puffin 11Puffin

It’s pretty rare that I get a week off work without loads of things that need to be done. I’d been really looking forward to the Isle of May, because, I mean, who doesn’t like puffins.

While the trip absolutely brilliant, and one of the best places I’ve ever been photographing, the lack of puffins slightly dented the overall enjoyment of things.

Sunday morning, before returning to work on Monday, I visited Montrose Basin for a walk, and witnessed all sorts of brilliant wildlife, much of it returning for the summer months. Common Sandpipers, Goldeneye, Linnets collecting nesting materials, the regular blue flash of a Kingfisher fly-by that can never be caught on camera, and then an Osprey, floating down the River South Esk, hovering for a bit and then diving with a huge splash and taking a fish, whilst being watched closely by a Kestrel overhead. Sadly the light didn’t offer great photos, but sometimes you just go out and it all happens. I was only there for about 45 minutes too.

Osprey 2A small fish, but breakfast nonetheless

linnet (f)Mrs Linnet with nest building materials

A pretty good way to end the holidays.

As the day wore on though, the weather improved, and I decided that there was a chance of one last walk before I had to face work again in the morning. With the lack of Puffins on the Isle of May, I thought I’d try Fowlsheugh again.

I’d been on Friday morning, and the cliffs were remarkably empty for the second half of April. The cold and stormy March had apparently really taken it’s toll on the seabird colonies, and with such a fragile population in the UK, I wondered how many we’d see this year. What a difference two days makes!!

I’d go as far as to say that there were more birds than there were at any time I visited last year. There was little space to spare on some of the cliffs. The RSPB count a couple of years ago was about 126,000 birds on this coastline – it is genuinely one of the most spectacular things any bird watcher can see. A nice westerly breeze also ensures it can be seen without retching at the smell!


GuillemotsIt all looks so friendly, but there are regularly pretty vicious scraps over the best ledges
FowlsheughThe coastline is like this for around 2.5 miles
I don’t think I’ve ever bumped into anyone here who isn’t utterly gobsmacked by the place. I love visiting new places, the Isle of May was amazing, and Troup Head is just spectacular, but nowhere yet tops this.
I’ve been about six or seven times this year already, as early as January, when there were Guillemots by the thousand sheltering from a storm, and a couple of weeks ago when there were almost no birds at all.
So why is it so special? Several reasons – and several species.
The walk in usually offers some farmland birds – Linnet, Wren, Wagtails, Stonechats, Yellowhammer, Meadow and Rock Pipits, and the always entertaining Jackdaws. The bay at Crawton itself is usually busy with Herring Gulls and Fulmars. The spectacular waterfall looks great from the south, but the small pool at the top of the falls is also great, with Herring Gulls bathing in it, and Kittiwakes collecting nest materials and mud.
Crawton waterfallCrawton Waterfall
Views South towards Catterline and Tod Head Lighthouse are also pretty spectacular.
In late summer, the first bit of the walk is also good for butterflies and wildflowers, so it’s an excuse to make the camera bag even heavier by putting in macro gear.
But the cliffs are very much the highlight, with five main species of bird to watch. Kittiwakes and Razorbills occupy the first 15 to 20 feet of the cliffs from the top, and are probably the easiest to photograph as a result. Many places allow you to see them quite close without risking certain death, but bravery can be rewarded as they are quite tolerant of cameras peering over the edge at them. There are around 7,500 Razorbills and up to 20,000 Kittiwakes at Fowlsheugh, although the latter has dropped from almost four times that in the 1990s.
razorbill 1Razorbill


Fulmars are also present in the top few feet of the cliff. Fulmars are a relation of the Albatross, and have terrific characters. They are very entertaining to watch, and as pairs mate for life and return to the same nest sites year on year, you feel you get to know their personalities. They can nest well into their 50s as well, so there are many years to observe their behaviour. They always seem like such close couples.

Fulmar 2Happy couple taken in March this year

Fowlsheugh-8458Same nest last August – the adult looks a little less impressed with a youngster to look after.

From about 20 feet down from the top of the cliffs to the sea below is the Guillemot zone. Upwards of 60,000 of them! It’s great to watch them huddled together, and later in the season, protecting eggs and chicks precariously positioned on tiny ledges. Their eggs are pointed so that they roll around in small circles, but there is barely room for this on many of the ledges. The cliffs are made up of puddingstone, with boulders and round stones suspended in a sandstone cement. Constant erosion often leaves hollows which are quickly claimed as penthouse suites – normally by Kittiwakes – you can just make out the tails of two opportunists in the image below.

Guillemots 2Some groups obviously claim the best ledges and guard them

The star of the show will always be the Puffin though. I never tire of seeing people’s faces when they see them for the first time here. I guess mine was exactly the same 13 months ago when it was me seeing my first Puffin.

Almost everyone’s first comment is ‘they are soooo small!’

Puffins are so photogenic, and most photos are of them alone, or in groups of Puffins, and not in any context to show their size. Beaks full of sandeels don’t really help because sandeels are tiny too.

puffin 4Puffins are much smaller than people often expect. This one spent ages trying to balance on the rock, with feet designed 90% for swimming and 10% for digging, and clearly 0% for balancing on pointy rocks. It looked so incredibly pleased with itself when it found the balance point though

puffin 1After everyone had gone home for the evening last night, this one bird sat close to the top of the cliffs

The last day of my Spring holiday was the best day I’ve had with a camera in 2018, and it just underlined to me that Fowlsheugh is pretty hard to beat for nesting seabirds – sometimes the grass isn’t greener on the other side and we’ve got the best of the best right in front of us.

That was after experiencing a small snippet of what Montrose Basin offers in the morning.

What was landscape photography again? I’ve forgotten all about that for now…

I might be going to Troup Head at the weekend though, ha ha!


Olive oil and water

I was looking through the internets for ideas for indoor, rainy-miserable-damp-murky October type days.  When it is cold and sunny all week while stuck in the office, and then rains all weekend, and there is an overwhelming urge to at least create something worthwhile…

I discovered an idea of mixing oil with water and photographing the bubbles and patterns, and by suspending this above an interesting or colourful background, some really interesting things start to happen.

I first tried this using the camera hand-held, but found it very hard to get it 100% vertical above the water (and not dipping the flash in the water!), so I tried again with a tripod, with better results.  Here is a step-by-step guide to how I did it with a tripod, therefore.  The possibilities are expansive, so it’s worth really experimenting with different focal lengths, backgrounds and mixtures.  Please excuse the crappy camera phone images.

First of all, I’ve done this on the floor.  For the handheld efforts (some of which worked OK) I did this on a desk, but that wouldn’t have given me much room to get a tripod over the top of the dish with space to move it around.  I recommend the floor for flexibility, and less chance of knocking oily water everywhere.

For the basic set up, I used a lasagna dish raised above the floor by some plastic cups.  You can use anything to raise the dish above the floor, but something that you can stack that will be the same at each end – perhaps CD or DVD boxes – is good, so you can adjust the height to change effects.  Put some water in the dish, and add some olive oil.  Different mixtures create different effects, as does the amount you agitate the liquid.  The colourful part of the subject is arranged on the floor below the dish, like the feathers shown above.

I also put a piece of mounting card on the floor, so I could rest a lamp on it.  A light source between the dish and the feathers is useful for focusing, and I was using a daylight bulb on a clip mount thing, with nothing to clip it on, so the card was really just to avoid burning the carpet.

I then set up my tripod just above the water (carefully not dipping the lens in the oily water!).  I used a simple cheap macro focusing rail (£12 off ebay – see below) to mount the camera on the tripod, and then used a spirit level to ensure that the camera was pointing straight down.  I could then use the macro focusing rail to move the camera up and down with great precision to focus on the bubbles on the surface of the water.afa044_1t

Because using a reversed lens requires you to be so close to the subject, the camera was quite close to the water, and I had to take care not to dip the flash diffuser in the water.  Be careful to watch where everything is and not concentrate so hard on the the pictures that you knock everything over or drop your shutter release into the water, or any number of other disasters that are waiting to happen here.  I did most of them.  And swore profusely each time.

The two pictures above show how the camera is positioned in relation to the dish.

image1It’s pretty hard to photograph the setup, especially using a camera phone, but I hope this explains how it looks, ready for taking shots. You’ll note that I have a remote shutter release cable attached.  This isn’t essential, as we have a fast shutter speed, but the shutter button is awkward to get to, so it’s just easier.

As far as settings go, I’m shooting with the flash, through the home made diffuser, with a shutter speed of 1/250th second, ISO 100 and a small aperture (the aperture blades on this lens are sticky, but I’d guess somewhere around f11).  The 35mm lens is reversed on extension tubes, but with just the 7mm section in place, so the 14mm and 28mm sections have been removed.  This gives me about 2 times magnification and adequate sharpness.

Live view is great here for getting things in sharp focus. I magnified things 10x to get the bubbles as sharp as possible, focusing by moving the focusing rail a fraction at a time, and then tightening the lock screw when everything was sharp.

Then it’s just a case of agitating the water/oil mixture.  I used a pencil, but be careful not to splash the lens – I wasted a whole set of about 50 images by having a drop right in the middle of the lens!!  Trial and error is the key here.

As with all of this reverse lens macro stuff, take lots of pictures and be prepared to throw most of them away.  The compositions can be completely random, as the bubbles move around.

Also, even if you polish the dish beforehand, use clean water and oil straight from the bottle, it seems there is a magical force that attracts fluff to the mixture.  Fluff distorts the surface of the water and ruins pictures.  I dislike fluff.

The other thing to now try is to move the background around.  Feathers are great because they are small enough to move closer or further from the bottom of the dish. for different effects.  Patterned paper, or really anything colourful will give all sorts of results.

Here are some results I have had, with the handheld ones first: –

img_9024img_9021spotty wallpaper sample

img_8977plain white background for a metallic look

img_8996a small pumpkin – a round object will produce these moon-like effects.

img_8949using lots of oil creates nice colours.

The images using a tripod were more consistently successful: –

img_9125letting the oil settle for a bit creates flatter bubbles

img_9235-editimg_9227-editbut more agitation of the liquid creates a fabulous 3D effect

img_9216-editbigger bubbles from lots of stirring

img_9198-editimg_9200-editthese ones look like planets in some rainbow coloured galaxy.

img_9214-editsometimes air bubbles contain smaller oil bubbles, create this type of effect (this is my favourite image)

Finally comes post processing.  Don’t be shy with the clarity and vibrance sliders.  I have also done some noise reduction and sharpening on these images in imagenomics noiseware, but the sharpening and noise reduction tools in lightroom are OK too.

One thing to watch out for is sensor dust – macro shots like this really emphasis any sensor dust, so have a careful look and remove any obvious spots with the spot removal tool or cloning stamp.

You cannot realistically see what is happening on the surface of the liquid, because it’s under the camera and flash diffuser, so the images are really quite random.  As the liquid settles though, you can search for good features by moving the tripod around (carefully!).  Equally, you can move whatever is under the dish.

Great fun, and completely other-worldly results.




I made this a while ago, but then never really found a subject matter that demanded it’s use. It isn’t bright enough to use for hand-held images without a flash.

It’s made from card, and lined with tin foil, with a small box at the bottom that has three sides and the top made with a thing frame of card, and lined with tracing paper to diffuse the light.  The result is a box at the bottom with bright, diffused light coming from all angles.

I saw recently some macro images of shells that showed incredible detail, so I thought this would be the ideal use for the lightbox.  I used a tripod for the camera, and a cheap focus stacking rail to move the camera between shots.

These images are stacked from 6 images each, using a reversed 50mm prime lens at f16 (I think)


(very small) animal rescue

I’ve had a couple of opportunities to rescue some insects recently.  I was looking around the garden for flies and spiders to photograph, and found a ladybird caught in a spider’s web.  I rescued him, and while he cleaned the silk off his wings, I took a few shots.  After he recovered and took flight, I looked him up and discovered that he is a cream-streaked ladybird – and extremely rare in Scotland.  I have reported the sighting to the Ladybird Records people for their survey work.

The first image is a straight shot of him sitting on my finger, and the second is stacked from six hand held shots.


A couple of days later I found a poorly bumblebee on our kitchen windowsill, so we fed him some sugar water, and he made a very quick recovery.  He was pretty camera shy, constantly turning his back to the camera, but I got a few shots.  Glad to see him fly off after half an hour or so.  Incredibly beautiful creatures up close.

New old lens

I showed my dad some of the pictures I’d taken, and he mentioned that he had a couple of old lenses from a Praktica camera that he no longer has.  It turns out that one was a rather marvellous Carl Zeiss Flektogon 35mm 2.4 prime lens, in remarkably good condition.  The aperture blades were stuck, but I managed to repair it and get it working again.

Reversed on my Canon 70D, it produces some very sharp macro images, but I particularly love the quality of the out of focus areas.

While trying this out, I took a picture of some water droplets on a peacock feather from a low angle, and (completely by accident) caught some really interesting light refraction.  In order to try to isolate this, I edited the picture in Nik Silver Effex Pro, and then created a layer mask to reveal the coloured water droplet against a monochrome feather.


Funny how these things happen by chance, but an image I’m rather proud of.  I’ve subsequently spent 3 days trying to recreate the same lighting.  I’ve so far failed to achieve quite such a great effect, but using some focus stacking, I’ve created a series of images using the same technique.


Lots of fun, and unusual images that I can honestly say I haven’t copied from someone else’s ideas, which provides a great sense of achievement.

The complexities of macro focus stacking

My last post included a short section on trying to stack images of water droplets (well glycerin droplets) with flowers focused through them.  I’ve been trying tirelessly for days to get this technique right, but there are so many things that can go wrong.

It needs really good light, but then the light can play havoc with reflections off the droplets – even natural daylight ends up with a reflection of a window, or a random curtain.

It also needs a lot of images to get it all sharp.  My final ‘successful’ picture is made up of 25 images stacked in photoshop.  But beware, if photos at either end of the stack are too out of focus, then you will get odd artifacts in the final image, especially around the droplets.

So here is the technique for focus stacking in photoshop: –

Put the camera on a tripod with a method of sliding the camera on the top.  I am using a video tripod with a large mounting plate that is perfect for this, but a macro sliding plate would be easier to use accurately.  You’ll need to find a way to hold the grass (or whatever you choose to put droplets on) still, so I’ve taped it to a chair.  Then carefully add drops.  I use glycerin because it sticks better.

DSCN0008DSCN0011For this I am using a correctly mounted 50mm lens on extension tubes, set at f4.0, ISO 100, and then altering the shutter speed according to the light.  It’s trial and error, as the camera won’t give an accurate preview on the LCD.  With sunshine flooding through the window i used 1/60th second shutter speeds.

Move to the closest point of focus to the camera, and then add a bit for luck, take the first shot (using a remote shutter release ideally), and then move the camera a fraction closer to the subject, and take another image – repeat until the furthest point of focus from the camera becomes soft.  For this particular image I took around 35 images, moving the camera about 1/4mm each time.

Open photoshop, and select ‘file’, ‘scripts’ and ‘load files into stack’.  A window then allows you to select the images you have just taken, and photoshop will load them as layers in a single image.  You can then turn the layers off one by one and remove the ones at each end of the list that have no elements in focus.  I usually leave one soft focus image at each end to be sure.


Once you have decided which images you need to keep, select them all in the layers window, and select ‘edit’ and ‘auto-align images’.  Choose the default option and allow photoshop to align the layers perfectly.


After this is complete, select ‘edit’ and ‘auto-blend layers’, and then ‘stack images’

stack 1.jpg

Photoshop then assesses each layer and creates layer masks for each, seamlessly forming a composite image where everything is in sharp focus.  It’s pretty fantastic.  Doing this manually from 25 images would take days, and would be very very difficult to blend accurately.  Photoshop may take quite a while to process it, but maybe 30 minutes maximum on my laptop.

The resulting image can then be touched up and finished as normal in photoshop or lightroom.  In this case I simply toned down the highlights a fraction and boosted the clarity and vibrancy a tiny amount in lightroom.  I also cropped the image slightly to improve the composition.

It’s really time consuming, and success is all about accuracy and carefully setting up the initial pictures.  The frustrating thing is that mistakes become apparent after an hour or more of processing, and then it’s back to the start.  This took me about 30 attempts over a week to get an image i was completely happy with.

“Sunshine on a rainy day”

Sunshine on a rainy day.JPG

Macro photography update

It’s been a couple of months since my last update on macro photography on a budget.  I was doing more landscape stuff, and macro work took a back seat for a bit, but I came back to it this week.  The home made kit that I’d put together was already looking a bit worse for wear.  A lot of macro stuff involves water – splashes, droplets etc, and making a diffuser from cardboard was never going to last, so I have made mkIV out of plastic, cut from an old broken storage crate.

The method of fixing it to the lens is also an issue.  The release for the lens was always in the way, and when I add or remove sections of the extension tubes, the lens sits in a different position, so the diffuser would be at the side or the bottom.

I have therefore made this model in two parts, a mount and a diffuser, with velcro to attach them together.  The extension tube sections are now wrapped with velcro too, so the whole set up can be assembled and taken apart in a few seconds.  This also allows the position of the diffuser to be adjusted so it sits just over the top of the lens, regardless of what lens I use, or how many sections of extension tube I have on.

The final ‘improvement’ was to line the diffuser with thick aluminium foil, to focus the flash to the front without it being absorbed along the way.  This has resulted in a much improved performance, and I find I have to turn the flash power down to -1 or -2 stops in a lot of situations.

All in all, the attention to detail and refining the design makes it much more practical, and I can fit it all in my camera bag (at a push), which means I can go out photographing without having to decide JUST to do macro stuff before I go out.




The improved flash performance from the better diffuser has definitely improved the sharpness of the photos.

I’ve also experimented a little more with focus stacking images.  Our MacLeay’s Spectre Giant Prickly stick insects are growing fast, and they sit pretty still, so they make good subjects for focus stacking.   The image below is made from 7 images, stacked automatically in photoshop CC.  This allowed me to get his whole head in sharp focus, where the depth of field from a single shot wouldn’t allow.


I have also tried images of flowers through droplets, hanging from a blade of grass.  This is a first attempt, and I am disappointed with the harsh lighting, but it was a trial run and it was dark outside.  I used glycerin instead of water to help the droplets stay on the grass, but even then it is far from easy.  It is then difficult to position everything, as there are two focus elements, the droplets and the grass and then the flowers in the droplets.  I think this has great potential for some good images though.

This was focus stacked from 23 images, moving the camera just a fraction each time.

flowers 1.jpg

I may now even be happy enough to use a photo or two using this method in our local camera club’s competitions….. We’ll see what other people make of them!