Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Ethics of Photographing Wildlife and Rare Species

With good cameras now cheaper than ever, many people are becoming hobbyist photographers. Unfortunately, this has resulted in an increase of rather unethical, dangerous, and harmful behavior "for the sake of the shot." Oftentimes this sort of behavior stems from photographers not knowing the proper ethical guidelines for nature photography; other times it is simply due to photographers not caring.

Recently I've been seeing a lot of concerning photos being posted on Facebook, blogs, and other corners of the internet. I want to briefly go over what is "good" photographer etiquette, especially with regard to photographing rare plant or animal species, and wildlife photography in general. Not following such ethical guidelines puts wildlife, plants, and sensitive areas at risk.

Wildlife Photography Ethics

Guidelines for Ethical Wildlife Photography:

 

1. The welfare of the animal is more important than your photo.
People will often do horrible things for amazing photos. Take owl photography, for example. Last year in the Cleveland area there was a famous Eastern Screech Owl that roosted in the cavity of a dead tree. People reported photographers shaking and pounding on the tree in order to get the Screech Owl to stick his head out of the cavity, just so the photographer could get a photo. Don't be that person, ever. When photographing wildlife, the ultimate goal should be to actively minimize your impact on the animal's well-being. If you cannot minimize the impact to an acceptable level, then you should not try taking the photos.

2. Keep an appropriate distance away from the animal. If the animal appears stressed or tries to escape from you, you're too close. 
This happens a lot with rare birds. Photographers will try to approach a rare birdsay, for example, a Snowy Owlto get the closest and most-detailed photo they can get. The problem is, they will oftentimes get too close, scare the bird, and the now-stressed bird will then be forced to escape the threat. This sort of stress is completely unnecessary. Another problem occurs when photographers get too close to an animal, which then prompts an attack. Take the bison of Yellowstone National Park: Every year tourists will get too close to one of the park's bison in an attempt to get a good photo. This leads to several tourists being attacked by scared bison, who view the tourists as potential threats. Learn the signs of stress in animals, and always watch for those signs. If an animal stops doing what it was doing, looks at you, tries to walk away, or begins some kind of warning signal to you (like a White-Tailed Deer stomping their hoof), move away that instant. You are too close, and you need to back away and leave the animal alone.

3. Never disturb nests or animals with young.
There was a well known Great Horned Owl nest in Columbus several years ago. The same pair nested year after year in this one specific tree. Birders would go and view the nest from a safe distant each year, watching the pair raise generation after generation of new owls. One year, someone put a ladder up to the nest in order to get close photos of the owl nestlings. The Great Horned Owls stopped nesting at that location after that. Taking photos of nestlings or animals caring for their young is perfectly fine, as long as you are doing so at a safe distance. 

Frog Riding Beetle Staged
4. When viewing photos from wildlife photographers, ask yourself if it looks like the photo was taken ethically.
This last point is a bit different from the previous points, but is still important. When viewing photos from other people, ask yourself whether it looks like the photographer followed ethical guidelines. Unethical wildlife photography is a vicious circle. Good wildlife photography is difficult. Good, and ethical, wildlife photography is even harder. Sadly, this means that people take the easy way out by taking photos using harmful techniques. When these types of photos become famous, it normalizes the techniques used. Take the various famous and viral photos of frogs riding beetles, or "dancing," or otherwise doing seemingly entertaining things. These photos were not taken naturally, but instead were staged in ways that often resulted in injured, or dead, animals. For example, let's look at this viral photo of a tree frog riding a beetle. The frog's hand is twisted in an unnatural manner, and was probably tied up using fishing line, which was then edited out of the photo. The frog has his mouth open, which frogs do not do unless they are highly stressed. Finally, this is a situation which would never happen in real life. A frog simply would not get on top of a beetle in a position like this, which means the frog is most likely either tied or glued down to the beetle. To read more about such inhumane techniques, check these following links: Example, Example 2, Example 3. When these types of photos go viral, it encourages other photographers to utilize similar techniques. Don't feed bad behavior and help these types of photos go viral, as that only contributes to the continued use of such detrimental techniques.

Guidelines for Ethical Photography of Rare Species:

 

Ethics of Rare Species Photography
The Eastern Spadefoot, an Ohio state endangered species. This was taken at an undisclosed location in Athens County, Ohio.
1. Do not disclose where you took the photo or where you found the species.
This is one of the most important rules in this entire post. When dealing with either a federally-listed or state-listed species, you should never publicly share the location. Why? Because people might go out to this area and harass the species, kill the species, or steal the species. This problem can be broken down into two groups: The unintentional sharing of locations, and the intentional sharing of locations.

Geo-tagged photos (where the exact GPS coordinates are embedded in a photo's metadata) are being used for poachers to track down and hunt endangered animals, like rhinos. In this case of unintentional sharing, try to ensure that you remove location metadata from a photo before sharing it. Intentionally sharing the location of an endangered species to someone who asks (or just posting it without being asked) can also lead to people then going out to poach that species for the pet trade or other nefarious reasons. Take, for example, the poachers in Arizona finding out where Twin-Spotted Rattlesnakes are by being friendly with those who mean well. Basically, if it's rare, never give a more detailed location than county, and you should not give a more detailed location than region or section of the state when dealing with some of the more at-risk or really endangered species. It's important to remember that although you may be well-meaning, not everyone else is. Don't put the species at more risk than it already is.

Ethical Wildlife Photography
3. Do not publish a photo with you holding or otherwise manipulating a state or federally listed animal.
In the vast majority of cases, it is illegal to touch or hold any protected animal without the appropriate permits. Take for example the photo above. I'm holding a Kirtland's Snake, a threatened species in the state of Ohio. Under normal circumstances, I should have never picked this snake up, and I definitely should have never posted a photo of me holding it. I took this photo, however, when I was out with a wildlife biologist who was assisting with a research project on this species. There were permits involved, allowing those with permission to safely handle this species. If I had just stumbled across this snake on my own, I would have only taken photos of it in situ, meaning I would not have touched or otherwise moved the snake from the position I originally found it in.

4. Never pick or remove part of a state or federally listed plant.
This should be obvious, but it needs to be emphasized. Don't pick the flower of a rare species, or try to dig a plant up to transplant it in your garden. I see posts on Facebook groups all too often asking how to best transplant a wild plant they found. In most cases, this will simply lead to the person killing the plant on accident. Leave the plants alone. If you really want a specific plant for your garden, buy ethically-sourced seeds. 

General Outdoor Ethics:

Practice Leave No Trace principles. 
Leave no Trace is a series of guidelines that attempt to minimize human impact when recreating in natural areas. There are seven main LNT principles: Plan ahead, travel and camp on durable surfaces, properly dispose of waste, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of other visitors. To learn more about each principle, please visit the Leave No Trace website.

Parting Thoughts

The next time you're out photographing wildlife, make sure you take a step back and look at the situation. Don't just think about how to properly take the photo, or how awesome the photo is going to be; ask yourself if you're taking the photo in a manner that minimizes your impact on the animal. When you get home and you excitedly go to share the photo on Facebook or Twitter or what have you, make sure you ask yourself "What details should I add? What details should I leave out? Is this photo okay for me to post?" You might have good intentions, but the welfare of the species in question is more important than likes, shares, or whatever. Try to ensure that you don't harm the future of the plant or animal.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Mothing at Clear Creek: The Showy

On the night of June 17th, I traveled to Clear Creek Metro Park in Fairfield County, Ohio, to participate in a moth night. I talked about some of the drab and subtle moths of the night in my previous post, but now I want to take a moment to highlight some of the showy species.

 Mothing in Ohio
Weather plays an important part when it comes to mothing. As a general rule, moths like warm and dark nights. The darker and warmer the night, the more moths you will see. Luckily, the night was not only in the mid 70's, but was also pitch black. No Moon was out, and clouds covered the sky. The amount of moths flying and visiting the mothing sheets was incredible, as the photo above shows.

Io Moth (Automeris io) Ohio
I'll begin with the Io Moth (Automeris io). The Io Moth is a stunning species in the Saturniidae family, the same family the contains other knockout species like the Luna Moth, Cecropia Moth, and the Imperial Moth. The Io Moth is a relatively common moth across the entirety of Ohio, and over a dozen visited the sheets during the course of the night. As you have probably noticed, the wings of the Io Moth have two large eye spots. These eye spots serve to ward off predators. The Io Moth typically sits with its wings closed. If a potential predators comes near, the Io Moth will open its wings and flash its eye spots. If everything goes according to plan, the surprised predator should back off, giving the Io Moth time to escape.


Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa) Ohio
Moths have a diverse array of anti-predator defense mechanisms, and not all are based on appearances. Take the Painted Lichen Moth (Hypoprepia fucosa), for example. This species, along with many other related tiger moths (subfamily Arctiinae), has another line of defense. When the Painted Lichen Moth flies at night, they are at risk of being eaten by various bat species. The Painted Lichen Moth is semi-toxic though, and relatively unpalatable to bats. The problem is, bats won't be able to see the red-orange-black warning coloration of the moth at night. So how does the moth let bats know not to try to eat it? They click! When a bat is in the area making its own clicking noises for echolocation, the Painted Lichen Moth will hear the bat and begin clicking in defense. This lets the bat know that this moth isn't a good meal, and the bat will hopefully leave the moth alone.

Orange-Headed Epicallima (Epicallima argenticinctella) Ohio
This tiny moth is the Orange-Headed Epicallima (Epicallima argenticinctella). This species inhabits deciduous forests, where the caterpillars feed on elm trees. The Orange-Headed Epicallima is what is commonly known as a micro-moth. "Micro-moth" is general name given to tiny moths. There is no strict definition of a micro-moth, but most people seem to consider moths that are 1/2 inch long or smaller as a micro-moth. Identifying micro-moths is oftentimes a difficult process, but the Orange-Headed Epicallima is one of the more easily-identifiable species.

Labyrinth Moth (Phaecasiophora niveiguttana) Ohio
Another showy micro-moth of the night was the Labyrinth Moth (Phaecasiophora niveiguttana). The caterpillars of this species feed on the mid-story tree species Sassafras and Witch Hazel. This moth gave me quite the headache, and this frustration underscores a problem with arthropod field guides. I must have flipped through the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America a good 5-7 times while trying to identify this moth, but I simply couldn't find it. I posted a photo of it on the Facebook group Mothing Ohio to see if someone could help. Within a few minutes a member ID'ed it for me, and I soon realized why I couldn't find it in the guide—it wasn't in there! When it comes to arthropods, there are tens of thousands of species. There are over 11,000 species of moths alone in North America! A field guide can not simply contain every single species with numbers like these, even if that guide only focuses on one group of arthropods in one section of the continent like the Peterson Guide does. Choices have to be made on what to include and what to exclude, and the authors of the Peterson Field Guide to Moths only included "1,500 of the most common or most eye-catching moths in" Northeastern North America. Luckily, the internet fills in these field guide gaps, and Facebook groups or sites like BugGuide will help you out!

Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia) Ohio
When I was a young kid, this was the first moth that I learned the name of. This is the Giant Leopard Moth (Hypercompe scribonia). The Giant Leopard Moth, along with the Polyphemus Moth, were my two "spark moths." A spark animal is the colloquial term for a species that inspires a curiosity or admiration of a given group of animals in a person. The individual pictured above is actually a female Giant Leopard Moth, as can be told by the loss of wing scales on the ends of the wings. When Giant Leopard Moths mate, the male and female will stay attached for 24 or more hours. During this long-lasting session of mating, the male will position his wings over the female's. This results in the male accidentally rubbing off the female's wing scales, leading to an appearance like this.

The Neighbor (Haploa contigua) Ohio
Staying with black and white moths for a moment, here's The Neighbor (Haploa contigua). Moths have the best names, don't they? The Neighbor belongs to a group of tiger moths in the genus Haploa, which are often referred to as the haploa moths. haploa moths all have various black lines set against white wings, and identification involves carefully studying the patterns of those black lines. To see the diversity of wing patterns in the haploa moths, check out this BugGuide link.

Beautiful Wood Nymph (Eudryas grata) Ohio
This is the Beautiful Wood Nymph (Eudryas grata). The Beautiful Wood Nymph is just one of several moth species which are hypothesized to be mimicking bird droppings. Imagine you're a small predator making your way through the forest in search of a meal. If this moth was just sitting on a leaf out in the open, you would probably be quick to dismiss it as some unsavory bird feces. You would move on in search of some actual tasty food, and the Beautiful Wood Nymph would live another day.

Dark-Banded Geometer (Ecliptopera atricolorata)
This stunning moth is the Dark-Banded Geometer (Ecliptopera atricolorata). For many, this was moth highlight of the night. This is another relatively uncommon species that is missing from the Peterson Field Guide to Moths. Typically when I write a post like this, I try to find at least one neat fact to share for each species. The problem is, I can barely find any information on this species. I did, however, find a quote about this moth from the famous Lepidopterist and naturalist William Jacob Holland in his 1903 book entitled The Moth Book. Holland writes that the Dark-Banded Geometer is "One of the most beautiful of the geometrid moths found in the Atlantic States." There you have it: the Dark-Banded Geometer, always a show stopper.

Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) Ohio
I'll end with the very last moth of the night. This gigantic beauty is the Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus). Due to Columbus Metro Park rules, the moth night had to officially end at midnight. The night, however, did not end there. After shutting down the mothing sheets, many of the moth-ers traveled down the road to a gas station that straddles the intersection of Clear Creek Road and US Route 33. Why travel to a gas station, you might ask? Well, there are bright lights, and these lights attract moths. We might not have been able to moth in Clear Creek Metro Park at that point, but we could still moth at a gas station! And yes, I realize how absolutely ridiculous this must sound to those of you not into moths. As I mentioned earlier in this post, the Polyphemus was one of my spark moths, and you can probably see why. This thing is huge. Just to give you an idea of size, my hand is about 8 inches long. This Polyphemus moth has about a 6 inch wingspan, making it one of the largest moth species in Ohio. It's hard not to stop and take a closer look at this moth, even for those who might hate insects.

- - -

That wraps up my two-part series on some of the moths of Clear Creek Metro Park. Once again, the first part can be found at this link: Mothing at Clear Creek: The Subtle. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Mothing at Clear Creek: The Subtle

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a moth night at Clear Creek Metro Park. The attendees saw a lot of moths over the course of the night, and I wanted to highlight a few species in particular. I'll be doing so in two posts; this post will focus on some of the more drab and subtle moth species of the night, while the next post will focus on the more showy and colorful moth species of the night!

EDIT: Click on this link to see the second post covering the showy moths of the night.

Mothing in Ohio


Moth nights are fun. The activity of mothing—a hobby involving the pursuit of moth diversity—centers primarily around moth sheets, like the ones pictured above. Moth sheets in themselves are nothing special; they're just plain white bed sheets. The magic lies in the lighting. Although normal household lights will attract moths here and there, you really need to use one of two types of special lights to really attract the moths. UV lights and mercury vapor lights are the weapon of choice here, with mercury vapor lights being the best of the best. This moth night at Clear Creek consisted of 4 mothing sheets set up throughout one section of the park. Several dozens of various moth species visited each sheet over the night, so let's jump right into some of the more drab and subtle species of the night!

Common Lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria)
First up is the Common Lytrosis (Lytrosis unitaria). The Common Lytrosis is a rather large moth, coming in with around a 3 inch wingspan. I think this is a perfect species to start out with. If it were to fly by you, you might simply dismiss it as a big brown moth. But upon closer inspection, you would see all the minute and intricate details present in the wings. We humans tend to like the showy, eye-grabbing things in life, and we often skip over things that don't instantly grab our attention. But if you start taking a closer look at those "boring" things, you will soon find that they aren't so boring after all.

Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria)
Mothing is like looking at abstract art. With abstract art, the appeal lies not within some straightforward meaning that the elements of the artwork create, but instead lies within the elements of the artwork themselvesthe colors and the contrast, the changing patterns across the canvas, the lines that take you on a journey through the artwork. The appeal of mothing, at least in my opinion, is the same. It's just fun to look closely at each species and see how all the colors, patterns, and lines interact with each other, and how that changes from species to species. This moth is called the Barred Granite (Speranza subcessaria), and its dark patches set among a pale gray background is a great example of contrasting elements.

Hemlock Angle (Macaria fissinotata)
One of the most enjoyable parts of mothing lies in the process of identification. This is the Hemlock Angle (Macaria fissinotata). At first glance, it looks almost identical to the previous Barred Granite, but closer inspection reveals differences in patterning. When I go mothing, I take photos of everything I see. I then spend the next week or so trying to identify each species from the comfort of my home. I use the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America for this part. Identifying moths can be super frustrating, but in a fun way. Identifying these drab moths involves a lot of flipping from page to page through the Peterson Guide. Over and over. Again and again. Eventually you find the species you're looking for (but not always). As the name of this species implies, the larvae feed on Eastern Hemlock and occasionally Basalm Fir. Clear Creek Metro Park has a big population of Eastern Hemlocks, so it's no surprise that the Hemlock Angle is there!

Pale Metanema (Metanema inatomaria)
When I first saw this moth, I thought it was some species of emerald (subfamily Geometrinae), but it's actually the Pale Metanema (Metanema inatomaria) in the subfamily Ennomina. The caterpillar of the Pale Metanema uses various poplar species, and occasionally willows, as a host.

Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis)
This is a Bog Lygropia (Lygropia rivulalis). When it comes to most moths, we really don't know much information about their natural history. With most species, we at least know what types of plants the caterpillars feed on. With the Bog Lygropia, we don't even know that. In fact, from what I can tell we don't even know what the caterpillar looks like! There's so much fundamental information we're missing when it comes to the dark side of Lepidoptera.

The Beggar (Eubaphe mendica)
This is The Beggar (Eubaphe mendica), a rather common sight at mothing sheets. The common names of moths are strange. For decades, there were no common names. When people began "getting into" moths, those who made guides decided that they needed common names in addition to the scientific names. To solve this problem, they simply began making names up! Some common names were based off the scientific names. For example, the Bog Lygropia is called such because its scientific name is Lygropia rivulalis and it prefers wet and boggy areas. Other names are not as straightforward, and The Beggar is one such example. No one is exactly sure why it's call that, but the speculation is that whoever named it thought the dark patches on the wings looked like the holes in a stereotypical beggar's clothes.

Adult Woolly Bear
Next up is the Isabella Tiger Moth, which you probably better know as the Woolly Bear (Pyrrharctia isabella). A single individual visited the mothing sheet that night, and it happened to be a very worn individual that had lost a lot of its patterning. Luckily, there isn't much else that looks like an adult Isabella Tiger Moth. If you've ever wondered what the Woolly Bear turns into after metamorphosis, now you know! Side note: If you want to learn about some more "fuzzy" caterpillars, check out my previous post "Caterpillars of the Fuzzy Variety."

Arched Hooktip (Drepana arcuata)
I'll end this post with the Arched Hooktip (Drepana arcuata). The adults are your typical moth; the caterpillars, however, are unique. During the Arched Hooktip's caterpillar stage, the caterpillars like to be with other caterpillars of the same species. How do they find other caterpillars? They drum! One caterpillar will roll a leaf up, tighten it down with silk, and then crawl inside this new home. Once inside, the caterpillar will begin making vibrations by dragging parts of its anal segments against the leaf, drumming with its mouthparts, and performing a series of other actions. The resulting vibrations are a signal to any nearby Arched Hooktip caterpillars to come over and hang out in the new leaf shelter and eat together. This communicative behavior is super interesting, and very unique among the moths (at least from what we currently know). If you want to read more, here is a link to the original study: Invitation by vibration: recruitment to feeding shelters in social caterpillars

That's it for this post! I'll have the next post covering some of the showy moths up in a few days. Thanks for reading!

EDIT: Click on this link to see the second post covering the showy moths of the night.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

American Burying Beetle

The Wilds Ohio
This past Friday I ventured up to The Wilds in Muskingum County, Ohio, with the wildlife biologist for the Wayne National Forest and another wildlife intern for the National Forest. The Wilds is a fantastic wildlife conservation center that is known for offering open air bus tours through pastures containing rhinos, giraffes, Sichuan Takins, and a whole host of other exotic and endangered species. Our trip wasn't for these large and well-known species, though. Our trip was for a beetle... 

American Burying Beetle in Ohio
Meet the American Burying Beetle (Nicrophorus americanus). This 1.5 inch long orange and black insect is a very special species. It once ranged all across the eastern United States, from the Great Plains to the Atlantic Coast. However, over the course of the 20th Century the American Burying Beetle all but disappeared from the world. Population after population began dying out, prompting the government to list this species as Federally Endangered in 1989. The reason for the decline and near-extinction of the American Burying Beetle has been a mystery for decades, as no one has been able to unequivocally pin down the exact cause. Regardless of the reason why, the American Burying Beetle was in dire trouble. Zoos and other conservation centers around the United States began collecting what little natural populations remained in the northern Great Plains and other scattered regions in order to create captive breeding populations.

This brings us to The Wilds, which began captive breeding its own population of American Burying Beetles in 2007. Every year the conservationists at The Wilds take a portion of their captive population and reintroduces those beetles back into the wild at a location on their property. I was able to participate in the 2017 "Planting of the Beetles" and document the process.

American Burying Beetle Reintroduction
The American Burying Beetle has a rather interesting and unusual reproductive method. A pair will search for a fresh animal carcass—typically something between the size of a mouse and a pigeon. Upon finding a suitable carcass, the pair will begin to bury it to a typical depth of 4-10 inches. Once buried, the beetles will alter the shape of the carcass and add chemical secretions to it which will slow down the rate of decomposition. After this, the female will lay eggs in a separate chamber above the carcass. After the eggs hatch, both the male and female will use the carcass to feed the larvae. Once the larvae are ready to pupate, the parents will leave the nest.

American Burying Beetle Reintroduction Efforts
The whole point of this reintroduction day is for us humans to do all the hard work for the beetles about to be reintroduced. About two dozen volunteers from various agencies and organizations ventured into the forest and began digging lots of holes—110 to be exact. Once the holes were dug, each was then "seeded" with a dead rat.

Dan Beetem Director of Animal Management for The Wilds
Dan Beetem, the Director of Animal Management for The Wilds, examines a pair of American Burying Beetles.
After each hole was dug and seeded with a rat, the fun part began. Two coolers were stocked with dozens and dozens of tiny plastic containers, each containing a male and female beetle, with a few containing some "single" females.

American Burying Beetle Conservation
The volunteers would grab a container, pick an available hole, and then carefully add the pair of beetles into the hole. By completing the first half of the beetles' work, the conservationists aim to give this new population a leg up. The hope is that the beetle pair will realize that there is an appropriate food source that's already buried, and will then decide to mate with each other and give rise to the next generation.

American Burying Beetle Nicrophorus americanus
I first learned about the American Burying Beetle several years ago, and I've wanted to see one since then. I honestly thought I would never get to see one, but then I found myself getting to hold one. Moments like these—interacting with such a special creature on such a personal level—are what captivate and inspire me. These are the moments I hoped to experience when I chose to venture down the wildlife biology path.

American Burying Beetle Reproduction
When it comes to Ohio, there are several other organizations that have either previously reintroduced, or are continuing to reintroduce, populations of American Burying Beetles across the state. Whether these efforts have been successful in establishing a self-sustaining population is yet to be seen, however. An American Burying Beetle only lives for a year. For a self-sustaining population to be created, enough of the reintroduced individuals have to mate and lay eggs. Enough of these eggs must hatch and enough of the larvae must be adequately cared for. Enough of these larvae must then successfully pupate and overwinter. Enough of these overwintering individuals must then emerge, find a mate, find a carcass, and successfully reproduce. There are many steps in which something can go wrong, and most times all traces of a given reintroduced population vanish by the next summer. Take for example the efforts by the Cincinnati Zoo. Between 2013 and 2016, the Cincinnati Zoo released a total 748 adults into a park. These 748 adults were estimated to have produced a total of 2349 larvae. Each year, zoo workers would attempt to find any new adults in the area which were from last year's efforts. They only ever found 2 adults. It's possible that many new adults survived and then simply dispersed to other areas and were consequently never captured. It's also possible that most of the reproductive efforts failed at some point.

Reintroduction of the American Burying Beetle at The Wilds
Dan Beetem, the Director of Animal Management for The Wilds, looks on the American Burying Beetles' new homes with optimism.
You might be thinking that it seems like we're fighting a losing battle when it comes to reestablishing the American Burying Beetle. Maybe that's true; there have been more losses in the world of wildlife conservation than there have been successes. But when it comes down to it, the species is still extant. There is still a chance. Conservationists will continue their struggle to help this species survive. I hope to see a day where self-sustaining populations of the American Burying Beetle dot the landscape they once inhabited. It's too early to say whether this dream is realistic or not, but I will remain hopeful.

Monday, May 29, 2017

To Take a Photo: A Frog's Photoshoot

Today I'm going to do something a bit different from my usual posts. My friend and fellow lab-mate Cassie Thompson is working on a research project involving Wood Frogs and American Toads. This project involved raising hundreds of tadpoles of both the Wood Frog and American Toad. Those tadpoles recently metamorphosed into tiny adults. Cassie wanted some photos of these tiny adults, so she asked me if I was interested in having a little photo shoot with them. I was thrilled to do so, and I went about capturing some high-quality photos that she could use in presentations and outreach. A few of my other friends were interested in how the final product came to be, so I decided to create this blog post to outline my post-processing workflow. This post will follow a single photo from its capture, through its editing, and to its finalized version.

Wood Frog Photo
Let's start with the final product. This is a recently-metamorphosed Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) sitting on a penny. When taking this photo, I knew I wanted a completely clean, white background, and I knew I wanted something in the photo for size reference.

Frog Macro Photography
To achieve that look, I created this super simple setup. I used a white piece of computer paper for the backdrop, and I propped this paper up so it would curl upward. For my camera setup, I used a Nikon D5100 DSLR, an 85mm Nikon macro lens, and a Nikon SB-700 external flash. I then mounted my camera and flash on a tripod to allow for easier control. I shoot all of my photos in manual mode, meaning I select what settings the camera will use to expose a photo. I also shoot all of my photos in the RAW format, which I will talk about later. For this photo, I set my aperture to f/20, my shutter speed to 1/200th of a second, my ISO to 125, and my external flash to 1/8th power. In addition, I had Cassie hold up a small reflector on the right side of the backdrop. This reflector allowed some of the flash's light to be reflected back toward the frog from the side, ensuring that the frog's stomach was not underexposed. Finally, and most importantly, I placed the frog on the penny and shot the photo.

Editing RAW Photos
This was the RAW photo straight out of the camera. At this point in time, no post-processing had been done. As you can see, the overall temperature is rather cool (meaning there is a blue tint), and the subject is rather small and dull. This is to be expected. As I mentioned earlier, I shoot using the RAW format. Generally speaking, RAW photos tend to be dull and flat.

So why shoot in RAW? The benefit of shooting RAW lies in the flexibility of this file type. The RAW format records a lot of detailed color data, which is what you want. The downside is that the straight-RAW photo is almost always dull and flat; the data is there, but it is "compressed." This means that a RAW photo must be edited to bring out the colors and details that are already present in the file's coding, but just subdued.

Using Lightroom to edit RAW photos
We now have the RAW photo, so next we have to begin editing it. For this part, I use Adobe Lightroom. First I remove the chromatic aberration in the photo. Then I crop the photo to get rid of any excess space. Finally, I begin to do whole-photo edits to the exposure. For this part, I first changed the temperature of the photo by making it warmer, as it was initially too cool (i.e. too "blue"). Then I decreased the highlights, brought the shadows up a bit, and then increased the saturation and vibrancy a tad. For my final edit at this stage, I increased the whites a great deal. By increasing the whites, the white paper backdrop began to lose detail. I didn't want the viewer to look at the background and be able to tell it is a piece of paper. I want the focus to be on the frog and the penny, not the background.

Spot Editing Photos
Next began the spot editing portion. When shooting amphibians with a flash, their moist skin tends to result in blown out areas. In an attempt to remedy this, I used Lightroom's brush feature to go in and highlight the overexposed or blown out areas of the face, which you can see in the photo above. I then decreased the highlights, shadows, and overall exposure of this highlighted area to recover some of the details that would otherwise be lost.

DFine Google Nik Collection
After this was done, I began using another post-processing program called the Google Nik Collection. Nik is a powerful program that used to cost nearly $200, but Google recently bought it and made it free to use! If you are interested in downloading it, check out this link: Nik Collection. I use it as a plugin for Lightroom. The first Nik plugin I use in my workflow is called Dfine. Dfine is a very useful plugin which "intelligently" smooths out unwanted grain and noise in the photo by automatically analyzing and spot-editing the noise. It's a super useful plugin.

Using Control Points in Viveza
Next I use another Nik plugin called Viveza. This program allows you to do more whole-and-spot editing. Like I said before, I wanted to lose all detail in the background and have it only exist as a white color. To work toward this goal, I added nearly 20 "control points" to the background using Viveza. Viveza has this awesome setting where you can view where your control points are exactly altering the photo. If you look at the photo above, you can see that some areas are super dark, while other areas are super white. Portions that a control point will greatly influence and alter will show up white, while portions that a given control point won't alter will be black. As you can see, the background is white, while the frog is black. That's exactly what I wanted for now. I then turn this informational view off and decrease the "Structure" setting in Viveza. The Structure setting can either bring out or strip away fine details in a photo. By decreasing the structure in the background, I'm washing away any remaining detail of the paper I used.

Using Control Points in Nik
Then I do the exact opposite with the frog. I want the fine details of the frog to show up crisp and clean. To do this, I add several control points to the frog, using the helpful informational display to ensure that I'm only going to affect the frog and not the background. After making sure the frog is covered adequately, I switch off this informational display and increase the structure of the frog.

Problems with Amphibian Photography
I save the photo file from Viveza and then open it back up in Lightroom. By this stage, I'm almost done with post-processing and all that remains are any trouble areas that I missed up to this point. I noticed that my flash reflected oddly in the bottom half of the frog's eye, giving it a gray wash in the bottom half that stood out in an unattractive manner. I used Lightroom's brush feature to try and tackle this problem. I applied a total of 3 separate brush areas to the eye, each with a different set of edits. My goal was to get rid of the gray wash that covered the bottom half of the eye.

Before (left) and after (right).
By using a combination of darkening the shadows, increasing the clarity, decreasing the highlights, and decreasing the brightness of the problem area, I was able to get rid of the gray wash that was a byproduct of my flash. Now the eye looked normal!

Lithobates sylvaticus Photo
And finally, after about 20 minutes of editing, the final product was nearing completion. The only remaining steps were to export the file to a JPEG format, apply some slight sharpening to the entire photo, and add a watermark. And with that, the photo is done.

Taking a photo is only half the battle in photography. Post-processing is an integral step in creating a finalized product that the photographer is happy about. The world of post-processing is complicated, however, with an array of programs available and nearly unlimited stylistic choices and tools to utilize. Hopefully this post gave you a window into my personal workflow. Although the details vary from photo to photo, and case to case, the overall process I explained in this post is how most of my photos are generally post-processed.