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.
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!
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.
I have been spending time recently catching up with the Dartmoor dippers that I started working with in 2019. This article on the Olympus Image Space blog summarizes my approach to dipper photography and showcases some of the images I have taken of these lovely birds thus far.
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!
I produced this video on macro stacking for the Guild of Photographers for their ‘Creative Light’ workshop day on the 27th November 2020. It gives a simple overview of the basic stacking techniques I use when shooting insects in the field and in the macro studio.
This video was created for a presentation for the Guild of Photographers. It contains an overview of the techniques and equipment I use to capture images of insects with Olympus macro and telephoto lenses.
Join experienced photographers Andrew McCarthy and Ken Pearson on a residential photography course based at the stunning Westcott Barton estate, near Barnstaple in North Devon. The workshop is aimed at ‘improver’ photgraphers who want to get to grips with nature (in particular macro) and landscape photography, as well as improving their digital processing skills. The workshop is fantastic value – you will have over two full days of teaching and all accommodation and food will be provided.
The workshop starts on the evening of Monday the 26th July 2021 with a presentation by Andrew McCarthy, a professional ecologist, conservationist and nature photographer, who will give you an overview of the camera settings / techniques you will be using during the workshop. Over the following two days we will be shooting in the lovely grounds of Westcott Barton, where there are many opportunities for macro wildlife photography of plants and insects, as well as traveling further afield in search of interesting wildlife, landscapes and seascapes along the stunning North Devon Coast.
Whilst our schedule will be flexible in order to make the most of the weather, we will be demonstrating a range of digital processing techniques during the workshop. We recommend the popular and widely-used Adobe Lightroom Classic, and will take you through the basics of file importing, indexing and processing using this software. If time allows we will slot in a critique session.
Andrew will also give a demonstration each evening of his equipment setup for night-time bat photography, as habitats at Westcott Barton are perfect for these animals, with plenty of insect-rich habitat present, especially along the stream and around the old ponds. He will set up his camera alongside the stream to hopefully capture bats passing along this feature on their way to feed in nearby pastures. Please email Andrew for more details if you are interested in this fascinating field of photography during the workshop.
The course finishes after breakfast on Thursday the 29th July, weather permitting after an early morning session in the grounds of Westcott Barton, where we will make the most of our last ‘golden hour’ .
A DSLR or Mirrorless camera together with a macro lens (or extension tubes/close-up diopter) for insects and plants, as well as a wide angle and telephoto lenses (or a zoom) for landscapes, and a sturdy tripod – preferably one with a removable center column.
A laptop / computer loaded with your favored processing software would be very useful.
Spare memory cards and sufficient batteries to carry you through a full days shooting.
Weather permitting we are hoping to explore long-exposure photography during the workshop, so a polarizer and neutral density filters would be beneficial.
We have limited kit for hire if you don’t have all of this equipment yourself; Let us know in advance if you have any specific requirements and we will do our best to help.
We will be working outdoors, possibly in wet conditions, so appropriate clothing including a waterproof jacket and trousers, are highly recommended.
Late May can be very warm so lightweight clothing, a sunhat, sunscreen, a water bottle, midge repellent and a tick removal tool.
We will need to walk reasonable distances on potentially wet / muddy and uneven ground, so we also recommend stout boots and wellingtons, with a good grip.
Nature photography can involve lying on the ground, however this is optional and we have found that the fitness level and mobility required for this type of workshop is not at all onerous.
If you have any queries about your experience level, equipment suitability or our approach to Covid19 security, please contact Andrew to discuss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Price and venue:
Covid-secure room in shared building and amenities – single occupancy – £450.00 per person including meals
Shared twin room where both individuals are participating in the workshop – £400 per person including meals
Non-participating partners sharing a participants room – £300 per person including meals
Wildlife photography can be extremely frustrating for the beginner. Getting close to even the largest British mammals can be difficult and many of our smaller species can be very hard to find in the wild. Our 1-day wildlife workshop will allow you to get close to your subjects and thus allow you to concentrate on the photography itself.
The workshop will be run by Andrew McCarthy, an experienced and award winning wildlife photographer and professional consultant ecologist from Exeter. We will spend the day at the West Country Wildlife Photography Centre on the Devon/Cornwall border, where a remarkable collection of many iconic British mammals are housed in large and carefully landscaped photographic sets. During the day you can look forward to photographing some of our rarely seen species, including Otter, Fox, Pine marten, Harvest mouse, Water vole, Stoat, Scottish wildcat, and even Beaver, so you will need to be prepared to take home some truly memorable images!
The ability to get really close to the subjects means you can concentrate on honing your camera skills, thinking through your compositions and asking questions.
Andrew will start the workshop by giving a presentation to highlight the key issues associated with taking well composed wildlife images with impact. He will run through many of the common camera settings and will talk you through some of the techniques that you will be putting into practice throughout the day. We will then head out into the grounds to work with an experienced mammal handler to put our ideas into practice.
Ideally you will have, and be reasonably familiar with, a DSLR or Mirrorless camera with a telephoto or zoom lens of up to 300 or 400mm focal length, as well as a shorter focal length lens; say a macro of around 150mm to 180mm for smaller mammals. A tripod and / or monopod may come in handy for fine-tuning your compositions but remember you will have to carry your equipment between the enclosures (a few hundred meters). You will probably take many images during the day, so you will need spare memory cards and sufficient fully-charged batteries!
If you have any queries about your experience level or your equipment, please do contact me and I will do my best to help.
Please bring a packed lunch. Tea and coffee will be available on site throughout the day.
Clothing: We will be working outdoors, possibly in wet conditions, so appropriate warm clothing including a waterproof jacket and trousers, are highly recommended. We will need to walk short distances between enclosures on potentially wet / muddy and uneven ground, so I also recommend stout boots or wellingtons, with a good grip. Fitness: Photographing some species can involve lying on the ground, however this is optional and we have found that the fitness level and mobility required for the day is not at all onerous.
If you are a camera club member you can book directly through me and receive a discount. Please email me for details: email@example.com
Dates: Please contact us for availability and prices.