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Natural light and focus stacking in cool weather

by Güray Dere
Doğal ışık makro fotoğraf çekimi

We are in the middle of winter. When we think of winter, wind, snow and storms come to mind, but this year Istanbul is experiencing a mild and dry winter. This bad environmental situation creates ideal conditions for macro photography with natural light.

The biggest challenge of focus stacking in the outdoors is to capture insects still. A single sequence of 30 to 100 images can take minutes. Waiting for the wind to stop blowing and adjusting the settings for the changes in light caused by the rising sun and moving clouds takes time. The longer it takes, the more likely it is to be incomplete. Because the insects are not completely still. They move their antennae and legs. After a while, they make the frame useless with a bigger movement. Or they fly away.

Cool air is the key to keeping insects inactive. This is what I called the “ideal condition” at the beginning of the article.

In summer, you have to get up very early to shoot natural light focus stacking.

Last summer my cousin Kerem and I often went to shoot at sunrise, which is the most logical way to do it in the summer. Finding insects is not a problem in summer, but there is very little time left after sunrise. The air heats up quickly and the insects are on the move. As the sun shows itself, the colors change so fast that the colors of the photos at the beginning and the end of the stack sequence are completely different. In the summer the time we have is 2 hours at most. Then it gets very active and you have to go home with the headache of waking up early.

The early morning hours are perfect for those photos with lots of dew drops that many people love. The 2 examples above were taken with flash at sunrise in summer. While the dewdrops are nice, I don’t like all the photos of that day to be like that.

Let’s talk about the winter season, or more precisely the winter day of February 1, which is the subject of this article.

That day I went out in the garden to get some fresh air and photography was not on my mind at all. 5 degrees Celsius, cold and cloudy with a slight breeze makes you think of drinking something hot rather than photographing. But out of habit, my eyes were always on the leaves. And then…

But first I will make a quote,

There is a good book on genetics and biology called “Your Inner Fish”. In that book, the author talks about his youth. When he was still an assistant, sometimes he and his professors would go out to the field to collect fossils. Everyone takes a sack in their hands and spreads out all over the mountains in the study area. When it was time to meet, every time the professors’ sacks were full, but the assistants’ were empty. This bothered him for a very long time. As the years pass, he realizes that after a certain period of time, his eyes, which are always looking for the same thing, start to see a tiny tooth fossil among a lot of pebbles. And as time goes by, he starts returning with a full sack. I think it’s the same situation, we talk amongst ourselves that we are beginning to acquire the ability to “see insects”.

Then, as I turned back to enter the house, a furry figure under a leaf on a honeysuckle flower caught my eye even from a distance. A bee from the genus Habropoda was clinging to the leaf with its mouth, sleeping in the cold. Many insects secure themselves in such a favorable position at night and go to sleep. I guessed that our bee would not wake up easily in this weather, so I decided to try my luck.

A week ago, when we were talking about the outdoor photography using a softbox tent, Kerem told us that he had been using it for all his shoots recently and that he was very happy with it. It was a great opportunity to try the tent outdoors. I quickly took out the cube-shaped tent that had been lying in the closet for a long time and set it up on a chair.

Doğal ışık makro fotoğraf çekimi
Natural light macro photography using a tent

Sample equipment for macro shooting in natural light

  • Softbox tent. These white cube-shaped tents are sold in sizes. It folds and unfolds very easily with its spring structure. It takes care of the soft light that we normally create using diffusers and reflectors. Another beauty is that it cuts the wind and provides a flicker-free shooting environment. But you should also have a diffuser and reflector.
  • Helping hand. I use these clamps as sample holders and sometimes I also have one to hold materials that act as diffusers or reflectors.
  • Scissors. Preferably garden scissors. To pick up the sleeping insects with the branch they are sleeping on and take them to our field studio.
  • Tripod. It needs to be a good, well-fitting, solidly built tripod that can get close to the ground. Cheap tripods can cause you trouble. The Benro A0691 model tripod I have can only do its job at a medium level. Instead, I would like to buy a tripod that can get close to the ground up to zero level and that is made of wood, not metal, which dampens vibrations quickly.
  • Tripod head. As the magnification increases, framing becomes a problem. Ballheads pose a challenge with the constant loosen-tighten process. Just when we tighten and fix the camera, when we release it, a tiny sagging disrupts the frame. We continue with loosen-tighten again. Manfrotto 410 Junior head gives the opportunity to easily adjust the frame even while shooting with its structure that allows screw movement in 3 axes.
  • Precision focus rail. Newport 423 or 433 models with micrometers are perfect for precise focus stacking.
  • Rough focus rail. Our precision rail has the ability to move within a very limited distance. We use the coarse rail to change magnification and to select the first point to focus on. We do the rest with the precision rail. Since I am using a double rail bellows here, the lower bellows rail serves as the coarse rail.
  • Remote shutter release. Pressing the shutter release manually would shake the whole setup, so we use a wired or wireless shutter release. Unfortunately the battery died that day, so I had to press it manually. I tried to compensate for the vibration with a 2sec delay.
  • Spare battery and memory card. Make sure you have them. You never know what you might encounter. Focus stacking requires a lot of shots. It can be very upsetting to encounter a rare species when resources are depleted.

The list also includes camera bodies and lenses. I used a reverse-mount Componon-S 80mm lens, which is very good at magnifications up to 1.5X and easy to use. But it would be a good idea to attach or fit a lens hood in front of it. Since I use enlarger lenses, I attach a piece of m39 extension tube to their outward-facing m39 bayonet side as a hood. These tubes are older than me and are almost cost-free.

Preparing for the shoot

helping hand üzerinde uyuyan arı

The first thing to do is to remove the bee without disturbing its sleep. This is the riskiest move in the plan. The harsh vibration when cutting the leaf or branch with scissors can easily drop the insect or, in warmer weather, scare it and cause it to fly away. When cutting the branch, we try to hold the area between the insect and the scissors to prevent the vibrations created by the scissors from reaching the insect. When cutting, we slowly crush it with the back of the scissors. Again, there is a lot of vibration while carrying the cut branch and placing it on the “helping hand”. Without panicking, we take our insect from its place in slow and calm movements.

In real field shooting, we usually set up the setup in a suitable spot and look around for insects in this way. Sometimes it is necessary not to startle or drop the insect that we carry for a long way. I remember last summer we missed a lot of opportunities due to accidents during this process 🙂

Another very important thing is to secure the insect location on both sides. To do this, we use the two clamps of the helping hand together and fasten the leaf with the bee together at both ends. The cut plant starts dying and drooping faster than you can imagine. You can see for yourself how, after a few minutes of shooting, the leaf hangs down a little lower with each photo, eventually turning the whole process into garbage. Fixing it like this prevents it from drooping.

Before placing the bee inside the tent, there was one more thing to do. Setting the background. Normally I would cut the back of the tent and open a window to use the natural environment as a background. But I didn’t do that in order not to let the wind in and not to cut it down until I ordered my spare tent. I took the first flower pot I saw with its flower and placed it inside the tent. I placed the bee in front of it. I even put a black slipper in the back as the first object I saw! With a dark colored object like a slipper, I cut the excess white light coming from the front and prevent it from entering the lens and causing haze in the photo. After placing the camera in the appropriate position and lowering the tent cover, we are ready to shoot.

Macro photography using a tent in natural light

Now, some may say, “hey, while you are enjoying your tea and coffee on the balcony, you cut the leaves, you take the insect, you put flowers in the background, how is this a natural shot?”

Our sleeping bee

You’re right, but I don’t really mean “natural photography”, I mean “natural light”. It’s not always possible to get a truly natural shot. The location chosen by the insect itself may not be suitable for setting up the camera. It may be very difficult or impossible to prevent it from being affected by the wind. This bee, for example, was on a leaf almost 2 meters high. And again, it is very, very laborious to move and set up the machine in a new location for each insect in the field. We’ve tried it before, we’ve done it. It doesn’t work very well. Except for cutting a few small leaves, we do not harm the nature or the insect. When the work is done, we leave the insect in a safe place for it, close to where we found it.

Open field focus stacking

The cloudy weather creates an advantageous situation in terms of lighting performance. If I was in direct sunlight, the thin fabric of the tent would not be enough. Another layer of diffuser would be needed to soften the light.

Taking advantage of the bee’s calmness, I took about 500 shots over the course of an hour, a total of 8 different frames and at different magnifications. As usual, a few of them ended up in the trash due to various problems. And again, each stack sequence had its own set of problematic frames. In particular, because I pressed the shutter button manually, sometimes the vibration was too much and produced blurry images. I simply didn’t process these, and because I chose the focus steps smaller than necessary, the missing frames didn’t cause any problems.

Doğal ışık makro arı fotoğrafı
1/2 sec exposure, f8 aperture 38 frames merged

When I say sleeping bugs, I don’t mean that they are completely still. They are not dead. They move their antennae and legs all the time. If we notice it at that moment, we stop shooting and take the same frame again after the movement stops. But most of the time you can’t tell until you get to the computer. In order to explain these movements, I will give the focus stack sequence of the photographs I have chosen as an example as a video recording.

Macro focus stack sequence

As you can see, as the focus area moves back, the frame changes as we get closer to the scene. Before shooting, examine the focus back and forth. Don’t start shooting without checking in advance that every area will remain in the frame. Otherwise, at the end of the shot, you may have an insect with its wing or leg out of the frame.

For the next shot I set the magnification higher and used f5.6 instead of f8 to avoid loss of detail due to diffraction.

1/4 sec exposure, f5.6, 114 frames stacked.
Makro focus stack serisi
Macro focus stack sequence

Sorry if the animated images take a long time to upload. The files are a bit big. But I don’t want to reduce their size too much because I think you will want to see them. And finally, I’m adding another photo at about the same magnification level. There is no need to increase the samples more.

1/5 sec, f5.6, 79 frames
Attention to antenna movements

In this last example, the antenna movement made it very difficult, so I had to cut out only the area where the antennas were and apply a focus stacking. I then overlaid the corrected antenna image on top of the other image and merged them together. This way it takes much longer to process the image than to shoot it, but I think the results are worth it.

When the second memory card was about half full, the bee’s wiggling increased due to my fiddling and the temperature rising a few degrees towards noon. Feeling that I could no longer continue taking photos, I decided to fill the remaining memory with video footage, which resulted in the video below. I recommend watching it in full screen and 720p resolution to see the details.

In my previous post on natural light, Natural light and a day of failure, I described how things went wrong. Proper equipment and weather conditions play a key role in taking these kinds of photographs. When all the conditions are right, it’s all about finding bugs. Let’s see if luck will be on our side again in the coming days 🙂

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