The Trouble with Moths

agreeable tiger moth

The thing is, moths are some of my favorites. Metaphorically, their transformation from worm to angel; their compulsive and often self-destructive attraction to the light; their preference (mostly) to act under the cover of darkness; their short windows of viable reproduction — and I could probably go on, but I won’t — all these things, make them compelling to observe, to think about and to glean wisdom from. As an admirer of the natural world, and moths in this particular case, that’s all great. As a photographer, they can present a whole lot of what I might call teasing opportunities. Or maybe just a whole lot of pain in the rear.

Moths can be drab or colorful, blandly uniform or intricately patterned; some offer more apparent or easily accessible paths to a beautiful photograph, but either way bringing out the details of their characteristic scales is a challenge. Many are skittish, and tend not to dawdle or alight nearby. The majority are most active at night which creates a whole other problem when trying to find a subject let alone to light and frame a shot. They will congregate around lights naturally, and often will be unusually still; in the morning hours they will often still be resting at the light or on some human structure for shelter during at least part of the day. For me, these are the easiest “gets” for moths that helps to mitigate the elusiveness of their “capture.” Indeed, there is a restroom facility at my local state park that attracts a good deal of napping moths (e.g. the Agreeable Tiger Moth [edit: not sure if this is actually Spilosoma congrua, but I *think* it is a Spilosoma sp.; it’s hard to differentiate these white tiger moths!] pictured above) on which I get many if not the majority of my moth shots. They are nicely positioned to take photos that are useful for identification purposes but less viable for artful or aesthetically pleasing shots. Essentially being flat against a wall reduces the perspectives available. It makes it that much more difficult to shoot the many moths with odd and/or multi-angled edges and surfaces that makes up their furry little bodies. The flat wall also provides more often than not for a crummy background, as in the photo above: the beige siding is almost featureless yet in focus, sucking the moth into it, flattening the intrigue of the image.

The other instance of more accessible moths, aside from resting subjects on buildings/near lights, is the feeding moth. Typically I will find them on a flower (but also animal droppings and rotting fruit), and though this is going to reduce the kinds of moths to those active in the daytime, it offers much better opportunities for good backgrounds and usually for better angles. It also serves to distract the moth as the moth can get lost in its appetite, so to speak; even when they are disturbed you can wait a bit and some will come back, unwilling to quite yet give up their meal. The biggest downside is that the feeding moth is often a jumpy, moving moth. On small blossoms they tend to move to the next one very quickly.

Having written this out, I can see how much of it is very indicative of the general insect macro endeavor, but the hairy-bodied moths are the ones I tend to remember; they seem to be the ones for which I am most often unable to fire a single shot. In any event, the key is patience. Sometimes you jiggle it, and you get in; sometimes you break that key in two and lock yourself out. I’ve had plenty of those, but a new door to open is nearby, a new moth to discover, to reveal. So I just keep shooting.

(P.s. stay cool in the sun if it’s out crushing everything like it is here. It’s going to be a challenge shooting today…almost sweating just thinking about it.!

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