2014 Photography Retrospective

A waterfall in a basin of columnar basalt.
Abiqua Falls, near Scotts Mills, Oregon. April 11, 2014.

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:

A waterfall in a basin of columnar basalt.
Abiqua Falls, near Scotts Mills, Oregon. April 11, 2014.

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.

Image of a sleeping octopus
A Red Octopus (Octopus rubescens) sleeping in the Rocky Shores exhibit, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon, USA. April 15, 2014.

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.)

Mating stoneflies
Mating Golden Stoneflies (Hesperoperla pacifica) at the Deschutes River Boat Launch outside Warm Springs, Oregon, USA. May 25, 2014.

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.

Image of two owl nestlings
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) nestlings at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon, USA. 27 May 2014.

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.

A chickadee at a nest holding a fecal pellet in its bill.
A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) removing a fecal pellet from the nest after a feeding, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Portland, Oregon, USA. May 30, 2014.

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.

Image of a yellow-crowned night heron.
A Yellow-crowned Night Heron (Nyctanassa violacea) at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas, USA. June 14, 2014.

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.

A green heron hunting for fish among giant American lotus plants.
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) hunting at Brazos Bend State Park, Texas, USA. June 14, 2014.

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.

Image of a tiger beetle on a white background.
Most likely an Eastern Tiger Beetle (Habroscelimorpha dorsalis venusta), Bolivar Peninsula, Texas, USA. June 18, 2014.

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.

Image of a paper wasp
A paper wasp (Polistes exclamans) at her nest, Hornsby Bend, Austin, Texas, USA. June 11, 2014.

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.

Image of a shield bug and a camouflaged spider
A Red-black Shield Bug (Graphosoma lineatum) and a crab spider at the University of Debrecen Botanical Garden, Debrecen, Hungary. August 7, 2014.

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.

Image of a crab spider on a flower.
A camouflaged crab spider (family Thomisidae) at the University of Debrecen Botanical Garden, Debrecen, Hungary. August 12, 2014.

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.

Closeup of a potter's hands shaping a wet clay vase.
K. Nagy József, a potter, shaping a vase. Nádudvar, Hungary, August 2, 2014.

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.

Image of an insect nymph emerging from old exoskeleton
A Southern Green Stinkbug (Nezara viridula) nymph emerging from its old exoskeleton, Budai Arborétum, Budapest, Hungary.

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.)

A photograph of the Hungarian Parliament building lit up at night
Hungarian Parliament from the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary.

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.

A view of Budapest at sunset.
A view of Erzsébet Square from St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary. November 19, 2014.

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.

Image of the Chain Bridge at sunset.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge at sunset, Budapest, Hungary. December 4, 2014.

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!