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Mozambique Diary: Shooting bats

Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros sp.) in a cave of Cheringoma Plateau, Gorongosa National Park.

Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros sp.) in a cave of Cheringoma Plateau, Gorongosa National Park.

My entire last month was a blur of hectic activity, related mostly to the opening of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa National Park. This kept me from updating the blog, but it was definitely worth it – the Lab is a fantastic facility that will serve as a research base to current and future scientists in the park, and as a center of advanced biodiversity education for Mozambican students for years to come (I just finished teaching its first African entomology workshop there, and it was great.) We are also creating the Gorongosa Synoptic Collection, which has the ambitious goal of documenting, over the next 15-20 years, all (or at least as much as physically possible) multicellular diversity of the park – I will try to post frequent updates from this effort. In the meantime, I would like to invite all biologists to come and work in Gorongosa – there is an entire universe of unexplored life out there, waiting to be studied and saved. Contact me if you are interested – Gorongosa wants your research projects, and we will help you make them happen.

Slit-faced bat (Nycteris cf. thebaica) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Slit-faced bat (Nycteris cf. thebaica) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

One of the many benefits of having a permanent and safe logistical base in a place as biologically rich as Gorongosa is that I am not afraid to bring and leave behind my expensive high tech gear, and experiment with it. For months I had been dying to try out my high speed photography system, and finally was able to use it last month to shoot flying bats in the comfort of our lab. Now, bats have been photographed in flight by many, and the technology to do so has existed since at least the 1980’s. But, as far as I could tell, few had tried to take images of flying bats using the white background technique, made popular by the Meet Your Neighbours project, and I really wanted to try it.

An orange form of a Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

An orange form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

The setup for photographing bats in flight will be familiar to anybody who has ever worked with high speed photography: I used an external, very fast shutter (6mS response time, 10-50 times faster than the shutter in a typical SLR) mounted on a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens, triggered by two intersecting laser beams, and with four Canon flash heads that provided the illumination. Cognisys is a company that sells turnkey solutions for high speed photography, and their excellent StopShot system is what created the basis of my setup. The tricky part was to create a stage where the bats’ flight path was relatively narrow, allowing me to illuminate it properly. Last year I photographed bats in a cave, which was relatively easy, but gave me little control over the lighting. I needed to restrict their movement better, and decided to bring a large diffusion box that I would then turn into a flight chamber for the bats.

The box was about 1 m (3 ft) long, giving even the largest Gorongosa species ample room to fly. On the sides of the box I cut out two small windows (covered with thin, clear Perspex) that allowed the laser beams to go through. The front of the box had to remain unobstructed to the lens, but something had to stop the bats from flying out; I ended up using a large piece of thin glass (and had to adjust the flashes so that they would not reflect off the glass). But somebody had to put the bats in there, and it was not going to be me (one word – rabies!)

Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Luckily, I got help from Jen Guyton, a Princeton graduate student and a bat specialist, who is working on her Ph.D. in Gorongosa. Since capturing bats to get samples of their DNA (or rather the DNA of their prey) was part of her nightly routine, Jen was able to bring live bats to my studio and control them while I took the photos. Once all the technical kinks were ironed out, the system worked like a charm – in a few minutes I would get multiple shots of each bat, and then the animal was removed from the chamber unharmed.

A studio setup for photographing bats in flight: (1) Cognisys high speed shutter, mounted on Canon 100mm lens; (2) a laser and a laser beam sensor (an identical but vertically reversed set is positioned on the opposite side of the box).

A studio setup for photographing bats in flight: (1) Cognisys high speed shutter, mounted on a Canon 100mm lens; (2) a laser and a laser beam sensor (an identical but vertically reversed set is positioned on the opposite side of the box).

But some species turned out to be more difficult than others – members of the family Molossidae (my favorite bats) are not able to lift off from horizontal surfaces and thus could not fly in the box. Next month I plan to photograph them in the wild by combining this system with a UV light – I hope that the bats will be attracted to insects coming to the light (which they often are) and sooner or later will hit the laser trigger. Watch this space to see if it worked.

One final note – don’t try any of this at home! Nobody but professionals, vaccinated against rabies, legally permitted, and fully trained to handle live bats should ever attempt catching these animals. If you are interested in photographing bats, get in touch with a mammalogist at a nearby university or a conservation group that works with these mammals, and they may be able to help you. They are an awesome group of animals, but don’t risk their or your own life. Having seen Gorongosa bats’ unbelievably sharp, lyssavirus-carrying teeth in action, I now think of them as flying vipers – cool, beautiful and fast and, potentially, very deadly.

A grey form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa

A grey form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa

 

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.

How to shoot against a black background

European preying mantis (Mantis religiosa) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, three speedlights Canon 580EX]

I must admit that I have never liked photos taken at night that showed the subject, be it an insect or a person, against a pitch black background. If I am ever in a situation when a full-flash photo at night is the only option, I always try to put some light on the background by either framing the shot in such a way that something lighter is behind my subject (e.g., a large leaf behind an insect), or use an extra light, a second flash or a headlamp, to illuminate the background. I do not buy the argument that black background is the “natural” background for night organisms: there is nothing natural about an artificial, narrow beam of light illuminating a single subject; I cannot think of any animal, other than a person with a flashlight, who sees the world in this way. But there are situations where the black background can produce an esthetically pleasing, striking effect. Lightly colored or semi-translucent organisms look great against a black background, and black is also a good choice to show the highlighted outline of a creature.

Emasculating bot fly (Cuterebra emasculator) photographed on a piece of glass against a black background [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, three speedlights Canon 580EX]

Shooting against a black background in a studio setting is a bit trickier than shooting against a white background. Any misdirected light will bounce off the dark background, and make it less than perfectly black, and imperfections of the dark background are likely to be more visible than imperfections of the white one.

It is also important that the object you are shooting is not resting directly on the black background. I use black velvet, which reflects relatively little light, but if a small insect sits directly on top of it then the fabric’s texture will be plainly visible. Thus, I place any subjects that can be shot in a vertical position (a plant, an insect on a branch) at least 20-30 cm away from the background, usually by holding it in a “helping hand” clamp. If the animal needs to sit horizontally, or if I want to shoot it from above I place it on a piece of glass or clear plastic, held horizontally about 20 cm above the black velvet. In the latter case it is very important that the lights are positioned in such a way that reflections on the glass are minimized (unless a visible reflection is something that you want); proper positioning of the lights can only be found by trial and error, and the glass should be as clean as possible because any smudges or specks of dirt will show against the background.

Here is the setup I use for my black background photography.

My basement photo studio

A. Black velvet – it is important that the velvet is draped uniformly, without folds or wrinkles; they will reflect light and show as lighter patches in your photo.

B. A piece of thin glass or clear plastic – I use it to move the subject away from the background; if the background is too close its texture will show in the photo.

C. Two diffused side lights – I use Canon 580EX/580EXII flashes in Photoflex LiteDome XS Softboxes; these softboxes are very light, and can be easily folded and stuffed into a camera bag for use in the field.

D. Backlight – another Canon 580EXII, placed high above the black stage, diffused with a large sheet of white paper; I often turn this light off and only use the two side lights.

Multi-flowered spikelets of Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) [Canon 7D, Canon 100mm macro, three speedlights Canon 580EX]

My rainforest portrait studio

Leaf katydid (Typophyllum sp.) from Suriname [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, two speedlights Canon 580EX + ambient light; f11, 1/4 s, ISO 250]

Katydids of the tribe Pterochrozini are some of the best leaf mimics that you can find in the Neotropical rainforest. Or rather the best mimics that you cannot find, as their resemblance to leaves, both green and shriveled, is so exquisite that in my 18 years of working in the Neotropics I have never found one during the day. I only find them at night, when their movement betrays their animal nature, or when I am able to detect their ultrasonic calls with a high frequency microphone.

Upon finding one I usually take a photo, but I never liked those pictures, illuminated only with a flash, the background pitch black. I much prefer images that show the true colors of the background of the animal, and I like to have full control over the quality of light, its direction and intensity. Since I nearly always catch the katydids (they are my professional speciality, and I need the specimens for my work), this gives me an opportunity to photograph them again the following day, using the full photographic arsenal and methods at my disposal.

Leaf katydid (Typophyllum sp.) from Suriname [Canon 1Ds MkII, Canon 180mm macro, two speedlights Canon 580EX + ambient light; f6.3, 1/40 s, ISO 200]

One of the first things I do when setting up a camp in the rainforest is to build a small workbench. On it I process the specimens, enter field data into my computer, and I use it as a photographic studio. Every species I collect is photographed for documentation, and the photos are entered into a database. These photos are not particularly pretty: they are mostly close-ups of diagnostic characters of the animals, and  composition or any other esthetic considerations are completely irrelevant.

But once I am done with the work, the fun begins. Because I usually keep my insects alive for a few days in order to get recordings of their songs, I can then experiment with all variables of their portraiture, such as the depth of field, backlighting, magnification etc. For this type of photography I nearly always use long lenses, which both give me a great working distance, and help diffuse the background and bring out the main subject of the photograph.

Here is a typical setup I use for my rainforest portraiture. I built this little field studio while working in southern Suriname in 2010, and the two photos of Typophyllum katydids shown here were taken in it. The bench itself was made from leftover pieces of wood that was used to construct our research camp.

My field studio in Suriname

A. Canon 1Ds Mk II – this is my main full frame workhorse; I like to use full frame cameras when shooting with really long portrait lenses (180mm); a camera with a cropped sensor  would force me to  move too far back from the table, and it would also make it more difficult to achieve a shallow depth of field.

B. Canon EF 180mm f/3.5L Macro – a wonderful macro lens; it is very sharp, but its bokeh could be better (bright points in the background tend to appear as octagons.)

C. Canon ST-E2 Speedlite Transmitter – it allows me to trigger multiple external flashes wirelessly.

D. Tripod GT2531EX 6X Carbon Fiber Explorer – in order to get natural-looking, light background, the exposure time must be relatively long, often as much as several seconds. This means that the camera must be firmly immobilized, and hand-holding it is not an option. I love this tripod – it is light but sturdy, and it allows me to spread the legs flat on the ground, giving me a very low vantage point.

E. Canon Remote Controller TC-80N3 – The use of a remote controller allows me to eliminate vibrations caused by manually pressing the shutter.

F. Canon 580EX speedlight – a powerful, pretty water-resistant flash (but not waterproof!)

G. Diffusers – this cheap piece of plastic (a $1 plastic folder I bought at Staples) is one the most important parts of my equipment. Without it the light of the flash is far too concentrated, resulting in harsh, unpleasant burnouts on any highly reflective elements of the photo.

H. GorillaPod – a great little tripod; very flexible, you can wrap it around a branch, and some models are sturdy enough to support a large SLR with a heavy lens.

I. “Helping hands” – another indispensable piece of gear for anybody interested in macrophotography; it allows you to position a leaf or a branch, or support a piece of paper if you want to have white background for your photo. Get it for a few bucks at RadioShack.

J. Reflector – I always carry one; it allows me to put nice, reflected light on the subject, especially if I am using only ambient light and no flash.

K. Wimberly Plamp – a handy flexible arm to hold the reflector or a branch.

Macro lenses: shorter is better (often)

What is the best lens for macrophotography? In an earlier post I argued that long lenses, 100mm and more, are great for photographing small subjects that are easy to scare off, and need to be photographed from a distance. They are also handy if you want to isolate your subject from its background. But what if the goal of your photography is to showcase not only the organism itself, but also its surroundings or relationships to other animals and plants? What you need in that case is a short lens.

The two very important things that are worth knowing about lenses are that (a) their focal length determines their angle of view, and (b) their focal length is correlated with the depth of field you will be able to achieve with the lens. The general rule is that the shorter the lens the wider its field of coverage. For example, a 180mm macro lens has the angle of view of only 13°, whereas a 60mm macro lens, being 3 times shorter, will have the angle of view of 39° – three times as much. In practical terms this means that if you fill the frame with an insect, the shorter, 60mm lens will also allow you to show three times as much of the insect’s background as the long, 180mm one.

Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) from Costa Rica [Nikon D1, Sigma 180mm f/3.5 APO, ambient light]

Shorter lenses are also better for achieving a greater depth of field (DOF) than longer lenses at the same aperture. DOF is more difficult to quantify than the angle of view, but a difference of just a few millimeters in the lens’ focal length can make objects that are meters away from the center of focus appear much sharper. Sometimes this can be undesirable, for example if the background is busy with ungainly twigs and branches that distract from the main subject. In such a case a longer lens is better. But if you do want to show as much of the subject’s background as possible then the shorter the lens the sharper the background will appear.

The tradeoff in using short macro lenses is the working distance, or the distance between the lens and the subject that is needed to achieve maximum magnification, which gets shorter with every millimeter subtracted from the lens’ focal length. Again, a 180mm lens will allow you to achieve its maximum magnification from a distance of about 50 cm, whereas if you use a 60mm lens then you will need to be as close as 17 cm from the subject – about one third of the distance. But as you gain practice with microphotography you will quickly discover that even the most agile, skittish insects and other small animals can be approached very closely if you show enough patience.

Red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) from Costa Rica [Nikon D1X, Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8 IF-ED, fill-in flash Nikon SB-28DX]

The difference in the effect of long versus short lenses can be seen in these two photos. The first one was taken with a 180mm lens (Sigma 180mm f/3.5 APO). This lens allowed me to get a very tight portrait of the iconic Red-eyed tree frog, while the background remains unobtrusively diffused. But this image lacks context, and it could have been taken in a studio (although it was taken in the Costa Rican rainforest.) For the second photo I used a very short lens (Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED; technically not a macro lens, but one that focuses close enough to be used for small natural history subjects.) Here the background of the animal is prominently displayed, making for a much more interesting, engaging portrait. There is no doubt that this photo was taken in the animal’s natural habitat, and it conveys more information about the frog’s life.