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When life gives you lemons

An 8 second exposure of mating horseshoe crabs (ISO 1250, 14mm, f 7.1) – I like these kinds of shots, but they give the false impression of the scene being static and dreamy.

An 8 second exposure of mating horseshoe crabs (ISO 1250, 14mm, f 7.1) – I like these kinds of shots, but they give the false impression of the scene being static and dreamy.

Last weekend I drove with a couple of friends to Delaware to watch what surely must be one of the most amazing natural spectacles in North America, the annual mass spawning of Atlantic horseshoe crabs. I do it almost every year, and over time the eight hour drive from Boston to Delaware Bay has become a ritual, my way of communing with the ancient arthropods. (It is also an opportunity for me to gorge on delicious things I normally try to avoid – gas station donuts, Big Macs – after all, there is simply no way to eat healthily while on the road, right?)

A trip to Delaware allows me to flex my photographic muscles and try new approaches to capturing a scene that has been photographed a zillion times already, but this year the circumstances were not particularly favorable for photography. In fact, they could not have been worse. High tides, which is the time when horseshoe crabs emerge from the ocean to lay eggs, were late at night, long after the sun had set. It was new moon and the sky was overcast, hiding the stars. This challenge presented me with three possible options. I could forget about pictures and simply enjoy the show with a beer in my hand – I have already taken thousands of photos of horseshoe crabs, and didn’t really need to take any more. Very tempting. I could also shoot with flashes and get crisp, clinical shots of the crabs’ aggregations. Boring. Or I could think of a new, unorthodox way to shoot them.

Once I used some fill-in light I was able to capture the true, dynamic character of the scene – waves crashing over the bodies of horseshoe crabs tumbling in the brown waters of the Delaware Bay.

Once I used some fill-in light I was able to capture the true, dynamic character of the scene – waves crashing over the bodies of horseshoe crabs tumbling in the brown waters of the Delaware Bay.

Photographing horseshoe crabs is not easy even under the best of circumstances – the light is usually low, salt water splashes on the equipment, waves move the tripod. In the near darkness of the new moon things were even tougher. Still, I was determined to get at least one interesting shot. The idea was to capture the dynamic nature of the spectacle and convey the darkness of its surroundings. I decided to go for a low angle shot of the animals tumbling in the waves, while showing the darkening skyline. I used my Canon 7D with a Canon 14mm fisheye, mounted on a tripod (dug deep into the sand to stabilize it) and positioned less than a foot above the crabs in the splash zone. I had to wipe the camera and lens every minute, but soon they were both dripping wet. I tried a bunch of simple, long exposures (30 seconds or longer), but those produced static, if somewhat dreamy pictures, where the waves turned into a silky mist enveloping the animals. I needed extra light to capture individual waves.

Horseshoe crabs, like some of their distant arachnid cousins, fluoresce under ultraviolet light. A dark, moonless night last weekend was a good opportunity to photograph it.

Horseshoe crabs, like some of their distant arachnid cousins, fluoresce under ultraviolet light. A dark, moonless night last weekend was a good opportunity to photograph it.

A pop of flash often works very well in such situations, freezing some of the action, while the rest of the exposure time allows for the scene to become more diffused and messy. But I did not like the harshness of the flash, and even my headlamp produced illumination that was too bright for a long, ISO 1600 exposure. Only after I wrapped it in a few layers of paper towels did the light become diffused and soft enough for me to start “painting” the scene with it. In the end I was able to capture an image very close to what I had in mind – a melee of animals among waves splashing against their bodies, while the last traces of sunlight reflect off the clouds above. The shot is grainy and dark, but to me it feels right and true to the circumstances. I guess the lesson here is that when life gives you lemons, you photograph them.

During the day, when horseshoe crabs were deep in the ocean, I photographed other things. Great Blue Heron hunting mud crabs in the marshes of the Prime Hook Nature Reserve made for an interesting subject.

During the day, when horseshoe crabs were deep in the ocean, I photographed other things. A Great Blue Heron hunting mud crabs in the marshes of the Prime Hook Nature Reserve made for an interesting subject.

Natural areas surrounding the Delaware Bay are full of amazing creatures. I found this Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) on a country road near the ocean.

Natural areas surrounding the Delaware Bay are full of amazing creatures. I found this Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) on a country road near the ocean.

BugShot 2013 in Belize

There are still a few slots available for BugShot 2013, a great opportunity to learn macrophotography in the rainforest of Belize from Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, John Abbott, and yours truly. It is going to be a great event, at a fantastic location. You will not only discover the carefully guarded secrets of some of the best insect photographers in the world (e.g., what cameras they really use, how they drug their insects so that they sit absolutely still* etc.), but you will also learn a lot about insect biology and behavior, and visit a variety of Neotropical habitats.

Head on the BugShot.net to grab one of the few remaining spaces.

*) I am kidding, of course – real nature photographers never drug, chill, or kill their subjects.

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]