Yesterday I set up the insect photography rig, and made my first serious insect shooting trip of the season. May is still a chilly time of year in Michigan, and even though a sunny afternoon can be downright balmy, it’s not uncommon to have frosts or even hard freezes, especially early in the month. This tends to hold the insect population at bay, but a few hardy insects still manage to venture forth during this time of year. I decided to visit the Allegan Forest for this trip. This is a big (80 square miles) sprawling natural area, set aside and managed primarily for hunting. It features an interesting mix of woodlands, oak savannas, open fields, water and wetlands. The habitat diversity, along with the sheer size of the area, offers a lot of opportunities for tracking down interesting insects.
There are roughly a dozen areas that I visit, depending on the weather and time of year. For this trip I worked mostly areas near Swan Creek. I usually view the first few insect photography outings of the year as a sort of ‘spring training’ – a chance to get back in the groove and into practice. Insect photography can be extremely physically demanding. Positioning the camera and monopod low to the ground, in order to shoot upwards a bit in hopes of a clean background, means that you are constantly dropping to the ground (laying on the ground often) and then jumping back up on foot to chase the ever moving subject. Jumping up and down, crawling through fields to catch-up with the insect a few feet off, and moving quickly to frame up the shot and control exposure, makes for a fun but demanding afternoon. When I’m shooting insects, I try to get strong aesthetic shots, images that are really compelling and interesting at a design level.
But I also take straight documentary shots – looking for images that document the existence of certain species of insects or behaviors. Of course, it’s a lot easier to snag the documentary shot vs the outstanding composition. Yesterday’ shooting was a mixed bag. I managed to get a couple of shots of an Olympia Marble, a somewhat rare butterfly (and one that seems to be diminishing in the natural world.) Had I known how rare it was, I probably would of tried for a few more shots.
The two damselflies are the best of the day in terms of technical execution and composition. Identifying the subjects is another challenging aspect of insect photography. Birds and wildflowers can pose the occasional challenge, but ultimately they are pretty easy to sort out. However, with literally millions of species of insects, some with only slight variations between them, getting a reasonable ID can be a real challenge. When it comes to mis-identifying insects, I’ve made some major bloopers in the past (and will probably make more in the future.) Nonetheless, I keep a well stocked library of field guides, and have gotten a little basic training to help with the identification process. It’s important to try to match the subject to records that confirm its presence in the location where it was photographed.
Unfortunately, most field guides give fairly general distribution maps, and even those that go down to the county level are not precise enough to ensure accuracy. For example, a couple of summers ago I was excited by what I thought were my first sightings of Karner Blue butterflies – only to discover that they are found only south of the Kalamazoo River, and I had been looking along the northern bank. So, getting a reasonable ID can be a significant challenge – for example, I’m reasonably certain that the butterfly shown below is a Wild Indigo Duskywing, but the distribution maps I consulted showed only “unconfirmed or unreliable sources” reporting it as being in Allegan County. Maybe my sighting joins the ranks of the unreliable, or maybe a few dots in the pattern on the wing point to a different species all together.
But it’s an interesting an enjoyable exercise to work through the identification process. If you work the same areas for multiple years, you develop a feel for the natural rhythm and cycle of the locale, which is itself worthwile. Overall, I'm happy with the results of yesterdays shoot, and am looking foreward to the upcoming season. I really want to work at getting insect photography to the next level - and look at some of last seasons showts - shown below - as the starting point for this year's work.
Technical details: all shots taken with Pentax ist-D and A* 200mm macro lens, AF 360FGZ flash in home made bracket, monopod.