Bug Shot 2012, Part 1

Unidentified bug

Unidentified bug

When Bug Shot 2012 was announced on Alex Wild’s blog, I was thrilled! I had learned so much and had such a great time last summer that I knew I wanted to go again. I might not benefit from hearing everything a second time, but I knew there were still many things I could learn. So, I signed up the day registration opened, bought a plane ticket to Florida, packed my camera, and traveled to Archbold Research Station last week. I’m so happy I did!

One of the best things about Bug Shot take 2 was getting to see friends I made last year. I really liked several people who went to the first Bug Shot and nearly all of them came back for a second round. I also made some new friends. It was an excellent social experience, and I think the group bonded much better than last year. We didn’t all end up sitting at the same tables with the same people the whole time again because there really wasn’t a way to do that. I thought it was great. I roamed around a lot more, ate meals with people I might not have otherwise, talked about bugs with a lot of people. It was simply a fun time!


Hyacinth glider dragonfly in air. I don’t like a lot of things about this photo, but what an odd position for the dragonfly to be in! Made me ponder what it might be doing, because I’m just that sort of person.

I also learned a lot about photography. I went last year with the goal of learning how to use my brand new flashes and felt like I made some excellent headway. I came home all excited about flashes, bought some little commercial flash diffusers and a big on-board flash/flash controller, and set out to take some of the best photos of my life. I found myself increasingly disappointed in the photos taken with the flashes, though, and slowly started drifting back into my old, comfortable habits of taking all of my photos in natural light. Doing what I knew worked was a lot easier than pushing myself. But that didn’t make me happy. I knew I could do better, if only I had a little more time to practice.

Spider with prey

Spider with spittle bug prey

So, I arrived to Bug Shot 2012 with a similar goal to last year’s: to become more proficient at using my flashes, including the new big one. After one day, I realized that my whole problem, why I hated my flashes, was that the terrible little plastic diffusers I had bought last year were barely doing anything to actually diffuse the light and were creating hotspots in my images. Once I switched back to the Mylar-sheet-masking-taped-to-flashes method I learned last year, I started getting the shots I knew I was capable of again. Whew! I wasn’t a completely incompetent photographer after all and had just made a bad diffuser choice.

White box patent leather beetle

Patent leather beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus) in white box, my only successful white box attempt this year.

What I most wanted to learn this year was how to control the intensity of my flashes. Apart from my terrible diffusers, I was having problems with lighting and never seemed to get quite the right amount with my flashes. Sometimes the flashes were too bright, but my white box photos weren’t bright enough. I knew there was a way to adjust the brightness with my big SB-910 flash because I’d seen Alex adjusting his similar Canon flashes last year. Thankfully, several other people had the same Nikon setup I do and were able to give me some simple hints for how to adjust the brightness. Special thanks to Matt Bertone for showing me how to adjust the flash intensity by pressing the flash button and moving the dial on the front of the camera! Like last year, a few tips was all it took to make me feel vastly more comfortable with my camera and I saw a marked improvement in my photos immediately.

Giant water bug

Giant water bug, Lethocerus uhleri. What a gorgeous water bug!

I had a few other issues I wanted to address this year. Most importantly, my camera’s sensor was very dirty. Everything I’ve ever read says you should absolutely not touch the sensor under any circumstances. I had planned to take it in for cleaning before Bug Shot, but I ran out of time and I arrived at Bug Shot with an incredible amount of dust on the sensor. I can’t tell you how annoying it is to spend $1000 to attend a photo workshop only to see dust on all your photos. It turned out this was actually a good thing because it prompted me to ask John Abbott if he could give me some tips on how to clean it. He showed me how to do it myself and it took all of a minute. If there was one thing that I consider the most valuable thing I learned at Bug Shot this year, it’s this: your camera’s sensor is covered by a piece of glass and it is a lot harder to damage it than the camera manufacturers would have you believe. I feel quite confident I can clean my own sensor now, so thank you John!

Finally, I had had problems with “soft” photos, photos that look crisp when they’re viewed at the sorts of magnifications that you see online or in print, but lose their sharpness as you increase the magnification of the image. We had a choice of attending a session on introductory photography or introductory entomology on the second day and though I really wanted to attend both, I ended up in the intro photo session. The vast majority of it was review, but I learned one very important thing there: most camera lenses have a “sweet spot” that balances the depth of field and the sharpness of the final image. I decided to play around with the aperture of my macro lens and learned that if I kept it at f16 or below the photos were much sharper than before. Eureka! I was finally able to get a shot of a dragonfly’s compound eyes that actually showed the facets and I was thrilled:

Crisp eyes

Crisp eyes on a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

I am still having a few problems with my camera that I need to work out, but I came home from Bug Shot 2012 feeling much more confident that I will be able to solve my problems on my own. I can control my flash intensity now, so that should translate into better white box images when I have a chance to practice some more. (I’ve got two GORGEOUS jumping spiders in little containers downstairs to use as models as I write this!) I can keep my camera cleaner now, so that will solve several problems. The rest I’ll figure out through practice. I feel good about what I’ve accomplished so far and look forward to improving even more!


Moth laying eggs

You may have noticed that the title says this is Part 1. I’m going to do one more post about Bug Shot next week that includes some of the general tips and tricks that I learned at the workshop. If you just can’t wait, Crystal Ernst over at The Bug Geek has done a phenomenal job covering the event. I encourage you to check out her excellent blog posts.

And with this post, I’m back on schedule! Friday 5 is coming up next, so look for that tomorrow.


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