Techniques

A Portable Lightbox Studio for Macro

by Steve Maxson | July 29, 2014

© Steve MaxsonAlthough I spent my career working with birds and really enjoy bird photography, I have been fascinated by insects and other arthropods from an early age. The seemingly endless number of species, the astonishing life histories and behaviors, and the incredible mimicry that some species have evolved keeps my fascination alive and flourishing! There are many beautiful photos of insects taken in the field in their natural settings that are posted here on NatureScapes and other forums and I greatly admire the effort and skill that goes into making these superb images! However, here is alternate approach for you to consider—that of bringing your subject into the “studio” to photograph where one controls the lighting, substrate, and background. Sound complicated and expensive? It really isn’t. This has opened up a whole new world of macro photography for me and it can do the same for you!

Mantisfly © Steve Maxson

Figure 1. Stephen Maxson – Mantisfly.
A Mantisfly (Climaciella sp.) is neither mantis nor fly, but rather is related to lacewings. This species is a striking mimic of a Paper Wasp in the Genus Polistes.

Darkling beetle © Steve Maxson

Figure 2. Stephen Maxson – Darkling Beetle.
This stunning bronze-metallic Darkling Beetle (Family Tenebrionidae) was photographed in Belize.

As with many aspects of photography, there are lots of ways to achieve similar results. The “studio” I am using is a simple, inexpensive, and portable lightbox for photographing insects and other small subjects. (I learned the basics of this design from my friend Alex Wild). (For one of the alternate designs visit meetyourneighbours.net)

Photography lightbox © Steve Maxson

Figure 3. Stephen Maxson – Lightbox setup.
My lightbox studio. It has a PVC frame that is lined with white (except the back) and I use two radio-triggered flashes to provide reflected light on the subject.

This version has a PVC frame which is sturdy and the unit can easily be moved about. The PVC joints are not glued so it can be easily disassembled for travel. My lightbox is 18x18x24 inches, but size is not critical. All the surfaces, except the back, are covered by white foam core board, white poster board, or sheets of white printer paper. These materials are also not critical—as long as the surface is white. I have simply fastened these onto the frame with small strips of masking tape—again allowing for easy disassembly. Also illustrated in the photo is a plastic centrifuge tube. These are inexpensive and make great containers for holding an insect until you are ready to photograph it. I always have a bunch of these in my pockets while in the field. I drill a small air hole in the lid.

Light is provided by two flash units (I use two Canon 430 EXII flashes) pointed upward to bounce light around the interior of the lightbox. You want the subject to be illuminated only by reflected light. I usually hand hold the camera and find that auto-focus is helpful for active subjects. My typical camera settings are: manual mode, 1/160, f/16, ISO 100. I set the flashes to manual mode and a zoom of 24 mm. I adjust the power to suit the subject (a good starting point is 1/4 power +/- 1/3 stop). With a little experimentation and checking of your histogram, you will be good to go. The flashes are fired with a radio trigger. I use an inexpensive 4-channel wireless radio trigger (Cowboy Studio WPT-04) that works quite well for this purpose. The transmitter fits in the camera’s hot shoe and a receiver attaches to each flash. This method will produce a soft, even light without harsh spectral highlights on your subject and will produce a slight shadow underneath. You will need an external light source such as a small lamp (or flashlight) to provide enough light on your subject so that you can focus accurately (the flashes will completely overpower this light so it won’t be noticeable in the image).

Position your subject well into the lightbox such that light reflected off the front of the box can light the front of your subject. I place my subject on a small sheet (about 6×6 inches) of translucent material (Roscolux Tough White Diffusion – B&H #RO116S) on the bottom of the box. This serves two purposes. It will prevent tiny fibers on the surface of the white paper or poster board underneath from showing in your image and it also can be rotated like a “lazy Susan” to get an optimal shooting angle on your subject. Sometimes your subject will not be in the mood to sit still and pose for a photo. In this case, an active subject can often be calmed down by simply leaving it under a clear plastic petri dish for a few minutes. When ready to photograph, simply lift off the petri dish and fire away.

Petri dish cover for subject © Steve Maxson

Figure 4. Stephen Maxson – Petri dish.
This Alderfly (Sialis sp.) is taking a time out under a petri dish until it settles down enough to pose for some photos. The edge of the Roscolux diffusion material underneath is barely visible in the lower left corner.

Tortoise bettle © Steve Maxson

Figure 5. Stephen Maxson – Tortoise Beetle.
This beautiful Tortoise Beetle (Family Chrysomelidae) was photographed in Belize. Here auto-focus was helpful in obtaining a sharp image as the beetle walked toward me.

Many of my favorite subjects are wasps, flies, or bees. Often, these need to be handled differently or they will simply fly away—and some may try to sting you. My method is to place the centrifuge tube containing the subject into the refrigerator for a few minutes. (If photographing with the lightbox in the field, a small cooler with ice or cold packs can also work.) You will need to monitor your subject, but often 10 minutes is sufficient to slow them down. When placed in the lightbox, you may have anywhere from several seconds to several minutes before they become too active and start to fly, so be prepared. The most interesting poses usually occur when the subject has almost regained full alertness. I realize that some may not be fond of this method, but conceptually, this is no different than what insects experience in the wild overnight every time we have a cool evening—and is why early-morning macro photographers find such cooperative subjects before the day warms up. When not overdone, refrigeration does not harm the subject and you may be surprised at how quickly they recover! More than once, I have been chasing escaped insects around the house!

Leafcutter bee © Steve Maxson

Figure 6. Stephen Maxson – Leafcutter Bee.
This attractive male Leafcutter Bee (Megachile sp.) is posing nicely to show off his multicolored eyes and the unusual “leggings” on its front legs.

Syrphid fly © Steve Maxson

Figure 7. Stephen Maxson – Syrphid Fly.
This rather large Syrphid Fly (Spilomyia fusca) is, except for the head, an incredible mimic of a Bald-Faced Hornet. It is using its back legs to groom its wings.

Ichneumon wasp © Steve Maxson

Figure 8. Stephen Maxson – Ichneumon wasp.
A colorful female Ichneumon wasp (Family Ichneumonidae). The long “tail” is an ovipositor rather than a stinger. These are very difficult to identify as there are over 3,300 species north of Mexico.

Gasteruptiid wasp © Steve Maxson

Figure 9. Stephen Maxson – Gasteruptiid wasp.
This small Ichneumon wasp (Gasteruption sp.) feeds on flowers, but its larvae are parasites of solitary wasps and bees that nest in wood.

I like the look of the all-white background which focuses all your attention on the subject, but you can also use a different substrate such as a leaf or a colored background for a more “natural” look (in which case you may need to adjust the power settings on the flashes). The brightness of the colored background can be varied by changing the distance between it and your subject.

Lantern bug © Steve Maxson

Figure 10. Stephen Maxson – Lantern bug.
This Lantern Bug (Family Fulgoridae) from Belize has a rather elaborate, elongated protrusion from its head. Here I chose to use a large leaf as a substrate in the lightbox.

Cecropia moth © Steve Maxson

Figure 11. Stephen Maxson – Cecropia Moth.
A freshly emerged male Cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia). Here I used a print of out-of- focus vegetation as a background in the lightbox.

Almost anything goes when using this type of studio setup so use your imagination and be creative! Have fun!

About the Author

Steve is a Wildlife Research Biologist (retired) who studied a variety of birds for 35 years in Minnesota and Antarctica. He has had a lifelong interest in nature photography which really blossomed with the advent of quality digital camera gear. Because of his broad biological interests, he does not specialize in any one area of nature photography and often finds the most interesting subject to be the one currently in front of his lens. Though not an avid marketer, Steve has published images in books, magazines, calendars, and informational reports, brochures, posters, and kiosks. He is currently a moderator in the macro forum of another photo-sharing and critiquing website. More of Steve’s lightbox photos can be seen on his Flickr page.

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