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Photographing Uncooperative Insects: The Time-Out Trick

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


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And now, the technique I find most useful in the studio for calming an overly active insect. I call it the time-out trick. It goes like this:

Place the insect on a flat surface, confine it with an upside-down petri dish (you can buy them here) or a small glass, and wait. In a pinch, a lens cap will do. Most insects will spend some time running about exploring, but they eventually settle.

The time it takes an angry insect to calm can vary from a few minutes to several hours. The most troublesome insects- usually ants- I may leave overnight. If you are lucky, or if you have cleverly coated the sides of the dish with fluon, your subject will have come to rest on the substrate rather than on the inside of the dish.

Arthropterus sp. - Australia

Once the insect is still, let it sit for another five or ten minutes. Then remove the dish slowly, being careful not to breathe on the subject. Once calm, an insect frequently remains still. You may fire away. Or, if the animal senses a change in the air currents, it might perk up again and start running.

Perhaps surprisingly, I prefer the perk-and-run. The fleeting transition from resting to running often catches the insect at her most photogenic, body off the ground, antennae raised, and still sitting in the focal plane.

Pachycondyla striata, Brazil.

This is not just a life-like pose. It is an alive pose. Chilled insects will not do this.

As for all such methods, the time-out trick works better on some species than for others. I find it particularly useful for ants, spiders, and beetles, species that do not fly or take a few obvious seconds to prepare for flight. The more acrobatic fliers, like true flies, may disappear the instant the petri dish is lifted, never to be found again. Also, as the time-out method requires a flat surface to prevent escape, I have not found it easy to use in the field.

Still, the time-out trick is my most reliable studio method for working with frustratingly active insects. I’d not recommend it for humans, though.


Previously in the uncooperative insect series:

 

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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