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
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...

Monday, July 8, 2019

Current Macro Rig and Diffusers

European Wool Carder Bee
Several people have asked me about my gear and diffusers, so I thought I'd shoot a quick video to show you what I'm using and talk about how I light my subjects. One of the things that I failed to mention in the video is that I tested several different diffusion plastics when I was trying to tame the hot spot that the MT-24EX macro twin flash creates in the specular highlights and multiple layers of 1/4 stop white silk was the only material I found that really worked well, and I use it in the diffuser that I built for the MT-26EX-RT. If forces the light to spread out while only reducing the light by 1/4 stop per later. I've also designed my diffusers to be small enough so that I can place the key at 12 O'clock (on a Kaiser Adjustable Flash Shoe) and the fill at 3 O'clock. Keeping them small also allows me to get them close to the subject without bumping into things. With all that being said here's the video:

When you're shooting you also need to be conscious of how the light is going to bounce off of the immediate surroundings and potentially change color. This shot was taken at my patio table, the same white plastic one in the video. By keeping the subject close to the table I'm able to use it like a bounce card to keep from crushing the shadows, and because it's white there's no change to the white balance of the light:

Snoozing European Wool Carder Bee II

Here's another European Wool Carder Bee, only this one was shot while sitting on a yellow flower. Notice the warmer tones due to the shift in white balance:

European Wool Carder Bee

The shadows are even lighter in that shot since the subject is closer to the "bounce card". I rarely change the white balance in post, preferring to allow the light to change based on what it reflected off of because it keeps my light from looking exactly the same all the time. Here's an extreme example of how the light can change after bouncing off of an object and back to the subject. The flower was a mix of oranges and reds, and notice how the specular highlights in this Long Horned Beetle took on the color:

Feeding Long Horned Beetle II

I don't mind how the light changed, in fact I kinda like it. But as you work on your lighting you need to understand how the surroundings can change the quality of it. The diffuser isn't the only thing that's modifying the light from your flash. Even the artificial flowers that I use for the background in a lot of my images can effect the white balance, and in turn change the tone of the light and how the colors are rendered.

Last, but not least, I'd like to mention that the angle of the light can also make a difference in the detail that you pick up and how 3D a scene will look. I like shooting Sweat Bees in Sour Grass Flowers while they are foraging for pollen because it's tricky, and because it makes for a more interesting photo than shooting them when they are lethargic. This first shot is with both flash heads on the Canon MT-24EX flash mount:

Sweat Bee in Sour Grass Flower

Same species, same type of flower, and about the same magnification but this time the key (the "A" flash head) is on a Kaiser Adjustable Flash Shoe and it's firing at a low angle with respect to the flower. Notice how there's more texture in the flower and the subject:

Foraging Sweat Bee II

So not only will using a more diffused light source give you more detail, but the angle of the light also makes a difference.

If you have any questions just drop me a comment here, or on the Extreme Macro Facebook page. Until next time happy shooting :)

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Venus Fly Trap Timelapse

I've seen some really cool macro videos and hope to bring more of them to you via this blog but this Venus Flytrap Timelapse, by the Another Perspective Youtube channel, is one of the best I've ever seen!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pollinator Week 2019

Mason Bee Series 1-3
I thought I'd celebrate Pollinator Week by posting images of some of the native pollinators that I photograph and explain why they are so good at pollination. One cool morning I was shooting this Mason Bee, a male of Megachile (Chalicodoma) parietina. A really photogenic little fellow, and I took a lot of photos. When it got close to lunch time I set this little guy down on a flower hoping that he would get something to eat as well. Not only did the little one hit the buffet, but this next shot illustrated why they are so good at pollinating flowers: Mason Bee IV

Now that's one messy eater! In the process of getting nectar he also picked up, and distributed, a lot of pollen.

Mason Bee Series 4-1

Social bees like honeybees and bumblebees have a grove on their hind leg called a pollen basket. They pack pollen into it and wet it down with nectar, and that pollen isn't going anywhere except back to the colony. Check out the saddle bags on this Common Carder bee (a type of social bee).

Bees in a Wallflower Series 1-2

Now granted that Common Carder will spread pollen, but not as well as a solitary bee because solitaries don't have a pollen basket. Female solitary bees collect pollen in hairs on their abdomen, and they wallow in a flower to get the pollen to stick to that hair. So in the process of collecting pollen they also spread a lot of it around. They'll also visit more flowers in a day than a honeybee will. We have a small garden in our back yard that produces so many vegetables that we have to give some of them away, and it's all due to the number of solitary bees in our yard. I also raise Mason Bees and they are a lot of fun to watch and photograph. Here's a female Red Mason about to start her day.

New Apartment II

Mason Bees are so docile they can be handled without getting stung. I found this female a little waterlogged from a spring rain and I put her back in my bee house after take a few shots -or is it really her bee house ;)

Female Red Mason Bee

If you want to help the native bees in your area then plant native flowers in your yard. If you want to raise your own mason bees Crown Bees has everything you need, including how to videos to get you started (and their customer service is excellent!). I'm not affiliated with them in any way, and this is not a paid post. Gotta put that disclaimer in because a lot of what you read on the web is just an advertisement in disguise...

Until next time folks, happy shooting!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Macro Twin Flash Diffuser Review

I know that a lot of you are struggling to get good diffusion from a macro twin flash, but there is hope. Ian McConnachie via sells diffusers for the Canon MT-24EX, MT-26EX-RT, and the Yongnuo YN24EX E TTL macro twin flashes. I recently purchased a set of MT-26EX-RT diffusers and put them through my normal "field studio" (patio table) and post processing. In post I let the Photoshop Elements 17 RAW editor auto adjust the shot. In the main editor I rubbed out any dust spots and used Topaz Labs Denoise 6 to remove image noise, Detail to sharpen (Creative Detail Collection / Overall Detail Light I), and Clarity to adjust micro contrast and saturation (Collections / Macro / Flower I). All of the photos were processed in the same way, and I made no specific adjustments to the specular highlights (I never do).

Although shipped from the UK I was presently surprised at how quickly they showed up at the post office, especially since I have a military postal address (civilian working at a US Navy base) so the package had to go from the UK to the States and then to Italy and it only took about a week. The diffusers are very well made and even though the ABS plastic is thin they feel sturdy. They slip on and off of the flash heads with a little twisting, and will not come off by accident under normal use. There is some assembly required, but it's pretty easy. The goal is to cover the entire inner surface of the diffuser with some reflective stickers (supplied with the diffuser). Ian explains the process really well in this video (update -the new design has a white matte surface on the inside that diffuses the light a lot better and there are no stickers to apply):

Although the video was made for the MT-24EX the instructions apply to all of the macro twin flashes. There's quite a bit of overlap with the stickers, but that just makes it easy to get all of the inner black plastic shiny. The push pins that hold the front diffuser to the diffuser shell work well, but if you take them on and off a lot eventually they will wear out. I wouldn't expect any problems with the push pins under normal use, and there are two extra ones just in case you need them.

For me the real test of a diffuser is how well it can diffuse light at 1x since the working distance is going to be the greatest. Due to the Apparent Light Principle the larger a diffuser is relative to the subject the better the diffusion, and as the magnification goes up the twin flash heads get closer to the subject. So if a diffuser can perform well at 1x it will just get better at higher magnifications. Here are the tech specs for the gear:

Canon 80D (F11, 1/250, ISO 100) + a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens + a diffused MT-26EX-RT using Ian's diffusers (both flash heads attached directly to the Canon lens mount), E-TTL metering, -1/3 FEC, second curtain sync). They are all single, uncropped, frames taken hand held. I'm holding on to the plant stem with my left hand, and resting the lens on that same hand to keep the scene steady.

First up is a very small beetle with a very reflective shell -pretty much a torture test for any diffuser.


The specular highlights are very well controlled in that shot. I did notice a slight hot spot in the Elements RAW editor, but nothing to really worry about. The light loss with the diffuser is only 1 1/3 stops compared to shooting with the bare flash heads, so a few additional layers of diffusion could be added inside the diffuser to force the light to spread out more and you could still keep the light loss below 2 stops. For comparison my home made diffuser loses 2 stops, but I'm forcing the light through four layers of diffusion. B&H Photo sells a Pro Gel Pack for about 25 USD counting shipping that will allow you to experiment with several different types and grades of diffusion so you can tweak the light until you get the quality that you want. For MT-24EX users that gel pack is highly recommended since those flash heads have a Fresnel differ that almost looks like a clear piece of plastic. For the record the MT-26EX-RT has a much better built in diffuser.

In addition to the beetles eating my Lavender I also found a caterpillar munching on my Mint. Again shooting at 1x so I can record the specular highlights at their worst.


Pretty much the same results as the beetle shot, the specular highlights are very well controlled. I also picked up a lot of texture detail in the Mint leaf, another indicator that the diffusion is looking good. I also wanted to see how well I could light this critter at 4x to test the diffuser performance at a steep angle between the subject and the flash.


Again no issues, plenty of light on the caterpillars face. You can see where the flash heads were just by looking at the specular highlights. The only problem I ran into was with the size of the diffusers. It's great that they are so wide because that helps with the diffusion at 1x. But I like to shoot with the flash heads at the 12 O'clock (key) and 3 O'clock (fill) position and that's not possible with Ian's diffuser due to the width. I did have the flash heads as close as I could get them but the light still looks pretty even. But don't let my personal preferences bias you against this diffuser, the "out of the box" light quality is pretty darn good.

I got nothing but good things to say about Ian McConnachie's diffuser set. Really good light quality, really well made, and I think that they'd hold up to the abuse that most field macro shooters will put them through. Is the light quality up to par with my home made set? Nope, and I didn't expect it to be because I'm using more diffusion layers. But there aren't many, if any, alternatives out there and if you don't like the diffusion as is you can always pick up that gel pack and experiment until you get the light quality that you want. I'm gonna call Ian's macro twin flash diffusers "highly recommended"!

Footnote: I paid full price for the diffusers, and Ian McConnachie didn't know that I was going to write a review. In addition the links are not affiliate links, so I make no money if you click though to B&H Photo or So this post is not sponsored in any way.

Friday, June 14, 2019

I probably screwed up...

...cause in this day and age we're just suppose to like each other, but I snapped. In a post on a macro photography forum after the following statement was made...

"I bet if you did a survey among non-photographers, showing a picture of -whatever- centered and one obeying the rule of thirds, they would prefer the centered shots."

I know I should get out of macro forums cause they seem to be filled with people who really aren't interested in personal growth as photographers, and I'm close to calling it quits and sticking to just shooting. But I had to respond...

Nope. Centered shots are pretty boring. Even when the subject fills the frame I avoid centering. In the bird photo you linked there's nothing above or below it (it was a centered image of a bird in flight -nope, not even remotely macro), so it only works cause there's nothing in the frame to give it some perspective. But although it works I'd delete it cause there's nothing in the fame to give it a sense of perspective, and overall it looks pretty dull -in short it's boring.

It's at this point that any kind of filter I might have just shuts down...

Mantis Maintenance

Even though it's filling the frame I didn't center this preying mantis -it's in the left side of the frame looking toward the right . Why? Because it's a classic portrait composition technique that just works.

For everyone: I swear I'd give real money if the macro community just shot with the rule of thirds in mind. As it stands right now most of you are producing some of the most amazing razor sharp snapshots. Yup, snapshots cause the primary concern is with getting every little pixel as sharp as possible. Lighting, composition, story telling, all of the things that separate a photograph from a snapshot?! Why bother. Can't see the photo cause the pixels are in the way...

Joe public is looking for images that look good edge to edge, something that he can save to his PC (or phone) as wallpaper. Poorly composed, poorly exposed, razor sharp images are are at the end of the day poorly composed and exposed and they are the reason why very few people outside of the macro community take macro seriously. No matter how much time you spend in post stacking an image if the composition is off and the lighting sucks then congratulations you've just spent a lot of time and energy creating an image that no one outside of the focus stacking community will look at twice.

I know that all sounds harsh, and I know that being honest hasn't made me popular with the macro community. But it's the truth as I see it. The vast majority of macro photos absolutely stink. Take a look at any other photographic discipline and you'll see some amazing photos, and being in the top ten means that you're work is most likely being published. Get outside of these forums that seem to be controlled by people obsessed with getting every pixel razor sharp and you'll see some awesome macro photography.

I absolutely hate social media, and yet there are better macro photos on Facebook and Instagram than I've ever seen on any forum. Images that actually inspire me to be better. Either you all learn that there really is no "box", no hard fast rules that you have to follow, and you make a name for yourselves as photographers that happen to shoot macro or you continue to participate in the circle jerk that is the macro forum community where you continue to take the most uninspiring images on the planet and pat each other on the back for doing so. Yes, I know that last sentence isn't gonna go over well. If you really care about your work as a photographer, or how the general public views the small world, then you won't be pissed off. You'll see what I've written as a challenge...

If you only want to cater to the general consensus on most macro forums , or if you only want to go for a nature walk and record what you see, then I get it. But just don't expect anyone outside of that tight little niche to take you seriously...

At 54 sometimes I can't tell my inner voice from my outer voice. No regrets...

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Macro Myths, 2019 Edition

Feeding Sawfly
I took a long break from shooting macro, and during that time I didn't even keep up with macro forums. When I decided to start shooting again I decided to see what people were posting about macro and I was really surprised. The Internet seems to be mankind's greatest invention for the dissemination of misinformation. Lots of people just repeating what they've read, and quite a few who were writing as if they were a subject matter expert when they didn't even have a single image in their online gallery that was at 1x or higher magnification. Some of the same bad advice that that cost me a lot of time, money, and frustration when I first started shooting macro. Here's the list, in no particular order.

#1 The "bug lens" myth. Some people say that long focal length lenses are best for shooting insects (a "bug lens"). That one really took me back, cause I know a lot of macro photographers that shoot active subjects with short focal length lenses (I'm one of them). In fact if you want to use a flash as the primary light source then a short focal length, in the 60mm range, is optimal. You need to get the flash as close to the subject as possible to keep the duration of the flash to a minimum, and getting the flash close also gives you better diffusion (both explained in more detail later). So you really need to learn the habits and quirks of the subjects that you want to shoot because it's your knowledge of them, and their willingness to let you get close, that will determine if you get the shot. To a skittish critter the working distance of a lens doesn't matter, so there is no such thing as a "bug lens".

#2 The focus stacking myth. Still a lot of people claiming that you have to focus stack to get enough depth for macro. But most of them are really saying that in order to get razor sharp images that have some depth you have to focus stack (and that's actually true). The kind of detail that a focus stacked image will give you is almost lost on the web and in print, and the average person doesn't care about absolute image sharpness because they're looking for something to save to their computer desktop (or their phone's screen) as wallpaper. People who don't pixel peep want images that look good edge to edge, and you don't need to focus stack to create images that have a lot of depth and detail. You do need to look for, or learn to create, magic angles (angles that make the most out of the depth in a single frame). But the myth persists because some people can't see the picture because the pixels are in the way...

#3 The diopter myth. Plenty of people saying that adding any additional glass to a lens will degrade image quality. I'd preface that statement that if you add cheap glass to a lens then you're going to see a loss of detail, and maybe a lot of other artifacts as well. But most high quality diopters (close up lenses), or even teleconverters won't have a huge impact on image quality. You have to pixel peep to notice any difference. If you need to use additional glass to get a shot then use it -it's better than no photo at all...

#4 The 100mm macro lens myth. Macro lenses in the 100mm range are not good beginner lenses. I'm guilty of this one, cause I use to recommend them for people just getting into the discipline. But the best lens for a beginner is also the best lens for someone who has some experience, and the lens you need depends on the light source. A macro lens in the 60mm range is best when a flash will be the primary light source since you need to get the flash close to the subject to keep the flash duration to a minimum (easier to freeze motion) and the closer the flash the better the diffusion. If you want to use natural light as the primary light source then get a long focal length macro lens, the longer the better. You'll need the extra working distance to keep from shading the subject, or disturbing it. Macro lenses in the 100mm range are a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Too much working distance for flash, and for natural light you'll want more room between the lens and the subject. A lot of the issues I struggled with when I first got into macro were due to using Canon's 100mm USM macro lens.

#5 The flash duration myth. The general perception that the flash will always fire fast enough to freeze motion, and as proof people will list duration times that are close to what a flash will produce when set close to minimum power. The problem with shooting macro is that there is very little surface area to reflect light back into the lens, so you'll rarely if ever be using a flash at close to its minimum setting. Compound that with motion as little as 1/4 the width of a pixel being enough to amplify diffraction, an effect I call macro motion blur. Macro motion blur won't look like traditional motion blur, but you will see a loss of detail and it's easy to blame it on diffraction alone. Although not as obvious as stopping a balloon in mid pop, or a bullet as it passes through an apple, flash based macro is a form of flash based stop motion photography. The "secret" to getting sharp images at high Fstops and magnification is to take as much control over the motion in the scene as possible (your motion and the subject), get the flash as close to the subject as possible (to keep the duration of the flash to a minimum), and use a diffuser that actually forces the light to spread out (and not just block the light). Diffraction, lens sharpness, and motion all have a very synergistic effect on each other with the end result being a loss in image detail. Unfortunately there are still a lot of people who claim that any loss of detail when shooting at high magnification and Fstops is just due to diffraction, and it's just not true.

That's my list for now. I'll add to it when and if I see more "armchair expert advice". What macro myths have you run into?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Macro Technique

European Wool Carder Bee
When people discus macro technique there are pretty much two groups. Some people buy a tripod and a focusing rail and then go looking for something that will sit still long enough so that they have time to set everything up for a photo. Nothing wrong with it, but choosing your gear and then looking for something that will let you take a shot is going to limit what you can photograph and when. Odds are you're gonna shoot a lot of dew covered critters, or you'll go looking for something that's dead. In short the more gear you use the more redistricted you'll be. The same holds true for technique: There's nothing inherently wrong with focus stacking, but like using a tripod it will limit what you can photograph.

Then there is the other group: A lot of people (myself included) shoot hand held with just a camera, flash, and a macro lens. Keeping the gear to a minimum allows the subject to dictate how it's going to be photographed. If you take the time to study the habits and quirks of the critters you want to photograph then you can get the images that you want, in just about any conditions. The only thing that stops me is the rain, but after a storm is the perfect time to go looking for a subject that's been slowed down by the rain and the drop in temperature that normally comes with it.

Female Red Mason Bee

Another advantage to shooting hand held is that you can shoot hyperactive subjects when it's windy. Insects can't tell the difference in the vibration induced by the wind, and the vibration induced by me when I grab on to the stem of a flower. Once I have the stem in my left hand I rest the lens on that same hand to keep everything steady. If I managed to get set up without spooking the subject then all I have to do is follow it with the camera and wait for something interesting to happen. Like this female Sweat Bee using her mandibles to anchor herself to a stamen while she attempts to collect pollen.

Foraging Sweat Bee II

Using your left hand to hold on to the critter's perch, and then resting the lens on that same hand to keep everything steady, is a technique that I call the Left Hand Brace. The biggest advantage to using it is that it allows me to photograph insects going about their routine. Like this Chafer Beetle that was shoveling pollen into its mouth.

Chafer Beetle Eating Pollen

It's also possible, under the right conditions, to photograph the same subject twice and end up with a completely different set of images. I found this semi-active Mason Bee in my Lavender and moved it to my patio table so I could sit down and photograph it with an artificial flower in the background (to keep the background from being black). It would move around and when it stopped I'd look for a way to compose it.

Get My Good Side

Mason Bee Series 3-2

After a while I got tired and decided to crash for a while, so I set the bee on a flower close to my patio. The weather was partly cloudy and cool, with intermittent light rain so the critter stayed on the flower. When I went to check on it this is how I found it.

Mason Bee Series 2-1

Mason Bee Series 2-2

Same day, same subject, completely different images. The point is to keep your mind open and look for opportunities even when conditions don't seem to be ideal. I've had the chance to shoot some really cool subjects on days when most people would probably leave their camera in their camera bag.

Another way to get close to a critter that doesn't want you anywhere near it is to use a syringe to inject sugar syrup into a flower. If the subject is more hungry then afraid the syrup gives it a reason to let you get close.

Bees in a Wallflower Series 1-2

Feeding Honeybee VIII

There's also a potential third group that combines parts of the first two, using whatever gear and techniques fit the situation. The main thing is to use whatever it takes to get a scene that's in your head and get it into the camera. But I draw the line at putting critters in a refrigerator to slow them down (they might die), or killing them. It's my opinion that macro photographers have a responsibility to change hearts and minds about the small world, and it's kinda tough for the general public to take insects seriously if macro photographers are killing them just to take a photo. They have to be seen as more than "just bugs"...

That's all for this article folks. Until next time happy shooting!

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Back in the Saddle

Foraging Sweat Bee II
After a break that lasted more than a year I decided to start shooting again. So far four of the images that I've posted to Flickr have hit their Explore page (without any manipulation from me) and I picked up an 11th Daily Deviation at Deviant Art. So far so good :)

I hope to get back to blogging more, and I've started reviewing my tutorials to make sure they're still relevant and to see if there's still more to write. I've also been posting to my Instagram account. If there's anything that you'd like for me to cover concerning macro photography just hit me up in the comments here or on Facebook. More to come :)

Daily Deviation #11

I've been awarded my 11th Daily Deviation at Deviant Art for Red Mason Bee II
Red Mason Bee II