When the Camera Speaks

When the camera speaks, what are photographers trying to tell us? What do they want us to feel?
Why did they choose photography to express themselves?
Leading photographers share their thoughts about their craft.

New lenses and technologies allow us to convey the wonder of living things

Interview: July 27, 2015;
Posted: November 2, 2015

Kazuo Unno studied insect behavior under Professor Toshitaka Hidaka at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. He has dedicated his career to photographing insect mimesis in tropical rainforests, particularly in Asia and the Americas. In 1990 he set up a studio in Komoro City, Nagano Prefecture, from which he documents the surrounding natural environment.Recent publications: Sekai no kamakiri kansatsu zukan (A Field Guide to the World's Mantises) (Soshisha) and Shizen no damashi-e Konchu no gitai: shinka ga unda kyoi no sugata (Nature's Trompe L'Oeil Insect Mimesis: Amazing Sights Born out of Evolution) (Seibundo Shinkosha). He is chairman of Japan's Society of Scientific Photography.

Capturing the wonder of insects in their natural habitats

Leading Japanese insect photographer Kazuo Unno is renowned for his expertise about cameras, lenses, and the latest developments in photographic technology. For this month's "When the Camera Speaks," we asked him how using the latest lenses, plus new technologies such as high-res shot and depth compositing features are changing the "language" of the camera.

Q: Several new Micro Four-Thirds lenses have hit the shelves this year. In June 2015, the 7-14mm f/2.8 ultra wide-angle and 8mm f/1.8 fisheye lenses came out simultaneously*. What impact do you think these new lenses will have on the world of photography?

Unno: They're a boon for nature a photographer, that's for sure. The f/2.8 bright zoom lens is now available in 7-14mm, 12-40mm, and 40-150mm sizes. Add an 8mm fisheye lens at f/1.8 and you've covered almost all the bases. I tend to carry a lot of equipment with me on location, but when I have to go mountain-climbing for a shoot, I prefer to travel light. When I go on that type of expedition, I carry all the equipment I need in one backpack, and thankfully now, I can manage with quite a small one.

Q: How do you use the different lenses you take with you? Do you pick a specific lens depending on the type of finished photograph you're aiming for?

Unno: No. When I'm shooting in the wild, I prefer to use a wide-angle lens, if at all possible. But if I'm photographing butterflies that'll take off as soon as you get close to them, for example, I'll start with a zoom. These beauties are Graphium procles, a species of swallowtail found only in Borneo. I got four in shot, but as a rule, it's extremely rare to find more than one at a time. I started with a zoom, and I would've liked to move on to a wide-angle lens, but unfortunately they flew away.

Q: Why do you favor the wide-angle lens?

Unno: Because, if I can, I prefer to capture the full majesty of an insect in its natural setting. I want the background to be reasonably sharp, so I use an ultra wide-angle or fisheye lens.

Q: When do you use a wide-angle zoom? And when, a fisheye lens?

Unno: The fisheye is better for smaller subjects. For slightly larger subjects like swallowtail butterflies, an ultra wide-angle will suffice. The butterfly in this photo is Lycaeides subsolana, the Asama Silver-studded Blue—an endangered butterfly only found in three locations, even in Komoro, Nagano, where I'm based. Because its numbers are in decline, I wanted to photograph it to try to learn a little more about its lifecycle and habitat.

This photo was taken in Komoro just before the end of the rainy season. The area is mostly fields, with the odd clumps of trees. I wanted to include the blue sky, as it seemed to fit with the photo's laidback vibe. The mountain you can see in the distance is Mt Asama.


High-res shots offer new possibilities in landscape photography

Q: The OM-D E-M5 Mark II now allows you to take 40 megapixel high-resolution photographs. This technology produces the kind of high-res shots one would expect from a 40MP sensor, based on images captured in eight sensor-shift 0.5 pixel passes. Could you tell us about the photographs in this month's Photo Gallery that you've taken with this feature?

Unno: When I first used it, I was surprised to find that shots taken in RAW format and developed with a Photoshop plug-in turn out as 64 megapixel photos. Digital camera pixel counts are increasing rapidly, and once you've used a camera with more pixels, you'll find it hard to go back. When I'm producing work to display as large exhibition prints, the more pixels the better.

This is a view of the tropical rainforest taken from a high mountain pass. It looks like there's a mist hanging over the forest, but when you enlarge the photo, you see that its actually a mass of vines and other vegetation. High-res mode is perfect for landscape photos like this. When shooting landscapes, you'd usually to take the shot at a slow shutter speed at f/16 or f/22, but stopping down tends to result in poorer image quality. In which case it's probably better to take the shot at f/8 in high-res mode.

People tend to think that the high-res feature won't work if the subject is moving, but that's not always the case. Look at this photograph of a waterfall. Don't you think the high-res mode gives the image a different feel from one taken at a slower shutter speed?

Q: This photo of an insect was also taken using high-res mode. I enlarged it on my PC screen, as if I were observing the actual insect close up, and I was surprised to find it clear down to the smallest detail, with no loss of resolution.

Unno: This insect is about two inches (5cm) long, and a mimic. Which means it's passive and relatively immobile. The feelers are moving a little, but after all it is alive, so you'd expect some movement at least. I managed to get this image because the wind dropped as the weather turned.

Using depth compositing to show insect morphology in exquisite detail

Q: One new technology that's been in the news lately is depth compositing—an intriguing technology that combines multiple images taken with different focal points to create one photograph. The new firmware for the OM-D E-M10 Mark II released in September, and E-M1, E-M5 Mark II due out in November are fitted with focus bracket mode, allowing the user to take photos with different focal points. You can then combine them with depth compositing on a computer. The new firmware in the E-M1 due out in November will allow depth compositing on the camera itself. When would you use this feature?

Unno: In my own work I have a very clear idea of how and when I use depth compositing: When I want to show something unusual about an insect's morphology. In other words, I want to take photos that show the finest details of the smallest insects. A wide-angle lens is sufficient when photographing insects out in nature, but when I want to give a better idea of the fascinating way in which an insect is put together, I'll photograph it against a white background. For that kind of shoot, I want to focus on the whole insect from head to tail, rather than just on one part, which is well-nigh impossible if you try to photograph it in the conventional way.

I've been photographing insects against a white backdrop in what I call "living specimen photos" for twenty-seven years. Up to now that's meant using a strobe and narrowing down the focus, but in the last four years or so I've been using depth compositing more and more.

Q: Meaning before the latest new products and firmware came out?

Unno: That's right. I recently put together a book on praying mantises. This particular mantis is only half an inch (1.5cm) long, which means that when if you tried to photograph it using conventional techniques, you'd be lucky to get it into focus. What I used to do was take about ten shots, manually adjusting the focus slightly each time, and I then combined them on the computer. The problem was, if each shot took two seconds, it took twenty seconds for ten photos. It's a bit much to expect the mantis not to move for twenty seconds (laughs). Most people looking at the finished image would probably imagine that it's fairly easy to get a shot like this, but in fact it took over a day to create this one photo. Just imagine how much easier it would have been if I'd been able to use the latest firmware when I was putting this book together, and how well the photos would've turned out (laughs).

Q: The mantis raising its forelegs in an intimidating posture looks amazing. Do you always photograph live insects?

Unno: Yes. I find photographing dead ones completely pointless. You can't even begin to convey the fascination of insects with dead specimens. I'm fascinated by the myriad morphologies of insects, and I'll admit that, years ago, I used to like dead specimens as well. But not these days. What I've realized is that when someone looks at a dead specimen and thinks how great it looks, all they are doing is satisfying their desire to own the insect. I'd rather capture the wonder of insects as living things, and I'm thrilled that this technology will allow more people to do just that much more easily.

Bringing a practical perspective to development

Q: I believe you were involved in the development of depth compositing for Olympus' latest models.

Unno: Well, I wouldn't say I was involved in the actual development, but they showed me the prototypes from time to time, and I suggested the odd improvement.

Q: What specific suggestions did you make?

Unno: For example, in focus bracket mode, you take photos by shifting the focus in small steps, but the right number of steps will depend on the size of the subject. I wanted to know what they would do about those settings. The other thing was, I like to take the most precise photos possible, but if you try to use just the best setting for a particular lens, it does limit you. For instance, if you restrict the product to f/4 because that gives you the best image quality, you'll get into trouble when you go out to shoot in the real world. R&D staff usually concentrate on achieving the highest quality, which can often be unrealistic. Not many people understand that. It's great to have an R&D team that both understands that and really takes that kind of practical advice on board.

Interview and text: Koji Okano