Light is almost everything! This observation should not be surprising, as what is photography other than the capture and recording of photons? Likewise, experimentation with light is perhaps the most important practice for aspiring photographers in any field.
I developed the following experimental series for the BugShot insect photography workshop to demonstrate how light source, intensity, and direction impact the character of the resulting image. In my own photography, I do a great deal of 3 and 6, and am starting to do more 4.
1. The sawfly in ambient light: no flash, no lamps. The color is a complex mixed blue/green/white because ambient environments contain varied light sources. The insect's antennae are blurred as they moved during the relatively long exposure. While this photo is close to what our eye sees in life, ambient light doesn't always record well in photographs.
2. We can eliminate motion blur by using flash mounted on the camera. The strobe freezes the action and overwhelms ambient light using an artificial source with a consistent color.
3. The harsh flash in the previous photo (2) can be softened by placing a large diffusion sheet between the strobe and the subject. The point light sources then become soft white sheets, mimicking the effect of a cloudy day. The settings here are otherwise identical to the preceding shot. Diffusion strongly changes the character of the image.
4. Pointing the flash at the background instead of the subject results in a dramatic silhouette. In my opinion, silhouettes are underused in insect photography.
5. Aiming the background flash forward, at the subject instead of the backdrop, adds a kick to the silhouette.
6. This final photo combines the lighting from 3 & 5. One flash provides a diffuse foreground fill, bringing out details on the near side of the insect, while a second flash behind the subject provides backlighting.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he 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.