Why it's Hard to Photograph Tiger Beetles at Willcox Playa
Way back in July on my trip to Arizona, I visited Willcox Playa to photograph tiger beetles. In some respects it's easy. There is a lot of species abundance, and there is a boatload of individuals. Even in a bad year like 2009, I saw and photographed 5 different species of tigers. On the other hand, conditions at Willcox conspire to make photography difficult. I didn't fully understand this until earlier this year when I took my best tiger photo ever at Bluff Spring Fen here in Illinois. Here it is:
Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) - embiggens well
There's a lot to like about the image. It's nearly all in focus, so much so that you can see the texture of the elytra. Also, it can be enlarged considerably without losing focus. Why was I able to get such a nice shot? Simple, really. I took this picture on a fairly cool, overcast day. There were two benefits: I could move in very close to the beetle without scaring it away, and the diffuse light reduces specular (mirror-like) reflections from the shiny elytra.
At Willcox Playa, none of these problems is minimized, and they all work against you. For one thing, the temperatures at the playa are almost always hot. It's an old saline lakebed with lots of white sand. This year when I arrived, temperatures were already in the mid 90s at 9:00AM. Forget the discomfort factor, the high temperatures has the beetles' metabolisms so high that they are very skittish. It's hard to get anywhere near them. Among the most flighty species there is the Black Sky Tiger Beetle (Cicindela nigrocoerulea).
The photo above was taken with the zoom at full extension. With the zoom way out, it's hard to keep the camera still and focused on a really small target like a tiger beetle. Moreover, the photo is heavily cropped and enlarged, which further reduces clarity of the image.
White-lined Tiger Beetle (Cicindela lemniscata)
The brilliant sunshine at Willcox also enhances reflections off of shiny subjects like tiger beetles. Even for species that you can get closer to, the bright reflections can interfere with a good photo. I was able to get reasonably close to the White-lined Tiger Beetle in the image above, however most of the photos that I took of it were not usable because of the very bright specular reflections of of the eyes and the elytra. I'm not really complaining. The challenges of getting good images of tiger beetles is one of the things that I find fun about photographing them.