Few days back, I joined a group of photographers from the Shutter Journey (Singapore) for a night macro outing at Venus Drive. It was the first time for me doing night macro photography, and it was a pleasant experience for me learning from the veterans.
Equipment for Night Macro
Digital Camera with Macro Lens
Besides from the digital camera, macro lens is preferred as it gives a higher magnification ratio (1:1) of the subject. For even a greater close-up or magnification on the subject, the following are some of the options that can be considered:
Using macro lens on a cropped camera body. This will give an additional reach into the subject as compared to using a full-frame body.
Using extension tubes which will enable the camera and lens to focus at a much closer distance. These tubes does not have optical elements and thus would not affect the image quality, except to ensure that these tubes have electronic contacts which are compatible with the camera and lens to allow control of aperture and auto-focusing from the camera.
Using Teleconverter (Extenders) to increase the focal length of the lens. However, the down-side is the lost of up to 2-3 stops of light. In addition, not all teleconverters will work with macro lenses, so be sure to check out the compatibility when using them.
Using close-up filters that are screwed onto the front of lens. However, close-up filters are typically known to have image quality issues.
Using super macro conversion lens (e.g. Raynox DCR-250) for a larger magnification. The Raynox DCR-250 is attached like as a clip-on at the lens front on the camera.
Using a reverse lens that is mounted in a reverse manner either directly on the camera using a reverse ring OR on top of lens front that is already mounted on the camera using a coupling ring.
Although some of the above options provide a greater close-up or magnification (e.g. using super macro conversion lens or reverse lens), it also requires a closer working distance from the subject (i.e. as close as less than 5cm away) which may be "too close for comfort" when photographing insects. Furthermore, any slightest movement/shake may be noticeable when shooting on hand-held without a tripod.
Flash is a Must
Flashes are critical for night macro photography. There are various different options on how flash can be implemented:
On-camera flashes either with the built-in camera flash OR external flash (i.e. standard flash or macro-ring flash) attached to the camera OR multiple flashes attached using flash brackets.
Off-camera flashes that is remotely triggered from the camera. This however requires an assistant or tripods for flashes in order to position the flashes in the appropriate location which may be relatively troublesome for set-up if moving from one spot to another.
Diffuser for flashes is recommended so as to avoid "hot spots" appearing on the eyes or body of the insects from a direct flash. For my first night macro photography, I had used a soft-box attached to my Canon Speedlite 580 EXII flash on the camera.
Continuous lighting such as LED light panels which can also act as "torch light" to help illuminate the subject for focusing. If using LED light panels as the only source of light for your night macro, you will need to ensure that sufficient light panels are used especially if shooting with a small aperture for a deeper depth-of-field (DOF).
Regardless of the implementation, there is a need to consider the weight of the setup if using hand-held - the heavier the setup, the more efforts will be required to sustain a steady hand-held position.
Torch light is required if the setup does not have LED light panels to help illuminate the subject for focusing.
Tripod is Not Required
It was advised by the veterans that tripod is not necessary for night macro photography at Venus Drive as there is risks of bagging some of the insects home when they climb up the tripod. Personally, I also find it easier to shoot without a tripod as the position of these insects are easier to reach on hand-held.
Flash photography is a lot easier on the settings - let's look at how some of the settings on camera, lens and flash would help in night macro photography:
Go Manual Mode with a small aperture, small ISO and shutter speed that syncs to the flash.
With flashes, settings are a lot simpler in my opinion. Simply set the ISO to 100 and a shutter speed that syncs to your flash (i.e. for Canon, the flash sync speed is 1/200s). As the depth-of-field (DOF) is pretty shallow with a macro lens at close proximity, a small aperture is desired (i.e. F/13 or higher F-number).
Viewfinder vs Live View Shooting
There will be occasions where you will need to switch between shooting through viewfinder or live view, depending on the position and size of the subjects.
I'm not going through the debate on whether it is better to take through a viewfinder of live view as I felt that it is a matter of habit or preference although there are significant pros and cons for either ways. Personally, I always prefer shooting through the viewfinder but would switch to live view shooting on several scenarios: (a) the angle/position of the subject makes it difficult for shooting through viewfinder, (b) unable to get the sharpness that I want on the subject, or (c) need to adjust for a better correct exposure of a scene.
Macro Lens Settings
Set focusing distance to the nearest
Most of the macro lenses have a focusing distance settings which should be set to the nearest as this will allow faster focusing when the camera/lens searches for the target as most of the shots will be taken at close proximity (i.e. less than 50 cm).
Automatic vs manual focusing
In most cases, I shoot in automatic focusing. However, if the subject is too small to be focused, I would switch to manual focusing.
Recommended to switch to manual control on the flash power output. Adjust the flash power output according to the camera settings to create the right ambience.
Most of the insects are rather still at night which would help a great deal when trying to focus on them. The only challenge that I find for my first night macro photography is the need to hold on the torch light with one hand, while trying to focus and take the shot with the other hand. If you are traveling in group, it would help to ask assistance from your friends to illuminate the subject for you, while you can focus on the composition and focusing on the subject.
Alternatively, invest on some LED light panels and flash brackets that can be attached to the camera body. This would enable you to be self-sufficient with consideration that it would also add on additional weight to your camera.
Safety Measures and Precautions
While searching for insects among the bushes with the torch light, there are a few safety precautions that important to take note (especially in the context of Venus Drive location):
Always wear covered shoes.
It can be really dark (i.e. unable to see your hands without a torch light) and so it is important to move slowly and watch where you step and move. Beware of pit holes on the ground or spider webs in your path.
It is not advisable to travel alone - always go in pairs or group.
In the event that you are bitten by a snake, it is important to stay calm and sit down while shouting for help. Where possible, try to identify the color, pattern or type of snakes that have bitten you.
Apply insect repellent to help keep the insects away from you.
Upon leaving the location, check that you do not bring home any of the friendly insects with you. Pad your clothing and jump around to try shake off any of the insects that may have followed you.
Last but not least, night macro photography of insects could be really fun and exciting. While most of these insects are harmless, there are also certain degree of danger of being bitten by insects especially when macro photography require photographing at close proximity. Always apply safety precaution first e.g. big spiders are nice, but if you are unsure if the spider will bite or is poisonous, then stay away from it.
My nieces were folding origami over the weekend, and the idea of doing some abstract photography with the colorful papers struck me. Here's how I created some of these abstract pieces ...
Materials that is needed
Papers - A stack of colorful papers, preferably 100-120 grams types, is needed. Avoid getting papers that are too thin as it is more difficult to sustain the form and shapes when trying to mould them. If the papers are too thick, moulding them would be difficult as well.
Stapler or Metal Clips - These are needed to hold the various shapes of paper that I'm moulding into. If you do not want to leave stapler holes on the paper, metal clips can be used but make sure that they are strong enough to hold the paper in the shape.
Transparent Scotch Tape - Standby some scotch tape which will be handy in helping to hold the paper into the shape that will be moulded into.
Weights - Various sizes of blocks of relatively heavy weights would be helpful in holding shapes that the paper will be moulded into. I'd quite a dozen of chicken essence pack which I wrap them up with white A4 size papers and turn them into handy block of weights.
Equipment and Settings
Digital camera & lenses
Flashes (or light sources) - Besides from the digital camera, 1-2 off-camera flashes is preferred to create different lighting effects. If you do not have off-camera flashes, couple of white fluorescent lamps (preferably 100 watts or higher) should provide sufficient lighting power.
Remote trigger (if necessary) - May be required when you cannot be at your camera, if one of your hand is needed to hold onto the papers.
Tripod (if necessary) - Required for the same reason on using remote trigger. In addition, it would be better to use a tripod to avoid shakes if you are using a slow shutter speed due to insufficient lighting.
There is no one fixed setting as it depends on the shape of paper being mould into and the angle that they will be photographed. Experiment with various settings on the camera and different angles of shooting them for creativity.
You may want to play with different settings of the the flashes or light sources as well, as placing them at different positions creates different lighting effect and ambience.
Shaping the Papers
This is the part which requires a little bit creativity, and this is also the part where moulding them into the shape will take up most of the efforts and time. Here are a few examples I created:
Spreading the Papers like a "Palm Tree"
First, I use a metal clip to hold a stack of colored papers on one edge of the paper. Next, I placed 2 weights (i.e. my chicken essence weights) about 10 cm apart and hold the papers in a vertical position in between the weights (i.e. with the edge held with metal clip on the table). This will allow the colored papers to start spreading (or falling) to the left and right where the weights are.
Make use of the weights to hold the edge of the paper into the shape just like the diagram below. Use scotch tape to tape the paper to the weights if necessary.
You may want to use odd number of colored papers so that you can have even number of "leafs" on both side and one standing in the middle.
You can try arranging the papers in different color tones (e.g. from light to dark tones) for different visual effects, taking it from different angles.
Simply bend the paper into an "S" shape and use the weights on both sides to hold the shape (see picture below). Holding the paper in "S" shape is a lot more difficult as the papers will tend to "spring out" from the shape, so you may want to use some scotch tape to help holding them in the shape.
Roll A Bunch of Papers
This one is fairly simple as all you need to do is to roll a bunch of paper, strap them together with a rubber band and hold them in between the weights or leave it on the desk. The picture below would give you an idea.
You can try taking pictures of the folds when the papers are rolled together ...
"I've put together a guide on photographing in Singapore Jurong Bird Park according to different categories of birds/subjects, so as to help anyone going there to plan what to focus on..."
Flock of Birds
If you like photographing a big flock of birds using wide-angle lenses, then head down to the Flamingo Pool/Lake, Pelican Cove and the Swan Lake.
Challenging Areas/Birds for Photography
In my opinion, these are the areas where I felt that it would be challenge trying to photographs the birds.
World of Darkness
As the location name suggest, this is a dark indoor enclosure for housing the owls and you will be photographing in the dark. Even on ISO 25600, it is also difficult to get a decent shutter and a tripod many be required to photograph them.
A very scenic "adventure land" that is full of small flying birds and a man-made waterfall. Small flying birds with relatively bad lighting is definitely a challenge to getting a good sharp pictures of them. Suggest going during the feeding time (10.30am and 2.30pm) for photography.
Birds of Prey, Hornbills & Toucans, Window on Paradise
Birds in these areas are kept in big wired cages, with rather poor lighting condition. Sometimes the birds are resting way up high in the cage which makes it impossible to photograph them as well.
In order to "shoot through" the wired cages (i.e. without the square wire appearing in your photos), a long telephoto lens is required using manual focusing and standing as near to the wired cage as possible - this will cause the wired cage to "disappear" from the photograph taken.
This was taken through the wired cages with my lens almost touching the wired cages and manual focusing on the bird in the cage.
Try Your Luck at Dinosaur Descendants (Cassowary, Emu & Ostrich)
These are big flightless birds that are said to be descendants of dinosaurs. In particular, the Cassowary has a nice beautiful colored head which I had ran out of luck trying to photograph it. The cassowary has gone hiding in the bushes despite waiting - so try your luck :)
This picture is taken more than 3 years ago during my last visit.
Equipment, Settings & Techniques
Digital camera - Preferably DSLR that is capable of controlling the ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
Fast-focusing telephoto lenses - Unlike photographing birds in the wild, the enclosure in Jurong Bird Park are reachable with a fairly good close-up using a focal length of 200mm. Fast-focusing lenses would help to focus in on some of the moving birds.
Tripod - I see this as a good to have as I had taken all my photographs on hand-held. If you are not using any lenses longer than 200 mm, the weight should be manageable for hand-held. Using tripod is also more troublesome since you will not be "camping" at one spot and will be moving from places to places.
Depending on the scenario, the settings (especially ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed) would need to be adjusted accordingly. I'll just explain the key settings and principles behind:
Aperture Priority (AV) Mode - Switch to AV mode with a aperture of F/5.6 or F8 for a sufficient Depth of Field (DOF) in the image. However if lighting condition requires you to use a wider aperture (e.g. F/2.8) for a faster shutter speed, it would still give sufficient DOF given that most of the birds are relatively small in size and the distance from the subject is far enough (i.e. say 5m or more). (Note: Please read "Understanding How Depth of Field Affects Your Photos")
ISO - ISO controls the sensitivity of capturing images on the sensor. Higher ISO makes the sensor more sensitive to light, and thus a faster shutter speed can be used but introduce more noise (i.e. grainy spots) in the picture. As a guide: ISO 100-200 for bright and sunny scenes, ISO 400-800 for cloudy scenes, ISO 1600-3200 for indoor scenes without flashes. If the scene is really too dark, the ISO may have to be bumped up even higher than 3200 into expanded range.
Shutter Speed - Depending on whether the subject is stationary or moving, you will need to watch whether the shutter speed metered by the camera is sufficient for your scene (i.e. there is no one fixed setting). As a guide: birds in flight would required a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 secs and birds that are stationary or moving will require at least a shutter speed that is inverse to the focal length used.
In the event where I have to compensate either aperture or ISO for the right shutter speed, I would sacrifice ISO first as image noise can be "improved" during post-processing while DOF is unable to. However I would start using a wider aperture setting once I've reached ISO 1600 as higher ISO are more prone to details loss.
Use AI Servo Auto-Focusing Mode if your subject is moving. This allows the camera to continuously change the focusing when you track your subject by pressing the shutter button halfway.
Use Continuous Shooting/Drive Mode if you felt that the shutter speed may still be insufficient for your subject despite stretching the ISO and wide aperture used. This allows the camera to continuously take several pictures when the shutter button is pressed, which may help to increase the chance of getting a sharp picture in one of the frames taken.
Use center focusing point when tracking and focusing on the bird.
I would not go into how the camera should be held or how to pan the camera with moving subjects or how to stabilize the camera on hand-held as they are more related to personal style that a photographer will accomplish with more pictures taken. However, there is one particular worth-mentioning technique when it comes to photographing birds, that is always focus at the eyes of the bird. Believe it or not, once the eyes of the bird is captured tact-sharp, the rest of the bird's body will look equally sharp from a visible perspective.
It has been more than 3 years since my last visit to Singapore Jurong Bird Park, and I can see a couple of new additions (i.e. Penguin Coast, Birdz of Play and Breeding & Research Centre) to the park in my recent visit. Beside being a good location to photograph birds in flight (as shared in my post yesterday), there are many other topics that a photographer can look out for.
I've put together a guide on photographing in Singapore Jurong Bird Park according to different categories of birds/subjects, so as to help anyone going there to plan what to focus on.
Tuxedoed Birds @ Penguin Coast
A number of species of penguins are housed indoor in an air-conditioned climate, while the African Penguins which has adapted to our tropical climate, can be found in the outdoor enclosure.
Indoor: The indoor lighting is a little dim but sufficient enough if the ISO is stretched to 1600 or 3200. Some of these penguins are really huge (especially the King Penguin) and they aren't really hyper which makes it easy to shoot them under low light condition.
Outdoor: On the opposite, these African Penguins are extremely hyper and always jumping in and out of the pond. Luckily, it is outdoor with sufficient lighting that will give you enough speed to freeze their action. For more interesting photograph, try catching them "playing" in the pond or during feeding hours.
Birdz of Play
This is a small water theme park for kids - great if you like taking pictures of kids having fun at the water. There are also rows of souvenir shops and restaurants for food/beverages.
Breeding & Research Centre
This is an interesting place to visit where you will get to see how eggs of incubated and hatched locally at the Singapore Jurong Bird Park, as well as nursery for different types of hatchlings (from few days to few months). Photographing them might be a little challenging as these hatchlings are kept in cages behind a glass window.
Colorful Birds at Close Proximity
If you like photographing colorful birds at close proximity, there are definitely plenty to photograph ...
These are large colorful long-tailed parrots located at "Macaw Island". They typically stay still on the branches, which is easy to photograph and a 200mm focal length can easy get a good close-up of them.
Another type of parrots but a lot smaller in size which can be found at "Lory Loft". They fly and move a lot which will need a fast-focusing lens and higher shutter speed to get a sharp picture of them. You can buy some food at $3 and feed them, which will allow you to get as close as less than an arm's length.
These mandarin ducks are kept in small ponds where it is partially shaded by the trees around. If you stay the location long enough, you may catch some of them dunking their heads into the pond or doing some "stretching" just like the photograph below.
I love the Scarlet Ibis for their bright beautiful red color feathers. They are always moving and the lighting condition inside the cage is not exactly great, which means that a higher ISO and a wider aperture has to be used to get sufficient shutter speed that could freeze their movement. While photographing them, you may also have to avoid the glare from the glass windows.
These pigeons have really beautiful crowns. They can get pretty close within 2-3m without any barriers in-between. However, the lighting condition inside the big cage enclosure is not so good, and higher ISO is definitely needed while photographing them.
I had taken quite a fair bit of birds photograph (i.e. typically birds that are stationary), and has been trying to take to great pictures of bird in flight. So I went down to the Singapore Jurong Bird Park yesterday to practice photographing birds in flight in a more "controlled" environment.
Weather wasn't perfect - it was rather cloudy and gloomy but sufficiently bright enough to accomplish my objective with a number of nice-looking pictures of birds in flight.
Location in Park Best for Capturing Birds in Flight
There are many species of birds at Jurong Bird Park, and the following are some of the areas in the park that are best to capture birds in flight:
Pelicans are huge in size - they can span up to 3 meters with their wings spread, which makes it easy to track when they fly.
The "King of the Skies Show" provides an ideal opportunity to photograph big preying birds (i.e. owls, vultures, falcon and eagles) in flight at close proximity. There are 2 show times which means that if you have missed capturing them in the 1st show, you can still go for the 2nd one.
The other show, the "High Flyers Show", offers similar opportunity to capture Toucans, Hornbills, Macaws, etc. in flight. Perhaps the only challenge is that the size of these birds are rather small and the performance is a lot larger which means that it may be more difficult to track them and longer lenses are required. Likewise, there are 2 show times.
There are a number of Storks and other birds that can be photograph at close proximity in this area which is located after the Flamingo Pool. Based on my observation, they tend to have short flight around the area.
Waterfall Aviary & Lory Loft
There are many small flying birds in these areas, and they flew around really fast. Photographing them in flight is definitely a lot more difficult and challenging.
Photographing Birds In Flight
Although I'm still learning and fine-tuning my skills on how to take great pictures of bird in flight, I will still share my experience so far.
Observing and Predicting
The key to taking a nice picture of birds in flight is often in predicting when and how they will fly. It is best if you understand the nature of the type of birds you are taking. If not, it often helps by observing their movement, nature and flight path first. This will help you to better predict when and how they will fly.
Positioning and Timing
Positioning and timing the shot is equally important. Photographing birds that fly across from left to right gives more interesting picture as compared to photographing birds that fly directly towards or away from you. When photographing birds that fly across from left to right, make sure the shot is taken before the bird fly past your point so that you do not end up capturing the "backside" of the bird.
Also try positioning with the sun behind you (and not in front of you) so that a nicely exposed picture of the bird can be captured.
Equipment & Accessories
Frames Per Second
Fast cameras that allow more pictures (or frames) to be continuously taken within a second (e.g. 4-5 frames per second) would be better.
Long Telephoto Lens
Ideally, long telephoto lens of 300mm focal length or more is ideal for birds photography. An extender can be used to increase the focal length, however do note that up to 2-stops of light may be lost when using extender.
As tracking is needed when photographing bird in flight, a fast-focusing lens would help especially to regain focus when it's lost during tracking. Prime lens often offers faster focusing speed.
Tripods (if necessary)
I've taken all my shots on hand-held with my Canon 5D Mark II with EF 70-200mm F/2.8L IS II USM, the longest telephoto lens that I owned at the moment, and thus would not be able to comment much on how easy is it to track and photograph bird in flight on a tripod. Personally, I find it easy to focus and track birds in flight on hand-held given the weight of my equipment is still manageable.
Note: Longer telephoto (especially 400mm and above) would be too heavy to be hand-held and thus a tripod is definitely required.
Key Camera & Lens Settings
To have a good sharp picture of a bird in flight, it is necessary to maintain a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 seconds. Compromise on the ISO and aperture if the lighting condition is not ideal.
Aperture Priority (AV) or Shutter Priority (TV) Mode
Whether AV or TV mode is used depending on the lighting condition. If the lighting condition is good where obtaining a shutter speed of at least 1/1000 seconds is not an issue, I would go on AV mode with an aperture setting of F/5.6 - F/8 for a good depth of field (DOF).
However if the lighting condition is not as ideal, I would go on TV mode with a shutter speed setting of at least 1/1000 seconds, and compensate on the ISO if the aperture is already stretched to the widest by the camera's metering.
AI Servo Auto-Focusing (Continuous Focusing)
This is necessary for tracking the bird in flight which has a changing focusing distance by just depressing the shutter button half-way and moving the focusing point together with the bird.
Yes, the camera should be continuously shooting multiple photographs in a single shutter press as the bird in flight is being tracked and focused. Don't rely on just taking a single shot and hoping it will coming out great.
Center Focusing Point
Set the focusing point on the camera to the center as this is the primary spot which will be used to focus and track on the bird in flight. This spot is also usually the most sensitive and accurate when focusing.
Set Minimum Focusing Distance to the Farthest on the Lens
On most long telephoto lens, there is a minimum focusing distance settings. Switching this setting to the farthest will allow a shorter searching time for the lens to get back into focus when the focus is lost during the tracking.
Focusing and tracking birds in flight is not as easy as it may sound, especially looking through the view finder of the camera. The window to focus, track and take the shots is a mere 2-3 seconds. Hence lots of practicing is required.
Late last night while I was working at my desktop computer, something flew through the window and hit my face which startled me. My first reaction was to jump away from my desktop computer and turn on the ceiling light (note: was working in the dark with the monitor as the only source of light).
Carefully approaching my computer desktop, I started searching for the "thing" that had hit me on my face (... yes, I scare of cockroaches ^o^). After over-turning some of the gadgets on my desk, I finally found a small beetle-looking bug (less than 1cm) that landed on the blades of the USB fan.
Tried to shoo it away but it only budges a little and seems rather comfortable there. The idea of using extreme macro photography on it struck me. I pulled up my 100mm macro lens with a reverse 50mm lens attached to it and took a couple of really close-up shots of the beetle. Please refer to my earlier article on how-to take extreme macro photography using a reverse lens.
EXIF: ISO 100, F/32 and 1/200s (0 EV).
It was my first attempt and success to shoot an insect using extreme macro photography, and it gives me more confidence to try it on other types of insects. During the photo taking, the beetle-like insect has been rather obedient and moved only a little. From this, I've learnt 2 things:
Flashes are definitely required
As the Depth of Field (DOF) is very shallow in extreme macro photography, I've used a very small aperture (i.e. F/32) to increase the DOF. In order to freeze the subject or avoid shakes on the hand-held camera, I need a fast enough shutter speed (1/200s). At F/32 and 1/200s, the photograph will definitely be greatly under-exposed and thus flash is required.
Continuous Shooting and Take Multiple Shots
It is rather difficult to focus at such near distance and huge magnification on hand-held camera. Any slightest movement, either caused by the insect moving or hand movement, will throw the entire subject out-of-focus. The best way to overcome this is to turn on continuous shooting mode and shoot as many shots as possible.
EXIF: ISO 100, F/32 and 1/200s (0 EV).
It is really amazing to see such huge magnification of insects that cannot be seen by naked eyes. Pictures above are downsized to 20% of the original photo, and the bug is only less than 1cm.
I reside in Singapore and started digital photography in 2009 as a hobby. Despite having played with film DSLR during my schooling days, digital photography has excited me with a total different level of challenges and exciting possibilities.
Over the years, this hobby has manifested beyond passion. It has become an important part of my life where I continuously challenge myself to many photography techniques and take better pictures each time. While challenging myself to learn and explore new photography techniques, I also believe in sharing my experiences and knowledge with others.