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Social Insect Photography Tip: Emphasize the Individual

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

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Myrmecocystus tenuinodis - honeypot ant at the nest entrance (California)

As you know, I photograph ants. Lots of them. There’s good reason for this, aside from my formal training as an ant biologist. Ants and other social insects make fascinating subjects. Their social habits parallel our own enough, perhaps, to allow us the illusion of relating to the insects. In ants, we see a little bit of ourselves.

Yet photographing arthropods as societies carries the same aesthetic challenges as photographing crowds of people. A sea of bodies can look like just so much soup, a messy tangle of detail without any salient features to grab our interest. Consider a clump of fire ants:

Solenopsis invicta - red imported fire ants (Texas)

Is the viewer supposed to see anything in particular? I’m not sure. It’s just a mess of fire ants.

Contrast the fire ant slurry to another image of a related species, a southern thief ant:

Solenopsis carolinensis - thief ants (Florida)

Here, a single individual (at center left; I shouldn’t have to point her out!) emerges in color and definition from her sisters. I find this image considerably more accessible.

This leads me to one of my photographic axioms: Follow a single individual even when composing images of  large groups.

Sometimes, a candidate stands out on its own, as in these desert termites:

Nasute termites (Arizona)

Other times, the key individual is perhaps more subtle, but separable based on color and position. For me, the yellow bee facing upward at center left is the anchor of this image:

Honey bees on a comb of ripe honey (Illinois)

Sometimes, choosing the key individual is a matter of focus:

Eciton hamatum - army ants (Ecuador)

I had already been photographing ants for several years before I realized I was subconsciously composing images this way. Paradoxically, it seems to work. An effective strategy to photograph sociality is to emphasize the individuality of the constituents.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he 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. Sean McCann 6:00 pm 04/18/2013

    Great idea! But how would you photograph an army ant bivouac?
    Mine always look like gigantic clumps of ants!

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  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 6:19 pm 04/18/2013

    Mine have that same problem, Sean. Perhaps the secret is to convince a myrmecologist to stick their finger into it. That’d certainly provide a… um… point of interest.

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  3. 3. HBG_Dave 5:14 am 04/21/2013

    I’ve always wondered why I like your photographs even though my personal theme has always been maximum sharp focus (not that I get it very often) and I tend to consider any blurring as a flaw. I think it must be because your compositions use the range of focal resolutions to draw the eye into the focal target. I suppose this comes out of standard compositional theory, but you certainly know how to make theory work.

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