Alex Wild of Myrmecos fame is a wizard with light. Whether in a studio white box or in the field with natural light, he knows how to manipulate light to compliment the intrinsic loveliness of his subjects. Here’s what he had to say about light:
Atta texana, the Texas Leafcutter Ant. Austin, Texas. Photo by Alex Wild. Click to be taken to his photography web site.
Ambient light is variable in quality and colour; while it can sometimes be used to your advantage in the field, using a flash is one way to make the light uniform and generally white. One of the pitfalls of flash photography, however, is that it’s easy to get areas of under and over-exposure on the same subject. How do we fix this? Diffusion. With a diffused flash, details previously lost can become more pronounced, and light points (“hot spots” or glare) are softened.
Diffusion is basically achieved by placing a translucent barrier between the light source and the subject . We saw different materials used for this purpose: everything from thin sheets of flexible white plastic to foam packing materials to paper towel (I use a few sheets of tracing paper). You can bounce the the light around even more, softening it further, if you use something like a soft box; these can be attached directly to the flash unit. Alex’s current go-to soft box is a Lastolite model; I’ve got a DIY version that I’ll do a post on another time. The closer you place the diffused light source to your subject, the more even the light you’ll get (more of a soft cloud than a sun beam).
We can aim the light to creatively illuminate different elements of the image. To maximize the mobility of your flash unit(s), try a remote flash trigger. Alex uses one made by CowboyStudio. I picked up one of these after last year’s BugShot; it’s vastly less expensive than most models you’ll find in pro shops and it does the job quite satisfactorily, in my opinion! Aim at the background, get a silouhette. Aim behind the insect, get a backlit subject. Mix and match with multiple light sources (a great approach if you’re using a twin flash unit) to get even more complex lighting effects (the photo above, for example, backlights the leaf, making it glow; there’s a second light source above and to the right of the ant). You can manually hold the off-camera unit or you can go hands-free by propping the unit on something or attaching it to a tripod or other base.
Another approach to getting that soft, diffused light is to use a white box. This is a studio-style technique that basically entails placing your subject in a box whose sides and top are made of a white material (fabric or paper). You can buy white boxes online, including pop-up versions designed to be taken into the field, or you can DIY your own. A cardboard box lined with paper works well, or if you want something more portable, try making a frame out of hardware store pvc pipe and taping sheets of paper to that. Once you’ve got your box, place your off-camera flash inside the box; try to angle the light up and towards the front, as this seems to create the most pleasing balance of light.
Next: some tips for working with insects