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Thrifty Thursday: lighting is more important than camera

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Thrifty Thursdays feature photographs taken with equipment costing less than $500.

An acorn weevil takes off, and the Canon Powershot was there

[ Canon Powershot SX10 IS - $210; off-camera Canon 430EX II flash- $200; Raynox DCR 250 macro converter - $60; Cowboy Studio NPT-04 wireless remote strobe trigger - $22; DIY white box - free]

If you’re wondering why Compound Eye has been quiet this week, the hiatus is because I’ve been off instructing the BugShot insect photography workshop. Great fun! But I digress. Participants brought a variety of cameras, from inexpensive point-and-shoots to professional SLRs. A concept I tried to reiterate during the event was that a camera itself is merely a recording device, and the key to creating compelling images lies more with the subject matter.

A photograph that brilliantly illustrates this point is the above acorn weevil launching itself into the air, captured at the workshop by Crystal Ernst with a Canon Powershot SX10.

Why does the photo look as though it came from the professional gear of a seasoned National Geographic photographer instead of a consumer-grade digicam? There’s the obvious bit about exceptional timing, framing, and a charismatic subject. But the lighting is also important. Crystal disabled the on-camera flash, instead using a cheap radio trigger to fire a small, off-camera flash upward into a white box. The quick strobe crisply froze the subject in mid-leap, and the box diffused the flash into an even white glow. Crystal also stayed up until 2:00 am to get this winning shot, but patience & persistence are subjects for another post!

Photography records light, and flexibility with light leads to huge gains in photographic aesthetics. Moving the light source off the camera is a key step towards achieving creative freedom, more so than simply upgrading to a higher-resolution camera.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sean McCann 9:14 am 09/9/2011

    That is a beautiful shot! I miss having a superzoom compact…I gave away my S5 and Raynox to a fellow in French Guiana. I actually recommend this kind of setup to people getting into photography, especially if they are into insects. It is super versatile, especially if there is an easily detachable bayonet mount. You can go from the equivalent of 3X or better to extreme telephoto in seconds. Also, the compact sensor format make good DOF easy to achieve without pumping in ridiculous amounts of light. If the scene is illuminated well, and the ISO is low, then the compacts can take some pretty clean photos.
    Right now I have my first real macro lens (Canon 100), and am wrangling with a whole set of new problems (namely lighting a scene correctly with the longer working distance)…Of course I have been doing lots of fieldwork too, and classes are starting, so I have not been able to spend much time with my photography..Yarg!

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  2. 2. kclancy 10:22 pm 09/13/2011

    I know this is very unscientific of me… but this acorn weevil is ADORABLE.

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