Tag Archive | Cheapskate Tuesday

Cheapskate Tuesday 28: Dollar store plant backdrop


Catherine and I are living in Toronto, an expensive city to be sure, and our finances our feeling the strain. Nonetheless, money isn’t the only thing in short supply as the Ontario winter bears down on us! The insects around here are pretty serious about winter, and are getting extremely difficult to find! Also, though it has not happened yet, the cold of winter is going to make it very difficult to get out every weekend to turn up new creatures. So we come to studio photography! Having some captive arthropods, it is only natural to want to shoot them, but it gets a bit boring to have them either on white backdrops, or low key and black all the time. While we do have a nice south-facing window, and i can and have used it for a “blue sky” shot, it would be nice to have some foliage! In Vancouver, this meant going  out to a vacant lot across the street and clipping some salal, or blackberry or whatever (Vancouver is green!). Here, the lack of green herbaceous matter, especially downtown, is worrisome!


This is Toronto right about now. Nice sentiment on the sign, but the snakes and insects are about as evident right now as the greenery!

Anyway, we do have a dollar store right downstairs, and low and behold, they sell some fake plants. I figured, why not set these up on the wall where I can use them much like a real plant when I am out shooting with the Monster Macro Rig?


2 bucks a pop is not too pricy!


A couple nails in the wall to hang them, and there they are.


For some extra colour and depth, why not put some green paper behind? $1!



OK, I am getting good exposures, but that green looks way off to me. It is way too bluish for my taste, and does not look natural.


Even with significant adjustments in Photoshop, the green still bothers me. Better to get it right in camera, so back to the Dollar store to find some gels.


For $1.50, I got a pack of “gels” to colour the output of my background light. These are just plastic report covers. I am only using the yellow one, but will keep the rest as well for funky hard lighting somewhere down the line.


With a bit of velcro, gels are ready to attach to the flash.


Man, that YN-460 is looking old! Not bad for 30 bucks though! It has been a trooper!

Results: Yellow-gelled background light


OK! This looks way better to me. And this Rabidosa is looking FINE! Orange spider goggles seem to be in this year.


Here if it looks any cooler, it is because I brought it down in post, but still pretty credible rendition of what lit, out of focus vegetation might look like.


This Kukulcania male on moss is about how I would expect it to look against some actual plants outdoors.


If I pull out far enough, I have to open up a bit. This dock spider shot shows how the “vegetation” looks when a bit more in focus. Still good colour though!


Getting in close shows that the background can still be soft with a big subject. Depth of field is a complicated business!


This debris-covered assassin nymph might prefer to be in the guck of a spiders crevice, but the fake plants in the background have the look of the outdoors.

So there you have it! One way to achieve out of focus vegetation indoors in the studio! Another way to do this might be to print large photos of out of focus plants as backdrop, but I worry about how to light that consistently without getting big glaring reflections from my background light’s head. 

This setup is cheap, portable, and nice to have in my bag of tricks. One wonderful thing is that I will never have to worry about that one white stick or grass blade in the background that mucks up a shot before I even realize it. This way, there are no visual intrusions! It is good to know that I have some “outdoor” shooting ability as the icy winter looms!



Cheapskate Tuesday 27: the Yongnuo 35 mm F2


So my soujourn in Guyana was not entirely without casualties. Although I avoided getting eaten by the jaguar, my Canon 50 mm 1.8 II died. I have no idea what happened, but the whole front assembly became detached from the rest of the lens. Everything still works, aperture, focus motor, but I cannot figure out how to snap it back together.


The carnage: maybe the jaguar attacked it!

Anyway, I needed a new fast prime, and it just so happened that when  got back from the jungle, the YN 35 mm f2 was announced. It was retailing for 110 bucks, the same for the 50, and since i have a crop-frame camera, a 35 sounded like a nice focal length for a fast lens. After all, the legacy of the fast 50 mm prime is a holdover from film days, where it would be a “normal” lens on a 35 mm frame. With my 1.6X crop frame Canon, 35 mm is just about a normal focal length, so what I am really getting is not a wide lens, but a fast normal lens. I ordered one!

The waiting for shipment took way longer than expected, as it was on the slow boat from China, but when it arrived last week, I immediately tried it out. The first few images I took with it were OK, but not stellar. Then I remembered to take the protective plastic off the rear element!!!

OK, this lens is pretty cool, it is nice, fast focusing and decently well built (seems on par with the el cheapo Canon 50 anyhow, and is quite reminiscent). It does have a metal mount, and the autofocus switch feels way nicer than that of the Canon. So far so good. What about the images?

I intend to use this for a number of things I used to use my 50 for: documenting social events, fieldwork, and sometime putting it on tubes for macro. Here are my results so far:

Social documentation


Nice and sharp details, and the real advantage of this lens for me is that I do not have to run backwards to frame up a shot. It sees what I see!


I like the way colours are rendered (although a better body would help with the greens!)


The lens is decently fast in focus response, and hence feels fun to use.


The lens is not so wide as to significantly distort faces in close-up shots.


Most importantly, it captures the expressions of huskies well, especially that moment they discover there is a bag of chicken skewers nearby.


Because the lens is bright, getting focus right in the dark is way easier than using a slow zoom.

Field Documentation


Again, I like the focal length. If I want a snapshot of a GPS and a pitfall trap, it works great.


For documentation of habitat, it is wide enough to show the scene.


It can even work for a bit wider view of larger insect phenomena!



It does focus pretty close for a wide lens, but the magnification sort of sucks for macro.


With a Raynox DCR 250, it can be used for closeups, even in natural light. It gets to about 1:2. With 31 mm of extension tubes, it gets a bit better than 1:1. With more extension, the working distance gets pretty darn short. i will experiment with this kind of thing, but for anything approaching 2:1, I would be better off with the 100 mm as a starting point.


“Native” magnification. Not too impressive.


With 31 mm of tubes. A usable macro setup, though subject distance is small.


The seven bladed aperture definitely renders out of focus highlights better than the Canon 50 mm 1.8 II.



Well, this is certainly a usable and enjoyable replacement for my 50 1.8. In fact, with its focal length, it will likely be way more useful to me. I am impressed with the decently close focus, the fact that it is fast and light, and that it fits my budget! One thing to keep in mind about this versus the Canon 50 is that the front element is much less recessed, and hence ghosts and flare may be more common. I did not notice anything other than small blue ghosts when the sun was right in the frame.
I would say if you can afford to, one of the Canon versions of this lens would undoubtedly hold value way better, and perhaps offer an edge in build quality or some aspect of performance. But this is definitely a usable lens, and is quite sharp even wide open (I will post some samples soon!). I will certainly be making a lot more use of this lens than my 50 got, as this is a more valuable focal length for documentation and snapshooting. Look forward to seeing more from this lens in the future!




Cheapskate Tuesday 25: Einige Kleine NachtSpinnen


A few weeks ago, I suggested a Rat Safari, as a budget-minded wildlife photo expedition that is easy to do in most cities. Today, I bring you a budget spider safari, which Catherine and I conducted in the tiny  park across the street. For this to work, I needed some constant illumination in the subject area, so I simply taped my Fenix E-05 flashlight to the lens hood of my 100 mm, which illuminated the spiders for easy focusing. The lighting for the shots was simply accomplished with a single diffused speedlight on the Monster Macro Rig. I hope you enjoy the photos, and are inspired to go find some little night spiders yourself!



Realm of the Amaurobiids: These Hacklemesh Weavers are the most abundant of the spiders we found. Their disordered web flanking their retreat is laid as a trap for unwary passing insects.


Some webs are more sparse than others!


Here is a freshly-moulted Amaurobiid.


We guess that this is a male Steatoda hespera (Therediidae).


These small orb weavers (Araneidae) were out in small numbers.


A nice big sac spider (Clubionidae)! This is a female.


Could this male sac spider be the same species as the previous? It is difficult to tell. There are hundreds of species of Clubionidae in Canada.


Here a male Amaurobiid tackles an introduced Drumming Katydid (Meconema thalassinum)



Cheapskate Tuesday 24: On white, in situ


A few weeks ago, I delved into what a white card could do paired with two flashes. I found it was a bit tricky to use it to add fill except in a few situations, but the way that it could be used to blow out a background was intriguing, so I wondered if it was practical to use for “Meet Your Neighbours” style lighting in the field. The difference between MYN style and mine is that the MYN people are really good…But enough of that, the other difference is that the MYN style often involves larger setups and “field studio” type conditions, using tripods and lightstands and the lot. With bounced flash from a white card, I can blow out the background, so what is to stop me from just holding it behind the subject and using the Monster Macro Rig to light both the subject and the background? I gave it a try, and here are my results and some thoughts.


For relatively slow moving insects on stable backgrounds, this is a great technique. The only issues are to get an angle that allows a blown background, and to balance the light hitting the subject and the flash. I was working at f13, with 1/8 power on a YN560 for the subject, and 1/8 to 1/4 with a YN460 (a smaller light) for the background. ISO around 160-250.


For subjects on more mobile backgrounds, it is better to have no wind! The more flighty subjects may tolerate a close approach with the macro rig, but putting the card behind is a whole other level of disturbance to manage! I found that flies and bees and such were tough to approach.


This Grass Veneer was flighty and was also on some ridiculously mobile grass, so this is the only shot I got. Luckily it was mostly in focus. Again, working in calm conditions would be best.


Getting the subject isolated in natural (unselected) vegetation is difficult, especially when they are timid. This shot could be better isolated.


A tiny subject on a larger leaf is a tough one to compose. Wherever you cut the leaf, it will look odd. It may have been better with this lace bug to cut it in the corner…That being said, this technique can make for some nice textural contrasts with a subject such as this.


Small fine features coming out into the white background can be easily swamped, so it is important to keep fine features parallel to the plane of the rest of the subject…This would be great, but the way the antennae fade is not so nice.


The nicest thing about this approach is that the subject is actually in the position and situation it was found in, so the setting is appropriate and not contrived. A field studio approach may not achieve this.

So that’s it for this week’s Cheapskate Tuesday!  I think that it is something I will continue to work on, as it seems to have promise. Keep watching this blog for more results using this technique, preferably of lovelier subjects on calmer days!

Cheapskate Tuesday 23: Rat Safari!

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They say that if you want to take better pictures, you need to stand in front of more interesting stuff. This certainly has some truth to it, and is one of the reasons why investment in a photo expedition can be so much more useful than allocating tons of money on new cameras and lenses. But a trip to an exotic far-flung locale does not really fit in with the Cheapskate Tuesday philosophy, so how about a photo safari closer to home?

Shooting Norway Rats (Rattus norvegicus) provides an opportunity to shoot an interesting, seldom-photographed subject in the heart of a city. Because they are nocturnal, they pose some unique challenges, namely lighting them properly! For these shots, I used 2 radio-controlled manual speedlights,which were set up to light a small area baited with common dog food. One could also use TTL triggers, such as the new YongNuo 622‘s and set the metering to spot to meter the subject, but I did not have these available. Instead, after guesstimating lighting ratios, I just played with the ISO and f-stop to get decent exposures.

Starting shortly after nightfall on a summer night in July, I chose an area with lots of foot traffic adjacent to a rail line. This ensured that the rats were used to human proximity and conditioned to search for littered food. An alleyway near some dumpsters would also work well. I shot these using a 70-300 zoom, and of course the faster the lens, the easier focusing will be, but choosing an area with some artificial light helps.

Because rats are neophobic (afraid of new things in their environment), I was worried that the speedlights would scare them off, but these rats that are habituated to a rapidly-changing litter landscape did not pay too much heed to some more crap lying around.

More Rats!_5959724887_l

Depending on the season (I recommend early summer), the majority of rats you will encounter will be young, as rats are short-lived highly fecund creatures, meaning that the cohort of young individuals will greatly exceed the number of large, reproductively mature animals. These younger rats often have bright eyes and nice fur, which makes them rather cute.

More Rats!_5960278204_l

Urban litter is often in the frames, adding some context to the shots.

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Many of the rats I encountered had scars such as missing eyes, which indicates crowding in shelter areas and conspecific aggression.

Rats at Commercial Drive_6095205769_l

The elegant form of the rat at a gallop is one of the most astounding sights in the natural world.

Rats at Commercial Drive_5956413839_l Rats at Commercial Drive_5956981674_l

There is much more I would like to do with rats, such as triggering a camera with a wide angle remotely, and providing more natural foods, like pizza. Just imagine, a rat in front of a graffiti covered wall, dragging a massive slice of pizza! This is my art, this is my dream.

Anyway, I urge anyone to go try a rat safari, and wonder at the most urban of urban wildlife.

Cheapskate Tuesday 21: Sitting on black


Seeing as how last week’s Sitting on White was fun to do, and inspired by this great post by Alex Wild, I decided to shoot some jumpers sitting on black.

To do this, I simply spray painted a sheet of window glass black, and used the unsprayed side as a stage. The lighting was much more simple than Alex’s, just  single diffused speedlight overhead. All shots required a good deal of “healing” to remove dust, but in general they came out OK. The better method would be to get a thick piece of glass as Alex described, but I do not have any such on hand, and if I had tried this with the glass suspended, i would get ugly double reflections. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pics, and get inspired to try it yourself!



I think this guy could see his reflection!

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By the way, when I tried to bring in a snooted rim-light, this is what happened. Messy, but kind of cool!


Cheapskate Tuesday 20: Sitting on white


The photos I took Sunday of the pretty Habronattus males were fun and effective because of their simple composition. This is not a difficult look to achieve, and only requires a diffused flash and a white surface. This is a technique I use often as a shortcut to isolate a subject, and it looks pretty nice!

For these shots, I was shooting on a white formica table, but I have used just a blank sheet of typing paper as well. I just placed the spiders on the table, brought in a diffused flash (YN-560 with the Cheapskate Diffuser Mk II) at 1/8 power, and blasted away at ISO 250-320 at f13. I used a 100 mm macro lens with 37 mm of extension tubes. The exposure I brought up in post so that most of the background goes to white (overexposed on all channels) then reigned in the subject using the blacks slider in Adobe Camera Raw. Often using this technique I get loss of contrast due to the light reflecting off the large white surface directly at the front element, but so long as it is not to severe, this can be brought back in post.


Setup: white sheet, attractive subject, blast light from your favourite angle! Done!

While environmental portraits showing the habitat or behaviour are great and something to work at, you can try this as an easy way to document a subject in isolation when you need a good quality image. The way I look at it is as a convenient visual shorthand that conveys the physical appearance of a subject with no distraction, much in the same way that fashion photographers or catalogue photographers use the same technique. I used this to add some good images of Habronattus ophrys (which is very difficult to shoot in situ) to bugguide.net. I think they turned out nicely, and show how beautiful some of our local spiders can be. What do you think?


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Cheapskate Tuesday 19: Speedlight(s) and a bounce card


These images show the Elderberry Longhorn Beetle (Desmocerus aureipennis), and the subtle effect of using a bounce card to add fill to a side-lit subject. Of these two, I think the once without the card is nicer.

One of the cheapest lighting modifiers to use is a handheld white surface, often called a bounce card, to direct fill light toward a subject. When the light source is the sun, or a small speedlight, this is said to be effective for filling in unsightly shadows and flattening the exposure somewhat for a more pleasing appearance. It is a fine idea for people, but what about insects? Will bouncing back some of that diffused key light greatly improve the appearance of a photo? I did some experimentation to find out.

In the following series of frames showing a Silphid beetle (Sexton Beetle) of the genus Nicrophorus, the key light is a speedlight diffused with the Cheapskate Diffuser MK II, and the bounce card is placed directly beside the subject to the right.


In the frame on the right, the structure of the thorax is revealed in more detail by the bounced light from the reflector.


On the bare rock, the subject’s shadow is softened by the bounce card.


And here, with a bit of a key light error, the harsh shadow is undone by the bounce card, revealing detail on the head (but not enough to save the frame!).

In these next two frames, the diffused key light is also above and to the left, a second bare speedlight (in the Monster Macro Rig) lights the background, and the bounce is directly below the subject.


In this case, the effect is to flatten the exposure of the foreground, somewhat muting the effect of the angled key light. I prefer the frame on the left, even though the exposure is somewhat off.

OK, so with a bounce card in the bag, what else can we do?

Well, it can make a nice instant white background, changing this:


Into this:


Check out all those mites!

All in all, the effect of the bounce card seems to be rather subtle in most cases, but may be useful for filling harsh shadows in a way that avoids the dreaded double highlights of using fill flash (especially in the eyes of the subject). Because it is cheap and light to carry, I think I will keep it in my photo bag, but will probably be judicious in its use. I think it is probably only suitable for things that don’t fly too readily!

I am sure I am just scratching the surface of using a card to bounce fill onto a subject, but I am itching to show you more of these beautiful beetles.

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Cheapskate Tuesday 18: Flickr: a tera-bad idea, or a good backup option?

rat snake

The first image I uploaded to flickr: June 16 2005, a crop of a shot of a yellow rat snake I had taken the day before with my trusty HP Photosmart 735. I found it behind the Florida Medical Entomology Lab, where I did my Masters.

Last week, on the 20th of May, flickr announced and rolled out extensive changes to their layout and business model. These have caused a massive uproar in the flickr community; at least among those who have been long-term paying members, of which I am one. I came of photographic age on flickr, and I feel that the new model is hostile to the community that fostered my photographic education.

It appears that the new business model is set to sacrifice their dedicated core photo enthusiast user community (which includes such notable efforts as sourcing images for Encyclopedia of Life and the Neotropical Birds website, among others) to focus on drawing in everyone with everything related to digital storage of media. The aim seems to be shifting from a user-pays service model for their core finance, and into ad-supported massive online hosting of media. How this will play out in terms of obtrusiveness of ads and crappiness of product placement I cannot say.  I am personally not a fan of their new layout and formula for making money, and even my decent little laptop has major issues trying to load their massively over-filled and endlessly-scrolling pages.


The new layout could be described as overwhelming…

All that grumbling aside, there is a positive spin that we might make use of for Cheapskate Tuesday! As part of their plan, flickr now offers any member, paying or not, 1 terabyte of FREE storage. The implications of this for remote backup and access are obvious, as 1 TB of jpegs is a hell of a lot of pics. I already use flickr as a backup of sorts, and in fact in my early days, I had very poor data management skills, so my only copies of some shots are on flickr.  With 1 TB of storage, I could upload my entire collection of jpegs, and in fact I may do so some time.

If you are uncomfortable with ads, and want to beat Yahoo at their own game, you could backup your entire collection and set the default viewing to private, so that they won’t be out slanging Creation Museum tours or butt hair remover on your hard work. The new model will probably attract a ton of crap photos from casual phone snappers; let them do the dirty work for Yahoo while you take advantage of your free terabyte!

Anyway, this is only a good plan as far as Yahoo sticks to its end of the bargain, and with the massive changes sprung without warning last week, I am not so sure that is a safe bet.

cellar spider

The most recent image I have uploaded to flickr: a Cellar Spider brooding eggs (yes, that one! We are so excited!)

Cheapskate Tuesday 17: Micro Aquaria!

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A couple weeks ago, I explained my desire to shoot some aquatic invertebrates in small aquaria, using a store-bought betta tank. This larger enclosure will serve well for the larger animals I might encounter, but is not ideal for many smaller creatures. Because of this I decided to make a few really small aquaria using microscope slides and cover slips. I am sure I picked this idea up somewhere, but I cannot recall where. The advantage  of this design is that it is suitably small to contain the movements of the animals close to the glass, and is of good optical quality, as the slides are designed for microscopy.


Materials needed: standard microscope slides, cover slips, and silicone sealant suitable for aquarium use. This uses glacial acetic acid as a thinner, so it dries non-toxic.


With this design, I have made three sizes, to accommodate a variety of animals. The smallest is great for things like mosquito larvae and pupae, and one day I hope to get a full pupation sequence…Anyway, the structure of these is simple enough to grasp from these photos.

Things to watch out for while using these :

1) Formation of air bubbles on the inside of the glass when full. This can be remedied with gentle teasing with a small paintbrush and cloning out in post.

2) Especially when working in saltwater, any water splashing on the outside of the glass will form an ugly rime that will mar photos. Make sure the front face is clean!

3) in this small volume of water, heat can build up quickly, so be sure to work in a shaded area, or on a cool day to avoid killing your subjects.

4) release subjects where you found them!

For setting these up, Catherine and I placed the aquaria with a folded sheet of cardstock as a backdrop on a park bench. Diffusers to the side softened the light and lit the background. Flashes were fired with YongNuo  radio triggers, and I shot with a 100 mm macro lens, in some cases with 33 mm of extension. I kept th lens hood on to minimize flare from the lights. In the future, I will try a black base below the aquarium to eliminate reflections.

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Below is a gallery of shots we took at Cattle Point in Oak Bay yesterday,  which also includes some previous mosquito shots from Vancouver. Many of the intertidal shots needed extensive post work to eliminate bubbles, which would have been easier had I remembered my paintbrush!