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!