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Getting low and wide – Part 2

Costa Rican dragonfly (Gynacantha tibiata) drying off its wings after the rain. Taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

Costa Rican dragonfly (Gynacantha tibiata) drying off its wings after the rain. Taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

A few days ago I posted the first part of an introduction to wide-angle macrophotography, and here is the conclusion.

Illumination. In order for the illusion that you are a lilliput looking at the giant world to work, the background of a wide-angle macro shot should be well and evenly lit, and the frontmost, focal element of the photo should not be in the shade. One of the most difficult problems to overcome in wide-angle macrophotography is proper illumination of the subject right in front of the lens, which may be just millimeters away. This includes trying to avoid casting a shadow on it. There is not one, simple solution to this problem, and the type of lighting to use will depend on the distance from the lens, time of day, angle of the sun, brightness of the background, reflectance of the subject etc.

In order to get a sharp photo of this Clusia grandiflora flower on the dark, shady forest floor in Suriname I filled a small Ziplock bag with soil and leaves, and used it as a beanbag. This 1 second exposure was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

In order to get a sharp photo of this Clusia grandiflora flower on the dark, shady forest floor in Suriname I filled a small Ziplock bag with soil and leaves, and used it as a beanbag. This 1 second exposure was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

What works for me in many cases is a single, remote flash in a softbox (Canon 580EXII in a Photoflex LiteDome XS, either wireless or attached with a Camera Shoe Cord). Because of the proximity of the subject to the lens, a flash mounted directly on top of the camera will not work, as it will cause the shadow of the lens to fall right in front of it. If the subject is not moving (e.g., a flower, an insect sitting motionlessly), and the sun is not directly behind my back, I use a collapsible golden or silver reflector to bounce ambient light at the subject. I also use custom made brackets to mount a pair of small, twin flashes (Canon MT-24EX) about 20 cm away from the front of the lens, which are then diffused with wide pieces of thin, white plastic (made of a cheap plastic folder bought at Staples.) I have also had good experience using inexpensive, flexible brackets DMM-901 (I am not sure who makes these, but they can be ordered here.)

Stabilization. The illumination and sharpness of the background is what often makes or breaks a wide-angle macro photograph. Since it would be difficult to rely entirely on flashes to evenly light the background in a shot that encompasses a part of the landscape, most wide-angle macro photos will require long, often 0.1-2 sec exposures. For this reason a large proportion of my wide-angle photography is made from a tripod. I use a Gitzo GT2531EX, which is light, very sturdy, and allows me to position the camera in any way I want – from close to the ground to 177 cm high. But even a higher number of my photos are taken with the camera resting either on a “beanbag” (in most cases simply a Ziplock bag filled with sand or soil) or directly on the ground. Sometimes, when I am trying to get a really low angle for a subject on the ground, I quickly dig a little hole, place a plastic bag at the bottom (to keep the camera dry), and position the camera in it. In this way the lens is exactly at the level of the ground, or even slightly below it.

Wide-angle macrophotography usually requires long exposures, and thus capturing fast-moving animals is difficult. Here, mammalogist Burton Lim is processing bats collected in Suriname, while small stingless bees are gorging on cornmeal that he uses to dry his specimens. I was able to freeze the action and partially expose the background using twin flashes Canon MT-24EX, and Canon EF 14mm mounted on Canon 7D.

Wide-angle macrophotography usually requires long exposures, and thus capturing fast-moving animals is difficult. Here, mammalogist Burton Lim is processing bats collected in Suriname, while small stingless bees are gorging on cornmeal that he uses to dry his specimens. I was able to freeze the action and partially expose the background using twin flashes Canon MT-24EX, and Canon EF 14mm mounted on Canon 7D.

A stag beetle (Cyclommatus eximius) from the highlands of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm with an extension tube, mounted on a full-frame camera Canon 1Ds MkII.

A stag beetle (Cyclommatus eximius) from the highlands of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm with an extension tube, mounted on a full-frame camera Canon 1Ds MkII.

For wide-angle photography high in the trees or in situations where a regular tripod or a beanbag cannot be used, I rely on a Gorillapod flexible tripod, which can be wrapped around a branch, providing pretty secure stabilization.
One critically important piece of equipment in wide-angle macro is a remote shutter release, which reduces the chances of vibration caused by pressing the shutter. Recently I have started using a Vello ShutterBoss Timer Remote, which is both less expensive and more functional than the original Canon one.

Camera selection. To say that within the last 10 years the quality of digital cameras has grown exponentially is of course a truism. My cell phone’s camera has twice the resolution and much better low light performance than my first, $5,000 digital SLR (Nikon D1x). You can now walk into a Walmart, and for $399 get an SLR capable of taking photos that were virtually impossible 20 years ago. The latest “pro-sumer” bodies are capable of taking shots in near darkness, and the high ISO performance of almost all SLRs is bound to make you wonder why anybody still uses ISO lower than 400. My point is that cameras have become so sophisticated that no matter which one you chose, the images taken with it can be outstanding. Nonetheless, in wide-angle macrophotography the choice of the right SLR body matters. (I should mention that many point-and-shoot cameras can be a great choice for wide-angle macrophotography, but my experience with them is limited.)

Even in extreme wide-angle closeups, flash illumination is not always required. This molting grasshopper in Suriname was photographed using only ambient light with a hand-held Canon 7D camera and Canon 14mm lens.

Even in extreme wide-angle closeups, flash illumination is not always required. This molting grasshopper in Suriname was photographed using only ambient light with a hand-held Canon 7D camera and Canon 14mm lens.

It may seem counterintuitive that, although you will be using wide-angle lenses, the best cameras for wide-angle macro are not those with a full-frame sensor (35mm equivalent), but rather those with a smaller one. Such cameras give the illusion of producing an image that is magnified, usually by a factor of 1.3-1.6, compared to a full-frame sensor, but in fact the image is simply cropped. Why then buy a wide-angle lens if 30-60% of its coverage is going to be cropped by the small sensor? This is because the shorter (wider) the lens the more likely it is to introduce distortion and chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame, and these faults become more pronounced at close focal ranges, and even more so when the lens is mounted on an extension tube. By using a camera with a sensor smaller than full-frame, you are tapping into the “sweet spot” of the lens – the image captured by the sensor uses mostly the central, sharpest and least distorted portion of the lens, while still retaining the wide-angle perspective (albeit with a smaller coverage.) And of course a camera with a smaller (higher crop) sensor will help you magnify the small, central subject of the photo.

Custom flash brackets that I use in most of my wide-angle macrophotography. They are designed to be mounted directly on the front of the lens, and fit lenses with the diameter of 58-82mm.

Custom flash brackets that I use in most of my wide-angle macrophotography. They are designed to be mounted directly on the front of the lens, and fit lenses with the diameter of 58-82mm.

My favorite camera for wide-angle macro is Canon 7D, which has the cropping factor of 1.6; occasionally I also use Canon 1D MkII, with the cropping factor of 1.3. The only time when I use a full-frame body is when I shoot with a Canon 16-35mm with an extension tube – this is because animals larger than 40 mm or so fill up the frame, and block the background if a camera with the sensor smaller than full-frame is used.

I hope that this brief overview of my approach to wide-angle macrophotography was helpful, and will encourage you to try and perfect your own methods. As with any other photographic techniques, practice makes masters, and no amount of theoretical information will ever replace simply going into the field and chasing critters with your lens. And if you have any specific questions, comments, or suggestions, leave them in the comments below or drop me a line.

A cluster of mushrooms (possibly Hygrocybe sp.) in a New England forest. [Canon 1D MkII, Sigma 15mm, ambient light]

A cluster of mushrooms (possibly Hygrocybe sp.) in a New England forest. [Canon 1D MkII, Sigma 15mm, ambient light]

 

Getting low and wide – Part 1

Getting low to the ground enhances the illusion that you are as small as the subjects of the photo. I photographed these leaf toads (Rhinella lescueri) in Suriname using a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D with an angle viewfinder, and lighted it with a single speedlight Canon 580EXII in a softbox.

Getting low to the ground enhances the illusion that you are as small as the subjects of the photo. I photographed these leaf toads (Rhinella lescueri) in Suriname using a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D with an angle viewfinder, and lighted it with a single speedlight Canon 580EXII in a softbox.

Shortly after I had become a proud owner of my first real SLR camera (the wonderful Nikon n6006 – an unexpected Christmas gift from my wife), I decided that what I wanted to do with this magical piece of equipment was to document life that was two or three orders of magnitude smaller than traditional subjects of nature photography. But I wasn’t satisfied with simple macro portraits of katydids and frogs –I was desperate to capture their environment as well, and show a clump of lichens the way a fly sees it – a towering forest, three dimensional, and complex. This, of course, turned out to be easier said than done.

Ever since I saw David Attenborough’s “Trials of Life”, and the mind-boggling sequence of weaver ants tending caterpillars (to this day this remains one of the best macro sequences ever filmed – if you haven’t seen it, buy it right now), I have been obsessed with trying to photograph insects and other small organisms in a way that removes the element of scale. I want to show them as part of the landscape, and see the world from their perspective. It took me a while to figure out that the way to do it is to forget about macro lenses, but instead use lenses designed for much, much larger subjects: wide angle lenses traditionally used for landscape photography. These are lenses of the focal length shorter than 50mm. After many years of trying to get a hang of wide-angle macrophotography I am still hoping to improve my results, but at least I have been able to isolate and try to work on those elements that are needed for a good a wide-angle macro shot. Here are a few tips based on my experience so far.

The greater the depth of field the stronger the illusion that you are part of the scene. This photo of a foam grasshopper (Dictyophorus griseus) from Mozambique was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

The greater the depth of field the stronger the illusion that you are part of the scene. This photo of a foam grasshopper (Dictyophorus griseus) from Mozambique was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

Perspective. What truly makes a good wide-angle shot is the impression that you, the viewer, are standing right inside the frame, and that you are looking at the world from the perspective of a mouse. Macro photography that uses lenses of the focal length longer than 50mm enlarges the subject, but a macro photograph taken with a lens shorter than 50mm shrinks the viewer. The shorter the lens the more striking the effect of “shrinkage”, and it is amplified by a low angle of the photo. For example, we never see mushrooms from below, looking up at their underside, and such a perspective enhances the impression of suddenly being transported to the world of towering, giant mushrooms. My two favorite lenses that provide just the right perspective are Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L (often mounted on an extension tube – see below) and Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L. Occasionally I also use a Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye, although this lens creates a very strong barrel distortion of the field of view. A very helpful piece of equipment that allows me to get a ground level point of view is the right angle viewfinder (Canon Angle Finder C).

A tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) on tomatoes in our garden. This photo was taken using a Sigma 15mm lens – notice a strong barrel distortion, particularly visible in the curvature of the stick on the right.

A tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) on tomatoes in our garden. This photo was taken using a Sigma 15mm lens – notice a strong barrel distortion, particularly visible in the curvature of the stick on the right.

Focus. A wide-angle photograph must have a focal point that is perfectly sharp. Unfortunately, most wide-angle lenses are not designed to focus close enough to fill the frame with subjects as small as insects. Luckily, an inexpensive extension tube can turn almost any wide-angle lens into a wide-angle macro lens. I use a Canon Extension Tube EF 12 II, which allows me to focus on and fill the frame with subjects as small as a grasshopper. The shortest lenses that can be used with it should have the focal length of 16mm or longer – if a lens is shorter than 16mm the point of focus will be inside the lens. Thus, neither Canon EF 14mm nor Sigma 15mm can be used with an extension tube, but luckily both focus close enough so that I have been able to use them to photograph subjects as small as ants (they don’t fill the frame with an individual ant, but that’s not the point of wide-angle macrophotography anyway.)

A column of Matabele ants (Pachycondala analis) returning from a successful raid on a colony of termites in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This photo was taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a diffused twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

A column of Matabele ants (Pachycondala analis) returning from a successful raid on a colony of termites in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This photo was taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a diffused twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

Depth of field. The sharper the objects in the background, the stronger the illusion that the frontmost, focal subject of the photo is huge (relative to you, the viewer). In order to achieve a maximum depth of field, use the shortest lens you can and stop the aperture as far down as possible. I usually use the aperture of f/16 or f/22, which means that the exposure time tends to be quite long, often 0.5-2 sec, even in the middle of the day.

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Stay tuned for the second part of the post where I will discuss how to stabilize the camera, illuminate the scene, and select the best equipment for wide-angle macrophotography. In the meantime I highly recommend a recent e-book “Wide-Angle Macro: The Essential Guide” by Paul Harcourt Davies and Clay Bolt, which is filled with great practical information and superb examples.

Wide-angle macro does not necessarily mean that the scene must include a part of the landscape. It can also be used to draw attention to a detail of the main subject, such as the stinger of this scorpion (Pandinus imperator) from Ghana. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II on a Canon 1Ds MkII body; despite the closeness to the subject (its telson was nearly touching the lens) I was able to use a simple reflector to illuminate the scene.

Wide-angle macro does not necessarily mean that the scene must include a part of the landscape. It can also be used to draw attention to a detail of the main subject, such as the stinger of this scorpion (Pandinus imperator) from Ghana. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II on a Canon 1Ds MkII body; despite the closeness to the subject (its telson was nearly touching the lens) I was able to use a simple reflector to illuminate the scene.

A bump in the road

A partially corrupt RAW file. This type of damage is often the result of a physical flaw of the hard drive, and cannot be repaired.

I have been photographing earwigs recently, and this reminded me of another group of hexapods, the members of which often have big, pincer-like cerci, the diplurans. “I’ll write a post about them”, I thought, “now, let’s see what kind of pictures I have.” I started looking and located a bunch of shots of diplurans that I took in 2006 in Ghana, but when I tried to open the files I received a Photoshop error telling me that the files were in an unrecognizable format. This usually means that the file is corrupt. Other files opened, but were partially garbled.

“No problem, I’ll just get the backup files.” Same error. Second backup, same error, third backup, same error. I began to worry. I am pretty good about keeping all my files backed-up, on multiple, physically separated drives, but the system has clearly failed me.

My normal file-saving procedure while in the field is as follows:
1. Copy files from CF/SD cards to the hard drive on my laptop
2. Catalog image files in iViewPro, rename them, discard crappy shots
3. Add keywords and captions to the files
4. Copy the annotated files to two separate, portable hard drives
5. Back home, copy the files from the laptop to a separate, stationary hard drive (HD1)
6. Copy the content of this drive to two additional, separate drives (HD2 & HD3), occasionally I add a fourth drive (HD4) to the lineup.

After this is done I feel that the files are safe, and I reuse the portable hard drives for another project. Until a few years ago I would have also burned DVDs with an extra copy of the files, but as the files got bigger, and more numerous, I abandoned the practice, opting instead for adding another hard drive to the backup.

All my backup files had the same type of corruption, which must have originated on the first drive, and was copied to other drives.

What must have happened in the case of my corrupt dipluran shots was either a copying error during the process of transferring files from the laptop to HD1 drive, or file corruption on the HD1 following the transfer. Regardless, the damaged files were then duplicated to drives HD2-HD4. So, it seems, all is lost.

Luckily, not. Back in 2006 I still burned DVDs with file backups, using the original files from the laptop as the source. I pulled them out, and sure enough, uncorrupted, original files were there. Alas, going back to using DVDs as a backup is simply not an option. During my recent trip I shot 352GB of images, which translates to 42 DVDs (DVD+R, 8.5GB each), or about 14 hours of burning and swapping DVDs (assuming 20 minutes per disk.) What are my options then?

For one, I will be copying my files from the camera’s card simultaneously to at least two separate drives. You can do it directly in the Finder (or Explorer), or use a dedicated program, such as Photo Mechanic (this program also allows for renaming files while copying them.) Second, I will no longer reuse the portable drives that hold the files copied from the cards in the field. These drives are becoming so cheap that they are now a very sensible alternative to large, external, independently powered hard drives (I may even consider keeping the CF/SD cards with the original shots and not reusing them; some photographers already do it.) And third, I will add storage space to my Dropbox account. There is no way I can keep all my photos there, but at least I can safely store the most important shots. The experience of losing some of my original files was a reminder that no single backup method is 100% safe, but hopefully a combination of several methods will reduce the chances of a disaster similar to what I saw today.

As for the diplurans, I think I will need to write another post about them later on. These are very cool animals, close relatives of insects, and they deserve a proper writeup. They have an interesting reproductive behavior and a sophisticated maternal care, and give us a glimpse of what the early chapters of the insect evolution might have looked like.

Dipluran (Japyx sp.) from Ghana. I was lucky to have an extra, uncorrupted copy of the original Canon RAW file on a data DVD made immediately after taking the photos.