Milkweed seedpod macrophotography at the UC Davis Arboretum (California, USA) using an off camera speedlight

Last Saturday, August 14, I finally got a chance to go out for some photography. I had been to the UC Davis Arboretum the day before, jogging, and had noticed that the milkweed seedpods were bursting. I woke up early and got there just when the light was coming out. Perfect conditions.

Conditions I look for in macrophotography

I like to do macrophotography on overcast days (they are rare around here in the Central Valley of California) or before the sunrise. There are two things that the sun ruins for me: it illuminates the background, making it harder to achieve the looks I consistently strive for in my photography; and it causes the air to move, shaking and blowing things around. Not everyone minds a breeze, but I still do prefer when my subjects sit quiet while I portray them.

I also have nothing against photographs in which the background is well illuminated. I like them and have a few of my own (you can check out my Pixels portfolio with my older work). However, at present, I like to portray my botanicals against a darker background and to use selective lighting on my subjects. 

The importance of developing a consistent body of work in your photography is is something I want to write about eventually, but for the moment I will leave you with a link from the Digital Photography School: How to develop a unique style for your photography).

The technique I used to throw the background in the dark and avoid highlight clipping

First, milkweed seeds have a bright white fluffy stuff that helps them be carried by the wind (aerial portion), but the seed itself (containing the embryo) is dark brown. That poses a problem with lighting, because it is easy to blow out the whites (highlight clipping) on the arterial part of the seed, while the core will appear too dark to reveal detail. 

One technique I like to use with milkweed seeds is to place a speedlight on the ground and use the indirect light from it to enhance detail, while at the same time keeping the background relatively dark with respect to the subject. 

Reflected light (from the ground, ceiling or another reflector) tends to be very diffused. In the case below, what is reflecting most of the light is a white pad that comes built in with the flash. This helps to avoid highlight clipping. If I directed the flash at the seedpod, particularly if no diffusers were used, the whites would lose most of their detail.

Placing the speed light on the ground

In the field, when you want the subject to pop against a darker background, you need to make it significantly brighter than it’s surroundings . This can be achieved with a speedlight or another artificial source of light, a reflector, or by looking for a subject that is lit well with respect to the background (for example, a flower in the sun surrounded by shade). Then, you meter (expose) for the subject. This will generally mean that, if you are using the matrix metering, you will have to underexpose by one, or more stops.

In the studio, you can place a grey or black background behind your subject, and that alone will achieve the desired effect. 

I took both seedpod photos at f/18, ISO 160 and ½ s exposure. The half of a one second shutter speed was only possible because there was no wind or vibration, and I could keep the flash ­at its lowest power. Keep in mind that the same effect can be obtained with higher shutter speeds. You can for example increase the ISO or decrease the depth of field, or even power the speedlight a little more, but then, you will have to make sure the light from the speedlight is really diffused, to avoid blowing the whites on the aerial part of the seeds. 

Milkweed seedpod, f/18, ISO 160, ½ s

Depth of field (D. O. F.)

In photography school, we learn that D.O.F. is affected by distance to the subject, focal length of the lens, and aperture. In macro, the aperture alone is often not enough to achieve great depth of field. In my two examples, at f/18, I still had a relatively shallow D.O.F., because I was using a 105 mm macro lens from close distance. If I wanted to see everything in the image, I would have to like in Steve Heap’s post, where he explains how he used photo stacking to achieve more D.O.F. Using this technique is generally more satisfying when you are working in the studio, under controlled conditions. In the field, not only is it harder to do photo stacking because of vibration, but also, the elements surrounding your subject will all be in focus, making it difficult to isolate the main elements for a more pleasing composition.

The YONGNUO YN560 IV Speedlite

In my work outdoors, I often use a YONGNUO YN560 IV Speedlite with a trigger (not an affiliated link). This 60w speedlight is relatively cheap, easy to use and pretty tough. You can get a set compatible with Nikon and Canon, maybe other brands as well. Although there are more powerful and fancier speedlights out there, I like this one because it is simple to use, it works well, and its low-cost. It is not uncommon for me to lose, misplace, or drop things, and if I do it, it’s a 70 U$ rather than a 400 U$ loss.

There are many advantages to using an off-camera speedlight in the field, all of which are related to being able to better control the light. I wrote briefly about my technique on a previous post, Spring Musings. In a future post, I will write a little about the diffusers I use with my YONGNUO speedlight

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Published by Alessandra Chaves

Photographer with a preference for nature photography in black and white and other abstractions.

18 thoughts on “Milkweed seedpod macrophotography at the UC Davis Arboretum (California, USA) using an off camera speedlight

  1. Your second milkweed portrait strikes me as more mysterious—and therefore attracts me more—than your first. The subdued glow in the second one is quite pleasant.

    Like you, I don’t want distracting things in the background, which is why I’ve been using flash outdoors in daylight fairly often lately. What doesn’t come out dark enough due to distance from the flash, I can darken with software afterwards.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I prefer the second shot also. Something about the positioning of the pod in the first feels awkward and the distribution of light seems a bit uncomfortable. The second is more pleasing and the more vertical composition appears more natural as well.
    I was using a Yongnuo Twin lash for a few years but found it unreliable with many misfires (as you know, sometimes with an insect in the field there is just one chance so a misfire means a missed opportunity) so “upgraded” to the Canon version. Much more expensive but I found a good used one for a few hundred less than new at B&H. So far it has not disappointed and is excellent for the insect shots I make.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very nicely explained! It is quite a balance to get the exposure right for the background and yet have the depth of field you need, and in the field, it is tricky to do focus stacking because other things come into focus that you perhaps don’t want. I also prefer the second image – but I think the first suffers from looking too static – if you rotated it clockwise a bit so the seed pod is more at a diagonal and cropped it a little less wide, I think it might look better? Both are very artistic though – no wonder I called my article the Engineers approach!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice piece. Amazing how much difference a speed light makes, especially when you need that smaller aperture for macro. I also use a YONGNUO, and have picked up a remote for it but have used it so rarely I forget how to use it. Guess I need to follow your lead and get some practice in.

    Liked by 1 person

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