Less is More

Back at base camp I’m giddy with excitement at the opportunity of photographing this oft unseen insect. Given the magnitude of my delight, I need a concomitant increase in magnification I decide. And so I put away the mpe-65mm, 5X magnification won’t be enough for this sucker, no, I’m going full on 10X magnification with the bellows, microscope objective, the whole nine yards. I knew there was a reason I dragged all this shit up the mountain! Laboriously I put together the gear, slowly affixing the camera to the linear stage which is in turn moved by a micrometer which can control the movements down to .001″. To most this will not mean much, but I assure you to that to the macrophotographer there will be many a wet dream tonight (I wipe my hands of all responsibility…so to speak). There’s only one problem left to me, the subject is alive and moves. Moral quandaries aside, I much prefer photographing live subjects since they look a heck of a lot better than something shrivelled up with its legs tucked under it. They are also always changing position and so it provides endless opportunities to catch an interesting point of view. Then I also am of the opinion that no photo is worth the life of another animal, however small. Not a sanctity of life thing per se more of a healthy respect for the subject manner and millions of years of evolution. In any case this philosophy has interfered with quality photos on more than one occasion and it certainly wasn’t helping here! Pesky conscience! I tried channeling my inner sociopath to no avail (which frankly surprised me) and instead had to rely on the bloody thing tiring itself out running around in circles in the jar. For an insect adapted to a nomadic lifestyle that takes a while! In fact there have been studies that have manipulated the pheromone track of army ants so that it formed a loop and the ants actually ran themselves to death! Fortunately my dilemma was solved when the Staphylinid beetle finally took a rest. Of course I found myself encumbered with an overabundance of equipment, each part managing to get in the way of the other. Maneuvering the tripod to hold onto even a ‘relatively’ motionless subject at 10X is a pain in the ass and my system is somewhat cobbled together with a flash which isn’t even fixed but rather held by hand, thus I wound up scrapping the entire system much to my chagrin and handheld the bellows and all. This results in a substantial decrease in quality but I really didn’t see any other way. Not to mention all the other factors like being on a mountaintop with rain and wind and no proper tabletop. A conspiration of circumstances aimed at disrupting my macro it seemed! For the non-photographer, all this really boils down to is that I wasted almost 2 hours on mediocre photos. Nevertheless I took some consolation that they are still some of the most detailed pictures of a live specimen.

(Photos to come with descriptions: Cut me some slack I’m in the jungle for crying out loud…and yes there is WiFi here…sigh…I guess remote is just a state of mind now and no longer a destination)

Over the following days I would see more and more of my equipment fall by the wayside, of little use. Lee filters, linear polarizers, gels, even my 24-70 lens they simply didn’t leave my bag. I thought about the effort it had taken to get them up to this mini-mountain and made a note to make a concerted effort to use each and every piece (of course noble intentions! Most still remained couched deep within the protective folds of my bag). While I lay in my hammock at night I had time to reflect on how my kit has evolved and despite a meteoric rise in weight (this trip the bags tipped the scales at about 40kg!) functionally I hadn’t seen a concomitant rise in function. In fact quite the opposite, the sheer weight was enough to inhibit either my desire or my ability to take photos in certain situations. A problem faced by all travellers I suppose, and one that is rather mundane on the face of it. Though I assure you that agonizing over gear while at home is much better than the agony it will put your body through later!


About pbertner

Studied cell biology and genetics at UBC in Canada with a focus in microbiology. However, have gravitated more recently towards ecology and biodiversity. Have traveled the rainforests of Brazil, Brunei, Cambodia, Colombia, Costa Rica, DRC, Ecuador, Guyana, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam with plans to visit many more.
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4 Responses to Less is More

  1. smccann27 says:

    I hear ya! I tend to carry too much as well. I miss my P+S with the tiny external slave and Raynox…Maybe one day we will have super quality P+S’s so that we can give our backs a break!

    • pbertner says:

      That’ll be a day attended to with much celebration! I remember my first trip I felt truly bound by nothing, all I had was a simple pentax dslr and a macro lens. I would take risks that would be unthinkable now, not to mention greater accessibility to tours, mobility, etc… Next trip I’ll shed at least half the weight. Not to mention not having to constantly look over one’s shoulder!

  2. Jude says:

    Really nice to read of your adventures again, Paul! How much better you, rather than me, getting mosquito attacked, not to mention being a juicy target for ants! But I still get to share in the fruits of your labour once you post your photos. 😀

    So what do those insects that aren’t parasitic get out of traveling with the ants? I can imagine there’d be safety among them but curious what else. I’ve had a fascination with ants since I was a little kid digging up ant nests so I could study them better. I always wanted to find a queen but she was hidden too deep. It’s amazing to think that tiny ants, less than 2 mm, can wear down a narrow path through the grass to their nests. With the incessant rain we normally get 9-10 months of the year, I’m surprised they can flourish so well here.

    Paul, with all the mosquito bites you get, is there any chance of catching a tropical disease or getting a parasite like botfly eggs deposited in one of the bites? That’s a thought that creeps me out but there must be ways of preventing infections other than slathering yourself with DEET everyday – which thought also creeps me out but in a different way!

    • pbertner says:

      Hi Jude,

      The commensal species get the protection of traveling alongside such aggressive ants and the protection of being in numbers rather than standing out by oneself.

      I try to avoid DEET wherever possible and will endure bites until it gets really bad before I start to use it. I find it irritating and dirty in equal parts. Rather I use a long sleeved shirt and try to avoid dusk and dawn, the worst parts of the day in general. I’ve had Dengue fever before and had a botfly while in Manu reserve, Peru (Disgusting yes, but mostly harmless). If I’m heading into a very malarial zone I’ll take Doxycycline since it is actually the most broad-spectrum of the anti-malarials and will kill a bunch of other parasites and even the bubonic plague.


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