Adapting the iPhone for Insect Photography

[the following is a repost from the Scienceblogs network]

Polistes dominula, the European Paper Wasp, captured with an iPhone

As an insect guy, the first question I ask about any camera is: Can I shoot bugs with it?

To my great disappointment, the answer for most cell phones is no. Cell phone cameras are normally fixed to focus at distances useful for party pictures and street shots. Fixed-focus simplifies the mechanics of the onboard camera, but it also makes close-ups of small subjects impossible. Even Apple’s iPhone 3GS- which has variable focus- doesn’t focus quite closely enough do anything but the largest insects. So when an aphid plague unexpectedly hits town, to name one real-life example, I have to go home and haul out my camera bag. No easy snaps.

An unmodified Apple iPhone 3G depicts the same wasp shown at the top of the post like this:

As you can see, the plane of focus falls behind this barely-visible insect. That’s no good.

There’s a simple solution. A magnifying lens placed over the onboard lens will move the focus point close to the camera. With an insect sitting nearly on top of a small lens, the resulting image is magnified to impressive size. The home-made rig looks like this:

I used a $20 lens and some masking tape, but any hand-lens should do. This arrangement allows the iPhone to cozy right up for some intimate bug portraits. I’ve posted a sampling below: (more…)

Homemade flash diffusers for Canon’s macro twin flash

As winter doesn’t have much insect activity, it’s the season I use to work on my equipment.  Yesterday I tried out a new arrangement to diffuse the heads on my mt-24ex twin flash when the heads are mounted on long, moveable arms. Here’s a time-lapse video showing the construction, plus a short clip of the gear in use:

Note the effect of the diffusion:

A bare, undiffused flash produces harsh shadows and glare
A diffused flash provides softer, more even lighting

The best insect photos of 2009

In 2009 the world’s macrophotographers- both amateur and professional- continued to capture breathtaking images of the arthropod microscape.  I’ve been bookmarking insect photos from around the web that catch my eye, and after spending some time this week reviewing the candidates I’ve selected nine favorites. Wow. These are the images from fellow photographers that most captured my imagination over the past year.

Together, by Jan Zajc


Her Royal Highness

Crematogaster lineolata queen with a retinue of workers. (Vermillion River Observatory, Illinois)
Crematogaster lineolata queen with a retinue of workers. (Vermillion River Observatory, Illinois)

This weekend we took a trip with some entomology students to the Vermillion River Observatory.  The astronomical function of the observatory has long been abandoned, but the site remains as a lovely nature reserve and one of the closest patches of decent forest habitat to where we live in Champaign-Urbana.

The acrobat ant Crematogaster lineolata was one of many ants we encountered, and in this nest the queen was right up near the surface.  She lingered long enough for me to get a few shots before she disappeared into the labyrinth of tunnels.

photo details: Canon mp-e 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, f/13, 1/250 sec, flash diffused through tracing paper

Engorged nestmates


Paratrechina longicornis

Their abdomens swollen with sugar water, two black crazy ants (Paratrechina longicornis) share a moment.  This species has traveled around the globe with human commerce and is now common in warmers regions worldwide.

photo details: Canon mp-e 65mm 1-5x macro lens on a Canon EOS 50D
ISO 100, f/13, 1/200 sec, indirect strobe in a white box

New Insect Wallpapers

I’ve created a set of desktop wallpapers to fit the newer 1680 x 1050 widescreen monitors. To put any of the following on your desktop, click on the image. Once the large version loads to your browser, right-click and select “Set as desktop background.”






Black backgrounds in macro photography?

Dalantech over at the No Cropping Zone writes:

From time to time I see people argue about the backgrounds in macro images, and about how dark backgrounds don’t look natural –whatever the heck that means. Seriously what’s natural about macro photography? Do you see all the detail in a bee’s compound eye or the tiny “hairs” that cover most leaves without the aid of some sort of magnifier?

I think Dalantech is entirely correct in that arguments about the naturalness of black backdrops are unconvincing.  There are many reasons to take photographs, and capturing an animal in a particular environment is only one of them.

Having said that, though, I’ve never been overly fond of the black background, even though I use it occasionally as a compositional device.  Black is in some respects a default setting for macro.  If you use a flash pointed away from the backdrop and a fast shutter speed, the background will fade to black as a matter of course.  Consequently, there are piles of black-backdrop macros floating around.  Sort of like turtlenecks at an art museum.  Enough to border on the monotonous.

Since black can be produced by accident, lots of those black background photos are themselves accidental, snapped without any attempt at composition.  They’re just more bad bug-on-a-flower-shots.  And as I get sick of seeing them, I go off black backgrounds generally.  Guilt by association.

Of course, my opinion is deeply unfair.  Dalantech’s photos are carefully composed and really superb.  Black is part of his distinctive style, and no one would argue that he’s just another guy taking happy snaps of bugs-on-flowers.  Maybe I’m just a big fan of white.  Which never ever gets monotonous, no?

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.