Catching Insects in Flight
With Joe McDonald
This summer I gave myself a real challenge. I decided to try to photograph insects in flight, a task that would have been nearly impossible except for some rather specialized equipment that is, fortunately, commercially available. Years ago, British photographer Stephen Dalton stunned the world with his fabulous photographs of insects in flight, work that involved custom-built flash and triggering equipment and a grant from Kodak. Although I admired his work immensely I was also frustrated that I had no way to even attempt similar images.
Fortunately all of that has changed, and the Insect Rig by Cognisys has made capturing flying insects a reality. Not that it’s easy: insects still have to fly into the X-beam of two laser sensors to trigger a high speed shutter and the flashes that freeze the insect’s motion. Last summer, using just a Range IR I did some interesting work at night where I placed the infrared beam of the Range IR just below a UV light that brought in myriad insects throughout the night. For those shots I simply set a long, 8 second exposure and set my camera’s drive on Continuous Low, and I captured a series of 8 second exposures until my camera’s battery died, generally after around 500 shots. The Range IR was wired directly to a flash that triggered the other three flashes, all set at 1/64th power to insure the fastest flash duration. If an insect broke the beam, the flashes fired, and if I was lucky I captured something great. Admittedly most of those shots were blank, as nothing broke the Range IR beam during the exposure, and many of the shots I did capture were blurred, as only a distant wing or insect butt broke the beam, but over the course of a week or so I managed to get some wonderful shots.
Encouraged by that success I vowed to devote much more time to insect photography this summer, and for that task I decided to try the Insect Rig. Although you can carry the insect rig and attempt to approach insects, I mounted the rig on a BH55 ballhead and TVC 24L tripod and set the rig up at several different locations. The key to the rig is the High Speed Shutter that responds almost instantaneously when an insect breaks the beam, thus avoiding camera lag time that would make this work virtually impossible otherwise. The camera is set on Bulb so the camera’s shutter is open, and the controls in the Insect Rig advances the frame either after the system is triggered or after one minute if nothing happened.
Two or three RRS items will really make working with the rig easier, and those items are the Mini-Clamp Package or the B2-Duo Double Clamp, and a long multi-purpose rail to slide the entire rig forward or back to get the correct framing. I attached a 100mm lens to the High Speed Shutter and devoted that lens and a camera to the project for the month I worked with bugs. I worked nocturnal insects that I attracted to the UV light, and bees, beetles, and flies either to a hummingbird feeder or to a bait site that was loaded with plenty of disgusting things to attract flies and carrion beetles. Since I had everything mounted on a tripod I could leave the rig go for the entire day or night, just checking the system regularly to change cards or batteries. It was great fun, and it was the first time I could finally attempt shots like those that one of my photo heroes did so well.