In an earlier post I listed my favorite insect images of the year taken by other photographers. Now it’s my turn. Here is the best of my own work over the last 12 months.
Rather than blather on about my Easter Sunday, I’ll just share a few images from a morning hike in Tucson’s Rincon mountains. Winter rains have given way to wildflowers, and in particular the Encelia brittlebush was spectacular.
Formica accreta, Northern California
I wish I could say I knew what these ants were doing. Hiding from the photographer, perhaps? Formica of the fusca species group are notoriously shy insects, but not all of these ones seemed to be equally spooked.
Twin flash diffused through tracing paper.
In 1934, a diminutive book by an unknown author seeded the largest conservation movement in history. The book, Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, pioneered the modern field guide format with crisp illustrations of diagnostic characters, all in a pocket-sized read. The Guide sold out in a week, but the book’s effects are ongoing.
To understand the magnitude of Peterson’s impact, consider how naturalists traditionally identified birds. They’d take a shotgun into the field, and if they saw something of interest they’d kill it. Birding was necessarily limited to the landed- and armed- gentry. The technique wasn’t so good for the birds either.
Whirligigs are masters of the thin interface between air and water, predating on animals caught in the surface tension. In the field it can be hard to appreciate the finely sculptured details of their bodies, the erratic movements that give them their name also make them hard to observe and to catch.
Beetles in a 5-gallon aquarium with a colored posterboard for backdrop.
Levels adjusted in Photoshop.
I have thousands of absolutely awful photographs on my hard drive. I normally delete the screw-ups on camera as soon as they happen, but enough seep through that even after the initial cut they outnumber the good photos by at least 3 to 1. Here are a few of my favorite worst shots.
Thinking that nothing would be cooler than an action shot of a fruit fly in mid-air, I spent an entire evening trying to photograph flies hovering over a rotting banana. This shot is the closest I came to getting anything in focus.
My early bug photos, the ones I don’t show anyone anymore, are poorly-exposed affairs that now sit hidden in my files. If I had to put my finger on the single biggest problem with these embarrassing first attempts, I’d say that I lacked an eye for composition. I was so intent on getting the bug in focus somewhere in the LCD that I paid no attention to what else ended up sharing the frame. Turns out, all sorts of extraneous crud. Bits of grass. Dust. My finger. Many of these images are so crowded that it just isn’t clear what I ought to be looking at.
Understanding why busy compositions look uglier than life takes a bit of neurology. Our optic nerves impart an incessant stream of information to our brains. An undiscerning brain would quickly be overstimulated, but the brain keeps on top by knowing what to ignore. The effective brain, in fact, spends an impressive amount of time filtering away uninteresting detail. A consequence is that we humans see as much with our brains as with our eyes (if you doubt this observation, consider optical illusions).
Unfortunately for photography, the brain doesn’t process flat, two-dimensional images the same way it processes live 3-D signal. Extraneous clutter swept so effortlessly under the rug in life is not easily ignored in photographs. Intended subjects are lost in peripheral details. Objects in the background assume distracting importance. The result is that photographs often don’t look much like the images we remember seeing. They look busier, messier, less orderly.
It is this difference between life and still imagery that makes photographic composition so important. A photographer has to lead the viewer’s eyes past all manner of distractions to the intended subject. The more clutter there is, the more challenging composition becomes.
An obvious solution is to simplify the photograph, stripping out non-essential elements. Keeping backdrops clean gives the brain less to process, allowing it to naturally settle on the desired subject. Once I figured out this little secret, making pleasing compositions became second nature.
Below, I share ten tricks for keeping the clutter out of photographs.
Gazelle Scarab, Arizona
At my current rate of once-a-week Beetle Blogging, I’ll need 10,000 years to cover every living species.
Wish me luck.
flash diffused through tracing paper
levels adjusted in Photoshop; slight lateral crop
For your viewing pleasure I’ve set up a new Hemiptera gallery at www.alexanderwild.com. Hemiptera are the “True Bugs”, a large order of insects defined by having the mouthparts modified into a hollow beak. You can visit the gallery here:
I admit being a little embarrassed at how few photographs I have of true bugs. They are a stunningly diverse order of insects, with a great many attractive species, and are extremely important both economically and ecologically.
Common caricatures of Darwinian evolution evoke nature as a brutal force, one of ruthless competition in which the strongest prevail. In truth evolutionary processes can be much more nuanced. Under a wide array of conditions, species find Darwinian advantage in cooperative relationships.
Some of the most striking cases of evolutionary partnerships involve the planet’s dominant primary producers, the plants, and the most abundant insects, the ants. Ants are exceptional predators, and several groups of plants have figured out that by housing and feeding resident ant colonies they gain a potent defensive shield against their herbivores and other plant competitors. Ant-Plant associations are apparently beneficial enough for both parties that highly-specialized obligatory relationships have evolved many times.
Why do I bring this up? Because I’ve just posted a new Ants and Plants gallery:
At the moment the gallery contains images of just three such systems: the Neotropical Acacia-Pseudomyrmex and Cecropia-Azteca systems and the Australian Myrmecodia-Philidris partnership. These are just a few of the ant-plant systems that exist, though, there are more equally photogenic ones that I’ve not yet had the luck to photograph.