Saturday, January 24, 2015

Working on a New Diffuser

Beetle in November Series 1-1
The diffuser that I mentioned in this post is still the best commercially available diffuser for the MT-24EX, but last November I started working on a new set. I built the prototype out of some diffusion material that I had laying around the house and took the shot that's included with this post. At life size that beetle was a pretty good torture test -the diffusers are at their maximum distance from the subject and the shell is very reflective, but there is still color and texture in the specular highlight area.

I built a second model that had just a few minor improvements over the prototype, and after I finished it realized that what I need is something modular that I can take apart, change out diffusion materials, and reassemble. So I went through my son's Legos, determined what plates I'd need to build a diffuser, and ordered the pieces from the Lego online store. I'm still waiting for the order to arrive, but when it does I expect to have a diffuser set that not only works better than what I have now but I'll also be able to rapidly make changes to it. As it stands now every time I want to experiment with some new plastic I have to build a new diffuser, and it's just too time consuming and expensive.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Turn Down for What?!

Every year it's the same story; I think that "this is going to be the year" -it's gonna be better than the last and I'm going to shoot more. But every year the song remains the same and real life gets in the way of what's really just a hobby. Network engineering pays the rent and being the "gatekeeper to the small world" is charity work ;)

This year started off just like any other in that I was optimistic and passionate only to get curb stomped by the day job. Mason bees emerge in the early spring, during the first warming trend after the cold weather has passed. I really like photographing the little critters and this year I completely missed them. One of the first images that I posted this year was a Red Velvet Mite that I found on a flower growing in my back yard -it's all I had time to look for...

By the middle of the year I was getting pretty frustrated. I'm very passionate about macro photography and I'm just not ready to put the kit down and walk away. But at the same time I was feeling the need to do more -if my time with the camera was going to be limited then I wanted to make the most of it and get some of the compositions that had been stuck in my head into the machine. Not content with photographing a lethargic solitary bee, and adding yet one more still life shot to a gallery that's already stuffed with them, I put some honey on a sunflower leaf and shot this critter when it woke up and started feeding:

Likewise I could have shot this honeybee while it was feeding inside of a zucchini flower, but I've been there and done that. So instead I waited until it had stopped to clean some of the pollen off of itself and baited it into feeding on my finger:

So here I am getting ready for the new year and wanting to continue pushing myself to take images that are not only different than the norm, but to dial up the difficulty and really challenge myself. To shoot more outside of my comfort zone and continue to be passionate about one of the toughest photographic disciplines. I even set up a house for the Mason bees hoping that they nest in my yard.

Turn down for what?!...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Before and After

I'm in this constant loop of self improvement that usually involves things that fall into one of three categories: Lighting, Composition, and Post Processing. That last one has been my Achilles Heel because Ive spent the majority of my time on the first two. But now that I pretty much have my lighting sorted out I'm spending more time on my post processing "skills" -in quotes cause I still suck at it. But I am getting better, and recently I was reminded of an image that National Geographic published in their Young Explorer Magazine (Jan/Feb 2011 pages 10 and 11) and I wanted to see what I could do to improve the shot. At that time I was wrestling with a flower that was yellow but always seemed to come out a little on the orange side, or with a greenish tint. Here's the original edit:

Here's my recent pass on the original RAW file:

The yellows are a lot better, and the overall contrast is much improved. For post processing I'm currently using Photoshop Elements 13 with Topaz plugins (Denoise, Detail, Clarity, and Adjust depending on the image). I'm not going to get into a play by play on my post processing because I'm still learning, but if you are looking to improve your digital darkroom skills then check out the Topaz YouTube Channel -even if you don't use their plugins there's still a lot of really good advice!

If anyone has some other online post processing references then please pass them my way in the comments.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Studio Verses Field Macro

I frequently see photographers debating the merits of "natural" photography, and these days I have a tendency to avoid such discussions like the plaque. The word natural is just too subjective -what might seems perfectly natural to you might be completely unnatural to me (or vise versa). Truth be told I do not think that macro photography is natural since most people can't see more detail than what's visible in a 1/3 life size image. So I have no interest, romantic or philosophical, in creating natural images. My goal is to make images that people want to print large and hang on the wall, even though it's a photo of a "bug". To that end I'd rather be shooting in near studio conditions so that I have full creative control over the scene, and so I can show you what I want you to see and not just what the camera was able to capture. There's just no way to produce an image like this one in the field:

I was photographing that solitary bee on my patio table, but initially it wasn't active. I'm getting bored with taking static images because the story telling aspect is, well, short. "Here is a sleeping insect. The end". Kinda dull, and I really don't want the images in my gallery to get repetitive. So I was sitting there thinking about the scene that I wanted to shoot when it dawned on me that I could probably create it. If I failed then I'd still have a static shot of a sleeping bee, but if it worked I'd not only have a much better image I'd also be able to get a composition out of my head that had been stuck there for a few years. So I put some honey on a sunflower petal, coaxed the bee to climb onto it, and when it started feeding I shot it like it was the last image I was ever going to take. For the background I used a piece of light blue plexiglass with some glossy photo paper taped behind it. Is it "natural"? Not even close. Is it a photo that looks good printed large? Well let's just say that I had a print of it on canvas gallery wrapped that's currently hanging at my mother in law's house...

Given the choice I'd much rather shoot in near studio conditions, but that doesn't stop me from chasing the critters in the heat of the day when they are hyper active. The down side is that I'm not in full control of the scene so I pretty much have to accept what the critter and the lighting conditions will give me. Sometimes I get lucky and I can use the flash to expose for the subject and let the natural light expose the background, like in this image:

I'm still holding on to the flower's stem to help keep the scene steady, but other than that I'm not manipulating the frame or the subject. Contrast that shot with this one where I'm sitting at the patio table, I have my "studio" set up, and I've baited the subject:

I'm not saying that either style is right or wrong, but given the choice I'd much rather produce studio images.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

27 Frames

Feeding Bumblebee on a Sunflower III
Sometimes I think that when I post an image deconstruction I'm projecting the impression that it's really easy -as if images just jump right into the camera. But it's not and you can't just go out, buy the same hardware, and take the same photos -not without getting a lot of practice first. I've lost count of the number of emails that I've received from people who are struggling with macro photography, people who thought that the key to taking macro photos was simply having enough disposable income to afford the gear. So with this image I want to talk about what I was trying to do and how difficult it was.

I was asked if I focus stacked this image, but like all of my insect macro photography it is a single frame taken hand held (no tripod, I don't even own one). Although it would have been easier to get the shot that I wanted if I could focus stack a scene like that one, it would have been pretty tough since the critter was in constant motion. What really made this one difficult is that antenna -it needs to be in focus since it's crossing the bee's eye, and that appendage was always moving. To add insult to injury I'd no sooner frame and compose the image and the bee would move as I was pressing the shutter release. So I'd have to recompose, check the framing with my peripheral vision, look at the area that I wanted to be in focus and make sure that I could clearly see texture detail where I needed to see it, and hope that the position and focus on the antenna didn't ruin the shot.

It took 27 frames...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Extreme Macro

Recently the domain became available and I took the winning bid. Although the url for this blog will have to stay as (someone is using I've changed the title of the blog and I set up a DNS redirect so that if you surf to you'll get this blog.

Nice to have a name that's really more in line with what this blog is about, and that lines up with the title of my book. Speaking of which one of the projects that I have on my to do list for this winter is to come out with a second edition :)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Out with the Old Style and in with the New

Solitary Bee Portrait
I was chimping through the images on my camera, looking at the photo to the right, and thinking "meh". Technically there's nothing wrong with that shot but I've taken it already, or at least images like it, and I'm getting tired of shooting the same frames -and you're probably getting tired of looking at them. For me really good images come from being inspired, and passionate, about what I'm photographing and how I'm photographing it and that scene just wasn't "singing to me". To add insult to injury it wasn't the shot that I wanted. I had a composition stuck in my head for a few years, one of a solitary bee actively feeding and shooting it low enough to get the proboscis in focus as well as the head. So as I was sitting there at my patio table, looking at the carnage that once was a sunflower (petals everywhere) with a solitary bee that was getting more and more active, when it hit me: Why not put some honey on a sunflower petal, get the critter to climb onto it, and with the sunflower petal in my hand I could get the angle that I wanted...

Feeding Solitary Bee Series 1-1

Feeding Solitary Bee Series 1-4

Feeding Solitary Bee Series 1-3

One more composition out of my head and into the camera, and it's a scene that I feel good about. I'm not saying that I won't take any more "static" images like the first one, but you can expect to see a lot more "action" shots from me in the future. Out with the old style, and in with the new :)