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And it’s that time of year – here are my best or perhaps more aptly – my favorite photos from 2012 (in no particular order).

First, a photograph of the once thought extinct Cicindela floridana - taken while I was conducting research in Florida at the end this August. I was quite surprised when this individual allowed my to approach it and snap a series of shots – the majority of the time I can barely get within a foot of these minute beetles.

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Second, this shot of a grey hairstreak (read more here) was possibly my favorite butterfly photo of the year. While the composition is not very notable, it is the colors of the insect itself and the minute details which I find fascinating.

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Third, this image of a bright green inchworm hurrying along a tree trunk stuck in my mind, if for no other reason than for the copious numbers of these inchworms which “took over” my college campus this spring.

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Fourth, the menacing maw of this longhorn beetle (Orthosoma brunneum) was too neat to leave off this list.

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Fifth, the colors and details in this shot of a mantidfly (Zeugomantispa minuta) snagged it a place on this list.

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Sixth, and last for now, this photo of a female Xylocopa darwini Cockerell 1926 (OK, just the posterior end) building a nest was one of my favorite (insect) images from my trip to the Galapagos Islands in January of 2012.

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I will have another six images posted by the beginning of the week so stay tuned!

And here are the remaining six!

An ant tending a small “herd” of aphids:

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An ant grooming:
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I found this small spider tucked in a pocket of its web:

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This small cerambycid (Molorchus bimaculatus) busily removing pollen from its antenna:

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A minute pirate bug peruses a thrips across a dogwood bud.

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And last, two captive first instar Cicindela abdominalis:

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I photographed this grey hairstreak (Strymon melinus) with my Canon 7D and an adapted Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 lens over the past weekend. I used a diffused 580 EX Speedlite to provide fill light.

As expected for a 30+ year old lens, the focus is manual; but this is not an issue for macro work as autofocus is often useless for very small subjects. The other major issue with this lens is the manual aperture; this means I had to stop down the lens before focusing. This resulted in a darker viewfinder while I was focusing which was not too great an problem given a sufficient level of ambient light. Overall, I was very pleased with the sharpness of this lens; this 100% crop gives an idea of the sharpness:

I have been considering buying a focus confirmation chip for this lens – this would aid in focusing with the stopped down aperture – but that’s just a thought at the moment. For now I will continue enjoying this little gem of a lens – any thoughts or experience with this lens?

One last image – this American snout (Libytheana carinenta) was too neat to leave out.

Back at the end April I had a chance to escape from classes and get out into the field for a weekend of collecting and photography. The day was slightly cooler than anticipated but still productive; throughout the day I saw numerous Calosoma wilcoxi scuttling about. While smaller than its larger cousin C. scrutator, this species is still quite vividly colored – a striking combination of green, blue and some red edging.

The sheer number of beetle present was possibly the most surprising; I saw beetles running on the trunks of tress, on the road, and even, in copious amounts, in the leavings from a small mammal. This did make for many great, though at times frustrating, photographic opportunities.

Further information on Calosoma wilcoxi, C. scrutator, or on all of the species from Virginia.

These stunning green-patterned wings are those of Callophrys gryneus gryneus, the “Olive” Juniper Hairstreak. I was experimenting with some old Canon gear, a FD bellows and 35mm bellows lens, hoping to create a composite image of a butterfly’s wing. But, creating a clean series turns out to be impractical as the focus differed too much between shots. I instead focused on the patterns of green, white, black and brown on the wings, examining the melding of and contrast between the different colors.

The minute scales are arranged in such fine, detailed patterns which I always find it quite fascinating. But is not just the arrangement of these scales which catch my eye, rather the green color; it is not merely a smooth, consistent color across the scales, but instead glitters, as light reflecting off a rough surface. Though quite familiar with this iridescent, structure-based coloration in tropical butterflies, for whatever reason I had not quite expected to see it in this species.

Below a 100% crop of the image gives a better idea of the magnification achieved; the green color of the scales is also more evident.

After seeing the rough, glittering quality of the green scales I wanted to get a closer look. Using an old microscope, I focused on a single scale, first illuminating it from below and then from above. The difference was quite remarkable; lit from below the scale lost almost all of its vibrant green color, replaced with a mottled, muddy brown instead. But, lit from above, the startling green color reappeared, now glittering more than ever.

First two photos taken with a Canon 7D, FD to EOS adapter, Canon FD Auto bellows, 35mm macro lens, and 580 EX lens. Third image taken with a Canon 7D, homemade microscope adapter, and 580 EX flash; top image using transmitted light, bottom with reflected light.

This summer I photographed quite a few ants, so here are the best of the bunch:

Photos taken with a Canon 7D , 65mm macro lens, and 580EX flash unit.

And yes, I did just go for the awful pun…

While test various styles of diffusers I came across a one involving a rather unique method of removing highlights: cross polarization. As detailed in Wil Hershberger’s article here, this technique involving a polarizing filter and special polarizing film to cover the flash(s). I constructed a similar setup to the one shown in Wil’s article but with the Canon 100mm macro lens and MT-24 EX macro twin lite.

On the whole, the results of these tests were fairly pleasing – little to no highlights and pretty good color. But this did not hold for insects with iridescent coloration; the images of these species were dull and lacking in much of the natural coloration. Below is a combined series of the better images:

In all I found this method reasonable for only certain insects – ones with much iridescent coloration (particularly tiger beetles) were not well represented by this method.

In my previous post I detailed my transition from using Canon’s MT-24 EX Twin Flash to the Canon 580 EX for macro work. Now, at last, here are a few samples of the lighting produced by the new setup. I have been quite pleased with the diffusion provided by the 580EX/Micro Apollo softbox combination – take and look for yourself and let me know what you think…

When I was first in the market for a camera I chose Canon for their macro system and especially the capable – and unique – MP-E 65mm 1-5x macro lens. Over the past few years of using it I have found it near indispensable and always keep it on hand when in the field.

My main problem with the Canon macro system has come to be the Canon MT-24EX Macro Twin Lite Flash. While extremely versatile and compact, this little flash unit is quite harsh unless diffused well (like Alex Wild’s setup) and there are some annoying issues with its effective range and the flash head angle when coupled with the working distance of many lenses.

The diagram above depicts the working distances of the MP-E 65mm lens at 1:1 (1) through 5:1 (5) and the light cast by the Mt-24EX flash head when in the “default” position pointing down.

Quality of the Lighting

With my homemade diffuser setup the area from 2:1 to 5:1 is quite well lit – the lighting is very even and soft, but almost flat – without much depth. This can be fixed with an adjustable flash shoe which the  the light  and gives a far better result in many situations.

But at this  angle the flash can cast a shadow on the near side of the subject particularly when photographing a very small subject and this led me to stop using the adjustable flash shoe option.

At magnifications less than 2:1 it is hard to get good lighting with the MT-24EX as the distance between the subject and camera is very often too great for even my versatile tracing paper diffuser.

In the example above, I used the MP-E 65mm lens with the flash diffused. As you can see the image on the left (taken at about 2.5:1) is quite well lit versus the image on the right (taken at 1:1).

If you compare the relative distances of the two subjects from the flash heads in the diagram above it becomes clear how the diffuser is far less useful at the greater working distance.

I have tried a variety of different diffuser setups, none adequately diffused light throughout the entire range of the 65mm lens let alone to the near range of Canon’s 100mm macro lens, even with one or two extension tubes.

Position/Angle of the Flash Heads

In the above image you can see how the light from the flash strikes the subject on from the side rather than the top – a major issue when using a lens in the 100mm+ range.

The mounting ring which attaches the flash heads to the lens raises them only a few centimeters above the lens barrel, a huge problem when trying to shoot a subject that is larger, as in the photo above.

Though this image was taken with a 100mm lens, two 25mm extension tubes, and a custom bracket (which held the flash heads up and out toward the subject) the lighting was no better than that from a ring flash, probably worse.

Above is shown the path of the light from the MT-24EX to a subject at the minimum focusing distance of the Canon 100mm macro lens.

Conclusion:

After over two years of using the MT-24 EX and a whole lineup of diffusers my conclusion is that this flash is very good for use with Canon’s 65mm 1-5x macro lens in the 2:1 to 5:1 range, providing lighting that, when adequately diffused, is very good.

But even with in the short span between 1:1 and 2:1 a diffuser which worked well in the former range is now of little to no use. This is the same when the M-24EX is used with a 1:1 50mm to 100mm macro lens due to the angle of the flash only a few centimeters above the lens.

Now I and anyone else can almost certainly make a diffuser which covers a given portion of the MP-E 65mm’s or 50mm/100mm range, but it is creating a diffuser that covers a greater range which will actually make this unit practical.

After spending two years plus trying to find ways to bridge the gap I decided to take a break from the Mt-24EX and tried using the Canon 580EX with a small softbox.

With this new arrangement I have been quite happy – only in one or two incidents has this combination presented some trouble which was easily correct with a minor adjustment of the flash’s position. And using this setup I can switch from the MP-E 65mm to a 50mm lens without having to fiddle with arranging the MT-24EX or diffuser, just a swift adjusting of the bracket and the flash is nicely positioned.

On the left a shot taken with the MT-24EX and on the right a shot taken with the 580EX – what a difference!

Please let me know what you all think about MT-24EX – I look forward to hearing what you all have to say!

For me there was no rest after final exams were over; it was right off to southern Utah to begin work on a summer research project on the Coral Pink Sand Dunes tiger beetle, Cicindela albissima.

I’ll write more on the research itself over on my cicindela blog, but for now a bit on photographing the beetles.  This was my third trip out to the dunes and as ever I could not wait to get some shots of the beetles, now with an improved set of equipment, including a shiny new Canon 7D. It was not until the end of the first week of my stay that I found time to take a morning off to focus on photography.

As with most tiger beetles the adults are quite flighty and the best time to get close enough to this species for a good photo is mid morning when they are just emerging for the burrows which they spent the night in.  My first tries were less the successful; there was the usual slow chase as I followed the uncooperative beetle about and then at last take a few shots.  Unfortunately I had set the flash, a Canon 580 Ex speedlite with a Micro Apollo softbox, too far away from the subject and as a result the lighting was just a little too harsh.

Annoyed by this rather poor first attempt I switched focus to capturing some video of these intriguing beetles. This was done taken with my new Canon 7D SLR which is capable of  recoding  HD video, a feature which I was interested to explore. The video set up was bare bones with only the harsh sunlight for illumination, a tripod, and a borrowed Canon 180mm macro. This solid lens allowed me to get fairly close-up shots while remaining a fair distance away, ideal for minimally obtrusive video work. I hope to soon edit together a short video from the footage I shot and will have that up in the coming weeks but here is a neat clip.

My second attempt at getting a photo of the adults was similarly lackluster. I had set up an old Nikon Ais 55mm 1:2 macro lens with an adapter on an extension tube and the flash was now moved closer to the subjects. With this setup the distance between the camera and subject was quite short requiring a good deal more care in getting near the subject. It was during mid evening and the adults were still very active when I found a mating pair and got right up to them. As best I could I focused while the manual aperture was set at f/11, darkening the viewfinder. When I thought the focus was about right I snapped a few shots and, not surprisingly, spooked off the beetles.  Unfortunately the focus was a several millimeters off and only the tarsi of one beetle was actually in focus. The solution to this problem was very simple – something modern cameras do automatically – open up the lens and let as much light as possible in, then stop down the lens to the desired f-stop (it does take a bit of guessing/counting the clicks of the aperture ring to get it right).

My third try went far better; it was after the day after the first rain in over a month and with the temperature lower than usual the adults were slightly sluggish, by far easier to approach. I used the Nikon 55mm macro,  extension tube, and 580 Ex with diffuser as before; this time my first attempt was successful.

In this shot the spectacular colors of the beetle can be fully seen and there is no harsh/obtrusive shadow present. Any comments on the lighting or questions on the setup? I will have more details on photographing these beetles – particularly close-up shots – and some notes on photographing the larvae in later posts so stay tuned!

come the bugs! For me it was the start of spring break and with the temperature hovering at 80°F this past Saturday was near ideal, so I ventured out in search of many-legged quarry; the results of this search were pleasantly surprising.

Recently I had the chance to borrow a bunch of old Canon FD gear including a Canon Auto Bellows along with a two of specialty bellows lenses, the Canon 20mm f/3.5 and 35mm f/2.8

I’ll have more on this equipment in further posts, but for now I decided to run the 20mm lens through its paces. I pulled a slide-mounted flea from my collection and tossed together a makeshift setup; this consisted of a clear plastic base (to place the slide on) placed inside a white “box” to reflect the light from a flash unit pointed down into the contraption. Also as expected the viewfinder gets quite dark and I used a desk lamp to aid in focusing.

The hurdle in attaching the Canon FD bellows to my Canon EOS digital camera is that the two respective lens mounts are not compatible. In order to use the older equipment with my camera, I purchased a FD to EOS adapter. Adaptors like this – ones without optics -  do not allow for infinity focus, that is this adapter acts as a short extension tube and any lens attached cannot focus on an object more than a short distance away. However, this is not a problem when using macro lenses and the like where infinity focus is not needed.

So here are the results – one exposure taken at 1/125 sec and f/5.6 – some post work in Photoshop - just removing the background and lightening the image.

And here is a 100% crop of the image.

Any comments/suggestions/questions?

Well it’s that time of the year - here are my top five best/favorite images from 2009…

A minute ant carrying a thrip across a leaf

Meandering caterpillar on a tree trunk

Male Lyssomanes viridis

Face off with a katydid

Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

And now for some details on photographing Lyssomanes viridis

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I’ve found  this species to be somewhat easier to photograph than the usual jumping spider – largely because of their habitat. Since this species is found on leaves – usually on the underside – individuals do not have many escape options available; when disturbed their typical response is to flee to the opposite side of the leaf.

If you take a slow and measured approach, these spiders tend to remain stationary long enough for some neat shots – though not infrequently individuals will  turn away from the camera; I tend to hold onto the leaf with one hand, makng it easy to adjust my position while not losing site of my subject. Finding a translucent green spider through the viewfinder at twice life size can be a little bit tricky…

Occationally I’ve had an individual jump onto the front of my lens, which results in a scramble to locate the uncooperative spider and often puts an end to any more photos.

An interesting facet of this species is that, due to their translucent body, the movement of the spider’s retina is visible as shown in this animation.

Given the size of this species – body length is a bit over a centimeter – I prefer to use Canon’s MP-E 1-5x Macro Lens; it works for a shot of the whole spider or an extreme closeup of the “face” such as this shot taken at 5:1.

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Welcome to life on six legs, a chronicle of my adventures in insect photography.

Let’s start off with something neat - here is a Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle – Harmonia axyridis – chowing down on a very unfortunate aphid.

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Alex Wild has just posted this interesting comparison between some of his old images, taken with a point and shoot camera, and some newer images taken with his Canon DSLRs.  

…as my equipment and aesthetic standards improved the old images I had been so proud of began to seem… amateurish. Poorly composed, poorly lit, and heavily pixelated.

A great comparison of P&Ss and DSLRs - go take a look…

In the first part of this series I covered point and shoot (P&S) digital cameras and their suitability for insect photography - now for the heavy hitters – digital SLR cameras.

Not to mince words, if you are serious about insect photography a DSLR is your camera. Nothing else provides similar quality or control – not yet, at least.

Here are what I consider the most important advantages of a DSLR:

Manual control – the ability to determine shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO is a must for any serious photographer as it is the key to getting good images.  There is a learning curve, but with practice the process is easily understood. While many P&S cameras have some form of manual control it is often limited and awkward to use.

Magnification – with a DSLR and quality lens/extension tubes you can obtain high quality, distortion free images of minute subjects – there is no easy way to achieve similar magnification using a P&S camera without some, often significant, degree of distortion, at least when shooting live insects. With a DSLR you also have the ability to use a wide variety of lenses, from the standard 100mm lens to rather unorthodox setups; for example, an extension tube can be attached to a wide angle lens for a drastically different view of your subject.

Higher image quality – while consumer and pro DSLRs have roughly the same amount of noise, even high end P&S cameras have markedly more noise than even your consumer DSLR. This is because P&S cameras have dramatically smaller sensors and as such require more light. In order to counteract this, the camera boosts the signal coming from the sensor, thereby creating more noise.

Control of lighting – this is another key to getting good photographs of insects. With a dedicated macro flash and quality diffuser you can create soft lighting, regardless of the ambient light conditions. Some higher end P&S cameras can be used with a macro flash, however.

The biggest drawback of DSLRs is their cost – purchased new a basic setup consisting of a camera body, 100mm-ish macro lens and flash can run into the one to two thousand dollar range quite easily. There are ways to get around this, for instance buying used equipment or third party lenses/flash units, though you then have to worry about the quality of equipment.

Pros:
Control over almost every aspect of an image, from DOF to lighting
Range of lenses, flashes, and other accessories can be used
High optical quality – not likely to suffer from image distortion or chromatic aberrations
High image quality – getting even better all the time
No shutter lag
Far better autofocus than P&S cameras; however, when shooting most insects, manual focus is largely preferred, except for large/fast subjects.

Cons:
Higher cost – while many DSLR bodies are not much more than a high end P&S camera, the cost of lenses, flashes, and accessories adds up fast
Can be rather heavy and bulky – there are many lighter and more compact models though
Few models have a flip out LCD screen – more coming all the time
Initial learning curve – DSLRs and some accessories take some knowledge/experience to get good photographs with

My final say is if you are serious about insect photography and have the monetary resources, a DSLR is your only choice. Again, as of yet, nothing else provides similar quality or control.

That said, if you aren’t looking for those National Geographic shots or just want “show and tell” photos, go with a higher end point and shoot camera, you’ll get reasonable shots of many subjects.

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