BugShot (part 1)

Imagine a scene: rustic hand-hewn beams overlook a 1,200 sq ft conference room filled with six- to eight-person tables, facing a huge projection screen, modern conveniences at hand. Fill the room with 35 eager participants, three instructors and a few organizational helpers. Half the room is populated with the cream of the nation’s entomologists (and one herpetologist), frequently uttering the Latin binomial names of moths, tiger beetles and mantises. The other half of the room is filled with expert photographers experienced in macro-photography, the art of getting really, really close to really, really tiny objects to generate magnified images of a world the rest of us don’t want to imagine.

The other half (wait, say alert readers, you can’t, after two halves, have another half; well says the writer, excuse me for artistic license and besides which I think Congress does the same thing all the time) was people like me, sort of dilettante “buggers” who like their cameras and want to expand the horizons of what those cameras can do. A few of the participants and I agreed that we had witnessed an historic event.

Hello the rest of the world, I just spent three exhilarating days at the Shaw Nature Reserve near St. Louis, Missouri, the place where everyone who made the West into a European-culture dominated landscape started out. Distracted neither by steamboats nor wagon trains, I saw a lot of bugs and spiders.

This was one of those things that you had to be there to adequately describe; I was there, and I will try to describe. BugShot 2011 was the event. Led by three instructors and a few volunteers, we delved deeply into macrophotography.

Break a 1/8-inch piece off your No. 2 pencil. Contemplate the same. Our world is filled with untold millions of insects which are the same size or smaller than that chunk of graphite. These insects need to be photographed in exacting scale, revealing every hair, every imperfection, every little tiny mite clinging to its face or legs. Why? Well, why climb Mt. Everest? “Because it’s there.” (The mites, they don’t ask, they just go blindly along for the ride; that’s you and me doing the asking.)

The photographers came prepared. They boasted Canon 1D Mark III and IV models, Canon 5D, Canon 7D, Canon 40D cameras, DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflexes, big word for big camera with interchangeable lenses) with cases bursting with 100 and 150 mm macro lenses and the legendary Canon MP-E lens (I could write a whole column about this if I could hire a consulting writer), and arrays of flash units which, if simultaneously fired, would illuminate the Space Station. There were plenty of Nikons too, along with piles of point-and-shoots and cell phone cameras. I had this recurring paranoid fear that a team of robbers with Nixon masks would burst in to make off with $300,000 of photo equipment, except they could not possibly carry it all.

The “buggers” came prepared too, mainly with knowledge and enthusiasm, many happily equipped with lightweight point-and-shoot cameras which made plenty of good photos.

Only a few of us were neither serious entomologists nor possessed of $20,000 worth of equipment and commercial websites. We, like sponges, tried to absorb the entomology and lots of photo techniques. My sponge runneth over; I couldn’t absorb it all.

The starting premise was to expose photographers to “buggers,” and vice-versa. Pouring a bit of gasoline into the mix, the organizers invited an “art student,” one Thomas Shahan, to offer tips and presentations while participating in field exercises. Thomas is 22, still working on his B.A. Exhibiting endless energy, he studies bugs, spiders, photography, guitars and the local galaxies. Maybe he studies the rest of the galaxies; I forgot to ask. His lecture style would not read well in a transcript, but hey, wild hair, bushy eyebrows, thick heavy-rimmed glasses, accompanied by a command of Latin names of nearly everything he sees, actually made many of us kind of uncertain until we saw his art. The room collectively inhaled. Go to his website and Flickr; you’ll see.

The organizers, who might have been bored with simply setting up a logistically almost-perfect setting populated by world-class presenters and eager attendees, reached out and soaked the rest of us for a few extra shekels to offer four scholarships to students. One came from Belgium, one came from Sacramento; I lost track of the others. The photographers, mainly a bunch of old farts like me, got a huge inspiration from these young Turks who learn the details of these infuriatingly complex DSLRs in five minutes and then show off their knowledge of backlighting, sidelighting and other flash techniques needed to illuminate tiny bugs without making reflections or corrupting the image. I was not alone among those mightily impressed by the young stars.

A collection of photos taken by the participants is available at Flickr: BugShot 2011 Flickr Pool

More next week.

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