Compound Eye

Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Recipe For A Photograph #4: The Emerging Mosquito


A female Aedes aegypti yellow fever mosquito ecloses from her underwater pupa. Laboratory culture at Rockefeller University.

Here is a powerful method to photograph the world's most dangerous animal in an unusual moment of vulnerability.

But first, a digression into mosquito biology.

Mosquitoes lead a starkly different existence between their early days and their adult lives, spending their youth in the water and their adulthood in the air. The transition occurs when the maturing insect sheds its last immature casing in the water and exits upwards through a small opening to the atmosphere, literally leaving its old skin beneath the surface. The process is not only fascinating to watch, but it occurs in the unusually photogenic microenvironment of the air/water boundary. With its watery reflections and its simplicity, the scene is a photographer's delight.


Several mosquito pupae ready to emerge; the more the better

1 low, flat dish

1 taller dish filled with water to the point of overflowing

2 strobes on stands with wireless or remote triggering

2 softbox flash diffusers

1 sheet of colored paper

1 set of forceps

1 glass of water for re-topping

1 dSLR with macro lens

Set the taller dish into the shorter one so as to contain the inevitable spills from your watery set. Fill the inner dish to the brim. The water should emerge above the top, nearly overflowing, so that a side view of the mosquito is unobstructed by the container.

Set the strobes to the sides of the stage, facing inward, and place a colored backdrop behind. The distance will determine the relative brightness of the background.

Set the flash power and lens aperture to the desired brightness and depth of field, and when ready, add the mature pupae to the dish. You may need to devote several hours to waiting for emergence to begin. Patience is a virtue! The more pupae you have available, the shorter your wait will be.

When emergence starts, use the forceps to arrange the animal in the dish so that the subject mosquito is clear of the other pupae. For best results, you will want to lower yourself to just above the water level. You will want to be looking *up* at the mosquito as it towers above the surface. If in doubt, you are probably not low enough.

I recently used this recipe to create a set of images in Leslie Vosshall's neurobiology lab at Rockefeller University. We employed a couple hundred mosquito pupae and an extremely patient graduate student, Emily Dennis, who kept an eye on the maturing pupae over the course of a day.


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

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