It's difficult when a pet dies, but as photographers, we can choose to honor our loved ones with photos that will last forever. Here's what I chose to photograph when my pet died.
We've been keeping grasshoppers for about six months now after I found out about a Korean study on the effects of pet insects on cognitive function among the elderly. We'd originally bought them for an elderly relative that was struggling with anxiety and depression through the lockdown period here in the UK. The study had shown that keeping crickets helped to lift the mood and give purpose to the elderly that were otherwise struggling with mental health or feeling lonely. However, they weren't quite suitable for our relatives, so we ended up keeping them at my home.
It's been six months now, and one of the last grasshoppers passed away during the second lockdown, and though some may quaff at the fact that it's "just an insect," the animal had still spent a significant amount of time with us, and it hurt. So, to honor the time we had with the hopper, I decided to cherish it through photography.
When the grasshopper died, nothing much changed about its appearance. Its color was dimmed, and it no longer moved, but other than that, the exoskeleton looked almost identical to when it was alive. So, I felt comfortable photographing the tiny little details on its body that I'd previously not been able to look at closely without it hopping away.
Face to Face
Though I'd spent hours looking at the hopper through the glass tank, I'd never really got a close look at its face. So I put on my Nikon 24mm f/2.8D, reversed it, and mounted a Yongnuo YN685 on a flash bracket with a homemade diffuser. With this technique, I was able to get extremely close to the hopper. I had such magnification that I was able to look into its eyes and capture the ommatidia (lenses) in its compound eye.
Lattice of Beauty
Using the same technique as before, I wanted to capture its wings. The grasshoppers, when I bought them from the pet shop, were small juveniles that grew over time. Animals with exoskeletons don't grow like us vertebrates, they molt their external shell and grow in stages (aka instars). In their final growth instar, the hoppers become adults and turn into locusts where they have sexual organs and wings.
It was difficult to capture this photographically because of the inherently shallow depth of field that comes with macrophotography. So, I set an aperture of f/11 on the reversed lens, then set about shooting the wing straight-on so that it was flat towards the lens, thereby maximizing the sharpness of the wing against the depth of field. I rocked back and forth to manually focus and waited until the wing was sharp before firing off one or two shots at a time.
Some of the hoppers didn't make it to adulthood, and others sadly passed away during the molting process, so this was one of only two that made it through to have a full set of wings. I didn't photograph its wings when it was alive, because if it escaped outside, it could have a catastrophic effect on our wildlife (these hoppers aren't native to the UK), so it was only in death I could capture the true beauty of their adult wings. I was blown away at how intricate their latticing was across the wing. Even the dark markings seemed to seep through the veins and wing cells. I think it looks a bit like a tennis racket that's been soaked in soap and water, something I never would've seen with the naked eye.
I'd often wondered over the last six months just how the grasshoppers could scale the sides of the glass tank without anything to hold onto. It's like walking up the outside of a skyscraper with suction pads attached to your hands and feet. It would effortlessly just wander around on the sides or upside down on the roof without a struggle. I wanted to take a closer look at its feet with this macro setup, and I'm very thankful I did.
Without shooting a macro image of this grasshopper, I never would've known how it scaled those glass walls. But taking a closer look through my lens, I discovered that there's a series of what appear to be sticky pads on the bottom among several sharp, claw-like protrusions that look similar to a bird's foot. No wonder it could hang upside down without a problem.
It was through this process of photographing my deceased friend that I got to know it a little better. I could imagine what it would feel like to scale a sheer vertical wall with no footholds and how it must've felt to be looking around its enclosure and out the window with multiple lenses for eyes. Though it never used its wings for flight, I managed to find out just how beautiful my pet was through the miracle of photography. It's for this deeper connection and time-traveling medium that I'm eternally grateful to photography.
If I hadn't taken the time to learn how to set my aperture or which shutter speed I should set when shooting with off-camera flash, I never would've had the opportunity to capture my little friend in such glorious detail. As I get older and my eyesight worsens, I'm sure I'll be relying on the technological advances of photography to capture the things I love around me and get to know them a little more. Through the lens, I find myself looking more deeply at the things around me, and it's something I encourage many others to take up, whether as a form of meditation or simply to reconnect with the wild world around you. Though morbid as photographing a dead pet may seem, on this occasion, it's helped me say goodbye and appreciate all its intricate beauty that I never had the opportunity to find when it was alive.