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Freezing Insects To Slow Them Makes Terrible Photographs

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


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I often find myself in discussions over how to photograph uncooperative insects, and these invariably descend into the technique of slowing the animals by chilling. I don’t approve.

Having fridged a lot of insects in the line of nature photography, my experience with chilling is largely negative. Insects out of the freezer just look… bad.

Compare the following two images, one ambient, one chilled.

This photograph of an active Leptogenys huntress ant required patience and several attempts, but the ant at room temperature is alive, realistic, even perky.

A chilled nestmate, in comparison, is anything but perky.

Chilled insects do not behave normally. Legs and antennae contort into morbid positions, and even if chilling is mild the appendages cool before the body, leading the insect to shuffle and stumble about like a little freezer zombie. People familiar with insects can tell the difference between natural positions and freezer zombies.

Insects cooled artificially show other problems, too. A cold subject in a warm, humid room will bead up with water just as quickly as a soda can on a summer day. Not only will the animal’s posture go off, condensation on the skin will reveal the trick to anyone who looks closely. And people who like insect photographs are the sort of people who look closely at fine details. They will know.

Still at last, but time in the fridge leaves this ant in an uninteresting, dormant pose. The telltale condensation on the body reveals the cooling.

Although chilling a live insect may seem a tempting shortcut, in most cases you are better off using other, patience-based techniques, some of which I will blog presently.

 

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. Sean McCann 10:32 am 03/1/2014

    I have used chilling to document some really rare (to me) insects, but have seldom been pleased with the results. The best chilled insect shots I get are of naturally chilled/quiescent insects, such as sleeping insects at early morning or dusk.

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