Photo Insight with Heather Angel

Heather Angel explains how she used natural light and shadow to make a stag beetle appear larger than life

An internationally renowned photographer of the natural world and author of more than 50 books, Heather brings her expertise to AP.

Stag beetles get their name from the huge mandibles found on the males, which resemble the antlers of a stag. Female stag beetles usually have smaller mandibles. Many people believe that those huge elongations on the head are jaws, but the mouth is just below the mandibles so they?re not used for eating at all. The males use the mandibles to wrestle each other for favoured mating sites in a similar way to how a stag will fight over a female deer. Stag beetles may also fight about food, such as fruit, rotting wood or tree sap.

My husband occasionally sets up a trap in our back garden so he can monitor moths in our area of Surrey. A moth trap is essentially a box containing an ultraviolet bulb. Moths are attracted to light anyway, but they are especially drawn towards UV light. He sets up the trap in the evening and the following morning he makes a note of them and then lets them go. One morning recently he told me he had caught a stag beetle, as beetles are also attracted to light, and I couldn?t resist photographing it.

Normally I try to photograph creatures and objects in their natural environment and, despite appearances, that?s what I did here. The beetle was placed on a piece of white card and lit using the natural light of the afternoon sun. As the sun gets lower throughout the day ? although not so low that the colour cast of the light begins to shift ? the shadows get longer. The idea was to make the stag beetle look even more spectacular than it already was by using the shadow to emphasise its giant mandibles and incredible structure.

The thing that struck me when I was looking through the viewfinder was that we don?t often see examples of images where a macro lens has been used with shadows. When a landscape photographer goes out and gets his shot he can use the shadows of the trees and mountains to great effect, so why not do the same in macro imagery?

‘The beetle was placed on a piece of white card and lit using the natural light of the sun’

Shadows can also reveal details that perhaps you wouldn?t normally notice. For example, if you look at the stag beetle?s legs you can see that the feet are shaped like little forks. If you follow the tips of the forks to the beginning of the shadow you?ll see that the beetle?s whole body is supported by those two points. It?s really quite impressive that this insect?s entire body weight can be sustained by those small tips.

Despite what you might think, it isn?t too difficult lighting a stag beetle as they?re not as small as other insects. In fact, they?re the largest terrestrial insect in the UK, with some species growing to around 12cm, although most are around 5cm. I wouldn?t recommend using flash with a subject like this as I don?t think it would be right due to the strength of light on a creature of this size. I could have put the insect in a big light tent, but I think it?s so much better to keep the creature in a natural setting with the sunlight.

The light can also reveal the texture and colour of the beetle. You can see that there are hints of red on its body. When we think of beetles we assume that they are all black, but this isn?t the case.

In terms of the actual shoot it was relatively straightforward. I used a Nikon D3 DSLR with a Nikon 105mm micro lens and a shutter speed of 1/160sec at f/2.9. As I was shooting on white card, it was crucial that I metered for the light to give a correct exposure and ensured that the white balance was correct.

When shooting a stag beetle, or any insect for that matter, the window of opportunity to get your shots is relatively brief. The reason is that these creatures will scurry off within a matter of seconds. It?s absolutely crucial to pre-visualise your shot and set everything up before you set the beetle down. For this shot, I didn?t put the beetle on the card until I had got the light metering correct, set up the tripod and camera, and pre-focused on an object of similar size and depth. Then I put the beetle in place. Once it was on the card it waved its antennae around to get a sense of its bearings and that?s when I took the shot.

If you are interested in attracting stag beetles, but don?t have any rotting wood, try sinking a bucketful of wood chips into the ground. Make sure that you cut a hole in the bottom of the bucket first so rainwater can drain away. The larvae of the beetles grow and feed on the wood. The only downside is that the beetles take around seven years to develop.

Heather Angel was talking to Oliver Atwell

To see more images by Heather visit or Heather regularly runs workshops at the British Wildlife Centre. For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit