Archive for the ‘Tricks of the Trade’ Category

As winter doesn’t have much insect activity, it’s the season I use to work on my equipment.  Yesterday I tried out a new arrangement to diffuse the heads on my mt-24ex twin flash when the heads are mounted on long, moveable arms. Here’s a time-lapse video showing the construction, plus a short clip of the gear in use:

Note the effect of the diffusion:

A bare, undiffused flash produces harsh shadows and glare

A diffused flash provides softer, more even lighting

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Plectroctena mandibularis, South Africa

Every now and again someone asks how I get the white background on these sorts of stylized ant shots. Pretty simple: it’s a sheet of cheap white printer paper. Overexposing the shot slightly by boosting the flash evens out the white.

I set the ant down on the paper under a petri dish or a lens cap, let her settle in, and remove the cover to get a few seconds of a relaxed ant before she’s off to the races.

Photo details: Canon mp-e 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 20D.
ISO 100, f13, 1/250th sec, diffuse twin flash

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A reader asks:

I also have a MP-E lens with the MT-24EX flash unit. I was curious to know something I didn’t see you mention in your recent blog post about this setup.

Could you share any technical points regarding how you achieve the visible backgrounds with that lens? In general, I get very nice shots with everything beyond the focused subject completely blacked out.

Since dark areas in photographs are the bits that aren’t sending light to the camera, it follows that getting a visible backdrop means applying light behind the subject. (more…)

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A couple years back I posted a short bit on how to register photo copyright with the U.S. government. That turned out to be the last time I filled out a registration with pen and paper. For all subsequent submissions I’ve used the new ECO system at http://www.copyright.gov/eco.

Let me disabuse you of any preconception that the online method is easier. You’ll need to clear an hour or two out of your schedule to prepare a submission. The new process involves clicking though an interminable array of confusing steps, filling out an order of magnitude more information than was requested in the paper form, and jockeying awkwardly between upload and payment sites.

Fortunately, photo attorney Carolyn Wright has created a set of directions that are clearer than anything the copyright office provides. I won’t duplicate her efforts by explaining how it works, other than to offer the following pointer: compress your images into a series of .zip files before you begin. How many files you’ll need will depend on the speed of your internet connection, as ECO logs you out after an hour. As with the old system, you can register an unlimited number of images in a single batch and a single fee.

Despite the hassle, I find online registration worthwhile. For one, it’s ten bucks cheaper. And more importantly, the turnaround time is several months faster than paper submission. So if you need your reg numbers quickly, ECO is really your only option.

Anyway, this is been an absolutely thrilling post. So here’s an ant:

this photograph is registered copyright VAu 979-301

15 points to the first person who can identify it.

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Pogonomyrmex micans, stack of 23 images using CombineZP. Click for large file.

I don’t ordinarily do product endorsements on the blog, but here’s one: the image-stacking software CombineZP. I recommend it for two reasons.  First, CombineZP produces smoother, more artifact-free images than the very expensive competition.  Second, CombineZP is freeware.  Alan Hadley, a British arthropod enthusiast, wrote it in his spare time.

Good.  And free.  Not much to argue with there.

CombineZP and similar products are designed to counter a major challenge of macrophotography, the narrow depth of field at high magnification.  (more…)

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I’ve had several people ask me recently where to focus when taking insect photos.  Here’s my advice.

Aim for the eyes.


A phorid fly sits atop a fungus, its compound eye slightly ahead of the focal plane.

The same fly with its eye in the focal plane.

The second photo should be more appealing than the first.  Indeed, the first looks out of focus.  Strictly speaking, though, this isn’t true.

The top photo shows a much greater percentage of the body in focus than does the bottom photo.  Look at how crisp the outline of the fly appears in comparison to the blur of the body in the second photo.  In fact, a computer might even select the top photo as the better of the two based overall sharpness.

But we humans are not computers. We are social primates, and we naturally gravitate towards the eyes.

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Malcom Gladwell to aspiring journalists:

The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.

Gladwell’s advice applies equally to photography. Forget film school.  Nature photographers are better served by graduate degrees in Genetics, Evolution, or Geology than anything from a generalized photography school. Know your subject, as they say.

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For those of you accessible to central Illinois, I will be hosting a free insect photography workshop next Sunday at the University of Illinois Pollinatarium.  The workshop is offered in celebration of the 3rd annual National Pollinator Week. Details are as follows:

Insect Photography Workshop
Free to the public
2:00 pm, June 28th, 2009
at the University of Illinois Pollinatarium (map)

Bring your camera, as this is a participatory event!

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Among the least understood technical aspects of photography, at least for novices, is aperture.  Yet aperture has profound effects on the resulting image.  Consider the following series of photos, each taken with a macro setup of an MP-E lens on a Canon dSLR camera, focused at the foremost tip of an ant head head shot at increasingly smaller apertures:

apertureWhat’s going on?


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A public appearance

I’ll be giving an hour-long seminar on insect photography this coming Monday, February 2nd, as part of the University of Illinois Ecology and Evolutionary Biology “Ecolunch” series.  Here are the details:

Alex Wild at Ecolunch
“Insect Photography: A How To For You Too”
February 2, 12-1pm
176 Burrill Hall
407 S Goodwin Ave
University of Illinois
Urbana, IL 61801

I’ll be covering a few basic aspects of macro photography, including equipment, composition, and working with live insects.

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