Taking bad (but fair) shots of critters

I finally managed to get a picture of my friend Spider Pico, the guardian of my garden.
Spider Pico is not an easy subject to photograph. First of all, I am not a macro photographer (although this image was taken with a 1:1 macro lens). Second, he (or she??) is very often on the move and I would never do anything to make animals sluggish, let alone remove them from their habitat just to take a better photograph.  

That's Nature
The Guardian of my Garden - 90mm, 1/30s (handheld), F13, ISO 800
CAMERA: Sony Alpha 77ii - LENS: Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro

The day before yesterday Spider Pico was taking a nap (I think) and I managed to get a few hand-held shots of him, each one with a different focal plane. I then aligned the exposures in Photoshop and combined them using a technique known as focus stacking.

Had Spider Pico slept a little longer, I would have got some more legs in focus.
No big deal for me. That is Nature and I love it as it is!

Cheers,
Enrico

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

Behind the shot: Bay of Caldeirinhas

If you don't want to read the story and just want to see my final image, scroll down the page past the first picture.

In April 2017, I visited Faial for three days to shoot Capelinhos, the volcano at the very end of Europe.
During the last day of my stay, I knew I was going to take the ferry back to Pico before sunset and therefore decided to simply wonder around and scout for future shoots.

Below you see one of the pictures I took of the Baía das Caldeirinhas in harsh, unflattering light.


Bay of Caldeirinhas - snapshot

There were two things I very much liked about Caldeirinhas:

1) The water in the bay was so transparent that I could see the seafloor in its shallows, a characteristic I knew I could greatly enhance by using a polarising filter at sunset. Why at sunset? Because the bay faces South and the sun sets at 90° to it - i.e. West. In case you did not know, you get the maximum effect of glare removal with a polarising filter when the sun is 90° to either side of your lens.
On the other hand, the effect is very small or zero when the sun is right in front or behind you. 

2) The Baía das Caldeirinhas is a no-access Marine Protected Area, giving me extra motivation to portrait its beauty through my photography.

I started to plan my sunset shot of Caldeirinhas as soon as I got back to Pico.
Of course, any day with a potential for a nice sunset could have worked. However, I thought it would be a good idea to also try to shoot the Milky Way above the horizon, which requires dark skies (no moon or no much of it, basically).
Due to several factors, such as bad weather, too bright skies and being busy with other things, I only went back to Faial on the 24th July 2017.

The weather forecast looked nice but, as soon as I boarded the ferry from Pico to Faial, it started to rain. The sky cleared during navigation and, when I arrived in Faial, the weather was even too nice: not a single cloud in Caldeirinhas, which was a hit to my hope for a nice sunset shot.
I knew I should not worry too much, though. The weather in the Azores can change so quickly that you should better be quick at complaining about it :-) 
Indeed, after a short drive to my location, I found myself again in a light drizzle.
Fortunately, it did not last long and around 8pm I got set up, ready for the golden hour to happen.

I knew already I was going to shoot at 18mm. Since I am an APS-C shooter, it is the full frame equivalent of 27mm. Furthermore, I knew I wanted to shoot lower than in the snapshot above, especially in case I had a nice sky, so that I could include more of it.
Last, but not least, I wanted the water to be very smooth and I therefore planned to use a 6-stop neutral density filter, along with the polariser.

This is the shot I got. Click it to see the picture on my portfolio website:


Baía das Caldeirinhas - final shot

I must say that I am happy with my image.

I shoot this exact scene for almost 4 hours, all the way from before sunset to complete dark. I did that because I knew my final shot was going to be a blend of at least two exposures:
1) A long exposure for everything but the sky, so that I could get very silky waters (6-stop neutral density filter + polarising filter)
2) A second, much shorter shot to expose correctly for the sky (no filters).

There is a time when you first think of a picture you would like to take. At the beginning, it is just in your mind. Then you start planning the shot and, if you are lucky, one day you will capture the image you dreamt about for so long.

When that happens, it is hard for me to describe the feeling of accomplishment and it is definitely the aspect of photography that motivates me the most.

Later on that night I tried to shoot the Milky Way. I knew its Galactic Centre (the brightest part of it) would appear above the horizon from about 11pm. But this is another story...

Cheers,
Enrico