Unfair advantages

I know, this is taking advantage of my vast following on this blog to skew the results, but why else would I have a blog? The photo contest at Panda’s Thumb is entering Round Three, for invasive species, and one of my images is up there. Now, I wouldn’t dream of telling you who to vote for, and think you should just pick the best image, but hey, it’s the same result either way.

I took second in Round One, and you’ll notice I never mentioned it at all here. That’ll show me.

Be nice and fair, vote only once – and vote for, seriously, whichever you think is best. Part of being a photographer is seeing how your images honestly stack up against others. Cheers!

What is he talking about?

As I warned you about below, this is a continuation of the controversial “Don’t be a Dick” opera brought to us by Phil Plait, which I started from my perspective in this post. Phil has now posted Part Three, which goes on to explain, it seems, exactly what he was talking about. If you haven’t been following this, haven’t read my last entry, or couldn’t care less (and I don’t blame you, really,) then you can skip this post ;-). But if you want to see where even the more prominent skeptics can go astray, read on.

Continue reading “What is he talking about?”

I’m torn

Usually, I can look at an image I take and tell pretty quickly whether it works or not, and so far my judgment seems to be, if anything, a little harsher than the average viewer. But this image has me stumped.

I scanned it from slide some months back because I liked it, then decided it wasn’t working for my marketing materials and never did anything with it. From time to time since, I come across it in my scanned slide folder and immediately say, “Oh I like that,” – and then start to wonder why.

So, here it is, in all its glory or lack thereof. It is, by the way, a tight selection of some ripples at the base of Crabtree Falls in the mountains of North Carolina. The falls themselves are nice and scenic, pretty good as small falls go, and I have plenty of images framed differently that work just fine. Maybe my mistake is in knowing what else I have and how this one compares. If I had commenters, I’d invite them to chime in…

This also serves the purpose of making a break between windy opinionated posts, which means you know what’s coming up next…

Who is he talking about?

I guess I’m going to join the ranks of bloggers who are posting their own views on Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” talk from The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 recently, without waiting for Phil’s promise of parts two and three. The feedback on this talk has been very mixed, but the primary feeling I myself got from it is how much people seem unable to evaluate the situations they witness.

Continue reading “Who is he talking about?”

Oh, for…


This is what I get for walking around without a lenscap on, ready for action. Swung the camera through a spiderweb without realizing it. Lovely pattern, isn’t it?

Spider webbing usually takes lens cleaning fluid to get off (I know this because I have had jumping spiders leap onto the lens to run around,) but I lucked out this time. The rim of the lens actually suspended the web across it, so it never touched the glass, but I went ahead and cleaned it anyway.

There’s too damn many spiders around my place…

Quick items of interest

Just a brief mention of two items that may be of interest.

The first is, I created a webpage about understanding the aperture within your camera – what it is, how it works, what it does for your photos, and so on. Lavishly illustrated and a nonstop rollercoaster ride from start to finish, it can be found at http://wading-in.net/aperture.html.

The second is, I’m selling one of my cameras, a Mamiya 645E, so if you’re interested, especially if you’re interested in starting in medium format, check out http://wading-in.net/Add/mamiya.html. If that page is down, it means the camera has been sold.

I’ll be back shortly with more real content!

Frustrations, part three

First, we’ll talk about the photo. What you’re seeing below is a two-by-two stake (so 1.5 inches square, or 4 cm) that was probably used to anchor a crab trap or something similar. It had fallen into shallow salt water in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon near Melbourne, and everything that is not wood colored in this image is alive. The largest things are barnacles, which grow surprisingly fast in these waters, but all of the pale green striped blobs you see are anemones – this is what they look like when they retract protectively. If you want to see both of them in feeding mode, check out my Tank Gallery photos. A couple of tiny little crabs are plainly visible, roughly the size of deer ticks, and a larger one, dark grey, hides among the barnacles at lower left. This minuscule slice of life from what appeared to be a boring sandy tidal shallow gives a good indication of how ecosystems can be teeming with activity.


Now here’s the frustration part. This is one of many images where I can no longer access the original. During a computer upgrade a few years ago, I was juggling images between maxed-out hard drives and had just cleared the old one, right before burning backups to CDs, when the one hard drive containing a lot of digital images from Florida failed to boot. It has never booted since, and while I still have it, it’s entirely possible that it’s toast. A lot of my best images had already been backed up, but a selection of them, this one included, had not, and are probably gone forever.

So how am I showing you this one? Because I had resized some samples to e-mail to people, and that’s what you’re seeing here, only marginally smaller for this blog than the only copy I now have. And that size is way too small to market to publishers, and too small to get any more detail from.

This is why you perform routine, and multiple, backups of digital images, and why you don’t do what I did and spend any amount of time, even the brief juggling I was in the middle of (which would have lasted no more than a few days) with only one copy. Media fails, and in my history, all media fails, sometimes much quicker than it should. The CDs I made of my first film scans are mostly unreadable now, even though they saw very little usage and were always stored in jewel cases. The slides that I’d actually scanned are still in good shape, and can be scanned again as needed, but eventually they’ll decay.

Everything that exists does so only for a period of time, and nothing is permanent. When you spend a lot of time in the creation or obtainment of something, you don’t want them disappearing, especially if they’re an investment and stand the potential of bringing in money, but even if they’re simply something you’re proud of. Yet they will vanish, erode, decay, or be damaged eventually, and there is no foolproof way of preventing this. I try to be mellow about it, and remember that any image I’ve captured (or missed, for that matter) can be taken again – in theory, at least. And since then, I’ve taken many other images I’m proud of, thousands in fact. But it’s still frustrating, and I hate losing them.

Think about your hard drive right now – if it fails, what are you going to lose forever? If the thought of that is anything more than mildly annoying, back up your crucial files now, and multiple backups aren’t a bad idea. Part of that money that you thought you saved from not using film needs to be spent keeping those electrons in order.

On composition, part two

Unfortunately, I don’t use this blog to demonstrate composition in nature photography as often as I should, and instead you get illustrative, detail, or portrait-style images. I do a little of everything: illustrations and identifying details are important for many uses, but it never hurts to have a well-composed image as well. So now I’ll talk a little more about composition in wildlife photography.

First off, appropriate settings are greatly preferred. The idea is to capture a little window into nature, and inappropriate backgrounds or settings take away from this for the viewer. It works best if you can capture your subject already in place within the right setting, but there are many difficulties with this. Your subject is unlikely to be enamored with the idea of your close approach, and will choose to hide. The natural setting, while realistic, may not be photogenic – dead leaves or branches, complicated backgrounds, too little contrast, or distracting elements are actually pretty common. And even if you manage to get past these, getting decent light on your subject can be very tricky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve struggled to get the camera lens lined up past concealing foliage, only to have the strobe blocked, or had my subject sitting half in shadow which becomes far too dark on film.

So, sometimes you aim to either alter a setting to work better, by removing distracting elements, cutting light to the background, or forcing a better angle (if you like nature photography, be prepared to crawl around and get filthy and wet.) Sometimes, you’ll simply move or coax your subject into a better location. And sometimes you’ll actually construct a set of some kind in controlled conditions – I find this most useful for insects, but used it extensively for saltwater and brackish subjects when I lived in Florida. Everything in those images is authentic and consistent with the species, but I was able to work without scuba gear and with controlled lighting.

Even with all of that, however, you still want to achieve something more whenever you can. A striking “pose,” an interesting bit of behavior, or even an evocative “expression.” We humans have a fierce tendency to identify animal behavior with our own, which is something I actively discourage, but it still produces stronger reactions when it can be associated with an image. Here, the frog has an almost wistful, contemplative expression, mostly communicated by the angle it sits and the position I chose to shoot from. The image is cropped (from the original horizontal composition) to give it space for this apparent attention, with an imaginary line running along the frog’s gaze to the corner. The position of the forelegs and the toes is casual and relaxed in appearance, rather than tensed and poised to jump. And, for this post, I even placed the image itself so that the frog’s “attention” directs into the text, rather than off the screen as it would have on the opposite side.

There’s more, too. The softbox on the flash prevented harsh shadows, shed light from above rather than direct from the camera, and provided a catchlight in the eyes. The rain kept the frog’s skin moist, which makes the viewer think of tree or aquatic frogs rather than toads. The stems of the leaves all seem to draw towards the frog, and the uppermost one mimics the line of the frog’s jaw and spine for a little harmony. I actually ducked down slightly to have the top leaf frame the frog’s head as it does. None of the leaves are damaged, which would also have provided a negative impact to the viewer.

And there’s one more, extremely subtle thing: the pupils aren’t dilated as they normally might have been in dark conditions. This was because I was using a bright flashlight to focus, but from the standpoint of the viewer, it actually changes the apparent emotion of the frog. Wide pupils indicate excitement, fear, or reaction, which would have said something entirely different about this pose. Instead, the smaller pupils communicate that the frog is relaxed, mellow, and not thinking of going anywhere. In truth, this is entirely inaccurate, but it makes no difference to how this image might be interpreted or used.

This frog was actually found alongside my door, perched on an old windowscreen frame. I moved it to the treebranch you see here, which was a perfectly natural setting for the species, then followed it around looking for poses of opportunity as it shifted position along the branch. The moisture is authentic, since this was immediately following a rain and the leaves were still dripping. Afterwards, I returned it to exactly where I’d found it. Taking this small step for a better setting added remarkably to the image, and the remaining factors were a combination of careful framing, timing, and the positions the frog shifted through. Making the extra effort will change your images for the better.

Digital has its uses

Yesterday was definitely not the day to really be tackling this, but I spent a little time down at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, and still managed to get a couple of useful images while there. The sun was hiding behind either heavy haze or clouds while the temperature hovered in the high nineties, and the sweat was pouring off of me. Worse, though, was the light quality – a little haze is actually useful, because it softens both the highlights and the shadows and provides a contrast that can be handled easier, but heavy haze mutes the color and turns everything a bit bluer. It also reduces the light by a few stops, which can make photos of fast subjects tricky to get.

Taking advantage of some light shade from a tree near this bush, I waited out the visits from the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris.) Both of these photos were handheld with a 75-300 IS lens at 300mm, but I’d bumped the ISO up to 400 to give me a bit more of a useful working space. The shade also helped me be a little more discreet in the four-to-five meter (15 foot) working distance to the birds. You’re looking at the two best images from 36 attempts – hummingbirds are hyperactive fliers, and this one was not staying in one position longer than a second, most times less, as she sampled a large number of flowers on each visit. You might think I’m crazy for this fact, too, but I was shooting manual focus. With a small and rapid subject, autofocus can too easily lose the correct focus point and rack throughout its entire travel trying to regain it, which is simply time wasted – meanwhile, you’ve lost the subject entirely because the focus in the viewfinder is either a few feet in front of you, or infinity. So I go with manual focus, which is “slower” but lets me track focus without going too far astray and losing sight of my subject.

Film would probably have made the colors better, but with the nature of such a subject, digital wins handily – I try not to discard entire rolls of worthless shots, and that’s pretty close to what would have happened here. Also, my preferred films are much slower than ISO 400 (like 40 to 80) which might have meant motion blur, or at least having to use a flash, which would then have affected the background appearance.

There was one other technique I could have used, which stands the greatest chance of producing sharp images, and that’s to choose a particular branch of blossoms, lock the camera on a tripod framed and focused on them, and wait for the hummingbird to “pose” at my chosen branch. Naturally, this can take no small amount of time, and in the heat I didn’t have the patience to stake out a particular blossom. Still, I can’t complain about what I did capture.

One other little bit of trivia: the bottom photo actually came before the top photo, and she likely backed away from the blossom on hearing the sound of the camera.

Superstitious?

During a phone conversation with a friend the other night, I admitted to holding some senseless superstitions, and got (rightfully) berated for it. As punishment, he assigned me a five hundred word essay on superstition, so don’t be blaming me if this is boring – it’s his assignment. I’m just not sure I can keep it down to five hundred words…

Superstition actually appears to come form three different sources combined. The first is related to my earlier post about meaning and purpose, and our drive to find the cause behind the effect. This has an interesting cause of its own. We have long inbred instincts towards social interaction, the same kind of instincts that make mother birds stuff food down gaping gullets, even of birds that are not their own species. Ours, however, revolve around how we work together as a tribe/village/society, and might be called a sense of justice. It tells us that people who do things against the collective good of the tribe are bad, and deserve punishment – and vice versa of course. So we associate bad things with punishment, and figure that we must have done something to deserve it. When misfortune befalls us without any distinct evidence of why we’re being punished, we still insist on finding the cause.

The second source of superstition is our tendency to find patterns, and again, this probably dates way back. I emphasize this ability for its use to nature photography, because visual patterns are one of the better clues to finding animals. And this is possibly why we even developed it in the first place. It serves other purposes too, in helping us to learn what actual causes are, and even produced mankind’s earliest form of timekeeping, in the patterns of the stars to predict the seasons. We’re incredibly attuned to patterns, as evidenced by things like pareidolia, the tendency to see faces in random designs, and the reaction we have to people we know who break their patterns of behavior, even in subtle ways.

And finally, we have this ugly little thing best called “confirmation bias.” We’re hypersensitive to being right and avoiding being wrong, so much that we have hard times admitting it, so we often settle for causes and answers that fit a few criteria, without examining them thoroughly enough to see that they miss more than they fit. Did this come up way back? Quite possibly, but this is one of those things that I think are imperfectly evolved within us. Trying to be right, to find correct answers, is good. But being driven to settle for a particular answer because we have a greater fear of being wrong doesn’t always work, to which our history of pseudoscience can attest. It has the appearance that the fear of being wrong is far more powerful than the desire to be right, which lends too much emphasis towards actually being wrong.

This, in itself, might strike people as questionable, and truth be told, I have no background in this – actually educated people might disagree. But we also have to remember that evolution, while effective, isn’t exactly efficient, and we are not in a “final state” of any kind – there is always room for improvement, and this might simply be one of those things that didn’t develop well enough yet. There is no doubt, however, that we have difficulties with confirmation bias, and this stems from somewhere.

Put all of those above factors together, and you can see where random occurrences, especially unfortunate ones which only affect one person, can get assigned a curious “cause.” Once established within a society’s lore, that confirmation bias comes into play again, where people fall and break their wrist, then think back to which one of the myriad causes of bad luck they might have inadvertently activated. Aha, I spilled salt on a ladder yesterday – that was the culprit!

What it comes down to is, we have several different useful traits in our instincts that we often apply automatically, and in some cases they lead to strange behavior. This is not in any way excusing superstition, because we also have a rational portion of our brains that can override instincts pretty easily. The issue is when we don’t exercise this, or even realize that it should be exercised. We are far from perfect, and can easily be fooled by drives within us that have use to us in certain circumstances, but not others. The first real step is recognizing this.

That’s a lot more than five hundreds words, so I expect extra credit for this.