DIY macro? A shoot on a budget

Io Moth Caterpillar on hibiscus leaf.  Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.

Io Moth Caterpillar on hibiscus leaf. Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.

Despite what my non-photographer friends and family think, I really don’t have that much equipment.  No, really, I don’t!  I have one camera body, one 100-400mm lens, one 17-85mm lens, one 28-105mm lens, one teleconverter, one extention tube (not one set–one TUBE), one flash, one tripod and head, one homemade beanbag, two reflectors, one wireless remote, and one Wimberley plamp.  That’s it.  No stobe sets, no second body (oh, how I YEARN for that security!), no macro, fisheye, or super-telephoto lenses.  Any images I make, I have to use what is available to make them.  I know that sounds very profound, but consider this: if I have macro work that needs to be done, I have to use one of my two “older” (read: can be used on either film or digital bodies) lenses and my extention tube, or I have to get in really close with one of the three lenses.  I do have some old enlarger lenses that I believe would work with a bellows, but that is not yet included in my equipment.

Ants inside a hibiscus bloom.  Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.

Ants inside a hibiscus bloom. Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.

As we all do, when I find myself in a rut, photographically speaking, I start looking around me at all the little details that maybe I missed while looking for “bigger” things.  You probably already do that anyway, and if you do, more power to you: you’re more attentive than me!  It finally paid off with more than just the hibiscus hedge that surrounds my apartment complex.  Recently, I was getting out of my car after arriving back at my apartment, and what do I see scooting up the neighbor’s car tire, but a small green caterpillar.  It was a bit larger than others I have seen around here in Broward County, and it was decorated with green fern-like spines and a deep red lateral stripe.  Not wanting to see it squished, in case it hadn’t moved on by the time the nice folks came back out to their car, I took a stick (it had spines, did I mention that?  I wasn’t touching it until I knew what species it was!) and moved the little creature to our hibiscus plant near the door.  I set my camera on my tripod, and attached the 28-105 lens and extention tube at full magnification, and began attempting pictures.  I say “attempt,” because this was a minimal-focus/manual focus situation, and when you combine those elements with that of a hungry caterpillar, sharp focus was tricky!  It was like photographing tortoises: easy-sounding, until you try it!  Slow creatures, but always on the move!  I may as well have been photographing hawks in flight–at least I could have turned on my predictive focus and panned with the animal!  A tip: just because it moves slowly compared to other animals doesn’t mean it will be an easy shoot!

Turns out, I was right to keep my fingers away from this caterpillar’s spiky body: this is an Io moth caterpillar (pronounced eye-oh, like Jupiter’s moon), and is one of four major venomous-spined caterpillars native to Florida.  Apparently, contact from the caterpillar to human skin causes us to break out into horrible-looking welts and blisters, and it is extremely painful, with potential for an allergic reaction on the part of the stung person.  Just FYI, the other three are the saddleback, puss, and hag caterpillars.  There are three others that also sting, but according to the University of Florida, do not produce such a severe reaction.  So this little guy was manipulated gently with a twig, then finally settled in and began to munch on our hibiscus leaves.  It really was a cute little thing, with complementary colors and such an innocent look in spite of the spines.

Io moth caterpillar on hibiscus leaf.  Additional light sources of an improvised reflector and a flashlight added definition and separation from the background. Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.

Io moth caterpillar on hibiscus leaf. Additional light sources of an improvised reflector and a flashlight added definition and separation from the background. Copyright Audrey R. Smith, 2013.

Working in such a small space with stinging spines, I wasn’t happy with the lighting situation (it was about lunchtime, and the sun was harsh), so I procured a white lid off of a handily-placed storage bin and an LED flashlight, and made a makeshift reflector and additional light source.  I went back and forth for a couple of hours, in and out of the house, waiting until the caterpillar was composed as I had envisioned (I have a 5-year old, I couldn’t just sit and wait during that time!).  Then by bouncing the sunlight off the reflector and shining the flashlight on the caterpillar, I was able to separate it more effectively from the background and illuminate the spines.

They say where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Even if you operate with minimal gear, as I do (or at least, less gear than others), there are still ways to make pleasing images that are just as good or better than what you would get with an expensive lens.  Granted, I probably spent more time manually focusing and recomposing my images here than I would if I had a true autofocus macro lens, but I am still quite satisfied with the results.  Working on a budget demands resourcefulness; if you can “MacGyver” everyday items to acheive your desired results, you will be able to shoot anything, anywhere!  Good luck!

**Note:  At the risk of sounding pathetic, my gear collection has never been as extensive as others’ due to finances.  We all know how much we fork over for any new piece of equipment, and working in a zoo, a week’s pay does not go far for basic necessities and the cost of living, much less high-priced equipment.  (To understand what I mean, take a school teacher’s annual salary and cut it in approximately half, then add or subtract twenty percent of that number.  That is about the annual salary of a full-time zoo employee, specifically a zookeeper or zoo educator, and many of them have Master’s degrees or other long-term schooling!)

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