Get creative with a window lightbox

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Written by Roger Payne

After my bathtub antics last time round – you can read that here if you missed it – I’d got the taste for creating studio quality results on the cheap. I spotted my chance when my wife bought some colourful tulips into the house and within seconds of them being put in a vase, I snaffled them to get shooting.

Aside from the flowers themselves, I used two sheets of white A3 paper, which I taped to a north-facing window. I used two sheets as a single sheet tends to show the pulp in the paper when lit from behind and then put a couple of paper clips on the bottom just to hold the sheets together and add a little weight. A couple of bulldog clips would be just as effective. With my X-E2S mounted to a tripod with the XF60mm macro lens attached, I started my shoot by selecting a custom white-balance setting; effectively to tell the camera the white point in my set-up to guarantee accurate colour reproduction. This was done by choosing White Balance in the menu, then one of the custom options before following the simple on-screen instructions. With that done, the flowers were placed in front of the paper and I got this.

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It’s hardly inspiring, is it? Composition aside, the biggest problem is the fact that the white paper has gone grey. This is because metering systems are calibrated to 18% grey. This is not a problem when shooting most standard scenes, but when you have white (or black) subjects they need a helping hand. I tried two options. First, I switched to spot metering and took a reading from the shadow area of the central yellow bloom. The result was better, but was starting to bleach the highlights, so I dialed in +1.3 stops of exposure compensation instead. Better.

The fact remained that the collection of tulips weren’t really working together, so I started trying individual flowers, placed in a toothbrush holder and held in place with a piece of scrunched up paper – no expense spared! I moved the focusing point to the flower head and tried a range of framing options.

If you’ve ever used the XF60mm Macro, you’ll know that it’s optically superb, and as the lens focused I found myself liking the abstract-like shapes in the out-of-focus bloom areas. So I switched to manual focusing, deliberately defocused and then took a range of images varying the aperture from F2.4 to F11, which altered the amount that was sharp. This one at F3.6 suited me best.

I swapped to another flower and did the same, shooting some in sharp focus and some defocused. This was repeated on the third bloom with which I also tried a few Film Simulation modes, including basic Black & White and Classic Chrome.

Shooting done, when I came to edit the images, I really liked the defocused shots and thought they could create a piece of abstract art if I created a triptych, which was easy enough to do in Photoshop. I simply created a black background, then dropped the images on in turn before shuffling them around until I got the position right.

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What do you think? I rather like the look. My wife, however, was a little less impressed. Turns out tulips don’t like being man-handled a great deal and the ones I’d photographed individually soon wilted.

Back to the shops for me!

Big tips for shooting small

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w360_6415757_tutorialbannerfordotmailerWhat’s not to like about macro (close up) photography? Getting closer to your subjects to see them in greater detail will always appeal, so picking up a few techniques to help you get better at shooting close ups is always worthwhile. Before we get down to the picture taking, let’s cover off the basics.

First, to get the best results you’re going to need a macro lens. That doesn’t mean a lens that has a macro setting, it means a proper macro lens. Such optics aren’t only suitable for close up work. The FUJIFILM XF60mm F2.4 Macro lens that we’re using here, for example, doubles as an excellent lens for shooting portraits, but it’s optically engineered to excel at close ups.

When it comes to macro lenses you’ll often hear the term ‘reproduction ratio’, such as 1:2 or lifesize. Put simply, this refers to the size the lens can reproduce what it’s being pointed at. A macro lens that offers a lifesize (or 1:1) ratio will reproduce the subject at the same size on the sensor as it is in real life. 1:2 means the subject will be reproduced at half lifesize, and so on. The XF60mm offers a 1:2 reproduction ratio.

Finally for now, it’s important to know that the closer you get to a subject, the smaller the area that appears in sharp focus. Given this, focusing has to be extremely precise, which is why a tripod or some other form of support is recommended.


Scenario 1: Shooting macro outdoors

With spring just around the corner, it’s obvious to brush up on your macro skills so you can shoot flowers. Indeed, for this very blog, I found a clump of snowdrops in my local park. Shooting macro images outdoors brings a number of challenges. The light levels vary which can cause exposure issues and, on the day I shot, it was windy, which causes delicate flowers like this to blow around a lot. That means you’ll need to shoot plenty of images, so make sure your battery is fully charged and you there’s plenty of room on your memory card.

I used an X-T1 for all these images as the fold out LCD is an absolute godsend. As I was working at ground level, it avoided me having to lay down on the cold ground. Instead, I popped out the LCD and rested the camera on a rolled up coat for support as my tripod didn’t go low enough.

I picked my subject carefully, finding one bloom that was isolated away from a larger group so I could focus attention on it and still get some complementary colours in the background; always check what is behind your subject before you shoot.

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The first shot I took (above) was with the XF18-55mm set to 55mm and at its closest focusing distance. To be fair, this isn’t a bad result at all, but doesn’t really have a huge amount of impact as the bloom is quite small. So I reached for the macro lens and took this:

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It’s a big improvement with the bloom occupying more of the frame, but the light is a little flat, so I used a small silver reflector placed under the snowdrop to push some more light in and get an even better shot:

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I could have stopped there and been happy, but I also had the FUJIFILM MCEX-11 and MCEX-16 extension tubes with me, so I gave them a try. The tubes fit between the lens and body and allow you to focus even closer. Both tubes maintain all functionality between lens and camera including autofocus, but the focus can hunt a little more and as I was getting so close to the snowdrop I opted to switch to manual focus and use Focus Assist to enlarge the subject on the X-T1’s rear LCD for focusing accuracy. AF hunting isn’t the end of the world, but means you can end up with shots like this where it’s focused on the background rather than the single bloom.

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I took three further sets of images, one with the 11mm, one with the 16mm and then one with the two combined, which got me closest of all. The reflector stayed in place for each image, but the sun was in and out hence the variations in light levels. Take your pick!


Scenario 2: Focus stacking indoors

Time to warm up and head indoors to try another macro technique: focus stacking. Here, you take a range of shots with the lens focused on different parts of the subject before using Photoshop to stack them all together and get one super sharp image.

As previously mentioned, the closer you get to the subject, the smaller the zone of sharp focus so it can be difficult to get the image sharp from front to back. One solution would be to put the camera on a tripod and use a small aperture. But this could make for a long exposure, plus lenses aren’t always at their optical best at smaller apertures. It’s better to pick a central aperture – here I used F5.6 – and stack the images together.

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To make this technique work, you’ll need something called a focusing rail. This attaches to your camera and allows you to make precise incremental changes by using the measure on the side of the rail. I used the 454 Micropositioning Sliding Plate by Manfrotto. I attached this to the X-Pro2 and XF60mm with MCEX-11 extension tube I was using inside, then put both on a tripod and framed up my subject – a dusty snooker scoreboard. In case you wondering why I didn’t remove the dust, this is purely to show how much detail you can get using the stacking technique.

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With the XF60mm set at F5.6 and manually focused on the number 9, here’s the result I got (above). The 9 is nice and sharp, but the in focus area soon drops off on either side. Next, I didn’t touch the focus on lens and moved the focusing rail until the point nearest the camera came into focus. Noting the distance on the rail, I took a shot. I then moved the rail until the furthest point from the camera into focus and took another shot. Again, nothing on the camera was changed and I noted the distance on the rail.

The distance between the two focus points needed the rail to be moved by 4cm. So, again, by not touching any settings on the camera or lens, I moved the rail incrementally by 2mm at a time and took further shots. This gave me a total of around 20 images. Shooting over, I went to my computer and fired up Photoshop.

I opened all the files at once in Photoshop and then chose File>Scripts>Load File into Stack then on the dialogue box that opened, I chose Add Open Files and OK. With this complete, I then opened the Layers palette in the resulting image and selected all the Layers before choosing Edit>Auto-Align Layers. Once this was complete, I then selected all the Layers again and chose Edit>Auto-Blend Layers. On the resulting dialogue box, I chose Stack Images and then hit OK.

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Depending on how much RAM your computer has, these processes may take a while, but once Photoshop has weaved its magic, you should find a sharp image where all the frames are stacked together. There is a possibility that your image will have some odd overlapping elements caused by the slight variance in camera angle between each frame as you move the camera along the rail. In this case, I did, but I was able to crop in slightly to removing the offending areas. If that’s not an option, you’ll need to try a different subject matter and preferably shoot on a plain background such as white or black.

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If you’re happy with the result, finish by choosing Layer>Flatten Image and you’re done!

So there you have it – macro in a nutshell. One final point to bear in mind, macro photography is time-consuming to get right. Don’t expect great results straightaway, although there’s little doubt that patience will be rewarded. So when it comes to macro ideas, think big!

Natural vs artificial light

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w360_6415757_tutorialbannerfordotmailerLight. There’s a lot of it about. And as photographers it’s up to us to harness it in every shot we take.

You may have a personal preference as to which light source you prefer, be it natural or artificial and, despite the combative title of this blog, we’re not for one minute going to suggest that one is better than the other. Instead, we’d suggest that it’s what you’re shooting that counts and should make your choice accordingly.

By way of demonstration, I set up a couple of still-life images, lighting one using artificial light from a humble desk lamp and the other using diffused daylight on a cloudy day. Along with the lighting being switched, I also changed the subject, but nothing else – the background is the same as is the kit – a tripod-mounted X-T1 with the spectacular XF90mm F2.

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Shooting in artificial light

The beauty of artificial light is that it’s completely controllable. Even a simple desk lamp, like the one I’ve used here, can easily be moved around so you can direct the light where you want it. The same, of course, applies to flash, LED and fluorescent light sources. Compared to daylight, artificial light sources are comparatively small, meaning the light they emit is more harsh. You can diffuse it or you could simply play to these strengths, as I did here to light my spanner collection. Metallic objects – among others – are great for this kind of light, which throws deep shadows on the opposite side to the light source. For the collection of images below, I simply moved the light around the set up to get a variety of different effects.

As well as being a harsher light source, artificial light like my desk lamp tends to be less powerful, so you may need to increase your ISO if you want to shoot hand-held or – as I did here – mount the camera on a tripod. You also need to consider your white balance settings, but we’ll come to that a bit later.

Shooting in daylight

Putting my desk lamp to one side for a minute, I moved on to shooting with daylight, using a large, north-facing window in my house as the light source and opening the curtains completely. North-facing windows are best because no matter what time of day you shoot, the light will always be soft as the sun will never shine directly through it. I had no such problems on this dreary day. Daylight like this is lovely and soft, so it lends itself perfectly to flattering portraiture. With no willing human subjects on hand, I switched to this gerbera, which benefits just as well from the diffused light.

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I started by setting up with the window directly behind me, which created the shot above. It’s OK, but the light is very flat and the background is a little more prominent than I would have liked. To solve this, I moved the flower round by 90° to help create some shadows between the petals and tried again. Much nicer – there’s some improved definition on the stem of the flower and the background is darker!

The daylight was a little brighter than my artificial light set up, but not by a huge margin and, wanting to keep the ISO down, I shot tripod-mounted again. With a human subject, I’d have pushed the ISO higher. Despite the fact that I was shooting within one metre of a floor-to-ceiling window, daylight levels do drop off quickly as you move away from the window. To counteract this, I used an A2 sheet of white card as a reflector to push light into the left hand side of the flower.

A question of white balance

Every light source has its own colour temperature, which is measured in Kelvin, essentially this means that different types of light have different colours. The human eye automatically corrects for this, but cameras can’t so you need to make sure you set the correct white balance setting to make sure colours are accurate under different lighting conditions. It’s tempting to shoot with white balance on Auto, but this one size fits all approach can get caught out. Which is why I always change the white balance setting myself when I shoot. Shooting in Raw is also an option as you can change the white balance setting in post production; a luxury that isn’t available with JPEGs.

Your X series camera comes with a variety of preset white balance options – daylight, incandescent, shady, fluorescent etc – in the first instance, use one of these. But the X-series cameras also have a Custom white-balance option which helps you get super-accurate colours 100% of the time.

Using it is simple, just frame the shot as you want it, select the Custom white-balance mode and then follow the on-screen instructions. Essentially, you need to hold a piece of white paper or card in the same lighting as the subject and then let the camera do the rest. I did that on both set ups, as well as used some presets, the results of which are shown here. Of course, there’s no right or wrong here, you can simply pick the shot you like the best, but it’s well worth playing about with white balance settings. Give it a go, whatever lighting you’re using!

For more help with white balance & settings please find our dedicated tutorial here.

Extension tubes open up a whole new world!

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Ben CherryWith travel photography, one of the issues is prioritising equipment. You simply can’t carry everything you could possibly want to bring. If you do then it often hampers the overall travel experience as you’re weighed down by equipment and have to constantly look after it. For me, on my current trip that meant I couldn’t justify bringing a dedicated macro lens, especially when I had the XF56mm and XF50-140mm covering the similar focal lengths offered by the two available macro options. Instead I chose to pack both the 11 and 16mm extension tubes (MCEX-11 / 16). Offering camera-lens communication that allows autofocus, these simple compact devices can turn nearly any lens into a macro option (but please check lens compatibility).

My primary role in Costa Rica is to work as a researcher for a scarlet macaw program, so macro functions weren’t really at the top of the list. However the wildlife in this region is remarkable and macro functionality quickly became important. One of the sites we regularly see is a trail of leaf cutter ants marching through the forest taking supplies from the canopy to their nest. Following the tiny motorway, which has been carved out of the rainforest floor you’ll eventually find yourself at the base of a tree that’s being harvested.

Although I am focusing on leaf cutter ants, the general principles apply to all types of macro photography.

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It is possible to get macro photos with wide apertures, these were taken at F4 with the XF50-140mm and X-T1, using ISO 3200(!) because the rainforest undergrowth was so dark (ominous clouds were gathering) and the ants were moving so fast, I needed fast shutter speeds, 1/600, 1/400 to help freeze the motion as I wasn’t using any flash.


Macro Photography fundamentals

For this type of photography you generally want to be using very high F Stops e.g. F22. The reason for this is when you start to focus on very close objects; the depth of field becomes very thin with more regular F Stops like F4, 5.6, 8. Even the maximum aperture on your lens is often not enough to get most of the frame sharp. One technique employed is to focus stack. Taking multiple pictures of a static subject, moving the focus throughout the frame and then stacking the pictures in postproduction. This wasn’t an option for me unfortunately as the ants were moving continuously (so fast when you’re looking at a macro frame!).

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Using flash helps to stop these fast moving insects in their tracks. Note that the bokeh does degrade because of extension tubes. Taken with X-T1, XF50-140mm and stacked extension tubes. I used a Nissin i40 to light the scene from just above the camera.


Extension tubes – what are they?

They are simply extensions of the lens barrel, extending the distance between the rear lens element and the sensor. This shifts the focus, so for example instead of focusing at over 10 metres according to the lens, you’re actually focused 0.5 metres away when using an extension tube. There are two extension tubes available from Fujifilm a 11mm and 16mm. This gives you three options as you can stack the two together. The greater the distance, the closer the focusing.


Some lenses have very close native focusing distances

There are non-macro focused lenses that do actually have very close minimum focusing distances. For me, the two lenses spring to mind – the XF10-24mm and XF16mm. Though not particularly helpful for ‘normal’ macro photography because of they’re wide-angle lenses. However, I really like using both of these lenses for placing my subject within its environment, the benefit of these two is that my subject can be an elephant or an ant, both lenses are capable.

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Above were taken with the XF10-24mm
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Taken with the XF16mm


Downsides to extension tubes?

Well as you might have seen on some of the images, the bokeh can regress from the wonderfully smooth circles we are all used to from Fujifilm lenses, to something more like heptagon! The high image quality we are also used to does degrade somewhat, but this is to be expected when you’re pushing a lens from what is designed for. What you have to remember is that these are ultra lightweight, convenient macro inducers that save you money and carrying around another lens.

I am only touching the fringes of what is possible with macro photography, there are many out there who know a lot more about macro, but the benefit of extension tubes for those on the go is obvious.


Macro Creativity

With a little time and patience you can really start to create some interesting images. Though the images below are nothing particularly new, it was nevertheless satisfying to produce them. Using an off camera flash, placed behind the ants shooting back towards the camera backlights the ants and produces some interesting silhouettes/shadows thanks to the leaf cuttings.

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I hope this has been helpful. Here is a short video of how I went about creating these images. Filmed and edited by Ellice Dart. If you liked this blog and video then please leave a constructive comment below.

Happy Shooting.

 

Ben is an environmental photojournalist, zoologist and Fujifilm X-Photographer. His passion is showing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Find more of his work at:

Plastic fantastic!

This colourful effect is known as cross polarisation and the good news is, it’s incredibly easy to do. In the days of film, this technique would have regularly required sheets of polarising film placed behind the subject and a polarising filter on the camera. Now, all you need is a polarising filter, a computer screen and a plastic geometry set. Here’s how it’s done:

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1 As mentioned, the pre-requisite parts are a geometry set (we pushed the Fujifilm budget to the limit spending £1.59 on this one), a polarising filter and a computer screen. It isn’t essential that the filter is the correct size for the lens you’re using – just as long as it covers the front element. I used the super-sharp XF60mm macro for these image, but didn’t have a 39mm filter, so I just used a 72mm one instead.

 2 All these shots were taken with the X-T1, which I set to aperture-priority, ISO 200 and spot metering. The camera was tripod mounted and positioned directly in front of the screen.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 08.48.103 The computer background needs to be white. As I was using an Apple Mac, I did this through the System Preferences window. With the background white, I positioned the pieces from the geometry set directly on the computer screen in the order I wanted them.

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4 Here’s the magic bit! Put the polarising filter in front of the lens and slowly rotate it, as you do, you’ll see the screen turn grey, then black. As this happens, the vibrant colours in the plastic will appear. Make sure you spot meter from the plastic, not the black background and you’ll get a result like this.

 5 Once you’ve perfected the technique, you can start getting creative. Here are a couple of extra shots of individual pieces from the set where I cropped in in post-production.

Quick tips

There is a ‘sweet spot’ when you’re turning the polarising filter, make sure you experiment so you get a pure black background, otherwise you’ll end up with a less-appealing grey as you see here.

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Use the Velvia Film Simulation mode for really vibrant colours.

On some screens, when you find the optimum position for the polarising filter, small white dots will appear in the background. These may disappear when you spot meter accurately, but if they don’t you can get rid of them by boost the blacks in post production.

We’d advise you to buy a new geometry set rather than using an old one, which will almost certainly be covered in scratches and will dilute the effect. Besides, everyone needs a protractor, right?

Python Close Up – Story Behind the Photo

I have been lucky enough to be using a prototype of the XF16mm F1.4 since March and I have to say it is brilliant. I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d end up using it for, but as it turns out it is an extremely flexible lens and helped to produce some shots that would otherwise have not been possible.

This particular story has a bit of an unusual beginning. The location is the Kinabatangan River, Sabah, Malaysia, I was in this region with another photographer, Christian Loader from Scubazoo who I’m currently doing some work with. I have to thank Christian for some of the photos of me here. One morning, we headed up river briefly as our guide Osmon wanted to show us something he had spotted the previous night. We slowed underneath some low lying branches. Before I knew what had happened we had come across a relatively young python and… it fell in the boat! At which point I almost jumped out, much to the amusement of the other two who have handled snakes extensively before. The snake then decided to snuggle up to my Millican Dave camera bag! They calmly caught it and we relocated it inside the forest on a nice tree branch, in return it kindly sat still allowing us to take some pictures.

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The close focusing capabilities of this lens really impressed me and allowed me to get some really close wide-angle shots, allowing me to fill the frame with the python and to also capture the environment.

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I used the X-T1 with the XF16mm F1.4 attached as well as a Nissin i40 flash I used a rogue flash bender. But because this would involve getting very close to the snake I decided to put the camera on a monopod and used a wireless trigger set up to keep me working at a safe distance. To stress, the snake was absolutely fine and did not once try and strike the set up. The angled screen on the X-T1 was very helpful here as it meant that I could see exactly what was in the frame, regardless of slight angle changes to composition.

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Here is the set up. Please excuse the ‘jungle hat’!

Because I was using the i40 flash in TTL mode, I couldn’t shoot above 1/180sec so I had to stop down to F8 for much of the photos. The location was very dark and flat as the vast majority of the tropical sunlight is absorbed by the canopy above. Thankfully the XF16mm seems to have very quick and accurate autofocus, even in these less than ideal conditions.

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In an up and coming blog I’ll show the benefit of the F1.4 aperture when photographing Pygmy Elephants.

You can find more of my work via the following links: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.