Photographing Insects: Lenses

From 2017 to 2023

macro photography

Pedro J. Aphalo





This page is an account of my experience photographing insects and spiders using different objectives and cameras from Olympus and OM System. This page is an update of one I wrote 2017.

insects, spiders, objectives, lenses


I updated this page from 2017 by adding an account of my experience with the equipment I have used in the last six years. I have kept some of the earlier information as it can be useful to owners of older equipment or to readers wishing to save money by relying on second-hand equipment.

All digital photographs used as examples together with additional ones are available in the album Finnish Insects at my Flickr account. The photographs contain EXIF information.

Photographying insects

Many flying insects are shy and fly away easily when disturbed, so working at a distance is frequently needed. In other words, using an objective with long focal length. Many spiders are easier to photograph than insects as they tend to stay on their web. In the case of butterflies a true macro objective is not necessary but for ants and other small insects we need magnification above 1x.

Butterflies, bumblebees, bees, wasps, flies and some beetles tend to move fast. Visits to flowers can last for less than a second. Thus, I like to move fast and track insects so I almost never take a tripod to the field with me and instead hand hold the camera. Consequently, for macro photography I always rely on image stabilisation and continuous focus.

For handheld macro photography continuous focus helps even for static subjects as it tracks the inevitable movements of the camera. This is because in many cases depth of (focus) field is only a few millimetres or even less.

Not only insects can move fast on their own but the plants they are standing on usually move in the wind. When magnification is high, a shift as small as a millimetre may ruin an image. The number of “hits” tends to be low even when working carefully. One needs to take hundreds of photographs and later select the few worth keeping. This strategy is well supported by some current mirrorless system cameras.

The difference between what I was able to achieve in 2017 and I can achieve in 2023 is huge. Practice has helped my performance, but also modern equipment opens many new possibilities. For many types of photography and subjects cameras and objectives have been more than good enough for a rather long time. In the case of insects in the field, this was not the case until recently. In many situations it was difficult to get decent photographs. Not impossible, of course, as photographs of insects in the field using flash as a light source and manual focusing have been taken before digital cameras where available.

The example below is my own from the 1980’s. A small spider photographed on slide film using a manual electronic flash and manual focusing. At the time I did not have a macro lens, and used extension tubes and a normal 50 mm lens. Spiders can remain immobile for quite a while, waiting patiently for their prey, and are thus easy to photograph if one does not disturb them or their web.

Photograph taken with a 35 mm film camera and scanned with a flat-bed scanner. I photographed this spider in Argentina, at home. The length of the body was roughly 3 mm-long.

In 2017, when I wrote the page from which I have reused some text and photographs for this new page, the situation had improved already a lot. Digital cameras with autofocus, image stabilization, and modern telephoto objectives able to focus closer than equivalent objectives from the 1970’s and 1980’s made it easier to photographs insects in sunlight, without a flash.

By 2023 things have changed again. In the intervening years between 2017 and 2023 I sold my old four thirds objectives that I had been using with adapters on my EM-1 camera and replaced them with micro-four-thirds objectives. The OM-1 digital camera was a huge step forward both for insect photography and bird photography as it made it possible to realize the benefits of the focusing speed and resolution of modern “PRO” objectives.

Macro objectives I used in 2017 and use in 2023

2017: Macro objective (50 mm prime). The macro objective I owned was a Zuiko Digital 50 mm f/2.0 macro for Four Thirds cameras, of Pro grade. Optically is very good, but it was showing its age and using it adapted meant that focusing was very slow. A focal length of 50 mm is equivalent to 100 mm in a full-frame (FF) camera. It can reach 1:2 magnification without use of a macro extension tube and 1:1 magnification with a 25 mm long extension tube, which I also own.

Being a prime (fixed focal length) and in its time being considered the sharpest lens available from any brand, it can produce incredibly good images… as long as the insects are tame and patient. With this focal length if the insects are rather small one has to get very near and and frequently wait for a couple of second until the camera locks focus.

Because of the rather low light level, it would have been difficult to take this image with an objective of longer focal length with the E-M1 camera.

Image taken with the camera handheld, using the Zuiko 50 mm f/2.0 macro objective.

Crop from the image above showing the detail.

The Zuiko Digital 50 mm f/2 macro works well together with the Olympus Digital EC-20 2.0x tele converter. I have used them in the past, but autofocus is slow compared to modern objectives. Optically they are very good.

2023: Macro objective (M.Zuiko 30 mm f/3.5). Small and handy macro objective, capable of high magnification within the “macro” range. Because of the relatively short focal length, it is not suitable for photographing insects and other small arthropods when live. At high magnification, the short working distance between the front of the lens and the subject can make lighting challenging. I use this objective occasionally when photographing at close focus range indoors using a copy stand to photograph A5 or A5 paper sized subjects. This lens is more than sharp enough for a 26 MPix sensor, but it is rather soft when using 80 MPix sensor shift high resolution mode of the OM-1 camera.

2023: Macro objective (M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8). Micro-four-thirds macro objective with faster focusing and very good resolution is better than the old Four-Thirds Zuiko Digital 50 mm f:2.0 as it takes advantage of modern cameras’ speed. It also weights less. As with the 50 mm the working distance is too short for shy insects and it does not perform very well with extension tubes, although it can be used, for example with Kenko macro extension tubes. It is an excellent lens, that I use regularly, but not ideal for insects. This lens is more than sharp enough for a 26 MPix sensor and also for the 80 MPix sensor shift high resolution mode of the OM-1 camera.

The advantage of working at close range is that one can hold a small flash (or LED light) in one hand and the camera in the other. In the times of low ISO films this was one of the best ways of photographing insects, in which case one would focus by moving the camera very slowly and triggering the shutter some fraction of a second before perfect focus. This approach is still suitable for low light levels (cloudy or sun low in the sky) but a longer focal length is easier to work with.

Photograph cropped, taken with the M.Zuiko 60mm f:2.8 Macro. Illumination from a flash.

2023: Macro objective (M.Zuiko 90 mm f/3.5). While all the other MFT macro objectives described above rely on the camera sensor-shift image stabilization alone, this newest objective adds built-in optical image stabilization. Auto focus also seems a lot faster than in the 30 mm and 60 mm macro objectives that were already much faster than the FT 50 mm macro. The longer focal length and the possibility of using it together with tele-converters, makes it very well suited to photographing insects in the field. This objective can be used handheld, except at the highest magnifications, that are extreme compared to any other macro objective. I have been using this objective for only a few weeks.

I think this objective is an amazing technological feat. Image quality is excellent at any focusing distance from infinity to 8X-equivalent magnification when used with the MC-20 2x tele-converter!

I was able to take photographs of individual walking ants (Formica fusca) with the camera and lens handheld. With a depth of field of a fraction of a millimetre and and field of view of only a few millimetres this is quite amazing, even if the keep ratio is rather low.

The field of view at maximum magnification is 4.3 x 3.3 mm. Using sensor shift this corresponds to 10368 x 7776 pixels, or 0.42 um on the photographed subject per pixel in the digital image.

A 30 x 40 cm print corresponds to nearly 100x magnification.

Telephoto objectives I used in 2017 and use in 2023

2017: Tele objective (50-200 mm zoom). The telephoto zoom I owned was a Zuiko Digital 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD for Four Thirds cameras, of Pro grade. Not up to current state of the art in focusing speed but more than fast enough for anything that is not flying. This is the objective I most frequently used for insect photography. To be able to reach high enough magnification, I used it in combination with either a tele-converter or the 25 mm macro extension tube.

Image quality with the extension tube is excellent, although not on par with the 50 mm macro described above. With the Olympus 1.4x EC-14 FT tele-converter image quality is what I consider good enough, while with the Olympus 2.0x EC-20 FT tele-converter only marginally usable at close distance. This last combination was also difficult to use without a tripod with the E-M1 camera.

The tele-converter with less magnification provides a maximum focal length of 280 mm, which is equivalent to 560 mm in a full-frame camera. The tele-converter with higher magnification provides a maximum focal length of 400 mm, which is equivalent to 800 mm in a full-frame camera. The advantage of using a tele-converter is that the minimum focusing distance is retained in spite of the increased focal length, allowing higher magnification with the same focusing distance.

So, what I used in 2017 most frequently for insects was the 50-200 mm telephoto zoom with the 1.4 x EC-14 tele-converter. It did not provide the best possible image quality but it allowed me to obtain more images worthwhile keeping as I disturbed the insects much less than with the 50 mm. Being further away gave me more time for framing, focusing and for multiple takes of a given subject. The 50-200 mm objective plus the 1.4x tele-converter weight about 1.5 kg, and with a minimum focusing distance of 1.2 m gives a field of view of 57 x 43 mm which is small enough for butterflies and bumblebees.

For somewhat bigger insects and when not aiming to fill the whole frame, the Zuiko Digital 50-200mm f:2.8 zoom can be used without a tele-converter.

The Zuiko 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD + 1.4 x tele converter EC-14 work rather well for smaller subjects like smallish butterflies.

In summer sunlight, the Zuiko 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD + 2.0x tele converter EC-20 works rather well. Here, zoomed to 338mm.

Zuiko 50-200 mm f/2.8-3.5 SWD + 2 x Tele Converter EC-20, zoomed out to 400 mm.

2023: Telephoto objective (40-150 mm zoom). I have used this lens for several years. Compared to the newest MFT objectives from Olympus/OM system it lacks optical image stabilization. Given its focal length and maximum aperture, in-camera sensor-shift stabilization does a good job in most situations. It is a sharp objective and works well with the MC-14 and MC-20 tele-converters, although the a small difference in high frequency resolution can be noticed. The field of view at closest focus distance is 57 x 43 mm with the EC-14 and 41 x 31 mm with the EC-20.

In practice, a slightly lighter and significantly smaller objective than the FT 50-200 mm telephoto zoom with possibly slightly better resolution and much improved focusing speed.

A bee photographed with the M.Zuiko 40-150 f:2.8 + M.Zuiko MC-20 2.0x converter, zoomed out at 210 mm.

2023: Telephoto objective (300 mm prime). This is my most frequently used objective. Incredibly sharp, very fast focusing and with built-in image stabilization. It works very well with the MC-14 and MC-20 tele-converters, focusing fast and with very effective stabilization. It provides a minimum field of view of 72.1 x 54.2 mm by itself and fields of view of 51 x 38 mm and 36 x 27 mm with the MC-14 and MC-20, respectively. Thus objective is ideal for photographing insects. As with any prime, there is a compromise in usability compared to a zoom. However, with insects and spiders one focuses usually within 1.5 and 3 m, which using it handheld makes “zooming with one’s feet” in most cases easy. For example, one can almost fill the frame with a bumblebee at 1.4 m distance.

With the MC-20, it has a FF focal length equivalent to 1200 mm and a maximum aperture of f:8.0. With an angle of view of only 7 degrees, quickly finding the subject can at first be challenging, but with practice and approximate pre-focusing I managed to learn how to use it effectively. Focusing needs to be done carefully as the depth of field is minimal when working at high magnification. Because of shallow depth of field depending on the depth of the subject one needs to close the diaphragm but the good high-ISO performance of the OM-1 makes this possible in relatively low-light conditions. Autofocus can be used at high magnification but one usually needs to use the small focus area or a single focus point.

The M.Zuiko 300 mm f:4.0 by itself when using rather low ISO is extremely sharp allowing strong cropping. First the whole frame.

A crop of the butterfly in the centre of the photograph above.

Slightly cropped photograph taken with the The M.Zuiko 300 mm f:4.0 + MC-20 2.0x tele-converter for a FF equivalent of 1200 mm focal length, taken hand held.

Cameras I used in 2017 and use in 2023

The example photographs shown above have been taken on different years and using different cameras, as when upgrading I sold older objectives to partly pay for new ones.

I have used earlier four-thirds cameras and more recently micro-four-thirds cameras. The small sensor has two advantages for this type of photography: an objective of a given focal lens is equivalent to twice the focal length in a full-frame camera. A smaller sensor has less mass, which means that it can be displaced more easily, making better sensor shift image stabilization possible.

A smaller objective, with shorter focal length and a small image circle can have smaller moving groups, both for internal focusing and optical image stabilization. Once again, smaller mass is easier to move, specially to accelerate fast and control, making effective stabilization and focusing easier to achieve.

Achieving the same per image resolution, however, requires higher spatial resolution of the image on the sensor. Recent PRO lens designs from Olympus/OM-Systems are said to target 100 MPix images. This matches the sensor-shift high resolution mode of 80 MPix. So, for the same focal length MFT PRO objectives are comparatively expensive, but if one considers the FF-equivalent focal length they are cheaper than FF objectives.

The extremely effective image stabilization and focus tracking that makes with the OM-1 camera possible to easily take photographs with a 1200 mm objective hand held, is a game changer for photographing birds and bugs.

Focus tracking in the OM-1 is highly effective thanks to artificial-intelligence based subject recognition. There is no mode available for insets, but the bird mode works reasonably well at recognizing a considerable number of insects and their eyes.

2017: The camera (Olympus E-M1 mk I). The camera I used is a mirrorless micro four-thirds camera, which has a smaller sensor than “full frame” cameras. This camera has also effective image stabilisation. I rarely dared to use ISO higher than 400 because of sensor noise.

2023: The camera (OM-Systems OM-1). This camera is an evolution of the E-M1, especially in relation to ergonomics. Internally the differences are more. It has a much better sensor with which I regularly use ISO up to 6400, and exceptionally, even higher. The sensor in the OM-1 has less noise but more importantly the noise is more random or featureless, than in any of the EM-1 series cameras, and thus the noise is both easier to remove and less disturbing to the viewer. The electronic shutter is usable in most situations and extremely fast, and the possibility of pre-filling the image buffer on half-press of the shutter release allows to save photographs from up to a second or so before pressing the shutter. It supports coordinated use of sensor shift and lens optical stabilization reaching 7 EV of stabilization with recent objectives. All this and advanced image processing in-camera is made possible by a powerful new processor.

I still use, and was for some years my main camera, an Olympus E-M1 Mk II.


The newer objectives and cameras make it easier to photograph insects, but it is also possible to take good photographs with older equipment. In either case one needs to practice and be prepared to take many bad photographs for each good one worthwhile keeping or showing. The newer cameras not only have better image stabilization and faster and more precise focusing mechanisms, they can also take tens of photographs per second, which increases the probabilities of getting “keepers” if one uses a reasonably good technique.

The technology has expanded the conditions and settings under which it is relatively easy to photographs insects, but still success and enjoyment depends on getting to know the “bugs” and their behaviour. Wind remains a problem for field photography affecting the behaviour of insects and shaking the supports like plants and flowers where they usually are to be found.

Summary tables

The magnification is given with respect to size on the sensor, as 4/3” sensors are smaller than a frame of 35 mm film, equivalent magnification is twice that in the tables, if we consider the size of the photographed subject relative to the size of the photograph. Furthermore, using a tele-converter increases magnification by its magnification factor. Thus together with the MC-20 the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 90mm F3.5 Macro IS PRO reaches a magnification of 4x, with a “35 mm full-frame equivalent” of 8 times.

Macro objectives

Selected specifications of macro objectives. 1 Can be used together with EC-14 and EC-20 tele-converters. 2 Can be used with the MC-14 and MC-20 tele-converters. 3 Setting on objective. The three M.Zuiko objectives have an internal focusing mechanism. IS stands for image stabilization. Except for the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 30mm F3.5 Macro the lenses are splash and dust proof, the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 90mm F3.5 Macro IS PRO is rated to IP53 and the M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro to IPX1.
Objective Field (mm) Magnification View angle Min focus (m) Weight (g)
ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 50mm F2.0 Macro1 33 x 25 0.52x 24° 0.24 300
M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 30mm F3.5 Macro 13.9 x 10.4 1.25x 40° 0.095 128
M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm F2.8 Macro 17 x 13 1.0x 20° 0.19 185
M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 90mm F3.5 Macro IS PRO 17 x 13 1.00x 14° 0.250 453
M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 90mm F3.5 Macro IS PRO (S-MACRO)3 8.7 x 6.5 2.00x 14° 0.224 453

Close-focusing telephoto objectives

Selected specifications for close-focusing telephoto objectives.1 Can be used together with EC-14 and EC-20 tele-converters. 2 Can be used with the MC-14 and MC-20 tele-converters. Weights do not include the tripod collars.
Objective Field (mm) Magnification View angle Min focus (m) Weight (g)
ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 50-200mm F2.8-3.5 SWD1 81 x 61 0.21x 24°-6.2° 1.1 995
M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO2 82 × 62 0.21x 30°-8.2° 0.7 760
M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO2 72 x 54 0.24x 4.1° 1.4 1270

Teleconverters and extension tubes

While tele-converters optically enlarge the image by means of glass elements with minimal effect on the closest focusing distance, extension tubes increase the distance between the rear of the objective and the sensor, allowing closer focusing. Most modern lenses are very complex and focusing is not dependent on moving the whole optics back and forth but instead on moving only part of the optical groups inside the lens. Extension tubes tend to work better with older objectives than with modern ones. For example, although Olympus sold an extension tube for use with Four-Thirds objectives, it never made extension tubes for Micro Four-Thirds objectives. Kenko-Tokina sells a set of extension tubes and cheap Chinese tubes are also available. See the page Macro Extension Tubes: Internal Reflections for a comparison.

Specifications of tele-converters. The EC-14 and EC-20 are purely optical devices and transfer data from lens to camera. They can be used as long as they fit. MC-14 and MC-20 have electronics in addition to optics, including additional contacts to communicate with the objectives they are specifically designed to match.
Tele-converter Magnification Weight
MC-20 M.Zuiko Digital 2.0 150
Extension tube Length (mm) Weight (g)
Olympus EX-25 Extension Tube 25 146
Kenko Extension Tube Set DG for Micro 4/3 10 + 16 ?