The Leaf Cutters

Hiking into the still uncovered remains of the La Milpa Mayan Ruins in the highlands of Belize, I really had no idea what to expect photographically speaking. The unmistakable smell of spider monkeys lingered in the air around us and in the distance I could faintly make out their chatters. The forest here was tropic primeval. Towering cahoon palms, ancient mahagony trees, and an impossible tangle of lianas (woody vines) surrounded us. Occasionally we would spot a black poison wood tree whose sap is so caustic it will literally burn the flesh right off your hand if you touch it.

The thing about uncovered ruins here in the la Selve Maya, or the Mayan Forest, is that you really have no idea that you are looking at temples and an old city at first. The pervasiveness of the tropical forest quickly engulfs all that stand in its way if left unattended for just a year or two. The paramount temples may have well been steep hills rising up into the canopy of the forest. I was not here to photograph the ruins however. Instead, I was following a 10 inch wide impeccably clean trail through the forest made by a resident civilization of leaf cutter ants.

Following the old trail, it was not long before it led me to a living stream of neatly cut leaves floating just millimeters above the forest floor. Leaf cutter ants were hard at work as usual disassembling vegetation to fertilize their crop of Lepiotaceae fungus, a strange species of fungus that leaf cutter ants have been tending to and harvesting long before we ourselves “discovered” agriculture.

I followed the seemingly endless line of these ants to the base of a giant mahogany tree that was growing right out of the center of the old Mayan city. Following from here with my eyes, I traced careened my head back as far as it would go to trace the stream of ants up the side of the tree and seemingly into the heavens.


This was certainly a worthy subject, but the question was how in the hell am I going to make a photograph out of this? Millions of ants streaming down a tree and out across its buttressed roots was really exciting to see. How to turn that into a still photograph on the other hand is something of a challenge.

The first thought that went through my head was a self-depreciating statement complete with four letter words, for the bonehead move of leaving my macro lens many thousands of miles away sitting on the desk in my office. The second thought was to stop thinking about the macro lens. Carpe Diem. Enter the moment.

Slapping on a 24-70mm I set up my tripod at my minimum focusing distance to the ants as they walked down along the ridge of the buttressed root. I sat there for several minutes studying the ants, the root, the light, the trunk of the tree, the leaves, and the forest beyond.

With a small amount of light filtering in through the canopy of the rain forest behind the ants from this angle, I decided I wanted to work with the slightly illuminated forest behind the ants as a background. I wanted to create a sense of depth and place. Utilizing the patterns of light and vertical lines from the trees, I knew that I would be able to begin telling a story with this photograph.

Since there was going to be bright light from behind ants, there would be something of a visual disconnect if I set up my flashes to portray light from any other direction than behind. Bouncing artificial light in from behind the ants would, if done at the proper angle, create the illusion that they were being illuminated by natural light. This light as such a close distance would also pass right through the mahogany leaves that they were carrying which would in turn create a beautiful glow to the leaves.

With these concepts in mind, I pulled out my SB900 flash, attached it to my off camera flash chord, held the flash out behind the stream of ants and just out of site and took my initial test shot. The results were close, but I wanted a little more detail in the root of the tree that they were walking across. Angling the light ever so slightly (that whole directional light thing that I talked about in the last edition of Behind the Lens) I took another test shot and bingo! I had the glowing leaves, the dreamy forest background, AND texture across the top of the root.

Thi was by no means a difficult photograph to create. If I had brought my macro lens like I should have, I believe the photograph would have been significantly improved. Not to worry though… I will be back in the tropics coming this next November, December, March, and April and I can assure you, I will be on the hunt for a similar scenario to duplicate! Only this next time, it will be 1:1 ( life size for those that are not familiar with macro jargon).

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This entry was posted in Technical Skills, Travel, Wildlife Photography.