Nov 092015

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get out of the lab. After another busy summer (which, by the way, disappeared altogether too quickly), my wife and I decided to get away and visit a good friend in Northern California a few weeks ago. While we were in the area, I also made time to visit with friends and colleagues in a trio of museums along the way, and spend some time working through their collections looking for specimens to include in my research. It’s been awhile since I took my camera out of my bag and put it to use, and even longer since I shared a whole series of photos here on the blog, so I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of what we saw and did!

Although we flew into Sacramento, we set out right away for the coast and spent some time exploring San Francisco. After exploring the Golden Gate area & Sausalito for lunch, we made our way back to the wharf in time for dinner. Pier 39 at sunset proved to be a good decision, and we managed to escape the Fog for our entire visit to the area, resulting in some pretty spectacular views.

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Jan 112013

Notice anything wrong with this picture?

Photo copyright Omid Golzar

Photo copyright Omid Golzar, reproduced here for editorial comment only.

If your first thought was “Why are there jumping spider eyes photoshopped on to the butt of a beetle?”, then you’re correct!

I don’t normally have a problem with digital art like this; it encourages creativity, makes the viewer think about what their seeing, and introduces a bit of whimsy (and who doesn’t like whimsy?). What I do have a problem with, is when digital art is portrayed as biologically accurate, and marketed as such to the public in a major news outlet.

Last month, The Sun (UK) ran a feature on Omid Golzar’s work, and captioned the above piece “Whiskers…beetle” before going on:

OK, he does look a bit grumpy — but so would you if you’d been left in a fridge before having your mugshot taken.

This amazing close-up of a beetle — with its “almost human” whiskers and bulging eyes — is one of a series of photos of bugs taken by Omid Golzar.

Read more:

It’s not just The Sun though, as the Daily Mail (UK) also featured this piece of digital art by Mr. Golzar almost a year ago, and also failed to note that it was manipulated. But how does something this ridiculous get published in the first place? Mr. Golzar was obviously aware that this piece was a fabrication of his imagination, and yet allowed it to be representative of his work not once, but twice, despite having an impressive portfolio of hyper-magnified insect portraits that are biologically accurate.

But, the blame shouldn’t rest entirely on Mr. Golzar, and I think the editors who run these stories are the ones who should be embarrassed. Taxonomy Fails are one type of error (and one which I have a little more sympathy for), but this equates to a complete failure to recognize basic biology (i.e. insects having compound eyes made up of multiple facets), something that most 8th or 9th grade students could surely point out! It should have been clear that the photo had been drastically manipulated, and thus it should have no place in the newsroom.

To illustrate, how do you think a mainstream media news editor would react if I suggested they run these images?

Sure they’re both photos of Justin Bieber, but they’ve been heavily modified using Photoshop, rendering them unusable in a newsroom (despite being pretty hilarious otherwise). And yes, that’s a Lamprey in the image on the right, which is about the same evolutionary difference as putting spider eyes on a beetle.

Obviously no self-respecting news outlet would run these, so why is it OK to run a non-human photo without ensuring it was a legitimate representation of the subject? Combined with the nearly daily Taxonomy Fails, I would argue that biological illiteracy in the media has been steadily increasing over the past several years, and I fear the impacts it may have on public perceptions of nature, the environment and science in general. I don’t have a simple solution to curb this trend other than continuing to draw attention to these mistakes, and hope the media starts to notice and remembering it is still their responsibility to present honest & accurate information, no matter what the subject matter.

h/t to Derek Hennen for sharing the original Sun article.

Dec 312012

Some how it’s already December 31st, which besides being terrifying that another year has come and gone, also makes it time for a look back at the year that was — because honestly I feel like I blinked and missed it all!

2012 was a crazy year for me. Between finishing up the field guide, developing & teaching my first college-level course, starting my PhD and travelling to several meetings and workshops across North America, I saw and did a lot of new stuff that I’m grateful to have been able to do, and feel like the year was a pretty productive one overall (although I failed to get a few papers out that I had hoped to and which continue to hang over my head…).

In addition to the “traditional” measures of academia, 2012 was a big year for alternative projects as well. I joined up with Crystal “The Bug Geek” Ernst to start the ESC Blog, started co-hosting a podcast with some really awesome people, participated in a journal club made possible because of social media, and interacted with a ton of amazing people online, who all inspired me, stimulated my mind and provided a much needed stress release!

Here at the blog I found myself battling periods of writing cramps and unwanted mental vacations, but still managed to come up with 79 posts (including this one). As for readers and visitors, 2012 was a banner year for my blog, with more then 25,000 people from 160 countries & territories stopping by to read articles or look at photos. In case you’re interested, my most read posts this year were:

  1. Field Guide to the Jewel Beetles of Northeastern North America – 5.5k views
  2. New species wants you to See No Weevil – 5k views (largely because it was featured by both Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True & Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science — OMG)
  3. Like a Deer Fly in the Headlights – 3k views

For comparison, the 3 posts which I enjoyed writing the most were:

  1. Dipterist Files – Willi Hennig
  2. Twitter for Scientists (and why you should try it)
  3. Irreplaceable fly described from Australia

I tried out some new ideas this year, stirred a few pots, and feel like I’ve made some pretty decent advances with my writing overall. No complaints there!

The one area that I feel like I failed at in 2012 is taking the time to pick up my camera! I only kept 1350 photos this year, and a large proportion of those don’t meet my standards for sharing here, or are of family. The number of bug photos I took would have been much lower had I not been at BugShot, which gave me a big kick in the pants to get out there and enjoy some free time. While I didn’t take as many photos as I would have liked, I did come away with some that I’m quite happy with. Some of these I’ve previously blogged, but most of these have been locked away in my hard drive until now, so enjoy!

Favourite Photo of the Year

Phymatidae ambush bug waiting for dinner

Phymatid waiting for dinner – Archbold, Florida

Favourite Fly Photo of the Year

Laphria index Robber fly Asilidae

Laphria index (Asilidae) – Guelph, Ontario

Favourite Photo of a Newborn Fly

Triumphant Eurosta solidaginis fruit fly Tephritidae

Triumphant Eurosta solidaginis fruit fly (Tephritidae) – Guelph, Ontario

Favourite Photo of a Fly Annoyed by my Presence

Euaresta festiva fruit fly (Tephritidae)

What are you lookin’ at? Euaresta festiva fruit fly (Tephritidae) – St. Catharines, Ontario

 Favourite Bug Porn Photo

Euschistus servus stink bugs (Pentatomidae) mating

Euschistus servus stink bugs (Pentatomidae) having a good time – Norfolk County, Ontario

Favourite White Box Photo

Conura sp. Chalcididae parasitic wasp

Conura sp. (Chalcididae) – Guelph, Ontario

Favourite Photo Using Techniques Learned from another Bug Blogger

Cicindella scutellaris tiger beetle (Carabidae)

I ended up with SO MUCH SAND DOWN MY PANTS after using Ted MacRae’s patented Tiger Beetle Stalking Crawl… Cicindela scutellaris – Norfolk County, Ontario

Favourite Photo of a Bug Blogger Caught Posting to Twitter

Geek in Question

Hahahaha 😀 – The Bug Geek – Knoxville, Tennessee

Favourite Photo of a Parasite Freshly Excavated from a Lab Mate’s Foot

Chigoe Flea Tunga penetrans Siphonaptera

Chigoe Flea (Tunga penetrans) female – Guelph, Ontario (originally “collected” in Guyana). Look for a full write up and photo essay about this creepy insect soon (I promise).

Favourite Landscape Photo

Fireflies under fiery skies

Fireflies under fiery skies in my parent’s back yard – Camlachie, Ontario

Favourite Photo of an Insect Sitting on Santa’s Lap

All I want for Christmas are my 2 fore wings!

All I want for Christmas are my 2 front wings! Manduca sp. (labelled Tomato Hornworm at the pet shop) posing with Santa – Guelph, Ontario

Favourite Photo that Keeps Me Taking Photos Because I Just. Barely. MISSED IT!!

Ants carrying dead wasp

The one that got away — from me at least, I’m pretty sure that wasp is doomed. If only I had focused a few millimeters closer to me… Sigh

And finally…

Favourite Photo of My Wife, Who Makes it All Worthwhile

Renee & I at the cottage

My wife Renee and I enjoying a short vacation at the cottage. A good reminder that there’s more to life than work and to take some time to relax with the people you love.

Dec 152012

I ventured out to Guelph Lake Thursday evening to observe and try to photograph this year’s Geminid meteor shower. For about an hour, from 12:30-1:30 AM, I sat on top of the dam and watched as more than 50 pieces of ancient asteroid burned up in Earth’s atmosphere. It was one of the most spectacular meteor showers I’ve witnessed, and was well worth bundling up and staying out late!

While just witnessing this year’s Geminid Meteor shower was exciting, I was finally able to capture a few pieces of the doomed asteroid on camera.

Geminid meteor - Facing North - Guelph Lake 2012

Geminid meteor – Northern Sky – Guelph Lake 2012

Geminid Meteor over Guelph Lake - Facing East - 2012

Faint Geminid Meteor (just to the left of centre, parallel to the Big Dipper) over Guelph Lake – East – 2012

Guelph Lake is a mere 5 minutes outside of the city of Guelph, and as you can see in the second photo, there is plenty of light pollution affecting our view of the sky (that big yellow glow is the Greater Toronto Area off in the distance). Luckily there are some places that still enjoy dark night skies, but for the most part they require some dedication and travel to get to.

Phil Plait (aka @BadAstronomer) has some beautiful photos of the Geminids shared by his readers over at his blog Bad Astronomy.

Stars over Guelph Lake - Geminids 2012

Stars over Guelph Lake, with only clouds to fill the earthly sky.

Photos captured with a Nikon D700 & Nikkor 18-70mm lens  (F3.5, 20 secs, ISO 500, Tripod).

Sep 092012
Hogna lenta group wolf spider portrait

Hogna lenta (or something closely related in the H. lenta species group) – Archbold Biological Station, Florida. These large wolf spiders are easy to spot at night by shining a flashlight off their large eyes, which reflect back a greenish light, much like mammal eyes, despite being completely different physiologically.

What would a lesson from Thomas Shahan be without a super close-up portrait of a spider? I’m stealing Dave Walter’s phrase “Adventures in Spider Misidentification” for this one though. When I took these photos I figured it’d be a cinch to identify this big spider because of those bright red margins on the chelicerae, but apparently that’s a pretty common trait in many wolf spiders (family Lycosidae). Not only that, but there is a huge amount of intra-specific variation in colours and patterns in this species group, making me less than confident in my ID of Hogna lenta.

If you have a better suggestion on the ID of this hairy hunter, please let me know! Here’s another photo that may be more useful for identification purposes.

Hogna lenta group wolf spider dorsal

Hogna lenta wolf spider – Archbold Biological Station, Florida

Aug 302012
Green Lynx Spider Peucetia viridans Florida Backlit

Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) — Archbold Biological Station

Still working on flash control, I thought I’d experiment with backlighting after seeing some of Alex Wild’s phenomenal leafcutter ant photos, where the detail in vegetation popped. I only have one off-camera flash however, so I looked around until I found this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) sitting nicely while the Florida sun shone brightly in behind, highlighting the leaves like I had hoped. From there, it was a matter of getting the correct combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO (1/200, f14 & ISO 400 in this case) to allow for the natural light to filter through the leaves, while using diffused flash to expose the spider. I’m not thrilled with the glare above the spider, and the composition isn’t great (it’s pretty heavily centered), but considering the wind was blowing the plant and the spider all over the place, I’m just happy I managed a shot that’s in focus and which somewhat recreates the scene I had envisioned! I’ll certainly be trying this trick again on a calmer day, or with a tripod and plamp around…

If you want to see a much different photo of a Green Lynx Spider, check out Crystal Ernst’s (aka The Bug Geek) incredible portrait.

Aug 292012
Ambush bug Phymatidae Phymatinae Florida Archbold Biological Station

Ambush bug – Phymata americana – Archbold Biological Station, Florida

While I’ve been using my camera in Manual mode and manually focusing my photos for years, I’ve stuck to using TTL flash, with fairly inconsistent results. One of the points Alex made during his BugShot lighting session was to try using manual flash to gain consistent control over the light output. I decided that would be one of the areas of my photography I’d concentrate on improving next, taming light to act how and where I wanted it to, and this was one of the shots that made me start thinking I was getting a hang of it.

Because there was such diversity of light and dark areas, from the shadowy region between leaves to the light regions on the ambush bug’s arms,  being in manual flash mode meant I didn’t have to worry which area my flash was going to expose for, and as a result, I got consistent lighting as I adjusted compositions and focus planes between shots. Luckily this ambush bug was patient and posed nicely while I got things figured out!

Also, apparently ambush bugs aren’t their own family anymore, but rather a subfamily (Phymatinae) of the assassin bugs (Reduviidae)! Who knew? Damn phylogeneticists not thinking to send me a memo when they shake things up like that…

Aug 292012

Before I knew it, Sunday morning was upon us and we were down to our final morning of BugShot 2012, which started off great with a raffle for Wimberly gift certificates and plamps for 4 lucky participants (no luck for me unfortunately). The day’s events were cut short because of various travel plans and concerns involving tropical storm Isaac, but Alex, Thomas and John did a great job answering some questions submitted to the Big-Box-O-Questions (you can see them and the answers thanks to Crystal’s Storify of the morning) before moving onto a talk by John about Digital Asset Management.

John’s DAM talk detailed some best practices regarding photo management and workflow, from the moment you click the shutter button right through to sharing and archiving. John is a big fan of Lightroom (as am I) and went over some of the features available for importing and cataloging your photo collections. I’ve been keeping a redundant folder system to protect myself from database corruptions, but John placed all of his trust (and files) into the hands of Lightroom’s management. It made me think that perhaps it’s time I let down my guard and save myself some time by letting Lightroom do the file management on import, but with my luck I’ll end up with a massive system failure shortly after doing so!

There was a lot of audience participation as many people had questions about software or suggestions from their own workflow, so John wasn’t able to get through much of his talk. Apparently the instructors will be sending around their presentations for people to look over on their own time, so I’ll look forward to seeing more of John’s thoughts on keeping files safe and ready to go.

To finish the workshop off, Alex talked briefly about selling images and strategies for making a little money off your work. While he does belong to a photo stock agency, Alex currently sells more through his own gallery site and uses his blog to raise his profile. He also credits his early start in social media and online photo sharing for his success now. I’d certainly love to make a little money off of my work to cover new toys or trips, so I’m going to try and finally get around to setting up a gallery site of my own soon. If people can’t find my images, then they won’t know what their missing out on (or something equally confident…). I’ll file that in the “To Do relatively soon” list.

With that, BugShot 2012 officially came to a close, with participants grabbing a quick lunch before heading off for flights before Isaac hit (which it never really did). Because of my travel arrangements, I had originally hoped to stay an extra night at Archbold and visit the insect collection Monday morning, but the threat of a tropical storm/hurricane forced me to get back to Orlando for the night instead. Alex was kind enough to give myself and Guillaume Dury (a grad student at McGill University) a ride back to civilization, and I had a little extra time to pick his brain about insects, photography and academia, making the rainy trip go by in a flash.

We found an affordable hotel room near the airport, and met up with Crystal, who was stuck until the next day unexpectedly, and had a nice evening chatting about life, work and the grad student way. A relaxed wake up the following morning, an easy shuttle to the airport, and practically no lines at the airport, and it wasn’t long before I was back in the air and heading home. In Chicago I even managed to find a sweet hide-out with plenty of power outlets, which made my WiFi-less layover more bearable. Another smooth flight back to Kitchener and I was back home (although I still got pulled aside by customs, like usual). I have to give major props to American Airlines, because I don’t think I’ve had such uneventful and enjoyable flights like I did this time; I’ll certainly be flying with them again in the future!

So that brings my BugShot 2012 experience to a close. I had an absolutely awesome time, and picked up several tips and plenty of inspiration to work with over the coming year. I’m extremely grateful to the instructors for their hard work, openness and for providing me with a student fee waiver so I could be a part of a great workshop. If you’re interested in photographing insects, whether for work or for play, I can’t recommend BugShot highly enough. You’ll learn new things, meet interesting people, and gain valuable experience that will make you a better photographer. I’d certainly like to go back in the future, and I hope to see some of you there too!

I’ll be posting some my photos over the next several days, as well as discuss some of the photo gear that John demonstrated which I think could make an affordable lab set up. Stay tuned for more soon.


The fringe of Isaac


Hmmm, I’m not really believing this “Sunshine State” thing…


Headin’ home

Aug 272012

It may just be me, but I think mornings in Florida are earlier than they are anywhere else. What other reason would make me be so slow to get out of bed this morning? Clearly not the late night photography, or the editing into the darkness, or the midnight social hours, because there’s definitely no down side to those activities. That must mean there’s a temporal disturbance surrounding Archbold Biological Station that makes mornings come sooner than anticipated!

After finally crawling from bed just in time for a bowl of cereal, the group was back out into the field to find and photograph whatever insects they could find, and put some of the newly learned techniques into practice. I spent the morning hanging out with Thomas Shahan and wandering through the Florida Scrub. This is such a unique habitat, and while the insects require a little more searching to find, there are some absolutely fantastic organisms roaming around. I spent some time with a patient bee fly (family Bombyliidae, photos to come later this week) as well as some of the stations Florida Scrub Jays, which weren’t afraid to pose for a photo. I’ve heard they really enjoy peanuts, so maybe they were looking for a handout for their time, but sadly I had nothing but thanks to give.

Soon we were back together at the station posing for a group photo (or 3, or 5…) and then learning about white box photography from Alex Wild. A white box is literally just that, a simple box lined with white paper on the inside to bounce light around, where you can place an insect to get super soft, diffuse lighting. What I found most interesting was Alex has begun leaving the back of his box open, allowing there to be a shadow produced along the back defining line of his subjects. We normally use styrofoam coolers from fish markets in our lab for this sort of photography, but I’m curious about trying Alex’s open back door technique (my only worry being that it leaves a pretty big opening for flies and other skitterish flying insects to vacate the area).

After lunch we had a few hours to spend off by ourselves, so I took MOAR photos, and then started getting them onto the computer to have a look. I’ve been pushing myself to get out of my shell and try new things, and by the first look at the photos, I’m going to have to keep trying! I really haven’t had a chance to edit anything yet, but I’ll be sure to share some photos throughout the week as I get them touched up.

We finished off the afternoon learning about focus-stacking from Thomas Shahan, and high speed photography from John Abbott. Both techniques are specialized for specific circumstances; focus-stacking to provide more depth of field in a composite of several frames focused on different planes, and high speed photography to stop insects in flight. Although I’ve done a lot of focus-stacking with my work in the lab on pinned specimens, I’ve never really tried it with live organisms in the field or studio before. The results can be quite stunning, but I’m not sure it’s something I’ll get into.

High speed flash photography however, is something that I’d love to try after I win the lottery! By using super-fast shutter speeds, big banks of high-output flashes and laser triggers (yes, LASERS), John is able to photograph insects in flight, completely stopping their motion. The photos that John showed were absolutely incredible (you can see a selection of his work in his gallery here), but it requires a ton of equipment (and considerable knowledge & experience with electrical engineering it would seem), most of which isn’t cheap. Like most things with digital photography now-a-days though, there is a potential more affordable alternative that may allow more people to get into the game, with a new product called StopShot. Maybe one day I’ll try my hand at high speed photography, but it will be awhile I expect.

After dinner we had another short photo critique session, and then plenty of free time to socialize and work on making or editing images well into the evening again!




Aug 262012

So I’m a day behind already with my recaps… Hopefully I’ll get caught up eventually!

After waking up to an amazing foggy sunrise over the Florida scrub Friday, classes started in earnest and we were Go! Go! Go! for the rest of the day. With a morning filled with demonstrations of a wide variety of photography toys tools from John Abbott (I’m going to cover some of these things in more detail in a later post) as well as an intro to Archbold and a basic entomology lesson (which was a good refresher, and nice to see how another entomologist goes about teaching it).

Friday afternoon was a series of lectures where the instructors shared the secrets between the techniques they’re best known for. Thomas Shahan revealed how he uses $50 worth of reverse-mounted garage sale lenses to get up close and personal with aesthetically pleasing arthropods. He made an interesting point that making your own equipment forces you to really understand what you’re trying to accomplish and understand the mechanics behind your photography (plus you’ll appreciate new gear more when you get it).

Alex discussed techniques to move and mold light around your insect subjects, demonstrating how the position of a flash can dramatically influence a photo; backlighting provides a nice rim accent that can accentuate fine hairs and setae while diffused overhead lighting brings out textures and colours in the insect. Alex also recommended using your flash off camera, and in manual mode rather than TTL or E-TTL. This is something I’ve been battling with, the inconsistency of TTL, so I made an effort to spend the rest of the weekend working in Manual (with promising results, but more on that later). I then spent the afternoon field session learning more about Alex’s lighting techniques. Tip number one was get the flash off the camera, start with the light coming directly down on top of the insect, and getting it as close as possible to the insect. Tip number two was giving your flash enough space to spread out before hitting your diffusion material (Alex prefers velum — a plasticized paper product that can bend and fold while he crawls through the undergrowth chasing ants while providing a nice soft glow).

Friday evening’s session started off with Alex, Thomas and John discussing the finer points of composition. I thought this part was excellent, because although they covered simple things like the Rule of Thirds, they also discussed the idea of simple backgrounds and contrasting tonal qualities between your subject and backgrounds. While I try to take composition into consideration, I generally feel like I’m more worried about getting any shot (and then the specimen depending on what it is and where I am) that I don’t always take the time to set the photo up to the max impact. This is one of the other aspects of my work that I’m going to try and improve on from here on out.

To finish the evening’s events off, students shared some of their photos for the attendants to critique. There wasn’t a whole lot to critique on many of the photos however, as it seems this is a very talented group of individuals! It was cool to see some other work, and see a variety of different styles. A little time spent in the field afterwards before bed topped off a fantastic day 2 for BugShot 2012!