It is all about the background…

I am constantly striving to make my images better reflect the beauty and wonder of the natural world around me.  People often ask me what camera settings I am using to take the photos that I take.  To me that is missing most of the point.  Of course it is nice to be able to take a picture that is correctly exposed and in focus, and without that, the image is less likely to reflect the natural beauty you are trying to convey.  It is necessary, but not sufficient, to have a technically correct image.  Much more important is how the image displays the subject in its environment.  It is important to consider all the stuff that is in the frame but that in itself is not the subject – stuff like colour, light, shade, distractions, shadows, bright spots and so on.  If it doesn’t enhance the subject of the image, then how can you alter the picture in some way so that it does.  Most importantly, can it give the feeling that you get when you are viewing the subject.

In short, you need to disengage the technical side of your brain and engage the artistic side and tie the image you are taking into the emotions you are feeling.  What are you feeling and what is it about what you are seeing that makes you feel like that.  What makes you gasp, draw your breath, say “Wow!”.

I can’t claim to have mastered this, but these images give some idea of how I am thinking when I take a picture.

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The first image (above) is wild carrot flower in our meadow.  This is a plant that I love, so it was important to show not only the delicate nature of the plant, but also the way in which it blends so gracefully with the meadow.  I did this by ensuring that the depth of field was sufficiently small to blur the background but not so narrow as to make it completely free from texture.  There is the feeling here of something, and the angle of the shadows reflects the angle of the wild carrot plant, as if they are all moving in the same breeze.  The lighting is warm evening light, and that was important, but the wild carrot itself stands out because I have placed it in front of an area of shadow.

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This image is of rosebay willow herb in our woods near sunset.  I loved the way in which the sun picked out and backlit the flowers, making them seem lit up from the inside.  However there were a lot of trees in the background which could have been very distracting, so I made sure the depth of field was very narrow, and this led to a nice circular bokeh.  Placing the bright part of the flower by the bright part of the background really draws the eye to this part of the image.

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This little damselfly is perched on a reed stem by one of our ponds.  I have many pictures of damselflies with a nice green background, but here I noticed that other plants in the background gave a variety of colours – green, yellow, red=brown and blue.  By placing this out of focus, it looks as if I have applied a rainbow filter of some kind to the image – in fact this is a completely natural look.  The only editing done here is the usual slight adjustment of the RAW image for white balance, noise, sharpness and minor tweaks to the exposure.

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Here my eye was drawn to the amazing sparkles on the pond behind the dragonfly.  The dragonfly is perched on a fairly ordinary piece of dead reed stem, but the sparkles behind make it look like it is sitting in front of Christmas lights.  It is a completely natural effect due to the way in which the image was taken.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sometimes pulling away from your subject makes it stand out more.  This is a dragonfly perched on a reed stem at one of our ponds.  What I have done here is make use of the backlighting to make it stand out, but also use the lovely patchwork of colour produced by the evening light on the foliage in the background to enhance the image further.  It looks a bit like an impressionist painting.  Again, this is a natural effect, with only minor routine editing of the RAW file.

These aren’t perfect images by any means, just a set of pictures I took in the last week or two.  I can criticise each of them.  But I hope it illustrates what I am thinking when I take a picture, and how the background can make the difference between a pretty ordinary image and one that stands out a bit from the crowd.

A Tour Around the Woods

Our woods are probably at their most beautiful during the spring. This week we welcomed the Royal Forestry Society here on a visit, and I filmed some video as we went round, adding some stills and a commentary afterwards. This really gives you a feel for the woods and their wildlife. It lasts about 11 minutes, but in reality it takes about an hour to walk round.

Photographing Insects – my approach

Common blues

Mating pair of common blue butterflies – backlit

I love photographing insects.  Not just the showy ones, but the small and insignificant ones too.  Butterflies, dragonflies, moths, damselflies, overflies, ladybirds, bugs, flies – all of them are interesting and challenging.

Equipment

Actually, I use very simple equipment, but insect photography IS one of those specialist areas where it does help to have the right equipment – a digital SLR and a macro lens.  I have my SLR (Canon EOS5D Mark III), and a few lenses, of which my favourite is the 100mm f2.8L IS Macro.  I also have a 70-300mm f4 L IS zoom and a 300mm f2.8L IS prime lens.  The 300mm is big and heavy, and I don’t use it often.  I stick to the first two lenses which I can carry easily.  The 100mm lens is absolutely without compare in terms of image quality, but does require you to get pretty close to your subject if you want the insect to appear a decent size.  It is also f2.8, which gives the opportunity to blur out the background if you wish.  The 300mm zoom or prime have the advantage of a longer reach, which is useful for shots over water, or where the insects are easily-disturbed.  The disadvantage is that the longer reach is no advantage if there is undergrowth in the way, and there often is.  It is also harder to hand-hold.

A lot of people use a tripod or monopod to reduce camera shake.  I don’t do this for three reasons.  First, I have a serious illness (cystic fibrosis) and my breathing isn’t good.  Carrying a tripod and monopod on top of the heavy camera and spare lens really tests my breathing, so I tend to avoid it.  Second, I find tripods or monopods tend to restrict your viewpoint.  You set it up and then can’t be bothered to adjust, particularly if you are close to the insects, which means that you aren’t as flexible with your viewpoint, and consequently with your background, lighting and everything else, as you can be if you hand hold.  Finally, the problem with insects is that they are often moving, or what they are perched on is moving, and a tripod doesn’t help with this at all.

The other thing worth considering is a circular polarising filter – this allows you to make adjustable changes to the way in which reflections are handled in your pictures.  Particularly when photographing over water, it can be nice both to show reflections and also minimise them, for example when you are trying to get a picture of an ovipositing female dragonfly.

Southern hawker

Southern hawker dragonfly by our pond

Finally, it is worth learning how to use the non-auto features on your camera: aperture-priority to control depth of field in your pictures, shutter-speed priority to freeze motion for in-flight shots, and manual focus to get focus on exactly the right plane, exactly on the right part of the insect – usually the eyes, but sometimes the root of the wings or other parts.

Learn how to approach

The first difficulty with insects is getting close to them (apart from mosquitoes, which like to get close to you all the time!).  They have good eyesight, and are very sensitive to motion, not to mention sound, vibration and smell.  You can’t just go crashing through the grass, waving your camera around, and hope to get a decent photo, or indeed, get anywhere near them.  I find the key is to move very slowly, no matter how tempting it can be to get in quickly before the insect goes.  It might disappear anyway, but is much more likely to disappear if you rush.  It is useful to practice the Tai-Chi way of walking which is quiet and smooth.  Also, use the wind, if there is any and time your movements to coincide with gusts of wind.  It is also worth learning how to squat or kneel very slowly, quietly and smoothly – doing very slow squats isn’t easy, particularly with a heavy camera.  It is worth practising this  without taking photos, until you can do it well.

Remember, they can smell you too – so it might be worth remembering this when preparing to go out and avoiding things like smelly hair dressing, perfume, deodorant and of course, insect-repellent.

Viewpoint and Background

Once you have made the effort to get close to the insect, it is tempting to blast off a photo and be happy with that.  However you really do need to think more about it than that.  What viewpoint do you want?  Which bit of the insect do you want to feature?  Do you want to see it from behind, from the side, head-on, from below, above or on the level with the insect?  Do you want detail on the wings, or do you want the light shining through the wings?  This should be in your thoughts as you approach, so that you approach from the right direction, and get yourself on the right level to take the photo.

Emerald Damselfly

Emerald Damselfly – dark damselfly, bright background

Likewise, how do you want the background to appear?  Do you want it to be a blur, or do you want to show detail?  Do you want it to be dark or light, a complimentary colour or the same colour?  When you are close to a subject, a very slight adjustment in your position can make a large difference to the background.  Likewise, it is easier to blur the background when you are close than when further away (for any given aperture – it is down to distance ratio between subject, lens and sensor).  A very slight shift in your position can give the picture a totally different feel, if the subject allows it.

Common blue butterfly

Common blue butterfly in meadow

Lighting

Full-on front lighting is great to show details of the markings and structure of the insect, but try experimenting with other types of lighting including side and back-lighting, because these can give a very different feel, although getting the exposure right is more challenging.  Again, worth thinking of this before you approach the insect, so you can get set up in the right position.

Common darter dragonfly

Common darter dragonfly on a cane

Exposure

Getting exposure right can be challenging.  You may have a dark insect with a bright background such as sky, grass or water, or a pale insect against a dark background such as dark leaves or water, as well as challenging lighting, such as side or back-lighting.  It is worth becoming familiar with the exposure-compensation button on your camera, and learning to use it without moving your face from the camera.  This will allow you not only to make a best guess as to how much compensation is needed, but also to manually bracket the exposure so you get some insurance against having made and incorrect decision.  This is something that comes with practice, and is well worth it.  As a guide, if it is a dark insect on a light background, I usually over-expose by 2/3 a stop and then adjust – for the converse, I underexpose by 1/3 or 2/3 stop then adjust.  You can also adjust exposure to give a particular feel to a picture – over-exposed ethereal, or under-exposed and dark and menacing.

Banded Demoiselle

Banded Demoiselle – challenging exposure!

Some insects are surprisingly difficult to judge:  butterflies, for example, have very iridescent wings, and it can be hard to judge the exposure.  Common blues, for example, often need a surprising amount of under-exposure to get the colours correct, because of the reflections from their wing.  Ladybirds, also, tend to look very washed-out at correct exposure because of the reflective nature of their elytra (wing cases).

Male common blue showing iridescence

Male common blue showing iridescence

Learn to see the picture in your head

Finally, it is very helpful to practice seeing in your head what the final picture will look like, after you have taken it and processed it.  Visualise what you want to see.  What details do you want to see?  How do you want the colours to look – bright, subdued, deep and rich, pale and ethereal?  How do you want the balance of light and shade to look in the picture?    How do you want the background to look – detailed or blurred, bright or dark?  Which bit of the insect do you want the viewer to focus on?  How can you best compose the image so the viewer sees it through your eyes?  Is there anything you can do to draw attention to what interests you about the insect, or the setting in which it is placed?  How do you want the viewer to feel?  How do YOU feel?  Can you convey that feeling in your imagery?

Common darter shelters from the rain

Common darter on willow leaf, sheltering from the rain

You may disagree

This is my approach.  Many will disagree, and many will have their own, different, and equally-successful approach.  It works for me.  In 2014, a portfolio of my insect work reached the final round of Wildlife Photographer of the Year – not something to be sneezed-at, even though I didn’t win.  I hope it has given you something to think about, and provides some guidance for beginners.  Whatever you do, I hope you enjoy looking closely at insects, and getting into their weird and wonderful world.

Common darter in oak tree

Common darter in oak tree

Can insects be cute?

Damselfly on vetch

Damselfly on vetch

The phrase “cute” doesn’t usually apply to insects – furry and feathery creatures are often considered cute, but insects?  I think it is a question of how you view them, interact with them, and present them in your pictures.

Damselfly on vetch

It’s MINE – damselfly plays hide and seek, clinging on to vetch flower

Interact with insects?  Obviously, insects will fly off when disturbed, but can you really interact with them?  Certainly with damselflies, I’ve found it possible to play a game of peek-a-boo, the damselfly hiding behind a stem or leaf, and rotating round to try and stay out of sight, while peeking with one eye to see where I am.

Large Skipper

Large Skipper

Butterflies, too, can interact.  Perched on a flower, they may be trying to decide whether or not to trust you.  If you move a bit closer, the fore-wings may extend a bit, ready to take off, and then be tucked away again when you back off.  If they really trust you, they may go on feeding, allowing you to get pictures of their long extending proboscis and tongue.

Meadow brown butterfly on daisy

Meadow brown

Ladybirds are another interactive insect – again, often hiding just out of reach of the camera, stopping to assess the photographer, clean their face, and potter off on their business.

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

Ladybird peeking over the edge of a leaf

I think insects can be really very cute indeed, and that it is certainly possible to interact with them.  Try taking a closer look – you might be surprised!

Beautiful Dragonflies

Four spotted chaser

Four spotted chaser

Although I have enjoyed wildlife photography for many years, I have been mainly focused upon butterflies and birds.  It is only since we became the owners of Alvecote Wood and put in eleven ponds that my interest in dragonflies and damselflies has been ignited.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are really fascinating insects, belonging to a very ancient order of insects.  They also have a fascinating life cycle, with many species taking years to reach maturity, almost all of that time spent underwater in various stages of nymph, although some can complete a life cycle within a single year.  The adults that we see are thus the culmination of a long period of development, and their life span is rather short – just a few weeks at most.

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Although they need wet places, usually ponds, sometimes rivers, streams and canals, to breed, they can be seen a long way from those water bodies, and we often see them resting on leaves, trees, twigs and plants within our main woodland, some distance from the ponds. Most are predatory on smaller insects, worms, grubs and even small fish.

Damselflies ovipositing

Damselflies ovipositing

Our ponds have become home to an increasing range of species, although we have no uncommon species in our woods.  As with birds and butterflies, I take an interest in, and enjoy taking photographs of, the commoner species, as well as the rare ones – they are often surprising, with iridescent colours that glow in differing light, always changing, and always beautiful.  I could happily watch the numerous four-spotted chasers and emperors ranging over our ponds all day, defending their territories from all comers.  Most of them will perch and watch on dead stems of reeds and sedges emerging from the shallow water, although the common darter will also sit on a stick almost anywhere, including the canes that we use to stake our young trees.  The hawkers, too, will range into the woods where you can find hairy dragonfly, migrant hawker, southern hawker and brown hawker at different times of year.

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Blue-tailed Damselfly

Damselflies are much more delicate – they usually sit with wings folded, rather than out to the side, and both wings are similar size, whereas the dragonflies have one large wing and one smaller one on each side, rather like butterflies.  In summer there is a small cloud of little azure and large red damselflies, together with the beautiful and delicate blue-tailed damselflies, hovering over the ponds, mating, and depositing their eggs below the surface on submerged stems.  The larger damselflies such as emerald and the lovely banded demoiselle will range more widely and are often seen perched in the meadows or on twigs and saplings.  The increasing population of dragonflies and damselflies have themselves attracted predators in recent years, including the Hobby, a small falcon that feeds on them.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Dragonflies and damselflies are worth a closer look.  They are primeval, beautiful and always surprising.

Four Spotted Chaser

Four Spotted Chaser

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Large Red Damselfly

Banded Demoiselle

Male Banded Demoiselle

 

The value of ponds

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

If you want to improve the biodiversity of a piece of land, one of the best things you can do is put in a pond.  We are lucky that our woods are damp, there is water flowing through them, and they have a clay soil base which is eminently suitable for ponds.  We started out with one pond that was badly-designed and silted-up.  As part of our programme to improve the site for wildlife, and to rationalise the drainage, we put in three brand new ponds in the upper part of the woods, and divided the old pond into three new ponds, terraced along the ditch.  The first pond is a silt trap and the remaining ponds now keep free from silt, and drain properly back into the ditch.

Broad-bodied chaser

Broad-bodied chaser

Female Banded Demoiselle

Female Banded Demoiselle

When we had the opportunity to buy Betty’s Wood and plant it with trees, we also added ponds – it was a very suitable field, with lots of damp patches and a base of both red and white pottery clay.  There were already some natural ponds formed in tractor ruts, and we added 5 more ponds in a cluster.  This means we have 11 ponds on site, in three clusters.  There is another pond which is more of a pit that gets damp in winter – but these temporary ponds are also very valuable habitat.  All of them were put where a pond would naturally want to form, in areas that were already damp.  None of them are artificially lined – the clay keeps the water in place.  Some of them dry out in the summer, others stay wet.  All are connected so that wildlife has a refuge in the deeper water if needed.

Grass Snake

Grass Snake in our ponds

We were rewarded in the first year with a few dragonflies and damselflies.  As time has gone on, our ponds have brought more life to the woods.  The range of dragonflies and damselflies has increased, helped by the fact that we are adjacent to other pools and ponds, a canal and a river.  Birds regularly come and drink in the ponds.  We have a good population of toads and smooth newts, together with a few frogs.  We have some resident mallard who come back each year although are yet to breed successfully.  Last year we had a pair of lapwing in Betty’s Wood.  We have an increasing population of grass snakes who love to swim in the ponds and bask on their banks.  Swallows swoop down to feed on the insects that breed in the ponds.  Last year we had a Hobby, which likes to feed on dragonflies.  Mammal tracks show that all our resident mammals drink at the ponds – muntjac, badger, foxes, squirrels, rabbits, stoats.  Insects also come to drink at the ponds, particularly butterflies, bees and wasps.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Southern Marsh Orchid

Yellow flag-iris

Yellow flag-iris

Around the ponds are wet areas, in which we get wonderful plants – cowslip, buttercups, snakes head fritillary and a growing area with southern marsh orchid.  As well as the usual sedges, reeds, rushes, flag iris, ragged robin, teasel and figwort.

Ponds bring a place to life, and putting them in was one of the best things we have done for wildlife at the woods.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

Hairy Dragonfly

Hairy Dragonfly

Broad-bodied Chaser

Broad-bodied Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

Four-spotted Chaser

First Butterflies and Dragonflies and More Bluebells…

Mating pair of orange tip butterflies

Mating pair of orange tip butterflies

Green-veined white

Green-veined white

Female orange tip

Female orange tip

Speckled wood

Speckled wood high in elder bush

With the warmer weather, we have seen the first butterflies emerging in the woods, as well as the first dragonflies and damselflies.  The first spotted on the wing were brimstones, but we now have good numbers of green-veined whites, orange-tip, speckled wood, large white and small white, as well as the rather dusty and ageing peacock, small tortoiseshell and comma which overwintered as adults.

The large red damselflies were the first to emerge, but in the last few days we have also seen azure damselflies coming out, and the first two female broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.

Large red damselfly

Large red damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Azure Damselfly (female)

Broad bodied chaser

Broad bodied chaser

We are also delighted to report a good patch of violet growing in the woods, which we hope will be food plants for the caterpillars of silver-washed fritillary – this butterfly is moving our way, and we have ideal habitat for it.  Fingers crossed!

The bluebells are also stunning at the moment – just past their peak, but still putting on a fantastic show.  They look particularly wonderful when growing together with clumps of white stitchwort.  Red campion is now in flower as well as the first ragged robin near our ponds, and the buttercups are just starting to come out.

The woods are in full leaf now, and the acid-green colours of spring are just wonderful to behold.  It all looks quite magical in the evening light.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

Patch of stitchwort

A lovely patch of stitchwort on our boundary

Green, blue and white

Green, blue and white

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

Evening bluebells

Evening bluebells

Violet

Violet growing in our woods

Our Photo of the Year 2013

There have been some fantastic photographic moments at Alvecote Wood during 2013, and I would be really grateful if you could vote to help us pick the best image from 2013 from the shortlist.  Compiling the shortlist has in itself been quite difficult, but I’ve tried to pick images that speak to me of the beauty of the woods, but that also showcase the wonderful variety of plants and insects that live there.

Shortlist

Spectacular sunset opposite our entrance

Photo Number 1: Spectacular sunset opposite our entrance

Photo Number 2:  Emerald Damselfly

Photo Number 2:  Emerald damselfly in golden evening light

Common Blue

Photo Number 3: Common Blue butterfly roosting at dusk

Photo Number 4:  Translucent bluebell

Photo Number 4: Translucent bluebell

Photo Number 5:  Southern Marsh Orchid

Photo Number 5: Southern Marsh Orchid

Photo Number 6:  Rare white English bluebell

Photo Number 6: Rare white English bluebell

Vote

Photographic Yearbook 2013

There is just so much to photograph at our wonderful woodland wildlife site, Alvecote Wood.  Every year, I try to produce a photographic yearbook that highlights the beauty of this site through the seasons – light and colour, insects and birds, flowers and fungi and the stunning views that are to be seen there.  Our yearbook for 2013 is now available via the Blurb bookstore, featuring images from the wood throughout the year, as well as a few images from other places that we have visited.

There is a hardcopy version, as well as an e-book and pdf version, all available via Blurb.  We only make a small amount from each sale, but every sale will help to support our conservation work at Alvecote Wood, so please do consider purchasing a copy.  A full preview is also available by clicking the badge below.

2013 - A Year in Images
2013 – A Year …
By Sarah Walters
Photo book

The Meadow Comes to Life

Last year was a drought and this year has been a deluge – and it is obvious what Betty’s Wood meadow and trees prefer!  We have had some worrying moments since the meadow was planted in October 2010 and the trees in February 2011.  Despite a great display of poppies last year, the perennial wildflowers and the grass sward in particular were very sparse – after a year of growth you could still see the lines made by the seed drill.  The diversity was also low, with little in the way of the important butterfly foodplants, such as birds-foot trefoil.  Some areas had barely any growth on them at all, and newly-planted areas of wildlowers on top of the spoil removed when we dug the ponds had just a tiny green fringe.  The largest meadow was so sparse that when we mowed it, we were throwing up dust from the parched and cracked surface, and there were few clippings left from the sparse mayweed and poppy growth.

The trees, too, had suffered, despite our best attempts to water them.  Although we ended the year with 5% loss plus 1% stolen out of our 5000 trees, some were not in the best of shape.  In particular, the species we had planted in the area that is normally wet (alder, varieties of willow, poplar, aspen) had struggled to put on any growth at all, and in places, had managed only one or two leaves.

This year started badly too – a drought through March left us wondering how we were going to cope through the summer.  We needn’t have worried – although the rain has not been pleasant for humans, and at times we have had problems with the quantity (including a flood in the woods that almost washed away our bridge), the trees and meadow have loved it, and responded with growth that we could only have dreamed of last year.

Standing by the ponds last night, I could hear the leaves of our little aspen trees as they trembled against each other – aspen is the only tree in our wood that you can identify by sound!  Last year, they had a couple of leaves each, but this year, enough to make a noise.  Our cloned willows are growing enthusiastically.  Some of our trees are now about 5 feet high and others are showing great recovery growth.  Areas are now beginning to look a bit like a young woodland, rather than a parched meadow with a few sad trees in it.

And the meadow!  Oh my goodness, the meadow!  We have such lush growth it is hard to walk through it.  The grasses, yellow rattle, beautiful clovers, medick, sainfoin, tufted vetch and large patches of birds-foot trefoil.  And daisies.  Lots and lots of daisies.  Over a million ox-eye daisies.

With the meadow and improvements to our ponds have come insects – thousands of insects.  We have a really good show of common blue and brown argus butterflies this year.  We also have small heath butterflies for the first time, and to our delight, the dingy skipper has arrived too.  Almost every flower has a ladybird, some kind of bug, beetle, fly, bee, hoverfly, spider or other living thing on it, feeding from it, and enjoying it.  The grass is thick enough for us to see vole and rabbit tunnels and pathways.  A skylark is sussing out potential nesting spots.  Our ponds, too, are showing increased diversity of life, including common blue, azure, blue-tailed, red-eyed, white-legged and large red damselflies, as well as the four-spotted and broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.  As you walk through the meadow, little clouds of azure damselflies rise up and settle again.  The contrast with the agricultural land over the fence is staggering.

We complain about the rain.  We complain about having to wear wellies and a raincoat in summer.  But the rain has wrought a transformation that outweighs the inconvenience.  The meadow has come to life.