In early spring the main subjects of my photographic attention were the various solitary bees that were visiting my garden on a regular basis. I've yet to process all of the images I took but here are a few of them.
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Firstly, here's a mining bee, probably Andrena haemorrhoa
The next two are Tawny Mining Bees (Andrena fulva)
and finally, these next three are Red Mason Bees (Osmia rufa), all feeding on Forget-me-not
As regular visitors to this blog will know, one of my favourite styles of photography is wideangle macro. This year I found a good number of Large Red Damselflies at a local nature reserve and so decided to try to photograph them with the Laowa 15mm macro lens.
Using the Laowa 15mm lens requires a certain amount of preparation and planning. First, I had to take a flashgun of some sort as small subjects are always so close to the lens that they are in deep shadow (Large Red Damselflies are only approximately 30-35mm in length). I decided to take the Laowa KX-800 manual-only twin flash with diffusers. Second, I wanted to choose a day with a blue sky as I think that always looks far nicer than a grey or white sky. Once on site, I had to find a viewpoint that looked attractive through the viewfinder and showed the damselfly's natural environment. This isn't as easy as it sounds as the 15mm focal length provides a very wide field of view and unattractive elements will often creep into frame. Finally, I had to find a co-operative damselfly that would allow me to move the lens to within 1-2cm (literally) of it. The cool weather and relatively early start helped in this regard.
Having done all of that the next challenge is to get the exposure right. The Laowa 15mm has no auto-aperture control so the aperture has to be selected manually on the lens (as opposed to via the camera's controls) and the image you see through the viewfinder is the stopped down image rather than the wide open aperture that modern lenses allow you to look through. As a result, when the lens is stopped down the viewfinder (and liveview) is very dark. The flash also takes a lot of adjustment. I like to take images at a variety of apertures but being manual only the KX-800 requires you to increase the flash output at small apertures and reduce it at larger apertures.
Having done all of that I took a selection of images. I think my favourite is the one below. Although the aperture is not recorded in the EXIF data, I think this was taken at around f16.
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Choosing the right amount of background detail is never easy but, for me, the above is about right.
The image below was stopped down a bit more - somewhere between f22 and f32 and has more detail in the background:
while the next one was taken at around f8:
In order to illustrate how essential the flash is, the following image shows what happens when the flash doesn't fire!
and here's the equivalent image when the flash did fire (this was taken at f32):
Finally, here's an image showing a Large Red Damselfly emerging from its aquatic nymph stage. This was taken with a Sigma 150mm macro lens:
the contrast between the adult damselfly in the wideangle images and the aquatic nymph from which it emerges is remarkable. The newly emerged adult quickly expands its wings and slowly, over a few hours, its adult colours develop.
'What equipment do you use?' is perhaps the most common photography question that I am asked. Those unfamiliar with photography are most interested in what camera I use (and, yes, I have been a recipient of the old classic comment beloved by all photographers 'wow, you must have a great camera!'). Those more familiar with photography realise that the camera is far less important than the lenses and hence tend to ask about the latter. Questions about flash are also quite common.
The slightly glib answer I could give to questions about my photography equipment is that it is the photographer that creates the image and not the equipment. However, that isn't entirely true. Equipment alone cannot create a great wildlife image but having the right tools for the job certainly helps. Since I don't tend to say a great deal about equipment on this blog or elsewhere I thought I would outline here the various bodies, lenses and other bits of kit that I currently use for macro photography.
Canon 1D mkIV
Olympus OM-D E-M1
As I've already indicated, for macro photography I consider the camera body to be far less important than the lens. Macro doesn't really require fast auto focus, rapid frames per second, high ISO performance and many other features of top end cameras (though, on occasions, all of these do come in handy). For many years I have therefore used Canon 60D and 7D bodies and, until recently, felt no need to replace them. Some months ago, however, I sold my 7D and replaced it with a used 1D mkIV which, I realise, seemingly contradicts what I have just said about not needing a top end camera! On occasions I was wishing I had better ISO performance and also felt that the 1.3 crop sensor would come in handy when using the MP-E 65mm lens giving me a more useful magnification range. I also felt some of the other features would come in handy with non-macro photography (plus I got a good deal!).
The Olympus is a micro four thirds camera and has the benefits of being smaller and more lightweight than DSLRs. The smaller sensor also provides greater depth of field (for an equivalent field of view) which is also useful for macro photography. The following post provides some of my thoughts on this camera (from an article in Wild Planet Photo Magazine).
Canon MP-E 65mm
Tokina 10-17 fisheye
The MP-E 65mm is a specialist macro lens and provides a magnification range of 1x to 5x. It's therefore the lens that I use for all high magnification work.
The Sigma 150mm is the old non-stabilised version but it's still a great lens. The longer focal length provides a long working distance and also helps to separate the subject from the background.
The Canon 60mm tends to be used as a replacement for the MP-E 65mm when I'm trying to photograph an insect that is just a bit too large to fit into frame with the MP-E. I recently photographed Bee Flies using the my MP-E (on my Canon 60D) and the MT-24 flash but the long proboscis meant I couldn't comfortably fit them in frame. I quickly grabbed my Canon 60mm and the problem was solved (see here). That said, a problem I do have with the Canon 60mm is that it is an EF-S lens and won't physically fit on the 1D mkIV. I'm therefore considering swapping it for a used Tamron 60mm which will work on the 1D mkIV (even though technically it's also meant to be for APS-C sized sensors) as well as the 60D.
The Tokina 35mm, the Loawa 15mm and the Tokina 10-17 fisheye are all used for 'wideangle macro' type images (see here for more info on wideangle macro). Unlike the other lenses on this list, the Tokina 10-17 isn't a true macro lens capable of lifesize reproduction. Of the 3, I use the Tokina 35mm the most by some margin. It's an excellent lens.
Finally, and as you may have guessed, the Olympus 60mm macro lens is used with the OM-D E-M1.
One thing you may notice from this list of lenses is the inclusion of less well known manufacturers in the form of Tokina and Laowa (and, perhaps soon,Tamron). Many photographers stick to Canon/Nikon/Olympus perhaps due to a degree of snobbery but also due to a belief that other manufacturers produce inferior lenses. For macro photography at least, I would strongly disagree. All of the lenses on this list are excellent and the prime lenses in particular are pin sharp. I wouldn't consider swapping the Canon 60mm for the Tamron 60mm, for instance, unless I knew that it would produce equivalent results.
Canon MT-24 EX twin flash
Canon 420 Speedlite
Laowa KX-800 twin flash
I use the MT-24 EX for the vast majority of my flash images (diffused as shown here) with the 420 Speedlite occasionally used as a slave. The Laowa KX-800 is a simple to use, manual-only, flash (i.e. no ETTL) and is a useful accompaniment to the Laowa 15mm lens.
Other useful equipment:
Manfrotto MT055X tripod
Manfrotto 410 junior geared head
I'm sure I occasionally use other bits of kit as well but these are the 4 other items that I would struggle to manage without. The Wimberley Plamp is very useful for holding foliage steady when photographing something perched on that foliage. The people at Wimberley kindly sent me the Plamp II and some other related bits of kit (see here on the Wimberley website) at the back end of last summer so I'm looking forward to testing that out this year.
On more than one occasion a photo magazine has asked me to name the one bit of kit or the one lens that I couldn't manage without. That's always a tricky question to answer. A slightly easier question is, if I ever had to dramatically streamline my photography kit which bits would I hold onto? The crucial bits of kit, which would allow me to take 95% of the macro images that I would like to take, would be; a Canon camera body, the MP-E65mm, the Sigma 150, the Tokina 35mm and the MT-24 flash. Oh, and a tripod, tripod head and a Plamp. Really, the rest are luxuries that I could fairly easily manage without if I had to!
I've always been intrigued by the Bee Fly (Bombylius major) given its unusual, bee-like appearance and impressive long proboscis. My intrigue has only been heightened by the fact that I see bee flies very rarely. In fact, despite my long standing interest in insects and macro photography, prior to this year I had only ever seen them on one occasion. This was a few years ago in a family member's garden in Essex. For some reason I just never saw bee flies in my own garden or at local nature reserves.
In January 2016 I moved house just a few doors up (13 to be precise!) from my previous house and the selection of insects that I found in my new garden was, not surprisingly, very similar to that found in my old garden. However, imagine my surprise when I spotted a bee fly in my new garden during the warm weather earlier this month. In fact, during this warm spell I saw several and at one point counted 4 individuals sunning themselves on my fence. Since then the temperature has dropped considerably and I've seen only a fleeting glimpse of a single individual.
I'm left wondering if there have always been bee flies around here - including in my old garden, though this seems unlikely given how avidly I scoured the garden each spring looking for bees and other insects. Or maybe they have always lived in the gardens surrounding my new house and stayed very local - though I didn't see any last spring. Or maybe they are new to the area? I suppose time will tell if I will see some each spring from now on.
Anyway, although they are very skittish I did manage a few images when the temperature cooled late afternoon/early evening and they became more approachable.
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This first image shows a Dark-Edged Bee Fly (Bombylius major) that paused for a few moments to clean its proboscis.
The next two images show an individual feeding on Grape Hyacinths
I haven't done a huge amount of photography this summer but I did manage a few sessions at a local nature reserve photographing the Black-Tailed Skimmer dragonflies. I was fortunate to find one as it was emerging from its larval stage, something that I never tire of watching.
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This first one was taken with my Tokina 35mm macro lens to show the newly emerged dragonfly in its natural environment:
I also photographed the same scene with my Laowa 15mm wideangle macro lens. This obviously provides a much wider field of view:
and here's a recently emerged individual, photographed with the Tokina 35mm:
and finally two more conventional portraits of a female Black-Tailed Skimmer, this time photographed with my Olympus E-M1 and Olympus 60mm macro lens:
I'm afraid things have been a little hectic in recent months hence the lack of posts on this blog. But just to prove I'm still alive here's an article in the latest (August) issue of Practical Photography magazine featuring my images and some of my text.
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This issue of Practical Photography has a large section on wildlife photography containing images and tips from Mark Hamblin, Laurie Campbell, Ben Hall, Stefano Unterthiner (and, rather flatteringly, yours truly).
I should perhaps add that I wasn't responsible for the use of the word 'minibeasts' in the title (!) or the recommendation to fire a fast burst of images when taking macro. That is not a technique I would ever personally use when shooting static insects and would only consider it for photographing a moving target such as a dragonfly in flight.