More effective nature with close-up flash

More effective nature with close-up flash – nature photography

William D. Glass

Many nature photographers lament the fact that they don’t live near a national park or wildlife refuge. They feel this is a liability when it comes to wildlife photography, but . . . no need to despair. There’s a potential world of wildlife photography within a few miles of your home. In fact, there’s great photographic potential even in your own backyard.

Although it may be necessary to travel to a national park or national wildlife refuge to photograph large animals, you can photograph many smaller forms of wildlife like insects, spiders, frogs, toads and salamanders in natural areas nearby. Photographing these small animals doesn’t require expensive camera equipment. With a modest outlay, and the use of some of your present equipment, nature photographers can shoot successful photographs.

Equipment and Techniques

The first step to close-up wildlife photography requires some special equipment to increase the magnification of the subject to a size that is large enough to be adequately portrayed on film. Greater magnification can be achieved by using macro lenses, using extension tubes with normal fixed focal point lenses, or using close-up diopter (supplemental) lenses on your normal fixed focal point or zoom lenses. Magnification is expressed as a ratio (life size to actual size) or as a fraction of life size. Life size means the subject size on the film is the same as the actual size of the subject in real life. So 1:2 or 1/2x means the subject on the film is half life size, or half of its actual size. 2:1 or 2x means the subject on the film is twice life size, twice as large as it is in real life. For many small animals it is necessary to go to at least life size and in some cases slightly beyond. Very small animals require even greater magnification and more specialized equipment that’s beyond the scope of this article.

Macro lenses typically come in three sizes: a 50-60mm range, 100-110mm range and a 200mm size. These lenses can be expensive, but can also be used as a normal lens in these focal lengths, so if you’re in the market for a new lens in this range, consider a macro lens. The newer autofocus models go to life size without the addition of extension tubes or teleconvertors. The longer focal length macro lenses are more useful, since you have more working distance which can be advantageous since some small animals won’t allow a close enough approach for a macro lens in the 50-60mm range.

Adding extension between the camera body and normal fixed focal length lens will provide greater magnification. Extension can come in the form of extension tubes or bellows. For work in the field, extension tubes are much more durable. Extension tubes come in various sizes; you’ll want enough extension to get at least to life size. There’s an easy equation to determine the amount of magnification you’ll get from a set of extension tubes, magnification=focal length of lens in millimeters/length of extension in millimeters. Thus to get life size (1:1) magnification with a 50mm lens will require 50mm of extension. Using extension tubes can result in blurred photographs when lenses are stopped down to f22 and f32 at life size and beyond, due to diffraction. To overcome this problem don’t use extension tubes to get beyond life size and limit your f/stop to f22 or f 16. When purchasing extension tubes, make sure they’re automated and match your camera so that your metering system will remain intact. Extension tubes are an inexpensive route for close-up photography, but one disadvantage is light loss.

Supplemental lenses (also called close-up lenses or diopter lenses) are screw-on lenses put onto the front of a macro, zoom or normal focal length lens, much as you’d put a filter on a lens. Close-up lenses magnify the image without any loss of light. Close-up lenses come in two types, single element inexpensive ones and double element more expensive ones (around $50). The only ones worth buying are the expensive ones; the inexpensive single element ones won’t take sharp photographs. Nikon and Canon make double element close-up lenses that can be used on other camera makes by using step-up or step-down filter adapters. Supplemental lenses come in several strengths. Be sure to get the two element close-up lenses. Close-up lenses can also be stacked to get greater magnification. Place the more powerful one on first, then the less powerful one. Two element close-up lenses give high quality results with no light loss.

Many small critters are quite active and/or won’t allow a close approach, an approach that takes a lot of time like setting up a tripod. Yet timed exposures may also be necessary in low light conditions and close-up equipment like extension tubes can cut down on the amount of light getting to the film. A TTL flash provides the light necessary for proper exposure of the film. The short duration of flash will stop movement of the animal on film and will allow handholding the camera. For close-up TTL flash photography, a macro lens in the 100mm range with close-up lenses works well with a small TTL flash unit. You’ll need a bracket to attach the flash to the camera body. It’s usually best to mount the flash unit at about a 30 degree angle above the camera lens. This can be accomplished by making a bracket or purchasing one. They are available from several sources. For instructions on making your own bracket, consult John Shaw’s Close-Ups in Nature, published by Amphoto.

When using a TTL close-up flash, set your camera on manual; don’t use the automatic mode. You’ll want to control the amount of depth of field through stopping your lens down (i.e. using high f/stop numbers). With close-up photography you’ll need as much depth of field as you can get, because close-up photography cuts down on the available depth of field. Set your camera speed on the fastest flash-sync speed your camera will allow. Your light meter will control the light output for a correct exposure for a middle-toned subject. If your subject is brighter than middle toned (i.e. a white tiger beetle) you may have to overexpose a stop or so, just as you would in normal photography. This can be done by using the exposure compensation dial on your camera or flash. Likewise you may have to underexpose a dark subject. If in doubt, bracket a 1/ 2 stop to 1 stop, depending upon the tonality of the subject, to be safe.

For focusing, don’t turn the focusing ring; this will change your magnification. Use the focusing ring to get the magnification you need for your subject and leave the ring at that point. Focus by putting the eyepiece up to your eye and lean into the subject until it comes into sharp focus. At this point, depress the shutter release and you have your photograph. The brief flash of light from the flash will stop all action and allow you to handhold the camera, but it’s still best to practice good photographic technique and brace yourself as much as possible.

Close-up flash photography has one major drawback. The light from the flash falls off fairly rapidly and if the background is too far away, it’ll go black. There isn’t enough light to illuminate the background. Black backgrounds don’t bother some photographers, but I believe a photograph taken with flash should look as natural as possible. It is probably best if the viewer can’t tell a photograph was taken by flash, unless the photo was taken at night when you’d expect a black background. This is really a matter of personal taste, but to cut down on black backgrounds be sure that your background is closer than the camera-to-subject distance.

Finding Your Subject Matter

After acquiring and mastering the necessary equipment and techniques, finding and photographing the subjects is the next step to award-winning, close-up wildlife photography. You can find small invertebrates such as insects and spiders just about any place where plants grow. Old fields, prairies, woods and marshes are good places to look, including your backyard. Local nature centers, forest preserves and parks are good sources for subjects.

There are several techniques that will help you locate insects and spiders. The first is what I call the “Active Search.” This entails slowly moving around examining plants for subjects. Once you find an insect or other subject move slowly to get close enough to photograph without frightening the subject. The second approach is what I call the “Sit and Wait.” Just like it sounds, this method requires that you go out into nature, sit down and quietly watch what is happening around you. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find this way. You’ll find many subjects that you’d probably miss in the “Active Search.” I use these techniques to photograph butterflies, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers and other invertebrates.

Once you locate your subject, approach slowly to get close enough for your photograph. In many cases this will take several tries. The insect or spider may move to the other side of a stem or leaf. Sometimes, the subject just will not allow a close enough approach no matter what you do. When this happens, I usually move on to a different subject. Some invertebrates will let you get closer than others. Insects like crab spiders that rely on camouflage will allow a closer approach than insects that rely on fleeing from predators. If you run into an uncooperative subject, try another.

Another variation of the “Active Search” is to examine the undersides of logs, rocks and tree bark. Many invertebrates live under logs and rocks. You may even find salamanders and mice living under logs. A word of caution: some unpleasant surprises can be found under logs and rocks. Poisonous scorpions and snakes may also make their homes there. Know what dangerous animals may be in your area, and always keep the log or rock between you and any possible surprises. Stand behind the rock or log as you turn it over. Always put the log or rock back in place after examining it.

Frogs and toads are wonderful subjects for close-up flash photography. I spend spring nights photographing spring peepers and chorus frogs. They’re usually best photographed at night when they’re most active. These creatures only perform some of their behavior at night, and they often allow you to get close to them.

During the breeding season, male frogs and toads will “call” or vocalize to attract females. Although they call during both daytime and nighttime hours, the most active calling is at night, and this is also when it’s possible to get close enough to photograph them. Find out when frogs and toads in your area breed, go out to the wetlands and listen for them. You’ll need waders and a head lamp or bring along a helper with a light. After some trials, you should be able to locate individual frogs from their calls. Sometimes it’s possible to find larger frogs by the glow of their eyes when your light hits them. Frogs and toads are usually easiest to approach on overcast nights or when the moon is only a sliver.

Try to pick out subjects with uncluttered backgrounds; clutter may cause hot spots. Using flash at night around water and on a moist subject (the frog) make some hot spots inevitable. After a little practice, you’ll have a good idea where hotspots will occur and you can change the angle of the photograph to help control them. Do a little experimenting.

It’s important to be familiar with the marsh where you are photographing so you don’t accidentally dunk yourself or your equipment. Always move around in a marsh slowly: you never know when you’ll come across a submerged log that could trip you. Focusing in the dark can be a problem. A small flashlight attached to your flash bracket will help illuminate the subject for focusing. If you have an assistant, have him shine a flashlight on the frog.

The next time you want to photograph wildlife, consider some of the smaller creatures you can find locally. There are thousands of possible subjects lurking within a few miles of your home. When magnified and photographed up close, they are just as colorful and interesting as the large mammals of our national parks–so, discover and photograph the world of small creatures.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Photographic Society of America, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group