Insect photography is tiring but very rewarding

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 17 Oct) – I have long enjoyed watching photographs of small things – the smallest flowers, insects, spiders, and other almost microscopic items. Although I’ve been taking pictures for a few decades, for work and leisure, I have never entertained shooting those little things.

A horse fly, maybe. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

The reason? I know macro lenses are expensive. Could be anywhere from five hundred to a thousand dollars. Although I have lenses in that price range, these are bread-and-butter lenses, the lenses that I always use for my usual shoots.

Macro lenses are nice to have for the occasional macro shots. But I never considered buying one. Aside from the cost, it’s added weight in the already heavy bag.

Being quarantined for more than half a year now, photography has been very helpful to while the time away, and to express one’s creative side. Lucky that we have this once a month shoot-from-home photo contest in our local camera club.

A few months ago we had a contest on plants, and thanks to my plantita of a wife, I have never moved on from shooting plants. Last month, there was this one instance that really made me wish I had a macro lens – when I was so happy with my picture of a very small Begonia flower, maybe the diameter of a 10-centavo coin, with exploding colors in the background that it looked like a painting. It was cropped in-camera because my cheap 50mm lens couldn’t focus close enough. But I still like it so much I’ve made it the wallpaper of my computer now.

So I checked macro lens prices online. Okay, I’m still not buying one, more so in this pandemic.

Ladybug. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

But as luck would have it, a fellow member of our camera club has been posting macro shots of caterpillars and other insects. He doesn’t have a macro lens, but is using a photographic accessory to help him shoot small items – the extension tube. I’ve read about extension tubes a long time ago, with the volumes of photographic books I have read long before the internet. But I’ve never really seen one.

Extension tubes

It’s a tube that you place between the camera body and the lens so in effect you’re extending the lens’ length, and the effect: your lens can now focus more closely. As in really close. (Sorry point-and-shoot camera owners, you can’t use extension tubes on your camera.) That small Begonia flower, you can fill all of that in your camera’s viewfinder or LCD screen, with one or a combination of those extension tubes.

In the old days, a set of two or three extension tubes would cost you maybe a hundred dollars. Even now, the popular brands are still at that price. I still won’t be buying.

But lo and behold! Thanks to China, prices have dropped by a tenth, or even less.

The cheapest I found for my Sony cameras was at 300 pesos, so I immediately ordered from Shopee. But the vendor did not deliver, and I was glad I chose cash-on-delivery. Then I found the exact same extension tubes my fellow camera club member was using – 501 pesos for a set of three (13mm, 21mm and 31mm), from a vendor in China, of course. Paired with your cheap kit lens or normal lens (50mm), you can already do magic.

While waiting for the extension tubes’ arrival, I spent hours and hours watching YouTube tutorials on macro photography.

When the extension tubes arrived maybe 10 days later, I was like a boy with a new toy. Off I went to shoot that Begonia flower again, and was amazed at the details I can get. And I shot it with the full resolution of my 24-megapixel camera that I can print this as large as a poster or a billboard

Jumping spider. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

Flowers are easier to shoot, because they’re not moving as long as it’s not windy. Even in dim light, you can use a tripod and you’re fine.

But shooting insects is a different thing completely. And this is when the fun begins. This is my equivalent of bird photography, but without the expense of those long, bazooka-like lenses, and the travels to exotic places. I can just walk and crawl around our garden and, voila! I have photographs of insects as beautiful and as colorful as birds.

Focusing

There are, however, a few issues in macro photography that will drive the uninitiated crazy.

One is focusing. It is so difficult focusing on subjects that are so close to the lens. The most modern and sophisticated autofocus systems just won’t work, and thus macro photographers prefer to just focus manually.

The reason? When shooting up close, the depth-of-field is very shallow, could just be one millimeter or less. In layman’s terms, depth-of-field is the area in your picture where things appear sharp, while the foreground and the background usually go into a soft blur (what we call “bokeh”).

Imagine shooting an insect with just the eyes, or the legs, sharp and everything else a soft blur. Good if you can focus on the eyes, because that’s what we’re usually after. But what if you focus on another part of the insect? Like a leg or its ass?

The solution is to stop down the aperture, or reduce the opening of the lens. The more you stop down, the more depth-of-field, and focusing will now be easier.

Leaf-footed bug. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

But then you introduce another problem: like when you close the blinds in your window, the room will darken, right? Thus, your picture will darken, too. In photography, to correct that issue, you lengthen the time that the window (we’re actually referring to the camera’s shutter now) remains open, and then your picture will brighten up again.

But then you introduce yet another problem: blurred images, either from the shake in your hands as you hold the camera, or the subject itself is moving, even if so slightly. When we shoot sceneries or selfies outdoors in the sun, we’re talking just hundredths or even thousandths of a second here. That is what’s called the camera’s shutter speed, and we usually write it in fractions – 1/1000 of a second, 1/500 of a second, etc. Those are real quick, faster than the blink of an eye that even if you have shaky hands, your picture will still be sharp, no blur at all.

But when you have to stop down your lens’ aperture and shooting under the shade of the sun, you may need to use a shutter speed of 1 second or longer. The smallest amount of movement, in your hands or in the subject, will result in a blurred picture. So even if you use a tripod, and with the smallest amount of wind or a little movement of your model insect, you’ll end up with a blurred picture.

Increase ISO then, you say? ISO refers to the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor, so increasing it can capture light even when it’s dim. But yet another problem crops up: your image will be noisy, or grainy, with those visible unwanted dark or bright sand-like spots all over the picture.

Blue bottle fly. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

Brighter than daylight

And that’s the final technical obstacle you have to hurdle in macro photography: how to have very bright light – brighter than daylight, in fact – so you shoot at a fast enough shutter speed, in low ISO, so you will have a correctly exposed and focused picture without motion blur.

The answer? Use flash. Your camera’s built-in flash may work, but you really need something more powerful. Luckily, most photographers, professionals or hobbyists, have an external flash or two in their bag.

The problem with flashes, though, is that you will have very unpleasant images because of the very bright highlights and the sharp shadows. Another problem that, of course, has a solution: use a diffuser in front of your flash. Use any white material – bond paper, cloth, tracing paper, etc. – in front of your flash to soften the shadows. The bigger it is, the softer the shadow, and thus the more pleasant for your picture. But since insects are so small, you don’t really need big diffusers as you would shoot a person. Something just the size of your smartphone should be okay. How to place it in front of your flash without you holding it all the time? YouTube University to the rescue!

Once you have that diffuser, it’s just a little tweaking on your camera’s and flash’s settings to get a good picture.

The challenge now is looking for your subjects.

Caterpillar. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

I’m lucky we have plants around our home. Where there are plants, there are insects. And at the back of our house we have a vegetable garden. More insects!

Like shooting birds in the wild and people in the streets, the challenge is not to scare them away. You’ll learn how as you start shooting. But it won’t be easy.

Well rewarded

My first “photo safari” shooting insects was a weekend ago, in our vegetable garden. I stayed there for two hours, walking, squatting, crawling, under the bright late morning sun. And was well rewarded.

It helps that I’m a runner and I do exercises to strengthen my legs, because you’ll be squatting often as you go down to the insects’ level. Glad I resumed dumb bell exercises, too, coz lifting the camera with one hand, and an external flash on the other, is tiring.

The dengue-carrying Aedes egypti mosquito, so full. With my blood? MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

One more tip: protect yourself from insect bites.

I wore rubber boots, jogging pants, long-sleeved shirt, and a baseball cap with the visor in the back (hinders your shooting if in front) to cover myself as much as possible. But in that shoot, I was able to take a picture of the Aedes aegypti dengue-carrying mosquito, unable to move because it was full of blood. That must be my blood, because I was the only animal or mammal in the 300 sq.m. plot of garden at that time.

Would be nice to wear gloves, but not easy fiddling with the camera settings. A Ninja bonnet maybe next time, so only my eyes would be vulnerable, but then I’d notice a hovering mosquito.

Yep, insect photography is tiring, but is very rewarding. You’ll learn to walk much slower as you look for those tiny insects on flowers and underneath the leaves. And seeing their beauty, and knowing their role on this Earth, you’d either love them more, or hate them. (Bobby Timonera / MindaNews)

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