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A short note about ethics

Last week I took this photo of a jumping spider, Phiddipus insignarius, and although I consider it a good photo, it is not a photo I am proud of.
Why?

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

Female jumping spider (Phiddipus insignarius) displaying

I believe I pushed it a little too far here.

By the time you are reading this, you may have seen photos of jumping spiders floating online. They are charismatic, inquisitive, and intelligent little arachnids. Their big eyes and cutesy appearance make it possible to open a door for communication between spider enthusiasts and people suffering from arachnophobia. This photo is a little different. This is the face of stressed spider. Jumping spiders have a habit of exploring the world around them, but they usually avoid confrontation. They have a typical threat display that they use when they are annoyed or feel threatened, by raising their forelegs and exposing their chelicerae. At this point they are no different from a wandering spider warning to back off. And if not left alone, they will strike. The female Phiddipus in this photo was clearly fed up with my attempts at stalking her, and wanted to show me that she had enough.

Photographs of small animals can be a great tool for communication and education by revealing the hidden beauty of overlooked creatures. However, we tend to forget how things are from their perspective. They do not like to be cornered or pushed around. The last thing they expect is a giant being trying to manipulate them to pose in a certain way. Ethics in nature photography is an important topic that should be brought into the conversation. And yet almost no one talks about it (see Nicky Bay’s fantastic resource on the topic). Paul Bertner posted a lot about it on social media during his assignment last year, sparking some of the best discussions I have seen on photography ethics and what information should be disclosed with a photo (he later coined the term EE – Ethical Exif, information that is incorporated into his photos). I would like to see transparency and compassion for the living subject becoming the standard in nature photography. Every nature photographer I know is longing for a “perfect” subject – one that displays an interesting natural behavior but also does not move too much. Yet we forget that many times photography is just another type of disturbance to animals. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves – was this really necessary?

In the case of the spider here, I got the message loud and clear and left her alone. She was clearly not interested in playing. I will get back to photographing her some other time, maybe when she is in a better mood.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

The female Phiddipus insignarius is much more charming when she is relaxed.

Review: Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

The Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens has been around on the market for several years now. I mentioned it briefly in my series of posts about wide-angle macro photography. It is currently the only wide-angle lens capable of achieving 1:1 magnification ratio. When I first heard about this lens I was intrigued to say the least, but also immediately put off by the lack of automatic aperture control (I no longer see this is a problem – more on this later). Still I was curious about it and was waiting for a chance to give it a try. Fortunately, an opportunity to play with the lens came up during my last trip to Ecuador. My initial impression was that of – oh boy, this lens is a lot of fun. I was therefore delighted when Venus Optics Laowa contacted me a few months ago and asked if I wanted to give the lens a thorough test run. Despite this fact, this is not a paid review and the content below is based entirely on my personal impressions.

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Also, this is not going to be a very technical review. If you are reading this post, I assume you already know the lens is lightweight, has full metal construction, a de-clicked aperture ring, and feature an innovative shift mechanism. What I am more interested in is its practical uses, more specifically – is it useful for wide angle macrophotography of small subjects?

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

Venus Optics Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens

After testing it for a while, I strongly believe that this is the most versatile lens existing on the market at the moment. It is a jack-of-all-trades. This is the one to choose when you can take only a single lens with you. However, no lens is perfect and the Laowa 15mm has its weak points (which I discuss below). I tested it on a crop sensor camera (APS-C). Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos in this post were taken at f/16 or close, with a twin macro flash used as a fill-light.

Lens attributes to note
Aside from its construction and weight, the Laowa 15mm lens is very sharp. Wide open it has very good sharpness in the center (corners are softer, typical for a wide angle lens), and it stays sharp all the way down to f/16. Diffraction starts creeping in and being noticeable at f/22, producing soft images. Overall I found f/11-f/16 to be perfect and most usable, but it depends on the desired result.

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

Soapwort flower (Saponaria officinalis) photographed with the Laowa 15mm lens

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

100% crop of the above image. The lens captured detail of tiny thrips crawling on the petals. Impressive!

Chromatic aberration is typical for a wide angle lens, I did not see anything out of the ordinary. Of course if you shoot scenes that are very high in contrast (for example, sky peeking through the forest canopy) you will get very noticeable CA in the frame. If you like sunstars the good news is that this lens produces nice-looking 14-pointed sunstars. Lens flare is surprisingly well controlled in this lens. It comes with a detachable lens hood included in the box, but I never found myself using it.

Operation
The lens requires a break-in period similarly to other specialty lenses like Canon’s MP-E. The learning curve is steep at first.
Shooting with a stopped-down aperture darkens the viewfinder, making it difficult to track and focus on your subject. In this case liveview mode or a bright focusing light can help. Occasionally, when photographing with the sun behind your back the lens will cast a shadow over the subject. A setup with a diffused fill-flash is useful to light the scene. The lens can still be used in natural light, but you will benefit from holding a small reflector close to the lens in order to bounce some light onto your subject and eliminate the shadow from the front element.
One of the praised attributes of the Laowa 15mm lens is its ability to achieve 1:1 magnification ratio, taking it from wide angle to true macro realm. However, this is also its main shortcoming. Going to 1:1 will require you to get very close to the subject (about 4mm), at which point the large front element of the lens will cast a shadow over the subject, making it difficult to light it properly. I have seen creative solutions for this issue, so it is not entirely impossible.
The aperture ring is de-clicked and turns smoothly, but I found the focusing ring a bit to tight to turn. The position of the rings on the lens requires getting used to: the aperture ring sits at the front of the lens barrel, whereas the focusing ring is at the back (in sharp contrast to just about any other lens out there). I consider this a design flaw – I found myself mistakenly turning aperture ring when I intended to turn the focusing ring, and vice versa. It really does not help that the aperture ring is de-clicked in this case.

Wide Angle Macro
In my opinion this is the primary use of the Laowa 15mm lens. When used correctly, it gives an unparalleled perspective of the subject and its surroundings, shrinking us, the viewers, to become a part of its small-scale world. This is one of the only lenses on the market that can go from this:

Who's hiding here?

Who’s hiding here?

to this:

Can you spot it yet?

Can you spot it yet?

then this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) camouflaged on a leaf

and finally this:

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

Hooded mantis (Choeradodis stalii) ambushing insects on a leaf

I find this flexibility incredible (but wait! There is more! Read on).
Here are some more examples for wide angle macro taken with the Laowa 15mm lens.

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking in the sun. This photo was taken in natural light.

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Northern stone (Agnetina capitata) resting on plants next to a river

Yellow hornet (Dolichovespula arenaria) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Yellow hornet (Dolichovespula arenaria) assembling at the entrance to their nest. You can imagine how close I was to the nest in order to take this photo. I got an adrenaline rush from it.

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Automeris sp. (Saturniidae) resting close to a light trap in Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) preparing to jump into the rainforest vegetation

By the way, this lens produces very nice results for flower photography.

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Sulphur cinquefoil flowers (Potentilla recta)

Wide angle macro is not all about “taking it all in”. Here are some examples of this style with less emphasis on the surroundings.

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

A more intimate point of view on an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus)

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Aggregation of moth caterpillars on a communal web

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

Dog day cicada (Neotibicen canicularis) molting to its adult stage

The background rendering of the Laowa 15mm lens is unique and might be a little difficult to describe. A friend of mine described it as being “metallic”, and I somewhat agree.

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

Ecuador poison frog (Ameerega bilinguis) active on the forest floor

The important thing to remember is that the closer you get to your subject and the higher magnification ratio you use, the more you are stepping into real macro and out of wide angle macro. This means that details in the background will become less and less noticeable. Even if you photograph with a closed aperture most of the background will be out of focus. See my next point.

Pure macro mode at 1:1
This is probably the lens’ most-discussed feature, but it is also its greatest weakness. I would even argue that one should not push this lens to the extreme of 1:1 magnification ratio. As a wide-angle lens it provides a wide DOF, however when taking it to the macro realm the background rendering is completely different and may putt off some users. Everything in the background turns into an unrecognized blurry mishmash. Unless you photograph a subject in a very dense or against a flat background, do not take this lens to 1:1. In fact, I would not take it anywhere above the 0.6:1 magnification ratio.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax). I find the background a little distracting here.

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

With careful compositioning, the background can be made more appealing, like in this photo of a yellow-marked beetle (Clytus ruricola).

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

Step back a little, and you will be rewarded with a better photo opportunity. Baby tarantula strolling on the rainforest floor in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador.

That being said, it is still useful as a macro lens. The following two photographs were taken at f/8.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

This tiny hover fly was busy pollinating and did not mind the huge lens right beside it.

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Closeup on purple-flowered raspberry flower (Rubus odoratus)

Landscape uses
I am not a dedicated landscape photographer, but will occasionally shoot the odd landscape if the opportunity presents itself. I tried the Laowa 15mm and the results are not too shabby. The following two photographs were taken at f/11.

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

The QEW bridge over Etobicoke creek in Mississauga

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Not exactly landscape, but not exactly plant photography either. Also, a good example showing the sunstars created by this lens.

“Microscope mode”
After experimenting a little with the wide-angle properties of the lens, I started wondering what else can be done with it. Let’s examine the properties of our lens here: it is an ultra wide-angle with a filter thread on the front of the lens, it has a manual aperture ring, and lastly it has a focusing range of 10cm to infinity. You can see where I am going with this. I am going to reverse-mount it.
You now understand why I no longer see the lack of auto aperture control as a disadvantage. When reverse-mounted the presence of a manual aperture ring comes as a blessing. Surprisingly the working distance for this high magnification (above x5.5 for APS-C cameras) is decent at a touch over 4cm. This is a lightweight alternative setup for Canon’s high magnification flagship, the MP-E 65mm. Keep in mind Venus Optics-Laowa are currently working on their own high magnification lens, which will be capable of 2-5x magnification.

One of the main difficulties at this high magnification is to figure out what to use it for. Many macro subjects are just too big to fit in the frame. Nevertheless using the Laowa 15mm reversed opens up a whole new world of possibilities. All of the following photographs were taken at f/5.6. My first attempts were on common household pests.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

Baby thrips strolling in a miniature garden. The “bushes” are clusters of mold. If you are wondering about the purple color of the habitat, that’s because they are photographed on a red onion.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

A tiny (0.8mm) psocopteran wandering through an alien landscape that is a sweet potato.

I then moved to test the image quality of the reversed lens, using the classic “scales on a butterfly wing” approach. I was amazed by the sharpness of the lens when mounted this way. The DOF is shallow at this magnification, but this can be solved by tilting the lens towards the subject or focus stacking.

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of an owl moth (Brahmaea hearsey)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

Closeup on the wing scales of the Sahara swallowtail (Papilio saharae)

But what about typical macro subjects? No problem! The reversed Laowa 15mm can be used to photograph even larger subjects.

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Closeup on a small jumping Spider

Springtail found in decaying wood

Springtail found in decaying wood

You can even use the reversed 15mm as a base lens for a relay system. Why you would want to use one wide angle macro lens to build another wide angle macro lens system is beyond me, but it is possible. In any case, regarding reverse-mounting the Laowa 15mm, what I really want to know is how on earth no one has done this before? This lens is perfect for reverse-mounting if you are into microcosmos photography.

To summarize my impressions of the lens –

Pros:
– Super versatile lens
– Impressive focusing range, ~10cm to infinity
– Highest magnification ratio possible on a wide angle lens, up to 1:1 but even higher when reverse-mounted
– Excellent sharpness and image quality
– Manual aperture (if you plan to reverse-mount it)
– Lightweight, small size for a wide angle lens
– Shift mechanism (if angle distortion is an issue for you)

Cons:
– Manual, no auto aperture control, no auto focus
– Placement of focusing and aperture rings not intuitive. A clicked aperture ring would be nice to distinguish it from the focusing ring
– Extremely short working distance when using 1:1
– Background rendering may put off some users
– Large front element makes it difficult to sneak up on live subjects

So the question is who is this lens for? The way I see it, first and foremost it is for anyone with a desire to photograph medium-sized subjects in their habitat. It is perfect for photographing reptiles, amphibians, plants or mushrooms. Use with arthropods can vary depending on the subject and context, but the results can be impressive. Regardless, the Laowa 15mm lens is a jaw-dropping piece of gear. It is so versatile and can be used for several different styles and purposes.

You can buy the Laowa 15mm f/4 1:1 Wide Angle Macro lens on Venus Optica Laowa’s website here.

Bursting the Trioplan bubble

There is a growing interest in legacy lenses in recent years. With the rise in popularity of mirrorless camera bodies, and the availability of various lens mount adapters, photographers are testing old glass on modern camera bodies and the results can be surprising. One such lens is the Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f2.8, which became famous due its “soap bubble” bokeh and unique chromatic aberrations. Some time ago, one could find this old lens listed for sale for about $150, but nowadays popularity drove its market price upwards to around $1000. I though I’d share my thoughts about this lens in the context of nature photography, and maybe offer a warning to fellow photographers out there who are considering getting this lens.

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Leaf-mimicking Katydid (Cycloptera sp.) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Meyer-Optik Görlitz is a lens brand made in Germany. Founded in 1896, it is most known for its Trioplan lens construction, based on Cooke Triplet. The Trioplan quickly became one of the most popular Meyer lenses because of its special visual properties, and a great deal of its increase in popularity is thanks to online image-sharing platforms that allowed photographers around the globe to learn of its existence. There are even photography groups dedicated to sharing photos of out-of-focus dewy blades of grass taken with the Trioplan. The Meyer-Optik brand stopped lens production in the 1970’s, but due to the high demand, another company, net SE, revived the lens in 2014 and started developing new version of lenses under the Meyer-Optik Görlitz brand (now available for jaw-dropping prices, I dare say). My experience is with the old version of the lens. In fact, the lens I got was even older than what most photographers use, as it belongs to a line that was manufactured in post-war 1952.

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8

Meyer-Optik Görlitz Trioplan 100mm f/2.8 testing

Soap bubbles! Also, my first selfie on the blog.

The goal with this lens is to get the “soap bubbles” appearing in the background where specular highlights are present, and for this effect you must use the lens with the aperture wide open at f/2.8. The problem is that an open aperture also translates to a very shallow depth of field. In other words, if you are photographing a big, three-dimensional subject, most of it will be rendered out of focus. Another problem with the open aperture is the loss of contrast; the image comes out very “soft”. Sharpness also goes of out the window. And to top it all the lens signature feature is also its Achilles’ heel: the chromatic aberrations that are responsible for the “soap bubble” effect will cause color fringing in highlight areas of your subject. In addition, compositions rich in highlights will result in a busy background, and those desired “soap bubbles” can actually have a negative effect by distracting the viewer’s attention from the subject.

This photo of a longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus) from Costa Rica shows a negative outcome of the Trioplan characteristics. Too many specular highlights in the background, and your photo might end up like this - a "beautiful" mess.

This photo of a longhorn beetle (Taeniotes scalatus) from Costa Rica shows a negative outcome of the Trioplan characteristics. Too many specular highlights in the background, and your photo might end up like this – a “beautiful” mess.

However, change the viewing angle a little bit, and you might be rewarded with a better, less-distracting result, sometimes with a better color rendition.

However, change the viewing angle a little bit, and you might be rewarded with a better, less-distracting result, sometimes with a better color rendition.

This photo of a splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) shows another issue of the Trioplan lens - color fringing in highlight areas of the subject itself.

This photo of a splendid leaf frog (Cruziohyla calcarifer) shows another issue of the Trioplan lens – color fringing in highlight areas of the subject itself.

By the way, stop down the aperture to f/4 and the lens performs beautifully, producing punchy, well-rendered images. Alas, the “soap bubbles” are lost.

In this photo I closed the aperture to f/4. Very interesting result. I love the creamy background!

In this photo I closed the aperture to f/4. Very interesting result. I love the creamy background!

Another photo taken at f/4, notice that the background composition is important if you want to produce a smooth result like in the previous photo. It will not always work.

Another photo taken at f/4, notice that the background composition is important if you want to produce a smooth result like in the previous photo. It will not always work.

But my main issue with this lens is a very simple one – it is fully manual. I do not have a thing against manual lenses, in fact I own quite a few and love using them. My problem is the lack of communication between the camera and the lens. After all, this lens has no electronic contacts. The lack of focus confirmation with this lens is the real deal breaker for me here. This is a common thing with uncorrected lenses; whatever appears to be in focus in the camera’s viewfinder is not necessarily in focus in reality. So in order to get a properly focused image you must take several shots and review them on the back screen. Then correct focus by “eyeballing”, and try again. This can take some time, and if your subject moves or is blown by the wind this can be quite nerve-racking. Some of the images you see in this post took over an hour to get, each. I am surprised these subjects were so patient with me.

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Could I have gotten a hold of a bad copy of the lens? Possible. The lens was old, and I am not sure what were the quality control standards when it was made. However, the lens was in overall good condition, despite its ~65 years of age. I do not think the minor scuffs and imperfections on its barrel were enough to deteriorate image quality. Nevertheless, because of the inaccurate focusing issue mentioned above I found the operation of the lens very challenging. This is the most unusable lens I have ever used. Maybe this was fixed in the new version of the lens (I‘d love to hear some input from someone who has it!).

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum) from Ecuador. Sometimes the Trioplan produces images that look like paintings. If you have a very artistic style as a photographer, you should definitely consider getting this lens.

Helicopter damselfly (Microstigma rotundatum) from Ecuador. Sometimes the Trioplan produces images that look like paintings. If you have a very artistic style as a photographer, you should definitely consider getting this lens.

I hate to say this, but the Trioplan lens is a gimmick. Although it does have some interesting capabilities, if you shoot with it wide open all your photos will have the same look, and this gets old very fast. It’s like the first months after buying a fisheye lens; suddenly your portfolio is flooded with distorted photos, until you realize they all look the same and this is boring. Head over to the flickr page I mentioned earlier and see for yourself, after you review 20 similar photos the wow effect will fade.

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina) from Ecuador. A slightly different take on the lens' photographic style.

Spiny orb weaver (Micrathena cyanospina) from Ecuador. A slightly different take on the lens’ photographic style.

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Leaf-mimicking peacock katydid (Pterochroza ocellata) from Ecuador, photographed with the Trioplan 100mm lens

Don’t get me wrong. In the right hands, this lens can create some of the most visually pleasing images. For some nice examples check out these photos by Nikola Rahme, Alex Mustard, and Matthew Sullivan. If you aim for the artistic look in your photographs, this lens might be the right one for you. But at the end of the day, I ask myself if it is worth it. Its inflated price, all this time spent on composing for the “soap bubbles”, shooting, correcting focus and reshooting, then post-processing to increase contrast, correct the color casts and fringing, and finally sharpening, only to end up with another photo that looks just like any other photo taken with a Trioplan. For me it was not worth it. In the time it took me to photograph a single photo with the Trioplan I could have taken dozens of other great photos, maybe even better ones. Yes, this lens can take some cool-looking photos, but for the financial and personal time investments it gets a huge thumbs down from me. Don’t say I did not warn you. Needless to say I got rid of my Trioplan lens, and treated myself to a true legendary macro beast instead.

Photographing Richardia – a long way to victory

Inside a wooden cabin on the outskirts of the peaceful town Mindo, I am standing on my bed, arms spread sideways. My bright headlamp is on at full output, to overcome the cabin’s dim lights. In a few seconds Javier will step in through the door to pick me up for our night hike in the cloud forest. And he will probably want to know what the hell I am doing.
I am trying to find a 5mm-long fly.
Suddenly, I see it. That tiny spec of an insect. Hanging upside down from one of the ceiling boards. I am reaching out for my pocket to grab a vial. The sound of footsteps climbing up the stairs is getting louder and louder. “Gil, are you there?” Great timing. I must keep my focus or that fly will be gone the moment Javier walks in.
-“Don’t open the door!!!!”

Back in 2015 I contacted Paul Bertner regarding a fly that he photographed in Mindo. It was an antlered fly from the genus Richardia. Ever since I learned about these flies in the introduction course to entomology, I have always wanted to see them in the wild. Males have antler-like projections from their eyes, which are used for pushing an opponent during a combat over territory or a mate. The female Richardia lacks those projections, but is characterized by a telescopic ovipositor at the tip of her abdomen, used for injecting eggs into fruits and other plant tissue. Paul was very kind to share his observations with me, wishing me luck in finding them on my next trip to Ecuador.

This small-antlered fly (Richardia sp.) is feeding on amphibian feces. Many of these flies are attracted to animals' droppings, from which they obtain valuable nutrients.

This small-antlered fly (Richardia sp.) is feeding on amphibian feces. Many of these flies are attracted to animals’ droppings, from which they obtain valuable nutrients.

It took time and determination, but I did manage to find the flies eventually. In the brief window that they were active I took some shots, but I was completely unsatisfied with them. It seems that with Richardia, practice makes perfect. Or should I say, masochism makes perfect. You see, these flies are not only active during a very specific time of the day, on the underside of leaves of specific plants, but they are also extremely skittish. Highly territorial, the antlered males respond to any movement in their surroundings, and that includes a person carrying a big black camera. They take off and vanish almost instantly. And then, in hiding, they wait. What for I am not sure, but only a handful of times the males actually returned to their perch under the leaf. Unfortunately, I had to leave the site before I could take any decent photos. So, the following year I came back to the exact spot again. And there they were in all their splendor! I tried again to photograph the flies in their habitat on the leaves, but since they usually sit on the underside it was tricky. I spent hours with them, only to come up with lousy shots. No, I had to be creative with these Richardia.

Another male Richardia sp. with small antlers

Another male Richardia sp. with small antlers

Richardia flies spend their nights sleeping hidden in folded leaves like this rolled bromeliad leaf. Inside they are protected from many nocturnal predators, such as mantids, ants and spiders.

Richardia flies spend their nights sleeping hidden in folded leaves like this rolled bromeliad leaf. Inside they are protected from many nocturnal predators, such as mantids, ants and spiders.

And so after some thinking I came up with the idea of working at night. The flies are diurnal, in other words they will be less active when it is dark. Or at least that’s what I thought. It was still a very exhausting experience to photograph them (it reminded me of the time I was trying to photograph Sabethes mosquitoes). As I mentioned, Richardia are very responsive and will keep moving and exploring unless they stop to clean themselves up. Every time I had the fly framed and in focus, it would travel to the other side of the leaf. Several times it would escape and I would have to go look for it in the cabin. If you think locating a small flying insect in a messy wooden cabin is easy, think again. I found myself crawling on the furniture and slowly sliding my face against the walls and floors, and when I found the fly eventually I was shocked that I was able to see it at all. I nearly lost my mind trying to photograph it. Will I be defeated by a tiny fly?

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male Richardia fly with impressive antlers

After most of the evening time was lost due to the insect’s aforementioned escapes, I decided to come up with another method to control it during the shoot. It required another pair of hands, so I asked my friend Javier Aznar, who I just met in person a couple of days before, to assist. In fact, without Javier’s help I would probably not get any usable shots. I thank him for putting up with me and for keeping my sanity during those difficult hours. “Nothing is impossible”, he told me. He probably thought I was crazy for spending so much time photographing a single fly. Well, it is somewhat true, if you consider the fact that I came back to Mindo just for that purpose. This time, I am very happy with the photos. There will probably be other chances to photograph Richardia flies, but I got precisely what I came for. And it felt like a small victory.

The antlers are thin projections coming out from below the fly's eyes.

The antlers are thin projections coming out from below the fly’s eyes.

The head of a male antlered fly (Richardia sp.) in all its glory. This is the shot I had in mind!

The head of a male antlered fly (Richardia sp.) in all its glory. This is the shot I had in mind!

Not all Richardia species have antlered males, by the way. Some species have no such ornamentation/weaponry at all, yet I still think they are stunning flies with their colorful eyes, decorated wings and shiny bodies.

Mating richardid flies. This species is antler-less, but nevertheless they are very beautiful.

Mating richardid flies. This species is antler-less, but nevertheless they are very beautiful.

Another group of species have had the head morphology evolving in a completely different direction. Instead of having antler-like projections coming from below their eyes, males evolved wide heads. These flies are sometimes called hammerheads, due to their striking resemblance to hammerhead sharks. They are also often mistaken for stalk-eyes flies, however the latter belong to a separate family of flies (Diopsidae, not Richardidae) distributed mainly in tropical regions of Asia and Africa. The hammerhead Richardia can sometimes be seen on the underside of broad leaves such as those of banana and heliconia plants. Males engage in head-pushing tournaments while a single female usually stands by watching and waiting for the winner to approach. He will then display a short dance, running in circles and waving his decorated wings, before mating with her.

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). This one was scouting out a female on a nearby leaf.

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). This one was scouting out a female on a nearby leaf.

Hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male hammerhead fly (Richardia sp.) with “demonic” eyes

The female hammerhead Richardia has a less pronounced head

The female hammerhead Richardia has a less pronounced head

If you remember my previous post, Richardia flies are not immune to infections, and they are occasionally found “glued” to the underside of leaves after being killed by an entomophagic parasitic fungus (Ophiocordyceps).

An unlucky Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

An unlucky Richardia fly infected with Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus. Mindo, Ecuador

I should mention another fly species, an extreme case of a hammerhead fly. Unlike Richardia, this one belongs to another family, Ulidiidae. Plagiocephalus latifrons is probably the closest neotropical equivalent to the old-world stalk-eyed flies, with a head so wide and so disproportional to the rest of the body that it looks more like someone’s prank than a real living animal.

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), dorsal view. One of the most amazing fly species out there in my opinion!

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), dorsal view. One of the most amazing fly species out there in my opinion!

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), frontal view. I cannot imagine this head being very aerodynamic, but you'd be surprised to hear that they are excellent fliers

Male hammerhead fly (Plagiocephalus latifrons), frontal view. I cannot imagine this head being very aerodynamic, but you’d be surprised to hear that they are excellent fliers

The eyes are so wide apart on the tips of the head, that it makes me wonder what these flies see. I am also curious as to how these flies look like at the exact moment when they emerge as adults from their puparium. Surely this whole elongated head cannot fit inside the compact oval puparium within the last larval skin, so it must get pumped up and expanded right after the fly’s eclosion (the BBC has a nice video showing this in a stalk-eyed fly). I would love to see this process in person one day – there is still so much to discover!

2016 in review: a heartfelt thank you

It is that time of the year again. Time to reflect on the passing year and look forward to what is coming next. I think a lot of people will agree that 2016 was a challenging year to live through. A lot of disappointing things happened, expectations shattered, and hopes lost. Although for me the year started on a good note, by mid-2016 I found myself fighting deteriorating health and then later suffering through a depression due to a failing relationship. It was one hell of a ride, I was on the brink of mental collapse, and just when I was starting to recover my computer crashed, deleting most of my archives in the process. And I thought 2013 was bad. Little did I know.

But putting all these unfortunate events aside, 2016 was not all bad. Even with my mishaps, there were some parts of my life that needed resetting. Nothing was lost during the computer crash because I meticulously back up my most important stuff (if there is one advice I can give you for the new year, it is to back up your files. Do it RIGHT NOW). In fact, I have so much to be grateful for. I can honestly say that this year I finally feel like I got some recognition. It started with a nice article about Epomis beetles on WIRED, and continued with a few blog posts that became very popular and attracted more followers. After years of avoidance I decided to join Twitter, and even though I am still a novice there I enjoy the interaction with other people. I managed to publish a few scientific papers, including the descriptions of new species. I even gave a filmed interview for BBC’s “Nature’s Weirdest Events” which was aired a few days ago. However, what really stood out for me this year is that I got to know a lot of people. Many people, some of whom I have never met, offered their support during my rough days. I was honored to participate in Entomological Society of Ontario’s “Bug Day Ottawa”, where I exposed the public to the wonderful world of whip spiders. I was also fortunate to personally meet up with fascinating people that I have previously known only from their online presence. I would like to extend my gratitude to everyone responsible for making my life so much more meaningful and enjoyable.

Thank you. All of you.

 

I bet you want to see some photos. Because what is a photographer’s annual summary without some photos?

The most unpleasant subject

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Portrait of giant toothed longhorn beetle (Macrodontia cervicornis). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Encountering this species was one of my highlights for the year. I know Macrodontia cervicornis very well from museum insect collections. It is one of the most impressive beetle species in the world, both in size and structure. But I never imagined I would be seeing a live one in the wild! Well let me tell you, it is hard to get over the initial impression. The male beetle that I found was not the biggest specimen, but the way it moved around still made it appear like nothing short of a monster. This species is very defensive, and getting close for the wide angle macro shot was a bit risky. The beetle responds to any approaching object with a swift biting action, and those jaws are powerful enough to cut through thick wooden branches, not to mention fingers!

The most perfectly timed photo

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

A group of colorful orchid bees (Euglossa hansoni, E. sapphirina, and E. tridentata) collecting fungus filaments from tree bark. Limón Province, Costa Rica

I have been observing orchid bees for a few years now. It is one of those rewarding experiences that I recommend to anyone with an interest in the natural world. While visiting Costa Rica I was fortunate to snap the above photo, showing four differently colored bees active together at the same spot. A second later the bees started to fight and eventually scattered. The photo drew a lot of attention and became viral, initiating interesting correspondences and new friendships, for which I will be forever thankful.

Best behavior shot

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Spiny devil katydid (Panacanthus cuspidatus) in defensive display. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

I have always wanted a photo showing a Panacanthus cuspidatus in its charismatic threat display. However, this photo is a bit misleading. The spiny devil katydid is actually a very cute and shy animal that prefers to hide rather than attack a huge predator. It took quite a lot of “convincing” to release this behavior.

The best non-animal photo

"Silkhenge" spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

“Silkhenge” spider egg sac. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

OK, I am going to cheat a little in this category. This photo is not exactly non-animal because it is an animal-made structure. The “silkhenge” structure is a story that gained a lot of attention in the past few years. Initially spotted in Peru by Troy Alexander, and later revealed to the world by entomologists Phil Torres and Aaron Pomerantz, this is a intricate spider egg sac, along with a protective “fence”. While the photo is ok at best, I was extremely excited to discover this structure in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The spider species responsible for this structure is still unknown at this point (although I have my own guess for its ID).

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid's wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Closeup on leaf-mimicking katydid’s wings (Pterochroza ocellata). Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Another photo that I am very satisfied with is this interesting view of the bright colors hidden on the underside of a leaf-mimicking katydid. It belongs to my “This is not a leaf” series of closeups on katydids’ wings.

The best photo of an elusive subject

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

Male antlered fly (Richardia sp.). Mindo, Ecuador

In 2015 I traveled to Mindo, Ecuador in hopes to find a horned fly that Paul Bertner photographed a few years back. I managed to find it, but was unhappy with the results. I returned to the same place this year, hoping to get a better photo. But oh my, these flies are annoyingly skittish. Watch this space for an upcoming post about my experience photographing them.

The best natural phenomenon observed

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

Pheidole biconstricta workers tending to a mite-bearing membracid treehopper guarding eggs. Mindo, Ecuador

This photo is another highlight for me, because it depicts several interconnected biological interactions. The ants are shown tending a camouflaged treehopper to gain access to sweet honeydew secreted by the sap-sucking insect. The female treehopper is guarding her eggs, hidden in a foamy protective cover in the leaf’s central vein. And finally, there is a red parasitic mite feeding on the treehopper.

The best stacked photo

The focus-stacked image of the antlered caterpillar at the end of this post took hours to produce, and I am very satisfied with the result. However, for this category I decided to choose something a little different.

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

Albion Falls in Bruce Trail. Ontario, Canada

This landscape shot is actually not focus-stacked, but exposure-stacked. I was not carrying a tripod with me during that day but I still wanted to capture the majestic beauty of Albion falls located in Ontario, Canada. Exposure stacking and blending was a completely new technique for me, and I like how the final image turned out. It almost looks like a remote exotic location. I cannot believe this place is just a couple of hours from where I live.

The best wide-angle macro

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

“Arghhh! I have pollen in my eye!” Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. Ontario, Canada

I really tried to push myself to the limits this year with wide angle macrophotography. Most of my attempts were of capturing pollinating insects in action, but I also tested my capabilities in other scenarios. For example, the following photo was taken using the simplest setup I have – a cheap, unmodified pancake lens and the camera’s built-in popup flash:

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

Green frog (Lithobates clamitans) basking in the sun. Clearview area, Ontario, Canada

I also worked on perfecting results from more frequently-used setups:

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Fringe tree frog (Cruziohyla craspedopus) in mid-jump. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Best of the year

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

Ghost glass frog (Sachatamia ilex). Limón Province, Costa Rica

The above photo of a Costa Rican glass frog is probably my personal favorite from 2016. If you critically evaluate your photography work on a regular basis, it is not very often that you find yourself looking at a photograph without being able to find anything wrong with it. In the case of this photo, everything is just the way I wanted it to be. Perfect.

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

Candy-colored katydid nymph. Amazon Basin, Ecuador

This photo would probably not be in my “best of 2016” if it weren’t for the huge positive response from other people. This is a katydid species I have encountered many times in Ecuador, yet I could not believe my eyes when I saw how brightly colored this individual was. I posted the photo on social media and it caught on like wildfire and went viral. Some people even accused me of altering the natural colors of the katydid in photoshop. And I wonder, what a time to be alive. You travel to a remote place to bring back a piece of beautiful nature to share with others, and no one believes it is real. It makes me sad.

So yes, 2016 was not easy, then again it is just a number that does not mean anything. 2017 will most likely be just as challenging. We survived last year’s events, let’s see what comes next. Bring it on!

One more thing…

To properly welcome the new year, I am offering a product for the first time. It is a calendar containing selected photographs of one of my favorite groups of insects, the orthopterans. If you do not have a 2017 calendar yet, or if you already got one but would still like to have nice photos of katydids and grasshoppers on your wall to look at, please consider ordering one. The candy-colored katydid is featured there too!

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

Beautiful Orthoptera 2017 calendar

USA holidays calendar :
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-usa-holidays/calendar/product-22988977.html

Canadian holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-canada-holidays/calendar/product-22990362.html

Israeli/Jewish holidays calendar:
http://www.lulu.com/shop/gil-wizen/beautiful-orthoptera-2017-calendar-israeli-holidays/calendar/product-22989647.html

 

About bullying and image use

In the past few days there is a sense of increasing tension in the air. Whether it is due to events that happened during this week or something else, I felt like I should do something to calm the spirits down, before people around me start losing their common sense or succumb to depression. So I decided to post some images that I think are calming, together with some optimistic words. Everything is going to be alright.

However, I just want to ask something that seems obvious to me but might not be so straight forward to other people: Please be respectful and considerate of others, especially if you are commenting on someone else’s work or lifestyle. No bullying please. More specifically, if you decide to share my images, and you use them to spread hate towards nature, or if you share them while personally insulting me or one of my colleagues or friends, I will not only take your post down but I will also block you from all my social media accounts. There is a page dedicated to image use on this website, make sure you head over there to read it before using my images to promote your agenda.

Case in point: In the context mentioned above, I shared a photo of a baby velvet worm on my Facebook account a couple of days ago, along with some comforting words. For the most part it was positively received, at least until one person decided to make a negative comment… For the sake of privacy, I will call her M.

bullying-1M is a stranger to me. I have never met her in person or talked with her before. She reached my post because we have a mutual friend, H, who commented on my photo. M went ahead and allowed herself to bash H for expressing her fondness for the photo.
bullying-2I replied, clarifying that there is no place for negativity on my timeline, especially when the original purpose of this post was to help people relax. I advised M to hide my post on her feed if she is bothered by it.
bullying-3M replied:
bullying-4bOh M. My frustration is not with you insulting the critter. The animal does not know you and in fact could not care less about you. It is over the fact that you show no respect towards other people and their interests.
I am not a native English speaker, so I had to look up the meaning of razz. It means to tease. Now correct me if I am wrong, but teasing someone for their passion or livelihood (in this case, M’s sister-in-law’s sister, who is a naturalist), and adding insults while you are at it, does not sound funny to me. That’s not joking. That’s bullying.

You cannot insult someone and then when finally confronted about it, avoid taking responsibility for what you have done by saying you were only joking. From the insulted person’s perspective, the damage has already been done. Believe me when I say this, I have had my fair share of abusive relationships, even during my professional training. I know exactly what I am taking about. Instead of being compassionate and understanding that there may be people out there with different interests than hers, M decides for everyone what is worth spending time on and what is not. Thank you for your contribution, M. Please tell me more what you think I should be doing with my life.

By the time M finished writing her comments I was already away from my computer and I did not see them. In her defense, she did remove my photo from her timeline. Two of my friends, professional biologists, noticed the string of comments and took the initiative to reply. Their answer reflects my opinion exactly (thank you!).
bullying-5Now, this could have very well been the end of it, if it wasn’t for the fact that M decided to re-share my post on her timeline, but this time with a big insult plastered all over it, calling me out on my awful behavior: “…this is the original post by Gil Wizen that I was called out for… F*** HIM. Who is he to tell me what I can put on my timeline??” she wrote. Well my dear M, I will tell you exactly who I am. I am the sole creator of the very content you are using to spread this negativity in the form of hate. And I say no. You cannot use it for this purpose. Sue me.

This whole incident angers me. A lot. Not only M was rude and disrespectful to me and to pretty much every naturalist out there, but she also went ahead and tried to directly insult me publicly. I tried to keep my cool about this. I know she did not mean any harm. Maybe she saw our constructive criticism as an attack on her personal beliefs. Fair enough. However, that name-bashing online defamation that she went with at the end? That is unforgivable in my book.

Needless to say I ended up blocking M. I did not do this as a result of anger or frustration. She does not enjoy seeing images of critters on her Facebook feed, and that is completely fine. She is entitled to her own opinion. I blocked M to protect her. Things can escalate and get out of control fairly quickly online, and I was trying to avoid a verbal execution by a lynch mob. I do not think that would have happened, but I did not want to find out. I just want to reiterate that bullying is a crappy way of showing someone you care about them. And if you bully because do not care about that person, if the only thing you can afford to be is inhumane, then what the hell are you doing with your life? If anything, the entomological community proved that it can stand up against bullies when they attack one of us (here and here are two recent examples). But it does not have to get to this. Come on, people. We can do better.

The photo from the original post. Are you grossed by this creature? Well, that's just too bad.

The photo from the original post. Are you grossed by this creature? Well, that’s just too bad.

You cannot afford to buy this image

Several articles about Epomis that have been published over the last few months triggered an increase in public interest and the beetles’ popularity, followed by an avalanche of requests for image use from magazines and news agencies. I should be happy about this, if not for the small fact that most of these requests are for free or discounted images. I avoid mentioning anything about pricing for my photos here on the website. It is not that they are not for sale, on the contrary. My pricing is pretty standard for a wildlife photographer these days, and I even dare say it is competitive compared to stock agencies and other photographers’ rates. At this moment, I prefer to handle licensing requests on a case-to-case basis. I know that at some point, maybe when more people show interest, I will set up an e-commerce website offering prints.

That being said, I take the aspect of rarity into account when calculating my pricing. If my photograph shows a rare event, an unusual phenomenon or something other photographers are less likely to capture, I charge a higher rate. I admit that as of now I only have a handful of such photos, and as you might expect, some photos of Epomis beetles fall under this category. Case in point:

European green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis) being lured to hunt and getting attacked by a larva of Epomis dejeani. Several news agencies, while completely ignoring my pricing, requested to license this photo for what I can only call - pennies.

European green toad (Pseudepidalea viridis) being lured to hunt and getting attacked by a larva of Epomis dejeani. Several news agencies, while completely ignoring my pricing, requested to license this photo for what I can only call – pennies.

Why do I rate these photos differently from the rest of my portfolio? Wouldn’t it be wiser to charge the same rate for each image? Pricing photographs is a bit of a controversial topic. While I will not go into pricing standards, many pro photographers agree that there is nothing more insulting than receiving requests from commercial entities for free images. Some of us already have our photos spreading through the internet after being stolen (Click here for an example. Unfortunately for me I was too late to stop this one from spreading). On the other end of the spectrum there are photographers who are happy to give photos away for a simple credit mention. I try not to judge, but I honestly cannot understand this approach. There is a lot involved financially when one decides to pursue professional photography. I love this analysis by John Mueller:

“It cost me $6,612 to take this photo.
$12 in gas to go from work to this spot and then home. The camera I took this with cost $2500. The lens was another $1600. The Singh Ray Reverse Neutral Density filter was $210. The Lee Wide-Angle Adapter and Foundation kit was another $200. The Slik Tripod was another $130. The shutter-release was another $60. When I got home, I uploaded it to a computer that cost me $1200, and then I used Lightroom 3 which I got for $200. I then exported it and tinkered with it in Photoshop which costs about $500.”

OK, maybe this is a little too extreme. If I took this approach to calculate the rate for my Epomis photo, including gear and traveling costs (this photo was taken in Israel after my relocation to Canada, so there was quite a bit of traveling involved) it would easily reach over $10K. Instead, let’s keep it simple, and I will include just one aspect that is frequently missed when reviewing photographs – time.

To most people, a photo is merely a click of a button. A perfect moment captured in time. However, I hold a slightly different opinion, which I expressed briefly in this post. You see, it took me two years to take the above photo. And I am saying this while omitting the +5 years I have been studying Epomis beetles, which gave me excellent insights on where and when to find them in the field. Knowing your subject is the key to getting good shots in the wildlife photography genre, yet it still took me another two years to get the shot. Why? This is where photographic technique comes into play. I planned this shot in my mind way before I traveled back to Israel to search for my subjects. I had to know exactly where to position and how to diffuse my lights, which moment to press the shutter, and for months I perfected my technique so that when I get to that decisive moment, in which I have only a split second to record the predation interaction, it would go as smooth as possible. And you know what? Even after all this planning it still took a few attempts to get the sequence the way I wanted it.

To summarize this rant, my hard-earned knowledge and level of expertise are not up for grabs. Definitely not at a discounted rate. Oh yes, this particular photo also consists of four different exposures. Maybe I should have mentioned this as well.


UPDATE (11 Mar, 2016): In the last 24 hours this post received a lot of attention, sparking an interesting discussion on FaceBook. After reading some of the comments, I want to clarify a few things:

* The pricing calculation that appears in quotes is NOT my pricing. I only brought it as an example to show the level of financial investment for the professional photographer. If you read on, you learn that I am more realistic and do not price my photos this way.

* I know I made it sound like I never allow to use my photos free of charge but I assure you this is not the case. For most personal use, in-class educational use and scientific presentations I do not charge a fee. Other non-profit use is evaluated on a case-to-case basis, but I am very flexible in my terms. If I supply high quality photos I expect to receive something equal in return, it does not have to be currency; in the past I received books, gift cards, bits of gear, accommodation and even research support in exchange for my photos.

* Also, it is OK if you do not agree with my opinion. If you want to give your photos away for free, go ahead. I do not like it because it causes depreciation of other photographers’ work, but I cannot stop you. However, if one day you choose to start viewing your creations as valuable and decide to charge a fee for their use, making that transition from charging nothing will be hard for you, take it from someone who has been in that stage.

Time for some self-evaluation

Without warning, 2016 sneaked up on me. I had quite a few planned posts for this blog, and I was hoping I could still post them during 2015. But other plans got in the way, and I had to postpone. Hopefully I can find the time and motivation to post more this year.
One of the things I like to do at the end of a year is going over my photo archive in order to see if something has changed in my style. I do not necessarily mean getting better at taking photos, even though some kind of progress is expected from year to year. What I am really after are changes in the way I use my equipment, compose my frames, and in my post-processing techniques. This is something I encourage every photographer to do. There is an unfortunate consequence of digital photography: we tend to shoot a lot, then we transfer the files to our collection for storage, we might look at the photos in the first weeks after the shoot, but then we forget about them for a while. This is in contrast to what it was like in the film age; developing film was pricy and you had a limited number of photos you could take, therefore much more planning went into each single photo. Plus the experience of going over the new prints or flipping pages in a photo album is pretty much lost nowadays. In addition, skipping the film lab stage and the ease of post-processing digital files allow for speed learning, and beginners can see major improvements in their photography skills within weeks.

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Typophyllum sp.). Chapare Province, Bolivia

Leaf-mimicking katydid (Typophyllum sp.). This photo is in fact a scanned film slide, originally taken in Bolivia in 2003.

This year I had a chance to go back and evaluate my entire collection straight from the beginning. When I went over photographs from my film era (mostly 90’s and early 2000’s), I could only find a handful of images that I considered pleasing and worth keeping. In other words, something has definitely changed throughout the years in the way I perceive photographic subjects. Even when I look at the results of my early years in digital photography, I cannot help but wonder what made me choose that composition and those particular camera settings. Surprisingly, the most substantial change in the way I photograph happened only recently. Overall, 2013 was not a good year for me, but I was fortunate to have the time and solitude to dig into what I already know about photography, and more important, what I do not know. I tried new gear configurations, different composition styles and stepped out of my comfort zone. The main result was making the transition from a “snapper”, who hastily clicks the shutter from fear the subject will be gone, to a “composer”, who plans the desired frame during the shot and sometimes even before encountering the subject. By the way, I just made those terms up. It is interesting to compare photos taken before and after this period. Not always you get a chance to compare a photo of the same subject taken in different years. Take this shield bug nymph for example. This photo was taken in Belize in 2013:

Shield bug nymph (Brachystethus rubromaculatus). This is the only photo of this species that I have from my visit in 2013. Why?

Shield bug nymph (Brachystethus rubromaculatus). This is the only photo of this species that I have from my visit in 2013. Why?

And this one was taken exactly a year later, in 2014:

Shield bug (Brachystethus rubromaculatus) nymph. Photographed at the same site, in 2014.

Shield bug (Brachystethus rubromaculatus) nymph. Photographed at the same site, in 2014.

Both photos show the same animal and environment, but have completely different visual styles. The 2013 photo is not particularly bad, I just prefer the one taken in 2014.

I cannot stress enough the importance of self-evaluation, and this goes far beyond photography. With so much content out there, anyone who creates something needs to learn how to view their work without bias, and be honest about it. Become your worst critic.

My take on wide-angle macro – part 4

In case you have not read my previous posts about wide-angle macro, make sure to head over to these pages first. While this post focuses on my relay lens system, the previous posts give a good introduction to wide-angle macro:
To read part 1, click here.
To read part 2, click here.
To read part 3, click here.

It is that time of the year again, in which various “year-in-review” posts start appearing. My intention was to follow what I did in 2013 and 2014, and present my list of 2015 photographic highlights. However, for me 2015 lagged a little photography-wise, and judging by the scarcity of similar annual summary posts from fellow photographers it sure feels like I am not the only one in this. What I can say though, is that I spent a lot of time testing different combinations of my equipment. After publishing my series of wide-angle macro posts I saw them as finished and had no plans to continue. But a recent development convinced me otherwise and I am proud to present part 4 in the series, alternatively titled – You should never stop experimenting with gear.

A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my "awkward device" out.

A curious praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) checking me and my “awkward device” out.

In the previous post I mentioned that one can achieve a satisfying wide-angle macro effect using a relay lens system. It is probably the cheapest way to go about it too, as the different parts can be obtained in garage sales and thrift stores. However, using a relay lens has its own drawbacks, for example stepping into full manual gear territory, extreme chromatic aberration and soft focus. This is not, by all means, the end of the world, and after a period of trial and error using my relay system I managed to get some interesting results with a very unique perspective. I was happy with those photographs, for a while.

My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera's sensor.

My previous relay lens system. It used two full sets of extension tubes, a reversed wide prime, a few more tubes and adapters and finally a tiny CCTV lens. No wonder light barely reached the camera’s sensor.

But after some time I grew tired of the cumbersome system I built. Each photo took me over 10 minutes to plan and execute, rendering most animal subjects uncooperative. I was frustrated with the lack of auto aperture control. And most annoying – my relay lens system was very long, with a tiny front element. This means that it did not let too much light enter the camera, resulting in a dark, upside down image in the viewfinder. In addition, the photos I got using this system all had soft focus and a strange halo around the subject, and I suspect this was a result of chromatic aberration, diffraction and the way I was lighting the scene.

It was back to the drawing board for me. I started to think what kind of look I wanted for these wide-angle macro shots, and then I remembered that some years ago people experimented with attaching a peephole lens to a point and shoot camera to get a fisheye effect. Incidentally, some of these combinations had wide-angle macro capabilities. Once I had an idea of what I wanted, I verified that it was indeed plausible, and went hunting for the suitable parts. The problem with peephole lenses is that they vary in image quality, and also some lens combinations “play well” together while others result in a photographic catastrophe. It took me over a year to come up with the right combination of optics to get the desired look I was after, but I think I got it now (at least until I find something that works better).

Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.

Male carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) feeding from goldenrod flowers. Such big eyes you have.

This current relay system is shorter, lighter and has auto focus and aperture control. The results are much sharper and there is no loss of detail. Almost perfect. Wait, almost?? Yes, although this lens combination perform better than others, the final result also depends on the camera settings, subject magnification and lighting conditions. One thing that is hard to avoid when using this system is sunstars. With a front element allowing a 180° field of view, the sun almost always ends up in the frame. Some people love sunstars, but I must admit that this effect gets old quickly when you see it in each and every photo.

Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.

Aster flower (Symphyotrichum sp.) with a complimentary sunstar.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) pollinating a waterfall of white aster flowers. And a complimentary sunstar.

What I really like about this system is that it is perfect for photographing pollinators. The front element is still quite small, and perceived as non-threatening by skittish insects.

A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.

A pair of European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) standing their ground on goldenrod inflorescence.

Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.

Flies are exceptionally skittish when it comes to wide-angle macro. I was lucky to get a few nice shots of this fly pollinating before it took off and vanished.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times - a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) pollinating. This is one of the shots I had in mind way before I even started assembly of the lens system. I will probably repeat it a few more times – a sunstar managed to sneak into the frame!

Another aspect of this system is that it allows to experiment with more dynamic shots, producing a very unique style. It will be interesting to test this with different moving subjects in the future.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.

Male bold Jumping Spider (Phidippus audax) on the move.

Finally, I can now create portraits of small critters while still retaining much of the surrounding background.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) staring straight into the camera.

Thank you for following these posts about my evolving wide-angle macro style. I hope they serve as inspiration for creating your own setup. Here’s to a new year full of photographic adventures!

Nailing that Megarhyssa shot – it’s all about flexibility

It is intriguing that I do not post much about North American insects. In fact, ever since I moved to Canada I became more and more obsessed with animals found in my home country (Israel). Some might say this is a common case of “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”, but this does not mean that North American insects are not exciting or interesting. On the contrary, there are many insect species I hope to see in person. One of these insects rewarded us with its presence during a day trip to Hilton Falls Conservation Area in Ontario. I thought I should write about it and share a little bit of the process of photographing it.

Giant ichneumon wasps (genus Megarhyssa) are some of the biggest North American wasps thanks to the females’ long (10cm) ovipositor, which is longer than the wasp’s own body. These wasps might look fierce but they are actually shy and harmless insects. They are parasitoids: their larvae develop as parasites living inside the body of other insects. The female’s ovipositor is therefore not a stinger, but an organ used to inject eggs into the larva’s host.

During our trip we came across an egg-laying female of Megarhyssa macrurus. I only had a couple of small lenses with me and no dedicated macro equipment, but still, I did not want to miss an opportunity to photograph a Megarhyssa during oviposition. I tried to go for a simple wide-angle macro style first:

Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.

Wide-angle photo of a female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) during oviposition.

Very quickly I ran across one of the problems I mentioned in this post. The wasp is so thin and delicate and easily gets “lost” in the background, even when it is slightly out-of-focus. To get a better result, I started to cut broad leaves and placed them like tiles in the background. This photo was taken with the same, non-macro lens as above. Surprising result!

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) drilling in wood to lay eggs

Megarhyssa wasps attack the larvae of another wasp, Pigeon horntail (Tremex columba), which bore into dead wood. The female can detect tiny vibrations coming from inside the wood by the feeding horntail larvae. She then proceeds to egg-laying: she bends her abdomen, exposing her ovipositor from its flexible sheath, and starts drilling. When she reaches a horntail larva, she sends an egg all the way down the ovipositor and injects it to the host. The parasitoid wasp larva feeds on the host and kills it, and then pupates inside the wood. The new generation of Megarhyssa wasps will emerge as adults in the following summer.

Back to the process of photographing – The next thing I wanted was to test the flexibility of the lens (I always recommend doing this), so I took a few more “creative” shots at different angles. What I like about this photo is that you can also see some of the previous holes this female drilled using her ovipositor.

Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood

Giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) injecting eggs into horntail wasp larvae found inside dead wood

The last goal was to get a dreamy background, showing some of the light entering through the canopy. This was a bit tricky, because the wasp was facing down towards the ground. Since I do not have special equipment (such as an angle-viewfinder or a tilt-screen), I had to be creative and improvise. Unknowingly, I had my photo taken while trying to compose the shot. I was completely unaware of my pose because I was too focused on photographing, and I guess some of the poses I tried might have been embarrassing for my trip partners… To tell the truth, I had no idea my body was even capable of getting into these positions. If you look closely, you can even see the wasp in this photo, it is very big!

Flexibility is important while photographing insects!

Flexibility is important while photographing insects! Photo by Mio Konfedrat.

After much bending and neck-twisting I managed to get the shot that I wanted:

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying

Female giant ichneumon wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) in egg-laying

Nice to cross this incredible species off my “wanted” list.