BitB Top 10 of 2010

Welcome to the 3rd Annual BitB Top 10, where I pick my 10 (more or less) favorite photographs of the year.  My goal for 2010 was to continue the progress that I began the previous year in my quest to become a bona fide insect macrophotographer.  I’m not in the big leagues yet, but I have gotten more comfortable with using my equipment for in situ field photographs and am gaining a better understanding of lighting and the use of flash.  I also began experimenting with different lighting techniques (e.g. white box) and diffusers and am putting more effort into post-processing techniques to enhance the final appearance of my photographs.  I invite you to judge for yourself how successful I’ve been toward those goals by comparing the following selections with those from 2009 and 2008 – constructive feedback is always welcome:

Best Tiger Beetle

Cicindela denverensis - green claybank tiger beetle

From ID Challenge #1 (posted December 23).  With numerous species photographed during the year and several of these dramatic “face on” shots, this was a hard choice.  I chose this one because of the metallic colors, good focus throughout the face, and evenly blurred “halo” of hair in a relatively uncluttered background.

Best Jewel Beetle

Buprestis rufipes - red-legged buprestis

From Special Delivery (posted July 13).  I didn’t have that many jewel beetles photos to choose from, but this one would have risen to the top no matter how many others I had.  The use of a white box shows off the brilliant (and difficult-to-photograph) metallic colors well, and I like the animated look of the slightly cocked head.

Best Longhorned Beetle

Desmocerus palliatus - elderberry borer

From Desmocerus palliatus – elderberry borer (posted November 18).  I like the mix of colors in this photograph, and even though it’s a straight dorsal view from the top, the partial dark background adds depth to the photo to prevent it from looking “flat.”

Best “Other” Beetle

Enoclerus ichneumoneus - orange-banded checkered beetle

From Orange-banded checkered beetle (posted April 22).  The even gray background compliments the colors of the beetle and highlights its fuzziness.  It was achieved entirely by accident – the trunk of the large, downed hickory tree on which I found this beetle happened to be a couple of feet behind the twig on which it was resting.

Best Non-Beetle Insect

Euhagenia nebraskae - a clearwing moth

From Euhagena nebraskae… again (posted October 21).  I photographed this species once before, but those photos failed to capture the boldness of color and detail of the scales that can be seen in this photo.

Best “Posed” Insect

Lucanus elaphus - giant stag beetle

From North America’s largest stag beetle (posted December 30).  I’ve just started experimenting with photographing posed, preserved specimens, and in fact this male giant stag beetle represents only my second attempt.  It’s hard to imagine, however, a more perfect subject than this impressively stunning species.

Best Non-Insect Arthropod

Scolopendra heros - giant desert centipede

From North America’s largest centipede (posted September 7).  Centipedes are notoriously difficult to photograph due to their elongate, narrow form and highly active manner.  The use of a glass bowl and white box allowed me to capture this nicely composed image of North America’s most spectacular centipede species.

Best Wildflower

Hamamelis vernalis - Ozark witch hazel

From Friday Flower – Ozark Witch Hazel (posted March 26).  The bizarre form and striking contrast of colors with the dark background make this my favorite wildflower photograph for the year.

Best Non-Arthropod

Terrapene carolina triunguis - three-toed box turtle

From Eye of the Turtle (posted December 10).  I had a hard time deciding on this category, but the striking red eye in an otherwise elegantly simple photograph won me over.  It was also one of two BitB posts featured this past year on Freshly Pressed.

Best “Super Macro”

Phidippus apacheanus - a jumping spider

From Jeepers Creepers, where’d ya get those multilayered retinae? (posted October 5).  I’m not anywhere close to Thomas Shahan (yet!), but this super close-up of the diminutive and delightfully colored Phidippus apacheanus is my best jumping spider attempt to date.  A new diffuser system and increasing comfort with using the MP-E lens in the field at higher magnification levels should allow even better photos this coming season.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Lens and lighting comparisons

I’ve had my macrophotography rig for one year and a summer now, and while I still hesitate to regard myself a bona fide insect macrophotographer, I’ve learned a lot, feel I’m on the right track, and have had immeasurable fun in the process. I’m a tactile learner – i.e., I do best just trying different things for myself and seeing the results. The photos I show here are some “comparison” shots that I did during my recent giant desert centipede white box photo shoot.

For my photography, I use two macro lenses, both Canon, with almost equal frequency: the 100mm lens (up to 1X), and the MP-E 65mm lens (1X to 5X).  Although the choice is clear if I am much above or below 1X, I find that a large part of my shooting is right around the 1X level.  I’ve often debated which lens I should use in such situations – the longer working distance of the 100mm lens makes it easier to use in the field and less likely to spook the insects I am photographing, but lighting is also more problematic since the flash units are farther away from the subject.  One thing I hadn’t thought about, however, is the possibility of differences in image quality between the two lens (all other things being equal).  The white box session gave me an opportunity to look at this, since the use of indirect flash largely eliminates subject-to-flash distance as a variable.  The two shots below show 1X shots of the centipede – one taken with the 100mm lens and the other with the 65mm lens.  The photos have not been post-processed at all (except size reduction for web posting) to give the truest comparison possible – normally I would do some levels adjustment and unsharp mask (and for these, clone out that annoying blue fiber that ended up on its head!).

Canon 100mm macro lens @ 1X

Canon 65mm macro lens @ 1X

I think one can easily see how much more detail is captured by the 65mm lens (click on each for a larger version, as always), even despite its more limited depth of field (f/14 for the 65mm versus f/22 for the 100mm). This makes me re-think my strategy of using the 100mm when I can and switching to the 65mm only when I have to. In fact, I’ve occasionally opted to add extension tubes to the 100mm when I needed just a bit more magnification, but these photos make me think I should use the 65mm when I can and reserve the 100mm just for sub-1X shooting.

Both photos in the second comparison were shot using the 65mm at f/13, the only difference being the use of indirect flash in one photo and direct flash in the other. I’m not quite sure what to make of this – the direct flash photo is better lit and shows more detail, but this could be an artifact of insufficient flash unit power in the indirect photo. I probably should have done this comparison (or both, for that matter) using E-TTL rather than manual mode on the flash unit (and I may have to do that).

Canon 65mm macro lens, indirect flash

Canon 65mm macro lens, direct flash

Anyway, nothing earth-shattering here, and I may just be figuring out what others have learned long ago. Although I prefer the field for photography, I’m finding the white box – or at least a controlled, indoor environment – valuable for this type of experimentation.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

North America’s largest centipede

As I prowled the remote mixed-grass prairie of northwestern Oklahoma in the middle of the night, an enormous, serpentine figure emerged frenetically from a clump of grass and clambered up the banks of the draw I was exploring.  Although I was still hoping for my first glimpse of the Great Plains giant tiger beetle, I was keeping a watchful eye out for anything that moved within the illuminated tunnel of my headlamp due to the potential for encountering prairie rattlesnakes (perhaps the most aggressive of North America’s species).  This was clearly no snake, but at up to 8″, Scolopendra heros (giant desert centipede) easily matches some smaller snakes in length.  Also called the giant Sonoran centipede and the giant North American centipede, it is North America’s largest representative of this class of arthropods (although consider its South American relative, S. gigantea – the Peruvian or Amazonian giant centipede, whose lengths of up to 12″ make it the largest centipede in the world).

Although I had never before seen this species alive, I recognized it instantly for what it was.  Many years ago I was scouting the extreme southwest corner of Missouri for stands of soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), a small tree that just sneaks inside Missouri at the northeasternmost limit of its distribution, in hopes of finding dead branches that might be infested with jewel beetles normally found in Texas.  I had heard that these centipedes also reach their northeastern extent in southwestern Missouri, and just a few miles from the Arkansas and Oklahoma borders I found a road-killed specimen.  I stood there dejected looking at it – too flattened to even try to salvage for the record.

Centipedes, of course, comprise the class Chilopoda, which is divided into four orders.  The giant centipedes (21 species native to North America) are placed in the order Scolopendromorpha, distinguished by having 21 or 23 pairs of legs and (usually) four small, individual ocelli on each side of the head (best seen in bottom photo).  The three other orders of centipedes either lack eyes (Geophilomorpha) or possess compound eyes (Scutigeromorpha and Lithobiomorpha).  These latter two orders also have only 15 pairs of legs (shouldn’t they thus be called “quindecipedes”?).  Among the scolopendromorphs, S. heros is easily distinguished by its very large size and distinctive coloration.  This coloration varies greatly across its range, resulting in the designation of three (likely taxonomically meaningless) subspecies.  This individual would be considered S. h. castaneiceps (red-headed centipede) due to its black trunk with the head and first few trunk segments red and the legs yellow.  As we have noted before, such striking coloration of black and yellow or red nearly always indicates an aposematic or warning function for a species possessing effective antipredatory capabilities – in this case a toxic and very painful bite.

The individual in these photographs is not the first one I saw that night, but the second.  I had no container on hand to hold the first one and not even any forceps with which to handle it – I had to watch in frustration as it clambered up the side of the draw and disappear into the darkness of the night.  Only after I returned to the truck to retrieve a small, plastic terrarium (to fill with dirt for the giant tiger beetles that I now possessed) did I luck into seeing a second individual, which I coaxed carefully into the container.  It almost escaped me yet again – I left the container on the kitchen table when I returned home, only to find the container knocked onto the floor the next morning and the lid askew.  I figured the centipede was long gone and hoped that whichever of our three cats that knocked the container off the table didn’t experience its painful bite.  That evening, I noticed all three cats sitting in a semi-circle, staring at a paper shredder kept up against the wall in the kitchen.  I knew immediately what had so captured their interest and peeked behind the shredder to see the centipede pressed up against the wall. The centipede had lost one of its terminal legs but seemed otherwise none the worse for wear – its terrarium now sits safely in my cat-free office, and every few days it enjoys a nice, fat Manduca larva for lunch.

There are a number of online “fact sheets” on this species, mostly regarding care in captivity for this uncommon but desirable species.  I highly recommend this one by Jeffrey K. Barnes of the University of Arkansas for its comprehensiveness and science-focus.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec) w/ Canon MT-24EX flash in white box.
Photos 1-2: Canon 100mm macro lens (f22), indirect flash.
Photo 3: Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5X macro lens (f/13), direct flash w/ Sto-Fen + GFPuffer diffusers.
Post-processing: levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010