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Macro Lens Techniques: Brilliantly Capture the Sparkle in a Water Droplet

It's amazing how macro lenses allow you to capture tiny objects like ants and water droplets up close. I thought of creating sparkling starbursts to add a dramatic accent to this macro shot of ants drinking from a water droplet with a reflection of a flower. Here's how I did it. (Reported by: Miki Asai)

Ants with water drop and starburst

EOS 6D/ MP-E65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo/ FL: 65mm/ Aperture-Priority AE (f/14, 1/50 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 640/ WB: Auto

2 ants were drinking water that clung to the petals of an African daisy. I directed an LED light onto the water droplet, narrowed the aperture, and created a starburst to make a dazzling impression.

 

Preparing for the shoot

Choosing the lens
Considering the size of the ants and the water droplet, I knew I would still have to crop the image if I took a life-size shot (1.0x magnification). Therefore, I chose the MP-E65mm f/2.8 1-5x Macro Photo, which allows shooting at up to 5x magnification.

Other equipment used
LED light (to illuminate the scene)
Tripod
Pipette/syringe

 

Shooting procedure

(Scroll down for illustration of setup)

1. Place a vase containing the African daisy in a garden, and then drip water over the petals with a syringe-type pipette.

2. Direct the LED light onto the water droplets.

3. Mount the camera on the tripod.

4. Adjust the lens and camera position until you get the ideal composition. (For this shot, my lens tip was about 10-15cm away from the subject.)

5. Use the magnification function in Live View to focus on the water droplet.

6. Narrow the aperture to f/14. This narrow aperture will create a starburst effect from the light reflected off the water droplet. You might need to move the LED light.

7. Wait for the ants to approach. 

8. Release your shutter at the right moment.

Tip: To avoid camera shake, use a remote shutter release. That can be your smartphone if your camera supports Wi-Fi/Bluetooth low energy.
Here are 6 Useful Tips for Remote Shooting via Wi-Fi with the Camera Connect App

Patience is key
I've always believed that when it comes to photographing living things, patience is the only way to achieve the shot that's in your head. For this shot, I did not control the ants. I waited tenaciously for 6 hours for them to approach the water droplet.

Warning: Squatting for too long can make your back hurt! You might want to sit on a stool or chair.

 

The key to nailing the shot: Shine the LED light at an angle from the back

As you can see from the illustration below, I placed the LED light behind the potted plant to the right to shine on the water droplets. 

The point to note here is the angle of the LED light. It was difficult to find an angle at which starbursts would appear. After setting the aperture to f/14, I moved the position of the LED light to search for such a point.

Illustration of setup

 

Know this (1): With a macro lens, you can get bokeh even with a narrow aperture

Many people think that they need to shoot at the widest aperture to create bokeh. However, with a macro lens, that's not necessarily true. When you shoot close-up, the depth-of-field is shallow. Narrowing the aperture won't affect it much. So go ahead and narrow the aperture to create the starburst effect—the background bokeh won't disappear!

Tip: The higher the magnification, the shallower the depth-of-field. This can make autofocusing difficult, especially on cameras with fewer AF points. This article shares a technique for manual focusing in macro photography. 

 

Know this (2): The f-number affects how the starburst effect looks

Water drop in fingertip with starburst

f/14
For the shots in this article, I got very clear starbursts when I used the narrowest aperture of f/14. On macro lenses, it is hard to create starbursts if you narrow the aperture by just a little. Try stopping down all the way to the smallest aperture setting.

 

Water drop on fingertip shot at f/2.8

f/2.8
f/2.8 results in beautiful, creamy bokeh, but you definitely won't get starbursts. In fact, in this shoot, faint light streaks only started to appear around f/13.


Here's how I managed to create a similar effect with the EOS M5:
EOS M5 Shooting Techniques: Macro Photography
 

More macro photography tips in: 
Mouth-watering Macro: The Art of Close-up Food Photography
Photographing Flowers: How to Create Brilliant Bokeh Circle Spotlights with a Macro Lens
Macro Photography in Low Light: Preventing Camera Shake
How to Photograph Water Droplets that Sparkle!

See also:
Miki Asai's interview with 500px
 

 


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A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
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Miki Asai

Miki Asai

Born in Obihiro, Hokkaido. While working as a company employee, she would get her hands on a camera to shoot small objects after finishing work and on her days off. In 2013, she bought the DSLR that she had been longing for and started shooting. One day, she was moved by the morning dew that she saw on a leaf through a macro lens the sight of which was “more beautiful than any gem”. It struck her then that she wanted to photograph the small and beautiful world which exists everywhere but is easily missed and hard to see with the naked eye. Since then, she has continued with her style of photography in pursuit of her goal.