“Show them something they haven’t seen,” Piotr Naskrecki told a group of bug aficionados who were equally passionate about photography and talented with their macro lenses. There are millions of fantastic natural history shots, so to be noticed, a photographer has to find a new angle to tell a story that’s never been told he explained.
After sailing alongside porpoises to a 10-mile long barrier island, the BugShot 2014 participants docked at Sapelo Island. On the first night, they filled the Reynolds Mansion living room to meet the instructors and hear their top tips. “The best photographers know their field intimately,” Alex Wild said. It’s worth spending time studying the biology of your subjects. That will help you tell stories he continued.
John Abbott stressed the importance of camera support, whether in the form of a tripod or bean bag or simply leaning against a tree, and told the group to not fear shooting at high ISOs because technology is rapidly lessening noise.
Wild, Naskrecki and Abbott are entomologists and photographers who are leading the way for insect macro photographers and stunning their followers by capturing bugs in flight, showing viewers the natural world from an insect’s point of view and bringing attention to species that many have never seen or heard.
The historic estate where participants gathered for meals each day was built by plantation owner Thomas Spalding in 1802, ruined during the Civil War, and then rebuilt by automotive engineer Howard Coffin before being purchased by tobacco magnate Richard J. Reynolds.
Just off the mansion’s artistically tiled porch, the palms, live oaks and coastline of the barrier island provide a unique habitat for insects, herps, mammals and birds–all of which were kind enough to model for the group of photographers. Flora and fauna have the opportunity to thrive on the island because about 97% of the land is owned by the state of Georgia and managed by its Department of Natural Resources. Students and professors at the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute, located on the south end of the island, conduct research at the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR). The island is largely undeveloped, but there is a community of Gullah Geechee residents in Hog Hammock, which is where the island’s only general store is located.
A tiger beetle, a Rosy maple moth (colored pink and yellow) and dozens of other species were attracted to the backlight each night and collected for a short stay at the BugShot zoo, which was established to share photo subjects. Snakes, skinks, anoles and toads also found their way into the zoo.
From the viles, the insects entered a white box where many photo shoots commenced. The handcrafted studios were nothing elaborate, but they consistently delivered great results. The white poster boards taped together served as a place to contain subjects and bounce flashes within a confined space. It works like a charm.
Outside, Piotr Naskrecki introduced the group to the wide angle macro shot, a technique that produces close up images of bugs that incorporate their habitat (i.e. web, leaves, background, other bugs) to share more of the story.
During presentations, each of the instructors gave natural history talks on their specialty areas: Alex on Hymenoptera (this is one of the largest insect orders and it includes ants, sawflies, wasps and bees), Piotr on Orthoptera (insects that skip the pupae stage such as katydids, grasshoppers and crickets), and John on Odonates (dragonflies and damselflies). Post processing, image composition, focus stacking and high speed flash were also covered.
By the end of the four-day workshop, the group had explored the wooded areas, beaches, freshwater pond and open fields and had observed a rich biodiversity of insect life through their lenses. Memory cards were filled and memories were made.
My Personal Experience
I have always loved critters–the cute ones and the slithery, slimy, feathered, furry, winged and wild ones. BugShot on Sapelo gave me the chance to see all of those critters and the knowledge to capture their essence with the pop of a flash and the click of a shutter.
I discovered that a great image uses light (both natural and artificial flash) in such a way that the scene looks completely natural. To accomplish this, one must master light diffusion. The image must showcase a combination of subject interaction, habitat and detail using leading lines, creative composition and a perspective that is unlike existing images. Digging a small hole to position the camera lower was a trick that was shared with us.
My greatest accomplishment was successfully using a flash inside a white box to capture clean, simple images that document the characteristics, details and colors of different insect species. This was my first time using flash for nature shots.
I broke my habit of the focus and recompose technique after John Abbott showed me the quick key for the focus point adjustment. Now I compose first and then select the focus point. I also pay closer attention to make sure that I am fully parallel or perpendicular to my subject. I look forward to visiting the Cape May Meadows nature preserve to find a few odonates willing to pose for me this summer.
Alex told us to find something that we are knowledgable and passionate about and to focus whole-heartedly on that subject. For me, that’s horseshoe crabs. I have taken lots of horseshoe crab photos in the past and documented the volunteer efforts to tag crabs, but they were mostly without a purpose. This summer, I want to tell a story using wide angle macro shots, aquarium shots of the developing larvae and magnified shots of the sand grains where eggs are laid. I am beginning to envision the shots I want in my imagination, so that when I arrive to the beach, I know what scene to create, where to place my flash and how I should position myself relative to the sunlight. First up on my to-do list is to read Piotr’s book Relics, which is all about the ancient species and his travels around the world to study them.
I am very lucky to have spent time on a beautiful island with a group of exceptional photographers and instructors who encouraged us and shared their vast expertise. I hope that I will be able to attend another BugShot someday!