Storytime 34

planetary conjunction or something, I don't know
I’m not even going to tell you what you’re looking at here; I’m simply going to let you puzzle it out on your own, given the visual clues within. Then you can tell me the story behind it.

Oh, all right – since you’ve read all this way, which certainly puts you ahead of most webnauts anymore, I suppose I can fill you in. Except, not entirely, because I no longer remember the entire story behind this image – I think I was trying to fulfill a photographic challenge with the bare topic of “light.” The basic premise was, I was experimenting many years back with a digital camera, trying to see what kind of effects I could produce, and this one came out (after much experimentation, which is where digital photography really gains an advantage) more-or-less how I wanted it to. Well, it did if you’re seeing some kind of planetary composition. But if you’re seeing a white balloon and a racquetball, then you’re seeing accurately, but not at all what I was trying to accomplish.

Here’s the layout. The big white curve off to the left is a white balloon, splashed with a little cornstarch to provide a ‘texture’ of sorts. It is lit from behind with a flash unit, within a dark room. The blue sphere is, as I said, a racquetball, perched on the top of a lightstand – I am aiming straight down from the top to disguise this support. The entire floor beneath this setup is shrouded under a black cloth, and on a separate little stand of some kind sits a small slave flash unit, one that goes off when it detects the light from another flash. To reduce and properly shape the light emitted by that, it is firing through a small hole in a piece of cardboard, and these are both positioned to barely appear past the curve of the racquetball. The other little bright bugaboos that you see are merely lens effects. Pretty simple setup, really.

I’m wondering now why it didn’t occur to me to use the cornstarch to put some blotches and swirls on the racquetball and try and make a cloud cover for that ‘planet.’ Man, I hate when I think of ideas, like, fifteen years too late…

August just has a bunch of holidays

Unfortunately, despite this number, I neglected to tell you about them ahead of time, for which you may kick me in the shin when you see me next. But until that assault, let’s take a look at some of the holidays we just passed, shall we?

First off, August 8th through the 15th was Go Without Internet Week – don’t ask me why it ran from a Thursday to a Thursday, because I sure as hell wouldn’t have set it up that way. I was still able to celebrate it quite handily because I couldn’t get a connection wherever I was. The posts that appeared then were scheduled ahead of time, because I at least anticipated the holiday, as well as the inordinate number of people who would openly ignore it and wonder why I wasn’t. Ha! That’s how you play the game right!

Friday, August 9th was Get Stuck On A Roller Coaster Day, which we celebrated about 2/3 of the way up the first hill on Millennium Force in Cedar Point in Ohio. Nice view up there, even if it had to be enjoyed at a 45° angle.

Saturday, August 10th was Stuff Wood Mulch Into Your Pants Day. Honestly, I don’t know who comes up with these, but they must have felt it was important, so far be it from me to eschew such traditions. While doing this manually is of course acceptable, we decided to go more elaborate and use a zip line to accomplish this. More later.

Sunday, August 11th was Story Game Day. I’ve already explained what this is.

Monday, August 12th was Stay Overnight In A Gatsby Mansion Day. I actually celebrated this for a few days, courtesy of Jay himself, so many thanks to him. He. Whatever.

Tuesday, August 13th was Lake Guns Day, and I’ve explained this before too. Early that morning, I’m fairly certain I heard them again, twice, for the first time in decades. There’s a reason that I featured the previous Storytime image, even if I was already out of the region when it posted.

Thursday, August 15th was Drive Through Horrendous Tornado Conditions But Keep Going Because The Trip Is Already Taking Too Goddamn Long Day. Not the easiest holiday to observe, but we were all over it.

Sunday, August 18th was International Curse At Green Birds Day. I let my brother handle this one and he was quite adept at it, but he’s a big fan of all the cursing holidays, even more than I am (if you can believe that.)

I think that covers it, but if there are any holidays that I missed in there, let me know. I’ll be back in a little bit with more wildly inspirational and uplifting content, and perhaps even a pic or two.

Storytime 33

"silver bridge" across northern tip of Cayuga Lake in fog
Today, we have a reminiscence of a reminiscence – or something like that. What you see here is “Silver Bridge” on the railroad spur that crosses Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in central New York, which is where I grew up. Or passed my adolescence, anyway – we won’t discuss how little I’ve actually grown up. It’s known as Silver Bridge, not because it was a key part of the silver trade, or crossed the Silver River or anything like that, but because it once was silver-grey, back when people were painting it routinely – yes, I know, we were creative and clever folk up there.

This is a reminiscence of a reminiscence because it was taken 13 year ago, back when I visited the area again after having been away for a long time – like 16 years. God I’m old. One morning the fog was brilliantly thick and I headed down to the lake to see what I couldn’t see. I had crossed this bridge on foot literally countless times – possibly in the few hundreds – mostly on fishing trips with my dad, but occasionally on snorkeling expeditions and more than a few times in search of wildlife, once I determined that fishing bored me to tears. Even now, I couldn’t care less about eating any given fish filet, and mostly stick to shellfish and octopods for my seafood choices.

I distinctly remember, probably about 12-14 years of age, getting caught in a summer squall right as we were crossing this bridge, wicked high winds and a stinging rain that had picked up velocity crossing the open expanse of the lake, a particularly traumatic experience given that is was an unrestricted drop down to the water about seven meters below, right outside the edge of those ties. The local mooks (meaning, not me) would clamber up the broad face of those uprights that you see here to hurl themselves into the water from the very top of the bridge, because this was rural NY and the bars didn’t open until later in the evening and there wasn’t much else to do, especially if you’d been educated in the local schools. Do you get the impression that I wasn’t heartbroken at leaving?

Still, in the summer it was (and I suppose remains) a scenic and pleasantly mellow region, and while it couldn’t hold a candle to what could be found in Florida, it still was a much better swimming and snorkeling area than where I am in North Carolina right now. And I’ve never done the locale justice, photographically, because I wasn’t too serious about photography when I left and have spent only brief, sporadic visits since then, never with the intent of just chasing pics – except for this particular morning.

Just because, part 31

very small likely Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis perched on fence post
Another quickie, as threatened. Given that I found this itty-bitty treefrog sitting on the upper rim of the same rainbarrel that had produced a previous photo subject, I’m going to hazard a guess that it emerged from the same source, the rainbarrel itself, where a host of tadpoles had been living. Since it’s slightly further along in development than the previous, it might even be the exact same one, but I have no way of knowing (though I’d really like to and am wide open for suggestions on distinguishing them.) So we’re going to go with Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) for this one, just days past its leaving the water and tadpole stage behind. As I loomed in close with the macro rig, it leapt away, so I retrieved it and placed it atop the nearby fence, where it remained for a minute or so, though it still tried turning away from me. Hey, I was the guy that provided the egress from the barrel in the first place! Ungrateful little spud…

Literally the size of your thumbnail, since you’re wondering, though the wood texture might have provided at least a clue.

Just because, part 30

periodic cicada molting while perched on car tire
I occasionally get the chance to snag a pic or two, but not a lot of time to write up anything at all about them, so I’ll present a couple of ‘Just because’ posts this week. In this case, it’s a cicada, of an unidentified species, that I found molting into final instar (reproducing adult phase) while attached to the tire of the car that I was working on. Don’t ask me why I was working on the car at night, just accept that I was. By the time I spotted it, it had already emerged fully and was extending its wings, so I didn’t bother with a sequence that I already have in detail anyway. I just went for a rather personal closeup. It does kind of look like it’s playing some game with its own molted exoskeleton. But hey, while we’re here, check out the trio of simple eyes set on its ‘forehead,’ and the minuscule antennae. Also the color of the wings as they develop and dry out, because it’s one of the better palettes among any critter, as far as I’m concerned.

Stormy season

Just a quick note, but there’s another meteor shower peaking soon, this time the Perseids, supposed to reach maximum on the nights of the 12th and 13th. I tell you this mostly to point out that, yet again, the moon is going to be too bright to make much of them, being damn near full those nights. I’m going to have to sit down and calculate how often either a) the moon has been too bright, or b) the skies have been far from clear – it certainly seems to me that it’s a lot more often than not.

And no, I did not get out and do anything with the last storms, when the conditions were pretty close to optimal, so maybe I’m the one to blame here. As I’m putting these on the calendar for next year, I’ll certainly aim for better moon nights, at least.

Regardless of my shortcomings, this storm is reputed to be one of the better ones, so it may still be worth the effort. You won’t see anything if you don’t try, so…

Storytime 32

comb jelly Ctenophora showing refraction along cilia comb rows costae
This week we have something commonly called a comb jelly, but more specifically called a ctenophore (silent ‘c,’) because it’s not a jellyfish and in fact pretty far removed from such – it’s in a phylum all its own. I found one by accident in Florida one time, because they’re so completely transparent that I didn’t even spot it when I was sweeping a net through the water after other critters. Later on, I specifically captured one and kept it for a short time in my saltwater aquarium, and that’s the one you see here. You can get a few more details and a slightly better version of the image right here.

While I was pleased to capture the comb jelly, I was much more pleased to capture the refraction iridescence along the rapidly-moving rows of cilia along the body that serve as their means of propulsion. It took standing above the tank shooting straight down into the water when the jelly got near the surface, with the flash unit on a separate stand alongside the tank. I couldn’t get enough distance with the Sigma 105mm macro to have the entire ctenophore in the frame, so I resorted to the Sigma 28-105 instead.

That’s only part one of the story. Part two came several years later when I was contacted by a law firm for photos to use on their website. The most demanding part of their criteria was that they be in ‘banner’ form, a certain set of broad proportions that I really never shot in. The constraints of getting this photo meant that it was actually crowding the frame, so it really couldn’t be cropped down to their dimensions, though I was really proud of the image and figured very few people had any offerings like this.

So, I made it fit their proportions. The version you see here is close to the original frame – it was a little wider, but not anywhere near as wide as that above, which represents their dimensions. To get the one above, I created a much broader field of view along both sides by ‘Photoshopping’ it in. Using the original frame, I did a lot of selective copying, inverting, and general playing around to expand the image size without appearing to be copied, avoiding that ‘repeating pattern’ thing that most people expect. If you look closely along the right side of this image, you can see that some of the brighter green seaweed is reversed and inverted. Various appearances of the suspended sediment within the water, the white spots that would serve as the biggest giveaway about editing, were simply pasted over with darker portions. I’m fairly certain that virtually anyone could only see the evidence of editing if they were specifically looking for it with the knowledge that it existed.

And after all that, they didn’t select this as one of the images to use. Ah well. I was paid for what they did use, so I’m good.

Part three of the story is, having to go through countless images from Florida to see what would work in banner form, I realized that such a cropping method had an interest all its own, and soon afterward I adopted a rotating banner theme for the blog – and it’s been up there ever since.

Haven’t broken that cycle yet

You know when I mentioned earlier that not a lot of things were going right? Yeah, still at it.

We’ll start with a photo outing with Mr Bugg, intended to chase birds and the sunset, though I already suspected the sunset wouldn’t be too fascinating, since the sky was completely free of clouds. We had several good passes from vultures and osprey, but for reasons unknown, the autofocus on my Tamron 150-600 lens wasn’t locking on very well, something that I discovered only upon returning and examining the photos in detail. This is curious, because the conditions were a lot less demanding than the airshow where it had gotten its shakedown cruise, as it were, and where it performed admirably. So far, I have found no reason for it to have been different in this case, but the end result is, a hell of a lot less useful images than intended, and a very poor keeper rate.

osprey Pandion haliaetus with newly-captured fish
I heard the chirp of this osprey (Pandion haliaetus) before it even cleared the trees and so was watching out for it, but it dropped into the lake after a fish before I could get the focus locked on, spoiling my chance for a sequence of the capture. After it rose up with its meal, I got several images, all of which aren’t really bang on sharp. Yes, I’m concerned about this.

another osprey Pandion haliaetus with fish
This is another one, carrying a fish that we never saw it capture, and seriously, you can’t ask for better autofocus conditions than this (these are tighter crops than the originals, by the way, which exacerbates the poor focus.)

underside of osprey Pandion haliaetus facing away
Above is one of the few truly sharp images, so of course it’s of a pose that isn’t terribly photogenic. I would definitely have preferred to have the one below to be sharp, if the AF was going to be so selective, since the bird was looking right at us as it passed, but noooo, why would something go smoothly for Al this past month?

osprey Pandion haliaetus looking down at photographer
And then there was the sunset, where the only thing of interest that we pulled from it were some faint crepuscular rays, or crepuscular shadows perhaps, that if you looked closely, stretched across the entire sky. Bear in mind, this image is with increased saturation and contrast.

lackluster sunset on Jordan Lake
A day or so later, I was about to do some work on the exterior of the car, and a pesky red wasp with black wings was weaving around my legs rather insistently. I managed to chase it off, but only for a meter, where it paused on one of the potted plants. I was beginning to think that it had started a nest on the car or something, since it was behaving as if there was something important about the area, as I sat down on the driveway – then I saw the spider right next to me. It was a large wolf spider, sitting with its legs all drawn together, kinda bunched up, which is far from typical. I blew on it, and it didn’t even twitch, which is when I made the connection. Several different species of wasp paralyze spiders and take them back to a burrow or nest, where the wasp lays eggs in the spider’s body. The young hatch out and consume the still-living (for a bit, anyway) spider before they emerge from the nest. I had interrupted the process between the paralyzing sting and the subsequent transport back to the baby’s bedroom. Since I have never captured any part of this behavior, I quickly ran inside and gathered the camera and macro flash, which took from 45 to 60 seconds, but by the time I returned both spider and wasp were gone. Well, shit.

Later on that evening, the sky, the real-time lightning map, and the weather report all indicated that electrical storms were brewing immediately south, and I threw my camera and tripod in the car and headed back down to Jordan Lake, the same one with the osprey and ho-hum sunset, since it has the best wide views in a tri-county region. Central North Carolina is not friendly to storm chasers, because of the numerous trees and gentle hills which serve to hide approaching storms – you really want flat, open areas. The lake is only about 20 km away, maybe a 15-minute drive, so I figured I had a chance. One the way, I could see some lovely ground strikes, a lot closer than any of my sources had indicated, and towards the end of the journey it almost seemed like I was passing them, but I’d still have a good view for 180° or so around me, so I wasn’t too worried. Except that, literally 30 seconds before I was to pull in the access drive to the boat ramps, the raging downpour began. Naturally enough, this isn’t very conducive to being out with a camera, but even worse, such conditions mean a low cloud cover and obscuring rain, so lightning usually stops being visible unless it’s right on top of you. I sat in the car for a few minutes to see if it would pass quickly, then simply gave up and drove back home.

I soon drove out of the rain, then through a couple of wet spots where it had passed in the brief period between my outward and homeward legs, all the while noticing that the lightning was now north. There was still some flashing going on as I got back, so I trotted down to the nearby pond to see if I could capture anything there. It was pretty clear that there were two main cells, and that they were a little too distant to provide much of a view.

just a hint of a lightning flash
This is mostly what I saw, even after I switched position to take advantage of where the cells seem to be concentrated.

storm cloud with faint lightning tendrils
Well, it’s proof that there was indeed lightning, but not much more than that.

storm backlit by lightning
Views like this aren’t really visible when you’re watching them – or to be honest, they’re visible almost exactly like this, but for a tiny fraction of a second while your eyes are adapted to the darkness, so you never see this kind of detail. But still not what I was after.

doubly-illuminated storm clouds
This one actually shows activity from both cells – the second one is just out of view behind the tree to the left, but provided a bright enough flash to help delineate the clouds surrounding the cell in the center of the image. Also note the difference in the water reflections between this frame and those further above it; the rain was starting again in earnest, rippling the water of the pond. I was about to head in at this point.

not too impressive lightning
Annndddd this was the best I got, a little earlier in the storm before the rain started getting noticeable. It was obvious that I was a few kilometers too far south to see real activity, but also possible that being closer wouldn’t have netted anything because I’d be in the rain. Either way, I could think of no good viewing locales in that direction, plus the idea that, by the time I traveled up there, the activity would likely have ceased, because that’s the way it’s been going.

I will close with one shot from after that sunset shoot, as the sky darkened down and the first stars became visible. Actually, the first thing to become visible was a planet, not a star, which is typical; we were guided to look in its direction by my Heavens Above app, since I knew Jupiter would likely be brighter than anything else that evening. Manually focusing with the 150-600 and doing a lot of playing around with mirror lockup for stability, I got a few decently clear shots of Jupiter and the four Galilean moons: Callisto, Europa, Ganymede and Io, just, not necessarily in that order. This, by the way, is full resolution, and the best I was going to get without a telescope. Maybe some day I’ll approach this in earnest.

Jupiter and Galilean moons
A couple of quick notes. First, Jupiter’s stripes could be made out at this resolution, but not at this exposure; if the exposure was reduced enough to make them out, the moons virtually disappeared. I did do a few exposures like this, but the focus left a lot to be desired (strictly manual – Jupiter was little more than a speck in the viewfinder.) Second, this is the first time in my experience (over years) where the moons were not in a perfect line, and I suspect we’ve reached a point where we’re no longer lined up with Jupiter’s ecliptic plane, as we might have been every time I’ve done this before. I’ll have to look into it…

Storytime 31

Okay, this isn’t my photo, and technically it’s not even a photo, but I came across it looking for a new topic and liked the story.

Some friends of mine have adopted children, two, both from China – and that’s a long story in itself that I’m not going into right now, but suffice to say, China has (or at least had) a surfeit of girls awaiting adoption, mostly because of bowing to the idiocy often called, “tradition” while not simply recognizing more efficient ways of thinking about culture. The girls were adopted as infants a few years apart, which meant that one of them got to accompany her parents on the trip to bring home the younger one. But due to vagaries of schedules and such, the only person in the party able to make a visit to the Great Wall was the father (who makes the very rare appearance here from time to time.) He regretted not having his eldest daughter at least get to see the wall, and mentioned this to me when he’d forwarded over the photos that he took – which were taken with the ‘still frame’ function of a camcorder, and this was back in the early 2000s, so quality was not up to the wonderful smutphones of today (yes that’s sarcasm.)

I no longer recall whether I was asked to make the attempt, or simply couldn’t resist, but I combined two of his images to put his daughter on the Great Wall. The only two that seemed to work weren’t matched well, but I plowed ahead anyway.


The thing is, I really like how this came out. While obviously altered, it also has a property that maybe the girl is simply marching down a model of the Great Wall. And part of the reason for this is, I already knew one of the primary issues with composite photos is not matching the light angle or conditions; in other words, putting a subject with low contrast and shadowed light into a high contrast scene, or mismatching the color registers. That’s why these two photos worked: the light is identical in color, angle, and contrast. Plus I added her shadow cast across the background – it’s all about the little touches.

Okay, it’s stupid, but that’s what Photoshop is for (if you’re serious about editing, you use GIMP.) And just to let you know, the girl pictured here is now a sophomore in college, while her sister, the one that came home with them on this trip, is a budding photographer in her own right, and just recently captured a photo of a chameleon in the fraction of a second that it snagged an insect with its extendable tongue. I really am envious.

July has to leaf

water trapped in crook of banana leaves
Okay, that was terrible, even for me, but it was still better than, “July has to fly,” which was my original choice. We are talking, of course, about the end-of-the-month abstract, something that started as a mere coincidence several years back and I’ve been continuing out of, um, something or other. If you were a professional blogger you’d understand.

Ignoring all that, this month’s offering was taken the same day as these (with more to come as well, someday,) a little reservoir of water caught in the niche of some sprouting banana leaves. The sun hitting it caught my attention, and so I fired off a few frames, secure in the knowledge that the images will one day soon garner me wealth and fame and a really neat set of kitchen knives. Trust me; sometimes you just know.