Macro Insect Photography, Part II

This entry is the second in a series of five detailing the techniques, equipment, and setups to photograph insects on a macro level. The first entry in this series is located here.

My main goal in macro photography is to capture the most detail through magnification while not compromising the focus of the subject. This is done through proper camera and lens choices and pushing the equipment to its maximum abilities. For all my research shots, I use a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. Its full frame senor is ideal for almost all scenarios and has incredible low light sensitivity (yes, full frame sensors do decrease the available depth of field compared to standard frame sensors, but I’ve found this effect is seemingly negligible). Mounted to the camera, I use, primarily, the Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens. The 65mm offers an unmatched level of magnification; set at 5x magnification or a 5:1 magnification ratio, 1mm of subject is captured as 5mm on the sensor plate. For an example of full 5x magnification see Macro Insects gallery. However, the 65mm can only be stopped down to f/16 resulting in a maximum depth of field around 2.24mm. This small depth of field means that in order to have my subject mosquitoes fully in focus they must fly perpendicular to the camera. Even then, some of the wing and leg structure details are lost; this is a trade-off using the MP-E 65mm for its magnification powers. Coupled with this extreme small depth of field, the 65mm lacks an image stabilization system and autofocus drive making a tripod absolutely essential. When I need slightly more depth of field, I switch to the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 USM Macro Lens, which can be stopped down to f/32 and gives 4mm of working depth. This amount will allow for the body of the mosquito to be fully in focus. The 100mm can autofocus, which is helpful (and extremely fast and accurate), but does lack the magnification ratios the 65mm provides. The black-background mosquito pictures are taken with the 65mm, the white-background with the 100mm.

For lighting, I use a combination of Canon speedlites: the 580EX II, the MT-24EX, and occasionally the MT-14EX ring flash. I find my subjects react to the ring flash and colors are often distorted, so I rarely use it anymore. The settings and placements of the lights I will discuss later.

Lastly, I recently added a few pieces of specialty equipment to my arsenal: the Camera Axe and Valve sensor. I can honestly say this equipment is absolutely required to get this shot. The Camera Axe is a device that can drive the camera and flashes with varying delays and outputs as determined by the input sensors.

The camera axe actuates a solenoid valve, which then opens to release a stream of water and then closes. The length of time the valve is open is determined by the user and dictates the size of the drops that result. The camera axe then drives the camera and flashes to fire after a user-entered length of delay that matches the height and speed of the falling drop.

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