May’s mirror

two juvenile Chinese mantises Tenodera sinensis on opposite sides of grass bladeIt’s gotten cold again and there isn’t a lot to photograph and truth be told I’m not even trying, so we’re going back to May with this one. I’ve had it sitting in the blog folder for all this time (yet it’s far from the oldest photo in there,) because I was doing too many mantises back then. Yeah, I’m finally admitting it, I had a wild and hedonistic youth, if by ‘youth’ you mean just over 1% earlier in my personal timeline, and by ‘hedonistic’ you mean… well, whatever you like, because it appears I don’t even know what it means normally, but probably not a lot to do with blogging about mantids. I’m fairly certain it originated with that, though. You know, back when the ancient Latins were inscribing mud tablets with illustrations of Mantodea and hanging them on the privy walls…

Worse, it’s not really a mirror image, since the mantises are different hues and the legs aren’t even in matching positions, and they’re not directly opposite one another either – but their antennae are pretty close, so we’ll go with that. Let’s consider it a mirror from an apprentice just starting out, with a lot of flaws in it.

It would be easy to believe this was a variation of the second photo found here, except that they were taken on two separate days and I doubt the mantids held still that long. It’s probably obvious that they’re tiny, and if you know anything about mantids you’d know that from the month that I photographed them in, but it’s safe to say these are under 12mm long. I didn’t have as much luck with them this year, as they seemed to disperse faster and I spotted none of reproductive age in the immediate area when September rolled around, but I recently found an egg case that I can’t be sure is this year’s or not – we’ll find out next spring. Plus I will likely purchase a couple more to try, once again, to capture the hatching as it occurs.

I will be featuring a few more older images in the coming weeks, so you have that to look forward to – I know I’m all excited and antagonistic…

Where are we going with this?

So, back in high school and just afterward, I was a big fan of OMNI magazine, starting from the very first issue. It was a great blend of science news, artwork, science fiction short stories, excellent brain games, and interesting examinations of speculative and theoretical advancements – I have to credit it with introducing me to several great writers, among them Dean Ing, whose stories expressed physics in fantastic and imaginative ways, if somewhat implausible. Within its pages I found the first tests of the mercury ion engine, a then-experimental thruster for space probes which also found its way into the Star Wars universe; the TIE in TIE fighter stands for Twin Ion Engine, believe it or not.

Anyway, one of the regular topics was UFO reports, which at that time I still followed casually, though the ardent fascination of my adolescent years had by then waned in the face of obvious sensationalism throughout too much of the media devoted to the topic. As time wore on and I concerned myself with making a living, I read fewer and fewer issues, until picking one up one day several years later and finding it much thinner and devoted almost entirely to the same sensationalism over UFOS that had made me start drifting away from the subject. Not a lot longer after that, OMNI ceased publication.

So when I heard it was going to reboot as an online magazine, I had mixed feelings about it. Were the editors still enthused about glorifying UFO reports, or did they realize that had probably helped the death of the first incarnation? Would there still be emphasis on quality writing and innovative art? But it drifted from my mind, and I didn’t see anything past the initial site until just now, when I found it within my bookmarks and started skimming the contents. And it didn’t take long to come across the post, ‘How Ufologist Stanton Friedman Debunked Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.’

On top of my disappointment came a sense of deep foreboding, for two distinct reasons. The first was, I am very much aware of Stanton Friedman and his efforts to promote the idea that we are being visited by extra-terrestrial intelligence, and they’re not very impressive, nor is Friedman, physicist though he is, a thorough scientist in this regard. More amusingly, however, is that debunker is an epithet among UFO proponents, without fail applied disparagingly to anyone and everyone that displays any skepticism or lack of total belief in the concept of visiting aliens. Double-standards are a common thing among UFO proponents, however, so this wasn’t particularly surprising; regardless, the post (and the site itself) wasn’t showing much promise to me.

The content lived down to this promise, I’m sorry to say. Obviously written by a fan of Friedman’s, it went into numerous instances where Friedman apparently scored some telling point against not just the writers named, but other skeptical sources as well, holding him up as a champion of the truth of alien visitation and a deft debater within the field.

There’s just one catch, and it’s one that is so frequently lost within the topic itself, and countless other topics of paranormality and conspiracy and religion and so on: science is not established, assisted, or advanced by debate. Whether someone is personally convinced or not has no bearing on the facts, and the one overriding benefit of scientific endeavors is that we produce something that we can use. You see, philosophers may want to debate about the meaning of ‘consciousness’ or the nuances of modal logic, and theologians might like hashing out the ‘true’ nature of the resurrection, and literati clearly enjoy trying to convince one another that they know what the underlying message of any text really is, but science has the goal of giving us new tools that produce objective and measurable results. So all of the blather about UFOs, every last case study and new examination of photos, never even approaches the simplest of scientific criteria: what have we learned?

If we take, for instance, one of the accounts named (incorrectly) in the post, the Trindade photos, the very first thing that we find is that there is no agreement, or even consensus, on them being authentic or not, despite the fact that they were produced during a supposedly scientific venture (that somehow lacked any of the routine controls that would define, “scientific.”) And it is worth noting that there is no way to completely establish authenticity over hoax; we can only consider a level of likelihood. But even assuming, just for the sake of argument, that they are authentic, what do they tell us? Well, that there was an object of this shape in the sky. No size information, no distance or airspeed – none of this is possible without triangulation, at least. And of course, we’re hell and gone away from establishing even a method of propulsion, much less an extra-terrestrial intelligence, way much less where such intelligence might hail from. The number of questions left unanswered is staggering, and even the shape is left to assumption; a cylinder may look like a circle when seen from the end, or a square when seen from the side so, again, what can we definitively say about it?

[I have to add that the Trindade photos, seen by many UFO proponents as “great evidence,” are ridiculously unconvincing to anyone with even rudimentary photographic knowledge. Aside from being trivially easy to fake, there’s the simple matter that the object, supposedly photographed against the overcast sky, is not silhouetted as we should expect – if you question this, take a look at even a silver-bodied jetliner against the clouds and tell me how bright it appears, much less show me a photo of it.]

A hallmark of science, as well as our judicial system, is the attempt to establish things beyond a reasonable doubt (the weakness in there is that ‘reasonable’ is an entirely subjective term.) There’s the simple matter that if there are multiple scenarios in which something could have occurred, various ways to produce the same effect, then the scientific method entails eliminating as many as possible. The goal is to establish that the evidence could come from only one source, but that’s often impossible, so the next best choice is to obtain the greatest probability of a single cause. And all science is provisional, able to be overturned by finding contradictory evidence. Moreover, there is no ‘default’ explanation in the face of lacking evidence, a mistake countless people make – science does not support the practice of throwing something out there and accepting it as long as nothing disproves it. For instance, “dark matter” is a term for a gravitational anomaly, the concentration of attraction as if there is a huge mass in a particular location yet nothing that we can otherwise detect. There are numerous suggestions for what causes this, but none that are considered likely, much less default. Without firm evidence, the scientific answer is simply, “We don’t know yet.”

UFO proponents cannot grasp this idea, preferring to accept the posit that aliens exist, and see any factor whatsoever that can be twisted to fit as confirming evidence, unable and unwilling to consider how many other ways the same factors can come about without aliens – theologians, and just the few religious folk who apply some thought to their beliefs, do the exact same thing with a default “god.” True enough, there are investigators within the UFO field that make the effort to examine the cases with at least a passing semblance of scientific inquiry; without exception, these are the people who have earned that ‘debunker’ epithet, because casting any doubt at all on the foregone conclusion of the proponents, even raising the questions, is an indication of an enemy to them. It’s amusing, because the frequent demand from proponents is that the scientific community (as well as the government) takes these cases seriously, but when it does happen, they somehow find it unacceptable to maintain the same criteria that’s used for all other discoveries and research.

Back to the article itself. Friedman, despite his lack of scientific standards and objectivity, is adept at one particular thing: sophistry, the art of spinning subtly misleading arguments that make no useful point. And that’s the only thing to be seen within the post.

Data, numbers and logic are the cards in this fact-vs-fiction game, and Friedman insisted that the rules used are straight and consistent. “People ask the wrong questions,” he said. “The question isn’t ‘Is every UFO somebody’s spacecraft?” The answer is ‘Of course not.’ The real question is, “Are any UFO’s somebody else’s spacecraft?’ and the answer is ‘Yes.’ It’s like asking ‘Is everyone over seven feet tall?’ Of course not. ‘Is no one over seven feet tall? Of course not. One can easily get into trouble by asking the wrong question, because then you treat every sighting equally.” One could certainly get into trouble trying to pass off conclusions to Stanton Friedman which had not been thought out.

It should come as no surprise that Friedman does not often directly debate anyone, instead preferring the tactic (like I’m doing here, unfortunately) of arguing against selected statements. Because, of course, we can measure the height of people and definitively establish that someone is over seven feet tall; we have numerous examples of such. We have no examples of extra-terrestrial life – that’s what Friedman is trying to prove. But you don’t prove anything with analogies, especially ones not even remotely related to the topic at hand. Should we instead ask, “Is there anyone born with three thousand arms?”, nobody would contest a negative answer, but to establish a positive answer, we’re going to want to see it, aren’t we? Friedman’s demonstrated attitude is that we should assume it could happen; after all, it’s just silly to have high standards of evidence for something extraordinary like that.

He also adores playing word games, appealing to suggestion and assumption rather than expending any real effort in establishing something concrete to work with:

“As writers, surely they didn’t or haven’t worked on classified government sponsored programs. I worked on classified programs for 14 years and I am certain that secrets can be kept. As I have often noted, 80 percent of the engineers and scientists responding to the question, ‘Do you think the government has revealed all it knows about UFO’s?’ said, ‘No’ .”

[By the way, I am correcting the post’s mangling of quotation marks as I go]

Notice that we don’t have any information presented at all, just his personal assurance that the government can keep a secret and the belief among those unnamed ‘engineers and scientists’ that it might know more than it has revealed. I’ll be forthright with you: I am 90% sure that the US military complex has not revealed everything it knows about UFOs, and just as sure that it has not revealed everything it knows about dogs – that’s the nature of security concerns. But so what? My certainty yet remains anecdotal, unable to be supported empirically, and unknown information is just that; there is nothing that tells us, one way or another, what this information must be. And it’s unfortunate that I have to point this out, but ‘UFO’ is not synonymous with ‘extra-terrestrial life.’ A fucking leaf can be a UFO, as can any Russian, Chinese, or American aircraft that never received a positive ID.

Friedman also likes picking the easy factors to rebut while ignoring the pertinent ones. When J. Allen Hynek made the comment that he considered space travel to be impossible, Friedman chose to counter with the available energy of nuclear fusion, as if this was the only factor that Hynek (or anyone else) was considering. Ignoring for the time being that fusion is not an easy source to tap (requiring, in every instance we can find, an enormous amount of energy or mass to start,) there’s the simple fact that the distances between stars is vast, and even traveling at the speed of light (which is presently considered to require infinite energy,) it would take more than four years to travel to our closest stellar neighbor. Imagine the resources necessary to sustain a living body that long, and how much mass that requires. And as proof that this has occurred, we have shitty photographs and eyewitness accounts of aliens remarkably like the latest science-fiction movies (seriously; this trend is more common than you might think.) Energy is a red-herring in this case, not arguing the salient points at all.

Friedman also displays a two-faced approach extremely common among proponents, and quite amusing all by itself:

The jury may still be out on the final verdict, but a widely-documented, real contact would certainly firm the evidence. What would happen to this planet and its people should this occur? Does the government give any serious thought or planning for this contingency?

“Practically none. I would like to see psychiatrists, religious leaders, psychologists, and god forbid, the military, thinking about what this means. First, we’d have to get over the ego business and recognize we’re not the only life in the universe, and probably not the most intelligent.”

You did see the part above where he tries to imply that the government knows more than it lets on, right? So what now makes him assume that this particular aspect hasn’t been tackled already? Does he think that they’ll keep their knowledge of ET life a secret, but post their procedures for contact on the bulletin board? Or does he not really believe the shit he’s throwing around?

It’s also entertaining that he feels that numerous professionals should be devoting their time to this contingency as if it were imminent, ignoring, one supposes, all of the other issues that presently exist and provide a real benefit in addressing. Going deeper into this, we have the common lament among proponents that people need to be doing more (the old “take me seriously” canard,) without ever addressing what it is that should be done: “The government should be looking into this!” Into what, this crappy photo of an indistinct object? The ‘eyewitness’ accounts of someone who claims to have been abducted? What else can one do but interview them? Should we be posting the composite sketches on lamp posts, “Have you seen this alien?” I’m always at a loss as to what anyone thinks should be done that isn’t being done already by countless groups that are absolutely desperate for real evidence but somehow keep failing to find any.

Moreover, there is a vacuum of useful information. Friedman’s compatriots are incapable of providing any info about what alien life is or would be like, and so we are left only to speculate about not just their approaches and attitudes, but our own in the face of an event no one has ever experienced before. Given, however, the notable number of people who believe that they’ve had contact, it hardly seems like humans as a whole are going to freak out or anything.

Ignored in all this, surprise surprise, is the amount of real effort that working scientists have put into the topic – only, they concentrated on the most likely scenarios, such as picking up distant signals from extra-terrestrial intelligence rather than expecting them to drop by unannounced. SETI is a real program, with members that can actually think, and they recognize that long-distance communication is thousands of times easier than long-distance travel. Safer, too, as the possibility of finding alien life that’s hostile to direct contact, in countless different ways, cannot be ruled out. They also recognize that any such life is unlikely to be anything at all like us, and devote their time to puzzling out the most probable method and ‘language’ used. Again, in a vacuum of solid information; we may find out that our speculations were dead wrong, but without useful info we cannot correct this, or even know how wrong it might be.

Two particular areas of concern which Friedman felt could be addressed by anyone interested in the subject, deal with information and access to it. People need to put pressure on the Air Defense Command and other government groups to reveal the highly classified information in their files.

Yeah ’cause, you know, the government is going to cave when they see the real desires of the people. There’s nothing like an online petition to show the government we mean business. Lobbyists and special-interest groups could save themselves a hell of a lot of money if they’d follow that proven-to-work example…

Again, we see the self-assurance that the information is actually there, just waiting to be revealed – but how this is known somehow is never established, nor worth the effort it seems. While Friedman may want to assure us that the government can keep a secret, the UFO field abounds with the informants that breach their security clearances to provide just the barest hint of suppressed info – not enough to act on, of course, but still enough to start the proponents whining again. And the bare fact that not one of them has ever substantiated their claims in even the tiniest of manners seems to keep escaping notice.

Curiously, however, these alien visitations are taking place in public throughout the world, so one would assume that even civilians could gather the same information as the mean ol’ government (ignoring the fatuous idea that every government the world over would be equally capable and equally motivated in maintaining these secrets.) So, yeah, get on that, guys.

Friedman recommended a Centralized UFO Research Facility which anyone in the country could call while observing a UFO. This would tie together local, regional and national sources to record and comment on sightings, beginning with those groups which have been privately conducting this work for years on their own.

We’ve done that already, but I guess not everyone’s heard about Project Blue Book, or the independent and civilian University of Colorado Scientific Study of UFOs, often called the Condon Report. Had Friedman looked into either one of these, he would probably be far less enamored of the topic, since the thousands of reports examined by the two agencies, as well as the thousands more examined independently, yielded virtually no useful information at all, and absolutely nothing regarding ET life.

Sorry, I have to be disingenuous at times just for giggles. Because like all proponents, Friedman is somehow convinced outside of any serious evidence, and pointedly refuses to either understand how and why science works, or accept an answer that he doesn’t want to hear. If any study or investigation fails to support the idea of alien visitation, it will be seen as flawed at best, but very often the accusations of disinformation campaigns start getting thrown around, with just as much supporting evidence as the original UFO reports – alien visitation simply must be occurring, so if we can’t find any evidence of such, then that’s evidence that someone is hiding it all! The overwhelming possibility that we have no evidence for extra-terrestrial visitation because it just hasn’t occurred is an idea that simply that cannot be entertained.

In the decades since the term ‘UFO’ was coined, we have made no progress whatsoever on that front: no consensus on even types of visiting vehicles, much less a physical artifact, much less an actual alien, much less any knowledge of where they’re from or how they got here; even those few reports that claim to provide some form of information, such as Betty Hill’s ‘star map,’ haven’t lead anywhere. In the same amount of time, we have eradicated smallpox and almost eradicated polio, we have discovered plate tectonics, DNA, and countless subatomic particles and properties, we have sent planetary probes to all of the nearest planets and even out to the thinnest regions of our system, and we are even cataloging the number and types of planets around nearby stars. And we now have cameras at the fingertips of the vast majority of world population, as well as instantaneous communication among a large portion of it. And yet, the field of UFOs has, inexplicably, made no progress at all. The aforementioned Trindade photos were taken in nineteen-fifty-fucking-goddamn-eight, still cherished by UFO proponents because they cannot achieve the simple goal of something better. You can also compare the various dates for sightings listed in this article – offered as a bare bit of counter-balance from the same online magazine, found as I was typing this post – and note how they seem to line up with two of the three ‘active periods’ for UFOs, the late 1950s and the early 1970s, coinciding remarkably with the periods of media attention to the topic (the third is the early 1980s, easily the weakest of the three however.) Present activity consists of countless re-investigations of old reports and the always-breathless promise that something earth-shattering is going to be revealed, which somehow never manifests.

Science moves on, providing new discoveries and insights every day, improving our knowledge base and indeed our quality of living. Meanwhile, UFO proponents keep trying to polish the rickety edifice of alien visitation in abject denial that the field has never produced one quantifiable and supportable element that would justify even being defined as ‘alien visitation.’ Like Friedman’s points within the article, supposition and wishful-thinking are the only cornerstones to be found, buttressed with insistence and the surety that real evidence exists somewhere, almost certainly being withheld because, ‘reasons.’ Had, for instance, information science progressed with the pace of UFO discoveries, this post would have had to be published as a mimeograph…

*     *     *

A few serious investigators in the field:

Robert Sheaffer

Tim Printy (see also this post)

James Oberg (the author of the second article linked)

Get back, winter!

We’ve had a couple of overnight frosts and some generally cool days, and I figured the treefrogs had packed it in for the winter, though the aquatic frogs in the backyard pond might still be sporadically active. Recently a warm front pushed in, bringing quite nice temperatures and a bit of rain, and last night I went out in just a t-shirt (well, okay, pants too) to take a peek in the backyard. As suspected, a couple of the green frogs (Lithobates clamitans) were out of the pond and both resting, a few meters apart, on the lower crossbar of the fence.

green frog Lithobates clamitans perched on fence

another green frog Lithobates clamitans perched on fence
Both of these are fairly good-sized for the species, so they’ve been doing well in the pond, and they’re far from the only residents – I’ve known of five at a time in there, and last night I saw four of them, one unidentified species being quite small. I was walking very slowly and carefully because the yard is littered with leaves and spotting frogs in those conditions is extremely difficult.

But they weren’t the only frogs to be found, and the next ones surprised me.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched desperately on siding
My count for last night was six green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea,) of different sizes, all in the backyard. I’d been hoping, only a few months ago, to get some established in the yard, but this was more than expected, especially since they’ve outnumbered the Copes grey treefrogs at the best of times.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on planter pole
When I first saw this one, on my way back in to get the camera, it was tightrope-walking up the black pole you see here, a peculiar sight since their legs are twice as long as they normally appear, splayed out awkwardly to either side. I will get an illustrating shot of it one of these days, but for now we have the typical perches.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on gardenia leaf
I spotted this one from across the yard as I was photographing the previous – that bright hue certainly stood out against the gardenia leaves. This was also noticeably the biggest.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea settled down within downspout
You’ve seen a variation of this perspective before, and it’s possible this is the same frog, but it’s a different downspout. This one was the most difficult to photograph, since the space between the nearby rain barrel and the porch supports was very narrow, and I simply couldn’t work a better angle with the flash unit. This was also the only one to be found at midday today, right before I typed this.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched on cat 5 network cable
This was actually the first I’d spotted, the one that made me head back to get the camera, and I found three more in that short trip. The blue ‘pole’ is actually a standard network cable, the kind you plug into the back of your computer, or at least did – now everyone uses their smutphones, it seems. but yeah, tiny. In fact, here’s another shot to show scale:

green treefrog Hyla cinerea on cat 5 network cable with fingers for scale
Yep, able to fit comfortably on the pad of my middle finger, though I doubt it would have stayed put for those shenanigans.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea hanging on dried weed stem
This was the last, about the same size as the previous one and hanging on a dried stem in the garden. The warm rain really made them active last night, and might again tonight – who knows? But I’m pleased to see them again when the shooting season is winding down for the winter.

And to close, we return to the first treefrog in the gallery which, while I was shooting the others, crossed the upper deck to sit on the edge of the window and peer into the screened porch like a slimy green voyeur. I said I was wearing pants, so I can’t tell you what was motivating this one, and let you speculate on your own.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea peering through screen

The abstracts chase November off

unidentified flower buds
I couldn’t really pass this one up, as curious as it is. Back in October when cruising through the NC Botanical Garden, I happened across a small flowering plant, almost ready to blossom out, and the spiral pattern of the buds was compelling, so of course I had to go in straight down from the top. The dim natural light was part of the motivation behind the short depth, but also the idea that I didn’t want too much detail or sharpness from the image. I like the way it came out.

mystery landscapeMeanwhile, I present another image with a curious effect, but I have to admit this isn’t the best way of presenting it. It should be casually inserted into a gallery of other images without comment, letting people skim over it if they’re so inclined, waiting to see how many people catch the peculiarity of it. All I will tell you is that there is no trickery involved.

If you figured out what was special about it, good! And if not, even better, because it means it was as confusing as I’d hoped. If you were definitely wondering about the odd appearance of the sun or moon in there, I’d be happy. But perhaps it wasn’t that hard after all. Regardless, here’s the image as shot.

maybe not so mysterious now
I had been looking at the reflections of the bare trees in the nearly motionless water of a small stream, wondering how to make it slightly more interesting, when I saw the leaf approaching on the feeble current. It took a couple of minutes for it to get into position where I wanted it, probably making Mr Bugg wonder what the hell I was up to just standing there staring at the water, but again, I like the end result.

Podcast: Composition

Gret blue heron Ardea herodias in Indian River Lagoon, Florida
Yes, it’s finally here! The podcast I’ve been trying to finish for literally weeks! It will surely live up to the hype and anticipation…

Walkabout podcast – Composition

First off, since I’m speaking in generic composition terms within the podcast, you can click here for the entire list of posts that deal with composition, especially more specific and detailed aspects. There’s just a couple…

And while I’m at it, my views on art, a small part of the reason why I don’t pursue it rabidly. It’s got nothing to do with not being very good at it…

Did you get to the point where I demanded that you watch the video? Good – it’s this one [found here if the embed isn’t working for you]:

As noted, it’s not my video (I wouldn’t have used a suit,) but instead done by Daniel J. Simmons.

Bodie Island lighthouse at sunrise showing several composition elementsSeveral of the things I talk about in the ‘cast are illustrated within this one image, such as simplicity, point of focus (strong subject,) creating a scene, keeping the subject off-center, and framing to keep whole elements such as the boardwalk and the railed overlook. The overlook balances out the lighthouse, while the curve of the boardwalk helps direct our attention towards the subject, inviting us to come along. Also notice both the light quality/color and the angle, shaping the lighthouse and telling us it’s morning there; not only that, but both the overlook and the lighthouse are facing into the light, a subtly positive mood. A couple of clouds in the sky help fill in a large blank space, and the grasses tell us it’s a rustic setting – which is kind-of true. The lighthouse itself and the immediately-surrounding grounds are immaculately tended, but overall the locale is marshlands, which is more interesting and expressive, thus the “you choose what you want to portray” bit. Rule of thirds? Not really, but not far away – in other words, the concept is okay, but the mathematical precision so often given to the rule is completely unnecessary and not at all grounded in fact. if you want further detail about this, I’ve tackled it no less than three times: once, and again, and finally here.

But here’s another illustration, contrasting the rule with the approach I suggest, which is to use the elements within the frame to good affect.

lady beetle demonstrating elements within the frame
The faint grey lines indicate the thirds concept, where the ladybeetle kinda but not quite falls. More importantly, the entire frond is framed well, not cut off at any point and thus providing a complete setting, actually a key part of the scene, and aesthetically pleasant all by itself. The soft backlighting gives it a brilliant glow, contrasted by the dark and muted ladybeetle, while the remainder of the background seems to indicate not a lone plant, but a thicket, one among many – even though, when you look at it, it doesn’t have to be a very big patch at all; there’s just nothing that contradicts the idea. And overall, a strong emphasis on just “green,” which works for display prints quite well. This is what I meant when I suggest tearing apart a favorite image to understand how and why it works for you.

Sandhill crane Grus canadensis with horrible composition skillsAnd this is how you do it wrong – yes, I really did take this photo, at a time when I should have known better, and my only defense was shooting from a car window and anticipating the crane leaving the area before I could get off many frames. But look at how complicated and distracting the background details are, and how centered the crane is, and then the trash in the photo, and holy shit, the pole sticking right smack out of the top of the crane’s head! Seriously, do better than this (it’s not hard.)

azalea blossoms at Old Well UNC Chapel HillNow here are more illustrations of things I talked about, such as setting the point-of-focus against a contrasting color in the background, while also using the background to build a frame around the focal point. The soft light allows for the subtleties of the flowers (even when it produces a truly boring sky, which is why it’s minimized in this frame,) but the larger version show the raindrops on the blossoms much more distinctly, so the grey conditions become more understandable. The single flower is set apart from all of the others so our eyes go right there, assisted by the shorter focus range, but the background is still expressive and distinct; this is not a photo of a flower, but of a particular scene, and anyone at all familiar with UNC Chapel Hill recognizes Old Well instantly. Moreover, other distracting and unwanted elements are hidden behind the flowers by shooting at a low angle. It’s easy to shoot a landmark and just have a photo of a landmark, but with only a smidgen more effort, you can add a lot of charm to the scene.

Did you get a nice impression from the opening photo? Admittedly, the heron could have been a little more separated from the rocks, framed by open water in an ideal composition, but at least the head and beak are distinctive enough to grab our attention, and the colors of the water and rocks offset each other nicely. And it may be hard to tell, but the heron is showing a hint of the color and light angle that tells us, in this case, approaching sunset. But now take a look at the original frame, without the cropping:

great blue heron Ardea herodias with disturbing background
Makes a big difference, doesn’t it? if you originally got the impression of the heron being someplace out “in the wild” and far from civilization, good! That was the idea. Including the distant shoreline with its plethora of development changes the idea of where it was taken, and includes a lot of distraction that serves no purpose.

Now here’s another aspect, or at least the impression that I get. The version at top, without the shoreline, invites us to pay attention to the heron more, and we see it gazing at something out of the frame – there’s an implied direction that way, a definite bias to the left. But with the buildings in the picture, there’s another subject, and now the heron is oblivious to it all, seeming to gaze at nothing, but certainly paying no attention to the bustle beyond it, and we relate a lot less to the heron even though nothing about the heron itself has changed. Do you get the same impression?

black and white goats in high contrast lighting, extremely hard to see detailHere we see why high-contrast light doesn’t work for high-contrast subjects. The head of the kid becomes so indistinct that it’s impossible to tell where it stops and the shadow begins, and while there’s the faintest hint of a sheen from the black fur on its shoulder, it drops almost entirely into the bottom registers of the image, even while the white coat has bleached out to indistinct pure white in most places – it illustrates the narrow range quite well. Adjusting exposure for either aspect would have driven the opposing aspect even further out of range, so no matter what, we would have to pick which portion of the goats we simply didn’t want to see the detail of – or choose better light conditions to shoot within. I personally have three different presets on my cameras: an ‘average’ setting with mid-range contrast and saturation, then one with reduced contrast and saturation, and one going the opposite way with increased settings. The one with reduced contrast and saturation is for use in high-contrast lighting such as this, helping to control these extremes, while the increased contrast/saturation preset is for use when the light is low-contrast and muted, making the colors pop a bit better.

By the way, if you’re looking for more information about white balance and the failure of the Auto White Balance setting, this page should help a bit.

So there you have it; don’t just take a picture, but make it. And keep moving forward – we all have room for improvement, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Good luck!

Still more Monday monochrome

tiger swallowtail on flowers, monochrome green channel
I’ve been playing around with photo editing, and decided to toss up a few more monochrome images because, you know, the weather’s turning grey and so you’ll want to see… even more… grey… that’s not really making sense, is it?

Too bad, I’m plowing ahead anyway!

Canada geese Branta canadensis stading on iced pondSome of these are relatively recent, some of them are much older, but all of them are fantastic! No need to exercise your own judgment – I’ll just go ahead and provide your own opinion to you, because you obviously need it.

Sorry, the last election got to me a bit.

If you’ve looked at previous posts regarding monochrome, you know what channel clipping is, so it makes sense when I say this is a blue-channel version, which brought out the best contrast. By the way, I’m really sorry that I didn’t have the audio recorder with me during this session, because the weight of the geese on the ice was producing the most wonderfully weird sounds – my best guess is from distant cracks shifting and chirping against one another. There’s no way I could describe it or compare it to anything, so my goal is to capture it again one day, but I realize this is pretty unlikely.

unidentified snail, blue channel monochrome

amaryliis blossom green channel monochromeThe image above is once again solely the blue channel, and this is somewhat typical of the results when using just blue – it tends to be the darkest, or at least it does for most of the images I shoot, anyway. It can also go pretty muddy at times, producing blotches in gradient areas, but this time around it came up sharp – this just might be a trait of the lenses I’ve used (all lenses bend different wavelengths of light by different amounts, and while some of them are good at correcting this within the lens array, not all of them are.) Regardless, the snail shell attracts attention while the head of the snail becomes much more subtle, and the whole thing gets moody. When Hollywood finally gets around to doing a film about a pathologically murderous snail, this image is here to guide them in producing the necessary ominous effect.

Meanwhile, you’ve seen a variation of the image at right before, but this time I went with just the green channel – it produced the right level of contrast from the pollen and the petals. Just converting to greyscale really wouldn’t cut it, because the red of the petals was almost as bright as the pollen itself, but since it was a nearly pure red, using the green channel eliminated almost all of the brightness from them.

A quick note here on framing and cropping, while we are still waiting patiently for me to finish the podcast on composition. It helped a lot to keep the pollen heads within the lines of the petals, letting their edges frame the focal point of the image, and the preventing the edges of the petals from being cut off by the left side of the frame helped convey a more ‘complete’ idea. And in this crop, there’s a subtle emphasis diagonally across the image, the lines of the petals emanating from top right while the pistil points towards lower left – this was completely intentional; I tend to ‘work the corners’ when I can.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis peeking from azalea blossoms, green channel monochrome
This one is subtle but I suppose not overtly so (“overtly subtle” – yeah, I need to work on my writing skills, thanks for pointing that out, now I feel worthless.) Using the green channel darkened the bright pink, or mauve or taupe or puce or whatever, of the azalea blossoms while brightening the main subject, reducing the contrast and so increasing the subtlety. I could have sworn I had posted color examples of these flowers the same year I took this, but cannot find any, so use the first image here to get an idea – it’s the closest I can get.

But now, let’s take a look at where the color channel thing produced a significant difference.

four o'clock flower Mirabilis jalapa pollen in green and blue channel monochrome
Same image, hard as it may be to believe; on the left is the green channel, and on the right is the blue channel, while the original colors of the flower can be seen here (and in the rotating header images if you’re patient enough.) Though remarkably different, I haven’t decided which one I like the best, so feel free to cast your vote. What with districting and the electoral college and all that, it will do you no good at all, but at least you’ll feel that you’re part of the process.

scattered fall leaves in monochromeYou can see a color version of this pic here, or at least one that was taken in the same spot, just framed a bit differently – that one has more color than this one did. But the stark lines of the grey leaves were interesting, so I converted it to see how it fared.

Finally at bottom, one from many days back, actually taken the same morning as this one. It’s green channel again, and was definitely in the running for the month-end abstract, but I have some others I could use and it dramatically closes out this greyscale post. Handheld in early morning natural light, the aperture was wide open at f4, so I had to pick the particular drops that I wanted in focus. I think it worked out well, myself.

morning dew on rose leaf in monochrome

An autumn grab bag

fall colors over a bend in Morgan Creek
So, a few days back we finally got out and found some decent fall colors, emphasizing just how widely variable the area is. A week earlier, the ineluctable Al Bugg and I had visited a spot on a river just a handful of kilometers north, and found most of the trees by the water well past peak and, in fact, bare. Then the first part of our outing this past Friday, in Mason Farm Biological Reserve, provided only patches of color here and there, but nothing significant. Shifting to the trails behind the NC Botanical Garden, climbing a small hill less than two kilometers away, we found the colors at peak and plenty of opportunities to do some nice autumn shots. So, yeah.

Hillside colors on nature trails of NC Botanical Garden
The biggest challenge is, as seen here, the thickness of the foliage. What people like to see for fall shots are a broad hillside of varied colors, or trees overhanging a woodland path, but we were unable to locate good examples of these conditions, and often when the colors could be seen, there were a lot of foreground trees complicating the compositions. There are still some key elements that I am in search of locally: a nice spot for fall colors, an old barn, house, or cemetery for really foggy mornings, and a stark tree or old barn in the middle of an open field for thunderstorm shots. It’s important that they not be too far away, to be reachable when the conditions are optimum. This is the kind of thing that photographers mentally catalog when they’re out and about.

sycamore leaf backlit with low light angleOf course, I couldn’t pass up my typical (actually, pretty trite by now) approach to colors when they’re scarce, this time in Mason Farm – I just liked the way the light angle was shadowing the leaf while still providing some backlight glow. Since this was before we had headed out to the colorful nature trails, I was working hard to produce something of interest for the outing – even though I already had a few images that will be highlighted towards the end of the post. You know how drama goes.

By the way, this one is a good candidate for converting to monochrome, by eliminating the green and blue channels and adding a selective boost in contrast. I haven’t added anything to the recent images page in far too long, and I’ll probably dump the converted version in there shortly, along with a bunch of others. There, now that I said it I’ll be motivated to get right on it, and they’ll be up within a day or two. Right?

It gets pretty cool at night now, occasionally frosting over, which means that wildlife activity, especially arthropods, is greatly reduced. We’re entering the winter slump when the posts are liable to get a lot more philosophical and the images a bit thinner, at least until I’m making enough to head much further south and shoot in Costa Rica or something. Yet we’re still not quite into the ‘winter’ conditions, or wildlife behavior, meaning that warm days can still bring out little scenes, like a quartet of painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) basking on the protruding branches of a sunken tree in a small channel at Mason Farm:

four painted turtles Chrysemys picta basking on two branches
The turtles in the channels of Mason Farm were quite spooky, so getting close enough to frame this shot took a careful approach; I really wanted to be able to frame the reflection of a colorful tree in the water beneath them, but it was not to be. At least the sun angle was in our favor.

There was one more interesting find along the channel, immediately after seeing these turtles, but that’ll come later.

The insects are few and far between right now, to no one’s surprise. Initially, it took a sharp eye to spot the first few, but that’s what I do and I know what to look for. So after I’d laid back on the ground under a low-hanging oak sapling to do photos of the leaves against the sky, spotting the pale green assassin bug (Zelus luridus) lurking under a leaf wasn’t too difficult.

pale green assassin bug Zelus luridus skulking under oak leaf
After sighting the first, it became clear that the oak was being favored by the species, since we found several more, most of them on the undersides of the leaves like this one, but a few actually out in the sunlight. This is where I thought they’d be most likely to be found, gathering up the solar energy in the short time that it was available rather than trying to avoid it, but what do I know?

A short while later, a lone bug was partaking of almost the only flowers to be seen, small and brilliant yellow, proving that even in the off season, something is around to take advantage of the flowers that might appear.

broken-backed bug Taylorilygus apicalis on small yellow wildflower
This is, I’m almost certain, a broken-backed bug (Taylorilygus apicalis,) and I can say that because I’ve photographed them before and did all the legwork then. No real skill in finding this one, tiny as it is, because a cardinal rule of insect photography is to pay close attention to clusters of flowers – they evolved to attract such attention (I mean from the bugs, not the nature photographers.)

(I think.)

Moving on from both the Reserve and the nature trails, we did a quick pass through the gardens proper, curious to see what might be found. As I quizzed Mr Bugg on where we had photographed various species on previous visits, we examined the area where we’d spotted the small Carolina mantis, not really expecting to find it again but not completely ruling it out either. The joke was on us, however: there was no mantis to be seen on or near those plants. It had moved across the raised boardwalk to a stand of weeds on the other side, at least three meters distant.

Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina peeking among dried flowers
As you can tell from the linked images taken three weeks earlier, this is quite a small specimen, and I consider it likely to be the same one. This time around it was on a plant well off the boardwalk where we weren’t permitted to walk, so it had to be shot from a short distance; this is a tighter crop from the original frame. Carolina mantises (Stagmomantis carolina) are smaller than Chinese mantises, but this one was less than half adult size, curiously still a juvenile this late in the year. It’s possible the weather was responsible for this, since the other mantids that I’d photographed hatching in the spring were late too, but it’s safe to say that this one doesn’t stand a chance of mating.

More surprising was another find, this one on a stand of pitcher plants in a cultivated planter. I’d spotted the thin legs sticking out, not at all like the plants in the vicinity, and this anachronism caused me to look closer and move around to a better angle. Remember what I said about patterns?

pregnant Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on pitcher plant
The surprise wasn’t so much finding another mantis, but finding one so obviously pregnant; I would have thought they’d all have created their egg sacs by now. The last one I’d seen, in fact, had been quite close to this location, and also pregnant, but that was six weeks earlier. This Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) was many times the length and mass of the Carolina mantis, probably measuring only slightly shorter than my hand, and was well aware of my presence as I leaned in at the edge of the planter to do my portrait shot.

portrait of Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis on pitcher plant, showing damaged eye
As you might have noticed, both mantids were sporting truncated antennae, likely evidence of close encounters with either predators or feisty prey, and this one also shows damage to the compound eye. What’s subtler, but quite important, is that I framed the head against the bright plant behind it to make it stand out better, and I’ll be talking about this in an upcoming podcast. Little tricks, little tricks…

I have to speculate on the position of the mantis here, since such plants are not good choices to attach an egg case to, seeming to indicate that the event wasn’t imminent. But it was – at least a little earlier in the season – a good place to find prey, leading me to believe that the mantis was more in feeding mode. They don’t last long after laying their eggs, but she really didn’t have a lot of time to get to this before the colder weather would do her in, so the timing was getting crucial.

Had she moved less than a meter away, though, she might have found an easy meal, since the pitcher plants also sported another occupant.

eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica under overhang of pitcher plant
I’m going to go ahead and call this an eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica,) since the eye color is right and I think I see a hint of that telltale white facial spot. This one was just perched there as if still struggling with low temperature torpor despite this being late afternoon. You likely know that pitcher plants trap small insects by attracting them into the slippery tube with enticing aroma, but the chances are the carpenter bee wasn’t in any danger, since the prey species are usually much smaller. At least one species of wasp even seems to place its larvae within the pitchers which are then plugged with leaves, and the emerging adults make their escape by chewing a hole in the side; I’ve seen these holes and the plugging behavior, so I think this is what’s happening, anyway.

And finally, the image I hinted at earlier, actually the first decent capture from the day. As we were following the path alongside the channel in Mason Farm, I spotted a small heron staring intently into the water. Keep in mind the distance was six meters at the most when we came into view, almost head-on with the heron, and we stopped dead and shot a few frames each as we watched for any movement. Eventually, we started moving forward a bit and could get a side view, narrowing the distance down to three meters, while the heron didn’t move a muscle, not a twitch. It was almost disturbing, and I vaguely suspected someone had placed a decoy, but it would have been the most intricately and accurately detailed decoy I’d ever seen in my life.

juvenile great blue heron Ardea herodias hunting in channel with attendant reflection
I also, for more than a few moments, thought it might have been a tricolor heron, which just aren’t found in this area; it was the right size and the coloration seemed more like that than anything else. Eventually, it struck at its prey and missed, whereupon it demonstrated that it was quite cognizant of our presence (we were impossible to miss, really, being in plain sight and still conversing in whispers three meters away,) by stalking off away from the channel. As it stood up and displayed it plumage in more natural position, it became clear it was a juvenile great blue heron (Ardea herodias,) but half the size of an adult and lacking some of the classic coloration. I decided on this particular frame, however, because I’d shifted position enough to capture the reflection of the face and eye in the water; had you caught that before I mentioned it? That was the best I could do in the circumstances, and not half as distinctive as the shot of the real tricolor heron in the masthead image, but hey, still better than nothing. And a pretty good day overall, I’d say.

Just because, part 21

I’ve got several things in the works right now, but I’m not sure when I’ll finish any of them, so for now, a grab shot from just over a month ago, when the nights had turned dewy.

dew-covered spiderweb resembling sailing ship
I have no idea what kind of spider spins this web, but I’ve seen this many times before, often of varying sizes. I’m always taken by the impression of a sailing ship, or schooner or something – boats are not my forté. There are always two distinct ‘structures’ to the webs, with a tighter and denser ‘hull’ below, often favoring one side with a prow-like protrusion instead of being symmetrical or random, and the upper ‘rigging’ section without masts or sails but still conveying that idea. Maybe it’s just me…

Someday, I’ll have to sit down and examine one closely, first to try and photograph the builder, but then to puzzle out the function of the entire structure – there must be purposes to the two different sections (and possibly more sections that I’ve never discerned.) While I am just fine with the aesthetics of such things, I’ll often find myself pondering the deeper questions after only a few moments of drinking in the visual aspects, noticing how the initial support threads dictate the shapes and recognizing that, despite the haphazard nature of most strands, this isn’t random, but an edifice with specific functions. Does it target certain insects? Does it protect against rain or predators better? Is this, like many other webs among arachnids, a breeding nest instead?

I realize that most of the questions are probably already answered, if I knew where to look – that’s where identifying the occupant(s) would help a lot. But for now, I present only the visual, and my curiosity.

Podcast: Curséd podcast

That’d be a pretty good idea for a U2 song, wouldn’t it? They need to lighten up a bit and deal with more mundane subjects.

Anyway, nothing at all deep with this one, just the trials of doing something that should be relatively simple.

Walkabout podcast – Curséd podcast

Cold weather tips, as mentioned.

Since, as indicated orally, I am getting this recording system refined a little, there should be another podcast along ‘soon’ – the definition of that is up for grabs though, and still depends on me getting the time and conditions right, but at least I know what the topic will be.

The USB mic that I recently purchased and used for this episode, by the way, is the CAD U1 cardioid dynamic microphone – I’d provide a review but I really don’t know what I’m doing and have few other options to compare it to. For my uses, and so far, it seems to be working well. The software is Audacity, an excellent (and almost universally recommended) bit of freeware that makes quality recording and editing pretty damn simple.

No image to go along with this one, sorry – the ones I talked about trying to get really didn’t turn out worth anything at all. Happens to the best of us… on very rare occasions. My best moon shot can be found here, while one of the coolest that I’ve seen is to be found here, and click on it for the larger version – neither is a supermoon, but you couldn’t tell that from the images. Well, okay, you certainly could for mine because it’s not full, but anyway…

Sunday color, revisited

Since I have no idea what I’m doing up this early, I’ll just throw up some colors. I should probably rephrase that…

late autumn leaves against red leaves and sky
On a recent outing, we attempted to find some prime autumn colors in a new location, but discovered that there, at least, they’d changed much earlier, and down along the river’s edge the trees were pretty much bare. So during a quick check in another locale, we could at least create some colorful compositions by being selective again, in this case finding two trees with contrasting colors and layering them against the clear sky. The foreground tree was still in the process of changing (which is what makes the concept of “peak colors” so misleading,) but because of this it was producing a nice variety of hues within a meter, all from the same tree and indeed, the same small branch.

In fact, one could even see a variety of color within just a single leaf. The backlighting helped a bit, of course.

single leaf in transition
Now, I would have liked to have gotten an image without the shadow on the right side, and tried. But in order to get it, I had to wait for the breeze to shift the surrounding branches in an appropriate way, and when they did, they also shifted the target leaf out of focus. Obviously, focus was a critical aspect of this particular shot.

It was also critical to the next one, though the effect didn’t quite meet my expectations.

green leaves against other colors
The idea was to have the green foreground leaves in sharp focus with all of the background leaves soft, but the situation wasn’t quite right for it. Here’s a little trick to achieving that. If your foreground subject is well inside the halfway point between your camera and the background (in other words, closer to you than it is to the background,) then you have a much better chance of getting good ‘focus isolation’ with a large aperture. In this case, cropped a little from the original, the green subject leaves were just a little too distant, and even f4 couldn’t blur out the background leaves enough. Ah, well, maybe later.

As I type this, we have frost conditions outside but it’s still quite dark, and about the time the light should be getting ideal, I have to be someplace. I might have a small window to work with, so maybe something will appear later, but there will still be plenty of opportunities to chase compositions of that nature later on. We’ll just see what happens.