Back in the swing? Chorus Frog

Chorus Frog - Pseudacris triseriata

A tiny Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata), hanging out in front of our house, and just begging to get his photo taken.

August…good riddance.  It’s been a downer of a month.  I’ve had all kinds of eye issues this month, and just haven’t felt up to getting out and taking photos.  Heck, I haven’t even felt like opening my eyes!  It turns out my really dry eye turned into a very nasty scratch across my cornea.  Not only did it hurt like hell, but everything was so blurry in that eye that I couldn’t even think about photography.

Thankfully the eye is getting better, and I have some treatment options that seem to be working for the eyes overall (crossing fingers that continues).  I still haven’t felt like going out with the camera, but maybe tonight was a sign I should start doing so again.  I went for a family walk with the dogs, and when we returned home, my son said “Frog!”.  Not really expecting frogs in our front driveway, I thought he was joking around or something, but then he pointed out the tiny little Chorus Frog that was hanging out on the edge of the driveway.

Chorus Frog - Pseudacris triseriata

A side view of the cute little guy.

I’ve pretty much just tried the macro lens on insects and a few flowers, so a tiny frog was a nice option to try something new.  This guy was an inch long at most, a perfect size for some macro shots.  He wasn’t really in much of a mood to move or anything, so I was able to lay down on the driveway in front of him and take a wide variety of shots.

A sign perhaps, that I should get my lazy, bad-eyed self back outside and start taking photos again?   Nah…I don’t believe in that kind of stuff, but ANYTHING that made me grab the camera again is a good thing.

Ant vs. Fly – Battle Royale

Ant vs. Fly

An ant that has seemingly captured a fly. The fly was firmly in the grip of the ant, and despite having full use of its wings and desperately trying to pull away, it wasn’t making any headway against the tiny but strong ant.

Ah, the thrills of being a nature photographer.  The classic nature battles that are captured through the eye of a photographer…a lion taking down a wildebeest.  A pack of wolves tackling a full-grown elk.  A grizzly bear taking a bison calf.

OK, this may not be quite on bar with the excitement and drama of one of those encounters, but while out taking macro photos, I heard a bit of buzzing and noticed this fly flopping around a bit, seemingly trying desperately to get away from something.  At first I didn’t see the captor, but then saw it was a large ant!  The ant had it’s jaws firmly around the head of the fly, and despite all the efforts of the fly, it certainly didn’t seem like it had much of a chance to get away.

I had seen ants carrying seemingly dead insects away before, often in a cooperative fashion.  But I hadn’t ever really thought of ants as being “killers”, going out and actively hunting for prey.  Another insight into the insect world through a macro lens!

Wasp Galls – Who knew?

Wasp Gall - Cynipidae family  - Burr Oak Leaf

Wasp galls on the undersides of Burr Oak leaves. These are the galls of wasps from the Cynipidae family. I never would have known that these strange fuzzy structures are part of the oak leaf itself, not created by the insect!

It’s been a bad last week with my eyes, so dry and so hard to be outside in the wind.  As such, I again haven’t been in much of a mood to go shoot, but thankfully these things seem to run in spurts and I’m feeling better now!  What better way to get back outside than do a little more macro photography.

One of the things I’ve really loved about getting into macro photography (one whole month into it now!!) is that it’s opened my eyes to things I just wouldn’t have ever noticed before.  When I’m walking along, closely scouring the vegetation or trail for an insect or some neat pattern to shoot with my macro lens, I certainly notice things I’d never noticed before when I shot almost exclusively birds.  While walking in the Big Sioux Recreation Area (State Park across the street), I noticed that the undersides of the Burr Oak leaves had many little fuzzy balls.  Not only fuzzy, but colorful and quite variable fuzzy little balls, between 1/4″ and 1/2″ in size, mostly in mixed bands of pink and cream colors.

A perfect opportunity for some macro shots! As the photo above shows, the fuzzy balls are variable, but seem to always be composed of the same two colors. I had assumed they were related to insect reproduction, thinking they were some kind of egg mass or something.  A quick search of the internet when coming back home revealed that they are the galls of certain wasp species.

A wasp gall…OK?  I knew the term “gall”, and had myself associated it with a variety of odd bumps and lumps and deformities that you see on plants.  I had always assumed they were created by an insect to house eggs or young.  I didn’t know the gall itself is actually plant tissue!  Fascinating to read about!  The galls are from the Cynipidae family of wasps.  The females lay an egg on a leaf. There is some unknown chemical or mechanical triggering that induces the Burr Oak leaf itself to produce a protective gall around the egg.  Once the egg hatches, the tiny wasp larvae feeds on the tissue of the gall itself, with the wasp eventually breaking free of the gall and flying away once it matures.

Very cool!  And something I doubt I ever would have been aware of had I not started taking photos with a macro lens.  I certainly wouldn’t have ever guessed that this fuzzy, pink-and-cream colored creation was actually part of the oak leaf itself!

Saving $500 – a DIY macro flash diffuser

Mayfly photo - macro photography by Terry Sohl

Mayfly, taken with my do-it-yourself macro flash unit. This was taken well after sunset, with the modified flash unit providing all lighting.

I’m now about 3 weeks into the macro world.  One thing that became obvious pretty quickly is that with such a short focusing distance (often about 1 foot from the subject), controlling light can be a lot tougher with macro.  Flash is an obvious way to control the light for a shot, but the “standard” flash units for DSLR’s generally aren’t good for macro, at least not with the flash right on the hot shoe of the camera.  For example, I have Canon’s “Speedlight” 430 EXII, a very nice flash unit.  But when it’s on the camera itself, there’s no way to direct the flash to such a short focusing distance.

You can buy a cord and take the flash off the camera itself, but to me it’s a little unwieldy to try to manage an off-camera flash and the camera itself.  Canon does make a specific flash for macro.  It’s a ring-flash, a round flash that goes right on the end of your lens.  It’s a nice solution!  It’s also $500!! Given that I’m still new to macro, I didn’t want to spend that much on a dedicated macro flash, so started looking around on the web and saw people have made all kinds of do-it-yourself flash setups for macro.

Better Beamer Photo

The basic Better Beamer setup, a simple pair of frame pieces and a Fresnel lens that attach to your flash with Velcro. I used the frame pieces of one as the basis for my modified macro flash.

It’s the opposite problem of when I shoot birds, and when I want to “extend” my flash a longer distance.  For birds, I have a “Better Beamer”, a simple yet very effective attachment to the flash that uses a Fresnel lens to focus light from the flash for a longer distance shot.  I actually had an extra bracket pair for my flash, so started wondering if I could use a modified Better Beamer setup for macro flash.

The idea…I just wanted something that could redirect the flash output.  The minimum focusing distance on my Canon 100mm 2.8L IS macro lens is a about a foot, so ideally I wanted something that would direct the light towards a very close object, but could also be used for a little bit longer distances (say 1 to 3 feet) that you might use for larger macro subjects like butterflies.  With a little aluminum foil, tape, and foam core board, I ended up making a surprisingly effective and easy to use macro flash setup.

Do-it-yourself macro flash

This is the basic modified Better Beamer components. The top is enclosed with foil-covered foam core. Another foil-covered foam core piece is positioned within the frame, directing the flash downward. The Better Beamer itself is also foil covered on the inside (OK, and outside because it was easier!) to better reflect the light from the flash.

I started with the Better Beamer frame pieces themselves.  They attach to the flash unit with Velcro, so it’s very easy to add or remove the Better Beamer setup.  What I needed was to direct the flash downward, towards a distance of about 1 foot from the lens.  I started by cutting a piece of foam core to fit exactly on the top of the flash unit, between the Better Beamer frame, and layered it with with aluminum foil.  This basically encloses the top of the ad-hoc macro flash unit.  With the top enclosed, I then wanted another foil-covered foam-core piece to fit within the frame, but at an angle that would direct the flash downward towards a subject about a foot away from the camera lens.  With the modified Better Beamer on the flash unit, and with the flash on the camera, I calculated a rough angle the piece would have to be at inside the frame, cut a foam core piece to fit, covered it with foil, and put it in place.  I also covered the Better Beamer frame itself with foil.  With this simple setup, the “normal” flash goes into the semi-enclosed unit, and is deflected downwards towards a close subject.

After trying it out, I was thrilled with the results!  For macro shooting in natural light, you often need a well-lit, bright subject or you won’t have enough shutter speed to get a sharp photo.  With the flash, I can make the flash the primary source of light, and given the very short burst of light from a Canon Speedlight, shutter speed itself isn’t as important and you can “stop the action” and get a crisp shot fairly easily.  With the flash set in the 90-degree position, with the flash pointing straightforward, the angle inside is perfect for bouncing flash towards a subject close to minimum focusing distance.  For a bit of a longer distance shot, the angle deflects the light downward too quickly, but with the 430EX flash, you can tilt the flash unit upward.  It’s thus very simple to use for a range of macro distances.  While the initial shots were very well lit and sharp, I made one more modification to diffuse the light from the flash.  With the simple bounce set-up, with the flash light deflected off the aluminum foil, the shots were well lit, but sometimes a bit contrasty and harsh.  I wanted a simple diffuser to soften the light, so just took a piece of thin white cloth and stretched it across the bottom of the modified flash setup.  It worked wonderfully to avoid the harshness of the un-diffused flash.

DIY Macro Flash Diffuser

The final piece of the puzzle, a bit of white cloth stretched across the bottom of the unit. The flash must pass through the cloth, diffusing the light and providing a more pleasing image.

Very simple, took me perhaps an hour to put together, and it saved me $500!  No, it’s not as elegant as Canon’s ring flash.  In fact, it’s definitely the ugliest piece of camera equipment I now have!  But it’s worked wonderfully, as I get to keep the wonderful ETTL (electronic “through-the-lens”) flash metering of my 430 EXII, and with the Better Beamer frame as the base, the modified flash components are easily removed when I’m not shooting macro.

I do suspect that if I keep up my interest in macro, that I will give in and get the ring flash unit some day.  But for now, my DIY macro flash diffuser is working quite well.

New Macro Photo Page

Feather - Birds have these

A tiny feather I saw stuck on a tree branch this morning. I hear “birds” have feathers. Might want to try photographing one someday. It’s kind of telling the mode I’m in right now, when I got out with a goal of actually shooting birds, yet in my macro-mania, I instead come back with a macro photo of a bird feather.

I went out with my 400mm lens today.  Truly, truly I did.  Truly, truly I meant to photograph a bird, and break free of my recent macro obsession.

In fact, I DID take a photo of a bird.  A small Empidonax flycatcher of undetermined species.  There aren’t many bird species I can’t immediately ID by sight, but these guys are.  I thought it was kind of fitting that while I’m in my bird photo rut, the one nice bird photo I got today was of the one group of birds I have a hard time ID’ing.

I did get a lot more macro photos though!  I’m rapidly filling up my hard drive with unprocessed macro photos. They now sit there alongside all my bezillion bird photos that sit on my hard drive, longing for the day when they’ll see the light of day.  To facilitate the processing of the macro photos though, I did finally set up an official macro photo page on my main website.  You can access it here:


Macro Photo Gallery


More Macro Madness

Someone told me there are still creatures out there.  Beautiful creatures, flying around.  With feathers.  I believe these creatures are called “birds”. When I’ve gone out to take photos lately, every once in a while as I’m staring intently at a tiny patch of ground or scouring an individual leaf for a buggy critter to photograph, I hear one, or even see one. Maybe someday I’ll try taking a photograph of one.

In short…I’m still having fun with my new macro lens! One of the things that attracted me to birds when I first started in photography 15 years ago was the sheer variety.. Particularly as a “new” birder and photographer, you just never knew what you might come across on a given trip.  That’s obviously the case with macro photography.  I’m finding I never go more than a few miles from our house, and indeed, many times I never leave our yard.  There’s just so much to explore and photograph when you “think small”.

Some more recent macro photos below:

Non-biting Midge, Genus Axarus, Species Group festivusHarvestman speciesSpotted Cucumber Beetle - PhotoLeaf Beetle - Paria Species - PhotoMonarch Butterfly Caterpillar - PhotoPhoto of Ambush BugLeafcutter Bee - MegachileCarpenter Ant, tending aphidsPhoto of Garden SpiderPhoto of Clouded Plant Bug - NeurocolpusClouded Sulphur - Butterfly - PhotoCoenagrionidae DamselflyTiger Crane Fly - Nephrotoma


Birds & the Bees – Identification challenges

Carpenter Bee species

A (new favorite!) photo of a Carpenter bee on a bloom. The species of Carpenter Bee? Uh…WHOA…would you look at the time…uh…I gotta run, I’ll catch up to you later!!

When I started photography 15 years ago and started shooting birds, I knew absolutely nothing about my subject matter.  Species identification?  Hah!  For the first several months I was constantly bugging my friend Jim at work with identification questions, showing him photo after photo while he patiently helped me identify birds.  After this much time, I’ve photographed most birds you could expect to find in South Dakota, and I have very little trouble identifying birds from sight or from a photo (by ear is another matter…).

It did take a while though to become proficient in bird identification.  After all, there are about 430 species that have been seen in South Dakota.  Now as I’m getting into macro photography, i”m having the same issue with insects and spiders, but the magnitude of the problem is MUCH worse!  In the continental U.S. and Canada, there have been over 900 different bird species sighted, including many stray birds, and many pelagic birds you’d never see unless you were off the coast some distance.  In the U.S. alone, there are over 4,000 BEE SPECIES ALONE!!! Many insect species are also differentiated from each other by only very small ID keys. In other words…it’s DAMNED hard to nail many insects down to a given species.

I’m not satisfied taking a bird photo, but not knowing the exact species.  With macro photography and insects…I’m going to HAVE to be satisfied in most cases not knowing the exact species, but perhaps only arriving at the basic genus that species belongs to.  The photo above of a Carpenter Bee (I think!!) is a good example.  There are over 500 species of Carpenter Bees worldwide. .But as soon as I took this photo and looked at it on my screen yesterday, I knew it was instantly one of my favorite  photos!

And that’s going to have to be good enough, as I may NEVER know the exact species shown here…

The “eyes” have it!

Insect eyes

The “money shot”, getting critical focus and attention on an insect’s head and eyes. This is a crop, showing a small part of the entire image, yet you can still see incredible detail in a feature on an insect’s head that can’t be more than a millimeter or two in size.

Eye contact.  There’s just something about photography, and eyes.  Many times you can have the most technically perfect photo possible, but it still may fail in the eyes of a viewer if the main subject isn’t making eye contact with the camera.

It’s awfully hard to tell whether an insect is making eye contact with you!!  However, the success or failure of a macro shot of an insect is also heavily influenced by how well you captured the eye. I have a friend at work who is also heavily into photography.  He doesn’t shoot birds or macro, yet when I started showing him photos of what I’ve been doing with the new lens, he immediately said “zoom up, let’s see the detail in that eye!!”.  When shooting macro, you have such a tiny, tiny depth-of-field (the portion of the image that’s in focus).  In most cases, the photographer needs to decide what part of the photo is going to have critical focus, and what parts are going to be blurred.  And in most cases, the choice of the photographer is easy…put the critical focus on the eyes and head.

Thus, the choice to show a variety of buggy eyes for this morning’s post!  Many of these insects are tiny little critters, half an inch long or less, so these photos don’t represent the full-frame shot from my Canon 70D and Canon 100mm 2.8L IS lens.  These are all “cropped” shots, yet it gives you some indication of the detail you can extract with this set up, when a zoomed-up, cropped photo of an insects eye shows such good detail.

As always, click on any photograph for a larger view.

Insect eyes Insect eyes Insect eyes Insect eyes Insect eyes

Macro Quiz #1 – What am I?

Macro Quiz #1 - What am I?

What am I? Think small!  Click on the image if you want a closer view.

I haven’t posted in a few days as I’ve been struggling with a dry eye thing (I have Sjogren’s Syndrome, of which dry eye is one “feature”).  Makes it awfully hard to go out and shoot photos, given how blurry my vision can be, especially as the day goes on.  No photography, and I lose my motivation to post much on the blog. I’m starting to feel better, and hopefully it keeps trending this way, given that symptoms seem to wax and wane.

I did get out and shoot some this weekend.  Again, I’m playing with the new macro lens (Canon 100mm 2.8L IS). Hey, what can I say!!  I’ve got photos now of practically every bird I’m likely to see in South Dakota, and I admit it’s hard to get excited to shoot photos of a species for the 161st and 162nd time!  The macro thing came along at a good moment, as I can still go out and go birding, still get out and walk and enjoy nature, yet have new and exciting subjects.  I’m still mostly shooting insects, but when you start thinking “small”, there are SO many other things you can shoot.  Seeing and shooting patterns in the macro world is almost as fun as shooting lil’ critters.

With my entry into the macro world, I thought I’d start a new blog category…macro quizzes!  Challenge number 1…what is this a photo of?  At first glance to me, it could be siding on a house, but….we’re talking macro!  Think small!

A macro kind-o-day

A hover fly on a thistle bloom.  These guys aren't very big, but it gives you a good idea of the kind of image you can get with just the "base" Canon 100mm 2.8L IS lens, with no additional extension tubes, teleconverters, or close-up filters.  A real joy of a lens to use!

A hover fly on a thistle bloom. These guys aren’t very big, but it gives you a good idea of the kind of image you can get with just the “base” Canon 100mm 2.8L IS lens, with no additional extension tubes, teleconverters, or close-up filters. A real joy of a lens to use!

Alright this is too fun.  As I often do, I slipped out of the house very early Sunday morning to get a little birding in.  The plan was just to stay in the local area, hoping to find some migrating shorebirds.  I headed west of Sioux Falls, and while there were shorebirds scattered around in various locations, I wasn’t having a speck of luck in terms of photographing them.

Macro to the rescue!  Not wanting to come home empty handed of photos, I spent an hour or so photographing little critters.  While birds may or may not be cooperative, depending upon the day, I’m quickly finding that it’s pretty easy to find a willing subject shooting insects with my macro lens.  About 5 minutes after I decided to try to shoot macro, I came across a patch of purple flowers (aster(?), along with some scattered thistle and clover) growing along the side of the road.  I pulled over and ended up spending most of the next hour sitting along the side of the road by one small patch of flowers.

Consperse Stink Bug

A (Consperse?) Stink bug on a thistle bloom. A week ago, before getting the new macro lens, I never would have imagined I’d be out on the internet, trying to identify the exact species of stink bug I was seeing!

Given that I’m still new to shooting buggies, I’m sure I’ll adapt in terms of the kinds of areas I choose to shoot, but for now as I’m learning, it’s hard to beat a nice patch of flowers.  There are of course all the different pollinators, and I’m also quickly learning just what a variety of pollinators there are! I’m having a hard time putting a name to a lot of them at this stage, other than “honeybee”, “bumblebee”, or…”buggy-like thing”.  The diversity, color, and beauty of these little critters is certainly blowing me away though.

It’s not just pollinators I’m trying to shoot.  I’ll gladly take any willing subject that crosses my path.  This same flower patch also was chock-full of very young grasshoppers, of at least 2 or 3 different species.  Milkweed bugs were around, as were a few other beetles, stinkbugs, ants, and others.  A cornucopia of photography subjects!  And for the most part, such willing subjects compared to birds!

What started out as a birding and bird photo day, saved by macro buggies!  Click on the images for larger views.

BeetleGrasshopperDifferential GrasshopperHoneybeeMilkweed BugEastern Forktail

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