Photographer captures tiny subjects
URBANA — As one of the world's foremost insect photographers, Alex Wild tries to avoid easy shots of bugs feeding on nectar.
Instead, he might travel to remote locations in Uganda, Brazil, Australia and Colombia. Once there, he lies on the ground to shoot from low angles — or crawls into caves to hunt down his subjects.
Closer to home, he might run around — he says like an "idiot" — while trying to capture in pixels fireflies at dusk in his front yard. He said he took 500 pictures to get one good one.
But how great his photographs are.
In them, the insects glisten and gleam. Their tiny hairs, legs and mandibles are in such sharp focus you could count them.
Wild also seems to capture his tiny subjects' personalities. He catches them engaged in natural behaviors, in danger or in flight.
As he did with a mating swarm of leaf cutter ants over the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, Ariz.
Or the ant-decapitating fly in Argentina trying to separate a fire ant from her nest mates, the better to get at her.
Or winnow ants pulling a centipede from its burrow in Southern Illinois.
May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois, calls Wild absolutely brilliant and a technically proficient, resourceful and inventive insect photographer.
"Photographing insects requires tools and instruments that are designed for the most part for photographing things other than insects, and he has out of necessity invented all kinds of tools and techniques that he readily shares with the entomological community," she said.
It helps that Wild is an entomologist himself, with a doctorate from the University of California-Davis and a specialty in ants. With his knowledge he's able to explain his entomological subjects, meaning his photographs have tremendous scientific value — in addition to a marvelous aesthetic sense.
"His photos are not only accurate and often revelatory depictions of entomological reality, but they also are breathtakingly beautiful, profoundly thought-provoking, and even at times hilariously funny or unspeakably adorable," Berenbaum said.
As a result, Wild's work is published in leading scientific journals and other publications, among them National Geographic, BBC Wildlife, Popular Science, Discovery, Natural History and Scientific American. Wild also writes for Scientific American the blog "Compound Eye;" it focuses on science photography and scientific imaging.
Wild, 40, became interested in insects while growing up in Rochester, N.Y., where he and his father kept bees. Even though he and his wife, Jo'Anne Holley, a doctoral candidate in entomology at the UI, are not big honey consumers, Wild keeps two hives in his backyard. He harvests about 120 pounds of honey a year.
He came by his career as an insect photographer accidentally. As a graduate student, he began to take photographs of bugs to use in his talks, papers and website.
"Completely unexpectedly, I started getting emails and phone calls from photo editors of textbooks and field guides and magazines — people who had a need for photographs of insects that had been properly identified," Wild told the UI News Bureau two years ago when Scientific American picked up his blog.
As a businessman, though, he had no idea what he was doing.
"I had to scramble to learn how to write invoices and figure out how to pay the taxes," he said.
He figured it out to the point that two years ago Wild became a full-time insect photographer. Besides selling his photographs, he leads field tours and presentations.
And he and three other insect photographers founded BugShot Insect Photography Workshops, with sessions in places like Belize. The next will be in September.
However, Wild finds plenty of photographs to take closer to home.
Particularly of ants.
He estimates half of the photographs he takes are of ants; one reason is there are "tons" of them out there, among them slave-raiding ants that come out late afternoons near his home on Water Street.
"Slave-raiding ants can't do work in their colonies; all they can do is steal from other ant nests," he said. "They kidnap young ants to do all their labor. There are at least four species of those here in town."
To visually document those and other bugs, Wild uses a Canon digital single-lens reflex camera and three or four different lenses, among them a Canon MP-E, or macro photo lens. Wild said it's like a high-powered microscope attached to his camera.
And though he's busy, Wild always takes time to help when asked, Berenbaum said. He provided her department with countless images for scientific papers or events and leads photography workshops for National Pollinator Week. He photographed desserts to help Berenbaum celebrate the launch of her "Honey I'm Homemade" cookbook.
An internationally known entomologist herself, Berenbaum said Wild is universally respected and admired by colleagues.
"Did you know that he has over 5,000 Twitter followers?" she asked. "By comparison, I have barely 800."