A good macro photograph can reveal a world we would normally overlook. The texture of a flower petal, the rainbow swirl of oil in a puddle, or the intricacy of an insect can be seen in stunning detail with the right light, technique, gear, and a little patience and luck mixed in.
To bring you the tips and techniques you’ll read in this article, I interview Eric Stavale. Mr. Stavale and I have known each other for several years. We first met climbing rock walls at a local climbing gym in Maryland. Since then, we’ve followed each other’s photography journey, mine in portraiture and his in macro photography.
By day, Mr. Stavale is a microbiologist specializing in virology. He is a contractor with the National Institutes of Health, and he works with a group that spends considerable time in Western Africa, focusing on outbreaks and aftermaths of high-consequence pathogens like Ebola, Nipah, Lassa. Understandably, Mr. Stavale’s work is stressful and consuming. He uses photography to take his my mind off of work and focus solely on the subject at hand.
Mr. Stavale credits photographers such as Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, Nicky Bay, and John Hallmen as inspiration for his photography. With his passion for the smallest in life and inspiration from others, Mr. Stavale expertly photographs insects both at home in Maryland and in Africa. Below is a first discussion of Mr. Stavale’s gear and techniques followed by a detailed breakdown of several images.
Gear and Technique
Mr. Stavale’s current setup in the field is a Nikon D500, the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro lens, a set of extension tubes, and an SB600 or SB800 Speedlight with a Lastolite Ezybox diffuser. The Nikon D500 is Nikon’s top-of-the-line crop-sensor camera. A benefit to the crop sensor camera is that the crop factor multiplies the focal length of the lens. Since the D500 has a crop factor of 1.5, Mr. Stavale’s 105mm becomes a 157mm lens, undoubtedly beneficial for insect macro photography. Since his subjects are live insects, increased zoom helps him stay slightly farther away so as not to frighten the subject, although anyone familiar with macro photography will know that you’ll still be just inches in front of your subject no matter what.
As with all genres of photography, Mr. Stavale says that live macro photography is all about light. In order to have a greater depth of field to capture detail, you will shoot at higher f-stops (f/8, f/11, f/16, and even beyond). To keep your ISO low and your aperture narrow, a macro photography must have a quality light source. Mr. Stavale prizes diffused light for his photos, so he recommends practicing multiple ways to diffuse your light. For example, if you’re not shooting in the field, you might try making this “Light Box,” which Mr. Stavale recommended. You only need foam core, poster board, duct tape, and tissue paper. (Actually, I’d recommend gaffers tape, which will blow your mind and make you wish duct tape had never been invented in the first place. For this project, make sure you buy it in white.) In a pinch, Mr. Stavale once used some plastic flash diffuser to place the insects on, some white poster board to bounce his flash, and a hotel menu for the “studio” structure.
While many of Mr. Stavale’s images are just a single photograph, others are a series of images that he focus-stacked in post-production. Essentially, Mr. Stavale takes a handful of photos, five or 10 or even 20, each with a different focus point. He then blends the appropriate images together to create one seamless image. Mr. Stavale uses a program called Zerene Stacker for focus-stacking, but you can also do this in Photoshop. And yes, even subjects as small as a fly can require focus-stacking.
Interestingly, Mr. Stavale often works on-location without a tripod. Since Mr. Stavale photographs insects, he describes the following as his go-to technique:
“I set my camera to burst mode and my flash to 1/16, compose the shot, and then hold down the shutter and go. If I want to capture the subject in one shot, I hold my breath and use a subtle rocking back-and-forth movement to cover the entire subject. Basically, if I focus on the eyes of a subject, start shooting, and slowly rock forwards, I can quickly get the photos I need which cover the entire depth of the subject. If I’m trying to get a focus-stack, I’ll use the focus ring and slowly adjust the focus of the subject from the eyes or antennae to the back of the insect. I’ll fire off multiple shots while simultaneously turning the focus ring.”
If you noticed his flash setting, you’ll know that Mr. Stavale has set his flash to a low power setting, which allows the flash to recycle quickly, even when firing his shutter in burst mode. Recently, Mr. Stavale has forgone batteries in favor of the Godox Pro PB960 battery pack, which when charged can allow him to fire at 1/16 almost indefinitely. (The pack will fire a flash at full power 1,800 times with one-second recycle times, that’s how powerful the pack is.)
Furthermore, for those well-versed in flash photography, you’ll know that he also uses a flash to freeze the subject in the exposure, allowing him to use relatively slower shutter speeds, like 1/100 of a second. With ever-moving subjects like insects, it’s not difficult to understand why freezing the subject with a flash would be helpful.
With Mr. Stavale’s process, technique, and gear in mind, let’s explore some of his images and the story behind each.
Photograph #1 Discussion
I asked Mr. Stavale to pick a few favorites to discuss. The photo above is one he particularly likes because it’s a behavior shot of a “harvestman.” “The animal was continuously moving,” said Mr. Stavale, “and I was almost on my stomach, it was 100 degrees outside, and the subject kept turning in different directions.” Mr. Stavale explained that these animals do not sit still while eating if something like a photographer disturbs what would normally be a private meal. Usually, an insect would just drop its meal when disturbed, leaving the photographer with nothing.
The photo is a focus-stack of three images taken handheld with the Nikon D500 using a 105mm macro lens and a 10mm extension tube. His flash was set to 1/16 power, and the exposure settings were 1/100, ISO 400, f/8.
Mr. Stavale continued, “While taking this photo, I was also being stung by nettles. I had to get as close as I could, get the flash positioned properly, focus, and not bump against any plant or leaf that could have disturbed the subject. It would have immediately dropped its food and taken off.” The lesson here for beginning macro photographers is that awareness of your surroundings and your subject is just as important as the technical aspects of the photograph. Since so many variables have to line up exactly, the payoff is that much sweeter.
What’s special about this photo is it was “the first time I had ever observed a harvestman feeding.” Mr. Stavale was excited for the rare opportunity to capture the subject’s behavior. “When you are passionate enough about the shot you want,” he explains, “you don’t care that you are uncomfortable, being stung by nettles, temperature, whatever – all you care about is getting the shot. 100% of my focus is on the shot, and I’ll deal with the discomforts when I’m done.”
He explained that he routinely finishes a shot like the one above completely out of breath for two reasons: 1. He might be dealing with the harsh conditions explained above, and 2. He will hold his breath to reduce any shake or blur. Multiply that by 100 shutter clicks and fatigue is inevitable.
Photograph #2 Discussion
The photo above is of a katydid in Western Africa. What stands out to Mr. Stavale is “the composition, and that I got lucky.” Mr. Stavale explained, “I was in the jungle in Liberia on a work break, and this beautiful katydid was on the outside of my building with eyes unlike any I had ever seen. And it was holding still.” Again, Mr. Stavale takes advantage of a rare opportunity, though he hadn’t planned his gear setup as meticulously for this shot.
Mr. Stavale took this photograph with a Nikon D7100 and a 70-180mm lens zoomed to 180mm. His exposure settings were 1/100, ISO 400, and f/5.6.
“I did not have a flash diffuser on,” he said, “so I shot wide open (f/5.6) and got a much better shot than I was hoping for.” Shooting wide open makes focusing difficult for such a small subject, yet Mr. Stavale was proud to capture the katydid’s eyes, which was his goal. The purples and blues in the photo were artifacts of the building it was on.
While technical success is always a reason to love a photo, Mr. Stavale’s story behind the photo added that much more meaning for him: “It was the first one I took that I really liked early on during my month-long deployment to Liberia, so I knew that with some patience, the trip and my photographs had the potential to be fun.”
Photograph #3 Discussion
During our discussion, Mr. Stavale continued to drive home how important it is to “know your subject”. He admitted that it’s not always easy to predict natural behavior, but that you get used to how different animals react in different situations, how to approach them, and where to find them. In other words, planning and experience are just as important as camera settings and light diffusers.
Mr. Stavale took this photograph with a Nikon D7100 and a 105mm macro lens. His exposure settings were 1/100, ISO 800, and f/16, and his flash was set to 1/8 power.
The photo above was shot at f/16, which gave Mr. Stavale an ideal depth-of-field; however, the f-stop came at the expense of light. To compensate, he set his ISO to 800, though he admits that cameras today are able to work wonders at much higher ISOs than ever before. With high ISO capabilities comes flexibility with aperture and shutter speed.
This photo above required Mr. Stavale to get low and approach very slowly. “Flies are timid and take off without any warning,” he explained. “What people don’t see is for every shot that I have like this, I may have 300 failed shots. Trying to approach a subject like this and getting it in focus or in frame without it scurrying off or flying away is extremely challenging.”
Three Final Things
To finish our conversation, I asked Mr. Stavale to tell me three things he would tell someone just starting to get into live-subject macro photography.
First, he said, if you aren’t a patient person, forget about it. With live subjects, it could be hours, days, or weeks before you get a photograph that you’re really proud of. However, despite any lack of success on any given day, Mr. Stavale says that he enjoys the pursuit because “at least I just spent the last three hours in the outdoors taking it all in.”
Second, you can do a lot with a little. With a dSLR, an old prime lens reversed, and a set of extension tubes, you can do amazing things. You can spend less than $100 on what you’d need for this technique, not including your dSLR body. For example, you can use a 50mm prime lens with manual aperture and an adapter (or “reversing ring”) to reverse-mount the lens to the body.
With this technique, you lose electrical connectivity with your camera, so if you do not have a manual aperture you can’t stop down and are forced to work at the maximum aperture of your lens. Depending on what your goals are, a maximum aperture may or may not be to your liking. Don’t forget that most new lenses do not have a manual aperture control, but you can find manual aperture lenses at a local camera shop or second-hand online.
The adapter to reverse-mount your lens will depend on your dSLR’s lens mount as well as the filter diameter of your camera, but the adapters are available on Amazon and eBay and are inexpensive. For more information, Mr. Stavale suggested that a quick online search will yield plenty of teaching results.
Third, and most important Mr. Stavale says, is lighting. You must have good light. If you are using a flash, practice your diffusion technique. Everything else will come with practice and a little creativity.
You can find more of Mr. Stavale's work here.