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  • Daniel Knop

Macro shot with reflection – how does it work?

Aktualisiert: 3. Juni

Downward reflections are a popular effect in photos that enhances the three-dimensional image impact. This is mostly created artificially in image processing. Here we reveal how you can achieve such a reflection in a physical way for macro shots and focus stacking photography.

A stag beetle Lamprima acolphinae stands on a black background in which its image is reflected
Male stag beetle Lamprima acolphinae with a reflection in the black bottom surface – what is the best way to do this?

I remember very clearly the first time I saw a macro photograph of a prepared insect with a reflection in the black ground surface. It was taken by a photographer from England and I was absolutely fascinated by the aesthetic effect. In fact, artistic design had already been used here, in contrast to a factual photo of the insect, which has a documentary character. But here you could see creativity and a great deal of aesthetics.

For a long time I tried in vain to penetrate the secret of this method of photography. The British photographer himself naturally left my inquiries unanswered. Who wants to let copycats look into their cards.

A turquoise-colored weevil Eupholus chevrolatus stands on a black background in which its image is reflected
Weevil Eupholus chevrolatus – it is important that the bottom reflection is slightly darker than the animal itself, and that the underside of the animal's body and its reflection are not completely shaded and dark, but that structures can be recognized

After researching on the internet, I finally found out that you can do this with a glass plate. There has to be a free space underneath the glass plate that absorbs the light coming from above so that it does not enter the picture as a reflection, but the background becomes pitch black. However, as the glass plate reflects a small part of the incident light on its surface, the little light reflected by the insect directly to the glass plate reaches the lens as a reflection.

My own experiments followed, for the sake of simplicity on my desk at the time, which I had built from the front pane of my former 6,000-liter saltwater aquarium that had been dismantled after 20 years of operation. The glass plate had a thickness of 19 millimeters, and although I got a bottom reflection of the photographed beetle on a black background, it did not satisfy me because it was double.

A Chrysochus auratus beetle stands on a black-looking glass plate in which its image is reflected very blurred
First attempts on a 19 mm thick glass plate, with the 6 mm long beetle Chrysochus auratus – the reflection is there, but strongly distorted by unwanted optical effects

This was due to the fact that a glass plate produces two reflections; one when the light enters the glass, in which some of the photons are reflected, and a second when the light exits, in which some of the light is also reflected back. The result was a blurred image that did not match my expectations.

Experiments with thinner glass panes brought the two individual images closer together, but it remained a double image, and I was dissatisfied with that.

Three Chrysochus auratus beetles standing on a black-looking glass plate in which their image is reflected out of focus
Second glass pane experiment with three Chrysochus auratus – the sharpness of the bottom reflection was improved, but a second, blurry reflection is created further down at the level of the light exit from the thick glass pane

The next step was to experiment with a black, light-absorbing layer of felt about five centimeters behind the glass pane – another piece of advice I had read in a website article. This made the black of the background in the photo deeper, but the double reflection remained.

I then decided to try a different material, especially as I had never found a relaxed relationship with working with glass – it always broke differently than I had planned. On the other hand, I had decades of experience with acrylic glass and had suitable machines in my small workshop. That's why I started experimenting with black and white acrylic sheets. As I was working with light diffusers, the acrylic sheets had to be sawn and sanded to a slightly conical shape. It was also important that they were really high-gloss and scratch-free. The material can be ordered on Ebay cut to the desired size and covered with protective film on both sides (important!). I chose 10 x 10 cm.

Three black and white, square acrylic glass panels lie on top of each other on a white surface
Change of strategy: Instead of glass plates, a black or white acrylic glass plate was to create the floor reflection

After two saw cuts and some sanding work, the sheets had the required shape, as I had to be able to push them far into the diffuser funnel. Depending on the shape and dimensions of your light diffuser or the size of your acrylic sheets, this processing step may not even be necessary. The protective film was only removed shortly before the photos were taken.

A black and a white acrylic glass plate, both conically sawn and sanded, lie next to each other on a white surface
Acrylic glass sheets in black and white have been conically shaped so that their front end fits easily into a light diffuser

The first attempts at taking pictures were very encouraging, as they showed that I was on the right track with this material. However, the acrylic also had a decisive disadvantage: it attracted tiny dust particles from the air due to its static charge. Manual cleaning by wiping could remove these, but increased the static charge of the panel, which attracted even more dust particles.

A weevil Eupholus bennetti stands on a black acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected, and there are numerous whitish dust particles under the insect's body
Weevil Eupholus bennetti, unprocessed, with tiny dust particles that the acrylic glass has attracted from the room air due to its static charge

In order to at least minimize this problem, I used a humidifier in the very small room (approx. 16 square meters), which worked with water and thus also carried out a kind of air washing, i.e. removed dust particles from the room air. The result was better, but there were still white-looking dust particles on the black acrylic panel in the finished photo, often in large quantities.

This problem could only be solved by subsequent image processing on the computer. Fortunately, image optimization with modern image editing programs (I use Affinity Photo for this) is extremely easy, so that these dust particles can be removed with reasonable post-processing. However, never forget to remove the dust particles that you delete in the base area of your bug from its reflection further down, as they will also appear there.

You can also reduce the brightness of the subject's bottom reflection. This works well because the viewer's eye always wants some kind of prioritization, something that catches the eye more than anything else. In this case, the beetle is the main motive, so it needs to be more brightly lit than its reflection in the acrylic panel, because then the viewer's eye won't wander around the picture looking for a fixed point; it will automatically emerge due to the differences in brightness – a trick from the advertising industry. It is therefore better to darken the reflection slightly; this also corresponds to natural perception, as the sunlight hits an object from above.

A weevil Eupholus bennetti stands on a black acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected; the dust particles have been removed
Eupholus bennetti, processed, with the tiny dust particles removed and the top of the body slightly darkened

While I worked with a very simple support structure for these acrylic plates during the first attempts in order to attach them to the focus stacking setup at the required angle, I later came up with a device on which the plates can be easily attached in such a way that their angle can also be adjusted. These plates are also easily interchangeable, e.g. to switch between black and white.

Creating this device is relatively simple. In my case, the basis is the height-adjustable object holder that I usually use on my focus stacking setup. However, it has a modular design and can carry customized attachments, each designed for different tasks. It has an element for height adjustment and a ball head to which the appropriate holding module is attached. In this case, it should be the acrylic plate.

I used two base plates from discarded flash units to attach the acrylic plate to the 1/4-inch thread of the ball head.

Two flash unit holders made of black plastic are positioned underneath two machined acrylic glass panels in black and white
Two mounting feet from discarded flash units are to serve as holders for the acrylic glass plates

The tops of these two panels have been sanded flat so that the acrylic panels can be glued to them.

A flash unit holder is machined on a sanding plate
The top of the flash unit holder is ground flat; a screwed-in ball head serves as a handle

The finished flash unit holder with a flat sanded surface can be seen
A bond can be created with the now flat top side

In order to be able to easily replace the plates later when they show micro-scratches from cleaning (after all, you can see everything in macro shots!), I used the thick Nano-Tape as adhesive, which is available in roll form and sticks on both sides so that it can be removed relatively easily later without leaving any residue.

Three rolls of transparent adhesive tape “Nano-Tape” lying next to each other
Nano-Tape can be used to create a bond that is easy to remove later on

A black and a white acrylic glass plate lie on a white background, and both have a flash unit holder glued to them
With the flash unit holders glued on, the acrylic glass plates can now be easily attached to a tripod screw

These two flash holders were glued to the underside of the acrylic plates and the result was high-gloss black and white mounting plates with a 1/4-inch thread on the underside, which could be easily screwed onto the tripod thread of the ball head.

A small height-adjustable self-made device carries a machined acrylic glass plate on a ball head, which was attached with a glued-on flash unit holder, side view
The plate is attached to a height-adjustable stand using a ball head

A small height-adjustable self-made tripod carries a machined acrylic glass plate on a ball head, which was attached with a glued-on flash unit holder, rear view
The height and angle of the acrylic glass plate mounted in this way can be easily adjusted, and the black plate can be replaced with a white one with a simple hand movement

The transparent nanotape also helps to solve another problem: due to the inclined position of the acrylic plate and its smooth surface, prepared insects tend to gradually slide downwards during the series of shots. When using flash units, this can even go so far that the light impulse causes the insect to jump briefly, presumably due to static charge. This is why at least a light, temporary attachment is essential. I use a tiny piece of this nanotape for this, but it is only a little more than a millimeter in size.

It is glued to the plate with pointed tweezers in order to press the insect lightly against it with the side of its body that is not visible to the camera. The adhesive is then invisible to the lens, but the adhesive force is sufficient to prevent it from moving during photographing. The insect can then be easily removed without leaving a trace.

A processed black acrylic glass plate lies on a white background, and a millimeter-small piece of Nano-Tape was glued to the middle of the plate
A tiny piece of nano-tape serves as a holding structure for the prepared insect

A machined black acrylic glass plate, which is mounted on a small height-adjustable self-made stand, was pushed into the inside of a bell-shaped light diffuser
The conical shape makes it easy to slide the plate into the light diffuser, provided it has a corresponding cut-out on the underside

A processed black acrylic glass plate carries a mounted, prepared Eupholus bennetti
Eupholus bennetti with numerous dust particles in front of the cardboard lens hood of the Nikon ED 100 film scanner lens (14-lens)

The results of this shooting strategy are photos that have very special aesthetic qualities and artistic design. But don't be under any illusions about the time and effort involved. Such photos are never taken in passing.

A weevil Alcidodes ocellatus stands on a black acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected, and three otherwise identical images show the beetle from slightly different shooting positions
How do I find the best shooting perspective of the beetle? Tiny changes in perspective lead to a radically different image effect. Just try everything out!

You will need to take numerous series of pictures to find the best perspective of each insect. Turn the insect to the left and right in small steps. Vary the angle of inclination of the acrylic plate in one direction or the other. Look for the best aesthetic effect of your photo model like a photographer taking a picture of a new sports car model for the sales brochure.

As a rule, there is only one single shooting position in which the aesthetic qualities of the animal really come into their own, and you can usually only find this through trial and error. You can only see this in the finished photo. This means that you may have to work for two or three hours at a time to achieve your goal, and sometimes without ending up with a perfect picture – it just doesn't really fit one hundred percent. Don't be discouraged in such cases; it's usually the model's fault and not yours. Not every beetle is actually suitable. Just try another one before you invest a lot of time in post-processing the photo.

A weevil Alcidodes ocellatus stands on a white acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected pale and colorless
With a white bottom plate, the bottom reflection is weaker and colorless, but also looks less intrusive

The color of the background shapes the photo in a very decisive way. Black has a mysterious effect and creates a strong artistic tension, but also swallows up details. White, on the other hand, has a more analytical and documentary effect; the underside of the subject is much better lit because the white background reflects a lot of light upwards. However, the ground reflection is much weaker and colorless. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and both can be the ideal solution. So try out both color variants if you are not sure which you like better.

A weevil Pachyrrhynchus dohrni stands on a black acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected
Weevil Pachyrrhynchus dohrni

A weevil Pachyrrhynchus gloriosus stands on a black acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected
Weevil Pachyrrhynchus gloriosus – the bottom reflection does not always have to be completely visible to be effective

A weevil Alcidodes ocellatus stands on a black acrylic glass plate in which its image is reflected
Weevil Alcidodes ocellatus

But if you create a picture here and there that is aesthetically pleasing and you still like it even after a few days or weeks, then you have a motive that you can hang on the wall in large format. I have had such insects, which I have photographed on acrylic, printed behind an acrylic plate, because the colors are particularly strong here and the motive comes into its own much better than if it were printed on paper.

There are three wall pictures on a white wall of a stairwell, each showing a weevil, looking down the stairs from above
The focus stacking images with a macro or micro lens have such a high resolution that they can easily be scaled up to an edge length of 100 or 150 cm without losing sharpness – ideal conditions for use as a wall picture

There are three murals on a white wall of a stairwell, each showing a weevil, view from the bottom of the stairs
Printed behind acrylic glass, the pictures show more color strength and sharpness than on paper

The lenses I use for such photos are almost always two Nikon film scanner lenses: the 7-lens for 1.5:1 to 2:1 and the 14-lens for 1:1 or slightly below. The sharpness and color contrast of these two lenses are simply phenomenal. For smaller image scales, I choose a Canon RF 100 mm f2.8 L, and of course you can use any other macro lens you like.

In addition to black and white acrylic sheets, you can also experiment with other materials and colors. Readers of this blog post referred to their own experiences and suggested, for example, the display of a switched-off smartphone or tablet computer (Janusz Szymanski, Ben Gruver), which has an extremely thin glass pane so that no secondary reflection can be seen. Scott Burgess, on the other hand, recommended a ceramic tile with a black glaze.

If you enjoyed this post, I’d be delighted if you shared it on all social media so that it can have a wide spread.

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