Thursday, 5 August 2021

Macro Flowers - An Old Dog With New Tricks

 I've had a long standing love of macro flower photography. Indeed one of the first lenses I owned when I bought my first DSLR was a Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro lens. The lens got a lot of use in 15 yrs until I sold it in exchange for the stabilised Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro lens.

The old Tamron had no image stabilisation, and neither have any of the Sony mirrorless cameras that I've owned including the A6400 that I use today and that dictated my macro workflow when shooting flowers forcing me to use a tripod. Hand holding the camera was out of the question without greatly bumping up the ISO to get a fast enough shutter speed to get a sharp image. 

My technique was always to use a tripod with manual focus and the camera set to "Manual" mode. There was a slow process of identifying the composition that I wanted, framing the shot by moving the tripod centimeter by centimeter back and forth while at the same time adjusting the tripod ball head, manually focusing then waiting for the wind to die down or for an insect to land on the flower before shooting. 

With the f-stop chosen to get the correct depth of field and some background bokeh, when the light changed I'd adjust the shutter speed to compensate. Sometimes I'd shoot with the tripod ball head loosened off to give me some freedom when shooting. 

Because photographing flowers is best carried out in soft diffused light without harsh shadows, I bought a Lastolite Trigrip 75cm Difflector which would be held between the Sun and the flower to soften the light on bright days. With the camera on a tripod I had a free hand to hold the diffuser above the flower.

The difflector uniquely is a 1 f-stop diffuser on one side with a reflector on the other and the large plastic grip makes holding with one hand a doddle. The difflector folds up into a small round bag for carrying.

Lastolite Trigrip 75cm Difflector

This technique has given me some great results over the years but the flowers, such as the Agapanthus and Rhodochiton below, were more like record shots of flowers and there was something missing. There was no artistic merit or ethereal mood in the photographs.

Agapanthus

Rhodochiton

Two years ago I discovered Kathleen Clemons, a wonderful flower photographer in the United States. Kathleen is a Lensbaby ambassador. She uses their lenses extensively to create an ethereal mood in camera, but she also adds textured layers to her flower photographs during post processing to create flowers with a painterly feel. 

I'm not fond of Lensbaby lenses but I purchased her E-book tutorial and some of her textures and started to recreate my own macro flower art using the back catalogue of flower record shots that I've taken for years.

Echinops

Echinops with Texture

Nectaroscordum with Texture

Autumn Crocus with Texture

This has given my old photographs a new lease of life. I've been taking macro photographs and adding textures ever since, but I've not been able to produce ethereal looking flower images straight out of camera until I discovered Dirk Ercken last month. 

Dirk is able to achieve a beautiful dreamy ethereal look to his flower photography by shooting wide open and giving the backgrounds as much importance as the main flower of interest. I purchased his online video tutorials and I have now totally changed my macro flower shooting technique. 

I'm now shooting hand held with manual focusing in "Aperture Priority"which gives me the freedom to move around, to get in close amongst the flowers and I'm very excited by the results below. The purchase of the Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro lens this Spring with its built in image stabilisation now gives me the opportunity to follow his technique and to shoot handheld. My photographs are no longer straight record shots and my post processing by adding textures is vastly reduced. Interesting background textures are created in camera. 

Ammi

Astrantia

Cornflower

Nigella

Eshscholzia

All of the above photographs are straight out of camera with minimal post processing using Dirk Echern's flower photography technique but it's left me with a problem. 

Dirk recommends using a diffuser to soften the light but when hand holding a camera and manually focusing how could I possibly hold the Lastolite Trigrip Diffuser?

After a bit of research on the internet I found the Manfrotto Super Clamp (£26 from Amazon) The Super Clamp is designed to be attached to a tripod ball head with a camera and be clamped on to a wall or rail for hands free shooting but I've adapted it to do the opposite.

Manfrotto Super Clamp mounted to a tripod ball head

The Super Clamp is available to buy with an optional pin which allows a ball head to be screwed to the flat top of the clamp but the top also has a 1/1.4" threaded hole allowing a tripod quick release plate to be fitted. This allows me to fit the clamp upside down onto the ball head so that the clamp can hold the Lastolite Trigrip Diffuser. 

Manfrotto Super Clamp holding the Lastolite Trigrip 75cm Diffuser

This works well only because of this model of diffuser's unique large plastic handle and the ball head can now be used to hold the diffuser in whatever angled position that I want, including with the center stem of the tripod in the horizontal position for extra reach with the tripod legs splayed for stability.

Hands free light diffusion on the cheap

They say that the more you shoot, the better you get at photography but you must also be open to learning and change. I've been lucky recently to find two photographers who I can learn from and I'm proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Sony FE 90mm f2.8 Macro Lens

Since taking up photography in 2004 my two main interests have always been photographing flowers and digital infrared but I'll also shoot landscapes, architecture and sports when I get the chance. 

When out shooting for the day, I found myself constantly conflicted between capturing the colour spectrum with the Sony A6400 or invisible light with the A6000 infrared camera and I eventually realised that my colour photography was suffering. A question I often ask myself is, "What kind of photographer am I?" 

Being a club photographer I've often believed that I fell into the category of being a "Jack of all trades, but a master of none" I know a lot of very good photographers and they're very good because they specialise and put all of their efforts into perfecting their chosen subject be that wildlife, landscape, wedding, street photography etc. 

With fewer opportunities to photograph because of Covid restrictions my camera gear wasn't getting as much use as I'd liked, so a month ago I reluctantly sold the Sony A6000 infrared converted camera, my 15 yr old Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro lens and some other camera gear and purchased the Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro lens to specialise in my other passion of flower photography. What kind of photographer am I? I guess I'm now a flower photographer and looking to improve my skills in the subject.

Cirsium- Sony 90mm Macro

The change over from the 15yr old Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro (A mount) lens used with the LA-EA4 adapter to the Sony FE 90mm f2.8 E mount lens on my Sony A6400 camera has made a huge difference to the way that I now capture flowers. Previously my method was very rigid and constrained with little room for creativity.

Astrantia maxima and a Hoverfly - Sony 90mm Macro hand held

Neither the Tamron lens or the Sony A6400 have built in stabilisation so all of my macro work was done on a tripod. That's generally good practice for any macro work and it produced good results but it was a slow and frustrating workflow. 

Carrying a heavy tripod around all day. Positioning the tripod legs at the correct height. Moving it back and forth to frame the shot because you're using a prime lens was a slow process.
 
I'd often place the camera on the tripod with the ballhead slackened off and use the tripod like a gimbel to prevent me from swaying back and forth whilst manually focusing. This gave me some degree of freedom to switch from flower to flower or to frame a shot.

The Tamron was always notorious for having an autofocus system that was prone to hunting. It was accurate and very sharp once it found it's subject but it was best used in manual focus, recommended again for macro work. 

Tradescantia "Osprey" - Sony 90mm Macro on a tripod

I'm still getting to know the Sony FE 90mm macro lens with it's fast responsive autofocus and image stabilisation. I've used it a couple of times without using a tripod and the freedom to move around, compose a shot and shoot quickly has been very enjoyable compared to my previous workflow with the Tamron although I do miss focus at times when autofocusing given the very shallow depths of field involved.

Candelabra Primula - Sony 90mm Macro hand held

Using a tripod and manual focus is still the recommended method for shooting macro and the images in this post have been captured using either this method or shooting handheld with autofocus. Which method I use in the future will depend on the available light, the F-stop used and the resulting shutter speed but the Sony lens does give me the freedom to be more creative.

Iris sibirica - Sony 90mm Macro hand held

Why did I choose the Sony FE 90mm macro over the other brand of lenses available for the Sony E mount? The other lenses are cheaper and all have their good points but some were manual focus only while none had any stabilisation. The Sony lens was the most expensive but the build quality, sharpness, fast accurate autofocus and most importantly the image stabilisation on my A6400 won the day. 

Monday, 24 May 2021

A Change of Focus

I read a newspaper story recently reporting that in a survey a large percentage of the public had admitted that the Covid pandemic had made them reflect on life and make life changing decisions. That's something that I can relate to. Being restricted to our homes and having our normal activities curtailed for many months, we've all had time to reflect on our lives and for many to make permanent changes. Whilst for me that hasn't resulted in anything as drastic as a new job, a divorce, a new diet or more exercise, Covid has had an impact on my photography and it's future direction.

Fifteen months of Covid restrictions with no outlet for my photography, with art fairs and galleries cancelled or closed has seriously impacted my ability to earn money. I haven't attended an art fair in 18 months and not sold a print in that time. Of course everyone is in the same boat, but the small amount of money raised through selling prints was just enough to buy the occasional new lens or upgrade my camera.

Travel restrictions have also had an impact on my photography and during the pandemic my photography has mainly entailed photographing flowers in my garden or home studio. As a result I've only used my Sony A6000 infrared camera once in two years and after 17 years I've sadly fallen out of love with infrared. I was the only members of my photographic society to shoot infrared and was known as "the infrared man" but that is no more.

Pulsatilla

Covid restrictions have been slowly lifting in the UK and life is starting to return to some sort of normality. My local Ness Botanic Gardens has re-opened which gave me the chance to photograph Spring flowers last week using my tired 15 yr old Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro A mount lens using the LA-EA4 adapter. It was really enjoyable to photograph flowers outside of my home once again. 

In contrast I took the infrared camera out for the afternoon photographing the sand dunes on our local coast and I haven't processed an image. There was just no excitement when looking at the results. The "wow" factor which I've always felt when shooting infrared, was gone. 

With no income from print sales and the need for a new E mount macro lens I've reluctantly sold the Sony A6000 infrared camera, Sony Zeiss 12mm f2.8 Touit lens, Tamron 90mm macro and adapter and bought the excellent Sony FE 90mm f2.8 macro lens. 

There will no doubt be a time in the future when I'll look at a scene and think, "That would look great in infrared" but I hate having camera gear that's not earning its keep and the new Sony macro lens will get plenty of use and produce some stunning results. 

Fern 

Photography will now become less complicated. I often carried two cameras around (one colour, the other infrared) with three lenses and be torn about which one to use on a particular scene. Constantly changing lenses over from one camera to the other was a pain and slowed me down. As a result I eventually opted for going out on dedicated infrared days. Now I can be content with carrying one camera and a couple of lenses and concentrate on spotting "the shot" There is such a wide range of photographic opportunities available with a colour camera such as portrait, street, sports, wildlife, architecture, monochrome, video that I'm sure I won't miss infrared.

I started this blog during the Covid restrictions to talk about my photography whilst my opportunities to photograph were curtailed and to keep my spirits up. If you're a follower, you will notice that nearly all of the blog posts discuss my past work.  

Wood Anemone


The fast vaccine rollout in the UK is resulting in a promised unlocking of all Government restrictions and a return to normality on 21st June. In future I'll be able to talk about my latest photography and I've already booked a four night solo camping trip with my camera gear to North Wales for early June. In the meantime I hope you enjoy these latest and final photographs taken with the old first generation Tamron 90mm f2.8 macro lens. 

Erythronium

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Intentional Camera Movement (ICM)

 There are times when photographers get stuck in a creative rut and they don't feel the urge to take their camera out and use it. It happens to me quite often and my gear can be in the cupboard for months usually during the Winter. My cure for those moments is a search of Youtube for inspiration and to get my mojo back. It worked last Autumn when I discovered "painting with light" and it also introduced me to "ICM" or "Intentional Camera Movement"

Panning for blur at 1/400 sec

We use ICM every time we photograph fast moving sports. The technique is to track the bike using a slowish shutter speed, in this case 1/400 sec to capture the bike sharp and in focus while adding blur to the wheels and the background to enhance the feeling of movement and speed. 

The creative alternative is to move the camera during a slow shutter actuation to intentionally blur the whole image and hopefully create something artistic. Of course shooting hand held is a must and before starting I'd ensure that your camera sensor is clean of dust because shooting at f16 - f22 will result in a dust spots.

Sand Dunes - f20, 0.8 sec


Dee Estuary, Wirral - f20, 0.4 sec

 The results are very hit and miss and it can take a lot of practice with shutter timings and camera movements to get something that you like but digital images are free and the poor shots are easily deleted. The unpredictability can be fun though. In bright conditions I'm usually shooting at around f16 - f22 at ISO 100 with an NDx8 filter on the lens to get the shutter speed slow enough to blur the image. How fast or slow you move the camera and the direction of travel gives you different results. 

Dodging the Surf - f22, 0.6 sec

As a general rule of thumb, move the camera in a vertical direction for trees and horizontally for horizons but the rules are there to be broken. Twisting the camera or small zig zag motions will often result in something interesting. 

Coastal Grasses - f20, 0.8 sec

Pine Trees - f16, 0.8 sec

As well as vertical, horizontal, circular and zig zag motions, manually zooming in or out while pressing the shutter will give you a star burst effect. I've found that having a focal point in the center of the image worked best for me here. 

Morning Walk - f22, 0.5 sec

Add and extra movement and get a different result. By zooming in or out whilst turning the camera in a circular motion you get a star burst with a twist.

Star Burst with a Twist - f22, 0.3 sec

ICM isn't for everyone and my first images are not the best but if you're stuck in a creative rut then check out the work of Mark Reeves ARPS who uses double exposures and ICM to great effect in creating his Impressionist Landscapes. Have fun.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Frozen Flower Photography

Here we are in a new year which should offer us hope of a new beginning and we're back in another Covid lockdown. Nowhere is open to photograph. We can't travel outside our immediate area and the border with beautiful Wales just four miles away is closed. This lock down in the dead of Winter is likely to last for several weeks making it doubly hard but there is truly hope on the horizon. The Covid vaccine roll out is offering us hope so it's important that we keep our minds busy until it's delivered and we get our freedom back.

I love photographing flowers because of their patience. In a garden they'll sit there and pose for you without complaint until you get the shot that you want. During the Winter months they'll do the same as still life subjects indoors. A form of still life that I've seen and have always wanted to try is photographing frozen flowers. The combination of Covid restrictions and the cold weather has put me into hibernation mode so this is another photography project to keep myself warm indoors and my brain ticking over until the Spring.

To practice, I collected a variety of leaves, grass heads and dead flower heads in order to create a composition to signify Autumn. Apart from the composition, the most important part of creating frozen flowers is the type of water used and its quality.  

"Autumn" - tap water boiled once

Common tap water when it freezes is cloudy white due to impurities which makes it almost impossible to make out any detail in the subject matter or the ice. The tap water above was boiled once to get rid of impurities and air and when cold a small amount of water (approx 1cm) was poured into a plastic sandwich tub. The leaves and seed heads were then arranged in the bottom of the tub and put in a freezer to glue the composition in place to prevent them from floating. Once solid, more water was added in 1cm stages to prevent the bottom layer from thawing. When you have your preferred thickness, give the ice a polish with a warm wet cloth and try to photograph it with a back light. As you can see there are so many tiny bubbles in the ice that the finished image is far "too busy" and there's no opacity.

Before making my second attempt I sought out advice from Youtube. The most common advice received was to use de-ionised water (used to top up car batteries) boiled twice. I tested this technique using de-ionised water from Halfords costing £3.90 for 5 lts against tap water. Both were boiled twice and frozen in identical plastic tubs. The tap water remained cloudy white and impossible to see through while the de-ionised water was much clearer. I was now ready for a second attempt. 

I realised that to make an impact I needed to buy flowers with a strong structural form and colour. These came in the form of some yellow Roses with a red edge and a mixture of Spray Chrysanthemums. 

Yellow Roses in de-ionised water boiled twice

The de-ionised water worked far better as there are fewer small bubbles of impurity in the ice. The strings of bubbles is air pushed out of the Roses as the water freezes. The opacity of the ice is far greater. 

To photograph this second session I placed the ice on a sheet of glass raised up on plastic flower pots with a sheet of white paper underneath the glass as a background. LED lights were shone beneath the glass from two sides. The photographs were taken with a macro lens on a tripod. You soon find out that melting water is your enemy so have a towel on standby to mop up.

Spray Chrysanthemum with added food dye

As an experiment I froze some blue and yellow Spray Chrysanthemums and added a few drops of blue food dye on top of the frozen base layer of water and placed it back into the freezer. To my surprise it didn't freeze so when I added the second layer of water it spread. On another block of flowers I added too much yellow dye and it spread throughout the whole block of ice making it unusable. If you're going to try this then use the neat food dye very sparingly.

Yellow Spray Chrysanthemum and blue food dye

Yellow Spray Chrysanthemum and blue food dye

Using a macro lens and getting in close to picking out detail can be fun and give you some creative results and those results can be very unpredictable. You don't have to use real flowers. My final creation used a pink plastic Dahlia flower frozen in a deep plastic tub of double boiled de-ionised water. The patterns of air in the ice block were the best of the batch. The block was photographed in the same way as before on a sheet of glass raised off the ground on plastic flower pots with blue paper underneath the glass as a background. LED lights were shone underneath from two sides. 

Pink plastic Dahlia flower in de-ionised water

Pink plastic Dahlia flower in de-ionised water

It can take a bit of effort creating the blocks of frozen flowers. Boiling a small pan of de-ionised water, letting it cool and boiling it again doesn't take long, but freezing the water in stages to the end result can take 48 hrs. My biggest problem was getting enough backlight to bring out the detail in the ice. Hold a block up to the sky and the detail can be wonderful but how do you do that and use a camera at the same time. Holding a melting ice block is like holding a bar of wet soap. I imagine a lightbox with a sheet of glass on top would be ideal. 

After a short break I'm planning another attempt at photographing frozen flowers. It's creative, unpredictable and can keep you photographing from the warmth of your home during the coldest weeks of Covid lock down.

12th February Update

After photographing the ice blocks I placed them back into the freezer until I had time to photograph them a second time under different lighting conditions. A few days ago in an attempt to get more backlight through the blocks I tried to use the fluorescent strip lighting underneath the kitchen wall cupboards as the light source and shot with a macro lens with the ice blocks stood up against a white and black cloth. The results below are dramatically different. I had to use an LED torch shone in front to balance the light in the bottom half of the blocks. The same ice blocks but with a different result.


Iced Roses
 

Plastic Chrysanthemum

Plastic Chrysanthemum

Ice Rose Detail

Ice Rose Detail

To conclude, to get the best result from any photograph the most important task is getting the lighting right. That's just as important whether it's a portrait or photographing frozen flowers.