Macro Photography for the Fly Fisherman

By John Johnson

Macro Photography Background

Taking macro pictures provides some serious challenges to the amateur photographer fly fisherman. The most difficult challenge is how to get sharp well exposed pictures of aquatic creatures that do not usually want to hold still for you. To get sharp close pictures you must deal with the basic shallow depth of field issue. To provide for depth of fields that are deep enough that it will make your aquatic creature totally in focus you will need to use a small lens openings (f-22- f-30). To have the small lens opening you will need to provide enough light. One way to do this is to take the pictures outside in bright sun. Another is to use a portable light such as those that are used for fly tying (the ones that simulate sun light will produce natural colors in your photographs). Flash units can also be used. The best are those that have a cord that allow external positioning away from the camera. Large flash units that are placed close to the subject simulate outdoor sunlight. John Shaw used this method with great success. Ring flash units and multiple flash units can be used, which will avoid the unnatural shadows caused by using only a single light source. When shooting outdoors, there may be unwanted shadows caused because direct sunlight is unidirectional. The shadows can be avoided by using the flash unit, called "fill flash." The ring lights and multiple flash units will also avoid these shadows. The use of flash with portable fly tying lights in the studio is effective in minimizing the shadow problems.

Trying to get pictures of moving macro invertebrates is a serious problem. There are no simple answers to this. Like most things, good results require a lot of effort and patience. Taking good macro photographs of small moving creatures is no exception. Some creatures are cooperative and seem not to mind getting their picture taken. Others seem to have a very serious problem with staying in one place. Active insects such as adult stoneflies or caddis flies can be a problem since they just want to keep moving. Your best hope is to find a stick or leaf that they might be comfortable on and keep encouraging them to stay in a good place for the picture. Mayfly duns and spinners usually will be content after some encouragement to stay in place for pictures. Even slow moving aquatic insects such as caddis larva can cause problems when they are taken at 1:1 magnification. Making the habitat as natural as possible for the aquatic insects is the best way to convince them to hold still. This can include the use of aeration to provide current to simulate their natural habitat in fast water riffles.

Another suggested way to slow down hyperactive aquatic creatures is to add ice to the water to lower the temperature. Since they are cold blooded with their body temperatures the same as the water temperature, lower water temperatures should slow them down. Condensations on the surface of the cells (see below) can be a problem in the summer with high humidity.

In addition to the movement of the creature you also have to deal with the movement of the camera. If the light levels are high enough and the lens opening small enough, the pictures can be sometimes taken by hand-holding the camera. If the animal is willing to hold stationary then you have the option of using a tripod to minimize camera movement. Using longer exposures and lower light levels are possible under these conditions.

Camera Equipment

There are low-cost, medium-cost, and high-cost solutions to macro photography. I will review these options by telling about my progression through various camera systems.

My first efforts to take macro pictures used a Pentax Spotmatic film camera, shooting flowers and butterflies. I used extension tubes and screw on lenses to get down to 1:4X magnification.

About ten years ago I purchased my first Nikon film camera. I purchased a 100 mm macro lens that allowed me to take pictures down to 1:1X magnification with the use of a screw-on lens.

About six years ago I purchased my first digital camera. Digital cameras for the first time made macro photography easy. Film required the use of complicated formulas that required a high level of expertise to get good macro pictures . Digital cameras changed all of that. Now it was possible to take a picture, look at it and if it was not what I wanted, take another. With moving insects sometimes I would take twenty pictures before I got a good one. In selecting my first camera, I fortunately made a very good choice: a Nikon CoolPix 4300 that I purchased for about $200.

I purchased it over the Internet as a reconditioned unit. The camera had come out about three years earlier for about $400. The most important feature the camera possessed was that the camera could focus even as close a 4 cm (1.6 inches) from the subject. The 3 megabyte sensor gathered enough pixels to make up to 8.5 x 11 inch prints. I had a project at the time to study the pond life in a local nature preserve. I was able to take several decent damsel and dragonfly pictures. With some effort in bright sunlight I could get good hand-held pictures of adult dragonflies and damsel flies. I was able to get good under water pictures of the nymphs with small cells in sunlight.

I have had three of Nikon CoolPix cameras. The last one I purchased over the internet for $50. There is a newer version of this camera (CoolPix 5600) that is rated at 5 MB and still has the great macro capability for $200.

About four years ago I purchased my first digital SLR a Nikon D-70S.

This 5 MB camera and macro lens allowed me for the first time to be able to take really high quality macro pictures. At the same time I purchased a SB-800 flash that I could use to get very close hand-held pictures.


Two years ago the D-70S became outdated and I decided to buy a nearly professional D-300 12 MB camera (above). At the same time I purchased a Nikon 60 mm macro lens (see below).

This digital lens is equivalent to a 90 mm film camera lens and allows for a reasonable approach to spooky adult insects. This lens is considered to be one the sharpest lenses that Nikon has manufactured and allows for very sharp macro pictures.

At about the same time I purchased the first Nikon camera I purchased a tripod. The tripod is a sturdy Gitzo unit that weighs about five pounds. It provides a solid platform for taking studio pictures on desks and field pictures at ground level (minimum height about a foot). I have since purchased a very light graphite tripod that weighs a little over a pound and still allows for close to the ground field pictures.

Adult Insect Pictures


To use the point and shoot Nikon CoolPix 4300 I simply set the dial to macro (the tulip symbol) and approached the insect from about a foot away. When the insect was centered in the live view screen I snapped the picture (Figure 5).

Figure 5

These pictures where always taken in bright sun. Some of the pond dragon flies seem to hold still and I was able to get many good pictures. Other dragonflies like the river darners were much more difficult to photograph. I fabricated a small tripod from aluminum bar stock and occasionally used this to keep the camera movement to a minimum.

To use the SLR in the field to get adult pictures I at first used a bracket like the one used by John Shaw. I later found that using a cord and holding the flash in the left hand allowed for easier exact placement of the SB-800 flash. If the flash was positioned properly most of the shadows from the bright sun could be minimized. I also sometimes used a tripod in bright sun without the flash.


Most of the time when I wanted a mayfly, caddis fly, or stonefly adult picture I brought it into the studio where I was able to better control the light. I normally tried to create a natural setting for the insect such as a leaf or a small branch. I took a burette clamp from my old chemistry laboratory and attached it to my pedestal base fly tying vice. I closed the clamp on the twig and usually oriented it so it was horizontal. I move my natural sunlight fly tying light until it was about four inches above and in front of the insect. Behind I placed a light blue foam board (made by spray-gluing a blue piece of paper to a 8.5 x 11 inch foam board) to provide a pleasing out-of-focus background. Figure 6 shows an example of this method being used with the Coolpix 4300.

Figure 6 Background Setup

Figure 7 shows an example of this type of photograph. Generally it would require several pictures to get the exact position of the light correct to provide enough light and a minimum of shadows. Also usually the insect was moving around and often only one of ten or so were at the right angle to the camera.

Figure 7 Example of a Closeup Shot with Background

In the studio with the SLR the method of positioning the insects was the same as above (figure 8).

Sometimes I used the SB-800 flash in addition to the fly tying light. The bright flash made it possible to take the picture when the insect was moving and allowed for much deeper depth of fields. The mode was set to aperture so that we could set the lens opening small (f- 22 to f-30). The flash was set to TTL (automatic through the lens). The flash was placed to the side of the macro lens within about six inches of the subject. By trial and error it could be moved closer or farther away to provide an optimum exposure as indicated by the histogram. The shadows could be controlled by the position of the flash. The f stop of the lens and the flash EV compensation could be adjusted if necessary to get a proper exposure.

One of the most important pictures of adult insects are pictures of the bottom (ventral side) of the insect (see below). This is very important since this is what the fish actually see. These pictures can be taken by attaching a piece of glass to the burette clamp and tilting it from vertical about 30 degrees.

Figure 9: The Important Ventral Side of the Insect

The insects are easily able to attach themselves to the glass at this angle. I have taken pictures of stoneflies in the field through a front car window. Make sure the glass is very clean - a very small amount of dirt or scratches show up quite clearly in these close-up photographs.

Underwater Macro Photography


Good quality close-ups (early 1:1) requires that the creature be contained in a small area. This requires small specially fabricated small aquarium caledl a cell. I have used several sized cells, from 1" X 1" X 2" for very small nymphs at higher magnifications at 1:1 up to 2" X 12" X 12" for larger stoneflies and dobsonflies. To avoid the problem of the critters swimming into the corners, I have used some long cells such as 1" X 2" X12". This provides more areas out of the corners to get good pictures.

Figure 10

I cut the glass myself at first but I have found out that the hardware stores can cut them much easier and more accurately. Figure 10 is a drawing for a small cell used for 1:1 photographs. Before you start assembly be sure to sand (use 220 grit) all exposed edges. I use a belt sander clamped in a vise for this. To assemble the cell it is a simple matter of using masking tape to tape all of the outer edges. For the small cells the glass plates can be opened up so that small beads of silicone aquarium sealant can be applied to the inner joint surfaces. See Figure 11.

Figure 11

For larger cells where it is possible to reach the inner edges with the silicone tube nozzle, a bead of sealant can be run down the inner corners. Make sure you do not stop the bead in the middle of the corners. Check for leaks by filling with water and applying additional sealant to any leaks.

For taking top view pictures of macro invertebrates, flat cells can be fabricated that allow for a lot of room for the critters to move about. A 1" X 12" X 12" cell is one example of this type of cell. Figure 12 shows an example of a stonefly taken this way. By taking top view pictures with the clear bottom cell the background can be blurred to give a pleasing white background. This cell is also used with a mirror unit to take bottom pictures.

Figure 12 Studio Shot of a Pteronarcidae


The point and shoot camera can be used to take very good underwater nymph pictures. The bottom of the cell is covered with rocks and maybe a small stick from the river bottom. The gravel must be cleaned very well since any dirt will cloud the water. Wash the gravel for several minutes before it is added. If you use tap water be sure to use a few drops of antichlorne chemicals used for aquariums. In the field the cell can be placed in the sun in such a position that the background is out of focus. Placing the cell on a box is one way to do this. The cell can be placed on a picnic table with the camera mounted on a tripod. As before the camera is set to macro and the picture taken when the critter is out of the corners and in a pleasing position. To have better control of the exposure the camera can be set to aperture priority. Start out with f-30 and lower as necessary to get a proper exposure.

The SLR can be used with the cell in the field in the same way that the point and shoot was used except for the addition of the SB-800. This time the flash can be held in such a position that any shadows are eliminated. The flash should be in line with the macro lens so that reflections off of the cell are avoided. Moving the flash closer and farther away can be used to optimize the exposure with the histogram.


The point and shoot can be used with the cells the same way we took the adult insect pictures. The fly tying light can be placed close to the top of the cell and in line with the lens to avoid shadows and reflections. See Figure 13 for the method and Figure 14 for an example picture.

Figure 13

Figure 14

The SLR is mounted on a tripod and again the fly tying light is placed near the top of the cell. The flash is hand held in line with the macro lens. It is moved In and out to optimize the exposure. See Figure 15 for the method and Figure 16 for an example picture.

Figure 15

Figure 16

The flat cell is mounted above a 45 degree mirror to be able to get good underneath pictures. The flash is held along the axis of the macro lens to avoid reflections. See figure 17 for an example picture.

Figure 17

Editing Software

One of the major advantages of digital photography is the ability to edit the pictures after they are taken. There are several inexpensive programs such as Photoshop Elements that make it possible to improve the exposure of our pictures. The ability to extend the dynamic range of the photographs is the major use of the editing programs. Often without using an editing program parts of the picture will be too light and part too dark.

Nikon Capture NX is a relatively inexpensive program that makes it possible to lighten dark places on the picture without making the light parts to light. It has a circular selection tool that allows for very easy selection of areas to correct. The light curves can be used to alter the overall light and dark (white and black points) of the picture. By using the unsharp mask the focus of the details can easily be enhanced.

Aquatic insects and macro invertebrates are very important to the fly fisherman. The ability to take good pictures of these important creatures that trout eat can be very important. The right color and shape of nymphs and adults that your trout are eating can make a great difference in your ability to catch trout. In addition to this these critters are interesting in their own right and being able to take pictures of them is great fun. I hope that I have given you some ideas for taking these pictures. As you can see with the new digital cameras it is easy to take great macro pictures. If you have any questions or comments email me at Jocko the "at" sign at tm dot net.

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