You don’t know danger

green treefrog Hyla cinerea backlit on pickerelweed Pontederia leafThere are a few people, it seems, who imagine wildlife photography to be kind of a rough-and-tumble business involving forbidding locales and exposure to challenging and sometimes dangerous encounters with fauna. To those people I only want to say, “You’re absolutely right!” While out capturing the images within this post, I was better than ankle-deep in some muck that could have sucked my sandals clean off, had I not been careful, and there was even a chance of being stung by a bee, perhaps more than once. And there was no one within, oh, about two hundred meters or so. The walk back to the car alone, at the edge of a shopping center parking lot, was a good thirty meters through poorly-cut weeds. Uphill.

Anyway, this was a brief side trip, actually back in September, a few days before this post featuring images from the same excursion (it sounds so much better using the big words than when I say I just stopped at the pond on my way past to see what was happening.) But for a casual check on conditions, I shot over 160 frames in 35 minutes and I couldn’t begin to tell you how many individuals I saw; more than I initially thought at least, since the second image in the previous post came from the same day. Safe to say it was busy down there.

When I say, “casual,” it means I didn’t bother with the versatile macro flash rig and was primarily shooting in existing light, which reduced the number of options and keepers from the session, largely because the breeze was quite stiff and pickerelweed stems are fairly tall; movement was a constant issue, and to keep the shutter speed up I was shooting at larger apertures most often, which kept the depth of field pretty limited at these magnifications. And this is more magnified than it might seem, because all of the green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) that I breathtakingly encountered were juveniles, this year’s brood, and so about half the body length of adults; this means an average of about 25mm. You can easily see the net effect here, with the eyes and foretoes sharp while the hind end of the body has already gone well out of focus.

Treefrogs need to stay moist, so they don’t like direct sunlight or hot days, which meant that most of the ones I saw were staying to the shady side of the leaves at least, but more often even well down into the thicket of stems, reducing the available light even more. Still, the color tends to be richer in the natural light images; you can compare natural light and flash with the photos in this post, from the same location. And while the selective focus has to be pinned down on the eyes most often – we’re put-off by not seeing the eyes sharp in a photo – it does lend a somewhat surreal look to the rest of the image.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea drowsing on pickerelweed Pontederia
Treefrogs are primarily nocturnal, so they spend most of the day snoozing in safe locations. It was midday and many of my subjects, while aware of my presence, allowed me a close approach as long as I did so slowly, but perhaps half just didn’t want me around and jumped away to more distant leaves. Thus the variety of the images that I snagged was limited, and pretty typical of the daytime poses. On a couple of occasions, though, I caught something a little more interesting, like two of them sharing the same leaf side-by-side.

two green treefrogs Hyla cinerea sharing the same pickerelweed Pontederia leaf
Mated pair? Siblings? The latter is somewhat likely, given the large number of eggs that got deposited in the pond and the same general age of the individuals, but since these are under breeding age the chance of them being romantically entwined is virtually nil. Frogs also don’t have the social structures that we have and no particular reason to hang out together (“You like mayflies? I like mayflies!”) so I’m more inclined to put this down to just happening to settle on the same leaf when it came time to catch a few winks. It’s rare enough to see that I had to go in closer and do a portraity shot (spellcheck doesn’t like that word.)

two green treefrogs Hyla cinerea being abstract
Remember what I said about keeping the eyes sharp, and about short depth of field? Yeah, imagine trying to get the camera lined up just right, with the image plane (essentially the back of the camera) equidistant from the eyes of both of these spuds, while the wind was blowing, and without disturbing them. Standing in muck and awkwardly aiming down from above the leaf, without touching it or any neighboring leaves which would set up warning vibrations. I’ve said it before: macro work can occasionally make you ache in muscles you never realized you had. You might have heard the saying that good artists suffer for their art, but at the very least, even mediocre ones make you suffer through listening to them pursuing it…

Later that same evening, as they also say (probably not the same ‘they,’ but anyway,) I found another of the same species in the even more exotic and intrepid locale of the backyard fence, even if this one is notably darker than the others. Since we don’t see too many green treefrogs in the immediate vicinity I’ve been pleased to spot several this year, and this one posed much more dynamically for me, possibly because it was dazzled by the headlamp and really couldn’t tell what I was doing.

green treefrog Hyla cinerea poised alertly on fence
At nearly 11 PM the flash was a necessity, and I could use f16 and get a better focus range, while the conditions let me get in even closer for the best portrait of the bunch. Or at least I think so, though others may have a different opinion. They’d be wrong, but that’s still allowable…

Spotted frogs

As promised, I am back to reveal where the frogs are, but just in case you’re late to the game and haven’t seen the original challenge, it can be found here, while the remainder of this post will continue below the fold.

Continue reading “Spotted frogs”


Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True is fond of posting readers’ photos with some animal camouflaged within and challenging everyone to “spot the [blank].” I never submitted these photos to him, but as a lead-in to further images of the species, I’m going to host my own challenge, with the keyword being “frog” (as if the title of the post left you hanging.) The first isn’t too difficult, but if you find yourself needing help, you can click on the image to open a larger version in another tab.

title says it all
There is a little bit of curious trivia concerning both of the photos in this post, but it’ll wait until I provide the follow-up, where I will also reveal the targets.

But if you felt that the first one was too easy, this next one should wipe that smug grin from your face, using higher contrast and a much more complex scene to sadistic advantage.

title says it all
So have at it, and I will be back in a bit with the reveal.

Things are looking down

Once again, like clockwork – or I guess calendarwork is the more accurate description – we find ourselves on the verge of National Grouch Day, which is this Saturday; that’s October 15th for those of us who are days-of-the-week-challenged. Whoever was responsible for this could have scheduled near the first day of school, or the day after the idiotic Daylight Saving change, or when income taxes are due, or at the very least the first Monday of something, but noooo, just “middle of October.” It’s this kind of lack of foresight that screws things up regularly.

The one bright spot to all of this is that virtually no one knows it’s coming, so when we begin reluctantly trying to foster the sentiment among others, they can respond genuinely without forewarning – there’s nothing worse than a fake grouch, not even those horrible grimaces that are produced when everybody is lined up for a group portrait at work. The optimum effect is achieved when you catch someone having a good day (I apologize for the coarse language) and can crash them down here with the rest of us, but who I am kidding? That kind of shit never works; it’s probably not even worth trying. But just to get my own thing going, I once again present a list of things you can attempt to help, not celebrate, but at least recognize the day, fully realizing myself that no one’s going to try or even be reading this goddamn post. I’ve done this, not once, but twice before, and people were still as upbeat and cheerful as ever when the 15th rolled around so, yeah, thanks to all of you for that. You don’t even deserve these ideas.

And remember, it’s important that we all take part, so no cheating and picking only the suggestions that affect others.

  • Wear something too small
  • Schedule the kids for a surprise dental visit
  • Order the crappiest thing at your favorite restaurant
  • Call in sick to work, especially if there’s some big event you’re coordinating. Leave lots of unfinished business too
  • Switch the labels on all the spices in the cabinet
  • Drive very slow in a no-passing zone, then speed up when the opportunity finally comes to be passed. Of course you slow down again immediately afterward
  • Definitely go without deodorant
  • Screw with your alarm with your eyes closed
  • Sniff a lot, as if you have a cold. Refuse tissues in surprise every time they’re offered
  • Insert long pauses
  • into your sentences
  • Especially in meetings
  • Replace the hand cleaner/degreaser with lotion. Lilac-scented
  • Leave the car radio volume up full blast
  • Remove two primary keys from your keyboard
  • Re-microwave an already popped bag of popcorn
  • Get a squeaky chair from a thrift store
  • Use lots of incorrect grammar on a forum that’s really hard to sign on to
  • Schedule yourself for a surprise dental visit
  • Take up two parking spaces, but end-to-end rather than side-by-side (halfway pulled through.) As the lot fills, from a distance there will appear to be two empty spaces when there are none
  • Get several short, curly hairs embedded in the bar of soap
  • Replace nail polish with greasepaint
  • Leave fifteen seconds of near-silence on voicemail accounts
  • Make chocolate-chip cookies for everyone with unsweetened chocolate. Or raisins
  • Do one of those “easy” projects on Pinterest
  • Hide someone’s damn selfie-stick
  • Pay attention to the election
  • Make it stop, oh god make it stopA few of those were solicited from Dan Palmer, mostly because I got tired of doing this thankless task. I don’t think he’s very accomplished at being genuinely grouchy, instead more like playacting, but then again, he does have two teenaged daughters, which is something that could be added to the list I guess, if I posted with a bit more advance notice…

    There are people who believe that National Grouch Day should be devoted solely to personal efforts, without any attempts to instill such feelings in others. These people, it goes without saying, are selfish little shits who believe that grouchiness is a spectator sport rather than participatory. Feel free to set them straight. You know how you’re always told, “Cheer up! It’s [some holiday]”? Right. This time, it’s the cheerful people who are our targets. It’s still not gonna be fun or satisfying, because someone will find a way to ruin it, but… ah, hell. You know what? Don’t even bother.

    Given all that, I’ll leave you with Lewis Black, who is better at it than anyone I know. Or worse. Whatever. Too bad he has an audience full of ‘norms’ who seem to be doing that spectator thing…

    Too cool, part 32… and maybe 33

    I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, and finally sat down to tackle it. You have to admit, it definitely fits into the ‘Too cool’ category, and offers a great insight into the rising air masses that form thundercells.

    animated gif of lightning storm behind Bodie Island lighthouseWe are revisiting the photos taken during my July trip to the Outer Banks with a sequence of 34 consecutive frames as an animation, creating a dynamic illustration of the storm cloud activity. And there are a couple of things that I want you to keep in mind. The clouds themselves were only lit by lightning, and for the most part could not be seen in person except in millisecond flashes – even the faint sky colors at the beginning of the animation, the last vestiges of twilight, were too dim to really define the clouds except in these long exposures. Also, the exposures were varied, within the 20-35 second range, so in most cases multiple lightning strikes were captured, the majority of them within the clouds. If you look very closely, you can see the motion of the stars, and even a cool effect: directly above the lighthouse, the stars seem to move almost directly downward, while over the storm they have more of a diagonal motion. This is a trait of the wide-angle (18mm) lens, which gives a hint of fisheye distortion; all of the stars are tracing portions of a circle, but the ones closest to the equator have the largest arc and thus seem to move almost straight. The same distortion makes the lighthouse lean into the frame a bit. I readily admit that I did not bother removing the digital sensor noise from the frames, those bright red and blue dots, because it would have taken hours to go through them all.

    Now, a couple of pointers if you want to attempt this. First, try to pick your camera position right from the start and don’t change it, leaving it fixed firmly to a steady tripod. I took an initial dozen or so images and then re-aimed the camera slightly, making it necessary to shift those frames to line up with the others, a tedious process at best – you can see a little twitching where it wasn’t perfect. Second, making sure the camera is level helps a lot; mine wasn’t, and all of the images had to be tilted slightly to look like I knew what I was doing. It seems like a simple thing, but it isn’t – in the dark, there are no references to sight the frame edges with, and often it’s hard enough to even tell where in the frame the prominent elements (like a lighthouse) are falling. Having a small spirit level can help, as long as there is a nice even surface to use it on, but whatever method you use, at least try to have it so you don’t have to correct the alignment of every frame afterward.

    The varying light on the lighthouse itself, and the fence and foreground, does not come from lightning bursts behind the camera, but from me firing off an external flash unit to give the lighthouse more definition than just a silhouette; it took a few tries to determine the angle that would work best. While the bright sparks down below the treeline, among the buildings, were from other visitors, mostly firing off their phone cameras and oblivious to the fact that their flashes were completely ineffectual at that range, as well as the light show they were missing by facing in entirely the wrong direction.

    All of that stands alone quite well. But there’s an additional item of interest – maybe.

    full-frame example showing curious aerial lightI meant to mention in that earlier post that something I’ve been wanting to capture is a little phenomenon usually called a red sprite, a dim discharge that occurs, on rare occasions, well above an active thundercell. The conditions have to be just right, and even then they’re wildly unpredictable. But while out alongside the lighthouse watching the electrical show, I got a glimpse of something that I thought might have actually been one; subsequent reviews of the frames above the clouds didn’t show anything at all, so I figured I’d just gotten a stray reflection from my glasses.

    With a lead-in like that, you know something has to be coming – and the truth is, I can’t tell you exactly what. Because while putting together this gif (pronounced, “SKIP-ee,”) I found not one, but two curious and presently unexplained lights in the sky – just, not where I thought they should be to fit the bill. Both of them appear in the animation above, if you watch closely right near the lighthouse light itself. To the right here is a full-frame example of an original frame, to give an idea of how big the items appeared, and again, this was shot with a wide-angle lens, so things look even further away than they would to the naked eye. The point of interest is just above the light, to the left slightly – really quite small, especially at this display size. I wouldn’t leave it at that, however, so we’ll go in for a better look, this time at the full resolution of the original image.

    unidentified light in sky near electrical storm
    Now you can see two prominent stars that have actually moved a bit in the 31-second exposure, while much of the other white points are likely sensor noise, but the key item is the dim orange smudge. This is, as you can see, nowhere near the top of the storm cloud, and given the distance of the storm itself (my guess was at least 30 kilometers away, probably much more,) this would also have been many kilometers above the tops of the clouds as well. The skeptic in me frowns, not finding this likely. And as I said, I was firing off the external flash unit during most of these exposures, so it remains possible that those flash bursts illuminated something in the sky, such as one of the hordes of mosquitoes that were attacking me with vigor.

    Except… a single flash burst lasts only a few milliseconds, short enough to freeze a mosquito in place, not produce an indistinct blur like this. And while the mosquito (or even a night-hunting bird or bat) would have been well out of focus since I was set for infinity, in order to appear this big in the wide-angle frame, it also would have had to have been close – so close that the powerful flash burst should have blown it out very very brightly. For comparison, I refer you to this post, where I captured either a bat or a moth, or both, with a sequence of strobing flashes. Same flash unit, but because of the strobe effect, each burst was about 1/16th the strength of the full-power bursts used in the images seen here; the sides of the lighthouse, being much further away, received far less of the light and so appear quite dim. Bear in mind that I mostly aimed the flash up to concentrate the light towards the more-distant top of the lighthouse, trying to keep the lighting even, but look at the brightness of the fence in the cases where I aimed a little lower, realizing that the fence was hundreds of times more distant than a mosquito would have to be to appear that big in the frame, and yet I still wasn’t aimed directly at it. Also note that, in the strobe images from that other post, the shapes of the critters can still be discerned despite not being remotely in focus, while here we only have a threadlike appearance.

    Now the other one, not all that far away in the frame (almost a direct line beneath it, in fact) several minutes later on:

    unidentified aerial light above thunderstorm
    I could almost believe this one was a bird or something, simply because it had a little more shape, but it doesn’t seem to fit. To be far enough that it wouldn’t get overexposed by the flash, it would have to be quite big, and then it would be getting into a decent focus distance; it should be either much brighter, or much sharper. Stray reflections from the lens are highly unlikely, since nothing very bright was shining anywhere near my position save for that lighthouse light, and while that’s bright enough to burn away the window frames and railing, it produces no effects in any of the other frames from that night. I could easily have seen any planes that might have come into the frame (which I did not,) but even if I missed one, the navigation strobes would have produced a dotted line in the 24-second exposure – I have examples of this from the later storm further south that same night.

    So, did I capture a pair of sprites, or some other curious electrical phenomena that evening? I honestly don’t know – all I can say is a few things that they probably aren’t. For now they’re simply UFOs, or perhaps the more accurate but less understood appellation UAP, for unknown aerial phenomenon. But my curiosity is piqued, at least…

    More Monday monochrome

     width=Let’s take another look at converting color images into monochrome. It’s not very often that I’m out with the intention of shooting images to be converted, and I never switch the camera over to monochrome mode; instead, during sorting or editing I’ll pick a handful of images that look like they might fit the bill and see what comes up with the conversion and a little tweaking. So in this case, we’ll use one of the shots taken at Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island, seen at left. Monochrome images make use of contrast above all else, and this image was taken as the rising sun was transitioning from low-contrast light, diffused by the thicker atmosphere at the horizon, to the high-contrast light of bright sun in clear skies – we can see the sharpening contrast in the textures of the rough sand and the trees against the sky. I consider this a moderate level of contrast, not the best candidate for monochrome, but it has promise, especially in the variety of textures. So we’ll start with simply wiping out the color by converting the image to greyscale.

    Once again, we’re in Adobe Photoshop, in this case Creative Suite 5, usually abbreviated to CS5. Most older and all newer versions can do the same thing, but there may be subtle difference in the displays and menus. But since not everyone wants to drop a ridiculous amount of money on the egregiously-overpriced Photoshop, there is GIMP, which is a free, open source package that can do just about everything Photoshop does, and the Curves function is included. There are also countless online alternatives that may work, since numerous software packages now emulate the core functions of Photoshop, but most of these require Adobe Flash, which really should be destroyed so I’m not suggesting that you use them.

    So as we see below, just converting the image into black & white doesn’t give it a lot of punch. It can be better, and it’s not hard to do this – it just takes understanding where it lacks it and how to manage it. Also bear in mind that this is my opinion of what works, and yours might be different, but you can still glean a good idea of how to achieve it with these techniques. Our biggest problem right now is the range of light levels in the original is a little narrow, with very few areas approaching either full white or full black – most of it is in the middle tones.

    Driftwood Beach Jekyll Island Georgia in greyscale
    So, not only are we going to stretch the range of light levels in the image, but we’re going to move some of them out of proportion to the others – inducing greater or lesser changes in some narrow ranges to produce selective levels of contrast in certain portions of the image. We can do this without any kind of special selection tools or masks or layers, working solely with the Curves function. Here’s my tweaked version:

    Driftwood Beach Jekyll Island Georgia in greyscale with selectively enhanced contrast
    Better? I like to think so anyway – without the warmer and softer colors, it has a stark and desolate look, with the angle of the trees and the shadows lending an idea that something oppressive is/was off to the right, almost a post-nuclear kind of thing. But even if you would prefer a different effect, here’s how to tackle it.

    Curves illustration
    First off, the opening state of the Curves tool has a straight diagonal line across the graph, still visible here in grey, while the curvy black line represents my changes from it. Behind it all, the grey ‘mountain range’ is a histogram that basically shows how many pixels of each light level exist in the original image. Note how the range stops short of the right side of the grid, which is the brightest side – pure white is the right edge. This means no pixels in the original image came close to peak brightness. It isn’t necessary to have a full range in any image, but it can often help in monochrome, so the first thing I did was move the corner markers in a bit, pointed out by the red arrows – you can also just move those pointers along the bottom of the graph immediately below the gradient bar, the ones that line up vertically with the end pointers. This is the same thing as increasing the contrast of the entire image, making the brightest tones (which aren’t very bright) extend a lot closer to full white, and the same at the dark end at the left side of the graph, though the image didn’t need a lot of help there.

    Now, the selective part. Each one of those dots on the curved line represent a point I selected on the original just by clicking on it, then pulling it into a new position with the mouse; the blue arrows are not the direction that I moved the points (in most cases this was simply ‘up’,) but instead the areas of the image that were affected by those positions on the curve. Near the top, I wanted the sky to become much brighter behind the standing trees to enhance their contrast, but it had to blend in with the rest of the sky so the difference didn’t appear abrupt, so the curve still had to be pretty gentle overall, otherwise some sections might have appeared ‘airburshed’ or even taken on the appearance of different clouds – in other words, if you need to preserve the gradient tones, the curve needs to be smooth. In my previous example, you can see a lot sharper changes made, a real roller-coaster along the curve, but that’s because the image had almost no gradients, instead having sharp transitions from distinct clouds that I wanted to enhance.

    The arrows near the bottom of the curve are controlling the shadows, and after the initial changes, the shadow of the main piece of driftwood was too deep, losing almost all detail in that area, so it was brightened up to keep the idea of, ‘shadow,’ and not, ‘black paint.’ Also, the differences between the dark, wet sand and the dry sand near the treeline was getting a little harsh, so some careful adjustments were made to keep the two close enough in range that they didn’t appear weird.

    [A quick observation here: you’re seeing the high tide watermarks, but notice how the tracks and disturbed sand are still present in the lee of the main log in the photo. This shows that the very shallow foam edge was blocked from further advancement by the log, and too shallow to do much by seeping around the sides. The band of lighter, disturbed sand below the waterline further down the beach (higher in the frame) is likely from seagulls and crabs foraging for the shellfish left behind when each wave retreated.]

    So there’s an example of controlling contrast for just the effect you want. It’ll take some practice, and not every image will come up to par when doing this, but it will give you a lot more control than simply converting to greyscale or editing within the Contrast functions. Give it a shot.

    Hit or miss or miss or…

    Early the other afternoon as I was running errands, I decided to stop by a semi-regular shooting locale and see what the conditions were like. After the long summer with high temperatures and no rain, we’ve had a wet spell, and the pond a short distance away, the one that plays host to green tree frogs so often, deserved a check. The frogs were indeed out, and those photos will be forthcoming, but right now I’m going to talk about something else, in the chance that you are not an experienced macro photographer but thinking about it. On the chance that you are not a bookkeeper for a non-profit agency but thinking about it, I’ll have a post about that too. I’ll get to them all eventually…

    Here’s the basic premise: you can do macro work with a minimum of equipment, just finding subjects as you go along, but the ability to get quality photos will be much less than if you have, for instance, a portable and versatile lighting rig, or aim to be out for certain conditions that you’re prepared for, or shooting in a ‘studio’ setup, and so on. Macro work introduces a lot of demands, the chief among them a very narrow range of focus and short depth of field. You can increase the depth of field by closing down the aperture, but this makes the shutter speeds go much longer, and you fall prey to subject motion, camera shake, and simply your own inability to hold still right at the perfect focus distance (which may be measured in millimeters.) Add in less-than-optimum lighting and a stiff breeze, and you’re virtually guaranteed to throw out more than you keep – sometimes, even everything you just shot. Let’s look at my recent example.

    So, an Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) was visiting a goldenrod cluster right next to me, and I did a quick impromptu session. A stiff breeze was blowing, the bee was far from holding still itself, and the light was a bit too high in contrast (worsened by the fact that I had no time to change to low-contrast camera settings.) Leaning in as quickly as I dared, I began firing off frames. Here’s the very first in the sequence, full frame to give you an idea of my working distance:

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod
    … and now, a detail crop from that same frame:

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod tight detail crop
    Did I mention that I was also using manual focus? With the extremely sharp Mamiya 80mm macro there really isn’t a choice, but often enough in such conditions you might want to use manual focus anyway, simply picking a setting and then doing fine adjustments with your camera/body position instead. Given the high-contrast conditions, the light is at a pretty good angle and shows great detail, the depth is about as ideal as you can get (note how the body details are all sharp, but the back wing is well out of focus,) and even the secondary leg peeked out into the sun enough to distinguish it from the shadow – the only portion where the shadows worked against me is near the rear abdomen where we can excuse (well, I can) the loss of detail. Anyway, even I looked at this image during sorting and said, “Aw, dayyumm…”

    Am I failing to make my point? Don’t worry, here are the next seven frames, shot within the space of nine seconds, and cropped a little to show comparative detail.

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod

    Eastern carpenter bee Xylocopa virginica on goldenrod
    As you can see, something doesn’t work in each of them, mostly bad light angles and a lack of critical sharpness (worse when seen at a greater resolution than the blog will produce.) That’s a 12.5% hit rate, and this is with a subject and conditions that I felt comfortable tackling; there were plenty of other options that day that I knew just wouldn’t work out, and simply didn’t take any frames. As you might imagine, a stiff breeze can make the entire flower cluster wave back and forth in a greater arc than my frame coverage, so waiting until the breeze is momentarily still is an absolute necessity. Of course, the bee may have moved on by then.

    Given all of that, I credit the first image to a great deal of luck, and it’s understandable that at times the luck may just never materialize. You do what you can to improve your chances, and recognize that some conditions are just a bitch to work with.

    And, that the really cool photos that you see (from anyone, of any subject) might just be the one that worked out of a huge pile that did not. I don’t recommend hosing around the camera in the hopes of snagging that one shot out of many – you’ll do better with knowing what you’re doing and what’s going to trash the shot – but at times, it’s still going to be that single frame that makes the grade.

    September’s dose of abstract

    long jawed orb weaver Tetragnatha against lily pads and reflection
    For September, we have a little composition I threw together out of odds and ends that were lying around. A long-jawed orb weaver spider, common near water sources, sits suspended in its web above a small ornamental pond, framed against the reflection of a cloud-shrouded sun – but I’m belaboring the obvious, aren’t I? Yet you have to appreciate a spider with such a wide disparity in the lengths of its own legs.

    That, however, is less than September deserves, so we’ll add another; admittedly, we’re going back to July for this one, but I won’t tell if you don’t.

    overexposed hibiscus blossom
    As much as this might appear to be from playing around with cheesy photo editing filters, it’s actually straight from the camera, albeit a tight crop from a particular frame. It was one of a sequence of images taken during the Outer Banks trip, another being the second image here when the breeze had turned the blossom more. Given the dark water background, the camera had set an exposure that badly over-exposed the white blossom in direct sunlight, but curiously, the faintest edges of the details can still be made out. Coupled with the bleached buds and the defocused background, it becomes very impressionistic.

    wider aspect of overexposed hibiscus blossomThis is, I think, the entire image, showing how the dark water dominated the frame and dictated the exposure – since cameras are always set to render a mid-tone from the light reaching the exposure meter, anything dark will be brightened up, and the small white flower, too small to affect the rest of the frame, got bleached out. This is why a good photographer pays attention to the overall brightness of the frame and compensates accordingly (which is why the image on that other post looks so much better.) But for our purposes here, it’s a neat effect.

    And I said I think it’s the entire frame, above, because I don’t remember for sure, and discarded the master image after resizing and cropping it for this post. This was really the only use it could be put to, and not too compelling at that. But while you have been occupied with this post, my associates have been ransacking your house.

    Somebody needs to check on this

    So, while sorting photos, I had the opportunity to look again at an image I’ve featured here a short while back, and noticed some small details within the frame. Going in for a closer look didn’t clarify things too much, but I’ll give you a zoomed example to let you try for yourself.

    strange features within hollow driftwood
    This is, again, a trunk of driftwood on the beach at Jekyll Island, with a crab feasting on a fish head off the edge of the frame. What I’m referring to are those little bits of candy corn that feature prominently in this crop, the tan and brown shiny things adhering mostly to the top surface of the crack in the driftwood. I really don’t know what these are.

    For reference, they’re probably about 3-6mm in size. I didn’t get a better look at them because I’d found the crab through idle curiosity with a flashlight, and did not take note of the other features within the crevice. It seems clear that the wood would become fully submerged at high tide, which gives me a clue as to what they might be, but right now it’s just a guess.

    If you look at the photo on this post, you’ll see a lot of vaguely similar somethings, only green, little globules of jelly-like substance. Those are all little anemones, often called ‘triffids’ I’m told, and this is what they look like in their retracted, protective state. Allowed to sit submerged and undisturbed for a short period of time, they ‘blossom’ into something like this, or for another view, like this.

    If memory serves, I was well up from the low-tide waterline, but again, the presence of the crab and fish head told me that the trunk would submerge at high tide, and possibly retain more than a little water after the tide shifted below it again. But it also seemed evident that the trunk would sit for hours of each day out in the open air, and while the crab could choose to abandon the crevice, any anemones could not, So, can they survive that long without water? Or am I completely mistaken?

    Since I’m two states away from this area now, somebody needs to drop down there and take a look for me, preferably as the tide is coming in so they can locate the log first, they see what happens as it becomes flooded. It’s right where the driftwood becomes thickest up on the north beach, about a kilometer east of the fishing pier. Let me know what you find.

    Podcast: The mindset of a nature photographer

    There's something in this image if you can spot it
    I decided to make this one the topic of my next podcast during an outing with a student, and so the images that accompany it have come from the same outing, in many cases illustrating something that I talk about in the audio. It’s not possible to spoil anything on this one, so feel free to browse ahead while my mellifluous voice (or something) purrs on in the background.

    Walkabout podcast – The mindset of a nature photographer

    Meanwhile, there is a reason why I opened with the image above, and if you’re having difficulty determining what it is, the audio might help.

    The outing was once again to the NC Botanical Gardens which, being routinely tended, was in better shape that numerous other locations after this long heat wave – my own yard looks terrible. And we had a good measure of success because of this, almost frighteningly so. There are a few staple subjects that I often watch for during my visits, and a few others that are seasonal, so we had a short list of goals. But it’s important to have the right idea of ‘goals’ in nature photography, because too much of it depends on luck and conditions – it’s okay to feel like you accomplished something if you meet the goals, but it’s probably a bad idea to feel like you’ve failed if you don’t – it’s not like the subjects are definitely there and it only takes skill to spot them. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough to photograph.

    We got an early start with a juvenile green anole (Anolis carolinensis,) that cooperatively paused on a plant just below eye-level that provided a couple of different angles to shoot from.

    juvenile green anole Anolis carolinensis pausing with brief catchlight
    This particular image was the product of wanting to snag a specific trait, a catchlight – it’s that little reflection of sunlight from the eye, and it helps a lot to provide ‘life’ and vibrancy to any animal species caught by the camera. Most animals don’t like having the sun in their eyes, though, so the opportunities for this are often exceedingly brief, and my reptile subject here was no exception – I have a lot of images lacking it, and it took a bit of patience waiting with the camera held in place up to my eye until the lizard happened to glance in the right direction.

    By the way, the anoles are one of my staples for the botanical garden, since it is a great habitat for them and the only dependable one in the immediate area – I have yet to see any in the yard, and only occasionally spot one at the nearby pond. Since this happened within the first fifteen minutes of the excursion, I considered this a good start, and it went from there.

    A little later on, another visitor mentioned seeing a snake curled in the low branches of a tree not far away, and we headed off in that direction to see if we could spot it. It eluded us (possibly by holding still, but that’s still elusion, right?) so I used the opportunity to talk about what to expect. There are only a few snake species that can commonly be found in trees in this area, including black rat snakes and rough green snakes, the latter being extremely well-suited to such habitats. It had been a while since either of us had seen a rough green snake, but as I pointed out, the thick and varied bushes and weeds in the immediate area were ideal habitats for them.

    It hadn’t been three minutes since I’d uttered this when one demonstrated both the habitat and the camouflage – if you’ve haven’t seen it in the opening image, feel free to check again now that you know what you’re looking for, but here it is in a more direct composition.

    rough green snake Opheodrys aestivus being rude
    Yes, of course I waited for it to extend its tongue – listen to the bit about patience. This is a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus,) and they’re smaller in diameter than your little finger – also harmless, since I routinely have to point this out. This one was very clearly prowling for food, a behavior that can be recognized with experience, and it was more intent on that than on worrying about us being too close. We stayed around for a while to see what would happen because, even though we both got plenty of good portrait and habitat shots, there are always more images that can be achieved; in this case, we witnessed it striking at (and missing) a katydid that it had stalked. Had it captured this meal, we would have been ready for a whole storytelling sequence of images.

    As we entered another part of the garden, I mentioned a couple of my goals for the area, knowing the conditions were right. One of those was a crab spider, which tend to lie in wait within flower blossoms and strike at the pollinators that come calling. It’s one of the many reasons why I’ve been trying to cultivate a good selection of flowers at home, with wretched luck, but the botanical garden is close enough. And so, just a few minutes after announcing these potential targets, I saw a swallowtail butterfly perched atop a flower cluster – only it wasn’t behaving in a typical manner. Leaning close, my suspicions were confirmed, though the position of the flower (and the garden proscriptions against stepping off the paths) made my shooting angles quite limited. Nonetheless, I got what I was after.

    probable white-banded crab spider Misumenoides formosipes with captured eastern tiger swallowtail Papilio glaucus
    Even as direct as I could make this shot, you have to look closely to realize that the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) is being held by a crab spider, most likely a white-banded crab spider (Misumenoides formosipes.) Here’s another view, actually taken an hour earlier (we did an extended circuit of the gardens,) that shows the spider a little better – I opened with the latter one because it shows the butterfly more dramatically.

    probable white-banded crab spider Misumenoides formosipes with captured eastern tiger swallowtail Papilio glaucusSwallowtails, or indeed most butterflies, don’t hold still on flowers, and don’t sit with their wings extended out flat, so the behavior was the immediate clue to begin looking for something else. And even with this, it took a specific angle to see the spider that I was 99% certain was there.

    Pleased with this, I started to mention another species that I had intentions of capturing as I stepped away. The word weren’t even out of my mouth as I spied the next one, not three meters from the crab spider and swallowtail:

    green lynx spider Peucetia viridans on new egg sac
    This is a green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) perched atop a newly-created egg sac – this can be determined by the sac’s pale green color, which will fade to brown within a few days. The knowledge of this color change, instead of being determined through observation, was obtained from Jim Kramer after his observations – networking is also a great way to learn traits and behavior.

    By the way, more views of green lynx spiders can be seen here, such as what they look like before creating an egg sac, and the aftermath can be found here.

    The luck we were having over finding subjects was noticeable, but deserves a bit of perspective. First off, I had the goals mostly because I already knew such species could be found in these areas and conditions, so actually finding them isn’t surprising in any way, even when it’s quite possible not to see anything. More, it was the spoken announcements followed closely by finding the very subjects discussed that seemed remarkable, and that’s just coincidental timing. I’m not superstitious, but I went ahead and played the game anyway, asking my student what subject we should request next; his wise choice was one of the mimic moths such as the clearwing moth seen here (and I’m pretty sure that’s the same species of flower, and definitely the same locale, as the crab spider lair above.) Since I’d just seen one on the last visit not two weeks previously, I felt our chances were good and boldly proclaimed our intentions of finding one. Alas, the luck did not hold and I could claim no special powers of prognostication or arthropod telekinesis; I did eventually spot one in passing, but so briefly that no photographs were possible. That’s what you get for being cocky.

    [Did you like that? After drawing an unwarranted conclusion that something more than coincidence was at work, this was dismissed by implying that something directed or intended was still at work, only this time to thwart the magic – while being no less magic. We really are a weird species capable of deriving a supposed pattern from just about any circumstances.]

    Which is not to say that we ran out of subjects to photograph – the swallowtail shots from the previous post were also from the same outing, and we got dozens more between us. So I’ll close with yet another, a slightly-targeted find. This little grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis or Hyla versicolor, not sure which since the only way to distinguish is by their call,) was found in the same location that I had seen one during my previous trip – except it’s clearly not the same one, and the habitat is only vaguely conducive to their presence, meaning I can be in such areas time and time again and not see any such frogs. So I consider finding it more a matter of serendipity, even though I was looking closely for just this kind of subject.

    grey treefrog Hyla versicolor or Hyla chrysoscelis perched on plant stem
    Anyway, I hope the advice is useful, but just bear in mind that it may take time to develop the attitudes and behaviors to the point where you use them consistently, without even thinking about it. Good luck!