A few weeks ago, I traveled to the mixed-grass prairie of the Nebraska Sandhills for a meeting.  It was a really good meeting where various folks looked at and talked about outreach to help private landowners better manage their properties so that both the economy and ecology of the area was sustained.  I took a few pictures during the field trips and stayed an extra day or two to photograph more things in the area.

I had a great time photographing in the central and northern sandhills.  The afternoon that I planned to spend in northern Nebraska turned off gray – not just gray but DARK gray.  At 3:00 the light was just gone – it wasn’t overcast, it was dark!  And the wind was blowing as the rain intermittently spit from the sky.  I could have gone with some long exposure to show grass movement in the rolling prairie, or I could be spontaneous and make a run for Badlands National Park just a couple of hours away in South Dakota.

Normally, I plan a photographic trip pretty carefully.  I look for all kinds of options, make an Excel spreadsheet that I can sort by location or species, have a plan A, B, and C.  This time, I hadn’t even considered going into South Dakota!  Well, I made a run for it anyway.  I got there right at dusk.  The visitor center was closed, and I couldn’t even find a park map!

I repaired to my hotel room, drank a Coke and ate some nabs for supper, and jumped on the internet.   I didn’t have time to do much planning.  I found the park map brochure on-line, but didn’t have access to a printer.  I noted a couple of spots that other folks had taken “sunrise” shots and saw that the western end of the park was “better” for wildlife pictures (with me being on the southeastern end of course…).

I went to bed planning to go shoot a sunrise spot.  Luckily, I got up at my normal eastern time and headed out anyway because I took a wrong turn and went about 36 miles out of my way well before sunrise.  I still managed to make it to Panorama Point well before sunrise.  As I set up my gear in the dark, I met a nice photographer that was shooting his way along as he moved from Chicago to Los Angeles.  I also met Jeannee C. Gannuch, the force behind Southeastern Living (http://www.southeasternliving.com/home.html).

Now, I photograph landscapes from time to time.  Unlike a lot of my friends who primarily photograph landscapes and create wondermous images, if I’ve got “good” light, I’d much rather be looking for a critter!  I took a few pre-sunrise shots.

Before the sun came up in the Badlands.

Before the sun came up in the Badlands.

As we stood around waiting for the light to change, Jeannee asked, “Do you like to photograph wildlife?”  Now, she had absolutely no way of knowing that I was standing there weighing in my mind whether to continue to stay here & wait for the light to change or jump in my rental vehicle and go off in search of animals who might cooperate.  After I replied in the affirmative, she told me that back towards the east a couple of pulloffs where a trail crosses the road, there had been a bighorn sheep for the last couple of mornings that was cooperative.  I figured that I knew about where she was talking about.

As the sun broke the horizon, there was a brief flash of color in the sky that quickly dimmed.  I couldn’t see any way that I’d get more color than I’d already gotten, so I packed my gear and headed for the rental.

The sun breaking the horizon in the Badlands.

The sun breaking the horizon in the Badlands.

As I pulled into the pulloff that I thought she was talking about, there 30 yards from the truck was a gorgeous, mature bighorn ram eating dried grass in beautiful light.

Bighorn ram in the morning sun.

Bighorn ram in the morning sun.

I photographed the ram and went on in search of other critters.  (I did cross pass with Jeannee and thank her for the tip!).  Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had to have crossed paths at least twice during the day with my friend Eric Bowles (http://www.bowlesimages.com) who was prescouting for a workshop he was leading starting the next day!  (I was able to pass on the location to Eric who got some nice shots of him as well).

I spent the next several hours wandering Badlands National Park and wishing that I had more time there.  I did manage to get within photographable distance of several critters before I began my dash back towards central Nebraska to catch my flight home.

Bison strolling through the prairie.

Bison strolling through the prairie.

Bison headed for the Badlands.

Bison headed for the Badlands.

 

Pronghorn headed for the far side of a hill.

Pronghorn headed for the far side of a hill.

 

Coyote looking for a meal.

Coyote looking for a meal.

Prairie dog having a meal.

Prairie dog having a meal.

Western Meadowlark ready to leave a rangeland fence.

Western Meadowlark ready to leave a rangeland fence.

Clouded sulphur feeding on a fall aster.

Clouded sulphur feeding on a fall aster.

I was truly blessed to see so many critters and more in such a short time!

It seems that folks want a camera to take a few pictures.  And then once they get a camera, they want a BETTER camera to take BETTER pictures.  Camera lust has drawn many, many photographers down the path of knowing and understanding more about technology than they have ever wanted to know before!

In a lot of my presentations, seminars and workshops, I talk about the fact that we don’t really “need” all that new gear to create images.  I talk about the fact that I regularly use a couple of old, manual-focus lenses.  Sure, new gear with better high ISO capability, larger sensors, vibration reduction and more makes creating images easier in many cases, but it often isn’t something we HAVE to have to create an image.

I had an afternoon and an evening meeting one day last week. I took my cameras inside the day before to download cards and recharge batteries.  Since I knew that I wouldn’t have a chance to take any pictures, I purposefully left them when I went to the meeting. Well, suddenly I had an extra hour before my meeting – just enough time to go home and turn around and come back OR just enough time to take a few pictures (except for the not having a camera part). So, I found a nice parking lot to catch up on some e-mails in (I did have my laptop and WiFi card). I looked over and saw a large flock of roosting black skimmers and mentally kicked myself many times over for not having put my cameras in the truck.

I mentally went through my camera bags and realized that I had Annika’s camera with me!  Now, Annika’s camera is a Nikon D70 that I owned before she was born!  I almost didn’t get it out, but I thought about how often I’ve said that you don’t have to have the latest and greatest to get a decent shot, so I dug out the D70 and the longest lens I had with me (a 200 mm lens).

So with an old DSLR and a very slow-focusing lens, I attempted to take some bird pictures, and I ended up with a few that I kept.

One of these is not like the rest!  (Lone juvenile laughing gull resting with a flock of black skimmers) Nikon D70, Nikkor 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600th second, ISO 320, handheld, existing light, slight crop.

One of these is not like the rest! (Lone juvenile laughing gull resting with a flock of black skimmers) Nikon D70, Nikkor 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600th second, ISO 320, handheld, existing light, slight crop.

 

I was feeling rather happy with myself as I went into my meetings.  After I got out of my last meeting, I was ready for food.  I agreed to meet a colleague at The Reef – a relatively new seafood restaurant on the beach in Biloxi.  I’ve enjoyed watching a much larger than life-size marine mural on the side of the restaurant come to life as it is created by marine artist, Marty Wilson – http://www.martywilson.com/.  I’d watched the sketches appear, and then the color begin to appear, but I’d never seen Marty at work.  As I pulled into the restaurant parking lot late that evening to see the scissorlift and lights, it hit me that he needed the same calm wind conditions that are needed for foliar herbicide application.  Again, I wished that I had a camera with me.  I mean, a Nikon D70 is not exactly renowned for it’s low-light capability.  I thought about trying to return another night to get a shot, but decided that I’d better go ahead and shoot with what I had.

So, I dug out the D70 and that wonderfully light-weight, plastic y 28-80 kit lens that is Annika’s main lens and put it on a tripod to see what I could come up with.  The irony of my old tripod legs costing about what the camera body and lens sell for now wasn’t lost on me…nor the real irony that the tripod head cost about two times the amount it would take to buy the tripod legs, camera body and lens!

I took a couple of shots, checked the back of the camera, put it away, and ate a shrimp po-boy.  When I downloaded that card several days later, I was pleasantly surprised at how nice the image quality was in my quick grab shot of Marty Wilson working his magic and making the ocean come alive on the side of a building (it did make me wish that I’d spent a little more time setting up the shot and getting a better angle & composition though…).

Marty Wilson, marine muralist, working his magic Nikon D70, Nikkor 28-80 @ 28mm, f/5.6, ½ second, ISO 320, tripod, existing light, slight crop.

Marty Wilson, marine muralist, working his magic
Nikon D70, Nikkor 28-80 @ 28mm, f/5.6, ½ second, ISO 320, tripod, existing light, slight crop.

 

So, the next time you think that you can’t get the shot because you don’t have the latest and greatest camera gear, shoot it anyway!

I know it’s going to sound repetitious, and it is repetitious because I keep repeating it.  When I’m photographing something, even something as simple as a fallen acorn, it’s all about the light.  A simple and inexpensive change in lighting can make a big difference in the way an image looks.

As I was getting in my truck this past weekend, I noticed that the white oak acorns were dropping.  And I noticed that there was one particularly nice looking acorn laying on a recognizable white oak leaf on a bed of moss near the base of the oak tree that I presumed had dropped the acorn.  Knowing that I often talk about acorns in a number of different contexts – fruit of a tree, natural reproduction of a hardwood forest, as hard mast (fruit eaten by animals), mast quality (red oak vs white oak), squirrel/deer/turkey management, and more, I decided that I would photograph this simple acorn.

So, I took out my camera and a macro lens and laid down next to the tree and took a shot or three.

White Oak Acorn In Existing Light

White Oak Acorn In Existing Light
Nikon D3, 105 mm macro, f/16, 1/25th second, ISO 1250, handheld, slight crop

The shot looked fine to me, but it didn’t show the detail & potential vitality of this little gem that I wanted to show.  I knew that adding some soft, golden light should make this image look different (hopefully better), so I dug out my gold reflector and got my lovely, helpful wife to hold it for me (which saved me from having to dig out a tripod & clamps!).  And then I shot the same shot again…

White Oak Acorn with Gold Reflector Nikon D3, 105 mm macro, f/16, 1/80th second, ISO 1250, handheld, slight crop

White Oak Acorn with Gold Reflector
Nikon D3, 105 mm macro, f/16, 1/80th second, ISO 1250, handheld, slight crop

 

The shot with the gold reflector looks more “alive” to me.  The angled light shows more detail in the cup, the shadows are not as dark, and my shutter speed increased a couple of stops making a handheld shot much easier.

Neither shot is “right” or “wrong” but that little bit of reflected sunlight improved the shot slightly for most of the reasons that I would use it.  I’m sure that I could have done something similar in Photoshop, but the details wouldn’t have been revealed as nicely, the shadows wouldn’t have been filled as naturally, and it sure wouldn’t have increased my shutter speed towards something reasonable for hand-holding.  This “manual Photoshop” basically replicated the light a few hours earlier that morning or a several hours later that day – that “golden hour” of rising & setting sun…

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two shots…

White Oak Acorn  Existing Light on Right Gold Reflector on Left

White Oak Acorn
Existing Light on Right
Gold Reflector on Left

 

I find the relatively small expense & light weight of a reflector in my camera bag to be worthwhile for situations like this.

Of course, if you can catch “good” natural light, then you don’t need the reflector.  Later that afternoon, I found a chinkapin loaded with fruit.  I went back in late afternoon when the natural light quality was good and photographed yet another hard mast species without needing to use a reflector to get the light quality that I wanted.

Chinkapine fruit (a chestnut relative whose populations have been decimated by chestnut blight). Nikon D3, 105 mm macro, f/8, 1/80th second, ISO 360, handheld, existing light

Chinkapine fruit (a chestnut relative whose populations have been decimated by chestnut blight).
Nikon D3, 105 mm macro, f/8, 1/80th second, ISO 360, handheld, existing light

 

If you read much about photography and get heavily “into” photography, you quickly “learn” that using your flash on the camera is “bad” and that using your flash at full power without some kind of light modifier is “bad”.  And a lot of times, the image quality is better if you DO move the flash off the line of axis of the lens and if you use some sort of flash compensation and flash modifier (diffuser/reflector/something).

I thought I’d share an example of where I preferred on-camera flash at near full power.  Our family went out looking for fossils recently – during the middle of the day.  I left my camera in the truck when we first went looking for fossils, but after I made a trip back to the truck, I brought my camera and single lens with me.  As I changed lenses and took the flash bracket off the camera, I stuffed the flash in my pocket – just in case I wanted to use it.  I left the flash bracket and flash cord in the truck (and since I took the Nikon D3 body, I didn’t have a pop-up flash to use as a master so that my SB-800 could be used in slave mode).

As my wife & daughter sifted a shovel full of material in the creek, I thought I’d take a picture.  Now, it’s 10:30 in the morning on a sunny day.  The light is VERY dappled looking down the creekbed – some areas of shadow and some areas of bright sun – unfortunately, one of the area s of bright sun was on the whitish limestone parent material of the creek bank making up a large portion of the background.

The first 3 shots below were shot in RAW, optimized in my normal image workflow, and were taken from the same position within an 8 second time frame.  The only real difference in the 3 shots is the use of flash.

I took a test shot, and saw that matrix metering was working fairly well – no significant “blinkies” or over-exposure, but my family in the shade was pretty well hidden.  I might have been  able to add some more light by using exposure compensation or lengthening the time the shutter was open, but doing that would result in overexposing the background.

Natural Light

Natural Light

Nikon D3, Nikkor 28-85 @ 50 mm, f/4, 1/100th second, ISO 200, handheld, existing light, slight crop.

 

I realized then that I needed a little fill light, so I turned on my flash, set the flash compensation to around minus 2, flipped the built-in diffuser down, and shot again.

Diffused Fill Flash

Diffused Fill Flash

Nikon D3, Nikkor 28-85 @ 50 mm, f/4, 1/125th second, ISO 200, handheld, on-camera fill flash at -2 with diffuser, slight crop.

I liked that shot a little better, I could see more detail in their faces and the sifting pan.  There were no areas that were overexposed, but I still wanted more light.  Looking at the scene, I realized that I needed to treat this situation like they were backlit by the sun (even though it was overhead & to the right), so I flipped the built-in diffuse back up, and dialed exposure compensation to either 0 or -1/3 and shot again.  I liked that shot best of all.  There was much more color & detail in my subjects, and better colors in their surroundings as well.  So, in this case, a flash right on top of the camera at near full power gave me not only the shot that I liked best, but also the shot that took the least amount of time to optimize.  Just goes to show, that the “rules” of photography are often guidelines.  Look at the lighting of the situation you are trying to shoot, and figure out how you can use things at your disposal (flashes, diffusers, reflectors, etc.) to create the shot you want.

On Camera Flash at Near Full Power

On Camera Flash at Near Full Power

Nikon D3, Nikkor 28-85 @ 50 mm, f/4, 1/125th second, ISO 200, handheld, on-camera flash at – 1/3, slight crop.

*In addition to looking at the colors of their clothing, look at the color that was revealed in the sycamore leaf floating in the creek on the left-hand vertical one-third line.

Just to make this blog post complete, I thought I’d share a few shots of the fossils we collected; these shots were all taken on black velvet with a ring flash for light.

Hamulus worm castings

Hamulus worm castings

The Hamulus worm would have lived in the hollow in the center of these castings on the sea floor.

Shark Tooth

Shark Tooth

The shark teeth were, of course, the favorite finds of the morning.

Extinct Oyster

Extinct Oyster

Extinct oyster (this shell is about 9” long and weighs about 2 pounds).

It seems that I’ve been focused on the small world lately.  I’ve taken many more close-up images of invertebrates than I usually do.  All the shots shared in the post were taken recently with one of my macro lenses that allow me to focus on things close to the lens.  And all of these shots, except one, are insects.  I thought it would be interesting to share my lens and lighting choices for these shots.

Many times when I shoot insects, flowers or other small objects, my go-to macro lens is my 105 mm lens.  It is short enough that I can reach into the scene and move grass blades, leaves, etc. out of the way (which doesn’t work most of the time with wild invertebrates like most of those shared here); but it is also long enough that my tripod legs don’t usually bump the plant and scare the bug or shake the dew off the leaves and petals.

For some large, flying bugs that are easily frightened, like some butterflies and dragonflies, I’ve started using a 200 mm macro lens on a crop factor body (for a 300 mm lens equivalent).  It can be a little slow to focus, and I can be so far from the subject that there is a great chance for grass and limbs to be between me and the subject, and I’m so far away that I have to move from behind the camera to bend them to the side.

And, I’ve started using my 60 mm macro more.  It gives me more depth of field IF the subject will allow me approach close enough to fill the frame (and lots of bugs will not do that).  I have to be so close though, that I have to take great care not to accidentally move the plant that my subject is on.

And most of the time when shooting close-up subjects, I choose to use an off-camera flash with a diffuser or reflector of some sort – and if I’m shooting with a friend, we’ll often add a gold reflector for some warmth.  In most of these shots, I used off-camera fill flash, but on one shot I used a ring flash and another was shot in natural light.

The other piece of equipment that I usually use with close-up shots is a tripod.  Once I get so close to your subject, I have to really stop down my aperture, which means my shutter speeds slow down.  So, for all but one of these images, I was using one of my tripods.

So, with that introduction, here are some invertebrate shots from the last several weeks.

The first is a male Halloween pennant dragonfly perched on an old aster seed head in a transmission line right-of-way beside my office.  I noticed several fall flowers that I wanted to photograph as well as several skittish dragonflies, so I spent part of an afternoon and part of a morning out photographing them.  This shot was taken in warm afternoon light, and I was able to maneuver so the light was over my shoulder, so I shot it in natural light.

Dragonfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/10, 1/640th second, ISO 900, tripod, existing light, slight crop.

A few days later, I heard a familiar voice out in the vestibule of my office.  Kiss my foot, if my friend Chris Funk (check out some of his great work at: http://www.feral-onephotography.com/) had not accidentally walked into the building where my office is at!  I knew he was coming into the area for a day or three, but we had not touched base yet, and he accidentally found me!  I pointed him in the direction of a few cool dragonflies, but could not join him in the field that afternoon.  The next thing that I know, he is posting pictures of seaside dragonlets, one of the dragonflies that has been on my “want list” for over a year.  He said the boat ramp at the end of the road was swarming with them.  So, I made  a chance a few mornings later to spend some time near the boat ramp at the end of the road, and got a seaside dragonlet shot.  Now, these dragonflies are called dragonlets for a reason – they are SMALL!  This little girl was a delicate 1 and ¼ inches long!  (But oh so colorful!)

 

Dragonlet

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/13, 1/80th second, ISO 1000, diffused off-camera fill flash at -1 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

 

As I was maneuvering to photograph the seaside dragonlet, a little bit of nothing floated off a piece of grass.  That little bit of nothing turns out to be the smallest known damselfly – a citrine forktail.  This cute little thing is less than ¾ of an inch long and has a body diameter about the size of a #2 pencil lead!

 

Damselfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200mm (300 mm equivalent) at near minimum focus distance, f/11, 1/100th second, ISO 360, diffused off-camera fill flash around -2, tripod, cropped to about 2/3 of frame.

As I was photographing the Halloween pennant, there were some small wasps flying around.  Some of those wasps were true paper wasps, and some of them were small dragonflies (though small Odonates would be re-defined by the seaside dragonlet and citrine forktail).  But at the time, I thought eastern amberwings were small.  I got some cool shots of eastern amberwings while I was shooting the Halloween pennants.  But a few weeks later, I got more chances at eastern amberwings, and got to photograph them doing a pretty cool behavior.  This eastern amberwing is perched in an obelisk posture.  This shot was taken on a warm (okay HOT) Mississippi afternoon.  So this dragonfly was adjusting the shape of its body to minimize solar absorption and maximize cooling as it perched on top of a smartweed inflorescence (note that some bug had been feeding on this particularly tall inflorescence to the point that it wasn’t attractive at all).  I couldn’t move to where the sun was at my back, so I had to photograph this dragonfly while it was backlit by the sun.  To counter that lighting, I did not dim my flash very far so that I could almost match the brightness of the background.

Dragonfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/8, 1/800th second, ISO 250, diffused off-camera flash at -1/3, tripod, full frame.

 

Not too far away, there were flies that looked like little bees (which is to their advantage if a predator thinks they can sting, then they MAY get left alone) feeding on smartweed and partridge pea blossoms.  I photographed a few of them.  This little fly was just under ½” long, which underscores the tiny blossoms on the smartweed spike.

Fly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/7.1, 1/500th second, ISO 200, diffused off-camera fill flash at -2 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

 

It turns out that looking like you can sting is no deterrent to robber flies.  These cool aerial predators were snagging bee mimics left and right (I photographed 2 different ones eating bee mimics in less than 20 minutes).  This robber fly had taken his bee mimic to a partridge pea so that it could pierce the abdomen and suck all the good nutrients out.

Robberfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/5.6, 1/400th second, ISO 200, diffused off-camera fill flash at -2 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

I was working around the cabin one day, and a particularly colorful eastern lubber grasshopper was crawling along in some crepe myrtle and pear leaves that had dropped because of the lack of rain.  I figured that he would let me get pretty close, so I chose my short macro lens to allow me to get more depth of field easy.  Even with the size of eastern lubber grasshoppers (this guy was 2 ½” long) and my tripods that go to ground level, it is hard to get eye-level with a grasshopper on the ground – so I chose not to use my tripod (depending on fast shutter speed to give me a sharp picture) though I did make sure to brace very carefully and actually put the bottom of the camera lens plate on the ground for this shot.

Grasshopper

Nikon D3, Nikkor 60 mm, f/8, 1/160th second, ISO 500, diffused off-camera fill flash at -2 1/3, handheld though braced on ground really well, slight crop.

And for the non-insect shot, I’ve got a polychaete (worm).  Actually, I’ve got the tube the worm used to live in.  And it was the tube the worm used to live in a LOOOOOONG time ago.  This worm lived in the bottom of the warm, shallow ocean during the Cretaceous, when that ocean was up around Starkville and Columbus, Mississippi.  This is a fossil Hamalus worm casting that my daughter collected recently, and I photographed.  This worm casting is about ¾” inch long.  The worm lived in the round part in the center.  I photographed this casting on black velvet.

Worm Casting

Nikon D3, Lester A. Dine 105 mm, f/32, 1/125th second, ISO 200, old ring flash at minimum power, tripod, slight crop.

So, for close-up shots, my normal “go to” is to use my 105 mm macro, use a tripod, and use fill flash… except when I do not.  And in the past little while, I’ve not done my “normal” thing several times – but always for a good reason, and I’m pleased with the result./13, 1/80th second, ISO 1000, flash at -1 1/3, tripod, slight crop./13, 1/80th second, ISO 1000, flash at -1 1/3, tripod, slight crop.