An abstract for August

hermit crab trails on Driftwood Beach Jekyll Island Georgia
Okay, this one is quite a bit more abstract than some of the previous, so I feel better now. In fact, it is only that small leaf at lower left that provides some scale to begin to give a little context – I wish I’d shot a few frames without it, but I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. So go ahead, using that clue that I wantonly handed you, figure out what it is you’re looking at.

Of course, your experience with drainage and crustaceans instantly announced that this is an image of hermit crab trails across a tidal flat – Driftwood Beach on the northern tip of Jekyll Island, to be exact (and chances are, thinstripe hermit crabs, Clibanarius vittatus, judging from the others that I found.) Less than an hour after sunrise, the low light angle gave a lot of definition to the minor variations in the sand, and the breeze hadn’t yet dried it out and started erasing it, so this was probably the best time to photograph such things. In fact, “When is the best time to photograph hermit crab trails across a tidal flat?” is probably the most frequent question asked within the comments (as you can see,) so I’m happy to provide this little illustration. Always there for my readers…

I don’t think so

Neuse River rocks and ripplesMr. Bugg actually had the temerity to say that he was going to post something from today’s outing before I could. Yeah, that’s right – the same guy who’s been letting his ‘Wednesday Color’ posts slide for weeks now. I put it all down to the arrogance of youth. I am the post master. Never mind that my trip posts are still waiting; they’re ripening, awaiting the perfect time to appear, mellow and full-bodied. That’s how it’s done properly.

You won’t catch me altering dates on my posts to try and hide the fact that I missed my schedule, either. Unlike, you know, some people…

Little so-and-so…

Not yet

unidentified crab alongside foot on Driftwood Beach Jekyll Island
I have been hoping to get some time to start posting again, especially after this trip, but it has been eluding me – when I actually have a few minutes set aside, there have either been too many people around (impossible to try and write anything,) or I’ve been ill. Posts are coming, within the next few days is my plan, but in the meantime, another beachy shot. I haven’t tried finding out what species of crab this is – it looks a lot like the marsh crabs I used to see in Florida – but I suspect the photo is evidence enough that I had initially mistaken it for an insect. I mean, it is an arthropod, but like most people, I treat crustaceans as something else entirely, and not the cousins of the various insects we see every day.

Even as simple as this image is, you can tell it’s a sunrise shot – those little clues are absorbed subconsciously.

More later on…

Working on it

fishing boat in St Simons Sound at sunset
Once again, the sunset wasn’t up to snuff, but by being selective over the view and finding another element to work with, I got something that I like. The locale is St Simon’s Sound off of Jekyll Island, which should give you a hint as to where we spent the weekend – this was from Sunday evening and I’m just getting around to posting it now, if you can actually call this a post. More will be along eventually – just trying to get past a few other things first.

But this makes two trips to work on scenic and landscape shots; after a long spell without any such opportunities, I feel spoiled this year. That’s not right – gonna have to try and correct this.

Wednesday color

Haven’t done one in a while, so let’s go big…

unidentified blue flower against terra cotta pot
I dunno, Wednesday just seems like an odd day to do a color post. I mean, it’s current, since this was shot yesterday morning, but just… Wednesday, you know? It kinda bugs me. I’ll probably have to go back to Mondays…

Getting back to abnormal

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis night portrait
For the past few weeks, I have had little time to chase arthropod pics, and even less time to blog about it, but I’m able to catch up a little now. Some of these images are from before that busy time, and some are ‘current.’

I haven’t been keeping up with the mantises as I did last year, but that’s partially because only two are able to be found dependably. Above, one of them provides a distracted pose at night (as indicated by the dark eyes,) obviously less concerned with me getting into its personal space than with something off to frame right. This one was still a juvenile, but getting pretty big now.

Some nine hours earlier during daylight I had followed what might have been the same one, but it was paying even less attention to me, which does not help my crippling insecurity one little bit. The sudden change of head position to a sharp downward angle is a good indication that it saw something, but for a short while I couldn’t make out what, and rashly thought it was chasing shadows.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis watching possible prey
The mantis was perched on the voluminous phlox plants, which provide lots of layers and hiding places, and after a bit I caught some motion myself, which turned out to be a small jumping spider making its way among the leaves and stems. Its path carried it away from the danger zone near the mantis, and eventually it emerged into a clear enough area that I could fire off a few frames, including one dramatic pose as it waved its forelegs in the air.

unidentified jumping spider portrait
While this might be considered a threat display or even a greeting, it was more likely ‘sniffing’ the air, since spiders have sensory hairs on their forelegs. I have so far been unable to identify this species, even though those yellow pedipalps and median legs are distinctive. Feel free to enlighten me.

unidentified jumping spider in breeding nestAs it ambled along, I saw a rolled leaf in the middle distance (for a small spider, at least) ahead of it, and suspected that this was its destination. Unwilling to disappoint me, the spider quickly made its way up the stem in question and disappeared into the rolled leaf, appearing briefly at the other side long enough for me to fire off a shot. Some spiders make breeding nests out of rolled leaves, as you no doubt remember, stitching the sides together with webbing to make a shelter for their eggs. In some cases at least, it seems this also serves as the honeymoon suite, to which the eager suitor must gain permission to enter or face the wrath of the female. If I ever find myself with too little to do and appropriate weather (meaning, not as hot as fuckinghell,) I’ll have to stake out one of these bowers and try to get a sequence of photos of the courtship – I’ve managed it once, solely by chance, and watched a couple of unsuccessful attempts.

A little later on, I shifted the leaf shelter up sightly so I could get a look down inside, producing a curious perspective on the inhabitant. You have to appreciate how the reflections from the primary eyes form the appearance of a pupil, lending a horrified look to the spider that isn’t seen at all in the earlier portrait shot above.

unidentified jumping spider within shelter
The two mantises I can find dependably reside, for now anyway, on the Japanese maple tree, which sits above the phlox patch. I missed their emergence into adulthood (I probably wasn’t going to top last year’s observations of this anyway,) but I’m still keeping an eye out for courtship and/or the laying of the eggs. Today I chased a couple of images just for the updates, even though I wasn’t capturing any behavior or captivating poses – as I said, it’s been a while and I needed to get back into the swing of things. One of them wasn’t posing very readily and was in a tough position under one branch of the short tree, but I fired off a shot anyway, which resulted in a peculiar ‘moonlight’ ambiance; this was because the front window of the house was in the background, and I was at a direct-enough angle to bounce the flash burst right back into the lens, thankfully not too brightly.

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis in faux moonlight
Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis from slightly varied positionI’ll also take this opportunity to illustrate a simple but important, and often forgotten, facet of macro photography. As I did some portraits of the other mantis since it was slightly more cooperative, I was able to do some comparison shots. Both of these were taken only moments apart without the mantis moving more than a fraction; the difference comes from my position. I saw the antenna falling in front of one compound eye, as well as the leaf in the immediate background lining up right behind the mantis’ head, and shifted position slightly, framing the head against darkness instead and dropping below the antenna – the change also allowed the flash to illuminate the forelegs better. Such a trivial amount of effort to significantly improve the photo, and all it takes is an awareness of the background (including knowing that it will become sharper as the aperture closes down.) Increasing contrast at the point of focus always helps draw the viewer’s eye, done in this case by framing the bright green head against the blackness instead of the green leaves, and the complementary lines of leaves and mantis body are a nice bonus. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t consider this high art, but it’s a nice comparison illustration, and the more of this you can accomplish the stronger your images will be.

While in the garden store this morning, in a nursery greenhouse section, The Girlfriend and I heard a strong call within the building, one that I was pretty sure I recognized. I stopped dead and started tracing the sound, and was lucky enough to have the call repeat as I was closing in – no, I did not have the sound recorder with me, nor the camera; rotten foresight for a nature photographer, I know. I took down one hanging plant, started poking around in the leaves, and sure enough found the culprit, a green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) tucked up against a leaf. It had either ridden along when the plants were brought into the building, or had come in through the vent in the greenhouse ceiling, but it wasn’t a very good habitat for a treefrog given the lack of food insects. With some comical fumbling we managed to capture it and tuck it among the items we were buying, bringing it back home to release it onto the plants in the backyard pond.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched reluctantly on pond plantBy this time I had the camera ready, and did a quick photo session with the transplant, who may or may not decide to remain in the area; either way, it has much better access to food, shelter, and potential mates than the interior of Home Depot. Treefrogs do not spend much time at all in the water, but they do need to remain moist, and will deposit their eggs in or near the water so the hatching tadpoles are in the right environment. I’m fairly certain we had a grey treefrog hatching last year, and at present there are five juvenile green frogs (Lithobates clamitans, the more aquatic and non-tree-climbing cousins) living within the pond, though the tadpoles seem to have vanished quickly for unknown reasons. We’ll just have to see what happens.

So I’ll close with one more portrait, because you can never have too much green in a post, right? That’s the way I look at it, anyway.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea portrait, whose name is not Frank

It goes like… this?

butterflies on flower cluster
I doubt there are a lot of photographers that run into this kind of thing, but on occasion, I’ll be editing photos and find myself unsure of how the image should be oriented. You see, I might take photos at any angle – lying on my back aiming up at the underside of leaves, or leaning over sideways from a small patch of secure footing to get the right perspective on a reptile or insect – and at times it’s not obvious if I intended a horizontal or vertical format for the image. It’s an issue that I don’t imagine many portrait photographers run into.

I don’t have the auto-orientation options activated on my cameras and thumbnail viewing program, and I’m not sure it would help – how accurate is it for a camera aimed roughly skyward from ground level? (The program I use for viewing and sorting, by the way, is FastStone Image Viewer, which is truly excellent and highly recommended.) The backgrounds are often no help at all. Our impression is that flowers grow up and butterflies land on top, but we all know those ideas are not dependable. And some of the photos work fine either way. I’ll be tooling along, reviewing frames, and stop to wonder if I should be rotating these or not. They look okay…

butterflies on flower cluster… but then I rotate them and say to myself, You know, I think they go this way. I mean, if you want the most accurate rendition for these images, the first thing you’d have to do is lay your monitor back almost flat, since I was probably aiming largely downward from above, but that’s the best I can tell you. And if I’m having this much trouble knowing, then it likely doesn’t make any difference – pick the orientation that you like best and boom, you got the right one as far as I’m concerned.

One of these days I’ll have to have someone shoot a few frames of me while I’m tackling some of the more inconvenient subjects, just to show the goofy shit I do sometimes. About the most awkward one that I recall immediately was shooting with the camera completely upside-down, hanging from the inverted center-column under the tripod, but on more than a couple of occasions, I’ve realized that the muscles in my neck or lower back were really protesting, indicating that my position was far from normal. If I get what I was after, then I’m good, but, yeah, when the shoulder-bag is in imminent danger of swinging from its position on the back of my hip down to crash into my subject, or even into the water, that’s not exactly a pose you’d find in clothing catalogs, is it?

So, size does matter?

supernumerary rainbow with enhanced contrastFriday evening, the rain decided to throw down (it was certainly much harder than falling,) and typically for the weather we’re having this year, it passed quickly. As the sun returned, I checked to see if we were having a rainbow, but saw nothing. Turns out it was only being fashionably late, and wasn’t terribly bright when it arrived, but as The Girlfriend and I looked towards the top of the arc, we could distinctly see something that I first witnessed almost exactly a year ago. I ran in to get the camera, and it had faded to a degree in that short time, but I still managed to capture enough to illustrate this again. This image has slightly enhanced contrast to make it more evident.

Supernumerary rainbows are a partial repetition of the prism pattern on the underside of the main bow (there are often two, with the primary one being brighter and lower,) an optical ‘echo’ of sorts. Last year, my sources had indicated that we didn’t actually know how they occurred, which it turns out is partially true. Looking it up again this year, I found a better source which not only explains that the size of the rain droplets has a lot to do with it, you can even see the difference in effect with raindrop size by playing with their little doodad on the site. According to them there editors at Atmospheric Optics, the smaller the raindrop, the more distinct the inner bows tend to be – which is exactly the opposite of what I would have expected, given the conditions in which I’ve seen them both times. However, I was not out witnessing the rain at the tail end of the summer squall, so maybe the raindrops got smaller as it passed, shoved out of their place in the lunch line by the bigger bully drops.

Photographing rainbows is a bit like sunsets (mentioned in the previous post,) but probably takes even more effort. Bracketing heavily in both exposure and contrast settings is recommended, since the camera is less capable of discerning the subtle contrast differences that our eyes can see, and the exposure meter will be affected by pointing up into the sky. Achieving ideal brightness and saturation is therefore tricky, and it’s very easy to get nothing at all like what you were seeing unless you really work at it.

supernumerary rainbow with enhanced saturationThis is the same image, but with saturation thrown way the hell up – there will be another version at the bottom of this post. Now the additional bands below the main bow are plainly visible, reducing in width and starting to give a three-dimensional effect, as if numerous bows were stacked alongside one another into the distance, and we’re seeing their undersides. This is not the case, since rainbows are an optical phenomenon of light diffraction refraction and thus don’t really have a ‘distance’ – you can’t get closer to them, thus all the folklore about “over” and “beyond” and “at the end of” rainbows, which like the horizon are always distant and unattainable. In other words, it’s all cruel mocking.

As another small aside, shooting photos of this nature is a very good way to find out just how much dust and schmutz is on your digital sensor, more than a little annoying to me because it’s very tricky to remove it in the image, especially around the color bands themselves, and because I just cleaned the damn thing before I went to the beach. It must be pleasant to be a studio photographer who changes lenses in a nice clean environment all the time…

supernumerary rainbow over saturated

Beach trip followup

This is worse than those weekly cliffhanger serials that used to be popular, both because it’s taking longer than a week for me to get to the next installment, and because it’s nowhere near as interesting…

The morning after the storm photos at the lighthouse, I was up early to catch the sunrise, but was delayed a bit because I had to change out the leaking tire. Since the Earth flatly (um, globally) refused to refrain from spinning as I did this, I had a very short period of time to be someplace and ready for the sunrise, so I settled for a beach access just south of Avon, the town I was staying in. If you’ve looked at the map at all or are otherwise familiar with the Outer Banks, it comes as no surprise that they’re flat; also rather thin on trees and such. This means that the options for scenic compositions are limited – no shooting from hills, few items to do foreground interest, and so on. I simply picked a nice spot on the side of the dune break that allowed beach access and set up the tripod there. Luckily, the sun cooperated much better than the night before, and I captured some nice colors and textures as the sky lightened.

sunrise colors at Avon NC
A little tip: these are the kind of conditions where you bracket heavily, not trusting the exposure meter at all, but shooting a lot of frames both over- and under-exposed to get the best colors. Not only is it necessary because the frame might contain a wide range of light levels – as seen here – but because the shutter speed will be different for those exposures too, and might freeze a crashing wave in place, or allow for some movement from the breakers that produces a surreal cottony look. It will also give you the option to do some high dynamic range work if you want to composite together an image that has a decent exposure for both the foreground and the sky (the image above is not an example of this, but exactly as it was shot in-camera.)

Also note that the sun will illuminate the clouds progressively further up as it rises, perhaps turning the slate-grey surfaces pink or orange in stages, and this can be extremely subtle – we tend to watch the horizon in such cases and ignore the view above our heads, so keep looking around and shooting a lot of frames.

As the sun made its appearance, it was framed against some distant cumulus clouds which lent a bit of interest to the scene, and I went in close for a sequence of frames as it rose.

sun rising behind distant cumulus clouds over ocean, Avon NC
The sun (and moon) move their own width in 150 seconds, so from first peek to fully above the horizon takes less than three minutes, though atmospheric distortion may alter this slightly – in the right conditions the sun can actually be seen to us even when it is technically below the horizon, the light being bent by the oblique angle through the atmosphere. This is also what produces the out-of-round appearance vaguely visible here. Those clouds were a long ways off, being almost entirely over the horizon, and knowing how high they tend to be, they could have been well over a hundred kilometers distant – there’s even the chance that they were the same storm that I’d been shooting, and driven back in, the night before.

curling breaker at sunrise in Avon NCSoon afterward, the sun rose into that line that can be seen over it, in the photo above, which was another solid wall of clouds – at that point the conditions sank back into hazy twilight. I waited around a bit, and was rewarded by the occasional appearance that let me do some more moody breaker photos. For unknown reasons, the birds were particularly sparse on this trip – I did not see one pelican at all – and so the ‘typical’ beach wildlife shots weren’t part of the gallery this time around. Even the occasional seagull or tern was framed against darker clouds and lower light conditions, making it hard to freeze them in midair since the shutter speeds went a little too long to allow this – you’ve seen perhaps the best example in the previous post.

By the way, for those still following along at home, this is the placemark that illustrates my shooting location for this sunrise – clicking it should automatically open Google Earth if you have it installed on your computer.

But of course, early morning on the beach almost always means crabs. The Atlantic ghost crab (Ocypode quadrata) is aptly named, since one usually catches only a fleeting glimpse of them as they scurry back into their burrows upon someone’s approach, sparking the realization that they were right there but we never saw them. Their camouflage is among the best I’ve seen (or at least, realized that I’ve seen) in North American species, blending into the sand extraordinarily well, but with a little practice and alert eyes, they can be spotted at least when they pause after fleeing, usually from having wandered too far from their burrow and being unable to find shelter. It is very bad news to use another crab’s burrow, by the way, so it’s important to find the right one, and I got lucky enough to get between a young crab and its safe haven, allowing me to get several nice close images.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata showing camouflage traits
It’s much worse in hazy conditions, because the crabs won’t even throw a shadow that can help them stand out – and they seem to realize this, rarely being out in full sunlight. They are, of course, considered a tasty treat by most sea birds and probably just about anything else in the area, and are mostly nocturnal – going out on the beach at night with a flashlight makes it much easier to spot them, and the light tends to mask your approach too, so it’s easier to get close. I used natural light for the image above, just to show how hard it is to see them, but opted for a flash for the next pic, showing the details of shape and camouflage a little better.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata showing dorsal pattern
This produces much the same results as using a flashlight at night would, providing a distinctive shadow that helps pick them out against/above the sand, but even this close the coloration and camouflage pattern is impressive. This one was quite small, perhaps 3cm across the entire width, and once it realized it could not reach its burrow it simply froze in place, though if I moved too sharply it would dash away a short distance before freezing again; if I wasn’t watching when this occurred, it was difficult to find the crab again even though it was still within two meters.

large Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata peeking from burrowAs they get larger, the camo pattern fades, perhaps because they’re faster and more adept at escaping, and also maybe because they’re no longer good targets, in size and defensiveness, for predators. I spotted one ducking into a larger burrow as I approached, and sat down to wait it out, which doesn’t take too long.

This one seemed to have a good memory for what the landscape looked like, because its first peek out after I took up a nearby position caused it to immediately withdraw back into its burrow, despite the fact that I was motionless; I’ve grown so used to species that pay no attention as long as I’m not moving that I’m slightly surprised by those that can recognize what ‘doesn’t belong.’ However, this is a relative thing – by the time it peeked out again and I still hadn’t moved from position, it determined that the coast was clear (sorry) and continued with its business, which was to clear out the warren from the wash-in caused by the night’s rain. That’s the mound of fresh sand that you see here above the opening.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata carrying sand from burrowThis one was about 4cm across the carapace, so not quite a hand-span in overall width, and I wasn’t shooting with a long focal length for this at all; just a little out of the frame at bottom were my crossed legs. The crab dragged up a load of sand tucked into its legs and pincers, moving cautiously but not particularly slowly, and since I’d been sitting with the camera already raised to my eye it was easy enough to get a sequence of frames. Now, the camera isn’t particularly heavy (though I think I still had the flash attached,) but when you have to sit perfectly still in ready position and wait for something to happen, you quickly realize how fatiguing this can be. I could have spent some time building myself a nice comfortable lounge chair out of sand, but by then the sun would have been too high and the crabs would have called it a day. Maybe next trip.

Atlantic ghost crab Ocypode quadrata hurling away unwanted sandMy timing was right on this one: if you look closely at upper right, you can actually see sand in midair that the crab was flinging away. As soon as this action takes place the crab typically shoots back into the burrow, instinctively aware that the motion attracts attention. This makes me wonder what purpose is served by hurling the sand away rather than simply depositing it subtly, which would be a lot harder to see, but I’ve watched this behavior from numerous specimens so it seems to be typical.

Eventually, I packed it up and went back to my room to check out and head back north. I would have spent a lot more time poking around in the southern reaches of the Outer Banks, perhaps even taking the ferry to Ocracoke, but I had to get the tire repaired and it seemed the only places that could tackle that were in the Nags Head area. Unfortunately, this exposed me once again to horrendous traffic (it was Saturday morning, the week following Independence Day) and my mood was deteriorating rapidly. I was going to go for a swim while the tire was being repaired, but before I even got to the beach access I got called back by the shop, informed that the tire couldn’t be patched and needed to be replaced instead. The combination of additional expense, detouring north, and mounting irritation caused me to cut the trip shorter than intended, and I pretty much wrapped it up once the new tire was mounted – I did a brief stop chasing some scenic pics on the way back (and a nap in the car to counteract the road fatigue and short sleep hours the previous night,) but that was it. While I can’t complain about the images I captured – which I have yet to finish sorting – I’d still intended for the trip to have more in it, so I retain the impression that it didn’t accomplish much. It’s nothing but perspective, really – humans are weird that way. Or maybe it’s just me.

hazy sunrise textures in ocean at Avon NC

End of July twofer

white water lotus blossom closeup
As I’m trying to get back to posting more, without much hope because of, you know, things, I’ll at least keep up with the month-end abstract. In fact, I offer two this month. I did not get the specific scientific name for this blossom, but it’s a water lotus at the botanical garden, semi-purposefully shot with a short depth of field. I say semi-purposefully because the light didn’t really give the option of a smaller aperture for a handheld shot, but I also knew that and chose a subject that could work in such circumstances. So there.

As for the second image, it’s another hint of things to come, as I try to get around to writing up a ‘part three’ post. This was a rare shot, or at least, rare for those conditions too. I’ll explain more later.

least tern Sternula antillarum against sunrise clouds