Low-Light Macro

Low-Light Macro

Q) I’m a mycologist who wants to photograph mushrooms in the forest under low-light conditions. How would you get the camera and flash low enough to capture detail under the mushroom cap of ground-sprouting mushrooms (some are only an inch or two tall)? I currently use a Canon EOS 40D with 50mm, 100mm and 200mm Nikkor-Micro lenses with an EOS adapter, an Arca-Swiss ballhead and an older Gitzo Reporter tripod with a removable center column. I also have an EZ550 flash with an off-camera cord. Can you suggest equipment/techniques to facilitate this work?

A) First, I question the use of another camera manufacturer’s lenses on your Canon EOS 40D. There are so many features you lose with the adapter. You’re interfering with the great camera/lens capabilities you could have with a matched body and lenses, and you can’t possibly achieve optimal results. Find someone who’s going to stick with Nikon to buy the Nikkor lenses and invest in a 100mm or 180mm Canon macro lens—both if you can afford it.

That said, let’s address the equipment you need to get close enough to your mushrooms or any small, low subject, such as belly flowers, rocks or moss. The answer is a tripod such as the Gitzo Explorer GT2540EX (www.bogenimaging.us), which is designed to work all the way to ground level, or even ground pods such as Really Right Stuff’s TP-243 www.reallyrightstuff.com) and Kirk Enterprises’ Low Pod (www.kirkphoto.com). If you’re using flash, you actually can set the camera on the ground and work from there. A beanbag support may be helpful. Another investment to make this all work is a pair of good kneepads, especially for those of us with older knees. The ultimate lighting for macro flash for Canon is the MT-24 EX Macro light system, while Nikon has a new R1C1 Wireless Close-Up Speedlight System.

As for techniques, a new and powerful capability is offered by Helicon Focus software (www.heliconfocus.com), which allows you to achieve depth of field previously impossible in high-magnification photography. For more information, see “Unlimited Sharpness” by my wife Kathryn and myself in the January 2008 issue of Digital Photo Pro.

Shown here is the Gitzo Explorer GT2540EX with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead, set up for ground-level photography of small subjects. The Gitzo tripod is probably the best one I know to accomplish this type of photography because it supports heavy professional equipment such as the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera, the 65mm macro lens and the MT 24 EX macro flash, all of which add up to a fair amount of weight. Any smaller ballhead will tend to sag.

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.