Winter captives

Scarlet peacock Anartia amathea on few-flowered milkweed Asclepias lanceolata
A few days ago I demonstrated my vast disconnect from the parent mindset, because I went to the NC Museum of Life & Science, on one of only two Mondays they are open during the winter as well as a school holiday, and wondered if it would be crowded. I know, I know – don’t mock me because I’m beautiful. And I didn’t specifically plan this one, because it was a session with a student, the inestimable Al Bugg, plus it was an opportunity to get some critter shots in a season that’s pretty lean around here. So I was able to cope with the plethora of yard apes that were everywhere.

As has been featured here before, the NCMLS has a butterfly house, providing the opportunity for closer shots of more exotic species than can usually be found in natural settings. The purposes that the photos can be used for is varied: probably not stock images for sales, because of the anachronistic insects and vegetation, but for a splash of color, or fartsy stuff, or even just the opportunity to work on framing, creativity, and light control, it’s fine.

tattered owl butterfly Caligo memnonNormally I avoid the butterflies that look tattered or a little beat-up, but this one worked well with the diffuse backlighting, and the color pattern lent it an air of being quite old. It could actually have been, but “quite old” for a butterfly might be a month, and in any case this was the typical coloration of the species, an owl butterfly (Caligo memnon.)

Anytime you’re visiting a place of this nature, it’s a good idea to take photos of any identification guides that are provided, so you can easily refer back to them to pin down the species (a ha ha, did you get it? Pin down the— oh, never mind.) A long time ago, I used a mini cassette recorder to take notes on the fly, but for circumstances like this, I’d end up trying to describe the color pattern well enough to distinguish the subject from anything similar or, on occasion, noting the frame number – this was back in the days of film, and if need be, ask your grandparents what “film” and “cassette” mean. So it was easier to identify the butterfly at the top of the post as a scarlet peacock (Anartia amathea,) but quite a bit harder to identify the flower species as a few-flowered milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata) – my friend was no help at all, but I was pretty sure that it was an NC native plant so I narrowed the search that way, and didn’t have to try and describe the peculiar shape of the blossoms (because finding flowers by color is rather haphazard, since there are thousands of species that are “red & yellow.”) And this is what I mean about useful stock – the butterfly is South American, while the flower is North American, so they wouldn’t normally appear together.

paper kite butterfly Idea leuconoe on some pink flower
The same might be said for this one, a paper kite (Idea leuconoe) on a flower that I’m not going to try looking up, but almost certainly native to NC – not something that an Asian butterfly should be found feeding upon. Part of me asks, “Is this important?” – entomologists are likely to be the only ones to spot the anachronism, and even then might still find the image aesthetically pleasing (or might not.) Scientific usage is ruled out, as is a feature on Asian travel, but perhaps not much else. It’s the perspective that defines this photo anyway.

walking leaf insect Phylliidae While it is tempting to think that captive subjects are easy to photograph, this isn’t always the case, especially when it comes to species like this walking leaf insect, of the family Phylliidae. Sure, they’re right there behind the glass (and you’re gonna like them, ’cause they’ve got class!) and certainly not leaping around, but there are reflections from the glass to consider, and distortion if you’re not aiming perpendicular to the glass surface – angles are a no-no. And then there’s the setting, which is often not something useful in any way – in this case, a few plants that served as food and clinging surfaces, backed by the other side of the terrarium (so more glass for reflections) and then the greater environs of the museum, which on a crowded day means constantly moving people in a wide variety of clothes. Thus, it was even easier to get something in the image that was unwanted, in one way or another – which explains this tight closeup. The arthropod itself was probably just shy of the length of your hand, much easier to do detail shots of instead of something a few millimeters long, but backing off for a full body image meant something unwanted was going to be in the frame. Plus, I had to get enough attention on that peculiar head; there are quite a few insects that just seem to have cool looks, for want of a better term, like the orchid mantises (repeat link,) but this is not one of them.

By the way, you’re seeing the insect from the back, head towards the top of the frame – that’s the roundish thing in the center, flanked by two forelimbs, and topping the dorsal ridge ‘spine.’ The remaining four limbs can all be found by looking for that ‘vein’ thickening on the ‘leaves’ to either side – everything you see in this image is actually insect, except for a little bit at upper left.

red wolf Canis rufus in reposeAnother example is this red wolf (Canis rufus,) a Carolina native that was almost decimated due to greater human populations, now being reintroduced through breeding programs. A lot of people decry captive animals of any sort, and I can see their points, but there are a lot of factors that should be taken into consideration that often aren’t – in my experience, people with the firmest opinions usually have the most superficial understandings. Species such as this are being released back into coastal areas, which often sparks protests from farmers and hyperparanoid parents, but the truth of the matter is, the damage they can do is infinitesimal, much less than disease, and they are hardly as aggressive as popular opinion often portrays. The ability to see them in person, as mellow and pleasant as any family dog (more so than a lot, actually,) helps dispel the negative impressions, putting the programs in a more-acceptable frame of reference.

One of the pair was resolutely staying in front of the chain link fence of their enclosure, reinforcing the captive idea and making it hard to create a worthwhile image, while this one was sprawled out asleep atop their den (which also had enough manmade elements visible.) But as one of the museum golf carts came cruising by, this one sat up and watched attentively, probably wondering about a late-afternoon feeding. The light was right at this time of day, and as the wolf tracked the cart its eye caught the light, producing that little sparkle that improves animal images, not to mention the amber color that helps distinguish this from a dog. Nothing truly exciting, but still a nice portrait, and that’s what captive photography allows the best. I liked the vertical composition better, but still have enough of the body in there to illustrate their coloration, which is hardly the ‘red’ that one might expect from the species name, and there’s even a hint of how it works as camouflage. Soon after this shot, all I could see was the animal’s back and top of the head as it sprawled out again – which is another tip: have patience if you’re after an interesting shot. At first glance nothing may be happening, and when it does, it might be brief, but you have to be there and be ready.

My favorite pic from the day, however, was one I initially thought I’d be throwing out.

ring-tailed lemur Lemur catta portraitThere are a lot of species of lemur, but the ring-tailed (Lemur catta) is the one that gets 99% of the attention somehow, and I’m actually a little tired of them myself. The ones outdoors were a little active in the chilly air, but not terribly so, and my shooting angle was downwards, which I hate. A cluster of them, however, were in the glassed viewing enclosure, huddled together on a branch a short distance overhead, and I decided to go in close for a portrait, if I could get past the shortcomings of the filthy glass, the bad light, and the inappropriate background. This was the first frame I took, and I was sure I’d gotten reflections in it, so I shot a bunch more, including some great eye-contact and backing off a bit to do a pair. As I unloaded the images and started reviewing them, however, the expression in this one grabbed me immediately, and there was nothing distracting in the frame at all – even the light color is pleasantly warm (note the orangish cast on the cheeks.) It wasn’t my intention at the time, but this is also exactly what you’d want for a magazine cover: simple and direct subject, open space at top for header, and plenty of useful space along sides and bottom for content teasers and barcode. I just like the expectant, Les Mis appeal to the expression, though.

For portrait people, there’s one more aspect I’ll point out. The guideline on portraiture is generally shooting at somewhere between 80 and 120mm in focal length, aperture of f8. The point behind these is that together, they produce the best proportions and depth-of-field for portraits. A wider angle, for instance, may cause a small amount of fisheye distortion that might make the nose prominent. Here, I was shooting at 80mm, f4, and while the eyes are sharp (the point you should always focus upon,) you can see the right ear and the tip of the nose are going out of focus – might seem okay for this usage, but not something that should be done for people. The background, however, is exactly what you’d want, and there is an outline of sharpness around the lemur itself, just grabbing the viewer’s eye.

It will be a while before there’s much else to photograph around here, which is why the title refers as much to me as to the subjects herein, and you’ll probably see a few posts of archive shots for a bit. So this was a decent break to help along the slow season, but I’ll still get a few things of interest up as we go.

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