2017 Field Days! (And a Photo Question)

Mark your calendars if you’re interested in attending either or both of our Platte River Prairies Field Days this summer.  The first will be on Thursday July 6, and will be focused on plant identification.  We’ll have several instructors on hand to lead field-based plant identification sessions in various habitats, including upland sand prairie, mesic prairie, and wetlands.  The second field day will be August 5, and will feature a wide range of topics covering prairie ecology, restoration, and management, pollinators and other invertebrates, and more.  Both days are free and open to the all ages.  Look for more details as the time grows near.

Now, a (minor) technical photo quandry I’m hoping you can help me with…

When photographing small flowers and insects, depth-of-field (the depth of an image that is in focus) is a challenge.  At close range, a camera can only bring into focus a narrow range of the image (front to back).  Deciding what needs to be in focus and what can be a little fuzzy is a constant issue, and I often try taking the image a few different ways so I can decide which I like best later.  When I’m photographing a small creature, I almost always make sure the eyes are in focus, regardless of everything else, because as viewers, our eyes are always drawn to the eyes of other creatures.

The eyes of this Woodhouse’s toad are both sharply in focus, but the tip of her nose/snout is a little out of focus – but not enough to be distracting.

When photographing the toad above, for example, I made sure the eyes were sharply in focus, even though i knew that would mean that the part of the toad closest to the camera (the center of its mouth) would appear slightly out of focus.  Because the toad was relatively large, the out-of-focus part was only a little soft and not at all distracting, making it an easy decision to prioritize the eyes being sharp.

Bee Photo #1

The other day, I was photographing a cute little green bee (Agapostemon sp.) on a dandelion flower.  I took quite a few photos, playing with the depth-of-field.  When editing the images later, I came up with two I really liked, but neither had the entire face of the bee in focus.  In the first photo (above), the front green portion of the head was in focus, along with much of the antennae, but eyes were a little soft.  In the second photo (below), the eyes are in focus, but more of the parts of the bee closer to the camera are not.  The second photo shows off the tongue and mandibles a little better, as well as the three simple eyes on the top of the bee’s head.

Bee Photo #2

Below, you can see cropped versions of both photos and compare them.  Again, the one on the left has the green part of the head in focus, while (all 5 of) the eyes are more sharp in the photo to the right.  If I follow my typical rule, I should like the second image better, but I’m not sure I agree with that in this case.  My question for you is this: as the viewer, what is the focal point in the photo?  The big compound eyes?  The point where the antennae meet the head?  Something else?   That focal point needs to be sharp, regardless of whatever silly rule I usually follow.

Here is a side by side comparison.

Ok, I know this is kind of splitting hairs, and the difference between these two photos is pretty slight, but I’ve had other situations in which the decision about whether to focus on a little critter’s eyes or another part of its face is more difficult.  I’m hoping to find out whether what I see as the focal point of these bee images is the same as what others see.  That will help me make future decisions with other images.

Thanks for your help.

This entry was posted in Prairie Insects, Prairie Photography and tagged , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

23 thoughts on “2017 Field Days! (And a Photo Question)

  1. Hi Chris,

    Interesting question… I think you could justify use of either photograph, but to my mind, I like the second photo better. The antennae seem to function more as guiding lines leading the viewer to the top of the head and eyes – the ultimate focus of the image. The antennae seem peripheral and there is enough in focus in this version for the viewer to complete the picture in their head. …but as you suggest, you are splitting hairs (or antennae) in this instance. Both equal wonderful photography. Fun to think about. Thank you for the inclusion.




  2. I like the eyes in focus. My instant response to the first photo was, “What do I look at here?” As if there was nothing of interest and the focus was a little off. We’re personal beings; we love personal connection, usually through the eyes.

  3. Right photo. Mandibles, tongue, and eyes are visually much more interesting than the antennae. I have this problem too. Are there graphics programs that could allow one to interpolate the detail of two images and merge them? Or is that cheating?

  4. The technique of blending portions of images in focus to make a composite is called focus stacking. Obviously, any movement will make the stack difficult or impossible. Those images seem to be of a static subject, and might be stacked. Zerene is one program which can do this.

    Last year I added an inexpensive Sunpak ring flash to my rig, and this has helped. Shooting f16, 1/160sec, ISO 100 and 1/8 to 1/4 flash output gives pretty consistent results. I am going to experiment with f22 and higher output on the flash. My experiments with a 1.4X teleconverter were inconsistent, and that killed any benefit, so it’s straght 100mm for me for now.

    • Hey Matt,

      I haven’t really played with it. I don’t have any objection to it as a technique, I just haven’t yet. You’re right that this one might work, although being hand-held, I’m not sure the images are similar enough to be stacked.

  5. It’s true that more light allows smaller apertures and better depth of field. I have found that one solution to this quandary is a different approach–it worked very well for butterflies, and I don’t know whether this might do for you–but try standing away from your subject and using a zoom. If you have a bright lens, you may do a little better with the depth of field. I don’t have any empirical data to back this up–just experience photographing little stuff with zoom lenses.

  6. I happen to like those prominent antennae in focus, if I have to choose between these two images. But maybe ideal would be to stack the two together for a more deeply focused composite image.

  7. For me, the focus is where the antennae come out of the head. They’re both great photos, but I’m more drawn to the second one because there is more color catching my attention.

  8. One thing to consider, especially for the biology amateurs in your audience, is that they probably don’t focus at all on the eyes of a critter who has 5 eyes — only the two-eyed ones! The antennae look a little like eyes, so I focus there. Also, as you say, the differences in these two photos aren’t that great.

  9. In the uncropped photo the focal point for me is the head of the bee and it’s black antennae, flecked with pollen. I like that the bee is off center and the soft yellow shape of the flower fills most of the frame. It’s beautiful.

  10. In addition to using software to get more depth of field, in some cases the resolution of the camera is so good you can take a picture from a further distance (all other settings being the same) and get the depth of field you need.

  11. I actually like the second image because the eyes are in focus, but would blend the focus from two images if I had the time. You probably don’t need more. Shooting from a greater distance will also give greater depth of field if that is what you are after. Personally, I like what you have in image 2.

  12. I like image 2 for a different reason. More of the pollen is in focus. To me the other focal points are only slightly different, but the increased clarity of the pollen makes the image pop.

  13. I agree the second photo is the preferred. The antennas and the three little dots above constitute a focal cluster for me. You might call it the bee’s brow. If there is such a thing…

  14. The photo on the right is better.

    Also, my brother and I visited the Little Salt Fork Marsh Preserve last month. I was wondering what the Conservancy is doing as restoration?

    –Bob Erickson

    On Tue, May 9, 2017 at 10:28 AM, The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: “Mark your calendars if you’re interested in > attending either or both of our Platte River Prairies Field Days this > summer. The first will be on Thursday July 6, and will be focused on plant > identification. We’ll have several instructors on hand to lead f” >

    • Hi Bob,

      The Conservancy no longer owns Little Salt Fork Marsh Preserve – it’s been transferred to the Lower Platte South Natural Resource District. The initial restoration of the saline wetlands was done back in the mid-1990s and the upland prairie by the south gate was overseeded in around 2001 or so (if I remember correctly). I’m not sure whether the NRD is doing or planning any further restoration at the moment.

  15. In the original pictures, I like photo 1 because it allows me to concentrate on the pollen granules in the face and antennae. There is less stuff going on and I can concentration that face. More details in #2 make it more distracting. But in the cropped photo, I like the 2nd (right) because it is more detailed. There is less to look at around the bee, so then I want to see all those details.

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