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.
I’ll assume that the reader is already familiar with the basics of macro photography, so I won’t go over swaying your body, bracing, etc…
Extensively updated 15/08/2014
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Occasionally ants must chase off other insects or ant species that are equally attracted to the sugars.
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.
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.
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.
Some caterpillars, especially those of the Lycaenid family have developed a mutualistic relationship with ants. Much like the homopteran relationship, those forged with caterpillars depend on the exchange of protection from the ants in return for honeydew from the caterpillar. Unlike homoptera, caterpillars have devised additional mechanisms to engage their ant protectors. They have been shown to emit high frequency chirps as a means of communication with the ants, as well as perhaps emitting an ant-specific pheromone.
The caterpillars below additionally have a posterior dorsal furrow seen in the 3rd photo to which the ants seem attracted, possibly the source of the excreted honeydew.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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’)
Combining backlighting, a non-linear horizon and an in-your-face perspective from this hunting ant (Diacamma sp.) help it to stand out.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Workers not only carry larvae/pupae but also exhibit social carrying in which energy is conserved by carrying nestmates.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Staphylinid beetle is isolated so as to better show morphological traits and verisimilitude to its ant model – Eciton burchellii.
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.
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
[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]
African driver ants (Dorylus spp.)
Thanks to the (relatively) stationary guards on the margins of the column, it was possible to take a long exposure shot to emphasize the motion and underline the nomadic nature of the colony.More on my own experiences with army ants can be read HERE.
4) Matabele ants
Matabele ants, so-named after the legendary African warriors, are termitovores.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Notice the similar colouration and patterns on the abdomen of both model and mimic of this unidentified crab spider.
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.
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.
However, with the 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.
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.
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.
I am currently working on a model pit so that I can hopefully capture a shot of predatory behaviour. Stay tuned.
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).
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.
Jumping spiders (Myrmarachne spp.)
Sac spiders (Clubionidae, Corinnidae)
Shield bugs (Pentatomidae)
Praying mantids (Mantodea)
Oecophylla ant-mimicking juvenile mantis. Photo taken in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Copyright Paul Bertner 2013.
More ant mimicry photos can be found in my flickr album HERE.