Daily Jim pic 7

torrent in Yellowstone Park
And so we move on to Yellowstone Park, and a torrent in an as-yet-unidentified river. That stark dead tree is a strong element, but notice that it’s actually two trees, and the grey one contrasts nicely against the deep green of the background trees while the smaller still-living one sets off against the water.

However, I’ll never forgive Jim for not getting a bear catching a salmon in the shot. Never mind that he didn’t have that kind of time to spend waiting. Or that this river is likely way the hell too far inland to host salmon. And it’s the wrong time of the year. And whatever other factors would prevent this scenario from occurring. A pic like this needs a bear catching a salmon. No it’s not trite or clichéish. Shut up.

Daily Jim pic 6

long-dead stump at edge of lake with Grand Tetons in background
This is probably my favorite of Jim’s Tetons compositions, a nice use of the foreground stump mimicking the background mountain in roughly 1/13776 scale. I am guessing this is Jackson Lake, which fronts the Tetons from most of the public access areas.

I’ll take a second to talk about composition here, because I would also have liked to have seen a slight variation of this, from a smidgen to one side, so the stump took up the left foreground, for instance, and the mountain the right background, instead of directly in line; just a little diagonal emphasis. Whether you agree with this assessment or not, it’s always good to play around with variations in composition with strong elements, to see what can be done with them and how different something looks with minor changes (and this is not to say that Jim didn’t – this is just what he sent me.)

By the way, imagine what this would have looked like had the water been perfectly still and reflecting the mountains. In an area like this, I suspect that finding a day without any breeze at all could be very challenging, but those are the kind of conditions that you watch for, knowing what they can do for your images. Or a low-level fog of course. Or a volcanic eruption…

Of course of course of course of course

Poking around in the yard late last, I was silently lamenting the fact that the mantises (as well as nearly all other critters of interest) seemed to have moved on – it’s been days since I’ve seen any sign of them, but I’m not at all surprised, because the hot and dry weather has been taking its toll on the plants and so the favored lairs of the mantids are not very impressive right now. But then I spotted a juvenile Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) hanging out on the tall unidentified grasses that populate the backyard.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis with green eyes at night
Curiously, however, its eyes were green; they’re usually black at night, at least once they get past a few weeks old. In fact, the only time I’ve seen a mantis with green eyes at night was the one that was about to molt. Aha! I hadn’t yet captured the beginning of this process, when the split appears along the back and the mantis begins working its way out of its old exoskeleton. Leaping into action, I rushed inside to get the macro rig, which involved finding out I only had one set of charged batteries, and so I had to run the AC power source for the flash unit, and this took a little time. I readily admit, it’s pretty ludicrous what we allow ourselves to get anxious over; I can be fairly mellow in traffic, but agitated over the idea of missing this item on my photo list because I wasn’t prepared. However, by the time I got ready, the mantis was still in the same position and showing no signs of impending molt, beyond what I’d already seen.

While doing all this, I noticed another mantis less than a meter away, this one showing the fashionable eye color of the season.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis with dark eyes
So, I got a chair out and got comfortable. Every few minutes, I would turn on my headlamp, using the less obtrusive green mode, and check progress, and then turn it off and sit patiently in the dark as my watch counted down the three minute intervals.The second mantis was slowly meandering around the plants, while the first remained head down and largely motionless, though occasionally displaying a tiny fidget as if the slideshow presentation was starting to run too long. I took this to mean that it was trying to induce the first break in its chitin and begin the emergence.

Eventually I lengthened the intervals to four minutes. After a while of this, I lengthened the wait between checks still further to ten minutes, allowing myself to go inside and get something else done. And yet, with each check, nothing at all had changed. After two hours, I was beginning to get seriously tired and knew I couldn’t stay awake much longer. I was quite aware that the checks with the headlamp might have been spooking the mantis, making it think that the conditions weren’t safe enough to molt in, but then again, it hadn’t moved either; I would have thought that, if it didn’t feel safe, it would move to another location rather than just wait it out. And what else was I going to do? I had no idea how long after they show the first signs that a mantis typically begins to molt – I just know that I’ve missed the crucial point before (see that link above.) Take too long between checks, and I could easily miss that opening stage. Yet, the mantis looked completely unchanged from when I’d first spotted it two hours previously.

juvenile Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis still not molting
But there’s a limit, and I’d reached mine for that evening. I packed up the kit and went in to get some sleep. First thing the next morning (actually, that same morning, since I’d wrapped up after 2 AM and we’re still on the same day as I type this,) I went out to check on my model, which was, of course, nowhere to be seen. I half-expected to find the molted exoskeleton attached to the same leaf, but it wasn’t there either – until I spotted it resting on the leaves below. So much for patience and dedication winning out in the end.

molted exoskeleton of Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis
Now a bit of perspective. While waiting, I would occasionally glance around at the surrounding plants, and shot a few pictures of juvenile katydids on the plants opposite the mantis. Atop one leaf, a meadow katydid (tribe – yes, tribeConocephalini) sat facing away from me in too awkward a position to try and photograph. However, as I decided to give up on the mantis, I took one last peek around, and what I believe to be the same katydid had moved to the underside of the leaf and was well along in its own molt.

meadow katydid Conocephalini in late stages of molt, drawing antennae free with its mouth
Now, the brilliant and translucent green of the new exoskeleton is enough to make this image, but there’s an additonal detail that’s pretty cool: it’s using its mouth to draw the antennas free from the molted chitin, not particularly surprising given how ridiculously long the antennae are. But yeah, the whole time I was watching the mantis without any progress at all, this one had taken up position and nearly completed its own molt. I’m guessing this one is a male, and the mantis a female…

And yes, after doing several shots of this one, I did not neglect one final check on the mantis. You were hoping for a little irony there, weren’t you? But no, just frustration, though I can’t discredit the katydid pics at all. At least I got something out of the efforts…

Daily Jim pic 5

Cloud formation within Grand Tetons National Park, with lake and sunflowers
Knowing that Jim went through Yellowstone, it’s easy to imagine this is the after-effect of a geyser – but if the notes are correct, this isn’t from Yellowstone and, given the apparent distance, it would had to have been one hell of a geyser. Instead, I suspect he just captured a curious cloud formation while at the edge of a lake in Grand Teton National Park.

Or it could be smoke signals of injuns on the warpath. Always good to keep an open mind, as I am frequently told (by people whose idea of an open mind is uncritically accepting what they want me to accept, generally.)

As crass as it is to point this out to anyone who might not have noticed it, it’s good to see that I’m not the only one who occasionally shoots without the camera being perfectly level. I honestly think it’s how Canon cameras sit in your hands…

Well, would you look at that?

The time has been getting away from me, it seems. I have suddenly discovered that this Friday, July 28th, is National Treat A Nature Photographer To Dinner Day. Yes, it’s the day when we show our appreciation of all the stunning natural images, interesting behavior, or grotesque closeups that only nature photographers can provide us. It should be more than one day a year, really, when we consider how often we see such photos in our daily lives, but you know, nature photographers are a pretty low-key and unobtrusive lot, and as a whole wouldn’t dream of drawing such attentions to themselves, even as deserved as it is.

So seek out the nature photographer that you know and take them out to a nice dinner someplace. Or, if you know of none locally, you can always, like, buy one of their prints in appreciation. I’m sure you can find a way to make a simple cash donation too, especially if they provide a handy link on their site someplace, like on the sidebar of the blog or wherever. It’s just a small token, really, but totally worth it for the warm feelings that it will foster within you.

Daily Jim pics 3 and 4

Grand Tetons in Wyoming seen across lake
Jim sent me several variations of these mountains, and I was having a hard time deciding which of them to feature, not really wanting to do a series of days of the same subject, but I liked the difference between these two images so I’m doing a double feature. These are the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, one of the more distinctive mountain ranges in the US. Take a moment to absorb the atmosphere here before moving on. I’ll wait.

Have you established the image in your mind? Good. Now let’s see the next one.

Grand Tetons in Wyoming in distance across prairie
So, does this seem to have an entirely different mood to it? It does to me, and even though I know they were taken on the same day less than a half-hour apart, they appear very strongly to be different seasons. Can you figure out why? Again, I’ll wait.

In the first pic (which was actually the latter one chronologically,) there’s more of a blue color cast and the contrast is lower. This is possibly due to cloud cover in the immediate vicinity, muting the colors of the foreground trees and lake, or possibly due to the Auto White Balance setting of Jim’s camera, having to adjust color palette based on what appears within the frame. Or both. The thing is, it’s the kind of conditions we expect from winter, and there being only conifers in the image doesn’t serve to counter this idea at all – the image just looks cold. It would be easy to think that the snow on the mountain contributes, and it might, but the same snow is visible in the second pic too. That one, however, has plenty of green, and higher contrast bright light, and even more blue sky. There’s even a hint of wildflowers, though they’re subtle enough to escape first impressions I believe (at least at this resolution.) But they don’t seem at all out of place, either. It illustrates what a difference some subtle factors can make.

By the way, Jim didn’t give me any extra info on these either – my knowledge of them comes from the EXIF info embedded in the files, a useful way of determining camera settings. One of the things not listed is the exact location, and I’m curious to know how far displaced these two images are, because I can see some subtle angular differences in the mountain faces and know there’s a notable separation – a few kilometers is my estimate, but these were shot at a slightly short/wide focal length and so appear further off than they actually were. If I were a serious badass with Google Maps I could probably figure it out, but we’ll see if Jim pops up to tell us.

And there will be at least one more Teton photo coming, mostly because I like it a lot, but also because I know what “Teton” means and have to giggle while I post them.

Daily Jim pic 2

Curious rock face in Wyoming, by James L. Kramer
That white line is from an ancient snow fall many centuries ago, that got trapped within sediment before it had a chance to melt, and thus fossilized. It’s pretty rare.

Okay, remember what I said before? Yeah. I have no idea what created this geology, but it could be a cool story. Not as cool as mine, though…

Sunday slide 30

unidentified blossoms over concourse in Watkins Glen, NY
While I’d visited Watkins Glen State Park in central NY while growing up there, it was always before I was active in photography, and after moving away from the state in 1990, I’d had it in the back of my head to return and do some serious photography there. The chance came during a visit in 2006, a day that turned out to be overcast and faintly drizzly. Moreover, I had flown up and was unable to take a tripod with me, so couldn’t pursue the type of fartsy blurred water shots that I wanted to. I really didn’t shoot a lot during that trip, though I made attempt to put together some decent compositions as I went – at least one other may sneak in during these Sunday posts. For this one, I framed the blossoms of an unidentified flowering tree against what little view of the river that I had.

This is one of the problems with visiting scenic areas and landmarks for the purpose of photography. Often, you have a narrow time period to work within, and may simply not get the conditions that will allow for great photos – the weather or lighting may not cooperate, or the foliage is less than optimal, or the crowds prevent decent views, and so on. Ideally, you want to time your trip for the best conditions you can achieve, and then spend several days or even a few weeks in the vicinity to be able to work with variety in weather and times of day and so on. But that’s pretty hard to arrange, and unless you can sell the resulting images for hundreds of dollars, also hard to justify. So most of us have to settle for having a fair amount of luck, and there wasn’t much with me that day. I ended up shooting a lot more when I visited the wildlife refuge on a different day during that visit.

But how? Part 24: You’re just rebelling

This is another one that I’ve broached a few times before, mostly superficially, so I figured it was time to provide the full treatment, especially since it’s one of the arguments that’s been directed at me personally. So while it does nothing to explain a world with no god, it is an argument that’s been used thousands of times to bolster belief, despite the fact that it provides nothing relevant to belief in the first place. Regardless, we’ll address, Atheists are just rebelling against god/authority. And boy, is there a lot to address!

First off, it bears recognizing that such an argument is nothing but pop psychology at best – in my experience, there rarely (if ever) appeared to be any traits presented that would support such an accusation of superficiality, and few atheists are incapable of presenting a variety of distinctive and reasoned arguments in favor of their worldview. It’s irrational to evaluate someone’s personality based on, for instance, an acrimonious forum comment, even if it’s emotional and lacking in detail, since we can’t expect all comments to provide a complete list of supporting factors. Just because someone hasn’t provided their reasoning doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and of course, judging anyone (about anything) based on minimal exposure to them is both condescending and ignorant. Take a moment, if you like, to savor the irony of calling someone petulant or shallow over such exacting criteria…

Personally, however, I’ve come close to admitting that there might be a grain of truth to the accusation, since in more than a few circumstances I do challenge authority, and am honest enough to question my own subconscious motivations as well. Yet, saying that someone questions authority is one of those tricks of horoscopes, since just about everyone does this at one point or another, especially if a politician that they don’t like makes it into office. And at the same time, you can also point out to anyone that you meet that they’re, on the whole, pretty forthright and law-abiding, and not be met with any resistance over this either. I am quite sure more than a few people that I’ve worked with would tell you that I’m too straitlaced; it all depends on perspective, and how you phrase the question.

Going a little deeper into this aspect of it though, questioning authority is not necessarily a bad thing; critical examination of how such power is used is the very thing that keeps it in check, since we’re all well aware of how commonly it’s abused; it’s not exactly hard to find plenty of advice along these lines, as well as the active contempt towards those who blindly follow some form of authority despite evidence that it’s not going to turn out well. References to “sheep” are common here (and yes, we’ll take a second to nod towards the common use of “flock” among the religious, just for giggles,) and we shouldn’t forget that a faithful adherence to authority in the face of common sense is pretty much how a cult is defined, and not just religious cults. “If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” “Of course – I’m not a rebel…”

Then we come to what anyone might mean by authority in the first place, one of those terms that is used blithely without recognizing that the definition is, as often as not, personal. If any atheist doesn’t believe in a god, then it’s rather obvious that there is no authority there to recognize, any more than anyone yields to the authority of any fictional character; to call this “rebellion” is being ridiculously overdramatic, and I have little doubt that there is a certain manipulative influence in the choice of the word at least some of the times it’s used. When we hear the phrase, “rebelling against authority,” we tend to think of a kneejerk reaction to all forms, teenage frustration applied without consideration, which is of course a far cry from questioning authority, or every other manifestation outside of blind obedience or blind rejection. Assessing a situation accurately, however, isn’t nearly as self-aggrandizing…

[One must wonder if all of those, the world over, who fail to follow the accuser’s particular god are all rebels. How does this work, exactly? Do they get a free pass because, as wrong as they are, they’re still trying to follow some god? Are allowances made for culture, or majority following? What ‘authority’ is in use here?]

And so, we now get to another meaning of “authority,” one most often used in cases such as, “leading authority,” or, “an authority on cultural paleontology.” Science in and of itself is a form of authority, or to be more concise, a method that garners confidence in its findings based upon how rigorously it examines them. That’s why we bother to learn anything: to know how something works, to use accurate predictions of behavior and results to our advantage. And that is, surprise surprise, exactly what we expect from any given authority. The whole purpose is to have someone (or some abstract ‘body’) that we defer to because they know more than us. And to the great misfortune of religion, just about every one of our defined sciences demonstrate that damn near everything we consider a religion in the first place is just fucking wrong. You might think I’m being harsh, but the recognition is rampant even among the religious, from the oft-repeated mantras that ‘faith’ is important and god works in mysterious ways and so on, to the very concept of supernatural, somehow separate and unrelated to ‘natural,’ to even the efforts of moderate religious folk to distance themselves from fundamentalists, the ones who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old and fossils are satan’s sucker bait. The reason that there’s so little cohesiveness within religion (much less even one religion the world over, which we should reasonably expect,) is that everyone hits a point where they simply have to admit, “All right, that’s just batshit.” Atheists simply find that point is religion in the first place, in most cases because the authority that they follow is the tried-and-tested collection of hard evidence; it beats the hell out of believing something because everyone in the immediate vicinity does, or because it’s repeated so often. By that token, atheism is the least rebellious approach towards the strongest and most dependable body of evidence in existence. So uh, yeah, perspective…

I’m not going to neglect an aspect of the topic mentioned right at the beginning, which has a different spin: that of rebelling against a god itself. This one gets a bit weird, because it implies that the accused does believe in god, which isn’t exactly a working definition of atheism. And rebelling against an omnipotent being would probably not be the best of moves, since the ability to enforce its authority is, well, infinite. But if such a being really wanted obeisance, it could instill it right within its own creation, poof, no force or coercion or even demonstrations of evidence needed. So obviously, the option to not recognize its authority was intended, the whole free will thing, even when most religions describe dire consequences of not obeying, so the game that is being played here is yet to be defined. Now, I understand how someone could find fault with authority, and could for instance believe in a god but still think its doing some bad shit (and too many examples of scripture support this attitude remarkably well,) but outright denial of existence? That’s borderline mental illness, at least. Even the furious child who shouts, “You’re not my real parents!” isn’t in denial of said parents’ existence, just their status – obviously, or there would be no one to actually shout at, right? So, let me see if I understand this: such an accused atheist would be on board with the idea of this omnipotent being, but somehow believe that if he/she denied the existence, any potential consequences would be rendered nonexistent? Like a god needs recognition of their power for it to be effective?

Which is where this gets a little deeper, because that’s all that religious authority is, even by the tacit admission of religious folk themselves. If you fail to recognize authority, it has no actual influence on you. Granted, there can be consequences, as you’re thrown in jail for tax-evasion or lambasted for eating Cheez-Whiz with Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, but that’s merely an attempt to enforce an authority, which may or may not spur recognition of such. And when it comes to religious folk, there’s a vast majority that know such divine retribution isn’t forthcoming, which is why they have to take things into their own hands, or even decry these rebels in the first place. It’s remarkably easy to live one’s life without deference to any religion whatsoever, and nothing changes. Atheists do not suffer any more, or less, misfortune, misery, lightning strikes, plagues, animal attacks, or floods than anyone else – and neither do the followers of any religion, much to the dismay of countless religious martyrs; that word wouldn’t even exist if it were otherwise. The world goes on, almost as if simple physics is the only thing at work.

Finally, even if it could be established that atheism was completely and solely due to such a rebellious attitude, it’s still a form of unevidence; it does not strengthen any claim of a god’s existence in any way. In practice, however, it’s often much worse, when it’s used to be entirely dismissive of atheists and any argument they might present, rather than addressing the topic at hand. I’ve often said that people aren’t good or bad, just particular actions that they take, and by extension, people aren’t irrational, but arguments certainly can be. However, if someone can be labeled irrational, then any argument they put forth by extension must be too, and so there’s no need to discuss it, right? That appears to be the attitude very often, on topics much more varied than religion, but it does seem to imply a certain desperation from those presenting it, likely unwilling or unable to discuss the matter on normal terms. And even though this is borderline pop psychology in itself, how often is it used to turn the tables, to try and put an atheist on the defensive when the debate isn’t going as well as hoped? How often is it a manifestation of the second form of competition, where one doesn’t try to improve their own standpoint/value, but tears down others so their own looks better by comparison?

So while it might be nice to be dismissive of an entire worldview in the belief that it’s just due to childish petulance, it’s probably better to at least look for evidence of such, first. Or better still, to make value judgments on ideas and actions, rather than people.

Illustration and editorial

The photos in this post were all taken during a brief outing to the NC Botanical Garden back in late April – I was planning to do a detailed post, with a lot more images, and just never got on top of it. So I’m simply going to feature one aspect here. This male southeastern five-lined skink (Plestiodon inexpectatus) was aware of my presence, but I held still long enough that it determined I wasn’t enough of a threat and resumed its patrol for ants. During the pause, however, I was able to do a couple of pics with different settings.

Male southeastern five-lined skink Plestiodon inexpectatus posed on tree trunk against foliage and sky
The image above was shot with the Mamiya 80mm macro wide open at f4, so the shortest depth-of-field that the lens could provide (at that focal distance, at least – had I been closer, I could have shortened it considerably, because that’s how lenses and magnification works.) I draw your attention to the background, which you may not have consciously noted or thought about; that’s kinda the idea, because it’s defocused enough not to be distracting, even though a moment’s examination indicates that there’s a bit of complication back there. Our eyes, however, are always drawn to the sharpest part of the photo, so the fuzzy bits can pass without real notice.

It can be different though.

Male southeastern five-lined skink Plestiodon inexpectatus posed on tree trunk against foliage and sky
Only a second or so later, I shot the same framing at f11 instead, and we can easily see the difference in the background – and even the foreground trunk. Without the first image to compare it to, anyone might have found this worked just fine, but in comparison it’s obvious that the first is a whole lot better. Not only is there detail now that makes the entire image a bit ‘busier,’ the increased sharpness also increased the contrast, making the photo seem harsher. In fact, I compared these back and forth numerous times, thinking that the skink itself was higher in contrast, but it’s not really, or not by more than a tiny fraction; just being close to the more-contrasted background made me, at least, carry over that trait to the subject itself without warrant.

Now look at the back end of the skink in both photos. You can see that the first at f4 didn’t even get the entire reptile in focus, and this is part of the tradeoff, most especially in macro work but often visible in other circumstances. We’d like the background to be perfectly defocused, but the subject to be sharp throughout, and many times this just isn’t possible. Also, with a very short depth-of-field, it can sometimes take only a minor twitch in position or focus travel (for instance, the camera being uncertain which part of the subject we were really trying to focus upon) to ruin sharp focus on a key element. While I achieved what I was after with the top image, I have a couple of others (okay, had – they’re discarded now) that missed critical focus by a few millimeters, simply through my inability to hold inhumanly still during the whole short session. Which is why I often take a lot of frames of subjects like this, because it’s very easy to miss.

Male southeastern five-lined skink Plestiodon inexpectatus offering its opinion of the photographerBy the way, I’ve watched species like this countless times over some fairly long periods, hoping to capture images of them feeding – they primarily like ants, but will snag many kinds of small insects. I’ve never been truly successful, though on occasion I’ve captured the aftermath when I’ve been too slow. This one apparently knew what I was waiting for, offering its opinion of my patient efforts if you look very closely…