Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Macro Lens Should You Buy?

Wool Carder Bee Series 2-1
Want to get into macro and you're not sure what lens to buy? Don't waste your time posting a question to any online forum. You'll just get a lot of biased information from people who are just repeating misinformation that they've read online, or who think that everyone on the planet should shoot macro the way that they do (and some of those people don't even shoot macro). To add insult to injury gear questions are almost impossible to answer because your style of photography is going to dictate the equipment that you use. Don't have a style yet? So how can anyone give you any rational advice?...

There are some hard limitations when shooting macro photography though -and by macro I mean from 1x to 10x magnification (10x and higher is considered micro photography). Shooting closeups below 1x is considerably easier than shooting at 1x and higher mag simply because there is more surface area to reflect light back into the lens. So when shooting macro the light source that you want to use is going to have a big impact on your lens choices and how you set up your camera. The first option is to use natural light and you need to shoot in the golden hour, that hour right after sunrise or right before sunset, or when there are some thin high altitude clouds acting as a diffuser for the big yellow ball. Shooting in the middle of the day when the light is harsh is going to give you scenes that have too much contrast as well as specular highlights that are going to look ugly. The only negative to shooting when the light is good is that there won't be enough of it to give you shutter speeds fast enough to freeze motion. You'll be reduced to shooting lethargic subjects, and odds are your camera will be attached to a focusing rail and a tripod. Nothing wrong with doing any of that, but your choices of subjects will be limited. It's easy for me to spot natural light macro shooters -I just count the number of dew covered insects in their gallery. I should also mention that if you're going to use natural light as the primary light source for the subject then you're better off using a long focal length lens -the longer the better. The extra working distance will come in handy since you don't want to be so close to the subject that you're casting a shadow over it.

The second option is to use a flash as the primary light source for the subject, and this is where things can kinda get counter intuitive. The funny thing about a flash is that the light it produces will look more diffused, and will give you softer specular highlights, the closer you get it to the subject due to the Apparent Light Size Principle (that article is required reading). So it doesn't make any sense to buy a long focal length macro lens only to put the flash on a bracket way out past the end of the lens. You're actually better off with a short focal length lens in the 60mm range.

Another advantage to using a flash is that if it doesn't fire then odds are the subject is going to be completely black. Why is that good? It means that the short duration pulse of light that the flash is producing is actually acting as your "shutter", and it will allow you to freeze a lot of motion and still get sharp images. Using a flash allowed me to follow an active Mantis and shoot it with the camera in my hand while it was cleaning itself and still get a sharp photo.

Mantis Maintenance

I took that shot with a Canon EF-S 60mm macro lens with 37mm of extension tubes from about three inches away (2x, since the lens loses a lot of focal length at it's minimum focusing distance). An image like that one isn't possible using natural light because that scene is just too small, only 11.1 mm long by 7.4 mm high. Just not enough natural light being reflected off of such a small area to give me a shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion even if I had maxed out the ISO and opened the lens up to F2.8 -and if I did that and managed to get a decent shutter speed the resulting photo would look like garbage. Instead I set the camera to F11, ISO 200, and 1/125 of a second to expose for the natural light in the background and let the camera meter for and expose the subject with the flash. Any movement recorded by the camera in the background would have been irrelevant since it's out of focus anyway.

The light source you choose is also going to have a huge impact on your photographic style. Do you want to put your camera on a focusing rail and a tripod and then go look for subjects that will give you enough time to set all of that up (natural light)? Or do you want to keep your gear to a minimum, hold the camera in your hand, and let the subject dictate how you're going to photograph it (flash)? I really like the way that good natural light looks, but sadly if the natural light looks good then it is well diffused and there just isn't going to be enough of it for fast shutter speeds. That's not an opinion; physics simply says "No!" ;)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Mixing Natural Light and Flash

Collecting Pollen
Last year, due to the weather conditions, I had to look for ways to photograph active subjects. Sometimes I caught a break, like with the image to the right. It was windy, so the bee couldn't tell the difference in the vibration induced by the wind and me grabbing onto that Sour Grass flower. As an extra added bonus I was shooting at about 2.5x and the flower kept the background from being black. So the Sweat Bee went about her business collecting pollen for her brood chambers and I got to take some photos. There were also a few occasions, early in the morning, when I managed to find a critter that was still sleeping and this time I used an artificial flower for the background.

Sleeping Cuckoo Bee

The problem though, at least for me, is that I don't like black backgrounds in my images and from the feedback I've received a lot of you don't either. I really don't care about making my images look "natural" because that word is just too subjective. Ask half a dozen people what natural means and you're likely to get six different answers. Add to that the fact that you can't "naturally" see the level of detail that I can show you, so by my definition macro photography isn't "natural" anyway. But I do want you to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the subject and how I'm presenting it to you. I don't want you to get hung up and distracted because the background is black. It's easy to have something in the background if I have control over a lethargic subject, or I can use the flower that it's on to reflect the light from the flash back into the camera. But the real trick is shooting a hyperactive subject in conditions where I have very little control, and when there isn't anything close to the critter that I can use for a background.

I get most of my inspiration from portrait photography, and one of the techniques that portrait photographers use it to set the camera at the ISO and Fstop that they want to use for the subject and then "drag the shutter" to expose for the background. Dragging the shutter simply means decreasing the shutter speed until you get the exposure that you want. So you basically use the shutter to control the amount of natural light that's coming into the lens to expose for the background, and then use the flash to expose the subject. But a portrait photographer is shooting scenes that are reflecting a lot more natural light back into the camera than what I can get in a macro photo. Since I was concerned about getting too close to the natural light exposure for the subject I set my flash to second curtain sync, so that the flash would be the last significant light source recorded by the sensor and if there was enough natural light to record movement I'd freeze the action at the end of it and still get some detail. If you look closely at this next image you can see how that movement looks in the trailing antenna of this bumblebee -look at the "shadow" above it.

Bumblebee in Lavender III

There was a lot of hard sunlight reflected off of a white wall in my garden and at 1/30 of a second the shutter speed was too slow to stop the motion in the scene. The background is actually a sidewalk about two meters from the subject and I was trying to keep it from looking too dark.

For this next shot I set up a field studio, injected a Wall Flower with artificial nectar, and waited for a visitor. The flower is actually in the shade, and I'm shading the subject as well with the camera, and yet at 1/60 of a second there is still a little movement at the back part of the wing.

Bees in a Wallflower Series 1-2

At first I thought that I might have caught the far wing, out of focus. But the more I look at the image the more I think it's actually just a motion artifact.

After a lot of trial and error, and in a wide range of lighting conditions, I've pretty much settled on 1/125 as being my minimum shutter speed when shooting critters that have antenna. With the camera set to F11, 1/125, and ISO 200 I'm getting scenes like this one with no recorded movement.

Finger Fed Bumblebee

Under ideal conditions you want to be able to cast a hard shadow over the subject, and in an area where there isn't a lot of reflective light hitting it from the sides, so that if the flash didn't fire the subject and the area around it would be a silhouette. In the absence of natural light the short duration of the flash will allow you to freeze any subject motion. The "shadows" that I recorded are not the result of a decrease in the background exposure but are due to natural light striking the area that moved and bouncing back into the camera.

Also keep in mind that it's OK to under expose the background a little, as long as it's not completely black it won't be distracting. The 70D that I shoot with displays the exposure in the viewfinder (+/- 3 stops) and if I know I'll be shooting in a certain direction I'll take a look at the exposure in the view finder and adjust the shutter, ISO, and Fstop until I get to within -2 stops (under exposing the background actually causes the color in it to saturate). But I try to set the ISO no higher than 200 to avoid image noise, and the Fstop no lower than F11 so I can still get a decent amount of depth. Both of those decisions are based on my personal preferences and the ISO noise performance of my camera.

You'll have to do some experimenting since you might be shooting different subjects, and under different conditions than I am. But hopefully you can use this article as a guide to get you started. Until next time happy shooting! :)

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 in Review

Finger Fed Bumblebee
2015 was a really good year for me, but it didn't start out that way. The first two months it either rained, or was overcast, and it prevented the Mason bees from hatching. Normally we have a warm period in the early part of the year with some partly cloudy skies. So the Mason's come out with the sun, the big yellow ball gets covered by clouds, and the bee's metabolism tanks -it's as if nature flicked a switch and they are stationary. Great conditions if you're a macro photographer trying to get close to an otherwise skittish subject. But for the last three years a lot of solitary bees have been skipping the first two months of the year only to emerge in March when there isn't a cloud to be found. So when I discovered some Mason bees hatching out of a tree in my yard I camped out in front of it for several hours trying to get them acclimated to me. We played a lot of "beekaboo"...

Tree House II

I even set up a solitary bee house and managed a few shots of a female Mason bee as she was about to start her day.

New Apartment II

The weather was mild through April and May and I found a Wool Carder bee sleeping in my lavender.

Wool Carder Bee Series 1-1

I was determined to push the limits of what I could do with the subjects that I photograph, so as it woke up I held the lavender close to another flower that I had fastened in a clamp and to my surprise the bee climbed right onto it.

Wool Carder Bee Series 1-5

It would even occasionally go back to sleep.

Nap Time

From June through August the weather was hot and humid, and just about everything was hyperactive before the sun came up. I had to find a way to take photographs in the heat of the day, and one way to get the critters to let me get close is to bait them. I used a mix of sugar and water, but ended up adding a little artificial nectar mix to the syrup because they seemed to like it better. They won't always let me get close, and sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get an image out of my mind and into the camera. But patience pays off...

Finger Fed Bumblebee

I have a triangle in my head and at each point there is composition and technique, lighting, and post processing. If I feel like one of those three is getting weak in comparison to the other two then I spin that point to the top and work on it. Sometimes improving on one aspect forces me to make changes to another (like when I change my lighting I have to change my post processing to take advantage of it). For 2016 I'm going to keep spinning that triangle, and keep pushing the limits of what I can to with the gear and the subjects. But most of all I'm going to continue to have fun :)