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?