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The things you can only see by slowing down

By Lucy Freeman

There is another world all around us. If we glimpse it, it’s a mere flash out of the corner of our eyes.

Normally the human eye would watch a film at 25 frames per second, but specially adapted cameras now allow us to film at 500 frames a second; the perfect speed to capture a frog jumping, for example.

Now that might sound fast, but filming the rapid movement of insects requires a whole new level of fast. Flay wanted to capture one particular bug that threw itself from one plant to another. Even at 500 frames a second he could not capture this insect, moving faster than a bullet from a gun, so he acquired a camera that shot 10,000 frames a second. This allowed him to see that this tiny bug locked its leg joints to give it the leverage to make its enormous leaps. There’s no way he could have captured this without digital slow-motion, and we’d never have known how the insect moved.

The use of digital film has removed much of the element of chance from slow motion photography, and saved a great deal of waste. Using film meant pressing a button and hoping and the sheer number of frames used meant the film would only last a couple of minutes before running out. At normal speed, the film would last nine minutes, but when Flay shot in his slow motion camera he’d use 30 seconds of film. If nothing happened in that 30 seconds then the film was destined for the bin. The level of lighting required also made shoots incredibly hot and uncomfortable – Flay recalls having to wear welding goggles to shoot fleas jumping.

Sometimes what he sees is both incredible and gruesome. In North America, he filmed phorid flies hovering above a fire ant trail. Only when he played back his slow motion footage did he see what they were doing. The flies were piercing the soft tissue area on the backs of the heads of the ants and laying an egg. This would enable the larvae to hatch out and eat the ant from the inside. “Shooting at high speed gave us the whole story,” says Flay.

Flay is genuinely awestruck at the beauty of the insect realm, and the alien otherworldliness revealed to him through his slow motion footage. “Everything is a surprise,” he says. Dragonflies in particular are a source of huge fascination to Flay, their appearance and the way they fly. “They fly like fairies, he says. “They’re the most incredible thing and they’re all around us. There’s nothing more exotic in the world.”

Featured image © Maarten Wouters | Getty

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