Tag Archives: Featured

To the moon (on an economy ticket)

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).

Exposure

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.

Equipment

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.

Waxing (Gibbous) moon
Waxing (Gibbous) moon – shot using a manual Optomax 500mm f/8 lens (at f/16) and a 2x teleconverter, on an APS-C DSLR. This gave a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1600mm. The exposure was 1/15th second.

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:

Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame).  The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.
Opteka 500mm f/8 mirror, in this case paired with a 2x teleconverter giving a whopping 1,000mm focal length (1,600mm equivalent on full frame). The image is virtually free from Chromatic aberration, which would be a major problem with a multi-element optic.

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:

Full moon
Full moon – shot at 600mm on an APS-C camera, using a 2x teleconverter and a 75-300mm Canon zoom lens at full extension.

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).

Tested... a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens
Tested… a 500mm Opteka mirror lens, a Canon EF 75-300mm lens with 2x Jessops teleconverter and 500mm Optomax telescopic lens

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!

Bee brilliant (or bees on a budget)

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.

The bee in buttercup
The bee in buttercup – shoot on bright days so that you can shoot handheld using fast shutter speeds without a flash

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.

A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed.  This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.
A honey bee shot from close-up with a Canon EOS 35-80mm lens, with the front element removed. This lens requires you to be very close to the subject though, so not practical for bees in flight.

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:

Bee in flight
Coming in to land… A honey bee on (what I believe to be) Loosestrife flowers, in Kent.

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!!

Bumblebee backs out backwards...
A bumblebee backs out backwards… Pre-focus on the nearest section of the flower and roll back on your heels as the bee backs out to keep it in focus.

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!

Maddening Macro (Part 1)

If you’re anything like me, you will doubtless have found yourself drawn in amazement to some of the photos out there of the very tiny, from very close up.

An ant in a wildflower
Wildlife can be found on your front doorstep, and shot with the simplest of gear.

One of the great things about photography, is that it allows you to see things which are very difficult to perceive with the human eye, either because you simply can’t get close enough to focus well, or because you can’t “freeze” something whilst moving, and your eyes can’t keep up with it.

This is where the wonderful world of macro photography comes in – and there are some true masters of it.  If you want to explore a vast array of images and techniques, the Flickr macros group is one of the largest on the site and is well worth a browse amongst its 300,000 or so photos (at the time of writing).

However, as with all things in photography, there is a catch.  If you start getting serious about taking macro images and read all of the magazines, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that you can spend a LOT of money on gear.  So is there any way to avoid this?

The short answer is yes – so long as you know and understand your equipment and its limitations.  I am therefore intending, over a series of articles in the next few weeks, to cover off some of the ways you can achieve great results without splashing too much cash.

Supplementary Lenses (also known as diopters, close-up or macro filters, or simply close-up lenses)

Being a stickler for technical accuracy, I’m not keen on referring to these little beauties as macro filters, as technically they don’t filter out any light – they simply act as magnifying glasses.  They are referred to as filters, though, as they tend to screw into the filter ring of your camera. (This is one of the reasons I recommend buying a bridge camera with a filter ring, or an appropriate adaptor).

As a general rule, you cannot use these sorts of lenses with more basic point and shoot cameras or mobile phones, which I will return to at another time.

There are a few reasons why I love these handy little tools, though, and why they formed part of every camera bag and setup I have ever owned:

  1. They are really cheap (under £10; definitely the cheapest way of getting into macro photography to start with).
  2. They can generally be fitted to any lens in a kitbag (either by choosing lenses with the same thread size, or a step-up ring, which can be bought for next to nothing).
  3. They hardly take up any space, so you can have them with you all of the time.

The third reason, although not technically a cost saving piece of advice, is definitely one about getting value for money.  One of the things I love about wildlife (particularly macro) photography, is that you can find things to take pictures of everywhere.  Ants, spiders, wasps, bees, even common houseflies become a hundred times more interesting seen from close up.  What you will find happens, is that you’ll go out with your camera and just stumble across things which you think are beautiful and interesting, and would love to take a photo of, but can’t because you don’t have the right lens, because it was too big or bulky.  With these little screw-on lenses, that needn’t happen, because they’re tiny to start with.

But seriously – are they any good?

In all honesty, yes they are – so long as you know their weaknesses.  Here are my “top tips” for getting the best out of your diopter lenses (with a few examples along the way):

Tip #1: Don’t just buy one diopter – by a set of three.

Or even a set of four!  You will normally find that these are sold in sets of +1, +2 and +4 (sometimes +3 or +5), and some sets come with +10.  I have a set of four, including a +10, but, to be honest, it’s a pretty crumby bit of glass, so stick to the lower numbers.  You will also read that you can “stack” these lenses (with the largest diopter closest to the lens) but don’t bother doing that either, as it will rapidly degrade your image quality.

Tip #2: Keep your subject centre-frame.

Unless you can afford to buy a two-element diopter lens (also known as an achromatic lens), which are quite a bit more expensive, then these lenses suffer from chromatic aberration especially closer to the edges.  This basically means that areas of high contrast end up with fringes of colour which should not be there.  With an out-of-focus and even background, this won’t matter, but if it’s a key element of the photo, you will begin to notice.  Therefore, when shooting (particularly in bright, high contrast conditions) try and keep your subject fairly central.

Buff-tailed bumblebee
Bombus terrestris in flight.
Shot with a +2 diopter from a £10 set of 4, on a basic canon 75-300mm lens (available new for about £70 and second hand, potentially a lot cheaper).

In this shot, you can see the chromatic aberration occuring on the right hand edge of the flower, though in the context of the shot, it detracts little from the action.

If you compare this with the following shot of a cricket, however, you can see how the image quality degrades as you reach closer to the edge of the frame:

A cricket
Shot, again, with a +2 diopter on a 75-300mm lens, but with a closer working distance (and a larger insect) filling the frame. You can see how image quality degrades further out (particularly around the legs).

However, if you shoot your subject dead centre, and against a low contrast (or single colour background) then you can hide the effect almost entirely:

Ladybird
A common English ladybird in a bush in my back garden. The same set up (75-300mm with a +2 diopter) but more even, green background without bright highlights.

Tip #3: Shoot on bright days!

There are a lot of comments out there about needing overcast light to shoot nice macro images, which is fine if you are able to shoot with an expensive ringflash or build complex artificial environments, but as a general rule, bright days are best if you’re on a budget.  This is because they allow you to shoot your subject at a high enough shutter speed to freeze your action, and to give you more flexibility on the aperture you use.

Tip #4: Try using a longer focal-length lens, with a lower diopter number.

Especially if your subject is moving! This approach should allow you to shoot your subject from a sufficiently distant position, without scaring the subject off – it also means you won’t block out too much light by casting your own, huge shadow over the subject thereby extending shutter speeds.  Also, the closer you get to your subject, the worse DoF problems can become making it hard to get what you want in focus.

Tip #5: Buy a mini-clamp tripod

These really are, cheap, low end bits of kit for about £5 – and would be rubbish for shooting birds, but for the small things they’re brilliant.  They’re also really good for quick snaps on a self timer and attach to pretty much anything (and have tripod feet if needed).  Again – they can be carried anywhere and used with any camera – so there’s not really any downside.

Mini clamp tripod
A mini clamp tripod you can just hang off your camera bag – available from amazon or ebay for around £5

Until next time – happy shooting!