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A Small Mantis and a Big Camera

A second chance with a subject relieves the regret of a missed opportunity.

August 30, 2015 Close Ups / Insects

Recently, I bumped up against a conflict nature photographers deal with when they're not on the road: a good opportunity versus a prior commitment. If I lived in a bubble, I could drop everything when any good subject came along, when the light was just right or whenever I was inclined to indulge myself in making a photograph. But that's not real life, as much as I wish it was sometimes. Some days my reality is a begrudging compromise to find joy in whatever is keeping me from my camera.

So last month, when a young praying mantis posed on our garden phlox as we were hurrying off for dinner with friends, the best I could do was snap a picture of it with my cell phone camera (see July 16, 2015). It was a compromise, too. I got a photograph, but it wasn't the way I'd have preferred. Nothing compares to unrestricted time with the right gear and a great subject in good light.

Praying mantis on flower.

The mantis-on-phlox image on my phone is haunting me to distraction. The cure would be an opportunity to do it right. So I take a stroll around the perennial garden in search of one of the mantids that have been hunting there. The light is good, the winds are calm, the flowers look nice and I'm ready to spend some quality time with an insect.

After a few minutes, I spot a mantis on the dwarf cultivar of blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta). I gather my gear and come back to where its perched. I'd swear it's giving me a come-hither look.

Since a mantis relies on stealth and camouflage for protection, it is less likely than other insects to get spooked when I come near it. I've learned that a slow approach and no big movements keeps them fearlessly going about their hunt. I believe some insects get acclimated to a human presence when I move slowly and calmly. And I'm far larger than the birds or things that predate the mantis, so I might just look like part of the landscape around it.

Whether I make a pleasing photograph of this flirtatious mantis today, it's already been the kind of time I'd wished for when we were rushing off to dinner. So I'll find solace in this quiet moment for a boy and his bug.


MAKING THE PHOTOGRAPH (Techniques for Photographing Insects and Close Ups)

SUBJECT: Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) on blackeyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), in backyard garden, Indiana

CONDITIONS: Partly cloudy with thin clouds, warm, fairly calm

EQUIPMENT: Nikon D3, 200mm f/4 microNikkor, tripod, ball head

EXPOSURE and SETTINGS: 1/125 sec at f/8, ISO 400; Aperture Priority, Matrix meter, Manual focus

TECHNIQUE: Above I've set the scene for the chance to photograph a praying mantis in our perennial garden. All the elements had come together for a good photo. The subject was right, the light was right, too. I liked the surroundings and the possible backgrounds in my compositions. And I had the time and tools to do it well.

I immediately chose the 200mm macro lens since I knew it would give me a good working distance without getting too close to disturb the mantis. And its long focal length would reduce the background coverage for fewer distractions behind the bug. I intended to use the tripod since mantids don't move around quickly when they're hunting. But first, I handheld the camera and lens to find a good angle and distance for a desirable magnification and tripod position.

Then I reached for the tripod, attached the quick-release plate to the ball head, adjusted the legs to a near-enough height and looked through the viewfinder, so I could fine tune the placement. The series of changes in height and distance came in smaller increments as I reached a pleasing position. I wanted a view of the mantis straight on with sharpness on its head and eyes, a shallow depth of field and no sharp details behind it.

When I was in position, I clicked a frame with my finger on the shutter button -- no use for a cable release since I needed both hands for the focusing ring, the ball head control knob and the camera body when I changed its position. I checked the histogram. It could use more light. So I added some with the exposure compensation control to adjust the histogram farther to the plus side, but not to the point of overexposure -- called "clipping the highlights." The light was unchanging and I could wait for one of the frequent calm moments before I clicked another image. Now I made a slight adjustment to place the mantis on a green background behind its head and shoulders rather than against the out-of-focus yellow petals that would compete for attention or merge with the insect's tones.

I focused on the mantis' eyes just as I would on a bird or mammal and made a series of photographs including the one above. I had a moment to check the histogram and examine the camera-back monitor for sharpness where I wanted it. Over the next twenty minutes, I made more vertical compositions with the insect on this cluster of flowers.

When the mantis moved higher, I reoriented the camera to a horizontal position by rotating it using the tripod collar on the lens. This feature on longer closeup and most good telephoto lens made quick composition changes easier and reduced camera shake since the body-and-lens weight was centered over the ball head. I don't own a long lens without this feature. On some lenses, I've removed the factory collars and replaced them with better collars from trusted accessory makers.

I was pleased with the way things went during the intimate hour I shared with this accommodating insect. The photographs I made of the small mantis with my big camera dulled the pangs of regret from the cell phone photos. Though I would have liked another chance with the little green mantis on the pink phlox. I said dulled the regret, not erased it.

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