I eventually caught a Bombus on one of our sweet-smelling Daphne shrubs. Jilayne designed the garden with all-year interest and we have two very fragrant winter sets of shrubs in the sunnier front garden of the house. The white flowers of the Sweet Box or Sarcococca confusa have just faded but the white/pink flowers of the Daphne (Daphne odora) are in full bloom, attracting multitudes of bees at the moment. During sunny days, each shrub has 4-6 large, white-tailed bumblebees (Bombus lucorum) on it. Having said that it has taken me ages to get an image of one, waiting for about 4 hours in total (over about a week) to get a picture of one landing and feeding just where I was set up. You cannot follow them around, as the set-up is tricky and takes a couple of minutes, with the close-up focussing and flash placement. So, you have to choose a suitable flower head, set-up and then simply wait – you then only get a few seconds to take the photo once the bee lands.
Using the same set-up as described previously, this image was taken at ISO 64, f/25 and 1/250s with twin flash. The focal plane was about 600mm away from the centre of the flower head which, by my rules from last time, would produce an aperture of f/16-25. As I wanted to capture the bumblebee on the flower in one shot and with as much flexibility as possible, not knowing exactly where it would land/feed, I opted for the larger DoF of about 30mm from using f/25, rather than the smaller DoF of about 20mm at f/16. On the full-size image, you can see every hair on the bumblebee’s body in great detail, no matter that it was at f/25. I cropped the image only slightly in the main version that I have for sale, from the 36MP of my D810 to about 24MP, but this image here is cropped again to about 12MP to really emphasise the Bombus, although this website version is actually less than 1MP, of course!
With it getting warmer, during the day anyway, lockdown looking like it might have an end, and us both getting our first jabs by this week, it definitely feels like the end of winter and the start of spring! Having said that, these two shots from the garden were still in February, which is still officially winter, of course. After the snowdrops, you get the hellebores and then the daffodils. This group of pink/purple hellebores are Helleborus orientalis while the dwarf daffodils are Narcissus cyclamineus ‘Tete-a-Tete’.
Both were taken using my well-proven macro techniques using the wonderful 105mm f/2.8 lens, all at ISO 64 on my D810. Inside with still subjects, you can get closer at 350-500mm, but the Depth of Field (DoF) drops very quickly to only 5-15mm, even when using f/22-32. This generally means that you need to focus stack 2-3 images, which I do by blending them manually in Photoshop. If the subject really is still, then you can use natural light from a window and increase the shutter speeds to 0.5-2s. Outside though, with a bit of wind and movement, you have to use flash. As noted before, I treat objects as one would in portrait photography, using twin flashes at 450 to the side and 450 upwards. You then set the shutter speed at around 1/250s, which kills nearly all the ambient light, and use the flash power and distance to determine the best balance of light. If you can get the flashes really close at about 200mm, then the flash powers can be 1/8 and 1/16, for the key and infill lights. In reality, you can usually only get the flashes placed about 400mm away, which increases the power demand by a factor of 4 (due to the inverse square law), needing around 1/2 and 1/4 power. With these outside pictures, you also tend to be a little further away at a 500-750mm focus distance, giving a better DoF of 15-30mm, using f/16-25. This tends to mean that you only need one shot, without any focus stacking, which is good. You still have to be very careful to get the best 15-30mm in focus though! Both these photos were taken at ISO 64, f/22 and 1/250s with twin flash.
In summary, I’d say that:
At 1,000mm, use f/11 with a DoF of 50mm - 1 image only
At 750mm, use f/16 with a DoF of 30mm - 1 image only
At 500mm, use f/22-25 with a DoF of 16-19mm – possibly stack 2 images
At 450mm, use f/25 with a DoF of 14mm - stack 2 images
At 400mm, use f/28 with a DoF of 11mm - stack 3 images
At 350mm, use f/32 with a DoF of 7mm - stack 4 images
I rarely use the 350mm distance or indeed the minimum of 314mm, as the DoF is so small (only 4mm even at f/32), all of which needs huge amounts of careful focus stacking. As said previously, the diffraction does get worse at f/32, but better to have more DoF with some softness, than less (that also looks soft!) with more sharpness. That’s my view anyway – it’s probably only true with lenses as exceptional as this one though.
I had another bash at getting a fresh and clear winter’s morning over the London skyline from Hampstead Heath, from just near Kenwood House, a few weeks ago. It was clear overhead, but there was that perennial layer of cloud over the city, which can make for good shots too, of course, as it adds texture and varied colours to the horizon during the dawn, so long as it’s not actually hazy.
The sunrise was still quite late, at 7.50am, and so I arrived an hour and a half beforehand at 6.20am, taking shots through to about 7.20am, after which time it became much more hazy. The best pictures were at about 6.50am, i.e. an hour before the sunrise, with a nice balance of the building lights still being bright enough, while the sky had good colours, light and texture too.
Instead of using a wide-angle lens to get the whole panorama from Canary Wharf, through The Shard and across to the BT Tower, I had already decided to stitch two telephoto images together this time. So, I used my D810 with an 82mm focal length on my 70-200mm f/4 lens, giving me a 53MP image that’s about 11,500 by 4,600 pixels. The detail and image quality is incredible - you can see every window on every building, including St Paul’s Cathedral (just to the right of The Shard) and Big Ben (just the left of the Euston Tower, which is just left of the BT Tower).
I used my native ISO 64, f/9 and a 25s exposure, on a tripod of course, with a remote release and Mirror-up Mode. Besides the usual adjustments in Lightroom, where the WB was about 5,500K, all I added was a Graduated Filter on the darker foreground to slightly pull out the details of the frosty grass by 1.2 stops. The merging and blending of the two images in Photoshop using the Cylindrical Mode was almost flawless, needing very little tidying up afterwards. I got ten really nice photographs in the end, showing the whole sequence from almost dark skies to that lovely pre-dawn orange glow, all of which have now gone on for sale.
With lockdown still ongoing, one can only look down (at the snowdrops or tomatoes) or look up (to the moon and stars)! This time of year is perfect for seeing Orion’s Belt, of course, although there have been precious few clear skies over London for weeks now.
Astronomically, you can also easily see the asterism known as the Winter Hexagon or Winter Circle on a clear winter’s evening. It covers a big expanse of the sky, over six constellations, ranging from the horizon to almost straight up. This was the view over our house last week. The six stars that make up the hexagon are: 1. bottom left - Sirius, the Dog Star in Canis Major – the brightest star in the night sky; 2. bottom middle - Rigel, the bottom right star in Orion - 7th brightest star, which is slightly blue; 3. bottom right - Aldebaran in Taurus, which is definitely orange; 4. top right - Capella, the Goat Star in Auriga, which was almost straight upwards - 6th brightest star; 5. top middle - Pollux on the left (paired with its twin, Castor on the right) in Gemini, which is slightly yellow; and 6. top left - Procyon in Canis Minor – the 8th brightest star.
The other asterism, the Winter Triangle, is also very visible, with the three bright stars of Procyon, Sirius and Betelgeuse forming an equilateral triangle. Betelgeuse is the top left star in Orion and is definitely red, while also being the 10th brightest star. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant that is likely to explode as a supernova shortly, i.e. within the next 100,000 years, by which time we’ll be able to see it on Earth during the daytime for several weeks, but as we’ll most likely also be experiencing the next Ice Age, we’ll be under 1km of ice! It’s Beetle Juice, of course, not Betel Gerz......!
Photographically, I used my 24mm f/1.8 wide angle prime lens on the D810. Having tested it a few years ago, I know that at f/2-2.8 it’s quite soft (IQ of 4-6/10), whereas at f/4 the IQ gets up to a very good 8/10. So for night shots, I always use it at f/4. 15s is the longest exposure that works acceptably on a full-frame camera, as anything longer generates much more noticeable star trails. You’re then left to adjust the ISO to suit. For very dark skies at EV -6, you might well need to use ISO 6,400, while out in the country at EV -4, you would use ISO 1,600, but here in London at only EV -2, the best exposure was with ISO 400. The hyperfocal distance at f/4 is only about 7m – so even though it is difficult to focus on individual stars, even with Live View, you just need to ensure that you have focussed on something more than 10m away. Best to be safe and use something at least 50-100m away.
I did capture several shots all in one frame of this 24mm lens, but most of the better images did not quite get Castor and Pollux in the picture too. In the end, I blended two images in Photoshop, carefully aligning the layers using the very convenient star positions. In Lightroom, the best White Balance was at 4,000K, but you then have to really boost all the other settings to get a more powerful picture, with higher levels of contrast/clarity, sharpening, saturation/vibrance and noise reduction to suit. It would all be better in darker skies, of course, but even in London it proves that it’s still possible to get connected to nature!
Following the same themes as for the snowdrops below, I have been using some lockdown time to take yet more studio images – this time, with close-ups of food. The list is endless, as are the possibilities, and they all sell well on Alamy. This photo of three tomatoes on a spoon on a white tablecloth was taken next to two windows, giving natural side light as well as some natural infill light. I used ISO 64, f/25 and a 2s exposure. At this aperture and a focus distance of about 450mm, the DoF is just under 15mm. As I was trying to get the front and middle of the scene in focus, with the rear drifting away, I needed to capture about 30mm sharply. So, as below, I took 3 images and blended them in Photoshop, ie using manual focus stacking. It’s best to use the middle as a base layer and then to add the sharper 1-2 front sections by white painting on black layer masks, remembering to align each new layer addition each time, as the shifting focus changes the magnification. It sounds time-consuming but it’s very quick and simple in the end.
I popped the toms in the freezer for ten minutes beforehand – so that they got some condensation on them during the shoot. You could spray them with water drops, but these tend to give quite large droplets, whereas the natural condensation is much more delicate. Overall, the detail at full size is simply stunning, allowing the image to be printed at magazine quality (300ppi/dpi) at around A2 size (60 by 40cm), or at exhibition poster quality (150ppi/dpi) at A0 (120 by 80cm), which is three big tomatoes!
Looking at my blogs from July last year, you’ll see that I have already been experimenting with the best apertures for my 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Typically for a single close-up shot, f/16 will not give enough DoF (~10mm for 400-500mm away), while the f/32 limit gives around twice the amount (~20mm), but at the expense of some diffraction softness – so, f/22 seems a good compromise giving the optimum DoF with only a limited amount of softness. Better to have more DoF with some softness, than less (that also looks soft, of course!) with more sharpness – I’m finding it’s best to use f/22-25. In reality, the optimum image quality (10/10) might indeed be at f/11-16, but the quality of the pictures is still stunning (8-9/10) at f/22-25.
But if you want more than 15-20mm in focus, you do need to focus stack. Photoshop stacks reasonably well, but it is rather random and uncontrolled. I am therefore finding it much better to blend 2-3 images manually, using layer masks – this allows me to be much more selective in what I add in each layer. So for about 30mm in focus, at 400-500mm away, even though it might be ideal to take 5-8 images at f/11-16, in reality, it is much better to take 2-3 shots at f/22-25. I have tried both and you cannot spot any difference in quality for the lesser effort of taking fewer pictures, with this wonderful 105mm macro lens, anyway.
So, while the snow was still falling about a week ago, I captured this series of images of a beautiful clump of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis). They were all taken at ISO 64, f/25 and 0.6s. No need for any flash as the air was very still with no movement of the flower heads. I took 6 images of front to middle to rear, but then used one of the middle ones as a base layer, and blended just the small areas of focus from the two closer pictures, ie using 3 images in total. You have to align the whole image each time as the changing focus also shifts the magnification of the picture slightly. It’s all a bit of an effort, of course, but no more so than blending 3 images together in a panorama, which I do regularly.
There was nothing special in my Lightroom adjustments (the WB was 7,000K), with the key efforts all being in the blending process in Photoshop. As we only get snow on the ground about once a year in London, it was definitely all worthwhile!
Since last November, I’ve been trying to get a sequence of lunar phases, using my 200-500mm f/5.6 lens on my D500, giving me a 750mm effective focal length. You still need to crop the image tightly to fill the frame to just over 3,000 by 2,000 pixels, i.e. 6 MP, which is the smallest image size that I can sell on Alamy. With the lens wide open at f/5.6 (which has superb image quality still) and with my native ISO 100, the shutter speed varies between about 1/30s and 1/250s depending on the moon’s brightness. I haven’t got many of the lunar cycle yet as it’s been pretty cloudy over the last few months. Most of the main images (full moon, gibbous moons and half-moons, both waxing and waning) are relatively easy to capture as the moon is in view for a number of hours and can always be viewed quite high in the sky. The tricky ones are the crescent moons.
The waxing crescent moon is only ever visible for a few hours, for 2-4 days after the new moon each month, always as it sets low in the sky in the W at dusk, after the sunset (or more precisely, summer in the NW, winter in the SW and actually only in the W around the vernal and autumnal equinoxes). So, this month the new moon was on 13 January, and you cannot see it for several days, of course, as it’s next to the sun. By 15 January, the tiny sliver of the crescent was at 7% illumination, but the sunset was at 16.20 and the moonset was at 19.00. So, at 16.20, it’s too bright, but by 18.20 when it’s really dark enough, the moon is only at an elevation of about 50, i.e. almost set and invisible unless you have a clear horizon to view. However, at around 17.20, the moon is visible at about 100 in the SW – it’s not yet fully night, but the nautical twilight is just dark enough. Being very low in the sky, with the sun still quite close, the moon is much more orange than usual. This serene image was taken at 17.20 using a shutter speed on 1/10s to suit. The waxing crescent is always dark on the left and was visible for another two nights at 13% and then 21% illumination, gradually getting slightly higher in the sky for an hour or so longer, in that time well after sunset but before the moon sets. Although, it was actually fully cloudy!
The waning crescent moon is the exact opposite, i.e. it is only ever visible for a few hours, for 2-4 days before the new moon, always as it rises low in the sky in the E at dawn, before the sunrise. The waning crescent is always dark on the right. The waning crescent looks to be much harder to capture as the time between moonrise and sunrise is smaller, only a few hours, meaning that it won’t be possible to capture a 5-10% sliver, and it may only be feasible to picture it a day or so later when it’s 15-25% illuminated. We’ll see – the next possible dates are 7-8 February, weather permitting too!
Interestingly, you discover once watching the phases day by day that everything occurs on the ecliptic, which is the apparent line in the sky along which both the sun and moon move each day. All the planets also move along the ecliptic, as do the 13 Zodiac constellations, so defining the 4-week spell in each year where the sun lies. Astronomically, very useful, although astrologically it’s all nonsense, especially as the 12 original Zodiac constellations were established around 2,500 years ago and the earth’s precession of the equinoxes (i.e. the wobble on its axis) has now moved the constellations both spatially, and temporally by about a month.
I hadn’t been to Hampstead Heath for a while and went back there just before Christmas. It was meant to be a fresh and clear winter’s morning but although the sky was mainly clear, there was a band of cloudiness over the horizon, which gradually enveloped the city as the sunrise advanced. I wanted to capture the brightness of the city lights, but with a hint of the orange skies during the dawn. This time of year is good as the sunrise is closest to the city itself (when looking south-east from Hampstead Heath, anyway) and the sunrise is actually quite late, at about 8am. When I arrived at 6.50am (an hour and 10 minutes before sunrise), there was just a faint orange glow in the sky over Canary Wharf, with the bright light of the Morning Star, Venus, in the darker blue sky above.
Instead of using a wide-angle lens to get the whole panorama from Canary Wharf, through The Shard and across to the BT Tower, I had already decided to stitch 3 telephoto images together in Photoshop, so that I could record much more detail. So, I used my D810 with a 90mm focal length on my 70-200mm f/4 lens, giving me a 64MP image that’s about 13,700 by 4,700 pixels. The detail and image quality is incredible - you can see every window on every building; though not on this 1,000 by 340 pixel web image! For this panorama, which was my first set of the day at 6.50am, I used my native ISO 64 and f/8 to get a depth of field from about 50m to infinity, resulting in a 25s exposure. Later image sets had slightly more orange sunrise in the sky but had less powerful lighting on the city buildings. It was also noticeable afterwards that these images of the city during lockdown had far fewer lights compared to earlier years – clearly, many office buildings were simply dormant and a bit darker. Besides the usual adjustments in Lightroom, where the WB was about 5,000K, the main area of work was to merge the three images seamlessly in Photoshop.
Like earlier versions of this photograph, I can supply these printed out and mounted at around 180cm by 60cm, on glossy Kodak Pro Endura paper with a UV lamination on a wonderfully thin and frameless aluminium dibond backing. They're exhibition quality and look fabulous - now available for sale in a limited and signed edition at £1,200. The three individual images also turned out really well as stand alone pictures, showing Canary Wharf to The Shard, The Shard with the new towers at 22 Bishopsgate and One Blackfriars, and The Shard to the BT Tower, which now also reveals the recent renovated Elizabeth Tower (housing Big Ben). These images are more normal size at around 6,750 by 4,500 pixels, i.e. ~30MP, allowing excellent prints at around 90cm by 60cm or 105cm by 70cm, as per my Contact and Sales tab.