Heather Elder Represents
Reps Journal

Andrei Duman's 'ExoSkeleton' is a Confluence of Creative Fervor, Technology and Curiosity

Our artist’s personal projects are often the confluence of creative fervor, technology and curiosity. And when those are executed correctly, the final product produced is one that sparks wonder in the viewer’s mind, prompting questions into the ideation process. Andrei Duman is an artist who never stops seeking innovative processes and pushing the proverbial creative envelope. 

With his childhood starting in communist Romania, devoid of color, Andrei first stepped into technicolor when he moved to the UK and saw sweet shops and magazines bursting with vivid hues. One magazine, aptly named BUGS!, caught his eye and serves as the inspiration for his project ExoSkeleton.

Under the stewardship of the Natural History Museum of San Diego and the University of California at Riverside, and in partnership with Phase One, Alpa, Sandisk Professional and Zerene Stacker, this project showcases Andrei’s creative versatility in harmony with his technological prowess.

Note: to experience these images in extreme detail, link here and click on the individual insects.  

Where is the inspiration for this project?

From a young age, I’ve been interested in insects. There are so many different kinds, shapes, sizes, and textures that dot our planet. Some are so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye, and some so big they prey on larger animals. I’d read magazines that had bizarre facts about insects; from which had the strongest jaw to predatory tactics among different species. I became fascinated and I knew I wanted to develop a project that shows that insects aren’t as scary as we think and that they are extremely beautiful to look at. Photographing insects is not an original idea, but I wanted to take it further and shoot it using the highest resolution medium format camera available on the market - the 151 megapixel Phase One IQ4. 

How did you acquire the insects? 

I partnered with the San Diego Natural History Museum and the University of California at Riverside. They welcomed me into their collections and let me have free range with the insects. There were rows and rows and rows of floor-to-ceiling shelves that house nearly 4.5 million different species of insects. The curious side of my brain could not believe it and I would spend hours looking at them. It was painstakingly time-consuming to search the endless shelves of specimens as I had to inspect each one in great detail to confirm there were as few imperfections as possible. Using surgical loupes, I had to make sure that there were no missing sections to the thorax, wings, and legs and that they were as symmetrical as possible. 

Can you explain how you went about photographing these insects?

When I presented my concept to Alpa, they were instantly keen to participate. They provided me with a prototype of an extreme focus-stacking solution. It was only 1 of 3 in existence. As a result of the insects being so small, and wanting to shoot them at such high magnification factors, meant that the depth of field was incredibly shallow. For me to achieve the level of detail throughout the entire depth of the specimen, I had to take a lot of images using a technique called focus stacking. In short, focus staking combines multiple images taken at different focus distances to give a resulting image with a greater depth of field (DOF) than any of the individual source images. Up to 8,000 per specimen had to be done, depending on how deep the insect was. Taking focus stacking to such extremes cannot be done by hand and this is where the Alpa prototype equipment was instrumental. By using a mechanical rack, it can automatically focus stack in up to one micron increments. For reference, a single strand of human hair is 75 microns. 

What challenges came up during this project?

The entire process of shooting one specimen was pretty grueling. It took around 30 mins to clean the specimen using surgical loupes and a camel hair brush. There are thousands of debris and dirt pieces that cannot be seen with the naked eye that have to be removed as much as possible. Lighting setup, specimen placement and composition took another 45 mins. Once this is done, we start on the camera setup. Three mathematical calculations have to be done to determine the magnification factor, distance from edge of lens to the specimen and from the back of the sensor to the lens. If any of these are off, it will dramatically affect the quality and sharpness. Next comes the equality important part of choosing where the near and far point is that I am wanting to capture. Both of these are saved in the camera computer module along with the increments of how many microns you wish the mechanical rack to move after each taken shot. All of this can take up to an hour. Next is letting the camera do its thing and start the shooting sequence which depending on how many images it needs to take, can take up to 4 hours. Once this is complete, you have all your files in the native Phase One IIQ format.

To be able to start flattening the files into one, you need to convert them to TIFF which can take up to 12 hours. With the TIFF files, you then have to start flattening them and Zerene Stacker has been the best software that can handle such deep stacks. In fact, I reached out to the founder of the company who wrote custom code for me as part of a beta version to be able to handle the huge files. Taking all those TIFF  images and flattening them to one a single TIFF file can take up to 14 hours using a multiple step process that is not automated.  It is only at this point that you can see if there was anything wrong with the image because looking at individual images that are part of the stack will only have a micron section that is in focus. All else is out of focus so one cannot determine if something is off. If there is anything wrong with the image, you have to go back to the very beginning and start all over again. Many times, the final image was not right. The dead insect moved even 1mm from the spot it was pinned to in the 4 hours of shooting, or a small part of a wing fell off because it is so fragile. I had instances where there was an earthquake, my wife would open the garage door or the AC would turn on, all of which would send vibrations in the floor that would affect the sharpness in the final image. Since the Alpa gear being a prototype, during these disruptions the stack would skip a few steps which would show up as a small band of out of focus across the specimen.

Assuming all went well, it was only at this point that I could send this to the retoucher to further clean the microscopic debris that had to be done on a pixel by pixel basis. Average retouching time per specimens was 46 hours with the most being 86 hours. In total I shot 76 specimens correctly over a period of 18 months, with only 26 processed in post production.

Do you have a favorite insect that you shot?

I think the Hairy Weevil from Madagascar is really neat. The have this sharp looking hair all over their body that you wouldn’t see without a high powered microscope or in this case, photography. They are just so incredibly small but with so many details, I really like the way it came out.

What was a memorable aspect of this shoot?

This project taught me more about photography than any other. Yes, it was stressful and frustrating and drove me insane at times, but I also feel that I was able to capture something rather unique. To be able to showcase the true resolution of the Phase One, we had to create a custom section on the website that allows the viewer to zoom in at incredible levels of detail. 

This was a really technical project that needed a tremendous amount of attention and dedication. I had an overall look and feel that I wanted from the outset and worked with tons of different teams. I worked with people at Alpa, Phase One, Zerene Stacker, SanDisk Professional, the University and the Museum and all of these teams allowed this project to happen. I never take for granted the team of people it takes to produce a shoot but this was one really special.