The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

BugShot 2012: Working with insects

The participants at BugShot were a varied bunch, with different levels of experience in both photography and entomology. Alex Wild expressed several times that, in some ways, the entomologists had a slight advantage because of their existing knowledge of the subjects. Insects are a notoriously squirrely lot, prone to moving, jumping, flying and hiding. Many are cryptic. Some sting or bite. Others can only be found in specific habitats or locations. Also, many have fascinating behaviours and natural history that are screaming to be captured on film, but might not be noticed by a non-buggy photographer.

Note: being an entomologist does not guarantee success. This velvet ant was very active and delivers an extremely painful sting. Despite my efforts, this was the best shot I managed (a petri dish lid was slammed down over it about a nanosecond after I snapped this pic – it was about 6 inches from my face).

John Abbott gave a great presentation on the first day, an Entomology 101. I was impressed by the amount of material he was able to cram into a two-hour session! Rather than repeat everything here, I suggest that you check out this Storify for a summary of the tweets I wrote during that talk.

[View the story “BugShot 2012 – Entomology 101 with John Abbott” on Storify]

You’ll note that he covered everything from taxonomy to morphology – it’s a lot to know! But the important take-home message was basically this: taking the time to learn a bit about insects will make it easier to find and photograph them. Also, your insect photographs will more likely be useful scientifically.

A great place to start if you’re interested in learning more is to get a couple of field guides. You can find guides that cover specific groups or geographic regions, or more general guides that try to touch a little bit on every major order of insect (not an easy task, considering there are millions of different species!) Entry-level text books are another option for those who want a little more detail, or who want to tackle the challenge of an identification key.

Once you’ve found your bug of choice, the next challenge is to actually get that photo. Some things to keep in mind:

  • If you’re in the field, be aware of how you’re approaching the insect. Vibrations, movement and sudden shadows can cause your perfectly-posed bug to fly, jump or scoot under a leaf.  Put your mad stealth-ninja skillz to work, and don’t rush.
  • Likewise, be aware of your equipment and know your working distance. Long snoot diffusers or long lenses can accidentally bump an up-close subject.
  • Try taking photos early in the morning, while the bugs are still cool and quiet and not so skittish. It’s a nice chance to get dewdrops and lovely ambient light, too.
  • If you’re working in the studio, have some kind of cover handy to place over a running insect.  A petri dish can work well (you can see through it so will know when it settles). But, since it lets in light, it might take longer for your bug to quiet. Alex reported that he’s waited out some particularly frisky ants for several hours as they ran in circles around the lid.
  • Assume that you have three seconds or less to get that shot after you take the cover off your now-calm subject – get that photo fast!
  • You can try rapidly cooling a bug in the freezer – just long enough to stop it, but not long enough to kill it, obviously.  Don’t bother trying to take a photo of a frozen bug – they look stupid, frankly.  Usually they’ll slowly rouse and sometimes will take a moment to groom before taking off again.
  • Alternates to the freezer include a whiff of CO2 if you have it, or ethyl acetate (the same stuff used in killing jars). Again, be careful to only administer enough to knock the subject out momentarily.
  • Try using a red filter over the light source you’re using to focus on your subject, rather than a white one; it might not disturb your insect as much and could encourage it to calm.
  • If you’ve got a flying subject in a white box, a drape of white fabric with a hole cut out to permit access for your camera might be your best friend. If it suddenly takes off, it will remain contained in the box.

Tomorrow we’ll have a few quick tips for composition!

One response to “BugShot 2012: Working with insects

  1. allthingsbiological August 29, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    Very nice, Crystal. I’m enjoying your notes, even for the presentations we both attended! I was really surprised by the price discrepancy between Amazon’s Canadian ($31.99) and US ($8.99) Port-A-Bug pricing. Whoa…

    I think you may want to order from one of the U.S. vendors.

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