Closer and Wider – the Truth is out there.

Posted by Paul Harcourt Davies January 2015


For a long time (around 1975 or 76 …I think) I have been preoccupied with ways and means of showing plants and animals close-up and in the context of their environment. You can get so much information into shots like this and a joint love of this approach to photography led to Clay Bolt and I producing Wide-angle Macro | The Essential Guide back in 2012.


First experiments with a 10-20mm Sigma zoom lens set me on a different path…but I wanted to get closer.

For us this was (and still is) a work in progress and the search to go wider and closer continues. There is that Holy Grail of being able to reveal really tiny insects in sharp detail against a wide background and this two-part post is about some of the problems involved, blind alleys to follow and some ideas that one can realistically pursue.

Magnification and depth of field are related in the macro world – in fact, irrespective of the focal length of the lens you use, the depth of field is pretty much the same at a given magnification and lens aperture. The idea of using a single lens to reveal a tiny insect in sharp macro glory against a focused background becomes a non-starter. You can also add to that the need to have sufficient working distance so your subject is not touching the front element of a lens. You can get pretty close, as you’ll see in this two part post and, as the title suggests, there exist other ways and means for “The Truth is Out There”

Lessons to be learned from Cinematography

A few nights ago I watched the first installment of David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies, a mini series for SKY television on the evolution and diversity of flight with a familiar set of mixed emotions. First there is wonder at the stunning imagery and then comes that daunting feeling, for any professional nature photographer on seeing such innovative camerawork with that accompanying “why do I bother?” feeling… which passes, fortunately. It is produced in 3D but even in two dimensions it is amazing for both content and quality.

The subjects in part one of  Conquest of the Skies were invertebrates allowing incredible sequences of butterflies in flight and some extraordinary imagery that could be described under the blanket term ‘wide-angle macro’. The sheer ingenuity revealed with obtaining moving images is often far beyond that of most so-called macro photographers working with still images even given the amazing advances in digital cameras.

There is an unfortunate tendency amongst still photographers to throw money at equipment and only then look at possible avenues for exploration with a new toy. All too often, ideas are copied from others but accreditation is seldom given. In contrast, with the moving image, there is a tendency to indulge in flights of fantasy, to imagine shots and then work out how they might be created. Boundaries are regularly pushed in terms of optics and mechanics with rigs specially built to achieve the end result.

With this approach to image-making, the limits are set by your imagination and technological advances make more and more possible. At Wildscreen/Wildphotos in October 2014 of the many things I relished last was that all my fellow speakers were experimenters engaged in dreaming up new challenges and new projects. It made for very stimulating company, especially if you shared that particular disposition and months later the buzz is still with me.

Sempervivum flowers at over 2000m in the Apennines - using a 10-20mm Sigma wide angle zoom with a capability of tiny extensions continuously from 0 - 6mm

Sempervivum flowers at over 2000m in the Apennines – using a 10-20mm Sigma wide angle zoom with a capability of tiny extensions continuously from 0 – 6mm. The flowers are just over 1.0cm in diameter

A mild diversion

I often read comments and claims for originality that simply are not true – people have just not done their homework and have reinvented the wheel. It is once of many reasons I am committed to a spirit of openness and sharing when it comes to methodology in photography and I abhor secrecy and pettiness. To me, the natural world is always of greater importance than individual egos within it.

It’s been done before – whatever people want you to think

In the first of the three parts of David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies, the wide-angle macro photography is simply stunning. However, it uses nothing that one could say was ‘new’ for in the filmmaking world there is considerable knowledge of optics, what different lenses do and how you can couple all sorts of things together. Often, still photographers working in one field of natural history are unaware of what goes on elsewhere, especially when it involves another area of science…like optics, for example. Sadly, most school science courses now include very little about lenses and prisms. This side of optics (called geometrical optics) was missing when I went to university, deposed in favour of lasers, diffraction and interference (physical optics).

Optics has always been of deep interest to me because you could do stuff with it – as a kid I built two telescopes, a micro-projector and several spectroscopes out of bits. They worked and this urge to couple together lenses with adapters has served me well.

Often, solutions are out there already and you will find real innovation inevitably comes from looking at a problem in a tangential way and deploying equipment or ideas from another, apparently unrelated field. This seems to me to form the basis of so much of what people call ‘genius’ and for inspiration it is essential to read widely and keep a general interest.

Wasp spider (Argiope bruenecchi) photographed with a 15mm f/2.8 Sigma diagonal fisheye used on a mirrorless camera with a variable adapter that added 2mm of extension

Much of science has progressed in fits and starts where minds of amazing lucidity, wired differently from those of the rest of us, look anew at a problem. Even those who do not have a clue about his work credit Albert Einstein as one of the greatest physicists of all time. His genius, for such it was, involved taking things known already, spinning them around in his head and rearranging the jigsaw in an enlightening way. In one incredible year (1905) he catapulted science forward in several, seemingly unrelated, areas: the Photoelectric Effect, Brownian motion, Special Relativity, and the equivalence of mass and energy (E = mc2 ). Uncle Albert was very well read: his equations for Special Relativity were derived from extending the ideas of Lorentz and Fitzgerald with moving reference frames where the speed of light (C) had to be the same for all observers. Later, when he tackled the General Theory of Relativity (which led to the theory of Black Holes) he realized a complete mathematical system already existed that could deal with the multiplicity of dimensions and strange geometries of curved space and time he imagined. Thus he borrowed (and extended) the theory of Tensors developed by Italian mathematician, Gregorio Ricci–Curbastro, in the previous century.

Aerial Image projection – why use one lens when more will do

 This first episode in David Attenborough’s investigation of flight in nature made extensive use of what is called aerial image projection. Reduced to its basics, it involves a wide-angle view created by one lens to gather the background and carry this (relay it) into the field of a subject you want to view in close-up. It effectively creates a background that can be a ‘live’ view, a still shot or a cartoon, for example that can be focused with the main subject, whatever its magnification.

It is easier to explain visually than in a flurry of words. Take a lens from your camera, point the front element towards a window and then move a sheet of paper back and forth to focus an inverted image of the window on the paper. This happens with an image on a ground glass screen in a view camera, in a DSLR the image is projected on to the sensor. The image is circular (because the lens elements are circular) and falls off towards the edges…the sensor takes the clear, uniformly lit bit of this: the larger the format, the greater the size of this image circle. In a microscope or telescope the objective lens creates an inverted image (a real image-one that you could see on a screen) by bringing light rays to a focus. The eyepiece then enlarges this for the viewer. An aerial image system creates the first image (where you could put a screen) and the subject is placed in the same plane as the image.

The close-up view can be generated by a macro lens and produces an undistorted image of the subject that is more highly enlarged than you can achieve with a wide-angle lens and still maintain practical working distances. This process has been used to create all sorts of effects of miniaturisation in science fiction films, for example. Nowadays, similar things are done with digital technology via computer-generated graphics. However, the optics approach still has a purity about it for me and a different feel. After all, you can literally ‘see’ where it comes from whereas the digital stuff all happens inside boxes…

NB If you try to do the same thing (ie. getting background in focus with an enlarged foreground subject) using a single lens – as I try to do with my trusty 15 mm F2 .8 Sigma diagonal fisheye and others – there is distortion of both background and subject. The biggest problem is that working distances become very small and there is difficulty lighting a subject due to shadows the lens front casts. Using aerial imaging and other lenses to ‘relay’ images gives much more working space.

A Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) - getting both subject and background in precise focus is a physical impossibility. The fact a background is slightly blurred is often advantageous because it emphasises the sharpness of the foreground.

A Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria) – getting both subject and background in precise focus is a physical impossibility. The fact a background is slightly blurred is often advantageous because it emphasises the sharpness of the foreground.

The Real Wizards of Oz

However new some people might think that the use of two lenses (one relaying an image created by another) might be in still photography it is old hat in the cinematographic world. In fact, I think I must have seen about five seconds of the first wide-angle action scene to know from whose hands and creative talents those results had come.

By far the greatest contribution to the world of Natural History filmmaking has come from Britain – yep, in a very few things, Britannia still rules the waves. The source of the ingenuity and expertise both comes from the BBC Natural History Film Unit in Bristol and from the independents that work closely with them, such as the legendary Oxford Scientific Films (OSF) and Image Quest 3-D In fact, it is the complete mastery of optical wizardry that gained Peter Parks, one of the founders of OSF (and of Image Quest 3-D), his Oscar for technical achievements some years ago. The quality of that wide-angle macro work, with its effortless zooming, all the time maintaining perfect focus of background and subject, was Peter’s. He has no equal in that world as you can see from a visit to the website Image Quest 3-D. By the way, the Conquest in flight was originally produced in 3-D making the achievement even more spectacular.

I happen to share a love of optics, of experiment and the natural world with Peter and our friendship goes back a long way. Inspired, as always, by the maestro, I have been working on a ‘portable’ system of aerial image projection, utilising lenses and adapters I possess already – just reassembling the jigsaw in a different way, again. It works, and works well, but it needs constructional refinement before it can be revealed to others in the knowledge that it will works for them, too. It is so much easier to use relay systems such as this it in a studio under controlled conditions…at present I use other methods outdoors because you otherwise have to maintain very accurate alignment of lenses.

A love of nature first and foremost

People who have followed my writing in books and articles over the years will know that, for me, the love of the natural world comes first and although I am passionate about photography (both its art and science) it is only a means to an end. It is one of a number of things that links Clay Bolt and I and why our first e-book Wide-Angle Macro: The Essential Guide came about. We also share a feeling that, if we can make techniques accessible to people, debunk the jargon and create failsafe methods, then the photography becomes inclusive rather than exclusive. We want people to enjoy creating images as part of their passion for nature and to spread the word. Whatever we can do to aid that, then we will.

Coming Soon…

From the outset we have regarded that first e-book as a work in progress. In fact, we have since gathered so much new photographic material and explored other avenues that we feel justified in producing a second and much expanded edition…but anyone who has not done so already might take the opportunity to buy the first edition – a veritable snip at $4.99

We  have also made great strides in getting closer and wider with a single ultra wide-angle lens. It all comes down to the capabilities of mirrorless cameras and the fact that you can use adapters with them, permitting all sorts of arrangements of lenses and extension tubes.

To learn much more about this watch out for part 2 of this post… due in just a day or two.


© Paul Harcourt Davies 2015

NB No part of this blog may be used in any way without the express permission of the author concerned: all commercial use of images must be accompanied by a fee (rates on request)



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