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Saturday, August 04, 2007

There's More Than One Way To Skin A Cat...

...but we're not going to be skinning any cats around here. We might want to do some more dragonfly photography, though!

I had this cooperative Band-winged Meadowhawk in my garden the other day. It had a favorite perch where it based its hunting operations for much of an afternoon, giving me a chance to fool around with some different photographic techniques. I've made a little commentary on each, and summarized a few advantages, disadvantages, and tips for each method.

First of all, I snapped a bunch of shots with my DSLR rig. My favorite lens (200-400mm f/4 VR, usually with 1.4x teleconverter) is off to Nikon for maintenance, so I used my smaller telephoto zoom, 70-200mm f/2.8 VR with a 1.7x teleconverter. I've had a lot of luck using telephoto zooms for dragonflies. They seem to usually have a comfort zone, and as long as you stay out of it they'll stay perched. The limit of this comfort zone is often within range for crippling shots with anything over 400mm equivalent. (Don't forget that most digital bodies have about a 1.5x enlargement factor over 35mm film.)
DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera) system summary:
  • Advantages: Quick to get on target, hand-holdable even at high aperture/low shutter speed with image-stabilizing system. Lots of flexibility & creative control.
  • Disadvantages: Cost (can quickly get into 5 figures.) Heavy weight to bear when you carry around large telephoto lenses. Some people most comfortable using tripod with large lenses, even those that are image-stabilized.
  • Tips: Get the aperture to f/10 or above to try and keep the wings and body focussed. This can be tricky since these parts are usually at right angles to each other!

Next, I set up my digiscoping rig on my Leica APO-Televid 66mm scope and 26X WW eyepiece. I recently was upgraded to Leica's C-Lux 2 camera, and I've been super happy with this micro-sized powerhouse. I crept my tripod up to about the inner limit of the scope's close focus so I could keep the camera zoom down to about 2x for the best quality images. One really nice thing about this camera is the ability to adjust critical controls like the flash mode (turn it off for digiscoping) and the exposure compensation with their own dedicated buttons instead of going through menus. As the background changed I could quickly compensate down a bit to keep the bright insect parts from blowing out. The monitor on this camera is amazing- it covers almost the whole back of the camera and is bright, even in direct sunlight.
Digiscoping system summary:
  • Advantages: Modest cost if you already own a scope. Even if starting from scratch, cost is comparable to mid-level DSLR telephoto zoom systems and more affordable than big-lens systems. More magnification potential than any DSLR system. Camera much smaller and simpler to operate than DSLR.
  • Disadvantages: Must shoot from stable tripod for best results. A bit bulky and more complex to get working "right" than a DSLR system. Fewer creative controls than DSLR.
  • Tips: Can be a God-send when you can't approach targets freely due to access (like on boardwalks), environmental issues (like walking through endangered orchids), or if the target is just skittish and won't allow close approach. Get a camera that won't vignette, top scope optics, a wide-angle fixed-power eyepiece, and a solid digiscoping adapter for best results. A remote shutter release can be a real help, too.
Finally, since the dragonfly was so cooperative, I decided to try photographing it with just my C-Lux 2 camera on the macro setting. Luckily, when I blew it and moved in too fast, sending it off its perch, I could retreat and it would come back and re-set on its mark. Amazingly, after several attempts and some very slow movement I was able to get the camera within a few inches of the critter, first by walking in towards it low and slow and then by extending my arms reeeaaaaalllllly slowly to get the camera up in its grill. In my experience most dragonflies won't tolerate this, but if you are patient many butterflies will. Some dragonfly paparazzi will first net one and then chill it in a cooler before posing it. They then have a little window of opportunity before the predator warms up and flies away.
P&S (point & shoot) camera, macro mode summary:
  • Advantages: Great potential for detailed photos. Most affordable option and least bulky- most P&S cameras now will fit in a shirt pocket. Works very well on cooperative subjects including in-hand birds at a banding station, many reptiles (but I prefer telephotos for the ones that bite), and sessile targets like flowers or dead things. Can use same camera on the scope for digiscoping as needs dictate- in fact, some cameras seem to work best using their macro setting when digiscoping.
  • Disadvantages: Doesn't work very well for skittish subjects. Not good for most bird photography situations. Must get very close to subject.
  • Tips: Be patient and learn to move slowly and unobtrusively when approaching anything that can fly, run, or swim away. An image-stabilized camera like the C-Lux 2 gives you much more leeway with shutter speeds as you extend your arm towards target, a less stable position but one less likely to spook the bug.


The Zen Birdfeeder said...

Great post. I just got a Leica C-lux 2 as well but haven't had it up to the scope yet.
Appreciate your approach and the information you provide.

S. Severs said...

Great dragonfly stuff Bill! Super photos. I've done some army crawls to get some images with my P&S and had some good results.

Thanks for sharing!