Garden macro photography part II: Kenya

January 08, 2021  •  2 Comments

This post follows on from my previous one (which you can read here) about how I kept (relatively) sane during lockdown in the UK by taking macro photos of garden wildlife.

In August 2020 my family and I moved to Kenya for me to take up a new job just outside of Nairobi. As exciting as moving to Kenya sounds, we were not for some time able to do any kind of travel within the country. The safaris that the country is famous for were frustratingly close yet actually far beyond our reach and means!*

So, to satisfy my need to photograph stuff, I continued, as I had in the UK, to photograph whatever I could find in the garden.

Now, by garden, I should probably explain - I am quite fortunate in that my position here comes with a house. Our particular house is already surrounded by a large and well-vegetated garden. This 'immediate' garden is, however, a little ill-defined but it is contiguous with the wider school campus (which is also spacious and rich in plants). So when I say 'my garden' I am being a little loose with the term. It refers to what is really quite a large expanse of land.

In terms of equipment, I am still using the same setup that I moved to around a year ago: either a Nikon D810 or D500 body, a Tamron 90mm f/2.8 lens and a Nikon SB700 flashgun mounted on the camera hotshoe. The biggest development for me has been the creation of a 'semi-DIY' diffuser (I went through the development of this in my previous post here. Nothing has changed with the setup, though I have got more adept at setting it up quickly, something that was a bit of a hindrance initially). At present, I am very happy with it - learning to properly diffuse lighting has made, I think, a huge improvement to my macro images. I would strongly encourage anyone interested in macro photography to figure out a system for doing so early on.

One other important development for me which I didn't share in my last post is that I have stopped faffing around quite so much with the settings on my camera when taking macro images. I have found that putting the camera in manual mode with a shutter speed of 1/250s, an aperture of f/16 and an ISO of 400 is a pretty good one-size-fits-all configuration that works for most situations. The one variable that I do have to change according to the situation is the flash output, and I do this manually, anywhere from 1/8 - 1/32 power depending on the situation and how close I am to the subject. This has been working really well, especially during my many nocturnal forays. The downside of keeping to this configuration during the daytime is that it virtually guarantees a black background - which is something that may or may not be desirable. If I want a bit of colour and light in the background (only applicable in the daytime) then I usually lengthen the shutter speed, normally only up to about 1/100s. Any longer and I find some blurring tends to ensue.

There is just one disclaimer (you could call it an excuse) that I will make before I get to the photos. Despite the fact that Kenya is well-travelled by zoologists, naturalists, wildlife photographers etc., I get the feeling that the smaller animals of the region have been largely overlooked. There is an abundance of literature and field guides etc. on mammals, birds and (to a lesser extent) reptiles and amphibians. However, there is little when it comes to insects and other arthropods. Consequently, I have struggled to ID many of the smaller animals that I have encountered. I would be delighted if anyone reading this could help with identifying and unknown species (you can contact me using this link).

On to the photos!

One night, I stumbled across this wolf spider outside my house:

Wolf spider (Lycosidae)Wolf spider (Lycosidae)

On close inspection, I was amazed to observe that it was carrying a number of its young on its abdomen. Subsequent research revealed to me that this is a distinctive behaviour for this group of spiders.

When it came to taking the photo, I wanted to replicate the 'face-on' portrait style that I started doing back in the UK. In my opinion this usually works well for spiders. However, at the distance needed for a frame-filling photo like this, even with small apertures, the depth of field was very shallow and not deep enough to have the eyes of the mother spider in sharp focus as well as the detail of the young on its abdomen. And so began my first ever attempt at 'focus stacking'.

As mentioned briefly above, often with macro photography, the depth of field is very shallow. This is often a desired effect, allowing you to draw attention to a particular feature of the subject. However, there are times when it's actually quite annoying as, like in this situation, the important features might extend some way throughout the image. Or maybe the depth of field is just too small and the photo just looks blurry. This is where focus stacking is your friend - and it's far simpler than I had realised.

Focus stacking requires you to take a series of photos, with the region of focus moving through the image with each consecutive photo taken (manual focus is essential for this). You can either move the camera physically forward or backward as you take the series of photos, or keep the camera still and turn the focus ring as you 'fire away'. I have experimented with both methods, and haven't really settled on one being obviously better than the other. When you have taken enough photos, you then use software on the computer to blend them together, with the software combining all the bits in sharp focus to make a single image with much more in focus than would otherwise be achievable. I won't go in to the exact process (since detailed instructions are easy to find with an internet search) but it's pretty straightforward to do on Adobe Photoshop. I did try the free trial of some dedicated software called Helicon Focus which was very good. However it was too expensive for me to purchase for a rather niche piece of software.

I was really happy with my first attempt. In fact, the experience was a bit of a eureka moment for me and I have used it countless times since. Here is a gallery of more spider face portraits, all of which are focus stacked (hovering your cursor over the image tells you how many images each one is formed from):

Bark spider (Caerostris sexcuspidata)Bark spider (Caerostris sexcuspidata)Stacked from 11 images. Method=C (S=4) Wafer-lid trapdoor spider (Cyrtaucheniidae)Wafer-lid trapdoor spider (Cyrtaucheniidae)Stacked from 13 images. Method=C (S=4) Wafer-lid trapdoor spider (Cyrtaucheniidae)Wafer-lid trapdoor spider (Cyrtaucheniidae)Stacked from 29 images. Method=B (R=8,S=4) Wafer-lid trapdoor spider (Cyrtaucheniidae)Wafer-lid trapdoor spider (Cyrtaucheniidae)Stacked from 18 images. Method=C (S=4) Wall crab spider Selenopidae)Wall crab spider Selenopidae)Stacked from 12 images. Method=B (R=8,S=4)

Jumping spider (Salticidae)Jumping spider (Salticidae)

Focus stacking is only possible when the subject remains still enough for you take multiple photos, this is actually quite a rare scenario with wild and living animals (many macro photos out there are of dead animals). Here are a few more spider face portraits which are just from single photographs (not focus stacked), either because the spiders were too fast-moving or because I thought a single photo looked better:

Jumping spider (Salticinae)Jumping spider (Salticinae) Adanson's house jumper (Hasarius adansoni)Adanson's house jumper (Hasarius adansoni) SpiderSpider Rain spider (Palystes sp.)Rain spider (Palystes sp.)

Kilimanjaro mustard baboon spider (Pterinochilus chordatus)Kilimanjaro mustard baboon spider (Pterinochilus chordatus)

Sometimes the face-on angle doesn't work or it isn't physically possible to obtain. All of the previously shown spiders were found running around on the ground / walls / rocks etc. If I find a spider on a web I would never remove it for a photo (since doing so could potentially damage its web).

So here are some other spider photos, from when the face-on angle was not possible or I felt it didn't work:

Kilimanjaro mustard baboon spider (Pterinochilus chordatus)Kilimanjaro mustard baboon spider (Pterinochilus chordatus) Orbweaver spider (Araneinae)Orbweaver spider (Araneinae) Orbweaver spider (Argiope sp.)Orbweaver spider (Argiope sp.)

Moving on from spiders...

One night walk around the site yielded a huge and very impressive centipede. Experts tell me that it is the aptly-named 'giant African centipede' (Ethmostigmus trigonopodus). I knew it was going to be difficult to photograph but I had an idea which I thought I would try (which I learned from a keen Australian herper that I met in Bali). Some skittish animals, when provided with cover, will hide under it and then remain motionless. This behaviour can be utilised to photograph them when it otherwise seems impossible. For the 'cover' I scrounged a large jar lid which I placed on top of a rock next to the centipede. The centipede went headfirst under the jar lid with the rest of its (long) body following. I waited for a couple of minutes before gently removing the jar lid using my small snake hook. When I did, the centipede was sat there, completely still and calm. This allowed me to take photos - something that was never going to happen with it moving around. I managed a focus stack face portrait (why not!) as well as some full-body shots in order to get an ID:

African giant centipede (Ethmostigmus trigonopodus)African giant centipede (Ethmostigmus trigonopodus)Stacked from 20 images. Method=B (R=8,S=4) African giant centipede (Ethmostigmus trigonopodus)African giant centipede (Ethmostigmus trigonopodus)

I have long been fascinated with mantises but have found them quite hard to photograph well. In our garden we have had a few African 'giant' mantises (Sphodromantis sp.) and there are a few photos below. The first is an adult, the second an immature intermediate stage (no wings yet) and the third was a (tiny) nymph. The fourth is a different species which I am told is the Tanzanian ground mantis (Tarachodes afzelli). With the second photo I made a rare use of my Laowa 15mm f/4 wide-angle macro lens. I still find it really hard to use and mantises, in particular, seem to love climbing up on to the diffuser!

African mantis (Sphodromantis sp.)African mantis (Sphodromantis sp.) African mantis (Sphodromantis sp.)African mantis (Sphodromantis sp.) African mantis (Sphodromantis sp.)African mantis (Sphodromantis sp.) Tanzanian ground mantis (Tarachodes afzelli)Tanzanian ground mantis (Tarachodes afzelli)

I will end this post with a series of other (largely unidentified) miscellaneous insects from the garden. Hopefully it's quite a good showcase for the diversity of insect life that can be found in gardens in this part of the world - enjoy!

Assassin bug (Rhynocoris segmentarius)Assassin bug (Rhynocoris segmentarius) Blue (Polyommatinae)Blue (Polyommatinae) Bush brown (Bicyclus sp.)Bush brown (Bicyclus sp.) Carder bee (Anthidium sp.)Carder bee (Anthidium sp.) Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.)Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) CaterpillarCaterpillar Click beetle (Elateridae)Click beetle (Elateridae) Damselfly (Pseudagrion sp.)Damselfly (Pseudagrion sp.) Fragile buff (Baliochila fragilis)Fragile buff (Baliochila fragilis) Giant twig wilter (Petascelis remipes)Giant twig wilter (Petascelis remipes) Hunchback cockroach (Deropeltis sp.)Hunchback cockroach (Deropeltis sp.) Lily weevil (Brachycerus sp.)Lily weevil (Brachycerus sp.) African giant water bug (Lethocerus cordofanus)African giant water bug (Lethocerus cordofanus) Shield bug (Pentatomidae)Shield bug (Pentatomidae) Slender burnished brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichalcea)Slender burnished brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichalcea) Spider cricket (Phalangopsidae)Spider cricket (Phalangopsidae) Stick grasshopper (Truxalis sp.)Stick grasshopper (Truxalis sp.) Water scorpion (Laccotrephes sp.)Water scorpion (Laccotrephes sp.)

African stick mantis (Popa spurca)African stick mantis (Popa spurca)

Cherry spot moth (Diaphone eumela)Cherry spot moth (Diaphone eumela)



*The tourist (non-resident) prices for doing anything in Kenya are completely insane. Fortunately for us, the resident rates are much more sensible, but we did not receive our residency paperwork until December!


Alisa Lira(non-registered)
Nice macro photography. Can you suggest me a best macro lens?
Charlotte Beauvoisin @CharlieBeau Diary of a Muzungu(non-registered)
Absolutely love all the insect photos! Recognised a few that we have here in Kibale Forest and share your website with our site guides so they can help you with some of the IDs. The close-ups of spiders are fab!
You really must come and spend some time with us at Sunbird Hill; you will drool over our collection of insects, moths and butterflies! We also have an interesting snake collection in the freezer! (And a wide range of books to help you ID all of the above and more).
Below is a link to my blog about life on the edge of the forest and the different creatures that wake me up and / or live in my wooden house. (Rather pleased that the hole in the thatch has been filled in and the snake has not been seen since!)
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