Big Dreams For The Little Things

Approaches to macro photography that highlight the unseen world around us
macro photography by Clay Bolt

The Common Eastern Bumble Bee (Bombus impatiens) is a species that appears to be expanding its range while some others are in decline. Photographed in Madison, Wisconsin.

It is hard for me to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be fascinated with the smaller creatures with which we share our world. Since I was a child, I have been utterly spellbound by—obsessed with, really—insects, reptiles and amphibians. They live all around us, carrying on lives that are comprised of the stuff of science fiction films, all wrapped up in an array of the most wondrous, delightful, perfectly developed forms that one could ever imagine. Some of the best travels that I’ve ever undertaken have been on my hands and knees, carefully peering into the leaf litter in my backyard, like an observant giant flipping open the lid to an uncharted universe.

I would have never dreamt that this innate passion would one day turn into a career. Over the years, as a natural history and conservation photographer, I’ve had the privilege of working with some of the world’s leading conservation organizations. Much of my time is spent dreaming up new ways to use my macro photography to convince others to take care of these important creatures before they are lost forever to the great void of extinction. There are different approaches to conservation photography, and the tactic that I’ve used most often, or attempted to utilize, anyway, is the production of creative macro photography that surprises viewers, and hopefully fills them with enough joy or wonder that they begin to advocate for the protection of these precious creatures.

What follows is a selection of a few of my favorite subjects and images from the past few years, with insight into why and how I made each photo. While some subjects are from far-flung places, I caution against falling into the trap of thinking one must travel to distant lands to find subjects worth documenting. I can say without reservation that no species have enchanted me more than those I have had the opportunity to interact with on a regular basis in the streams, fields and forests near my own home. In fact, I would encourage anyone who is interested in becoming a conservation photographer to begin in his or her own community. As Robert Michael Pyle has written, “What is the extinction of a condor, to a child who has never seen a wren?” So it goes for all of us, no matter the age.

Macro Photography: Keeping It Natural
The importance of understanding a subject

macro photography sweat bee Clay Bolt

A Halictus Sweat Bee (Halictus poeyi) prepares to land on an Aster next to a Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens), South Carolina.

Few things are more important to the wildlife photographer than time spent to understand the biology of a subject before you encounter it in the field. Just as a professional athlete spends countless hours watching highlight reels and running practice drills, so should the nature photographer have a thorough understanding of a subject’s prime habitat and behavior before seeking it out. You might only have one chance to document an elusive subject, so being prepared for the moment is essential. While we all get lucky from time-to-time, I’ve always found that the harder I work, the luckier I get!

Rough green snake, Pickens, South Carolina

macro photography green snake Clay Bolt

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), Pickens, South Carolina. This is a non-venomous species that feeds on insects, small reptiles and amphibians. It is primarily arboreal and will often mimic the rocking motion of a branch in the wind to avoid detection by predators and prey.

For several years, I had dreamed of encountering a rough green snake in the wild. These graceful, non-venomous, insect-eating snakes mimic the rocking motion of tree branches and other vegetation in the breeze.

On a hike near my former South Carolina home, I came face-to-face with this individual doing just that. Because I knew that this was a shy creature, rather than rushing in to get the shot, I quietly followed the snake, paying close attention to its body postures to ensure it felt relaxed and comfortable. Using a 180mm macro lens, I was able to create the more artistic image I had in mind, rather than a photo of a snake that was in obvious distress.

Leafcutter bee building her nest, Pickens, South Carolina

macro photography leafcutter bee Clay Bolt

A female leafcutter bee (Megachile subgenus Megachiloides sp), returns to her nest with a small circular piece of leaf which she’ll use to line the nest of her young. Pickens, South Carolina.

Female leafcutter bees make cradles for their young from perfectly trimmed circles of leaves. I had spent some time researching leafcutter bees and observing them in the wild for an ongoing project on North American native bees. In time, I gained a feel for how often females would forage and return to their nests with new construction materials. Because of this, I was able to position my camera, pre-focused in the right position above the nest site, along with fill flash so that I could freeze the action within the few seconds when she approached the nest entrance each time.

Taking It All In
Using wide-angle macro to tell the story of a small subject

macro photography salamander Clay Bolt

Ensatina Salamander (Ensatina eschscholtzii), Muir Woods, San Francisco, California. Photographed for National Geographic.

I often use wide-angle macro photography in my work, which allows me to show a very small subject in the context of its environment. This can be crucial when my mission is to visually connect an obscure species to the habitat it requires for survival.

For this technique, my favorite lens is the Sigma 15mm F2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye, which allows me to get very close to small subjects while still offering sufficient background details. A similar effect can be achieved using a standard wide angle lens coupled with a short extension tube.

Limosa harlequin frog, Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama

macro photography limosa frog Clay Bolt

Limosa harlequin frog, Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama.

I feel both privileged and pained when I have the opportunity to make images whose intention are to inform the public about the plight of a species that is in eminent danger of extinction. For the past couple of years, I have been working in Panama at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve to document the last known breeding population of a species of frog that has declined severely over the past couple of decades due to chytrid fungus. Chytrid has ravaged amphibian populations worldwide. By giving the viewer a sense of the habitat that a rare species needs, while showing its form in beautiful light, it both tells a story and (hopefully) serves as a call to action for its protection.

Hunt’s bumblebee, Bozeman, Montana

macro photography hunts bumblebee Clay Bolt

Hunts bumblebee (Bombus huntii), pollinating a sunflower in a community garden, Bozeman, Montana.

For the past three years, I’ve been focusing much of my time on documenting and telling the story of North America’s native bees. We have nearly 4,000 species north of Mexico, and bumblebees—arguably our most well-known native bee species—are also some of our most threatened. One in four species of North American bumblebees are at risk of extinction today.

The wonderful thing about bumblebees, like many native pollinators, is that they thrive when they have native plants for food and a pesticide-free environment. For this image, wide-angle macro photography allowed me to showcase the fact that this beautiful bee was thriving in a community garden in Bozeman, Montana, rather than in a wildlife preserve.

Being Dramatic: The Darkside
Create striking mini portraits with multiple off-camera flashes

macro photography harvestman spider Clay Bolt

Harvestman spider resting inlander leaf, South Carolina.

I used to be one of those nature photographers who only shot with available light. Truth be told, this was due, at least in part, to the fact that flashes intimidated me. It didn’t feel natural to be fiddling with dials in the great outdoors. However, once I learned my way around them, I’ve never gone back. Off-camera flashes allow me to shoot in just about any type of lighting condition, from sun-up to sundown, and also make it possible for me to produce dramatic, model-like portraits of small creatures. This technique offers a great way to really bring out the details in small subjects that might otherwise elude a person’s eye. I use two contrasting techniques to do this.

One of the simplest ways that you can produce beautiful portraits of small creatures is by either placing a dark cloth behind the subject or underexposing the available light in the scene. Next, place one flash in front of the subject for fill light (to bring out the details) and another flash behind the subject to produce a rim-light. Voila! An instant glamour shot.

Resting orchid bee, Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama

macro photography orchid bee Clay Bolt

Resting orchid bee, Cocobolo Nature Reserve, Panama.

Orchid bees are fast-flying species of bees mainly found in the tropics of Central and South America. During the daylight hours, these denizens of deep tropical forests rarely stop moving. However, in the evening, males sleep by clamping themselves onto vegetation. This unique and interesting behavior presented me with the perfect opportunity to produce a portrait of this living jewel.

Harris’ three spot caterpillar, Pickens, South Carolina

macro photography Harris' Three-spot Moth Caterpillar Clay Bolt

The Harris’ Three-spot Moth Caterpillar (Harrisimemna trisignata) has the ability to evade predation in many different ways: it looks like a fresh bird-dropping, retains bits of previously shed heads (Exuviae) as a weapon against parasitic wasps and its backend perfectly resembles a spider’s face.

Without a doubt, Harris’ Three Spot caterpillar is one of the most bizarre creatures I’ve ever encountered. It has the ability to fool its potential predators by mimicking a bird dropping or a creepy spider, and if that doesn’t work, it thrashes about using hairs containing bits of exoskeleton from previous molts as weapons. When I came across this cool creature, I wanted to photograph it in a way that showed off its incredible form and fascinating weaponized hairs. Without the backlighting shown in this portrait, they would have been lost in the background.

Being Dramatic: Into The Light

In 2009, I co-founded an international photography-based biodiversity awareness project called Meet Your Neighbours (MYN). Today, MYN photographers can be found around the world, documenting the interesting, often common species that are found within their own communities.

One of the hallmarks of the project is the unique way in which we produce our images. Subjects are shot on or against a brightly lit white panel set that we call the “field studio.” The panel is lit from beneath or behind by a flash, which eliminates all of the detail in the background (rendering each RGB channel 255, or pure white). Next, one or two fill flashes with small softboxes are used to highlight the subject’s form. Some species show interesting patterns or translucencies that would typically go unnoticed. The mission of the project is to help viewers see common species that are overlooked in a new light.

Orchard orb weaver spider, Pickens, South Carolina

macro photography orchard orb weaver Clay Bolt

Orchard Orb Weaver, Leucauge venusta, Pickens, South Carolina.

While I’ve used the MYN technique in many exotic locations, true to the project’s form, much of my contribution to Meet Your Neighbours work was produced in my previous South Carolina backyard. A species that I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid was the orchard orb weaver spider—a species smaller than a grain of rain. I never realized just how beautiful it was until I photographed it in the field-studio.

Arboreal salamander, San Francisco, California

macro photography Arboreal salamander Clay Bolt

Arboreal Salamander (Aneides lugubris), San Francisco, California.

This tree-dwelling salamander is unique in that it is one of the only known reptiles to have “teeth.” I had dreamed of encountering this species for several years when my colleague Neil Losin and I discovered it during the National Geographic BioBlitz. The MYN technique offered the perfect way to highlight the sleek form of the amazing amphibian.

Atlantic brief squid, Awendaw, South Carolina

macro photography Atlantic brief squid Clay Bolt

Atlantic brief squid (Lolliguncula brevis), Awendaw, South Carolina.

Several years ago, I worked with The Nature Conservancy to document species that lived within and around oyster reefs along the Carolina coastline. Atlantic waters are dark and silted, so I needed a way to showcase the diversity of species in a clear and detailed manner.

Using a tank that I constructed with a white plexiglass back and sides, I was able to photograph an entire array of reef creatures right on the shoreline, returning them back to the ocean within a matter of minutes.

Clay Bolt is a Natural History and Conservation Photographer specializing in macro and close-up photography with an emphasis on invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. Originally from South Carolina, Clay now lives in Bozeman, Montana where he works as the communications lead for World Wildlife Fund's Northern Great Plains Program. He is an Associate Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). For the past decade Clay has regularly partnered with organizations to develop imagery that can be used to support conservation. He is the current president (2016–2017) and serves on the Board of Directors for the North American Nature Photography Association and CREA, an organization dedicated to conserving critical habitat in the Panamanian rainforest.