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On Assignment: Teeny Tiny Halophiles

I was shooting scientists at the Center of Marine Biology at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore recently. Typical in-lab stuff, as in this through-the-window shot of work being done in a refrigerated incubator.

But what really caught my eye was a collection of halophile living in pure salt crystals. They would indeed be pretty happy in such a crystal, as the very definition of a halophile is an organism that can thrive in a high-salinity environment. They can even withstand extreme radiation to survive in space. Very cool stuff.

But the crystals in which the salt-o-holics were living were barely a quarter inch across. Not even the size of a pencil eraser. So even with my D300 crop on a 55 micro, I was not going to get close enough.

That is one reason why I always carry my point-and-shoot with me when shooting a job. Not only can it gather audio and/or video in a pinch, but it gets insanely close in macro mode.

Inside, a walk-thru of my efforts at getting a decent shot of the little pink buggers with a consumer camera.

My Ultra-Macro Kit

As I have said before, I am big on getting detail shots. And when those details are of something really small, here's my extreme macro setup:

A Canon G9, an SB-800 out of my speedlight bag and the ten-meter version of YongNuo's aftermarket TTL cord. (The link is to the 1m version.)

That cord, by the way, is also my fail-safe remote trigger for my DSLRs just in case I am working in an environment so cluttered with RF that the Pocket Wizards go crazy.

I saw the 10m cord at PMA this year, and wrangled a sample out of YongNuo with some sweet talkin' (and a little ~$50 PayPal chaser). They do not normally sell direct, and if I had a retail source for these or I would link it. If you know where to snag one, please hit us in the comments.

I love it because it gives me some wiggle room as to where I place my closest corded SB-800, then I can slave all of the other '800's off of that flash. Great to have in a pinch, and no batts required. And with the Nikon version cord on the Canon G9, it makes the camera think there is no flash on top. Still fires the corded flash, but the camera does not limit the shutter speed to 1/500th. Which of course, makes it great for hi-speed syncing up to 1/2500th of a sec.

But in this case, it would allow me to use that cord length to position my flash wherever I wanted in a macro environment. So it fits the bill nicely.

Right out of the gate I tried something to use the crystals as lenses of sorts. I figured they would bend the light and highlight the colonies of halophiles living inside.

My background is a sheet of printer paper, which is always easy to scrounge. I laid the crystals on the paper, and placed the flash a few inches away, lying on the same paper. This gave a hard angle to the light to get the cool transmissive qualities of the crystals. A second, folded sheet of paper on the other side for fill and you keep your contrast range manageable.

Here is the diagram. Nothing great, just a first look.

And here is a good example of what I was talking about earlier, as far as neutral density filters being very useful. My limits on the G9 were ISO 80, at f/8. Even at a 128th power on the SB-800, you can only bring that flash in to about 10 inches before you are too hot. A little ND on the flash would give me a lot more flexibility for light placement. Be nice to get in closer with the light on a subject this tiny.

As you can see in the highly technical scale drawing, the G9 gets me so close the front element is almost touching the crystals. You can only get this close on the wide setting of the lens, and with the camera set in macro mode.

Speaking of the G9, I skipped the G10 but am pining for the new Canon G11, as they finally went after the only thing that was wrong with these little gems -- chip noise at higher ISOs. They actually dropped the megapixels and went for better quality. Hallelujah. Plus, it has an articulating screen, which will be awesome for video.

So this is (maybe) okay for a first attempt. But the translucence of the crystals isn't really happening for me, and there is no relief showing the internal imperfections in which the halophiles are growing. Strike one.

For a second try, I backlight them. Same gear setup, but now I am shooting through the crystals and right into the light source. I used a piece of printer paper as a diffuser in between. This is starting to make the halophile colonies look better, but what I really need is a dark background -- with backlight -- to highlight the imperfections and colonies.

Here is the diagram for that one. The counter is actually a very dark gray, but I am picking up the reflections of the backlight paper because of my shooting angle. So it all looks white.

Again, close but no cigar -- strike two.

I can see the transparent qualities of the crystal, but the internal imperfections are washed over by the white backlight.

By raising my shooting angle up a little, I get the dark gray countertop as my background, and still get that backlight refracted by the imperfections in the crystals.

Ooooo, that's a BINGO.

Now, you get both the translucent and transparent qualities of both the crystals and halophiles from one light source. And a with a sheet of printer paper as your only light mod, no less.

Here is the angle. Same, exact lighting setup as above, but the elevated camera angle makes the difference. Swaps the white background for a dark one, and now the crystals pop.

Raiding the printer paper drawer is standard operating procedure when I am going to shoot anything small. I'll almost always be able to use paper as a background, a tiny light tent, a reflector -- something.

A Sucker for the Little Hacks

I spent all day shooting photos like the one at the top of the post -- three or four speedlights, gels, etc.

But the one I was most pleased with at the end of the day was the halophiles in crystal on the dark background. And the scientists were pretty psyched, too. As far as they know, no one had yet made a quality close-up of halophile colonies embedded in salt crystals.

So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

If you want to see more about what they are studying, start here. Suffice to say, those hardy little guys will dance on our graves. Amazing little creatures -- and even more of a salt-o-holic than I am.

(For many more articles like this, see the On Assignment section.)


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