Cell Phone Macro Photography - Insects

A large portion of the biological world is not accessible to us, because we live and operate in scales that barely overlap. Anyone familiar with the classic Eames brothers film “Powers of Ten” has a sense of this. Macro photography can be a gateway to seeing a few scales down where an enormous amount of odd, beautiful and colorful life thrive. Historically you’ve needed fancy camera equipment to peer into this world, but with the availability of robust cameras on cell phones and affordable macro lenses that can clip over them, everyone that can afford a cell phone now has access to this world.

a few cell phone macro photos from the past year by workshop leader  Damon Tighe

a few cell phone macro photos from the past year by workshop leader Damon Tighe

Most cell phones have been designed to be excellent at capturing the human scale of the world, which from a focusing point of view means they see the world much how we do; they are great at 10 cm to horizon. If you try to get a photo of something closer however you’ll notice that your phone usually won’t be able to focus.


To understand why we can’t get small things close to us in focus, we have to revisit a bit of high school physics; optics. In its simplest form a camera is something that can take light and then focus it onto screen. The original camera obscuras were large rooms with a small hole poked at one end that would let in light that could be focused onto a canvas for tracing. Today’s cameras are similar, but instead of a small hole we use a glass lens to focus the light onto a light sensitive screen aka a charge coupled device (CCD). Since the lens and the CCD in our cell phone cameras have a fixed distance from each other, it is just the curvature of the lens and thus its ability to bend light that determines what items can be in focus. Items too close to the lens will have a focus point beyond the CCD. Macro lenses can solve this problem by bending the light a little bit before it reaches your camera’s lens and thus allowing an image of something close to be focused onto the CCD.


With the macro lenses we used at yesterday’s workshop the light is bent enough where you get a sweet spot of focusing that is 1.3 cm to 1.7 cm away from your cell phone camera lens. The trick then becomes getting insects of interest into this limited focus range. Pivoting your cell phone instead of moving in and out with your arms can help get things in focus. Holding the leaf that has your insect on it with the same hand that has your cell phone can also help to steady your subject. Taking multiple photographs is also key to getting one that is in focus as many of our participants learned.

Thanks to California Center for Natural History’s relationship with Oakland Parks and Recreation we got an after hours entrance into the Gardens at Lake Merritt with Eddie Dunbar the Executive Director of the Insect Sciences Museum of California. Under his expert tutelage participants found and photographed aphids, ladybird beetles, lacewings, and a wide array of other insects. Eddie helped with different techniques to find insects and gave a background on the native bees which can be encouraged in gardens by having local plants and some bare ground not covered with mulch as many of them burrow to make their homes.

ISMC's Executive Director Eddie Dunbar and workshop attendees in front of the Bee Hotel

ISMC's Executive Director Eddie Dunbar and workshop attendees in front of the Bee Hotel

The event convened back at the Rotary Nature Center where participants got to share their favorite photographs of the workshop and loaded some of their observations into iNaturalist which is an amazing free platform and phone app (iOS /Android) that allows users to get help identifying organisms they see, be part of a community of people discussing the organisms around them and contribute to a public data set of species distribution. Most participants walked home with a new macro lens for their cell phones and a new appreciation for the diversity of life that is around us every day, just at a slightly smaller scale.

A few photographs from the workshop: 


If you are interested in CCNH holding this workshop again or purchasing a cell phone macro lens ($10) let us know through the Contact page!