Tag Archive | DIY

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 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 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 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.

Cheapskate Tuesday 9: Black Foam flag/snoot


Note: this post/idea is owed entirely to Neil van Niekerk, an extremely talented wedding and portrait photographer. It is, in fact, his famous “Black Foamie Thing“. Please do visit his site, as I do not have the talent to really do the subject justice! I merely present the idea, with a few examples, and send you on along to his blog, where you can feast your eyes on his excellent results.

The black foamie thing is  mainly with an on-camera speedlight, but it can also be taken off camera or used for other cold lights. It has several uses:

1) to flag something, that is, to block direct light from a light source spilling on a subject or a distracting background object.

2) to shape light. It can be used as a flag, or rolled into a “snoot” or used to direct bounce flash in one direction only.

3) for walk-around bounce flash use, it can be used to control spill so as not to annoy people (such as at social functions).

Below is one way to make it:

The material are some self-adhesive velcro and one sheet of black foamie material, the same stuff as used in the Cheapskate Diffuser Mark II:


First, cut a piece of velcro to go along one long edge.  Stick it there.


Cut four more smaller pieces, two hook and two loop.

Stick them in the middle of the shorter edge, on alternating sides. This will allow the foamie to form a tight snoot around the flash head.

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Here Catherine is modelling the flag in the “flag your subject position”. Her subject is a spider (appropriate!). Note how the direct flash does not fall on the subject, although the flash is on the camera.  Instead the subject gets a nice even illumination.


Catherine modelling the “flag subject, light from the side (window light) position”. Note that she is a bit too close to the wall to get a nice large “window” light…Did I mention Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities to rent in?


Catherine uses the black foamie thing in snoot configuration, showing the tight beam. This could be used off camera, perhaps as a rim light or hair light.


Here are some shots demonstrating the effects of the flag, starting with “window light, camera right”


Window light camera left:


Flag the subject, illuminate from above (note how there is some specular highlight in her glasses from the low ceiling, though the lighting is flat left to right):


Here is a composite of three  examples taken using two speeedlights with black foamie thing in snoot configuration, behind and to either side of each of these feathers in turn:

There are other ways to make and use these things, and even some commercial products which do the same thing. It can be a helpful tool to have around, and seeing as it costs 2 bucks, it is a good project for Cheapskate Tuesday.

Cheapskate Tuesday 8: giving your photos a “painted” look without Photoshop


Here are the results of three alternative photo processing paradigms.

1: the unaltered image.

2: the same image processed with Adobe Photoshop’s “Accented Edges” filter.

3:  the original photo processed by Catherine Scott, using just her hands, some paint, and a paintbrush.

Of the two altered images, I prefer number three, because it takes the crow in a more Impressionistic direction. Catherine points out that it doesn’t use expensive software, and took less time than our so-called “1 hour” photo printing place down the street. Your results may vary.


Stay tuned tomorrow for a post on Treetrunk Spiders!

Cheapskate Tuesday 7: Cheapskate Flash Diffuser Mark II


*NOTE! The instructions here are great for cutting out a pattern to fit your flash, but check out the Cheapskate Diffuser MKIII instructions for a better method of general construction


Adrian Thysse has just announced a macro tools workshop for you Albertans, and Alex Wild has just put up a post about diffusing an MT-24 EX, so the time is ripe for macro flash diffusion discussion. This week’s Cheapskate Tuesday is an overhaul of the Cheapskate Flash Diffuser, essentially transforming it into a small softbox. This update uses the same plastic diffuser material as well as craft “foamie” material.  A glue gun or other adhesive option is also required.

The two chief advantages to this updated device are: 1. the diffusion material stands off several more centimeters from the flash head, so the illumination of the diffuser is more even. 2. The new device is stiff and solid when mounted to your speedlight, so it won’t flop around. The disadvantages are the more complex build, larger folded size, and increased weight (48 vs. 12 g). Another disadvantage is that this is no longer universal, but must be made to fit the dimensions of a particular speedlight. Here I have illustrated a build that would work for a YongNuo 560, 565 or a Canon 580. The generalized schematics to adapt the design to any speedlight are found below. If possible, I will have some shots from the field taken with this soon.

Please follow along below for the essentials on how to construct the Cheapskate Diffuser Mark II. Just like an update to a Canon lens, this Mark II will run you three times the price. So budget around 3 dollars. Because being a PhD student wrecks my brain and hands, I had to rely on my local Master’s Student Catherine Scott to help me out with all the tough geometry, hand modelling and cutting! Pythagoras also helped immensely.


This “foamie” craft material is the basis for the modification. You will need two black sheets and two white sheets.


Using the same plastic diffusion material as in the Mk I, mark off 4 cm from each side.


For the wide sides, cut out the pictured shapes in both the white and black foamie material.


Same with the narrow sides. Make two in black and two in white.


8 foamie pieces of four kinds and a marked plastic sheet.


make creases along the lines previously drawn


lay down a bead of hot glue along the creased 4 cm


glue down the black pieces on the corresponding sides. Black goes on the “outside”. Then glue the white pieces on the inside, sandwiching the plastic in between.


ready for cutting out


cut out the corners


cut out velcro to size


ready to rock


mounted to the YN 560.


these schematics are for designing custom diffusers for differently sized diffusion material or a different speedlight. Here is how to measure a flash head and mark off the diffuser material.


schematic for the larger pieces. Note that B and C are the dimensions from the previous diagram, and that F must be measured.


schematic for the smaller pieces. First calculate G, and make sure F is the same as measured in the previous diagram.



found a Camponotus alate in the hallway at school today, so I had an opportunity to test out the CFDMkII

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Cheapskate Tuesday 6: A simple flash bracket

So far on Cheapskate Tuesday I have desscribed two different ways of getting close to a subject, with macro diopters, and the use of extension tubes and cheap 50 mm lenses. I have also covered flash diffusion and radio triggers. There is one element missing for a cheapskate macro rig, and that is some kind of bracket to mount the diffused flash to the camera. This is necessary  because although it is sometime practical to hold a speedlight in one hand while shooting, it is often nice to be able to hold and fire everything with one hand free to hold back vegetation, or steady the subject.

Below is one easy option to accomplish this.

On the left is a simple aluminum flash bracket (or a piece of one anyway). They can be found on ebay, if you search for “flat flash bracket”. They may run anywhere between 3 and 10 dollars. A better option would be to visit a used camera store, as they probably have oodles of these sitting in a dusty box somewhere.   The second item is an 11″ variable friction arm, also available via ebay. This device allows you to connect any two objects that both have a female 1/4″ thread. The arm allows you to flex the central joint along one axis, and a great range of movement on the ends via a ball and socket type linkage. When the main knob is tightened, the whole assembly locks rigid.  These two inexpensive items can be put together using a 1/4″ nut, some washers and a lock washer.


The arm can be used to cantilever the flash (with triggers or ttl cable, and diffused!) out over or beside the subject.


The flash can be oriented to either side, or the entire assembly can be rotated so the friction arm is to the left or right.


The bracket can be used as a standard flash bracket as well, and can bring the flash nicely off-axis for paparazzo-style shooting with wider lenses.

See below some examples where I have used this type of bracket. I have found it is a simple, cheap and lightweight general purpose bracket for many shooting situations. .

This French Guianan toad was illuminated from above using the friction-arm mounted flash.

This setup works especially well working very close, as in this portrait of a damselfly.

This ant-mimicking spider was also amenable to use of this bracket. Because the subject is illuminated from such a close source, falloff is a problem. In an upcoming Cheapskate Tuesday, I will share how I get around this problem.