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!
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 A. 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 A. and I figured it was worth trying and no one told us us to stop using flash. We used a 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. (On a later visit, the OCA did have a sign warning visitors not to use flash on the octopus as well.)
Tamron 90mm macro, f/13, 1/400 s, ISO 200, Sunpak flash with softbox.
A. 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 A. 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!
A big part of what’s been eating all my time outside of work the last few months has been pinning, labeling, and identifying my insect collection for the entomology class I’m taking–and it’s not even a very big collection, compared to what students in warmer climates often have to put together!
The funny thing is, part of why I didn’t take this class when I was in graduate school was that I thought I’d feel bad killing the insects. As it turned out, when I’m killing them for science (and I’ve tried to make my collection the best it can be, so it can at least be used for education if nothing else), I’m not too bothered, except by my beloved odonates.
And I’m very glad we had to make these collections, although it’s probably the worst effort:percentage of grade ratio of any course project I’ve ever done, and that includes petrology projects in college. I don’t think we could have learned as much by any other method.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned, or had vividly illustrated:
Insect collections are time-consuming. I knew this intellectually–our professor told us early on about a BioBlitz the museum participated in. After a few hours of relatively unfocused collecting, they did some quick calculations of how many student labor hours it would take to process what they’d collected so far–and decided to stop for the day. But there’s a difference between knowing intellectually and experiencing the amount of labor involved. In a few minutes with a sweep net, you can collect specimens that will take hours to pin, label, and identify. I probably spent 8 hours or so so far just on making labels and adding them to the pins. And my collection was pretty small, compared to many of my classmates’ collections.
Identifying insects is hard. Again, something I knew intellectually–but while I knew you can’t always identify insects from photographs, and some groups require close examination with a microscope, there’s nothing like spending an hour with a key trying to get one beetle down to mere family level, unsuccessfully. Of course, this is partially due to my inexperience with most of the groups I collected–but even so, I didn’t know about things like counting tarsomeres on beetles or bristles on flies before, characters which are not always easy to see. Even the sheer amount of not-always-consistent terminology is staggering. Those folks on BugGuide who can look at a photograph and identify the insect to species level? I was impressed before, but now I’m really impressed.
Insects are incredibly diverse. I didn’t have much time to go looking for insects, due to my job. I collected the bulk of my collection during two field trips, and most of the rest poking around lights at my apartment complex for a few evenings, and still easily exceeded the requirements of the assignment (14 orders, 35 families with no more than 7 per order, 60 “species”). This is one of the reasons I love insects and am so excited that I’ve learned to love them over the last few years: insects are everywhere, and that means almost any day I can go poking around in the bushes or looking at the ground and see an animal I’ve never seen before. You can’t do that with vertebrates. It’s opened up the world for me.
There is no substitute for hands-on learning. Identifying my own collection, even mostly to family level, has reinforced what we learn in lab in a way that no amount of practice with specimens selected by someone else could. In lab, we focused on common families with (usually) clear identifying characters. What came up in our sweep nets could be anything. I feel much more confident about the common families now that I’ve struggled with some of the trickier ones, and I also feel that I have vastly improved my general knowledge of insect groups and external anatomy–although of course I’ve only scratched the surface.
How to take pictures with a microscope. This is more of a practical skill, but my microscope pictures have definitely improved with a little practice. I mostly took the pictures for blogging purposes, and in some cases to post to BugGuide after I hand my collection in, but it’s a nice skill to have, and I can now put it on my resume and demonstrate with examples.
How to use a dichotomous key. A dichotomous key is a common type of identification tool, essentially a decision tree where at each step the key asks a question about a characteristic of the organism; for example, whether an insect has (a) antennae with clubbed ends or (b) without. The answer takes you to the next couplet, and so on, until you’ve (hopefully) identified the specimen. That’s the theory, anyway, although in practice there can be a bit more of an art to using keys. I’d used keys a little bit before, but not extensively; now I have a better idea of how to use dichotomous keys effectively, and also what types of keys are easier for me, as a novice, to use correctly.
I have decided to keep the majority of my collection for now, although I’ll give the duplicate specimens to the university to add to the teaching collection or whatever they see fit. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it–other than continue trying to figure out the specimens I got stuck on–but I’ve put too much work into it to be quite ready to pass it on.
On the subject of collecting in general, I’ve always been in favorite of collecting for scientific research, as well as the process of collecting (legally and responsibly) as a learning tool. For myself, I don’t really have the space to dedicate to an ongoing reference collection of my own, but I do hope to continue collecting insects to add to the collection of a local museum, once I figure out how I can target my efforts for maximum value. I am much less comfortable with commercial collecting. While insects have, on the whole, short lifespans and high reproductive rates, and it’s extremely difficult to harm even a rare population, it is possible and it has happened with some highly sought-after rare species for the market, particularly butterflies and moths. I think the extensive letter from Greg Pohl, president of the Alberta Lepidopterist’s Guild, on the value of scientific collecting in entomology is the clearest and best-laid out argument I’ve seen, and well worth reading.
Sharing the tank at the Butterfly Pavilion with the Sunburst Diving Beetles were a pair of giant water bugs (family Belostomatidae). Belostomatids are the largest of the true bugs, and these were some fairly large specimens (unfortunately, I neglected to take a picture of the species label).
Giant water bugs are fierce predators with (so I’m told) very painful bites. I’ve never seen one in the wild, so it was pretty exciting getting to look at them up close. The females lay eggs on the male’s wings (top photo), which limits the male’s activities considerably until they hatch. One of ways the male cares for the eggs is by bringing them to the surface to obtain oxygen from the atmosphere.