The "Pandora" Project

At last, the moment is here! Up to this point the work on this project was kept under wraps and was only discussed with family members. I got the idea for it when the pandemic pretty much killed all my plans for wildlife photography trips. I had to rethink the very scale of my ideas because the available space shrank down to the garden of my country home where I ran off to as soon as they told me to work from home. Just like that the only nature I could shoot was whatever could be found around my house, but despite my love for my garden, I needed a new approach to the whole thing.


I have been toying with the idea of shooting in UV light for quite some time, but wasn't really down for it. I knew that mosses, mushrooms and scorpions glow in UV light, but in Moscow region we are kind of short on the latter. We do, however, have mosses and mushrooms, and that was at least a starting point for me. I didn't know then that this experiment will lead me to discover an entirely new world where even the most familiar plants and animals transform beyond recognition. And it was then that the name for this project came to mind - it refers both to the woes unleashed onto the world in 2020 and the bioluminescent world of a planet from the famous film by James Cameron.


I aquired a powerful UV torch and ventured out into a new world. What I saw left me in awe. Months have passed and I keep going back to these images and the memories of my nightly walks. Almost everything around me glowed - the dirt, the fresh plant shoots, the dried stalks of last year's crop. Looking at the green mass in daylight it is impossible to predict what will glow and if it will, what colors it would display. It is a mystery to me why one plant shines in blood red while the other glows in purple and aqua blue, because in regular light they are all just plain old green. What is this language that these plants are using and what are the saying? Nature doesn't do things "just because", so there must be a reason why grass is lilac-blue and iris shoots are orange like carrots!

Venturing into this new universe I feel like an explorer, pioneering on an unknown planet. To preserve this feeling I will not include comparative "UV vs. normal light" images in the framework of this project. I want the images to be detached from reality and help the viewer submerge into an unfamiliar world, where insects light up in the darkness like tiny sparks, mushrooms swim in the night like coral reefs and noone knows what other wonders await. Here even a dead flower can turn into an alien jellyfish!



Time went by and the fresh plants matured, changing their colors. Here and there in the grass and bushes tiny sparks appeared, like fireflies lighting their little beacons. Fireflies don't live in Moscow region, but it turned up that spiders can give them a run for their money! Unfortunately they are very sensitive to the heat emitted by the UV ray of my flashlight, so I always had to work very quickly. Keep them in the spotlight too long and the spiders start showing clear signs of distress - some spazz out, some curl up. I always try my best to not harm my subjects, so I had to adapt to the tolerance levels of the spiders.


The beam attracted insects - mostly moths, but once a hornet came to check it out. None agreed to pose. Spiders are more cooperative, but even with them I had to wait for warmer nights to photograph the species I expected to glow brightest. Reality exceeded all expectations. The crab spider is a marvelous creature. It often lives among flowers and can change its color according to the surroundings - either yellow or white. It might not seem like much but the spider manages to work this limmited palette to its full advantage. It is notoriously hard to find in daytime. However, nighttime and UV light revealed how many of these chameleon spiders inhabit the garden. And they all glow in bright cold colors.

My second suspect was a brilliant emerald colored huntsman spider. That is one hard spider to find during the day, but boy does it stand out at night! It is a rather large ambush hunter and it glows in UV light in a very bright and gorgeous blue-green and aqua light. One night I had just barely stepped out of my house when right in front of my porch I discovered a very calm large female. While I was looking for a good angle some sort of insect hopped onto the edge of the leaf where the spider was chilling. A lighning-fast strike and one of my favorite images is added to my collection - a glowing alien spider with prey.

I was eagerly waiting for the emergance of large orb weavers. I wanted to know if they glow, because such large spiders would be much easier to photograph  than the tiny ones that crawled out in early spring. The orb weavers did not disappoint. They were skittish, but I guess their size made them less sensitive to the warmth of the UV beam. They didn't seem to be bothered by the heat, more often it was the CO2 from my breath that spooked them. When shooting insects and spiders I always keep in mind that for them the increase in CO2 levels around them indicates the presence of a potential predator, but while trying to find a good spot and angle in the dead of night I do slip up from time to time.


Another technical difficulty with the orb weavers was presented by their... curvy figures. The crab spider and the huntsman spider are much less chonky, so they more or less fit into the depth of field (DOF). At night the possible DOF is very small and I hate stacking, so I had to work things out case by case.

Usually the orb weavers just sat motionless in the heart of their huge nets, but some allowed to capture some behavioral images. One spider was so preoccupied with fixing the web that it completely ignored me. Another one climbed atop a nettle plant and it looked like the spider itself had no idea why it did that. It just enjoyed the view, feeling the air with its front legs.

The garden had so much to offer that up until the end of summer I did not expand into the nearby woods. When the mushroom season arrived I decided that there's nothing scarier than me out there anyway and went looking for glowing fungi. The woods at night aren't scary, they are just damn uncomfortable. The UV flashlight, even a powerful one, doesn't really light your path, but you can't turn it off lest you miss something interesting - and that is the point, after all. A couple of times birds erupted right from under my feet, tearing up the night with their paniced cries and frantic wing flapping. Now they were scared!


As it turned out, the true blue glow is a rarity even umong mushrooms. I managed to find one ghostly toadstool and some kind of tree fungi that emitted this rare glow.

Tree fungi in UV light remind me of coral reefs. One fallen birch housed a massive number of these fungi that gave a very pastel display of pink, purple and blue.

The tasty Armillaria or honey mushrooms light up the night in neon yellowish-green. A stump with a family of honey mushrooms burns bright like the fires of Gondor. It calls out to you like the will-o'-the-wisp, but if you don't rush straight over, it will not lead you to trouble and allow you to harvest a real forrest treasure.

The project opened my eyes to how little we still know about the world around us. I guess sometimes you don't need to travel far to discover a new world, all you need is to look at familiar things in a new light. Personally, I had a lot of fun uncovering the different gems to photograph,because the result is so unpredictable. I will continue working on the "Pandora" project and I will maintain the principle of shooting in natural surroundings. Establishing a dark room studio may be a more comfortable option, but I am interested in what happens naturally under the cover of darkness. It will be fun to look for more things to photograph for the project on my expeditions (once travel is once more possible).

Can't wait for more adventures in the captivating and unpredictable world of the "Pandora" Project!