My usual setup is:
- Nikon Camera (D300, D700 or D800)
- Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens,
- Nikon Speedlights (Sb-900 & SB-800)
- Lastolite Trigrip reflector (silver & white) and Ezybox softbox
- Tripod, flash stands, duct tape
- Backgrounds – usually just t-shirts of various colours.
As you can see from the list this is not a pro macro photography equipment (except from the lens) but it makes really effective studio “on the fly”. And these results can be achieved with any portable flashes and light modifiers (softbox, translucent umbrella, reflector…). Of course there is always some improvisation to get the best results, but hey – this is all fun!It is important to me that I can set up the “studio” quickly and is easy to carry around. Most of the time I will do macro on location, in nature. It is always nice to have a fellow photographer with you so you can assist each other to get the shot. In nature you have to take several different factors into account, unlike in studio, you have to deal with wind, direct sun, rain, insects(has is ever happen to you that you sat down on ant hill and realized this when it was too late?)… Most important thing when photographing in nature is that we do not cause unnecessary harm to our subjects or to environment itself. We shouldn’t make the shot if this means we will cause damage to nature and this is even more so true if the subject we want to photograph is considered threatened. Also it is very important to know your subject you want to photograph, be it a butterfly or some rare mountain flower. Knowing your subject you will make better photo. Either you can anticipate the behaviour, know when and where to find the subject or just to avoid silly mistakes (like photographing your subject in a setting that doesn’t represent true habitat of the species).
And here are some of my favourite shots along with comments:Gentian flowers, Karavanke Alps above Jesenice. This shot was made in late morning when light was still directional but already quite strong and harsh. To lessen the contrasts silver reflector was used to fill light.
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/125s, f11, ISO 200, EV -1/2 Lady’s-slipper orchid. Very dificult to find and I need to thank to my friend Miro to show me this wonderful flower. To see the setup for this shot check out the third photo of this post. Main light is coming from the softbox from the side and reflector is returning some light to fill the shadows. Since the background was too busy I used Miro’s lime-green shirt which gave me natural looking smooth background.
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/20s, f11, ISO 800 Spring snowflakes – one of the first flowers to come out in Spring. This is a mixture of ambient and flashlight. To get this cool water-drops effect I sprayed some water and used flash to freeze the movement. Flash was set to the left of subject and slightly to the back to get more dimensional feel.
Camera info: Nikon D700 with Nikon 70-200mm f2.8. 1/125s, f6.7, ISO 200 at 280mm Grove snail on a stem. Snails are not easy to photograph. Because of their high speed you need a camera with very fast and accurate focusing system and short shutter speed to freeze the motion. Yeah, right! To set this shot I used a softbox from the camera left as a main light. To fill the shadows on the right I added a silver reflector. Additional speedlight was used to light the background (green bed linen was perfect for the job.) Snail was photographed on a grass stem which was fixated with Wimberley plamp.
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/250s, f16, ISO 400 Flower spider with its pray (honey bee). Same lighting setup was used as for the shot above. As this is more documentary shot it is crucial for the image to look natural. Note a small fly that came for a free meal on bee’s left wing.
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/250s, f16, ISO 400 European hornet. This was quite adrenaline photo shoot – this fellow’s sting can hurt very badly so extreme caution was needed. Luckily hornets need a lot of warmth and in early morning they are very still. They are not able to fly yet, but they are fully aware of what is going on. This one cooperated nicely. He hang on the Apple tree leaf and did not move when I photographed it. I left it hanging on the leaf upside down, as I found him. It looks more realistic this way.
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/250s, f19, ISO 400 The hornet started to move so I placed him on a twig. When he climbed to the top of it he stopped and stood still. Perfect for some head shots but I needed different background. My red t-shirt was perfect for the job. Camera left there was a softbox and camera right a silver reflector. They are both visible in the hornet’s eyes, but I think they only add more dimensional feel. No one was harmed during this portrait session (hornet nor photographer).
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/250s, f19, ISO 400 Grove snail, backlit. This is what happens when main flash does not fire. I kind of like this shot, even if it is misfire. It is cool to see that snail is translucent and this gave me the idea for the next shot – the last image of this post. If you are interested in how this shot would look like if the main flash fired check out the first image of this post.
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/250s, f16, ISO 400 When I realized that snail is translucent I tried with different lighting setup. I wanted the light to be more directional and coming from the back to see more texture on the snail. The background was not lighted at all – a black cloth was used. Main light was coming from the camera right and slightly behind the snail. And there is little fill light from the softbox, camera left. The main light was controlled by a snoot – simple toilet paper roll did a great job. Snail was eaten after the photo shoot – a little too chewy for my taste…
Camera info: Nikon D800 with Sigma 105mm f2.8. 1/250s, f19, ISO 200
More on backgrounds
When I read Moose Peterson‘s book Captured (a must read for nature photographers) Moose stated several times – background control! I couldn’t agree more with him – a background can make or break the image. The subject can be awesome and lighting perfectly executed but if the background is too busy and distracting you will never get the “WOW” effect from the viewers. So take my advice – always pay attention on background!
Remote flash triggering
To get nice lighting for your subjects (not only in macro but usually everywhere) you will need to take your flash off the hot shoe. Since I am Nikon photographer I usually use the CLS system that Nikon cameras feature. It is a wireless triggering system where you can control remote flash units from your camera or a command unit.
When I need quick results and I am in a hurry I will use the TTL mode and will control the flashes with a SB-800 unit mounted on camera. If I know I will be making many shots with similar setup, I will go manual to get consistent results but will still control remote flashes via commander SB-800 unit. Nikon’s CLS works nicely for me and I am aware of its limitations so I can work around them…
The purpose of this article was to show that nice macro images can be made without hundreds of pro macro gadgets and without extreme close-ups.
Hope you liked the images and info! Share if you think this article is interesting and post a comment if you have any questions about these setups and photos. Thank you!