The stage is set

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the concept of staging shots in nature and wildlife photography, and I’m finally getting back to tackling that as a subject. I’m going to attempt to throw some things out there for consideration without inserting too much personal opinion into the mix – we’ll see how that goes ;-)

While I don’t know if it has ever been measured by poll, I think most people believe that nearly all of the images they see of wildlife subjects have been shot on location and demonstrate natural behavior. Not only that, I think a large percentage actually bear some resentment towards the photo (or nature program) that is staged in some way. From experience in the field, and knowledge of lighting, behavior, and conditions that you’ll find these animals within, I can tell you that a hell of a lot more photos are staged in some way than most people think. For instance, most of the calendars showing owls, wolves, and the big cats are not shot in the wild. Most nature programs are staged either partially or completely, something that fans of The Crocodile Hunter and such really don’t want to hear, but seriously: do you think anyone, no matter how experienced, wanders up on animal subjects in the wild as often as these shows demonstrate?

There’s several debating points here. The first and biggest is, “Lying to your audience.” And I will readily agree that claiming that a staged shot or captive animal is actually “in the wild” is unethical. But, if you notice, most shows, calendars, photo credits, etc. make no such claim at all. They simply let you believe it, and take pains to hide the extra cameras, the edges of the set, the lights and reflectors, and all that. They imply a wild setting, but make no positive claims of such.

So, is implying unethical? Hmmm, good question. We are bombarded by it throughout our media, from commercials featuring “doctors” to every reality show out there, and everyplace in between. We’re happy with the suspension of disbelief that is required to get anything at all out of our entertainment. And in fact, there’s no small resentment when an actor that we like turns out to be a bigger asshole than the character they portray. There seems to be little argument, however, that we see nature photography and programs differently from, say, MTV’s “Real World.”

One can argue that nature photography can have a goal of demonstrating appearance, coloration, habitat, or behavior, and that staging doesn’t actually change this. Yes, it’s a closeup of an owl, one that it would be virtually impossible to achieve in strictly natural settings. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s adorable! Yes, it’s perched on a real branch and has foliage in the background – that’s just part of the setting. Is this wrong, or deceptive? Does it have the same impact on us if it’s perched on the handler’s glove, or an obviously manmade perch? Is that difference all in our expectations?

Cost is an issue, too. Let’s say I want to see a hummingbird feeding its young. How many times have you seen hummingbird nests? I have yet to find any myself, even though I know there’s been one within a hundred meters of my place (because of the presence of a family at my feeder.) It might be a dozen meters off the ground, well hidden in a tree. Getting close enough for good detail shots means being in the trees near it, with a clear shot through foliage, and with adequate light to keep the images from blurring. Too close, and the hummingbirds aren’t going to like my presence, and might even abandon the nest. I might spend days to weeks at a time trying to get a couple of simple photos of feeding behavior.

Does this mean I can sell those images for a hell of a lot more money to an editor, because they’re genuine and took lots of effort to get? The chances are slim. Will the sponsors of a nature program pay a lot more for footage in natural conditions? Nope – there’s only so many commercials they’re going to stick in the program, and only so many viewers that these programs typically get, anyhow. Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) gained as many viewers as he did because he was an over-the-top character, and because people were waiting to see him get bitten. And while his show was one of the few that might have gained enough sponsor money to do everything in the wild, this was certainly not their approach.

So, how much “staging” is okay, and for what purposes? I’ve photographed hatching Ground Skink eggs in a terrarium – the behavior was natural, the setting was not. I’ve done plenty of shots at zoos – should this limit where and how those shots are used? For an article in a local newspaper or magazine about eagles, should any images be taken in the wild, or are these simply illustrations? Does the practice of setting out food and waiting for the photo subject to come by count as staging? And here’s a crucial question: would you pay more for a calendar of penguin photos that was guaranteed unstaged and natural? A whole lot more? And what counts as staging? Does habituating the animals to the presence of a photographer count?

I’m not leading anywhere with this, just providing some of the perspective. And of course, you should have guessed by now that, if I used that image at top for this post, it was staged – look closely and you’ll see the white of the bathtub peeking through the leaves. I tweaked the color and contrast to appear more like natural light conditions. The snake itself was quite wild, however – I had rescued it hours earlier from an old casting net it had become entangled within, and getting these shots earned me several bites and no small amount of juggling as it launched itself from the bathtub (not to mention cleaning the bathtub afterwards.) I was after detail and identifying markings, but is this an adequate excuse? And if I sell it, should there be specific markets I aim for?

[And if it helps, I usually make great effort to shoot in natural settings, and have never misrepresented an image. Just to put your mind at ease ;-) ]

Happy Birthday Hubble

Twenty years ago today, the space shuttle Discovery carried a brand new telescope aloft into space, to be settled into orbit the following day. And this was a significant delay over plans – the Challenger accident had occurred only eight months before the tentative launch date of Hubble in October 1986, and set its schedule (as well as everything else) back several years.

The telescope was (and still is) named after Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who determined that the blob we knew as Andromeda was not within our own galaxy, but was a whole other galaxy in itself, and with that discovery he expanded the size of the universe (or what we believed it to be at that time, anyway) by many thousands of times.

Naming the telescope after him was a highly appropriate tribute, but only after a bad false start. A horrifying fact emerged immediately after the first images were transmitted back to Earth: the 2.4 meter diameter primary mirror had been ground incorrectly and was both slightly unfocused and astigmatic. Orbiting in space was a multi-billion-dollar screwup. Image processing programmers created algorithms to correct the images digitally, but this was a workaround and didn’t begin to approach the detail and resolution of the original design. Three and a half years later, the first servicing mission to Hubble replaced both a mirror and a camera and corrected that focusing issue in much the same manner that corrective lenses can assist human vision. It was a phenomenally creative fix for what could have been a disastrous mistake.

And in the years since, Hubble has been responsible for literally hundreds of the most captivating images from space (both images here link directly to much bigger versions from the source,) and has expanded our knowledge of the universe by an immeasurable, but vast, amount. Hubble produced the first measurements to indicate that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating, something that hadn’t been considered before then, and eventually leading to the concept of dark energy (because something has to be causing the acceleration.) And to even make that observation, it first had to pin down the measuring stick more accurately: the spectral shift from distant stars. This alone made our distance measurements far more accurate for all telescopes.

But perhaps the most stunning, and humbling, of images is the Ultra Deep Field photos. Aimed at a (until then) perfectly empty section of space, Hubble took cumulative exposures totaling over ten days and revealed an unreal mass of incredibly distant galaxies, each with millions of stars. And since light takes its own sweet time to get here, what we see is what those galaxies looked like billions of years ago – most have changed or even vanished by now, and all are much, much farther away than when the light that created our images started its journey in this direction. Even that is pretty awe-inspiring: those little photons emitted by countless stars traveled uninterrupted for billions of years and quintillions of kilometers to pass through Hubble’s little aperture and end their journey dumping a minuscule amount of energy into electrons in the cameras’ sensors.

It almost seems rude to halt that trip in our little telescope, but not half as ignominious as the photons who petered out against some little asteroid or dust speck. Even worse, some of those photons might just have produced a smidgen of energy in a satellite’s solar array, boosting the cellphone signal of a photo of someone’s penis…

Like all satellites and spacecraft, Hubble will eventually cease operation, and this is expected sometime within the next few years, whereupon it will be allowed to deorbit and reenter our atmosphere in a safe trajectory – safe, that is, for human population, but rather hard on the telescope itself, which is expected to become little burning chunks. It’ll be a shame, but that emotion is evidence of how successful it was after its shaky start. And it has served its purpose, but we are now moving on to other observations. Hubble is limited to the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation we call “visible light” (and just a little beyond that,) but there’s a lot more to see in other wavelengths, and more scopes to probe them: Spitzer, Chandra, the upcoming Webb, and others yet to come. The pursuit of knowledge moves on and leaves most of its tools behind – that’s how it goes.

Check out Hubble’s site for lots of remarkable images and great info. It’s definitely worth it. And try to see it pass overhead with your own eyes some night before it goes.

Happy Birthday Ben

As I finish typing this, it will be April 15, 2010. My cat Ben, pictured here, turns eighteen years old.

Well, more or less. Ben is a shelter cat, adopted at roughly two months of age in June 1992. He was born sometime in April it would seem, so I arbitrarily picked the middle of the month.

At the time he was adopted, he was a ghost tabby – a black cat with deep grey classic tabby markings, the blotches sometimes described as a “bullseye.” He was also then considered a female, not being the most prepossessing male kitten ever seen in the shelter. So at first, “she” was called Raven, largely because ravens can display much the same coloration sometimes. But around four months, the testicles became apparent, and the adult coat came in – all black, with one little smear of very deep brown on the shoulder. He was renamed “Benedict,” because he was a turncoat of course, and Ben he remained thereafter.

He’s everyone’s friend, and loves company. He’s lived in four different states with me, including this one twice, which is quite a chore for someone who hates being in the car – he’s logged several thousand miles just going to new homes. He’s not very bright, never has been, but he’s amiable.

Ben’s showing his age now, has been for a while, and it was questionable whether he would make this milestone – legal age, able to vote and join the armed forces. It may not be much longer, but I can’t feel too sad about that. He’s hung around longer than many cats do, and been a good friend that whole time. Never got lost, never got terribly sick, no major operations save neutering at six months. He has virtually no teeth now, and his coat gets matted easily – he looks pretty messy (the pic is a few years old.) And of course, he just jumped into my lap right now to help me compose this. No, my mistake, he just wants attention.

Happy birthday, old guy.

Things that go burp in the night

It’s been longer than I planned since my last set of posts, and I actually had something else intended this weekend that didn’t work out – basically, my telescope was way the hell out of collimation. For a reflecting scope to work properly, the mirrors have to be precisely aligned, otherwise you can’t get properly sharp images. It’s still not up to snuff, so I’m leaving that photographic project as a post for another day. I’m digging in my archives for this one.

You might have already guessed by now that I’m fond of photographic experiments. I purchased a used camera kit from someone a while back, and included with it was a Metz Mecablitz 40MZ 3i strobe unit, or a “flash” in the common tongue. And in figuring out what the flash was capable of, I found it had a neat little option: firing off a rapid string of light bursts like a strobe light. With an appropriately long shutter speed and dark conditions, this meant I could use the flash to produce a string of individual images of a moving subject all on the same frame. The very brief duration of each burst of light (probably somewhere between 1/1,000 and 1/10,000 of a second) would “freeze” most subjects and allow for a succession of its progress as it moved, like motion picture frames all combined together. Neat!

Last summer, as I was down at Jordan Lake taking a chance on seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour cut across the sky (the launch was bumped), I quickly realized the dark night sky was simply bursting with activity, in the form of insects, bats, and one probable nighthawk that cut so close alongside my ear I heard the burr of wings. And suddenly I remembered the flash. Hey, all I needed to do was fire it off as I saw a bat passing, and try to have decent focus!

Yeah, right. There’s only so much power a flash unit can put out, especially if it’s trying to fire off 16 bursts without recharging. That means going for a wide aperture to let in as much light as possible to even get an image, and that means the focus range is very narrow. Not the best thing when going after incredibly fast-moving flying critters that you haven’t even gotten a decent look at, much less a chance to focus. So, the only thing I could really do was take a stab at a focus distance and hope for good luck.

Now, despite what you might think looking at these two images, I actually consider myself lucky to have gotten anything. Sure, I would have liked better, but to capture something really worthwhile I’d probably need to control the conditions a bit better. However, I captured something, I think, more than intended. If you look closely at the top image (and this is a full resolution crop from the original frame,) you’ll notice that the shapes and colors seem to alternate a bit. You would certainly expect a flying subject to be in different positions for each burst, but color and size? What I think I might have caught here was a bat pursuing a moth, right before (or at) capture. I’m open for other explanations – the detail obviously isn’t overwhelming. But it certainly seems to be two different critters there, at different distances from the camera – the smaller one is sharper, and has more mothlike wings.

One other frame, at right, was also successful, to a small degree anyway, and this looks far more like a bat. Again, not in the focus range, but at least I got it better in the frame. The strange background is 16 successive images of the nearby tree, while not holding the camera steady (hey, it was bad enough even trying to see a bat in the dark, there was no way I’d get one to swoop nicely through the frame while the camera was on a tripod.)

Perhaps someday, I’ll tackle the project of getting a good photo, or sequence, of a bat on the wing. But the preparations necessary to increase the odds beyond blind luck are extensive, and I’ll get into that in detail in another post. Or, I could simply shoot madly for long periods of time in the hopes that at least one will come out great, but that’s hardly an efficient way of doing it. This brings us into one of the debating points about nature photography: staging shots. That might even turn out to be more than one post, but not right now. Stay tuned.

On Belief, Part Three

Yeah, yeah, I’ll be back to nature photography or something really cool in the woods or water shortly – I’m just hashing some thoughts out. You won’t be failed for skipping this assignment. And while it can stand alone, it’s an extension of Parts One and Two.

One of the foremost arguments from a great many people, both religious and non (believe it or not,) is the social benefits that come from religion. Yes, faith may be a really poor way of viewing the world, but it provides a few positive aspects as well. Except that, I’m not really so sure about that. I may be biased, but before you jump to that conclusion, hear me out.

Continue reading “On Belief, Part Three”

On Belief, Part Two

Okay, I suspect I’ve given enough to support my point that very few people seem to believe (that was Part One). To be honest, I think it’s not a dividing line, but a gradient – levels of belief ranging from “Not at all” to “Established fact,” with most people falling well short of the upper end. Some grad student can figure out how to quantify belief if they like. So we come to the question of, “If people don’t believe, why do they profess to?” And I think there are a lot of answers to that.

Continue reading “On Belief, Part Two”

On Belief, Part One

There has been a bunch of thoughts along these lines kicking around in my head for a while now, and since Pharyngula and Weird Things both referenced a new study along similar lines, I finally started putting some of them down. This has to do entirely with religious belief and the effect it has, so those into nature photography and observations can skip this one if they like. Those, however, who don’t like the idea of religion being questioned are required to read on:

Continue reading “On Belief, Part One”

On being mean

Recently, Greg Fish on Weird Things posted about yet another review of bloggers, most especially science and/or atheist bloggers, where the reviewer commented on the heinous use of sarcasm. This has been at least the fourth such published comment about the negativity of sarcasm, and I have to admit, I think it’s a case where the reviewer imagines a situation that doesn’t really exist.

Basically, sarcasm is considered both ineffective and unnecessary in their eyes, but I have a hard time believing this could possibly be true. I’ll admit that the initial reaction to sarcasm, if you happen to be the recipient or identify with their views, is far from “pleased.” Sarcasm is condescending, nasty, and disparaging. Mean. But this is not in any way the same as “ineffective.” On the contrary, snark is one of the fastest and most succinct ways of conveying one’s opinion that I know.

Continue reading “On being mean”

Because I’m feeling guilty

I’m looking at the posts here and realize it’s been a month since my last one, which isn’t good. So to make it up to my remaining one (maybe two) readers, I’m going to throw up some quick stuff before I get to a much longer post picking on religion again.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing little more than experimenting. One a foggy night recently, I went out to try and accomplish one of the images I’ve planned for just such conditions. As is often the case with these experiments, they didn’t come out quite as intended, meaning I’ll have to try again when we get a nice nighttime fog. But something else that I tried on a lark came out reasonably well, I think, though perhaps not as strongly at this size. I’ve been toying with posting it to some ghost forums just to see how much it can stir up – and how few can actually figure out that it’s a simple, and common, photographic effect. Technically, not a double-exposure, since it’s only one long exposure, but when your model (in this case me) isn’t in position for the entire exposure, a certain amount of light shows “through.”

By the way, it is fairly simple to do a multiple-exposure with a digital camera (just in case you were wondering.) Simply lock the shutter open on bulb setting and place the lens cap after the first exposure, then remove it for the subsequent exposures. Don’t argue with me that it’s only one exposure – think about what “exposure” means and realize that it’s not referring specifically to a shutter trip.

As I was about to sit down to work on something tonight, it began pouring outside, and since we’ve had some nice warm weather recently, the frogs have come back out – someplace not far outside my window a treefrog started calling. I went outside with a pair of flashlights but still didn’t find it (little bugger got nervous as I got close and stopped calling,) but I did find a ladybug in not-so-typical conditions. I didn’t stay out long because it was raining too hard to do much photography, and both my jacket and the light camera bag are drying out now.

And finally, I spent some time a few weeks ago trying to shoot some images for a contest. I’ve never been much for contests, largely because they’re frequently a cheap ploy to get promotional images for free – check the rules and you’ll usually find that the photographer gives up most or all rights to the photos, regardless of whether any award has been provided. A local aquarium in Florida once solicited numerous images from the public for their calendar, and not only were they not willing to pay for any images (nor were they even holding a contest,) they wanted photos of some outright dangerous species like jellyfish and mantis shrimp, which I felt was piling irresponsibility on top of cheapness. Of course, they promised “exposure” to the photographer by printing their name with the image, woo hoo! “Exposure” does not mean, “listing the credit you should be obligated to give automatically,” and the value of such can be measured in… um, well, it can’t be measured, really, because it’s almost meaningless. Nobody sees a credit line and says, “I’m going to seek that photographer out to buy photos from!” Most people don’t even see the credit line. Get paid for your images, and you’ll even get that “exposure” on top of cash! You’ll also send a message to editors and buyers that you’re able to do business, and didn’t simply submit a lucky shot to a contest.

Oh, yeah, the contest! Anyway, this one has much more reasonable terms, so even though I have plenty in stock, I also started looking for potential shots that would fit their criteria better. Along the way, I was experimenting again, this time with infrared. I’ve talked about infrared on the site here and here, and I like trying to see what I can produce with it. Digital sensors can usually capture infrared light, but it some manufacturers filter it out. You can do a simple test and aim a TV remote into the lens and see if triggering the remote results in a tiny light in the digital image. If it works, then you can get an IR pass filter that blocks most visible light (like, in the case here, a Lee 87C polyester) and start playing on sunny bright days. Have a tripod, because there isn’t much infrared compared to visible light, so you’ll need long exposures (there’s that word again.) But you’ll see that foliage reflects the most infrared, and the sky and water reflect the least. You’ll probably end up with a nearly B&W image, because the color filters on digital sensors let IR pass almost equally (if that didn’t make sense, maybe this helps explain it a bit – look at the sixth paragraph.) In this case, I enhanced what little color was there and tweaked it a bit, producing an effect I really liked from the background trees. It didn’t fit with the contest guidelines, but I like it for its almost-spooky quality. It becomes perhaps even more interesting to know that this was a brilliantly sunny day and was not taken in shadow at all.

I discovered something else, too: apparently even long-dead leaves retain their ability to reflect infrared, so they stood out nicely on the water. I’m pleased with it.

Too cool, part five

This one has actually been sitting around for a while as I got up the desire to type it out. I figured I’d do it as a follow-up to Darwin Day. What you’re looking at here (or will be, as you stop reading and gaze at the image) is the caterpillar stage of the spiny oak-slug moth, which is a pretty horrendous name so let’s just stick with the scientific Euclea delphinii. Apparently, in most cases the caterpillar is much brighter in color, but here it’s remarkably well camouflaged to appear as a spot of lichen on a tree trunk. And since this is the size of a fingernail, it’s not hard to imagine how easy it is to miss.

What brought it to my attention, though, was the same thing that allows us to spot other species despite their camouflage, provided we make the effort: the symmetry. Bi-lateral symmetry (that is, mirroring details on either side, like two eyes, four legs, etc) is actually a very common thing among living species, having established itself way, way back in the evolutionary timeline. Even species so dissimilar to us as jellyfish display this trait. It’s dictated by something called Hox genes, and without it, species would probably appear a lot more random.

Obviously, if the patterns of this little guy were randomly distributed, rather than so distinctive, it would have an even better form of camouflage. But to do this, the Hox genes would have to be very selectively inactive – enough to allow for color patterns to be asymmetrical, but not enough to produce six legs on one side and two on the other. That’s a very specific mutation. Moreover, for natural selection to favor it, it would have to generate some advantage (or, be common enough to carry while otherwise not being disadvantageous – neutral traits can continue too.) While we might think that asymmetry would help a lot towards not being recognized by predators, there isn’t much evidence that many predators are likely to recognize symmetry as a telltale. The color and the fuzzy shape may be enough. However, there are some other factors too. Many birds can see a much wider range of colors than we can, so even asymmetry might be a very minor factor against not matching the shade of lichens very closely. And this says nothing for how effective those little spines might be (I didn’t try to handle it,) or its scent or taste. So perhaps asymmetry simply didn’t have enough selective pressures to evolve.

Some species do display some asymmetry though, albeit limited. Here, a northern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokeson) displays some mismatching patterns at the spine, and apparently the southern subspecies (A. c. contortrix) can display patterns that don’t even connect at the spine. Now, here’s something interesting, because it seems it’s not a common trait among the other variants in other parts of the US, just among A. c. contortrix in the southeast. I haven’t found that anyone has studied this to determine why this might be (grad students, feel free to use this suggestion, just remember me when the book royalties come in,) so I can only speculate. But the predatory species of birds would be different between a copperhead and an Euclea, and it’s possible that a species of raptor in the southeast might have better eyes for asymmetry than other raptors where the other subspecies of copperhead can be found. Or this might be way off the mark, and it’s actually influenced by diet or habitat. Myself, I favor blaming the longneedle pines.

Any way that you look at it, little things like patterns can be the tip of the iceberg, indicating a much more detailed genetic and environmental history than the impression such mundane camouflage leaves us with. And if you’re into wildlife photography, remember to stay alert for the patterns.