More playing in the dark

In consideration of the full moon on New Year’s day (well, okay, New Year’s night,) and with recognition of not having done a damn thing for the International Year of Astronomy, I ventured out on the evening of January 1st and tried for some moonlight photos. No, not photos of the moon itself – I have enough of those: full, crescent, eclipses, and so on. I mean photos taken by the light of the moon. What’s cool about this is that the moon is pretty neutral in its reflective properties, and while the light it provides is dim, it’s also pretty close to white. We simply don’t realize this because the low-light capabilities of our eyes lack color perception.

spillwayGiven a long enough exposure, however, moonlight can appear just like sunlight. This isn’t so much fun in itself, unless you have a subject that benefits from exposure times of several minutes. What I usually aim for is enough light to have detail, but still an overall darker effect, and allow for stars in the sky. In art, this effect is called “chiaroscuro,” roughly meaning “bright darkness.” It’s often seen in movies shot at night, because there needs to be a certain amount of light for the cameras, but still give an impression of night, so the actors are often fairly bright against the darker background. Moonlit shots work well for it, though, with more character in my opinion.

My biggest problem has been locating a great subject for it nearby. I’ve been lucky enough to get prime conditions for it while traveling only once, since it takes a clear night with a full moon. I still work for a living, so the times when this falls on a few days I have off are rare, and rarer still that the sky is clear too. So on the first I simply drove down to the Haw River spillway nearby and tried a few shots. What I most like about this shot is the fingers of shadow stretching out across the foam, from a nearby tree, and the trickles of reflected headlights from the edge of the water. Also, check the reflections of the opposite shore in the water above the spillway. When you know this is a six minute exposure, you realize that the water above the spill stayed amazingly smooth.

I wasn’t out there too long, mostly because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do with the subject, but also because I was freezing my butt off – the temperature was just below freezing and a stiff wind was blowing. Yeah, I hear the scoffs of the Canadians, but go stand doing nothing by the camera while the timer ticks down. It seems funny that, not all that long ago, I did a post about night photography where the sweat kept dripping in my eyes and the viewfinder kept fogging up. I seem to have missed the nice middle ground where I could be out all night and be comfortable.

hawtrails-sI did some other frames too, aiming upriver and trying to capture the stars. This one was a four-minute exposure, so I got some limited streaks from the rotation of the earth, and you can tell from the curves that I was pointing almost north – Polaris, the North Star, would be the focal point of these curves had it been in the pic. Click on the pic for a bigger example. One of these days I’ll do a wide-angle shot of the ecliptic plane, the “waist” of the starfield as it were, which splits the difference between the northern and southern arcs – should be a nice warped effect that will make people think I’m messing about in Photoshop (but then again, nearly every interesting photo makes people think that nowadays.)

I just took the digital camera body on this trip, because I wanted a better idea of exposure times, but Provia 100F is the film of choice for things like this – the star colors are much, much richer. The problem with Provia, though, is that it doesn’t like the color register from the orange sodium streetlamps now in common use, rendering them a sickly green, so it works much better far away from city lights. Yes, I still need to do some trips out west, thank you very much – contributions to those expenses can be made through my PayPal account, because the job sure as hell isn’t covering it. Hey, aren’t I supposed to be making some money by blogging? Or was that stuffing envelopes in my spare time? One of those, anyway…

If you do any photography, I encourage you to try this out (I mean full moon photography, not stuffing envelopes, blogging, or working for a non-profit). Both of these exposures were at 100 ISO. The top one is six minutes at f8, the bottom four minutes at f5.6. And yes, a firm tripod is a must – but then, it should be part of your photo equipment anyway. The camera must be capable of “B” (bulb) setting, and a cable or remote shutter release is recommended. Wait for the moon to be high, but directly overheard might be boring – some shadows often help. Two other examples of moon shots can be found here and here.

And more on Florida

I still have to scan in a couple images to talk about from a photography standpoint, so there’ll be even more on the Florida end. But right now, this is just a story.

While The Girlfriend and I were down at Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in the Everglades, we had started out on the trail into the swamp, but didn’t get very far before coming to a group of people halted on the trail. The reason for this was an alligator, maybe a little over 1.5 meters (4-5 feet) had hoisted itself up onto the trail and laid down for a quick snooze. The trail was only about four meters (12 feet) wide at this point and it was well off to the side. But there are warnings posted throughout Florida about the speed and aggression of alligators, and of course, watching any number of TV programs will impress on you the ferocity of African crocodiles. So being discreet is a better trait than being casual or oblivious.

Anyone that has spent any time around American Alligators, however, knows this is overblown for safety reasons. They not only tend not to care very much at all about anything when they’re not feeding, they’re actually a bit shy. Gators that aren’t in areas where human contact is common often bolt for cover at the first signs of intrusion, but since nothing is big enough to tackle them, they’re often just seen sunning themselves and couldn’t care less about people in the area.

speedtrapThe poor family on the far side of the trail from us, though, had a bigger problem. They couldn’t go anywhere until the gator moved, unless they decided to chance passing close to it. The Girlfriend and I had paused as well, but for my sake, I was more concerned about being in a park area and a ranger/authority figure being upset because I was not respecting the gator’s space. After a few minutes of this, however, I decided waiting for an alligator to finish napping could take 12 hours. So I unfolded the tripod to full length and held it out casually as a lance/polearm, then walked on the opposite side of the trail from the gator, stopped right alongside, and started waving people through behind me. I really didn’t feel the gator was any danger, but if he got seriously aggressive, he’d have the tripod to get through first.

This wasn’t heroic, and not the point I’m making – it was more impatience, and knowing gators for what they are: lazy. But no one seemed to argue it, and took advantage of the path behind me to go on their way. The funny bit is, they often paused behind me to get a nice close photograph of the gator from the side. You see, I’m a big guy, and more than a meal for a smaller gator, and probably slower than most of the people around me, so this made a kind of sense. It didn’t go over well with The Girlfriend, and one woman got scolded by her husband for it too, but I hope at least they got their shots.

hotpursuitThen the gator, well aware of my standing there, decided it had had enough of the paparazzi and hauled itself to its feet. I shifted to allow it room, and it ambled unhurriedly past me and down the trail towards the people who still hadn’t passed, who gave way respectfully. If it wasn’t for the one guy watching warily over his shoulder in this shot, you wouldn’t get the impression anyone considered this anything other than a photo opportunity. And this means that perhaps several people have shots of me getting this image from the other side. The gator, having navigated as much as six meters (20 feet) plopped itself down on the trail again, and I callously left the slowpokes to their own fate and continued down the trail. Part of me was already a little frustrated at the idea that I’d let a large group of people ahead of me on the trail all together, not the best move from a nature photography standpoint, because it means they’re much more likely to scare off anything of photographic interest. I’ll know better next time, and just skip through myself while the gator holds them off.

Florida revisited

Well, okay, no – I’m still in North Carolina (and it’s freaking snowing as I type this). But this is a long overdue followup to my followup.

I had originally said that the last trip was a little disappointing in that I didn’t have any photos that knocked me down. And while I still feel this way, things have changed my perspective slightly. You see, the day before leaving on the trip, I was contacted through my website by someone that wanted to buy rights to some photos from Florida, which was great. I begged off until I got back, and as a result, didn’t inquire as to what they were after. So while there, I shot my typical pursuits in my typical way.

When I got back and asked what they were after, I found out they were looking for basically a panoramic or banner format, which I don’t shoot for in most cases, and that I found to be kind of restrictive. But it also ruled out virtually anything I shot on the recent trip (some of their choices were specific, too, which narrowed things down on their own.)

So. I started looking through my stock for photos that would work and sent them some examples, as well as a starting price. We traded correspondence for a bit, then things died out. This was in May. I figured I’d lost the contract, which happens (and in my cynical outlook, par for the course.)

Since then, I had to reload the blog under different software, and the search for banner-cropped images for the client had spurred my interest. It led to the blog banner you see above, and I started liking the approach more. I realized many more photos than I initially thought would work in that format, and that cropping out portions of the subjects did not always work against them. So there’s over 20 images in that random banner at top now, and I keep adding more.

Then, not that long ago, the potential client got back in touch and said they were ready to get it moving again – they’d simply hit their busy season in the interim. Well, okay then! We talked some more about their goals, and in the end, two shots from the most recent trip ended up among the eight they selected. Those (and the others) can be seen through March 15, 2010 on the site

sanibelshells-bHere’s the funny part. One of the images was one I shot vertically, and liked for the depth it produced. On a whim, I had rotated the shot over at a significant angle and cropped it into their format, then sent it along as one of the last round of examples. It’s kind of a lesson in perspective – not the photo’s, but my own, because I would never have thought that it work this way, and did indeed reject it (several times over) when looking for images to send them. However, they weren’t influenced by seeing the original image, nor did they have any kind of attachment to it like I did. I’ve known for a long time that I tend to be very critical of my work, but I don’t discourage this in myself too much because it also makes me work harder for better images. Here, however, it affected the different ways I could see the image – and I used to think I was creative in cropping options!

That’s the original there (with a larger version, and a small addition, in my photo galleries here) and you can see the version they bought at their site (at least until 3/15/10.) The other one from the trip that they liked is the manatee.

So, yeah, I feel a little bit differently about the shots I got on that trip, now ;-)

In the holiday spirit

Okay, two silly little things this morning contributed to this, which I shamelessly then used to exploit the nature of my friend Dan Palmer, who now shares the writing credit (or blame, as you see fit) for this. Short story: A stray song lyric seen in a comic strip, and a nonsense conversation with Dan, suddenly caused a mental rewrite of two lines, and once that started, more followed. And Dan is always up to that kind of challenge. So, with apologies to Mel Torme, Robert Walls, and Nat King Cole…

Crackpots boasting on an open wire
Making claims ’bout planet Mars
Pop-up ads hawking Christmas attire
And folks dressed up in avatars

Everybody spars ’bout Tiger and some mistress ‘ho
Cause they all know they must be right
Tiny tots with their iPods aglow
Won’t find it hard to tweet tonight

You know that Santa’s on his Wii
He’s “pwning n00bs” that chose the PS3
And every online child is gonna Skype,
to “c if rndeers rly no how 2 typ.”

My inbox spills quotes misattributed
And cats that have too much to say
So to sample the heart of each YouTube thread

The secret to finding things

You can always find what you’re looking for, provided that the definition of what you’re looking for is vague enough.

I received a call from a friend the other night, one I haven’t talked to in a while. He’s in a new situation: he lives on a farm bequeathed to him by a friend of his when she died, on the provision that he takes care of the farm and animals. Nice setup, but it came with no small amount of responsibility which he seems to be handling well.

At one point, he asked me if I believed in ghosts, and upon hearing that I didn’t, he asked me what I thought about several experiences he’d had. There were a couple of minor ones, like a gate on one field that was typically opened downhill and took some effort to open uphill, that he was pretty sure he had never opened uphill yet had found it in that position on two occasions. Another experience was distantly hearing the doorbell, distinctly enough for him to start tracking it, even though the doorbell doesn’t work.

cemetaryBut his main one was, admittedly, curious. After some bad behavior from one of the former owner’s dogs, he began disciplining the dog (not, by his accounts, in an unacceptable way) and was interrupted by music from the music-box urn containing the former owner’s ashes. To give him credit, he admitted that the urn rested among items that would have been disturbed had the table been bumped or vibrated, and that later attempts to get the music box to begin playing again failed.

Mysterious, perhaps, when presented in this manner. But when I asked him some more specific questions about what he did and didn’t do, he openly admitted that he wanted to believe there was a spirit of the former owner there, and in fact, had felt this compulsion, as if he was being watched over, ever since moving onto the farm.

I had to stop him there and point out that this was hardly mysterious – the value of the farm is not inconsequential, and the bequeathal stipulated that the animals be cared for. There wasn’t any reason to suppose this “compulsion” was anything but honest conscience. But more telling was the idea that he wanted there to be a supernatural explanation, and this is probably the hardest thing to overcome when dealing with assessing things in a critical manner. Desire leads, very rapidly, to confirmation bias, where experiences like the doorbell and the gate are indications of spiritual intervention. He was unable to tell me why such a spirit would play around with the sounds of a distant doorbell, or what the gate opening the opposite way was supposed to mean. They were simply things he noticed that were out of the ordinary that therefore supported the notion.

Now, I now this guy well, and it’s safe to say that while anyone could easily fail to notice that they’d opened the gate uphill on more than one occasion, it’s even more likely for him – keen observation is not what springs to mind when you get to know him. And the doorbell? This wasn’t a case of him telling me that the doorbell had definitely sounded, but that he thought he’d heard it, twice. So that tends to leave the skeptic asking, “What exactly did you hear, and how loudly?” and of course, if the doorbell’s been broken, does he even know what it sounds like? Broken simply means “not working when it’s pressed,” too – loose wires, bad connections? Alternately, wind chimes, TV, radio, glassware tinkling? How many types of sounds imply “doorbell” because of two tones, the second lower in pitch than the first?

Many people would say at this point that this is grasping at straws, or that I haven’t proven the wind chime theory. And this is one of the more amusing arguments that skeptics meet regularly: if the mundane, ordinary explanation has not been firmly established with clinical trials, then it’s okay to start considering the supernatural ones. Um, no. Start with, wind chimes and rocking glassware are proven to exist – ghosts are not. The odds favor wind chimes or rattling vases by a wide margin, right from the start. And, to take this further, let’s say we’ve effectively ruled out wind chimes, glassware, and all other mundane explanations that spring to mind. Are ghosts okay then? Well, that’s kind of hard to say – what kinds of sounds do ghosts make, and why? How do they make them? Do they make them in response to certain things? Let’s face it, the body of evidence (heh!) for ghosts is, um, nonexistent – we have stories, and that’s really it. If we assume spirits can affect the material world in certain ways, why a doorbell? If you were to find yourself, after your death, observing the living and trying to communicate to them, what would be your first choice? Second? Third? How far down the list do “doorbell” and “gate” come?

But wait! The music box urn containing the owner’s ashes! Yes, that’s how I’d communicate! (No, I’d probably type an e-mail while they watched, but that’s just me.) It started all by itself just as he was disciplining the dog! That’s pretty damning! (Okay, sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Well, let’s back up a second. One thing I did indeed ask was, “Did you wind the music box up again, let it play until it stopped, then try to get it to start spontaneously?” No, this had not been done. I regrettably didn’t ask if this was the first time he’d disciplined the dog, though, and I wish I had – that kind of question points out confirmation bias pretty handily sometimes. I did ask if he tried disciplining the dog again, to see if it started the music box again, but he hadn’t done that either – he was already too convinced.

And therein lies the biggest stumbling block. The music box starting at that time can certainly be coincidental – they run on spring tension which gradually releases, and can start again once resistance is overcome through vibration, changing temperatures, et cetera. But is there any chance of him accepting that if he wants to believe otherwise? Not very much at all.

And of course, this is where so-called psychics, ghost hunters, and various other opportunists come in – usually with a fee, imagine that. Seriously, how much skill do you think it takes to face someone who wants to hear they’re being visited by spirits and say, “You’re being visited by spirits”? And how often do you think they’re asked to show how they actually know that? Not often, you say? Not ever, you say? You’re probably right. Because we’ve got this saying, as humans – quit while you’re ahead. Stop asking questions before you get to the answers you don’t actually want to hear – that’s how “truth” is actually defined, after all: “What pleases me.” It seems funny that we can’t face circumstances that aren’t as we wish, even when it means knowing how the world works. Reality is such a drag.

So, my friend resides in a haunted house, wary of doorbells, gates, and scolding the dog. Makes me wonder what the ghost will disapprove of next.

Learn from your mistakes

This is just a stupid quick post. I’m doing updates on the website (you know, the parent site that this blog resides within), and while trying to find something, I looked up my own name in Google Images. Unfortunately, my website doesn’t come up very often.

The reason? My name isn’t associated with the site in too many ways that Google’s search engine will find. Sure, it appears on almost every page – but as a jpeg image of text, which Google won’t find. It’s also in the page tags, but Google has this little criteria: If the page tags aren’t matching the text within a page, it drops significantly on the “match” level. And I rarely include my name on the pages themselves.

So take it from Al Denelsbeck: Al Denelsbeck says, if you want your own name – in this case, “Al Denelsbeck” – to be able to be found in search engines, make sure to put your name (e.g., “Al Denelsbeck”) within the text of the page. And be sure to thank Al Denelsbeck for this tip.

Too cool, part four

There’s very little I can add to this, so I’ll send you over to an entry in Carl Zimmer’s blog, about a bird with curious wings.

This is probably no more complicated than evolving adaptive coloration or planting things on your body, but it’s a fascinating concept nonetheless. Birds developed an audible signal for communication that seems to work pretty well for them, but this is a species that developed an alternate method of doing so. To my untrained mind, this would seem to be a longer method to evolve than vocal cord variations, and one must wonder why this species departed from the norm (I believe it can still sing.) I mean, there’s a benefit to talking and eating at the same time, one I’ve wished I had, but I doubt that’s the key here. I can also speculate about the high frequency doing something for cleaning the feathers, but that’s little more than blind guessing. Still cool, though.

Flashback, part two

It’s funny. Just a few days after typing up the previous post, I received another reminder of my shelter days.

Continue reading “Flashback, part two”


Courtesy of The Girlfriend just recently came a much-needed reminder, that the things that motivate us shouldn’t be shallow or related to money. And it brought back a memory of something I’m particularly proud of. This isn’t bragging (I don’t think), but a success story that I try to remember when I’m not feeling too hot.

Continue reading “Flashback”

Too cool, part three

Actually, this one was not part of my original Too Coolâ„¢ lineup, but it deserves to jump in line.

Courtesy of National Geographic posted by icheesman found through via Mental Floss (link addiction can be cured – please contribute today!) comes a video clip of an utterly fascinating natural phenomenon that I talked about previously: bioluminescence.

There’s a part in there where you can see the shape and the swimming motion of the fish, which is strikingly similar to the effect I saw when I watched the dolphins (who were a bit faster.) Not only that, but see the little shrimp? Yes, you’ve seen them before, or at least, you have if you’ve been poking around the photographic gallery of my site enough.

This video is worth watching several times to see all the details. Catch the water jets of the cuttlefish as it moves around, and of course, don’t miss the stingray. One thing that the video displays very well, but perhaps isn’t described adequately, is that it takes a certain level of disturbance to get the dinoflagellates to fire off. When I witnessed this in Florida, waves splashing against rocks first drew it to my attention, but none of the fish movement within the water produced anything. It was only when the action became desperate that it became visible – I occasionally watched startled fish swim away from me with a streak of color, but otherwise it was dark. Thrashing my hand around certainly showed it, though.

Also, recognize that much of the video is shot at high magnification (the shrimp is probably only 2.5 cm long or so). I never saw individual points of light, and dinoflagellates are not discernable, even in bright light, to the naked eye. What I saw was just a haze of color. Just unreal.

And funny, I never really thought about the bioluminescence as a survival trait, but it makes sense now. Whales will eat them as part of the huge collective term “plankton,” but mostly the predators of such little species are slightly larger species like the grass shrimp and the porcelain crab, which serve as meals for even larger species that would have no interest in the dinoflagellates. In this case, the defensive mechanism seems to be more of a benefit collectively than individually, for two reasons. One, it takes an actual disturbance to light up the dinoflagellates, by which time they may already be eaten. And two, I imagine no small number of them get ingested by accident when something scarfs a shrimp down. Overall, more might survive by the reduction of predators, but the ones that have actually sent the warning, as it were, do so from being at a much higher risk. It works, but less efficiently than many other defensive mechanisms.

And as a small aside, that link above also features the camouflage behavior I talked about in my previous post, as well as hognose snake bluffing.