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 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!

Cheapskate Tuesday 15: headed for the water!


Inspired by this great post by C.L Goforth, a.k.a. the Dragonfly Woman, I decided to get my feet wet with aquatic insect photography. This is a field which I have almost completely ignored, probably because I thought it was too challenging. But really, despite a few technical challenges, it can’t be all that different from other types of shooting, and there is such a wealth of fascinating and beautiful subjects to photograph!

So far, I have just acquired a tank (a small, cheap betta tank, c. 20 bucks) and I have yet to add  the recommended spacer to restrict the movements of the subjects. I have situated the flashes as below, added some diffuser material (same stuff as in the Cheapskate Diffusers) and shot away at what was available, in this case the larvae of Culiseta incidens, a common early-season mosquito here on the West Coast (in fact they overwinter as mated adults).

I will keep this blog updated with further refinements and experiments as I delve into aquatic insect photography. To all my fellow insect photographers: why not join me as this insect season really begins?



So far the results look decent on tricky small subjects. I have not edited out any of the bubbles and other flaws, and I may have pushed the contrast up too much, but I am hopeful and optimistic! I especially like seeing details of the gut and musculature through the cuticle.


This frame shows one reason to get your lens axis exactly perpendicular to the glass of the aquarium: distortion!


I am fairly pleased with this frame, as it shows decent depth of field and good sharpness on the setae (hairs).


This larva was moving toward the camera with the feeding movements of its mouth brushes.

Here is what Culiseta incidens looks like as an adult.

Cheapskate Tuesday 14: Fenix E-05: a handy little flashlight!


Dwarf Caimans (Paleosuchus spp.) and other crocodilians can be found with headlamps, but if you want to use your handheld flashlight, hold it close to the visual axis of your eyes in order to better perceive the eyeshine. Photo by Tanya Jones.

Headlamps are very useful for nighttime nature photography as well as tropical fieldwork. For extended trips, or just to get better performance, I use rechargeable NiMH batteries. These AAA cells come in packs of four, but most headlamps only require three. What to do with the fourth?

Well, it is always a good idea to have a spare light, and the little Fenix E-05 is a great little light the requires but a single AAA battery to produce up to 27 lumens (that is a lot!). Problem solved!

They are compact, waterproof and f-ing bright as heck! So bright, you don’t wanna point them at your eyes bright. I have used them in fieldwork as well as in some studio lighting of Black Widow behaviour (but I can’t show you as it is not yet published!).


These little guys cost about 20 bucks and have served in nighttime focus  illumination of several rainforest creatures. When in the field or out of it, Catherine and I clip these to our bags for a handy tool for our illumination needs. There are several colours to choose from, which is important for accessorizing (kinda?).  If you want to read up more on these inexpensive little lights, go to Ken Rockwell’s review here.


Cheapskate Tuesday 13: Little progress on the Salticid Startler®, but here are some more bees!

I have made little progress on the Salticid Startler®, owing to other commitments, but I have purchased some nail polish for the chelicerae and paint for the bodies. I will update when I make more progress. In the meantime, have a look at Mike’s new 50 mm 1.8L lens! Some creative work with red pinstriping and he has got about 2 bucks more on the resale value. He also has a great conversation piece!

And as an update to the Weekend Expedition post, here is some more video and pictures of the large Solitary Bee (I haven’t figures out if they are Colletes or Andrena) colony.


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Beeflies were standing by to parasitize the nests.

Cheapskate Tuesday 12: the Salticid Startler®


artist’s impression of the Salticid Startler® fitted to the Monster Macro Rig.

This week’s Cheapskate Tuesday I introduce plans and preliminary work on prototypes of a fun new tool that I hope will enable photographers to achieve better and more consistent shots of the macro shooter’s best friend: Cute jumping spiders gazing into the camera lens!

One of the challenges of jumper photography is to get opportunities of getting those head-on, deep-staring shots that make folks swoon for the sheer cuteness. Although jumping spiders  will sometimes fixate on the lens, often they think there is something better to look at just out of frame. Stupid jumpers!

Always looking away!

The rationale for the Salticid Startler  is that possibly, when faced with  an accurately painted model of a jumper with nice shiny chelicerae and bright shiny eyes, a jumper will have no choice but to stare into the lens.

The scientific rationale is that Salticids (jumping spiders) are highly visually oriented creatures, that can recognize other spiders and respond to visual cues for courtship and combat. With this in mind, I am hoping that my model, affixed in front of and below the lens will hold their attention and allow for better and longer photo opportunities.

“Look right into the camera baby… Dammit!”

To make my prototypes, I am using Sculpey, a type of polymer clay that can be baked into nice plasticky hardness. For five rather over sized models I have used about 1/4 a block (about $1.25 worth).


I will not bore you with details of construction, because that will not help anyway…This stuff is tough to work with if you have large hands! Practice with it and hopefully you can achieve better details than I have!


I will make nice beady, shiny eyes of painted epoxy, and use acrylic paints for the body. I am thinking a nice green metallic nail polish will make a nice finish for the chelicerae of a model for Phidippus johnsoni. You can substitute other colours for whatever species you are targeting.


Prototypes after baking

You will note that the prototypes are way too big…This may be a problem, but alternatively, it may act as a supernormal stimulus, which will increase their effectiveness. I plan on having someone with more nimble fingers make some more life sized ones…

shiny eyes and chelicerae: the key!

These are my thoughts for the Salticid Startler… I don’t have the talent or patience of Thomas Shahan (a god in jumper photography), so I am thinking these might be a lifesaver on my rare jumping spider outings…If any experts would like to offer suggestions, or just shoot the idea down outright, I am all ears eyes!

Cheapskate Tuesday 11: go to FM forums!


Since I have been covering quite a bit of macro-related stuff in Cheapskate Tuesday, I would like to direct your attention to the FM Forums Macro World, where the thread “Post Your Setup” is a great source of inspiration and advice. The commentary and feedback you can get when you post your work on the Macro World thread itself can be very useful, and I would urge anyone interested in macro photography to give it a try.  You can specify when you post your work that you are soliciting feedback and criticism.

The other great thing about visiting a forum such as that is that you can encounter new photographers, and be inspired by their work.


“How does my hair look?”

Cheapskate Tuesday 10: the Monster Macro Rig


One of the great challenges of macrophotography using speedlights is the  phenomenon of falloff. Using a diffused speedlight near a small subject is in essence putting a powerful light right next to the subject. This sets up a major obstacle to a good exposure, however,  because the intensity of illumination from a light source declines  proportionally to the inverse of  the square of the distance  (the Inverse Square Law). As the distance from light to subject is so small relative to the distance from the light to the background, harsh falloff is expected to occur in the light from the key.   This is especially evident when your subject is perched on vegetation some distance above the ground.

Compare the two frames above. In both cases, the main or key light on the subject comes from the same diffused YN-560 above and to the left of the subject.  In frame number 1, the falloff is so great that the background is essentially black, making it appear as if the subject was photographed at night. In frame 2, the background is illuminated by a second (bare) speedlight aimed so as to bypass the subject.  The way these lights are positioned is the subject of this week’s Cheapskate Tuesday.

Behold! The “Monster Macro Rig


The construction of this beast is pretty self evident, the materials required are:

1) Arca Swiss type Rail, I used the DMP-200 from Sunway Photo. This is a pricey object for Cheapskate Tuesday, at c. 120 bucks.

2) 2 11″ friction arms, the ones you can find on EBay

3) a small piece of aluminum stock

4) an extra Arca head and QR plate (c. 15 bucks if you shop around).

5) various bolts, nuts and lockwashers, speedlights and radiotriggers.


Here is what it looks like sans camera. It can be folded down into a pretty compact size.


the Arca head is screwed into the tripod mount of the lens. This allows the camera to be moved back and forth along the rail relative to the lights, which is useful for taking multiple shots at different magnifications without changing the exposure.


The key light is diffused and illuminates the subject, the background fill is aimed so as to miss the subject and illuminate the background.


This is by no means the only way to construct such a beast, but the rail setup makes it convenient for changing the magnification quickly. A cheaper, lighter and easier alternative can be found here:

This setup takes some getting used to, but it is gratifying in how easy it is to make the images…

One of the difficult things to master is matching the background and foreground exposure. There is a certain sweet spot for subject to background distance that cannot be exceeded if the technique is to work.  For insect photography on low vegetation, it works well, provided there is some background to light up within a couple metres. Another thing to watch for is distracting background elements, such as dead grasses,twigs or other light colored items. 


This shot of a Bullet Ant is an example of where the background might be considered distracting.


Here the background is not distracting but extreme falloff rears its ugly head.

Keeping such caveats in mind, it is a fun device to use and a practical way to balance subject and background illumination with a handheld rig. Of course, if the background is no appreciable distance from the subject, the second light can be used as fill.


This tick in French Guiana was illuminated with the Monster Macro Rig

This same image of a Damsel Bug was used to illustrate the Cheapskate Diffuser Mark I, where I mentioned the subject was illuminated with the diffuser This was true, but was not the whole story. the background was illuminated with a second speedlight held in the Monster Macro Rig. .

The Monster Macro Rig is probably the priciest item for Cheapskate Tuesday yet, but considering all the components, including 2 Yongnuo or similar speedlights, it still comes in cheaper than a new Canon speedlight, and much cheaper than the MT-24 EX. For longer macro lenses, such as the 100 mm, I would argue this is the better lighting option.

Sometimes the effect can be magical.