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Recipe for a photograph #3: Pollinators in Flight

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

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A honey bee pollinating common milkweed. Note the yellow pollinia hanging from the bee's legs.

In this post I explain how to take a lurid sex photograph.

Or specifically, a lurid photograph of plant sex. Pollination makes a fascinating photographic subject. Hundreds of thousands of plant and animal species participate in nearly endless permutations of the phenomenon. Plants bribe animals with floral rewards, animals show up to imbibe, and you’ll want to be there with your camera to catch the action.


1 flowering plant at an accesible height, with pollinating insects present
1 tripod
2 Manfrotto Magic Arms
2 strobes with remote triggers
2 softbox flash diffusers
1 dSLR with macro or fisheye lens

Locate a flowering plant with plenty of insect activity. In early summer, milkweed is an ideal candidate. Milkweed’s showy flowers attract colorful insects, and the blooms are conveniently near eye level. By late summer and autumn, goldenrods and other asters will be at the center of the action.

Note the direction of the sun. Set up a tripod on the shaded side of the plant. By facing into the sun, the subject will be pleasingly backlit. Our strategy is to use flash to bring the foreground light up to balance the natural backlighting.

Mount the magic arms to the central support and position the strobes inwards and downwards towards the flowers. Place the softbox diffusers on the strobes and reposition as needed, leaving a space wide enough between them to insert a camera.

When assembled, your field studio should look like this:

The field studio is two diffuse strobes mounted on a tripod.

With the studio in place, we need to figure out the optimal balance of ambient background light to artificial strobe light. We start with metering for ambient light, since sunlight cannot easily be adjusted.

Stand on the shaded side of the plant, behind the field studio, and point your lens between the diffusers. Adjust your camera settings so that the background, without the strobes, is visible but slightly underexposed. You’ll want to use an aperture of at least f/11 for significant depth of field; this may mean using a slower shutter speed and a higher ISO to compensate.

Next, take a test shot with the strobes on. If needed, manually turn the strobes up or down. An acceptable balance between ambient sunlight and the strobes might look like this:

Taken with Sigma's 10mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM Fisheye Lens.

The most difficult part is waiting. A shot of an insect in flight takes patience and timing, even more so when the presence of a field studio around the flower dissuades some of the more distrustful insects. I took about 300 exposures in 2 hours to net a few with flying bees in focus.

The top photo was taken with a fisheye, but this technique works with a variety of lenses. Extremely wide lenses allow a bee near the lens to be magnified dramatically while the meadow, sky, and background trees are still present in the frame. Long lenses confer a more distant perspective. The photo below was taken on the same flower, with the same lighting, but using a 100mm lens:

Taken with Canon's 100mm f/2.8 macro. Natural sunlight dapples the forested background and gives the leaves a warm green. The strobes freeze the bee in place and provide some fill light on the flower.

Once you’ve got a selection of photographs, post-process to taste.


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. TheHymenopteran 6:04 pm 07/1/2013

    These kinds of posts are very helpful so please keep putting them out :) Thank you Alex.

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  2. 2. Alex Wild in reply to Alex Wild 9:01 pm 07/1/2013

    Thanks! I appreciate the feedback. If there are any particular images you’d like me to cover, let me know.

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  3. 3. sciencecomedian 9:44 pm 07/1/2013

    Thanks for this post, Alex! Great info. Also, it makes me feel much better to know you took 300 exposures in two hours to get the shot you wanted.

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