“Just Fascinating,” an interview with insect photographer Jan Hamrský

Jan Hamrský, underwater photo champ

A couple years ago I discovered that if I put a net into a creek or pond, I’d pull out some of the weirdest and most amazing creatures I could imagine. Many insects live aquatically, for part or all of their lives. I set myself the challenge of figuring out how to photograph these animals which exist at a scale and in an ecology that resists conventional photography. My attempts at aquatic insect photography produced a deep respect for anyone who can pull it off well.

Which is why I was blown away by the work of Jan Hamrský when I discovered him on flickr, and then visited his Web site. This is some of the most aesthetically beautiful and exquisitely detailed aquatic insect photography I’ve seen, and many hours of enjoyment (and challenging envy!) have passed for me, mesmerized by his fantastic images.

I want to feature Jan’s work on my blog, and he agreed to this interview. Clicking any of the images below will link you to more of Jan’s work at his flickr stream.

Water boatman - Sigara striata, showing its air supply
Water boatman - Sigara striata, showing its air supply © Jan Hamrsky

Thank you for allowing me to introduce your photography to the readers of my blog. I discovered your work online but we have never met. Can we start by hearing a little about where you live and who you are?

Thank you Dave. My name is Jan Hamrský, I’m 28 years old (born in the sign of Aquarius) and I live in Prague – the capital of the Czech Republic. I studied polygraphy and graphic design in high school, but my first serious contact with photography took place at university. Nowadays I am employed as a graphic designer in an online advertising company, where I work a lot with visual material – but far from aquatic insects. I am interested in nature in general and I like traveling, which I also take as photographic opportunities.

Narrow-winged Damselfly larva - Coenagrionidae, with sludge worm prey
Narrow-winged Damselfly larva - Coenagrionidae, with sludge worm prey © Jan Hamrsky

Your photographic specialty is characterized by 3 things: 1. macro photographs, 2. of living animals, 3. UNDER WATER! Each of these characteristics is very challenging. How did this start for you?

I have never thought about my specialization this way. I was excited and wanted to explore the fascinating world of aquatic insects no matter how challenging it would be. Of course, the beginnings were quite difficult, and the results were unconvincing. But each attempt led to improvement and I came to new things (which still holds true).

Great diving beetle larva - Dytiscus marginalis
Great diving beetle larva - Dytiscus marginalis © Jan Hamrsky

Let’s get some of the nerdy technique information out of the way: many readers would be very curious about your gear and working method.

Macro is a discipline where many photographers have to mess around and create their own equipment or customize existing ones for individual needs (maybe more than in other photographic disciplines), meaning: holders, bounce plates, diffusers and so on. Besides these trinkets I do not use any special photographic equipment. I have a Nikon D300S camera body, three macro lenses – 60 mm (Nikon), 90 mm (Tamron) and 180 mm (Tamron) which I combine with automatic extension tubes (Kenko).

It is always heartwarming when people do not recognize that the photographs are taken in an aquarium, but the aquariums are probably the most important gear in the process. I have several sizes from approximately 8 liters to really small ones, made of microscopic glass. It is often quite difficult to maintain suitable conditions in the aquarium but there is a reliable indicator of whether the environment is well prepared or not. If the insects start hunting or looking for food, conditions will be fine.

External flash units (Nikon SB-900 and SB-R200) are responsible for the lighting, but very rarely do I use more than two. By changing the position and distance of the units,  many variations of light distribution can be achieved.

Spike-tail Dragonfly larva - Cordulegastridae
Spike-tail Dragonfly larva - Cordulegastridae © Jan Hamrsky

Your images are so close and intimate, and so beautiful to look at in color and light quality, that it gives the impression that you have deep care for your subjects. What is it about aquatic insects that fascinates you and draws you to them as subjects?

Looking back, I thing it was inevitable. I have been always attracted to water and life in it. I could also spend hours watching insects. As I started with photography, it was only a matter of time before these two interests came together.

It is difficult to explain what draws me to aquatic insects. It is about beauty in ugliness or bizarreness. Do you find the Great White Shark beautiful? I do, but in a strange and disturbing way. With these insects, it is similar. I can admire lots of amazing adaptations, behaviors, camouflage, hunting strategies, body shapes, structures – and in addition, everything is underwater. Aquatic insects are just fascinating.

Diving beetle - Rhantus suturalis
Diving beetle - Rhantus suturalis © Jan Hamrsky

Why is it important for people to care about such tiny creatures, that live so far from humans (at the bottoms of ponds and streams)? Are these animals important beyond a passing curiosity?

Aquatic insects are often used to determine water quality based on the type and number of species present. They not only serve as indicators, but actively participate in water quality within functioning freshwater ecosystems.

For example, some of the aquatic insects are responsible for breaking down decaying organic matter. Some scrape the algae which is more productive in creating oxygen if it is kept in a thin layer. A large group of aquatic invertebrates are filter feeders which keep the water column cleaner, thus light can easily reach the plants at the bottom. Others bring oxygenated water to the sediments when burrowing, while predators keep population balance among the organisms.

Last but not least aquatic insects are an important food source for fish, waterfowl, amphibians, reptiles and other animals.

Common burrowing Mayfly larva - Ephemeroptera, Ephemeridae
Common burrowing Mayfly larva - Ephemeroptera, Ephemeridae © Jan Hamrsky

Where I live, water environments are unique and fascinating ecosystems that indicate the overall ecological health of the surrounding environment. What is the ecological condition of the water systems near where you live and take pictures?

I am happy that I can say the quality of waters in the Czech Republic has greatly improved in recent years. Indigenous species of animals are returning to some places or their reintroduction is now possible.

I live in the capital, where (unfortunately) absolutely clean water can’t be counted on. But invertebrates can be found in almost all types of waters. Some insects can be found literally in front of my house, while the others I must travel to find. The traveling and searching for insects are very pleasant parts of the process. Come to think of it, thanks to photography, I’ve spent countless hours in nature and discovered really amazing places, that I would otherwise probably never visit.

Case-building Caddisfly larva - Trichoptera
Case-building Caddisfly larva - Trichoptera © Jan Hamrsky

When I’m looking for inspiration for my own photography, I often search the Internet to see what other photographers are doing (it’s how I discovered you!). What inspires you, and where do you look to get ideas and energy for your work?

The very first inspiration I gained was from a book about macro photography by Robert Thompson. One chapter in the book is devoted to photography of aquatic animals and I have been really stunned by the images. I also search the Internet to find inspiration and have found great sources in underwater photography, no matter if freshwater or from the sea. I browse photos while looking for interesting compositions, lighting methods or perspectives, which I could use for my own work.

Thank you very much for this great opportunity to present my work.

This entry was posted in Artist Showcase, Insects, Photography, Science communication. Bookmark the permalink.

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