Tuesday, May 17, 2011

periodical cicadas

Recently the periodical cicadas, Brood XIX, started arriving in my backyard. They have arrived by the thousands, maybe more. I am not the only lucky one to have been inundated with these strange little creatures. They seem to be quite plentiful in northern Durham. I last photographed cicadas back in 1998 when I was working at The Herald-Sun. You see, periodical cicadas only arrive once every 13 years around here. I became fascinated with these red-eyed creatures when I started researching caption information back in '98. OK, I say I last photographed them in '98, but there is actually a photo on this blog from June of last year of a cicada messing with the exit hole of its exit tunnel. I'm not sure if that one was a year early and decided to go back underground or if it was one of the annual cicadas that sometimes frequent the area (it did not have the characteristic red eyes).

This year, my wife noticed a couple of exoskeletons on one of her ferns in the front yard. The next night I happened to notice several white newly emerged cicadas dangling from a maple tree around midnight when I let the dog out for a late night pee. I frantically rummaged through the garage looking for my tripod. I ended up making most of the pictures on this post around 1am that night, using a flashlight as my light source. The camera was mounted on the tripod and I used a two second exposure for all the night pictures, with the flashlight as the only light.

I touched base with my former editor at The Herald-Sun, and pitched the idea for running my photos and daringly pitched the idea for me to write a story to go along with the photos. I say daringly because I don't particularly enjoy writing and have a bad habit of procrastinating until the last minute when writing. The paper accepted the pitch and gave me several days to produce a story. I have read a ton about these crazy bugs over the years, and already had quite a bit of knowledge and background for a story. I had a blast writing the story, and enjoyed talking to a couple of experts/entomologists about the subject. Interesting side note is that one entomologist told me I had told him a couple of new things about cicadas that he did not know.

The day after I did the initial photos, the idea passed through my brain to figure out how to do a time lapse of an emerging cicada. After some research, I figured out that I had the needed equipment, I just needed a photogenic subject. After about an hour of setting up and finding the right cicada in the right place, I started what would end up as a total of 2700 pictures taken over a period of seven and a half hours. A picture was taken once every ten seconds until just after 6am. I was able to use something called a Pocket Wizard, a device that allows you to trigger a camera or flash remotely. One of the settings on the remote allows you to set how many times you want the camera fired and how much time in between each picture. I didn't want to freak out my neighbors with a flash going off in my backyard 2700 times, so I used a light from the top of one of my aquariums as the light source. For those of you that care, I used a shutter speed of 1/50 of a second at f/4.5 with a 100mm macro lens on a Canon Mark II body at 400 ISO. I unexpectedly had to recompose a couple of times when the cicada dropped down too far and its wings were cut off in the pictures. Other than that, the whole process went pretty smoothly. I slept on the sofa for the night, with an alarm waking me to check on things every 60-90 minutes.

I used Quicktime Pro to convert all the pictures to a video format. I ended up editing the pictures down to around 1500 since there were several periods where the cicada really didn't move or change. Plus there was a little bit of wind at one point and the branch moved up and down quite a bit and made it look really jumpy, so I cut some of that out as well. I recorded some audio of the males singing and looking for mates to use as background music for the video.

All in all, I haven't had this much fun photographing bugs in years, something that I really enjoy. Here is a link to the story that ran in The Herald-Sun.

1 comment:

rnnyhoff said...

Fascinating work Mark done so well thanks to your fecund curiosity and superb photography. Wonderful to share on your web site. Keep it up. Be well and take care. -rudy nyhoff