How to take better photos of your flies

“I hate the way my pictures of my flies come out. How do I make them look more professional?” This question recently came up in one of the forums I participate in. Like the person who asked it, I was frustrated for years with the fly photos I took. I’m no pro, and I’m still learning how to make my shots wonderful. But, here’s a little of what I’ve learned: some basic steps to better fly photography.

1) Lighting is everything. To create consistent lighting, I use a light box. The front of a light box is open; that’s where the camera goes. The top and both sides are cut out and have translucent panels (in my light box it’s old t-shirt fabric) to diffuse the light I’m generating (three shop lights with natural spectrum bulbs). The back of the box holds my background, a sheet of light blue artist’s craft paper. I made my light box for about $30 or so in materials. At some point I will post my setup, but the meantime there’s plenty of online reference. Just google DIY lighting box.

2) Use the right camera and camera setting for the job. 
A good camera helps, but small, more inexpensive digital cameras have come a spectacularly long way in the last few years. I use one camera (nothing special, a Pentax W90) for smaller flies because it has a narrow field of focus. I use a spiffier SLR camera, a Canon Rebel XSi, for larger flies. In both cases, I use the macro setting, although I don’t have a macro lens for the Canon. Gotta get one, though.

A Herr Blue bucktail shot with the SLR in the light box


A smaller Kate McLaren shot with the standard-issure Pentax, again in the cozy confines of the light box. The camera’s nothing special, but the detail here is pretty darn good.


3) Use a tripod and the timer shutter function. Vibration/motion = bad. Again, you don’t need a high-tech aircraft-grade aluminum professional model tripod. As long as it has three legs and is stable, you’re good to go. I have a cheap plastic portable tabletop tripod that I use for the lion’s share of my photos. With the timer function, you eliminate the movement of your finger on the shutter button. Sometimes it’s the little things.

4) Edit, edit, edit your work. Take ten shots to get one great one. Be ruthless in your editing. If the shot comes out sucky (and a lot of mine do), I don’t ever use it. I will often use the zoom function in my photo editor to make sure the focus is tack-sharp, even at an extreme close-up.

5) Learn to use your photo editing app. I’m a Mac guy, so I use iPhoto. Learn how to crop, straighten, and play with other effects. Having said that, a good photo should require very little desktop manipulation.