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For me there was no rest after final exams were over; it was right off to southern Utah to begin work on a summer research project on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, Cicindela albissima.

I’ll write more on the research itself over on my cicindela blog, but for now a bit on photographing the beetles.  This was my third trip out to the dunes and as ever I could not wait to get some shots of the beetles, now with an improved set of equipment, including a shiny new Canon 7D. It was not until the end of the first week of my stay that I found time to take a morning off to focus on photography.

As with most tiger beetles the adults are quite flighty and the best time to get close enough to this species for a good photo is mid morning when they are just emerging for the burrows which they spent the night in.  My first tries were less the successful; there was the usual slow chase as I followed the uncooperative beetle about and then at last take a few shots.  Unfortunately I had set the flash, a Canon 580 Ex speedlite with a Micro Apollo softbox, too far away from the subject and as a result the lighting was just a little too harsh.

Annoyed by this rather poor first attempt I switched focus to capturing some video of these intriguing beetles. This was done taken with my new Canon 7D SLR which is capable of  recoding  HD video, a feature which I was interested to explore. The video set up was bare bones with only the harsh sunlight for illumination, a tripod, and a borrowed Canon 180mm macro. This solid lens allowed me to get fairly close-up shots while remaining a fair distance away, ideal for minimally obtrusive video work. I hope to soon edit together a short video from the footage I shot and will have that up in the coming weeks but here is a neat clip.

My second attempt at getting a photo of the adults was similarly lackluster. I had set up an old Nikon Ais 55mm 1:2 macro lens with an adapter on an extension tube and the flash was now moved closer to the subjects. With this setup the distance between the camera and subject was quite short requiring a good deal more care in getting near the subject. It was during mid evening and the adults were still very active when I found a mating pair and got right up to them. As best I could I focused while the manual aperture was set at f/11, darkening the viewfinder. When I thought the focus was about right I snapped a few shots and, not surprisingly, spooked off the beetles.  Unfortunately the focus was a several millimeters off and only the tarsi of one beetle was actually in focus. The solution to this problem was very simple – something modern cameras do automatically – open up the lens and let as much light as possible in, then stop down the lens to the desired f-stop (it does take a bit of guessing/counting the clicks of the aperture ring to get it right).

My third try went far better; it was after the day after the first rain in over a month and with the temperature lower than usual the adults were slightly sluggish, by far easier to approach. I used the Nikon 55mm macro,  extension tube, and 580 Ex with diffuser as before; this time my first attempt was successful.

In this shot the spectacular colors of the beetle can be fully seen and there is no harsh/obtrusive shadow present. Any comments on the lighting or questions on the setup? I will have more details on photographing these beetles – particularly close-up shots – and some notes on photographing the larvae in later posts so stay tuned!

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