Shoot First: An Interview With Wildlife Photographer Clay Bolt

Up close and personal with our little friends in the backyard

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Welcome to another installment of "Shoot First, Ask Questions Later," our ongoing series of interviews with photographers from around the world. At the Nature Photography Summit in San Diego earlier this year, we met Clay Bolt, a natural history and conservation photographer who specializes in macro images of southern Appalachian biodiversity.

Clay's close-up shots of dragonflies, ants, salamanders, snakes, and other critters are gorgeous. He's also documented behaviors in the wild that are rarely seen by you and me. One of his big themes is that nature begins at home, and some of his images were shot in his own backyard in South Carolina. He is co-founder of Meet Your Neighbours, an international organization dedicated to connecting people with the wildlife in their own communities.

Ecotourists encounter a Yellow Rat Snake, Little St. Simon’s Island, Georgia View Larger

Clay's enthusiasm and gentle touch are big selling points for protecting wildlife, whether it's endangered or not. He gives the celebrity treatment to these creatures in a variety of publications that include National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, Scientific American, Outdoor Photographer, and Audubon Magazine. He's also the president-elect of the North American Nature Photography Association. Check out more of Clay's work on his website.


How did you become interested in nature photography, and when?

I was interested in nature from my earliest memory. As a kid I was into entomology and drawing and I was going out into the forest looking for cool insects. My wife is from Western Australia and when we went over for my first visit, I brought along an old Pentax K1000 camera I'd bought at a pawnshop.

The forests in Australia reminded me of my fascination with nature, but everything was new to me and I was seeing it with fresh eyes. I pushed rolls and rolls of film across the desk at a photo shop, and when it was developed it turned out I knew nothing about manual exposure! But I became fascinated with what I'd done wrong, and how one makes a good image.

Harris’ Three-spot Moth Caterpillar (Harrisimemna trisignata), Pickens, South Carolina View Larger

I'd been looking at all these amazing parrots in Australia. When I got home, a northern cardinal landed outside our kitchen window and it dawned on me—there must be many things in nature that I was taking for granted. I started seriously focusing on nature photography in 2002.

What photographer(s) influenced you when you started?

Jim Brandenburg was a big influence. One thing I love about his work is that it's meditative—it's very quiet photography. He uses wide apertures, very shallow depth of field. Sometimes it's just a fleeting moment with the subject running by. Mark Moffett was also a huge influence. He was one of first macro photographers for National Geographic, and he's done dramatic work with flash.

What lenses do you shoot with?

Typically I use three lenses, starting with a Nikon 55mm macro. It's probably close to 30 years old, but it gets me very close to my subjects—I like the intimacy. I use a Sigma 180mm macro for more skittish subjects.

But the lens that has defined my career is the Sigma 15mm Diagonal Fisheye, because it allows me to get very close to very small subjects and to show them within context of their environment. I want to be able to see the dragonfly, but also want to see the habitat they live in. I'm dealing with subjects that are threatened, and sometimes just showing the subject by itself isn't enough.

A newly emerged Widow Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Pickens, South Carolina View Larger

Are there any accessories that you absolutely can't live without?

Extension tubes. Flashes are huge for what I do. I'll use teleconverters on occasion. I'm shooting on the ground a lot, so oftentimes I'll use a beanbag instead of a tripod.

You travel to a lot of remote areas. How do you maintain your workflow?

Typically what I try to do is shoot as much as I can during the day, then download to two hard drives at night. I'll do some editing at night. Occasionally someone like a National Geographic editor will want something quickly, but I get a little distracted when I'm in the field.

Most wildlife photographers focus on big game. What inspired you to go small?

I've photographed large reptiles like alligators, and I love it all. I'm going to Panama next month and they have all these cool things like howler monkeys. But what really excites me is what's crawling through the leaf litter on the forest floor.

A Metallic Green Bee (Augochloropsis metallica) gathering pollen from a Black-eyed Susan View Larger

There's never a dull moment looking at small creatures. I'll visit a place again and again, but I'm always finding something new. It's also important from a conservation standpoint. More than 99 percent of life on earth is smaller than your finger—it's important that we pay attention to these species, they represents the majority of wildlife in the world. Without them the entire ecosystem would collapse.

What creature has most eluded you?

One species that was a target for me to photograph was the green salamander, a very rare species endemic to southern Appalachia—they only live in secretive places. It took me about four years to locate a population, and it brought tears to my eyes once I found them. But even though I knew exactly where they were, it took me another year to find one I could photograph.

The hardest thing to photograph is behavior. Small animals are hard to focus on if they're moving around a lot. I spent the better part of one summer trying to photograph a beewolf wasp capturing and stinging a sweat bee to paralyze it midair.

Tell us about Meet Your Neighbours and the field-studio technique.

I had been looking for a way to engage wildlife photographers around the world who were photographing their local, often commonly found species. This technique offered a perfect way to bind everyone's work together. I pitched the idea to Scottish wildlife photographer Niall Benvie, and from there the idea of Meet Your Neighbours was born in 2009. Since that time, we have recruited close to 100 photographers to join our effort. It has been an amazing experience. You can learn more about the project on our website.

Clay Bolt's field-studio allows for close encounters with small creatures, without removing them from their natural environment for long. View Larger

The Meet Your Neighbours field-studio technique was developed by Niall. His outdoors field-studio was an extension of the work that Richard Avedon's assistants, David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton, began experimenting with in the 1980s. To my knowledge, Niall was the first person to begin experimenting with the technique outdoors.

The technique is essentially comprised of building a small set in the field comprised of a sheet of opaque white plastic (Acrylite, or Perspex in Europe), two off-camera flashes, and a couple of light stands. One flash is placed beneath or behind the plastic and is used to blow out all of the details in the white area. The second is used as fill-flash on the subject (in front of the plastic). The vast majority of our subjects are photographed in the field, and released where they are found. The well-being of the subject always comes first.

We have photographers all over the world, some of them are teenagers, and they use this simple yet beautiful technique for photographing wildlife. You might think it's just a bee, but when you see a fuzzy-legged leafcutter bee up close with all these golden hairs, it's extraordinary.

Which of your photographs is your all-time favorite?

It's always changing. If I can shoot five to seven images a year that really grab me, I feel successful. One of my favorites from this past year was of a rough green snake hunting insects in an oak tree. This species, which is often arboreal, moves throughout tree branches while swaying gently to mimic the movement of a branch in the breeze. It is often elusive, but by chance I saw one a couple feet away on a hike and was able to make a photograph of it as it blended into its environment. I used the Sigma 180mm macro, a great lens that can compress a busy scene into a beautiful watercolor wash.

Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus); Pickens, South Carolina View Larger

Another image I really like is a recent shot of a black-tailed bumble bee that I photographed flying in front of the Golden Gate Bridge for National Geographic. I love showing subjects in the context of their environment, and I like the drama of it.

What is the wildest moment you've had shooting outdoors?

Last summer in Guyana I was out with a biologist friend who had captured a coral snake, an extremely venomous species. He had put it inside a clear plastic tube to examine it without being bitten. But when he wasn't looking the snake crawled out backwards from the tube and into his hand. I heard a scream and the next thing I knew the snake went flying by my face. Amazingly, my friend was okay, but we were both pretty shaken. We were a day away from civilization and if he'd been bitten he would have died.

What advice can you offer to someone new to wildlife photography?

Number one, focus on local projects. It's easy to dream about traveling far away, but focus on the stories and subjects you know best. Editors are always looking for a well-developed story. If you've followed a subject for a year or two, they'll feel more comfortable giving you an assignment.

Number two, if you're photographing wildlife, learn about your subject's behavior. Spend time observing it. We get hung up on the idea of communing with nature, the poetic side, but we need to balance it with scientific understanding. Even if your images are not scientific in nature, you still need to know the animal. If you're photographing a snake and you don't know its behavior, you're either going to get bitten or it's going to get away from you.

A Black-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus melanopygus) flies in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California View Larger

Third, experiment. It's great to come into the field with a storyboard of ideas. But once you've captured those key images, don't stop. Yes, get the safety shot, but don't go home. I'll feel like I'm off the hook then and that's when I can start to experiment—often that's when I come up with an image that's even better.

What's your dream project?

I'm starting it now, on the many species—nearly 4,000—of North America's native bees. The primary goal is to increase the public's awareness of our incredible native bees so that they may in turn take action to protect and support them locally by doing things such as planting more native plants, leaving space for nesting and so on. There are only a small number of experts who focus on these very small bees.

I also would love to see endangered species such as the rusty-patched bumble bee—which has declined 87 percent in the past 15 years—receive federal protection. Although we often hear talk about protecting bees, much of this is directed towards the honey bee which is undoubtedly beneficial, but it's also a non-native species in North America that receives more credit than it deserves at times for being the world's greatest pollinator. In fact, in many cases, native bees are much more effective at pollinating some of our most popular crops such as squash, tomatoes and blueberries.

You can learn more about the project at beautifulbees.org.



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