Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Mark Moffett: The Adventures of Doctor Bugs

Mark Moffett: The Adventures of Doctor Bugs
© Mark Moffett

Entomologist and photographer Mark Moffett uses his magnified  images to tell the larger-than-life stories of the natural world.

On the outside, Mark Moffett may be 51 years of age. But deep down inside, he‚ still a shy little kid wandering through the woods, searching for bugs, snakes and other small creatures.  And like any playful youngster, he‚ not above dumping a huge spider on the head of a terrified Conan O‚Brien on his late-night TV show or handing an African bullfrog weighing nearly five pounds to a somewhat apprehensive Stephen Colbert on "The Colbert Report."

While some may snicker and guffaw as he waxes eloquent about lesbian lizards, hissing cockroaches from Madagascar and the penis size of banana slugs, Moffett is deadly serious about sharing with the world the joys, mysteries and adventures to be found in nature.

He accomplishes that goal by telling stories‚ in words and stunningly beautiful photographs‚ but doesn‚t want to be pigeonholed into being "just a photographer" or "just an ecologist."
"I like to play around with stories, whatever way I can," he explains. "To me, a photograph is a way of telling a story. Being an ecologist is a way of telling a story. They're just two different ways of doing the same thing."

The Doctor is in.

Moffett has been described as an insect expert about as often as he‚ been called a photographer. National Geographic even labeled him "the Indiana Jones of entomology," a description he shrugs off with his characteristic sense of humor.  "It would be nice," he says, laughing at his nickname, "except Harrison Ford has to wear all that heavy leather in hot places, and that makes no sense at all to me."
He‚ content to be known by his self-created  moniker of "Doctor Bugs," and lists his occupation as "professional explorer."

The title is not entirely made up. Moffett earned a real Ph.D. from Harvard after studying with renowned conservationist Edward O. Wilson. He also works as a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and as an associate at the University of California at Berkeley. He has garnered numerous prestigious awards, including the 6th Distinguished Explorer Award from the Roy Chapman Andrews Society, a Lifetime Achievement award from the Science Museum of Long Island, and the Explorers Club‚ Lowell Thomas Medal, whose previous recipients include Carl Sagan, Louis Leakey, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Sir Edmund Hillary.

What he shares in common with such notables is his insatiable curiosity about the world around him and his desire to share it with others through his stories and photos. He has had more than 500 images published in National Geographic since 1986. Five of his images are included in the "100 Best Nature Pictures" special edition of the magazine.

"People have this sense that everything is sewn up, there are no new frontiers," Moffett says. "In fact, everywhere you go there are new stories. I‚m finding new species all the time. I‚m always making new discoveries. Everything I do, I have something new in it or something that hasn‚t been tried before. That‚ what drives me."

Some of those discoveries are personal. In 2008, for example, he and his bride were taken to the top of a volcano on Easter Island, where they were joined in a traditional island marriage ceremony, which involved them being stripped naked, painted and dressed in feathers. The ceremony was videotaped and is now archived at the Smithsonian, "so I guess we‚re part of ancient history," he says.

The drama of the small.

Naturally inquisitive as a child, Moffett found himself drawn to ants, frogs, spiders and other small creatures not just for the creepy-crawly thrill, but to discover the secrets of their hidden lives.
Born in Colorado and raised in the Midwest, he dreamed of being an ecologist/adventurer and taught himself as much as he could about biology. He dropped out of high school, but got an education of another sort by becoming a field assistant on scientific expeditions to study animals in Latin America.

Eventually, Moffett settled down just enough to earn a B.A. from Beloit College in Wisconsin and then begin graduate studies in entomology at Harvard in the 1980s. Moffett recalls that after his first article was published in National Geographic, back in his grad-student days, the editor told him that the story, about the behavior of ants, reminded her of the motion picture "The Terminator."

"That‚ the advantage of insects," Moffett says with a smile. "You can get away with all kinds of wild sex and violence that you can't do with any other subject."
Photographing those insects brings Moffett back to his childhood, when he was engrossed in science fiction novels and adventure tales about early explorers.

"If you photograph an elephant or a whale, all you can do is make it look smaller than life," he says. "The fun thing with insects is you can make people forget their size and turn them into things that are the equivalent of science fiction and Sigourney Weaver‚ Alien. Even the small can be dramatic."

A perfect example is his book "Face to Face with Frogs," which features a larger-than-life amphibian staring off the cover. The book, published in 2008, was accompanied by an exhibition of Moffett‚ images of frogs at the National Geographic Museum.

This year an exhibition of his photos of ants opened May 30 at the Smithsonian Institution, to be followed next year by his book, "Adventures Among Ants." The Smithsonian exhibit will also include the unveiling of a painting of E.O. Wilson for the National Portrait Gallery.

Bugs first, photos second.

It was while Moffett was working on his doctorate with Wilson that he first got into photography. As he tells it, he wanted to travel throughout Asia for as long as possible‚ he ended up staying two and a half years‚ and figured he should document his work, "in case people thought I was just smoking things with a guru in India."  So before departing the United States, Moffett picked up a book on how to photograph supermodels, which explained fill, main and hair lighting techniques. He adapted those techniques with small inexpensive flash units rigged to the front of an Olympus camera. But instead of looking for the next Cindy Crawford, Moffett practiced photographing dead ants.

"It worked out pretty well," he recalls.
Traveling in India on a National Geographic research grant, Moffett sent about eight rolls of film back to be developed. His images were so impressive that the magazine sent someone to talk to him about the photos.

Moffett downplays his photo skills, saying that familiarity with his subject matter is of much greater importance.

"I came out of nowhere," he says. "I have no background or knowledge of photography. I improved my technique over time, but I had the right strategy."
He does admit to a gift for focusing and the incredible depth of field he achieves at extremely high magnification. For one National Geographic story, the depth of field on his tiny subjects was about one-quarter of a millimeter.

"With a lot of extension tubes, I still managed to get them in focus," he says. "You just have to have an eye for the plane of focus in what you do."
Moffett‚ close-up techniques even attracted the attention of NASA. "They thought I had some kind of magic way of doing it," he says. "I told them I had no particular technique, I just have a knack for it."

The result: "They decided not to talk to me anymore," he says.
Moffett insists that it takes much more than photo skills to come back with great images. Capturing the images is easy, he  contends, "because you‚re basically using the camera like a microscope" when studying tiny insects.

"I just pressed the button when I saw something happen. It didn‚t interfere with the fact that I was trying to study their behavior," he adds.
 "I think anybody can do it, just as anybody can do great photography if they have their mind set in the right place." The key, he says, is finding that right place.

"The trouble with most people who are scientists is that they‚re not really responding emotionally, so sometimes their pictures appear flat," he says. "The trouble with people who aren‚t scientists is that they sometimes don‚t know the behavior they're looking at, so you can see their ignorance. It‚ like a Martian coming down and photographing a Thanksgiving dinner and not knowing what he‚ looking at."A good nature photographer, he says, knows how to keep feet in both the scientific and layperson‚ worlds. "You have trouble with people who know too much and people who know too little," he explains. "You have to go toward middle ground, where you have the sense of mystery of what you're photographing but you actually know enough to say something smart about it."

Technique, not technology.

While Moffett is coy about the secrets behind his talent, he does say his success has very little to do with technology. "I‚m not much of a gear-head," he says. "Often I don‚t even bring a tripod."

He describes himself as a minimalist, in terms of both the equipment and the number of images he will come back with; he tends to edit images in the field. Usually he takes only what he can pull from his camera bag. That typically includes a couple of Canon EOS 5D bodies (he‚ currently testing the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which he hopes with its integrated cleaning system will help eliminate the constant problem of sensor dust), a 65mm f/2.8 macro lens and an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro USM lens. The latter lens wasn't designed for the 5D, so Moffett adds at least one extension tube to it. He also likes working with wide angles for depth of field, carrying a Canon 16-24mm lens along with a 14mm  Tamron. For lighting, he uses a Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX, which offers two separate flash heads that can be swiveled around the lens.Moffett switched to digital a few years ago, a move he describes as both good and bad.

The immediate feedback that digital provides is highly valuable in high-magnification photography, he says. "The trouble with film was that you had to shoot until you were sure you had it right." He typically would get the best image early on, but would continue to shoot, wearing himself out while the quality of his images declined.

"Now you can finish as soon as you have it right," he says. "It's nice to know you don‚t have to continue working at an image for additional hours, which would happen in the old days."
Even so, he admits there was something "magical" about shooting film, especially when he would return from the field months later and see his images for the first time.
"They would look oh so amazing," he recalls.

The downside to digital, he says, is the amount of time spent in front of a computer, downloading and cross-referencing images. "Before, you could go through the process of looking at the images when you got home and you have all this spare time to relax. Now it just never ends," he laments.

Being an insect storyteller.

Moffett may find the editing process a bit of a chore, but he never tires of talking about his favorite subject: the natural world. His goal is not just to make gorgeous photographs of his tiny subjects but to tell the complex, mysterious stories behind the multiple bug eyes and waving antennae.  "There are a lot of good photographers around; there just aren‚t that many good storytellers," he says. "Another picture of a fish on a sea anemone doesn‚t show us a new story, [but] every magazine runs them as if they‚re new every year. The fact is, stories that haven‚t been told are everywhere."

To be able to describe these narratives, Moffett advises would-be photographers to do as he did: first study the subject matter that interests them, such as anthropology or biology, and then learn photography.

The point of Moffett‚ work is "making nature photography into journalism," he says. "To do that, you actually have to know the story, which means knowing the science. It doesn‚t mean you have to know all the boring statistics and everything else."

Moffett‚ images and descriptions are also upbeat, unlike many of the articles and photos today about nature and the environment. "There‚ a lot about conservation and about how everything‚ falling apart, which is all very true, but it‚ still full of negative imagery and negative stories so that people turn it off," he says. "I like to go back to the basics and remind people what‚ beautiful in nature and make people want to go out and save it afterwards. Even a bizarre subject can be beautiful.

"I respect photography of things like pandas and bears, and I've photographed those things," he adds. "To me, they‚re too easy. I mean, how can you fail with a panda? The really fun thing for me is to make people fall in love with a spider as it struggles to find a mate or just other things that we can relate to. ‚You can do that with images. You can do that with stories."

He also has plenty of stories to tell about his own adventures traveling the world. He describes some of them on his website, doctorbugs.com: "Because I pick stories from remote parts of the earth that often have not been told before, I have often used my wits to survive‚ eating scorpions, spiders and grubs with the native peoples of five continents‚ ascending a tree to escape bull elephants‚ discovering an Aztec burial chamber populated with blind cave tarantulas‚ tracking down frogs so lethal, their touch can kill‚ using blowguns in defense against Colombian drug lords‚ accidentally sitting on a fer-de-lance, the deadliest snake of the Americas."For "Doctor Bugs," bringing back images and stories to the world is his childhood dream come true.

"Most biologists may have grown up loving animals and plants, but they end up being in some lab looking at some black box, clicking away and not actually getting to go out in nature much anymore," he says. "My message for people often is: You don‚t have to get stuck in a lab and forget what really drove you to love nature. You can go out and have a career and find new things, new species, new images‚ whatever you're looking for, they're everywhere out there.
"We tend not to feel that way because we get everything in a tidy box," he adds. "In fact, there‚ all kinds of mysteries still around."Editor‚ Update: Mark‚ book is now available. More info can be found at adventuresamongants.com


IN THE LOUPE: Mark Moffett

Home and office location: Greenport, N.Y., on Long Island, but he‚ not there for very long stretches. "Home is where you store stuff," Moffett says. 

Family Life: Married in 2008 to Melissa Wells, who, he says, also has a great sense of adventure. She previously helped establish medical facilities and teaching hospitals in Europe and the Middle East and is now shooting videos, some for National Geographic.

Equipment: Cameras: Canon EOS 5D bodies, with a 65mm f/2.8 macro lens and an EF-S 60mm f/2.8 macro USM lens. Also, 14mm Tamron and Canon 16-24mm lenses. Lighting: Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX. For digital storage, he uses an Epson Multimedia Storage Viewer, which contains a portable hard drive.Favorite Photos: "Those that are more complicated to get, and those that tell a story," he says. Example: An image of a tiny ant guarding its nest entrance while its young are feeding behind it. "You can look at every part of the frame and there‚ something happening," he says.

Most memorable assignment: Photographing Phyllobates terribilis, the world‚ deadliest poison dart frog, in a remote valley in Colombia when the frog decided to leap at him. A single frog, which is lethal to the touch, could kill 400 to 500 people.

Books: "High Frontier: Exploring the Tropical Rainforest Canopy" (Harvard University Press, 1993); "Face to Face with Frogs" (National Geographic Children‚ Books, 2008); "How to Hunt Like an Army Ant: The Life of Insect Foragers" (expected in 2010).

Advice for nature photographers: "Know the science behind what is being photographed," he says. "Look for the new and be a storyteller. The fact is, I believe life is all about telling stories."

P.J. Heller
Story Author: P.J. Heller

P.J. Heller is a freelance writer and photographer based in Southern California.

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