Archives

Mozambique Diary: Shooting bats

Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros sp.) in a cave of Cheringoma Plateau, Gorongosa National Park.

Leaf-nosed bats (Hipposideros sp.) in a cave of Cheringoma Plateau, Gorongosa National Park.

My entire last month was a blur of hectic activity, related mostly to the opening of the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Laboratory in Gorongosa National Park. This kept me from updating the blog, but it was definitely worth it – the Lab is a fantastic facility that will serve as a research base to current and future scientists in the park, and as a center of advanced biodiversity education for Mozambican students for years to come (I just finished teaching its first African entomology workshop there, and it was great.) We are also creating the Gorongosa Synoptic Collection, which has the ambitious goal of documenting, over the next 15-20 years, all (or at least as much as physically possible) multicellular diversity of the park – I will try to post frequent updates from this effort. In the meantime, I would like to invite all biologists to come and work in Gorongosa – there is an entire universe of unexplored life out there, waiting to be studied and saved. Contact me if you are interested – Gorongosa wants your research projects, and we will help you make them happen.

Slit-faced bat (Nycteris cf. thebaica) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Slit-faced bat (Nycteris cf. thebaica) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

One of the many benefits of having a permanent and safe logistical base in a place as biologically rich as Gorongosa is that I am not afraid to bring and leave behind my expensive high tech gear, and experiment with it. For months I had been dying to try out my high speed photography system, and finally was able to use it last month to shoot flying bats in the comfort of our lab. Now, bats have been photographed in flight by many, and the technology to do so has existed since at least the 1980’s. But, as far as I could tell, few had tried to take images of flying bats using the white background technique, made popular by the Meet Your Neighbours project, and I really wanted to try it.

An orange form of a Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

An orange form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

The setup for photographing bats in flight will be familiar to anybody who has ever worked with high speed photography: I used an external, very fast shutter (6mS response time, 10-50 times faster than the shutter in a typical SLR) mounted on a Canon 7D with a 100mm macro lens, triggered by two intersecting laser beams, and with four Canon flash heads that provided the illumination. Cognisys is a company that sells turnkey solutions for high speed photography, and their excellent StopShot system is what created the basis of my setup. The tricky part was to create a stage where the bats’ flight path was relatively narrow, allowing me to illuminate it properly. Last year I photographed bats in a cave, which was relatively easy, but gave me little control over the lighting. I needed to restrict their movement better, and decided to bring a large diffusion box that I would then turn into a flight chamber for the bats.

The box was about 1 m (3 ft) long, giving even the largest Gorongosa species ample room to fly. On the sides of the box I cut out two small windows (covered with thin, clear Perspex) that allowed the laser beams to go through. The front of the box had to remain unobstructed to the lens, but something had to stop the bats from flying out; I ended up using a large piece of thin glass (and had to adjust the flashes so that they would not reflect off the glass). But somebody had to put the bats in there, and it was not going to be me (one word – rabies!)

Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Leaf-nosed bat (Hipposideros caffer) from Gorongosa and a sonogram of its echolocation.

Luckily, I got help from Jen Guyton, a Princeton graduate student and a bat specialist, who is working on her Ph.D. in Gorongosa. Since capturing bats to get samples of their DNA (or rather the DNA of their prey) was part of her nightly routine, Jen was able to bring live bats to my studio and control them while I took the photos. Once all the technical kinks were ironed out, the system worked like a charm – in a few minutes I would get multiple shots of each bat, and then the animal was removed from the chamber unharmed.

A studio setup for photographing bats in flight: (1) Cognisys high speed shutter, mounted on Canon 100mm lens; (2) a laser and a laser beam sensor (an identical but vertically reversed set is positioned on the opposite side of the box).

A studio setup for photographing bats in flight: (1) Cognisys high speed shutter, mounted on a Canon 100mm lens; (2) a laser and a laser beam sensor (an identical but vertically reversed set is positioned on the opposite side of the box).

But some species turned out to be more difficult than others – members of the family Molossidae (my favorite bats) are not able to lift off from horizontal surfaces and thus could not fly in the box. Next month I plan to photograph them in the wild by combining this system with a UV light – I hope that the bats will be attracted to insects coming to the light (which they often are) and sooner or later will hit the laser trigger. Watch this space to see if it worked.

One final note – don’t try any of this at home! Nobody but professionals, vaccinated against rabies, legally permitted, and fully trained to handle live bats should ever attempt catching these animals. If you are interested in photographing bats, get in touch with a mammalogist at a nearby university or a conservation group that works with these mammals, and they may be able to help you. They are an awesome group of animals, but don’t risk their or your own life. Having seen Gorongosa bats’ unbelievably sharp, lyssavirus-carrying teeth in action, I now think of them as flying vipers – cool, beautiful and fast and, potentially, very deadly.

A grey form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa

A grey form of the Horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus landeri) from Gorongosa

 

When life gives you lemons

An 8 second exposure of mating horseshoe crabs (ISO 1250, 14mm, f 7.1) – I like these kinds of shots, but they give the false impression of the scene being static and dreamy.

An 8 second exposure of mating horseshoe crabs (ISO 1250, 14mm, f 7.1) – I like these kinds of shots, but they give the false impression of the scene being static and dreamy.

Last weekend I drove with a couple of friends to Delaware to watch what surely must be one of the most amazing natural spectacles in North America, the annual mass spawning of Atlantic horseshoe crabs. I do it almost every year, and over time the eight hour drive from Boston to Delaware Bay has become a ritual, my way of communing with the ancient arthropods. (It is also an opportunity for me to gorge on delicious things I normally try to avoid – gas station donuts, Big Macs – after all, there is simply no way to eat healthily while on the road, right?)

A trip to Delaware allows me to flex my photographic muscles and try new approaches to capturing a scene that has been photographed a zillion times already, but this year the circumstances were not particularly favorable for photography. In fact, they could not have been worse. High tides, which is the time when horseshoe crabs emerge from the ocean to lay eggs, were late at night, long after the sun had set. It was new moon and the sky was overcast, hiding the stars. This challenge presented me with three possible options. I could forget about pictures and simply enjoy the show with a beer in my hand – I have already taken thousands of photos of horseshoe crabs, and didn’t really need to take any more. Very tempting. I could also shoot with flashes and get crisp, clinical shots of the crabs’ aggregations. Boring. Or I could think of a new, unorthodox way to shoot them.

Once I used some fill-in light I was able to capture the true, dynamic character of the scene – waves crashing over the bodies of horseshoe crabs tumbling in the brown waters of the Delaware Bay.

Once I used some fill-in light I was able to capture the true, dynamic character of the scene – waves crashing over the bodies of horseshoe crabs tumbling in the brown waters of the Delaware Bay.

Photographing horseshoe crabs is not easy even under the best of circumstances – the light is usually low, salt water splashes on the equipment, waves move the tripod. In the near darkness of the new moon things were even tougher. Still, I was determined to get at least one interesting shot. The idea was to capture the dynamic nature of the spectacle and convey the darkness of its surroundings. I decided to go for a low angle shot of the animals tumbling in the waves, while showing the darkening skyline. I used my Canon 7D with a Canon 14mm fisheye, mounted on a tripod (dug deep into the sand to stabilize it) and positioned less than a foot above the crabs in the splash zone. I had to wipe the camera and lens every minute, but soon they were both dripping wet. I tried a bunch of simple, long exposures (30 seconds or longer), but those produced static, if somewhat dreamy pictures, where the waves turned into a silky mist enveloping the animals. I needed extra light to capture individual waves.

Horseshoe crabs, like some of their distant arachnid cousins, fluoresce under ultraviolet light. A dark, moonless night last weekend was a good opportunity to photograph it.

Horseshoe crabs, like some of their distant arachnid cousins, fluoresce under ultraviolet light. A dark, moonless night last weekend was a good opportunity to photograph it.

A pop of flash often works very well in such situations, freezing some of the action, while the rest of the exposure time allows for the scene to become more diffused and messy. But I did not like the harshness of the flash, and even my headlamp produced illumination that was too bright for a long, ISO 1600 exposure. Only after I wrapped it in a few layers of paper towels did the light become diffused and soft enough for me to start “painting” the scene with it. In the end I was able to capture an image very close to what I had in mind – a melee of animals among waves splashing against their bodies, while the last traces of sunlight reflect off the clouds above. The shot is grainy and dark, but to me it feels right and true to the circumstances. I guess the lesson here is that when life gives you lemons, you photograph them.

During the day, when horseshoe crabs were deep in the ocean, I photographed other things. Great Blue Heron hunting mud crabs in the marshes of the Prime Hook Nature Reserve made for an interesting subject.

During the day, when horseshoe crabs were deep in the ocean, I photographed other things. A Great Blue Heron hunting mud crabs in the marshes of the Prime Hook Nature Reserve made for an interesting subject.

Natural areas surrounding the Delaware Bay are full of amazing creatures. I found this Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) on a country road near the ocean.

Natural areas surrounding the Delaware Bay are full of amazing creatures. I found this Eastern Mud Turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) on a country road near the ocean.

BugShot 2013 in Belize

There are still a few slots available for BugShot 2013, a great opportunity to learn macrophotography in the rainforest of Belize from Alex Wild, Thomas Shahan, John Abbott, and yours truly. It is going to be a great event, at a fantastic location. You will not only discover the carefully guarded secrets of some of the best insect photographers in the world (e.g., what cameras they really use, how they drug their insects so that they sit absolutely still* etc.), but you will also learn a lot about insect biology and behavior, and visit a variety of Neotropical habitats.

Head on the BugShot.net to grab one of the few remaining spaces.

*) I am kidding, of course – real nature photographers never drug, chill, or kill their subjects.

Getting low and wide – Part 2

Costa Rican dragonfly (Gynacantha tibiata) drying off its wings after the rain. Taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

Costa Rican dragonfly (Gynacantha tibiata) drying off its wings after the rain. Taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

A few days ago I posted the first part of an introduction to wide-angle macrophotography, and here is the conclusion.

Illumination. In order for the illusion that you are a lilliput looking at the giant world to work, the background of a wide-angle macro shot should be well and evenly lit, and the frontmost, focal element of the photo should not be in the shade. One of the most difficult problems to overcome in wide-angle macrophotography is proper illumination of the subject right in front of the lens, which may be just millimeters away. This includes trying to avoid casting a shadow on it. There is not one, simple solution to this problem, and the type of lighting to use will depend on the distance from the lens, time of day, angle of the sun, brightness of the background, reflectance of the subject etc.

In order to get a sharp photo of this Clusia grandiflora flower on the dark, shady forest floor in Suriname I filled a small Ziplock bag with soil and leaves, and used it as a beanbag. This 1 second exposure was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

In order to get a sharp photo of this Clusia grandiflora flower on the dark, shady forest floor in Suriname I filled a small Ziplock bag with soil and leaves, and used it as a beanbag. This 1 second exposure was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

What works for me in many cases is a single, remote flash in a softbox (Canon 580EXII in a Photoflex LiteDome XS, either wireless or attached with a Camera Shoe Cord). Because of the proximity of the subject to the lens, a flash mounted directly on top of the camera will not work, as it will cause the shadow of the lens to fall right in front of it. If the subject is not moving (e.g., a flower, an insect sitting motionlessly), and the sun is not directly behind my back, I use a collapsible golden or silver reflector to bounce ambient light at the subject. I also use custom made brackets to mount a pair of small, twin flashes (Canon MT-24EX) about 20 cm away from the front of the lens, which are then diffused with wide pieces of thin, white plastic (made of a cheap plastic folder bought at Staples.) I have also had good experience using inexpensive, flexible brackets DMM-901 (I am not sure who makes these, but they can be ordered here.)

Stabilization. The illumination and sharpness of the background is what often makes or breaks a wide-angle macro photograph. Since it would be difficult to rely entirely on flashes to evenly light the background in a shot that encompasses a part of the landscape, most wide-angle macro photos will require long, often 0.1-2 sec exposures. For this reason a large proportion of my wide-angle photography is made from a tripod. I use a Gitzo GT2531EX, which is light, very sturdy, and allows me to position the camera in any way I want – from close to the ground to 177 cm high. But even a higher number of my photos are taken with the camera resting either on a “beanbag” (in most cases simply a Ziplock bag filled with sand or soil) or directly on the ground. Sometimes, when I am trying to get a really low angle for a subject on the ground, I quickly dig a little hole, place a plastic bag at the bottom (to keep the camera dry), and position the camera in it. In this way the lens is exactly at the level of the ground, or even slightly below it.

Wide-angle macrophotography usually requires long exposures, and thus capturing fast-moving animals is difficult. Here, mammalogist Burton Lim is processing bats collected in Suriname, while small stingless bees are gorging on cornmeal that he uses to dry his specimens. I was able to freeze the action and partially expose the background using twin flashes Canon MT-24EX, and Canon EF 14mm mounted on Canon 7D.

Wide-angle macrophotography usually requires long exposures, and thus capturing fast-moving animals is difficult. Here, mammalogist Burton Lim is processing bats collected in Suriname, while small stingless bees are gorging on cornmeal that he uses to dry his specimens. I was able to freeze the action and partially expose the background using twin flashes Canon MT-24EX, and Canon EF 14mm mounted on Canon 7D.

A stag beetle (Cyclommatus eximius) from the highlands of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm with an extension tube, mounted on a full-frame camera Canon 1Ds MkII.

A stag beetle (Cyclommatus eximius) from the highlands of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm with an extension tube, mounted on a full-frame camera Canon 1Ds MkII.

For wide-angle photography high in the trees or in situations where a regular tripod or a beanbag cannot be used, I rely on a Gorillapod flexible tripod, which can be wrapped around a branch, providing pretty secure stabilization.
One critically important piece of equipment in wide-angle macro is a remote shutter release, which reduces the chances of vibration caused by pressing the shutter. Recently I have started using a Vello ShutterBoss Timer Remote, which is both less expensive and more functional than the original Canon one.

Camera selection. To say that within the last 10 years the quality of digital cameras has grown exponentially is of course a truism. My cell phone’s camera has twice the resolution and much better low light performance than my first, $5,000 digital SLR (Nikon D1x). You can now walk into a Walmart, and for $399 get an SLR capable of taking photos that were virtually impossible 20 years ago. The latest “pro-sumer” bodies are capable of taking shots in near darkness, and the high ISO performance of almost all SLRs is bound to make you wonder why anybody still uses ISO lower than 400. My point is that cameras have become so sophisticated that no matter which one you chose, the images taken with it can be outstanding. Nonetheless, in wide-angle macrophotography the choice of the right SLR body matters. (I should mention that many point-and-shoot cameras can be a great choice for wide-angle macrophotography, but my experience with them is limited.)

Even in extreme wide-angle closeups, flash illumination is not always required. This molting grasshopper in Suriname was photographed using only ambient light with a hand-held Canon 7D camera and Canon 14mm lens.

Even in extreme wide-angle closeups, flash illumination is not always required. This molting grasshopper in Suriname was photographed using only ambient light with a hand-held Canon 7D camera and Canon 14mm lens.

It may seem counterintuitive that, although you will be using wide-angle lenses, the best cameras for wide-angle macro are not those with a full-frame sensor (35mm equivalent), but rather those with a smaller one. Such cameras give the illusion of producing an image that is magnified, usually by a factor of 1.3-1.6, compared to a full-frame sensor, but in fact the image is simply cropped. Why then buy a wide-angle lens if 30-60% of its coverage is going to be cropped by the small sensor? This is because the shorter (wider) the lens the more likely it is to introduce distortion and chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame, and these faults become more pronounced at close focal ranges, and even more so when the lens is mounted on an extension tube. By using a camera with a sensor smaller than full-frame, you are tapping into the “sweet spot” of the lens – the image captured by the sensor uses mostly the central, sharpest and least distorted portion of the lens, while still retaining the wide-angle perspective (albeit with a smaller coverage.) And of course a camera with a smaller (higher crop) sensor will help you magnify the small, central subject of the photo.

Custom flash brackets that I use in most of my wide-angle macrophotography. They are designed to be mounted directly on the front of the lens, and fit lenses with the diameter of 58-82mm.

Custom flash brackets that I use in most of my wide-angle macrophotography. They are designed to be mounted directly on the front of the lens, and fit lenses with the diameter of 58-82mm.

My favorite camera for wide-angle macro is Canon 7D, which has the cropping factor of 1.6; occasionally I also use Canon 1D MkII, with the cropping factor of 1.3. The only time when I use a full-frame body is when I shoot with a Canon 16-35mm with an extension tube – this is because animals larger than 40 mm or so fill up the frame, and block the background if a camera with the sensor smaller than full-frame is used.

I hope that this brief overview of my approach to wide-angle macrophotography was helpful, and will encourage you to try and perfect your own methods. As with any other photographic techniques, practice makes masters, and no amount of theoretical information will ever replace simply going into the field and chasing critters with your lens. And if you have any specific questions, comments, or suggestions, leave them in the comments below or drop me a line.

A cluster of mushrooms (possibly Hygrocybe sp.) in a New England forest. [Canon 1D MkII, Sigma 15mm, ambient light]

A cluster of mushrooms (possibly Hygrocybe sp.) in a New England forest. [Canon 1D MkII, Sigma 15mm, ambient light]

Getting low and wide – Part 1

Getting low to the ground enhances the illusion that you are as small as the subjects of the photo. I photographed these leaf toads (Rhinella lescueri) in Suriname using a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D with an angle viewfinder, and lighted it with a single speedlight Canon 580EXII in a softbox.

Getting low to the ground enhances the illusion that you are as small as the subjects of the photo. I photographed these leaf toads (Rhinella lescueri) in Suriname using a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D with an angle viewfinder, and lighted it with a single speedlight Canon 580EXII in a softbox.

Shortly after I had become a proud owner of my first real SLR camera (the wonderful Nikon n6006 – an unexpected Christmas gift from my wife), I decided that what I wanted to do with this magical piece of equipment was to document life that was two or three orders of magnitude smaller than traditional subjects of nature photography. But I wasn’t satisfied with simple macro portraits of katydids and frogs –I was desperate to capture their environment as well, and show a clump of lichens the way a fly sees it – a towering forest, three dimensional, and complex. This, of course, turned out to be easier said than done.

Ever since I saw David Attenborough’s “Trials of Life”, and the mind-boggling sequence of weaver ants tending caterpillars (to this day this remains one of the best macro sequences ever filmed – if you haven’t seen it, buy it right now), I have been obsessed with trying to photograph insects and other small organisms in a way that removes the element of scale. I want to show them as part of the landscape, and see the world from their perspective. It took me a while to figure out that the way to do it is to forget about macro lenses, but instead use lenses designed for much, much larger subjects: wide angle lenses traditionally used for landscape photography. These are lenses of the focal length shorter than 50mm. After many years of trying to get a hang of wide-angle macrophotography I am still hoping to improve my results, but at least I have been able to isolate and try to work on those elements that are needed for a good a wide-angle macro shot. Here are a few tips based on my experience so far.

The greater the depth of field the stronger the illusion that you are part of the scene. This photo of a foam grasshopper (Dictyophorus griseus) from Mozambique was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

The greater the depth of field the stronger the illusion that you are part of the scene. This photo of a foam grasshopper (Dictyophorus griseus) from Mozambique was taken with a Canon EF 14mm on Canon 7D, illuminated with twin flashes Canon MT-24EX.

Perspective. What truly makes a good wide-angle shot is the impression that you, the viewer, are standing right inside the frame, and that you are looking at the world from the perspective of a mouse. Macro photography that uses lenses of the focal length longer than 50mm enlarges the subject, but a macro photograph taken with a lens shorter than 50mm shrinks the viewer. The shorter the lens the more striking the effect of “shrinkage”, and it is amplified by a low angle of the photo. For example, we never see mushrooms from below, looking up at their underside, and such a perspective enhances the impression of suddenly being transported to the world of towering, giant mushrooms. My two favorite lenses that provide just the right perspective are Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L (often mounted on an extension tube – see below) and Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L. Occasionally I also use a Sigma 15mm f/2.8 EX DG Diagonal Fisheye, although this lens creates a very strong barrel distortion of the field of view. A very helpful piece of equipment that allows me to get a ground level point of view is the right angle viewfinder (Canon Angle Finder C).

A tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) on tomatoes in our garden. This photo was taken using a Sigma 15mm lens – notice a strong barrel distortion, particularly visible in the curvature of the stick on the right.

A tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata) on tomatoes in our garden. This photo was taken using a Sigma 15mm lens – notice a strong barrel distortion, particularly visible in the curvature of the stick on the right.

Focus. A wide-angle photograph must have a focal point that is perfectly sharp. Unfortunately, most wide-angle lenses are not designed to focus close enough to fill the frame with subjects as small as insects. Luckily, an inexpensive extension tube can turn almost any wide-angle lens into a wide-angle macro lens. I use a Canon Extension Tube EF 12 II, which allows me to focus on and fill the frame with subjects as small as a grasshopper. The shortest lenses that can be used with it should have the focal length of 16mm or longer – if a lens is shorter than 16mm the point of focus will be inside the lens. Thus, neither Canon EF 14mm nor Sigma 15mm can be used with an extension tube, but luckily both focus close enough so that I have been able to use them to photograph subjects as small as ants (they don’t fill the frame with an individual ant, but that’s not the point of wide-angle macrophotography anyway.)

A column of Matabele ants (Pachycondala analis) returning from a successful raid on a colony of termites in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This photo was taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a diffused twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

A column of Matabele ants (Pachycondala analis) returning from a successful raid on a colony of termites in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This photo was taken with a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II; lighting was provided by a diffused twin flash Canon MT-24EX.

Depth of field. The sharper the objects in the background, the stronger the illusion that the frontmost, focal subject of the photo is huge (relative to you, the viewer). In order to achieve a maximum depth of field, use the shortest lens you can and stop the aperture as far down as possible. I usually use the aperture of f/16 or f/22, which means that the exposure time tends to be quite long, often 0.5-2 sec, even in the middle of the day.

————

Stay tuned for the second part of the post where I will discuss how to stabilize the camera, illuminate the scene, and select the best equipment for wide-angle macrophotography. In the meantime I highly recommend a recent e-book “Wide-Angle Macro: The Essential Guide” by Paul Harcourt Davies and Clay Bolt, which is filled with great practical information and superb examples.

Wide-angle macro does not necessarily mean that the scene must include a part of the landscape. It can also be used to draw attention to a detail of the main subject, such as the stinger of this scorpion (Pandinus imperator) from Ghana. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II on a Canon 1Ds MkII body; despite the closeness to the subject (its telson was nearly touching the lens) I was able to use a simple reflector to illuminate the scene.

Wide-angle macro does not necessarily mean that the scene must include a part of the landscape. It can also be used to draw attention to a detail of the main subject, such as the stinger of this scorpion (Pandinus imperator) from Ghana. Here I used a Canon 16-35mm lens with an added extension tube Canon EF 12 II on a Canon 1Ds MkII body; despite the closeness to the subject (its telson was nearly touching the lens) I was able to use a simple reflector to illuminate the scene.

A bump in the road

A partially corrupt RAW file. This type of damage is often the result of a physical flaw of the hard drive, and cannot be repaired.

I have been photographing earwigs recently, and this reminded me of another group of hexapods, the members of which often have big, pincer-like cerci, the diplurans. “I’ll write a post about them”, I thought, “now, let’s see what kind of pictures I have.” I started looking and located a bunch of shots of diplurans that I took in 2006 in Ghana, but when I tried to open the files I received a Photoshop error telling me that the files were in an unrecognizable format. This usually means that the file is corrupt. Other files opened, but were partially garbled.

“No problem, I’ll just get the backup files.” Same error. Second backup, same error, third backup, same error. I began to worry. I am pretty good about keeping all my files backed-up, on multiple, physically separated drives, but the system has clearly failed me.

My normal file-saving procedure while in the field is as follows:
1. Copy files from CF/SD cards to the hard drive on my laptop
2. Catalog image files in iViewPro, rename them, discard crappy shots
3. Add keywords and captions to the files
4. Copy the annotated files to two separate, portable hard drives
5. Back home, copy the files from the laptop to a separate, stationary hard drive (HD1)
6. Copy the content of this drive to two additional, separate drives (HD2 & HD3), occasionally I add a fourth drive (HD4) to the lineup.

After this is done I feel that the files are safe, and I reuse the portable hard drives for another project. Until a few years ago I would have also burned DVDs with an extra copy of the files, but as the files got bigger, and more numerous, I abandoned the practice, opting instead for adding another hard drive to the backup.

All my backup files had the same type of corruption, which must have originated on the first drive, and was copied to other drives.

What must have happened in the case of my corrupt dipluran shots was either a copying error during the process of transferring files from the laptop to HD1 drive, or file corruption on the HD1 following the transfer. Regardless, the damaged files were then duplicated to drives HD2-HD4. So, it seems, all is lost.

Luckily, not. Back in 2006 I still burned DVDs with file backups, using the original files from the laptop as the source. I pulled them out, and sure enough, uncorrupted, original files were there. Alas, going back to using DVDs as a backup is simply not an option. During my recent trip I shot 352GB of images, which translates to 42 DVDs (DVD+R, 8.5GB each), or about 14 hours of burning and swapping DVDs (assuming 20 minutes per disk.) What are my options then?

For one, I will be copying my files from the camera’s card simultaneously to at least two separate drives. You can do it directly in the Finder (or Explorer), or use a dedicated program, such as Photo Mechanic (this program also allows for renaming files while copying them.) Second, I will no longer reuse the portable drives that hold the files copied from the cards in the field. These drives are becoming so cheap that they are now a very sensible alternative to large, external, independently powered hard drives (I may even consider keeping the CF/SD cards with the original shots and not reusing them; some photographers already do it.) And third, I will add storage space to my Dropbox account. There is no way I can keep all my photos there, but at least I can safely store the most important shots. The experience of losing some of my original files was a reminder that no single backup method is 100% safe, but hopefully a combination of several methods will reduce the chances of a disaster similar to what I saw today.

As for the diplurans, I think I will need to write another post about them later on. These are very cool animals, close relatives of insects, and they deserve a proper writeup. They have an interesting reproductive behavior and a sophisticated maternal care, and give us a glimpse of what the early chapters of the insect evolution might have looked like.

Dipluran (Japyx sp.) from Ghana. I was lucky to have an extra, uncorrupted copy of the original Canon RAW file on a data DVD made immediately after taking the photos.

Against the sun

A giant millipede from Mozambique shot against late afternoon sun; the trees in the background help filter the sunlight and reduce its intensity. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

Right after finding out that you should always take the lens cap off before taking a picture, the second most important lesson in photography that we usually learn is that we should not point the lens against the sun. There is a very good reason for this: the camera’s light metering system will attempt to compensate for the direct sun’s light intensity by dramatically reducing the exposure time, which in turn will render all other objects in the frame severely underexposed. (Or, if you use a telephoto lens, you can blind yourself.) We all have seen crappy pictures of people standing on the beach at sunset, rendered as muddy silhouettes against a dimly lit sky, despite the fact that the scene appeared vibrant and majestic to the person holding the camera. This is because cameras are not equipped with the most powerful of all computing machines, the human brain, which can not only record a scene, but also interpret it and selectively adjust its light parameters.

A grass mantis (Hoplocorypha sp.) from Botswana against the setting sun. Here I used only a very weak “pop” of flash because I wanted the insect to appear almost as a silhouette. [Nikon D1x, Sigma 180mm, flash Nikon SB-28DX]

But there are ways of compensating for the seemingly overwhelming intensity of direct sunlight, and shooting against the sun is not as difficult as many photographers think. The glowing orb of our nearest star can be incorporated in many compositions, including macro shots of insects and other small organisms, with only a bit of preparation.

The first and most important rule for shooting against the sun is to make sure that your lens is clean. I mean, really, really clean. Because even the tiniest smudges, specks, or scratches will cause a tremendous amount of ugly diffraction and flare, which can ruin a beautifully composed scene. These optical aberrations are often difficult to notice through the viewfinder.

Secondly, you may need to use a source of “fill-in” light to help illuminate the object in the foreground. In most cases this will be a flash, but you can also use a collapsible silver or gold reflector (such as this one). I say “may need to” because you can position your subject in the frame in such a way that it sits directly in the path of the sunlight, blocking the most intense part of it. If the subject (e.g., a flower, a butterfly) is thin or translucent enough, the light filtering through its body will be sufficient to properly illuminate it. In most cases, however, a “pop” of flash will be needed to counterbalance the sunlight.

Flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) from Mozambique; I framed the animal in such a way that its body blocked the sun, but I still needed to add some fill-in flash to counterbalance the brightness of the sky. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm, Canon MT-24EX twin light]

Exposing for shots against the sun is a little tricky. In my experience it is easier to use fully manual exposure controls, rather than using the camera’s automatic settings, such as the Aperture Priority. The easiest way to do it is to measure the exposure time by pointing the lens at a point close to the edge of the sun, but not the sun directly. Take a photo and see how the sun is exposed: its center should appear slightly overexposed, but its edges should not. Once you have found the correct exposure settings for the sun, add the counterbalancing light. Again, I would suggest using a flash in the manual mode, and adjust its power incrementally until you find the right intensity. It goes without saying that it is much easier to fine tune the exposure settings for subjects that are not particularly agile. Thus, I would suggest to practice the exposure adjustments on inanimate objects, such as branches or flowers, before you attempt to photograph a running beetle against the sun.

It is easier to shoot against the sun later in the afternoon, when the sun is low on the horizon, and its light intensity is lower. Late afternoon/early evening light will also add to the overall atmosphere of the scene.

The flowers of the Impala lily (Adenium multiflorum) shot against the sun; here I did not need any fill-in light because the sunlight filtered through their corollas provided enough illumination. [Canon 7D, Canon 14mm]

Nearly any lens can be used to shoot against the sun, but this approach works really well with wide angle lenses. This is because it is easier to fit both your main subject and a large portion of the sky into the frame, which in turn means that the sun itself does not dominate and overpower the scene. At the other end of the spectrum, really long macro lenses (150mm and more) can also be used, and their benefit is that the sun will appear larger in relation to your subject; they may, however, require a more powerful source of the fill-in light.