Best of BitB 2013

Welcome to the 6th Annual “Best of BitB”, where I pick my favorite photographs from the past year. Like last year, 2013 was another year of heavy travel. For work I did my annual tour of soybean field sites throughout Argentina during late February and early March, then cranked it up for my own field season with frequent travel to sites in Illinois and Tennessee from May to October. In the meantime I spent a week at company meetings in Las Vegas in August, toured field sites across the southeastern U.S. for two weeks in September, visited Argentina again in October to finalize research plans for their upcoming season, and finished off the travel year by attending the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Meetings in Austin, Texas during November. On top of all this, I managed to slip in two of the best insect collecting trips I’ve had in years, with 10 days in northwestern Oklahoma in early June and another 10 days in California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado during late August, and I got to play “visiting scientist” during short trips to Montana State University in late July and the Illinois Natural History Survey in late October! Of course, during my brief interludes at home I wasn’t sitting still, giving entomology seminars to several local nature societies and hosting two ESA webinars on insect photography. Needless to say, come December I was more than ready to spend some quite time at home (well, except for hiking most weekends) and am happy to report that I’ve successfully become reacquainted with my family and office mates. It’s a peripatetic life—and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Okay, let’s get down to business. Here are my favorite BitB photographs from 2013. This year was less about learning new techniques as it was about refining the techniques I’ve found most useful for the style I’ve chosen as a photographer, i.e., hand-held, in situ field shots that (hopefully) excel at both natural history and aesthetic beauty. Links to original posts are provided for each photo selection, and I welcome any comments you may have regarding which (if any) is your favorite and why—such feedback will be helpful for me as I continue to hone my craft. If you’re interested, here are my previous years’ picks for 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. Once again, thank you for your readership, and I hope to see you in 2014!

Tremex columba, female ovipositing | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

Tremex columba female drilling for oviposition into hardwood trunk | Sam A. Baker State Park, Missouri

From Ovipositing Pigeon Horntail (posted 6 Jan). I like this photo for the combination of vibrant, contrasting colors between the wasp and moss-covered wood and the visualization it provides of the remarkable depth to which this wasp will insert its ovipositor into solid wood!

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Eurhinus cf. adonis on Solidago chilensis flowers | Chaco Province, Argentina

From Giving me the weevil eye! (posted 28 Apr). While a little soft, the color combination is pleasing and the pose taken by the beetle almost comically inquisitive.

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

Helicoverpa gelotopeon feeding on soybean pod | Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

From Bollworms rising! (posted 30 Mar). This is the first photo of an economic pest that has made one of my “Best of BitB” lists. The two holes in the soybean pod, one with the caterpillar and its head still completely inserted, visualizes how the feeding habits of these insects can so dramatically affect yield of the crop.

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

From “Blue-sky” tips and tricks (posted 1 July). Insects with a lot of delicate detail and long, thin appendages are especially difficult to photograph against the sky due to wind movement. See how I dealt with the antennae of this delicate lacewing without resorting to the standard black background typical of full-flash macrophotography.

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor

Cicindela scutellaris lecontei x s. unicolor intergrade | Holly Ridge Natural Area, Stoddard Co., Missouri

From The Festive Tiger Beetle in Southeast Missouri (posted 25 Oct). I like this photo a lot more now than I did when I first took it. Its shadowy feel and the beetle “peering” from behind a leaf edge give a sense of this beetle’s attempts to hide and then checking to see if the “coast is clear”

Batyle suturalis on paperflower (Psilostrophe villosa) | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

Batyle suturalis on Psilostrophe villosa flowers | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Tips for photographing shiny beetles on yellow flowers (posted 10 Aug). “Bug on a flower” photos are a dime a dozen, but shiny beetles on yellow flowers with natural sky background can be quite difficult to take. All of the techniques for dealing with the problems posed by such a photo came together nicely in this photo.

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

Agrilus walsinghami | Davis Creek Regional Park, Washoe Co., Nevada

From Sunset for another great collecting trip (posted 1 Sep). This photo is not without its problems, with a little blurring of the backlit fuzz on the plant, but the placement of the sun behind the subject’s head and resulting color combination make it my favorite in my first attempts at achieving a “sun-in-the-sky” background with a true insect macrophotograph.

A tiny male mates with the ginormous female.

Pyrota bilineata on Chrysothamnus viscidflorus | San Juan Co., Utah

From Midget male meloid mates with mega mama (posted 8 Nov). Another blue-sky-background photograph with good color contrast, its real selling point is the natural history depicted. with some of the most extreme size dimorphism among mating insects that I’ve ever seen.

Phymata sp.

Phymata sp. on Croton eleagnifolium foliage | Austin, Texas

From ESA Insect Macrophotography Workshop (posted 13 Nov). The oddly sculpted and chiseled body parts of ambush bugs makes them look like they were assembled from robots. Contrasting the body against a blue sky gives a more unconventional view of these odd beasts than the typical top-down-while-sitting-on-a-flower view.

Fourth attempt - holding detached pad up against sky for cleaner background.

Moneilema armata on Opuntia phaecantha | Alabaster Caverns State Park, Woodward Co., Oklahoma

From Q: How do you photograph cactus beetles? (posted 24 Nov). Photographing cactus beetles requires patience, persistence, long forceps, and strong forearms. Natural sky provides a much more pleasing background than a clutter of cactus pads and jutting spines.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 2013 version of “Best of BitB” and look forward to seeing everyone in 2014.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

“Blue-sky” tips and tricks

For the past two years I’ve been working to refine my “blue-sky” technique for insect macrophotographs. This refers to careful balancing of camera and flash settings to achieve full-flash illumination of the subject while still allowing enough ambient illumination from the sky to produce a natural looking blue background. The use of flash, of course, is almost a necessity in insect macrophotography, as it’s nearly impossible to take hand-held photographs of insects, especially small ones, using only ambient light—there just isn’t enough of it to adequately illuminate the subject while using fast shutter speeds to prevent motion blur and high aperture settings to achieve acceptable depth-of-field. Flash illumination, however, has a drawback (actually several, but let’s focus on one)—if there isn’t something else close enough behind the subject to reflect light from the flash, the background will be jet black. In some cases this is perfectly fine, and it is almost always preferred over a cluttered background of jumbled branches and foliage. However, it usually doesn’t work well with darkly colored insects, and to me it gives the undesirable impression that the photo was taken at night. I suppose I could carry around colored cards to place behind the subjects that I photograph, but as a photographer who prides himself on the ability to take in situ field photographs of insects in their native habitats, something about the ‘artificiality’ of colored cards prevents me from resorting to them. A leaf placed behind the subject may be an acceptable alternative, but is usually possible only with quite small subjects (due to the size of the leaf needed) and is virtually impossible in dry, western habitats.

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

cf. Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

It’s hard to recommend specific camera settings for blue sky background, as they must be determined experimentally in each situation. The above photo of what I take to be Eremochrysa punctinervis (a green lacewing in the family Chrysopidae—identification via Frank & Slosser 1996) was taken with a 100mm macro lens set at f/16 and with ISO bumped up slightly to 320 (I normally use ISO 100–200) and shutter speed decreased slightly to 1/160 sec (I normally use 1/200 to 1/250 sec). The higher ISO makes the camera sensor more sensitive to light and the slower shutter speed allows more time for ambient light to reach the sensor. When aimed at the brightest part of the sky (next to but not right at the sun), these settings allowed sufficient light to register this beautiful shade of blue on the camera sensor. The ambient light alone is still not sufficient to illuminate the subject—if the photograph had been taken with these settings but without flash, the background would still be blue, but the subject and branch on which it is sitting would be nearly black! Only a flash pulse occurring while the shutter is open can provide enough light to fully illuminate the subject when the aperture setting is that high. In essence, the photo combines two exposures—a flash-illuminated subject and an ambient-illuminated sky.

Eremochrysa punctinervis | Gloss Mountains, Major Co., Oklahoma

Same photo before cloning out antennal shadowing

One problem that can be encountered when using this technique is the effect of wind. Holding the subject up against the sky exposes it to even the slightest of breezes, which can cause movement of delicate body parts such as the long antennae of this subject. What looks like blurring of the antennae is actually shading of the sky by the antennae as they fluttered in the wind. The antennae themselves were “frozen” by the very short flash pulse—much shorter than the 1/160 sec exposure, but they blocked enough light from the sky during the 1/160 sec exposure to darken the part of the background over which they moved. In the case of the finished photo shown at the beginning of the post, it was a relatively simple matter to use Photoshop’s cloning tool to remove the shadowing. Nevertheless, even more desirable is to avoid the need for such post-processing manipulations to begin with—waiting for a pause in the wind or moving to a more protected location would have obviated the need for PS cleanup.


Frank, W. A. & J. E. Slosser. 1996. An Illustrated Guide to the Predaceous Insects of the Northern Texas Rolling Plains. Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, Cotton DVD, Publication #MP-1718, 24 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013