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OU student achieving big success with tiny bugs

Thomas Shahan, 22, shoots close-up photographs of insects and spiders. His work has been published around the world.
BY KEN RAYMOND Published: September 12, 2011

It's not entirely accurate to say that Thomas Shahan won't hurt a fly, but it's not far off.

The 22-year-old Tulsan, currently living in Norman and studying art at the University of Oklahoma, shoots extreme close-up photographs of insects and spiders. Sometimes he uses himself as bait.

“Deer flies, which are a close relative of horseflies, won't give up,” he said recently. “If they can tell you're hot and sweaty, they'll chase you and will sink their proboscis into you. I've had blood dripping down my legs from them, but I don't want to hurt them.

“It's a good chance for me to shoot them. If they're feeding on me, they're not going anywhere.”

The results are worth a little blood loss. His images have been seen in Popular Photography, Discover and publications in Brazil, India, China, the Netherlands and Mexico. He has sold photographs to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for use in scientific texts, and last year, Target sold puzzles bearing images he shot.

“I thought it was an odd choice,” he said of the puzzles. “Do you really want to make a puzzle for kids with a jumping spider or a wasp? The wasp one was a glow-in-the-dark puzzle, a big glowing wasp.”

Shahan works with a basic Pentax digital camera and old Japanese prime lenses, which have a fixed focal length, unlike zoom lenses. He uses a reversing adapter ring to mount a lens backward on extension tubes, creating an effect like looking through the wrong end of a telescope; instead of getting bigger, everything gets smaller. Light comes from a makeshift diffuser.

The way he has his camera set up means that his field of vision is a darkened area no more than 2 or 3 centimeters. Getting one usable photo may take hours spent in uncomfortable positions and hundreds of tries; he doesn't really know what he's got until he goes back through every image.

Sometimes he'll find a single perfect photo. Other times he'll focus-stack three to five photographs taken from the same angle, combining the best portions of each of the photos.

The results are transformative. Insects and spiders most people would kill on sight become vivid, lively characters. Through Shahan's magic, a minuscule jumping spider turns into a colorful natural wonder, striped yellow legs, blue body and all. Horseflies look fluffy and cool, insect aviators, their banded eyes like mirrored sunglasses.

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