As cameras get better and more capable, it has become easier than ever to capture an amazing photo. But for some photographers, pushing possibilities beyond comprehension is the only way to roll. Check out the amazing results produced by combining over 2,000 carefully focus stacked images of butterfly wings.
Photographer Chris Perani is an extreme macro photographer who specializes in shooting butterflies at a microscopic level. This specialty might surprise some people when they find out Perani lives north of San Francisco, an area known for its many picturesque locations. Perani explains that the flowing waterfalls, giant redwoods, and luscious green hillsides can be rather seasonal. Come summer, the waterfalls dry up and the mountains turn brown, diminishing their appeal.
To challenge himself one summer, Perani invested in a macro lens. He was stunned by the beauty all around us that we walk right by every day. Things such as the various textures on a leaf or a tiny water drop on a spiderweb offered a whole new playground of amazing things to capture.
This macro thing proved to be a bit of a slippery slope for Perani, who one day found himself on a golf course running around with a net, desperately trying to catch butterflies and dragonflies. He wanted to really be able to show the texture of insect wings, but needed the control and lighting offered in a studio setting. This actually proved to be fairly seasonal as well. Perani ended up relying on catching as many specimens as possible during the spring and summer since the butterflies started looking bedraggled from a long summer. Perani's freezer must have sure looked pretty interesting.
One day, while feeling discouraged and down about a dwindling supply of insects to shoot, Perani visited the butterfly exhibit at the San Francisco Academy of Science to photograph his favorite subjects. At the exhibit, there was a table with butterfly wings and microscopes. For the first time, you could see every detail of these beautiful wings. Perani knew he had found his next project.
Diving in head first researching how to photograph the minute detail he was looking for, Perani came across the incredible work and videos put out by Levon Biss. This involved shooting through a normal camera lens in addition to a microscope objective. While getting set up was easy enough, the process proved to be rather frustratingly difficult to pull off. He learned through a number of simple mistakes you might never think could result in a blurry photo. Things like a shaky table, hot lights, specks of dust, and even walking in the studio could be a dealbreaker. Luckily and rewardingly, the final result was worth all the effort.
Each final image of a butterfly wing consists of 2,100 separate exposures merged into a single photo. So many exposures are necessary because he uses either a 10x or 5x microscope objective attached to a 200mm lens. Since the depth of field on an objective is almost nonexistent, Perani must go through a several-step process to achieve a truly in-focus shot. To accomplish this, he uses a focus rail that moves the attached lens no more than three microns per photo. For reference, the width of a human hair is approximately 75 microns.
All this is done so Perani can achieve focus across the height of the subject, which can be up to 8 millimeters. This process yields 350 exposures, each with a sliver in focus, that must be composited together into a single file. This file is one piece of a six-piece puzzle. The same exact process is repeated six times for different sections of the wing. The photos are then brought into Photoshop and carefully pieced together to make a final image.
Perani has really taken macro to the extreme and created some impressive work. It's amazing to see the texture and rich colors up close. After covering this project and Don Komarechka's photography recently, I might have to give this extreme macro thing a try! What do you think? Have you shot macro before? Check out more of his butterfly wings project on his website or instagram.
All images used with permission by Chris Perani.