BIF photography ... and the B is for Bees

May 19, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Carpenter bee in flightMale Carpenter bee in flight For nature and wildlife photographers capturing birds in flight, BIF, is one of the toughest challenges and most rewarding when good images are captured. That’s because most birds are very fast and many have unpredictable flying paths. Peregrine falcons are the top speedsters of the air with some duck species, Red-Breasted mergansers, not far behind.  And then you have the smaller varieties such as warblers, finches and humming birds that are not super fast but have a very erratical flying style. 

But there is another BIF that is even tougher to handle. Bees In Flight. Or small insects. They also fly around very fast but what makes photographing them in flight almost impossible is the extremely unpredictable flight path combined with the very very small size. Any insect smaller than a bee is going to be almost impossible to capture in flight. I gave this BIF a try recently and with some luck and some planning I got a few acceptable images. 

Male Carpenter bee in flight There’s a couple of things you can do to increase your success rate. The biggest issue is having the camera focus on the flying bee. Of course it’s set on AI servo, with Zone AF or 61-point automatic selection AF selected. If shooting against the sky the camera will focus on the bee with some success. It will still fail a lot because the bee is very very small and is flying erratically most of the time. Bees, as the Carpenter bee here, will hover in place for a second or two. That’s the moment when you go into action. If the background is vegetation, the autofocus will surely lock onto that and not the bee. There is a trick you can use to avoid that situation. Prefocus. As you hold the camera and hunt for the bee, manually focus the lens until the the bee is in focus. As the bee hovers or moves around, you are still focused at that distance. As the bee comes back into the view or as you move the camera looking for the bee, the lens is already prefocused. Then press the shutter release button half way and the autofocus will have a much easier time to lock onto the bee and stay locked as you follow it around. Same can apply when shooting against the sky. It takes a bit of practice but with a lot of patience good results can be achieved. As the bee stops hovering and flies away, you have a split second to follow it and get a good sharp in-flight shot. After that you’re done, and have to start all over again with the prefocusing method. Male Carpenter bee in flight The other important setting is your shutter speed. Over 5000 of a second is what you want especially if you want to capture the beating wings. Humming birds are well known for those ‘invisible’ wings as they hover. They beat their wings at an average of 50 to 60 times per second. The Carpenter bee beats it’s wings at almost 250 beats per second. That’s per second, right? Depending on the position of the wings at the moment of the shutter release you may get them pretty clear and sharp. If that’s the image you’re looking for. 

The other option is to get a bee, or insect, as it approaches a flower. Since you are not hunting for it but are just waiting for the bee to come to the flower you know your focusing distance. Go to manual focus, focus on the flower, select a decent depth of field setting and as the insect approaches shoot away in burst mode. You’re bound to get a few sharp images. Good luck!

Click on the image to see at full size.

More images of the Carpenter bee gallery here.

The Peonies and the Ants

May 12, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Sounds more like the title of a book, play or movie. As it turns out it is a natural association between the flowers and the ants that happens most of the time in ground level gardens. If you have a roof garden they're going to miss out. This partnership benefits both the peony and the ant. 

The Peony and the AntsThe Peony and the Ants Folklore would have you believe that peonies will not bloom unless there are ants on the buds. I know many a gardener that swears by that and remembers years when one of their peony didn’t bloom due to the lack of ants on the plant.

Science on the other hand proves otherwise. As the peony grows and makes buds, one can see green scales covering the bud. These scales have a specialized gland known as a nectary along it’s edge. And it produces The Peony and the Ants nectar. Ants have an extraordinary sense of smell. They can smell using their antennae. It happened more than once that I left an apple core, a slice of orange or a small piece of cantaloupe on the porch table. Sure enough, when I return 5-10 minutes later I find a group of ants intensely feeding on the leftover. I can follow the trail of ants along the wall leading to a spot on the floor at least 5 to 10 feet away. So yes, the ants can definitely smell the nectar on the bud of a peony. Or a scout ant finds it and then leaves a chemical trail for the rest of the colony. So yes the peony nectar is a very good source of food for the ants. 

The Peony and the AntsThe Peony and the Ants What do the peonies get in return? Possibly the ants also eat some of the small insects and mites that can have a damaging effect on the peony. A few gardeners panic when they see the ants on the plant and quickly reach for the pesticide spray. They don’t what to get ants on their sleeves as they garden or bring them in the house once the flowers bloom. No need for that at all. Most ants will leave the peonies once they bloom. And if you see some on the cut flower, just turn it upside down and shake it gently. 

Peonies are perennials that bloom in the spring and produce an exquisite flower with a strong fragrance ranging from sweet and rosy to citrusy and spicy. They make a wonderful lush, cloud-like arrangement for a centerpiece on your dining room table. 

The Peony and the AntsThe Peony and the Ants I have three peony plants in my garden. I see ants on two of them. On the third one the buds are a bit small so far. I’ll keep an eye on that one. Once they bloom I’ll update the blog with those images.

Note: Click on the images to view at full size.

FLASH! ... Orchids at the NYBG

May 04, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018 I am a member at the New York Botanical Garden and saw this opportunity to attend one of their workshops: 

Orchid flash photography workshop. Get an exclusive opportunity to photograph The Orchid Show using your DSLR 100–300mm telephoto lens and dedicated speedlights. Master techniques to achieve the best lighting and exposure for these vibrant flowers without the use of tripods or monopods. Required Equipment: DSLR, zoom telephoto lens (100–300mm focal length), lens hood, dedicated speedlight, brackets, hotshoe cable or remote.

Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018 Sure, since I recently got my Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT and have always enjoyed the world of flowers and have not done much flash photography. So I registered. The issue with a lot of botanical gardens is that they will not allow anyone to bring a tripod or monopod in the conservatory to use for taking photographs. I do bring my tripod with me to these places but can’t open it up for use indoors. I did use a mini tripod in strategic places at a few botanical gardens but you get the idea. As soon as a staffer sees you with the camera on the tripod they pounce on you. And rightfully so. The conservatories are usually crowded, not very bright and space is limited to begin with. So the alternative is to use a quality DSLR at a higher ISO and perhaps a slower shutter speed. The problem is the depth of field when getting really close as when shooting macro. It is very shallow. And once you get to a wider lens opening and slower shutter you’ll want the tripod. But you can’t. The other option is to use a flash.

The instructor was Jeffrey Falk. Jeffrey has 45 years of experience in floral photography. He has led numerous workshops throughout the city teaching digital photography and exploring the uses of photographic imaging and equipment. Class was to take place between 9 and 3 pm. Turned out about 10 people showed up. The direction in the class add was for using a DSLR with flash and a 100-300 zoom lens. Also the use of flash brackets and diffusers was suggested. A lot of people came in with equipment they just bought and were not familiar with it at all. I only brought my flash, a small folding diffuser, Vello Mini Softbox, my Canon 7D II, 5D III and the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II zoom and the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS macro.

Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018 As it turned out the ‘using your DSLR 100–300mm telephoto lens’ was not exactly correct. Any lens/camera combination was just fine. Jeffrey was very good and knowledgeable. He had to accommodate folks of very wide experience levels.

After an hour and a half of classroom instruction we walked to the conservatory. It was a cold day. Once in the conservatory I realized the issue with the blurry images I was getting. The lens fogged up a lot. And rightfully so. Coming in from the cold and entering a semitropical environment condensation on the lens was severe. Luckily my other camera was in my bag and did not suffer from the condensation issue. 

The big zoom or primary lenses can work very well as a macro lens. The main reason I wanted to use the 400mm focal length was to get more depth of field as I would be shooting from a much greater distance than I would be shooting with a macro lens. And it worked well. The flash I was using could reach the distance. Using the flash for the first time in shooting flowers during daylight is a bit tricky. I am a beginner with flash. I found that I needed to bring down the strength of the flash quite a bit to avoid blowing out the lighter colors. Since we didn’t have a lot of time to experiment many mistakes were made. Lightroom saved some of the files. Also another issue I had was the shutter speed. All may bad. I always think I can push down the exposure time. I had many shots with way too low a shutter speed. Without the tripod that becomes very critical for getting sharp Images. 

Back to the classroom for image critique. Again we had a diverse group that took some poor images while others had great shots.

Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018 I also went to the orchid show a few more times and improved on the mistakes I made in the first try. I also attended the orchid show at night. Now that’s a whole different ballgame. Must shoot with flash almost all the time. And now flash is not to just to fill in. While shooting orchids the danger of blowing out the flower is much greater. Bringing down the flash output will save the image of the flower but the background will be much on the dark side. Like I said I am beginner in flash photography. There are many expert websites that give good instruction of flower flash photography. I will be checking them out. Practice and more practice. 

My final take from the workshop and for flower flash photography without a tripod:

Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018 ◊ Absolutely use a diffuser on top of the flash to soften the light. And hold the flash away from the lens with a bracket ..  or if you have more than two hands. Even better get yourself an assistant or good friend to hold the flash away from the camera. That way you’re not killing the flower with the straight on light and some interesting effects  can be achieved with side lighting.

◊ Watch your f/stop. Watch your shutter speed. Without a tripod it’s going to be impossible to get a lot sharp. Make your choice and have that part of the flower tack sharp. Don’t be too concerned with high ISO. If you don’t crop it’s OK. 

◊ Your depth of field will be shallow. Since you are not using a tripod you’re either standing up, on your knee or crouching. That translates into movement. With the shallow DOF that’s going to get you a bunch of blurry shot. One suggestion. Don’t shoot just one shot. Set your camera to continuous shooting and take 2, 3 or 4 shots fast. Since you moved slightly, one of those shots will probably be sharp.

◊ Focusing is another critical part. Auto focus or manual? I shot auto focus but on both cameras I had complete control of which focus point I wanted. Without a tripod manual focus is going to be a tough task. Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018

◊ I shoot on manual mode. That can be good and bad. The bad was me choosing a slow shutter setting a lot.

◊ I used regular AA alkaline batteries for my flash. Not good. You want to use AA high capacity Ni-MH  batteries. And have a second set ready and charged. If you plan on doing a lot of flash photography get the rechargeable type.

◊ Watch your composition and try to isolate the flower from the background if you’re doing portraits.

◊ The more gear you bring with you the more things you’ll have to handle and more problems you’re going too have. I had two cameras with two or three lenses and of course the flash and diffuser. Also, over 4-6 hours of shooting that’s a lot of weight to carry. One DSLR with lens and flash plus one other lens will be my Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018Orchid Show, New York Botanical Garden, April 2018 gear next time since I don’t have an assistant or a friend who is willing to hang around with me me for half a day taking a few hundred shots of flowers. Or just concentrate on one thing at the time. Shots with a zoom lens for better depth of field and another day just work with the macro lens. Don’t dismiss the wide angle lens for close up also. You can get really close with good DOF and still have everything sharp. And if using a full frame DSLR cropping can get you in very close. And don’t forget the wide angle shots for bringing context to the gallery. 

Link to my NYBG's Orchid Show gallery here.

Time to say good bye to the Snow … Geese!

March 25, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Snow Geese in V formation over Jamaica Bay NY March is here and the winter stay for the Snow Geese is coming to an end. Their 3,000 plus mile journey back to the breeding grounds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions will soon begin. Part of the Anatidae family which also includes the swans, which are mostly larger than geese, and ducks, which are smaller and have short necks. Not the most colorful in goose family but nevertheless interesting to me. Their plumage, mostly white except for the black-tipped wings, is plain but attractive. What I find most interesting is their gregarious behavior, their vast numbers as they fly from place to place, their vocalizing and their feeding habits. 

I have seen flocks numbering in the thousands taking flight at sunrise and covering the rising sun and sky with their sheer number. And the noise they make as they fly overhead is deafening. The show repeats itself in the evening as the Snow Geese return to the night resting grounds.

Small flock of now geese, Jamaica Bay NYSmall flock of Snow Geese, Jamaica Bay NY I’ve had the opportunity to observe a few large flocks, numbering in the many hundreds, in my local waters around the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, New York, in the last few years. They show up around the end of October, beginning of November. I could guess their coming a minute or so before spotting them. The sound of barking hounds is unmistakable. Listen. And then, suddenly the sky fills up with hundreds and hundreds of tiny snow flakes drifting slowly across the sky. If their number is in the thousands it looks more like a snow storm is about to hit. The snow flakes get bigger and bigger and before you know it they are all floating on the pond or bay I was looking at. The noise subsides a bit but never stops. Then a few minutes later all of a sudden one of them gives a signal and the whole flock takes to the air and the barking gets very loud again. Rising snow. Off to the feeding grounds. 

Snow Geese digging for roots on the bay at low tide.Snow Geese digging for roots on the bay at low tide. The Snow Geese, herbivores, are voracious foragers. They have to be, food passes though their digestive system in only a couple of hours! Feeding for most of the day in concentrated areas of coastal saltwater marshes and bays, wet grasslands and freshwater marshes. They feed in water-logged soil or shallow water. Diet consists entirely of plant material, and their primary foraging strategy involves grubbing for underground rhizomes, tubers, and roots. They are capable of eating the entire plant and not just the roots. They Snow Geese in a very rare fight over feeding rights.Snow Geese in a very rare fight over feeding rights. are peaceful eaters and rarely have I seen any ‘arguments’ while feeding. They are also fairly tolerant of my presence. Most of the time I am in a hide but occasionally out in the open within one hundred feet or so to the nearest one. Not so tolerant though when on the water. 

Snow Geese digging for roots on the bay at low tide. That is one big root.Snow Geese digging for roots on the bay at low tide. That is one big root. Their very strong bill come in very handy when digging deep in the mud in search for roots. Not uncommon to see them dig down more than 4-5 inches deep. And of course when one comes up from all that dirt and mud, the head Snow Goose coming in the pond for a drink and a bath at sunset.Snow Goose coming in the pond for a drink and a bath as the sun sets. and neck are not white anymore. They clearly show the menu on their face and chest. While feeding in shallow water the mess is not so bad. Feeding for a few hours on the bay side at low tide, then taking a quick flight to the fresh water pond for a drink of water and then back to the feeding grounds. As the day comes to an end, one last trip to the pond for a drink and a thorough cleaning and preening before settling in for the night. Feeding Snow Geese in a tidal salt marsh They are Snow Geese again. Until the feeding starts all over again the next day. 

As for their loud barking, squawking and honking no real studies have been done to determine the meanings, if any. They must be talking to one another. Alerts to danger of predators, to take-off time, to spotting a good food source. Or they might be just singing a good song or telling a good story. I have captured images of them in flight looking at one another and clearly having a conversation. It’s a long 3,000 mile journey to and from breeding grounds. They are a very chatty Snow geese flying and conversating, Jamaica Bay NYSnow geese flying and those two are definitely having a talk, Jamaica Bay NY group.

A lot more images of the Snow Geese in action here


Light painting and my Penobscot 14 daysailer Missee Lee

March 08, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Light painting. Hand planes and wood shavings.Light painting. Hand planes and wood shavings. Been doing some more light painting this winter and having a lot of fun with it. In these two images I set up three hand planes I used while building my wooden daysailer Missee Lee. Shaving and shaping wood with a hand plane is very rewarding, though you may find yourself swimming in a sea of wood shavings if you can’t stop. 

Swimming in wood shavings as the mast is taking shape.Swimming in wood shavings as the mast is taking shape. Dave Black introduced me to the art of light painting while attending the Summit Nature Photography Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in September 2017. I am glad he did because it’s another branch of photography that I didn’t know anything about and as it turns out it’s very exiting and rewarding. Dave teaches light painting done in one exposure. Other methods involve multiple Light painting 2. Hand planes and wood shavings.Light painting 2. Hand planes and wood shavings. exposures and then combining them in Photoshop. I like Dave’s method best. It’s intense, a 20-30 second exposure, and you have to be quick to ‘paint your canvas’ using different lights, angles and colors and experiment with multiple focus settings. No two images are the same.

Missed Lee was my first attempt at building a boat and it was a bit of a gamble. “Would I be able to finish her and would she turn out to be beautiful”? Working with wood was a radical change from my regular workday which involved sitting in front of a computer and producing graphics. I enjoyed being on the water since the early 80s and spent time sailing fiberglass boats. In time I developed an appreciation and admiration for wooden sailboats. A long history of beautiful classic and timeless lines rich in tradition. As I read about naval architects and their designs, about methods of building and lumber selection, wooden-boat building projects by professionals and amateurs, sailing adventures in my local waters or in Maine or in the South Pacific, all those things built in me the desire to have a wooden boat in my life. Building one myself would be even more exiting, rewarding and of course challenging. The inspiration to build Missee Lee came from a few sources. Reading a lot of Woodenboat magazines provided some technical knowledge and Great reads, for young and not so young.Great reads, for young and not so young. inspiration. Another was reading British author Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series of children's books about the school-holiday adventures of children in small wooden sailboats, mostly in the Lake District mountainous region of North West England taking place between the two World Wars. Those inspired the heart, soul and imagination. The name Missee Lee comes from Arthur Randsome’s book by the same name. Missee Lee was the chief taicoon over the Three Islands in the China Sea. She was the daughter of the pirate who united the islands and she held the rank of ‘twenty-two gong taicoon’.

Upside down on the building jig.Upside down on the building jig. So in 2005, with some hesitation, I made the decision to go ahead and fulfill my dream to build my own wooden boat. In the end I chose the Penobscot 14 daysailer designed by naval architect Arch Davis out of Maine. She had the sweet lines of a Whitehall, hull material is out of African okoume plywood, sitka spruce for the mast and boom, oak for the keel, ash for the gunwales and yellow pine for the seats. Space in my garage would accommodate the building process and she promised to be easy to handle and sail. From my estimates I figured that she would take one year or so of weekend building and cost a reasonable sum. As it turned out she took twice as long and cost twice as much as originally estimated. Well, that was a good thing since the enjoyment was doubled.

Bare and beautiful.Bare and beautiful. I ordered the plans and started from scratch. It was a challenge for the mind and hand to work from a set of plans on paper and transfer those figures to wood on a building jig. Learning to work with new tools (some hand, others power), special glues, marine hardware, mixing and applying epoxy, making sure everything fits just right, measuring three times and cutting once (there are no square angles in a boat), shaping a long square block of wood to make the round shaped mast, boom and gaff for the rig. I could go on with the building details but that is a much longer story for another time. I am also very very happy that I still have all my fingers.

Missee Lee makes it out of the building space.Missee Lee makes it out of the building space. Missee Lee turned out beautifully. I went through a couple of rough spots during construction and I only called the architect once to clarify an issue. There was so much pleasure and enjoyment in working with wood. The feel and smell, the sound, the heart, the look. The hardest part didn’t involve wood. It was working with epoxy (nasty odor and vapors) and specifically applying the clear epoxy to the inside of the boat to achieve the beautiful look of clear varnished wood. She turned out to be a sweet sailer, loved a breeze in the 5-10 knot range, left a thin and smooth wake behind her and made a soothing sound as she parted the water. 

At the dock awaiting departure.At the dock awaiting departure. I spent many days sailing her on Oyster Bay on the north side of Long Island and the Great South Bay on the south side. Only the wind pushing or pulling her along. When the wind died I picked up the oars. She was a daysailer 14 feet long and had good room for two adults and a child. More than that she would run out of space. I enjoyed sailing her for a few seasons since the launch in 2007. As the years went along, I sailed her fewer times for one reason or another. Sailboats are meant be sailed and not sit idle at the dock, on a mooring or in storage. My friend suggested to transform her into a coffee table. Actually not a bad idea for a boat retirement, and I could still have her every day year round. Unfortunately my living room is not that big. 

Heading out for the day.Heading out for the day. So I sold her to a family from New Jersey with young children who wanted to move up to a ‘bigger’ boat. They told me they had a lot of fun sailing her and got  many complements on the construction and finish of the boat. Wooden boats don’t last as long as fiberglass or steel boats. In time they start to rot. A wooden boat has a soul. A wooden boat is made from organic, once living trees, by hand, each one unique and special in her own way with a good story about how she began life. And in the last chapter, returning back in the earth completing the circle of her life. 

I’ll always have fond memories of building Missee Lee and will dearly miss those warm carefree breezy days on Long Island Sound when I was sailing free with the wind with no Sailing out of Oyster Bay, Long Island SoundSailing out of Oyster Bay, Long Island Sound destination for the day, dropping anchor for a relaxed drink and lunch, taking a nap in the afternoon and getting back to the dock as the evening breeze died and the sun set. 

Wherever you are Missee Lee, may you always have wind in your sails and a hand's breadth of water under your keel!

“The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.” 

– Arthur Ransome


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