The photo above is of a water beetle I collected in a ditch not far from my home. It was about a centimetre long. What do you think of the picture? It wouldn’t win any awards, but it’s not bad right? Well that’s the thing—it started out as a pretty poor photo, but I was able to salvage it thanks to Photoshop Elements 8.0 and especially the Clone Tool. But first I’ll tell the story of how I took the photo, and then I’ll explain what I did to save it. [Edit: I originally identified this critter as a predaceous diving beetle (family Dytiscidae). A couple of knowledgeable people eventually contacted me and suggested that it was actually a water scavenger beetle (family Hydrophilidae). However, I have had other people tell me it was definitely a predaceous diving beetle and have even suggested a species name. Unfortunately I released the specimen after photographing it so I can’t confirm either way. So I have decided to just call it a water beetle for the time being, although after looking up the differences and scrutinizing my photos I tend to agree that it is a water scavenger beetle.]
I’ll start by saying that photographing aquatic insects like these beetles is a pain in the butt! First you have to catch one and put it in a small aquarium (I can’t imagine how you could photograph one of these beetles in the wild). So you have to contend with the challenges posed by shooting a submerged subject through glass. Secondly, they tend to be very active swimmers—constantly moving in all directions. Trying to photograph one is akin to trying to photograph a flying insect. You really need to be patient and wait for them to finally settle down and stop for a rest. Hopefully they will stop in the right spot and in the right position for a good photo. However, Murphy’s First Law of Photographing Aquatic Insects dictates that they will usually stop in the wrong place and either behind a stick or facing away from the camera. Murphy’s Second Law is that on those rare occasions that they stop in a good photographic pose, they will hold it until you are just about to hit the shutter…and then take off. In the case of predaceous diving beetles, I find that when they finally rest it is usually on the surface of the water, which isn’t usually conducive to taking great pictures.
Anyhow, like I said, I caught this beetle and decided to photograph it. I took it home and set-up a very small aquarium that I had specially made for this kind of photography (see the photo below). I couldn’t use the murky water that it had been living in for photography, so I filled the aquarium with fresh clear water from the tap. And that was a real bone-headed move; because water from the tap is well aerated. Almost immediately after I poured it into the aquarium tiny bubbles start to form on the plants and the inside of the glass. There was no way I was going to get any good photos with all those bubbles even if the beetle cooperated and posed for me. What I should have done I quickly realized, was to put some water in a container, allow the excess air to effervesce overnight, and then use that water to take photos the next day (and that is what I eventually did—more on this at the bottom of this post). But before I dismantled everything, I decided to watch the beetle for a while to get acquainted with its behaviour.
Of course within minutes the beetle landed on a sprig of hornwort and assumed the pose in the photo above (I suspect another Murphy’s Law was involved). I couldn’t resist and took a picture before it quickly took off. The resulting image was pretty poor as I expected. It was too dark, and the beetle was surrounded by teeny tiny bubbles that reflected the light from the flash. Back in the days when I only shot slide film, this photo would have been discarded immediately as worthless. But times have changed…and I decided to see what I could do to salvage it using Photoshop Elements 8.0.
The original photo, in all its sad glory, is below. It isn’t pretty…
The first thing to do was to attend to the basics:
- I adjusted the contrast by clicking Enhance/Auto Contrast.
- The head of the beetle was too dark, so I lightened it by clicking Enhance/Adjust lighting/Shadows/Highlights and setting the Lighten Shadows bar to 25%.
- I cropped the photo very slightly.
Then it was time to get rid of those pesky bubbles. And that is where the Clone Tool works wonders! Here is the routine I followed:
- Zoom in on each bubble.
- Select the Clone Tool and adjust the size to a circle a little bigger than the bubble.
- Hold the alt key and click on an area of the photo very close to the bubble that had a similar colour and brightness.
- Release the alt key and click on the centre of the bubble. Voila!
If done correctly the offending bubble would suddenly disappear (sometimes it would take two clicks). I started with the upper left corner of the photo and slowly worked my way down and up, from left to right. I was able to easily remove most of the bubbles (and some distracting bits of debris in the water). I decided to leave the bubbles on the beetle itself because they naturally hold air under their body as a source of oxygen while diving—you can see the silver sheen in the photo. So I felt the few tiny bubbles on the insect didn’t look unnatural.
So there you go…the final result isn’t a bad photo of a diving beetle. Quite the difference isn’t it?
But remember what I wrote above about leaving water to stand overnight? Well today I spent a couple of hours trying patiently to get some better photos of this same beetle. And I believe I succeeded. Tomorrow I’ll post Photography of a Water Beetle part 2.
The technical stuff:
Camera: Olympus E-620 digital SLR
Lens: Zuiko 35mm macro
Settings: manual exposure (F11 @ 1/125 sec)
Lighting: on-camera flash (full power)