How do insect macrophotographers see their subjects? Going left, right or straight ahead?

4 April 2014 by Christopher Buddle, posted in Insects, Miscellaneous

I spend a lot of time looking at photographs of insects, and have much admiration for the skill of the artists who take these images. However, I've always wondered whether these insect photographers are biased in how they view their subjects. When viewing insect photos, are the subjects heading right more often than left? How often do photographers take images of their subjects looking straight at them?

A delightful Aphaenogaster fulva ant, heading right (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

A delightful Aphaenogaster fulva ant, heading right (photo by Alex Wild, reproduced here with permission)

This may seem like a ridiculous question - but there might be reasons think some biases exist. Perhaps left-handed photographers tend to view their subjects 'heading left', or maybe, depending on the camera, there' a natural inclination to view subjects from left to right, and thus more images may exist in which the insects are heading right. Or, some insects are easier to shoot when they are facing the photographer, and thus some subjects may be appreciated most often from that perspective.

With this in mind, I spend some time looking and images, and counting the number of photos in which the insect or spider is heading left, right, or looking right at the photographer. I started with just a simple google search of insect photographs, and here's the result:

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 2.43.56 PM

Summary: there seems to be more images of insect heading right instead of left, and not as many looking straight at the photographer.

I think this first effort was somewhat meaningless, and I wasn't particularly satisfied with the simple 'google search' approach; I found some images kept coming up in this search, and there were heaps of images in that search that weren't done by what we might consider 'serious' insect photographers --> the folks who really know their subjects, and who spend a great deal of time and energy looking at insects and spiders through a camera lens.

A beautiful blow fly from Matt Bertone, looking left. (photo reproduced here with permission)

A beautiful blow fly from Matt Bertone, looking left. (photo reproduced here with permission)

I therefore turned to three of my favourite insect macrophotographers, Nicky Bay, Alex Wild, and Matt Bertone, and here's the result after tallying the numbers (based on a quick and rather haphazard scan through their sites):

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 2.48.23 PM

In general, these photographers tend to shoot their subjects moving left or right with higher frequency than when their subjects look straight at them.  These general results actually matched the more global google search. Perhaps this makes some sense:  getting the full side profile of the insect is often important, and a head-on view maybe just isn't as interesting, or perhaps isn't as beautiful. And, it's good to know that there aren't more insect photographs in which the subject is heading left as compared to heading right or vice versa. (That would just be odd and unexpected)

Then I turned to Thomas Shahan, and found something quite different:

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 2.50.13 PM

Thomas REALLY likes to take photographs of his subjects when they are staring right at him.  The reason? About 90% of his images in which the subject is staring straight at the photographer are of jumping spiders. The Salticidae have among the most amazing eyes, and Thomas is clearly enthralled with photographing them, head-on.

Phidippus mystaceus (photo reproduced here with permission)

Phidippus mystaceus (photo reproduced here with permission)

This is the closest thing I can suggest about a take-home message: Insect macrophotographers take photos of their subjects heading left about as often as when they are heading right, unless they have big eyes. 

In sum, this was a fun exercise, and satisfied my curiosity (believe it or not, I've been wondering about this question for YEARS!). And, along the way, I sure got to appreciate and enjoy some pretty amazing images.

11 Responses to “How do insect macrophotographers see their subjects? Going left, right or straight ahead?”

  1. Sean McCann Reply | Permalink

    I have some bias toward insects heading left, but try to change it up consciously. I have a default position for my lights, which is just lazy habit, and insects heading left works better at the default position. What I should do is just take the time to setup my lighting rig in the other direction!

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Fascinating, Sean! I did wonder about whether flash placement plays a role in how photographers may shoot their subjects. Thanks so much for commenting.

  2. Ted C. MacRae Reply | Permalink

    I suspect mine are fairly evenly distributed across all three categories. Tiger beetles make for awesome head-on shots, but profiles shots are also aesthetically pleasing (which may not be so much the case with jumping spiders). Since my flash setup is symmetrical with no bias to either side and it's often a challenge to even get the beetles in the field of view, much less choose their orientation, I suspect I don't have a left/right bias.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks Ted - that makes a lot of sense i.e., depending on the insects, some groups may be equally interesting from all angles. Your comment about flash set-up is also interesting - especially given Sean's comment just above - the variability in flash set-up wasn't anything I had seriously considered before!

  3. macromite Reply | Permalink

    I'm not sure what Thomas' preferences are, but I do knows that salticids tend to orient to camera lenses and often jump right onto them. I suspect they are responding to their reflections. So cause and effect may be difficult to disentangle here.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Good comment, and thanks for the thoughts - yes, the salticids do rather quickly orient themselves to the camera lens, thus making it much more probably that there would be more shots head-on. Indeed, cause & effect is *very* difficult to untangle!

  4. Darktoad Reply | Permalink

    Western Comics tend to show action from left to right (as this is the way we read); Japanese comics go the opposite way from right to left as that is the way they read. For Western viewers and photographers this could be an "action" bias that perceives the subject insect as more "real" and in motion when facing to the right.

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for the comment!! Fascinating idea - I had never considered that as a potential factor for photographers. Very interesting.

  5. Adrian D. Thysse Reply | Permalink

    In my personal experience--excepting in the studio-- it is the bugs that dictate the direction they face in the image rather than the photographer. Research that! ;)

    • Christopher Buddle Reply | Permalink

      HA! For sure, Adrian - and there's certainly no reason to think the insects themselves would head in one direction more than another....

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