Sunday 29 December 2013

Top 10 Images of 2013

As the year draws to a close I thought I would provide a brief overview of my photography as I have in each of the previous two years (see 2011 and 2012).

A comment I made last year was that I had taken fewer images than in previous years, partly by design but partly due to work and other commitments. I find myself in the same position this year with fewer images taken in 2013 than in 2012 or any other year. Again, this is partly intentional and the result of a deliberate shift towards more targeted image taking. However, this year I have also found myself with less time for photography, a trend I am starting to find rather troubling.

In terms of publications, my proudest achievement this year was my first double page spread in BBC Wildlife magazine (in the June issue, see here) followed by my second in the January 2014 issue (OK, technically next year but it was published in Dec 2013 :) See here). I have subscribed to BBC Wildlife magazine since I was a teenager in the mid to late 1980s and I am very pleased to have become a reasonably regular image contributor to the magazine. The double page spreads were the icing on the cake this year.

Other publications that I'm particularly pleased with this year are articles in Digital SLR magazine on general macro photography (see here) and on butterflies and dragonflies (see here) and my contribution of text and images to Ross Hoddinott's Macro and Close-Up Photography book (see here). My images have continued to sell through FLPA and charities such as the Wildlife Trusts and Buglife have also used my images.

I didn't have any luck in the major competitions this year despite having several images shortlisted in the British Wildlife Photography Awards, though I did start a lively debate on the complete absence of invertebrates in this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition (see here and the subsequent Facebook discussion here). My blogpost on this topic resulted in the largest spike in hits that my blog has ever seen and I'm led to believe that both the post and the widespread support that it received from fellow photographers was noted by the competition's organisers. It has since been announced that the 2014 competition will feature many new categories including a dedicated invertebrates category. I'm obviously not claiming the credit for this but I would like to think that my post at least helped to confirm other feedback that the organisers had received.

I've continued to contribute to the Meet Your Neighbours project and now have a growing collection of images for sale via Nature Photo Library and on display on my website (see here).

Finally, here are the images that I'm most pleased with in 2013. It's worth mentioning the usual caveat that my criteria for selecting these images is a little vague and probably somewhat inconsistent. Some are chosen simply because I like the images while others are chosen, in part, because they contain species that I've not previously photographed well. Nevertheless, in no particular order, here they are:


A mating pair of Green Hairstreak butterflies. I've never photographed this species mating before and I was pleased with the simple composition that I was able to achieve here.

I always enjoy watching damselflies and dragonflies emerging from their aquatic nymph stage and I was pleased to capture the emergence of this Large Red Damselfly with some strong backlighting.

This Zebra Jumping Spider was photographed as it explored a moss covered rock.

I've only ever photographed a Mayfly on one previous occasion and so I was very pleased to photograph this elegant specimen on a nice perch against a clean background.

A Black Ant feeding on the sugary honeydew secreted by aphids. It's always a challenge to photograph this behaviour and even more difficult to achieve a reasonably simple composition as there are normally numerous ants clambering over the aphids.

I'm a big fan of Marbled White butterflies and also a big fan of wideangle macro. I was therefore pleased to combine the two here and with a nice blue sky as well.

A Blue-Tailed Damselfly photographed against a field of buttercups.

 A Ruby-Tailed Wasp, one of my favourite insects. I was very fortunate to photograph this one before it was fully alert after spending a day in my conservatory!

I always like seeing a blue sky in an image and I like the relatively wide angle look that I achieved here with my Tokina 35mm macro lens. The butterfly is a Small Tortoiseshell.

and finally, a Seven Spot Ladybird in that split second before take off.

Happy new year to all!

Saturday 21 December 2013

A Selection of Meet Your Neighbours Images

I haven't posted many Meet Your Neighbours images recently so here are a random selection, mostly taken in late summer.


A Seven-Spot Ladybird taking off:

This next image features quite possibly the largest fly I have ever seen. I spotted it in my garden and wasn't at all sure what it was. But it was enormous and dwarfed a regular Bluebottle fly. A bit of research reveals it's a Dark Giant Horsefly (Tabanus sudeticus). Given its size I really wouldn't fancy being bitten by one!

A Common Froghopper (the sort that can be found in cuckoo spit):

A Turnip Sawfly:

A Greenbottle fly:

A Small Skipper Butterfly:

A mating pair of ground beetles (Curtonotus aulicus)

A Cinnabar Moth caterpillar on ragwort (with an unexpected hoverfly visiting):

And finally, a Common Wasp:

Monday 16 December 2013

Double Page Spread in BBC Wildlife Magazine #2

Earlier this year I posted here to say that BBC Wildlife magazine had published an image of mine as a double page spread in the June 2013 issue. The image in question was of a newly emerged Four Spotted Chaser dragonfly drying out on a reed at the edge of a large pond. I pointed out that, as a long term reader of the magazine (since my teens) and, more recently, a fairly regular photographic contributor, this first double page spread meant a great deal to me.

Well, I'm very pleased to say that I have another double page spread in the January 2014 issue. This time the image is of a tiny Globular Springtail walking around in some frost on the underside of a rock. It's an image I've always liked, not least because it's fairly unusual. A quick iPhone snap of the magazine is below:


I'm grateful to picture editor Wanda Sowry and the magazine's new editor, Matt Swaine, for choosing my image. I also very much appreciate the fact that BBC Wildlife magazine continues to feature wildlife of all shapes and sizes, from the furry and majestic to the six-legged and easily-overlooked.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Wild Planet Photo Magazine

Just a brief post to recommend Wild Planet Photo Magazine (WPPM), a new digital magazine devoted to wildlife photography. The magazine fills what was a clear gap in the market - although Outdoor Photography partially covers wildlife photography there was no magazine solely devoted to wildlife photography.

The first two issues of the magazine have been excellent. They cover a broad range of wildlife, include interviews with leading wildlife photographers and even feature a regular slot devoted to Meet Your Neighbours (you may see an article from yours truly in the not too distant future).

While I still like the physical feel of a print magazine there seems little doubt that digital magazines are going to become the norm in the not too distant future. And WPPM really does look great on an iPad!

The first 3 issues can be downloaded for free from the WPPM website here.

Thursday 28 November 2013

Common Blue Butterflies

There are certain insect species that I can't resist photographing even though they already feature in a large number of my images. Ladybirds and jumping spiders would be 2 contenders for my 'most photographed species' but another would be the Common Blue butterfly. For me, summer wouldn't be summer without seeing these stunning blue butterflies flitting around a flowery meadow in the sunshine.

True to form, I therefore took a number of Common Blue images this summer of which the following are a selection:


I was particularly pleased to get a few images of Common Blue females with their wings open. The females have predominantly brown wings.

...whereas the males have very striking blue wings.

and one or two with their wings closed for good measure.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Ruby-Tailed Wasp

One of my favourite insects is the Ruby-Tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita). They're only small (approx 10mm) and if the sun isn't shining on them they look like a fairly mundane small, dark hoverfly, but a closer look in sunshine (or flash) reveals them to be incredibly colourful and jewel-like. 

I only tend to see them once or twice a year and they are very difficult to photograph as they are highly active, rarely pausing at all. However, one evening in early August I found one in my conservatory and it let me photograph it in my garden for a few seconds (literally!) before it flew off. I managed the following 2 images:


Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Importance of Backgrounds

In recent weeks I've received a couple of emails from individuals interested in macro photography asking essentially the same question. How do I achieve clean backgrounds in many of my macro images? For the benefit of others who may be just starting out in macro photography I thought I would therefore briefly spell out here my approach to achieving attractive backgrounds.

Although there are a variety of styles of macro photography, a common approach is to try to isolate the subject from its background. To do this it is necessary to achieve a 'clean' background, free of clutter. This is achieved in one, or more, of the followings ways:

1. By ensuring that there is a good distance between the subject and the background

2. By using a large aperture (low f number) which gives a shallow depth of field

3. By using a greater level of magnification. Once you are working close to or beyond 1x magnification, the background will always tend to be free of detail.

Sometimes the surrounding landscape and foliage will make (1) practically impossible. Also, relatively large subjects such as dragonflies or larger butterflies will not require a significant degree of magnification. This means that on many occasions (2) is the only option. The challenge is then to ensure that the whole insect, or at least the important parts of the insect (e.g. eyes), are in focus. This generally requires the lens to be parallel to the insect which is obviously easier when viewing from the side relatively 'flat' insects such as dragonflies/damselflies or butterflies with their wings closed. If the lens is carefully positioned it is possible to achieve an image of a damselfly or closed-winged butterfly that is pin sharp throughout at an aperture of f4 or f6.3.

So, if you've mastered the ability to achieve clean backgrounds the next important consideration is the colour of the background. Sometimes you will have little choice over this but on other occasions simply changing the direction from which you are photographing can dramatically change the colour of the background. Also, you can seek to photograph subjects in certain locations, knowing that the colour of the surrounding foliage will complement the image.

The image below is a good way to illustrate the above points. Since I wanted a relatively clean background but with some subtle colour variation I chose an aperture of f7.1. This didn't provide a great deal of depth of field, especially for a relatively small insect such as this Blue-Tailed Damselfly, and so I had to very carefully position the lens to ensure that both the eyes and the tip of the abdomen were in focus. I then had a choice of whether to photograph the subject against a lake and some reeds or to switch sides and photograph against a field of buttercups. I chose the latter and the result is the striking yellow background.


Having spelled out my approach to clean backgrounds, I will end on a couple of notes of caution. Firstly, it can sometimes be the case that a background is too uniform and clean. Sometimes some subtle tonal variation, such as in the above image, is therefore desirable. Secondly, don't fall into the trap of thinking that all macro images require clean backgrounds. On occasions, it can be desirable to achieve lots of detail in the background in order to show the subject in its natural environment (see here for a post on 'wideangle macro').

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013

The awards dinner for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2013 was held last night and Greg du Toit was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image entitled 'Essence of Elephants' (below). The winning and commended images can be found here.

The winning image has grown on me (though if I'm honest I find the lighting a little odd) and I can see why it was chosen. Overall there are a number of quite impressive images, a number of OK images and a number that I don't really 'get'. But that's fine. Greg du Toit is a worthy winner, not least given his impressive back catalogue.

Over the years I have been a big fan of WPOTY and I have followed the competition closely since I was a teenager in the 1980s. I was lucky enough to have an image of my own Highly Commended in the 2010 competition. Of course I don't always agree with the judges' choices - why would I, it is obviously subjective -  but it has always contained a number of inspirational images.

However, last year I wrote a blogpost about the 2012 competition (here) in which I outlined my concern that the competition was becoming increasingly dominated by 'flagship' species. The vast majority of the winning images in last year's competition were polar bears, penguins, big cats and primates, with the occasional shark/whale thrown in for good measure. Last year, of the 70+ winning and commended images in the adult categories there was only one insect, a marked reduction compared to previous years.

Sadly, this year the competition has gone one step further. Not only is it again dominated by flagship species but this time there isn't a single insect. Literally, not one. Some may say that the competition has always been dominated by large mammals, and it has, but it has always included a selection of macro images of insects. For example, the 2010 competition was won by Bence Mate's image of Leafcutter Ants, and there were highly commended images of a Black Ant (my own), an Oil Beetle, migrating Monarch butterflies and possibly others.

Not only is it a little bizarre that the most numerous creatures on the planet don't feature at all in the world's premier wildlife photography competition 2 years running, but it also means that the competition is completely omitting a whole genre of wildlife photography. Macro photography has its own skills, techniques and equipment and it cannot be right for it to not be represented at all. Furthermore, insect behaviour surely has more scope for interesting and original images than, say, the behaviour of big cats or Polar Bears which, let's be honest, we've seen many times before.

To my mind there can only be 2 explanations for this recent neglect of insect images.

(1). There were not many insect images submitted and/or those that were submitted simply were not very good. This is difficult to believe given the vast number of macro photographers in the world and the vast number of high quality macro images regularly appearing in magazines, books, websites, forums etc. However, prior to 2011 the most suitable categories for insects was 'Behaviour: Other Animals'. That has now been changed to 'Behaviour: Cold Blooded Animals'. It's no longer obvious that this category refers to insects so it's quite possible that this is deterring photographers from submitting insect images as it appears that there is no obvious category for them.

(2). The judging panel are consciously or subconsciously rejecting insect images based on the subject matter alone. Why would they do this? Well, perhaps because they don't think the viewing public will want to come to see insect images, or perhaps because the judges themselves have no particular knowledge or experience of macro photography and hence have no appreciation of the skills required.

I suspect it's due to both (1) and (2) and to some extent these 2 explanations are obviously linked. The more it appears that insect images are being left out of the competition, the less likely photographers are to submit insect images.

Aside from the omission of insects, the dominance of flagship species troubles me. The vast majority of these species live in parts of the world where (most) photographers don't tend to live (Central Africa, Arctic, Antarctic, Amazon, etc). This obviously means that the competition is perpetuating the belief that to take wildlife images you have to travel to somewhere exotic. Aside from issues of carbon footprints, this also means that, frankly, the competition isn't representative of the world's wildlife photography. Why? Well it is surely true that the vast majority of wildlife images taken by wildlife photographers are not taken in such places. Think of the UK and think of the typical subjects chosen by UK photographers - Barn Owls, Kingfishers, small birds, seabirds, deer, Badgers, Foxes, butterflies, dragonflies etc etc. Think how many millions of images are taken each year of these subjects. And then think how many British photographers take images in exotic locations. Surely the former must dwarf the latter. Presumably that is true in most other countries too. So why is WPOTY so dominated by images of 'exotic' species?

As a final point, it can't be just me that feels that many of the images in recent years feel a bit 'samey' (not surprising really, given my comments above). But there may be a reason why some feel samey. That's because they really are very similar! I'm reluctant to single out individual images, but I do so only to make this point. These are all very nice images and I am in no way criticising them, but they do demonstrate the point I'm making quite well. Take the following 3 images from the 2010, 2012 and 2013 competitions.

WPOTY 2010 by Marcelo Krause

WPOTY 2012 by Luciano Candisani

WPOTY 2013 by Jordi Chias Pujol

They are a little similar are they not? And yet not a single insect image this year was deemed to have met this standard (a major component of which is originality).

Finally, does any of the above really matter? Well it does to me. I love the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and it rightly represents the pinnacle of the profession. I also love wildlife photography. But I also think wildlife photography should be representative of the vast array of species with whom we share this small planet. We should be showcasing all types of plants and creatures and celebrating the biodiversity that we have left. Perhaps more fundamentally, isn't there a risk that it could all get a bit boring if we keep seeing images of the same species?


I'm pleased to see that I'm not the only one raising these issues. See the following 2 blogs:

Doug Mackenzie Dodds

Richard Jones

Also, those who use Facebook may be interested to see some debate around this blogpost by many well known photographers. See here.

further edit:

The European Wildlife Photographer of the Year (EWPOTY) awards were announced on 25th October 2013 and the winning and commended images can be found here. The sheer variety of subjects and the level of creativity in the EWPOTY is notable. It's also worth pointing out that of the 10 winning and commended images in the 'Other Animals' category of EWPOTY (equivalent to the 'Cold Blooded Animals' category in WPOTY), no fewer than 8 images feature insects or other invertebrates. The contrast with WPOTY is therefore clear to see. I have to say that the vast majority of the images in EWPOTY are very impressive and, in my opinion, they are generally far more inspirational than those from WPOTY.

Monday 7 October 2013

I am now on Twitter

There was a time when I was very sceptical of Facebook and Twitter and far from convinced of their usefulness. But I took the Facebook plunge a couple of years ago and I must admit I am now something of a convert. So I thought it was now about time that I gave Twitter a go too. If anyone is interested, I can be found via @cole2matt

Saturday 5 October 2013

Ross Hoddinott's Macro and Close Up Photography Book

Anyone who is keen to learn more about macro and close-up photography would be well advised to purchase a copy of Ross Hoddinott's latest book entitled Digital Macro and Close-up Photography. The book covers all aspects of macro photography, from the kit required, to techniques and post processing. It also provides specific advice on a number of macro subjects including insects, amphibians and plants. The book also has a lengthy chapter on lighting to which I was very pleased to contribute text and images on topics such as the use of fill flash, choice of flash guns (e..g. twin flash, ring flash), flash diffusion and a specific section on creating an outdoor studio (i.e. the Meet Your Neighbours style of image).

In addition to a few of my own images, the book is packed full of Ross' superb images. These serve as an excellent source of inspiration for both beginner and advanced macro photographers and set the standard to which we should all aspire.

The book is available from Amazon by following this link and is currently available at the bargain price of £11.55 with free delivery (normal price £16.99).

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Blogger is Now 'Auto-Enhancing' Images

Just a short post for fellow Blogger users to point out a recent change that some may have missed. When you upload images to a blog post Blogger will now automatically enhance the image by adding saturation and contrast (and quite possibly other changes too).

I'm not certain when this change took place but it can quite dramatically affect the look of some images. It seems to me as though images featuring blue skies change quite noticeably, perhaps because there is a boost to the saturation of blues. The effect on other images is less noticeable. The bottom line though is that most photographers do not want their images 'auto-enhanced' in this manner and I was quite dismayed when I first noticed it was happening.

The good news is that you can turn off this feature. Basically, all images uploaded to Blogger now sit in a Picassa web album. If you log into your GooglePlus account, then select Settings and scroll down to 'Photos' you can uncheck the 'automatically enhance new photos' box. Needless to say I have now done this.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Marbled White Butterflies

Earlier this summer I paid a visit to Ryton Woods in Warwickshire specifically to photograph the Marbled White butterflies. It was forecast to be a very warm day and hence an early start was necessary if I was to be able to photograph them before they became too active. I arrived on site around 6:00 AM and, although it was already quite warm, I did manage to find a few Marbled Whites that had yet to warm up.

The vivid blue sky meant that I was keen to take some wideangle images showing the butterflies in their grassy environment. The following image is probably my favourite from the session, taken with my Tokina 35mm macro lens.


I was also keen to take some backlit images and took the following against a dark backdrop of trees (taken with my Sigma 150mm lens).

and here's a more traditional portrait for good measure;

Monday 9 September 2013

Black Ants and Aphids

A previous post from a couple of years ago explained my interest in photographing the relationship between ants and aphids and described my technique for photographing them. Last year I had no opportunities to photograph this relationship but this year I was pleased to find some clusters of aphids on several foxgloves in my garden. As ever, the Black Ants (Lasius niger) were in attendance and feeding from the sugary honeydew secreted from the aphids.

It's worth pointing out that Black Ants are tiny, typically 3-5mm in length, and hence much smaller than the larger Wood Ant and many other types of ants found outside the UK. As a result of their size, Black Ants are very difficult to photograph, not helped by their reluctance to keep still. After a fair amount of perseverance I managed a few images, of which the following 2 are those I'm most happy with:


As I mentioned in the previous post, an image I've been trying to get for years is of an ant actually drinking a globule of honeydew. This has always proved very difficult as the globule is typically consumed by the ants the second it appears. The image below, which is far from perfect, is the best I managed this year.

Thursday 5 September 2013

'New' Jumping Spider

Jumping spiders are one of my favourites subjects for 'high magnification' macro. The most common jumping spiders in the UK are the Zebra Spider and a similar looking spider called Sitticus pubescens. These are both tiny spiders commonly seen on rocks, walls etc, particularly if the they are warmed by the sun. Like all jumping spiders, they have an impressive set of eyes which gives them real character when viewed through a macro lens.

Over the years I have photographed the 2 species above on many occasions. However, this summer I was lucky enough to stumble across another species of jumping spider that I had never seen before. I've since found out that it's likely to be Heliophanus flavipes, or possibly Heliophanus cupreus.


For comparison, here's a Zebra Jumping Spider:

and here's Sitticus pubescens:

Saturday 24 August 2013

Staged 'Wildlife' Images in the National Press

The national and international press are always on the look-out for eye-catching and unusual images and in recent months they have printed a large number of images of 'wildlife' in 'humorous' poses. The image below of the frog sheltering from the rain under a leaf is a good example. It seems to have been reproduced everywhere from the Guardian to the Daily Mail to the Huffington Post.

Photographer: Penkdix Palme

Anyone with any experience of wildlife and photography would know this is a highly staged image, despite the photographer's claim that he observed the frog sheltering from the rain in this manner for 30 minutes. This frog does not want to be there and it is not in good condition. The leaf doesn't match the aloe vera stem that it's sat on, the rain is too even and is either coming from a hosepipe/watering can or may even have been added in post processing and, to top it all, the photographer even has other images of frogs sheltering under different leaves. So it is very sad to see so many picture editors paying this photographer for this horribly fraudulent image. 

There have been many other recent examples and, for some reason, many are the work of Indonesian photographers. I was very pleased to see the blog post below exposing some of these images: 

Increasingly the reality behind these images is being exposed and so I can only hope that picture editors and news agencies will start to ask a few more questions and to remember the maxim that if a photo seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Edit: A few more examples to illustrate my point. All showing totally unnatural, staged behaviour.

the common themes in these 3 images are the Daily Mail, Indonesian photographers and animals balanced on top of other animals. However, a final example breaks that first common theme but not the other two. It's featured in the Daily Telegraph's news pictures of the year 2013. Yes, really.

note the mention of the 'rare moment' captured by the photographer. 

The only question I have is whether picture editors are themselves very naive and gullible and genuinely believe these images are natural, or whether they know damn well that these images are staged but are working on the assumption that most readers are naive and gullible. 

Thursday 15 August 2013

Mating Green Hairstreak Butterflies

When it comes to my nature photography I prefer to stay local. In fact, the vast majority of my photographs are taken within a 3 mile radius of my home. This is a deliberate strategy, in part because I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of travelling 200 miles to photograph a butterfly. But in truth it's also due to the fact that it's easier to be on site early in the morning if the site is closer to my home. Also, I think macro photography lends itself to staying local perhaps more so than mammal or bird photography. However, I do make the odd exception to my rule and will occasionally travel a little further afield.

One trip that I usually make at least once each year is to Ryton Woods in Warwickshire (approx 35 miles from my home). The woods and the nearby meadow are generally good for a variety of butterflies. This year I paid a visit at the end of May mainly to photograph the Green Hairstreaks (I also visited again in July to see the Marbled Whites but that will be a topic for a future blog post as I haven't processed those images yet).

On this particular day in late May there were a number of Green Hairstreaks about but because it was quite a warm day they were very active and I wondered whether I would actually get any decent images. Luckily I spotted a mating pair, a first for me, and since they were preoccupied they let me move in reasonably close (not too close since I was using the Sigma 150mm macro lens which has a good working distance). Fortunately, they didn't seem at all bothered by my presence and continued mating for a good 20-30 minutes!


The image above is my favourite and it alone made the trip worthwhile for me. That was just as well because I actually photographed little else and gave up due to the heat a couple of hours later! The following are the only other vaguely respectable images that I managed.