Premeditated Nature Photography: Gliding Ants

As I’ve gotten more serious about photography, the single biggest change I’ve made is to premeditate my photo sessions. Instead of haphazardly shooting whichever subjects happen across my lens- my habit during my first few years with a camera- I tend now to have a particular image in mind well in advance of a shoot.  The timing and location of a session, the equipment, and the lighting are all planned accordingly.

Cephalotes atratus, the gliding ant. Panama, 2007.

This gliding ant in mid-air is a good example.  A small insect in free fall is not the sort of thing one happens to point-and-shoot.  This shot was planned weeks in advance, almost as soon as I’d booked tickets to Panamá.

Gliding ants are a recent discovery.  Steve Yanoviak stumbled accidentally on the behavior while doing field work in Peru.  He quickly performed a series of experiments showing that ants knocked out of the rainforest canopy glide directly back to the tree trunk instead of falling to the forest floor.  Pretty amazing stuff.  Steve deservedly got a Nature paper out of the find.  I had to try a shot.

After a couple of days wandering about in the Canal Zone, Jo-anne and I eventually found foraging trails of the right ant (Cephalotes atratus) near our bed & breakfast in Gamboa. I put a few workers in a vial.

atratushangingWith several captive subjects we could practice at our leisure.  Our strategy was to have Jo-anne drop the insect a set distance in front of the lens, and hope the ant ended up somewhere in focus in the frame when I tripped the shutter.

After some experimentation with an off-camera flash and various green backdrops, we settled on an effective backdrop that was dark but obviously natural, and a flash setting that emphasized the ant’s limbs.  Finding the right timing took an additional hour of practice, and eventually we realized that a simultaneous release of ant and click of shutter on a count of 3 produced the most consistent images.

Then we spent a couple hours taking some 300 images, nearly all of them useless.  It turns out that some ants are just duds.  They drop like a rock, making no attempt to glide or extend their legs, and even when I managed a well-exposed capture the poor thing really looked like a dead ant dropped from the forceps of an increasingly frustrated photographic assistant.

Once we realized how important the individual ant was for this endeavor, we picked out a sufficiently perky specimen.  One ant in particular took to gliding right away, stretching her legs as soon as she was lifted off her feet.  The winning shot came only a few minutes later.

6 thoughts on “Premeditated Nature Photography: Gliding Ants”

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