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Meet Your Tiniest Neighbors Using Macro Gear and a Field Studio Setup

(Last Updated On: May 28, 2019)

By Jill Waterman | 5 days ago

Clay Bolt is a firm believer that our connection to nature begins at home. The natural history and conservation photographer has been fascinated with the world’s smaller creatures inhabiting his native South Carolina since youth. In 2009, his passion for local wildlife became the driving force behind the international photo project, Meet Your Neighbours. Together with Scottish photographer Niall Benvie, he embarked on a mission to engage a global community in discovering and photographing the often underappreciated and overlooked common creatures around us.

The use of a field studio setup to backlight individual subjects against a luminous white background offers participating photographers a distinctive style, which elevates the profile of these diminutive creatures, while also eliminating distinctions between common and exotic.

Earlier this spring, we spoke with Bolt about the purpose behind Meet Your Neighbours and asked him to describe the macro and lighting techniques used to photograph the many species encountered through this project.

Jill Waterman: Please give us some background about the Meet Your Neighbours project. What inspired you to start the project?

Clay Bolt: I had been working in the Carolinas for number of years when I came up with the idea. At that stage I was doing a lot of work locally, but it wasn’t really getting out beyond the region. I began to meet other people who were doing the same kinds of things. We were all working in our own bubbles and felt kind of isolated.

Photographs © Clay Bolt, except where otherwise noted

Imperial Moth Caterpillar (Eacles Imperialis) on Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) leaves in fall.
Imperial Moth Caterpillar (Eacles Imperialis) on Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum) leaves in fall.

Sometimes I feel that people working close to home aren’t really accepted as being important. A lot of people doing conservation work photograph in places that are considered much more exotic. That kind of frustrated me because I was living in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, yet when I tried to submit my stories to magazines or organizations that support photographers during that time, they would say, “Well, you’re just in South Carolina.” When people think of South Carolina, there are a lot of things that come to mind, but usually it’s not the richness and abundance of the biodiversity. So, I really wanted to change that.

I’d been thinking about how to unite these photographers around the world, people like myself, but also raise the profile of these overlooked species and level the playing field, because the truth is, everything is in somebody’s backyard.

JW: How did you come up with the idea of photographing critters against a white background, and how did you go about spreading the word about the project to other photographers?

CB: My friend Niall Benvie, a Scottish wildlife photographer, had experimented with a studio technique that David Littschwager and Susan Middleton had used to make studio portraits of threatened species for the book Here Today. They were former assistants of Richard Avedon, who made fashion portraits against white backgrounds. Niall combined Littschwager and Middleton’s studio technique with Avedon’s portrait technique and created what he called The Field Studio.

Trout Lily, Erythronium Americanum, photographed with the Field Studio
Trout Lily, Erythronium Americanum, photographed with the Field Studio

You don’t have to dig up an orchid to photograph it, you just put this white acrylic material behind it, light it with small strobes, and it looks like a studio portrait, but then you walk away after a few minutes and the species is fine, nothing’s been harmed. I really liked the element of not taking things out of their environment to make these portraits, as well as the fact that by removing the context, you couldn’t see where something was anymore. You just saw the species for the beautiful thing that it is. So, you could put a beetle from North Carolina next to a beetle from Mozambique, and you didn’t know where it was from, you just realize what an amazing creature it is.

In early 2008, Niall and I were talking about this technique, and he said, “I really wish this would catch on.” I did some noodling around and came back to him with an idea for how we could unite photographers around the world who are interested in their local wildlife and, by using this technique, they would have a unified way to document these species. The idea is that photographers make the work locally, and then use those images to do local exhibitions, and work with local NGOs, like I had been doing, and Niall had been doing in Scotland. That was how it began.

Elementary school students experiencing nature in the field
Elementary school students experiencing nature in the field

We started by sending out invitations to NGOs around the world to try to get some interest. Within a year we started picking up more and more photographers. This past February was our 10-year anniversary, and over time we’ve had photographers produce exhibitions, work with children, and give presentations, literally all over the world. Meet Your Neighbours was a life changer for me, and I like to think it was for a lot of other participants.

JW: You developed this project using a franchise model, with you supplying support materials and helping with contract negotiations. How did this process work, and why did you set things up that way?

CB: We didn’t want this to be a project only for elite photographers, so that’s what we did early on. I really believe there’s so much work to be done right now in the environmental realm; there are so many stories that need to be told. I didn’t want this project to be limited to full-time photographers, because there are many people who are passionate about a local wetland or things like that—grandparents who have free time, or young people still in high school who want to tell stories. I wanted to open the project up to everyone, but we also wanted to make sure the participants were doing things the right way, representing the mission, and not stressing out or harming the wildlife. We felt the best way to do that was to really to help mentor and guide these early photographers.

American Toad, Bufo Americanus
American Toad, Bufo Americanus

I spent the first three or four years working with these different photographers, and we had some grant money, which helped buy some of the original kit. I also spent a lot of my own money, because I really believed in the mission and wanted to help encourage people to do it right. So, I gave lots of presentations and did videos and other things to help make the process easy for people. It was very labor intensive in the beginning, but people have done these amazing projects, which has brought me a lot of joy.

JW: Please describe Field Studio setup used for the Meet Your Neighbours project.

CB: When Niall started doing this technique, he had quite a serious studio setup, with a battery pack and big flashes, which looks great. But I knew that I’d be hiking into some remote areas to use this technique, so what I wanted a more backpack-friendly version. So, I constructed a little table with PVC piping material that stands about 18 inches off the ground, with an 18 x 24″ rectangle of translucent acrylic on top, anywhere from 1/8 to 3/16″ thick to allow the flash to pass through. Alternatively, you can purchase a small ready-made shooting tent, or an item such as the Godox Foldable Photo Table, which could work well for insects.

Photographer Clay Bolt capturing white-background "Meet Your Neighbours" field studio images in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, California.
Photographer Clay Bolt capturing white-background “Meet Your Neighbours” field studio images in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, California.Neil Losin/Day’s Edge Productions

With the Meet Your Neighbours technique, because we photograph on a white background, I first set up the Field Studio, and do a test using a twig, or a pebble, or something about the same size as my intended subject. You don’t want to be figuring out your lighting situation once you have your subject in hand, so getting it right before you introduce a critter is important. It’s also useful to shoot in a shaded area, maybe under a tree, for two reasons:

  1. It’s less stressful on the animal, because it’s not getting too hot.
  2. It’s a consistent lighting situation, and you have more control over your light.

Once my camera is in place, I always turn on the blinking highlight warning, because when you shoot something on white, you might think there’s no background information, but there might be a stick in the background that’s not overexposed, and the blinking highlights can help you catch this.

JW: How do you use flash with the Field Studio to backlight small animals or insects against white?

CB: If it’s a tabletop setup, I have one flash underneath, balanced on its feet and with a diffusion dome cap. I typically don’t want to damp the light too much, I want it to be able to shine through the acrylic. And then I have the fill flash on a Benbo Trekker tripod with a Vello FlexFrame Softbox to diffuse the light, unless the subject is very small, or has a certain metallic shine. In those cases, I might use a diffusion dome. But either way, both flashes are diffused in some manner.

Metallic Green Bee, Augochloropsis Metallica, South Carolina
Metallic Green Bee, Augochloropsis Metallica, South Carolina

When testing my lighting, I first turn off the flash that’s facing the subject, and work with the flash that’s coming through the plastic from underneath or behind. If you try to start with both flashes at once, it’s just too confusing. Joe McNally has a great book called the Hot Shoe Diaries, in which he explains that using flash is like cooking; you start with your basic ingredients, and then add in your second flash like the other ingredients. So, I start with that back flash, and make needed adjustments such as adding diffusion or moving the flash farther away from the background. Once I get that where I want it, so there’s no information in the background, but the light isn’t overpowering the subject, then I add the flash that illuminates the subject directly, at a lesser power than the flash behind it, sort of treating it as a fill flash.

At that point, I’ll catch my subject in a net. If it’s something small, like an insect, I’ll transfer them into a little vial. Then, I put the vial underneath a clear Tupperware container and release them in that. Usually, they’ll fly around for a few seconds and then stop to clean their wings. Once they stop, I lift the edge of the Tupperware container and take a few shots. I’ll do that a couple of times, unless the insect starts to look stressed, which sometimes happens. In that case I’ll release it. While they’re under the container, there certainly seems to be some confusion, but they usually don’t seem to be all that stressed. This whole process only takes a few minutes, and then they fly away, and do their own thing.

Paper Wasp, Polistes Metricus
Paper Wasp, Polistes Metricus

JW: Do you ever handhold your foreground flash, or ever use a bounce card to direct light?

CB: Sometimes, it depends. If I’m photographing something small, like a bee for example, or something like a plant, I’ll usually have it on a tripod. But if it’s something bigger, or if it’s really moving around, like a snake, then sometimes I’ll handhold the flash, or get a friend to handhold it, because the subject is just too big to be completely illuminated by the flash. Sometimes I’ll even use two flashes. It just depends on the size of the subject. On some occasions, I’ve also used a bounce card, but not so much. Typically, there’s so much light coming from the flashes and softboxes that the basic setup works quite well.

JW: What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of photographing tiny common critters with macro techniques?

CB: They’re constantly moving, and sometimes they are very good at climbing upside down. Also, they’re often found in very busy places, like around vegetation, or in shadow, and that can be a real challenge. But to flip the question a little bit, I think the thing that I find challenging, but also what I always strive for, is to show someone a view of an animal that’s more than just something you can use to identify it. I really try to show the personality of the species. I want someone to look at the animal and connect with them in a way that goes beyond just something scurrying across the floor. And that takes some time. You’ve got to learn about the behavior of the subject. You’ve got to spend some time getting closer, crawling around on your belly, letting the animal feel comfortable and not threatened.

White-footed Deer Mouse, Peromyscus Maniculatus, South Carolina
White-footed Deer Mouse, Peromyscus Maniculatus, South Carolina

Those kinds of things come from experience and research, knowing how to approach a subject. You see a lot of photos of snakes that are very threatened, which makes them look scary, and it’s also stressful for the animal. And same with the wasps, and other things. I want to photograph those subjects looking as comfortable as possible, going about their daily lives so that people can really see what they’re like most of the time, not when some giant is there sticking a lens in its face.

JW: What camera gear do you generally use for your wildlife work?

CB: My main body is a Nikon D750, and I use a variety of different lenses, which include a Nikon Micro-NIKKOR 55mm lens with extension tubes. One of my favorite lenses is the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 diagonal Fisheye, which allows me to do these close wides of subjects in their environment that I really love. I also use a Sigma 180mm macro for more skittish subjects. Depending on the subject, I sometimes use a Tokina 100mm f/2.8 AT-X macro, but I have a variety of different length macro lenses in my kit, just because I specialize in macro and it all depends on the subject that I’m working with.

JW: What flashes do you use in your macro work?

CB: I used the Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight for a long time, and I recently bought the Nikon SB-700 AF Speedlight, which is a great little flash. I used that quite a lot when I was in Indonesia, and it works quite well, so I think I’m going to enjoy using it long term.

Red Salamander, Pseudotriton Ruber, in the Field Studio
Red Salamander, Pseudotriton Ruber, in the Field Studio

JW: You also work with extension tubes; do you use these a lot, and in what kinds of situations?

CB: I do use them a lot, specifically with my shorter macro lenses, like the 55mm, and sometimes with the 100mm, as well. I use a 27.5mm Nikon extension tube to allow me to get closer to small subjects and increase the magnification. Sometimes with teeny tiny bees and other insects, I’ll also add a Kenko 1.4x or 2x teleconverter to get increased magnification.

JW: Are there other photo accessories that you find particularly useful?

CB: I sometimes use a Manfrotto MK190XPRO4-3W Aluminum Tripod with 3-Way Pan/Tilt Head, but not that often, because my subjects are so mobile it’s often not very useful.

JW: You mentioned that the Meet Your Neighbours project has resulted in exhibitions or presentations with a global reach. Can you give any examples of this?

CB: There’s a tremendous list of photographers who have done, and are doing incredible stuff with the technique, and this project. A few of the projects I really love include photographer Emanuele Biggi, who did some amazing exhibitions in Rome with different species found in a local wildlife area. A guy named David Hunter did some incredible work in California with cave species. A biologist named Twan Leenders has been doing some great stuff in Costa Rica and Panama, and he’s used those images in a field guide of Costa Rican Amphibians, and now reptiles too. Steven David Johnson, who teaches at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia, had all his students work on local projects with this technique. In Australia, a retired farmer named John Tidy has been doing a lot of work, speaking with local organizations to show people the beauty and diversity of the species found in that one region. And in the western Ghats of India, conservation photographer Sandesh Kadur produced a book on biodiversity in the Himalayas and used a lot of these images in that book.

Undescribed Diasporus SP, Tink Frog, Cocobolo Nature Preserve, Panama
Undescribed Diasporus SP, Tink Frog, Cocobolo Nature Preserve, Panama

JW: Beyond the exhibitions, have there been other positive consequences of this project?

CB: The number of new species that have been found or discovered through this technique has been amazing to witness. A lot of our photographers have used it as part of the scientific process to document things in the field because it’s so useful for identification. I photographed a new species of frogs I found in Panama with this technique. Some of the work that’s been done in places like Borneo have used this technique, and then those stories ended up in places like National Geographic magazine. It’s been a great ride, and I wish I had more time to be involved, but at some point, it became self-propelling, and I didn’t really need to be involved as much.

JW: Will the Meet Your Neighbours project continue, or are there future exhibition or publication plans?

CB: The project has already been featured in so many different magazines, exhibitions, and presentations around the world, and I’d like to think those things will keep coming. I’ve always had a fantasy about putting a book together after 10 years of the project because there are so many thousands of images—many of which can be found at the Nature Picture Library stock agency—and so many great stories that have been told. This has been on my mind, and if publishers have any interest, I need to explore that at some point.

But more than the project itself, the thing I’d like to emphasize is the idea that photographers can make a huge impact where they live; you don’t have to travel far away. That unique pocket of the world in which you’re living is probably the best place to begin to work, because oftentimes there’s so much to be done there that’s being passed over for other places.

Photographer Clay Bolt in the field with a stack of tiny portrait subjects in plastic containers
Photographer Clay Bolt in the field with a stack of tiny portrait subjects in plastic containers Steven David Johnson

JW: What’s been the most surprising discovery you’ve made through the Meet Your Neighbours project?

CB: One of the things that really surprised me was that if you can open people’s eyes up to the beauty that surrounds them, and species that are around them, they do respond positively. I think people often have a hard time seeing what’s right in front of them, because either everyone’s very busy, or they are just not naturally inclined to be able to look very closely. What I’ve noticed is that the photographers who are passionate about this project are really like guides for their local community. And once you open someone’s eyes up to something, whatever it may be—plants, or beetles, or bees—they’re not ever able to look at those things in the same way again. I still have people write to me and say, “I saw this spider. It creeped me out, but I put it outside the house.” They didn’t squash it, because they were suddenly able to see its “face,” to see it in a different light. I think that’s the beginning of really getting people to have empathy towards the natural world, because a lot of these species are very different than us, but they’re also more like us than we realize sometimes, and I think helping to bridge that gap for viewers is very important.

Learn more about Clay Bolt’s Meet Your Neighbours Project here, and visit Bolt’s website to see more of his work and learn about his other conservation projects. For more on macro photography, visit Explora’s Macro Photography Week page, where you’ll find plenty of other tips, inspirational articles, and gear reviews.

Original article here.

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