Flash solutions for the beautiful tiger beetle

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X macro lens (f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ concave diffuser.

Recently I’ve been trying some different lighting and flash diffusion techniques with the Cicindela pulchra adults I brought back from South Dakota (see previous post).  While the beetles themselves are certainly among the most spectacular tiger beetles I’ve ever seen, I’ve been less than impressed with the photographs that I’ve managed to take of them.  Two factors have been largely responsible for this: 1) the smooth, shiny integument of the beetle reflecting the flash to create strong specular highlights, and 2) the colors, though brilliant, are also dark and difficult to bring out without further exacerbating the specular highlights.  Normally, the Sto-Fen+Puffer diffuser combination that I use does a pretty good job at diffusing the flash, but it just can’t handle these beetles.  To deal with this problem, I finally got around to trying out the do-it-yourself concave diffuser that Kurt at Up Close with Nature has been using with stunning results (similar to the tracing paper diffuser used so famously by Alex Wild at Myrmecos).  Photo 1 above and 2-3 below were taken with this diffuser on my Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X Macro Lens, and I’m rather pleased with these initial attempts.  I do need to figure out a better way to attach the diffuser to my Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X macro lens (f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ concave diffuser.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X macro lens (f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ concave diffuser.

I’d have to say the lighting with this diffuser represents a considerable improvement over the Sto-Fen+Puffer diffusers using the same lens.  Compare especially Photo 3 above and 4 below – both taken with the MP-E 65mm lens at 1:1 and f/13 – Photo 3 was taken using the concave diffuser, while Photo 4 used the Sto-Fen+Puffer diffusers.

Canon MP-E 65mm f/2.8 1-5X macro lens (f/13), Canon MT-24EX flash w/ Sto-Fen+Puffer diffusers.

The problem with the concave diffuser is that it won’t work so well on my Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens due to its longer working distance.  I actually use this lens in the field as often as the MP-E 65mm lens, especially for the tiger beetles on which I focus (heh!) – not only do they rarely require more than 1:1 magnification, but they also rarely allow the ultra-close approach needed to use the 65mm lens.  The only solution is to find some way to get the flash heads closer to the subject to increase the apparent size of the light source, but so far I haven’t figured out a satisfactory way to do this.  Some photographers use the stalwart Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash, equipped either with a do-it-yourself snoot diffuser or mounted on a bracket extender with a small softbox.  However, I am not a photographer, but rather an entomologist with a camera – I need to carry with me a net, vials, and in some cases a beating sheet and hatchet.  Both of the previously mentioned approaches for diffusing 100mm shots add far more bulk to the camera setup than I can accept.  I’ve been looking for extender brackets that will move the MT-24EX flash heads out closer to the subject to increase apparent light size and have found a few.  The Really Right Stuff B85-B Flash Bracket equipped with two FA-EX1 Flash Extenders and an extra Flash Mount looks like it would do the job quite well, but it is still bulkier (and vastly more expensive) than I would like.  The PhotoMed R2-C Dual Point Flash Bracket is a much less bulky and more reasonably priced option; however, the lack of any vertical adjustment capabilities is an insurmountable shortcoming.  Why Canon hasn’t themselves designed a lightweight, low-cost accessory for extending the MT-24EX flash heads out away from the lens is beyond me, and I’ve actually been toying with some ideas on how to do this myself using a couple of Kaiser Adjustable Flash Shoes.

Until I do figure out a solution, at least there is always the white box for any captive-held individuals (and yes, I have considered a small, collapsible white box to bring into the field – I’m not ready to resort to that just yet!):

Canon 100mm macro lens (f/16), Canon MT-24EX flash indirect in white box.

Photo Details: Canon 50D (ISO 100, 1/250 sec). Typical post-processing (levels, minor cropping, unsharp mask).

Copyright Ted C. MacRae 2010

27 thoughts on “Flash solutions for the beautiful tiger beetle

  1. What a beautiful beast. Love the mandibles! Glad you tried out the concave diffuser. The difference was quite obvious between the stofen+puffer shot vs concave diffuser shots.

    A friend of mine was able to adapt it for his Sigma 150. Basically, he just made it longer! Slightly longer than the Sigma 150 lens itself. His SB900 (with stofen) is still on the hotshoe but as usual, you can achieve better result by taking off the hotshoe, closer to the diffuser.

    Really liked the bracket/extender stuff you shared here. Thanks. I recently bought myself a flexible dual arm bracket. Think you find this interesting as well.

    • Hi Kurt – I wonder if Kaiser mounts would get the flash heads closer enough to the diffuser to make a difference with the 100mm – easy enough to try since I already have them and can make another, longer concave diffuser in just a couple of minutes.

      Ideally, I want a solution that works for both the 65mm and the 100mm – switching lenses in the field is hassle enough, but also changing our diffusers (especially DIY models) would be quite cumbersome. I know… I want it all!

      Do you have a link for the flexible dual arm bracket?

  2. Maybe this is a dumb suggestion for reasons that haven’t occurred to me yet, and I haven’t tried it, but could you put a polarizing filter on your lens to cut out most of the specular reflections?

    And, as far as a “portable white box” goes, I’ve been finding that this flash concentrator/diffuser is very easy/cheap to make, highly portable, and surprisingly effective.

    • Hi Tim, I hadn’t thought of using a polarizing filter for this, either, and this is the first time I’ve heard it mentioned so I don’t know.

      Your diffuser solution is interesting and certainly looks easy enough to try – thanks!

      • A real interesting discussion. I have a miscellany of comments.
        1-I’ve read about using polarizers with flash–you need to polarize the light source (flash) as well. That is easy, just tape some polarizing film over the heads, but then you need not to change the orientation of the heads, because you need to adjust your lens polarizer to kill the specular reflections. A recent article is http://www.naturescapes.net/042004/wh0404.htm.
        I have not tried it, but it might be worth the trouble for beetles. One will have to keep the flash heads at certain fixed angles–a pain.

        2-You might try white craft foam for a diffusing material–it is sturdy and flexible, but moldable. It might be a bit too thick–I’m going to try making one of your diffusers with the stuff and will let you know!

        3-For small, flighty subjects such as tiger beetles, it really sounds like you need more working distance–might be time to save your pennies for a 150 or 180 macro. Then I think you would want to go to a fill flash on the hotshoe. I’ve seen a semi-professional photographer use this approach for butterflies with good results. (I’ve got the 100 mm macro and am trying hard to not want a 180!)

        I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that macro lighting will never have a one rig for all situations–the geometry varies a lot with the subject distance, and this will require changes in the lighting–that is, if you want beautiful, and not just adequate, results.

        • Hi Patrick — Lots of good points, thanks for the input. The polarizer article gives a pretty good overview – looks very effective, but the need to keep the flash heads in fixed position is a downer. I wonder if rigging up a filter panel in front of but not attached to the flash heads (sort of like the concave diffuser) would be a solution.

          Let me know how the white craft foam works out. I found some quite thick and stiff polypropylene sheeting for the concave diffuser I made. I just made another version that is longer that I’m hoping will work with the 100mm lens – if I need to get close I can pull the sheeting back and up and it stays on its own.

          A 180mm would certainly help with the flightier things, but wouldn’t the extra working distance actually exacerbate the specular highlights by reducing the apparent flash size? Still, there is no money in the MacRae budget for a 180mm in this economy!

          You may be right with your conclusion, but the chance that you’re not is what will keep me going after a solution! 😉

          • It should only be the orientation of the polarizer film that matters, so just shooting the flashes through film attached to other supports should work fine.

            This should actually work OK in combination with my flash concentrator cone. The polarizing film could just be mounted on the big end of the cone. I’ll have to try it, now.

  3. I have used a single ply of tissue (crumpled up) in a Sto-fen diffuser with some luck. And I recall John Shaw used to use a Cool Whip container upside down as a portable light box. I would have to check out how he did set it up. But that frosted white did a great job of diffusing the flash.

    • I tried crumpled tissue inside the Sto-Fen diffuser but didn’t see as much effect as adding the Puffer diffuser in front of it. I think this is because it doesn’t make the apparently size of the light any bigger – the biggest problem with using the MT-24EX at longer focal distances, while the Puffer does. Still, the flash heads are very far away from the subject even at 1:1, so I think the only remedy is to use some type of big cone-type diffuser on each head (I’m envisioning this as quite cumbersome) or using bracket extenders to actually move the flash heads closer. Maybe Tim’s cone diffuser (above) will be a solution, although it could still be a little too cumbersome in the field for my desires.

      I’ll be interested in more details on the “cool whip” whitebox – right now I’m having a hard time visualizing its setup.

  4. These are some stunning photos. My equipment is much less sophisticated than what you are using. My point-and-shoot camera rides in a small belt pouch, so it stays out of my way when I’m in the field. If I need to tone down the built-in flash, I put my handkerchief over it.

    • Thanks, Steve. You should do what works best for your purposes. I only started doing this last year, so I’m pretty much a noob at this still. The challenge of learning has added a new element of enjoyment to my natural history experiences.

  5. I just want to point out that if the necessity arises, one of the MT-24EX flashes can be removed from the ring mount and hand-held to provide an infinitely variable positioning… 🙂

    At this moment with my Nikon system I use the lens-mounted flashes for life-size or greater magnification. I use a single flash with soft-box, hand-held or on a bracket, for larger insects. A benefit of single flash is that you also don’t end up with unnatural twin highlights in the eyes of your subject.

  6. Pingback: Scarabs: The Green June Beetle « 6legs2many

  7. I am giving a talk on insects and the value of pest insects at the Houston Native Plant Workshop next week. I would love to use a couple of your 6 spotted tiger beetle photographs. I understand that it may not be possible. Thank you for your consideration. Katy

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