Andrew McCarthy Photography


Photographing spring insects

After what seems like a very long winter indeed, spring is finally making its presence felt here in Devon, and my thoughts are finally turning to insect photography again!

One of my first targets in spring will be the lovely, but sadly now quite rare, Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly.  This specialist insect of heathy woods is on the wing from around mid-April onwards, and it can make a great photographic subject, since temperatures are often quite cool at this time of year, which makes for prefect photography conditions.  This species tends to fly in air temperatures from around 14 degrees, which means that there is a good chance of insects stopping to rest during the day, allowing a close approach.  This is in contrast to butterflies of mid to late summer when, as any novice macro photographer will tell you, butterfly photography can be very frustrating.  When the weather is warm insects will often not remain still for long, and a combination of hot sun and harsh light often sees me returning home from an early morning session in time for breakfast!

Other good spring subjects include the stunning Orange-tip butterfly (which can be found in marshy pastures from mid-April onwards alongside its larval food plant Ladies-smock).  Green hairstreak is a beautiful little insect of heaths which is on the wing from early May, whilst the stunning Brimstone can be seen from March onwards along woodland rides and hedges with Buckthorn and Alder buckthorn.  Dragonflies and damselflies also begin to emerge from April onwards.  The widespread Large-red damselfly is one of the earliest species to emerge and it offers a colourful spring target around ponds and wet flushes.  Of the spring dragonflies, Broad-bodied chaser is by far and away my favourite during May – in part because both males and females reliably return to the same perch time.  This means I can position myself in exactly the right place to obtain the perfect composition and background, whilst waiting for my subject to return.

In terms of field-craft, even the cooler conditions of spring demand the right approach.  I move very slowly when approaching wary subjects, keeping low and positioning myself so I don’t form a silhouette.  If I am using my Olympus 60mm macro lens I’ll often pair it with the STF-8 twin-flash to lift shadows or provide ‘punch’ to images on a dull day.  I like to keep the effect of flash subtle though, so I use manual low power settings – generally around 1/16th or less. I don’t use auto flash as a pre-flash will spook wary insects and the subject will be out of frame before the flash fires!  

Insects in crisp focus against soft, clean backgrounds have great impact for me, so I generally try and align the rear of the camera (i.e. the sensor) with the plane of the subject in order to maximise the zone of sharp focus.  This can take time, so I’ll often use a tripod for precision. I use a combination of initial autofocus (for speed) followed by manual over-ride with focus-peaking to make careful final adjustments.  If there is any breeze, I often use clamps on a small second tripod or ground spike to stabilise perches.  Don’t attach clamps to the camera tripod as your vibrations will transmit through to the subject. 

The alternative to using a tripod is to go mobile and get creative.  For hand-holding I like a bright overcast day with minimal wind – diffused lighting helps reveal colour and detail (and avoids risk of clipping reflected highlights) and bright conditions give a good shutter speed.  By contrast dull conditions dictate wider apertures and slower shutter speeds, which can make it difficult to stop wind-induced movement.  In such conditions I’ll often hand hold and use a shallow depth of field to create something more ‘interpretive’.  The Olympus 300 f4 lens is perfect for this – the lens has a great close-focus capability and is tack-sharp wide open.  I use the lens at its widest aperture setting to obtain a razor thin depth of field.  I will often shoot from directly in front of the subject, or through a gap in vegetation to create a soft out-of-focus haze around it. 

Regardless of approach I like to keep my compositions simple.  If I need to ‘garden’, I use clothing or equipment to gently (and temporarily) move vegetation out of the way.  I keep trampling to an absolute minimum – revealing stationary insects makes them much more visible to predators so it is important to leave as little trace of your presence as possible.  Second, I keep a watchful eye out for signs of insects getting stressed.  With mating butterflies for example I often see photographs of mating pairs with their reproductive organs revealed.  This is caused by stressed insects trying to pull apart, so move away if you see this.  Remember that the welfare of the subject is far more important than your shot!

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Photographing bats in flight with Olympus micro four-thirds

I have held a licence from Natural England* to survey and photograph bats since 2001, but for various reasons I had never fulfilled my long-held aspiration of photographing these nocturnal, fast-moving and unpredictable creatures in flight until 2020.  Lockdown in spring of last year provided me with the time and opportunity to make a start on this long-anticipated project.

Fortunately, I have a ‘night roost’ for small numbers of the nationally rather rare Lesser horseshoe bat at the rear of our Devon house, so I had the perfect location for initial experimentation.  After extensive research, I found that the simplest photographic technique would be to use a laser beam-type trigger to fire multiple flashes, whilst the camera shutter remained open.  This would avoid the problem of shutter lag (during which time a bat can fly an unpredictable distance past a pre-set focus point).  By trial and error I found that repeated 30 second exposures throughout the night were fine for our house roost, since the small number of bats present meant there would be minimal risk of a frame capturing more than one animal per shot (many bats passing through the frame could result in ghosted images).

I moved from Canon full frame to Olympus in early 2018 for my wildlife work, and at the beginning of the project I had reservations about whether the Olympus M43 sensor – good though it undoubtedly is – would be up to such a demanding task as high speed night-time photography.  Whilst I did have to understand and work within the capability of the M43 sensor, and whilst some images required very careful processing to control occasional noise in the shadows, I was pleased to find the Olympus system is more than capable of capturing great bat images, as I hope you will agree.  For the images in this blog entry I used a tripod-mounted Olympus EM1x camera coupled with short zoom lenses (including the Olympus 7-14mm f2.8).  The images were lit with speed-light flashes fired directly by a laser beam trigger (or manually when flashes were set to ‘strobe’ mode). 

My biggest challenge at the outset was pretty basic – how to focus accurately?  Taking into account the fast response time of my laser trigger (around 10ms) and the estimated bat flight speed (determined from research papers as between 3ms-1 and 5ms-1), I estimated that pre-focusing 1.5cm beyond the beam would take account of the likely distance travelled by the bats before the flashes fired.  The other potential issue was battery life.  I found after initial experimentation that when shooting continuously, the EM1x with fully charged batteries would run for around 5.5 hours.  Therefore, by switching the camera on around 11.00 pm the system would run until just after dawn.  This was perfect for capturing bats using the roost during the night since they would leave to return to their nearby main roost well before sunrise anyway.  Later in the project I invested in an adaptor and power pack so the equipment could be switched on much earlier in the evening, allowing an easier and more consistent setup during daylight hours.

The first few weeks were disappointing and frustrating in equal measure – most exposed frames were dark, and whilst a few shots contained bats, most were out of focus or had part of the animal out of frame.  However, by incrementally adjusting camera framing and settings, by gradually adjusting flash settings and flash head position, and by experimenting with focus point positioning, I gradually began to get improved results.  This nightly trial and error (which included a period of six weeks when I experienced technical challenges with unsynchronised flashes and image ghosting) finally enabled me to establish a consistent system of photographing emerging bats, as well as of bats flying through nearby wooded vegetation.  I eventually settled on the following settings for the non-strobe bat shots – ISO 640, a 30 second exposure (with the camera set to continuous shooting) at f10, with five flashes at 1m distance from a pre-set focus point of 1.5cm from the laser beam.  All flashes were in manual mode at 1/16th power to give an ‘effective shutter speed’ of around 1/8000th of a second (i.e. sufficient to stop in-flight action).

In summer 2020 I also began to experiment photographing bats foraging in open habitat (initially around our garden) using a mobile setup with the EM1x on a tripod coupled with a pair of bracket-mounted flashes set to ‘strobe mode’ (usually around seven pulses, at 14 pulses per second).   I found that an ultrasound bat detector was an invaluable aid in helping to determine when the bats were approaching, and thus when was the appropriate time to press the shutter button to capture individuals passing across the frame.  Whilst this is a more interpretive style of photography, I think it does give the viewer a sense of how bats really fly and forage.

The cooler nights of autumn saw a reduction in bat activity and so I called a halt to the project until 2021.  Although there is great deal of room for improvement in my images, I have been pleased with progress so far.  Hopefully 2021 will see further progress, with more and better images from a wider variety of species!

*Note on legislation and licensing: Whilst research indicates that bats are unlikely to be disturbed providing that flash power settings / durations are kept very low, all photography for this project has been undertaken under the appropriate Class II licence from Natural England, which I have held since 2001.

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New ‘Super resolution’ function in Photoshop

I was playing around last night with a new function in Photoshop that significantly increases resolution of the original RAW file – effectively by four times. It is very simple to use. I loaded the raw file (in this case an infra-red shot from the Sony A7 III of a nicely lit birch tree) into Adobe Camera Raw, right clicked on the image, checked the “Super Resolution” box a few minutes later I had a new file in DNG format that was four times the area of the original. In other words instead of a file that was just over 4000 px on its long edge, the new file was now over 9000 px on its long edge! That is a huge file which needs a fast PC to handle it – mine (which is around 6 years old) was only just about capable.

Now look, I am a skeptic, so I simply assumed this new file would show artifacts and overall there would be a degradation of image quality. Not so. To me this new ‘super resolution’ version was higher quality than the original, with superb detail and no artifacts I could see. Its incredibly impressive. Although I have more experimentation to do, I am really impressed by what I have seen so far. I can see some mega useful applications here – e.g with wildlife (especially birds) the subject is often smaller in the frame than I would like. This new function will give me the ability to re-size, process and crop back, whilst retaining great image quality and with a final file size large enough to print really well.

More on this soon! ?

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Lesser horseshoe adventures

I was really pleased to have had this short article on last years’ bat photography adventures published in the February 2021 edition of Outdoor Photographer magazine.  The article tells how I captured a striking monochrome image of a lesser horseshoe bat leaving its roost, as part of my ongoing work as a licensed ecologist.  Do keep an eye on the supermarket shelves in April 2021, as I have a much more comprehensive and fully illustrated article on bat photography coming out in the next edition of OP magazine!

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