This is Cicindela scutellaris (festive tiger beetle), one of the six species of tiger beetles that we found last September at Monroe Canyon in the Pine Ridge area of northwestern Nebraska. The red elytra and green head and pronotum are characteristic of nominotypical populations of this species that are found in sandy habitats throughout the Great Plains. This is your classic tiger beetle in a classic tiger beetle pose; however, photographs such as this are not so easy to come by. The biggest challenge is the beetle itself – rarely are they so accommodating to allow this nice lateral profile perspective with the head slightly cocked towards the camera while standing up on their front legs. This posture is seen only when the beetles are warm and active, and warm beetles are skittish beetles that yield lots of not-as-interesting back shots (head directed away from the camera) as they persistently run away from the photographer. Cooler temperatures make them less skittish and easier to approach from the desired angle, but in this case they often lay flat on the ground trying to absorb heat – flay-laying beetles are not very photogenic either. With practice and patience, one learns how to “work” an active, skittish subject and get them accustomed to the photographer so that the above perspective can be achieved.
Getting the shot, however, is only half the battle. Tiger beetles are dirty bugs! They run around over bare ground and dig in it, often leaving them covered with debris. This is particularly true for species that frequent sandy habitats. For those of us who like to photograph wild individuals in their native habitats, debris-covered beetles is something we have to live with. Or do we…? The beetle in the above image looks squeaky-clean thanks to some simple digital image processing tools that I used to “clean up” the subject (I use Photoshop Elements 6.0). Now, I’ve never been one to want to spend a lot of time on post-processing of my photographs. I’d rather be looking for bugs, photographing them, studying them, and writing about them – time spent on post-processing is time not spent on any of these other activities. However, I have developed a little routine that I follow for most of my tiger beetle photographs now that cleans them up a bit – some more than others – and doesn’t take too much time. Maybe some of you will find this useful for your own photographs.¹
¹ Disclaimer: I am not a Photoshop expert. I’m not even a photographer. I’m an entomologist with a camera. As a result, this post is intended to be not so much an authoritative tutorial on the use of Photoshop as a summary of what I’ve learned in dealing with my own photographs. Constructive dialogue about these and other techniques is welcome.
Like it or not, no digital image comes out of the camera ready to use (still perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this whole digital photography thing for me personally). Almost every image needs some levels adjustment and unsharp mask applied to it, and while others are against it I’m not above doing a little cropping to enhance the final composition of the photograph (hey, it’s difficult enough just getting these guys in the frame, much less positioned exactly where you want them). These are the basic steps that I follow for almost every photograph, as illustrated in the following sequence (reduced versions used for all photos):
Normally I would be done at this point, but there are two things that bother me about this photo: 1) the dark shadow on the distal back portion of the elytra (common with this pose), and 2) the debris scattered about on the eye, mandibles, thorax, and elytra. To fix the shadow, I used the Magic Wand Tool (set on contiguous) to select the shadowed area of the elytra, then used the Dodge Tool set on Highlights (exposure = 25%) to lighten the shadowed area. For the debris, I enlarged the photo to 100% and used the Spot Healing Brush Tool to remove most of the sand particles, adjusting the size of the brush to just larger than the size of the individual sand particles. This works fine for particles surrounded by a uniform background, but it doesn’t work so well for particles along edges (particularly the mandibles). For this, I used the Clone Stamp Tool (again, with the photograph enlarged to 100%) and carefully “cloned” a clean spot along the edge of the mandible next to the sand particle and then replaced the piece of debris with the cloned piece of the image. As with the Spot Healing Brush Tool, the pixel size is set to the smallest size needed for the size of the debris particles. Compare the above image with the finished image below to see the difference.
The biggest improvements can be seen with the eyes, always the focal point of a photo such as this, and the mandibles – both now appearing nice and clean. Is this cheating? Have I compromised my ideal of getting an image of a wild individual of this species in its native habitat? I’d be interested to know your opinion about this.
Photo Details: Canon 50D w/ 100mm macro lens (ISO 100, 1/250 sec, f/16), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010