Clay Bolt’s Quest to Save a Species with Images

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Clay Bolt and his Quest to Save a Species with Images

Wildlife conservation photographer Clay Bolt says, “As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated with insects, and little things like frogs. My other twin passion was always art, particularly illustration, and later on painting. So, I’ve always gone back and forth to combine these two loves of my life.”

Growing up in South Carolina, Bolt was drawn to nature, but had yet to discover the rich biodiversity of his boyhood stomping grounds fully. After heading off to university with a portfolio of illustrations and paintings, he followed a professor’s suggestion that, to earn a living with art, he should pursue graphic design.

Photographs © Clay Bolt

“I followed that program through, and enjoyed it a lot, graduating in 1998,” explains Bolt. “But after I started working, I got really burned out with advertising. It just wasn't what I was seeking when I was in school.”

Life-Changing Advice

In 2001, Bolt had an opportunity to travel to Western Australia. Shortly before leaving, he had a conversation with his then manager, Dale Cochran, which would ultimately change his life. “I had related to Dale that I felt I wasn't really getting what I wanted out of my work, and I kind of felt stuck,” Bolt recalls. “Dale said, ‘What you really need to do in life is think back to what you wanted to do as a little child. If you can find your way back to that place, then you're going to find your purpose and your passion.’”

Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus) in a misty eucalyptus forest, Hyden, Western Australia
Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus) in a misty eucalyptus forest, Hyden, Western Australia

Bolt had randomly brought an old Pentax K1000 on his trip that he had used for photography classes in school. “I have to say I was a terrible photo student,” he admits. “I didn't enjoy time in the darkroom very much, and I had tons of issues with the camera. I just didn't love photography at the time. But when I went to Australia, something kind of clicked.”

While starting up his advertising career, Bolt had drifted away from nature, and he hadn't been spending a lot of time outdoors. Yet the plant life and forests he found in Australia filled him with a renewed sense of wonder, while also reminding him of the forest he'd spent time in as a kid. “I made a lot of terrible photos on that trip,” he says. “But I remember coming back and being very determined to try to learn photography after that.”

Cochran’s words of wisdom had also stuck in his mind, making him realize that what was missing in his life was a connection to the natural world, and the joy he had felt as a kid doing science projects. “I used to win a lot of awards for those projects,” says Bolt, “but more important than that was just going out and exploring, and the experience of showing people things they've never seen before.”

Exotic looking pink stamens of the Gungurru/Silver Princess Eucalyptus Caesia, a drought-tolerant species of eucalyptus that grows well in the clay and sandy soils of Western Australia. Native bird species, such as the New Holland Honeyeater, are attracted to its blossoms.
Exotic looking pink stamens of the Gungurru/Silver Princess Eucalyptus Caesia, a drought-tolerant species of eucalyptus that grows well in the clay and sandy soils of Western Australia. Native bird species, such as the New Holland Honeyeater, are attracted to its blossoms.

After several weeks in Australia, he returned to South Carolina with memories of the amazing parrots and other types of exotic wildlife he had seen. “Then I saw a northern cardinal land on a shrub in my backyard,” recalls Bolt. “And it was almost as if I was seeing this cardinal for the first time, because I equated it with the beauty of those parrots I had seen. In that moment it just really dawned on me, there must be a lot of things that I had been taking for granted in nature where I lived. Ever since then, I've basically made it my mission to try to open people's eyes to the beauty and the important species that live all around them.”

Creating Partnerships with Like-Minded Organizations

Bolt believes there is a huge misconception about the need to travel to a faraway place to see something beautiful, or exotic, or worth photographing. His discovery of the beauty close around him not only led to improvement in his photography, it also encouraged him to learn how to partner with conservation organizations to help shine a light on these lesser-known, lesser appreciated species that are so vital to our world.

Early on, he sought out partnerships with local grassroots organizations that would be accessible to his inquiries, and would allow him to see the impact of his efforts. “It's also easier to figure out what the niches and needs are, and to determine the gaps in their collection,” he says.

After noticing his local region in South Carolina was the epicenter of salamander diversity, he contacted the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy, “because they had very few outstanding photos of salamanders,” he explains. “I thought, if I can make the best salamander photos they've ever seen, and partner with them on the use of the images, maybe they’ll let me come in and work with them.”

Green Salamanders (Aneides aeneus) are an IUCN red-listed species, primarily found in a handful of locations throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
Green Salamanders (Aneides aeneus) are an IUCN red-listed species, primarily found in a handful of locations throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

While Bolt initially provided his images for free, over time he was able to get his nonprofit partners to apply for funding to help to compensate his efforts. “So, my fee wasn't coming directly out of their budget,” he says. Also, because the funding request was coming directly from the nonprofit, “it increased the likelihood of getting the grant money, as opposed to the request coming from me as an individual,” Bolt says.

Wildlife Shooting Technique

In the years since Bolt first embraced photography during his Australia trip, he has come a long way from shooting with a Pentax K1000 and color print film processed at a 1-hour photo lab. Initially, he upgraded to a Nikon FM2n, and started shooting with professional slide film. “That was really a game changer for me, because it was such a solid camera,” he says. “That's when I really began learning about all the different things I needed to do to make a good photo.”

After transitioning to digital using a FUJIFILM FinePix S 3 Pro and Nikkor lenses, Bolt worked through several Nikon digital bodies before arriving at the Nikon D750, which he now uses with a wide range of lenses that he chooses based on his subject matter. “One of my favorites is the Sigma 15mm f/2.8 diagonal fisheye, which allows me to do these close wides of subjects in their environment,” he explains. “I really enjoy photographing these insects doing their work, and not really being bothered by me very much.”

Bolt further elaborates on his technique as follows. “Typically, if I'm in the field, I'm going to pick my lens and my magnification based on whether I need an extension tube or not. I use a Nikon PK-13 27.5mm extension tube a lot to get closer to small subjects and increase the magnification. Sometimes with teeny tiny bees and other insects, I'll also add a 2x teleconverter to get increased magnification.”

A Mining Bee (Andrena sp) feeding on a saucer magnolia blossom in early spring, Madison, Wisconsin
A Mining Bee (Andrena sp) feeding on a saucer magnolia blossom in early spring, Madison, Wisconsin

When working with his Nikon SB700 AF speedlight, Bolt often sets his camera to high-speed sync, “which allows you to bump your shutter speed up as fast as you want,” he says. “Sometimes I'll go up as high as 1/4000 of a second, which lets you capture the motion of these small, fast flying insects. I hold my flash in my left hand and my camera in my right hand,” he adds, “which allows me to quickly adjust.”

While he generally finds insects to be too mobile for tripod work, Bolt offers the following tips for photographers seeking maximum stability when photographing insects hovering around a flower:

  1. Set up your tripod, and pre-focus on a flower that's getting a lot of activity.
  2. Use a camera remote, either wired or wireless. “That way, you don't have to look through the camera,” he says. “You can just look at the scene and shoot, which allows you to have a faster reaction time.”
  3. Consider adding a flash to help freeze that motion, and adjust your exposure to get as deep a depth of field as possible. “Try shooting around f/16,” he suggests.
  4. Set your camera’s shooting mode on continuous-high or burst mode. Bolt explains, “Even if you think you've got the lens focused in the right place, the insects may either hover around, moving in and out of the flower, or they may come in really fast.”
  5. Fire the shutter on continuous-high as the insects fly into and around the frame. “Then it's just a process of trial and error,” he says. “You have to take some shots, look at them, readjust, focus a little bit further back, further in, and you'll eventually get there.”
Working in his backyard in South Carolina, Bolt was set up on a tripod and used two Nikon flashes and a remote release to capture this image of a Halictus Sweat Bee (Halictus poeyi) preparing to land on an Aster next to a Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens).
Working in his backyard in South Carolina, Bolt was set up on a tripod and used two Nikon flashes and a remote release to capture this image of a Halictus Sweat Bee (Halictus poeyi) preparing to land on an Aster next to a Metallic Green Bee (Agapostemon splendens).

Additionally, Bolt is not averse to boosting his ISO to freeze the motion of a fast-moving insect. “I'll sometimes go up to ISO 2000,” he says. “I try not to go above that, but sometimes, it's just what you have to do.”

With all things being equal, he advises, “It's more important to get the shot than to miss it just because you're worried about noise. You're never going to regret having noise if you don't get the shot at all. But thanks to the advancements of camera technology in bright sunlight, bumping your camera up to ISO 2000 is not a big deal, and that allows you to shoot at really fast shutter speeds.”

Passion for Pollinators

In recent years, Bolt’s passion for insects has centered on North America’s native bees, an attraction that began several years ago when he had trouble determining the species of some tiny bees he was photographing in his backyard. “I hadn't really encountered them before,” he says, “and it intrigued me to learn more about them.”

During his research, Bolt learned that the domesticated species of honeybee familiar to most people is in fact not native to North America, but was brought over from Europe in the 1600s. Moreover, the tiny bees he photographed that were so hard to identify are among nearly 4,000 species of bees native to the US and Canada. “Not only are these native bees not sharing the limelight with this introduced bee, many of the native species are doing very poorly,” explains Bolt. “I was blown away by that, and decided I would focus on telling the little-known side of this story.”

A Black-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus Melanopygus) flies in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
A Black-tailed Bumble Bee (Bombus melanopygus) flies in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Since bees are a challenging subject and he was far from an expert, Bolt turned to examining specimens in various entomology collections, “so I'd have a better shot at identifying what I was photographing in the field,” he says.

A Ghost in the Making

It was during a visit to the insect collection at Great Smoky Mountain National Park that Bolt first learned of the rusty-patched bumble bee, a formerly common pollinator that hadn’t been seen in the park since 2003. “At that stage, I wasn't even interested in bumble bees, because I felt like everybody knew them,” he notes.

Yet, he couldn’t stop thinking about the gap between the plentiful specimens of this species in collections and the mystery of its existence in the wild. After much research, he decided to tell its story, seeking to answer the question, “How can we care about something we barely know?”

A dew-covered, highly-endangered male Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) waits to warm up in the early morning light. Madison, Wisconsin
A dew-covered, highly-endangered male Rusty-patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) waits to warm up in the early morning light. Madison, Wisconsin

To assist in this quest, Bolt called on filmmakers Neil Losin and Nate Dappen of the company, Day's Edge Productions, to collaborate on a 19-minute documentary, following his travels to meet with the scientists and conservationists working tirelessly to preserve this species. In November 2016, A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, debuted at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Bolt embarked on a speaking tour to advocate for the bee. Among many engagements nationwide, he presented a short version of the film on Capitol Hill during a congressional briefing about pollinators. Additionally, Bolt and his many collaborators successfully petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife service to include the rusty-patched bumble bee as an endangered species, a significant protection, and the first of its kind for a North American bee, which was finalized in March 2017.

While he had previously worked on other small film projects, A Ghost in the Making was Bolt’s first major endeavor as a writer and producer. “I do enjoy the process of filmmaking a lot, but I’m still a photographer at heart,” he says. “However, I can tell you that there is a unique value in the combination of the two mediums.”

A Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee, A Day’s Edge Productions film, directed by Neil Losin & Morgan Heim, written by Neil Losin & Clay Bolt, produced by Neil Losin, Nate Dappen and Clay Bolt

But perhaps more significant to this film’s success than all the media combined is the passion and sense of personal investment that comes through in the story. According to Bolt, “I often tell people that I don't have a degree in biology, and I’m a self-taught photographer, and I've just basically driven everything with my passion, and my obsession with these beautiful little creatures that share our world. It's amazing what you can do with that when you put yourself out on a limb and speak up.”

Shaking Things up in Montana

Although he had built a flourishing career in the Southeast, by 2015 Bolt was itching for a new challenge. “Once you get to the point where you're comfortable with what you're doing, one of the best things you can do as a photographer or visual artist is to shake things up a little bit,” he explains, “because that's how you grow.”

When learning of an open position as communications lead for the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains Program, in Bozeman, Montana, he jumped at the opportunity. Says Bolt, “I had been doing a lot of work in conservation from the standpoint of a photographer—as a communicator—but I didn't know a lot about the policy side of conservation. This is a job that has allowed me to learn a lot more about those things. And since I’ve been out here, I've learned so much more than that,” he adds.

Hunt’s Bumble Bee (Bombus Huntii), Gyne (New Queen), Malta, Montana
Hunt’s Bumble Bee (Bombus huntii), Gyne (New Queen), Malta, Montana

According to Bolt, working on the policy side has helped reframe his thinking about what conservation looks like. Yet it is another perk that makes his job seem like a perfect fit. “Because World Wildlife Fund typically works with larger animals or ecosystems, they don’t have a lot of insect experts, at least here in the United States,” he explains. “So, I’ve been able to provide that voice. And it's been exciting to have people coming to me and asking questions about working with pollinators. I feel like I’m carving out a little niche for myself within the organization, which I find really fulfilling.”

And perhaps even more astounding is the fact that Montana has more bumble bee species than any other state, a discovery Bolt only made after his move there. “This is partly because bumble bees do really well in cold places,” he notes. “And since we have such an elevational gain around Bozeman, I can go up into the mountains and photograph bees flying up there with snow in the background, and amazing Alpine wildflowers, and then photograph different species down in the valley.”

Sleeping Male Longhorn Bees (Anthophora montana), South Dakota

Looking back on his career so far, Bolt finds the connecting thread to be patience. “I feel like I'm a very patient photographer,” he says. “I think you need to be to work with the subjects I do, even more so in a place like this. Now that I'm starting to eek some good pictures out of this harsher environment, the pictures seem hard won, and I think that makes them even more satisfying to me. If you’re patient enough, there's a story to be told in every place,” he adds. “And if you're willing to listen long enough, that story will come to you.”

Visit Clay Bolt’s website to see more of his inspiring work with bees and other small creatures, and learn about his other conservation projects.

And for a deep dive into the macro and lighting techniques Bolt uses to capture tiny critters in the field, jump to our story Meet Your Tiniest Neighbors Using Macro Gear and a Field Studio Setup, a Q&A with Bolt about a wildlife portrait project he cofounded with Scottish photographer Niall Benvie, having a mission to engage a global community in photographing the often underappreciated and overlooked common creatures around us.

Are you a budding entomologist or ever tried photographing insects in the field? Tell us about your experiences in the Comments section, below!

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