Polyphemus Moth on Bird of Paradise

Ralph Nelson is a noted Hollywood still photographer whose work you may be familiar with even if you may not know his name. From box office hits such as Return of the Jedi, Top Gun, and The Green Mile to more recent movies such as Eagle Eye, Ralph collection of images represent a veritable Who’s Who of film making. But his passion is for macro photography, specifically capturing images of moths and on this very special edition of Macro Monday, Ralph tell how he works.

To photograph the Polyphemus Moth on Bird of Paradise (above) Ralph used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II mounted on a tripod with an EF 180mm f/3.5 L USM Macro lens attached. Lighting was natural light from open window with a white card used as a background.

Ralph’s preferred equipment for macro photography includes the Canon 5D Mark II, EF 180mm f/3.5 L USM Macro lens, and Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX. The camera is always tripod mounted and tripped using a remote switch. When asked about his lens choice, Ralph told me “Although I own a number of macro lenses, I prefer the Canon 180mm macro because it gives me more distance between the lens and the subject, especially when photographing insects that can be disturbed by movement.” And then he added, “The iPhone is also has excellent macro capabilities.”

Ralph only photographs live insects and feels that photos of dead specimens are “as lifeless as the subject. With that in mind, there are two categories of live insects; those that I find in the wild and those that I raise for photography. In the wild, butterflies wings are often damaged just after hatching, so I buy moth cocoons and butterfly chrysalis’ so that I can have access to perfect specimens. That only works if you happen to be close at hand when they hatch and there is no way to know exactly when that’s going to happen.”

As far as lighting is concerned, Nelson prefers natural soft light, generally working in the early morning and late afternoon although he sometimes use a Canon Macro Twin Lite MT-24EX flash. Although using a tripod is not always possible, he feels that “it is an essential piece of equipment to have on hand. The depth of field can be impossibly shallow, so even the slightest breeze or movement by your subject can ruin your efforts. Having a tripod also allows me to connect a subject at a fixed distance from the camera.”

Moth Macro Tips from Ralph Nelson: When working under controlled circumstances with insects, you can give yourself more time by putting your subject in a refrigerator for a few minutes to slow their metabolism which can give you a few critical seconds of extra time before they move. Do not try to speed up the process by putting them in the freezer, you will only end up with a dead bug and a lifeless photo. Other than the right equipment, patience is your best asset. Luck also helps, but is seldom dependable.


Author: Joe Farace

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