Canon 300D Rebel, handheld
[Top photo]
Mamiya 80mm at f4
1/125 second at ISO 200
[Bottom photos]
Mamiya 80mm at f16
Sunpak FP38 flat-panel flash with softbox
1/200 second at ISO 200

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis with prey

Short depth of field can be fun sometimes. I shot a sequence of this Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) capturing and consuming a katydid, enough frames that the batteries in my flash unit died. I figured I had enough images and the rain had already started, but before I gave up I tried a couple of shots in existing light, having to go with a wide-open aperture to obtain a decent exposure. This is the result. There's something almost planar about it, with the details of the mantis floating above the airbrushed background, and the low-contrast conditions providing a muted and delicate feel. The visual effect and the action being shown are somewhat anachronistic, at least when viewed emotionally, which makes this a favorite not just visually. This is how nature works, and our reactions to it are reflections of us, not anything else.

I was very lucky to have those antennae sitting almost flat to the camera, remaining in focus through most of their length and standing out against the background. If you look closely, most of the mantis appears in the frame – the brown patches at upper left is the curve of its body, and the legs can be made out as too-straight blurs extending from that. The leg appearing at right is the katydid's, not the mantid's. And of course, the matching green hues of the mantid's eyes, the katydid, and the background leaves are nicely offset by the flowers of the butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) where the capture was made.

When compared against the images taken with the flash, the difference is significant. The colors are more vibrant, and more detail can be seen. And one other thing, going on both the detail and the emotional angle. Look at this next image.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis by flash

Now, the false pupil is readily apparent, and it gives the mantis an almost-startled look. It's visible in the top photo as well, but just barely, appearing to be nothing but a shadow. This is because the false pupil is an optical effect of the compound eyes, and doesn't sit at the same focal distance as the surface of the eyes, but a little further off. So with the extremely short depth of field of the top photo, the false pupil has gone well out of focus, but in this image (shot at f16) it remains sharper. It doesn't appear sharp because it is a collection of dark spots among neighboring ommatidia, but it is at least more distinctive. What the heck, let's go closer still.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis excerpt

This is a crop of the previous frame, and now you can not only see the false pupil(s) better, you can make out how the raindrops that had already begun to fall are working as magnifiers themselves on the ommatidia, giving an impression of how densely-packed they are. No luck getting one right over the false pupil, sorry. And that's not more raindrops between the antennae, but the simple eyes that most flying arthropods possess, suspected to aid in orientation during flight.