Friday, February 12, 2010

How I shoot spiders part 1: Tools and settings

There are not that many things that I do when shooting macro that other people don’t. Even my equipment is pretty standard and cheap. Therefore there is really nothing extraordinary that I did to produce the photos here. So some wise guy would then ask, “Then why your photos look so nice?” My answer would be, “because the subject is nice looking.’

In most of my macro shots, where most is something like 98%, I use the standard same equipment- an Olympus E-500, a Zuiko Digital 35mm f/3.5 macro lens and an FL-50 flash. Frankly I am not really fussy about the flash but the FL-50 was chosen because of its fast recycle rate and I was not introduced to any other Four-Thirds compatible flash yet at that time. The E-500 is an ancient model, born in 2005 and considered obsolete a long time ago. It was one of the earliest DSLR by Olympus and was among the cheapest in the market. The lens is also the cheapest macro lens you can buy where most shops sell between RM780 to RM800. It is goes to 1:1 magnification (2:1 on full frame equivalent) and responds well with auto focus. The output is pretty decent too as you may have noticed since reading this blog.

Since this is not a gear review session so let’s move on to something more photography-centric. See, Olympus uses the Four-Thirds system therefore the focal length of the lens doubled, i.e. a 50mm lens will become 100mm on an Olympus DSLR. This will also affects the calculated depth of field at any given aperture, which is similar to how APS camera is different to full frame cameras. Basically the depth of field of a certain aperture on a Four-Third camera is 2 stops wider than that on a full frame camera which is good news to macro shooters. A light DSLR body is usually more desirable since this makes it easy to be handled with one hand, which sometimes I have not choice but to do.

There are many tricky technical challenges when shooting macro. Firstly is that you need to get the right amount of depth of field. Too shallow and you will miss some important part of the picture. Too deep then your main subject will not stand out but this is rarely the case since in the macro world, depth of field is a scarce commodity. I usually shoot between f/9 to f/14 which is enough for most cases. APS-C needs to add by 1 stop and full frame by 2 stops to follow my rule of thumb. If you need more depth of field, step back a bit to increase your working distance or just use smaller aperture until you are satisfied. The issue with very small aperture is reduced exposure and softness due to diffraction. If you are not certain where to place things into focus, just make sure the nearest eye has to be tack sharp.

Get the important part of the story in focus. Forget the less important details, as in this photo, the end of the legs.

Next is to control the lighting. You don’t want to use direct flash since the exoskeleton of arthropods is reflective. Do that and you will lose plenty of details due to blown highlights everywhere. So what we do is to either diffuse it, bounce it or both. I cut a piece of corrugated white board to be used as a bouncer and put a sheet of photocopy paper as my diffuser. Find a way to mount those things and do some trials to see how it works best. My FL-50’s TTL works well and with my D.I.Y bouncer/diffuser setting, I set it to -0.7 EV most of the time. Nowadays I usually set it to manual mode due to some fault with the aged flash.

I don’t care much about shutter speed since I am using a flash. Just set to the highest sync speed and that’s it. Sometimes I reduce the speed a bit to capture some ambiance light since I dislike having a black background which is normally what you will get when relying on flash for the only source of light with no bright object behind the subject. If you do this, make sure the camera is held steady either by using a tripod, image stabilizer or in my case, tai chi.

Taken with flash fired at maximum shutter sync. This makes distant background black.

Slow the shutter a bit, open up aperture or boost up ISO and you will get a more natural background. Make sure the flash is not too harsh.

The rest of other settings are pretty much standard. Keep ISO to 100 so the image is clean but if you lose out details in shadowed area then just double it up as long the image is not smeared with noise. Metering mode is usually set as center weighted average as it seems to give good and consistent readings for TTL calculation. What else… oh, I usually set the white balance to 5000K to match the color temperature of my flash. If you shoot in raw, which I seldom do, the white balance can be adjusted later. The rule of thumb is simply to get the colors to be as natural as you can.

A bit about shooting raw or jpg here since there have been quite a number of people asking me why I tend to use jpg instead of raw. First of all, I am too lazy to do all the adjustment in Adobe Camera Raw. Secondly even if I have the time, I don’t really know what I should do. Thirdly I think the jpg output from my camera is good enough in most cases without the need for raw tweaking. The only time I use raw is when the light is so tricky that I may have to interfere more than I wish. For insurance I set my camera to save the image in both raw and jpg although 90% of the time I work only with the jpg copy.

See, macro photography is not really that tough, at least on the technical side. Do give it a try.


  1. Amir,
    I have always admired your techniques, as simple as you have made them look, I believe understanding of how the light falls on the spiders/insects is extremely important. You should post up some photos of how you set up your "DIY" flash bounce/diffuser setup. It might make those who spend hundreds on stuff like gary fung or other toilet lookalike diffusers bang their head on the wall.
    Also, the fact that you can achieve such wonderful shots without Image Stabilization (which I will die without) and wireless flash, that itself is a wonder.

  2. WAHHHHHHHHH sifu red got blog d!!! Keep up the good work. You have a loyal fan here already! You are a great inspiration to macro photographers worldwide.

    Robin, his hands are already a built in 3-D IS. much better than your 2D one.. haha

  3. Robin,

    I only have 1 camera, how to take the photo of my DIY setup attached to the camera la. Next time we meet, you gotta take a snap of that. I also intend to do sequels on this post to cover other areas. Hopefully it's beneficial.


    Thanks bro. If your back is ok, let's go for night outing one day. Robin had fun there last time.

    Gong Xi Fa Cai to you guys.