BitB Goes dSLR

That’s right, I’ve finally acquired a bona fide digital SLR camera system and am taking the plunge into real insect macrophotography. I’ve been playing with my little point-and-shoot over the past 18 months or so, and the more I used it to take photographs of tiger beetles and other insects, the more I realized what I could do if I had a true macro system.  I made the decision several months ago and got lots of good advice on what kind of system I should put together from my colleague, field companion, and insect macrophotographer-extraordinaire Chris Brown, as well as from Adrian Thysse over at Voyages Around My Camera. For a time, I was trying to design a system on a rather tight budget, and Adrian graciously wrote an excellent post (Basic DSLR Macro System on a Budget) in response to my query.  The problem was, I could get the macro lens that I wanted but would have to really skimp on the flash and the camera body.  Or, I could get both the lens and the flash that I wanted, but then I’d have no money for a camera (kind of hard to take photographs with a lens and flash only).  I was thinking that maybe I could come up with a cheap body somewhere that I could live with for awhile, but in the end I realized that if I was going to do this I had to do it for real and find some way to scrape up the funds for a real system.  I decided to sell all of my bike racing equipment, keeping just my one really nice carbon road bike and a backup.  Happily, my equipment sold for a lot more than I thought it would, and I ended up raising enough funds not only to purchase a real system, but to purchase the system of my dreams.  I present to you the new BitB (Beetles in the Bush) insect macrophotography system¹:


¹ It is ironically amusing that I had to take this photograph with my old point-and-shoot camera!

The system includes:

  • Canon EOS 50D Camera
  • Canon EF 100mm f/2.4 Macro Lens
  • Canon MP-E 65 mm 1-5X Macro Lens
  • Canon EF-S 17-85mm Zoom Lens
  • Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash
  • Kenco extension tubes (12mm, 20mm, 36mm)

At this point, I feel like I have just jumped into the ocean after having taken one introductory swim class at the YMCA.  I really have no experience with SLR photography since putting away my old Olympus OM-10 with a Zeiko 50mm macro lens some 20 years ago (pulling it out briefly for my trip to South Africa almost 10 years ago), and my digital experience has been limited to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 I’ve been using since I started this blog.  However, I’m a smart fellow and am reading everything I can right now, and I have the able tutelage of my colleague Chris, who has been more than willing to help show me the ropes with insect macrophotography in much the same way that I helped him get up to speed on our state’s fascinating tiger beetle fauna.

I suspect I’ll use mostly the 100mm out in the field, as most tiger beetles require slightly less than 1:1 magnification.  The extension tubes will also be useful in the field when I need to get a little more than 1:1 but don’t want to pull out the 1-5X beast.  Above 1.5, which I’ll need for many of the smaller buprestids (that the rest of the insect macrophotography world has overlooked to this point), I’ve got no choice – I’ll have to pull out the 1-5X.  I’m a little fearful of this lens (see Alex‘s fine review), which seems to have a steep learning curve (I haven’t even taken a shot with it yet), but I’ll just have to deal with it if I want to get the kind of photos I’m looking for with our beautiful, but small, jewel beetles.  Perhaps someday I’ll earn a listing under people’s “Insect Macrophotographers” blogrolls, but I doubt I’ll be posing much competition to the likes of Alex, Adrian, Chris, Kolby, Dalantech, and Mark for the time being.

For now, I present to you the very first tiger beetle photograph taken with my new system, the common spring woodland species, Cicindela sexguttata (six-spotted tiger beetle).  It’s not real close up, but it is tiger beetle photograph number one!

Cicindela sexguttata

Photo details: Canon EF 100mm macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D, ISO 100, 1/200 sec, f/18, flash at 1/4 power

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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35 thoughts on “BitB Goes dSLR

  1. Oh WOW!! Now we are sure to get more close-ups out of you. Congrats on your great set-up Ted.

    I must tell you that I have a similar one to you and have been very disappointed with the results unless they are dead specimens. I hate my setup and almost never use it. A lot is being said and raved about on DOF but I hate it and want the whole bug in focus.

    I will continue with my P&S until it gives up the ghost and then buy another one exactly like it almost ALL my shots are taken with it and I consider it much better than my dSLR which I am seriosly considering selling.

    But we each have our own things we look for in photographs and our likes and dislikes and others rave over the same equipment I am putting down. I am sure you are going to enjoy every moment with yours. 🙂

    • Hi Joan. SLR systems are not for everyone – it depends on what you want to do. Point-and-shoots can’t be beat for convenience and flexibility, and for your purposes it seems to fit the bill. In my case, I want to photograph even smaller insects than what I have been doing, and to do so I need not only higher magnification but better control of lighting, exposure, etc.

      Too bad – I could’ve just bought yours 🙂

  2. OK, I’ve got to admit, if you were taking your current photos with a point and shoot I can’t wait to see what you get with this set up. Congratulations on the new buy. It’s sort of like me getting that Gibson Les Paul I’ve always wanted.

    • Hi cedrorum. I, too, am amazed at what I was able to do with that little camera, but it was the result of lots of post processing (cropping, brightening, shadow reduction, etc.). Not to mention being at the mercy of ambient lighting conditions.

      I wouldn’t mind a Les Paul myself, but my ’88 Stratocaster ain’t too shabby 🙂

  3. Awesome new setup! We’re Kodak people, but have heard GREAT things about this Canon — a friend of ours who is a professional photographer does amazing things with hers. We LONG for a macro lens, and are trying to save up — but in the meantime we’re sure that you’ll satisfy our craving for right-up-close shots of insect eyes =) We already love your close-up photography, and now with this . . .

    By the way, what sort of a point-and-shoot did you use? You took really great photos with it.

    • Honestly, I never considered anything but Canon because I wanted that 1-5X lens. My colleague Chris has had one for awhile. I wanted a Canon system just to have the option of getting that lens in the future (before I found the funds to purchase it up front).

      The P&S was a 6.1MP Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3 – I made full use of its potential, but see my comments above to cedrorum on its limitations.

    • Thank you, Adrian, for your very helpful guidance while I was deciding on a system. Even though I didn’t get the budget system I asked you to recommend, your advice was key in helping me realize I had to bite the bullet and go for the real thing.

  4. Pingback: Beetles in the Bush Goes Pro « Voyages Around My Camera

    • Thanks, Kirk – and what free time!? I agree, playing is learning – I’ve got an afternoon under my belt with the 100mm. Now I need to break out the 1-5X and take my newbie lumps.

    • Hi Huckleberry. I went back and forth on the zoom between the 17-85 and the 28-135. I eventually decided that the 17-85 would be more useful for the tree and larger landscape photos that I like to take, and with the 100mm macro I had an effective range of 17-100. A little more on the top end wasn’t gonna do much for me in terms of being able to take true telephoto shots of birds and such (and I just don’t need that as yet another distraction).

      Yes, I am very thrilled.

  5. Beautiful system! I’ve worn out a basic nikon, and hope to get another soon. Funny about your picture- I just took a photo of the same critter yesterday, planning to put it up tomorrow! I’ve found that in the absence of real macro capabilities, good photo editing software can really help too. I look forward to reading of your exploits with that setup!

    • Thank you, Beau. You’re right that software can make up for a lot of shortcomings (see my comments to cedrorum). I’m looking forward to composing my photographs in the field now rather than by cropping once I get home.

  6. Congratulations on the new camera equipment! Looks like a real winner and I look forward to seeing more images taken with it. I just traded cameras myself. I retired my point and shoot HP for a $287 Sony i intelligent Auto. I looked at the Cannons, slobbered all over my notebook and then looked the other way. Nevertheless, my first nature shot seemed a level higher than the past. You can see the results by checking out Hoppers66 on my blog. Mind you, I had to reduce the resolution from 4megas to less than 300k. The original is super. Cheers from the Amazon.

  7. Pingback: Fox Haven Journal » Blog Archive » Another Hive Makes Three

  8. I just got back from a hiking trip on the Ozark Trail (Courtois section) and I saw a bunch of these guys. I wasn’t sure what they were and I was going to look it up when lo, and behold I saw this picture!

    I can see why you are so into these guys. The color is really stunning!

      • 2-3x seems to be the sweet spot for that lens. And do get/make a diffuser for the flash (if you havn’t already) – see Alex’s article on the subject.

        • Yes, I figured that out with my first use. I had the flash on 1/4 power with rather high f-stops, and the lighting came out harsher than I wanted (still got some good pics, I’ll post them later tonight). When I ordered the flash, I also ordered some little plastic diffuser caps that fit over the flash heads. I put them on the flash this past weekend, decreased the flash power to 1/8, and used somewhat lower f-stops – much better, there’s not so much glare, and still got the depth of field that I wanted. I’ll probably post a few of those photos later this week.

          I’m going back through and reading Alex‘s many fine articles on technique.

  9. With beetles, esp those with shiny elytra, the photos turn out much better when you reduce the FEC to -1 or more.

  10. oh, Flash Exposure Compensation…. not sure how that works on your flash but i press the button on the dial of the 580EX and dial the thing down to -1 or more. And as you have already noted, diffusion helps to further reduce glare and harshness.

  11. Hi

    Great news and great system

    I would like to hear what is u r impression from the twin flash results.

    I use similar system (Sony A900, Tamron 180, Twin flash) and is work quiet good, specially in documentary photography when u need give to the insects less pressure to get more natural behavior.
    is this case tripod is not useful and I need to relay flash work

    I still trying to resolve the light reflecting from bright cuticle and hair. I have trying deference improvised diffusers but still not happy. (I”l try to send photos after back home – currant in China)

    The main problems is stemming from the need to keep the system light and easy to mange in the field while working in vegetation or while fast scene.
    In this case the diffuser must lay in close distance to the light source and can’t reduces reflections good.


    • Hi Amir. I wasn’t completely happy with the results from my initial attempt at using the twin flash unit (see my later post A new look at an old friend), although the results were certainly MUCH better than what I was able to achieve previously. This, I think, was more a result of too much flash with high f-stops in an attempt to assure good depth of field – I don’t think the system itself can be blamed, since I’ve seen some very impressive photographs from others (e.g., Alex Wild and Chris Wirth, and my colleague and field companion Chris) who are using the same flash system.

      This past weekend, I tried out some diffuser caps (which I ordered with the flash unit) made of white, transluscent plastic and designed to fit right over the flash heads. I cut the flash power down to 1/8 and did a better job of hitting the proper f-stop and was much happier with the overall results. I’ll be posting some of those photos soon so you can judge for yourself. I know other folks like Alex and Chris use tracing paper as a diffuser, with spectacular results – but I’m not sure if they are doing this in the studio only or in the field as well or how they are doing it.

  12. Great hammer of Thor, you just started batting in the big leagues, my friend! What an impressive set-up! Feel free to “bug” me if you have any questions. I run a photography workshop and I might be able to help you out.

    • Thanks, Kolby! It’s a lot of camera for sure! I feel a little clumsy right now, but I hope to do it some justice soon. Thanks for offering your ear, I may need it.

      “Great hammer of Thor” – I love it!


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