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Thrifty Thursday: James Waters’s iPhone Ants

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Thrifty Thursdays feature photographs taken with equipment costing less than $500.
This week’s Thrifty Thursday is the first to share images taken by a photographer other than myself. James Waters attached a $20 Photojojo macro lens to his iPhone, pointed the DIY assemblage at ants in his Arizona State University laboratory, and produced a hipster’s selection of Instagramed insect portraits.

Waters’s images suffer from the usual impairments of a cheap lens, unsurprisingly. They are soft with considerable chromatic aberrations around the edges.  But such softness is not necessarily a drawback, as the vignetting emphasizes the subject at center and makes for a pleasing overall composition. Plus, the small size of the Photodojo lens adds a wide angle, bug’s eye perspective particularly suited to insect photos.

Most importantly, Waters’s images capture key aspects of the biology of the subjects: the seed-eating habits of the Messor harvester ants (top), the delicate interactions of worker and queen Pogonomyrmex (bottom). These images work just fine for a conference talk. Or, hung on the wall of the local coffee shop. Not bad for a cell phone camera.

[more photos here]

Incidentally, I predict that 2 years from now we’re all going to wake up from our Instagram-induced stupor and wonder just what the hell we were thinking. They’re just so mainstream.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is an Illinois-based entomologist who studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books, and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. snofoam 7:07 pm 07/21/2011

    I like the photos. Like last week’s post, it seems like here there’s enough control over the environment to facilitate being able lots of photos, use backgrounds that offer high contrast, etc. But, why not? If you’re already limited by the equipment, you might as well leverage the environment to your benefit.

    Regarding Instagram and the like, I think combining post-processing tools and a camera into the same device was a revelation, so I don’t think it’s so surprising that it became so popular so fast. (In reality, lots of cameras have post-processing features, but I think very few people ever used them until it was made super easy, more powerful and less sucky.) I don’t think the concept is going to go away any time soon.

    On the other hand, lens quality and processing power on mobile devices will probably continue to improve. I think advances in these areas will change how people post-process images on mobile devices. There will be more options, and less emphasis on just making low-quality photos look vintage.

    Link to this
  2. 2. notscientific 8:50 pm 07/21/2011

    Your prediction is spot-on.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Alex Wild 2:53 pm 07/22/2011

    Totally agree, snofoam. The photo-sharing technology bit in IG is great. It’s just that filter overuse reminds of music in the 1980′s. Just because electronic effects are available doesn’t mean using them all the time is a good idea.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jameswaters 5:12 pm 07/25/2011

    Thanks for the post Alex! FYI, the first four P. californicus photos were non-filtered.

    Link to this
  5. 5. jameswaters 5:18 pm 07/25/2011

    oh, and those 4 are some of my personal favorites, so it seems I agree with you all about the potential for filter overuse.

    Link to this

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