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 :)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Exposing for Two Light Sources

The last time I was out at my Mother in law's farm something strange happened. It was late in the evening and I found a bumblebee foraging on a sunflower and it didn't care how close I was getting. As long as I kept my movements slow I could get as close as I wanted, and even managed to grab onto the stem of the sunflower and rotate it a little several times. I probably stood there for a good twenty minutes shooting the critter, taking an occasional break to give my arms a rest (the joys of hand holding about 2.5 kilos in camera gear straight out in front of my body). While photographing the bee my flash batteries started to die, and I accidentally took a few frames without the flash. While chimping through the images on my camera's LCD later I started to delete them and then I realized I could turn the whole situation into a happy accident and explain a few things about mixing light sources. I was attempting to drag the shutter -use a slow shutter speed (in this case 1/30) to expose for the natural light behind the subject, and then use the flash to not only expose for the subject itself but to freeze any motion that might be in the scene. The slow shutter speed shouldn't make any difference with respect to the subject because there just wouldn't be enough natural light to expose it, and I don't care about movement in the background while the shutter is open since it's going to be out of focus anyway. Works really well if the background is well lit and the subject is in heavy shadow. But I was shooting in the late evening and had to be careful because the background light levels were low -exposing for the background would put me dangerously close to exposing for the subject, as you can see in the frame below when the flash didn't fire.

Image One

To me there are three things that stand out in that image. There is a specular highlight caused by the sun in the bee's eye. That specular highlight is going to be additive with the one that the flash will create, possibly reducing the detail in that area of the eye. I can also see the color in the bee's "fur" and the sunflower's petals so both those area could be subject to ghosting if there is any movement, and it usually ends up looking like an odd shadow or blur of colors in those areas that are being exposed by the natural light. Fortunately for me the bee wasn't moving, I had the flower's stem in my left hand and the lens resting on that same hand, and I press the shutter on my camera like I'm squeezing the trigger on a gun. Here is the resulting frame with the flash.

Image Two

I like the angle that I have on the bumblebee and the way it seems to be posing for me, but I don't like the foreground (too distracting). Since the natural light was failing I eventually went to twice life size, brought the shutter to 1/250 to cut out all of the natural light, and just let the background go black due to flash falloff (nothing in the background to reflect the light from the flash back into the camera so it simply becomes black). I could have done the same thing when I was shooting the life size scene above, but if there is a lot of space around the subject I want to see some color in it other than black (and based on feedback so do you). Here's the resulting 2x frame.

Bumblebee on a Sunflower II

Exposing for two light sources sounds tricky, and it can be. Keep in mind that the natural light exposure is going to be effected by changes in ISO, shutter speed, and Fstop. Flash exposure is effected by ISO and Fstop but not the shutter speed as long as the speed of the shutter is not faster than the flash sync speed. When using the flash to freeze motion you want to avoid using high speed sync (HSS) since it pulses the flash to take multiple exposures while the shutter is open and any movement while the flash is pulsing will be recorded.

By now it should be obvious why I've been experimenting with materials to reflect the flash back into the camera so I can cut out the natural light in a scene and just use the flash as a single light source. Like my "blue sky" -a piece of light blue plexiglass with a sheet of glossy photo paper behind it.

Feeding Bumblebee on a Sunflower

Or a nearby grape leaf and a honeybee that's cooperative enough to let me move her in front of it for a shot.

Pollinators Series 3-1

Until next time happy shooting folks :)

Monday, September 1, 2014

Daily Deviation Number Seven

Swapping Spit
I just received my seventh Daily Deviation at Deviant Art for this image.

Thanks to all of my followers at Deviant Art -you folks are the greatest!