Using Photography to Perfect Your Flies

Back in the years when I worked full-time as a photographer, I became obsessed with shooting aquatic insect larvae alive and underwater. The stonefly nymph shown in the photo is one example. The insect is portrayed larger than life; actual size is a body length of about 0.75-inch.

The whole idea was to make a permanent record of insects I was going to imitate when fly-tying. This actually turned out to be pretty useful. In the stonefly's case, for example, I then knew how long to make the tails and antennae when tying an imitation. (And yes, I'll admit the need for that kind of exact imitation is very arguable.)

For photos like this, I was not crawling around underwater with a camera. Instead, I used a specially built aquarium designed for the needs of macrophotography.

This is all a little arcane, but just in case someone might like to try it, here's how. The problem in shooting extreme close-ups is a very limited depth of field, even at small lens apertures. Living targets that are crawling around make things even more difficult as they move themselves in and out of focus.

I solved the problem by building an aquarium that was 8 x 8 inches, but only 1/2 inch thick. I put some bits of gravel on the bottom, adding creek water plus nymphs that I'd collected from a nearby stream. Because of the narrow tank dimension, the insects could crawl back and forth but not farther away from or closer to the camera lens. So focus was maintained. Illumination was provided by a bank of electronic-flash units overhead.

Note that this was all back in the Kodachrome days and long before digital photography, which would have been a lot easier. It all worked very well, and I was able to obtain some very sharp close-ups of trout-stream insects in a "natural" environment. I did not get rich doing this, but that wasn't the point. It was just plain interesting to do, and that was satisfaction enough.