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A Bug's Life: Dr John Brackenbury Interview

Dr John Brackenbury is a photographer with a difference. He is a Cambridge University lecturer with a passion for insects and produces some quite exceptional photographs of the world around us to further his studies. We met him to find out more.

If you have just swatted a housefly, spare a thought for John Brackenbury. He's made it his life's work to study the movement of tiny creatures and you've just gone and killed one of his subjects.

"Insects have personalities," he laughs. "Each species has its own unique set of characteristics and even those belonging to the same group can all behave in a different way. In fact only the other day I was trying to get some grasshoppers to leap through my laser beam to trigger the flash and none of them would jump in the right direction. But there was one, just one that happened to like the shininess on my head. Time and again I would put that particular grasshopper down at the other side of the beam and it would slowly line up its vision until it was looking right at the top of my scalp and then it would jump towards me. Very disconcerting, but I got the shot!"

Listen to Brackenbury talk and very quickly you get caught up in his enthusiasm about the bugs that occupy so much of his time. While photography is not his bread and butter work, it is very much his love. "I was a fairly late entrant into the art and initially it was an adjunct to my research work," he reveals. "I needed to use high-speed photography as a tool to show the movement of the animals I was studying and that's what kicked it off. But it very quickly took off in its own dimension. As soon as I started seeing these insects in flight it was just such an aesthetic thrill for me that I had to do more."

Brackenbury considers himself very fortunate to have at his disposal some very expert technicians in the University's photographic department. In true boffin style, they have managed to work under his instruction to create a very bespoke high-speed electronic flash rig that gets the result. Most of the time.

"Every part of my equipment is stretched to the limit," he admits. "It's not so much a hit rate, more a miss rate. One in a hundred exposures I'd say." He frowns at the thought, and continues. "I can't say that this is always enjoyable work. In fact many times it is downright frustrating! The way I see it is this: there are three elements to what I do and the first is the imagination, coming up with the idea, followed closely by the photography where I choose what lens to use," (Brackenbury opts for an SLR with a variety of macro lenses and extension tubes), "and the third is the electronic element. The secret is most definitely in the flash, or rather the duration of it. Having a team around you who are interested in helping you achieve the idea that you have in your head is absolutely vital."

Having the patience of a saint is quite clearly the most valuable quality in Brackenbury's arsenal. Stories abound of other photographers popping their subjects into the fridge overnight to calm them down and make them sleepy, but not in Brackenbury's world. Oh no. He likes them just they way they are, bouncing and buzzing all over the place.

"I would never dream of doctoring an insect. They are all fully alive and wanting to get away by the time they get to my camera. I go out and catch them in the morning fresh, so to speak, and then once they are released they are directed through a small hole which is no wider than the gap between forefinger and thumb if you hold it in an 'O' shape. That's the window they have to fly through, at the end of which is an ultraviolet light that they are instinctively drawn to. Of course, most of the time they don't do what I want and so it becomes a battle of wills."

Many's the time Brackenbury's felt like opening the window and shooing them away... You can't call it happy work, that's for sure.

"But the nice thing is seeing the results when they come out," he laughs. "And of course the great thing about photography is that it gives you a means of self-expression. Plus it also transforms things. These ugly little beasts are actually objects of beauty."

MyFuji readers will no doubt be interested in seeing John's latest project, a book to be released in September called In the Blink of an Eye.

"It has got nothing to do with flying insects," he assures me, "Instead it is all about the little things that are happening all around us in the home that we don't notice. Dropping coins in water, splashes of milk, that kind of thing. Everyday items can be made to look extraordinary and unworldly as I hope I have proved.

Photography helps you bring that out and the fact that flash photography only lasts for one tiny moment in time is completely wonderful to me. It's a kind of hidden beauty and my mission is to show the world how beautiful the frozen moment can be. Scientists can be creative too, you know!"

4 people like this.

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날짜 목, 26/03/2009 - 16:06


Big Jim

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날짜 화, 07/04/2009 - 14:33

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날짜 화, 07/04/2009 - 14:35

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날짜 수, 29/04/2009 - 22:54

I really loved reading this article.

It makes me want to try. Have the Fuji team any basic hints and tips on how to achieve action shots of insects?

NB Spelling mistake  "Oh no. He likes them just  they way they are, bouncing and buzzing all over the place."








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날짜 화, 05/05/2009 - 21:34

A really fascinating and interesting article, great reading. It is a pity some respondents pick up on the spelling. Un- called for I think

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날짜 화, 30/06/2009 - 02:42

Thanks for that Nigel,a great read.

I  have to agree with steve it's a shame that people like to point out spelling or "typing" errors of others not everyone is up on their spelling & some are dyslexic & by pointing out such errors could actualy put people of from leaving comments.

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날짜 수, 23/06/2010 - 12:43

absolutely fascinating and inspiring thank you Laughing out loud

Click HERE to read about me or to see my gallerys 

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날짜 목, 26/08/2010 - 03:54

This is so cool.

To see heaven in a wild flower.

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날짜 토, 28/01/2012 - 20:34


David Martínez

Costa Rica



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