A Photographic Redo: Fungus-Growing Ants 7 Years Later

I first visited Ulrich Mueller’s lab at the University of Texas in 2007, where I took this photo in one of his lab colonies of Mycocepurus smithii:


The photo shows a worker on a strand of fungus that grows in ant nests. The fungus eats bits of detritus that the ants gather from around the forest, while the ants eat the fungus. It’s a true agricultural system. Plenty has already been written about these fungus farms, so I won’t bore you with further detail.

Since I was back in Austin a couple weeks ago, I figured I’d have another go at shooting the ants. Have a look.

Mycocepurus smithii

I used the same lens & an upgraded camera back, but this time I was armed with two more significant weapons: a pair of remote flashes that I could position freely, and seven additional years of experience to guide where I put those flashes. This time I arranged a diffused side light at left, and a diffused back light at the right, with nothing but empty laboratory space behind. The effect, I hope you will agree, gives a bit more zest than my first go.

photo details:
Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D (top) or 7D (bottom)
ISO 100, f/13, 1/2oo sec (top)
ISO 400, f/11, 1/200 sec (bottom)
Diffuse macro twin flash (top)
Two diffuse off-camera strobes (bottom)


Photographs at are now geotagged


Want to know the precise coordinates of natural history photos at my gallery site? Thanks to recent improvements at my web host, Smugmug, if the photographs have geography metadata you may now click on a globe icon in the nav bar to view a zoomable map:


Not all photographs are geotagged yet- bear with me as I work through them. This welcome improvement should add considerable information value to the site, though.

Last Day of the Holiday Print Sale!

A reminder that the great holiday print sale of 2013 comes to a close at midnight EST tonight, January 1st. The next sale is not for a few months and will cover a different set of photographs. If anything in the gallery catches your eye, today is your last chance to pick something up at the discounted rate!

Alex Wild’s 2013 Holiday Insect Print Sale

Prints of all photos have sold, but the top movers have been:

1. Bees on pollen-filled comb


2. Pollen-filled comb, without bees


3. (tie) Mating Hyalophorus moths; Toxomerus hover fly on spider wort






Behind the Photo: Dueling Dung Beetles

Onthophagus taurus
Male dung beetles, Onthophagus taurus, vary in size and horn development.


The next series of posts- Behind the Photo– will feature the stories behind images I’ve included in this year’s print sale. First up: the brutish male dung beetles in this 2009 creation.

These insects were given to me by biologist Emilie Snell-Rood, who at the time was working in Armin’s Moczek’s Evo-Devo lab, with the hope that I might photograph live animals of different shapes and sizes for use in Moczek lab papers, web pages, and talks. Live photos make compelling stories, after all, and Onthopagus taurus has an especially interesting one. It’s about how new body parts evolve.


Males of this species employ varying strategies to reach females. The larger ones sport horns and fight over mates, while the smaller hornless ones bear a striking enough resemblance to females to slip past their rivals unrecognized as males. Since beetles that are otherwise genetically identical either sprout horns as they develop or don’t, they’ve become a fantastic model for questions about why and how new structures form. Biologists can watch the horns grow, or not grow, all within a single sex of a single species. They can also examine the process in related beetles, and make comparisons that allow inferences about how ecology interacts with genomes to produce new horns. If you’re intrigued, you can catch up with the research here.

My photograph of the dueling male beetles is not a natural scene, of course. Wild beetles fight in underground tunnels, face-to-face, not in the gleaming open air of a photography studio, so this scene is less documentation of real world behavior that a stylized illustration of male variation.

The challenge of taking this photograph was two-fold. First, dung beetles are shiny. To capture the subtleties of texture on such a reflective animal, I needed extremely soft lighting. So I fired an upward-facing flash off in a white box. A white box is what it sounds like- a box that’s all white on the inside. The box I used for the above photo is pictured at left, an old toilet paper box with printer paper taped to the inside.

The second challenge was the hyperactivity of the beetles themselves. Getting two feisty insects to perform for a well-composed shot took a long time and a lot of attempts. Here is a sample of mostly throwaways from the session:


If you’d like to purchase a print, the dueling beetles photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1. I have reprocessed the image up from the original RAW file just for this event.

photo details:
Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D.
ISO 200, f/14, 1/125 sec
Off-camera flash, manual mode.

The Holiday Print Sale Returns!

Dasymutilla occidentalis velvet ant; 12×18″ print on a 3/4″ standout mount. Sale price $15.99/$42.99 unmounted/mounted. (Regular $60/$120)


I am pleased to announce the return of the holiday print sale! This year’s selection features 30 favorite photographs reduced up to 70% off regular pricing. Have a look:


Holiday Print Sale- Alex Wild’s Insect Photographs

Pieces are printed by the professional Bay Photo labs using high-quality papers and archival photo inks. These are not simple posters! Bay Photo will also custom mount, mat & frame images if you choose “add frames & more” when you check out.

Why the sale? I know a portion of my photos go to biology students looking for something buggy to hang on their walls, and to parents of budding young entomologists, and these folks are not in the demographic that typically plays in the fine art market. So I’ve assembled an affordable gallery of some of my best known and biologically informative natural history images priced near cost. An 8×12″ print, for example, is just $9.99. I hope you enjoy them!

Toxomerus hover fly feeding from spiderwort, 16×24″ print on a 3/4″ standout mount. ($45.99/$88.99 unmounted/mounted; Regular price $150/$250).


Sale prices extend to January 1st. If you’d like your prints to arrive by Christmas under a 3-5 day shipping option, order by December 12th.

Drosophila melanogaster white-eyed mutant, 12×18″ print on a 3/4″ standout mount. ($15.99/$42.99 unmounted/mounted; Regular price $60/$120).

How to order my photographs on museum-quality standout mounts

Many of you at the Entomological Society of America Meeting in Austin this week inquired about the simple black standout mounts on display in my booth. Here is how to order them through my website.

1. Choose a photograph. Click on the image you want and it will open large on your screen. At the lower right you will see an “Add to Cart” button. Click it, and choose “this photo”.



2. Choose your paper type and size. I prefer “lustre” for most prints, although “metallic” is zingier for subjects like metallic beetles with a naturally reflective sheen. The prints on display at ESA in Austin were 16×24″ on lustre paper. Click “checkout” when you are ready.


3. Add the mount. In the next page, you choose from a variety of mats, frames, and mounts.


The 3/4″ standout mounts can be found in the “mounting” tab. I also always add the protective coating from the 3rd tab.



4. Proceed to checkout! Click “save” to move to the page where you add your shipping address and payment information.

If you’d like a signed print, email me (alwild [at] and I’ll put in the order to ship to me so I can sign it before sending it along to you. Signing entails an extra shipping charge, depending on where in the world you live.


A prairie restoration at Homer Lake, in HDR

I hardly ever subject images to the intense photoshopping of High Dynamic Range photography. HDR is just too often overdone. All the same, with half an hour on my hands at Homer Lake yesterday before the firefly show, why not kill some time?


The image is merged from 5 input files taken at different shutter speeds. To get a sense of what the camera records without manipulation, here is one of the component images:


You may have already seen the firefly picture that came later, if you follow me on facebook or G+. If you haven’t, here is about 10 minutes of Photinus pyralis above the restored prairie. Click on it to view large:



Ants and the Fisheye Lens

Here’s something I couldn’t photograph before:

Click Me!

My new Sigma 10mm fisheye lens allows me to cozy right up to an open ant nest and take a shot both of the nest interior and the colony’s forest habitat.

The ants are Aphaenogaster fulva, perhaps the most common woodland ant in my area. This particular nest is typical: large cavities in well-rotted wood in a fully shaded forest.

Nature Photography Workshop – Saturday May 18th – Urbana


This weekend I am holding a day-long photography course for the Evolution & Ecology graduate students here at the University of Illinois. This is mostly an in-house program, but after the registration dust settled we still have five spots available. Thus, we are opening the doors for general enrollment. If you’d like to participate in a hands-on photography crash course with a group of bright young biologists, we’d love to have you!

Here are the details:

Nature & Macrophotography Workshop
Instructor: Alex Wild

Saturday, May 18 – 8:50 am until 3:00 pm
University of Illinois Campus – NHB 408 &
Anita Purves Nature Center

Registration: $50
To register, email Rhiannon Peery: peery1 [at]

lunch will be provided

8:50 – Photography basics, presentation (Natural History Building 408 ~ on campus)
10:00 – Studio lighting, practice (NHB 408)
11:00 – travel to Anita Purves Nature Center
11:20 – Nature photography equipment (APNC)
12:00 – Lunch (provided) and discussion (APNC)
1:00 – Macrophotography in the field, practice (APNC)
3:00 – Closing

Topics: Basic level lighting, composition, macrophotography technique & equipment.

Required equipment: Your camera gear, with charged batteries. Cell phones to SLRs ok, preferably with a macro lens (SLR) or a macro function (digicam).
Recommended: Tripod & flash units.

Cognisys at BugShot

As if you needed another reason to attend our BugShot photo workshop in Belize, it seems we’ll have a rather interesting bit of equipment on hand:


Cognisys is a Michigan company that makes electronic gadgets for assisting macro and other science photography, and they have a growing reputation for affordable rigs of high build quality. I have yet to use any Cognisys gear, but my co-instructor John Abbott does a great deal with it, loves it, and has arranged a StackShot for our September course.

Let me explain why I’m excited to try it out.

In recent years I’ve watched entomologists gradually realize that high-magnification photography is better with SLR cameras + macro lenses than with traditional video cameras + microscopes. First, SLRs are just better at photography than video cameras. Images are crisper, bigger, brighter, deeper, and simply…better. Second, and this is important, SLRs are far cheaper. The magic combination of way better and way cheaper means we’re seeing fantastic micrography coming from folks who don’t have six-figure research grants and university resources.

Cognisys fits into this imaging revolution by providing, inexpensively, an integral part of the new SLR microscopy kit. Most insect microscopy uses a technique called focus-stacking to overcome limited depth-of-field at high magnifications. Stacking involves a series of exposures taken at slightly different focus points and merged into a single sharp image. Like so:

Over 30 separate images were combined to make this sharp portrait of Eciton hamatum, an army ant collected at the January 2013 BugShot course in Belize.

I don’t focus-stack often. When I do, I manually advance the camera along a rail to capture each image by turning a little focus knob. Turn, click. Turn, click. Manual stacking takes time, and it has the unintended consequence of fussy and uneven focus intervals. If I jump too far, I miss a slice and have to re-do the whole stack. My system is functional for occasional pieces, but people who work in the genre typically need an automated system to standardize intervals and speed the workflow. Automated z-steppers are what the high-budget folks at use with their microscope systems, and they are what StackShot can do for the rest of us.

In any case, if you come to Belize with us you’ll be able to see StackShot in action.