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Practical Photography Magazine

Extreme Macro Monster

Turning tiny insects into B movie behemoths, Yousef Al Habshi explains how he developed a passion for this hidden world. Wasps not included...

"Yousef Al Habshi is an award-winning photographer based in Abu Dhabi, UAE. His incredible macro images have been published in numerous magazines and his first book is due for release later in the year.

From CREATURE OF THE BLACK Lagoon to The Fly, Hollywood has long looked to the insect kingdom for inspiration. And it’s not hard to see why, given how alien certain species look under the microscope. With their honeycomb eyes and menacing mandibles, it’s the stuff of, well, the movies. Yousef Al Habshi has rediscovered this lost world, using extreme macro techniques to shed new light on these fascinating creatures

How long have you been an extreme macro photographer?

I bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D90, in 2009. It took me some time to learn the basics, from books and the internet, and at some point I found that I liked macro more than landscapes or portraits. Maybe it was the ability to see into a previously hidden world. It certainly wasn’t the easiest option – the United Arab Emirates isn’t particularly rich in insect life, and some of the kit I needed wasn’t exactly cheap either. It took time to get started, but my extreme macro work gradually began to gain recognition on online communities like Flickr and 500px, and I’ve never looked back.

What’s the story behind this incredible image?

This scary critter is a female scoliid wasp, one of the largest in the United Arab Emirates. They tend to be very dark in colour and rounder in shape than the males. Living in the UAE obviously has a huge influence on what I can find and photograph, not only because of its harsh desert climate, but also because the massive growth of cities such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai has destroyed a lot of habitat and threatened certain species. Thankfully, you can still find healthy numbers of insects in some of the more remote regions.

How do you plan and prepare for a shoot like this?

There are two types of extreme macro photography – field stacking and studio stacking. For the first type the images are taken out in the open using natural light, while for the second type images are taken inside in a specially adapted studio. Each type presents its own challenges. When magnification and detail is the key concern, studio stacking is the better option, as it allows for much greater control of equipment without having to worry about outside influences like wind, sun and sand. In certain countries, particularly during the winter months, it’s easier to photograph insects in their natural environment, as they tend to be less mobile.

What challenges does extreme macro photography present and how do you overcome them?

The two biggest challenges are a lens’ minimum focusing distance and the working distance between the lens and subject. If you get too close you start preventing light from reaching the insect. Also, some subjects have incredibly reflective shell-like protection, which makes it difficult for some specialized software to stack images properly. Other insects might be hairy or even translucent, which presents another challenge entirely –translucent subjects allow light to penetrate their bodies, which can limit the amount of detail you’re able to retain during the stacking process. There’s no easy fix here, but light diffusers and partial stacks are two of the best solutions. Finally, camera shake is an extreme macro photographer’s worst enemy. The greater the magnification, the more apparent the vibrations, and so techniques like mirror lock-up, exposure delay and Electronic First Curtain Shutter (EFCS) are used a lot to minimize the threat.

How do you get so close? Talk us through the techniques you use...

For this photo I used a D7000 attached to PB-6 bellows and a 5x objective lens. I lit the wasp with two flashes diffused with paper. An alternative would be to reverse a 28mm lens and couple it with extension tubes to get the same magnification ratio. For bigger subjects in the field, I tend to use a D800E with 180mm macro lens, while for smaller subjects I might use a Canon MP-E 65mm.

How do you focus? Talk us through the mechanics...

There’s a complicated calculation that factors in the lens or objective type, the magnification ratio and even a person’s eyesight to figure out the focus stack step size. Depending on the size of the insect, for an acceptable depth-of-field this figure might be well over 100 shots. Using an automated stacking device, you input the start and end points, as well as the step value.

How many shots did you take and what made this one so special?

This particular stack consists of 180 shots. I loved the clash between the fiery orange hairs and the black armour-like body, and the wasp’s devilish appearance combined with that huge jaw. What’s not to like?

You evidently choose your background colours very carefully...

This is a really important part of the equation. It’s a question of finding the colour that best shows off the insect’s features. This could be a colour that matches the subject’s hair or body, or a colour that clashes with it for maximum shock value. I use coloured card.

Is there an element of danger when working with insects?

Dangerous insects are scarce in this climate, and scoliid wasps are considered non aggressive unless provoked. However, a few years ago I accidentally trod on a female wasp and spent the next few days in a local hospital. It’s an occupational hazard! In Malaysia, while observing and shooting butterflies, I was bitten by dozens of angry red ants. I’d inadvertently stood on their nest and was being bitten on the neck in seconds. Worse still, the next day I looked down to find 30 large leeches sucking my blood. I’d been so wrapped up in my work that I didn’t even notice them. Spatial awareness is important…The colours are incredible –

How much post-processing was involved and what is your attitude to Photoshop?

Editing is an important part of the extreme macro process and stacking is only the first step. Once you’ve used specialist software such as Zerene Stacker, you might then want to remove unwanted elements such as microscopic dirt using Photoshop. You can then apply contrast, saturation, Levels and sharpness, but not so much that you alter the natural appearance of the subject.

How can Practical Photography readers get a shot like this?

Extreme macro isn’t the most accessible of subjects and there are certain lenses and accessories you need to get started. A macro lens that can go beyond 3x magnification, or a 28mm lens with reversing ring and extenders are a minimum requirement. Two flashguns, a manual or automated stacking rail, and a remote shutter release will also come in handy. As for software, I’d recommend Zerene Stacker and Photoshop. Then it’s just practice!

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