I’m not going to beat around the bush, in my humble opinion, THE most useful function to be added to a digital camera for landscape and close-up photography, is Live View! Notice, I said digital camera. Such things as depth of field preview and mirror lock-up have been around for years but LV is an entirely digital add-on. Before LV, focusing, even with sophisticated AF lenses, was troublesome. AF’s wonderful for action but when shooting close-up where the focus on small areas has to be bang-on, I would never rely purely on autofocus. Why? Well, take this scenario, illustrated with the image, below, of a dew laden wood anemone photographed at sunrise. I wanted to shoot it with the lens wide-open (f2.8) to limit the depth of field and create something a little different to the standard “anemone with petals open” shot. It was imperative that the very front lip of the petal was to be sharp and no-where else. Not halfway up the flower but right at the front! With the lens on AF, it may get me close but I couldn’t be sure. You can always check the image after the shot to check, can’t you? To a degree, yes, but not with any certainty. With LV, I can magnify the image on the monitor and focus with confidence.
And here’s how I did it while photographing this chalkhill blue butterfly. There were numerous factors which forced me to use a relatively wide aperture. The proximity of the background and the nagging breeze. Chalkhill blues are tiny so, once again, it was essential that the focus was very accurate. Unlike the shot of the anemone where, due to the depth of the image, I didn’t have to parallel the camera to the flower, in this instance, I simply had to get the camera back completely square on both the vertical and horizontal axis, if I was to be certain of edge to edge sharpness.
After much jigging around of the tripod, I composed the image and got the camera as parallel as I could. I then activated LV.
Using the + (magnify function), as if you were magnifying the image when reviewing, I zoomed all the way as far as it would go and then, using the scroll wheel, moved the magnified area to the head of the butterfly. With the lens on MF I carefully focused on the eye. When this was done, I scrolled to the tip of the wing.
If the wing required a focus adjustment, I knew the camera wasn’t quite parallel so, depending on whether the wing tip was closer to or further from the plane of focus, I would adjust the tripod accordingly. This exercise was repeated on all parts of the butterfly until I was happy it was pin sharp throughout. Now, if the conditions were perfect….still, background several metres away, I could have used a smaller aperture of, say, f16 and allowed a little for parts of the wing to be fractionally out of alignment since there was every chance the depth of field would have taken care of it. But, with such a wide aperture, you just can’t take those kind of risks. Once you are done with LV, de-activate it and, if you have it, use mirror lock-up. If you take a picture with a slow shutter speed of around 1/15 sec with LV activated, there is every chance your image will have signs of vibration, resulting in a soft image. There are few disciplines in photography more technically demanding than close-up. Technique, technique, technique. A photographer with inferior equipment using a solid tripod, utilising LV focus, mirror lock-up and a cable release will invariably produce superior results than a photographer with the most up to date gear using a sloppy technique.
LV for landscape work can be equally useful. For the most part, AF works perfectly well on focusing on a specific spot that you want to be sharp. But, when light levels are low and the subject you want to focus on lacks contrast (AF lenses require contrast or an edge to lock-on), autofocus struggles! So, all you need to do is the same as above. Turn off AF and activate LV, magnify the image, scroll down to the part of the scene you want to focus on and do so manually. De-activate LV and use mirror-lock up. Simple! Below are a few more examples where I used Live View to be sure of accurate focusing.
I thought it was about time I tried my hand at Time Lapse. It’s pretty simple, really. Just a matter of finding a suitable subject such as a sunrise or sunset, setting the camera to Interval Timer and letting it run!
My first one, here, is of a sunrise over Oare Marshes, in Kent, taken just a few days ago. It’s a spot I know well and have visited many times over the years. When planning the sequence I wanted it to run longer leading up to the sunrise than after since this is when you get the most subtle changes of colour in the sky. 10 minutes after it has risen, the sky just burns out and overexposes the image. You need to bear this in mind when working out your initial exposure. With the camera on a firm tripod, set everything to manual – focus, white balance, exposure – and, after reviewing your initial test exposure, underexpose it by a stop. This will then take into account the increasing light levels as the sun rises. If you don’t, you’ll end up with the final part of the sequence being washed out. It helps if you shoot RAW as it has greater tolerances to exposure than jpeg. This may sound obvious, but make sure you have enough card space for, say, 200+ images and that your battery is charged! The camera (Nikon D300 and 12-24mm) was set to take a picture every 5 seconds for 30 minutes. The time lapse between each image will ultimately be dedicated by your subject and and how many images you can put on your card!
I then processed the images in LR 3 and PS4 (remembering that any adjustments to a picture must be done to all) and converted them to jpeg (1024×768). I put it all together in Windows Live Movie Maker with the frame transition set to 5 fps. WLMM really is a piece of cake to use. Trust me, if I can get my head around it, anyone can! I guess you can do the same thing in Quick Time. Ideally, I’d like to have it set to music or the various marsh birds calling. The latter seems to be more realistic, something I could do on a mobile phone to begin with, as opposed to the former where there are copyright issues. I’m very much a beginner with TL but I’m looking forward to a steep learning curve over the following months!
It’s great fun and I can see huge potential with all manner of subjects. I’m currently compiling a list of possible sequences which will, of course, be shown here and on facebook. By the way, if you haven’t already checked out my wildlife photography page, please do, as this is where I show my images straight from the camera, so to speak. You’ll find the link to the page just on the right.
Having spent weeks positioning the hide, my real desire was to obtain images of the parents bringing food back to the nest. Talons clasping marsh frogs and birds for example. However, allowing for light, wind direction and not wanting to move the hide and alert the adults, I only obtained a few images that although were nice to get weren’t quite as I had hoped. With this kind of work you really are at the mercy of the elements. The following images were taken over 3, 5 hour sessions. On some occassions I didn’t get any pictures at all though I always saw them. In total I spent 30 hours over 6 sessions.
The image below has been cropped considerably so you can see exactly the prey it was carrying. A young rabbit as it turned out.
The final image is one of my favourites. It’s all about the wing positioning with the late afternoon sunlight illuminating it’s underside. Although not the fastest birds they were quite hard to track. Indeed, when you are in a hide, your vision is restricted and so I would go by the mobbing calls of lapwings to alert me of their presence. I would then frantically look through each peep-hole to try and locate it. For all the images a 300mm f2.8 lens with either the TC-14EII (1.4x) or TC-20EII (2x) tele-converter was used on a Nikon D300. Stopping movement was the prerequisite so I selected an iso of 400 or 800 (depending on how late in the afternoon I was shooting) and the camera set to either shutter priority or manual.
It was a wonderful experience witnessing and photographing marsh harriers from such close range and even with the amount of preparation involved, I am sure in the future I will attempt to improve my coverage of this stage of their lives. In the next installemt I accompany licenced handlers ring and wing-tag the young birds.
When shooting close-ups I normally use the Nikon D2x since the quality at iso 100 is better than the Nikon D300 at L1 which is supposed to be an equivalent to iso 100 (the lowest iso it would normally go down to is 200) but it doesn’t really work out that way. Without going into too much detail, the D2x produces better results at iso 100 than the D300 which I normally reserve for bird and mammal photography when I may have to shoot at higher iso’s (400/800) and this is when the D300 out-performs the D2x. Purchasing a D3s / D3x would be the all-round answer but of course they don’t come cheap!
But there is a feature that the D300 has (and many other cameras besides) that the D2x does not and that is Live View. Over the 6 months I have come to quite literally, LOVE this feature for close-up photography. Take the scenario below. It’s around 5.45 in the morning and through blurry eyes I scan the grass for chalkhill blue butterflies, the size of a 10 pence piece. Why so early I hear you ask? At this time of the day they are still too cold to move and possibly wet from the nights dew, and if you can find one, you can take as long as you like before the sun rises to compose and take your image. Once the sun’s up, it warms, it’s wings quiver as the blood flows and then it’s off!
When shooting at such close quarters, it’s absolutely vital to get the camera back (used to be called film-plane) parallel with the most important part of the subject and with this individual, that means the wings, both vertically and horizontally. Depth of field is so small in comparison to shooting landscapes, that unless you do this your images will end up in the recycle bin. Don’t even contemplate firing the shutter until it is sharp across both axes.
Given a sufficient distance between the subject and background and if there isn’t a nagging wind, I would usually use an aperture of f11 or 16 as this would allow me a tiny amount of lee-way. But, there was a nagging breeze and the background was only a few feet away, so a compromise had to be met. Shooting at iso 200, I opted for an aperture of f8 which gave me an all-action-stopping 1/20th sec! Now, this is where Live View really comes into it’s own. I had to be certain that at full aperture the butterfly was sharp on the eye and along the 2 axes of it’s wings. I therefore activated LV and zoomed right in to it’s eye, just as if I were zooming into an image to check it’s sharpness after I had taken it. After focusing on the eye, using the cursor, I then just moved the focusing point to the edges of the wing, checking its sharpness. My first attempt showed that the wing tip was slightly out of focus as it was further back, so I raised the tripod an inch or so which in turn tipped the camera down and brought the wing into sharpness. I repeated the process with zooming the LV until all areas were sharp.
It doesn’t stop there. Aside from sharpness, any wind movement is greatly magnified at such close quarters, so you need to be sure of a dead calm before taking the picture. Rather than straining your eye to see when this is, activate the LV again and zoom in a little where any movement immediately becomes apparent. Cool eh? Unfortunately, as in all things in life, there is a downside. With shutter speeds of around 1/15th sec. and longer and especially when working so close, the sudden de-activation of LV and the slap of the mirror during exposure can cause enough vibration to result in unsharpness. I tested this and it was apparent so I would really only use the technique to see when the wind stops at 1/20th sec. and above. Of course, if you are shooting a stationary subject such as a mushroom, then simply de-activate LV first and better still, if you have it, use mirror lock-up.
There’s probably some of you reading this saying to yourself, “I’ve been doing that for years.” But for those of you that haven’t, it’s a jolly useful technique to have up your sleeve.
So, to conclude, is the slightly inferior image quality that I get when shooting at iso 200 with the D300 worth sacrificing for the benefits of Live View? Definitely! In my book, it’s better to get a tack-sharp image with a bit of grain than it is to have a grain-free out of focus one.
About Robert Canis
Robert Canis is a professional photographer specialising in the natural world.
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