Unidentified hemipteran profileStill involved in many other things right now, so here are a handful of images from the recent past that just never got into blog posts, for one reason or another – some of which may become obvious.

Unidentified Hemipteran drinkingFirst off we have the most recent images from just a few days ago, an unidentified Hemipteran nymph, quite a small one. I am inclined to call it an assassin bug, but so far I have found no species that matches this coloration (the black legs in particular.) Oddly enough, it was spotted on the kitchen counter, with no good guesses as to how it arrived there, though it might have hitchhiked in on a tomato or basil leaf. It measured just 6mm in body length, and appreciated the water provided by the misting bottle, so it may have been indoors for a while.

The long antennae certainly lend them the air of an arachnid, and this may not be coincidental, scamming the predators that don’t like spiders. Or it may simply be a way to seek food while avoiding mites and parasites – you got me. As yet, I’m not even sure if this is a predator or feeds from plants; that proboscis could be used for either, though from the owner’s close resemblance to the pale green assassin bug (Zelus luridus,) I’m leaning towards it having the same habits.

Below, a little bit more of a scale shot, as I deposited it on a geranium bud after the preceding studio images. For some reason, the Canon 30D (at least) seems to over-saturate the reds, and I’m going to have to see what I might be able to do about that. It’s one thing to have vivid colors, but another to look completely unnatural…

unidentified Hemipteran on geranium budOne of the few bits that I’ve accomplished on the backyard pond has been casting a couple of upper ‘pools’ out of concrete, one just large enough to hold a small water pump for a multi-stage waterfall/cascade (there will be a second pump in the pond itself, feeding into this pool.) While there have been frogs in the main pond off and on throughout the season, I found that a small one had decided, for a few days at least, to hang out in the concrete pool. Naturally, it submerged as soon as I drew close, but since the pool is smaller than the average birdbath and holds about 10cm of water, the amphibian wasn’t completely evading detection. I simply sat down nearby and waited it out for a quick portrait.

green frog Lithobates clamitans peeking from concrete poolThis is a green frog (Lithobates clamitans,) and a small one at that, perhaps 5 or 6cm in body length; I get the impression of a teenager camping out in the yard in a defiant display of semi-independence, though I did not actually see any tattoos or piercings…

But while we’re here, I’m going to throw up a couple of illustrative images. Both of the following were taken from the same position (handheld, so not exactly the same, but very close.) The only change was the focus distance.

image focused on frog itself in waterThe one above is focused on the frog itself, and a hint of the incomplete tree canopy can be seen reflected in the water. Below, I changed focus to the reflection itself which, I have to point out, is not the distance to the water surface, but bounced off of it all the way to the trees.

image focused on reflectionThe frog is still there, but defocused to almost complete obscurity. I was shooting from about a meter away from the frog, but the trees themselves were in excess of ten meters off, requiring a radical difference in focus. What also happens in such a case, visible here to some extent, is that focusing actually produces a faint zooming effect, and you may see this a lot in macro work. When composing, you might lean in closer until the subject fits the frame well, but as the focus changes commensurately, it changes the size of the subject within the frame, and you may need to readjust slightly. But certainly, getting both the frog and the reflection focused simultaneously would take a huge depth of field, one that no lens is likely to produce at this distance from the subject.

green frog Lithobates clamitans in duckweed pond with stray flower blossomWe’ll stick with the frogs for a moment longer before changing the subject, as I show off a photo that I haven’t actually had a good use for yet. This was taken at the NC Botanical Garden, in a pond even smaller than mine (the main one, not the concrete pool above,) and is exactly as found, even though you don’t believe me. Hey, if the frog is going to pose that way and the light is good on both the frog and the flower, who am I to pass that up? This pond, in fact, is what I am patterning my own after, including the scouring rush reeds visible at right, though I’m not sure how well the duckweed (the little spot leaves all over the place) will fare with the cascade feeding in, since this pond lacks such a thing. But the frogs adore it, and that’s part of the reason why I’m putting one in. It’s simply a shame that the tree canopy glimpsed above is so complete that there was no place to put the pond that had good light.

unidentified possible syrphid fly on flowerTaken several weeks back now on a student outing, I’m going to take a stab at this being some form of syrphid fly, and leave it at that. It was largely a grab shot as the fly scampered across the flower, but I liked the pollen on the compound eyes and endeavored to get that into focus while shooting in natural light – as you can see, I wasn’t quite bang on. I think we imagine that such a thing obscuring our vision would be very annoying, but who knows how an insect views it? Yet, soon afterward, the fly paused and wiped it away with a foreleg, at least making me feel better.

wheel bug Arilus cristatus cleaning antenna with forelegsSomehow, I missed putting this one up with the others when I posted about this subject in July. I won’t blame you for being confused by what you’re seeing here, if you are – if not, good on ya! This is a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) seen head-on like the fly above, cleaning its antenna by clasping it between both forelegs and drawing it through; they actually have small combs on the forelegs specifically for this purpose. It’s a surprisingly deliberate and meticulous action for an arthropod, or so we might think anyway, but undoubtedly necessary for them to function properly – specialized body parts and associated actions don’t evolve for no reason. The bug repeated the action several times, which was good because this is high magnification and pinning down the focus while the insect was moving was challenging, to put it mildly – I tossed several frames where I missed. And I certainly didn’t plan it this way, but catching the one foot against the bright spot on the thorax just made those details stand out so much better. Remember the post where I talked about taking enough frames to capture what was needed? Yeah…

And one last one, that just didn’t fit in anywhere else (and probably doesn’t here either.)

unidentified spider, possibly cribellate orb weaver, sporting only three legsOn the same outing as the maybe-syrphid fly above, I spotted this small spider clambering up a web strand just off the walking path, noticeable partially because I’m me, but also because I was almost certain it had only two legs. One examining the photos, I can see three, so it’s not quite as bad off as I originally believed, but still not good, and the motion it was using to climb back up its own web was most unspiderlike. I’m fairly certain this is a variety of cribellate orb weaver (family Uloboridae,) the only spider species that has no venom (I’ll let you speculate on whether that played any part in this specimen’s sorry shape.) I used the flash this time, mostly because I couldn’t possibly stop the action in the deep shade where the spider was, and while I did get some nice sharp images, they still don’t illustrate things very well – you’re seeing the spider from the left side, belly up, abdomen to the left of the frame (it always looks like that, I believe) and a couple of the eyes visible at the base of the shadowed leg. One stump is plainly visible. It would be easy to believe these handicaps would have some effect on the energy of the spider, but not to my observations; the bug-eater was ripping right along. By the way, this was taken at 8:36 am on a bright day, but 1/250 second at f16, aiming into deep shade, was enough to render the background pure black, even at ISO 320 – it’s that ‘every macro photo is taken at night’ trait that can be hard to overcome. Just for kicks, I went in and played with the light levels in the image to see if anything could be discerned in the background, with no luck at all; it’s black. Black black black. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t get a better view of the spider, but it was plugging along so gamely that I didn’t feel right in collecting it for studio work. I’ve spotted a couple of cribellates nearby, so at some point I may be back with better illustrations of what one is supposed to look like. I know you just can’t wait.

Monday color 33

unidentified tiny early spring flowerI had originally identified this flower as a winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, but now I’m pretty sure that’s wrong – the leaves aren’t like that, and no image I can find shows this green translucent ‘berry’ springing from the middle. So if you know what this is, feel free to enlighten me. All I can say right now is that these are tiny flowers perhaps a centimeter across, that appear very early in the spring – last year they got nailed by one of the freezing rain storms and emerged none the worse for wear. They have a nice, delicate color that you’d have to be practically crawling on the ground to appreciate, unless you happen to know a friendly nature photographer that can provide close up images…

Well, hello there

Not too long after the various Chinese mantids around the yard molted into adulthood, they dispersed in various directions. I actually watched the rose bush resident fly off one evening, quite possibly to be immediately snagged by a bat – I saw something happen out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked directly there was nothing to be seen. Regardless, there has been little in the way of arthropodic activity in the yard since then. Which meant that, last night as I was watering the plants, I was surprised to find this guy perched on the Japanese maple.

unidentified mantis nymphAt just 35mm in body length, this one was less than half the length of the recent residents and probably one-sixth the mass. From the size at this time of the year, I’d be inclined to say it was one of the smaller Carolina mantids, but the coloration doesn’t seem to fit – this may mean I’ve been unaware that they could be this color. For now, we (or I) will just consider this unidentified. It’s definitely a nymph, though. It also makes me reconsider the ‘typical’ abdominal girth of the species, remarked about a few days ago – perhaps they all look this pudgy. I’m sorry, ‘sveltely challenged.’

unidentified mantis on handWhile coaxing it around for a better view, it scrambled onto my hand without a qualm, and I juggled the camera around one-handed for a quick scale shot. Then, as I tried to convince it to get back onto the maple tree, it resisted playfully and trotted up my arm all the way to the short sleeve cuff, before I could brush it back onto the tree. It would seem I now have a reputation for making mantids famous. Either that or my beard looked like a tasty bug – your call.

unidentified mantid looking coquettishOnce back on the tree, it remained on the upper branches (the tree is only a meter and a half in height) and provided several fetching poses for posterity – and you had chosen “tasty bug,” hadn’t you? Actually this is typical behavior when a mantis, or indeed many different insects, walk across people – they endeavor to clean their feet afterwards. Apparently we are just that icky.

Immediately after that frame, I turned to a wolf spider not far away that I’d also spotted, and shot it at the same focal setting, so these two images are at the same magnification and can be used as comparative scale. Yes, it was a sizable wolf spider, but I’ve seen bigger.

wolf spider Lycosidae being shyActually, the wolf spiders have been noticeably thinner in the yard this year, and I have yet to see one bearing young. I’ll have to keep checking around with the LED headlamp for telltale reflections.

On composition, part 24: Planning the shot

taillight trails on interstate long night exposureIt’s been a while since the last composition post, so let’s waste no further time and get into planning. Wait, somehow that doesn’t seem quite right…

No matter what the preferred style, sooner or later every photographer gets into planning a shot; envisioning exactly how they want it to appear, and then endeavoring to actually bring this out in the image. Some styles of photography largely demand this as a matter of routine (like studio portraiture and commercial model shoots,) while others rarely delve into the practice at all (nature photography, candids, etc.) It can be very nice to simply snap off the image that you wanted without planning or imagining it, but very often, the shot that is planned, at least to some extent, comes out better overall.

The image at top seems like a simple time exposure, taken from an overpass at night, but there was a lot that could make this weaker, or outright detract from the image. Headlight glare can be pretty intense, so a position offset from the oncoming cars was chosen. Too many cars will overlap and muddy the frame, but empty lanes can make the road seem unbalanced. This was taken right where an on-ramp merged in, so getting a single car in each of the eight lanes available, for the eight seconds of exposure time, would be pretty tricky. As it was, only two cars came through on the oncoming side, both sharing the same lane, and even one of the lanes beneath the camera was empty, yet the remaining vehicles helped balance out the composition – the one at far right was a truck with extra running lights, so it produced a nice collection of streaks without overlapping as multiple sets of taillights might’ve. Timing the exposure to start just as the close vehicles emerged from under the bridge maximized their time in the frame, and wonder of wonders, one driver was even captured using their turn signal properly. Must not have been a local…

beach portrait against rising sunFrom a nature photography standpoint, as well as portraiture, one of the better bits of planning is using the best natural light. Sunrise and sunset, often referred to as the ‘golden hours,’ offer softer, low-contrast lighting that has a pleasant warm hue, not to mention often producing nice displays in the sky, so being in position when this occurs can be very useful. If you don’t have a developed sense of where the sun will be, a compass and any online guide or app can tell you exactly where it will contact the horizon, allowing you to use this tiny window to frame the sun (or moon, as it may be) against some foreground interest. The colors change rapidly at these times, and the best displays may last only a minute or so.

Shooting into the bright sky like this is certainly going to affect exposure, often producing a silhouette. While it was not a technique used in this particular case (you may notice that I don’t show recognizable people without express permission,) having a flash unit handy to throw some fill light into the scene can produce a better portrait – but it also has to be the right level of light. A manually adjustable flash unit, or a variety of diffusing materials to soften the output, can allow you to throw just enough light to see detail without looking like the subject is unnaturally lit, so you’d best have these materials on hand. A reflector can also work, but usually needs another person to wield it with accuracy.

remotely triggered rig to photograph bluebirds in nest boxEastern bluebird Sialia sialis with catchlight in eyeAnticipating the action is also an important facet. This might mean setting up a complete rig to be able to capture birds feeding their young without being close enough to spook them, with light levels adjusted ahead of time so everything’s ready when the action starts. Or it might simply be knowing what pose or position is going to work best, and being able to trip the shutter exactly when it occurs, no matter how fleetingly. Most animals look better with a bright point reflection in their eyes, called a ‘catchlight,’ but don’t often pose where this can occur because it also means that light is making it hard for them to see; thus it might happen for a second or less. Yes, this takes practice and fast reflexes – you’re seeing the successes here, but I have enough misses as well. A little forethought made me position myself so that the bluebird’s head fell in the gap between the background branches, rather than intersecting them in a distracting way, and then it was simply a matter of waiting until the bird turned to look in exactly the right direction.

The more involved aspect of planning is, naturally, the studio shoot, whether this be a full modeling session or a small natural-looking setting for arthropods, or anything in between. It’s easy to imagine that taking an illustrative photo of an inanimate object for advertising purposes is easy – until you try it, and discover the issues with deep shadows, and reflections from shiny surfaces, and that there’s one angle that shows off the object with the necessary details, and so on. The same can easily be said for people, where different bodies or facial structures require different approaches to lighting, and the background has to complement the clothing, and let’s not even talk about trying to get the right expression from the model. But what all of these point to is having a lot of flexibility in equipment and approach, and this often means being able to cobble together something that works for the immediate needs. It can help to have a variety of lighting options, but it isn’t always necessary – a lot of effects can be achieved with homemade apparatus like reflectors, LED lamps, and tissue paper for diffusing overly bright or direct lights. However, you will almost always need something extra to make a studio session come out well, and it can take a lot of time and experiments to pin down what works best.

[A quick note: not long back, one of the primary tools of the studio photographer was a Polaroid back, an interchangeable film cassette for the medium or large-format cameras which permitted an immediate view of how the photo would look with certain lighting or sets. This was often necessary because the strobes used were not ‘constant’ lighting but fired only momentarily, and judging their exact effect couldn’t be done without capturing the instant of triggering. With digital, many studio photographers now have their cameras hooked into a large monitor for previewing in the same manner, because the dinky and poorly-corrected LCDs on the backs of the cameras just aren’t sufficient for critical evaluation.]

fairy shrimp Anostraca in dark field rigAbove, a fairy shrimp (Anostraca) photographed within a custom-made macro aquarium that greatly limited its ability to move out of focus range, using a dark-field technique that brightly illuminated the body details against a black background. While not too elaborate to set up, it was a much easier way of illustrating a subject that measured only 8mm without a lot of aggravation trying to nail focus in an open aquarium, as well as not firing the flash directly into the camera lens.

Pilot Mountain, NC in fall colors

Not just timing this trip to capture the autumn colors, but waiting a significant amount of time for the slow-moving clouds to position themselves usefully – I wanted blue sky behind the peak, not clouds, for maximum color impact.

One of the more frustrating aspects of planning is how often it doesn’t work. This may be due to several reasons, such as the sunrise not developing as desired, or not realizing that a more powerful lighting system was needed, or discovering that the subject was actually reflecting something unwanted. When this happens, it’s easy to believe that planning the shot was a waste of time. What it more likely means, however, is that we need more experience, different equipment, more foresight, or sometimes (like with the sunrise) just a little luck. It’s impossible to be prepared for every contingency, but only experience will prepare someone for the most common ones. For instance, with arthropod studio work, my tools include a very bright, gooseneck LED lamp for pre-flash lighting and focusing aid, index cards as both small reflectors and to slide under escaping insect subjects (much easier than trying to grasp them with anything that might injure them,) and a long needle or bit of pine straw as a prod; for flying subjects, this is all usually set up in the bathroom where avenues of escape are minimized and fugitives are easy to spot again. Over time, you will develop your own routines, tools, and tricks to accomplish what you need to, and end up with a lot more useful images than if you tried to capture the same thing “candidly.”

Not inspired

Once again, I observe that the posts are thin, which is a shame because I am/was well on the way to a record in number of posts, having already passed the total for both 2014 and 2012 (not combined, mind you.) A lot of that had to do with Monday color, which I’ll leave it up to you whether that should be considered cheating or not. But at best, they added five photos per month to the number uploaded, and I’m way the hell out in front on that score this year – yes, even discounting Jim’s pics from Juneau.

Mostly, it’s been a combination of being busy with projects, finding fewer photo subjects as the season winds down, and simply lacking inspiration for other topics. It is what it is, though, and I refuse to let it obligate me.

Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina on hand for scaleAbout six weeks ago, when the saga of the local mantids was petering out as they reached adulthood and began to disperse, I was walking around the nearby pond when I spotted, out of the edge of my vision, a bit of leaf litter on my shoulder. As I was reaching up to brush it off, the pattern suddenly registered just before my hand made contact, even as badly unfocused as my eyesight was, peripherally and from behind the edge of my glasses; too late, however, because the small mantis masquerading as leaf litter saw my hand coming and vaulted away. This is always an amusing sight, because before the final instar they have no wings, so they throw out all of their limbs in an attempt to snag vegetation and arrest their descent, and it gives them an air of utter abandon, the pose of a dog leaping off of a dock. This was a Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina,) much rarer around here than the Chinese mantis, even though I write this from North Carolina and not, shocking as it may seem, from China. The photo above is for scale, having swept it up for a quick pic – the tape in the edge of the frame was because I injured my hand and had two fingers partially immobilized to help the healing that was going slower than preferred. Below, a more natural image of the same mantis.

Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolina posing in grassWhat had me pondering was the simple fact that I hadn’t brushed against any plants or wandered close to any trees, and as can be seen, the mantis was too young to be flying, so how it got there, and how long it had been riding along, was a mystery.

Not quite a month later, about two hundred meters away from that incident, I spotted another Carolina mantis, this one fully adult and, if that girth is any indication, soon to produce an egg sac.

Pregnant Carolina mantis Stagmomantis carolinaI had a vague suspicion that it was the same mantis, but comparing the antennae I now consider this very unlikely – I don’t think they would grow back that completely, though I could be wrong. While I found this one on two separate occasions upon that same cluster of reeds, she abandoned them before laying her eggs and I have not found the sac.

I bring up that leaf litter story, gripping as it was, solely because it happened again, 12 days back now, and in almost exactly the same way except on the opposite side of the pond. And so, another scale pic for comparison.

Unidentified mantis on hand for scale
Unidentified mantis back on originating tree branch[That’s two of my knuckles flanking the head, with my thumb peeking in at right.] This time, however, I knew exactly how it had gotten there, since I had just brushed past a low-hanging branch with that shoulder, so after the scale image, I returned it to its perch.

Right now, due to the variation in color, I am only tentatively identifying this as another Carolina mantis, though one with much less grey and more green in the mix. The Chinese mantids seem to have two primary phases, green and brown, and can switch between these (I suspect when molting) as they change host plants, so I’m going to crassly assume Carolina mantids are capable of the same. Now, I had originally assumed this one had recently consumed a massive meal, since that abdomen is quite swollen but the mantis still a juvenile, so we shouldn’t be talking pregnant here. However, I don’t think the hearty meal assumption is correct, since I have found that the mantis not only likes that tree, it likes that precise position on the outlying branch, because I keep finding it there.

Unidentified mantis still thereThis one’s from yesterday, and as you can see, that abdomen is still pretty impressive. I can’t offer a decent explanation as yet – the tree is hardly one to attract a lot of potential mantis-meals. I am not discounting the possibility that, had I not acted sooner on that first encounter, the mantis may have been fatter still, feeding from those like me who frequently walk around the pond. But the path I took is one seldom used, because the spiders tend to throw their webs across between the trees and, for some reason, most people don’t like walking face-first through a large orb web – I’ve pointed it out many times before on this blog, but people are weird. However, this might help explain the girth anyway. The orb-weaver spiders don’t often encounter mantids because of their own protective habits, sitting in the middle of the web where mantids cannot reach, but they do at least have to begin the web, which requires stringing the support strands, and the outlying branch that the mantis owns is potentially a good anchor for such. So maybe the mantis had been fortunate enough to stumble upon a self-stocking smorgasbord, as it were.

A little ways past this point I had discovered, a few weeks back now, a large black-and-yellow argiope spider (Argiope aurantia) in her web in a pine tree, also abdomenally enhanced. Judging from the current capture in her web and the two dessicated carcasses of a dragonfly and a cicada in the branches beneath, she was eating for dozens, and within a few days an egg case had appeared nearby. Within a few more days she was gone – I have yet to determine if this was the natural cycle or not, since some spiders die soon after producing eggs, while others remain around and protect the young for a bit. I wasn’t checking back often enough, though, because yesterday I found the egg sac opened, with chaff strewn nearby, and no sign of spiderlings anywhere.

pregnant black-and-yellow argiope, Argiope aurantia garden spiderWhile I was faintly chagrined at having missed the hatching, I wasn’t absolutely sure a hatching had occurred. The egg sac might have been found and raided by a predator, a hypothesis buttressed by the fact that there was no evidence of a large number of web strands left behind by dozens of departing spiderlings. Not far away, though, another argiope was perched, and her girth was also evidence of an impending sac – this was taken four days ago. The thorn bushes she had selected as her web anchors prevented me from getting a better viewing angle, but as you can see, her belly’s to the sun anyway.

These, by the way, are among the largest spiders in the area, with a body length that can reach 30mm and thus a leg spread up to 50 or 60mm. The fishing spiders are the only ones that get noticeably larger. Argiopes are the largest that people routinely encounter, though, due to their habits of throwing a large web across between two strong, low plants, always decorated with a prominent white zig-zag of webbing right in the middle where the proprietor sits, and often enough in gardens near something that attracts pollinators, thus the common name of ‘garden spider.’ I see them more often on the shores of lakes and ponds and think a name reflecting that would be more appropriate, but not as many people explore those areas I guess. There is also one right alongside the house at present, next to one of the rain barrels, but as yet she is showing no signs of a baby bump.

Not pregant black-and-yellow argiope Argiope aurantia garden spiderYesterday, the same spider as above was noticeably deflated, as predicted, but I was unable to locate the egg sac. The foliage nearby was dense, and argiopes don’t put their eggs in the immediate vicinity of their webs, opting to go outside of the orb’s range a short ways (usually less than a meter) to place the sac. It was almost certainly there, but ten minutes of searching didn’t reveal it to me. I’m going to keep checking, because I really want photos of newborns, and if I capture them in the process of emerging, all the better. It will also be interesting to see if, now that the eggs are laid, this one disappears soon as well. Check back – if I’m successful, you know they’re going to appear here.

Monday color 32

ripening porcelain berries Ampelopsis brevipedunculata
So, Monday color was originally intended to be only for the winter months because they lacked color and/or subjects to chase. It had come from the overflow of images that I had pre-selected for an end-of-year color post. Since I ended up carrying it through the summer, I figure I’ll just close out the year with it – it has assisted in boosting my post count for the year, as well as providing some updates when I had too few things to write about. However, I may discontinue them come next spring when ‘current’ color pics should be available (especially if I follow through as planned and have a lot more flower species coming up then.)

What we see here are ripening porcelain berries (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata,) a type of grape that has apparently been introduced into the area, possibly by birds. They are often considered “invasive,” a label I pay little attention to since it’s rather arbitrary; apparently, if it was not found in North America before the Europeans landed, and competes better than the species that horticulturists plant on purpose, then it’s invasive. Fully half of the plants you might encounter anyplace in North America are not “native,” and of course food crops have been bred far apart from the way we found them. Meanwhile, loblolly pines spread just as fast and crowd out other species quite readily, not to mention being ugly, but they’re “native” and thus okay, in fact encouraged. People are weird.

Convenient mediocrity

“Convenient mediocrity.” I mentioned it in an earlier post, and while it can be found in use here and there, it is not (yet) a common phrase, even if it is a remarkably common property. What it means (for my purposes here, anyway) is maintaining lowered standards because higher ones take too much effort. More specifically, it means accepting lower quality as long as it’s in a cool, popular format.

I used it in terms of photography, and so we’ll examine that aspect in detail first. Really, not all that long ago when digital wasn’t an option, photographers had a variety of films to choose from, with distinctive color palettes and behaviors, and many of the professionals (and a lot of serious amateurs) would get so anxious about quality that their film would remain in the refrigerator until the day of the shoot, to keep the emulsion from degrading and thus affecting the colors it produced. There were portrait films and scenic films, high and low contrast options, fine grain and coarse, and naturally, a variety of ISO ratings to fit within the lighting conditions. I personally had four different preferred films, and my overall workhorse (Fuji Provia 100F) was usually shot at a third-stop overexposure because that produced the effects I liked. This says nothing about pushing films, varying developers and chemical preferences, filters, and on and on.

And virtually all of that is completely gone now. But digital has not replaced it at all – in fact, digital (despite countless assurances to the contrary in the early days) doesn’t even cover a moderate portion of these traits and behaviors. Digital color is expressed, still, in 32-bit format – each color has a value of 0 through 255, which isn’t a huge range, and has been in use for decades. Meanwhile, the digital sensors within the cameras have a fixed color register to them – they cannot be exchanged like one would exchange films, when switching from scenic photography to a wedding, for instance. The myth still persists that “you can digitally alter the color to your liking,” which is true only insofar as a) you stay within the 32-bit range, and b) the camera captures the color differentiation and details that you needed in the first place. If there were subtleties of foliage, delicate colors of a leaf for instance, that the sensor simply could not distinguish or differentiate, then the only ‘digital’ thing you can do to reproduce them would be to paint them in by hand, because the digital image has nothing to work with. The best example is shadow detail – if the camera didn’t get it, no amount of lightening or contrast adjustment will bring it back.

breaker at Nags Head NC

I have yet to see a digital sensor that can render a sky in as rich color as my preferred slide films, noticeable even when it’s been reduced to 32-bit color for digital use. But, producing a deep blue sky means it’s terrible at skin tones. The digital compromise, however, is to become mediocre at both.

32-bit is a rather narrow range, significantly less than any contemporary films. Slide films were made to be viewed with a light source dozens of times brighter than anything a computer monitor can produce, so a much wider range of color intensity is possible. This says nothing of the subtleties of palette, an the idea that the green layer of emulsion, for instance, interacts in different ways with the red and blue layers, giving the ability to selectively produce better foliage images (Fuji Velvia) or, alternately, to bring out much nicer skin tones in portraiture (Fuji NPS/NPH.)

This is the most noticeable hit, to me. I have yet to see a digital sensor that comes even close to a decent portrait film – most skin tones in digital are horrible, and if you want to see the difference, pull up any magazine from the 90s and compare it to any today.

And then there’s resolution. There is no comparison between pixel count and what a film produces, since film grain is variable and, at times, microscopic, not to mention that color films have three layers of grain that produces gradients throughout the image instead of a fixed number of dots. Photographers that wanted the best enlargements used medium or large format films, which (comparatively) shrunk the film grain down for any given enlargement size, since a larger negative/slide meant the image would not have to be enlarged as much.

I don’t mean to harp on this, but it’s necessary to illustrate the change, because while these factors were all in routine use, and even obsessively pursued, by photographers just over a decade ago, they were dismissed almost entirely when digital arrived. Why? Because digital is immediate gratification, even when the results are poor. Plus probably a degree of, “this is new technology and therefore cool.” The only significant advancement was not having to develop the images, and it’s hard to believe that lead time is supposed to be such a huge factor in photography that the decline in quality is justified by the immediacy, but this is assuming that factors are being weighed rationally and objectively. Humans aren’t particularly known for this, even when we believe it’s our strongest quality.

All of this has been referring to the DSLRs, camera bodies ranging from prosumer use to full professional – the idea of a camera phone departs these considerations by miles. Camera phones produce quality just a hair better than the Polaroid cameras that people abandoned in the 80s due to their horrendous results. But, a Polaroid wasn’t able to be held out so easily one-handed to do a poorly-composed and remarkably pointless self-portrait – isn’t technology wonderful?

I’ve ranted about smutphones before, but think about it. A few years back when “land lines” were the norm, we had advertisements about how you could hear a pin drop over a provider’s phone service; now, we’re lucky when we get 80% of the words uttered. I never talk to one of my friends when she’s home, because she has almost no cell service where she fucking lives! Had cell phones come first, we’d be falling all over ourselves when land lines came out, promising no possibility of dropped calls and remarkable clarity – for a third of the monthly fees, too, with no contracts or shenanigans to get you to buy a new phone. Seriously, perspective counts for a lot.

I’m sure you’ve seen the ‘memes’ online about how this little touchscreen phone can do all the jobs of this phone, and that camera, and this video camera, and this calculator, and that tape recorder, and so on – all this individual technology from a few decades ago. And yes, believe me, I don’t knock technology – I was thrilled to get my first TV with a remote. But in reality, a smutphone doesn’t do all of those things. It mimics them, doing each and every task half-ass, but unable to reproduce the quality of any one of them (well, except for the calculator – we’ll give them that.)

What this convenience means, however, is that their usage in all of these manners is frivolous – used because we can, but not because we should. The vast majority of the stuff produced through these phones – and yes, I’m including actual telephone conversations, as well as texts – is mediocre at best, strictly from the standpoint of content. We will never use the words enrich, or enlighten, or inform or educate or much of anything else related, when describing these offerings. At best, we can say they entertain – if our standards of entertainment are remarkably low.

But now, here’s the part I haven’t quite come to terms with. There have always been mediocre efforts out there – the amateur photographers, the people recording their music on cassette recorders, the cheesy home videos done with a few friends [*cough* What? Nothing. I don’t know what you’re talking about.] But at the same time, there remained the professional skills, and equipment, and services – no amount of camcorder-wielding relatives replaced the wedding portrait photographers, nor did they change the equipment that was available. But somehow, a new set of standards has arisen, or indeed befallen, and now it’s next to impossible to pursue the methods that provide the highest quality. Film developing is remarkably hard to accomplish anymore; music cannot be found outside of the dynamic range that MP3s can handle.

I recognize how ‘popular demand’ works, causing labs to close down because no one needs to have film developed anymore. What I don’t understand is how the reduction in quality was somehow justified by the convenience, the reason the labs had to close in the first place. Why is there no demand for portraits that no digital image can touch? Why does my digital voicemail sound worse that the little cassettes I used to use? How come every phone conversation now contains awkward gaps and pauses from transmission delay? This isn’t advancement in any way, and I’m confused as to why so many people think we’ve improved something.

Stick with fashion

one barn spider Araneus cavaticus eating anotherSo, right outside the same porch mentioned in the previous post has been a pair of large orb webs occupied by barn spiders (Araneus cavaticus), both females – it was only one for a few days, then another moved in. And curiously, their webs were almost stacked; while the centers of the orbs were not aligned, the webs themselves overlapped only about 10cm or so apart, while the spiders sat in their alert positions about 30cm offset from each other. Barn spiders tend to rebuild their webs frequently, usually using the same anchor strands, so their positions changed over a period of about a week. I kept thinking I should do a shot that included them both, but couldn’t work out an angle that would work.

Sometime in the last 12 hours, that opportunity passed, along with one of the spiders. I have no idea what transpired, but one of them was proudly displaying its meal of the other. And you thought beauty pageants could get cutthroat…

Competition among individuals of other species can at times be pretty distasteful to us – sure, we might kill our rivals, but not eat them! Almost never, anyway. But behavior is a widely variable thing, dictated by the winning lottery of natural selection. Think about it: each spider is competing for both food and mating privileges, and in one move (well, okay, it might have been quite an altercation) this was eradicated. Spiders have no reasons whatsoever to cooperate, so the only decision about what constitutes “food” is whether it’s too dangerous to tackle.

It can even illustrate a simplified facet of evolution. If one of these spiders was aggressive and ‘cannibalistic’ while the other wasn’t, one of them is far more likely to win that encounter. And now, with the competition gone, the winner stands a much greater chance of passing on her genes. it is entirely possible that this scenario played itself out numerous times in the past history of this species, and so now all of them will view other females only as a tricky-to-obtain collection of calories. Humans are a cooperative species, because it worked better for us in hunting and farming and such, and to foster this we have strong feelings about interactions among our own species; thus we might look upon this behavior within the same species of spider and find it abhorrent. Yet it’s only about what worked best among the available options, and from a survival standpoint, this works well for the spiders. Sometimes we have to ditch the emotional reactions to fathom the functional aspects.

Coming together

When The Girlfriend purchased this house a little over a year ago, it was of course necessary to begin personalizing it, which is one of those things that goes slowly and I don’t think ever really gets ‘finished.’ This means that I often have several projects on hand, either planned or in progress, and sometimes they’re not always known to her until they’re completed.

The house has a decent-sized screened back porch, and almost immediately, we affixed a string of holiday lights along the ceiling edge – I had discovered long ago that multi-colored dim lights are actually very relaxing, and so this provided mood lighting for this space, and we often eat meals out there. After a period of time, The Girlfriend obtained a nice outdoor glass-topped table to replace the small, basic one that we had placed there initially, the only one we had to spare when we moved in. The textured glass gave me an idea, so while she and her daughter were away for another surgery, I arranged a second set of holiday lights under the textured glass surface to surprise them when they returned. I ended up with a lot of the string left over, so I poked it up through the hole in the center of the table (intended for an umbrella) and stuffed it into a mason jar, creating a simple lighted centerpiece.

This went over very well, and even increased the amount of times we ate out there, but The Girlfriend noticed one night that the mason jar could build up quite a lot of heat if the lights were left on for a while, and I figured we needed something ventilated. Brainstorming occurred. Shortly, I located what I was looking for on eBay and ordered it, for far less than I imagined I would have to pay.

vintage but filthy Swallow barn-railroad lanternWhat I found was a vintage barn or railroad lantern, and it arrived in “as found” condition, complete with old spider egg sacs (barely visible to the lower right of the chimney.) It took a while to clean up, and the kerosene had stained the enamel around the base, but I figured that just added to the rustic charm. Despite the grime, it was in good enough condition that I could have filled it and lighted it immediately, and I debated about cleaning it up and reselling it, but I liked the look of it too much. Once cleaned, I removed the wick assembly and drilled a large hole in the bottom of the kerosene tank, then fed the lights up through the bottom and clustered them within the glass chimney. From discussion to result was less than two weeks, and from arrival to display less than two hours.

modified Swallow lantern centerpieceIt looks quite nice in place, and my only regret is that it is not self-contained and running from batteries, with that fill-spout serving as the power switch. Even during the day, it produces a nice effect, but at night it really comes into its own. I know there are some people that think multi-colored lights are garish or old-fashioned; good for them. We’re pleased with the ensemble, and that’s the only criteria we need.

So when I’m not posting as often, occasionally it’s because I’m chasing some other projects – this is just one that I decided to show off. The starbursts in the image below, by the way, are courtesy of a small aperture, in this case f22. It’s a simple trick.

[And if you’re surprised that nothing “buggy” is evident on this porch, well, let’s be realistic: the photography is a pursuit, not a lifestyle, and doesn’t have to be present everywhere. But the metal ants seen earlier are actually out of sight on the porch railing to the right ;-) ]
lantern centerpiece showing night effect