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The Songs of Insects — Photography

Wil with his macro setupCapturing the images of these lovely insects for publication was a challenge and a joy. Working with these marvelous creatures taught us a great deal about them as species and individuals as well as a great deal about patience. When we started this project we were using film, Fujichrome Provia, for it's fine grain and neutral color palette. We became frustrated with the variability in processing. When we were in the field doing our work we would run to the nearest large city to get the film processed. Some labs were certainly better than others. It was very disappointing to have a few days of shooting ruined by poor processing. The biggest problem was a heavy magenta cast that was difficult to balance.

In 2003 Wil purchased a Canon 1Ds. This 11 megapixel digital SLR camera produced images that were very high resolution, much lower in "noise" and files that were wonderful to work with. Soon, Lang converted to digital with the then newly released Canon 1Ds Mark II (16 megapixels). So, now what - we started to re-shoot a lot of the species that we had already photographed with film. There were a few that we could not collect or that were not as cooperative as the individuals that were recorded on film so some of the images in the book are from these slides.

Both of us work with Canon equipment only because Canon had the most advanced autofocus and image stabilization systems in their long lenses at the time (300 - 600 mm) as we also photograph songbirds. All of the images in the book and on this site were taken with the Canon 180mm f/3.5 macro lens. There were some very small species that required us to use a 1.4X or even the 2X teleconverter to achieve the needed image size. Most of the shots were taken at f/22 to get as much depth of field as possible at such close range. Nearly every shot was lit with flash either using one or two flash units (Canon 550EX, 420EX or 580EX). Wil was using the Wimberley macro flash arms that proved to be invaluable for capturing some of the images including the cover shot. The Wimberley arms are very well made, immensely controllable and a delight to work with.

Working with the insects in the field became a real problem as they would fly or jump away. Cooling the insects certainly slowed them down but, then they looked cooled and lethargic. We found that working with the insects inside was far more controllable and that "playing" with them made them either tired or use to us. After being handled, the insects would invariably preen. This allowed for a prolonged (a minute or two) opportunity to gather the photographs that we desired. Using vegetation that the insect would be found on in the wild and setting up the flash units to illuminate the subject as well as the background gave us the look that we had envisioned.

Capturing the images of the insects on white was another exercise in problem solving. Insects do not want to be exposed on a pure white surface and will fly or jump away very quickly. Using Robin Laughlin's delightful book, "Backyard Bugs" as inspiration for the insect on white motif, we set out to fashion a "white box" that would produce a nice shadow that was not too harsh but still evident. After several designs we settled on a very portable and easy to make design. Using white artist foam core board for the bottom, sides and back and a piece of white Plexiglas for the top seemed to be the solution. Finding white Plexiglas that didn't create a magenta cast was a hurdle that we had to overcome. We also used a circular piece of foam core for the disc that the insect would be placed on. This was placed on top of a Lazy Susan so that the disc could be rotated as needed to keep the insect in the correct orientation with the camera.

Detailed information on the Whitebox
Click on this image for a detailed article about our Whitebox

All of the digital images were processed with Adobe Raw Converter to achieve as life-like of a color rendition as possible. As with any raw file from a digital camera the files needed to have the saturation boosted. Often the color balance had to be tweaked to remove a color cast. Getting the white balance set for the flash units was made very easy for the white box shots as the background the insect was sitting on was white. For the vegetation shots we used the same white balance setting from the white box since we were using the same flash units. This produced a wonderfully accurate color palate for the prints.

Once all of the images were laid out in the book design and a publisher was found we had to acquire the color space that the printer would be using. All of the images were prepared for the printer by converting in PhotoShop CS2 to the provided color space and adjusting the saturation and color balance to keep as many of the colors in gamut as possible. This was no easy task. Lang spent days working on this problem and finally developed a workflow that produced pleasing results. The first set of proofs from the printer were very close and required only minor adjustments. We are very pleased with the colors and clarity of the final printing of the book. Our special thanks to the Houghton-Mifflin, Co. and the printer for working with us to please these finicky authors.