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Bug Eyed

The eyes of this insect don't miss a thing.

September 5, 2023 :: Close Ups / Insects

You’ll never win a staring contest with a praying mantis. And you’ll never hide from it either. The never-blinking, all-seeing eyes of a mantis are highly developed for hunting, though you’re not on the menu.

Making a close up photo of a praying mantis.
A Chinese praying mantis searches for a meal.

The mantis's large compound eyes are widely spaced for binocular vision. A small area at the front of each eye has the greatest visual acuity for perceiving and examining potential prey. The rest of the eye allows the mantis to see motion in its wide field of view.

The dark spot in each eye is a pseudopupil where a compound segment is absorbing direct front light while the surrounding segments are reflecting side light. The spot shifts when the mantis turns its head as it tracks something that's moving.

Every specialized part of a mantis’s body calls for our attention. But when we’re up this close, the eyes have it.


SUBJECT: Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) on Alstroemerias.

LOCATION: Our garden in northern Indiana.

CONDITIONS: Calm, partly cloudy, fairly warm (T-shirt weather)

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850 camera, a Nikon microNikkor 200mm macro lens and a Nikon 5T filter-style close-up attachment, natural light, hand held; Matrix metering, Aperture Priority exposure, Back-button Auto-focus, Continuous shutter mode, Vibration Reduction mode.

EXPOSURE: 1/1,000 sec @ f/16, ISO 1600

In the insect world, the praying mantis is an apex predator. The economy of its physical design has everything to do with hunting. Its coloration and patterns help it hide from danger and camouflage it from its prey.

With a little effort, I spotted the mantis. I knew it had been stalking insects in our garden. It's easier as you get familiar with the insect's size, shape and color. The large patch of Alstroemerias suits it just fine, so that's where I usually start my search.

Most insects I photograph in the garden and in the wild are wary of big creatures moving near them. To keep from startling butterflies, bees and damselflies, I wear dull, earth-toned clothing. Then I move slowly as I approach them. I'll stop occasionally to let an insect habituate to my presence. Soon it treats me like a non-threatening part of the landscape.

This kind of tactic with a mantis is wasted time. It likely saw me before I saw it, so it's already assessed me as either threatening or benign. A concerned mantis will move to a protected place. It can almost disappear among plant stems and leaves. A mantis that doesn't act bothered by me keeps on hunting.

That's what this one did. I took that as an invitation to photograph it.

I chose to use the 200mm macro lens. It narrows the background coverage compared to a 100mm or 50mm macro. That means it can reduce what I see around and behind the mantis, eliminating distractions.

The 200mm perspective also creates more working distance between my subject and me. Now I can make a tight close up without getting close enough to disturb the insect. Then I added a Nikon 5T close-up attachment. It's an additional optic that attaches like a filter. It's 1.5 diopter strength will allow me to move in even closer than the 200mm lens's closest-focusing distance. This will help me create an even tighter close-up portrait of the mantis.

I set the lens at its closest focusing distance. When I'm composing an image, I'll roughly focus by moving in and out. The back button auto-focus will hold the focus from there.

I chose the aperture of f/16 to start. I'd like to have sharpness on the insect's face and nearest leg, but let the rest of its body and the background go soft. I can adjust it as needed for more or less depth of field. A shutter speed of 1,000 sec, ISO 1600 and Vibration Reduction should give me an adequate shutter speed for sharpness while I hand hold the camera and lens.

With my finger on the shutter button and my thumb on the auto-focus back button, I move in to make a good composition. I make sure the focus point is on the insect's face, the I click several images. This practice assures some sharp images when I'm hand holding my set up.

I checked the camera-back viewer for image sharpness, depth of field and exposure. The even, unchanging light and calm conditions are in my favor. Now the fun begins. I click a quick series of images each time I like what I see in the viewfinder.

After an hour with the uninhibited hunter, I'd made many pleasing photographs. I was watching its slow, deliberate movements among the flowers for most of that time. When the situation was good, I moved in and made my compositions.

I don't consider the time between the mantis's good poses wasted. Instead, its world became my world. My presence there was only interrupted by the internal voice many photographers hear when a thing is good and the time is right to click the shutter.

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