Macro Bug Shot Obstacles

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The five obstacles that must be overcome to create a great image.

We must first understand a little about photography before we can discuss any obstacles. For years photography was the process of creating a photograph that we held in our hands, today that is not always true.  So to best sum it up, Photography is the process of capturing light on a medium (sensor - film) that can later be used to create images. Wow, didnít expect that but when you think about it, it is the truth. Do I want to print this image on paper like the classic photograph, or a coffee cup, tee shirt, on canvas like a painting or do I want to display it in a slide show on my monitor or on my Facebook page etc.

What aspect ratio do I need? What this means is how much I have to crop my photo to fit the media I want to display the image on. For instance, a full frame camera has a sensor size that is close to 24mm X 36mm just like a 35mm camera. Most crop sensor cameras have a similar aspect ratio. So, without cropping we have a 2:3 ratio; so we can print 2 X 3, 4 X 6, 8 X 12, 16 X 24 etc. If we want to put this on our desktop as a background most likely we will want a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio, which means something, has to go. So it is best to shoot a little more area if you want to use it for displaying on different media. Also when printing how fine does it need to be. I once printed a 16 X 20 and it was great. A friend wanted an 8 X 10 of it and when the print was made the detail was there but the human eye could not pick up as it was so fine. You monitor computer display is limited to displaying 1:1, it canít light up more pixels that it has. Mine is 22Ē and it is set for 1920 X 1080. The photo looks great but if I want to print it at 300 dpi I am out of luck if I want an 8 X 10 as I wonít have enough resolution. So the first obstacle is deciding how to shoot for what kind of media. This is usually the easiest obstacle to overcome if you are shooting for electronic media just shoot a little larger area and crop. However, keep in mind the aspect ratio. I went up in a balloon and I took some shots that I really liked. One made a great desktop background. But when I wanted to use it as my cover photo on Facebook I lost the composition. If I shot a little wider that would have not been the case. Keep in mind also that with less magnification you can get more Depth of Field. So the first obstacle is not really an obstacle but remembering what media I am shooting for. The other four are not so easy and they are directly related.

Being able to balance the Depth of Field (how much appears to be in focus), Shutter Speed, ISO and Camera Shake . I have put up a page on the first two as they deal directly with taking bug photos. Camera Shake will be covered with Shutter Speed as you are hand holding it. The other obstacle with live bugs is that you could be trying to photograph a fast moving subject.  Keep in mind when photographing bugs sharpness matters. Also if it is not a super sharp image it is most likely the operator not the equipment.  Throughout this site there are photos that have been taken with different lens options, many of these you can click on and zoom in on.

To find out more on ISO you need to go elsewhere as there are numerous pages that have examples of specific cameras and yours maybe listed. Once you do you will realize that you just cannot just use a higher ISO to allow for a faster shutter speed. What will happen is you will introduce image noise into the image and it will make the photo look very grainy.  My advice is to do a couple of tests with your own camera to see when noise comes into play. Ideally you want to use the lowest ISO setting to remove as much of it as possible. This naturally applies when not using flash, when using flash there is really no need not to shoot at ISO 100. Rarely do I shoot a bug at anything other than ISO 100.  This is one of the things that you will learn in "Three Days to Better Live Bug Photos".

You also have limits as to how much you can increase depth of field by using a smaller aperture as the trade off will be in image quality. It will suffer if you do.  You may have read about lens diffraction, I had, but I never experienced it. In a nutshell lens diffraction is when your image becomes less sharp because you are using a higher f/stop (smaller lens opening) to get more depth of field.  What was happening to me was I was getting plenty of light (I was using flash), I had no camera movement but my pictures were not as sharp because I was using an f stop that was to high.  This is something that you really have to test with the lens configuration you are going to be using. I was on one site where it said just use f32 and a flash. Well, I notice it at f/14 and I personally find it unacceptable at f/16.  There is an excellent video on lens diffraction on the F Stoppers Website here.  If you don't want to bother with all that for the most part you will notice it after f/8 and it is very acceptable at f/11.

On this journey I purchased an eBook on taking bug shots and for the most part all it said was to use ISO 1600 and a macro lens. Sounds good until you do it, with ISO 1600 you end up with to much noise in the photo with a Canon 40D; however, you can sort of pull it off with a Canon 5D Mark II.  I am sure the publication that I purchased was written by a competent professional photographer whose boss told him to write a book on macro bug shots, it was obvious that he had not spent much time in the field doing it.

When shooting live bugs you really only have one big obstacle that you don't have in other macro photography. The obstacle is there is no time to setup and use a tripod so you are forced to find a way to work without guaranteed camera stability. Also the light needed for the shot is not always there to allow for adequate depth of field with a decent shutter speed. The fact is you are going to need flash to get consistency, do you have to have it? No, but for consistency, yes.

Plus, once magnified you will find that the little critter you want to shoot moves very quickly so you need to move quickly as well or wait until he comes into focus.

To learn to keep the bug in focus, one little exercise you can do is find an Ant Hill and watch the ants move through your macro lens. Try to keep them in focus by following them. It is just practice really, with a little of it you will become very good at moving the camera a fraction of an inch to maintain focus. What you will also find is that with patience on many occasions if you just wait the bug will move into the position you want.

In the end, what you will end up doing is learn to compose to take advantage of the small amount of depth of field you have available which is called the "Magic Angle" and use flash to provide some if not all of the light. You will also learn learn to do it quickly. On the page with 3 Days to Better Bug Photography there is more about the Magic Angle.

image showing taking advantage of depth of field

What you want to do is focus a little behind what you want to have in focus and you want to shoot at an angle to allow as much of the bug as possible to be in focus. As shown in the illustration above the shot taken on the right will have much more of the image in focus.

One thing to keep in mind is that at the same magnification it does not matter what lens you have, depth of field will be the same. Naturally you would have to move closer or farther away from the subject to get the same magnification with different lenses. Cambridge in Color explains this very well. So it is not just get a different lens to correct the issue. 

So, now you know the obstacles that need to be overcome. It is the balance of Shutter Speed, ISO, Depth of Field and Camera Shake.

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