Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Bug shooting tips from macro photographer Shane Williams, a.k.a the "Bug Whisperer"

He's the "Bug Whisperer" over on G+, and if you haven't seen his beautiful work yet, you should. Here's a sample of what you've been missing:

Based in Adelaide, Australia, Shane Williams is a fantastic macro photographer who specializes on shooting insects. You can find his work also on Flickr and 500px.

Today Shane is my guest here on CHIMERAS to teach us some of his "tricks of the trade" on how to shoot bug macros. Welcome, Shane!

EEG: First off: why do you shoot mostly bugs?

SW: I've always been interested in nature and animals and enjoyed trying to capture these subjects even early on when I owned point and shoot cameras. Also, being a bit of a tech nerd I’m very interested in the detailed specifications and capabilities of cameras as digital technology advances.

I progressed to owning Canon Powershot models which were great all rounder cameras as they had some of the longest zoom ranges in the prosumer market yet also had the ability to focus to 0mm (meaning you could actually put the subject against the front glass of the lens and the camera was still able to focus on it)

I suppose I've always been drawn to capturing things not viewable to the naked eye whether this be at the extreme zoom range or the opposing macro end and as I started playing around with shooting macro images I became more and more fascinated with the details the images unveiled.

The more proficient I became with the technical aspects of capturing living subjects the more the feeling of awe and fascination grew for me as more and more details I was previously unaware of and had never seen became viewable in the shots I was capturing. The complex structural anatomy and beauty of Arthropods when seen at lifesize or greater magnifications was giving me an insight into a whole new world and multitude of complex micro ecosystems that many people are either unaware of or completely take for granted.

I was fascinated that all this could be occurring in a single bush in any residential street front garden! I began to find it extremely challenging  to shoot moving live subjects and once again dived into the technical aspects of how to achieve sharp, well composed, well lit images now leaning more toward not only producing an acceptable image but also striving to give it some artistic merit as for me it was also very important not only to try to capture good images but also present them in a way that to a casual observer or someone who may have a natural aversion to Bugs or Spiders etc may gain a new appreciation for them through my images.

In essence macro photography of Arthropods is exciting to me on many levels, from the technical aspects of producing a good image, to the primal instinctual urge that’s satisfied by “stalking, hunting” and coming to learn the habits of you “prey” and an ongoing desire to expose these lesser known species to people in the hope that they gain even more of an appreciation for their place in the natural world.

EEG: You've recently acquired a Canon MP-E 65mm, which is a very unique lens that can enlarge a subject up to five times. Such amazing technology comes with a shallow depth of field and other difficulties that one has to overcome when using it. Before you had this lens, you were shooting macros using a 50mm lens fit with extension tubes. Can you compare the two set-ups? What are the pros and cons of each?

SW: I initially started shooting macro with a 50mm1.8D prime lens on a set of Kenko extension tubes, later on progressing to dedicated macro lenses and finally to a specialist lens the Canon Mp-e65mm. Both set-ups provide extremely sharp images, as the Mp-e is essentially just a 65mm prime lens reversed with bellows built in anyway so the glass on both lenses produces exceptional sharpness. The advantages of the 50mm on tubes is of course price, coming in at less than a quarter of what an Mp-e will set you back.

You also have more flexibility at the wider end with the 50mm as you can go from infinity without any tubes up to 1:1 or greater by adding \ removing tubes or other methods whereas the Mp-e being a specialty macro lens designed for very close up photography starts at a magnification of 1:1 and moves in to 5x. With many larger subjects such as Butterflies, Dragonflies, larger Spiders etc you cannot even fit the entire subject in the frame at 1:1 so you’re left trying to compose an interesting shot from a partial body image or not bothering to shoot the larger subject at all with the Mp-e. While at the wide end the Mp-e can be limiting, there’s nothing that compares when it comes to magnification capabilities as the lens extends smoothly from 1x to 5x magnification retaining the same sharpness throughout.

The most important factor when shooting any image of course is light, and this is no more apparent than in macro flash photography. Trying to achieve fast enough shutter speeds to freeze moving Arthropods while using small enough apertures to provide adequate depth of filed (extremely limited due to the magnification in macro shooting) is almost impossible without using a flash to provide additional lighting. They key to sharp well lit macro images is to have your light source close enough to your subject to provide the shortest burst of light possible (the light emitted by your flash becomes your effective shutter speed, so the quicker the better) while also producing well diffused lighting without blown out highlights or bright spots in the image.

This is very difficult to do and there are very few specialty retail solutions available to help, so many times customised options are the only way one can achieve good results. There is a specific twin head flash unit called the MT24-ex manufactured for the Canon Mp-e65mm (it also fits the 100mm macro) which clips onto the front of the lens allowing your light source to travel with the lens as it extends (the Mp-e extends some 5 inches as you progress through the zoom range) which is invaluable as little adjustment is required whether you are shooting at 1x or 5x. It is again a very expensive piece of kit costing almost as much as the lens itself and still needs a lot of customised diffusion before it produces pleasing light but it’s the best light solution I have used for macro yet.

This is another advantage of the Mp-e as there are no equal solutions for a tube set-up and much more customisation is usually required to produce a flexible lighting solution. In summary if price is the main focus and an Mp-e set-up is out of the budget range great results can be achieved with a 50mm on tubes option as long as you can manufacture a suitable flash solution to light your subject.

I would also recommend a 50mm on tubes if your interest mainly lays in larger subjects or farther out compositions and a lot of flexibility at that wider end. (although not technically “macro” as macro means an image at lifesize “1:1” or greater, many people shoot at this “close up” range for the bulk of their shots). I would only recommend the Mp-e lens for someone who is an experienced macro shooter who’s already used other set-ups and wants to be able to produce images greater than 1:1 magnification and can afford to buy not only the lens but again a lighting set-up that will do it justice as well.
It can be a very challenging lens to use, is very expensive, and is limiting at the wide end, but no other lens gives you the flexibility to zoom all the way from 1x to 5x on the fly and produce as sharp images when handled well.

EEG: What kind of flash set-ups do you use and what do you recommend in particular for macro photography?

SW: Specifically regarding the flash set-ups I use there are a few variations depending on which lens I’m using at the time and the subjects \ conditions on the day.

As the subject is so close to the lens in macro photography you don’t need a very powerful flash to provide sufficient illumination for good exposure, so smaller and (sometimes!) cheaper units are adequate. For the Mp-e65mm I prefer the MT24-ex twin head solution and have put a lot of work into making customised diffusers which fit onto the flash heads to diffuse the light as well as possible while still retaining fast enough shutter speeds and decent contrast in the image.
When shooting with tubes or other macro lenses on my Nikon bodies I just use the smallest cheapest flash available from Nikon, the SB400.

I diffuse this with either cone shaped diffusers I place over the flash head or with pop up fabric diffusers I hold in front ot the flash which allow me to angle the light and adjust the distance between light source, diffusion, and subject for different results. The requirements for macro flash photography aren't too different to the main elements in other styles. Try to provide good levels of light for a well exposed image without blown out highlights, bright spots or harsh shadows.

As long as you can produce light preferably at a close distance to the subject to shorten the effective shutter speed (and also conserve power out put meaning faster refresh times and longer battery life), it really comes down to diffusing the flash to produce the light you find most appealing for the subject you’re shooting. Arthropods vary substantially in their reflectiveness as well, so things like Butterflies or Spiders you may find you can diffuse the light less and retain more punchy contrast but when faced with things like Lady Bugs or Ants which are smooth and highly reflective you need to add diffusion so as not to produce very harsh hot spots in the image which can be albeit impossible to rectify in post processing.

A quick Google of “macro flash diffuser” on the web will provide countless examples of options for flash diffuser designs and a lot of trial and error is usually required before you get the results you’re after. I have been heavily influenced and inspired by many shooters along the way and only hope I can do a portion of the same for other’s looking to get into macro photography in the future. I have gleaned countless pieces of great advice and guidance from people like Mark Plonskey, John Kimbler, Popumon Papulop and others through their writing, comments, and by observing the images they produce. I think it’s one of the most important things you can do no matter what you choose to shoot: be humble, always learn what you can by looking at other peoples work, always be a student and realise how far you have to grow,challenge and push yourself to progress, create, and push your boundaries as an artist.

Most importantly have fun!

EEG: Thanks so much, Shane, for sharing all these tips with us today! And yes, having fun is indeed the most important part. 

For more eye candy from Shane, check out his fantastic galleries on on Flickr and 500px.


  1. Thank you, Elena and Shane, for this Interesting, informative, straightforward, and enlightening interview. if possible, a question for Shane: did you prefer 50mm to, say, 100mm macro because that was what you had, or is there a trade off between precision with the one and the ability to shoot from a great distance from the subject with the other? And it's nice to hear a good word put in for the modest and neglected SB400 (i'm guilty of neglecting mine for the off-camera possibilities of the SB700).
    Again, thanks to both of you for a terrific article.

    1. Hey Hammer,
      My pleasure, thanks to you for checking it out and your comments!
      I predominantly used a 50mm on tubes to get started because of price, but after seeing the image quality it produced and getting comments on it's sharpness form others I saw little reason to change until I decided to invest a good amount in the Mp-e.
      Your second point in relation to lens focal length is certainly pertinent though, as it should be one of the key deciding factors when deciding on a normal 1:1 macro lens - working distance.
      Most macro lenses have a maximum magnification of 1:1, meaning they produce a lifesize representation of the subject on a 35mm sensor.
      If you pay a decent amount for a good brand they'll all be sharp and produce good quality images up to this range, so the main variable will be working distance.
      It pays to think about what sort of subjects you'll be shooting most. If you'll be chasing skittish critters like Butterflies, Dragonflies etc a longer lens allows you to work from farther out reducing the chance of scaring off your subject while composing.
      With a shorter lens your working distance is very small (down to around an inch at magnifications of 3x or more) and it can be very difficult to get close enough for a shot without scaring your subject away.
      Having said that in my opinion you have a lot more control over other factors when working at shorter distances like the light, some composition, and you can often steady your shot to avoid motion blur by actually holding or resting the camera lens on whatever the subject is sitting on, giving you a great deal of control over the scene.
      Again with flash photography it's a lot easier and more energy efficient to light a subject that's closer too.
      I also lean toward primes and shorter lenses for their sharpness and the DOF they achieve compared to longer ones.
      I own a 90mm Tamron, 60mm Nikkor, 40mm Nikkor, and the Mp-e and find myself using the Mp-e for Bugs and the standard macro lenses for flowers for the most part.

  2. Great photography. However my main cameras are 35mm SLRs. OM2n & Pentax P30 plus old faithful Zenit-B. I have a couple of smaller digitals but find them too easy.

    1. I know nothing about those, Frazer... :-)

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks, April! All kudos to the Bug Whisperer! ;-)

  4. Excellent interview and very detailed answers. Wow. Those photographs are astounding, right down to a hair. I must share this post link with my x-hubby who has such a terrible time finding a photography group in his area that doesn't all rely on Photoshop for every photograph.

    1. Thanks very much Cindy, really appreciate your positive comments and so glad you got something out of it.

  5. Hi Elena, thanks for sharing Shane's wonderful pictures with us. His photographs are simply amazing. I just could not take my eyes off the pictures.

    1. they are, thanks for stopping by, Rachna!


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