Shooting Insects For Science

Meet David Spears, specialist cinematographer and science photographer at Clouds Hill Imaging, who provides inserts for science, technology and natural history programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and international broadcasters. We asked him a few questions about his fascinating job.


Danusia: Start off by telling us a bit about yourself. What do you do? How did you get into it?

David Spears: I am a zoologist [B.Sc. (Hons.) London 1970], who has specialised in filming and photographing small, difficult but interesting organisms. After doing Neurobiology research post grad at the Brain Research Group at the Open University, I took a job with London Scientific Films and worked on some of the early Attenborough programmes, as well as medical and veterinary ones. I started an independent company in 1985 making educational programmes, as well as continuing to supply macro and micro sequences to the broadcasters. In 2000, I closed down Science Pictures to concentrate on imaging for outside clients, ceasing the independent programme production, much to my relief.

Euglena - a genus of unicellular protists

DJ: You photograph insects for scientific purposes. What does that entail? How does it differ from “regular” macro photography of insects?

DS: My main aim in filming or photographing any organism, not just insects, is to display their essential features in an interesting, informative and revealing way; some artistic composition and lighting does come into it. Scientific photographic records, which I do occasionally, have to reveal the important features that enable identification. This usually involves a dorsal, lateral and ventral view; I like portraits!  I also use a scanning electron microscope (SEM) which gives fabulous detail, deep depth of field, but monochrome images. We colour these in a lifelike way, often from reference macro photographs.

DJ: How in-depth does your knowledge of entomology have to be to photograph insects?

DS: I happen to be reasonably good at entomology, being a zoologist, but it isn’t really necessary to have an in-depth knowledge of insects to be able to photograph them. What is necessary is to be able to prepare and light and photograph them

DJ: Do you go out in the field to find subjects at random, or are you commissioned to photograph certain things?

DS: I almost never shoot on spec. Commissioned work is my mainstay.

Ascaris eggs on a pin (Ascaris are a genus of nematode worms)

DJ: Do the skills involved in photographing insects translate to your other subjects? How (or how not)?

DS: Yes, the preparation techniques, the composition and imaging techniques are broadly similar, whether I’m using macro, Light microscopy or SEM.

DJ: What equipment do you regularly use in the studio? In the field?

DS: I rarely shoot anything in the field except fungi. Everything else is brought into the lab/ studio.  There I use my SEM with its preparation equipment such as Critical Point Dryer, Sputter coater and stereo microscope. For macro work I have a Nikon D80 digital SLR, which works with a set of Nikon macro and micro lenses and a Zeiss Tessovar.  It also fits on my Nikon Diaphot (inverted) and Nikon Optiphot light microscopes.  HD Video cameras are hired in as needed and fit the lenses and microscopes using special adapters. Tripods and stands are important and need to be strong and rigid. I use special heat filtered lights for video and stills as well as time-lapse.

Candle burning

DJ: What equipment would you recommend for insect photography beginners?

DS: A digital SLR with a good  non-zoom macro lens with rigid extension tubes are essential as is a good tripod. I recommend  a Nikon DSLR and the Micro Nikkor 55mm lens which is incredibly sharp compared to newer designs. Flash lighting using a pair of small guns on adjustable arms are  good and beat ring flashes hands down.

DJ: Which bugs should beginners practice on?

DS: Butterflies, crickets, flies, spiders in webs, mantids if you are abroad.

DJ: Are there any ethical concerns you come across when photographing insects, especially rare ones? Does the lighting ever bother them?

DS: Rare insects should be released back to where they were found. Fleas are better squashed!!  If the lighting does stress the animal it is wrong and heat filters must be used. This problem rarely occurs with flash.

Cocci - spherical bacteria

DJ: Are some bugs better to shoot or more in demand than others?

DS: All bugs can be made to look interesting; either beautiful like the butterflies and moths or ugly like crane fly maggots. Commercial demand  seems to be focussed on pests and disease vectors such as Anopheles mosquito, etc.

DJ: What is the most unusual bug you’ve been able to photograph?

DS: The Bilharzia life cycle is hard to beat for the variety of habitats the parasite passes through during its life.

DJ: Lots of bugs give people the jitters. How do you handle that, or do you only shoot “cute” bugs (if there is such a thing)?

DS: No, people are fascinated by the pictures. Only rarely do we find a negative reaction. Though I admit my least favourite bug is the cockroach.

DJ: What is the holy grail of insect photography – that one shot that everyone wants and almost no one gets?

DS: Video of a mosquito landing to feed on human skin.

DJ: What advice would you give someone considering taking up macro insect photography?

DS: Get in close, light properly and compose portraits like Karsh.

DJ: What is your top tip for getting the shot? What is your most obscure tip?

DS: Get familiar with you subject, the pose is important. Try not to look down on your insect; you don’t do it to your friends, so don’t do it to your bug!!

Cat flea

All images are reproduced courtesy of David Spears © Clouds Hill Imaging Ltd. /CORBIS

Read his second interview here: Shooting Insects for Science – Again


David Spears is a specialist cinematographer and science photographer and provide spectacular inserts for science, technology and natural history programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and international broadcasters.

Since 1983, he has been involved in photography and cinematography in one aspect or another for various companies including: London Scientific Films Ltd., Platypus Films, David Spears Ltd., Science Pictures Ltd. and Clouds Hill Imaging. He has also worked on programmes such as Bellamy’s Backyard Safari, some early David Attenborough series, many pharmaceutical programmes, and Nature in Focus (a 12 part series for C4).

He has been involved in a number of publications including several books, a scientific paper and many presentations. One of his latest publications is Unseen Companions with Madeleine Spears and Adrian Warren. Last Refuge Ltd, 2007, []

Proud of the many personal and production awards  received to date, he is also affiliated to a number of industry societies including the Royal Photographic Society (awarded a Fellowship in 2008) and is a Founder member and ex-committee member of the International Association of Wildlife Filmmakers (honorary life membership was awarded in 2009).

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