BugShot 2011 – Final Thoughts

As I suspected would be the case,  has proven to be an especially difficult challenge.  As a result, instead of posting the answer tonight I’m going to give folks another day to make their play for points (remember, nobody walks away empty-handed).  In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to ruminate over this past weekend’s BugShot insect photography workshop at Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri, and now seems to be an appropriate time to post some final thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind. Suffice it to say that it was an incredible experience—both technically and socially.  I learned far more than I thought possible (and hope I can remember even a portion of it) and made some great friends in the process.  It’s really not possible for me to summarize here all of the techniques, insights, equipment choices, etc. that were covered, nor do I want to—such a list would be boring to read and not very meaningful without the context to go with it.  What I would like to do is shout out a few people who, beyond the collective, helped make the weekend what it was for me.

Instructors.  The three instructors, all accomplished insect photographers of the highest caliber, typified three very different yet complimentary approaches to the art.  Alex Wild (University of Illinois), ant photographer extraordinaire and author of the insect blog I’ve most tried to emulate, gave me tremendous insight on lighting and practical approaches on how to use it effectively.  My discussions with John Abbott (University of Texas) about equipment will be very helpful for the type of photography that I like to do (I’m not sure I’m ready for the tripod yet, but maybe the other ideas we discussed will be the “slippery slope”).  Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Thomas Shahan (Norman, Oklahoma), whose great artistic insight helped me see a whole new world of possibilities for tiger beetle portraiture.  I must admit to feeling a little star-struck when I first began talking to him, but his infectious enthusiasm and exuberance quickly put me at ease.

Friends.  I can’t begin to list everybody whose company I enjoyed, but standouts include Jo Holly (Alex’s better half!), as well as fellow bloggers Crystal, Lee, Dave, and DragonflyWoman.  Even though I only met them this weekend, it was if I had known them for years.  My time “fishing” tiger beetle larvae with Crystal and Lee was not only a highlight of the trip (watching them “jump” as the larva came flying up and out of the burrow was a real treat), but also represented a discovery in the truest sense of the word (as will become clear in a future post).  No discussion of friends would be complete without mentioning James Trager, not only for opening up Shaw Nature Reserve to this weekend’s event, but also for the access he’s given me over the past several years and our frequent, humorous email discussions about all things entomological (or botanical, ecological, etc.).

Gratitudes.  I want to thank Alex for inviting me to take part in this event as something more than just an attendee.  I hope my contribution, however small, was beneficial.  My thanks also to Patsy Hodge, who was so helpful and gracious to me in the days leading up to and during the event.  I also appreciate the kind comments that many of the attendees made to me about my blog and my photographs—your encouragement means a lot to me.

Regrets.  In an event like this, packed as it was with seminars and group discussions, it is sad but unavoidable that one cannot spend at least a little time with each and every person in attendance.  To those that I did have a chance to talk to, the pleasure was all mine.  To those that I missed, I will catch you next time!

I think I’ll close with this minimally processed photograph of what I take to be Misumenoides formosipes (whitebanded crab spider) and its honey bee (Apis mellifera) prey.  Although I photographed this spider using flash and looking straight up into an overcast sky, I managed to properly illuminate the subject and avoid blown yellows and an all-black background by using some of the very techniques and principles that I had just learned earlier that day.  I hope to learn more at BugShot 2012!

Misumenoides formosipes (whitebanded crab spider) | Shaw Nature Reserve, Franklin Co., Missouri

BugShot 2011 – Lesson 2

Most of my insect photography is done up close using fast shutter speeds (to prevent motion blur) and small apertures (to maximize depth of field).  This necessitates the use of full flash – the amount of light reaching the camera sensor at f/16 and 1/250 sec is not enough to show any image at all, much less one properly exposed.  Full flash photography has its own set of challenges, but for the most part it can be used to produce excellent closeup photographs of insects, even very small ones.  One thing that has always bothered me about full flash photography, however, is the “black background” effect when photographing an insect sitting up on a plant without something else in the immediate background to reflect light.  Not that I don’t like black backgrounds—they can be used to stunning effect with the right subject.  I just don’t want it to be my only option for insects that I photograph up off the ground. Of course, it is rather a simple matter to place something in the background that is close enough to reflect light but far enough away to remain out of focus, but what I really want to be able to do sometimes is have a blue sky.  I always thought this meant natural light, with its low f stops, slow shutter speeds, and the resulting motion blur and loss of depth of field. 

Of the many things I learned today, how to include a blue sky background in a closeup photograph at f/16 was my favorite.  This is accomplished by bumping up the ISO to 400 (to make the camera sensor more receptive to light) and decreasing the shutter speed to 1/60 sec.  Keeping the f stop high maintains the depth of field, but the increased ISO and decreased shutter speed allows sufficient light from a sky background to register on the sensor.  By themselves, however, these setting will still result in an underexposed subject, which is illuminated instead by fill flash.  Despite the slower shutter speed, there is no motion blur because the “effective” shutter speed for the subject is the duration of the flash pulse rather than the camera shutter speed—it’s like combining two exposure speeds in a single photograph, one for the background and another for the subject.

The following three photographs illustrate this principle—again, they are not technically perfect photos, but rather the result of quick experimentation to understand the principles involved.  Photo 1 is from yesterday’s post and illustrates what my typical settings have always been: ISO 160, f/16, and 1/250 sec.  It’s a decent photo of the treehopper, Acutalis tartarea; however, black is perhaps the least appropriate background to choose for this black species. Until now, it would have been my only option unless I tried arranging foliage in its background.  Photos 2 and 3 are of another individual of this species that I found today (fortunately in similar orientation to the individual photographed yesterday).  In both photos I kept the flash unit set to ETTL (adjusting FEC as appropriate for the shots).  In Photo 2 I bumped up the ISO to 400 but kept the shutter speed fast (1/200 sec)—you can see some effect in that the background is not truly black, having received some light from the blue sky.  It’s not enough, however, because the shutter speed was still too fast.  In Photo 3 the ISO remained at 400 but the shutter speed was also decreased to 1/60 sec.  The shutter staying open that long allows enough light from the sky to register on the sensor and, Voila!, we have a blue sky background that creates nice value contrast with the black subject.  The subject these photos is not terribly sharp, but that is just lack of focus—not motion blur from a slow shutter (sorry, I was just practicing settings rather than going for a perfect shot). All three photos were shot with the Canon 100mm macro lens + 68 mm of extension tube (total magnification ~2X).

''Typical'' insect macro settings: ISO 160, 1/250 sec, f/16

ISO increased to 400 (1/200 sec, f/16)

Shutter speed decreased to 1/60 (ISO 400, f/16)

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011