Super Macro During the Time of Covid

Nature does not stop during this time of Covid-19. I was self-isolating and working in my garden when a monarch butterfly flew by me and laid eggs on a nearby milkweed plant. The eggs were so small that it was hard to show them of my husband and my neighbor.

My husband, Gary Clark, decided to write about monarch butterflies for his weekly Nature column in the Houston Chronicle. I provide the photos for his articles so that meant I needed to take a picture of the extremely tiny monarch eggs.

Plan 1 —

I started the process of photographing the monarch egg by bringing the pot with milkweed inside.

For my first try, I used a 70-200mm lens with a Movo reversing adapter. This allows you to put your lens on backwards and shoot through the end of the lens that usually attaches to the camera.

Reversing the lens allows you to focus close and get higher magnification.

In this photo you see a flash on the left, flower pot with the milkweed, an artifical background held in place with a Wimberley plamp, milkweed held in place with another Wimberley plamp, and the camera lens.

The egg is not big enough and focusing is hard so I have to try something different.

Plan 2 —

I leave the Wimberley plamps in place and the flash in place.

I change the lens to a Canon 24-105mm lens. This is not a “high magnification” lens but I’m going to make it one.

I add a 12mm extension tube and a Canon 500D close-up lens. This is a filter and not a lens. It goes on the front of the lens and allows you to focus super close.

Here’s an blog post I wrote about this combination.

Monarch eggs with Canon 24-105mm lens with 12mm extension tube to allow me to focus closer. A Canon 500D close-up filter is added to the front of the lens to allow me to get even closer.

Plan 3 — The egg is not as big as I want. I can see the ridges on the egg but I want to get closer.

I contact Camera Lens Rental and order the Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens.

This is not your ordinary macro lens. It’s a speciality lens that will photograph from 1:1 life size to 5-times life size.

1:1 life size means the subject is the same size in life as it is on a full-frame sensor.

5-times life size means the subject is five times as big on a full-frame sensor as it is in real life.

Depth-of-field is super narrow even at f/16. A focusing rail in needed to ensure the subject is in focus. (Note: One more thing to buy.)

Same monarch egg at 5x life size. Not cropped.
Canon MP-E 65mm macro lens, 250 shutter, f/16, ISO 400, three flashes at -2.3 powers

The photo above is what I had in mind when I started this project. I just needed the right equipment to capture my vision.

Final equipment list for one monarch egg: Canon 5D Mark IV, MeFoto Globetrotter tripod, Neewer Pro 4 Way Focusing Rail Slider, Canon MP-E 65mm lens, two light stands, three Wimberley plamps, two Canon 220 mini flashes, one Canon ST-R2 Speedlight transmitter.

Thanks to the folks at Camera Lens Rental for getting the lens to me so fast and for being open in the Covid-19 lock-down.

Do I Need to Learn Photoshop?

Photoshop came first from Adobe.
Everything that any creative person needed in one place.

The Photoshop program is becoming less and less needed.  At one time, all the tools were in Photoshop.  

Then Adobe made Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and moved Photoshop’s photography tools into sliders.  We had everything we needed to process our photos in one place.  Adobe gave us Bridge as a “light table” where we could layout all our photos and work with them.

Then Adobe made Elements and put photography tools into sliders.  

Then Lightroom came along from Adobe

Then Adobe made Lightroom and put those same photography tools into sliders.  Lightroom took the Bridge concept to a new level.  Lightroom’s Library is a database so you can layout lots of photos from different folders onto a “light table” and work with them.

Lightroom’s Library is super-powerful and super-complicated.  I recommend the Scott Kelby book to learn and understand Library.  Life gets complicated when you update computers, work on two external hard drives, merge or split catalogues, etc.  Sometimes you have to call in an expert because the Library is a mess.

Thanks to Adobe we have three programs to process our photos.  

·         Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw, 

·         Elements, or 

·         Lightroom.  

The one you choose is up to you.  Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom do exactly the same thing when it comes to processing.  The difference is interface.  

Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw lets you file your photos the way you want.  

Lightroom files your photos for you and you need to understand what it’s doing.  Hence the need for Scott Kelby’s book, lots of online videos, The Lightroom Queen, etc.  I tell people on my workshops “I will not help you find your lost photos in Lightroom.  I will help you process your photos in Lightroom.”  If you use Lightroom, take time to understand the Library feature.  In my experience, this happens in only 25% of Lightroom users.  

Personally, I find the Bridge/Adobe Camera Raw combination easier to use.  I copy my pictures from my card to a folder under My Pictures, open Bridge, go to that folder, start processing.  Simple and easy.  The 25% who understand Lightroom’s Library say the same thing about Lightroom.  (The Lightroom versus Adobe Camera Raw argument is amazing among photographers.  More powerful than Mac vs. PC or Canon vs. Nikon.)

But what about Photoshop?  Photoshop has Layers and we still occasionally need layers.  There are still photographers who use layers to make vignettes even though we have a slider for vignette in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw.  There are still photographers who use Layers to open shadows despite the great shadow slider in Adobe Camera Raw and Lightroom.  

Layers in Photoshop are needed for a lot of advanced processing.  Merging star trails, for example.  Merging lightning strikes for a more dramatic photo, for example.  Photos with light painting need layers.  We can make a mat for our photos in Layers.  Good stuff happens in Layers and we can only get that in Photoshop.  

At one time, we could only get panoramas with Layers.  Now we have a feature in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw for that.   

I’ll offer a Photoshop Layers class in the coming weeks.  Layers is a powerful tool but has a steep learning curve.  I’m not a master but know how to get what I need – most of the time. 

Check out my class schedule at www.kathyadamsclark.com

Great Costa Rican Adventure

My husband and I have been taking birding/photography groups to Costa Rica since 2004. We’ve used Strabo Tours for each of these as well as a local Costa Rican tour company and our local guide, Willy Alfaro. The same operators and guides for every trip. We change the locations and time of year, and that changes the birds. Each trip is the same but each is different.

Our March 2020 trip was to the northern reaches of Costa Rica. We began in Liberia in the state of Guanacaste and ended in San Jose in the center of the country.

Our first lodge was in the hills of the Rincón de la Vieja volcano. The habitat was officially dry forest but the grounds were lush and filled with birds. Temps were in the 80s but we were plagued by misty rain. This gave us amazing rainbows but made photography a challenge.

Birds on the grounds included crested guan, white-throated magpie-jay, black-headed trogon, Garter trogon, keel-billed toucan, and turquoise-browed motmot. Those were the big, colorful birds. We didn’t overlook social flycatcher, summer tanager, western tanager, and other small but important birds.

We spent two nights at this location, then packed and drove past the Miravalles Volcano to the Rio Celeste. A stop along the way at Celeste Mountain Lodge gave us a chance to eat lunch and photograph birds at the feeders. Yellow-throated euphonia, scarlet-rumped tanagers, palm tanagers, and others gave the group new birds.

Our lodging in this area put the group in an unexpectedly luxurious eco-lodge. My room had a private outdoor terrace, a private outdoor shower on the other end, an indoor shower big enough for a football team, luxurious bathroom, and amazingly comfortable beds.

Bird feeders on the grounds attracted buff-throated saltator, Montezuma oropendola, and others. Overhead, we photographed swallow-tailed kites during a morning walk. After a nice mid-morning hike, we got to photograph the turquoise-colored Rio Celeste.

After two night, we packed-up and drove to the Arenal volcano area. Along the way we stopped at Danaus Nature Center to photograph two-toed sloth, white-nosed coati, boat-billed heron, and other things. The group was not ready to leave but our hotel for the night held lots of photo opportunities.

Arenal Volcano in the La Fortuna region of Costa Rica.

We maximized our time in the Arenal area but packed again to drive to Maquenque Eco-lodge near the Nicaraguan border.

Maquenque is a destination that nearly overwhelmed the group. Feeders near the dining room attracted many birds we’d already photographed but then there were new birds. Brown-headed parrot was the star and a lifer for me. All three honeycreepers — red-legged, green, and sparkling — came into the feeders frequently. Amazon kingfisher, great egret, purple gallinule and northern jacana frequented the property’s marshy pond.

After two nights, the tour headed a bit south to the Sarapiqui area. This is a favorite location for bird photography and our main stop was Dave & Dave’s Nature Park. Dave and Dave (father and son) have built a location where birds land on natural perches to feed on native fruits. The photo opportunities are amazing.

Two visits to Dave & Dave’s gave us a chance to photograph different perching birds plus several hummingbirds. The group was exhausted but still managed to eat amazing TexMex food before heading across the mountains to San Jose.

We gave the group one last stop while driving through the mountains. A small roadside coffee shop has a balcony overlooking a lush tropical valley. Feeders attracted mountain birds including Emerald toucanet, black guan, and a little Tennessee warbler. Hummingbirds feeders let us photograph green hermit, coppery-headed emerald, and violet saberwing.

As we cruised into San Jose for our last night in Costa Rica, the group was happy but a bit anxious. Corona Virus was in the news back in the United States. We’d experienced great bird and wonderful lodges. Our memories will always be enhanced thanks to the 500 or so pictures we took each day.

We’ll do this route again in March 2021. Details are on the Strabo Photo Tour website.

AstroPanel 4.1.0

I got an advertisement the other day for AstroPanel 4. The software was intriguing and the price was right so I clicked the button. The software is a plug-in that works in your Photoshop.

Star Trail with my usual processing.
Star trail with AstroPanel processing. This has a feature called “Comet Star Effect” turned on. There appears to be an emphasis on the first star trail in each series.
Star Trail with my usual processing.
Star trail same photos as above with AstroPanel processing. No “Comet Star Effect” turned on.

After a few hours of playing — excuse me, working — I’ve think this is a plug-in worth exploring.

  • Download was quick.
  • Install was pretty simple. There’s a YouTube video in case you get stuck.
  • The user’s manual is a PDF.
  • Instructions are clear and simple.
  • I was up-and-running in less than an hour.

My only negative is that the final photo is delivered as a flattened TIFF. I usually work on individual layers before flattening my star trails. This is my chance to remove a stray light in one frame, for example. With AstroPanel, I’ll need to do that work prior to letting the plug-in do its work.

I suspect there are a lot of other features in this plug-in. Watch this space for updates.

AstroPanel 4

Flower Photography Gadgets

Azaleas are the first major bloom of spring where I live in east Texas. Every year in mid-February the azalea bushes start setting buds and then blooming. Bare, wintery-looking yards suddenly have lovely mounds of pink, white, or red blooms. It’s a sure sign that spring is around the corner.

My neighbor’s backyard is lined with azalea bushes. I can see them from my living room window. For a week, the huge pink flowers have been calling me.

“Come photograph me” they seem to say. “Get out here and photograph us!” they started shouting as the blooms became more profuse. My brain responded with the usual “it’s to cold” and “it’s too windy today.” But those amazing flowers kept calling to me to get out there and photograph them.

Yesterday I grabbed the camera and tripod to head outside. It was breezy so I grabbed some handy gadgets from my friends at Wimberley.

Below are all my gadgets.

F-2 Macro Flash Bracket on camera.

The Macro Flash Bracket is attached to the base plate on the camera. Both are then hooked to the MeFoto Globetrotter tripod.

Wimberley’s P-5 Universal Camera Base Plate is on the camera.

F-2 Macro Flash Bracket

Installed next to the camera. Three adjustable sections allow me to position the flash in almost an position.

Reflector to the rescue

I needed a reflector to get some light under the bloom. PP-200 The Plamp II clamps to my tripod leg and Plamp Clip grips the edge of the reflector.

PP-400 The Ground Plamp (right) and PP-200 The Plamp II (left)

The Plamp is holding the flower in position. The Plamp II (left) is holding a background flower in position.

PP-400 The Ground Plamp stuck in the ground with the spike

PP-210 Plamp Extension Rod was needed to get the bloom into position.

Clips Don’t Squeeze Tender Vegetation

The PP-211 Plamp II Thumbscrew Clips have a groove that secures around the plant stem.

Basic set-up. Camera on tripod. Macro flash bracket (F-2) holding the flash off to the left side. Bloom held in place with The Ground Plamp (PP-400).
Same as above but The Plamp II (PP-200) holds the reflector under the bloom.
Basic set-up with camera on tripod. Macro flash bracket (F-2) holding the flash off to the left side. Bloom held in place with The Ground Plamp (PP-400). The Plamp II (PP-200) is pushing a bloom into the bottom-middle of the frame.

Could I have done the photography without the Wimberley gadgets? Maybe — if it wasn’t windy or if I had an assistant to hold things. But, it was great to be out there alone with my camera and gadgets.

Crystal Ball Photography — Quick Thoughts

Photographing through a crystal ball is a lot of fun. There are some basics that have to be mastered and then you’re free go wild and be creatives.

F/stop makes a difference in the photograph. Here’s the skyline of Houston photographed with f/5.6. Notice that the edges of the crystal ball are soft. Nice bokeh, though.
Same set-up but the f/stop has been changed to f/22. The edges of the crystal ball are sharp and defined. Notice that there’s more detail in the buildings in the background.
We get so caught-up in photographing that we don’t notice distracting lights in the background. The bright white lights in the upper left are caused by car headlights on a nearby road.
Same shot as above but I’m paying more attention to the moving traffic in the background.
The image in the ball has to be in focus. Some lenses or cameras don’t focus well in the dark. You’ll have to manually focus when this happens. Try using one focus point and put that point on something contrasty. Many cameras/lenses need this to help lock focus.

All photographs taken with a Canon 5D Mark IV, Canon 24-105mm lens.

Fixing a Crooked Horizon

I’m working through a folder of photos I took on a recent photo tour to the Lofoten Islands. We were at Haukland Beach late in the afternoon. The weather was mild, wind was calm, and the sea was spectacular.

At one point, I found a large rock out in the surf that was stable enough to stand on. I extended my tripod legs to the max, stabilized the camera, and then let the incoming waves wash around me while photographing. It was an exciting experience.

Yet, when I looked at the photos on my computer there was no escaping the fact that the horizon was crooked in each shot. I made a novice mistake of framing the photo with a slanted horizon.

The usual correction would be to use the straighten tool in Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom. In this instance, though, that would cut-off part of the mountain at the top of the frame.

Slanting horizon in the original photo. Straight horizon with Crop and Content-Aware Fill.

Crop with Content-Aware to the rescue.

Adobe software allows us to crop with Content-Aware. Content-Aware fills in gaps created when we crop. Amazing tool! Here’s how to do it.

Open the photo in Photoshop. Click the crop tool on the left toolbar. Click the top left corner of the photo and drag to the bottom right corner. Make any adjustments by pulling the little guides on each corner.

Click the Straighten tool on the top tool bar and check the Content-Aware box.

Drag your cursor along a part of the horizon you want to straighten. Let go and your photo straightens. (The background color shows behind the photo.)

Now, click the check mark on the tool bar at top right. Wait, wait, wait for the process to finish.
Viola! Horizon is straight and the gaps caused by cropping have been filled in. Intelligent software almost always makes the right choice.
The last step is to save the file as a TIFF, JPG, or PSD.

Crop with Content-Aware. This is a handy tool!

I office Photoshop/Lightroom classes in the Houston area. Check out my schedule on my website.

Norway Trip Recap

The Aurora from Lofoten Islands in Norway.

I had the pleasure in September of leading a photo tour to the Lofoten Islands of Norway for Strabo Photo Tour Collection.

Norway was amazing.  It’s a pretty easy flight over to Oslo.  Then you have to overnight in Oslo and take two flights up to Leknes.  It’s above the Arctic Circle so takes some time to get there.  Luckily, the Norwegians run a super-efficient air travel system and all the flights were right on time.  

The Oslo airport, by the way, is quiet.  There are large halls typical of any airport.  People are quiet with their voices in low tones.  Conveyor belts and people movers are quiet.  Overhead announcements are quiet.  It was so amazing.

The Lofoten Islands form a peninsula that goes out into the Norwegian Sea.  There’s a road system connecting the larger islands so travel is quick and efficient.  Our hotels were near Hamnoy, Leknes, and Svolvaer. All the hotels were rorbuer-style or styled like a fishing cottage community.  Little red houses clustered around the rocky shoreline.  Made for great photos.  The little fishing cottages had two bedrooms, a shared bathroom, with a living room and kitchen.  Very cozy as long as you don’t mind sharing a bathroom.  One hotel had two bedrooms in one house and each bedroom had a private bathroom.  That was my favorite arrangement because we had private bath but still shared a living room and kitchen.

During the day we tooled around the area photographing towering mountains over crystal clear water.  The little villages were usually filled with real fishing cottages with boats, nets, buoys, etc.  That meant we always had something to photograph from a grand landscape to tiny details.  We went to an old whaling village that’s now a UNESCO site.  Lots of neat stuff from the late 1800’s and early 1900s plus museums all in a tiny village setting.  I went nuts photographing the general store with all the old tins, advertisements, and cash register.  

At night we shot based on the aurora activity.  Our first night out was pretty good.  It was especially nice since we didn’t have to leave the rorbuer to shoot.  We just walked across the parking lot and stood on the rocky shoreline.  Everyone got great photos of the aurora that night and worked on their skills.  We had a visible aurora in the middle of the trip but activity wasn’t predicted until after 11:00pm.  Several people decided to stay back at the rorbuer but the rest of us loaded in the van and headed off to a wide, sandy beach.  We had great aurora activity and got to play with reflection of the lights in the ocean.  Our third chance at the aurora was our best night.  Predictions were for spectacular lights and they began right about twilight.  I saw them on my way to dinner and had ants in my pants the whole time we were eating.  After dinner we drove to a nearby beach and stayed for several hours.  It’s amazing how you don’t get tired when green lights are waving across the sky.  Our guides said it was one of the best nights they’ve seen.  We quit shooting about 2:00am and that was because batteries were dead and cards were full.

Temperature the entire trip were in the 30-degree to 70-degree range.  We had rain on our last day as we drove to the airport.  I wore my down coat as an outer layer almost all the time.  Longjohns as a base layer and then pants and a long-sleeved shirt as a middle layer.  I only wore gloves at night when we were shooting the aurora.  

Food was amazing.  I thought it would be gross things or super bland stuff.  The fish wasn’t fishy tasting.  The meat, pork, and lamp the others had looked really nice and tender.  We had plenty of root vegetables with familiar carrots and potatoes.  Breakfast was the basic European buffet of sliced meats, cheese, fruit, eggs, and breads.  The breads were all hardy, whole-grain that I added fresh butter and jam to.  The coffee was weak but we learned to make strong coffee in our rooms.  

Thanks to Christian Hoiberg for being such a great guide. Same to Odd-Are Hansen. He’s also an awesome Aurora Dancer. Check out this video on my Facebook page.

Moving Toward Mirrorless — Magnification Factor

Rufous hummingbird photographed with Olympus EM1 Mark ii with a four-thirds sensor.

A full-frame sensor camera has a sensor that is 35mm on the longest side. A cropped sensor camera (APS-C) has a sensor that is smaller. A four-thirds sensor is even smaller at 17.5mm on the longest side.

Those smaller sensors give us what is called a crop factor. An image on a full-frame camera looks the same as if the image was taken with a film camera. Take the same photo with a APS-C camera and the image would appear to be cropped. Take the same photos with a four-thirds sensor and the image would appear more cropped.

That cropping is 1.5x on a Nikon and 1.6x on a Canon camera. The cropping is 2x on an Olympus or other four-thirds sensor camera.

Using that 2x magnification, a 300mm lens is now a 600mm lens. Add a teleconverter on that 300mm lens and you have a 420mm lens. Put that lens on a four-thirds camera and it is now equal to 840mm on a full-frame sensor camera.

Below are three different cameras all with a 300mm lens with 1.4x extender for 420mm from the same location.

The full frame is photographed with 420mm. The cropped is photographed with the same lens but because the sensor is smaller the lens is equal to a 672mm lens. The four-thirds sensor is magnified even more for a lens equal to an 840mm lens. (As was pointed out in an earlier post, all the camera set-ups weigh roughly 4.9 pounds but the view with the four-thirds is equal to a much heavier camera with lens.)

So the advantage of a four-thirds sensor camera is our subject appears bigger when using a telephoto lens with a lighter camera.

I was curious if the quality would be acceptable since the sensor was smaller.

Above is a photo of a female rufous hummingbird perched outside my kitchen window. This was photographed under horrible conditions. I’m shooting through a dirty window. I’m hand-holding the camera at ISO4000 and the image was shot in jpg versus raw. (I was cooking dinner at the time so give me a break.)
Same image as above and cropped to 100%. Notice the fine details in the feathers. No smooth, blotchy colors but actual fine details.

“Expert” opinion has been that the smaller the sensor the worse the quality. I think the fine engineering put into APS-C cameras like the Canon 7D Mark II and Nikon 500 really put an end to that thinking. My brief tests with the Olympus OM-D EM1 Mark ii shows this four-thirds sensor can stand up with the best.

As usual, give me your thoughts. It’s always fun to read your experiences. Thanks again to Hunt’s Photo and Video and the folks at Olympus for making this test possible.