It’s late December, the temperature is in the minus. My macro work usually consists of processing photos from the archive. My camera is lying in the bag. It is a predictable period. Fortunately, I took a lot of photos last summer thinking about these days. My disks are full of raw photos and I’m still processing files from 6 months ago. Maybe I can’t finish them all until spring.
A few weeks ago I acquired the Newport-423 (imperial) rail and completed the natural light setup on the tripod. Actually I’ve been using Newport for a long time, but I had the metric M-423 model. You need to find special screws to attach it to the tripod. Since I have not been able to do this for almost a year, I changed the model. I will explain this issue in a separate article.
I can’t wait to try the new system and improve myself in this regard. When the cold and snowy weather doesn’t give me the opportunity, I try to shoot without flash in the home environment to enter the spring a little more experienced. But of course, nothing is actually learned without experiencing the difficulties in the outdoor environment. Then the weather improved a bit, I did some experiments in the garden, but I’m having a hard time finding a subject. It’s like there are no insects around.
I say as if, because I know they’re there. You should see the skill of John Hallmen, who I follow. He lives in Sweden and manages to shoot macro in winter and snow. A little knowledge, a little equipment but mostly determination. I get angry with myself when I wake up early in the morning and am too lazy to just step out into the garden, and when I do, I come back empty-handed. I have attached a video Hallmen shared on Youtube. We live in a much luckier climate. Let’s watch this together first, let’s be a little ashamed of ourselves 🙂
Kerem’s photo shoot on a foggy winter day
That’s when I had the opportunity to try out the new equipment in a real environment. When I go out of Istanbul for family visits, I often shoot macro in open spaces. I usually come back with satisfactory results. But this time, for the first time, I didn’t take a flash with me. I will force myself to try natural light. The weather forecast for the weekend was foggy and rainy. The cloudy weather is actually an advantage. We don’t like direct sunlight in photography. It makes harsh reflections and strong shadows. In sunny weather, it is necessary to use a white fabric/paper/plastic diffuser to diffuse the light and prevent harsh light from falling on the insect. If there is fog or clouds in the air, it is a natural diffuser that scatters the light and provides a beautiful illumination. Another beauty is that insects that can’t warm up remain immobilized.
I often shoot with my cousin Özgür Kerem Bulur and I find his macro photographs very successful worldwide. When he shoots alone without me, he sometimes sends me photos of the shooting environment via email. Recently, I was very encouraged by the place he sent me in a foggy weather saying “here I was” and the photos of the praying mantis he took that day. The foggy weather I am going to shoot in this weekend has raised my expectations after seeing these. By the way, I suggest you click on the photo below and enlarge it.
On that Sunday, with a visit to the farm, I grab my equipment and head out into the field. It’s not foggy, it’s sunny, sparkling but quite cold. It must be 3-4 degrees Celsius. The water that froze overnight is still there at noon. For a long time I wander around the edges of the field, along the creek, even in the creek bed. Unbelievably I can’t find anything. A tiny flower would be fine. But this time of year there are none. Yes, there is greenery everywhere, but from a macro point of view it is a desert. There are tiny flies flying vaguely near the stream. Where the hoarfrost thaws, dew covers the ground drop by drop. The view is beautiful. I get down on the ground and look around. That’s all I can do.
I have to go back with the tripod on my back to enjoy it. We came here for a family visit. My daughter is posing among the sheep. I focus on them. And macro lenses are good for taking portraits, right?
I want to try again after a while. I can’t get Hallmen’s shots in the snow out of my mind, I can’t believe I can’t find any insects. This time I’ll try my luck in the garden. In the summer, this area where vegetables are planted is a macro paradise. I have to take a look there in winter.
Unfortunately, it’s completely frozen because it’s in the shade. No sign of life. Under the vines I fall into silence again. Then I notice some signal flies around. These little ones never rest. They got this name because they are constantly wiggling and dancing. But I have to give it a try in the cold. I adjust the tripod while the fly is still, but it never gets close enough to the ground. Shorten the legs, no, lengthen them, no, but open the angle all the way. Fail again, leave one leg like that and fold the others! When I take my hand away, it falls to the ground. It’s unbelievable. I’m beginning to understand why Kerem cut the legs off this tripod and then got a special one.
Despite all the struggling and settling, the fly is still there. I set the focus and press the shutter button, but of course with a delay. The camera waits for 3 seconds until the mirror flash goes out and takes the shot. I look at the ground, no fly! I look at the LCD screen, at the photo I took, no fly!
In a situation where I had to focus stack maybe 20 frames, I got a great natural color “dried grass” photo. I couldn’t resist sharing it, let’s enlarge it and watch it because I traveled 200 km to shoot this dead grass! As I was consoling myself and complaining that “the background is terrible anyway, the exposure is insufficient”, I saw another signal fly on another blade of grass. After a similar setup and framing struggle, I said okay and pressed the shutter button.
I look at the floor and there’s a fly! I look at the LCD screen and there’s a fly! But what’s that? A ghost?
Because we made long exposures in natural light, our fly was hovering at that time. It turned into a faint speck because it moved during the exposure. I’m looking for another target. And another signal fly. It’s on the grass again. I take care of the setup and adjustment very slowly so as not to startle it. This time I even take a few exposures for focus stacking. Since I’ve already given up on dozens of exposures, I’ll try to do something with a few frames at a slightly higher aperture. And I look at the result:
Yes, I think they call it wind. I think of the moves I remember from cowboy movies, “spit-soaked finger”, “dropping feathers on the ground”. At some point I’m going to use those too. The wind is constantly blowing. In a 50-exposure focus stack, we repeatedly take breaks and patiently wait for the wind to calm down, all the while desperately hoping that the scene won’t be ruined. I guess today is not my day. I could say it’s a bad luck, but I don’t, because I know that I will experience this in every “outdoor-natural light” shoot without exception. If I had enough targets to work on, some of them will go the way I want them to. But today is not that day, that’s for sure.
So if I ask myself what I learned today, I can answer “a lot”. First of all, it became clear that I lacked some equipment. Comfort is very important. The workaround solutions that make an already difficult job even more difficult consume our limited patience very quickly. It should be a set that is quick to set up, quick to work and portable. I remembered a video I watched a long time ago that I described as “Nikon equipment porn”. Even the music is like that! These guys are just going to take a picture of a spider. But they need to advertise the brand. They loaded all the products of the brand on a truck. They set it all up in front of the spider. You can’t help but think, “a tripod, a body and a lens would have been enough”.
This is definitely not the solution.
Back to “What I learned”. I can say that I have a new list of needs
- A wooden tripod that can get close to the ground and quickly absorb vibrations. For example the Berlebach Mini Stativ
- A body with EFSC (electronic shutter) support that can shoot without vibration immediately when pressed, without the need to wait seconds for the vibration to stop before shooting. For example Canon/Sony Nex
- A solution that won’t make the Newport’s spring stretch when I tilt it (I’m not sure about lightness yet, heavy is usually good)
- Portable, easy to carry, easy to set up mini diffuser, reflector and sample holder clamp assemblies. We need to come up with our own solution.
- Strong nerves, patience (what is needed most, so much so that everything else is a minor detail)
Update 12 Aug 2015
Now when I go back and read this article again, I am happy to have achieved my goals. My reflector holders, Berlebach mini tripod and Sony A7 II body have accelerated me a lot in my outdoor work. In the time that has passed, I have been able to take some enjoyable shots. The last ingredient remains: patience and determination. You will always need it 🙂
End of the day
Finally evening came and it got colder as the sun was about to set. We packed up everything and put it in the trunk, thinking that we shouldn’t stay outdoors any longer to avoid getting sick. That’s when I noticed a pair of flies mating on the index finger of my right hand. I think they were a midge fly. I used to call them all mosquitoes, but some midge flies don’t have a blood-sucking proboscis on the females. This one doesn’t either. So it must be something like that. Males don’t have them in mosquitoes either. Anyway, probably because of the cold, they came and landed on my finger to warm up a bit. After watching with curiosity for a while, I reached for the camera bag thinking “just in case”. On the other hand, of course, I move very slowly so that they don’t fly away. I barely got the camera out with one hand, but the flies are right on my shutter finger! I have to shoot with my left hand:)
I took a few shots with my left hand, playing with the manual focus ring and pressing the shutter button at the same time. At that point my wife must have thought I was trying to drown myself, because she came over and took a look at what was going on.
I take a look and the flies are happy with their lives. They don’t see me. To get a closer look, I put on the Raynox again with one hand and set the magnification to the highest level. In this position it makes about 2X. I tried again but this time it was impossible to focus as the magnification increased and my both hands shook independently. There is no flash. Normally I don’t like to put direct sunlight on the insect. This time I had to use it, but I couldn’t get a fast enough exposure in the dim light of the setting sun.
I put the hand holding the fly on the car so that it would stay still and only the one hand holding the camera would shake. I took a lot of shots at 2X until my wrist got tired. I knew 90% of them would be garbage, and they were. I was able to get a close-up image from the few remaining clear exposures.
And they flew away. At the end of the day, I thank them for the pleasure they gave me. I didn’t get the impressive natural light shots I was aiming for, but you don’t see many flies mating on fingernails, do you? And of course this article you are reading is the result of that day’s mishaps. So I’m in a good mood because I don’t feel empty-handed.