A couple of years ago, a photo of a giant earthworm discovered by scientists in eastern Ecuador went viral and stirred up a lot of debate about whether the photos were fake. They're not.
Yes, you diehard fans of hyperthyroidal nematodes, giant earthworms exist! I had heard of them but had no idea they were this big until my photo tour group (which I was leading with help from my good friends Lucas Bustamante and Frank Pichardo) and I encountered one near Wild Sumaco Lodge in the Eastern Andes in Ecuador. We think it is probably a specimen of the rare Mariodrilus crassus but it may well be a new species.
We arrived to the lodge to two surprises which, fortuitously, led to our finding the giant earthworm. First, it was raining heavily throughout our drive to Sumaco. Second, upon arrival we found that a tree near the lodge had toppled onto the power lines, and the flaming tree trunk blocked our access to the lodge. Put together, those two things -- pouring rain and flaming trees -- were kind of a bummer. But, as we waited in our tour bus for the electric company to arrive to remove the tree, the rain let up, and we decided to take a little walk down the dirt road. Just like at your house, earthworms emerge after a good rain, and it's no different in Ecuador except that the earthworms can grow to nearly 5 feet long! The one we found was only 2.5 feet long, so it must be a youngster.
We immediately came upon a giant earthworm crossing the road and, after initially being a bit shocked (if earthworms are this big, what might the local wasps look like?!), we decided to grab a bucket (family-size mayo from the lodge restaurant) and keep a specimen to photograph later that afternoon. The rain let up, the power company removed the burning tree, and we checked in with all of our gear and our new buddy in a bucket.
Great, but how does one make an interesting photo of a big earthworm which is, after all, simply an oversized digestive tract capable of locomotion? We decided the way to go was to place the animal in its normal forest floor environment but tweaked to our liking. Cecropia trees are common rainforest trees, and the leaves are about a foot and half in diameter. A quickly constructed forest floor littered with Cecropia leaves would give an authentic sense of the giant earthworm's habitat and also some sense of scale.
We decided to work with a wide angle lens and light the scene with two radio-controlled flashes, diffused with softboxes. I took some test shots with flash as both main light and fill and worked quickly as my goal was to get a couple of shots for myself while getting the lighting dialed in for the workshop clients. In 10 minutes we had our set, our earthworm model (I think of him as the Derek Zoolander of giant earthworms as he posed quite well but didn't seem very intelligent), and our lighting. The clients came next, and they all got great shots of an unexpected subject!
In the end, we were pretty happy to have worked up some good shots of a bizarre but difficult subject and to have a provided a great surprise for our group. And what was it like handling this squirmy behemoth? Imagine picking up a slimy, oversized gummy worm, intermittently coated with rusty knight's armor. Strange but not too bad :-)
I hope you've enjoyed this post and learned a little bit about improvisational studio techniques in the field. By the way, as soon as we wrapped our shoot, the giant earthworm was returned safely where we found him and is living happily ever after eating all manner of detritus on the rainforest floor near the Sumaco volcano in Ecuador.
MY ECUADOR WORKSHOP FOR 2017 IS ALREADY SOLD OUT. BUT, I HAVE SOME GREAT THINGS PLANNED FOR 2018, INCLUDING TWO NEW PLACES. IF YOU'RE INTERESTED IN JOINING ME IN ECUADOR IN 2018, PLEASE CONTACT ME!