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Loc: Orangevale, California
I am sipping on my usual chocolate banana milkshake when (LIGHT BULB!!!) I cooked up this great idea. I would like to capture some insects with my macro lens. Not necessarily a new or dramatic idea, so I upped the mark just a bit and added the caveat, they have to be in flight, or just taking off. Ah, that is much better for the challenge.
Setting the milkshake down, I immediately tried to plan a way to shoot an insect in flight, without the expensive high-speed shutter, (which is very difficult even if you have one, which I do), so I could share this with you fellow wildlife enthusiasts. Many people desire answers to complicated questions, without the expensive solutions. This is where I often excel. My wife calls it being cheap, but I think of it as being resourceful, thrifty, and other, more pleasant words.
So, the first task at hand was planning to contain and capture images of subjects that could potentially vanish in a "blink-of-the-eye" - a camera ghost as it were. Now you see them, now you don't. I had to construct a chamber, or containment container with specific functions or attributes. Considerations? The container has to be portable (to take into the field if necessary, and not difficult to add or remove subjects. It has to be able to let light in from any direction so as to change the mood of the scene or subject, or even to apply light from a specific flight direction.
So these were my basic formula parameters. Designing and fabricating museum exhibits in the past has prepared me for one simple premise when planning a project, think of as many things that could go wrong before designing or buying the materials. With this in mind, my concept of transparent materials provided me with two possibilities: clear acrylic or glass. Acrylic is easier to fabricate into specimen containers. It also does not suffer from the ease of breakage. It can also add a slight tint or color balance shift to the images - not something desirable, but fixable in post possessing.
Glass, on the other hand, has no flexibility, and can be somewhat fragile if not properly handled in the field. But here is a significant advantage in favor for the use of glass. It is very hard, compared to acrylic. Scratches and abrasions from even wiping the acrylic clean will affect the images seen through the plastic. Bursts of light from an electronic flash illuminate any small scratches or abrasions on the surface and are a nuisance, if not destructive part of the image gathering. Glass, on the other hand, can be used over and over again. It can be cleaned, and unless you are taking sand or metal to the surface, it will last you a lifetime of shooting.
When purchasing glass, you can go to your local glass store. They replace windows, mirrors, bathroom doors, etc., and usually have anything you need in supply. The other advantage to glass is that it is less expensive to purchase than acrylic. Ask for Photo Frame glass. This is important. You want clear glass, do not get the non-glare surface. It will degrade the images. I chose Photo Frame glass. It is approximately half the thickness of window glass, but if you handle it properly, you will not find yourself breaking it. The thinness aids in light transmission, to and from the subject.
Image #1 illustrates the photo chamber for small insects. You can make larger containers for small vertebrates such as: lizards, frogs, toads, mice, and the like, so consider glass when designing the chamber for invertebrates, such as insects and spiders. As you can see, the chamber has two sides attached to bottom, and separate front and back. The bottom has a 1-inch hole, explained later. The lid is entirely removable, and slightly longer than the width of the container. I used clear silicon sealant to adhere the four sides and bottom of the container together. It is easily acquired at a hardware or building supply store, and it sticks well to the glass.
Chamber dimensions are on the drawing. The chamber depth is very narrow. This provides the subject with enough space to move around, but limits the movement nearer and farther from the photographer, while providing ample room left to right and up and down. You are shooting with a limited DoF, so it is well and good that you have the subject in an environment that you will be able to restrict movement closer and farther away. This provides you with more shooting opportunities as the insect takes wing.
Image #1 - photo chamber for small insects
The bottom opening is where selected subjects enter the chamber. Specimens are captured in the field and placed in a small bottle with a 1-inch neck and lid. After capture, place the small bottle under the glass chamber and let the organism climb up and into the chamber via the hole from the bottle. This method provides both you and the subject protection from each other.
So why a wide lid? Many flying insects are not particularly interested in staying in the container you place them in, thus they will be shooting right back out the opening if it is wide. And I must add, usually faster than you will be able to close the top lid. The wide lid facilitates cleaning the entire glass surface by hand, as it will fit inside easily from the top.
Image #2 illustrates the second purpose for the hole, which is to provide an interchangeable insect stage. Basically, it is a small piece of cardboard with an insect pin sticking perpendicular though the center of the cardboard. This pin is used to skewer small leaves, twigs, etc., for placement in the center of the enclosure. Insects like to climb, usually just before they decide to fly. This works for many of the beetles, as they prefer to be slightly elevated when taking off.
Image #2 - Movable insect 'stage'
Now go outside and collect your specimen. HINT: Hanging around your outside lights at night can be advantageous. It will usually provide more opportunity for captures.
For gear, it does really matter which camera or macro lens that you use. Technique is as important, if not more important, than equipment.
My set-up includes an 105-mm macro lens for most of the high-speed shooting. It provides me with a bit of Working Distance between me and the subject so I can observe what is taking place, and better time the shots. I also use a full-frame body. I have a separate full-frame body and macro lens for use in the field.
For shooting insect in flight, it is basically essential to use a speedlight. Strong, even lighting is best delivered by a minimum of two (three is better) speedlights. I use four, and sometimes five. They are inexpensive and also very portable. Manual units are the cheapest, and once you set the flash distance for the aperture you intend to use, nothing really changes. Even the lens is set on manual focus. I found auto-focus useless in these situations.
Why three speedlights? The glass container rests inside a commercial softbox to diffuse the light evenly. A third light really separates the target from the background. Behind the subject, I place one speedlight below or above the chamber.
Image 3 - Softbox & Speedligh placement
For the insect stage, take a small piece of cardboard and stick an entomology pin through the center. These pins are very skinny, and will impale very thin or small leaf specimens, without splitting them. Find a small leaf (small enough to fit through the hole in the bottom of the chamber (folding may be necessary). The leaf will now provide something on which to focus, and adjust your lighting.
Move the speedlights in-&-out to adjust to the chosen f/8 or f/11 aperture. Since you control the lighting distance, pick the lowest ISO for the images. Doing so increases the effectiveness of the flash, while negating ambient light from effecting exposure. Remember, when shooting with diffused lights, keep the speedlight face at least 6â from the diffusion material. Any closer, and the softbox material does nothing more than reduce your light output, not diffuse it.
Try to use the lowest light output settings on the speedlight, such as 1/128, 1/64, or 1/32 power output. With one of those settings chosen, your flash duration should be shorter than 1/10,000-sec. This short duration freezes moving wings, capturing detail. Camera should be set to manual, with lens aperture of f/8 or f/11 suggested.
When setting up the stage for the capture, it is very helpful to be able to control direction of subject movements. DoF will be very shallow. You need to control this three-dimensionality within the frame. Most insect will attempt to fly towards the better lit area when placed inside a container. This is behavior study. I always plug the photographer with "Be patient and watch the subject before shooting", and the advice works here as well. If it is a bee or a fly, they will fly FACE FIRST against the glass. You should have your lens pre-focused on the space just beyond the back of the front glass window. Pull back and have the magnification about 1:3. An area 2x3-inches or even 3x4-inches will provide a much better chance of capturing an insect quickly, skirting across the frame, against the front glass. Do not attempt to capture a macro short of the insect in flight, if you are not using a triggering system. Be sure to pull back some.
The plane of focus of a macro lens is flat, not curved like a standard lens. Since your subject is flying parallel to the flat glass, they should be in focus quite often through the whole frame. You control the focus plane and reduce the three-dimensionality of the target. Also important: shoot with the plane of the glass being parallel to the back of the camera. The more angle you shoot through (even though glass is better than acrylic) the more you increase the refraction and distortions you will view. See camera setup photo Image #4. To prevent light reflection off of glass, be sure to have speedlights to the side, and not next to the camera.
Speedlight and Softbox positioning
If you are shooting beetles taking off, move the leaf so that the edge of it touches the front glass. Many of the insects will literally "climb the walls" to get out of the container. They will climb on to the leaf many more times if it is touching the glass walls, than they will find the stem in the center of the enclosure and climb it. This is the important moment. Technique and behavior study is everything with this method of capture. When they climb on the leaf, is the time to be most attentive. Beetles have an elytra (hard shell that covers wings). The wings are folded inside. When beetles first launch, the elytra open, then the wings unfold, followed by wing flapping. This moment, though brief as it is, is a lifetime, compared to a fly taking wing or a jumping spider leaping.
That brings up the subject of jumping spiders and flies leaping and taking off. We are not fast enough to capture one of these events without a trigger/high-speed shutter combo, or capturing a frame from an expensive slow motion camera. You could get lucky and capture by just anticipating when they are about to jump, but luck be with you on that one.
There you have it - a way to inexpensively capture some high-speed targets. Watch out for those bees and wasps getting loose in the house though, and, as always, happy ghost shooting.
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