Specimen Macro Photography

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Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Cabintom »

A while ago I promised to write a post about my DIY photography set-up. Here it is:

Image

A closer look at the camera rigging:
Image
Some notes:
  • I don't have many options for bulbs out here. The ones I'm using at the moment are 18W and a bit on the cool side at 8000K (at least that's what's printed on the bulb). They are placed to provide even lighting on the specimens, meaning all butterflies are photographed under the same lighting conditions and angles. This eliminates shadows, but has the draw back of flattening the look of certain features (like androconial scales), and metallic or pearlescent colours are sometimes not as evident.
    The camera is mounted centrally between 2 rails. The rails allow me to move the camera up and down as needed - the macro lens I use for smaller butterflies doesn't have zoom, so this is important.
    I have 4 bolts, acting as pins (no nuts in use), holding the camera mount in place. Since these bolts are loose, the mount doesn't sit flush with the rail (the weight of the camera causes a twist along the axis of the mount). I could get nuts and tighten it all down to ensure the mount and camera are all squared up with the rails, but this isn't important.
    What's important is that the camera is level (hence the level seen in the picture). I've tilted the rails back slightly to ensure that the camera is level perpendicular to the mount. The camera can also be loosened or tightened against the mount to level it along that axis. A level camera is important because the depth of field can be very narrow.
    You may note that the rails are C-Clamped to the desk. It's not great, but it works.
    There are 2 cables exiting the camera. One to the power supply (I don't need to worry about keeping batteries charged), and the other connecting to the laptop.
Here's an even closer look:
Image
  • As can be seen, specimens are suspended in the light-box on four clear, taught, fishing lines (which are cinched down and tightened using screws and washers). Care was taken to ensure that the lines are as level as possible and without droop. The middle 2 lines are set 1cm apart, the outer 2 are 3cm apart (leaving three 1cm gaps between the lines). The outer lines were added to prevent specimens from rolling, they also provide a support to the wings, keeping them flat (countering droop). Larger specimens would benefit somewhat from more support, so more lines could be added (I have holes pre-drilled for this).
    The light-box is free to move around, which allows me to properly center and frame the butterfly for the photo. (The light-box moves since the camera can't).
    The label is printed with a border of 2cm X 1cm, acting as a convenient scale for the photos. The label is suspended on the fishing lines and so is at the same level as the wings. This is important for having an accurate scale. Often I see scales or rulers sitting below the specimen in these types of photos (that's to say the scale is on the backdrop while the butterfly is elevated on it's pin). I'm lacking the technical jargon to explain, but the greater the distance between the specimen and the scale, the larger it makes the butterfly seem (the scale "shrinks" because it's further from the camera).

Now the computer:
Image
  • I use Canon EOS Utility 3 to take the photos (it was designed to work with my model of camera). It's simple but allows almost complete control of the camera. I appreciate that I can customize the white balance based on a point in the field of view. As such, I use the white of the label for white balancing purposes. It's not perfect but it's pretty close and ensures that all of my photos are balanced the same.
    I also sometimes use Photoshop afterwards to make slight adjustments to brightness & contrast.

Please let me know if you have any questions about the set-up or my process. I'm also very open to suggestions.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by adamcotton »

Thank you very much indeed for the interesting and detailed explanation of your superb set-up.

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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Chuck »

Thanks for taking the time for such a comprehensive introduction. The results are fabulous.

I presume if you had a ring light you’d use it? I’ve not had success eliminating shadow with multiple bulbs so that’s impressive.

Using the label as your white reference is ingenious. Removing the label from the pin always causes me concern for breakage. And it’s time consuming. But if you’re going to photoshop anyway that’s time too.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Cabintom »

Chuck wrote: Mon Sep 19, 2022 11:18 am Thanks for taking the time for such a comprehensive introduction. The results are fabulous.

I presume if you had a ring light you’d use it? I’ve not had success eliminating shadow with multiple bulbs so that’s impressive.

Using the label as your white reference is ingenious. Removing the label from the pin always causes me concern for breakage. And it’s time consuming. But if you’re going to photoshop anyway that’s time too.
I'm now in the habit of photographing each specimen as it comes off the spreading board, which allows minimal fiddling with the label.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Chuck »

Cabintom wrote: Mon Sep 19, 2022 2:33 pm
I'm now in the habit of photographing each specimen as it comes off the spreading board, which allows minimal fiddling with the label.
Well now that would make a lot of sense. Wish you’d told me that in April!
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Cabintom »

I've recently modified this set-up slightly. I'm now using a black background beneath the specimens which cuts down on the amount of light bouncing back into the camera. The benefit is an increased contrast and visibility of wing patterns and colours (the white background tended to overwhelm dark specimens and cause markings on the opposite wing surface to show through). The drawback is that it is more difficult to isolate specimens from the background (especially antennae) and the fishing line support is now very visible (I may experiment with black thread in the future).

Here are a few examples of the new results:

Paradeudorix ituri ituri
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Image

Hamanumida daedalus
Image
Image

Euriphene tadema nigropunctata
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Image

Euphaedra medon
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Image

Pseudoneptis bugandensis ianthe
Image
Image
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Trehopr1 »

I like the new modifications Cabintom !
Contrast is excellent.

As silly as this sounds; are you able to collect butterflies much of the year or are there a few specific months when butterfly diversity is it a high point and those given months are the best times ?

How many species have you thus far encountered during your stay there (approximately) ?
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

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Trehopr1 wrote: Sun Jan 29, 2023 4:49 am As silly as this sounds; are you able to collect butterflies much of the year or are there a few specific months when butterfly diversity is it a high point and those given months are the best times ?
I collect whenever I can. My home province is, to put it bluntly, in chaos, so for the past few years I've only been able to collect when I've been traveling elsewhere. That said, there is definitely seasonal variance in species & specimen abundance but I don't really pay attention that (even if I could collect whenever I wanted). Besides there's always something (many somethings) flying about and interesting seasonal variations to find. It's been my experience that collecting in "less optimal" locations at "less optimal" times & seasons results in interesting discoveries. (Is it firmly dry season? 7:30am? Are you headed to the long-drop? Bring your net! You might find a rarely collected crepuscular skipper zipping around your ankles.)
Trehopr1 wrote: Sun Jan 29, 2023 4:49 am How many species have you thus far encountered during your stay there (approximately) ?
As of this morning I'm at ~820 species/subspecies, collected over a period of 9.5 years. I've got specimens from 3 trips still to work through, so I expect it'll be closer to 835 when that's done. Of the ~820, there's just over 60 species that were included in a couple of lots of specimens given to me by Robert Ducarme (from Nord Kivu) that I have yet to personally collect in the field, there's also ~20 Neptis species which have not yet been described, and specimens from ~30 species which I have not been able to specifically identify (some are likely undescribed species and some are likely aberrant/variant specimens of recognized species but which I've not been able to place).
Last edited by Cabintom on Sun Jan 29, 2023 5:36 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Trehopr1 »

WOW, that's an astonishing number of species/ subspecies encountered by you after nearly a decade. Appreciate your time in answering these questions of idle curiosity. My (visits) to countries abroad to collect have been limited to 2 weeks (at the most) in any given place.


Naturally, that only gives you a very small window as to the possibilities that are present if one stays for months or years at a time.

Your long-term experiences and insights in exotic adventure/collecting are always a pleasure to read about and learn from. ☺️
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by evra »

I have a Nikon DSLR with a WU-1a wireless adapter that allows me pair the camera with a computer, iPad, or iPhone and control the shutter release from the device and then automatically uploads the image from the camera to the device. I’m not sure if Canon makes something equivalent, but it is nice not to need the USB-C cable all of the time.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Chuck »

There's a discussion on the archived forum about black backgrounds. In my tests, some specimens pop out, some disappear.

My opinion is that yes, a dark background does draw attention to some details, however, it's largely an easy work-around to the challenges of photography on a white background. For professional publications, generally independent of the subject matter, white remains the background of choice.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by adamcotton »

I use a sheet of glass with a 'frost' film attached which gives a matt grey background to my photos. This very much reduces the colour variability you can see in the dark background photos above, and contrast problems with a white background.
megarus sample photo.jpg
megarus sample photo.jpg (216.56 KiB) Viewed 110 times
I don't suspend specimens from fishing line. The specimen is pinned to a plasticine blob on the glass, and the scale (marked in 5mm units) is raised to the same height as the specimen.

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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Cabintom »

Chuck wrote: Mon Jan 30, 2023 2:23 pm For professional publications, generally independent of the subject matter, white remains the background of choice.
Why would this be the case?
(If I were to use any of these images in a publication my intention would be to remove the background/fishing line/labels via photoshop or similar. I acknowledge that translucent & transparent winged specimens pose a problem, but it's a problem that still exists, to a lesser extent, with white backgrounds.)


I'll note that the change in the luminosity of the background occurs with white backgrounds as well (though not as noticeable). I'm not so concerned about the background or label, as much as I am with a fair representation of the specimen and it's structures. A change to a dark background now means that (in full resolution) individual scales/hairs/etc. are crisper. In my opinion colours are also more accurate represented (too washed out with the white background).

Here's an example of the difference the background makes (open the image in a new tab and zoom in to see full res.):
Image

Here's a very dark specimen:
Image
Note that it doesn't get lost in the background. Also note that various androconial tufts (especially those in the FW cell and FW space 1b, which I've never before managed to have so readily visible).

Here's a white specimen:
Image
The quality of the white (in this case "creaminess") is more visible with the dark background.


That all said, it's possible that if I was using a better macro lens (my budget has led me to use the cheapest macro lens available for the Rebel T6), I'd be able to get crisper results with a white background. Honestly, I'd prefer a white background but that's not produced the level of crisp detail that I'm aiming for.
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Re: Specimen Macro Photography

Post by Chuck »

Cabintom wrote: Tue Jan 31, 2023 1:09 pm
Chuck wrote: Mon Jan 30, 2023 2:23 pm For professional publications, generally independent of the subject matter, white remains the background of choice.
Why would this be the case?
(If I were to use any of these images in a publication my intention would be to remove the background/fishing line/labels via photoshop or similar. I acknowledge that translucent & transparent winged specimens pose a problem, but it's a problem that still exists, to a lesser extent, with white backgrounds.)


I'll note that the change in the luminosity of the background occurs with white backgrounds as well (though not as noticeable).

I'm sure part of it is historical, when printed images had to go on something, so white paper was best, and with a white background in the image itself, one focuses on the item. It looks cleaner too; as you suggested, using photoshop to remove everything, then color-matching the image background, or better cutting out the subject, and placing on the white background makes it consistent with focus on the subject(s).

Kindle has a new(er), popular version that's on a white background because it's easier on the eyes. As I type here, it's on a white background.

Certainly, there are cases (as you've noted) that a darker background shows the subject better, and then it's up to the author / publisher to decide what background to use. There are no steadfast rules.

I spent a ton of money on little photo studios to get 360 degree, good lighting. After that, I discovered that I still get better photos in indirect sunlight. That eliminates some of the missing details such as intense colors. Shadows these days are easily removed with Photoshop. Depending on what and why I'm shooting, it's either a white background (publications) or cardboard brown which is better because it doesn't fool the camera, though the brown background is more for collaboration w/ those who need detail and don't care if the background is a pizza box.

My experience with white background is that unless the indirect sunlight is just perfect (which is about zero percent of the time October-April) I have to artificially enhance the image to get the details and color to pop out. A colleague spent thousands of dollars and years of learning to be able to do it indoors, but I don't have that luxury. His photos on white are spectacular, showing every detail, with no need to crop or manipulate images- but that didn't just magically happen.
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