My first macro pictures

Withered roses

A couple of years ago somebody showed me some pictures of macro photography. They looked interesting, however, it did not resonate with me. Now, many years later, I read the book Praktijkboek Macrofotografie (in Dutch) and looked at videos on Youtube. It turns out that macro photography is a lot more than taking pictures of plants and insects and laying on the ground. So, there was a growing interest.
After realising that my regular lenses would not suffice, I looked at possible cheap adjustments:

  • close-up filters are put on a regular lens and they magnify. The disadvantage is the you add more glass between the subject and the sensor, thereby reducing the quality of the picture substantially;
  • extension tubes are put between your regular lens and the body of the camera. They are used to reduce the focal distance and thereby increase the magnification. The disadvantage is that it mainly helps up to roughly 50mm, beyond that the reduction of the focal distance is not substantial anymore.

So I decided to look for a macro lens (Nikon calls it a micro lens). They are expensive. The Nikon 200mm micro lens costs something like €1500. Beyond my budget for a hobby. So I settled for a secondhand Nikon 105mm. And I am very pleased with it. Very sharp pictures.
My first experiments with macro photography immediately showed that getting the subject in focus is quite a challenge. Even more than I expected. For example, at a distance of 40cm the 105mm lens at f/8 has a Depth of Field (DoF) of only 0.5cm. Handheld this is not going to work. Even by breathing you move more than 0.5cm. So, you need a tripod. Although I am not very fond of a tripod for macro photography it is an essential tool.

Macro photography in action

Like I said, with f/8 the DoF is only 0.5cm. In some cases this is fine,  however, if you take a picture of a flower, maybe you want a larger DoF, like 1.5cm. In this case the aperture should be f/22. This means that if you are indoors, you need to use flashes. Below you see my set up in the garage. It consists of two flashes and a camera, all three on a tripod. I had set the shutter speed at 1/100th of a second, and the camera in Command Mode using TTL and a -1 compensation for both flashes. The subject are roses I gave to my wife for our 35 year wedding anniversary. I used them just before they were thrown away.
The next step is to get the right part of the roses in focus. I set the aperture to f/3.8 to get enough light in the camera. Autofocus does not always work, so I use Live View to visually focus. You can even magnify the screen to better focus. After that I set the aperture back to  f/22 and take a picture.
At the top and below you see two of my first pictures. I am satisfied with the quality of the picture, however, I still need to learn more about composition in macro photography.
Withered roses

Photoshoot for Crocheting Webshop

Last week my daughter asked me to take some pictures of crocheting she makes and sells via her Etsy webshop, DC crochet Design. She was facing some shortcomings of smartphones to do product photography. So, yesterday I grabbed my equipment and turned one of our bedrooms into a small photo studio. I have done something similar before so the first steps were easy.

  • To put all the focus on the crocheting I used white paper as a background. I used the same equipment as for model shooting, only I used a more narrow roll of paper.
  • To avoid sharp shadows I used two compact flashes flashing from two different sides through white umbrellas (TTL-mode). 
  • To avoid incoming daylight I set the Exposure Time to 1/160th of a second.

This is the way it looked like.

Studio for product photography

As a camera I used my Nikon D800 and the Nikkor 28-300mm as a lens. I set the Commander Mode such that the two compact flashes on the side flashed and that the built-in flash did not.
During the shoot my daughter and I checked the pictures to make sure that things were working out the way we wanted it. Here are some of the challenges I was facing:

  • The white background is not white at all Compact flashes are of course not as powerful as studio flashes. I have only one studio flash, so I decided to use two almost identical compact flashes. In Lightroom it is very simple with the adjustment brush to increase the exposure to make sure that the white background is really white.
    White background puts focus on crocheting
  • Not the whole embroidery is sharp In most of the pictures the whole crocheting had the same distance from the camera. In this case f/8 suffices. However, I did not realise that the Depth of Field was pretty small. Afterwards, I calculated that at 115 mm and with f/8 or f/10 the DoF is only a few centimeters. Too small as you can see here. The bottom of the iPhone is not sharp.
    Too small DoF to get the whole crocheting sharp

    From this I learned that I have to shoot a bit further away, with a wider angle than 115mm (for example, 50mm, and crop later), and at least f/16 or f/22 (all increase DoF).
  • Colours are not identical to original I fiddled around a bit with the  temperature to match the colours of the original.
    Slightly lower temperature to get the right colour

So, next time I am better prepared.

Tripod or not? Learnt my lessons!

Basically I am not very fond of tripods. On rare occasions you need one and still you have to carry them around all the time. Another reason for not liking them is the lack of flexibility in positioning the camera (for example, horizontal or vertical, or the position I want to take). So, I never take a tripod with me.
Coming back from Xi’an in China I noticed that in the hall of the Terracotta Army quite a few pictures had an ISO value of 6400 or close to it. And that the Shutter Speed I choose was not fast enough to compensate for the zoom of the lens to avoid shaken pictures. For that reason, a couple of pictures were rightfully not accepted by Dreamstime.  When you blow up the picture (100%) you can see the errors.

Terracotta Army in Xian, China (image is shaken)

Let us have a closer look at the contradicting circumstances and requirements in the hall of the Terracotta Army:

  • In the hall there is not enough light, maybe this has something to do with the preservation of the terracotta sculptures.
  • I wanted a large DoF (Depth of Field) to have several ranks of soldiers in focus.
  • The sculptures are a bit away from where I could stand, so to get enough detail I had to zoom in. Otherwise I would get only overview pictures with no detail.

If there is not enough light, there are four options: use a flash, slower Shutter Speed, wider Aperture, or increase the ISO. Remember, the last three determine the Photographic Triangle. See my post on this to understand the relationship between them: if you change one it at least affects one of the others to get a correct exposure. 
Let us have a look at these four options:

  • Use a flash This was no serious option because the sculptures were a bit too far away to evenly light the two or three ranks of soldiers I wanted to capture. And maybe I was not even allowed to flash.
  • Slower Shutter Speed Because of the low light conditions, the Shutter Speed was already pretty low, even further lowering would produce shaken pictures. Furthermore, there is this rule that if you zoom to for example 200mm, the Shutter Speed should be no higher than 1/200th of a second.
  • Wider Aperture Because I wanted several ranks of the soldiers in focus this was no option.
  • Increase ISO Given the above three, ISO was already in the 5000+ range. Going beyond 6400 (the limit of my Nikon D800) produces only darker pictures with a high noise ratio.

To handle this conflicting situation, I took a slightly slower Shutter Speed. As to be expected, this resulted in slightly shaken pictures. As long as the pictures are small, like in this post, you can hardly see it. However, to sell the picture commercially, the picture has to be perfect, even at 100%.

Terracotta Army in Xian, China (image is shaken)

So, what is the solution? Use a tripod. Because the sculptures don’t move using a slower Shutter Speed is no problem. You can take an arbitray long exposure time to get the right DoF and, at the same time, a low ISO to avoid noise.
So, I have learnt my lessons. Next time I take a small tripod (Traveller Mini Pro) that can be attached to the outside of my photography backpack (Lowepro Transit Backpack 350 AW).
Lowepro backpack with small tripod

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Concept photography

Incense tower with smoke
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Concept photography is new to me. I am still experimenting. The idea of concept photography is to express an idea in a single picture. Looking at the picture, you immediately know what it wants to communicate.
Above is an incense tower with burning incense. It expresses spirituality. Although the picture looks very simple, actually making the picture was quite a challenge.
First, I had to decide about the background. I decided to buy  black velvet, to make sure that all the light from the strobes would be absorbed, to get a complete black background to contrast with the white smoke.
Second, I placed the incense tower a few meters away from the background to make sure that the background would be dark enough and not lighted by the strobes that lighted the tower and the smoke.
Third, I lighted the incense tower and the smoke separately. Lighting them together would create too much light falling on the nearby background.
Finally, during processing I found out that there was some fluff or dust on the velvet. So, I still had to clean the background with Photoshop to make it completely dark. Although it has never been sold I am very proud of it. I put in a lot of effort and I learnt quite a lot by doing it.
Here you will find more of my concept pictures at Dreamstime. The challenge is to to identify a message that is immediately recognized when looking at the picture. Some of them have been sold. Like the one above and the one below that captures the concept Always connected or 24/7 Economy. Enjoy!
Combining work and pleasure
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

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Lighting: moods

In the series Understanding lighting: from physics to moods, I will now discuss the relationship between lighting and moods. In the previous blogs I discussed several techniques to get a specific kind of lighting. In this blog I am going in the direction of art.

Beautiful brunette putting gloss on her lips
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

We all know that when we tell our subject that we are going to take a picture, we get automatically a pose with a nice smile. Most of the time all emotions are gone. Therefore, I prefer to take pictures when people are not aware of the camera to tell a story. Then, they express their genuine emotions (reportage photography).
In a studio setting this is quite a challenge. So, I first talk to my models to make them relax. I am in a lucky position that I knew my models before I started with portrait photography. So, there is enough to talk about. I quite often use props, like an iPhone or an iPad. It helps them to focus on what they would normally do with e.g. an iPad and not to pose.
Two types of lightening are high key and low key. A high-key picture is bright, has hardly any contrast, and lacks shadows; it expresses happiness and joy. A low-key picture, on the other hand, is dark, has many black areas, and has a lot of contrast; it expresses drama, tension, or mysteriousness.
A high-key picture is made by overexposing the background and having main and fill lights with a high exposure. Make sure not to overexpose. A low-key picture is made with a dark background and main light that acts like a kicker light (only lighting a specific area of the subject). Furthermore, the settings of the camera should be close to underexposure.
Beautiful latin girl with curly hair
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

My experience with lighting is mainly in the area between high and low key, actually a bit closer to high. In the near future I am going to experiment with the two extremes.
There are many type of moods, which require a different lighting. By experimenting you will find out what the right combination of posture, light, color (look at this overview for the relationship between color and emotions), and angle for the different moods is.
This ends the series on Understanding Lighting: from physics to moods. It was inspired by Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua and Sculpting with Light by Earnest. Please, enjoy!
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Lighting: studio lighting setup – several lights

4-light setup
4-light setup

In the previous blog in the series on Understanding Lighting: from physics to moods, we discussed studio lighting using only one light (the main light). The essence of lighting is to play with light and shadow. The same is of course true if we use more than one light.
Using one bare light produces harsh shadows. This can be overcome by making the light bigger by using an umbrella or a softbox. However, this does not change the darkness of the shadows, it only softens the edges.
To get rid of the darkness of the shadows we need an additional light source. This might be another light, or it might also be a reflector. Note, in a sense a reflector is another source of light, however, a reflector does not produce more light than the light source of the incoming light. So, we cannot fully control it.
Besides the main light there are the following additional lights:

  • Fill light These are used to lighten up the shadows. Do not make them too strong otherwise the shadows completely disappear, making the picture flat.
  • Background light To create more depth we need to separate the subject from the background. This is done by placing a light behind the subject directed towards the background. If the backdrop is white it is better to use a color, if it is black a white light can be used.
  • Rim light To highlight the subject we use a rim light. It is placed behind the subject directed towards the subject. It gives a halo effect around the head and shoulders.
  • Hair light Sometimes it is nice to highlight a specific spot of the hair. This is done by placing a small, focussed light at a high position directed towards the hair.
  • Kickers They are very similar as hair light, however, they are directed towards a specific part of the subject.

The picture at the top shows a 4-light step bringing most of the above together. One main light on the left, a fill light on the right, a rim light in the rear, and a hair light on the far right. I again used the Virtual Lighting Studio by Oliver Prat of Zvork.

Main light, reflector, and background light (blue)
Main light (left), reflector (right), and background light (rear, blue)

My own experience with a studio lighting setup until now is limited to a main light and several fills, lights and reflectors. In the near future I hope to experiment with the full setup.
This series of blogs on understanding lighting is inspired by Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua and Sculpting with Light by Earnest.
In the next blog we will discuss the right lighting setup for specific moods.
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Lighting: studio lighting setup – one light

Self-Portrait, 1658
Self-Portrait, 1658

In the previous blog in the series on  Understanding Lighting: from physics to moods the physics of light was discussed, now the focus is on the various lighting setups for portrait photography. Again, inspired by Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua and Sculpting with Light by Earnest and many blogs and tutorials I try to focus on the essence. Here is one link to an explanation I really liked, it is simple and clear: several basic lighting patterns by Darlene Hildebrandt.
The essence in my opinion is to get the right balance between light and shadows for what we have in mind. See these drawings of Palle Schmidt to understand the interplay between light and shadows.
Let me start with one light and vary the position relative to the person. Note below I used a bare light (so no soft box), this explains the harsh shadows. This gives the following lighting patterns (I used the Virtual Lighting Studio by Oliver Prat of Zvork so simulate the various patterns) :

  • frontal lighting This is the situation where the flash is in or on the camera and the person is facing the camera. The result is a picture with no shadows in the face. It looks flat. Most snapshots are like this.frontal
  • butterfly lighting If we lift the light up a small shadow appears under the nose and sometimes also under the cheeks. butterfly
  • split lighting If I now move the light to the side of the person (90 degrees), the result is a split face: one side lighted and the other one dark.split
  • Rembrandt lighting If I move the light back to 45 degrees off the camera and up a bit, we get something called Rembrandt lighting (see the self-portrait of Rembrandt). Typical is the light triangle on the cheek on the other side of the light. The sides of the triangle are: the eyebrow, the shadow of the nose and the shadow of the cheek. It can be smaller or larger depending on the position of the light.Rembrandt
  • loop lighting If I place the light a little closer to the the camera (30 degrees), the triangle opens up, this means that the shadow of the nose does not touch the shadow of the cheek anymore.loop

For all of these lighting patterns (except the frontal one) I can use broad and short lighting. Broad lighting means that the visible ear is lighted and short lighting is that the visible ear is in the shade.
Here is a nice YouTube video by Ed Verosky that explains the various lighting patterns with one light.
In the next blog I will continue the studio lighting setup with several lights and reflectors.

Lighting: physics of light


Inspired by Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua I would like to discuss the fundamentals of lighting in the series Understanding Lighting: from physics to moods. Lighting deals with light, subject, and viewer. We discuss all three of them.
Essential characteristics of light (sources) are:

  • Brightness It makes quite a difference if we have to take a picture with only the moon shining instead of the sun. In general, the more light the better the quality of the pictures is. It is much easier to deal with too much light (almost closed Aperture and a very fast Shutter Speed), than too little light (the quality decreases substantially in the high ISO range). Also, light loses its brightness if it travels a long distant (look at the sky when it is dark, all of these starts are more powerful than our sun, however, we only see a tiny twinkle of each of them).
  • Color Normal light consists of light with different wave lengths. We see that when the sun shines during the rain: the rainbow. With the right mix of these colors it looks white. If this white light reflex on a red wall it reflects only red light. The way we see light is an interpretation of our brains of what we see. For example, we know that snow is white; although in a picture it may look gray we “see” it as white. A camera is not always able to do this intelligent interpretation of light. So, sometimes we have to help it by setting the White Balance to the right color temperature.
  • Size of the source On sunny days with a blue sky the shadows are harsh. On cloudy days there are hardly any shadows. In the first case we have a very small light source and in the latter a very large one, resulting in, respectively, direct and diffuse light.

Reflections on a subject play an important role in photography, because in a sense they create new light sources with their own characteristics. For example, a reflection on a non-glossy subject like a matte wall causes a diffuse reflection (reduction in brightness). As mentioned above, if light reflects on a red subject, it reflects only red light and absorbs all other colors (change of color). Also, if the light reflects on a (small) mirror-like subject, it creates a (tiny) light source producing harsh shadows; this is called direct reflection (change of size of light source).
The viewer is of course our camera. When we shoot outdoors and when we are not happy with the position of the light source, the sun, the only remedy is to change the position of the camera. In a studio, however, we have the additional possibility to change the position of the light source(s). Also, we can use soft boxes instead of waiting for the clouds. Furthermore, we can use reflectors, “producing” warm of cold light, to light the subject from different angles.
So, now that we know more about light, the next step is lighting setups. This is the topic of the next blog.

Lighting: a prelude

Brunette with long hair making phone call
© Peter Apers | Dreamstime Stock Photos

As we all know, understanding lighting is at the core of photography. You might object, although we all drive a car, this does not necessarily mean that we fully understand how a car operates and that we know what perfect driving is.
The same is of course true for photography, cameras, even in smartphones, get better every day, however, this does not mean that our pictures improve as well. Look for yourself on the internet to see how many mediocre pictures there are.
I am not saying that my own pictures are a lot better, however, I have the drive to better understand what makes pictures stand out. There are many books, websites, and tutorials on YouTube on specific aspects of photography. To be honest, too many, which makes it difficult to distinguish between the good and the mediocre.
In the upcoming blogs I will take you along my search for understanding lighting: from physics to moods. Just to give you a little prelude.
The books by Joe McNally (Hot Shoe Diaries and Sketching Light) inspired me to take the speedlight off the camera and to shoot in Manual Mode. This was quite a step for me, however, his enthusiasm made this step easy for me.
Light: Science and Magic by Hunter, Biver, and Fuqua was advised to me by a professional photographer who did a photoshoot of me (in my role as research manager). It is not as easy to read as most of the books on photography, however, everytime I have a question about lighting, the answer turns out to be there.
After having seen a lot of books, websites etc on a studio lighting setups, I was wondering what the impact of the various lighting setups is on the mood of the pictures and whether certain setups work better with one person than with the other. Currently I am reading Sculpting with Light by Earnest; I am very enthusiastic about this book because it tells me for which type of face to use which lighting setup.
In the upcoming blogs I will share with you my learning steps. Last weeks a couple of my studio pictures have been sold on Dreamstime. At the top of this blog you see one of them. It is a full body, high key picture taken with a couple of speedlights, a softbox and a white backdrop. I am proud of it, however, I want to futher improve it. Here are some more of my portrait pictures of which most are on Dreamstime. Enjoy.
Upcoming blogs:

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Rating my own pictures

The foreground is messy and the high grass blocks the view
The foreground is messy and the high grass blocks the view

At Laguna Llanganuco, during my last trip to Peru, I took a hike for about an hour along the lake. The setting was impressive:

  • a beautiful lake with a greenish color,
  • surrounded by mountains, some of them with snow,
  • a deep blue sky, hardly any clouds,
  • a view of the top of the Huascarán (highest mountain of Peru).

Altogether, really overwhelming. During this hike I took 82 pictures (actually, a bit more, however, a handful I threw out in a first round because they were out of focus). I selected only 7 for Dreamstime; all of them were accepted. The others I did not submit. The question is why.
To answer this question I rated my own pictures. Normally, I have a quick glance and reject most of them without making explicit why. It has become intuition. Now, I forced myself to make the reason for rejection explicit. Here are the reasons why:

  • Lack of composition, like lack of balance, blocking flow of the eyes, lack of depth, distracting parts of the picture etc
  • Technical flaws, like out of focus, sun flare etc
  • Snapshots, no other interest than for my own recollection

What is left over are the Winners and close to winners (of which 7 were submitted to and accepted by Dreamstime). Sometimes the differences were minimal.
Here you can view all the pictures I took at Laguna Llanganuco including my comments. And here and here are the Dreamstime pictures (including pictures from another location).
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