Photography: Tips, tricks and techniques

The following tips, tricks and techniques have served me well and though some may be specific to tropical macrophotography, the majority are widely applicable. Some are fairly basic though they are still deserving of mention and others are insights I’ve come to after much experimentation and failures. I try to avoid information covered ad nauseum in magazines and other blog sites regarding macro basics such as swaying your body, bracing, etc… and try to focus more on the integration of technical elements and the artistry of the photograph, chiefly through a spectrum of example photos. Note that this is quite a photo heavy page, therefore if loading is a problem then please refer to the drop-down menu under “tips, tricks and techniques” and each section will be represented under its own heading and reproduced faithfully from the original seen here.

Daylight streaming through the canopy on Gunung Mulu. Photo taken in Mulu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

The usual disclaimer: I am not responsible for any bodily harm that may and probably will come to you as a result of following said advice, yadda, yadda, yadda…on with the good stuff.

Extensively UPDATED 22/04/2013

23 Rules to follow

1) Behaviour

My cardinal rule is to always look for behaviour shots. 10 times out of 10 this will be more interesting than a regular, portrait style shot of an insect. Why? Because it tells a story, life history. So even if the shot is out of focus or not framed perfectly I would choose it over a well composed photo if it shows some interesting behaviour such as mating, predation, defence, feeding, etc…

A prime example is the phorid fly and the katydid shots below. The former represents to my knowledge the only photo on the internet of actual parasitization illustrating oviposition in these species.

Phorid fly (Apocephalus colombicus) parasitizing a leafcutter ant (Atta colombiana). This is the only shot I have ever seen of active parasitization by a phorid fly. Here you can see the striped ovipositor of the fly and even the white egg that is being inserted into the open jaws of the ant! I was absolutely thrilled to get this photo since I had only ever read about such behaviour and never seen it firsthand. I was even contacted by the researcher who had written an article first describing this parasitization scenario and was asked if he could use my photo. Photo taken in Mindo, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) attacking termite (Macrotermes carbonarius) soldier. The huge slicing jaws of the termite already found one casualty, the beheaded worker in the foreground. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

What’s interesting about this shot is that unlike with most prey which are subdued by pinning and tearing apart, here the raised gaster is actually injecting formic acid into the mouth of the heavily armoured termite. A drop can be seen at the raised gaster as well as on the termite’s dorsum. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

For behaviour shots, look to longer lenses. Although the mpe-65mm is my go to lens, I will often sacrifice magnification if it means that there’s less of a chance at disrupting natural behaviour. This is heavily species dependant. Flies for example are often skittish and therefore photographing mating, oviposition or parasitizing flies can be a challenge. Whereas spiders feeding on prey are generally fairly tolerant of invasions to their personal space. In general prey rather than predators are more likely to flee in response to a looming camera, as well as vision-based insects vs. the visually impaired.

Crematogaster ant on weevil head. Photo taken in Cuc phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

2) Poses

Let’s face it though, the vast majority of the time insects and animals are not engaging in any kind of particularly interesting behaviour and even when they are, this is the time when they are especially sensitive to intrusions of their personal space. Therefore as a kind of distant 2nd place, try and find an interesting pose or angle. If it is moving take tons of shots, especially as it climbs over obstacles, hangs from leaves or tree limbs, this can result in interesting and dynamic poses which can separate your photo from similar but more static and conventional photos.

Leaf insect (Phyllium sp.). A combination of elements contribute to making this a keeper in my eyes. First is the nature of the subject itself, leaf insects aren’t especially common finds, particularly in the wild. Second is the accommodating pose, fully outstretched. Then there’s the pleasing natural light colour palette. Photo taken in Mt. Kinabalu national park, Malaysia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Leaf or tiger leech (Haemadipsa pictus). One of the most common animals found in South East Asian rainforests are leeches. However, taking a good photo of one is actually incredibly challenging. This shot is the result of several hundred attempts and hours lying on the ground attempting to get just the right combination of elements to make a good photo and naturally tons of bites. I went into the shoot with several requirements. One, I wanted the leech to be at full stretch, or else have a kind of sinuous ‘S’-shape to its body. Two, I wanted mostly natural light as the background, with soft colours. And 3 I wanted the head to be sharp. Ideally the rest of the body would be sharp as well, however, I knew that as the leech was waving around it would be near impossible to get it all in a single plane of focus, so would settle for just the head. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Here there were several different angles to choose from as it flattened itself against a leaf, but it didn’t feel dynamic enough, so I got it moving. It jumped to the ground and then I got a shot off as it climbed over this twig. The contrast between the red leaves and the green make it stand out and provide it in its natural background.

3) Planning (Separating the girls from the Women)

Think ahead! Having an idea of what kind of a photo you’d like beforehand is often one characteristic which separates amateurs from professionals. This is not to say that there’s no room for spontaneity and improvisation, however certain animals behave in certain stereotyped behaviours and so one can devise scenarios to capture that kind of behaviour. A guiding creative vision will give you more purpose and dedication as such one is likely to spend more time with any given subject. This further enables a subject to become more comfortable and thus resume more naturalistic behaviours. The below photos represent an envisioned scenario and how it was finally put together. Carpenter ants (Camponotus sp.) arch their gasters (abdomens) above their heads in a stereotyped response to threats.

Camponotus ant with horsefly (Tabanidae) prey. In this particular species the gaster is rarely lowered and remains arched above the head even when running, feeding or scavenging. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

On the same plant as the Camponotus model species are jumping spider mimics. These not only have the colouration and morphological features of their models, but also engage in behavioural mimicry. The latter of which is not limited to the forelegs substituting for antennae and held, waving above the head as in many other species of this genus. But also of the semi-permanently raised gaster as seen below. The spider when not within the immediate vicinity of the ants, however, will drop its abdomen to resume a more spider-like appearance. Thus to enhance the similarity between the model and mimic, I sought to capture the raised gaster behaviour.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Now the previous two photos laid the groundwork for the following photo and shows the progression in my train of thought and the shaping of an idea for a very particular kind of photo. Having captured both the model and mimic separately, I now wanted to capture them within a single frame to highlight the similarity in the most conspicuous of ways. This of course meant dedicating a lot of time, choosing the most strategic of locations to maximize my chances and a lot of failed attempts. Initially I would have liked to have caught both spider and ant in perfect focus, however, capturing a single one of them in focus was already a challenge as both species tend to be very active. Therefore I had to adapt and settle for a different kind of shot. Below is the result. In the foreground is the ant-mimicking spider and in the background the model ant. I backed off on the magnification in order to increase my depth of field (an example of sacrificing magnification for behaviour). This also had the benefit of allowing more space for the running subjects. It is a very different kind of photo from one which is all in focus and one which demands more attention to the photo in order to note the subtle differences between subject and background.

Model and mimic in one frame. Although the photo doesn’t approach the kind of detail I had envisioned, and there was a significant loss of quality as I had to crop heavily, the photo undeniably achieves one of my goals of showing the similarity between model and mimic. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Having captured the above photo, I then had the idea of photographing both male and female within a single frame. Now I’d done this before with other sexually dimorphic species to illustrate the divergent morphological traits between male and female. This is usually achieved via low magnification bird’s eye view-type shots which come across as a little lifeless and textbook-reference style. Therefore I sought to photograph them in profile rather than dorsally. Unlike the above photo both would need to be in clear focus. Thus I decided to exploit a behavioural trait to capture my envisioned photo. Jumping spiders are visual predators, as much can be deduced by their enlarged anterior median eyes (AMEs). Therefore when in the presence of other animals and insects they are usually quite active and evasive. However, when in isolation and after they have grown accustomed to the photographer’s presence they are generally much more subdued (Nb. this may take upwards of 1/2hr). Therefore I isolated male and female on a single leaf suspended above the ground and encouraged the male to remain on one side of the leaf and the female on the reverse such that they were out of eyesight of one another and thus unable to excite and elicit too much movement from each other. After a few minutes they calmed down and I was able to slowly maneuver them into position by twirling the leaf or breathing on them gently such that they were in the same plane of focus. This sequence of events not only illustrates the importance of having a particular vision in mind, but also how observation and a background knowledge of biology and natural history can aid in the preparation and execution of a photo.

Male and female ant-mimicking spiders (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

4) In focus/out of focus/selective focus

With the advent of focus stacking (post processing software which combines the sharpness of each focal plane from a stack of photos), within the macro community there is an increasing movement towards incredibly sharp images with less attention paid to composition. This is perhaps a result of macro occupying more of a niche-genre within wildlife photography, a niche dominated by researchers and scientists whose goals of systematics and classification has historically differed from both the layman and the photographer as an artist.

A perfectly sharp photo can be a wonderful thing, one need only see the many indoor and outdoor studio stacking work that excellent photographers like Nikola Rahme and John Hallmen produce to become a convert. However, the conditions needed for such deep stacks are often prohibitive in the field in tropical rainforests. Why? 1) Temperature/time – not immediately evident, but most field stacks are done in temperate environments in the early morning when insects are sluggish due to the cold, and lighting is ideal. During midday animals become too active for effective focus stacking 2) Weather – Inclement weather is par for the course in the rainforest. Frequents rains and wind will destroy a stack just as easily as a moving insect. Though this may also be the case in part in temperate climates, the weather is much more unpredictable in a rainforest. Also lenses tend to fog up with condensation.

Additionally, I believe that a uniformly sharp image actually decreases one’s appreciation of an image as a result of there being too much detail. Just like how soft colour palettes appear more pleasing to the eye than sharp, overly saturated colours, I think that a balance of in-focus and out of focus elements are needed to create a more visually pleasing result. The eye also tires more easily when there is nowhere for it to rest and it is constantly receiving data.

Moreover, selective focus, out of focus (oof) background and foreground elements contribute to the impact of an image and can deliver a message more strongly or more subtly than an all-in-focus image might. The oof elements add complexity and draw the viewer in and invite a closer look. They behave somewhat like leading lines which pulls the viewer in as they attempt to puzzle out the exact nature of the oof element.

A parasitoid wasp (foreground) which lays its eggs within the eggs of another insect (background). This is one of my favourite photos for illustrating the so called ‘macroscape’. That is a background which contributes to the story of an image and enhances the overall impact. With a simple leaf as a background or with the eggs in perfect focus the feel of the image would change. Here the attention is directed towards the main subject, the wasp, however the eggs in the background also demand the question of what they are? what are they doing there? Is there a relationship between the two? A knowledge of the natural history of the wasp will add to one’s appreciation as well. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Paul Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A weaver ant (Oecophylla smagardina) in the foreground and an ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne plataleoides) in the focal plane. Oecophylla serves as the model species. Blurring the details of the model makes the two appear even more similar than an entirely sharp image would, thus  forcing the viewer to work a little harder to piece together the differences between the two species. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Mother with spiderlings. Photo taken in Bach Ma national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

One can also create interesting effects with selective dof. Here the leaf blade appears almost 3-D. Though perhaps a little more dof might have benefited the head of the mantis, the tradeoffs warranted less rather than more dof in my opinion. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Selective dof allows one to highlight important anatomical features in a way that an all-in-focus image cannot. The stalk-eyed fly pictured here uses its stalks in ritualized male ‘combat’ in courtship battles with other males for the favour of females. Here the length of the stalks which disappear into the background appear much elongated. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The last example in this section is of an ant-mimicking mirid bug on a leaf blade. OOF foreground elements can be tricky to pull off as they can quickly become simply distracting. Many people use oof foregrounds to frame the subject. Here I wanted the leaf blade to appear almost like a highway leading to the subject and drawing the viewer in. The soft colours make it more pleasing and acceptable than if the leaf had been in focus. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Below is a focus stacked photo of the subject in which I have attempted to shoot the least distracting background possible. There’s still a lot of information there in all the detail, but at least it is offset by the rest of the image which is very subdued. It helps that the colours of the background, the substrate (white flower) and subject are all complementary white or off white colours.

Crab spider (Misumena vatia) with long-legged fly (Dolichodopidae). Photo taken in Lake Country, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

 

4) Shooting a moving target

Always aim ahead of the subject and have your focus ready, that way as soon as it comes into the frame you can get 4-5 shots off before it exits the frame. With a little luck your focus and framing will be on for at least one of those shots. This is important not only with fast moving subjects but also at high magnification where despite a small and an objectively slow moving subject, the subject’s apparent speed increases relative to the magnification. Bottom line is that even a 1mm worm will look like its moving quickly at 5x magnification. The same general principle to those who shoot birds in flight, anticipate! The above shot of the ant model and mimic running from opposite directions within a single frame is a good example. For dSLR photographers, consider changing your mode to AI Servo which will automatically adjust your focus (lens dependent) and shoot continuously to enhance your odds of an in focus shot.

5) Eliciting behaviour

Eliciting natural behaviours ranges from the simple to the complex. In the former category is the subject’s response to predators. Although this mostly involves some kind of flight response, more intriguing behaviours can involve playing dead, defensive gaping, threat or startle displays, etc… When dealing with unknown, potentially toxic species like snakes or spiders it is best to inform oneself as much as possible in advance and to err on the side of caution (eg. the Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops manghanensis) from China was only recently found to be the only member of the crotalidae to spray venom from its fangs). One should always be cautious as a cornered animal or insect is a potentially dangerous one, especially for those which possess chemical or physical defences. However, to completely respect and leave the subject alone as many naturalists avow would be to leave open a whole chapter of an animal’s natural history. Therefore respect the subject. Keep in mind that threat displays are highly energetic processes that demand a lot of resources (its like a shot of adrenaline and being on high alert) and cause a lot of stress in the animal. Therefore try to limit the amount of time spent photographing this behaviour. If possible alternate subjects so as not to place too much undue stress on a single one. If the threat display is one that is self-destructive to the subject then it is best to simply move on, as no photo in my opinion is worth compromising the well-being of an animal.

This goes contrary to what most people say and do, but an aggravated insect is an interesting one. I never intentionally harm an insect, and I certainly don’t condone those who do. But I do poke and prod it. This elicits many different behaviours which one just wouldn’t see otherwise. A perfect example of this is in this leaf mimicking katydid (Pterochroza ocellata). When closed it looks like a simple mimic, one could very simply have left it at that, however by pushing it around a little into a new position, it suddenly opened up in a threatening display, revealing a behaviour I had hitherto not been familiar with, and in my opinion, a much more interesting photo.

Between the first two photos in this series, I find that despite the clarity of the first photo which isolates and shows off the katydid to good effect, I actually prefer the second shot, which shows the katydid amongst the leaves. Even though it is not technically as good, it shows the katydid ‘actively’ camouflaging and hence behaviour (Rule 1).

This is the original picture. Nice, but nothing special. In fact, now after further review, the black background and rather boring pose make this photo very average. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

I then poked it and it jumped to the ground, this was so that one could see it in its natural habitat amongst the leaves. Now its camouflage is really shown to much better effect though the branches in the foreground are a major detraction. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

However by far the best shot in this series is Pterochroza ocellata showing a threat display in response to my proddings. This behaviour would never have been witnessed otherwise and it did not harm on the insect to the best of my knowledge. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

A view from the front shows the eyes, and the camouflaged wings which have separated, a good intermediate picture. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Other insects may not show as formidable a display as the katydid above, however, each will generally show some manner of defensive display. Ants will open their mandibles which generally looks a lot neater than when they are just walking around.

Ant protecting an extra floral nectary from, well, me. Note eyes out of focus could have been made a better picture by focus stacking. Difficult with this moving subject, or by getting a shot in a similar situation and photoshopping the out of focus elements. Photo taken in Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Snakes, lizards and even some frogs may open their mouths wide in a behaviour known as defensive gaping.

Green vine snake (Oxybelis brevirostris) displaying defensive gaping. Photo taken in Bilsa Reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

The flying lizard (Draco sp.) will not only show defensive gaping, but also open up its ‘wings’, large folds of skin held open by intercostal bones to increase its apparent size. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Eliciting more complex behaviours is a tricky one. Not only is it obviously dependent on species, but it also involves some creativity on your part and improvisation to the circumstances. Not to mention that the absence of the photographer is typically a prerequisite. Therefore consider using a longer lens and be patient so that the subject can be familiar and comfortable with your presence. Such behaviours might include courtship and mating (various jumping spiders), parasitization, and species-specific behaviours (see below):

A) I’m almost reluctant to give this tip away because it’s that good! Snakes sense their environment via highly chemosensitive tongues which direct scent molecules to receptor neurons by constantly flicking their tongues. However capturing a snake with its tongue out (which seems to be the goal of most snake photos) can prove to be a challenge. Thus I have found that by exhaling in front of the snake you can prompt it into a flurry of tongue flicking as it attempts to pick up on the new and interesting smells from your breath. This technique takes the guesswork out of trying to catch it with its tongue out and increases your odds of getting a better shot.

Yellow eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis shlegelii). Photo taken in La Selva biological station, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Smooth slug eating snake (Aplopeltura boa). Photo taken In Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

B) The best shots of lizards and reptiles involve territoriality. Even better than being threatened, anoles, chameleons and many other species will show dewlaps, change colours and show interesting behaviours difficult or impossible to elicit otherwise. So, if you bring along a small pocket mirror (like those used for makeup) you can sometimes elicit these displays. It’s best to draw as little attention to yourself as possible, so I recommend setting up the mirror facing the subject and having it resting on a tripod. In this manner you can step back and photograph. In the beginning try to remain as low-key as possible. Bump up the ISO and shoot without flash, then gradually introduce the flash as the subject becomes more and more distracted with the presence of its rival.

C) Some insects show stereotyped behaviour, like the digger wasp: A very interesting factoid about these Sphex wasps is that their behaviour is entirely programmed. In an experiment by Daniel Dennett, when the wasp arrived at its burrow with a prey item it left the prey to inspect the nest. The experimenter then moved the prey away about a foot. The wasp went looking for it, located it and then brought it back to the nest. Only it repeated the pattern, leaving the prey outside and inspecting the nest. This routine could be done any number of times without the wasp modifying its behaviour in the slightest. Such behaviour was then used as an argument by philosophers to explain how a variety of human actions though seemingly born of free will could simply be complex, innate behaviours. Keeping this in mind if you miss a shot the first time around you can remove the prey, watch the wasp look around for it, bring it back to the burrow and try again.

D) There’s always the old standby of throwing prey into the path of a predator. I’m sure we’ve all thrown grasshoppers or flies into the webs of spiders (as children of  course).

When you take the guesswork out of the situation (ie. where and when an event will occur) you can control it and thus maximize your ability to be ready with a good shot. Here, rather than throwing an insect into the spider web, I simply held my flashlight out with the beam intersecting the web. Flying insects attracted to the light collided with the web and I was ready to take detailed photos of the spider wrapping the prey. Photo taken in Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

E) Less common perhaps is refrigerating the predator. It slows down the metabolism so that when it emerges from its ‘induced hibernation’ it is generally quite hungry. Another programmed behaviour to deal with the onset of winter. Therefore it is more likely to feed on prey. I don’t condone this method due to its artificiality, the fact that you need to have both a fridge and predator/prey, and it doesn’t always work. Worst of all, and a sticking point for me is that it can potentially harm the predator. This is especially true in the tropics vs. temperate environments. In the latter, insects and animals have adapted to colder nighttime temperatures, as well as vernal dips of the thermometer. Therefore when cooled (either naturally or artificially) they are less likely to be harmed (though it is still a possibility due to the rapid and uneven cooling of refrigeration).  In the tropics where year round temperatures are relatively constant, real harm can be done by refrigeration. After having heard about this technique on a different website I decided to try it in 2008 with a particularly difficult subject, Sabethes Cyaneus, possibly the most beautiful mosquito I have ever encountered. However, I found that it only resulted in artificial behaviour and postures and more often than not harms the subject. In conclusion this isn’t a technique that I approve of, but well here it is.

Native to the Amazon Basin, Sabethes cyaneus is a canopy mosquito which doesn’t often come down to the understory. It has a lofty flight pattern, is skittish and seldom lands. After numerous attempts to photograph it in situ, I finally decided to capture and cool it down and then re-attempt to photograph it. The results were very disappointing. Forget the poor overall quality of the photo for a moment and concentrate on the pose. The bow legged, hunched over posture is not one would see in the wild and is immediately apparent. It looks pathetic, like it is suffering from a bad cold. Certainly not the majestic specimen I had caught hours earlier. I was quite disappointed and didn’t use this technique again after this attempt. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2008.

After such a poor result I did voluminous research on the subject and decided to prepare myself for my next encounter.

It was almost 2 years later in the rainforests of Guyana when I once again spotted the holy grail of mosquitoes (See full story here). Below is the result of an approach that uses natural history, a little experimentation and originality. It’s important to know that mosquitoes navigate using CO2 and heat signatures as well as movement and vague visual cues to hone in on prey. Therefore, after having spotted the mosquito I donned a long-sleeved shirt (which I carry in my bag for dusk and dawn when the less colourful mosquitoes emerge) to eliminate the possibility of it landing and biting on a part of the arm which would be inaccessible to photograph. I then proffered it my hand to feed on… Nothing… It continued to buzz around my head. So I exhaled deeply onto my hand to both warm it above the ambient temperature and to increase the local concentration of carbon dioxide. I held my breath (both in anticipation and also so not to confuse the concentration gradient of the CO2 in air). The result was that after a few tentative landings and takeoffs, it finally settled onto my hand. I then waited a few moments (since they are most vigilant and prone to fly off immediately following a landing since animals are most likely to swat an intruder upon sensing a landing). I waited until it had inserted its proboscis and begun feeding and would be at its most distracted. Only then did I carefully maneuver my camera into place for the shot. Of course only later did I learn that it was a vector for yellow fever, an interesting fact which conveniently eluded my extensive research!

Fast forward 2 years to a different location and different technique but with the same subject. (Again, look past the poor quality of the photo itself and focus on the behaviour). Here I waited patiently, not moving for 1/2hr until finally the mosquito landed and I could take some more natural pictures without artificial cooling. This is an advocation for patience, planning and knowledge and appreciation of the subject rather than shortcuts which not only potentially harm the subject but will negatively impact the photo as well. Photo of Sabethes Cyaneus from the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

F) Nocturnal insects and birds are attracted to white flowers unlike their diurnal counterparts. This means that if you have either white, fake plastic flowers (okay, not the most common of paraphernalia) or some kind of white plastic, you can daub this with some kind of sugary substrate and you can attract a variety of moths, earwigs, ants and other nighttime critters. This really works the same way as an insect trap though. Set it up and then return to it several hours later or else you’re in for a very boring time.

G) Changing the subject’s physical environment. Anoles, chameleons and other colour changing animals will change their skin colour to match their surroundings. This might be a tough sell for the fast moving anoles, but chameleons aren’t a problem. Some Monkey frogs (Phyllomedusa sp.), are called waxy monkey frogs for a reason. They spread wax over their bodies to both protect themselves from UV light, but more importantly to conserve moisture. If you place one of these frogs in a sunnier environment, it will begin to spread wax on itself. . . .

6) Developing a relationship with the subject (Creating a storyline)

One of my favourite subjects is the weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) in South East Asia and leafcutter/army ants in the New world. Therefore don’t dismiss even seemingly boring subjects, because they might surprise you with some fascinating bit of natural history.

Even in subjects as common as ants, brief, tender moments can be found by constantly observing a subject over the course of hours, days or months. Over time, one develops a relationship with them which translates into an intimacy which can often be shared through the lens.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) communicating via trophollaxis. Photo taken in Ankor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Moreover, a series of images on the same subject provides continuity and a story. This is important in generating interest if one decides to share ones images or be published.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) guarding a colony of mealy bugs which it protects in exchange for honeydew, a plant-phloem concentrate rich in sugars. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smagardina) vs. termite (Macrotermes carbonarius). Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants have subdued a powerful predator, a hunting centipede (Scolopendra). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A backlit weaver ant bridges the gap between two leaves. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

If you enjoyed the photos in this section and hold an interest in Weaver ants then you might consider heading over to the articles section under The Weaver ant complex which documents in greater detail the lives of these fascinating ants and the arthropods in orbit around them.

7) The Photoseries

Similar to the above point which stresses continuity and creating a story, the photoseries is a collection of photos when grouped together create something more than each individual photo can by itself ie. the sum is greater than the parts. Attention should be paid to the order and to the continuity between photos. Below the message is both educational, illustrating the migration of the pigmented cells of the eye within the eyestalks of the snail. However, it is also meant to be light and humorous.

“The snail (Rhinocochlis nasuta) can’t see anything without its glasses”. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Like this fungs gnat. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

8) Experimentation

Try new things! This can be incredibly rewarding and by constantly challenging oneself, one never grows bored, even when photographing the same subject day in, day out. By experimentation one does not have to redefine the genre and create something totally new, but rather try a new technique for you. You never know when this new skill might prove useful or offer insight into a scenario. By adding different methods to your photography tool belt you not only expand the range of possibilities of the final product, but in effect you change the way your observe a scene from the very outset before even pressing the shutter.

I had never done an HDR image before, but when I did, I was immediately impressed with the result. It is understated as far as a lot of HDR’s go, but I really like the effect. In nature photography my own philosophy is to recreate what I saw faithfully. A lot of HDRs go overboard on the tone mapping, creating unrealistic, yet visually stunning photos. This is not my aim. My preference is to bring out the shadow and highlight details to a reasonable extent that would otherwise be lost, not to create a technicolor dream world.

Still deliberating whether or not to actually purchase the software since I don’t do enough HDR to merit spending the money, but I really enjoy the effect…the numerous shades of green are especially nice in this photo

If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see my own experimental section which shows some different styles I am playing with.

9) Be original!

Create your own style! This creates some of the most satisfying, creative, wonderful photographs! I adore this photo, I have it as my screensaver, and I never get tired of looking at it. And the best part is…I took it! A lot of effort went into it both during the shoot and in post processing but I really like the effect. The key here is to think about a shot and how you want it to come out before you actually see the subject and starting shooting it. Before I go out on a shoot I think  about what I will see. If it’s raining and I know I’ll be walking by a pond, I know that my odds of seeing frogs will increase, so I consider how I would like to shoot these frogs before I’ve even left and then make adjustments fitting the scenario when/if I actually come across them in the field.

From the Peruvian Amazon, a reprocessed version of my earlier leafcutter. This one involved taking the camera raw version and exposing properly for the leaf, adjusting levels, sat., etc… and then importing into photoshop via a smart object. Then made a new smart object layer via copy, so that I could get another layer of the original image in Camera Raw, only this time adjust for the background. I adjusted the background in Camera Raw which updated the smart object copy layer in Photoshop. I then made a layer mask and painted the leaf and green background that I didn’t want changed. Merged copies and here we are. Advantage of this process is that it is less destructive than altering in a lossy manner with JPEG/other format since all the main RAW adjustments were made in Camera RAW. Then applied an unsharp mask to bring out the bristles and noise reduction for the red/orange background.

10) A numbers game

Two is usually better than one! Why? Because the subjects interact with one another. Even if it is not directly, they create tension in each other that is visible in the photograph.

These predaceous katydids (Phlugis sp.) were walking up and around the leaf. When they stopped in this position, it made for a great showdown. They are almost comical, one with the mouth full of food and the other looking like it wants to take a bite when suddenly they see themselves being watched, stop midpose and stare. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Even if the tension is not present between the two (or more) subjects in photograph, that doesn’t mean that tension can’t be created for the viewer. The shot below with spider and ant illustrates what I mean. Despite the fact that neither subject is aware of the other, the viewer sees and understands the predator/prey relationship and thus the image is much stronger with the two subjects.

“A shadow of doubt” – Weaver ant with lynx spider in shadow. Photo taken in Ankgor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In the following photo an understanding of biology and the natural history of the spider/cordyceps fungus helps one to understand the relationship between the two subjects and to appreciate the tension. Cordyceps is a fungus which infects all manner of arthropods and is usually species specific ie. one fungus kills one species rather than being a broad spectrum killer. Once Cordyceps has infected the individual, it changes its behaviour, causing the infected host to disregard its own safety and biological preservation and to climb to a high point. Having attained that viewpoint, the infected individual will grasp the twig, leaf or whatever surface in a deathly embrace and die. There Cordyceps will remain until such a point as is ideal for dissemination of its spores.

Therefore the similar posture and incredible proximity between the living and the dead individual recreates the drama of this interrelationship between fungus and host.

Lynx spider (Hamataliwa sp.) sharing a leaf with a cordyceps infected spider. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In essence, shooting 2 subjects or more is the difference between shooting a portrait and illustrating behaviour.

Pheidologeton supermajor carrying minor workers. Size difference shows one of the greatest size discrepancies of any ant species! Photo taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ask yourself what message you want to convey. A clear purpose will help shape the composition of your photo. Below, I chose a tight crop on the mpe, leaving as little distance as possible between the subjects to illustrate the diversity found in Kinabalu national park.

Diversity. A harvestman, a cicadellid and a bush frog, all within centimetres of each other in a single frame of the mpe. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

11) A note on catchlights and specular highlights

There is a place for these as they can add texture and interest to a photo, but they can also be distracting and destroy a photo’s potential. This really needs to be looked at on a case by case basis. However, generally, if the catchlights are in the eyes and are well diffused then the texture and colours are usually preserved and I will leave them as they are. If the diffusion has failed and the highlights interrupt a pattern or wash out the colours, then I will clone and repair it out. I do this mostly in reptile and amphibian eyes, where the damage is much easier to repair in the single eye than in the many faceted ommatidia of insects. Below is an example of a repair job of a flash shot on a snail shell that has become way too distracting. I didn’t use any kind of diffusion on this shot. With post processing in photoshop, I have cloned and repaired most of the damage. I did this very slowly at a magnification of 700X. However, I found the efforts worthwhile because I really liked the pose of the snail.

Edited snail (Macrochylamys sp.). Here the detail has been restored to the snail making, in my opinion a better picture. Note, better diffusion from the get-go would have solved this problem.

This second shot shows the same snail as it was originally shot.

Snail (Macrochylamys sp.). Here the reflections off the shell and body are distracting and really detract from the overall quality of the image.

Flying lizard (Draco sp.) portrait. Harsh catchlights in the eyes have been cloned out. While some might argue that this creates a flatter image, I personally prefer the overall look and think it creates more depth and complements the black background. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In this ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.) the catchlights would have been quite easy to clone out. However, I feel like they add to the photo, behaving like accents, drawing even more attention the the bright and beautiful eyes. Photo taken in Selangor, Malaysia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

12) Knowing your equipment

Flash

Many people use the ETTL setting on their flash without ever bothering to learn how to use the manual setting. This is a mistake. It always pays to know the ins and outs of your equipment. I used to use ETTL, but every so often I would here the flash charging and then it would let out a burst and the whole scene was whited out. This was due to a miscommunication between the flash and camera body. This happened often enough that I started using the manual flash settings and have since been much more satisfied. For the mpe generally I use 1/8th flash power (f.p.) at 1-2x mag, 1/4 f.p. for 3-4x mag., and 1/2-1/1 f.p. for 4x-5x mag. Settings will vary depending on your ISO, aperture and shutterspeed, and amount of diffusion. The above settings is for a ‘typical’ macro setting of ISO 100, f/11 and 1/200 sec.

This knowledge is especially important for creative lighting control like backlighting, stroboscopic lighting and 2nd curtain flash settings whose primary aim is not necessarily a uniformly exposed image. I find my photos are more adequately exposed now that I have control of this element as well. It will also help you in your overall composition and to understand the general principles of light and will get you further involved in all technical aspects. Besides, there are often small functions that can make things much easier, like the function in the MT-24EX which allows a double tap of the shutter to turn on the macro lights. Not a life changer but something that can make life a little easier.

You will also want to know the limitations of your equipment before bringing it into a hostile environment like the rainforest. For example the MT-24 EX twin flash has a weak neck ie. the stem connecting the flash unit to the hotshoe. Out of the 4 units I have owned in 5 years, 3 have broken at this junction. Even if the camera falls and you catch it, the sudden jerk can result in a cracked stem which will widen over time and admit humidity. Therefore, creating a backstop out of tape or putty, or adding some kind of support is advisable for this unit.

13) Horizons

The horizon constitutes the surface that the insect is on, be it leaf or ground or tree. Try and tilt the angle to have the leading lines of the subject drawing you in. This is preferable to straight horizons which can appear flat and uninteresting. The eye is drawn to circular, rounded and organic shapes which appear more natural, therefore try and incorporate these rather than flat, angular lines.

The caterpillar below shows what not to do. The composition is drab with too many flat lines, both those of the leaf and the lines created by the length of the caterpillar’s body.

An interesting caterpillar whose potential as an equally interesting photo  is spoiled by the flat horizon, boring position and perspective. Photo taken in Mulu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

In contrast are the following two examples which use curves, and interesting shapes created by the legs and landscape.

The gentle slope of the buttress root which forms the horizon is a pleasing curve which draws the viewer in and complements the backlit harvestman. Rounded aperture blades in the bokeh are also pleasing to the eye. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Alternatively you can incorporate curves and and rounded shapes which are more visually appealing than harsh straight lines.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne assimilis). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

14) The Macroscape

One way in which my style differs from other people’s is that I like interesting backgrounds. A lot of macro is aimed to isolate the subject from the background and have a nice bokeh. This can make for some lovely photographs and especially portraits, true. However, busy backgrounds provide a lot to look at and I will generally look at a photo a lot longer when it has an interesting background than one that is simple, and straight forward. This is particularly difficult to do in night photography which the majority of my shots are, however, I try and shoot at smaller apertures to gain more detail from the surroundings. Tread carefully when following this point as it is very easy to have too busy a background. This point may seem to be in contradiction with point 4 (selective focus of the subject), however it need not be.

Macroscape def. – The landscape of an image taken at high magnification which does not include the subject. This can be the background and/or foreground, it is the space into which the subject is placed.

The macro landscape is one of the most difficult elements to master since it requires an incredible attention to detail and to composition. It requires an intimate knowledge of the relationship between dof and aperture size for that particular lens all while maintaining focus on the subject, appropriate lighting, and other factors necessary for a good photo. Indeed it is so demanding a skill that I often neglect it in favour of tighter, more out of focus compositions concentrating on the subject(s). However, I find I am most often rewarded with my best photos when I take the macroscape into consideration.

Moss mantis (Haania sp.). Photo taken in Preah Monivong national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants in flowers. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

One way I have found of exploiting the background and having it complement the subject is through the use of backlighting which can highlight or even create details that were either absent or only faintly visible before.

Backlighting has brought both detail and a silvery, ethereal mood to the image of this harvestman on a hairy leaf. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Shining from behind, backlighting shows the vascular system and cellular structure of the leaf that would have been impossible with conventional frontal lighting. In this manner, the leaf itself becomes a focal point of interest in addition to the translucent katydid. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

An early attempt which is not entirely successful but still shows my interest in busy backgrounds which dates back to my introduction to photography.

The lichen on this fallen tree trunk has provided a very detailed and interesting mosaic pattern. Rather than go for the closeup of the ants and lose this wonderful backdrop, I elected to shoot with a 100mm macro from further away. This is one of my earlier shots and so composition and light aren’t what I would like them to be, but I love the background. Photo taken in Endau-Rompin national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner, 2009.

A more recent attempt illustrates how a complex, detailed background can add interest by creating a ‘where’s Waldo’ type of scenario, where a camouflaged subject might remain hidden until it finally pops into view. This can be a rewarding type of photo for the viewer, though once the subject is found it rarely holds the interest for much longer.

A camouflaged running crab spider on tree trunk. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

15) Focal points

Let’s add a disclaimer to the above point. There should be a focal point of interest to the photo. Too many disparate elements and the viewer gets lost. Let the eye naturally go to the focal point and then allow it to naturally radiate out to take in the small intricacies of the scene. So if there are additional, small insects in the background that aren’t visible upon first viewing. Or any in focus background/foreground points of interest, etc…

The focal point is almost always in the focal plane and thus sharp (at least in part). This point ties in well with rule 4 (selective focus). The juxtaposition between model and mimic here is evident but not too overstated thanks to the oof elements.

Focal point is the net-winged beetle (Lycidae) in the foreground. However, the eye is secondarily drawn to the March fly (Plecia sp.) in the oof background. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Below shows how a uniformly sharp image can be a little dazzling, and overwhelming with lots to look at. Here the eye doesn’t even know where to begin, and that’s the point.

A colourful flock of barklice (Psocoptera). Photo taken in Cat tien natinoal park, Vietnma. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

16) The notetaker

Make notes while taking your photos. If you have a 1Ds series canon, lucky you! It has a voice recorder function. If not use a separate tape recorder or the video function on your camera or just a pen and paper. This is especially useful when you go over the same trail or grounds over again. If you spot a particular insect that has made a nest or a spider web that you particularly like, make a note of it. If you see an insect and you try and get a specific pose but don’t manage to get it this time around make a note of it so that next time you can try again. If there’s a setting that you found particularly useful or innovative record it. Afterwards you probably will forget, and you will also regret it.

17) Safety/Reference shot

If you are worried more about the insect than the composition take a ‘safety shot’ first. At a distance that you find appropriate take a photo so that if you scare it upon approach you will have at least one half-decent shot. This is especially true for flies and winged insects and day time photography. You would be amazed at the effectiveness of the ubiquitous strategy of falling to the ground and disappearing into the fallen leaves. In general night time animals are more tolerant of the photographer’s presence and thus one can approach more closely with less of fear of scaring the subject. Why? One important reason is that nocturnal animals are not primarily vision-based creatures but rely on a variety of other faculties like olfaction, hearing, etc…

The reference shot in all likelihood will not be a photo that you are satisfied with, but it’s better than no shot at all. It’s usually best to take an initial shot then approach a couple of steps  and take another shot. Repeat until you get to the desired distance and can shoot the subject as you intended to from the beginning.

18) POWER and MEMORY

Always carry a LOT of spare batteries and LOTS of memory cards. I carry 24 AA’s (40 when travelling remotely), 3 LPE6 batteries, (4) 16GB, (2) 64GB and (1) 8GB CF cards. This allows me to shoot as much as I want and not be limited. I often go through a 64GB card and 16 AA batteries in a single day of shooting.

Be prepared. Always. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

If you are constantly worried about using up too much space or power you will miss out on opportunities. I can shoot however I want. If I want to try my hand at an HDR panoramic focus stack, taking 40+ photos to be merged into one then I don’t feel constrained or that I will have to sacrifice this opportunity in order to shoot another one. My problem when first shooting in Borneo in 2009 was that I could only allot 2 photos or so per subject because otherwise I would run out of batteries before the trip’s end. With an eye constantly on the battery level, this is no way to shoot!

John Hallmen typically does 70+ natural light exposures while using the incredibly battery hungry live view mode. Experimenting can be seen by some as useless or a waste, or they simply get so comfortable with a certain type of photography that they don’t even realize how uniform their own portfolio has become. However experimentation leads to some really awesome and interesting shots, but first you have to go through lots of duds and throwaways. Get over the first hurdle and don’t limit yourself. Going hand in hand with this is to make sure of the compatibility of your equipment. If you can have your flashes, camera, flashlight, etc…all on matching batteries this makes life a lot easier. It means you don’t have to carry around tons of different chargers and if one gets lost you are not totally screwed.

[Nb. Most flashes take AAs. However, finding a good LED and UV flashlight that uses AAs required some research (Fenix L2D and Tank 007, respectively FYI)]

I ALWAYS use rechargeable batteries and I don’t know why others don’t use them as much as they should! I carry a spare set of lithium disposables (for emergencies only) which I never use. Otherwise I use my rechargeables exclusively, of which I have found Sanyo eneloops to be the best (high capacity XX Eneloop professional 2,450 mAh).

Nb. A good battery recharger will also be needed. This is not an exhaustive review of battery rechargers, though it is a point deserving of some elaboration. Off the shelf solutions typically charge between 400-600 mAh/hr which is the industry standard rate to preserve battery longevity. The downside of this low delivered amperage is that batteries take exceedingly long to charge, often prohibitively so (up to 4hrs for four 2,500 mAh AA batteries). This is unacceptable to me since I might go through as many as 16 AA batteries in a single day.

Keep in mind that in the rainforest you may be working remotely and therefore have limited access to electricity. When working from solar panels or from a generator which supplies only a few hours of power/day a different kind of charger is needed. Fortunately there are several options.

1) 15 minute quick chargers – Companies like Duracell and Energizer have come out with these fast chargers which will charge standard 1,850 mAh NiCad/Ni-Mh batteries in about 15 minutes and 2,500 mAh in about 18-20 minutes. These deliver almost 4 times the industry standard amount of amperage over a given time. This effectively reduces the lifespan of the battery from the advertised value (500 charges for Eneloop) to probably less than half. In fact it delivers so much energy, so quickly that excess develops as heat and are hot to the touch. A fan incorporated into the charger helps cool the batteries. Despite negative online reviews I have found these chargers invaluable. Moreover, after 1 year most batteries are only able to hold approximately 75% of their charge, and even less in following years. It is doubtful that even a significant reduction in their lifespan will effect most users.

2) Variable output chargers – There are many of these on the market, however, the most highly rated are Maha Powerex (MH-C800S, etc…) and Lacrosse (BC-700/BC-1000 models). These have buttons which allow the user to toggle between different output levels. 200mAh for slow charging and up to 1000mAh for fast charging. Nb. This is still well below the level of the fast chargers above. However, it is useful for charging when in locations that have a steady access to power as well as places that are less predictable.

Look around! I have a friend who has a Nikon twin flash which uses CR123A batteries. He was using expensive disposables because he simply didn’t know that there were rechargeables for this battery type. So do your research!

19) Manual or Automatic focusing macro lens?

A lot of people shoot manual and a lot of the ‘experts’ will tell you to shoot manual. I went to a camera store specifically looking for the canon automatic macro lens (Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM). At this time I had  a Zeiss which is exclusively manual on my canon. The sales person kept on telling me: “You should shoot manual, what do you need an automatic for? Your Zeiss is better than the canon, yadda, yadda, yadda…” Although I shoot in manual mode 90% of the time, automatic is very useful if you have to manipulate a leaf or hold a stem. It is just not possible to do this, while changing the focus ring, while holding your flashlight, while adjusting your flash heads to the optimal position. Remove some of the burden and in this case use your automatic setting. Yes it can search and be tedious at times but having the function is much better than being without it. I missed lots of shots when I just had the so-called superior Zeiss.

On the other hand…

Electronically controlled aperture rings are prone to failure. Twice I have had the mpe automatic diaphragm (which controls the aperture) fail on me. The result was that I was left with a lens which was left in the default position of f/2.8. For the mpe that is an essentially useless aperture. With the Zeiss and its manually controlled aperture however, I will never have to worry about that.

20) It’s all a matter of Perspective

How do you engage a viewer? How do you generate interest for that matter? Whether it be in a subject which is inherently interesting or is something that is encountered everyday, novelty is the key. Present the subject in a way that the viewer is not familiar with and you will be rewarded with a greater response, be it positive or negative. The following advice is based not only on conclusions drawn from personal experience, but also extrapolated from several peer-reviewed science articles and although this is common sense to most, it’s rooted in interesting science which I’ll share in the form of two studies, for practical examples you can skip to below the dotted line:

Study A

Negative Frequency Dependant Selection

This study sought to underline fashion trends and how the popularity of certain styles change as a function of either time or frequency. However clothing is too mutable, too many variables: new fabrics, new designs, new cuts, etc… Facial hair on the other hand? That hasn’t changed much since Neanderthal man, has it?

The researchers looked at both historical trends in facial hair (from handlebar moustaches to mullets to long sideburns) as well as a more robust experimental model in which both males and females were asked to choose the most attractive facial hair out of a lineup of men (various controls were used to factor out miscorrelations like a subject’s handsomeness). Their conclusion was that the least represented style of facial hair within the population was the most favoured. However, as this style became more well represented in the population, it became less popular. This is a phenomenon known as negative frequency dependant selection (a common principle to those familiar with  evolution and natural selection).

Applied to photography the conclusion is that originality (provided it is still visually pleasing or has some other interest for the viewer) will be rewarded until it becomes so copied as to not be original anymore.

Study B

The eyes don’t lie…

“Marketing research is any organized effort used to gather information about target markets or customers. It is a very important component of business strategy” – Wikipedia 

As such it is often designed to discover how to engage consumers and how to come up with new products or redesign old ones to have more appeal. Several related studies had shoppers cruising through a supermarket with specially outfitted eye-tracking hardware (this monitored the sweep of the gaze, and how long it lingered on various products measured in microseconds). It was found that:

1) Walking direction to a large extent determines gaze orientation. Shoppers take the same habitual route during their shopping journey because they have no reason to change their typical route.

[Think about the route the shopper takes and compare it to how as a viewer you look at a photo. Is the route familiar, are the same elements present throughout the body of your work or is there sufficient variation that one stops and stares rather than keeps moving?]

2) The placement of signage, displays ie. their physical location within the store can have more of an impact than the creative execution of those displays. Neither the ceiling nor floor were effective locations for drawing attention to a display and/or product.

[Make sure the interesting elements of your photo stand out. This is an imperfect comparison since the viewer is staring at a 2-D photo in a book or on a screen vs. the shopper who is in 3-D. Nevertheless, an important message can still be gleaned. Reduce clutter to enhance the visual impact of a photo. And keep the interesting elements away from the periphery where they might get lost to the viewer.]

3) “In fact, we uncovered that shoppers’ engagement with different types of POS (point of sale signage/materials and merchandise including packaging, product displays) varied widely.  While some materials (most notably those with unique shapes and appearance) were regularly part of the shopping process, many other forms were consistently ignored – and most likely represented a waste of resources.”

[This last point is especially relevant. Shoppers and viewers alike are looking for something novel to engage them, because at a certain point with the huge influx of high quality photos from increasingly capable digital cameras, your perfectly focused but otherwise unremarkable photo is just the status quo and they are looking for something different.]

Finally, as though you needed any more ‘proof’ to deviate from your standard photo taking routine…

“There’s a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area or SN/VTA – essentially the major “novelty centre” of the brain, which responds to novel stimuli.

The SN/VTA is closely linked to areas of the brain called the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play large roles in learning and memory. The hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories, while the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories.

It’s been thought before that novelty was a reward in itself, but, like dopamine, it seems to be more related to motivation.

Researchers Bunzeck and Duzel tested people with an ‘oddball’ experiment that used fMRI imaging to see how their brains reacted to novelty. They showed the subjects images such as indoor and outdoor scenes and faces with occasional novel images (oddballs) thrown in.

The experiment found that SN/VTA was activated by novel images —that is, brand new images that hadn’t been seen before. Images that only slightly deviated from more familiar ones didn’t have the same effect.

Conclusion? The Dopamine pathways are activated when we are exposed to novelty. Furthermore, animal studies show that the plasticity of the hippocampus (ie. the ability to create new connections between neurons) was increased by the influence of novelty—both during the process of exploring a novel environment or stimuli and for 15–30 minutes afterwards. Therefore in addition to increasing the potential for learning new concepts and facts—novelty has been shown to improve the memory of subjects.” You want to be remembered right?

Original article HERE

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Consider the following photo pairs. The first photo will illustrate the common, stock photo likely to be taken online by the average photographer. The second will represent a different perspective. Hopefully one which will be more engaging and invite a greater appreciation of the subject and the effort that went into getting such a shot.

Pair 1

google search of Nepenthes Villosa will reveal a lot of similar photos. Interesting, undoubtedly but with visual impact? Novelty? How often do you spend looking at each one?

Below is the first picture I took of an N. Villosa pitcher plant which if this were a criminal lineup, would blend in fairly well with the other suspects in the google search. However this photo does nothing to impress. It ‘shows’, but doesn’t emphasize the biological features which make this such a spectacular specimen. The perspective is more documentarian.

Nepenthes villosa. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

Like some of the other photos I’ve already shared, background and research are immensely helpful in creating a framework for how to approach a photo.

First off, Nepenthes Villosa is a highland pitcher plant (a member of the carnivorous plant family) which produces vicious looking teeth (actually a part of the peristome). And teeth isn’t that inaccurate a descriptor either. These downward pointing spines are thought to impede the exit of prey once they have climbed into the predaceous maw to feed on the sweet nectar-rimmed inside lip of the pitcher. How best to illustrate N. Villosa then? I chose to do a wide-angle macro using the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 distagon. I felt this angle and lighting (slightly underexposed in order to create a black ‘stomach’ for the inside of the pitcher) best illustrated my impression of this impressive species as a beautiful, sinister, ravenous and dangerous predator.

 

Mature pitcher plant (Nepenthes villosa) endemic to altitudes above 2000M on Mt. Kinabalu. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Pair 2

Leaf tailed geckos (Uroplatus spp.) are undoubtedly wonders of the animal kingdom, that is if you can find them! Frilled skin flaps around the contours of their body help break up their outline as they press themselves against tree trunks and branches. As masters of camouflage it is only natural that one would want to take a photo showing this to its greatest effect. After all isn’t that what I’ve been advocating all along, highlight behaviours and traits that show off the natural history and tell a story? However, look at many of the so-called camouflaged photos online and you will find it’s more of a portrait on a like-coloured substrate. If the subject is quickly found without having to make the viewer work for it then this doesn’t express the difficulty, frustration and at times sheer hopelessness of trying to find these in the wild AND it doesn’t do true justice to the remarkable evolution of this animal  either. Rather than plunking the subject in the middle of the frame where it is expected, place it in the corners. The human eye is used to tracking in a very linear manner as though a photograph were a line of script to be read. Diagonals and odd contours and shapes are much more difficult to decipher, and this should be how to photograph these animals to do them justice.

In portraits eye contact is important for creating a link between the subject and the viewer. This is distinctly lacking in the first shot of this photo pair. If not for the novelty of the subject itself, which doesn’t require any effort beyond the most basic of framing on the part of the photographer, it would be an utterly unremarkable photo. Look at the denticles (irregular projections over the eye) which contribute to the camouflage, a fascinating detail deserving of more attention and yet 3/4 of the photo is taken up by a largely out of focus body without much interest.

Leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus henkeli). Photo taken in Ankarana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Here the mesmerizing eyes give it a hypnotic gaze, and the open, threatening mouth lends an immediacy or ‘sudden’ impact, also known as a visceral vs. cognitive response to the viewer.

Leaf tailed gecko (Uroplatus fimbriatus) was disturbed (see rule 5, eliciting behaviour) in order to get a capture of the defensive gaping response. Be careful with lizards when manipulating them as they have also evolved another defence, autotomy or tail dropping. These will eventually grow back but requires additional resources and you will essentially be depriving it of one of its defensive features for future encounters until it has had a chance to grow back. A larger aperture ensures sharp drop off in focus such that the head which bears all the interesting information in the photo is in focus and the less interesting tail an body are out of focus and therefore don’t detract or distract from the head, thereby maximizing impact. Photo taken in Nosy Mangabe, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Pair 3

Terrestrial flatworms, planaria and their kin slime slowly across the ground, using a mucosal trail much like the gastropods on which they feed. When they do find their prey, they slide over them and the enfolding scene is hidden from view. How then can one photograph interesting behaviour or perspectives when the subject spends the vast majority of its time on the forest floor and when it does engage in interesting behaviour, it is largely hidden? Not surprisingly the majority of photos are dorsal, bird’s eye view shots with glare and specular highlights to boot, as a result of their moist and slimy bodies.

Found during a night hike in mixed dipterocarp rainforest of ginseng camp at Maliau basin, Borneo.  Terrestrial flatworms, land planarians or hammerhead worms whatever you call them they are simple yet interesting creatures. During the day they are hidden away from the sun and heat. But at night, at night when the temperature lowers, and the humidity spikes, these predators voraciously feed on annelids. Their diet comprises mainly of slugs and snails, following their slimy trails until they fall upon and devour them. However they also eat insect larvae, earthworms and are not above a little cannibalism. They feed by entwining themselves around their prey and entrapping it in a sticky mucous. It then proceeds to evert its pharynx onto the prey and secrete digestive enzymes, taking up the partially digested food particles into the gastrovascular cavity. Where they can then be digested and properly absorbed in the intestinal epithelia. Land planarians move on a film of mucous secreted onto a ventral strip of closely spaced, powerful cilia (creeping sole). They usually follow plants for ease of movement and are able to lower themselves down to the earth on a string of mucous. The flatworm body can reproduce asexually, reproducing an entirely new organism by breaking off from the parent organism. Only the posterior end has this capability as the front end houses nerve ganglia and organs vital to survival. However this would lead to a genetically homogenous population making it prone to disease and unstable. Therefore flatworms also reproduce sexually. They are hermaphroditic, having both male and female sexual organs. In fact the entire body is very metabolically flexible since during lean times they are able to digest reproductive organs and most other cells to keep themselves alive. Flatworms come in a variety of beautiful colours to display their aposematism. In addition to their mucosal secretions, they may have toxins to deter predators. In this way, their most fearsome predators are other flatworms. Photo taken in Maliau basin, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

By elevating the leaf on which it was traversing, I was able to capture a unique, head on, eye-level perspective as it supported its head and mid-body in the air as it explored its environment.

Terrestrial flatworm (Bipalium sp.). Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Pair 4

Most ant photos are poorly lit with harsh shadows under their bodies due to their small size. Many are also shiny, or have a black veneer that makes specular highlights particularly troublesome. However, since they are so ubiquitous you’ll find all manner of angles and perspectives. Therefore one must get quite creative in order to hold the viewer’s interest for long. That is why the most interesting photos of ants typically involve a) Very high magnification showing hitherto unseen details b) Illustrate a rare or uncommon species, or c) Are demonstrative of some kind of behaviour. These 3 things all have something in common: They present the viewer with something they have never seen or perhaps even heard of before. But what if you have none of these 3 things, can you still shoot and a visually engaging photo that can hold a viewer’s interest?

Answering to any number of names; Conga ant, bullet ant, 24 hour ant, lesser giant hunting ant, the one thing consistent is the pain they cause. In their natural range from Nicaragua to Paraguay, a single sting is likened to being shot with fiery waves of pain which continue unabated for up to 24hrs. It is no wonder then that a sting by a bullet ant is rated a 4+ on the Schmidt pain index, the highest of any insect. Though apparently some tribes, notably the Satere-Mawe of Brazil have put this dubious benefit to their advantage. They gather up a large number of these ants, up to 100 and then sew them into a glove, stingers facing inwards. This is then presented to a boy of the tribe. In order to graduate to manhood he must don the glove and leave it on for a set period of time without crying out. This process is repeated, sometimes 20 times until the tribe is satisfied and the boy has become a man. Fortunately there are other uses and their poneratoxin is currently being studied in modern medicine as a voltage gated sodium channel inhibitor which blocks synaptic transmission in insects though it acts as a smooth muscle agonist in mammals. These are the largest of the Ponerine ants achieving lengths of 20-30mm long. They display little variation between castes, workers displaying variation only insofar as a normal distribution curve with no specialization. They make nests at the base of trees and forage on the surrounding trees, climbing into the canopy to search for nectar sources and small invertebrates. If they feel their nest is being threatened they release a musky odor and stridulate from a pair of organs in the thorax. The poor lighting, harsh shadows and sterile side-on perspective all make this photo forgettable. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Combining backlighting, a non-linear horizon and an in-your-face perspective from this hunting ant (Diacamma sp.) help it to stand out.

Diacamma ant on backlit leaf. This ant is actually very common in SE Asia. It doesn’t have any morphological features or colouration which make it a sought after photographic model. However, the perspective emphasizes the leatherman-like jaws. Photo from Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Pair 5

Like the terrestrial flatworm above, caterpillars are usually shot either dorsally or laterally, seldom ventrally. Below is your typical dorso-lateral shot of a limacodid. Fortunately they often benefit from a veritable arsenal of spines and bright aposematic colouration. The difficulty in photographing them however, lies within the very protective armour that makes them a fascinating study. Without a head or eyes to focus on, the power of the image is much diminished. The first image, like most found online fails to show the head which is safely tucked away within a capsule which serves as protection. Therefore, besides the unique anatomy of these caterpillars, after having sifted through several hundred images of these insects one will quickly grow tired of this stale view unless more of a connection can be created with the viewer.

Limacodid caterpillar on leaf. Photo taken in Maliau basin, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

A combination of faint backlighting to illuminate the delicate, fragile urticating hairs and a novel perspective help to create a unique perspective.

Limacodid caterpillar (Narosa sp.). Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Pair 6

A lot of these tropical insects will appear pretty new to the uninitiated and so the variance between the first and second photo in the pair may seem like simply a quality imbalance in equipment, or lighting. However, it goes far beyond this. It is the difference between shooting a scene passively and thinking it through – of observing the subject and then determining what settings, and which perspective will be unlike any other photo out there. It involves a lot of thought, experimentation and failure which may or not be rewarded.

Below is a plant hopper with a typical waxy ‘tail’, hydrophobic filaments which are extruded from abdominal terga whose function has been the subject of several hypotheses. Amongst the prevailing theories are that these tails can act as a source of distraction for predators, especially given the diffraction which can cause confusion. They could also serve to distract attention away from vital body parts during an attack, or else when fully splayed as in the second photo, to act as a kind of wind sail to slow descent and increase travel distance during escape flight.

A smaller aperture of around f/11 captures more detail, in order to discern each individual filament as it composes the tail. Planthopper (Nogodinidae?). Photo taken in Mulu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

Plant hopper nymph (Ricaniidae) shows a profusion of fibre optic-like wax tails. Conventionally these are shot at smaller apertures to recreate the fine details and show each individual waxen strand. I chose to use a large aperture to create almost a starburst effect.

A larger aperture of f/3.5 creates almost an explosion of smooth colour, like fireworks going off. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

 

Lastly, don’t be afraid to back off on the magnification, even for very small subjects. This overlaps with the idea of the macroscape. Be aware of the environment around the subject and whether it can contribute to the effectiveness of the message you’d like to convey.

Pair 7

The first weevil image is how one would normally shoot this subject. It is undoubtedly interesting, detailed, and well shot. However, look through the average macrographer’s gallery and you will see a dozen other species shot in the same style (ie. detailed, high magnification, similar uniform lighting). In which case it will be the subject itself with its interesting appearance which will distinguish the photo, rather than any creative skill on the photographer’s part.

Hairy weevil. Photo taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Shoot at a lower magnification though and it becomes a macroscape and not a portrait. This was shot at over 1X magnification and still the weevil appears tiny. With its proboscis and posture I wanted it to appear like a tiny, hairy elephant cresting the leaf.

The role of the hairy weevil in this photo changes from centre stage in the above photo to just a small part of nature illustrated here. Despite the negative space, the bokeh with the large aperture circles shrink the size of the background slightly. Photo taken in Andasibe-Mantadia national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

However, easing off on the magnification goes beyond simply the macroscape and includes principles like the use of negative space (as seen below). Here the negative space when coupled with the subject’s posture, position on the leaf blade and the knowledge of a jumping spider’s high visual acuity gives the impression that it is gazing off into a vast distance. I chose to entitle this shot ‘The Viewpoint’ for that very reason.

‘The Viewpoint’ – Ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.) on leaf blade. A large aperture was used in order to make use of the natural morning light, as well as to blur the leaf margin. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

21) Light and lighting

This is a huge topic and will differentiate great photos from mediocre ones even if you have gotten all the other elements right. Few photographers would argue that lighting is the most important aspect of photography. With its ability to transform drab, uninteresting landscapes into technicolor marvels, or change the gaudy into the gritty B+W of a sin city-esque world. Relatively recently HDR has expanded not only the dynamic range but also our expectations. We are no longer content with a simple “out of camera photo” but seek a more accurate recreation of the ‘visual experience’ if not the actual reality of the time and place (not to mention the creative liberties it permits for the photographer-artist).

Interestingly, the crucial importance of lighting in the field of Macro is often overshadowed by the macro-specific challenges that the photographer faces – notably depth of field (dof). This is often to the detriment of the quality of the photograph. As mentioned earlier the priority for most photographers seems to be on extending the focus as much as possible, artificially in post processing if need be. As such, one does not see creative lighting (including HDR), unique compositions, or experimentation in general nearly as much as in other fields of photography. Rather, macro often places undue emphasis on the subject and its ‘interestingness’ rather than on the beauty of the photo as a whole.

This obsession on ‘perfect’ back to front sharpness is a mistake and one that often has unseen costs. For example, not only will you lose many potential subject opportunities by tethering yourself to a focus rail and tripod (too slow and bulky), but you are handicapped before even beginning because your creative approach to the lighting, and composition will be more limited.

Backgrounds

For dramatic, professional looking portraits nothing really compares to a black background. It adds emphasis and contrast and can be adapted to a wide variety of applications. This is why it is often my most frequently used background. Although I prefer natural light from an artistic perspective, black (or white) is more applicable within the professional world of selling photos and for portraiture work where one seeks to eliminate all distracting elements. When coupled with working at night, one has complete control over lighting and thus can create some wonderful results that are simply not possible with the intrusion of ambient light.

Green large eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops). Taken at night, this was shot with the mpe-65mm lens from about 2cm away to get as much detail as possible and differentiate it from zoo portraiture which has the constraints of glass and working distance from subject. A single flash directed from above and in front was used in order to create dramatic shadows. Photo taken in Virachey national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Similar to above setup but with MT-24EX twin flash on ratio control, to provide more flash from overhead bulb and a small amount of light from a side oriented flash. Oriental whip snake (Ahaetulla prasina). Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When detail is a priority then a white background is ideal. Light bounces or is reflected (rather than absorbed) more readily off of white than coloured surfaces, thus providing more detail. For an abundance of examples you can check out the Meet your neighbours initiative which seeks to photodocument species without distracting backgrounds.

Flash and Diffusion

Due to the size of subjects generally encountered in macro there is often little or no space between the subject and the substrate it is on. As a result, little ambient light is able to penetrate the areas underneath the subject, creating harsh shadows. In consequence flash is the macrophotographer’s best friend. However, flash without diffusion creates unflattering catchlights, specular highlights and glare. Diffuse light is especially important for shiny, metallic or reflective/iridescent subjects. Macro photographers are constantly in a battle to find that ideal combination of diffusive materials, often cobbled together from dollar store bits and pieces and recycling bins to create the ‘perfect diffuser’.

In the rainforest a diffuser poses a particularly annoying problem due to the constant humidity and dense foliage which obstructs any protruding materials. Paper towels, and tissue paper quickly becomes soggy and unusable. Other organic materials grow fungus and mould over time. If you are moving from one camp to another then cardboard snoots or coke can diffusers get mashed in backpacks during travel. I have tried most of these diffuser solutions in one form or another and have found that the best solution is either something professionally made like a Lumiquest softbox which won’t deteriorate and can be treated relatively harshly (not to mention that it folds down to save space) or else a simpler solution like a doubled over sheet of vellum paper. The latter can be obtained at arts and crafts stores, is organic and so will deteriorate over time, however, it is flexible and resilient and it can be easily cut to fit over your flash heads. Not to mention that it’s cheap.

Your diffusion setup will evolve over time and it will essentially create a ‘light profile’ from which you will be able to differentiate your photos from those of other people. It is one of the essential ingredients in the fingerprint of what constitutes YOUR photo.

The evolving setup

I first started in 2009 with a Pentax K200D and 100mm macro and simply shot with the onboard flash without any diffusion.

The results aren’t actually as bad as you’d think, but that is owing more to the fact that an onboard flash is much less powerful than a dedicated flash unit. Also the increased working distance of the 100mm lens buffers some of the harshness. The same subject would look much different when shot with an onboard flash and the mpe-65mm. Harlequin treefrog (Rhacophoris pardalis). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2009.

I then changed setup in 2010 to the Canon 5DII/mpe-65mm lens/MT-24EX twin flash, also without any diffusion.

Notice the small, harsh catchlights in the eyes indicative of a smaller apparent light source. There is also a harshness to the light reflecting off the leaf surface and the hairs of the body. Jumping spider with membracid prey. Photo taken in Mahdia, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Partway through my 2010 Guyana trip I added a triple layer of vellum paper which had much nicer diffusion but was unwieldy and often sagged in the humidity to obstruct the lens. It was only a temporary fix.

Iridescent blue beetle. Photo taken at the Kurupukari, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

In 2011 I added stofen diffusers hot-glued to gary fong puffer diffusers to create my 1st generation diffuser.

Seen with one diffuser on and one off. Jumping spider (Lyssomanes sp.?). Photo taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

In 2012 I added a doubled over vellum light tent to wrap around the front of the lens.

Despite good results I found the light tent too obtrusive in the jungle. Yellow eyelash pit viper (Bothriechis schlegelii). Photo taken in La Selva Biological station. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

In 2013 I had a lot of flash issues. One of the twin flash heads died leaving me with only one working. I therefore had a chance to experiment a lot with my light. I did away with the vellum light tent which I found too obtrusive and added a modified lumiquest softbox III which I modded to the twin flash heads so that it fitted more tightly and didn’t project forward over the lens too much. I also packed the stofens with insulating foam, and added some cut sheets of vellum and some leftover pieces of the Lumiquest lightbox diffusion material.

Initially I started with stofens+gary fong diffusers packed with insulating foam and vellum paper. I had a modified lumiquest III on one flash head A, but not B. The logic was that flash head A would be more heavily diffused and create the overhead light and would be shot at higher power. Flash head B would provide lighting from the side which creates more detail. It would be shot at a lower power but also have one less layer of diffusion.

You can see the reflections in the eye of the more heavily diffused flash head A on the left and the less diffused flash head B on the right. Malayan horned frog (Megoprhys nasuta). Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When one of the flash heads died I decided to go with simply with the same setup as flash head A.

Lighting worked well for subjects from 1-2X. Beyond that and there were harsh shadows from insufficient light. Portia labiata. Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Finally when I replaced the twin flash with another unit I also capped flash head B with a modified Lumiquest box in addition to the other diffusion already present. However the two lightboxes were too bulky and interfered with one another and so I only used them together with very iridescent and difficult subjects. The rest of the time I used the Lumiquest box on only one of the flash heads.

Iridescent green cockroach. Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Natural Light (NL)

Speak to the average macro photographer and it is likely that they will express both a reverence for natural light while registering a dismay that they are not able to incorporate it into their own photography to a greater extent. Why the reverence? I believe that it is a combination of the more pleasing aesthetics like the (usually) softer colour palette and bokeh, people’s difficulty and dissatisfaction with their own flash and diffusion systems (the creation of specular highlights, catchlights, glare, etc…associated with flash), as well as the perception that a greater skill is required in order to capture good natural light portraiture.

This glorification seems to be exacerbated by the long held notion that proper macro requires the use of a tripod. (Nb. This argument has been used long before the advent of focus stacking for which the use of a tripod is fully justified.) For the record, it doesn’t. All of the shots within this thread save for the focus stack of the crab spider (rule 3) have been handheld. What macro does require is a proper understanding of light, the capabilities of one’s camera and the settings to get the most out of it. Eg. I briefly owned a Canon 7D, however, I quickly found that for my style of shooting (ie. low light in the jungle, night time photography, experimental lighting) the APS-C sensor was simply insufficiently sensitive and produced too much noise and a low dynamic range. Once the camera was pushed beyond ISO 400 the results typically became unsatisfactory. Pictures, even in RAW were pixelated and lacked detail. The Canon 5DII on the other hand performed excellently in this regard (and I imagine something like the Nikon D800 which is touted for its low light capabilities would have performed even better).

Natural light or flash photo? This shot is natural light but with a lot of fill. In order to take this kind of shot without a tripod I had to shoot at f/5.6, shutter 1/30 and ISO 1600. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Furthermore, the ideal of NL seems to be reinforced by the unattributed correlation between talented photographers and their proclivity towards natural light. This is to say that it is typically more accomplished photographers who have a better grasp of composition, lighting and other artistic elements that mostly use natural light. Therefore they perpetuate the belief that NL is the reason for the photo’s beauty rather than just being one of many stylistic effects in their tool belt.

Photos which include more natural light typically involve a greater separation between the subject and substrate so as to include more space for the light to ‘enter’. For example an elevated insect on a leaf or twig has the benefit not only of light approaching from the apparent source overhead, but also bounced off of the ground. With subjects that are on the ground to begin with, there is no such benefit, therefore less light.

Now to address the more relevant “why photographers are dismayed at not being able to incorporate more NL into their own photography” or Why can’t we all, always shoot NL? Perception is one thing. The idea that the weather has to be perfect – the sun can’t be too strong (too much glare and contrast), not too windy (causes motion blur), rainy (forget it). No, the sky must be overcast to provide just the right amount of diffusion, right? Wrong. Macro differs from other forms of photography in that the size of the scene captured is well within the capabilities of the photographer to control. Some photographers take this to the extreme by traveling with mobile outdoor studios. However for the average photographer that deals with too much direct sunlight, or not enough light hitting the subject? The simple use a reflector or diffuser held over the subject is largely sufficient.

Next, the tripod myth. I’ve lost track of how many times I have been asked if I use a tripod, told that my photography could benefit from a tripod or else been argued with over the necessity of a tripod in macro photography. Enough times that now I can simply direct people to this section without engaging them further.

So… you will need a tripod, a clamp to hold the subject in place so it doesn’t shift, and any number of endless oddities. Right? Wrong. I often shoot NL in the dark overcast jungle without the use of a tripod. This will require bumping up your ISO, lowering your shutter speed and opening up the aperture. I shoot in manual mode but with certain restrictions borne from experience. I don’t shoot over ISO 2000 because I know the quality is already borderline at 1600 but that I can still salvage a photo at ISO 2000 if I really need to. Shutter speed rarely dips lower than 1/30 since my keeper ratio sharply falls off and I get too many blurry photos, and dof is kept between f/5.6 and f/11 for the most part. Depending on my creative vision, and the environment I maintain flexibility but try to operate within these parameters most of the time. Could I lower my shutter speed and concomitantly my ISO with the use of a tripod? Yes. Is it practical for the type of photography that I do that requires tracking of especially mobile subjects and a sensitivity to not disrupting of their natural behaviour with the time wasting disturbance of placing the tripod legs? No. Moving on then.

But this section is about shooting natural light rather than debating its merits. If you’d like to reap the benefits of nice soft backgrounds without harsh contrasts, or specular highlights then these effects can be made more pronounced by the larger the aperture (smaller f stop). In the rainforest, to combat the poor light quality under the canopy one has to use quite a large aperture (this creates a shallow depth of field which in some cases can create a 3D feel), only a medium-slow shutter and a higher ISO than one would like. Often with a bit of fill flash thrown in.

The more distance you can give yourself with a longer lens, the more light you can potentially have entering the lens and hitting the sensor. Therefore permitting reasonable shutter speeds and ISOs. At 1X magnification and above however, you will need slow shutter speeds, high ISOs and most probably fill flash. This was shot with a 100mm macro at f/3.5, s 1/125 and ISO 400 without a tripod. Oriental whip snake (Ahaetulla prasina). Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

If shooting at 1X magnification and above try twisting the leaf, branch or substrate on which the subject is located so as to shoot directly into the sky to get more light. Cordyceps infected clubionid spider. f/7.1, s 1/25s, ISO 1600 without a tripod. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

NL shots can be more difficult for several reasons:

1) Requires a longer shutter speed; This necessitates not only a more stable platform from which to shoot, but also that the subject remain motionless.

2) You need to choose your backgrounds carefully to complement the subject appropriately.

3) You may need to diffuse the light if it is too harsh, so one must keep an eye towards what kind of light is hitting the subject: is it bright, shaded, diffused from cloud cover, etc…

4) A greater understanding of the relationship between the various settings on your camera and the knowledge of when and how to use fill flash to complement and not overwhelm a scene.

An all natural light shot is not always a feasible solution (especially in the rainforest) and so a compromise solution can be to use fill flash. This is where a flash is used to fill in the shadows and complement the NL.

Below is an early attempt at NL with fill flash and illustrates the difficulties and common pitfalls. Here you can see the flash in the eye, however the flash power was set to 1/32, just enough to brighten up the subject, while the shutter speed was long enough to expose the background sufficiently for some colour (though it is still underexposed). Proper overall exposure takes practice and can be tricky especially under the canopy where light conditions are constantly changing due to the patchiness of light. However the results can be well worth the effort. Notice that the ISO is fairly low for a rainforest NL  shot, especially shot at dusk as is the case for this particular photo.

Treefrog shot with natural light and fill flash. Settings: f/5.0, shutter 1/20, ISO 500. Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

 

 

The lesson I took away after too many photos spoiled by inadequate lighting was that I would have to push the ISO capabilities of the camera if I wanted truly sharp, NL shots of insects and their behaviour in the jungle. ISO seems to be another one of those hot button topics that people become very entrenched about. There seem to be maxims and lines that people don’t cross: “Don’t go above ISO 1000, 1600, 2000, etc… it’s shit!”. Not only are today’s cameras more capable than ever, but your effective ISO will be situation dependant. I don’t mind using ISOs of 4000 or more when capturing moving subjects under UV light for example. The darker the scene, generally the higher the ISO you can go without incurring too much noise destroying potential to the photo. Experimentation is your best friend.

The following two photos are later attempts made after I’d accepted that higher ISOs are an inevitability when shooting without a tripod. (Note that I did apply a 1-pass noise removal in post processing using Noise Ninja software).

With more mobile subjects, like this harvestmna (Podoctidae), a faster shutter speed must be used to avoid blurred photos. Settings: f/6.3, shutter 1/80, ISO 1000. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The settings are more forgiving (ie. I was able to shoot faster, with more dof and lower ISO) in the below shot by shooting upwards into the sky to ‘harvest’ as much light as possible. A faster shutter speed is especially important when dealing with active subjects like jumping spiders to discourage motion blur.

Moustached jumping spider. Settings: f/6.3, shutter 1/60, ISO 1250. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

The tripod and NL

Using a tripod produced the photos below. Without a tripod it would be very difficult to achieve such results. Keep in mind, however, these are stationary subjects. With moving subjects under the rainforest canopy, NL will in all likelihood need to be complemented with flash.

Orbweaver spider. The complementary beige colours of subject and background didn’t come through with flash (which gave a black background and a much deeper brown to the image as a whole). Photo taken in Winfield, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Crab spider with hoverfly taken at sunset, natural light. Photo taken in Winfield, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

If you wish to see a prime example of this kind of photography “THE” place to start in my opinion is with an excellent macrophotographer who produces absolutely amazing natural light shots: John Hallmen.

John Hallmen’s Fall beetle on Heather. Cryptocephalus sericeus, 6mm These beetles have the habit of releasing their grip and fall to the ground as you get closer. In other words you need to be extra careful when sneaking up on them. Stacked from 13 natural light exposures in Helicon Focus. Exposure time: 1/4s, Aperture: f7.1, ISO: 200. Copyright John Hallmen.

Creative lighting

A) Silhouettes

Backlighting is a simple but powerful tool to introduce a unique and fascinating element into a photo. Backlighting in its starkest form creates silhouettes. This can be used to illustrate interesting or unusual edge details, like in the spiky chameleon below.

Spiky Chameleon. Photo taken in Mananara Nord national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Perhaps a more subtle use is its ability to enhance the likeness of two dissimilar subjects. Take the following two examples:

1) The ant-mimicking spider (Pranburia manhoppi)

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Pranburia manhoppi). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

By destroying centre detail and leaving only edge detail it becomes even more difficult to distinguish the identity of the subject, thereby enhancing the deception, creating more of a verisimilitude between the mimic and its model, and perhaps offering a glimpse into an animal’s perspective (most of whom have poor eyesight). This works especially well when done as a photo pair with one picture showing detail (above) and one without (below).

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Pranburia manhoppi). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

2) The weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.)

Weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.). When provided only with the silhouette, everything points towards it being a simple photo of a weevil. From the antennae and probosceis to the posture of the ‘hind legs’. This ‘deception by silhouette’ is especially true in less common species that people aren’t necessarily familiar with, and so are less likely to uncover the deception. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Deception unveiled (mostly). The antennae are actually simply non-functional projections on the posterior, the proboscis is an extension of the elytra and the hind legs are actually the forelegs. As more detail emerges with the light, a greater appreciation can be had for the detail invested in the mimicry, like the false eyespot. Weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Deceptive silhouettes not only create interest in a photo but generate a kind of ‘aha’ moment when the deception is uncovered. Save for the edges, all detail will be lost, therefore consider using smaller apertures than you would normally (since diffraction, the interference of light waves as they enter an ever narrowing aperture, play only a limited role in a silhouette) in order to mine that edge-detail. In PP, consider using a sharpen and contrast brush to go over the edges to make them stand out even more.

B) Translumination

Backlighting comes in a variety of flavours depending on the amount of light transmitted through the subject (translucence vs. opaqueness) as well as the amount of light reflected from the front of the subject onto the sensor. It is this light differential that will determine the quality of the photo. An opaque subject will appear completely black as a silhouette (above section). Whereas the translucent subject will often appear luminescent with interesting colours and textures becoming visible which would otherwise go unseen.

A leaf miner grub chewing through a palm leaf. Had this photo been taken with simple flash it would have failed to show either the grub or the spectrum of colours within the inhabited leaf. Photo taken in Khao Yai national park, Thailand. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

Compare the following 3 photos of the same subject using 1) normal flash 2) backlighting with no flash, and 3) backlighting with a short flash duration.

A regular flash photo is what one would typically encounter in an online search and is how I would expect most photographers to approach this subject.

Normal flash shot of a translucent hopper nymph (Ledrinae). Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Full backlighting overwhelms the subject with additional detail from the leaf and renders it almost invisible. This view is what other animals might see during the day when sunlight is streaming through the canopy. It therefore provides a much greater appreciation for the hopper’s camouflage than the first shot.

Hopper nymph (Ledrinae) completely backlit. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Back and front lighting permit us to see the details of the subject, without losing sight of its incredible ability to camouflage. It is the technique that I personally find the most useful and engaging. Although in theory taking such a photo simply requires the backlighting to be stronger than the front lighting, in practice finding the right balance for proper exposure can be quite challenging and require a bit of experimentation.

Partially backlit hopper nymph (Ledrinae). A very brief flash was fired, therefore enough light is coming from the front to illuminate some additional details. This adds to both the technical challenges of taking the photo but also the complexity of the image itself. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

The following two photos show the same moth and the same leaf with and without backlighting. The effect can be quite dramatic, creating details and colours which simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The revelation of the plant’s vascular system (leaf veins) adds a complexity to the photo which is completely absent in the second photo.

Colourful moth (Barsine euprepia) with backlighting and short flash duration from the front. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Colourful moth (Barsine euprepia) under standard lighting conditions. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

I mostly use one of two methods to shoot backlit photos.  I will either a) use a variable output flashlight from behind while shooting normally on low flash power from in front or b) place one flash head behind the subject (flash head A) and one in front (flash head B) and adjust the ratio control such that A is two stops stronger than B (since A needs to travel through an opaque medium and B does not). The ratio will need to be adjusted based on the density of the substrate. If A is too strong it will blow out the details of the substrate and if B is too strong then the backlighting will be overcome and the photo will simply appear like a normal flash photo.

I tend to prefer the use of a flashlight vs. flash since it offers greater control. Not only can I change the output intensity, but also move it closer or further away to change the beam spread. It can also focus on specific parts of the scene I want backlit (a kind of light painting), rather than the flash which is indiscriminate.

Without backlighting this stick insect wouldn’t show the same degree of camouflage. It would stand out against the green leaf. However, the midrib of the leaf and its radiating veins appear more yellow than green under backlighting, and the insect’s translucent legs blend in with the leaf.

Backlit stick insect. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

C) Mood lighting

In macro there is often talk of the lack of creativity in a field dominated by detail oriented, scientifically minded photographers. Some people don’t even know where to begin to get the creative ball rolling. Hopefully the examples in this section can help.

Lighting can dramatically alter the mood and tone of an image. Backlighting in particular can be reminiscent of jack-o-lanterns and halloween as the light peeps through cracks and crevices in an otherwise dark image. Or else it can create fluorescence and otherworldly colours not seen naturally. Make use of these ideas and principles to complement your subject.

There is just enough light to provide a partial outline of the denser parts of the caterpillar like the head and underside. However, as the light passes through the hairs, they light up, providing a nice focal point and contrast. The light from the flashlight was positioned in such a way that it might be mistaken for the moon.

Caterpillar by ‘moonlight’. Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Cicada husks are a common feature of the rainforest landscape even as their living counterparts remain frustratingly elusive. By themselves these cicada exuvia are of passing interest, though difficult to photograph well under normal lighting conditions. However, they take on a more sinister appearance when backlit. Some additional morphological details might also be observed upon closer examination.

The ‘cicad-o-lantern’. Backlit cicada husk. Photo taken in Kerinci seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A much softer and gentler tone can be created by opening up the aperture and lighting through a denser medium, like this mushroom cap.

Backlit mushroom. Photo taken in Bilsa reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

D) Natural backlighting

Now we move onto the master’s class! Natural backlighting can create some of loveliest compositions and interesting photos in your portfolio. They can also be the subject of much frustration and uneven illumination. This section more than any other requires an understanding of light, the capabilities of your flash and the use of accessories like diffusers and reflectors.

As dusk fell, the light through the canopy shed a few last rays of sunlight which fell on this beautiful little chameleon. I was in a stunted forest in Madagascar and so there was less foliage blocking the natural light as there would have been in a traditional rainforest. With the light coming from behind, without certain measures, the underside of the subject would be in shadow, ruining the evenly lit, soft feel of the image below. The photo that you see below is what I observed through the viewfinder but which failed to materialize when I pushed the shutter. Instead the underside was in shadow, one of those frustrating discrepancies the shutter but not the viewfinder pick up on. Therefore I illuminated the chameleon from below with a very small 1/128 flash pulse through a heavy diffuser. This was enough to dispel the shadows without otherwise washing out the beautifully backlit leaves. An alternative would have been to place a reflector below the subject to bounce the incoming natural light.

Naturally backlit chameleon (Furcifer rhinoceratus). Shot with a 100mm f/2.8 Zeiss Makro Planar T lens. Settings: f/5.6, shutter 1/80, ISO 400. Photo taken in Ankarafantsika national park, Madagascar. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Another photo taking advantage of the waning directional light. I had little time to compose and the angle was off, with the harvestman appearing higher up on the trunk than I would have liked. Also the subject was quite mobile. Therefore I had to use a higher ISO then I would have liked and even so there wasn’t enough light to illuminate the trunk it was resting on. Either increasing the ISO or lowering one of aperture or shutter would have resulted in blown out details in the backlit legs. Therefore I decided to have the image underexposed by closing the aperture down even further so that I could get the aperture blades in the bokeh of the photo.

Backlit harvestman at dusk. Shot with a 100mm f/2.8 Zeiss Makro Planar T lens. Settings: f/9, shutter 1/40, ISO 800. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

 

E) Tradeoffs to backlighting 

Your subject might not always show perfect exposure, but rather be slightly underexposed (it won’t be overexposed because this would wash out and defeat the purpose of the backlighting). It is a delicate balancing act between providing too little and too much lighting, with all this fiddling many subjects are liable to wander off or otherwise be disturbed.

Although in theory with natural backlighting one should be able to practice this type of photography at any time, in practice dusk and dawn when the lighting is strongly directional and there is a nicer colour cast to the light is preferable (a golden hour when you might want to be out photographing something else).

Like other styles of photography backlighting when overused can become a simple novelty whose charm quickly wears off. Therefore use it sparingly. Backlighting is not a panacea to generate interest in your photo and it is very easy to abandon thought towards composition when focusing on the lighting. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. As you experiment more with the method, you’ll learn when to apply it and when to refrain.

Fully backlit, the leaf has taken on a fluorescent character whilst the cicadellid nymph remains underexposed. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Cicadellid nymph with backlighting and short duration flash from the front. Now the leaf maintains only a hint of the backlighting despite the cicadellid being adequately exposed. An example of the balancing act to properly illuminate a scene. Photo taken in Kerinci Seblat national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

When dealing with natural backlighting, glare can become a significant problem, or an opportunity. Glare, will create haze, wash out and destroy detail and create distracting optical rainbows. The vast majority of the time this will result in poor quality photos which you would be right to throw away. However, after experimenting extensively, if you are able to find the right angles, it is possible to get a backlit subject that is not too washed out (that can be recovered in post processing) and which shows interesting effects. Interestingly when these images are converted into black and white (see below) then the diffraction actually looks like rain.

Yellow praying mantis (Hierodula sp. ) with backlighting and glare. I had to apply local contrast and sharpness around the mantis to recover some of the detail which otherwise would have been washed out. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

Directional lighting

While backlighting obviously comes from the back, directional lighting can come from anywhere, either as multiple light sources, or a single one. I have found the technique of directing a flashlight from underneath contours or sculpted features which disrupt the uniformity of light such that it lights the ‘hills’ and not the ‘valleys’ to create lots of possibilities. Use this technique to show odd or interesting details that might otherwise pass unnoticed, or else might not have the same impact under regular lighting (like the eye). By strongly contrasting the light and shadow, drama and tension can easily be created. Both of the photos below rely only on flashlight without the use of flash.

Offering a closeup, and lighting only the eye with the rest of the image in shadow or underexposed, the pit viper photographed here appears more menacing. This could be a promotional photo for the new GodZilla movie.

Large eyed pit viper (Trimeresurus macrops). Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

As the light wraps around the head from beneath, only the protruding eyes and nose are lit, casting the rest in darkness.

Mossy frog. Photo taken in Cuc phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

Black and white

Finding good black and white photos in macro is rare. It is a relict of the past and unlike landscapes or portraits, the gritty texture and feel doesn’t come across in the same manner. I have found b+w to be highly contextual and subject specific therefore it is difficult to make broad generalizations. However, I have found both natural light and backlit photos (a quality of the translucence translates well to b+w) to be more forgiving of b+w treatment than flash photos.

This shot of ant pupa was converted from colour to black and white in post production simply by desaturating it in Apple Aperture. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

So, your photo is overexposed, and it looks more like a water colour painting than a photo. However, before binning it you might consider desaturating it, effectively turning it into a b+w photo. This can sometimes be a measure of last resort in rescuing a photo. After you’ve done this you can play with exposure and apply shadow and highlight recovery more indiscriminately than you would if you were trying to preserve colour detail.

The original photo is suffering from overexposure and chromatic aberration.

Overexposed shot of a limacodid caterpillar. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

By converting it to a black and white the photo becomes easier to work with and while not a winner by any means it might just become acceptable.

When the above shot of a limacodid caterpillar is desaturated and basic restoration of highlights, shadow detail and exposure detail is applied, the photo is much improved. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

UV lighting

Photo was taken with a Nichia 365nm UV flashlight. These photos must be taken in the dark, otherwise the the light will overwhelm the UV fluorescence. Shot on a tripod with mirror lock up and 2 sec self timer. Shutter speed was 30 seconds, aperture f/9, Iso 200 and no flash. While the shutter is open I painted the subject with the UV beam, careful to illuminate as evenly as possible the entire subject. One must choose a subject that does not move for at least 15-30 seconds to get a blur free image. Notice that both the stick insect and moss (green under visible spectrum) is fluorescing. Photo taken in Kinabalu national park, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

I had already known that material in the chitin of scorpions fluoresced when exposed to UV light. However, thanks to Techuser on flickr (Joao P. Burini) for the idea of using UV on harvestmen. The photos in this section involved the use of a tripod using 15 and 30 second long exposures, while minimizing ISO’s to 100-400. The results are much cleaner than previous attempts. Here, any movement will result in fairly poor results. UV light was in the 365nm wavelength. This provides a more naturalistic lighting that minimizes the purple colour cast of 400nm + wavelengths, though the latter definitely have an interesting, and distinctive look. Furthermore this wavelength seems to make create a brighter fluorescence, enabling shorter exposure times.

The purpose of UV fluorescence is a little unclear. Some insects see in UV and so it might help in species differentiation or mate selection. Snakes, birds and other predators can also see in UV so perhaps the brightness reflects aposematism in nocturnal predators in a similar way to how bright colours in the visible spectrum do to diurnal predators. Harvestmen use a variety of defenses including aposematism, stridulation and chemical defenses to ward off predators and so it seems feasible that such fluorescence might fulfill a similar role. Though the accentuation of patterns on the dorsum and posterior might be more reflective of mate selection since many harvestmen will perch up high and with relatively poor vision, such brightness might help them find a mate. Some other insects that I have found to reflect UV are some leaf mimicking katydids, centipedes (Scolopendra), crab backed orbweavers (Micrathena sp.), caterpillars, scorpions, stick insects, grasshoppers/katydids…quite a broad spectrum really. Though like mimetism UV fluorescence seems to change with the life cycle, either becoming stronger of weaker with age depending on the species and pre- and post-ecdysis. For example one individual of a possible new genus of millipede that I found fluoresced red under UV though others didn’t. 

Though blue or indigo is the most commonly encountered fluorescence, I have also seen green, purple, yellows and reds. Stick insect. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Scorpions are the original ‘blacklight bugs’ (yes I know they’re arachnids). They respond very strongly to UV light and unlike a lot of other insects they don’t require the lengthy exposure times needed to bring out that fluorescence. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Chrysalis under UV light. Many insects display UV fluorescence and this can sometimes come in unexpected and spectacular forms! Here, purples, blues and greens predominate although reds, yellows and other colours can also sometimes be found. UV fluorescence can appear in odd places, so it is always worthwhile to experiment and briefly inspect each subject you encounter with a brief UV pulse. Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

22) Housecleaning

Clean your sensor! This should be something that you do anyways but much too often I see photos people post that are absolutely covered in dust spots. Not tiny ones visible only to a pixel peeper, but large obtrusive ones which do detract from the quality of the photo, especially when they appear in amongst the smooth bokeh (Remember that focus stack of a crab spider back in Rule #3? Take a closer look at all the dust spots I purposefully left behind and tell me it doesn’t make a difference). This to me is the equivalent of a typo or poor grammar. It’s something that is easy to fix beforehand by cleaning your sensor or afterwards by using dust delete data or cloning it out in post processing. It shows that the poster doesn’t care enough about the finished product of their own work, so why should I take them seriously. This is even more relevant when submitting your photos for consideration to contests or to magazine articles. In fact, the more discriminating stock photography websites (like Alamy) which are subject to an arbitration process will reject photos with obvious dust spots, over processing, lack of sharpness and other defects.

It’s a small, easy to remedy problem, but these things do make an impression on the viewer and is another sticking point that separates amateurs from professionals. Moreover, once done, you can enjoy a clean sensor for some time before it needs servicing again.

23) Research

Let’s face it, most of us are not out there to make huge profits from our photos and we probably couldn’t even if we tried. Therefore this is mostly a labour of love. One in which we sink thousands of dollars into new equipment and airfares into getting to remote, pristine jungle (or 5 star country club jungle resorts as the case may be). But we have something in common, our love for nature and our desire to document it. I think that photographer’s are a little like digital collectors, we seek the rare, the beautiful, and the bizarre. We capture it and we carry it around with us. Others of us simply want to share amazing natural phenomena with those that will never get a chance to see it.

Research is two-fold. There is the research into an animal’s biology and natural history and then there is the sifting through pages and pages of photo results, analyzing and comparing how these photos were taken and what differentiates one from the other. While the former can seem effortless, after all it is probably that research into the natural flora and fauna, its biology, evolution, etc… which has motivated you to travel to your exotic foreign location in the first place, the latter can seem arduous.

However, you have gone to all this expense, now why would you short change yourself by taking the same photos as someone else? If you’re a biologist and there to document, that is one thing. But if you’re there to show off the rainforest in the most dramatic and stunning of ways, ways which will help to promote awareness and generate interest then a different modus operandi is in order. If you can’t distinguish your photos from someone else’s, if your individuality has been stripped, won’t you feel disappointed? For myself I know that as an artist rather than a biologist I certainly feel this way.

We pride ourselves on our individuality, why not exercise it? Before you begin photographing do a brief search online of some of the most likely candidate animals you are likely to see as well as those on your ‘to see list’. Look at how they have been photographed in the past, paying particular attention to the composition, light and artistic details. Then you can either emulate it, or break the mould.

 

What makes the Wildlife photographer?

There will always be the Mr. X, who posts a picture on the internet that will be utterly amazing, will have documented an extremely rare or unknown behaviour in the most visually stunning way and it will do its rounds as a viral, receive hundreds of thousands of likes and then will be promptly forgotten.

With all your hard work and efforts, you probably won’t be able to match up against that photo for photo and you will be demoralized. Aren’t you harder working, more deserving of that glory?

However, Mr. X may have a brand new digital camera, but he is not a photographer. He is not willing to wade through swamps, approach dangerous creatures, be buffeted by the elements and sacrifice his beautiful, costly equipment for the sake of a photograph. He relies on chance and the innovation of the engineers in laboratories thousands of kilometres away from the steamy jungles, and antarctic cold in which you find yourself. He doesn’t see rain and wind as an opportunity for capturing dramatic scenes but as an obstacle, a time to patiently wait inside, dry and joking with friends.

And when night falls and aching and tired limbs quake for want of respite, it is the cicada’s song, and the night noises which beckon with a siren’s song – stronger than the lure of sleep.

His is a snapshot, yours, a work of art that you have slaved over. Something precious. Something that will be remembered.

Motivation, dedication, ingenuity, imagination, creativity, patience…

Are you a wildlife photographer?

Climbing Gunung Kerinci to photograph the Giant red leech, a previously undocumented species. Photo taken on Gunung Kerinci summit, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

 

To Come:

. Wide angle macro

. Infrared

. Macro  in motion

and more…

 

 

 

Let’s get specific

Tips for flying insects

1) For most of the ‘game’ flying insects (These are dragonflies, damselflies, most dipterans) night time is the best time to shoot high magnification shots. While they are sleeping, approach them with the flashlight pointed away from the insect, if you point it directly at it, you will wake it and it will fly directly into the light (I mean, wouldn’t you?). So, approach stealthily and squeeze off a few shots. Try pumping up the iso (to within bounds of the quality of your camera) and reducing the flash power to get more leeway with the insect. The patience really varies on the species. Dragonflies, Owlflies I usually find very patient, whereas dipterans take off after a couple of flashes, so make them count. To get scenic shots, daytime NL shots is your best bet. You are more likely to get a better shot with longer lenses. These not only give you a longer workable distance, but also enable you to isolate your subject more effectively from the background, creating a softer bokeh. Especially useful for dragonflies that perch on branches and stems around ponds and marshes where not only may they be inaccessible by foot, but moving in the marsh will disturb the water and hence the plants on which the subject is resting on.

Hoverfly (Syrphidae) feeding on pollen. This shot was taken in the mid-afternoon when there was strong light, and so I used mostly natural light with a small amount of fill. This worked much better than if I had used full flash since the complementary background colours would have been reduced to black. Vancouver, B.C. Canada.

2) Photography during the rain is a good thing. Flying insects usually retire to a leaf and brace themselves to weather the storm, with an umbrella in hand, covering yourself but leaving the insect uncovered (unless you find the movement caused by the rain too distracting) approach and shoot. Water droplets also make for interesting composition.

3) Cold weather, obviously not a lot of that in the Amazon, but in more temperate climes, insects are required to pump hemolymph into their wings which like our blood slows in colder weather. Therefore they need to pump much harder and longer and will generally not even move. Exceptions are bumblebees with their fur, they are more resilient to temperature extremes.

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Tips for Ants

Extensively updated 15/08/2014

Blue Polyrhachis ant (Polyrhachis cyaniventris). Unfortunately not all ants are quite as photogenic as this one and therefore some additional techniques can be employed to lend interest to your ant photos. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

 

An Introduction to Ant photography

Ants may not be one’s first choice as either a model of study or subject of photography – they are too small, too boring, uncharismatic, they bite, etc… I hope to disabuse you of these notions. Not only are most species wonders of form and function whose evolution into the colony as a superorganism has enabled them to conquer most of the globe, many are also beautiful with exquisite adaptations to their local environment. Some can rightly take the prize for such marvels of achievement previously ascribed only to Homo sapiens such as agriculture (Atta spp.) and animal husbandry (Mellissotarsus sp.).

It is my belief that a wildlife photographer must be equally good at observation, and understanding the underlying biology and natural history of an organism as they are at understanding and creating art. In order to capture, display and communicate an animal’s life history in the best possible manner to their audience, the photographer must articulate their accrued knowledge without words but through framing, focus, angle, lighting and any number of additional subtleties. This is a difficult process and one that demands experimentation and a constant evaluation of one’s own style against the threat of complacency. Like other art forms, popular styles and techniques are copied and then inundated. They are no longer fresh, but mainstream or worse yet hackneyed and cliched. Therefore constantly innovate and push the boundaries of your own photography.

Anyone who has attempted to photograph ants will have run into many of the difficulties that I will briefly outline below. However, it’s these challenges that can make ant photography so rewarding.

- Seemingly constantly in motion, seldom pausing long enough for an adequate shot

- Very fast relative to their size

- Shiny bodies can create ugly specular highlights

- Can be very small, therefore higher magnifications required which can make focusing and framing difficult

- Approaching to within macro distance can cause them to interrupt interesting behaviours like trophollaxis (food-liquid exchange)

- Capturing interesting and unique photos of a very common and sometimes unremarkable subject

- Depending on species they can be difficult to approach without getting bitten (Army ants)

 

Tips

The following tips are both general and species specific and may help in a very general way to add interest to the photo, change your perspective on how to shoot ants or else combat some of the aforementioned problems more specifically.

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1) Look for natural sugar sources

Foraging and feeding insects present a unique opportunity not simply to document interesting behaviour, but also to photograph subjects which might otherwise be too timid, aggressive, or quick to shoot otherwise. Although some ant species exist solely within the realm of carnivory, most are omnivores. In fact, many species have adopted horticulture, farming, herding and even agriculture. These overlapping disciplines have one key ingredient in common – sugar. It is this energy rich molecule which has driven ants into an intricate evolutionary relationship with plants, sap-sucking homopterans, and even fungi.

A) Plants and flowers

Looking around at our natural world it’s amazing to think of the sheer depth and breadth of knowledge and detail that evades us. Take the seemingly static world of plants that move at such a slow pace that it takes days or weeks for us to notice the most incremental of changes. Although we know that that isn’t altogether true (defensive chemistry, fluid movement and exchange, transpiration, and even movement (pulvini of the sensitive plant), etc… occur on a faster more observable timescale), it is certainly a pervasive opinion. One could be forgiven the assumption that these plants are simply investing and occupying themselves with growth. However, invisible to the eye there is a biochemical war being waged not only between themselves and their immediate neighbours, but also with parasitoids and herbivorous insects. The latter has led to a wonderfully fascinating array of strategies, from co-evolution to an evolutionary arms race. Some plants have sought to enlist mercenaries to fight their battles for them, putting them up in barracks, and offering sugar as spoils. Ants that have migrated to this form of living have a vested interest in keeping their host plants alive since their homes and gardens are intertwined with its health.  Such living arrangements range from hollow stems which can be excavated independently by ants to prefabricated homes (domatia), already hollowed out and ready to move into.

A tropical plant shows hollow domatia which provide ready made brooding chambers. Not only are such homes free from predators, they are also open to expansion, as they occur on most leaves. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Moreover such plants often offer additional incentives such as floral and extrafloral nectaries. The former provides sugar in the form of energy-rich nectar which is used to entice bees, wasps, flies, hummingbirds and other pollinators to disperse the plant’s genetic material for pollination. Ants do make use of floral nectar, however the flowering period in most plants is short and in tropical regions, unpredictable (generally this is not a favourable solution to plants either since ants make for poor pollinators). This would be unsuitable for long-term residents. Therefore plants have adapted extra-floral nectaries, protuberances along the branches, stems and leaves themselves which exude minute amounts of sugar without the additional (and energy intensive investment) development of pollen.

Extrafloral nectary with nectar from an Inga plant. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2008.

Additionally, extrafloral nectaries are often evenly spaced along stems, branches and leaf margins of the plant, thus requiring patrolling ants to circumnavigate the entire plant, greatly increasing the survival of otherwise neglected regions. One will oftentimes find newer leaves to be especially dense in extrafloral nectaries. As the plant grows, these will naturally grow further and further apart. However, while the leaves are still fresh and young and vulnerable (lacking the accumulation of toxins of older leaves) the greater density of nectaries encourages more ants and thus more protection.

At the junction between the leaves can be seen the extrafloral nectaries. These are a great place to get photographs of insects that come to sip at the nectar. Found during a night hike in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2008.

As pertains to photography, these natural honeypots are of interest since a variety of behaviours can be observed in a calm, leisurely manner. Ants are no longer frenetically running about but rather guarding and hovering over their treasure. One can also shoot between the leaves so as to be less intrusive. These nectaries are the ant equivalent of the water cooler, with ants milling about, engaging one another in trophollaxis (liquid-food exchange) and palpating each other with their antennae.

Carpenter ant guarding an extrafloral nectary feels threatened and displays its open jaws to ward off potential competition or predators. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Carpenter ant at extrafloral nectary. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Carpenter ant drinking deeply at an extrafloral nectary. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

“Three is company”- Tiny ants taken at 5X magnification. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Occasionally ants must chase off other insects or ant species that are equally attracted to the sugars.

Dance Fly (Macrostomus sp.) dining at extrafloral nectary of an Inga plant. Extra-floral nectaries make for fertile dining grounds due to glucose rich deposits which are readily accessible to a wide variety of insects. These areas are regularly tended to and guarded by a variety of species of ants. However, as can be seen here, a few interlopers manage to make it past the guardians to sip the sweet nectar. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

B) Homoptera

Plants are in a continuous battle with homopterans (sap sucking insects which have a long proboscis which they inject into the plant’s vascular system and through the plant’s own pressure they fill up with sugary phloem (sap).). This has led to an evolutionary arms race. It is not only the purloining of precious, hard earned sugars which is hard to accept for the plants, but these bugs also carry a variety of pathogens which can be transmitted to the plant via their unauthorized visitations. So the plants have developed a variety of defences, both physical and chemical. One such method is the introduction of small peptides into their sap which upon contact with air solidify, gumming up the mouthparts of any insect, and serving the dual function of forming a scab over the cut surface preventing further infection. This has stopped some insects though others have found a way around this.

Chemical deterrence is another route that some plants have resorted to. Toxic alkaloids or indigestible peptides laced with the sought after foodstuffs is a popular strategy. Though some insects have not only found a way around this, but have even exploited it to their advantage! Monarchs for instance feed on the toxic milkweed. Not only do they not suffer from the toxic alkaloids present in the plant, but they accumulate it and use it to in a similar way, so that they become unpalatable to avian predators (a process known as biological accumulation). Together with their aposematic colouration, birds have learned to avoid them. Neotropical insects have developed along similar lines. To further complicate matters you have ants. These are both protectors and little Benedict Arnolds, selling out to the highest bidder – where the currency is sugar of course. When you can’t beat them, farm them! Plants have a love/hate relationship with ants. They have developed extrafloral nectaries for the purpose of luring ants to defend them from parasites and predators. This strategy is so effective that many species even those that are exclusively predatory, like trapjaw ants (Odontomachus sp.), can be seen patrolling the leaves of nectary producing plants.

Trap jaw ant (Odontomachus sp.) at extrafloral nectary. Photo taken at the Kurupukari crossing, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Plants that haven’t developed extrafloral nectaries may also lure ants unintentionally since even leaf buds can sometimes produce sugary water through the ‘breathing’ of the stomata. But ants go where the sugar is, and so sometimes if a plant has become host to homoptera, then ants will simply farm these invaders and reap the sugary benefits to the detriment of the plants. The complex interrelationships make for interesting study! Ants aren’t too picky about what they farm as long as they get the honeydew in return.

“Ant to scale” – Ants generally have poor eyesight and rely mostly on pheromones for communication. Therefore when other ants pass by, even if they are of the same colony, they are initially met with aggression until identities can be sorted out. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Meranoplus sp. with scale insect. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Carpenter ant (Camponotus sp.) with rainbow scale insect. Most scale insects are fairly non-descript, and either hard, hairy or both. Some though are beautiful in their own right. Photo taken in Khao Yai national park. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

In nature (not gardens, parks or farmlands) aphids actually have a patchy distribution due to higher diversity and lower abundance of adequate food plants as well as increased predation. This contrasts with scale insects and mealy bugs which are generally more resistant to predation and can thus grow into larger populations. Therefore consider patrolling more cultivated lands for spots of aphid infestation which will almost inevitably be accompanied by some ant guardians.

It only took me 3 hours to get this shot and 400 takes…Finally caught this carpenter ant with a mouth full of honeydew though. After gently patting the abdomen of the aphids with its antennae, this stroking encourages the aphids to excrete honeydew, a sugary exudate derived from the plant phloem which they take in as they pierce the plant stems with their proboscis. Ants farm many hemipterans, deriving sugars and in return protect their hosts in an interesting symbiotic relationship. Despite the fact that it is a fairly common behaviour, from the moment the honeydew is produced to the moment it is consumed is about 1sec, therefore it requires vigilance and proper positioning. Set up in such a manner that you are comfortable because you will likely be holding that pose for a while and any movement afterwards is likely to disturb the ants and cause them to go into defensive mode vs. farming mode. Zeiss luminar 40mm f/2.8 with PB-4 bellows with MT-24EX twin flash. Kelowna, B.C., Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

When a particular aphid is not producing enough honeydew, the ant will gently pick it up in its jaws and move it to another location. Despite it being a well observed behaviour that is well known in ants, it is actually not that common to see. In 8hrs of watching ants I saw it only 2-3 times. Usually the ants move quickly and they may not displace the aphids very far away. Getting shots is usually made more difficult by the foliage that has to be moved thus disturbing the ant causing it to drop the aphid. Consider choosing a host plant that is sparsely foliated such that you have easy access, otherwise prune back some of the more obtrusive leaves. Carpenter ant (Camponotus sp.) moving aphid. Zeiss luminar 40mm f/2.8 with PB-4 bellows with MT-24EX twin flash. Lake Country, BC, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

2) Magnification

In general most ants will require a 1:1 magnification in order to begin to show anatomical details like fine hairs, ridges and eye detail. However, even at 1:1 many species will still appear lost in the space of the frame. Therefore even greater magnification will be required. This can be achieved using several methods:

1) Using specialized lenses like the mpe-65mm. I have found this lens to be the most practical solution to macro within the 1-5X range. Some find the learning curve to be difficult in the beginning, though this seems to be a complaint put forward by those who haven’t had experience with above 1:1 macro. In truth it is more a problem inherent to the genre of macro than of the lens itself. DOF is very small, however this is true with the below solutions as well. Having first tried extension tubes attached to my 100mm macro lens, I found the only major difference was the working distance of the mpe. To my eye, the main disadvantage of the mpe is that many larger insects don’t fit within the frame, thus a 0.5-4X might have been a more appropriate magnification range.

2) Adding extension tubes or bellows. Think of shadow puppets on the wall. The greater the distance between your hands and the light source the larger the projected image. In the same way the greater the distance between the front lens element and the image sensor, the larger it will appear. However, just as the shadow becomes fainter the greater the distance, the corollary is that the enlarged image become darker due to less light being able to travel down the tube/bellows to hit the sensor.

3) Adding a diopter to the front lens element. A diopter is essentially a magnifying glass at the end of your lens. Depending on the strength and quality of the diopter, image degradation can be an issue. However, several good options exist including the Raynox DCR- 250 (2.5X), and the MSN-202 (5X). The latter does cause some distortion, however the quality to magnification ratio is still quite good compared to some competitors, especially given the attractive price point (~$80).

4) Reversing one’s lens. This will require a male:male filter thread to connect your two lenses to achieve proper magnification. Advantage is that no additional equipment is required beyond the cheap adapter (a couple dollars). However, this is entirely dependent on the quality of your lenses, and some aren’t entirely suitable for reversing. I find this setup to be a little bulky and not ideal for working remotely, however if it’s used close to home it might be a good alternative for some. Thomas Shahan has used this method in the past to great effect.

5) Cropping. This isn’t the ideal method since you will lose detail, however depending on the resolution of your camera, some allow a rather indiscriminate and aggressive cropping with an acceptable loss of detail. Experiment!
3) Diffusion

In brief, shiny or iridescent ants will require greater diffusion. If there are patterns like the fingerprint swirls and ridges in the below Diacamma ant, then these may help disperse light and less diffusion can be used. However, as a general rule you will probably need flash due to their small size and several layers of diffusion.

See part 21) under Flash and Diffusion within tips, tricks and techniques section.

4) Behaviour

Behaviour and natural history are what motivate me in photography and if I could get nothing but animals interacting with each other and their environments I would be truly content. However, there is a lot more to capturing behavioural shots than meets the eye and oftentimes it is impossible without an understanding of the underlying biology so that you know what to look for in the first place. For example, I wouldn’t know to pull off the bark of trees to look for the colonies of Melissotarsus which are completely isolated from the outside world and live within galleries under the bark using modified legs to hold themselves upright.

Though it is possible to stumble upon specialized behaviours by pure chance, your odds will greatly improve of observing said behaviour if you are forearmed with a little knowledge. Take the fascinating case of the ant decapitating fly (Phoridae). These flies prey on a variety of ant genera and are often extremely specialized. Not only do they often exhibit species specific selection, but they will often only target specific castes. Apocephalus colombicus (pictured below) hovers above leafcutter ant trails, darting to and fro in search of ants to parasitize. However, not all ants are suitable and in fact the ants have developed a strategy to ward against such parasitization. Below a single medium caste worker can be seen being parasitized by a phorid fly. In truth it is fairly uncommon to see an unprotected worker like this and the fly takes full advantage. The worker is busy holding the leaf, its jaws otherwise occupied it is unable to fend off the fly. Why it doesn’t simply drop the leaf and defend itself is probably a result of a programmed, stereotyped behaviour (ie. A behaviour which follows a set of sequential steps in a predetermined loop eg. Once a leaf segment is picked up it is carried dutifully to the nest regardless of potential interruptions).

Phorid fly (Apocephalus colombicus) parasitizing a leafcutter ant (Atta colombiana). This is the only shot I have ever seen of active parasitization by a phorid fly. Here you can see the striped ovipositor of the fly and even the white egg that is being inserted into the open jaws of the ant! I was absolutely thrilled to get this photo since I had only ever read about such behaviour and never seen it firsthand. I was even contacted by the researcher who had written an article first describing this parasitization scenario and was asked if he could use my photo. Photo taken in Mindo, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

More typical is a medium worker carrying a leaf on which minor workers hitch a ride. This probably first evolved as a means of conservation of energy (ie. social carrying) since any energy saved by individuals is collectively saved by the colony and reinvested in things like expansion and growth. However, it serves the additional purpose of protecting the vulnerable medium workers. Minor workers patrol the leaf surface and deter any flies which might otherwise take advantage of the situation.

One of my favourite leafcutter shots is “Leafcutters against a blue sky”. The leafcutter trail fortunately came down a tree trunk in a clearing. This was in the cloud forest where we got few sunny days, however circumstances aligned such that the ants were coming down their trail just as the clouds parted. I toyed with manual settings for the better part of an hour. Considerations included leafcutter speed. I could not lower the shutter below 1/160s or it would be blurry. I could open up my aperture but not too much otherwise there would not be enough in focus. The flash had to be quick enough to stop movement but also not bleach out the scene. So with MT-24 EX I wrapped one flash head around the tree and shot from behind the subject at about 1/8th power. Second flash head shot from in front at 1/32 power. This allowed the leaf to be properly exposed, otherwise I would have gotten an unevenly lit foreground. Medium worker carrying a leaf with minor worker. Natural light with fill flash with natural sky background. Photo taken with mpe-65mm, MT-24EX twin flash with one head from in front and one from behind on ratio control. Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Both the above shots were taken while the ants were in constant motion, therefore not only were many takes required but staking out a proper spot was crucial. Choose a spot where ants are vertical as they will move more slowly, especially when burdened with a load like leaves, seeds, pupae, etc. Choose a natural surface like a leaf, branch or log rather than something like a garden fence. Finally shoot into the light from below to maximize the amount of light hitting the sensor. This last point is important for increasing the shutter speed and reducing the ISO. There is typically so little light already that you can often get away with shooting into the sun without the risk of haze, and diffraction (though chromatic aberration in the form of purple and blue fringing might be a problem depending on your lens) which might otherwise mar photos under bright, sunny conditions. Note that even so, you will probably need to use fill flash, especially where there is strong backlighting to even out the details and to reduce shadows.

Ants can oftentimes be seen carrying larvae and pupae. Full body shots are more easily obtained, though I find that the richness of detail awarded by a higher magnification justifies the time spent in pursuing such a shot. Though not all species can be shot at night, I find that those that are are generally more amenable to closeups and maneuvering into a more photogenic position. If you isolate them on a broken twig or a single leaf blade, you will also make your life a lot easier than chasing them around on the ground or a plant (oftentimes a fruitless endeavour in which they will drop the larva or fall to the ground not to be seen again). A grass blade is often ideal as it doesn’t have the rigidity of a stick and so the ant clings more tightly to it and doesn’t move around as much. This is good for closeups though it appears more unnatural as you decrease the magnification.

Iridescent diacamma ant carrying larva. Canon Mpe-65mm with MT-24EX twin flash. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Observation and patience is the key to photographing interesting scenes. This tiny Crematogaster ant was excavating the head of a dead weevil. It would fully enter the head, pull out bits of tissue and return to the nest. Initially I’d just spotted the dead weevil head, however knowing that ants are never far away I kept an eye on it and sure enough a scout found it and led a small contingent there. Dead insects/animals are often good fodder for ants, and ants are never far away so make a point of returning to such sites as there is a good chance it will be discovered and then provide a good opportunity to shoot some interesting sequences.

Crematogaster ant excavating weevil head. Canon Mpe-65mm with MT-24EX twin flash. Photo taken in Cuc phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Though the leafcutters of South and Central America grow their own fungus, many ants are still omnivorous and will consume fungi that they happen across. Taking a good photo can be challenging whilst they are collecting, or carrying though. Focus on ants carrying the largest loads as they will often have the most difficulty and will need to readjust several times. If an ant stops and readjusts their burden once, they will often do it again vs. the ant which gets a good grip from the beginning and just ploughs through until it reaches its destination. Consider adjusting the camera settings to high continuous shooting and AI servo this will let you shoot many frames/second and increase the likelihood of a few turning out. When shooting in this manner increase the ISO and have a medium shutter speed between 1/60- 1/125. This will allow you to decrease the flash duration so that you can shoot more continuously rather than waiting for full flash, and for the lengthy recharge period which accompanies it.

Ant with mushroom cap. Canon Mpe-65mm with MT-24EX twin flash. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Since most ants are omnivores there are plenty of opportunities to capture predatory behaviour. This ranges from a single hunting ant (Eg. The South American bullet ant (Paraponera clavata) which despite living in a colony will often hunt and subdue prey individually) to the nomadic army ants which recruit and subdue prey many times larger than themselves.

The former are usually pretty tenacious and will hold onto prey despite the presence of the photographer. Moreover if they do drop it, they are liable to return to it via a deposited pheromone trail. So unlike spiders and other predatory insects, patience is often rewarded and an ant, the same or from the same colony will often return shortly.

Hunting ant, with caterpillar prey (unidentified species). Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Army ants whether they are from the old world (Dorylus sp.), new world (Eciton, etc.) or else SE Asia (Leptogenys sp., etc.) they are all incredibly aggressive and will sting and attempt to subdue anything in their path including larger animals like lizards, frogs, snakes, birds, rats, and even humans given the chance. Therefore it is often wise to stay back and observe moving columns rather than raid fronts which can be utter chaos and which the photographer bears significant risk of being stung.

Photographing columns of ants can be quite difficult to do well and I would suggest a wide angle macro perspective. I have yet to do this successfully though I’ve seen work from others like Alex Wild which have taken such photos to excellent effect.

Army ant raid front. Photo taken in Hitoy-Cerrere reserve, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

I have found that perspective is key when shooting colony-based (vs. individual) predation. Typically I like to show the prey in focus along with several ants with some out of focus ants to complete the picture and give the impression of numbers. Be careful with your framing, it is almost inevitable that there will be some ants that are cut off due to their sheer numbers, however if you can make these out of focus already then it will minimize how they might otherwise negatively impact the photo. Look also at the Weaver ant photos in the following section which show both closeups and ants subduing a hunting centipede (Scolopendra sp.).

Asian army ants (Leptogenys sp.) with mole cricket. Zeiss 100mm f/2.8 Makro-Planar T with 580EXII. Photo taken in Khao Yai national park, Thailand. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

I have found a good background in biology to be invaluable in both finding and understanding natural phenomena. Originally in the below photo only a small patch of agglutinated sand and moss was visible. Having seen wasps and other insects depositing such materials in preparation for oviposition I gently scratched away the surface to reveal two sparassids. Within seconds a nearby line of ants stumbled across the still-living spiders and started to cart them off. Without some kind of an integrated understanding of the life history of some parasitic wasps I never would have made such a discovery.

Parasitic wasp larder (paralyzed and de-legged huntsman spiders with eggs deposited into them) raided by ants. Photo taken in Selangor, Malaysia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Most ant species have created a caste system, one which has developed over the millennia such that polymorphisms suited to particular jobs have evolved and can create hugely different phenotypic characteristics amongst different members of the same colony. This juxtaposition presents an excellent photographic opportunity magnified by the fascinating tale of evolution and natural history.

Pheidologeton, a genus common in SE Asia, displays one of the most pronounced polymorphic distributions. Minor workers are at least 20 times smaller than supermajors. The latter represent a significant investment of resources and thus are outnumbered more than 100:1 by minor workers. In addition to colony defence they also represent a kind of transport carrier, whereby minor workers clamber aboard and use the supermajor as a kind of hop-on hop-off bus.

Pheidologeton supermajor carrying minor workers. Size difference shows one of the greatest size discrepancies of any ant species! Photo taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Pheidologeton supermajor carrying minor workers. Size difference shows one of the greatest size discrepancies of any ant species! Photo taken in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

5) Composition in ant photos

Composition is always a very individualistic endeavour with each photographer having particular tastes and opinions on the matter. Some prefer portraiture, others prefer behaviour and there are no set laws governing what makes an excellent photograph. That said, novelty, surprise, interesting perspectives all add to the impact of a photo (See HERE point 20 ‘Perspective’). Of course unusual or interesting subject matter doesn’t hurt, but is not always at one’s immediate disposal.

A few examples follow, in addition to the photos peppered throughout this section.

You can see my thought process in arriving at the below picture HERE (point 3 ‘Planning’)

“Double take”- Model and mimic in one frame. Although the photo doesn’t approach the kind of detail I had envisioned, and there was a significant loss of quality as I had to crop heavily, the photo undeniably achieves one of my goals of showing the similarity between model and mimic. My initial intent had been to show both head to head and in focus. I quickly abandoned this idea when I found that having just one subject in focus was proving difficult enough. Therefore I focused on the mimic, set it on an ant trail and shot continuously hoping that I would get a frame or two with both ant and spider. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Combining backlighting, a non-linear horizon and an in-your-face perspective from this hunting ant (Diacamma sp.) help it to stand out.

Diacamma ant on backlit leaf. This ant is actually very common in SE Asia. It doesn’t have any morphological features or colouration which make it a sought after photographic model. However, the perspective emphasizes the leatherman-like jaws. Photo from Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Finding good black and white photos in macro is rare. It is a relict of the past and unlike landscapes or portraits, the gritty texture and feel doesn’t come across in the same manner. I have found b+w to be highly contextual and subject specific therefore it is difficult to make broad generalizations. However, I have found both natural light and backlit photos (a quality of the translucence translates well to b+w) to be more forgiving of b+w treatment than flash photos.

This shot of ant pupa was converted from colour to black and white in post production simply by desaturating it in Apple Aperture. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

So, your photo is overexposed, and it looks more like a water colour painting than a photo. However, before binning it you might consider desaturating it, effectively turning it into a b+w photo. This can sometimes be a measure of last resort in rescuing a photo. After you’ve done this you can play with exposure and apply shadow and highlight recovery more indiscriminately than you would if you were trying to preserve colour detail.

Interesting compositions often involve stepping back a bit and looking at a scene differently. Macro implies that one is increasing the magnification and honing in on the subject to the exclusion of everything else. This view is substantiated by the overwhelming majority of macros isolating the subject and presenting portraits rather than behaviour. The below shot is one of my earliest photos and it is quite poor in its execution, but the underlying idea of the huge range in sizes between different ant species, and different ecological niches, with smaller ant species effectively operating in the shadows of larger ones is a great premise for a photo. Therefore even failed attempts are quite useful and I will often throw them into a folder (‘Conceptual’) on my computer earmarked for experimentation and improvement. Fortunately in the tropics due to the huge species range, often living within close-proximity, obtaining such a photo is not as rare as one might think.

“In the shadow of giants” – Crematogaster ants with a Cephalotes ant abdomen looming overhead. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2008.

 

6) Stakeout a location and be patient

This goes for ants, wasps and pretty much any communal insect. Choose a location where they occur in the greatest density. You increase your odds exponentially of finding interesting behaviour. For ants you will find more communication between fellow nestmates, greater instances of parasitization by wasps, mites and other parasitoids, nest defence strategies and a variety of other behaviours. Food sources are also an excellent area (this may include compost bins, and garbage heaps in more urban environments). More ants can be seen HERE

 

Tips for specific species

1) Weaver ants (Oecophylla sp.)

Weaver ants are widespread in SE Asia, Australia and Africa. They are charismatic, photogenic, engage in interesting behaviours, have their own complex microcosm including mimics and obligate inquilines (organisms which reside in their nests) and as an insect species have probably been entered and won the most photographic competitions. They are quite aggressive and are more likely to stand their ground with jaws agape rather than flee, providing an opportunity for photographs. If this species interests you, you can check out the first in what I hope will be a comprehensive series of articles on the biology and natural history of weaver ants: “An introduction to the Weaver ant complex

Like many other ant species, Oecophylla has developed a mutualistic relationship with various homopteran species. Look for mealy bugs, scale insects and treehoppers on plants close to a colony and you are likely to find some ants patrolling and guarding their herds.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) guarding a colony of mealy bugs which it protects in exchange for honeydew, a plant-phloem concentrate rich in sugars. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A drop of honeydew from farmed treehoppers about to be consumed. Photo taken with the Mpe-65mm with MT-24EX twin flash used as fill flash. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

By using a large aperture, a selective dof, a slow shutter and higher ISO one can create the impression of movement, and a kind of rush hour scene. Simply find a good ant trail with lots of ants, and focus on a single ant.

Rush hour. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants are particularly good subjects to shoot with backlighting. Their translucent abdomens and legs appear golden and their tracheal system can often be seen providing an interesting focal point not visible otherwise.

Backlit weaver ants. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Backlit weaver ant. Cat Tien national park, Vietnam.

A backlit weaver ant bridges the gap between two leaves. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Workers not only carry larvae/pupae but also exhibit social carrying in which energy is conserved by carrying nestmates.

Weaver ant social-carrying. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Trophollaxis is a commonly observed behaviour though capturing it can be tricky as ants tend to only engage in such behaviour when they feel comfortable. Therefore be patient, observe and move slowly. They will often engage in trophollaxis for 10 seconds or more therefore providing enough time to properly frame and shoot. Though getting the right angle and magnification can be tricky so you should make sure that you’ve got your setting settled before the action happens.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) communicating via trophollaxis. Photo taken in Ankor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ant trophollaxis. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants have a wide variety of prey, from other ants to scorpions and spiders and even birds. Though they do use formic acid in subduing prey, they principally use their incredible strength to pull prey apart mechanically. First they pin their prey by surrounding it and holding it down whilst disabling it by disjointing the muscles so that their quarry is unable to move. Then they are free to either quarter it, or else if the prey is large, to bring it back to the nest en masse.

When dealing with smaller prey that a single ant is carrying look for interesting perspectives. In the below shot I waited for the ant to readjust the head so that the smaller weaver ant head was right in between the much larger mandibles of the Pheidologeton super major soldier. When being followed by a large, looming shadow ants will tend to change direction or stray off trail. If they do so they will often move erratically in different directions which will be harder to shoot than when they are simply following a straight forward trail. Therefore you might want to wait until they have reestablished the trail before shooting. However, you might also be able to coax them into a more open location for better shooting, your decision will depend on the local environment.

“Weaver ant getting ahead” – Worker with Pheidologeton major worker head. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants collectively subdue a powerful predator, a hunting centipede (Scolopendra). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

By focusing on the prey and a single ant, the out of focus ants contribute to a frenetic feel, much like the ‘rush hour’ photo above.

“Above the fray” – Weaver ants with Odontoponera prey. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Termites and ants are natural enemies and the battle of these two superorganisms can often take on an epic feel, like the clash of titans. Therefore if you happen to see two colonies within close range of one another, it is worth sticking around and observing because there just might be a fascinating shoot around the corner.

By capturing a larger scene and then zooming in on individual battling ants, the individual photos make up more of a photoseries and has a greater impact. It tells the story of a battle, complete with casualties (beheaded ant in first shot), chemical weapons (formic acid release from the gaster in 3rd shot) and collective struggle.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) attacking termite (Macrotermes carbonarius) soldier. The huge slicing jaws of the termite already found one casualty, the beheaded worker in the foreground. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) attacking termite (Macrotermes carbonarius) soldier. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

What’s interesting about this shot is that unlike with most prey which are subdued by pinning and tearing apart, here the raised gaster is actually injecting formic acid into the mouth of the heavily armoured termite. A drop can be seen at the raised gaster as well as on the termite’s dorsum. Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smagardina) vs. termite (Macrotermes carbonarius). Photo taken in Kbal Spean, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ants are such a ubiquitous presence in SE Asian rainforests that it should come as no surprise that there are a wide variety of mimics ready to hide under the guise of one of the most fearsome rainforest residents. Mimics are most often found within close proximity to a nest. Weaver ant mimicking crab spiders (Amyaciae lineatipes) are especially common around nests, though Myrmarachne spp., orthoptera, micropezidae and other spp. of mimics are all also a possibility.

The most interesting photos will be those which manage to show both the mimic and the model. Ideally this would be in a single frame, though composite photos or a split frame photo (two shots merged into a single photo with dividing line) are also good for illustrative purposes. Below the weaver clambering atop the silken retreat of a weaver ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne plataleoides) creates tension and illustrates the resemblance in a striking manner.

Mimic and model. This was a long photo shoot and while the spider often stayed within the confines of its home, the ant circled and circled until finally emerging on top, causing the spider to slightly rear up defensively. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Try to have your photos express a message, rather than simply being a portrait. Eg. Weaver ants have an incredibly strong grip and will persevere and maintain their hold even as their bodies are being pulled apart. The individual below was found in its current state and may have died from a Cordyceps infection, or else been pulled apart by a rival colony.

Weaver ant death. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

They are also incredibly aggressive and will attack almost anything that moves, biting and latching onto both animate and inanimate objects. This behaviour has been used to interesting effect by several Indonesian photographers that have come under fire for the misrepresentation of natural behaviour. These photographers display weaver ants carrying large fruits, flowers or vegetables claiming that they did so of their own accord rather than artificially placing the objects within reach of a few individuals. A more interesting and faithful (disclaimed) representation is that of Vietnamese photographer Thanh Ha Bui. Click page to read original article.

Photo taken from the daily mail and is Copyright Thanh Ha Bui.

“Biting the hand that feeds it” – Weaver ant biting photographer. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

 

2) Leafcutter ants

Leafcutters despite their ubiquity have become a favourite of mine simply because I am so fascinated by their behaviour. Every time I come across a colony I can easily spend several hours photographing them. I have developed a few techniques to improve my keeper ratio though be forewarned, you will have many, many rejects. 1 in 40 shots acceptable is not uncommon.

Leafcutters are constantly in motion and can be a real pain. If you try and isolate them on a twig or something, they often drop their leaves and look unnatural. The solution I’ve found is to follow them to their ‘logging grounds’. When they march vertically, due to the load, they are slower than when running horizontally. Also, try blowing on them… I find that they will often stop altogether and brace themselves against the tree trunk. Just as they finish carving their leaf there is a brief window where they are getting the balance just right before heading off, this is a prime opportunity to catch a few quick shots. Look for obstacles in the terrain and wait beside these since it will usually slow down the leafcutters, possibly creating somewhat of a traffic jam.

As mentioned above (point 4 ‘behaviour’) Atta minor workers protect Atta majors from aerial threats like Phorid and other parasitic flies. It can be difficult capturing both minors and majors within an acceptable focal plane, especially since leaves aren’t always held vertical but can be angled. Therefore consider choosing a slightly angled perspective yourself to match how the leaves are being held as well as focus on minor workers vs. the major for a more interesting perspective.

Atta major carrying two minor workers. Try using a greater dof to get the minor workers and major worker in focus, though this will be a compromise as there will unlikely be enough light to capture a natural light background. Better a plain black background rather than one which has too much grain. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Framing can be an issue when shooting leafcutters. Try to keep the entire leaf within the frame as they can be almost as much a part of the photo as the ant itself. Afterall it is this fascinating behaviour which distinguishes them from other ant species, so show it to its best effect. I often select which leafcutters I will shoot on the basis of the shapes of the leaves they are holding. Some are irregular and bulky and protrude out of the frame no matter how much I try and finagle it. Others have beautiful curves and naturally complement the photo. Look for oval or oblong leaves that naturally reach into the corners of the frame.

Leafcutter ant carrying leaf. Contrast and white balance are slightly off in this photo and since it was originally taken as a jpeg there’s not too much I can do about it. However I am still a fan of the composition which shows balance and nice framing. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2008.

Silhouetting works particularly well with leafcutters to show the venation and cellular detail of the cut leaves. A short burst 1/128 or 1/64s flash can also help illuminate the subject without blowing out the detail revealed through backlighting.

Leafcutter silhouette. Photo taken in Mindo, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

From the Peruvian Amazon, a reprocessed version of my earlier leafcutter. This one involved taking the camera raw version and exposing properly for the leaf, adjusting levels, sat., etc… and then importing into photoshop via a smart object. Then made a new smart object layer via copy, so that I could get another layer of the original image in Camera Raw, only this time adjust for the background. I adjusted the background in Camera Raw which updated the smart object copy layer in Photoshop. I then made a layer mask and painted the leaf and green background that I didn’t want changed. Merged copies and here we are. Advantage of this process is that it is less destructive than altering in a lossy manner with JPEG/other format since all the main RAW adjustments were made in Camera RAW. Then applied an unsharp mask to bring out the bristles and noise reduction for the red/orange background. Photo taken in Manu national park, Peru. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

If ants are in motion, try using this to create a dynamic photo. I have recently been experimenting with panning and leafcutters. So far the results look promising, though I haven’t got any that I would call ‘stunners’. For more experimental shots, see the ‘experimental’ section in tips, tricks and techniques.

Panning with Leafcutter ants. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

It has been a while since I’ve been in South America and I have since improved my photography so expect to see this section updated in the future.

3) Army ants

Not only fast, but aggressive. If you stay in one spot too long they will send out scouts and before you know it they are swarming all over your pants. To combat this, you can isolate an army ant(s) on a stick or other material. As they run up and down, it will afford you many opportunities to get a shot of an ant in isolation (Applies to high mag. and more or less single ant shots). However, part of the beauty of army ants is their huge numbers (up to several million members), therefore consider wide angle macros and easing off on the magnification.

Army ant worker (Eciton sp.) with larva. Photo taken in Kaieteur falls, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

The actual capture of insects and animals can be somewhat perilous to photograph since one must typically be at the raid front and thus exposed to thousands of biting ants. Timelapse to a certain extent is possible for animals which are quickly overwhelmed and can’t flee. Eg. An earthworm or spider which is first caught by one or two ants, and then gradually flooded until it is completely covered and then dismembered. These types of photos work well as a photo series showing the incredible recruiting capacity.

However, one can comfortably photograph the fruits of a raid by shooting a column as it returns to the bivouac. However, one must remain still and even breathe evenly since any motion or vibration will often cause workers and soldiers to fan out. It is easier to shoot these from sloped ground or embankments so one can shoot from a ground level perspective.

Fruits of a raid. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Soldier ants with their incredible mandibles naturally make for excellent subjects. They also stand guard on the outskirts of the column therefore making them somewhat more approachable. Getting down low and photographing head on is generally a good perspective. You will also probably want to use a small aperture to get the recurved mandibles completely in focus.

Army ant soldier. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Army ant soldier groomed by worker ant. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Much like the Asian weaver ants, there is a web of interactions between army ants and other insects and animals. Birds often follow army ant columns and prey on insects fleeing before the raiders. Parasitic flies do the same and even have the audacity to wrench free and lay their eggs on insects captured by worker ants. Some flies are simply thieves and scavengers, finding vantage points and purloining dismembered parts, or sucking up the hemolymph of dead prey.

Fly perched above an army ant column (Calodixia sp.?), scavenging remains from a raid. Photo taken in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Other insects like Staphylinid beetles have a more interesting and intimate relationship with their hosts. They are commensals which live within the colony, are fed by the ants but do no noticeable harm. Such commensals range from obligate, in which they are unable to live free from the colony, to facultative where it is possible for them to live independently (though it is less productive to do so). Staphylinid beetles move quickly, keeping up with the workers in the colony (behavioural mimicry) and they usually embed themselves in the middle of a column suggesting that their is some form of biochemical deception at play as well (colony pheromone). They are generally of the same colour and look roughly similar. Their phenotypic traits broadly suggest mimicry, though they are quite obviously different upon closer inspection. Capturing photos of these ant mimics is  a complete gamble. Their population within a colony is naturally low usually 1 in a 1000. Therefore one must sit by a fast moving column and wait patiently. Be sure that you have found a good location, preferably one that is comfortable as you might be waiting a while. A spot which has good access without too many obstacles, preferably which has the column navigating some kind of an elevated log or liana such that you don’t have to contend with ants running up and down leaves and under logs and in which one can easily lose the subject. Also choose a flat area that will allow you to move freely and follow the column so that you have several opportunities to shoot and not just the one. However as the two photos below indicate, framing and focus can be exceptionally difficult with such fast moving, never-stopping subjects.

Staphylinid beetle in army ant (Eciton sp.) column. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Army ants (Neivamyrmex sp.) with Vasetus rove beetle in background. Photo taken in Hitoy-Cerrere reserve, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

A better shot of Vasetus sp. can be seen HERE on Alex Wild’s webpage.

One must be very observant to pick out the fast moving interloper, and be even quicker to take photos in situ. Of course it is possible and quite easy to isolate the beetle by flicking it into a jar and photograph it independently of the army ants. However, I find that this kind of photo is good for documentarian purposes but all context is lost and so it is not of particular interest to me. Shooting in hi-continuous mode will help ensure at least one photo will turn out. Consider using a fast card which quickly clears the internal buffer so that you can continue shooting in bursts, since it is guaranteed that the mimic will quickly get away from you and prove difficult to shoot again.

A are shot of a Staphylinid beetle pupa being carried by army ants. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

A Staphylinid beetle is isolated so as to better show morphological traits and verisimilitude to its ant model – Eciton burchellii.

Army ant-mimicking Staphylinid beetle (Ecitophyia sp.?). Photo taken in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

Still others are parasitic (Tetradonia sp.) and actually prey on adults and the eggs of the army ants which harbour them. Whilst others like the mite (Circocylliba sp.) climb aboard workers, clamps down and creates a seal so as not to be dislodged.

Army ant-mimicking rove beetle (Tetradonia sp.). Photo taken in La Amistad national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

If this incredible circus interests you Takashi Komatsu has done an amazing job of capturing an wonderful variety of mimics, commensals, and parasites. Definitely worth a read.

Asian army ants

Asian army ant (Aenictus sp.) carrying larvae. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ants with larvae

 

[I am working on improving my army ant shots since I feel they could be much better, and they are a very fascinating subject so stay tuned to this section. Shots will include high mag. soldier/worker, Bivouac, panning nomad lines, myrmecophiles, hunting ant shots, and wide-angle macros]

More on my own experiences with army ants can be read HERE.

Predators

The caste of characters below are primarily ant hunters, however they have been known to accept other prey on occasion. Nonetheless ants form the basis of their diet and are essential to their survival in some way or another.

Assassin bugs (Reduviidae) 

Although there are undoubtedly additional species whose diet is comprised of chiefly ants, these are the two that I have managed to photograph.

Acanthaspis petax lives within close proximity to ant colonies though it does deviate from a solely ant-based diet despite consistently and uniquely using the desiccated remains of ants in a form of macabre camouflage. The ant carcasses are held together with a kind of glue which is spread over the back and between the individual corpses with the help of the back legs and the hairs which stretch and smooth the glue over a greater surface area. Such camouflage is thought to protect it by disrupting its outline, masking its biochemical signature, making it appear much larger than it is in reality and offering a kind of shield. Ants are likely the target due to their fearsome nature and their tendency to swarm which both act as deterrents to would-be predators. In studies in which camouflaged and bare assassin bugs were placed in a cage with several species of jumping spiders, bare reduviids were consistently attacked more frequently ~10:1. More can be read HERE.

I found the first specimen on a an upright tree trunk. Several assassin bugs were within the vicinity and I chose this one based on the impressive accumulation of dead bodies. I chose a tighter crop but was careful to include a dead ant in the foreground which had just been released from the proboscis a moment earlier. A small aperture, large dof is important so that all the dead bodies can be in focus though some might prefer focus stacking. Note that even on the mpe with a minimum aperture size of f/16, there will still be some of the ant backpack out of focus therefore you might consider using a 100mm (with extension tubes) with a minimum of f/22 despite some diffraction.

Ant-snatching assassin bug (Acanthaspis petax). Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

The second specimen was found on a low lying plant though not far from a popular ant trail. I suggest looking at night rather than during the daytime.

Ant-snatching assassin bug (Acanthaspis petax). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

This was my first time spotting the second species exhibiting ant-specific predation by the feather-legged assassin bug, Ptilocerus ochraceus. This species appears to be quite rare since I have only ever encountered it once, though it might be locally abundant in some places. More common are the Australian spp. (P. lemur, P. femoralis, etc.). Unfortunately this specimen remained stationary despite my observing it for quite some time and returning to revisit it several times throughout several days. It apparently uses the hairy tufts on its legs to help disseminate an enticing odour which attracts ants (Hexatoma sp.) which apparently drink from and become narcotized by secretions from a trichome, a gland on the ventral surface of the assassin bug (a photo of it can be seen HERE). These drunken ants are not only defenceless but are also ideally positioned directly under the stabbing proboscis. There seem to be few quality pictures online, however there is a David Attenborough short in Life in the Undergrowth showing this fascinating behaviour, below.

Feather-legged reduviid (Ptilocerus ochraceus). Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Feather-legged reduviid (Ptilocerus ochraceus). Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Arachnids

Crab spiders

Unlike the other arachnids mimics in the section below, crab spiders do not solely use their likeness to their model as a means of concealment, but also as a means of approaching their prey. This essentially means that each species of crab spider displays species-specific predation of their models.

One of the most impressive is the gliding ant (Cephalotes sp.) mimicking crab spider, Aphantochilus rogersi. With a range extending from Central to South America, its wide distribution is at odds with its low abundance. Mothers deposit their eggs within the vicinity of target nests so that young spiderlings don’t have far to travel to find food. Preying exclusively on Cephalotine ants, spiders employ several behaviours to minimize risk and confound their prey. This includes strategic attack from behind and raising the ants above their heads such that they are unable to potentially injure the spider. Prey are also held closely in a manner reminiscent of two ants communicating by trophollaxis. A paper outlining A. rogersi behaviour can be seen HERE.

Choose an angle which shows the similarity between model and mimic and shows both to good effect. This earlier attempt could have been improved by angling the subject slightly so that it not only filled the frame more, but also didn’t appear so flat on the horizon.  The colour balance has a distinctly yellow cast to it and a greater dof with focus stacking would have been an excellent option, especially with a stationary subject like crab spiders which often don’t move for extended periods of time. Subject could have also benefited from additional diffusion though the textured body helps dispel some of the specular highlights.

Cephalotes Ant mimicking spider with prey (Aphantochilus rogersi). Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Cephalotes Ant mimicking spider with prey (Aphantochilus rogersi). Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Compare the above predation with two ants engaging in legitimate trophollaxis below. Always think of potential pairing of photos, this is an especially relevant consideration when photographing models and mimics. The photos naturally complement one another and aid in the unfolding of a story which might be otherwise impossible to tell with a single photo.

Two gliding ants (Cephalotes atratus) engaging in trophollaxis. Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Cephalotes Ant mimicking spider (Aphantochilus rogersi). Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Portrait of Aphantochilus rogersi. Photo taken in Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Notice the similar colouration and patterns on the abdomen of both model and mimic of this unidentified crab spider.

Ant-mimicking crab spider with prey. Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Ant-mimicking crab spider with prey. Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

The Australasian Kerengga ant mimic (Amyciaea lineatipes) comes in both orange (Asia) and green (Australia) forms. This is the ant-mimicking crab spider that most searches will turn up and it is ubiquitous around weaver ant colonies. Good diffusion is important with this shiny species, especially on the abdomen which is smoother than the head and thus more prone to ugly highlights. Both Nicky Bay and Kurt (Orionmystery) have excellent captures of this species preying on its model (Oecophylla smaragdina) and Alex Wild has some excellent photos of the green colour morph.

Weaver ant-mimicking crab spider (Amyciaea lineatipes). Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Zodariidae

Excellent diffusion is required for this shiny-bodied genus, exemplified by Kurt’s photo below. Although they are fairly tenacious and will hold onto their prey longer than some other spiders which tend to drop and run, the fact that they are ground spiders means that you will often have difficulty getting a clear shot free of debris. Spiders tend to hide in enclosed spaces or under leaves when disturbed but may be found out in the open when first encountered. Therefore consider using a longer lens like a 100mm to avoid scaring them off.

Photo taken in Cat tien national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Unfortunately my Zodariid photos with ant prey have turned out mostly poorly so with kind permission from Kurt I am including one of his stellar photos to illustrate the resemblance between model (Camponotus gigas), the largest carpenter ant in the world and its predatory Zodariid mimic.

This wonderful photo is Copyright of Kurt (Orionmystery) 2013.

Theridiidae

Commonly known as comb-footed spiders commonly prey on ants (though they are not exclusive) through the use of sticky traplines deposited on the ground. When ants touch the silken strands, they become entangled and the thread which is under tension snaps, jerking the the spider into the air where it dangles helplessly until subdued by the resident spider.

Spider with Odontomachus prey. Unfortunately even at 1X there was too much magnification by the mpe to allow proper framing which would have given more room on both the top and the left hand side of the photo. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ant-lion (Myrmeleontidae)

In their larval from they are impressive and fearsome little beasts. Most I’m sure are quite well acquainted with ant-lions or doodle bugs from an early age and lots of information is available online so I won’t go into too much detail. Their conical sand pits are iconic and a common feature in dry landscapes. However, one must unearth the ant-lions in order to get any acceptable photos and forget trying to get predatory shots of these guys with prey in situ since any disruption of their lair results in them either burrowing further into the sand, or else dropping the ant. There are a few online shots, however these are mostly low resolution, without too much detail or magnification and pretty uncommon. So far the best I can hope for is either a shot with the body mostly buried and the head and/or jaws resting above the surface or else a full body detailed shot like that below but which is mostly devoid of character and context. Placing ant-lion in a shallow sandy dish, just enough to lightly cover the body but not for it to bury itself is a decent solution for natural looking pictures.

This was a 15 shot stack in Zerene stacker to give detail to all the sand stuck particles on the body’s surface. Photo taken in Kelowna, Canada. Copyright Paul Bertner 2012.

I am currently working on a model pit so that I can hopefully capture a shot of predatory behaviour. Stay tuned.

Cordyceps

Cordyceps is an interesting entomopathogenic fungus (a fancy way of saying a fungus that parasitizes and kills insects/spiders). Each Cordyceps is species specific and is something pretty horrifying. The spores will land on an insect and gradually the fungal mycelia will grow down past the insects exoskeleton and into the body where they will spread like tree roots, invading and replacing host tissue. This kills the insect in a very slow, lengthy process. In the final stages, the fungus takes the neurological reins and modifies the insect’s behaviour so as best to benefit itself. In ants it will cause them to climb to a high perch and bite down on a leaf or stem with a death grip. The ant will slowly die, perhaps from starvation, perhaps from the deterioration of its body, but after some time there might be seen movement. To be sure it is extremely slow and small but it is there. If sped up, it would look like a worm wriggling out of the body. And this isn’t far from the truth. It is the fruiting body of the cordyceps fungus. Which grows a stalk several inches long, terminating in asci or sacs containing the spores that will lead to a new round of infectious dissemination. Why go to all this trouble to cause the ant to climb to a high perch? Well, the jungle is very humid with rain falling often and in large quantities. Ants being principally ground dwellers, it wouldn’t do to have the ants and fungus along with them washed away, covered in mud or stuck together. Additionally, just like climbing to the top of a mountain will afford a better view of the surroundings, so too will climbing to the top of a plant or bush in a jungle microenvironment. From here, the fungus is free to be blown in all directions by the slightest current of wind, the spores, like insidious grains of pollen, waiting to be planted in the fertile backs of their hosts. Some areas are so stricken by this plague that entire ant colonies are decimated and surrounding plants become ghostly graveyards. A timelapse video of a growing Cordyceps documented in the BBC Life series by David Attenborough can be seen below.

Cordyceps comes in a variety of shapes and even colours. Though most are pale grey, white and brown, some can be an astonishing pink or even red. I have found that my preference is for black backgrounds rather than  those incorporating natural light as there is less of a distraction, especially since the fungus itself is quite thin and unless the bokeh is absolutely smooth then shapes and patterns can prove distracting. A diagonal presentation will enable the greatest magnification and frame-filling which is important for such the long fruiting body which can be many times the body length of the actual subject. Though not a problem with single filament fungi, some fruiting bodies are multi-branched, like dendrites and therefore are more amenable to focus stacking. Again before and after shots of living and dead specimens can make for interesting comparative study, as well as a timelapse like the above video (though this might require weeks and it is important to find a specimen infected early on which can be difficult).

Photo taken in Preah Monivong national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Diacamma ant infected with Cordyceps. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Ant infected with Cordyceps fungus. Photo taken in Cat tien national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Photo taken in Preah Monivong national park, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Cat Tien national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Camponotus ant infected with Cordyceps fungus. Photo taken in gunung Leuser national park, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Polyrhachis ant infected with Cordyceps funguns. Photo taken in Mt. Isarong national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Blue Polyrhachis ant (Polyrhachis cyaniventris) infected with Cordyceps fungus. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Polyrhachis ant infected with Cordyceps fungus. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Ant-mimicry

As mentioned earlier, photos of both models and mimics are essential in telling the full story, otherwise there is an unavoidable gap in the narrative. Whether shot together or separately documenting both will help flesh out the natural history. There are a wide variety of ant mimics across a huge number of insect and arachnid families. Some families like the sac spiders Clubionidae/Corinnidae have widespread adoption of ant-mimicry while others like the lepidoptera have fewer incidences.

Spiders (Arachnids)

Jumping spiders (Myrmarachne spp.)

Carpenter ant with horsefly. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Female red carpenter ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.). Notice the gaster held  upright in a manner similar to the model, a clear display of behavioural mimicry. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Female Camponotus ant mimicking jumping spider. Photo taken in Selangor, Malaysia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Diacamma ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Model and mimic were found in the same vicinity within feet of each other. However, the two were put together here for illustrative purposes as the sharp-eyed myrmarachne typically wouldn’t be found quite this close to the aggressive diacamma ant. Photo taken in Danum Valley, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Female ant mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Photo taken in Cat Tien national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Female ant-mimicking jumping spider (Myrmarachne plataleoides). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Male and female ant-mimicking jumping spiders (Myrmarachne sp.). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Sac spiders (Clubionidae, Corinnidae)

Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana. Copyright Paul Bertner 2010.

Polyrhachis-ant mimicking corinnid spider. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Sphecotypus niger) mimics ant model Pachychondyla villosa. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Sphecotypus niger) mimics ant model Pachychondyla villosa. Photo taken in Corcovado national park, Costa Rica. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Pranburia spp.

Ant-mimicking corinnid spider (Pranburia manhoppi). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Crazy ant mimicking corinnid spider (Pranburia sp.). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Zodariidae

Photo taken in Mt. Kinabalu national park, Malaysian Borneo. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Flies (Diptera)

Weaver ant mimicking micropezid fly (Grammicomyia sp.). Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Weaver ant-mimicking neriid fly (Telostylus sp.). Photo taken in Lake Danao national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Euphranta striatella. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Stratiomyidae (Euryneura). Photo taken in Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador. Copyright Paul Bertner 2011.

Wasps (Hymenoptera)

Ant mimicking wasp. Photo taken in Cuc Phuong national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Katydids (Orthoptera)

Phaneropterine katydid nymph. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Beetles (Coleoptera)

Ant-mimicking rove beetle. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Polyrhachis ant-mimicking longhorn beetle (Parmenine sp.). Photo taken in Bach Ma national park, Vietnam. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Treehoppers (Membracidae)

An early photo of ant-mimicking treehopper (Cyphonia clavata)

Shield bugs (Pentatomidae)

Polyrhachis cyaniventris model ant. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Polyrhachis ant mimicking shield bug. Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

Alydidae

Ant-mimicking Alydid nymph

Praying mantids (Mantodea)

Oecophylla ant-mimicking juvenile mantis. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Moths (Lepidoptera)

Ant-mimicking micro moth (Stathmopodidae). Photo taken in Mt. Isarog national park, Philippines. Copyright Paul Bertner 2014.

More ant mimicry photos can be found in my flickr album HERE.

For those whose appetite has simply been whetted and not extinguished, you can check out Alexander Wild’s wonderful ant photography at http://www.alexanderwild.com/ and his blog at www.myrmecos.net.

 

Tips for wasps and bees

Seen here is a hornet with an ant as prey, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

Wasps in particular can have quite menacing faces, this in conjunction with their warning colours makes them particularly attractive subjects for dramatic lighting and closeups. Wasps being predatory insects can often be found with prey. More often than not it is a matter of luck finding them with prey, but if you remain within close proximity to the nest, you can increase your odds. Also look for places that may be plentiful for ‘source’ insects; an ant colony might be one example, or a compost bin. More Bees and wasps can be seen HERE I don’t take too many pictures of bees in general since they are very flighty, they are strictly diurnal and they are a very, very popular subject and so I’m afraid I won’t be able to contribute anything that’s really new. However, if you want to see some of the best bee photos that I have seen, I would direct you to John Kimbler’s (Dalantech) website.

Shot taken by John Kimbler.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tips for Neuroptera

The most common Neuroptera that you will find are lacewings, ant-lions, owlflies and mantidflies and their abundance is roughly found in this same descending order.

 

Lacewings (Chrysopidae)

 

Lacewings are named for the wonderfully intricate venation of their wings and though this trait is shared with the other members of this family as well as with the Odonata (Dragonflies and damselflies) they are still probably the most striking (especially in their green form). The faint rainbow iridescence that glances of the translucent panels of the wings, the elegant green veins and the trim of faintly raised hairs (which when viewed closer are actually tiny hooks) combine to create an elegant insect truly worthy of the name ‘lacewing’.

 

An example of a poorly diffused shot with uneven light all too typical of many amateur shots. This is one of my earlier shots which even with post production cleanup still suffers a number of glaring imperfections. Not least among them are poor white balance, uneven lighting, poor shadow detail and low depth of field.

Like the antlions and owlflies, lacewings are clumsy fliers and can be readily caught with a net, though lacking that they often only travel a short distance before landing on another leaf for a break. Therefore if you happen to startle one into flight then you stand a good chance of getting another opportunity. In my experience, where one finds one lacewing there are likely to be others. They enjoy the undersides of leaves and are pretty ubiquitous, being found in cleared fields, dense undergrowth and riparian areas. Despite their beauty, they are voracious predators of many small arthropods. Of particular note to the agricultural industry is their rapacious appetite for aphids, mites and other damaging pest species engendering their use as a biological control agent of late. However, one is unlikely to encounter such behaviour due to their crepuscular (dusk)/nocturnal behaviour unless it is specifically sought out. Another solution, one which I don’t really espouse but which is effective nonetheless is to refrigerate a lacewing for a couple of days, slow down its metabolism and then when you release it you put it on a leaf with potential prey.

Lacewings prefer to feed on small, juicy prey like aphids and having found an undefended colony they often seize the nearest aphid in their hollow jaws and inject a mixture of paralytic venom and peptidases (hydrolytic enzymes which cleave proteins) liquefying the internal organs sufficiently to facilitate digestion. More found HERE. Green lacewing feeding on an elderberry aphid (Aphis sambuci). Winfield, B.C. Canada.

Green lacewing feeding on an elderberry aphid (Aphis sambuci). Winfield, B.C. Canada.

As seen from this sequence a lacewing will eat the entire aphid, not even leaving behind the husk. A few legs, like crumbs, the only thing to fall from its mouth. Green lacewing feeding on an elderberry aphid (Aphis sambuci). Winfield, B.C. Canada.

Another fascinating behaviour which should further encourage nighttime exploration is the lacewing’s complex manner of egg deposition. Eggs are mounted on the end of silky stalks to protect them both from marauding predators such as ants, and from each other, since the voracious newly hatched lacewings would otherwise cannibalize their siblings. The stalks are further covered in oily droplets composed of aldehydes and fatty acids which act as an irritant to other insects, thereby preventing their predation- more can be read HERE.

Lacewing eggs with defensive droplets on silken strands. Found during a night hike in iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana.

Owlflies

Owfly taken at Kaieteur falls, Guyana.

The horizontal division in the eye of this owlfly makes for very interesting composition and adds interest just because it is so unusual. High magnification is preferable. Kaieteur falls, Guyana.

Ant-lion

Ant-lion larva

More Neuroptera can be seen HERE

 

Tips for beetles, cockroaches and carapaced insects Cockroaches (Blattodea)

I find beetles and cockroaches can be quite difficult subjects to capture well. They are usually found scuttling on the ground and so 99% of shots are taken from above. The head and eyes are usually a good focal point for an image (note there are exceptions), shots taken from above don’t display these features to their most beneficial.

Here’s an example of a poor, yet typical cockroach shot. I took this several years ago in Borneo. It is too flat, no real points of interest, one can’t see the head and the photo is too dark. Utterly forgettable.

So, get low down and shoot upwards.

This cockroach was found on the forest floor. It blends in extremely well with the dead and dying leaves. However to shoot it from above would leave a rather flat composition. So I lay down on the leaves and waited until it adopted a position where it mounted a lookout leaf higher than the rest. I tilted my camera up and got this shot. To my eye, this shot is much better! Kurupukari crossing, Guyana.

Cockroaches have interesting behaviours too don’t forget! One can very easily dismiss scuttling and unpleasant creatures and avoid looking for any kind of behaviour, however, some are very interesting or even beautiful!

Here a cockroach is splaying its wings in an attempt to lure a mate. Manu national park, Peru.

Cockroaches and most insects for that matter undergo moults in which they shed their exoskeleton in order to grow and adopt a new chitinous shell. This can be a great opportunity to catch some interesting and somewhat otherworldly photos.

The old exoskeleton has been split and emerging is the cockroach, now larger. Colours are usually more vibrant after a moult as well. Insects will require some time for the chitin to harden and so usually remain still for long periods during this dangerous and sensitive period in their lifecycles.

 

Beetles (Coleoptera)

Put the insect on a leaf, or twig and raise it up to get a shot from below. Use glass and shoot an underside portrait. Use mirrors. There are any number of things one can do to generate a more interesting shot.

Rather than shooting this Rhinoceros beetle amongst the grasses, I decided to get it to cling to a stick and raise it against the sky for a brighter more unusual backdrop. Kurupukari crossing, Guyana.

One can either choose to zoom in on the beetle’s details or else relax the frame and show it in its environment. There are merits to both methods. However it can be difficult to choose when to employ each. Of course it depends on the intent of the photographer, but one must also look at the environment and at the subject. Take the example of the hairy weevil below. In order to show its minute size, I pulled the frame back and employed lots of negative space. In so doing one’s attention is drawn to the subject while also maintaining  a larger awareness which would not otherwise be possible if the beetle took up every inch of the frame. When I took the shot I was also reminded of camels walking along the edge of dunes in the desert. I tried to recreate that by ensuring that the edge of the leaf was visible and moved from out of focus behind the subject to in focus to out of focus again ahead of the subject. Someone else once told me that it reminded them of an small elephant. If I can evoke a sense of the world’s largest terrestrial animal with a photo of a pinhead sized weevil then I feel like I successfully achieved my aim.

Hairy weevil taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar.

“Walking on the sun”. Weevil in Andasibe national park, Madagascar.

Hairy weevil at night in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar.

Mating tortoise beetles after heavy rain. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Tiger beetle.

 

Tips for Arachnids, and Chilopods (Centipedes)

Remember, it’s all about composition!!!

The top flowers are clipped to my disgruntlement, but other than that I’m happy with the photo. Even the black background contrasts nicely with the white of the flowers. Small spider camouflaged amongst the hoya flowers. Borneo.

Most spiders are harmless, and though they may appear quite vicious, the same rule applies to them as to the snakes below. Even the more poisonous spiders would rather leave you alone than waste their precious venom on you. Like most insects, the focal point is the face and eyes, though this can be complicated by the mouthparts and fangs which one would ideally like to get into focus as well. Therefore a smaller aperture might be of use when photographing frontal portraits at high magnifications. The problem I often face with spiders, day or night is not disturbing them. People are generally very careful when it comes to approaching flying insects because it makes the difference between getting a shot of the insect and getting a shot of the leaf it was sitting on. Yet they do not import that same care when photographing other more terrestrial insects. In my opinion this is a mistake. All insects and animals should be approached slowly and carefully. Even if you still manage to get a photo of the insect, after it has been alerted to your presence it will no longer remain in a natural pose but will adopt either a threatening posture or a cryptic one in which it tries to hide as best it can. The latter also provides good photographic opportunities as mentioned earlier. But your priority should be natural poses/behaviour, which after you have documented you can on to disturb the creature and get it into a better pose. Unlike a lot of other animals, arachnids can often be found feeding or engaging in other behavioural displays which can be caught to very good effect.

Mating running crab spiders. Here the male is inserting his sperm packet via his palps into an egg casing that the female has made. An interesting tangle of legs make this scene interesting and the colours are quite complementary. Manu national park, Peru.

So keep your eyes out for these. But watch out when they are feeding, because if you disturb them with your photography, typically when you hold the leaf or branch they are on to stabilize the camera, they will often drop their prey and assume an unnatural, threatened position. So approach with care.

Kleptoparasitic spider (Argyrodes) inhabiting the web of a larger spider. The kleptoparasite mostly stays out of the way of the larger spider on whose web it lives, but it will steal food, never bothering to build its own web. They are too small to be of any real concern to the larger spider and so they generally go unmolested. There can be dozens of these little spiders on a single web. This photo shows to good effect the use of foreground and background subjects. The former is the main subject and is in focus, whilst the latter is out of focus but still contributes to the story in an important way. Despite the fact that this is technically a portrait shot, it is also demonstrates kleptoparasitic behaviour. Manu national park, Peru.

Harvestmen

Female harvestman guarding her eggs. However, she has also been parasitized by some form of wasp. The empty pupal chambers on her back a testament to her hardiness. Such photos tell a detailed story of natural history and are essential for generating interest and fascinating the viewer beyond simple aesthetics. Taken in Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador.

I find harvestmen quite difficult to shoot well. They are gangly if one wants to incorporate their legs and they have small beady eyes which can be difficult to get into focus. Their legs move across their eyes giving out of focus areas, the list goes on. So generally pictures including the entire spider aren’t ideal. So focus on the body. Many have dorsal patterns that make them particularly amenable to an overhead view.

This cosmetid harvestman was an ideal candidate for an overhead shot based on its intricate markings and spinular anatomy. Mahdia, Guyana.

Ecuadorian harvestman are some of the most diverse and impressive. Like the Craneid harvestman from Jatun Sacha, Tena, Ecuadorian Amazon.

The also respond particularly well to UV light. Proteins embedded in their exoskeleton fluoresce in response to wavelengths in the 300-400 nm range exhibiting colours ranging from blue-green, yellow to reds. There are still relatively few UV-harvestman shots out there, especially compared to the plethora of UV-scorpion photos, so such photos still appear unique.

Cosmetid harvestman under UV light. Taken in Bellavista cloud forest, Ecuador.

Orbweavers and web building spiders

Orbweaving spiders are an incredibly diverse set, though features common to the group are the creation of large webs (relative to their size) used as the primary means by which to capture prey. However the resident spider doesn’t always remain in the central hub, but may reside on the periphery. The spider maintains its connection to the web by a  communication strand which when triggered will cause her to come racing out to capture her prey. In general orbweavers have a rather dull colouration so as to avoid being conspicuous to wasps and avian predators (though exceptions abound). A suspended spider affords an excellent view of both the ventral and dorsal surfaces and depending on the height, one can achieve interesting head on perspectives.

Large orbweaver (Eriophora) ventral portrait. Here the colours on the ventral side were much more interesting than the dorsum. I was also able to get pretty close without disturbing it so the legs remained splayed rather than tucked in which would ruin the effect. The main goal here was to display the colours to good effect. Manu national park, Peru.

Taken at night in Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.

Almost as soon as prey lands in an orbweaver’s web, it will be descended upon by the spider. She will often bite and release and wait. After the paralytic in the venom has had a chance to take effect and the risk of damage to the spider has been minimized, she will proceed to wrap up her prey either to feed or to save for later. It is while she is wrapping her prey that an excellent photographic opportunity presents itself. Silken strands are pulled from the spinnerets by a rear leg and are wrapped around the prey even as the prey is being rotated and managed by the other legs. This happens extremely quickly, so it is best to prepare beforehand. Your settings should be set to hi-speed continuous shooting, low ISO, fast shutter speed over 1/200 sec should be used. Depending on the magnification a small aperture <f/11 should be used to maintain focus of the silk, the spinnerets, the prey that is being wrapped and as much of the spider as possible. Fast shutter speeds and small f-stops thus require the use of flash unless one desires to increase both the ISO and the graininess of the image. Perhaps most important is getting a good vantage point for the action. Make sure that the web is not too high, and that it is not surrounded by tons of plants or other objects which when disturbed will cause the spider to abandon its prey and go running for cover. Also be certain that you approach from the proper side for the best possible view rather than taking pictures from behind where the spinnerets and the action is out of focus and covered by the other limbs. Accustom the spider to your presence before tossing in the prey so that it will wrap the prey in the same place it was caught. Otherwise she will view you as a threat and will simply carry the prey to the hub or elsewhere that is more sheltered and which offers limited opportunities for viewing and photography. For a more dramatic photograph, choose prey which is large but slow which has a large surface area, but is light and will not fall through the web, nor should it be capable of fighting back. Ideal prey are moths and butterflies, though flies, especially craneflies whose long gangly bodies readily become entangled are also excellent choices. Remember that webs were designed to entrap flying prey and so choosing terrestrial prey usually doesn’t result in satisfactory results. However, it takes some luck and many many shots to get one that is satisfactory.

Get there when the action happens. Usually simply being around a spider web will encourage prey like horseflies, mosquitoes or insects attracted to your flashlight to fall prey to a spider web. Therefore be patient, and wait until an insect falls into the web and then be ready to fire away like crazy because the action will be brief but intense. Jatun Sacha, Ecuadorian Amazon.

Some spiders build extraordinary webs and so the spiders themselves really need to be showcased in their microcosm. Spiders can form up to 7 different kinds of silk from their spinnerets, modifying the basic silk polymer by different extrusion mechanisms. Some spiders, especially those of the Cyclosa and Argiope genera can create an opaque white silk, a thread quite distinct from that used to form the rest of the web and which is called the stabilimentum. Though the purpose of the stabilimentum isn’t fully known, theories range from  its use to alert birds from flying into and destroying the webs to deflecting UV-light and cooling the spider.

This picture would have been very easy to make flat and uninteresting despite the amazingly ornate web. Why? Because webs are almost always in a single plane like a sheet of paper. And so unless you tilt that plane then it constantly gives only a single perspective. Here the plane is tilted slightly, very subtly and I tried to find the spider itself on an angle to add further interest. Cyclosa spiders in general make for very good subjects because they have a variety of interesting adaptations in web design. Cyclosa insulana found during a night hike in Maliau basin, Agathis camp, Borneo.

The shots in this segment were all taken with flash because they were either taken at night or during a period of intense action exemplified by predation. However, a more harmonious scene is usually achieved with more subdued colour palette usually created by using natural light. Consider using this method during the day to capture web building spiders in their natural habitat. Get low and shoot upwards or level so that the maximum amount of light is able to enter the lens. Better yet use a tripod so that you are not limited by the shutter speed. While out of focus elements in the foreground can readily become distracting, if they are minimal and tastefully done, they can also add to the dreamy feel and work well together with subdued colours.

Camouflaged orbweaver amongst leaves. Taken during the day with natural light in Lake country, Canada.

 

Jumping spiders (Salticidae)

Jumping spiders have lots of personality and are very photogenic so this isn’t a group that is too hard to photograph. They cock their heads to the side as though deliberating their next move, they will often put their front legs out in front of them just before jumping, they have a variety of great poses. When photographing jumpers I prefer the pose immediately before they jump or when they tilt their heads back and look up at the camera with their two large median eyes.

One of my earlier photographic attempts. Notice that the white balance is heavily skewed towards a warm colour temperature. The scene is harshly and unevenly lit and altogether underexposed. Female Lyssomanes looking up into the camera. Notice the large amount of foreground space that I allowed in this photo which gives her the appearance of being ready to jump right into the camera. Iwokrama, Guyana.

In comparison to the first photo, this one is properly exposed, there are no specular highlights, the pose is more dynamic and interesting and the shadow and highlight details are properly controlled. Jumping spider (Padilla lancearia) endemic to Madagascar. Found in Marojejy national park, Madagascar.

Sometimes jumpers won’t readily oblige in their poses and seemingly look everywhere but where you want them to. They naturally jump higher rather than lower. So you can get them to look up by putting your finger or a stick slightly above them with one hand while you wait for the pose and shoot with the other. Or you may have to curl or tilt the branch/leaf that they are sitting on. The eyes of jumpers take up most of their face and a shot missing this key element might be found lacking unless some other important focal point is found. Front on portraits are very common for a reason, they show these eyes to their best advantage. Jumpers will often attack prey that looks huge in comparison to their diminutive size, these can make for very interesting shots as well.

Here is an example of both points above, where both the eyes and a large prey have been caught. Mahdia, Guyana.

Found during a night hike in Marojejy national park, Madagascar.

“Blink and you’ll miss it”. A key ingredient to the success of jumping spiders is their visual acuity, the best among invertebrates. Though they have 8 eyes like most other spiders, the configuration and morphology has evolved to meet their nomadic, predatory lifestyle. To catch prey, predators need to overcome a variety of challenges. Some of these include the hard carapace of coleoptera, the rapid reflexes and aerial flight of dipterans, chemical defenses, stings, poisons or large size discrepancies. These must be overcome to subdue the prey. Jumping spiders largely avoid these innate defenses in their prey by catching them by surprise. While some use camouflage, the majority are able to remain hidden from view of their quarry, simply by maintaining their distance. They first find prey by means of their posterior lateral eyes (PLE), which only provide a blurry image. At this time they use their large anterior median eyes (AME) to focus relatively far distances thereby increasing the distance between themselves and their prey. The AME’s when seen from the front look like long funnels compared to the other eyes. This extended distance from the front of the eye to the back serves essentially the same purpose as extension tubes in macrophotography, it magnifies the image on the sensor. However despite the increased resolution this affords, the field of view is quite narrow, between 3-5 degrees. This is why the other eyes are necessary. Despite their smaller size and consequently lower resolution capabilities, they offer a larger field of view so that the jumper may be aware of its 360 degree surroundings. Once it has narrowed the gap to its intended target, it uses its anterior lateral eyes (ALE) to judge the distance before jumping. This is the so called ‘modular’ theory that distinguishes a separation of tasks between the different eyes. Other research has shown that the functional lines between the eyes are less rigid than previously thought. With ‘secondary eyes’ though less proficient than the AME’s, are still able to distinguish, judge distance and enable the successful capture of prey. Jumping spiders lack the ability to physically move their eyes in their carapace, however they still manage to survey a scene without moving their entire bodies. This is achieved by moving their retinas. When a jumping spider is looking ahead, the eyes appear black because you are essentially looking down the tube of the retina. When it is looking elsewhere, the retina appears as a dark vertical band within the eye, as seen here. Another point of interest is that 4 types of receptors have been found in the eyes of jumping spiders possibly resulting tetrachromatic vision. Studies have already shown courtship displays affected by visual stimuli within the ultraviolet wavelength, potentially necessary for inter-species markers. UV reflectance has already been demonstrated as important for apian predation in crab spiders, making it likely that there is a network of interactions occurring within the UV spectrum. Lyssomanes sp. found during a hike in Kaieteur national park, Guyana.

 

Hunting spiders (Sparassidae)

Hunting spiders are a polyphyletic group comprising the huntsman (Sparassidae), ctenids (Ctenidae), wolf spiders (Lycosidae), and tarantulas (mygalomorphae). This unofficial grouping is characterized by a lack of a web used in prey capture and a semi- or fully nomadic lifestyle. Most spiders’ eyes aren’t able to resolve detail particularly well. This is especially true amongst the Araneidae or web builders. However, the simple eyes (ocelli) are more than adequate to detect changes in the direction, quality, intensity and polarity of light. For this reason it is important to keep low and avoid casting a shadow (most birds and other predators attack from above) as this will engender an evasive response. Moreover, the hunting spiders generally have better vision than their web-based counterparts because their lifestyle demands it. The wolf spiders in particular have two large posterior median eyes (PME) able to resolve details from several centimeters away. Nevertheless vision still appears as a secondary sense in this group. The tactile hairs, which appear as spines on the legs, and the even finer trichobothria probably play a more important role in locating and responding to prey. These hairs respond to certain vibrational frequencies (eg. the buzzing of a fly) as well as being mechano-sensitive  (ie. respond to pressure waves). One should take note of the latter because too rapid an approach and one could create an air current which could frighten the spider. Always approach slowly, from below and downwind. Once alerted to your presence the spider may flee  or else attempt to hide by firmly appressing themselves to the substrate, ruining the majesty of their fearsome appearance.

Green lichen huntsman spider (Heteropoda boiei) found during a night hike in Lambir Hills national park, Borneo.

Huntsman spider (Sparassidae). Usually these lie flat when confronted with a camera but this one was feeling bold and approached the lens. So I got a few shots off of this confrontation and therefore got a pretty good pose. Bako national park, Borneo.

The poisonous South American wandering spiders (genus Phoneutria), within the Ctenidae family, are an exception to the camera shy rule. These spiders behave quite aggressively, and will rear up to show their fangs and bright, aposematic leg markings when disturbed. They bite very readily and usually inject a substantial amount of venom Though they are said to be able to jump I have never witnessed this.

Phoneutria fera. in a threat display. These spiders are very aggressive and are the most poisonous spiders of the Americas. They are noted not just for the toxicity of their venom, but also the amount which is more than any other spider. Photo taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana (2010).

Most huntsman spiders are blandly coloured, though some are quite ornately camouflaged and have physiological features which aid in their camouflage such as hairs which extend around the body to help break up their outline. From Danum Valley, Sabah, Borneo (2009).

Mossy huntsman spider (Sparassidae) from Danum Valley, Borneo (2009).

Hairy huntsman (Thelcticopsis sp.) from Danum Valley, Borneo (2009).

 

Argyrodes and reflective spiders

I haven’t taken a lot of photos of these kinds of spiders and those that I have have turned out not quite as well as I’d hoped. I would however recommend very strong diffusion to balance out the metallic sheen many of these spiders or else use cross polarization.

The silver spots are created by depositing guanine crystals (byproducts of digestion) into guanocyte cells just under the exoskeleton. The crystals are shaped into small plates and appear white by diffracting light rather than by selective absorption of wavelengths (as in real pigments). These reflective properties are thought to be important in temperature regulation. Argyrodes sp. taken in Jatun Sacha reserve, Ecuador (2010).

I will post more images when I have experimented further.

 

Tarantulas and other mygalomorphs

Orange legged mygalomorph (Ephebopus cyanognathus). Thanks to Flickr’s Techuser for the ID.

Get over your fear of these friendly giants, they make great subjects!!! Most are slow and ponderous in their movements and can be readily handled. I have never had one bite me and from other people’s accounts the bite is no more painful than a wasp sting (and not poisonous in any case). Perhaps of greater concern are the tiny hairs released by the rubbing of hind legs against abdomen when feeling threatened. These hairs behave like little hooks, readily embedding themselves in the skin where they can remain for weeks causing itchiness and irritation. Again I have never had this happen to me and it is usually only an issue if the spider feels threatened or is being squeezed or manipulated in some uncomfortable way. Fortunately these spiders are very patient and can be photographed at length. Try and shoot them as they are climbing over obstacles. One of their chief distinguishing features is their hairiness, so try and sharpen their hairs to really accentuate that fuzziness (this can also be achieved by focus stacking).

Pink-toed tarantula (Avicularia sp.). The hairs are especially prominent in this species because they differ in colour from the rest of the body. Found during a night hike in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana (2010).

If you can get a good shot of their jaws and fangs, go for it. Lucky you! It is perhaps just our societies associations of tarantulas with Halloween and death, but they often look quite ominous and so consider taking advantage of this by using dramatic lighting with lots of shadow. Another good pose is the frontal portrait showing the tarantula coming out of its burrow. However one must have good timing as they usually come out at night, and stay in their burrows during the day, another reason to go on night hikes.

Orange legged mygalomorph (Ephebopus cyanognathus) emerging from its den. Kaieteur falls, Guyana.

3 shot handheld stack, Found during a night hike in Bellavista cloud rainforest, Ecuador.

Crab spiders (Thomisidae)

Crab spider with prey. Here the camouflage is shown to good effect and the typical ‘embracing’ pose is shown to good effect. Tukeit, Guyana.

One of the nice things about crab spiders is their penchant for staking out flowers in the hopes of ensnaring nectar seeking insects. However they often have colours that blend in with the flowers making them difficult to differentiate. Try boosting contrast and adding additional sharpening to the edges of the spider to bring out details. They also have an open stance whereby they splay their legs waiting for prey. These can make for excellent poses.

This crab spider is hiding amongst the hairs of a beautifully quilled leaf. This plant also has nectar stores and is a good place to lay in wait. Kaieteur falls, Guyana.

Crab spiders are some of the best subjects for using stacking software like Zerene systems, Helicon focus or Photoshop because they often remain motionless both before and after prey capture. If you intend to try stacking the best and most consistent results are achieved with a tripod. However, serviceable results, especially if there are fewer than 10 frames in the stack can be had so long as one is able to rest the camera on a solid, immoveable surface. Then you can slowly edge the camera forward while shooting.

Crab spider with mosquito prey in a zucchini  flower. Winfield, B.C., Canada.

40 shot stack in Zerenestacker of a crab spider with mosquito prey in a zucchini flower. Winfield, B.C., Canada.

This photo best illustrates how a macroscape can still be important and can really create the image. The textures and depth were important elements in the composition. When I viewed a single exposure that focused simply on the crab spider I found that there was insufficient detail. Therefore I stacked the images to bring both the flower and mosquito into focus.

10 shot stack in Zerene stacker. Crab spider with green long-legged fly (Dolichopodonidae) prey. Winfield, B.C., Canada.

This picture illustrates how photogenic crab spiders can be, especially when they can be caught with prey and while hiding out within the axils of leaves or under the pistils as shown here. The detail in this photo would not have been possible without stacking. At least 4 photos were necessary just for the fly and a loss of focus in the fly would have  proven detrimental in my opinion. Fortunately crab spiders are masters of camouflage, and so the background that they are sitting on is usually of a complementary colour and they also usually sit stock still, lending themselves well to stacking.

8 shot stack of a white crab spider with Dolichodopid fly on a strawberry flower in the Okanagan, Canada.

More Spiders can be seen HERE

 

Scorpions

I am still working on this one. Frankly there isn’t a single scorpion shot that I have ever done that I am happy with and would be proud to display. They are very hard to give personality to. Short of going out with a blacklight and showing their UV fluorescence which is interesting just for the pure novelty of it, I seem incapable of getting good shots. The best I have is of one feeding on a spider. But even this one I’m not entirely pleased with.

Don’t particularly like the colour reproduction in the green tones here. I like it for the behaviour, but I feel like it could have been displayed to much better effect based on a different angle but it was scuttling away and I just snapped a few shots, all from a similar angle. Manu national park, Peru.

After some time I have found another feeding scorpion which in my opinion I have caught to much better effect. Don’t expect to see this kind of behaviour often in the wild. In about 3 months walking days and nights this is the only one I came across.

Scorpion feeding on a cockroach. Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

Scorpion feeding on a cockroach (Full view). Kanuku mountains, Guyana.

I think that one needs to catch the rare pose, and the rare behaviour to really make these shots come alive. Mothers with offspring would be one such photo that would be quite good. I suspect that one would have to get creative with the composition and find one in an unusual position or else on a flower or a macroscape that is different from the tired, old tree stumps you usually find them on. Keep an eye on this category to see if I come up with anything though… Finally arrived at this after long days and nights of nothing in this category!

Scorpions in courtship (magnified). This is very evocatively called the promenade a deux by entomologists. Evoking the imagery of a dance. Taken during a night hike in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana (2010).

Scorpions in courtship (full view). This is very evocatively called the promenade a deux by entomologists. Evoking the imagery of a dance. Taken during a night hike in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana (2010).

After some thought I know of the pose I want to catch next, now it is just the matter of accomplishing the task. I’d like to use a relatively slow shutter speed and catch a front on view of the spider as it attempts to sting. Hopefully catching a slight blur of motion in the process. Easier said then done though. I’ll keep you apprised of my progress. More Scorpions can be seen HERE

 

Whip spiders (Amblypygids)

Out of the tropics and into temperate zones not a lot of people have heard of these arachnids. And so for some, any shot of one of these is a good one. But having come across a number of them I beg to differ. They often lie flat against tree trunks or in the hollows of dead trees. They are cricket/grasshopper specialists. They’re exceedingly long and elegant front legs are used as feelers with which they scan their surroundings. These are very difficult to incorporate into a well composed photo, since they are inevitably held at angles which wind up being cut off while cropping or trying to get more detail out of the body. These are incredibly fast insects, akin to scutigera. But, they usually don’t run far, usually just around to the other side of the tree bole. So if you lose sight of it while hunting don’t despair and continue looking around for it because it usually hasn’t travelled far. These subjects make excellent front on portrait shots. Shoot their jaws and faces, do a focus stack or use a small aperture.

Frontal portrait showing to good effect the amazing claws used to grasp prey. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Display those characteristics that really make this a frightening predator and use them to good effect in the photo. Here it is the colours, the contrasting blacks and reds along with the long spines and eyes. The posture is such that it anthropomorphizes malignant intent.

closeup portrait of Amblypygid. Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana (2010).

Most whip spiders are plain black or dull grey colours. However occasionally you can come across some real gems. Especially 1) right after they moult and 2) In their earlier juvenile stages. Here the ‘tiger’ patterns are present in the juvenile only and fade to a glossy black. Iwokrama forest reserve, Guyana (2010).

The most colourful whip spider that I’ve ever seen! Juvenile Amblypygid found in Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana (2010).

Other angles I have been less successful with simply because they always hold extremely tightly to the bark and hence composing different angles is quite difficult if not impossible. One is very limited. I am still working to either transfer one to a leaf or take a shot while it is on the ground. Neither of which is its natural habitat. I have tried in the past, but they don’t like this and make all haste to get back to where they are most comfortable. Here is the one that I shot in the past.

Amblypygid on the ground in threat display. I had to encourage it to drop from the tree and I’m not satisfied with this picture, but it shows potential. A crop would probably be better. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

You can see that it adopts a different threatening posture from what it usually displays. But it was quick to retreat, so I will update this when I get a shot that I like better. Finally, it’s not especially common, but if you can find one with prey, these make for great shots. I’ve only seen it a few times but I am quite happy with this shot. You need to choose your angles carefully both to maximize depth of field for both predator and prey but also so that there is no obstruction of key features from one insect to another.

Amblypygid with cockroach prey. Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana (2010).

More Amblypygids seen HERE

 

Centipedes UPDATED 27/11/2013

I have found after many failed centipede shots that they tend to do best when isolated from the background and shot on black or at least with as much removal of a distracting background as possible. Also lots of diffusion is necessary otherwise the specular highlights are usually bad enough to ruin the photo. Closeups of the head rather than full body also tend to be more interesting.

Blue headed juvenile centipede. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Blue headed juvenile centipede. Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

More Centipedes seen HERE

 

Scutigera

I find Scutigera quite difficult to shoot well because like harvestmen they have all those bloody legs. So most shots will look something like this:

This is in my opinion is a very poor photograph. The head isn’t a focal point, it is a very flat image, the many legs aren’t shown to the best effect. Come on Paul, get your act together! But what is a photographer to do with these intriguing, disgusting, bizarre creatures??! Taken in Borneo (2009).

Scutigera really benefit from behaviour shots, and close up portraits. Those multifaceted eyes are really nice for closeups. Their front pair of legs are modified into fangs like in all centipedes and so getting these in focus will also be of importance. One of my best photos of a scutigera is this behaviour scene I stumbled across in Borneo.

A moulting scutigera. A rare moment, out of the hundreds of scutigera I have seen, this is the only one I have ever caught moulting, but it makes for a wonderful sight! Now the framing isn’t ideal here, I can probably crop the left hand side without losing anything but it is an interesting photo that begs to be looked at more closely. Bako national park, Borneo (2009).

Two feeding shots now. One good, one mediocre. This first shot is the lesser of the two, it shows a decent angle, and is a good behavioural shot, but it is really missing something to make it interesting. It comes across as pretty flat.

Full bodied pose of a Scutigera feeding. I think that it is the lack of a focal point which causes this photo to lose a lot of its impact. There’s nothing to really pay a lot of attention to. The prey is shown well, it is wrapped up in several of the legs, the dangling pose is nice. But one is left thinking that this shot doesn’t live up to its potential. Maybe an angle from below would have been better? Somewhere in Borneo (2009).

On to the second shot.

A much better shot of Scutigera feeding on a cockroach. Slurping up the insides and leaving nothing but an empty husk. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

This second shot I quite like. The eyes and face are shown to much better effect and the characteristic dangling pose that these animals adopt is shown better as well. The lighting is what makes this shot though. The strong illumination of the head and the areas of interest with a gradually receding light towards the extremities really highlights the action of the photo. The detail of the closeup is always nice too. So, in summary look for these critters at night standing vertically on tree trunks or sometimes suspended from leaves. Try not to disturb them because they are quick! And unlikely to give you a second chance of shooting them. They will either run around and up/down the tree or else drop to the ground. In either case they do not stop like the Amblypygids to offer you many other chances. Of course sometimes you get lucky and you stumble across something that is out of this world in colour or form and then almost any photo you take of it comes out looking great. This was earlier on in my photography and despite the less than ideal angle and image, it still comes out looking fascinating, if not an aesthetic winner.

Purple long-legged centipede (Scutigera) found during a night hike in Maliau basin, Borneo (2009).

 

Tips for mantids and phasmids (stick insects)

I’ll begin by saying, there are others that take much better mantid shots than I do and so it is definitely worth checking out the following photographers because their work is really stunning: Kurt (Orionmystery),

An absolutely gorgeous shot from Kurt (Orionmystery) of a flower mantis. Taken with permission from his photostream.

I do take some shots of these fascinating insects as well though, and here’s the little that I do know: 1) These insects are masters of camouflage! So if you can, try and show them in their natural habitat doing what they do best. However, you also want the detail of the insect to come through so don’t go too far.

A stick insect sprawled across a dead branch. Mulu national park, Borneo (2009).

Lichen mantis. Taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar (2012).

2) Some of the most cryptic insects can also have a bright surprise, so poke or move them a little and see if they won’t oblige by showing you some colour. Several things wrong with the below photos. The angle should be more level and less like the photographer shooting from above. The image is also underexposed and the specular highlights from the flash are distracting. Otherwise these shots might have been quite interesting. However, they show interesting behaviour and go well together to tell a story.

Boxer mantis (Hestiasula sp.) seems utterly unremarkable, with its leaf like camouflage. Mulu national park, Borneo (2009).

This is the same boxer mantis (Hestiasula sp.) from above and it is not only aggressive, but has a threatening display if it feels harassed. Mulu national park, Borneo (2009).

3) The best mantid photos that I have seen involve natural light usually with some fill. Otherwise it is easy to wind up with nasty specular reflections like in the above example. Though my shots don’t compare to Kurts’ I’ve taken a few that I am happy with.

Furry legged mantid Natural light with fill flash shot. The overall background and feeling that I had was of softness, accentuated by the hairy legs, so I added to this effect in post processing by decreasing contrast in midtones. Kanuku mountains, Guyana (2010).

“I’ve got an itch right…here” – Bark mantis from Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador (2011).

An exception is dramatic lighting. In this case the flash is used to highlight elements of the insect. Try to make sure that it isn’t against any kind of natural background which will make distracting shadows. I find black or high key backgrounds best since the insect this way really takes centre stage.

Callibia diana praying mantid. Iwokrama rainforest reserve, Guyana (2010).

4) Don’t be afraid to Get close! Stick insects in particular have some incredible details which can be overlooked when trying to encapsulate the entire organism in a single shot. The devil of the subterfuge is in the details. Look at those false fungi! Crazy leaf venations! Whatever it is, show it to good effect.

Close up of this stick insect just reveals an even more impressive design. The false fungi on its abdomen are particularly impressive. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Camouflaged as a stick with fungus on it, the flanges and projections are irregular often mimicking broken tree limbs or wounds. Found during a night walk in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar (2011).

5) A colourful background can often offset the cryptic colouration of these insects quite well. However below is a failed attempt where I over manipulated the colours and changed them from a dull brown to the technicolour display. This was earlier on when I was enamoured with over saturating the colours. Let below be a cautionary tale of how not to treat an image!

A cryptic mantid (Acanthops falcata) modified in post to be more vibrant. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

6) Portraits are a great style for sticks and mantids. I have been shooting portraits a lot recently and so the style has become a little stagnant for me and I’m looking at new ways to improve on it. But this style shows really well the detail and character of the insect.

Stick insect portraits can look quite lovely. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

A slightly different view taken from below. Here it is really the mouthparts, like a skeletal hand wrapping around the head that takes centre stage. Stick insect portrait taken in Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador (2011).

7) The more the merrier. Stick insects by nature of their motionless behaviour will often have other insects crawling over them. Usually ants, though flies and other insects will occasionally land on them. Try and get behaviour shots, eating or bubble blowing or defensive displays.

Stick insect with a fly for a companion. It is also bubble blowing, possibly to clean its mouthparts. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

8) Try shooting under UV light Depending on the species the results can be quite shockingly different. While most species appear blue under UV, others have a patchwork of colours, with different limbs or protuberances having different fluorescent signatures.

Stick insect under UV light. Taken in Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador (2011).

Stick insect under UV light. Taken in Mindo cloud forest, Ecuador (2011).

More Mantids and Phasmids seen HERE

 

Tips for treehoppers (Membracids) and Leafhoppers (Cicadellids)

Vibrant leafhopper nymph. Taken in the Kanuku mountains, Guyana (2010).

Treehoppers come in a huge diversity of forms and colours. They form symbiotic relationships with ants, display mimicry and are a fascinating group. They are hemipterans and so have a proboscis which they use to suck sap from their host plants on which they can be found most of the time. Once you have found a treehopper feeding on its host plant, make a note of it because it is likely that those species have an established relationship such that where you find one you are likely to find the other. Treehoppers are slow moving, typically standing stock still, making them quite easy subjects to photograph. When they are disturbed they slowly shuffle forward or back along the plant stem. Only a few species startle and fly off (like Oeda inflata seen below). Take your time knowing that they aren’t going anywhere fast. If you do startle them off then consider returning to the same location at a later date or if you know of the same species of plant at a different location then consider checking the leaves at that location.

Always take a closer look! What may appear to be a simple fungus, lichen, algae or plant infection may in fact be a cunning subterfuge. Here the leafhopper nymphs have extruded a waxy substance which they have coated themselves with. Not only does this make them less palatable to predators, but also serves as a means of camouflage. Taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar (2011).

Always take a closer look! A close-up of the fungus-mimicking leafhopper nymph seen above. Taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar (2011).

Hoppers are quite small so typically a good portrait will require at least a 1:1 magnification depending on the species. Try to get low and look up to show the facial features.

Alchisme sp. from Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Their small size doesn’t mean that you can neglect composition though. Look at the environment that they are in. Are they sitting on petals or leaves that have a striking colour, pattern or shape? What elements of the background should you include? Hoppers are often associated with ants because they create honeydew waste product from plant sap. Decide whether the image will be stronger with or without these foreigners.

Leafhopper nymph with iridescent tails. The high key nature of the photo helps to make the red eye and colourful body of the leafhopper stand out. The out of focus white elements in the background almost appear cloud-like and help contribute to the soft, ethereal quality of the image. Taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar (2011).

Oeda inflata treehopper. With beautiful venation on the pronotum which extends like a veil over the back, this is one of the most bizarre treehoppers that I have seen. It is also quite flighty. It doesn’t care to sit on a stem and feed but prefers leaves from what I have seen and they readily take off when feeling threatened. Found during a night hike at the Kurupukari crossing, Guyana (2010).

 

Tips for Caterpillars, butterflies and moths

False-eyed Eudocima caterpillar under natural light. Taken in Vohimana reserve, Madagascar (2012).

Daytime and night time shooting methods will differ and will dictate the kind of shot you will aim for. Butterflies generally rest at night and so this is the best time for closeups of eyes, and scales. However, they are not at their best compositionally. They usually hang out during these times on the undersides of leaves, not against the bright flowers of the day. A greater diversity of moths are seen at night due to their attraction to lights. However, because they often rest on the lights and human made structures, the unnatural environment detracts from the image. The corollary is also true though, that moths are best shot during the day when they can be found asleep on trees or on the undersides of leaves. Caterpillars can be shot day or night. The former is probably preferable so as to take advantage of natural light and softer background colours. Look at the key features of the caterpillar and let that determine your shot. Some are spiky others have eyes or flash/threatening markers, get the shot that shows these to greatest effect. One generality is that shooting from below and getting a ‘rearing’ caterpillar usually makes for an interesting pose (like that seen below). However it can be difficult, and time consuming. Don’t lose hope if you still don’t have that great image after 100s of wasted shots. I took probably a couple hundred shots before I was happy with the below shot (and in retrospect I still feel like I could have done better). I maneuvered the leaf around, the caterpillar would climb to one end, rear up for  a second, decide where to go and then spend a minute traveling to the other end of the leaf where it would do the same. I had a guide hold the leaf and the flashlight focusing on the caterpillar while I tried to maneuver into position. Lots of out of focus shots, lots of almost shots, be patient and you will be rewarded.

It took a while and many out of focus shots, but finally got this caterpillar rearing up for ‘the shot’. Here the contrast of the reds/oranges and greens are shown to good effect. The most important part, the face is in focus, but so too are the legs and the spines.  Turtle mountain, Guyana (2010).

Below, the colours take centre stage. And even though there is no view of the eyes or head, the spines show such detail that they essentially become the focal point and are pleasing to the eye.

Coloured spiky caterpillar. Here the complementation of the background colours with those of the subject make for a pleasing composition despite the lack of a conventional head shot. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

In my experience water droplets usually add a very pleasant fairytale-like quality to any image. Here they collect on the fine urticating hairs of the caterpillar. They add a real dynamism to the image because they render parts out of focus and magnify other parts. They cause diffraction and so can change the expected colours. It really adds interest to the image. So if you go early in the morning to get those dew shots or immediately during or after a rain, you might get some real magical shots.

The colours and drops together with the frontal portrait make this one of my favourite caterpillar shots. Iwokrama, Guyana (2010).

Caterpillars as you know are very slow moving insects. So they have been required to evolve defenses. These include urticating hairs, aposematic colours, mimicry, etc…They also have a love/hate relationship with ants. At times they are farmed by ants at other times they are attacked and eaten. These behaviours are particularly interesting to capture if you can.

The relationship between the ants massaging the caterpillar for the excreted honey dew works in conjunction with the colours to make this a nice shot. Pantiacolla lodge, Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Despite being beautiful butterflies and moths are quite hard to shoot well. It isn’t that the subject isn’t beautiful, in focus or doesn’t have pretty colours. Rather it is the same static and monotonous perspective which is essentially the same in the majority of shots. For example the first shot below. The perspective is slightly overhead, and with the subject dead centre in the frame. The butterfly ‘market’ is overrun with these kinds of shots. So, how do we make it better? Tricky! Because as soon as we start to stray away from the side portrait and get unconventional angles, we are also not displaying the wing markings to their best effect. So it relies chiefly on the external composition ie. the background and colour complementation. Below is a comparison of 2 shots. One is your standard shot displaying a butterfly with nice markings but otherwise a forgettable photo. The second uses lighting complementation, the bokeh from the aperture which is carefully place behind the subject, and an element of interest (emergence from the chrysalis) which all combine to make for a beautiful presentation. 1)

Your typical open winged butterfly shot that is very ho-hum, nothing special. Looking around 95% of shots are like this. Yeah, nice colours but it really isn’t a standout! Manu national park, Peru (2010).

2)

Emerging butterfly (Brassolis sophorae). Taken in Bilsa reserve, Ecuador (2011).

I don’t feel that butterflies benefit from closeups as well as a lot of other insects. The beautiful iridescent scales taken at high mag. is a notable exception. But headshots I don’t feel offer that same beauty as other groups. But maybe I just haven’t found the right cooperative subject.

Butterfly eyes taken at 4x mag. Cute but not really of great interest. I personally prefer full/near full body shots for butterflies/moths. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana (2010).

Flying insects have the distinct benefit of being able to get that difficult yet very satisfying in-flight shot. Now as most of my macro is taken at night I haven’t been able to experiment with this as extensively as I would like, and so I have a pretty poor selection of my own to present. However, for some sensational in-flight shots you can visit Linden G.’s  photostream on flickr seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/13084997@N03/sets/72157610450102014/. A  beautiful example is that of the mud dauber wasp carrying mud to aid in the construction of its nest.

Better than my attempts it is wonderfully composed, shows behaviour and the colour reproduction is great. Taken with permission from Linden.G’s flickr photostream.

Note however that he has special equipment (ultra fast shutters and infrared trip beams) helping him achieve these fantastic results. So don’t feel disappointed if your efforts don’t yield the same quality. My limited attempts have produced this serviceable shot below. The trick is to chose a subject that engages in a stereotyped behaviour such that you can predict where to place yourself to maximize your chances of getting a satisfactory photo. The wasp above was taken with Linden poised in front of the nest monitoring the wasps moving in and out on their daily errands. The hawkmoth below was visiting all of the flowers of a particular plant species (Lantana camra). Therefore I was able to position myself in front of one flower that hadn’t yet been visited. You will want to place the settings on hi-continuous shooting and depending on whether you want their to be motion blur or not choose a high or medium shutter speed. To get a slight motion of the wings my shutter speed was 1/160 sec. I opened up the aperture to f/8. A compromise between wanting sufficient light and maximizing the depth of field because of the rapid side to side/up and down movement of the subject I couldn’t guarantee that it would be in the same focus plane between the moment I saw it in the viewfinder and I clicked the image. Therefore to hedge my bets I simply took a smaller aperture.

Bee hawkmoth (Cephanodes sp.). Taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar (2011).

Get creative. Below is an image of a chrysalis taken at night which I backlit with a flashlight. This enabled all of the details of the venation to be seen with great clarity in addition to presenting an almost radioactive green, not commonly seen in nature photos.

Backlit chrysalis. Taken in Ranomafana national park, Madagascar (2011).

Moth tips coming soon

Wasp mimicking moth with warning aposematic colouration. Winfield, B.C. Canada (2011).

 

Tips for snakes and vipers

I abhor zoos/aquariums and can’t abide by supporting them directly or indirectly through my photography, hence, all these shots were taken in their natural environment.

Amazonian palm pit viper (Bothriopsis bilineata) Taken with the mpe-65mm, that means about 3 in. clearance in this shot from Pantiacolla amazon lodge, Peru (2010).

Sumatran pit viper (Trimeresurus sumatranus). Taken with 100mm macro from about 1 foot away. Taken in Bako national park, Borneo (2008).

Amazonian palm pit viper (Bothriopsis bilenata) taken in Pantiacolla amazon lodge, Peru (2010).

Bornean leaf nosed viper (Trimeresurus sumatranus). Taken with 100mm macro from about 1 foot away. Poked and prodded into the proper position. Taken in Mulu camp 5, Borneo (2009).

Green vine snake (Oxybelis fulgidus) taken with 100mm macro from 1 foot away. Taken in Tambopata lodge, Peru (2010).

Some people might be tempted to say yeah, just use a longer lens. A valid point. But this is inadequate in several regards. First it may give too much working distance. In the jungle, there is often not a lot of space between overlapping foliage and so the more distance between you and your subject the more likely you will get some interference. Secondly, this limits your viewing angles and compositional perspectives. With a 100mm macro, if I wanted, I could get on top, or from the side or below, a 200mm and beyond, if I get on the ground there will inevitably be a log obscuring my view, and I don’t want to climb several meters into a tree if there even is one for a shot. Thirdly I can get a sense for the snake itself increased distance between you and your subject physically will probably show up in the photo as an unintimate portrait. However, getting close enough to feel the flick of the tongue on your cheek, you get a real feel and respect for the creature you are photographing which can’t help but show in your shots. Also less flash power is used and in my opinion, the animal actually grows less stressed over a long shooting period. 1) Be careful! wear long rubber boots and approach slowly and with care. Snakes can strike from 1/2 their body length away. This isn’t taking into account their movement either. So to be safe, as soon as you get within one body length, treat it as a potentially hazardous situation. 2) Read the signs of the body language. A snake that is constantly flicking its tongue is generally aggravated. It is wanting to update its chemosensory information second by second to be ready for anything. It is thus extremely alert and in a high state of tension. You might be tempted to grab a shot of it with its tongue darting out during this time, but you should probably wait until it calms down or else avoid it completely. Though this is species dependent I have noticed this especially with the fer-de-lance (Bothrops atrox). Other species might seem exceptionally calm and this too can be a danger signal. Basically read the signs. 3) Try and keep something in between you and the snake. I generally use an umbrella with a hole cut in it for the lens. If the snake pounces, the hope is that it will go for the umbrella. The tension from the metal hinges is enough to repel the force of the strike. It is also compact and multi purpose. If the snake is on the ground I might approach it very slowly with my boot out, heel forwards to gauge the temperament of the snake. So that if it lunges, it will (hopefully) hit the boot and not my leg.

For non-venomous snakes

Smooth slug eating snake (Aplopeltura boa). Photo taken in Bukit Barisan national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.

Amazon tree boa (Corallus hortulanus). Taken in Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Jasper’s cat snake (Boiga jaspidae). Taken in Maliau Basin, Borneo (2009).

Green vine snake (Oxybelis brevirostris) displaying defensive gaping behaviour. Bilsa reserve, Ecuador coastal rainforest (2011).

More Reptiles seen HERE I’m almost reluctant to give this tip away because it’s that good! Snakes sense their environment via highly chemosensitive tongues which direct scent molecules to receptor neurons by constantly flicking their tongues. However capturing a snake with its tongue out (which seems to be the goal of most snake photos) can prove to be a challenge. Thus I have found that by exhaling in front of the snake you can prompt it into a flurry of tongue flicking as it attempts to pick up on the new and interesting smells from your breath. This technique takes the guesswork out of trying to catch it with its tongue out and increases your odds of getting a better shot.

 

Tips for Amphibians

It is truly the rare moment that you can get a behaviour shot for an amphibian or reptile for that matter, and so one must usually make do with just compositional poses.

Male poison arrow frogs carry their tadpoles to a water source where they will deposit them. In some species the vigilance over their brood extends until the tadpoles metamorphosize into froglets. Poison arrow frog (Amreega sp.), Bilsa reserve, Ecuador coastal rainforest (2011).

The most important thing is to look at the behaviour, if you can, spend several minutes observing the amphibian before you take the shot. Look at how it moves, is it slow or fast, erratic or deliberate, flexible or inflexible, these will all help you to compose your shot (provided you have enough time). Treefrogs usually have very flexible limbs because they regularly stretch from one tree branch to another. They don’t hop so much in the forest canopy, they walk. How do you cover greater distances, you have longer limbs. The best shots I see of these usually have them at full stretch and if not show an unusual pose like limbs bent upon each other to show this flexibility.

Reinwardt’s treefrog (Rhacophorus Reinwardtii). Maliau basin, Borneo (2009).

Monkey treefrog (Phyllomedusa tomopterna). Jatun Sacha, Tena, Ecuadorian lowland Amazon (2011).

Have them looking into the camera for the front on portrait. In my experience this gives a more interesting shot than a side profile which comes across as too documentary, scientific style.

frog

File-eared frog (Polypedates otilophus). Taken in Loagan Bunut, Borneo (2008).

Frog found during a night hike in Vohimana, Madagascar (2012).

With most insects but amphibians and reptiles in particular, there is the temptation to get the whole animal squeezed into the frame. Break this habit! If you focus on a particular part of the animal like the webbed feet, or the eyes or the skin it can be a much more interesting photo.

Here the rugosity of the skin is shown to greatest benefit by the closeup of the head. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Focus on that part of the animal which is unusual. Display it to best advantage based on the angle you have chosen.

Polk-a-dot treefrog (Hypsiboas punctatus). Here the focus is on the imperfectness of nature, and one can clearly see the deformation in the pupil of the left eye. However, I chose the front on portrait style rather than an angle that only took in the deformed eye, so that you could clearly see the comparison between the two eyes, making the visual impact a lot stronger. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Combine these points when you can, don’t just be satisfied with a behaviour shot, if you can do more!

Reinwardt’s treefrogs in amplexus (Rhacophorus reinwardtii). This is one of my early photos before I really got into photography, but it shows the amplexus, mating behaviour. But also displays the prominent webbed feet of these beautiful amphibians which splay outwards when they jump, allowing them to glide between trees in the forest canopy. Maliau basin, Borneo (2009).

Males are generally preferable to females! Why? Because they call a lot more frequently. This makes it a) more likely to find b) more likely to get a picture with their vocal sacs inflated which really improves the photo significantly! So if you haven’t gotten a shot of a vocalizing frog, go out and get one, because it is extremely rewarding!

Male vocalizing poison arrow frog (Dendrobates macero). Pantiacolla lodge, Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Try to get low viewing angles looking upwards. This is especially key for ground dwelling species. Why? Creates dynamism. Frogs on the ground are almost always shot from above, this means that 99% of shots of that frog will be shot from a bird’s eye view, or at a strong overhead angle, and look similar and disinteresting. Get down on the jungle floor and point upwards!

This frog isn’t particularly special. Doesn’t have any beautiful colouration, etc. but I like this shot from a compositional perspective. Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Histrionic poison arrow frog (Oophaga sylvaticus). The low perspective of this shot makes it much more intimate. The colours show how bright the frog is and yet how it is also able to blend in. Bilsa reserve, Ecuadorian coastal rainforest (2011).

Get an unusual angle! Play with your depth of fields, try new things, who knows what you will come up with.

Polk-a-dot treefrog (Hypsiboas punctatus). Manu national park, Peru (2010).

Malaysian horned frog (Megophrys nasuta). Photo taken in Gunung Leuser national park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Paul Bertner 2013.

More Amphibians seen HERE

 

How I shoot Macro

Here I will simply focus on the aspects where I feel that I differ from most other shooters. I freehand a lot of my shots. This means that not only do I not use a tripod, but I also don’t use a lot of bracing techniques, holding onto a leaf and resting my lens on my hand, or holding a pole with the same hand as my camera. All those techniques stabilize the camera. I am able to freehand up to the maximum 5x magnification on my mpe. But this requires 1) a lot of patience 2) A lot of out of focus frames 3) You don’t always get the exact framing that you want 4) You need to take a LOT of pictures to get one that you like. With all these cons, you wouldn’t be remiss in asking why I don’t change my shooting style. Well, 1) I like the freedom of being without some form of support. 2) It is good practice for when you don’t have any supports available eg. you’re on location and can’t find a good support stick. 3) This enables you to shoot at a distance, extending your arms and using liveview mode. 4) It allows you to shoot in different environments, I can shoot almost as easily in a tree, in the water, etc. as on the ground. 5) In the jungle I try and minimize what I carry around with me, a stick is one more thing I don’t need. 6) A stick or pole is just one more thing that you have to pay attention to. If it slips, or is tilted at a bad angle this can scare away the more skittish species. 7) Sometimes it can be the only way. A lot of insects will fly/jump away if you touch the leaf or branch that they are on. However, they are usually much more forgiving if you don’t move them and so you can shoot away. I will shoot in all manual mode, from the flash down to all the independent settings. Although it can be hard I try not to get locked into a specific configuration. My preferred shooting settings are ISO 100, 1/200sec, f/11. However I frequently change these as the scene necessitates. If there is a chance to get more natural light into a scene I will use a lower flash power as fill, bump up the ISO, lower the shutter speed and play with the aperture as necessary. I try and look for interesting compositions and try to get a least one shot from an angle I’ve never tried before on each shoot. This isn’t always successful but it makes you flexible and it helps keep you from falling into a pattern of always getting the same old stuff by which your ‘style’ is generally known.

Ant mimicking Alydidae nymph. This is one of my more normal compositions, a profile shot, showing the flower it is resting on to good effect. However, let’s try something different and see if we can’t add a little dynamism which I feel is lacking here. Taken in Iwokrama, Guyana (2010).

Here is an Alydidae adult resting on a flower. The overhead angle isn’t one I usually use, neither is positioning the insect in the centre of the frame. However, here I think that the two work. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana (2010).

I have a few favourite positions for different critters, but that doesn’t stop me from trying something new for each of them. I shot a wood louse and after doing all the usual for 15 minutes I struggled to get underneath it, and got an unusual angle from the bottom.

Wood louse on grass. Now there is absolutely nothing wrong with this shot, in fact I really like it. But to me, it constitutes my regular shooting style and angles. A habit I try and break every shoot. Kurupukari, Guyana (2010).

This shot shows the prominent ridges and segmentation and I feel is a very different kind of shot that I am happy with for an altogether different reason.

 

Experimental

This will be a running entry showcasing some stuff that I’m working on trying to hone and make better. Pictures will be of varying quality as I improve or simply decide to abandon a technique or style. The photos under this section might seem altogether ‘normal’ to anyone else, but they mark a departure from my conventional style and hence will fall under experimental for me personally. Each entry will be accompanied by a short blurb on what it was I was trying to achieve. Any advice on how I might improve a particular style or effect would be very much appreciated.

UV light

Photo was taken with a Nichia 365nm UV flashlight. These photos must be taken in the dark, otherwise the the light will overwhelm the UV fluorescence. Shot on a tripod with mirror lock up and 2sec self timer. Shutter speed was 30 seconds, aperture f/9, Iso 200 and no flash. While the shutter is open I painted the subject with the UV beam, careful to illuminate as evenly as possible the entire subject. One must choose a subject that does not move for at least 15-30 seconds to get a blur free image. Harvestman with moth prey. Found during night hikes in Bellavista cloud rainforest reserve, Ecuador (2011).

I had already known that material in the chitin of scorpions fluoresced when exposed to UV light, however, thanks to Techuser on flickr for the idea of using UV on harvestmen. Here shows the use of a tripod using 15 and 30 second long exposures, while minimizing ISO’s to 100-400. The results are much cleaner than previous attempts. Here, any movement will result in fairly poor results. UV light was in the 365nm wavelength. This provides a more naturalistic lighting that minimizes the purple colour cast of 400nm + wavelengths, though the latter definitely have an interesting look. Furthermore this wavelength seems to make create a brighter fluorescence, enabling shorter exposure times. The reason is for this UV fluorescence is a little unclear. Some insects see in UV and so it might help in species differentiation or mate selection. Snakes, birds and other predators can also see in UV so perhaps the brightness reflects aposematism in nocturnal predators in a similar way to how bright colours in the visible spectrum do to diurnal predators. Harvestmen use a variety of defenses including aposematism, stridulation and chemical defenses to ward off predators and so it seems feasible that such fluorescence might fulfill a similar role. Though the accentuation of patterns on the dorsum and posterior might be more reflective of mate selection since many harvestmen will perch up high and with relatively poor vision, such brightness might help them find a mate. Some other insects that I have found to reflect UV are some leaf mimicking katydids, centipedes (Scolopendra), some crab backed orbweavers (Micrathena sp.), some caterpillars, scorpions, some stick insects, some grasshoppers/katydids…quite a broad spectrum really. Though like mimetism UV fluorescence seems to change with the life cycle, either becoming stronger of weaker with age depending on the species. For example one individual of a possible new genus of millipede that I found fluoresced red under UV though others didn’t.  Update 10/11/2013

Scorpions are the original ‘blacklight bugs’. They respond very strongly to UV light and unlike a lot of other insects they don’t require the lengthy exposure times needed to bring out that fluorescence.

Chrysalis under UV light. Many insects display UV fluorescence and this can sometimes come in unexpected and spectacular forms! Here, purples, blues and greens predominate although reds, yellows and other colours can also sometimes be found. UV fluorescence can appear in odd places, so it is always worthwhile to experiment and briefly inspect each subject you encounter with a brief UV pulse.

Panning

I tried to do a panning shot to capture the movement of the ants. This was made extremely difficult by the low light, the erratic speed of the leafcutters and the slope of the terrain. This is the best of about 200 shots. I plan on taking more because I think that one could get a really awesome shot if one were to get the speed of the panning just right. Tukeit, Guyana (2010).Moonlight effect 

 

 

This was an experiment with light. I had one flash mounted above the subject aimed directly down to light up the watery surface of the leaf, and one aimed directly up from below the leaf, to spill around it and light up the outline of the cockroach. I sharpened it as much as possible in the hopes of introducing halos to further the effect. Hopefully the effect seen is that of a cockroach that appears to be vaguely lit by a full moon. Taken in Guyana (2010).

Update 10/11/2013

“Caterpillar by moonlight” – This photo was the result of quite a bit of experimentation. What could be mistaken for the moon is actually my flashlight. Getting the proper distance between the subject and the flashlight, as well as the strength of the flashlight power are both crucial ingredients in making a realistic and well composed photo. The subject should also be chosen with care. Here the long hairs which glow with the flashlight work well with the backlight.

Sunrise effect 

This shot was taken at night believe it or not. It required mostly just a lot of manual dexterity. I didn’t use flash either! I held the flashlight behind the frog and with the same hand, held the leaf behind it. I let the flashlight shine through my fingers on high power so that it gave the reddish glow. I had to maneuver the flashlight, fingers, leaf all with one hand while shooting with the other. This gave me a uniform reddish glow. Okay, but I want the sunrise! So I slightly splayed my fingers to let the more intense light through, but only at the bottom of the shot. At the top I kept my fingers held gradually tighter. This led to the gradation seen in a usual sunrise. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana (2010).

Bright backgrounds by night Focus Stacks Coming soon . . .

Questions anyone?

IF THERE IS A SPECIFIC QUESTION THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE ADDRESSED LEAVE A COMMENT AND I WILL TRY MY BEST TO ANSWER IT OR IF YOU HAVE ANY TIPS YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE, LEAVE THEM HERE

More to come

26 Responses to Photography: Tips, tricks and techniques

  1. Peggy says:

    Wow, your shots are sensational and your fascination with insects really shines through, therefore making viewing even more interesting. There’s a ton of information here to digest so I’m going to nibble off small bits here and there. Great job putting this blog together!

  2. pbertner says:

    Thanks for the support Peggy, if you have any questions in particular that you would like me to address I can do my best or maybe refer you to someone who can.

    Cheers,
    Paul

  3. Peggy says:

    Just thought I’d drop you a note…I’m off to Costa Rica in a few weeks so wanted to bone up on my jungle photography by visiting your site. In particular I’m hoping to photograph frogs. May I ask what kind of flash you use? I don’t even own an off-camera flash yet but am considering buying one before the trip. I suppose I really need one, especially since I also like to shoot without a tripod.

    I was also wondering what “extra-floral nectary” means…never heard of it!

  4. pbertner says:

    Hi Peggy,

    Great to hear that you will be exploring the jungle. I’ve heard great things about Costa Rica, especially the Osa peninsula if you get a chance. I use a combination of techniques usually brought on by equipment failure at one point or another. My first choice is a macro twin flash mt-24EX. But when that’s not possible I use an off-shoe canon 580EX.

    You have several options though; 1) An ideal option is if your camera has an in-built flash, then you should check to see if it allows for master and slave function. This allows your in camera flash to control an exterior flash by means of an infrared signature signal. When one flash goes, so too does the other, this means you can avoid the cable altogether. But you will have to check for compatibility of both flashes.
    2) You can either use an off shoe camera cord (OCE3 for canon) or a PC synch cord to trigger the flash remotely. The latter option is less expensive. You will probably want some kind of bracket or hydrostatic arm to hold the flash in place though as it can be difficult to focus at the same time as holding your flash with your other hand. If buying the OCE3, go for the OEM manufacturer. Third party knockoffs tend to be of cheap construction. I bought a Meike brand for $20 and the electrical contacts promptly came loose and was not salvageable.
    3) This requires just a little creativity on your part. If you have an inbuilt flash all you need to do is get some cardboard and cut lengths to fit your flash. A snoot is basically a tunnel meant to convey the light from your flash as close as possible to the subject you are shooting with as little light loss as possible. Therefore they usually look very roughly like this: < . The insides are lined with something like aluminum foil to prevent light loss, and the end of the tunnel has some kind of diffusion material. If you google snoot, you will find all kinds of ideas. This option is the cheapest, you just need to make sure that it doesn't fall apart while you are traveling.

    As for 'extra-floral nectary' it is basically a source of nectar that doesn't occur within a flower. Flowers have nectaries to entice insects and birds to feed at their flower sites. While these animals are feeding, they often plant pollen or seeds on these animals to ensure pollination and distribution, respectively. Nectar is sugar rich and therefore requires a substantial amount of energy investment by the plant but it is worth it if it can attract its pollinator. Extra-floral nectaries occur outside of the the flower itself and therefore aren't associated with pollination but encourage ants to guard the nectaries which are a valuable commodity. The extra floral nectaries are spread out along the plant so that ants essentially patrol the entire plant. If other insects attempt to eat the flowers, nectaries or leaves of the plant the ants will respond and shoe off these predators.

    Hope this was helpful,
    Paul

  5. Peggy says:

    Thanks so much for your in-depth reply, Paul! I am indeed going to the Osa peninsula…that’s where we’ll be spending most of our time. I was there three years ago and fell in love with the place. As a matter of fact, I even brought home a stray dog from there (named Osa now), but that’s a whole other story!

    I have a Canon 7D and it allows for master and slave functions as you mentioned. I still haven’t decided whether or not to buy a flash.

    In any case, I like your option #3 and will experiment with that before leaving. As I mentioned, I have very little experience with flashes. I don’t like how animals’ eyes turn red when using the in-camera flash and so tend to avoid it although I notice I can usually boost the lighting just a little without an animal getting red-eye if I’m far enough away.

    Thanks for the explanation about nectaries…I’ll be on the lookout for them now! Interesting that I’ve never noticed them before.

    Well, thanks again for your informative post. I’ll let you know if I have any luck with the macro photography on my trip. I’m primarily interested in bird photography but your work in particular has inspired me to do a little more macro.

  6. Dave says:

    Great photos and probably the best treatment on photography of tropical insects at night that I have come across. As an entomologist, macro-photographer and afficianado of tropical wildlife I really appreciate all of the effort you have put into this article. Many of the techniques and issues you detail are familiar to me but there are also many new ideas and perspectives that you have introduced to me. At times I feel that I have come to a creative standstill with macro photography and this has given me new enthusiasm and things to try on my next jungle adventure. Ironically also to the Osa penninsula like the previous commenter.

    Maybe one night we will see each other’s flashes as we each seek out the next incredible arthropod photo :)

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Dave,
      Thanks for dropping by and leaving such a flattering comment. Glad that I can be of some assistance. I strongly recommend bringing along a UV light, which can be picked up for $10 on ebay. It’s amazing the number of species that exhibit fluorescence. I’ve seen it in everything from caterpillars to katydids. If you want to catch it on film I would urge the use of a tripod since it generally requires fairly long exposure times.

      What kind of system do you use? What interests? I haven’t been to Costa Rica myself but have a number of friends that have and that have some good recommendations if you haven’t been there before.
      Have a great trip in any case.

      Best regards,
      Paul

  7. Dave says:

    Hi Paul

    I was planning on bringing along a UV flashlight for scorpion spotting but after seeing your harvestman shot I’m pumped to give it a try on other arthropods as well. I have a bright one watt model but it is 400nm not 365nm as the one you recommend and it uses CR123 batteries so I might just spring for the Nischia model you recommend though it is rather pricey.

    I too use manual flash (cheap lightweight models) for most of my insect shots though with the high ISO performance of newer DSLRs I have been practicing more natural light macro photography. I use a handmade flash bracket modeled after John Shaw’s version most of the time but recently have been experimenting with another homemade design with 2 lightweight flashes. Though not ideal I have settled on optical triggers for firing the off camera flash using the popup as the master. This requires lenses with manual aperture settings (at least on Pentax DSLRs) to trigger correctly (forces the popup to fire in full manual mode; no pre-flash).

    My interests in photography are primarily natural history subjects from landscapes to minute insects and everything in-between although insect macros are where I concentrate the majority of my efforts. I am interested in all types of terrestrial arthropods so I shoot whatever I come across.

    If you want to discuss things in greater detail please fell free to email me.

    Dave

    • pbertner says:

      Hey Dave,

      Don’t worry about the wavelength of the UV light. I found that 365nm simply shed less of a purple cast of light, but it’s not really necessary to get the fluorescence as you know.

      Have you considered either an off shoe camera cord or PC synch cord. Might be an alternative to using the onboard flash as the trigger.

      You might consider adding a small compact mirror to your list of accessories. This is good for mostly reptiles. If you show this to an anole chances are that the male will start to perform dominance displays and extend the dewlap.

      Paul

  8. Dave says:

    Hi Paul
    Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve used synch cords in the past with film cameras but the small flashes I am using for macro have very high trigger voltages that could damage the DSLR camera circuits. My other thought on this was to get wireless RF triggers. However these add weight and more batteries to the mix so maybe not. What I’ve found with the method I’m using is that the onboard flash has little effect on lighting the scene because it points too high for a close up shot and is often shaded by the lens (though in some cases the background benefits from some additional lighting).

    Dave

  9. Johan says:

    Really handy, thank you. Nice to see a page that has such insights into the stalking bit

  10. pbertner says:

    Dave

    I guess if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Sounds like you’ve got a system that works for you and tinkering might help though it sounds like the benefits would probably be marginal. My advice though is to do whatever experimenting technically (not creatively) now before you go, since sometimes toying with your system while traveling screws it up and then you’re left with the damage for the rest of your trip, seriously hampering your photo taking. Onboard flashes aren’t given nearly enough credit in my opinion. People go for strong flashes, specialized macro flashes and while these certainly add to the convenience factor I in no way consider them necessary.

    This guy: http://beingmark.com/macro-illustrated/ last I heard actually uses an onboard flash with a homemade snoot of cardboard and tin foil to achieve his amazing results.

    Johan- Thanks for the comment it is very appreciated. If you are looking for any advice in particular please don’t be shy in asking.

    Take care,
    Paul

  11. Mark says:

    Well done Paul. A fascinating stream of creatures and behaviours across a spectrum of colour and form. Wonderful stuff and good work mate.

    Haven’t been on FM much lately but , yes, I still use the snoot/diffuser for on board flash.

    • Mark says:

      PS I might get to Kakadu Nat Pk after this wet season and perhaps see some of our more exotic cousins.

      • pbertner says:

        Thanks for the compliments Mark. It’s amazing the results that you achieve with your diffuser method. I’m always amazed at the solutions people come up with. Recently forwarded a link about sensor cleaning. Amazing the kind of scare tactics that the camera companies employ to get you to professionally service, or else buy expensive products when Q-tips and a blower will do.

        I would love to see pictures from the national park. I really hope that you get the chance to get out there!

        Best wishes,
        Paul

  12. I’m an amateur photographer. You have such marvelous photography skills. I’m totally impressed. Thanks for sharing your tips and techniques. Learnt a lot by just reading your blog. Thank you so much for the inspiration to become a better photographer. Cheers… :))

  13. Doreen says:

    Absolutely breathtaking! Uplifting to see that the world is your oyster!
    You are true inspiration!

  14. Wow, superb weblog format! How lengthy have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your website is great, let alone the content!

  15. pbertner says:

    Hi all, thanks for the kind comments! Sorry I haven’t had a chance to answer sooner, I’ve been in hopping between national parks in Madagascar.

    I’ve been blogging for a little over a year, but very sporadically. I thought that blogging would be more difficult than it is. It really is quite simple and it’s modular, so you just keep on adding to the webpage as you learn more and more about the design and the interface. I basically just started posting with pictures, and then gradually added the menus, and widgets and background. The design I use is twenty-ten which I have found to have the most functions that I desire. If you’re thinking about starting a blog I would be happy to share any experiences/difficulties/tips that I have learned along the way.

    Cheers and happy new year from Madagascar,
    Paul

  16. GG says:

    Your photos are great. I am learning to take insect macros too. But encountered a lot of problems. Your photos gave me great motivation to go on. I simply love your blog

    • pbertner says:

      Glad that you enjoy it and many thanks for the compliments. Sorry for the delay in response, I’ve been a tad busy. I haven’t updated in a very long time but I’m hoping to get back into it. If you need any help or guidance I’d be happy to help either publicly or by email.

      Cheers,
      Paul

  17. tinyurl.com says:

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    • pbertner says:

      Wow, a lot of time has passed since I noticed this. I try and respond to most messages but my lifestyle can get in the way. In any case thanks for the compliments and best wishes.

      Paul

  18. Your lovely Phoneutria is P. fera going by the location in the Guyanas and the ventral abdominal pattern (brown/cream with darker brown spots). P.nigriventer has a totally black ventral abdomen (hence name nigri-venter), though reddish when juvenile, and from SE Brazil and Argentina. Anyway, fabulous photos, great talent and skill !

  19. Dana Rich says:

    Trick photography isn’t just a mediocre form of photography because one must have creative ideas and technical skills to be able to accomplish a decent photo. http://www.learntotrickphotography.com/

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