Fighting the elements

May 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Torrential rain, thick fog, raging waters and a maze of back roads. A mate and I had organised to head down the coast to Fingal head for an evening shoot but as it turns out, mother nature was waiting in ambush for us around the QLD/NSW border!

We had left in decent conditions, some high clouds hinting at a chance of ideal sunset conditions, but as we drove south things began to deteriorate rapidly. By the time we reached our destination, we were in the middle of a torrential downpour and with no end in sight we made the call to head back north in an attempt to find some weather that we could actually shoot it.

We decided to head inland at Tweed heads in the hope of finding a westerly aspect, but the first view that struck us was looking east as we crested the hills around Bilambil. After some creative parking we grabbed out the long lenses and watched as a blanket of thick fog rolled up the valley beneath us and white-washed everything into a pale oblivion

IMG_5303“Shrouded in mist”
Canon 5D, 70-200L @ 200mm, f5.6, 1/320th

After shooting for a while we headed off again, still hoping for a good view west, but soon found ourselves stuck in a maze of back streets on the eastern side of the hills. It was at about this point that we thanked recent advancements in technology and slowly extracted ourselves via GPS.

We headed south west and found ourselves on a winding country road that looked to have decent potential. Before long though our hopes were scuppered as we came to a level crossing that was well under water, the creek raging after plenty of recent rain.

We turned around and backtracked, intending to look for another route but at the next crossing we noticed a scene full of potential as a large moss covered tree leaned over the fast flowing waters of a creek. We decided to stop and have a look as the water was still about half a meter below the level of crossing, but in the time it took to grab our gear and head towards the tree, the creek had risen to the point of lapping the crossing! Not wanting to spend the night in the area, we chose the smart option in headed back to higher ground.

By now it was obvious that there would be no sunset; heavy clouds obscured the sky and we were not in a position to shoot it even if things had have panned out differently.  Instead we stopped on the side of the road and shoot a small hidden valley that could be seen from the fence line. It was a great little spot that I’d love to revisit in the hope of actually gaining access for a better look around.

IMG_5331“Hidden valley”
Canon 5D, 70-200L @ 135mm, f11, 2 seconds

From there we headed back east as the gloom of an overcast evening settled in. We did come across another spot that looked to have potential; a long stretch of thick pine trees guarding a narrow road, but by the time we had set up, exposure times were out to 5+ minutes and with absolute dark closing in, things were only going to get worse. We ended up abandoning the scene to return another day and headed north, fully aware that mother nature had bested us once again.  


Field of dreams

May 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I met up with a friend a few days back for a macro session at his local grounds. He has stumbled across an area that is home to a great range of native and solitary bee species, something that my area is sorely lacking in. I’m always envious of the beautiful images he captures of these fantastic subjects, so I figured it was about time I went and had another go at them.

IMG_5171”Out of the blue”
Canon 5D, MPE-65 @ 3x, f11, 1/160th, Full flash

When we first arrived the sun was high and hitting the field, which Mark has christened “The field of bees”. I on the other hand have secretly named the spot  “The field of dreams”, for two reasons…1) It’s a dream come true shooting here, surrounded by such an array of beautiful subjects and 2) As most of the subjects shown here have shut down and are essentially asleep, I like to think they are in the midst of their own pleasant dreams.

As with most bee species, as temperatures drop in the afternoon and shadows lengthen to cover the roosting areas, the bees settle down in familiar positions, clamping their jaws around a blade of grass or small twig, essentially locking themselves into position for the night.

Pretty in pink“Pretty in pink”
Canon 5D, MPE-65 @ 3x, f11, 1/160th, Full flash

Once the bees have lost their stored energy and are in a trance like “sleep”, it is possible to close in and capture images without disturbing them, utilising different backgrounds in the immediate area such as the blue sky (Out of the blue, top), a flower (pretty in pink, above) and a piece of bark (Blue banded bee, below).

IMG_5224“Blue banded bee”
Canon 5D, MPE-65 @ 1.5x, f11, 1/160th, Full flash

Although numbers are a little down at the moment due to the onset of colder weather conditions as the southern hemisphere works it’s way towards winter, it’s heartening to think that a new seasons inhabitants will soon be patrolling the field of dreams, resplendent in their early season coats and providing not only fantastic shooting opportunities, but also moments of pure delight as only mother nature can.

Walkthrough: Evening storm

May 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Evening storm“Evening Storm”
Canon 5D, 17-40L @ 25mm, f16, 4 seconds
3 stop soft edge ND grad filter

                                  Behind the scenes
Some afternoons are fairly standard, and some tend to throw up a few surprises. The afternoon on which this image was shot definitely falls into the latter category.

I had been working various spots on the southern side of the headland at Hastings Point, watching as the small storm cell in the image tracked slowly north west along the beach. What I wasn’t aware of was the larger, more intense cell moving in from the north west, my view blocked by the headland behind me. It wasn’t until the light levels dropped drastically as the late afternoon sun was blotted out that I realised what was happening.

Within minutes lightning flashes were being followed almost instantly by massive thunder claps and I was scrambling up the headland to the shelter of my car, tripod in hand with camera still attached.

Those 5 minutes are a blur and really drove home the lesson that you need eyes in the back of your head whenever you are shooting by the ocean’s edge!

I had come across this spot a little earlier in the afternoon when my attention had been grabbed by the boulder depicted in the foreground. I have shot around this headland a number of times, but this was the first time I had noticed the roundness of this boulder, primarily as it only appears so round from this one particular angle.

I  had taken note of the spot, but as this scene looks due south I wasn’t sure whether late afternoon light would be the best option. When this storm head began to blow into position however I knew it would make the perfect backdrop for the shot.

I returned and worked on finding the final composition shown above. Using the round boulder as an anchor in the foreground, I worked with the diagonals formed by the rocks on either side and adjusted my position slightly in two planes. Firstly, I moved upwards until the background rocks were no longer breaking the line of the beach and land beyond, and secondly, I moved slightly to my left to position the downpour from the storm head directly above the saddle in the largest rock.

The first technical decision I made was how I wanted the water to be rendered. There was very minimal action in the water, no breaking waves as such, but more like watching water run into and being let out of a sink. This made the decision to go with a calmer approach to this area of the image easier, particularly as I wanted the main drama to come from the storm head. I decided to go with a longer exposure to “smooth” out the water and after playing with different combinations of aperture and ISO settled on a shutter speed of 4 seconds… long enough to blur the water but still leave some textures rather than completely white trails.

From these test exposures I could see that the sky was a few stops over exposed so I fitted 3 stops of soft edged graduated neutral density filters to pull the sky back into the same exposure range as the foreground.

By now I had all the compositional and technical aspects in place, so I enabled mirror lockup and using a remote cable release, tripped the shutter for the final exposure.

                                    Final thoughts
This is an images that I will always clearly remember shooting. It was one of those moments when all the elements align and you just happen to be in the right spot to take advantage of them.

It’s interesting to hear peoples takes on this image, from seeing “the earth” in the rounder boulder, to “a giant crab” or “octopus” in the middle ground rocks.

For me though, I remember the scene for the small storm head that acted as a perfect decoy for it’s larger counterpart that managed to sneak in behind me. Had the area been further from shelter I could have been in an interesting position, but thankfully that was another one of those things that came together right when I needed it!

Picking your patch

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

One of the questions I am most often asked by people viewing my macro images is “where do you find these things?”. The answer to that is simple… most places you look! Insects and the like have acclimatized to and infiltrated our everyday life to an extraordinary extent. We cross paths with them every day, but most people are simply oblivious to their presence.

So does this mean that most macro shooters simply shoot around the house? Not at all! While a few may have the required habitats in their yards to support an abundant variety of insect life, most of us are forced to go looking if we want to find an area that offers a good range of bio-diversity in a concentrated area. It’s this bio-diversity that helps keep interest levels high and provides a wide range of subject matter.

When I first started shooting macro, my biggest concern was simply finding enough interesting subjects to shoot. I tried several nearby locations that looked promising, but none offered more than the odd subject here and there. It wasn’t until after several of these frustrating outings that I finally came across an area that was literally crawling with life in all shapes and sizes. It has been my staple shooting area for the last couple of years and I am still finding new species to shoot.

Recently, I had cause to look back and think about why this area is so much more productive than others areas I have tried. Below is a list of attributes that I have come up with that I now look for when picking new areas to shoot

1) The presence of permanent water, both still and running
        It’s a simple and well known fact that water attracts life. A mixture of running and still water provides both feeding and breeding areas for insects.

2) Diverse flora
        A lot of insects will limit their existence to a single species of flora, be it a plant, tree or other. The larger the range of flora in the area, the larger the range of potential subjects!

3) Low human interaction
        While many insect species are happy to co-exist with us, most prefer to do their own thing. Finding an out of the way spot provides a greater chance of finding the more solitary or wary species.

4) Dense vegetation
        A lot of insects spend their lives hiding from potential predators, so the denser the vegetation in an area, the more hiding spots that are available which in turn can encourage larger populations into the area.

5) Abundant food and housing sources
        Linked with points 1 and 2 above. An area with more food sources will usually be home to more insects. In conjunction with this, the correct types of habitat for housing these insects is required if the insects are to become regular visitors. In this sense, it pays to know the habits of your subjects as they can help identify likely areas of habitation.

I’m sure there are numerous other traits that make an area good for macro photography, so please feel free to respond with any thoughts on the subject!

Moving through time

May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s 4:00am. The overly optimistic sounds of an orchestra ushering in a new day have been silenced with a sideways swipe of my hand. Around me is utter blackness, the sounds of light rain are at complete odds to the cocoon of warmth I have trapped beneath the blanket.  Sleep is proving a tempting mistress as she teases the frayed edges of my consciousness, looking for a foothold to lull me back to her. But there’s work to be done. She wont reclaim me on this morning… at least not yet.

IMG_3799“Wynnum pier”
Canon 5D, 17-40L @ 40mm, f22, 15 sec

It’s on mornings like these that it is so easy to give in to the temptations of warmth and comfort. But mornings like these also lend themselves to making great images. Under a leaden sky exposure times lengthen, opening up new opportunities and I find myself thinking in black and white. The world reduces to a series of lines, shapes and tones as colours wash away.

IMG_3798-2“Sand vortex”
Canon 5D, 17-40L @ 20mm, f18, 30 sec

My vision slows and I look across time to see the differences between now and then, viewing the world in slow motion to better understand the effects of time on the movable objects surrounding me. The world moves by but I stand motionless, tethered to the lines and shapes.

IMG_3796“The old dock”
Canon 5D, 17-40L @ 22mm, f18, 30 sec

When the tether finally breaks with the sound of a soft click, I return to the world of colour and time and set a course back to the warm embrace of my mistress, opening myself to her footholds and drifting back to her sleep eternal…

Quiet time

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

A few days back I came across a single statement that in photographic terms, has resonated more with me than anything I’ve read in quite a while. The statement, posed as a question by fellow photographer Steve Sieren, summed up a mood I’ve been feeling for a while now.

“Does every image need to scream? . . . It’s quiet time.”

Lately I’ve been noticing an influx of images that tend to rely heavily on over saturated colours and blazing sunsets to inject a sense of interest into an image. It’s seems no coincidence that any number of these shots trade the fundamentals such as composition and exposure for an all or nothing, blast your eyes out approach.

Many of the most enduring and inspiring landscape images I’ve come across are created in exactly the opposite conditions… when quality light acts as a brush, painting the landscape before us with raw beauty and emotion in a way that no amount of forced impact can impart.

Of course, there’s no need to shy away from those moments of intense light and colour, but it’s at these times when we should be more focused on ensuring we get everything right. Asses the situation critically and ask yourself, when the initial impact wears off will the image still endure, or will it be destined for that ever-growing pile of images that could have been great?

With those thoughts, my answer to Steve’s question of “Does every image need to scream” is a resounding “No”. Quiet time is quality time and I, for one, will always enjoy it.

The blue hour“The blue hour”
Canon 5D, 17-40L @ 17mm, f8, 120 sec

Walkthrough: Face off

May 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

IMG_8358“Face off”
Canon 5D, MPE-65 @ 3x, 430EXII flash, f13, 1/200th

Wasps are one subject that I really enjoy shooting, but don’t often get the chance. Some species can be very aggressive and unpredictable, so shooting high magnification portraits can simply be out of the question in the natural setting. As I shoot all my macro shots in the field, this really limits my opportunities.

I came across this common paper wasp (Polistes humilis) one cold morning sitting on a blade of grass. Usually, I encounter this species perched on a nest with many other individuals, so my first reaction was to check the surrounding grass to find the nest and ensure I didn’t accidentally stand on or up against it. To my surprise, there was no nest in sight. I looked again but the area was clear so I knelt down in the cold dewy grass for a closer look.

As far as wasps go, this species tends to be less aggressive and unless you physically bump their nest, they will generally leave you in peace. Given this fact and considering how cold it was, I thought I would be in with a good chance of getting a few low-risk shots of this one.

At this stage, I didn’t know how the subject would react to my presence, so I moved in slowly and shot a few lower magnification side on shots. There was no reaction to this and it all but confirmed that the wasp was feeling the effects of the cold and was very lethargic. This was my signal to move in and try for the front on pose shown in the image above that I had been thinking about from the start.

To achieve this angle, I shuffled around until I was kneeling directly in front of the wasp and took hold of the blade of grass it was sitting on, holding it between thumb and fore-finger (thumb on top) about 7-8 cm / 3 inches from the actual wasp. This gave enough separation from the subject to minimise intimidation and also ensured my fingers could easily be kept out of the shot.

Once I had a firm grip, I held the position for 10 or 15 seconds to let the wasp get use to the presence of my fingers… this is an important step as introducing too many elements such as fingers, lens and flash at once can easily spook your subject.

During this time, the wasp stood up and literally looked around and up and down my fingers, but sensing no threat settled back down again. I then placed the end of the lens on top of my thumb and slid in towards the wasp to achieve sharp focus.

Once everything was in place I slowly pulled the blade of grass until it was taught and then using my second finger on the underside of the grass as a brace, bent the tip of the grass down slightly to bring the sloped face of the wasp completely into the small window of depth of field available at these magnifications. After a quick adjustment to ensure sharp focus, I fired off 4 frames (just to be sure!) before letting go and stepping back.

From the time I took hold of the grass to the time I let go was no more than 30 seconds, but it was a short period that I really enjoyed. Coming face to face with an insect that a lot of people don’t like and would try to kill on sight can be a real treat and show that perceptions can be misleading.


* Disclaimer: Wasps can be unpredictable and pack quite a punch with their sting. Take care when shooting them and always keep an eye on their movements and if they become agitated, just walk away!

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