Just to prove it can be done, here is an uncropped photograph of the seed weevil Althaeus hibisci (or the closely related A. folkertsi) (order Coleoptera, family Chrysomelidae, subfamily Bruchinae). Adults of these species measure only 1.5–2.5 mm in length (Kingsolver 2004), yet this individual almost completely fills the frame:
I achieved 8X magnification by stacking 68 mm of extension tubes under my Canon MP-E 65mm 1–5X macro lens and extending the bellows of the lens out to its maximum. Shooting 8X is not for the timid—the small subject to lens distance complicates lighting (full flash required), and even finding the subject in the viewfinder can be next to impossible. However, doing it hand-held in the field requires more than just courage and patience—good bracing techniques to minimize movement by and between the camera and the subject are essential. Here is how I do it:
I sit down, prop my knees up, and rest the camera in the crotch between my knees (the camera quickly becomes very heavy since it’s being held by only one hand—see next bullet) while positioning it near my face. If possible, I lean back against something as well to provide even more stability, although this is often not possible depending on field conditions.
I hold the leaf or flower supporting the subject in my left hand. Subjects this small are rarely going anywhere (or if they are skittish then I use the same slow, deliberate techniques that I use with larger skittish insects), so it is possible to hold the leaf or flower and position the subject right in front of the lens. Hand holding the subject’s support also affords the ability to micro-adjust the position and angle of the subject for optimum composition or to adjust for movement by the subject (easier than trying to track it by moving the lens). In this case of the photo featured here, I detached the leaf with the beetle from the plant (use small scissors to snip the leaf petiole, as this avoids the “jolt” that happens if you try to pick the leaf and which usually results in the subject fleeing). In other cases, I leave the leaf attached and carefully “pull” it towards me to hold it steady.
I look through the viewfinder and brace my left wrist (yes, the same hand that is holding the subject) on the underside of the lens, then slowly move the subject towards the lens with my fingers until I see movement and can micro-adjust for proper focus. Bracing your wrist against the lens is key—it is nearly impossible to hold the subject steady in front of the lens without bracing your wrist against it. In effect, this “fixes” the subject to the lens. Also, before I begin looking for the subject through the viewfinder I study its position on the leaf and look for “landmarks” that I can recognize when looking through the viewfinder to minimize the time needed to find the subject (the more time you spend looking for the subject, the greater the chance it will move or flee). Again, the subject to lens distance is very small, but with practice you’ll get a feel for precisely how far from the lens you need to place the subject.
I hold my breath and micro-adjust the subject position to nail the focus (usually on the eye) and then fire a shot. If it takes too long to get the focus I exhale and try again, as body shake will only get worse once it starts. Important: After taking the first shot, do not move the hand holding the subject as you look at the image preview and/or histogram—the first shot rarely has the settings precisely where you need them, and keeping the subject in place prevents a lot of re-searching after making the needed setting adjustments with the right hand.
Other than lighting, nailing the focus is the most difficult aspect of shooting hand-held at such high magnifications. The more relaxed and stable you can keep the rest of your body, the less hand movement you’ll experience while holding the subject and the greater chance you have of hitting the focus. Again, a fully extended MP-E lens on 68 mm of extension tubes becomes very heavy very quickly when held in one hand (even when resting on your knees), so expect your forearm muscles to give out quickly until you have a chance to strengthen them through practice.
I use these same techniques to some degree at lower magnifications as well—certainly for anything above 2X. I’m interested in doing a lot more 8X photography, however, because there is a whole world of tiny insects that are not being photographed due to their very small size. These insects are no less fascinating and beautiful than their larger, more oft photographed brethren.
Finally, you might be asking why I don’t just carry a tripod or collect subjects and bring them back to the studio for more controlled conditions. There are many photographers who advocate the use of tripods, but I’m not one of them. I am first and foremost an entomologist, and when I’m in the field I’m generally already carrying at least a net and other equipment for collecting insects. There are opportunity costs involved if I also try to lug a heavy tripod with me. What’s that? I could leave it in the car and then go get it when I need it? Honestly, I would pass on a lot of shots if I had to go back to the car to get something for it. The same goes for studio photography—there are many shots I would simply pass on if getting them meant that I needed to collect subjects, keep them in good condition for the duration of the trip (which might be days or more), and then setup in a studio. Moreover, there are many shots—specifically regarding behavior—that would be impossible with collected subjects. But really, it has mostly to do with what I want to be and portray as an insect photographer, and that is somebody who has the ability to photograph unconfined subjects exhibiting natural behaviors in their native habitats. Having the ability to shoot 8X hand-held in the field if I want to gives me more options and makes me a better photographer.
Do you have any special bracing or stabilizing techniques that you use for high-mag hand-held macrophotography? If so I’d love to hear about them.