Monday, July 29, 2013

(S)he came through the bathroom window*

Diaphanous and fluttering in white.  All I did was leave the light on and the bathroom window open.

Swallowtail moth, Ourapteryx sambucaria
Swallowtail moth, Ourapteryx sambucaria
One of the largest UK moths, you'd want it to be an exotic rarity but, apparently, they're quite common on July nights in the UK.  Captured with the aid of my Sigma 180mm macro, flash and softbox - and a good deal of personal contortion as it sat on the ceiling.

*Lennon/MaCartney composed Beatles song but the best version is by Joe Cocker.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Lateral thinking

I've had little time for photography and less for blogging recently but I managed a family day out at a local beauty spot; Bedford bridge on the Horrabridge to Tavistock road.  It was hot, baking hot, and sensible wildlife was taking refuge against the heat or, in the case of the insects I was interested in, zipping around and never settling.  Frustrated, I'd just about given up when I spotted a Golden ringed dragonfly, Cordulegaster boltonii, patrolling a deeply cut small ravine with a tiny stream at the bottom.  I worked my way to the bottom and waited patiently for it to settle.  It did, but always remained tantalisingly out of reach.  I was working with the 600D and 180mm macro mounted on the tripod for additional stability and I couldn't manoeuvre the combination close enough to the couple of places it did settle to get a shot.

Until it settled on the tripod.  And a little lightbulb went off.  It wouldn't settle because there was nowhere to settle.  Off came the camera from the tripod, out went the tripod to the other side of the little stream, down went my backside on the streambank and, with elbows on knees for support I waited for the dragonfly to return.  I wasn't disappointed.  Here's a few of the shots.

Cordulegaster boltonii

Cordulegaster boltonii

Cordulegaster boltonii

Cordulegaster boltonii
They're all natural light with a little bit of fill flash at either 400 or 800 ISO to give a high enough shutter speed to avoid motion blur from hand holding.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Tavy railway bridge panorama

I'm not a practiced shooter of panoramic pictures but some subjects cry out for the ultra wide treatment.  A couple of weeks ago I went to Warleigh Point on the banks of the Tamar near Plymouth.  The aim was to shoot insects in the nature reserve (I did) but I couldn't resist shooting the railway bridge which crosses the Tavy where the Tavy and Tamar join.

Railway bridge over the River Tavy, Devon.  Click to enlarge.
One of the benefits of digital photography is the ability to stitch multiple shots together in software rather than requiring a dedicated panoramic camera such as the Hasselblad XPan back in the days of film.  In this case the bridge, set against a background of the rolling hills of the Tamar valley, needed a stitched panorama to avoid either cropping top and bottom or the inclusion of large amounts of sky or estuary mud if I'd tried to fit the whole width in a single frame.

Out came the tripod, on went the 180mm macro to get the right framing, the camera was set to manual exposure at 1/400 and f9 to avoid variations in brightness across the panorama, and I took 12 shots, tracking from left to right with decent overlap between the shots to make the stitching easier.

Back at my desk I processed the RAW files with identical recipes, batch converted to JPEGs and stitched the 12 files using Canon Photostitch (free with Canon DSLRs).  Sounds easy.  It's not.  You can't rely on the autostitching so each merge seam has to be merged using multiple points to get the best placement.  12 shots is eleven merge seams.  Get one out and it throws off your other merges.  And to check it's necessary to save the merge, check the resulting JPEG - and start again if a merge hasn't worked correctly.  I spent a little over an hour getting it right to produce a seamless panorama.  It may be easier in more advanced programs but I work with what I've got.

Even that wasn't the end of the process.  The resulting panorama needed straightening tp produce the correct alignment.  I use GIMP as my photo editor and this has a tool to set the correct angle.  In the case the alignment was easy.  I simply aligned the middle four spans at the point they met the river.  Just like using a spirit level.  A final crop and save produced a 25875 x 2947 px image, reduced by Blogger to 1600 x 182 for inclusion on this post.

I think it works well - and the original preserves all the detail inherent in a high resolution shot.  Detail like this of one of the supports.  Click for the 100% crop.

100% crop from Tavy railway bridge panorama
Now to find someone who can print it.  At ~300dpi it should work out to 90 x 10in / 225 x 25cm, even larger if I take the dpi down to 250 or even 200.  On second thoughts I'm not sure I've got that much wall space - especially if I repeat the process with the tide in.


I've added a 4000px wide image to Flickr.  Click here to view.  Right click on the Flickr image and choose original from the size options to see the larger image.

Friday, June 14, 2013

I have a little list....

...of butterflies I've never managed to get good photos of despite them being local.  For example, there's a few fritillaries that I've seen but never captured up on Dartmoor; green hairstreak - I can't seem to find the local populations; wall brown - I haven't seen a good specimen with camera in hand since my film days; and the small copper, which keeps eluding me despite being locally common.  Part of it lies in not being in the right place at the right time but sometimes it comes down to pure luck.  Sometimes it's bad luck.

The Holly Blue butterfly, Celastrina argiolus, is common enough locally.  I see it most years, fluttering around the hedgerows in search of its holly and ivy host plants.  Small, pretty - and always, it seems, tantalisingly out of reach.

Until the 5th of June this year.

I walked outside, camera in hand, and disturbed a Holly Blue feeding on my perennial wallflower.  It flew off before I could get a shot.  Another disappointment.  And then, 30 minutes later, it came back to feed on the wallflower.

Now was my chance.  I had the Tamron 90mm macro and 25mm extension tube on the 600D camera, flash on, AV set and everything ready.  I maneuvered into place.  The butterfly was feeding on the far side of one of the wallflower heads.  I quickly took a couple of shots as insurance, even though its head was out of sight.

Holly Blue butterfly, head hidden behind a flower of Erysium 'Wlaburton's Fragrant Star'
I'm glad I did.  Rather than - as I expected - move to a position where the whole butterfly would be in view it simply flew off.  And never came back.  Still, I suppose it's better than no photograph at all. 

I've been more fortunate with another couple of butterflies that were also on the list.  One recent day out, albeit in two different locations, yielded decent shots of a male Orange Tip and a Small Heath.

Orange tip butterfly, Anthocharis cardamines, male
Orange tip butterfly, Anthocharis cardamines, male
Small heath, Coenonympha pamphilus
 But I still want that Holly Blue.

As always, click the pictures to embiggen.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Dallying with the damsels

Damselflies that is, smaller and more delicately built than their larger dragonfly cousins, but equally photogenic.  Over the last couple of weeks I've been able to capture a few nice shots of three of the commoner local species, a promising start to the summer.

It started with a female Large Red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula, in the typica colour form, that wandered into the front garden at the end of May, giving me a chance for a few shots - including a close up.

Pyrrhosoma nymphula forma typica -  female large red damselfly
Pyrrhosoma nymphula forma typica -  female large red damselfly
A few days later a male showed up round the little pond in the rear garden and posed for long enough to allow me to get the 180mm macro lens onto a tripod to do some natural light / fill flash photography.

Pyrrhosoma nymphula  -  male large red damselfly
The hard part, as always with side views of insects, is getting the whole damselfly parallel with the sensor plane so that both the head and tip of the tail are in sharp focus.  Practice helps - but blind luck and a good few tries seem to be as important.  The extra working distance of the 180mm macro lens really helps.
Pyrrhosoma nymphula  -  male large red damselfly
A little further afield - well, close to the woods where I walk the dogs - I came across both male and female common blue damselflies, Enallagama cyathigerum.  Well away from the still water they prefer, they were both a bit skittish but, eventually, I managed to get some reasonable shots.
Enallagama cyathigerum - common blue damselfly male
Enallagama cyathigerum - common blue damselfly male

Enallagama cyathigerum - common blue damselfly female
Meanwhile, on the streams that flow down from Dartmoor, Beautiful Demoiselle damselflies are emerging.  Calopteryx virgo is one of two UK species with pigmented wings, brown in the case of females and immature males, iridescent blue in mature males.

Calopteryx virgo - immature male

Calopteryx virgo - immature male beginning to develop the blue wings of maturity
At the location I took the two shots above I didn't manage to capture an adult male - so here's one I photographed a couple of years ago.  They'll be more common in a few days, ready for my next trip out.
Calopteryx virgo - mature male
Of course, typically for immature males of any species, some can be very vain.  This one was quite happy to allow me to set up the 180mm macro and tripod at 1:1 working distance (about 18cm), maneuver around, and fire off multiple shots at close range to get some different views than the conventional side on or top down shot.  It even obligingly switched backgrounds while staying close to me.  In the second of the shots it's eating its lunch, a small midge.

Calopteryx virgo - frontal view of immature male

Calopteryx virgo - frontal view of immature male
An enjoyable start to what I hope will be a productive summer.

As always, click the pictures to access the larger versions.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What use is a 180mm macro lens?

I've long wanted a long macro lens and finally, in October 2012, opportunity and finances coincided and I was able to buy a relatively (£320 from MPB Photographic) low cost used Sigma 180mm EX HSM APO f3.5 macro lens.  This is not the newest f2.8 OS version, or even the one before that with the DG digital coatings, but the one before that.  Although years from manufacture, it was in good condition and I couldn't wait to try it out.  So, bearing in mind that I already owned the Canon 50mm f2.5 compact macro and Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro, was it worth the money and how useful would it be?

The longer macro lenses (150, 180 or 200mm) are usually described as specialist lenses.  Big, relatively heavy, limited to a single focal length, hardly suitable for hand held use at close up range, let alone 1:1 macro distances, they lend themselves to slow, unhurried work with a tripod, remote release and, where necessary, mirror lock up.  Exactly what I needed for my primary interest of plant and garden photography and a useful addition to my nature and insect photography equipment.  There are two main advantages over my shorter macro lenses.  Firstly they narrow the field of view, and secondly they provide a greater working distance.

What the narrower field of view means in practice is that the background in a shot is selected from a far narrower angle and is also more blurred.  It is far easier to get an image with the subject beautifully framed against an almost smooth background.  In this comparison I've shot a single, small head of a perennial wallflower with my three macro lenses.  (Click the images to embiggen.)

All three shots were taken at ISO 200 and f8.  The background is the rest of the bush and a large variegated Yucca (Yucca gloriosa 'Variegata') with prominent yellow edges.  With the 50mm macro you can just see the spiky leaves of this.  The 90mm macro is better, but the 180mm is rendering the background into a far smoother blur.

Obviously I've had to adjust the position of the camera and lens for each shot so the framing and subject size isn't absolutely identical.  Even so, the differences in background blur are obvious.  Of course, with careful selection of subject (smaller is better!) and background (far, far away is best) smooth backgrounds are achievable with any of these lenses.  It's just a lot easier with the longer macro lenses.  For example:

Apple blossom, Cotehele, Sigma 180mm macro, grass bank behind
Gaura lindheimeri, lawn behind.  The fly will  give an idea of scale.
Tricyrtis hirta.  Gravel path in the background.
Yes, I could achieve similar background blur with any good, long telephoto lens.  But not at the price I paid - and they don't go down to 1:1.

The second important advantage is working distance.  It's easy enough to find tables of working distance at 1:1 for any of these lenses.  The longer, the further.  But what does it mean in practice at less than 1:1 close focusing distances?  Well, here's the working distances for the wallflower shots.  Bear in mind that the macro ratio is about 1:3 or 1:4 (1/3 to 1/4 life size on the sensor).  I've topped and tailed the actual wallflower head with blue highlighting.

Working distances for the wallflower shots

For my interests, in many situations, distance lends enchantment.  I hate trampling in my own borders to take close up shots of plants at a distance from the path - and I wouldn't dream of doing it in anyone else's garden.  The extra reach of the 180mm macro is very useful in such cases.

There is another useful feature of a longer telephoto lens that combines the effects of extra working distance and the narrow field of view.  This involves compression of the image.  Because the background occupies a smaller angle of view it appears larger in the shot.  Which means I can more easily position the camera and lens to provide a pleasing background in those situations where the heavily blurred background isn't possible, or in some cases, desirable.  In the two shots below I've shot from a distance (no trampling to get a close up), at a low angle, and into a carpet of flowers.  Unlike with a wide angle lens the background is confined within the carpet.

Snake's head fritillaries, Fritillaria meleagris, in a meadow setting

Bluebells, Hyacinthoides non-scriptus in local woodland
Of course, sometimes it doesn't work.  This shot of the giant leaves of Gunnera manicata gives no impression of size .  It could be a miniature landscape rather than an accurate depiction of the 6ft / 180cm tall stems and giant parasol leaves of this massive perennial.  A wider angle would have given a better impression of scale - but trampling down the stream to frame the shot would probably have been frowned on.

Gunnera manicata in the valley garden at Cotehele
I'm only just starting to explore the usage of greater working distance combined with 1:1 macro capability for insect and other nature work.  With the need for tripod or monopod support (for me, at least) it's too cumbersome to easily follow active subjects around.  Chilled insects, before they warm up in a morning or on colder days do lend themselves to the slower, more studied approach.  For example, this hoverfly, Eristalis pertinax, wearily landed on a Rudbeckia I was photographing on a cold day last October and gave me a chance to take a few shots as it rested.  The light was terrible so I had to work at 400 ISO, 1/80sec, f8 so it's not as sharp and with as much depth of field as I'd like - but showing promise for what should be achievable this year as the insects come out in greater abundance.

Eristalis pertinax on a Rudbeckia flower.  Uncropped image.
In a previous post I showed some shots of crab spider predation on a hoverfly, shot with the Sigma 180mm macro.  Of course, when the subject has a commitment to remaining static it does become easier:

Garden spider on her web
The acid test for me will be with natural light shots of butterflies, dragon and damselflies.  I've only had the one chance to test the lens in this situation so far.  I was photographing some wild flowers a little earlier this year when a brimstone butterfly wandered within about 5ft / 150cm and stopped to feed on a dandelion.  I managed to get off a single grab shot before it flew away.  Hardly a competition winner but the combination of working distance and image quality promises much as the warmer weather brings out more and more possible subjects.

Brimstone butterfly feeding on dandelion
So, to re-examine my original question 'was it worth it and how useful would it be?' the answer is well worth the cost and incredibly useful for my photographic needs.  Big and awkward the lens may be but it's ideal for my purposes.  In fact, it may even be a little too short for some shot requirements.  I'm now looking at buying a 1.4x teleconverter for even greater working distance.

Two final points.  Even though the lens is an older version it works well with my more recent Canon 600D body.  I use manual focus most of the time but the HSM autofocus is accurate and fast in normal use (slow when cycling from macro to infinity distances but this is hardly unexpected and can be countered by using the range limiter switch).  Secondly - and oddly - the EXIF data records the Sigma as the Canon 180mm f3.5L macro lens.  Sigma reverse engineer the lens - camera communication protocols and have had problems with older lenses and newer Canon bodies in the past.  I wonder if they simply copied the Canon protocols and applied them to their identical focal length and aperture lens?  If so the lens is future proofed and I can look forward to many years of service.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Walking on the water

My little pond currently has numbers of water striders, Gerris lacustris, skating across its surface.  Like others in the family they use a combination of surface tension and active repulsion from the non wetting body and leg hairs to literally walk on the water.  Well, skate, in sudden jerky movements.  They are not the easiest things to photograph.  Get to the side of the pond and they scatter, skipping across the surface at surprising speeds.  Stay there long enough and they drift back - only to scatter again as the camera moves.  Eventually, though, with patience, enough come within reach to allow shooting.  Though getting them aligned for maximum depth of field while holding the camera and flash bracket over the surface of the water is not the easiest of jobs.

These are not big insects - especially if you discount the long legs.  The first shot was set against a fallen bloom of Camellia 'Cornish Snow', 5-6cm across and only half visible.  So an elongated body about 1cm in length with legs extending out as far again.  As always, click to embiggen the shots.

Gerris lacustris
Males are smaller than females, a common occurrence in the insect world. And, of course, they take no notice of any voyeuristic tendencies in the photographer.  Shameless.

Gerris lacustris.  Smaller male on top.

Gerris lacustris.  Smaller male on top.
Why evolve for this water surface skating lifestyle?  Food.  Plenty of it.  Small insects, even larger ones on occasion, regularly hit the water surface, get trapped by the surface tension and their struggles rapidly attract the water skaters.  In the final two shots the individual skaters have each trapped a small midge and are enjoying their meals.

Gerris lacustris.  Midge for lunch.
Gerris lacustris.  Midge for lunch.
The shots were taken with my standard insect setup of Canon 600D, Tamron 90mm macro and 25mm extension tube, macro flash bracket and single diffused 430EX flash.  It's a combination that works reasonably well and, in this case, was light enough to support over the water for reasonable lengths of time without me risking a watery equipment grave. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Normally, when photographing bees I use my Tamron 90mm macro and flash set up.  They're relatively small, they move quickly and to get the level of detail needed the freezing effect of a strobe is almost essential.  Sometimes, of course, you have to make do with what you've got even if the results are less than optimum.

I was doing some plant photography with the tripod mounted Sigma 180mm macro I bought second hand in October 2012 when I noticed a very agitated carder bee, Bombus pascuorum, close by.  I just had time to quickly move the tripod, focus and grab three shots before the very irritated bee flew off.  Here they are.  Click to embiggen:

Technically they are awful.  Only the second in the sequence has any degree of sharpness.  So why post them?

Because they illustrate just how much effort the bee was making to shake off a parasite.  It can just be seen on the hind legs in the second and third shot.  There may well have been more.  Here's a 100% crop:

Looks a lot like a tick to me.  Small, but obviously intensely irritating.  The bee was shaking itself vigorously and almost rolling around on the leaf in its effort to get rid of the parasite.  Hence the lack of sharpness in the shots.  Respectively they were taken at 1/200, 1/160 and 1/200, f8, ISO 200.  That should have been enough to generate some reasonable sharpness but such was the vigour of the bee in its efforts to rid itself of the unwanted guest(s) that motion blur became inevitable.

That was one irritated bee. 

And here's one I took with the Tamron / flash setup last summer.  Technically way better - but it doesn't tell the same story.

Bombus pascuorum

Friday, May 3, 2013

Carpets of Celandines

One consequence of the delayed spring this year is that light has continued to penetrate to the floor of my local woods as the canopy is only just beginning to develop.  Which gives an opportunity for mass flowering in plants that might normally be shaded out. The extra light and recent warmth has given them a chance to show what they can do when conditions are right.  In a week or so there should be sheets of blue from the local bluebells, and groves of white from the ransoms, wild garlic.  But until then the celandines, Ranunculus ficaria, are displaying, carpeting swathes of the woodland floor with their gaudy golden show.

Celandine carpet.  Tokina 12-24mm at 14mm f8

Celandine carpet.  Tokina 12-24mm at 24mm

Celandine carpet.  Tokina 12-24mm at 21mm
All the shots were taken in Cann Wood, near Tamerton Foliot, Plymouth using my Canon 600D and Tokina 12-24mm.  Click the photos for larger versions.

I have the plant in the garden, both as a weed that is impossible to eradicate, and in cultivated forms that I cherish.  At this time of year they are a valuable nectar and pollen source for a wide variety of insects.  And with such a concentration there is no shortage of food for the hungry insects - and their predators.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Death among the bleeding hearts

With the - long awaited - return of warmer weather the insects are coming back.  Which means I can do a little more macro work in the garden.

One returnee is this little hoverfly.  I'm not sure of the species - the small ones are notoriously difficult - but it's common throughout the warmer months.  Only about 8mm long. I needed a 25mm extension tube on my Tamron 90mm macro to half fill the frame with this shot of it feeding on the pollen of Ranunculus ficaria, a pretty little spring flower (ok, weed) in the front garden.

Small hoverfly on Ranunculus ficaria
But with prey, there come predators.  Walking in the garden this lunchtime I noticed the pale body of a crab spider, Misumena vatia, on my emerging flowers of bleeding heart, Dicentra spectabilis.  Closer inspection revealed that it had captured one of these small hoverflies.  Typically for an ambush predator, the spider would have waited patiently on the flower to await a suitable small nectar or pollen feeder and then pounced.

Out came the 180mm Sigma macro on the tripod to give me enough working distance to avoid disturbing the spider and its prey.  No flash for these shots - it was a bright, sunny day, though I did use a small reflector.
Misumena vatia predation on a small hoverfly
However, even 1:1 wasn't close enough to get a frame filling shot.  Rather than relying on cropping I added my 25mm extension tube to provide a little extra magnification. 

Misumena vatia predation on a small hoverfly.  180mm macro + 25mm extension tube.
Once the prey is captured and poison injected through the front palps the spider needs to hang onto the prey for long enough for the flesh to liquify and being absorbable.  Which means it will hang on to and even carry the prey around.  More shot opportunities as the spider manouvered among the flowers of the bleeding heart.
Misumena vatia predation on a small hoverfly

Misumena vatia predation on a small hoverfly
At this time of year the spider is small.  It will grow grow during the year and is then capable of taking larger insects.  I've seen them take small butterflies so the larger hoverflies and similarly sized pollen and nectar gatherers are no problem at all.  Feeding on the flowers has its risks.