Science photographer reveals how he shoots his remarkable mosquito images

If you’ve ever seen a photo of a mosquito in a magazine or newspaper, there’s a good chance it was taken by James Gathany.

In a recent interview with The Atlantic‘s Sarah Zhang, Gathany, a long-time science photographer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, explains how he honed his technique for grabbing close-up shots of the flying insect.

Turns out Gathany’s remarkable mosquito macros are the result of some very careful focusing and a very steady hand. That’s because it’s his finger the mosquitoes are always seen resting on.

According to the science photographer, this is the easiest way to do it — rather than shoot the insect on another person’s finger — as this method offers him more control.

Gathany, who told Zhang that his interest in mosquitoes could well stem from the fact that he had malaria as a child, explained that he starts a mosquito shoot by setting up his camera on a tripod or some other sturdy stand before prefocusing.

“Once the mosquito is feeding on my finger … I put my finger in the plane of focus. It’s a very, very shallow plane of focus. I’ll move my finger back and forth to get this focus where I want it — usually on the eyes.”

But what about the mosquito suddenly clearing off before you’ve had a chance to press the shutter? After all, they say never work with children or animals, so presumably insects fit in there, too. According to Gathany, as long as he stays steady and avoids quick movements, it usually works out just fine.

“Once she has found a blood source, and is feeding, then if you’re careful and make no sudden movements, you can move her or the camera, and she will stay where she is. Plus the feeding process is the mode of transmission, and that’s the interesting part for the entomologist.”

Besides mosquitoes, Gathany also photographs “venomous and poisonous animals, including spiders,” though he admits he’s “real careful with a spider,” and worries about getting bitten. Clearly, no fingers are involved in those kinds of shots.

Be sure to check out the entire interview here, where the photographer talks more about his fascinating work.

And if you happen to be in Atlanta, Georgia, between now and May 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exhibiting a selection of Gathany’s work, so go check it out.