Back in June, I had the opportunity to visit Lanzarote with my girlfriend. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having not been to the Canaries before, but I did some research and found out that the diving is supposed to be amongst the best in the North Atlantic. I therefore persuaded my girlfriend that it was time for her to learn to dive too – and promptly packed my cameras and gear for a good-old wildlife photography trip…
As you may have seen in some earlier entries on this site – underwater photography is a growing passion of mine, and one that I’m only beginning to get to grips with. It’s still something which it is possible to make your first inroads into without spending a fortune. Indeed, I picked up one camera at the airport, a Nikon Coolpix S33, for about £70. This little camera is officially waterproof to 10m, and in the clear waters of Lanzarote, seemed very capable. I can also say that mine kept the water out to at least 30m, but the pressure stops the buttons working beyond about 12 to 15m. It makes it ideal for snorkelling and beginner divers though.
Taking photos underwater often causes trouble with light, as there is nearly always a blue cast to images (which can be fixed on a computer fairly easily) – but you also want to try and catch the light the right way. Hopefully you will be able to get yourself into a position for the light to reflect off the fish or corals, or you can shoot up with the light behind your subject.
When going a little deeper, however, I had a Panasonic DMW-MCTZ35 Lumix Marine Waterproof Case for a TZ35. This was an excellent combination of a very effective dive house and compact superzoom camera with a specific underwater mode. The total cost is higher at around £300 or higher – but it’s still relatively cheap for a combination capable of diving to advanced diver depths.
If in Lanzarote, and you get the chance to visit the dive site called the Cathedral, it is well worth a look! Get right inside and shoot out towards the light to create a silhouette as your dive buddy swims across the mouth of the cavern.
I should put out an extra special mention for the fantastic team at Manta Diving, Lanzarote – who looked after us fantastically on our trip. Also – please don’t think the only things to take photos of are underwater!
Lanzarote is also a great place for a spot of stargazing.
Like so many photographers, I love to travel and to photograph the world around me. Whether close to home or in distant lands, there’s nearly always something worth gazing at in wonder, just taking it all in.
Staring at things will hopefully give you an eye for what you like in an image – and if you’re like me you will then want to take a great photo as an aide memoire or souvenir of the scene, and how you felt at the time.(I have no idea why English people need to remember everything in French!)
As this blog is generally about making photography cheap, I’m not trying to suggest that to take great photos you need to do lots of expensive travelling. It’s simply that, if you are travelling, you should take the time to enjoy your photography, no matter how cheap or expensive your gear is. The photos you take on your travels will naturally feel more interesting and exciting to you than the more everyday shots near your home – and travelling throws up some wonderful opportunities to capture great images.
I thought it might be worth sharing a few ideas for things to try when travelling, which are free, cheap or at least well worth the expense. They’re all things that work for me, and hopefully might work for you too!
You don’t need to travel far to get some great photos
It’s always struck me as weird that people will take a camera on holiday and take photos of absolutely everything, but when they go on a day trip to fantastic places in their home country with family and friends, and not bother taking a camera at all. Take a camera with you everywhere – it’s great practice.
Don’t be afraid of including friends and family
Having photos of and with the people closest to you is really important. Sure – you probably can’t sell them and enter them into competitions, but you can pass them on through the generations and get some great moments. Plus they will actually mean something to you – and you will therefore look back at them again and again. You can still take some beautiful photos (even with your ugly mates and relatives in!)
Take a boat trip…
There’s so much to see at sea (or on lakes and rivers) and the time you spend sitting and staring means you notice things and take photos that you might otherwise have missed running around. Nearly everywhere you go on holiday, it’s possible to get a boat, and they hardly ever cost much. Just be prepared to jostle your way past other tourists!
Learn to stitch a panorama
Lots of phones and some cameras can do this for you in-camera, these days – but to get a truly huge effect (horizontally or vertically) you need to take several stills and combine them:
Practice makes perfect, or at least doing something over and over again statistically increases your chances of getting it right. This is a key theme for me in photography – and I think a helpful tip for anyone trying to take good photos on a tight budget.
It’s very easy to get blown away or intimidated by some of the truly awesome photos out there taken by professionals, or occasionally by a lucky amateur in the right place at the right time. A key thing that can be learned from all of these photos, though, is to put yourself in the right place, at the right time. Also, know what to do when you find yourself there.
…a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.
I thought today, it might be fun to think about wildlife photography. This is a real passion of mine, and I try to take photos of the animals I find around me all the time. Many of mine lack the finesse and perfection of the work of the experts, but I think I have managed to get some nice images over time and this is almost certainly because I repeatedly set myself challenges and will carry on trying until I’m pleased with the result (and will carry on trying to get better even after that).
To make an obvious statement; you can categorize wildlife photos into two sorts: Photos of exotic animals where the simple inclusion of the animal itself makes the subject interesting and photos of everyday animals where you need to capture something more to keep the viewer interested.
If we examine this statement closely, though, how true is it really? After all, the animals which are exotic to you will seem everyday to someone else. The locals in Thailand (or even the South of France!) always laugh at me for spending my time taking photos of lizards, of which we see very few in England but are literally everywhere, there. Similarly, a traveler from the tropics may be amazed at the site of a swan – which are common-as-muck in temperate countries, but completely absent from Africa and huge swathes of Central and South America and Asia.
On this basis – I would recommend you set yourself a challenge and get out near where you live regularly and try and shoot the animals that you find. There’s no need to worry too much about what equipment your using. True – to shoot distant subjects you will need a long lens and to shoot really close-up you will need some sort of macro kit. This can be a lot of fun (and I’d encourage you to try it) but most animals can be shot with just a compact camera or a smart phone and a bit of patience. Just try to get yourself into the right place and learn how to get close to the animals, whether domestic or wild. After all, taking a photo of an animal is free!
…the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you. You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary.
If you get the chance, also try taking photos of animals at the zoo, or somewhere like Longleat safari park, or just at a farm.
In some cases, its a question of quietly “stalking” and not startling an animal. In other cases, it might be a case of attracting it over. Remember, a lot of animals have very sharp hearing and eyesight, so even if you’re shooting from a distance, sudden movements could scare them off. A hint, for example, is never make eye contact with a wild deer…
The great thing about doing this near your home and with your local wildlife is that you will learn skills which will stand you in good stead when you’re face-to-face with a more exotic animal, on holiday, or in those great chance encounters, like a barn owl sitting in your garden fence. So the time you spend practicing on every-day animals will mean you get better shots of the ones that excite you. You might even get one of those magic shots that makes the ordinary look extraordinary. (Check out the British Wildlife Photography Awards website for some great examples).
Perhaps you’re one of those people who watched Jaws and has decided it still isn’t safe to get back in the water, or perhaps, like me, you watched it and thought “wow that’s cool!”
If the latter is the case, you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see (whether it’s your friends and family playing in a pool, a crab, a brightly coloured fish or jaws). So how do you do it, and how much will it cost?$
“you’ll probably spend half your life trying to find an excuse to jump in the sea, into a lake or even into a swimming pool with a pair of goggles on to find out what’s going on below the surface. And when you do, you probably want to get some good shots of the stuff you see…”
As ever, it will cost as much as you want to spend.
It’s clear that for the very best, super-sharp and well exposed images at depth, you will need an expensive camera with high ISO (light sensitivity) capabilities. This may be a custom designed underwater camera or a specialist, dedicated underwater housing for a DSLR. This, though, is the realm of the scuba diver, and nearer the surface (down to around 10m) you can get by with some pretty cheap and basic gear:
Underwater shooting with zero preparation
If you’re not a regular scuba diver, the times when you’re most likely to want to take photos under water are when you’re on holiday. You might be by the sea in Cornwall, or in the Mediterranean or on the Pacific coast. Wherever the sea is, there is the desire to jump in it and boat on it.
However, most cameras are not waterproof. Take it from someone who knows, you don’t want to take a decent camera out, even on a boat, without protection if you want it to come back working. Ideally, you want to think about this before you go away, so that you can get a waterproof camera or some sort of housing. The great news is, though, even if you forget, nearly all beach resorts and shops sell disposable waterproof cameras. Some of them can even be reused!
This wouldn’t be a very helpful website, though, if I just said “buy a disposable camera” and everything will be alright. If you want to get the best from your photos, things aren’t quite that simple.
The first thing to point out, is that disposable cameras aren’t that cheap. True, to buy they’re cheaper than a digital camera, but they still tend to be over £10 and are only single use (or you will at least need to buy film to reload them) and you have to pay to get your photos developed.
Here are a few pointers on getting the best results and best value for money:
So long as it works, there’s not much point worrying about brand – cheap ones tend to work just as well as more expensive ones. They are all fixed focus and generally don’t have a flash.
Check the speed of the film in the camera – it’s unusual to find ISO 1600, but 800 and 400 are both common. 800 is much more useful, particularly in the sea (swimming pools tend to be better lit with higher visibility).
If you can get a re-loadable / re-usable one, do. They tend to be about the same price, and you can choose to load 1600 film after the first use. They’re also more environmentally friendly. Make sure you’re careful with the rubber seals though. These cameras really are cheap and low quality and not built to last!
Pay extra when you get your film developed for a CD with JPGs on it. It’s only a couple of quid and is really useful because you can then get the best from your photos with some careful post-processing (see below). If you have a negative film scanner, or know someone who does, this is just as good.
Always check the “use by” date. Chemical film has a shelf life, which is a lot shorter in hot countries. You may well find that these cameras have sat around for years in which case the film will have degraded. If you can, get something (nearly) in date!
Try to remember that the ideal distance from your subject is 1m to 3m, because this is how the lens is normally set. Trying extreme close-ups is a waste of time!
It’s more about the effect than image quality…
So what photos can you get? – Well, I’m not going to lie, it’s hit and miss. Here are a few examples that (with a little care) have worked out quite well:
I think we can all agree – the image quality here isn’t great, but it’s great for a personal memory. However, these have all had their brightness, contrast and most importantly their white balance adjusted.
Disposable cameras in the sea will all have a blue colour cast which needs to be corrected or it can make a photo really disappointing. This can be done in several free or inexpensive software programs (such as GIMP or PhotoScape) – but only if you have a digital copy of the image.
Underwater digital photos on a tight budget?
So – let’s look at options when you have had a bit of time to plan. Just how cheaply can you take photos underwater?
Just about the cheapest way, is to use an underwater camera bag. There are loads on Ebay and Amazon – and here is one I bought earlier this year for about £3 (including P&P).
I don’t know about you, but I would be very dubious of sticking an expensive camera in one of these and just diving into the sea. The problem is, there’s not really a good way to test them without putting something electric in them and going for a long swim… (If it doesn’t work, I accept no responsibility…)
Because I was worried, I bought a cheap second hand camera for £7. It’s 7.2 MP and has since become a firm favourite. I’ve dived with it several times and it still works! At £10 in total this is cheaper than a disposable camera. BUT – the results can be disappointing.
The key problems are:
The plastic “pouch” over the lens is not flat or perfectly clear, which plays havoc with the cameras auto-focus. Since manual focus is impossible with most cheap cameras, this is a real issue.
Using the cameras controls / buttons can be very difficult.
The bag is not well insulated, so your camera will get cold quickly, spoiling battery life.
You can get fairly good results by ensuring that the camera lens is right up against the plastic lens window. Alternatively, you can buy a more expensive bag with a solid plastic, or better, glass, window – which if right against the lens will solve many of these problems. The issues with battery life and accessing controls will remain the same, though.
A “proper” waterproof compact camera
Of course, there are a whole range of custom-designed waterproof cameras out there, and after years of being prohibitively expensive, costs of some have now come down to below £100 in many cases (though well known brands are still more expensive). In truth, these cameras don’t tend to stand up well against similarly priced regular (i.e. not waterproof) cameras on dry land. Image quality and optical zoom both tend to be limited. But in the water they are generally much better than other cheap options.
Again, you will want to make sure that you know how to edit your photos once taken. A lack of light and poor white balance are classic trouble-makers with these cheap cameras, though you would be amazed the level of detail you retrieve…
A key point about dedicated underwater cameras is that they have autofocus mechanisms that will work, and a quirk of underwater photography is that water is magnifying (so you can get better close-up shots).
As a final thought (though not strictly underwater) – if you have a waterproof camera with you and quick reflexes, you may one day get a picture like this.
I promised in Maddening Macro to return to the subject a few more times. For a while, I have shied away from writing about this particular approach, because it is only of use to Canon EOS users (either SLR or DSLR) and I try not to be too brand-specific. In this case, though, I think this is well worth writing about because it is one of the best and cheapest ways I have found of getting into Macro since buying my first DSLR.
The whole thing works because of the specific construction of one common lens, the Canon EF 35-80mm 1:4-5.6 USM (particularly the Mk I version) – available for well under £50 second hand. The lens looks like this:
I don’t want to get too bogged down into the details of how or why this works, but basically, you can very easily turn this lens into a macro lens, simply by removing the front element. This sounds really drastic (and like it would do irreparable damage to your lens) but in this case, it is really quick, and simple, and the front element can be put on in a matter of seconds. (You don’t even need to undo any screws). The lens will then function perfectly normally again as a standard lens.
To use this lens for macro, you simply need to pop a screw driver into the nick shown in the photo, flick out the plastic ring and twist off the front element, as shown in this video:
It really is as simple as that!
While the front element is off, the autofocus function will not work, but this is actually not too much of a problem, because the zoom still does, and at this level of magnification (macro of more than 1:1) means the focal distance is very short. It is generally much easier, therefore, to focus by moving the camera physically closer or further from the subject.
Absolutely key to the success of this “hack” is the fact that the electric connections are still fully functional, and you can therefore set the aperture for your preferred shot, increasing or decreasing the depth of field as you see fit. Below are some examples of the type of photo you can take with this lens (with no other added filters etc.):
When you’re done, you simply twist the front element back on, and replace the plastic ring (again, the work of seconds):
For more information on using these lenses for macro – there is a long-term thread on the Canon user forum thread here. This also talks through the use of other lenses (such as the Mk II and Mk III version of the 35-80mm Canon lens) which can be used for macro in this way, but these lenses tend to be slightly more expensive – and you need to undo some screws. The Mk 1 version here can easily be carried and used on the go for macro, because of the ease with which the front comes off. It really is almost as easy as changing a filter!
When using the lens normally (i.e. with the front element in place), it is a perfectly serviceable little autofocus lens. It’s focal length on a APS-C sensor gives a slightly odd range of zoom, but it sits quite nicely alongside other common lenses like the 18-55mm kit lens or 75-300ish tele-zooms, as a reasonable portrait length lens. If you want to use if just for this, you will find better (but not many cheaper) lenses. If you want to shoot macro on a Canon camera, I have found few lenses that exceed this in terms of image quality and none which are anything like as cheap!
WARNING: This is something new I have recently found on the internet – there are a number of ebay sellers and other websites which are now selling these lenses “already modified” for macro – charging a huge premium (around £90 – £100 rather than the more common price of £30 – £50 for an unmodified Mk 1 lens on Ebay today). These modified lenses do not normally retain the full front element and therefore they can’t be used for non-macro work. Some have been modified to allow limited autofocus, but the extra cost you would pay is (in my opinion) not worth it.
There’s a truism about photographers who like to try different types of shots, just to see how well they can pull them off. And that’s that everyone needs a good moon shot.
It’s probably not surprising that so many people have tried to take photos of the moon, after all, you can see it from every continent on Earth and it’s easily the most noticeable object in the night sky. But while nearly all photographers try to take photos of the moon at some point, many find it difficult to get a really satisfying result.
“Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think.”
Having tried several different approaches to photographing the moon, I’ve realised there are two areas which need some consideration – exposure and equipment (in that order).
Getting the right exposure is tough because the moon is a lot brighter than you think, and brighter than just about everything else in the night sky. It is an object bathed in (and reflecting) direct sunlight, and your exposure should account for this.
Normally, to take shots of stars, you need a wide aperture and high ISO to gather enough light to get a useable exposure, without creating long star trails or without a some kind of tracking/rotating mechanism to account for the earth’s rotation. For the moon, however, this sort of setup would massively over-expose the moon, creating a burned out homogenous blob. For this reason, when shooting the moon, if properly exposed no stars will be visible in the same exposure (though some shots can be combined very effectively).
The moon also moves relatively quickly across the sky, so any exposures of more than a couple of seconds will “smudge” (how noticeable this is will depend on your focal length / magnification). To get a really crisp shot, it’s normally best to aim for a low ISO, an optimum aperture of around f/16 and an exposure of well under a second. Always try to use a tripod of you want things to be really sharp (though, because it is bright, it IS possible to shoot the moon handheld).
If you are using in-camera auto exposure, then you are likely to need to dial in several stops of exposure compensation, or you will need to use spot metering, as the dark mass of surrounding night sky will fool the camera into over-exposing the moon.
To shoot the moon, you don’t need particularly expensive equipment but if you want to really get fine detailed, zoomed-in shots, you will need a lens with quite a long reach. Most point and shoot cameras will not be sufficient (though I have seen some startlingly clear results shot with a mobile phone held up to a telescope!)
The new wave of super-zoom bridge cameras (with 42x or 50x optical zooms) have a far enough reach to photograph the moon as the primary subject. At these very long focal length, a tripod is pretty much essential – especially when using Bridge cameras which tend to have smaller front-elements and are therefore less good at gathering sufficient light than dedicated fixed focal length tele-lenses. Auto-focus can also be tricky, so switch to manual focus and zoom in, in live view, if possible to get things pin sharp.
If you want to get really good images, then you will probably want to get a fixed focal length telescopic lens. These don’t need to be really expensive, especially if you get a t-mount or M42 mount manual focus lens, such as the Photax / Optomax / Sunagor 500mm f/8 lens (or another similar design). You can pick these up second hand for as little as £25, and coupled with a tele-converter, they provide a huge reach. The shot below was taken with this setup and is pretty crisp and free from chromatic aberrations etc. Manual focus is pretty easy using live view.
An alternative is to use a mirror lens (a much smaller lens) such as the Opteka, Samyang or Neewer 500mm models (normally f/6.3 or f/8, fixed aperture) which can also be fairly successful. They are virtually completely free from colour fringes, but they do not give such impressive contrast and (because of the shadow of the mirror itself) tend to need a higher ISO and therefore create a noisier image. They can be picked up new from around £50:
Both of these lenses are considerably cheaper than, say, a 75-300mm tele-zoom, which tend to be the cheapest entry level telefocal length lenses produced by Canon and Nikon. While these may have the benefits of electronic aperture control and autofocus (which doesn’t always work well for the moon), they also struggle with colour fringing (which can be taken out in post-processing) and are not as sharp:
While this is no-where near as clear as the results achieved with the manual focus, fixed length lenses, it is a significant improvement on the results I have achieved with a bridge camera with an 18x telephoto zoom (although more powerful zooms are now available).
A final piece of advice…
No matter what camera you are using, you often get the best results photographically when you shoot the moon in a waxing or waning phase, rather than full (or nearly full). This is because the shadows across the craters on the moon’s surface are longer, darker and have greater contrast in the lunar twilight, between day and night (or the light and dark side’s of the moon).
Another point worth noting (given the time of year) is that some of the clearest, stillest nights come during the winter – so get your gloves on at night over the next few nights, and get out shooting!
As winter sets in, I find that the opportunities to take photos get harder and harder to find. The hours of daylight are shorter, and tend to be while I’m at work – and the weather conditions and lighting all get worse. As I find it impractical to carry bulky camera equipment with me everywhere, instead, I try to carry a small compact camera with me. I can then grab a few minutes taking photos if I find a nice scene or conditions are good.
At the same time, I also like setting myself little challenges, to see how far I can push the equipment I’m using, trying to get the best from the situation with simple gear.
Recently, I came out of work and I was walking near St Paul’s cathedral in London. I spotted an opportunity to shoot the cathedral (a very over-photographed building) through an archway, to form a nice “frame within a frame”. The camera I had on me was my ten year old Casio Exilim EX-Z120, which I recently bought second hand for £6.
The camera itself is nothing special (though I am rather fond of it, because it has a view finder, which comes in handy on bright days, and takes pretty decent “snaps” for most casual purposes). It is pretty limited, though, in terms of its metering capabilities, low light response and dynamic range. It’s therefore a challenge to coax the best out of it that you can. Here is the final shot, which I will then give a bit of background to:
Overall, I am quite pleased with the result, but to get the photo to this state required a fair amount of post-processing (digital manipulation).
The shot, as taken, looked like this:
You can see from the image, that the camera was not able to expose well for the darker sections of the image and the sky at the same time, lacking the dynamic range to do so. The image also struggles because the parallel lines of the arch converge. This could not be avoided in-camera, because it was not possible to stand any further back (my back was against the wall). I had to look up to frame the image. Sure, it would be possible, with an expensive tilt-shift lens on a DSLR, but that would have been very impractical – so you have to rely on software, such as Photoshop elements to correct the so-called “barrel distortion” in the final image.
Similarly, the original needed quite a lot of levels adjustment to bring up the dark shadows of the early evening, and lastly it needed the sky restoring to it’ blue glory. The sky was shot at the same time, in the same place, but correctly exposed for the sky only. With multiple exposures, it would be possible to achieve the same or a similar effect using HDR compositing. In my case, I simply cropped a square of sky and dropped it into the original image as a new layer and used the “darken” tool in Photoshop elements. While some may view this kind of manipulation as cheating – all I was doing was restoring what I could see with my own eyes, but the camera was not capable of capturing directly.
Ultimately, you have to make the most of what you’ve got!
If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been on holiday to some amazing places, but come back disappointed that you didn’t get enough (or any) good photos. This might be because you were too busy having a good time, in which case great, but it might also be because you didn’t feel you had the right kit, you didn’t want to carry around a tripod or you didn’t feel you had time to make the effort. But it needn’t be so!
For today, I’m going to focus on night time shots, because I think this is often when cities look best. The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights. In general, though, I think that a little bit of thought can help with your photographs at any time of day.
Again – let’s break it down to some simple “rules”. The camera you use is pretty irrelevant here – an expensive DSLR, a bridge camera or compact can all take pretty nice shots. For a couple of reasons that will become clear, though, mobile phones can struggle in this area.
“The blanket of nightfall can cover a multitude of sins… Dull grey skies, litter and unsightly graffiti. All sky scrapers look better when all you can see is their glistening lights.”
Rule 1: Learn to let go!
Shooting shots at night means slow shutter speeds if you’re going to get a reasonable looking shot. Shooting handheld is a lost cause (you are never as still as you think you are). Find something to put your camera on and let go of it completely. This will normally mean not even pressing the shutter button yourself – try using your cameras self timer (just a 2 or 3 second delay is fine) so that you don’t nudge the camera when taking the shot. You don’t need to walk away from your camera and leave it unattended in a strange city, just make sure you’re not touching it! (One of the problems with trying this with mobile phones is that they’re now so thin, they tend to fall over!)
Rule 2: Turn your ISO down and turn your flash off!
Okay, so rule 2 will only work if you’re already following Rule 1 (or if you’re using a tripod). Otherwise you’ll end up with some really blurry photos! But as a general rule, flash will not be helpful when shooting night time urban landscapes, where everything is too far away to be usefully lit. Instead, manually set your ISO low (if your camera allows you to do so) to keep image noise to a minimum and let the exposure be nice and long. Some simple point-and-shoot cameras don’t allow these to be manually adjusted, but generally if you select flash off and night mode, it will do the rest for you quite successfully.
Rule 3 – Head for the high ground!
This isn’t really a rule, but I think a good piece of advice (particularly for high rise cities). I would summarise it like this – Everything looks better from above (except for the stuff that doesn’t). In New York, head to the top of the Rockefeller or Empire State buildings, (actually do both – Empire State at night, and Rockefeller in the day). In Tokyo, there are lots of choices, but the Tokyo Tower seems an obvious choice. In London, head to the top of the shard…
All of these were shot without a tripod, but a few words of warning regarding the Shard. Firstly, it is really expensive to go up. Secondly, they won’t allow you to take a tripod, even if you want to! Which leads to the third point, there are no flat surfaces in the Shard. My earlier advice was to find something to rest your camera on, that simply won’t work at the top of this building. Therefore, you either need to get very good at bracing yourself against the wall, or take a bean bag and balance your camera carefully, or sneak in some kind of miniature clamp-on or flexible tripod. Lastly, the shard is in glass all the way around and it’s very difficult to deal with the reflections. Get as close to the glass as possible and be prepared to remove reflections by selectively adjusting the levels using software later.
I love bees, and I love taking photos of them. True, I am interested in all wildlife I really enjoy the challenges of macro, but bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.
For anyone who is interested in bees in general (and for some lovely video footage), I recommend checking out the excellent swiss movie, A Taste of Honey, (narrated in English by John Hurt). For anyone who wants to check out some photos of bees (taken with varying degrees of success) there is an enormous Flickr group, Bees, bees bees! which is a great place to start getting some ideas.
“…bees are incredible, industrious, collectively intelligent, and indispensable little creatures and a real pleasure to observe and photograph.”
So how should you approach shooting bees? What gear do you need? And how much will it cost?
Well – clearly, I’m not going to tell you to go out and spend lots of money! There are loads of different setups you can use for macro, and the most important thing is that you familiarise yourself and get comfortable with the one that you have chosen. One of my preferred setups is pairing a +2 diopter supplementary lens with a telephoto lens (such as a 70 – 300mm zoom), but you can also use supplementary lenses with bridge cameras, you can try using reversing rings, extension tubes or there are various macro lenses that you can pick up second hand. What I would like to talk about today though, is free. And that’s technique.
Many incredible macro shots are taken in studios with artificial environments and complex lighting arrangements – all of that costs money and to my mind means that you lose some of the natural simplicity and beauty of a shot. I’m therefore going look at natural environments in natural light (since specialist macro flashes are also very expensive). I thought it would be useful to reduce it all down to a few simple rules.
Rule 1: Shoot on cool bright days (or in the early morning)
This first rule goes directly against the advice that you will read in lots of books and magazines – which often say that it is preferable to shoot macro on overcast days because you get fewer burnt out reflections and you better contrast… Well, that maybe true if you’re shooting things which don’t move – but for insects which can be fast moving it’s complete nonsense. You need to be able to shoot handheld and at a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action. Bright days are definitely best. However, insects (which are cold blooded) have a faster metabolism and are faster moving in warm conditions, so cool days (spring and autumn) and early mornings are absolutely ideal.
Rule 2: If the bee is on a flower, get really close and try to shoot sideways on.
To really get fine detail with budget equipment, you want to get up close and personal with the bee with a focal distance of just an inch or two. Reversed lenses, macro extension tubes or powerful diopters on shorter lenses are a good way of achieving this. The important thing, when shooting bees like this, is not to get nervous. Bees are very placid animals and are very, very unlikely to sting you unless they feel threatened. Often, when getting very close to them, people get scared and react unpredictably. If you feel this is likely to happen to you, it is important to master your instincts.
Getting really close means you will have a reduced depth of field which is great for throwing your background out of focus – however it also means that if you shoot with the subject facing directly towards you with the eyes in focus, the abdomen will be out of focus. Therefore try to get the bee side on (or nearly side on) so that you make the best use of the plane of focus.
Rule 3: If shooting bees in flight, stand back!
Getting really close to a bee is all well and good when they’re almost stationary, but when they’re flying it’s totally hopeless. For starters, they will actively try to avoid you, but in any case, your focal distance will be so short that you will never be able to keep track of their movements – therefore you need be able to stand back a few feet. In this case, you probably want a smaller diopter on a longer lens or a shorter extension tube on a longer lens. This setup should allow you to still get a big enough enlargement of the bee to be the subject of the shot while still being stood far enough away to track its movements. Another advantage is that bees in flight tend to look much better if shown in relation to their environment, such as the flowers they are flying around – so you can be sufficiently “zoomed out” to include the environment:
Rule 4: To get sharp focus, pre-focus, try to be nearly side-on and “pull back”
A really big problem when shooting flying bees is that they tend to fly too fast for most autofocuses (particularly on cheaper lenses) and too fast for you to rapidly re-focus the lens manually. You therefore need to get a bit clever about predicting the movement of bees. Try to remember that they tend to hover on approach and take off from a flower so they will be nearly stationary in flight for a fraction of a second – and that they “back out” from flowers having collected the nectar. This last point is critical, since it is easiest to “choose” a bee to photograph, while it is in a flower already.
Like my advice above, about shooting stationary bees side on to make the best use of the plane of focus, the same is true for flying bees. If you can get the trumpet of a flower in perfect profile, when the bee flies out backwards, it should remain in the plane of focus. If you want to compose the shot so that it is not perfectly sideways on, then remember, still that the bee will come out backwards. What you need to do, then, is focus on the part of the flower closest to the camera lens, and as the bee backs out tilt backwards (roll back on your heels) trying to keep the bee in focus by moving the camera with it. It sounds simple, but can be really quite tricky! As with all things, practice doesn’t exactly make perfect, but statistically at least, the more times you try, the more likely you are to get it right!!
At the time of writing (late September) there are still some bee species active, and conditions are good, as the days are now a little cooler. Try and get out this weekend and give it a go!
Today, I thought I would turn away from macro and taking photos from really close-up, to taking photos of things from really far away…
Like macro, taking shots with “super-telephoto” lenses can very easily be written off as a rich man’s game – and there are definitely plenty of rich boys’ toys out there if you have bottomless pockets. For example, a story recently surfaced of a £99,000 telephoto lens going on sale!
If you’re anything like me, though, you’re probably looking for a solution for under £100. Okay, so that’s hardly free, but this is a specialist area.
But what are your choices? Well, actually – there are quite a few.
In the case of the (slightly daft) £99,000 lens, the focal length on offer was an enormous 1,200mm – and the lens (as a result) was totally impractical for most purposes. However, there are times when you’re shooting wildlife, sporting events or some specific scenery when you may want something which is pretty far reaching. In these cases, it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens, relative to a 35mm SLR or full frame DSLR. This basically means that you get more magnification in your final shot from the same lens. In the case of most Canon EOS cameras, you get a magnification (known as a “crop factor”) of 1.6X. For a Nikon you get 1.5X. For some bridge cameras, the crop factor may be as high as 5X to 6X!!
“it’s actually quite handy being on a budget as most cheaper cameras have smaller sensors which effectively increase the effective focal length of a lens…”
But what does it really mean? Well – I’m going to look at focal lengths of between 500 and 800mm (equivalent for a 35mm camera). This is because there are lots of ways of getting lenses of around 500mm of an APS-C DSLR which, because of the crop factor, will give the same level of overall magnification in your final shot as an 800mm lens on an old film SLR.
1. Supplementary telephoto lenses – from as little as £10 on ebay
I said I’d mention but not test one option – and this is it. Supplementary telephoto lenses screw in front of the lens of your camera (like the diopters I tested for macro), or many wide angle or fisheye adapters. I have already tested diopters on this website, and I will return to supplementary fisheyes in the future – but I’m not going to test the telephoto version because they are simply too rubbish. My three pieces of advice would be avoid, avoid, avoid. The real issue is that, unless you have a tiny aperture (and therefore have to push up the ISO and exposure time up beyond a practical level), you get terrible focus problems anywhere outside dead-centre of the frame. If you would like to see some tests demonstrating this – I would point you to Keith Cooper’s article here. (Seriously, though, even for £10, don’t bother.)
2. Teleconverters – Prices vary a lot, though if you shop around you can start from around £25 second hand.
In terms of intended outcome, teleconverters do the same thing as supplementary lenses – in so far as they work with an existing lens and increase its effective focal length. The mechanism by which they do this is far more effective, though. Rather than acting as a “magnifying glass” at the front of the lens, they work as an additional lens element stage between the sensor and the lens. While it is obviously not as good as an expensive, dedicated telephoto lens, it is still pretty effective and a lot cheaper!
Now – one clear challenge here, is that in order to use a teleconverter to reach super-telephoto length, you will already need to have a telephoto lens with a focal length of around 250mm to start with. These can also be expensive, but there are some cheap second hand options out there. A few examples are:
Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6, Nikon / Canon and other fits available. Second hand for £50 – £100.
Canon EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, Canon fit only. New from around £70 (this is the lens tested below).
Nikon AF-S 55-200mm f/4-5.6, Nikon fit only. New from around £70
Nikon AF 70-300 mm f/4.0-5.6, Nikon fit only. Second hand from around £80
In my test case, I have coupled a second hand Jessops (Kenko) teleconverter (bought for £25) with a Canon EF 75-300mm lens, bought second hand for £50, so £75 in total. I also have the Tamron lens, which works equally well (perhaps a little better). The photos used in this test aren’t terribly exciting, but they were all taken at the same time, in the same light so give a fair representation of capabilities:
The focus achieved, given the long focal length is acceptably sharp, and chromatic aberration is not too noticeable (though from experience, this gets a log worse as contrast in your image increases).
Pairing a tele-converter with a zoom means you can have an enormous range of zoom available to you by simply adding / removing the converter. In this case, all the way from 75mm – 600mm.
Very space efficient, and can be paired with several different lenses. It can simply be kept in your kit bag alongside your main lenses.
Reasonable quality results, retaining aperture control for depth of field control.
While auto-focus works at shorter focal length, once you have gone up to super-telephoto lengths it gives up, so manual focus only. Focus confirm should still work, though.
Adding a teleconverter reduces the light which reaches the sensor, so you will need to up the ISO, or lengthen exposure time unless it’s very bright. At long focal lengths, this can be tricky. You will probably want a tripod! (Though I would recommend it for all of these solutions really…)
3. Manual focus mirror lenses (often t-mount) – cheap 500mm lenses from around £70
Until recently, I had never tried a mirror lens, and I had always been fascinated by the idea of them. If you look at a mirror lens from the “front” they really mess with your mind. How can you get a full image from a lens which looks like it still has a small lens cap stuck in the middle of it? (I’ll let you ponder that on your own).
Mirror lenses used to be very popular as a cheap way of getting up to super-telephoto focal lengths, without enormous costs. Their relatively simple construction, basically consisting of two carefully aligned mirrors, means that there is far less complicated and heavy glasswork to create the image. The lenses are also much, much shorter than multi-element telephoto zooms. High grade mirror lenses remain very popular with astro-photographers, because they are virtually free from chromatic aberration and some of their weirder properties (donut shaped bokeh and “double vision” either side of the optimum depth of field) disappear at infinity focus.
But can they be used for day-to-day use? – On this occasion, I can’t exactly say that I’m convinced. I should say that I have only ever used one (so not a statistically brilliant sample), but it is a very common one – the Opteka 500m f/8, t-mount (don’t forget to buy the right adapter!) I bought mine new and I believe it to be in “perfect” working order – but there are some serious limitations to optics of this type.
The major problem is low contrast (caused by the shadow of the front mirror), but this in turn makes it very difficult to find focus and, to be honest, I am not convinced that the sharpness of this sort of lens is ever really up-to-scratch. That said, I have managed to get a few nice shots, and the low contrast can be corrected in post-processing. For a fair comparison, below is an unprocessed shot, straight from the camera:
Virtually no chromatic aberration (so good for astro-photography).
Very small for a dedicated super-telephoto lens.
Cheaper than buying a standard tele-photo lens plus a converter
Donut bokeh and double-vision backdrops
Low contrast and can be hard to focus
Can seem a bit soft generally (though that could just be me!)
Normally fixed f/8 aperture, so no control over depth of field.
Before moving on, though, it would be wrong of me not to show an image of something I believe that they are good at!
4. Manual focus multi-element telephoto lenses (often M42 mount) – new from around £80
I should start this section by saying I think I got an absolute bargain, having picked up an Optomax Telephoto 500mm f/8-f/32 lens for just £25. In my case the rear element (closest to the camera) has gone a little bit milky, but even with this problem it seems optically very good (so I would love to try a mint one!) Keep your eyes peeled for a second-hand bargain.
The costs of this sort of lens (often M42 to t-mount, so again, don’t forget the right adapter) vary quite a lot – but these generic lenses are much, much cheaper than branded auto-focus lenses. Rokinon are the modern makers of a basically identical lens, and you can buy them new from around £80 if you shop around. They are manual focus, and have manual aperture control (but this is important, as they aren’t fixed at f/8). They also make a super-tele zoom (Rokinon 650-1300mm, normally sold with a 2x tele-converter), which you can pick up from around £150 new. You will need to shop around for this.
The construction is pretty simple, and they can be taken apart almost completely, simply by twisting and unscrewing (which can be handy if you want to pack them away somewhere not at full length). They are pretty long and unwieldy and normally come with their own tripod mount.
The image quality from these is pretty good if you are patient enough and good at manual focus. Shooting handheld can be very tough though because of their length – so if you are trying to catch fast-flying birds, it may be a bit difficult.
Good optical quality at a very reasonable price
(Manual) aperture control
Can be paired with a 2x teleconverter to make enormous focal lengths
Big and unwieldy – difficult to use handheld
Fixed focal length
Manual focus only
5. Superzoom bridge cameras – used from around £50
All of the other options I have looked at today assume that you already have a camera to attach a lens to. This is a one-stop-shop solution and is therefore very convenient for travelling light. I am a big fan of bridge cameras as “good all rounders” and the modern superzooms are truly impressive in their equivalent focal-length range.
You will see in the photo below, that the equivalent focal length is not quite as large as I was able to achieve in the tests above, but I was using my old fuji Bridge camera (with an 18x optical zoom) and some newer bridge cameras can come with up to 50X optical zoom. In this case, my Fuji S8000fd has a focal length of 4.7 – 84.2mm which doesn’t sound much, but with a 5.6X crop factor, it gives a 35mm equivalent focal length of 24-486mm, which is pretty impressive. You can buy newer version for under £100 with 30X zooms which is equivalent to 24-720mm so the numbers are getting pretty big!
Of course, the downside is that the sensor is small and therefore the ultimate clarity and light sensitivity of the camera will suffer, and if autofocus doesn’t lock on, manual focus can be a dead-loss, but in good conditions, things are pretty good.
As ever, your final choice is up to you – there are advantages and disadvantages to each solution. Here are my thoughts in summary though:
Never buy a supplementary lens for your filter ring. You may as well burn a £10 note.
Personally, I would never build a DSLR camera bag and not include a 2x teleconverter. Sure, they may not be as good as a massive, expensive lens, but they’re cheap and portable, so you can take them with you everywhere.
Unless you’re into astro photography – don’t bother with a mirror lens. They’ll only frustrate and annoy you.
If you don’t mind the length, the fixed focal length M42 mount lenses from Rokinon and Optomax etc. are really good for the price.
Bridge cameras remain great all-rounders provided you aren’t too fussed about retaining total control (or taking portraits with lovely narrow depth of field at shorter focal lengths). Plus, the lens and the camera come together, so if you don’t mind an old 8 megapixel one they’re an absolute bargain.