Creative Still Life

Capturing the extreme detail of small bugs

Phase One sat down with Andrei Duman to find out about his inspiration, equipment and workflow for his recent project capturing the insect world.

Why bugs?

The insect world has always fascinated me. Growing up in communist Romania, my access to any magazines or articles that would explore some species in some far off land was limited. I wanted to know more about them, wanted to study them, and the more I researched, the more incredible they became to me. Another reason I was drawn to this micro world was because most people were scared of these creepy crawlers that have been villainized by books and movies, but I felt there was so much more to them.

It is therefore no surprise that for many years I envisioned the concept of doing a photography project where I could capture the bug world in the most incredible detail. Because high quality photography of insects was limited, I wanted to showcase the specimens and show off how truly unique they all were. By seeing the claws of a bull ant or the eyes of a peacock jumping spider up close, I was hoping the images would allow others to become more understanding of how amazing they all are. Unfortunately, for the type of high resolution photography that I was envisioning, the technology did not really exist…until now.

What was your workflow?

The first order of business was to find the specimens. They must have unique features, varying colors, and be in good condition. This sounds easier than one may think. To increase my chances, I partnered up with the entomology department at the University of California, Riverside. They were generous enough to give me full access to their 4.5 million specimens. As one of the largest faculty collections in the US, it took hours and multiple trips to have my first set of insects. I was briefed on how they were to be stored (in a box that is in a sealed plastic bag, in my refrigerator!), cleaned and prepped for each shoot. With the bugs selected, my attention now turned to how I was to shoot them.

I did close to 150 hours of testing the positioning of the lights, the temperatures, if they should be shot in a Styrofoam box as others suggested, their positioning, the apertures (open or fully closed), and understanding the ALPA system (you actually have to do math calculations to get the correct distances from subject to lens and lens to sensor). There were times when the batteries were not fully charged when I started a big stack and the camera died before it was compete. Other issues included the insect moving ever so slightly due to gravity or it was not properly placed therefore the stack was ruined. Also my wife would have to text me when she was coming home because any vibration from the garage door opening would affect the sharpness of the files. The AC had to be turned off throughout the shoot also, so being the middle of summer in LA, the studio got pretty hot. What made this so frustrating is that for most of these cases, you would not find out that the stack was not usable until it was all complete (so a few hours) and you run it through the stacking software. Only then, you would see that a section is completely out of focus and would have to restart it from scratch.

Then we move to the post production aspect of it all. For instance, once a 3 hour set of images was complete, they would have to be exported from the Phase One format of IIQ to TIFF so that the stacking software (Zerene) could read it. The exporting could take up to 14 hours and another 12 hours would be needed for Zerene to merge them all in one image. Only then could this be sent out to the retouching house and for post production to be started. The Cuckoo Orchid Bee took a team of 2 people working on it full time for 3 days to complete. One would not believe how much dust and other tiny particles are on these bugs, and with such powerful tools to capture them, the camera picks up everything. Just to get one of the insects ready for shooting, I would spend up to 45 mins with surgical loupes and a camel brush lightly dipped in water to try and clean it as best as I could. It was painstakingly slow and depending on the overall quality of the bug, I could very easily cause permanent damage and still miss a great deal of debris.

How did your choice of equipment help you overcome the challenges you faced?

As a dedicated user of Phase One cameras, I am very much aware of the capabilities that the system has and the level of incredible detail that it can capture. It truly needs to be seen to be believed. This is evident whether one is shooting a luxury watch to gather incredibly sharp edges or a model to capture individual eyelashes with insane clarity. Having the massive processing power of the Trichromatic’s 101 megapixels is all well and good, but applying it to macro photography brings up some challenges that one has to be cautious to overcome, should you wish to have razor sharp images. With the subjects being so small, the shooting distance is very short, sometimes less than a few inches away. As a result, the depth of field (labeled as the area in front of and behind the point on which focus is set that can be rendered in sharp focus) is incredibly shallow. In layman’s terms, this means that if you try to capture the subject with one image, only a small section of it will be sharp and the rest will be out of focus. To be able to get sharpness all the way throughout, one needs to use a technique called focus stacking.

In its simplest terms, focus stacking is taking multiple images at incrementally different focus distances which, when combined, will result in a single image that has greater depth of field than any of the individual source images. Should one be shooting a watch, the number of focus stacks could be as much as 40 images to achieve full sharpness. However, when dealing with macro subjects, which are a great deal smaller in size, it makes things more complicated due to the exaggerated depth of field. As a result of wanting the insects to fill the frame as much as possible, I had to use specialized macro lenses that would allow me to have extreme magnification. In my case, it was 4:1 magnification, which means that the projection on the sensor of the subject is 4 times its actual size. What this ultimately means is that a much larger number of stacked images were needed to compensate the massively increased shallow depth of field, which was only a few millimeters.

For this project to be possible, I collaborated with ALPA, who provided me access to use some pretty amazing equipment. The macro lens that I used was the Rodenstock 105mm f/5.6 Macro Switar which, when combined with the ALPA 12 FPS mirrorless medium format camera, is perfectly suited for the type of extreme macro photography that I always envisioned. The ALPA system is a motorized automated focusing rack, which means that I am able to take images in an incredible 1 micron increment. For reference, a single human hair is 7 microns.

The initial start is to find your near and far points on the subject which can be more easily achieved through LiveView. Depending on the distance between the two, the system then auto calculates the total number of images needed to complete the stack. I had it arranged such that every 3 seconds an image is taken, then the system automatically moves 1 micron forward, takes another image, moves another micron forward and repeats till the entire subject has been covered. Depending on the depth of the subject, this could take up to 4 hours of continuous shooting and led to a very large amount of images. My deepest stack so far has been just over 7,000 individual images.

Another aspect of this project is the storage of all these files. A single Phase One RAW file from the 101-megapixel Trichromatic back is around 145MB. Having a secure, fast and reliable RAID is a necessity, especially given the continuous onslaught of data. G-Tech and I partnered up on this project, and they provided me with a 32TB Shuttle Tower 6 Bay RAID that became my main workhorse drive. Small G-Drive Mobile Pro 1TB SSDs that had transfer rates of 2800MB/s then became my drives that would go back and forth to the retouchers.

What have you learned during this project?

In all honesty, I have never worked on a project where small improvements were so time consuming. I can very confidently say that I have learned more about photography in the weeks working on this project than I have in the last few years. It has really forced me to slow down. To be even more meticulous in the preparation of the shoot and to not be discouraged when it does not go as planned. It is ok to make mistakes, as long as you are learning and making adjustments in the right direction. Being in constant contact with your retoucher is also crucial. Having a good mutual understanding for the final outcome and frequent in person meetings to review a new approach to shooting will improve their retouching process. Being open to all suggestions is the key to progress.

Will you continue this project?

Yes. With the newly released IQ4 150MP digital back – an increase of 22% in resolution from my current back – I can only imagine how much more detailed the rest of the project will turn out. This new technology creates a feeling as though you are at the forefront of capturing something rare. I simply hope that I can do it justice for all who want to see these amazing creatures in the sharpest detail currently available on the market.

To see more of Andrei’s work, visit his website.

Visit phaseone.com to learn more about the XF IQ4 150MP Camera System and request your hands-on demo.
Filed under: Creative Still Life

about

Andrei Duman

Andrei is an award winning Los Angeles based photographer with a huge thirst for travel, having already visited over 80 countries. He takes his Phase One XF IQ3 100 to unique locations all over the world, including some of the harshest environments possible.