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Zooming in on the macro world with Bridgette Gower

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Bridgette Gower (pronouns: she/her) is a wildlife photographer and nature tour guide based in Cairns, Australia. Here, she has created three tours focussed on the less charismatic (often unknown and un-appreciated) but integral species of the Wet Tropics ecosystem – the invertebrates and the fungi. Inspired by nature figures like Steve Irwin, David Attenborough and Paul Watson from Sea Shepherd, Bridgette has turned her niche passion into her own business and shares her fascination for the macro-world with her community! We caught up to discuss Bridgette’s top tips for starting out in creepy crawly identification, business and macro photography.

Zooming in on the macro world with Bridgette Gower | #itsawildlife

A WHOLE NEW WORLD

Bridgette grew up on a farm in rural New South Wales and has always been surrounded by and passionate about the natural world. Even as a child, Bridgette was fascinated with macro photography and the tiny world of organisms so many people missed.

“I used to spend quite a bit of time looking through microscopes as a kid, and I had a toy one which I used to investigate things, such as a drop of water from a puddle. I was fascinated with the life that was underneath the microscope.”

At the age of 13, Bridgette would go walking with her mum in the rainforest and became fascinated by the amazing colours and formations of fungi.

“I remember seeing fungi and I used to really fantasize about being able to capture the look of the fungi and the shapes and textures… and that’s kind of where my inspiration has come from”

Bridgette’s career has spanned many different areas: lots of different types of media, from magazine publishing, radio and television production to music production and scuba diving instructing as well as guiding.

Bridgette has always been a big nature lover with a fire for activism as well, having joined several Sea Shepherd campaigns defending whales throughout Antarctica and has been involved in some environmental conservation groups. She has always had a passion for the natural world, and for sharing that passion with others.

And when she decided she wanted to focus more on photography, it was time to buy a decent camera – and this re-sparked her love of the macro world and capacity to capture and share it with others. Macro photography is basically the close-up photography of small subjects like bugs and beetles, where they seem larger than life.

“I bought a macro lens and about the same time we started having these incredible rains. And for the next six months, I was out in the Botanic Gardens shooting all these incredible fungi which was popping up all over the place.”

At that time, Bridgette was only working part-time so she would spend four days in the gardens just looking for fungi, learning how to use the macro lens and just completely immersed in that world.

“So, I did that for six months, and then when the rain stopped and the fungi stopped, I was scratching my head thinking what now!? But then I started noticing that there was all this life on the leaves of the plants so instead of looking at the ground, I focused my attention at eye level”

Suddenly – a whole new world, the world of invertebrates started to stand out to Bridgette and she began photographing every little critter she could find.

 “At that point, I didn’t really know much about arthropods and basic stuff like the difference between a bug and a beetle, so it wasn’t until I started wanting to know what I was photographing that I started to search for their identification and amass all this knowledge of these invertebrate”

Over the following three years, Bridgette started to build up a massive citizen science account of all the life that was on her doorstep.

“I was logging my sightings, learning a lot of the scientific names and if I didn’t know what it was, learning how to find out.”

Bridgette went back to working full-time and found she had less time for her macro photography passion. However, when COVID came around, she was made redundant, giving her the time and opportunity to start her own business.

“It’s funny how the universe works sometimes! All of a sudden, I had this opportunity to start my own business. And the timing was kind of perfect because at that point, I’d spent over 1500 hours in the Botanic Gardens, amassing all this knowledge of plants, fungi, arthropods, insects, spiders and reptiles – and there was nobody sharing this kind of information – so I created it from nothing!”

The macro tours that Bridgette offers fill an important tourism niche – as an opportunity to focus on this unique and exciting macro-world of the tropical ecology characteristic to the Cairns region – as well as an introduction for anyone looking for a foot in the door to this world.

“The tours showcase an important part of the wet tropics landscape for people to come and experience, and it wasn’t something that had been offered before. So it’s a really beautiful thing that I’ve discovered.”

“It doesn’t necessarily have the wow factor of going out to the reef and seeing turtles or whales but it’s a beautiful and important part of the Wet Tropics ecosystem, and I’m hoping more and more people will become aware of the intrinsic relationship between the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef – the two couldn’t survive without each other!”

BRIDGETTE’S TOURS

Bridgette has developed and now runs three tours, all with a focus on discovering and photographing the macro world – that is, the invertebrates, the fungi and the plants – of tropical Cairns where she is based.

Let’s Go Buggin is a morning tour in the Cairns Botanic Gardens which aims to uncover all the things that people normally miss. Bridgette explains –

“So, lots of caterpillars, little bugs, butterflies, beetles, little spiders – anything small that people normally miss. And then I do the same thing at night as well.”  Bridgette conducts Let’s Go Buggin Night Walks.

What a lot of us might not realise is that a huge number of invertebrates are actually nocturnal – and to capitalise on this assemblage, Bridgette runs a similar tour in the evening on the rainforest boardwalk, again in the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

And during the wet season, Bridgette also runs mushroom photography tours ‘Let’s Go Shroomin’ – another niche experience for people looking to discover the fungi, much of which is unique to the Wet Tropics region.

GETTING STARTED IN THE MACRO-WORLD

We asked Bridgette what she recommended people in this space who are super interested in nature, but don’t know where to start tackling the identification of this large group of less familiar organism, how to start immersing yourself in the world of creepy crawlies and fungi.

Bridgette has 6 tips:   

  • Spend time in your backyard

“It’s just a matter of going out there and focusing your attention on a bush for a few minutes – and you will start to see stuff”

“Try and shift your point of view, your perspective. So rather than looking just staring straight on the bush, bend down and look underneath the leaves, look at the stems. You’ll start to see stuff and hone into tiny little specs which are life!”

  • Capture the image of what you see

Using a camera may be the easiest way but a sketchpad or even just your mind could help you to recall those identifying details

  • Find the identification

There are a growing number of resources out there to assist with the identification of creepy crawlies – Bridgette has used websites, Facebook groups and iNaturalist can also be a good option.

You can also check out Bridgette’s Instagram photos or shoot her a DM if you have an ID question and can’t find it anywhere!

And if you’re truly stuck on where to start, you can always reach out and contact an expert at your local museum or check the reference collection to find similar-looking species.

  • Help your garden/local nature reserve to become more macro-friendly

Limiting use of herbicides and fungicides, encouraging native plants to grow and create wild areas

  • Embrace the use of scientific names

Although it’s hard at first to grapple with the foreign language of Latin, the deeper you go, there’s no way around it. As Bridgette says,

“The insect world is just immense!”

  • Reframe the journey

Celebrate the journey and enjoy finding new species in your own backyard! And when your internal critic chatter starts beating you up for not knowing or feeling overwhelm at the sheer diversity and abundance still to uncover, Bridgette suggests this:

“I don’t think I could memorize all their names but I am at the point where I’ll see something and I know the genus of that species… and if I see something I don’t know I feel excited to have encountered a new species, rather than disheartened by not having encountered it sooner”

One thing Bridgette notes about starting out in the world of macro-identification is to refrain from touching or tasting anything you find! There are plenty of biteys out there, like venomous spiders and scorpions, many of which can do a fair bit of damage – especially for their size!

TURNING YOUR PASSION INTO YOUR BUSINESS

“I absolutely encourage it. I think there should be as many people out there running their own businesses as possible – that’s what makes life rich for everyone – having people doing niche, unique things they are passionate about!”

“That’s part of the joy of life. Yeah. So, I definitely encourage it.”

Initially, Bridgette was just taking photos and learning her subjects because she was in love with nature and in love with learning as well.

“I had no idea when I started going out, taking photos of fungi that I would end up running fungi photography tours. I was just immersing myself in something that I was passionate about.”

“And when I think about where I am now and what I’ve created, um, I feel as though everything I’ve done in my life previously has all led to this point. I’m drawing on every single one of the careers I’ve had so it’s interesting how life twists and turns!”

For anyone looking to turn their passion into their own business, Bridgette has two pointers:

  • Feel confident in yourself, your abilities and your passion!
  • Take the first/next step – and very soon the journey will become clear.

Some of Bridgette’s best advice for honing in on your passions that may one day become your pay check, is to explore and travel! 

“That’s the best advice I can give is just to explore, have fun, enjoy, seek out different opportunities and embrace travel, an amazing mind-expanding experience.”

Just for becoming a well-rounded human being, Bridgette can’t recommend travel highly enough.

STARTING OUT IN MACRO PHOTOGRAPHY

While you can capture great images using a smartphone, a simple compact camera or a zoom lens, one of the big game-changers for Bridgette in pursuing her passion and ultimately her business was when she chose to invest in a high-quality camera and macro-lens.

We asked Bridgette which macro photography equipment she would recommend from her experience:

  • Lower budget: Olympus TG-6 camera (around $650)

“For someone whose starting out, its probably the best macro point-and-shoot camera you’ll get in that price range”

  • Mid budget: Olympus OM SYSTEM E-M5 III with M.Zuiko Digital ED 60mm F2.8 lens (around $2500)

“This is a mini-mirrorless camera, fairly small and compact, kind of halfway between the compact camera and the top of the range. You can buy the 60 mm macro lens to fit on that camera and you are gonna get brilliant shots with that!”

  • Higher end: Olympus OM SYSTEM OM-1 with Zuiko Digital ED 60mm F2.8 lens (around $3950)

““The reason why I use an Olympus OM SYSTEM is their 60mm macro lens is just brilliant with great auto-focus and the body itself is fantastic as well. You look at a lot of macro photographers, they’re all using Olympus OM SYSTEM with a very similar setup to what I have.”

Note that Bridgette’s tours also offer camera hire if you are taking her tours and want to learn how to use one and effectively try before you buy!

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Bridgette? Check out her website to book any of her tours and for more information about her journey. To follow her buggin’ and shroomin’ adventures, follow her on instagram @bridgettegower or @mushroom_adventure100 or over on her YouTube channel!

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