Chris and I cruised the Antarctic Peninsula with her cousin Beth Devlin and her husband David Vandyke. Beth, a veterinarian, wanted to see penguin chicks, did some research, and asked if we would like to go along. We booked the cruise with Polar Cruises, who provided excellent advice and considerable help in making our way to Argentina to board the ship. After a rough start (our first flight was cancelled causing a one day delay and a lot of rescheduling) we arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina to board our ship, the Akademic Sergey Vavilov which was designed for acoustic research by the Russian Academy of Sciences, and converted to a polar adventure ship. [Read more…]
This spring was a spectacular year for the lady slippers in my back yard. There was one cluster of 20 flowers, with smaller plants of one to three flowers nearby. The flowers are located on the edge of the forest, next to a pile of cut logs with a rack of firewood behind it. Natural lighting can be difficult to deal with as the sun is low on the horizon sending shafts of light through the foliage of the trees. Occasionally overcast skies provided flat light that reduces or eliminates harsh shadows on the flowers. It was an opportunity to try several techniques capturing these beautiful flowers, and I went out early each morning while the air was cool and still. Once the sun starts warming the ground, air currents are created and even the slightest breeze results in significant movement in these large flowers on long stems. I often used a 160 LED lamp to illuminate a single flower. Most images are captured with a Sigma 150mm lens on a Canon 5D Mark II. I used tripod or beanbag for support and a wireless remote shutter release to avoid any movement during exposure. In addition to single captures of the scene, I made many captures with focus stacking in mind as well sets of images (a series of the same image at all f-stops) for use in teaching programs. I also made a few images using a 50mm f/1.8 on the Canon 7D.
The first set of images were made by selectively focusing on different parts of the flower, then merging them into one image file using Helicon Focus stacking software. Last year I had done quite a lot of image taking and analysis in an attempt to understand where focus stacking works and where it doesn’t. The extensive blog posts totaled 30 pages. Helicon Focus recently had an update and added a new stacking algorithm which I used on a trial basis. I was satisfied that it performed well on these image and purchased a one-year license ($30) for the Helicon Focus Lite. I plan to reprocess the images sets I took last year to see if the new algorithm solve some of the problems I described in my posts last year.
The reason for using a stacking program is to benefit from an extended depth of field at the subject while shooting at a large aperture to retain the soft out-of-focus (OOF) background. The images are labeled as a single exposure or number of images stacked, and the f-stop used.
To better see the effect of aperture on depth of field, images of a scene were captured at a various f-stops, and one image was constructed of several captures stacked together. The higher the f-stop (smaller aperture), the greater the definition in the background structure. As the aperture is opened, the depth of field lessens and the background becomes a pleasant, soft blur. Unfortunately, the wide aperture doesn’t capture much of the flower in sharp detail, which is where focus stacking can be of benefit. Care must be taken in capturing images for focus stacking to ensure sufficient overlap in the regions of sharpness. The technique doesn’t always work cleanly, and in some cases there are artifacts that require a lot of editing to correct, if they can be corrected at all.
My wife Chris and I were able to get to Cape May this year, principally to attend a 3-day bird migration workshop conducted by the Cape May Bird Observatory. We’ve been going to Cape May every year for the last 20 years or so, except for the last three years. Bird photography here is generally not easy given the vagaries of weather, which affect when the birds migrate through. This year much of the warbler migration had passed thought a few weeks early. On top of that, the trees had leafed out considerably, making finding birds difficult, and making photography even more difficult. I had more luck this year with osprey and other flying birds. However, there seemed to be an abundance of Prairie Warblers in the area, and I did get a few good images.
I also did a bit of bird flight photography in preparation of a presentation, Birds in Motion, I made at the Photographic Society of Rhode Island. I was very pleased that I was able to capture a Bluebird in flight with an insect in its beak. He was bringing it to his chicks in a nest box.
Enjoy the images.
A Technique to Increase Depth of Field of an Image
Ever notice how little is in focus when taking close-up images, even with the lens set at f/22? At the closest focus distance of a 100mm macro lens of 12 inches, the depth of field is only .33 inches at f/22 with a full-frame sensor, and only .21 inches with a cropped sensor body. Well, there’s nothing to be done about the laws of physics, but there is a technique that can be used to increase the range of focus in digital images. Focus stacking is the merging of the sharp sections of multiple image captures of the same scene. I became interested in this technique as an avenue to increase the depth of sharpness in my macro images, but it can also be useful in landscape images when circumstances require. What I most desire from this technique is the ability to have a subject sharp from front to back while maintaining a pleasing out-of-focus background.
I started my experimentation by capturing a series of images of an orchid on a recent trip to Costa Rica. At f/22, the range of focus did not capture the right and left orchid sepals in focus, and even if it did, such a small aperture resulted in more detail in the background than I wanted as seen in the first image below. I captured six images at f/13 with the intent of getting all parts of the orchid in focus, while rendering the background as softly out of focus as possible. I used a stacking technique in Photoshop CS5 to align and merge the images together. The second mage below is the composite image and even in this small sized image the complete focus of the flower and the more pleasing background blur are obvious.
This process is not a magic panacea for increasing depth of field. As this was my first time using this technique, I had several surprises; the composite orchid image was surprisingly well assembled, pulling together all the sharp elements of the image. However, there were some anomalies that required further editing to clean up the image, more about that later. Overall I was pleased with the result and throughout the summer I used the technique when the opportunity presented itself. My goal was to photograph a Rattlesnake Orchid that has been growing along the edge of the wooded section of my yard since 2005, and it has blossomed only twice; in 2008 and again this year. The blossom is a stem of many tiny orchids that grow in a spiral around the stem. I wanted to document this beautiful flower as well as the stages of growth, if I could.
One situation that focus staking serves as a useful tool it photographing a cluster or group of small subjects such as a cluster of mushrooms growing on the side of an old moss covered wood pile. The mushrooms I found have a deep ridged structure to the underside of the cap, and I wanted to capture this detail in a cluster of mushrooms. The span from the front edge of the mushrooms to the back edge of the most distant mushroom were about one inch. The first image is a single capture taken at f/22 and the second image is the composite image using 12 captures each at f/14 at 1/20 second and were aligned and merged using the Photoshop technique. The images were captured with a Canon 7D and Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro lens mounted to a sturdy tripod. The starting point for capturing was determined by observation; I looked at the cluster of mushrooms from an angle that I could determine the edge closest to the camera, as well as the edge farthest from the camera.
To ensure accurate focus, and to accurately judge that the next section of the flower to be in focus overlapped the previous section, I used the Live View feature of the camera. Instead of viewing the image through the viewfinder to compose and focus, live view lifts the mirror in the camera and displays what the sensor will capture in the display on the back of the camera. It also has a feature to enlarge a small portion of the image, allowing critical focus.
When using a small aperture such as f/22, even a distant background shows some definition. In this example, while f22 captures the spider with adequate depth of field (DOF = .43 inch in this case), it results in too much detail in the background. As can be seen in this side view of an arrowhead micrathena, the distance from the top of the spinerets to the “arrow tips” of the abdomen is about 3/16 inch. To complicate matters, the spider was hanging from the center of the web. To isolate the spider and web from the background, focus stacking provides enough depth of field by blending several layers captured of the subject without extending significant depth of field to the background. The first image below is a single capture of f/22 and the second image is a composite of four captures at f8.
For the spider image, the web was also moving slightly in the breeze. Photoshop’s auto-align handled the slight offsets in position for each capture very well, and no artifacts from the process were evident.
Another good use of the focus stacking technique is the case where the subject is essentially flat, but the camera cannot be positioned so that the sensor plane is parallel to the subject. For this example I photographed water droplets on a window pane that formed due to condensation. A similar situation would be frost on the window in winter. I set the camera at an angle of about 15º in order to create the misalignment. The first image is a single capture at f/22. There is evident lack of sharpness on both sides. The second image is the last slice of 8 captures at f/8 with the right edge of the image in focus and the left side significantly out-of-focus. The thrid image is the 8 slice composite image and is sharp from edge to edge.
Focus staking has been demonstrated to be a useful tool to increase depth of field in these situations. There are anomalies that sometimes arise; some of which are easily fixed and others that are impossible to fix. In Part 2, I’ll present some of the image processing errors I discovered, and describe some methods to edit the final images. I’ll also describe my tests of the Helicon Focus software, a product specifically designed for focus stacking.
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This was my second visit to the Galapagos Islands. My wife and I visited in April of 2005, and I never figured I’d return since I have a lot of other locations on my list of places to visit and photograph. This trip was one of the prizes awarded to me as grand prize winner in the 2010 Audubon Magazine photography contest. The cruise was provided by Lindblad Expeditions aboard the National Geographic Endeavor. Lindblad and Nat Geo do organize a great trip, with top notch naturalists, including a few trained by National Geographic photographers to provide advice and guidance to the less experienced photographers among the passengers.
Each day was similar in schedule, but widely different in experience. We’d awake anchored in the location for the morning excursion. Occasionally a choice of activities was offered which might include a long walk, a short walk, or just a stay on the beach but mostly one walk was offered. There was always an alternative activity, usually a zodiac ride along the coast, for those not wishing to take the offered hike. Most landings (all but two) were wet landings; the zodiac would get close to the beach, and the passengers in turn would get off into the water and wade to the beach. The water was never more than knee deep, and towels were provided on the beach to dry off feet and put on shoes for the walk. Upon embarking the ship from the morning excursion, we’d sail during lunch to a second location for the afternoon activity. Between shore excursions were afternoon lectures, occasional deep water snorkeling or kayaking opportunities.
The weather was mild and cloud covered for sunrise, with the clouds burning off as the day went on, with the afternoons mostly sunny. Seas were mostly calm even when on the edge of the archipelago north of Isabella Island. Sunrise photography was not great, and only one evening was good for sunset, with the exception of the last evening at sea, when we were circumnavigating Kicker Rock, unique rock formations which are the remnants of a volcanic cone. Just before we sailed away from this rock, the light turned golden and the rock appeared on fire. Based on the week of dull evening light, this last evening was spectacular. The ship was sailing into the sunset, I hurried to the bow of the ship, where both feet slipped out from under me, I landed flat on my face spread out on the deck, my camera skidded across the deck . . . and no one noticed. I dragged myself up and looked around; everyone was intently watching the sunset and hadn’t noticed my acrobatics at all.
23 September — 6 October, 2011
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At the end of September, my wife, Chris, and I visited Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park hoping to see and photograph the yellow and orange fall foliage, abundant wildlife preparing for winter, and perhaps a touch of winter itself. We arrived with the leaves just starting to turn, scant wildlife, and temperatures in the 80’s for the first few days. We did find a herd of 200 or so bison spread out in the Lamar Valley and on the return to Mammoth Hot Springs we found a herd of ten pronghorn does with a buck keeping order. One evening we also had a few bighorn sheep come down the cliffs to the Gardiner River. The first evening we planned on eating at the park dining room anticipating the evening show; 30-40 elk cows with two or three bulls vying to keep track of their respective harems, and try to coax a few more cows from another harem. We saw one nice bull, and four cows. Where did they all go? The introduction of wolves to the park did reduce the elk herds, but to a greater degree than initially expected. This was a result of the overwhelming success of the wolf packs, which have done better than predicted. The wolf/elk ratio has probably hit an equilibrium; if there are not enough elk for one reason, let’s say a bad winter, there will be fewer surviving wolf pups due to less food available, then the elk with have greater success, and then the wolf numbers will increase.
We spent the first three nights based in Gardiner, MT, at the north entrance to Yellowstone NP. From there it is convenient to travel to the Lamar Valley, Tower Junction and the Canyon Village section beyond, and to Norris Geyser basin. Basically, the northern half of the park. Mammoth Hot Springs is the northern headquarters of the park services with lodging, dining, and conveniences (general store, fuel, post office, etc.). The springs for which the area is named, and the travertine cliffs here have changed over the years as geologic activity redirects the hot spring water below ground though subterranean limestone, dissolving calcium carbonate and depositing it as travertine (a bone white mineral) as the water cools on the surface. But that is not what creates the rainbow of colors at this, and all other, thermal features: it’s the thermopiles (heat-loving microorganisms). The color of the thermopiles is due to the temperature of the water. Cooler waters support the growth of orange, brown and green thermopiles while clear and yellow thermopiles thrive in the hottest water.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has several viewpoints to easily view and photograph both the upper and lower falls and the Yellowstone River. There are also a number of trails that lead down into the canyon for a more intimate view of the falls. We visited the canyon on different days and at different times of day to get a variety of light into the canyon. While overcast conditions greatly reduce shadows in the canyon, the light is not dramatic nor does it bring out the intense colors of the rock. The sun cast heavy shadow on half the canyon for our visit to the canyon at midday, and a return visit a few days later at 3pm with cumulous clouds in the sky provided a brightly lit inner canyon.
Our next stop was in Jackson, WY, near Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons National Park. Since we were so late in planning this trip,we opted to stay in Jackson, even though we would have an additional 20 minute drive into the park for sunrise. Sunrise opportunities are numerous in Grand Teton; Schwabacher Landing, Oxbow Bend, Molton Barn and Mormon Row. In our exploration we found a beaver pond near the road (about a foot away from the road) where one evening we watched two adult and two young beavers feeding on the bark and leaves of small branches within fifteen feet of us. We visited the location several times during our four days in Jackson and did repeat the experience.
Again, wildlife was somewhat scarce, with the exception of the beaver. We saw several elk cows and a couple of bulls in the early evening hours, but did not see a single moose. We did see osprey on a nest but the position made photography impossible, and saw a red tail hawk flying. In any case, the landscape photography opportunities were reasonably decent, even though proscribe forest fires at the south end of the park resulted in ground smoke at the base of the mountains. This is evident in the images that show a grey pallor on the lower half of the mountains.
We then moved on to Old Faithful Snow Lodge for the last five nights of our stay. This location gave us good access to the southern half of the park, and even drives to the Canyon Village area were not that far away. A large number of visitor accessible thermal features is in this area, including Old Faithful geyser. Photographing hot pools and geysers can be challenging as they produce large amounts of steam. Your luck will depend largely on the direction and speed of the wind, and the air temperature. On my winter visit here, there were times when you could hear a hot pool bubbling, but couldn’t see it for all the steam surrounding it. The higher daytime temperatures (low 70’s) while we were there offered up some interesting views of the thermal features. I concentrated on areas of the thermal features that had striking color or interesting compositions.
The wildlife activity did eventually perk up as the nights became cooler and the daytime heat finally abated. We saw several herds of elk along the Madison River, and bison herds could be seen at many locations with about 50 animals each, except for the big herd in the Lamar Valley. By far the best experience was viewing a pack of wolves in the Lamar Valley returning to an elk they had killed the day earlier. At one of the pull-outs overlooking Hayden Valley we overheard this tidbit of information from a couple that was deciding where to go next. One at a time the wolves would come to the carcass, chase off the ravens and magpies and try to pry meat from the bone. Since the carcass was in the river, one wolf tried to pull it up onto the bank to get at the meat that was previously submerged. Another big spectacle was the number of photographers who had lined up shoulder to shoulder in two locations.
Chris and I traveled recently to Costa Rica with my friend and tour leader, Greg Basco, cofounder of Foto Verde Tours, a provider of tours designed for photographers. Last year I traveled to Costa Rica with Joe and Maryann McDonald primarily to photograph hummingbirds, and met Greg who organized and co-led the trip. This year I signed up early for the Art of Biodiversity tour which offered a wider variety of photographic subjects at the start of the rainy season. Chris decided to join me at a later date, which worked out well as there were only two other participants for a total of four plus Greg and Jose Lopez, our driver and also a very good photographer.
My blog entries for this trip will be divided by location, starting with the Bougainvillea Hotel in Heredia, near San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. We also traveled to Selve Verde Lodge, the Arenal Observatory Lodge, and the Bosque de Paz Ecolodge as well as side trips from those locations.
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The Bougainvillea Hotel This was my third trip to Costa Rica and each time I stayed at the Bougainvillea to start and end each trip. Tour providers choose this hotel in a residential area for its 10+ acres of gardens that include over 50 species of bromeliads, native trees, orchids and frog ponds. Each visit offered different plants in blossom. And while my two visits in March had quite a few birds in the garden, in June the migratory birds were gone, and the local birds were raising chicks and mostly staying hidden. There were more plants in blossom, but fewer orchids. In any case, I wasn’t disappointed with the opportunities to use my macro lens.
Yellowstone National Park in Winter — Part 1
I’ve always wanted to visit Yellowstone in winter to photograph the scenery and wildlife. After considerable internet searching, this year I signed on for a February trip with National Geographic contributing photographer Daniel J. Cox (Natural Exposures). The trip schedule included four day-long excursions by snow coach into the park from West Yellowstone and a day on either end to travel from/to Bozeman. Since I was going to travel to Montana, I added on three days of photographing the park from north entrance at Mammoth Hot Springs, the only area of the park that clears the roads for automobile travel during the winter. More about my independent travels in Part 2.
Part 1 is long and includes both my trip report and a review of the Natural Exposures Yellowstone in Winter Photo Tour for those considering this trip or this tour company. [Read more…]
GRAND PRIZE WINNER
My image of a Green-breasted Mango was selected as Grand Prize Winner of the Audubon Magazine Birds In Focus photography contest. It was selected from the 8,000 entries in this year’s competition. The image is one of the thousands of images I captured during my trip to Costa Rica in March 2010. You can find the announcement of the winners at Audubon Magazine.
Another of my entries was selected as one of the Top 100 images of the contest and can be seen here. Rather than tell you which one is mine, I’ll leave it to you to explore all of these wonderful images. After you see these images, you’ll understand how honored I am that my image was selected from among those images.
Click on the thumbnail to view a larger image.
The leaves are changing and there’s no predicting where it will be good color, or when. For the first time ever I ventured into western RI to find locatons for fall color photogrpahy. All of these images used High Dynamic Range techniques to capture the hightlight and shadow detail in the high contrast situations. While I definitely needed this technique for cases where the scene was in a dark location (graveyard, stream) and it was backlit, I tried it on reflected light scenes to see if it made a difference and to get some experience in processing those types of images. The first two images were taken 8 October at Carbuncle Pond, and the others were taken on or near the Scituate Resevoir on 13 October.