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Compound Eye

The many facets of science photography

Social Insect Photography Tip: Emphasize the Individual

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Myrmecocystus tenuinodis - honeypot ant at the nest entrance (California)

As you know, I photograph ants. Lots of them. There's good reason for this, aside from my formal training as an ant biologist. Ants and other social insects make fascinating subjects. Their social habits parallel our own enough, perhaps, to allow us the illusion of relating to the insects. In ants, we see a little bit of ourselves.

Yet photographing arthropods as societies carries the same aesthetic challenges as photographing crowds of people. A sea of bodies can look like just so much soup, a messy tangle of detail without any salient features to grab our interest. Consider a clump of fire ants:

Solenopsis invicta - red imported fire ants (Texas)

Is the viewer supposed to see anything in particular? I'm not sure. It's just a mess of fire ants.

Contrast the fire ant slurry to another image of a related species, a southern thief ant:

Solenopsis carolinensis - thief ants (Florida)

Here, a single individual (at center left; I shouldn't have to point her out!) emerges in color and definition from her sisters. I find this image considerably more accessible.

This leads me to one of my photographic axioms: Follow a single individual even when composing images of large groups.

Sometimes, a candidate stands out on its own, as in these desert termites:

Nasute termites (Arizona)

Other times, the key individual is perhaps more subtle, but separable based on color and position. For me, the yellow bee facing upward at center left is the anchor of this image:

Honey bees on a comb of ripe honey (Illinois)

Sometimes, choosing the key individual is a matter of focus:

Eciton hamatum - army ants (Ecuador)

I had already been photographing ants for several years before I realized I was subconsciously composing images this way. Paradoxically, it seems to work. An effective strategy to photograph sociality is to emphasize the individuality of the constituents.

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

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