Photobomber (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

A couple of weekends ago, I went to the mountains of North Carolina to look for hellbenders.  For those of you unfamiliar with these magnificent creatures, they’re HUGE salamanders, as in foot-long salamanders!  I learned they lived in NC shortly after I moved here and wanted to see them in the wild, so I finally went to look for them.  Saw one too!  SO exciting.

Knowing I was going to be hanging around mountain rivers for two days, I brought along one of my little glass aquaria so I could get some aquatic insects-in-water shots.  I was having troubles with silty water and streaks on the outside of the container while attempting to photograph a juvenile green frog and was getting frustrated.  I had finally lined up what I expected to be a decent shot, when this happened:

Green frog with photobombing stonefly

Green frog with photobombing stonefly

A stonefly totally photobombed the frog! Gah!  The frog jerked and stirred everything up again, so I never did get a good photo of my frog.    Thanks a lot, stonefly…


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Insect Macrophotography with a Canon Powershot SX60

I was given a new camera for my birthday last month.  As you all probably know, I LOVE my cameras and I take photos with them all the time.  The new camera, a Canon Powershot SX60, was an unlikely interest of mine.  I am not what you might consider an early adopter of new technology.  My husband adores trying out beta versions of software and getting the latest and greatest tech gadgets, but I prefer to wait a while so that most of the kinks are worked out before I spend my money.  Kinks annoy me.  I avoid kinks when possible.  So, it’s very unlike me to want a brand new tech gadget, one that is so new that no one’s reviewed it, like this new camera of mine.  But oh did I want it!

See, I’ve gotten rather into photographing birds recently and none of the lenses I have are quite long enough for shooting good, tight bird shots.  However, a really long telephoto lens can easily set you back $15,000 or more and I certainly don’t have that kind of money to spend.  Superzoom cameras, on the other hand, have some AMAZING zoom capabilities for about $500, though I knew that the overall quality is significantly  lower.  I had tried a Powershot SX50 a while back and loved it, so I was thrilled to see that the SX60 was being released.  It’s got a 65x zoom capability (a zoom equivalent of about a 1300mm lens!!) and can focus on a subject less than a centimeter away.  This seemed like my dream walking around camera, one that I could use to photograph the insects and birds I see everyday.  I was ecstatic when I opened it up on my birthday and have been playing around with it ever since.

There are things I absolutely love about the camera.  The zoom is fantastic!  I can take pretty decent photos of birds from 30-40 feet away:



I can also get some great shots of the moon:



The vibration reduction works well and the camera is surprisingly lightweight, so I can handhold the camera for even the really long shots without too much motion blur.  Neither of the shots above required a tripod, though I did brace my arms on my car for the moon shot.  I feel like this camera does a great job with things that are far away.  There is admittedly quite a bit of noise in the images, especially at high ISO settings (and by high, I mean anything over about 800 ISO), but I feel it does a remarkably good job with telephoto shots given the low cost.  Macro shots…  Well, that’s another matter!

I am not a pro photographer, so I’m sure what follows wouldn’t be considered a true test of the abilities of the SX60, but I did some test shots to see what this camera is capable of.  I don’t expect this camera to take the sort of stunning macro photos my DSLRs are capable of, so I tested it against my tried and true Canon Powershot G12 and my iPhone 5S, the two cameras I’ve carried around with me everywhere for three or four years now and I was hoping to replace with this one.  I wanted to really test the limits of all of the cameras to get a good comparison, so I photographed my trusty fall cankerworm moths under the porch light at night with all three cameras to see how they stacked up.  I set the two Powershots so they would limit themselves to 800 ISO since I knew that the SX60 gets really noisy above that, and I set all of them to auto white balance.

So here are the results.  These are three images straight out of the camera, taken with the three different cameras:

Moths straight out of camera

Moths straight out of camera – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

It’s obvious that you can get closer to the moth with either of the Powershot models than the iPhone 5S, but that’s not surprising.  It doesn’t have any macro ability, but you still get reasonable detail.  Everything turned a little yellow in the iPhone photo, but the SX60 shot wasn’t much better!  The auto white balance on the G12 was the winner here, giving me something close to the actual color of the wall that the moth was photographed on.  You’ll notice too that the shadows get less harsh as you move down the line of photos.  The shadows were bad on the iPhone 5S and a little less pronounced but still obvious on the SX60, but you could see decent detail on the G12.  If I wanted a really high contrast look, the SX60 might be a better option, but I think the G12 produced a more pleasing, better balanced shot.

Even though I like the G12 shot a little better due to better white balance and what I consider a better ability to work with uneven light levels, the SX60 did a little bit better job getting the entire moth in focus.  The wings are similarly focused on all of the shots, but the thorax is a little blurry on the G12 shot.  But let’s take a look at an enlarged detail and see which one does a better job on a fine scale:

Moths enlarged wing details

Moths enlarged wing detail – iPhone 5S, Canon Powershot SX60, Canon Powershot G12

The iPhone 5S is a clear loser here – the details are fuzzy and the resolution is dramatically lower than either of the Powershot models.  To me, the G12 produced the best image here again.  The SX60 shot has a huge variation in the light levels on individual scales, with some completely blown out while others are underexposed.  The light levels are a lot more even in the G12.  What I really notice, however, is the graininess of the SX60 shot.  You can see a lot of noise in the image and there are sections that are muddy and ill-defined.  I think the G12 picked up a lot more detail and generated quite a bit less grain than the SX60.

The conditions in which I took these images are fairly extreme: artificial light from a single source bathing a white wall in light at night.  I tend to take most of my night photos with one of my DSLRs and use a flash, so I probably won’t take a lot of photos in these conditions.  How do the two Powershots stack up in a more typical day shot?  I found a plume moth on the same wall in the shade during the day and shot it with the SX60:

Plume moth SX60

Plume moth SX60

and the G12:

Plume moth G12

Plume moth G12

For both images, I chose an aperture of f/4 and an ISO of 200 and let the cameras choose the shutter speed and white balance.  Neither camera got the white balance quite right, but in these less harsh, daytime conditions, I still think the G12 took the better shot.  The edges of the moth in the SX60 image are just not as crisply well-defined and the contrast between the lights and darks is a little too high.  There’s just not as much detail in the SX60 image relative to the G12’s.  Also, the SX60 chose a lower shutter speed (1/60) than the G12 (1/100), so it took what I think is a less pleasing shot even with a lower shutter speed.  That slower shutter speed might mean the difference between getting a good shot and missing a shot with flighty insects – it’s not ideal!

I’m still playing around with the SX60 and exploring its limitations so I know how to put the camera to best use, but my overall verdict so far is this: I love the SX60’s zoom capabilities and I think it’s going to be great to use for photographing birds and dragonflies, the things for which I really like the extra reach.  I do not at all like it for the macro shots though!  What this unfortunately means is that, rather than replacing my G12 as my walking around camera, I’ve simply added the SX60 onto what I was already carrying!  Granted, this has dramatically increased my ability to get a decent shot of almost anything I might want to photograph, but I’ll admit that carrying around two cameras and a phone is quite a lot of weight for my purse.

Has anyone else used a superzoom camera for macro photography?  I would be interested to hear what you think about any of the models you’ve tried.  I honestly wouldn’t recommend my camera to anyone interested in photographing macro subjects, but are there better options out there?  Leave a comment if you’d like to weigh in!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Best of 2014 and a Resolution

A lot of bloggers do best of the year compilations at the end of the year, and I focus mine on insect photos.  Because I haven’t gotten to be very active on my blog this year, you all haven’t even seen a lot of my favorite photos yet!  This year, rather than posting just my favorite photos from those posted on my blog in 2014, I created a best of album on Flickr that included all of my favorite shots of the year, whether I posted them here or not.  The collection includes these shots that were posted:

This year, I also included some things that aren’t insects in my best of the year album.  I, for example, spent a little over two weeks in Ireland in August and how can you resist including landscape photos from such a spectacular place?  I’ve also been practicing my bird photography this year, so I’ve included some photos of birds – even a couple of reptiles!  I hope you all enjoy the album. You can find it here:

Best of 2014

And now for my resolution: I will blog more often in 2015!  I think I am trying to force myself to stick to my self-inflicted blogging schedule, but because my work schedule and my blogging schedule don’t mesh currently, I don’t blog.  So, screw my blogging schedule!  I am going to come up with a new blogging schedule and try to stick with it all year.  I miss blogging and want to get back into it!

Just so you all know, I do blog about nature and citizen science regularly for the Museum where I work as part of my job, so you can always find me there.  My Museum posts aren’t all about insects, but almost all are about nature.  Please check out the museum blog if you’re interested in learning more about the wildlife of North Carolina!  You can find a list of all of my posts here:

Hope you all are looking forward to a great 2015!  I know I am.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Throwback Thursday: My First Digital Insect Macro Shot

I missed Wordless Wednesday yesterday, so today I bring you a Throwback Thursday shot instead!  If you have been living under a social media rock (I know lots of people who do!) and don’t know about Throwback Thursday, it’s a day each week where people post old photos of themselves, their families, anything from the past.  I’m not going to start doing this every week or anything, but today I have a lovely little shot for you, my very first insect macro shot taken with a digital camera.  This beauty was shot in 2003 with a Nikon Coolpix 995, my first digital camera, shortly after I took the camera out of the box and long before I read the instruction manual.  That was the camera I got, but swore up and down to myself and everyone else that I was going to keep shooting film with my retro-riffic 100% manual Nikon F and use the digital camera just for insects and shots that I didn’t want to waste film on.  Ha!  The roll of film that was in my Nikon F at the time is STILL IN THAT DARNED CAMERA!  Someday I’m going to finish that roll and get it developed.  It has a bunch of lovely shots of the Tetons on it…

Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.  Without further ado, here it is, my very first digital insect macro…

blurry vespid

Whew!  What a stunner!  With a photo like that, it’s a wonder I didn’t win the National Geographic photo competition that year.  Magazines should have been knocking down my door to take advantage of my obvious natural genius.

I keep all of my photos.  I think I’ve maybe deleted 100 digital photos since I got that first digital camera, and I’ve never thrown away a negative or print from my film camera.  I probably have close to a quarter of a million photos at this point, and I won’t lie: a lot of them suck.  But, I keep them all so that I can learn from my mistakes, gauge how much I’ve improved over time, and remember the moment that I took them.  That photo above is total crap, but I remember that I took that photo of an insect that’s in a display behind me as I type this, that I took it in the living room of my first apartment as I sat on the horrid brown carpet on the floor, that the background is the antique Filipino coffee table I got from my grandparents a good 5 years before my dog chewed it up, that my hedgehog was running happily in his wheel at the time and my gerbils were chewing up a toilet paper tube in that adorable way that gerbils devour paper products.  I was so incredibly happy to have that camera that I would have loved this photo if it were even worse than this!  That photo also helped me learn something about photography and cameras that made me the photographer I am today.  I like that photo.  It marked the beginning of an era of journey into insect photography.  An apparently blurry and improperly white balanced journey, but a journey nonetheless!  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Photographing Aquatic Insects

I ended up getting this up a few days later than planned, but better late than never, eh?  Today I’m going to share my current aquatic insect photography setup!

About a year ago, I wrote about the aquatic insect photography setup that I was using at the time.  I liked some things about it (easy, small, relatively portable), but the really thick, cheap (i.e. flawed) glass was a problem and the narrow container made it difficult to keep the glass clean.  After that post, I realized that my container just wasn’t working, so I thought back to the setup used by Steve Maxson, the man who had introduced me to the idea of shooting aquatic insects through glass in the first place (thanks again Steve!).  He uses a little aquarium with very thin glass and gets much better shots than I was.  So, I went out and bought the smallest glass aquarium I could find to improve my technique.  One trip to PetsMart and $15 later, and I had a new setup!

This is what I’m using currently:

Tank setup, side view

My tank setup

As you can see, this is a seriously high tech design!  It’s just my little aquarium, about 1/3 full of water (I use tap and let it sit a couple of days before I put things in it – more on this later) with some natural elements in it.  I usually just use the rocks on the bottom, but sometimes I get fancy and put a plant in too.

The main reason I liked the itty bitty aquaria I was using before was because there was only an inch of space between the two panes of glass.  A 2.5 gallon aquarium, while small, still gives the insects a LOT of space to move around. You don’t want to chase insects around, but also I’ve found that the more water you shoot through, the less crisp the final image. Happily, my aquarium came with the world’s worst lid, a sheet of glass with a little plastic handle.  I stuck the whole thing inside my aquarium as a barrier:

Tank setup, top view

My tank, from the top

With this extra sheet of glass, I can keep everything close to the front of the aquarium.  I hold the whole thing in place by jamming a pair of feather forceps between the handle of the lid and the lip of the tip of the aquarium, because I’m fancy that way.  I tend to keep all of my decorative/substrate elements near the front, though you can add plants and larger rocks behind the barrier or prop a printed blurry image of greenery behind the aquarium to give it a more natural look.  I alternate between using a printed background, using a plain sheet of paper (gives the resulting image a bit more of a white box feel), and opening my curtains and letting diffused light backlight my little tank.

As for my camera and flashes, because you definitely need flashes to make this work, I’ve been keeping things really simple!  In the past, I was using my Nikon with my wireless twin flashes blasting diffused light through the water from either side of the tank.  Recently, I have been using my Canon 7D and MP-E 65 lens.  Because I don’t have a good way to mount my diffused Canon twin flashes to the sides of the tank (they’re not wireless like the Nikon flashes), I just mount them right onto the lens like I would if I were shooting terrestrial insects.  I hand hold my camera, then try to shoot straight through the glass.  If you angle the camera more than a little from head on, you not only get flash glare on the glass, but you start to get some crazy glass aberrations.

I feel like I’ve been getting some good results from this setup.  Here’s a freshly hatched giant water bug nymph:

Giant water bug nymph, Belostoma flumineum

Giant water bug nymph, Belostoma flumineum

… and a damselfly:

Damselfly nymph

Damselfly nymph

This highlights the wingpads on a Tramea dragonfly nymph:

dragonfly nymph wingpads

Dragonfly nymph’s wingpads. Notice that you can see all of the veins of the wings developing inside!

Here’s a water scorpion head:

Water scorpion head, Ranatra nigra

Water scorpion head, Ranatra nigra

And this is a water strider with a deformed wing, sitting on top of the water:

Water strider

Water strider

I also tried shooting with my little Canon Powershot G15 camera with this setup and got some interesting shots! I’m feeling good about this one.

There are some things to keep in mind with this technique.  You’ve got to keep the glass as clean as you can.  Don’t touch the front of the glass and try not to scratch it.  You also have to keep the water as clean as you can, so avoid adding a lot of algae covered items and other stuff that will muck up the water. Air bubbles are a HUGE problem if you don’t let the water sit for a while.  Don’t try to shoot the same day you put water in the tank or you’ll get a thousand little air bubbles that will show in your images.  If you let the water sit, not only will the chlorine vaporize, but the air bubbles will largely dissipate. You can get rid of any lingering bubbles by giving the side of the tank a good tap and shaking the water a bit.  However, you also don’t want to let the water sit TOO long.  Once the water evaporates, you’ll get buildup above the water line if you’ve got any impurities in your water and those will show up as streaks through your images. I dump all the water and clean out my tank periodically to get rid of the buildup. I scrub the entire interior of my tank with a nylon dish scrubber and a mixture of equal parts Dawn dish soap and vinegar.  It smells absolutely terrible, but I end up with sparkling clean glass!  Just be sure you rinse really well, and then use a microfiber cloth to dry the outside of the tank so you don’t get too much lint.  I usually fill my tank as soon as I clean it so I don’t have to bother drying the interior.

So that’s my current setup and I know it will be easy for lots of you to duplicate! I am sure I’ll change things up again at some point, but this is working for me now and I’ll likely stick with it for a while.  Please feel free to try this for yourself. If any of you end up using this technique – or have others you’d like to share – I hope you’ll share the results with everyone in the comments! It would be fun to see what other people are coming up with!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Best of the Dragonfly Woman 2013

Alex Wild has called on all nature loving bloggers to once again share their favorite photos from 2013.  Because I can’t resist that sort of fun, I’m going to make a contribution.  Here goes!

This has been a crazy year for me and I haven’t been able to blog as much as I normally like to.  My dad’s passing in March was an especially difficult blow – don’t think  I realized how much energy and life that sucked out of me until several months later – but a series of other less than ideal things have happened since.  I’m hoping 2014 will prove to be a better year than 2013, but it wasn’t ALL bad!  And even when things weren’t going quite like I might wish, I found myself turning to my camera over and over as a way to focus my mind on something else for a while – and I got some shots that I’m proud of.  I haven’t shared more than a tiny fraction of my photos for the year with you all, and certainly not as many as I would have liked, but here are my best of 2013, arranged in approximate chronological order of the events in which they were taken.

Windowsill Insects

I became fascinated with the dead insects in windowsills in January this year, after finding this beauty in the windowsill in my boss’ office one day:

Sculptured pine borer

Sculptured pine borer

I’ve since collected and photographed many windowsill insects.  It’s an especially great activity to do in the winter when there aren’t all that many live insects outside to photograph.

Science Online 2013

I have wanted to go to Science Online ever since I learned of its existence, and I was able to go this year!  My favorite moment was not at the actual conference however, but a trip to a local bar with several entomologists that were attending the conference.  This photo isn’t great, but I love it because it reminds me of a fun night, and depicts two lovely, wonderful entomologists,  Alex Wild and Matt Bertone:

Alex and Matt laughing

Alex Wild and Matt Bertone – this is what most of us looked like during our entire outing

A lot of you already know that Alex is an amazing photographer, but so is Matt! If you haven’t ever seen any of his images, please look him up on Flickr.  It’s well worth it!

A Trip to Washington D. C.

My husband and I went to D.C. for a few days in May, just to get out of town.  I took this monarch photo in the butterfly exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History:



That was my first decent monarch picture, though I have since gotten others in the wild that I like just as well.

Dragonflies Emerge in the Pond

I’d never had a camera with me when I’d seen a dragonfly emerge before I got this shot:

Eastern pondhawk emerging

Eastern pondhawk emerging

… and this one:

Carolina saddlebags emerging

Carolina saddlebags emerging

I watched and photographed six emerging dragonflies for over an hour.  It was so serene and peaceful, and it was a beautiful day.  It was just what I needed, a magical experience I’m going to remember forever.

The New Camera

I bought myself a present in June, a Canon 7D with an MP-E 65 lens.  I absolutely LOVE the camera!  The MP-E 65 lens has a bit of a learning curve, but it was everything I hoped it would be.  Here are some of my first shots:

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Blue dasher

Blue dasher

I think this is my favorite shot of the whole year actually:

I just love the way that beetle is peeking his head around the siding on my house!

National Moth Week 2013

The second annual National Moth Week took place in July.  I attended a moth workshop, a blacklighting event, hosted a moth night at work, and visited my porch light every night.  Part of my zeal for moths this year was driven by the purchase of my new camera, but I got several shots I really liked.  These were both shot during the day with just my point and shoot at the moth workshop:


Luna moth

My first ever luna in North Carolina!  And then there was this imperial moth:

Imperial moth

Imperial moth, Eacles imperialis

First ever sighting of that species period.  I think this, however, was my favorite moth from the week:

Small tolype moth

Small tolype, Tolype notialis

It’s a small tolype, which I’d never heard of before I looked it up in my field guide the night of my moth night at work.  I just love this moth (as a friend of mine would say, it’s fuzzylicious!), and I think I may have been the only person to see it that night.  Somehow that makes it even more special.

My First NC Lethocerus

I found my first large giant water bug, Lethocerus uhleri, in the pond at work one day in late summer.  I was teaching some 4 and 5 year olds how to collect some citizen science data in the pond when I found it.  I was SO excited that I started jumping up and down.  Those kids thought I was nuts, but look how spectacular this insect is!

giant water bug eyes

Wow.  I hadn’t ever really looked at their eyes that closely until the day I got this photo, but they are stunning.

Butterfly Count 2013

We do an annual butterfly count at Prairie Ridge, part of a larger county-wide count.  We only had a team of two this year, but we saw some fun things.  This was my favorite photo from the count:

Horace's duskywing

Horace’s duskywing, Erynnis horatius

Skippers aren’t always the most stunning butterflies, but this was my first Horace’s duskywing and I thought it was rather beautiful.

Visit to Duke Gardens

Did my first visit to the Duke Gardens in late summer this year and it was amazing!  Caught this pair of amorous soldier beetles there:

Soldier beetle lovin

Soldier beetle lovin’

Dragonfly Migration 2013

We never did get very many green darners at the pond at work this year, but there was a nice little surge of them during the migration, which just happened to coincide with an educational dragonfly walk I led.  We caught several dragonflies in nets to get a closer look, and this was one:

Green darner on my knee

Green darner on my knee

I took this one with the cruddy little, VERY cheap digital camera we have at work, which served to remind me that the camera you have with you is the best camera, regardless of the quality.

Winter Aquatic Insects

It’s been chilly in North Carolina recently, so there aren’t many insects out. So, I’ve started bringing aquatic insects home to photograph in my aquatic “studio” (an aquarium with a piece of glass inside to limit the movement of the bugs).  There are my recent favorites:

Photographing aquatics like this takes a lot of patience, but I think it’s well worth it in the end.

So those are my favorites for the year!  If you have your own list of your favorite science and nature photos from 2013, Alex Wild is collecting links to posts and/or collections over on his Scientific American blog, the Compound Eye.  I hope you’ll consider making your own contribution!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: New Toys!

I mentioned in the post I wrote just before my recent trip to California that I had gotten some new toys: new cameras.  Most excitingly, I have long coveted the Canon MP-E 65 lens, so I bought myself my first Canon DSLR!  I couldn’t be happier with that purchase.  I knew the lens would have a bit of a learning curve as it doesn’t have a focusing ring, but I LOVE the lens!  You’ll be seeing a lot more photos taken with that camera, I’m sure, but this is one of my favorites from my very first Canon DLSR shoot:

Green lynx spider

Green lynx spider

That’s a green lynx spider sitting on one of the black-eyed susans that’s awaiting planting in my native plant bed.  I can already tell that I am going to get a LOT of use out of my new toy.  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth