A little over a week ago, I had the very great pleasure of participating in BugShot 2011, the first of what I hope will become an annual insect photography workshop taught by Alex Wild, John Abbott, and Thomas Shahan. If you don’t know who these people are, you absolutely must click on the links and look at their work. They’re masters at insect photography and produce some of the best insect images in the world. I was ecstatic when Alex announced the workshop and signed up the first day that seats were made available. And I’m so glad I went! It met every expectation and then some and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.
My incentives for going to the workshop were two-fold. First, I really wanted to learn from the instructors. They each have a different style of photography, but I admire all of their work. Learning from them was going to be the experience of a lifetime! But I also wanted to improve my own photographic skills. I’ve really improved since I started blogging 2 1/2 years ago (funny how putting photos you’ve taken out there for everyone in the world to see makes you want to be better!), but I’ve sort of hit a wall recently. I couldn’t get some of the shots I wanted because I couldn’t get the subjects lit properly. I bought a fancy dual flash system for my Nikon DSLR, but that was a total disaster! I read a lot about flashes, but it wasn’t making sense. I used my flash maybe three or four times and then sort of gave up. When I signed up for Bug Shot, I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of it: I wanted to go home knowing how to use that stupid flash so that I could finally get more use out of my DSLR. Without the flash, I knew I wasn’t going to use that camera as much as I should. Considering how much money I spent on it, that was a tragedy.
So I went to BugShot. There I attended engrossing lectures on various photographic topics (do you have any idea how much money I need to buy all the new toys I heard about that I now can’t live without?) and I learned a ton of new things. We had several field sessions where we went out and worked in small groups. In the late afternoons, we had time to roam around Missouri’s Shaw Nature Reserve shooting whatever we wanted to and at night we had two blacklights set up and all the porch lights on to attract bugs. I met some of my favorite insect bloggers and online entomologists, including Crystal Ernst from Fall to Climb, Ted MacRae from Beetles in the Bush, and Bug Lady Suzanne. I met some bloggers I hadn’t known about before too, such as Lee Jaszlics and Dave Stone. And I was able to reconnect with a few people I haven’t seen for several years. Overall, it was a fantastic experience! Informative, a great social event (bug nerds with cameras – what could be better?), and I got a lot of practice in with my camera.
I posted a few photos last Monday that I took at BugShot. Because I was focusing so intently on using my flash, I didn’t put nearly as much effort into composition or focusing as I normally do. As a result, I got a whole bunch of rather well lit, blurry photos with poor composition. But that’s okay! I feel like I accomplished what I wanted to. For example, the first night I took photos with my point and shoot camera in the dark. I have a decent flash for it, but I didn’t diffuse the light. Everything looked really washed out:
Yikes! WAY too bright and it looked bad however I adjusted the settings. I gave up on the flash about 10 minutes in that night and started using a different, less technical method for lighting: I aimed my headlamp at whatever bug I wanted to shoot, focused, and snapped the photo. This was much more successful than the shots with the flash:
This is not a bad photo and I got several shots that night I was pretty happy with, but the photos I took using my headlamp for illumination just didn’t have the lovely even light I was looking for. Plus, I still got some really bright spots where the light colors washed out completely. I’ll admit I was a little discouraged.
The next day I was in Alex’s small group session and he talked about using flashes. As I was determined to learn how to use my flash, I set up my Nikon DSLR and spent about 30 or 40 minutes sitting on the ground in one spot taking photo after photo of one thing: hover flies. I didn’t care so much about the subject as I did about the lighting, so I have a couple hundred photos of the flies in various spots on my water bottle. While I was at it, Alex gave me some great tips on how to set up my lighting that made a lot of things much more clear. I was finally starting to get what I was trying to do with my flash! I was actually manipulating the light so that it looked how I wanted it to and not simply dealing with what was available. The lighting was looking a whole lot better. However, I still didn’t have diffusers on my flash units, so things still weren’t as evenly lit as I would have liked. An excellent example is this katydid:
It was SO pretty (and actually in focus!), but there were still those bright spots along it’s hind leg, face, and upper wings that made the photo so much less great than it could have been. I needed to diffuse the light to get rid of those spots. Happily, we had all been given a sheet of translucent mylar when we signed in. I cut mine in half and taped one piece over each of my two flash units with masking tape. Alex had suggested doing it, so I went with it. It made a world of difference! I took this photo while the sun was going down:
No more bright spots! And when I took photos at the blacklight that night, I got several shots of the big green katydids that were evenly lit, such as this one:
Not perfect, but it was a definite improvement. From the moment I added the diffusers, I forced myself to shoot with my DLSR with the diffused flashes so I could get all the practice I could in while I had experts to consult. I could see a marked improvement each day so that I got several photos at the porch lights the last night that I was very happy with. For example, I got this shot of a lacewing:
Because I had the flash, I could take hand-held shots at night that had a reasonable depth of field and were evenly lit. Compare that photo with the best one I’ve been able to get at my porch light at home without a flash, even stabilizing the camera by leaning it against the wall:
Because there wasn’t enough light, I had to sacrifice the depth of field and always ended up with images where only a tiny part of the bug was in focus, with funky coloration from the porch light to boot. The first lacewing photo is SO much better!
I might not have walked away with the stunning images some of the other BugShot participants got (such as Crystal’s FANTASTIC weevil photo – taken with a point and shoot camera!), but I am thrilled with the results. Between the experience with my flash and the fact that I made myself shoot everything in 100% manual mode, I feel like I am going to be a much more competent photographer in the future. So hooray for BugShot! If you have any interest in insect photography at all, I can’t recommend this experience enough. I think I’m going to try to go again next year just because I think it will be fun. I’m sure I’ll have some other goal I want to work on by then anyway and there are always new things I can learn.
This past weekend I was in Phoenix doing an insect outreach event and I spent my free time traveling around taking photos. I wanted to practice the techniques I learned at BugShot. I’ll be posting them on the blog here over the next few weeks, so stay tuned! In the meantime, feel free to check out my new Flickr account to view more of my BugShot photos or the BugShot 2011 Flickr group for photos by other BugShot participants. There are some really great shots in the group!
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