Up Close: The Art of Insect Photography

Once a year the Museum of Biological Diversity at Ohio State opens its doors to the general public for a day of science and fun. This year’s theme for museum open house was ‘Magnified’ and we at the Triplehorn Insect Collection could not be happier.

We all love big bugs, but the reality is that the vast majority of insects are small and go mostly unnoticed by people. In order to study these (mostly tiny, but fascinating!) creatures, scientists use a suite of optical and digital imaging tools to make them look bigger so we can see details we would not be able to see otherwise.

Here at the Triplehorn Insect Collection, my primary job is to handle and operate all things involving the production of high resolution publication quality photographs of insects. My work ranges from taking photos of large butterflies to microscopic hairs on a bee’s leg. The photos we take are constantly being added to the collection’s database in association with the specimen label data for scientific use.

For this year’s open house we thought of using the techniques and protocols we developed for the scientific imaging to create a stunning and scientifically accurate display to illustrate to visitors 1) the beauty and surprisingly intricate detail found in the body of a relatively familiar insect, and 2) the revolutionary power of digital imaging technologies for the study of insects.

The challenge was to produce the largest image we could do within the constraints of a very small budget and the space we had available.

During our brainstorming sessions for open house, Dr. Lu suggested a large 12 ft x 6 ft wall in the collection that would be an excellent spot for a display. After some discussion over the theme ‘Magnified’, we decided to use the space to show a single large scale photograph of an insect. In the past, the collection produced large banners that functioned as a way to display photographs and information. In a similar fashion, I would span a single image over four separate banners to create a large scale photograph. This would fit our goals and our budget.

A 6ft x 2ft display banner made for a previous open house.

A 6ft x 2ft display banner made for a previous open house.

We naturally gravitated towards beetles because of the rich collection of these insects available here at OSU. Our insect of choice was the male Hercules beetle, with its characteristic coloration and magnificent horns. We initially thought of using a species native to Ohio, Dynastes tityus (Linnaeus), but the specimens in the collection’s holdings were not adequate for the image we wanted to produce. We finally chose a stunning specimen of Western Hercules Beetle, Dynastes grantii Horn.

<em>Dynastes grantii</em> Horn specimen.

Dynastes grantii Horn specimen.

The next step was the fun part! In order to turn this plan into a reality, I needed to photograph the insect!

At the collection, we have a lab with both a microscopic and macroscopic cameras to cover the gamut of insect sizes. For this specific project, I used our macro-camera since the insect was roughly 3 inches long. This consists of a Canon 5D mark ii, Canon 100mm f/2.8 lens, five LED light panels, copy stand, Stackshot Macro Rail, and proprietary software.

For those interested, an abridged version of how I create a photograph with our equipment:
1. Have the DSLR Camera, lights, and other equipment all on, connected, and arranged correctly.
2. Open up Helicon Remote (computer to camera communication software)
3. Set the limits of the photograph by finding the top and bottom of the specimen
4. Calculate the number of steps and images that need to be taken
5. Create a proper exposure and arrange the lighting environment
6. Start the shooting process, allowing the camera to travel down the rails taking a picture every couple centimeters.
7. After shooting the images, transfer them to Helicon Focus (image stacking software)
8. Stack the images in Helicon Focus
9. Save

In order to enlarge this beetle to the size of a rhinoceros, I would need the most amount of detail possible. Through a technique known as ‘ultra-montage image’ I would achieve an ultra-high resolution image that would be more than suitable for such a size. This involves photographing sections of the insect with a stack of 30+ images resulting in a single extended focus image. I then repeat this process several times until every section of the bug has been imaged. Then I would stitch these stacked images together creating one ‘ultra-montage image’.

Example of a stacked section of a photograph.

Example of a stacked section of a photograph.

Before I began photographing the specimen for the final image, Evie Moran (a photography major at CCAD who was doing an internship here at the collection between January and June 2018) and I would have to do several of lighting tests to achieve the correct look. When it comes to photographing insects, their size, shape, and texture can really determine the difficulty in achieving a well lit image. In this case, the size was ideal, but the shape and texture were a little bit more difficult. With beetles in general, the bulbous shell creates difficult reflections, highlights, and shadows that are caused by the lights. In most instances we have to diffuse and even block light on certain sections of the insect to create the kind of highlights, shadows, and contrast necessary for the image.

Once the lighting was finalized, we started photographing the specimen using the ‘ultra montage’ technique as mentioned earlier. After a couple hours, we had the eight sections stitched into one single ultra-high resolution image.

Ultra-montage image straight out of the camera.

Ultra-montage image straight out of the camera.

From there I transitioned into the editing of the image. This included things like color correction and editing the image using Adobe Photoshop to erase the pin, specimen manipulator, and mites that were on the specimen.

Editing out the pin and adding a white background in.

Editing out the pin and adding a white background.

Final image with color correction and Photoshop touch-ups.

Final image with color correction and Photoshop touch-ups.

After both the dorsal and lateral habitus views were imaged, I moved on to imaging the ‘detailed’ sections of the image. These detail shots were taken as a single stack of 20+ images that would be “magnified” in the finished display.

Detail shot of tarsal.

Detail shot of tarsal claws.

From that point on, I worked in Adobe Illustrator to design the final image utilizing all the photographs we had taken. The design process, just like everything else, was a lot of trial and error, seeing what worked and what didn’t.

A proof of concept mock-up for the display.

A proof of concept mock-up for the display.

After a good amount of work, I arrived at a point where everyone was happy, and it was time to export the final images for printing. We sent off the images and within a couple of days we received the results!

The prints arrived.

The prints arrived.

The last step was the installation of the banners. With a couple of dowel rods, eye bolts, and fishing line, the banners were hung from the drop ceiling waiting to be revealed to the visitors of the Museum Open House. You can watch a time lapse video of the installations made for this year’s open house HERE.


The banner finally installed in the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

The banner finally installed in the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

Open House 2018

Open House 2018, Photo by Tamara Sabbagh.

I hope this image hangs at the entrance of the Triplehorn Insect Collection for some time, and that every guest gets to enjoy it as much as I do. I would like to thank Evie Moran for providing assistance with the photographing process. Having an extra pair of hands and another artist to bounce ideas off of is always invaluable. Of course, this would not have been possible without Dr. Luciana Musetti. Her enthusiasm for insects, art, and creativity is what drives work like this to be done. I am extremely thankful for the opportunity to have produced this, and have it displayed for the staff and guests who love insects most.

About the Author: Jordan Reynolds is a new-media artist concentratied on the intersection of art, architecture, and design. Jordan is also an Ohio State alumnus who studied Art and Technology. He currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection as an Imaging Technician and Research Assistant. You can contact Jordan and see more work through his website.


Usually, when someone mentions “insects” or “bugs,” you can hear a resounding “eeeeww” from the audience.  Insects are often thought of as creepy-crawlies, monsters, the stuff of nightmares, etc.  Why is that?

As a child, I was constantly playing in the mud.  I was interested in all the creatures the Earth had to offer, no matter how many legs they had.  However, a few years ago I suddenly noticed that I no longer had the same appreciation for insects.  I, too, developed an aversion to bugs!  I decided to dig into my past and try and find the turning point.  There wasn’t any.  Years of being too busy to spend time outside, lack of knowledge on the creatures I used to love, and the general society’s “ew” had eventually turned me.  So, I began to work with insects.  I quickly found myself returning to my old self.  I no longer felt uncomfortable seeing all of them at work.  My interest in insects was reignited, and I hope to do the same for others.

This brings me to the Museum of Biological Diversity’s 2018 Open House.  I was asked to come up with a bug-related interactive activity for the Triplehorn Insect Collection.  I decided to try and create a station where visitors could put together their own insects.  The bugs had to be simple enough to appeal to young children, yet aesthetic and elegant enough to attract the interest of an older audience.  I settled on creating two designs, a butterfly and a dragonfly.

Using source images, I made an outline of the dorsal view of each of the insect’s wings, and a lateral view of their bodies in Adobe Photoshop.  The butterfly consisted of two parts, and the dragonfly of three.

Creating the butterfly silhouette in Adobe Photoshop.

Then, I converted the outlines into vector images in Adobe Illustrator, and multiplied it to fill an entire page.

Getting the design ready for the laser cutter using Adobe Illustrator.

After trying different materials, I settled on using 6-ply Railroad Poster Board.  It is strong enough to have structural integrity, while being thin enough to not sacrifice the delicate design.  I used an Epilog Laser to cut out the pieces, which covered over 25 pages of 24 in x 36 in poster board.

The pieces were then separated by type and labeled accordingly.

During the Open House, the activity was a huge success! (I was there as a volunteer!)  Both children and adults took the time to complete the activity.  Many children even drew their own designs on their insects.

I noticed a lot of the adults that tried to assemble the bugs initially did it wrong.  I hope that by having to start again, they had the opportunity to think about the different parts of the insect they were trying to assemble and by doing so developed a new appreciation for the insects.

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My model bugs also had holes lightly cut into their bodies, allowing for the addition of  legs. During the event we borrowed colorful pipe cleaners from another activity in the collection (Googly-Eyed Dragonfly) to make the legs of our insects.

The bugs were then put in little bags so that the children could reassemble the insects at home without losing any parts.

I hope that activities like this will help the younger generations continue to be fascinated and appreciative of the world around them.  Hopefully, if the younger generations grow up with a sense of wonder about insects, the commonly found disgust of them will eventually fade away.

About the Author: Tamara Sabbagh is an artist that recently earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts, with a specialization in Art & Technology, from The Ohio State University.  She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection as an Undergraduate Curatorial Assistant.  Contact Tamara and see her other projects through her website.

Illumination – Guest Post by Liz Alvarez

In early 2018, artist Elizabeth Alvarez proposed an insect-focused art piece that would address the theme of the Museum Open House, “Magnification”. Collaborating with Jordan Reynolds and Tamara Sabbagh, two artists who work here at the Triplehorn collection, Elizabeth collected macro images of a local sweat bee (Agapostemon sericeus, specimen number OSUC 127013, collected in Columbus, Ohio in 1930) to bring to light what is normally lost in scale. Not only did she render the invisible— visible, but she added vitality and intrigue by animating the bee.

In the artist’s own words:

Where did you get inspiration from?
“My experience of viewing specimens using a microscope inspired this piece. The microscope lens and mirrors bend the light projected onto the specimen, illuminating it, which allows us to visually explore its features. Specimens become more endearing when you can look upon their faces. Even the shape of the display was circular to mimic the eye piece of a microscope.”

How did you build it?
“I had divided and cut up a reinforced cardboard mold, normally used to pour concrete footers, for its cylindrical shape, and tautly wrapped leather around the exterior. A clear, acrylic platform held up a tablet that displayed the animation of the sweat bee. A clear transparency was angled below the tablet to reflect the animation to create the illusion of a hologram. A sweat bee specimen was imaged from many angles, and the images were then used to create a fluid animation. I studied several videos of sweat bees to create accurate articulation and movement. The flowers were printed on standard paper, and mounted on cardstock. They were then cut and attached to the interior of the footer to work with the position of the projected bee.”

Why bees?
“There is concern with the disappearance of honey bees, but all pollinators are important and include sweat bees. This was an opportunity to highlight a pollinator that is commonly found in Ohio, to raise awareness, and endear these vital species to the general public to avoid potentially grave consequences. This bee became more tangible once you could see how it interacted with its environment.

Ultimately, I wanted to create something visually striking to present the bee in a new context. It needed to magnify the bee’s presence literally and metaphorically, because knowledge is synonymous with illumination.”

“A special thank you to Jordan and Tamara for all of their hard work imaging the specimen and providing feedback.  Dr. Musetti for providing access to the specimen and the imaging equipment, for verifying the accuracy of the display, and most of all for providing a space for me to exhibit the work during the Museum Open House 2018.  To my family for helping me where they could along the way.”


About the Author:  Elizabeth Alvarez is an Art & Technology OSU alumna and former staffer at the Triplehorn Insect Collection. While working at the collection she specialized in the production of publication quality photos of museum specimens, and later, on the recommendation of Dr. Musetti, had the benefit of a summer internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History under the direction of Dr. Talamas, then a Postdoc there at the Entomology Department. After graduating, Liz briefly continued her work at the Triplehorn collection, fine tuning imaging protocols and training new personnel on specimen imaging.