Friday, 21 September 2012

Wet flies

As mentioned in the previous post, here are some pictures of flies. If I knew anything about them like what species they are I would tell you. But unfortunately I don't. So, nothing else to say really.
Click on an image to see a larger version of it. Exif data can be seen by using an Exif viewer on the larger version of an image, such as Exif Viewer in Firefox.

These images are taken from the 130 images in this flickr set. They have been processed for best viewing at their full height of 900 pixels in subdued light on a screen calibrated to gamma 2.2.

Early Start at Clapton Moor

I did not do a lot of photography at the Avon Wildlife Trust sites this summer, mainly because it was so wet, day after day, week after week. I don't mind getting wet, but unfortunately my camera isn't waterproof. While it is easy to nip in from the garden when the skies open, out at the nature reserves, away from the car, it is not so easy. And in any case, there did not seem to be many invertebrates around as far as I could tell.

Before all the wetness started I did have some sessions at the nature reserves. On 13 May I went to the Clapton Moor nature reserve, starting early to try to make the best of the forecast of very little breeze. I worked with available light all through the four hour session.

I started about an hour after dawn, at which time the light level was still quite low in amongst the long grass and low down plants I was working amongst. For photographing insects that are sitting around covered in dew, the low light level is not a problem if the air is very still. I can use the camera hands-off on the tripod, with a remote release. Moving subjects though, even slow moving ones like slugs and snails, are more problematic in that light. As usual I want a small aperture to get a good depth of field. Since the subject is moving I can't use a very slow exposure. So I end up using higher ISOs, and still have to use quite slow exposures (e.g. 1/6 sec with ISO 800) which are borderline for a moving slug or snail even in completely still air. I watch the weather forecast (or to be truthful, it is Mrs G who keeps a rather closer watch) and pick days when when wind speeds are forecast to be low in the morning.  Even so, it is rarely completely still and failure rates are even higher than usual (and they are usually pretty high), and for the successes image sharpness is often marginal. But I can live with that - for me nice content trumps perfect sharpness.

Dew drops on plants and invertebrates can be very appealing. With luck there can be an excellent period when the air is fairly still and the light level has come up a bit but the sun is still hidden behind hedges and foliage. But after that comes another difficulty, when the low sun starts hitting the subjects directly, and the dew drops too.

At the time I took these photos I was having one of my “off” periods with regard to flash. For several years I have known that there can be significant benefits in using flash, including moderating the harsh effects of direct sunlight and the blurring effect of breeze, but despite trying various home made diffusers and reflectors I never really felt at home with flash, and so had long periods where I just gave up and made the best I could of available light. I just had to accept the often high failure rates and the lack of sharpness/detail when using available light in marginal (or plain unsuitable) conditions of breeze and light. And I had to accept blown highlights or lost shadow detail in high brightness/contrast conditions of direct sunlight.

I have just become a bit more aware of the shortcomings of not using flash in low light conditions, because today I switched from an analogue VGA connection to a digital HDMI connection between my PC and my screen. I think I'm seeing more detail now (which is good) because (not so good) I am seeing that some of my processed images are more noisy than I thought. I often use ISO 800, and have been mildly surprised for a while now that I could get away with ISO 800 with the noise reduction turned right down in the camera (I always use JPEG by the way), and only occasionally applying noise reduction during my post processing. It seems that the reason I could get away with it was that I wasn't seeing some of the bad stuff, and nobody else mentioned it.  Looks like I am going to have to use noise reduction more frequently in future.

I'm using flash more now, with my reflector + diffuser approach. It is quite awkward to use though, and depending on the light level can produce results that are as bad in terms of softness (and worse) from subject and camera movement as using available light. I did think that using flash would cure that, but now realise that you have to ensure that the flash is the dominant light source, and that can be tricky sometimes for my sort of shots. And when the flash is dominant, I sometimes don't like the look of the results. I think the on/off love/hate relationship with flash has some life left in it yet.


Here are some images of invertebrates from that session. They are shown in the order they were captured.

I will do a separate post with some pictures of flies.

Click on an image to see a larger version of it. Exif data can be seen by using an Exif viewer on the larger version of an image, such as Exif Viewer in Firefox.

These images are taken from the 130 images in this flickr set. They have been processed for best viewing at their full height of 900 pixels in subdued light on a screen calibrated to gamma 2.2.



Tuesday, 18 September 2012

A short, breezy session in the garden

Mrs G went out into the garden to do a bit of pruning on Saturday afternoon. I followed her out, on the grounds that it would be good for me to get outside for a little while as we have been spending so much time indoors sitting in front of our PCs. There was no thought in my mind of doing any photography because it was pretty breezy, and a bit cool for invertebrates to be out and about, and there were hardly any flowers to be seen, just the odd one here and there.  It seemed pretty much a continuation of a not very brilliant year for the type of subjects I tend to go for. A bit of a downer really.

But Mrs G didn't have any tasks she wanted me to just then, and so I started to wander around aimlessly. And I saw a bee and a fly.  Well, I think that is what they were - my identification skills are useless, and I do get it wrong sometimes even at the level of "Here's a picture of a bee". Well no," someone will tell me, "actually it's a wasp" (or a "fly" is a bee, and on it goes). Been like it all my life. Slow/mixed up/wrong memory recall, and poor observational skills to boot.

Anyway, there were some things flying around and for want of anything better to do I decided to go and get the camera (and all the rest of the kit that goes with it). It really was very breezy, so nothing much would come of it, but it would be fun trying.

And in fact Mrs G and I did have a good laugh.  The subjects were moving around a lot in the breeze, especially the spiders on their webs - so much so that it seemed rather stupid to be trying to capture close-ups. And the breeze made my nice new (silly size) reflector more like a sail some of the time, making it wobble around like crazy and come bashing down on my head a few times. Well, "bashing" might be over-egging it as it is quite light, but it certainly added an interesting degree of awkwardness and randomness to the proceedings when I was using flash.

Here is a picture of the flash reflector and diffuser arrangement I'm currently using (one in a long line of experiments).

I dismounted the flash paraphenalia several times because it was so awkward to use in the strong breeze, but using available light meant that to get a fast enough shutter speed to try to freeze all the movement I had to use larger apertures, giving me narrower depth of focus than I wanted. Also, fast shutter speeds may freeze the movement, but you only have a narrow plane of focus with close-ups and in a breeze the subject may well have moved between the time you get focus on it and the moment the picture actually gets captured. So the plane of focus is very likely to be in the wrong place, spoiling the picture. The same is true using flash in a breeze.

And even if the subject is in the right place when the picture is actually captured, using flash won't necessarily freeze the action anyway. This depends on the balance between flash and natural light. If natural light makes a significant contribution to the lighting you will get a double image, one part sharp, where the subject was when the flash went off, and the other part fuzzy as the subject was illuminated by the natural light as it moved during the whole duration of the exposure. If the flash dominates then movement will be frozen, and you do get a lot of detail on the subject when using flash. But all the same I'm not too keen on pure flash illumination, partly because the overall visual effect, although strong, is often not entirely to my liking, but especially if there are parts of the background that are far enough away (which is not very far) to go very dark, or fully black, which is an effect I really don't like. (Well, I don't like black backgrounds most of the time. Occasionally though, for some flower pictures, I'm ok with it, but hardly ever for invertebrates.)

So, not being comfortable with how available light shooting was panning out, I remounted the flash.  But it was very awkward to use, so I dismounted it. And remounted it. And ... basically, nothing was working satisfactorily. It was nice to be out in the fresh air though. So I didn't mind. It was a pleasant hour and a half, and we had a good laugh.


Imagine my surprise then when I looked at the images on the PC and discovered that some of them seemed not too bad, considering the circumstances. To be sure the depth of focus (dof) was much too narrow for my taste in some of the natural light shots, like the following one for example. And as well as the overall narrowness of the dof, I really don't like parts of the subject nearest to the camera being so obtrusively out of focus, as the nearer petals are here. That is not so much a problem with narrow depth of focus (although that obviously didn't help), but more a case of operator error - placing the centre of dof in the wrong place, too far away. I think I was concentrating on finding an angle that would give a background that went nicely with the subject. What with that, and the breeze, it was probably luck of the draw how this turned out by way of dof, and I only had one attempt at it for some reason, which was silly. In such highly randomised circumstances taking numerous shots is an obviously good idea, in the hope that for at least one of them the important things will all come together at the right moment.

Click on an image to see a larger version of it. Exif data can be seen by using an Exif viewer on the larger version of an image, such as Exif Viewer in Firefox.

These images are taken from the 33 images in this flickr set. They have been processed for best viewing at their full height of 900 pixels in subdued light on a screen calibrated to gamma 2.2.

The ? bee below was the first potential subject I noticed when I started wandering around. To my surprise it was still there when I got back with the camera and set it up. I didn't notice it move, and I wondered if it was still alive. The flower it was on was moving vigorously, so perhaps it would have fallen off were it not still alive. I don't know.

Although I'm not seeing many insects at the moment, there are loads of spiders all over the place.

Those three all used flash by the way. Unless the air is dead calm, or very nearly so, I find it pretty much essential to use flash for spiders on webs, as the webs move in the slightest puff of air. In the gusty breeze these had continuous, rapid, large, irregular movements.

Mrs G bought several new daisies this year. This is the one that has prospered, and was the only thing in the garden flowering profusely. It is (she tells me) Gaillardia Burgunder.

The first of these used flash. It has quite good detail despite the considerable amount of movement and I could use a small aperture and get a large depth of field, while using base ISO of 160.

The next one used natural light. To get a fast shutter speed I had to use a larger aperture and less depth of field than I would have liked. The nearer petals are not in focus, but that seems less obtrusive than in the previous example. Despite the softness of detail, I much prefer the balance between the subject and the background, and the colours and lack of darkness in the background. On balance, for my taste, I prefer this one.

I had fun trying to follow this cricket around. I had the flash dismounted when I spotted it and it was a case of quickly doing the best I could with the natural light setup before the cricket disappeared. I used a fairly small aperture (f/16) and so got almost as much depth of field as I could. There was less breeze in that particular location and I got away with some rather slower shutter speeds (1/80 sec down to 1/40 sec).

What I only managed once was to get all of the antennae in the picture. I get this a lot with crickets. They have hugely long antennae and especially when the subject is moving around (as well as in this case what it was on moving around too) I find I don't have time to work out exactly where the antennae are (they can be difficult to see, and can move around a lot too) and frame the shot accordingly. [Three star long and ugly sentence award - not bad.]

All of the images used ISO 800 by the way, apart from the first of the daisy images at ISO 160. ISO 800 is the highest ISO I am comfortable using with my Panasonic G3. The reason for using ISO 800 with flash is to get as much (natural) light as possible on to the background to lessen the "dark background" effect that I dislike so much. The reason for using ISO 800 with the available light shots was to help get the shutter speeds fast enough to freeze the motion caused by the breeze.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Screen calibration matters, yes it does, really.

I showed Mrs G my first post in this blog and she followed the links through to my photo heros. She was looking at an image by Brian Valentine of droplets on the unfurling leaves of an Aquilegia. "His photos are very good", she said, "but they are too dark. Look at this one."

I looked. It was indeed very dark, with virtually no detail in some areas (not background areas, which do sometimes go dark, or even black, but parts of the subject, at the core of the image).

I went and looked at it on my screen. It looked fine. I remembered that although I had wanted to calibrate Mrs G's screen quite a while ago, she had not wanted me to play with her PC at the time and we had both forgotten about it. So I suggested calibrating her screen. She was a bit ho hum about it. (Her PC is set up just as she wants it - she is very particular about that - and she doesn't like me fiddling with it unnecessarily in case I mess it up.)

Then she came and looked at Brian's image on my screen. The response was immediate. "Calibrate my screen."

I downloaded QuickGamma. For some reason the current version would not run, saying it was not configured properly. I downloaded an earlier version, and that worked. The calibration was very quick to do.

The calibration made a huge difference. Mrs G's screen is not brilliant, being quite old now and rather small, but the LordV image that had been so dark and impenetrable was now fine and beautiful, with much more detail and subtlety to appreciate.

You can get hardware to do the calibration for you, but if you are interested in images of any sort you really should at least run some tests to make sure your screen is not way out of line.

There is information here about monitors, what you should be able to see, and software and hardware to help calibrate your monitor to get the best out of  it.

You may find this useful to see whether your screen seems to be ok or not. These are the most stringent test images I have come across and you may not be able to get all the tests to work perfectly. I certainly can't. It depends on the screen, your PC, your eyesight and the light level in the room where you are looking at the screen (the light level should be very low indeed for the tests to distinguish between the very darkest areas). So don't panic if you can't make out the last few of the darkest or lightest areas. But do remember that even a rough, quick adjustment using (for example) QuickGamma can make an absolutely huge amount of difference.

About me

When I retired in 2006 I decided to try my hand at photography. It turns out that I like to photograph smallish things like insects, spiders and snails, and flowers too.

I spent several years taking photos in our garden and learning about post-processing through lots of practice and experiments and plenty of reading, discussion and asking questions on line.

When I retired we moved to a mild, wet maritime climate near the edge of the Severn Estuary in North Somerset. This pleased my wife, Mrs G, who is a keen and knowledgeable gardener, because many plants grow very well here.  As we are on acid soil we can grow Camellias, Azaleas and Rhododendrons too.

Mrs G does not take photographs, but she has a very solid grasp of composition and an amazingly subtle appreciation of colours, which I have only realised since we started discussing my photos. It is very difficult to find meaningful constructive criticism, but Mrs G provides superb feedback, even if some people might think it rather harsh at times. (I just see it as rigorous and honest, and almost always valid and relevant, even if I sometimes don't see that immediately.)

For the past 18 months or so I have been visiting several nature reserves managed by the Avon Wildlife Trust in the Gordano Valley.

I photograph a lot of flies. This was at first because it was (and still is) what I mostly come across, but now also because I have come to like their exotic looks. I do enjoy it though when I see other invertebrates, of whatever sort, that hang around long enough to let me photograph them.

Several photographers have been a particular inspiration for me: Brian Valentine (LordV), John Kimbler (Dalantech), Mark Berkery and OrionMystery. I have been inspired both by the beauty of their images and their explanations of how they go about obtaining them and the underlying technical issues.

My style is to work a bit "further away" from the subject than these heroes of mine generally do. They tend to concentrate closely on the subject, often showing just part of it. In contrast I almost always have the whole of the subject in the image, and more or less context around the subject as well. When the circumstances permit, I often do a sequence of two or more images of a subject, starting with quite a lot of context around them and closing in to concentrate more closely just on the subject. Here is an example captured last September at Taggart's Wood, which is part of the Avon Wildlife Trust Weston Moor Nature Reserve.

Click on an image to see a larger version. 
Images will not be fully sharp unless displayed full height - 900 pixels high. 

 Lots of context, small subject.

A bit closer in.

This is as close in as I went for this subject.

I often go in a bit closer than this, and occasionally much closer. This one was captured in August last year at Weston Moor Nature Reserve.

I photograph a lot of flowers.  This was at first because there was a good variety of them in our garden, but I have come to appreciate the subtlety of their colours and textures, and the marvellous complexity and variety of their shapes. I still do most of my flower photography in our garden. On the nature reserves it is mainly invertebrates that I photograph.

I have not yet found inspirational gurus for flower photography.

Here is a flower photo that Mrs G rather likes. It is an Aquilegia. I photographed it in May this year in our garden.