Saturday 29 October 2011

A Green Woodpecker and Some Deer

Every now and again I like to photograph wildlife subjects that are slightly larger than my usual six-legged friends, particularly at this time of year when the number of insects starts to drop dramatically. A complete lack of fungi at my usual haunts due to the recent dry weather has reduced my macro options further still and so a recent photographic trip with my friend and fellow keen photographer Eric Weight ( resulted in a visit to Bradgate Park to view the deer rut.

I must admit I normally avoid Bradgate Park at this time of year like the plague. It is usually crawling with photographers, all trying to photograph the deer and often getting in each other's way in the process. Not really my idea of wildlife photography. But it seems most go early in the morning, all trying to capture those atmospheric images of a red deer stag emerging from the mist. By arriving a little later (due to an ill-fated attempt to first photograph some fungi!) we seemed to avoid the worst of the crowds and only saw a handful of photographers all day.

The highlight of the day for me was not actually the deer (great though they were) but a trio of beautiful Green Woodpeckers who were working their way around a field full of large ants nests. The long grass made a shooting angle difficult but the image below was about the best of the bunch. I must admit I like this shot, not least because it shows the bird feeding naturally and very much in its natural environment.


Of course, I managed a few deer shots as well, though the challenge with deer images is to avoid them looking about as interesting as a cow or a horse stood in a field - which is why many aim for the early morning light to give the images some atmosphere. In the absence of such light I had to make do with nice natural settings, good poses and a vivid blue sky. The image below is probably my favourite image of the Red Deer stags;

while this image of two calves is probably my favourite image of the Fallow Deer that also frequent Bradgate;

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Confused Grasshopper

I'm pleased to say that my 'Confused Grasshopper' image has appeared in The Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail this week.


Here's a screenshot from the Telegraph online:

...a screenshot from the Daily Mail online:

The article can be read via the link to the Daily Mail page below;

...and the short article in The Times:

With thanks to Solent News and Photo Agency.

EDIT: Since writing this post, the image has also featured in The Sunday Times magazine's animal images of the year, as below:

Sunday 23 October 2011

Lots of New Images Added to my Website

I've added lots of new images to my website, including Marbled White butterflies, a Mayfly, an Emerald Damselfly, mating hoverflies and many more.

The images can be found in the Latest Images gallery;

and in the appropriate sub-galleries within the Insects gallery:


Mating hoverflies (Syrphus ribesii). The female appears to be multi-tasking :-)

An Emerald Damselfly

Peeping Jumping Spider

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Speckled Bush Crickets

Although I believe Speckled Bush Crickets are fairly common and widespread, it was only on a trip to Suffolk this year that I saw them for the first time. They're attractive insects, quite small (body length around 15-20mm) but with very impressive antennae. They also blend into the foliage very effectively making them quite difficult to spot.

The long antennae certainly make composition difficult and so in some of the images below I resorted to chopping them off (not literally!) in order to gain a closer view. All of the images are of a male Speckled Bush Cricket.

The following 2 images were taken in natural light using a tripod and cable release:

Canon 7D with Sigma 150mm lens, f8, 1/50sec, ISO 400

Canon 7D with Sigma 150mm lens, f9, 1/100sec, ISO 400

The following images were taken using flash (handheld). They were taken on different days and are different individuals. Both seem to enjoy cleaning their feet!

Canon 60D with Canon 60mm macro lens, f13, 1/160sec, ISO 100

Canon 60D with Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, f13, 1/160sec, ISO 100

Sunday 16 October 2011

1,200 Pageloads and Counting...

When I decided to start this blog I was a little concerned that nobody would read it! I hoped the fact that there seem to be relatively few macro-oriented blogs might increase its audience but I've nevertheless been keeping a close eye on my web statistics to see how many visitors and pageloads there have been.

While I imagine some blogs attract far more visitors (and I'm aware that macro is something of a niche), I'm very pleased that there have been 1,200 pageloads since the blog was launched approximately 6 weeks ago, and almost 700 unique visitors. Some have even made return visits :-)

So, after 6 weeks and 20 posts I have to say that I'm very pleased with the interest so far and am grateful that so many people are reading the blog. I hope it will continue.

A Ladybird who has clearly been enjoying himself... (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

Friday 14 October 2011

Yellow Meadow Ants with Pupae

Over the summer months the lawn in my garden contained a number of small ants nests just below the surface. These were the nests of tiny Yellow Meadow Ants (smaller even than the more common Black Ant) and often mistakenly called red ants. Unfortunately, since the nests were often located below the surface, whenever I cut the grass I tended to expose the top of the nest and, on occasions, revealed the small pill-shaped pupae. These pupae are the 3rd stage of the 4 stage lifecycle of an ant, with eggs and larvae being the first two stages. The 4th stage occurs when the adult ants emerge from these pupae.

As soon as the pupae were exposed, the tiny worker ants, whose job it is to look after the nest and keep it tidy, would scuttle around collecting the pupae in their jaws. They would then take them to safety below ground.

I was keen to capture this behaviour but had to be quick because the ants barely paused for a second. Their tiny size (2-3mm in length) only added to the difficulty. The 2 images below are probably the best that I managed.


Tuesday 11 October 2011

Look Into My Eyes...

Unlike most people when they're out in the countryside, I tend to actively look for horseflies. Their eyes are amazing and, in my opinion at least, they make great subjects for macro photography!

For most sensible people, of course, horseflies are a real nuisance. It's actually female horseflies that bite as they need to feed on mammal blood in order to reproduce (the males don't have the necessary mouthparts) and seem particularly keen on human blood due to our relatively soft skin. Unlike other species of fly, such as mosquitos, the horsefly leaves you in no doubt that you've been bitten. It cuts into the skin with its mandibles, sometimes removing a small piece of skin in the process.

The images below show the female horsefly's cutting equipment - no wonder it hurts when they bite...!


Friday 7 October 2011

Macro Flash Diffusion

[note that a follow up post on macro flash diffusion, posted on 24th June 2015, is available here]

Many photographers rely upon flash when shooting high magnification macro and so the effective diffusion of that flash becomes crucial to the resultant image quality. I've done a lot of experimenting in recent years with different forms of diffusion and am now fairly happy with the light quality that I'm getting.

Below I will outline how I diffuse an MT-24EX flashgun and a Canon Speedlite (e.g. the 580 EXII) for use with a Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens or other short focal length macro lens, such as the Canon 60mm macro. Diffusing flash for higher focal length macro lenses is much more difficult because it is harder to get the flash close to the subject. As a result I don't use flash with anything other than short focal length lenses.

Diffusing the MT-24 EX twin flash:

The key to successful diffusion is to make the diffuser as large as possible and to position it as close as possible to the subject. Here is my current diffusion set-up:


The 2 domes both started life as the front piece of a Lambency type diffuser, as shown below:

these diffusers are cheap and readily available from Ebay (search for lambency diffuser). The front piece, which curves inwards in the original diffuser, pops out and I then just cut off the rim around the edge. I then faced the issue of how to mount the 2 domes in front of the 2 flash heads. The solution was to hotglue strips of velcro to the domes, at the top and the bottom of each, and then to attach self-adhesive velcro to the top and bottom of each flash head. The following images show this more clearly.

the advantage of velcro is that it is then possible to adjust each dome to move it closer, or further away, from each flash head as required. In the image directly above I have simply unhooked the 2 upper pieces of velcro to allow the domes to fall forward to show them off more clearly,

The final step in the mounting process was to drill a small hole in the inner edge of each dome and to feed through a thin white cable tie. This then holds the 2 domes together and makes the whole set-up more stable. Also, holding together the 2 domes reduces the extent to which the diffuser produces 2 distinct reflections.

While using the 2 domes alone provides reasonable diffusion, it was still possible to see hotspots from the 2 flash heads on reflective surfaces. I therefore covered each flash head with regular kitchen roll and also lined each dome with kitchen roll. This extra diffusion removed all hot spots resulting in nice even light.

I currently raise one flash head on a Hama hotshoe, as shown below, with the aim of allowing one flash head to provide light directly from above. If I'm honest, it doesn't make a huge amount of difference.

Here are a few example images. The first 2 are highly reflective insects and hence provide a good test of diffusion. In my opinion the light looks evenly spread and reasonably natural looking.

A Garden Chafer Beetle:

A Flower Beetle:

On a less reflective insect, the light could almost pass as natural light. The hoverfly image below was taken using flash alone, with no ambient light (i.e. the camera settings were such that if the flash didn't fire the image would have been pure black):

A Syrphus species hoverfly:

Diffusing a regular flashgun such as a Canon Speedlite 580 EX II:

I found a very effective way to diffuser a regular flashgun was again to use a Lambency diffuser. The first thing I did was to line the outside of each diffuser with silver kitchen foil to prevent light loss and to hold this down with black insulation tape. This also makes the diffuser look smarter. The image below shows the diffuser with the front dome removed.

I then replace the front dome and cover the front with kitchen towel, held down around the edges with black tape as shown below.

The diffuser is then finished. However, it is very important not to position the flashgun on the camera's hotshoe (as shown in the picture on the diffuser box above) as it will be too far from the subject. Instead, it is necessary to use a side bracket, ideally with a ball head, which will allow the flashgun to be angled over the subject. One option is the Hakuba LH1 bracket (again, look on Ebay) although it is a little flimsy and so not ideal for heavier flashguns. The image below shows a 580EX II Speedlite on a Hakuba LH1 bracket with an earlier prototype diffuser, but gives some idea of how the diffuser should be positioned.

Here is an example of a very reflective Seven Spot Ladybird photographed using the Lambency-based diffuser:

Please comment below if you have found the above useful, if you would like more information or if you have any other thoughts or queries.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

As little as 10 or 20 years ago the Small Tortoiseshell butterfly was one of the UK's most commonly seen butterflies. Sadly, in recent years its number have declined sharply - by as much as 68% between 2000 and 2009 according to one estimate. This figure seems plausible - I can probably count on one hand the number of Small Tortoiseshells that I've seen in my garden this year. One reason for this decline is thought to be a particular parasitoid fly which feeds on the caterpillars and is newly colonising the UK. However, this fly has always lived in countries such as the Netherlands yet they too are experiencing a decline in Small Tortoiseshell numbers, suggesting that other factors must also be at work.

I'm sure I used to take this butterfly for granted and didn't really appreciate its impressive colours and patterning, but the less common it has become the more I am struck by just how attractive it is. I'm sure there's a lesson to learn there...


Sunday 2 October 2011

Emergence of a Southern Hawker Dragonfly

I've managed to spot a dragonfly midway through its emergence from an aquatic nymph to its adult form on several occasions but only very rarely have I seen the nymph before the emergence process began. On this occasion I was lucky and spotted the still wet nymph as it slowly walked up a reed before emerging into a Southern Hawker Dragonfly.

The process began with the nymph leaving the water and climbing up a reed. It then sat still for around 10 minutes.

A bulge then appears in the nymph's back:

Slowly but surely the dragonfly starts to push its way out of the exuvia:

The dragonfly's eyes are now visible:

With a further push it breaks some of the breathing tubes that it used as a nymph. You can see that one is still attached.

All breathing tubes have now snapped. It was at this point that I began to worry that the dragon was going to fall into the water below. It seemed to sense this and so stopped pushing.:

I therefore bent a nearby reed within reach and as soon as I did so the dragonfly held onto it and pushed its way out of the exuvia. The end of a remarkable process. Newly emerged dragonflies would typically stay in this position for several hours while the wings expand and harden and the body develops its adult colours and markings.