Happy Darwin Day

Today is the 201st anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and now considered an unofficial holiday. It is intended to recognize the contributions Darwin made to science, most especially the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Most people simply refer to this as “evolution,” but that technically falls a little short of the mark – evolution can refer to anything that changes. It’s the “natural selection” part that defines what Darwin kick-started.

It’s kind of a funny thing to celebrate, really. Most of the scientists that have contributed remarkable amounts to our base of knowledge have no such day. James Clerk Maxwell, who demonstrated the properties of electromagnetism, has no such day. He was the first to show that electricity, radio waves, and light are all part of the same spectrum or energy and properties, which impacts everything from the computer you’re reading this on, to the microwave oven you heated the Hot Pockets you’re snacking on, to the GPS network that feeds the little voice in the car that you’re not driving right now. Einstein? Absolutely amazing body of work, most of it theoretical until science caught up with ways to test it, and incidentally has a hand in that GPS you’re not using. Pasteur? Galileo, Archimedes, Aristotle, Hubble, Hawking, Nye? Nope, no days for them.

So why Darwin? Was it that he made this tremendous intuitive or intellectual leap? Not really – he was more the meticulous type, and built a body of evidence for his theory over quite a period of time. Was he particularly far ahead of his time? Nope – he actually rushed to press with “On the Origin of Species” to beat out Sir Alfred Russell Wallace, who was working on exactly the same thing (later, they lectured together.) “Rushed to press” is kind of a relative thing, since he’d been working on the concept for 17 years – I said he was meticulous. Was it because it had such a huge impact on the various fields of study that it pertained to? Partially, perhaps, though Einstein and Maxwell have him well beat, and I’d even argue that Hubble changed his field more that Darwin.

In fact, what Darwin produced was, in some ways, inevitable. He was simply an investigator, and followed where the evidence led. Natural Selection was already waiting to be discovered. Worldwide travel, worldwide communications (albeit much slower then,) universities and the scientific method, and even the printing press all collaborated on his work, and gave him the opportunity to see how universal his concept was by comparing the findings of countless others who hadn’t quite made the intuitive leap. I don’t want to denigrate him, because I’m fascinated and humbled by what he accomplished, but I feel much more so by the others that I’ve mentioned above.

Darwin is noticeably controversial, though. More religious nutbags attack him than any other scientist, by a huge margin. Why? Apparently, because he claims the scriptures wrong, if you were to ask most of the rabid nitwits. But he made no such claim, he merely demonstrated how much of nature does that on its own. Facts are the culprit, and they don’t claim, they prove it pretty impressively. In fact, most fields of science all contribute to that – geology, biology, physics, astrophysics – you can keep the list going for quite a while, methinks. Geology, by the way, established that the earth was much older than any scripture claimed long before Darwin published anything.

Is it because he’s worshiped as a demigod by science, even though he was wrong? Um, it’s safe to say, “no,” to that one, since most scientific fields have the most rigorous systems in place to establish how accurate anything is, and Natural Selection has stood the test of time and abuse quite well. Bear in mind, Darwin speculated on a method of living beings automatically passing on information to their progeny decades before we had even an inkling of what DNA was. Darwin isn’t worshiped any more than Pasteur is, and doesn’t even have a process named after himself.

Maybe it’s because he says we came from monkeys? But he didn’t, and that’s actually a dishonest twisting of the theory that’s propagated by all those religious folk who claim to be ethical and moral. We have a common ancestor with the great apes, which isn’t saying that we came from monkeys any more than it says monkeys came from us. This has been corrected literally thousands of times in the past, which certainly isn’t enough to cause any religious retard to stop using it. Why let simple facts get in the way? We also share a common ancestor with every living thing on the planet, by the way – monkeys aren’t special, or singled out by any branch of biology.

However, that is the real sticking point: if we were made in god’s image, god at some point in the past looked like a single-celled organism swimming in a sea of muck. That’s what the hullabaloo is all about, when it comes right down to it: we have no link to the divine, and we were not created for a grand plan, and we are not living on a planet created especially for us, and we are not lined up to receive a grand reward once we expire. That’s all. Simple human vanity causes all sorts of indignant responses. And that’s why we recognize Darwin – because so much of our “culture” gets into a hissy fit when they’re told they’re not special, and spends inordinate amounts of time trying to spread abject denial. Darwin Day is, unfortunately, a rather pathetic commentary on our species. Imagine having “Gravity Day” or “Thermodynamics Day” because insecure little folk with big mouths can’t accept that the world isn’t stroking their ego the way they want.

I, for one, find the concept of Natural Selection absolutely fascinating, and thinking that the abilities I have now all built up over a very significant length of time is pretty damn cool. I’m not bothered by mortality at all (I think immortality would be incredibly boring,) and I’m not concerned with playing a part in any plan favored by the petty and emotional gods in the scriptures. Investigating the world leads to so much knowledge and fascination, and I almost feel sorry for the people that don’t want it to exist.

Almost. Mostly, I think they’re pathetic.

Happy Darwin Day, everyone! Happy Everyone in Science Day, too! Go out and experience something real.

Misplaced efforts

Sometimes, you have to sit back and look at our culture, because it’s going to be a really amusing read many years from now if most of this stuff hits the history books.

I was commenting to my boss the other day about a music video (that’s two site links, to get proper credit) that pays homage to a webcomic that rewrote an advertising jingle from the Discovery Channel. What’s most notable about it is that it features numerous web personalities (I have no better overall term for these), that someone had to contact, videotape them singing (or get them to send in their own recording) and sync into a video. And they all did it because they knew the webcomic. Not to mention, are bona fide geeks. I’m talking about people like Phil Plait the Bad Astronomer (“I love the whole world” in front of the picture of Saturn and the Earth), Miss Cellania of her own blog and Mental Floss (I’m pretty sure that’s her in the middle at the first boom de yadda), Neil Gaiman the author, Wil Wheaton the actor (Wesley Crusher from Start Trek TNG, which might make you wince, but he’s much less annoying himself), and frankly a whole lot of people I don’t know, but have to find out.

Anyway, if that isn’t a good enough example of our weird culture, maybe this is:

I have a spam filter on my commenting system because, unfortunately, that’s about all the comments I get. Most get blocked, but some come through for moderation. And I have to admit, they’re trying much harder now to wiggle their way in. Listen to this:

“You put together a great position with what you explained. A great number of people have to read your article to allow them to get a greater point of view about this issue. It was great of you to provide great information and encouraging arguments. After reading this, I know my thoughts are pretty certain about the matter. Keep up the fantastic job!”

Trust me, that’s not one of the better ones I’ve received. Such effusiveness! Such loquaciousness! (I knew I had a thesaurus for a reason.)

And yet, a total miss, because it’s a comment on this post, where I rambled on about, well, rambling on. It’s one of the most meaningless posts I’ve made, at least in the bottom three (feel free to open the voting on that one.) If there’s a point I made in there, it escaped even me.

Of course, spam has a reason, mostly to attempt to spread links around, and often viruses (I use that term to mean all of the variations like worms and trojans, don’t get technical on me.) The link embedded in this one, which I will not click or repeat, seems to be for an iPhone app.

That’s another swing-and-a-miss! I detest cellphones at large, and think the iPhone is a senseless toy. And many, many people are expending a lot of effort writing inane applications for it to try and collect even more money from people who think they didn’t waste enough on their toy. All that, however, is topped by the efforts spent by spammers to try and get me to advertise/propagate their shit on my site. And someone is actually paying for that.

I’d like to think that one day our descendants will look back on the business practices of this time period and wonder how we got so far off track. I’m a little scared that they’ll look back nostalgically and wish they could return to such “better values.”

I told you I'd be back


As threatened, I did indeed get out and do some more night shots, both during the snowstorm and after it stopped. We got a significant amount here for NC, roughly seven inches in my area I think, and the temperature peeked above freezing only for a couple hours today. It’s made standing outside late at night/early in the morning (whatever you call 4 AM) interesting, to say the least.

Above, an experimental shot. I’m not really sure what to think about it, so I’m going to solicit a few opinions on it.

Last night, as I was going to bed, I noticed the light pouring through the blinds was pretty bright, indicating that the sky had cleared and the nearly-full moon was out. Naturally, with a full snowfield, I couldn’t let this pass, but the roads were too treacherous, so I stuck around and did my photography locally. As I’ve said earlier, the full moon can provide a lot of light, if you let the exposure out long enough – this one is three minutes at ISO 100, f8, slightly brightened in post-processing. I like how the sparkles showed up.

As I type this, I have two long exposures from a few minutes ago sitting in the EOS 3 (film camera) waiting for the roll to be finished and developed, and one still exposing on the Mamiya out in a clearing in the woods behind my house – I’m going for a two-hour exposure. Does that make this live-blogging? I suppose it doesn’t count, since I’m sitting warm and dry inside while the camera stands alone in the woods.

By the way, a little word of advice for starry night shots and such: wait until very late at night. Aircraft cutting through your shots take away a lot of the appeal (unless you plan them). Eight PM is not a good time. Generally, by midnight in most areas the flights have halted. I wanted an earlier start tonight because the moon is rising and I didn’t want its light in the sky this time. Even on what seems to be a perfectly clear night, moonlight scatters from the air and causes too much sky glow for good star photography.

Earlier today, I got out and chased a few shots as well. An important thing to remember as you’re doing snow (or beach) shots is that the camera meter wants to make the scene an “average” brightness. When you have snow or bright sand and water, the camera will darken this down to middle tones if you let it, so always adjust to overexpose the shot. It’s called, “exposure compensation,” and for snow, generally 2/3 to 1 full stop is useful, depending on what you’re after. Bleaching out the snow to pure white destroys the details. So unless you’re just using it for a setting, I’d recommend keeping it bright but not white. This shot is 2/3 over-exposed from what the camera calculated, metered from the snow in the foreground. Unfortunately, at this size it doesn’t carry the details as well, so you can just make out that the rabbit trail continues on the other side of that broad shadow.

If the long film exposures turn out halfway decently, I’ll come back and show them off, and give another example of what good film can do to star colors. Meanwhile, I’ll close with a shot from the storm, where the flash helped show conditions just a wee bit better.

And it begins


Everyone has been in a frenzy here in NC over the approaching storm, which is supposed to deposit anywhere from 4 to 15 inches of snow on us, and it’s off to its start now. I realize this isn’t impressive by northern standards, and since I used to live in New York (the state) I’m not impressed either. But you also have to consider that no one knows what snow tires are around here, and there are virtually no snowplows, and power lines are hung by minimal standards (meaning, “not up to the weight of a coating of ice”.) So, it might get a little interesting.

I actually look forward to this. Winter in NC is boring – the only evergreens we have around here are longneedle southern pines, which are ugly trees, pretty mangy looking and very drab. The rest of the area is dead grass and bare trees – essentially, grey. About the best that can be said is that the low humidity tends to keep the skies clear and blue, unlike New York, which typically gets socked in for several months of overcast skies. When a break does occur and you get clear skies, it’s because there’s a wicked front pushing in and it’s generally colder than hell. I guess I should be happy that the winters aren’t that cold here? Naaah, not really, because I’ve spent winters in Florida too, where winter jackets were needed only occasionally.


The snow was falling as I took these pics (less than an hour ago as I type this), though it’s hard to tell because the long exposures that I needed for the night shots meant the snow moving through the air wasn’t still enough to show up. At top, the background light comes from my neighbor’s porch light, while the foreground branches are illuminated by an LED flashlight that I played across them during the exposure. The road shot above was simply ambient light, with some helping glow from the car headlights. I used a plastic bag over the camera to keep it dry, and listened to the hiss of the snow against the plastic. Facing in certain directions meant fumbling with the bag to ensure the light breeze didn’t carry it away – one of those things about nature photography is how much even mild breezes can mess with your photo. Ever try to take a tight macro shot of an insect on top of a long plant? Effective sharp focus is measured in centimeters or even millimeters, and plants can sway a lot more than that. It’s a common superstition that removing the macro lens from its pouch will cause the wind to kick up. Tonight, when I would normally have considered it very still and quiet, the bag told me otherwise as I had to keep wrapping it around the tripod knobs to keep it in place.

And even though it was full dark without bright lights shining towards the lens, I fixed the lenshood in place too, for good reason. It kept the snow from hitting the lens and putting water spots in my shots. Some idea of the usefulness of this can be seen here, where the lower lip of the hood collected a tiny snowdrift while I was shooting. A quick shot in the mirror once I came inside was necessary, reversed for the blog just so it wasn’t too confusing.

So, stay tuned, and we’ll see what kind of interesting landscapes are produced by the snowfall. Maybe if I’m really lucky, we’ll get clear skies before the snow melts and I’ll go for a star exposure over the snowfield.

Odd memories

crazyroad Sometimes, things get a little too surreal. Probably about ten years ago or so, I was driving around Florida looking for good photo subjects, and out on Merritt Island. If you’re not familiar with it, you should know that the middle portion of it is more popularly known as Cape Canaveral. North of the Cape, however, it’s a nice wildlife refuge. But a mite damp.

Okay, it runs the line between “freaking swamp” and “flood plain,” but it’s still good to find animals within. However, some caution needs to be taken when choosing sandy lanes to turn down and explore. Some of them become, literally, one lane roads twisting through the middle of the swamp. No, seriously: one car width and the shoulders sloping directly down to the water. That white line in the photo above (courtesy of Google Earth – I wouldn’t publish anything with color that wretched) is the road, flanked by a drainage channel on one side and open water on the other. Very exotic, but there’s this issue if someone happens to be coming the other way…

Thankfully, this never happened, but I expected it to be a short drive before coming to, I don’t know, a two-lane section, or someplace to pass and/or turn around, something wild and crazy like that. Nope – I must have gone over a kilometer before finding a spot where I could twelve-point turn to head back the way I came, then dreading someone else coming that way. It has to be the strangest road I’ve ever been on. I didn’t have Google Earth then, or a map which showed this kind of detail, so I didn’t know that if I kept going I would simply end up on the public access road through the wildlife refuge (though I probably would have come up against a locked gate and had to turn around anyway.)

Want a look at this yourself? Enter “N 28.703366 W 80.725942” in Google Earth, Google Maps, Bing, whatever. That should take you right to the head of the road. When it eventually “T’s” into another road, that’s Blackpoint Wildlife Drive, the main observation road in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. You might be saying something like, “Geez, Al, you were on a private access road, dumbass! Read the signs next time.” And you know, I agree with you – except there were no signs, and a few years before, I’d turned off on the next road north, which took me back into a Boy Scout camp, fishing area, and a photogenic access point to the swamp (if you’re following along at home, that’s the one that ends in a loop.) Very neat area, just about like a private tropical island. With nature photography, it often pays to discover the little out-of-the-way places that don’t seem popular, because not only are you likely to discover animals that haven’t been scared off by too much activity, but the trash and land abuse tends to be much lower too.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a great birding area, but this almost goes without saying – it’s in Florida. It’s also a good place to find alligators, wild pigs, and bobcats (the latter two I’ve seen but not caught on film yet), and a few kilometers north, there’s a manatee viewing area on Old Haulover Canal where I’ve never failed to see them (that’s the parking area on the northeast side, immediately alongside the bridge.) Other shots from this area can be found here, here, here, here, and, I think, the second and third photos here were taken at the overlook. Yeah, I like the area. But the roads could use some work.

Yay!

I just upgraded WordPress almost painlessly! Made sure I had meticulous backups, then simply uploaded and clicked “Update database.” All done!

This sounds like a nonsense post (or, bile rising, a “Tweet”,) but I actually started this blog on B2Evolution, and lost it all during their simple little upgrade. I reconstructed the trashed posts from the text buried in the database files that wouldn’t reload. So yes, this is actually meaningful, if only because the dread I had was for nothing. Go WordPress!

An appeal

Even a total news-phobe like me has heard about the devastating earthquake in Haiti, just about the one place on Earth least capable of coping with such events. And I’m not really one to perpetuate the guilt bandwagon, or the “redeeming act” appeals to show how nice I am. I’m not nice – I’m very blunt, and if fact gets in the way of your feelings, fact wins. Get over it.

But, I’d have to try really hard to be as enormous a fucking asshole as Pat Robertson, who made headlines once again for being the religious leader least able to understand the word, “compassion,” something that (correct me if I’m wrong) I thought was a principle tenet of his faith. You really have to be brain-damaged to take horrible events and try to use them to scare people into the fold. It’s far beyond crass opportunism, dancing merrily into the realm of total fucking shitheel.

And if you’re an atheist like I am, you get to be considered immoral, selfish, and loathsome by that idiot, and many others like him across the country (it seems there are far fewer in other countries around the world.) I’m actually used to it, and don’t really consider the rantings of any religious individual or organization as counting for much. Even so, there’s now an opportunity to throw it back.

Non-believers Giving Aid” is a support effort formed by the Richard Dawkins Foundation as a non-religious avenue of assistance. While Pat pounds his pulpit, Richard is matching the PayPal fees himself to ensure the money you donate goes to help Haiti, period. You can choose to funnel it into Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) or the International Red Cross, both secular organizations that don’t muddy their assistance with posturing and self-aggrandizement. And by doing so, you’re making a statement that compassion doesn’t come from religion (far from it! but that’s a post for another time.)

Don’t want to give through Richard Dawkins? Fine, don’t. I actually encourage healthy distrust. Just don’t use it as an excuse not to help out. We sit in this country with our DVD players, cars with air-conditioning, and delivered pizza – we’re pretty well-off. We can spare a bit for people that not only have never seen such conveniences, but right now, may not even see light through the rubble. Pick a method and do it.

If you want to give through your church, just compare the condition of the buildings you meet within, against the condition of whatever assistance organization (homeless shelter, soup kitchen, disadvantaged child support, etc.) in town you like. If they don’t measure up, maybe, just maybe, you should see that the money goes where it really should. However you like.

Thanks. I don’t have much of an audience, but I’ll do what I can. Spread the word.

What’s the harm?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a skeptical account of a ghost story, and believe me, this wasn’t the first conversation I’ve gotten into about what I’ll simply call, “questionable phenomena.” And, both from my own personal experience and from numerous public discussions, I can say that a common response to this is, “Yeah, but what’s the harm?” Who cares if someone believes in ghosts, psychics, or alternative medicine without hard evidence or scientific support? As long as they’re not hurting anybody, leave them be. Right?

Well, here’s my way of thinking. First, we’ll avoid the “slippery slope” style of arguments, where I trot out the cases that resulted in grave misfortune and death. Yes, they exist – but in all honesty, most of those are examples more of people that have serious mental issues in the first place, and it’s difficult to make a case that their belief structure was directly and solely responsible for their downfall. Most people aren’t like that, and wouldn’t ever get so wrapped up in something that they lose all judgment.

So, what of the mild, common cases? How are they bad? We can start with, they introduce a bias to thinking. People who follow UFO accounts in most of the popular media will immediately entertain the notion that a strange object in the sky might just be alien in nature. People who find the idea of alternative medicine intriguing tend to be a bit slower to go to the doctor when becoming ill, which means that they’ll be contagious longer and probably miss more work. And overall, there’s an extremely damaging affect on our advancement. The plethora of ideas that “science can’t answer” – psychic powers, faith healing, alien visitations, secret organizations that control the world – taken together build this concept that science isn’t all that good at determining “truth.”

Science, actually, has provided the answers to all of these. They’re simply answers that too many people don’t want to hear.

What about personal damage? Faith is considered a very personal thing, none of anybody else’s business. And we’ll talk more about that in a moment. But how many people live agonized lives because they’re trying to balance everything, from making a living to having a sex drive, with the concept of inexcusable sin? How many people who suffer misfortune for perfectly normal reasons feel they’ve somehow “earned” this treatment from a vengeful deity? Is it a good thing to see the death of a loved one as a failure, either of theirs or yours?

But this only affects individuals, right? Perhaps they agonize over things, but they’re just doing it to themselves. I’d agree, if I didn’t routinely see that people really enjoy spreading it around to others as well. Do you think kids, that have yet to develop a decent sense of right and wrong, need to have emotional baggage or fuzzy thinking piled on top of that? Generally until reaching adulthood themselves, children see adults as authority figures, imparting wisdom that is unquestionable and unshakable – this is, of course, why churches like starting early. But so much of childhood, adolescence, and yes, often far into adulthood, is spent unlearning many of the things they’re bombarded with in their formative years. Sometimes, this serves to impart a hard lesson that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Other times, it simply turns them bitter, or worse, they never really do unlearn the crap and just perpetuate it to their own kids.

And it’s not just kids that receive the largesse of fractured thinking. Let’s face it, people have a tendency to follow the herd, and alter their thinking to the majority of people around them. How many coworkers talking about a “great new health product” do you think it takes to cause someone to support it too, or at least not view it with a healthy dose of critical thinking? As little as one, if that person is respected, but it rarely takes more than two or three on average.

And we have a wicked bias towards personal accounts. How many people are far more willing to listen to the advice coming from one friend’s personal experience, than the meticulous double-blind clinical trials in a representatively large and varied population performed by universities, hospitals, and professional research institutions? Almost sounds ludicrous when I say it like that, but you know it happens all the time, don’t you?

So, did I just say that one person with questionable beliefs can affect a collection of others? Yes, I did. And I haven’t even touched on the idea that this one person might be a celebrity and reach thousands to millions of people with even offhand comments.

Here’s a funny aspect of the whole thing too: People don’t treat everything they do or think about the same way. Even scientists, who often have to catalog all of their work in excruciating detail and can’t even get their degrees unless they understand tests that eliminate personal bias, can view other interests with a blind eye to critical thought. This is actually pretty common (like the idea of doctors who smoke,) but we definitely have a hard time believing it. So we end up with authoritative figures providing info that we trust, info that really isn’t trustworthy.

Did I just say, “trust nobody?” In a way, yes. More importantly, don’t place your faith in anyone by virtue of their position or social standing. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts.” Be aware that when I talk about “people” above and all of their foibles when it comes to questionable phenomena, I’m not just talking about “those people,” I’m talking about us – human beings. It’s a trend we all have and can all fall prey to.

And that means not becoming one of those who helps spread the fuzzy thinking. Believe in alien visitation? Okay, ask yourself why. Because you’ve heard lots of UFO stories? Yeah, me too. Those books sell really well. Wait – did we just find a key element in the idea?

Do you want to know what’s been hard about this post? It’s that I know too many people who hold some of these beliefs, and I’m trying not to make this sound like a personal attack. But to make it brief, there is harm in simple beliefs, and for the other side of the coin, there are numerous benefits to thinking critically, especially making a habit of it. It’s something that we could stand making a lot more popular. And when you compare it to the efforts spent in spreading ideas like ear candling and astral travel, you realize we could stand trying really hard to make it popular.

Just because

scudhouse
Maybe I should amend that title to, “Part One.” Is this likely to be an ongoing thing?

Looking for some specific images the other night, I stumbled across this one that I had completely forgotten about. Back in April 2004 (isn’t EXIF info great?) I was living in Florida and maintained a small saltwater aquarium, but not the usual kind. I lived near the Indian River Lagoon, a largely saltwater internal bay between the mainland and the barrier islands on the Atlantic coast, and my tank was stocked with critters collected from there, whatever I could get my hands on (and would fit in the tank – some wouldn’t.) One overabundant resident in the area was the amphipod… heh, “the” amphipod, like there’s only one species. There are probably so many that it’s impossible to get an accurate species count, so don’t go asking me what, exactly, these are. All I know is that they are found everywhere, and if you pull a handful of seaweed out of the water, you’ll have these crawling across your hand in moments as they try to get back into the water. They’re completely harmless, and once you get past the creepiness of a swarm of lice-like crustaceans, you start watching their antics. They are, after all, a bit easier to see than the Sea Monkeys we all grew up with.

Here, an empty snail shell was gathered up with the new seaweed that I would replenish the tank with (a food source for many of the residents,) small enough that it was floated to the surface by trapped air within. The ‘pods thought this was the coolest thing, and swam in and out for quite some time. I was lucky enough to catch it while adhering to the tank glass momentarily, which allowed for a tight macro shot. The largest amphipod seen here could hide easily behind a grain of rice.

I had a lot of fun with that tank, and produced hundreds of images from it, a small fraction seen here. Man, I have to go back to Florida…

You owe it to yourself

ihbbeamrise2
This is a topic that’s hard to illustrate effectively, so in order to fully appreciate it, you’re going to have to do at least one outside exercise yourself. But let’s start with, do you do any photography yourself? If yes, good! Now, do you have a film camera? It’s my suspicion that a pretty good percentage of answers (if I actually had readers, anyway) would be, “no.” And to that I say, “Why the hell not?”

I’ve been through the majority of answers to that – I used to be active on several photography forums as digital cameras made their big splash. And I have to admit I was never convinced by those answers. I shoot digital now, and have for several years, so I have personal experience with all of those answers firsthand. And it’s why I don’t shoot exclusively digital (if you were fooled by the statement, “I shoot digital now,” into thinking that it was the only format I used, shame on you.) If you want a breakdown of many of those arguments, I covered them on a dedicated page here.

If you, however, have never run a roll of slide film through a film camera, all I can say is, do it now. There’s a whole other world of photography that you haven’t tried yet. The colors, the vibrancy, the sharpness – I’m not one for enthusing over things, I think it simply makes one sound overexuberant and chases people off, but all these have to be seen. And yes, I hear the argument: “But you can get all of those things from digital! And you can even alter them to your liking on the computer!” I usually hear those things from people who virtually never shoot film, so I’m not really sold on their experience. Just try it first. Come back and tell me I’m wrong if you like.

Now, I can’t illustrate this too effectively for you, no matter how I might try, because this is a digital interface. Everything I display on the blog or website has to be digitized – scanned from the original slide. And this introduces three major handicaps. The biggest by far is something called 24-bit color, which is the default display on most systems and software right now. In essence, you have three color registers (either red, green, & blue, or cyan, magenta, & yellow – RGB or CMYK respectively) and 256 values in each of those. Everything has to be rendered into those registers. And while this might seem like a lot, it doesn’t compare to the analog color of emulsions, which can cover much greater ranges. So subtleties can be lost when converting to digital.

The second handicap is color rendition. Scanners can have issues with different films, in that they don’t seem to recognize the neutral starting point, what we tend to think of as “white light.” So they can scan a slide and produce something that looks very dissimilar from the slide itself, and then the operator has to perform corrections to get this back on track. This can take a pretty good amount of experience, and I routinely re-examine my slide scans and tweak the colors in different ways.

And finally, there is no such thing as a color digital sensor. No, seriously. All they measure is light intensity, how bright the light they receive is, and this applies to both digital cameras and film scanners. But the “image” they get is monochrome. In order to make it color, you have to do the same thing as holding a sheet of colored plastic in front of a B&W TV. That’s right – individual pixels actually have color filters over top of them. Software later interprets this the best it can and converts the image into a smooth field of the similar colors, rather than (like your computer monitor) a matrix of alternating color dots. The end result of this is, you’re stuck with the color filters that the scanner has built into it.

mossystumpYou’re stuck with it for particular film types, too – it’s built into the emulsion. But not all films are the same, and you can switch between ones good for skin tones and ones that make colors pop, ones good for foliage and ones good for low light. Slide films are by far the best for vibrant colors and richness. And they also have traits you may not like at first, like higher contrast and slow ISO ratings. Casual photographers may find they produce a lot of shots they simply throw out.

You see, that’s actually a benefit. Because it makes us slow down and consider the conditions, and what we’re doing with the camera, before we take the shot. For instance, Fuji Velvia 50 is a fine-grained, ISO 50 slide film that has very high contrast. It doesn’t do well in very bright light conditions, because that’s high contrast too, and it can make shadows go completely black. And it forces slower shutter speeds because that ISO rating means it needs more light. But then you see the colors and sharpness it produces, the green leaves and red flowers and blue sky that practically assault your eye, and you’re blown away. So you pay attention to the lighting, and you use a tripod, and a fill-flash or reflector. And you compose your shot, rather than simply grabbing it quickly and thinking you’ll correct it later in Photoshop. Because, trust me, unless you want to hand-paint an image, there’s nothing you can do about details or colors that you never actually caught in the digital image in the first place. They don’t exist to enhance. It’s like enhancing a white piece of paper – what are you gonna do with it?

See that image at top? Yes, it’s been scanned, and trust me when I say it lost something in the process (or you can come by to visit and I’ll show you the slide.) It also is something I probably never could have caught on a digital camera. None that I’ve ever used could handle color rendition in bright highlights very well, so those colors in the sky, with their nice transitions into shadow, tend to lose a lot. I’ve also had really rotten luck with fall foliage in digital, but not with slide film.

Now, of course, comes the stumbling block: too few labs are even processing slide film anymore. In my area (the “Triangle” of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC) there are only a couple of labs in the three-city area that do it, and even fewer of those that hire competent help – I stopped using one because they scratched the film too much. But, long ago, I started using processing mailers, and while it takes a week or so to see the results, they’re also inexpensive and do quality work. The two that I use the most are Fujicolor Processing (handled through Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas) and A&I Color labs in California.

A lot of people seem to think that this means film and processing will soon no longer be available, but there’s two reasons this is wrong. The first is that, there’s still too much demand for film, for just the reasons I outlined above. Fuji has even recently reworked two of its popular emulsions. And the second is that, when you start using it, you and I are going to increase that demand ;-)

treefrog2-7And what films? Well, it depends on your preferred subject. For nature & wildlife, I use all Fuji stock: Provia 100F as a general purpose film, good color and sharpness, fairly high contrast, able to be pushed (which means, exposed and processed at a higher ISO than the rated 100); Velvia 50, simply the sharpest and brightest color film on the market, especially for greens, but very high contrast; and Astia/Sensia 100 (they’re the same thing, Astia is just shipped at an optimum time for the emulsion – it’s a professional/anal thing,) much lower contrast but still with good color, able to be used on bright sunlit days and on people, which I wouldn’t recommend the others for. There are others which perform well too, like the new Provia 400X and Velvia 100F – you probably couldn’t find anything wrong with these either. Other photographers I know prefer the Kodak Elite Chrome series, and these might be more to your liking.

The upside to this is, film cameras have dropped to an all-time low in prices, both new and used – even medium-format gear (much larger slides/negatives) have become affordable, rather than exorbitantly overpriced as it’s been for decades.

So, give it a shot – you have nothing to lose. If you really don’t like it after giving it a fair go, I’m here to be blamed, so fire away. I’m not too worried about it, though ;-)