Can’t be smug

Canada geese Branta canadensis on pond during heavy snowstormThe snowstorms that have hit the northeast have completely passed us by here in NC… or had, anyway. Tuesday morning it came in with a vengeance – thick clumps of snowflakes packed together like schoolgirls on the way to the ladies room, but considerably quieter. I ventured out for photos, but had to keep the camera covered with a towel almost the entire time it was in hand. The snow was even piling up on the backs of the Canada geese (Branta canadensis) as they cruised the pond wondering what all the fuss was about. I feel obligated to mention that this is the same pond, though neither likely the same goose, seen in this image from perhaps 20 years ago (but of course you recognized it.)

I have a standing goal to get decent snowflake images, which as you might imagine is rather tricky. Aside from their diminutive stature, snowflakes are pretty sensitive about their preferred conditions, adverse to appearing alone and quite neurotic about the surfaces they contact being too warm or too wet, jazz like that. Worse, they need good contrast to be seen in any detail, which usually means a dark background and softer lighting. I was a little lucky in that the black rain barrel was sporting the only examples of spiderweb to be found, providing both a dark background and a surface that snowflakes can cope with, permitting them to sit in complete isolation without damage or melting. I was less lucky because very few flakes were getting caught by the web strands, but more distinctly, the initial snow had (I’m guessing) passed through slightly warmer, moister air on the way down, gathering a layer of additional ice that pebbled the flakes with frozen condensation, ruining the finer details.

snowflake with pebble texture
Naturally, getting this close requires a high magnification lens, and the one that I have to use is the reversed 28-105 mentioned before. Even at roughly f16, the depth-of-field is pathetic, so best results are obtained when perfectly flat-on to the flake – this is challenging to visually determine (given the fixed small aperture and thus dim image in the viewfinder,) annnddd the flake may be twisting and dancing in the web if there’s any breeze at all, and there will be. I like challenges that make me frustrated as hell, it seems.

ice needles on cherry tree buds
Like before, the snow soon turned to ice needles instead of flakes, so my opportunity passed. For an idea of scale, the needles usually measure in length three or four times the diameter of the flakes. These are the buds of The Girlfriend’s new prized cherry tree, by the way – we’ll have to see how it looks in a few weeks.

forest trail steps in winterThen Wednesday brought surprisingly clear roads, and when I got the chance I scampered out for some pics someplace other than our backyard, but the snow was melting far too quickly. I shot a winter version of the early fall image seen here, just for contrast, but there really wasn’t much else of interest; the plants are all dormant, of course, and the snow too sparse to use as much of an accent – it had virtually all vanished by nightfall. I admit to being a little disappointed. I’d even gone out the night before to the same pond and fired off a few time exposures at night, but the nearby mercury lamp streetlights threw a curious green pall over the snow and trees, offset by the amber glow from the overcast illuminated by city lights. Just didn’t produce anything impressive, though they might have passed muster for any of those social snapshot sharing services – which is a pretty good indication that they needed to be better, as far as I’m concerned. Smutphones have done absolutely nothing for standards of photo quality.

I poked around the botanical garden while I was nearby, not finding a lot of interest there either. For fart’s sake, I did a few images of the tattered blossoms of an oak-leaf hydrangea plant (Hydrangea quercifolia,) which I’m definitely going to have to add to the yard this spring, just for a pleasant background plant. The blossoms, about 2 cm across, were the only thing left on the stalks by this point, but have achieved a curious lacy appearance that I wish I’d spent more time experimenting with.

oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia blossoms in winter

snow clumps trailing through the lightThe weather reports this winter, as I suspect for much of the country, have been highly erratic, their predictions often changing drastically every few days, so while snow was predicted for yesterday evening, it suddenly jumped up to (depending on the source) estimates from 10 to 30 centimeters, or 4-12 inches. It started in mid-evening and got down to business quickly, and I set up the camera alongside the floodlights on the back porch to do a time exposure of the flakes passing through the light beam – I had hoped for some nice swirls of flakes lazily blown by the wind, but what I got instead were streaks of huge and clumped wet flakes hurtling down harder than snow is supposed to; this image is a mere 1/5 second and only what is captured in the light thrown by the bulb glimpsed in the corner, so maybe slightly more than a meter in depth (with the frame spanning about a meter vertically as well.) You can even see one clump spinning in its descent, right in the middle of the frame. Apparently falling a flake at a time was considered inefficient, so they ganged up and came down like parachute display teams.

This did, however, provide another opportunity to capture snowflake images, and this time they hadn’t collected an additional layer of ice beads on their journey. With the precipitation this dense, it was impossible to keep the camera clear, so I was required to keep a towel handy to frequently wipe away the moisture. It was coming down so hard that I would occasionally select a flake, go in close for the photograph, and actually have another clump of snow crash into the extremely narrow view of the camera. Not to mention the accumulation on my broad-brimmed hat and the top of the camera bag. However, it was worth the efforts.

asymmetrical hex-shaped 'plate' snowflake
It takes a fair amount of luck to find a flake that is standing so free and apart from the others, supported by the barest contact, with further luck in finding a nice hexagonal ‘plate’ flake like this, and being able to get a reasonably dark background. At the same time, the luck also required being out there looking for them in the cold and uncomfortable conditions, snow falling down the neck of my coat, so, yeah. I like the asymmetrical nature of this one, each side being a different length. Don’t ask me how this occurs.

two detailed snowflakes on spiderwebAnd the same web strands that had been used previously sported these two flakes this time around – I’d really love to find a way to preserve a patch of spider web just for the snows, since it’s so damn useful in supporting flakes like a display stand. Maybe I’ll start raising black widows (which have remarkably strong webbing.) I admit that this is a ‘stacked’ image, actually two combined, since I did not get any frames where both prominent flakes were in tight focus at the same time – where would I be without Photoshop? Well, showing you two images instead of one, I guess…

I’m also pleased that the softbox flash caught the web at the right angle so it showed up. As you can see above, this doesn’t always happen (and it’s ridiculously hard to arrange purposefully.)

The wetness of the snow meant it was a lot heavier than the previous, and in stepping out onto the screened porch after a few hours of steady snowfall, the frequent crack of branches could be heard as they succumbed to the weight. I was just thinking I should go get the sound recorder to see if I could capture audio of one (or more) of these when an especially sharp and close crack was heard, followed by a loud thump on the roof directly overhead, then the branch hitting the ground below with a shower of dislodged snow. That would have been impressive to capture.

BuildingUpAround 2 AM, as the snowfall had slowed to feeble efforts, I got dressed up again and ventured out in the depths, probably around 13 cm (5 in) of accumulation – again, nothing to compare to the northeast, but a pretty good amount for this area. The trees were all heavily burdened and white, and visibility was surprisingly good because the low overcast bounced the city light back down, to be reflected around by the snow – I could almost adjust the camera settings without additional light. This is a 20-second exposure at f7.1, ISO 250, and only a little brighter than it actually looked while out there. I was rather selective of where I walked, however, because the branches were still coming down, and I don’t think that’s any surprise now with the accompanying image. Indeed, not long after getting this shot and moving on to a different area, I heard a branch break off and thud into the ground, not very close to where I had stood but not far enough from it either, a nice warning.

I was hoping last year’s performance with inept North Carolina utilities would be left behind with moving to a new house, but I was wrong. After I had returned inside, edited the images you see here, and was typing this very post, the power went out, remaining out for just over 12 hours. We are now in a housing development with buried electrical lines, but that only applies to the small development, and out on the main road they remain supported (or not) by poles as usual – thus susceptible to the fragile and ubiquitous longneedle pines (seen at the right) that really need to be destroyed. While this is a more-or-less typical snowfall by NY standards, it was enough to knock out power for a very large number of residents in this area, because I suppose it’s more fun to do emergency calls in wretched driving conditions than cut the fucking trees back from the power lines while the weather is clear. Seriously.

I will leave you with another visual, a branch that missed the house but was audible enough to wake us up this morning when it thudded into the ground (even with all this snow,) and testimony that the pines that came with the property are going to be removed as soon as possible. For cold-weather trees, they really can’t handle the conditions – I’ve seen palms stand up to snowfall better than this.

see image title

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