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...

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sharpening a Diffraction Limited Image

Leaf Cutter Bee IV
Editors Note: Since I wrote this article I've had a chance to experiment more with Sharpen AI and Denoise AI and I am currently using them in that order. I know that Topaz Lab recommends removing image noise first, but for my photos using Sharpen AI first, and then Denoise, results in more retained detail. Sharpen AI will remove image noise, and Denoise AI will apply some sharpening and that might be causing the results that I'm currently seeing. Also for most of my photos I'm using the Sharpen AI defaults and the minimum denoise settings in Denoise AI (the settings that the plugins default to). The end gole being not to over sharpen my photos, and so far I've been really impressed with the results!

I've been shooting single frame macro for over a decade, and yet I still get asked "How many frames did you take for that focus stack?". There are two key aspects to getting a lot of apparent depth and detail in an image. The first is looking for and/or creating Magic Angles. I'll frequently look for an area in a scene where I want the focus to start, lock that area so that it stays in focus, and then twist and turn my wrist to push another edge of the camera's sensor deeper into the frame. A recent example is the image to the right. I focused on the leading mandible, locked that part of the scene in place, and then pushed the upper left corner of the camera deeper into the frame while twisting my wrist to the left. Very minor movements to be sure but once you build up the muscle memory for it gets easy, and after a while you'll create those magic angles without having to really think about it.

The second thing you can do to make people think that you focus stack when you don't is to get good at sharpening your images in post. I want to make it clear that what I'm about to tell you won't allow you to recover detail that you didn't capture with the camera. Once you press the shutter release you've captured all of the detail that you're gonna get. Sharpening an image will highlight edges and fine details so that you can see where one element of the subject stops and another one starts. Like the edges between a critter's compound eyes. But diffraction, to varying degrees, is going to eliminate some texture detail. I keep my flash as close to the subject as I can (to keep the duration of the flash to a minimum) and use techniques that keep the motion in the scene to a minimum so that diffraction doesn't get amplified by motion (an effect that I call Macro Motion Blur). So the detail that I'm losing to diffraction is kept to a minimum, so all I have to do is carefully sharpen an image so that the edges between different features in the subject are clearly defined. The hard part is sharpening an image without introducing any obvious artifacts that are going to make a shot look over sharpened. To see how I do it lets start with what is pretty much a worse case image for me, a shot at 5x and F11. For this first image I've adjusted exposure in the Photoshop Elements RAW editor, and I've rubbed out the dust spots. But there is no in camera or in post noise reduction or sharpening.

Link to full size image.

Now I'll be the first to admit that I need to get better at post processing, in fact I consider it to currently be the weakest area of my photography. But I am learning, and one of the things that I've realized is that it's better to sharpen an image in stages than to do all of the sharpen at once. To do that I use two Topaz Labs plugins, applications that I bought and paid for with my own money (so this isn't an add in disguise). The first is Topax Labs Denoise AI. It's really good at removing image noise and preserving detail, and I like to remove sensor noise before I apply a sharpening layer. But Denoise AI is going to sharpen the shot a little. Here's the same image as the first one but I've created a new layer and I ran Denoise AI:

Link to full size image.

I then created a new layer from the one and ran Topaz Labs Sharpen AI. Sharpen AI has some pretty cool features that can allow you to recover an image even if there is motion blur. Not gonna recover any lost detail, obviously, but it could potentially mean the difference between having a photo you can use verses one that you sent to your digital trash can. Here's the frame after sharpening with Sharpen AI using the focus option:

Link to full size image.

The last thing I do is duplicate the layer that I sharpened and run Topaz Labs Clarity, mostly for contrast and saturation adjustments but it too will sharpen an image a little bit more. Here's the final shot:

Link to full size image.

Not too bad for a photo taken at 5x and F11, and I could probably sharpen the image a little more but didn't want to push it. That's all for this one folks, until next time happy shooting!

Footnote: The quality of the light that you're using also plays a part in how much detail you can capture with the camera, as well as how much you can push the sharpening in post. A poorly diffused light source creates a lot of micro contrast (areas in the scene where the pixels are blown out). A photo with a lot of micro contrast will look "artificially sharp" and at first I thought it wasn't a bad thing. But all those little areas of blown out pixels not only rob the scene of detail, but they also limit how much an image can be sharpened in post before it looks over sharpened. So light that's very diffused actually works best, even though the out of camera sharpness seems reduced when compared to an image taken with less diffused light. So many variables...

Monday, August 5, 2019

What do the Tech Specs Mean?

Before I get into the "meat and potatoes" of this article I gotta explain a few things. How I take a photo, or how anyone takes a photo, doesn't matter. The only thing that does matter is the final image. So why post the tech specs with my photos? Well for two reasons really. The first is so that I have a historical record of how I took a shot, and in the future if I want to have another go at a particular composition I at least have a starting point. The second is that inevitably someone is gonna ask me how I took a particular image, either because they are a macro shooter or they just took an interest in one of my photos. People generally don't care about how an image was taken unless there is something about it that gets their attention. With that being said I'm going to explain, in some detail, what the tech specs mean and try to give you a sneak peak into my thought process. So lets use a photo that I posted just this morning.

Snoozing European Wool Carder Bee VI

This is what I posted with that image:

A snoozing European Wool Carder Bee. This time I set my Canon MP-E 65mm to 5x.

Tech Specs: Canon 80D (F11, 1/250, ISO 100) + a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens (5x) + a diffused MT-26EX-RT with a Kaiser adjustable flash shoe on the "A" head (the key), E-TTL metering, -1/3 FEC, second curtain sync). This is a single, uncropped, frame taken hand held.

Canon 80D (F11, 1/250, ISO 100)

I start out by posting the camera I used to take the shot and how I have the camera configured. For this image I set the Fstop to 11. I really don't care about diffraction softening since the techniques that I use allow me to take control over the motion in the scene, my motion and the subject, so diffraction softening isn't going to be that bad. Most of the image softness that gets blamed on diffraction is actually an effect that I call macro motion blur. The flash isn't going to be able to freeze all the motion, especially as the magnification goes up since the flash is going to have to turn on longer to expose the scene. The longer the duration of the flash the more of a problem motion becomes. 1/250 of a second because that's the max flash sync speed for the Canon 80D. If I could sync the flash at a higher speed I would, since I want to avoid any natural light being recorded by the sensor for that photo. High Speed Sync (HSS) does not work for this type of shooting, since HSS pulses the flash while the shutter is open and any movement will get recorded. A single burst of light from the flash is better for freezing motion. ISO 100 just because I want to take advantage of the low noise and high dynamic range of the 80D at that ISO. Although I can get perfectly usable images all the way to ISO 400, I prefer to shoot at ISO 100.

+ a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens (5x)

The Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens is the reigning king of macro lenses. I'm not a Canon fan boy, I'm just spoiled at being able to look at a scene and simply dial the magnification to exactly what I know I'll need for the framing that I want. Also note that when I say 5x, or almost 3x, or whatever I'm listing the magnification that I read from the lens barrel (the MP-E 65mm has magnification markings on it). Some of you, incorrectly, think that the crop factor of your sensor is giving you more magnification. But you'll never reveal more detail in a scene by cropping it, either with a smaller than full frame sensor or in post (both cropping mechanisms are the same). There are lot of misconceptions about crop factor sensors.

+ a diffused MT-26EX-RT with a Kaiser adjustable flash shoe on the "A" head (the key), E-TTL metering, -1/3 FEC, second curtain sync)

I've been using macro twin flashes for a long time, not because it's the best flash for macro but simply because they fit my photographic style. I spent, off and on, about three years experimenting with different diffusion materials to get to the diffusers that I use today. I like shooting with two light sources in a key and fill configuration, just like portrait photographers use, because it allows me to partially wrap light around the subject and I have a lot of control over where the highlights and shadows are going to be. Putting the key on a Kaiser Adjustable Flash Shoe allows the key to be at a different angle relative to the fill, and makes the subject look more 3D. I use E-TTL metering, along with a little Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) because I don't have time to adjust the flash manually when dealing with semi active to active subjects. Second curtain sync just helps to give me a sharp image if there happens to be enough natural light for the sensor to record -the flash will fire right before the shutter closes so any motion is frozen at the end of the movement by the flash. You can see a video of my current rig, and get some more info on the light, in this blog post.

This is a single, uncropped, frame taken hand held

All of my images so far have been single, uncropped frames, taken hand held (except for some water drop splash shots I took several years ago using a table top support). I don't focus stack for the same reason I don't use a tripod: Both are just too limiting. I also don't allow myself to crop in post, and prefer to do all of my framing with the view finder. Anyone who tells you that cropping is suppose to be a part of your post processing is trying to sabotage your photography. Framing with the view finder will hone your composition skills, and framing with the cropping tool in post won't. Also I frequently see other compositions while I'm framing for a shot, and if I were to see those same compositions while cropping an image in post it would be too late to take them.

That's all for this one, if you have any question just post them and I'll get to you as soon as I can. Until next time happy shooting! :)

Footnote: Here's a short video showing the field studio that I set up for the image in this article.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Crop Factor Myth

Bees in a Wallflower Series 1-2
Almost from the first day that crop factor sensors were introduced (sensors smaller than the 35mm standard 36mm x 24mm) people have tried to claim that they were somehow special, that their diminutive size granted them almost magical qualities. I've seen everything from "crop factor sensors give you more depth of field" to "the exposure changes cause smaller sensors gather less light". Both of those statements are so incredibly false it's not even funny, and the explanation is really simple: The crop that a smaller than full frame sensor creates is no different than cropping in post. No matter how you do it cropping an image won't change anything other than how large the subject appears in the frame. To wrap your head around why let's try a simple thought experiment...

Canon makes two full frame camera with a 50MP sensor, the 5DS and the 5DS R. If you crop an image in post, taken with either camera, to a 1.6x crop then you're left with roughly an 18MP image. Cropping that image in post won't change the exposure, or magnification, obviously. But what would happen if you taped off an area around the sensor so now it has a 1.6x crop size? Not much other than the subject would be larger in the frame, the same effect you'd get if you cropped the full frame image in post. The magnification won't change because cropping an image, either by using a smaller sensor or cropping in post, won't reveal more detail in the subject. Cropping simply creates an enlargement. The exposure won't change either, since the same amount of light is striking each photo cell. There would be no difference in masking off the sensor, or cropping in post. No magic...

When I read that the physical size of a sensor alone changes the exposure of a scene it really puzzled me as to why someone would make that claim. But if you take a look at what they're saying they treat the entire sensor as a single light capturing element, and that's just not how digital sensors work. Each pixel on a digital sensor is a single light capturing devise, and a pixel's ability to capture light depends on its size -the bigger the pixel the more light it can "absorb" over a given time span. So bigger pixels are more light sensitive than smaller pixels, that much is true. But if the pixel size is the same two sensors will be equally light sensitive irregardless of the overall size of the sensor, as long as the underlying electronics are the same. Put the same lens on both a full frame camera and a crop factor camera, point them at the same scene, and the intensity of the light that's striking the pixels on both sensors will be exactly the same. If there is any difference in the exposure it will be due to differences in pixel size, or in how the camera's electronics amplify the signals produced by the pixels. Don't believe me? Go back to Canon's 50MP full frame sensor and mask off an area around it so that it's now a 1.6x crop factor sensor and nothing changes other than how large the subject will look in the frame, because it's cropped. The same amount of light is striking each pixel, so there won't be any change in exposure just because you've masked part of it off. Keep in mind that the size of the image circle projected by the lens does not change no matter what camera you put it on...

Is there an advantage to shooting macro with a crop factor sensor? Yes, and one of them is the ability to make a subject look larger in the frame at lower magnifications than when shooting the same scene with a full frame sensor. Shooting at a lower magnification will give you more depth of field, and I think that was the start of the myth concerning crop factor sensors and depth. Crop factor sensors don't give you more depth of field, being able to shoot at lower magnifications does since depth is simply a function of magnification and Fstop. But then again you could always take a shot with a full frame sensor and simply crop the image down to a 1.6x size.

If you have anything to add, or want to call me out for this post, just leave me a comment. I had to turn post moderation on because I was getting too many invitations to watch someone diddle themselves. So when you post a comment and it doesn't immediately show up don't worry, I will approve it as soon as I get the notification email even if your comment is negative. I've never filtered out a negative comment, just do me a favor and be civilized. Until next time, happy shooting!

Footnote: Another term making the rounds is "print magnification" and people are using it to describe how a subject looks larger in print when taken with a crop factor camera. But it's just enlarging the subject by cropping the image -and again it's no different than cropping a full frame image in post. I hate the term "print magnification" because it implies that the subject has been magnified, and it has not...