One of my favourite things about macro photography is that there are things to photograph absolutely everywhere. Of course, travelling to exotic locations to find rare and interesting species to photograph is always a treat, but if like many people, you spend a lot of time in a city – it can also be a really rewarding experience to capture beautiful macro subjects not far from home. What makes this even more worthwhile is that if you pull out your macro lens in your own backyard or a local botanical garden, you will no doubt end up learning more about the animals and plants that you share your home with.
When I first started visiting the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens in 2014, I frequently came across these brightly coloured, spiky insects. From my biology undergraduate training, I recognised them as a beetle larvae, but further research was required to figure out the species.
And after a little scouring around, I found out that this was a ladybird larva! But I didn’t only have the larva to help me identify the species, there were other clues hidden in the garden, including this pupa:
Things were starting to look decidedly more ladybird-like but it was still difficult to identify the species that I was looking at. I kept my eye open for adults. Luckily, or as I was soon to learn, unluckily, the adults of this species are quite commonplace at the botanical gardens.
Unluckily, because this gorgeous animal is actually an invasive alien species of ladybird – the Harlequin Ladybird (Harmonia axyridis). The species is native to eastern Asia but was artifically introduced to Europe and North America as a pest-control agent to manage aphids. Like many other biocontrol agents, the species went rogue and has now established in many countries worldwide, including South Africa. It is considered to be one of the world’s most invasive species, and has been known to outcompete and lead to the decline of indigenous ladybird species.
I was able to identify my specimens as Harlequin Ladybirds by the black “W” (or “M” if you are looking at it the other way round) on the pronotum (the prothorax exoskeletal plate just behind the head) of the animal. Now of course, without going out and looking for microfauna to photograph, I wouldn’t have learnt that these common species are invasive. I also wouldn’t have spent as much time trying to soften the light coming off my flashes to not reflect on the carapace of the beetles. Besides being an exploration of my neighbours, on these trips to the botanical gardens I certainly developed some technical skills while practising on these commonplace animals. And so when I had the opportunity to travel to more exotic destinations and photograph rarer, more skittish, or similarly shiny animals, I knew exactly how I was going to set up my flashes, and what aperture to use for the effect I wanted to create.
So get out there and use your camera, even it isn’t on an exciting safari, there is a lot to be uncovered and learnt about in your backyard. The more you practise your photography, be it on common, backyard species, the better your safari photos will inevitably become!
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