Room for Craft
OCTOBER 2018: MICHAEL DE LUCA
Michael De Luca is a visual artist and photographer from Maryland, currently based in Salt Lake City, Utah. He began shooting with a Nikon film camera when digital photography was in its infancy. Now, in addition to working in film and digital photography, he is a photography instructor. His online portfolio is located here. Visual Art Editor Anna Martin spoke to Michael about his craft.
What led you to become an artist, and how did you get involved in photography?
I moved from Baltimore to the coast, where I ended up residing for eight years in Ocean City, Maryland. While on the coast I often found myself in the water at sunrise and sunset riding waves. The surf world led me to surf photography, so I started shooting primarily surfing/bodyboarding and sunrises/sunsets.
My sister had studied photography in college and came back with some decent prints of street photography and landscapes. After living on a barrier island for about a year I remember talking to my mother on the phone, and in the midst of just a normal, routine conversation I told her how incredible the sunrises and sunsets were. While surfing I was just engulfed in color and surreal scenes. A lot of surfers are photographers, and I blurted something out about maybe delving into it when she mentioned that my sister’s camera was just collecting dust in her closet. In about a week the camera and one lens arrived at my door. It was 2001, maybe 2002, and serious digital cameras were in their infancy. The camera sent to me was a Ricoh Super2 SLR and there was a zoom, and I got a fast 50 and used only that setup for a few years before finally buying my first DSLR when the image quality was acceptable. The Ricoh was all manual, no meter, which, combined with the fact that I was shooting mostly in challenging light (sunrise/sunset), proved to be an amazing education that I feel lucky to have stumbled upon.
Those few years taught me so much before I began shooting digital. They are two very different things. I love film; whenever I get back to the coast, I shoot film regularly because I prefer that when shooting surfing. But digital has gotten so good, especially recently with the prominence of full-frame sensors, which produce dense files with an incredible pallet of color and detail that was simply impossible with any film (with the exception of medium or large format cameras). The dynamic range of color and capabilities in the world of macro and micro photography is irresistible, and it enables us to capture tiny subjects and variable conditions that have never been captured before. It is literally opening up new subjects for us to see, sometimes for the first time, ever. This is what keeps me so excited about photography.
How did you shift from photographing surfing and sunsets to macro photography of arachnids and insects?
There was a period where I had to rehabilitate a pretty serious spinal injury from surfing, and to fill the time since I couldn't surf, I decided to widen my perspective of photography subjects. It was very challenging at first because I was still strictly shooting with film—either 35mm slide or a Bronica 6x6. This was part of the push for me to start shooting digital, so I picked up a Nikon DSLR and soon zeroed in on the art of macro. I had a great place to grow a garden, so I planted many vegetables and flowers. Once the garden was set up, all kinds of small creatures came: various species of dragonflies, butterflies, and spiders. During this time I also began catching jumping spiders and relocating them to my garden. In a year or so I had an army of Salticidae living throughout my garden, feeding off of the many micro insects that also lived within the plant life.
What brought you to your interest of Salticidae (jumping spiders)? What personal experiences have you had out in the field that have made you realize how important insects and arachnids are to our environment?
My first experience with one was in my garden in Ocean City. There was a very large male, and to my surprise, he seemed as interested in me as I was in him. The more I shot him, the more I witnessed just how unique these spiders are. They have incredible confidence, tons of character, and were the guardians of my garden, which insured the health of my crops. After dealing with him I was hooked; I immediately became obsessed. And the more you learn about them, the more likable they are. They’re very beneficial as their prey are primarily pest insects that harm crops—this I witnessed firsthand, and I remain very grateful for the existence of jumping spiders. While camping on random islands around Ocean City, such as Assateague Island, I quickly figured out if I could find a concentration of dragonflies, that location was always less plagued with mosquitoes, as mosquitoes are the main prey for dragonflies; this made my work a lot more pleasurable and enabled me to work for longer periods of time.
Salticidae and many of your other insect subjects are very flighty creatures. I’d really like to know more about the process of your macro photography—where have you had the most success finding your subjects, specifically Salticidae, and what is your process for photographing them when you locate them?
Jumping spiders are found anywhere that flies, bees, or other insects exist. They are predators of these flying insects, so if you find the prey, the predator will be there too. They love wooden railings, hot siding, hot metal, etc. I used to only shoot in the field, but nowadays I capture and either bring them home or if I'm on the road I will set up a makeshift studio wherever I'm staying. I make them a habitat after getting them some food and water, and I let them explore the plants and shoot them there. Macro is all about flash, and after using many different ones I've found that with Nikon's new pro cameras, if I boost the pop-up, and use good diffusers, it creates great results with less gear. If I can get the subject to pose, I will focus stack as many frames as possible.
How much time and effort do you have to put into editing these shots after you take them?
Not much. Slight sharpening, maybe a slight crop, but that's it. I shot film for years so my objective is to get the perfect light directly from the camera—and I still adhere to this principle, which is old school, but how I prefer it. The only time it gets extensive is when I have multiple exposures to focus stack, which is when I take multiple shots of one insect with different areas in focus to have the final image of the insect all in focus. In that case it can take an hour or so because I prefer to manually stack in Photoshop instead of using a program that stacks the images automatically. This usually is necessary when I have to photograph something very small—many of the various Salticidae that I photograph are even smaller than the head of a matchstick; and in this case, the process to photograph the insect is much more tedious than the effort I have to put into editing the shot afterwards.
Out of all of the places you've traveled to or lived in, which place was the most inspiring to you and truly motivated you to create?
The ocean for sure. I have a love affair with the sea that has remained a bottomless pit of inspiration for the past seventeen years. I'm landlocked in Utah for the first time in fifteen years and I'm already running to the California coast every chance I get. But the mountains are a close second, and out my window is a giant mountain range that floors me on a daily basis. I really had worn out the ocean; a few of the guys that I surfed with had moved on from chasing waves, and by a twist of fate I found myself heading to the mountains of the Smokies and Blue Ridge regions on a regular basis while living in north Florida. I almost immediately replaced surfing with hiking and dove pretty deep into that when I met my fiancé, who also loved to be in nature. After a handful of road trips we incorporated travel into our regular routines, and for the past six years, we’ve rarely spent more than a month or so without a few days on the road in the mountains. We spent a few years in the east, and came out west about a year and a half ago. We've covered an amazing amount of ground, both on the road and on trails in the mountains, and every location just makes this addiction worse. I love traveling, the difficulty, the weird shit that happens, pushing and hiking trails that are plain torture, but the experience is always worthwhile, and the shots all have stories. Landscape photography is a practice that leaves you with so much, because there are stories with all those shots, and coming up on a crazy view in complete solitude, or a scene in thick fog and harsh conditions, or even just a vivid sunset or a moody sunrise . . . it's an amazing feeling, and very rewarding and fulfilling. The West is just amazing, the variance in landscapes is mind-blowing, and the desolation is real, so I've fallen in love with this side of the country.
Anna Martin is a visual artist and writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She is visual art editor for The Hopper.