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Sunday, May 31, 2020

The small but Kaleidoscopic world of insects

Peer into a water drop and see the whole world suspended inside it. Or, spiders’ webs strung like strings of pearls on the foliage on dewy mornings.

Written by Ranjit Lal | New Delhi | Published: May 17, 2020 6:40:45 am
Ranjit Lal, insects, insect photography, macro photography Who is that alien? A robber fly. (Courtesy: Ranjit Lal)

Nature lovers these days must be tormented to be stuck indoors, watching TV documentaries on natural history. And yet, as I discovered decades ago, there are enough astonishments lying around, in the house, garden, or even a flowerpot, for you to discover, enjoy, and photograph. Decades ago, I became fascinated by what things looked like in magnum close-up and got myself a small microscope whose lens was basically a glass bead. But you could see the features of an ant’s head with it, or details of a bee’s wing. Of course, I had to photograph these, so I snapped open my father’s ancient “fold out” Zeiss Ikon, aligned the lens as close to the microscope’s eyepiece as possible and clicked. The pictures resembled primitive X-ray images but were exciting for me. You could see the hooks at the edges of the bee’s wing with which the hind and front spans attach so they work as a single wing.

Then I graduated to my first single-lens reflex — a heavyweight Russian Zenit-E that fired like a rifle and had an excellent 58 mm normal lens. I got myself a bellows unit, which, when attached between the body and the lens, enabled you to obtain up to a four-times the magnification on a sliding scale. An entire new world opened up.

Peer into a water drop and see the whole world suspended inside it. Or, the photographer’s favourite — spiders’ webs strung like strings of pearls on the foliage on dewy mornings. Even better, a bejeweled dragonfly’s wings you could photograph at leisure because the insect was still too chill to fire up its engines! Most enthralling of all, on a cool, moist morning in Mumbai’s Borivali National Park, was discovering what’s called leaf “guttation” — the exudation of sap from a leaf as spherical droplets, arranged like a tiara on the edges of a leaf. Dewdrops on rose petals is another old photographic cliché, which you can fake with a sprayer. Another wonder was the details of a skeleton leaf — the intricate filigree of its veins is truly amazing. You could see the barbs and barbules that made up the edges of feather vanes, enabling it to keep its shape after a bird had run its beak through it.

Other “everyday” things, too, when seen real close-up could take your breath away. The translucent flakes of an orange, backlit by the sun (or even a lamp) against a velvet black background was like a work of art. And then, I discovered ice cubes. When just formed, they had the most astonishing internal structures, and by using coloured transparent paper you could compose the most magnificent works of modern art.

Another source of magical and ghost-like abstract imaging was the swirls and curls of smoke rising from a resting cigarette, in a pitch-black room with just one spotlight (I used my slide projector) to light them up. Lately, I discovered you can photograph rainbows on the playing side of a CD, useful for explaining the basic physics of light to children and why a duck’s head shimmers purple and emerald. I’ve framed some of these images and conned many by passing them off as the Northern Lights!

Get up close to insects and other creepy crawlies, the fearsome details of an ant’s mandibles will reveal themselves. You’ll also understand from where Hollywood directors got their “inspiration” to create the look of the Martians! Look deeply into the beady eyes of a cockroach or those bright, obsidian eyes of a jumping spider on the wall. Always focus on the eyes. A robber fly once flew into the room and I went really close to make out the thousands of lenses that made up its giant compound eye!

To capture flying insects was a completely different ball game. Back in the mid-1970s, I discovered the work of Stephen Dalton, who had made it his passion to do just that, with strobe lights and infra-red triggers and whatnot in his very life-like dioramas. He used the peerless transparency film, Kodachrome, and the results were outstanding — bees and wasps and butterflies in take-off, or mid-flight, pin-sharp from head to toe! This sort of thing galvanises you even though there’s no way you could develop the sort of equipment required. So, you do the next best thing: wait for wasps to hover close to their nests, when they move the least (but still far too much) or you go after those wonderful flying machines: hoverflies. These guys can suspend themselves stock still in mid-air and if you’re quick on the draw you can nail them. Even so, I used up a criminal amount of expensive film on them (this was before digital), with just a couple of acceptable results to show. But it is worth it, every time (the equipment is so much more advanced today!). You may just find a kaleidoscopic new world ready to be discovered.

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