A sunny walk with minimal kit.
This is an example of one end of the range of the walks I do. Often I'll be out and about with a full backpack of gear, multiple bodies, lenses, tripod(s), lights, focussing rails, and so on, but equally often I'll have one camera body and lens and be concentrating on one type of subject. This was one of those days, a steaming hot summer afternoon, looking for butterflies and dragonflies over on the meadows behind St Marys Church.
Really simple. I decided to take the 300m f4 Olympus lens, which is comparatively small and light (compared to say the Sony 600mm f4 with the same field of view), but a monster for sharpness. Fitted to the E1 MkIII without the 1.4x teleconverter it's a pretty light telephoto, with reasonable close focussing ability to 1:4 magnification at about 5 feet. To that I added the EE-1 Dot sight. This is a pop up frame which shows a red target reticule projected to infinity, and it can be priceless for finding insects or birds when you have such a small field of view. The biggest problem it has is it is only a partial solution. It gives you the line of the lens left to right, but does not correct for parallax, so you set the vertical offset to the distance you hope to be shooting at, then pan up and down if the target is closer or farther. Making it motorised and tying it to the focus distance would probably not help often, and would make it very expensive, so this is a reasonable compromise to make. I set it up for the length of my garden, about 40 feet, which is a good compromise for me. Spare camera battery and lots of water in my backpack. No tripod or monopod, it was sunny and this lens has excellent stabilisation, I've taken sharp images at 1/25 second on a winters day. The only support I have is 2 straps, one on the lens foot rigged shorter than the camera one. This means the lens foot takes the weight, reducing strain on the camera, but the camera doesn't swing around and stays vertical down my torso when not held, ready to lift. I was out for about 3 hours, and using this gear is not at all tiring, I can use it all day, and the f4 is bright enough in the viewfinder during anything but late twilight when the Tamron 300mm f2.8 SP might come out, when AF is no longer an option.
As always this is down to the user and their chosen system. I have 2 wildlife custom settings on the camera. They are broadly identical, differing only in that one is shutter priority set to 1/500s by default and the other is aperture priority set to wide open. I switch between them depending on the lighting and subject. Both are auto ISO, both set to electronic shutter at 18fps, but not Pro Capture, because I dislike the mess that makes in the viewfinder with cutting out. The AF is set to continuous, single point, but the lens has a clutch and I have manual focussing assists on all the time to override the AF systems opinions. The lens has a function button as well and I've recently set that to make switching focus limiter ranges easy. The lens has a switch for this, but it's a pain to reach for me, especially in portrait orientation, so the function button has been repurposed to give off or one of 3 ranges. The AF is also started via a button on the back, but with this model the shutter button keeps it on removing the need to hold both buttons per the MkII. IS is on in dual mode, body and lens, but I may review that. I'm starting to use IS less when I don't need it, and starting to appreciate why it is switchable, but for this it was on full compensation.
Starting behind the church, emerging from the shade, immediately the grass is teeming with life on a sunny day. Butterflies and demoiselles playing tag while beetles climb grass stalks and bees bulldozer into flower heads. In this case there were hoverflies up and I was able to get between them and the sunny meadow, shooting towards the woods so they're brightly lit but the background is darker making them pop visually. In this case the lens went onto manual focus and I was using focus peaking to get precise focus. The AF here tends to need tuning to an area and set it to slow response so it doesn't just snap to the background, which is bad for stationary targets and not perfect for moving ones. I can keep focus on a hoverfly better than the camera can find it or hold it, so all the hoverfly shots here are definitely manual focus mode. Which doesn't work for fast moving hoverflies, but a lot of the ones on this walk were keeping position for several seconds before moving, and would swoop back to the same place repeatedly making life much easier.
This one however is much better exposed. I moved the camera slightly to get it more in front of the highlights beyond it. Although the light is not totally behind it, it is consistent with the angle of the sunlight high behind to the right, so it doesn't distract. Focus is on the eyes and falls off rapidly across the body. This was in shutter priority mode to reduce the wing movement, but even at 1/500 you can see movement there. ISO 3200 was needed for the speed, so the aperture had to be wide open. Compromises... always compromises. That said the noise reduction has done a good job and the focus drop off is not awful. Usually my criteria for culling shots like this depend on whether the eye facets are sharp and how much detail is visible in them.
Moving along, to some butterflies. The Comma used to be the most common butterfly I saw, partly because I used to spend a lot of time by the canal looking for dragonflies and demoiselles. It is a bit less common now, and I think has declined a little during HS2 work. But I don't have actual figures on that, and my behaviour has changed, so it's just a feeling. So seeing them sunning I'm still tempted to shoot them, with their crazy fractal wing edges. This one has the wings closed showing the woodland camouflage underneath. In terms of technique, I put the AF point over the head, possibly using the joystick to move it. Never the touchscreen, I'd be happy if the rear screen were just that and had no touch feature because it never helps. If the AF finds the head ok, then I shoot a short burst of 2-3 shots and check focus via the EVF. In this case all was good. I waited to see what the butterfly would do, but this one was clearly edgy and didn't open it's wings before flying off.
The route I walked here would take about 15 minutes just walking, but it took 3 hours, and not just because of the number of possible shots. I can't say it often enough, slow down and look. Really look. 10 feet ahead of you on the trail may be a dragonfly basking, one step closer and it will fly off, and if you're not looking, that will be another missed opportunity to rue. Worse, when the dragonfly takes off, is if you chase after it, and miss the second one that was still sitting there. Yes, voice of experience. If a creature decides to move away from you, which is perfectly fine, the worst thing you can do it follow it trying to get a shot. Let it find somewhere to settle, let it calm down and forget you, and if you come across it later, maybe you'll get the shot next time, but if you pursue it all too often they just get distressed and you can end up scaring them off completely. So you need to see them before you enter their zone of discomfort. This is an example of seeing something ahead and not startling it. I'm always on the lookout for new butterfly species, and the Painted Lady is not common round here. It also happens to be similar to a lot of fritillaries, so I always shoot any butterfly with orange patterned wings on the off chance. In this case, this individual was enjoying a sip, and I got a few banker images, but as soon as I moved to improve the background off it flew. It then landed about 20 feet up the trail, but was not settled and moved on again before I got there.
Not all hoverflies are airborne all the time, and this very bee-like fellow was sitting on a leaf probably just basking. I like this somewhat for the composition, but the grass blade way in front of it out of focus spoils it a little. Unfortunately shooting through grassy meadows you get this problem and it is often not visible through the viewfinder because the lens wide open makes it too diffuse to see on the little screens either on the back or the EVF. Using depth of field preview or checking the exposure helps, but in this case didn't show it on either. In terms of the rest of the composition, the fly is towards the lower left third point, looking into across the frame, giving space to take off into or to follow its gaze out the other side.
Back to the butterflies and this is the common meadow brown. At least common round here. It is easily confused with the gatekeeper and the quick rule of thumb I use is to cound the white dots in the black underwing spot. 2 means gatekeeper. The gatekeeper also tends to be smaller, but scale can be hard to judge. That said I double checked this one with the books before labelling it. Focus again on the eye, sadly the flower obscures the tongue, but it's a pleasing composition, with the out of focus buttercup stem framing the butterfly nicely, keeping the eye on the subject.
All the time walking you could see Emperor dragonflies hunting the field. This one had been alternating flying up the hedgerow and settling close to the path for a few minutes. On this occasion it leapt up in front of me, and started hunting in the low shrubs close by, no doubt looking to grab a moth. In terms of technique, this was AF to get close, then holding the AF on using back button focussing and micro-adjust manually, relying on focus peaking to get close. A long burst giving a decent chance of getting one good one. There were only 2 frames with good focus, and this is the better composition.
Following the Emperor up the path I thought I saw it perch and immediately started shooting. It wasn't the Emperor though but what I think is probably a Common Darter. A smaller species, but like many with a range of colour schemes. This was holding the grass stem and was pretty chilled about me shooting it and edging closer. I managed to get this close without any disturbance, which was great as this is only cropped top and bottom. Again focus drop off, but the eyes and all the legs are sharp giving good detail, and the depth of field is not a problem. Which brings us to multiple shot techniques. I could have tried to get a sequence of shots, and focus stacked, but dragonflies are really hard to capture with multiple shot options because they breathe. The abdomen pumps air in and out and so even the most relaxed and still individual is moving. I found this out a while ago when trying to capture basking dragonflies using the handheld HD mode. Every abdomen was slightly blurry, so I recorded some high speed video and saw the motion. Every attempt I've made at focus stacking or high def mode has fallen foul of this to some extent. That said, there is a high def picture of a male broad bodied chaser in the dragonflies and demoiselles gallery where post processing removed the worst ghosting, but there is still some lack of sharpness. Dragonflies also tend to fidget their mouthpieces which doesn't help when head on. I keep trying though.
I see loads of Hesperidae out and about this time of year, and until last year I'd assumed they were all the same species and stopped bothering to shoot them. I wanted to include as much as possible on this walk though and this tiny skipper looked different. When I got it home the spotted wings stood out, the other skippers I've shot being pretty block coloured wings with fringe details. That makes me think this is a silver spotted variant, which brings the number of species of skipper I've seen round here to 4. I've done as much as I can to recover detail in the shadows in post, but the shadows are pretty dark, and since ETTR (Expose To The Right, effectively overexpose to somehow not lose highlight details) with the Olympus meter loses highlight detail all the time (the histogram is not really good enough for ETTR) then it can be hard to recover shadows on an otherwise perfectly exposed shot.
Getting to the hedge at the top of the field and there was another comma sunbathing. In this case on a twig which just begged to be centre frame. The background is a bit busy at this aperture but the stick keeps you on the subject.
Competing for my attention with the comma was this large hoverfly. Again, manual focus, again very stable for long periods, but I could not get round to the front of it, or persuade it to turn my way. However the rear view gives the intention of moving into the scene, and the wings are almost static at this point in their cycle giving a less blurry image of them.
Meanwhile having moved around a little, the comma was nicely positioned for a closer image. As always, focus on the eye, and in this case line up the background with the antennae nicely. I did take a fair few images of the comma and the hoverflies before moving on, but there was little else in this corner unusually. There are often blue butterflies here.
Moving down the open field again, there were a lot of marbled whites flying around the field. I particularly like them on thistles for the colour contrast, but it's very easy to over do the processing with the contrast in the butterfly causing the thistle to be darkened excessively. Stretching the dynamic range and pulling highlight detail from the butterfly can lead to the shadows being neglected or pushed down. This one I've tried to keep the open airy feel of the field, since the butterfly is too far away to go mad pulling details out.
At the lower end of the field I saw this basking on the path, again about 20 feet ahead. As I approached thinking it may be the common darter from earlier it took off and from the shorter wider tail it was obvious that this was a female chaser. She jumped up and flew to some nearby grass, then after a few minutes moved up the hill to a twig where she stayed for some time.
I know when you look at this the wing patches and colour are very similar to the darter, but the darter has a longer narrower tail with less defined black patches, and was larger than this lady. Hard to tell the difference between the female broad bodied chaser, the female common darter, the female black tailed skimmer, the female keeled skimmer and the female scarce chaser. I think this is the broad bodied based on photos and the fact I've seen lots of them around here previously, as well as common darters. I've only seen one black tailed skimmer, and that was much blacker.
The only thing to add really here is composition. The eyes are close to the frame centre, with the body to the right leaving negative space to the left where you'd imagine the dragonfly is looking.
This is I think the best image of the day. The bee and the clover are just sharp enough and leap out of the grass below. The bee hanging on is almost incidental to the clover flower itself which dominates the frame. I should have moved to the other custom mode to set the depth of field for this shot, it could have used a little more to get the closer bee wing in focus, but the background needs to be thrown out and shutting down the aperture may have reduced the impact. I should probably have done it though, because I could always take several and pick the best when you have a scene like this. The bee was actually on the flower for several seconds, and I have another shot with the bee head on that may be better, but I chose this one on the day.
Finally moving off the meadow these were two butterflies that were dancing around each other before settling independently. It's interesting perhaps that the red admiral from below looks similar to the wing pattern of the painted lady, with the dark outer to the front wings and the red attenuated by transmitted sunlight, but this was definitely an admiral when seen with the wings open. Contre jour, against the light this was overexposed slightly to get detail in the body.
The last shot of the walk, a white butterfly drinking from a bramble flower. Again another challenge for exposure, with the meter prone to getting the exposure wrong, but in this case a quick check of the histogram and a touch of exposure compensation gives a good image to work on.
After the walk.
After taking several hundred pictures, the first order of the day was to rehydrate. I'd taken water with me, and finished it all, but a long cold glass or two was much appreciated. On a walk like this out for hours, you need to take water, and more than you think. Heat stroke can be insidious. Having done that then we're into post processing.
Import and culling.
I always put the SD card into the computer, rather than attaching the camera via a cable. The reason being I have a script that sorts the images on the card into a tree structure by date and card id. The Sony cards I prefer have a disk id that I can use to identify each card uniquely, and map that to a prefix. So typically my files end up named something like c8_2022__6290005.ORF where c8 is the card, 2022 the year, and 629 being the date from the original camera filename 29th of June. The last 4 digits are a sequence. In the event of 2 files having the same name the script adds a suffix to the filename to ensure uniqueness.
Those are copied onto a Thunderbolt drive which has drive mirroring, so I have 3 copies of each file now, one on the SD card and 2 copies on the mirrored drive. Depending on what I've been doing I can run a couple of scripts to deal with HD files, or to split focus stacks out for processing. If I have HD files or I've been shooting mono, I'll first open the folder in Olympus Workspace and export all the mono and HD raws as 16 bit tiffs.
I open up the folder in FastRawViewer and go through culling files based usually first on focus for a wildlife shoot. A lot of burst shooting has files with varying focus, so any not perfectly in focus get culled, unless there is movement or something particularly artistic in the presentation. For insects this is rare, so that will get rid of many of the files on a day like this. Then I go over for exposure, composition and look and feel. The final cull here left me with 162 images for the day. As I go, any that particularly catch my eye will get a red marker, and then I go over those for further processing.
On a day like this, the post processing from here on is pretty consistent. Each file is opened in Affinity Photo. The Develop persona lets me increase detail at the expense of noise, but for this I reduce the luminosity noise reduction to zero, leaving the colour noise reduction at default. Then I ramp the detail up to the maximum before taking the sliders back till the detail is as good as I can get it but as little enhancement as possible. If the background is interesting, I may increase clarity to give more structure, if it's busy I may reduce it. It depends on the image. Clarity appears to raise highlight micro-contrast, which can make the depth of field seem bigger, and can make backgrounds more contrasty and busy. It rarely has any benefit to sharp shadows though, and with dark insects I often reduce the clarity to push the background back a little. At this stage there are no masks for detail enhancement or clarity in the Develop persona, so everything is image wide. Once I'm happy I hit develop and then send the image to Topaz Denoise AI. I have an older version of this which I am happy with the behaviour, and it does a decent job. I usually leave it on the default auto denoise option for wildlife as that balances sharpening with noise reduction nicely. Even if the image has very little noise, I tend to do this for the sharpening, not just the denoise. When the image comes back I add some unsharp mask if that helps. At each stage I'm looking at the details in the image, not the sharpness. Sharpening helps to bring out details, but over sharpening can lose them, or make an image unsightly. I have definitely overdone the sharpening on occasion, but hopefully not here.
If there are any blemishes or marks I'll use the inpainting and clone tools to heal them.
The next steps are to enhance the exposure and dynamic range. I use the levels filter to stretch the range of the image if necessary, then use curves to increase contrast or balance of exposure in the image. Finally I apply a channel mixer preset that enhances each colour channel, reducing the impact of the other channels to balance the exposure. This has the side effect of warming the image colour balance though, so I may then add in a white balance adjustment to reset. For this type of image that's the majority of the processing. The last step is to crop. I usually try to keep the extents of the image in one direction, so cropping is usually applying an aspect ratio crop like 16:9 or 5:4 depending on the subject.
Finally, export the image to TIFF, tag it with licensing information, and a title and description, then feed it into the software that builds my website that converts it to a series of appropriately sized JPEGs and creates the web pages.
I hope that gives you some insight into one day of photography, and how a few images came from the field to the web. There's a lot more I can say about post processing, I intend to do a video and step by step guide to post processing how I do it. I will also go more into preparing for a shoot and gear, but since this was a minimalist shoot, there was little to do beforehand here.
One final note, I generally check for access and pathways using Orndance Survey, who I consider the definitive mapping source for the UK. They also tend to be up to date, revising maps quickly as things change, and they have generally even absorbed HS2 temporary changes. The reason I point this out, is because as always there are people who will try and tell you differently, or try to stop enjoyment of the countryside. Check and don't believe everything you are told. I have lots of examples of people getting this wrong. Like the hiker who waved his stick at me threateningly and told me I could not cycle up the old railway from Scarborough to Whitby, whilst stood next to the National Cycle Network sign. In this case the pictures were taken in this area Ordnance Survey map of the fields behind St Marys Church. which as you can see is criss crossed by many public rights of way, including the Hillingdon Trail.