The summer still isn’t quite here but I’m slowly starting to see more critters crawling around outside. A while ago I got up early in the weekend and went on the year’s first bug hunt.

I have to say, it was rather lacking in the critter department, there wasn’t much of interest to be found at all. It’s probably still a bit too cold for most bugs, I know my hands were half frozen by the time I was done. During the hour I spent searching I found 4 critters to shoot, one of which was a small fly that didn’t yield any results worthy of uploading. The best catch of the day was the snail you see to the left, even though I’m normally not a fan of shooting snails. The good thing about snails is that they don’t move very fast (duh), so you can take your time shooting them. The bad thing is that they don’t have many interesting features to focus on, not like a fly with hair all over the body and interesting eyes. However, I was getting desperate to shoot something so I tried to make it interesting.

SnailOne of the problems you’ll encounter when shooting snails is their eyes. As far as I’m concerned the eyes (or at least one of them) always has to be in focus – if you lose the eye, you lose the shot, simple as that. It doesn’t matter what manner of critter you’re shooting, be it human, fish or insect, the eyes are what connects the viewer to the shot. Snails, being the crafty creatures they are, have decided to evolve eyes that are stuck at the end of a stick, which I’m sure is very convenient for looking around but at the same time makes the life of us photographers much harder. One of the main concerns when shooting macro is that of DOF. More often than not it’s difficult to get enough of it. That means that if we get the snail’s eye (not eyes, good luck with that) in focus, everything else will be blurry. Now, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it could be a pretty neat effect, like in the shot to the left here, but I wanted to do something about that. Luckily, snails aren’t very brave, I guess that’s why they walk around with a portable bunker. I gave the poor thing a bit of a fright and then simply waited for it to come back out so I could grab the shot at the top. Is it just me or is it kind of cute…for a snail?

AlienMaybe I should recap the equipment I use for these shots, for those of you who are new or have forgotten since last year. I shoot all my macros with a Nikon 85mm f3.5 (typically at f16 for sufficient DOF) and a SB-400 for light. I hand hold everything, so the camera is in my right hand and the flash (via SC-28 TTL cable) in my left. This can be a slightly shaky setup but I usually try to brace myself against something or at least offer some support for the lens with the hand that’s holding the flash. The solution here would of course be to use some sort of bracket for the flash to free up one hand, but it’s not in the budget at the moment (saving for other stuff). Previously I’ve used a simple diffuser to soften up the flash a bit but this time I wanted to experiment with using a Lumiquest softbox III for even softer light, with mixed results.

AntPreviously I’ve always fired the flash using TTL, just to have one less variable to keep in mind in quickly changing conditions. However, when I tried that with the bigger softbox, the little SB-400 seemed to under expose the scene by quite a lot, even with flash compensation dialed up. I ditched the TTL and went manual, which easily gave me enough power to even over expose things when I wasn’t careful – without flash the shot above would have been more or less black. I’ll have to play around a bit more with this setup to see if it’s something I want to keep working with. The bigger softbox is obviously bulkier and that affects the steadiness of the shot, which may or may not prove to be a problem. The benefit I can gain is softer light, especially when the ambient levels are fairly low. I might switch between the softbox and small diffuser depending on the weather. One thing I’ll do a bit differently next time is to under expose  things a bit. That should help avoid highlights, keep the flash happier and it’s very easy to pull the exposure up a bit in post anyway.

Parts of this post got a bit technical, so hit me with your questions if anything is unclear. This was pretty much an early test run, so I didn’t expect any stellar results. Despite not having much to work with, I still managed better results than when I got started last year though, so hopefully I can keep pushing the level even higher this year. I hope you’ll be looking forward to more crawling critters in the months to come.


Peek a boo Snail Alien Ant