Do you want to know why?

In the same discussion I mentioned a few posts back, a particular quote from Christopher Hitchens came up, which was basically, “Religion poisons everything.” This kind of statement is fairly hard for many people to accept, and it is often treated as hyperbole, senseless exaggeration to make the case seem stronger. But I maintain that there is, instead, a veneer of respectability laid over religion, to the point that criticism of any aspect is often considered extreme, if not taboo. It is a veneer that is decidedly not warranted, and does in fact hide from us the damage that can be done. And is done. I present an example to you, one that is not unique in any way.

Continue reading “Do you want to know why?”

More from the neighbors


Early this evening, as I spoke on the telephone while standing on my upstairs patio, a “conversation” from the trees across the driveway drew my attention, and I cut the call short. While I couldn’t see anything, some very soft “wheet-a wheet-a” sounds were emanating from quite close by. Naturally, I grabbed the camera and started tracking the sounds, and eventually caught site of the birds seen above.

Common Flickers (Colaptes auratus) are found throughout North America, but tend to be shy, and being woodpeckers, prefer to stay within wooded areas. Their territorial call is a sudden sharp whistle, descending in tone, but what these two were using might best be described as the squeak of someone scrubbing glass, sharp but quiet initial note with a fainter followup, repeated regularly about twice a second and with varying pitch and volume. As they did this, they bobbed and twitched at one another. Since these were both males, as determined by the mustache mark alongside their beaks, I suspect this was a territorial discussion – another photo that I have, unfortunately not sharp enough to show anyone, shows raised feathers along the crest of the head, another dominance display. My best guess right now is that these are siblings from this year’s brood trying to decide who could lay claim to this part of the woods.

What allowed me to get these images was mostly my curiosity at the faint repeated “wheet-a“s, and remaining alert to any movement when searching the area. Their coloration, especially in partially shaded conditions, is very subtle, and you’ll most likely identify them by the flash of white at the base of their tail at the back (what birdwatchers call the “rump”) as they fly from one trunk to another. Shown here perched, they will just as often alight on the trunk itself and remain upright, which is of course their feeding/foraging position.

Another image that I caught shows off the lovely fawn coloration of their heads a bit more, as well as the red patch at the nape of the neck and the pointed tips of the tail feathers. Most woodpeckers use their tail as a brace and springboard for pecking, so the shafts of those feathers are likely quite strong. The breast feathers, with their spots, are very distinctive even when found by themselves on the floor of the forest. They’re fan-shaped for maximum coverage and heat retention, so rather than each spot belonging to only one feather, every feather has a collection of them – you’re seeing fewer feathers here than you might imagine.

I have a fruit-and-nut wreath birdfeeder to put up, but that’s hardly a natural setting for photos, so I might start getting creative by breaking it up and forcing the bits into crevices in prime photography areas. This will give woodpeckers and nuthatches something to do and allow me to use the best light and backgrounds, and still get natural-looking images.

One of these days I’ll get a decent sound recording system aimed for outdoor use and start podcasting the neighbors’ conversations. Donations, of course, are gratefully accepted… ;-)

Frustrations, part four

So this afternoon, noticing the massive activity at a yellowjacket’s burrow in my yard, I decided to try and get some nice close shots of their work. That would be called, “foreshadowing,” in English Lit classes, wouldn’t it? Ah, not in the way that you’re thinking…
Eastern Yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons) are generally ground-nesting wasps, known to be the most aggressive in the area. Disturbing the nest, which is usually an unobtrusive hole in the ground, can cause them to swarm, and most especially so if you kill one of their number, which releases a scent that alerts the others. I have run afoul of this before, being stung over a dozen distinctive times in a frenetic couple of minutes. The advice is, “Don’t slap them,” but this is a bit hard to follow as they’re stinging you. Unlike honeybees, yellowjackets do not lose the embedded stinger on the first sting, but can nail you repeatedly. As I discovered then, spit on and clean off the spot where you smooshed one before it attracts more to the exact same spot. The stings can start itching madly at odd times for several days after the attack, by the way…

So what was I doing trying to get closeup photos of a nest that was seeing roughly 40 ingresses and egresses a minute? Well, not irritating them, for one. I used an extension tube on a 75-300mm lens to stay about a meter from the opening, and tried to time my shots for insects just leaving the ground. This is far harder than it sounds – yellowjackets appear at the mouth of the opening and are airborne in a flash, taking less than a tenth of a second to cut across the entire photo frame (which was far larger than shown in these tightly cropped images.) I’ve had plenty of practice, but I have an awful lot of empty frames.

When doing this, the air around was sometimes filled with their buzzing, and I had several land on me momentarily. I was sitting still, however, and made no aggressive moves, so as far as they were concerned I was nothing more than the branches near the nest that they occasionally lit upon. With lots of tries, and running the batteries almost dead in the strobe unit, I managed to get a few frames of merit, including the one below. Just before takeoff, a worker appears in the mouth of the opening with a dirt clod to carry away, clearly busy expanding the underground warren. This explained at least some of the frenzied activity I was seeing, and the dropping temperatures may be contributing, since they do not handle freezing conditions well and were likely trying to dig deeper before these occurred, where the earth would retain more heat as the surface cooled.

Should I have really wanted lots of detail shots of an insect in flight, this is the wrong way to go about it – the depth-of-field is way too short and the area for the wasps to be in too large. To control this, some insect photographers set up a rig where two infrared or laser beams cross at a particular point. These beams are linked to light sensors and into a device to trip the camera shutter – both beams have to be broken to fire the camera, so the insect has to be in a precise location. Since this is still unimaginably hard to achieve in three-dimensional space, another factor is occasionally added: a tube that empties out right near the crossed beams, just outside of the camera’s view. Insects are introduced into this tube and gently blown along it to exit by the crossed beams, so that they stand a much greater chance of passing through the key focus point. This is how the studies of insects in flight are often done. When time is money, you do whatever you can to increase the odds. As I’ve shown at top, you can indeed catch insects in flight without special rigs, but you’ll notice the shadow behind the wasp – it was barely airborne at this point, and I shot 86 frames trying for this, with only a handful of sharp images.

Disrespect my authoritah!

In a discussion on religion a short while back, I got to hear one of the more amusing arguments that has been forwarded frequently, apparently (somehow) in favor of religion: that atheism is simply a rebellion against authority. This argument has so many levels to it that I figured it deserved its own post.

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On composition, part five: It’s the law!


Yes, I know, I just did a composition post. But the last one got me to thinking, and this one is more than simply composition. Bear with me.

The compositional guideline in photography that everyone learns quickly is the Rule of Thirds. Simply put, and illustrated above, you break the frame into thirds, a tic-tac-toe board, and then place your key elements on the lines, or for preference, on the intersection of the lines. Horizons should not be in the middle, but offset to one of the two horizontal thirds lines. Instead of placing your subject smack in the middle of the frame, you get a more pleasing composition by utilizing this rule.

Except, it’s not really a rule, and most decent photographers know this (and explain it too.) There are plenty of times when you shouldn’t use it, and lots of good compositions that would be worse if it was used. While I cropped the image above to meet the rule exactly, the ratio that I actually use for prints is mildly different. And it’s not really clear how much variation you can have before the “pleasing effect” fades too much.

So, let’s get something out of the way first. What I personally recommend is to consider placing your subject off-center. A subject placed in the middle is thrown in the viewers face:Here it is!” While placing it off-center says, “Here is a scene with a strong subject.” It allows you to show setting, establish mood and time of day, and gives the viewer awareness of the background, foreground, or surrounding areas that can make a story or idea complete. Place your horizon to emphasize the element most interesting, be it sky or foreground. So, break the rule as you see fit. Try it out, but use your judgment on where to place your subject(s).

Now, the bigger question: Why does this even work? The answer is, no one knows. There are a couple of concepts that seem to relate, the foremost being something called the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio, a simple mathematical relation used in art and design. The Rule of Thirds isn’t a match for this, but hews fairly closely. The Golden Mean has supposedly been used since ancient times in architecture, art, and various odd areas – I say supposedly because the cases that people have made for great works of art following this closely, for instance, usually turn out to be fudging the numbers by a significant margin.

And then there’s the Fibonacci Sequence, another mathematical ratio that, when applied two-dimensionally, also strikes fairly close to the Golden Mean and the Rule of Thirds, but seems to appear in nature surprisingly often. The most common illustration of this is the nautilus shell shape that appears as you increase a curve, um, Fibonaccially (whatever,) but it is also supposed to show in the placement of leaves around the circumference of a stem, allowing them the maximum amount of sunlight without blocking leaves directly underneath. Very cool, really, but in reality, this varies widely based on the type of plant, size of leaves, and environmental factors. The argument seems to be that nature has demonstrated a mathematical formula, indicating some connection between nature and math, but it appears more to be a case of bearing a passing resemblance than supporting a natural law. A lot of people like mathematics because of its precision, but mathematics is really an abstract, and doesn’t apply well to the natural world. In order to use it, you have to choose arbitrary definitions. Two oranges are always twice the weight of one orange, right? No, that’s ludicrous.

The thing is, none of the concepts does anything to explain why we find such measurements pleasing to the eye (or, in some cases, ear or touch.) The various mathematical formulas were created to match (more or less) this very common tendency for humans to respond to certain layouts, but it’s clear we’re not concerned with the exact numbers. There is something fundamental at work deep in our minds. I originally toyed with the idea that our two eyes were the culprit, having something to do with visual range, overlap, and our desire to assess surroundings. A subject right smack in front of you gains all of your attention, but can be threatening, while one offset allows you room to see something else, to escape, and so on. Sounded good, but it failed to explain vertical compositions, and would likely have led to a dislike of them entirely if it were true. Pop psychology is rarely useful ;-)

Seen here, a composition that I find very strong doesn’t align terribly well – the sun reflection falls on one of the lines, but well away from the intersection. Many other shots that I find well-composed, including most of the examples in my composition series (use the Categories link in the sidebar to see more,) meander away from these proportions noticeably. Either it is far from exact, or my judgment sucks – your call on that one ;-)

Would knowing why we tend to prefer a certain layout answer anything about us? It’s hard to say – while most of the traits we have now have some bearing to our evolution and survival, a few things are simply artifacts of our development. I doubt it’s the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but I can’t get over my curiosity about it.

Book Review: Demon-Haunted World

This is the first of what will be only an occasional contribution, since I have planned these for a while but appear to be slow in completing them. More, however, are on the way…

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is probably the most well-known of Carl Sagan’s books, and is almost considered a handbook of skepticism and critical-thinking. It’s hard to say whether this was intentional or not – Sagan was always a huge promoter of critical thinking, but by its own admission it is a science book. From my standpoint, however, it should be recommended reading for anyone with a teen reading level onward, regardless of one’s views towards science, or even their misgivings about it. In only one place does the science that Sagan enthuses over actually involve something like equations, and he’s patient enough to explain them without forcing the reader to comprehend the values – this is about James Clerk Maxwell’s sudden discovery, through what was really a mathematical experiment, of the nature of electromagnetism and its relation to light and radio waves. “Relation” being rather the wrong word here, since at that point they were found to be the same thing, a discovery that has enormous impact on everything we do today.

More compelling, however, is Sagan’s examination of our everyday world. He builds his cases carefully, keeping the reader captivated with concise writing as he gently steers to his target by eliminating the other choices. Sagan, especially in this book, is a humble yet enthusiastic writer, who asks more questions than he answers, yet asks the right ones, never telling the reader what must be the case yet allowing them to eliminate the other options. In this regard, he mimics one aspect of the scientific method, in that he tries to determine if any other conclusion might fit as well, if not better, which would throw the initial conclusion into doubt. In this way, science tests itself and weeds out alternative explanations.

To me, the most distinctive parts of the book are where he examines the witch hunts of Europe before the Enlightenment, chronicled through writers of that time. If, like me, you knew only of Salem during that period, these chapters will be shocking – Salem was a drop in the bucket in a time of senseless and inescapable persecution, based on a corrupt belief system and meaningless assertions. We’d like to think we know better now, but Sagan manages not to couch it in terms of past ignorance, but compares it with present assertions, demonstrating that we are not immune to such behavior unless we make the efforts to ask the hard questions and demand support for claims. Indeed, he makes direct comparisons to alien abduction accounts and the questionable methods of investigating such.

Sagan goes into great detail regarding the famous abduction case of Betty & Barney Hill, relating facts that most accounts somehow miss. These facts, far from being extraneous, have direct bearing on the reliability of the testimonies, and provide an eye-opening experience into the world of UFO investigation. It becomes evident that some conclusions are reached not through weight of the evidence, but by other means – wish fulfillment, perhaps, or pre-existing biases. And while many people find no surprise at this, Sagan takes pains throughout the book to demonstrate that such behavior does not belong to “fringe” beliefs alone.

Another fascinating read are the samples of public opinion, snippets of responses he had received in the mail following the publication of chapter excerpts in Parade magazine. If the reader is still dubious about the need for thinking skills in this modern age, this cross-section of American opinion certainly helps drive the point home. The responses from a high school classroom are particularly disturbing. It’s one thing to hear, or even believe oneself, that much of the public is ill-informed, but seeing the examples of it always has a greater impact.

It is here that he introduces what has become known as the “Baloney Detection Kit,” a list of practices and common fallacies that serve admirably to sort out the accuracy of any claim, and that form the basis of all critical thinking. It is difficult to imagine a situation where such practices would not serve a useful purpose – but there are plenty where they were, and are, desperately needed. Sagan includes a simple story in a footnote, one that demonstrates the fallacy of, as he calls it, “observational selection” – counting the hits that confirm your hypothesis, and ignoring the misses:

[From pg 214] My favorite example is this story, told about the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, newly arrived on American shores, enlisted in the Manhattan nuclear weapons Project, and brought face-to-face in the midst of World War II with U.S. flag officers.

So-and-so is a great general, he was told.
What is the definition of a great general? Fermi characteristically asked.
I guess it’s a general who’s won many consecutive battles.
How many?
After some back and forth, they settled on five.
What fraction of American generals are great?
After some more back and forth, they settled on a few percent.

But imagine, Fermi rejoined, that there is no such thing as a great general, that all armies are equally matched, and that winning a battle is purely a matter of chance. Then the chance of winning one battle is one out of two, or 1/2; two battles 1/4, three 1/8, four 1/16, and five consecutive battles 1/32 – which is about 3 percent. You would expect a few percent of American generals to win five consecutive battles – purely by chance. Now, has any of them won ten consecutive battles …?

Another striking thing about this book is the sheer number of places you can stop reading and contemplate an introduced idea. I have myself taken advantage of this with a blog post, and will likely do so again soon. Sagan is succinct, able to explain his point with clarity and without additional verbiage or redundancy, and thus covers a vast array of topics and ideas – so many that it’s impossible to do justice with a brief book review. I was struck with the thought that this could serve almost as a textbook, with work assignments or essays based on aspects of each chapter – and what a remarkable class that would be. If you are a “thinker,” this book is a buffet.

Through it all, he does indeed promote science – not as the idea of learning valences and calculating vectors, but as the practice that serves virtually all of our advances as a species. He realizes that science has a bad reputation in the US, and indeed much of the world, and suggests ways to counteract this. His own writing, the delight in discovery and the fascination with how things work and where this leads, shows that he knows it can be done, and that we all have to eliminate this idea of science as “hard.”

Towards the end of the book, he apologizes for devoting a couple of chapters to politics, but even here Sagan cannot become polarized. The reader dreading the polemic of political parties today will find themselves cringing for nothing – Sagan instead details the careful considerations and knowledgeable backgrounds of our founding fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson, and the efforts they put into crafting the documents that govern this country. The fact that this bears no resemblance whatsoever to our current political figures is damning all by itself, with no input given or necessary by Sagan.

Carl Sagan had a couple of gifts: one of reasoned debate without rancor; and the other of boundless fascination with the natural world. Both are exemplified in this book, without ever leaving his message behind. My challenge to anyone is to simply read a chapter – any chapter. If you’re not convinced, I’ll turn in my book reviewing badge. And if your child is tackling reading at the level of Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe, they’re ready for this book.

On composition, part four


Okay, I went a little longer between posts than I prefer, due to several things, so it’s time to get back into it. In recognition of my absence, I give you a compositional element: empty space.

A very basic goal in photography is simplicity – strive to include only the elements that help the photo and leave out anything extraneous. The idea is to give the viewer a strong focal point, and/or a strong message or impression, and nothing else to distract them. But the element I’m now talking about takes the concept one step further: you include a large hunk of nothing to convey its own message. This message can vary, but it’s important to know how to use it.

In the example above, there’s a lot of space to the right of the frog. This provides multiple meanings. Primarily, it’s the space ahead. When you have either a moving subject or a line of sight from your subject, in this case the frog looking directly right, you provide this space ahead of the subject rather than “blocking it in” with the edges of the frame. Too close to the side of the image and you are, in a way, standing your subject in a corner, and it can be unsettling to the viewer. But it also implies distance in this case, leading to the idea that the frog is not merely looking right, but entirely across the river, and this is enhanced by the position atop the rock, high enough to have a good view, it would seem.

While that empty space is not really empty, but instead very complicated and full of things, it’s also out of focus (more on how to achieve this can be found here.) This gives a greater feeling of distance while simultaneously minimizing the impact it has on the viewer – we can’t focus on it, so we’re simply not supposed to, and pay attention to the focused parts of the image. With this framing, this becomes not simply a photo of a frog, but the idea of the frog crossing the river, and the river as the setting also provides the goal.

There are a couple of very subtle elements in here, too. Frogs obviously jump, but did you get the impression that the frog could jump across the entire river, or was perhaps contemplating it? There are two things that may have contributed to that feeling. The first is that the frog has a natural arc in its body, up and to the right, and this is even continued from the rock below it, in the light and pattern (and notice that we never thought the arc went in the opposite direction.) The second one is the arc of the background tree limb, mimicking the frog and drawing its own path across the river. While the frog could never jump that far, we are given the impression that it could.

Sometimes, empty space is really empty, and doesn’t seem to say anything. But it does, if only, “There’s nothing around for miles.” The isolation implied by the blank water is as much a photo element as the main subject here, and provides contrast to the sharp, intense detail of the tree stump. The empty space counterbalances the stump in the photo, and the frame is actually split in half diagonally, with almost nothing but grey and white to the upper right, and all of the color and shade in the lower left. This lack of color, by the way, allows us to notice the tiny little green leaves atop the stump, where otherwise we probably could not have.

The image says, “morning;” it says, “quiet;” it says “lonely.” The texture of the stump is almost welcome against the emptiness, and the tiny new sprouts are a ray of hope, or even defiance. A couple of leaves aren’t anything to write home about, but they’re given emphasis by the juxtaposition of empty space. Life finds a crack and forces its way in.

The featureless grey humps of the opposite shoreline are almost extraneous, and could simply be cropped out, but they add a greater sense of distance. They’re so subtle they nearly escape attention, and (unlike the bright rocks to the right of the frame in the frog photo at top) they do not distract at all, but enhance instead. Any more detail and they might have drawn the eye away for a moment, to examine their shape for something familiar or interesting, and this tiny bit of distraction or curiosity, especially without finding anything of interest, could have lessened the impact of the image and thus should be excluded.

Do you have the whole mood and feeling firmly fixed in your mind now? Good. Because now I tell you that anything could be right outside the frame to the left, but it doesn’t exist for the viewer if it’s not included… unless I mention it.

Now, you’re wondering, aren’t you? And the mood has changed for the image. That’s kind of what happens when you have distracting elements, only the viewer never felt that mood in the first place. So choose your elements wisely, look around the entire frame before tripping the shutter, and ask yourself what each item in the frame does for your composition. A mostly empty frame really is okay, and sometimes far better than a full one.

What to be, or not to be

First off, I’ll give credit for the idea of this post to Carl Sagan, and most especially his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I cannot recommend this book enough, and not just for those who pursue critical thinking – it applies to anyone, and makes the reader aware that there are lots of ways that we can be fooled. Moreover, Sagan has one of the best approaches I’ve seen, and is an engaging writer for any mature or semi-mature reader. I have been planning a book review for some time, and this may appear here eventually, but don’t wait for me.

Second, this post is another followup to the Don’t Be A Dick foofaraw, just to warn you. But this is not more of the debate – instead it’s perhaps a redirection and refinement. I recommend that you go on, but I was nice enough to include this warning and continue after the jump ;-)

Continue reading “What to be, or not to be”

Macro photography, part one

All right, since I talk about photographing small subjects pretty frequently, I figured it was about time to introduce you to some of the tricks. You’ll find that most of these, with some variations, are practiced by anyone serious about macro photography, and if you have any desire to start doing this, you should know what it is you’re getting into and why some of these techniques are used.

Above is my typical macro rig, which can be handheld or put onto a tripod. The key feature of this is the Bogen/Manfrotto 330B Macro Bracket, seen here in grey supporting two strobe units on either side of the camera. The primary reason for this is that subjects at extreme magnifications are often very close to the lens, so a standard hot-shoe mounted strobe is aimed way too high to illuminate a subject only centimeters in front of the lens, and may even be blocked by the edge of the lens itself.

The second use for this is to provide lighting that is not direct into the subject, which often looks unrealistic and doesn’t show detail, especially textures, very well. A little indirect lighting can appear much more natural, show shapes and textures, and even give some definition from the background with a shadow. The second strobe unit provides a little fill-flash, as it’s called, which basically means some light to soften shadows that get too harsh. Roughly half of the time I shoot without a second strobe, but there are times when it’s needed for good results.

The strobes are necessary to counteract an inescapable trait of macro photography. At high magnifications (and this applies to telephoto work as well,) depth-of-field drops down very low. Depth-of-field is the range of acceptably sharp focus that extends in front of, and behind, the point you focused on. This means that if you focus on the eyes (and you’d better!) the hind end of the body may be out of focus, unless you take some steps. The main one is, use a smaller aperture like f16, which increases depth-of-field. But like everything in photography, there’s a tradeoff, and in this case it means you just reduced the amount of light coming in to the film or digital sensor. To counteract that, you can leave the shutter open longer, not recommended because you’ll either shake the camera or have your subject move during exposure, or you have to produce a lot more light – hence the strobes. The bright light that they put out, however, can cause harsh shadows and let the background, if it’s significantly behind your subject, fall into darkness. In this tight crop, note that the eyestalks of this snail are sharp, but the shell is already well out of focus – note also the shadows that give shape and depth to the snail and the tree.

The macro bracket allows you to position the strobes where you need them, and mine is modified with the addition of two tripod-size screws on the arms, both shown holding my strobes. This gave me some more flexibility in placing and angling the strobes, and was a simple modification. The strobe to the right (larger one) is my main unit, and is connected to the camera by a cord which allows full communication for balanced, accurate lighting. I highly recommend having one of these cords, though Canon needs to increase the sturdiness of this ridiculously expensive cord. Mine has been repaired (see the grey base under the strobe) due to the failure of its cheap plastic construction. On the other side is a basic slave strobe, so called because it can be fired off by sensing the light from the main unit, so it can flash simultaneously without needing any connection at all. For illustrative purposes in the top photo, however, I have it connected via a PC plug that I added to Canon’s off-camera cord, at the top of the camera. This tends to be more dependable – the slave function can miss sometimes depending on ambient light.

Here’s another view of the bracket, showing some of the versatility. Both side arms can be adjusted in angle, including simply moving them out of the way, and the camera mount itself has an additional arm that allows you to switch to vertical orientation without moving the strobes – alternately, you can angle the strobes vertically while shooting a horizontal layout, whatever your subject demands. Bogen/Manfrotto is not the only company that makes these, but I liked theirs because of the size it can collapse into. When your camera bag is bursting with accessories, the smaller, the better.

Some photographers like either a ring flash or a dual-macro strobe unit, both of which mount directly on the end of the lens and shine their light directly onto the subject. The ring flash is just what it says, a light tube shaped in a ring around the end of the lens, while the dual strobe has two smaller strobe heads on either side of the lens. I dislike both – the ring flash can make strange unnatural-looking highlights on your subject (the sun is not a ring,) while both options provide direct light that doesn’t always show the best detail. Both are also very expensive, mostly because the target buyer is the serious photographer who supposedly will be happy to spend the money for what is essentially a strobe unit with 1/4 the power of a standard unit yet three times the cost. I’m a cheap bastard and don’t fall for ploys ;-)

Another benefit of a second strobe on its own arm is that it can be used to illuminate the background beyond the subject. Exposure is relative. When using a small aperture as I mentioned above, and thus needing a lot of light from your main strobe, this means that the ambient light is less in relation to the strobe, sometimes a lot less. So what happens is your background drops into shadow, or even total darkness. Sometimes this is fine, but the effect it produces is to seem like you’re shooting at night, and takes away any usefulness from having an appropriate background. So the second strobe is aimed beyond your subject to account for this.

No macro work is complete without a good lens that can focus on close subjects. Nearly all camera and lens manufacturers make dedicated macro (or “micro” for Nikon) lenses, and these are often the sharpest lenses you can find and typically allow for a wide aperture to focus on difficult subjects. You will virtually never shoot at these wide apertures, because of the depth-of-field issue above, but when you get close to something interesting and focus is crucial, you often need the light. But there are two other ways to get close focus capability as well. One is with diopters, which are “filters” that mount to the front of an existing lens and change its focus. These are inexpensive, but typically produce less than exciting results, most especially with edge distortion. They work in a pinch and can be a cheap way to get started, but if you’re serious enough to use a bracket, you need to consider something else.

The second way is with extension tubes, which are much simpler than their price seems to indicate – they’re simply empty tubes that extend the lens further away from the camera. You can see the tube here between the camera and the lens, flanked by silver edges. They work exactly like moving a projector further back from the wall – the image gets bigger. It also gets darker, because the lens is optimized for a certain distance from the film/sensor plane and moving it further back diffuses it more. Extension tubes are only as good as the lens mounted to them, and here’s where I made a pleasing discovery. When my dedicated macro lens started performing sporadically and needed repair, I tried a general purpose lens, my Sigma 24-135 zoom, on an extension tube, and it performed better than any expectations. This will not always be the case, and sometimes you won’t get sharp results with tubes, but they’re also typically 1/4 the cost of a dedicated macro lens. You will lose the ability to focus at distances, but this isn’t much of an issue since they snap on and off in seconds. There is no reason to spring for expensive ones – the inexpensive set of three Kenko tubes I’ve been using for the past decade still appear like new and perform without issue. However, I will say that dedicated macro lenses are the best performers and worth the money, though you don’t always have to get the OEM models to get great results.

And finally, one other little contraption that I made myself. This is a softbox strobe extension that positions the light directly over my macro subject, but diffuses the light to appear less like the spotlight effect that the strobe produces by itself. It allows softer, ambient-appearing light to be right over a subject only centimeters in front of the lens, and really is a reflective tube, a reflecting plate at an angle within the drum (a pudding container,) and a piece of plastic grocery bag as the diffuser. You can tell me how well it works by seeing both photos here and the second photo here. All were taken late at night with no ambient light (I focused by flashlight.) Notice the softness of the shadows that gives the appearance of full daylight. There are plenty of flash diffusers available for purchase, but none that I’ve found would move the light to above the subject like this one does.

So is all of this necessary? Well, it depends on your subject, but being limited in what you can do will limit the images you produce. Having the strobe’s light cut off by the edge of the lens will trash the photo entirely, and attempting to juggle a strobe held in your hand, while trying to focus on a tiny subject, is more headache than it’s worth (I know, I’ve tried – I’m trying to save you some of the frustrations I’ve had with all this.) Inadequate light or too-harsh shadows also don’t work very well. If you want to tackle little subjects, sooner or later you’ll end up using a variation of what I’ve described here. Hopefully I can save you a little trial-and-error.

Now, for an example of someone whose work puts mine to shame, check out Igor Siwanowicz’ work at Blepharopsis. He’s gotten past the background darkness issue in most cases, and you can see one of his working rigs on that page. He’s got a big softbox on the strobe to the left of the photo (mounted on, you may note, a Bogen/Manfrotto 330B) and another strobe with diffuser to the right, mounted on its own stand – both appear to be illuminating the beetles. It’s possible that there are more lights covering the background, not seen in the frame. It’s not a portable rig, but it also produces stunning results – such effort can mean the difference between fantastic art and, well, my work. Again, there’s nothing that says you have to do any of this, but if you’re wondering how to achieve certain results, now you have some idea.

On composition, part three: The crop

One of these days, I may start a new series of posts regarding compositional elements, because there are a lot of them, and knowing what they are can help you structure images instead of simply capturing them. But there’s a problem with this, because teaching composition is tricky – there are no rules, no formulas to follow every time. And many of the compositional elements that appear in my images are used because they appeal to me, and my (if you’ll pardon the phrase) artistic standards. I never want to bog people down with more photographic mumbo-jumbo, since there’s enough already in simply understanding how the camera works, and compositional elements are merely descriptions of something that “works” for our aesthetic sense. But for now, I’m simply going to talk about the ugly stepsister of composition, cropping.

This is an example image I took a few years back, and almost discarded. It was a grab shot as a pelican launched itself away at my approach, and the color in the original is truly hideous. But when I converted it into black & white and tweaked the contrast a little, it became much better. Then, I cropped it down to the horizontal composition you see here, from a frame that was probably 20-30% wider. Shooting animals from the back only works in limited circumstances, because as humans we prefer to see faces, and backs are, to us, a rejection. But here, it sends a message of heading out over rough seas, of isolation, and potentially of challenges ahead. I can’t be sure, because I know what conditions this was taken in and am thus biased, but the position of the pelican’s wings might say something about gusty winds, and the contrast may give the impression of overcast skies. Into the teeth of the gale, as it were.

I cropped to position the pelican at this point in the frame, with the wings working a line between opposite corners, something I’m fond of. The blotch at lower right, directly below the pelican, gains the appearance of a rock, and the legs and head position seem to say the pelican has just launched itself from there. It hasn’t, but in photography, what is actually the case and what the image seems to convey can be two different things – accuracy is not a necessity.

I included enough empty space around the pelican, especially above it, to communicate its isolation and to give it “space to move” (an important element for moving subjects,) and while the portion of water in the frame isn’t significant, it’s empty enough to serve the purpose. There’s not much more to be said than that.

And now we see a different crop. More of the waves below the pelican become visible, and these have an even rougher feel, and slightly confusing. Now we know we’re not dealing with a rock underneath, but the distinct shapes almost seem recognizable, and the viewer may take a moment to frown at them before deciding they really are just waves frozen in time. But in this crop, they have become an element of the scene, almost a subject in themselves.

Notice, now, that the lack of space ahead of the pelican takes away the idea of the beginning journey. Instead, the pelican being higher in the frame causes it to soar above the angry waves, untouched by the turmoil below. There’s even a break in contrast, occurring just underneath the bird, that mimics the ground and sky – and the bird rides firmly in the sky, brighter and by association more welcoming.

The vertical composition lends emphasis to height, as opposed to a horizontal which, of course, emphasizes a broader expanse, more of the open horizon, even with no horizon visible at all. So now, we don’t have a perilous journey like we did above, but the emotional idea of soaring above the turbulent, dangerous water. Both from the same photo, dependent only on the elements included and where in the frame they fall. The top composition has one subject, the pelican, in a setting that evokes condition. At bottom, there’s two subjects, the pelican and the angry waves, and these are selected and emphasized by the crop.

And there’s a more subtle lesson in here, too: don’t frame too tightly when taking the original photo, because you may eradicate useful elements or take away opportunities to reframe for a different emotional perspective. In fact, whenever you can, shoot a variety of layouts of a compelling subject, using your zoom lens to good advantage.

So, which is better? Well, that’s really up to the viewer, isn’t it? They might identify more with one emotional message than another. Your choice as a photographer is to decide if you want your own vision and message to be the only one the viewers see, or if you like the idea of seeing which one of several gets a better response from people on average. I’m fairly good about switching from horizontal to vertical layouts as I shoot, depending on what I think the subject warrants. But I’ve also, like in this case, tried switching after the fact and created some really interesting effects from experimenting.

One more thing. For typical sales, like to individuals for decorative purposes, you’re often much better off sticking to an aspect ratio that matches common frame sizes, so people can easily fit your image into an 11×14 frame, for example. This can be limiting. Many published sales don’t have such restrictions, except for cover shots, but it’s often better letting the editor do the deciding, and simply sending the entire image. If you’re framing your own, be it for a wall-hung print or on a website, you have the ultimate freedom in choosing an aspect ratio that works best for the image. Both images above are roughly 2×3 aspect, which works for very few commercially available frames – it’s equal to 8×12, or 11×16.5 inches, neither a common size. Trimming the image, of course, changes the purpose of the cropping to some extent, so it has to be done judiciously – or you include a custom-cut mat (not a bad idea.) Just something to bear in mind when doing your cropping.

If you look around the site, you may be able to recognize how the elements fit into the frame and what I was after. Most are cropped to some small extent, specifically to emphasize the elements I chose. It’s a tool that can do a lot for your photos.