|Technique (the three "P's")
or: Preparation, Photographing and Processing
(And a short section on Web Design)
The following is a temporary text filler taken as a copy from my earlier personal website HERE. I have updated it in places to reflect my recent move to digital, but I will be doing a complete rewrite when time permits.
I intend in this page to explain at least some of the technical issues relating to how (and possibly why) I take my pictures. From my own experience at my camera club, people often want to know what equipment was used, how effects were achieved, and why one method was used rather than another. However, I have no desire to turn this into a full-blown course in photography, so knowledge of at least some of the basics will be assumed.
Incidentally, when I mention a product by name it is because it happens to be the one I use. Please remember, however, "other products are available".
I describe my photographs as "close-ups", rather than using the more frequently heard description of "macro". I have always understood true macro photography to be where the relationship between the image recorded on the film and the true size of the subject is between 1:1 (life size) and 10:1 (10x magnification). Beyond that it becomes micro photography. Most of my subjects are perhaps one to three centimetres in size, and they seldom fill the frame, so I am probably working mostly in the 1:10 to 1:3 magnification range.
Taking the pictures
I take my photographs in two distinct environments. The first is in outdoors in the natural habitat, a photographic environment which is natural (not surprisingly) but difficult to control. The other is indoors in what could be considered a 'studio' environment, which is easier to control but more difficult to make appear natural.
Some technical explanation is needed here. Photography involves the recording of light (the image) on a photosensitive surface (in my case, slide film). Leaving aside such minor considerations as subject and composition, the key to a successful picture is therefore control of the light reaching the film or digital sensor. This is done by controlling a number of separate but related elements:
the size of the aperture (the hole through which light enters the camera)
the shutter speed (the time that the aperture is open)
the level, i.e. brightness, of the available light
the ISO value (film speed or digital setting) used.
- Film: Slower films have finer grain, the particles that record the image, so provide sharper pictures. However, slower film needs more light. I have found ISO 100 film to be a good compromise as it is reasonably fast yet has fairly small grain.
- Digital: digital SLR cameras will typically allow individual ISO settings from ISO 50 to ISO 1000+ to be selected for each frame. This provides a great deal of freedom, but there is a similar limitation to film - the higher the ISO setting the more "noise" is likely to appear in the image. I use ISO 200 for most purposes.
The amount of light reaching the film will be the same using a large aperture and fast shutter speed as using a small aperture and slow shutter speed. The choice of which combination to use is based on a number of factors, which, in close-up photography in particular, can make life difficult. The slower the shutter speed the more chance there is of a blurred picture due to movement of either the subject or the camera, so faster is better. The wider the aperture the smaller the depth of field (the distance between the closest and furthest in-focus points) so a small aperture is best for a sharp picture. To achieve the ideal of a fast shutter speed with a small aperture we need plenty of available light, which means either bright natural daylight or artificial flash light.
The natural environment
There is not a great deal more to say, technically, about photographing subjects in their natural environment. It requires patience (lots of patience!) and a fair degree of luck. A photographic 'safari' is like any other - you must know where your subject is likely to be found, but when you get there you may be disappointed. I have to confess that I do not have the patience of the more successful nature photographers who may spend a day or more in hiding at their chosen spot while they wait for their subject to arrive. I prefer to pick an area and then move around it, photographing whatever of interest happens to cross my path. Sometimes I am lucky, at other times not. Flower photographs are reasonably easy to compose, the only real problems being the limited depth of field and any movement caused by air currents. When I see a likely insect subject however, I may have to 'stalk' it for some time before I can get in position to photograph it, and more often than not I do not get the picture I want. Observation is important, noting which grass stem a dragonfly keeps returning to, or which patch of flowers attracts the most bees and butterflies, so that I can position myself close by.
I am convinced that butterflies in particular have a warped sense of humour. They will sit nice and still on a flower while I set up my camera and tripod, carefully composing the shot, then they will change position just as I reach for the shutter release. They can keep this up for ages! However, this adds to the challenge, and to the satisfaction I feel when I do get a successful picture.
The 'studio' environment
'Studio' is rather a grand name for what I do, 'table-top' is probably more accurate, but my indoor photography shares several elements with a photographic studio. Lighting is controlled (to a degree at least); background and foreground elements are added; and the subject is posed (more or less) where the photographer wants him, her or it to be. Let me take each of these elements in order or importance.
- The subject -
Initially my subjects were insects that had been drawn in to the stairwell of my block of flats (US translation: apartments) at night by the bright hall lights. These tended to be mainly small brown moths, with the occasional lacewing or cricket for variety. This was obviously very limiting in that (a) I had no control of what would visit and when, and (b) my visitors tended to be fairly small and drab. As a result indoor photography remained a poor second to my outdoor work.
I was then fortunate enough to be introduced by a friend to the world of butterfly and moth breeding . I learned about the possibility of obtaining eggs or pupae from a breeder and hatching and rearing them myself, how to construct suitable breeding cages, and which food plants to have ready for the emerging caterpillars. This opened up a new world for me and has resulted in some of my favourite pictures.
Growing caterpillars through to their pupal stage can be quite demanding, as it is necessary to provide a constant supply of whatever it is they eat. That said, they provide plenty of opportunities to take pictures as they grow. Pupae only need to be kept in the correct conditions, usually warm and moist, to ensure that they hatch successfully. The newly-emerged butterflies and moths are photographed as soon as their wings have dried and before they are ready to fly. This is usually easier with moths, which would normally wait for the cover of night before flying . Butterflies, being daytime fliers, tend to warm up quickly in the light and must be photographed quickly. On the whole, moths are far more co-operative! After photographing, the adult insects are released or, if possible, if for some reason they would be unlikely to survive, passed back to a breeder.
I take care to ensure that none of my subjects are harmed while I photograph them. Despite the occasional frustration when a carefully set-up shot does not materialise, I would prefer to miss the photograph than to over-stress the insect. One of the benefits of using commercially-bred livestock is that I can always try again the following year.
- Lighting -
My table top is just that - a table positioned by a window in my front room. I shoot across the window so that the window provides the main (natural) light source from one side. I then use fixed or hand-held mirrors to reflect light back onto the subject from the other side to provide extra illumination and to fill in any deep shadows. I can see the result through the camera viewfinder so I can judge when to take the picture.
- Foreground -
The butterfly or moth subject needs something to rest on, and this is the foreground element. As this will be in sharp focus it needs to look natural. Fortunately there are a number of alternatives available, such as fallen twigs and bark, dried floral display grasses, house and bedding plants still in their pots, tree leaves, and cultivated and wild flowers. Any entomologists among you will notice that some of my pictures are not true to life, in that they may show insects on the wrong food plants. Here I must claim artistic license, as I am more interested in selecting a foreground plant that that is pictorially pleasing to my eye than I am in entomological correctness.
An important word about the latter. I find that wild flowers often produce the most 'natural' and satisfying pictures, but I set myself some strict guidelines about picking them. Firstly, I would never pick a species that I know to be rare or endangered. Apart from the fact that it is often illegal to do so, a photograph is not worth the loss of such a plant. Second, I will only pick a flower where its loss will not be noticed, i.e. where it is one of many such blooms in an area. I see no reason to spoil other people's enjoyment just to get my picture; there are always alternatives. End of sermon.
Whatever it is, the foreground object is placed in a jar of water or secured in a modelling clamp and positioned ready to receive the subject.
- Background -
The background must look natural, or at least not too unnatural. It needs to be subdued so as not to detract from the subject, which is best done using a limited range of colours seen out of focus. Probably my most natural results are achieved using a sheet of hardboard on which I have stuck a layer of crumpled green and black tissue paper, with pieces of a plastic ivy plant stuck on top of that. Surprising as it may seem, when placed sufficiently far behind the subject to throw it out of focus and side-lit from the window, it can look realistically like background vegetation.
More recently I have been trying an alternative method. Rather than have a 'real' background positioned far enough away to be out of focus, I realised that I could achieve a similar result with a closer background that is already out of focus. I scanned some of my more muted pictures into my computer and used some graphics software to 'blur' them sufficiently to leave only irregular patches of colour. I then printed out the results on an A3 colour inkjet printer and, hey presto, instant assorted backgrounds. The colours do not photograph exactly as printed (something in the inks, I assume) but it the results are still reasonable.
The Digital Darkroom
As I have said elsewhere, along with many of my contemporaries I am now forsaking my photographic darkroom (OK, blacked-out kitchen) in favour of the computer. Today's generation of powerful personal computers are ideal tools for quickly processing photographic images. The tools that they provide enable the user to do things that take a great deal of skill, time and effort in a photographic darkroom, and their widespread use brings these abilities to a much wider range of people that ever before.
Step One is to get your pictures into your computer! Any type of photograph can be converted into a form that can be read by a computer. A digital camera image is already in electronic form that, given the necessary connections, can easily be copied into the computer. Prints can be scanned in using an inexpensive flatbed scanner, and even slides can be scanned using more expensive film scanners. Alternatively, many copying bureaux will scan prints or slides onto a floppy disc or CD.
Life is easy with my digital camera, as I can now download my images directly from my camera into my computer just by plugging in the firewire cable. I still have a large collection of 35 mm slides, however - and in fairness these comprise the bulk of my galleries on this site. I scan my transparencies using a Nikon Coolscan III slide scanner, which generates picturea of approximately 3000 x 2100 pixels. (By comprison the 1Ds camera generates files of approxoimately 4000 x 2700 pixels.)
For printing I use either an Epson Stylus Photo 1270 or 2100 printer, both of which print up to A3+ (equivalent to a 17"x14" print) and the output really is "photorealistic" when the right paper is used.
The 1270 uses dye-based inks that sink into the paper without affecting its surface, so high-gloss paper will give high-gloss prints. However, dye-based inks are not very stable and may start to break down and fade after a few years if not displayed correctly.
The 2100 uses more stable and longer-lasting pigment inks. These lie on top of the paper, which means that you can not achieve the same high-gloss results, but on semi-glossy paper they are still stunning.
To my eye the 1270 produces a slightly nicer image, but the much increased print life from the 2100 (70 years as opposed to 10) means that for any given requirement - such as a competition or a framed wall display - you pays your money and takes your choice...
Website Design Issues
I was not intending to say much about the construction of this website, but I have received a couple of enquiries about it so I thought it might be worth more than just a footnote.
First an admission of something that may already be apparent - I a web designer, not a web programmer. I was a programmer in an earlier life (I come from the COBOL / FORTRAN / SQL era,) but apart from learning HTML and some Cold Fusion I do not have the time - or the inclination - to learn the newer webby languages that enable one to program bells, whistles and flashy effects into today's web pages. I therefore tend to look for third-party solutions whenever I want something out of the ordinary. Unfortunately what I want is not always available.
Knowing that I would require a large number of gallery pages on my website, complete with multiple links between pages, I looked at a number of photo gallery programs that offered to do the page building and linking work for me. Unfortunately, while many of these were very good in their own right, none of them would produce the website design that I had in mind. I therefore decided to do it the hard way, coding pages and links by hand - or at least by GoLive!
My web design program is Adobe GoLive. I also own the "industry standard" Dreamweaver, but I find GoLive's WYSIWYG interface and drag-drop page building blocks easier to use. Also it interfaces fairly seamlessly with that photographer's favourite software, Adobe Photoshop, which in my experience Dreamweaver does not!
The one exception to this is the menu, which was created in Xara Menu Maker. This is not the easiest program to use (it has its own interface design which can be quirky at times) but it does generate the necessary DHTML code for some nice menu effects - such as transparent pop-outs, an effect unfortunately visible only in later versions of Internet Explorer.
To be completed...