Looking at insects through a lens

2014-07-04 00:00

SINCE the advent of digital cameras, many enthusiastic photographers have emerged. In our digital world, it is easy to take good photos without special training. Cameras now do just about everything automatically — all you need do is press a button. Gone are the days of expensive film, time-consuming processing and printing costs. While I understand that even now “proper” photographers are still interested in such things as composition, lighting, F-stops, shutter speeds and special effects, my interests as a naturalist are far more centred on depicting accurately the subject matter, for what might be termed educational rather than artistic purposes.

Allow me to give you a brief, personal perspective on insect photography, for what it is worth. I hasten to add that my knowledge of cameras and their capabilities is limited and that I do not intend to advise anybody where far more qualified people can provide better input.

Photographing insects in their natural environment is challenging. As a scientist, my main objective has been to obtain clear images that allow a specialist to recognise the creature involved. I cannot begin to tell you how many photos of insects I have been sent that do not allow identification, as the intended subject is either out of focus or so small that details of its anatomy cannot be appreciated. Needless to say, the essential requirements for photographing insects is a camera with good macro capabilities and a photographer capable of getting near enough to fill the viewfinder with the intended subject. As there are many cameras capable of capturing clear images of small things, perhaps the more important thing is being able to get close enough to the creature so as to get a quality photo.

While some creatures sit still and even pose nicely, there are many that are highly active and quickly detect the presence of someone with a camera. Such creatures quickly leap or fly away —often coming to rest a few metres away, so enticing the photographer to make another attempt at getting close.

I have crawled hundreds of metres in pursuit of such photographic subjects. Some excellent insect photographers known to me have found solutions to this problem. They capture the insect, return to the comfort of their home, climb under a large tent-like net, together with all their fancy equipment, before releasing the beast. They provide suitable natural material for the insect to perch on and, with some patience, eventually manage to get a close-up shot of the creature resting on a suitable substrate in what appears to be a natural setting. Yes, this may be seen as cheating, but it often gets great results. There are even folk who resort to killing the insect and then laying it out in a lifelike posture. Insects don’t close their eyes when they are dead, so those who cheat in this manner frequently get away with it. As a conservationist, I do not advocate this technique.

So, while true photographers may spend much time on composition, sometimes with pleasing effect, scientists, although often capable of appreciating well-composed photos, are usually more interested in being able to see sufficient of the subject to be able to name the species.

While having a narrow depth of field, where “unimportant” parts of the subject are out of focus, can provide pleasing effect, it frequently hinders scientists as they usually need to see a number of essential anatomical features so that they can provide a useful identification. The two photos provided here show a dragonfly, head-on, and an entire foam grasshopper. Fortunately, both species are sufficiently well-known to be identified by specialists. The dragonfly’s interesting pose may be eye-catching, but you can’t see much of its anatomy. The grasshopper on the other hand is, in my opinion, a fine example of a photo that satisfies both the scientist and the artist. The insect’s anatomy can be fully appreciated, while it’s positioning with respect to the sun provides a pleasing composition. At least I think so.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at jasonlondt@telkomsa.net Please do not send large attachments.

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