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Beauty in the Beasts

Wildlife photographer, and Wildlife Trust volunteer, Chris Lawrence talks about the wonder of photographing invertebrates, and how there's so much beauty to be found in the 'beasts'.

As the cold weather begins to fade away, the world of invertebrates truly spring into life, and as the flowers begin to bloom the nature reserves of South Wales quite literally begin to buzz. The world of invertebrates is remarkably fascinating and diverse with some Orders of insect, such as beetles (Coleoptera) being represented by thousands of species in the UK alone!

This vast variety of life is assembled in an array of shapes, sizes and colours making them fantastic (if not sometimes difficult!) subjects for my favourite past time, wildlife photography.

Where it all began

Purchasing my first camera around 5 years ago, photography rapidly became my number one thing to do, and after spending an entire summer photographing, identifying and studying dragonfly nymphs for my university project, my love for invertebrates was sealed. Through the use of a low power microscopy this study put me up close and personal, probabl too much so for most, with some very peculiar looking specimens, such as the golden ringed dragonfly (Cordulegaster boltonii, pictured). The truth was, that up until that point, like many of us, I had never stopped and taken the opportunity to look at these creatures so closely and therefore never noticed just how truly fascinating they are to observe. 

Fast forward to the present and I now spend the vast majority of my time trying to capture invertebrates, primarily insects and spiders, through my lens; what's more, I do this with opportunity to do more than building my own catalogue of images. 

Love of volunteering

As a regular volunteer for the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales, I spend a considerable amount of time helping to manage several reserves in my local area, namely Tef Fechan, Pwll Waun Cynon, Llyn Fach and Y Gweira. Each reserve differs vastly from the last, providing an array of beautiful habitats, and each habitat comes with its own list of invertebrates. This is where photography comes in! 

Photographing the myriad of insects found as my my fellow volunteers and I go about our business, allows us to catalogue the species at each reserve, and therefore improve our understanding of habitats and their management.

Patience, patience and more patience!

Photographing invertebrates often involves a lot of fun, games and frustrations that requires a certain amount of patience and dedication to overcome. Having sufficient amounts of lighting is always something of a challenge and can be even harder when you have to close, as your shadow can get in the way. Your subject being amongst the vegetation often just adds to the problem! 

Another reason that shadows can be problematic is they they can cause invertebrates to scarper pretty quickly, although this can be reduced by simple field skills and knowing where the sun is relative to your position. 

Insects playing 'hard to get'!

Even with this in mind, invertebrates are very aware of their surroundings and being able to get close is not always that straight forward! They are particularly excellent at playing hard to get, often refusing to remain seated for more than a couple of seconds. Wandering around, scouring the vegetation, then trying to sneak up on a subject, is not always the best approach.

Playing the waiting game can also have its rewards. From experience, even waiting around in areas where there's nothing immediately obvious, creatures seemingly begin appearing from nowehere. The hunt is, however, just the beginning and I'm somewhat convinced that insects enjoy tormenting you with a variety of games. Dragonflies love to land on the opposite side of the river/bog/pond, caterpillars curl up and retract their heads, beetles just let go and drop to the groun, shield bugs seem to love all things spikey and are often found amongst gauze and bramble, flighty pollinators like to play chase and the cone headed crickets of Y Gweira seem to enjoy running around a blade of soft rush in some sort of bizarre Benny Hill sketch! 


Perservering with these tests of patience usually pays off and the resulting photograph feels all that more of a prize well-earned, although wet feet and muddy trousers are always a consolation prize, or added bonus, depending on whether or not the critter was successfully captured!

Overcoming these issues is not impossible however, and through carefully observing your prey's behaviours it's usually possible to find a pattern! Emperor dragonflies are a classic example: they routinely go back to a small number of perches, which they use between regular patrols of their territory.

Once you have your shot of a creature the tests and trials aren't quite over! Taxonomy (the practice of classifying different species), is a very interesting subject but there are so many difficulties involved in distinguishing one species from another. Some species only differ from others almost un-noticeable ways. For the photography who wants to know what their subject is, the trick is simple. Take as many pictures from as many angles as humanly possible!

With only just over 40 species in the UK, and being reasonable large insects, dragonflies and damselflies (you may have noticed I have a soft spot for these!), are a great group to get started with. They're quite easy to tell apart, even though some species to vary quite a bit between individuals. If you're not sure what you've photographed, there are some great groups out there with experts to help. Your image can even contribute to conservation!

Getting close to wildlife

Getting closer to wildlife, whatever its size, is always an amazing experience and getting close enough to watch how some of these organisms feed, attract mates and go about their daily lives is surprisingly remarkable. The behaviours invertebrates show, their variations in colour, shape and size, and their quirky appearances will always be, for me, what sets them apart from other subjects.

As a volunteer helping to preserve these species in some outstanding reserves spread throughout the South Wales valleys, I am able to make my photography more than just a beautiful picture, or an item in a species list. I can help to make it a message. Invertebrates are everywhere, they are not only incredible important to our environment, but also to our wellbeing. This is why they will always have my love and respect. I hope that they will now have yours too, so grab your camera, get out there, and enjoy! 

Chris Lawrence

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