Improvising with light

One of the more valuable skills in nature photography is the ability to improvise, and make do with what you have at hand. I would love to be able to have all my equipment with me every time I take a walk in an interesting area, but this is never the case. The one predictable thing about life and living things is that they are unpredictable, and over the years I have found myself in situations where amazing photographic opportunities presented themselves at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes I simply had to miss them: a few weeks ago when I was in Mozambique, I saw an eagle catching and fighting a giant black mamba, but I was 50 meters away and the only lens I had with me was a 14mm wide angle; rather than try to take a lousy shot that wouldn’t really show anything, I simply stood back and watched the wonderful scene unfold.

Mystery clay turrets on the forest floor in Suriname [Canon 1Ds MkII, 16-35mm, ambient light]

But other times I was able to come up with a quick and dirty solution to a photographic challenge. A couple of years ago, while in remote rainforests of southern Suriname as a member of a team of biologists, I found a mysterious cluster of clay turrets on the forest floor. They were rock hard, each about a foot tall, some sealed at the top, others with a round opening. Nobody in the team had any idea who made them, and we speculated about giant earthworms, possibly crabs, termites perhaps. Then one night I was walking in the forest, and saw a huge cicada that had just emerged from one of the turrets, and was pumping its wings with air, following the molt. The mystery was solved.

A newly emerged cicada [Canon 1Ds MkII, 100mm, illuminated with a hand-held LED headlamp]

But now I had a problem: I desperately wanted to have a photo of this event, but all I had was a tripod and a camera, but no flash (earlier that evening I was photographing flowers in the forest), and the forest was pitch black. What I ended up doing worked out quite well. First, I set the camera on the tripod at the ground level (Gitzo Explorer, my favorite, which allows me to spread its legs horizontally), put the camera in the manual mode, and set the shutter speed to 20 seconds. Then I used my headlamp to paint with light the background, the forest floor, and finally the animal itself. It took a few tries as the cicada was moving its wings every now and then, but eventually I was able to catch a moment that lasted a few seconds when it was completely immobile.

I like the resulting photo: the light is fairly well diffused, there are no hard shadows, and the soft light of my LED headlamp was perfectly suited to show the translucent nature of the cicada’s wings. Of course this method of night photography will not work in every situation. The object of your photo must be still or nearly so, and your camera must be immobilized as well. But it is good to know that a headlamp can work very well as an emergency photographic light.

5 thoughts on “Improvising with light

  1. I am not certain what clicked in my mind this evening, but I recalled this post while reading some papers. Molting into one’s final instar is a vulnerable time. Perhaps these cicada turrets are a form of protection from army ants, raising the animal up and away from raid fronts. these turrets remind me of Jack (Longino)’s Cappadocian Stenamma, albeit without a little ball of clay.

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