Last night has been one of the most fulfilling and satisfying Saturday night I have had in a long, long while. Lets just cut to the chase, I went to Kemensah, a reserve forest located somewhere a few kilometers behind the Zoo Negara, in the darkness of the night, with a group of 5 wacky macro photographers, to hunt for nocturnal creatures in their habitat. No, I am not kidding here, I really did venture into the forest, and as crazy as this sounded, the experience itself, not only photography wise, but being there was quite an awesome one. The macro hunt started at 9.30pm and ended some time near to 1am, past midnight.
Why Night Hunt?
Why go through all the trouble and take all the risks going into the middle of nowhere at such ungodly hour? Is it really worth it just for a few shots and sacrificing a party for?
Nocturnal creatures: there are some species of insects which are only active at night, and will not be able to found during day time. Such as spiders, many will come out hunting for preys at night, and since they get more active at night, it is in fact, easier to find them in the dark.
Natural Habitat: Usually more interesting subjects, especially larger and colourful ones can be found only in undisturbed forest, or areas near to it. Since KL is already turning the green into concrete in every single corner, finding this place in Kemensah does seem like heaven for us, macro shooters. There are still many cool stuff happening in this near natural place.
Jungle Trekking/Hiking: Instead of just macro shooting, we were walking deep into the jungle. This is like multitasking (old boys call it killing two birds with one stone), while having our shutter action, we did some outdoor activities as well, deep in the jungle.
Night Fun: There is just something about doing anything at all in the night that amplifies the fun factor. The thrill of not knowing what is lying in the next few meters ahead of us, since it was totally dark in the jungle, just made the entire session more exciting.
We armed ourselves with the following items, getting ready for the hunt:
1) Insect repellent: This is extremely important to ward off the mosquitoes and unwanted blood sucking bugs, and I did not have one with me but just leeched some off from the other guys there. Whatever they had, it was damned effective, I did not even have a single mosquito bite.
2) Torchlight: We were storming into a real jungle here, though just staying safely on the main walking path/track, but it was totally pitch dark in there. Hence, earlier in the afternoon, Amstrong and I went to Jalan Pasar to get ourselves some compact, light, yet super bright and powerful LED white torchlight. The torchlight served for three purposes: to enable our vision at night through the darkness of the jungle; to locate those tiny macro subjects around the bushes, branches and leaves; and also, ultimately as an AF assist to illuminate the subjects in order for our cameras to focus under such dim light.
3) Camera set up: I mounted the torchlight onto my external flash by using cello tape (yes I am cheap) and held the flash with the torchlight on top with my left hand, while having the camera on my right. I have three things going on with two hands, torchlight, flash, and camera. Not bad eh? I shall elaborate this further in the coming section.
4)Courage, lots and lots of courage. Now how many people would do this just for the sake of macro? Yes I know I am crazy.
5) Oh, and pepper spray and tazer guns for protection. Ok, kidding.
So how is shooting macro at night any different than shooting macro during day time? In my case, I would say, technically there is no difference at all !! My macro shooting set up which I have devised remains the same for shooting under low light conditions, hence there was no modifications needed from my usual pratise so far. I shall not go into detail about my camera and gear setup, if you have missed my previous write up on macro, or eager to find out, please feel free to read it here.
In short, I was holding the flash with the torchlight on my left hand, while the camera on my right. the torchlight was mounted directly on top of my flash, which was really convenient, because I can point the flash anywhere I want without the camera getting in the way, and as I see the subject through my camera's viewfinder, if it is properly illuminated with the LED bulb from the torchlight, it means my flash was pointing to the right direction. As I have confirmed the focus, the shutter button was clicked and the flash fired through the omni bounce diffuser should be able to cover my subject. Not much trick here, but I am used to shooting my macro single handedly while holding my flash being fired wireless off camera, it is not easy I admit but after a few round of trials, it became easier and easier to operate.
Photo Note: Spider Molting, a process of hibernation, and changing skin. Only can be seen at night. the entire process of molting takes around 30 minutes.
Photo Note: Try counting how many spiderlings there were !!
The advantage of this method is having the light come from any direction you wish since it is off camera, and you do have some control over the lighting. Nonetheless, this would render the light coming strongly from one direction, and casting very deep shadow on the other. Since it was at night, it did not help at all since there was no ambient light to balance off the flash source of light, and well, in fact the flash is the only source of light.
Common camera settings are as follows:
ISO 100-200 (minimize noise)
Shutter Speed 1/160 seconds (to freeze any hand shake, since I was shooting single-handedly)
Aperture F/14-16 (to maximize the depth of field, so more zone can be fitted in sharp focus)
Wireless Flash TTL -0.7 to 1.3 EV, fired off camera, diffused by Omni Bounce
A lot of macro photography tips suggested the use of tripods, or monopods to aid in steadying the shots and having better focus accuracy, especially shooting at higher level of magnifications. I find this suggestion a little on the non-practical side, since the insects were all hiding in most ungodly places, under the leaves, behind a branch, in a hole, anywhere !! You would have to bend your body in postures and ways that you never knew you would be able to possibly do, not even your yoga classes can help you in this part. I found out that shooting free handedly was the best solution, and you get to train your body flexibility while you are at it. Not a bad deal, right ?
So what do I think about this macro session? Firstly, I have to say that this was the most adventurous, and most daring macro outing yet, I have done. The thrill and fun factor were many folds compared to my usual ordinary macro hunt around the park. I managed to find some really, really really cool insects and spiders, a lot which I have even seen before in my life.
Special thanks to Sifu Red for organizing this trip, and leading us throughout the whole journey. His guidance and tips in macro photography as well as his collection of macro works have been very helpful, and inspiring.
So yeah, there I was, having my Saturday night, and who needs to go club and consume those pointless amount of alcohol just to drown your sorrow and waste your life away?
Macro photography is a waaaaaay better drug than all that.