A Bug’s Life: Colin Hutton’s Macro Photography

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Typically when we think of spiders and insects, or “bugs,” we get a little squeamish, anxious, and even panicked. However, if we were to get up close and personal with these little critters, we may find that they’re not quite as menacing as we think. Just ask macro photographer, Colin Hutton.

Colin is photographing these creatures in a whole new light. And although Colin will photograph just about any animal he can get close to, insects and spiders are his specialty. We were fortunate to talk with Colin and take a look at what a bug’s life is really like.

How did you get started with photography?
I’ve enjoyed taking photos for a while, but up until 2010, I was using a cheap point and shoot. When I returned home from Peace Corps Panama that year, I decided to use part of my readjustment allowance to purchase a Canon 7D, Sigma 150mm Macro and a Canon 430EX II Speedlite. Almost immediately, I became addicted to macro photography, spending all my free time chasing after bugs. For the first couple years I considered it a hobby, but as time went on, my passion for photography grew, and I realized that I really wanted to turn my passion into a career. I was accepted to a PhD program in Environmental Science and Policy at Duke University about the same time I purchased my camera, but I decided to leave the program with a master’s degree at the end of my third year so that I could focus exclusively on my photography.

Ischnura-ramburii

What gear do you use to capture your amazing macro shots?
In addition to the 7D and Sigma 150mm, I bought a Canon MP-E soon afterwards to get even more magnification. I also acquired the Canon Twin Lite as well as a couple Canon 580EX II Speedlites. My tripod is a Manfrotto 190CX3, though I do most of my work handheld. An inexpensive, but integral, part of my arsenal is the various diffusers and reflectors that I use to control the lighting in my images.

Papilio-troilus

What is the most important thing to remember when shooting macro?
A big one that comes to mind is to take a bunch of photos. Try shooting an insect from several different angles and magnifications. When starting out, I would usually only photograph an insect until I got a shot that I was pleased with, not considering that I could get an even better image by changing the perspective a bit. Now, I take tons of photos. And when I review the images, I frequently find that the perspective I started with and thought would produce the most appealing image isn’t my favorite from the shoot. Doing this will also help you develop a better eye for composition and help you pay attention to background elements in the photo that can improve or hurt the final result.

Conura-amoena

What is the biggest challenge with macro photography?
These days my biggest challenge is finding new insects. I frequently have to travel long distances and hike for hours to find the species that I’m looking for, if I find them at all. When I was starting out, I never had any target species in mind because insects are everywhere and you don’t have to try very hard to find them. However, many of the most fascinating species are much easier to find if you know when and where to look for them. 

Initially, my biggest challenge was achieving soft, even lighting, which I now produce by using large diffusers. Bare flashes produce really harsh and unappealing light, so adding diffusers is probably the best thing you can do to improve your macro shots.

Tabanus-lineola

Why insects and spiders?
When I bought my gear, I was planning to photograph mostly reptiles and amphibians. However, every time I’d search for these creatures, I would end up finding a bunch of interesting insects. It wasn’t too long before insects and spiders became my main target. The camera allowed me to see what these creatures actually looked like. Each tiny mass of six or eight legs was a mystery waiting to be revealed on my viewfinder. Even more surprising is that many of these creatures that are so often reviled, if they are seen at all, are actually beautiful and even adorable.

Phengodes-sp

What is the biggest challenge when shooting live, moving little things?
As you might imagine, the biggest challenge is getting them to sit still for a few seconds so you can take some shots. Shooting insects, especially at magnifications greater than 1:1, is very difficult when they’re on the move so I rarely ever attempt it. Instead, I try to photograph insects at times when they’re less likely to be active. Even then, I frequently have to track insects with the lens for long periods of time so that I’m ready to fire off shots as soon as the insect pauses.

Zeugomantispa-minuta

Do you shoot anything else besides insects and spiders?
I also enjoy shooting reptiles and amphibians when I find them. I mostly stick to photographing creatures that I can get really close to. 

Do you have a favorite insect/spider?
Jumping spiders are my favorite group. They have very distinctive and charismatic faces and I find many of them to be quite cute. Within this group, I am very fond of the genus Phidippus. Members of this genus are large and fluffy, and the males frequently sport bright colors and decorative tufts of hair. Phidippus mystaceus might just be my favorite species, but it’s so hard to narrow it down to a single species with so many awesome bugs out there.

Phidippus-mystaceus

Have you ever been attacked by an insect/spider? Were you afraid (haha)?
I’ve been threatened by several insects, but never actually attacked by any. I think that speaks to the misconceptions about the danger posed by these creatures. I have handled and been in very close proximity to hundreds of spiders, bees, and wasps, and have never felt I was in any danger.

Thus far, my only injury has been from a flannel moth caterpillar. These caterpillars have rows of urticating spines hidden beneath thick fur. While photographing several different caterpillars, I accidently pressed the back of my hand on the ground, forgetting that I had just put a leaf containing a flannel moth caterpillar in the exact same spot (the caterpillar was unharmed). I’ve brushed against one of these and other stinging caterpillars before and felt nothing more than some slight burning, but I must have gotten every single one of the spines this time because after about an hour, throbbing pain had spread up my arm and across my chest. After several hours the pain subsided, but I’ve been much more careful around caterpillars ever since.

Antheraea-polyphemus

When can we expect to see your tutorials?
I’m hoping to finish them next year. It’s turned out to be a bigger undertaking than I had originally planned on because this is my first video project. I’m currently saving up to buy the necessary equipment to shoot the rest of the tutorial. The final product will be several hours long and cover all aspects of insect photography. I considered just putting everything in a book, but there are so many concepts that are much easier to understand by seeing them on videos.

Any words of advice for aspiring photographers?
Don’t spend too much time worrying about gear. I was obsessed with making sure I bought the right camera body and lens before I got my gear, but I’ve since learned that I can capture the same images with just about any DSLR or macro lens. It’s true that you need the right equipment to take macro images, but keep in mind that there are numerous options for achieving beautiful macro images. A lot of people expect too much from their gear and assume that improving their images requires upgrading their equipment. Lighting, a good sense of color and composition, an understanding of insects, and lots of patience and practice are far more important than the brand of your camera and lens.

Anything else we should know?
Don’t kill spiders. They’re awesome!

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