Studio in the Wild
For most of us, studio photography calls to mind fashion, portrait and product shoots. Rock stars, glamorous models, and designer accessories are what we expect to see in front of a seamless backdrop surrounded by flash units. But capturing wildlife in front of a white background is growing in popularity among nature photographers and stock agencies seem to be very keen to get their hands on these kinds of images.
|In the field studio the subject is photographed in front of a white background and illuminated with two flash units, bringing out detail and showcasing the translucent qualities of the species.
Subject: Snakelocks Anemone (Photographed in a tank)
Although he was not the first to do it, many credit Scottish nature photographer Niall Benvie with taking the idea of what's now called field studio photography to a whole new level. The essence of field studio photography is that the studio comes to the subject. The idea is simple in concept, if not necessarily in execution. You're isolating the subject from its environment and illuminating it with flash.
To do this you'll need a white translucent background, two flash units with sync capability and a means of safely positioning your subject in the frame. The subject is then illuminated both from the back with the flash firing through the white background and from the front via fill flash.
|Wildlife can be placed in a clear acrylic bowl or tank which will not be visible in the photograph.
Subject: Flat Topshell (Photographed in a tank)
As you can imagine this approach requires a bit more equipment than traditional nature photography. Apart from the camera, lens and flash units there are various bits and pieces you need to make the whole thing work. To fire the flash you need sync cables or a wireless flash system. I wholeheartedly recommend the latter. The good ones are not cheap but after repeatedly tripping over cables, nearly bringing down the whole setup I happily invested in a wireless flash system.
You will also need tripods or light stands on which to mount the flash units. While you could certainly bring a third tripod for the camera, I prefer the flexibility of shooting handheld in the field studio. A diffuser or softbox for the flash and reflectors are also helpful in many situations.
The most crucial part of the whole undertaking is undoubtedly the background. White Polymethyl Methacrylate, better known as Perspex or Lucite, is the material of choice. When shooting flora, a simple sheet of the material will suffice. For active wildlife the setup becomes a bit more elaborate. A makeshift transparent bowl placed on or over the background or a tank built of Perspex with a clear front can form the basis of a field studio for all kinds of the crawling, jumping, running or swimming fauna.
For all of the logistical complications, composition is very straightforward as there is no need to arrange multiple items in the frame. There is only a solitary subject, placed directly in the middle of the field studio. The choice of subject can be crucial, however. The goal is to use the best possible representative of the species you want to photograph. And finding that textbook specimen can take some time and effort.
The goal is to get a perfect white background while not overexposing the subject. Finding the perfect amount of lighting output is therefore the most important (and trickiest) part of the whole endeavor. I always use both flashes in manual mode and place a diffuser on the front fill flash. The diffuser not only creates a softer, more natural light but even more importantly, causes less distress for the animals.
|You use fill flash to bring out details in the subject and create a subtle highlights...
Subject: Hermit Crab (Photographed in a tank)
|...without making it overly obvious that flash was used.
Subject: Shore Crab (Photographed in a bowl)
The flash placed behind the Perspex will light the subject from the back, bringing out any translucent qualities. The aim here is to overexpose the background. If your camera has a highlight warning alert it is very helpful to turn it on. When the entire background blinks while the subject itself has maintained good detail throughout, you've got the correct flash output settings and camera exposure.
Flash output and exposure can be controlled in several ways. You can control output of the flash units themselves by adjusting the power setting or moving the flash units closer to or further away from the subject. Alternatively you can adjust the ISO setting or change the distance between subject and background. The last method can be especially helpful when working with white or very translucent plants and animals.
Exposure is largely going to be a matter of trial and error though. But don't despair. After a few sessions you will get a feeling for the appropriate exposure for a particular subject. My basic settings are always f22, 1/200sec., ISO 200 with background flash on full power and the fill flash on a low to medium setting. I start with a test exposure using the background flash only. Once I have rendered the background to my liking I add the fill flash and eventually make the picture.
|Plants and flowers offer the easiest opportunities to start field studio photography. They don’t run away and most don’t have highly reflective or translucent surfaces.
Subject: Herb Robert
Photographing animals raises the degree of difficulty, as they tend to move around. Insects and amphibians often have wet or reflective skin, which can cause nasty highlights. Working with a tank brings additional problems. Debris in the water or bubbles sticking to the front glass are just a few of the problems that may need to be overcome. A box of Q-Tips and a soft cloth to clean the front pane and a few bottles of still mineral water (when working with freshwater creatures) can be a big help here. When working with saltwater creatures the best you can do is find the cleanest tidal pool, sieve the water through a cloth (or simply wait until most of the debris has settled) and use that in your tank.
|Subject: Montagu’s Bleeny (Photographed in a tank)|
I can't stress enough that the welfare of the subject should always be your main priority. Plants shouldn’t be uprooted and sessions with animals should be as short as possible in order to cause minimal stress to the involuntary (and unpaid) model. The old motto ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’ applies.
This kind of photography requires some important post-processing work so it is essential to shoot in Raw format. Shooting Raw gives you greater flexibility and control during the editing stage and can result in a higher quality image file. Most of my processing is done in Lightroom. Activating the ‘highlight clipping’ feature instantly shows whether the background is correctly overexposed. All RGB channels should read 100% (or 255 if you're using Photoshop). You want the subject to exhibit relatively strong contrast and fine detail. Because we have purposefully overexposed the background, creating a lighter overall image, achieving this aim typically requires some image editing. Lightroom and Photoshop have no shortage of tools to adjust brightness, contrast and saturation. It is important, however, to make sure that any adjustments are properly masked so that they are applied only to the subject, with the background remaining maximum white. Once satisfied with the image, I use Lightroom to export a TIFF or JPEG compatible with any other editing and/or image viewing software.
There are certainly easier ways to capture nature images than what I've outlined here, but once you have mastered the technique you are rewarded with truly unique images.
|Subject: Hatched Burnet Moth|
Field studio fever is spreading around the world. In 2010 Niall Benvie and US photographer Clay Bolt launched the Meet Your Neighbours project. The goal of this undertaking is to show the often overlooked and undervalued common wildlife, the flora and fauna that thrive on our doorsteps. The message is ‘biodiversity matters’, which basically means the common frog under the garden shed is just as important as the mighty lion in the far away African savannah.
Carsten Krieger is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer based in the West Ireland and author of several books on the Irish landscape and nature. To find out more about his work please visit his website: www.carstenkrieger.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.