While I was not taking photographs of insects this summer, I was often thinking about not photographing them and feeling none too good about it. It was a self-reflective, unhealthy exercise that carried with it a multiplier effect: it made the seemingly simple task of pressing a small button into the equivalent of moving a Sisyphean boulder. That kind of slow, internal dwelling muddies the brain and dampens the very self-awareness you need to change to a better mindset. It’s a viciously soft circle, and it will bring you down. It’s funny though, how when you’re pacing around that circle, external forces wander into your way. I’m thinking of a totally unexpected person who becomes a good friend, or in this case a totally unexpected bug that becomes a spark of inspiration.
Many times the unexpected emerges because of the whereabouts — something stands out from its surroundings. And so it happened in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, in the very green Prospect Park. I was in the midst of a weekend visit to family and friends in the city when, on a fine July summer day, this impressive beetle crossed my path. (Actually, it crossed my sister’s path who spotted it just in time not to step on it; she thought it was a big roach, so we know she either doesn’t revile roaches enough to crush them without a thought or she was letting it go in deference to my entomophilia. Or maybe she’s just squeamish. But I digress.)
Being on a weekend excursion, I was aiming to travel light and had to weigh my options (i.e my camera equipment) as to what I would bring along. I settled on a simple top-loading camera bag, the kind that fits only the camera with an attached (not too long) lens. In this case it was the ol’ D5000 and the love of my camera life, the 35mm f/1.8 G. The small zippered pouch in the front held my back up battery and a microfiber cloth, and that probably should have been the end of it. Instead, I made it a point — why exactly I can’t remember now — to toss in a reverse lens adapter and a square of packing foam sheet, the latter of which squished in easily along the side wall of the bag. I wouldn’t have my usual reversed lens (the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 G VR II) in favor of the better lens for unreversed shooting (i.e. shooting), and I wouldn’t have an off-camera flash, but I’d have enough to shoot some super close, reverse lens shots if the “need” arose. Which it kind of did.
(I do wish I had thought to pack a toothpick. Usually I already have a few in the bag anyway, and I probably assumed that was the case…but it wasn’t. I was squarely back at the ol’ finger method for holding open the aperture lever.)
As I said, I’m not sure why I brought them. I have shot bugs in NYC before, but I had no intention of looking for any this time. It turned out I didn’t have to look for this one. It also happens that a reversed 35mm lens might be a little too much magnification for such a giant among insects (~2 inches long), as the uncropped photo above of its mandible illustrates. The biggest impediment to getting quality macro shots with my make-do reverse lens set up was probably the movement of the bug itself; he was fidgety, wholly uncooperative. I can’t say I blame him — and it was a “him,” easily recognizable as a male with its huge mandibles. Much like their eponymous cervine counterparts, the stag beetle males fight each other to win the right to mate with females; they happen to do it with mandibles instead of antlers.
I had a hunch this guy was on the losing end. Not only was he missing part of a leg (sorry, not really apparent in these photos), but he was on the ground below a large, very tall tree; my guess was the beetles were mating way up in the tower to heaven and he got knocked off into beetle hell (a.k.a. World of Sneakers, a.k.a. The Humanlands). In addition to not wanting anything to do with a giant primate and his camera, this stag beetle was not very steady on his feet either, stumbling and often tipping over. His drunken movements made it hard to get a shot off, forget a decent shot.
I did what I could, using my lens both normally and reversed, but eventually I had to get on with my visit. Before I rejoined my sister and put my camera away, I decided to do the beetle a solid and maybe save him from getting trampled by getting him out of the grass. I used a piece of stray bark to pick him up (yeah, those mandibles had me a little nervous — I definitely did not want a pinch!), and placed him on the aforementioned tree. I took a few shots before wistfully parting ways.
The shots I ended up with weren’t especially good, but — and I should have mentioned this earlier, but — this was the first stag beetle I’d ever seen(!), so I was pretty happy about the experience. That it came to me in such an unexpected way made it that much more exciting. Finding it definitely kindled that sense of wonder in me that makes photographing and learning about insects so rewarding — and just at a time that I needed it.