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Review: Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

The Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens has been around on the market for several years now. I mentioned it briefly in my series of posts about wide-angle macro photography. It is currently the only wide-angle lens capable of achieving 1:1 magnification ratio. When I first heard about this lens I was intrigued to say the least, but also immediately put off by the lack of automatic aperture control (I no longer see this is a problem – more on this later). Still I was curious about it and was waiting for a chance to give it a try. Fortunately, an opportunity to play with the lens came up during my last trip to Ecuador. My initial impression was that of – oh boy, this lens is a lot of fun. I was therefore delighted when Venus Optics Laowa contacted me a few months ago and asked if I wanted to give the lens a thorough test run. Despite this fact, this is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Also, this is not going to be a very technical review. If you are reading this post, I assume you already know the lens is lightweight, has full metal construction, a de-clicked aperture ring, and feature an innovative shift mechanism. What I am more interested in is its practical uses, more specifically – is it useful for wide angle macrophotography of small subjects?

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

After testing it for a while, I strongly believe that this is the most versatile lens existing on the market at the moment. It is a jack-of-all-trades. This is the one to choose when you can take only a single lens with you. However, no lens is perfect and the Laowa 15mm has its weak points (which I discuss below). I tested it on a crop sensor camera (APS-C). Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos in this post were taken at f/16 or close, with a twin macro flash used as a fill-light.

Lens attributes to note
Aside from its construction and weight, the Laowa 15mm lens is very sharp. Wide open it has very good sharpness in the center (corners are softer, typical for a wide angle lens), and it stays sharp all the way down to f/16. Diffraction starts creeping in and being noticeable at f/22, producing soft images. Overall I found f/11-f/16 to be perfect and most usable, but it depends on the desired result.

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

Chromatic aberration is typical for a wide angle lens, I did not see anything out of the ordinary. Of course if you shoot scenes that are very high in contrast (for example, sky peeking through the forest canopy) you will get very noticeable CA in the frame. If you like sunstars the good news is that this lens produces nice-looking 14-pointed sunstars. Lens flare is surprisingly well controlled in this lens. It comes with a detachable lens hood included in the box, but I never found myself using it.

Operation
The lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.
Shooting with a stopped-down aperture darkens the viewfinder, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. In this case liveview mode or a bright focusing light can help. Occasionally, when photographing with the sun behind your back the lens will cast a shadow over the subject. A setup with a diffused fill-flash is useful to light the scene. The lens can still be used in natural light, but you will benefit from holding a small reflector close to the lens in order to bounce some light onto your subject and eliminate the shadow from the front element.
One of the praised attributes of the Laowa 15mm lens is its ability to achieve 1:1 magnification ratio, taking it from wide angle to true macro realm. However, this is also its main shortcoming. Going to 1:1 will require you to get very close to the subject (about 4mm), at which point the large front element of the lens will cast a shadow over the subject, making it difficult to light it properly. I have seen creative solutions for this issue, so it is not entirely impossible.
The aperture ring is de-clicked and turns smoothly, but I found the focusing ring a bit to tight to turn. The position of the rings on the lens requires getting used to: the aperture ring sits at the front of the lens barrel, whereas the focusing ring is at the back (in sharp contrast to just about any other lens out there). I consider this a design flaw – I found myself mistakenly turning aperture ring when I intended to turn the focusing ring, and vice versa. It really does not help that the aperture ring is de-clicked in this case.

Wide Angle Macro
In my opinion this is the primary use of the Laowa 15mm lens. When used correctly, it gives an unparalleled perspective of the subject and its surroundings, shrinking us, the viewers, to become a part of its small-scale world. This is one of the only lenses on the market that can go from this:

Who's hiding here?

Who’s hiding here?

to this:

Can you spot it yet?

Can you spot it yet?

then this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

and finally this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

I find this flexibility incredible (but wait! There is more! Read on).
Here are some more examples for wide angle macro taken with the Laowa 15mm lens.

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Yellowjackets (Vespula vulgaris) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Yellowjackets (Vespula vulgaris) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

By the way, this lens produces very nice results for flower photography.

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Wide angle macro is not all about “taking it all in”. Here are some examples of this style with less emphasis on the surroundings.

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

The background rendering of the Laowa 15mm lens is unique and might be a little difficult to describe. A friend of mine described it as being “metallic”, and I somewhat agree.

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

The important thing to remember is that the closer you get to your subject and the higher magnification ratio you use, the more you are stepping into real macro and out of wide angle macro. This means that details in the background will become less and less noticeable. Even if you photograph with a closed aperture most of the background will be out of focus. See my next point.

Pure macro mode at 1:1
This is probably the lens’ most-discussed feature, but it is also its greatest weakness. I would even argue that one should not push this lens to the extreme of 1:1 magnification ratio. As a wide-angle lens it provides a wide DOF, however when taking it to the macro realm the background rendering is completely different and may putt off some users. Everything in the background turns into an unrecognized blurry mishmash. Unless you photograph a subject in a very dense or against a flat background, do not take this lens to 1:1. In fact, I would not take it anywhere above the 0.6:1 magnification ratio.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

That being said, it is still useful as a macro lens. The following two photographs were taken at f/8.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Landscape uses
I am not a dedicated landscape photographer, but will occasionally shoot the odd landscape if the opportunity presents itself. I tried the Laowa 15mm and the results are not too shabby. The following two photographs were taken at f/11.

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

“Microscope mode”
After experimenting a little with the wide-angle properties of the lens, I started wondering what else can be done with it. Let’s examine the properties of our lens here: it is an ultra wide-angle with a filter thread on the front of the lens, it has a manual aperture ring, and lastly it has a focusing range of 10cm to infinity. You can see where I am going with this. I am going to reverse-mount it.
You now understand why I no longer see the lack of auto aperture control as a disadvantage. When reverse-mounted the presence of a manual aperture ring comes as a blessing. Surprisingly the working distance for this high magnification (above x5.5 for APS-C cameras) is decent at a touch over 4cm. This is a lightweight alternative setup for Canon’s high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. Keep in mind Venus Optics-Laowa are currently working on their own high magnification lens, which will be capable of 2-5x magnification.

One of the main difficulties at this high magnification is to figure out what to use it for. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit in the frame. Nevertheless using the Laowa 15mm reversed opens up a whole new world of possibilities. All of the following photographs were taken at f/5.6. My first attempts were on common household pests.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

I then moved to test the image quality of the reversed lens, using the classic “scales on a butterfly wing” approach. I was amazed by the sharpness of the lens when mounted this way. The DOF is shallow at this magnification, but this can be solved by tilting the lens towards the subject or focus stacking.

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

But what about typical macro subjects? No problem! The reversed Laowa 15mm can be used to photograph even larger subjects.

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Springtail found in decaying wood

Springtail found in decaying wood

You can even use the reversed 15mm as a base lens for a relay system. Why you would want to use one wide angle macro lens to build another wide angle macro lens system is beyond me, but it is possible. In any case, regarding reverse-mounting the Laowa 15mm, what I really want to know is how on earth no one has done this before? This lens is perfect for reverse-mounting if you are into microcosmos photography.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Super versatile lens
– Impressive focusing range, ~10cm to infinity
– Highest magnification ratio possible on a wide angle lens, up to 1:1 but even higher when reverse-mounted
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Manual aperture (if you plan to reverse-mount it)
– Lightweight, small size for a wide angle lens
– Shift mechanism (if angle distortion is an issue for you)

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control, no auto focus
– Placement of focusing and aperture rings not intuitive. A clicked aperture ring would be nice to distinguish it from the focusing ring
– Extremely short working distance when using 1:1
– Background rendering may put off some users
– Large front element makes it difficult to sneak up on live subjects

So the question is who is this lens for? The way I see it, first and foremost it is for anyone with a desire to photograph medium-sized subjects in their habitat. It is perfect for photographing reptiles, amphibians, plants or mushrooms. Use with arthropods can vary depending on the subject and context, but the results can be impressive. Regardless, the Laowa 15mm lens is a jaw-dropping piece of gear. It is so versatile and can be used for several different styles and purposes.

You can buy the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens on Venus Optica Laowa’s website here.

2016 in review: a heartfelt thank you

It is that time of the year again. Time to reflect on the passing year and look forward to what is coming next. I think a lot of people will agree that 2016 was a challenging year to live through. A lot of disappointing things happened, expectations shattered, and hopes lost. Although for me the year started on a good note, by mid-2016 I found myself fighting deteriorating health and then later suffering through a depression due to a failing relationship. It was one hell of a ride, I was on the brink of mental collapse, and just when I was starting to recover my computer crashed, deleting most of my archives in the process. And I thought 2013 was bad. Little did I know.

But putting all these unfortunate events aside, 2016 was not all bad. Even with my mishaps, there were some parts of my life that needed resetting. Nothing was lost during the computer crash because I meticulously back up my most important stuff (if there is one advice I can give you for the new year, it is to back up your files. Do it RIGHT NOW). In fact, I have so much to be grateful for. I can honestly say that this year I finally feel like I got some recognition. It started with a nice article about Epomis beetles on WIRED, and continued with a few blog posts that became very popular and attracted more followers. After years of avoidance I decided to join Twitter, and even though I am still a novice there I enjoy the interaction with other people. I managed to publish a few scientific papers, including the descriptions of new species. I even gave a filmed interview for BBC’s “Nature’s Weirdest Events” which was aired a few days ago. However, what really stood out for me this year is that I got to know a lot of people. Many people, some of whom I have never met, offered their support during my rough days. I was honored to participate in Entomological Society of Ontario’s “Bug Day Ottawa”, where I exposed the public to the wonderful world of whip spiders. I was also fortunate to personally meet up with fascinating people that I have previously known only from their online presence. I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone responsible for making my life so much more meaningful and enjoyable.

Thank you. All of you.

 

I bet you want to see some photos. Because what is a photographer’s annual summary without some photos?

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Encountering this species was one of my highlights for the year. I know Macrodontia cervicornis very well from museum insect collections. It is one of the most impressive beetle species in the world, both in size and structure. But I never imagined I would be seeing a live one in the wild! Well let me tell you, it is hard to get over the initial impression. The male beetle that I found was not the biggest specimen, but the way it moved around still made it appear like nothing short of a monster. This species is very defensive, and getting close for the wide angle macro shot was a bit risky. The beetle responds to any approaching object with a swift biting action, and those jaws are powerful enough to cut through thick wooden branches, not to mention fingers!

The most perfectly timed photo

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

I have been observing orchid bees for a few years now. It is one of those rewarding experiences that I recommend to anyone with an interest in the natural world. While visiting Costa Rica I was fortunate to snap the above photo, showing four differently colored bees active together at the same spot. A second later the bees started to fight and eventually scattered. The photo drew a lot of attention and became viral, initiating interesting correspondences and new friendships, for which I will be forever thankful.

Best behavior shot

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

I have always wanted a photo showing a Panacanthus cuspidatus in its charismatic threat display. However, this photo is a bit misleading. The spiny devil katydid is actually a very cute and shy animal that prefers to hide rather than attack a huge predator. It took quite a lot of “convincing” to release this behavior.

The best non-animal photo

"Silkhenge" spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Silkhenge” spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

OK, I am going to cheat a little in this category. This photo is not exactly non-animal because it is an animal-made structure. The “silkhenge” structure is a story that gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Initially spotted in Peru by Troy Alexander, and later revealed to the world by entomologists Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz, this is a intricate spider egg sac, along with a protective “fence”. While the photo is ok at best, I was extremely excited to discover this structure in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The spider species responsible for this structure is still unknown at this point (although I have my own guess for its ID).

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid's wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid’s wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Another photo that I am very satisfied with is this interesting view of the bright colors hidden on the underside of a leaf-mimicking katydid. It belongs to my “This is not a leaf” series of closeups on katydids’ wings.

The best photo of an elusive subject

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

In 2015 I traveled to Mindo, Ecuador in hopes to find a horned fly that Paul Bertner photographed a few years back. I managed to find it, but was unhappy with the results. I returned to the same place this year, hoping to get a better photo. But oh my, these flies are annoyingly skittish. Watch this space for an upcoming post about my experience photographing them.

The best natural phenomenon observed

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

This photo is another highlight for me, because it depicts several interconnected biological interactions. The ants are shown tending a camouflaged treehopper to gain access to sweet honeydew secreted by the sap-sucking insect. The female treehopper is guarding her eggs, hidden in a foamy protective cover in the leaf’s central vein. And finally, there is a red parasitic mite feeding on the treehopper.

The best stacked photo

The focus-stacked image of the antlered caterpillar at the end of this post took hours to produce, and I am very satisfied with the result. However, for this category I decided to choose something a little different.

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

This landscape shot is actually not focus-stacked, but exposure-stacked. I was not carrying a tripod with me during that day but I still wanted to capture the majestic beauty of Albion falls located in Ontario, Canada. Exposure stacking and blending was a completely new technique for me, and I like how the final image turned out. It almost looks like a remote exotic location. I cannot believe this place is just a couple of hours from where I live.

The best wide-angle macro

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

“Arghhh! I have pollen in my eye!” Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

I really tried to push myself to the limits this year with wide angle macrophotography. Most of my attempts were of capturing pollinating insects in action, but I also tested my capabilities in other scenarios. For example, the following photo was taken using the simplest setup I have – a cheap, unmodified pancake lens and the camera’s built-in popup flash:

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

I also worked on perfecting results from more frequently-used setups:

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best of the year

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

The above photo of a Costa Rican glass frog is probably my personal favorite from 2016. If you critically evaluate your photography work on a regular basis, it is not very often that you find yourself looking at a photograph without being able to find anything wrong with it. In the case of this photo, everything is just the way I wanted it to be. Perfect.

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This photo would probably not be in my “best of 2016” if it weren’t for the huge positive response from other people. This is a katydid species I have encountered many times in Ecuador, yet I could not believe my eyes when I saw how brightly colored this individual was. I posted the photo on social media and it caught on like wildfire and went viral. Some people even accused me of altering the natural colors of the katydid in photoshop. And I wonder, what a time to be alive. You travel to a remote place to bring back a piece of beautiful nature to share with others, and no one believes it is real. It makes me sad.

So yes, 2016 was not easy, then again it is just a number that does not mean anything. 2017 will most likely be just as challenging. We survived last year’s events, let’s see what comes next. Bring it on!

One more thing…

To properly welcome the new year, I am offering a product for the first time. It is a calendar containing selected photographs of one of my favorite groups of insects, the orthopterans. If you do not have a 2017 calendar yet, or if you already got one but would still like to have nice photos of katydids and grasshoppers on your wall to look at, please consider ordering one. The candy-colored katydid is featured there too!

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

USA holidays calendar :
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-usa-holidays/calendar/product-22988977.html

Canadian holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-canada-holidays/calendar/product-22990362.html

Israeli/Jewish holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-israeli-holidays/calendar/product-22989647.html

 

My take on wide-angle macro – part 4

In case you have not read my previous posts about wide-angle macro, make sure to head over to these pages first. While this post focuses on my relay lens system, the previous posts give a good introduction to wide-angle macro:
To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.
To read part 3, click here.

It is that time of the year again, in which various “year-in-review” posts start appearing. My intention was to follow what I did in 2013 and 2014, and present my list of 2015 photographic highlights. However, for me 2015 lagged a little photography-wise, and judging by the scarcity of similar annual summary posts from fellow photographers it sure feels like I am not the only one in this. What I can say though, is that I spent a lot of time testing different combinations of my equipment. After publishing my series of wide-angle macro posts I saw them as finished and had no plans to continue. But a recent development convinced me otherwise and I am proud to present part 4 in the series, alternatively titled – You should never stop experimenting with gear.

A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my "awkward device" out.

A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my “awkward device” out.

In the previous post I mentioned that one can achieve a satisfying wide-angle macro effect using a relay lens system. It is probably the cheapest way to go about it too, as the different parts can be obtained in garage sales and thrift stores. However, using a relay lens has its own drawbacks, for example stepping into full manual gear territory, extreme chromatic aberration and soft focus. This is not, by all means, the end of the world, and after a period of trial and error using my relay system I managed to get some interesting results with a very unique perspective. I was happy with those photographs, for a while.

My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera's sensor.

My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera’s sensor.

But after some time I grew tired of the cumbersome system I built. Each photo took me over 10 minutes to plan and execute, rendering most animal subjects uncooperative. I was frustrated with the lack of auto aperture control. And most annoying – my relay lens system was very long, with a tiny front element. This means that it did not let too much light enter the camera, resulting in a dark, upside down image in the viewfinder. In addition, the photos I got using this system all had soft focus and a strange halo around the subject, and I suspect this was a result of chromatic aberration, diffraction and the way I was lighting the scene.

It was back to the drawing board for me. I started to think what kind of look I wanted for these wide-angle macro shots, and then I remembered that some years ago people experimented with attaching a peephole lens to a point and shoot camera to get a fisheye effect. Incidentally, some of these combinations had wide-angle macro capabilities. Once I had an idea of what I wanted, I verified that it was indeed plausible, and went hunting for the suitable parts. The problem with peephole lenses is that they vary in image quality, and also some lens combinations “play well” together while others result in a photographic catastrophe. It took me over a year to come up with the right combination of optics to get the desired look I was after, but I think I got it now (at least until I find something that works better).

Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.

Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.

This current relay system is shorter, lighter and has auto focus and aperture control. The results are much sharper and there is no loss of detail. Almost perfect. Wait, almost?? Yes, although this lens combination perform better than others, the final result also depends on the camera settings, subject magnification and lighting conditions. One thing that is hard to avoid when using this system is sunstars. With a front element allowing a 180° field of view, the sun almost always ends up in the frame. Some people love sunstars, but I must admit that this effect gets old quickly when you see it in each and every photo.

Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.

Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.

What I really like about this system is that it is perfect for photographing pollinators. The front element is still quite small, and perceived as non-threatening by skittish insects.

A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.

A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.

Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.

Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times - a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times – a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!

Another aspect of this system is that it allows to experiment with more dynamic shots, producing a very unique style. It will be interesting to test this with different moving subjects in the future.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.

Finally, I can now create portraits of small critters while still retaining much of the surrounding background.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.

Thank you for following these posts about my evolving wide-angle macro style. I hope they serve as inspiration for creating your own setup. Here’s to a new year full of photographic adventures!

My take on wide-angle macro – part 3

To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.

In this final post I will list some of the major problems that arise when photographing wide-angle macro using different lens systems. Some issues were already covered in the previous posts (lens barrel distortion, background focus and sharpness) so they will not be repeated.

Difficult lighting situations – this is the number one problem, due to the camera being held very close to the subject. Very often the lens will cast shadows on the subject, especially if it is a wide-angle prime lens with a big front element. There is no real way around this other than experimenting with fill flash or wisely positioned reflectors. I found that a diffused flash on a bracket held tightly close to the lens’ front element does the job, but it can be cumbersome. A ring flash or a similar arrangement (like the one shown here) might do the trick as well.

Weevil infected with parasitic fungus, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

In order to photograph this 9mm-long weevil infected with Cordyceps fungus I had to position the lens very close. I used a long exposure and light-painted some of the shadows with a small LED torch. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 10 sec at f/22, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers, LED torch.

Extreme Chromatic aberration – all wide-angle lenses are prone to chromatic aberration, resulting in purple and green colors fringing in high contrast areas of the image. Unfortunately for us, this ugly phenomenon only increases in severity when the lens is focused close, as in most wide-angle macro uses. The only way to reduce chromatic aberration in-camera is to avoid shooting in situations that exaggerate it via high contrast, for example towards light penetrating through canopy or against the sun. But what can you do when you see a photographic opportunity of a lifetime in said situations? Hope to rescue the image in post-processing…

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Golan Heights, Israel

Even after post-processing there is still some chromatic aberration visible along the branch in this photo of an ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata) from Israel. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/50 at f/20, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Dirt on lens – surprisingly this is one of the least mentioned problems but it is so important that it gets a special spot among the top three. We like to use wide-angle lenses because of the increased depth of field, but unfortunately this also means that every speck of dust on the front element will be seen in the final image. And if you like to shoot against the sun like I do, any smear will cause a disgusting lens flare that is hard to remove in post-processing. Therefore it is of utmost importance to keep the front element as clean as possible when photographing. For those of you who like to photograph in flower-splashed fields – pollen is another common nuisance.

Dust specks in image when using relay lens

Dust on lens appears as colorful specks in image when using a relay lens. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/22, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Manual and relay lens systems – There are many advantages to constructing your own wide-angle macro lens system, but unfortunately the complexity of their use poses some serious challenges. One of the main issues is that these systems do not have electrical contacts, and therefore there is no communication between the camera body and lens, no aperture control, and no auto focus. When using DIY short extension tubes with wide-angle lenses to achieve greater magnification, very often the lens focus must be set to infinity and the only way to actually focus on the subject is to gently rock the camera body back and forth. Another common challenge comes when using relay lens systems (you can see mine appearing in this brief post), especially ones that incorporate CCTV lenses: the image in the viewfinder will often be displayed upside down, and if the aperture is closed it will be extremely dark, making it very difficult to properly compose the image and focus. If “shooting in the dark” manually does not scare you enough, the images produced by these lens systems are often soft despite the increased depth of field. To know why, you must understand how a relay lens works. In a nutshell, the front lens projects a small image that is then enlarged by another lens to fit the coverage of the camera’s sensor. This increase in image size causes an apparent loss of resolution. All these issues are solvable, and honestly once tackled they are not much of a big deal.

Inverted image in viewfinder when using relay lens

This is what I actually see in the viewfinder when using a relay lens system, a dark inverted image.

Plume moth (Hellinsia homodactylus) from Estabrook Woods, MA, United States

After some careful post-processing of the above image of a plume moth (Hellinsia homodactylus), I was able to get this result. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/10 sec at f/16, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Giant mantis (Eremoplana infelix) from Central Coastal Plain, Israel

The great advantage of CCTV relay lens systems is the small size of the front lens, which allows to sneak up on unsuspecting insects. Unfortunately, this means that they will not hesitate to climb on, like this giant mantis (Eremoplana infelix) from Israel. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/100 at f/16, ISO640. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Uncooperative subjects, focusing distance and getting too close – this is not really a problem but more of a skill that evolves with the photographer’s experience. The main issue when using wide-angle lenses of any kind for macrophotography is that you have to get very close to the subject, and with some lens systems you will literally almost touch it with the front element of the lens. This, for obvious reasons, makes most live subjects very uncomfortable, causing them to pose unnaturally, or even to escape. Because of this, it is important to know your subject, so you can approach it without scaring it. It is also important to be able to predict the subject’s behavior. Some caution should be used here; while some subjects will simply take the chance to climb on your lens, others will not hesitate to attack if you get too close. Do not take unnecessary risks.

Male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens), Titahi Bay, New Zealand

Sometimes getting too close triggers an interesting response from the subject, like in this case of a male Wellington tree weta (Hemideina crassidens) from New Zealand. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/30 at f/18, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

…and sometimes it is better to know when to back off. When this venomous wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) started walking towards the lens, I quickly stepped back. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/10 sec at f/18, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Conehead katydid from Caves Branch, Cayo District, Belize

This conehead katydid from Belize started walking on the surface of the lens while I was taking the photo. If it wasn’t for the extension tube used here, this photo would have been out of focus. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 1/5 at f/22, ISO1600. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

To end this series of posts like I promised in part 1, here is a list of useful articles I recommend checking out for anyone interested in getting into wide-angle macro:

Wide-Angle Macro | The Essential Guide by Clay Bolt and Paul Harcourt Davies – the only resource currently in existence dedicated solely to this photography style. It is excellent. And I hear they are working on a second, more updated edition:
http://learnmacro.com/wide-angle-macro-the-essential-guide-now-available/

Getting low and wide by Piotr Naskrecki – very good tips from the entomologist who inspired us all with his photography:
http://thesmallermajority.com/2013/01/04/getting-low-and-wide-part-1/
http://thesmallermajority.com/2013/01/08/getting-low-and-wide-part-2/

Reviews of the recently released Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 wide angle macro lens (By Nicky Bay, Paul Harcourt Davies, Thomas Shahan, and myself) offer some good insights about wide-angle macro in general:
http://gilwizen.com/laowa-15mm-lens-review/
http://sgmacro.blogspot.ca/2015/06/review-of-venus-optics-laowa-15mm-f4-11.html
http://sgmacro.blogspot.ca/2015/07/part-ii-review-of-venus-laowa-15mm-wide.html
http://learnmacro.com/the-laowa-15mm-f4-wide-angle-has-got-me-thinking/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZcYXUMkhek

Use of CCTV lens (non-English, but still good info about gear):
http://blog.roodo.com/gialaba/archives/11030011.html (in Chinese)
http://tu4477.grassgreen.us/musitoru/musinomel.html
http://tu4477.grassgreen.us/musitoru/musinomes.html
http://ssp-japan.net/ssp/howto/vol/vol_01/001-suzuki-ssp-2/001-suzuki-ssp-2.html (in Japanese)

Examples of relay lens systems:
http://makrofokus.se/blogg/2016/9/22/diy-makro-fisheye.html – Fantastic article by John Hallmén (in Swedish)
http://www.naturfotograf.com/roll_your_own_lens.html
http://www.photomacrography.net/forum/viewtopic.php?t=17069

Making a DIY short extension tube:
http://www.4photos.de/camera-diy/Short-Extension-Tube.html

UPDATE (30 Dec, 2015): There is now a part 4 to this wide-angle macro series! Click here to read about my experiments with relay lens systems.
UPDATE (17 Aug, 2017): I added my review of the Laowa 15mm Wide Angle Macro lens in the links. You can also find it here.

My take on wide-angle macro – part 2

To read part 1, click here.

In this post I will discuss common misconceptions about wide-angle macrophotography. These are all things that I heard from people discussing this photography style. Please note that the opinions expressed here are my own only, and are not to be perceived as rules of any sort.

Taking it all in – A very popular view of wide-angle macro is that you have to include ALL the habitat in the background. Not just the subject and its perching spot, but also the ground, trees and even rivers, snow-capped mountains, and I dare say the sun or moon! In most cases this is unnecessary. It is true that wide-angle lenses have the capability of including much in the frame, but there are many creative ways to use them. The main element in the photo is the subject; the background is there just to provide a context for it. A wide-angle macro shot can be perfect even without the horizon line or the sky.

Schneider's skink (Eumeces schneideri) Carmel Mountain Range, Israel

Schneider’s skink (Eumeces schneideri) from Israel. I wanted to capture the “feel” of the windy meadow it was living in. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/125 at f/14, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Bigger is better – There seems to be an unofficial race among wide-angle macrophotographers to get the highest magnification from their gear. This is understandable: the bigger a small subject is in the photo, the more impressive the final result. However, this does not necessarily mean that the subject must be photographed at the closest focusing distance. There is a place for photographs showing subjects from afar, how they blend-in in their surroundings, or go about their daily life. I am aware that this may be considered leaving the macro realm and stepping into regular wide-angle photography. In my opinion it is a blurry borderline, and if the subject is small-sized, it is still considered macrophotography.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

I could have gone much closer while photographing this leaf-mimicking katydid (Cycloptera sp.) in Ecuador, but I wanted to show how it blends in perfectly with the bush it was resting on. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1 sec at f/18, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Super sharpness – Everything, from subject to background, must be in focus and super sharp. While depth of field is certainly important in wide-angle macrophotography, I will argue that in most cases a sharp background can draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject. Our eyes tend to fix on whatever is sharp. Nicky Bay did an excellent experiment demonstrating just that: when he stacked two photos to create a super sharp image of a frog in the rainforest, it became harder to keep the eyes fixed on the amphibian. Unless your intention is to show camouflage, I recommend leaving the background slightly out of focus. And if your subject is a slender insect such as a mantis or a stick insect, consider opening the aperture even more to get a shallower depth of field.

Nicky-WA-toad

An example of how background sharpness can affect viewer’s attention to the subject, in this case a Malaysian horned frog (Megophrys nasuta). Top: background slightly out-of-focus, brings the subject forward; Bottom: Sharp background, photo appears “flat”. Courtesy of Nicky Bay

Green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans), Toledo District, Belize

This green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) would have been lost in the busy background if it had been any sharper. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 2.5 sec at f/22, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Barrel distortion is bad – Wide-angle lenses are especially prone to barrel distortion. This changes perspective and proportions of objects in the photo, causing whatever is in the center of the frame to appear larger, and straight lines (for example trees, horizon) to appear curved. Many photographers are in a constant battle against barrel distortion, trying to find the best way to eliminate it in post-processing. I somewhat agree; a curved horizon can really be distracting (unless you go for a fisheye effect). But in times when I do not have a clear horizon in the frame (a dense forest is a good example), I find that the distortion can be “forgiven”. In other cases, I find that it actually draws more attention to the subject, if its body proportions are exaggerated. Sometimes the “fisheye look” can directly translate to a “bug-eye look”, even though it may not truthfully represent what insects see. If humans were the size of an insect, maybe this is how we would see the world. Because wide-angle macro attempts to shrink the viewers and make them a part of the scene, barrel distortion is not necessarily a bad thing.

Chicken of the Woods mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus), growing on a fallen oak tree. Ontario, Canada

When barrel distortion can be excused: Chicken of the Woods mushroom (Laetiporus sulphureus) is the center of attention in this photo. The curved trees in the background are not distracting. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/15 at f/16, ISO1600. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) from Ontario, Canada

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) wings touched the front element of the lens, creating the illusion that they are exaggeratedly extended. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/160 at f/11, ISO100.

Night wide-angle macro is impossible – This is hardly the case. It depends on what you want to capture. The lack of ambient light does make it hard to include much of the habitat in the photo, therefore you must plan the shot before taking it. A tripod and remote shutter release are a must. While I personally do not have much experience in doing so, night wide-angle macro is definitely possible with light painting and clever composition. Some of my favorite night wide-angle macro shots come from Javier Aznar (who won in competitions several times for his inspiring photography) and Nicky Bay.

Male Heterophrynus batesii fresh after molting, Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This freshly molted Heterophrynus batesii was photographed during a rainy night hike in the forest. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/10 at f/14, ISO800. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

All wide-angle macro photos look the same – of course not, as can be seen just by browsing along this blog post. Every photographer has their own style. In fact, I see much more conformity in landscape photography. If you feel that all your photographs end up looking the same, maybe it is time to try doing something a little different. For example, I had a small wide-angle lens lying around for years, no matter how I used it I could not get the image I wanted from it. Last week I decided to couple it with a new lens and was amazed by the results. Now, some photographers will insist that “you never go full fisheye”, but I disagree. If anything, stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new is very healthy for your point of view and inspiration as a photographer.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) from Ontario, Canada

Peephole lenses can produce interesting framing, like in the case of this white-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum) from Ontario, Canada. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/20, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Leafcutter bee (Megachile sp.) from Ontario, Canada

When the subject (leafcutter bee, Megachile sp.) stares directly into the camera the result is even more spectacular. Canon 7D, Canon 24mm STM + FIT Gyorome-8. 1/160 at f/22, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Photo must be “perfect” – Wouldn’t we all like everything to be the way we envisioned it? Unfortunately, in photography things do not always go as planned. In wide-angle macro it is all too common, there is just too much that can go wrong. Keep photographing. Among those so-called crappy photos one might actually stand out as unique. In fact, very often not-so-perfect photos are much more interesting than “Photoshop-perfect” ones. No one wrote any rules for wide-angle macrophotography, and if there are rules, they can be bent from time to time. The only limitation is your own creativity.

Ornate predatory katydid (Saga ornata), Golan Heights, Israel

Including the human element in the photo can help in telling a compelling story. In this case, we searched for ornate predatory katydids (Saga ornata) for hours, and in the end they turned out to be right under our nose. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/40 at f/20, ISO100.

So what happens when things do go wrong? In the next post I will go over some of the major problems that arise when photographing wide-angle macro and using different lens systems.

To read part 3, click here.
To read part 4, click here.

My take on wide-angle macro – part 1

A lot of people have been asking me to write about wide-angle macro. After a long period of time in which I was debating how to approach this topic, I decided that instead of giving a word-by-word recipe for making wide-angle macro photos, I am just going to write how I achieve my shots and give some useful tips. There is already a heap of great articles online, and at the end of this series of posts I will give a list of ones I recommend checking out for anyone interested in attempting this unique style.

The idea of wide-angle macro is to use a wide-angle lens to include a small-sized subject and its environment in a single photo. When I think about it, ever since I held a camera in my hands I was trying to get that “look” with an insect standing in the middle of its habitat. I remember trying to do this using my film camera, but back then I did not have the knowledge or the experience to tackle this. And here comes the first tip for anyone trying to learn this technique – you must understand the optics of your lens. Not literally the physics of optics (although it does help, I admit), but the characteristics of that particular lens: how close can it focus? What is the working distance? Can it focus to infinity? Just by answering these three questions you are able to get an idea whether your gear can be used for this style.

Caper bush (Capparis spinosa) overlooking Daliot stream, Golan Heights, Israel

Caper bush (Capparis spinosa) overlooking Daliot stream, Golan Heights, Israel. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/125 at f/14, ISO100. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Now, similarly to other genres of photography, in wide-angle macro there are many different ways to achieve the same result. You can use stand-alone ultra wide-angle or fisheye lenses, add an extension tube to get more magnification, build a relay system, or even use a peephole lens. Some ways are cheaper than others. There are also small-sized point-and-shoot cameras that are able to produce this kind of photos. It all depends on the amount of money and effort you are willing to invest. I use a dslr and several different lens systems for wide-angle macro photography, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. I highlighted in the photo captions which system I used so you can get an idea about the properties of each one.

Juvenile eastern spadefoot (Pelobates syriacus), Central coastal plain, Israel

Juvenile eastern spadefoot (Pelobates syriacus), Central coastal plain, Israel. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 1/15 at f/16, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

With the recent release of the fully manual Venus Optics Laowa 15mm 1:1 wide-angle macro lens, I suspect wide-angle macro will become even more popular over the next few years. I was hoping I could receive a unit to review and compare to the other systems I own, alas, Venus Optics Laowa never got back to me (this recently changed – see here). Despite being a somewhat niche lens, I have no doubt that in the near future we will see more and more lenses with similar capabilities, maybe even with automatic aperture and focus control.

Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in my kitchen

Banana spider aka Brazilian wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in my kitchen. While this wide-angle macro shot was not taken in the field, it shows that once the technique is mastered, it can be reproduced from scratch in almost any situation. Canon 7D, CCTV relay lens system. 4 sec at f/16, ISO400. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

So what makes a good wide-angle macro photo? To simplify, typically, you would use a wide-angle lens focused close on the subject with a closed aperture of f/16 or higher to obtain more depth of field, and you might need to use a fill-flash to light your subject. In my opinion, apart from a sharp focus and good depth of field, there are three key elements that the photographer should strive for in wide-angle macro photography:

Magnification – This is more of a technical issue, as each wide-angle lens has a different maximum focusing distance and maximum magnification. You want to get the subject big enough in the frame so it will not end up “lost” in the background. If the subject is big (like some reptiles and amphibians) then this is not really a problem, but small arthropods are much more difficult to shoot in wide-angle macro. We still do not have the technology to produce a high-quality photo of a springtail walking about in the dense forest. Insufficient magnification can be solved by adding a short extension tube, but this causes several other issues (more on this later).

Male giant mosquito (Toxorhynchites sp.), Cayo District, Belize

Male giant mosquito (Toxorhynchites sp.), Cayo District, Belize. Although this is a relatively large mosquito, it is still a small insect so I used a short extension tube to achieve more magnification. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter, 6.3mm custom-made extension tube. 1/10 at f/22, ISO1250. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Interesting perspective – Focusing close on the subject alone is not enough. Getting low and bringing the camera to the same eye level as that of the subject’s is important to give viewers the impression that they are a part of the scene (this is true for all styles of nature photography, by the way). In addition, if the background is too busy or too far from the subject, the result will be aesthetically unappealing. A good way to solve this issue is to have some sort of gradual transition from the subject to the background. This can be done by including a branch or a vine that leads the eye from the subject to the background (or vice versa), or by actually letting the subject “drift” into the background. A good method for dealing with this issue (given to me by Piotr Naskrecki, one of the true masters of this photography style) is to look through the viewfinder and search for alternatives ways to compose the photo, however I often find that I actually need to take several shots of different perspectives before I decide.

wide-angle-bg

An example to show the process of choosing the right composition: A. Background too far from foreground, no gradual transition; B. Overall busy composition with too much depth of field, subject will be lost; C. Good transition from foreground to slightly out-of-focus background, but background is still too busy; D. Good balance between foreground and background.

Thistle Mantis (Blepharopsis mendica), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

This is the composition I decided to go with eventually. Thistle Mantis (Blepharopsis mendica), Central Coastal Plain, Israel. Canon 7D, Canon 14mm. 1/125 at f/14, ISO200. Fill twin-flash with DIY diffusers.

Telling a story – This one is a bit harder to master. You need to get the other elements right first, but once again, that alone is usually not enough. There are many (technically) good wide-angle macro shots out there, but they include a subject plastered over a poster-like background and in my opinion something gets lost there. In general, a good photo must be engaging, and wide-angle macro is no exception. You want to bring the subject’s perspective of the world and way of life to the viewer.

Desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs marching, Negev Desert, Israel

Marching of desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) nymphs in the Negev Desert of Israel. I wanted to show how the grasshoppers were moving in a thick column, almost like a flowing river. Canon 7D, Sigma 10mm fisheye, x1.4 teleconverter. 1/125 at f/16, ISO100.

Combining these elements is no easy task, especially from the technical aspect of things. In most cases, closing the aperture to get more depth of field will result in less light hitting the camera’s sensor. In other words, to get a proper exposure you need either to increase the ISO value or to use a slower shutter speed, sometimes even both. Using a tripod can help when taking long exposures, but sometimes it is physically impossible. And increasing the ISO beyond a certain value might boost the noise in the photo, resulting in a low-quality image. It’s all about compromises. In the next posts I will discuss common misconceptions and some of the major problems in wide-angle macro photography. If you have any other topic you would like me to address in the next posts – please let me know in the comments and I will do my best to answer.

To read part 2, click here.
To read part 3, click here.
To read part 4, click here.

2014 in review: traveling, wide-angle macro and great finds!

As the clock counting towards the end of 2014, it is time for another year-in-review post. This was a good year. What a refreshing change from 2013. The main element this year seems to be traveling – I did lots of it. I think I broke my own record for traveling by air, sometimes squeezing multiple destinations into the same month, all thanks to the leave of absence I took from the university. It does not necessarily mean I visited new places; there is still a ton I want to see. The surprising thing is that I do not feel like I photographed enough this year. Many of these trips relied heavily on research, and very occasionally I found myself in a conflict between collecting data and photographing.

Here are my best of 2014. I tried to keep the same categories as last year.

 

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

Portrait of human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) larva

 

Well, botfly again in this category, just like last year. I actually had a human botfly (Dermatobia hominis) in my own body last year as well as this year (there is a scientific publication about it on the way – a topic for a future blog post!). Although I have to say this year’s cute parasite was not at all unpleasant, on the contrary! For this reason I decided to go all the way through and have it complete its larval development inside my body, and now I am eagerly waiting for it to emerge as an adult fly.

 

The best landscape shots

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

Bromelia swamp, Toledo District, Belize

 

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

Waterfall cave, Cayo District, Belize

 

I’m afraid I did not take too many landscape photographs this year. I was more concentrated in other methods (see below) that I completely neglected this photography sytle. In fact, I have just sold my trustworthy Tokina AT-X Pro 17mm lens, because I found that I am not using it anymore. I did have a chance to visit some breathtaking places this year, and chose two shots from Belize as my favorite landscapes for 2014.

 

The most perfectly timed photo

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

Pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) on painted wall, Ecuador

 

This photo is not exactly “perfectly timed” in the sense that I had to wait in order to capture the right moment. As I was walking to my cabin in the Ecuadorian Amazon I saw this pinktoe tarantula (Avicularia huriana) resting on a wall that was painted to show a scene from the rainforest. To my amazement the spider picked the “correct” spot in the painting to rest on, a palm leaf, just as it would be in the real vegetation. The cutesy ants painted marching nearby add a nice twist to this photo.

 

Best behavior shot

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

Whip spider (Euphrynuchus bacillifer) molting

 

This molting amblypygid (Euphrynichus bacillifer) takes this category. I like how it looks like a version of Alien’s Facehugger from this angle.

 

The best non-animal photo

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

Caladium bicolor inflorescence

 

I regard this as one of my best super-macro shots. I have already written a short post about how this unique inflorescence sent me 20 years back in time for a trip down memory lane. What I love about this photo is that I managed to produce exactly what I envisioned.

 

The most cooperative dangerous subjects

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in "threat posture". Amazon Basin, Ecuador

A wandering spider (Phoneutria boliviensis) in “threat posture”. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

You can read more about my scary encounter with the huge Phoneutria spider here. I admit that my hands were shaking as I was getting closer and closer to take a photo. These spiders are fast. And usually quite aggressive too. In the end this female turned out to be very docile, and she also kindly warned me when I was getting too close.

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

Variable coral snake (Micrurus diastema), Belize

 

Never in my wildest dreams I imagined I would be photographing a coral snake from a close distance, not to mention doing it alone with no assistance. These snakes have extremely potent venom and should be left alone when encountered. However, in my case an opportunity presented itself and I could not pass on the chance to photograph this beautiful creature. It was carefully released back to the rainforest immediately after the shoot.

 

The best photo of an elusive subject

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

Sabethes sp., female in mid-biting

 

There is almost nothing I can say about Sabethes that I haven’t already said in this post. This mosquito is nothing short of amazing, and for some insect photographers it is a distant dream to photograph one in action. Too bad they are tiny, super-fast, and oh yes – transmit tropical diseases that can kill you. So I guess it fits the previous category as well.

 

The best natural phenomenon observed

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

Army ants (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) in their bivouac. Toledo District, Belize

 

I have seen army ants in the past but this year I was happy to walk upon a bivouac (a temporary camp in which they spend the night). It is such an impressive sight. It is also quite painful if you are standing a bit too close. Taking close ups of the bivouac’s “ant wall” was an unpleasant process, to say the least.
I also love this scene where a small roach watches by while the ants form their crawling “rivers”.

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

A small roach watches by while an army ant (Eciton burchellii parvispinum) raid takes place. Toledo District, Belize

 

The best focus-stacked shot

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

Spectacular male jumping spider (Sidusa unicolor), Cayo District, Belize

 

I rarely take deep focus stacks. The reason is that I like to photograph live animals and this method requires an almost perfectly still subject. This stack of nine images shows one of the most impressive jumping spiders I had the fortune of finding. You can tell I went all “Thomas Shahan-y” here.

 

The best wide-angle macro

If there is one style I was obsessive about this year, it is wide-angle macro. I decided to dive in, and experimented with different setups and compositions. I have now gathered enough experience and information to write a long post (most likely split in two) about this method. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here are my favorites from this year.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.), Amazon Basin, Ecuador

 

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Long-faced grasshopper (Truxalis grandis), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

The next photo comes with its own story: On the way to the 700-Feet Waterfalls in Belize for an Epiphytes survey, Ella Baron (manager of Caves Branch Botanical Gardens), Alex Wild and I joked that it would be cool to take a wide-angle macro shot of a frog against the background of the waterfalls, and to use this “postcard shot” to promote future BugShot Belize workshops. 15 minutes after that, I had the shot on my memory card… This is probably my favorite photo from 2014.

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

Mexican tree frog (Smilisca sp.), at the beautiful 700-Feet Waterfalls. Cayo District, Belize

 

The best Meet Your Neighbours photos

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

Tadpole shrimp (Lepidurus apus). Center District, Israel

 

Along with wide-angle macro photography, I also photographed intensively against a white background, as a contributor for Meet Your Neighbours project. This technique is easy and produces stunning results that it is difficult to choose favorites. I think I like best the photos that still incorporate some part of the habitat, such as the ones below.

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Caterpillar of the crimson-speckled Flunkey (Utetheisa pulchella) on Round-leaved Heliotrope (Heliotropium rotundifolium). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Stick-mimic mantis (Empusa fasciata), Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

Mediterranean Chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon rectricrista). Central Coastal Plain, Israel

 

Memes

Shooting for Meet Your Neighbours not only gives a chance to appreciate organisms out of the context of their surroundings, but also makes it super easy to use the images in creative ways. I do not consider myself a competent meme creator, but there are times that I have no better way for expressing myself.

I slept too much

One of those mornings.

 

Kung Fu weevil

Sometimes I feel like…

And the most exciting subject…

Ah, where to start? There were so many great finds this year: timber flies, fringed tree frogs, velvet worms, freshly molted whip spiders, eyelid geckos, tadpole shrimps and more. I cannot simply pick one favorite subject. They were all my favorites, so I decided not to end this post with a trail of random photos. I cannot wait to see what I will encounter next year. Have a good 2015!