01 June 2012

How to take good scientific specimen photos

I am greatly inspired by Dr Tan Heok Hui's talk about taking scientific specimen photos yesterday.
The principles seem easy, but a lot of hard work, talent and an artistic eye are involved in taking useful and beautiful specimen photos.

Quite a large group gathered to learn from Dr Tan Heok Hui, whom we affectionately dub the 'Indiana Jones' of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. He travels widely to all manner of extreme places, returning with awesome images and specimens. I'm very grateful to be invited for his talk.
While it's true that it is the photographer and not the camera that takes a good photo, having good equipment helps produce excellent photos. And there's a lot of equipment to choose from. Heok explained more about how to choose the right equipment for the job. I do agree with this, mainly because I'm such a bad photographer. I buy the best equipment I can afford, to compensate for my brain and talent gaps!
Speed settings are important to 'freeze' movement. I love Heok's example using a little solar powered toy of a crab waving its pincers and eyes!
Aperture aperture aperture. Heok's explanation with examples give an instant explanation! I learnt from his talk that aperture is also affected by extension tubes. Hah, now I understand some of the wonky results I've been getting with them tubes.
The Sweet Spot! Each lens gives awesome results usually in the centre. Performance grades off towards the edges. Good to know in order to get the 'right' body parts in the right part of the lens.
The camera is smart, but we need to use the right settings to get what we want. Taking teeny weeny specimens means different settings for a good result. Heok also covered issues like ISO, sensor size, megapixels and more.
One of the most intriguing ideas I learnt was 'mirror lockup' to minimise camera shake and get super duper sharp photos. Ah, but this requires a tripod. Darn.
Light light light is the other important variable. Heok showed us a wide range of ways to set up lights for all kinds of specimens small to large. Another great idea, using black velvet as the background for flare free results. I also learnt there is such a thing as black 'Blue tack'. Wah!
Why go through all this trouble to take good photos of specimens? Properly done, photos reveal the colours and forms of the animal which are not captured in preserved animals. I love Heok's photo of the worm usually found in a tube. Impossible to take when the animal is still wriggly and alive. We need to first carefully remove and relax and clean the animal. If we don't take the photo of the freshly dead animal, this will be lost after it is preserved.
Here's another of the many beautiful photos Heok shared of specimens. We need to take the specimen from various angles. Heok explains how he carefully arranged flashes to highlight the tiny bumps inside the mouth of the fish.
I'm relieved to see that even professionals like Heok uses his foot as a scale bar! I do that all the time because I always forget to bring a ruler in the field. Heok showed lots more gorgeous photos of awesome fishes tiny to humungous, and many other amazing marine life from Singapore and beyond.
After the very enlightening talk, Heok did a lab session to allow us some hands on experience with the equipment and set up.
As he explained earlier, it's important to prepare the specimens before we photograph it. So it's clean and doesn't float up. Photos in water gives nicer results so fins are smooth, hairs fluffed up. He also shared some of the simple equipment used to contain the specimens.
This is the professional set up for great tank shots. Wow.
I'm totally embarrassed that Heok actually used a soup bowl to try to take photos of a specimen. This is after I admitted to him that I took my photos of them in a soup bowl. At home, I don't have any of the fancy equipment and use whatever I can find in the kitchen. Specimen is placed in soup bowl, dishes, cups. Flash is propped up with cereal boxes and cat food tins! Additional lighting with field torch.
I thought the soup bowl does help to even out the flash all around the specimen. But Heok points out, there is a nasty shadow  under the specimen. Here's an example of a photo I took of a shrimp in a bowl. Oops. I also realise that the antennae of the shrimp in my photo are not in focus.
Here's my photo of the same shrimp in a tank. Hmm...not much better.
I'm inspired by Heok's talk to try harder! Thank you Heok!

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