Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Dreaded Error 01

I'm back to shooting with the Canon EF-S 60mm + extension tubes because my MP-E 65mm macro has broken again (3rd time). The aperture makes the most God awful crunching sound when I take a shot, and the display reads Error 01 and tells me that there's something wrong with the lens contacts. It's a generic error that pops up when the camera cannot communicate with the lens, and from experience I know it's because the cable that runs between the electrical contacts and the aperture assembly has worn out. I told myself the last time it broke that I was just gonna use the EF-S 60mm and tubes or buy a new MP-E. So I think I'll use the EF-S lens for a while until I decide what to do. Knowing my luck I'll buy a new one and Canon will announce a version for an RF mount...

Which brings me to the last topic I want to mention: I'm feeling the need to shoot full frame but I'm not sure about getting a mirror-less camera. I photograph a lot of semi-active to hyperactive subjects and I'm concerned that the display lag between the sensor and an electronic view finder (EVF) will be an issue. For those of you shooting with a Canon mirror-less rig how's the EVF lag?

Friday, May 22, 2020

Bumblebes Foraging in Grape Hyacinth

One of the followers of my Extreme Macro Facebook Page posted a link to a video that he shot that I just had to share. Methias Solstrand did an excellent job of filming Bumblebees in motion foraging on Grape Hyacinth flowers. I always associated pollination with the hairs on bees, but these Bumblebees are clearly pollinating the flowers with their proboscis.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Let's Talk Technique

Sweat Bee in a Sourgrass Flower
Due to some of the questions and feedback I've received lately I thought I'd explain what I'm doing with the camera and how I deal with different situations. One of the common comments that comes up is someone will see my photos, and all the depth that I can get at F11, and assume that Canon's MP-E 65mm macro lens can defy physics. But depth of field is strictly a function of magnification and the Fstop. So the depth that I get at 2x and F11 in a single frame with Canon's MP-E 65mm is the same depth of that I'd get with Canon's EF-S 60mm and 37mm of extension tubes (the EF-S 60mm is roughly a 37mm lens at minimum focus). So how do I get so much depth in my images? I pick an area where I want the focus to start and then I twist my wrist to lay the area of acceptable focus over the curve of the subject's face, creating a "magic angle" that makes the most out of the thin depth of field. The image to the upper right is an example, taken at roughly 2.5x and F11. The image below was taken at 3x and F11, and I shot the critter head on.
Sweat Bee in a Sourgrass Flower IV


Another question I get is about the magnification that I list with my images. If I say that I took a shot at "over 2x", for example, it's because I had the MP-E65mm set to somewhere between the 2x and 3x mark on the lens barrel. I use magnification as a composition tool, and I don't always set the lens to even magnification points. I never take the crop factor of my sensor into account, because cropping an image is not the same as increasing the magnification. Using a smaller than full frame sensor, and cropping a full frame image down to a 1.6x crop, is functionally the same and just creates an enlargement of the subject. Cropping will never reveal more detail in an image that wasn't already there, but increasing the magnification can.

One of the many reasons why I don't focus stack is because most of the time the subjects that I photograph are active. Now some of you have been quick to point out that there are macro photographers that shoot active critters, and you're right -kinda. They are focus stacking active subjects when they pause long enough to take a "spray and pray" sequence of images. When I say that I'm shooting active subjects I mean that I'm tracking them with the camera as they are moving. Like this Sawfly that I shot at 4x and F11:
Feeding Sawfly


So my definition of "active" might be different from your definition of "active" ;)

The Left Hand Brace Technique that I use allows me to eliminate a lot of motion (excluding subject motion) and get precise control over the framing and where I want the area of acceptable focus to be. But like any technique it has limitations. I've got the critter's perch in one hand and the camera in the other so there's no way for me to change the magnification of the lens. I have to look at a scene, make an educated guess as to what magnification will give me the framing that I want, set the MP-E 65mm to that magnification and then hope I can find a good composition. There are scenes, like this one, that I'd like another chance to shoot:

Foraging Sweat Bee II


I love everything about that shot, except for the clipped wing at the top of the frame. She was moving so fast, forcing me to re-frame and re-focus every shot, that I'm lucky to walk away with anything. This is the photo that I took before that one, the one that caused me to increase the magnification (note not the same bee or flower):

Foraging Sweat Bee


It's just not the same image. Some days I'm the statue, and some days I'm the pigeon ;)

One of the benefits of using the Left Hand Brace Technique is that I can rotate the flower to position the subject so that it's looking into the lens. Some of the Sweat Bees included in this article felt me grab onto the Sourgrass flower they were in (it wasn't windy enough) and stopped foraging. When they come to the top of the flower it's very common for them to be facing away from me. But I can gently twist the flower's stem without spooking the subject, and it doesn't damage the flower. Shooting when it's windy is easier, since the critter can't tell the difference between the vibration induced by the breeze and the vibration that I create when I grab onto the flower's stem.

If you have any questions about how I'm shooting just drop me a comment, or join my Extreme Macro page on FaceBook and post them there. I have comment moderation enabled here at Blogger to cut down on spam. Rest assured that even if you leave a negative comment I'll post it provided it's not laced with profanity. Until next time happy shooting!

Monday, March 23, 2020

Emerging Mason Bees

Hatching Female Mason Bee II
Last year when I harvested my Mason Bee cocoons I realized, all too late, that I had a unique opportunity to document the critters emerging but I really wasn't prepared for it. I was just shooting on the fly, with no real thought about the compositions that I was looking for. As a result the image to the right is the best shot that I took last spring, and I'm not happy with it.

After reviewing the images I took, and kicking myself for not doing a better job, I was determined to put some real effort into documenting my Mason Bee's first day. So off and on over the summer and into the winter months I thought about the compositions I wanted to get, angles that would make their emergence easy to see and understand. But I gotta admit that luck also played a part in the photos I was able to create, cause I managed to be mentally "in zone" during some pretty unique situations. Like when this Mason Bee was chewing its way out of the cocoon:

Emerging Blue Mason Bee X

There was also the time I was unrolling a paper insert and the paper broke right at the point where a Mason Bee had taken the top off of his cocoon:

Emerging Blue Mason Bee III

Then the tricky shots, like trying to get as much of the bee's antenna in the plane of focus as it was actively emerging from a cocoon:

Emerging Blue Mason Bee IX

I captured a lot more images, ten in the first series that I posted to my Flickr gallery, and I'm saving some to post this fall when all the critters are gone. I get all of my Mason Bee supplies from Crown Bees, and this article is not sponsored by them. I'm giving them a plug because their customer service is excellent and they provide a lot of online information to make raising your own Mason Bees easy. We have a small garden that produces more vegetables than we can eat and it's due to all of the solitary bees that visit my yard.

In addition to photographing them emerge I also got a few shots of newly emerged Mason Bees.

Newly Emerged Blue Mason Bee III [6000x4000] [OC]

It was also a good opportunity to photograph them warming up on my finger before they took off and joined the rest of the bees in my yard.

Newborn Blue Mason Bee

I'm really happy with the emergence images that I created this year, and always happy when I can look back over my photos and see improvements in my image quality. As always those photos are single, uncropped, frames taken hand held. I usually pick an area to lock the focus, like a bee's mandible, and then twist the camera in my hand to lay the area of acceptable focus over the critter's face. The end result is a "magic angle" that makes the most out of what little depth exists above 2x and F11. So for those of you who look at my photos and think that Canon's MP-E 65mm can somehow defy the laws of physics and provide more depth of field than other macro lenses, well, it's not the lens ;) Until next time happy shooting!

Footnote: Lately I've noticed a disturbing trend to pose dead insects and photograph them in such a way that it looks like they're flying, or in one case a "fight" between a jumping spider and bug. Although I think it's pretty creative, and when it's done right the images are really impressive, it's misleading to try to trick the viewer by not being honest about how an image was taken. I'd hate for someone who's new to macro to see those kind of shots and think that it's actually possible to take a focus stack of a subject that's in motion, especially after spending thousands on gear to take images that are impossible unless the subject is dead. Granted I'll bait a subject so that it will let me get close, but when I do bait them you know I've done it because I tell you. IMHO it's important for a photographer to be honest about their work. One easy way to tell if a shot has been faked is to see if it is a focus stack, especially if the scene is a dynamic one. Maybe one day the hardware will get to a point where it will be possible to capture frames fast enough to focus stack a moving subject. But that tech isn't here yet. So when you see a photo of a flying insect and it's razor sharp with a lot of depth know that it's a fake.

Footnote part due: Thanks to everyone who has reached out during the pandemic to ask how I'm doing! Italy has been hit pretty hard, and unfortunately it's not over. But me and mine are well, and we're fortunate to live in a villa that has a yard. It's gotta be really tough for those who are quarantined with only a balcony! Stay safe everyone, limit your contact with others, and wash your hands religiously...

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Photographing Honeybees on their Comb

Honeybee Birthday
Last spring we spent a long weekend at an Agriturismo and across the fence from us was a row of honeybee hives. As luck would have it one morning the beekeeper came out to inspect the hives and I struck up a conversation with him. After showing him some of my photos he was interested in me photographing his honeybees, but later on in the year when it was warmer. That opportunity came last weekend and he cracked open no fewer than five hives to inspect the girls and to let me try my luck at shooting them. I say luck because his bees were very nervous and most of the time they were in constant motion. Although I didn't get any really good shots of his queens I did manage a few "honeybee birthdays" like the one to the right. Even when thet did stop to work some of them kept an eye on me :)

Busy Bees

I was also getting pelted by the bees, like little bullets they were slamming into my bee suit. At one point while I had the camera, and the veil, pressed against my face one of the girls stung me on the nose. Fortunately I didn't have much of a reaction to it, it just stung a little. Worth it though, because although it wasn't easy to photograph them I still had fun and it was a good learning experience. I plan to go back to the same hives next June to photograph the drones (males).

Honeybee Birthday II

If you're going to photograph honeybees on their comb then definitely wear a beekeeping suit. I had on a top, gloves, head covering with a veil, and bluejeans. It's best to at least buy your own gloves, since any gloves that the beekeeper owns will have propolis on them and it will get on your camera. Even better if you have your own gloves and top. Don't stand directly in front of the hive (stand behind it) and pay close attention to any instructions that the beekeeper gives you since they know their bees. If the bees start to swarm you, like they did me, ask the beekeeper to hit you with some smoke. It's easier to photograph the girls if the comb can be laid down flat without crushing the bees on the reverse side. The beekeeper I was working with had a stand that he used to hold the comb after taking it out of the hive and the top of the stand worked pretty well. Take a lot of photos, and don't worry about your "keeper rate" -you pretty much have to be one with the universe and the delete key on your keyboard when shooting active subjects, especially ones that are not too happy about you being right next to their home.

Until next time folks, happy shooting!

Footnote: Jennifer, my youngest daughter, wanted to get some shots of the beekeeper and I while I was shooting the bees. But I was concerned about her getting stung since I didn't have a beekeeping suit for her, so this is the view from where we were staying:

Shooting Honeybees on their Comb

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Do No Harm

Feeding Sawfly
National Geographic posted an article concerning How to photograph wildlife ethically and I wanted to write on the subject from the perspective of a macro photographer. If I'm being completely honest, and if I didn't want to stress out any of my subjects, I probably wouldn't shoot any higher than 1/3 life size and I'd use a 300mm prime that would give me a working distance of about two meters. Sometimes I get lucky while photographing a dormant subject and it wakes up either completely acclimated to me, or I'm so large in its field of view that it really can't recognize what I am. That's pretty much what happened with the Sawfly pictured to the right. It just woke up and decided to have breakfast. But not every dormant subject that gets active finds my presence acceptable. When this European Wool Carder Bee managed to get its metabolism going it went into full "fight or flight" mode, and I barely had time to take this single frame...

Wool Carder Bee on the Move


While talking to my wife about not stressing out the critters by getting too close she reminded me that gardening does the same thing...

Bating Subjects

Taking macro photos of insects that are already active, and by active I mean they are in motion all the time (lets exclude the occasional cooperative jumping spider), is pretty much impossible without a little help in the form of bait. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. One of the better ways to give a critter a reason to stick around is to inject a flower with either some simple white sugar syrup, or Agave Nectar. It will modify their feeding behavior, because they'll start passing over flowers that haven't been injected in favor of the ones that have. But at least the resulting image will be of a bee feeding on a flower and after a little while they'll go back to their normal foraging habits.

Feeding Honeybee VIII

I'd avoid indiscriminate spraying of plants with sugar water though. The resulting images will be of an insect licking a leaf, which they normally don't do, and it's a big departure from their normally feeding behavior. It's also a bad idea to put out so much bait that you end up emptying out a hive or attracting a swarm. One word of caution though: Sometimes baited bees start aggressively competing with other insects for the sweet stuff, and they might not recognize you as the one that's putting it out. So if they do seem to be getting aggressive, and increasing in numbers, it's best to back off and try again some other time. Sometimes they'll realize that you're the one putting out the bait, and you can pull off shots like this one...

Finger Fed Bumblebee


Focus Stacking

If you follow my photography you know I don't focus stack. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with it (almost, will cover that in a second), it's just that focus stacking comes with some of the same limitations as using a tripod and a focusing rail -you gotta find a subject willing to sit still long enough to finish all the frames for a stack. Since I prefer to shoot semi-active to hyperactive subjects that are moving, focus stacking pretty much isn't an option. But if you stack you can do it in an ethical manner. Photographers like LordV (Brian Valentine) helped to popularized focus stacking more than a decade ago and Brian, to my knowledge, has never harmed a subject for a photo. He's always left them like he found them, alive and kicking. But there's been a disturbing trend over the years to take ever increasingly sharp images of the small world's inhabitants that's led a lot of focus stackers to either refrigerate, or euthanize, their subjects. IMHO macro photographers have a responsibility to change hearts and minds concerning insects, to get people to see them as more than "just bugs" before we send them all into history by either poisoning them out of existence with chemicals or starving them to extinction by reducing their habitat. Killing a critter for a photo sends the wrong message, and people are pretty much bored with seeing razor sharp photos of dead insects. Some of you may claim that you're killing and focus stacking your subjects in order to catalog them. But the folks at the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab are not only doing a better job of photographing dead critters than 99.9% of you, they are infinitely more qualified. Add to that the backlash I've seen on social media to dead insect photography and you're better off switching to lethargic subjects to get your focus stacking fix. Although the general perception is that the subject is dead in every focus stacked image, and it makes me feel sorry for the folks that have some genuine skill focus stacking live critters.

As always if you have comments or concerns just post them. Comments are moderated, but I post all of them unless you're selling yourself (that's the reason why moderation is enabled -sigh). Until next time happy shooting!

Footnote: I can't help but think that some of the people who focus stack are taking an ungodly number of frames just to one up each other, or for bragging rights. There has to be a point of diminishing returns, and it makes me wonder if they're into macro photography just to focus stack. Kinda boring, to be honest...