Joseph Saunders: Macro Photographer and BlackAFinSTEM Member

By Ali Berman, Communications Manager

Even among nature lovers, insects, snakes, and spiders fall squarely in the underappreciated category. While we can look a Red-tailed Hawk in the eye as they stare back at us through our binoculars, we can’t exactly make that same connection with spiders or flies. That’s part of what makes macro photographer Joseph Saunders’s work so magical. He loves nothing more than when someone who is usually terrified of spiders writes to him to say that they found the subject of one of his photosperhaps a jumping spider or mantisto be delightful. Even cute. 

A female Texas Paradise Jumping Spider stands on a piece of wood with a pink background.
Female Texas Paradise Jumping Spider (Habronattus texanus | The Paradise Jumping Spiders are commonly found on the ground. Typically, I catch them first by placing a container over them until they climb up the sides. Then, I will release them on a nearby natural looking surface more ideal for photographs. I and my audience really seem to favor this image. I think the position she is in gives an impression she has just ascended a feat, and perhaps, people subconsciously relate.

Joseph’s photography is beautiful as an art form, but it goes beyond composition. His photographs have an intention behind them, both for his animal subjects and for making the outdoors a more inclusive place. “I have felt this need to present animals that are persecuted in a way that actually gets people to change their minds,” he said in our video interview. “And, as important as it is to me to show undervalued animals in a light that allows people to reconsider their worth, it is even more important my work is recognized for being intent on creating a world that is safe for my three nieces, nephew, and other Black and Brown children to explore, and grow in.”

Located in Oklahoma, Joseph is a member of BlackAFinStem, a professional photographer, and an advocate for equity in the environmental movement. We were lucky enough to talk to him about the importance of invertebrates, the accessibility of macro photography, pro tips for people interested in macro, and why some of nature’s most feared creatures just aren’t that scary.

Before we get to the interview, make sure to check out Joseph’s website where you can buy photo prints and his Instagram. You can also support his work on Patreon.

What makes you so passionate about invertebrates?

Their vulnerability and lack of appreciation. Studies are confirming an alarming decrease in the biomass of invertebrates across the planet, in some areas as much as 50%. If invertebrates and arthropods go extinct, the rest of the ecosystem is going to collapse right along with them.

If you think climate change is terrifying, understand the continued decline of invertebrates will exacerbate ecocide tremendously. It will be absolutely catastrophic. 

Carolina Mantis (Mantodea carolinensis) | I found this juvenile mantis on a bush in my front yard. Entomology and macro photography has been a wellspring of access to incredible biodiversity. I encourage anyone to just take a closer look at what is nearby. Still, this is not a complete solution to making natural spaces accessible.

How does your process differ from many other macro photographers?

I had two conflicts when I was learning about other people’s methods. One is a lot of those really deep focus stacks you see, more than likely are of a deceased, pinned insect. Being a naturalist, I am more interested in living specimens. [Editor’s note: Focus stacking is an editing technique that combines many photographs so more of the subject is in focus.] They have their camera set up on a focus rail and everything is essentially electronic. This method achieves some absolutely stunning photographs, but I feel removed from my camera, making it a less interactive experience. I taught myself to brace the camera and my gear on a steady surface wherever I was. This way, whatever I’m shooting is a living animal, with my camera in hand. 

Where do you usually photograph invertebrates?

I tend to frequent local parks. I would start initially taking photos of jumping spiders on picnic tables and other man-made structures. I’m really lucky the neighborhood I live in has a really nice park, balanced with an accessible park, and natural habitat. A lot of it is packed ground and has a creek running through it. I’ve seen all kinds of animals pass through, and of course plenty of arthropods. In other situations, I’m photographing them in their environment, be it leaves, plants, trees, etc. When it comes to macro and insects, you don’t need a lot of space. If you stare at one bush long enough you end up seeing a number of different species.

What advice do you have for macro photographer beginners?

If you aren’t already doing so, you have to learn to take enjoyment in observing the small world around you. I couldn’t do what I do without simply enjoying the micro-sized natural world. Persistent observation will also train your eye to notice when these animals are more likely to be cooperative to be photographed. 

When you aren’t observing wildlife, read about the technicalities of photography. As you learn about composition, lighting with diffused external light, ideal camera settings, and post processing techniques, you empower yourself to be a better photographer each time you step out into the field. 

Research camera gear according to your budget. Used camera gear can afford significant savings. If you cannot budget new gear, consider getting a reversible lens mount for your camera. This will allow you to flip a lens you may already have, even a kit lens, to invert the focal length and get much closer to your subjects.  

Lastly, always, always focus on the eyes. 

Joseph Saunders out in the field.

How has macro made nature photography more accessible for you?

Macro photography has been such a gift to me because microfauna is in every single park you can think of if you just look. I can go outside my front door and I know I’ll have a group of Naphrys pulex, flea jumping spiders, on the brick siding. I can go out there on almost any given day and there are a half a dozen running around on the walls. Just look for the small stuff. It’s there if you take the time. As I mentioned earlier, it’s the same with parks, or any other place where man-made structures meet any sort of micro habitat. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with accessible spaces in nature?

Mostly, it seems those given the opportunity to create accessible places don’t have an adequate understanding of what accessible really means. I have found hard-packed ground to be the best option. Lake Arcadia is nearby. They had a nice hard-packed ground trail that went around part of the lakeshore and into a wooded area. Years ago, they created these raised dividers along the side of the trail, then filled it with these tiny pebbles of gravel. Now it is like pushing in deep, soft sand and is no longer accessible, even for a high-functioning paraplegic like myself.  There needs to be some greater understanding about what accessibility really is because they made that with the idea of improving accessibility and they failed.

Thunderbird Lake is also local. They advertise an accessible trail I went to years ago. It is literally a small paved trail around a few segments of trees. It granted me access to nothing of value. What’s the point in making it if it gets us no closer to nature? 

I suspect the general perception of accessibility these organizations have is something that is easy to walk. And if that is the angle from which they are approaching accessibility they are doing it wrong.

A photo of a green anole on a shrub.
Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) | This is my spark reptile. Growing up in San Antonio they are everywhere! The abundance and availability of this species offered constant inspiration to observe and wonder about the natural world around me. Without my early experiences with them, I don't know that I would be doing what I do today.

What are some of the big barriers you see that make it harder for marginalized communities to explore nature?

The history of the ghettoization of Black and Brown communities works as an economic and geographical barrier preventing these people from having access to green spaces. This was intentional and strategic with the use of red-lining, eminent domain, and mass incarceration. This is one of the reasons I am so excited to be working with BlackAFInSTEM. I think we have the ability to bridge this gap effectively and genuinely, like other organizations who hold a commitment to the inclusion of underrepresented demographics in these fields. It’s also important that as we do it, we introduce people to an outdoor environment that’s safe. A lot of people do not feel safe when they go into state or national parks. I’ve talked to many BIPOC people who simply don’t feel safe being out in rural areas. I don’t either, to be frank. I’ve been profiled, harassed, and threatened. I’ve had cops called on me without having committed a crime. I’m just willing to suffer through it to do what I enjoy doing. This is where we need willful collaborative efforts with city, state, and national parks to make these spaces safe and accessible for marginalized demographics. 

Socioeconomics can also be a barrier as well. Depending on where you are, access to transportation can dictate where you go. This is why hobbies and disciplines like entomology and birding are so valuable. Birding is another one I’m realizing is such a gift because birds, like insects, are everywhere. They are in the middle of any city. There is an observable richness which doesn’t require that you drive several hours out into remote areas that are a well-known hotspot for long-term hobbyists or researchers.

It seems the intersections related to disability simply seem to be an afterthought. I think the largest barrier as it comes to people with disabilities are the imaginations of mostly able-bodied people charged with developing solutions who don’t have the experience we have to apply to the solution. 

Cave Salamander (Eurycea lucifuga) | I found this salamander with my friend Kyran, who is non-binary, and gender fluid on my way to my youngest brother's wedding. It remains the single best night of targeting salamanders I have had. Made even better by sharing it with someone who also occupies spaces as an underrepresented demographic within this lifestyle.
A photo of a bullsnake on brown grass with wind turbines and a wooden barn in the background. w
Bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) | An important truth snakes have taught me is that another person, or animal does not have to accept you to have value. It's pretty obvious this bullnake was not pleased with me. This perspective has helped me break down my own prejudices, and hold myself accountable to the ways I have reinforced some people are worth less than others. Prejudice and oppression are decisions, and like all decisions, we have the option to make another choice.

What are some of the biggest misperceptions people have about animals normally thought of as frightening?

Humans too easily project willful malice onto animals that simply aim to defend themselves and preserve their lives. It’s easy to illustrate this with snakes because everybody thinks snakes just want to bite them. What they will do is stand their ground because they are tiny and people are comparatively much larger. Other than that they are looking for every reason to flee. When I photograph herps I’m often on the ground. I have photographed every venomous snake in Oklahoma without having ever been bitten. I cannot stand up and step away from them. I’m on the ground, no place to go. I’ve had pygmy rattlesnakes and copperheads move right along the side of my legs who offered no will to bite because their aim was to flee. They only wanted to get away from me and the flash of my camera. That said, I am certainly not advocating for others to make the same decisions. What I do does have risks, but anything for the shot, right?

A close up photo of the face of a Syphid Fly resting on a green stem.
Syrphid Fly (Family Syrphidae) | I found this fly resting on some foliage that had fallen onto the side railing of a wooden walkway with several trees overhanging. This boardwalk is raised above a greenspace parallel to a creek and is one of my local favorites. I would love to see more forethought put into creating accessible pathways that are not destructive to thriving ecosystems.