Frustrations, part nine

Edit: I’d already used “part eight” on a previous post and missed it, so this has been renamed.

I have a small collection of school presentations that I’ve put together, primarily about arthropods – life cycles, feeding habits, camouflage, and so on. For one of them, I have pretty much everything about lady beetles illustrated, save for just one thing: a photo of one with the elytra (wing sheaths) raised and the wings extended. I have one crappy image obtained by chance several years ago, but I wanted a sharper and more detailed one, since this is something that few people get to see. Now, let me enumerate the activities of a nature photographer.

Lady beetles (genus Coccinellidae) fly for particular reasons, but more often arrive where they intend to be (such as a food source) and then remain, sometimes for days; their defenses include a shape that’s difficult to get under, a hard chitin, and the ability to exude foul-tasting hemolymph, so they rarely have to fly to escape threats. This means that observing even a colony of lady beetles waiting for one to take off is an exercise approaching pointlessness – especially when you need macro magnifications which translate to extremely tight focus. Pick one and stay with it, because you won’t lock focus on any other in time to capture the action. Lady beetles raise their elytra only a fraction of a second before launching into the air, so timing has to be impeccable.

There’s a small workaround, however. Holding a lady beetle in your hand can induce it to fly fairly dependably – they know when they’re not on a hospitable surface. Chances are, they’ll climb to the highest point on your hand and almost immediately launch themselves into space, so it’s possible (emphasis here) to control the conditions and nail this behavior. In fact, this should be easy, right? Simply capture a lady beetle and keep the camera focused on your fingertips waiting for the takeoff. No sweat.

This is where theory and practice clash. Lady beetles do not always take the shortest path directly to the highest point, and may pause an indeterminate time when they arrive. Focus has to be bang on, and tripping the shutter too soon might mean a delay while the flash recharges (do not even entertain the thought of trying this without a strobe) which is always when the beetle will take off. Macro work is indeed controlled by certain fates, including the best behavior happening while the strobe recharges and a wicked breeze starting up just when you’re tackling a subject that moves easily in the wind. If you happen to pursue this outdoors in a nice natural setting, you have but one chance at the image before the beetle has flown off.

MissedAgainI spent the winter simply waiting for the reappearance of the lady beetles, and with the spring have captured the first few specimens to emerge, taking them into the bathroom and trying to get the shot I wanted therein (small space, no hiding spots, easy to recapture my model.) Holding the camera in one hand and the beetle in the other, I struggled to maintain the precise distance between each for sharp focus, as the lady beetle wandered around, to be ready for the key moment, that 0.1 seconds of the exact pose I needed before my model disappeared from sight (generally to land on the window screen and be recaptured.) Most of what I got was what you see here; just a fraction of a second too late (or I’m extremely narcissistic about my fingertips – your call.)

Lady beetles do seem to have a certain pattern recognition: after a couple of attempts, they’ll simply tuck in and refuse to do anything, sitting as if dead in your palm. Once on the window screen, they tend to hang on tightly and are difficult to dislodge, and may even get into the little gap between screen and frame where they’re challenging to extract (not to mention coating themselves in dust rather unphotogenically.) Each attempt can end up taking several minutes, a tense build-up to, generally, a complete failure.

And yet, patience may win out. Eventually, you get your timing down and actually capture the beetle in midair just after launching and…
…WHERE ARE THE GODDAMNED WINGS?!?! Seriously, they’re smoky-colored and twice the length of the elytra – where the hell did they go?

Oh, sure, the pose is adorable, with the little bowed hind legs hanging down and the hunched wing sheaths – how often do you think you can capture an insect photo that spells out “Wheee!” so well? There’s even dislodged dust from the screen in the air! But holy shit, is it too much to ask to actually have the prominent wings in a photo of a flying lady beetle? Just… one… image to complete the presentation – I’m a nature photographer, I should be able to obtain this, right?

Yes, in a fit of generosity/stupidity I’d released the beetle once I’d confirmed in the camera’s LCD that I captured it in midair, and I didn’t realize the lack of this pertinent detail until I’d uploaded the images to the computer. So it’s going to take capturing another to try again (a previous attempt had run into strobe issues, so I’d released that specimen too.) It’s one thing to get images of whatever you might happen across, maybe with a little planning, and yet another to try for a specific type of image or behavior – this quest has been going on for months now, with a species that really isn’t rare at all. So my message to any budding nature photographers here is, have a better grasp of your patience and frustration than I have ;-)