The following tips, tricks and techniques have served me well and though some may be specific to tropical macrophotography, the majority are widely applicable. Some are fairly basic though they are still deserving of mention and others are insights I’ve come to after much experimentation and failures. I try to avoid information covered ad nauseum in magazines and other blog sites regarding macro basics such as swaying your body, bracing, etc… and try to focus more on the integration of technical elements and the artistry of the photograph, chiefly through a spectrum of example photos. Note that this is the ‘photo light’ page, though it is still relatively photo heavy. The original has the same info but continues on with tips for specific types of insects and herptiles. You can either access the entire page by going HERE or access each section individually for slower internet connections.
The usual disclaimer: I am not responsible for any bodily harm that may and probably will come to you as a result of following said advice, yadda, yadda, yadda…on with the good stuff.
Extensively UPDATED 22/04/2013
My cardinal rule is to always look for behaviour shots. 10 times out of 10 this will be more interesting than a regular, portrait style shot of an insect. Why? Because it tells a story, life history. So even if the shot is out of focus or not framed perfectly I would choose it over a well composed photo if it shows some interesting behaviour such as mating, predation, defence, feeding, etc…
A prime example is the phorid fly and the katydid shots below. The former represents to my knowledge the only photo on the internet of actual parasitization illustrating oviposition in these species.
For behaviour shots, look to longer lenses. Although the mpe-65mm is my go to lens, I will often sacrifice magnification if it means that there’s less of a chance at disrupting natural behaviour. This is heavily species dependant. Flies for example are often skittish and therefore photographing mating, oviposition or parasitizing flies can be a challenge. Whereas spiders feeding on prey are generally fairly tolerant of invasions to their personal space. In general prey rather than predators are more likely to flee in response to a looming camera, as well as vision-based insects vs. the visually impaired.
Let’s face it though, the vast majority of the time insects and animals are not engaging in any kind of particularly interesting behaviour and even when they are, this is the time when they are especially sensitive to intrusions of their personal space. Therefore as a kind of distant 2nd place, try and find an interesting pose or angle. If it is moving take tons of shots, especially as it climbs over obstacles, hangs from leaves or tree limbs, this can result in interesting and dynamic poses which can separate your photo from similar but more static and conventional photos.
3) Planning (Separating the girls from the Women)
Think ahead! Having an idea of what kind of a photo you’d like beforehand is often one characteristic which separates amateurs from professionals. This is not to say that there’s no room for spontaneity and improvisation, however certain animals behave in certain stereotyped behaviours and so one can devise scenarios to capture that kind of behaviour. A guiding creative vision will give you more purpose and dedication as such one is likely to spend more time with any given subject. This further enables a subject to become more comfortable and thus resume more naturalistic behaviours. The below photos represent an envisioned scenario and how it was finally put together. Carpenter ants (Camponotus sp.) arch their gasters (abdomens) above their heads in a stereotyped response to threats.
On the same plant as the Camponotus model species are jumping spider mimics. These not only have the colouration and morphological features of their models, but also engage in behavioural mimicry. The latter of which is not limited to the forelegs substituting for antennae and held, waving above the head as in many other species of this genus. But also of the semi-permanently raised gaster as seen below. The spider when not within the immediate vicinity of the ants, however, will drop its abdomen to resume a more spider-like appearance. Thus to enhance the similarity between the model and mimic, I sought to capture the raised gaster behaviour.
Now the previous two photos laid the groundwork for the following photo and shows the progression in my train of thought and the shaping of an idea for a very particular kind of photo. Having captured both the model and mimic separately, I now wanted to capture them within a single frame to highlight the similarity in the most conspicuous of ways. This of course meant dedicating a lot of time, choosing the most strategic of locations to maximize my chances and a lot of failed attempts. Initially I would have liked to have caught both spider and ant in perfect focus, however, capturing a single one of them in focus was already a challenge as both species tend to be very active. Therefore I had to adapt and settle for a different kind of shot. Below is the result. In the foreground is the ant-mimicking spider and in the background the model ant. I backed off on the magnification in order to increase my depth of field (an example of sacrificing magnification for behaviour). This also had the benefit of allowing more space for the running subjects. It is a very different kind of photo from one which is all in focus and one which demands more attention to the photo in order to note the subtle differences between subject and background.
Having captured the above photo, I then had the idea of photographing both male and female within a single frame. Now I’d done this before with other sexually dimorphic species to illustrate the divergent morphological traits between male and female. This is usually achieved via low magnification bird’s eye view-type shots which come across as a little lifeless and textbook-reference style. Therefore I sought to photograph them in profile rather than dorsally. Unlike the above photo both would need to be in clear focus. Thus I decided to exploit a behavioural trait to capture my envisioned photo. Jumping spiders are visual predators, as much can be deduced by their enlarged anterior median eyes (AMEs). Therefore when in the presence of other animals and insects they are usually quite active and evasive. However, when in isolation and after they have grown accustomed to the photographer’s presence they are generally much more subdued (Nb. this may take upwards of 1/2hr). Therefore I isolated male and female on a single leaf suspended above the ground and encouraged the male to remain on one side of the leaf and the female on the reverse such that they were out of eyesight of one another and thus unable to excite and elicit too much movement from each other. After a few minutes they calmed down and I was able to slowly maneuver them into position by twirling the leaf or breathing on them gently such that they were in the same plane of focus. This sequence of events not only illustrates the importance of having a particular vision in mind, but also how observation and a background knowledge of biology and natural history can aid in the preparation and execution of a photo.
4) In focus/out of focus/selective focus
With the advent of focus stacking (post processing software which combines the sharpness of each focal plane from a stack of photos), within the macro community there is an increasing movement towards incredibly sharp images with less attention paid to composition. This is perhaps a result of macro occupying more of a niche-genre within wildlife photography, a niche dominated by researchers and scientists whose goals of systematics and classification has historically differed from both the layman and the photographer as an artist.
A perfectly sharp photo can be a wonderful thing, one need only see the many indoor and outdoor studio stacking work that excellent photographers like Nikola Rahme and John Hallmen produce to become a convert. However, the conditions needed for such deep stacks are often prohibitive in the field in tropical rainforests. Why? 1) Temperature/time – not immediately evident, but most field stacks are done in temperate environments in the early morning when insects are sluggish due to the cold, and lighting is ideal. During midday animals become too active for effective focus stacking 2) Weather – Inclement weather is par for the course in the rainforest. Frequents rains and wind will destroy a stack just as easily as a moving insect. Though this may also be the case in part in temperate climates, the weather is much more unpredictable in a rainforest. Also lenses tend to fog up with condensation.
Additionally, I believe that a uniformly sharp image actually decreases one’s appreciation of an image as a result of there being too much detail. Just like how soft colour palettes appear more pleasing to the eye than sharp, overly saturated colours, I think that a balance of in-focus and out of focus elements are needed to create a more visually pleasing result. The eye also tires more easily when there is nowhere for it to rest and it is constantly receiving data.
Moreover, selective focus, out of focus (oof) background and foreground elements contribute to the impact of an image and can deliver a message more strongly or more subtly than an all-in-focus image might. The oof elements add complexity and draw the viewer in and invite a closer look. They behave somewhat like leading lines which pulls the viewer in as they attempt to puzzle out the exact nature of the oof element.
Below is a focus stacked photo of the subject in which I have attempted to shoot the least distracting background possible. There’s still a lot of information there in all the detail, but at least it is offset by the rest of the image which is very subdued. It helps that the colours of the background, the substrate (white flower) and subject are all complementary white or off white colours.
Other times there is such a richness of colour, shapes and detail in a frame that it merits bringing it all into focus.
4) Shooting a moving target
Always aim ahead of the subject and have your focus ready, that way as soon as it comes into the frame you can get 4-5 shots off before it exits the frame. With a little luck your focus and framing will be on for at least one of those shots. This is important not only with fast moving subjects but also at high magnification where despite a small and an objectively slow moving subject, the subject’s apparent speed increases relative to the magnification. Bottom line is that even a 1mm worm will look like its moving quickly at 5x magnification. The same general principle to those who shoot birds in flight, anticipate! The above shot of the ant model and mimic running from opposite directions within a single frame is a good example. For dSLR photographers, consider changing your mode to AI Servo which will automatically adjust your focus (lens dependent) and shoot continuously to enhance your odds of an in focus shot.
5) Eliciting behaviour
Eliciting natural behaviours ranges from the simple to the complex. In the former category is the subject’s response to predators. Although this mostly involves some kind of flight response, more intriguing behaviours can involve playing dead, defensive gaping, threat or startle displays, etc… When dealing with unknown, potentially toxic species like snakes or spiders it is best to inform oneself as much as possible in advance and to err on the side of caution (eg. the Mangshan pit viper (Protobothrops manghanensis) from China was only recently found to be the only member of the crotalidae to spray venom from its fangs). One should always be cautious as a cornered animal or insect is a potentially dangerous one, especially for those which possess chemical or physical defences. However, to completely respect and leave the subject alone as many naturalists avow would be to leave open a whole chapter of an animal’s natural history. Therefore respect the subject. Keep in mind that threat displays are highly energetic processes that demand a lot of resources (its like a shot of adrenaline and being on high alert) and cause a lot of stress in the animal. Therefore try to limit the amount of time spent photographing this behaviour. If possible alternate subjects so as not to place too much undue stress on a single one. If the threat display is one that is self-destructive to the subject then it is best to simply move on, as no photo in my opinion is worth compromising the well-being of an animal.
This goes contrary to what most people say and do, but an aggravated insect is an interesting one. I never intentionally harm an insect, and I certainly don’t condone those who do. But I do poke and prod it. This elicits many different behaviours which one just wouldn’t see otherwise. A perfect example of this is in this leaf mimicking katydid (Pterochroza ocellata). When closed it looks like a simple mimic, one could very simply have left it at that, however by pushing it around a little into a new position, it suddenly opened up in a threatening display, revealing a behaviour I had hitherto not been familiar with, and in my opinion, a much more interesting photo.
Between the first two photos in this series, I find that despite the clarity of the first photo which isolates and shows off the katydid to good effect, I actually prefer the second shot, which shows the katydid amongst the leaves. Even though it is not technically as good, it shows the katydid ‘actively’ camouflaging and hence behaviour (Rule 1).
Other insects may not show as formidable a display as the katydid above, however, each will generally show some manner of defensive display. Ants will open their mandibles which generally looks a lot neater than when they are just walking around.
Snakes, lizards and even some frogs may open their mouths wide in a behaviour known as defensive gaping.
Eliciting more complex behaviours is a tricky one. Not only is it obviously dependent on species, but it also involves some creativity on your part and improvisation to the circumstances. Not to mention that the absence of the photographer is typically a prerequisite. Therefore consider using a longer lens and be patient so that the subject can be familiar and comfortable with your presence. Such behaviours might include courtship and mating (various jumping spiders), parasitization, and species-specific behaviours (see below):
A) I’m almost reluctant to give this tip away because it’s that good! Snakes sense their environment via highly chemosensitive tongues which direct scent molecules to receptor neurons by constantly flicking their tongues. However capturing a snake with its tongue out (which seems to be the goal of most snake photos) can prove to be a challenge. Thus I have found that by exhaling in front of the snake you can prompt it into a flurry of tongue flicking as it attempts to pick up on the new and interesting smells from your breath. This technique takes the guesswork out of trying to catch it with its tongue out and increases your odds of getting a better shot.
B) The best shots of lizards and reptiles involve territoriality. Even better than being threatened, anoles, chameleons and many other species will show dewlaps, change colours and show interesting behaviours difficult or impossible to elicit otherwise. So, if you bring along a small pocket mirror (like those used for makeup) you can sometimes elicit these displays. It’s best to draw as little attention to yourself as possible, so I recommend setting up the mirror facing the subject and having it resting on a tripod. In this manner you can step back and photograph. In the beginning try to remain as low-key as possible. Bump up the ISO and shoot without flash, then gradually introduce the flash as the subject becomes more and more distracted with the presence of its rival.
C) Some insects show stereotyped behaviour, like the digger wasp: A very interesting factoid about these Sphex wasps is that their behaviour is entirely programmed. In an experiment by Daniel Dennett, when the wasp arrived at its burrow with a prey item it left the prey to inspect the nest. The experimenter then moved the prey away about a foot. The wasp went looking for it, located it and then brought it back to the nest. Only it repeated the pattern, leaving the prey outside and inspecting the nest. This routine could be done any number of times without the wasp modifying its behaviour in the slightest. Such behaviour was then used as an argument by philosophers to explain how a variety of human actions though seemingly born of free will could simply be complex, innate behaviours. Keeping this in mind if you miss a shot the first time around you can remove the prey, watch the wasp look around for it, bring it back to the burrow and try again.
D) There’s always the old standby of throwing prey into the path of a predator. I’m sure we’ve all thrown grasshoppers or flies into the webs of spiders (as children of course).
E) Less common perhaps is refrigerating the predator. It slows down the metabolism so that when it emerges from its ‘induced hibernation’ it is generally quite hungry. Another programmed behaviour to deal with the onset of winter. Therefore it is more likely to feed on prey. I don’t condone this method due to its artificiality, the fact that you need to have both a fridge and predator/prey, and it doesn’t always work. Worst of all, and a sticking point for me is that it can potentially harm the predator. This is especially true in the tropics vs. temperate environments. In the latter, insects and animals have adapted to colder nighttime temperatures, as well as vernal dips of the thermometer. Therefore when cooled (either naturally or artificially) they are less likely to be harmed (though it is still a possibility due to the rapid and uneven cooling of refrigeration). In the tropics where year round temperatures are relatively constant, real harm can be done by refrigeration. After having heard about this technique on a different website I decided to try it in 2008 with a particularly difficult subject, Sabethes Cyaneus, possibly the most beautiful mosquito I have ever encountered. However, I found that it only resulted in artificial behaviour and postures and more often than not harms the subject. In conclusion this isn’t a technique that I approve of, but well here it is.
After such a poor result I did voluminous research on the subject and decided to prepare myself for my next encounter.
It was almost 2 years later in the rainforests of Guyana when I once again spotted the holy grail of mosquitoes(See full story here). Below is the result of an approach that uses natural history, a little experimentation and originality. It’s important to know that mosquitoes navigate using CO2 and heat signatures as well as movement and vague visual cues to hone in on prey. Therefore, after having spotted the mosquito I donned a long-sleeved shirt (which I carry in my bag for dusk and dawn when the less colourful mosquitoes emerge) to eliminate the possibility of it landing and biting on a part of the arm which would be inaccessible to photograph. I then proffered it my hand to feed on… Nothing… It continued to buzz around my head. So I exhaled deeply onto my hand to both warm it above the ambient temperature and to increase the local concentration of carbon dioxide. I held my breath (both in anticipation and also so not to confuse the concentration gradient of the CO2 in air). The result was that after a few tentative landings and takeoffs, it finally settled onto my hand. I then waited a few moments (since they are most vigilant and prone to fly off immediately following a landing since animals are most likely to swat an intruder upon sensing a landing). I waited until it had inserted its proboscis and begun feeding and would be at its most distracted. Only then did I carefully maneuver my camera into place for the shot. Of course only later did I learn that it was a vector for yellow fever, an interesting fact which conveniently eluded my extensive research!
F) Nocturnal insects and birds are attracted to white flowers unlike their diurnal counterparts. This means that if you have either white, fake plastic flowers (okay, not the most common of paraphernalia) or some kind of white plastic, you can daub this with some kind of sugary substrate and you can attract a variety of moths, earwigs, ants and other nighttime critters. This really works the same way as an insect trap though. Set it up and then return to it several hours later or else you’re in for a very boring time.
G) Changing the subject’s physical environment. Anoles, chameleons and other colour changing animals will change their skin colour to match their surroundings. This might be a tough sell for the fast moving anoles, but chameleons aren’t a problem. Some Monkey frogs (Phyllomedusa sp.), are called waxy monkey frogs for a reason. They spread wax over their bodies to both protect themselves from UV light, but more importantly to conserve moisture. If you place one of these frogs in a sunnier environment, it will begin to spread wax on itself. . . .
6) Developing a relationship with the subject (Creating a storyline)
One of my favourite subjects is the weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) in South East Asia and leafcutter/army ants in the New world. Therefore don’t dismiss even seemingly boring subjects, because they might surprise you with some fascinating bit of natural history.
Even in subjects as common as ants, brief, tender moments can be found by constantly observing a subject over the course of hours, days or months. Over time, one develops a relationship with them which translates into an intimacy which can often be shared through the lens.
Moreover, a series of images on the same subject provides continuity and a story. This is important in generating interest if one decides to share ones images or be published.
If you enjoyed the photos in this section and hold an interest in Weaver ants then you might consider heading over to the articles section under The Weaver ant complex which documents in greater detail the lives of these fascinating ants and the arthropods in orbit around them.
7) The Photoseries
Similar to the above point which stresses continuity and creating a story, the photoseries is a collection of photos when grouped together create something more than each individual photo can by itself ie. the sum is greater than the parts. Attention should be paid to the order and to the continuity between photos. Below the message is both educational, illustrating the migration of the pigmented cells of the eye within the eyestalks of the snail. However, it is also meant to be light and humorous.
Try new things! This can be incredibly rewarding and by constantly challenging oneself, one never grows bored, even when photographing the same subject day in, day out. By experimentation one does not have to redefine the genre and create something totally new, but rather try a new technique for you. You never know when this new skill might prove useful or offer insight into a scenario. By adding different methods to your photography tool belt you not only expand the range of possibilities of the final product, but in effect you change the way your observe a scene from the very outset before even pressing the shutter.
I had never done an HDR image before, but when I did, I was immediately impressed with the result. It is understated as far as a lot of HDR’s go, but I really like the effect. In nature photography my own philosophy is to recreate what I saw faithfully. A lot of HDRs go overboard on the tone mapping, creating unrealistic, yet visually stunning photos. This is not my aim. My preference is to bring out the shadow and highlight details to a reasonable extent that would otherwise be lost, not to create a technicolor dream world.
If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see my own experimental section which shows some different styles I am playing with.
9) Be original!
Create your own style! This creates some of the most satisfying, creative, wonderful photographs! I adore this photo, I have it as my screensaver, and I never get tired of looking at it. And the best part is…I took it! A lot of effort went into it both during the shoot and in post processing but I really like the effect. The key here is to think about a shot and how you want it to come out before you actually see the subject and starting shooting it. Before I go out on a shoot I think about what I will see. If it’s raining and I know I’ll be walking by a pond, I know that my odds of seeing frogs will increase, so I consider how I would like to shoot these frogs before I’ve even left and then make adjustments fitting the scenario when/if I actually come across them in the field.
10) A numbers game
Two is usually better than one! Why? Because the subjects interact with one another. Even if it is not directly, they create tension in each other that is visible in the photograph.
Even if the tension is not present between the two (or more) subjects in photograph, that doesn’t mean that tension can’t be created for the viewer. The shot below with spider and ant illustrates what I mean. Despite the fact that neither subject is aware of the other, the viewer sees and understands the predator/prey relationship and thus the image is much stronger with the two subjects.
In the following photo an understanding of biology and the natural history of the spider/cordyceps fungus helps one to understand the relationship between the two subjects and to appreciate the tension. Cordyceps is a fungus which infects all manner of arthropods and is usually species specific ie. one fungus kills one species rather than being a broad spectrum killer. Once Cordyceps has infected the individual, it changes its behaviour, causing the infected host to disregard its own safety and biological preservation and to climb to a high point. Having attained that viewpoint, the infected individual will grasp the twig, leaf or whatever surface in a deathly embrace and die. There Cordyceps will remain until such a point as is ideal for dissemination of its spores.
Therefore the similar posture and incredible proximity between the living and the dead individual recreates the drama of this interrelationship between fungus and host.
In essence, shooting 2 subjects or more is the difference between shooting a portrait and illustrating behaviour.
Ask yourself what message you want to convey. A clear purpose will help shape the composition of your photo. Below, I chose a tight crop on the mpe, leaving as little distance as possible between the subjects to illustrate the diversity found in Kinabalu national park.
11) A note on catchlights and specular highlights
There is a place for these as they can add texture and interest to a photo, but they can also be distracting and destroy a photo’s potential. This really needs to be looked at on a case by case basis. However, generally, if the catchlights are in the eyes and are well diffused then the texture and colours are usually preserved and I will leave them as they are. If the diffusion has failed and the highlights interrupt a pattern or wash out the colours, then I will clone and repair it out. I do this mostly in reptile and amphibian eyes, where the damage is much easier to repair in the single eye than in the many faceted ommatidia of insects. Below is an example of a repair job of a flash shot on a snail shell that has become way too distracting. I didn’t use any kind of diffusion on this shot. With post processing in photoshop, I have cloned and repaired most of the damage. I did this very slowly at a magnification of 700X. However, I found the efforts worthwhile because I really liked the pose of the snail.
This second shot shows the same snail as it was originally shot.
12) Knowing your equipment
Many people use the ETTL setting on their flash without ever bothering to learn how to use the manual setting. This is a mistake. It always pays to know the ins and outs of your equipment. I used to use ETTL, but every so often I would here the flash charging and then it would let out a burst and the whole scene was whited out. This was due to a miscommunication between the flash and camera body. This happened often enough that I started using the manual flash settings and have since been much more satisfied. For the mpe generally I use 1/8th flash power (f.p.) at 1-2x mag, 1/4 f.p. for 3-4x mag., and 1/2-1/1 f.p. for 4x-5x mag. Settings will vary depending on your ISO, aperture and shutterspeed, and amount of diffusion. The above settings is for a ‘typical’ macro setting of ISO 100, f/11 and 1/200 sec.
This knowledge is especially important for creative lighting control like backlighting, stroboscopic lighting and 2nd curtain flash settings whose primary aim is not necessarily a uniformly exposed image. I find my photos are more adequately exposed now that I have control of this element as well. It will also help you in your overall composition and to understand the general principles of light and will get you further involved in all technical aspects. Besides, there are often small functions that can make things much easier, like the function in the MT-24EX which allows a double tap of the shutter to turn on the macro lights. Not a life changer but something that can make life a little easier.
You will also want to know the limitations of your equipment before bringing it into a hostile environment like the rainforest. For example the MT-24 EX twin flash has a weak neck ie. the stem connecting the flash unit to the hotshoe. Out of the 4 units I have owned in 5 years, 3 have broken at this junction. Even if the camera falls and you catch it, the sudden jerk can result in a cracked stem which will widen over time and admit humidity. Therefore, creating a backstop out of tape or putty, or adding some kind of support is advisable for this unit.
The horizon constitutes the surface that the insect is on, be it leaf or ground or tree. Try and tilt the angle to have the leading lines of the subject drawing you in. This is preferable to straight horizons which can appear flat and uninteresting. The eye is drawn to circular, rounded and organic shapes which appear more natural, therefore try and incorporate these rather than flat, angular lines.
The caterpillar below shows what not to do. The composition is drab with too many flat lines, both those of the leaf and the lines created by the length of the caterpillar’s body.
In contrast are the following two examples which use curves, and interesting shapes created by the legs and landscape.
Alternatively you can incorporate curves and and rounded shapes which are more visually appealing than harsh straight lines.
14) The Macroscape
One way in which my style differs from other people’s is that I like interesting backgrounds. A lot of macro is aimed to isolate the subject from the background and have a nice bokeh. This can make for some lovely photographs and especially portraits, true. However, busy backgrounds provide a lot to look at and I will generally look at a photo a lot longer when it has an interesting background than one that is simple, and straight forward. This is particularly difficult to do in night photography which the majority of my shots are, however, I try and shoot at smaller apertures to gain more detail from the surroundings. Tread carefully when following this point as it is very easy to have too busy a background. This point may seem to be in contradiction with point 4 (selective focus of the subject), however it need not be.
Macroscape def. – The landscape of an image taken at high magnification which does not include the subject. This can be the background and/or foreground, it is the space into which the subject is placed.
The macro landscape is one of the most difficult elements to master since it requires an incredible attention to detail and to composition. It requires an intimate knowledge of the relationship between dof and aperture size for that particular lens all while maintaining focus on the subject, appropriate lighting, and other factors necessary for a good photo. Indeed it is so demanding a skill that I often neglect it in favour of tighter, more out of focus compositions concentrating on the subject(s). However, I find I am most often rewarded with my best photos when I take the macroscape into consideration.
One way I have found of exploiting the background and having it complement the subject is through the use of backlighting which can highlight or even create details that were either absent or only faintly visible before.
An early attempt which is not entirely successful but still shows my interest in busy backgrounds which dates back to my introduction to photography.
A more recent attempt illustrates how a complex, detailed background can add interest by creating a ‘where’s Waldo’ type of scenario, where a camouflaged subject might remain hidden until it finally pops into view. This can be a rewarding type of photo for the viewer, though once the subject is found it rarely holds the interest for much longer.
15) Focal points
Let’s add a disclaimer to the above point. There should be a focal point of interest to the photo. Too many disparate elements and the viewer gets lost. Let the eye naturally go to the focal point and then allow it to naturally radiate out to take in the small intricacies of the scene. So if there are additional, small insects in the background that aren’t visible upon first viewing. Or any in focus background/foreground points of interest, etc…
The focal point is almost always in the focal plane and thus sharp (at least in part). This point ties in well with rule 4 (selective focus). The juxtaposition between model and mimic here is evident but not too overstated thanks to the oof elements.
However, there are always exceptions to the rule. Below shows how a uniformly sharp image can be a little dazzling, and overwhelming with lots to look at. Here the eye doesn’t even know where to begin, and that’s the point.
16) The notetaker
Make notes while taking your photos. If you have a 1Ds series canon, lucky you! It has a voice recorder function. If not use a separate tape recorder or the video function on your camera or just a pen and paper. This is especially useful when you go over the same trail or grounds over again. If you spot a particular insect that has made a nest or a spider web that you particularly like, make a note of it. If you see an insect and you try and get a specific pose but don’t manage to get it this time around make a note of it so that next time you can try again. If there’s a setting that you found particularly useful or innovative record it. Afterwards you probably will forget, and you will also regret it.
17) Safety/Reference shot
If you are worried more about the insect than the composition take a ‘safety shot’ first. At a distance that you find appropriate take a photo so that if you scare it upon approach you will have at least one half-decent shot. This is especially true for flies and winged insects and day time photography. You would be amazed at the effectiveness of the ubiquitous strategy of falling to the ground and disappearing into the fallen leaves. In general night time animals are more tolerant of the photographer’s presence and thus one can approach more closely with less of fear of scaring the subject. Why? One important reason is that nocturnal animals are not primarily vision-based creatures but rely on a variety of other faculties like olfaction, hearing, etc…
The reference shot in all likelihood will not be a photo that you are satisfied with, but it’s better than no shot at all. It’s usually best to take an initial shot then approach a couple of steps and take another shot. Repeat until you get to the desired distance and can shoot the subject as you intended to from the beginning.
18) POWER and MEMORY
Always carry a LOT of spare batteries and LOTS of memory cards. I carry 24 AA’s (40 when travelling remotely), 3 LPE6 batteries, (4) 16GB, (2) 64GB and (1) 8GB CF cards. This allows me to shoot as much as I want and not be limited. I often go through a 64GB card and 16 AA batteries in a single day of shooting.
If you are constantly worried about using up too much space or power you will miss out on opportunities. I can shoot however I want. If I want to try my hand at an HDR panoramic focus stack, taking 40+ photos to be merged into one then I don’t feel constrained or that I will have to sacrifice this opportunity in order to shoot another one. My problem when first shooting in Borneo in 2009 was that I could only allot 2 photos or so per subject because otherwise I would run out of batteries before the trip’s end. With an eye constantly on the battery level, this is no way to shoot!
John Hallmen typically does 70+ natural light exposures while using the incredibly battery hungry live view mode. Experimenting can be seen by some as useless or a waste, or they simply get so comfortable with a certain type of photography that they don’t even realize how uniform their own portfolio has become. However experimentation leads to some really awesome and interesting shots, but first you have to go through lots of duds and throwaways. Get over the first hurdle and don’t limit yourself. Going hand in hand with this is to make sure of the compatibility of your equipment. If you can have your flashes, camera, flashlight, etc…all on matching batteries this makes life a lot easier. It means you don’t have to carry around tons of different chargers and if one gets lost you are not totally screwed.
I ALWAYS use rechargeable batteries and I don’t know why others don’t use them as much as they should! I carry a spare set of lithium disposables (for emergencies only) which I never use. Otherwise I use my rechargeables exclusively, of which I have found Sanyo eneloops to be the best (high capacity XX Eneloop professional 2,450 mAh).
Nb. A good battery recharger will also be needed. This is not an exhaustive review of battery rechargers, though it is a point deserving of some elaboration. Off the shelf solutions typically charge between 400-600 mAh/hr which is the industry standard rate to preserve battery longevity. The downside of this low delivered amperage is that batteries take exceedingly long to charge, often prohibitively so (up to 4hrs for four 2,500 mAh AA batteries). This is unacceptable to me since I might go through as many as 16 AA batteries in a single day.
Keep in mind that in the rainforest you may be working remotely and therefore have limited access to electricity. When working from solar panels or from a generator which supplies only a few hours of power/day a different kind of charger is needed. Fortunately there are several options.
1) 15 minute quick chargers – Companies like Duracell and Energizer have come out with these fast chargers which will charge standard 1,850 mAh NiCad/Ni-Mh batteries in about 15 minutes and 2,500 mAh in about 18-20 minutes. These deliver almost 4 times the industry standard amount of amperage over a given time. This effectively reduces the lifespan of the battery from the advertised value (500 charges for Eneloop) to probably less than half. In fact it delivers so much energy, so quickly that excess develops as heat and are hot to the touch. A fan incorporated into the charger helps cool the batteries. Despite negative online reviews I have found these chargers invaluable. Moreover, after 1 year most batteries are only able to hold approximately 75% of their charge, and even less in following years. It is doubtful that even a significant reduction in their lifespan will effect most users.
2) Variable output chargers – There are many of these on the market, however, the most highly rated are Maha Powerex (MH-C800S, etc…) and Lacrosse (BC-700/BC-1000 models). These have buttons which allow the user to toggle between different output levels. 200mAh for slow charging and up to 1000mAh for fast charging. Nb. This is still well below the level of the fast chargers above. However, it is useful for charging when in locations that have a steady access to power as well as places that are less predictable.
Look around! I have a friend who has a Nikon twin flash which uses CR123A batteries. He was using expensive disposables because he simply didn’t know that there were rechargeables for this battery type. So do your research!
19) Manual or Automatic focusing macro lens?
A lot of people shoot manual and a lot of the ‘experts’ will tell you to shoot manual. I went to a camera store specifically looking for the canon automatic macro lens (Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM). At this time I had a Zeiss which is exclusively manual on my canon. The sales person kept on telling me: “You should shoot manual, what do you need an automatic for? Your Zeiss is better than the canon, yadda, yadda, yadda…” Although I shoot in manual mode 90% of the time, automatic is very useful if you have to manipulate a leaf or hold a stem. It is just not possible to do this, while changing the focus ring, while holding your flashlight, while adjusting your flash heads to the optimal position. Remove some of the burden and in this case use your automatic setting. Yes it can search and be tedious at times but having the function is much better than being without it. I missed lots of shots when I just had the so-called superior Zeiss.
On the other hand…
Electronically controlled aperture rings are prone to failure. Twice I have had the mpe automatic diaphragm (which controls the aperture) fail on me. The result was that I was left with a lens which was left in the default position of f/2.8. For the mpe that is an essentially useless aperture. With the Zeiss and its manually controlled aperture however, I will never have to worry about that.
20) It’s all a matter of Perspective
How do you engage a viewer? How do you generate interest for that matter? Whether it be in a subject which is inherently interesting or is something that is encountered everyday, novelty is the key. Present the subject in a way that the viewer is not familiar with and you will be rewarded with a greater response, be it positive or negative. The following advice is based not only on conclusions drawn from personal experience, but also extrapolated from several peer-reviewed science articles and although this is common sense to most, it’s rooted in interesting science which I’ll share in the form of two studies, for practical examples you can skip to below the dotted line:
Negative Frequency Dependant Selection
This study sought to underline fashion trends and how the popularity of certain styles change as a function of either time or frequency. However clothing is too mutable, too many variables: new fabrics, new designs, new cuts, etc… Facial hair on the other hand? That hasn’t changed much since Neanderthal man, has it?
The researchers looked at both historical trends in facial hair (from handlebar moustaches to mullets to long sideburns) as well as a more robust experimental model in which both males and females were asked to choose the most attractive facial hair out of a lineup of men (various controls were used to factor out miscorrelations like a subject’s handsomeness). Their conclusion was that the least represented style of facial hair within the population was the most favoured. However, as this style became more well represented in the population, it became less popular. This is a phenomenon known as negative frequency dependant selection (a common principle to those familiar with evolution and natural selection).
Applied to photography the conclusion is that originality (provided it is still visually pleasing or has some other interest for the viewer) will be rewarded until it becomes so copied as to not be original anymore.
The eyes don’t lie…
“Marketing research is any organized effort used to gather information about target markets or customers. It is a very important component of business strategy” – Wikipedia
As such it is often designed to discover how to engage consumers and how to come up with new products or redesign old ones to have more appeal. Several related studies had shoppers cruising through a supermarket with specially outfitted eye-tracking hardware (this monitored the sweep of the gaze, and how long it lingered on various products measured in microseconds). It was found that:
1) Walking direction to a large extent determines gaze orientation. Shoppers take the same habitual route during their shopping journey because they have no reason to change their typical route.
[Think about the route the shopper takes and compare it to how as a viewer you look at a photo. Is the route familiar, are the same elements present throughout the body of your work or is there sufficient variation that one stops and stares rather than keeps moving?]
2) The placement of signage, displays ie. their physical location within the store can have more of an impact than the creative execution of those displays. Neither the ceiling nor floor were effective locations for drawing attention to a display and/or product.
[Make sure the interesting elements of your photo stand out. This is an imperfect comparison since the viewer is staring at a 2-D photo in a book or on a screen vs. the shopper who is in 3-D. Nevertheless, an important message can still be gleaned. Reduce clutter to enhance the visual impact of a photo. And keep the interesting elements away from the periphery where they might get lost to the viewer.]
3) “In fact, we uncovered that shoppers’ engagement with different types of POS (point of sale signage/materials and merchandise including packaging, product displays) varied widely. While some materials (most notably those with unique shapes and appearance) were regularly part of the shopping process, many other forms were consistently ignored – and most likely represented a waste of resources.”
[This last point is especially relevant. Shoppers and viewers alike are looking for something novel to engage them, because at a certain point with the huge influx of high quality photos from increasingly capable digital cameras, your perfectly focused but otherwise unremarkable photo is just the status quo and they are looking for something different.]
Finally, as though you needed any more ‘proof’ to deviate from your standard photo taking routine…
“There’s a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area or SN/VTA – essentially the major “novelty centre” of the brain, which responds to novel stimuli.
The SN/VTA is closely linked to areas of the brain called the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play large roles in learning and memory. The hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories, while the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories.
It’s been thought before that novelty was a reward in itself, but, like dopamine, it seems to be more related to motivation.
Researchers Bunzeck and Duzel tested people with an ‘oddball’ experiment that used fMRI imaging to see how their brains reacted to novelty. They showed the subjects images such as indoor and outdoor scenes and faces with occasional novel images (oddballs) thrown in.
The experiment found that SN/VTA was activated by novel images —that is, brand new images that hadn’t been seen before. Images that only slightly deviated from more familiar ones didn’t have the same effect.
Conclusion? The Dopamine pathways are activated when we are exposed to novelty. Furthermore, animal studies show that the plasticity of the hippocampus (ie. the ability to create new connections between neurons) was increased by the influence of novelty—both during the process of exploring a novel environment or stimuli and for 15–30 minutes afterwards. Therefore in addition to increasing the potential for learning new concepts and facts—novelty has been shown to improve the memory of subjects.” You want to be remembered right?
Consider the following photo pairs. The first photo will illustrate the common, stock photo likely to be taken online by the average photographer. The second will represent a different perspective. Hopefully one which will be more engaging and invite a greater appreciation of the subject and the effort that went into getting such a shot.
A google search of Nepenthes Villosa will reveal a lot of similar photos. Interesting, undoubtedly but with visual impact? Novelty? How often do you spend looking at each one?
Below is the first picture I took of an N. Villosa pitcher plant which if this were a criminal lineup, would blend in fairly well with the other suspects in the google search. However this photo does nothing to impress. It ‘shows’, but doesn’t emphasize the biological features which make this such a spectacular specimen. The perspective is more documentarian.
Like some of the other photos I’ve already shared, background and research are immensely helpful in creating a framework for how to approach a photo.
First off, Nepenthes Villosa is a highland pitcher plant (a member of the carnivorous plant family) which produces vicious looking teeth (actually a part of the peristome). And teeth isn’t that inaccurate a descriptor either. These downward pointing spines are thought to impede the exit of prey once they have climbed into the predaceous maw to feed on the sweet nectar-rimmed inside lip of the pitcher. How best to illustrate N. Villosa then? I chose to do a wide-angle macro using the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 distagon. I felt this angle and lighting (slightly underexposed in order to create a black ‘stomach’ for the inside of the pitcher) best illustrated my impression of this impressive species as a beautiful, sinister, ravenous and dangerous predator.
Leaf tailed geckos (Uroplatus spp.) are undoubtedly wonders of the animal kingdom, that is if you can find them! Frilled skin flaps around the contours of their body help break up their outline as they press themselves against tree trunks and branches. As masters of camouflage it is only natural that one would want to take a photo showing this to its greatest effect. After all isn’t that what I’ve been advocating all along, highlight behaviours and traits that show off the natural history and tell a story? However, look at many of the so-called camouflaged photos online and you will find it’s more of a portrait on a like-coloured substrate. If the subject is quickly found without having to make the viewer work for it then this doesn’t express the difficulty, frustration and at times sheer hopelessness of trying to find these in the wild AND it doesn’t do true justice to the remarkable evolution of this animal either. Rather than plunking the subject in the middle of the frame where it is expected, place it in the corners. The human eye is used to tracking in a very linear manner as though a photograph were a line of script to be read. Diagonals and odd contours and shapes are much more difficult to decipher, and this should be how to photograph these animals to do them justice.
In portraits eye contact is important for creating a link between the subject and the viewer. This is distinctly lacking in the first shot of this photo pair. If not for the novelty of the subject itself, which doesn’t require any effort beyond the most basic of framing on the part of the photographer, it would be an utterly unremarkable photo. Look at the denticles (irregular projections over the eye) which contribute to the camouflage, a fascinating detail deserving of more attention and yet 3/4 of the photo is taken up by a largely out of focus body without much interest.
Here the mesmerizing eyes give it a hypnotic gaze, and the open, threatening mouth lends an immediacy or ‘sudden’ impact, also known as a visceral vs. cognitive response to the viewer.
Terrestrial flatworms, planaria and their kin slime slowly across the ground, using a mucosal trail much like the gastropods on which they feed. When they do find their prey, they slide over them and the enfolding scene is hidden from view. How then can one photograph interesting behaviour or perspectives when the subject spends the vast majority of its time on the forest floor and when it does engage in interesting behaviour, it is largely hidden? Not surprisingly the majority of photos are dorsal, bird’s eye view shots with glare and specular highlights to boot, as a result of their moist and slimy bodies.
By elevating the leaf on which it was traversing, I was able to capture a unique, head on, eye-level perspective as it supported its head and mid-body in the air as it explored its environment.
Most ant photos are poorly lit with harsh shadows under their bodies due to their small size. Many are also shiny, or have a black veneer that makes specular highlights particularly troublesome. However, since they are so ubiquitous you’ll find all manner of angles and perspectives. Therefore one must get quite creative in order to hold the viewer’s interest for long. That is why the most interesting photos of ants typically involve a) Very high magnification showing hitherto unseen details b) Illustrate a rare or uncommon species, or c) Are demonstrative of some kind of behaviour. These 3 things all have something in common: They present the viewer with something they have never seen or perhaps even heard of before. But what if you have none of these 3 things, can you still shoot and a visually engaging photo that can hold a viewer’s interest?
Combining backlighting, a non-linear horizon and an in-your-face perspective from this hunting ant (Diacamma sp.) help it to stand out.
Like the terrestrial flatworm above, caterpillars are usually shot either dorsally or laterally, seldom ventrally. Below is your typical dorso-lateral shot of a limacodid. Fortunately they often benefit from a veritable arsenal of spines and bright aposematic colouration. The difficulty in photographing them however, lies within the very protective armour that makes them a fascinating study. Without a head or eyes to focus on, the power of the image is much diminished. The first image, like most found online fails to show the head which is safely tucked away within a capsule which serves as protection. Therefore, besides the unique anatomy of these caterpillars, after having sifted through several hundred images of these insects one will quickly grow tired of this stale view unless more of a connection can be created with the viewer.
A combination of faint backlighting to illuminate the delicate, fragile urticating hairs and a novel perspective help to create a unique perspective.
A lot of these tropical insects will appear pretty new to the uninitiated and so the variance between the first and second photo in the pair may seem like simply a quality imbalance in equipment, or lighting. However, it goes far beyond this. It is the difference between shooting a scene passively and thinking it through – of observing the subject and then determining what settings, and which perspective will be unlike any other photo out there. It involves a lot of thought, experimentation and failure which may or not be rewarded.
Below is a plant hopper with a typical waxy ‘tail’, hydrophobic filaments which are extruded from abdominal terga whose function has been the subject of several hypotheses. Amongst the prevailing theories are that these tails can act as a source of distraction for predators, especially given the diffraction which can cause confusion. They could also serve to distract attention away from vital body parts during an attack, or else when fully splayed as in the second photo, to act as a kind of wind sail to slow descent and increase travel distance during escape flight.
Plant hopper nymph (Ricaniidae) shows a profusion of fibre optic-like wax tails. Conventionally these are shot at smaller apertures to recreate the fine details and show each individual waxen strand. I chose to use a large aperture to create almost a starburst effect.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to back off on the magnification, even for very small subjects. This overlaps with the idea of the macroscape. Be aware of the environment around the subject and whether it can contribute to the effectiveness of the message you’d like to convey.
The first weevil image is how one would normally shoot this subject. It is undoubtedly interesting, detailed, and well shot. However, look through the average macrographer’s gallery and you will see a dozen other species shot in the same style (ie. detailed, high magnification, similar uniform lighting). In which case it will be the subject itself with its interesting appearance which will distinguish the photo, rather than any creative skill on the photographer’s part.
Shoot at a lower magnification though and it becomes a macroscape and not a portrait. This was shot at over 1X magnification and still the weevil appears tiny. With its proboscis and posture I wanted it to appear like a tiny, hairy elephant cresting the leaf.
However, easing off on the magnification goes beyond simply the macroscape and includes principles like the use of negative space (as seen below). Here the negative space when coupled with the subject’s posture, position on the leaf blade and the knowledge of a jumping spider’s high visual acuity gives the impression that it is gazing off into a vast distance. I chose to entitle this shot ‘The Viewpoint’ for that very reason.
21) Light and lighting
This is a huge topic and will differentiate great photos from mediocre ones even if you have gotten all the other elements right. Few photographers would argue that lighting is the most important aspect of photography. With its ability to transform drab, uninteresting landscapes into technicolor marvels, or change the gaudy into the gritty B+W of a sin city-esque world. Relatively recently HDR has expanded not only the dynamic range but also our expectations. We are no longer content with a simple “out of camera photo” but seek a more accurate recreation of the ‘visual experience’ if not the actual reality of the time and place (not to mention the creative liberties it permits for the photographer-artist).
Interestingly, the crucial importance of lighting in the field of Macro is often overshadowed by the macro-specific challenges that the photographer faces – notably depth of field (dof). This is often to the detriment of the quality of the photograph. As mentioned earlier the priority for most photographers seems to be on extending the focus as much as possible, artificially in post processing if need be. As such, one does not see creative lighting (including HDR), unique compositions, or experimentation in general nearly as much as in other fields of photography. Rather, macro often places undue emphasis on the subject and its ‘interestingness’ rather than on the beauty of the photo as a whole.
This obsession on ‘perfect’ back to front sharpness is a mistake and one that often has unseen costs. For example, not only will you lose many potential subject opportunities by tethering yourself to a focus rail and tripod (too slow and bulky), but you are handicapped before even beginning because your creative approach to the lighting, and composition will be more limited.
For dramatic, professional looking portraits nothing really compares to a black background. It adds emphasis and contrast and can be adapted to a wide variety of applications. This is why it is often my most frequently used background. Although I prefer natural light from an artistic perspective, black (or white) is more applicable within the professional world of selling photos and for portraiture work where one seeks to eliminate all distracting elements. When coupled with working at night, one has complete control over lighting and thus can create some wonderful results that are simply not possible with the intrusion of ambient light.
When detail is a priority then a white background is ideal. Light bounces or is reflected (rather than absorbed) more readily off of white than coloured surfaces, thus providing more detail. For an abundance of examples you can check out the Meet your neighbours initiative which seeks to photodocument species without distracting backgrounds.
Flash and Diffusion
Due to the size of subjects generally encountered in macro there is often little or no space between the subject and the substrate it is on. As a result, little ambient light is able to penetrate the areas underneath the subject, creating harsh shadows. In consequence flash is the macrophotographer’s best friend. However, flash without diffusion creates unflattering catchlights, specular highlights and glare. Diffuse light is especially important for shiny, metallic or reflective/iridescent subjects. Macro photographers are constantly in a battle to find that ideal combination of diffusive materials, often cobbled together from dollar store bits and pieces and recycling bins to create the ‘perfect diffuser’.
In the rainforest a diffuser poses a particularly annoying problem due to the constant humidity and dense foliage which obstructs any protruding materials. Paper towels, and tissue paper quickly becomes soggy and unusable. Other organic materials grow fungus and mould over time. If you are moving from one camp to another then cardboard snoots or coke can diffusers get mashed in backpacks during travel. I have tried most of these diffuser solutions in one form or another and have found that the best solution is either something professionally made like a Lumiquest softbox which won’t deteriorate and can be treated relatively harshly (not to mention that it folds down to save space) or else a simpler solution like a doubled over sheet of vellum paper. The latter can be obtained at arts and crafts stores, is organic and so will deteriorate over time, however, it is flexible and resilient and it can be easily cut to fit over your flash heads. Not to mention that it’s cheap.
Your diffusion setup will evolve over time and it will essentially create a ‘light profile’ from which you will be able to differentiate your photos from those of other people. It is one of the essential ingredients in the fingerprint of what constitutes YOUR photo.
The evolving setup
I first started in 2009 with a Pentax K200D and 100mm macro and simply shot with the onboard flash without any diffusion.
I then changed setup in 2010 to the Canon 5DII/mpe-65mm lens/MT-24EX twin flash, also without any diffusion.
Partway through my 2010 Guyana trip I added a triple layer of vellum paper which had much nicer diffusion but was unwieldy and often sagged in the humidity to obstruct the lens. It was only a temporary fix.
In 2011 I added stofen diffusers hot-glued to gary fong puffer diffusers to create my 1st generation diffuser.
In 2012 I added a doubled over vellum light tent to wrap around the front of the lens.
In 2013 I had a lot of flash issues. One of the twin flash heads died leaving me with only one working. I therefore had a chance to experiment a lot with my light. I did away with the vellum light tent which I found too obtrusive and added a modified lumiquest softbox III which I modded to the twin flash heads so that it fitted more tightly and didn’t project forward over the lens too much. I also packed the stofens with insulating foam, and added some cut sheets of vellum and some leftover pieces of the Lumiquest lightbox diffusion material.
Initially I started with stofens+gary fong diffusers packed with insulating foam and vellum paper. I had a modified lumiquest III on one flash head A, but not B. The logic was that flash head A would be more heavily diffused and create the overhead light and would be shot at higher power. Flash head B would provide lighting from the side which creates more detail. It would be shot at a lower power but also have one less layer of diffusion.
When one of the flash heads died I decided to go with simply with the same setup as flash head A.
Finally when I replaced the twin flash with another unit I also capped flash head B with a modified Lumiquest box in addition to the other diffusion already present. However the two lightboxes were too bulky and interfered with one another and so I only used them together with very iridescent and difficult subjects. The rest of the time I used the Lumiquest box on only one of the flash heads.
Natural Light (NL)
Speak to the average macro photographer and it is likely that they will express both a reverence for natural light while registering a dismay that they are not able to incorporate it into their own photography to a greater extent. Why the reverence? I believe that it is a combination of the more pleasing aesthetics like the (usually) softer colour palette and bokeh, people’s difficulty and dissatisfaction with their own flash and diffusion systems (the creation of specular highlights, catchlights, glare, etc…associated with flash), as well as the perception that a greater skill is required in order to capture good natural light portraiture.
This glorification seems to be exacerbated by the long held notion that proper macro requires the use of a tripod. (Nb. This argument has been used long before the advent of focus stacking for which the use of a tripod is fully justified.) For the record, it doesn’t. All of the shots within this thread save for the focus stack of the crab spider (rule 3) have been handheld. What macro does require is a proper understanding of light, the capabilities of one’s camera and the settings to get the most out of it. Eg. I briefly owned a Canon 7D, however, I quickly found that for my style of shooting (ie. low light in the jungle, night time photography, experimental lighting) the APS-C sensor was simply insufficiently sensitive and produced too much noise and a low dynamic range. Once the camera was pushed beyond ISO 400 the results typically became unsatisfactory. Pictures, even in RAW were pixelated and lacked detail. The Canon 5DII on the other hand performed excellently in this regard (and I imagine something like the Nikon D800 which is touted for its low light capabilities would have performed even better).
Furthermore, the ideal of NL seems to be reinforced by the unattributed correlation between talented photographers and their proclivity towards natural light. This is to say that it is typically more accomplished photographers who have a better grasp of composition, lighting and other artistic elements that mostly use natural light. Therefore they perpetuate the belief that NL is the reason for the photo’s beauty rather than just being one of many stylistic effects in their tool belt.
Photos which include more natural light typically involve a greater separation between the subject and substrate so as to include more space for the light to ‘enter’. For example an elevated insect on a leaf or twig has the benefit not only of light approaching from the apparent source overhead, but also bounced off of the ground. With subjects that are on the ground to begin with, there is no such benefit, therefore less light.
Now to address the more relevant “why photographers are dismayed at not being able to incorporate more NL into their own photography” or Why can’t we all, always shoot NL? Perception is one thing. The idea that the weather has to be perfect – the sun can’t be too strong (too much glare and contrast), not too windy (causes motion blur), rainy (forget it). No, the sky must be overcast to provide just the right amount of diffusion, right? Wrong. Macro differs from other forms of photography in that the size of the scene captured is well within the capabilities of the photographer to control. Some photographers take this to the extreme by traveling with mobile outdoor studios. However for the average photographer that deals with too much direct sunlight, or not enough light hitting the subject? The simple use a reflector or diffuser held over the subject is largely sufficient.
Next, the tripod myth. I’ve lost track of how many times I have been asked if I use a tripod, told that my photography could benefit from a tripod or else been argued with over the necessity of a tripod in macro photography. Enough times that now I can simply direct people to this section without engaging them further.
So… you will need a tripod, a clamp to hold the subject in place so it doesn’t shift, and any number of endless oddities. Right? Wrong. I often shoot NL in the dark overcast jungle without the use of a tripod. This will require bumping up your ISO, lowering your shutter speed and opening up the aperture. I shoot in manual mode but with certain restrictions borne from experience. I don’t shoot over ISO 2000 because I know the quality is already borderline at 1600 but that I can still salvage a photo at ISO 2000 if I really need to. Shutter speed rarely dips lower than 1/30 since my keeper ratio sharply falls off and I get too many blurry photos, and dof is kept between f/5.6 and f/11 for the most part. Depending on my creative vision, and the environment I maintain flexibility but try to operate within these parameters most of the time. Could I lower my shutter speed and concomitantly my ISO with the use of a tripod? Yes. Is it practical for the type of photography that I do that requires tracking of especially mobile subjects and a sensitivity to not disrupting of their natural behaviour with the time wasting disturbance of placing the tripod legs? No. Moving on then.
But this section is about shooting natural light rather than debating its merits. If you’d like to reap the benefits of nice soft backgrounds without harsh contrasts, or specular highlights then these effects can be made more pronounced by the larger the aperture (smaller f stop). In the rainforest, to combat the poor light quality under the canopy one has to use quite a large aperture (this creates a shallow depth of field which in some cases can create a 3D feel), only a medium-slow shutter and a higher ISO than one would like. Often with a bit of fill flash thrown in.
NL shots can be more difficult for several reasons:
1) Requires a longer shutter speed; This necessitates not only a more stable platform from which to shoot, but also that the subject remain motionless.
2) You need to choose your backgrounds carefully to complement the subject appropriately.
3) You may need to diffuse the light if it is too harsh, so one must keep an eye towards what kind of light is hitting the subject: is it bright, shaded, diffused from cloud cover, etc…
4) A greater understanding of the relationship between the various settings on your camera and the knowledge of when and how to use fill flash to complement and not overwhelm a scene.
An all natural light shot is not always a feasible solution (especially in the rainforest) and so a compromise solution can be to use fill flash. This is where a flash is used to fill in the shadows and complement the NL.
Below is an early attempt at NL with fill flash and illustrates the difficulties and common pitfalls. Here you can see the flash in the eye, however the flash power was set to 1/32, just enough to brighten up the subject, while the shutter speed was long enough to expose the background sufficiently for some colour (though it is still underexposed). Proper overall exposure takes practice and can be tricky especially under the canopy where light conditions are constantly changing due to the patchiness of light. However the results can be well worth the effort. Notice that the ISO is fairly low for a rainforest NL shot, especially shot at dusk as is the case for this particular photo.
The lesson I took away after too many photos spoiled by inadequate lighting was that I would have to push the ISO capabilities of the camera if I wanted truly sharp, NL shots of insects and their behaviour in the jungle. ISO seems to be another one of those hot button topics that people become very entrenched about. There seem to be maxims and lines that people don’t cross: “Don’t go above ISO 1000, 1600, 2000, etc… it’s shit!”. Not only are today’s cameras more capable than ever, but your effective ISO will be situation dependant. I don’t mind using ISOs of 4000 or more when capturing moving subjects under UV light for example. The darker the scene, generally the higher the ISO you can go without incurring too much noise destroying potential to the photo. Experimentation is your best friend.
The following two photos are later attempts made after I’d accepted that higher ISOs are an inevitability when shooting without a tripod. (Note that I did apply a 1-pass noise removal in post processing using Noise Ninja software).
The settings are more forgiving (ie. I was able to shoot faster, with more dof and lower ISO) in the below shot by shooting upwards into the sky to ‘harvest’ as much light as possible. A faster shutter speed is especially important when dealing with active subjects like jumping spiders to discourage motion blur.
The tripod and NL
Using a tripod produced the photos below. Without a tripod it would be very difficult to achieve such results. Keep in mind, however, these are stationary subjects. With moving subjects under the rainforest canopy, NL will in all likelihood need to be complemented with flash.
If you wish to see a prime example of this kind of photography “THE” place to start in my opinion is with an excellent macrophotographer who produces absolutely amazing natural light shots: John Hallmen.
Backlighting is a simple but powerful tool to introduce a unique and fascinating element into a photo. Backlighting in its starkest form creates silhouettes. This can be used to illustrate interesting or unusual edge details, like in the spiky chameleon below.
Perhaps a more subtle use is its ability to enhance the likeness of two dissimilar subjects. Take the following two examples:
1) The ant-mimicking spider (Pranburia manhoppi)
By destroying centre detail and leaving only edge detail it becomes even more difficult to distinguish the identity of the subject, thereby enhancing the deception, creating more of a verisimilitude between the mimic and its model, and perhaps offering a glimpse into an animal’s perspective (most of whom have poor eyesight). This works especially well when done as a photo pair with one picture showing detail (above) and one without (below).
2) The weevil-mimicking eurybrachid (Ancyra sp.)
Deceptive silhouettes not only create interest in a photo but generate a kind of ‘aha’ moment when the deception is uncovered. Save for the edges, all detail will be lost, therefore consider using smaller apertures than you would normally (since diffraction, the interference of light waves as they enter an ever narrowing aperture, play only a limited role in a silhouette) in order to mine that edge-detail. In PP, consider using a sharpen and contrast brush to go over the edges to make them stand out even more.
Backlighting comes in a variety of flavours depending on the amount of light transmitted through the subject (translucence vs. opaqueness) as well as the amount of light reflected from the front of the subject onto the sensor. It is this light differential that will determine the quality of the photo. An opaque subject will appear completely black as a silhouette (above section). Whereas the translucent subject will often appear luminescent with interesting colours and textures becoming visible which would otherwise go unseen.
Compare the following 3 photos of the same subject using 1) normal flash 2) backlighting with no flash, and 3) backlighting with a short flash duration.
A regular flash photo is what one would typically encounter in an online search and is how I would expect most photographers to approach this subject.
Full backlighting overwhelms the subject with additional detail from the leaf and renders it almost invisible. This view is what other animals might see during the day when sunlight is streaming through the canopy. It therefore provides a much greater appreciation for the hopper’s camouflage than the first shot.
Back and front lighting permit us to see the details of the subject, without losing sight of its incredible ability to camouflage. It is the technique that I personally find the most useful and engaging. Although in theory taking such a photo simply requires the backlighting to be stronger than the front lighting, in practice finding the right balance for proper exposure can be quite challenging and require a bit of experimentation.
The following two photos show the same moth and the same leaf with and without backlighting. The effect can be quite dramatic, creating details and colours which simply wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The revelation of the plant’s vascular system (leaf veins) adds a complexity to the photo which is completely absent in the second photo.
I mostly use one of two methods to shoot backlit photos. I will either a) use a variable output flashlight from behind while shooting normally on low flash power from in front or b) place one flash head behind the subject (flash head A) and one in front (flash head B) and adjust the ratio control such that A is two stops stronger than B (since A needs to travel through an opaque medium and B does not). The ratio will need to be adjusted based on the density of the substrate. If A is too strong it will blow out the details of the substrate and if B is too strong then the backlighting will be overcome and the photo will simply appear like a normal flash photo.
I tend to prefer the use of a flashlight vs. flash since it offers greater control. Not only can I change the output intensity, but also move it closer or further away to change the beam spread. It can also focus on specific parts of the scene I want backlit (a kind of light painting), rather than the flash which is indiscriminate.
Without backlighting this stick insect wouldn’t show the same degree of camouflage. It would stand out against the green leaf. However, the midrib of the leaf and its radiating veins appear more yellow than green under backlighting, and the insect’s translucent legs blend in with the leaf.
C) Mood lighting
In macro there is often talk of the lack of creativity in a field dominated by detail oriented, scientifically minded photographers. Some people don’t even know where to begin to get the creative ball rolling. Hopefully the examples in this section can help.
Lighting can dramatically alter the mood and tone of an image. Backlighting in particular can be reminiscent of jack-o-lanterns and halloween, as the light peeps through cracks and crevices in an otherwise dark image. Or else it can create fluorescence and otherworldly colours not seen naturally. Make use of these ideas and principles to complement your subject.
There is just enough light to provide a partial outline of the denser parts of the caterpillar like the head and underside. However, as the light passes through the hairs, they light up, providing a nice focal point and contrast. The light from the flashlight was positioned in such a way that it might be mistaken for the moon.
Cicada husks are a common feature of the rainforest landscape even as their living counterparts remain frustratingly elusive. By themselves these cicada exuvia are of passing interest, though difficult to photograph well under normal lighting conditions. However, they take on a more sinister appearance when backlit. Some additional morphological details might also be observed upon closer examination.
A much softer and gentler tone can be created by opening up the aperture and lighting through a denser medium, like this mushroom cap.
D) Natural backlighting
Now we move onto the master’s class! Natural backlighting can create some of loveliest compositions and interesting photos in your portfolio. They can also be the subject of much frustration and uneven illumination. This section more than any other requires an understanding of light, the capabilities of your flash and the use of accessories like diffusers and reflectors.
As dusk fell, the light through the canopy shed a few last rays of sunlight which fell on this beautiful little chameleon. I was in a stunted forest in Madagascar and so there was less foliage blocking the natural light as there would have been in a traditional rainforest. With the light coming from behind, without certain measures, the underside of the subject would be in shadow, ruining the evenly lit, soft feel of the image below. The photo that you see below is what I observed through the viewfinder but which failed to materialize when I pushed the shutter. Instead the underside was in shadow, one of those frustrating discrepancies the sensor but not the viewfinder pick up on. Therefore I illuminated the chameleon from below with a very small 1/128 flash pulse through a heavy diffuser. This was enough to dispel the shadows without otherwise washing out the beautifully backlit leaves. An alternative would have been to place a reflector below the subject to bounce the incoming natural light.
Another photo taking advantage of the waning directional light. I had little time to compose and the angle was off, with the harvestman appearing higher up on the trunk than I would have liked. Also the subject was quite mobile. Therefore I had to use a higher ISO then I would have liked and even so there wasn’t enough light to illuminate the trunk it was resting on. Either increasing the ISO or lowering one of aperture or shutter would have resulted in blown out details in the backlit legs. Therefore I decided to have the image underexposed by closing the aperture down even further so that I could get the aperture blades in the bokeh of the photo.
E) Tradeoffs to backlighting
Your subject might not always show perfect exposure, but rather be slightly underexposed (it won’t be overexposed because this would wash out and defeat the purpose of the backlighting). It is a delicate balancing act between providing too little and too much lighting and with all this fiddling many subjects are liable to wander off or otherwise be disturbed.
Although in theory with natural backlighting one should be able to practice this type of photography whenever the sun is out, in practice dusk and dawn are when the lighting is strongly directional and there is a nicer colour cast to the light is preferable (a golden hour when you might want to be out photographing something else). Overcast days won’t provide enough backlighting.
Like other styles of photography backlighting when overused can become a simple novelty whose charm quickly wears off. Therefore use it sparingly. Backlighting is not a panacea to generate interest in your photo and it is very easy to abandon thought towards composition when focusing on the lighting. Sometimes it works, usually it doesn’t. As you experiment more with the method, you’ll learn when to apply it and when to refrain.
When dealing with natural backlighting, glare can become a significant problem, or an opportunity. Glare, will create haze, wash out and destroy detail and create distracting optical rainbows. The vast majority of the time this will result in poor quality photos which you would be right to throw away. However, after experimenting extensively, I have found that if you are able to find the right angles, it is possible to get a backlit subject that is not too washed out (that can be recovered in post processing) and which shows interesting effects. Actually, when these images are converted into black and white (see below) then the diffraction can even look like rain.
While backlighting obviously comes from the back, directional lighting can come from anywhere, either as multiple light sources, or a single one. I have found the technique of directing a flashlight from underneath contours or sculpted features which disrupt the uniformity of light such that it lights the ‘hills’ and not the ‘valleys’ to create lots of possibilities. Use this technique to show odd or interesting details that might otherwise pass unnoticed, or else might not have the same impact under regular lighting (like the eye). By strongly contrasting the light and shadow, drama and tension can easily be created. Both of the photos below rely only on flashlight without the use of flash.
Offering a closeup, and lighting only the eye with the rest of the image in shadow or underexposed, the pit viper photographed here appears more menacing. This could be a promotional photo for the new GodZilla movie.
As the light wraps around the head from beneath, only the protruding eyes and nose are lit, casting the rest in darkness.
Black and white
Finding good black and white photos in macro is rare. It is a relict of the past and unlike landscapes or portraits, the gritty texture and feel doesn’t come across in the same manner. I have found b+w to be highly contextual and subject specific therefore it is difficult to make broad generalizations. However, I have found both natural light and backlit photos (a quality of the translucence translates well to b+w) to be more forgiving of b+w treatment than flash photos.
So, your photo is overexposed, and it looks more like a water colour painting than a photo. However, before binning it you might consider desaturating it, effectively turning it into a b+w photo. This can sometimes be a measure of last resort in rescuing a photo. After you’ve done this you can play with exposure and apply shadow and highlight recovery more indiscriminately than you would if you were trying to preserve colour detail.
The original photo is suffering from overexposure and chromatic aberration.
By converting it to a black and white the photo becomes easier to work with and while not a winner by any means it might just become acceptable.
I had already known that material in the chitin of scorpions fluoresced when exposed to UV light. However, thanks to Techuser on flickr (Joao P. Burini) for the idea of using UV on harvestmen. The photos in this section involved the use of a tripod using 15 and 30 second long exposures, while minimizing ISO’s to 100-400. The results are much cleaner than previous attempts. Here, any movement will result in fairly poor results. UV light was in the 365nm wavelength. This provides a more naturalistic lighting that minimizes the purple colour cast of 400nm + wavelengths, though the latter definitely have an interesting, and distinctive look. Furthermore this wavelength seems to make create a brighter fluorescence, enabling shorter exposure times.
The purpose of UV fluorescence is a little unclear. Some insects see in UV and so it might help in species differentiation or mate selection. Snakes, birds and other predators can also see in UV so perhaps the brightness reflects aposematism in nocturnal predators in a similar way to how bright colours in the visible spectrum do to diurnal predators. Harvestmen use a variety of defenses including aposematism, stridulation and chemical defenses to ward off predators and so it seems feasible that such fluorescence might fulfill a similar role. Though the accentuation of patterns on the dorsum and posterior might be more reflective of mate selection since many harvestmen will perch up high and with relatively poor vision, such brightness might help them find a mate. Some other insects that I have found to reflect UV are some leaf mimicking katydids, centipedes (Scolopendra), crab backed orbweavers (Micrathena sp.), caterpillars, scorpions, stick insects, grasshoppers/katydids…quite a broad spectrum really. Though like mimetism UV fluorescence seems to change with the life cycle, either becoming stronger of weaker with age depending on the species and pre- and post-ecdysis. For example one individual of a possible new genus of millipede that I found fluoresced red under UV though others didn’t.
Clean your sensor! This should be something that you do anyways but much too often I see photos people post that are absolutely covered in dust spots. Not tiny ones visible only to a pixel peeper, but large obtrusive ones which do detract from the quality of the photo, especially when they appear in amongst the smooth bokeh (Remember that focus stack of a crab spider back in Rule #3? Take a closer look at all the dust spots I purposefully left behind and tell me it doesn’t make a difference). This to me is the equivalent of a typo or poor grammar. It’s something that is easy to fix beforehand by cleaning your sensor or afterwards by using dust delete data or cloning it out in post processing. It shows that the poster doesn’t care enough about the finished product of their own work, so why should I take them seriously. This is even more relevant when submitting your photos for consideration to contests or to magazine articles. In fact, the more discriminating stock photography websites (like Alamy) which are subject to an arbitration process will reject photos with obvious dust spots, over processing, lack of sharpness and other defects.
It’s a small, easy to remedy problem, but these things do make an impression on the viewer and is another sticking point that separates amateurs from professionals. Moreover, once done, you can enjoy a clean sensor for some time before it needs servicing again.
Let’s face it, most of us are not out there to make huge profits from our photos and we probably couldn’t even if we tried. Therefore this is mostly a labour of love. One in which we sink thousands of dollars into new equipment and airfares into getting to remote, pristine jungle (or 5 star country club jungle resorts as the case may be). But we have something in common, our love for nature and our desire to document it. I think that photographer’s are a little like digital collectors, we seek the rare, the beautiful, and the bizarre. We capture it and we carry it around with us. Others of us simply want to share amazing natural phenomena with those that will never get a chance to see it.
Research is two-fold. There is the research into an animal’s biology and natural history and then there is the sifting through pages and pages of photo results, analyzing and comparing how these photos were taken and what differentiates one from the other. While the former can seem effortless, after all it is probably that research into the natural flora and fauna, its biology, evolution, etc… which has motivated you to travel to your exotic foreign location in the first place, the latter can seem arduous.
However, you have gone to all this expense, now why would you short change yourself by taking the same photos as someone else? If you’re a biologist and there to document, that is one thing. But if you’re there to show off the rainforest in the most dramatic and stunning of ways, ways which will help to promote awareness and generate interest then a different modus operandi is in order. If you can’t distinguish your photos from someone else’s, if your individuality has been stripped, won’t you feel disappointed? For myself I know that as an artist rather than a biologist I certainly feel this way.
We pride ourselves on our individuality, why not exercise it? Before you begin photographing do a brief search online of some of the most likely candidate animals you are likely to see as well as those on your ‘to see list’. Look at how they have been photographed in the past, paying particular attention to the composition, light and artistic details. Then you can either emulate it, or break the mould.
What makes the Wildlife photographer?
There will always be the Mr. X, who posts a picture on the internet that will be utterly amazing, will have documented an extremely rare or unknown behaviour in the most visually stunning way and it will do its rounds as a viral, receive hundreds of thousands of likes and then will be promptly forgotten.
With all your hard work and efforts, you probably won’t be able to match up against that photo for photo and you will be demoralized. Aren’t you harder working, more deserving of that glory?
However, Mr. X may have a brand new digital camera, but he is not a photographer. He is not willing to wade through swamps, approach dangerous creatures, be buffeted by the elements and sacrifice his beautiful, costly equipment for the sake of a photograph. He relies on chance and the innovation of the engineers in laboratories thousands of kilometres away from the steamy jungles, and antarctic cold in which you find yourself. He doesn’t see rain and wind as an opportunity for capturing dramatic scenes but as an obstacle, a time to patiently wait inside, dry and joking with friends.
And when night falls and aching and tired limbs quake for want of respite, it is the cicada’s song, and the night noises which beckon with a siren’s song – stronger than the lure of sleep.
His is a snapshot, yours, a work of art that you have slaved over. Something precious. Something that will be remembered.
Motivation, dedication, ingenuity, imagination, creativity, patience…
Are you a wildlife photographer?
. Wide angle macro
. Macro in motion