Most of us think of insects as something to step on or swat.

"The trouble is that city people see the crummiest types of insects - cockroaches and such," says Kjell B. Sandved, who thinks nothing of standing up to his armpits in muddy water to photograph a bug or being enveloped in a blurring cloud of moth wings.

"Look at the moths with their silken gowns and golden embroidery. And what master deceivers, mimicking a fluttering leaf, a bent twig, a bit of bark, a poisonous wasp . . . There are great and beautiful things in the micro-world.

"Of course, I may not say so when I get stung personally," Sandved adds with a disarming smile that shows he has some perspective on the matter amid his enthusiasms.

Sandved shares the beauty and excitement of an unseen world through his spectacular close-up color photographs and films of animal behavior. His latest film is "Curious Creatures and Mini-Monsters," and he now is preparing for a mid-November show of his photographs at Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History under co-sponsorship of the World Wildlife Fund.

The entertaining stars of Sandved's latest film are flipping clams, digging sand dollars, preening insects, gorgeous moths and spiders who play a decoy game.

The film shows wasps in Panama, protopolbia pumila, bailing out their rain-drenched nests by drinking the water and spitting it out in tiny droplets to fall again as rain to the ground below.

Some remarkable vignettes in the film show that insects share some of life's problems with man. The leafcutter ant, atta cephalotes, takes care of its trash disposal problem with an army of garbage carriers. A grass hopper, caught in a traffic jam on a one-way twig, tries to pass an oncoming insect by going downside at the same time. Finally, almost bowled over, the grasshopper sits there amazed with a "what happened?" expression.

No one was quite certain just how the sandwich-like sand dollar manages to dig its own hole in the sand until Sandved came up with a sequence of stunning time-lapse scenes after a day and night immersed in the waters off Florida.

"You may say what's so important about this," Sandved says. "But think of this - the sand dollar has thousands and thousands of spines and suction feet on the top and bottom. One little sand grain - one by one - is moved from tubular foot to the next tubular foot. Each little sand grain, thousands upon thousands. And this is a creature without a central nervous system."

After seeing one of Sandved's films, Isaac Asimov, both scientist and science-fiction writers, wrote the nature photographer: "I had expected something unusual but I must admit that in my wildest dreams I had not counted on seeing anything so entirely fascinating and absorbing as that which you had produced."

Sandved, a sun-bronzed Norwegian, is a documentary nature photographer and film-maker for the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

He has photographed moths in 30 countries. He has photographed penguins and leopard seals in the Antarctic and sea urchins and other echinoderms in 50 feet of water with scuba-diving gear and weights to hold him steady. He went to Sumatra to photograph the world's largest blower - three feet in diameter now threatened with extinction as its buds are trampled by sightseers.

With infinate patience and ingenuity, Sandved photographs butterflies, moths and other insects in close-ups that capture their shimmering beauty and stained-glass colors. One breath-taking close-up of the underside wing of a small moth, castinidae, is an abstract painting from real life.

Sandved has discovered the entire alphabet in designs on butterfly wings. From the wings of butterflies and moths, he has reproduced this line from American poet Theodore Roethke's "The Far Field": "All finite things reveal infinitude."

It is what Kjell Sandved does in his photography, finding a grand scheme in small creatures of the earth. He likes nothing better than to go quietly into a tropical rain forest in high humidity, turning a leaf over to find a wonder of insect life. Sometimes he waits a full day and finds nothing. But then he moves a twig and finds a moth standing on its head mimicking a leaf.

In the introduction to "Butterflies," a book for which Sandved supplied entrancing photographs, the nature photographer describes his work:

"The cramp in my neck muscles brought me back to reality. When should I shoot? Is this the best shot I can get? Will they fly away? I am faced with infinite choices. The scene will never be repeated exactly the same way. All I can capture of my wonderful discovery is one tiny segment, one little frame of the ever-changing scenes in my viewfinder. And many a time I have waited too long; a cloud hides the sun, it starts to rain, or a butterfly suddenly take off."

To get his remarkable films and photographs, Sandved uses macro close-up lenses in the field, where he takes at least half of his shots. Sometimes he photographs through a microscope, but he prefers to catch his insect subjects in their natural habitat in undisturbed poses of courtship, grooming, mating, locomotion, predation and camouflage techniques. This takes some Rube Goldberg-like apparatus that he has designed himself.

Sandved never had taken a photograph beyond a few snapshots when he came to the United States 18 years ago to do some research on an encyclopedia of animals. He had a round-trip ticket to get back quickly to his publishing business in Oslo and Copenhagen. He never used the return ticket.

Fascinated and seduced by the work of scientists in animal behavior, he worked on his own until a job finally was created.

"You don't know how hard it is to create a job in the government," says Sandved. "But Dr. Porter Kier (director of the Natural Museum of History) saw the importance of documenting and recording animal behavior. I don't consider myself a photographer but a tool of the scientists."

Sandved's photography has revealed new insights for scientists. One expedition caught a snail in the act of predatory murder.

"I took time-lapse shots all through the day and night," Sandved recalls. "Out of thousands, only two frames provided the proof that the snail was the predator. In the two frames, you can see his proboscis come out and the teeth working like a diamond drill to drive right through the shell-like "test" and suck out the interior of the sea urchin."

There have been some uncomfortable moments of danger for Sandved on his big-picture expeditions. In Antarctica, he slipped on wind-swept ice and managed to claw his way to the top before falling into icy waters. In the Caribbean, he became so engrossed that he overstayed his oxygen supply. In Malaya, a dog bit to the bone of his hand and the natives, making circling motions over their heads, indicated that the dog was mad. With no medicines, Sandved could only wash the wound in a stream and wait two anxious days to see whether signs of rabies would appear.

Sandved's latest project is to save the largest flower in the world, Rafflesia arnoldi, from being trampled into extinction by modern civilization.

It was in 1818 that Sir Stamford Raffles, then the British governor of Sumatra, and his physician, Dr. Arnoldi, went out to see a gigantic flower, mottled in soft red and brown colors, and gave their names for its scientific designatioN.

Some 159 years later, Sandved came to the same area to find that two of the four known habitats have nearly disappeared and the flower is threatened with extinction.

"It is being trampled to death," he reports. "Guides earn a few cents by showing it to tourists who come out from Jakarta. It takes 18 months to mature from the bud and blooms only a week. We don't know its life cycle or how its seeds are dispersed, perhaps by squirrels."

The three-foot flower is a parasite that grows on vines which grow in giant trees. It couldn't be transplanted without the trees, vines, humidity, soil and runoff of the jungle forests.

"This unique thing in the world is on the brink of extinction," Sandved says both in outrage and sorrow.

And he remembers a quotation from somewhere: "A new heaven and a new earth must come into being before the lowliest grass can be recreated," and he adds: "Let alone the Rafflesia."

The scientific cinematographer is disturbed at what he sees happening around him.

"I can see a difference even in walking around the Washington area from when I came here 18 years ago," he says. "Along the Eastern Seaboard, the high-efficiency mercury lights act like optical vacuum cleaners to sweep up insects - ordinary food for song-birds. They will not starve but there is a depressing effect."

But insects are resilient creatures. In British industrial areas, Sandved points out, as light-spotted bark turned dark under soot, a light-spotted moth found on the bark also became darker over several generations. When pollution controls took effect, the bark reverted to lighter color - and so did the moths. The simple fact was that the moths, whether dark or light, were more often eaten by predators if not concealed by color camouflage.

"Photography has taught me to see," says Sandved. "Most people go through life with blinders. "It's a chore. They miss the joy and wonder of life."