Insect photography with Eddie Dunbar from the Insect Sciences Museum of California (ISMC)

By Constance Taylor

The number one rule of insect photography is… you’re going to get dirty.

After a solid afternoon of really going for stellar shots, you’ll be lucky if you only have some grass stains on your knees and elbows.

While we weren’t exactly spelunking for troglobites, we students at Eddie Dunbar’s insect photography walk certainly did our fair share of squatting, crouching, and flipping over rocks.

Eddie Dunbar! Photo by Lee Aurich



The April 20th walk at Joaquin Miller park was in partnership with the Insect Sciences Museum of California (ISMC), founded by Dunbar.  Dunbar is currently training volunteers in insect identification and photography skills, since this year marks the beginning of ISMC’s ambitious plan to create a field guide to the insects of the whole Bay Area, to be completed in 2015.

Dunbar began the walk by going over his top seven tips for insect photography:




  1. You’re going to get dirty!
    1. Wear the right clothing- long sleeves, long pants, sturdy shoes
    2. Get on your hands and knees for shots, get into the bushes, get close!
    3. Wherever you go for photos, plan to stay there for a while.  Bring water, food, sunblock, and a hat.
  1. Use close-up settings and techniques
    1. Use a closed aperture and faster shutter speeds for better close-up pictures
    2. Use a ring light instead of a flash, if possible.  The ring light fits around the camera lens and emits a steady light, illuminating and possibly even attracting the insect.  This is better than a standard flash, which is startling and will probably make the insect fly away.
    3. Have a rock-steady stance when taking photos.  If possibly, put both your elbows and wrists on the ground to steady the camera.
  2. Slow down!
    1. Focus on your subject
    2. Remember to be patient, patient, patient.
  3. Take good field notes
    1. Write down your goal for the day.  What are you looking for?  How do you plan to go about finding it?
    2. Good notes include location, date, time, weather, plant prominence, colleague names, and mood.
  4. Shoot like crazy!
    1. Take numerous photos of the same subject.
    2. Shoot from multiple angles.
    3. Also shoot the location, features, ecology, and people around you.
  5. Apply regular good photography skills.
    1. Get the subject’s eye in focus
    2. Fill the frame
    3. Try to show action
  6. If you’re really serious about photography, get a DSLR!
    1. SLR lenses are better
    2. You’ll have more control over the settings
    3. Some include extra tools like GPS, WiFi, and Metadata

Short of a DSLR, however, a point-and-shoot will work just fine. And don’t forget about your phone camera- most of them can take pretty good pictures anymore.

Best of both worlds- cell phone camera and a DSLR camera. Photo by Eddie Dunbar

After the brief tutorial, we all wandered down into a meadow… and then the games began!

Wheeeee! Chasing after subjects. Photo by Eddie Dunbar

While we didn’t get great pictures of every single critter we saw that day, we managed to get a decent sampling of the diversity.

Snakefly (order Raphidioptera) Photo by May Chen

California banana slug (Ariolimax californicus). Photo by Lee Aurich

Short-horned Grasshopper (family Acrididae). Photo by Lee Aurich

Brush-footed butterfly (genus Speyeria, family Nymphalidae). Photo by Lee Aurich

West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella). Photo by Lee Aurich

... aaaaand a pocket gopher! Thomomys species. Photo by Lee Aurich.

If you missed this walk but still want to be a part of creating the guide, the next ISMC event will be the Del Puerto Bio Blitz on May 4 to survey the insect ecology of the area.  It will go into the evening, and yes, black lighting will be involved!!  Check out the ISMC website for more information.

A big thanks to Eddie Dunbar from the Insect Sciences Museum of California for leading the walk and identifying the insects in the photos above, and to everyone who came out to our very first Wild Oakland event not around Lake Merritt.  World, here we come!

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