Chin’s Nature Corner

The Palm King (Amathusia phidippus) The Five-bar Swordtail (Pathysa antiphates)
The Palm King (Amathusia phidippus) and the Five-bar Swordtail (Pathysa antiphates).

Tortoise Beetle Shield Bug Leafhoppers
A tortoise beetle (Apidomorpho sp.), shield bug (Hemiptera), and leafhoppers (Cicadellidae).

The Rustic (Cupha erymanthis) The Dark Grass Brown
The Rustic (Cupha erymanthis); and the Dark Grass Brown (Orsotriaena medus).
This article was written sometime in 1997 soon after I had built this website. It is now somewhat outdated because film cameras have almost been made obsolete by the advent of digital cameras. However, instead of removing this article, I have decided to let it stand as a record regarding the set of equipment that I had collected and used after embarking on the hobby of nature photography.
My Butterfly

I BEGAN TO "SPECIALISE" IN close-up nature photography in 1982. Like most beginners, I made many mistakes and wasted a lot of film. As I had then started using 35mm colour slide film, the mistakes were quite costly. I soon realised that available light is often not enough and that depth of field is a rare but essential ingredient for producing good close-up nature shots.
 Initially, I bought and experimented with many accessories, including flash units, slave units, sync extension cords, pieces of diffusing material, reflectors, close-up (filter) lenses, and extension tubes, but most of them were cumbersome to use for field photography, and the results were usually not satisfactory. Most of this paraphernalia soon fell into disuse, but a few remained in my camera bag as they could still be needed.
 Not long afterwards, I bought a 2X macro-focussing teleconverter (MFTC) after reading a favourable review of it in a photo magazine. This turned out to be my best investment in photographic equipment. Since then, it has been the "optical heart" of my manual SLR camera system for shooting butterflies and other insects and small creatures.
I found the MFTC so useful that when I upgraded to a more robust SLR, I bought another one for my the new camera. The MFTC, made by a major independent lens manufacturer, is a high-quality, seven-element teleconverter built into a helicoid extension tube. It was, I believe, designed to work especially well with 50 or 55mm standard lenses, turning them into 100 or 110mm tele-macro lenses. For many years, this combination was my "macro lens" of choice for close-up photography.
 I now have a "true" 55mm macro lens, but I prefer to mount it on the MFTC in order to use the combination as a 110mm tele-macro lens. This gives me a more comfortable "working distance", in other
words more breathing space between the subject and camera. This setup works well enough if I took care not to go too near to the subject to scare it away.
 The MFTC came into the market in Malaysia in the 1980s, and was available in lens mounts to fit the major brand cameras. It is an excellent converter that could be used with lenses of other focal lengths although it works best with the standard lens. For example, I have a 75-300mm zoom that becomes a 150-600mm close-focussing telephoto zoom when mounted on the MFTC, and it gives quite good results when used carefully. So, in effect, I have in my camera bag lenses ranging from 55mm standard macro to 110mm tele-macro, and 75-300mm tele-zoom to 150-600mm tele-zoom.
This system is versatile enough to capture any insect from bees and beetles to bugs and butterflies. The longest telephoto configuration -- used with extra care when the camera can be mounted on a stable tripod -- could even "pull in" a bird or two. With this setup, I have succeeded in photographing a few common bird species while they fed on papayas on a tree.
 Having tried it, I don't think I will seriously take up bird photography. I'll continue to focus on butterflies, insects and other small creatures. Bird photography and butterfly photography share some common problems, such as difficult lighting situations and inadequate depth of field, inherent problems when using either long telephoto or macro lenses. But these challenges can be overcome more easily, and cheaply, by those who shoot butterflies and other more down to earth subjects.
After having experimented with reflectors and available light photography, I have found it completely futile to rely on them for active subjects like butterflies and insects, even in bright sunshine. I have long opted for electronic flash units to "freeze" these subjects. I have a handful of these small, manual flash units with a guide number of around 20. They don't cost much.
 "Portable sunlight" from these units
overcomes - in a flash - the twin problems of inadequate lighting and depth of field. Through trial and error, and with frequent use of this setup, I can now "guesstimate" with some accuracy the aperture settings needed in different conditions. With one GN20 flash unit mounted either directly on the camera hotshoe or on a bracket (with a sync cord plugged into the sync socket), I need to set an aperture of f8 (for an effective aperture of f16 because I use a 2X converter) to correctly expose ISO 100 colour slide film.
With a second flash unit of similar power attached, I need to reduce the aperture by one stop as the light output is now doubled. (I need to set the aperture halfway between f8 and f11 on the prime lens as I'm using a 2X converter).
 Occasionally, I use a third flash unit, but this is usually to provide some backlighting when the situation allows me to set it up. With a flash sync speed of 1/60 second, I find these the best settings to use under a bright sun as the background would be reasonably well exposed.
 However, using these settings under a forest canopy results in a completely dark background in the photos. Some people like that, others don't. Those who like this type of pictures say the main subject stands out prominently without any background clutter. Those who don't say these photos give the false impression that they had been taken at night. The "two schools of thought" can argue till the cows come home on the pros and cons, and the merits and demerits, of either type of photos. For me the choice is obvious. The ambient light in a rainforest is simply not sufficient for photographing lively subjects like butterflies and other insects. In short, no flash no picture.
 Getting the exposure right is still a hit-or-miss affair for me. I bracket my shots whenever possible (if the insect does not fly away the first time I press the shutter button), hoping to get at least one right. I still make some mistakes and waste some film, but I get more "useable" photos now with this setup and the method described.
The Common Mime Two shield bugs The Chocolate Tiger
The Common Mime (Papilio clytia), shield bugs, and Chocolate Tiger (Parantica melaneus).
This page revised on 26 June 2018. Copyright © Chin Fah Shin.