Thursday, January 22, 2015

Introducing my new camera setup!

I've been long overdue to upgrade my camera, and with an upcoming trip to New Zealand, I started thinking about what kind of photography setup I wanted to bring.  I've also been wanting a better macro/flash setup for specimen photography, as my single external flash works great in the field but is too harsh and often casts unwanted shadows when photographing specimens.
I wrote a post a couple years ago about my camera setup, and was very excited about the new macro lens and flash I had just purchased, and it was a drastic improvement from my built-in flash and standard telephoto lens, but after working with it for two years and learning more about specimen photography, I realized I needed a shorter macro lens (40 or 60 mm instead of 105) and either a dual-flash system (one on each side of the lens) or a ring flash, so I don't have to photoshop out all the distracting shadows.  I bought a 40mm macro last year and have been very happy with it, but still needed a different flash.
My Nikon D80 camera has been a great workhorse for 9 years, and survived a couple drops and being splashed with mud once or twice.  The reasons I wanted to upgrade to a new camera were primarily the image resolution (D80 is 10 megapixels, most current cameras are 20+), a lighter body (the D80 is HEAVY, especially after running over hill and dale after butterflies!), and hopefully a self-cleaning sensor (the D80 has been plaguing me with dust on the sensor which shows up as blurry dark circles on the photo, costs $100 to get it cleaned).
After an entire day of researching cameras, I went with the Nikon D7100, a 24 megapixel beauty with a self-cleaning sensor and a zillion new buttons and settings that are almost overwhelming! Although it is actually larger than the D80, it is a little lighter, not as much as I had hoped, but I picked it because it is one of the few in my price range with a magnesium alloy body instead of plastic (thus the weight), which is much more durable and resists moisture, all of which is a must for what I put it through out in the field.  I also bought a very lightweight 18-55 mm lens that should work really well for traveling and hikes, when I don't want to lug around my 18-200 mm monster lens.  Likewise, I bought a 60 mm macro lens that is half the weight of my 1.74 lb 105mm macro.  I don't have to get as close to my subject like I do with the 40mm macro, but it provides a middle-range magnification so I shouldn't regret leaving my 105 behind if I want a lighter pack on a hike.
After some confusing comparisons and research into macro-system flashes, which range from $40-$800+, I decided on a the Phoenix SmartFlash RF46 TTL Macro Ring Light for Nikon. Long name for a small and very lightweight system! I hoped that spending the $90 on it instead of the $300-400 Nikon-brand macro dual flash system wouldn't come back to bite me later, but so far I'm more than happy with it.  It is controlled by the camera, and there is very little you can do to adjust it manually, but it seems to match the right flash strength with whatever aperture/shutter settings I use.  I also know that I probably wouldn't use all the manual adjustments on the more expensive flash, so I was willing to sacrifice some control for the substantial cost difference.
To recap, my former setup was this:
Nikon D80 camera
Nikon SB-700 Speedlight Flash (which I'll still use except for specimen photography)
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm macro lens (will use for certain butterfly photo situations in the field)
Nikon AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 40mm macro lens (use for super-close-ups)
Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor VR 18-200mm zoom lens (all-purpose)

New setup:
above lenses, depending on situation
Nikon D7100 camera
Nikon AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 60mm macro lens (specimen & field photography)
Phoenix SmartFlash RF46 TTL Macro Ring Light for Nikon (for specimen photography)
Nikon VR AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm zoom lens (landscape/plant photography)

Unfortunately it looks like I'm going to have to spend a bit more money because of all this... I uploaded some of my experimental photos for the first time and found out that my Adobe Elements 10 is too old for my brilliant new camera, and can't read the NEF files (raw images, like digital negatives).  I can still edit the JPEGs for now, but they don't have as many editing options as NEF, and it's something I really need the ability to do.  Always something!

Enough of my jabbering, here are the results! Notice the difference in shadows and color? I uploaded the full size instead of reducing it, so if you click on the image you can enjoy it at full screen.
Western Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, taken with Nikon D80 camera, 40mm macro, and single (SB-700) flash
Western Tiger Swallowtail, Papilio rutulus, taken with Nikon D7100 camera, 60mm macro lens, and ring flash
Colorado Hairstreak, Hypaurotus crysalus, taken with Nikon D80 camera, 40mm macro, and single (SB-700) flash
Colorado Hairstreak, Hypaurotus crysalus, taken with Nikon D7100 camera, 60mm macro lens, and ring flash

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Hesperia challenges in Washington

Skippers have always been difficult for me to identify, so I spent part of my Christmas vacation tackling the four species of Hesperia that are found here in Washington: Juba (H. juba), Western Branded (H. colorado), Common Branded (H. comma), and Nevada (H. nevada) skippers.  Western and Common branded skippers are sometimes considered the same species (organized under H. comma), but I follow the taxonomy of Butterflies of Oregon (Warren, 2005) and A Catalogue of the Butterflies of the United States and Canada (Pelham, 2008, continuously updated on the Butterflies of America website), both of which consider them separate species.
Note: click on any of the photos to view them at full-size.
Comparison of Hesperia species of Washington. All are male. Circles and numbers correspond to descriptions below.
Juba Skipper - Hesperia juba
This is the largest of the four species, and is often easily ID'd in the field by the hairs on the thorax reflecting bright turquoise blue in the sun. This species is a bright orange/gold overall, and is mostly confused with Western Branded Skippers.
The following numbers correspond to the numbers in the image above.
1 - this bar is usually larger than in the other three species.
2 - distinct brown margin with toothed/streaked orange markings, the two colors are very distinct and do not seem to "dissolve" into each other as much as the other three species.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are indistinct, compared to Common Branded Skipper.
4 - white spot not as indented as Nevada Skipper, and wing base-color is not as dusky.
Juba Skippers
Juba Skipper, with slight turquoise reflection on the thorax.
Western Branded Skipper - Hesperia colorado
This species is generally bright orange/gold and mostly confused with Juba Skippers. It is not as dusky overall and is widespread in Washington, compared to the Common Branded Skipper which is usually darker and has a restricted range in Washington.
1 - this bar is usually smaller than in Juba, and sometimes blends in more with the orange background, especially in males.
2 - brown margin is usually much narrower than Juba, and gradually transitions to orange, compared to the distinct and jagged boundary in Juba.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are indistinct, compared to Common Branded Skipper.
4 - white spot not as indented as Nevada Skipper, and wing base-color is brighter orange, not as dusky as Nevada or Common Branded skippers.
Western Branded Skippers
Common Branded Skipper - Hesperia comma
In Washington, this species is only found at high elevations in the northern Cascades (such as around Harts Pass and Slate Peak) and at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains.
1 - this bar is usually smaller than in Juba, and usually does not touch the orange discal coloration.
2 - brown margin is usually wider than Western Branded, but compared to Juba, the transition between brown and orange is less distinct and not as jagged. Overall, Common Branded Skippers have less orange on the dorsal wing surface compared to the other species.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are usually more distinct and with less orange background compared to the other three species.
4 - white spot not as indented as Nevada Skipper.
Common Branded Skippers
Nevada Skipper - Hesperia nevada
This species is less common than Juba and Western Branded skippers in Washington.  It is found in shrub-steppe habitat mostly around Kittitas and Yakima counties, and in parts of of Okanogan County.  It is generally duskier than Juba and Western Branded skippers.
1 - this bar is usually smaller than in Juba.
2 - width of the brown margin varies from narrow to wide, but it gradually transitions to orange, compared to the distinct and jagged boundary in Juba.
3 - light gold/yellowish spots are usually less distinct compared to Common Branded Skipper.
4 - white spot is greatly indented compared to the other three species, and wing base-color is usually more dusky than Juba and Western Branded skippers.
I only have the one specimen shown in the comparison photo at the top of this page. For more examples of this species, see the species photos on the Butterflies of America website.

Happy New Year!