Windows For the Soul - Photography

Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42: is a 20€ lens a waste of money?

Is spending 20€ on an old lens a waste of money? This is a question that I had to consider before buying a crappy old Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version) and one that I still struggle to answer. Fortunately, 20€ is not worth much thought and it does not demand a proper and definitive answer. I took some time off for a couple of afternoons in the countryside, hoping to find some late summer butterflies. I carried my usual gear but I decided to also toss my extension tubes and my old Helios 44M 58mm in my backpack. There were hardly any butterflies to be seen but dragonflies and damselflies did not miss the call, so to speak.
This lens is said to afford exquisite swirling backgrounds and several examples can be found on Flickr. This alone would make those 20€ a ridiculous bargain but my experience, most likely due to my clumsiness, can only confirm that results with this lens are rather a hit-and-miss affair, and, even with a lot of effort and thoughtful management of settings, distance to subject, distance from subject to background and light conditions, I would dare say that this lens is, to be gentle, extremely unpredictable. Too often I am left with the feeling that a pleasing result is rather a matter of luck. Be that as it may, the fact is that, if I put in an extra effort, I sometimes come away with a few photos that I actually like. However, I can't help thinking that it is a lack of image quality that produces those results.
In the first three of photos below, I coupled the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 with a Nikon D600.
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Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 400, 1/160, f/2.

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Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 640, 1/160, f/2.

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Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 640, 1/160, f/2.

Experimenting with this lens in the macro photography genre, I coupled it with an extension tube. However, the blurred background was by no means extraordinary and the best I could get was the shot below, taking advantage of the dark background to hide the quite hideous out of focus background and the rather large maximum aperture to obtain a paper thin depth of field, highlighting the creature's eyes. However, as it is usual in my case, manually focusing was a real PITA even using the live view mode on the D600. I think I ought to pay a visit to my ophthalmologist one of these days.

Coming back to my initial question, is this 20€ old lens a waste of money? I am yet to figure it out…
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Nikon D600, Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), ISO 640, 1/160, f/2.

Looking back at a summer of odonatas photographed with different setups

This year, we had an odd summer around here. It seems to have been short on butterflies, with a particularly short number of zebra butterfly (Iphiclides feisthamelii) sightings and without a single monarch butterfly (danaus plexippus) to report. I believe that these last ones are quite uncommon on these latitudes, but I was starting to get used to seeing at least one every year. I do suppose that there is some sort of explanation for this, but I must confess I find it quite puzzling and a sign that I must try to learn more about these wonderful creatures. In September, unlike in previous years, I only saw a single praying mantis. On the other hand, this seems to have been a good year for Odonata - dragonflies and damselflies. Throughout the summer, I had plenty of opportunities to photograph these peculiar flying warriors and, as I have also made some buying and selling of gear in this period, I had the opportunity to shoot these creatures using different gear setups.

This is the first of two posts with dragonflies and damselflies as subjects. In this first one, I will look at a few photos captured with different lenses and cameras; on the second one, I will be posting some shots taken with an old 20€ crappy lens, the Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (the 8 blade version).

In this first set of photos different lenses were used with two cameras. In the first pair of shots the Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G was used with two different cameras: the D600 and the D700. I suppose that there is no argument as to which camera is the most capable of the two, as far as image quality is concerned. However, I really fancy the way that the D700 renders colours and I often tend to grab it first as my go to camera for every occasion just due to how much I like its handling.

Manually focusing this first backlit damselfly through the grass was a tricky task. Blurring the leaves in the foreground added this sort of dreamy look to the photo but called for manual focusing with the Micro 105mm.
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Nikon D700, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 320, 1/160, f/4.

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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 1400, 1/3200, f/8.


For a different photo of the same dragonfly I used a manual focus Nikon 200mm f/4 AI-S, with a 20mm Kenko extension tube, on the D700. In the first shot I was expecting the dragonfly to move, hence the high shutter speed and, consequently, the cranked up ISO. This second photo was taken from the opposite side
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Nikon D700, Nikon 200mm f/4 AI, ISO 400, 1/640, f/8, w/ extension tube.

The next set of photos demonstrate how a slight difference in the perspective can radically change the outcome. In the first shot, again with the Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G on the D600, shooting a slightly backlit dragonfly from a lower stance, exposing for the sky and with a higher f-stop number to ensure some depth-of-field produced a photo that captures just enough of the creature's environment whilst maintaining the focus on the odonata.
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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 200, 1/1600, f/11.

The next three photos also highlight the relevance of perspective by changing it whilst maintaining the subject and the pair camera/lens used. Changing the perspective achieves rather different photos of the same subject.
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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 100, 1/1400, f/4.5.

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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 100, 1/400, f/5.

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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 100, 1/400, f/5.

This combination of the D600 and the Micro 105mm is one of my favourite setups when I want to capture detail and strong colours on a photo. Furthermore, it is a very reliable combination in the sense that, given suitable conditions, it delivers consistent results with several photos that are hard to choose from. More often than not, though, I end up focusing manually by pre-focusing and adjusting my distance to the subject. As the lens tends to be a bit "nervous", on a windy day one can easily lose the focus on the odonata swinging in the wind and end up focusing on the background. Manually focusing is a way to avoid the nerve wrecking slow focus speed of the lens all the way from the distant background back to the creature. This amazing odonata below, however, was extremely cooperative, probably due to the fact that it was quite late in the day, already into the so-called golden hour, and there was hardly any wind.
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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 400, 1/500, f/4.

Finally, two more photos, shot using two lenses that one would not immediately think of for this type of photography. Like I said, sometimes, when the settings do not vary much, when the objects available are far from being out of the ordinary, the challenge is in trying to make the best of what one gets and in doing it by experimenting with the gear available. In the first shot, a rather boring "portrait" of a dragonfly, I tried to take advantage of the shadows and the highlights on the foliage in the background to achieve a dreamy effect.
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Nikon D600, Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.8 G, ISO 560, 1/3000, f/6.7, w/ extension tube.

I have been using a Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4D IF-ED a lot, lately, and I really like this lens. It has become my go to lens for those shots when there is some distance to the subject and a fast focusing lens is needed, such as nature photography (bird photography, basically) and pet action photography. However, it has also proved to be useful for smaller creatures whenever I intend to capture some of the environment surrounding the creature, as it was the case in this final photo of this post. Soon, I will be posting my some of my attempts to photograph dragonflies with a Helios 44M 58mm f/2 M42 (8 Blade version), an ancient lens that costed me less than a light meal.
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Nikon D700, Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4D IF-ED, ISO 1400, 1/1250, f/6.3.

Waiting for that light

A few weeks ago, I took a few hours late in the afternoon to go for a walk on the countryside. I took my teenage daughter along, with her own camera. Yes, spreading the gospel, so to speak. There were no interesting sightings worthy of a photograph, apart from this fellow with its extremely discreet camo (Euplectes afer, Yellow-crowned bishop), toing and froing above a stretch of reed. Clearly, there was a nest nearby. We managed to take a few shots of the busy creature but as I was testing a TC-200 on my 80-200mm f/2.8 in rather dim light, on a windy day and with no tripod, the outcome was far from acceptable. I decided that I would be back as soon as I had a chance.
A couple of weeks later, I returned alone. I had my tripod with me, there was a bit of wind but it was no gale. I had plenty of time because the girl that is a treat for mosquitoes at that time of the day stayed home.

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Nikon D7100, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @200 mm, Nikon TC-200, ISO 400, 1/1250, f/God-Only-Knows, Tripod.

On a first sighting, I managed to take a few photos, but the wind was still a bit too strong. I noticed that I would have the sun behind my back at sunset, so I decided to return a couple of hours later, and so I did. However, when I returned, the busy bird seemed to have vanished and I had to wait over an hour for him to show up again. Apart from the fact that I was standing, I did not mind an extra hour of peacefulness on the countryside. I am just a bloke with a camera taking a few photos on my scarce spare time but for me waiting a couple of hours for a bird is by no means boring because there is always something else to photograph as I wait. However, even though I know that those who do this professionally frequently have to wait much longer than that, I could see myself doing this for a living. Moving on... lest I should need to get therapy... Considering that I was using a Nikon TC-200 on my 80-200 f/2.8 and, consequently, using manual focus, with doubtful exposure readings on the D600, considering that it was on a windy day, that I had no VR and was using a shaky tripod head, it could be worse...I hope. Well, who cares, at least I could finally enjoy a quiet afternoon away from my desktop.
The second photo and the third one were taken almost 3 hours after the first shot. On the first one, I used the DX camera for the extra reach, on the other two I used the FX so that I could crank up the ISO to cope with the fading light. I know which photo(s) I prefer...

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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @200 mm, Nikon TC-200, ISO 1600, 1/1000, f/God-Only-Knows, Tripod.

Butterfly season with different cameras

I know that we all see the photos first and only then, if ever, go on to reading the post. However, just this once, try to read first and check out the photos in the end because it’s quiz time.

Another year has passed, speeding into oblivion, and here comes butterfly season. I like shooting butterflies, but I like it more for the effort that I have to put into it than for the results. One could be led to believe that photographing butterflies is easy. I guess it probably is, but not around here. Even in the hottest summer days, mornings tend to be too cold until the sun is high in the sky, but as soon as the heat comes in so does the wind. For those who believe that shooting butterflies is easy, try doing it on a windy day. Yet, occasionally, I get lucky. I came across a seemingly uninteresting small meadow on a field, not too far from my house, that was populated with small butterflies of different species. On my way back home, I took 30 minutes off on a few different days. On two of those days, the wind called for increased shutter speed, but when the breeze was gentle the butterflies were not too active. This was also due, I imagine, to the fact that it was quite early in the morning and it was probably too cold for them. I had a chance to try different compositions and different settings; to work the DOF that can be a bit tricky with small creatures with such a peculiar shape; or to avoid the nasty backgrounds on a natural environment. As I said, it is more about the effort than about the result because, in the end, photos of butterflies seldom have anything interesting about them other than the creature itself. And when they do, more often than not I am left with the sensation that they have been “engineered” to obtain a perfect scenario, with ideal conditions.

Three different days, at roughly the same time of the day, with three different cameras (D600, D7100 and D700) and the same lens (Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G). When I am out looking for small creatures there are occasions when the crop factor of the DX camera is welcome. However, I do not fancy extreme macro shots, particularly when it comes to butterflies, as I rather prefer to include a glimpse of their environment. So, I tend to use the FX cameras for this sort of shot, unless the butterflies avoid my presence and I need increased reach. I have added the D700 to my kit bag only recently. I had been curious to give it a try for quite some time and finally I came across the opportunity to grab one. I am not disappointed. In fact, after only a couple of weeks using it, I end up picking it up most of the time. I just love its handling and I really like its results. For some reason, I can see myself using it more than the D600 (or the D7100, a great camera that, in the meantime, I have sold ) for portraits, landscape and whenever I want to capture a certain light or ambient. There is just something about it that I guess it has earned it its iconic status. To be honest, right now I can hardly keep my hands off the D700.

Ok, it’s quiz time: I know it is not easy, or it does not make much sense trying to compare them, because the subjects, the settings and the conditions are different but try to look at the three photos below without reading the settings caption and guess which photo was taken with the D700.

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Nikon D600, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 220, 1/2500, f/4.0, SB-28.

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Nikon D700, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 200, 1/250, f/10, SB-28.

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Nikon D7100, Nikon Micro AF-S 105mm f/2.8 G, ISO 200, 1/200, f/11, SB-28.

When the light sucks, focus on the action.

Great! My first take at shooting this sport and the light is absolutely crappy. Dark, yellowish light that makes people look like they have a strange tan on them. Really, really hard to get proper white balance, specially without my colour checker. Well, I cannot say that I was surprised, I mean, I had been there before and I knew what I was going to find there. So, why would one go to such a place with such lousy light conditions? Well, I have been to one too many rhythmic gymnastics events and I must confess I am a bit fed up with shooting the same gymnasts, the same routines and from the same point of view, up from the stands, that is. Don’t get me wrong, those girls do amazing stuff, but after a whole season it gets a bit boring photographing the same stuff. This would be an opportunity to have a crack at shooting a different sort of action and from a closer point of view. Looking at the results I have to wonder whether these shots are decent enough. Most of the time I had to crank my ISO up to 5000 and even though the D600 is a great little camera for these high ISO shots, I cannot say that I am thrilled with the results. However, there is a handful of shots that I like for the fact that I think that they captured the essence of the sport, the action and the commitment of those kids. Truly amazing stuff is what they do and I can only hope that these photos can convey my amazement.
Note to self: check my wallet for some pocket change to get a D3S and a 200mm f/2...

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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @170 mm, ISO 5000, 1/500, f/2.8





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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @200 mm, ISO 5000, 1/640, f/2.8



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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @125 mm, ISO 5000, 1/640, f/2.8.




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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @125 mm, ISO 5000, 1/640, f/2.8.



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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @155 mm, ISO 5000, 1/640, f/2.8.


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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @135 mm, ISO 5000, 1/800, f/2.8.


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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @155 mm, ISO 5000, 1/800, f/2.8.



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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @112 mm, ISO 5000, 1/800, f/2.8




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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @185 mm, ISO 5000, 1/500, f/2.8

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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200 mm f/2.8 @200 mm, ISO 5000, 1/640, f/2.8

It's Praying Mantis season

Every September it’s Mantis season in my backyard. These are little mean ugly creatures, one would think. However, once you start “hanging out” with them, you come to a point that you are always expecting them to break the silence and talk to you. That’s just how expressive they can be, at least to my eyes. Those big inquisitive eyes can have all sorts of expressions it would seem. Here are some examples and I will let you decide what each expression means.
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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/160, f/13.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/400, f/13.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 320, 1/400, f/14.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/640, f/8.

Shooting between appointments

Most of the best opportunities I get to make use of my camera do not arise when I expect them to. Often times, I get the chance to take a little time off and go for a walk but I end up deleting every single picture I took and I return home with a blank SD card on my camera. A couple of weeks ago, I had been having a bit of a hard time trying to find one of these butterflies standing still before my lens long enough for me to photograph it and I always ended up watching them flying by in windy days or waltzing over the fields, not stopping long enough for me to get closer. Between two work-related appointments, I saw a couple of these on a roadside field flying between flowers. With a quick glance at my watch, I realised that I had 15 minutes to spare. I just grabbed my camera, already with the macro lens on, switched into my “all-road” shoes (I always keep them in the boot of my car) and off I went into the field to indulged with a 15 minute break following this beauty as it floated around from flower to flower. It was high noon, though, and the sun was burning hot. The light was harsh, the background wasn’t as pleasant as I would have liked it to be, so this meant using a larger aperture than the close distance would have recommended, just to through that background out of focus. With a little effort I managed to have just enough depth of field to keep the butterfly sharp (the Micro 105mm f/2.8 is truly superb), but from the settings one can tell just how harsh the light was. I managed to take a few of these and I was quite happy with the result. Shame, though, I still wasn’t able to take a single shot of it with its wings spread open. From what I have seen this kind of butterfly always keeps its wings closed together when it is not flying. This is just another exemple of the reason why I always get my gear out.

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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 200, 1/1600, f/5.6.

To publish or not to publish...

Time and again, whenever I drove by this spot, I told myself I had to go there with a little time to spare. I drive by this stork nest on a weekly basis, but always an hour too soon and always with the lot on board. However, pulling over to the side road and telling them “give an hour” is obviously not an option. This is a good example why photography is not a suitable hobby for those who are not selfish enough to systematically abandon the spouse (avoiding gender distinction...) and the offspring, to indulge in a few hours of fiddling around with settings, of composition adjusting, and so on. Finally, I managed to take a little time to go to that stork nest to try to photograph it at “that” time of the day. The task, however, proved to be a bit harder than I expected. The nest is on top of what is left of an old tree and it has been there for years. Unfortunately, this year someone decided, for whatever reason, that the log had to be shortened to almost half of its length. Consequently, the nest is now only about five meters above the road level, right there by the road side and as soon as I get closer the adult storks fly away and only come back when I leave. So, this called for a stealth approach. Hiding behind some bushes on the other side of the road, I managed to find an opening on those bushes that allowed me to be within reach of the nest. The angle was not the best, but it was good enough.

This photo reminds me that a couple of days ago I was discussing with a friend why do people publish photos that are subpar. I suppose that different reasons can explain this and that how and where they choose to publish may also hint at their motivation. Personally, though, I believe that this can be explained by two fundamental reasons: the first reason is the fact that they just don’t know any better; the second is the fact that that subpar work is all they have. Yes, guilty as charged and this photo is a good example. Yes, there are quite a few details on this photo that should lead no a “do not publish” label on it, methinks. However, although I can tell that, I am sure that an experienced photographer would easily spot a whole bunch of details that should award it a “trash it” label (If only I would receive an email from that photographer... ). On the other hand, this photo was taken after a couple of very busy weeks, with little time left for photography. So, after such a painfully long period of time, being able to take the time to finally go to that spot and the great feeling of just being there and doing it can probably cloud my judgment. In my defense, I can only say that, by publishing this subpar stuff, I do not seek meaningless taps on my back. If I wanted that, I would be publishing on Facebook, where so many people scratch each others backs with unfelt compliments on their photos. So, if you have reasons to trash my photos, please, do drop me a line and you will get a big “thank you” from me!

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Nikon D600, Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 @135mm, ISO 360, 1/1000, f/10.

Jurassic Park

This poor fellow has seen better days. Although spring is here and the odd sunny spells allow some sunbathing, relentless showers and temperature drops give this lizard a hard time. He has been returning to this wall for the past few days whenever there is a sunny break between the rain. I do not know much about these animals but this one seems to be going through a rough time. It tolerates my presence just a few centimetres away for some time, as long as I do not make sudden movements. Of course, this means that I have some time to photograph it. It is not an easy task, though, as the extremely short distance means that my DOF is minimal, even if I use smaller apertures and I must bear in mind that it can decide to move any time.

On the first of these two shots, I thought that a lower angle, shooting from below the edge of the wall, would give it a strange look as if it was some giant creature. To do this, however, the lizard would be strongly backlit by the sun shining through the grey clouds. Using an off-camera diffused speedlight, powered down and flashing upwards, I could underexpose the lizard to avoid blowing up the highlights in the sky. The result could be a lot better, I know, but I was happy to be able to balance the manual flash with the ambient light, preserving the sky whilst correctly exposing the lizard.
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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 1600, 1/160, f/36, SB-28 off-camera, Triggers, diffuser.


On the second photo I struggled to achieve enough DOF to avoid having most of the lizard’s head out of focus. The extremely short distance forced me to use a smaller aperture but I wanted to keep the background totally out of focus, to avoid having the neighbours’ fence and the fields behind my house visible on the shot. This is the only angle that keeps the green background instead of having walls on the shot, but this aperture seems to have been enough for my purposes. I would have liked to have diffused the light a bit to avoid those highlights on the lizard’s side, but I feared that I could scare the lizard (he was rather more active at the time, hence the shutter speed a little higher) and I would have blocked the reflex of the sky on its eye. The aperture and speed settings meant that I had to bump up the ISO a little, but that is something that using the D600 I am quite comfortable with, even at higher ISO settings. Great camera and after about 2500 shutter releases there is still no debris on my sensor. Knock on wood....

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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 1250, 1/320, f/14.

Light-painting a butterfly

This butterfly was ready to spend the night on this brick on my backyard. The night was chilly with the occasional showers and things were not looking bright for the little creature. In daylight, the odds were that the butterfly would not hold still long enough for a decent shot, so I took this one-off opportunity to take a few shots, experimenting with the light and with different settings for different depths of field. I also tried a couple of focus-stacking shots, but the results were not pleasing due to the variability of light on each shot, because I was lighting the butterfly with a simple pocket maglight. On this one, I used a 6 sec. exposure and the pocket maglight to light paint the butterfly, circling it.
The brick is old and dirty, but it was the butterfly’s choice, not mine.
By the way, any spots on the Nikon D600’s sensor? Well, not on the pitch-dark night... but I keep my fingers crossed, just in case.

PS - No animals were hurt to take this shot Happy

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Nikon D600, Nikon 105 mm f/2.8, ISO 1600, 6.0 sec., f/45, light painted with a flashlight, Tripod.