Shooting the Sphinx

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

August 3, 2011

If you visit the Great Sphinx of Ghiza, you will be told by the ubiquitous tour guides that the sphinx’s nose was shot off by Napoleon’s artillery.1 That would be one way to shoot a sphinx, but setting aside my tactical genius, this note has nothing to do with defacing an ancient monument.

Napoleon and the Sphinx, by Jean Leon Gerome

Napoleon and the Sphinx, by Jean Leon Gerome. Public domain image courtesy of WP

I have in mind a different type of sphinx and a different type of shooting—all flash and no bang.

This will be a multi-part note that deals with that amazing family of moths, the Sphingidae, Sphinx moths, and the photography thereof. These are the hummingbird-like moths that you see hovering around flowers; a few (three in our mountains) are diurnal. Most are nocturnal.

I started by photographing the day fliers, so let’s start there. As I mentioned above, we have three day fliers (genus Hemaris) known as the Clearwings for the transparent patches on their wings: the Hummingbird Clearwing (H. thysbe), the Snowberry Clearwing (H. diffinus), and the Slender Clearwing (H. gracilis). Of these, I have only identified the Hummingbird and Snowberry. The adults are active primarily from late morning until about five in the afternoon, and can often be found visiting Butterfly bushes (Buddleia).

I would love to photograph one at some wildflower, but photographing these bugs requires a special set up, and I only see them predictably on Buddleia.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

Hummingbird Clearwing 1/2000 sec. Note uneven edge of outer border.

The Hummingbird Clearwing is the largest. The caterpillars feed on a variety of plants, according to Handfield, and are particularly fond of viburnum.2 Now larger versus smaller doesn’t mean a lot unless the two species are feeding side by side—which does sometimes happen—so you need another way to tell the Hummingbird apart: according to Covell, the “…inner edge of outer border of FW [(forewing) is] uneven.”3

Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis

Snowberry Clearwing. Note the black edges to the wings.

The Snowberry and the Slender are smaller, and according to Covell, told apart by the color of the non-transparent portion of the wings. The Snowberry has black on the wings; the Slender, brown. The Slender’s larvae feed on lowbush blueberry. The Snowberry caterpillars feed on—Snowberry—as well as various honeysuckles and Dogbane.

I have never seen a Clearwing caterpillar, although I’ve spent a lot of time looking.


Fair warning, every thing from here below is sorta wonky photography stuff. If you’re just here for the natural history, please feel free to stop reading—I’ll never know.

Now, how do you get these pictures? The first thing you’ve probably figured out is that you need to freeze the wings, at least partially, to get a clear identification. So we’re talking about high shutter speeds; most of my flight shots are taken between 1/2000 and 1/3200. Not a lot of need for image stabilization at those speeds.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe

Hummingbird Clearwing, 1/3200 sec.

Clearwings will allow a fairly close approach, but still, you are not going to sneak up to them with your 100mm macro.  I used a 70-300mm zoom lens. Which means that all of the images will need to be cropped and digitally “blown up.” In order to retain detail, I needed to use a relatively high ISO. Most of my shots were taken at ISO 400. Note that these shots were on a Canon 20D; I shoot a 60D nowadays, and I would be quite comfortable shooting these at ISO 500 or even 640.

Snowberry Clearwing, Hemaris diffinis

Snowberry Clearwing, 1/3200 sec. Wings look a little brown, but not the rusty color of H. thysbe

In order to get all or most of the bug in focus, f7.1 is acceptable, f/8-f/9 is better. More, of course, is always better, but you will very quickly run out of light.

If you try those numbers shooting at a small object in daytime about 6-8 feet away, you will find that your photos are woefully underexposed. The traditional response would be to move the flash off the camera and closer to the subject. Well, the subject moves—a lot (and very quickly).

So, I bought a flash extender made by Better Beamer, and that did the trick.

The Better Beamer is a clever piece of kit that consists of a couple of plastic arms designed to hold a Fresnel lens (like they use in lighthouses to focus the light) at the correct distance from the lens. They work like a charm, and they are light and easily transported. The downside is that they’re a touch rickety. Nevertheless, I keep two of them with me. Two final words of caution about Fresnel lenses. First, as the old lighthouse keepers would tell you, you have to keep them clean. Second, it is basically a magnifying glass; if you leave it sitting in the sun at the wrong angle, you will start a fire—or melt a hole in the plastic casing of your flash.4

And that’s the whole set up for day-flying sphinx moths. A DSLR with a mid-range zoom and external flash with extender. Moderately high ISOs, high shutter speeds, and medium apertures. Set yourself in a comfortable position near a blooming Buddleia in mid-day and be patient. Don’t be surprised if your first shots are out of focus. I use autofocus because it “sees” better than I do; however, I still missed a lot of shots. One reason is that it can be exciting to optically chase these little buzz bombs through the Buddliea, and, well, you can get “buck fever” and actually jerk the shot. I have lots of those.

Next time: caterpillars.

1. Actually, the sphinx was defaced way before Napoleon showed up. Best suspects seem to be iconoclastic individuals like those who destroyed the great Buddhas at Bamiyan.

2. Louis Handfield,  Les Guides des Papillons du Quebec, (Saint Constant, Canada, Broquet Inc., 2011). This has recently been updated and re-released by the Association forestière des Cantons de l’Est in Quebec. It is in French, but it is worth it for the photos alone. Until Seabrooke Leckie and David Beadle finish the new Peterson Field Guide to the Moths, Handfield is as good as it gets.

3.Charles V. Covell, Jr., A Field Guide to Moths of Eastern North America (Special Publication / Virginia Museum of Natural History Martinsville, VA, 2005).
This is a reprint of Covell’s original Peterson Field Guide. I have worn out two. Italics in original.

4. Been there, done that. Only happy that it didn’t happen inside my car. Note that different Better Beamers are sold for different flashes; the plastic arms are a custom fit to the flash head.

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