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Anand Varma’s Latest Photographer-Scientist Collaboration Results in Stunning Hummingbird Studies

October 16, 2017

By David Walker

© Anand Varma/National Geographic

Researchers track the speed and trajectory of a hummingbird as it flies in front of a patterned background for a story in the July issue of National Geographic. Building on the work of Doc Edgerton and others, photographer Anand Varma wanted to independently control each highspeed flash “at a different power level, and different angle, and use that level of control to more carefully illustrate” his subject, he says.

Anand Varma, who was fascinated with nature as a kid growing up in Atlanta, now follows his curiosity from one laboratory to another by finding scientists who appreciate the power of photography to inform and inspire lay audiences about their often-esoteric work. “A lot of [scientists] are thinking about how to communicate more effectively, and I’m in this process of trying to meet [them and figure out] how can I contribute to this movement of science communication evangelism,” Varma says.

July’s issue of National Geographic where Varma’s hummingbird images first appeared.

Over the last decade, he has worked periodically with Christopher J. Clark, a biologist at University of California, Riverside (and a former college instructor of Varma’s) who studies hummingbirds. National Geographic recently featured Varma’s striking slow-motion videos of hummingbirds in action against black backgrounds. The videos bring out details that scientists have never been able to observe before, because they go by in a blur to the unaided eye.

In return for the scientific expertise and lab access that his scientist-collaborators provide, Varma offers photographs they can use in their scientific papers and other communications, including publicity. Sometimes, the scientists may also glean valuable information from Varma’s photographs that contributes to their research. His slow-motion hummingbird videos, for instance, showed feather structure during flight that scientists had been previously unable to see, much less measure.

National Geographic previously featured Varma’s photographs in the November 2014 cover story called “Mindsuckers,” which shows the drama, detail and vivid color of parasites in action on the bodies of a variety of insect hosts.

“I find so much satisfaction in learning about the natural world, and discovering these mysteries for myself, that I want to inspire [that curiosity] in other people,” he says. “I want to do that by showing them something completely unexpected.”

He’s currently at work on a story for National Geographic about a species he doesn’t want to name. Suffice it to say, a lot of people find it repulsive. Varma’s challenge is to make it look beautiful and “really cool,” thereby enthralling National Geographic readers.

“I don’t necessarily have one creature or subject I like more than others. When I see an opportunity either through a scientist’s expertise or something that I read or imagery that I saw, I think, oh, I could apply my skill set to this subject, to show it in a new way. That’s kind of how I pick my next story,” he says.

He writes to scientists who are doing the work he’s interested in to ask if he can spend a couple of weeks in their laboratories making photographs. (His long-term collaboration with Clark was the exception, not the rule.) “There are people who are like, ‘Yes, I want you in my lab. Tell me what you need,’” Varma says.

© Anand Varma/<i>National Geographic</i>

For a story in the July issue of National Geographic, Anand Varma worked with biologist Christopher J. Clark to capture the high-speed motion of hummingbirds. The videos they made reveal details that scientists had never seen before. © Anand Varma/National Geographic

He’s now in the exploratory stages of a project about jellyfish, a subject that piqued his interest after he met City University of New York marine biology professor David Gruber at an event for National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers. (Varma is one of the 2017 Emerging Explorers; Gruber was one of the 2014 group.)

“He saw my hummingbird work, and mentioned work he was doing” with jellyfish, says Varma, who is interested in the difficult-to-observe details of the jellyfish lifecycle. “They’ve got an interesting story to tell if you can just figure out what’s the hidden mystery we don’t get to appreciate. To find a way to clearly show that would really be surprising to people.”

Because he looks for new and surprising ways to photograph his subjects, Varma says his process “involves just an enormous amount of experimentation and iteration. You start with what you know.” For the hummingbirds story, he knew the magic of hummingbirds was in their motion. So he started to think of techniques for visualizing that.

© Anand Varma/<i>National Geographic</i>

The forked tongue of an Anna’s hummingbird is visible drinking artificial nectar in a glass vessel. © Anand Varma/National Geographic

He considered what’s been done previously, starting with the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and the high-speed stroboscopic photography of Doc Edgerton. They figured out how to trigger a camera and flash multiple times in succession, Varma explains. “So I thought: What if I figure out how to do that, but independently control each of those flashes at a different power level, and different angle, and use that level of control to more carefully illustrate the science that’s going on?”

With help from National Geographic engineers and lighting vendors, Varma figured out what special gear he needed. From there, he says, “It took many, many weeks of trial and error and figuring out how to get the [gear] to perform in a way that looked very beautiful in the end.” It was all a matter of looking at what worked and what didn’t, and pruning whatever looked “boring and ugly and horrible…and pushing toward those little hints of something in a draft picture where you think: Hey this looks new.”

Usually, Varma and his collaborators don’t share funding. The exception so far was the hummingbird work with Clark, whose recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grants included some money to support Varma’s work. Clark procured that money under an NSF “broader impacts” requirement, for which scientists have to explain how their work will advance scientific knowledge and achieve “societally relevant outcomes.” Among relevant outcomes that NSF specifies are “increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology.”

While Varma continues to pursue other projects, he has also started teaching photo workshops to scientists this year. “There’s not enough time in 100 of my lifetimes to go out and photograph all the compelling stories that exist, so the next step is sharing that tool set [I use] with scientists themselves so they can be empowered to tell their own stories.”

The National Geographic story is available here. Also visit the National Geographic website for a behind-the-scenes video with Anand Varma discussing how he captured his videos.

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