I’ve been thinking lately about why nature photography is important to me, and I decided there’s good value in putting together illustrated narratives even if the individual photos aren’t all portfolio-worthy and the writing isn’t elegant. I often find I enjoy other people’s nature-documentary narratives more than I do technically and artistically stunning individual images. Context and story are import, and I’d like to be able to look back in a few years and remember what I saw.
The last few weeks, I’ve managed to take a few study breaks to enjoy spring a little—last Sunday I went to the Budai Arborétum, a botanic garden and arboretum attached to Corvinus University’s horticultural department. I had tried visiting last fall and got rained out, but last weekend the spring weather was lovely, although unfortunately only the lower part of the garden is open on weekends.
As always, I was hoping for some birds other than the great tits which have been the most entertaining common resident bird life all winter, but other than some very uncooperative crows, all I saw were some nearly as uncooperative Common Blackbirds (Turdus merula), a type of thrush not to be confused with North American blackbirds:
Crocuses and irises were abundantly planted in many areas, and heather was in bloom as well—a very purple effect overall.
Spring is bringing the re-emergence of insects, which makes me very happy! Firebugs (Pyrrhocoris apterus) are one of my favorites—a common but striking species, albeit extremely uncooperative photography subjects. Looking them up just now, I realized that they are also the species used in a famous (in entomological circles) accidental discovery about hormone regulation and insect life cycles.
There were also a lot of small bugs swarming in the crevices of tree bark, which at first I thought were firebug nymphs, but on a closer look, they’re not similar at all. I saw a few of these last summer, but not in these quantities, and my Google skills are failing me. If anyone knows what these are, please leave a comment and let me know!
On the way home, I stopped briefly at Feneketlen-tó (Bottomless Lake), a nearby artificial lake which is apparently home to all three introduced North American slider subspecies as well as (somewhat surprisingly) the one native European species of turtles. Alas, the native species is rather shy, and all the turtles taking advantage of the spring sunlight were sliders like this one, which is probably a yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta):
I do feel like my macro photography skills are very rusty after a long break—I need to spend some quality time rebuilding my flash diffuser and get some good practice as it warms up more!
Late last November I finally got outside of Budapest for a weekend hike to the Börzsöny Mountains, led by Gábor Marx, who has been organizing hikes around Hungary (and sometimes outside) for many years. The Börzsöny Mountains are in northern Hungary, near the Slovakian border—only about an hour and a half from Budapest by car, something I confess I’m still not used to.
The end of November was definitely on the cusp between autumn and winter (albeit a very mild one, as it turned out). The trees had lost all their leaves at last, and it was chilly when we stopped moving—but still no snow, and beautiful when the sun broke through the light fog.
Coming from Colorado, Hungary’s mountains are hills, but beautiful ones, with a kind of open-understoried oak-beech forest I haven’t spent much time in. I am hoping to be able to go hiking more once spring arrives, because I am sure the forests which are lovely in winter are gorgeous in spring.
November’s hike was along the Magas-Tax – Nagy Hideg-hegy route, but I couldn’t say more about where we were exactly, as it was a bit of an adventure and dark by the time we returned.
A few photos from the hike…
There wasn’t much wildlife out, at least not that was willing to be seen by a large group (we did spook a deer), but we found a few of these huge galls on dead oak leaves. I assume they’re probably made by wasps, but if anyone knows what species they might be, I’d love to know!
A few details of flora and fungi:
The view from Nagy Hideg-hegy (“Big Cold Mountain”) before we headed back down.
I spent most of my winter break visiting friends in Sweden and Norway, although due to weather and other factors, I didn’t get to do either as much nature experiencing or photography as I hoped. After visiting a friend in Bergen, I spent a day and a half in Oslo before heading home. Since the weather was gray and drizzly and I was recovering from a cold, I opted for the indoor experience of the University of Oslo’s Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisk Museum) and the greenhouses in the botanical garden. I didn’t feel like dealing with the DSLR, so these are all cell phone photos, as with my review of the Hungarian Natural History Museum last year.
The museum itself is divided into the Zoological Museum (Robert Colletts hus) and Geological Museum (W.C. Brøggers hus), and like many museums, both are a mixture of modern exhibits and more old-fashioned fare like dioramas and cases full of minerals.
The entrance of the Zoological Museum currently has a display of gorgeous white-background studio photographs of insects of Norway by Karsten Sund, some of which you can see in this article (in Norwegian). Unfortunately, while there were English summaries for the photograph captions, the introduction was not translated, so the overall theme of the exhibit was a little mysterious to me. This became a theme throughout—while I very much appreciate that there were English summaries for some exhibits and labels, the decision to translate or not translate seemed haphazard.
The best-translated exhibit was a temporary exhibit on sexual selection and differences in nature. While it contained many interesting objects, it was quite text-heavy, and I’m sorry to say, but after earning a degree in museum studies my patience for reading exhibit labels has gone way down, so I didn’t spend much time there.
I continued on to what their website tells me was the Norwegian Hall, a series of taxidermy dioramas proceeding through various Norwegian habitats from sea level to the mountains. This was definitely my favorite part of the museum—I really love the art of dioramas, and particularly naturalistic dioramas that try to present a scene that could actually occur. These reminded me a great deal of the outstanding dioramas at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, although the backdrop painting was not quite as realistic and as far as I can tell they did not necessarily represent exact physical locations. However, they had some of the best taxidermy I’ve seen in museums and were really beautifully done—definitely a teaser for all the Norwegian nature I’d love to see in better weather!
Eurasian Eagle-owls (Bubo bubo):
I particularly liked the split-level underwater/shoreline dioramas, something I haven’t often seen before.
Many of the dioramas also included insect life, which of course made me very happy, as well as amphibians. The amphibians were probably the weakest part of the dioramas, as they appeared to be taxidermy and amphibians simply don’t taxidermy very well—in this case I think realistic models would have been more engaging.
The second floor opens with one of those glorious and unphotographable cases full of 19th century natural history memorabilia. There wasn’t much interpretation (and it was all in Norwegian), but I always enjoy just looking at these, and I think it’s nice to have a nod to the history of science.
The second floor held the geographic and systematic halls, although I think I managed to miss the systematic hall somehow. The geographic hall’s dioramas seemed to be older, the taxidermy less convincing, and were done in the style of “pick a region and cram all the animals you could possibly see there into one case,” an approach I personally like a lot less. For example, here’s the Galápagos Islands case (although to be fair, the animal density is less unrealistic than for most regions…):
Labeling in the diorama exhibits was haphazard: some dioramas were not labeled at all, others were labeled in Norwegian and English, and others only in Norwegian. Sometimes Latin names were included, but more often they were not. There was little interpretation besides the names of animals, so this wasn’t a huge problem—I think the appeal of this kind of exhibit is more in the immersive feel of it than the text—but I would have appreciated consistent use of scientific names.
And since this post is a bit long, I shall save the Geological Museum and the greenhouses for another post or two.
I haven’t quite abandoned this blog, but 2014 has been a year of many changes—the biggest being my decision to start a graduate program based in Budapest, Hungary. In the last year I’ve seen a lot of new places and met a lot of new people, I’ve learned a fair bit (although not enough) of Hungarian, I’m excited about changing career directions, and my photography has improved immensely, thanks primarily to Scott Carpenter‘s bird photography class through the Audubon Society of Portland and some fantastic visits with Lee Jaszlics of Snake Photographer. I can wholeheartedly recommend both as photography instructors.
I also bought a new camera—a Canon 6D—and replaced my lenses except for my Tamron 90mm macro, and ventured into the worlds of macro flash and reverse macro. I tried a lot of new techniques for both shooting and post-processing, with a variety of results.
So without further ado, here are 16 of my favorite images from 2014, with a little bit about how I took them and the new skills I learned in the process:
Canon EF-S18-55mm @ 18mm, f/22, 2.5 s, ISO 100.
One of the things I started doing this year was carrying a beanbag. Although I did briefly have an old tripod, carrying it is something of a pain and not always practical. A beanbag and some creativity in finding surfaces can go a long way towards making long exposures possible. Sometimes the unusual angles this requires can provide a slightly different perspective from the usual eye level tripod. For this photograph of Abiqua Falls in Oregon, I used a small aperture and a polarizing filter to reduce the later afternoon light, since I didn’t have neutral density filters.
Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/125 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash in softbox. Composite of two exposures.
The mystery of how to take good photos in an aquarium solved: off-camera flash. We couldn’t find a photography policy for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, so Lee and I figured it was worth trying and no one told us us to stop using flash. We used his manual Canon flash with a softbox and shoe cable and got some pretty great results, although it’s definitely something where it helps to have a second person to hold the flash and holding the flash at a good angle is more of an art than a science. This Red Octopus was asleep, making it a cooperative subject. I combined two exposures, one for the arm and one for the head and body. You should be aware that many aquariums do prohibit flash photography by visitors, so check the photography policy before you bring out the gear.
Tamron 90mm macro, f/13, 1/400 s, ISO 200, Sunpak flash with softbox.
Lee also managed to get me hooked on flash for macro, beginning with an old Sunpak flash I picked up for $25 or so at a thrift store. While it could only fire full power and thus recharged slowly, it was enough to get me hooked on the new possibilities. A homemade softbox from cardboard, masking tape, and white plastic bags softened the light, allowing me to capture these mating stoneflies. I had also started shooting in RAW (which I should have done years ago), which allowed me to recover a dark band from incorrect flash sync. I have also started gently using Photoshop to reduce blown-out highlights, which subtly but markedly improves a lot of photos.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, f/11, 1/400 s, ISO 400.
Scott Carpenter’s excellent bird photography class was very useful for both technical and behavioral aspects of bird photography. Since I had decided to buy a new full-frame camera and my old lenses would no longer be compatible, I rented the Canon 100-400mm zoom for the class field trip and also took it down to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where we were lucky enough to find these Great Horned Owl nestlings. One of the useful takeaways from the class was that even if you don’t have the equipment for a tight portrait of your subject, you can still take interesting photos of them within their habitat, so I wasn’t very disappointed that a river and a large tree prevented me from a closer approach.
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, f5.6, 1/400 s, ISO 5000.
I never would have found this Black-capped Chickadee nest close to the trail at Oaks Bottom without Scott’s advice on looking for cavity nests. Since the nest was located close to the trail, the chickadees were used to humans and not disturbed by my activity, although since they are very fast, it took a long time and many photos to capture this moment as the chickadee removes a fecal pellet from the nest after feeding. I also wouldn’t have had the confidence to try such a high ISO without Scott’s advice and the wonderful performance of the Canon 6D, which has opened up a lot of low-light photography possibilities.
EF300mm f/4L IS USM, f8, 1/400 s, ISO 800.
Although the 100-400mm is a nice lens, I ended up buying the slightly cheaper 300mm f/4 L-series prime, since my main interest is not birds but dragonflies. In my opinion it’s a sharper lens, and it’s definitely lighter, which is a bonus since I like to be able to fit all of my camera gear in a carry-on backpack for air travel. However, with larger birds like herons, it’s a quite adequate bird lens. In general this year, I’ve become much more aware of light, particularly the warm light of early morning and late afternoon (or the entire short winter day in northern latitudes). Although I still hate getting up early, sometimes it’s worth it.
EF300mm f/4L IS USM, f8, 1/125 s, ISO 400.
Another example of a subject-in-habitat photo, since I wasn’t able to get closer. But I think I actually like the sense of scale provided by the giant American lotus plants.
Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/180 s, ISO 100.
One of the new techniques Lee taught me was using an off-camera flash in a homemade whitebox for small animals. This produces wonderful portraits which focus on the the animal itself, although there is some soft-shadowing rather than the completely crisp backlit look of the Meet Your Neighbours project (a technique I’d like to learn someday but lack the gear for at the moment). While I still generally prefer a good in-habitat shot, whiteboxes are a useful tool for creating soft, even lighting, and sometimes it’s nice to focus fully on the organism. One of the biggest adjustments I’ve had to make to a full-frame camera is that extension tubes are almost mandatory for all but the largest macro subjects, although they also further reduce the depth of field.
Vivitar 35mm F/2.8, reversed with a 12mm extension tube, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash with softbox.
My first attempts at reverse macro (mounting an old wide-angle lens in reverse) were pretty dismal, but with Lee’s advice and help holding the flash, I got some wasp photos that I’m really happy with. While this method is something of a pain since after you stop down for depth of field you can hardly see through the viewfinder, it produces fantastic results for far cheaper than, say, the Canon MP-E. I haven’t yet figured out a good way to use the flash on-camera for reverse macro, so unless I get another arm, I suspect a flash bracket is in my future.
Tamron 90mm macro, f/11, 1/125 s, ISO 1600, natural light.
I experimented a little bit with focus-stacking this year, mainly by manually blending two images to slightly expand the depth of field. In this case, I had a bit of serendipity—I didn’t notice the camouflaged crab spider on the left until after I got home, but fortunately I had an image with the spider in better focus, allowing me to blend it with the image focused on the shield bug. I had also forgotten my flash that day, but the 6D allowed me to push the ISO to 1600 and get great results anyway.
Vivitar 35mm F/2.8, reversed with a 12mm extension tube, f/8, 1/160 s, ISO 200, off-camera flash with softbox.
Here I combined a two-image focus stack with reverse macro, which was a huge pain and would definitely have been easier with a third arm, but I like the result.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 18mm, f/4, 1/125 s, ISO 400.
While I don’t foresee becoming a portrait photographer any time soon, I did take a lot more photos of people in 2014. While many of these were of student events, I found that I do enjoy photographing people engaged in performing arts or craft work, and I look forward to exploring these areas of photography further.
Tamron 90mm macro + 32mm extension, f/11, 1/160, ISO 200, on-camera flash with softbox.
After I got frustrated with the Sunpak flash, I invested in a Yongnuo 560 iii manual flash, which many macro photographers use. While they may not be as reliable as Canon’s, I know enough people with broken Canon flashes that for 1/3 of the price, it seemed like a good gamble—so far, no regrets. Automatic flash isn’t very useful for macro, and manual flash is pretty simple with a little trial and error. And now that I don’t have to wait 30 seconds between recharges, it’s much easier to capture slightly more “action” shots, like this emerging stinkbug nymph. (Unfortunately, I spent the first part of fall semester catching every European virus I came across, so I didn’t get to do as much macro as I’d hoped—here’s to spring.)
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 96mm, f/11, 3 s, ISO 100.
The remainder of the year, with nature photography options limited, I got really into dusk cityscape photography, since it was easy to pop over to the Danube for an hour or so around sunset. There’s something magical about long exposures, and I can’t think of a city with better views. Plus the “blue hour” (or blue 30 minutes, sometimes) just after sunset is fairly reliable even if clouds obscure the actual sunset. As with other long exposures and the following blended exposures, I used a beanbag to steady the camera rather than a tripod.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, f/8, 1/8 s, ISO 400. Composite of two images.
Another serendipitous image, since I had no idea when I decided to climb the tower of the basilica that night that the sunset would be spectacular—this image gave me a change to try out “luminosity masking,” a technique for manually blending multiple exposures for greater dynamic range. I encountered this technique through an article by Jimmy McIntyre, who also provides a free set of Photoshop actions that greatly speed the process. I ended up buying his full tutorial, although I haven’t yet had time to work through it. This image is a composite of two images, manually blended in Photoshop. While I still have a lot to learn about this technique, I like the results a lot more than traditional tone-mapped HDR.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM @ 32mm, f/8, 1/8 s, ISO 100. Composite of two (?) images.
Finally, my last new composite technique for the year. It’s an unfortunate fact that while cities generally look best after lights have come on for the night, the lights don’t tend to turn on until after sunset. It’s pretty simple in Photoshop to stack a sunset image for the sky with a post-sunset image showing bright city lights using the “Lighten” blend mode, following Jimmy McIntyre’s tutorial. The one drawback to this method is that you really have to commit to your composition, leaving the camera in place from sunset to blue hour so the images will align correctly. Since I hadn’t waited long enough to get a really dark sky, I also had to do some manual masking and blending, but I think the result is not bad. I know some people are really opposed to composite images, but I personally feel that as long as the composite work is disclosed, there’s nothing unethical about them—and sometimes they can capture the “feel” of a scene better than a single exposure.
All in all, I feel like I learned an incredible amount about photography this year, and the upgrade to my equipment has also made a huge difference—rather than fighting my equipment to get acceptable results out of it, I can work with it to try new techniques. Not everything I tried was a success—I had a pretty disappointing evening shooting firefly light trails (I know what to do differently next time, but I don’t know when I’ll have access to fireflies again), I’m still puzzling over how to best light dragonflies when using a long lens, and I never managed to get myself to a good dark sky area to really try night sky photography, one of the reasons I decided on the 6D despite its drawbacks for certain kinds of wildlife photography. I’m looking forward to another year of learning more about my camera and about post-processing. Who knows, I might even start updating this blog again!
I wrote a little about the Water Resources Education Center in my last post, so I’ll continue on about the actual amphibian monitoring training. We started the day at the Water Resources Education Center with an overview of common amphibian species in the area and how to identify their egg masses, given by Peter Ritson, the environmental scientist who coordinates the Southwest Washington Amphibian Monitoring Project (SWAMP). SWAMP is a volunteer citizen science project that aims to encourage protection of native amphibians and their habitat by collecting data crucial for conservation decisions, as well as engaging citizens in science and wildlife protection and educating people about the importance of wetlands in the region.
Ritson brought a couple Long-toed Salamanders (Ambystoma macrodactylum), a common Pacific Northwest species which can live in a variety of habitats, hibernating during the cold winter months.
Although it’s not always possible to see in the field, one of the characteristic features of their egg masses is a “double” layer of jelly (actually triple, which you can see better in this photo on Wikipedia).
After the classroom training, we headed out to the field to a small wetlands near Burnt Bridge Creek Trail. Those with waders (or more dedicated than I am) worked their way down a drainage ditch, while the rest of us tried to avoid being stabbed by blackberries or falling in from the banks.
Most of the egg masses we saw belonged to Long-toed Salamanders or to the Pacific Tree Frog or Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla).
It takes some practice to spot egg masses, especially since healthy egg masses tend to be below the surface of the water. This one—a Long-toed Salamander egg mass—wasn’t doing so well, possibly due to weather damage.
Normally SWAMP discourages handling egg masses or removing them from the water, but this one was probably not viable.
Pacific Tree Frog egg masses look quite different.
While we didn’t see any frogs, we could hear them!
A couple weeks ago I went to an amphibian egg monitoring training at the Water Resources Education Center in Vancouver, Washington. While I won’t be participating in the program, which is centered in Clark County, Washington, I thought it would be nice to learn some more about the amphibians of the Pacific Northwest.
We started the day with a couple slideshows and a look at some captive salamanders, before heading out to a local wetlands to look for egg masses in the wild. The Water Resources Education Center was one of my favorite places as a kid, but I hadn’t been back in years.
It’s an outdoor and informal education organization run by the City of Vancouver, right on the edge of the Columbia River and associated wetlands. The mission, as you might expect, is focused on water resources, particular the abundant wetland and river habitats of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a great place to learn about issues facing water resources in the region, as well as to see some of the native fish and amphibians you might not find in the wild.
Near the entrance is an area with a number of tanks and terraria, including salmon eggs and recently hatched alevins like the one above, as well as a bunch of native amphibians like this Pacific Tree Frog or Chorus Frog (Pseudacris regilla). We didn’t see any of these in the field, but we certainly heard them!
I find Western Toads (Anaxyrus boreas) and toads in general strangely charming:
Hanging above is a striking yet disturbing Salmon Lifecycle sculpture by local artists Maggie Rudy and Patty Maly, depicting the life cycle of the salmon in trash—such as that which ends up the oceans, negatively affecting salmon and other animals.
Moving towards the other exhibits, you pass a large fishtank, which usually has White Sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) and other fish. Later on, some of the salmon may move to that tank temporarily before release, although they can be aggressive. White sturgeons are the largest freshwater fish in North America, at their largest reaching up to 1,799 pounds (816 kilograms) and 20 feet (6.1 meters) and living over 100 years. In addition to overfishing, dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers threaten sturgeon populations by reducing spawning habitat and blocking passage to and from the ocean.
I didn’t have time to poke around the main exhibit area, but I think it’s more focused on kid-friendly interactive activities and watershed education.
Last summer I didn’t get outside much for various reasons, but I did make it to a few places. Lowell Ponds State Wildlife Area is a relatively small streamside recreation area that mostly seems to be used for fishing, although there are some hiking trails.
Unfortunately, the evening I went turned out to be not very good for dragonflies (or photography), but there were a few interesting sightings, most notably the juvenile Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) above, whose parents were extremely displeased by anyone passing by on the trail, and extra-displeased by me stopping to take some photos:
But more excitingly, I spotted a female thread-waisted wasp (Family Sphecidae) provisioning a nest with a caterpillar. I didn’t have enough light to get even remotely decent photos of a fast-moving wasp (I would really like to invest in a decent off-camera flash one of these days), but it was still a pretty cool thing to watch. Last year was the year I discovered sphecids, which I’d never really noticed before, and now every spring and summer I’ll be watching for burrows in dry ground.