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Cheapskate Tuesday 29: Alligator Lizards with the A720 IS

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For this image, I wanted to show the Garry Oak habitat that I found this beautiful Northern Alligator Lizard in, as well as the gorgeous detail of its long body.

One of the greatest trends in wildlife and macro photography is so-called “wide angle macro”, or getting close to a subject with a wide lens in order to show both detail of the subject, and some of the surroundings for context. In addition, the exaggerated field of view places the subject right in your face in a way that standard macrophotography struggles with.

To achieve this with a DSLR, there are a number of lenses that can be used, including some very exotic optics such as the Venus 15 mm Macro (see Thomas Shahan’s video here for a good intro).

Well, here at Cheapskate Tuesday, we can’t afford that kinda thing (yet), so we have to make do. One way to acheive this type of look is both cheap and abundant: old compact cameras! I happen to have a fine Canon A720 IS that I bought some years back for 35 bucks at a pawnshop in Victoria. It focuses extremely close, and from my days shooting the S2IS and S5IS, I knew it could be hacked with CHDK in order to get RAW file capture for improved dynamic range and white balance editing.

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The A720 in all its glory. Truly a fine 8 MP compact!

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This CHDK menu shows some of the great tweaks that are available (in addition to RAW capture). The overrides of both ISO and aperture are very useful, and really work!

Well, working with a compact still has some disadvantages in terms of the maximal quality of the images captured, as well as the limited resolution available…The compact is versatile though, and is very light. One very cool feature of this model is that it has a global shutter and a very high flash sync speed, so flash-illuminated shots can still retain great detail in a bright sky.

The most important thing is that it focuses VERY close even at the widest zoom setting, allowing for the shots of the lizard you will see. There is a set of crazy tricks I used when shooting this image that I won’t detail here, but will cover in a future Cheapskate Tuesday post…Suffice it to say, if you desire the ability to make images like this on the cheap, and don’t mind a bit of tinkering, pick up a similar camera today, if you can find one at a good price….

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This shot shows great detail of the lizard’s head, as well as the rock outcrop and blooming camas in the background.

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Another shot of the lizard posed on a piece of broken wood. Again, note the detail visible both in the lizard as well as the background.

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Head on view!

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Probably one of my favorite shots from this session, just the face and feet are shown in detail, while both the Garry Oak and camas are visible in the background. So cool!

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BTW, this camera can also be used for shots like this one, showing Catherine seeming to be dwarfed by a dock spider…

 

 

Cheapskate Tuesday 28: Dollar store plant backdrop

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Catherine and I are living in Toronto, an expensive city to be sure, and our finances our feeling the strain. Nonetheless, money isn’t the only thing in short supply as the Ontario winter bears down on us! The insects around here are pretty serious about winter, and are getting extremely difficult to find! Also, though it has not happened yet, the cold of winter is going to make it very difficult to get out every weekend to turn up new creatures. So we come to studio photography! Having some captive arthropods, it is only natural to want to shoot them, but it gets a bit boring to have them either on white backdrops, or low key and black all the time. While we do have a nice south-facing window, and i can and have used it for a “blue sky” shot, it would be nice to have some foliage! In Vancouver, this meant going  out to a vacant lot across the street and clipping some salal, or blackberry or whatever (Vancouver is green!). Here, the lack of green herbaceous matter, especially downtown, is worrisome!

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This is Toronto right about now. Nice sentiment on the sign, but the snakes and insects are about as evident right now as the greenery!

Anyway, we do have a dollar store right downstairs, and low and behold, they sell some fake plants. I figured, why not set these up on the wall where I can use them much like a real plant when I am out shooting with the Monster Macro Rig?

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2 bucks a pop is not too pricy!

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A couple nails in the wall to hang them, and there they are.

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For some extra colour and depth, why not put some green paper behind? $1!

Results:

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OK, I am getting good exposures, but that green looks way off to me. It is way too bluish for my taste, and does not look natural.

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Even with significant adjustments in Photoshop, the green still bothers me. Better to get it right in camera, so back to the Dollar store to find some gels.

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For $1.50, I got a pack of “gels” to colour the output of my background light. These are just plastic report covers. I am only using the yellow one, but will keep the rest as well for funky hard lighting somewhere down the line.

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With a bit of velcro, gels are ready to attach to the flash.

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Man, that YN-460 is looking old! Not bad for 30 bucks though! It has been a trooper!

Results: Yellow-gelled background light

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OK! This looks way better to me. And this Rabidosa is looking FINE! Orange spider goggles seem to be in this year.

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Here if it looks any cooler, it is because I brought it down in post, but still pretty credible rendition of what lit, out of focus vegetation might look like.

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This Kukulcania male on moss is about how I would expect it to look against some actual plants outdoors.

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If I pull out far enough, I have to open up a bit. This dock spider shot shows how the “vegetation” looks when a bit more in focus. Still good colour though!

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Getting in close shows that the background can still be soft with a big subject. Depth of field is a complicated business!

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This debris-covered assassin nymph might prefer to be in the guck of a spiders crevice, but the fake plants in the background have the look of the outdoors.

So there you have it! One way to achieve out of focus vegetation indoors in the studio! Another way to do this might be to print large photos of out of focus plants as backdrop, but I worry about how to light that consistently without getting big glaring reflections from my background light’s head. 

This setup is cheap, portable, and nice to have in my bag of tricks. One wonderful thing is that I will never have to worry about that one white stick or grass blade in the background that mucks up a shot before I even realize it. This way, there are no visual intrusions! It is good to know that I have some “outdoor” shooting ability as the icy winter looms!

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Cheapskate Tuesday 27: the Yongnuo 35 mm F2

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So my soujourn in Guyana was not entirely without casualties. Although I avoided getting eaten by the jaguar, my Canon 50 mm 1.8 II died. I have no idea what happened, but the whole front assembly became detached from the rest of the lens. Everything still works, aperture, focus motor, but I cannot figure out how to snap it back together.

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The carnage: maybe the jaguar attacked it!

Anyway, I needed a new fast prime, and it just so happened that when  got back from the jungle, the YN 35 mm f2 was announced. It was retailing for 110 bucks, the same for the 50, and since i have a crop-frame camera, a 35 sounded like a nice focal length for a fast lens. After all, the legacy of the fast 50 mm prime is a holdover from film days, where it would be a “normal” lens on a 35 mm frame. With my 1.6X crop frame Canon, 35 mm is just about a normal focal length, so what I am really getting is not a wide lens, but a fast normal lens. I ordered one!

The waiting for shipment took way longer than expected, as it was on the slow boat from China, but when it arrived last week, I immediately tried it out. The first few images I took with it were OK, but not stellar. Then I remembered to take the protective plastic off the rear element!!!

OK, this lens is pretty cool, it is nice, fast focusing and decently well built (seems on par with the el cheapo Canon 50 anyhow, and is quite reminiscent). It does have a metal mount, and the autofocus switch feels way nicer than that of the Canon. So far so good. What about the images?

I intend to use this for a number of things I used to use my 50 for: documenting social events, fieldwork, and sometime putting it on tubes for macro. Here are my results so far:

Social documentation

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Nice and sharp details, and the real advantage of this lens for me is that I do not have to run backwards to frame up a shot. It sees what I see!

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I like the way colours are rendered (although a better body would help with the greens!)

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The lens is decently fast in focus response, and hence feels fun to use.

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The lens is not so wide as to significantly distort faces in close-up shots.

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Most importantly, it captures the expressions of huskies well, especially that moment they discover there is a bag of chicken skewers nearby.

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Because the lens is bright, getting focus right in the dark is way easier than using a slow zoom.

Field Documentation

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Again, I like the focal length. If I want a snapshot of a GPS and a pitfall trap, it works great.

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For documentation of habitat, it is wide enough to show the scene.

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It can even work for a bit wider view of larger insect phenomena!

Macro

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It does focus pretty close for a wide lens, but the magnification sort of sucks for macro.

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With a Raynox DCR 250, it can be used for closeups, even in natural light. It gets to about 1:2. With 31 mm of extension tubes, it gets a bit better than 1:1. With more extension, the working distance gets pretty darn short. i will experiment with this kind of thing, but for anything approaching 2:1, I would be better off with the 100 mm as a starting point.

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“Native” magnification. Not too impressive.

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With 31 mm of tubes. A usable macro setup, though subject distance is small.

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The seven bladed aperture definitely renders out of focus highlights better than the Canon 50 mm 1.8 II.

 

Verdict

Well, this is certainly a usable and enjoyable replacement for my 50 1.8. In fact, with its focal length, it will likely be way more useful to me. I am impressed with the decently close focus, the fact that it is fast and light, and that it fits my budget! One thing to keep in mind about this versus the Canon 50 is that the front element is much less recessed, and hence ghosts and flare may be more common. I did not notice anything other than small blue ghosts when the sun was right in the frame.
I would say if you can afford to, one of the Canon versions of this lens would undoubtedly hold value way better, and perhaps offer an edge in build quality or some aspect of performance. But this is definitely a usable lens, and is quite sharp even wide open (I will post some samples soon!). I will certainly be making a lot more use of this lens than my 50 got, as this is a more valuable focal length for documentation and snapshooting. Look forward to seeing more from this lens in the future!

 

 

 

Cheapskate Tuesday 25: Einige Kleine NachtSpinnen

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A few weeks ago, I suggested a Rat Safari, as a budget-minded wildlife photo expedition that is easy to do in most cities. Today, I bring you a budget spider safari, which Catherine and I conducted in the tiny  park across the street. For this to work, I needed some constant illumination in the subject area, so I simply taped my Fenix E-05 flashlight to the lens hood of my 100 mm, which illuminated the spiders for easy focusing. The lighting for the shots was simply accomplished with a single diffused speedlight on the Monster Macro Rig. I hope you enjoy the photos, and are inspired to go find some little night spiders yourself!

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Realm of the Amaurobiids: These Hacklemesh Weavers are the most abundant of the spiders we found. Their disordered web flanking their retreat is laid as a trap for unwary passing insects.

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Some webs are more sparse than others!

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Here is a freshly-moulted Amaurobiid.

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We guess that this is a male Steatoda hespera (Therediidae).

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These small orb weavers (Araneidae) were out in small numbers.

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A nice big sac spider (Clubionidae)! This is a female.

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Could this male sac spider be the same species as the previous? It is difficult to tell. There are hundreds of species of Clubionidae in Canada.

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Here a male Amaurobiid tackles an introduced Drumming Katydid (Meconema thalassinum)

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Cheapskate Tuesday precluded due to owls!

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Sorry, no Cheapskate Tuesday today, as I just got back from another Barn Owl trapping adventure. I need to get to sleep!

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Perching on the truck to investigate before capture, this big girl left a souvenir for us.

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Owl banded, “transmittered”, and ready for release.

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An hour and half after release, we tracked her to a property about 1.5 km away.

 

Cheapskate Tuesday 24: On white, in situ

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A few weeks ago, I delved into what a white card could do paired with two flashes. I found it was a bit tricky to use it to add fill except in a few situations, but the way that it could be used to blow out a background was intriguing, so I wondered if it was practical to use for “Meet Your Neighbours” style lighting in the field. The difference between MYN style and mine is that the MYN people are really good…But enough of that, the other difference is that the MYN style often involves larger setups and “field studio” type conditions, using tripods and lightstands and the lot. With bounced flash from a white card, I can blow out the background, so what is to stop me from just holding it behind the subject and using the Monster Macro Rig to light both the subject and the background? I gave it a try, and here are my results and some thoughts.

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For relatively slow moving insects on stable backgrounds, this is a great technique. The only issues are to get an angle that allows a blown background, and to balance the light hitting the subject and the flash. I was working at f13, with 1/8 power on a YN560 for the subject, and 1/8 to 1/4 with a YN460 (a smaller light) for the background. ISO around 160-250.

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For subjects on more mobile backgrounds, it is better to have no wind! The more flighty subjects may tolerate a close approach with the macro rig, but putting the card behind is a whole other level of disturbance to manage! I found that flies and bees and such were tough to approach.

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This Grass Veneer was flighty and was also on some ridiculously mobile grass, so this is the only shot I got. Luckily it was mostly in focus. Again, working in calm conditions would be best.

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Getting the subject isolated in natural (unselected) vegetation is difficult, especially when they are timid. This shot could be better isolated.

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A tiny subject on a larger leaf is a tough one to compose. Wherever you cut the leaf, it will look odd. It may have been better with this lace bug to cut it in the corner…That being said, this technique can make for some nice textural contrasts with a subject such as this.

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Small fine features coming out into the white background can be easily swamped, so it is important to keep fine features parallel to the plane of the rest of the subject…This would be great, but the way the antennae fade is not so nice.

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The nicest thing about this approach is that the subject is actually in the position and situation it was found in, so the setting is appropriate and not contrived. A field studio approach may not achieve this.

So that’s it for this week’s Cheapskate Tuesday!  I think that it is something I will continue to work on, as it seems to have promise. Keep watching this blog for more results using this technique, preferably of lovelier subjects on calmer days!

Cheapskate Tuesday 23: Rat Safari!

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They say that if you want to take better pictures, you need to stand in front of more interesting stuff. This certainly has some truth to it, and is one of the reasons why investment in a photo expedition can be so much more useful than allocating tons of money on new cameras and lenses. But a trip to an exotic far-flung locale does not really fit in with the Cheapskate Tuesday philosophy, so how about a photo safari closer to home?

Shooting Norway Rats (Rattus norvegicus) provides an opportunity to shoot an interesting, seldom-photographed subject in the heart of a city. Because they are nocturnal, they pose some unique challenges, namely lighting them properly! For these shots, I used 2 radio-controlled manual speedlights,which were set up to light a small area baited with common dog food. One could also use TTL triggers, such as the new YongNuo 622‘s and set the metering to spot to meter the subject, but I did not have these available. Instead, after guesstimating lighting ratios, I just played with the ISO and f-stop to get decent exposures.

Starting shortly after nightfall on a summer night in July, I chose an area with lots of foot traffic adjacent to a rail line. This ensured that the rats were used to human proximity and conditioned to search for littered food. An alleyway near some dumpsters would also work well. I shot these using a 70-300 zoom, and of course the faster the lens, the easier focusing will be, but choosing an area with some artificial light helps.

Because rats are neophobic (afraid of new things in their environment), I was worried that the speedlights would scare them off, but these rats that are habituated to a rapidly-changing litter landscape did not pay too much heed to some more crap lying around.

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Depending on the season (I recommend early summer), the majority of rats you will encounter will be young, as rats are short-lived highly fecund creatures, meaning that the cohort of young individuals will greatly exceed the number of large, reproductively mature animals. These younger rats often have bright eyes and nice fur, which makes them rather cute.

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Urban litter is often in the frames, adding some context to the shots.

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Many of the rats I encountered had scars such as missing eyes, which indicates crowding in shelter areas and conspecific aggression.

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The elegant form of the rat at a gallop is one of the most astounding sights in the natural world.

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There is much more I would like to do with rats, such as triggering a camera with a wide angle remotely, and providing more natural foods, like pizza. Just imagine, a rat in front of a graffiti covered wall, dragging a massive slice of pizza! This is my art, this is my dream.

Anyway, I urge anyone to go try a rat safari, and wonder at the most urban of urban wildlife.

Cheapskate Tuesday 21: Sitting on black

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Seeing as how last week’s Sitting on White was fun to do, and inspired by this great post by Alex Wild, I decided to shoot some jumpers sitting on black.

To do this, I simply spray painted a sheet of window glass black, and used the unsprayed side as a stage. The lighting was much more simple than Alex’s, just  single diffused speedlight overhead. All shots required a good deal of “healing” to remove dust, but in general they came out OK. The better method would be to get a thick piece of glass as Alex described, but I do not have any such on hand, and if I had tried this with the glass suspended, i would get ugly double reflections. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the pics, and get inspired to try it yourself!

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I think this guy could see his reflection!

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By the way, when I tried to bring in a snooted rim-light, this is what happened. Messy, but kind of cool!

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Cheapskate Tuesday 20: Sitting on white

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The photos I took Sunday of the pretty Habronattus males were fun and effective because of their simple composition. This is not a difficult look to achieve, and only requires a diffused flash and a white surface. This is a technique I use often as a shortcut to isolate a subject, and it looks pretty nice!

For these shots, I was shooting on a white formica table, but I have used just a blank sheet of typing paper as well. I just placed the spiders on the table, brought in a diffused flash (YN-560 with the Cheapskate Diffuser Mk II) at 1/8 power, and blasted away at ISO 250-320 at f13. I used a 100 mm macro lens with 37 mm of extension tubes. The exposure I brought up in post so that most of the background goes to white (overexposed on all channels) then reigned in the subject using the blacks slider in Adobe Camera Raw. Often using this technique I get loss of contrast due to the light reflecting off the large white surface directly at the front element, but so long as it is not to severe, this can be brought back in post.

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Setup: white sheet, attractive subject, blast light from your favourite angle! Done!

While environmental portraits showing the habitat or behaviour are great and something to work at, you can try this as an easy way to document a subject in isolation when you need a good quality image. The way I look at it is as a convenient visual shorthand that conveys the physical appearance of a subject with no distraction, much in the same way that fashion photographers or catalogue photographers use the same technique. I used this to add some good images of Habronattus ophrys (which is very difficult to shoot in situ) to bugguide.net. I think they turned out nicely, and show how beautiful some of our local spiders can be. What do you think?

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