The Focus in Lack of Focus

One day last summer, I was having lunch with my family and we decided to go picnicking at an old-time spot from my childhood. I imagine the banks of Cold River are one of the more unfettered natural places in Massachusetts. We settled into the picnic area of Mohawk Trail State Forest and had a nice little meal. Naturally, I had my camera, but it was kind of a floaty, foggy, light day with nostalgia making for a sleepy pensiveness. In other words, I didn’t feel like doing much but sitting and enjoying the atmosphere and clean air. Despite that I pushed myself not to miss an opportunity, and I knew there was at least one creature around that I had yet to attempt to photograph that had always been in abundant supply at Cold River.

The pools in between the rocks and boulders, as in my memories, still contained bunches of water striders (Family Gerridae), which are semi-aquatic true bugs. (I think we might have called them “water spiders” when I was a child.) They are very difficult to approach, gliding away in an instant, and especially if you are wearing clothing that you don’t want to get wet and have a short working distance inherent in a reverse lens set up like mine. I compromised by lying on a boulder, sort of hanging over the water; it felt a bit tenuous (some more developed abdominal muscles would have come in handy!) and the last thing I wanted was to drop my camera in clear cold mountain river water. Well that didn’t happen, but a frustrating and muscle-straining exercise did. The awkward position made the already difficult task of focusing with shallow depth of field that much more so.

With reverse lens macrophotography, autofocus is immediately thrown out the door, but even with a dedicated macro lens, a photographer is usually hard pressed to employ it effectively. A focus ring can be used, but for me I simply move the camera itself (a lot of neck craning involved there, don’t you know). It is the best way for me to focus precisely. I often zero in on a subject incrementally, making small movements forward or backwards depending on my starting point and desired plane of focus. Given my limitations in this situation (fatigue, uncooperative subject and limited time), this kind of careful approach was not accessible. In the end I fired off very few shots (maybe ten), and that as much as anything was a problem. A lot of time you will hear really good insect photographers to tell you one of the main keys to getting quality shots. In my experience this is true.

At the time it was sort of a miserable, physically painful failure, but it was a good experience to have. It is a simple thing, but now I have a baseline for going after better shots. So failure makes perfect, and practice makes focus! Or if I may adapt another famous line: if my successes are pretty flies, it is because they stand on big, stinking piles of…failure.

water strider

Maybe the best shot I captured (ha!). The reflection almost has a decent focus!



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