garden.
I love getting in close and personal with a macro lens and seeing the details of what the human eye can’t discern. I find their eyes to be incredible with their complexity and beauty. I also wonder about their life cycle. I mean we generally catch insects in one phase of their life cycle or another by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. (What about the rest of the summer?)
Now I know the praying mantis may not be your favorite subject but if you want you can reproduce what I did by ordering a larva of any species that you find pleasing. This article will be mostly about setting up and capturing a macro image of a Praying Mantis and my results.
Considerations for using a macro lens or substitute
I’m not going to delve into the technical jargon about ratios and resulting images that you can read on Wikipedia if you are so motivated. Simply put, Macro photography produces photographs of small items larger than life-size.
I will simply assume you either have a macro lens or want a macro lens because you want to render small objects large enough to fill the frame. Also, if bugs are not your thing, flowers, toys, flora and fauna can be your subject.
There are three ways to accomplish macro photography:
- Using a setting on your camera or lens that permits you to focus closer than normal (produces pictures that at best simulate a macro image). It’s not much better than taking your camera in to the minimum focusing distance and then cropping the resulting image.
- The next better option is an extension tubes. you can get good results with extension tubes which you place between your camera body and the lens. Sometimes you lose auto focusing ability or stabilization (if you had it in the first place), but if you are on a tripod, and able to manually focus, then it’s not an issue.
- Lastly, you go and plop down the cash for an actual macro lens. I don’t care if the name says Sigma, Nikon or Canon; it’s merely a lens capable of rendering reproduction ratios greater or equal to 1:1.
How I set up to capture the life cycles of the Praying Mantis
The reason I became interested in the praying mantis was I had winter moths eating my maples and oaks around my yard and since I abhor using pesticides; I wanted a more natural method of reducing the winter moth population. So I went to a nearby green house and they suggested taking home a praying mantis ootheca. (egg casing) I bought two ootheca and I placed one on a bush outside and the other was attached to a tall branch in a terrarium I had built.
I desired to capture the mantises from birth until I released them and I found out that there are all sorts of problems in keeping them alive, such as feeding. They are carnivores, and if you don’t feed them enough they will eat each other. So I released them in batches during the first two weeks. (Here is More info on caring for them)
My macro set-up
Terrarium: I went to Home Depot and bought couple sheets of Lexan sheets and clear flexible caulking to attach the sides and a bottom. I cut three sections with a fourth being translucent. Next I put a layer of dirt on the bottom and planted some weeds from the yard to see if they would grow in the terrarium.
I knew that the nymph’s would leave the ootheca around July 1st. So my job is to now sit and wait. My camera sat on my tripod and I placed two flash units on each side of the container.
Translucent panel: I placed a sheet of plastic that would soften the flash by diffusing the light and would add fill light in the container. You may be wondering about the Captain lying down below the camera… Believe it or not, it was him staring at the terrarium that let me know something was happening.
Camera: My camera is the 50D (nothing fancy) and my lens is the Canon 100mm L 2.8 IS macro lens. To control my lights I use my pocket wizards to fire my tandem flash units. (Let me know if you want an article on using off camera flash controls)
Tripod: absolutely necessary to getting sharp images. Luckily they aren’t speed demons so once you focus in, you are good. Also you will need to up the ISO because to get a better DOF (Depth of Field) you will have to balance the shutter speed, ISO and Aperture.
A bit more info about why DOF is important. Macro lenses tend to be very shallow on DOF so to make sure you have more of the object in focus you need a greater aperture. I try to get to between F8 to F16 of greater and even at F16 if will be a very shallow DOF but manageable. This is why I have flashes, because of light fall off. So blending all these factors are necessary.
The big day
Please remember the nymphs are only about 3mm in length so spotting them and keeping them in focus is tough. What you will see, are strands hanging down and this tells you that they are leaving the egg casing.
Now the fun begins because almost all the insects I can capture and bring to them are bigger than them but I found these bright green nymphs on my garage door, so I captured a few of them each morning and I bring the terrarium outside and open the lid to try to quickly get these flying insects into the container without releasing them or the mantids… I assume you can also see why I did this outside. J
Also there are about 60 or more of the mantids running around inside so I was a witness to their predatory nature as they will indeed eat one another if they have nothing else. So within a few days, I took the container outside and shook out about half of them onto my flowers and bushes. Within a week and after releasing most of them I was down to a manageable five mantids.
I continued to bring bugs to them and they were getting bigger. One in particular was getting very large and I was able to capture the molt from the 1st instar to the 2nd instar phase. This is where the old skin is shrugged off and they come out a translucent bright green.
This may have been a female as she grew even larger at this point. I also noticed that some of the other 4 mantids were disappearing, so I have to assume she didn’t find my food supply sufficient.
I soon released her also to my garden. You may be wondering if this is the end of the story. Well as you can see here, the autumn had arrived and at our back door my wife had placed a garland of fake fall foliage and I spotted an unusual object in the bright colors. Yes one of my mantids had come home. If you’re wondering why I didn’t bring this one survivor in and keep her over the winter (it can be done) my wife put her foot down and said no…
Jeff “Foliage” Folger