Shoot­ing in­sects | Alan Hen­der­son

They make up the ma­jor­ity of life on earth but mostly go un­no­ticed by us lum­ber­ing hu­mans — macro mas­ter Alan Hen­der­son re­veals the best way to ex­plore the big, tiny world of bugs

New Zealand D-Photo - - CONTENTS -

Some of us are scared of them, some dis­gusted, oth­ers ir­ri­tated, and many of us sim­ply ig­nore them, but in­ver­te­brates (in­clud­ing non-in­sects, such as spi­ders) play a much larger and more im­por­tant role in our world than they are gen­er­ally given credit for. That’s why Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­pher Alan Hen­der­son has made it his life’s work to raise aware­ness and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what he calls ‘minibeasts’ and the work that they do. “With­out these an­i­mals, we’d end up grind­ing to a halt, be­cause they play all these im­por­tant roles that al­low the big­ger an­i­mals, in­clud­ing us, to do what we do,” he ex­plains.

Not only are bugs ex­tremely im­por­tant to the nat­u­ral world, but they are also end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing if you bother to pay at­ten­tion. That’s why they hold such al­lure for macro pho­tog­ra­phers.

“You get up close and see that de­tail through the macro lens that you don’t see with the naked eye,” says Alan. “It trans­ports you into an­other world.”

IN THE WILD

One of the great things about shoot­ing in­sects is that you are never very far from a wealth of sub­jects. Liv­ing in the rain­for­est-based vil­lage of Ku­randa in Queensland, Aus­tralia, Alan is more than spoiled for choice when he wan­ders his back­yard in search of in­ter­est­ing bugs — but that’s to be ex­pected when you run a na­ture cen­tre like Minibeast Wildlife. But even those of us in less abun­dantly wild lo­ca­tions have ac­cess to plenty of minibeast ac­tion. “Ev­ery­one will have some of these an­i­mals around where they live; just have a look through the leaves, and you start to en­ter that world,” says Alan.

The key is to have your cam­era with you wher­ever you go. A sim­ple trip to a friend’s house could lead to dis­cov­er­ing some amaz­ing in­ver­te­brate be­hav­iour in the back gar­den, ripe for an im­promptu macro shoot.

Of course, it is not un­known for an in­sect shoot to be less than nat­u­ral. Bugs will some­times be moved onto back­grounds and sets to achieve a cer­tain ef­fect. Alan even of­fers a wran­gling ser­vice for var­i­ous film pro­duc­tions. But if you’re go­ing to be mov­ing a minibeast, you have to be care­ful both for the an­i­mal’s safety and for the sake of your shot.

“When you’ve worked with these an­i­mals for 20-odd years, you rec­og­nize what is nat­u­ral and what isn’t,” says the pho­tog­ra­pher. “I see quite a few shots that just ob­vi­ously are not — the bugs are clearly out of their el­e­ment: legs and arms sort of caging un­der it­self, or it’s half-dead.”

UP CLOSE AND PER­SONAL

Once you’ve dis­cov­ered your minis­cule sub­ject, one of the big chal­lenges in bug pho­tog­ra­phy is get­ting close enough for a good shot. Ob­vi­ously, hu­mans are not the most graceful at nav­i­gat­ing the tiny world in which these an­i­mals live, and many of them are ex­tremely sen­si­tive to even the small­est change in their en­vi­ron­ment.

“I find I don’t breathe,” says Alan with a laugh. “Af­ter I’ve taken a few pho­tos, I’m ab­so­lutely puffed out, and that’s be­cause I’ve been hold­ing my breath. I don’t even think about it.” Not only is this help­ful for cam­era sta­bil­ity, but it also en­sures that the minibeast you’re fo­cused on doesn’t get scared away by a stray puff of breath. Mov­ing ex­tremely slowly and care­fully is of ut­most im­por­tance, but this doesn’t mean com­plete still­ness is the best ap­proach. Alan says that mov­ing like some­thing nat­u­ral to the en­vi­ron­ment, like a sway­ing leaf, for ex­am­ple, is sur­pris­ingly ef­fec­tive.

“I’m sure on­look­ers think this guy is nuts, but it works. If you’re try­ing to move up to a fly in a straight line, even if you’re mov­ing re­ally slowly, they will get the hee­bie-jee­bies and off they’ll go. But if you sway fairly ob­vi­ously, they let you get re­ally close.”

This em­pha­sizes how im­por­tant it is to re­ally know your sub­ject for a suc­cess­ful bug shoot. When you un­der­stand the in­ner work­ings of the minibeast world, you are not just able to move in with­out star­tling them, but are able to an­tic­i­pate be­hav­iour to get the best shot.

It’s things like mat­ing, feed­ing, preda­tor–prey in­ter­ac­tions, shed­ding ex­oskele­tons, and lay­ing eggs that make for the most dy­namic shots. But you won’t get these with­out know­ing ex­actly how an in­sect be­haves in the wild, Alan cau­tions.

For ex­am­ple, dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of orb web spi­ders in­ter­act with their food dif­fer­ently: the golden orb weaver will run down the web, grab its prey, and haul it back to the web’s cen­tre be­fore start­ing to silk it up, whereas the Saint An­drew’s Cross spi­der wraps up its prey im­me­di­ately, and it’s all over within a few sec­onds. Know­ing the dif­fer­ence is all that sits be­tween a bril­liant shot and a missed op­por­tu­nity.

And, along with knowl­edge, the other prime virtue of an in­ver­te­brate pho­tog­ra­pher is a calm, for­bear­ing de­meanour: “Pa­tience is re­ally im­por­tant. Some peo­ple don’t quite get it; they’ll thump around or move re­ally rapidly, every move­ment is sharp — you can’t af­ford to do those things.”

CRAFT AND GEAR

Once you’ve found and moved in close to your tiny sub­ject, and they are per­form­ing the way you want, it’s time to cap­ture the shot. To do so, you will need the right equip­ment.

Many cam­eras of­fer a ‘Macro’ shoot­ing mode to as­sist with close-up pho­tog­ra­phy, but, if you’re se­ri­ous about ex­plor­ing the world of in­sects, a ded­i­cated macro lens, which pro­vides 1:1 mag­ni­fi­ca­tion (mean­ing that the sub­ject is pro­jected at life-size on the cam­era’s sen­sor) is the way to go. These can be costly, but you don’t nec­es­sar­ily need the lat­est and great­est; Alan still works with his Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens from some 15 years ago. Ad­di­tional equip­ment might in­clude ex­ten­sion tubes, which in­crease the dis­tance of the lens from the sen­sor, al­low­ing for even greater mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, which is great for very, very small sub­jects. But don’t go too crazy with your mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, Alan warns, or you might lose the im­pact of your shot: “You can some­times get in re­ally close up and think that’s fan­tas­tic, but the aver­age per­son doesn’t un­der­stand what it is; they just think, what the hell is that? So, you re­ally need to get close but not too close, or you take away the ev­i­dence of what the crea­ture might be.”

For light­ing, Alan uses an off-cam­era flash with a hand­held dif­fuser and of­ten in­cor­po­rates a small re­flec­tor into the mix. It is a ver­sa­tile sys­tem that al­lows him to high­light the amaz­ing el­e­ments of var­i­ous in­sects that might be hid­den in nat­u­ral light alone.

“With the hand­held flash and dif­fuser, I can front-light or I can back­light, de­pend­ing on the sub­ject that I en­counter. If it’s a trans­par­ent an­i­mal or has fine hairs or an­ten­nae, back­light­ing re­ally helps with high­light­ing that.”

Re­gard­less of the an­i­mal’s other fas­ci­nat­ing at­tributes, it is its face that is most im­por­tant. These minibeasts can of­ten seem in­cred­i­bly alien to us, but, if you can get their eyes sharp, there will al­ways be a point of re­la­tion for the viewer.

“It’s just like hu­man pho­tog­ra­phy — if you mess up on the face, peo­ple aren’t go­ing to say, ‘oh yeah, the el­bow is sharp, that’s great’,” ex­plains Alan. “It’s the same with these an­i­mals; if the eyes aren’t sharp, I’ll ditch it straight away.”

Fo­cus stack­ing is a pop­u­lar tech­nique for en­sur­ing all of a tiny sub­ject re­mains in fo­cus, de­spite work­ing with an in­cred­i­bly slight fo­cus­ing plane. Some cam­eras have a func­tion that au­to­mat­i­cally han­dles this — quickly tak­ing many im­ages at slightly dif­fer­ent fo­cal lengths and com­bin­ing them to­gether — but, on the oc­ca­sions Alan finds stack­ing to be nec­es­sary, he does it man­u­ally. With his cam­era in hand, he picks a spot on the in­sect’s body and moves slightly back and for­ward, cap­tur­ing just a few frames that can be aligned and com­bined in Pho­to­shop later. In the end, there’s no sin­gle right way to cap­ture the as­ton­ish­ing world of in­ver­te­brate life, but this ad­vice will hope­fully steer you away from some of the ob­vi­ously wrong paths. Alan hopes that the more won­der­ful bug im­agery is seen, the more ap­pre­ci­a­tion peo­ple will have for the es­sen­tial work of minibeasts within the nat­u­ral world.

“At the least, I hope they think, OK, they are amaz­ing an­i­mals, I’m not go­ing to squash the next spi­der that crosses my path.”

To check out Alan’s lat­est pub­li­ca­tion, Minibeasts: True Rulers of Our World and the Key to Our Sur­vival, along with his other pho­to­graphic, con­ser­va­tion, and ed­u­ca­tion work, visit minibeast­wildlife.com.au.

BEETLE AN­TEN­NAE, CANON 5D MARK II, 100MM, 1/200S, F/18, ISO 100

ARGYROYDES WITH EGGS, CANON 5DSR, 100MM, 1/200S, F/16, ISO 100

UM­BRELLA KATYDID, CANON 5D MARK II, 100MM, 1/200S, F/22, ISO 100

WA­TER STRIDER, CANON 5DSR, 100MM, 1/200S, F/16, ISO 200

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