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!


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,

I had no clue what I was doing with my camera...

... and neither had my camera, of course!
Back in 2011, all I could do was grab a camera and set a high shutter speed to capture fast moving subjects. I did not know what aperture was, I ignored the effect of ISO on images, depth of field was a mystery to me. Overall, photography was not something I was into.
At the same time, I did love the pictures some other people were taking and, deep inside myself, I wished I could achieve the same results. This is probably why one cloudy day in October 2015 I decided to learn more, A LOT MORE about photography and the software to post-process my images.
One of the most important thing I have learned is the following:
In order to capture the maximum amount of data from the scene you are shooting, make sure your camera is set to save the images in RAW format rather than JPEG.
JPEGS are fine if you do not plan to have maximum flexibility in post-production, to do things like opening up the shadows, bring down the highlights or set the white balance. If you think your straight-out-of-camera JPEGS are unprocessed, clean files... well, I hate to break it to you but you could not be more WRONG. A lot of automated post-processing is performed by your camera according to the manufacturer’s specs and it all happens before you even see the photo for the first time on your camera’s LCD!
So, here comes the point: why should you let your camera do the post-processing for you? I would rather do it myself according to my taste.

Look at the unprocessed picture below:
The right eye of the bison is not clearly visible (too dark!), the white balance is off (too much yellow and orange) and the composition is not very convincing, with the subject in the dead centre and that bit of an adult bison on the left hand side of the image, which I now find distracting. Also, filling the frame a little more by cropping the image would help make the bison calf stand out.

Now look at the post-processed version of the shot:
Isn’t it a much more compelling shot?
RAW files are notoriously very neutral and they definitely require some post-processing. Personally, I do not feel like I retouched my image in a negative sense - i.e. making it unreal. Rather, I think I made a better use of the data that my camera sensor was able to collect.
Of course, if I had known more about photography back in 2011, I could have captured much better images in-camera. But truth is you cannot change the past! At least, having followed the advice to shoot RAW, I was able to recover and sometimes literally salvage some of my shots, such as this bison calf that I encountered during my first visit to Yellowstone National Park in 2011, well before I could dare to call myself a photographer.
Cheers, Enrico