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What's in my insect photography bag? — Mark W. Moffett

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What's in my ... ?

September 1 · Issue #118 · View online

Each week, one interesting person shares four favorite things in their bag or in their desk or fridge or closet or wherever they keep things.


I am a tropical biologist and explorer known for my studies of animal social life, and especially the behavior of ants, and I’m acclaimed as well as an insect photographer. Because I often work in remote places, I need to cram any and all tools I might need into a bag that I keep on my back day after day. — Mark W. Moffett

Pictured are the small items that I carry to watch ants and other insects —tools I describe below starting at the left and proceeding clockwise:
  1. A small mirror to follow ants moving under objects within the leaf litter — surprising how often this helps. I have tracked ants many yards over periods of hours with this mirror, an insane job.
  2. A vial of sugar water dyed red to keep track of which ants are which (the ones that turn cherry red belong to my colony, hooray!). 
  3. One of the vials of 70-80% ethyl alcohol I carry for preserving insect specimens. 
  4. A vial of dilute honey and a vial cooking oil, used as baits to assess what tasty diet my ants prefer and then to follow the ant workers back to their nest. 
  5. 20X loupe (magnifier) on a silver chain that I wear around my neck when I need it often.
  6. Face mask made from blue cords and the sleeve of an old yellow t-shirt that I should perhaps replace with a mask against Covid — this I put on to avoid disturbing insects (breathing on certain kinds of ants can make them very angry!). 
  7. Strong twine that can be employed, for example, to tie back any vines that get in the way of my access to a study subject so that I don’t need to cut down any annoying plants. 
  8. Orange flagging tape to mark the location of an ant nest or some other study subject.
  9. Sometimes I see something big! This is a small monoscope with a carabiner to attach it to one flank of the camera bag, which I use to quickly identify a distant subject like a bird before I pull out the 100-400 mm lens from my bag should I decide to study it further, or to take its picture. 
  10. A featherweight forceps, which allows me to pick up an insect without hurting it (though I’m fearless about using my fingers — ouch!).
  11. A black-stoppered aspirator, used to suck bugs into a small plastic container to examine later. 
  12. A Swiss army knife with all the fixin’s (though I’ve grown cautious about bringing one on trips because before arriving at the airport I often forget to move it over from my camera bag into a check-in bag, and so airport security officials have looked at me crossly and confiscated several). 
  13. A cheap compass because the one in a phone or GPS can fail in dense forests ( #$%!!! Where am I???).
  14. Extension arms that I adjust to position one or two camera flashes exactly where I want them to give my small subjects the best beauty treatment. (Notice the red tape I’ve put around one arm, which makes this device harder to miss should I put it down in the leaf litter — I stick a bit of this bright colored tape to every small item of camera gear I own, such as my lens caps.) This is the only piece of actual camera gear from my bag that I show here. But, FYI: For insect photography I carry a 60 mm Canon macro lens, a 1-5X Canon macro lens, three 25 mm extension tubes and a Canon macro twin light (ring lights flatten the subject and should be avoided unless you’re photographing postage stamps).
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