I think the best way to start this post is right at the end. This is me getting tagged by a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis), one of the most venomous and defensive spiders in the world.
Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in mid-bite. Oh, the pain!
These spiders possess a potent neurotoxic venom that, if delivered at a sufficient quantity, has the potential to kill an adult human. So, I got bitten and yet I am still alive to brag about this? What is going on?
Things are not always what they seem. This is not a real spider bite. In fact, this is not a spider. This animal is maybe 10% spider. I know one day my twisted sense of humor is going to get me into trouble. I should be careful not to ‘cry wolf’ too many times or I will be left with no friends who care for me.
You might remember that two years ago I encountered a wandering spider (also commonly known as banana spider) under my bed when I visited the Ecuadorian Amazon. That female was guarding her offspring, and what I did not know at the time is that they had already started to disperse from the nest. Some of them found their way into folds in my backpack and hitched a ride with me back home. This happens much more often than you would think. Every day small organisms such as insects, arachnids, snails, and also plant seeds, moss, and fungi find their way into new territories with our help whether we are aware of it or not. Now, there is no need to be alarmed – wandering spiders are not going to spread and take over North America. The vast majority of exotic “traveling” spiders are NOT even wandering spiders, and even if they do pop up every once in a while, the cold winter temperatures and low air humidity will finish them off. In my case, I had a dilemma: to kill the spiders immediately, or to keep them for a while in order to learn more and then donate them for scientific work. I chose the second option. It made more sense to use this opportunity to document this species’ natural history. For example, after two years, even with proper feeding, the spider did not reach its adult stage. They must be long-lived. I should also note that I have a background as a professional arthropod keeper so I knew what I was getting into. This is not something I would recommend to inexperienced hobbyists.
Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) aka banana spider in my kitchen.
Since then, I have been meticulously following the baby spider, sometimes taking ridiculous photos that depict unrealistic situations. Surprisingly, this species seems tamer than its reputation suggests, but caution is always the key. After a while I started pondering the idea of creating an image of the spider in mid-bite. The original idea was to photograph it during feeding, but then a better idea came up. I waited months. Finally, I had what I needed – a fresh molt.
Wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) molt.
Yes, what you see in the photo opening this post is nothing but an empty shell. The spider itself was resting in its enclosure during the time I took the photo. Like I said, things are not always what they seem.
Even though this was not a real bite from a living spider, it was still painful. Those fangs (chelicerae) are extremely sharp, and they have no problem piercing through human skin. If you search online you will find photos of people handling Phoneutria spiders with bare hands. That, in my opinion, is pure irresponsibility and a lack of judgment. I will never, ever let these spiders anywhere near my hands. And neither should you. Learn to respect and admire these majestic animals from a distance.
Without warning, 2016 sneaked up on me. I had quite a few planned posts for this blog, and I was hoping I could still post them during 2015. But other plans got in the way, and I had to postpone. Hopefully I can find the time and motivation to post more this year.
One of the things I like to do at the end of a year is going over my photo archive in order to see if something has changed in my style. I do not necessarily mean getting better at taking photos, even though some kind of progress is expected from year to year. What I am really after are changes in the way I use my equipment, compose my frames, and in my post-processing techniques. This is something I encourage every photographer to do. There is an unfortunate consequence of digital photography: we tend to shoot a lot, then we transfer the files to our collection for storage, we might look at the photos in the first weeks after the shoot, but then we forget about them for a while. This is in contrast to what it was like in the film age; developing film was pricy and you had a limited number of photos you could take, therefore much more planning went into each single photo. Plus the experience of going over the new prints or flipping pages in a photo album is pretty much lost nowadays. In addition, skipping the film lab stage and the ease of post-processing digital files allow for speed learning, and beginners can see major improvements in their photography skills within weeks.
Leaf-mimicking katydid (Typophyllum sp.). This photo is in fact a scanned film slide, originally taken in Bolivia in 2003.
This year I had a chance to go back and evaluate my entire collection straight from the beginning. When I went over photographs from my film era (mostly 90’s and early 2000’s), I could only find a handful of images that I considered pleasing and worth keeping. In other words, something has definitely changed throughout the years in the way I perceive photographic subjects. Even when I look at the results of my early years in digital photography, I cannot help but wonder what made me choose that composition and those particular camera settings. Surprisingly, the most substantial change in the way I photograph happened only recently. Overall, 2013 was not a good year for me, but I was fortunate to have the time and solitude to dig into what I already know about photography, and more important, what I do not know. I tried new gear configurations, different composition styles and stepped out of my comfort zone. The main result was making the transition from a “snapper”, who hastily clicks the shutter from fear the subject will be gone, to a “composer”, who plans the desired frame during the shot and sometimes even before encountering the subject. By the way, I just made those terms up. It is interesting to compare photos taken before and after this period. Not always you get a chance to compare a photo of the same subject taken in different years. Take this shield bug nymph for example. This photo was taken in Belize in 2013:
Shield bug nymph (Brachystethus rubromaculatus). This is the only photo of this species that I have from my visit in 2013. Why?
And this one was taken exactly a year later, in 2014:
Shield bug (Brachystethus rubromaculatus) nymph. Photographed at the same site, in 2014.
Both photos show the same animal and environment, but have completely different visual styles. The 2013 photo is not particularly bad, I just prefer the one taken in 2014.
I cannot stress enough the importance of self-evaluation, and this goes far beyond photography. With so much content out there, anyone who creates something needs to learn how to view their work without bias, and be honest about it. Become your worst critic.
This post is addressed to my subscribers and people who follow my blog updates via RSS feeds.
A week ago a subscriber informed me that my blog was sending out multiple emails notifying about old posts, content that has already been shared with my followers on the website and social media. I was happy to receive this report, even though what it really meant was that I was spamming my own subscribers.
At first I thought that I was the one to blame for this issue, due to my edits and updates to existing blog posts. I ran a simple check and reset the subscription service, hoping that this would be the last time I hear about it.
Unfortunately, this morning I got an email from the subscription service, pointing to blog posts that are over one year old. This is bad.
After doing some reading and verifications, I realized that the subscription service I use, Google’s Feedburner, is a sinking ship. It is no longer supported. Therefore, I switched to a different service to solve the problem.
What does it require from you, my subscriber? Most likely nothing. If you subscribed to receive my blog updates by email, you do not need to do anything. I transferred the mailing list to the new service and it should send out a newsletter to you once a week, but it will do so only when new content is uploaded to the blog (if I do not publish anything new, no email will be sent).
However, if you follow my RSS feed, and you had it saved in your browser’s bookmarks or RSS feed reader, you will need to update the URL to the new one. The previous RSS feed (http://feeds.feedburner.com/GilWizen) will slowly stop updating until it is no longer active. The current RSS feed is http://gilwizen.com/feed/
The subscription links on the blog’s sidebar are now updated, so new subscribers will be directed to the current service and updated RSS feed.
Please note that some email services (Gmail, Yahoo, etc’) block images in newsletters being sent via mailing lists. If you wish to view the images in the newsletter, you will need to add its ‘sender’ email address to the list of trusted addresses, or you can click the link to view the original blog post using your web browser.
I truly apologize for any inconvenience this issue may have caused. Now we can start 2016 all fresh!
In case you have not read my previous posts about wide-angle macro, make sure to head over to these pages first. While this post focuses on my relay lens system, the previous posts give a good introduction to wide-angle macro:
To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.
To read part 3, click here.
It is that time of the year again, in which various “year-in-review” posts start appearing. My intention was to follow what I did in 2013 and 2014, and present my list of 2015 photographic highlights. However, for me 2015 lagged a little photography-wise, and judging by the scarcity of similar annual summary posts from fellow photographers it sure feels like I am not the only one in this. What I can say though, is that I spent a lot of time testing different combinations of my equipment. After publishing my series of wide-angle macro posts I saw them as finished and had no plans to continue. But a recent development convinced me otherwise and I am proud to present part 4 in the series, alternatively titled – You should never stop experimenting with gear.
A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my “awkward device” out.
In the previous post I mentioned that one can achieve a satisfying wide-angle macro effect using a relay lens system. It is probably the cheapest way to go about it too, as the different parts can be obtained in garage sales and thrift stores. However, using a relay lens has its own drawbacks, for example stepping into full manual gear territory, extreme chromatic aberration and soft focus. This is not, by all means, the end of the world, and after a period of trial and error using my relay system I managed to get some interesting results with a very unique perspective. I was happy with those photographs, for a while.
My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera’s sensor.
But after some time I grew tired of the cumbersome system I built. Each photo took me over 10 minutes to plan and execute, rendering most animal subjects uncooperative. I was frustrated with the lack of auto aperture control. And most annoying – my relay lens system was very long, with a tiny front element. This means that it did not let too much light enter the camera, resulting in a dark, upside down image in the viewfinder. In addition, the photos I got using this system all had soft focus and a strange halo around the subject, and I suspect this was a result of chromatic aberration, diffraction and the way I was lighting the scene.
It was back to the drawing board for me. I started to think what kind of look I wanted for these wide-angle macro shots, and then I remembered that some years ago people experimented with attaching a peephole lens to a point and shoot camera to get a fisheye effect. Incidentally, some of these combinations had wide-angle macro capabilities. Once I had an idea of what I wanted, I verified that it was indeed plausible, and went hunting for the suitable parts. The problem with peephole lenses is that they vary in image quality, and also some lens combinations “play well” together while others result in a photographic catastrophe. It took me over a year to come up with the right combination of optics to get the desired look I was after, but I think I got it now (at least until I find something that works better).
Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.
This current relay system is shorter, lighter and has auto focus and aperture control. The results are much sharper and there is no loss of detail. Almost perfect. Wait, almost?? Yes, although this lens combination perform better than others, the final result also depends on the camera settings, subject magnification and lighting conditions. One thing that is hard to avoid when using this system is sunstars. With a front element allowing a 180° field of view, the sun almost always ends up in the frame. Some people love sunstars, but I must admit that this effect gets old quickly when you see it in each and every photo.
Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.
Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.
What I really like about this system is that it is perfect for photographing pollinators. The front element is still quite small, and perceived as non-threatening by skittish insects.
A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.
Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.
Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times – a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!
Another aspect of this system is that it allows to experiment with more dynamic shots, producing a very unique style. It will be interesting to test this with different moving subjects in the future.
Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.
Finally, I can now create portraits of small critters while still retaining much of the surrounding background.
Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.
Thank you for following these posts about my evolving wide-angle macro style. I hope they serve as inspiration for creating your own setup. Here’s to a new year full of photographic adventures!
I was very positively surprised by the response to my previous blogpost about Epomis. In fact, it now seems that this post is the most popular one on the blog, even more than the ones about the botfly and my NZ accident. How do I top it? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I wanted to mention some of the other ground beetles (family Carabidae) that share the habitat with Epomis. You see, when you start flipping stones and pieces of wood scattered around rain-pools you encounter many carabids. But one group really stands out in appearance, and, as much as it is hard to believe, in sound: the bombardier beetles.
Bombadier Beetle (Brachinus crepitans), one of the cutest species of ground beetles. Golan Heights, Israel
An aggregation of several beetle species found under a rock. Bombardier beetles (Brachinus alexandri) can be seen on the right. Also appearing in this photo: Chlaenius aeneocephalus (Carabidae, metallic colors), and Cossyphus rugulosus (Tenebrionidae) – beautiful beetles camouflaged as seeds! Central Coastal Plain, Israel
Bombardier beetles is a large group comprised of several Carabidae tribes. Here I refer mainly to species of the genus Brachinus. These are small to medium sized beetles, usually with striking aposematic coloration: the body and limbs are bright orange, while the elytra (wing covers) are usually dark green or brown, sometimes with a metallic sheen. These colors serve as a reminder for potential enemies that these beetles can deploy a powerful weapon: an explosion of hot chemicals, which can be aimed at almost any direction.
Two common species of bombardier beetles from Israel: left – Brachinus alexandri; right – Brachinus berytensis
Much has been written about the mechanics and evolution of the beetles’ chemical defense. In short, when provoked the beetle releases two chemicals, hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide, into a chamber in its abdomen. This mixture, when comes in contact with a catalyst, turns highly combustible due to the oxidation of hydroquinone and the breakdown of hydrogen peroxide to oxygen and water. The chemical reaction starts inside the chamber with temperatures reaching 100°C, and the high-pressure buildup causes the explosion. Then all the beetle has to do is to aim its “nozzle” and fire! The result is a smoke cloud of chemicals at extremely high temperatures. It can momentarily paralyze or even kill arthropod enemies, such as ants and spiders. To us humans (=entomologists who collect the beetles with bare hands) the damage it causes is not so severe, usually nothing but a small stain of burnt tissue, but the effect is coupled with a startling popping sound, and that might be enough for the beetle to escape from a large predator. This complex defense mechanism was used by creationists as an example for intelligent design in debates against evolution. However, it can be easily demonstrated that by gradually increasing the concentration of hydrogen peroxide this defense could evolve in incremental steps without risking the beetles’ existence. If you are still confused, I highly recommend watching Richard Dawkins explaining it here.
Damage to skin caused by bombardier beetle’s (Brachinus berytensis) chemical defense. Not much.
I feel that I must stop here for a brief public service announcement: There are several videos showing the beetle’s defense (you can google them), almost all of them depict the beetle being held in place with either glue or a pair of tweezers. I would like to argue that unless this is being done for research purposes, these actions border on animal cruelty. Sure, it is strange to hear such a statement coming from someone who fed live amphibians to beetles. Still, I want to stress that in the case of the bombardier beetles this is highly unnecessary. The beetles will still put up the same “show” if poked or gently lifted, without causing them much stress and damage, as can be seen from this short video I took almost a decade ago (I mean it, this is a really old video, so please do not judge the quality):
The species shown in the video is Brachinus bayardi, one of the largest species found in Israel:
Bombardier beetle (Brachinus bayardi), Central Coastal Plain, Israel. These beetles are strictly nocturnal, and can be found running on muddy banks of rain-pools in search of prey.
While the chemical defense of the bombardier beetle alone is interesting enough, there is another aspect in their life history that is fascinating. In most species, the adult bombardier beetles are predators of small, soft-bodied invertebrates, but as larvae they feed solely on pupae of other beetles found in the same humid habitat, usually diving beetles (family Dytiscidae) and water scavenger beetles (family Hydrophilidae). This makes them parasitoid insects – their larvae are completely dependent on another insect for completion of their development, usually with fatal consequences to the host. While most parasitoid insects are wasps and flies, in beetles this way of life is relatively uncommon, with only a handful of beetle families exhibiting a parasitoid life history. Despite searching for years, I have yet to find larvae of bombardier beetles, and my attempts to obtain larvae from captive adults has failed so far. I hope this will change one day.
You can say that I am a little obsessed with Epomis beetles. Can you blame me? They are fascinating creatures. It suddenly dawned on me that since the launch of this blog I have not written a single word about the beetles. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation and inaccuracies on the internet, and even in reputable magazines and books featuring Epomis.
It is one of the weirdest animal stories, one in which a small and seemingly harmless animal prevails against a much bigger animal. A unique case of predator-prey role reversal, where the would-be predator becomes the prey. Amphibians, such as frogs, typically prey on insects including ground beetles and their larvae. Among these beetles, one genus managed to stand out and deliver a proper counterattack to its predators. The Epomis larva has impressive double-hooked mandibles that look like they came right out of a horror movie. It waves them around along with its antennae until the movement attracts a hungry amphibian, which approaches quickly and tries to eat the larva. In a surprising turn of events, the larva is able to dodge the predator’s attack only to leap on the unsuspecting amphibian and sink its jaws into its flesh. It then continues to feed on the amphibian, sucking its body fluids like a leech at the initial stage, and eventually consuming it completely. Sounds like science fiction, I know. But it is real. Furthermore, these larvae feed exclusively on amphibians, and refuse to eat anything else. They are dependent on amphibian prey for completion of their development. This makes the predator-prey role reversal an obligatory one, which is very rare in the natural world.
First instar larva of Epomis circumscriptus showing its double-hooked mandibles.
I first learned about Epomis beetles in 2005, when I was working in the Natural History Collections at Tel Aviv University in Israel. They ended up being a great topic for my M.Sc thesis research, and I continue to study them to this day. The genus contains about 30 species distributed in the old world, with the African continent as the center of diversity. They inhabit the banks of rain-pools and temporary ponds, and synchronize their breeding season with amphibians’ metamorphosis into the terrestrial stage. Most of what we know about Epomis comes from studying three species only (in other words, there is more unknown than known). When the main paper from my thesis was published in late 2011, it became an instant hit in the media (see below). However, one main point of criticism was that the supplementary videos showed the interactions between Epomis and amphibians in a lab setting, which might have triggered an unnatural behavior from both. This is a valid point. We needed a controlled environment to test and prove beyond disbelief several hypotheses regarding the feeding habits of Epomis. Nevertheless, I spent the following years going back and recording the same interactions in the field.
Here is a larva of Epomis circumscriptus displaying luring behavior while waiting for a passing amphibian:
And this is the outcome of the above scenario:
To better understand what is happening during this swift encounter, here is a break down of this interaction to several simple steps. As you can tell by the above video, this sequence takes only a split second in real-time:
From enticement to desperation: European green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis) being lured to hunt and getting attacked by a larva of Epomis dejeani. View large!
The larvae are terribly good at this. Even if they are caught by the amphibian’s tongue, they are still able to quickly use their mandibles to grab the amphibian from the inside, whether it is the throat or stomach, and start feeding.
Hard to believe, but this toad is being eaten.
Sometimes the amphibian accidentally steps on the Epomis larva. In this case, the larva will attach to the leg. First instar larva of Epomis dejeani feeding on a Lemon-yellow tree frog (Hyla savignyi).
While the larvae are specialized amphibian ambushers, the adult Epomis beetles are somewhat more generalist predators. They prey on other arthropods and will sometimes go for the occasional earthworm. But these feeding habits only last until they stumble upon an amphibian again. Then, a hidden memory back from the days they spent as larvae kicks in, and they set out to relive their glory days as amphibian slashers.
Epomis dejeani attacking a European green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis) while holding firmly to avoid falling off. Compare to the photo of the larva attached to the leg above.
In a blink of an eye, the beetle sneaks up on the amphibian and pounces on it, holding firmly to avoid falling off. It then moves to the back, and like scissors uses its mandibles to make a horizontal incision, which disables the hind legs and ultimately prevents the amphibian from escaping. As if this was not gory enough, both adult beetles and larvae are particularly fond of eating the amphibian’s eyes. It is like a sick twist of revenge for the insects: after millions of years of suffering under the constant threat of predation by amphibians, they are able to fight back. Not only they hunt their potential predators and slowly eat them alive, but they also cripple them and peck their eyes out right from the start.
Remains of a partially eaten amphibian in the vicinity of temporary ponds are usually a good sign for adult Epomis activity in the area. Central Coastal Plain, Israel
Epomis dejeani guarding a recently captured European green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis). The beetles can get very territorial over prey items.
How did this phenomenon evolve? To be honest, we do not know exactly. But it is possible that somewhere in the evolutionary past, Epomis beetles used counterattack behavior, instead of escaping, as a defense against amphibians. Such behavior could have later evolved into exploiting amphibians as a source of food. The amphibians probably could have not evolved to recognize and avoid this behavior because the majority of insect prey they encounter poses no threat to them, as opposed to the relatively uncommon Epomis beetles. Another interesting point, is that both adults and larvae of Epomis lack any venom, yet the amphibian is quickly subdued and stops resisting after being caught, even while it is slowly being devoured alive.
One common reaction that I get in response to this study is that it was “cruel”, involving poor helpless amphibians that were sacrificed in the name of science. Some people even go further to suggest that I am a sadistic scientist somehow enjoying this. It could not be farther from the truth: This is a natural phenomenon and Epomis beetles must kill and consume amphibians in order to exist. Nature is cruel. We tend to think of amphibians as cute and helpless animals, but from the insects’ perspective they are actually cold-blooded killers (pun intended), gulping every small creature in their path. Moreover, the reality of this study is even harsher: the amphibians would have still died even without me using them as food for Epomis, because the puddles they were found in as tadpoles were quickly drying out. As for myself, I cannot begin to describe the emotional stress I suffered during this research, just so I could bring Epomis’ fascinating biology to the spotlight. I love amphibians, and it was disheartening for me to watch them die so many times. Throughout the study I kept telling myself: “I am going to hell for this, no doubt about it”.
In the past few years I have been following the response to the story of Epomis beetles. More sightings of the beetles are being reported from around the world. There are some excellent blog posts (1,2,3,4, and do not miss Bogleech!), news reports (1,2,3,4,5), videos and TV segments, radio interviews and podcasts, and even Wikipedia pages. Epomis has found its way into artwork. There is a metal band named after the beetles. It is very possible that this is the discovery I will go down in history for, and that is fine by me. Hollywood, I am waiting by the phone for your call. To end this post on a positive note, here is a fitting limerick that I love, written by the talented Celia Warren:
Of the genus Epomis, folk say,
Their larvae at first seem like prey,
But they’ll bite a frog’s throat,
Leave it paralyzed, note!
Then they’ll eat it without more delay.
It is intriguing that I do not post much about North American insects. In fact, ever since I moved to Canada I became more and more obsessed with animals found in my home country (Israel). Some might say this is a common case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, but this does not mean that North American insects are not exciting or interesting. On the contrary, there are many insect species I hope to see in person. One of these insects rewarded us with its presence during a day trip to Hilton Falls Conservation Area in Ontario. I thought I should write about it and share a little bit of the process of photographing it.
Giant ichneumon wasps (genus Megarhyssa) are some of the biggest North American wasps thanks to the females’ long (10cm) ovipositor, which is longer than the wasp’s own body. These wasps might look fierce but they are actually shy and harmless insects. They are parasitoids: their larvae develop as parasites living inside the body of other insects. The female’s ovipositor is therefore not a stinger, but an organ used to inject eggs into the larva’s host.
During our trip we came across an egg-laying female of Megarhyssa macrurus. I only had a couple of small lenses with me and no dedicated macro equipment, but still, I did not want to miss an opportunity to photograph a Megarhyssa during oviposition. I tried to go for a simple wide-angle macro style first:
Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.
Very quickly I ran across one of the problems I mentioned in this post. The wasp is so thin and delicate and easily gets “lost” in the background, even when it is slightly out-of-focus. To get a better result, I started to cut broad leaves and placed them like tiles in the background. This photo was taken with the same, non-macro lens as above. Surprising result!
Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs.
Megarhyssa wasps attack the larvae of another wasp, Pigeon horntail (Tremex columba), which bore into dead wood. The female can detect tiny vibrations coming from inside the wood by the feeding horntail larvae. She then proceeds to egg-laying: she bends her abdomen, exposing her ovipositor from its flexible sheath, and starts drilling. When she reaches a horntail larva, she sends an egg all the way down the ovipositor and injects it to the host. The parasitoid wasp larva feeds on the host and kills it, and then pupates inside the wood. The new generation of Megarhyssa wasps will emerge as adults in the following summer.
Back to the process of photographing – The next thing I wanted was to test the flexibility of the lens (I always recommend doing this), so I took a few more “creative” shots at different angles. What I like about this photo is that you can also see some of the previous holes this female drilled using her ovipositor.
Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood.
The last goal was to get a dreamy background, showing some of the light entering through the canopy. This was a bit tricky, because the wasp was facing down towards the ground. Since I do not have special equipment (such as an angle-viewfinder or a tilt-screen), I had to be creative and improvise. Unknowingly, I had my photo taken while trying to compose the shot. I was completely unaware of my pose because I was too focused on photographing, and I guess some of the poses I tried might have been embarrassing for my trip partners… To tell the truth, I had no idea my body was even capable of getting into these positions. If you look closely, you can even see the wasp in this photo, it is very big!
Flexibility is important while photographing insects! Photo by Mio Konfedrat.
After much bending and neck-twisting I managed to get the shot that I wanted:
Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying.
Nice to cross this incredible species off my “wanted” list.
To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.
In this final post I will list some of the major problems that arise when photographing wide-angle macro using different lens systems. Some issues were already covered in the previous posts (lens barrel distortion, background focus and sharpness) so they will not be repeated.
Difficult lighting situations – this is the number one problem, due to the camera being held very close to the subject. Very often the lens will cast shadows on the subject, especially if it is a wide-angle prime lens with a big front element. There is no real way around this other than experimenting with fill flash or wisely positioned reflectors. I found that a diffused flash on a bracket held tightly close to the lens’ front element does the job, but it can be cumbersome. A ring flash or a similar arrangement (like the one shown here) might do the trick as well.
In order to photograph this 9mm-long weevil infected with Cordyceps fungus I had to position the lens very close. I used a long exposure and light-painted some of the shadows with a small LED torch. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 10 sec at f/22, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers, LED torch.
Extreme Chromatic aberration – all wide-angle lenses are prone to chromatic aberration, resulting in purple and green colors fringing in high contrast areas of the image. Unfortunately for us, this ugly phenomenon only increases in severity when the lens is focused close, as in most wide-angle macro uses. The only way to reduce chromatic aberration in-camera is to avoid shooting in situations that exaggerate it via high contrast, for example towards light penetrating through canopy or against the sun. But what can you do when you see a photographic opportunity of a lifetime in said situations? Hope to rescue the image in post-processing…
Even after post-processing there is still some chromatic aberration visible along the branch in this photo of an ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata) from Israel. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/50 at f/20, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Dirt on lens – surprisingly this is one of the least mentioned problems but it is so important that it gets a special spot among the top three. We like to use wide-angle lenses because of the increased depth of field, but unfortunately this also means that every speck of dust on the front element will be seen in the final image. And if you like to shoot against the sun like I do, any smear will cause a disgusting lens flare that is hard to remove in post-processing. Therefore it is of utmost importance to keep the front element as clean as possible when photographing. For those of you who like to photograph in flower-splashed fields – pollen is another common nuisance.
Dust on lens appears as colorful specks in image when using a relay lens. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/22, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Manual and relay lens systems – There are many advantages to constructing your own wide-angle macro lens system, but unfortunately the complexity of their use poses some serious challenges. One of the main issues is that these systems do not have electrical contacts, and therefore there is no communication between the camera body and lens, no aperture control, and no auto focus. When using DIY short extension tubes with wide-angle lenses to achieve greater magnification, very often the lens focus must be set to infinity and the only way to actually focus on the subject is to gently rock the camera body back and forth. Another common challenge comes when using relay lens systems (you can see mine appearing in this brief post), especially ones that incorporate CCTV lenses: the image in the viewfinder will often be displayed upside down, and if the aperture is closed it will be extremely dark, making it very difficult to properly compose the image and focus. If “shooting in the dark” manually does not scare you enough, the images produced by these lens systems are often soft despite the increased depth of field. To know why, you must understand how a relay lens works. In a nutshell, the front lens projects a small image that is then enlarged by another lens to fit the coverage of the camera’s sensor. This increase in image size causes an apparent loss of resolution. All these issues are solvable, and honestly once tackled they are not much of a big deal.
This is what I actually see in the viewfinder when using a relay lens system, a dark inverted image.
After some careful post-processing of the above image of a plume moth (Hellinsia homodactylus), I was able to get this result. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/10 sec at f/16, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
The great advantage of CCTV relay lens systems is the small size of the front lens, which allows to sneak up on unsuspecting insects. Unfortunately, this means that they will not hesitate to climb on, like this giant mantis (Eremoplana infelix) from Israel. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/100 at f/16, ISO640. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Uncooperative subjects, focusing distance and getting too close – this is not really a problem but more of a skill that evolves with the photographer’s experience. The main issue when using wide-angle lenses of any kind for macrophotography is that you have to get very close to the subject, and with some lens systems you will literally almost touch it with the front element of the lens. This, for obvious reasons, makes most live subjects very uncomfortable, causing them to pose unnaturally, or even to escape. Because of this, it is important to know your subject, so you can approach it without scaring it. It is also important to be able to predict the subject’s behavior. Some caution should be used here; while some subjects will simply take the chance to climb on your lens, others will not hesitate to attack if you get too close. Do not take unnecessary risks.
Sometimes getting too close triggers an interesting response from the subject, like in this case of a male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens) from New Zealand. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/30 at f/18, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
…and sometimes it is better to know when to back off. When this venomous wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) started walking towards the lens, I quickly stepped back. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/10 sec at f/18, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
This conehead katydid from Belize started walking on the surface of the lens while I was taking the photo. If it wasn’t for the extension tube used here, this photo would have been out of focus. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 1/5 at f/22, ISO1600. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
To end this series of posts like I promised in part 1, here is a list of useful articles I recommend checking out for anyone interested in getting into wide-angle macro:
In this post I will discuss common misconceptions about wide-angle macrophotography. These are all things that I heard from people discussing this photography style. Please note that the opinions expressed here are my own only, and are not to be perceived as rules of any sort.
Taking it all in – A very popular view of wide-angle macro is that you have to include ALL the habitat in the background. Not just the subject and its perching spot, but also the ground, trees and even rivers, snow-capped mountains, and I dare say the sun or moon! In most cases this is unnecessary. It is true that wide-angle lenses have the capability of including much in the frame, but there are many creative ways to use them. The main element in the photo is the subject; the background is there just to provide a context for it. A wide-angle macro shot can be perfect even without the horizon line or the sky.
Schneider’s skink (Eumeces schneideri) from Israel. I wanted to capture the “feel” of the windy meadow it was living in. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/125 at f/14, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Bigger is better – There seems to be an unofficial race among wide-angle macrophotographers to get the highest magnification from their gear. This is understandable: the bigger a small subject is in the photo, the more impressive the final result. However, this does not necessarily mean that the subject must be photographed at the closest focusing distance. There is a place for photographs showing subjects from afar, how they blend-in in their surroundings, or go about their daily life. I am aware that this may be considered leaving the macro realm and stepping into regular wide-angle photography. In my opinion it is a blurry borderline, and if the subject is small-sized, it is still considered macrophotography.
I could have gone much closer while photographing this leaf-mimicking katydid (Cycloptera sp.) in Ecuador, but I wanted to show how it blends in perfectly with the bush it was resting on. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1 sec at f/18, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Super sharpness – Everything, from subject to background, must be in focus and super sharp. While depth of field is certainly important in wide-angle macrophotography, I will argue that in most cases a sharp background can draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject. Our eyes tend to fix on whatever is sharp. Nicky Bay did an excellent experiment demonstrating just that: when he stacked two photos to create a super sharp image of a frog in the rainforest, it became harder to keep the eyes fixed on the amphibian. Unless your intention is to show camouflage, I recommend leaving the background slightly out of focus. And if your subject is a slender insect such as a mantis or a stick insect, consider opening the aperture even more to get a shallower depth of field.
An example of how background sharpness can affect viewer’s attention to the subject, in this case a Malaysian horned frog (Megophrys nasuta). Top: background slightly out-of-focus, brings the subject forward; Bottom: Sharp background, photo appears “flat”. Courtesy of Nicky Bay
This green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) would have been lost in the busy background if it had been any sharper. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 2.5 sec at f/22, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Barrel distortion is bad – Wide-angle lenses are especially prone to barrel distortion. This changes perspective and proportions of objects in the photo, causing whatever is in the center of the frame to appear larger, and straight lines (for example trees, horizon) to appear curved. Many photographers are in a constant battle against barrel distortion, trying to find the best way to eliminate it in post-processing. I somewhat agree; a curved horizon can really be distracting (unless you go for a fisheye effect). But in times when I do not have a clear horizon in the frame (a dense forest is a good example), I find that the distortion can be “forgiven”. In other cases, I find that it actually draws more attention to the subject, if its body proportions are exaggerated. Sometimes the “fisheye look” can directly translate to a “bug-eye look”, even though it may not truthfully represent what insects see. If humans were the size of an insect, maybe this is how we would see the world. Because wide-angle macro attempts to shrink the viewers and make them a part of the scene, barrel distortion is not necessarily a bad thing.
When barrel distortion can be excused: Chicken of the Woods mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus) is the center of attention in this photo. The curved trees in the background are not distracting. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/15 at f/16, ISO1600. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) wings touched the front element of the lens, creating the illusion that they are exaggeratedly extended. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/160 at f/11, ISO100.
Night wide-angle macro is impossible – This is hardly the case. It depends on what you want to capture. The lack of ambient light does make it hard to include much of the habitat in the photo, therefore you must plan the shot before taking it. A tripod and remote shutter release are a must. While I personally do not have much experience in doing so, night wide-angle macro is definitely possible with light painting and clever composition. Some of my favorite night wide-angle macro shots come from Javier Aznar (who won in competitions severaltimes for his inspiring photography) and Nicky Bay.
This freshly molted Heterophrynus batesii was photographed during a rainy night hike in the forest. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/10 at f/14, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
All wide-angle macro photos look the same – of course not, as can be seen just by browsing along this blog post. Every photographer has their own style. In fact, I see much more conformity in landscape photography. If you feel that all your photographs end up looking the same, maybe it is time to try doing something a little different. For example, I had a small wide-angle lens lying around for years, no matter how I used it I could not get the image I wanted from it. Last week I decided to couple it with a new lens and was amazed by the results. Now, some photographers will insist that “you never go full fisheye”, but I disagree. If anything, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new is very healthy for your point of view and inspiration as a photographer.
Peephole lenses can produce interesting framing, like in the case of this white-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) from Ontario, Canada. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/20, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
When the subject (leafcutter bee, Megachile sp.) stares directly into the camera the result is even more spectacular. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/22, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Photo must be “perfect” – Wouldn’t we all like everything to be the way we envisioned it? Unfortunately, in photography things do not always go as planned. In wide-angle macro it is all too common, there is just too much that can go wrong. Keep photographing. Among those so-called crappy photos one might actually stand out as unique. In fact, very often not-so-perfect photos are much more interesting than “Photoshop-perfect” ones. No one wrote any rules for wide-angle macrophotography, and if there are rules, they can be bent from time to time. The only limitation is your own creativity.
Including the human element in the photo can help in telling a compelling story. In this case, we searched for ornate predatory katydids (Saga ornata) for hours, and in the end they turned out to be right under our nose. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/40 at f/20, ISO100.
So what happens when things do go wrong? In the next post I will go over some of the major problems that arise when photographing wide-angle macro and using different lens systems.
To read part 3, click here.
To read part 4, click here.
A lot of people have been asking me to write about wide-angle macro. After a long period of time in which I was debating how to approach this topic, I decided that instead of giving a word-by-word recipe for making wide-angle macro photos, I am just going to write how I achieve my shots and give some useful tips. There is already a heap of great articles online, and at the end of this series of posts I will give a list of ones I recommend checking out for anyone interested in attempting this unique style.
The idea of wide-angle macro is to use a wide-angle lens to include a small-sized subject and its environment in a single photo. When I think about it, ever since I held a camera in my hands I was trying to get that “look” with an insect standing in the middle of its habitat. I remember trying to do this using my film camera, but back then I did not have the knowledge or the experience to tackle this. And here comes the first tip for anyone trying to learn this technique – you must understand the optics of your lens. Not literally the physics of optics (although it does help, I admit), but the characteristics of that particular lens: how close can it focus? What is the working distance? Can it focus to infinity? Just by answering these three questions you are able to get an idea whether your gear can be used for this style.
Caper bush (Capparis spinosa) overlooking Daliot stream, Golan Heights, Israel. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/125 at f/14, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Now, similarly to other genres of photography, in wide-angle macro there are many different ways to achieve the same result. You can use stand-alone ultra wide-angle or fisheye lenses, add an extension tube to get more magnification, build a relay system, or even use a peephole lens. Some ways are cheaper than others. There are also small-sized point-and-shoot cameras that are able to produce this kind of photos. It all depends on the amount of money and effort you are willing to invest. I use a dslr and several different lens systems for wide-angle macro photography, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. I highlighted in the photo captions which system I used so you can get an idea about the properties of each one.
Juvenile eastern spadefoot (Pelobates syriacus), Central coastal plain, Israel. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/15 at f/16, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
With the recent release of the fully manual Laowa/Venus 15mm 1:1 wide-angle macro lens, I suspect wide-angle macro will become even more popular over the next few years. I was hoping I could receive a unit to review and compare to the other systems I own, alas, Laowa/Venus never got back to me. Despite being a somewhat niche lens, I have no doubt that in the near future we will see more and more lenses with similar capabilities, maybe even with automatic aperture and focus control.
Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in my kitchen. While this wide-angle macro shot was not taken in the field, it shows that once the technique is mastered, it can be reproduced from scratch in almost any situation. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 4 sec at f/16, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
So what makes a good wide-angle macro photo? To simplify, typically, you would use a wide-angle lens focused close on the subject with a closed aperture of f/16 or higher to obtain more depth of field, and you might need to use a fill-flash to light your subject. In my opinion, apart from a sharp focus and good depth of field, there are three key elements that the photographer should strive for in wide-angle macro photography:
Magnification – This is more of a technical issue, as each wide-angle lens has a different maximum focusing distance and maximum magnification. You want to get the subject big enough in the frame so it will not end up “lost” in the background. If the subject is big (like some reptiles and amphibians) then this is not really a problem, but small arthropods are much more difficult to shoot in wide-angle macro. We still do not have the technology to produce a high-quality photo of a springtail walking about in the dense forest. Insufficient magnification can be solved by adding a short extension tube, but this causes several other issues (more on this later).
Male giant mosquito (Toxorhynchites sp.), Cayo District, Belize. Although this is a relatively large mosquito, it is still a small insect so I used a short extension tube to achieve more magnification. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 1/10 at f/22, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Interesting perspective – Focusing close on the subject alone is not enough. Getting low and bringing the camera to the same eye level as that of the subject’s is important to give viewers the impression that they are a part of the scene (this is true for all styles of nature photography, by the way). In addition, if the background is too busy or too far from the subject, the result will be aesthetically unappealing. A good way to solve this issue is to have some sort of gradual transition from the subject to the background. This can be done by including a branch or a vine that leads the eye from the subject to the background (or vice versa), or by actually letting the subject “drift” into the background. A good method for dealing with this issue (given to me by Piotr Naskrecki, one of the true masters of this photography style) is to look through the viewfinder and search for alternatives ways to compose the photo, however I often find that I actually need to take several shots of different perspectives before I decide.
An example to show the process of choosing the right composition: A. Background too far from foreground, no gradual transition; B. Overall busy composition with too much depth of field, subject will be lost; C. Good transition from foreground to slightly out-of-focus background, but background is still too busy; D. Good balance between foreground and background.
This is the composition I decided to go with eventually. Thistle Mantis (Blepharopsis mendica), Central Coastal Plain, Israel. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/125 at f/14, ISO200. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.
Telling a story – This one is a bit harder to master. You need to get the other elements right first, but once again, that alone is usually not enough. There are many (technically) good wide-angle macro shots out there, but they include a subject plastered over a poster-like background and in my opinion something gets lost there. In general, a good photo must be engaging, and wide-angle macro is no exception. You want to bring the subject’s perspective of the world and way of life to the viewer.
Marching of desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs in the Negev Desert of Israel. I wanted to show how the grasshoppers were moving in a thick column, almost like a flowing river. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/125 at f/16, ISO100.
Combining these elements is no easy task, especially from the technical aspect of things. In most cases, closing the aperture to get more depth of field will result in less light hitting the camera’s sensor. In other words, to get a proper exposure you need either to increase the ISO value or to use a slower shutter speed, sometimes even both. Using a tripod can help when taking long exposures, but sometimes it is physically impossible. And increasing the ISO beyond a certain value might boost the noise in the photo, resulting in a low-quality image. It’s all about compromises. In the next posts I will discuss common misconceptions and some of the major problems in wide-angle macro photography. If you have any other topic you would like me to address in the next posts – please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to answer.
To read part 2, click here.
To read part 3, click here.
To read part 4, click here.
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