Archive For: Photography

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: Spinning the cradle, Behavior: Invertebrates category winner

Up next in the series of Q&A posts about my Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images is Behaviour: Invertebrates category winner: Spinning the cradle.

Spinning the cradle. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category winner. A female fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) stretches out fine strands of silk from her spinnerets for weaving into her egg sac. Ontario, Canada

Spinning the cradle. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category winner. A female fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) stretches out fine strands of silk from her spinnerets for weaving into her egg sac. Ontario, Canada

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped)

“Spinning the cradle” really surprised me when it won in the invertebrates category. I knew the photo was good, but I never expected it to win. It is also a photo I took close to home, while on a routine walk in a forest. It goes to show the subject does not necessarily have to be something exotic or brightly colored in order to make an impact on the viewer. There are interesting things happening around us all the time. There are plenty of fascinating species very close to home, we only need to learn to find and observe them. You do not need to travel far to remote locations. Sometimes all it takes is just to look around you, you never know what you might find!

“An exquisite portrait of a remarkable piece of animal behavior”

“An exquisite portrait of a remarkable piece of animal behavior”

What is so special about this photo?
While hiking out locally and searching for arthropods for testing the Laowa 100mm 2x macro lens, I found a fishing spider (Dolomedes scriptus) under a slab of tree bark. Fishing spiders are common in wetlands where they feed on small aquatic animals (insects, amphibians, and small fish), but they are also very common in temperate forests. The spider was in the process of laying the base for an egg sac, so I thought this could be a good opportunity to observe and photograph the process, since this behavior is rarely documented. In general, spiders prefer to be hidden while constructing egg sacs. They are usually busy and distracted during the process, so they try to reduce the risk of predation to themselves and their offsprings. What I like about “Spinning the cradle” is that the photo shows the spider stretching the silk threads right before incorporating them into the rest of the forming sac. If you look closely, you can easily make out each of the separate silk strands being stretched by the spider. I have photographed weaving spiders in the past, but never in such clarity and detail. After taking the photo, I reviewed it on the camera’s back screen and I immediately knew I captured something special.

The fishing spider laying down the silk base for her egg sac, slowly working it into the shape of a bowl. This photo is rotated for easy viewing - the spider is actually facing down.

The fishing spider laying down the silk base for her egg sac, slowly working it into the shape of a bowl. This photo is rotated for easy viewing – the spider is actually facing down.

Can you explain the orientation of the photo? Something about it seems off.
“Spinning the cradle” is a rear-shot (or… a butt-shot! Did you catch that during my award acceptance speech?) of the spider stretching silk threads, but you are not really looking horizontally at the spider on eye level. Instead, the spider is standing vertically on the bark while facing down. So, in fact, the spider’s butt is facing up, and you are viewing the spider from above. I hope this makes sense.

What is the size of the spider?
This is a medium-large spider with a leg span of 6cm.

How were you able to take this photo without disturbing the spider?
Any disturbance could have caused the female spider to stop spinning and abandon her project. The main challenge here was to keep the tree bark the spider was on very steady and avoid breathing on the spider while I was photographing the behavior. We often take our breathing for granted. Most spiders have rather poor vision, but they can sense when a large animal is breathing right next to them, and will try to flee the area. So I carefully leant on the tree in a bit of an awkward position, placing the trunk between my legs to keep my body stabilized. Then I steadied the bark with my left hand and gripped the camera in my right while holding my breath, and started photographing.

An animation showing the spider in the process of incorporating silk into the forming egg sac

An animation showing the spider in the process of incorporating silk into the forming egg sac

Can you describe the spinning process? How does the spider make a spherical sac out of silk threads?
The movements of the spider’s spinnerets in action reminded me a lot of human fingers when weaving. The spider has complete control over the direction and density of the silk threads coming out of each spinneret. It is quite fascinating to watch. The spider starts with a flat circular base, and spins around in circles while adding more silk to its outer side, slowly forming walls. As the spider continues to build upwards, the silken disc gradually grows into a bowl shape. The spider continues to stretch and incorporate more silk until the bowl is deep enough to accept the egg mass. Then the spider stops, spends a few good moments laying the eggs, and quickly (and I do mean quickly) starts spinning again, this time carefully rolling the sac from side to side while tightening the silk threads, forcing its shape into a sphere. Once the sac is sealed, the process is complete.

The fishing spider in the process of laying her eggs inside her freshly spun egg sac

The fishing spider in the process of laying her eggs inside her freshly spun egg sac

The spider moments after laying her eggs. Note the smaller size of the abdomen compared to the previous photo.

The spider moments after laying her eggs. Note the smaller size of the abdomen compared to the previous photo.

How long did the spinning process take?
Spinning the egg sac, laying the eggs, and sealing the sac is a long process and requires a great investment of energy from the female spider. The process takes about 1-2 hours, during which the spider is focused on the project and is in fact vulnerable to attacks. This is the reason why spiders usually spin their egg sacs in a hide (like in this case, under bark), unexposed to potential predators and parasitoids.

The fishing spider in the process of sealing her egg sac after laying the eggs inside

The fishing spider in the process of sealing her egg sac after laying the eggs inside

What did you do after the spider finished spinning its egg sac?
After about an hour, the spider completed most of the sac and was getting ready to lay its eggs inside it, at which point I snapped a couple of final photos, slowly moved the bark back in place and left the animal to its business. There was no need to cause damage to the next generation of fishing spiders for the sake of obtaining more photos. The attentive mother will carry the sac with her until the eggs inside hatch and the hundreds of spiderlings disperse.

Once the egg sac is complete, the female fishing spider is on guard duty until it hatches

Once the egg sac is complete, the female fishing spider is on guard duty until it hatches

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 1 about “The spider room”, click here.
To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.

Stay tuned for the next posts in this series!

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: Beautiful bloodsucker, Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended

Part 3 in the series of Q&A posts about my Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images is Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended: Beautiful bloodsucker.

Beautiful bloodsucker. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. A female mosquito (Sabethes sp.) in mid-bite. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Beautiful bloodsucker. Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. A female mosquito (Sabethes sp.) in mid-bite. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped)

“Beautiful bloodsucker” is my personal favorite among my winning images, maybe because it took the greatest effort and longest time to produce (more on that later). This photo was released in September 2021 as a teaser for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards ceremony along with several other finalist images. Interestingly, upon release most media outlets chose to ignore the photo and omit it from their reports, however it eventually received exposure thanks to a BBC article that covered it extensively. The photo went viral online shortly after, as “the world’s most beautiful mosquito.”

“Now, come on. Come on! That’s the finest mosquito you’ve ever seen. It looks like a fantastic piece or art deco jewellery”

“Now, come on. Come on! That’s the finest mosquito you’ve ever seen. It looks like a fantastic piece or art deco jewellery”

You can also read the CBC article about “Beautiful bloodsucker” here or listen to my radio interview.

Why is this mosquito so flamboyant?
It is not clear why Sabethes mosquitoes have such beautiful metallic colors, but they are not the only ones. Other mosquitoes (for example Psorophora cyanescens, Toxorhynchites, etc’) have blue metallic scales covering their body. I discussed the fuzzy leg ornaments in a previous blog post; it is believed that they play a role in courtship, but because they are present in both sexes it is not well understood how they are being used.

A closeup of a Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite, showing the beautiful scales covering its body

A closeup of a Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite, showing the beautiful scales covering its body

What are those curvy things above the mosquito’s head?
Those are the mosquito’s hind legs! All mosquitoes curve their hind legs upwards at rest, occasionally swinging them from side to side. These legs are covered with fine hairs and function as sensory organs to detect approaching threats. When an intruder (or a swatting hand) gets close, the legs detect the movement by changes in the air currents above the mosquito, prompting it to escape immediately by taking off.

What is the size of the mosquito?
Despite their exotic appearance, Sebethes mosquitoes are not too different in size from your typical mosquito. They are 4mm long, very tiny. The one photographed in my winning photo “Beautiful bloodsucker” is standing on my finger knuckle. Here is one photographed on my pinky finger for a better sense of scale.

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite with pinky finger for scale

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite with pinky finger for scale

Do you normally let mosquitoes bite you?
Not by choice, but when you are visiting a tropical rainforest it is bound to happen. Especially after rain, small water reservoirs in trees, epiphyte plants, or fallen leaves fill up and trigger female mosquitoes to go out looking for a blood meal before laying their eggs. I normally try to avoid getting bitten by wearing long sleeve clothes and putting some bug spray, but it is pretty impossible to avoid them entirely in the tropics. You can protect yourself as much as possible, but the moment you are distracted they will seize the opportunity to sneak up on you. Sabethes is the only mosquito towards which I am more forgiving. I love these mosquitoes, and every time I encounter them on my trips to South America I cheer with joy and hope that they come closer for a bite so I can take more photos of them. Am I a masochist? …maybe.

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite. Note the swelling abdomen, filling with blood

Sabethes mosquito in mid-bite. Note the swelling abdomen, filling with blood

Isn’t this risky? Can this mosquito transmit any diseases?
It is important to remember that this is a wild animal, not a mosquito that was reared in a lab free of pathogens. There is definitely a component of risk here, as with all wildlife. These mosquitoes are important vectors of several tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and dengue fever, and perhaps other diseases as well. While taking the photo, I was bitten by this mosquito and several others, increasing the risk of contracting a vector-borne tropical disease. But I am still alive!

Is a bite from this mosquito painful?
Very. Every bite from a given species of mosquito feels a little different, mostly due to size and other morphological differences, but also thanks to differences in composition of the mosquito’s saliva. Sabethes mosquitoes are really something special. Not only do you feel them drilling into your skin, but it also leaves a painful sensation lasting hours and even days after the bite.

This Sabethes mosquito was photographed at the same location as the others, but it appears to be a different species with different leg ornaments.

This Sabethes mosquito was photographed at the same location as the others, but it appears to be a different species with different leg ornaments.

How long did it take you to get this photo?
About 4-5 years. I planned this particular photo composition for a long time. I have been encountering Sabethes mosquitoes for almost a decade and I knew I wanted something very specific. Little did I know that it would take an unbelievable amount of preparation and patience. These mosquitoes are extremely skittish and difficult to photograph well, especially in the constant heat and humidity of the rainforest. The mosquito responds to the tiniest of movements and to changes in light intensity. This means you must stay very still while attempting to photograph it, and also be prepared for the mosquito’s escape if using a flash. Fortunately, you are never alone with a single mosquito, because usually there are dozens of them hovering over your head. After carefully studying and observing the insect’s behavior for several years I was able to get a head-on, intimate photo of a female mosquito preparing to bite one of my finger knuckles. Even on the successful shoot itself it did not go smoothly the first time, and I had to keep trying for a couple of hours, all while getting bitten, until I finally got the photo I had in mind.

Why does this photo look like it was taken in a studio?
That is a great question that I received more than once. Indeed the background in “Beautiful bloodsucker” looks very plain and uniform to be considered in situ (in other words, a photo that was taken on site, in the subject’s natural habitat). However, I assure you that it was taken in the rainforest while I was visiting Ecuador. The background is simply the sleeve of my long hiking pants. After experimenting with different backgrounds on previous photography attempts, I chose this neutral background to emphasize the full spectrum of colors on the mosquito’s body.

I have seen many Sabethes mosquitoes over the years, but this female might be the prettiest so far

I have seen many Sabethes mosquitoes over the years, but this female might be the prettiest so far

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
I do not, but maybe this it for the best. Almost every time I attempted to photograph these mosquitoes I was surrounded by a swarm of them. It was very annoying and I was frustrated from getting bitten. I bet it would look horrible on camera.

Sabethes mosquito biting my thumb

Sabethes mosquito biting my thumb

Do you think this photo will change people’s general view on mosquitoes?
I am a pretty realistic guy, so I do not expect my photo to make people fall in love with mosquitoes. My hope is that it will make people pause and look before they automatically swat a mosquito, and maybe appreciate and beauty and structural complexity of these animals.

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. You can get a wall print of “Beautiful bloodsucker” directly from the Natural History Museum’s shop at affordable rates. If you need something different, contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 1 about “The spider room”, click here.
To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: Bug filling station, Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended

We are continuing our series of Q&A posts about my Wildlife Photographer of the Year winning images, and this time I will be reviewing Behaviour: Invertebrates highly commended: Bug filling station.

Bug filling station. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. Predatory stink bug nymph (Euthyrhynchus floridanus) feeding on a moth caterpillar. Mindo, Ecuador

Bug filling station. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Invertebrate Behaviour category highly commended. Predatory stink bug nymph (Euthyrhynchus floridanus) feeding on a moth caterpillar. Mindo, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped)

Out of my winning images, “Bug filling station” received the least attention and was skipped by many of the reporting media outlets. I think it is a shame, because it tells an interesting story of opportunistic survival.

“It’s a gruesome scene but it’s a remarkable piece of behavior”

“It’s a gruesome scene but it’s a remarkable piece of behavior”

What is so special about this photo?
The photo shows a small bug nymph feeding on a much larger moth caterpillar that was in preparations for pupating on a tree trunk. However, there is more depth to this story. The caterpillar is most likely a species of a tiger moth, which are characterized by having thick barbed hairs or spikes for protection against predators and parasitoids. As you can see, it didn’t really help the caterpillar in this case, for two reasons. First, the caterpillar is resting inside a very thin and poorly constructed cocoon, these are the black silk threads that can be seen in the photo. This cocoon is spacious and open because the cloud forest is a very wet environment. A typical cocoon with high-density spun silk will absorb rainwater and drown the pupa inside, whereas an open cocoon drains water better. Even though it is a thin cocoon, the caterpillar is still trapped inside and cannot leave. Second, pupating caterpillars are helpless and cannot defend themselves, as they lose the ability to walk prior to pupation, along with most of their senses. Therefore, the caterpillar is essentially defenseless at this stage, and indeed many predators and parasitoid insects seize this opportunity to attack.
Now the small bug nymph enters the picture, and decides to take advantage of the immobilized caterpillar by piercing its body with its proboscis and sucking its juices while the caterpillar is still alive. It is a great opportunity for the bug, because it can stay next to the caterpillar and feed as long as it wants or needs, without worrying about the prey escaping or the food supply running out.

Can you elaborate more about the bug’s mouthparts? I can’t understand what I am looking at.
The hemipteran proboscis is actually a complex system of mouthparts for sucking. The liquid food travels inside the narrow tube seen at the top of the mouthparts complex. This tube consists of the “jaws”; the elongated mandibles and maxillae are layered and arranged as a feeding tube. The folded part seen at the bottom is called labium (lower lip), and functions as a sheath to keep the mouthparts packed tightly together. During feeding this sheath is pushed backwards to expose the tip of the feeding tube and allows the bug to “bite” and start drinking.

What is the size of the bug?
Body length was 8mm. Judging by the size of the wing buds I would say it is two stages (=instars) away from becoming an adult.

A slightly different view of the bug filling station. The Euthyrhynchus floridanus nymph is very small compared to the huge moth caterpillar!

A slightly different view of the bug filling station. The Euthyrhynchus floridanus nymph is very small compared to the huge moth caterpillar!

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
I usually travel alone, but surprisingly in this case I do! I spent a few days in the cloud forests of Mindo, Ecuador together with my friend Javier Aznar, taking photos of the beautiful arthropod fauna there. He was kind enough to take my photo.

Me photographing in Mindo, Ecuador (photo courtesy of Javier Aznar)

Me photographing in Mindo, Ecuador (photo courtesy of Javier Aznar)

What else can you tell us about this bug?
The species is the Florida predatory stink bug (Euthyrhynchus floridanus). It is a monotypic species, in other words it is the only species in its genus. It has a wide distribution in southeastern United States and northern Latin America. In contrast to most members of its family Pentatomidae, this species is carnivorous and considered beneficial. It seems to enjoy feeding on many plant pests, as well as other small insects. Interestingly, this species is also gregarious, sometimes attacking prey in groups, although in my case no other nymphs were present in the area. The adult bugs display high color polymorphism, with variable red or orange patches on a metallic dark blue body.

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 1 about “The spider room”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year Q&A: The spider room, Urban Wildlife category winner

Recently I was honored to have four of my photos commended in the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year photo competition organized by the Natural History Museum in London. This is a major achievement for me, and not something that I take lightly. A lot of hard work, dedication, and patience got me to this point. Most photographers spend years trying to get a single photo recognized in the competition, usually without success. To have four entries selected as finalists, with two category winners, is not something I expected even in my wildest dreams. The attention from the press and the general public after the awards ceremony and the winners announcement (watch it here) was overwhelming and sometimes exhausting (especially in the case of the photo “The spider room”). Now that things have calmed down a little, I decided to dedicate a few posts to the competition; to answer some of the repeating questions from people, and provide a bit of the background story for each of my winning photos.

We start off this series of posts with Urban Wildlife category winner: “The spider room”. First of all if you have not read the full story behind this photo, feel free to head over to this post.

The spider room. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Urban Wildlife category winner. Phoneutria fera and its babies under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

The spider room. Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021, Urban Wildlife category winner. Phoneutria fera and its babies under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

You can watch the part when it appears in the awards ceremony here (timestamped).

Out of my winning images, this is probably the photo that made the most impact. The public response to it was phenomenal. It went viral immediately after the awards ceremony, attracting comments from thousands of people. I got literally hundreds of messages and questions about it over social media. It seems that people either like this photo, or you really, REALLY hate it. The interesting thing is that either way, people have an opinion about it. They talk about it. It’s a conversation starter. I couldn’t ask for a better result. There is also a story behind the submission of this photo to the competition that I will mention later.

“Seriously... This was under Gil Wizen’s bed, I’m sure it might send a shiver down your spine, but when I tell you that it was a Brazilian wandering spider, a very large animal and one of the most venomous spiders in the world, you’d be more worried”

“Seriously… This was under Gil Wizen’s bed, I’m sure it might send a shiver down your spine, but when I tell you that it was a Brazilian wandering spider, a very large animal and one of the most venomous spiders in the world, you’d be more worried”

Ok, spill out the truth. Is it real?
Yes.

What is the size of the spider? It looks huge!
This is an adult female Phoneutria fera, or Brazilian wandering spider. It is one of the largest araneomorph (non-tarantula) spiders in the world. The spider can easily cover an adult human’s hand with its leg span, which is almost 6 inches or 15 centimeters. The lens used to capture the photo makes it look bigger (forced perspective).

What is this “forced perspective”?
Forced perspective is an optical illusion that makes an object appear physically different (larger, smaller, closer, or farther) than it actually is. In this case I used a short focal length wide-angle lens, photographing the spider under my bed from a very short distance to make it appear larger in the frame while still retaining most of the details of the background.

Don’t spiders have 8 legs? I only see 6!
Spiders indeed have eight legs. This spider is not missing any legs, but it holds the two front pairs closely together, making it look like it is a single pair of legs.

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) female guarding her babies. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) female guarding her babies. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

What is that thing on the floor next to the spider?
The spider is feeding on a cockroach, so right under it there is a cockroach leg that it discarded. However, since the online version of the photo is usually of low resolution, most people mean the black area on the floor in front of the spider – that is simply a hole in the floorboard.

How venomous is this spider?
To quote from wandering-spiders.net: “Phoneutria venom contains a wide variety of peptides and proteins including neurotoxins, which act on the ion channels and chemical receptors of the neuromuscular systems of insects and mammals.” This means the venom has the potential to cause excitatory symptoms such as salivation, muscle spasms, loss of consciousness, loss of control over muscles, priapism (yup, you read that right), and in some cases even death.

Oh no! Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in my kitchen!

Oh no! Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria fera) in my kitchen!

Where was this photo taken? I am worried!
The spider room photo was taken in a biological research station in Ecuador. Phoneutria spiders are only found in the tropical regions of Latin America.

How did you not set the whole room on fire?? What’s wrong with you, look at this thing!
And why would I do that? The spider doesn’t know it is in someone’s room. It doesn’t even know what a human is. Allow me to quote myself: We DO NOT burn houses just because a spider happened to walk in. It’s absurd. Just because a spider found its way into your house, doesn’t mean it’s going to go after you. Spiders are constantly busy surviving, they have no time for us. If you find a spider at home, please kindly escort it out. The spider will thank you, and both of you will be happy. No need to cause property damage and possibly hurt yourself and others in the process.

It doesn’t look like any bed that I’ve ever seen. Can we see the bed?
Yes you can! Just don’t expect too much.

The bed where Phoneutria fera was found (photo courtesy of Alex Shlagman)

The bed where Phoneutria fera was found (photo courtesy of Alex Shlagman)

This photo isn’t mine. It was taken by my colleague during our previous stay at the site in 2007 and the room has changed considerably since then, but it’s the same bed.

Do you have any behind-the-scenes photos?
Unfortunately I was alone during the encounter with the spider, so I have no behind-the-scenes photos. However, I can try to communicate the experience. After figuring out that the source for the baby spiders in my room was under the bed, I decided to crawl under it to take a closer look. Someone on twitter posted this image, either directly or indirectly connected to my spider photo, and it encapsulates the scene very well:


When I looked under the bed, this is what I saw:

Phoneutria fera under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

Phoneutria fera under my bed. Amazon basin, Ecuador

And one look was all I needed. I immediately knew which kind of photo I wanted to take.

Weren’t you scared to get so close to the spider?
I was not scared to photograph the spider from up close, because it was busy feeding and did not pay attention to me. However, after photographing I decided to relocate it outside, and this involved moving the spider. I was a little concerned because this spider is extremely fast and defensive, so I moved slowly and used extreme caution.

Closeup of a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) resting on a leaf in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I got very close when taking this photo and the spider could not care any less.

Closeup of a wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) resting on a leaf in the Ecuadorian Amazon. I got very close when taking this photo and the spider could not care any less.

How did you move the spider outside?
There is a simple trick for catching spiders by placing a cup over the arachnid and sliding a piece of paper underneath. It works with any spider, large or small, tarantula or araneomorph spider. This is what I did with the Brazilian wandering spider before carrying it outside to release.

You said you relocated the spider outside, but what about all the babies?
The babies were left untouched. After hatching from the egg sac, baby spiders need very little attention. In some spiders the mothers stay close to the babies to protect them, but the truth is they are independent and can take care of themselves. That is why they were already dispersing around in the room. In addition, the baby wandering spiders have tiny fangs and physically cannot bite humans, so they are harmless.

Don’t spiders go back to their nest if moved away from it? Did the spider return?
After it was released the spider did not return to the room. However, this question is justified because I have heard more than one account where a wandering spider was relocated and showed up in the same place the day after. It is possible that the spider can find its way back following chemical cues. Silk may contain important information about the individual spider that placed it, and this information can be used by the same animal or other spiders for tracking.

Did you have any similar encounters with these spiders?
I encounter members of genus Phoneutria almost every time I visit Latin America. I always get startled at first because it is a very large spider, but then I continue to observe them without worries. They are interesting animals with an important role in their habitat and we should treat them with respect.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed on the thatched roof of a cabin in Colombia.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed on the thatched roof of a cabin in Colombia.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Limón Province, Costa Rica

We like the photo! Can we buy a print from you?
Of course. Contact me and I will do my best to assist you.

Can I use your photo for my super funny meme? Please!
This has already happened even before the photo won in the competition.
I had a feeling that the photo would go viral after the winners announcement, and expected the internet to have a field day using it for memes. As long as the memes are civil, do not call for violence, damage of property, or the unnecessary killing of spiders – I am fine with it.

What is the story behind the submission that you mentioned in the beginning of the post?
As mentioned in my award reception speech for “The spider room”, I actually had no intention to submit this photo to the competition. My plan was to submit another photo of a wandering spider preying on a katydid, however my good friend Ellen Woods, who encouraged me to enter my work to the competition in the first place (something I will discuss in a later post in this series), insisted that I submit this particular photo in the Urban Wildlife category. And she was spot on! So the way I see it, this is more her win than mine.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed in Colombia. This was the photo I initially planned to submit to the competition. Looking back, it would probably not have been picked up as a finalist.

Wandering spider (Phoneutria depilata) preying on a katydid. Photographed in Colombia. This was the photo I initially planned to submit to the competition. Looking back, it would probably not have been picked up as a finalist.

Why did you submit this photo in the “Urban Wildlife” category, when it shows a research station close to the rainforest and has nothing to do with being urban?
I admit I hesitated to submit the photo because of this. However upon careful inspection of the category’s definition in the competition, the text reads: “Across the world, humans have created new habitats. Many animals have adapted to these built environments, some more successfully than others. These images focus on the magic of the commonplace, the surprise of the unexpected or the wonder of the normally unseen.” This means that the category is intended for photos of animals adapting to any human-made environment. Not necessarily just cities, even if it is the first thing that comes to mind when hearing the word “urban”.

If you have any questions about my photo that do not appear in this post, feel free to leave them in the comments. I will do my best to answer them.

To read part 2 about “Bug filling station”, click here.
To read part 3 about “Beautiful bloodsucker”, click here.
To read part 4 about “Spinning the cradle”, click here.

Farewell 2019, hola 2020’s!

I’ll open this post with my usual mantra – have you backed up your files this week? In case you have, pat yourself on the back. If not, stop reading and back up your stuff first. Thank you.
Ah, 2019. What a strange year this was. Just as I thought, the previous year ended on such a high note, that it was difficult to shake off the sense of euphoria that came right after and get back to being productive as a freelancer. It’s funny to think that I wrote 2018’s wrap up way into 2019, so things were already stalling a little for me. Nevertheless, last year was full of surprises and new experiences, as well as meeting new people. Not to imply that all of these happenings went the way I thought they would, there is always good and bad and it’s unavoidable. I am happy to say that most of these were indeed positive experiences, there were no major failures this year (yay) and I definitely learned from the less favorable moments. So all in all this was a good year professionally speaking. On the personal level it could have been better, my attempts at dating were mostly embarrassingly hilarious and sad. But my love life isn’t the topic of this blog haha. If you follow my year-in-review posts, then you already know I no longer do the “best photos of the year” roundup. I gave that format up for “highlights of the year”, but I will spice it up with photos so it isn’t too boring.

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Dung beetle (Scarabaeus sp.). Western Negev desert, Israel

Trip to Israel

Perhaps my most anticipated event last year was a trip back home. I actually planned two trips in 2019, but had to cancel my annual trip to Ecuador due to a nation-wide unrest. I haven’t been to Israel since 2015, and it showed. Not only did I miss my family, but I was also craving some of the amazing food my home country has to offer. Alas, this trip was short. Way too short! I am used to being busy when I visit Israel, but this time I barely got to meet any friends. Things have definitely changed in some of the nature sites I used to frequent, some areas are now closed nature reserves (good) and some were wiped clean to make space for development or construction (bad bad bad). Still it is a magnificent country with great finds.

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Desert black widow (Latrodectus revivensis) preying on Wedge-snouted Skink (Sphenops sepsoides). Western Negev Desert, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) swarming on a tree branch. Upper Galilee, Israel

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Male jumping spider (Cyrba algerina). This was one of the species I was hoping to find during my visit.

Catching up with the past

Much of what I did in 2019 was backstage work, in other words not things that I usually post about here or on social media. Only briefly mentioned on this blog, one of the things I do aside from nature photography and consulting is breeding arthropods professionally for different purposes. Usually it is for public outreach events, but occasionally I supply animals for live displays in museums or to research labs. It is a full-time job on top of all my other projects, but this is something that I also do for my own mental health. I have been doing this since… forever. Being occupied with keeping insects and arachnids calms me down and leaves no time for negative thoughts. Unfortunately, my busy schedule with trips and the ROM’s spider exhibit in 2018 also meant that I neglected some of my breeding projects. Sometimes that’s a good thing because it forces you to reevaluate which species are more important and worth keeping around. In any case, I decided to get back on track with some species, for example beetles. One of the main goals I had for my visit to Israel was to relocate lab supplies to my place in Canada. No sense in keeping it unused in Israel, and I can totally benefit from using it. One of the objects I wanted to bring to my Canadian home was a large industrial bin that I used for making leaf compost as substrate for breeding beetles. I had my doubts about carrying such a weird object on a commercial flight, but it worked out fine.

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

The rare sapphire flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa cyanochlora) in captive breeding

Another hidden project I started working on last year was clearing up my backlog. I hate to admit it, but since moving to Canada I have not put much effort into managing my digital photography assets, and many file folders on my computer are still unorganized. After a long hiatus, I made the decision to go back to working on my photo collections and clear the backlog. This is a difficult task to accomplish, because while you are working on old photos, you keep adding new ones. I cannot put opportunities on hold just because I have stuff from the past to sort out, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. Sadly, I do not know how long it will take to finish the work, but what a great way to pass the dreaded wintertime in Ontario, am I right? Too bad I actually like the winter.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. The winter is a great time to edit some wide angle macro shots from the summer. By the way, if I had to pick the best photo I took in 2019, it would probably be this one. It took 4 hours to get it!

Public outreach in 2019

In 2019 I continued to take part in public outreach to promote the appreciation of insects and arachnids. I really enjoy acting as an ambassador for these animals and striking up conversations with people I meet at the events. I gave two talks at Nerd Nite Toronto, one about non-spider arachnids and another about Epomis beetles. Quite unbelievable – this was the first time I ever presented my MSc research to the general public, up until now it was only to academic listeners. How come I have waited for so long? The audience loved it!
I also returned for my third time as a medical entomology expert for the Global Health Education Initiative at University of Toronto. And of course, I returned with my whip spiders for the third Guelph Bug Day. This event is becoming an annual thing for me, I really love it, and you can tell that the people organizing it are very passionate about insects and science communication. I plan to continue participating for as long as I can.

Our "Arachnids & Art" table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Our “Arachnids & Art” table at Guelph Bug Day 2019. Photo by Brian Wolven

Filming “Bug Hunter”

Speaking of education and public outreach, over the summer of 2019 I assisted in the production of an educational series called “Bug Hunter”. The project is a New Zealand-Canada collaboration in which a NZ entomologist (the wonderful Morgane Merien) travels between the two countries and explores different aspects in the life of insects, while comparing species from the Southern Hemisphere to ones found in the Northern Hemisphere.

Morgane Merien in "Bug Hunter"

Morgane Merien in “Bug Hunter”

I must admit that when the producer approached me at first I did not fully grasp the scale of the project. The series is a part of an augmented reality app that will eventually be distributed into the school system. I was initially hired as a consultant and a field expert to the team, but later on I was written into the script. This means that occasionally I appear in the episodes to give some information about insects native to Canada. Kind of like an Non-Player Character that always shows up (if you know Baelin the fisherman, something like that, hopefully not as repetitive). If I had to pick one thing in 2019 as the best highlight, it would be working on this series. The team chosen for this project was stellar, extremely professional but also good people. We all worked hard, had good laughs, and I got to hear some interesting stories about the industry. An amazing learning experience. On top of that, I dragged them to Guelph Bug Day (it coincided with one of the filming dates) and they were able to use it to get some useful footage for the series. The Canada portion is more or less wrapped up, and now a second team is filming the NZ portion with Morgane. I can’t wait to see the final result when it’s completed.

Filming "Bug Hunter" in Southern Ontario

Filming “Bug Hunter” in Southern Ontario

Commercial work in 2019

In July I was contracted by Doritos Canada to help promoting the “SpiderManFar From Home” movie. The idea was to design and set up a box with live spiders as a fun challenge for people to get a chance to win an authentic Spider-Man suit. After some discussions with the PR company, we settled on having local wolf spiders and a tarantula inside the box. I had no idea how it was going to turn out, but it was a lot of fun! Being the science communicator that I am, I tried to turn this into an educational opportunity to show people that there is no reason to be afraid of spiders. The activity was covered by several news outlets too. I was debating whether to upload the video, but then I thought why should I be the only one to enjoy it. Hopefully it won’t be taken down.

In October I was involved in another cool project: filming a music video for the Finnish symphonic metal group Apocalyptica. The director wanted to incorporate live arthropods in the final video and asked for my assistance with providing and wrangling the animals. This was not my first music video work, but it was the first one on an international scale. Obviously, this was very different from filming news interviews or the educational show mentioned above. I brought in a handful of different animals, not all of which were used and made it to the final cut. Yet still, when I watch the video it sparks nice memories of some of the critters I keep. Two of my favorite animals, whip spiders and velvet worms, are shown in great detail in the video, and it make me very happy. This is probably the first time a velvet worm is shown in a music video, now that I think about it. And I was also surprised to discover my name mentioned in the end credits!

Social media

Despite toning down my social media activity in the past few years, I still remain somewhat active. In fact, my follower counts increased substantially over the past year (more on that later). Twitter is still my favorite platform for several reasons. Facebook used to be OK, but has deteriorated over the years. And then there is Instagram. I really tried to like Instagram, however after 1.5 years of using it I still find it mediocre for interacting with people. It’s not surprising; Instagram is a phone app, and as such it is designed to be used for killing time while staring at your smartphone screen. I hardly use my cellphone for that purpose, and to be honest I barely use my cellphone at all. I still post there, mainly because I already post in the other platforms, and it’s just a click away. You might recognize my checkered pattern of posting, which I do solely for my Instagram. Not sure how long I can keep this going, but hey at least it looks cool.

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

Checkered pattern of posting on my Instagram

I mentioned follower counts earlier. I never really cared that much about them. Okay, that’s not entirely true: I recently stumbled upon a list I made in my early days on Facebook (2010), listing all 90 friends I’ve made. That’s a little sad… Anyway going back to 2019, I sometimes find myself ticked if I see that my follower count is stuck showing an unbalanced, nearly round value. And I am sure I am not the only person with this problem, right? So every now and then I try to round that number upwards by posting something nice. Usually I follow the excellent advice given to me a while back, but it really depends on what I have available. Now, I have said many times that it is impossible to predict what is going to go viral on social media. But at least one time this year I posted something with the sole intention for it to go viral, and it actually worked. It was this photo of Euglossa hansoni from this blog post:

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

Male orchid bee (Euglossa hansoni) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

That post exploded on Facebook and even more so on Twitter. There was no surprise, it is one of my most stolen photos and that’s why I posted it. And sure enough, I was able to round the follower count up, before it went completely nuts and returned to an unbalanced state, only with a few additional hundreds of new followers. So what I did next was pretty cool. I tweeted this in hopes that as many people as possible will get to see it:

“This tweet has taken off a little, so I am told this is when I am supposed to take advantage of the situation and divert everyone’s attention to me promoting something. But I am not going to do that. Instead I will request something that I believe can be beneficial for everyone: Be kind to each other. Talk to each other. I mean actual talking – not just in texts messages! You’d be surprised how exhilarating it is. Spend time really listening. Respect and support others, especially those who are smaller and weaker than yourself (including smol friends!). I could go on, but I think this is the core of my message to the world. Practice being a good person. Do your best to be the hero in someone else’s story, I cannot stress this enough. Thanks for the love and support.”

This is my message for 2019. Actually scratch that. This is my message for the new decade.

Gilwizen.com in 2019 and what’s next

OK, this one is a bit embarrassing. In 2019, I published a “whopping” record of only three posts. That is a new low. It’s not because I had nothing to write about (I have dozens of stories “sitting”, awaiting their turn) or because I was busy. Writing blog posts is still a huge time and energy investment for me. Unlike some people who write a single four-line paragraph and call it a blog post, I try to make some decent content. I mean, look how long this post has become by now. In addition, every post goes through about 40 revisions before I hit publish, because I get pretty antsy about typos and grammatical errors (they still happen). This year I had very little motivation to sit and write. It’s almost like I need to be in a specific mood for it. I guess the good news is that there were no rant posts this year. But this posting drought needs to end.
I hope to return to regular posting in 2020. I also want to showcase more art that I have been exposed to, and bring back the Little Transformers post series. Following some helpful discussions with friends, I decided to add a media page to the website with some of the interviews and filmed activities that I have done over the years. Maybe I should also add portfolio page? I’ve never liked portfolios, do they really make a difference on a website’s appearance? Tell me what you think in the comments.

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Framed tarantula molt (Brachypelma hamorii) for sale

Selling Ethical Ento-Mounts was a bit slow this year, but I have not made many new pieces. One thing I finally put together is a “deluxe” series: these are frames containing one species or more arranged in a pattern. It involves an insane amount of work, mainly gluing broken beetles and selecting them for size to fit the arrangement. Because the specimens originate from my breeding projects, the “deluxe” items will be extremely limited editions, probably two or three per year, and will be priced higher than my usual work. I think they look nice.

Ethical Ento-Mount "deluxe": a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

Ethical Ento-Mount “deluxe”: a group of flower beetles (Cetonischema speciosa jousselini) in flight around a Scarabaeus dung beetle. Sold even before I listed it online.

I just updated my shop page with new work, and to celebrate the new year I am offering a 20% discount on all items until the end of January 2020. Please check it out! If you ever thought about getting one of my framed molts, now is the time to do so. There are prints available too!

Final words (getting personal and emotional here)

2019 is also the end of a decade. As someone who was born in 1980, it is impossible for me not to look at the change of decades as an age-transition into a new point in life. This year also marks the end of my 30’s, and that’s kind of a big deal.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

I started my insect journey 30 years ago with rearing butterflies when I was 9 years old. In 2019 I closed the circle by going back to my roots. How can you not fall in love with this black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)? So adorable.

For me, the 2010’s were a decade where everything just went to sh*t. Especially during the second half. If my 20’s were all about getting my education in order and relocating out of Israel, during my 30’s came the hard realization that I’m probably better off outside of academia, that my past few relationships were all abusive, and that knowing what you want to do in life can actually get you stuck instead of moving forward. It is amazing that even though it is already buried in my past, I still refer to mid-2016 as the point in time when my life went downhill. Yet I came back from it stronger, more confident, and a better person overall. So I must show some gratitude to the bad experiences I had, after all they made me who I am today. Also looking back, alongside the bad occurrences there were heaps of positive ones, culminating in 2019. Not only growing professionally and developing a unique style, but also finding an audience; Learning to manage myself as a business; Changing locations and making new friends; Learning not only what is right, but also what feels good, and making more of it. These are all things that I am grateful for as I am stepping into the new era. It is important to remember however that there is still much work ahead. I often find myself arguing with friends that I am not famous. It is very flattering, but there is a problem with that statement that I will try to communicate using one of my favorite quotes, actually from a YouTuber: “I am very pleased that you call me a celebrity, I think of myself as barely having a career.”
But you know what I do have? My face on a greeting card.





Ending 2018 with a bang

Let’s go straight to the punchline: 2018 was a successful year for me. This is important because I am posting this late into 2019, so I had the time to reflect on the passing year’s events.
I was debating if I should write a summary post for 2018 at all. These things get old quickly, especially around the last two weeks of December, when such posts pop up everywhere. Even though I know I am expected to post my favorite photographs from last year, the truth is that I have not been particularly busy taking photos. Instead I have been focusing on other projects, giving invited talks and doing public outreach, as well as adding content to this website. In addition, there were a few notable events this year that helped shaping me as a professional and as a person. So if you want to know what I have been up to in 2018, read on.

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Teaching about whip spiders at the Royal Ontario Museum

Opinion piece about giving away free photos,
and the rise to fame (not really)

One of the first posts I wrote in 2018 was aimed at people asking for free work. It joined other similar posts (examples are here and here), and to be honest I did not expect to receive any response to it. I merely posted the article so I can go back and refer people to it whenever I am faced with such requests. As many creative freelancers know, being asked to work or provide service for free is far too common. Apparently that post hit close to home because it received echo from fellow photographers and artists, and was later picked up by PetaPixel, one of the biggest photography-related news websites.
The piece featured on PetaPixel spread like wildfire and triggered some interesting discussions. On one hand, not everyone liked what I wrote, and some users even attacked me for it. On the other hand, I found myself discussing important topics like rates and copyrights with other, more experienced professionals. Even though this rant has been years in planning, I admit the post was written in the heat of the moment, and as such it is not a well-worded text. Now that I think about it, it is clear that I could have done a better job. That being said, I have no regrets whatsoever; the post is justified. If anything, having it available on my website serves as a deterrent for anyone who behaves inappropriately and disrespectfully towards creators by asking for free work.

Trip to Colombia

In February I went on a short assignment in Colombia, to photograph a tree. I know, right? It sounds simple and too good to be true, but in reality finding trees that fit what the client had in mind was challenging, not to mention it was not always possible to shoot the tree in the requested high resolution for the project. This trip also gave me a chance to test the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens, and I am happy I did, because it proved to be an outstanding competitor to the renowned Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x macro lens. Laowa is quickly establishing themselves as one of the most interesting lens companies out there, and I am looking forward to see what other innovations they have up their sleeve!

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Searching for trees. Anyone seeing any trees around?

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Tree covered in climbing epiphytes. Is this the perfect tree for the job? Close to perfect, but unfortunately, it was not good enough.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Central American tree boa (Corallus ruschenbergerii). One of the benefits of walking around checking out trees, is finding tree-inhabiting animals.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism - a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Katydid nymph showing intense pink coloration or erythrism – a rare phenomenon that is occasionally seen in katydids, in which a genetic mutation causes an absence of the normal green pigment and the excessive production of pink pigment.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Fairy wasp (family Mymaridae) ovipositing in membracid treehopper egg mass. One of the best finds during this trip (watch this space for an upcoming post about it). This tiny wasp is only 0.6mm in length! Photographed using the Laowa 25mm lens.

Trip to Ecuador

In May I returned to my beloved site in Ecuador, this time it wasn’t really to get work done but was more of an escape to spend my birthday (ok, who am I kidding, I still worked during that visit…). I often feel miserable around my birthday and during holidays because many times I have no one to spend them with, and it seemed like a good idea to pass this time in a place that I love. More than anything I needed to clear my head before taking the role of a spider wrangler (up next). This trip ended up being very peaceful and relaxing, somewhat lonely, but still satisfying. I was able to finally find one of my target species for the area, the seasonal jewel scarab, Chrysophora chrysochlora.

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Ecuadorian jewel scarab (Chrysophora chrysochlora)

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Bird eater tarantula (Theraphosa sp.). I was extremely happy to encounter this giant for the first time in the wild, and add it to the species checklist for my site.

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here - taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bee (Euglossa intersecta) in mid-flight. This photo is not perfect in many ways: it is dark, the composition is not ideal, and it is also slightly cropped. But I achieved something very difficult here – taking a wide angle macro and freezing an orchid bee in flight. Those bees are fast!

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Male orchid bees (Euglossa sp.) collecting fragrant compounds from a moss patch

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Baby wandering spider (family Ctenidae)

Spiders exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum

And then, immediately after returning from Ecuador, I was recruited to the Royal Ontario Museum to work on their “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit. This is something I knew I wanted to do ever since I heard about this exhibit in December 2016. It was a long wait but I was finally in! I worked full-time as the spider wrangler for seven months at the museum, along with the awesome Mateus Peppineli. The role involved mainly taking care of spiders displayed in the gallery and in the live room, but also delivering presentations to the museum visitors. These presentations were open for whatever came in mind, so I could include information about different arachnids, not just spiders (as can be seen in the photo opening this post). A key component of the presentations was performing live venom milking from spiders and scorpions in front of an audience (you can watch a venom milking presentation in this video). This is something that requires some explanation – the idea was to extract venom from live animals that were sedated, and do it in a way that would not harm the animals and allow for future extraction of venom later on.

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

Milking venom from a fishing spider at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from TFO video

This is something I got trained for about a decade ago in Israel, I felt so lucky to be able to not only do this again, but also to present it to other people. In this regard I believe this ROM exhibit was one of a kind. Sure, the original exhibit coming from Australia also had a venom milking component, but I think the exhibit is really as good as the person running the show. I don’t know if there is any other place that has the unusual combination of someone passionate about arachnids, has over 20 years worth of expertise keeping and designing public displays for them, AND is also trained in venom extraction. And this is exactly why this exhibit made it well; people hoarded to see it, many coming back several times for more. Not only it gave me enormous satisfaction to see that people are interested in spiders, but also it showed me that without doubt there is a desire to see a similar permanent exhibit in Toronto, maybe on a larger scale. And I needed that affirmation.

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

Presenting spiders to an audience at the Royal Ontario Museum. Screenshot from Curiosity in Focus video

I met and talked with thousands of people. Many of them came to me wishing to learn more about spiders they saw in their own house or backyard. Children found in me someone who is on their side, because I could understand and relate to their passion for insects and spiders. Some people confessed that I changed their point of view and helped them conquering their fear of spiders. Young visitors told me that watching me working has inspired them to pursue higher education and a career in science. And sure, it was nice being in the spotlight for a little while.

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM's "Spiders: Fear & Fascination" exhibit

Some screenshots from TV appearances, representing the ROM’s “Spiders: Fear & Fascination” exhibit

I enjoyed being the ambassador for arachnids on TV and social media. People started recognizing me on the street. Suddenly, I had fans. I got hugs. So many hugs. Some visitors stayed in touch and became close friends. I want to thank everyone who helped making this exhibit into a reality, and all the visitors who gave it a chance and came to see it. Now that the dust has settled I can honestly say that working at the spiders exhibit was one of the best experiences of my life. How do I fill the void that is left, that is the question that bothers me the most right now.

I will never forget this "finger fencing" moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

I will never forget this “finger fencing” moment. Screenshot from CP24 Live at Breakfast

Social media (Instagram)

As a part of my role at the museum, I decided to join the social media platform Instagram. I did it as an experiment, to see how well I can perform there. If you know me, then you know that I find Instagram useless and crippled compared to the other social media streams, because of the inability to post clickable links or share posts from other users. My initial thought was to share behind-the-scenes moments from my work at the museum, and indeed the very first posts were exactly that. However, I quickly learned that this does not always work well, I did not always have the time to post while working, and if I have to be completely honest, my phone camera is total garbage. Nevertheless, I persisted, posting the same stuff that I post on my other accounts, and people started following. So maybe it is not so bad… I am still a shy noob on Instagram and don’t interact much, but if you remember my post from 2016, I said the exact same thing about Twitter, and today it has become my preferred social media platform. So who knows. I’m ready for an adventure!

Collaborating with Daniel Kwan (Curiosity in Focus)

During my time as the Royal Ontario Museum’s spider wrangler I was fortunate to meet Daniel Kwan, a talented individual who was responsible for running educational programs at the museum as well as producing video content about the different museum exhibits and collections. Since the opening of the spiders exhibit we collaborated many times, producing videos showing live arthropods and their behaviour, as well as activities performed in the venom lab.

Daniel also has several side projects that he runs. Many of them are related to his big passion – games, but he also hosts a couple of podcasts. One of them, Curiosity in Focus, shines a spotlight on people with interesting professional lifestyles and backgrounds, and covers many different fields like science, history, archeology, design, and fiction. Ever since the day we met he has been trying to get me on the podcast, until we finally found the time to sit down one evening and record an episode. So if you like to know about more about me, feel free to check it out here. We chatted about my role as the spider wrangler at the ROM, my military service in Israel, and shared some stories from entomology-related fieldwork. This was so much fun. I am definitely looking forward to future collaborations with Daniel.
Regardless of this episode, I have nothing but good things to say about this podcast. This is Daniel’s own brainchild, he is very passionate about it, and it shows. He always finds amazing people and interesting topics to talk about. One of my personal favorite episodes is a chat with Kevin Rawlings, Canada’s northernmost resident. Check it out if you have a moment. You won’t regret it.

Gilwizen.com in 2018

Due to my trips and later employment at the museum, my posting routine on the blog was inconsistent. I posted only 14 stories on the blog this year, a huge drop compared to 30 posts in the previous year. I am happy with the posts I got to share, but I would like to write more. Even more surprising was to see old posts resurfacing on social media and attracting new readers, notably this one, this one, this one, and… this one? Hmm. Some of these are very old and there is no doubt my writing style has changed over the years. I am tempted to go back and rewrite some of them to make it easier and more interesting to read, but I know that something would be lost if I do so.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One of the framed tarantula molts I made this year. It was already sold before I got to finish it.

One thing that has definitely picked up pace is my shop page. I initially started that page in 2017 to see if there is any interest in my framed “Ethical Molts” (term coined by my dear friend Peggy Muddles, who also made the video below), and since then it has exploded. I have sold and shipped over 30 framed specimens, some went to distant locations overseas. Many times when I upload a new batch of frames it is sold within a few days. I cannot complain.

Final words

As you can see, I have been busy this year. Looking back, 2017 and most of 2016 were painful and unproductive years for me. 2018 marked a much-needed shift in the right direction. It is especially interesting to compare the summary posts from the two previous years to this one. Going back to my closing statement for 2017, a friend and I were discussing life goals and what counts as success. For many people, including my friend, financial prosperity counts as success. For me, success is not about getting rich. It is first about reaching stability (not necessarily financial), and then leaving something behind, making a positive impact on others. And in 2018, I felt I did exactly that. Thank you everyone for being a part of it. I am forever grateful for your support, and my life is so much richer because you are in it.

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador

Me with a giant silk moth (Rhescyntis hippodamia) in Ecuador




Review: Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens

High-magnification macrophotography was once a niche mostly reserved for Canon users, thanks to the unique MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens, and for photographers willing to experiment with microscope objectives and focus-stacking techniques. This has recently changed, and slowly more macro lenses with a reproduction ratio higher than 1:1 are being introduced into the market. Two of them belong to Venus Optics Laowa: the 60mm f/2.8 2X Ultra Macro lens that was introduced in 2015, and the new addition Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens. Since I have been a user of Canon’s MP-E lens since 2006 I was intrigued by this new Laowa lens, especially how it compares in regards to ease of use and versatility. Venus Optics Laowa were kind enough to send me a pre-production copy for review. This is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Portrait of a katydid nymph with erythrism (intense pink coloration)

Before we begin, a warning: The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is a high magnification macro lens. As such it gives an unusual perspective of even the most mundane subjects. I could have gone through this review using closeups of everyday objects as examples, but I am a wildlife macrophotographer. There will be spiders.

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

Portrait of a male jumping spider (Phidippus arizonensis)

The boxed lens comes with front and rear caps, but also a tripod collar that is compatible with the arca-swiss mouting system (note that I did not receive the tripod collar with my copy, so I cannot share any thoughts about it). Upon opening the box I was struck by how small and lightweight the lens is compared to the tank that is the Canon MP-E. That being said, the lens is definitely well built, mostly metal construction (with some exceptions, see below), and has some heftiness to it, weighing around 430g. It does not feel cheap or fragile in any way.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x Vs. Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X

Size matters? Next to the Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5x lens, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X looks cute. Both lenses are fully extended to their maximum length here (5x magnification).

If you missed my previous review of the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens, I don’t get too technical in my reviews to avoid repeating information that is widely available online. If you are reading this, I assume that you are mostly interested in the practical uses of the lens, what it can be used for, and how well it performs. If you are interested in a dry summary of its specs I will gladly refer you to the product page or Nicky Bay’s excellent technical review.

I tested the lens on a crop sensor camera (APS-C), which I found somewhat limiting because of the tight range and high magnification values, nevertheless I enjoyed using it. The lens is also suitable for use on a full frame camera body. For most of the photos shown here I used my existing Canon MT-24EX macro twin lite system, and occasionally a speedlite with a softbox as the main light.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Male jumping spider (Thiodina sylvana). Spiders make excellent subjects for the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Caterpillars are often difficult subjects to photograph well, not to mention when using a high magnification macro lens. However, this camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora sp.) posed nicely.

Lens construction
Compared to its massive counterpart from Canon, the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a narrow lens barrel that ends with a small front element. The tip of the lens is slightly conical. The lens does not have a filter thread. I am not sure why Laowa went with this design, as it may put off some people who prefer using filters and similar lens attachments. Instead the lens has a special bayonet with grooves that click and lock the front metal cap in place (for those interested – the lens tip diameter is 41mm, however externally it is closer to 43mm due to the bayonet). It is an interesting feature, and very useful in preventing the small cap from accidentally snapping off and getting lost. Here I must warn fellow photographers: The interlocking parts on the lens tip and front cap are made of plastic (whereas the rest is aluminum). If you like to tinker with and customize your gear (like me), and plan to come up with an adapter to allow the attachment of a threaded filter or hood, use extreme caution because you can damage the tiny knobs that lock the lens cap in place! The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has an 8-blade aperture, which produces nice looking bokeh compared to the hexagons coming out of the MP-E lens.

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro

The lens itself is very sharp and produces high quality images. Depth of field, sharpness, and the level of diffraction change depending on the magnification used and aperture value dialed in.
When used at its lowest magnification an aperture of f/8-f/11 gives good results and good depth of field.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 2.5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. Notice the difference in color rendition by the Laowa.

The above photos were taken under the same light conditions and camera settings, and they are unedited (except for cloning out sensor dust). I used a glittery backdrop because I wanted to emphasize specular highlights in order to show the difference in Bokeh between the two lenses. That did not work, however I discovered something else. At lower magnifications, the color rendition of the two lenses is slightly different, with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X being more “punchy” than the Canon MP-E 65mm. I am not sure what can cause such a difference, but in any case this becomes less apparent as the magnification increases.
When taking the Laowa 25mm lens to higher magnification values I mostly used it at f/4-f/5.6 to get the best results, and wide open at its highest magnification. Comparison with the Canon MP-E at 5x shows very little difference in image quality, with the Laowa lens showing slightly more sharpness at f/2.8 and f/4.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

Laowa 25mm and Canon MP-E 65mm sharpness test at 5x under identical light conditions and camera settings. The image quality is nearly identical, with the Laowa having the edge at low apertures settings.

These settings only serve as examples; it all depends on the desired end result, of course. If anyone is interested to view the high-resolution photos for pixel-peeping, I uploaded them to a Flickr album. Some people mention a higher depth of field achieved with the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X because of its shorter focal length compared to the Canon MP-E 65mm, but I will argue that because these lenses are constructed differently, this difference in DOF (if exists) is insignificant. There is a small difference in the field of view between the two lenses, but that is expected.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X has a DOF that can be a little shallow when photographing highly 3-dimensional subjects like this long-snout weevil (Hammatostylus sp.). Still, it manages to squeeze in enough detail to make the image visually pleasing.

Chromatic aberration is well controlled and barely noticeable. One thing I noticed is that depending on the angle light is coming from, lens flare can sometimes be an issue. This can make some images look washed out or hazy, so in my opinion the lens can benefit from a small dedicated hood.

"Blizzard" - These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

“Blizzard” – These scales on the hindwing of a brassolid butterfly reminded me of snowfall at night. In this case the lens flare in the image was intentional, to mimic the light reflecting from falling snow.

One of the points I heard people making against the lens was that it is unappealing in appearance (see the comments section of this post for example). I cannot understand why the external appearance of a lens is so important. If you buy a lens only to impress other people, you should take an honest look at yourself. As a photographer you should be more interested in the images you can create with it. More importantly, does the lens work and is it any good? Let’s see.

Operation
Although the operation of the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X is pretty straightforward, the lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Thanks to its white face mask, I was able to locate and photograph this spotted jumping spider (Phiale guttata) quite easily.

Shooting with a stopped-down aperture means that the viewfinder will be dark, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. However, thanks to the narrower lens barrel compared to the MP-E I found it much easier to locate the subject in the viewfinder and follow it, even at the highest magnification. This is a huge plus, especially after years of exhaustion trying to chase down subjects in the viewfinder when using the Canon MP-E.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Although extremely active and skittish, I was able to track this ant-mimicking planthopper nymph through the viewfinder while using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

It should be noted that due to its high magnification values the lens cannot be used in natural light alone, and requires a flash as an additional light source. A good focusing light is also essential if using the higher magnifications but not always necessary. Surprisingly, even though the lens extends forwards a lot as you change the magnification from 2.5x to 5x (from 83mm to 137mm, respectively), the working distance stays consistent at around 40mm. This is another huge plus compared to the MP-E, for which the working distance changes considerably while changing magnifications.

The lens is fully manual. The aperture ring is located at the end of the lens barrel, it is clicked and turns easily, perhaps a little too loosely. That is not really a problem, and when the lens is extended you do not need to reach out and look for the aperture ring in order to turn it – you can just turn the whole front lens tube to change the aperture, pretty cool! The magnification/focusing ring turns smoothly as well with adequate resistance, however one should be very observant of its behavior. If the lens is pointing down gravity can pull the weight of the lens barrel causing it to extend further on its own and change the magnification in the process. Many times when I captured frames for later focus-stacking I found that the magnification has changed between exposures.

High magnification macro in the field
One of the main difficulties at this high magnification range of the lens is to figure out what to use it for. It sometimes forces you to think outside of the box in order to find a subject that is just the right size. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit into the frame, however the lens can still offer an intimate perspective on those.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

This juvenile whip spider (Phrynus barbadensis) was exactly the right size to fit its face into the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X field of view.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

The long-nosed fulgorid planthopper nymph was too big to fit in the frame, but it made for an interesting and intimate perspective.

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Portrait of a membracid treehopper (Membracis sp.)

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Small subjects like these marching nasute termite soldiers are easy to photograph using the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother's back.

Anyone ordered a noodle salad? Just kidding, these are whip spider babies (Phrynus barbadensis) clinging to their mother’s back.

The lens' small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

The lens’ small size makes it easy to sneak up on unsuspecting critters in order to capture some action shots, like this jumping spider enjoying a freshly caught cicadellid leafhopper.

No high magnification lens review is complete without a classic shot of a butterfly wing, because it is a good method to test the lens’ sharpness.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly, coming at an angle results in a shallow depth of field.

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Closeup on the wing scales of a brassolid butterfly

Focus-stacking is not really necessary with this lens, but is a good technique for achieving a greater DOF. I almost never do “deep” frame stacks, most of the stacked images that are shown here were comprised of 2-10 frames. If you are into deep focus-stacking, I recommend checking out the test John Hallmén’s performed in his review here (in Swedish).

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

This focus-stacked image of a butterfly egg was composed of 10 frames taken at 5x magnification.

"Behind Bars" - A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

“Behind Bars” – A deep focus-stacked portrait of a whip spider (Heterophrynus armiger)

The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X lens also has potential for producing wildlife images with a more artistic style.

"Liquid Rainbow" - Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

“Liquid Rainbow” – Detail on the pronotum of a jewel beetle (Chrysochroa ephippigera)

Closeup on the eyes of a jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

Closeup on the eyes of a large jumping stick (Proscopiid grasshopper)

"Ghost Bunny" - Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

“Ghost Bunny” – Black and white silhouette of a membracid treehopper (Notocera sp.)

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Brightly colored bark lice nymphs aggregating on tree bark

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

Dramatically lit portrait of a male jumping spider (Parnaenus sp.)

One thing I regret is not being able to test this lens for snowflakes and frost photography. Even though we had some cold snowy days here in Canada, the flakes were not of the right type (needles as opposed to star-shaped) and the ambient temperature was too high for the flakes to retain their structure after hitting the ground. I believe this lens has high potential for this type of photography, especially when taking into account its excellent optics and overall size. It should be easier to photograph snowflakes with this lens compared to other lenses.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Lightweight, small size for a high-magnification macro lens
– Highest magnification lens available for non-Canon users
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Consistent working distance
– Narrow lens barrel makes it easy to find and track subject
– Affordable

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control
– No filter thread (but still customizable with caution)
– Dark viewfinder when closing aperture makes focusing difficult in poor light conditions
– Magnification range is short 2.5-5x compared to the competition

The key question is who is this lens for? First and foremost, this lens is for any non-Canon user who is interested in high magnification macrophotography. Aside from a Canon EF mount, the lens comes in Nikon N, Sony FE, and Pantax K mounts, making it accessible for a wide range of users. But I would also recommend it for Canon users who are not yet invested in the high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. The Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro is a smaller and lightweight alternative for the MP-E lens, and in some situations it is easier to use. With its superb optics the Laowa lens packs a lot for its value, and with a price tag of USD$399 it is very affordable, especially when you cannot shell out USD$1050 for the Canon MP-E lens. On the other hand, the MP-E lens offers auto aperture control and a larger magnification range. Regardless of the brand, there is no doubt that it takes time and experimentation to get used to a high magnification macro lens. However, I would argue that the investment is well worth it, because it opens a whole new world of possibilities for macrophotography. When using it, you will see even the most boring subjects in a new light.

You can buy the Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra Macro lens on Venus Optics Laowa’s website here.




A Moment of Creativity: Unwanted Neighbours

It has been a while since I started photographing for Meet Your Neighbours global biodiversity photography project, and throughout the years I have assembled a collection of some fantastic beasts (along with the information where to find them). But early on I had the idea of creating another collection of photos, a spinoff to the original MYN concept, bringing together neighbours that we often do not want to meet, or the way I refer to them: Unwanted Neighbours.

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Human flea (pulex irritans). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Unwanted Neighbours include household pests, biting and blood-sucking arthropods, disease vectors, venomous animals, parasites, and the like. Most of the photos can be found in my original MYN gallery, and it is only natural that this new collection will be smaller in size. Nevertheless it can be used as a reference for animals with any negative significance to humans, whether it is medical or economical. For example, brown recluse spiders are known for their potency, but are often misidentified. There are very helpful initiatives out there to help and fight the misinformation, like Recluse or Not. I decided that detailed high-quality photos of the spiders can help clarify doubts about their physical appearance.

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Brown recluse spider (Loxosceles sp.), dorsal view

Black widow spiders also suffer the same public treatment as brown recluses, for no good reason. Sure, they are venomous, but they do not tend to bite unless they have to, even if you poke them.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Mediterranean black widow spider (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) from Israel. Widow spiders are shy and usually keep to themselves.

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus)

This is not a gallery of “bad” animals. Despite their bad reputation, it is important to mention that there is no such thing as “bad” in nature. Many of these species are not even out to get us (excluding blood-feeders and parasites). Every creature has its rightful place on this planet. I was carful not to include just about any species that possesses venom, or incidental biters. Many times a bad interaction with an animal is our own fault. I am trying to avoid pointing fingers and propagating hatred towards nature, because in most cases these animals are doing exactly what they are supposed to, and we are just in their way. For this reason the representation of household pests, like ants, termites, wasps, and cockroaches will be kept to the minimum.

Everyone's favorite nightmare parasite - the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Everyone’s favorite nightmare parasite – the human botfly (Dermatobia hominis). Although unpleasant, in reality they are not so bad.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

Telson and stinger of black fat–tailed scorpion (Androctonus bicolor). Scorpions will always try to avoid an encounter with a human.

At this point in time the Unwanted Neighbours page is still being constructed, but I expect it to stay relatively small in size. This is because most critters out there are harmless to us, and even those that have the potential to harm us, usually don’t. It is all about impact significance.




Why I rejected your request for free photos

This post is dedicated to all the people who have completely lost their sense of common decency.

I have a destructive humbleness that most people do not understand (myself included). I do not have a Patreon page, I do not run ads on this website, I have never asked for donations*. However, for some reason I get the feeling that this leads people to believe I do everything for free. This could not be further from the truth. You want to use my work? Great! How about you pay me for it? No? Of course not, what was I thinking. I’m sorry.

I don’t know how I can make this easier to understand: asking a professional (any professional – not only photographers) for free work is disrespectful, rude, and insulting. You do not want to be that person. Also, let’s make one thing clear, people: unless we have an agreement in place, you don’t get to decide for me how to use my photos.

This reminds me of my first PhD supervisor, who said that giving photos away was the “humane” thing to do. Ok. Explain to me how giving up your copyright is considered humane. After all, I don’t see authors putting their texts on the public domain for humanity to enjoy or adapt without expecting some sort of payment. Don’t get me wrong. I do like to put myself out there for the right cause, by volunteering or providing imagery free of charge. However, I feel that more and more entities are trying to take advantage of my good will, almost as if it became a trend. Some of you might not know, but I am completely self-funded as of last year (cough* Know a project/position I can fit in? Want me to give a presentation for your group? Let me know!). This lifestyle is not for the faint of heart, and it is often ridden with periods of anxiety and frustration. In any case, when too many people ask me to give away free stuff, how do you expect me to buy food? Pay for the roof above my head?
“Well, how about you get a real job?”, you might ask.
Fair enough. But you know what turns the content I create into a paid job? The fact that someone wants to use it. Maybe you do not like viewing photography, entomology, or science communication as a job, in that case I cannot help you. A lot has been said and written about working for free (here’s an excellent post for example, and here’s an analysis why professional photographers cannot work for free), I even wrote about this issue in the past. Needless to say, nowadays I almost never give photos for free. One thing I learned in this business is that there will always be some people who will hate you. Whether it is because you refuse to give photos for free, or because your rates are too high, or maybe because they are jealous of your work. I am not even counting people who just hate insects, yet still bother to comment on their photos instead of looking away. Whatever it may be, it is impossible to satisfy everyone, so I do not try. People are judgmental. I recall one interesting incident in which a stranger commented on a friend’s post, calling me “just an annoying photographer”. I reached out to them and asked if we knew each other, and why they think so. We ended up chatting for some time and eventually I think they realized that I am really not that bad of a person. I still think that from time to time, it is important to make a contribution to a cause you support (more on that later). However, when someone takes advantage of your generosity and tries to make a personal gain from it – run home! And don’t stop until you get there.

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn't you?

All these publishers paid for the rights to use my photos. So why shouldn’t you?

I must say, if you got a negative response to your request, be respectful. Whether I choose to give something for charity is entirely up to me, not the person requesting the image. I go over the photos and the intended use, and analyze each case by its characteristics. If I decide to reject it, it is not personal; it means that I just could not see how it fits my mission. Another reason for a refusal is when I do not see how the use can promote me further as a photographer. In any case, if your request was refused please do not start throwing insults. That’s not going to win you any fans, and will definitely not get you the photo for use free of charge, not this time and not the next time around. Also, if you inquire about free images and you also receive a paycheck for doing this, there is a 100% chance that I will refuse to give photos for free. Allow me to demonstrate by using typical examples for this behavior.

Case #1 – The Networking Card

A person who I do not know contacts me to request a photo for their upcoming publication. It is a small production, a personal project. There is a section in the book describing a rare phenomenon or a rarely encountered species, and my photos are perfect to illustrate said subject. Alas, there is no budget for photographs.
In this case I reject the request on the basis that anything rarely documented has its own value. Examples for such subjects are Epomis beetles, swarming locusts, tusked weta, adult botflies etc’. All these subjects took a substantial investment of time, money, and physical preparation to get the final shot. Giving those photographs away free of charge devalues my personal investment, and makes it harder to charge normal fees for use of similar photos later. It would also be unfair towards those who have already paid a licensing fee to use the photos.
To my understanding, some people do this to “test the waters” and see if the photographer is someone worthy of working with abusing in the future. In one specific case, when I rejected the request I got this reply: “Good luck making a living with the images, you have some nice shots, and publishing does not pay well…. I have for instance plenty of pictures of the ****. I just thought it might be a nice connection.”
Oh, really? So you just wanted to make acquaintances? How very nice of you. How about you start respecting someone’s work and time instead of expecting to get free stuff.

Case #2 – The Exposure Card

Many of us in the creative scene have been there: photographers, artists, illustrators, and designers. Someone from a highly reputable institution contacts to request free work in return for exposure to the creator.
Here’s the thing. You claim that by sharing my work I will gain exposure. Correct me if I am wrong, but you contacted me to ask about using my work. It seems to me that my name is already out there; I do not need any further exposure. Why don’t you take a minute to think about it and get back to me, hopefully with a budget next time.

Case #3 – The Unintentional Infringement Card

This case is a little different because it starts with a copyright infringement. A user uses my photo as a thumbnail for their video/article/social media profile. Since this use is without permission, I take it down as a copyright infringement. The user contacts me and requests to undo the DMCA take down, so they can have their original post back online. I explain that take downs are being recorded, and the only way to reverse one is to comply with the conditions of use, in other words – licensing the photo. I also add that putting my photo as the thumbnail encourages people to click the post when being shared on social media, therefore my photo directly promotes the post. I suggest to the user the fair solution of reuploading their post minus my photo. Then hell breaks loose and I am being accused of greed, trying to extort money and what not.
I wish to clarify two things:
1) A DMCA take down is not an attempt to extort payment via licensing fees. It is what it is – regaining control over a copyrighted image that has been used inappropriately or without prior permission.
2) Professional and polite communication is key in addressing cases of copyright infringements, as well as any image use inquiries. It is crucial to be clear, concise, but still provide all the relevant details. I have often been accused of having a “patronizing/condescending tone” by infringers. I can understand how polite speech can seem this way when explaining to someone their unauthorized use of intellectual property. If you cannot communicate in a civilized manner, you are not helping to solve the issue.
I will mention one specific instance here, in which someone used my photo on their personal page on social media. When I called them out on it, I got this amazing reply (see closing paragraph):

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Way to go on winning an argument. No better way to get me to block you than diverting from the main topic of discussion into accusatory politics.

Case #4 – The “you owe me” Card

A person who I know requests photos for commercial use (and that’s important) free of charge. They also inform me that they do not intend to credit me as the photographer, sign a licensing agreement detailing the specific use, or pay anything for the use. Every time I confront this, I think I misheard. You said no credit, no licensing agreement, AND no pay? So absolutely nothing in return? Truly an offer I cannot refuse.
I refuse.
Then I receive the classic response of “Well I didn’t need those photos anyway, I just gave you the chance to be human again” (see case #1). First of all, thank you for giving me that chance to prove myself! Highly appreciated. But let me ask you – What did you think was gonna happen? You think just because we know each other you can take my work and do with it as you please? I don’t think so. That ain’t how it works around here. And if you did not really need the photos, why did you waste my time?

It's not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It’s not just about photos of insects, by the way. Several instances include requests for free photos of landscapes, portraits, and even commercial products (in the photo: pendant designed by Mio Konfedrat)

It is not all bad

I understand that some of these examples can paint me as a jerk, someone who never makes a personal contribution towards others in need. I therefore want to point out that occasionally I do allow the use of my photos with little or no return (the bare minimum is a copy of the publication though). I was recently contacted by a friend who requested photos for an upcoming book about arachnids in Israel. Since there was no budget for it, I would normally reject the request. However, in this case the two authors are responsible for my professional background: one served as my mentor and guide to the wonders of the natural world when I was a kid, the other taught me entomology at university. It is thanks to their amazing nurturing that I am who I am today. In addition, I see the importance of publishing a popular book about arachnids in Israel as something that can spread the knowledge and promote appreciation of this often-mistreated arthropod group. The authors offered a signed copy of the book when published, which I see as a valuable return. I was happy to respond positively to this request for photos, and I hope the new book will be well-received.


* A recent discussion I had with several friends made me realize that people often want to help, and that I should not stop them from doing so. After much thinking, I have decided to add a PayPal.me donation link to this website, located on the sidebar to the right (or bottom of the page in the mobile version). If you find the content I post on this website interesting and wish to show your support by giving something in return, please consider donating. Think of it as buying me a hot cocoa to keep me fuelled!




2017 in review: …wait, what was the question?

At last, this year is coming to an end. I really wanted to end this year with a rant post, because for me 2017 was downright just awful. Don’t worry, that rant is coming. It will join similar posts like this one and this one. I’m just waiting for the right timing. This post has a more personal tone to it compared to my usual texts, and I apologize for anyone following my through my RSS feed – if you are expecting insects or wildlife photos in this one, skip it.

To say that I haven’t felt productive this year would be an understatement. I am still recovering from last year’s depression, and while things have improved a lot, having no one close to talk to and nothing to keep me occupied (and yeah, poverty too) only perpetuated my dreadful condition. I did not feel inspired or motivated enough to produce new photographs, even though we had a beautiful summer this year. You know those days you have to force yourself out of the house to feel more alive? I could barely bring myself to do that. One thing I did try was to keep this blog active, which is why you saw some kind of a posting spree going on here. Among my personal highlights were launching a series of posts that combine a few of my interests, my first detailed lens review as well as my first gear-bashing, and two opinion pieces (here and here) that became very popular with readers. Statistically speaking, during 2017 I posted more articles on the blog than ever before, and you know what? I still have many planned posts waiting their turn. I guess this is a good thing.

I wonder if one day I will be brave enough to share an honest account of everything I have gone through in the last year and a half. I am actually amazed that I managed to keep a calm tone in my posts this year. Especially because in today’s blogosphere (or whatever is left of it) it is all about excitement and surprises. Here’s a fun exercise for you: open a random blog and count how many exclamation marks appear on the most recent post. I know, right? Why is everyone talking loudly all of a sudden? Calm down and breathe, you guys.

This year, along with some presentations and public events, I also managed to publish two natural history notes. I need to do this more often. Not only because I enjoy it, but also because natural history data rarely gets published at all, “It is not interesting enough to justify a publication”. These are not my own words, but a response I got from a journal editor, believe it or not. What a shame, and a waste for anyone thirsting for knowledge. Working scientists need access to natural history information too. The funny thing is that every time I publish a scientific paper I get indirect comments from people asking, ‘What’s up with this guy? He’s no longer in academia, why is he still wasting his time and energy publishing research papers? He’s getting nothing from it!’
This might be true to some extent, but here is the way I see it: different people have different goals in life. Some want to become rich or famous. Others want a career working for a big company. For me, it was never about those things.

I might have failed in some aspects of my life. However, the most important thing for me is to leave something of myself behind, a legacy of some sort. This is why I try to infect others with my enthusiasm for insects, arachnids, and other small animals. This is why I still publish whatever knowledge I think can be useful to someone else at some point in the future. For me, leaving something valuable behind is the very essence of success. Too bad the habit of doing so at self-expense will drag me to the grave.

As I am sitting here waiting for my impending homelessness (oh, and it’s coming alright), I am also struck with an urge to share more knowledge and initiate more projects. Not sure how long I can do this at my current state, but hey, whatever I put out there will stay long after I’m gone.

Sayonara, 2017. Adios. Au revoir. Ciao.
Here’s to a more productive 2018.

Season's Greetings

Season’s Greetings