Photographers (myself sometimes included) often lament that photography is so accessible now that anyone can take hundreds of photos and instantly share them with the world no matter how mundane or unoriginal. Flickr is an enabler of this kind of behavior because users can post hundreds of photos of whatever they want even with a free account. Therefore, there is a lot of bad photography on Flickr. However, there is also a lot of fantastic photography. It’s fun to look around and see what other photographers are up to.
Thomas Shahan has some of the best macro photography I’ve ever seen. His favorite subject seems to be spiders, but he has photographed many other bugs as well. What sets his photos apart for me is the color. Shahan manages to make these bugs look glamorous and beautiful, which is no easy task. Bugs are so small that we cannot see their details and colors very well with the naked eye. When viewed at extreme magnification, they become almost unrecognizable from the pests that buzz around us or crawl up our pant legs. Who knew spiders could be so adorable? There are a number of great technical challenges involved in capturing photos like these, which is part of the reason there are so few photographers who can achieve this level of magnification.
Shahan uses a DIY style setup that is capable of phenomenal reproduction ratios greater than the 1:1 found on most macro lenses. He uses a bellows and reverse mounts old prime lenses to achieve high magnification ratios. The bellows allows for variable levels of magnification that can be adjusted on the fly (no pun intended). There are two main difficulties when working with such high magnification: light and depth of field (DOF). Mounting the lens in reverse reduces the amount of light that comes in by about 3 stops. In order to let more light in, a large aperture must be used, which limits the DOF. The depth of field decreases as the focus distance is shortened, so this setup involves paper thin DOF. To get around the lack of light, an off camera flash with a diffuser is used. Shahan usually shoots handheld since bugs are unpredictable, so exact placement of the focal plane is nearly impossible. He solves that problem by taking many many images at a time. Then, he picks the image that is in best focus, or he chooses several images and combines them using a method called focus stacking. Focus stacking combines several images by keeping the parts of the image that are most in focus resulting in an image that has greater DOF.
I’d like to thank Thomas Shahan for allowing me to use his images in this article as well as for providing so much information about his technique for nerdy folk like me to enjoy. Please check out his photostream and be sure to watch some of his videos. They are just as impressive if not more so than the photos.