DIY Garden Microscopy

Geek Culture

An ant and a peaAn ant and a pea

The ant and the pea, all photos by Nathan Barry

In the last episode of the BBC’s excellent Wonders Of The Universe series, everybody’s favourite pretty boy pop star turned serious physicist Professor Brian Cox showed us a wonderful trick. He had his Digital SLR camera on a tripod and pointed it up into the night sky towards Cassiopia and revealed something incredible (to me at least) – with the lens zoomed in and the LCD screen blown up too, you can clearly see another GALAXY, far, far away. Of course, it was very dark, so we couldn’t see how big the lens on his camera was, but it’s still pretty amazing to me that the camera could show us Andromeda, 2.5 million light years away from the earth. You can also see it nicely in Nick Risinger‘s amazing 5000-megapixel Photopic Sky Survey.

What has astral telescopy got to do with garden microscopy you might ask? Well, on a lovely sunny afternoon I adapted this technique to hunt around the garden for bugs with my daughter. It started after lunch when we noticed an ant (who we naturally named Flik) milling around a pea which had been dropped on the decking.

The geeklet commented on how she wished she could see the ant eating his lunch, so remembering the Professors trick, I went inside and grabbed my 500D. I’ve only got the standard 18-55mm lens at the moment, so the zoom is not fantastic – but it’s not what you’ve got it’s what you do with right?

A hundred baby spiders...A hundred baby spiders...

A hundred baby spiders…

Luckily it can focus quite close, but even with the aperture stopped down to f36 the depth of field is still very shallow. I found it much easier to switch off the auto focus, set the focus ring to the minimum and move the camera up and down until the subject was in focus, especially as the auto focus button is a very clunky thing to use with the mirror up in live view mode. Close up photos and videos of insects are great, but there’s definitely a little extra something to seeing them ‘live’. It can be bit tricky to hold the camera steady, especially as any movements are exaggerated by all the zooming, but as long as you can rest your fingers somewhere you should be ok.



After watching the ant munch away on his bounty, we looked around the garden to see what other creatures we could find and it wasn’t long before we spotted a whole load of tiny spiders clinging to a web. Every time I see this I always think of Rachel’s implanted memory from Blade Runner; “The egg hatched, and a hundred baby spiders came out, and they ate her”. Each of these little guys was about 1mm in diameter, and you can really see the depth of field on this shot. We also found a more regular sized spider – well, regular for here, not like regular for GeekMom Jenny!

Tulip stamenTulip stamen

Tulip stamen

By this point the geeklet was getting really into the game and rushed indoors to grab her little toy microphone set, so she could give a running commentary on the bug hunt, David Attenborough style. We didn’t have much luck with all the butterflies that were flitting around the garden as they never stay still, much like a five year old really. However, this did give us the chance to look right into the pollen stamen of the daffodils, anemones and tulips that were all in flower, and occasionally a bee would buzz into the camera’s field of view, but not for long enough to get a photo unfortunately.

I did what I could to explain how the bugs live, eat and survive, but my overall knowledge of this kind of thing is severely lacking so I think a copy of Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth could be on the Christmas list – but for me or her?

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