Stunning Macro Photos Shot Within the Unique World of Vernal Pools

A conservation photographer has documented the unique biodiversity found in the vernal pools of Appalachia and has released a free e-book that shares the result of his years-long passion and provides tips to others who are curious about this type of photography. Steven David Johnson is a Virginia-based conservation photographer and professor who has been […]

Stunning Macro Photos Shot Within the Unique World of Vernal Pools

A conservation photographer has documented the unique biodiversity found in the vernal pools of Appalachia and has released a free e-book that shares the result of his years-long passion and provides tips to others who are curious about this type of photography.

Steven David Johnson is a Virginia-based conservation photographer and professor who has been published across multiple magainzes such as Nature Conservancy Magazine, Virginia Wildlife, Orion, and others. Johnson has a lifelong dedication to documenting the natural world and is the Vice President of the Virginia Wilderness Committee and an Affiliate of the International League of Conservation Photographers.

Growing up in rural western New York state, Johnson was surrounded by forests, ponds, and the Genesee River and as a result, newts, toads, and fireflies became a regular part of his childhood exploration. His early love for nature grew into the pursuit of an art major with a photo concentration in college and continued through a degree in digital media studies in grad school.

As an adult, Johnson moved to Virginia in 2005 and became a photography teacher at Eastern Mennonite University. He tells PetaPixel that nature photography became a way for him to understand and communicate about his new environment, most notable learning about the central and southern Appalachians, which provide biodiversity hotspots for salamanders — with more than 50 species in Virginia alone. Johnson says that this fueled his macro photography skills as he learned to document salamanders, frogs, and other — often hidden — life forms in the forests. He eventually moved to underwater photography to capture complete life cycles.

The vernal pools of Appalachia — which is the central stage for Johnson’s photography work and the basis of his e-book — are temporary bodies of water formed from seasonal rains and snowmelt. This environment is ideal for many egg-laying creatures and in late winter and early spring, these pools host breeding events for amphibians and macroinvertebrates.

“There’s a tiny world of beauty and complexity that deserves appreciation and protection,” writes Johnson in his e-book.

Although documenting vernal pools life cycles is cyclical — because the same events happen annually — each year brings an additional layer of complexity, depth, and new discoveries about behavior.

“It’s a dramatic cycle that takes place on a minute scale,” explains Johnson.

Johnson’s goal is not just to document biodiversity and behavior, but also to “help viewers to experience an emotional connection with the amazing creatures that live in vernal pools,” which means getting close with a low perspective using macro and wide-angle lenses.

To capture the fascinating underwater world, Johnson uses two sets of cameras. The first one is Sony Alpha a6500 in a Fantasea underwater housing with Sea&Sea YS-01 strobes and Light and Motion Sola video lights. He uses either a Sony f/2.8 Macro lens or a Sony 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 lens in conjunction with a Nauticam WWL-1 Wet Wide lens.

His other camera setup uses a Sony a7R III in a Seafrogs underwater housing with the same lighting tools along with either Sony FE 50mm F/2.8 Macro lens or a Venus Laowa 25mm f/2.8 2.5-5X Ultra-Macro lens.

Johnson switched to mirrorless cameras in recent years as he says that it is much easier to observe an LCD viewfinder than an optical one when the camera is submerged in water. Although, in deeper pools, it is sometimes necessary to position the camera a couple of feet below the surface, which makes viewing the LCD difficult. At times, Johnson also positions the camera and tries focusing without actually seeing the camera screen.

Shooting late at night — during winter and early spring — makes good lighting a necessity. The Sola underwater lights serve as general flashlights for his fieldwork and as focus lights. In addition, he uses one or two underwater strobes attached to an underwater housing for most of his vernal pool stills, although positioning them requires a lot of patience and experimentation.

“I’ll often experiment with lighting setups on action figures at home before heading out into the field,” he says. “Yoda and Hammerhead are my standbys.”

Although this is his personal choice of equipment, Johnson explains that shouldn’t deter beginners. Shallow freshwater environment photography equipment can range from setups as simple as a waterproof phone to a full-blown underwater housing with attached strobes and video lights. Just using a smartphone can be enough for burgeoning photographers to try their hand at documenting underwater life, especially when choosing an app that allows manual focus and even underwater time-lapses. The ability to shoot video on smartphones can be helpful as are add-on lenses that allow macro or wide-angle photography below the surface.

As an experienced professional, Johnson is familiar with health and safety practices. For example, when he descends into deeper water with chest waders, he moves slowly and chooses his steps with care. In order to reduce the possible transmission of disease, he dips his wader boots into a mild bleach solution and scrubs off any mud before traveling between watersheds. Johnson also notes that he avoids using insect repellent because it can impact fragile freshwater environments.

Johnson also says that a reliable GPS is essential since this type of work requires shooting in the dark forests, as is an extra load of batteries for the equipment. To protect himself and his equipment in the case of rain, Johnson dresses in layers and brings a poncho and a camera bag cover. He also started wearing shoulder-length waterproof gloves to extend his working time seeing as early-season vernal pools can make fingers numb.

Regardless of the available equipment a photographer has access to — whether it is a smartphone, a compact camera, a DSLR, or a mirrorless — Johnson recommends simply starting by taking photos in their own backyard. Observing the living world that photographers have at their doorstep will provide a good entry to documenting it, such as “jumping spiders ambushing flies inside of flowers, spicebush caterpillars mimicking snakes, and green frogs competing for mates,” and more.

In his free e-book, titled “Vernal Pools: Documenting Life in Temporary Ponds,” Johnson provides a detailed insight not just into his own findings and the resulting imagery but also practical equipment suggestions, lighting strategies, and general tips on working with this type of environment.

More of Johnson’s conservation photography can be viewed on his website and Instagram page.

Image credits: All images by Steven David Johnson and used with permission.

Source : Peta Pixel More   

What's Your Reaction?


Next Article

Review: The Leica SL2-S is Not Perfect, But It’s Perfect For Me

The idea of a Leica camera with image stabilization, a built-in EVF, Wi-Fi, 2 card slots, and endless more features may seem like a very foreign concept for legacy Leica shooters. However, this is exactly what Leica has made in the SL2-S. The camera is very easy to glance at and think “well, it’s just […]

Review: The Leica SL2-S is Not Perfect, But It’s Perfect For Me

The idea of a Leica camera with image stabilization, a built-in EVF, Wi-Fi, 2 card slots, and endless more features may seem like a very foreign concept for legacy Leica shooters. However, this is exactly what Leica has made in the SL2-S.

The camera is very easy to glance at and think “well, it’s just an overpriced Panasonic.” Or maybe even from the other side: “it’s just an SL2 with an outdated sensor to drop the price by a grand.” These impressions are definitely accurate. But the way I see it is: it’s a camera to bridge the gap between old style to new. For film shooters who have no need for high-resolution images and who have already had their fulfillment of M, this is another perfect option for them! Let me explain…

Leica SL2-S | Sigma 65mm f/2.0 Contemporary


I’ll start with the build quality. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to use and own other high-end photo equipment. I used to own a Canon 5D Mark IV as well as a Fuji X-Pro3 and have shot extensively with the flagships like the Canon 1D X line. The SL series is a different breed in terms of build. These machines are made to last.

By no means are the likes of Canon, Nikon, and Sony badly built cameras. It’s more that when you pick up an SL for the first time, you know you’re holding something special. I had the same feeling holding a 5D Mark III for the first time — that cold-to-touch feel that I’m sure a lot of photographers are familiar with. My X-Pro3 was a tank. A go anywhere, do anything type of machine.

I’ve recently played around with the awesome Canon R5 as well, and that feels great. I have no doubt that any of these cameras could withstand the same level of abuse that an SL could. However, when you hold an SL and comprehend how each part is hand-assembled, it’s hard to go back to anything else!

The body features an IP54 rating, and to save the geek talk, this will mean you can just about do anything and go anywhere with this beast. Spray it with a hose? No problem (not that I’ve tested this but the bold boys down at Leica Store Miami have certainly done it!).

My initial justification for this build was “oh, well of course it’s built like this, just look at the price”. I bought mine for £3,975 (~$5,500). We could all go back and forth with production budgets and shipment quantities from bigger companies when comparing this to the likes of the Canon R5, which sells for $3,899. Oh, and let’s not forget the Sony a1 at $6,498.

Okay, okay, not a fair example, I know. The specs are nowhere near the same. But if we ignore that for a moment and only focus on the build, the SL2-S is two-thirds of the price of the a1 and features infinitely better build quality. I’ll circle back to this when comparing some of the SL’s features later.

Leica SL2-S | 2021 M1 iPad Pro 12.9” | Spyderco Para 3 Black Blade | Leica SD Card Wallet


When studying Leica’s design language, I think it’s fair to say that the general consensus is that the products are absolutely stunning. Maybe that’s just my subjective opinion coming through, but they have to have done something right to inspire design gods like Jony Ive and Steve Jobs? While most adore the design of these cameras, their functionality is a more controversial topic. I could go on and on about why I love manual focus and rangefinders, but today, we’re talking the SL line.

The SL2 introduced the 3 button layout to bring the SL series in line with the M10, Q2, and CL. Aesthetically, the SL2-S is almost identical to the SL2. The only change is that the lettering on the front of the body is now blacked out, a change that I welcome as a street photographer. I find the design is as simple as it is practical.

The joystick is a dream to use, and it’s the same one they used even on the original Typ 601. The function buttons are all within reach and for my use, have more than enough features. If you’re used to a flagship Canon/Nikon, then this may restrict you. However, I found I can access all my focusing modes, focusing areas, ISO, WB, timer, PASM, and Wi-Fi settings very easily. And if a button wasn’t set to it, the quick menu works great with the touchscreen.

I also love the deeper indented grip they introduced on the SL2. Given the weight of the body, this makes the ergonomics much better. And while I can rave all day about the build quality, it does result in a significant weight difference. The body is just under a kilo (32.8oz), which is a lot — there’s no easy way of looking at it. And if I paired this with their native SL zooms or even their primes, this would be a real problem for me. This was a big reason why I moved away from my 5D Mark IV. I want a fast, light camera for my street photography. I’ll explain how I achieve that very soon!

Leica SL2-S | Sigma 65mm f/2.0 Contemporary


Image quality is in no way the biggest feature of a camera for me. There are at least a dozen aspects that come before this for me when I choose a camera. However, this is a big reason why I love and will continue to adore the SL2-S. Now, it’s easy to get confused — I’m not talking resolution here. Yes, at 24MP, it’s half the resolution of the 47MP SL2 and much lower compared to other high-end camera bodies, especially ones of this price.

What I’m more concerned about is how the sensor performs with various lenses, old and new, and how it renders images. Leica’s chief lens designer, Peter Karbe, said once that “there are two cameras in the world best to use M lenses on – M and SL”. And I think that’s what I’m getting at here. I always used to adapt my M lenses onto my Fuji’s and while I was extremely happy with the results, it just wasn’t the same. Leica fit lenses (yes, even third-party lenses) are designed for and around to work best on Leica sensors.

The sensor architecture is delicate, functional, and beautiful… and maybe a little outdated. Let me explain. My M-P Typ 240 from 2014 has a 35mm 24MP sensor, so far the same as the SL2-S right? However, the technology at the time meant that a sensor of this caliber in a body of that design results in some shortcomings — things such as poor low-light performance and slow image transfer. But I along with many others, even today in 2021, are prepared to look past this in light of the image renderings, color, and overall IQ.

The lenses, even my old Summicron 50mm Dual Range Rigid from almost 70 years ago, still work great on my SL2-S. It has character and feel, and a life to images that I just can’t obtain from any other camera system out there. And I understand how $5,000 for a 24MP camera is a lot! Especially now you can pick up a 20MP Canon R6 with far superior AF for $2,499 or a Panasonic S1 with almost identical features for $2,499 or the smaller S5 for $1,999. You could even get a Panasonic S1R, almost identical again to the SL2, for only $3,699. Or maybe even the Sigma Fp L with EVF Kit, which has 60MP (higher than any camera mentioned here!) for $2,999 — $2,000 less than the Sl2-S!

I want to preface this with, the SL2-S is not for everyone! If you want specs, reliable autofocus, and 3 million frames per second, go buy a Sony or any of these cameras mentioned prior. However, if you’re of the 0.0001% of photographers like me who, for god knows what reason, are obsessed by the feel and act of taking a photo, try the Leica SL2-S or any Leica from the past 100 years. This is a company that loves photography, the cameras they build, and better yet, the photographers who use them.

I am in an unbelievably lucky and fortunate position where I can pair the SL2-S next to my M-P or even my film M6 and bounce from feel to function while maintaining a high level of love and enjoyment for all our shared passion.

Leica SL2-S | APO-Summicron-SL 50mm f/2.0 ASPH


I promise not to go too deeply into the topic of color and Leica as I know this is quite the notorious topic when it comes to these cameras. A topic that Leica fanboys and fangirls across the world use to justify spending (let’s be honest here) way too much money on these machines. Why do I know this? Because I am one of these so-called Leica fanboys.

So if you’re happy with the color output from your camera, be it a Canon, Sony, Nikon, Panasonic…even that other one begging with “O”, then carry on scrolling and happy shooting! But for me, unless you’re shooting 3 stops overexposed Portra, there aren’t any better colors, tones, and overall fidelity out there!

Leica SL2-S | Sigma 65mm f/2.0 Contemporary

Low Light

I’ve been itching to talk about the low-light abilities of this monster. Now, while we’ve seen a lot of 24MP sensors over the years, this is in a league of its own. A first for Leica, this is their first-ever backside-illuminated sensor. So while the overall architecture is very similar to the Typ 601, the color calibration and now the BSI, make this a significant upgrade.

I’ve pushed the SL2-S way past 25,000 and onwards to 50,000 ISO while still getting very usable images. The processing power alongside this technology must be performing witchcraft somewhere between the shutter button and SD card because I’ve never seen low light like this. I remember being blown away by the 1D X Mark II and III, and equally so with the a7S III, and while these are still incredible, they’re only 20MP and 12MP — the SL2-S is 24MP.

Is this a realistic measurement? No. Can you tell a difference at 6,400 or even 10,000 ISO? No. But, is it nice to know and feel safe with leaving the camera in auto ISO and never have to worry about another grainy or blurry photo ever again? Absolutely. I set my auto ISO parameters to a max ISO of 50,000 and a minimum shutter speed of 1/250. That way I never have a blurry photo (especially with this IBIS) and I never have to worry about grain.

Aperture priority, exposure compensation set to the rear dial, that’s it. Quick, easy, and very dynamic. These are the settings I use on every camera — when I took the Sony a7R III on holiday, when I owned the X-Pro3 for travel, and even when I shot weddings on my 5D Mark IV. The only difference now is that I don’t have the stress of a photo being too blurry or too grainy. And to quote Josh from Leica Store Miami: “I’d rather have a grainy photo than a blurry photo I can’t use”.

Leica SL2-S @ 32,000 ISO
Leica SL2-S @ 16,000 ISO


Remember when autofocus was only contrast-detect back around 2016? Brilliant, now add fancy algorisms to make it 10% better. That’s how the AF performs on the SL2-S. Don’t get me wrong: it’s better than the SL2 (marginally) and much better than the 601. So for portraiture, landscape, editorial shoots, it’s great. And coming from my Ms, it is a dream.

However, if you’re looking to do sports, compared to the likes of Sony, Canon Dual Pixel, and Fuji, in my experience – forget it. Not to say that it can’t be done, I’ve seen some extraordinary sports photos taken on SL. Specifically when paired with 9fps burst and 25fps with the electronic shutter. On paper, it looks amazing. In my experience, while I’m certainly no wildlife or sports photographer, I only found it to be adequate and usable rather than extraordinary.

A note worth taking, though: the native SL primes (with exception of the Summilux 50 SL) work much faster than their zooms. Notice on the image below how the 24-90mm just missed focus on the deer walking towards me using AF-C and Field AF method.

Leica SL2-S | Vario Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH
Leica SL2-S | Spyderco Para 3 Black Blade | Leica SD Card Wallet

Usability and Compared to M?

In conclusion, I’ve always loved the SLs and I love my SL2-S. They’ve had their quirks, but I feel they’ve been getting ironed out over the years through software updates, new lenses, and alliances with Sigma and Panasonic. The price has almost halved since the 601 while competing brands have only ever gone up in price.

The AF, while still not perfect, has improved significantly. The low light went from outdated, even back in 2015, to the best I’ve ever seen. The battery life… well, there’s always room for improvement.

I started this review by saying how this is the camera to attract M shooters, and that’s exactly how I see this camera: a companion to the M. For me, I use this 99% of the time with M lenses. It makes the body smaller, lighter, and, believe it or not, faster. The lower resolution, while keeping up with that gorgeous, close-to-real-life EVF, makes for a manual focus experience I can only describe as M-Like.

Leica SL2-S | Leica M-P typ 240 | Leica M6 TTL | Leica M3 Single Stroke | Voigtlander Bessa R4M
Leica SL2-S | 2021 M1 iPad Pro 12.9” | Spyderco Para 3 Black Blade | Leica SD Card Wallet

For when I want the moment, I will always gravitate to my M bodies. However, now when I look for the big detail photos I know an M just couldn’t keep up with, I trust the SL2-S to be right there alongside. It takes up no extra space, weight, or time while delivering the best image quality for me at no extra expense for experience or enjoyment.

If you’re an M shooter, digital or film, I urge you to try the SL2-S. Feel the build, look through the cinema screen of a viewfinder, and try the manual focus experience.

About the author: Ben Webster is a street and travel photographer based in the south of England, where he also works as a sales assistant at Park Cameras. He regularly shoots with a variety of Leica cameras—ranging from the old M3 and M6 TTL to the digital M-P typ 240—as well as the Fuji X-Pro3. You can find more of his work on his website or by following him on Instagram. This post was also published here.

Source : Peta Pixel More   

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.