Macro Part 1: The Smallest Moments in Time

I tried to write a post about a photoshoot I did this past week but it turned into a much longer discussion about the imbued value of art based on captured context vs technical composition. I'll post that discussion when I'm done with this, but I felt like the amount of fun I had with this photoshoot necessitated a technical post of it's own. The World According to a WaterdropI chose on this particular occasion to make an attempt at replicating a photo that I've had on my computer for about ten years now. I found it on PhotoSig.com in 2004 taken by the user flippyx/Alex. I had hoped to use the photo for an album cover but I ended up going in a different direction (see next post). I hung onto the shot because I thought it was both technically and artistically stunning and I suppose I dreamed on day of being able to make that kind of photo myself. Fast forward ten years and it suddenly occurred to me that I had all of the tools needed to replicate that shot so I set out one evening to make it happen.

It began with a set-up akin to a double boiler on my kitchen counter. I put a large bowl on the counter inside of which was a small cup sitting upside down. On top of the small cup I set a ceramic cereal bowl filled to the brim with water. Using a microphone stand I suspended a plastic cup over the bowl of water. I used a safety pin to prick a small hole in the plastic cup. When I filled the cup with water, liquid slowly dripped into the bowl below, filling it to the brim and slowly overflowing into the larger reservoir below. Once I had everything working properly I had a steady stream of drips that fell into a nice, stable pool of water and I could set the camera on the tripod as close as I wanted. I wish I had a picture of the contraption but I'm sure you can imagine it in your head.

One of the advantages of shooting with the Pentax WG-III is of course the waterproofing. Water, especially in an airborne or splashing state, is one of the most mesmerizing textures to work with and under controlled light it just looks stunning. It really helps to be able to get in close without worrying about getting water on your camera. I began by setting up the focus and lighting. The WG-III has a really great Manual Focus mode so I used a wooden skewer set across the bowl of water precisely where the water was falling so I could lock the manual focus precisely where I wanted it.

IMGP3009Several different setups resulted in pleasing imagery. Setting the camera about two inches from the drops allowed me to really take advantage of the SuperMacro mode and exaggerate the sense of scale as you can see to the left. Unfortunately, this also meant I had to clean stray drops of water off the lens every ten seconds and the pace of this got annoying after a while. Backing off a few inches and going to the telephoto end of the zoom meant I could capture more of the surface details of the water and widen the depth of field beyond the water drops itself. The advantage of this setup (beyond a dry lens) was that I had far fewer throw-away shots since more or less everything was in focus as you can see below. IMGP2571After getting comfortable with the equipment set-up, I began to experiment with coloring the image. I started by putting an FLR filter over the lens to give everything a purple tint but ultimately found that I could give more nuanced color to the scene by adjusting the tint of the flash and bouncing colors into the scene from other light sources. The image below and the purple image above we colored by holding strips of tissue paper in front of the flash. The purple was a single strip of the same color and the green below was a combination of a couple layers of blue and yellow adjusted over time to get the appropriate combination of color strengths for the desired color. IMGP2428

One of the downsides of not being able to manually adjust aperture and shutter speed is that you have to sort of nudge the camera in the direction you want using roundabout methods. The WG-III displays the shutter speed and aperture settings onscreen before IMGP3120capturing the photo so you can keep an eye on what it's doing with those setting as you adjust others. It has the fortunate tendency to open up the aperture as wide as possible before slowing the shutter speed, which is useful, but the best go-to trick for speeding up he shutter speed is to turn the flash on. I made myself a little cap to cover the flash if I want to speed up the shutter without the fill light hitting my subject. The image above was created by masking the flash and instead using a flashlight at an oblique angle. With macro shots especially, though, I can adjust the EV down 2 (stops, I assume) and take macro shots in daylight using the flash. Because the flash in combination with sunlight would normally blowout the subject, by turning down the EV and limiting the ISO to 200 or 400, I can burn out the background in full sunlight and properly expose my subject as though it were dark, as you can see below. IMGP0604One of the criticisms I've read about the Optio series from Pentax is that it has a steep learning curve. In my experience, however, it has forced me to think a little more like a film photographer and less like a digital shooter. Because I can't simply adjust the exposure with a thumb dial like on a DSLR, I have gotten into the habit of visually assessing the scene and paying attention to how different adjustments affect the image. Over time, I've gotten better at eyeballing the light light levels and setting the exposure accordingly. the practical benefit is that I can set the AUTO ISO range to a more narrow (read: lower) level and minimize the potential for digital noise as much as possible.

In any case, this macro shoot with water drops was a huge amount of fun and I hope you all like the images. I'll give this post a couple days at the top and then add the more intellectual post in a couple days.

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