Posts tagged “Macrophotography

Butterfly on a Daisy

Skipper Butterfly-2To view more of my photography please visit

Normally our eyes are drawn to the brightest object in a photograph or the area of greatest contrast. If there are two bright spots our eyes get confused and generally discount the photograph and have to take a second look to make sense of it. In some cases you can crop this problem away.

In this example the eye is drawn to brightness and definition. Where the Skipper sits is both in focus and bright, and I hope your eye is lead to it. The rest of the photo is context. To crop the photograph would mean removing evidence that this was taken in the wild.

Having spent time with people who capture insects, bugs etc. to photograph or study, I find it more challenging to stick with creatures in nature. I am less concerned about identifying the creature, although that is interesting, and more about the quality of the photograph. The challenge is not finding the creatures, it is about finding the creatures where you have the ability to get a good angle, enough in focus, and the light to make a photograph worthwhile. I have thrown out more shots for bad focus, bad lighting, and bad angles than I have because the creature was boring to look at!

Camouflaged Assasin

Zelus Luridus Nymph

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I have written a lot on macro photography on this blog. The insects, bugs and spiders have not been as present as I would have liked this spring.

However, the other day walking in a reserve something caught my eye. It was about 18mm long. I had no idea what it was, and as usual I had the wrong gear! I took the shot with a very long lens. Then I sent a version to for identification.

This is a nymph, an immature example of Zelus luridus (an Assassin Bug). Given their size they go after smaller creatures like aphids.

In short this is the process, stumble upon the bug, insect, spider etc., seek expert guidance, learn.

Seriously, this is one odd bug and now part of my collection.

Macro photography of insects has opened my eyes to a new world that never ceases to amaze.

The Lichenologist


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I was on a nature walk at a local school board maintained nature site, when I met a Lichenologist. As we walked and talked my first and only hurdle was my mispronunciation of lichen. Clearly not a good start especially as I kept making the same mistake.

We did discuss more interesting subjects, the what, why and where of lichens and more specifically the photography thereof. I had seen some incredible microscopic pictures of lichen at a local museum that looked like modern art, it turned out that these were photographed for a book he authored.

The Lichenologist, had a little jewelry magnifier with a battery-powered light. At 10x magnification he showed me how the most common of lichen were extremely beautiful (texture, form, color, shadow and an infinite variety of shapes). It makes you think what else we miss when we walk around.

A few months later he held a seminar on lichen where the participants used microscopes and books of “keys” to identify types of local lichen. This was fun and very interesting and shortly afterwards I went to have a look at what microphotography might involve.

I doubt that I will be doing much microphotography, the complications and costs of getting down to magnifications below 5X, at the moment defeat me. But here’s the key point. I met an interesting man, who taught me something, and I now have another photographic challenge on my shelf that I know is doable just not quite yet.

P.S. Based on one of the comments I received the photograph above is apparently of moss, which hows you how much I have to learn!

A Final, at least for now, word on Insects and Bugs


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 Entomologists find it hard to identify an insect or spider unless the view is top down or side on. Not taking an entomological approach has the advantage of giving you more latitude in what is in focus (in that a smaller portion can be in focus). Put another way, our focus is our point of interest and the shallow depth of field highlights that focus.

Insects and spiders are ruthless war machines; they use chemical warfare, camouflage and lots of other techniques to survive. This means getting familiar with how to protect yourself from bites, ticks etc.  Camouflage makes some insects not just hard to see but sometimes misleading as to which end is up or down. In some cases they may have more than one eye, but in cases where they have only two they may be hard to find. Therefore, a little study can help to figure which side is up.

Some insects have compound eyes or they may be “liquid” filled. In the former this means challenges for your lighting and in some of my photos what appear to be irises are in fact reflections of my flash off a portion of the compound eye. In the case of “liquid” eyes (this phenomenon can occur in dragon flies) getting the eyes in focus is impossible. Your focus might be better a few millimeters back.

Getting eye level with a bug is a challenge if the bug is skittish. Knowing how the bug behaves helps. Damselflies and some other insects get skittish, fly away and return to the exact same spot! Some spiders, grasshoppers, cicadas, and beetles freeze and hope you will not notice them. Other times it is just a matter of moving very slowly. Ants pose a real challenge, as in addition to lifting many times their weight they can sprint like Olympians. Insects and spiders in general move more slowly in the cooler parts of the day.

Some people prefer handholding their macro rig (light camera etc.) others use a tripod. For static ambush type bugs, a tripod is certainly easier. You can buy (not cheap) a focus rail for a tripod. This enables fine tuning your focus by moving your camera very slightly and precisely. Another useful tool is a “plamp” – that tool to hold a branch or plant still, usually by attaching it to your tripod or a stick in the ground (expensive if bought, can be jerry rigged). Something large and stiff like a piece of cardboard will help block the wind and breezes.

You may have guessed that the above paragraph points to the real challenge of photographing bugs. Blocking the wind, stabilizing your camera rig, and the branch/bush your subject is on becomes the challenge even before we compose the picture. You can shoot at higher shutter speed, especially with flash, but there are trade-offs. With flash, light fall off may mean darker backgrounds; higher shutter speed without flash means higher ISO, and higher ISO may mean more noise.

Ah yes but when it all comes together, now that’s satisfying, dirty knees and all.

What to Wear to the Macro Party


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You get some interesting questions and comments when you blog

Where did you find this, how did you do that, I want to take a shot of that, be careful of this or that.

I appreciate the comments and questions and try to respond to them directly, but one stood out and deserves a longer response, if only for the humor of it all.

Suffering from arachnophobia or more properly entomophobia all of my life it may seem strange to now be taking macro shots of some nasty little critters.  Having it explained to me why most critters might not bite me or how, I might, avoid being bitten has abated my fears. This sage advice was don’t bug them and let them go about their business.

For me what works is wearing a big floppy hat, rain pants, gaiters, long sleeves and to a very small degree deet. I even have, but have not used, a mosquito shield in the form of a hat. Deet, it should be notes dissolves the plastic of your camera so you have to be very careful with it.

Thankfully no picture can fully capture this extreme costume along with my macro rig. On the other hand this description of the precautions I take responds to one of my readers who suggested I add a caution about deer ticks. Deer ticks are only one of the things you need to worry about, there are a ton of potential nasty’s out there from stings to Poison Ivy. But like most things, while the odds are in your favor; exercising caution is a good thing, take it from an “expert”.

The ambush bug above (a true bug) gives a nasty injection, I am told its harmless but I do not intend to get anywhere near enough to find out!

A few too many words on color management (for every endeavor there is some necessary but boring bits)


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In an earlier piece I wrote that all computers must be color managed. The fact is that out of the box your monitor has not been calibrated for your needs.

Very high-end monitors come with hardware and software to calibrate the color management; some even have hoods to block out ambient light. For lesser priced monitors that most of us buy, including IMACs, relying on your operating system to manage the color will not work.

If all you intend to do is publish to the web I would suggest Googling color management on browsers. The people who look at your work probably have not considered how their browsers work and you at least need to take the steps to make sure your work is at its best, regardless of your audience’s choice of browser, not make it worse. If you intend to print your photos, you are more than likely going to find it frustrating if you do not have color management hardware and software.

There are many manufacturers of color management technology, many of them very good. In my view, Coloreyes Display pro has some big advantages (especially for IMACs). The software provides a walkthrough, great support and enough options to please anyone. What this does is set you up to do a regular monthly checkup of your monitor, they age and things change rather more rapidly than we would like.

You may still have problems printing and the usual complaint is “my prints are too dark”. The answer is that your monitor is too bright.  Color management software can help, but the ambient light at your desktop is also a big factor, and sometimes reflections off colored walls. I bought a special “daylight” lamp for my workspace that helped a great deal. Some software/hardware solutions monitor the ambient light and adjust your monitor accordingly, at the expense of a USB port.

The significantly more expensive route is to also use a color target when you shoot, and buy special hardware and software to create your own printer profiles for all the different kinds of paper you intend to print with. I would not go that far unless you are shooting products that need to be an exact color.

Assuming that even after you calibrate your monitor you still have printing problems. The simplest thing is to buy or borrow a properly printed target with a digital copy, print that digital target and compare the print to the digital one on your. However, nothing will or can be perfect a near match is great is good as it gets for most set-ups.

How did I learn all of this, I asked questions on-line and I was amazed at the famous people who responded and helped and gave me the support I needed. There are lots of forums, like those for Adobe where you will get all the help you need and more!

I know people who tell me this is all nuts, and that they never need this (including camera store guys). There may be lucky people whose photographs look the same on all browsers and every print is perfect (maybe they send them out to professional printers who know how to fix this). I had problems, I found a solution and I am sharing it.

Digital photography is expensive when done right. Your photographs deserve to be handled the right way.

A Pursuit of the Insect World


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My interest in macro photography has led me to me to meet a number of entomologists and seize an opportunity to visit the Canadian National Collection (CNC) of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes (the latter is an amazing national treasure started in 1883 it has more than 16 million specimens).

In an earlier post I mentioned a number of sources that help me identify what I see, but more importantly I am on the path to knowing where to look for various insects and spiders. (Just to illustrate how ignorant I was I had no idea that spiders were not insects, and bees are related to ants.)

Many books on butterflies give examples of the kinds of bushes or plants that a given type of butterfly will find attractive. It is not always the case for other insects and local knowledge seems the key, hence my searching out and meeting entomologists and other nature types. They can help you discover, for example, that tiny (8mm) ambush bugs, like goldenrod and what damage they can do to you (painful but harmless injections etc.)

Most modern macro/micro lenses are only going to get you a life size shot which fill the frame with your subject, at its closest focus point. In other words the longer the lens the farther you are from your subject at your maximum magnification, which is a good thing if the insect is not pleased. You can shorten the focus distance and improve your magnification with extension tubes. I use a 105mm lens with Kenko extension tubes. As far as insects go you are probably as close as you want to be!

Strange things happen in macro photography, your depth of field becomes minuscule even at F11, and as you step down past F11, you can soften the photo by an optical phenomenon called diffraction. Secondly, light is at a premium and you will need some form of artificial light. In an early post I suggested where to go to learn about these things (especially how to create the tools yourself – an entomologist I know uses a pop bottle and some paper to focus his flash).

Photographing insects in the wild is challenging but fun and if you are lucky you get to meet interesting people like entomologists

Getting Close Enough


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The other day my post was on Macro photography. I am sure the impression was given that this is a highly technical field, and it can be. Here is a simple method that works fine in many instances to get a taste of what is possible.

Have a look at the closest focusing distances of the lenses you have. The shot above was taken with a 70-200mm lens, not what you would think it was intended for, but it works, even at distance of five feet away with a bit of cropping.

Wide-angle lenses are even better. You can get within millimeters of a plant or a compliant bug.

Sure a Macro/Micro lens is preferable and there is less cropping but while you are figuring out if you want to invest in more gear, experiment with the close focusing of your lenses. zoom or prime lens, it does not matter.

My only recommendation is if you do decide to spend money, be wary of close-up filters. They can be expensive and may not deliver the quality you would expect. I have never tried using bellows, I do use extension tubes with a 105 mm macro lens.

Experiment with the lenses you have, its worth the effort.

Specialization and opportunism


Last summer I had some fun with taking macro shots of insects.  I sat in on a session with an entomologist and a professional photographer who has done a few books of insect photographs. Here on WordPress I followed a few people who take macro shots and entomologists who study and take photographs (such as,  and ) but there are many, many others that focus on photographs of insects and spiders.

I found myself taking pictures of things I could not identify and discovered  where entomologists professional and amateur review your photographs and help you identify the subjects. I read up on optics and formulas on Entomologists, mostly want lateral or top down shots (the better to identify animals). In my case I prefer portraits and to see the critters in context.

So I set my standards high in an area of photography where the challenges of narrow depth of field, lack of light, and need for a speedy shutter is important. My rules today are animals in context, not behind fences or in cages, at feeders, glued, pinned to a board or fast frozen. What this has meant is several days of effort on a single series of photographs, sometimes weeks (see my galleries on Ambush Bugs or Grasshoppers at ). The variables that made it time-consuming were not just my ignorance in macro photography, but wind/rain, accessibility and a need for patience often in uncomfortable positions.

You have to find the little guys and most books and experts are far from clear on their habits etc. Once you find them, you need to think of their size versus your ability to get close and magnify; your ability to steady your gear and get light on subject. Then there is the skittishness of the bug involved. Think of Gulliver hanging over you with a menacing claw, and flashing light.

You need to know your subject, your gear and the circumstances in which you are going to work. There are lots of photographers who are entirely opportunistic and do a great job taking spectacular photographs even of bugs. There can be equal pleasure in taking the time to tell a story, providing more than one viewpoint, learning a new skill, and to do one series of photos well. Having been primarily an opportunistic photographer, I am now trying to build series (not just macro photographs), to stretch myself. I think it has been worthwhile and rewarding. Of course the penalty is never having the right equipment with you for all the things you might want to shoot.