In an age where insect photographers seem engaged in an arms race to produce the sharpest, most detailed, and most magnified images, Rick Lieder of Bug Dreams stands against the crowd as a uniquely impressionistic artist. His masterful use of natural light and composition makes his work instantly recognizable, and I've been dying to talk with him. Here is our interview from earlier this month.
I'd love to hear how you started. Did photography bring you to natural history, or the other way round? And, were you ever a film photographer?
I originally wanted to be an astrophysicist; I was an amateur astronomer, built my own telescope, etc. In college I shifted more to chemistry, biochemistry and microbiology, and even worked for a short time as a plating chemist.
But I was becoming more interested in art, started meeting other artists and writers, and after buying an SLR I was soon working as a photojournalist. I worked on a daily newspaper for several years, covering every subject imaginable before going out on my own, doing environmental portraiture, for magazines, brochures and annual reports. I also specialized in photographing lasers and robots, and would often carry several hundred pounds of lighting equipment, setting up multiple flashes in in corporate and industrial settings.
During this time I was also painting, and eventually started working mostly as an illustrator, combining photography, painting and digital. I bought my first computer in 1986, just to make art, long before Photoshop, and sold my first book cover a few months later. I’ve done art and design for all major New York publishers, ranging from mysteries and science fiction, to books based on the X-Files TV series, to Newbery Award-winning books for children.
I’ve always been interested in animals and natural history, and I made quite a few nice wildlife images over the years, but I didn’t decide to concentrate on it until I worked out the technical details and felt I could bring something new to it.
I used film for several decades (35mm, medium and large format), spent thousands of hours in darkrooms (building three of them) and printed color and B&W up to 16” x 20”, sometimes using multiple enlargers on one print. I switched to digital in 2000 and don’t miss film. The tools we have available to us now have never been better.
I am curious about the image from the cover of Bee Dreams. Could you explain the process that went into that image, and the equipment you used?
That foraging bumblebee was from my first year photographing bees. Learning to photograph bees in flight was difficult, I made many bad images, especially since I didn’t want to use flash.
This was taken in a friends backyard, during a small party near the Huron River. It was nearing sunset and I saw several honey bees and bumblebees working an aster bush. I couldn’t use a tripod, so I just tried to make a good composition, keeping in mind the background in every image. I was using a Canon Rebel DSLR with a Tamron 90mm macro lens. I made only a half dozen good images in an hour or so, before I lost the sun completely, but it convinced me that if I tried harder and put in more time, I could make it work.
If you were forced to sell all your lenses but one, which would you keep?
That’s a hard one. I use different lenses, even different cameras, for the different types of photography I do, from people to insects and birds.
Let’s say the Tamron 90 macro. It's a good all-around portrait lens and could be used for most of my insect work. I've even used it for some of my birds in flight photos.
Do you usually have a particular image in mind when you head into the field with your gear? Or are you open to shooting what you find?
It has to be fun. The most fun for me, whether I’m painting or making a photograph, is to start with no preconceived idea, use chance to my advantage, and find or make an image I haven’t seen before. So I’m really hoping to find something new in the field. And the field is often my backyard.
If I have a style, part of it is that the background is as important as the subject. If I don’t have a good background, I usually don’t make an image. I think of myself like a stage director or set designer, I’m creating a stage and waiting for something to happen within it.
I also make much of my equipment beyond the camera and lenses, especially camera supports. My gear can look rather unattractive. I’m always tinkering, coming up with Rube Goldberg-like solutions to technical problems. I like to be right at ground level for many of my images, and there is no perfect tripod for that. And since I don’t use flash, I have many lighting problems to overcome. I’m interested in how light refracts and reflects around my subject, and try to take advantage of optical oddities. I use many flashlights, LEDs, mirrors, reflectors and diffusers. I’ve even made several robot fireflies.
I not against using flash, I’m using fill flash a bit now with birds in flight. And from someone like you, Alex, who knows how to use multiple flashes and takes the time to do it well, the results using flash can be fantastic.
But I spent so much time doing commercial photography with heavy lighting equipment, using large, multiple flashes, spending hours fine-tuning the light, that I decided to simplify my technique and work with available light as much as possible. I like the challenge of using existing light and trying to shape it to my needs.
I understand you are a beekeeper, too. Did you start with bees specifically for photography?
Over the years I’ve met many beekeepers, and I go to several local bee conferences, for fun and to learn more about beekeeping. My hive is from a local beekeeping expert, who keeps many hives around the Detroit area. I love having them, and it’s much easier now since I don’t have to leave my yard to find honey bees. In the past I spent many hours traveling to distant hives. We also have many solitary bees and bumblebees. We try to keep a diverse habitat in our yard.
Much of the bug photo community is racing towards ever more detailed high-magnification focus-stacks, while your work stands out for quite the opposite, with its characteristic dreamy quality. Are you ever tempted to mount your gear on a macro rail and follow the crowd?
I do sometimes combine exposures to solve depth of field problems, but I’ve never used software to make focus stacks. I used focusing rails and other kinds of macro equipment in my film days. Part of the problem now is that I don’t control my images enough to have the consistency between exposures required to make focus stacking work.
I also won’t kill any creature, or slow it by cooling it down. So this limits my options, but for me the more limits I have can sometimes make me think harder, and search for unorthodox solutions. And I’m an experimenter by nature.
I realize most of the macro world wants more detail, but for me more detail doesn’t make for a better image. I’m an artist first, and I want to make an emotional connection with each image. I’m caught between CP Snow’s two cultures: my wildlife work is often too artistic for macro enthusiasts and scientists, but there’s too much natural history for artists and gallerists.
I’m spending more time now on book projects, many of them picture books, where I can concentrate my vision and style on a specific subject or species. My next book will be on birds in flight, which has been very challenging.