Hello guys and girls! Welcome back to the 2nd article of the series! In the first article I have already covered the fundamentals on Preparing For A Macro Trip; this time I will be stressing on the importance of understanding your subjects (e.g. insects, spiders, fungi, birds, animals etc.), which will lead to a more enjoyable and fruitful macro outing.
As I have repeatedly pointed out, you can’t really be a good Macro Photographer if you do not know what you are shooting: It is like to talking to “friends” whom you do not even know their names. The understanding of technical and functional aspects of your Macro Rig has to grow along with your knowledge on your subjects. There are three critical advantages to knowing your subjects, as follows:
- You know where, when and how to find your subjects
This point alone is enough to justify the need to understand your subjects. Since different organisms live in different habitats, by knowing them, you will know where you could find a specific organism. For an example, if you are looking for a Flashwing Damselfly, you would know that they prefer quiet and shaded areas around streams, and they can be easily seen because of the metallic green body and occasional purplish wings.
If you know your subjects, you will know what subjects to expect at a given location. For instance, if you are venturing around a mangrove swamp, you can anticipate plenty of crabs, mud-skippers, salamanders vipers etc., especially when the tide comes in. And since mangrove pit vipers are some of the most venomous around, you would be wise to bring a longer telephoto lens to take your photos.
Of course, by having some knowledge about your subjects, you will know which ones are diurnal (more active during the day), and which are nocturnal (active during the night). If you are interested in photographing geckos, frogs, snakes, huntsmen spiders etc., then you know the best time to go look for them is after dark. I am sure you already know how to “calibrate” your Macro Rig for night shots, especially the inclusion of a “guide light” that will help your camera focus better in the dark.
If you are really observant and frequent a particular garden, mountain etc., you will probably notice seasonality in the subjects you find as well. This is normal since most subjects have life cycle. For example, I spend a lot of time on Penang Hill, Malaysia. I noticed that the population of adult Golden Orb-Web Nephila antipodiana spiders, which are not hard to miss, are most abundant from February to May (at least on 2014), which was probably the mating season. I visited Penang Hill on June 2014 and noticed that the amount of adult spiders has decreased, but there were plenty of egg sacs or nests with spiderlings lying around.
If you visit a place enough times, you could actually document the entire life cycle of your subject, which could be a tremendous observation in Science. Anyway, also a result of seasonality, sometimes it is best to visit a place multiple times since the subjects you encounter may be different with each visit.
Some subjects may be so well-hidden that even when you know where to find them, you still need to know how to find or see them. As an example, tarantula spiders are usually found on mud-flaps, tree-trunks or even man-made crevices, the trick to find them is to identify their burrows. When you do that, you still have to think about how to lure a tarantula out before you could photograph it.
When you know when, where and how to find your subjects, needless to say, you get a higher chance of finding a good and interesting subject, resulting in a potentially superb shot!
- You know what to expect for subjects you encounter
Knowing the whereabouts of your subjects is useful in helping you to find them, but knowing the behaviors of your subjects will take you one step further in getting that perfect shot! YES, most organisms have specific behaviors of their own, which makes me wonder why they act like that (more on that next time).
Let us take a look at some examples. Neoscona spiders have the knack of building their cobwebs at around 7-8pm, even when they are placed in a room devoid of natural sunlight. Biological clock perhaps? Anyway, if you are looking to document the web-building process by this particular group of spiders, you know when exactly to look for them.
Most common dragonflies and damselflies have the habit of perching at the same spots since they have to protect their territory, so if you know your dragonflies, you know which will eventually return to the exact spot even if you scared it away moments ago, and you can wait for the upcoming shot. On the other hand, if you see a pair of dragonfly or damselfly getting into the tandem position (see photo A), you know they are going to mate by forming the “mating wheel” (see photo B), and it might be a good idea to wait for that moment, since photos of copulation of these Odonates are quite uncommon.
Jumping spiders are very popular subjects in the Macro World due to their cute and attractive eye arrangements. Although the behavior of these Salticids differ from one group to another, most are curious creatures and love the sun, and will not hesitate to jump onto your camera if you get too close: If you noticed that your jumping spider has suddenly “disappeared” don’t forget to check your equipment for it!
Of course, knowing what to expect of your subjects is not only applicable to increasing your chance for a great shot; the knowledge is invaluable in staying out of harm’s way as well. Most organisms will show warning signs of aggression when they are pissed, and it would be best for you to leave them alone when you do. For instance, you already know that King Cobras will extend their neck hoods, warning for you to stay away. Tarantulas, on the other hand, have the knack of raising its body upright and revealing its teeth when provoked.
So, in short, knowing your subjects not only gives you the chance to capture that awesome moment but also reduce the chance of you getting bitten, stung or killed!
- You know what you are photographing
Last but not least, by knowing the names and relevant details of your subjects, you will be able to elaborate further on your findings and observations on them: It is always nice to be able to provide some useful captions explaining the appearance, whereabouts or even the behaviors of your subjects. Personally I think it is a responsibility for every Macro Photographer to share not only beautiful photos, but also good details about the subjects he or she has photographed, so that normal viewers could learn more about Nature, and cherishing it.
Even among groups of friends or family, having an extensive knowledge about a particular group(s) of organisms would effectively create interest and subsequently appreciation of Wildlife as you feed them with intriguing information, much like a portable Documentary Channel. And I am pretty sure a knowledgeable zoologist would always be welcomed even amongst macro enthusiasts.
When you know what you are photographing, you will look past natural survival tactics like mimicry and also camouflage: Some harmless insects may take on appearances of larger and much ferocious counterparts to deter predators, whereas some simply know how to camouflage themselves so well that finding them would be an issue. For example, by understanding the basic differences between a fruitfly, robberfly, bee, hornet and wasp, you will know which not to provoke during your macro session.
Well now, I hope these three points here are enough to convince you the importance to knowing your subjects. Of course, knowledge about your subjects don’t come overnight; it takes a lot of experience to know where, when and how to find your subjects. But the good thing is once you know them, it becomes exceedingly easy to find what you want, so you just have to go on enough macro trips (preferably those accompanied by seasoned guides)!
Again, knowing the names of your subjects will also take some time, experience, reading and research. However, most of the subjects we photograph everyday are likely to be common, and already identified: It won’t be hard to find out their identity via a simple Google search, or even a browse through your friend’s macro album. You could also ask an expert or a more experienced shooter for an ID if desired.
I understand that identification down to species level may be very hard, if not impossible for some subjects, but at least a common name should be provided instead of annoying words like “Photo X”, “insect” or “bug” for every single photo! A photo of a well identified subject would be a lot easier to locate when needed for Science: It is virtually impossible to look for a photo without any name or description- like finding a needle in a haystack.
Okay, that’s it for today, thank you very much for reading this article. Let us improve our knowledge on the subjects we are photographing! There is still so many things out there to see, learn, and appreciate!
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