I’ll assume that the reader is already familiar with the basics of macro photography, so I won’t go over swaying your body, bracing, etc…
1) First off, my cardinal rule is to always look for behaviour shots. 10 times out of 10 this will be more interesting than a regular 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 katydid shot below. I find even the katydid amongst the leaves to be a preferable shot to the original even though it is not technically as good. It shows the katydid ‘actively’ camouflaging. If you are so unlucky as to get a non-behavioural subject, try and get it into an interesting pose. If it is moving take tons of shots, especially as it climbs over obstacles, this can result in great poses like in this lichen katydid.
- Here there were several different angles to choose from as it flattened itself against a leaf, but it didn’t feel dynamic enough, so I got it moving. It jumped to the ground and then I got a shot off as it climbed over this twig. The contrast between the red leaves and the green make it stand out and provide it in its natural background.
2) If 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.
3) 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.
- This is the original picture. Nice, but nothing special
- I then poked it and it jumped to the ground, this was so that one could see it in its natural habitat amongst the leaves. Now its camouflage is really shown to much better effect.
- However by far the best shot in this series is Pterochroza ocellata showing a threat display in response to my proddings. This behaviour would never have been witnessed otherwise and it did not harm on the insect to the best of my knowledge.
- A view from the front shows the eyes, and the camouflaged wings which have separated, a good intermediate picture
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 will dart their tongues, etc…
- Ant protecting an extra floral nectary from, well, me. Note eyes out of focus could have been made a better picture by focus stacking. Difficult with this moving subject, or by getting a shot in a similar situation and photoshopping the out of focus elements.
4) Use slightly off but complementary light. So if the subject is one shade of yellow, try and get it on a background that is ideally either a different shade of yellow, red or pink. This creates a subtle picture where one form flows into another with no jarring contrasts. It is therefore more pleasant aesthetically.
- The colours complement each other quite nicely, there are other colours in the image but the dominant colour in the subject is undoubtedly yellow (white is neutral) and the leaf is yellow.
Strong contrasts can be good as well, however I feel like they don’t give as nuanced and subtle a feel to the photo. Another example is here:
- Here the browns/beiges complement each other
5) Where you can, try and show them in their natural environment. The katydid amongst the leaves is an example. I’ve seen some terrific photos shot with wide-angles that show mountains and landscapes to great effect (though admittedly I haven’t tried this myself).
6) Diffuse light is especially important for shiny, metallic or black subjects. So make sure you either have a large apparent light source close to the subject or else good diffusion. Macro photographers are constantly in a battle to find that ideal combination of diffusion and many different materials can be used. In the rainforest this poses a particularly annoying problem due to the constant humidity and dense foliage which obstructs any protruding diffusers. Paper towels, tissue paper quickly becomes soggy and unusable. Other organic materials grow fungus and molds over time. Then if you are moving from one camp to another then cardboard snoots or coke can diffusers get mashed in backpacks during travel. So the best solution I have found is either something professionally made like a Lumiquest softbox which won’t deteriorate and can be treated relatively harshly or else a simpler solution which I myself use, a simple doubled over sheet of vellum paper. This can be obtained at arts and crafts stores. It is organic and so will deteriorate over time, however it is flexible and resilient. Not to mention cheap. And it can be easily cut to fit over your flash heads.
- Normally there would be a lot of hotspots on this beetle, however I managed to minimize that by having a triple layer of diffusion (vellum paper)
7) Always experiment and try new things! 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. See my new experimental section below which shows some ‘different’ styles that I am trying.
- Still deliberating whether or not to actually purchase the software since I don’t do enough HDR to merit spending the money, but I really enjoy the effect…the numerous shades of green are especially nice in this photo
8) 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.
- From the Peruvian Amazon, a reprocessed version of my earlier leafcutter. This one involved taking the camera raw version and exposing properly for the leaf, adjusting levels, sat., etc… and then importing into photoshop via a smart object. Then made a new smart object layer via copy, so that I could get another layer of the original image in Camera Raw, only this time adjust for the background. I adjusted the background in Camera Raw which updated the smart object copy layer in Photoshop. I then made a layer mask and painted the leaf and green background that I didn’t want changed. Merged copies and here we are. Advantage of this process is that it is less destructive than altering in a lossy manner with JPEG/other format since all the main RAW adjustments were made in Camera RAW. Then applied an unsharp mask to bring out the bristles and noise reduction for the red/orange background. The original can be seen below
9) Two is usually better than one! Why? Because they interact with each other. Even if it is not directly, they create tension in one another that is visible in the photograph.
- These predaceous katydids (Phlugis sp.) were walking up and around the leaf. When they stopped in this position, it made for a great showdown.
10) 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.
- Edited snail (Macrochylamys sp.). Here the detail has been restored to the snail making, in my opinion a better picture. Note, better diffusion from the get-go would have solved this problem.
This second shot shows the same snail as it was originally shot.
- Snail (Macrochylamys sp.). Here the reflections off the shell and body are distracting and really detract from the overall quality of the image.
11) Many people use ETTL flash without ever bothering to learn how to use the manual setting of the flash. 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 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, the above is for a ‘typical’ macro setting of ISO 100, f/11 and 1/200 sec. I find my photos are more adequately exposed now that I have control of this element as well. It also helps with you to understand the general principles of light and will get you further involved in all technical aspects.
12) Don’t use flat horizons. The horizon constitutes the surface that the insect is on, be it leaf or ground or tree. Tilt the angle, have the leading lines of the subject drawing you in.
- The flower stem constitutes the horizon which I purposefully put at an angle to show the shield bug to greatest advantage. Iwokrama reserve, Guyana.
13) Another 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.
- The lichen on this fallen tree trunk has provided a very detailed and interesting mosaic pattern. Rather than go for the closeup of the ants and lose this wonderful backdrop, I elected to shoot with a 100mm macro from further away. This is one of my earlier shots and so composition and light aren’t what I would like them to be, but I love the background. Endau-Rompin national park, Borneo.
14) 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…
15) 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. 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.
16) 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 might not be a photo that you are satisfied with, but you can use it for reference later on to see if it is the same species you might find later on. 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.
17) POWER and MEMORY. Always carry a LOT of spare batteries and LOTS of memory cards. I carry 24 AA’s and 3 LPE6 batteries and 4 16GB CF cards. This allows me to shoot as much as I want and not be limited. 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 20+ photos to be merged into one, then I don’t feel bad about it. Experimenting can be seen by some as useless or a waste, but it leads to some really awesome 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. But otherwise I use my rechargeables exclusively of which I have found Sanyo eneloops to be the best. 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!
18) 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. At this time I had a Zeiss which is exclusively manual on my canon. The sales person kept on telling me that I should shoot manual, what did I need an automatic for, my Zeiss was 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.
19) Light Part 1 (Natural light)
This is a huge topic and will differentiate great photos from mediocre ones even if you have gotten all the other elements right. I typically shoot at night and so have to rely on flash power alone, however recently I have started with natural light (NL) shots and NL shots supplemented with fill flash. When done right, NL shots usually have nice soft backgrounds without harsh contrasts, or specular highlights. These effects can be made more pronounced the larger the aperture (smaller f stop), in the below picture, a larger aperture was used to both increase the available light hitting the sensor as dusk approached and light dwindled and also to create a shallow depth of field which in some cases can create a 3D feel.
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… An all natural light shot is not always a feasible solution 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 example. 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 correctly expose for the background. 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.
- Treefrog shot with natural light and fill flash. Kanuku mountains, Guyana.
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.
- John Hallmen’s Fall beetle on Heather. Cryptocephalus sericeus, 6mm These beetles have the habit of releasing their grip and fall to the ground as you get closer. In other words you need to be extra careful when sneaking up on them. Stacked from 13 natural light exposures in Helicon Focus. Exposure time: 1/4s, Aperture: f7.1, ISO: 200