Friday, November 18, 2011

Post Moderation Part Two

The latest technique that the spammers are using is to send a compliment with a link to a web site embedded in it, like this one:

"Always so interesting to visit your site. What a great info, thank you for sharing. this will help me so much in my learning.
security equipment"

Of course "security equipment" is a hyperlink to the site the spammer is trying to advertise.


You have my word that if you comment on a post, even if it's extremely negative, I'll approve it for publication as long as it's not spam. My intent is not to filter out any potential negativity -I learn from all of your comments. I just don't like having to go through all the comments to delete the spam.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Learn to Lie

Hungry Moth at 5x
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
If you're a pretty good photographer then you're also a pretty good liar. You might not know it, or want to admit it, but it's true. By taking a photo you're taking the subject out of context and presenting it in a way that you didn't see it with your naked eye. Take the moth included with this post: I saw a water bottle with a blue label on it in the background, but you see what might look like a blue sky.

The trick to pulling off that lie was in knowing that I didn't want the background to be black, if it were then the scene might seem out of place even though most moths are nocturnal. So I deliberately placed the water bottle behind the critter to give the flash something to reflect off of. It had natural spring water in it, if that makes you feel better ;)

Once you realize that photography is a lie then you can start pushing the envelope to create "realistic" scenes. Like using a second flash to illuminate a vinyl table cloth that has a floral print on it. Is it "natural"? No, but it looks natural and that's all the matters.

Solitary Bee on Mint VI

Now some of you might shoot only using natural light because it looks more realistic -closer to the way that you actually viewed the scene. But how many of you used a reflector to get more of that sunlight into the subject?

Liars... :)

Macro by definition is not a natural form of photography -no one sees the world with the level of detail that we macro photographers can capture. So there's no need to constrain yourself since no matter what you do the final image really isn't natural anyway. The better you get at lying the easier it is to trick the viewer into thinking that the scene is normal, that nothing is out of place. They'll spend more time appreciating the image as a whole instead of picking it apart because it doesn't look right.

So learn to lie...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Habits and Quirks

Cleaning Up I
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
It feels like spring here in southern Italy so I decided to get out and test a new diffuser that I've been working on (more on the diffuser in a future post). It was warm with plenty of sun so the critters where hyper active, and yet I managed a few shots of this Banded Eye Drone not because I'm special, or have some unique power over wild creatures.

I got close cause the Drone was busy.

Insects just don't seem to have a whole lot of "processing power" -if they are engaged in just about any activity then they aren't expending too many brain cells on predator, or photographer, avoidance. So the key to getting close to them is learning their habits and quirks.

Here's the exact same insect a few minutes later. It had taken off so I set my lens to 2x and the camera to ISO 400 (to get some detail in the background) and waited. Less than a minute later the Drone landed in the exact some spot it had been before and started cleaning itself again. Most insects move in predictable patterns that you can take advantage of...

Cleaning Up II

The more you learn about the critters that you want to photograph the easier it is to get the images you want. Happy shooting folks :)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

What Focal Length for Shooting Macro and Closeups

Gustavo Mazzarollo (a fellow macro shooter with some mad skills) recently asked me how I would rate Canon's 300mm F4 L and how it compares to the 180mm macro. At first I wasn't going to do a blog post on it -I'm not all that and a bag of chips, and there are other sites out there that review lenses much better than I could. But I realized that I could answer Gustavo's question in a way that other sites might not. You see I spent a lot of money on Canon's 180mm macro only to realize that I couldn't really use it for any of the images that I wanted to take, and if I can save you from making the same mistake that I did then it's worth writing about.

Before I start a post where it seems like I'm bashing the 180mm macro let me start out by saying that it's an awesome lens from a technical point of view -great color, contrast, and plenty sharp. So no angry letters please :) But it does have some "limitations" that you need to be aware of...

All too often I hear people say that for bug photography you need a lot of working distance to keep from scaring the critters, and so a long focal length lens is a good choice. More experienced macro shooters either know how to get close to skittish subjects, or they know when to go looking for them when they are not so active (late evening / early morning) so working distance is a non issue. You can, with practice, get close to just about anything.

Canon 65mm F2.8 macro lens at almost 4x. Single frame (I don't focus stack).

Gymnast II

For flash photography the increased working distance of a long lens works against you. Due to the Apparent Light Size Principle it's easier to get good diffusion the closer your diffuser is to the subject. But if you get your flash out past the end of the lens then you've just lost the gain in working distance that comes with long glass. I took most of my macro shots with the 180 L using either natural light, or a mix of natural light and flash.

Skipper I

For shooting closeups the 180 L just doesn't have the "reach" of a long prime like the 300mm L, and hard to reach subjects were impossible to shoot at the magnifications that I wanted to shoot them at. Also keep in mind that, shooting the same scene, the bokeh with the 300mm L (or any long focal length prime) is going to be better than the bokeh of the 180mm L because there is more distance between the lens and the subject with longer glass (so more distance between the lens and the background as well).

180mm F3.5 L

Butterfly Breakfast II

300mm F4 L (taken in the middle of the day so the light is pretty harsh)

Perpetual Motion

I know this is gonna sound kinda of odd coming from a macro shooter, but I just can't recommend a long focal length macro lens. They don't work well for macro unless you want to use natural light and a tripod, and they just don't have the reach and bokeh of a long focal length prime. I currently carry a Canon MPE-65mm macro lens and the 300mm F4 L and those two cover all of the macro and closeup shooting that I do.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

AhMet ozKan -Macro Video Artist

Now that DSLRs can be used as video cameras macro shooters are putting them to good use producing some amazing "Discovery Channel" quality scenes. Featured here is a video from AhMet ozKan of a jumping spider -a creature that's difficult to take still images of because they like to jump.

Some serious talent behind the camera here folks...

Monday, August 15, 2011

Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees

Freckles II
Dr. Norman Gary, a recognized expert in beekeeping, has written a book called Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees. Don't let the title fool you: Dr. Gary has over 30 years experience as a beekeeper so there's something in the book for everyone, even established beekeepers and it's well written, organized, and easy to understand. If you're looking to get into beekeeping then this is the very first reference you should get -and it may well be the only one you need!

The book is filled with some excellent macro and closeup images as well (I was one of the photographers who contributed photos).

You can order it from Amazon -and for the record I make no money from that link.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finger Food Deconstruction

Finger Food
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
I was bored and looking to do something different so I enticed this honeybee to feed from my finger. Check out the video for a brief description :)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Post Moderation

Sorry about the post moderation folks -I am getting too many spam messages in the comments. I will post (and have posted) every comment, good or bad, as long as it doesn't contain an advertisement.

Someone took a cheap shot at me recently, suggesting that I wouldn't post their comment because it was negative. You have every right to disagree with me, and I'll post your comments even though you're wrong... ;)

Solitary Bee on Mint Series Studio Setup

Solitary Bee on Mint I
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
I'll apologize now for the quality of the video -it was early in the morning and I was still nursing my first cup of coffee :)

This shot of the same bee really shows what that floral pattern on the table cloth looks like when blurred out in the background.

Solitary Bee on Mint II

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Want to Get Published and Paid?

Tom Stack, of Tom Stack and Ass. (the agency that manages my portfolio) has been given a large list of images that are needed for an upcoming book. Tom is the reason that I've been getting paid for images by McGraw Hill for the past two years, so this is a really good opportunity! Tom's email address is tomstack(at) (replace the (at) with the @ symbol of course -I wrote it that way to keep his email addy from getting picked up by spam bots).

Here's is the list of photos that Tom is looking for. The customer wants North American species, but it doesn't matter what side of the pond you took the photo on (some exist everywhere):

Title: Dragonflies Deadline May 3rd

Cover (vert) & Title Page (horiz): striking closeup of a dragonfly (US only)

Chapter 1: Flying Jewels

P5 Kid looking at dragonfly

P5a Dragonfly wingspan

P5b Dragonfly life cycle- egg, larva, adult

P5c Dragonfly dipping tip of abdomen in water

P6 Closeup of needle like body

P6a Dragonfly larva or nymph & its metamorphosis

P7 Closeup of its mandibles/jaws or carrying prey

P7a Mocha Emerald or Prince Baskettail- especially show green eyes

P7b Adult dragonfly for labeling of body parts

P8 Dragon fly hovering

P8a Dragon flies migrating or in Mexico or Caribbean

Chapter 2: You are the Explorer

P9 Kids exploring in pond area or looking through binoculars

P10 Damselflies- show them holding wings up

P11 Dragonfly perched in garden or near water

P11 Elfin Skimmer

P11a Giant Darner- showing its bright color- perched on grasses or near water

P13, 15 Common Whitetail (male) (on a rock near flowers if poss)

Chapter 3: A Guide to Dragonflies

P14 Kid looking at dragonfly

P15a Skimmers: Common Whitetail, Blue Dasher, Widow Skimmer, Four-spotted Skimmer, Twelve-spotted Skimmer, Flame Skimmer, Halloween Pennant, Calico Pennant, Black Saddlebags, Yellow-legged Meadowhawk, Wandering Glider, Spot-Winged Glider

P15b Darners: Common Green Darner, Shadow Darner, Blue-eyed Darner, Variable Darner

P15c Emeralds: Mocha Emerald, Prince Baskettail, American Emerald, Common Baskettail

P15d Clubtails: Cobra Clubtail, Common Sanddragon, Russet-tipped Clubtail, Eastern Ringtail

Chapter 4: Try This! Projects You Can Do

P17 Dragonfly with mosquito prey

P17a Hine’s Emerald dragonfly

P18 Kids/person making a dragonfly pond or flower garden

P19 Dragonflies on flowers or these flowers: aster, black-eyed Susan, coneflower, daisy, lavender, fountain grass

P19a Male Calico Pennant- showing red heart-shaped marks on abdomen

P19b Dragonflies perched on tops of tall grasses or stems- or child placing sticks in garden for perches

Upcoming book titles: Beetles, Grasshoppers, Ants, Snails/Slugs & Worms

Good luck folks!!



Monday, April 25, 2011

Working in a Wallflower Deconstruction

Working in a Wallflower
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
If you're familiar with my other deconstructions then there isn't too much to add here: I baited this honeybee by injecting honey into some Wallflowers and waited for them to start feeding so I could get close. Then it's just a matter of holding onto the flower she's on with my left hand, brace the camera on that same hand, and take the shot. But for this image I took a short video of the "field studio" that I used -just a cheap trick to keep the background from being black.

There's no natural light in that image -it's all flash.

Update 27 Apr 2011:

I didn't go into a lot of detail on this image deconstruction since for me the way I focus the scene is routine. But I was asked about the depth in the shot and this is how I did it: Looking at that frame the curve from the proboscis all the way to the back of the eye has to be in focus, as well as that leading antenna. If any of those elements are noticeably out of focus then the shot won't work. To add insult to injury even if I did focus stack (I never stack) the honeybee is in constant motion so I have to get all of those elements in focus in a single frame. To pull it off I focused on the end of the proboscis and then locked that lower right hand corner in place. I can spin that corner on its axis, but I can't allow any vertical or horizontal movement and still keep that part of the frame in focus, or the framing where I need it to be.

With the lower right corner locked I twisted the camera so that the upper left and right corners went a little deeper into the frame. The end effect is the area of acceptable focus is over the curve that runs from the proboscis to the eye, but it's also intersecting the antenna getting everything in focus that needs to be. But because I've locked that lower right corner and twisted the camera it looks like I'm shooting parallel to the honeybee, creating the illusion that there is a lot of depth in the image when there actually isn't.

Monday, April 18, 2011

MT-24EX Diffuser Redesign

Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
A short and sweet video on my new diffuser design. You can see a sample of the light quality I'm getting with in the specular highlights and the texture detail in this Ladybug's shell.

Note: I originally cut the front of the Sto-Fen out because I was concerned about light loss. Since I'm relying on the flash duration to freeze as much motion as possible (to get sharp images at high Fstops) I didn't want to lose two full stops to the diffuser. But after a lot of experimentation with different diffuser plastics I am now using the whole Sto-Fen.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Whole Picture

Mason Bee at 5x
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
A little over a year ago I was trying to push the limits of what I could do in a single frame when I took the shot included with this post. It’s a Mason Bee portrait taken hand held at five times life size with a 40D, an MPE-65mm macro lens, and an MT-24EX macro twin flash. At the time I had three years of experience shooting macro images so I knew where the depth of field was, how thick (or thin) it was, and how to place it against the subject to make the most of it. The important bits are in focus, the out of focus bits aren’t in an area that would make them distracting, and I chose to shoot it with a black background to bring out the yellow hair. It took me a few frames to get the image I wanted, but I got it.

But after posting the shot on the Fred Miranda Macro Forum one of the other macro shooters who posts there, Phil (aka Goldenorfe -a shooter I respect for his mad skills), asked a very simple but extremely relevant question: “Why didn’t you shoot it with something in the background?”. Granted I wanted the background to be black –it’s a good contrast choice against all that yellow. But then again so is green and that’s what bothered me about Phil’s question: I could have taken that shot with just about any color in the background other than black since it was early in the morning and the critter was sleeping. From a macro shooter’s perspective I had all the time in the world to make that image and had pushed myself on all the other aspects of getting the shot except the background. I simply let the flash fall off into the abyss so the area behind the critter would be dark, in effect taking the easy way out in an area of the frame that’s just as important as any other. Not good…

One of the reasons why I shoot macro is because it is hard, and by pushing myself I end up with images that are uniquely mine. So since that late March day a year ago I’ve been working on my backgrounds and looking for ways to make them other than black. All I’m doing here is holding the twig the bee is on in front of a grape leaf -there’s no natural light in this one folks, it’s all flash:


Recently while out shooting in a vineyard (testing changes to my lighting -the subject of a future post) I stumbled upon a lethargic honeybee. I really don’t know why, but for some odd reason bees will just slow down. Low temperatures will sometimes drag solitary bees to a crawl, but it was in the upper teens C (high 60s F) so that shouldn’t have made any difference for this honeybee since they normally function well in cool weather. But for whatever reason she just sat there on a flower looking “confused” (either you understand that or you think I’m nuts). Seeing an opportunity I put some honey on the flower to keep her busy and then I picked the flower she was on because it was just too low to the ground. It was only then that I realized that I needed something to use as a backdrop. The poles that were being used to hold up the grapes looked like a decent choice, and they’d allow me to steady my left hand as well.

Honeybee Nom

Important bits in focus? Check. Decent framing? Check. A pleasing background? Well, it’s not black, but it’s not that great either and that’s pretty much the feedback I got from Mark Plonsky (my mentor and the reason I shoot at the level I do today). Hindsight being what it is I should have taken the time to setup something to use as a backdrop, just in case I found a critter to shoot.


Still learning, still pushing myself, and I just don’t see any of that ending any time soon…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Frizzy Deconstruction

Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
The Basics

I went looking for solitary bees up in the mountains around Itri, Italy on a really cool, miserable day. The skies where party cloudy, and temps around 14C (57F) so I knew that if I found one then odds are it would be semi-active since they need the heat of the sun to help drive their metabolism in the early spring. Later on in the year I’ll still try to photograph them but it won’t be easy. I took the photo in the afternoon, later in the year I won’t get close unless I can find the critter very early in the morning or late in the evening when they bed down for the night. Don’t worry about getting stung, since only female solitary bees have stingers and most of them are too short to puncture your skin.

Working out the Light

The flower that it was on was very low to the ground with nothing behind it to reflect the flash back into the camera. So if I shot it in place I’d run into trouble with Evaluative –Through the Lens (E-TTL) metering and the background would be black: With E-TTL metering the flash fires a short pulse of light that the camera’s light meter uses to determine how long to turn the flash on for the actual exposure. With only the subject and a few flower petals most of the metering flash would not return to the lens, and the light meter would compensate by turning on the flash longer than it needs to and the image would be over exposed. You can compensate by setting the Flash Exposure Compensation (FEC) to a negative value, but depending on the camera you’re using you’ll get mixed results. Even if you don’t end up over exposing the subject the background will be black since there won’t be enough natural light to correctly expose anything in the background, even on a sunny day, and people will complain that the image doesn’t look natural. It doesn’t matter that it’s not normal to see an insect’s compound eyes and individual hairs, that the detail in the photo is already making it “unnatural”. A black background is a compositional buzz kill, even though the critter is technically sleeping.

So to get a break on the exposure, and to keep the background from being black, I picked the flower and carried it over to a stone wall that my brother in law had built close to his house. I liked the color of the stone, and it has a really rough texture that I knew would do a really good job of scattering the light from the flash. A smooth surface would be too reflective –all too easy to get a hot spot in the background from the flash. Rough surfaces will also give you a smoother looking background –no detail to distract the viewer from the subject.

If the flower had been higher I could simply hold or position anything behind it that would give me a complementary color for the subject. I carry a modified carpenter’s clamp in my camera bag just in case I need a third hand to hold a back drop or a critter’s perch (see Field Studio Gear).

As a starting point I usually try to position the subject so that the background is at the same distance from the subject as the lens. So if my working distance (lens to subject) is two inches then I position the subject two inches from the background. Due to flash fall off the light coming back to the lens from the background will be two stops lower than the light that’s coming back from the subject, and in this case it was too dark so I held the flower closer to the wall to brighten up the background.

Right about now some of you are probably thinking “why not use manual flash exposure?”. As I’m shooting I’ll change the magnification, which causes the distance between the subject and the flash, and the amount of light I need for a proper exposure, to change so I’d have to constantly check the histogram and adjust the light output of the flash. To add insult to injury I can only adjust the MT-24EX macro twin flash in full stop increments –not exactly the kind of fine tuning that I’d need to get a good exposure. In E-TTL mode the camera can make small adjustments to the light output of the flash, firing it at lower levels than I can select manually. In the end it’s actually easier to let the camera control flash metering, and with the 1D MK III I get consistent exposures from frame to frame.

Final Words on Technique

I shoot hand held by placing the lens on my left hand (the same hand that’s holding the critter’s perch) and slide the lens to focus the scene and adjust the framing. That stone wall also helped me to keep things steady because I was bracing my left hand on it. With the camera and the subject on the same mount, my left hand held against the wall, it’s easy to control the amount of motion in the scene and get a sharp image. Even though it’s not as obvious as freezing a balloon in mid pop or a bullet as it punches though an apple macro is a form of flash based stop motion photography. That short burst of light coming from the flash is not only exposing the image but it’s also helping me to freeze motion. Even the slightest movement, as little as the space of a pixel, is going to affect the sharpness of a macro photo once the softening effects of diffraction are factored in. So using a diffuser that actually diffuses the light from the flash (and not just blocking it) and getting the flash as close to the subject as possible will help to give me a very fast pulse of light from the flash. That short flash pulse, along with bracing the camera and the subject’s perch, allows me to get a razor sharp image even at high Fstops and is the primary reason why I do not focus stack.

For this photo I wanted a portrait, and shooting critters is no different than taking an image of a person. I positioned the bee to the right of the frame looking into the dead space to the left, careful not to clip one of its antennas. Even though they’re out of focus they needed to be in the frame or I’d have to shoot at a high enough magnification to make the bee’s head fill the vertical space –either get the antenna all the way in the shot or all the way out. Clipping a portion of the bee’s feelers is distracting. From a low angle I moved the camera so that the bee’s pincers and eye were in focus, then I tilted the upper right corner of the camera a little deeper in the frame so the depth of field would fall flat against the slope of its head and get the back of the eye in focus. A cheap trick with the angle between the camera and the subject that makes the most of what little depth of field there is at 3x and F13. Often you’ll hear macro shooters talk about “magic angles” and it’s just an angle that makes the most out of the depth in a scene. With practice you can make your own magic angles just by tilting and twisting the camera a little. The trick is to take the area of acceptable focus, a flat thin plane, and lay it against the curve of the subject.

The end result is an image of a lounging bee that’s been described as “cute” and “cuddly”.

TL;DR: Practice, practice, practice… :)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Focus Stacking Tip

First Solitary Bee of 2011
Originally uploaded by Dalantech.
After a long four month break from photography I’m finally getting back into the saddle, and in my limited free time I’ve also started perusing macro related forums. I think it’s great that there are a lot of new shooters getting into the discipline, but it seems a lot of them are having trouble with focus stacking their images. So I thought I’d give you my best tip to make the technique easier to use:

Don’t focus stack.

Right about now the focus stacking community is getting ready to burn me at a stake, but before you light the match hear me out. Macro photography is one of the toughest photographic disciplines to get into and it has, without a doubt, one of the highest learning curves. Mastering focus is tough enough, but with focus stacking you have to nail it several times for what’s going to be a single frame. I’m seeing too many new shooters trying to learn macro only to get frustrated and quit because they are under the false impression that you have to focus stack. I blame the experienced photographers who are still pushing absolute image sharpness as the only measuring stick for a good macro photo.


I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with focus stacking, or that you shouldn’t use it –it’s just one technique of many and anyone can learn how to do it. But what I am saying is that composition, lighting, and story telling (the aspects that separate a snapshot from a photograph) are infinitely more important than getting a razor sharp image or more depth. I don’t focus stack, not because there is anything wrong with stacking but because I simply don’t think it’s necessary. Instead of taking multiple frames for a single image I’d rather spend what little time the critters give me to look for different compositions.

If you’re new to macro then learn how to properly compose and focus a single frame before you take up focus stacking, and be patient with yourself. Don’t get frustrated and quit!