Appreciating the Totality of Nature Through Photography

Cross Vine with Bee, Houston, Texas
Crossvine Flower (Bigonia capreolata) with Bee, Houston, Texas. Step One in appreciating a plant: Is it native? Step two: Is it a food plant for birds? Yes and yes. Crossvine is a Texas native and a source of nectar and insects for hummingbirds and other birds. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS. Hand-held with high-speed synchronized ring flash.

Back when I was a geologist and in the field my eyes were almost always turned to the ground. I was looking for fossils, minerals, sedimentary structures—in short, anything that could tell me about the depositional setting of the rocks I was studying . . . .

Neotropic Cormorant at the Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park in Corpus Christi, Texas
Neotropic Cormorant at the “freshwater channel,” Hans and Pat Suter City Nature Park in Corpus Christi, Texas. The brilliant blue eyes provide the “spot of poison” in cormorant color theory. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Having an interest in the life sciences, though, I would from time to time notice a plant here or a lizard there. I would perhaps even make a mental note about field marks and look up the species in question once back in the museum or departmental library.

Back in those days, I carried either my Yashica Super 2000 (w/55mm f/2.8 ML Macro), until the Canon EOS 7D my most beloved camera, or a Contax RTS II (w/CZ 50mm f/1.4 Planar) 35mm film camera to document what I saw geologically in the field. Thinking back, it’s almost comical how little photographic firepower I carried into the field in those days: I might bring two or three rolls of 24- or 36-frame rolls of film!

Anole confrontation at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, West Houston
Green Anoles (Anolis carolinensis) fight it out! at the Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, West Houston. When head-bobbing and dewlap extension aren’t enough, teeth will do the trick. The lizard on the right was king of the log and bullied the other out of his kingdom. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

At first, I was skeptical about the digital photography revolution, worried that digital cameras offered quantity and ease at the expense of quality. Now a digital convert, I’m armed with more equipment than I can carry at any one time. The current challenges are having the right lens at the ready for any given situation and making optimal use of each piece of equipment.

Although birds are my primary target, I am always looking for new things to photograph: plants, fungi, and vertebrate and invertebrate animals are all potential subjects. I scan the trees for squirrels, frogs, lizards, and snakes, jelly fungus and mushrooms; bromeliads and other epiphytes. I scan the sky for birds, bats, and insects, and the brush for what’s lurking there. I might even pull the ultra wide angle lens out of the bag to document the context of what I’m seeing, the habitat itself.

Every image is now a potential research project. Insects (that need identification) are perched on flowers (that need identification). Birds grab unfamiliar bugs, fish, and lizards—all these critters are crying out for study and identification. Now that the weather is getting nice again, I can’t wait to get out there, feel the stress of daily life melt away, and find out what’s going on!

Queen Butterfly on Gregg's Mistflower at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Queen Butterfly (Danaus sp.) on Gregg’s Mistflower (Conoclinium greggii) at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, South Texas. Although not ideal, super telephotos can be used to get some shots of really big bugs. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it and over it.—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Cactus Flowers (Of All Things)

Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona. This small cactus grows in the shadows cast by other, larger cacti and desert plants. All images Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring flash.

In last week’s post, I noted that due to lousy weather we had been stuck indoors a lot lately contemplating future projects. One pet project I want to work on is building a collection of images of cactus flowers (and developing the skill to do it well). Currently I do shoot plants and animals other than birds when there are no birds around. Up to this point, I’ve been using our 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens for this work, but I have purchased (after reading technical reports and moping around the house for a week or two) a used 90mm Canon tilt-shift f/2.8, primarily for botanical work. I can’t wait to use it!

Tilt-shift lenses employ the Scheimpflug Principle and convert a plane of sharp of focus into a wedge, thus increasing the apparent depth of field. Shallow depth of field in macro photography, frankly, has what has prevented me from becoming really interested in “macro” work. (Note: I put macro in quotes because much of this work is not true macro, i.e. 1: 1 or greater, but rather just fairly close up using a macro lens.) Depth of field is a function of three variables: aperture (f-stop), focal length, and object distance. Super telephoto work has its own idiosyncrasies and difficulties (like heavy, bulky and expensive lenses, inordinate susceptibility to vibration, etc.), but macro has always seemed especially fussy. Dazzlingly bright light (read bright light and flash) is usually required to capture a macro image that is close enough to present enough detail to be interesting with sufficient depth of field to not look like a child took the photo. Maybe the tilt-shift will help.

Cholla flower at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona.
Stale Cane(?) Cholla Flower (Cylindropuntia sp.) at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Looking for a fun time? Check out Cylinderopuntia taxonomy.

But why cactus flowers, of all things? I must confess a special affection for desert organisms, and deserts in general. The most spectacular places I’ve ever visited are in deserts. As a child, I studied the Arizona Highways magazines at the local library and by February often dreamed of moving away from the frozen wastes of Minnesota. Cactus flowers are especially beautiful–the hummingbirds of the plant world–and I have decided that I would travel just to see and photograph them. Like hummingbirds, they are native to the New World only, and I feel lucky to be able to see and photograph them in the wild.

Up to this point, I’ve only photographed the most common species encountered while chasing birds around, and I know very little about cacti other than that the flowers are pretty and the plants grow in exotic places that I love. Getting serious about cactus flower photography would mean, of course, learning the taxonomy, ecology, and biogeography of the plants. At present this seems a daunting task . . . but it would involve trips to places like Big Bend, the Painted Desert, and . . . dozens of really, really interesting places (i.e., not Houston). Are these just the fantasies of a Dog Days of Houston shut-in? We’ll see.

Prickly Pear flower with bee at Balcones
Prickly Pear (Opuntia robusta) Flower with Bee at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Central Texas.

When I write “paradise” I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes — disease and death and the rotting of flesh.—Edward Abbey, Down the River

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Adventures in Macrophotography (or What to do When the Birding is Bad)

Prickly Pear Cactus flower, Balcones, Central Texas
Prickly Pear Cactus Flower, Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, Central Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro with high-speed synchronized flash.

My initial interest in macrophotography flowed from my interest in birds. Often, I would see birds eating the fruit or seeds, or even drinking the nectar, of unfamiliar plants. I would then take a few pictures of the fruit or flowers for identification purposes.

This process has been helpful in understanding the habitats and habits of birds, and forced me to learn some macrophotography. It also got me thinking about efficiency and getting the most out of life.

It takes effort to go into the field. Now when no birds are around, rather than think about the day as a waste, I immediately start looking around for other interesting photographic subjects. Although, for me, photographing a flower is not as therapeutic as photographing a warbler, it is still an interesting and valuable exercise in the study of nature.

Witches' Butter fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas
Witches’ Butter Fungus (Tremella mesenterica) at Brazos Bend Sate Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized flash.

Our first efforts in macrophotography utilized an inexpensive Canon 55mm macro (the so-called “compact macro”), and were generally unsuccessful. (Sidebar: Whenever I speak to professional photographers I typically ask for advice, and a common piece of advice is: never buy cheap equipment.) Shortly thereafter we bought the Canon 100mm f/2.8L IS macro which is simply a superb lens, and one of the sharpest around.

After talking with a naturalist and photographer about the importance (nay necessity) of using flash in macrophotography given the intense light requirement of shooting at high f-stops, we bought a ring flash and were off and running. Now when the birds are not out, but there are interesting plants and small, non avian critters around, I fish out the macro and go to work. Once in a blue moon, one has the exciting opportunity to turn a macro lens on a bird–as you can see below.

Juvenile Brown Pelican at Corpus Christy, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS Macro. Hand-held, natural light.
Juvenile Brown Pelican at Corpus Christi, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, natural light.

All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.

–Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or photos may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Fly vs. Fly

When the sun is high in the sky and the light isn’t conducive for bird photography, I like to bust out the macro lens and look for smaller wonders. I found this robber fly taking a break among the scrubby beach vegetation while its neurotoxic, proteolytic saliva paralyzes and chemically digests the insides of its current victim. Charming. It’s a good thing (for us) that these flying assassins exclusively prey upon arthropods – mostly other insects at that.

Robber fly predator with fly prey
Robber flies frequently make meals of other flies. Galveston Island (East End), Big Reef Nature Park, Texas