Creative Field Techniques - Unlikely Photo Subjects

Some of my favorite photo subjects are unexpected ones that I come across for the first time. Recently, I discovered a fascinating one. Parked at Lake Dardenelle State Park in Arkansas, I had left for the day to explore the area. I came back to find a swarm of newly emerged mayflies resting on all sides of the RV. Some people may have been horrified at the site. But, like most nature photographers I suspect, I found this fascinating. And upon inspecting the insect closely, I discovered a graceful and delicate form that glistened like a jewel in the sunlight. Along with its reflection on the RV surface, it reminded me of a ballerina in motion. I had to photograph it!

The mayflies I observed were newly emerged from the water. The life cycle of a mayfly makes this observation even more fascinating. For about a year prior to a swarm, mayflies live in water. Female mayflies lay as few as 50 or more than 10,000 eggs in the water. Once hatched, the mayfly nymph will live in water for about one year. During this time, it grows and sheds its skin several times. When nymph growth is complete and the mayfly is ready to reproduce, the winged adult emerges from the water. A swarm indicates that the emergence is occurring at about the same time for all the mayflies that hatched in a lake.  An emerged mayfly, or subimago is not quite in its final stage of life. 

The subimago must find a resting spot (like the side of an RV) because it has one more important rite of passage before it becomes a full adult ready to mate. After several minutes or maybe an hour or two, the subimago goes through its final molt and it is then that it become a full adult, the imago. The imago has only one purpose – to mate. And it has only 24 hours to do so before it dies (male) or lays eggs and then dies (female). I captured them as they transitioned from subimago to imago and before each one flew away to begin their final mating ritual.

I used my 180mm macro lens to capture these tiny insects. I could have used my telephoto lens, but the macro allowed me to get right up to the mayfly. Sometimes, I had to back away from the subject to get its long tail entirely in the frame, like the image above. This one was resting on a black surface.

A large part of the RV was not receiving direct sunlight. Although the mayfly was not brilliantly lit by light, I could adjust the exposure to brighten the scene. The laminate background was light enough to make a high key shot with negative space. The light was diffuse and this made the surface background even toned and soft. Here are two images where I overexposed the scene and used the surface for negative space to emphasize the mayfly's form.

The RV has some decals on it that offered interest to the composition, which you can see in the next two images. Lighting in the first one was more diffuse, giving the background a soft appearance. In contrast, the second image shows a brightly lit subject and more details in the focused area of the decals.

The RV is a fifth wheel, so the front of it has a smooth curvature and it was facing the sun at varying angles. Here, the resting mayflies were surrounded by an interesting play of light reflecting the surrounding trees and sky, as you can see in these next three images.

The floor of the curved portion of the RV is almost six feet above ground allowing enough space to walk under and capture some of the mayflies resting there. For the next image below, I stood under the front of the RV with my left shoulder against the side surface and got the camera as close to it as possible to be perpendicular to the mayfly wings. The darker mayflies are the reflections on the surface. The focus was set on the closest mayfly where you can also see more detail in the foreground surface.

I spent about an hour photographing while handholding the camera. Because of this, I needed a fast shutter speed and consequently bumped up the ISO to 1600 to 2500. Aperture was opened no wider than f6.3 because I wanted to retain some depth of field to get as much of the mayfly in focus as possible. This left me with shutter speeds of 1/250 to 1/400. Most of the images were overexposed  (1/2 to 1 stop above standard exposure), and none were underexposed which limited my shutter speeds to that range. This is referred to as exposure compensation in which I use the camera's meter to adjust exposure above the standard exposure.

For this tiny subject, I used spot focusing in continuous mode and multiple shots. Normally, I like to place focus on the insect's head. The challenge with the mayfly is that its head is smaller than you might expect. This is because it has no mouth! Given it's short life with one purpose, it has no need or time for food. Needless to say, this made focusing on the head extremely difficult! Once I had my subject framed and the spot focus in position, I shot several images with hopes of one of those being adequately sharp. Not ideal, but it worked well enough, especially since the mayflies were still. Putting the camera and lens on a tripod would have ensured sharp images each time, but my position relative to each subject would not allow room for a tripod. Because there were so many subjects in different locations, I would have wasted my time setting up the tripod from one subject to the next. A monopod would have been easier and increased my sharpness odds, but because I had no limit to how many images I could shoot, I simply shot as many as necessary to get that one sharp image before moving on to the next subject. Depending on the subject, that could be 3 images or as many as 12.

I hope you enjoyed this blog and got inspired to find those unlikely photo subjects. Please check out my video where I explain the difference between a telephoto and macro lens.

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about creative camera techniques, I do provide individualized workshops. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at