Readers’ wildlife photos

December 19, 2011 • 11:15 am

I haven’t forgotten those of you who sent in animal and plant photos, and I’ll be posting them at intervals. Don’t forget that if you take some good wildlife snaps, email them to me for consideration.

We’ll start with the gold standard: a professional photographer, Michael Durham, who’s just returned from a trip to Zimbabwe.  He’s submitted for our consideration two photos, and I’ll reproduce his descriptions:

[This] photo is of a very young African genet (species uncertain) that had just been turned into Vivian John Wilson of the Chipangali Wildlife Orphanage near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The staff at the orphanage very rarely see these nocturnal, secretive animals. A concerned resident found it in her drive (it had probably fallen or been pushed out of a tree cavity where it was being raised). Vivian Wilson is a 79 year old research biologist who has been doing field work in Africa for over fifty years. He has a lot in his CV, but it best known here for his duiker research and book: He is missing one finger from a puff adder bite.

Make sure you click both photos to enlarge (twice, with an interval between, to get the full impression):

[This] image is a hover fly taken with a high-speed camera. I have to catch these to photograph them (they are released unharmed). I found African insects on average to be far more challenging to catch than their North American cousins. I loved the striped eyes. The equivalent shutter speed here is around 1/30,000 of a second.

hover fly, Southern Zimbabwe. © Michael Durham.

Note the pollen on the bottom of its thorax.

17 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos

  1. Nice work, Mihcael!

    I’m curious about the “high-speed camera” you used for the fly. Can you provide some more details?

    Were I to try to capture an image like that, I’d use a speedlite at low power, which I’m pretty sure will get you into the 1/30000 second range (though I’ve yet to play around with that sort of high-speed photography). Would that work? And are you getting your shots with short illumination times or with camera gear that can actually get an exposure that quickly? If so…what kind of gear? I’m guessing it’s not a normal mechanical shutter….



    1. Your speedlight should hit 1/30K. I suspect he did it with flash lighting. The light looks bright, even, axial and white on the fly.

      What blows my mind is the focus! He has a great balance between enough DOF on the fly and great bokeh behind. Well done! I wonder if he had an auto-trigger device and pre-focused?

      1. I think it’s fair to suspect a ringflash, in fact — no shadows.

        He’s obviously stopped down pretty far to get the DOF, but, at macro distances, if that background is more than a couple feet away it’s going to be completely blurred out no matter what. I’m guessing the subject itself was in shade and the vegetation on the left was in full sun.

        EXIF data is still attached to the photo, which gives me a bunch of my answers. He used a 100mm f/2.8 macro on a 5DII. Shutter speed seems invalid, but it’s f/20 @ ISO 320. The camera was focussed at 0.32…meters? That’s about a foot, so must be meters.

        An online DoF calculator gives 0.02 feet, or a quarter inch, which seems to be in the right ballpark.



        1. The more I think about it, the more sense this makes. Sunny f/16 would give us 1/320 at ISO 320 and f/16. The f/20 he used would mean about half a stop underexposed, and sync speed on the 5DII is 1/200 for another half-stop of underexposure…and, sure enough, the background looks like it’s about a stop underexposed (which, I should hasten to add, is just about perfect since it makes it that much less distracting and provides that much more contrast with the subject).

          As far as focussing…I’m sure the shot was handheld. He might have used autofocus, but probably had to make a number of exposures regardless and select the best of the bunch in the editing room. He also might have set the focus distance to a particular magnification level and “focussed with his feet,” though feet are far too crude an instrument at that range.



    1. I don’t think you’re seeing much motion blur in those wings. Rather, what you’re seeing is a very shallow depth of field. Depth of field gets extremely shallow in macro photography, such that the plane of sharp focus can easily get into the (sub-)millimeter range. If you look at the full-size version, you’ll see that the legs are also a bit blurry. Indeed, the plane of sharpest focus is just behind the eye, in line with the center of the head and the upper left thigh.

      Normally with animal (including people) photography, one would try to get the focal plane on the eye, but that would have left too much of the fly’s body outside of it. The slight rearward shift in this case kept the eye in acceptable focus while getting much of the body (including the pollen grains) in focus as well. I bet one of the shots from this series that Michael rejected did, indeed, have the plane of focus on the eye.



      1. Ben,

        I’d still bet on motion-blurr. Contrast the port hind leg (bristles and all) and the trailing edge of the port inboard wing. Hard to say for sure. With a recording of the sound from the wings and a measurement of their length, we could estimate their speed!

        This must be (as you said) a selection from amongst numerous less-perfect shots. All my successful macro shots are! Holding focal point at anything approaching 1:1 is just a bear. Something is in motion, seemingly every time! ;^)

        The pollen and body bristles are the coolest details of the shot and give it that overall illusion of pin-sharpness.

        Very, very nice and impressive.

        1. You know, you may be right. Some of the specular highlights on the wing from the flash have a similar streaky shape, but it’s rather short. The circle of confusion isn’t that much larger than the CoC for the depth of field.

          I actually wouldn’t be surprised if the shape of the streaks correspond to the light output of the flash — the initial pulse from the speedlite, the decay to perhaps 75% – 80%, and the abrupt cutoff. Anybody out there got a Canon MR-14? I bet, with a bit of experimentation, it’d be possible to narrow down the range of flash powers that produce that shape of light output curve, and from that figure out the flash duration.

          Somehow, I doubt Michael expected anybody to attempt a forensic reconstruction of his technique, but it’s fun anyway….



          1. Somehow, I doubt Michael expected anybody to attempt a forensic reconstruction of his technique, but it’s fun anyway….


  2. Based on the white face markings and the southern African origin, I’d guess it was a small-spotted genet. Very very cute. Too little is known about the Viverrids. Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Wow, to my untrained eye that hover fly sure looks like a bee of some sort. This is an example of something evolving to look like something more dangerous?

  4. Oh my, two very different but equally spectacular pictures! One only wants for a follow-up story on the genet’s subsequent development and the fly’s natural history. Calling friend Google…

  5. I grew up in Zimbabwe, on a farm, and I spent a lot of time in the bush and on game farms, but I only saw a genet on one occasion. They are very elusive animals; it’s a real treat to see a juvenile!

    Until I saw the photo, I’d entirely forgotten that I visited Chipangali when I was a kid. Glad to see they’re still operating; wildlife preservation in Zim has suffered a lot in the last decade.

  6. For those curious about the technical aspects of the hover fly image: The stopping power is provided entirely by 4 flash units. The real trick is to use a shutter that responds in 5.5 milliseconds (a far faster response than the camera’s shutter). The shutter is a prototype built by Cognisys. Crossed beam lasers are used to trigger the system.

    The even bigger trick is to wrangle the insect into flying through the tiny window of (preset) focus.

    Insects have been flying for millions of years, and they have some remarkable adaptations for this purpose. Photographing them in flight, while challenging, captures details rarely observed with insects at rest…

    1. Thanks, Michael! That’s obviously more sophisticated than what I had been hypothesizing, and it would certainly explain the quality of the results you got.

      Did Cognisys actually replace the focal-plane shutter in the 5DII? Any chance you’ve got more information about it?

      For those unfamiliar with what he’s describing, his setup is the same basic concept as what’s used to capture pictures of water droplets and bullets in flight…and the same basic technology that lets you walk into the grocery store without bumping your nose against the door.



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