Saturday, January 3, 2009

Keep it Simple


Portfolio series 2008-4
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
Lately people have been asking me how I get the images that I have, and I’ve written several tutorials on technique (tutorial section at Deviant Art). But one of the things that I don’t mention much is why I shoot the way that I do –what’s the method to my madness…

When I first got into insect macro, three years ago, there were a few photographers that I really admired –shooters who knew how to use the light and the aperture to paint the scene. But they all had one thing in common: They were limited in what they could shoot and / or when they could shoot it because of the gear that they used. I have nothing against tripods, or the people who use them, but a tripod is just too slow –there’s no way to effectively photograph active insects with a tripod. The best analogy I can think of is sports photography: How many sport photographers use a tripod? When was the last time you saw someone shooting candid photos with a tripod? There’s just no way to capture a scene that’s changing quickly with your rig on training wheels…

So I decided to keep it simple; instead of letting my gear dictate what I could shoot and when I could shoot it I decided to let the subject determine what I would use. I studied the habits of the critters that I wanted to photograph and took advantage of their quirks to get close, and I pushed my luck. I also completely ignored the conventional wisdom at the time and didn’t use a tripod or stay home when it’s windy. Instead I looked for ways to brace the camera, to take control of the motion in the scene, and I keep the duration of my flash as insanely short as possible since it’s acting as my shutter. Now, after three years of shooting, I’m convinced that macro is a form of stop motion photography –there’s no difference between getting sharp details in an insect’s compound eye and freezing the motion of an exploding balloon…

So what gear do you need to shoot above life size? A camera (preferably one made by Canon since they have the best macro glass), a lens (doesn’t need to be a macro lens, you can always reverse a standard lens to get above life size) and a flash (can be any flash, but due to my shooting style I prefer the balance of the MT-24EX), something to diffuse your flash, spare batteries for your camera and flash, and memory cards. That’s about it –the rest is technique, experience, and opportunity.

The photo I’ve included with this post is one my images from 2008 that’s really the end result of all the work I’ve put into technique: A fly actively feeding on pollen shot at four times life size with a Canon 40D, an MPE-65mm macro lens, and an MT-24EX macro twin flash with a modified set of Sto-Fen diffusers. Since it was windy it was easier to grab onto the flower with my left hand without scaring the critter off –it could not tell the difference between the vibration induced by the wind and the vibration induced by me. Once I pinch the stem of that flower between my index finger and thumb I can slowly rotate the flower and tilt it to keep the subject at the angle that I want to shoot, and by resting the lens on my left hand I can keep everything on the same “platform” –if one hand moves then they both move. Focusing is just a matter of sliding the lens on my hand, and since the depth of field is really narrow I refocus the scene for every shot and then choose the one I like best later when I get the images on my computer. The working distance from the front of the lens to the subject was 1.7 inches (4.3 centimeters) and the scene is about 5.6mm wide x 3.6mm high. It’s tough to put that into perspective, but a millimeter is about the thickness of a U.S. dime.

Keep it simple…
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