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Fotoopa’s unbelievable Nikon custom rig for capturing insects in flight

I have covered Flickr member Fotoopa and his custom made Nikon rig for capturing insects in flight in the past. He now has an improved monster machine. The main camera is a Nikon D300 + 105mm f/2.8D lens but there is an external shutter Uniblitz VS14 between the camera and the lens that reduces the shutter lag from 52 msec to 3.3 msec.

The rig has two SB-80 flashes and a SB-29 ring flash. Focusing is done with... IR lasers that are pointed at the virtual focus point of the camera. The second 60mm f/2.8 lens is for detecting the reflected IR laser signals. When an insect passes through the virtual point, the IR signal detects it and a controller triggers the external shutter. Because of the extremely short shutter lag, the "hit rate" of this system is almost 100% and the insect is always in the frame. The whole rig weights 7.2 kg (almost 16 pounds) and it took Fotoopa 4 months to build.

Here is a list of used equipment and settings:

  • Camera Nikon D300.
  • ISO 100.
  • Manual bulb mode limited at 60 sec to avoid noise.
  • Camera set at 14 bit resolution, RAW mode.
  • Macro lens, AF105/2.8D set at F16 or F22 manual on the lens (camera can't drive this due to the external shutter).
  • Burst mode set at 2.5 pictures/sec if detection stay active and I hold the start button down.
  • SB-29-S flash manual at 1/32 power, both sides active.
  • SB-80-DX flashes at 1/64 power, but level can change over 6 steps (1/3 EV steps) via knob on the frame.
  • Balance set neutral or +3B-3 to -2B+2 in 6 steps.
  • Max IR detection delay 120 usec (0.12 msec).
  • Detection lens: AF60/2.8D macro.
  • Photodiode BPW41N with integrated band filter.
  • Detection controller: AVR Attiny45.
  • 2 IR lasers pulsed 980nm 20 mW at 30 us ON,30us OFF.
  • Central controller: MAX II CPLD board Terasic, current 150 mA.
  • 2 Visible 10mW green lasers to align the D300 camera, pointed to the same virtual focus point.
  • External shutter pulse duration: 3.0 msec.
  • External shutter voltage start at 70V, end at 56 V (due to the capacity tank).
  • AVR Attiny26 controller to control this 70V shutter voltage and monitor the battery voltage.
  • External shutter lag 3.3 msec.
  • Flash delay set at 3.5 msec (200 usec later, to be sure the shutter is always full open).
  • When external shutter is open all lasers are disabled (not to be visible on the picture).

The results are stunning:

Do bugs get red eyes :)

More photographs can be found here. Most of the equipment pictures have detailed description in case you decide to build one by yourself.

All images © Fotoopa

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  • NikoDoby

    Where do you put your beer?

    • Ben Carrdus

      +10

  • Zen

    “The rig has three SB-80 flashes and a SB-29 ring flash.”
    Maybe I’m blind, but where is the third SB-80?

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      sorry, total of 3, 2xSB-80

  • texajoe

    That’s alot of effort but some cool pics. Is it a permanent rig or can you swap out for fx and 200mm micro?

    • Apooo

      He seems to be doing pretty good with what he has. :)

  • http://www.truphotos.com gnohz

    What can I say…just unbelievable! :o

  • Troy (トロイ)

    Insect looks like it got the shock of it’s life! wonder if it was blinded by the flash??

    • Jim

      They don’t get blinded by the flash. They get incinerated you get one shot per insect. LOL

  • Banned

    Impressive rig, unimpressive photos. Another fine example of wasting lots of time with low returns. There are so many other astonishing bugs photographers out there with much simplier gear and much better results.

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      this rig is for capturing insects in flight, not sure how this can be done with a regular DLSR+lens unless you are very lucky

      • Hairulns

        interesting and brilliant !!

        i read on Fotoopa comments, he said “This bee is realy exceptional for this country. Shey come back now every day on the same flower. I have multiple records (more then 20) now. Not easy to trigger because the very black color give low reflection signal of the IR lasers. But this bee is extreme big. (see the frame dimension)”

      • chimphappyhour

        You get something like this when done with just a dlsr, lens and maybe a flash, all hand held with no extra gizmos:

        http://www.flickr.com/photos/chimphappyhour/4635857348/

        http://www.flickr.com/photos/chimphappyhour/3540445773/

        http://www.flickr.com/photos/chimphappyhour/5101524639/

        Just takes a little more skill, knowledge of your subject and patience is all.

        • http://www.jsvfoto.com jsvfoto

          I completely agree with you. Simple is much easier than this setup for capturing flying ones.

          His setup is great for a certain approach, but bees move, and they move fast–light and manual focus is the way to go if you’re going to follow them.

          Thanks for sharing your work.

      • Banned

        It doesn’t matter that they are in flight when the end-result is so unimpressive. Artistically it’s bland and scientifically it’s useless as these things are studied with high-speed cameras anyways, not photos.

        The guy just wanted to build some hardcore terminator type rig and get the attention.

        • Bullsnot

          Holy crap! If I invent a way to get a camera to the moon you’re response will likely be “Big deal, it’s been done before.”

          Can’t you just appreciate his accomplishment for what it is? I’m sure if he was after more dramatic lighting he could simply switch up his flash setup. Something tells me he’s getting the results he’s after, and very likely vetting those results FAR more often and repeatedly than if shooting with a simpler rig…

          Jeez… Jealousy rears its head in strange ways!

      • Dr Who

        To Admin:
        Answer: Tripod, Camera, Ring Flash, high shutter speed, and a creative eye/mind

    • kaze kaze

      Great effort in the concept and building/ engineering bit, and yes, there are much more simplier solutions. I remember seeing on the Nikon-pro mag a while back, G. Simard do dragonfly in-flight with D3 + 400 2.8 VR and a few flash units.

    • http://bibikova.com ben

      A little bit of PP will fix it. But I must say, this an achievement, because I dont know of anybody shooting insects in flight do you?

      • Michael Jefferies

        Very nice but plenty of photos of insects in flight, have done some myself! Look through Flickr.

  • Bondi Beach

    Thanks for posting – awesome rig and great description of “how it works”.

  • D

    Cool.

    Someone sure has some time on there hands to make that get up.

  • http://gsoundtech.com George Kash

    Great Job !!!
    any samples ?

  • gt

    As cool as that is, some of the best insect photos I’ve seen have been taken with far, far simpler rigs. I really believe that no amount of laser technology is going to be a substitute for an eye for color, an eye for composition, patience, and luck.

  • http://www.MartinWongPhotography.com Martin

    This Sunday Sunday Sunday…moooooonnnnnnssssttttteeerrr camera

  • http://photoartbymark.zenfolio.com photoartbymark

    how did you ever come up with this, amazing

  • malez

    I woke up this morning. went to nikonrumors.com, and I got this. :/

    This is nikon RUMORS, your recent posts doesn’t live up to the name very much!
    With the D400 D800 D4sss around the corner, I wish there’d be more leaked specs
    leaked images what ever. I’d bet there even are some prototypes in the wild already.

    To ppl living near Chase Jarvis and the likes, start stalking them already!!!

    :D:D:D

    If things gets leaked enough, maybe it’ll even speed things up for Nikon,
    like the 50 1.8G.

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      The rumor mill is dead – this is the case after every Nikon announcement, so be patient :)
      I will continue to post interesting Nikon related posts until I get some reliable information about the upcoming DSLR cameras.

      • malez

        pls, don’t be reliable

        :D

      • AnoNemo

        Just post the unreliable info … I guess that is why your site is NikonRumors….

        • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

          don’t like to post BS rumors, prefer to wait for the good stuff

        • broxibear

          Hi AnoNemo,
          I’ll give you the “unreliable info”…
          D800 announcement in late September and limited availability in late December.
          D4 annnouncement in March 2012 and availability in May 2012.
          I’ve no information about the D400.

          • Dr Who

            Here’s some unreliable info, I’m Switching to Canon! Right NOW!

  • http://matthyatt.com Matt Hyatt

    I think this rig is amazing, and I’m glad you share stuff like this when the rumor mill is slow. Keep up the great work!

    • http://nikonrumors.com/ [NR] admin

      Thanks Matt – there will be between 40k-60k unique visitors on this blog today, no matter what I post, I cannot make everyone happy.

      • mikycoud

        40k-60K!!!!
        Boy this site has gotten big!
        Congrats to you…
        Lots of work this must be…

        • Scart

          “Lots of work this must be…”

          Grammar learned from yoda you have?

      • Paul

        You’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work!

      • monkeymoonshine

        I totally agree. I would rather read interesting stories/reviews/etc. than have no posts for days at a time. Thanks for posting this.

  • Dave

    All that work and then they blow the background?!?

  • http://www.lgphotoart.com LGPhotoArt

    It photographs them first, and then fries them with the lasers…lol
    Interesting rig b.t.w.

    • Bondi Beach

      lol

      • Dr Who

        All I ask for is freakin sharks with freakin laser beams attached to their head!

  • Hooman

    He should have used anti-red eye !!! :p

  • Ronan

    Very cool but i have seen MUCH better with simpler gear.

  • Mark

    This is a great article. It confirms that photography has broad application limited only to one’s abilities and imagination. Fotoopa’s engineering skills are very impressive and gives him a power over photography his camera simply could not limit. Thanks for a stretching article.

    Mark

  • trim

    “cool stuff. I’m an immature pre-teen btw, please bow before me?”

    • http://www.flickr.com/ob1ne ob1

      have a cry.

      well done derose for being first. don’t listen to trim, he’s just jealous.

      back to topic, nice rig. wonder if he’s selling it.

      • Twaddler Belafonte

        ‘Well done on making the first comment’, coincidentally also translates to precisely ‘I’m an immature pre-teen btw, heh-heh nipple bottom!’. You two have much in common.

  • Apooo

    Very impressive setup and photos. The guy clearly has a grasp of photography and other engineering disciplines to be able to come up with this. That an A+ for ingenuity in my book.

    I wouldn’t even know where to begin… I would have sat in front of a flower with my D700 and 200mm micro and probably discard 99.9% of the photos and MAYBE get one mediocre photo. Talk about needle in a hay stack. Hahaha!

    Thanks for interesting post!

  • Tony

    Very cool indeed, maybe D800 or D900 could use build-in IR and focus this fast.

    • mikycoud

      Yeah, why not?
      After all, this would benefit 0.xx% of D800 users and let all others carry a couple of couple extra kgs on our backs.

      • Tony

        Do you know that a computer use to be as big as a room itself….. and really who doesn’t like to have a faster focus speed.

  • Stephan

    German Engineering! :-)

  • http://gplimages.com GPLimages.com

    Does he lug that 16 lb. thing around out in the wilds? I imagine that being more work than fun. I mean, I guess if I had to do it to make a living that’d be great… but damn…

  • Patrick hall

    Imagine how awesome these images would be if he actually lit them in an interesting way. Such bland photos for such a complex rig

  • Ken Rockwell

    Damn Shame, those shots look like shit, what a waste of time, energy, and money.

    • blueget

      This one doesn’t “look like shit” IMHO.

      BTW, where are YOUR insects in flight shots?

      • Ken Rockwell

        MY shots? I’m too busy supporting my family doing reviews on every single piece of camera equipment made. Please donate to me so I can buy a Nikon D4 when it comes out next month, or three months, or nine months, or 2013!

    • blueget

      Found another one: click

      Already pretty good, but he should definitely try to tweak the lighting a bit.

    • nir.exe

      The machine is an achievement, very nice but yes
      the photos look clinical + bad raw editing
      I don’t like it one bit

  • CamaJan

    Is this a studio only setup or can he put it into his garden and shoot?

  • http://www.timbo400.com Timothy Duong

    Check out Microcosmos (1996) if you want to see amazing!

    Trailer link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76R2EKEnoJQ

    Thanks for the article, a little more in-depth look at his setup (I’ve seen it before but this is upclose and personal!)

    But I do agree with people above, whilst his setup is pretty darn technical. I guess the shots are more science than ‘general aesthetics of photography’

  • Iddles

    “Check out Microcosmos (1996) if you want to see amazing!”

    Just had a scan through the video, looks good but I didn’t see any creatures in mid-flight, least of all tiny, fast-moving ones.

    I think a lot of people poo-pooing this saying they’ve seen better elsewhere don’t appreciate that these photos are mid flight and that you could leave it somewhere for days, come back and filter through looking for interesting shots with minimal effort.

    The reason the shots don’t look that great is that the lighting needs tweaking; not because this is generally a bad approach.

  • http://www.jsvfoto.com jsvfoto

    I’ve seen this setup before–the problem with it is it’s more or less a sit and wait approach with the camera sitting where it is.

    There’s an art to macro photography, and this is just one of the approaches one can take. It’s almost no different than sitting around at a distance with a 200mm lens and waiting for the right moment–only with his setup that moment is triggered by the lasers.

    Considering he’s using flash and lasers I’m surprised many shots come out blurry. I wonder if he’s relying on AF? For moving insects AF is useless, even with lasers–I should know bees are one of my favorite subjects to photograph.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/jsvfoto/sets/72157625347335947/

    http://www.jsvfoto.com/photos/bees

    Having said that it is a fairly impressive setup–a la Wiley Coyote–but nevertheless impressive.

    I would highly suggest he try this with a longer lens and wireless triggers–that way he can setup his flashes near a flower, and allow the lasers to trigger the radio triggers to trigger the camera. Why? It would give him much better backgrounds, and he would have to rely less on AF, because he’d already be pre-focused on the flower surrounded by the flashes/laser. In other words find a way to separate the camera from his elaborate setup, and keep the setup near a flower, and the camera at a distance with a longer lens. That would be something to see!

    • ‘Arry Garnt

      By comparison your bee shots are rubbish.

      • bebel

        I do agree… I opened 3 of your pictures, none as good focus.. ??

        • http://www.jsvfoto.com jsvfoto

          Right–and where are your shots?

          I’m with chimphappyhour–getting decent shots of moving insects doesn’t require such a fancy setup and AF is pretty much useless with moving insects.

          It’s a neat setup–a la Wiley Coyote–but it could be more easily done.

          Here’s a professional French photographer whose work I admire, and who uses very simple setups to capture pictures of bees:

          http://www.thehoneygatherers.com/html/index_en.html

          Great images and no lasers. Real and scientific and artistic? You bet!

          His work is published in several books.

          @Geoff–thanks for the kind words.

  • Geoff

    Amazingly creative. I am impressed

  • derevirn

    I think this rig was built to capture as many insects as possible, not to create photographs of great aesthetics. His goal is naturalistic rather than artistic.

  • broxibear

    Dedicated man.
    On another topic…
    Nikon files patent suit against Sigma…
    “Nikon’s lawsuit seeks an injunction against Sigma’s manufacture and sale of infringing interchangeable lenses with vibration reduction for single lens reflex cameras, along with damages for past infringement.”
    http://www.nikon.com/news/2011/0525_01.htm

  • Nat

    With such a technical set-up….why doesn’t Fotopoopie use something a little nicer than a D300?

    • D700guy

      That was my first thought. Why not a D3s?

  • PanoFrank

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoopa_hs/3636467040/in/set-72157611107153997/

    Regarding quality issues: The device isn´t fixed on a tripod, it´s designed to be carried around…so the shots are “freehand”.

    • D700guy

      Why in the hell would anyone NOT fix the device onto a stationary platform such as a tripod? Hand holding it all but negates any quality advantage one might obtain with this rig.

      • rainydayinterns

        Because insects are difficult to “invite” from the garden into the studio…and they tend to move around.

  • Cortland

    ISO 100 on D300? Why?

  • http://www.jpgmag.com/people/markwjr Mark

    This is kind of cool. I don’t mean to discount his hard work or anything, but the shots on his flickr are honestly not all that appealing. I know the point of the post wasn’t a photo critique, but I really don’t think the photos produced were worth all the time and effort.

    JMHO
    Mark

  • JorPet

    That is a freaking awesome setup. Stuff like this always amazes me. Too bad all the pictures have a bud in them.. :p

    • JorPet

      Bug… Geez I can’t even type

  • Slava

    Impressive, but who is presuading insects to fly into the focus point?

  • jak

    All this for a bug??

    No, really, it is genious; I don’t see any benefit, since I hate bugs!

  • Anonymus Maximus

    I find it really cool !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Thanks for the post Admin!

    It makes me a bit sad that there are many unkind commentators who did not seem to get the point at all.

    I have seen better pictures blah blah blah… Who cares there is not a single company web site – take for example the sigma SD1 site – where the sample pictures are really appealing. So what? they should demonstrate the technical capability.

    I really admire and believe in the concept of Individuals producing their own solutions. (Instead of whining in forums, when big industry will finally deliver.)

    In Photography the “home made” stuff rarely goes beyond a beauty dish out of a flower pot kind of level when it comes to technology.

    Fotoopa is admittedly not a regular guy, but a retired development engineer, however – as a one man show – designing and building his own high speed shutter and laser guided automatic detection unit and integrating it with a modern camera makes him undisputed the

    THE KING OF ALL PHOTOGRAPHY HOME CONSTRUCTRS

    I bow to him

  • Mark Heseltine

    Here is another example of Fotoopa’s work. Great shot. Great lighting. What a remarkable man. What a remarkable technology. For all the nasayers out there, what have you done to advance this art today?

    http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1228/4607508375_c4bc842d11_m.jpg

  • Arjen

    As for some commentors, I think the guy’s Dutch – his name translates as ‘photo granddad’.

    I think the rig is cool, he might need some diffusors to get the light a bit less harsh, but then the pictures will come out better.
    I’m sure that with some time, there will be really nice pictures taken with this – I especially look forward to butterflies-in-flight, they are SO hard to photograph…

  • No More GWC’s

    There are way too many GWC’s in this forum. The photos were mediocre which doesn’t add up to a hill of beans. Just stick to what you know best, posting more damn point and shoot cameras, because we just dont seem to have enough of those!

  • Carsten

    Impressive how many criticize the results while they have perhaps 1 or 2 lucky shots of an insect in flight. Maybe the shots are not very artistic yet, but first the technique has to be developed before it can be employed for artistic purposes.

    I remember a documentary (BBC?) from 25+ years ago where they did something similar – fotoopa’s gear is quite compact in comparison to what they came up with

  • Tim

    I love it when people rig up gear and use it beyond it’s normal operational envelope. The very beginnings of photography always involved people coming up with ingenious ways of creating an image. From people mixing their own chemicals and making glass plates or charcoal tissue for carbon printing to hacking cameras so they can shoot 360 degree panoramas. Today with more digital processing techniques that we now see as standard features like “exposure bracketing” for HDR images.

    People like Scott Haefner who have been crafting custom rigs for Kite Aerial Photography or James Balog working on rigs that can create images of tall trees and now Fotoopa with this sort of High Speed Macro Rig and 3D Macro Rigs are really exploring areas of photography that go beyond what most people can dream of never-mind act on.

    Building these rigs is as much an art form as the images they are used to create. Sometimes these rigs are big and difficult to manage or not quite perfect, but that is part of the game – Ansel Adams would setup his giant view camera on the roof of his car to help move his rig around.

    Hat’s off to Fotoopa!

  • NikonJoe

    Impressive setup. I agree with others that the photos are less impressive than others I’ve seen. But well, everyone’s got to start somewhere. One of the issues, maybe the main issue, is that there is a lot of harsh foreground illumination, but the backgrounds are not illuminated by the flashes. Therefore, either, the ISO has to be increased to capture more ambient light, or flashes have to be placed to illuminate the background. That will (hopefully) improve things by quite a bit.

  • Wally

    Absolutely great machine, I love your idea!

  • VisualUniverse

    I am very impressed with his configuration for accomplishing what I consider to be impressive results. Sometimes the journey to achieve something is half the fun. I salute Fotoopa’s ingenuity and ambition.

  • http://aristarkhos.blogspot.com Aristarkhos

    Great effort. I’m a sucker for complicated setups. :) Don’t care about the lot who think you can do with simpler set up and the ‘creative eye’. The effort is commendable and the rig bloody impressive.

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