Insect Macrophotography with a Canon Powershot SX60

I was given a new camera for my birthday last month.  As you all probably know, I LOVE my cameras and I take photos with them all the time.  The new camera, a Canon Powershot SX60, was an unlikely interest of mine.  I am not what you might consider an early adopter of new technology.  My husband adores trying out beta versions of software and getting the latest and greatest tech gadgets, but I prefer to wait a while so that most of the kinks are worked out before I spend my money.  Kinks annoy me.  I avoid kinks when possible.  So, it’s very unlike me to want a brand new tech gadget, one that is so new that no one’s reviewed it, like this new camera of mine.  But oh did I want it!

See, I’ve gotten rather into photographing birds recently and none of the lenses I have are quite long enough for shooting good, tight bird shots.  However, a really long telephoto lens can easily set you back $15,000 or more and I certainly don’t have that kind of money to spend.  Superzoom cameras, on the other hand, have some AMAZING zoom capabilities for about $500, though I knew that the overall quality is significantly  lower.  I had tried a Powershot SX50 a while back and loved it, so I was thrilled to see that the SX60 was being released.  It’s got a 65x zoom capability (a zoom equivalent of about a 1300mm lens!!) and can focus on a subject less than a centimeter away.  This seemed like my dream walking around camera, one that I could use to photograph the insects and birds I see everyday.  I was ecstatic when I opened it up on my birthday and have been playing around with it ever since.

There are things I absolutely love about the camera.  The zoom is fantastic!  I can take pretty decent photos of birds from 30-40 feet away:



I can also get some great shots of the moon:



The vibration reduction works well and the camera is surprisingly lightweight, so I can handhold the camera for even the really long shots without too much motion blur.  Neither of the shots above required a tripod, though I did brace my arms on my car for the moon shot.  I feel like this camera does a great job with things that are far away.  There is admittedly quite a bit of noise in the images, especially at high ISO settings (and by high, I mean anything over about 800 ISO), but I feel it does a remarkably good job with telephoto shots given the low cost.  Macro shots…  Well, that’s another matter!

I am not a pro photographer, so I’m sure what follows wouldn’t be considered a true test of the abilities of the SX60, but I did some test shots to see what this camera is capable of.  I don’t expect this camera to take the sort of stunning macro photos my DSLRs are capable of, so I tested it against my tried and true Canon Powershot G12 and my iPhone 5S, the two cameras I’ve carried around with me everywhere for three or four years now and I was hoping to replace with this one.  I wanted to really test the limits of all of the cameras to get a good comparison, so I photographed my trusty fall cankerworm moths under the porch light at night with all three cameras to see how they stacked up.  I set the two Powershots so they would limit themselves to 800 ISO since I knew that the SX60 gets really noisy above that, and I set all of them to auto white balance.

So here are the results.  These are three images straight out of the camera, taken with the three different cameras:

Moths straight out of camera

Moths straight out of camera – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

It’s obvious that you can get closer to the moth with either of the Powershot models than the iPhone 5S, but that’s not surprising.  It doesn’t have any macro ability, but you still get reasonable detail.  Everything turned a little yellow in the iPhone photo, but the SX60 shot wasn’t much better!  The auto white balance on the G12 was the winner here, giving me something close to the actual color of the wall that the moth was photographed on.  You’ll notice too that the shadows get less harsh as you move down the line of photos.  The shadows were bad on the iPhone 5S and a little less pronounced but still obvious on the SX60, but you could see decent detail on the G12.  If I wanted a really high contrast look, the SX60 might be a better option, but I think the G12 produced a more pleasing, better balanced shot.

Even though I like the G12 shot a little better due to better white balance and what I consider a better ability to work with uneven light levels, the SX60 did a little bit better job getting the entire moth in focus.  The wings are similarly focused on all of the shots, but the thorax is a little blurry on the G12 shot.  But let’s take a look at an enlarged detail and see which one does a better job on a fine scale:

Moths enlarged wing details

Moths enlarged wing detail – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

The iPhone 5S is a clear loser here – the details are fuzzy and the resolution is dramatically lower than either of the Powershot models.  To me, the G12 produced the best image here again.  The SX60 shot has a huge variation in the light levels on individual scales, with some completely blown out while others are underexposed.  The light levels are a lot more even in the G12.  What I really notice, however, is the graininess of the SX60 shot.  You can see a lot of noise in the image and there are sections that are muddy and ill-defined.  I think the G12 picked up a lot more detail and generated quite a bit less grain than the SX60.

The conditions in which I took these images are fairly extreme: artificial light from a single source bathing a white wall in light at night.  I tend to take most of my night photos with one of my DSLRs and use a flash, so I probably won’t take a lot of photos in these conditions.  How do the two Powershots stack up in a more typical day shot?  I found a plume moth on the same wall in the shade during the day and shot it with the SX60:

Plume moth SX60

Plume moth SX60

and the G12:

Plume moth G12

Plume moth G12

For both images, I chose an aperture of f/4 and an ISO of 200 and let the cameras choose the shutter speed and white balance.  Neither camera got the white balance quite right, but in these less harsh, daytime conditions, I still think the G12 took the better shot.  The edges of the moth in the SX60 image are just not as crisply well-defined and the contrast between the lights and darks is a little too high.  There’s just not as much detail in the SX60 image relative to the G12’s.  Also, the SX60 chose a lower shutter speed (1/60) than the G12 (1/100), so it took what I think is a less pleasing shot even with a lower shutter speed.  That slower shutter speed might mean the difference between getting a good shot and missing a shot with flighty insects – it’s not ideal!

I’m still playing around with the SX60 and exploring its limitations so I know how to put the camera to best use, but my overall verdict so far is this: I love the SX60’s zoom capabilities and I think it’s going to be great to use for photographing birds and dragonflies, the things for which I really like the extra reach.  I do not at all like it for the macro shots though!  What this unfortunately means is that, rather than replacing my G12 as my walking around camera, I’ve simply added the SX60 onto what I was already carrying!  Granted, this has dramatically increased my ability to get a decent shot of almost anything I might want to photograph, but I’ll admit that carrying around two cameras and a phone is quite a lot of weight for my purse.

Has anyone else used a superzoom camera for macro photography?  I would be interested to hear what you think about any of the models you’ve tried.  I honestly wouldn’t recommend my camera to anyone interested in photographing macro subjects, but are there better options out there?  Leave a comment if you’d like to weigh in!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Best of 2014 and a Resolution

A lot of bloggers do best of the year compilations at the end of the year, and I focus mine on insect photos.  Because I haven’t gotten to be very active on my blog this year, you all haven’t even seen a lot of my favorite photos yet!  This year, rather than posting just my favorite photos from those posted on my blog in 2014, I created a best of album on Flickr that included all of my favorite shots of the year, whether I posted them here or not.  The collection includes these shots that were posted:

This year, I also included some things that aren’t insects in my best of the year album.  I, for example, spent a little over two weeks in Ireland in August and how can you resist including landscape photos from such a spectacular place?  I’ve also been practicing my bird photography this year, so I’ve included some photos of birds – even a couple of reptiles!  I hope you all enjoy the album. You can find it here:

Best of 2014

And now for my resolution: I will blog more often in 2015!  I think I am trying to force myself to stick to my self-inflicted blogging schedule, but because my work schedule and my blogging schedule don’t mesh currently, I don’t blog.  So, screw my blogging schedule!  I am going to come up with a new blogging schedule and try to stick with it all year.  I miss blogging and want to get back into it!

Just so you all know, I do blog about nature and citizen science regularly for the Museum where I work as part of my job, so you can always find me there.  My Museum posts aren’t all about insects, but almost all are about nature.  Please check out the museum blog if you’re interested in learning more about the wildlife of North Carolina!  You can find a list of all of my posts here:

Hope you all are looking forward to a great 2015!  I know I am.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Aquatic Insect Photography Setup

Over the past few years I’ve had several people ask me how I photograph aquatic insects.  I think it’s time I share my method!  Hope this will help some of you take some amazing aquatic insect shots – and I hope you’ll also share links to your own aquatic insect photos/photo setups so we can all learn from one another.  I’m sure my method isn’t the best out there, so I would love to hear about alternatives!

For the first few years I had my blog, most of the aquatic insect photos I took were either taken with a camera mounted on a microscope or in a white bowl full of water.  Either method works okay, but there are major problems with each, especially with the equipment I had to work with.  I got a few decent shots with both, but I never got the kind of jaw-dropping, awesome shot that I was hoping to get.  I was beginning to despair.

Then I went to Bug Shot in 2011.  There I had a conversation with Stephen Maxson.  He showed me some of his amazing aquatic insect photos and how he set up his equipment to take the shots.  It looked easy, so I was eager to try it out when I got home.  It was revolutionary!  Suddenly I was getting a lot closer to getting the kinds of shots I wanted of insects in water.  So, thank you Stephen Maxson for teaching me your method!  And if you reading this ever have a chance to see any of his photos (he posts them on bird forums, not a blog or a personal website, and I am having a bear of a time tracking one down to share…) I know you’ll enjoy them.

So, here’s my setup, which has only very minor variations from what Stephen showed me:

My aquatic insect photography setup

My aquatic insect photography setup

It’s really simple!  Just a small aquarium, a couple of diffused flashes set on either side of the aquarium, and something to prop up a background with.  I use a small photo album for the latter, and use either a piece of fabric or paper as the background.  You can also print indistinct, blurry images of pond plants or other natural scenes to use as a background for a more natural look (what John Abbott does for his awesome aquatic insect shots!), but I personally like using solid colors.  Totally up to you and your personal tastes!

The aquarium is the most important part.  In my experience, you want to keep the insect as close to your lens as you possibly can, so minimizing the space in which the insect can move is a plus.  You can either use a piece of glass or Plexiglas to push the insects toward you in a purchased aquarium or make your own.  I used the custom aquarium you see in the photo for some research I did in Arizona and found that it worked marvelously for photographing insects in water.  I built a similar one as soon as I moved to North Carolina so that I could continue photographing my aquatics.  Building a custom aquarium is simple: just buy some glass, have someone cut it to the size you want, and assemble the pieces with aquarium sealant.  Easy!  My only piece of advice is that you use thinner glass than I did (1/4 inch).  The glass isn’t perfectly clear, so between that and the water, there are always distortions in the photos I take with my custom aquaria, both the ones I left behind in Arizona and the one I built here.  Thinner glass is more fragile, but should result in sharper images.

Diffusing the light is important as well so you don’t have a harsh, bright glare glinting off your bugs.  I use Alex Wild-style diffusers, little sheets of frosted white mylar.  I connect them to my Nikon R1 flash system flashes with nylon ponytail holders and then set them on their stands on either side of the aquarium.  That way, you have light shining on the insect from both sides and can eliminate as many of the shadows as possible.  My flashes are tiny, so I have to bump the intensity up, but they’re conveniently wireless.  If you have a Canon or other camera, you may need a remote flash trigger to make this work.

Then it’s just a matter of propping a background up behind the aquarium, filling your container with water (I used filtered whenever possible to keep the water as clear as I can), dropping the insect in, and snapping some photos!  You can add other pondy things to the water to make it look more natural – larger rocks, algae, floating vegetation, cattails/reeds, etc – or you can leave the water clear.  The more stuff you have inside, the less light is likely to hit your subject, so I tend to leave the water clear.  But then I also don’t like to have the clutter of other things in my shots.  Again, go with whatever works for you!

And that’s it!  A little glass container, a couple of flashes, a piece of paper, and a camera and you’re set!  With my setup, because I have such thick glass in my aquarium, I can’t get perfectly clear, crisp shots, but it’s a huge improvement over what I was able to do in the past.  For example, compare this shot of a predaceous diving beetle taken through my microscope…

Predaceous diving beetle under microscope

Predaceous diving beetle under microscope

to this shot taken with the setup above…

Thermonectus nigrofasciatus

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.

There’s really no comparison.  Likewise, here’s a caddisfly I shot in a white bowl…


Caddisfly in white bowl

… and here’s one shot as described above:

Phylliocus aeneus

The caddisfly Phylliocus aeneus wandering around the rocks.

The insects look SO much better in the aquarium, shot through the side with soft, diffused light, than I could ever manage with my microscope or bowls.  I am still no Jan Hamrsky and there’s always room for improvement, but I think at this point I’m going to focus on improving the glass in my aquarium rather than adopting a new setup because I like this one.  It’s easy to use, relatively portable, and produces nice images – it works well for me and my style.

If you have your own setup for aquatic insects, I’d love to hear about it!  Just leave a comment below and tell me about your setup.  And if you haven’t ever tried photographing insects, give it a shot!  I think it’s a ton of fun, so see what you think.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

The Best of The Dragonfly Woman 2012

Alex Wild is encouraging everyone to display their best science and nature photos of 2012, so I’m jumping on the photo sharing bandwagon!  I feel that 2012 was a pretty good year for me photographically.  Aside from moving to a place where there is a lot more greenery and softer light, I also learned how to use my camera more effectively.  I can definitely say that my photography has improved over the last year and that I am looking forward to further improvement in 2013!  There is, of course, always room for improvement and I already have several goals in mind for the coming year.

While looking through the photos I posted on my blog over the year and choosing the ones that I thought represented my best work, I found myself putting them into categories.  That’s what I do – I categorize things.  Honestly, I probably should have become a taxonomist because my brain works that way anyway.  So, I chose my best of 2012 photos by fitting them into categories.   That’s how they’re presented here.  It’s like my own little personal awards ceremony!  Here we go!

Best Cell Phone Shot

Comatose Ants

Comatose Ants

I find photographing insects and other macro subjects with my iPhone a fun challenge.  I have tried a variety of cell phone “macro” lenses and probably took a couple thousand photos with them over the past year.  One day I spent a few hours wandering around in Tucson photographing insects with a new macro lens attachment and came across the ants in the photo.  They were feeding on what I later learned was narcotic Euphorbia nectar and were essentially comatose.  These little flowers were like ant crack houses!  Every single flower on several bushes had ants sitting on them like this.  I like this photo because the colors are bright and bold, about as crisp as possible with an iPhone close-up shot, and the subject was fascinating.  I ended up sitting on the sidewalk staring at motionless ants for a good half hour.  People probably thought I was insane, but what can you do?

Best Aquatic Insect Shot

Thermonectus nigrofasciatus

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.

This was the first year I tried to take photos of live aquatic insects and my first few attempts were good enough that I kept at it all year.  This is, I think, my best photo of an aquatic insect, the predaceous diving beetle Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.  It’s one of my favorite beetles anyway, but there’s something about the way the flash lit up the elytra in this particular shot that I really like.  The beetle almost glows, the way it would in a clear, sunny Arizona stream.  They’re really beautiful beetles, and I feel this shot captured a lot of that beauty.

Best Spider Photo

Phidippus sp

Phidippus sp

I spent years looking for jumping spiders in Arizona and I only came across a handful of them.  Happily, I see them all the time in North Carolina!  I invariably scoop them up, take them home, and do a little photo shoot in my white box every time I find one because I secretly want to be Thomas Shahan and need to practice.  This one, however, is my favorite.  The spider was sitting up on top of the wooden fence at work, so you can see all the nature in the background.  It might not be perfectly crisp (I took this with my point and shoot, which has limited depth of field), but the spider is just so darned adorable!  I took a bunch of white box shots of this spider as well, but I didn’t like any of them as well as this one.

Most Difficult Shot

phantom midge

Phantom midge larva, Chaoborus sp

Have you ever tried to photograph something that’s almost clear and floating in water?  The phantom midge larvae were far and away the most frustrating of my photographic subjects of the year because it was just impossible to focus on them.  I never did get the shot I wanted, but this one is the best so far.  I know where I can get thousands upon thousands more of these larvae though, so I can try again!

Best Insect Eyes

Crisp eyes

Crisp eyes on a blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

I learned something important at BugShot this year: that I was sacrificing crispness for depth of field by turning my aperture up too high.  You’ll notice how none of the photos before this one are very crisp – my aperture was WAY too high on most of those!  This one doesn’t have the world’s best depth of field, but it was my first ever successful shot highlighting the ommatidia, the individual facets, of a dragonfly’s eyes.  I rather like this shot, though I also didn’t diffuse my flashes as well as I could have.  Next year, one of my goals is to get another shot like this with just a bit more depth of field and no twin light spots reflecting off the eyes.

Best Night Shot

happy moth

Happy moth

I took this shot in some terrible, weak light at BugShot.  This was the last evening of the workshop, so I’d traded in my fancy plastic diffusers for the much lower-tech, yet much superior sheets of white plastic we were given at registration.  In doing so, I was able to get some great night shots, some of which I doubt most people would even know were taken in the dark.  This one wasn’t taken in total darkness, but I like how it came out.  It’s rather clear and crisp, so it’s technically good, but there’s something about the jaunty angle of the moth that appeals to me.

Best White Box Photo

Weevil side

Weevil side view

After BugShot and my big aperture revelation, I returned home eager to practice.  I collected many insects and photographed them in my white box so I could try out what I learned.  This was one of those shots and I think it’s the best white box shot I got all year.  I like that I can see all the hairs on the weevil, especially the sporty little mustache.  Plus, it is an absolutely adorable beetle.

My Favorite Photo of the Year

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

This photo isn’t the most perfect photo I took as the characteristic tails of this eastern tiger swallowtail are hidden behind a bit of shrubbery and the button bush flower and part of the butterfly’s head aren’t in focus.  However, this is my favorite photo of the year because I adore the dreamy, soft light.  It almost looks like a studio shot, but it was taken in the field with 100% natural light.  North Carolina has stunning light, especially when it’s cloudy (as it often is), so I am really looking forward to taking more photos like this in the coming year.

As you can see from the range of photos I’ve chosen as my “Best of 2012,” I don’t have a single style.  I have several goals for my photography in 2013, but developing a signature Dragonfly Woman style is near the top of my list.  Otherwise, I feel that I am improving and I can see that my photos got better over course of the year, but I still have a lot to learn.  Hopefully I’ll be able to share even better photos with you in 2013!

Happy New Year’s everyone!  I hope you all have a great night and a fantastic new year.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Insect Portraits

I have a ton of things going on in my life right now, and it’s taking a bit of a toll on my level of mental alertness.  I got through writing most of a post and suddenly realized that, hey, I remember writing this sentence before…  And yes, when I went to check back, there was the exact post, written and posted months ago!  Because this is try #2, today’s Friday 5 is the easiest thing I could come up with.  I give you my 5 favorite insect portraits (so far)!

Jeffrey the Hissing Cockroach

Jeff's face

Jeffrey portrait (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

I know I’ve had this one on the blog before, but I really love how personable my favorite cockroach, Jeffrey, looks in this photo!  The woman who runs the Insect Discovery program that I was involved with in the spring told all the preceptors that when they introduce the roaches to the kids, they should hold them up so the kids could see their faces.  I completely understand why she suggests that. Look how sweet and adorable Jeffrey looks up there!  Not all cockroachy, but kinda cute and (more importantly) completely non-threatening.  Ah, Jeffrey.  I hope he’s been having fun going to schools again this fall.



Cicada portrait (Tibiscens cultriformes)

I love these cicadas!  I find them along a stream where I collect giant water bugs. They often fall into the water when they die, but this one was still slightly alive when I scooped it up.  I was so excited!  I took it home and tried to revive it (and shot a few photos), but it ended up dying anyway.  It was the end of their season, so I’m not sure what I expected.  But, now I have a great cicada specimen in my collection and a series of fun photos of it before it died, including the one you see above. Check out the big, bulbous eyes! Crazy!


Ten lined June beetle

Ten-lined June beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata)

Sad story alert.  There were thousands of these flying around the day my brother in law died in July.  He passed away about a month after his 34th birthday, after a two year long battle with melanoma.  I like this photo partly because the beetle is cute, with its happy little face and all those hairs and scales.  Mostly I like it because roaming around outside photographing beetles gave me a few moments of happiness on an otherwise terrible day.  My brother in law wasn’t at all interested in insects, but he loved that I loved them.  He would tease me when I crawled around on my hands and knees looking at bugs in their yard, but he also recognized that I, like him, had discovered my true calling in life and had an incredible passion for my work.  I miss my brother in law, but every time I see this photo, it makes me think of him and smile.

Hover Fly

hover fly

Hover fly portrait (Toxomerus pollitus)

But back to happier thoughts!  This is one of the photos I took at BugShot, one of my favorites of the whole workshop  If you recall from my post way back in September (yeah right…), I spent nearly an hour photographing these little flies crawling around on my water bottle to practice using my flash. I have SO many photos of them, but I really love how this one came out!  They’re darned cute flies too, so I don’t mind that I’ve got over a hundred photos of them.  :)



Fishfly portrait (Chauliodes sp)

Another shot from BugShot, though this one was shot in a white box.  I have a sort of love-hate relationship going with hellgrammites, the larva of this insect, but I am completely fascinated by them!  I was really excited to find so many of these in Missouri.  This shot is far from perfect as my flashes weren’t quite up to the task of lighting the whole BugShot white box and I had to boost my camera’s ISO so high that the photo’s quite grainy.  The light from the lamp caused some nasty shadows.  However, I love the look of the bug, the way the head’s cocked to one side and you can see the glorious structure of the antennae.  What a beautiful insect!

Anyone want to provide links to their favorite insect portraits?  I’d love to see what some of the rest of you come up with!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright ©

Insects in White Boxes

My grand plans for finishing a blog post about giant water bugs this weekend were thwarted by a migraine.   So, today’s post is going to be quick and easy instead!  I’ll prep the water bug post for next week.

I have always admired photos of insects and other animals taken in white boxes.  There’s something about putting animals in front of a white background that I just love.  There is no competition for the subject, so your eye is drawn immediately to the part of the photo the photographer wishes to highlight.  And, they’re really fun photos to take!  I’ve taken white box photos for over a year now, but when I attended BugShot 2011, I learned how to use my flashes to brighten my white box subjects much more effectively than I had done in the past.  Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun with the technique and have spent a fair amount of time practicing.  Today I’ll give you a few examples.

My favorite white box subjects are palo verde beetles.  There’s a huge adrenaline rush associated with bringing a very large, heavily armored, angry insect indoors, stuffing it into a white box, and then flashing the hell out of it.  This was taken last summer, a few months before BugShot:

Palo verde beetle

Palo verde beetle (Derobrachus hovorei)

This mantispid (aka, mantisfly – you can probably tell how this insect got its common name!) was taken at BugShot:


Green mantisfly (Zeugomantispa minuta)

The green on this insect was stunning, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive taken in nature as it blended nicely into the environment.  The white box brings out the bright green colors so perfectly.

This photo from BugShot features a dobsonfly (or fishfly, depending on who you ask – I call them all dobsonflies) as it spread its wings to fly:


Dobsonfly (Chauliodes sp.)

I know it’s not a perfect photo, but I really love it for some reason.  It’s my favorite of all the photos I took at BugShot actually.  Figures I would pick the big, scary looking aquatic insect as my favorite!

The next few photos were taken about a month ago after collecting giant water bugs for my research.  This caterpillar was crawling up the leg of my friend’s husband as he drove us home:


Hualapai buckmoth caterpillar (Hemileuca hualapai)

All those little spikes are stinging hairs, or, as we entomologists like to call them, urticating spines.  My friend wisely decided to scoop the caterpillar off her husband’s leg with a plastic bag leftover from my lunch rather than pulling it off with her hands, so she didn’t get stung.  It was an absolutely stunning caterpillar though, so into the white box it went!  These were also present in abundance at the same site:

Cicada molt

Cicada molt (Tibicen cultriformis)

I came home with the shells of several cicadas (shown here) and an adult that I found dead in a stream.  These are BIG cicadas!  That shell is over an inch long.  I might eventually do a post about this cicada with the sound clip that I recorded while we were collecting that day.  The song builds as hundreds or thousands of cicadas each make a brief call after they hear their neighbors calling, creating a sort of wave of sound that builds up, washes over you, and then recedes into the distance.  Imagine people doing the wave at a baseball game, then imagine the sound equivalent – that’s what it’s like.  It’s amazing!

Even though it’s not exactly the same technique, I like taking photos of aquatic insects using a sort of pseudo-white box technique.  Put a live aquatic insect into a white bowl, shine some lights into the water, and shoot!  You can only get photos from the top this way, but they give me the same lovely, bright white background as the white box photos I love so much.  An example is this creeping water bug photo:

creeping water bug

Creeping water bug (Ambrysus sp.)

White box photos are so fun!  I love the way the colors of the insects pop and how you’re instantly sucked into looking at the fine details of the insects.  There is a downside though: while pretty, these photos show virtually nothing about the environment in which the insects live or the behaviors they exhibit.  Take the creeping water bug.  If you didn’t know it was aquatic, would you be able to tell that it was from the photo?  I think not.  The caterpillar didn’t do anything except wander around the white box, so it was wholly uninteresting behaviorally, even if I did get several nice shots of it.  Still, I can’t help but love the aesthetic of white box photos, so I keep taking them.  You just need to know where and when to use them most effectively.

Speaking of using white box photos, Alex Wild at Compound Eye recently posted about a conservation group that is trying to raise awareness of plants and animals by photographing them in front of white backgrounds.  It’s not exactly a white box, but the group has created a system that several different photographers take out into the field with them to shoot with similar results.  The images are gorgeous, so I highly recommend that you read Alex’s post and visit their website, Meet Your Neighbours.  It’s like walking into a visual candy shop for me!

Does anyone else shoot white box photos of insects?  I would love to see some of your work if you care to provide some links in the comments section!  And look for that giant water bug post next Monday.  I’m excited about posting it, so I hope you will all enjoy it.


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Friday 5: Submit Your Photos, Help Scientists and the Public!

I am a big fan of citizen science.  I love that anyone, even if you have absolutely no training as a scientist and only the smallest interest in what scientists actually do, can contribute something meaningful to science.  I myself am amazed by the results that citizen science projects can produce. I have collected nearly 1400 dragonfly swarm reports in the past two years for my own citizen science project and it’s so exciting to see the data flow in!  People who might not otherwise ever participate in science send me valuable data that is helping me really understand how dragonfly swarms work.  It’s great!

Because I’m on a big photography kick thanks to my recent participation in BugShot 2011, I thought I should share some of my favorite citizen science projects that involve photography.  These are all projects that collect photographs of animal and plant sightings and create massive, searchable databases from the information they collect.  These databases can be a help to scientists who are interested in how biological organisms are distributed or the movement of those organisms into and out of particular areas, hence citizen science.  However, many of these are also incredibly useful if you are a non-scientist hoping to identify an insect (or plant or other animal) that you’ve seen.  So, be a do-gooder and help out by contributing your insect photos to one of my five favorite projects:

Odonata Central

Odonata Central

Odonata Central  was born out of a desire to accurately map the distribution of the dragonflies and damselflies of the US.  Now it is a fantastic resource that allows users to create species checklists for their counties, compare their sightings to the photo library as an identification aid, and learn about dragonflies.  The project is currently accepting mostly late and early season sightings of dragonflies and damselflies, new county records, and species with no photos, so you’ll probably need to know a  bit about dragonflies to participate right now.  However, progress is being made toward making this a more open system where anyone can submit any photo of any dragonfly from anywhere in the world and have their sighting added to the database.  So, save up those common dragonfly photos for now, but remember to submit them later!  And definitely make use of this amazing resource in the meantime.

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Butterflies and Moths of North America

Butterflies and Moths of North America is a place where anyone can submit photos of lepidopterans they’ve sighted in North America.  User submitted photos are linked to species pages so everyone can see the range in coloration some species exhibit.  Your submissions help create invaluable information about the distribution of each species too.  If you don’t have photos to contribute, use the website as an excellent identification tool!  The photos and regional checklists make identifying your butterflies and moths relatively painless.

Bug Guide

Bug Guide

I know I rave about BugGuide, but it’s such an amazing resource!  While I think this site is less helpful to scientists than some of the others, I think it’s still well worth the effort to submit your photos because it is an invaluable resource for people who wish to identify North American insects.  If you know what species you’ve got, you can simply add your photos to the site with information about when and where you found the bug in the photo(s) and it will be added to the database.  If you don’t know what your bug is…  Submit your photo as an ID Request!  Someone might be able to tell you what it is and then add it to the appropriate species page.  Bug Guide is a great website, made possible in part by people like you.

Project Noah

Project Noah

I’ve mentioned Project Noah in another Friday 5 post, but I think it’s a great organization  and I want to point it out again.  Like Butterflies and Moths of North America, users submit photos of things they’ve seen to the site with information about the sighting.  Like Bug Guide, you can request identifications or submit your own identification if you know what you’ve photographed.  Unlike either website, Project Noah both A) deals with all biological organisms (plants AND animals) and B) has a smart phone interface that is pretty fun.  Snap a photo of an insect (or plant or other animal) with your smart phone and upload it to Project Noah and you won’t even need a computer to participate!  There are some really magnificent photos on the site (my favorite is this fruit bat), plus you can see the diversity of plants and animals that live in your area with location tools.  I encourage everyone to check it out!

Encyclopedia of Life

Encyclopedia of Life

The goal of the Encyclopedia of Life is to document all life on the planet, gathering together information from journals, databases, collections, and the public and sharing it with everyone online in an accessible way.  You can help EOL in several ways.  One is to create an account on the EOL website and send in photos, articles, etc for inclusion in the archives.  Even easier, you can contribute photos to EOL directly from Flickr (click the link for instructions!).  Public participation is essential for EOL to continue making progress toward its lofty goals, so help make it the astounding resource it has the potential to be by contributing photos!

Your photos and sightings are incredibly valuable to all of the citizen science projects listed above.  If you’re taking insect photos and are happy to share them with others already, why not make the world a better place by contributing images to one of these great organizations?  With little effort, you can help both scientists and the public can learn about, identify, and document the insects of the world.  There’s a lot of them, so let’s get photographing!


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