Working on it

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

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

Wednesday color

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

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

Getting back to abnormal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

green treefrog Hyla cinerea portrait, whose name is not Frank

It goes like… this?

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

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

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

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

So, size does matter?

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

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

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

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

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

supernumerary rainbow over saturated

Beach trip followup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hazy sunrise textures in ocean at Avon NC

End of July twofer

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

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

least tern Sternula antillarum against sunrise clouds

Podcast: Photo trips

So, this post actually serves two purposes. The primary one is contained in the header: it’s advice and what to expect when planning a trip dedicated to nature photography. But also, by way of example, it’s a continuation of the beach trip stories, the good and the bad, the Sturm und Drang (perhaps – I don’t actually know what that means since I don’t speak Italian.) But don’t let me ruin it for you – click to play, and wallow in my terrible podcasting habits..

Walkabout podcast – Photo trips

And naturally, some images to illustrate the narrative (or aimless ramblings or whatever you want to call it.) No skipping ahead now.

I mention a trip that resulted in having to do laundry in a motel room sink, and it’s a pretty exciting account, one that I actually posted about. How this alone hasn’t earned me fame and fortune, I’ll never know – maybe it’s just too unbelievable.

not sunset over a harbor in Avon, NCThis was sunset – what there was of it – at a little harbor in Avon. About all I could do was position myself to place that strange bump in the clouds over the tree to make it look like it belonged there. If you look close, you can see the faint shadow cast by that slightly taller cloud onto the humidity layer above, the kind of thing that makes sun rays (or crepuscular rays, if you want the technical term) in better conditions than this.

If you’re extremely lucky, you’re right next to something photogenic when a gorgeous sunset occurs, but most times, you’re either someplace ugly and can’t provide any foreground interest, or you’re someplace interesting and scenic and the sunset refuses to perform. However, I strongly emphasize planning ahead, and knowing what place is going to look interesting if and when the end-of-day colors come rolling in, especially since they often don’t last very long and can change rapidly. It doesn’t always pan out, but it’s better to be prepared than to try and find someplace the looks nice when the sunset suddenly turns out to be stunning. You’ll have only minutes, and will likely miss it.

The perspective seen in this image was to the west, of course, and almost the only clouds visible in the sky. There was a small exception to the north, however.

anvil cloud and accompanying rising cumulonimbis in distanceWhile waiting to see if the sunset might improve a bit, I was looking carefully at this anvil cloud well north of where I was, with a couple of rising cumulonimbus clouds in front of it. This kind of cloud formation will often result in thunderstorms, and the heat and humidity conditions of the day supported this possibility; it’s the same kind of thing that causes the frequent summer afternoon thunderstorms (I call them monsoons) in Florida. The sun hadn’t quite set at this time so the sky was still pretty bright, and I could see no actual lightning activity in the clouds, but wondered nonetheless. Traveling north was easy – there are really only two choices from Avon, north and south, unless you happen to have an amphibious vehicle, or wings of some sort. A hovercraft would do it too. But okay, most of us would have just two choices, and hitting NC 12 north would be taking me almost directly towards this distant cloud formation. I decided to chance it, since I had only one other thing planned for the evening, and I could do that just about anywhere.

juvenile green treefrog Hyla cinerea perched on wall of garageI cannot, to no one’s surprise, neglect my normal subject matter even when I’m on a trip specifically to produce more scenic and landscape photos than I can achieve in my normal haunts. When stopping to put air in a leaky tire, this very small green treefrog (Hyla cinerea) was startled from its perch near the air hose, so I grabbed the camera and got just a couple of frames. It was getting much darker by this time and I was on the shady side of the building, so I had to focus by the light of a penlight held in one hand, which is a trick all in itself, one that I’ve had to do far too often – one hand holds the camera, while the other supports and focuses the lens, so a couple of spare fingers in there must not only hold the light, they have to aim it where the lens is pointing at the same time. If you haven’t tried this yet, you simply must.

If you have not yet reached the part of the podcast where I talk about insect repellent, you’re getting ahead of the story. Pause here and wait for me to catch up before scrolling further.

Because, you know, sometimes things just work out right.

time exposure showing multiple thunderstorms beyond Bodie Island lighthouse
My biggest regret over this image is how badly the high ISO settings appear on this camera – that pebbly, textured look comes from shooting at ISO 640 to capture the dimmer light. I’m still quite pleased with this image (among many from that evening, actually) and am happy that the gamble paid off. I stayed only one night out there, and could have encountered numerous different conditions, most of which wouldn’t have produced anything of interest.

If you’re playing along with Google Earth, as mentioned previously, clicking here will load my precise position.

This is not the first time I’ve shot lightning at Bodie Island light, by the way – this image was shot almost 180° around the lighthouse and had been my previous favorite, even adorning one of my business cards (I have several designs, all photos,) while the one in this post was shot by the light of a full moon without the benefit of any storm activity. In fact, let’s compare another photo from that evening.

electrical storm and crescent moon behind Bodie Island lighthouse, NC - composite photo
I switched positions a bit to reframe the storm and lighthouse, and got the setting crescent moon in the photo, as well as Jupiter above and to the left – the moon was too overexposed to show its shape. The first shot with the dramatic bolt was aimed northwest, while this one was aimed pretty much due west, but at 18mm focal length for both shots, the field of view is fairly wide. I will admit that this image is a composite, just for the record – the frame that captured the little lightning bolt peeking in here also had the lights from someone’s car illuminating one side of the lighthouse, so I dubbed in the lighthouse from another image that did not have this artifact, easy enough to do since I had numerous frames taken from the same position, camera atop the tripod of course. Both of the above images were taken with the addition of a single full-power pop from the Metz 40MZ-3i flash unit, held in one hand aimed more towards the top of the lighthouse to prevent the details closer to me, such as the ground and the fence, from being too brightly exposed.

Once I had donated enough blood to the mosquitoes (which coincidentally occurred about the time the storms were petering out, and where I wrapped up the podcast,) I packed up and headed back south towards my motel room in Avon, intending to stop along the way to do some night sky photography, one of my goals for this trip since the middle Outer Banks probably has the darkest sky conditions in the entire state. The spot I’d picked earlier in the day (again, planning for the upcoming conditions) is here in Google Earth, about seven kilometers south of the town of Salvo which, as noted previously, does not even have streetlights. The skies were indeed wonderfully dark, but other storms were developing that evening, and by the time I got the camera and tripod set up, patches of clouds were obscuring large portions of the sky and greatly limiting my choices.

tighter crop of night sky showing Deneb
This is a crop from the larger frame shot at 24mm, f2.8, 23 seconds at ISO 1600 – none too shabby, even though focus could have been a little tighter. The bright star at upper right is Deneb, one of the ‘gateway’ stars that frame a small gap in the Milky Way high in the sky, easily seen by eye on dark nights. I will have to return to try and do more with these conditions.

Since there were more storms around, I spent some time trying to capture something dramatic from them, without a lot of luck; the lightning was too distant and usually obscured by low-lying clouds closer to me. It was also occurring in several directions, and every time something looked promising and I re-aimed the camera to take advantage of this, then another area outside of the frame would demonstrate something that I wished I’d captured. This can happen a lot with lightning photography, too. Below, one frame with two distinct flashes from almost the exact same position, captured at either end of a 55-second exposure.

wide-sky night exposure illuminated twice by lightning, showing cloud movement
So what you’re seeing here is how much the clouds moved in under a minute, each lightning bolt illuminating the same clouds in different positions. The streaks are from traffic on NC 12, and you can see the high-tension power lines that run the length of the Outer Banks, well, because they have to. What’s impressive about this is how little the undersides of the clouds are lit up by ground lights, despite being quite low; where I live, the same conditions and exposure would have created a bright orange glow from reflected city lights.

And now, a cool comparison:

two night exposures of same area showing lightning within the approaching rain
The top frame was from a brilliant lightning strike the lit up the whole area, but I hadn’t been looking at it right at that second and didn’t know if I’d captured a visible bolt – apparently not. The lower frame demonstrates why, even though two other strikes, much more distant, are easily visible. Time exposures reveal things that can’t always be discerned by eye, and in this case, it was the bank of approaching rain, framed between those two bolts in the lower image and obscuring(while being illuminated by) the brighter bolt in the upper. This was aiming largely west, out over Pamlico Sound, and so was showing an oncoming storm, albeit a local cell.

Shortly afterward, the wind began gusting so badly that I knew the tripod was not stable for long exposures, and I wasn’t seeing enough anyway, so I packed up the equipment again. Before I’d finished, I felt the first few drops of rain, and by the time I’d gotten back to the car (the parking area is vaguely visible in these images,) it was indicating that the rain would be starting in earnest. About thirty seconds after hitting the road back south, the horrendous downpour began, so my timing wasn’t bad at all.

But, all of that’s a good indication of how it goes. Some storms are great, some just don’t work out. Even preparation won’t guarantee results, though it greatly increases the probability; I could have driven north to the lighthouse only to have the storm die out before then, or never really develop at all. One of my planned items for this trip, the night sky shots, I didn’t really achieve except for proof of valid concept. Being flexible, however, helped me get something interesting anyway.

Get your mind out of the gutter

Since I had to get up early this morning, naturally I was up late last night checking out the little pond in the yard. The larger frogs have all moved on, to be replaced by five smaller frogs (all green frogs, Lithobates clamitans, I believe,) and a huge number of tadpoles and newborn minnows. But the thing that captured my attention was, once again, an insect.

Atop the leaves of the pond plants I found a small carcass, curiously because the plants were growing from the middle of the pond, so access by any non-flying arthropod was difficult, to say the least. I reached over to pick it up and it reacted, struggling feebly against the contact, notable because its head and upper thorax were missing. Identifying it quickly as a Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina,) I carried it inside to do a quick photo session. I shouldn’t have to explain myself anymore so I’m not going to.

Decapitated juvenile Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina
Now here’s the thing: most non-arthropod predators, like frogs and birds and such, would likely have consumed the body completely if they managed to get enough of a hold to remove the head and forelegs like this (the brown blobs you see beneath the wound are internal organs, still vaguely attached.) And of the arthropod predators, the vast majority would have drained the fluids from it intact – things like spiders and assassin bugs. There’s really not that many foes that might partially consume a mantis like this, and the primary suspect is another mantis.

decapitated Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina dangling by one leg
Now, you may have heard the folklore about praying mantises, how the female bites off the head of the male during copulation, and the male continues to perform his duty without the benefit of the primary nerve center; it seems extraordinary, until we remember how little thinking males of our own species are capable of in similar circumstances. But it’s also mostly folklore; only one species is known to do it, and not on a regular basis – it is largely believed to happen only if the female is in need of greater sustenance. Our human perspective still generally finds this somewhere between creepy and horrifying, but nature produces some interesting dynamics. What evolves are traits to further a species’ own genetic line, so once the male has impregnated a female, this goal is met on his end at least. The female must survive to produce eggs, however, and this takes a lot of food, so the male can serve double duty, and by doing so, even when he dies, he still helps foster his own genetic line. Neither one, of course, will be around to help raise the chillun, so the female’s legacy is as guaranteed as it can be once the egg sac is created. For more social species, however, living past childbirth is not only necessary just to raise the child, but may foster survival further by providing a mutually supportive environment for the entire pack or school or tribe or whatever, and that’s what we’re used to.

decapitated Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina demonstrating instinctual grippingAll of this is fascinating, at least to me, but it’s also not really germane to this immediate situation, for one simple reason: this specimen was a juvenile, so no mating behavior was about to take place. What I consider most likely is that it encountered another mantis, quite possibly one of the Chinese mantids (Tenodera sinensis,) but something happened to interrupt the meal, and so it was only partially consumed. I searched the plants for any evidence of another, still wondering how either of them might have crossed the significant moat that is our backyard pond, before realizing that the victim here might have fallen from the overhanging branches. And there’s one other thing that could support this idea.

See the image above, where the mantis is suspended by just one leg? I had been trying to position the tiny mantis on a small sprig of weeds for the image, and fumbled it, losing my (very gentle) grip. It fell from the uppermost branch of the sprig down to a leaf below and, to my amazement, snagged a toehold exactly as a complete mantis might, getting a grip in the milliseconds of contact as it bounced off the leaves. This toehold proved quite difficult to dislodge as well, and as I tried, something else occurred which astonished me even further: the other three (remaining) legs moved around and secured the mantid’s footing. That’s what you see here – I didn’t position it this way at all. Apparently, the ability to obtain and maintain a good grip, coordinating the movements of the legs together, does not reside within the brain of a mantis. As you can see, it’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty impressive for something lacking a head and shoulders and who knows what percentage of internal organs. And again, the whole “keep plugging away” folklore really does happen – not as often as is usually believed, but still occasionally, and those actions are all coordinated without the benefit of a brain too.

decapitated Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina with fingertips for scaleOne last frame, to demonstrate scale – now you understand why my handling of it wasn’t that secure. Yeah, I know, I should be an expert in handling tiny fragile insects by now, able to snag a fly in midair without harming it, restringing damaged spider webs and all that. But I’m still a guy, and there’s only so delicate that we’re supposed to be, you know?

If you put your mind to it

It’s not hard at all to find some well-meaning advice about success, usually something about achieving your dreams by dedication and hard work, and most of the time, it pisses me off seriously. It’s not that I have anything against advice or optimism, or provoking people to try harder, but the implication, far too often, is that this is all that it takes to become successful. Variations of the theme often include the habits of some successful person – I actually saw some website, desperate for content it seems, listing what famous people had for breakfast – and of course there are all the various cute little proverbs, one of the worst ways to guide thinking that I can imagine.

In short, most of such advice is confirmation bias, the practice of picking the bits that support any given standpoint while ignoring all of those that do not. While Joe Millionaire makes it a point to be up by 6 am and jog ten kilometers before breakfast, we can’t ignore the huge number of people with the same habits who somehow are not millionaires, nor even close. While some musician never let go of their dreams, how many others that are never interviewed, never even noticed, pursued the same dreams and yet failed to break out of their obscurity, or perhaps enjoyed only modest success? If we want to offer advice, perhaps we could make at least a token effort to see that the advice really does work?

The success of any individual, any endeavor, will always depend on a wide confluence of factors, many of which (probably, “most”) are not in anyone’s control. Hell, we can look to the motion picture industry, where the attendance of any given film is widely variable and influenced by timing, season, “buzz,” critical review, and even just the vagaries of social media. One talk show host, just one, making a positive or negative comment can alter the box office returns by millions of dollars – and who knows what standpoint they even comment from? Against such factors, the script and cinematography and talent and hard work and goals and all such positive-thinking advice comes crashing down.

Meanwhile, there are an awful lot of people who just fell into their success, born into the right family, or just in the right place at the right time, or in an environment where their attempts to build a network or find investors is greatly enhanced; the playing field is far from level. It has long been known that growing up in a disadvantaged area – inner-city urban blight, or remote rural communities – negatively influences the likelihood of ‘breaking out;‘ the tendency, by far, is to maintain the status quo regardless of the area or status, so the developed regions tend to foster development while the undeveloped regions stagnate. This is why so much effort is poured into developing better schools and opportunities in disadvantaged areas, to try and break such cycles. No amount of good advice, no number of internet memes, is going to dismiss such factors.

And then there’s simple human nature. Given two equal job applicants, the more attractive one is most likely to nail the position – and this influence almost certainly has an effect well beyond “equal applicants.” Additionally, the hardest and most innovative worker in the world still has to have a boss that isn’t stupid, petty, or insecure, and/or has to work for a business that is willing to recognize and foster such an asset. We want to believe that hard work always pays off, we want a society where such standards are maintained, but the bare truth is, one personality clash can negate virtually everything else. Career success can be achieved through countless other influences such as shmoozing the right people, having connections, gaming the system, and even just being ‘perky’ – and these are hardly exceptions; we all know examples of these, possibly quite a lot of them.

It’s not my intention to be negative; I remain in favor of a positive outlook and being motivated to achieve goals. If someone’s success relies on skill sets and experience, there’s a certain level of truth to the concept of ‘always try harder.’ Focus and perseverance are undeniably useful traits almost anywhere. But I take grave exception to the belief that this is all that it takes. This ends up putting the blame of failure solely on the individual, with the direct implication that if someone doesn’t achieve their goals, they simply didn’t try hard enough (this same concept appears repeatedly throughout religion, only it’s the lack of devotion that’s to blame there.) By extension, it fosters the idea that human effort can alter all other factors, the asinine mind over matter schtick. Someone can be a marvelous actor, but if they lack the ‘chiseled features’ that are in demand, no amount of effort will overcome that, and the breakthrough parts just won’t materialize. Countless talents languish in remote areas because there are no opportunities for advancement there, and no opportunities to even obtain the funds to get someplace with more opportunities. In such cases, these concepts of ‘positive thinking’ reject reality and replace it with blame; you’re just not good enough to go somewhere. In what way is this supposed to be useful?

There are also studies that show that being perpetually optimistic makes one less prepared than being at least a little cynical, and there’s a very simple reasoning behind that: those that expect problems and obstacles are far more prepared to deal with them. Few of us are stupid enough to think, “I won’t run out of gas,” at least over a significant period of time – but how many of us think, “I’ll just get gas in the morning,” without considering the possibility of an emergency trip to the hospital? At some point, positive thinking becomes denial, and no recognition of the myriad obstacles that can appear in our paths. Motivation and dedication are only parts of a formula that should also include forethought, preparedness, business savvy, judging people, evaluating failures, and having plenty of options – and a better mental attitude is going to include the simple idea that shit happens.

Yet it gets far worse when this ‘failure is only personal’ attitude is prevalent in a society. Assistance programs of any kind, the ones intended to help level that playing field, are viewed with the bias that if someone is poor or disadvantaged, it’s their own damn fault. Far too many people want to believe that their own success came from their hard work or intelligence, and had nothing whatsoever to do with where they grew up or the use of a car when they were going for their first job, or even the number of neighbors close enough that needed their lawns mowed. There’s no magic formula that dissolves unfortunate circumstances, and while the very concept of success is primarily an ego-trip, this is hardly a reason why we should attempt to deny it from others, or believe that what we’ve achieved makes us special – that’s just being judgmental. Everyone live surrounded by factors, but these are in no way the same – some are much better than others, and some far worse.

For every example of a self-made millionaire, there are millions who tried to follow the same route and failed. For every person who parlayed a single stock option into a thriving investment portfolio, there are thousands who lost their money when the stocks decreased in value rather than increasing, and millions who lack the disposable income to even make any such investments. For every founder who started out with a corner business and built it into a multi-million dollar franchise, there are hundreds of businesses that folded within the first few years. Timing and opportunity and location and connections and weather and just plain stupid luck all have their say, and to promote the idea that hard work will overcome all of these is being fatuous, failing to recognize that there are better things that we can do to promote success than offering untested and blatantly false proverbs about positive thinking.

And then, there’s this insidious concept that is rampant in our society right now, and it’s the pursuit of success in the first place, the idea that this is what’s important. Without a doubt, we all want to pay the bills, to be free from financial concerns, and to indulge ourselves a bit. Yet the drive to keep exceeding this, to always seek a higher status or a better financial position, is most likely fostered by evolved traits to compete, to appear as a better mate choice than others – just because that’s what worked to propagate our genes. But we have other desires as well, and too often, we forget that the pursuit of success or wealth or fame or whatever doesn’t actually make us happy; sometimes, all we need to be doing is what we enjoy, and most of the time this doesn’t take a lot to achieve. The competitive drive is something that, if it serves no actual purpose, we should be willing to ignore in favor of other drives or desires that actually will do something for us, many of which are a hell of a lot easier to appease. At the same time, the reduction of emphasis on success and wealth is quite likely to make our society better overall anyway.

Rather than taking our cues and goals from others, chasing the collective dream as it were, sometimes it’s better to look inside and find our own motivations, seeking what would work to make us the happiest and most satisfied. When we’re striving for a label to apply to ourselves, why isn’t “content” the choice more often?