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Mark Plonsky

by M. Plonsky, Ph.D.

This article will explain the techniques I use to take bug pictures.

PNet version 1.0, 2-6-03


Macro Photography Tutorial

Fly Portrait

Introduction

I am a professor (experimental psychology, not entomology). I had started scanning images back in 1989 for incorporating into my lectures that I projected in front of the classroom. I bought a digital camera in 2000 for family photos and to document dog behavior. The camera wasn't as good as I would have liked for the latter due to the slow auto focus and other camera specific limitations. I like the digital, though, because it makes it easy to try something and immediately see if, and how, it worked. Compact flash is like a continuous roll of film that I never run out of. Given my background, I tend to think of the camera as a scanner that you point.

When I first got the camera, my (then) 5 year old son came into my office one day and suggested I photograph a bug that he had his eye on and we did. It was worse than terrible by my current standards, but it did allow us to see the bug in more detail than we could in real life. That is what got me started and what I enjoy so much about macros. They let you see what you ordinarily cannot. As a scientist, I am quite curious by nature. I kept shooting the bugs, had fun, and my camera was reasonable good at it. I also liked that as I developed skills shooting bugs, all of my other photos (dogs, family, etc), got better too.

The Internet (web) and photo forums have been my photography teacher. Thus, I am especially thankful to those who have given me honest and constructive critiques. I guess my dream is that one day my images will appear in children's books or other educational materials.

I am writing this article because when I post my images on the forums, people often ask how I do it. So I am going to try and tell you. Keep in mind that I am just an self taught amateur who is willing to experiment and has an insatiable curiosity. Thus, the internet acronym "YMMV" applies (i.e., "Your Milage May Vary"). Nonetheless, I hope this information is useful to you and enables you to have more fun taking and creating images.

All information and images in this article Copyright © 2001-3 M. Plonsky
http://www.mplonsky.com/photo


Cone King

Philosophy

Most of my bugs are photographed in the natural environment. I don't chill them, or spray them, or glue them, or nail them down. I will sometimes move some blades of grass or vegetation to get a better view. Even less often, I will try to relocate the bug to a new location. Nonetheless, they are always alive and well when I shoot them. Occasionally I will shoot them on a building (white ones especially) or other man made structure.

My goal when photographing the bug is to present it in a positive light; to show it at it’s best. I especially like intimate portraits, behavior shots, and full body shots with clean and smooth backgrounds.


Wasp Eating Fruit

Camera Equipment


Painted Lady on a Cone Flower

Using Close-Ups (Diopters)

A close-up lens (or diopter) enables the camera to focus closer than it normally can. This means that the image will appear larger in the frame because you can get closer to it. In other words, close-ups allow you to magnify the image. A diopter is, in fact, a magnifying glass.

Close-ups can be stacked. When doing this, the highest powered close-up should be the closest to the camera. I have stacked as much as +27. One problem with stacking is that the quality decreases because there is more glass. Another issue is that as the magnification increases the depth of field (DOF) decreases. With really high magnifications, the DOF becomes paper thin.

Still another important issue with close-ups is that you need to get so close to the subject. The distance from the camera’s lens to the bug is called the "working distance". One of the techniques I use to increase working distance is to follow the close-ups with a 2xTC. In addition to the increased distance making it more likely that I can get the shot (by not disturbing the bug), it also makes it easier to get better lighting. A disadvantage of the 2xTC, though, is that some magnification is lost.

I have learned to try various “optical marriages”, because some lens combinations work well together and others don’t. For example, I tried diopters after the 2xTC, but the results weren’t very good. It was a poor "optical marriage".


Ant on a Leaf

Reversing a Lens

While stacking bunches of close-ups gave me some great shots with good magnification, I wasn’t really satisfied with the technique. I found that stacking more than 2-3 lenses wasn’t really worth it, since I rarely could obtain the quality I desired.

I had read about a technique involving reversing a lens to gain magnification in web articles such as that written by Chris Breeze & Guy Parsons, as well as in John Shaw's book "Close-ups in Nature". It is sometimes called "a poor man's macro".

I first tried the reverse lens technique with a Canon 35-80mm F4.5 lens and magnification was great, but vignetting (i.e., a black circle like frame on the image) was prohibitive. So I went to a camera store with my camera to check out the 50mm (i.e., normal) lenses. I wound up buying a Pentax 50mm F1.4 lens. The F1.4 means that it is a fast lens (i.e., it lets in a lot of light). As a result, it gives minimal vignetting (a slight darkening of the corners).  It appears that the increased zoom of the Canon G3 compared to the G1 has completely eliminated vignetting with this lense.

I attach the 50mm lens in the reverse position to the Canon Digital with an adapter (Lensmate) to allow for filters and additional lenses and then a macro coupling ring that has male threads on both sides. Links to where you can find this equipment were presented in the previous section on Camera Equipment.

The reverse lens acts as a powerful (about +25) and high quality diopter. I have to be about 1.5 or so inches from the bug with this setup. Also, I must have my digital on full zoom. I set the 50mm to its widest aperture (in the case of my Pentax it is F1.4) and set the focus to infinity. Then I do the rest with my camera. I should note that sometimes I use a +3 diopter before the reversed lens to squeeze out just a bit more magnification.


The Uppitty Ant

Camera Settings

Here are some tips:
  1. Use manual focus. Lock the focus and then gently rock the camera back and forth until you find that sweet spot (where the image looks crisp in the LCD). This takes a lot of practice.
  2. Use full zoom. This is especially important in situations were vignetting is likely (e.g., if using a 2xTC after some stacked close-ups).
  3. Use a small aperture (large F value) to maximize depth of field (the amount of the image in focus). The more magnification, the less depth of field.
  4. Fill flash is usually a good idea. The majority of my shots are at F8 (which is the smallest aperture a prosumer digital camera gives), 1/250 with fill flash.
  5. I typically used the F8 trick on the Canon G1, that is, I use Tv (shutter priority) mode and set the shutter speed to 1/640th. Because flash is enabled, it will drop down to the max synch speed of 1/250 with F8. While the G3 doesn't have the F8 trick, it does permit high speed synch (higher than 1/250 with the external flash), which should be useful for fill in bright light.
  6. The next most frequent mode I use is aperture priority (Av) with, of course, F8 (the smallest aperture my camera gives). I like this mode, because I can tolerate shutter speeds down to 1/100 or so on a good day (if I have skipped the morning coffee), but I am more likely to have success with 1/160 or 1/200. This helps to get a lighter background than with 1/250.
  7. Lastly, I sometimes shoot in manual mode, but the main problem with that is my Canon G1 fires the external flash at full strength in this mode (in which case, I wrap it in tissue as well as the diffuser). Since the G3 gives much more control over the flash, I will probably use manual more often with it.

Fly on the Wall II

Lighting & Flash

Here are some tips:
  1. Shoot on bright days so you can get a decent shutter speed.
  2. If you can afford an external flash, it really makes a dramatic difference.
  3. If you do use flash, it needs to be diffused (e.g., a tissue) or bounced (e.g., off a white card or reflector). Pointing the flash indirectly is another possibility.
  4. The 2xTC after the close-ups can help with lighting since it is easier to illuminate the subject more evenly from a distance.
  5. A butterfly bracket (and off shoe cord) for the external flash will give you even more control of lighting.
  6. Varying exposure and/or flash compensation as well as the position of the external diffused flash, gives me some flexibility here.

The previous section on Camera Equipment has pointers to some of the equipment mentioned here.


Grasshopper Portrait

Tripod or Not?

About 90% of my bug shots are handheld, so I don’t often use a tripod. I think this is one of the major advantages of a prosumer digital with a flip out LCD screen.  When I do use a tripod, I like to use a macro focusing rail that allows you to move the camera back and forth in tiny increments without moving the tripod. Given that the DOF is so shallow in macros and that I prefer to lock the focus and move the camera back and forth, the rail is a very useful tool.

As I noted above, most of my shots are handheld. As such, I have become quite good at steadying the camera. I do this in a number of ways. I will often lean against a tree or fence. I keep my elbows in and often squat bracing the camera against my knee/leg. If I can, I will rest the edge of the camera on a log or other available structure. I also either put the camera cord around my neck or in my teeth and push the camera away from me when I shoot. Next season I plan to give a monopod a try.


Dragon Finishing Lunch

How to Get Close

The philosophy I discussed earlier is relevant here. To me, photographing bugs is like hunting big game. You have to work for that trophy and being able to track and stalk the game are skills that the hunter develops.

I especially enjoy dragon hunting. I don't go out at special times and I am not a morning person. I have about 3 acres that are about 15 minutes from a river and there are some marshlands in between. This, I am told, is why I am inundated with dragons at certain times of the year. Water seems to be a key when it comes to the dragons.

Here are some tips for getting close:

  1. Go slow. Be patient. Watch the bug for awhile to see how it behaves.
  2. Some of the bugs are more tolerant than others (both across species as well as within).
  3. Move slow. Try not to caste your shadow on the bug. If the bug takes off, be still and wait a minute or two, it will often return to the same perch.
  4. When you find one that lets you get close, start firing that shutter like a maniac. Be prepared, such that all settings are as they should be, because you may only get one shot.
  5. As you master the focus and exposure, you can start paying more attention to composition.

Milkweed Beetle

The Digital Darkroom

The more the magnification, the less DOF you get. There is no getting around that. I try to use what little I get as best I can. Furthermore, I try to take the image such that it will not need much “developing” in the digital darkroom. In reality, I find that such perfect images are few and far between.

When working in the digital darkroom, my goal is typically not to alter the image, but rather to improve upon what the camera gave me. Occasionally though, I will alter the image by adding clouds to the sky, cloning away unwanted portions, or in rare cases, replacing the background.

Lately, I have been experimenting with using more than one image taken a second apart that have different planes of focus and compositing them for increased DOF (I am most likely to do this with extreme macros because DOF is so limited there). The milkweed beetle shown to the right is an example.

Here are some digital darkroom tips:

  1. Take a lot of shots, trying to vary the plane of focus a bit on each so that you are likely to get a couple that hit the sweet spot so to speak.
  2. Get used to deleting most of the shots you take. As you gain skill, the hit rate goes up a bit (sometimes).
  3. Rotating, cropping, adjusting the levels curves, saturation, and contrast, as well as sharpening the subject and blurring the background are the basics of developing the image.
  4. Masking is hiding areas of the image, so that you can work on other areas without affecting the hidden areas. Typically one might mask the foreground so that the background (BG) can be worked on. I typically do this so that I can give the BG a bit of a blur to remove digital noise (since I don't have one of the high end digital SLR's that are relatively noiseless). Creating a mask can be tedious and can be done lots of different ways. I like the "magic wand" tool that selects similar areas on the basis of color. I typically use that first and then refine the mask with other tools.
  5. A tool I find useful in the digital darkroom is a graphics tablet, which allows me to use a pen instead of a mouse to control the cursor. I have a Waucom tablet.

I hope some of this information has been useful to you.  I want to thank you all for helping me to attain this level of skill by critiquing and rating my images as well as by inspiring me with your own.

Happy Hunting!

Jonathan Narong , February 08, 2003; 05:08 P.M.

very educational

thanks for finally explaining how you did all of these awesome photos! one thing that i'm very curious about is what your camera looks like with all of the equipment attached to it? is it possible to take a picture of what your setup actually looks like?

Luca Moi , February 13, 2003; 06:29 P.M.

Thank you very much !!

You're great, Mark !!

Javed Rassi , February 15, 2003; 08:17 P.M.

Excellent information Mark

Martin gleit , February 19, 2003; 11:11 A.M.

See what you have done Mark..your article and your photos forced me to go send more money on dioptres and a reversed lens...hope it will work for me...excellent article and shots...hope to see many more.tx

ken osborn , February 22, 2003; 10:03 A.M.

Bugs Me

Incredible macros and well written tutorial. I will now have to revisit a pond nearby where a few years back my (then) grade school-aged daughter and I collected tadpoles, but this time I'll take pictures and leave the tadpoles there. Thanks.

Koos Net , March 01, 2003; 12:42 P.M.

You'r an expert on macros. Very, very beautiful.

Jim Campbell , March 07, 2003; 01:32 P.M.

Inspired to dust off the macro lens!

Hey Mark, great work and thanks for the info on the how to's. You have inspired me to dust off my 200mm macro and start shooting.

J. Harrington USA (Massachusetts) , March 08, 2003; 02:51 P.M.

Stay Put

Your work is inspiring Mark. I've made a few bug macro pics myself. I wanted to ephasize that a slow approach is crucial for getting bugs to stay put.

Biju Jose Parappilly , March 10, 2003; 04:34 A.M.

Wow!!!!

Thank you Mark. Your photos are excellent and it's hard to believe that you have taken all those wonderful photos with not the "BEST OF THE EQUIPMENTS" available - just goes to show your genius!

Robert Tilden , March 10, 2003; 09:39 A.M.

Bug Headshots

One good example of what a tutorial can be. I did 2 years postdoc that included bug behavior. Interesting critters!

Nachiketa Sahoo , March 12, 2003; 05:41 P.M.

i was about to ask ...

before i read the tutorial .. thanks for writing this. i was about to ask you how you did it. and when I saw your Ph.D. I thought it is in macro photography :)

to ken: beware the tadepole may jump unto your lense :))

Nachiketa Sahoo , March 12, 2003; 05:58 P.M.

thank you

it was very instructive

Terry Butler , March 15, 2003; 11:20 A.M.

Wonderful macro photos! Amazing work.

Lynwood (Val) Prest , March 15, 2003; 06:13 P.M.

Close and Beautiful

Thank you for the closeup pictures and presentation. You are truly an educator. May you find many rewards beyond personal gratification for your efforts.

Michael Smith , March 20, 2003; 02:44 A.M.

If My Dog Could Read

He'd concur. His favorite past time is catching flies. He often just waits for the fly to return to the spot where he last saw it-- just as you advise. Great tutrial.

mak time , March 31, 2003; 06:25 P.M.

Thanks for the Excellent info and photos!

Mark I got to say you have some beautiful photos there! I luv them it has inspired me to work harder and to learn more about the nature of insects :) I hope I'll be able to get some shots as good as yours :) Thanks once again!

Umit D , April 01, 2003; 08:51 A.M.

Excellent work and a very generous contribution. Thank you.

Jacques Henry , April 06, 2003; 09:30 P.M.

Thank for this excellent tutorial. I feel like I will start hunting for ... diopters and additional lenses for my camera.

Llewellyn Williams , April 24, 2003; 07:28 P.M.

Outstanding!

Thoroughly enjoyed (and learned from) your tutorial and ogled over your insect photos. This "professor" has recently retired and I've turned back to one of my early avocations, macrophotography. You have hinted at the amount of trial and error and experimentation required in optimizing your obviously excellent approach. I certainly agree. I spent rolls of film and careful documentation to arrive at a few combinations that have worked for me (shooting at the fine elements of computer boards (an old soundcard) gave me a good idea of the relative sharpness and the DOF with various combinations). The results were eye-opening (and not totally expected). It is a worthwhile exercise that I recommend for those curious about their own equipment or just getting into macro for the first (or the nth) time.

Thanks again for sharing your excellent work!

Llewellyn Williams, PhD (Zoology)

Kurt Davis , April 29, 2003; 05:31 P.M.

I've enjoyed your terrific images on the site for some time and appreciate how you've shared your techniques with us. I noticed your switch to the G3. Have you done a write-up anywhere of your evaluation of this camera, particuarly vs. the G1? If so, could you point me to it? Thanks.

Gearoid O'Sullivan , May 18, 2003; 10:21 A.M.

excellent tutorial

Well done Mark, great tutorial. Macro is a particular interest of mine as well, though my work doesn't approach yours in qality or consistency (yet). It's great to see someone pass on their knowledge in a clear and lucid manner. Speaking as a zoology /marine biology graduate, I like the fact that you highlight the beauty of organisms that are too often simply regarded as bugs. Great work.

Gearoid

Stefan Engström , July 18, 2003; 04:32 P.M.

Your tutorial made me run out and find a reversing ring to attach a 50 mm lens to my G3. The sharpness of the macros (and the magnification) is great, but the DOF is indeed quite narrow, making me all the more impressed with your work.

mike buehler , August 28, 2003; 01:22 P.M.

very informative!

Very informative! Maybe the wrong place to ask this but here goes...I want to reverse a 50 mm 1.8 canon fd lense with a macro coupler. Would I have 2 50mm lenses(one normally installed on the camera body, one reversed??

Dorothy Reed , October 07, 2003; 11:19 P.M.


my best to this point.....

Mark, I am becomming a big fan of your macros, as many others before me. Your imformation here has been quite helpful and I cant wait to go out and try some of your techniques.thank you.

Douglas Hands , February 02, 2004; 01:39 A.M.

Natural History

Mark, Your photography is outstanding but it's not about that that I want to comment. So many times I see one of your pictures and want to know more about the insect and whether the action you portray is typical or unusal. Then I'm handicapped because, very often, you give no identification. A title such as 'dragon making dragons' is just useless to someone with a love of and interest in the natural history as opposed to the photography. You have such talent and a great deal of it is being wasted.

Please take this as a constructive remark. I have no wish to cause offence.

Pradeep Raghunathan , February 21, 2004; 03:02 P.M.

mark u are the best

ant on a flower

hello mark, u are the best at macro photography, i read your article about the reversed 50mm lens for macro and tried it with an ant, and it was nowhere near ur snaps, u are the GURU :)

Alan Reinhart , March 07, 2004; 10:18 A.M.

More "How To"

Greegings Mark!

I've enjoyed your macro tutorial immensly. Your excellent work has also helped remind me that super high-dollar equipment is NOT essential to producing super results.

Years ago I did the reverse lens technique putting a 58mm Minolta lens backwards on a lensboard for a 4x5 Super Cambo view camera. Got some amazing magnification! It would be of great help and interest if you could include a photo of your camera with the reversed lens attached. I'm curious how a small camera would handle this setup.

Mark Plonsky , March 09, 2004; 06:43 A.M.

50mm setup

Also, there is a more up-to-date version of this article here with more pictures of setups here.

Terje Dahl , May 09, 2004; 01:21 P.M.

Your picture av homesite is a truly inspiration for us trying to achieve the same

C. G. , March 14, 2005; 06:15 P.M.

THanks!

I'm always looking for new ideas and better methods.

Thanks!

peter caron , June 27, 2005; 05:06 P.M.

editing

how important is the post processing? Would you be able to put up a 'before and after' series of at least 2 images? Amazing photos and tutorial by the way. Thanks for the advice :)

Vitor Rodrigues , July 28, 2006; 07:30 P.M.

One word: Thanks

Thanks for sharing all this info. --ViRo

Shaun Dicker , March 03, 2007; 02:26 P.M.

Thanks for your time with the tutorial, its very enlightening!! I'd like to know if you crop much? I have a cropped picture of a damselfly, taken on a Canon 350D, and find the resolution even when cropping, is really fantastic!........ damselfly......... thanks again prof. you're an inspiration! Shaun dicker

anantanag bhat , July 30, 2007; 02:03 A.M.

Anant

Sir, I am having "Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX1" which is also a point and shoot camera. I got inspired to see your setup. Could you please guide me to setup the same on my camera. Thanks anantanag@gmail.com

Helen Clement , December 05, 2007; 09:49 P.M.

Thanks.

Thanks for the tips Mark, I have them onboard and hope my "macro skills' improve. Cheers. Helen.

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