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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Blogger Jack said...

I love p/s for macro shots, my Lumix LX3 will do macro in raw, and with a hotshoe for off camera flash, all for 500 bucks, what a steal!

August 30, 2009 11:15 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

That would actually be a tough shot to get with a DSLR and macro lense. The DOF is so much shorter due ot the bigger sensor. You'd need a much smaller aperture and therefore much more light. Cool little shot though.

August 30, 2009 11:39 PM  
Blogger David said...


That's another reason I like the P&S cameras for macro. You can come in close on something and keep some context in the distant background, too.

Not so much with the bigger chips.

August 30, 2009 11:41 PM  
OpenID cmh.php said...

I miss these full-on still-life cheesy-diagram 99-cent-light-mod on assignment posts. This one was great! Keep them up!

August 31, 2009 12:54 AM  
Blogger Juha Ylitalo said...

While I agree that DOF on P&S is lovely for macro shot, I am just wondering David's comment about
So even with my D300 crop on a 55 micro, I was not going to get close enough.

At least on dpreview's review about G9, they say that smallest area that you can capture with widest zoom setting and macro mode is around inch across.
If macro lens with 1:1 magnification can capture 36:24mm, then the height is more or less same even thought the width is greater (and if we go to DSLR with crop factor, 1:1 magnification should capture even smaller area).

So is it really so that same shot couldn't have been done with macro or was the P&S simply convenient choice for a shot, since working distance was not an issue?

August 31, 2009 1:48 AM  
Blogger Jason Anderson said...

Just another instance of how the KISS mentality can work, and the cheapo solution is sometimes the best thing going. On the macro/micro photography end, I also saw a post where you can add the lens of an old DVD player to a P&S camera to get some super macro shots! More info here:


August 31, 2009 1:50 AM  
Blogger Dougie Hoser said...

Dave -- I met a contact at the Yongnuo factory outlet in Shenzhen (where there factory is located). I passed this article on to her and hopefully she will followup with a contact where these products can be ordered. I didn't notice these cords at the store, but they may have had them. I bought a bunch of YN602 flashes and RF-602 remote triggers.

August 31, 2009 1:56 AM  
Blogger Milan said...

It would be interesting to see, or do, a study of paper folding techniques for a shot like this.

It seems like the ^-fold bounces a lot of light upward, where you may not want it. On the other hand, this avoids a rebounce off the tabletop right into your lens...

How would folds like (excuse my really crude character art...) |_| (turned upside down, maybe "box-fold" or "tunnel-fold") or a standing wedge < (from the top view) change the image?

Makes me want to mess around a lot more with how I fold my cards in the future..

Really cool final shot, by the way. Are those little guys still alive in there? (Yeah, I'll go read the link and find out... :)

August 31, 2009 2:06 AM  
Blogger Purgatorio said...

Hi Dave, may be this is what you are looking for? : http://cgi.ebay.com/10m-33ft-TTL-off-camera-Cord-Canon-430EX-580EX-OC-E3_W0QQitemZ380118582779QQcmdZViewItemQQptZCamera_Flash_Accessories?hash=item5880d545fb&_trksid=p4634.c0.m14.l1262

This is a 10mts TTL cord, not sure if you are looking for this or not but is also manufacturing by Yonguo.

Best regards ;)

August 31, 2009 2:43 AM  
OpenID mpot said...

Yongnuo off-camera flash cables are available from dealextreme.com, a Hong Kong based reseller who don't charge any shipping costs.

August 31, 2009 2:59 AM  
Blogger Jakebane said...

Just FYI, The Caddyshack reference did NOT go unnoticed.

August 31, 2009 3:52 AM  
Blogger PublikAccion said...

simply amazing work and great explanation of the way you've done such a great job, really nice and simple.

Thanks for sharing :-)

August 31, 2009 4:59 AM  
Blogger Otto said...

have you tried the built-in ND-filter in the G9,
instead of ND the strobe?

August 31, 2009 7:32 AM  
Blogger Paul Tobeck said...

"So I got that going for me. Which is nice."
and you didn't even have to translate the Dali Llama, cool!

August 31, 2009 7:36 AM  
Blogger Otto said...

have you tried the built-in ND-filter in the G9,
instead of ND the strobe?

August 31, 2009 7:51 AM  
Blogger Gavin ・ ギャビン said...

I love the macro shots and your explanation, but since everyone is going to talk about those, I'll throw out a different question.

The shot through the window is also very successful. Did you do any gelling there, or is that all existing room light?

August 31, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger JS said...

Thanks for the great walk-through, David. I love seeing how an idea evolves.

If I can force myself to consider options (other than the one I was married to before the shoot began) I am often rewarded in a similar way.

This requires two things: enough time in your shoot to explore a little, and—more importantly—the ability to take a breath and step back for a moment.

August 31, 2009 9:20 AM  
Blogger EddY2K said...

Very cool pics! I will have to play with my G9's macro more. I have seen 7 foot Nikon cords (coiled), and 7.5 meter Canon cords (straight not coiled) on flashzebra.com. Both are supposed to be full ttl cords. I am sure it is only a matter of time before they get longer Nikon cords (7 meters vs 7 feet).

August 31, 2009 9:46 AM  
Blogger Barry said...

Hey David:

Not directly related, but some very cool lighting shots available from Tim Mantoani at this link.



August 31, 2009 1:17 PM  
Blogger John said...

Was this an actual assignment (like, for a client)? or self-assigned just-for-the-fun-and-challenge-of-it project?

Your step-by-step thought process is so helpful, thank you.

August 31, 2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger gb_eh said...

A place which has extremely good customer service for flash cables etc...


August 31, 2009 1:38 PM  
Blogger markusparkuss said...

Gunga galunga...gunga- gunga lagunga. Nice and simple. It's always simple after someone else figures it out. Always amazed.

August 31, 2009 1:56 PM  
Blogger Callum Winton said...

Are you ever going to use the Mamiya and the broncolor heads that you keep in the trunk of your car ;o)


August 31, 2009 2:43 PM  
Blogger David said...


Yeah, except for the small fact that my car does not have a trunk.


I do not differentiate between the two when it comes to how I shoot.


It was four lights, all flash (no ambient contribution.) I will work up a diagram and post it later this week.


Yeah, but it does not make a lot of sense to send 300k people to an eBay auction. Someone is gonna get hosed. :)


Yeah, but not the 10m ones, which are way more usefuller. (Unless you got a link?)


To get to 1:1 with a 55 Micro, you need a pk-13 (or variant) extension tube. Apples and oranges if you do not have the tube.


The net effect would be to bleed power through feathering. Which would be helpful, given my low-power limits.

August 31, 2009 3:20 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

I have the Canon G7, will I be able to use the cord attached to a Nikon SB-900? Or, if not, is there another cord I can use?

Thanks, I truly enjoy your blog, what a learning and creative experience.

August 31, 2009 3:53 PM  
Blogger Juha Ylitalo said...

D'oh... I should have done my homework first.
After David's reference to pk-13 extension ring, I did some searching and found out that Micro Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 can only do 1:2 without extension ring (just like Canon EF 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro and its extension ring).

August 31, 2009 4:01 PM  
OpenID ahnanna said...

this is great, thanks David.

August 31, 2009 8:23 PM  
Blogger Jimbo108 said...

Great review and very relevant since I've been asked to shoot some similarly sized objects this weekend and have no macro experience.

I'm still a little confused why you used a flash cord and not your wireless gear? I understand that it provided you with high speed sync, but why did you need such a fast shutter speed for the shot? Also, any reason you couldn't have done the shot with PocketWizard's high speed sync with the flex and minis?

August 31, 2009 8:47 PM  
Blogger David said...


Six of one, half dozen of the other. Either would have worked fine. Boxers or briefs; paper or plastic.

August 31, 2009 10:13 PM  
Blogger Joku said...

David: why you didn't use focus stacking (more information)? For example CombineZM is working fine (altough it has pretty rude web page and GUI).

Here is an example of focus stacking and one of the originals. Flowers radiuses are something like 5mm but same technology works with G9 or similar.

September 01, 2009 3:27 AM  
Blogger dvas said...

I am familiar with YN SC-28A cord. It states it is 2.5'. I was not able to find the 10m one and the one that David posted also does not look 10m. The above can be ordered (free shipping) from DealExtreme here for $26, including shipping.
DX also has SC-27A, that looks like for connecting to SC-28 and to the flash with a 3-pin connector. They have 1.5m and 3m versions. Can someone confirm that SC-27A is a cable that I can connect to SB-28 and to SB-800?

September 01, 2009 3:35 AM  
Blogger Canvas said...

The camera was interesting the to catch the sight micro living organism in salt crystals was a successful experiment first time for me and my lab friends. I would love to capture this photo enlarged to canvas

September 01, 2009 4:31 AM  
Blogger TigerCoin said...

Impressive "BINGO" shot!

September 01, 2009 7:36 AM  
Blogger Dave said...


Here's a cheap solution for building a zoom spot that might be of interest.


September 01, 2009 8:37 AM  
Blogger Eoghan said...

you can buy most of the yongnuo stuff at Dealextreme, http://www.dealextreme.com/search.dx/search.yongnuo

pretty good value and well made stuff, ive a timer and a cord,


September 03, 2009 6:03 PM  
Blogger Gabriele Lopez said...

every tool has his right use..thanks for posting!

September 03, 2009 6:04 PM  
Blogger bobusn said...

Yeah, I saw these same RSOs (Registered Salt Offenders) in a low-res picture at the post office...but your close up is definitely higher quality.

Nice work!

September 04, 2009 7:57 AM  
Blogger Lin Zhaowei said...

Hi David, thanks for the interesting walkthrough.

But I still don't get the part about using PNS instead of a DSLR here.

Are you saying that the Canon G9 has max magnification great than 1:1? I can't find any information on this online but I'll be stumped if a PNS can do magnify more than (for eg) a D40X with AFS 60mm.

September 08, 2009 5:52 AM  
Blogger Robert Jordan said...

Sometimes a point-n-shoot is the best macro lens. I also carry a set of 58mm close-up filters and a LA-DC58H adapter to get in really close.

Been a fan of the Canon G-series cameras since the G2. Love my G9.

G10, meh, pass.

Sold my G9 on eBay and pre-ordered G11 the day I learned about it. 28mm+low noise+better grip+swivel screen=winnar!

September 14, 2009 9:48 AM  
Blogger Dave Perris said...

Thanks, I was trying to figure out how to get some light on a macro shot with an LX3 recently. It all looks very straightforward now I've read your post, shame you weren't there at the time!

November 19, 2009 6:56 PM  
Blogger Selbosh said...

nice.photo, a Yongnuo reseller on eBay, has the 10m Nikon TTL cords. I'm starting a thread on the forum.

December 10, 2009 5:05 AM  
Blogger Selbosh said...

10m Nikon TTL cords available here for $49.99:

December 10, 2009 9:08 AM  

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