24 rules (and counting) to follow

The following tips, tricks and techniques have served me well and though some may be specific to tropical macrophotography, the majority are widely applicable. Some are fairly basic though they are still deserving of mention and others are insights I’ve come to after much experimentation and failures. I try to avoid information covered ad nauseum in magazines and other blog sites regarding macro basics such as swaying your body, bracing, etc… and try to focus more on the integration of technical elements and the artistry of the photograph, chiefly through a spectrum of example photos. Note that this is the ‘photo light’ page, though it is still relatively photo heavy. The original has the same info but continues on with tips for specific types of insects and herptiles. You can either access the entire page by going HERE or access each section individually for slower internet connections.


Entering Sani lodge with my guide. Photo from Sani lodge bordering Yasuni national park, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

The usual disclaimer: I am not responsible for any bodily harm that may and probably will come to you as a result of following said advice, yadda, yadda, yadda…on with the good stuff.

UPDATED 28/07/2017


One of my least favourite shots from Sani lodge which now serves as a constant reminder of poor practice to me. This subject was one of many subjects collected by a herpetology group working on a photographic field manual of Herps in Ecuador. There were more than 30 different individuals all held in sub-standard conditions over the course of days. Held in plastic and cloth bags, they were stressed out, mishandled, at least one died to my knowledge, and at the end they were released far from where they were caught. Although I wasn’t involved in the project, or capture, I still photographed some of the species, and offered my logistical help to them on where they could find other species. It’s one of those unfortunate incidents which was an eye-opener for me, and really forced me to look at my own practices and question them, even those small actions or subjects. They may appear small or insignificant, but it speaks to an overall respect for nature, and it can be a slippery slope into poorer and poorer practice. The tacit approval I gave amounted to an endorsement and I consider myself as much to blame as those doing the collecting. These practices are rife within macrophotography, and one should not expect experience, professionalism or status to be an indicator of a person’s ethical standards. Always question whether something needs to be done and if it doesn’t, don’t support it.


This section precedes all others because it is foundational. The respect with which we treat wildlife – whether it is a charismatic and emblematic species like the Jaguar, the common or under-appreciated backyard denizens, or even vilified pest species – our treatment is a reflection of us and our values. Nature, though wild, is a looking glass through which we can gaze upon our own humanity. Ethics is a contentious and complicated subject, full of pitfalls and paradoxes, logical fallacies and fabrications. The ‘right’ course of action is often mutable, subject to situation and current social mores which not only differ from country to country, but from one year to the next with the emergence or reversal of scientific data. I will update this section soon with a link to an in-depth discussion devoted to the topic, along with a list of ethical photographers I have had the pleasure of working alongside and who align with my personal values.

My stance on the matter, in brief, is transparency. Allow anyone viewing the photo to determine for themselves whether the ‘ethical specs’ of the photo meet with their own personal standards by detailing the ‘behind the scenes’ treatment of the subject. The elements which I have identified as being both relevant and important are as follows:

🄷 – Health injury/stress levels (scale 1-10)

☠️ – Death of subject

👣 – Translocation

⏳ – time in captivity

📷in situ

📸 – in studio

🎨  – Use of cloning or extensive post processing

↺   – Image rotation

  – Playback

The symbols displayed above, or any kind of variant thereof constitutes what I am calling “Ethical Exif” or EE. Whilst EXIF information denotes the technical details of a photograph (aperture, shutter, ISO, flash fire, lens used, etc…) and are present as metadata embedded in the photo, the EE is meant to clarify the Ethical standards used in the taking of the photo.

The use of Emojis is useful to a) Enable a near universal understanding or inference of most of the symbols and their meaning where language may be a barrier b) allow a shorthand notation where space is limited c) Allow multi-platform explanation eg. Twitter (limited to 140 characters) and d) Save time for the photographer when applying EE to their photos.

This EE has already evolved within a short period of time through several iterations. The most current form the EE is taking is as a watermark (an explanation of the reasoning will be found in the expanded section on ethics to come). This watermarked EE will be found on all of my most recent photos, with further expansion and explanation to be found within the caption like the parrot snake photo introducing this section.

Please contact me at Rainforestsphotography@gmail.com if you would like to adopt this standard with respect to your own photography.

Additional links to ethical discussions can be found below:





1) Behaviour

My cardinal rule is to always look for behaviour shots. 10 times out of 10 this will be more interesting than a regular, portrait style shot of an insect. Why? Because it tells a story, life history. So even if the shot is out of focus or not framed perfectly I would choose it over a well composed photo if it shows some interesting behaviour such as mating, predation, defence, feeding, etc…

A prime example is the phorid fly and the katydid shots below. The former represents to my knowledge the only photo on the internet of actual parasitization illustrating oviposition in these species.

Phorid fly (Apocephalus colombicus) parasitizing a leafcutter ant (Atta colombiana). This is the only shot I have ever seen of active parasitization by a phorid fly. Here you can see the striped ovipositor of the fly and even the white egg that is being inserted into the open jaws of the ant! I was absolutely thrilled to get this photo since I had only ever read about such behaviour and never seen it firsthand. I was even contacted by the researcher who had written an article first describing this parasitization scenario and was asked if he could use my photo. Photo taken in Mindo, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) attacking termite (Macrotermes carbonarius) soldier. The huge slicing jaws of the termite already found one casualty, the beheaded worker in the foreground. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

What’s interesting about this shot is that unlike with most prey which are subdued by pinning and tearing apart, here the raised gaster is actually injecting formic acid into the mouth of the heavily armoured termite. A drop can be seen at the raised gaster as well as on the termite’s dorsum. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


“The Banquet” – A katydid, recently deceased, becomes a food source for a wide range of scavengers and opportunistic feeders. Ants, flies, wasps and beetles amongst those captured in a single frame. Photo from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Ant attacking a snail resulting in the release of a defensive foam. Photo from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

For behaviour shots, look to longer lenses. Although the mpe-65mm is my go to lens, I will often sacrifice magnification if it means that there’s less of a chance at disrupting natural behaviour. This is heavily species dependant. Flies for example are often skittish and therefore photographing mating, oviposition or parasitizing flies can be a challenge. Whereas spiders feeding on prey are generally fairly tolerant of invasions to their personal space. In general prey rather than predators are more likely to flee in response to a looming camera, as well as vision-based insects vs. the visually impaired.

Crematogaster ant on weevil head. Photo taken in Cuc phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

There’s no substitute for patience. Working with nature, rather than trying to re-create it, will yield more genuine, unpredictable, and rewarding results. Observation, independent of photography, is essential in building a practical, “working” knowledge of the environment and animal behaviour. This accumulated knowledge, over time enables one to make accurate behavioural predictions, which might be species, site specific, or otherwise unknown to the scientific community.


Patience and the capacity to endure pain. Essential for both the rainforest photographer and this amblypygid. Several things came together in this image. Originally when I started photographing it there was just the hint of colour under the wings. I waited 2hrs (amongst hordes of mosquitos) for the whip spider to work its way around and through the wings to get a photo of the colourful abdomen.
Sometimes it’s the small things that pass unnoticed by most that really complement, accent and make the image special. As these 2hrs were unfolding, and I was beginning to question my sanity, the smell of blood (I know, I know, it’s haemolymph) in the air and possibly some droplets on the bark attracted some nearby ants. Normally this amblypygid would be snug against the tree trunk feeding, however, to do so here, would be an invitation to the ants. Thus it makes fully use of its long, stilt legs, and is at full stretch, which also allowed for more effective use of backlighting. Small ant in foreground, is just one in a small line. Photo from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

2) Poses

Let’s face it though, the vast majority of the time insects and animals are not engaging in any kind of particularly interesting behaviour and even when they are, this is the time when they are especially sensitive to intrusions of their personal space. Therefore as a kind of distant 2nd place, try and find an interesting pose or angle. If it is moving take tons of shots, especially as it climbs over obstacles, hangs from leaves or tree limbs, this can result in interesting and dynamic poses which can separate your photo from similar but more static and conventional photos. Often the most natural pose is the one that you will originally find the subject in when first encountered Eg. Spiders will often hold themselves up on their legs, providing a degree of space between themselves and the substrate, however, upon being disturbed, if they haven’t scuttled off, then they are likely to have settled into a defensive posture where they are all huddled up and their legs tucked in around them. Wait patiently or else revisit them later for a resumption of their previous posture. Sometimes there is no helping the matter and it is simply the result of say their sensitivity to light as your flashlight beam hits them. In this case, if your headlamp or flashlight is enabled with such a function, you might consider switching to either a lower light setting or else infrared mode.

Leaf insect (Phyllium sp.). A combination of elements contribute to making this a keeper in my eyes. First is the nature of the subject itself, leaf insects aren’t especially common finds, particularly in the wild. Second is the accommodating pose, fully outstretched. Then there’s the pleasing natural light colour palette. Photo taken in Mt. Kinabalu national park, Malaysia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Leaf or tiger leech (Haemadipsa pictus). One of the most common animals found in South East Asian rainforests are leeches. However, taking a good photo of one is actually incredibly challenging. This shot is the result of several hundred attempts and hours lying on the ground attempting to get just the right combination of elements to make a good photo and naturally tons of bites. I went into the shoot with several requirements. One, I wanted the leech to be at full stretch, or else have a kind of sinuous ‘S’-shape to its body. Two, I wanted mostly natural light as the background, with soft colours. And 3 I wanted the head to be sharp. Ideally the rest of the body would be sharp as well, however, I knew that as the leech was waving around it would be near impossible to get it all in a single plane of focus, so would settle for just the head. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Here there were several different angles to choose from as it flattened itself against a leaf, but it didn’t feel dynamic enough, so I got it moving. It jumped to the ground and then I got a shot off as it climbed over this twig. The contrast between the red leaves and the green make it stand out and provide it in its natural background.

3) Planning (Separating the girls from the Women)

Think ahead! Having an idea of what kind of a photo you’d like beforehand is often one characteristic which separates amateurs from professionals. This is not to say that there’s no room for spontaneity and improvisation, however certain animals behave in certain stereotyped behaviours and so one can devise scenarios to capture that kind of behaviour. A guiding creative vision will give you more purpose and dedication as such one is likely to spend more time with any given subject. This further enables a subject to become more comfortable and thus resume more naturalistic behaviours. The below photos represent an envisioned scenario and how it was finally put together. Carpenter ants (Camponotus sp.) arch their gasters (abdomens) above their heads in a stereotyped response to threats.

Camponotus ant with horsefly (Tabanidae) prey. In this particular species the gaster is rarely lowered and remains arched above the head even when running, feeding or scavenging. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

On the same plant as the Camponotus model species are jumping spider mimics. These not only have the colouration and morphological features of their models, but also engage in behavioural mimicry. The latter of which is not limited to the forelegs substituting for antennae and held, waving above the head as in many other species of this genus. But also of the semi-permanently raised gaster as seen below. The spider when not within the immediate vicinity of the ants, however, will drop its abdomen to resume a more spider-like appearance. Thus to enhance the similarity between the model and mimic, I sought to capture the raised gaster behaviour.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Now the previous two photos laid the groundwork for the following photo and shows the progression in my train of thought and the shaping of an idea for a very particular kind of photo. Having captured both the model and mimic separately, I now wanted to capture them within a single frame to highlight the similarity in the most conspicuous of ways. This of course meant dedicating a lot of time, choosing the most strategic of locations to maximize my chances and a lot of failed attempts. Initially I would have liked to have caught both spider and ant in perfect focus, however, capturing a single one of them in focus was already a challenge as both species tend to be very active. Therefore I had to adapt and settle for a different kind of shot. Below is the result. In the foreground is the ant-mimicking spider and in the background the model ant. I backed off on the magnification in order to increase my depth of field (an example of sacrificing magnification for behaviour). This also had the benefit of allowing more space for the running subjects. It is a very different kind of photo from one which is all in focus and one which demands more attention to the photo in order to note the subtle differences between subject and background.

Model and mimic in one frame. Although the photo doesn’t approach the kind of detail I had envisioned, and there was a significant loss of quality as I had to crop heavily, the photo undeniably achieves one of my goals of showing the similarity between model and mimic. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Having captured the above photo, I then had the idea of photographing both male and female within a single frame. Now I’d done this before with other sexually dimorphic species to illustrate the divergent morphological traits between male and female. This is usually achieved via low magnification bird’s eye view-type shots which come across as a little lifeless and textbook-reference style. Therefore I sought to photograph them in profile rather than dorsally. Unlike the above photo both would need to be in clear focus. Thus I decided to exploit a behavioural trait to capture my envisioned photo. Jumping spiders are visual predators, as much can be deduced by their enlarged anterior median eyes (AMEs). Therefore when in the presence of other animals and insects they are usually quite active and evasive. However, when in isolation and after they have grown accustomed to the photographer’s presence they are generally much more subdued (Nb. this may take upwards of 1/2hr). Therefore I isolated male and female on a single leaf suspended above the ground and encouraged the male to remain on one side of the leaf and the female on the reverse such that they were out of eyesight of one another and thus unable to excite and elicit too much movement from each other. After a few minutes they calmed down and I was able to slowly maneuver them into position by twirling the leaf or breathing on them gently such that they were in the same plane of focus. This sequence of events not only illustrates the importance of having a particular vision in mind, but also how observation and a background knowledge of biology and natural history can aid in the preparation and execution of a photo.

Male and female ant-mimicking spiders (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

4) In focus/out of focus/selective focus

With the advent of focus stacking (post processing software which combines the sharpness of each focal plane from a stack of photos), within the macro community there is an increasing movement towards incredibly sharp images with less attention paid to composition. This is perhaps a result of macro occupying more of a niche-genre within wildlife photography, a niche dominated by researchers and scientists whose goals of systematics and classification has historically differed from both the layman and the photographer as an artist.

A perfectly sharp photo can be a wonderful thing, one need only see the many indoor and outdoor studio stacking work that excellent photographers like Nikola Rahme and John Hallmen produce to become a convert. However, the conditions needed for such deep stacks are often prohibitive in the field in tropical rainforests. Why? 1) Temperature/time – not immediately evident, but most field stacks are done in temperate environments in the early morning when insects are sluggish due to the cold, and lighting is ideal. During midday animals become too active for effective focus stacking 2) Weather – Inclement weather is par for the course in the rainforest. Frequents rains and wind will destroy a stack just as easily as a moving insect. Though this may also be the case in part in temperate climates, the weather is much more unpredictable in a rainforest. Also lenses tend to fog up with condensation.

Additionally, I believe that a uniformly sharp image actually decreases one’s appreciation of an image as a result of there being too much detail. Just like how soft colour palettes appear more pleasing to the eye than sharp, overly saturated colours, I think that a balance of in-focus and out of focus elements are needed to create a more visually pleasing result. The eye also tires more easily when there is nowhere for it to rest and it is constantly receiving data.

Moreover, selective focus, out of focus (oof) background and foreground elements contribute to the impact of an image and can deliver a message more strongly or more subtly than an all-in-focus image might. The oof elements add complexity and draw the viewer in and invite a closer look. They behave somewhat like leading lines which pulls the viewer in as they attempt to puzzle out the exact nature of the oof element.

A parasitoid wasp (foreground) which lays its eggs within the eggs of another insect (background). This is one of my favourite photos for illustrating the so called ‘macroscape’. That is a background which contributes to the story of an image and enhances the overall impact. With a simple leaf as a background or with the eggs in perfect focus the feel of the image would change. Here the attention is directed towards the main subject, the wasp, however the eggs in the background also demand the question of what they are? what are they doing there? Is there a relationship between the two? A knowledge of the natural history of the wasp will add to one’s appreciation as well. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Paul Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants with Odontoponera prey. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A weaver ant (Oecophylla smagardina) in the foreground and an ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne plataleoides) in the focal plane. Oecophylla serves as the model species. Blurring the details of the model makes the two appear even more similar than an entirely sharp image would, thus  forcing the viewer to work a little harder to piece together the differences between the two species. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Mother with spiderlings. Photo taken in Bach Ma national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

One can also create interesting effects with selective dof. Here the leaf blade appears almost 3-D. Though perhaps a little more dof might have benefited the head of the mantis, the tradeoffs warranted less rather than more dof in my opinion. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Selective dof allows one to highlight important anatomical features in a way that an all-in-focus image cannot. The stalk-eyed fly pictured here uses its stalks in ritualized male ‘combat’ in courtship battles with other males for the favour of females. Here the length of the stalks which disappear into the background appear much elongated. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The last example in this section is of an ant-mimicking mirid bug on a leaf blade. OOF foreground elements can be tricky to pull off as they can quickly become simply distracting. Many people use oof foregrounds to frame the subject. Here I wanted the leaf blade to appear almost like a highway leading to the subject and drawing the viewer in. The soft colours make it more pleasing and acceptable than if the leaf had been in focus. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The following photo shows not only an interesting arrangement of pentatomid eggs but through the addition of the oof newly hatched shield bug, tells a story. I started by photographing the egg arrangement in isolation, but realized that it lacked impact. Therefore I waited until one of several newly hatched individuals which were milling about the leaf came within the same frame. I have photos with both eggs and individual in focus, however I selected the below image because it fit more in line with my vision of telling a story. Titled “Gateway to a new life” – I felt that the egg arrangement looked like a doorway, and the pentatomid bug appears to be walking away, having crossed some kind of a developmental barrier and of a new life just beginning.

“Gateway to a new life” – Pentatomid eggs with newly emerged hatchling in background. Photo taken in Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Below is a focus stacked photo of the subject in which I have attempted to shoot the least distracting background possible. There’s still a lot of information there in all the detail, but at least it is offset by the rest of the image which is very subdued. It helps that the colours of the background, the substrate (white flower) and subject are all complementary white or off white colours.

Crab spider (Misumena vatia) with long-legged fly (Dolichodopidae). Photo taken in Lake Country, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Other times there is such a richness of colour, shapes and detail in a frame that it merits bringing it all into focus.

Crab spider with mosquito in Zucchini flower. Photo taken in Kelowna, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.


4) Shooting a moving target

Always aim ahead of the subject and have your focus ready, that way as soon as it comes into the frame you can get 4-5 shots off before it exits the frame. With a little luck your focus and framing will be on for at least one of those shots. This is important not only with fast moving subjects but also at high magnification where despite a small and an objectively slow moving subject, the subject’s apparent speed increases relative to the magnification. Bottom line is that even a 1mm worm will look like its moving quickly at 5x magnification. The same general principle to those who shoot birds in flight, anticipate! The above shot of the ant model and mimic running from opposite directions within a single frame is a good example. For dSLR photographers, consider changing your mode to AI Servo which will automatically adjust your focus (lens dependent) and shoot continuously to enhance your odds of an in focus shot.

5) Eliciting behaviour

Eliciting natural behaviours ranges from the simple to the complex. In the former category is the subject’s response to predators. Although this mostly involves some kind of flight response, more intriguing behaviours can involve playing dead, defensive gaping, threat or startle displays, etc… When dealing with unknown, potentially toxic species like snakes or spiders it is best to inform oneself as much as possible in advance and to err on the side of caution (eg. the Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops manghanensis) from China was only recently found to be the only member of the crotalidae to spray venom from its fangs). One should always be cautious as a cornered animal or insect is a potentially dangerous one, especially for those which possess chemical or physical defences. However, to completely respect and leave the subject alone as many naturalists avow would be to leave open a whole chapter of an animal’s natural history. Therefore respect the subject. Keep in mind that threat displays are highly energetic processes that demand a lot of resources (its like a shot of adrenaline and being on high alert) and cause a lot of stress in the animal. Therefore try to limit the amount of time spent photographing this behaviour. If possible alternate subjects so as not to place too much undue stress on a single one. If the threat display is one that is self-destructive to the subject then it is best to simply move on, as no photo in my opinion is worth compromising the well-being of an animal.

This goes contrary to what most people say and do, but an aggravated insect is an interesting one. I never intentionally harm an insect, and I certainly don’t condone those who do. But I do poke and prod it. This elicits many different behaviours which one just wouldn’t see otherwise. A perfect example of this is in this leaf mimicking katydid (Pterochroza ocellata). When closed it looks like a simple mimic, one could very simply have left it at that, however by pushing it around a little into a new position, it suddenly opened up in a threatening display, revealing a behaviour I had hitherto not been familiar with, and in my opinion, a much more interesting photo.

Between the first two photos in this series, I find that despite the clarity of the first photo which isolates and shows off the katydid to good effect, I actually prefer the second shot, which shows the katydid amongst the leaves. Even though it is not technically as good, it shows the katydid ‘actively’ camouflaging and hence behaviour (Rule 1).

This is the original picture. Nice, but nothing special. In fact, now after further review, the black background and rather boring pose make this photo very average. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

I then poked it and it jumped to the ground, this was so that one could see it in its natural habitat amongst the leaves. Now its camouflage is really shown to much better effect though the branches in the foreground are a major detraction. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

However by far the best shot in this series is Pterochroza ocellata showing a threat display in response to my proddings. This behaviour would never have been witnessed otherwise and it did not harm on the insect to the best of my knowledge. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

A view from the front shows the eyes, and the camouflaged wings which have separated, a good intermediate picture. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Other insects may not show as formidable a display as the katydid above, however, each will generally show some manner of defensive display. Ants will open their mandibles which generally looks a lot neater than when they are just walking around.

Ant protecting an extra floral nectary from, well, me. Note eyes out of focus could have been made a better picture by focus stacking. Difficult with this moving subject, or by getting a shot in a similar situation and photoshopping the out of focus elements. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Snakes, lizards and even some frogs may open their mouths wide in a behaviour known as defensive gaping.

Green vine snake (Oxybelis brevirostris) displaying defensive gaping. Photo taken in Bilsa Reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

The flying lizard (Draco sp.) will not only show defensive gaping, but also open up its ‘wings’, large folds of skin held open by intercostal bones to increase its apparent size. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

This caterpillar (Borocera cajani) remains camouflaged under most circumstances. However, when disturbed the dull coloured hairs peel back to reveal aposematic red and black hairs which erupt in a fireworks display to ward off predators.

Camouflaged caterpillar (Borocera cajani) with threat display. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Camouflaged caterpillar (Borocera cajani) with threat display. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Camouflaged caterpillar (Borocera cajani) with threat display. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Camouflaged caterpillar (Borocera cajani) with threat display. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Camouflaged caterpillar (Borocera cajani) with threat display. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Eliciting more complex behaviours is a tricky one. Not only is it obviously dependent on species, but it also involves some creativity on your part and improvisation to the circumstances. Not to mention that the absence of the photographer is typically a prerequisite. Therefore consider using a longer lens and be patient so that the subject can be familiar and comfortable with your presence. Such behaviours might include courtship and mating (various jumping spiders), parasitization, and species-specific behaviours (see below):

A) I’m almost reluctant to give this tip away because it’s that good! Snakes sense their environment via highly chemosensitive tongues which direct scent molecules to receptor neurons by constantly flicking their tongues. However capturing a snake with its tongue out (which seems to be the goal of most snake photos) can prove to be a challenge. Thus I have found that by exhaling in front of the snake you can prompt it into a flurry of tongue flicking as it attempts to pick up on the new and interesting smells from your breath. This technique takes the guesswork out of trying to catch it with its tongue out and increases your odds of getting a better shot.

Yellow eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis shlegelii). Photo taken in La Selva biological station, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Smooth slug eating snake (Aplopeltura boa). Photo taken In Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

B) The best shots of lizards and reptiles involve territoriality. Even better than being threatened, anoles, chameleons and many other species will show dewlaps, change colours and show interesting behaviours difficult or impossible to elicit otherwise. So, if you bring along a small pocket mirror (like those used for makeup) you can sometimes elicit these displays. It’s best to draw as little attention to yourself as possible, so I recommend setting up the mirror facing the subject and having it resting on a tripod. In this manner you can step back and photograph. In the beginning try to remain as low-key as possible. Bump up the ISO and shoot without flash, then gradually introduce the flash as the subject becomes more and more distracted with the presence of its rival.

C) Some insects show stereotyped behaviour, like the digger wasp: A very interesting factoid about these Sphex wasps is that their behaviour is entirely programmed. In an experiment by Daniel Dennett, when the wasp arrived at its burrow with a prey item it left the prey to inspect the nest. The experimenter then moved the prey away about a foot. The wasp went looking for it, located it and then brought it back to the nest. Only it repeated the pattern, leaving the prey outside and inspecting the nest. This routine could be done any number of times without the wasp modifying its behaviour in the slightest. Such behaviour was then used as an argument by philosophers to explain how a variety of human actions though seemingly born of free will could simply be complex, innate behaviours. Keeping this in mind if you miss a shot the first time around you can remove the prey, watch the wasp look around for it, bring it back to the burrow and try again.

D) There’s always the old standby of throwing prey into the path of a predator. I’m sure we’ve all thrown grasshoppers or flies into the webs of spiders (as children of  course).

When you take the guesswork out of the situation (ie. where and when an event will occur) you can control it and thus maximize your ability to be ready with a good shot. Here, rather than throwing an insect into the spider web, I simply held my flashlight out with the beam intersecting the web. Flying insects attracted to the light collided with the web and I was ready to take detailed photos of the spider wrapping the prey. Photo taken in Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

E) Less common perhaps is refrigerating the predator. It slows down the metabolism so that when it emerges from its ‘induced hibernation’ it is generally quite hungry. Another programmed behaviour to deal with the onset of winter. Therefore it is more likely to feed on prey. I don’t condone this method due to its artificiality, the fact that you need to have both a fridge and predator/prey, and it doesn’t always work. Worst of all, and a sticking point for me is that it can potentially harm the predator. This is especially true in the tropics vs. temperate environments. In the latter, insects and animals have adapted to colder nighttime temperatures, as well as vernal dips of the thermometer. Therefore when cooled (either naturally or artificially) they are less likely to be harmed (though it is still a possibility due to the rapid and uneven cooling of refrigeration).  In the tropics where year round temperatures are relatively constant, real harm can be done by refrigeration. After having heard about this technique on a different website I decided to try it in 2008 with a particularly difficult subject, Sabethes Cyaneus, possibly the most beautiful mosquito I have ever encountered. However, I found that it only resulted in artificial behaviour and postures and more often than not harms the subject. In conclusion this isn’t a technique that I approve of, but well here it is.

Native to the Amazon Basin, Sabethes cyaneus is a canopy mosquito which doesn’t often come down to the understory. It has a lofty flight pattern, is skittish and seldom lands. After numerous attempts to photograph it in situ, I finally decided to capture and cool it down and then re-attempt to photograph it. The results were very disappointing. Forget the poor overall quality of the photo for a moment and concentrate on the pose. The bow legged, hunched over posture is not one would see in the wild and is immediately apparent. It looks pathetic, like it is suffering from a bad cold. Certainly not the majestic specimen I had caught hours earlier. I was quite disappointed and didn’t use this technique again after this attempt. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2008.

After such a poor result I did voluminous research on the subject and decided to prepare myself for my next encounter.

It was almost 2 years later in the rainforests of Guyana when I once again spotted the holy grail of mosquitoes(See full story here). Below is the result of an approach that uses natural history, a little experimentation and originality. It’s important to know that mosquitoes navigate using CO2 and heat signatures as well as movement and vague visual cues to hone in on prey. Therefore, after having spotted the mosquito I donned a long-sleeved shirt (which I carry in my bag for dusk and dawn when the less colourful mosquitoes emerge) to eliminate the possibility of it landing and biting on a part of the arm which would be inaccessible to photograph. I then proffered it my hand to feed on… Nothing… It continued to buzz around my head. So I exhaled deeply onto my hand to both warm it above the ambient temperature and to increase the local concentration of carbon dioxide. I held my breath (both in anticipation and also so not to confuse the concentration gradient of the CO2 in air). The result was that after a few tentative landings and takeoffs, it finally settled onto my hand. I then waited a few moments (since they are most vigilant and prone to fly off immediately following a landing since animals are most likely to swat an intruder upon sensing a landing). I waited until it had inserted its proboscis and begun feeding and would be at its most distracted. Only then did I carefully maneuver my camera into place for the shot. Of course only later did I learn that it was a vector for yellow fever, an interesting fact which conveniently eluded my extensive research!

Fast forward 2 years to a different location and different technique but with the same subject. (Again, look past the poor quality of the photo itself and focus on the behaviour). Here I waited patiently, not moving for 1/2hr until finally the mosquito landed and I could take some more natural pictures without artificial cooling. This is an advocation for patience, planning and knowledge and appreciation of the subject rather than shortcuts which not only potentially harm the subject but will negatively impact the photo as well. Photo of Sabethes Cyaneus from the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

F) Nocturnal insects and birds are attracted to white flowers unlike their diurnal counterparts. This means that if you have either white, fake plastic flowers (okay, not the most common of paraphernalia) or some kind of white plastic, you can daub this with some kind of sugary substrate and you can attract a variety of moths, earwigs, ants and other nighttime critters. This really works the same way as an insect trap though. Set it up and then return to it several hours later or else you’re in for a very boring time.

G) Changing the subject’s physical environment. Anoles, chameleons and other colour changing animals will change their skin colour to match their surroundings. This might be a tough sell for the fast moving anoles, but chameleons aren’t a problem. Some Monkey frogs (Phyllomedusa sp.), are called waxy monkey frogs for a reason. They spread wax over their bodies to both protect themselves from UV light, but more importantly to conserve moisture. If you place one of these frogs in a sunnier environment, it will begin to spread wax on itself. . . .

H) Playing dead. Some animals and insects when feeling threatened will give off a malodorous scent and adopt a ‘death pose’ in order to ward off predators. This, especially when taken in series (eg. 1) Specimen as originally seen 2) Death pose 3) Recovering from play acting), can make for an interesting behavioural study.

Snake playing dead. Photo taken in Usambara mountains, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

I) Originally refusing to change colours, the chameleon remained a drab orange/brown. In previous days I’d seen some blue spots and was anxious to capture these, however it refused to oblige. So I had to ‘encourage’ it. I always err on the side of caution when stressing animals so rather than applying pressure or moving it around or any manner of physical manipulation which has the very real potential of causing harm, I gently brushed its back with a spiny caterpillar with urticating hairs. The result was immediate and vivid. Blue spots appeared, alternating with reds and greens. In the last picture I took of him, he can be seen grooming itself free of these hairs. Fortunately he was none the worse for wear 5 minutes later.

Usambara Soft-horned Chameleon (Kinyongia tenuis). Photo from Usambara mountains, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

6) Developing a relationship with the subject (Creating a storyline)

One of my favourite subjects is the weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) in South East Asia/Africa and leafcutter/army ants in the New world. Therefore don’t dismiss even seemingly boring subjects, because they might surprise you with some fascinating bit of natural history.

Even in subjects as common as ants, brief, tender moments can be found by constantly observing a subject over the course of hours, days or months. Over time, one develops a relationship with them which translates into an intimacy which can often be shared through the lens.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) communicating via trophollaxis. Photo taken in Ankor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Moreover, a series of images on the same subject provides continuity and a story. This is important in generating interest if one decides to share ones images or be published.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) guarding a colony of mealy bugs which it protects in exchange for honeydew, a plant-phloem concentrate rich in sugars. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smagardina) vs. termite (Macrotermes carbonarius). Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants have subdued a powerful predator, a hunting centipede (Scolopendra). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A backlit weaver ant bridges the gap between two leaves. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

If you enjoyed the photos in this section and/or hold an interest in Weaver ants then you might consider heading over to the articles section under The Weaver ant complex which documents in greater detail the lives of these fascinating ants and the arthropods in orbit around them.

7) The Photoseries

Similar to the above point which stresses continuity and creating a story, the photoseries is a collection of photos when grouped together create something more than each individual photo can by itself ie. the sum is greater than the parts. Attention should be paid to the order and to the continuity between photos. Below the message is both educational, illustrating the migration of the pigmented cells of the eye within the eyestalks of the snail. However, it is also meant to be light and humorous.

“The snail (Rhinocochlis nasuta) can’t see anything without its glasses”. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Like this fungs gnat. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A second example is that of Borocera cajani and its threat display (the caterpillar with the fireworks display which I revealed in the previous section). A single photo, even a before and after doesn’t show the process like a photoseries, and therefore doesn’t have the same impact. The photoseries is as close to a movie as you will get with still imagery, in fact, one could say that it is the individual frames which when viewed like a flipbook can produce a film.

8) Experimentation

Try new things! This can be incredibly rewarding and by constantly challenging oneself, one never grows bored, even when photographing the same subject day in, day out. By experimentation one does not have to redefine the genre and create something totally new, but rather try a new technique for you. You never know when this new skill might prove useful or offer insight into a scenario. By adding different methods to your photography tool belt you not only expand the range of possibilities of the final product, but in effect you change the way your observe a scene from the very outset before even pressing the shutter.

I had never done an HDR image before, but when I did, I was immediately impressed with the result. It is understated as far as a lot of HDR’s go, but I really like the effect. In nature photography my own philosophy is to recreate what I saw faithfully. A lot of HDRs go overboard on the tone mapping, creating unrealistic, yet visually stunning photos. This is not my aim. My preference is to bring out the shadow and highlight details to a reasonable extent that would otherwise be lost, not to create a technicolor dream world.

Still deliberating whether or not to actually purchase the software since I don’t do enough HDR to merit spending the money, but I really enjoy the effect…the numerous shades of green are especially nice in this photo

View of Karisimbi volcano from Nyiragongo. Photo from Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see my own experimental section which shows some different styles I am playing with.

9) Be original!

Create your own style! This creates some of the most satisfying, creative, wonderful photographs! I adore this photo, I have it as my screensaver, and I never get tired of looking at it. And the best part is…I took it! A lot of effort went into it both during the shoot and in post processing but I really like the effect. The key here is to think about a shot and how you want it to come out before you actually see the subject and starting shooting it. Before I go out on a shoot I think  about what I will see. If it’s raining and I know I’ll be walking by a pond, I know that my odds of seeing frogs will increase, so I consider how I would like to shoot these frogs before I’ve even left and then make adjustments fitting the scenario when/if I actually come across them in the field.

From the Peruvian Amazon, a reprocessed version of my earlier leafcutter. This one involved taking the camera raw version and exposing properly for the leaf, adjusting levels, sat., etc… and then importing into photoshop via a smart object. Then made a new smart object layer via copy, so that I could get another layer of the original image in Camera Raw, only this time adjust for the background. I adjusted the background in Camera Raw which updated the smart object copy layer in Photoshop. I then made a layer mask and painted the leaf and green background that I didn’t want changed. Merged copies and here we are. Advantage of this process is that it is less destructive than altering in a lossy manner with JPEG/other format since all the main RAW adjustments were made in Camera RAW. Then applied an unsharp mask to bring out the bristles and noise reduction for the red/orange background.

UPDATED 27/07/2017

Originality can take essentially any form, whether it be originality of framing, lighting, composition, focus, etc…

Below are several examples of different forms.

1) This shot is actually an inverted reflection on a river. Particles dancing on the river surface which would look like debris in a standard photo, take on a bubbly, dream-like character when the focal point was changed from the turtle itself, to the reflection of the turtle. Fortunately the bokeh complements this impression.


River turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

2) Compositionally I tried to isolate and bring a different perspective to these mushrooms to illustrate their alien character by literally making them appear like little UFOs.


Mushrooms (Marasmius sp.) from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

3) A combination of composition and shutter speed allowed for this unique perspective of this well-photographed subject in the Galapagos.


“Of clouds and crabs” – Sally-lightfooted crab (Grapsus grapsus) from Santa Cruz island, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

4a) The lighting in this photo is complex and required a fairly elaborate setup, but to me the effort was worthwhile since it gave the image a unique, almost theatrical look which I haven’t seen elsewhere.


Monkey frog (Phyllomedusa vaillanti) from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

b) The below photo was a combination of extensive experimentation and a degree of post processing in order to enact a concept – A predatory creature of the night, partially illuminated, emerging from the dark.


Amblypygid from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

5) Uniqueness of subject matter. Despite the fact that the technical aspects of the image itself relies on no particular originality, the concept and execution of feeding a translucent cockroach blue dye to outline the vascular system was novel, and pretty fascinating.


Transparent cockroach fed blue dye from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


10) A numbers game

Two is usually better than one! Why? Because the subjects interact with one another. Even if it is not directly, they create tension in each other that is visible in the photograph.

These predaceous katydids (Phlugis sp.) were walking up and around the leaf. When they stopped in this position, it made for a great showdown. They are almost comical, one with the mouth full of food and the other looking like it wants to take a bite when suddenly they see themselves being watched, stop midpose and stare. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Even if the tension is not present between the two (or more) subjects in photograph, that doesn’t mean that tension can’t be created for the viewer. The shot below with spider and ant illustrates what I mean. Despite the fact that neither subject is aware of the other, the viewer sees and understands the predator/prey relationship and thus the image is much stronger with the two subjects.

“A shadow of doubt” – Weaver ant with lynx spider in shadow. Photo taken in Ankgor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In the following photo an understanding of biology and the natural history of the spider/cordyceps fungus helps one to understand the relationship between the two subjects and to appreciate the tension. Cordyceps is a fungus which infects all manner of arthropods and is usually species specific ie. one fungus kills one species rather than being a broad spectrum killer. Once Cordyceps has infected the individual, it changes its behaviour, causing the infected host to disregard its own safety and biological preservation and to climb to a high point. Having attained that viewpoint, the infected individual will grasp the twig, leaf or whatever surface in a deathly embrace and die. There Cordyceps will remain until such a point as is ideal for dissemination of its spores.

Therefore the similar posture and incredible proximity between the living and the dead individual recreates the drama of this interrelationship between fungus and host.

Lynx spider (Hamataliwa sp.) sharing a leaf with a cordyceps infected spider. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In essence, shooting 2 subjects or more is the difference between shooting a portrait and illustrating behaviour.

Pheidologeton supermajor carrying minor workers. Size difference shows one of the greatest size discrepancies of any ant species! Photo taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ask yourself what message you want to convey. A clear purpose will help shape the composition of your photo. Below, I chose a tight crop on the mpe, leaving as little distance as possible between the subjects to illustrate the diversity found in Kinabalu national park.

Diversity. A harvestman, a cicadellid and a bush frog, all within centimetres of each other in a single frame of the mpe. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

11) A note on catchlights and specular highlights

There is a place for these as they can add texture and interest to a photo, but they can also be distracting and destroy a photo’s potential. This really needs to be looked at on a case by case basis. However, generally, if the catchlights are in the eyes and are well diffused then the texture and colours are usually preserved and I will leave them as they are. If the diffusion has failed and the highlights interrupt a pattern or wash out the colours, then I will clone and repair it out. I do this mostly in reptile and amphibian eyes, where the damage is much easier to repair in the single eye than in the many faceted ommatidia of insects. Below is an example of a repair job of a flash shot on a snail shell that has become way too distracting. I didn’t use any kind of diffusion on this shot. With post processing in photoshop, I have cloned and repaired most of the damage. I did this very slowly at a magnification of 700X. However, I found the efforts worthwhile because I really liked the pose of the snail.

Edited snail (Macrochylamys sp.). Here the detail has been restored to the snail making, in my opinion a better picture. Note, better diffusion from the get-go would have solved this problem.

This second shot shows the same snail as it was originally shot.

Snail (Macrochylamys sp.). Here the reflections off the shell and body are distracting and really detract from the overall quality of the image.

Flying lizard (Draco sp.) portrait. Harsh catchlights in the eyes have been cloned out. While some might argue that this creates a flatter image, I personally prefer the overall look and think it creates more depth and complements the black background. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In this ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.) the catchlights would have been quite easy to clone out. However, I feel like they add to the photo, behaving like accents, drawing even more attention the the bright and beautiful eyes. Photo taken in Selangor, Malaysia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken with wirelessly triggered 580 EXII held within just a centimetre of the gecko and the Mpe-65mm at night. Satanic Leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus) eye detail. Photo from Ranomfana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Compare the above image to the one below shot with the Canon Mpe-65mm but with the MT-24EX twin flash.

White-lipped bright-eyed frog (Boophis albilabris). Photo from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Such close and highly detailed images I find benefit especially from glare reduction, and removal of catchlights. However, this is a personal choice. Some people find that the catchlights are natural and their removal detracts from the image, or else that the catchlights offer depth and texture to an otherwise glossy and featureless area. This is a judgement call and indeed I don’t remove catchlights from all my photos, I reserve it for 1) Non-destructive enhancement (ie. where the removal will not be obviously missed and negatively impact the photo.) This is particularly the case in highly vascularized eyes which can be very difficult and time-consuming to reconstitute. 2) Where the highlights are poorly placed and are distracting. 3) The highlights cover otherwise interesting detail like the aforementioned vascular structure.

My current process involves heavy diffusion, very close proximity, large apparent light source (big diffuser [Nb. the difference between size and degree of diffusion ie. layers]) as well as post processing with burning (darkening), polarizing, and contrast brushes with limited cloning and repair as needed.

A gallery of “eye portraits” can be seen HERE

12) Knowing your equipment


Many people use the ETTL setting on their flash without ever bothering to learn how to use the manual setting. This is a mistake. It always pays to know the ins and outs of your equipment. I used to use ETTL, but every so often I would here the flash charging and then it would let out a burst and the whole scene was whited out. This was due to a miscommunication between the flash and camera body. This happened often enough that I started using the manual flash settings and have since been much more satisfied. For the mpe generally I use 1/8th flash power (f.p.) at 1-2x mag, 1/4 f.p. for 3-4x mag., and 1/2-1/1 f.p. for 4x-5x mag. Settings will vary depending on your ISO, aperture and shutterspeed, and amount of diffusion. The above settings is for a ‘typical’ macro setting of ISO 100, f/11 and 1/200 sec.

This knowledge is especially important for creative lighting control like backlighting, stroboscopic lighting and 2nd curtain flash settings whose primary aim is not necessarily a uniformly exposed image. I find my photos are more adequately exposed now that I have control of this element as well. It will also help you in your overall composition and to understand the general principles of light and will get you further involved in all technical aspects. Besides, there are often small functions that can make things much easier, like the function in the MT-24EX which allows a double tap of the shutter to turn on the macro lights. Not a life changer but something that can make life a little easier.

You will also want to know the limitations of your equipment before bringing it into a hostile environment like the rainforest. For example the MT-24 EX twin flash has a weak neck ie. the stem connecting the flash unit to the hotshoe. Out of the 4 units I have owned in 5 years, 3 have broken at this junction. Even if the camera falls and you catch it, the sudden jerk can result in a cracked stem which will widen over time and admit humidity. Therefore, creating a backstop out of tape or putty, or adding some kind of support is advisable for this unit.

Knowledge of your equipment can also extend its functional life. For example on the Sony A7RII, I recently began getting the message “Camera Error. Turn power off then on.” when I depressed the shutter. It was an unhelpful message that essentially rendered the camera useless. After a little research I found that the likely cause for such issues was a shutter problem. Shutter mechanics are complicated, and it would have likely required a visit to the repair shop, something altogether impossible when travelling remotely. The short-term solution…switching to Silent shooting, and using the electronic shutter. Since this circumvented the need for engaging the mechanical shutter, I was able to continue shooting, albeit with some restrictions. An understanding of the principles underlying the camera’s mechanics can allow the photographer to problem solve situations and either continue shooting, avoid costly repairs, shoot in scenarios that go beyond the manufacturer’s specifications, or simply open up new creative windows. Magic Lantern (Canon users) and software hacks are a perfect example of this, though one should still exercise good judgment and a degree of caution when installing or modifying the software of one’s camera as it will likely void the warranty.

13) Horizons

The horizon constitutes the surface that the insect is on, be it leaf or ground or tree. Try and tilt the angle to have the leading lines of the subject drawing you in. This is preferable to straight horizons which can appear flat and uninteresting. The eye is drawn to circular, rounded and organic shapes which appear more natural, therefore try and incorporate these rather than flat, angular lines.

The caterpillar below shows what not to do. The composition is drab with too many flat lines, both those of the leaf and the lines created by the length of the caterpillar’s body.

An interesting caterpillar whose potential as an equally interesting photo  is spoiled by the flat horizon, boring position and perspective. Photo taken in Mulu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

In contrast are the following two examples which use curves, and interesting shapes created by the legs and landscape.

The gentle slope of the buttress root which forms the horizon is a pleasing curve which draws the viewer in and complements the backlit harvestman. Rounded aperture blades in the bokeh are also pleasing to the eye. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Alternatively you can incorporate curves and and rounded shapes which are more visually appealing than harsh straight lines.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne assimilis). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

14) The Macroscape

One way in which my style differs from other people’s is that I like interesting backgrounds. A lot of macro is aimed to isolate the subject from the background and have a nice bokeh. This can make for some lovely photographs and especially portraits, true. However, busy backgrounds provide a lot to look at and I will generally look at a photo a lot longer when it has an interesting background than one that is simple, and straight forward. This is particularly difficult to do in night photography which the majority of my shots are, however, I try and shoot at smaller apertures to gain more detail from the surroundings. Tread carefully when following this point as it is very easy to have too busy a background. This point may seem to be in contradiction with point 4 (selective focus of the subject), however it need not be.

Macroscape def. – The landscape of an image taken at high magnification which does not include the subject. This can be the background and/or foreground, it is the space into which the subject is placed.

The macro landscape is one of the most difficult elements to master since it requires an incredible attention to detail and to composition. It requires an intimate knowledge of the relationship between dof and aperture size for that particular lens all while maintaining focus on the subject, appropriate lighting, and other factors necessary for a good photo. Indeed it is so demanding a skill that I often neglect it in favour of tighter, more out of focus compositions concentrating on the subject(s). However, I find I am most often rewarded with my best photos when I take the macroscape into consideration.

Moss mantis (Haania sp.). Photo taken in Preah Monivong national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants in flowers. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ant amidst spines on fallen tree trunk. Photo from Ankarafantsika national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

One way I have found of exploiting the background and having it complement the subject is through the use of backlighting which can highlight or even create details that were either absent or only faintly visible before.

Backlighting has brought both detail and a silvery, ethereal mood to the image of this harvestman on a hairy leaf. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Shining from behind, backlighting shows the vascular system and cellular structure of the leaf that would have been impossible with conventional frontal lighting. In this manner, the leaf itself becomes a focal point of interest in addition to the translucent katydid. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

An early attempt which is not entirely successful but still shows my interest in busy backgrounds which dates back to my introduction to photography.

The lichen on this fallen tree trunk has provided a very detailed and interesting mosaic pattern. Rather than go for the closeup of the ants and lose this wonderful backdrop, I elected to shoot with a 100mm macro from further away. This is one of my earlier shots and so composition and light aren’t what I would like them to be, but I love the background. Photo taken in Endau-Rompin national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner, 2009.

A more recent attempt illustrates how a complex, detailed background can add interest by creating a ‘where’s Waldo’ type of scenario, where a camouflaged subject might remain hidden until it finally pops into view. This can be a rewarding type of photo for the viewer, though once the subject is found it rarely holds the interest for much longer.

A camouflaged running crab spider on tree trunk. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

15) Focal points

Let’s add a disclaimer to the above point. There should be a focal point of interest to the photo. Too many disparate elements and the viewer gets lost. Let the eye naturally go to the focal point and then allow it to naturally radiate out to take in the small intricacies of the scene. So if there are additional, small insects in the background that aren’t visible upon first viewing. Or any in focus background/foreground points of interest, etc…

The focal point is almost always in the focal plane and thus sharp (at least in part). This point ties in well with rule 4 (selective focus). The juxtaposition between model and mimic here is evident but not too overstated thanks to the oof elements.

Focal point is the net-winged beetle (Lycidae) in the foreground. However, the eye is secondarily drawn to the March fly (Plecia sp.) in the oof background. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Below shows how a uniformly sharp image can be a little dazzling, and overwhelming with lots to look at. Here the eye doesn’t even know where to begin, and that’s the point.

A colourful flock of barklice (Psocoptera). Photo taken in Cat tien natinoal park, Vietnma. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

16) The notetaker

Make notes while taking your photos. If you have a 1Ds series canon, lucky you! It has a voice recorder function. If not use a separate tape recorder or the video function on your camera or just a pen and paper. This is especially useful when you go over the same trail or grounds over again. If you spot a particular insect that has made a nest or a spider web that you particularly like, make a note of it. If you see an insect and you try and get a specific pose but don’t manage to get it this time around make a note of it so that next time you can try again. If there’s a setting that you found particularly useful or innovative record it. Afterwards you probably will forget, and you will also regret it.

17) Safety/Reference shot

If you are worried more about the insect than the composition take a ‘safety shot’ first. At a distance that you find appropriate take a photo so that if you scare it upon approach you will have at least one half-decent shot. This is especially true for flies and winged insects and day time photography. You would be amazed at the effectiveness of the ubiquitous strategy of falling to the ground and disappearing into the fallen leaves. In general night time animals are more tolerant of the photographer’s presence and thus one can approach more closely with less of fear of scaring the subject. Why? One important reason is that nocturnal animals are not primarily vision-based creatures but rely on a variety of other faculties like olfaction, hearing, etc…

The reference shot in all likelihood will not be a photo that you are satisfied with, but it’s better than no shot at all. It’s usually best to take an initial shot then approach a couple of steps  and take another shot. Repeat until you get to the desired distance and can shoot the subject as you intended to from the beginning.


Always carry a LOT of spare batteries and LOTS of memory cards. I carry 24 AA’s (40 when travelling remotely), 3 LPE6 batteries, (4) 16GB, (2) 64GB and (1) 8GB CF cards. This allows me to shoot as much as I want and not be limited. I often go through a 64GB card and 16 AA batteries in a single day of shooting.

Be prepared. Always. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

If you are constantly worried about using up too much space or power you will miss out on opportunities. I can shoot however I want. If I want to try my hand at an HDR panoramic focus stack, taking 40+ photos to be merged into one then I don’t feel constrained or that I will have to sacrifice this opportunity in order to shoot another one. My problem when first shooting in Borneo in 2009 was that I could only allot 2 photos or so per subject because otherwise I would run out of batteries before the trip’s end. With an eye constantly on the battery level, this is no way to shoot!

John Hallmen typically does 70+ natural light exposures while using the incredibly battery hungry live view mode. Experimenting can be seen by some as useless or a waste, or they simply get so comfortable with a certain type of photography that they don’t even realize how uniform their own portfolio has become. However experimentation leads to some really awesome and interesting shots, but first you have to go through lots of duds and throwaways. Get over the first hurdle and don’t limit yourself. Going hand in hand with this is to make sure of the compatibility of your equipment. If you can have your flashes, camera, flashlight, etc…all on matching batteries this makes life a lot easier. It means you don’t have to carry around tons of different chargers and if one gets lost you are not totally screwed.

To this end you might consider a charger with interchangeable plates, like Watson. Using this charger with both LP-E6 and NP-FW50 will allow you to a) charge multiple battery types with fewer chargers thus saving on space or b) By having 2 of them, you can essentially have a backup for both camera types, saving having to bring 2 additional chargers with you. It is worth researching which systems are reliable and which ones have the faceplates for your camera(s).

[Nb. Most flashes take AAs. However, finding a good LED and UV flashlight that uses AAs required some research (Fenix L2D and Tank 007, respectively FYI)]

I ALWAYS use rechargeable batteries and I don’t know why others don’t use them as much as they should! I carry a spare set of lithium disposables (for emergencies only) which I try to never use. Otherwise I use my rechargeables exclusively, of which I have found Sanyo eneloops to be the best (high capacity XX Eneloop professional 2,450 mAh) for my flashes, and lower capacity, 2100mAh (higher # of cycles) for my flashlights.

Nb. A good battery recharger will also be needed. This is not an exhaustive review of battery rechargers, though it is a point deserving of some elaboration. Off the shelf solutions typically charge between 400-600 mAh/hr which is the industry standard rate to preserve battery longevity. The downside of this low delivered amperage is that batteries take exceedingly long to charge, often prohibitively so (up to 4hrs for four 2,500 mAh AA batteries). This is unacceptable to me since I might go through as many and sometimes more than 16 AA batteries in a single day.

Keep in mind that in the rainforest you may be working remotely and therefore have limited access to electricity. When working from solar panels or from a generator which supplies only a few hours of power/day a different kind of charger is needed. Fortunately there are several options.

1) 15 minute quick chargers – Companies like Duracell and Energizer have come out with these fast chargers which will charge standard 1,850 mAh NiCad/Ni-Mh batteries in about 15 minutes and 2,500 mAh in about 18-20 minutes. These deliver almost 4 times the industry standard amount of amperage over a given time. This effectively reduces the lifespan of the battery from the advertised value (500 charges for Eneloop) to probably less than half. In fact it delivers so much energy, so quickly that excess develops as heat and are hot to the touch. A fan incorporated into the charger helps cool the batteries. Despite negative online reviews I have found these chargers invaluable. Moreover, after 1 year most batteries are only able to hold approximately 75% of their charge anyways, and even less in following years. It is doubtful that even a significant reduction in their lifespan will affect most users.

2) Variable output chargers – There are many of these on the market, however, the most highly rated are Maha Powerex (MH-C800S, etc…) and Lacrosse (BC-700/BC-1000 models). These have buttons which allow the user to toggle between different output levels. 200mAh for slow charging and up to 2000mAh for fast charging. Nb. This is still well below the level of the fast chargers above. However, it is useful for charging when in locations that have a steady access to power as well as places that are less predictable.

Look around! I have a friend who has a Nikon twin flash which uses CR123A batteries. He was using expensive disposables because he simply didn’t know that there were rechargeables for this battery type. So do your research!

19) Manual or Automatic focusing macro lens?

A lot of people shoot manual and a lot of the ‘experts’ will tell you to shoot manual. I went to a camera store specifically looking for the canon automatic macro lens (Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM). At this time I had  a Zeiss which is exclusively manual on my canon. The sales person kept on telling me: “You should shoot manual, what do you need an automatic for? Your Zeiss is better than the canon, yadda, yadda, yadda…” Although I shoot in manual mode 90% of the time, automatic is very useful if you have to manipulate a leaf or hold a stem. It is just not possible to do this, while changing the focus ring, while holding your flashlight, while adjusting your flash heads to the optimal position. Remove some of the burden and in this case use your automatic setting. Yes it can search and be tedious at times but having the function is much better than being without it. I missed lots of shots when I just had the so-called superior Zeiss.

On the other hand…

Electronically controlled aperture rings are prone to failure. Twice I have had the mpe automatic diaphragm (which controls the aperture) fail on me. The result was that I was left with a lens which was left in the default position of f/2.8. For the mpe that is an essentially useless aperture. With the Zeiss and its manually controlled aperture however, I will never have to worry about that.

20) It’s all a matter of Perspective

How do you engage a viewer? How do you generate interest for that matter? Whether it be in a subject which is inherently interesting or is something that is encountered everyday, novelty is the key. Present the subject in a way that the viewer is not familiar with and you will be rewarded with a greater response, be it positive or negative. The following advice is based not only on conclusions drawn from personal experience, but also extrapolated from several peer-reviewed science articles and although this is common sense to most, it’s rooted in interesting science which I’ll share in the form of two studies, for practical examples you can skip to below the dotted line:

Study A

Negative Frequency Dependant Selection

This study sought to underline fashion trends and how the popularity of certain styles change as a function of either time or frequency. However clothing is too mutable, too many variables: new fabrics, new designs, new cuts, etc… Facial hair on the other hand? That hasn’t changed much since Neanderthal man, has it?

The researchers looked at both historical trends in facial hair (from handlebar moustaches to mullets to long sideburns) as well as a more robust experimental model in which both males and females were asked to choose the most attractive facial hair out of a lineup of men (various controls were used to factor out miscorrelations like a subject’s handsomeness). Their conclusion was that the least represented style of facial hair within the population was the most favoured. However, as this style became more well represented in the population, it became less popular. This is a phenomenon known as negative frequency dependant selection (a common principle to those familiar with  evolution and natural selection).

Applied to photography the conclusion is that originality (provided it is still visually pleasing or has some other interest for the viewer) will be rewarded until it becomes so copied as to not be original anymore.

Study B

The eyes don’t lie…

“Marketing research is any organized effort used to gather information about target markets or customers. It is a very important component of business strategy” – Wikipedia

As such it is often designed to discover how to engage consumers and how to come up with new products or redesign old ones to have more appeal. Several related studies had shoppers cruising through a supermarket with specially outfitted eye-tracking hardware (this monitored the sweep of the gaze, and how long it lingered on various products measured in microseconds). It was found that:

1) Walking direction to a large extent determines gaze orientation. Shoppers take the same habitual route during their shopping journey because they have no reason to change their typical route.

[Think about the route the shopper takes and compare it to how as a viewer you look at a photo. Is the route familiar, are the same elements present throughout the body of your work or is there sufficient variation that one stops and stares rather than keeps moving?]

2) The placement of signage, displays ie. their physical location within the store can have more of an impact than the creative execution of those displays. Neither the ceiling nor floor were effective locations for drawing attention to a display and/or product.

[Make sure the interesting elements of your photo stand out. This is an imperfect comparison since the viewer is staring at a 2-D photo in a book or on a screen vs. the shopper who is in 3-D. Nevertheless, an important message can still be gleaned. Reduce clutter to enhance the visual impact of a photo. And keep the interesting elements away from the periphery where they might get lost to the viewer.]

3) “In fact, we uncovered that shoppers’ engagement with different types of POS (point of sale signage/materials and merchandise including packaging, product displays) varied widely.  While some materials (most notably those with unique shapes and appearance) were regularly part of the shopping process, many other forms were consistently ignored – and most likely represented a waste of resources.”

[This last point is especially relevant. Shoppers and viewers alike are looking for something novel to engage them, because at a certain point with the huge influx of high quality photos from increasingly capable digital cameras, your perfectly focused but otherwise unremarkable photo is just the status quo and they are looking for something different.]

Finally, as though you needed any more ‘proof’ to deviate from your standard photo taking routine…

“There’s a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area or SN/VTA – essentially the major “novelty centre” of the brain, which responds to novel stimuli.

The SN/VTA is closely linked to areas of the brain called the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play large roles in learning and memory. The hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories, while the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories.

It’s been thought before that novelty was a reward in itself, but, like dopamine, it seems to be more related to motivation.

Researchers Bunzeck and Duzel tested people with an ‘oddball’ experiment that used fMRI imaging to see how their brains reacted to novelty. They showed the subjects images such as indoor and outdoor scenes and faces with occasional novel images (oddballs) thrown in.

The experiment found that SN/VTA was activated by novel images —that is, brand new images that hadn’t been seen before. Images that only slightly deviated from more familiar ones didn’t have the same effect.

Conclusion? The Dopamine pathways are activated when we are exposed to novelty. Furthermore, animal studies show that the plasticity of the hippocampus (ie. the ability to create new connections between neurons) was increased by the influence of novelty—both during the process of exploring a novel environment or stimuli and for 15–30 minutes afterwards. Therefore in addition to increasing the potential for learning new concepts and facts—novelty has been shown to improve the memory of subjects.” You want to be remembered right?

Original article HERE


Consider the following photo pairs. The first photo will illustrate the common, stock photo likely to be taken online by the average photographer. The second will represent a different perspective. Hopefully one which will be more engaging and invite a greater appreciation of the subject and the effort that went into getting such a shot.

Pair 1

google search of Nepenthes Villosa will reveal a lot of similar photos. Interesting, undoubtedly but with visual impact? Novelty? How often do you spend looking at each one?

Below is the first picture I took of an N. Villosa pitcher plant which if this were a criminal lineup, would blend in fairly well with the other suspects in the google search. However this photo does nothing to impress. It ‘shows’, but doesn’t emphasize the biological features which make this such a spectacular specimen. The perspective is more documentarian.

Nepenthes villosa. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

Like some of the other photos I’ve already shared, background and research are immensely helpful in creating a framework for how to approach a photo.

First off, Nepenthes Villosa is a highland pitcher plant (a member of the carnivorous plant family) which produces vicious looking teeth (actually a part of the peristome). And teeth isn’t that inaccurate a descriptor either. These downward pointing spines are thought to impede the exit of prey once they have climbed into the predaceous maw to feed on the sweet nectar-rimmed inside lip of the pitcher. How best to illustrate N. Villosa then? I chose to do a wide-angle macro using the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 distagon. I felt this angle and lighting (slightly underexposed in order to create a black ‘stomach’ for the inside of the pitcher) best illustrated my impression of this impressive species as a beautiful, sinister, ravenous and dangerous predator.


Mature pitcher plant (Nepenthes villosa) endemic to altitudes above 2000M on Mt. Kinabalu. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Pair 2

Leaf tailed geckos (Uroplatus spp.) are undoubtedly wonders of the animal kingdom, that is if you can find them! Frilled skin flaps around the contours of their body help break up their outline as they press themselves against tree trunks and branches. As masters of camouflage it is only natural that one would want to take a photo showing this to its greatest effect. After all isn’t that what I’ve been advocating all along, highlight behaviours and traits that show off the natural history and tell a story? However, look at many of the so-called camouflaged photos online and you will find it’s more of a portrait on a like-coloured substrate. If the subject is quickly found without having to make the viewer work for it then this doesn’t express the difficulty, frustration and at times sheer hopelessness of trying to find these in the wild AND it doesn’t do true justice to the remarkable evolution of this animal  either. Rather than plunking the subject in the middle of the frame where it is expected, place it in the corners. The human eye is used to tracking in a very linear manner as though a photograph were a line of script to be read. Diagonals and odd contours and shapes are much more difficult to decipher, and this should be how to photograph these animals to do them justice.

In portraits eye contact is important for creating a link between the subject and the viewer. This is distinctly lacking in the first shot of this photo pair. If not for the novelty of the subject itself, which doesn’t require any effort beyond the most basic of framing on the part of the photographer, it would be an utterly unremarkable photo. Look at the denticles (irregular projections over the eye) which contribute to the camouflage, a fascinating detail deserving of more attention and yet 3/4 of the photo is taken up by a largely out of focus body without much interest.

Leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus henkeli). Photo taken in Ankarana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Almost identical in pose, the second image is sharper, has a punchier contrast and does away with the plain background which doesn’t contribute anything. The natural mosses fortify the strength of the camouflage as well, unlike the first image.

Mossy leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae). Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Here the mesmerizing eyes give it a hypnotic gaze, and the open, threatening mouth lends an immediacy or ‘sudden’ impact, also known as a visceral vs. cognitive response to the viewer.

Leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) was disturbed (see rule 5, eliciting behaviour) in order to get a capture of the defensive gaping response. Be careful with lizards when manipulating them as they have also evolved another defence, autotomy or tail dropping. These will eventually grow back but requires additional resources and you will essentially be depriving it of one of its defensive features for future encounters until it has had a chance to grow back. A larger aperture ensures sharp drop off in focus such that the head which bears all the interesting information in the photo is in focus and the less interesting tail an body are out of focus and therefore don’t detract or distract from the head, thereby maximizing impact. Photo taken in Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Pair 3

Terrestrial flatworms, planaria and their kin slime slowly across the ground, using a mucosal trail much like the gastropods on which they feed. When they do find their prey, they slide over them and the enfolding scene is hidden from view. How then can one photograph interesting behaviour or perspectives when the subject spends the vast majority of its time on the forest floor and when it does engage in interesting behaviour, it is largely hidden? Not surprisingly the majority of photos are dorsal, bird’s eye view shots with glare and specular highlights to boot, as a result of their moist and slimy bodies.

Found during a night hike in mixed dipterocarp rainforest of ginseng camp at Maliau basin, Borneo.  Terrestrial flatworms, land planarians or hammerhead worms whatever you call them they are simple yet interesting creatures. During the day they are hidden away from the sun and heat. But at night, at night when the temperature lowers, and the humidity spikes, these predators voraciously feed on annelids. Their diet comprises mainly of slugs and snails, following their slimy trails until they fall upon and devour them. However they also eat insect larvae, earthworms and are not above a little cannibalism. They feed by entwining themselves around their prey and entrapping it in a sticky mucous. It then proceeds to evert its pharynx onto the prey and secrete digestive enzymes, taking up the partially digested food particles into the gastrovascular cavity. Where they can then be digested and properly absorbed in the intestinal epithelia. Land planarians move on a film of mucous secreted onto a ventral strip of closely spaced, powerful cilia (creeping sole). They usually follow plants for ease of movement and are able to lower themselves down to the earth on a string of mucous. The flatworm body can reproduce asexually, reproducing an entirely new organism by breaking off from the parent organism. Only the posterior end has this capability as the front end houses nerve ganglia and organs vital to survival. However this would lead to a genetically homogenous population making it prone to disease and unstable. Therefore flatworms also reproduce sexually. They are hermaphroditic, having both male and female sexual organs. In fact the entire body is very metabolically flexible since during lean times they are able to digest reproductive organs and most other cells to keep themselves alive. Flatworms come in a variety of beautiful colours to display their aposematism. In addition to their mucosal secretions, they may have toxins to deter predators. In this way, their most fearsome predators are other flatworms. Photo taken in Maliau basin, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

By elevating the leaf on which it was traversing, I was able to capture a unique, head on, eye-level perspective as it supported its head and mid-body in the air as it explored its environment.

Terrestrial flatworm (Bipalium sp.). Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Pair 4

Most ant photos are poorly lit with harsh shadows under their bodies due to their small size. Many are also shiny, or have a black veneer that makes specular highlights particularly troublesome. However, since they are so ubiquitous you’ll find all manner of angles and perspectives. Therefore one must get quite creative in order to hold the viewer’s interest for long. That is why the most interesting photos of ants typically involve a) Very high magnification showing hitherto unseen details b) Illustrate a rare or uncommon species, or c) Are demonstrative of some kind of behaviour. These 3 things all have something in common: They present the viewer with something they have never seen or perhaps even heard of before. But what if you have none of these 3 things, can you still shoot and a visually engaging photo that can hold a viewer’s interest?

Answering to any number of names; Conga ant, bullet ant, 24 hour ant, lesser giant hunting ant, the one thing consistent is the pain they cause. In their natural range from Nicaragua to Paraguay, a single sting is likened to being shot with fiery waves of pain which continue unabated for up to 24hrs. It is no wonder then that a sting by a bullet ant is rated a 4+ on the Schmidt pain index, the highest of any insect. Though apparently some tribes, notably the Satere-Mawe of Brazil have put this dubious benefit to their advantage. They gather up a large number of these ants, up to 100 and then sew them into a glove, stingers facing inwards. This is then presented to a boy of the tribe. In order to graduate to manhood he must don the glove and leave it on for a set period of time without crying out. This process is repeated, sometimes 20 times until the tribe is satisfied and the boy has become a man. Fortunately there are other uses and their poneratoxin is currently being studied in modern medicine as a voltage gated sodium channel inhibitor which blocks synaptic transmission in insects though it acts as a smooth muscle agonist in mammals. These are the largest of the Ponerine ants achieving lengths of 20-30mm long. They display little variation between castes, workers displaying variation only insofar as a normal distribution curve with no specialization. They make nests at the base of trees and forage on the surrounding trees, climbing into the canopy to search for nectar sources and small invertebrates. If they feel their nest is being threatened they release a musky odor and stridulate from a pair of organs in the thorax. The poor lighting, harsh shadows and sterile side-on perspective all make this photo forgettable. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Combining backlighting, a non-linear horizon and an in-your-face perspective from this hunting ant (Diacamma sp.) help it to stand out.

Diacamma ant on backlit leaf. This ant is actually very common in SE Asia. It doesn’t have any morphological features or colouration which make it a sought after photographic model. However, the perspective emphasizes the leatherman-like jaws. Photo from Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Pair 5

Like the terrestrial flatworm above, caterpillars are usually shot either dorsally or laterally, seldom ventrally. Below is your typical dorso-lateral shot of a limacodid. Fortunately they often benefit from a veritable arsenal of spines and bright aposematic colouration. The difficulty in photographing them however, lies within the very protective armour that makes them a fascinating study. Without a head or eyes to focus on, the power of the image is much diminished. The first image, like most found online fails to show the head which is safely tucked away within a capsule which serves as protection. Therefore, besides the unique anatomy of these caterpillars, after having sifted through several hundred images of these insects one will quickly grow tired of this stale view unless more of a connection can be created with the viewer.

Limacodid caterpillar on leaf. Photo taken in Maliau basin, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

A combination of faint backlighting to illuminate the delicate, fragile urticating hairs and a novel perspective help to create a unique perspective.

Limacodid caterpillar (Narosa sp.). Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Pair 6

A lot of these tropical insects will appear pretty new to the uninitiated and so the variance between the first and second photo in the pair may seem like simply a quality imbalance in equipment, or lighting. However, it goes far beyond this. It is the difference between shooting a scene passively and thinking it through – of observing the subject and then determining what settings, and which perspective will be unlike any other photo out there. It involves a lot of thought, experimentation and failure which may or not be rewarded.

Below is a plant hopper with a typical waxy ‘tail’, hydrophobic filaments which are extruded from abdominal terga whose function has been the subject of several hypotheses. Amongst the prevailing theories are that these tails can act as a source of distraction for predators, especially given the diffraction which can cause confusion. They could also serve to distract attention away from vital body parts during an attack, or else when fully splayed as in the second photo, to act as a kind of wind sail to slow descent and increase travel distance during escape flight.

A smaller aperture of around f/11 captures more detail, in order to discern each individual filament as it composes the tail. Planthopper (Nogodinidae?). Photo taken in Mulu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

Plant hopper nymph (Ricaniidae) shows a profusion of fibre optic-like wax tails. Conventionally these are shot at smaller apertures to recreate the fine details and show each individual waxen strand. I chose to use a large aperture to create almost a starburst effect.

A larger aperture of f/3.5 creates almost an explosion of smooth colour, like fireworks going off. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


Lastly, don’t be afraid to back off on the magnification, even for very small subjects. This overlaps with the idea of the macroscape. Be aware of the environment around the subject and whether it can contribute to the effectiveness of the message you’d like to convey.

Pair 7

The first weevil image is how one would normally shoot this subject. It is undoubtedly interesting, detailed, and well shot. However, look through the average macrographer’s gallery and you will see a dozen other species shot in the same style (ie. detailed, high magnification, similar uniform lighting). In which case it will be the subject itself with its interesting appearance which will distinguish the photo, rather than any creative skill on the photographer’s part.

Hairy weevil. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Shoot at a lower magnification though and it becomes a macroscape and not a portrait. This was shot at over 1X magnification and still the weevil appears tiny. With its proboscis and posture I wanted it to appear like a tiny, hairy elephant cresting the leaf.

The role of the hairy weevil in this photo changes from centre stage in the above photo to just a small part of nature illustrated here. Despite the negative space, the bokeh with the large aperture circles shrink the size of the background slightly. Photo taken in Andasibe-Mantadia national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

However, easing off on the magnification goes beyond simply the macroscape and includes principles like the use of negative space (as seen below). Here the negative space when coupled with the subject’s posture, position on the leaf blade and the knowledge of a jumping spider’s high visual acuity gives the impression that it is gazing off into a vast distance. I chose to entitle this shot ‘The Viewpoint’ for that very reason.

‘The Viewpoint’ – Ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.) on leaf blade. A large aperture was used in order to make use of the natural morning light, as well as to blur the leaf margin. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


21) Light and lighting

This is a huge topic and will differentiate great photos from mediocre ones even if you have gotten all the other elements right. Few photographers would argue that lighting is the most important aspect of photography. With its ability to transform drab, uninteresting landscapes into technicolor marvels, or change the gaudy into the gritty B+W of a sin city-esque world. Relatively recently HDR has expanded not only the dynamic range but also our expectations. We are no longer content with a simple “out of camera photo” but seek a more accurate recreation of the ‘visual experience’ if not the actual reality of the time and place (not to mention the creative liberties it permits for the photographer-artist).

Interestingly, the crucial importance of lighting in the field of Macro is often overshadowed by the macro-specific challenges that the photographer faces – notably depth of field (dof). This is often to the detriment of the quality of the photograph. As mentioned earlier the priority for most photographers seems to be on extending the focus as much as possible, artificially in post processing if need be. As such, one does not see creative lighting (including HDR), unique compositions, or experimentation in general nearly as much as in other fields of photography. Rather, macro often places undue emphasis on the subject and its ‘interestingness’ rather than on the beauty of the photo as a whole.

This obsession on ‘perfect’ back to front sharpness is a mistake and one that often has unseen costs. For example, not only will you lose many potential subject opportunities by tethering yourself to a focus rail and tripod (too slow and bulky), but you are handicapped before even beginning because your creative approach to the lighting, and composition will be more limited.


For dramatic, professional looking portraits nothing really compares to a black background. It adds emphasis and contrast and can be adapted to a wide variety of applications. This is why it is often my most frequently used background. Although I prefer natural light from an artistic perspective, black (or white) is more applicable within the professional world of selling photos and for portraiture work where one seeks to eliminate all distracting elements. When coupled with working at night, one has complete control over lighting and thus can create some wonderful results that are simply not possible with the intrusion of ambient light.

Green large eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops). Taken at night, this was shot with the mpe-65mm lens from about 2cm away to get as much detail as possible and differentiate it from zoo portraiture which has the constraints of glass and working distance from subject. A single flash directed from above and in front was used in order to create dramatic shadows. Photo taken in Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Similar to above setup but with MT-24EX twin flash on ratio control, to provide more flash from overhead bulb and a small amount of light from a side oriented flash. Oriental whip snake (Ahaetulla prasina). Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When detail is a priority then a white background is ideal. Light bounces or is reflected (rather than absorbed) more readily off of white than coloured surfaces, thus providing more detail. For an abundance of examples you can check out the Meet your neighbours initiative which seeks to photodocument species without distracting backgrounds. But here are a couple examples:


Juvenile tarantula (Pamphobeteus platyomma) from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Amazon milk frog (Trachycephalus cunauaru) from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Another subject in the photoshoot in which this subject was one of many subjects collected by a herpetology group working on a photographic field manual of Herps in Ecuador. There were more than 30 different individuals all held in sub-standard conditions over the course of days. Held in plastic and cloth bags, they were stressed out, mishandled, at least one died to my knowledge, and at the end they were released far from where they were caught. Although I wasn’t involved in the project, or capture, I still photographed some of the species, and offered my logistical help to them on where they could find other species. It’s one of those unfortunate incidents which was an eye-opener for me, and really forced me to look at my own practices and question them, even those small actions or subjects. They may appear small or insignificant, but it speaks to an overall respect for nature, and it can be a slippery slope into poorer and poorer practice. The tacit approval I gave amounted to an endorsement and I consider myself as much to blame as those doing the collecting. These practices are rife within macrophotography, and one should not expect experience, professionalism or status to be an indicator of a person’s ethical standards. Always question whether something needs to be done and if it doesn’t, don’t support it.
EE Legend reminder
-Health injury/stress levels (scale 1-10–>☠️)
⏳-time in captivity
📷 – in situ – studio
🎨 – Use of cloning or extensive post processing
Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


UPDATED: 27/07/2017

I have since severely limited my use of white backgrounds. Although in theory they can be used productively for a variety of applications [montages, comparison work, field guides, etc…] I have found that they are too prone to abuse, and that when I use them it divorces me from nature. I will provide a link to a fuller discussion on the Pros and Cons of White background work in the near future.

Flash and Diffusion

Due to the size of subjects generally encountered in macro there is often little or no space between the subject and the substrate it is on. As a result, little ambient light is able to penetrate the areas underneath the subject, creating harsh shadows. In consequence flash is the macrophotographer’s best friend. However, flash without diffusion creates unflattering catchlights, specular highlights and glare. Diffuse light is especially important for shiny, metallic or reflective/iridescent subjects. Macro photographers are constantly in a battle to find that ideal combination of diffusive materials, often cobbled together from dollar store bits and pieces and recycling bins to create the ‘perfect diffuser’.

In the rainforest a diffuser poses a particularly annoying problem due to the constant humidity and dense foliage which obstructs any protruding materials. Paper towels, and tissue paper quickly becomes soggy and unusable. Other organic materials grow fungus and mould over time. If you are moving from one camp to another then cardboard snoots or coke can diffusers get mashed in backpacks during travel. I have tried most of these diffuser solutions in one form or another and have found that the best solution is either something professionally made like a Lumiquest softbox which won’t deteriorate and can be treated relatively harshly (not to mention that it folds down to save space) or else a simpler solution like a doubled over sheet of vellum paper. The latter can be obtained at arts and crafts stores, is organic and so will deteriorate over time, however, it is flexible and resilient and it can be easily cut to fit over your flash heads. Not to mention that it’s cheap.

Your diffusion setup will evolve over time and it will essentially create a ‘light profile’ from which you will be able to differentiate your photos from those of other people. It is one of the essential ingredients in the fingerprint of what constitutes YOUR photo.

The evolving setup

I first started in 2009 with a Pentax K200D and 100mm macro and simply shot with the onboard flash without any diffusion.

The results aren’t actually as bad as you’d think, but that is owing more to the fact that an onboard flash is much less powerful than a dedicated flash unit. Also the increased working distance of the 100mm lens buffers some of the harshness. The same subject would look much different when shot with an onboard flash and the mpe-65mm. Harlequin treefrog (Rhacophoris pardalis). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

I then changed setup in 2010 to the Canon 5DII/mpe-65mm lens/MT-24EX twin flash, also without any diffusion.

Notice the small, harsh catchlights in the eyes indicative of a smaller apparent light source. There is also a harshness to the light reflecting off the leaf surface and the hairs of the body. Jumping spider with membracid prey. Photo taken in Mahdia, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Partway through my 2010 Guyana trip I added a triple layer of vellum paper which had much nicer diffusion but was unwieldy and often sagged in the humidity to obstruct the lens. It was only a temporary fix.

Iridescent blue beetle. Photo taken at the Kurupukari, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

In 2011 I added stofen diffusers hot-glued to gary fong puffer diffusers to create my 1st generation diffuser.

Seen with one diffuser on and one off. Jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.?). Photo taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

In 2012 I added a doubled over vellum light tent to wrap around the front of the lens.

Despite good results I found the light tent too obtrusive in the jungle. Yellow eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). Photo taken in La Selva Biological station. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

In 2013 I had a lot of flash issues. One of the twin flash heads died leaving me with only one working. I therefore had a chance to experiment a lot with my light. I did away with the vellum light tent which I found too obtrusive and added a modified lumiquest softbox III which I modded to the twin flash heads so that it fitted more tightly and didn’t project forward over the lens too much. I also packed the stofens with insulating foam, and added some cut sheets of vellum and some leftover pieces of the Lumiquest lightbox diffusion material.

Initially I started with stofens+gary fong diffusers packed with insulating foam and vellum paper. I had a modified lumiquest III on one flash head A, but not B. The logic was that flash head A would be more heavily diffused and create the overhead light and would be shot at higher power. Flash head B would provide lighting from the side which creates more detail. It would be shot at a lower power but also have one less layer of diffusion.

You can see the reflections in the eye of the more heavily diffused flash head A on the left and the less diffused flash head B on the right. Malayan horned frog (Megoprhys nasuta). Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When one of the flash heads died I decided to go with simply with the same setup as flash head A.

Lighting worked well for subjects from 1-2X. Beyond that and there were harsh shadows from insufficient light. Portia labiata. Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Finally when I replaced the twin flash with another unit I also capped flash head B with a modified Lumiquest box in addition to the other diffusion already present. However the two lightboxes were too bulky and interfered with one another and so I only used them together with very iridescent and difficult subjects. The rest of the time I used the Lumiquest box on only one of the flash heads.

Iridescent green cockroach. Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In my most recent trip to East Africa (2014-2015) I used a similar setup as 2013 for small subjects with the mpe/mt-24EX, However, partway through the trip my twin flash failed once again, succumbing to the humidity. Therefore I began using an ST-E2 infrared triggered 580 EX II outfitted with a lumiquest softbox III packed with crumpled and folded vellum paper, and slivers of cut softbox diffusion material. When shot from onboard, the results are mediocre. However, when the flash is moved off camera and is held as close to the subject as possible without it entering the frame, the results can be very pleasant, comparable to the MT-24EX results above, but due to the larger surface area, more diffuse catchlights.

Boophis sp. Photo from Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

UPDATE 29/07/2017

The current iteration of my flash diffusers are as follows:

For MPE work equal to or > than 1:1 I continue to use the MT-24 EX with 4 layers of diffusion. The first layer is a wide-angle diffuser plate, the kind that comes with your standard flash and flips down (along with a bounce card). This is cut to size and hot glued to each MT-24EX flash head. This allows for the spreading of the light, important when the distance between subject and flash is reduced. This is followed by a sandwich of vellum-packing foam-vellum, and finally a Lumiquest Pro mini softbox cut to shape the flash heads.


A juvenile ant-mimicking praying mantis from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

For larger subjects at <1:1, I use a 600EX-RT flash with ST-E3 transmitter equipped with a Photoflex Lightdome XS mounted on a small tripod or handheld.


Arboreal tarantula (Psalmopoeus sp.) from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Flash technique(s)

Multi flash/strobe

Some subjects, especially the larger ones, or those that are not resting on a reflective substrate (to bounce the light and thus adequately illuminate the underside) require more than a single flash (or twin flash). However, investing in a multi-flash system is not always feasible for both economic and practical (weight/space) reasons. The best solution I found so far is to use a long exposure (no less than 2″) and a single flash which is triggered multiple times by depressing the pilot light button. This enables you to control where and when you want to illuminate the subject at the flash power you desire and without the need for IR triggers or any other accessories (Nb. Work out the flash power beforehand or else you should feel comfortable working in the dark because any ambient flashlight might affect the image in undesirable ways). The lone caveat is that you need to have a motionless subject. This method basically works as an exposure stack, with each flash contributing an exposed image that is overlain the preceding one. Therefore like any stack, motion will disrupt the image, only unlike a stack there is no possibility for recovery or removal of a single photo within the stack since the shots are already merged as a final result.

A 580 EXII was triggered 6 times using the pilot light. Twice to the illuminate either side of the head and then along the body. A single flash would only have illuminated the head and left the rear of the snake in obscurity. Madagascar tree boa (Sanzinia madagascariensis). Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Colours can appear more vibrant and textures more detailed if you shoot from behind and from the side, respectively. 6 flash shots, 2 from the front (1 to illuminate the head and eye especially), 1 from behind to slightly backlight the mosses and 1 from either side to give texture to the branch and gecko.

Mossy leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) at night. Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

While quickly navigating around a subject with the flash it is quite easy for the flash to enter into the frame, so be careful and maintain a spatial awareness.

Natural Light (NL)

Speak to the average macro photographer and it is likely that they will express both a reverence for natural light while registering a dismay that they are not able to incorporate it into their own photography to a greater extent. Why the reverence? I believe that it is a combination of the more pleasing aesthetics like the (usually) softer colour palette and bokeh, people’s difficulty and dissatisfaction with their own flash and diffusion systems (the creation of specular highlights, catchlights, glare, etc…associated with flash), as well as the perception that a greater skill is required in order to capture good natural light portraiture.

This glorification seems to be exacerbated by the long held notion that proper macro requires the use of a tripod. (Nb. This argument has been used long before the advent of focus stacking for which the use of a tripod is fully justified.) For the record, it doesn’t. All of the shots within this thread save for the focus stack of the crab spider (rule 3) and wherever it has been explicitly stated have been handheld. What macro does require is a proper understanding of light, the capabilities of one’s camera and the settings to get the most out of it. Eg. I briefly owned a Canon 7D, however, I quickly found that for my style of shooting (ie. low light in the jungle, night time photography, experimental lighting) the APS-C sensor was simply insufficiently sensitive and produced too much noise and a low dynamic range. Once the camera was pushed beyond ISO 400 the results typically became unsatisfactory. Pictures, even in RAW were pixelated and lacked detail. The Canon 5DII on the other hand performed excellently in this regard (and I imagine something like the Nikon D800 which is touted for its low light capabilities would have performed even better).

Natural light or flash photo? This shot is natural light but with a lot of fill. In order to take this kind of shot without a tripod I had to shoot at f/5.6, shutter 1/30 and ISO 1600. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Furthermore, the ideal of NL seems to be reinforced by the unattributed correlation between talented photographers and their proclivity towards natural light. This is to say that it is typically more accomplished photographers who have a better grasp of composition, lighting and other artistic elements that mostly use natural light. Therefore they perpetuate the belief that NL is the reason for the photo’s beauty rather than just being one of many stylistic effects in their tool belt.

Photos which include more natural light typically involve a greater separation between the subject and substrate so as to include more space for the light to ‘enter’. For example an elevated insect on a leaf or twig has the benefit not only of light approaching from the apparent source overhead, but also bounced off of the ground. With subjects that are on the ground to begin with, there is no such benefit, therefore less light.

Now to address the more relevant “why photographers are dismayed at not being able to incorporate more NL into their own photography” or Why can’t we all, always shoot NL? Perception is one thing. The idea that the weather has to be perfect – the sun can’t be too strong (too much glare and contrast), not too windy (causes motion blur), rainy (forget it). No, the sky must be overcast to provide just the right amount of diffusion, right? Wrong. Macro differs from other forms of photography in that the size of the scene captured is well within the capabilities of the photographer to control. Some photographers take this to the extreme by traveling with mobile outdoor studios. However for the average photographer that deals with too much direct sunlight, or not enough light hitting the subject? The simple use a reflector or diffuser held over the subject is largely sufficient.

Next, the tripod myth. I’ve lost track of how many times I have been asked if I use a tripod, told that my photography could benefit from a tripod or else been argued with over the necessity of a tripod in macro photography. Enough times that now I can simply direct people to this section without engaging them further.

So… you will need a tripod, a clamp to hold the subject in place so it doesn’t shift, and any number of endless oddities. Right? Wrong. I often shoot NL in the dark overcast jungle without the use of a tripod. This will require bumping up your ISO, lowering your shutter speed and opening up the aperture. I shoot in manual mode but with certain restrictions borne from experience. I don’t shoot over ISO 2000 because I know the quality is already borderline at 1600 but that I can still salvage a photo at ISO 2000 if I really need to. Shutter speed rarely dips lower than 1/30 since my keeper ratio sharply falls off and I get too many blurry photos, and DOF is kept between f/5.6 and f/11 for the most part. Depending on my creative vision, and the environment I maintain flexibility but try to operate within these parameters most of the time. Could I lower my shutter speed and concomitantly my ISO with the use of a tripod? Yes. Is it practical for the type of photography that I do that requires tracking of especially mobile subjects and a sensitivity to not disrupting of their natural behaviour with the time wasting disturbance of placing the tripod legs? No. Moving on then.

But this section is about shooting natural light rather than debating its merits. If you’d like to reap the benefits of nice soft backgrounds without harsh contrasts, or specular highlights then these effects can be made more pronounced by the larger the aperture (smaller f stop). In the rainforest, to combat the poor light quality under the canopy one has to use quite a large aperture (this creates a shallow depth of field which in some cases can create a 3D feel), only a medium-slow shutter and a higher ISO than one would like. Often with a bit of fill flash thrown in.

The more distance you can give yourself with a longer lens, the more light you can potentially have entering the lens and hitting the sensor. Therefore permitting reasonable shutter speeds and ISOs. At 1X magnification and above however, you will need slow shutter speeds, high ISOs and most probably fill flash. This was shot with a 100mm macro at f/3.5, s 1/125 and ISO 400 without a tripod. Oriental whip snake (Ahaetulla prasina). Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

If shooting at 1X magnification and above try twisting the leaf, branch or substrate on which the subject is located so as to shoot directly into the sky to get more light. Cordyceps infected clubionid spider. f/7.1, s 1/25s, ISO 1600 without a tripod. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.






















NL shots can be more difficult for several reasons:

1) Requires a longer shutter speed; This necessitates not only a more stable platform from which to shoot, but also that the subject remain motionless.

2) You need to choose your backgrounds carefully to complement the subject appropriately.

3) You may need to diffuse the light if it is too harsh, so one must keep an eye towards what kind of light is hitting the subject: is it bright, shaded, diffused from cloud cover, etc…

4) A greater understanding of the relationship between the various settings on your camera and the knowledge of when and how to use fill flash to complement and not overwhelm a scene.

An all natural light shot is not always a feasible solution (especially in the rainforest) and so a compromise solution can be to use fill flash. This is where a flash is used to fill in the shadows and complement the NL.

Below is an early attempt at NL with fill flash and illustrates the difficulties and common pitfalls. Here you can see the flash in the eye, however the flash power was set to 1/32, just enough to brighten up the subject, while the shutter speed was long enough to expose the background sufficiently for some colour (though it is still underexposed). Proper overall exposure takes practice and can be tricky especially under the canopy where light conditions are constantly changing due to the patchiness of light. However the results can be well worth the effort. Notice that the ISO is fairly low for a rainforest NL  shot, especially shot at dusk as is the case for this particular photo.

Treefrog shot with natural light and fill flash. Settings: f/5.0, shutter 1/20, ISO 500. Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.










The lesson I took away after too many photos spoiled by inadequate lighting was that I would have to push the ISO capabilities of the camera if I wanted truly sharp, NL shots of insects and their behaviour in the jungle. ISO seems to be another one of those hot button topics that people become very entrenched about. There seem to be maxims and lines that people don’t cross: “Don’t go above ISO 1000, 1600, 2000, etc… it’s shit!”. Not only are today’s cameras more capable than ever, but your effective ISO will be situation dependant. I don’t mind using ISOs of 4000 or more when capturing moving subjects under UV light for example. The darker the scene, generally the higher the ISO you can go without incurring too much noise destroying potential to the photo. Experimentation is your best friend.

The following two photos are later attempts made after I’d accepted that higher ISOs are an inevitability when shooting without a tripod. (Note that I did apply a 1-pass noise removal in post processing using Noise Ninja software).

With more mobile subjects, like this harvestmna (Podoctidae), a faster shutter speed must be used to avoid blurred photos. Settings: f/6.3, shutter 1/80, ISO 1000. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The settings are more forgiving (ie. I was able to shoot faster, with more dof and lower ISO) in the below shot by shooting upwards into the sky to ‘harvest’ as much light as possible. A faster shutter speed is especially important when dealing with active subjects like jumping spiders to discourage motion blur.

Moustached jumping spider. Settings: f/6.3, shutter 1/60, ISO 1250. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The tripod and NL

Using a tripod produced the photos below. Without a tripod it would be very difficult to achieve such results. Keep in mind, however, these are stationary subjects. With moving subjects under the rainforest canopy, NL will in all likelihood need to be complemented with flash.

Orbweaver spider. The complementary beige colours of subject and background didn’t come through with flash (which gave a black background and a much deeper brown to the image as a whole). Photo taken in Winfield, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Crab spider with hoverfly taken at sunset, natural light. Photo taken in Winfield, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

If you wish to see a prime example of this kind of photography “THE” place to start in my opinion is with an excellent macrophotographer who produces absolutely amazing natural light shots: John Hallmen.

John Hallmen’s Fall beetle on Heather. Cryptocephalus sericeus, 6mm These beetles have the habit of releasing their grip and fall to the ground as you get closer. In other words you need to be extra careful when sneaking up on them. Stacked from 13 natural light exposures in Helicon Focus. Exposure time: 1/4s, Aperture: f7.1, ISO: 200. Copyright John Hallmen.



Relying too heavily on one piece of equipment or else one style of shooting can lead to stagnation, and creative constipation. I have found this to be the case for myself particularly after finally alighting on a decent diffusion system for my Mpe-65mm/MT-24EX combo. So when my MT-24EX succumbed to the rains in Madagascar and I was forced to use only an off-board 580 EXII (triggered with an ST-E2 IR transmitter), I was forced into changing my shooting habits. However painful this was at first (lots of failed shots and frustration), I can honestly say that it was for the better and I have since come to appreciate natural light more and have a greater appreciation for the tripod (in whatever limited capacity it can actually be used in the context of rainforest photography). So to finish this preamble (though I still maintain the points of the previous sections), I can now add a more in-depth guide to tripod use, its merits and limitations and its role in rainforest macrophotography.

The use of a tripod will require a near motionless subject. Basking lizards and snakes can be excellent models. Any subject relying on camouflage will generally not want to make a potentially fatal mistake by moving and thus revealing its position, and if they do move it is typically in a ponderous manner, often with swaying or slightly jerky movements as though caught by the wind Eg. stick insects and chameleons.

If so inclined one can fudge the results by shooting a scene first, then placing the subject within the frame and shooting the subject and then stacking the two or more shots. This is essentially the same as traditional focus stacking without the messy edge details in need of retouching in PP.


Sameit’s leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae sameiti) with natural light. Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Juvenile Satanic leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus phantasticus). Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

If working with a ballhead then set the resistance in accordance with your shooting technique and subject. Panning will require faster horizontal movement for example, therefore lower the resistance. Whereas a slow moving or erratic start and stop type movement can benefit from increased resistance in order to fine tune DOF.

Wide-angle macro (WAM)

UPDATED 27/07/2017

What I have neglected to mention up to this point is the importance of lens choice. This not only encompasses the largest available f-stop, but also the focal length of the lens. Wide-angle lenses, with their huge front elements can admit more light, however one often needs to use high f-stops in order to get enough of the background in focus. Although one might not consider this “strict macro” (ie. 1:1 or greater) one can achieve such results with the aid of extension tubes (though check your lens and the length of the extension tubes to ensure that you have enough clearance for the rear element. The problem becomes working distance as one really has little to no working distance to speak of when photographing at or close to 1:1.

The below shot, perhaps one of my favourites from Madagascar, was taken with a Zeiss 15mm. It allowed me to adequately capture both the subject and the environment, which is really the modus operandi for shooting WAM. Composition becomes very important in such cases. This is why while shooting straightforward macro, day or night, I will make a mental note of particularly photogenic locations and return to them repeatedly throughout the following days to see whether there are any subjects amenable to WAM. Don’t think that WAM is limited to the daytime only. With light painting of the landscape one can come up with some very interesting results as well. I will hopefully update this section with examples to illustrate this point, but it should only require a long exposure time, flash to illuminate the subject and light painting (or flash painting) of the surroundings. With the addition of extension tubes, your working distance is very very small, often with the subject basically touching the front element, so make sure that you have a patient, and not too easily disturbed subject (be particularly careful if trying this style with venomous snakes).

Wide-angle macro of a mossy leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae). A shutter speed of 1.6″ was used to get the flowing waterfall and compensate for the low ISO 50 setting.  Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

The below shot was taken with the specialist WAM lens, the Venus Laowa 15mm. In general I’m not a fan of this lens, though I’ve seen others produce excellent results with it. I find the bokeh and edge distortion to be more distracting than in other lenses and DIY solutions. However, the convenience of having a lens which can go down to 1:1 with reasonable quality and at a decent price point is appealing.

Remember that the working distance is minimal when working with WAM lenses and this instance was certainly no exception. In order to minimize risk with this extremely aggressive individual, I placed my A7RII with Laowa 15mm on my fully extended tripod. The Laowa is a fully manual lens and so I was able to stop it down to f/22 before hand and pre-focus a reasonable distance. I then entered the Sony Playmemories App and controlled the shutter and trigger release from my smartphone, thus ensuring a reasonable degree of safety, while maintaining control of the settings.


A very large and aggressive Fer-de-Lance (Bothrops asper) which repeatedly struck the lens and even landed a few strikes close to my boots. ƒ/22, Shutter speed 0.3, ISO 640, natural light. Photo from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Another example shot with the Laowa 15mm. In general, I find that lighting with this lens is a particular challenge, therefore I typically rely on natural light and a reflector.


Male tarantula (Psalmopoeus sp.) from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. ISO 400 f/22 Shutter 1.3 sec. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

A third option I tinkered with was my Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II mounted with 12mm extension tubes. I generally prefer this to the Laowa, perhaps on account of the higher quality optics and lens construction and a distortion which is not quite as distracting to my eye. However, it should be noted that infinity focus is not maintained with this combination.


Peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) in startle display catching the last of the sun’s dying rays in the rainforest understory. ƒ/22.0, Shutter speed 0.5, ISO 320. Photo from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Glass frog (Proseblon sp.) from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. ƒ/18.0, shutter speed 1.6, ISO 100. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.




I will update this section as I continue to experiment and have a larger repertoire of photos to draw from.

Trioplan lenses (Soap-bubble lenses)

The unique bokeh which has long fascinated and stumped me results from the unique aperture design which consists of 15 aperture blades which creates a circular aperture bokeh when used wide open. I purchased one such lens, the Meyer-Gorlitz 100mm f/2.8 Trioplan, after seeing some of the magnificent dreamscapes created by Fardels. The lens is not without its challenges, but it can certainly create beautiful and unique results.


Balance is key in the use of these lenses, as too much ‘soapiness’ becomes a distraction and will detract from the photo, especially when the soap bubbles contrast highly with the rest of the scene.


Female hooded-mantis (Choeradodis sp.) from Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. ƒ/2.8, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 1000. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

I make sure that I don’t shoot straight up and through the canopy like in the previous shot, but rather more on a level so that the soap bubble effect is minimized and the colours don’t contrast and distract so highly from the overall image.


Female hooded-mantis (Choeradodis sp.) from Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. ~ƒ/3, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 400. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.


Female mossy stick insect. ƒ/4, Shutter speed 1/100, ISO 200. Photo from Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.


Green anole from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. ~ƒ/3, Shutter speed 1/100, ISO 80. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

The lens can also be used stopped down like in the example below with beautiful results. I find the blurred bokeh to be much smoother than either the Canon 100mm or the Zeiss 100mm Makroplanar T* f/2.8.


Leaf-mimicking katydid (Orophus tesselatus) displaying erythrism from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. ƒ/16, Shutter speed 0.3, ISO 50. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Creative lighting

A) Silhouettes

Backlighting is a simple but powerful tool to introduce a unique and fascinating element into a photo. Backlighting in its starkest form creates silhouettes. This can be used to illustrate interesting or unusual edge details, like in the spiky chameleon below.

Spiky Chameleon. Photo taken in Mananara Nord national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Perhaps a more subtle use is its ability to enhance the likeness of two dissimilar subjects. Take the following two examples:

1) The ant-mimicking spider (Pranburia manhoppi)

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Pranburia manhoppi). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

By destroying centre detail and leaving only edge detail it becomes even more difficult to distinguish the identity of the subject, thereby enhancing the deception, creating more of a verisimilitude between the mimic and its model, and perhaps offering a glimpse into an animal’s perspective (most of whom have poor eyesight). This works especially well when done as a photo pair with one picture showing detail (above) and one without (below).

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Pranburia manhoppi). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Diacamma ant model found in the same vicinity of the mimicking species. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

2) The weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.)

Weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.). When provided only with the silhouette, everything points towards it being a simple photo of a weevil. From the antennae and proboscis to the posture of the ‘hind legs’. This ‘deception by silhouette’ is especially true in less common species that people aren’t necessarily familiar with, and so are less likely to uncover the deception. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Deception unveiled (mostly). The antennae are actually simply non-functional projections on the posterior, the proboscis is an extension of the elytra and the hind legs are actually the forelegs. As more detail emerges with the light, a greater appreciation can be had for the detail invested in the mimicry, like the false eyespot. Weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Deceptive silhouettes not only create interest in a photo but generate a kind of ‘aha’ moment when the deception is uncovered. Save for the edges, all detail will be lost, therefore consider using smaller apertures than you would normally (since diffraction, the interference of light waves as they enter an ever narrowing aperture, play only a limited role in a silhouette) in order to mine that edge-detail. In PP, consider using a sharpen and contrast brush to go over the edges to make them stand out even more.

B) Translumination

Backlighting comes in a variety of flavours depending on the amount of light transmitted through the subject (translucence vs. opaqueness) as well as the amount of light reflected from the front of the subject onto the sensor. It is this light differential that will determine the quality of the photo. An opaque subject will appear completely black as a silhouette (above section). Whereas the translucent subject will often appear luminescent with interesting colours and textures becoming visible which would otherwise go unseen.

A leaf miner grub chewing through a palm leaf. Had this photo been taken with simple flash it would have failed to show either the grub or the spectrum of colours within the inhabited leaf. Photo taken in Khao Yai national park, Thailand. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


Compare the following 3 photos of the same subject using 1) normal flash 2) backlighting with no flash, and 3) backlighting with a short flash duration.

A regular flash photo is what one would typically encounter in an online search and is how I would expect most photographers to approach this subject.

Normal flash shot of a translucent hopper nymph (Ledrinae). Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Full backlighting overwhelms the subject with additional detail from the leaf and renders it almost invisible. This view is what other animals might see during the day when sunlight is streaming through the canopy. It therefore provides a much greater appreciation for the hopper’s camouflage than the first shot.

Hopper nymph (Ledrinae) completely backlit. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Back and front lighting permit us to see the details of the subject, without losing sight of its incredible ability to camouflage. It is the technique that I personally find the most useful and engaging. Although in theory taking such a photo simply requires the backlighting to be stronger than the front lighting, in practice finding the right balance for proper exposure can be quite challenging and require a bit of experimentation.

Partially backlit hopper nymph (Ledrinae). A very brief flash was fired, therefore enough light is coming from the front to illuminate some additional details. This adds to both the technical challenges of taking the photo but also the complexity of the image itself. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

The following two photos show the same moth and the same leaf with and without backlighting. The effect can be quite dramatic, creating details and colours which simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The revelation of the plant’s vascular system (leaf veins) adds a complexity to the photo which is completely absent in the second photo.

Colourful moth (Barsine euprepia) with backlighting and short flash duration from the front. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Colourful moth (Barsine euprepia) under standard lighting conditions. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

I mostly use one of two methods to shoot backlit photos.  I will either a) use a variable output flashlight from behind while shooting normally on low flash power from in front or b) place one flash head behind the subject (flash head A) and one in front (flash head B) and adjust the ratio control such that A is two stops stronger than B (since A needs to travel through an opaque medium and B does not). The ratio will need to be adjusted based on the density of the substrate. If A is too strong it will blow out the details of the substrate and if B is too strong then the backlighting will be overcome and the photo will simply appear like a normal flash photo.

I tend to prefer the use of a flashlight vs. flash since it offers greater control. Not only can I change the output intensity, but also move it closer or further away to change the beam spread. It can also focus on specific parts of the scene I want backlit (a kind of light painting), rather than the flash which is indiscriminate.

Without backlighting this stick insect wouldn’t show the same degree of camouflage. It would stand out against the green leaf. However, the midrib of the leaf and its radiating veins appear more yellow than green under backlighting, and the insect’s translucent legs blend in with the leaf.

Backlit stick insect. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

C) Mood lighting

In macro there is often talk of the lack of creativity in a field dominated by detail oriented, scientifically minded photographers. Some people don’t even know where to begin to get the creative ball rolling. Hopefully the examples in this section can help.

Lighting can dramatically alter the mood and tone of an image. Backlighting in particular can be reminiscent of jack-o-lanterns and halloween, as the light peeps through cracks and crevices in an otherwise dark image. Or else it can create fluorescence and otherworldly colours not seen naturally. Make use of these ideas and principles to complement your subject.

There is just enough light to provide a partial outline of the denser parts of the caterpillar like the head and underside. However, as the light passes through the hairs, they light up, providing a nice focal point and contrast. The light from the flashlight was positioned in such a way that it might be mistaken for the moon.

Caterpillar by ‘moonlight’. Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Cicada husks are a common feature of the rainforest landscape even as their living counterparts remain frustratingly elusive. By themselves these cicada exuvia are of passing interest, though difficult to photograph well under normal lighting conditions. However, they take on a more sinister appearance when backlit. Some additional morphological details might also be observed upon closer examination.

The ‘cicad-o-lantern’. Backlit cicada husk. Photo taken in Kerinci seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Backlit spiny leafhopper amongst thorns. Photo from Udzungwa mountains national park, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

A much softer and gentler tone can be created by opening up the aperture and lighting through a denser medium, like this mushroom cap.

Backlit mushroom. Photo taken in Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

D) Natural backlighting

Now we move onto the master’s class! Natural backlighting can create some of loveliest compositions and interesting photos in your portfolio. They can also be the subject of much frustration and uneven illumination. This section more than any other requires an understanding of light, the capabilities of your flash and the use of accessories like diffusers and reflectors.

As dusk fell, the light through the canopy shed a few last rays of sunlight which fell on this beautiful little chameleon. I was in a stunted forest in Madagascar and so there was less foliage blocking the natural light as there would have been in a traditional rainforest. With the light coming from behind, without certain measures, the underside of the subject would be in shadow, ruining the evenly lit, soft feel of the image below. The photo that you see below is what I observed through the viewfinder but which failed to materialize when I pushed the shutter. Instead the underside was in shadow, one of those frustrating discrepancies the sensor but not the viewfinder pick up on. Therefore I illuminated the chameleon from below with a very small 1/128 flash pulse through a heavy diffuser. This was enough to dispel the shadows without otherwise washing out the beautifully backlit leaves. An alternative would have been to place a reflector below the subject to bounce the incoming natural light. A shallow depth of field brings into focus only the head and the details of a few foreground leaves, the rest fade into a pleasant blur.

Naturally backlit chameleon (Furcifer rhinoceratus). Shot with a 100mm f/2.8 Zeiss Makro Planar T lens. Settings: f/5.6, shutter 1/80, ISO 400. Photo taken in Ankarafantsika national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Another photo taking advantage of the waning directional light. I had little time to compose and the angle was off, with the harvestman appearing higher up on the trunk than I would have liked. Also the subject was quite mobile. Therefore I had to use a higher ISO then I would have liked and even so there wasn’t enough light to illuminate the trunk it was resting on. Either increasing the ISO or lowering one of aperture or shutter would have resulted in blown out details in the backlit legs. Therefore I decided to have the image underexposed by closing the aperture down even further so that I could get the aperture blades in the bokeh of the photo.

Backlit harvestman at dusk. Shot with a 100mm f/2.8 Zeiss Makro Planar T lens. Settings: f/9, shutter 1/40, ISO 800. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


E) Tradeoffs to backlighting 

Your subject might not always show perfect exposure, but rather be slightly underexposed (it won’t be overexposed because this would wash out and defeat the purpose of the backlighting). It is a delicate balancing act between providing too little and too much lighting and with all this fiddling many subjects are liable to wander off or otherwise be disturbed.

Although in theory with natural backlighting one should be able to practice this type of photography whenever the sun is out, in practice dusk and dawn are when the lighting is strongly directional and there is a nicer colour cast to the light is preferable (a golden hour when you might want to be out photographing something else). Overcast days won’t provide enough backlighting.

Like other styles of photography backlighting when overused can become a simple novelty whose charm quickly wears off. Therefore use it sparingly. Backlighting is not a panacea to generate interest in your photo and it is very easy to abandon thought towards composition when focusing on the lighting. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. As you experiment more with the method, you’ll learn when to apply it and when to refrain.

Fully backlit, the leaf has taken on a fluorescent character whilst the cicadellid nymph remains underexposed. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Cicadellid nymph with backlighting and short duration flash from the front. Now the leaf maintains only a hint of the backlighting despite the cicadellid being adequately exposed. An example of the balancing act to properly illuminate a scene. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When dealing with natural backlighting, glare can become a significant problem, or an opportunity. Glare, will create haze, wash out and destroy detail and create distracting optical rainbows. The vast majority of the time this will result in poor quality photos which you would be right to throw away. However, after experimenting extensively, I have found that if you are able to find the right angles, it is possible to get a backlit subject that is not too washed out (that can be recovered in post processing) and which shows interesting effects. Actually, when these images are converted into black and white (see below) then the diffraction can even look like rain.

Yellow praying mantis (Hierodula sp. ) with backlighting and glare. I had to apply local contrast and sharpness around the mantis to recover some of the detail which otherwise would have been washed out. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


Directional lighting

While backlighting obviously comes from the back, directional lighting can come from anywhere, either as multiple light sources, or a single one. I have found the technique of directing a flashlight from underneath contours or sculpted features which disrupt the uniformity of light such that it lights the ‘hills’ and not the ‘valleys’ to create lots of possibilities. Use this technique to show odd or interesting details that might otherwise pass unnoticed, or else might not have the same impact under regular lighting (like the eye). By strongly contrasting the light and shadow, drama and tension can easily be created. Both of the photos below rely only on flashlight without the use of flash.

Offering a closeup, and lighting only the eye with the rest of the image in shadow or underexposed, the pit viper photographed here appears more menacing. This could be a promotional photo for the new GodZilla movie.

Large eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops). Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

As the light wraps around the head from beneath, only the protruding eyes and nose are lit, casting the rest in darkness.

Mossy frog. Photo taken in Cuc phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


Black and white

Finding good black and white photos in macro is rare. It is a relict of the past and unlike landscapes or portraits, the gritty texture and feel doesn’t come across in the same manner. I have found b+w to be highly contextual and subject specific therefore it is difficult to make broad generalizations. However, I have found both natural light and backlit photos (a quality of the translucence translates well to b+w) to be more forgiving of b+w treatment than flash photos.

This shot of ant pupa was converted from colour to black and white in post production simply by desaturating it in Apple Aperture. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Backlit crab spider. Photo from Udzungwa national park, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Other subjects include high contrast scenes, or conversely finely graduated HDR-type shots, which can show nuance and X-shades of grey. If the colours of the scene are slightly washed out or sub-optimal, or even if the subject itself is somewhat dreary it’s worth a quick 100% desaturation in Post Processing to see if it’s amenable to a black and white conversion.



Juvenile black caiman (Melanosuchus niger) from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Alternatively, the common squirrel monkey took on a more dynamic and interesting perspective upon conversion to black and white. The myriad of colours in the amazon often means that few people think to eliminate them altogether, which opens up the field for an interesting exploration in B+W.


Squirrel monkey from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

So, your photo is overexposed, and it looks more like a water colour painting than a photo. However, before binning it you might consider desaturating it, effectively turning it into a b+w photo. This can sometimes be a measure of last resort in rescuing a photo. After you’ve done this you can play with exposure and apply shadow and highlight recovery more indiscriminately than you would if you were trying to preserve colour detail.

The original photo is suffering from overexposure and chromatic aberration.

Overexposed shot of a limacodid caterpillar. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

By converting it to a black and white the photo becomes easier to work with and while not a winner by any means it might just become acceptable.

When the above shot of a limacodid caterpillar is desaturated and basic restoration of highlights, shadow detail and exposure detail is applied, the photo is much improved though still much remains to be desired. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


Reflected Ultraviolet (UV) photography

Photo was taken with a Nichia 365nm UV flashlight. These photos must be taken in the dark, otherwise the the light will overwhelm the UV fluorescence. Shot on a tripod with mirror lock up and 2 sec self timer. Shutter speed was 30 seconds, aperture f/9, Iso 200 and no flash. While the shutter is open I painted the subject with the UV beam, careful to illuminate as evenly as possible the entire subject. One must choose a subject that does not move for at least 15-30 seconds to get a blur free image. Notice that both the stick insect and moss (green under visible spectrum) is fluorescing. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Despite the exotic flavour of UV fluorescence and photos translating this otherwise unseen world into something visible to us, UV is a commonplace, naturally occurring phenomenon. It is a world operating under our noses which passes unseen at wavelengths (𝜆) below the visible spectrum (400-750nm) to which our eyes have evolved. In theory this spectrum ranges from 1-399nm. At the lower 𝜆s (1-120nm) there is enough energy to cause ionization (gaining/losing of electrons) of atoms. Within the upper UV-range, although lacking the ability to ionize, there remains enough energy to excite molecules and cause ensuing chemical reactions, amongst them fluorescence.

For the purposes of photography the practical range is in the 200-399nm range, the so-called near-UV spectrum, below which air and lens glass is opaque to UV. Closer to the 400nm 𝜆 and there is a distinct purple or blue cast to the light which can be an indicator of the 𝜆 used. Around the 365nm 𝜆 at which most other UV lights operate, there is no colour cast. However, different substrates fluoresce optimally at different 𝜆s, and so a subject that might fluoresce at 300nm might not do so at 365nm. Having said that, most subjects will also display a range or overlap,  and it is simply a case of how close you are to the ‘sweet spot’ that will determine how bright the subject will appear and hence how long of an exposure will be needed in order to display the fluorescence effectively.

The near-UV light is further sub-divided into long wave or UV-A (320-400nm), medium wave or UV-B (280-320nm) and short wave or UV-C (200-280nm). However, in practice this means little since most photographers will be limited to the 𝜆s of commercially available UV-flashlights which mostly fall in the 365-400nm range, anything other than that falling into the realm of a specialty product, with concomitant specialty prices.

UV fluorescence ranges across kingdoms, from the UV absorbing nectar guides of flowering plants (which serve to guide pollinating insects to the energy-rich nectar but more importantly to the reproductive organs of the plants to ensure fertilization) to fluorescing bacteria, fungi, protists and animals.

Lichens under UV light. Photo from Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Gecko (Cyrtodactylus sp.) under UV light. Photo from Mt. Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

It is the latter case, specifically UV fluorescence amongst the arthropods which will be the focus of this section. I, like many others had already known about the build-up of molecules in the chitin of scorpions produced during the oxidative cross-linking process, sclerotization, which fluoresce under UV light. Specifically, “β-carboline — a tryptophan derivative that has previously been identified by hydrolysis and oxidation”. However, thanks to Techuser (Joao P. Burini) I was exposed to the idea of using UV light on harvestmen (Opiliones). From there I began experimenting, firing a brief UV pulse at any potential subject and was surprised at the breadth of flora and fauna showing a biologically significant degree of fluorescence. In scorpions, the most studied example, there is still no consensus with respect to the function of fluorescence, though theories abound. They range from the accidental – the fluorescing molecules are a simple byproduct of other, more important chemical reactions, to behavioural – interspecific recognition, prey attraction or aposematism to predators. Perhaps one of the most intriguing theories, proposed by Carl Kloock et al., is the indirect use of UV-sensitive molecules, whose induction is then transduced into the blue-green 𝜆 (450-570nm), the same 𝜆 at which the eyes show peak sensitivity and to which the scorpion brain is hardwired. Experiments with blue-green and UV light have shown that these UV-sensitive molecules in the surface cuticle effectively turn the entire body into a photon collector, enabling the scorpion to determine its immediate environment, a matter of great practical concern for finding shelter and predator avoidance.

Scorpions are the original ‘blacklight bugs’ (yes I know they’re arachnids). They respond very strongly to UV light and unlike a lot of other insects they don’t require the lengthy exposure times needed to bring out that fluorescence. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Scorpion (Babyurus gigas) with prey under UV light. Photo from Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Scorpion cannibalism under UV light. Photo taken in Udzungwa national park, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


Scorpion with katydid prey under UV light with short duration flash. Photo from Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Scorpion under UV light from Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

UV fluorescence seems to change with the life cycle, either becoming stronger of weaker with age depending on the species and pre- and post-ecdysis.

For example one individual of a newly moulted amblypygid showed fluorescence while adults and even juveniles that had already hardened exoskeletons displayed no such fluorescence.

Amblypygid (Charon amanica) under UV light. Photo from Amani nature reserve, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Other insects and arachnids display either a more limited fluorescence, multi-spectrum fluorescence or else a fluorescence which manifests itself as differential patterns. For these cases, alternative explanations must be found.

Some theories include interspecific differentiation or mate selection, and aposematism in nocturnal predators (in a similar way to how bright colours in the visible spectrum do to diurnal predators). For example, harvestmen use a variety of defences, including aposematism, stridulation and chemical defences to ward off predators. So it seems feasible that such fluorescence might fulfill a similar role. Though the bright, obvious patterns on the dorsum and posterior might be more reflective of mate selection since many harvestmen will perch up high and with relatively poor vision, such evident colours and patterns might help them find a mate or rivals.

Here the entire harvestman is fluorescing rather than showing any patterns. Note the normally green lichens fluorescing red. Photo from Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Harvestman showing patterns on the rear of the cephalothorax. Photo from Cloud forest, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Harvestman showing banding patterns on the rear of the cephalothorax along with spots and narrow bands on the pedipalps. Photo under UV light with brief flash burst. Photo from Cloud forest, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

A few other examples of insect reflecting UV light include leaf-mimicking katydids.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Pseudophyllinae) under UV light. Photo from Mt. Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Stick insects

Though blue or indigo is the most commonly encountered fluorescence, I have also seen green, purple, yellows and reds. Stick insect. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Mossy stick insect. Photo from Andasibe national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.


Limacodid caterpillar (Narosa sp.) under UV light. Photo from Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Caterpillars under UV light. Photo from Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Praying mantids

Lichen mantis (Theopompa borneana) under UV light. Photo from Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


Stink bug (Tessaratoma sp.) under UV light. Photo from Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


Moth-lacewing (Rapisma sp.) under UV light. Photo from Mt. Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


Millipede under UV light. Photo from Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.


Most of the photos in this section involved the use of a tripod using anywhere from 2 to 30 second long exposures, while trying to minimize ISOs to 100-400. The results are much cleaner than attempts involving shorter shutter speeds with higher ISOs and larger apertures. Of course the caveat is that any movement will result in fairly poor results, like the crab orbweaver below. Motion from wind vibrating the web the subject was on made a long exposure shot impossible.

Micrathena sp. under UV light with flash. Here, movement of the subject during a long exposure has resulted in the non-overlapping exposures of the subject under UV and flash. The UV exposure appears as the green/cyan streak. Photo taken in Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

The concept of UV photography is simple enough in itself. One must allow for a long enough exposure time to capture the rather dim fluorescence emitted by shining a UV light on the subject. The amount of reflected UV light captured by the sensor will be the sum of exposure time, ISO, aperture, strength of the light source as well as the strength of reflected light from the subject itself (Scorpions reflect UV so brightly that shutter speeds as slow as 1/60″ can sometimes be used). Full frame sensors with their more forgiving high ISO capabilities are at a distinct advantage for this kind of photography.

Exceedingly long exposures of 30″+ invariably lead to movement of the subject, or even the leaf or substrate on which it is resting and so is inadvisable with only a few exceptions. I generally tend towards the 3-10″ range, with ISOs no larger than 1600, even though black backgrounds mean that the graininess will be confined to a sharp in focus subject in which the grain is less apparent than in a smooth out of focus background. Too short of a shutter speed will also mean that you might not be able to evenly illuminate the entire subject with light painting. A slower shutter speed will allow you to go over the subject several times and not have hotspots, get underneath the subject to illuminate the underside, and focus on areas of importance like the head and/or other salient features. Either live view or else mirror-lock up mode will ensure that there is no mirror-slap which might also contribute to decreased sharpness.


Fortunately all that’s needed is a UV flashlight or blacklight. All the photos here were taken with the aid of an ultraviolet flashlight (Tank 007) in the 365nm wavelength (I use the TK566 3W model). This provides a more naturalistic lighting that minimizes the purple colour cast of 400nm + wavelengths, though the latter definitely have an interesting, and distinctive look. Furthermore the increased wattage of a 3W versus a 1W model creates a brighter fluorescence, enabling shorter exposure times.

Of course there is always the simple, cheaper way and then the complicated, expensive way of doing things. The latter requiring specialized UV passing filters (Baader BPU2 UV filter, $265), modifying the camera sensor to allow more UV light to pass ($150-200) and specialized quartz/fluorite lenses costing upwards of $4000 which also permit the passage of more UV light.

UV light only

Leaf-mimicking katydid. Photo from cloud rainforest, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

UV light with flash

The strength of the flash output will depend on both the strength of the UV reflectance of the subject and the exposure time. For this scorpion shot I was able to fire the flash at 1/2 strength due to the strong fluorescence, as well as the longer exposure time. Shorter exposure times will often mean that the UV reflectance will be overwhelmed, resulting in a standard non-UV shot.

Scorpion under UV light with flash. Photo from Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

UV light with backlight

This is a careful balancing act, one must first have a translucent substrate which will permit the passage of light, while not allowing the light to overwhelm the fluorescence of the subject. If your flashlight has multiple settings, it is best to adjust it to the lowest lumen output and even then turn it on only briefly (or from further away) otherwise you risk too much light. Then follow the standard protocol for a normal UV image.

Scorpion with zodariid spider prey under UV light with backlighting. Here the backlighting was provided by a Fenix LD20 flashlight turned on for only a second, while at the same time shining UV light from above. Photo from Udzungwa mountains nationalpark, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Though simple in execution, many people often neglect the principles of good composition while shooting UV, relying instead on the novelty factor to carry the image. This may be fine while UV is still on the fringes of photography, but if it becomes more popular or else is simply represented to a greater extent in searches and thus viewed by more people then it will cease to be novel and will be subject to the same rigorous standards governing a good photo.

UV-induced fluorescence can be subtle as in the case of this chameleon which shows a ring of fluorescent scales around the eye.

Chameleon (Calumma gastrotaenia) under UV light. Photo from Maromizaha reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2015.

Or can be more dramatic as in this butterfly chrysalis which shows multi-coloured fluorescence.

Chrysalis under UV light. Many insects display UV fluorescence and this can sometimes come in unexpected and spectacular forms! Here, purples, blues and greens predominate although reds, yellows and other colours can also sometimes be found. UV fluorescence can appear in odd places, so it is always worthwhile to experiment and briefly inspect each subject you encounter with a brief UV pulse. Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A more extensive UV gallery including my earlier results can be seen in my Flickr album HERE.

22) Macro in Motion 

Showing motion either through panning, slow shutter speeds, zoom bursts, or other techniques constitutes to my mind one of the most creative frontiers within macro (Macro motion photography (MMP)). It is also a technique that produces an astonishing failure rate, and it is difficult to master. Indeed I recommend it as one of the more advanced techniques for that reason.

Despite my longtime desire to experiment and become proficient in this style of photography, I have often procrastinated in favour of easier methods and means of experimentation. This is not a technique like UV fluorescence or backlighting which are like low-lying fruit and can easily be attempted by anyone and produce rather consistent and good results. Rather, one needs to choose ones subject carefully, the circumstances must be right, and then the technique must be spot on, because otherwise the result is a blurry mess. Plan ahead. Framing also tends to be a bit of a crapshoot since one is usually just trying to simply get the subject within acceptable focus. Macro panning also tends to differ from your standard race car and sports panning since insects tend to move unpredictably and in 3 dimensions.

The panning leafcutter ant shot below was my first attempt at panning in macro back in 2010 in Guyana. I must have shot about 500 shots to get this one, single, relatively in focus shot. This was made extremely difficult by the low light, the erratic speed of the leafcutters and the slope of the terrain. In terms of difficulty, ants are probably somewhere in the middle, since their adherence to pheromone trails means that they will follow (to a certain extent) a predictable path, however in addition to being fast, they will also move and out of the focus plane. Leafcutters tend to be slightly slower and thus easier to shoot than your average ant due to their burden. An easier subject would be something like a slow moving millipede shot from above due to their slow, and steady movement, as well as a constant focal plane and limited dimensionality (no vertical movement).

A panning shot of leafcutter ants. Shot at f/10, shutter speed 1/8, ISO 800. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.


It may have taken me 7 years to redo this shot but it finally got done! Another pan of leafcutters, this time brighter. Though I’d still like to tweak it somewhat, I’m happier with the result. f/7.1, shutter speed 1/4,  ISO 1250. Photo taken in Sani lodge, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Wherever there is movement, there is the potential to capture a dynamic and interesting scene. Some of my preferred ‘types’ of movement include slow moving subjects, a subject with body parts moving at two different speeds (Eg. Chameleon firing tongue), or two (or more subjects) with differing speeds.

The Driver ants (Dorylus sp.) exemplify the last point quite well. African army ants, like their new-world (Eciton spp.) relatives are nomadic. However, unlike Eciton they form static living barriers which function both in defence as well as to keep the workers in line. By using a slow shutter speed (much akin to that used for waterfalls/streams) and second curtain flash I was able to show the movement of the workers whilst still maintaining the detail in the ants forming the barricade. In order to show both sides of the ‘living wall’ and to make the scene dark enough to use a slow shutter speed I had to use quite a small aperture (f/22). Note a tripod was essential for this shot. Not only did it allow me to use a longer shutter speed and eliminate any camera shake (which is obviously the wrong kind of motion), but because these ants are very aggressive and respond to vibrations in the soil, it allowed me to trigger the shutter remotely after the ants fell back into line after the initial disruption caused by my setting up.

African army ant or driver ant column (Dorylus sp.). Shot at f/22, shutter speed 1/4, ISO 2000. Photo taken in Usambara mountains, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Alternatively, if a subject is shot with flash and a slow shutter speed (Reed frog shot below) then motion can also be conveyed and a dynamic scene that goes beyond the standard portrait, adding interest to the photo.

Yellow reed frog (Hyperolius reesi). Shot at f/7.1, shutter speed 1/60, ISO 1600. Photo from Udzungwa national park, Tanzania. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

All of the above techniques make for interesting case studies in macro motion photography for those patient enough to wade through the many failed attempts and bold enough to risk missing a standard portrait shot in favour of perchance capturing something more.

UPDATED 25/03/2019

23) Drone Photography

Collecting drone for FONAG.jpg

Hand-catching a Phantom 3 Professional drone while working with FONAG (A foundation dedicated to the preservation of natural clean water reservoirs) to map the source of the Rio Pita (tributary to Quito’s drinking water) in Cotopaxi national park. Sincholagua volcano in the background. Copyright FONAG 2016.

It’s a common refrain that I tell people that I didn’t think that I would enjoy drone photography quite as much as I do. Now, I find drones to be an indispensable part of my portfolio, and I feel quite out of sorts when I am without one. The increased quality and portability (exemplified by the DJI Mavic line) is making drone photography increasingly accessible.

Sunrises are often atmospheric, and a photographer’s favourite. In the Amazon, rainforest transpiration creates a billowing fog over the rainforest canopy, accentuated by increased morning activity by avifauna. Photographed with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Sunrise over Sani lodge, Ecuadorian Amazon. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Traditional reviews like those by “Trusted Reviews” or dpreview are good at pointing out the bullet points and specs that help inform one’s purchasing. They are also updated on a regular basis and can be a source for the most current information. However, it’s always valuable to see not just real-world performance, but performance related to one’s own particular needs. For example, the complex moustache-distortion present in many of DJI’s consumer-level drones is generally not an issue for the majority of photographers, However, those whose purpose is photographing architecture, might find themselves disappointed. It should be noted though that certain points raised by reviewers might be emphasized in a review if for no other reason than to appear thorough and balanced (ie. Justifying the need for the review itself).

The majority of my observations and recommendations pertain to rainforest photography in particular, and extrapolation to other fields is at one’s own discretion (and hazard).

My introduction to UAVs came through the DJI Phantom 3 Pro in 2016. I got roughly 6 months of flying out of the drone before a collision with an overhead tree branch in Ecuador grounded my ambitions, but not before offering a tantalizing taste of the possibilities of aerial photography. I picked myself up (registered anonymously in various drone support groups for pilot victims, this is actually a thing!), and after my confidence was sufficiently massaged back into being, I bought a new pair of wings. I switched to the more portable DJI Mavic Pro. Despite a noticeable step down in terms of quality, it is still an impressive device, and it’s portability ensures that it can thrown in a backpack to be taken along at every occasion, something entirely impossible with the larger series drones (technically I was able to rearrange the padding in my camera bag, a Gura Gear Bataflae 32L to accommodate the P3P, although this is still inconvenient and still requires a hard-case for international or rugged travel), and personally, well-worth the tradeoff. [Nb.The more recently released DJI Mavic Pro II offers important quality upgrades (1″ sensor), and 360° sensor FOV, better radio-connectivity, etc…]

Respective sensor sizes of various popular camera formats. Image from Dpreview.com

Drone Etiquette

Although drone enthusiasts will downplay the risks, one can say unequivocally that drones are noisy (though they’re getting better), dangerous (the same can be said of any object when dropped from a certain height), and to many, constitute an invasion of privacy. Therefore:

  1. Don’t fly in crowded areas, and maintain a respect for sensitive areas, including but not limited to breeding areas, nesting sites, feeding sites, watering holes, around rare/sensitive species.
  2. Always take others’ concerns into consideration when flying, especially during the early morning hours, or when flying might cause disruption to others’ activities eg. bird-watching.
  3. Make sure that you have advised anyone nearby that you will be flying, and if you will be taking pictures/videos which might include them, first obtain their verbal or written consent [a release is often necessary for unambiguous (ie. not subject to takedown/litigation) commercial use of footage].
  4. Always be prepared to ground your drone, whether that comes in the form of not taking off to begin with, grounding it prematurely and/or in an emergency landing zone, or should disaster strike, executing a forced combined stick command (CSC), and losing the drone in order to avert a greater catastrophe.
  5. Have a proper exit and landing strategy in place. The DJI app is error prone, and the app will crash at some point, that’s almost inevitable. It’s frightening when this occurs, but if you are flying with the remote, you can usually still execute return to home function (if not, RTH is a standard feature which is engaged when the drone loses connectivity with the remote), and then manually land by line-of-sight. Other complications might include radio signal loss, low battery or hardware failure and one should have a pre-flight strategy to deal with each in turn.
  6. Be aware of wildlife, and the impact your flying has on that wildlife (if in doubt, ask local experts or other drone operators). Drones can elicit defensive or flight responses from birds and mammals, which might endanger the animals themselves, bystanders, yourself or your drone.

My flight procedure

  1. Determine whether an area requires any special flight permissions and query the relevant authorities to obtain permission.
  2. If flying at altitude >250M, I will check local flight plans and trajectories [Website].
  3. Where applicable, organize with locals a flight plan to minimize disturbance to others.
  4. Observe for any potential hazards. In the rainforest this includes lianas, vines, swaying trees or branches and depending on the forest, leaves (some dipterocarps and cecropias have giant leaves which when dislodged can entangle or else ground smaller drones).
  5. Determine canopy height and make the necessary changes to the Return to Home (RTH) altitude. **This step is often overlooked and can present a very real hazard**
  6. Determine that there are no immediate aerial threats (birds, overhead obstacles, impending rain, high velocity winds, etc…).
  7. Clear the ground, or preferably elevate the drone (a pelican case works very well as a landing/takeoff pad).
  8. Perform Pre-flight Checklist (See Footnote*).
  9. If taking off under the canopy, engage a stabilization mode (tripod mode for DJI users) for greater control. Be especially sensitive to any wind, which can move branches and lianas from several metres into away into the flight path of the drone. The drone will be slightly less responsive in tripod mode, but can be maneuvered more surely between hazards. This is especially useful for navigating from out of the understory to get above the canopy. Ensure line-of-sight, and preferably check from multiple perspectives to be certain that there are no small obstacles like vines or aerial roots which might otherwise entangle the propellers.
  10. Frequently check altitudinal changes and take note of inconsistent canopy height. Use custom key C1/C2 to quickly change gimbal position by 90 degrees to check for potential flight hazards from below.
  11. I’ll generally do a “fly-by” or  first pass of an area to begin with, limiting the number of photos I take in order to get the lay of the land, experimenting with different altitudes and generally not straying further than 1 km whilst choosing from a position which grants me the furthest line of sight possible. I never descend below the canopy using the first person viewer on the remote, only ever by line-of-sight, so as to appropriately gauge the hazards.
  12. Photograph the scene (details below) using a bracketed exposure.
  13. RTH with 15% minimum battery life remaining.

The Basics

Always carry out your pre-flight checklist (Detailed below)*. It takes only a minute, but it’s a good habit to get into, and can discover chipped propeller blades, compass disequilibrium, memory card absence/failure, etc…

Always carry at least one extra battery. Oftentimes one will have to reconnoitre an area first, or else return prematurely on account of the weather, a crashed app (affecting flight), battery life in either the phone or the remote, or else some other factor beyond prediction.

In the rainforest, the attached gimbal-mounted lens is still subject to fogging, especially in the morning immediately after takeoff as the system warms up. This will immediately frustrate any attempts at capturing that sunrise, and it can be difficult to remove the internal lens fog (which only manifests as soon as the drone has left the ground and internal temperatures rise). Therefore keep your drone, or at least the gimbal/lens dry in a dry-box with silica or some other desiccant when the humidity rises (alternatively you can use a plastic bag with silica/rice and gently wrap it around just the lens, sealing it with cellophane at the top.

Some useful accessories which I use are:

  1. Polar Pro ND-Polarizing filters ND 4, ND 16, ND 32. These are pretty essential, unless flying on completely overcast days.
  2. Landing feet extenders (for DJI Mavic Pro) may help cushion ones’ gimbal from a hard landing in uneven terrain, or else provide greater clearance for potentially lens dust to dirty the front lens during landing/takeoff.
  3. Extra folding propellers
  4. Soft sleeve for protection and portability

There are a huge number of OEM and 3rd party manufacturer accessories which include everything from propeller guards and multi-bay battery chargers to FPV goggles. and various remote controller mods and upgrades. Apart from the filters, which in my opinion are essential (and very obviously and immediately improve image quality), the other accessories provide a platform for customization, rather than indispensable gains in function.

Drone still Photography styles

  1. High altitude (>200M)

Perhaps the most obvious benefit and use for a drone is the imaging of large-scale geographical features which are otherwise inaccessible. At these altitudes, one should assume higher wind speeds and lower temperatures, and factor these into one’s risk assessment and battery consumption calculations (in addition to the increased risk of unwanted commercial air traffic).


Headwaters of the Rio Pita at the foot of Sincholagua mountain in Cotopaxi national park, Ecuador. Shot with P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.


Floreana beach, Galapagos, Ecuador. Photo taken with the P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

Rio Pita waterfalls from Cotopaxi NP, Ecuador. Shot with P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.

2. Logistically inaccessible areas

These are dangerous, difficult or physically inaccessible areas. One might not need a wide altitudinal range, but simply take advantage of the drone’s maneuverability and flexibility. Examples include working under the rainforest canopy, around waterfalls or volcanoes/lava flows.


A dense and an extremely mountainous terrain in Sumaco National park, Ecuador. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.


Caño Canoas waterfalls in La Macarena district, Colombia. Photographed with DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.


Sani lodge’s Ceiba Canopy tower, Ecuadorian Amazon. The wide angle of the DJI camera is misleading, since the drone is actually quite close (<5m) from the topmost branches of the Ceiba tree. Photographed with the DJI P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Photo from Morromico, outside Utria national park, Colombian Choco. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

3. Bird’s eye view (BOV)

BOV obviously overlaps with many other styles, however, the BOV as I am defining it here, refers specifically to the camera oriented straight down. This is particularly effective when accentuated by geometrical shapes, or lines which can create an engaging aesthetic, especially when incorporated into a narrative.


Kayaking in the Brazilian Amazon. Shot with the DJI mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

Clouds reflected in the surface of Lago pan on Mocagua island, Colombian Amazon. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

Compare the style of the next two shots. The first illustrates BOV, whilst the second has a larger angle of incidence.


Tweedsmuir national park, British Columbia, Canada. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.


Tweedsmuir national park, British Columbia, Canada. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

4. Wide-angle landscape

These shots can provide an escape from landscape-blocking features, to enable impressive vistas. The maneuverability of the drone means that it can be placed into crevasses, across water features, or other dangerous or inaccessible locations.


Sunrise around Tayrona national park, Colombian Caribbean. Shot with the DJI mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

Challuacocha at Sani lodge, bordering Yasuni National park, Ecuador. Shot with the P3P drone Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

5. Clouds

Flying into clouds represents some obvious risks (water/electrical damage and loss of line sight being the most obvious). However, one might judge that the benefits outweigh the risk, as clouds can completely change the framing, and atmosphere of a photo. I often experiment with their incorporation to some extent, whenever they are present, and it makes sense to do so. It’s important to keep a line of sight on the drone, insofar as is possible, in order to determine the cloud type, to have an exit strategy in case one loses sight and or control of the drone, and to respond to features in the landscape obscured by the cloud cover.


Challuacocha lake, partially obscured by cloud creates an enigmatic and atmospheric perspective. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I drone. Photo from Sani lodge, Ecuadorian Amazon, 2017.


Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I drone. Photo from the Cauca Valley, Colombia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

The clouds don’t necessarily have to be at camera-level to be effective, as long as the overall effect is immersive.


Cauca Valley, Colombia. Photographed with the DJI Mavic I Pro. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

6. Golden hour(s)

Due to the curvature of the earth and line-of-sight, the arriving or retreating sun can be observed at higher altitudes before/after conventional ground-based photography (a point seldom accounted for by landscape photographers).

Sunrise in the rainforest is a great time to fly, and low-lying mists over the canopy add to the atmosphere.


Golden hours still apply to drone photos, though be careful of the level of flare which can sometimes overcome the photo. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I drone. Photo from leticia, Colombia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Amazon sunrise from Sani lodge, bordering Yasuni national park, Ecuador. Shot with the P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

Sunrises are generally handled better than sunsets by the smaller sensor drones. They start to show significant noise at anything higher than base ISO 100, and don’t handle highlight/shadow recovery in post-processing particularly well either.


Photo from Santa Cruz island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Photo taken with the DJI P3P drone. Copyright Paul Bertner 2016.


Canoeing on Challuacocha lake at sunset at Sani lodge, Ecuador. Photo taken with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.


Sunset over Palmari reserve, Brazilian Amazon. Photo taken with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

7. Night photography

Despite drones being equipped with flashing LED safety lights, and being very capable of flying at night, the sensor size in most consumer models is generally too small to meet a minimum quality standard. Below is a blue hour shot, taken just after sunset.


Mocagua island at the blue hour from Canaloa lodge, Colombian Amazon. Photo taken with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2017.

7. Narrative-driven 

This doesn’t necessarily represent a distinct style, but rather, is contextual and fits into the accompanying narrative. The more specific and focussed the photo, the greater the effectiveness. A generic landscape photo, regardless of the its beauty, is not as effective within the narrative as one which shows dynamism and can communicate along multiple storylines. Shooting in this manner often requires having a clear story in mind before flying.


“A road runs through it” – Yotoco reserve is not only bi-sected by a highway, but is flanked on all sides by farmlands. It is a forested island, rich with interesting species, however, it’s unclear how this ~500 Ha reserve will sustain larger mammalian species in the long-term. Photo from Yotoco reserve, Colombia. Shot with the DJI Mavic Pro I. Copyright Paul Bertner 2018.

If you have any additional drone tips or experiences, I encourage you to leave a comment or PM.

*Pre-flight Checklist

24) Housecleaning

Clean your sensor! This should be something that you do anyways but much too often I see photos people post that are absolutely covered in dust spots. Not tiny ones visible only to a pixel peeper, but large obtrusive ones which do detract from the quality of the photo, especially when they appear in amongst the smooth bokeh (Remember that focus stack of a crab spider back in Rule #3? Take a closer look at all the dust spots I purposefully left behind and tell me it doesn’t make a difference). This to me is the equivalent of a typo or poor grammar. It’s something that is easy to fix beforehand by cleaning your sensor or afterwards by using dust delete data or cloning it out in post processing. It shows that the poster doesn’t care enough about the finished product of their own work, so why should I take them seriously. This is even more relevant when submitting your photos for consideration to contests or to magazine articles. In fact, the more discriminating stock photography websites (like Alamy) which are subject to an arbitration process will reject photos with obvious dust spots, over processing, lack of sharpness and other defects.

It’s a small, easy to remedy problem, but these things do make an impression on the viewer and is another sticking point that separates amateurs from professionals. Moreover, once done, you can enjoy a clean sensor for some time before it needs servicing again.

25) Research

Let’s face it, most of us are not out there to make huge profits from our photos and we probably couldn’t even if we tried. Therefore this is mostly a labour of love. One in which we sink thousands of dollars into new equipment and airfares into getting to remote, pristine jungle (or 5 star country club jungle resorts as the case may be). But we have something in common, our love for nature and our desire to document it. I think that photographer’s are a little like digital collectors, we seek the rare, the beautiful, and the bizarre. We capture it and we carry it around with us. Others of us simply want to share amazing natural phenomena with those that will never get a chance to see it.

Research is two-fold. There is the research into an animal’s biology and natural history and then there is the sifting through pages and pages of photo results, analyzing and comparing how these photos were taken and what differentiates one from the other. While the former can seem effortless, after all it is probably that research into the natural flora and fauna, its biology, evolution, etc… which has motivated you to travel to your exotic foreign location in the first place, the latter can seem arduous.

However, you have gone to all this expense, now why would you short change yourself by taking the same photos as someone else? If you’re a biologist and there to document, that is one thing. But if you’re there to show off the rainforest in the most dramatic and stunning of ways, ways which will help to promote awareness and generate interest then a different modus operandi is in order. If you can’t distinguish your photos from someone else’s, if your individuality has been stripped, won’t you feel disappointed? For myself I know that as an artist rather than a biologist I certainly feel this way.

We pride ourselves on our individuality, why not exercise it? Before you begin photographing do a brief search online of some of the most likely candidate animals you are likely to see as well as those on your ‘to see list’. Look at how they have been photographed in the past, paying particular attention to the composition, light and artistic details. Then you can either emulate it, or break the mould.


What makes the Wildlife photographer?

There will always be the Mr. X, who posts a picture on the internet that will be utterly amazing, will have documented an extremely rare or unknown behaviour in the most visually stunning way and it will do its rounds as a viral, receive hundreds of thousands of likes and then will be promptly forgotten.

With all your hard work and efforts, you probably won’t be able to match up against that photo for photo and you will be demoralized. Aren’t you harder working, more deserving of that glory?

However, Mr. X may have a brand new digital camera, but he is not a photographer. He is not willing to wade through swamps, approach dangerous creatures, be buffeted by the elements and sacrifice his beautiful, costly equipment for the sake of a photograph. He relies on chance and the innovation of the engineers in laboratories thousands of kilometres away from the steamy jungles, and antarctic cold in which you find yourself. He doesn’t see rain and wind as an opportunity for capturing dramatic scenes but as an obstacle, a time to patiently wait inside, dry and joking with friends.

And when night falls and aching and tired limbs quake for want of respite, it is the cicada’s song, and the night noises which beckon with a siren’s song – stronger than the lure of sleep.

His is a snapshot, yours, a work of art that you have slaved over. Something precious. Something that will be remembered.

Motivation, dedication, ingenuity, imagination, creativity, patience…

Are you a wildlife photographer?

Climbing Gunung Kerinci to photograph the Giant red leech, a previously undocumented species. Photo taken on Gunung Kerinci summit, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.


A personal touch. Photo taken in Braulio Carillo national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.


View of Karisimbi volcano (Rwanda) from Nyiragongo volcano (DRC). Photo from lip of volcano in Virunga national park, DRC. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.



. Updated wide angle macro section

. Updated drone photography section

and more…




17 Responses to 24 rules (and counting) to follow

  1. Dina says:

    Great tips, I relly enjoyed reading this post. Thanks a lot for sharing!
    Enjoy your weekend.
    Greetings from the Far North

  2. Excellent photos and advice, the best collection of macro tips that I have seen anywhere. Also appreciate you sharing your journey with diffusion, which is an ongoing challenge depending on the lens and flash/flashes you are using.

    • pbertner says:

      Thanks Adrian,
      I am just tired of magazine articles and blogs which retread the same ground over and over without offering any kind of insight, or where you might pick up one or two pointers after having sifted through an entire book’s worth of info. I tried to make this more personal and borne of my own experiences, so hopefully it’s info that one has hopefully not come across before, or at least is presented in a different way.

      Anyways I’m glad you found it useful.

      Happy macro shooting,

  3. Bob Jensen says:

    Superb work

  4. Excellent advice which will hopefully improve my work. Thanks very much.

  5. wizentrop says:

    Good job Paul! I read through it all and there are some excellent tips here for everyone, from amateur to professional. In particular I enjoyed your perspective “pair comparisons” – they make a strong point!~

    • pbertner says:

      Thanks Gil, much appreciated! I was afraid the articles might be a little dry for some people but then I said fuck it, this is My blog! 🙂


  6. Florencio says:

    Excellent! Thanks for the adventure…

  7. Geoff M says:

    Often photomacrography can be technically correct but lacking artistically. You have shown how to incorporate the art of photography into the science of macro.

    Thank you for sharing these tips. Your images are wonderful.

  8. John Kimbler says:

    I’d have to disagree with at least two points: First is that I use E-TTL flash metering almost exclusively and usually get within 2/3 of a stop under the actual exposure, and if I have time I can reduce that to -1/3. I like to under expose a little because digital sensors respond to it in the same way as color positive slide film -colors saturate.

    I love black backgrounds, but “John Q. Public” does not – and neither do most publishers because they consume a lot of ink. I don’t care about making my images look natural, because that word is just too subjective. But I do want the viewer to be able to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the image. That becomes impossible if I’ve taken a shot of a feeding bumblebee and the background is black, because everyone knows that they “don’t eat at night”…

    • pbertner says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Note that I’m not saying that manual is better or worse than E-TTL, just that it pays to know both systems because in my experience there will be scenarios, especially in backlighting and creative lighting where E-TTL won’t give you the desired results, in which case the only alternative is Manual and if one hasn’t experimented with this function then there are some options which are left off the table. For most macro shooters E-TTL is probably both the most comfortable and appropriate option for consistent results, but this blog is not necessarily about consistent results but about trying different things which have worked for me personally in the past and which can open the doors creatively.

      You make a good point about the expense incurred with black ink in print publications, which I had not thought about, and yes it is not a blanket statement that everything looks better on black and/or white, and if such were the case, that would be all that I would shoot. Rather it is a statement of flexibility for publishers, with a single tone background be it black white or anything in between, the subject can be readily isolated and applied to a myriad of uses versus a subject in a more complicated background. I prefer black because with fewer reflecting surfaces it creates a more complex composition of shadows, rather than exposing the subject almost too evenly in the all white background. Also our perception as photographers is different than that of most viewers. While as a photographer you might look at a feeding bee on black and think it looks unnatural and it mars your enjoyment, for most viewers it is the technical skill with with it’s shot that supersedes the ‘suspension of disbelief and enjoyment’, two elements which I don’t see as mutually exclusive.

      Thanks again for stopping by,

  9. Most motivating and useful macro field guide I have ever read! I wonder if you ever thought on taken the whole story with the astonishing images as it is, literally, and publish it printed in oversized hard cover book format for the posterity.

    • pbertner says:

      Thank you very much for the kind words! It’s an interesting idea. I have thought about it, not quite in the form that you mention, but more so in using a few sections in future book projects. This is a reminder that it’s been a while since I last updated and I could definitely add a few more points. Cheers!

  10. Joe Clarke says:

    Brilliant piece of work. It has really inspired me.
    Thank you.

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