Celestial Lights

I’ve never viewed myself as a landscape photographer. I do have photos of perhaps a dozen covered bridges, and 10 of them have been published. None of them, however, are traditional calendar material. I have photographed perhaps four lighthouses, only one of which is on the ocean. But the other three lighthouses are on my “Published Photos” web pages. If you click these words describing the photo below of the Milky Way over Cape Neddick Light (“Nubble Light”) you will be taken to a version you can zoom into and pan around. You might even be able to spot the snowy owl sitting on the rocks near the lighthouse that I saw about 8 hours previously.

Milky Way over Cape Neddick Light

Milky Way over Cape Neddick Light

I like to photograph almost anything, perhaps mostly people and nature/wildlife, and I rarely plan. I guess I have more of a photojournalistic style in most of what I photograph. I’m basically an opportunist, who gets lucky by being out in the world a lot.

My Planning

Most often I get a special photo by exploring the world rather than traveling to iconic spots to get a beautiful photo that is similar and likely inferior to many beautiful photos others have taken. Only a few of the photos here were “planned,” and even for the planned photos, the planning was minimal.

For the photo above the planning happened a few hours earlier when I decided to head to a nice spot just in case I might find something good. I took my one trip to the coast the winter of 2014 to try my hand at the snowy owls. Late in the day I realized I needed a place to sleep for the night. “Hey, why not head up to York—haven’t been there for years—and maybe I’ll find something to photograph.” I woke up in the middle of the night and headed to Nubble – a place I was at once or twice back in the film days.

Getting Lucky

Most of my photos are the result of “getting lucky.” But the way one gets lucky is to spend a lot of time in places where luck might happen. “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

My day and night sky photos are no different. Few were planned; many were lucky. Here are some examples of the Celestial Lights you might photograph if you look upward and are prepared. I have included many links for those who might want to see more and maybe learn by seeing photos of others – a great way to learn in my opinion, if you also photograph your own vision rather than copy. Click on the highlighted words throughout this article to get to more photos and details that might interest or motivate you.

The Moon

The moon is a popular subject for many. I’ve taken my share of moon photos, but I don’t recall any with an ocean lighthouse or covered bridge. Maybe some time I will plan one. I did write a two-part article with tips on photographing the moon.

Milky Way 

Grand Canyon Milky Way

Milky Way at Love Nest Camp

The Milky Way is getting easier and easier to photograph with the very sensitive, low noise, current generation digital cameras and many apps that let you PLAN your shots. But few of my Milky Way photos have been planned. Some of my favorites were made during an 18-day trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on wooden dories. One of my favorites is to the right. I managed to get it without my full-frame camera and fast lens.

The photo above was taken near the end of this fantastic trip with O.A.R.S. at a camp often called “Love Nest”. I took multiple shots to get the Milky Way and then another exposure for the camp fire. Conditions were great because this was late October, so the sun set early and I could get to bed under the stars without a tent at a very reasonable hour. I’m a morning person. This photo was shot at 7:34 pm, pretty close to my bedtime, especially after a long and exciting day on the river.

One of my really getting lucky shots was when I decided to head out on Lake Sunapee in the middle of the night to try a panorama of the Milky Way. I got it, but I also got something quite unexpected—the Northern Lights in the images when I swung to the north as seen in the photo below.

Lake Sunapee

Northern Lights and Milky Way

One time with only a few hours of “planning” I made a time-lapse of the Milky Way moving on a partly cloudy night. (If you haven’t figured it out yet, click the highlighted words it the preceding sentence to see the time-lapse.)


Rainbows are another classic subject. Unlike the other Celestial Lights that are described below, rainbows and glories are seen with your back to the sun. They are centered around the antisolar point, a point directly opposite the sun through your head.  Rainbows are seen along an arc 42 degrees from the antisolar point.  Therefore, they can only be seen when the sun is fairly low in the sky.  At midday the rainbow is below the horizon.

Rainbows are rarely anticipated but much appreciated when they happen. Here are four, one when I was in the White Mountains to photograph birds, one when a neighbor alerted me to one over a New Hampshire lake we were staying on, one from St John, USVI, and finally one from a hilltop in the Hanover, NH area. All but the first of these (with the White Mountains in the background) were 4 to 7 shot panoramas.



Glories are most frequently seen from an airplane on the clouds below. A glory involves refraction, reflections,  and diffraction — they all get into the act. But no matter. It pays to occasionally look for them when flying in the sun over a cloud layer — and have a camera handy. I photographed the glory below over the Atlantic returning from my first trip to Nepal.

Glory over the Atlantic

Glory over the Atlantic


Sun Pillars

Hexagonal plates of ice crystals falling like leaves in the sky reflect light from the sun and form a sun pillar, vertically above or below the sun. If this happens at sunset, as in this photo looking across Vermont, the sun pillar can be colorful. The peak on the left is Mount Ascutney.

Sun Pillar over Vermont from New Hampshire

Sun Pillar over Vermont

Sun Dogs

A Sun Dog is a “parhelion,” a colored, luminous spot on either or both sides of the sun formed by refraction through hexagonal ice crystal plates falling with their long axes vertical. I photographed a pair shortly after sunrise when I rode my mountain bike into Cherry Pond at the Pondicherry NWR in NH.

Sun Dogs over Cherry Pond at Pondicherry NWR

Sun Dogs over Cherry Pond

Arcs and Halos

Arcs and Halos are also caused by sunlight refracting off ice crystals in the sky. The pair of images below was taken around noon in Arizona. The top image shows both a Circumhorizontal Arc and 22-degree Halo above it. The bottom photo shows a Circumhorizontal Arc. This amazing light show lasted for an hour.

Circumhorizontal Arc and 22 degree Halo at noon

Circumhorizontal Arc and 22 degree Halo

Circumhorizontal Arc at noon

Circumhorizontal Arc

THIS PAGE has more photos from the Arizona light show as well as sun dogs and arcs from here in New Hampshire.

Crepuscular Rays

Crepuscular Rays, sometimes called “god beams,” are alternating light and dark bands of rays and shadows caused by clouds intercepting sunlight. They appear to diverge in a fanlike array from the sun’s position. Below is a pair of images. The first is from New Hampshire. The second shows crepuscular-like rays over mountain peaks in the Khumbu region of Nepal. I did not discover until I wrote this piece that a nearly identical photo, taken 8 years earlier than mine, was published in an excellent book by Tim Herd that describes Celestial Lights in intricate detail. This photo was taken the first morning of a trek from Lukla to Phaplu.  Along the way we delivered 200 pounds of fleece jackets to school children. This is the region hit hard by the second recent strong earthquake.

Crepuscular rays over NH

Crepuscular rays over NH

Sun flares at sunrise

Sunrise from Lukla, Nepal

Sun Star

Sun stars are caused by the bending of light (diffraction) around the edges of your lens’ diaphragm (aperture). For the same reason that lenses are less sharp at f/22 than at intermediate apertures, sun stars are best created using small apertures, which means large f/numbers and wide angle lenses. The smaller the “hole” the more edge there is and the more diffraction there is. Sun stars are often best when the sun just peeks through a small opening or around a corner, as in the photo below taken shortly after the rays in the photo above morphed into a partial sun star. The second image below from NH had the sun fully in the photo.

Sun Star from Lukla

Sun Star in Nepal

winter sun  star

Sun Star in New Hampshire

Transit of Venus

Another mostly unplanned series of photos were made June 5, 2012. I knew this Celestial Light show was happening for the only time in the remainder of my life – Venus crossing in front of the sun. People who planned had a very dark filter to cover their lenses to protect their eyes. My friend did. He was well prepared, but it rained at his location and he only got a few not-so-great images. I got lucky when clouds moved across the sun just at the right time to get some shots without going blind. Below is one. Venus is the tiny dot in front of the sun near the top. The other smaller spots are sun spots, not dust on my lens.

Transit of Venus

Transit of Venus

A Puzzle for You

Here is a photo I took around 8 AM while waiting to board a flight from the amazing airport in Lukla (9,200 ft) for a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal. The shadow you see on the clouds is clearly from the mountains. But the sun is behind the mountains. How can this be? There is only one obviously correct answer.

Shadow of Thamserku on the clouds

Shadow on the clouds

~ Jim Block


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Posted in Moon, Sky, Sun Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Become a Better Photographer

The "Magic Pill" to improve a person's photography.  I am tempted to package sugar in capsules and sell them with this labeling.  I think I would make a fortune because it would work.

The “Magic Pill” to improve a person’s photography. I am tempted to package sugar in capsules and sell them with this labeling. I think I would make a fortune because it would work. (click to enlarge image)

…or, “‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ but ultimately a better photographer.”

The “all work and no play” proverb is supposed to be a warning against becoming bored and boring – traits that are the death of inspiration and creativity. But, let’s face it. It takes a lot of hard work and practice to become a better photographer, if not a great one.

There are no short-cuts and no magic pills.

Talent Versus Skill

Fair warning: The “talent versus skill” debate can be as heated as the “HDR versus non-HDR” conversation.

In my mind, there is no question that some photographers have an innate, natural talent. It often shows in their instinctive choices of composition and perspective. But, if I had to place a bet on who would create the best images and be the most successful: (1) a naturally talented, though inherently lazy photographer; or, (2) a person with a modicum of natural talent but with ambition and drive. There is no question in my mind that I would bet on the latter. During this debate, I often hear people drag out the “but no amount of work will turn an average athlete into an Olympic one” line of reasoning. Maybe not, but in the end the person with Olympic potential who doesn’t put in the practice and hard work will have just that: “potential.” And, that potential will never be fully realized.

This is as true in art as it is in sports. Additionally, photography, like most art, first requires the mastery of underlying skills.

I grew up playing football. I was quick on my feet, fairly coordinated, bigger than a lot of my peers, and that contributed to my success as a player. But, I already knew how to run. I didn’t have to learn an additional skill. Being quick on my feet and fairly coordinated are prerequisites for being a good hockey player too, but I suck at hockey. Why? Because I don’t skate well nor do I know how to hold and use a hockey stick; Two underlying skills that are absolutely essential to becoming a good hockey player. (And, before I get beaten down by all of you hockey fans – understanding game strategy is also a requirement, but I see that as analogous to artistic vision – a mental plan of action toward some goal not the skills to get there.)

Being a good photographer is about having a vision and the mastery of the underlying skills necessary to convey it.

How To Stand Out

So, you’ve seen some amazing and inspiring images on the web, or in a local gallery, and in your mind you now have this perfect, kick-ass vision of a landscape photograph you want to create. You go out into the field, shoot a bunch of frames, upload them to your computer – and they just don’t match what you had in mind. Trust me. We’ve all been there.

You’re frustrated because you can’t achieve your kick-ass vision, but the vision won’t go away either. At this point, you face a crossroad: you can either push through by practicing, learning and attaining the skills necessary to convey that vision, or you can plateau, continue to be frustrated and mostly like just quit.

Personally, I blame this unrealistic expectation of “instant expertise” on technological advances and the ease with which we can push a button and end up with a decent picture.

Today’s cameras allow us to take pictures that we didn’t earn through skill development. I see this as the digital photography equivalent of the old “paint-by-numbers kits” that included a couple of brushes, premixed and numbered paints, and a canvas with numbered spaces. Turn the knob to “Night Scene”, and turn the knob to “Action”, and all of those 500 “scene” choices come down to some variation of three things: shutter speed, aperture opening, and “film” speed (ISO) but applied without knowledge or forethought. No one assumes they can produce a “Rembrandt” quality oil painting because they know that red, green and blue can essentially create any color they want. Why would we think a paint-by-numbers-like choice on our cameras can do differently? We may luck into an outstanding image occasionally but we won’t be able to recreate that same level of image quality consistently. Or, we will only be able to recreate that exact same type of image again and again without any artistic growth.

How do you stand out and become that great photographer? The goal is to find yourself in the position where you don’t need think about the techniques or skills to achieve your vision. In other words, you want to be a photography virtuoso who has mastered the technical skills and is only limited by the extent of your imagination. How do you achieve that? Practice, learn, reinforce, practice, learn, reinforce…and more practice in three primary areas: Technical Knowledge; Creativity; and, Subject Knowledge.

My Nikon D800 manual on my iPhone Kindle Reader app. I also have my manuals for my strobes, D300 camera, my Olympus underwater camera, and wireless triggers electronically.

My Nikon D800 manual on my iPhone Kindle Reader app. I also have my manuals for my strobes, D300 camera, my Olympus underwater camera, and wireless triggers electronically. (click to enlarge image)

Technical Knowledge

Know your camera and lenses

I ALWAYS carry my camera manual. I usually carry it electronically on my iPhone – with easy searching and viewing using the Kindle Reader app (my Nikon D800 manual is over 400 pages! Can we say “heavy”?). Even the simplest cameras today have a mind-boggling number of settings and features that can make achieving your vision easier – or completely screw you up if you don’t understand them.

My weakest photography subject area is artificial lighting. I find myself referring to my manual when I start adding multiple strobe groups or using a different type of strobe synchronization technique. When I moved into shooting my children’s sports activities, I found myself learning the differences in autofocus modes and autofocus areas. This was technical knowledge I never needed in my landscape work (single point, manual focus). Be confident in the fact that inevitably two future moments will converge simultaneously: (1) when you fully understand every aspect of your camera’s functions and features; and, (2) when you get enough money to upgrade to the next generation of equipment so you can start all over again.

Know your accessories

Separate intervalometer? Beauty dishes? Parabolic lighting? Motorized slider and head for time-lapse photography? Ditto. Read their manuals. Read books about how to use them. Study the works of others to see how they used them. Then practice, practice, practice using them.

Know your software and post-processing

Darkroom technique mastery in film, or software post-processing in digital:  Can you say po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to?  Capturing light onto some form of media in some fashion is only half the job. It doesn’t matter what software you use. Just learn to use what you have to its fullest capabilities (in the way YOU want) so it doesn’t become the limiting factor in the expression of your vision.

If you don't have a shelf full of science, art and photography books in your house like you see in the top of this picture, then you should at least have a card in your wallet similar to the one shown at the bottom.

If you don’t have a shelf full of science, art and photography books in your house like you see in the top of this picture, then you should at least have a card in your wallet similar to the one shown at the bottom…and don’t leave home without it. (click to enlarge image)

Know your physics, physiology and psychology

Some of my best images were inspired by books that didn’t even contain the word “photography.”  David Hubel’s “Eye, Brain and Vision” (Hubel is looked upon by my ophthalmologist friends as “the god of vision”); M. Minnaert’s “The Nature of Light and Colour in the Open Air”; and, Robert Greenler’s “Rainbows, Halos, and Glories” have had more influence on my work than all other photography books combined (excepting, of course, my personal “god of photography” – Galen Rowell and his book “Mountain Light”).

How we perceive and acquire information about the visual elements of the world around us is as important to creating beautiful photographs as the mechanics of their creation.


Yes. In my opinion, creativity can be learned and improved.

Look at the “Creative Thinking Value Rubric” by the Association of American Colleges and Universities that many educators use to evaluate a student’s performance and progress. Compare it to what has happened with your own artistic pursuits. On one end of the spectrum is “modeling” (who among us didn’t start with some element of mimicry in our images?) and on the other end is “reflecting.” The AACU rubric defines creative thinking as “both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking.” Even if you think that”capacity” is something you are born with and limited by, “experience” is something you acquire through practice. So, go ahead and argue for your limitations if you want, but I think we can all push our capacity for creativity the same way we can increase our muscle strength – hard work and ongoing repetition (i.e. practice).

Subject Knowledge

Understanding the nuances and intimacies of your subject is essential. That knowledge will allow you to convey the story you are trying to tell. The more you know about the world you are specifically trying to capture, the better you will be at it. I’m not talking about just the natural world either. I’m referring to “The World” – with a capital “W” (as in: “The earth and all the people and things on it” – thank you Merriam-Webster).

Know your subject! I've spent years diving and snorkeling along the New England coast so I know where and when to safely get unusual perspectives from the waterline.

Know your subject! I’ve spent over 30 years diving and snorkeling along the New England coast so I know where and when to safely get unusual perspectives from the waterline. (click to enlarge image)

In my mind, the opposite of Landscape Photography is Wedding Photography – and I’m saying this as a landscape guy.  I’ve had people ask me to do events because they’ve seen my other work. I personally know enough wedding photographers to understand that my knowledge is not translatable into their world. In other words, I know enough to know what I don’t know. And what I don’t know about wedding photography would fill volumes. The ability to capture one of the most precious moments in a person’s life in a way that makes the moment SHINE is the result of years of study, practice and being a “second shooter.” There is no other way to gain the knowledge to comprehend, and take advantage of, the subtleties of human psychology and social interaction during a wedding and reception – and this is IN ADDITION TO all the prerequisite technical knowledge that I mentioned above. In theory, I can know everything there is to know about the physics of alpenglow to create stunning sunset/sunrise images, but that won’t even remotely help me capture the perfect love between two people and the celebration of their family and friends.

Know your subject! ’nuff said.

No One Likes Eating Their Vegetables…But They Are Good For You

Equally, we would all like to be great photographers without the hassle of practice.

Early in my career, when I was expressing frustration to my Dad about not knowing everything I needed to know in my new job, he said one of his most memorable lines to me: “Yeah, I wanted to start with 20 years’ experience too…but they wouldn’t let me.”

Experience takes time, but it is good for you – just like eating your vegetables.

You Passed!

If you stuck with me this far, kudos. You passed (and I don’t mean “passed on”… I think)!  You have amply demonstrated the capability of withstanding intense torture. That kind of discipline, though clearly misguided in this case, will serve you well as you continue to practice.

So, get out there and work at your craft – and rather than become bored and boring like Jack, find yourself invigorated as you realize your potential through hard work and practice to perfectly achieve your perfect vision.

As a final note…  If you arrive at that level of mastery, please let me know how it feels – because I am still practicing…when I’m not writing blog articles, that is. (Does anyone know how to make these things short and concise? I suppose I need more practice writing.  Damn.)

Tom Gaitley

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Posted in Artistic Vision, Creativity, Equipment, Inspiration, Photo Techniques, Photography Knowledge, Photography Skills, Photography Style, Photography Technology, Scenic New England, Technique, Tips Tagged , , , , , , , |

Baby Animals in Spring

It’s almost hard to imagine after a record-breaking winter and cold early spring, but spring has finally arrived in New England. With the recent mild spell, there have been many signs of the changing seasons: wildflowers and gardens are blooming, trees and shrubs are leafing out, new migratory birds are arriving daily, and wildlife are active. Animals give birth during this time, a natural adaptation that allows their offspring several months to grow and fatten up for the cold winter months.


A red fox kit inspects fresh daffodils outside its den.

A red fox kit inspects fresh daffodils outside its den.

Foxes, which often establish dens near field or backyard edges and in buildings such as barns and garages, are one of the most visible species during this time. The kits venture out of their dens when their mothers are out on hunting rounds to cautiously explore their new world. Siblings often engage in playful behavior such as wrestling or pouncing on rocks or other objects. Though red foxes, which are well-adapted to mixed habitats, are most often associated with human dwellings and suburban settings, shier gray foxes will also use them.



Young white tailed deer taking cover in summer wildflowers.

A white-tailed deer fawn in a milkweed patch.

White-tailed deer fawns are distinguished by their reddish-brown coats with white spots, which help them blend into the forest and avoid potential predators. Mothers hide newborn fawns in cover such as fallen logs, rocks, thickets, and tall grass, where they lie motionless to avoid detection. Within a matter of weeks, they are strong enough to use speed and agility to evade potential threats.




Mother moose in pond with moose calf in Maine.

A newborn moose calf ‘testing the water’ at a pond.

Long associated with the north woods, breeding moose have also become an increasingly familiar sight in southern New England over the past quarter-century. Newborn calves have red-rust coats that transition to brown as they mature in summer. During this time, they grow at a prolific rate, gaining one to four pounds a day and ultimately reaching 300-400 pounds by the onset of cold weather in autumn. Most moose give birth to one or two calves, or in rare instances, triplets or quadruplets.



Wildlife are often highly visible during the spring birthing season.

Wildlife are often highly visible during the spring birthing season.

In addition to newborns, many sightings of juvenile moose, deer, black bears, and other species occur during spring. These are often yearlings that have been displaced by their mothers so they can attend to the current year’s crop. It’s a confusing and potentially dangerous time for the young animals, as they disperse to new and unfamiliar territories (which sometimes involves stumbling into places such as backyards, roadsides, or pastures) and face life on their own.




While observing young wildlife is a treat, it’s important to be respectful and minimize disruption. Even if a newborn appears to be abandoned, its mother is likely close by and watching. Moose and black bear mothers can be especially dangerous if they feel their young are being threatened.

~ John Burk

John Burk is a photographer and author of books and guides related to New England. See his Amazon page for more information. 
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Posted in Animals, Nature Tagged , , , , , |

Save Money by Buying Used Camera Gear

The Best Used Camera Gear on a Budget

I like to have the best camera gear. I like my higher end Canon bodies, and I most certainly like Canon’s top of the line “L” level lenses.

Canon 7D With EF 17-40L Lens Attached


One thing I don’t like is paying for them! At least not at the prices they go for new anyway.

Since I first picked up a camera back in 2008, I have had quite a few of Canon’s best lenses and some excellent camera bodies. I’ve owned two Canon 40D’s, a 1D MkIIn, a 7D, and my current body, the 7D MkII. With the exception of the first 40D, and the 7D MkII,  all of the others were purchased used at substantial savings over new.

When it comes to lenses I’ve had quite a few of those as well. My downfall, and the reason my lens lineup changes so regularly is that if something catches my eye, I’ve been known to buy, sell, or trade for it. My camera bag has a revolving door and nothing stays for long. Does anyone really need to have owned four different versions of Canon’s 70-200 lens?

Where To Buy

My go-to source for used camera gear is Photography On The Net, or POTN for short. POTN started out as a Canon only online photography forum but has recently changed into an all makes, all models format. Perusing the Classified: For Sale section as been the single largest contributing factor to my gear swapping addiction. POTN is not just a gear selling forum either, you can visit anything from photo critique forums to lens sample archives.  Here you can look at photos taken with almost any lens you may be thinking of buying.

A word of note about Photography On The Net. New rules require you to have a certain amount of interaction. So you have to comment, reply, and post at least one question and photos to the forum, before you can even see the classified section. This keeps the fly-by-night types away, who are only there to take advantage of the site’s free selling format. Check the Sticky on the forum when you sign up to see the number of posts you currently need to make to be let through the doors of this excellent used gear resource.

Other Places to Buy Used

Of course there are other used gear outlets, Craigslist comes to mind, as well as the two biggest names in (reputable) camera sales, Adorama and B&H. Both Adorama and B&H have large selections of used gear for sale. Though you will pay more through the bigger camera shops, some people might prefer the security and piece of mind of buying through them as opposed to someone on an internet forum.



Things To Look For And Lessons Learned When Buying Used

1) Camera bodies offer the best bang for your buck when it comes to used gear. As with almost all electronics, as soon as a newer model is announced the value of the current model drops precipitously.

2) Lenses, not so much. Since the manufacturers don’t update or upgrade their lenses nearly as frequently as they do  camera bodies don’t expect to save more than a couple hundred dollars, maybe less, on a lens. Still a good savings, but not the windfall savings buying a used body can be.

3) Only buy from a reputable source. When I see something I’m interested in for sale on the POTN forum, after price, the first thing I look for is someone with a high post count. I tend to be more cautious when buying from someone who’s only got a little more than the minimum post count that allows them to list items for sale.

4) Use a secure form of payment. I use PayPal for all of my used gear purchases because of the protection it affords should I end up dealing with a crook. People will often ask for you to send your money through PayPal with what used to be referred to as the “gift option,” or the “friends and family” option in order to avoid the fees. DON’T DO IT! As far as PayPal is concerned you are sending money to a friend or relative, not buying goods. If you get screwed by the seller you will have zero recourse for getting your money back. Pay the extra 3% to cover the fees and have some piece of mind.

5) Unless you are a smoker don’t buy from one. I used to see people mention that the gear they were selling came from a smoke free home. I thought, “so what?” Well when I opened the box my used Canon 7D came in I found out why it was a big deal. It smelled like an ashtray and for several months afterward I wanted to gag every time I put the camera up to my face. Won’t make that mistake again!

6) If you can’t inspect the lens in person, look closely at any photos shown in the for sale ad. A few dust spots inside the lens aren’t a big deal to me because they won’t affect image quality. If on the other hand it looks like a snow storm inside the lens I’ll walk away no matter how good the deal it is. The same goes for any other damage. Some minor scratches, a small nick or ding, won’t affect the function of the lens but it will affect resale value,  The price should reflect any imperfections.

~ Jeff Sinon

To see more of Jeff’s work, most of it created with a used camera or lens, please visit www.jeffsinon.com

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Posted in Camera Equipment, Equipment, How-to, Lenses, Scenic New England Tagged , , |

A bug’s life captured in Macro

These praying mantis or mantid just emerged moments before from their egg case.   Mantid's or praying mantis are terrific hunters and predators in the insect world.

Just saying HI!

Exploring my garden with my macro lens allows me to capture a world that we rarely notice, until we come face to face with it. (THEN! we run screaming) Most people love to get up and close to butterflies or dragonflies and I’m no different. I also wonder about all the rest of the insects that from day-to-day, visit my garden.

I love getting in close and personal with a macro lens and seeing the details of what the human eye can’t discern. I find their eyes to be incredible with their complexity and beauty.  I also wonder about their life cycle. I mean we generally catch insects in one phase of their life cycle or another by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. (What about the rest of the summer?)

Now I know the praying mantis may not be your favorite subject but if you want you can reproduce what I did by ordering a larva of any species that you find pleasing. This article will be mostly about setting up and capturing a macro image of a Praying Mantis and my results.

Considerations for using a macro lens or substitute

I’m not going to delve into the technical jargon about ratios and resulting images that you can read on Wikipedia if you are so motivated. Simply put, Macro photography produces photographs of small items larger than life-size.

I will simply assume you either have a macro lens or want a macro lens because you want to render small objects large enough to fill the frame. Also, if bugs are not your thing, flowers, toys, flora and fauna can be your subject.

There are three ways to accomplish macro photography:

  • Using a setting on your camera or lens that permits you to focus closer than normal (produces pictures that at best simulate a macro image). It’s not much better than taking your camera in to the minimum focusing distance and then cropping the resulting image.
  • The next better option is an extension tubes. you can get good results with extension tubes which you place between your camera body and the lens. Sometimes you lose auto focusing ability or stabilization (if you had it in the first place), but if you are on a tripod, and able to manually focus, then it’s not an issue.
  • Lastly, you go and plop down the cash for an actual macro lens. I don’t care if the name says Sigma, Nikon or Canon; it’s merely a lens capable of rendering reproduction ratios greater or equal to 1:1.

How I set up to capture the life cycles of the Praying Mantis

The reason I became interested in the praying mantis was I had winter moths eating my maples and oaks around my yard and since I abhor using pesticides; I wanted a more natural method of reducing the winter moth population. So I went to a nearby green house and they suggested taking home a praying mantis ootheca. (egg casing) I bought two ootheca and I placed one on a bush outside and the other was attached to a tall branch in a terrarium I had built.

I desired to capture the mantises from birth until I released them and I found out that there are all sorts of problems in keeping them alive, such as feeding.  They are carnivores, and if you don’t feed them enough they will eat each other. So I released them in batches during the first two weeks. (Here is More info on caring for them)

My macro set-up

These praying mantis or mantid just emerged moments before from their egg case.   Mantid's or praying mantis are terrific hunters and predators in the insect world.

Camera on tripod waiting

Terrarium: I went to Home Depot and bought couple sheets of Lexan sheets and clear flexible caulking to attach the sides and a bottom. I cut three sections with a fourth being translucent. Next I put a layer of dirt on the bottom and planted some weeds from the yard to see if they would grow in the terrarium.

I knew that the nymph’s would leave the ootheca  around July 1st. So my job is to now sit and wait. My camera sat on my tripod and I placed two flash units on each side of the container.

These praying mantis or mantid just emerged moments before from their egg case.   Mantid's or praying mantis are terrific hunters and predators in the insect world.

Translucent panel

Translucent panel: I placed a sheet of plastic that would soften the flash by diffusing the light and would add fill light in the container. You may be wondering about the Captain lying down below the camera… Believe it or not, it was him staring at the terrarium that let me know something was happening.

Camera: My camera is the 50D (nothing fancy) and my lens is the Canon 100mm L 2.8 IS macro lens. To control my lights I use my pocket wizards to fire my tandem flash units. (Let me know if you want an article on using off camera flash controls)

Tripod: absolutely necessary to getting sharp images. Luckily they aren’t speed demons so once you focus in, you are good. Also you will need to up the ISO because to get a better DOF (Depth of Field) you will have to balance the shutter speed, ISO and Aperture.

A bit more info about why DOF is important. Macro lenses tend to be very shallow on DOF so to make sure you have more of the object in focus you need a greater aperture. I try to get to between F8 to F16 of greater and even at F16 if will be a very shallow DOF but manageable. This is why I have flashes, because of light fall off. So blending all these factors are necessary.

The big day

Macro of mantid nymphs emerging from egg casing

Macro of mantid nymphs emerging from egg casing

Please remember the nymphs are only about 3mm in length so spotting them and keeping them in focus is tough. What you will see, are strands hanging down and this tells you that they are leaving the egg casing.

Now the fun begins because almost all the insects I can capture and bring to them are bigger than them but I found these bright green nymphs on my garage door, so I captured a few of them each morning and I bring the terrarium outside and open the lid to try to quickly get these flying insects into the container without releasing them or the mantids… I assume you can also see why I did this outside. J

food supply

food supply

Also there are about 60 or more of the mantids running around inside so I was a witness to their predatory nature as they will indeed eat one another if they have nothing else. So within a few days, I took the container outside and shook out about half of them onto my flowers and bushes. Within a week and after releasing most of them I was down to a manageable five mantids.

I continued to bring bugs to them and they were getting bigger. One in particular was getting very large and I was able to capture the molt from the 1st instar to the 2nd instar phase. This is where the old skin is shrugged off and they come out a translucent bright green.

Macro of Mantid molting off the old skin

Macro of Mantid molting off the old skin

This may have been a female as she grew even larger at this point. I also noticed that some of the other 4 mantids were disappearing, so I have to assume she didn’t find my food supply sufficient.

Macro of mantid coming home for fall

Macro of mantid coming home for fall

I soon released her also to my garden. You may be wondering if this is the end of the story. Well as you can see here, the autumn had arrived and at our back door my wife had placed a garland of fake fall  foliage and I spotted an unusual object in the bright colors. Yes one of my mantids had come home. If you’re wondering why I didn’t bring this one survivor in and keep her over the winter (it can be done) my wife put her foot down and said no… :-)



Jeff “Foliage” Folger

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