Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2014 Jeff Wignall.

"Vision without execution is hallucination."


Thomas Edison

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Photographing Monarch Butterflies

I'm very glad that I got the chance (and made the effort) to photograph this monarch butterfly in my garden a few weeks ago. The monarchs migrate through Connecticut in September and it's heartening to see them come each year.  I only saw a few this year, but other years I've had a half dozen at a time, so I'm hoping this year was just a fluke and not an indication that their numbers are shrinking. Anyway, yesterday as you probably heard, we had a freak snowstorm here in Connecticut and not only was the tithonia frozen, but I'm sure the butterflies are sunning themselves in Mexico by now--so I'm very happy that I got the shots when I did.

I saw this beautiful monarch feeding on a tithonia (Mexican sunflower, I think some folks call it a "torch" flower) plant in my garden while waiting for the Patriots kickoff one Sunday and decided that I'd better take advantage of the moment. I ended up spending the next two hours photographing just this one monarch and got dozens of really nice shots. He spent so much time feeding that I had time to experiment with different lenses, close-up attachments, flash, etc.

I ended up shooting most of the frames with my trusty 70-300mm Nikkor zoom with a pair of Kenko close-up lens extension tubes. Extension tubes are a great alternative (or addition to) macro lenses. Extension tubes reduce the lens-to-subject focusing distance (by moving the lens farther from the focal plane) but they contain no glass and so, other than soaking up a bit of light, have no negative effects on the image quality. You can buy a set of three for about $180 from B&H  and I think they are a very worthwhile investment if you're into close-up photography.

I shot some exposures with flash and some without (a Nikon SB-80 flash unit) and this shot has flash. I try not to let the flash exposure become too obvious, though I think it's fairly well disguised here. One way to control the flash is to use the flash-compensation feature (very simple to use on the SB-80--it operates off a toggle switch on the back of the flash, you just tap it for more or less flash and that is so much easier than the days when I had to figure out flash power in my head) to reduce the flash output. Here the flash was set to provide about a stop less light than the daylight exposure and I also had the camera exposure set (using exposure compensation) to -2/3 stops so that the background would go very black and to keep the orange flower (lit by fairly bright sun) from blowing out. (For some reason my Nikon D90 is very sensitive to yellow/orange and those colors blow out more with this body than they do with some of my other cameras.)

Exposure with flash and bright sun can sometimes be confounding and it took some experimenting to get this right, so don't get discouraged too quickly. It is a very tricky balance to work out--camera exposure, background exposure, flash exposure and all the time you have a moving subject and are working with a only a few millimeters of depth of field. I always work on a tripod in these situations because there is simply no way that you can juggle a camera, a lens, compensation settings for camera and flash and hold a diffuser in front of the flash (I used a piece of white translucent plastic to soften the light a touch) without putting the camera on a tripod. And therein lies one of the secrets of photographing butterflies and other insects: focus on a specific blossom and let the insect come into your shot. I see other photographers chasing butterflies around hoping that, magically, I guess, the composition and background will be perfect and the butterfly will be in the right light and in sharp focus. Dream on. Pick a blossom where the light is right, set your focus (I focus manually on the flower, that works pretty well) and shoot a couple of test exposures. Butterflies, bees and dragonflies tend to come back to the same roosting spots many times, so all you have to do is be patient and wait for them to complete your composition--and they will.


Email list: By the way, I'm going to start (finally!) building an email list so that I can send out a free newsletter (in addition to these blog postings), so if you'd like to be added, just drop me an email at: thejoyofdigital AT optonline DOT net and I'll add you. I'll have a company helping build the list soon, but for now let's try the old fashioned way. Just put "list" in the subject line and I'll know. And, as always, if you have any photo questions, include those.

Photo notes: To recap: Shot with a Nikon D90 body, a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom lens, a Nikon SB-80 flash using a scrap of translucent white plastic (pulled out of a garbage can) to diffuse the flash. On a Manfrotto tripod. I used Kenko close-up tubes, too. Over a two-hour period I shot approximately 150 exposures in RAW.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cool New Lytro Camera: Shift Focus in Editing

It's not that often that a new piece of camera gear comes along that blows my mind, but recently a new camera called the Lytro was introduced that has a feature that is the coolest thing ever: you can change the point of sharp focus after-the-fact in editing. So, for example, if you photograph a couple of guys fishing on a dock by a river with an out-of-focus sailboat in the background and you focus sharply on their faces, you can switch the focus later (during editing) to any other part of the scene--the sailboat in the background, a seagull in the sky, a rock in the foreground, whatever. This could have enormous creative implications when photographing landscapes, for example, because you'd be able to just shoot the scene--and without focusing on anything since the camera has no focusing capability--and then choose what you want to be sharp later on. You have to see this weird little thing in action to believe it--so watch the video. Pop Photo will run a piece on this in their December issue, so I'll talk more about the camera then. There's much to say about this camera and while the camera itself may or may not stand the test of time in the market, but this retro-focus software is bound to change the face of photography--and you'll be among the first to know about it! Watch the video and be prepared to be surprised by this wild new technology.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Where are the autumn colors? (And a few book suggestions)

I haven't had enough time this year to go riding around looking for colors, but there doesn't seem to be much color action here in southern Connecticut. I shot this photo about a mile from my house last year on October 29th, but drove by the pond just yesterday and there's no sign of color. Of course, I get antsy every year waiting for the leaves to turn and I don't know why I should want to rush them along, but just curious how colors are doing elsewhere in the northeast (and around the country). Post a comment if you're north of Connecticut and let me know how the colors are doing. I used to make a big event out of the colors each year and would take off for a week or so in my van, chasing the colors around New England. I just don't seem to have the time (or a new enough car!) to do that these days. I used to fantasize about doing what Steinbeck did in Travels with Charley and just packing up a truck and spending a few months on the back roads (not sure the cats would be too thrilled with the trip, though). Steinbeck's book is a wonderful read, by the way. Years later a guy named William Least Heat Moon spent several months cruising the back roads (the blue highways) and wrote a book about his journey called Blue Highways that is one of the best travel books ever written. If you're looking for a few great travel books to read, those would make a great pairing. And again, please leave a colors comment if you have anything to report.

Photo Notes: This photo was shot with a Nikon D90 with a 70-300mm Nikkor zoom. Exposure at ISO 200 was for 1/40 second at f/11 with +.67 stops of compensation. The scene was recorded in RAW, converted from NEF to DNG and worked in Photoshop CS3.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Abstract Exposures by Motion & Moonlight

A few days ago I was sitting in my car by the seawall near my home watching fishermen surf casting along the beach. As the daylight faded, a nearly full moon began to rise in the east almost directly behind the fishermen. I hadn't intended to do any photography at the beach but since I've begun  working on a new book I keep a camera with me constantly. Within a few minutes the moon had lit up the water in a beautiful silver and blue pattern and I knew I'd end up shooting some photos. But despite how bright the moonlight looked on the water, the exposure timess were still far too long for handheld exposures--even when I raised the ISO of my Nikon D90 to its max of ISO 3200.

I considered getting out a tripod, but with such long exposures and with the fishermen constantly moving, casting, adjusting their lines, etc., I knew that a tripod wouldn't help all that much: the fishermen still wouldn't be very sharp unless I called down to them to stand still (not something they'd be too interested in if a fish hit one of their lines!). Anyway, just as an experiment, I started shooting handheld exposures (mostly of this one fisherman) with the lens resting on my steering wheel. I had to focus on him manually because, as bright as the water looks here, the camera was still having trouble focusing and I was shooting through the windshield (something I would never do unless I was after an abstract image and true sharpness didn't matter).

Rather than try to constrain my exposures to times when he was relatively still, I just ignored his motion completely--in fact, I actually hoped he would move around or jiggle the rod to add to the abstract nature of my experiments. I ended up shooting several dozen exposures of him and another fisherman using exposure times ranging from 1.5 to 6 seconds, with the average being 3 seconds. The lens was almost wide open at f/4.5. As I watched the long exposures pop up on the LCD I began to love the shapes of the soft silhouettes against the very silvery and blue water. During the time I was shooting the fishermen (I shot several exposures of two guys together) would occasionally turn on red and blue LED headlamps (to find lures or bait, etc.) and I tried some exposure with those lights and they're interesting, but the light patterns were a bit distracting. (But those red LED headlamps were giving me some ideas for light painting that I'd love to try someday.)

Anyway, the whole experience became something of a visual ballet and the subjects had no idea they were being photographed. I would just waiting until they were in frame, try to focus at 200 or 300mm  in the darkness (it became a challenge as the moon rose higher and the backlighting was less intense) through a somewhat dirty windshield and hope that the length of the exposure and their natural movements would create a fun composition. Surprisingly, most of the frames are interesting and each of them is somewhat unique from the others--their motion, the motion of the waves, the intensity of the moonlight were constantly changing. And yes, I thought of getting out of the car and using the tripod anyway, just to steady the camera a bit, but I was afraid that if they saw me up on the seawall with a tripod it might inhibit their behavior or, worse, get them into a conversation with me--something that usually ends all creative photography. You can't talk to someone in a situation like this and photograph them at the same time. Interestingly, I grew up on this beach and surf casting was a part of my life for years, so I knew the motions and rhythms of the fisherman and could anticipate almost every movement they made.

I'm really happy that I tossed aside my usual obsession with sharpness and experimented using motion and moonlight to create abstract compositions. You can't plan a photo opportunity like this, you have to just watch the world around you and do whatever it takes to turn the moment into something visually different--even if everything that you're doing is technically wrong. Do click on the image to get a better feeling for the inherent motion of the shot.

Photo notes: Shot with a Nikon D90 with a 70-300mm f/5.6 Nikkor zoom; ISO 3200, handheld. Recorded in RAW. White balance was adjusted in the RAW conversion to a cooler color temperature to bring out the blue of the water. The image was sharpened slightly using the unsharp masking tool just to crisp up the water sparkle a bit. A minor amount of cloning was done in the lower right to remove the edge of a cooler on the beach.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs: He Gave Us a Digital Rainbow

The world lost the man who was perhaps its greatest genius on Wednesday night: Steve Jobs. Try for a minute to imagine our lives without the desktop computer, without the Apple computer--without the iPad, the iPhone, iTunes--without digital photography. Photoshop, the lifeblood of my work, works on a PC, but it sings on a Mac--it was born to be used on a Mac. It is visual opera on a Mac.

I know for certain that I would not have survived as a photographer had it not been for my sitting down at my first Mac in the early 1990s. I was about to spend a week at the Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine and was required to go to Manhattan (to the Apple education/marketing center) and take a one-day course in operating a Mac. I'd never even touched one before. After one hour at that computer I went out to the hall and called my friend Lynne from a pay phone and said, "I'm buying a Mac." Sitting at that relatively primitive Mac was an incredible experience. For weeks I could barely sleep thinking of the possibilities of learning to edit digitally on this beautiful, colorful and intuitive machine. I've loved every Mac I've ever touched since that day.

There is simply no way that digital photography would have ever flourished the way it has without  the Mac. It's no understatement to say that almost every serious photographer in the world uses a Mac. I don't believe I've ever been to a studio (I've been to dozens) that wasn't lined with Macs. Now the computer has left the desktop. The iPad has forever changed the way that books, photography and art are shared and perceived. And all this from the imagination of just two men: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

Steve Jobs' entire life was an inspiration: when the business world (rather viciously) had written him off as a loser, when the company that he invented was stripped away from him, he didn't give up. The world, the press, were all too happy to label him as a loser, a failure. But he never gave up. Instead, he bought another computer company and breathed his rare genius into that company until it was bought by Apple and Jobs was reunited with his brainchild. He turned Apple into the largest corporation in the world worth over $300 billion. And he never stopped innovating, never stopped creating, never stopped imagining. As photographers, we owe him more than we can ever repay.

If you've never read the 2005 commencement speech that he delivered at Stanford University, stop and read it now. Wherever you are--at work, on the train, sitting at your Mac--read it. Steve Jobs was Picasso and Edison and Einstein all rolled into one very brave and creative individual. From the garage in his parents' home he expanded the Universe--he gave us a digital rainbow that will never, ever fade.