The Moral Dilemma of Killing Insects for Photographs (Podcast 747)

The Moral Dilemma of Killing Insects for Photographs (Podcast 747)

Visit Library for MBP Pro eBooks

Today we’re going to take some time to think about the moral dilemma of killing insects for photographs. This can be a very polarizing subject, and I know that many people have strong feelings against killing insects for photographs. I personally hadn’t killed an insect for a photograph until two days ago, and this came after a conversation with a good friend of mine about this subject that kind of help me to understand my own position on this complicated subject. I’m still very much undecided about my stance but figured this was as good a time as any to talk about this, and I’m also interested to hear your thoughts as well.

As this can be controversial if you can feel a flame war coming on, I ask of you three things. The first is to hear me out. Listen or read this entire post before commenting. The second is if at the end of the post you feel like attacking me, walk away from the computer for a few hours and then come back and write your comment after you’ve cooled down a little. And even then, don’t attack me. I’m sharing my views in good faith, and you are in my house now. If you attack me in a disrespectful way, I reserve the right to delete your post. I’m fine with you sharing alternative views, but do it with respect, or you’ll be wasting your time. The third thing that I ask, is if you are a visitor, please give your real name when commenting. If you comment anonymously, the chances are I’ll just delete your comment.

So, here’s how I feel about killing insects for photos. I’ve been photographing insects for many years. Not often, but I’ve been doing it for probably around 20 years now. I have mostly photographed live insects in the wild, and occasionally tried to photograph live insects at high magnification, and generally failed. They move around too much, making focus stacking pretty much impossible, so the results are generally not what I want.

The Hypocricy Aspect

For many years I’ve felt that I would not kill an insect just for a photo. There was and still is a bit of a moral dilemma behind this decision, but in addition to that, I actually didn’t think I could physically kill an insect, but hypocrisy kicks in here when I say that in some ways it’s the size of the insect that concerns me. If I think about it, I will slap a mosquito on my arm, which generally results in its demise. We have these annoying little tiny flies that appear from nowhere in the summer and walk across my laptop screen. These also generally find themselves stuck to my thumb, then scraped onto a piece of used paper or tissue in our waste paper basket. So, I won’t kill an insect for photography, my love and passion, and profession, but I will kill one for trespassing in my apartment. That is completely hypocritical.

Other People Kill My Meat

Another huge chunk of hypocrisy that surfaced as I wrote my thoughts down for a friend is that in the regular state of the world, as in, we are not being attacked by aliens or zombies and I’m not in survival mode, I generally rely on other people to kill my meat. I don’t eat meat or fish every day, but when I do, the weight of killing and preparing that meat falls on someone else’s shoulders. I can and have plucked chickens and skinned rabbits, and I am fine with gutting a fish. Come to think of it, I’ve killed a few fish too when I was a boy, caught with a fishing rod from a holiday town pier, and eaten that morning for breakfast. The rabbits and chickens though were killed by someone else.

Now, going back to the aliens and zombies scenario, if we were in a life or death situation, and my survival depended on killing an animal, I probably could, but I would not find it easy. My friend and I agreed that killing for sport is not something that we agree with. But if the animal is going to be eaten, without waste, then it’s more acceptable, in my opinion. I realize that there may be vegetarians or vegans listening with other views, and I apologize if any of this offends you, but I need to get this out as we work our way back to the topic of killing insects for photographs, which I’ll try to do now.

So, I realized that I’m completely hypocritical when it comes to my stance of not killing insects for photos, yet I will squish a mozzie or fly for no greater crime than sucking my blood or walking across my computer screen. I generally don’t kill spiders in the house, though larger spiders that make me or my wife uncomfortable generally get ushered outside. It’s actually rare for us to get common houseflies in our apartment because we have mosquito screens on all of our windows and we don’t leave the doors open unattended. But a few nights ago, there was a fly sitting on our bedroom floor when I went in to turn the air-conditioning on. It was probably on the floor to keep cool, but it flew up and over onto our curtain as I walked closer.

Housefly in a Jar

Having already thought a lot about this recently, I grabbed a jar that I just happened to have put aside and caught the fly. Before we talk about the fate of this particular fly, I should tell you that no housefly has ever gotten out of my apartment in the past unless they fly out before being noticed. As a general rule, if a fly comes into our apartment, it will either be swatted, or sprayed, but its exit mechanism is generally via the trash. So here again, I found myself in a hypocritical dilemma, but, I figured if this animal was going to die, is it really wrong for me to benefit from its demise? Am I any more guilty for killing it and taking its photo than I would be for killing it and sticking it in the trash can?

As I mentioned earlier I’m not really OK with hunting for sport or fun, but if the animal will be eaten without waste, then I have no problems with that. By photographing the fly, surely I’m making more use of it than I do by simply disposing of it. This was the thought process over a relatively long time recently, that resulted in the fly from my bedroom sitting in a jam jar in my studio. Initially, I thought I’d just leave it in the jar for the night, but then I started thinking that it would stress the fly. I know this might also sound hypocritical as I’d decided to kill it, but I did not want to cause it any unnecessary stress.

This, by the way, is why I don’t really agree with putting insects in the fridge to slow them down enough to photograph them, or using chemicals to put them to sleep, for example. If we’re going to cause them physical discomfort, we’ve already crossed the line. I did cross the line with the fly. I said a few words of apology with my hands together for what its worth, then I opened the jar and poured in around one centimeter of pure alcohol mixed with 10% water. The fly died instantly, arguably with less trauma than having its backside smashed through its brain in a deftly swatting action.

So, I’d done it. I’d killed a fly and I was going to photograph it the next day. I didn’t feel 100% OK with this. I woke up early the next morning with a pang of guilt, but I went on to photograph the fly over a few days, and I can live with my decision, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I am now going to become a mass murderer. At this point, my thought process is unchanged in that either I or my wife would have killed that fly anyway. I still, at this point, do not think I could kill anything much larger. I know that size should not be important, but for me, it is. My friend, who I will not name just now because I didn’t get permission to do so before he left for a short holiday with friends, talked about bacteria dying as part of his job. I’m sure that most people, although I’m not going to assume all people, are happy to let that one slip. I mean, you can buy yogurt that comes with bacteria in it, and even when we wash our hands were killing bacteria. We’re actually also killing insects as we wash away little fleas that people have on our skin, but we won’t go there right now.

Sometimes It’s Unavoidable

So, for me, at this point, it seems that size plays a part in my ability to kill an organism. I’m not too worried about killing tiny insects, but I feel a lot of resistance towards killing anything much larger. The point with the previous paragraph is that if we are going to say that all life should be respected, then really, how far can you take that? Just washing your face or leaning on the arm of a chair carries a good chance that you’re killing something. It’s just so small that you don’t know you are killing it, but does that make it OK? I’d say that it has to because it’s unavoidable.

Nature’s Course

One other thing that I’d like to mention is that I recently photographed a scarab beetle that I found dead at the bottom of my apartment stairs. I am fine with that too. I’m relatively OK working with insects. I am just not comfortable killing anything much larger than a fly, so making use of an insect that has already lived its life is in many ways the ideal solution for me. I don’t pick up anything that’s decaying, but if something is upside down in the middle of the pavement the chances are it’s just died, so I’ll pick that up and photograph it, generally after giving it an alcohol bath to kill anything that might be stuck to the insect or embedded inside it. I’m not sure I could handle a parasite bursting out of an insect while I look at it through a microscope at 50 to 100X lifesize.

Scarab Portrait (15X 75 Frames Stereo Microscope)
Scarab Portrait (15X 75 Frames Stereo Microscope)

Could I Kill an Ant?

I mentioned to my friend recently that I think I could probably just about bring myself to kill an ant for a photograph too, and this is what got us talking about the size thing. The reason that I have not yet done that though, is because I would have to go looking for one. Although I’ve killed ants that got into our kitchen back in England, we don’t get ants in our Tokyo apartment, so I would have to enter their realm in order to get me an ant, and although I think I will do it at some point, I’m still struggling with that to a degree.

I feel as though the hypocrite is still there. Why does size matter when it comes to my ability to take the life of an insect? Come to think of it, when I see the number of insects stuck to the front of my car after a summer drive, even killing larger insects is not necessarily something I’ve never done, but there is the problem of intention. I don’t drive my car with the intention of killing insects, and for numerous reasons, I wish I could avoid it.

Maybe I’m actually just a big wuss, and I’m too scared to kill anything with any more presence than a housefly, and I’m just wrapping that up as a moral dilemma? I’d actually say that this is around 20% true, but the other 80% of me really just would feel too guilty. For the time being, I’ll be patient and continue to wait until I find dead specimens of larger insects. There was actually a cicada dead on my balcony a few days ago too, but it had been mingling with pigeon crap, which is nasty stuff, so I decided to give that a miss.

That’s Where I Stand

OK, so that’s where I stand on this. It’s not necessarily a bold stand, and I’m not pretending to be either a saint or necessarily consider myself a sinner. I should also mention that I don’t necessarily condemn anyone that takes a different stance. If you have no problems killing insects for photographs, I’m actually probably a little bit envious if anything. There’s that 20% wuss coming out again. And, if you strongly believe that we should not kill insects for photographs, I do get that too, but having just euthanized a housefly, I’d be hypocritical to pretend that I’m completely on your side of the fence.

Why Do You Stand?

I would like to hear your views, hopefully from both sides of the fence, or even if you are like me, sitting mostly on the fence. Once again, please don’t blindly attack me. Even if you have strong views on this, relay them calmly in the comments below, and give your name. I don’t like talking to anonymous people. You know my name, please use yours. And if you want to say something that can’t be associated with your name, or if leaving your name annoys you, then just close the browser and walk away, or you’ll be wasting your time, as I will delete your comment.

In the next episode, I’ll talk about some of the methods I used to prepare the housefly to photograph it and share some of the photographs. We’re talking housefly at between 50 and 100X magnification, so if you think that might disturb you, you might want to skip next week. Personally, I think the shots are beautiful, but then I might be a bit weird in that respect. I’m sure you’ll decide for yourself.

Show Notes

Check out my Microphotography related posts here:

Music by Martin Bailey


Subscribe in iTunes to get Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast as an MP3 with Chapters.

Visit this page for help on how to view the images in MP3 files.

PL for Water + a Moral Dilemma (Podcast 15)

PL for Water + a Moral Dilemma (Podcast 15)

Welcome to episode 15 of the Martin Bailey Photography Podcast. This week, in addition to talking about a simple technique, which is using a polarizer to reduce reflection in water, I’m going to touch on the somewhat controversial topic of whether or not a nature photographer should extend a helping hand to animals in distress or danger.

First I’d like to talk about a technical decision I made to place a polarizing filter on my macro lens when shooting a drowning dragonfly recently. I had just knelt down to photograph a red maple leaf that was floating in a shallow pond in a park. A moment later a red dragonfly plummeted into the pond. I immediately recomposed to capture the insect as it grappled its way up onto another leaf floating on the surface in a bid to stop itself from drowning. I realized that there was a lot of reflection on the surface of the water at this angle, and so reached into my bag for a polarizing filter. PL filters are often used to intensify a blue sky or to take the sheen off a glossy surface such as painted objects or even leaves on trees. PL filters also work as well to take the reflection off the surface of water to allow us to see clearly into the water.

Drowning Dragonfly

Drowning Dragonfly

Take a look at photo number 776 and you will see in this first shot that the dragonfly looks to be almost suspended in mid-air. There is very little to let you know that the bottom half of the dragonfly and the rest of the objects in the shot are under water, although the refraction of the water does seem to distort the objects a little.

I actually turned the PL filter after this first shot to allow a little more reflection show in the water as I felt I was close to going too far. I kind of like the composition of the first shot though with the way that the colourful leaves are placed in the frame and the main subject, the dragonfly is very sharp along the length of its body. Also I like the way the wings are reflecting a little off the water, which is another of the indications that it is actually floating in a pond.

Drowning Dragonfly

Drowning Dragonfly

Let’s take a look at the second shot for today, which is number 777. I made both of the first two photos with an aperture of F5.6 at 1/30 and 1/40 of a second respectively. Both were at ISO 400, so you can probably appreciate that the light was not great on this day. The result of the slow shutter speed lends the second shot a much more abstract feel, showing the wings blurring in motion as the dragonfly panicked, struggling to stay above water. Even the eyes are not sharp in this image but I like abstract feel and the large blotches of colour of this shot. Also note that as the ripples on the water where at a different angle to the water’s surface, they are reflecting a little light, which enables us to see the ripple effect.

Drowning Dragonfly

Drowning Dragonfly

The third and last image for today is number 778. I chose this image also because of the blotches of colour, but also the dragonflies head and body are incredibly sharp. This is a tribute to the Canon EF 100mm F2.8 Macro Lens and the sharpness of the images that the EOS 5D creates. This last shot was made at F4.5 at 1/100 of a second at ISO 800. I had increased the shutter speed because I wanted to get a sharper image of the dragonfly struggling, but ended up selecting the abstract shot which I just introduced as the second instead of one with a faster shutter speed.


So that’s it for the technical side and the artistic reasoning behind my selected shots for today. Now I want to talk about the moral decision I made to leave the dragonfly in the water.

Firstly, while I was knelt down shooting this dragonfly, a small crowd gathered. First it was another photographer that saw what I was snapping and decided that he wanted some too, shooting it with a long telephoto from about 5 feet away. Then two middle aged couples also came over to take a look. We conversed a little as I continued shooting and one of the woman said, shouldn’t we help it out of the water. I, without hesitation stated that this dragonfly usually has no problem with water, but right now, as autumn changes to winter, it is too cold for the animal to move properly, let alone fly, and it is its time. Removing it from the water is going against nature. Her husband agreed, and a few moments later they moved on, leaving me to continue shooting.

I recall seeing a documentary when I was a kid, in which a seal pup was struggling to get out of a hole in the ice. The camera man filmed the pup for a few hours as it slowly weakened. Eventually the pup slips down into the icy water, and the left is history.

I also recall being distraught and asking my Mum why the cameraman didn’t help the pup. My Mum’s answer was something along the lines of, “If the camera man was not there, the pup would have died anyway. It wasn’t strong enough to get out of the ice-hole, and so it dieing is just natural selection of the strongest”. “Survival of the fittest” she may have said. She went on to explain “The cameraman is there to record what’s happening, not intervene. If he intervenes, he tips the balance of nature”.

Now, my mother is a loving, caring person, and would not hurt a fly, but she had a clear statement on how this should be, and although distraught, I remember agreeing to myself that what my Mum had said was right.

I remember too seeing a movie as a kid where someone builds a time machine and travels back in time a million or so years. Someone on the expedition kills a butterfly and when they came back to present day everything was changed. They’d changed the course of history by killing the butterfly. Now I don’t think that saving one seal or one dragonfly today is going to greatly change our future, any more than leaving it to die would, but maybe the idea here is the same. As observers, we should not interfere.

Of course, I do think there are areas where man has to intervene or control our actions, because we are messing around with our planet far more than we should be, and are causing many of the problems. Things need to change in a lot of areas, but getting into that here would take too long. I’m just talking about natural perils, not man made ones.

This is a difficult subject indeed, of which I have only scratched the surface. I’m sure many of you have your own ideas. I’ll start a poll in the forum and put a link in the show note. Let us know how you feel about this. Should we lend a helping hand or leave it to mother nature. In addition to casting your vote, I very much look forward to hearing your views on this subject too.

Now, before I wind this up, I want to leave you with a thought, from one photographer to another. While shooting, I found that a little adrenalin kicked in. Sure, it’s only a dragonfly, and though not wanting to belittle any living being’s right to live, I don’t want to compare my experience to someone that may have to go through the ordeal of watching a seal pup drown, or a lion eat one of it’s cubs. But, I must say that while shooting I became a little excited about the possibility of capturing some great images. I think I became a little sensationalistic. It was only as I stood up and thought of walking away, with the dragonfly still drowning in the pond, that I thought, maybe, just maybe I should just lend a hand. Maybe I should poke a finger into the water and help this guy out on to the bank. Maybe the reason I was so defensive to the middle aged lady that we should not intervene with nature, because I was a little worried that she might help the insect out of the water and ruin my chances of getting a shot. Maybe my love of photography outweighs my love of nature. Wow! Maybe I’m not the caring and considerate naturalist that I would like to think I am.

Speak to you next week.

Show Notes

The Music in the first 28 Podcasts is copyright of William Cushman © 2005, used with kind permission.


Subscribe in iTunes for Enhanced Podcasts delivered automatically to your computer.

Download this Podcast in MP3 format (Audio Only).