A matter of diffusion

In my Best of 2009 post, I mentioned four skills that, to me, seemed to be crucial for becoming a successful insect macrophotographer: 1) composition, 2) understanding lighting, 3) knowing how to use a flash, and 4) knowledge of the subject.  Of these, I’m most comfortable with the last – three decades of insect study have given me the chance to observe a tremendous diversity of insects in a variety of situations and habitats.  Many species are located only through understanding of their haunts and habits, and the ability to capture them relies upon successful approach techniques.  Collecting insects has been excellent preparation for photographing them.  I’m also reasonably satisfied with my compositional skills – at least in this early stage of my development as a photographer.  I don’t expect to win any photo competitions (yet), especially since my intent as a photographer is at least as much for scientific documentation as it is for artistic expression, but I’m satisfied that I’m on the right track and developing the eye I’ll need to make good progress.

What I’m not satisfied with yet are the middle two – understanding lighting and knowing how to use a flash.  Let’s face it, I was starting from square one here.  My only prior experience with insect photography were middlin’ attempts in the mid-1980’s using an Olympus OM-10 body, a Zuiko 50mm lens (maximum magnification 1:2), and natural light only.  I quickly lost interest (too distracting for the collecting), picking it back up only for my 1999 trip to South Africa.  Fast forward to May 2009 and my acquisition of a bona fide insect macrophotography setup, complete with Canon’s 100mm f/2.4 and 65mm 1-5X macro lenses and their MT-24EX macro twin flash.  Talk about giving a Ferrari to someone who had just received their learner’s permit!  I like a good challenge, however, and spent the rest of 2009 with camera in hand on several memorable field trips – shooting lots of frames, deleting many on the spot and more when I saw them on the computer, and occasionally stumbling onto a pretty good one.

While I still have much to learn, one thing I did realize is that lighting remains a challenge even with a decent setup such as mine.  The MT-24Ex flash unit, in particular, while seemingly the flash of choice among Canon-using amateur insect macrophotographers, produces a very harsh light.  The capabilities and shortcomings of this flash unit have been reviewed in great detail by several insect macrophotographers much more knowledgeable than I (e.g., Alex Wild, Dalantech, Kurt, etc.), so I simply refer you to their websites if you’re interested rather than try to summarize here.  However, the one thing they all emphasize with this flash unit is the need for diffusers.  Diffusing light is easy; a simple sheet of tracing paper will do.  However, diffusing light in a manner that is equally effective with both the 65mm and 100mm lenses (with their shorter and longer working distances, respectively) and also convenient for field-use is hard.  For most of the 2009 season, I tried using Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce Diffusers, and while they were marginally better than no diffusers at all, the results were still not satisfying.  More recently, I’ve been experimenting with the Gary Fong Puffers, which Dalantech has modified for use with the MT-24EX.  I hadn’t yet committed to constructing the diffusers as described and conducting controlled comparisons between the Puffers and Sto-Fens, but my initial tinkering with the Puffers has me impressed.  Below are two photos of Cicindela splendida (the aptly-named Splendid Tiger Beetle) – the first (which some of you may remember from this post) was taken in the field using the Sto-Fen diffusers and the 65mm lens (1X)…

…while the second was taken recently of this same beetle (in captivity on native soil) using the Puffers attached to the Sto-Fens and the 100mm lens (at slightly less than 1X).

Both photos have been cleaned up a bit with post-processing; however, neither has been altered dramatically.  While not a true one-to-one comparison due to different venues (field versus captivity) and lenses (65mm versus 100mm), the second photo is clearly superior to the first, with softer lighting resulting in richer colors and far fewer specular highlights on the insect body.   I had to bump the lighting up considerably for the second photo, since the Puffer combined with the Sto-Fens cut the light levels quite a bit, yet still the photo lacks any of the harshness and washed appearance of the first photo.  The use of the 100mm lens in the second photo also should have presented a greater challenge for the lighting due to the increased working distance (~8 inches, compared to only 2-3 inches for the 65mm lens).  I’m really quite pleased with the results of this initial experiment – enough to the point that I’ve ordered the necessary materials and am ready to dive into construction of my own set of “Dalantech-Puffers.”

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2010

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15 thoughts on “A matter of diffusion

  1. Hi Ted, enjoyed your discussion of macro photography lighting. It poses interesting challenges that I do not encounter with my mostly telephoto shooting. Still, I enjoy the challenge of honing my techniques in the field and post-processing – sounds like you do too.

    I spoke briefly with a guy on a birdwalk, who was really there to gain admittance to the preserve – about his insect photography gear. He had a similar setup, and was excited to photograph very small insects that I did not even notice until he showed me the pics on his LCD display. I believe he contributed to bugguide.net (a favorite resource of mine).

  2. Now see here, Ted. You’re making me think perhaps my aversion to flash use might constitute a mix of phobia and ignorance as opposed to anything else. Though I still like the first image, I do see a difference between it and the second one–and I see how flash has given you a depth of detail I have yet to accomplish. (Accepting my lack of a macro lens, of course, which I need to remedy as soon as I win the lottery.)

    When you mentioned previously that you were working on a new setup, I didn’t realize it was something as simple as the diffuser configuration. Very cool–and very educational. I’m looking forward to seeing what else you accomplish with this as it might finally spur me to get over my loathing of flash and start treating it like a helper.

    • Careful, you’ll destroy the impression I have of you as an extraordinarily capable photographer who shoots the way he shoots because he knows exactly what effect he’s looking for and how to get it 🙂

      For my subjects – mostly less than 15mm length – macro and flash are almost requisite. I do have the urge to play around with some natural light shots if I find a very calm subject and good ambient light conditions.

      Geez, if I can learn flash, you certainly can. I’d love to see what you can do with that added to your considerable arsenal.

  3. Thanks Ted. I’m also working on better diffusion this winter in prep. for the coming bug season. Thanks for the link to Kurt, who has a lot of interesting examples of flash diffusion. The styrofoam plate example seems great for those who don’t have an off-camera flash.

    • Hi Adrian – I like reading the approaches these different people are taking, as they all add different expertise and perspective. It also depends on what you want to accomplish – I put a high priority on unmanipulated subjects in their natural habitat, so for me a system that stays on the camera and can be easily used in the field is most important. I just can’t be carrying around rods and tents along with my collecting equipment.

  4. Thanks Ted for all the valuable info. I too realize the need to tone down the harsh light on occasion. I am going to purchase a diffuser before spring, and the insect activity begins anew. I will look into the “puffer”. I agree the quality is superior to the other you mentioned.

    • The problem with the “Puffer” is that it doesn’t fit by itself onto the flash head by itself – you’ll need to use tape or velcro or something to hold it in place if you don’t want to do something elaborate like the Dalantech version. The modifications he came up with are intended not only to attach the Puffer to the flash head, but also “pre-diffuse” the light hitting the Puffer and minimize loss of light through the gap between the Puffer and the flash head.

      If I was using only the 65 mm lens, with its very short working distances, Alex’s tracing paper method would be ideal. Unfortunately, it’s a lot more difficult to set up something like that on the 100mm lens – especially the newer ones that have greater subject working distances due to the focusing mechanism. I almost wish I had one of the older 100mm lenses with the smaller working distance to minimize the distance between the subject and the flash (which also works to reduce specular highlights).

  5. I have not gone the flash route. The harshness is part of the problem, and I welcome your solution. I need to find out more about this. Of course, this will not help with a difficulty that I frequently encounter- specular reflections without a flash because your subject is someplace like Willcox Playa and the blazing sun works against you.

    • I’m not so sure flash can’t eliminate specular highlights due to bright sunlight. Take a look at my photos of Ellipsoptera hirtilabris in Tiger Beetles Agree—It’s Hot in Florida! or those of Cicindela willistoni estancia by David Melius in Habitat Partitionining in Tiger Beetles. Both of these photo sets were taken in extremely bright conditions. I don’t know the mechanics, but it seems that using flash as a filler somehow eliminates this effect.

      At any rate, I can’t wait for warm weather to trigger adult tiger beetle activity so I can take this new diffuser setup outside and see how it does.

  6. Hi Ted

    Looking at the photos you cannot get any better so dont be so modest!

    I will be in the USA soon -Nashville, Tennessee – and I hope I will have time to get to Missouri.

    Look forward to more of your habitat shots soon too.

    Best regards from down under, Trevor

  7. Beautiful shot of a spectacular beetle.
    Those new light diffusers really make an incredible difference – there’s so much more detail and you can see the leg hairs on the far legs as clearly as on the close up legs.
    I enlarged the photo and the detail stays really crisp, and you don’t have the distracting black cast shadow
    which spoils so many photos.

    You’d love to photograph the beautiful metallic Carabid beetles in the Pyrenees in north Spain.

    • Thanks, Peter. I’m trying out yet another diffuser that I think will give even better results.

      I’ve seen some of those carabids from Europe – they are quite spectacular.


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