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Bee fly feeds on honesty

A bee-fly (Bombylius major) withdraws its pollen-coated proboscis from an honesty flower (Lunaria annua).

Observing and photographing pollinators can be very rewarding and sometimes most frustrating! Digital capture of stills or video, aids pollination studies by providing instant feedback. Also, the date and time of capture and on some cameras – the GPS – are all retained with the metadata that travels with digital files.

Aztec parakeet eats mother of cocoa flower Mexico

An Aztec parakeet is an anti-pollinator when it eats mother of cocoa flowers, Mexico. Nikon 70-200mm + X2 teleconverter.

A photograph of any organism visiting a flower does not necessarily prove pollination has taken place; nonetheless, it may reveal whereabouts on the body pollen gets picked up. If that visitor is seen moving onto another flower, it may be possible to capture the moment when the pollen load makes contact with the stigma.

A hoverfly carries pollen on feet to lily

A marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) carries pollen on feet approaching a Sargent’s lily (Lilium sargentiae) with pollen load on stigma.

During the last six years, virtually all my fieldwork has been spent observing and photographing pollinators both in Britain and abroad. Insects are more often disturbed if you approach when they first alight on the flower. Once they have switched from flight mode to feeding mode, they are less likely to take evasive action.

Carpenter bee feeds on Tylosema fassoglensis in Tanzania

A female giant carpenter bee Xylocopa nigrita forages on a Tylosema fassoglensis flower Udzungwa Mountain Nat. Park, Tanzania

Regardless of the visitor’s size, I use a digital SLR camera. For smaller insects such as bees, flies and hoverflies I opt for a 105mm macro lens that allows me to get up to life size images of these insects together with the flower they are visiting. Moving in close, the whole insect will not appear sharply defined unless the lens is stopped down to a smaller aperture to enhance the depth of field. On dull days, this may mean increasing the ISO to gain an exposure with a shutter speed of at least 1/250 second (to arrest the motion of an active insect) and an aperture of  f/8 to f/16. I tend to use a pair of small macro flashes controlled by a wireless trigger, to boost the available light, which adds to the crispness of the final image.

Bumblebee forages on flowering rush

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) forages on flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) nectar. Pollen picked up on feet and wings is transferred to stigmas of next flower the bee visits.

For larger visitors – from bigger butterflies to birds – I use telephoto lenses.  My most versatile is the 70-200mm + X2 teleconverter, which gives me effectively a 70-400mm lens.

My aim is to capture a clear view of every visitor making contact with the anthers or depositing pollen on the stigma. A butterfly taken from overhead with spread-out wings hiding the proboscis could simply be sunbathing on the flower rather than feeding.

Porterweed attracts many visitors here a moth & a hummingbird

Visitors attracted to porterweed (Stachytarpheta frantzii) include hummingbirds, day-flying moths, butterflies and bees in Costa Rica.

Here are my top 10 tips for photographing pollinators

  • Observe how insects forage before you photograph, so you can seek the best camera angle.
  • Avoid a stop/start staccato approach; move towards flower continuously, stop only when close enough to lean slowly forwards.
  • When handholding a digital SLR camera, switch on Image Stabilisation (IS) or VR to reduce risk of camera shake.
  • Most insects rarely linger on flowers, so setting up a tripod is impractical, but a monopod reduces the strain of handholding a camera with a long lens for a long period.
Cape sugarbird reaches for nectar in pincushion protea

As a male Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer) reaches for nectar in pincushion protea (Leucospermum cordifolium) pollen presenters deposit pollen on the head.

  • Crouch down for insects feeding on low flowers. If kneeling on one knee, the other can support the elbow of the hand holding the weight of the camera, leaving a free hand for additional camera support and shutter release.
Anther deposits Nigella pollen on the topside of honeybee

A honeybee and bumblebee forage for nectar on love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) flower. Topside of honeybee picks up pollen from underside of anthers.

  • Use a long focus telephoto lens for larger butterflies and bird pollinators to increase the working distance thereby reducing the risk of spooking them.
  • A side view of honeybees and other bees that collect pollen on the hind legs will show the colour of the pollen load.
  • For butterflies, moths and bee-flies a head-on or side view will show the long proboscis inserted into the flower to reach the nectar.
  • The more time you invest in watching pollinators the more likely you are to gain a higher percentage of informative images.
  • Gain enhanced depth field by taking a focus stack of a static flower in constant lighting
Honeybee smothered in pollen from winter box in winter

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) covered in pollen as it feeds on sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) flowers, which emit a heady fragrance in winter.

One word of warning – watching and photographing pollinators can become very addictive!

More images here and in my book Pollination Power

Thanks for reading!

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Killer whale silhouette Canada

Orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca) male surfacing at dusk, showing large dorsal fin, British Columbia, Cananda

Dagger-like they emerged from the sea silhouetted after the sun had set. The dorsal fin of the killer whale is unmistakable – however it is lit. When a pod surfaces and is viewed from the side, the fins move like scimitars flashing through water.

One of the best locations in the world for observing killer whales or orcas lies between Canada’s British Columbia coastline and Vancouver Island. These whales have been extensively studied and lateral views of the dorsal fin and the saddle patch below are known to be unique for each individual. This means that the movement of individual orcas can be tracked using photo ID images.

Whale watching invariably involves long periods of staring at an apparently lifeless sea, interspersed by short periods of great activity. So it is essential not to waste time changing lenses. I work with two camera bodies, fitted with a 100 –300mm and a 200–400mm lens. Both these images were taken with film.

Guidelines for safe whale-watching recommend no vessel should approach closer than 100 metres. It’s a bonus when whales move in closer and the captain aligns the boat so that orcas swim past the setting sun for a magical dusk shoot.


Killer whales at dusk

Orcas at dusk : a pod killer whales (Orcinus orca) emerge from te sea in fading light, British Columbia, Canada

Thanks for reading

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Svartifoss waterfall Iceland Skaftafell

Base of Svartifoss taken in 1981 crashing onto broken black basalt columns, with a 200mm lens using a 1 second exposure.

If you like shooting waterfalls, you should visit Iceland. Without doubt, they are the jewels in Iceland’s crown.  In this land of the midnight sun, you have light 24/7 in high summer in the high latitudes and the indirect light after the sun dips below the horizon is perfect for some falls.  Also, the prolonged winter ensures there is a good chance that waterfalls will freeze partly if not completely, with the added interest of icicles forming.

Svartifoss waterfall Iceland

A vertical format captures the complete fall,  narrow lip and basalt columns

If I had to choose an Icelandic waterfall it would have to be Svartifoss.  Probably because it was the first one I photographed more than three decades ago using Kodachrome 25 filmstock. To reach the most famous waterfall in Skaftafell National Park, it is accessed from the southern ring road and requires an hour’s uphill hike.

Svartifoss Iceland waterfall

A horizontal panoramic format on an XPan camera shows the basalt columns dominate the setting.

Unique is often misused, but Svartifoss IS unique with the black curved basalt column wall forming a spectacular partial amphitheatre behind it.  The first time I saw it, I was with a botanist who never hinted about the breath-taking sight of the relatively narrow fall crashing down onto broken black columns.

Svartifoss waterfall Iceland

Detail of sombre basalt columns behind Svartifoss with little vegetation.

Using a slow shutter speed to capture large volume waterfalls does not work since they discharge so much water, there is no subtle rendering of the solid white mass. On the other hand, a small volume appears as a thin veil of water creating a see-through curtain with a slow shutter speed.

Svartifoss Iceland waterfall

A Hasselblad square format incorporates the largest area of green on any image.

Each time I visit Svartifoss I try to find a new viewpoint.  By varying the focal length and using every format possible from square to landscape, portrait and panoramic, it is possible to capture images that can be used for different purposes including a book cover, a website banner and to illustrate web and print articles.

Svartifoss waterfall Iceland

A  Hasselblad shot shows a full frontal of base falling onto broken columns and was the front jacket for my  book How to Photograph Water.


Facts and figures

Height: 20 metres

Location: Skaftafell National Park

Fed by: ice-cold meltwater from Svinafellsjokull in the Skeiðará River

On one trip when travelling with my son, Giles, we decided to specialise in waterfalls.  Jon Kr Gunnarsson’s book Icelandic waterfalls was a godsend for planning our route as it features 237 falls marked on regional maps. This invaluable source of information is no longer in print. However, I have discovered the informative website covering European waterfalls features 184 in Iceland, each with the location, height and rating, plus several photos and further information.

Sartifoss waterfall Iceland

A long lens homes in on the black basalt rocks, but it does not have quite the same quality of my first image taken face on with a greater volume of glacial melt water.


On one trip when travelling with my son, Giles, we decided to specialise in waterfalls.  Jon Kr Gunnarsson’s book Icelandic waterfalls was a godsend for planning our route as it features 237 falls marked on regional maps. This invaluable source of information is no longer in print.

However, I have discovered the informative website covering European waterfalls features 184 in Iceland, each with the location, height and rating, plus several photos and further information.

I shall be returning to capture Svartifoss in other seasons.

Thanks for reading!

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My latest book – Pollination Power – was published in September 2015  by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Signed copies are available (UK customers only) from the  Shop.

It was a Finalist for Book Photographer of the Year in the Garden Media Guild 2015 Awards

Pollination Power is a beautiful and informative insight into the hidden secrets of plant pollination”  BBC Wildlife Magazine January 2016

“Heather Angel has over the course of a long career written her story in hundreds of thousands of images that have served to inform us, enlighten us and elevate our spirits.” Gray Levett, Editor, Nikon Owner Magazine

Below is a selection of images taken at Kew, in my Surrey garden and overseas.


01 Pollination Power Heather Angel

In addition to honeybees, many different types of insects pollinate flowers. They include bumblebees, solitary bees, wasps, beetles, hoverflies, flies, bee-flies, butterflies and moths. Below is a selection showing how pollen is transferred to varied parts of the body. Another post will show some vertebrate pollinators.

Bumblebee with dark blue and a plum hue pollen load foraging on oriental poppy, Papaver orientale

A bumblebee forages for pollen in an oriental poppy (Papaver orientale) with a large load in a pollen basket, RBG Kew, Surrey


As female wool carder bee enters Digitalis ferruginea she gets a pollen load on her head

When a female wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum) enters a rusty foxglove flower (Digitalis ferruginea) the anthers deposit pollen onto her head and thorax, RBG Kew, Surrey


Bee fly feeds on nectar from primrose

Bee-flies (Bombilius major) emerge as primroses open – one of several spring flowers pollinated by these insects, Surrey


Bumblebee scarabs Amphicoma (Pygopleurus) vulpes mating in Tulipa armena flower Turkey. Note pollen dispersed on inside of flower with a little on the beetles. Nr Karabet Pass

Bumblebee scarabs Amphicoma (Pygopleurus) vulpes meet and mate in Tulipa armena flower, where pollen is dispersed inside the flower and some on the beetles, Turkey


Hoverfly feeding on lily pollen

When a marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) feeds on sticky lily pollen, some gets picked up on its feet, from where it is transferred to the stigma of another lily that the insect visits, Surrey


Pineapple lily Eucomis bicolor from South Africa

Carrion flies are attracted to the foetid smell produced by this pineapple lily (Eucomis bicolor) from South Africa and pick up pollen on each side of the thorax as they reach for the nectar, Surrey


Wings on a Chinese peacock butterfly pick up pollen as the insect feeds on Hibiscus in Yunnan, China

As a swallowtail butterfly sips nectar from a hibiscus flower in China, the vibrating wings pick up pollen on their undersides

Signed copies are available (UK customers only) from my Shop

  • February 7, 2016 - 6:01 pm

    Natasha - Stunning photos! This was such an interesting post to read through too – I can’t believe I’ve only just found your photography. Love that final shot of the swallowtail. – TashaReplyCancel

    • February 8, 2016 - 3:07 pm

      Heather - Thanks Tasha. I was thrilled to get the swallowtail in China as it did not hang around.ReplyCancel

  • May 15, 2016 - 8:21 am

    Sandra - Your photos are just superb, Heather. I have been looking around here on your blog in all its nooks and crannies. So inspiring and beautiful. Your latest book on the power of pollination looks just lovely!

    All the images above are just breathtaking. I especially love the bumblebee on the red poppy and how you caught the pollen flowing away from the snowdrop.ReplyCancel

    • May 15, 2016 - 6:50 pm

      xpolar - Thanks Sandra. Now working on an even more ambitious pollination book – loving exploring new sites, discovering new flowers and pollinators here and abroad.ReplyCancel

Mother white cheeked gibbon with newborn

A mother white-cheeked gibbon pauses on a branch with her two-week-old baby that clings to her immediately it is born.

Photographing fast moving animals in tropical rainforests is never easy; with high temperatures and high humidity after rainfall.  There are also assorted invertebrates waiting either to clamp their jaws into your flesh or leeches to suck blood, not to mention mosquitoes.  Nonetheless, rainforests support such a rich and diverse flora and fauna, with exciting flowering plants that attract spectacular butterflies and well as colourful hummingbirds or sunbirds, that they never fail to lure me back.

Torch ginger and Mrs Gould

Left: Shade loving torch ginger (Etlingera elatior). Right: Mrs Gould’s sunbird sips nectar and this is the flamboyant male.

Whilst I was working on my book Exploring Natural China, I earmarked a reserve within a tropical rainforest area in southern Yunnan to feature as one of the must see locations.  Having visited twice before, I was confident I could get most of the species on my wish list.

Yunnan rainforest China

Sunlight and shadows with shrubs, trees and lianas in the tropical rainforest at Wild Elephant Valley, Yunnan, China

The speediest way up to an area known as Wild Elephant Valley is to take the cable car. Each morning I rose early to make sure I was at the front of the queue. When my guide Sam, discovered from a ranger that a family of white-cheeked gibbons (Nomascus leucogenys) had been spotted with a newborn, I abandoned my wish list, so I could spend three whole days tracking back and forth across the forest in the hope of glimpsing the family.

White cheeked gibbon family

A white-cheeked gibbon family relax on top of a shelter in the rainforest. The black father clasps his mate suckling their newborn.

You invariably hear the gibbons before you see them.  Rustling foliage up in the canopy is a sure sign these natural gymnasts are on the move as they swing from branch to branch using their powerful arms with the four fingers curled around the branch like a hook. They can cover 12m (40 feet) in a single horizontal leap and even more if they drop vertically. Early in the morning, the haunting calls of the male-female duets are unforgettable.

Black male white cheeked gibbon

Male white-cheeked gibbon has long arms that provide the momentum to swing through the canopy & distinctive white cheeks.

These gibbons exhibit a strong sexual dimorphism.The adult males are jet black with white cheek tufts and a black head tuft; whereas the females have a golden coat with black eye patches. The babies are the same golden colour as their mothers, then the youngsters become black like their father. Later on, adolescent females develop the same coloured coat as their mother.

I spent most of each day trekking through the forest, gazing up to the canopy whilst hand-holding a camera, long lens and flash. Virtually as soon as it is born, the baby clings to its mother’s fur with long fingers on the end of spidery arms. Only when the mother rests on a branch to groom or feed on leaves, flowers or fruits does the youngster release its grip with one hand and turn its head to absorb the surroundings.

Mother white cheeked gibbon with newborn

A female white-cheeked gibbon with her tiny baby, uses one hand to hang from a branch.

Photographic Technique

When the gibbons are on the move, a tripod was more of a hindrance than a help.  All day long, I carried a Nikon D3 camera with an 80-400mm lens, with an SB800 Speedlight fixed to the camera to use as a fill-flash for animals backlit from gaps in the canopy and to add a glint to the dark eyes.  Even so, it was necessary to push the ISO between 1,000–2,500 to gain a fast enough shutter speed (at least 1/500 sec) in the poor light beneath the canopy.

It was a hard grind hand-holding my camera at the ready all day, spending more time gazing skywards than down at the ground, but I knew this was a chance in a life time. The number of images taken each day was limited, but I was rewarded with several good sightings of the mother gibbon with her newborn baby, the male on his own and just once a good clear view of the complete family.

Loss of habitat has now reduced the status of this charismatic gibbon to a critically endangered level, so I shall always treasure the three days I glimpsed fleeting cameos of a high rise family. This more than compensated for losing a few plant shots.

Asian elephants Yunnan China

Asian elephants were on my original wish list and I managed to see them feeding on my last day.

Thanks for reading!

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