Shooting deadly Portuguese Man o' War

First of all, my apologies for the teaser. While Portuguese Man o' War (Physalia physalis) can inflict extremely painful stings, they are very rarely lethal. 

Contrary to popular belief, the Portuguese Man o' War is not a jellyfish. Rather, they are colonial organisms known as siphonophores, which are comprised of several types of genetically identical individuals called zooids, each having its own form and function.

Some of the zooids form the tentacles that are used for stinging (dactylozooids), others can digest food (gastrozooids) and a third type is used for reproduction (gonozooids). The fourth type of zooid - an overgrown polyp  known as pneumatophore, develops into an air-filled bell that allows the whole colony to stay afloat and sail with the wind
All these zooids complement each other in such a finely orchestrated way that the colony behaves as a single unit.

Portuguese Man o' War with stinging tentacles
280mm, 1/600s, F/5.6, ISO 800

The Portuguese Man o' War is quite an obvious animal to spot on the water surface, making it easily avoidable. The stinging cells, called cnidocytes, are located exclusively on the tentacles and contain organelles known as nematocysts that can fire tiny, venomous harpoons. On the other hand, the gas-filled bell is completely harmless.

Most of the concern resides in the length of the tentacles, which can be over 20 metres long, allowing the animals to reach a considerable distance from its conspicuous float.

Beautiful and colourful, these hydroids are extremely photogenic and the story I want to tell you is about a series of Portuguese Man o' War pictures I took seconds apart, on the 15th June 2016.
That day I was on a Whale Watching boat off Pico Island in the Azores and, while waiting for a Sperm whale to surface, I had about 15 minutes to kill. That is when I noticed some Portuguese Man o' War floating around our vessel.

Most of the images I took that day just sat on my hard drive doing nothing. In fact, I ended up with only two keepers. The first one is the shot you have just seen above. It met some moderate success in terms of views on my Portfolio Website and sales as a small print, along with receiving an editor's pick on GuruShots.

The second photograph ended up being one of my most successful images ever, as it was commended as Top 50 in the World in the wildlife category by the judges of the Sony World Photography Awards 2017.
Here is my lucky shot:

Portuguese Man o' War280mm, 1/600s, F/5.6, ISO 400

This image was also picked by the World Photo Organisation, along with other 16 pictures, to celebrate #WorldWildlifeDay (mine is the second image from the top in the linked page, but I suggest you check them all because I reckon they are worth a couple of minutes of your time).

While I strongly believe this photograph is far superior to the first one, they enjoyed almost the same number of views on my website. This brings up the following question: can you predict the success of your pictures? 

The Sony World Photography Awards being the biggest photo competition in the world, award-winning images receive quite a bit of  attention. I guess this is why more people that I could possibly imagine asked me to show what the original file looked like.

Since the whole aim of me writing this blog is to share my experience, I do not see why I should hide it (although most photographers do not show they original files, often for reasons I fully understand and agree with).
Here we go, the original file of my famous Portuguese Man o' War made public for the first time!


Awarded Portuguese Man o' War, unprocessed file

Apart from being uncropped, I guess we can all agree the original photograph is very similar to the final image. The abstract look of my Portuguese Man o' War does not come from the post-processing. Rather, I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Amazingly smooth seas and tiny, non-breaking wavelets made for the unique double reflection.

Some people believe top shots can only be taken with very expensive gear.
With all respect, I think I am fully entitled to disagree. Here is what I used to photograph all of the Portuguese Man o' War you see in this page, including the one that was commended at the Sony World Photography Awards 2017:

CAMERA: Sony Alpha 77 Mark II (about 1000 Euro)
LENS: Tamron SP AF 70-300mm F/4-5.6 Di USD (about 350 Euro)

If you think that using an APS-C camera and third party lenses is going to hold your photography back... well, think again!
Nowadays, almost all cameras are good enough to take great shots. What is more important is the subject, the composition and, of course, the photographer.

In this case, the perfect composition was there to be captured only for a fleeting moment, literally, less than a second.
As a proof, look at the shots below:


Picture A: 300mm, 1/1600s, F/5.6, ISO 320
 
Picture B: 280mm, 1/1600s, F/5.6, ISO 320

 Picture C: 300mm, 1/1600s, F/5.6, ISO 320

 

 Picture D: 280mm, 1/1600s, F/5.6, ISO 400


To my taste, there is nothing particularly interesting about Picture A and Picture B, which were taken 2 minutes before the award-winning shot. 

Picture C, in the bottom left corner, was taken right after the first two, at 12:54:03. The subject was still too far away from me and, overall, the shot is not appealing. However, you can see how the blue of the ocean at the bottom of the frame was starting to get more intense and pleasing. Promising!

After a couple of minutes, I took Picture D, the shot you see at the bottom right corner (12:56:10). It is quite similar to my top shot, except the second reflection above the Portuguese Man o' War was still missing entirely - definitely a crucial point in favour of the awarded image.

Believe it or not (and I swear it is true), the timestamp of my top shot is again 12:56:10, the same as for Picture D. This means things changed and got a lot more dramatic within less than a second!

As a further note, all images in this page were taken at ISO between 320 and 800, in shutter speed priority mode at 10 frames/second, letting my camera choose the ISO value within a set range of 100-800.
This may help in case you wanted to replicate my results and shows there is no reason to shoot only at ISO 100. In fact, sometimes you should bump the ISO to reduce noise!

As for the focal length and aperture, if you are an APS-C shooter, you can use my settings exactly as they are indicated above. On the other hand, if you shoot full frame, do not forget to correct for my crop factor (1.5).
For example, an aperture of 5.6 on my camera corresponds to (5.6 x 1.5) = 8.4 on your camera.
The same apply to focal length: 300mm on my Sony Alpha 77 Mark II (APS-C) corresponds to 450mm on a full frame camera.

There is another article in my blog where I discuss the differences between full frame and APS-C.

I hope you enjoyed reading this!

Ciao for now,
Enrico

The 500 Rule of Astrophotography

When shooting stars and the Milky Way in particular, you can use the so called 500 Rule to calculate the longest exposure time (shutter speed) that still allows you to avoid star trails.


Baia das Caldeirinhas, Faial, Azores, Portugal
(Sony A77ii, Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM Art, 18mm, 18s, F/1.8, ISO 2000)

Since our planet spins around its axis, we move relative to the stars. As a consequence, keeping the shutter open for too long will result in stars trailing in your pictures, as opposed to looking like dots. 

While star trails are sometimes a desirable feature, more often than not photographers try to avoid them and prefer to capture well-defined, sharp stars. 

If stars were visible during the day, trailing would not be an issue, as we could always use a fast enough shutter speed to avoid them. However, we can only photograph stars at night, making long exposures a necessity if we are to avoid underexposing our images or, worst case scenario, even ending up with a completely black shot.

This is when the 500 Rule comes in handy, as it lets us calculate the maximum number of seconds we can keep the shutter open before star trails will begin to appear.

In case you are new to night photography and wondering what star trails actually look like, I took for you an almost 4-minute long exposure of Mount Pico at night, which you can see below. 


Mount Pico (2351 metres), Pico Island, Azores, Portugal
225 seconds exposure (almost 4 minutes)

Here is how the 500 Rule works.

500 Rule (Expression 1):

Max. shutter speed = 500 / focal length

Example 1 -
Imagine you are shooting at a focal length of 16mm => Max. shutter speed = 500 / 16 = 31.25 seconds.
In other words, you can shoot a 31 second exposure and still have sharp stars. Any longer than that and star trails will begin to appear.

Easy, right? Well, I wish it was that easy. Things are slightly more complicated, mainly because there are 3 types of photographers with respect to this rule:

  1. Type 1: those who never heard about the 500 Rule (well, some more do now!).
  2. Type 2: those who know about the 500 Rule, but they do not know how to apply it correctly (believe me, there are still lots of them out there).
  3. Type 3: those who know exactly how to apply the 500 rule.

If you are a Type 3 photographer, I guess there is nothing here for you to learn, unless you think you know everything but, in fact, you do not. Keep reading to find it out!

If you are a Type 1 photographer and you have a full frame camera, Expression 1 (see above) is all you need.

If you are an APS-C shooter, like I am, or a Micro 4/3 shooter, you are more likely to be a Type 2 photographer, because Expression 1 is what you are likely to find in most websites and texts, except it does not work as is for crop sensor cameras.

No big deal. The expression simply needs to be corrected to account for crop factor of your camera, which leads us to the more general Expression 2:

500 Rule (Expression 2):

Max. shutter speed = 500 / (focal length x crop factor)

The crop factor for APS-C sensors is 1.5, with the notable exception of Canon, for which the crop factor is 1.6 (i.e. Canon makes  slightly smaller APS-C sensors).

The crop factor for Micro 4/3 is 2.

For full frame cameras, the crop factor is 1, which means the sensor is not cropped. I guess this is why we call it FULL frame!

As a further example, I will show you how I calculated the shutter speed for my Milky Way shot of the Bay of Caldeirinhas (Faial Island, Azores).
My camera is a Sony A77ii (ILCA-77M2) and has a 1.5 crop factor. My lens of choice was a Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM Art and I took the shot at 18mm.
The important fact here is that lens manufacturers always indicate focal length as a full frame equivalent value.
Therefore, 18mm on my Sony APS-C camera is not as wide as it would be on a full frame camera and corresponds to 18mm x 1.5 = 27mm.
It is absolutely crucial to take this into account when applying the 500 Rule to crop sensor cameras.

Example 2 -
Shooting at 18mm on a Sony APS-C camera => Max. shutter speed = 500 / (18 x 1.5) = 18.52 seconds

To be conservative, I rounded the shutter speed to 18 seconds rather than 19.

Failing to take the crop factor into account would have led me to think I could shoot a 27 second exposure and still get no star trails (500 / 18 = 27.7, rounded to 27 to be conservative). No way!

Please keep in mind that the 500 Rule is a rule of thumb. That said, it does work very well.

You probably noticed by now that the maximum shutter speed calculated with the 500 Rule is solely a function of the focal length. In particular, it is not affected by the aperture and the ISO.
While this is absolutely true, not all combinations of apertures and ISO will produce an acceptable Milky Way image.

In most cases, your camera will struggle to gather enough light and you will find yourself cranking the ISO more than you wanted to, along with shooting wide open (lowest possible F-stop for our lens).
Remember: you cannot increase the shutter speed any further or you will get star trails. Hence, aperture and ISO are the only two variables you can play with in the attempt to produce a correctly exposed image.

This is the main reason why I purchased the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8, which is arguably the best lens ever made for APS-C cameras. It lets me shoot at a maximum aperture of... 2.7!
Why 2.7 and not 1.8? Confused?? You are not alone.
This is indeed the single, most misunderstood truth about APS-C and Micro 4/3 camera: with crop sensors, you have to multiply both the focal length AND the aperture by the crop factor
In this case: 1.8 x 1.5 = 2.7.

To learn more about it and understand why shooting the Milky Way with no star trails is one of the few fields of photography where my gear (as an APS-c shooter) is actually holding me back, you can read my post on why I do not need a full frame camera

That is pretty much it, ragazzi!

If you enjoyed reading, please pick a time to like and share.

Cheers,
Enrico

Landscape photographers: Never do what I did

Landscape photographers should always stick to their plan.
In particular, if you have to travel to get the image you want, it will take so much work and resources to get that shot that it would be silly to change plan at the very last second just because you suddenly see something potentially more appealing.
Basically, doing so would be equivalent to trading down days, weeks, sometimes even months of careful planning for an entirely new idea that crosses your mind out of the blue.

I was on Faial Island (Azores) to capture two images of the Bay of Caldeirinhas, the first at sunset (my main goal, click here to see it) and the second with the Milky Way in the background (click here to see it).

Long before I went to Faial, I wrote in a note that I should strictly follow two indications, so important to be considered rules:
1) Set up my tripod exactly as planned and never move it during the shoot (which is essential if I want to be able to blend several exposures to create my final image).
2) Start shooting with my camera in landscape orientation, to only switch to portrait orientation when done with the sunset picture (so that I could capture more of the sky in the Milky Way shot) .

These rules are the take-home lesson from this post, along with an extra one: do not trust photographers, as they often do not practise what they preach.
Especially me. I mean, in particular, you should not trust me. 

I could not take my eyes off an amazing cloud I saw behind me and, after I spent ten minutes staring at it, I took my camera off the tripod and shot it handheld.
It all happened well before I was done shooting my scene at sunset, thus breaking the second rule.

Was it worth it? Considering that I have rarely seen such a cloud in my life, well... it was probably worth it.
But what if I had missed the shot I really wanted? Would it have been worth it?
My answer is no.

I know what you think. The risk was low. That's what I thought too but, still... 

Would YOU have taken your camera off the tripod to shoot the cloud instead of THIS?
I am curious to know. Comments, emails, even smoke signs are welcome.

Cheers,
Enrico