Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and compositions for each individual.  The ones that flee are a completely different matter, and I often end up chasing lots of different ones around, hoping to get close enough for any kind of photo and/or find one that is slightly less skittish then most.  Of course, all of this is on a continuum; even insects that end to hunker down can be pushed past their comfort level and eventually hop, drop, or fly away.  Learning where those thresholds are for various invertebrate species has been really helpful over the years.

Katydid nymph on white prairie clover (Dalea candida) earlier this week.  Katydids are usually pretty easy photo subjects.

Katydids and grasshoppers tend to be hunkerers, especially if I catch them in the middle of a meal.  Often, if they’re feeding on a flower, for example, they’ll slide around to the far side of the flower when I get close.  That’s actually nice because it lets me finish my approach while they’re not looking directly at me.  Then – and here’s a little trick you’re welcome to use – I can reach my hand out to the other side of the flower and they’ll slide back toward me to get away from my hand.  Sometimes, of course, they’ll hop off the flower when they see my hand, but usually they seem reluctant to abandon their food.  In most cases, I can repeat the hand trick at least 3 or 4 times before it starts making them nervous.

…and another one on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).

Other invertebrates that tend to hunker and allow photographs to be taken include stink bugs, aphids, and caterpillars.  Crab spiders (one of my favorites) fall into this category too, but they can sometimes be a little touchier than katydids and others to the hand trick.  Sometimes, it works well, but some crab spiders can be more difficult to lure onto the side of a flower where I’m at.  If I can approach slowly enough that they don’t move away in the first place, that’s always the best.  Once they hide beneath or behind the flower, it seems like about 50% of them will either drop off the flower or refuse to be baited when they see my hand.

…and another one.

Earlier this week, I spent an hour or so at our family prairie photographing insects because the wind was fairly calm and there were some nice diffuse clouds creating nice lighting conditions.  During that hour, I concentrated on two different subjects; katydids and damselflies.  The katydids, as per usual, were pretty accommodating, and the main challenge was the slightly swaying flowers they were feeding on.  The damselflies were a whole ‘nother story, and I ended up chasing them around quite a bit to get a few decent photos.

A damselfly rests briefly on an ironweed (Vernonia sp.).

Damselflies definitely fit into the category of insects that flee.  The nice thing about damselflies and dragonflies (as opposed to bees, moths and butterflies, for example) is they tend to be territorial.  That means that when they fly, they don’t usually go far.  Sometimes, if I’m patient, they’ll return to the same perch I flush them from.  That said, they can still be really difficult to get close to.  Staying low to the ground (keeping my head below the horizon line) seems to help, especially if I can avoid having my shadow pass over them.  A slow and steady approach usually works best, but it’s far from foolproof.  During the vast majority of attempts, they fly off just as I get in photography range.

The other issue with skittish subjects like damselflies is that when they do land, they often land in places that don’t work for photography.  That can include perches in the middle of a bunch of leaves that partially obscure them from view, or perches with vegetation behind them that overly clutters up the background.  The ideal situation is when they land on a relatively high perch, or at least one with good clear space all around it.  Trying to wait until they land in a favorable location and then watching them fly away just as I get close is an example of why insect photography is not for the impatient.

Eventually, I found a few damselflies that let me get close enough for some fairly intimate portraits.  The end results – nice peaceful looking insects resting on perches – don’t paint an accurate picture of the effort invested, however.  The grass stains on the knees of my pants and the sweat pouring down my face were better indicators of that.

Since I didn’t document the visual aspect of the damselfly photo hunt, here is a quick recap:

Helzer approaches a perched damselfly slowly.  Very slowly.  He creeps through the vegetation, being careful not to even slightly bump any plants because…DANG!  it flew away.  Ok, now he’s spotted another one but it’s not in a good spot.  He’s bypassing that one in favor of another on a higher perch.  He’s getting pretty close this time, but there’s a stray grass stem in the way.  Oh!  It looks like he’s going to try to carefully slide that stem out of the way.  It’s a bold move, but it’s going pretty well and…DANG!  It flew again.  Hmm.  He’s got another one in his sights now, and he’s working his way toward it, staying nice and low, keeping an ironweed plant between him and his subject.  Now he’s leaning around the ironweed…  he looks like he’s in range…. he’s focusing and depressing the shutter…OH NO!!  He lost his balance just a little and as he reached to catch himself the damselfly flew away again.  What a disappointment!

You get the idea…

One of the best parts of owning our own prairie is that I can do this kind of insect photography and not have to worry about anyone watching me.  The only thing I can think of that might make me look more foolish to passers by is when I’m chasing fruitlessly after a flying bee or butterfly with a net, swiping wildly at it while weaving back and forth in its path.  At least when I’m crawling around on the ground with my camera I’m a little more difficult to see from a distance.

Invertebrate photography can be frustrating, especially when I’m chasing insects in the “flee” category, but it’s awfully rewarding when I actually get a few good photos as a result.  Unfortunately, most viewers of my insect photos don’t give me any extra credit for the degree of difficulty of some photos over others.  The katydid shots in this post, for example, were a cakewalk compared to the damselflies, but unless I’d told you, you wouldn’t have known or cared, would you?  But I know, and I feel a little extra pride in these close-up damselfly portraits.

I’m just glad no one documented the process…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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10 Responses to Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017

  1. marknupen says:

    It is so good to see you were able to get shots that looked like you were actually, ‘up close and personal face to face’ with your damselflies. HAH, stunning
    thanks

  2. Mary Voges says:

    We at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center eagerly await each post and this particular one was talked about by staff and interns with envy and admiration. Personally, I would love to just hang out with you, but unfortunately, I would be the one stumbling and tripping over the plants, ruining your beautiful shots. Thanks Chris for bringing life and conversation to our prairies.

  3. Lou says:

    Prairies are so subtle that most miss their beauty and complexity. Thank you for bringing them to our desktop, without the sweat, stickers in the knees, and frustration. With a name like damselfly of course they are shy.

  4. phn1939@frontier.com says:

    Let me describe my approach for “those that flee”.  For many years I have been taking a morning run and on occasion have observed natural phenomena worthy of photographing.  Unfortunately for the range of photography, the machinery necessary was not portable enough to carry.  When digital cameras became available, I found very versatile, small point & shoot cameras with capabilities to take photos from telephoto to macro without changing lens.  The macro setting worked well for insects and the first camera I used had an f14 setting on macro with flash.  The f14 provided a decent depth of field.  I soon discovered that the flash sort of acted as an immobilizer for many fleeing insects and made it possible to photograph those more or less at leisure and without flash.   You should be able to try a similar thing with you larger camera.  

    From: The Prairie Ecologist To: phn1939@frontier.com Sent: Thursday, July 6, 2017 7:51 AM Subject: [New post] Photo of the Week – July 6, 2017 #yiv9713563222 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv9713563222 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv9713563222 a.yiv9713563222primaryactionlink:link, #yiv9713563222 a.yiv9713563222primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv9713563222 a.yiv9713563222primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv9713563222 a.yiv9713563222primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv9713563222 WordPress.com | Chris Helzer posted: “When photographing invertebrates, I can split most critters into two categories: those that hunker down and those that flee.  Those that hunker down are awfully nice because I can set up and photograph them thoughtfully, playing with various angles and co” | |

  5. Karen H says:

    Those little damsel flies have a very coy little smile. Suppose she is a bit shy?

  6. I signed up for this blog a couple of months ago and have enjoyed every one. This one especially mad me smile-been there, done that. As a 70 year old who enjoys the prairie areas around here (central Iowa) and enjoys macro photography and who has to carry a walking stick to help me up and down it is a real challenge. But my wife and I still enjoy the “hunt” as we walk through the prairies.

  7. This. I can relate to every word!
    Great post, and beautiful photos. :)

  8. Great shots of the damselfly! When you find insects fascinating there’s a new universe to explore!

  9. prairiescanner says:

    I am glad I found this site (or it found me). I have been getting slow motion video of damselflies in flight, the male aerial display, perching, mating, but not yet eating! I use a hand held iphone 6 with and without macro lens, but always at slow motion. As you mention in this post and elsewhere, these insects are fortunately territorial and will eventually return to the patient observer. For the aerial display, I sat in a creek in a camp chair for half an hour or so before the males decided I was not a threat and resumed their “display of attrition” — right off my kneecap! Results on YouTube (https://youtu.be/gsCnkmlEz0w) or Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/216321138).

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