Garden macro photography part I: the UK

December 26, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Whilst locked down in the UK, as well as dabbling with camera traps (post about it here), I also spent some time working on my macro photography in the garden. I was fortunate to return to the UK in late spring / early summer, so there were quite a few 6-8 legged subjects around to practice with.

Just a note on gear first: until quite recently, I had been using a Nissin MF18 ringflash for all of my macro photography. I do think that it's a great bit of kit - mine always worked reliably and provided a decent light output. However, the light always looked a little 'flat' (i.e. boring). It is slightly diffused (though less so than some online reviews claim) but I really struggled when photographing anything remotely reflective. Though it varies a bit, most insects and many snakes are quite reflective  so this is more of an issue than you may expect. I found it to be particularly problematic while photographing the myriad of (shiny and black) beetles that I encountered in Borneo last year (post about the trip here). The other issue that I had was that the ringflash was quite an awkward shape and it was difficult to fit in my camera bag; I often decided against packing it and I missed out on a lot of macro opportunities as a result.

Though I had been reading about properly diffusing macro light for ages, I never actually got around to exploring it myself until late last year, prior to my short trip to Dubai (post here). I borrowed from some ideas I found online and constructed a diffuser which incorporated an on-camera external flash, a reflective panel (a large Rogue Flashbender) and some thin sheets of foam (I used foam intended for lining kitchen drawers, purchased from the ever-handy Rp25,000 (~£1) store 'Daiso'). The flashgun was angled forward with the Flashbender fitted above (and parallel to) the lens. The foam was then flimsily attached to the front end of the Flashbender and even more flimsily attached to the lens barrel. I tried various ways to attach it and eventually settled on a circular piece of plastic that went around the lens. Connections between all the components were made with pieces of velcro tape so that it could be disassembled. It was a bit of a 'MacGyver' job - functional but not very pretty.

After field-testing the diffuser in Dubai, I was really impressed by the following:

  • Importantly, it worked - in my opinion the light produced was very soft, really enhancing the look of images taken. Plus, I was finally able to properly light shiny things!
  • I no longer needed to take out my ringflash - instead I just needed my regular flashgun (which is always in my camera bag anyway)

However, I did also find a few new issues:

  • My diffuser setup, when attached, is really bulky, meaning that in most cases I have to leave it disassembled in my bag until a photo opportunity presents itself. It is not really practical to wander around carrying it except in quite open terrain with abundant subjects. I've yet to find myself in this situation!
  • It took me ages to set up and assemble - sometimes the photographic opportunity had passed by the time I had it set up ready
  • It is really easy to snag on foliage - I ripped the foam sheets several times

After this trip, I felt satisfied that the improved light quality was enough to outweigh these issues so I sold the MF18 ringflash. I was, however, still keen to improve the design.

Shortly after I returned to the UK (in March) I decided to construct an improved version. I kept the same basic design, with the same flash-mounted reflector panel connected to the flashgun, connected via velcro to the main diffuser. The difference between this version and the previous one is that the diffuser is now a large sheet of frosted plastic (from an A4 ringbinder) with 3 thin sheets of foam stacked and attached with velcro patches (my original thinking was that I could vary the number of foam sheets used, although so far I've just kept all 3 attached). Where the diffuser attaches to the lens barrel, an elastic band wraps it around, providing a concave surface to wrap the light around the subject. Due to the rigidity of the frosted plastic this design is significantly more durable than my first version and it is also a lot quicker to assemble. It also slides neatly into the laptop compartment of my camera bag (an F-stop Tilopa). It is still bulky, but I think this is probably unavoidable in order to obtain well-diffused light. Overall, it's a big improvement over my first attempt!

This is what the whole diffuser looks like when attached to my camera:

DIY flash diffuserDIY flash diffuser

That's almost it about gear. The one other thing I would add at this point is that I've started making more use of my full-frame camera body (a Nikon D810) which was otherwise starting to get a bit neglected. I have two camera bodies - in addition to the D810 I also have a crop-sensor D500 and I'm now starting to find both bodies useful for macro, in the following situations:

- For larger macro subjects (anything over about an inch), the image quality from the D810 is just generally better so it's my preferred body. However, for anything smaller than that, at the minimum focus distance of my macro lens (a Tamron 90mm f/2.8) the subject is usually quite small in the frame and cropping becomes essential

- For smaller macro subjects (anything smaller than about an inch), the 1.5x crop factor of the D500 means that I can get the subject larger in the frame, so this becomes my preferred body

We were fortunate to spend the UK's initial period of lockdown in Devon in the SW of England with a small garden available to us. This meant that I had quite a few opportunities to test the diffuser out and 'get my eye back in' for macro photography.

To start with, below are two images of (shiny and black) beetles found in the garden - excellent tests of the diffuser's ability! My ringflash would have struggled to light these. They are a black oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus) and a lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipedus):

Black oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus)Black oil beetle (Meloe proscarabaeus) Lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus)Lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus)

I'm really pleased with how well the diffuser lit them softly and evenly, and they were big enough that I could get them full-frame on my D810.

A much harder test came when the next beetle -  a rose chafer (Cetonia aurata) - appeared in the garden. It landed on a flower in direct sunlight, in the middle of the day. With the white petals in the frame, plus the beetle's carapace being highly reflective, this was a real exposure challenge. I still used the flash to balance the light, but I had to underexpose quite a bit to avoid horrific blown-out highlights:

Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata)Rose chafer (Cetonia aurata)

The previous photo was my first proper attempt at a face-on insect portrait, something that I dabbled quite a lot with over the following months.

Right, less technical photography talk now and more entomology! The next beetle is a spotted longhorn (Rutpela maculata):

Spotted longhorn (Rutpela maculata)Spotted longhorn (Rutpela maculata)

One corner of the garden harboured an impressive diversity of bug species (Hemipterans, bugs in the technical sense) and I enjoyed photographing and learning about them. Here are a couple of different species to start with (note - though it looks like a contrived scene, the hairy shield bug (Dolycoris baccarum) in the second photo was just in front of a red flower):

Dock bug (Coreus marginatus)Dock bug (Coreus marginatus) Hairy shield bug (Dolycoris baccarum) nymphHairy shield bug (Dolycoris baccarum) nymph

On a silver birch tree in this corner of the garden, I noticed a few aggregations of parent bug (Elasmucha grisea) nymphs. If you look closely at the image below, you will see that a few of the nymphs have small white objects on them. Apparently parent bugs are parasitised by the specialised tachinid fly Subclytia rotundiventris, so presumably these objects are eggs from that species.

Parent bug (Elasmucha grisea)Parent bug (Elasmucha grisea)

I returned to this birch tree regularly. These aggregations seemed to periodically move leaf but I was interested to keep checking their progress. The image below was taken a few days after the one above - here you can see different stages of the species' life cycle as the nymphs progressed into adulthood:

Parent bug (Elasmucha grisea)Parent bug (Elasmucha grisea)

Back to beetles - the same tree was also full of harlequin ladybirds (Harmonia axyridis). This is an invasive species in the UK, and sadly the only ladybird that I ever saw in the garden. What I did find interesting from a biological perspective was that, by checking enough leaves on the tree, I could observe most stages of the species' life cycle. Here are some photos of larvae:

Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) larvaHarlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) larva Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) larvaHarlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) larva

This is a pupa, the hardened case in which the larva metamorphoses into an adult:

Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) pupaHarlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) pupa

This is an adult (imago) ladybird that has quite recently emerged from its pupa:

Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)

Next are a couple more photos of adult ladybirds. You can see that this species is highly variable in appearance. It can most readily be distinguished from native species by the white triangle on its head.

Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)Harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis)

Quite early on in our time in Devon I found this crab spider (Misumena vatia) hidden in the garden undergrowth. It was the first and only time that I had seen this species here and I will admit that I was a little surprised to see such a tropical-looking spider in the UK:

Crab spider (Misumena vatia)Crab spider (Misumena vatia)

Often overlooked (and much maligned), there is quite a range of fly species in the UK. Though they are often skittish and can be hard to photograph, I think they can make quite interesting photographic subjects. Here are a couple of species that I managed to get photos of:

Suillia affinisSuillia affinis Dull four-spined legionnaire (Chorisops tibialis)Dull four-spined legionnaire (Chorisops tibialis)

These were my last macro photos from the garden in Devon. In August we briefly moved back to my family home in the North of England, whilst awaiting our flights to Kenya. I was set to publish this post when we moved there (as I'd not seen anything interesting) but in our last couple of days I chanced across a couple of new subjects - so there's a little more to share!

While doing some sorting out in the garage, it was hard to miss a large spider's web taking up quite a large space in one corner. On closer inspection, it was the creation of 'daddy long legs spiders' (Pholcus phalangioides), and there were actually quite a lot of them! I did a little research about the species which I thought it prudent to share:

There's apparently a common misconception that this non-native species is dangerous (it isn't). It also seems that other misconceptions have been confused with it and with those of the crane flies, and it's all got quite muddled in the public mind (probably because in the UK crane flies are also known as 'daddy long legs'!) The most notable belief is that it (and / or crane flies) have the most potent venom in the animal kingdom but cannot inject their venom. This is untrue for both types of animal. This belief once featured on an episode of Mythbusters - and was debunked - so QED!

A portrait of one of these interesting spiders is below:

Daddy long legs spider (Pholcus phalangioides)Daddy long legs spider (Pholcus phalangioides)

Unlike the tropics, the UK is not blessed with a wealth of amphibian diversity. However, I enjoy encountering and photographing even the 'common' species. Whilst doing some gardening work for my parents I came across a toad (Bufo bufo). After a quick photo shoot, I re-homed it into the garden pond. It was a cheery looking thing!

Common toad (Bufo bufo)Common toad (Bufo bufo)

The final photograph for this post is another spider 'portrait'. This giant house spider (Eratigena sp.) was actually trapped in the bathtub, but I moved it to the more photogenic garden for a quick photoshoot before letting it run free in the wild:

Giant house spider (Eratigena sp.)Giant house spider (Eratigena sp.)

That's almost it for this post. I was pleased to have trialled the new diffuser and incorporated it permanently into my camera bag, photographed some cool things and to get more practice with macro photography. Along with camera trapping, it helped to keep me sane throughout lockdown - what felt like a lifetime!

In the original draft of this post, at this point I wrote: "Lets hope East Africa provides yet more interesting subjects to learn about and photograph!". Well, since I am actually finalising the post after already being in Kenya for 4 months, you only need to head over to the Kenya wildlife photo album to decide for yourself if it is delivering!

Further details to come in part 2...




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