Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The secret beauty of carpet beetles

Sometimes the old and familiar takes you completely by surprise. Something you took for granted turned out to be completely wrong. Case in point . . .

I settled down this afternoon to practice taking macro photos again. For subjects, I had a small green worm, a hitchhiker in the eelgrass I collected for my hermits; and a carpet beetle.

The worm was fairly co-operative, given a tiny pebble to cling to for security. But there's not much to him; a long tube, green on the bottom, brown on top. A green spot at the head end. That's it.

Full length, stretched out, about 1 inch. A ribbon worm.

The carpet beetle was another story. After being incarcerated overnight (6 months in beetle years), he had one thought on his little mind: escape. I got dozens of shots of his retreating rear end. I gave him some grains of sugar, which did slow him down some, but only enough to gather energy for another run for freedom. Eventually I capitulated and put his glass plate over ice. Time slowed down. I got a couple of passable head shots.

Facing his captor. Defiant.

Even on a 1 mm. long beetle, coming in that close for a macro leaves a narrow band in focus. If I get the eyes, I get a blur for the body, and vice versa.

And at this distance, the flash works, but the beetle is in the shadow of the lens. I'll have to get a slave flash for better lighting.

Same photo, processed in a different program, (free Picasa), with sketch lines added. They give definition to the scales and facial features, but fade out the colours.

Now, here's the surprise. I've examined, fed, housed, cajoled, and photographed dozens of carpet beetles. I think they're pretty, with the orangey-brown, black, and white pattern. And they're available. They keep volunteering by sitting on my drapes or kitchen wall until I collect them. But other than the patterned back, the rest is done in a dingy battleship grey. Or at least, that's what I've seen.

But now I'm zooming in a bit closer, and the colours appear. In every photo from that distance, the legs show up green. The antennae are a reddish rust colour, the outer mouthparts green, the next ones in, white.

The camera overdoes the colours, so I desaturated them for the photo above; he's still wearing red, white, and green. I compared his colours to the worm's taken in the same spot. The worm is as I saw him, even at full saturation. Should I trust the camera? I'm not sure.

Now I'm sorry I released Mr. C. into the garden once the photo session was done. I need another carpet beetle! And a better light. What other glories have these critters been hiding all these years?


  1. You find a huge world in the small. - Margy

  2. Anonymous6:57 pm

    I'm late to the new camera party, but congrats on the new toy! It looks like you're going to be a force to be reckoned with. i love the anemones and hermits, (and jealous of your ammonite).

    Several of your posts have been about color problems, much of which deals with the dreaded color management can of wriggly worms:

    Adobe RGB vs sRGB jpegs: Adobe RGB is primarily useful if you have a 'wide gamut' monitor, and are going to send files to a high end professional printer. Most monitors and consumer printers match the sRGB color space better; they just can't show most of the colors that exist in Adobe RGB; the monitor software tries to convert, but is doomed to mess up.

    Which brings up another problem with monitors: they aren't calibrated, and their colors range all over the map even with sRGB. They usually ship adjusted to be too bright and too saturated, because that makes a good first impression on most people. It also leads to eyestrain and poor colors. You should calibrate your monitor, either with a software calibrator, or better with a hardware system (it's terrible how our toys keep insisting on getting their own toys!) Then be resigned that no matter how careful you are, most other people on the web won't see the colors the same; there's nothing to be done about it.

    Mac has good color calibration software built in, hiding in System Preferences -> Display. Windows XP is a color management nightmare; you pretty much have to buy commercial software or hardware. Windows 7 (and maybe vista) finally has some system wide color calibration software built in. I don't know how well it works, but it will be far better than nothing. Here's the microsoft instructions:


    Eventually you may want to get a hardware calibrator, especially if you want to make prints. They're more affordable than they used to be, around U$90 up. I have a DataColor Spider from several years ago, which is ok but doesn't play all that well with macs. I don't know what the choices are now, google and your photographer relative are your friends.

    Then there are the other influences: what you see on the monitor depends on the lighting in the room, both color (daylight, incandescent, fluorescent) and brightness; the colors of your walls and shirt reflecting off the monitor, whether the monitor has had time to fully warm up, and more. But these are less important than good calibration in the first place.

    The other problem you're running into is from using jpeg instead of raw files. jpeg has very little latitude for adjustment, especially for color adjustments. The raw is like a negative, and the jpeg is like a print that's already had choices made about which filters to use on the enlarger, and how long to expose it. You can adjust a jpeg for about 1/2 stop of exposure, a raw for 2-3 stops, depending on the camera and shooting conditions. Raw also means never having to choose a white balance on the camera ahead of time (except for video).

    Try setting the camera to shoot both raw and jpeg. Then you'll have the jpegs for instant gratification with your current workflow, but still have the raws to work with for the better shots. The software that came with the camera can do basic manipulations with raw files, though you may eventually want to move on to something like Lightroom (U$115 at amazon) that can help tremendously in organizing all of those photos. Corel Aftershot Pro is another decent choice, not as good at the file management but cheaper (U$60 at Corel just now). (On a mac, Aperture is also very good and inexpensive at $80, but it's mac only and iirc you're on windows.)


    A color management overview:


    Eagerly awaiting more pics!


  3. Thanks so much, ceratina! I'll switch the camera back to sRGB.

    I did calibrate the monitor sometime last year. Does it have to be recalibrated at intervals, or is once good for life?

    I'll try using RAW. I'm using Photoshop Elements 10; will that work on RAW?

  4. Anonymous1:47 am

    I don't know about Elements. I took a quick look on the adobe site, and they don't bother to say. It might be in the manual, or you can just try to feed it a raw file and see if it eats it. If not, check that your Elements is up to date--if you got the software before the camera was released, you may need an update for it to understand the file format.

    You should recalibrate the monitor periodically. As the bits and pieces age, the colors can change. When it gets old enough, it won't be able to be calibrated properly (like my knees no longer allowing too many stairs!) How often is a matter of argument; anywhere from weekly to a couple of times a year. The more you make prints, the more often you should probably calibrate. If you do your own printing, the printer can be calibrated to match the monitor. I don't print enough to do it myself, so I don't know of any easy ways to do the printers. You can buy kits, but the ones I've seen aren't cheap. And for a lot of photos, the exact color isn't critical anyway, as long as you like the results.

  5. Thanks, as you suggested, I've "fed" a RAW file to Elements, and it took it fine. So that's a help, having the program already there.

    I almost never do hard copy prints, so basically calibrating my monitor is just for post processing for the web. But I'll recalibrate today, since it's at least a year since the last time.

    Thanks again; this is really helpful.

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