Who is he talking about?

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

Continue reading “Who is he talking about?”

Oh, for…

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

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

There’s too damn many spiders around my place…

Quick items of interest

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

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

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

I’ll be back shortly with more real content!

Frustrations, part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

On composition, part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital has its uses

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even weirder

Recent downpours have kept the amphibians happy, which means I encounter at least one a day. Sometimes the encounters are closer than I’d like.

I have to draw you a picture here, so you understand what happened. Maybe. It’s still hot outside, so my clothing is loose shorts. In order to get decent portraits of this Southern Cricket Frog (Acris gryllus gryllus), I had to be in kneepads, on my hands and knees down close to the ground to not simply get photos of its top side. While in this position praying to the gods of macro photography, the frog decided I was dangerous enough and broke for cover, hopping between my legs where deepest shadow lie. And right up my shorts.

There was no one around to witness this, thankfully, but also no one around to help. The frog was 1.5 cm long, a little over a half-inch, which means the Little Rascals style of comedic contortions that you’ve already pictured wasn’t going to take place, I’m sorry to say. What it did mean was that I couldn’t stand up for fear of crushing it as it sped deeper into my shorts looking for safety, and I had to remain in the Dropped Soap Position as I frantically shook my shorts in the hopes I could flush it back out. Its tiny size (the frog, smartass) and my awkward position also meant that I really didn’t have a clue whether it was still around or not, and spent some time ensuring myself that it had indeed realized its folly and left in search of a safer swamp.

I was also wary of repeating a performance of a few years ago, something I was reminded of by finding this photo just last night. The Southeastern Five-lined Skink (Eumeces inexpectatus) seen here had cornered itself above my head in a window. After getting this pic, I wanted to see if I could achieve one with a bit more natural setting like ground litter or a tree trunk, and reached up to try and catch it. The skink bolted, ran down my arm, across my shoulder, and disappeared. I turned around hastily but saw and heard nothing. This didn’t mean a lot to me, since there was a bush directly behind me that would provide good cover, but I thought I should at least have heard a rustling. I did several twists and gropes to be sure that it wasn’t simply hanging on my shirt back, then shrugged and forgot about it.

Until I arrived home a few hours later, took out my wallet, and brought out a dead skink. The little bugger had sought refuge in my back pocket, which might have seemed fine until I got back in the vehicle and sat down. I felt really bad about it, and chided myself for not checking my pockets, but seriously, would you have? And when the frog hopped into my shorts today, I immediately pictured the return of my Ass of Death. Things like that can scar a man for a long time.

You’ll be happy to know I spotted the frog a little later on, safe and sound on the ground. It sped for cover very quickly – it had learned.

Yes, I’m weird

…but then again, you already knew that, didn’t you?

This little bugger here is, to the best I can determine right now, a Spined Micrathena spider (Micrathena gracilis,) common as muck in the woods of North Carolina, especially this time of year. Yesterday I was walking in the woods and came across a spread of huge mushrooms (one per pizza – you think I’m joking?) and this inspired me to go back out at night and try to find some bioluminescent fungi. I’ve seen it once before, many years ago, and figured this was the time to locate it with the weather we’ve been having.

I had no luck with that, but in performing my search I wandered through countless spider webs. They’re most active at night, and Micranthenas prefer to spin their orbs (the classic circular “wheel” webs) between trees centered about 1.5 meters up. Of course, that’s just under our own height and we pick the gaps in the trees to navigate through the woods, so encountering them is just about unavoidable. They’re harmless, of course, but opportunistic.

Near as I can tell, one decided to stay on board when I traipsed through its net, and once I was back in the office and unloading the memory card (two whole shots in extremely dark conditions,) bailed My Body The Bus and set up shop with a web that stretches from my desk lamp, to my monitor, and up to the ceiling fan. Since last night, I’ve been watching it diddybopping back and forth over my desk on invisible strands. Just now as I was getting this pic, it decided that it might examine the area under the lamp down to my desk, and began dangling down towards the mouse – I discouraged this by poking it gently to get it to retreat.

Putting something in the photo to show scale was going to be hard, so you’ll have to settle for a description: body length without legs is roughly 4mm, maybe half the length of a grain of rice. Its not exactly a tarantula.

Two of my four readers are now asking themselves what kind of brain-damaged human would leave a spider spinning a web directly over their desk, and the answer is, a nature photographer of course. I talked about this before, but when shooting tiny subjects outdoors, your focus range is minuscule, and even gentle breezes can move your subject around. So a subject this difficult that basically asks to be photographed is welcomed. Plus my window screens aren’t as good as I’d like them and little flying insects like congregating around my monitor at night, so I’m hoping we can work a deal…

I was thinking of expanding this post with some details about how to get images like this (or even better!) but that will wait a little bit, since I need to do some shots of the macro rig. Stay tuned.

Hitting the fan

Let me throw a hypothetical situation at you. Suppose you have a blogger and journalist, who has a mission to eradicate childish attacks and disrespectful behavior from public figures. All well and good, except that this blogger is having a bit of difficulty finding the behavior he insists is rampant. Among his targets are two prominent and outspoken public figures who, despite accusations, deal with the issues and not things like ad hominem attacks.

Then, lo and behold, a commenter appears on blogger/journalist’s (hereinafter “BJ”) site and relates a story showing how childish and disrespectful attacks really do happen. The story is all by itself, relates no checkable facts, and sounds a bit over-the-top even for fiction. But it supports the BJ’s assertions, so rather than being an anecdote, it now becomes evidence. So much so, apparently, that BJ creates a whole new post highlighting this particular story, specifically labeling it as evidence.

But, there’s a catch. Through the course of events, the commenter and his story have turned out to be totally false – complete fabrications, confessed by none other than the commenter himself.

Further, it appears (again through confession) that many of the other commenters who chimed in with support for the story and the BJ’s standpoint itself, were actually the very same guy masquerading under multiple names – in internet slang, this is called sock puppetry. Even further, the fraudulent commenter maintained his own blog, specifically for the purpose of addressing those childish and disrespectful attacks, that was populated almost entirely by sock puppets of himself.

Now remember, we have BJ, who champions reasonable and respectful discourse, and we have the public targets of his attention, who are clearly nasty, brutish, and short-tempered.

So, now the questions. Who do you think performed research, contacted witnesses and companions, and laid all the evidence out for the world to see, while refusing to reveal the actual name of the sock puppet because of the potential of retaliation?

And who dodged the evidence, never admitted to fault, never fact-checked, and even, while being on one of the most prominent and advanced blog networks, missed the evidence of the sock puppet in the first place? And who continues to deny that he has actually no evidence whatsoever for his accusations, now that the source of his only anecdote has dried up and turned out to be a pathological liar? Who also banned and deleted comments from his blog that pointed out his errors, while allowing baseless accusations of lying from the sock puppet to remain? [Edit: Initially, I had attributed a specific epithet to the blog in question here, but have since discovered it was made on the sock puppet’s independent blog and thus not subject to the BJ’s moderation efforts. If that sounds confusing, suffice to say that I just deleted an incorrect attribution.]

Oh, I forgot one little detail: the BJ is getting paid by a notorious religious organization, and his targets are working, published scientists. Whoops, they’re also immoral atheists! Can’t forget that little tidbit.

Kudos to Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True for handling the real research behind this – the comments on that thread, by the way, demonstrate just how mean, nasty and vindictive atheists are. If that wasn’t enough proof, PZ Myers at Pharyngula provides just a wee bit more evidence from his own commenters. Most especially, watch how the supporters of the BJ get taken apart on their bullshit, methodically, rationally, and without resorting to name calling.

And piles of shit on Chris Mooney, the supposed “journalist” who failed to perform even rudimentary research, still has no evidence to back his assertions, has weakly admitted he got taken but not that he never should have in the first place, and most egregiously, after seeing the confession of total fabrication from the commenter, demonstrates he has gall where his brains should be in stating that it still might be based in real life.

Science is based on evidence, and one of the key portions of the process is taking steps to eradicate the possibility of confirmation bias. If you continue to assert without evidence to support your point, and in the face of evidence to the contrary refuse to even recognize that you may be on the wrong track, that’s denial and delusion, the stuff crackpots are made of. Chris Mooney needs to be removed from Discover Blogs and any science advocacy whatsoever.