I have a theory that I’d like to share with you. No matter what the skill, there is a Michael Jordan of that skill in the world. For example, somewhere there’s a Michael Jordan of mopping. He/She can mop faster and better than anyone — possibly even by leaps and bounds.
Therefore, it follows that there must be a Michael Jordan of ant photography. Possible? Is it possible that I found him?
Photo by Alex Wild
Alex Wild is a biologist at the University of Arizona with a doctorate in entymology. You might know him from his research papers “ Taxonomic revision of the ant genus Linepithema
(Hymenoptera: Formicidae)” or the sleeper “Observations on larval cannibalism and other behaviors in a captive colony of Amblyopone oregonensis.”
On a more serious note, someone has to photograph ants for textbooks, newspapers, magazines, websites, etc. And Alex Wild is your man running both AlexWild.com and Myrmecos.net (the ancient Greek word for “ant”), and before he hopped on a plane to South Africa, he consented to speak with me.
You are a biologist at the University of Arizona. At what point did
you get interested in photography?
Like many digital photographers, I started as a hobbyist. I was already a graduate student in entomology (the study of insects), and I photographed what I liked. So I was taking bug pictures in my back yard with a little digicam. This was several years ago when Nikon was still making those great swivel-body coolpix designs.
The timing was fortuitous for my photography career. Flickr, Smugmug and the other photo-sharing sites weren?t around at the time, so I had to build my own site to have a place to display my photos. The thought of licensing the photos hadn?t occurred to me, I was just a bug geek who wanted to put photos on the web. If I had started now instead of 2002, I would have just uploaded my pictures to FlickR and left it at that. I didn?t realize it then, but having
an independent internet presence would be important.
When did you start licensing your photos? What kind of clients
purchase these images?
In 2003, the first year of myrmecos.net, the internet was smaller. The stock agencies hadn?t yet figured out the importance of the internet. I started getting emails from photo editors who found me through Google and wanted to license my images, a complete surprise, so I scrambled to figure out how to conduct business.
My clients are diverse. Newspapers use my photos to accompany science
reporting, pest control companies use them for advertisements, science museums
use them in exhibits. I get a lot of textbooks and field guides as well.
Photo by Alex Wild
Did you determine there was a dearth of high quality ant photographs?
The issue with insect photographs is not that there aren’t enough of them. The digital revolution has brought us a whole new generation of prolific insect photographers. Rather, the issue is that much of the demand for insect photos is for particular species showing particular behaviors. The value comes from the technical information about the subject just as much as the aesthetics of the image, and most people taking insect photos lack the training to recognize what they’re shooting, or to know what to shoot.
Entomology is a specialized discipline that requires a fair amount of training, and many of the top-tier of insect photographers- people like Piotr Naskrecki (The Smaller Majority) and Mark Moffett (National Geographic)- are Ph.D. scientists with a string of research publications. Just as for fashion or sports photography, successful insect photographers need an insider’s
knowledge of their field.
How did you determine your licensing prices?
Gosh, I’m still figuring that out. It’s trial and error. Some clients express surprise at what a bargain they’re getting while others tell me they can’t meet my rates. Between the two, one develops a sense of where the market is for a particular kind of use. For example, newspapers are cash-strapped at the moment and generally have no budget for science images.
How do people find your website? Do you actively think about Search Engine Optimization? I notice your site comes up very high when I search for “ant photographs”
I have a symbiotic relationship with other scientists. They let me photograph the insects they work with, giving me the scoop on some really fascinating research before it become public. I sometimes get commercial business when their research breaks, and they get nice photos they can use to promote their own careers in their publications, websites, and presentations. In return, the scientific community has been very good to me, linking my site from their university pages and passing commercial clients my way. My visibility in the search engines is partly due to these relationships.
Looks like you’re a fan of the Strobist! Have you picked up anything in particular from his blog that has altered your approach to photography?
I’m waiting for him to post about little beetle-sized strobes one can artfully position around a microhabitat.
I ate a little black ant that was crawling on the wall of my home when I was about 4 years old. Anything I should be worried about?
Not at all. You’d do better to worry about eating mass-produced supermarket meat than ants.
What’s the worst bite you’ve ever gotten?
I was stung by a caterpillar once in Paraguay that made me feel like I’d broken my arm. Wow it was painful, and it left a welt for weeks.
The irony is that when I got stung, I was in the middle of capturing a hive of wild honeybees with a couple of local farmers. In spite of being of the infamously mean Africanized stock, the bees were fine, buzzing lazy circles around us as we cut the combs from an old stump and moved them to a hive. It was the caterpillar I accidentally leaned on while reaching under the stump that did me.
Hey, did you ever see the 70’s movie “Phase IV”? Got any favorite ant movies?
I prefer “Antz” and “Bug’s Life”. To keep on top of developments in insect movies, it’s a good idea to watch the Insect Fear Film Festival, held annually at the University of Illinois.