SLR vs microscope for imaging museum specimens

A few years ago I needed to image some ants for a short taxonomic paper.  Lacking a decent specimen imaging system (like Entovision), I decided to snap the photos at home using my standard macro gear: a dSLR with the Canon MP-E lens.  The images turned out fine and were published in Zootaxa with the paper.

Later, the Antweb team imaged the same species using their standard set-up: a high-res video camera on a Leica microscope, focus-stacking the images with specialized software.  I decided to compare the two.  Here they are (click on each to view the uncompressed file): (more…)

The Canon MP-E 65mm 1-5x Macro Lens

There is only one lens on the market that can take this shot
Only one lens can take this shot.

If you’ve paid attention to insect photography over the past decade, you’ll likely have noticed that a single lens, Canon’s MP-E 1-5x macro, has come to dominate the market.  Every professional insect photographer I know owns one, and many of the dedicated amateurs do as well.  Indeed, some photographers have even switched from Nikon to Canon just to be able to use it.

Yet the lens is also a throwback, possessing few of the electronic features of modern camera technology.  It is largely manual, with no auto-focus or image stabilization, and is notoriously difficult to operate.  So what’s the deal?  Why has a cantankerous retro lens become the glass of choice for macro?

Canon's MP-E 65mm f2.8 1-5x macro lens mounted on an EOS 20D camera body, in many respects the ideal back for this specialized lens.


The Canon 50D

As you may have noticed, for a photography blog I don’t write much about camera gear.  Partly this is because I’m not the sort of person who chases the latest gadgets and gizmos, but partly because I think all the focus on equipment obscures the most important aspects of photography.  Good photography comes from the artistry of the photographer. Megapixel count has hardly anything to do with it.

I bring this up because Canon has just announced the first bit of gear I’ve been excited about in years. The Canon 50D. Ignore the bits about the 15 megapixels (irrelevant for macro) and the 6.3 frames per second (ditto).  What I like is this:

The EOS Integrated Cleaning System – including the improved Self Cleaning Sensor Unit with a new fluorine coating – increases protection of image quality by helping to reduce, repel and remove unwanted dust from the sensor. Stubborn particles can be removed automatically in post-production with Dust Delete Data and Canon’s included Digital Photo Professional software.

I spend 90% of my image processing time cloning out sensor dust in photoshop.   It’s a tedious process, consuming hours of my time every week.  If Canon’s latest camera makes a dent in the sensor dust problem I’ll be a very happy photographer indeed.

Photo Technique: On-Camera Flash Diffusion

Flash is a necessary evil in insect photography. This necessity is due to two unfortunate traits shared by most insects: small size and stubborn unwillingness to sit still for the camera. These traits confound each other in a way that renders insect photography uniquely challenging. Small subjects need to be close to the lens, placing them squarely in the zone where depth of field becomes razor-thin. Depth of field can be increased by using a small aperture, but that restricts the amount of light reaching the sensor. With so little light entering the camera, a proper exposure requires the shutter to be kept open for a long time. As most insects are busy creatures with better things to do than wait about for the shutter to close, getting a clean shot under natural lighting requires a fair bit of luck.

The easiest solution is to augment the ambient light with flash, allowing for faster shutter speeds. This is what most insect photographers do, although flash comes at considerable aesthetic cost. (more…)