Archive for November, 2015

New tools for flash photography

November 29, 2015

In my experience as a wildlife photographer specializing in insect photography, two of the more critical factors in my formula for success include using a fast shutter speed along with some sort of flash, preferably a powerful external flash unit.

  • Shutter Priority AE Mode: Use a fast shutter speed, equal to or greater than the reciprocal of the lens focal length (actual focal length for full-frame sensor cameras or 35mm equivalent for crop sensor cameras), in my case, usually no less than 1/800 s for a 600mm equivalent telephoto lens.
  • Use either a built-in flash or external flash unit for fill flash: “… the real secret of wildlife photography is fill flash. Fill flash is one of the key techniques for easily improving wildlife images. Electronic flash improves the color balance of the image, improves color saturation, fills in dark shadows with detail, adds a catch light to an animal’s eye, and may help increase sharpness.” Source Credit: Wildlife Fill Flash. Note: Burst Mode cannot be used with flash.

I bought some new tools for flash photography that should enable me to make better use of two of the more capable cameras I own, rather than using my Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ150 superzoom bridge camera exclusively in the field.

Nissin i40

The first photo shows my Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless digital camera and 55-200mm zoom lens (88-320mm, 35mm equivalent). In order to shoot tack-sharp photos using a hand-held camera and mid-range telephoto lens, I would prefer to use a combination of a shutter speed of at least 1/640s with fill flash. This configuration doesn’t work with my Fujifilm X-T1. Mirror-less digital cameras aren’t shutterless — they still require a mechanical shutter in order to properly expose larger image sensors such as the APS-C sensor featured in the X-T1. Using the X-T1, flash will synchronize with the shutter at shutter speeds of 1/180s or slower. Editor’s Note: 1/250s usually works as well or better than the X-T1’s 180x default flash sync speed, but that’s the built-in speed limit.

Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless camera and Nissin i40 external flash unit.

Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless digital camera | Nissin i40 external flash unit

I recently discovered a third-party external flash unit that is capable of shooting in high-speed sync mode like my Canon Speedlites: Nissin i40 for the Fujifilm mirrorless camera system. Although the Nissin i40 is fully TTL compatible at shutter speeds equal to or less than the X-T1 flash sync speed, high-speed sync only works when the i40 is set for manual mode. This is a game-changer nonetheless — I’m eagerly looking forward to field-testing my X-T1 using flash with shutter speeds faster than 1/250s. And after a year-and-a-half of experience using my Panasonic superzoom bridge camera with a Canon 580EX Speedlite set for manual mode, shooting manual flash is relatively easy.

Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless camera and Nissin i40 external flash unit.

Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless digital camera | Nissin i40 external flash unit

Note: The lens hood is reverse-mounted in the preceding photo in order to minimize the apparent length of the lens barrel.

Yongnuo YN622C II Wireless Flash Trigger Transceivers

The next photo shows my older Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera plus a hot shoe-mounted Yongnuo YN622C II Wireless Flash Trigger Transceiver that can be used to control off-camera flash units using both E-TTL and high-speed sync.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera plus Yongnuo YN622C II Wireless Flash Trigger Transceiver.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR | Yongnuo YN622C II Wireless Flash Trigger

New words formed by fusing together parts of existing words are known as “blends.” The word “transceiver” is a blend of the words “transmitter” and “receiver.”  Using a pair of Yongnuo YN622C II Wireless Flash Trigger Transceivers, the unit mounted on-camera automatically acts like a radio transmitter while the off-camera unit automatically acts as a radio receiver for the Canon 580EX II Speedlite mounted on top.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera, Canon 580EX II Speedlite, plus a pair of Yongnuo YN622C II Wireless Flash Trigger Transceivers.

Canon EOS 5D Mark II | Canon 580EX II Speedlite | Yongnuo YN622C II (2)

Wireless off-camera flash is another game-changer, especially for macro photography. I tried using a coiled six-foot Vello Off-Camera TTL Flash Cord for Canon Cameras that is fully compatible with the two-foot Canon OC-E3 Off Camera Shoe Cord, but the cord always seemed to get in the way and couldn’t be extended fully without causing either the camera or external flash unit to tip over.

The simple set-up shown above features a Canon “nifty fifty” 50mm lens and a couple of Kenko macro automatic extension tubes from a set of three. In this case, the 20mm and 36mm extension tubes combined with the 50mm lens produce ~1:1 macro photos.

As a bonus, the Yongnuo radio transceivers work with every other camera I own to wirelessly control my Canon Speedlites in manual mode. Makes sense, since the “C” in YN622C II means the flash triggers are designed for Canon cameras and flashes.

First impressions

In my opinion, the Nissin i40 is overpriced for a somewhat underpowered external flash unit. But hey, since the i40 is currently the only external flash unit compatible with Fujifilm X-T1 that enables high-speed sync, it’s a price I was willing to pay!

In contrast, $80 for a pair of Yongnuo 622C II transceivers is a bargain — there is no less expensive option for wirelessly controlling external flash units that enables both E-TTL and high-speed sync. I highly recommend this product, despite the virtually unintelligible English translation of the user manual. Special thanks to Alan Pezzulich for suggesting I consider the YN622C IIs!

Related Resources:

Editor’s Note: The photographs featured in this post were taken using an older Canon PowerShot G9 compact digital camera along with a hot shoe-mounted Canon 580EX Speedlite and Sto-Fen Omni-Bounce plastic diffuser; the camera-flash combo was mounted on an inexpensive Sunpak tripod. Adobe Photoshop was used to remove some distracting elements from the upper corners of all photos.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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Blue Dasher dragonfly (female, obelisking)

November 27, 2015

Seems like just yesterday Blue Dasher dragonflies (Pachydiplax longipennis) were everywhere. Now they’re nowhere to be found. (Heavy sigh.) It’s going to be a long winter!

This individual is a fresh-faced female, as indicated by her coloration and terminal appendages.

Some species of dragonflies, such as the Blue Dasher shown in this photo set, regulate their body temperature by perching in the “obelisk position”: the tip of the dragonfly’s abdomen is pointed toward the Sun, minimizing the surface area of the body exposed to direct heating by the Sun’s rays, thereby avoiding overheating.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk (male)

November 25, 2015

It’s a recipe for success that just works: handsome subject; interesting background. What more needs to be said?

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Slowing down the game

November 23, 2015

Professional athletes talk about “slowing down the game.” What does that expression mean? In sports, the game seems to slow down when you are relaxed. Experience is the most common way to feel more relaxed, but knowing what to do in a given situation helps to reduce the pressure of split-second decision-making, and silly as it may sound, taking a deep breath also helps you to remain calm and in control.

How does “slowing down the game” apply to wildlife photography? The rush of adrenaline that you feel when you see something uncommon or make a new discovery can cause you to rush to shoot a photo without really seeing the big picture. In wildlife photography as in sports, experience — with both the subject and your photography gear — is the best way to slow down the game. The time to figure out how your camera works is not when a “once in a lifetime” shot presents itself! Know how to set-up your gear for every contingency, and try to anticipate the set-up that will optimize your chances for success.

For example, here are two photos of the same male Great Spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis) that I shot from two points of view. The damselfly is perching in a similar position on the same grass stem in both photos, but the backgrounds are very different because he is clinging to different sides of the stem. That’s a game changer. Although both photos show the damselfly clearly, the first photo “feels” more like fall; the second photo “feels” more like summer. Which photo more clearly conveys the fact that Great Spreadwing is a fall species of odonate? You know the answer!

For what it’s worth, the first photo was taken using Aperture priority mode; the second using Shutter priority. I rarely shoot hand-held photos using Aperture priority, but in this case I felt like I might need a little more depth of field and I knew there was no wind to cause the subject to move, so I switched to Aperture priority mode (already set for the ideal f/stop, based upon experience), took a deep breath to calm myself, and used every technique in my bag of tricks for avoiding camera shake.

Can you tell which photo is my favorite? Again, you know the answer. As a bonus, if you look closely at a full-size annotated version of the first photo then you can see one of the paraprocts, visible underneath the right cercus (pl. cerci). Remember, all male damselflies have four terminal appendages: an upper pair of cerci (“superior appendages”); and a lower pair of paraprocts (“inferior appendages”).

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Say hello to my little friends!

November 21, 2015

Ever feel like bugs are crawling all over your body? Sometimes the feeling is real! The Autumn Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) were especially “friendly” during a recent visit to Huntley Meadows Park, landing on me frequently as Michael Powell and I were searching for Great Spreadwing damselflies (Archilestes grandis).

My Photos

The following individual is a male, perching on the leg of my Columbia convertible pants. Regular readers of my photoblog know I’m especially fond of head-tilts in which the dragonfly seems to display some of its personality. Like this guy, who I imagine is thinking “What are you looking at? That’s right pal, I’m perching on your pants!”

The next photo shows two individuals perching on my pants, both females, as indicated by their coloration and terminal appendages.

The last individual is another female. I shot this photo by bending over at the waist and shooting the photo upside down. Apple “Aperture” detected the orientation of my camera and automatically flipped the image vertically.

Mike Powell’s Photos

Mike was in a better position than me to shoot photos of some of the dragonflies that landed on me.

I highly recommend shooting the same subject … with another photographer and comparing results. It’s fascinating and instructive to get a sense of how a single situation can be interpreted and how each photographer makes a whole series of creative choices that result in very different images. Source Credit: Garter Snake in November, by Mike Powell.

The following mating pair is shown “in tandem,” perching on my upper thigh: the male is on top; the female on the bottom. My viewpoint made it impossible to take a good photo of this pair — good thing Mike was nearby to record my close encounter of the odonate kind!

walter1_blog

11 NOV 2015 | Photograph used with permission from Michael Powell.

The next photo shows a female perching on my right forearm. Tough shot for a lefty! (See below.)

walter2_blog

11 NOV 2015 | Photograph used with permission from Michael Powell.

The last photo shows a female perching on the heel of my right hand, near my wrist. Although I’m left-handed, the shutter button is always on the right side of cameras — a one-handed shot was impossible for me in this situation. Again, Mike to the rescue!

walter3_blog

11 NOV 2015 | Photograph used with permission from Michael Powell.

Related Resource: Meadowhawk Mike

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (female)

November 19, 2015

The following photo gallery shows a Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum), perching on the ground near a vernal pool/small permanent pond at Huntley Meadows Park (HMP).

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a heteromorph female.

15 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (female)

This individual is a heteromorph female, as indicated by its coloration and terminal appendages.

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a heteromorph female.

15 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (female)

There were noticeably fewer Blue-faced Meadowhawks at this location during Fall 2015 than in the past, perhaps a consequence of two consecutive colder than average winters. Just two females were spotted this year, both heteromorphs; no andromorph females were observed. No mating pairs were seen in 2015.

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a heteromorph female.

15 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (female)

The reddish-brown leaves in the background remind me of marbled paper.

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a heteromorph female.

15 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (female)

Notice the terminal appendages are flared in the last photo. The author has observed several species of odonates that exhibit this odd behavior, both male and female.

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a heteromorph female.

15 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (female)

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Brumation break

November 17, 2015

Do snakes hibernate? Technically, no. They brumate.

Brumation is an example of dormancy in reptiles that is similar to hibernation. It differs from hibernation in the metabolic processes involved. Source Credit: Dormancy, Wikipedia.

Reptiles usually begin brumation in late fall. Imagine our surprise when Michael Powell and I flushed three Eastern Gartersnakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) as we walked through deep piles of leaf litter in the forest at Huntley Meadows Park on 11 November 2015!

Mike spotted the first snake; we could hardly see it, well-hidden under the leaves on the ground. The second snake was clearly visible, albeit briefly, when it fled for the safety of another leaf pile. The third snake (shown below) slithered out from undercover; when the snake saw us, it froze and remained motionless for several minutes — a survival strategy sometimes used by snakes when they feel threatened. I estimate the snake is 2.5 – 3.0 feet in length.

Eastern Gartersnakes can be differentiated from Common Ribbonsnakes (Thamnophis sauritus sauritus) by the presence of “dark vertical lines on the supralabial scales.” This key characteristic is shown clearly in the following photo.

The following photo shows Mike crouching near the same Eastern Gartersnake, shooting some up close and personal photographs using a 180mm macro lens.

This is the last photo I shot before the snake took off like a rocket, headed for the safety of a nearby ditch.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Fishless? Apparently not.

November 15, 2015

Stream Spreadwings (Archilestes), such as Great Spreadwing damselflies (Archilestes grandis), …

…prefer fishless waters, where larvae swim in open like little minnows. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Location 1337). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

A couple of fishless vernal pools/small permanent ponds at a remote location in Huntley Meadows Park (HMP) have proven to be ideal habitat for Great Spreadwings. One of these pools/ponds is no longer fishless, as evidenced by the following photos.

Eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

04 NOV 2015 | HMP | Eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki)

One factor we are still learning about is the effect of fish on dragonfly larvae. There is evidence that quite a few species of odonates survive best (or only) in the absence of fish. These species are adapted to live in fishless waters just as others are adapted to live with fish. Source Credit: Paulson, Dennis (2011-12-19). Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (Princeton Field Guides) (Kindle Locations 899-901). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) “are voracious feeders.” Source Credit: Guidelines for the Use of Mosquitofish for Mosquito Control, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Introduction of the mosquitofish (Gambusia spp.) is likewise not recommended to control mosquitos; this fish is non-native throughout much of North America, is a voracious generalist predator that eats a wide variety of aquatic invertebrates as well as tadpoles and developing salamanders, and has such a rapid reproductive rate that it can quickly take over a small space. Source Credit: Backyard Ponds – Guidelines for Creating and Managing Habitat for Dragonflies and Damselflies, Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.

Eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

04 NOV 2015 | HMP | Eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki)

Time will tell what effect eastern mosquitofish has on the aquatic insect populations that inhabit these vernal pools/small permanent ponds, including several species of habitat-specific odonates, but it is definitely cause for concern.

Editor’s Note: Sincere thanks to John Burke for identifying the eastern mosquitofish shown in the preceding photos.

The fish in both of your photos are eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki). The size, mouth orientation, lack of lateral line markings, and habitat are all key features. Source Credit: John Burke, Ecologist II, Watershed Planning & Assessment Branch, Stormwater Planning Division, Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Last man standing?

November 13, 2015

It was an honor to spend Veterans Day with my good friend and photowalking buddy Major Michael Powell, U.S. Army, Retired. We were men on a mission: Searching for Great Spreadwing damselflies (Archilestes grandis), in the hope of extending the “official” late-date for this species in Virginia. Mission accomplished, but it wasn’t easy — the operation was unsuccessful until we called in an “air strike!”

Since 06 October 2015, Mike and I have been frequently monitoring the Great Spreadwing damselflies that inhabit a small permanent pond and surrounding fields at a remote location in Huntley Meadows Park.

On 11 November, Mike and I spent several hours intensively searching for our quarry; no luck. A little after 1:00 p.m., we were standing near the pond watching a lone Shadow Darner dragonfly (Aeshna umbrosa) aggressively hawking smaller odonates perching around the perimeter of the pond: the darner dipped into small hiding places in vegetation growing along the shoreline, briefly chasing odes that flew up-and-away from the relative safety of their perches. (Remember, odonates feed on flying insects.)

The Shadow Darner flushed a male Great Spreadwing from a concealed location; I happened to be standing near the spot where the damselfly landed. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!

For a few minutes, we followed the skittish damselfly from its first perch (shown above) to two more perching places. Stop two is shown below.

I was able to shoot only 11 photographs of this individual before he flew away. The last photo in this set is actually the last shot I took of what may turn out to be the last Great Spreadwing damselfly of 2015.

Although we were happy to see a Great Spreadwing, it was sad when we realized the male was neither “Mr. Magoo” nor “Bendy Straw.”

Related Resource: Final fall farewell, by Mike Powell.

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Ol’ blue/red eyes

November 11, 2015

Male Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum ambiguum) have blue eyes and a turquoise blue face. Look closely at the following male, spotted near a vernal pool at Huntley Meadows Park (HMP).

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

11 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (male)

Notice he has one blue eye and one reddish-blue eye. That’s unusual. I wonder whether Heterochromia iridum occurs in odonates.

A Blue-faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum ambiguum) spotted at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a male.

11 OCT 2015 | HMP | Blue-faced Meadowhawk (male)

Copyright © 2015 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.


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