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Photographing red wood ants with a macro lens and ring flash
As I have mentioned before, I find macro photography very fascinating.
Especially on the ground in nature. Among the small flowers, dead leaves, dirt and insects.
Discovering an entirely new world every time I move that macro lens in close is very rewarding in many ways.
The nature experience in itself of course is great, but it also allows for some unique shots.
These are photos that not that many others would bother to take, as it involves some crawling around getting dirty (or being crawled upon, as was the case in this situation)
How did I plan for this type of insect macro photography?
Depending on the insect, it might be a good idea not to have a too tight plan, as some of these creepy-crawlers are quite unpredictable and will force you to make changes on the fly.
Studying the insects you want to photograph beforehand might be a good idea, to learn about their behavior and be better suited to get a good shot.
Depending on where in the world you are located, there may be some venomous insects as well, so do some research and be careful.
Here in Norway we’re lucky to have only a few slightly venomous (non-lethal unless you’re allergic) insects.
Well now, back to the ants….
I knew I wanted some macro close-ups of these red wood ants, so I had to wait for a sunny day (or at least without rain).
When it’s raining, they crawl deep into their colony and little to no activity can be seen on the outside.
The warm sunlight brings the activity up a lot on the outside of these ant colonies.
They usually build their colonies on the south side of trees, as this will bring them the most sunlight during the day.
What kind of photographic equipment did I use for this shot?
This lens is a 1:1 macro lens, meaning that when used at its close-focusing distance (as close to the subject as the lens can be and still be able to focus), the subject is depicted life-size across the camera sensor (i.e. what is ½ inch in real life will be depicted as ½ inch across the camera sensor. See the link about close-focusing distance above for more information about this).
Knowing that I would be working at this distance and that I would probably be creating some difficult lighting conditions by shading the subjects with my camera and lens, I decided to bring my Sigma EM 140 DG ring flash so I could easily light the ants.
How did I take this red wood ant macro photo?
When arriving at the site of the ant colony I first tried to set up my tripod near it, but I quickly realized that in this case, a tripod would be in the way of a good shot.
Knowing that I would be able to freeze the motion of the ants easily using my ring flash, I found out that it would be more flexible to shoot handheld.
Besides, if you have ever set up something close to an active ant colony, you would know that it would be covered in ants in a short time.
I approached the colony while trying to figure out the trails the ants use to and from their colony, so that I wouldn’t step on it.
I knew that when doing this type of insect macro photography at this distance, auto-focus would be useless, so I set my camera’s focus to manual.
I’ve found out that when trying to shoot small moving subjects at this close range, it’s easier to set the focus manually for the framing and magnification you want first.
Then you just look through the viewfinder and move the camera back and forth until you see the subject in focus, and then fire the shutter quickly.
This method would normally be a way to cause some blur by camera shake, but there was little chance of that here, as I was using my ring flash to freeze any motion.
Although this is more a hit and miss method than setting up your tripod and waiting all day for the right ant to pass through a set focal point, it can be quite rewarding.
This way you can quickly work many angles and situations. You’ll have many missed shots, but hey, it’s all just digital right?
I discovered as I moved real close to the colony, some of the ants raised their bodies towards the lens as if to say hello (or more likely to say, – Hey colossus, don’t come any closer).
One of these situations is the shot at the top of this article.
I managed, after many missed shots, to get the focus on the eyes of the ant.
Getting the focus there is always a golden rule to aim for.
Not only in insect macro photography, but when photographing any kind of lifeform with eyes.
Unless you’re going for some other creative twist, put the focus on the eyes.
The photo at the top was also a result of some experimenting with both the camera and flash in manual mode.
The settings I ended up with for that shot were:
Shutter speed: 1/180 sec (flash sync speed on my Pentax K-5)
Focal length: 90mm (fixed focal length lens)
Flash: Ring flash in manual mode, both lamps fired at 1/8 power.
As you can see, even the aperture of f/11 even barely gives enough depth of field to keep the ant’s head sharp.
This is the nature of macro photography though. An extremely narrow depth of field due the close focusing distance.
The background that the ant is sitting on is made out of fir tree needles (most common the building material for the European red wood ant colonies).
This gives some perspective on the magnification in this ant macro image.
Additionally here is another image from the same shoot, illustrating how you can turn the background black, just by using flash.
This is shot with the exact same technical settings as the one on top. It’s just arranged differently.
I held a tiny straw close to the ant colony, allowing one of the ants to crawl onto it.
Then I held the straw up in the air with one hand, camera in the other, photographing it using the previously described method.
The black background is created because of light falloff from the flash as the background in this case is very far away.
This is governed by the inverse square law (read more about how to use this to your advantage here).
After letting this ant back in its colony, I carefully brushed some of his crawling friends off my clothes.
Depending on the time spent near the ant colony, you might get a lot of these visitors crawling on you.
What kind of editing did I do to these insect macro photographs?
The biggest editing done to this photo was cropping it quite a bit in a square format that I found suited this ant well.
Other than, that I pulled down the highlights a bit, as the image was a bit bright and did some minor general contrast adjustments as I always do with RAW-images.
Read my article on why shoot in RAW here.
Black background image
Here I also did some cropping, and some minor contrast adjustments.
All editing was done in Adobe Lightroom, which you can get from Adobe here.