Shooting the Sphinx, finis

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

August 17, 2011

So, I have promised some notes on photographing night-flying sphinx moths in flight.

First, they are very active at dusk—at about the time that your Momma would have expected you to be on the front porch, they start flying. They seem to me to be most active for the next hour or so.

Five-spotted Hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata)

Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta)

Second, they are attracted to night-blooming flowers. I initially found this out because I have a large stand of Cleomes right by my front porch. Now, I have to admit that Cleomes are beautiful, but they are non-native plants (South America), they throw about a billion seeds per plant, and they will grow and thrive on just about anything less harsh than a paved road. Until I found out that they were Sphinx moth candy, I seriously disliked them.

Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta)

Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta)

Third, I have noticed no difference between dark nights, moonlit nights, cloudy nights, clear nights, or even rainy nights. I have noticed them flying in a pretty stiff breeze, but I have never gone out in high wind.

Mostly I get Five-spotted Hawkmoths (Manduca quinquemaculata) and the Carolina Sphinx (Manduca sexta). The Five-spotted Hawkmoths  have two nifty little iridescent blue patches on their backs. I have never seen them mentioned anywhere.

Blue Spots on Five-spotted Sphinx

Blue Spots on Five-spotted Sphinx back

I am frequently visited by Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus), but I have never gotten a decent in-flight photo. I have one record of a Pawpaw Sphinx (Dolba hyloeus–I don’t know of any Pawpaws nearby, but they feed on several other plants), and a Pink-spotted Hawkmoth (Agrius cingulatus).

Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus)

Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus)

Pawpaw Sphinx (Dolba hyloeus)
Pawpaw Sphinx (Dolba hyloeus)
Pink-spotted Hawkmoth (Agrius singulatus)

Pink-spotted Hawkmoth (Agrius cingulatus)

The easiest to photograph seems to be the White-lined, which seems to spend more time at a particular flower than others.

White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)

White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata)

Now, as to photography.

I have tried a variety of rigs. I believe my favorite has to be a 100-400mm telephoto with a large flash fitted with a flash extender like the Better Beamer. I have also used a 70-300mm telephoto with just the flash and with the flash extender; the system worked, but I didn’t have sufficient working distance.

Speeds of 1/1000 to 1/2000. Shoot for f18 at least. I am using ISOs up to 1250.

Now, you’re going to have two problems: focus and demon eye.

The issue with focus is that you are working in the dark. I solved this by using rubber bands to mount those lights that fit on the brim of a baseball cap to my rig. On lenses that don’t rotate, I strapped it to the lens. Otherwise, I strapped it to the flash—although you can’t use one of these lights with a Better Beamer, there is physically no place to put it.

The system works, but the moths don’t particularly like the spotlight. They get even more skittish after you’ve popped the flash a couple of times. They really don’t like the flash—it seems to blind and disorient them—and they seem to learn fairly quickly to get out of the spotlight or get flashed. That said, they will investigate your light; be ready for that. It can be a bit disconcerting, while focused on your viewfinder, to have a Pandorus Sphinx buzz the top of your camera.

I have noticed little difference in their reaction to red, green, or white light. They seem slightly more tolerant of red, slightly less tolerant of white. You have to balance this: with red light, your ability to focus is severely reduced (the moths are gray blurs). I find myself using green most often.

Demon eye is the same as red eye, but the effect in Sphinx moths is amazing.

Red eye in flying sphinx moth

"Demon eye," like red eye, but creepier

These moths must have an impressive array of light receptors in their eyes. When you shine any light on them, you get a glowing ruby-red reflection—which will show up in your photographs. Now you can compensate for the reflection using red-eye reduction in post-processing (I have done so in several shots), but what you get instead is silver eye. I’m not convinced that’s better.

The way to eliminate red eye is to get the flash off of the subject-lens-sensor axis. Great idea, but you’re out of hands. I suspect that you could do it with a remote trigger, but there are three problems. First, of course, is that you will need to strap the flash to a light, and you will need someone to shine that light on the subject. Second, you either need a long flash cord and a very nimble partner, or you need to be able to trigger the flash remotely. Remote triggers are either IR or radio signal. There are problems with IR out of doors—if there is nothing to reflect off of, it has to be aligned with the receiver, which again will prove challenging when chasing these things around a flower patch in the dark. Currently, every inexpensive radio signal device I have seen only syncs at 1/250; that’s too slow to capture any detail in the wings, detail you need to make an identification. There are also some issues with specific Canon flashes and radio signals; do a little research before you spend any of the hard-earned root of all evil. Next summer there is supposed to be a new piece of kit that uses radio signals and can give you hi-speed flash sync. I hope to try that out.

Now, as I mentioned before, I don’t like Cleomes, and I don’t like to include non-natives in my photographs. So I was excited to discover a great patch of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) growing along a cornfield. The moths are thick—there are dozens every evening. They appear to rest in the cornfields during the day, and as the light fades, they appear

Sphinx moth in primrose

If you stand still at dusk, they will feed right beside you

Watching sphinx moths is a great thing to do with a kid. Just find yourself a patch of primrose near a cornfield somewhere and stand in the middle of it as it turns dark. Let them see the primrose open up right before their eyes. Let them stand there with three or four of these big moths feeding right beside them. Let them feel the night come on and sense the difference the darkness makes.

Five-spotted Hawkmoth in Primrose

Five-spotted Hawkmoth nectaring in Primrose

I have learned a lot by watching them in a more natural setting. They like to rest on the corn plants, they visit Queen Anne’s Lace and Jewelweed, and they also probe the flowers of grasses—to include the tassels on the corn.

Five-spotted Hawkmoth nectaring in Primrose

Check the length on that tongue; it is actually in that lower flower!

Unfortunately, it is harder to shoot in the cornfield because there is no kitchen light shining in the background to silhouette the moths. In fact, my best success so far—and I have yet to get a great shot from the Primrose path—is to focus on the demon eye, and when it seems to disappear, shoot. That way, you are most likely to get the all-important over-the-shoulder shot that will allow for identification (pretty hard to identify head-on, or even from the side), and you will avoid the demon eye effect.

Five-spotted Hawkmoth nectaring in Primrose

Classic over-the-shoulder shot. Note pollen sticking to the tongue

I spent several frustrating nights, and got few decent pictures. Then I did an experiment with lighting.  I used my lovely assistant to light them from a distance so that I can photograph them close up.  Well, that worked; it worked so well that the moths were too close for me to focus. I could have taken a dozen shots from a foot or two away using a point and shoot.

If I were a pro, and someone who could actually stand still for any length of time, I would set up on a likely looking flower ahead of time. Camera pre-focused on a tripod, remote trigger, flash on a stand pointing into a reflective umbrella. I would stand back and watch with the weakest red light I could find, and when the moth showed up—nail him.

I’m not that guy, but I hope some of you folks who love moths, or love nature photography, or love both, will take up the challenge and do it better. Good luck, good shooting.

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One Response

  1. Ah, the wonders and magic of the night. Inhaling tuberose here beneath the waning full moon. Wish we had the moth haul you do. We check the primrose and tuberose again and again. You have the best moth juju–and the best photos.

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