Shooting Macro

Shooting Macro

I love shooting macro, though inspiration can be a little tough to find at times. I already have a 105 mm Micro Nikkor, but had been thinking about a longer focal length for some time. After some research, it seemed to me that, rather than buying the 200mm f4 Micro Nikkor which has a 20 year old design, I’d be better off going with the Sigma 180 mm F2.8 APO Macro ED DG OS. My thinking was thus. Firstly it is a faster lens, very sharp and has a good reputation. The 200 mm Nikkor, is also stunningly sharp, and built like a tank, but it is very much a one trick pony. The autofocus is very slow (though satisfactory for things a long way off apparently) and it has a maximum aperture of f4.

Making a Purchase, Checking It Out..

So, at the last but one photography show in Birmingham, I visited the Sigma stand and spoke to a representative. After looking at the lens, and hearing about it’s performance, a purchase was made from London Camera Exchange. It duly arrived, at our local store, about a week later. Had it not been a bank-holiday weekend it would have been even sooner. It’s been superb! Out of the box, the Sigma appeared well made and robust. I fitted a Wimberley Arca Swiss lens plate and set about shooting tethered using Helicon Focus. This revealed an unexpected, yet key, difference with the 105 mm Nikkor.

Bearing in mind that I had always considered the 105mm Nikkor to be an excellent lens, I was not prepared for the stunning absence of chromatic aberration. It’s not that the Nikkor is particularly bad, it’s just that the Sigma has no chromatic aberration. None at all. At least, I haven’t come across it yet. There must be some somewhere mustn’t there? But the visible difference was remarkable. With the same subject you could see the artifacting on the Nikkor but not on the Sigma. Amazing!

Choosing Between Macro Lenses

Shooting Macro

Back Garden Birds, Hide, Backlit

Choosing a lens for shooting macro requires a little thought. Firstly, what do you tend to shoot? If it’s wildlife, there is something to be said for a longer focal length to keep you more distant from your subject. This is not the only relevant factor however. Most of my outdoor shooting uses available light, sometimes with a reflector or torch to provide fill or dimension. The physical length of the macro lens I use makes little difference in this scenario, but if I’m to use flash then I need to consider two other issues.

Flash and Macro Lens Choice

Clearly, for macro shooting with flash, the length of the lens itself makes a big difference to the type of flash you might use on camera. Will the flash be a Speedlight on a flash bracket? If so, a 105mm or 150mm lens will be more useful as you can get the flash nearer to the subject. The flash bracket can reach over the lens (as opposed to be in the lens’ shadow). Here I’m using a Custom Brackets CB Folding-T folding flash rotating bracket to hold an SB900, with a Neewer SB1520 small softbox attached, to light a subject from above and to the side.

Were I to attempt this with the Sigma 180 mm F2.8 APO Macro ED DG OS I’d be out of luck. On a D500, with the APSC lens hood extension, it is approximately 330 mm in length compared to the 190 mm of the Nikkor (or aprox 115 mm without the lens hood).

Shooting Macro

R1C1 macro flash kit on a Nikkor 105mm f2.8

Using a Nikon Speedlight Commander R1C1 Macro Flash

If you are going to use the Nikon Speedlight Commander R1C1 Macro flash, for instance, you also need to bear in mind that there is no adaptor ring available in the 86 mm filter size of the Sigma 180 mm. You have to use the SB200s off lens in this case. Personally, I felt this was an inconvenience rather than a deal breaker, because when I work with flash it is usually in the studio and I can easily use stands for the flash.

Multi-Purposing a Macro Lens

It occurred to me that I have used my 105 mm Nikkor as a portrait lens in the past, ideal on a full frame camera. Would a longer prime be useful for some of my larger birds in flight work, for instance Osprey at Rothiemurchus? With a working focal length of 27o mm on a crop sensor camera (my D500), it might be a useful alternative to using my D810 with my 300 mm f2.8 (which is a much larger lens). This could be ideal for the lower light situations pre-dawn when the D810’s ISO performance is less suitable.

Lower-weight, and shorter minimum focal distance, make it a good choice for ad-hoc wildlife appearances closer to the hide.

Depth of Field Calculations

Sigma do not supply depth of field tables for shooting macro with their lenses, so ascertaining depth of field for close up work is not straightforward.

Macro Shooting

Doing the Math..

Some research was required to find out how to do the DOF maths, but with an Excel Spreadsheet I was able to produce a depth of field table. This has helped me appreciate how some of my shots might work – pre shutter release.

I guess, ultimately, if you take enough shots, you learn from experience, but knowing whether to make a virtue out of a wide aperture shot’s limited depth of field can be a little thought provoking if not enough image is sharp. I never mind taking many different shots whilst I’m out in the field, on the basis that one of them might be spot on. When I can get them onto the computer, It’s easy to see how I did, but I’d really rather know how to take the image work with a single click.

Lateral vs Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (CA)

Types of Chromatic Aberration

Chromatic aberration occurs because shorter wavelengths of light (blue) are refracted (bent) more than longer (green and red) wavelengths of light which are refracted less. There are two types of chromatic aberration. Lateral (or transverse) and Longitudinal (or Axial).

Lateral CA occurs when all the colours are focussed at the same plane, just not aligned. R, G and B light are focussed sharply, but side by side. In Longitudinal CA, the colours are not focussed at the same plane, they are superimposed with blue in front of green in front of red. To observe this, Lateral CA causes coloured fringes around objects of high contrast, whereas Longitudinal CA causes patches of colour (ie. the most in-focus colour predominates).

The 180 mm Sigma Macro lens is particularly good with Longitudinal CA, you do not see colours change as you move up to, and then through, the focal point for high contrast details. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is very noticeable in the Nikkor 105 mm in comparison.

Recent Images

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Building a New PC

Building a New PC

Photography can be an expensive hobby these days! Whilst it is perfectly possible to shoot small jpegs and to print them at a booth in your local store, most serious photographers are shooting RAW images in large numbers, and using Photoshop CC 2015 and Lightroom (or similar) to edit them. If you do any video work, or perhaps need to do some print work with InDesign, suddenly you need acres of storage space and a high-end workstation to make the process flow. 5-years ago, in another Christmas project, I built my first decent PC using an SSD for the operating system and the, then current generation of, Intel i7 chip. This has served me very well, even to the point of adopting Windows 10, but the final nail in the coffin was the recent update to Creative Cloud 2015. These days I use plugins extensively (On1 and the Google Nik Collection) but the combination was only useable with extreme patience! So time for an upgrade. Time for me to set about building a new PC.

Lots of things change over a five year period, in life as in PC tech. My partner in crime Geoff keeps in touch with the hardware developments and is an avid subscriber to Micro Mart Magazine. He put together an initial specification, as the basis for discussion, and together we researched further and finessed our individual computer builds. I’ve been using a Dell monitor for the last 8 years, and it’s been great, but I also took the opportunity to upgrade to a slightly larger 27 inch model with 100% Adobe RGB (and sRGB) colour (Dell UltraSharp Premier Colour UP2716D) on the grounds that it would be better for my eyesight as well as my colour correction. Apparently the colour profile is fabulous straight out of the box. We’ll see and I will comment further once I’ve a few hundred more hours photo-editing under my belt.

The Components

Building a new PC is not a cheap way of getting a good computer, but it is the perfect way to choose precisely the specification, and the supplier of the components, that you want for your build. You need leave nothing to chance! My list of components was, as follows:

Asus X99-Deluxe u3.1 Motherboard
Intel i7 5930 Processor
32GB: 4*8 GB DDR4 Memory
Samsung Pro 500Gb M.2 SSD
4TB Seagate Hybrid HDD * 3
Corsair RM 1000W Fully Modular 80+ Gold Power Supply
ASUS GTX 970 Geforce Graphics Card
Samsung DVD Writer SATA
Fractal Define R4 Case
Windows 10 OEM
Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler
Wireless Keyboard and Mouse
Monitor Dell UP2716D

The Suppliers

The order was fulfilled promptly by Amazon, Scan and Ebuyer without fuss, though the packaging on the Dell monitor was water damaged on arrival, but the contents were dry and untouched. Close to Christmas, it did not seem worth taking the risk of sending it back and risking not being able to complete my build during the holidays, so I kept it.

Building a New PC

The Grand Unboxing..

It’s a little beyond the scope of this article to describe the full detail of my build, but I will share some of the highlights. Firstly make a big pile of boxes and admire. Next unwrap the goodies and make sure you have everything you need for your build, and that you have looked at the Motherboard manual to know where the different connections are for the Power supply, Fan headers, SATA and SATA Express ports etc. Make sure you also know which memory slots to use if you aren’t using all of them, and finally make sure you understand any restrictions on the PCIe slots for peripherals.

The next thing to do is to think really hard about the order in which you want to do things in order to make it easy for yourself. For instance, it’s easier to fit the processor to the motherboard before you fit the motherboard into the case. Also, when you’re building a new PC, it is easier to fit some of the cables to the motherboard before you fit it inside the case. Which cables to fit depends on your specific board configuration and also your particular case. The Fractal Define R4 is an excellent case. It’s very well made and quite a bit wider than the Cooler Master I used for my previous build (I could hardly fit the GTX 970 in that case) so there is more breathing room than in some boxes. Nevertheless space will be tight in some scenarios, and you don’t want to be forcing cables onto headers as this will stress the motherboard and lead to breakages.

Putting It All Together

It was fun to photograph the various parts as a memento of the build. The Intel i7 5930 Processor was gorgeous to behold, and the Asus X99 Deluxe u3.1 Motherboard looks so stylish that it begs to be lit and viewed through a transparent case (not that I’m keen on that sort of ostentatiousness usually, but you can see why people do that stuff).

Building a New PC

Fractal Define R4..

Here is the case with the sides removed. Apologies for the industrial strength vignette, it does focus you on the case though. The R4 has some lovely detailing with it’s white fans and drive bays etc. It comes with a box full of screws and a manual leading to an easier build experience.

Another benefit of the R4 is that you can fit extra fans in the top (2 fans) and side (1 fan) should you need them for extra cooling. It’s vital to ensure a stable cooling environment if you are minded to overclock your system. The speed of a processor depends on how many things it can do linearly per second (Clock Speed), and how many things it can do in parallel (Cores and Threads). The overall speed of the processor also depends upon the speed at which it can write out to, and retrieve from, it’s supporting memory systems so the RAM bus speed is also crucial. So what is clock speed (and thus overclocking)? Clock speed, or rate, is usually given as a frequency in gigahertz (GHz) these days and it’s the number of times a second that a processing step occurs. Some programming operations can take more than one step so there isn’t necessarily a one to one relationship between the clock frequency and the execution of lines of computer code. As far as graphics processing is concerned though, the faster the better, and the more parallelism the better (at least in graphics cards and some video editing software).

More About the Motherboard

Asus X99 Motherboard..

Asus X99 Motherboard..

Asus are manufacturing a range of motherboards with the so called X99 Architecture. So what does this mean? The new intel Core i7 processor and intel X99 chipset were designed to provide the ultimate desktop PC platform for extreme gamers, enthusiasts and content creators. It has special features which enable it to be overclocked and give great performance for gaming and digital content creation. This includes 6 and 8 core processors on the, so called, LGA2011-v3 socket (that’s an LGA2011 without a processor fitted on the left). Performance is boosted via Intel’s Turbo Boost 2.0 technology and Intel Hyper-Threading technology. As well as ultimate performance, the X99 architecture also maximises input/output and storage capabilities. The Intel i7 5930 processor used here (6 Cores), for instance, and it’s big brother the i7 5960 (8 Cores) have 40 PCIe (PCI Express) Gen 3 lanes, 10 SATA ports (for your disk drives), 14 USB ports (a key factor for me) and 20 MB of Smart Cache. Intel Rapid Storage technology delivers excellent storage performance and features to improve system responsiveness.

More Memory

The new Core i7 processor with the Intel X99 chipset also gives us quad-channel DDR4 memory at 2133 MHz that can support up to 4 unbuffered dual inline memory modules per memory channel with a max DRAM density of 4 GB and 8 GB. So this board can have up to 64 GB of memory in total!

Content Creation

With up to 40 lanes of PCI Express 3.0 the X99 platform gives you the flexibility to plug in up to 4 discrete graphics cards to provide dramatically reduced editing time for RAW photos and HD video. Given that I have a spare GTX 970 now, I may add that into my build once I’m happy that everything is running in a stable setup.

Unlocked Processors

This means that the user can performance tune the processor and memory frequencies themselves, without having to run any other part of the system above specifications (and hence risking, for instance, heat damage from large voltages).


The X99 chipset has integrated USB 3.0 support and the Rapid Storage technology allows the full Serial ATA (SATA) interface to go up to speeds of 10 Gb/s in keeping with the next generation of fast solid state drives. There is also a Rapid Recover technology that helps users to recover their data and return their system to an operational state and a Dynamic Storage Accelerator which speeds up the performance of your SSDs by dynamically adjusting the system power management to give up to 15% performance boost.

Specific Asus X99 Deluxe u3.1 Benefits

On top of the X99 specification, Asus have built in a number of other benefits

  • Easy-fit 10 Gb/s USB 3.1 type A card
  • 3×3 (3T3R) 802.1 ac Wi-Fi, up to 1300 Mb/s
  • Fan Extension Card
  • Dual 32 Gb/s ultrafast M.2 x4 (onboard plus PCIE add-in card)
  • 5-Way Optimization by Dual Intelligent Processors. One click overclock and cooling
  • Crystal Sound II (a fine implementation of the Realtek ALC1150 8-Channel High-Definition Audio CODEC)


All the I/O You Will Ever Need..

All the I/O You Will Ever Need..








Why Wi-Fi?

What on earth was I thinking when I specified Wi-Fi for a Desktop Computer that would never leave my office next to the superfast broadband router cable? Actually it was just an indulgence in the long term, but very necessary at the point I was doing the build. My office is far too small to build a new computer in and I couldn’t afford, at the point I did this build, to be without a computer. Wi-Fi lets you connect to the internet and get on with your install, until such time that you have a stable setup. I have known network cables to fail sometimes, usually when you haven’t got a spare one to hand and the shops are shut! If that ever happens, I’ll have a very useable setup using wireless.

The Build

Install the Intel i7 5930 into the LGA2011-v3 Socket

The Connected Side of an i7 5930..

The Connected Side of an i7 5930..

I haven’t tried to count the number of pins in an LGA2011-v3 socket, or the number of gold plated connectors on the back of the i7 5930, but there look to be, quite literally, hundreds. In fact, apparently, the clue is in the name, there are 2,011 contact pins in the socket. The Asus X99 Boards have extra pins to help them manage the overclocking functions, which, I suppose, must mean that there are more contact patches on the i7 Haswell-E Processors than there are in the standard v3 socket.

Ok, I admit it, my curiosity has been piqued. How many contact patches are there on my i7 5930? I did count them in the end after all. There were 2,092 including the 8 patches in the inner square, and excluding the triangular patch that tells you which way round the processor sits in the socket. How did I count them? I used Photoshop’s count feature (once I’d located the count tool which is not shown by default in CC 2015, presumably because hardly anyone uses this very useful feature much these days).

i7 5930 Processor in-situ..

i7 5930 Processor in-situ..

To insert the processor you lift up the two retaining springs which allow the hinged cowling to swing up. You remove the plastic pin cover and then place the processor with the triangular marker aligned with the mark in the socket. Next you replace the cowl and the springs (which do require quite a strong force to replace).

Next simply admire to taste. The top of the processor looks just as cool as the contact face after all. You won’t get to see this again (hopefully) because soon we are going to have to install the heat-sink, which first requires you to place a dollop of thermal paste on top of the processor so that you don’t get a metal to metal contact with the heat-sink. Things have moved on since my last build, the heat-sink is no longer a small fan assembly atop the processor, but now a massive radiator with a fan the size of the extractor unit in my en-suite bathroom. No-seriously, it’s pretty much that large!! Or a water cooler of course. I used the Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler.

Fitting the Motherboard and Power Supply

When building a new PC, to fit the motherboard, you first screw in the mounting posts to the relevant pre-threaded holes in the casing assembly. Next, as mentioned above, you may wish to fit a few of the necessary cables to the more difficult to reach motherboard headers and SATA cable sockets.

SATA and SATA Express Sockets..

SATA and SATA Express Sockets..

Then you drop the motherboard into the case and fix carefully by screwing through the motherboard into the mounting posts that you previously secured. These fixings also serve to earth the board to the cabinet in several places.

Next comes the power supply. In this case a Corsair RM 1000W fully modular 80+ gold power supply. It’s worth investing in a high quality power supply because of the extra stability of the voltage supplied, and a decent wattage, particularly if you plan to have more than one graphic card, or to expand to the max. Generally the fan faces into the casing when fitted and vents waste heat out of the back of the unit.

Fitting the CPU Fan

Noctua are recognized as making the best fans, and many people swap out their case fans for Noctua ones. They are very quiet and provide a constant pressure. The radiator towers can be single or double thickness with one or two fans (push, versus push-pull). I have it on good authority that for the thin tower version adding a second fan makes very little difference to the CPU temperature (Linus Tech Tips).

The Beast..

The Beast..

I’m using the Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler here, and even this seems massive compared with previous fans I have used. I’d be grateful for an extra fan this size in my en-suite bathroom! This fan gets great reviews for running silent, and for it’s cooling power, so it is ideal for a machine that will be overclocked. It may be that a water-cooler would be better still, but that seemed overkill for this application. Somehow it seems a bit risky to place a water system into a box of electrical components? I’m sure they must be durable and safe though.

The other advantage of this single-tower fan is that it allows easy access to the memory modules which can be easily fitted and removed without having to move the cooling assembly. The fan itself is held in place with easy to remove clips to further improve access. Of course there is another benefit to having a second fan on your cooler tower, which is to provide built in redundancy so that, should it fail, your precious overclocked system will have an extra margin of safety, but at the price of (purchasing an extra fan, obviously) a small amount of extra noise.

Fitting a CPU cooler requires a small blob of thermal compound, and this comes supplied with the Noctua NH-Ul4S Slim U-Series Single Tower CPU Cooler, along with all the other bits and bobs to fit it with.


In this build I’m using 32GB (4*8 GB) DDR4 Memory in the form of  Corsair Vengeance LPX 2666 Mhz DDR4 which comes in at a great price point. It’s Quad Channel and Intel XMP certified. So what does that mean? Vengeance LPX memory is designed for high-performance overclocking. It uses an aluminium heat spreader for faster heat dissipation and it’s low profile design fits into most microATX and MiniITX systems.

Intel Extreme Memory Profile (XMP) allows you to overclock RAM including compatible DDR3 and DDR4 memory to perform beyond its standard specifications. This is designed to help enhance the gaming features built into other Intel technology.

Four channel? This just means that for any given amount of memory (32 GB in this case) you can have a kit that fits that memory into 4 memory card slots (or channels) on the motherboard in order to get the fastest throughput of data. The Asus X99 Deluxe U3.1 motherboard has two sets of 4 memory-bus slots for this purpose.

How does XMP work?

Predefined and tested Intel XMP profiles can be loaded via the BIOS, or a specific tuning application, through the computer’s operating system. Intel has developed a certification program for memory vendors to test their products for compatibility against the Intel Extreme memory Profile. Intel provide an Extreme Tuning Utility to help with the overclocking process. Asus motherboards come with the AI Suite 3 which serves the same purpose.

Fitting the Graphics Card

The ASUS GTX 970 Geforce Graphics Card slots into one of the 5 PCIe 3.0 slots, then gets power from the power supply. For building a new PC the Motherboard Manual guides you on which slots to use according to whether you want to use a single or multiple graphic cards, and a special linking cable is supplied to sync the cards together if multiple cards are used. Slot 1 or slot 3 would normally be used for a single card, and slots 1 and 3 for a dual card setup. Slot 4 is added for a triple card setup.

Fitting the Disk Drives

When building a new PC, this is fairly straightforward. I have a single M.2 memory module (Samsung Pro 500Gb M.2 SSD) and 3 hybrid drives(4TB Seagate Hybrid HDD) to fit. The M.2 SSD slots into the Motherboard, vertically, with a special bracket, and the 3 hybrid drives go into 3 of the 8 drive bays using the provided screws into the removable mounts. It’s best not to tighten these much as they pass through rubber grommets to provide a less rigid mount.

M.2 Slot with SSD Card in Place

M.2 Slot with SSD Card in Place..

So why choose three 4TB spinners? I’ve been keeping my photos on two external 4TB USB drives recently, and JPEG backups of my favourite images on my Dropbox Pro Account. These drives, one for storage and the other for backup, are 60% full now, and have been quite slow with my D810 files in Lightroom. My old PC only had USB3.0 so, with the optimised USB 3.1 I was hoping for a marked increase in speed. I’m doing more and more photography with my D810, so I reasoned that it’s time to move my storage back to fast internal drives (one for storage and one for backup) for the new stuff. The third drive is for all my non-photography stuff and the backups for that are on yet more external drives. It’s not a perfect strategy, but it’s good enough for what I’m needing to do.

There’s good future proofing with the ASUS board. As SATA Express drives become available I can upgrade to those without shedding the drives I’ve got fitted at the moment, and the spare M.2 slot, via the PCIe card, means that as super-fast SSD storage comes down in price and the drive capacities rise, which they are bound to do, over the next year or two, I can consider adding a further SSD without prejudicing anything else. The future expandability looks very good indeed.

3 Spinners All in a Row..

3 Spinners All in a Row..

Each hybrid drive needs power and a data connection into the SATA ports. These come in at the back, and space is a little tight, so you need to use an angled SATA cable to avoid any pressure being put on the connection when the side is replaced on the case.

According to Seagate, “SSHDs fuse the strength of SSD and HDD into one affordable and powerful device”. This gives you the combined reliability of both in the hybrid drive product. These drives have 4TB of hard disk storage and a very decent 8GB of fast integrated NAND Flash. Basically, the hybrid drive works out which files you are using frequently and uses the SSD to cache them without you having to do anything. As you are probably aware, SSDs have a limited write life, they hate being written to, but you can read from them as many times as you like. The main wear factor for a spinning disk (HDD) is starting them up and shutting them down, though reading and writing have small but equal wear overheads. The benefits of SSD are that they are resistant to fragmentation in the sense that it matters not where various pieces of file reside in terms of speed of access, whereas on a hard disk drive fragmentation is problematic and slows access times down dramatically. HDDs are better for storing large amounts of data, but access is much slower. So in terms of wear, caching data to the SSD cuts some wear and tear on the HDD. You can check out the detail of the technology here.


This is where the rubber meets the road. Plugging in the monitor and the power supply and pressing the on button! No problem, it all worked.. Next install Windows 10, setup the wireless connection and update everything. Install the motherboard and graphics card drivers and then the hardest part of the build is installing all of the software and copying over all my data from the internal drive of the outgoing PC. Fortunately, with 8 drive bays, it was a simple matter to remove my data drive from my old PC and install it into the new one for a rapid copy and paste. Lots of my software is licensed however and needs to be deactivated from the old PC before it can be activated on the new build, but the Wi-Fi made this easier than it would have otherwise been because I could run both PCs at the same time.

Testing and Installing Windows 10

Testing and Installing Windows 10

And herein started the real ordeal. I had several problems which involved corruption to vital windows files that were not that easy to fix, and, for stability sake, I ended up doing 2 complete installs before everything worked as it should. There is a bios update for the Asus board which will undoubtedly improve stability and I will flash the bios with the update once I’ve been running the new build for a few weeks and feel I really understand the stability issues.

Overall Impressions

I’m very pleased with the new build and I will certainly be keen on building a new PC in the future. Things I like about this build:

  • It’s much quieter than the old one, so much so that the hum from my powered 50w Genius Multimedia Speaker System became very noticeable and distracting. It’s been necessary to research an alternative and in the end I went with a pair of Audioengine A5+ (powered) Speakers. These play very nicely with the Crystal Sound II on the Asus X99 Deluxe U3.1. It’s said that the Audioengine D1 24-Bit DAC/Headphone Amp can improve quality still further by circumventing the built-in Crystal Sound System, so I may look into that further at some point.
  • The Dell UP2716D Monitor is a real step up with an excellent built-in profile straight from the box. It’s sharp and clear with excellent colour and a decent fit for my desk. Much less tiring for my eyes.
  • USB 3.1 is noticeably faster on my external WD 4TB drives, making Lightroom much more useable even on my huge back-catalogue of photographs.
  • I’m loving the increased performance of Lightroom and Photoshop CC 2015, including my plugins, all in all it’s much more useable now.
  • I have learned lots about the up-to-date technology in general and building a new PC in particular. Next time I might go with a transparent case and multi-coloured lighting plus a CPU water-cooler!!


There have only been minor issues so far. Windows 10 didn’t want to recognize my old HP LaserJet P2200. I’m not sure what the problem was at its core, but it was resolved by switching the USB lead into a USB 2.0 port instead of a 3.0.

Until next time,


Photographing Osprey

Photographing Osprey

Photographing Osprey

Full Gas: Osprey Leaves with Trout..

I’m just back from an osprey shooting workshop in the Scottish Highlands. Photographing osprey is a new experience for me, and there are a number of differences in approach to assimilate. But first let me describe the workshop in general terms, before moving into the particulars of the photography, and telling you a secret or two about my personal journey in photography!


Images In Nature

My long-time shooting buddy Geoff and I had booked the Osprey Workshop with Images In Nature earlier in the year. Images in Nature, run by Lee Mott, offers small group nature photography workshops and tours. We stayed in the Osprey Hotel where we were very well looked after by proprietor Sue and her husband John. Lee is a hugely personable, experienced and knowledgeable photographer. He talked us through what to expect the night before, showing us pictures of the venue, describing the hides and, of course, discussed camera settings and the itinerary.

Itinerary and Venues

Photographing 0sprey involves an early start as you ideally need to be in-situ before sunrise. We were to meet outside the Osprey Hotel at 4:40 am and drive the 11 miles or so to the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms National Park, Aviemore. The purpose built hides are based in the Rothiemurchus Fishery where they look over a purpose built pond, well stocked with rainbow trout, for the osprey to dive for and catch. You can book the hides at Rothiemurchus independently if you wish, and the Wild Scotland link gives you a sense of what is available. I can, however, unreservedly state that these are the best designed hides that I have shot from in the UK.


View from the Hide..

On arrival at the fishery, we had a quick coffee and were installed within the hides by 5.30am. There are 4 hides around the fishing pool. The best hide choice depends on the prevailing wind direction because the osprey prefer to take off into the wind (as it helps with lift) and, hopefully, it also helps the photographer to be positioned to see the bird moving towards the camera rather than away from it. During our time at Rothiemurchus the conditions were very still, so we picked one of the middle hides to see what happened. The scenery is spectacular giving multiple possibilities for decent backgrounds and different shot styles. Osprey are not the only visitors to the pond, we had a visit from a field mouse, a family of mallard, rooks, kingfisher and several heron so there is always plenty going on in-between the drama of the osprey diving shots.

After the morning shoot, it was back to the hotel for a fabulous full Scottish breakfast (thank you Sue) and then back to the Rothiemurchus estate to shoot red squirrel, and more traditional garden birds, in the forest in the afternoon.

Key Technique Issues for Photographing Osprey

There are a number of issues to consider, namely, camera settings, fieldcraft and good lens technique.

Camera Settings

Ok, we are only talking Nikon here (I can’t speak for Canon shooters, but if you do shoot Canon you may find these Arthur Morris links useful – Getting the Right Exposure, Camera Settings, Tele-Extenders).

Autofocus Settings

AF-C priority selection  = release. Dynamic AF area 9 points. AF activation = AF on only. AF Point selection = 51. AF Continuous and Focus Tracking with Lock on (3-normal). Back button focus is mandatory (well not mandatory, but certainly a lot easier). It’s only fair to say that Lee disagreed with me on the Focus Tracking setting, which he prefers to be set to 1-short or off altogether. I find that I sometimes lose the focus point on the bird and then my focus snaps to the background, or something in front of the bird, before I can get it back again, losing me time and plenty of good shots. For me Focus Tracking is best left on 3-normal or even 5-long (which I use for my red kite shots). If I had Lee’s experience and skill I could probably get away with 1-short, but that’s the benefit of being a professional, you get loads more practice! Use what works for you. It goes without saying that you will be shooting above a 1/500th second so Vibration Reduction should be set to off.

Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO

As I have mentioned in my blog before, exposure is a perennial difficulty when shooting birds in flight, especially ones like osprey with an intrinsic high dynamic range against a rapidly changing background. I like to shoot manual for this, and so too on this occasion!

At 5.30am in mid-August it is pretty dark so you are dancing a very thin line in order to get useable pictures. Lee’s, very sensible, approach is to start off wide open at 1/500th second with whatever ISO gives a decent exposure. Clearly you risk subject movement at a 1/500th second but, in a way, this can paradoxically enhance a shot with an osprey taking off from the water because it gives a dynamic sense of movement and action with blurring of the wing-tips and water splashes, but still good potential for tack sharp eyes and fish. As the light improves you can increase shutter speed up towards 1/1600 and then reduce ISO to reduce noise. I tend to make 1/1000th second shutter speed my initial priority and then reduce ISO and increase shutter speed in tandem. It’s a percentage game really. Finally, if the sun comes up (it doesn’t always) you can also increase aperture from f2.8, f4.0 or f5.6 (depending on what lens/teleconvertor combination you have) up to about f7.1 for optimal depth of field. On two of the days we had mostly dull and overcast weather and I never got out of f2.8 on my 300mm Nikkor.

Avoiding blown highlights remains something of a tricky issue, and even shooting manual, you have to take account of changing contrast levels in the scene and leave more leeway as the contrast increases. So in dull flat light you can expose further to the right than you can in bright sunlight for a given exposure reading taken from an average tone in advance. As I have said before, I will often use a patch of grass, but this is not always available, and the direction that it is lit from (and how wet it is) can all give a misleading result. I don’t think there is a hard and fast answer to this. On this occasion I knew more or less where the osprey were going to dive and I used the whole scene to take my initial exposure via matrix metering, leaving 1/2 to 1/4 of the histogram width in leeway (i.e. shooting markedly to the left) according to the contrast in the scene. On other occasions I might use spot metering, it just depends on what’s around to take a reading from.

In the interest of full disclosure, we had a heron at the poolside for the majority of the shoot and this was perfect as a cross check for blown highlights. Still, heron images beats endless photos of an empty perch by a huge margin!!

Lens Choice

The Rothiemurchus setup is really excellent and the birds are fishing very close to you. I used my 300mm f2.8 on my D4 (better for me on this occasion, given the light, than the D810, at least until the sun came out!) without any teleconvertor assistance. This was perfect! In fact, I could probably have used my 70-200 f2.8. The wingspan of the osprey can be up to 6 feet so it is really easy to get clipped wings as they fly past. It may be that a 70-200mm with a 1.4x tc would be the perfect setup to begin with – but hey, I’m addicted to sharpness, so what can I say, I used the 300mm!


Osprey Re-CC. Lighter Overal.

Osprey Landing..

The Rothiemurchus Fishery setup is particularly helpful for photographing osprey because they provide an experienced gillie to spot for the photographers. The gillie watches the osprey and keeps the hides informed on what the osprey are doing via two-way radio communication. The gillie tells you when they are circling over the pond and when they are diving. These guys are all very experienced (we had 3 different gillies over the 3-morning shoot, all excellent) and they don’t waste your time getting unnecessary hopes up. They all know the osprey behaviour well and can often recognize the different birds by sight. The heron can be problematic photo-bombers if they are standing opposite the hides. The gillies would even tell us when it was safe to leave the hide to move them away. It took me a while to realise that this was an opportunity for heron flight shots (but it was 5.30 am after all!).

It’s really important that you do not track, and photograph, the osprey in flight before they dive for fish because this tends to spook them and that bird will not return that day. Luckily, during the osprey season, there are many local pairs of birds with young to feed so you do typically get quite a few opportunities. It is crucial to wait until the osprey has hit the water, then you get focus and keep it as the bird exits the water and flies away with the fish (hopefully). The osprey will be in the water for a few seconds as it has to kill the fish and then manipulate it into a carrying position before exiting. The osprey can move through 180 degrees during this process so it’s worth waiting until you get a pleasing composition in the water, rather than wasting buffer capacity taking shots of the back of the osprey’s head. Once the osprey start to exit the water things start to happen really fast. The wings are enormous and it’s very easy to underestimate how far up the frame they will travel as the bird flies off. Using the central focus point makes sense because you have the fish to worry about at the bottom of the frame and the wings at the top, plus it is the most sensitive focus point in low light.

Gimbal Head Technique

Have you ever had that experience where something you thought you understood (and worked well for you) was completely wrong? Well this happened to me on this shoot, and here’s how! On Friday 25th September 2009, Geoff and I attended our very first raptor shoot with Mark Sisson (another phenomenal wildlife shooter and author). Arguably the very starting point of my journey into wildlife photography! I was using my new gimbal head for the very first time with my 70-200mm f2.8 VRI with 1.7x teleconvertor on my D3, and was having a great deal of difficulty getting a sharp shot! This was a tad disappointing given that I was using my best kit and the raptor wasn’t even moving! Mark came over and suggested I try a few things, namely switching my gimbal head from right facing (as I had it) to left facing. The benefit of this would be that I could lean down on the gimbal with my left hand to steady the shot.

Left-Facing and Right-Facing Gimbal Positions..

Left-Facing and Right-Facing Gimbal Positions..

This worked out pretty well for me and I’ve used it ever since. I went on to learn that steadying the lens with a hand on top was also useful, and a rubber eyecup to make it more comfortable to press the camera against your eyebrow also helped long-lens technique. Mark definitely put me on the road to better long lens technique, and I’ve been getting sharp shots with very long lenses ever since. But left facing is NOT the best for me, right facing is! Thanks Lee, for pointing this out, not least because I didn’t want to hear it, and you kept going irrespective of my arrogant unwillingness to listen! Here’s the crucial thing. I’m right eyed! This means that I sight with my right eye to the viewfinder but, if the gimbal is left facing, I cannot see a lot of what is coming in from my left-hand side because my open left eye is hampered by the locking ring and upright arm of the gimbal head.

In retrospect it’s all too painfully obvious. I have frequently been reliant on colleagues calling the arrival of wildlife subject matter that I haven’t yet seen. I’ve been amazed that they spot things so quickly when I don’t, I just thought I must be slow, or old, or needing stronger glasses, but actually, there may have been a more obvious reason all along — I was blind-sided by my gimbal head!! Actually, if you think about it, right-eyed people are at a disadvantage anyway because there is more camera body to the left of the viewfinder which tends to obscure the view from the open left eye anyway, so a left facing gimbal head just makes things worse.

I think that the proof of the pudding was that I had no trouble at all sighting a (very small in the frame) kingfisher hovering over the pool, focussing and getting some sharp shots. See them below. The other clear advantage of using the gimbal head right-facing is that you have better access to the lens controls for VR-On and Off and Manual focus adjustment. I found myself more willing to adjust manual focus in the moment as it had been quite awkward with the left-facing setup.

The Images

Heron (the Vital Bit-Player)

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Osprey (the Main Event)

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Kingfisher (Proof I CAN Still Learn New Stuff)

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The Ducks (Who Can Resist Them?)

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So, in summary, I had a great time with Images in Nature and would recommend them to anyone interested in an immersive wildlife photography experience. Thanks again Lee!

Enjoy your photography,

until next time (woodland birds and red squirrel coming soon..),



Kingfishers Fishing for Fish

Kingfishers Fishing for Fish

Nature Photography Hides Diving Workshop

Nature Photography Hides recently hosted a diving workshop for a group of 4 intrepid souls (myself included) at their new Hide and Diving Pool setup. This is so new that it’s not publicised on the website yet, but nonetheless available, and worth the trip down to Bromsgrove in the West Midlands to see Kingfishers fishing first hand, and photograph the process in detail. The set is sited down on the river bank. In the distance is a large buff coloured fence which blurs out as a background nicely. In front of the tank is a sheltered mount for the cameras, secured by four Arca Swiss style tripod heads. The sloped roof keeps the rain off, and the height of the mounts leaves the cameras in position to shoot parallel to the water surface.

Kingfishers Fishing

Diving Pool

The tank itself has a relatively shallow surface and a deeper centre portion in which the fish swim. This cuts down the area in to which the Kingfishers will dive (the rest is too shallow), which is important because of the limited depth of field. The cameras are fired by remote control from the hide itself which is in front of the setup visible here.

Just above the diving tank there is a perch holder, which is again positioned in order that the Kingfisher will dive into the tank facing backwards from the Hide. This way they turn in the tank and fly out either sideways along the length of the river, or towards the hide, for better looking shots. No one wants to see the Kingfisher’s backside as it flies away from the camera. In order to get sharp shots the cameras have to be set up in a very particular way, at their highest frame-rates. See ‘Camera Settings’ below for more information.

Camera Settings

To catch the Kingfishers fishing we need the birds to be in the correct place at the right time. You can’t alter the camera settings once you are in the hide, and you must try not to disturb the birds by going in and out of the hide too frequently. So we were using manual focus, having pre-focussed on the most likely diving spot.

Kingfishers Fishing

The Tricky Task of Focussing..

Our guide, Mick, was really helpful in making sure that we got everything right, and all came away with some excellent shots. Here Mick is holding a bar across the centre of the pool and using a handy finger knuckle placed mid tank for us to focus on (you can just see a head at a camera in the lower right hand corner). This is crucial because we were all using 70-200mm lenses at 200mm on full frame bodies. As you can see from the pictures, the Kingfishers were about 1.5m away, and this would mean a depth of field of about 2cm at f8 so there is no room for error and a certain amount of luck is still required.

F8 is about all you can afford in the dance between exposure value and ISO. To guarantee sharp shots you need a shutter speed of about 1/2500 of a second. We set auto ISO and aperture priority (i.e. to keep the camera set at f8) and a minimum shutter speed of 1/2500 s in the auto-ISO settings. We had great light and, with a 1 stop negative exposure compensation set to avoid blown highlights, the ISO ranged between a minimum of 720 and a maximum of 11,400 during the day. This said my keepers were evenly spread between ISO 800 and 7,200. No problem at all for the D4. You still need to take lots of shots however, because only some of them will be critically sharp and in frame. This depends partly on your timing, but mostly on where the Kingfisher dives and where he comes out again.

Participants were mostly shooting Nikon (1 D4s, 2x D4s and a Canon 5d MkIII). We were all using the Hahnel Giga T Pro II Wireless Timer Remote (by complete coincidence) and were able to set separate channels in order not to fire each other’s cameras. We were also able to help each other out because 3 of us hadn’t got much experience with the remote trigger, presumably purchasing them for this workshop! They worked flawlessly throughout the day though so they can be recommended as a reliable radio trigger.

Two Camera Setup

Having a perch, as well as a diving tank, gave the opportunity to shoot two cameras simultaneously (slightly tricky the first few times). This is made easier  by the remote control, but you do have to watch that the handset doesn’t time out because it defaults to single shot when you first turn it on. This can be deceptive because you do get 3 shots if you hold the button down and, with other cameras firing at the same time, it’s easy to think that you are shooting continuously when you are not. So this is me in the hide with my D810 feeling very lucky indeed (though looking like I’ve just seen an alien)!



Not the best picture of myself I’ve ever taken, but I suppose given the conditions, my old Galaxy S4 did a decent enough job with it’s microscopic sensor, lens and 8 bit jpeg files. I’d probably just realised that my shutter speed was too high!

For the perch shots, given the very short distance to the perch, from the hide, it suited me to use my 300mm f2.8 with 2x teleconverter rather than my usual 600mm f4. I have been caught out once or twice recently by the 5m minimum focus distance on the 600. The 300mm Nikkor can focus down to 2.2m, which was crucial here. I must say that even with the 2x teleconverter the results are still very sharp, but you do lose 1 stop of light (f5.6) compared to f4 with the 600. This isn’t really a problem provided you keep your brain engaged!

One of the worries, with a shoot like this, is that you will miss a crucial setting on the camera. Prior to arriving at the hotel the night before, I had set both camera bodies up for the diving shots (i.e. auto-ISO and a minimum shutter speed of 1/2,500). You don’t need that kind of speed on the perch shots, unless you want to capture an in-flight arrival or departure from the perch. It’s not that there is really a problem with auto-ISO per se, but you do need to remember to tone down the minimum shutter speed, or better still (for me anyway) move to aperture priority with a fixed ISO. I prefer to use VR on the D810 with a shutter speed close to 1/500th second for the Perch Shots. This is plenty stopping power for subject movement and camera shake, providing me the sharpest results on the high-res sensor. On the D4 my VR threshold on the 600mm is 1/160th second (I prefer 1/250th second if I’m shooting with the 1.4 teleconverter) but this doesn’t give a tack sharp result on the D810 so I like to go higher. Obviously above 1/500th second you can introduce shake with the VR so you need a shutter speed to match the reciprocal focal length (1/600th s or above in this case).

The End Result

The setup above may appear Heath-Robinson, but it is just perfect for the task. Take a look!

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Until next time..



Kingfisher Diving Supplement

Kingfisher Diving Supplement

How do Kingfishers Dive for Fish?

This Kingfisher diving supplement adds to my post from yesterday A Few Days Out. I’ve examined my images from the Dumfries and Galloway shoot very carefully and I have realized something else important that I wish to share.

To recap:

  • The Kingfisher eyes up the fish from the side of the tank
Kingfisher Diving Supplement

Eyeing up the Prey..

  • The Kingfisher points his beak at the fish he wants several times
  • Then there is an extra long stretch, and you see the bird go into the water

New Insights..

Having looked at my images very carefully, here is what happens next:

  • The Kingfisher gives the extra long neck stretch then
  • Flies upwards and backwards along the line of his beak keeping the fish in sight
  • Then after gaining sufficient height, dives down and forwards again into the water to catch the fish
Kingfisher Diving Supplement

Flight Path for a Dive..

  • This allows you to aim your camera along the flight-path much more accurately because you don’t have to overlap both sides of the tank just in case.

Some Action..

This is a little better than the Gif I published yesterday as it does show part of the backward flight prior to the dive. The shot 3 seconds before this sequence (not shown) has the Kingfisher looking at the fish, but before committing to dive. Fascinating stuff!!

Kingfisher Diving Sequence..

Kingfisher Diving Sequence..

Until next time,