How its made – studio insect macro

Metallic paint extra.

As my legs are in an unserviceable state right now, at least as far as Landscape photography is concerned, with the 4am starts, treks over all kinds of terrain with 40lbs of gear etc., I’ve had to confine my photographic activities to my house and garden.  After some time chasing bees around the garden, first with a ring light, and then with a soft-box and umbrella (I didn’t like the flat light from the ring light) I thought I’d try and bring some flies into the studio and make some graphic images against a plain white background.  There are a number of problems and constraints to overcome in making these close-up shots:-

First, catch your fly.

I used a plastic box with lid to capture my subjects, either on flat surfaces sliding a piece of paper under the upturned box, or on a flower or leaf, placing the leaf between box and lid.  There is always some collateral damage to the plant with this method and you must be careful not to squash the fly!  Hover flies are quite easy to capture, helpfully staying in one place in mid-air allowing you to place a box and lid around them.


Getting the fly to stay still

People often assume all kind of gruesome methods for keeping the model on the set when they see these images.  I can assure you that no hairspray, super-glue, or pins were used and that the subjects are alive and well and flew off seconds after each shot was taken.  The answer is temperature.  As cold blooded creatures, flies get very lethargic when they get cold and if you cool them enough, they will stand still for anything from 10 seconds to over 2 minutes.  Having captured a fly in the box, I put the box in the fridge for 40 minutes or so, tipping them out gently onto the stage and offering them the end of a match if they landed upside down.  They will stand there quite happily for a while, cleaning eyes, wings etc, while you spring into action taking pictures.  You need to get as much of the work done before you place the fly on the stage though (makes sure the flash is on, at the right power for the aperture you are using, and the remote cord or wireless trigger is working) as you don’t know how long they will stay put.


Eliminating shadows

I finally found a use for all those Lee translucent white lens caps!  As most standard lens caps will fit on a Lee filter ring, these things serve no purpose but to clutter up your backpack. They are approx 10cm in diameter and made from a white translucent plastic.  I place the fly on top of one of these caps, which is in turn placed on top of a white reflector on a table.  The light is provided by a Speedlight fitted with a small soft-box shining directly down on top of the fly.  Light passes through the lens cap, bounces back off the reflector and back through the cap, illuminating the underside of the fly and eliminating any shadows under it.



I wanted to get the fly as big as possible in the frame whilst getting all of it in.  I practiced with a dead fly I found on a window sill to get the angle of the shot right as I knew I wouldn’t have much time once the model was placed on the stand and in warm air again.

I tried some manual extension tubes as these have the advantage of adding no additional glass, and so no chromatic aberration etc.  However, having to manually open up the lens to compose and focus, and then stop down manually, using the aperture ring on the lens before taking the shot, was not really compatible with a subject that could fly away any second.  In the end I opted for a +2 dioptre close up lens on the end of a Sigma 105mm macro lens, focussed to its highest magnification.  A nice side effect of a fixed focus is that the subjects are always exactly the same distance away from the front element – and so all these shots are to scale.



I had my camera mounted on a dual axis macro rail allowing me to make very small movements back and forth and side to side with the whole camera.  I would move the Lee lens cap that the fly was standing on to roughly the right place whilst looking through the finder, and then use the macro rail adjusters to get the final focus.  Depth of field is very narrow at this level of magnification and most of the time I would focus on the eyes, although for the shot at the top of this article, I shot seven images stepping gradually through the fly front to back.  I used CombineZP to focus stack these images to produce a fly that is almost all in focus.  Of course you need your fly to stay still while you take all these shots.  These shots were taken mostly at f/16 with some at f/18.   This is really pushing the limits of diffraction for the sensor on my D200 and normally, I would never stop down more than f/11 on this camera, and usually no more than f/8 is required.



Flies get covered in dust and pollen and I spent some time gently blowing this away with a lens blower, whilst being careful not to blow the model off the set 😛



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