I really hate starting off this post with the following photo—typically it is the first photo in a post that readers see in syndicated feeds; however, I use it in this post to make a point. This photo was taken back in May 2009 and is among the very first photographs that I took after getting my current dSLR camera setup. I was certainly happy enough with it at the time; however, in the following years I have learned a lot about lighting and composition. Such is the curse of any photographer—the further back one goes in their portfolio, the less satisfied they are with the photos taken at a particular point in time. What was then a pretty photo of a shiny, red longhorned beetle on a bright, yellow flower is now teaching material for what not to do when taking photos of shiny beetles on yellow flowers.
Compare the above with the following much more recently taken photos of the same beetle species from this past June. The beetle is the same, and while the flowers are a different species they are the same intense shade of yellow, but in nearly all respects the photos are far superior to the first. What are the problems with the first photo? First, the smooth and shiny surface of the beetle combined with poor diffusion of the flash has resulted in intense specular highlights on the body of the beetle. This is especially evident in the “twin highlights” on the pronotum of the beetle that is the signature mark of the Canon MT-24EX twin flash unit when used without some type of diffuser. Secondly, the darker color of the beetle requires more flash for adequate illumination than does the much brighter yellow flower—setting the flash power high enough to fully expose the beetle resulted in overexposure of the yellow flower. One cannot even see where one petal ends and another begins. Thirdly, the top-down perspective is, well… boring, no doubt because this is far and away the most commonly used composition in photographs of insects on flowers. Lastly, in my zeal to get as close as possible to the subject, I’ve not only eliminated elements from the background that could add interest in texture to the composition but also clipped the hind tarsus of the beetle itself.
The first problem is easily addressed by using a good diffuser. It is remarkable that both Canon and Nikon have produced such incredibly effective lenses and flash units for macrophotography, yet completely ignored the demand for diffusers designed to work with them. As a result, most insect macrophotographers have resorted to various do-it-yourself (DIY) designs to fill the void. The diversity in DIY diffuser designs is as large as the diversity of insect macrophotographers, and each person has their own favorite. I have tried many different versions myself, and my current design (admittedly a fusion of ideas stolen from and Alex Wild and Piotr Naskrecki) has produced quite good results. This is evidenced in the more recent photos shown here by the very soft highlights that are spread out evenly over the body of the beetle and not concentrated into intense spots or bands.
The second problem—that of overexposure of the flower to properly expose the beetle—is handled in a simple yet somewhat counter-intuitive manner. I find yellow flowers to be especially prone to overexposure. However, it is much easier to “fix” underexposed than overexposed areas of a photo in post-processing. When a photo is underexposed, all of the data regarding color and hue is still there. It is a simple matter to increase the brightness in the image processing software to restore underexposed areas to their natural brightness. Overexposure, however, is much more difficult to correct, as once the exposure is “blown” there is no data remaining regarding the true color and hue. The only way to fix blown highlights is with the laborious process of cloning over them with nearby areas of the photo that are not blown. Perhaps some can do this quickly and with good results, but I am not one of those people. I like to selectively increase the brightness of underexposed areas using “Lighten Shadows” tool in Photoshop. Be careful, as a light hand is all it takes—overly heavy-handed adjustments look unnatural.
Finally, think about more interesting compositions for your “bug on a flower” photos than the far too commonly used top-down perspective. Getting low relative to the beetle and looking at it from the side or front not only provides a less common view of the subject but also allows for far more creativity in the overall composition. My personal preference for insects on flowers is a blue sky background, which can add a lot of value contrast to photos compared to those in which the entire background consists only of the flower on which the insect is sitting. Use of blue sky background can also further help avoid overexposure of the yellow flower, as the slightly higher ISO and slightly lower aperture settings and shutter speeds used in that technique serve to increase the amount of ambient light contributing to the photo, thereby reducing the amount of illumination needed by the flash. Side views of the insect also facilitate use of portrait orientation—an important consideration if you are interested in producing photos for potential use on journal or magazine covers (nearly always printed in portrait). Also, as you compose your photo, try backing off a bit rather than trying to focus in on the subject as tightly as possible. Backed off views not only avoid the more straightforward problem of clipping parts of the insect but can also result in much more aesthetically pleasing photographs by allowing the incorporation of other elements in the composition for balance, scale, and even a sense of motion or dynamics (as exemplified by the partially buried grass blades in this photo of the Eastern Big Sand Tiger Beetle). Photos can always be cropped in post-processing, and while excessive cropping as a way to artificially increase magnification is to be avoided, there is nothing wrong at all with slight cropping to improve composition.
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013