Closeups in Harsh Light

Deviation Actions

dalantech's avatar

Literature Text

Often I find myself shooting in less than ideal conditions and if I waited for perfect weather or light I’d rarely get a chance to shoot, so one of the things that I wanted to teach myself was how to photograph insects using a mix of natural light and flash. Since portrait photographers often under expose the ambient light in a scene and then use a flash to expose the subject I thought that would be a good place to start. After reading several examples at Strobist (a site that you should all be reading as well) I set out to play. This is what I’ve learned so far…

The trick is to keep the sun at an angle that's either to the side or behind you. The sun is going to be your light source for the background, and the sun + the flash will be your light source for the subject. You want to under expose the background to force the colors to saturate (I'm not shooting in good light) and to use just enough flash to keep the subject from being too dark to see any detail. I shoot in manual mode, and I set the aperture to F8 because it’s usually enough depth for the magnification that I’m shooting at (usually 1/3 life size). But you'll need more depth for some subjects and less for others, so don't get too hung up on shooting at F8 all the time. I set the ISO high enough to allow me to use a shutter speed of 1/640 of a second or higher –tripods and I just don’t get along. On a few rare occasions I find myself at ISO 800, but for the most part I’m shooting at ISO 400. Don’t worry about noise, since you’re going use noise removal in post (I use NoiseWare Professional because it’s great at removing noise and preserving detail). Since the ambient light in the scene is going to be under exposed you’ll actually have a lot of latitude in how you set up the camera.

I’m currently using an MR-14EX ring flash as my fill light just because I like the quality of the light that I get from it and the balance of that flash –all the weight is back by me. Any diffused light source will work just fine though. Set your flash to manual mode and the power level will depend on the flash you use and the scene that you’re shooting. I have the MR-14EX (on a Canon 180L macro lens) set to 1/32 power most of the time. If you use E-TTL then set the flash to at least -2 FEC.

Once you find a willing subject take a shot and look at the histogram -you don't want to see any blown color channels and the overall exposure should be to the left (dark). Do not use the preview image on the LCD to gage exposure or sharpness -for the most part. For the grape vine that the dragon is perched on in the sample that I’ve included in this tutorial I wanted it to look brown on the preview. If the shade of that vine was too pail then I'd either under expose the ambient more if the background looked too bright (increase the shutter speed), or decrease the power from the flash if the background looked good to me. The image you see on your camera's LCD should look very under exposed. Later when you get the photo on the computer you simply raise the exposure during RAW processing. While watching the histogram increase the exposure, stopping right before one or more color channels blow out. Increasing the contrast will also give you a little more room to increase the exposure.

I then run NoiseWare Professional, adjust the levels to set a black point and shift the grey point, use the auto sharpen option in Elements, and add my copyright to the EXIF data. Save the image as a JPG and I’m done.
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floggerSG's avatar
buleria's avatar friend! this one is very elegant-emerging from darkness.
Really like the light and the powerful colors of the dradonfly.
Best all,
nakitez's avatar
Wonderful reading. Thank you for sharing. :)
dalantech's avatar
Thanks for the feedback!
nakitez's avatar
One question... Does the noise reduction on a 400 ISO photo has any bad effect on big prints like for example 90x60 ones.
dalantech's avatar
Even at ISO 400 I can resolve a dragonfly's compound eyes -and that level of detail is overkill for this type of shooting. IMHO getting a lot of fine details in a closeup just isn't necessary (I'd also say the same thing for a macro shot). Light and composition are going to determine weather or not an image looks good. When was the last time you looked at a painting and liked the composition and the color but didn't like it because it wasn't sharp enough?... ;)
nakitez's avatar
Well... I cannot say that I'm agree with you. Paintings and photography are quite different disciplines IMHO. I never like to consider my photos as an artwork. Photography is more like craftmenship to me.
Heavy noise may give some nice effect to a portrait shot or an action shot but noisy dragonfly photos even the most detailed one is something like a good wooden table with lack of fine finishing or with a bad varnish.
And there had been times that when I looked at a painting, like the light and composition but did not like the technique. It's getting more and more often at the former times hence many painters, illustrators are coping their designs from photos which has already good light and composition.
Those are my two cents. :)
dalantech's avatar
A very good point!

I use NoiseWare Professional to remove the image noise from my shots and it's very good at preserving detail, so I never worry about shooting at high ISOs ;)
nakitez's avatar
Thanks a lot for this info. I don't like noise you know...:)
PhotoLust's avatar
This tutorial has been collected in *PhotoLust's favourites gallery (home of loads of brilliant tutorials) and has also been featured in October's journal. Thanks for making such a great resource!
dalantech's avatar
Thanks for the props!
leethaxoor's avatar
didn't write a single think i disagree with.

i follow these rules religiously, i shoot the exact same way in harsh lighting conditions.

the only difference is i have a MT24EX (a twin macro light) as opposed to a ring light.
it allows me to both front light and side sight a subject, meaning i don't need to be at an angle to the sun like that (even though it is true about the force of a saturation boost, this also can depend on the type of lens).

when i shoot macro, i use a sigma 1:1 lens [link] so it's less important for me to force saturation levels, since the lens elements themselves all crit much higher then a 1:3.

sometimes underexposing can be very creative, especially when turning off the frontal flash, and detaching on the of the flash heads to be used as a backlight. it can produce a very pristine silhouette, while preserving a lot of detail. downside being, a higher ISO is needed (800ish).

using the sun as a fill light, and a backlight as the keylight can yield very promising results.

just my 2 cents =)

very well written article, i agree with everything.
andy-j-s's avatar
Thanks Very Much For The Adivce With This Shot
I Will Give It A Go Sometime.
The Shot Looks Good
Would Like To See It In Full View Though.
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