Archive for the ‘How To’ Category

Widow Skimmer dragonfly (female)

August 16, 2017

A Widow Skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) was spotted during a photowalk at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Prince William County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female, as indicated by her terminal appendages.

Look for immature- and female dragonflies in fields near water, sometimes far from water. I found this female perching in a large field several hundred yards from Painted Turtle Pond.

As a wildlife photographer with a focus on insect photography, one of my mantras is: “Get a shot, any shot; refine the shot.” In other words, don’t miss the opportunity to document a spotting by trying to get a great shot first.

The preceding photo is the record shot. Next, I worked my way around the subject slowly; several shots later I was able to get a good shot of the dorsal side of the dragonfly.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Adding an extension tube

August 2, 2017

Optics theory

The net effect of adding an extension tube between a lens and camera body is the “working distance” is decreased, that is, the distance from the front of the lens barrel to the subject is decreased. A smaller working distance means the same lens will focus closer to the subject, thereby increasing magnification.

The effect is greater at shorter focal lengths, as shown by the following table of magnification for the two extension tubes sold by Fujifilm USA.

Table courtesy Fujifilm USA.

Theory into practice

An Eastern Ringtail dragonfly (Erpetogomphus designatus) was spotted along the Potomac River at Riverbend Park, Fairfax County, Virginia USA. This individual is a female, as indicated by her terminal appendages and rounded hind wings.

Both photos in this set were taken using my Fujifilm X-T1 digital camera, Fujinon XF55-200mm zoom lens plus a “Fotasy” brand 16mm extension tube, and Fujifilm EF-X500 shoe mount flash. The lens was set for a focal length of 200mm (~350mm, 35mm equivalent).

At 200mm, the working distance of the lens is 905 mm (90.5 cm, ~35.63 in), or approximately three (3) feet. With a 16mm extension tube mounted between the lens and camera body, the working distance is reduced to 595 mm (59.5 cm, ~23.43 in), or approximately two (2) feet. At a focal length of 55mm, adding the extension tube would result in photos that look more like “macro” photos; at 200mm, adding the extension tube resulted in photos that look like a lens with a longer focal length was used to take the shots.

The first photo is uncropped. I’ve never been able to get a shot like this using a mid-range telephoto zoom lens such as the Fujinon 55-200mm. The 16mm extension tube is the difference-maker.

The last photo is cropped slightly, but not enough to affect the apparent magnification. I look closely at the edges of my photos. In this case, I cropped the photo to remove some distracting elements and leading lines.

Editor’s Notes

I bought a set of two “Fotasy” brand extension tubes (10mm, 16mm) years before Fujifilm released their set of two. The advantage of the Fotasy extension tubes is a set of two costs a little more than half as much as a single Fujifilm extension tube. The disadvantage is compatibility. The Fotasy extension tubes work with my Fujinon XF18-55mm (27-82.5mm, 35mm equivalent) “kit” lens and Fujinon XF55-200mm mid-range telephoto zoom lens; they don’t work with my Fujinon XF100-400mm (152-609mm, 35mm equivalent) telephoto zoom lens. For what it’s worth, the 100-400mm lens was released after the Fotasy extension tubes. Bottom line: I recommend Fujifilm extension tubes, despite the fact that they are significantly more expensive than Fotasy extension tubes.

The Depth of Field is razor thin, in contrast with shooting without an extension tube. I shot the preceding photos at f/11; f/16 or smaller would have been better.

In order to reduce “camera shake,” I almost always shoot in shutter priority mode using the reciprocal rule. Remember, it’s the 35mm equivalent that matters: since my lens is ~350mm, the shutter speed should be set for at least 1/350s; in this case, it was set for 1/1,000s. A monopod was used for added stability.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

BlackRapid Duo makeover

July 29, 2017

Years ago, I used to photowalk the boardwalk at Huntley Meadows Park frequently. I knew almost all of the “regular” visitors by sight if not by name. I noticed a man who wore a camera strap designed for two cameras. One day I introduced myself to Ilya Treger and we talked about his two-camera rig. Soon afterward, I ordered a “BlackRapid RS DR-1 Double Strap” from B&H Photo.

After limited field-testing in early 2015, I never used the strap again until recently. BlackRapid camera straps connect to a tripod socket, either on the body of your camera or “foot” of a lens. I knew that when I bought the Double Strap but didn’t realize how annoying it can be to switch a camera from the strap to either a monopod or tripod and vice-versa.

That was then and this is now. I discovered BlackRapid makes an accessory called “FastenR Tripod (FR-T1)” that enables one to connect a Manfrotto 200PL-14 Plate directly to the camera strap. Now that’s what I call a game-changer!

Parts and pieces

The first annotated photograph shows my Sunpak 6700M aluminum monopod plus a Vanguard SBH-100 Ball Head. Three plates are displayed on a microfiber cloth (clockwise from the upper-left): Vanguard QS-39 Quick Release PlateManfrotto 323 RC2 System Quick Release Adapter with 200PL-14 Plate; and Manfrotto 200PL-14 Plate with BlackRapid FastenR Tripod (FR-T1) installed.

Sunpak monopod plus Vanguard ball head and Manfrotto adapter.

The last annotated photo shows ball heads and plates manufactured by Manfrotto and Vanguard. I prefer to use the Vanguard ball head with my monopod since it is smaller and lighter than the Manfrotto ball head.

Ball heads and plates manufactured by Manfrotto and Vanguard.

Some assembly required

The preceding photograph shows a Manfrotto 323 RC2 System Quick Release Adapter that is mounted on a Vanguard QS-39 Quick Release Plate; that assembly is used with a Vanguard SBH-100 Ball Head. A Manfrotto 200PL-14 Plate, with a BlackRapid FastenR (FR-T1) installed, can be connected to the Vanguard ball head equipped with a Manfrotto adapter. The same modified Manfrotto plate works with my Manfrotto 054 Magnesium Ball Head without using the adapter.

Related Resources

Editor’s Note

Product photography isn’t as easy as one might think, as you can tell by my less-than-professional looking photos featured in this post! Although I have equipment on-hand for lighting studio shots properly, in this case I thought quick-and-dirty would be good enough to convey my point.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

“Record shot”

June 21, 2017

As a wildlife photographer with a focus on insect photography, one of my mantras is: “Get a shot, any shot; refine the shot.” In other words, don’t miss the opportunity to document a spotting by trying to get a great shot first.

11 JUN 2017 | Fluvanna County, VA | Dragonhunter (male)

The preceding photograph — heavily-cropped in order to compensate for the distance to the subject — is a “record shot” (at best) of a male Dragonhunter dragonfly (Hagenius brevistylus) that was spotted at the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area, Fluvanna County, Virginia USA.

The dragonfly was photographed from the banks of the Hardware River, approximately 20 feet above the water. Distance seems to be compressed in the photo, an effect of the mid-range telephoto lens used to take the shot. The Dragonhunter was perching ~10 feet above the water. I settled for a “record shot” since there was no way to get closer to the subject.

Tech Tips

The photo was taken using a Fujifilm X-T1 digital camera, Fujinon 55-200mm zoom lens, and Fujifilm EF-X500 shoe mount flash. Adobe Photoshop was used to remove a small distracting element from the left edge of the photo.

Editor’s Note

Thanks to fellow Virginians Karen Kearney and Mike Boatwright for adding the phrase “record shot” to my vocabulary.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Testing 1, 2, 3.

June 11, 2017

During a trip to Riverbend Park on 09 May 2017 to observe the annual mass emergence of Cobra Clubtail dragonflies (Gomphurus vastus), I experimented with my Fujifilm X-T1 digital camera, Fujinon XF55-200mm zoom lens, and Fujifilm EF-X500 shoe mount flash.

The first photo shows a male perching on the pavement near the boat ramp at the park. Regular readers of my photoblog know I’m fond of head-tilts in which the dragonfly seems to display some of its personality.

200mm (300mm, 35mm equivalent) | f/11 | 1/500s | ISO 800 | +1 ev

The last two photos show a female, perching on a fence rail.

200mm (300mm, 35mm equivalent) | f/11 | 1/500s | ISO 800 | 0 ev

200mm (300mm, 35mm equivalent) | f/11 | 1/500s | ISO 800 | 0 ev

Tech Tips: My Fujifilm X-T1 digital camera was set for manual aperture, manual shutter speed, and automatic ISO; the EF-X500 external flash was set for ETTL.

I like to use relatively fast shutter speeds in order to reduce camera shake, resulting in more tack-sharp photos. The default flash sync speed of the X-T1 is 1/180s. (Actually, up to 1/250s works.) My new EF-X500 external flash is high-speed sync compatible so I was able to shoot at shutter speeds faster than the sync speed of the camera, in this case 1/500s. The reciprocal rule says I should have used a shutter speed of at least 1/600s at a focal length of 300mm, but I decided to go conservative and shoot at a slightly slower speed. Most of my photos turned out to be acceptably sharp.

At f/11 and 1/500s, the camera increased the ISO to 800. That’s higher than I prefer to shoot, but hey, the photos look relatively noise-free so no problem.

In my opinion, the EF-X500 external flash was consistently underpowered in ETTL mode. During follow-up testing, I rediscovered something I learned a long time ago: If you want to control the way a photo turns out, then Manual Mode is the way to go.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.


May 26, 2017

A crayfish was spotted in the shallows of Bull Run, under several inches of water. I estimate it was 3-4 in (~7.6-10.2 cm) in length.

Many crayfish can be particularly hard to identify from a photograph and many new species are still being discovered in Virginia’s waterways. This large crayfish is from the Family Cambaridae and is likely a native species. Other crayfish found in Northern Virginia, like the rusty crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) and red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii), were likely introduced via the food industry and pose a serious threat to native crayfish populations. Source Credit: John Burke, Ecologist III, Stormwater Management Branch, Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services.

10 MAY 2017 | Fairfax County, VA | crayfish (underwater)

Notice the first, second, and third pairs of walking legs feature chelae (plural).

A chela /kˈiːlə/, also named claw, nipper, or pincer, is a pincer-like organ terminating certain limbs of some arthropods. The name comes from Greek (χηλή) through New Latin (chela). The plural form is chelae. Legs bearing a chela are called chelipeds. Source Credit: Chela (organ), Wikipedia.

Also notice the slimy stuff on the rocks that makes them super slippery!

The slimy, slippery coating you find on rocks in aquatic systems is periphyton. In freshwater systems, periphyton is mostly comprised of algae but other microorganisms and detritus also collect on submerged rocks. Periphyton serves as an essential food source to many aquatic organisms and can also act as a bioindicator, signaling changes in water chemistry and nutrient levels in the system (Chetelat et al. 1997). Source Credit: John Burke.

Tech Tip:  My Canon 580EX Speedlite external flash unit was set for 1/16 power in order to penetrate the water and illuminate the subject on a bright, sunny day.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Epitheca cynosura exuvia

April 26, 2017

On 13 April 2017, a late-stage emergent teneral female Common Baskettail dragonfly (Epitheca cynosura) was observed at Painted Turtle Pond during a photowalk around Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Prince William County, Virginia USA.

Several dragonfly exuviae were collected near the same location as the emergent teneral female. All of the exuviae look identical, although there is some variation in size. A two-step process was used to verify the genus and species for one of the larger exuvia.

  • Determine the family.
  • Determine the genus and species.

This specimen is approximately 22 mm (~0.87 in) in length.

Step 1. Family

First, determine the family of the specimen. For reference, watch the excellent Vimeo video, Identifying dragonfly larva to family (8:06). Here’s the decision tree used to identify the exuvia as a member of the Family Corduliidae (Emeralds).

  • The specimen has a mask-like labium that covers the face, characteristic of four families: Cordulegastridae (Spiketails); Corduliidae (Emeralds); Libellulidae (Skimmers); and Macromiidae (Cruisers).
  • There is no horn on top of the face-head, characteristic of Macromiidae, so it’s not a cruiser.
  • Cordulegastridae has jagged crenulations on its labium, so it’s not a spiketail. The crenulations for Corduliidae and Libellulidae look similar.
  • Look at the anal pyramid to differentiate Corduliidae and Libellulidae [See Photo No. 7.]: It’s probably Corduliidae if the cerci are at least half as long as the paraprocts. [Editor’s Note: It’s probably Libellulidae if the cerci are less than half the length of the paraprocts.]

In summary, the exuvia has a mask-like labium with relatively smooth crenulations, no horn on its face-head, and the cerci are more than half as long as the paraprocts, confirming that the specimen is a member of Family Corduliidae (Emeralds).

(See a full-size version of the original photo, without annotation.)

Notice that dorsal hooks are present and well developed on most abdominal segments.

No. 4 | Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura) | exuvia (dorso-lateral)

A lateral view of the exuvia provides a good look at the labium, also known as the mentum, a two-segment hinged “jaw” that is used to grab food: the prementum is the segment of the labium closer to the mouth; the postmentum is the segment closer to the base of the head.

The white filaments that extend from the split in the thorax (as shown in Photo No. 1-7) are breathing tubes, artifacts of the unique respiratory system of dragonfly nymphs.

(See a full-size version of the original photo, without annotation.)

A closer view of the head shows two “bumps” that may be a pair of tubercles.

Step 2. Genus and species

Characters from Identification Keys to Northeastern Anisoptera Larvae, dichotomous keys compiled by Ken Soltesz, were used to identify the genus and species for the exuvia. Although palpal/mental setae were not examined, all other characters match Epitheca cynosura.

dichotomous key: a key for the identification of organisms based on a series of choices between alternative characters. Source Credit: Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Alternate Key to the Genera of the Family Corduliidae, p. 29.

Key to the species of the genus (subgenus) Tetragoneuria, p. 32.

No. 7 | Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura) | exuvia (anal pyramid)

(See a full-size version of the original photo, without annotation.)

The last photo shows a ventral view of the exuvia. The vestigial hamuli located between abdominal segments two and three (S2-3) strongly suggests this individual is a male, therefore this specimen probably is not the same exuvia from which the teneral female emerged.

(See a full-size version of the original photo, without annotation.)

Tech Tips:

The following equipment was used to shoot all of the preceding photographs: Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera, in manual mode; Canon EF100mm f/2.8L Macro lens (set for manual focus) plus a Kenko 20mm macro automatic extension tube; Canon 580EX II external flash tethered to the camera by a coiled six-foot Vello Off-Camera TTL Flash Cord for Canon Cameras, off-camera, in manual mode; the Canon flash optically triggered a small Nissin i40 external flash (in SF mode) used for backlight; and a Sunpak LED-160 Video Light with a white translucent plastic filter used for side light.

Adobe Photoshop CC 2017 was used to annotate selected images.

Related Resources:

Editor’s Note: Sincere thanks to Sue Gregoire, Kestrel Haven Migration Observatory, for verifying my tentative identification, and for sharing some good odonate nymph knowledge regarding vestigial hamuli!

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

More focus stacking with CamRanger

April 10, 2017

When I started experimenting with completely automated focus stacking using CamRanger, I couldn’t tell what, if anything, was happening. In fact, I wasn’t sure the process was working as advertised. So I devised a plan to photograph a simple subject (a six-inch ruler in this case) and use “focus peaking” to track what happened. By the way, it’s worth noting that my Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera doesn’t feature focus peaking, but the CamRanger app does!

During initial testing, I shot several small focus stacks. The following screen capture shows the display on my iPad mini (with retina display) running the CamRanger app; the focal plane of the lens is highlighted by red focus peaking.

Here’s a screen capture from another test, showing the final location of the focal plane (highlighted in red).

I made a movie that demonstrates what happens when CamRanger creates a focus stack. It was fun to watch the focal plane advance along the ruler as CamRanger captured the shots automatically!

The movie begins with a small focus stack using a “Large” step size (the largest increment of three options). When focus stacking is active, notice that most of the screen is covered by a translucent gray layer that prevents the user from changing settings accidentally. I cancelled the focus stack after two shots. Next I changed the step size to “Medium” and started a new stack. Notice that the focal plane of the lens begins where the last focus stack ended. The new step size is noticeably smaller.

Automated focus stacking using CamRanger (2:12)

As shown in the right side bar of the CamRanger app, I set the camera to shoot RAW plus small JPG. Both file types are recorded on the memory card in the camera; thumbnail versions of the JPG files are displayed at the top of the iPad screen. Although I usually shoot RAW only, JPG files can be transferred via WiFi faster than RAW files!

I set the CamRanger app to wait 10 seconds between shots, in order to allow adequate time for the camera to write the image files to the memory card, transfer the JPG thumbnail from the camera to the app, rack the lens to the next focal plane, and for the external flash units to power cycle.

My first finished automated focus stacks

I created a 30-layer focus stack using a medium increment. The following photo shows the JPG version of the first layer.

I used Adobe Photoshop CC 2017 to create a medium-increment focus stack using the small JPGs because they can be processed faster than RAW. The resulting composite image is shown below.

Finally, here’s the resulting composite image of a five-layer focus stack created from large increment/medium JPG photos. In my opinion, the output looks almost as good as the composite image created from five times as many layers.

Lessons Learned

  • Given a choice, run the CamRanger app on the most powerful tablet you own. I use my iPad mini rather than iPad 3 (with retina display). Although the iPad 3 screen is larger than the iPad mini, it features a slower processor. That being said, the iPad 3 is perfectly suitable for using the CamRanger app for other less processor-intensive tasks.
  • Some lenses, such as my Canon EF100mm macro lens, can be set for manual focus and the CamRanger app can still rack focus automatically. It may be necessary to set other lenses for automatic focus in order to work with focus stacking in CamRanger.
  • If possible, use continuous light sources rather than external flash units. I love me some flash triggers, but they’re not 100% reliable. If you’re shooting stills and the flash fails to fire, it’s no big deal — just shoot another shot. Not so when you miss a critical focus layer. I use a combination of two small LED light sources and a Canon Speedlite tethered to the camera by a Vello flash cable; the Canon flash optically triggers a small Nissin i40 external flash (in SD mode) used for backlight.
  • Turn off “sleep mode’ for my Canon 580EX II Speedlite. (C.Fn-01 set for Disabled.)
  • It’s challenging to determine how many layers to shoot for a given focus stack, especially when using smaller step sizes. Don’t sweat it! Simply shoot more layers by starting where the focal plane is at the end of the last focus stack. Repeat as necessary until you capture as many layers as needed.

What’s next?

Going forward, my plan is to experiment with automated focus stacking using subjects that are more complex than the ruler featured in this post. Preliminary testing suggests it could be challenging to create perfect composite images of objects that are more three-dimensional than the ruler.


I used QuickTime to create the embedded movie (shown above) by tethering my iPad mini to a MacBook Air laptop computer and following the excellent directions provided in How To Display your iPad or iPhone on your Mac (9:44), a tutorial video by Terry White, Adobe Evangelist.

Related Resources

Full disclosure: There are hardware/software solutions for wireless tethering and automated focus stacking that are less expensive than CamRanger. Remember, you get what you pay for!

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Another foray into focus stacking

April 2, 2017

I used CamRanger to remotely control my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera with an Apple iPad 3 (with retina display). The camera was set for manual exposure and One-Shot AF. I used an aperture of f/5.6 with my Canon 100mm macro lens; I think I’ll use f/8 next time.

Apple iPad 3 (with retina display) | screenshot of CamRanger app

The CamRanger app for Apple iOS can be used to set the focus point by tapping on the iPad screen. I focused on the toy dragonfly in approximately 10 places and tapped the “Capture” button to take a photo. The following photo shows one of the resulting images, focused on the head of the dragonfly.

ISO 100 | f/5.6 | 1/200s | Manual White Balance (Flash use)

Adobe Photoshop CC 2017 was used to create a “focus stack” composite image. As you can see, most of the toy dragonfly is in focus but there are some places that are slightly blurry/ghostly. The obvious solution: Focus on more places (that is, take more pictures), although that might be unnecessary using an aperture of f/8 or smaller.

Composite image created using Adobe Photoshop CC 2017.

Going forward, my plan is to progress from manually setting the focus point by tapping on the iPad screen to using the automated focus stacking feature in the CamRanger app. Baby steps, Bob!

Tech Tips:

The following equipment was used to shoot all of the photographs in the focus stack: Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera, in manual mode; Canon EF100mm f/2.8L Macro lens (set for automatic focus); Canon 580EX II external flash, off-camera, in manual mode; Canon 580EX external flash, off-camera, in manual mode; and a Yongnuo YN-622C-TX E-TTL II Wireless Flash Controller for Canon plus a two-pack of Yongnuo YN-622C II E-TTL Wireless Flash Transceivers for Canon. Additional backlight was added to the scene using a Nissin i40 external flash unit (off-camera, in SF mode).

Adobe Photoshop CC 2017 was used to create the focus stack and post-process the composite image.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

Macromia illinoiensis exuvia

March 15, 2017

Post update: Macromiidae exuvia

When this blog post was published on 19 April 2016, I was a novice at identifying odonate exuviae and I was just starting to get serious about studio macro photography. At the time, I was satisfied to be able to identify the dragonfly exuvia as a member of the Family Macromiidae (Cruisers).

What’s new?

I’ve learned a lot since then, including the identity of the specimen to the genus/species level. This is a Swift River Cruiser dragonfly (Macromia illinoiensis) exuvia that was collected along the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia USA.

The first annotated image shows several characters that were used to identify the exuvia to the family level, including a mask-like labium featuring spork-like crenulations and a horn between its pointy eyes.

Swift River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis) | exuvia (face-head)

(See a full-size version of the original photo, without annotation.)

The following dorsal view of the exuvia provides enough clues to identify the specimen to the genus/species level.

Swift River Cruiser (Macromia illinoiensis) | exuvia (dorsal)

The lateral spines of abdominal segment nine (S9) do not reach the tips of the inferior appendages (paraprocts), and if you look closely at the full-size version of the preceding photo then you should see a small mid-dorsal hook on abdominal segment 10 (S10). These characters indicate the genus is Macromia.

Notice the lateral spines of abdominal segments eight and nine (S8-9) are “directed straight to rearward,” indicating the species is illinoiensis.

Where it all began.

The last photo shows a teneral male Swift River Cruiser dragonfly clinging to the exuvia from which it emerged — the same exuvia featured in this post! Matt Ryan collected the exuvia after the adult dragonfly flew away from its perch. When Matt gave the exuvia to me several years later, he was unable to remember where it was collected. As soon as I was able to identify the exuvia to the genus/species level, I remembered seeing the following photo posted in one of Matt’s spottings on Project Noah.

Photo used with permission from Matthew J. Ryan.

With a little detective work, I was able to solve the mystery of the specific identity of the exuvia as well as when and where it was collected. Like I said, I’ve learned a lot since I published the first blog post related to this specimen!

Related Resources:

Editor’s Notes: A funny thing happened on the way to the forum. I rediscovered the “Key to the Genera of the Family Macromiidae” (p. 27, shown above) while paging through the document Identification Keys to Northeastern Anisoptera Larvae in search of the “Key to the Genera of the Family Corduliidae” (page 28). One look at the line drawing at the bottom of p. 27 and I knew the specific identity of the cruiser exuvia.

I need to refresh this blog post with more annotated images of the Macromia illinoiensis exuvia, including one that clearly shows the mid-dorsal hook on S10, but I was so eager to update the old post that I couldn’t wait to shoot and post-process the new images.

Copyright © 2017 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.

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