Tricks of the Trade

Public Talk, University of Kentucky: How The Digital Photography Revolution Is Good For Entomology


For those of you in Lexington, I’ll be giving a talk this Thursday on two of my favorite subjects: entomology and photography. Here are the details:

How The Digital Photography Revolution Is Good For Entomology

Alex Wild

Thursday, April 24, 2014
3:30 pm
Cameron Williams Auditorium
Plant Sciences Building
University of Kentucky

update: video of the talk will be posted here:

Behind the Photo: Mating Moths

Hylaphora cecropia – once among North America’s most common large insects, is now rare.


Some photography projects are planned months in advance. Others just sort of happen at unexpected moments. Like, when taking out the trash.

One summer evening a couple years ago, while dumping rubbish in the can, I spotted these spectacular moths up against the house behind the recycling bin. Cecropia moths, mating on the young female’s cocoon! These giant silk moths used to be common insects in the eastern United States, but owing to a combination of biocontrol gone wrong and habitat loss I don’t see more than one or two individuals a season. It was a rare find in an unphotogenic setting, wedged up next to the cinderblock foundation.



I wanted a photograph of course, but in situ I had no room to maneuver nor any hope of a non-industrial backdrop. So I opted to move them. The moths stayed put when I pulled up their redbud sapling for transplant to a studio whitebox. Whiteboxes allow precise control over lighting and backdrop, and with subjects as cooperative as these I had ample time to experiment. In the final photograph the moth’s behavior is natural, as is the foreground plant, but the setting and light are staged. The backdrop is a single colored posterboard, curved slightly to add a light gradient.

Once finished with the project, I moved the amorous insects to a nearby tree trunk. After continuing to mate for a few more minutes, they flew off.

If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.

Photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 100, f/16, 1/100 sec
Lit by an off-camera flash in a white box

Behind the Photo: A Mantis in Natural Light

A young chinese mantis, Tenodera sinensis, climbs a black-eyed susan. Urbana, Illinois, USA.

This shot of a small mantis is not in my usual style. Most of my photos are lit with flash; here I drew only from the ambient light of early evening. While I like to think I’m being creative with these natural images, I’m really aping the style of a favorite insect photographer, the amazing Rick Lieder. In an interview I conducted with Rick earlier this year, he describes the importance of backdrop:

“If I have a style, part of it is that the background is as important as the subject. If I don’t have a good background, I usually don’t make an image. I think of myself like a stage director or set designer, I’m creating a stage and waiting for something to happen within it.”


Rick Lieder, 2013 interview

With light filtering through a maple tree in the backdrop, I found that slight changes in my position led to drastic changes in the appearance of the photograph. The orbs of light in the backdrop are no accident; I shifted my position around until I had the mantis framed in the middle of a particularly bright spot.

If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.

photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 1600, f/5, 1/200 sec

Behind the Photo: A Native Bee in the Prairie Garden

A Lasioglossum sweat bee.

Our house in Urbana hosted a standard urban lawn when we moved in a few years back. Grass. A few dandelions. It was mowable, but not exciting otherwise.

To spice things up, I’ve been replacing the lawn with native plants. In early summer, our yard is now a colorful meadow:

Black-eyed susans, prairie milkweed, New England aster, ironweed, blazing star, and other native plants grow in the garden under the watchful eyes of Mingus the Cat.

The garden has benefits beyond mere aesthestics. Our homegrown prairie patch provides a wealth of opportunities for pollinator photography. The Lasioglossum sweat bee is one of many images I’ve taken on the black-eyed susans. These easy yellow asters seeded across the meadow from a single pot I transplanted in 2010.

Photographing pollinators well requires doing more than just pointing a camera at a bee and snapping away. A key aspect of the top photograph is its low angle. By crouching down to bee height and shooting up, I captured a perspective that transforms a seemingly insignificant bee into a larger-than-life animal, one worthy of the respect our increasingly troubled native pollinators deserve.

If you’d like a print, the native bee photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.

photo details:
Canon MP-E  on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/200 sec
Lit with diffuse off-camera twin flash

Behind the Photo: Firefly at Dusk

A male eastern firefly, Photinus pyralis, hovers to watch for signaling females. Urbana, Illinois.


We moved to Illinois from Tucson in 2008. The naturalist in me cringed at the relocation. Tucson is surrounded by rich natural deserts, national parks, and state forests. Champaign-Urbana is buried in a monotony of industrial corn/soy production. Illinois nature was more than 90% plowed under years ago and hasn’t returned.

Yet the midwest has its buggy bright points. What’s left of the local ant fauna remains mostly native and hosts an array of fascinating social parasites. The famous 13-year periodical cicadas emerged again in 2011. And the fireflies! The common eastern firefly Photinus pyralis launches a tremendous show in June and July. Western fireflies for the most part don’t glow as adults. I missed them when I live in Arizona.

I’d been telling Mrs. Myrmecos every year since the move, “this is the summer I finally shoot the fireflies!” and then, for various reasons, I fail to follow through. For a specialized insect photographer to not have photographs of the most spectacular local insect phenomenon was getting ridiculous.

My schedule this past summer finally conspired to allow plenty of evening firefly time, though, so I went at them with a vengeance. If you haven’t seen the results, I’ve uploaded them here: Phenomenal Fireflies.

Learning to shoot fireflies on the wing wasn’t easy, but I can distill the strategy down to one key point: spend a few evenings watching the animals behave. Each species has a particular courtship pattern, this pattern is predictable, and if you learn it you’re much more likely to know where to put the camera and when to time the shot. Photinus pyralis males have a six-second cycle : swoop upward while lit, hover for a couple seconds to watch for a female return signal, the fly forward a few feet to begin the next run.

After some practice hand-holding a pre-focused camera rig and flash, I was able to not only get a flying firefly in focus, I was able to plan for particular backdrops. The photograph above shows a male at the height of his ascent, watching for females.

If you’d like a print, this photograph is one of 30 I’ve included in the Holiday Print Sale, running until January 1.

photo details:
Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM & 12mm extension tube on a Canon EOS 6D
ISO 800, f/10, 1/25 sec
Lit with diffuse off-camera strobe

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.

Bee Photography Course: June 21st


Most of my workshops are broadly designed for teaching macro photography. Thus, I am pleased to announce a fun and rather more specialized course, a day-long session on photographing honey bees:

Honey Bee Photography

June 21st (Friday), 2013
-full day-

Long Lane Honey Bee Farms
Fairmount, Illinois
cost: $89

[register online]

The course is intended for beekeepers and bee enthusiasts with minimal photography experience. Course topics will include:

  • Magnification
  • Lighting
  • Composition
  • Photographing bees in the hive
  • Photographing bees in the field
  • Telling a story in pictures

Required equipment: (minimum) any camera, SLR or digicam, with a macro function; (recommended) camera with off-camera flash and macro near 1:1.

This workshop is the final day of a week long Beekeeping Institute taught by master beekeeper David Burns. People travel to David’s classes from all over the country. If you are thinking of keeping bees as a hobby, consider signing up for the full week. Otherwise you may elect to take just the photography bit.

Next Week at the University of Georgia: How to Take Better Science Photographs

For those in the vicinity of Athens, Georgia next week, I’ll be giving the following seminar:

How to Take Better Science Photographs

Alex Wild

Monday, October 8, 12:20 pm-1:10 pm
Room 404A  Biological Sciences Building
University of Georgia

The extremely short version of this talk is this.

If you are a scientist, you know some incredible inside stories about how the universe works. You’ll tell those stories better if you have strong visuals. Here are some tips for taking jaw-dropping science photographs.

A trail of ants

Tapinoma sessile odorous house ants recently set up a thick trail through our kitchen. Rather than kick them out, I laid down white mylar to serve as a clean backdrop and took some photographs.

The above image is a composite. I cloned in a single individual from a second photograph to fill a gap. I don’t typically alter major elements of my images this way, but I felt the photoshopping to be excusable for an illustration.

Can you guess which ant was added?

photo details:
Canon EF 100mm f2.8 macro lens on a Canon EOS 7D
ISO 200, f/13, 1/160 sec
3 diffused off-camera strobes