Getting the backdrop right: an example

This basic photo of a harvester ant carrying a seed took an hour and a half to capture. 150 exposures. The problem wasn’t that the ants weren’t behaving, but that it took nearly an hour of experimentation to get the simplicity of composition I had envisioned when I set out on the project.

Few of my better photos are one-off shots. Most exist in my head in some form or another before I attempt to shoot them, and once I’ve started a session they take a bit of experimentation before finding the right conditions.  Yesterday I headed up towards Mt. Lemmon where I knew of several nests of the photogenic Pogonomyrmex barbatus, with the thought of capturing a simple, representative image of the species engaged in characteristic seed-gathering behavior. The first stop was an active nest on a patch of red-yellow soil. I spent 45 minutes lining up decent, in-focus shots but without producing anything with any kind of zing. After looking through the lackluster results, I realized that the background sand at the nest was too close in color to the ants. Here’s a sample:

A red ant on reddish soil blends in when I need it to stand out. (Also, at this angle the seed tends to get lost in the texture of the background…) So I packed up and went down the trail, and where the soil changed to a whiter color I found a second colony. A more neutral background provided a better contrast, but this nest was busier. Not only was I getting stung, but I was having trouble isolating a single seed-carrying ant in the frame:

Eventually I found a single-file trail over an open patch of soil. However, here the background challenge was not color but texture. In several spots the sand gave way to gravel. A gravel backdrop is busy and distracting, making it especially difficult to see the seed:

Compare that shot with the winning one, captured where the ants’ trail crossed finer-grained sand:

See the difference?

6 thoughts on “Getting the backdrop right: an example”

  1. Pingback: The most feared animal in Arizona ran away from me « Myrmecos Blog

  2. What would Ansel Adams have done? He would have probably “visualized” the image he wanted for an hour and a half & then taken one shot to get it right. I guess, at the end, it’s the same thing.

  3. Ansel Adams, from what I understand, would have spent *months* scoping out the scene and waiting for a day with the right lighting.

    On the other hand, his landscapes didn’t scurry about like an ant.

  4. What can I say? You’re right about the best photo. At least you had the luxury of the fact the ants were going to stick around — albeit scurrying — for 150 exposures taken over an hour and a half. Most of my subjects tend to depart after a shot or two.

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