Recommendations you can trust

Because if you can’t turn to a wildlife photographer that specializes in bugs and frogs to tell you what you should seek in entertainment, who can you turn to?

So topically, I’m perhaps cheating a little. I’ve been planning to feature some music here for a while, and just realized that I could springboard.

In case you have no internet at all, or perhaps you manage to avoid all of the typical trivial discussions that take place anywhere that permits a group input, this is the time of year when people start recommending the holiday movies that few ever think of as holiday movies; Die Hard has now come to the forefront since it has an underlying christmas time period, even though it has virtually nothing else to do with christmas. Well, except for:

“Ho.

Ho.

Ho.”

[I’ve mentioned this before. I think Stevie from Malcolm in the Middle had a faster delivery…]

And I will always recommend Hogfather, just because it’s not anywhere near as well known as it should be, but it’s safe to say that it’s a christmas movie even though absolutely none of the things that we associate with christmas can be found within. Except for rat skeletons.

Anyway, I don’t have many to add. The 1992 film Toys, with Robin Williams, both opens and closes with christmas, but takes place throughout an entire year. This is one that didn’t fare well, either in the theaters or with critics, which is a shame because it’s not bad at all – you just have to cope with a bit of surreality and whimsy in pursuit of its not-too-subtle message. Plus it’s far more likely to hold the attention of the kids than such ‘classics’ like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, both too schmaltzy as far as I’m concerned. And Toys produced a lovely holiday song (in fact, most of the soundtrack is solid) that has never gained enough traction: The Closing of the Year by Wendy & Lisa, featuring Seal. I’ve embedded the video below, but remain patient for the kick at about 90 seconds.

I was proud of myself when watching this movie in the theater – the opening version of this song has a bar of bells as the tempo increases (audible here, but greatly subdued in this mix) that reminded me of Mercy Street by Peter Gabriel. Turns out he was one of the musicians/composers on the soundtrack.

Yet all of that is not what I originally intended to feature. Instead, we have a movie that still completely mystifies me over why it never did far, far better, and it too takes place in the run up to christmas: 1941, Spielberg’s first shot at comedy released in 1979, with a plethora of actors (all doing a fine job) but focusing on Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the promos, almost completely snubbing Eddie Deezen for reasons unknown. I could point out a lot of things about this film, from all of the subtle nods to both other films and the real historical references of the time, to the fact that the sole character based on a real person is the only one with solid competence. I’ve heard many potential explanations regarding why this movie has rated so poorly. and none of them seem to hold water, especially when we’ve had, what, three Twilight and eight fucking American Pie movies? I mean, come the fuck on!

More notable, and the thing that I really intended to highlight (mentioned in the previous post regarding music,) is that the soundtrack was composed and conducted by none other than John Williams, and it shows – in fact, I rate his work here much higher than the Star Wars series because he not just captures, but greatly enhances the mood of the film, with his remarkable ability to express so much, so adeptly. Here, then, is a piece that has gone by a few different names, depending on the release, but most often The March from 1941, also the Main Title Theme and containing the melody that reappears throughout the film, often when Belushi’s Wild Bill Kelso was onscreen.

The March from 1941 – John Williams

There’s also a big band dance number that sets the background for a chase/fight/dance contest scene – yes, all three at once, and it’s the kind of thing that may escape the viewer’s conscious attention unless they make a special effort. I mean, they will certainly notice all of the action taking place, and the catchy music that it’s set to, but the idea that an elaborate chase and fight scene was choreographed around the piece of music, to take advantage of the trills and stings within, and still have perfect flow, is a spectacle of staging and editing that could only have taken days, but more likely weeks. And while the musical piece performed within is Williams’, it is very closely based on an existing song: Sing Sing Sing by Benny Goodman (and I link to that here so you can compare the versions directly.) Williams’ homage is below, provided with some misgivings, because the whole scene is something that I urge you to check out – the visual aspect is just as important.

Swing Swing Swing – John Williams

So if you haven’t seen it, find an opportunity to check out 1941; any film that features Toshirô Mifune, Christopher Lee, and Slim Pickens in the same scene deserves some recognition at the very least. If you don’t like it, fine; let me know and I’ll take the blame and feel ashamed. Really. But if you don’t like the music, I’m afraid I’ll have to consider you mentally incompetent.

As a bit of trivia, 1941‘s opening scene not only lambastes Jaws (Spielberg’s own movie,) it features the exact same actress. Who still gets upstaged by Hiroshi Shimizu…

Oh, stop it

This is just a trivial curiosity, found while sorting and set aside for a post when the season has slowed down. We’re not going into deep philosophical territory here.

nighttime clouds illuminated by hidden lightning
Waaayyy back in July, during a failed attempt to get some lightning images, I tried a small experiment, and dug out the green laser pointer that I carry in my camera bag. I have this mostly for student outings, because it’s powerful enough to be seen during daylight and works a whole lot better than trying to describe where exactly a particular photo subject can be found within the foliage, but I’ve also used it for astronomical directions too. It’s one of those that you ardently avoid aiming towards any aircraft, but the risk of that was nil this evening. So while the shutter was open for a ten-second exposure, I aimed it roughly parallel to the lens axis and held it pointed off into the distance, as steady as I could.

green laser beam during time exposure at night
Green lasers work so well for astronomy because they illuminate the atmospheric humidity better, and thus the line of the beam can be seen even when the pointer itself is shining on something, oh, a few thousand light-years off. I wanted to see how vivid it would show in the image, with a small sideline of how steady I could hold it. I expected a little better results on the former, and less on the latter; that beam really isn’t too wobbly for handheld at ten seconds. The origin, by the way, was from the right of the frame, so the wider beam there is both a matter of being a hell of a lot closer to the camera and of my hand moving laterally while aiming fairly well.

By itself, that’s just an idle curiosity, but there’s another detail that’s apparent that I find slightly more interesting: the beam has a very clear stopping point to it. I kind of expected it to fade off into darkness, which is what you would see when pointing out stars, but enough of the beam remains to serve as a guiding line. I didn’t expect it to stop, which tells me that it was actually hitting the undersides of the clouds. Now, knowing the storm conditions, they weren’t very far away, especially since they were obscuring lightning that wasn’t far off by itself, but I was also aimed pretty damn flat, which makes a lot greater distance to cover. My best guesstimate is that we’re talking in excess of a kilometer, minimum. It’s not hard to believe that the light could travel that far, but what we’ve got here is enough illumination of the atmospheric humidity to see it that entire distance, even capturing it in camera, which is much more impressive.

With some precise measurements at the time of the photo, especially with the beam being issued from two different known locations, someone much better at math than I could actually calculate the distance involved; I’m almost certain that too little can be derived from this particular image to do so. Still, I’m impressed, because that seems to be quite a range for the beam to remain visible. But there’s always the possibility that the shutter closed before the beam had gotten too far away…

Just for the sake of further trivia, that above statement remains possible, but to give an accurate idea, assuming that the beam was on the moment the shutter opened and the shutter was precisely ten seconds, a light beam could have gone to the moon and back better than three times – in ten seconds the beam would have traveled close to 3 million kilometers. Granted, its time within the atmosphere would have slowed the photons slightly, but that would only have been for a fraction of a second. I did not calculate the effects of local dark matter, however…

Storytime 49

The author dicking around in the dark
From a whopping 13 years ago, back when the continents were all different (well, they were,) comes to you this image from my very own darkroom, the last one that I had active. Over the years, I’ve had four darkrooms, actually, starting with my first (well, duh) in a spare closet back in NY, the only one without running water, but then the next three were all set up in bathrooms in apartments, two semi-permanently in half-baths – makes it easier than setting up and taking down everything. Here in the new house, there really isn’t the space for a semi-permanent one, but at some point I may tackle a temporary one; I’ve still done negative developing in a bathroom here, but no printing, which is what this image shows. Printing requires the enlarger and at least three trays to develop the print within, and running water sure helps. The running water is necessary for the negative bit too, but by that time the image is fixed and no longer light-sensitive so the developing tank can be carried to a sink anyplace.

I forget what I was illustrating with this, but the challenge was to see if I could get a usable image in the narrow confines of the half-bath, and the narrow settings of the camera, which was my Canon Pro 90 IS: fixed zoom lens, maximum shutter speed of 8 seconds. To give you an idea of the room size, the toilet is directly alongside my left leg, and one wall of the bathroom is just a wee bit behind my back. The sink and just-barely-adequate tray counter space are out of sight below the frame, while the camera itself sits on a shelf against the remaining wall. Overall, it came out fairly well, I think, and I even held reasonably still for the eight seconds.

The print I’m working on is another matter. First experiments showed that it was getting ridiculously overexposed in the eight seconds (in the digital image – I wasn’t actually exposing print paper here, just staging it,) and I wanted a discernible image in the easel, so I had to cut down the time that the enlarger was actually on and throwing the image down; for most of the exposure duration the enlarger is simply off, and that’s what gives the print image down there its sepia tone, because the red darkroom light is illuminating the background paper for a few seconds. I could easily correct it for accuracy, but then where would my story be?

This particular darkroom, however, was the best organized and laid out, despite the small size, and three different people had used it while it was set up: Jim from the Kansas branch had a couple of sessions, and The Girlfriend’s Sprog was using it while taking classes at school. I’m not going to make any comments regarding real B&W work, but darkrooms are a lot of fun and a whole different aspect of creating images, and for anyone that has the chance and is wondering if it’s worth the effort, I can answer that one easily: it is. Go do it.

Good morning Tycho!

It’s been a long time coming, but I finally got my timing down. Again, I mean.

waxing gibbous moon showing sunrise on Tycho's central peak
I’ve talked about this countless times now, but for those who have not seen any of the earlier posts, I’ve had a goal of catching sunrise on the central peak of the Tycho crater on the moon for a while now, and earlier this evening, just a little after sundown actually, I snagged it. Tycho is the prominently deep, but not too large, crater down near the bottom, the one with the little dot in the middle which is its 1.6-kilometer-tall central peak; it’ll catch the rising sun before the crater floor does, of course, and that spot of light against the shadow is what I was after.

Now granted, this is a little anti-climactic, given that I’ve captured it before without really trying, and didn’t even know it for years, but this is the first with a conventional camera and lens (the Tamron 150-600, of course.) And you can check out plenty of other posts under that first link above to see just how often I’ve tried, if you’re bored. But I was slightly prepared for this one, because I shot the moon last night and knew how far along the sunrise (or phase, from our perspective) was then.

half moon showing Arzachel prominently
Tycho is not even beginning to be illuminated here, but I know from mapping that it’s not far out of sight in the shadow. The notable crater with the central peak in this image, about a third of the way up from the bottom, is Arzachel. Don’t get the impression that I recite these from memory; I know a handful of craters by rough position, and everything else I determine from fantastic maps like this one. Full credit to the illustrators: each feature is shadowed as if by late lunar morning, so the craters and mountains can easily be discerned, which is hundreds of times better than, say, Google Earth’s version which shows all features at lunar noon from their perspective. This renders craters into indistinct circles, like those seen over at the right side on my images here. The shadows provide the shape and height and such, which is why (again) I say that full moons are far less interesting than any other time (well, except for new moons – they’re really boring, except at certain times.)

Even with the map, however, plotting moon features can be challenging, because perhaps a large portion of the moon is in shadow, reducing the number of ‘landmarks’ you can use, while the shadows or lack thereof can cause things to look very different from your guide source. I usually switch back and forth a bit between my images and a guide, comparing various visible features like lines of mountains and craters within craters and such.

animated gif showing difference in about 20.5 hoursBut then I had to do this, and it came out fairly well despite the difficulties. This is just the two images above overlaid, with faded transitions between the two, showing how much the lunar day has advanced in one full Earth day: not much. It’s not quite accurate, because the difference is 20.5 hours instead of 24, and for accuracy I should be out shooting the moon right at this moment but I’m not gonna. That’s the kinda sloppy journalism and illustrations that you’ve come to expect from me, and I see no reason to change now. And yes, it doesn’t look ‘perfect,’ because the two moons were actually oriented differently in the viewfinder because of this difference in shooting times, and I had to resize and reposition the two images to match, which is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds, PLUS, the moon wobbles a little (libration,) and there is no way to do a perfect match anyway – part of what you’re seeing are my errors, and part is simply this natural wobbling motion. You can also see a faint difference in exposure, especially if you look to the top right, and this is because the moon gets brighter as the phases advance, due to more sunlight reflecting directly rather than obliquely, and exposure times have to be adjusted to compensate. Again, I could have tweaked it in GIMP for a close match but didn’t bother. What you should be looking at is the changes in definition near the terminator; not just Tycho appearing, but other features becoming less distinct as the sun rises higher for them, shortening the shadows.

Yes, others have done entire lunar days in this manner, which takes a full month of photographs, some of which have to be done during Earth daylight or, you know, shot from above the atmosphere – I probably won’t tackle that aspect anytime soon, even though I am bereft of lunar projects now. But there are plenty of other craters and details I could be aiming for. For now, a quick comparison between the two images used here, this time full-frame as shot, so you can see the difference in angle that I had to correct for in the gif (pronounced “shuh-VON,”) and have a better inkling of what it looked like in the viewfinder as I was trying to nail sharpest focus.

two gibbous moons shot a day apart
Annnndddd one more little trivial bit. Last night when I was shooting the moon partially as a test, I tried out something else that’s been on my photographic plate – I mean, a figurative photographic plate – and got the answer that I needed. Not at all the one I’d hoped to get, but at least it’s a baseline data point.

faint image of M31 Andromeda galaxy at 600mm
The fuzzy blob you see here is the Andromeda galaxy, or M31 in Messier’s catalog, NGC224 in the New General Catalog. Andromeda can be found on a clear night with binoculars, if you know exactly where to look, and on rare occasions by unaided eye, but it takes optimal conditions and even then you may only see it peripherally, since peripheral vision tends to resolve fainter objects than our direct (foveal) vision. The faint lines all around are stars, moving slightly in the 3.2 second exposure and also faintly out of focus, because if you think the moon is hard to pin down precisely, try it on dim stars. I’d love to get a more detailed shot of Andromeda, but this image tells me that it will come only with the help of a tracking motor, to counteract the rotation of the Earth during a much longer exposure, and more likely also a good telescope. You’re not gonna see it before the year is out, is what I’m saying.

I was trying out this camera body at its highest ISO rating to see what it produced, which is why the image is so grainy, but actually, it’s better than expected in that regard – less so in the resolving-the-object one. But c’mon, Andromeda is 2.5 million light-years off! And so you know, this image was shot at 3.2 seconds, f6.3, ISO 6400, while the moons up there were shot at 1/50 or 1/60 second, f11, ISO 250. What this means in photographic terms is that this image of Andromeda captured just shy of thirteen thousand times more light than the moon shots. And it still looks like this. Bugger.

Okay, that was too much fun

The previous post was a couple days in the making, mostly because once I had the concept, I had to find the time to stage and shoot all the pics, but they were all done earlier today. And the tag about not being Photoshopped is absolute truth – I used GIMP instead. In fact, only one of them didn’t involve compositing; I’ll let you determine which one it was. In the process, I learned a couple of techniques that I’d known how to do in Photoshop but not in GIMP, so just reapin’ the benefits here.

A couple of little notes, because what’s a blog without meaningless trivia?

  • The first image looks the worst – I’d originally shot the lens and smutphone in the same frame to match lighting, but the phone was a little too far out of focus, so I reshot it. The composite could have been better, but you know, it was a nonsense post…
  • The same quarter was dubbed into two different frames, radically resized, for ‘scale.’ For the speakers and the earbuds, I had to edit out the wires.
  • The ‘HD Projector’ is actually just my angle-finder, a right-angle attachment to the camera eyepiece for those difficult shooting positions, propped up on a random piece of plastic.
  • You need to look close at the ‘CBD Oil,’ if you haven’t already. This one probably took the most time, because of the curved text.
  • The ‘flask’ was probably the easiest edit just to remove the power cord.
  • I really do have a knife that largely looks like that, and stays in the car. My pocketknife isn’t anywhere near as goofy-looking.
  • The selfie gun… well, I don’t have any firearms, and won’t, and this was the closest I could get (and yes, I do have a foam dart gun that the cats love.) Better, the ‘camera’ is some old MP3 player that I had, with the selfie-image dubbed in. All of these were self-shot, by the way, because I was alone when I had the time to play with the post. If you were sharp you noticed the lighting is all wrong.
  • The cooler was the beginning of the difficulties, to make that text angled properly. It’s easy enough to paste in any text that you want, but distorting it to reflect the apparent angle that it should display takes a little more. Mostly, I had to find the damn option in the menu, but all four corners of the text layer had to move independently to make it look right.
  • You can see the remote in my hand for the shirt shot. But believe it or not, I’ve never studied modeling at all – that’s pure instinct.
  • The nondescript software bundle actually shows Walkabout Studios in all their/its glory, vertical mouse, drumsticks, R2-D2 mug and all. But the screen was dubbed in, and I had a very eclectic collection of HTML, Javascript, and BASIC commands in that text – you just can’t make it out, dammit.
  • And the cutting board was almost ‘real,’ in that I was making duck soup at the same time that I was shooting the images, so I just added a couple of spinach leaves. The bloodstains were of course added in – I’m a much better cook than that – but the overturned wine glass kinda got lost in the mix. Just didn’t put in the effort that I should’ve.
  • So okay, it was all just lame sarcasm, a lot of effort for a joke, but thinking of the shots and the materials was a good exercise, or at least I consider it so. Had I been tasked with doing serious shots of this nature, naturally a bit more effort would have been put into the settings, lighting, and, you know, ironing, but for an idle idea, it came together fairly nicely. Every photographer should try some staged humor shots from time to time.

    Great deals to give me your money this season!

    Far be it from me to pass on any ridiculous trends, so I’ve decided to jump on the Frenetic Capitalism bandwagon this year and offer you some really really cool, super useful holiday items that you can order for all those hard-to-shop-for, gift-card-deserving people on your list. No, not that list, your gift list. For others. Or, you know, you can buy these for yourself – we don’t judge here.

    Here are the things that, apparently, everyone needs, all marked down for Cyber Wednesday to pass those exorbitant savings on to you.

    Clip-on Shit Lens for your smutphone – Because you didn’t overspend by a factor of seven on obtaining a device to destroy both your attention span and your ability to even read, now you can attempt to ignore the fact that you really should just be using a real goddamn camera. For just the cost of some overpriced sneakers, you can have some saccharin-tablet sized lenses to stack in front, never realizing that the lack of quality actually comes from using a sensor the size of a pimple. Was $164.99, now only $74.99

    Portable Bluetooth Speakers – MP3s are not compressed enough as it is – they become ever-so-much-more-so when played through a 14mm speaker that will last, oh, about 22 minutes with the tiny battery within. That’s okay, though, because you’ll still be annoying everyone around you with your personal music choices played publicly and tinnily because you won’t wear your earbuds. $69.99 $34.99. But wait!

    Really And For True Wireless Earbuds – We kid you not, there’s not a single wire in these! Not even surrounding the speaker magnet! This makes the battery really long-lasting! Which is good, because it’s tiny too, and if it were hooked to anything it would last about 37 minutes before dying. You will, of course, lose one of these when it falls from your ear someplace public, because taking the damn thing out when you’re not listening to music is more effort than it’s worth, and note, we don’t sell single replacements. So, multiply the price times five throughout the year. Formerly $129.99, now only $49.99

    The Smallest HD Projector Yet We Swear – What’s better than watching high-definition movies on a screen that comes nowhere near high-definition resolution, thus making you waste scads of memory in your smutphone? Projecting the same damn thing in low-contrast onto a sub-optimal surface! For the 23 minutes that the battery will last, of course – even moderately bright lights require power. But what better way to share some vapid video instead of, you know, sending the link to someone else’s phone? I’d love to hear it. $264.99 Price slashed to $84.99!

    “Now hold on, Al,” you say. “My life does not revolve entirely around my smutphone!” And perhaps you’re not lying to me, but the thing is, Google and Apple want it to revolve entirely around your smutphone, because that’s how they get all the data they’re selling to anyone and everyone. But okay, I hear you! Here are some other super cool, ultimately necessary items that you’ll want because I tell you that someone else has them!

    Something CBD – It doesn’t matter what, really, because it doesn’t do jack shit, but the placebo effect remains alive and well, and so does the concept of how cool weed is, because only the coolest kids in school were into it, remember? So now you can indulge in your teenage rebellion in the lamest and most ineffective way possible, without actually rebelling because it’s legal because see above about jack shit. Regardless, you can put this oil in, I dunno, vapes or gummy bears or Doritos or something. Marked down from $72.99 to only $34.98!

    Alcohol Flask Hidden in Some Damn Thing – Even more teenage rebellion here, as you get some liquor into someplace it’s forbidden, mostly because alcohol breeds assholes, and dog forbid you go without a buzz for a couple of hours, or find something to do that’s actually entertaining on its own. Whatever – it’s ‘Muricah, dammit! Fucking Alcohol! Alter your brain because you’re pathetic! And stick it to The Man by sneaking it past, um, The Man. $32.99 $28.99

    Badass Knife – You’re sure to be prepared for something that will never happen – zombie apocalypse, the downfall of civilization, some mugger dumb enough to let you try and dig out a weapon that you have no clue how to use – with this over-decorated, black and knobby knife that says “Tactical” on it. First Blood started this whole idea that with the right knife you can do anything, ignoring that a knife only does light cutting – packing tape, fishing line, and so on. Any other pursuit has a more proper tool that will work dozens of times better. But this isn’t a tool – it’s an ego-stroker. Now you won’t have any feelings of inadequacy with a knobby black knife that has a weak flashlight, a compass you don’t know how to use, and a snakebite kit built in! Plus it has a crosshairs etched on the side, because knives and crosshairs go together. Millions have bought this pigsticker at the regular price of $335.99, but today only you can get it for the low, low price of $174.99!

    Bang-Thingy Selfie Mount – Mount your smutphone or XtreemKoolDood action cam onto the end of your deadly toy so you can film yourself looking cool while making noise for no reason like a child. It even points away from the target that you keep missing, so no embarrassing evidence here! Includes a variety of filter apps, like scars or trickling blood or more of a five-o’clock shadow than you can manage. $129.99 $79.99

    Tenzing Cooler – Made with technology and engineered, so it has to work many times better than, say, a cooler costing less than a tenth of the price, because insulation is very complicated. But you’ve heard the buzz over the name, so you’ll pay the price, and imagination will do the rest. $379.99

    Outdoorsy Shirt – More buzzwords here, like “breathable” and “micromesh” and “carbon-fiber,” plus the idea that with this, you become fit, rugged, and totally not afraid to run to your car in the rain. It’s still just a shirt, and won’t last any longer than any other shirt, but there’s a cool logo others don’t have, and pocket flaps. At leading retailers for $119.99, we’re offering it here exclusively for $69.99!

    Professional Something-Or-Other Bundle – It’s time for a new career, but going to school is right out, so here’s a software bundle of instructional stuff that will clearly educate you enough to get into a high-paying job, because those don’t really require experience or advanced courses. Employers love seeing “self-taught” on a résumé! Get your life on track, whatever that means! (Even the losers in the race were on the track, but…) Was $789.99, now only $12.95!

    Some Cooking Kit – You want to learn how to cook, but simply doing recipes found online is too passé. We’ll send you stuff you still have to know how to cook, but don’t have to buy on your own, for a subscription fee, and include a complicated knife set even though you really only need three or four to do everything you could possibly want in a kitchen (or see Badass Knife above.) Best way to spend four times as much on food and still be just as disappointed. $49.99/month $29.99/month

    Supplies are limited and these deals won’t last, so click ‘Add To Cart’ for all of them to get your special holiday shipping rates! We guarantee that no one will think you’re a tool or influenced by misplaced hype! Don’t waste a single second!

    Happy Holidays!

    Why not throth?

    unidentified puffball fungus
    That’s the word that means, “all three,” right? You know, “both” for two, “throth” for three. Makes as much sense as just about anything else in English…

    Ignoring that, it’s the end of November, and so we come, reluctantly and with grave trepidation, to the abstract image. Except I couldn’t decide on which of the three (extremely weak) choices would make the cut, so we’re going with all three. This has nothing whatsoever to do with trying to set a new record of images posted in a year.

    [Which really isn’t too shabby – as of this post, we’re presently at 680-some-odd, and I say that because there’s a post in the works which will appear before this but I haven’t determined how many pics it will have yet – I’m doing the easier one to schedule it in. And while some posts are admittedly trivial, that’s still a lot of images for a year, so I don’t think I’ve been slack, or padding too much either. But then again, this is me saying it, you know, the most handsome and intelligent guy you’re likely to meet…]

    First up, already well out of sight up there now, is a collection of tiny fungi sprouting from a fallen limb, as they are wont to do, taken during an outing to Eno River that we’ve already seen a bunch of images from. In fact, all three were taken during the same outing, because I did more abstract (in the loosest sense of the word) images then that any other time of the month; later efforts were mostly leaves in autumn colors, and we’ve got posts dedicated to those already. And it gets a little close to that with the shot below, but it’s not really fall colors, is it? Could have been taken anytime.

    stark tree against unidentified clouds
    I couldn’t really define why, but I’m fond of the types of branches seen here, resembling tributaries of the main river, almost-random but with just enough symmetry to be efficient for the tree itself. The blue-and-white sky is merely icing. But yeah, I’d like better examples, naturally – this is just what I’ve taken this past month, so chill out. Sheesh.

    And then, a slightly bizarre one.

    snail trails through silt on rocks in bed of Eno River
    I don’t think I’ve ever seen such extensive examples of this, and I suspect it was a confluence of events and/or timing to find it, but what you’re seeing here (if you’re looking at the right bits anyway) are the trails of snails through the silt deposited on rocks in the riverbed, another mostly-random thing. I would have thought I’d see more of this, but somehow don’t, so I think either I caught a moment in time between the deposition and the snail-scouring, or the silt doesn’t settle like this often and the snail trails are thus much more obscure. It actually took me a while to find some snails in the act, and then I was shooting from above the surface, so there isn’t a lot to see, as much as you might have wanted to check out those frames. If you ask nicely, though, I’ll look into showing this in more detail, snails-eye-view as it were.

    You can never tell

    American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua leaves in autumn, backlit
    American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua in fall colorsDespite a lot of misgivings regarding the poor conditions leading up to autumn here, the colors actually developed halfway decently, and while I haven’t had a chance to go find some really nice forested areas, my local efforts have produced a pleasant showing as it is, with the potential of more to come. The droughts in late summer threatened to eradicate nearly all chances of bright colors, as trees were already turning brown and losing leaves far too early, but then we got a rainy season, several weeks of off-and-on rain, and it seems to have done the trick, so I’m adding this to my experience and predictions.

    Now, American sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) can usually be counted on anyway to produce something interesting, and we have a scattering of them in the area, and as seen above and at right, they get even more vivid when backlit, with the added emphasis that when viewing from this angle, the background is often shadowed. The Girlfriend isn’t very fond of them, and I don’t blame her because the gumballs are numerous and quite annoying on a lawn, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time chasing pics, and sweetgums are photogenic little trees for the entire leaf cycle, so I take the good with the bad, provided I don’t have to sprawl across a bed of gumballs very often. You might think this is an exceptionally rare occurrence, but my shooting habits dictate otherwise; I spend a decent amount of time on the ground.

    I also have to point out the performance of the oak-leaf hydrangea plants (Hydrangea quercifolia) in the yard, with a comparison from nine days ago.

    oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia in fall
    Above is how they appeared on the 20th, which I found distinctive enough, but they surpassed that handily.

    oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia in deeper autumn colorsSame plant, same exact branch, at only a slightly different angle, but with the benefit of the last vestiges of the rain giving some shine to the leaves. These really are cool plants, but it’s taken us a little to get them established, and they haven’t yet fleshed out a lot. Still, there will be another image coming.

    pin oak swamp Spanish oak Quercus palustris shedding fall leaves in a gust of windThe pin oaks, or swamp Spanish oaks (Quercus palustris,) develop some okay color, nothing too vivid, but they hang onto the leaves better and longer, and provide a denser backdrop, plus we have a good selection of them around here too. Out shooting yesterday, the occasional sharp gust of wind would cause a shower of the leaves and a pleasant rustling. Which reminds me of another factor that has helped the color this year: we’ve had no fierce storms. In years past, right as the colors would have been peaking, we’ve had strong storms with very gusty winds go through, and the combination of rain and wind would strip the trees bare, but this year the rains were gentle, the winds nothing enthusiastic, so the leaves stayed put better.

    What you see in the background there are the hated longneedle pines that are so prevalent in the area; I find them ugly, tending to be sparse except near the tops, and of course dropping those needles everywhere. The needles themselves fall like arrows and, as light as they are, pierce easily through the leaves of other plants like the oak-leaf hydrangeas, not damaging the leaves a lot but enough to make them spotty and virtually eradicate any pristine examples that I might be after photographically. Plus it’s a constant effort to clean the needles and pinecones (very painful to step on) from the yard. In this region at least, any vista that has trees at all is likely to be liberally strewn with the pines, which keep patches of that deep green interspersed with the fall or spring colors and limiting the impact of any scenic photos you might be after.

    variety of trees in various colors seen lengthwise along pond shoreBut here is a small trick, when you can find the conditions to exploit it. The pond’s edge was by no means bursting with color, or even a lot of trees, but when shooting down along it, the colors and foliage all compressed into a closer space, heightening the impact. To illustrate, the distance between the sweetgum (the color at the right edge of the bench) and the pin oak (the more yellow color at right center) was about fifty meters or more, with just short little trees without color change on them, but overall there’s enough in the frame to communicate the season quite well.

    And I’ll close with another from the oak-leaf hydrangea – same plant, the second of two main stems. I like the pic below for the colors, but the one above for the textures. And as I said, if I get a chance at any more colors, I’ll be back later on.

    oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia in vivid fall colors

    Storytime 48

    hibiscus blossom being ravaged by insects
    Today’s photo was taken during the New York trip, and was chosen to reflect the holiday yesterday – can you relate? There are at least five different insects working this hibiscus bloom over, though some of them may only be in it for the nectar. The Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) at top are most likely responsible for the damage to the petals, and to nearly every blossom on the bush. As indicated by the water drops, this wasn’t long after a morning rain, and I was ambling around the bush looking for promising abstracts and not finding too many blossoms that were intact and photogenic, so I settled on a prime example of the damages instead. It’s commentary on the transience of beauty or the subjectivity of the animal classes or some such thing. It’s commentary, anyway – that’s what makes it fartsy. It’s not deep unless there’s an obscure rationale behind it.

    “Turkey day,” yeah, right

    There is a large number of people and sources claiming today is Turkey Day, and so I got an early start and went out to the nearby pond to chase pics, hoping to expand my turkey images, which are fairly sparse. Alas, none of these sources seems to have the faintest clue, because there wasn’t a turkey to be seen anywhere, despite the wide variety of other avians lurking about. Never trust the media.

    rufous-sided or eastern towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus making brief appearanceSecond, at some point in the not-too-distant past I remarked about not being much of a bird photographer, so it seems only fitting that this year I’ve done a indisputable shitload of bird photos (notice that I never said they were good bird photos.) So yeah, never trust me either. Except for not missing any regularly-scheduled posts – that I can do.

    But yesterday’s rains and fairly decent temperatures this partly-sunny morning meant that the bird activity was prodigious, and I heard at least twice as many species as I photographed; some of them were just being difficult. Among them, a staple this time of year, was this rufous-sided towhee, or it seems eastern towhee is now preferred, which is a shame because there’s, like, an eastern everything, but how many rufous-sided species do you know of? Regardless, the scientific name hasn’t changed, and that’s Pipilo erythrophthalmus. Yes, that’s pretty distinctive too, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well – in fact it gets tangled up in there and makes you inadvertently spit when saying it. “Towhee” actually comes from the sound the bird makes, the easiest way to know they’re around since they tend to forage in the brush and foliage, but who knows where “erythrophthalmus” comes from? If it made that sound people would probably stay locked indoors more.

    Almost as secretive, today anyway, were the northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos,) which first prompted my awareness of them by noisily ripping up the pinoak trees for their acorns.

    northern mockingbird Mimus polyglottos snagging acorns
    Out near the ends of the branches, the leaves tended to be thick enough to obscure the birds unless I looked hard, and getting a nice photo of one was proving to be difficult. They were also being pretty territorial, chasing off the cardinals that were attempting to consume the same food, which was the only time either of them seemed to be vocalizing at all, curious because there were certainly enough other birds making a racket this morning.

    After chasing off a cardinal, one of the mockingbirds paused long enough to give me a stalker’s view.

    northern mockingbird Mimus polyglottos peeking from between leaves
    It took a few attempts to get those olive eyes to appear between the leaves, and be sharp enough to keep, but then soon afterward the same bird flew down to a mailbox to pose nicely against the fallen leaves on the lawn.

    northern mockingbird Mimus polyglottos in alert pose on mailbox
    The semi-resident Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were of course on hand, and believe it or not, we have a decent sampling of fall colors right now – more on that in a following post. So I was endeavoring to do what I could to add some zing into the frame, by choosing my vantage point carefully and using the reflections. Nothing elaborate, but better than the original view that I had as I approached.

    Canada geese Branta canadensis against reflections of fall colors
    I have enough photos of Canada geese, but hey, nothing else was posing so cooperatively; I found out yesterday that there seems to be a species of grebe hanging out at the pond now, but so far it has remained out of decent photographic conditions. However, someone else down there provided, with some reluctance, enough poses to flesh out the post a bit more.

    Canada geese Branta canadensis and great blue heron Ardea herodias facing off
    I was lucky enough to spot this great blue heron (Ardea herodias, and the only “great blue” anything that I know of,) before I got too close and spooked in into flight, so with some slow and careful approaches, I could again make use of the tree colors in the water, for a bit anyway.

    [Edit: I lied, as I discovered while adding the tags to this post. There is also a great blue skimmer, a species of dragonfly, and I must have been aware of this because it’s a tag that’s been used before.]

    great blue heron Ardea herodias against reflections of fall colors
    The heron was pretty cool until I crouched to change my angle, and it figured this looked too much like a predator getting ready to spring, is my guess. It flew off towards the other end of the pond, landing in the shallows further along my intended path. Fine; we’d just have to see if it remained put as I worked onward.

    It was actually more cooperative than any heron at the pond so far this year.

    great blue heron Ardea herodias perched in shallows
    The colors here weren’t ideal, but still enough to make it clear what time of year it was, anyway.

    Herons are funny. Lots of people walk their dogs around the pond, and there are more than a few spots where the dogs can have immediate access to the water, so the herons have every reason to be spooky, yet they tend to be more mellow than, for instance, central New York where the threats had to have been much less immediate. At the same time, I’ve seen the same species in areas of Florida where you could almost walk right up to them, so what, exactly, constitutes a threat to them remains to be seen. Today, at least, this one was less spooky than I often see around the pond, but not complacent either.

    great blue heron Ardea herodias perched on submerged piling
    I was able to circle around this one to view it from the opposite side, the bank that supports those trees in the previous photo, but then it flew off without any clear ‘threat’ from me.

    By the way, I’d noticed on my previous visit that the rains had driven the pond level high enough to submerge the old dock pilings at this end, but the heron demonstrated just how shallow the tops were under the surface, since it’s way too far out into the water to be at typical wading depth. I couldn’t see them at all, but the bird knew where they were.

    When it flew off, it headed back towards the end of the pond we’d both started from, and I could see from its altitude that it was likely heading for a tree perch, so I dismissed it and started watching for other subjects. In a few moments, however, the heron reappeared out over the water heading in the opposite direction again, passing me to take a perch in some pines on a small island. I had no decent view even though I could see roughly where it was from the landing behavior, so I moved on slowly.

    I’ll take this opportunity to mention that, for several minutes as I worked my way along, I could hear a belted kingfisher sounding off repeatedly towards the far end, and was plotting it aurally. Kingfishers are a target species of mine, because I have yet to get any images of them that I’m pleased with; they’re both hyperactive and spooky, and most times I only become aware of their presence when I’ve scared them from their perch and sent them, chattering excitedly, well away from me. So as I ambled on, I kept listening, and steering in its direction. Also while watching for the heron.

    As I began getting a clearer view in that general direction, I started searching for the great blue again. If you’ve never tried it, tracking birds in this manner goes like this: you may get a good idea of where the bird landed, but it’s obscured in some way by intervening foliage, so you change position to try and find a gap to see through. This can change perspective and angle, and very often introduces new foliage to block your view, but sometimes requires a significant difference in direction. You may have been pretty sure that the bird was along a particular line of sight, but as you move, you have to try and triangulate when you never knew for sure where along that line the bird was in the first place. The result is searching hard for something that you know is in a particular vicinity, but not exactly sure where, and not even sure if you can get a clear view from your new positions. And it doesn’t help that the bird may see you coming and decide to vacate its position, which you may or may not be able to witness as it occurs.

    As I got to a nice gap in the trees closest to me, I was more under the heron’s landing spot, and a good sixty or more degrees off the original angle; I saw something, and I suspected it was the heron, but couldn’t be sure even with the 100-300 lens. The image at right is full-frame, and about what I could discern in the viewfinder. No telltale curve of the neck, no beak, no legs, so was it the heron, or a stump? Was I looking up under its tail? I really just fired off a few frames to do what I’m about to show you, which is to magnify and crop the image to make out details that were not visible at the time.

    great blue heron Ardea herodias keeping a wary eye on the photographer
    Yeah, I was right this time, but unaware that the heron was now keeping a sharp eye on me, tired of my slow-motion shenanigans – you can just see the beak extending straight up from the top of that ‘stump,’ and the eyes making their bare appearance past the intervening twigs.

    About this time, the kingfisher broke from cover very close to me and flew around in a broad curve, and this was to be the pattern for the next few minutes. I at least had the advantage that it simply couldn’t shut its beak for twenty seconds at a time, something that I’ve never witnessed before. Usually they only make noise like that when they’ve been spooked from cover, but I’ve noticed it just when flying to new perches, so it seems to be a territorial thing too; why, today, it was being so freaking noisy I cannot say, but I’ll put it down to the large number of other birds sounding off on their own, none of them posing either a threat or feeding competition to this particular species, so, you got me.

    By the way, while we’ve already seen mockingbirds in this post, kingfishers are the ones that by all rights should possess that name, in my experience, because their raucous chattering call, announcing that they are now eliminating any chance I had of getting a decent view, is just kind of rubbing it in.

    But at one point, just when I thought it had left the immediate area and I had turned back to the heron, the kingfisher came straight in towards me and alighted on a branch not very far off, in full view yet directly backlit by the hazy sky. All I was going to get was a silhouette, but I’d take it, especially since its distinctive crest and large beak were highly visible. The trouble was, I was in plain sight too, and had to turn about 90 degrees and raise the camera, which the kingfisher simply didn’t take to, as slow as I tried to accomplish it, and soon flew off. While I figured it would be gone for good, it actually skipped around the area more times, never coming as close, but as I changed position I thought I might get lucky and snag a decent view.

    It was not to be, however, just as it wasn’t to be with any of the woodpeckers that I knew were in the immediate vicinity just a tad earlier, as I was rounding on the heron down on the pilings, but never got more than a fleeting glimpse of. Like I said, lots of species around announcing their presence, but not posing in open sight. And no turkeys.

    great blue heron Ardea herodias still not quite clear
    I managed a slightly better perspective on the heron, but not as clear as I would have liked, and within seconds of this frame it took flight again, this time staying well out of my range, but I couldn’t complain (well, if you know me, you know I damn well can and will, but what I’m saying is I shouldn’t.) It wasn’t a bad session for some casual shooting, without even taking the longest lens with me – I’d mostly been after fall colors and the play of sunlight and residual raindrops – and another post will be coming from the same session very shortly. I know this is now posting late in the day on Thanksgiving, despite having started it much earlier – got involved in other things somehow – so I’ll close by saying that I hope everyone had a decent day, didn’t get too embarrassed by their families or anything, and weren’t/aren’t stupid enough to get into that whole shopping-frenzy, runaway-consumerism thing. Cheers!