The winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition were announced yesterday. This is always an important day in the wildlife photography calendar and one I look forward to each year. The overall winner was a powerful image by Don Gutoski showing the brutal aftermath of a battle between a red fox and an Arctic fox. The winning and commended (now called 'finalist') images can be found here.
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'A Tale of Two Foxes' by Don Gutoski
I think 'A Tale of Two Foxes' is an excellent image. It is powerful, unusual, well composed (I like the symmetry of the foxes' heads) and tells a story. One can only imagine such encounters between red and Artic foxes will become more commonplace as climate change extends the range of the former into that of the latter.
In my view the competition features some inspirational images this year. There are a number that I particularly like but the following are some of my favourites:
'Shadow Walker' by Richard Peters
'Still Life' by Edwin Giesbers
'Battling the Storm' by Vincenzo Mazza -
this image doesn't quite work for me until you spot the Whooper Swans on the water.
'A Whale of a Mouthful' by Michael Aw
'Sea Eagle Snatch' by Auden Rikardsen
(this formed a part of the portfio prize and Rikardsen's portfolio as a whole is very impressive)
...and there are several others that I really like too.
I was particularly keen to see the images in the Invertebrates category. Within this category I try to imagine which image I would have been most pleased to see on the back of my camera. By this yardstick, of the 4 winning and finalist images, my favourites would be 'Waiting for the Sun' (below) and 'Wings of Summer' by Klaus Tamm. These are the two images I would have been most keen to rush home and process had I taken them! I notice that this category only features 4 images - all other categories feature at least 5 I think. One can only assume that the judges felt that only 4 invertebrate images met the required quality standard which perhaps reflects a lack of submissions of invert images or just a general dearth of quality. Both are slightly troubling and suggest that the competition is still struggling to cast off its recent reputation for 'not really doing insects'. By comparison, the European Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards always features a much larger, and often higher quality, selection of insect images. Hopefully, the presence of the dedicated Invert category (introduced last year) will result in a greater number of high quality insect images being submitted to WPOTY.
'Waiting for the Sun' by Edwin Giesbers (again!)
Overall, I think the judges have done an excellent job this year. All decisions are of course highly subjective and one can never fully agree with all of them. But, this year's winners contain a number of highly original images featuring a wide selection of subject matter. The reduced emphasis on flagship species is very welcome.
However, I can't resist the urge to have a slightly mischievous moan. In my WPOTY blog post 2 years ago (here) I was critical of the number of similar images in recent years and I highlighted the 3 images below
WPOTY 2010 by Marcelo Krause
WPOTY 2012 by Luciano Candisani
WPOTY 2013 by Jordi Chias Pujol
all of which seemed to suggest that the judges couldn't resist side-on head shots of aquatic reptiles! As if to maintain this tradition, this year's competition contains the following image:
'Cuban Survivor' by Mirko Zanni
Individually, all of these are very nice images but given the presence of the previous images, I still struggle a little to understand how this latest image was deemed to be sufficiently original to see off competition from over 42,000 other images.
However, I shouldn't end on a negative note as I think this may have been one of the best WPOTY for several years. Well done to the winning photographers and to the judges too.
This summer the vast majority of my photography took place at a local nature reserve only 10 minutes from home. There were several reasons for this, the main one being that for some reason I particularly enjoy photographing my local wildlife. I will occasionally venture further afield but I like that to be the exception rather than the rule.
The downside of focusing so much attention on one local site year-after-year is that the insect species that appear at different times of the year become fairly predictable. This can encourage creativity as it forces me think how to photograph Common Blue butterflies or Four Spotted Chasers differently. But I don't normally expect to see 'new' species.
Imagine my surprise therefore to discover 2 new species of large insects at this site within the space of a couple of weeks this summer. The first discovery was this rather handsome Roesel's Bush Cricket found in early July in a patch of rough grass. This is a species that I'd never seen before, not only at this site but anywhere else either. In the UK its range has been expanding from the south east so it is possible that it is a fairly recent arrival at the site.
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Later in July, on the same patch of rough grass (while looking in vain for more Roesel's Bush Crickets) I found this female Long Winged Conehead. It is a nymph which is why it has short wings and the straight ovipositor distinguishes it from the Short Winged Conehead. Again this is a species that is gradually moving north in the UK and is now increasingly common in the midlands.
I can only hope that both of these species become established at this site.
I'm very pleased to have a Highly Commended image in the 'Hidden Britain' category of the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2015. The image is of a tiny Globular Springtail, just 2-3mm in size.
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Globular Springtail (Canon 60D with MP-E 65mm lens and MT-24 twin flash)
I've photographed Globular Springtails many times but on this particular occasion I wanted to achieve something a little different. I noticed that the wet leaves on my garden lawn (this was taken in winter) often contained Globular Springtails and by holding a wet leaf up and shooting into sunlight I was able to create unusual lighting effects. The use of flash added to this and also helped to darken the background thereby emphasising the light on the leaf and the springtail.
What particularly pleases me about this image being highly commended in the BWPA is the fact that it didn't require a long journey or a trip to a remote part of the UK. I simply walked into my back garden. Come to think of it, my highly commended image in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2010 was also photographed in my back garden. I think this emphasises the often rich biodiversity that exists around us which often goes unnoticed.
Well, it's now September and the weather has turned decidedly autumnal so it will soon be time for me to start thinking about fungi photography. I'm also very pleased to have a short guide to fungi photography in the current ('autumn') issue of Outdoor Photography magazine.
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I particularly like the image on the cover of this issue taken by Mark Littlejohn
Back in June and July a Buddleia bush in my garden hosted 4 Mullein Moth caterpillars. I watched them grow from tiny, thin caterpillars, no more than 15mm in length, to large, well-fed caterpillars that caught the eye immediately with their striking colours. For 2-3 weeks the caterpillars remained on the small bush and I checked on them most days to watch their progress. However, once they reached a good size I knew their days were numbered and sure enough they all disappeared within a couple of days of each other. Although I didn't see them do it, they will each have dug down into the soil to pupate. And what's more remarkable is that it will be several years before the adult moths emerge.
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Inevitably I took a few images of the caterpillars. First with my Tokina 10-17mm fisheye:
The Venus lens company - a small Chinese lens manufacturer - recently launched a unique lens, the Laowa 15mm f4 wideangle macro. What is special about this lens is that it is a true macro lens capable of 1:1 or lifesize reproduction yet has a very short focal length and hence provides a very wideangle perspective. As far as I am aware, the next shortest focal length true macro lenses on the market are the Sony 30mm macro and the Tokina 35mm macro. Venus very kindly sent me a copy of their new lens to review and I have been putting it through its paces over the last 2-3 weeks. Here are my initial thoughts (I may well update this article over the coming weeks and months).
There is no doubt that this is an excellent lens that is capable of producing images that no other commercially available lens can produce. However, like all specialist lenses it is a challenging lens to use, particularly at higher magnifications.
The build quality is excellent and the lens feels reassuringly solid. However, it is manual focus only and, perhaps more importantly, there is no auto aperture control. What does this mean? It means that when you look through the viewfinder you look through the stopped down lens. Modern lenses normally allow you to look through the wide open lens when focussing and framing which provides a much brighter image. Instead the viewfinder becomes very dark when using, say, f16 or f22 on the Laowa 15mm. In addition, you cannot set the aperture via the camera but only via the lens.
The other challenge with this lens is the proximity of the subject to the lens at, or close to, 1:1 reproduction. At 1:1 the working distance is 5mm, yes that’s 5mm! This means that a very docile subject is needed as the lens will practically be touching it but it also means the lens will cast a shadow on the subject. Flash therefore becomes almost essential when using this lens at higher magnifications. So far, I have experimented with using a single diffused flash gun on a side bracket with the diffuser resting on the rim of the lens. If carefully positioned it can light the subject above and from one side but if not carefully positioned the flash head will creep into the field of view and/or will cause lens flare. I have recently received the Venus macro twin flash (KX800) and will provide my thoughts on that flash in due course. I haven’t been able to use my Canon MT-24EX twin flash with this lens as I am not able to attach the flash heads to the rim of this lens. It is possible to buy flexible arms which attach to the tripod screw on the base of the camera and each holds one of the MT-24’s flash heads, but this isn’t something I’ve tried.
Given the lack of working distance and the lighting difficulties described above you may well be wondering if the lens can really be used at or close to 1:1 reproduction. Well, it can as long as great care is taken, not only to find a docile subject and to carefully set up the flash but also to pay greater attention to the background. At higher magnifications the background loses detail even when the lens is stopped down. If the subject is surrounded by grass or foliage it may appear as an out of focus mess. However, if there is a more distant view in the background some of this landscape detail should still be discernible in the final image. There is less of a need to include distant landscape in the background at lower magnifications as more detail will be captured in nearby grass and foliage thereby still potentially providing a nice habitat image.
Nevertheless, here are a couple of images taken at, or very close to, 1:1 reproduction. Both images were taken with an APS-C sensor body and have not been cropped. The first is a Harlequin ladybird larva, approximately 8-10mm in length, on a leaf in my garden.
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The second image is of a Common Red Soldier Beetle, approximately 10mm in length.
In both images enough detail is retained in the background to show the subject in its environment, despite the high magnification. However both images were tricky to take mainly due to the darkness of the subject (because of the stopped down viewfinder and because the lens was casting a shadow on the subject). As with most of my macro photography, I preset the manual focus and then move the lens (handheld) until the subject is in focus. But the darkness of the subject made this difficult. I’m hoping the modelling lamp from the KX800 twin flash will make this easier.
I have also taken a number of other images at lower magnifications which were generally more straightforward. Here is an early morning dew-covered Blue-Tailed Damselfly:
and a small Brown-Lipped Snail in its waterside habitat:
and finally a Small Skipper butterfly warming up in the early morning sun:
As with all wide angle macro, I find images work better if there is some transition between the subject and the background. If there isn’t, and the subject is in sharp focus and the background is in soft focus, then the subject can look superimposed and somewhat artificial. This problem can also be exacerbated by the use of flash. Finding some habitat or foliage that links the subject’s perch and the background or even just ensuring that the not all of the perch is in sharp focus tends to alleviate this problem.
Finally, I’ve said little about image quality. Optically, the lens is excellent in my opinion. It is capable of taking very sharp images and, in my experience, any soft images are not the fault of the lens’ optics but stem from the difficulty in achieving precise focus due to the difficulties described above. There is a small degree of barrel distortion as you would expect from a 15mm lens. I have yet to experiment with the lens’ shift facility but this should help to correct perspective distortion in images of buildings etc. Chromatic aberration (purple fringing) is almost always present to some degree in wideangle lenses particularly at higher magnifications and particularly in high contrast areas (e.g. an insect’s dark antennae against a white sky). I don’t consider the chromatic aberration to be excessive and it can generally be corrected in post-processing.
In summary, the Laowa 15mm f4 wideangle macro lens is an excellent lens that can produce unique images. It is well made but the lack of auto aperture control and the minimal working distance at higher magnifications provide some challenges. However, with practice it is possible to produce interesting wideangle macro images of insects, flowers, fungi etc in their natural environment. The greater magnification of this lens gives it the edge over fisheye lenses, particularly for smaller subjects, and the 15mm focal length means it can provide a much wider field of view than the Tokina 35mm macro. The Laowa 15mm will therefore find a permanent place in my kit bag.