Sunset beetles

Acmaeodera immaculata? | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado.

Acmaeodera immaculata? (family Buprestidae) | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fond of natural sky backgrounds for insects found during the day on flowers and foliage. Not only does the sky provide a clean, uncluttered background that allows the subject to stand out, it also gives the photo a more appropriate temporal flavor—i.e., photographs of diurnal insects should look like they were taken during the day. It’s a little bit tricky setting the camera to allow flash illumination of the subject while still allowing the sky to register as well, but I find such photographs more pleasing and interesting than those with a jet-black background, typical in flash macrophotography, and far more pleasing than those with a jumble of sticks and weeds cluttered behind the subject. These days my daytime insect photos almost always incorporate a blue-sky background (examples here and here) unless: 1) I actually photographed the subject at night (examples here and here); or 2) I wish to highlight an intensely white or delicately structured subject (examples here and here).

Aulicus sp. | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma

Trichodes oresterus? (family Cleridae) | vic. Black Mesa, Oklahoma

But what about in between day and night—specifically, sunset? Incorporating a sunset sky into a flash-illuminated macrophotograph is even trickier than incorporating a blue midday sky because the central problem—low light levels—is magnified. Blue sky photographs challenge the fast shutter speeds and high f-stops usually needed for macrophotographs, but relatively minor adjustments to ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop are usually sufficient to allow the sky to register while still being able to maintain depth of field and minimize motion blur. At sunset, however, because there is much less illumination of the sky, more aggressive settings are often required to allow the sky to register on the camera sensor—settings that can sometimes result in too much motion blur or insufficient depth of field. These problems can be mitigated to some degree with the use of a tripod (and very cooperative subjects), but for dedicated “hand-held” enthusiasts like myself this is not an option. Why bother? Because the results can be spectacular! The setting sun often creates stunning colors not seen at other times of the day and offer a change of pace from blue skies, which, like black backgrounds, can start looking rather monotonous if used exclusively in one’s portfolio.

Linsleya convexa | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado

Linsleya convexa (family Meloidae) | vic. Vogel Canyon, Colorado

The photos featured in this post were taken during several sunsets on a trip earlier this past summer through Colorado and Oklahoma. I especially like the jewel beetle (Acmaeodera immaculata?) photograph—technically it has good focus and depth of field and a pleasing composition, but I really like the color coordination between the beetle, flower, and sky. The checkered beetle (Trichodes oresterus?) photograph is also very pleasing, especially the detail on the beetle, although the color of the sky is only somewhat different than a more typical daytime blue. The blister beetle (Linsleya convexa) photograph is probably the most problematic technically due to slight motion blur and being slightly off-focus at the eye—not surprising since of the three this photo had the lowest light conditions. However, the color contrast between the sky and subject make this a nevertheless striking image.

If you have experience with ambient light backgrounds in flash macrophotography, your comments on approaches you’ve taken to deal with reduced light situations will be most welcome.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

Crazy Eyes

Spissistilus festinus | Stoneville, Mississippi

Spissistilus festinus (three-cornered alfalfa hopper) is one of the few truly economic pests in the otherwise bizarre and innocuous family Membracidae (treehoppers).  Its common name alludes to one of the crops it affects, but my encounters with this species are most often in soybean (I am, after all, a soybean entomologist).  Damage in this crop is caused by both adults and nymphs, whose piercing/sucking mouthparts cause girdling and breakage of the stem—often just a few inches above the soil.  This individual was seen during my travels last week in a soybean field in Stoneville, Mississippi, where numbers throughout the season were especially high this year.  Although I have seen innumerable S. festinus adults, I have never noticed their crazy, zig-zag patterned red and white eyes until I managed this closeup face shot (click on photo for best view).

This slightly cropped photo was taken with a 100mm macro lens and full extension tube set, resulting in slightly more than 2X magnification.  One of the lessons I took from was the need to pay more attention to background and value contrast.  By placing the subject a few inches in front of the dark green soybean foliage I was able to achieve a much more pleasing background than the typical black background one gets with full flash photos at high magnification.  Although both the subject and the background are green, there is still sufficient difference in shade to create contrast between them.  Light-green is one of the more difficult colors to work with when full flash is used with high shutter speeds and small apertures to maximize crispness and detail (in this case, 1/250 sec and f/16).  However, increasing ISO to 400 and lowering flash exposure compensation to -2/3 can reduce the amount of flash needed to illuminate the subject with such settings, making it easier to achieve a properly exposed and true-colored subject.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

BugShot 2011 – Final Thoughts

As I suspected would be the case,  has proven to be an especially difficult challenge.  As a result, instead of posting the answer tonight I’m going to give folks another day to make their play for points (remember, nobody walks away empty-handed).  In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to ruminate over this past weekend’s BugShot insect photography workshop at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri, and now seems to be an appropriate time to post some final thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind. Suffice it to say that it was an incredible experience—both technically and socially.  I learned far more than I thought possible (and hope I can remember even a portion of it) and made some great friends in the process.  It’s really not possible for me to summarize here all of the techniques, insights, equipment choices, etc. that were covered, nor do I want to—such a list would be boring to read and not very meaningful without the context to go with it.  What I would like to do is shout out a few people who, beyond the collective, helped make the weekend what it was for me.

Instructors.  The three instructors, all accomplished insect photographers of the highest caliber, typified three very different yet complimentary approaches to the art.  Alex Wild (University of Illinois), ant photographer extraordinaire and author of the insect blog I’ve most tried to emulate, gave me tremendous insight on lighting and practical approaches on how to use it effectively.  My discussions with John Abbott (University of Texas) about equipment will be very helpful for the type of photography that I like to do (I’m not sure I’m ready for the tripod yet, but maybe the other ideas we discussed will be the “slippery slope”).  Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Thomas Shahan (Norman, Oklahoma), whose great artistic insight helped me see a whole new world of possibilities for tiger beetle portraiture.  I must admit to feeling a little star-struck when I first began talking to him, but his infectious enthusiasm and exuberance quickly put me at ease.

Friends.  I can’t begin to list everybody whose company I enjoyed, but standouts include Jo Holly (Alex’s better half!), as well as fellow bloggers Crystal, Lee, Dave, and DragonflyWoman.  Even though I only met them this weekend, it was if I had known them for years.  My time “fishing” tiger beetle larvae with Crystal and Lee was not only a highlight of the trip (watching them “jump” as the larva came flying up and out of the burrow was a real treat), but also represented a discovery in the truest sense of the word (as will become clear in a future post).  No discussion of friends would be complete without mentioning James Trager, not only for opening up Shaw Nature Reserve to this weekend’s event, but also for the access he’s given me over the past several years and our frequent, humorous email discussions about all things entomological (or botanical, ecological, etc.).

Gratitudes.  I want to thank Alex for inviting me to take part in this event as something more than just an attendee.  I hope my contribution, however small, was beneficial.  My thanks also to Patsy Hodge, who was so helpful and gracious to me in the days leading up to and during the event.  I also appreciate the kind comments that many of the attendees made to me about my blog and my photographs—your encouragement means a lot to me.

Regrets.  In an event like this, packed as it was with seminars and group discussions, it is sad but unavoidable that one cannot spend at least a little time with each and every person in attendance.  To those that I did have a chance to talk to, the pleasure was all mine.  To those that I missed, I will catch you next time!

I think I’ll close with this minimally processed photograph of what I take to be Misumenoides formosipes (whitebanded crab spider) and its honey bee (Apis mellifera) prey.  Although I photographed this spider using flash and looking straight up into an overcast sky, I managed to properly illuminate the subject and avoid blown yellows and an all-black background by using some of the very techniques and principles that I had just learned earlier that day.  I hope to learn more at BugShot 2012!

Misumenoides formosipes (whitebanded crab spider) | Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin Co., Missouri