Winter in the Northern Hemisphere – is there anything more unpleasant? To most entomologists living in temperate climates winter is synonymous with the disappearance of everything they love: insect activity and the pleasant buzz of millions of wings, vibrant colors of plants, warm weather. Our beloved animals have long turned to dust, buried themselves into the ground, or entered a stupor so deep that they might as well be dead. It will be long months before the word “green” re-enters our vocabulary, and both our skin and the ground below our feet breathe a sigh of relief.But as I walked from my car to work this morning, trying with all my might not to expose any unnecessary fragment of my body to the frigid, dry air, I suddenly remembered that there was an insect, a very interesting one, that flourished in this dead season. I first saw it a few years ago in the middle of February on Wachusett Mountain in MA, jumping on the surface of deep snow like a black, shiny flea. It was a snow scorpionfly, a fascinating insect that up that point was only familiar to me from entomology textbooks.
Snow scorpionflies (Boreidae) are fascinating insects that can often be found on snow in temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere. Their relationships are still somewhat mysterious —traditionally they have been considered a family of scorpionflies (Mecoptera), a group of agile, predaceous insects, but recent molecular and morphological studies suggest that they may be in fact more closely related to parasitic fleas. Regardless of their genetic affinities, these peaceful, moss-feeding creatures resemble little either true scorpionflies or fleas, and both their larvae and adults feed on mosses.But why are they active in the middle of winter? Bodies of all living cells contain a very high proportion of water, which turns into ice crystals when the temperature falls below 0°C, damaging the cell structure and potentially killing the organism. And yet, even in the middle of winter snow scorpionflies are not alone. Many arthropods have evolved physiological adaptations that allow them to survive and be active in subfreezing temperatures. As ectotherms, animals that cannot generate their own body heat, winter insects and spiders must possess the ability to supercool their body fluids in order to remain active in subfreezing conditions. Supercooling, a process that allows them to lower their body temperature to well below the water’s freezing point and still maintain its liquid state, is achieved by the presence of polyhydric alcohols and antifreeze proteins in their hemolymph and cells. Like other winter-active insects, snow scorpionflies take advantage of the fact that most predators that target insects disappear in the cold months, and come out in large numbers to mate. The larger and chunkier female is completely wingless, whereas the male has a pair of strangely modified, scissor-like wings, which he uses to clasp the female’s mouthparts and secure her position on his back during mating. After mating the female uses her long, external ovipositor to lay eggs in clumps of moss, where they will stay dormant until spring.
I have not seen scorpionflies this year, yet, but I will look for them. These animals may be about the size of a pinhead, but for me, in this season, they loom large.
It is not surprising that carrying your eyeballs at the ends of a long broomstick does not make your life any easier, and it has been shown that males who have particularly long stalks must also develop larger wings to compensate for the drag caused by their eyes. This, in turn, supports the idea of the “Handicap model” of sexual selection in these flies – because the long eye stalks make the male’s life more difficult, surely he must be a carrier of some excellent genetic material to be able to overcome the handicap of the gargantuan ornaments.
Update (22 Jan. 13): Thanks to Hans Feijen for identifying the fly species, which turned out to be Diasemopsis fasciata, and not Diopsis.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.