Okay, more than a few

For the Sunday slide entry two weeks ago, I mentioned that I might be back “in a few days” to elaborate on another aspect of the shot. I figure I might as well bring it up now before the original gets pushed below the ten post limit I set for the main page.

The image had originally appeared to illustrate a “middle of nowhere” post some years back, which I think it does nicely. So much of photography, however, is just as much about what you don’t show as what you do, and in this case, the viewer has no impression that a high-rise resort hotel sat only a few hundred meters behind where I was standing for the shot. Granted, it was down at the end of the road on the barrier island, the last little bit of ‘civilization’ before empty dunes and marshes, but this was Wrightsville Beach east of Wilmington, NC, which is much more developed than I prefer, and certainly more than the photo indicates. If you like, this link will take you right there if you have Google Earth installed, or you can enter “34.237377 N 77.776623 W” in the mapping service of your choice.

I always have misgivings about revealing ‘secrets’ about photos, because the primary appeal of images is what you see, not what was real – I especially don’t like taking a chance of ruining an impression. But I also find value in teaching people how this works and how to be particular about their scenes and framing, so I’ll sacrifice an impression for the greater good. Or something like that – I can make it sound even more dramatic if you like. Regardless, it wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, but I’m fine with calling it the edge of nowhere if accuracy is important – very desolate if you faced in one direction, not very isolated if you turned around. And far enough from the really developed areas not to have traffic or construction noise and all that ‘civilized’ rot.

As I was mentally framing this post, I started wondering where my most isolated photos had been taken, ever. And came to the conclusion, pretty quickly, that none of them were all that isolated; I’ve never done long hikes out into the wilderness to find that remote locale, and while I don’t mind exploring, there’s a certain risk to venturing out alone a long ways away from, for instance, ambulance access and fresh water and all that. It might produce some unique photos, true – and it might not. I’m usually not struggling to find something to photograph with even short hikes out into the woods or down the beach, so the amount that I’ve been “out there” is minimal, really.

Right now, I’m pretty sure I know the remotest location, and again, it’s not that impressive, but it’s still noteworthy. Back in 1999 or 2000 (the processing lab that I used at the time did not print the date on the slide mounts,) I took a ‘business’ trip out to Portsmouth Island, one of the barrier islands on the coast of NC between Ocracoke Island and the Cape Lookout/Beaufort area. It was ostensibly a fishing trip, though for most of the guys I traveled with this translated to drinking like fish, and very little angling was done. I don’t drink, and I was planning on getting up before sunrise, so the evening was rather tedious for me. Portsmouth is a largely undeveloped island, though, with only a handful of buildings, mostly rental cabins, and no roads whatsoever; access is by ferry, and you’re only allowed onto the island if you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle that can handle the sand – we rented one for the occasion. There wasn’t even electricity, so cabin lights and heat were provided by propane, and food was kept in coolers and maintained with ice deliveries by daily ferry – lettuce, as I was to discover, doesn’t like being kept in a cooler full of ice.

The second evening that we were there, the sky cleared and we drove down the strand a ways to the end of the island, where some of the guys actually started fishing (spending about 1/10th the amount of time doing this that they had drinking the night before,) while I tooled around looking for photos. Overall, I shot maybe two rolls of 36 exposures on the entire trip, probably less – that’s not a photo trip, as far as I’m concerned, but some of that was due to bad weather rolling in the evening we arrived. Nonetheless, I have some nice keepers from the trip, including two images in the main gallery, one here and the other linked from that page. And of course, there is a Google Earth placemark on both, but it’s the same one so clicking only once is enough. Or use “34.855740° N 76.316729° W”

Technically, the photo location is only about 3.5 kilometers (2.25 miles) from the nearest road, which would not be considered an arduous hike except that this is measuring directly across Core Sound, and if you can hike that, more power to you – it was farther than that up the island to the cabin where we were staying. And to get there, we had to take the ferry up and around the tidal shallows, so the actual path was 14 kilometers (8.75 miles,) half of that by boat. Granted, most of it was still spent in the truck – I wasn’t enduring any hardships getting there.

But now it gets interesting. This link (34.898682° N 76.257028° W) is the ferry access, just northeast of the cabins, and if you compare the two locations, you’ll notice they’re not even on the same island. They were, back at the turn of the century (I love saying that,) but barrier islands are like that, subject to radical reshaping by storms. A few years after our visit, a new channel cut across the island, while the channel that I shot those photos alongside filled in and joined another island farther southwest. The Immobile Mr Bugg had said that he wanted to visit the island to shoot from the same location, but he actually can’t since it technically doesn’t exist anymore.

[I’ll take this opportunity to mention the same thing that I’ve told him: while some locations are photogenic, most times, it’s not the location that’s the key to a great photo, but the conditions – with the right light and sky and grasses and all that, many locations might provide a lovely scenic shot, but you have to recognize and exploit the conditions when they come together, and often this is subject to the vagaries of the weather, not to mention your skill as a photographer. Hiking out to the same spot Ansel Adams shot from doesn’t mean you’re going to get his images.]

This is where using Google Earth is more interesting, because you can roll the dates back and see the aerial images from earlier, watching the island reshape itself – it’s pretty dramatic for that particular area (I wouldn’t recommend buying property there.) And this brings us back to the original location from the Sunday slide post, the marsh channels off of Wrightsville Beach. Back in 1992, I had trekked a short ways off of that loop at the end of the road, up past the hotel, and had camped on the sand dunes, having a pretty miserable night from the summer heat. In trying to get some breeze into the tent I had left the rain flaps open, but screens aren’t adequate to stop blowing sand, which was often carried into the tent with every gust to adhere to my bare and sweaty chest – I’ve had better nights. A couple of years later I revisited the area and out of curiosity intended to go back to the general spot where I’d camped, but was stopped quite distinctly by the fact that it was under at least two meters of water by then – a storm in the intervening time had gouged a channel through the island right where I’d been sleeping fitfully. You can roll this back in Google Earth too, any date from 2002 and earlier, and after that you can even see the planted beach grasses to stabilize the dune and hopefully prevent the water from coming as close as it did to the hotel. I imagine the insurance rates for the building are astronomical.

Just a small aside here. This image was also taken during that trip, obviously aircraft parts, but I have no information on how they arrived there – one beach wreck survey that I came across speculated on them washing ashore from an artificial reef, ones usually created by sinking derelict ships, but I don’t imagine aircraft parts are the material of choice in such a turbulent coastal area. There has always been a lot of military activity in the region, including a small airfield just inland, so there are a lot of ways this could have arrived. I found it a curious little tableau, myself.

Sunday slide 8

Mediterranean house gecko Hemidactylus turcicus on artificial setting
This week, we hearken back to my brief interlude in Texas, when I stayed in Houston for a couple of months in 2001; September and October, actually – I had two job interviews on September 11th, and to no one’s surprise, didn’t nail either of them. Which I’m kinda glad about, because I really didn’t like Texas, but that’s irrelevant. My photography was sparse then, yet one of the few subjects that I captured (literally) during my stay was a Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus.) Geckos are adept at clinging to any surface and can run across a ceiling with ease, which of course meant that my methods of housing this one for even the short photo session had to take this into account. The setting seen here is all artificial, a small sprig cut from a variety of landscaping bush placed in front of a house plant. It really didn’t take much, which you’ll understand once you see the size of my model here. But first, let’s take a closer look at that eye.

Mediterranean house gecko Hemidactylus turcicus eye closeup
This is a full-resolution crop of the original slide (even the one above it was cropped a little from the full frame,) and you can see the limits of the grain and focus, with some potential loss from the Minolta Scan Dual III scanner. But those pupils! I get a kick out of the different types of pupils displayed by some animals, and knowing how the shape of the opening affects focus quality, I’m curious as to what difference this makes to the species that have them, but as yet I have no real information – it’ll be a subject for a later post. Now, let’s see why this was so challenging to show clearly.

Mediterranean house gecko Hemidactylus turcicus on dime for scaleI’ve been having a hell of a time getting the color register right for these slides and I have to see if I can zero out the color balance of the scanner, but this one, unlike the slide above, has a better excuse: I had forgotten to calculate the light loss from the extension tubes that I used to get closer for this frame, so the slide was too dark, lightened in editing for my purposes here. The key part, of course, is the dime for scale, showing just how small my specimen is, and while this might be slightly smaller than average for the species, it’s not by much. Take out a dime for comparison right now, because the eye was about the same size as three digits of the date, and this was before I had developed my macro skills and equipment to the point they are now. The Sigma 105 EX Macro was a good performer (up until the aperture started acting up,) but I don’t think it compares to the Mamiya 80 Macro.

I mentioned geckos’ ability to climb, and this is due to the special structures of their feet. A few years later in Florida, I captured another variety and housed it in a small macro tank for some detail shots of the feet.

close up of gecko foot pad, unknown species
This specimen is different from the Mediterranean house gecko above, and much larger, but I didn’t pin down the species while I had it, and didn’t get any good shots of the eyes. While the foot looks petty cool, the structures that actually allow geckos to cling to just about anything are microscopic and not going to show in a mere macro photo. This is still the Sigma 105 and extension tubes, by the way – the subject was much more restrained in movement and I wasn’t worried about having to snag it before it ran away across the apartment, so that probably helped my steadiness and subsequent sharpness.

This shot is done vertically and believe me, the gecko wasn’t having any difficulty running up and down the glass. I didn’t see anywhere near enough of them and caught much fewer (I think these represent the only two that I’ve ever had my hands on and both were released after the photos,) but they’re very cool to observe. Since they’re nocturnal, checking out the places where lights sit near foliage are the best places to look, since that’s where they’re most likely to be found hunting insects.

Just because, part 22

Still the slow season for photography right now, but getting better by centimeters. In the meantime, a couple of pics from the fall.

bare trees and blue sky reflected in still creek
I had passed on posting both of these back when I took them, but they keep catching my eye from the blog images folder and I have to admit I like how the colors work for both. I would really have liked some hidden little detail for this one, something lurking on the opposite bank, but it was not to be.

You’re still looking for it though, aren’t you?

tall trees in fall colors from underneath
Actually, I’d like to do something like that from time to time, have a little something that can be seen in the images if you’re paying attention, but staging it could be hard. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Or has it already?

Inspired to do… what?

So I’m sitting here with a free day, recognizing that the posts have been thin and that I should get something up here, but I’m lacking a little motivation to get it going on. Lucky for me that this is the interblobs, and it’s not hard to find an inspirational message that will fire up my spirit and get me to pump out a couple of posts before Sunday rolls around again. Let’s see, what can I find here…

“You’re great!” Well, that’s obvious, but I’m still not great enough to be writing something.

“You’re special!” Special? In what way? That’s kind of an amorphous and subjective term, isn’t it?

“You have the strength within you.” I guess, though it’s not exactly strength I need right now, but something to either spark the creative process or get me pissed enough to rant about.

Curiously, this is the nature of many inspirational efforts, from the motivational posters in work that no one took seriously because they didn’t tell us how to deal with an asshole boss, to the simple images that can be found in so many locations online anymore. And I have to wonder whether they actually accomplish anything at all, even with the bar set so ridiculously low. Because, let’s be real, exactly what kind of emotional state or psyche is going to be affected by such simple and especially indirect messages?

Pop psychology is a hard thing to avoid, partially because it’s human nature to try and understand other people, but also because pop psychology is so ubiquitous that, when we see it, we’re inclined to think that it must have some value because everyone else keeps doing it. Yet in many cases, like inspirational messages, it reflects an incredibly condescending and demeaning attitude towards other people and the problems that we all face. Those that suffer from depression, clinical or just the generic kind, are tired of hearing, “Cheer up!” – it simply doesn’t work that way, and to believe that this would be effective implies that the recipient has a infantile mind. When someone is injured, no one is stupid enough to say, “Just stop feeling pain,” but somehow emotional or mental states are much easier to fix, it would seem.

Yes youNow, there are effective methods of outreach, and some of them aren’t too difficult; I don’t want to diminish the real and useful efforts that can be found. But often this is specific to an individual, and almost always consists of something more than a passing positive comment or pretty picture. I tend to view most inspirational messages now as “slacktivism,” that new term that applies to internet activities where someone posts something on their wall, or asks for upvotes or whatever, and thinks that they’re making a difference with virtually no effort expended at all. How often are such things merely a placebo, letting the person who posts or forwards them believe they’re fulfilling their personal obligation to do something useful? “Ah, there we go! I tapped my touchscreen in a couple of places and now the world is a better place!”

Yet there’s a more pernicious tendency within the topic, closely related to this, because such a large percentage of these kind of things are aimed at making an individual feel better about themselves, often without any particular reason. And what, exactly, does this accomplish? While I am sure there are a few people that are desperately in need of a little reassurance, a little boost to self-esteem, I can’t imagine it’s a lot, and the number that would receive a benefit from an anonymous assertion that they were great has got to be so trivial it can’t be measured; seriously, if we’re not fooled by this, how much stupider do we think others are? And, even if this did work, do we really need to foster and emphasize self-absorption?

We have superlatives for a reason. When we want to distinguish the extraordinary efforts of someone, when we take note of the qualities above the average, that’s what we can, and should, reasonably consider “great,” or any variation that you prefer. That’s what we really want for ourselves, isn’t it? Do I want to be just as “great” as everyone else? No, actually, I’d like to be even better than that, to stand out, to be recognized for something particular to me (if I ever find this, I’ll let you know what it is.) But even that is just ego, and right now we probably have enough of that in this country; I might go so far as to say that we have a surfeit. Maybe, and I’m just throwing out wild ideas here, we can consider recognizing and even encouraging behavior that positively affects others, that genuinely improves our community overall? Does anyone have an argument against that?

To me, that’s the kind of inspiration we should encourage. There’s far too much “me” in our society, and not enough “us” – too much emphasis on how good we feel about ourselves, as if this made some difference to anyone else at all, much less provided some improvement to the world at large. To say nothing of the ridiculous amount of time we spend actively competing against others of our own species, whether it be the progress of a sports team or whether we’re making more money than our neighbors or even how we drive on the road. Why not turn that around, remind people that helping others or improving our conditions are immeasurably better goals? Hey, maybe we feel shitty for whatever reason, but there are others that have it worse and can use our support. Or maybe we can just spend a little time helping out, teaching someone, throwing a few bucks at a decent cause, whatever.

And you know something? It not only produces a real, measurable, meaningful improvement to the world, it makes us feel good too – the same thing that the vapid inspirational messages attempt to do, but this method is a lot more effective. Why encourage being wrapped up in ourselves?

Hey, look, I found a topic after all…

Sunday slide 7

matching spider webs in mountain trees
This week, we have a shot from 2005, I think, my first trip to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The fog was lifting (or the clouds passing – way up in the mountains it’s pretty much the same thing) and a couple of dew-covered webs were catching the emerging sun.

“Catching the sun” – isn’t language stupid? Spider webs are amazingly strong for their mass, but even the toughest probably couldn’t actually catch the sun, should it come close enough to earth to even make it possible. The sun would likely break free eventually…

Way behind schedule, but anyway…

old and new sea turtle tire covers compared
So, I finally managed to finish off a project started for last christmas, which is the repainting of The Girlfriend’s spare tire cover. The first had been done back in 2009, and despite our best efforts with UV protectant spray, the vinyl cover was showing its age and starting to tatter at the edges, so it was time for a new one.

I had intended to find a hard shell cover instead of a vinyl one this time, but nearly all of them made for that car have “Honda” embossed into the shell, which wasn’t going to work. The company that I bought this from glossed over the fact that the face was hard, but the rim was still vinyl – easier to paint, but still beholden to the elements and expected to last no longer than the previous. By the time it had arrived I was up against my christmas deadline and wasn’t going to play around with another order, but it means I still have another project waiting in the wings for when I find a full shell cover.

Nonetheless, I had the chance to correct a couple of things with this one, notably some proportional errors and the number of scutes on the turtle shell, at the same time bringing the color a bit closer to reality – it’s nice to have good photos to work from. It could still be more accurate, but I’m pleased, and so is she, which is the important bit.

sea turtle tire cover head detail
I’m most pleased with how the head turned out, especially the reddish ‘tint’ of the scales, but even the fading minor scales came out well. I’m not an artist or painter, though I dabbled back in school and did a shit-ton of model kits which at least contributed to my handling of a brush. We look at things like this and think, “Oh, yeah, it just curves around, I can do it,” but the truth is (at least for me,) that three-dimensional aspect can be very hard to render, getting the shape and distortion of the scales right as they follow the curve of the head. I could point out the significant errors still present, but I suspect that most people would miss them, so I’m okay with this for now; the next one will have to be better, though.

[Okay, fine. See that scale above and behind the eye, right at the corner? The one on the opposite side of the head should be positioned at the same place in regards to the eye, but it’s nowhere near it, is it? Happy now? You can also see the color-matching issues when you’re this close, but you really have to be this close for it to be noticeable. I’m making excuses, aren’t I?]

The grasses had been a corrective addition to the previous version, since I hadn’t stretched the cover to the proper placement on the tire that I had when I painted it, and the turtle came out off-center. It was much easier to center this one, but The Girlfriend thought the grasses added to the atmosphere (aquasphere, whatever,) and so I kept them for this. But I have different plans for the next – it’s just a matter of whether I can adequately pull them off or not. And proper shading would be a nice thing to develop. We’ll see.

Standards of evidence

Some time back in a discussion on religion, someone once told me that we weren’t going to come to an agreement on the existence of god because, between us, we had “different standards of evidence.” And I’ve heard similar sentiments many times over before and since, notably in regards to whether or not we’ve been visited by extra-terrestrial intelligence. The phrase itself most often sees usage in the US justice system since there are different criteria among civil and criminal courts to establish “beyond reasonable doubt” – it’s disturbing how wishy-washy the language is when it comes to determining just what it is we’re going to sentence people with. The issue with the concept, however, isn’t what we hold as standards, but what our goals actually are, and there’s a distinct short-sightedness that’s present in too many such discussions, one rarely recognized.

Some religious pundit, who will go unnamed since because I don’t feel like looking up his name, once made an open cash-challenge to anyone to prove that the Earth was not the center of the universe; apparently, geocentrism was being considered a point in favor of god in some way. He was hoping to capitalize on the simple idea that a center was meaningless without outside borders, and therefore he could consider Earth the focal point of the universe if he damn well pleased. Even a lot of religious folk don’t put any weight behind such non-negative arguments, with good reason: they establish absolutely nothing, and when it comes right down to it, the physics behind the mass-gravity model of orbital mechanics not only explains the behavior of everything in the universe quite handily, they work amazingly well to predict results when it comes time to, you know, put a planetary probe in parking orbit around another planet. A “center” to anything is an arbitrary and useless concept; what matters is, how will the probe behave in proximity to any collection of mass it approaches?

Which begins to highlight the fundamental (a ha ha) difference that exists. Nobody cared that the pundit wanted to believe that the sun actually orbited the earth, therefore god – personal opinion doesn’t provide anything of further value. There’s a distinctive, and vast, difference between self-affirmation and actually deriving something of future use to us as a species. UFO proponents are notorious for simply wanting to win some debate. But while it would be of remarkable interest to nearly everyone to know that extra-terrestrial life, in any form, had been found, the real value lies in actually having some useful information, and especially in being able to take this further. How can we study it, how much does it differ, how did it develop, how old is it, how close is it, how does it reproduce, does it have a DNA analog, and on and on in that nature for the next umpteen decades. These are not yes/no questions, and there is no stopping point to be found – and hopefully, the answers would not just satisfy some facet of curiosity, but provide something for us to use as well, some way in which we can improve our own standards of living or fix some issue that we presently have. That’s really what the pursuit of knowledge is all about, isn’t it? It’s almost certainly how we even evolved to have it, since it worked much better than simply accepting things as they were without question or interest. Notably, a lot of species have this investigative property to some extent, albeit less than we do; we’ve all seen kittens and puppies puzzling out whether a leaf is actually animated or simply driven by the wind, and crows and squirrels can easily be observed to utilize cause-and-effect reasoning, figuring out a way around some obstacle when trying to get food.

Does the puppy believe the leaf is imbued with free will and intelligence, perhaps visiting from another planet? Does the squirrel believe it is being punished for violating some commandment when it comes up against the skirt around the bird feeder? Answering these questions might give us some insight into the thought processes of such species, but no one is bothering to investigate them or really cares. Why not? Probably because, not only do we not think squirrels can provide us with information about supernatural beings, mostly it’s with the knowledge that if they did hold such beliefs, they’d still be wrong. We know where the squirrel-shield came from, and it’s hard to express how little value a theory of a Sciuridicentric universe would provide. Sure, it might make the squirrel feel better about itself, but how does that solve the issue of obtaining food?

Quite often, this is the point where someone feels obligated to state that mayyybe dry leaves really are self-animated and we just haven’t discovered it yet, abandoning that standards of evidence thing altogether and thinking the lack thereof is somehow significant – often this is slyly couched in terms of being “open-minded.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between being open to new evidence, and just trying to salvage a pre-existing belief with whatever two-step one can. For every “maybe” there’s a “maybe not,” and it’s even more open-minded to recognize that too, and hold out for something that leads someplace further than appeals to ignorance.

The value of knowledge is its utility. We don’t need to have any “standards of evidence” – we just need it to work and produce dependable results. At such a point, there’s no debate, and whatever someone’s personal opinion is has no effect or impact. We should never be looking for affirmation or emotional indulgence, we should simply be looking for functionality. That’s how progress is made.

Nothing but iron

Yesterday, knowing there wasn’t a lot of lunch-style food in the house and not having been in a while, I hit the nearby pizza place on my lunch break. I ended up having to get it to-go, however, because the place was packed. Later on when I got home, I started seeing things on various sites about National Pizza Day, which explained the crowd, though it made me feel bad because I generally don’t bother with stuff of that nature. I don’t make a point of non-conformity, but I definitely avoid both fads and manufactured holidays. It was just a coincidence, I swear!

What made this ironic is that today is National Coincidence Day, the day we should all recognize the meaningless coincidences in our lives. I had apparently jumped the gun on celebrating that one, again without even meaning to, which is perhaps celebrating it doubly so. Even worse, tomorrow is National Contrition Day, which means I’m really out of synch and hopelessly trapped amongst the mindless sheep.

But then I found out that the day before yesterday was National Pizza Day, so we’re all good now. It had been getting all irony up in here.

Art vs. misdirection

Listen, I’m not in any position to tell someone what “art” is, not only from my poor ability to execute it myself, but overall just from the term being so ill-defined and subjective. If you get any kind of acclaim or recognition for what you do, great! And even if you don’t, self-expression is still a legitimate pursuit and if it makes you feel good (and doesn’t harm anyone else,) go for it!

And naturally, with all that said I’m going to come out with something a bit more negative, or at the very least, thought-provoking – I just have to get the clarifying statement out of the way first before anyone categorized this post differently ;-)

The ability to edit images has been around since almost the dawn of photography, and remains an inherent trait – we’ve always been able to change contrast and affect how bright something is selectively, and with masking we’ve been able to composite together portions of images from completely separate settings or locales. Going digital just made this cleaner and far less time-consuming, but it hardly introduced the practice; it just introduced a new verb, “Photoshopping.”

Bodie Island lighthouse against impossible starfield and Milky WayBut for some reason, this has really taken off when it comes to astrophotography. While the image seen here is my own because I’m not going to target any specific example from someone else, it is representative of many such efforts that can be found now, and it is manifestly impossible to capture in-camera; no one would be able to ‘take’ this photo. Not just is the Milky Way impossible to even see in post-sunset conditions where the glow from the sky can color the lighthouse, it cannot even appear in this position by the moon, and the light from our galaxy is hundreds of times dimmer than the light from even a half-moon (or a lighthouse beacon,) so in an exposure that captured that cloudy look, the moon would be so overexposed that it would appear like a sunburst in the frame. Moreover, it would scatter so much light from atmospheric humidity that, like the sunset glow, it would overwhelm the Milky Way. It’s simply not happening, and this image is just as fake as one showing me shaking hands with Albert Einstein (who died ten years before I was born – I’m not that old, you shithead.)

Astrophotography is a challenge. The really interesting stellar subjects are pretty dim and low-contrast, so getting a decent image of them requires long exposures, at the very least – from several seconds to several minutes. And they usually require being someplace where light pollution has a minimal effect, so traveling to an ideal (and usually remote) location. That’s fine, and part of what makes the subject interesting in its own right: if it takes skill and effort, then fewer people can do it. This has always been a mainstay of photography, and what so many of us seek. But it largely defeats the purpose when images are digitally constructed. I don’t have anything against digital compositing as a tool, but as a skill set it’s not particularly impressive or rare.

And when it’s being used to represent an astrophotograph that should take skill and effort, that is by its nature known for being tricky, well, what’s the point? I cannot tell you what motivates all of the people who present such composited images, and I’m sure it isn’t all the same thing – but can we consider it any different from any other manipulation?

Most especially, very few of those that I’ve found actually admit that such images are manipulated, which seems to suggest that they don’t want it to be known, and/or don’t want to be recognized for editing skills instead of photography. It’s misleading at best.

And it does a disservice to all others out there who don’t fully understand the demands of the subject matter and want to try such shots on their own, because it simply isn’t going to happen. Really distinct and sharp images of stellar dust and galaxies and so on are going to require very long exposures, and that means counteracting the rotation of the earth while this is going on – in other words, a tracking support that pivots the camera in the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation so the camera remains pointing at the same spot in the sky the entire time. These are expensive, or tricky to build, and require very precise alignment – it’s a skill in itself. And of course, you can forget about foreground subjects because now the camera is moving to track the sky and everything earth-bound will be blurred. Photographers have been dealing with these issues for decades. So when you see a really sharp deep-sky shot with a really distinct foreground subject, the chances are overwhelming that it’s complete horseshit, pasted together from separate frames of hugely different exposure times.

[I’m going to insert a specific caveat here. Many photographs produced by telescopes and NASA, especially the Hubble images, are also digital manipulations and composites, but of a special kind. Hubble, for instance, has a monochrome image sensor that only captures light intensities without any color at all, and a selection of color filters that range far beyond what our eyes can see, while even images from ground-based telescopes often use special filters for certain wavelengths specific to hydrogen or oxygen and so on. Separate exposures are made solely to see how much light is being produced within a very narrow range of wavelengths. The purpose is to tease out information about the nature of the dust clouds, or the age and formation details of stars and galaxies, and when they’re presented for public viewing, they are often ‘false-color’ representations of multiple exposures for better definition and, yes, artistic effect. While these can be misleading for anyone wishing to tackle telescope photography, NASA at least is very good about labeling them as false-color composites, and the primary purpose of the images is scientific, not wowing people with something vivid. I give such pictures a free pass from my rants.]

Astrophotography isn’t the only topic that sees a lot of digital manipulation, since a lot of landscapes (especially exotic locales) show evidence of a technique called high dynamic range, or HDR, which even in name is misdirection – photography has not undergone a significant increase in the range of light levels (dynamic range) that it can capture, and in fact, digital photography actually possesses less range than films of just a few years ago – especially when displayed on the abysmally short range of a computer monitor or LCD screen. HDR is just pasting together images of two or more different exposures, and it’s so trivial that it is an option within some cameras and smutphones. For a typical scene with a wide range of light conditions (such as a sunlit beach and a shadowed cliff overhang,) the camera can capture only one set of light conditions usefully, while any others will suffer from bad exposure – get the beach looking right, and the shadowed area under the cliff will drop into darkness too far. Expose for this darkness, and the beach will be bleached out and overexposed. So two or more exposures are taken and put together using the portions that look best in each.

In a small way, I’m more in favor of this than of compositing night sky shots, because our eyes capture a very wide range of light, more than photography can yet achieve, so in some cases the resulting composite image hews a lot closer to what we see than any in-camera efforts. But again, it’s editing skill (and not very significant at that – I can show you how to do it within a couple of minutes) and not photographic skill. Once again, for years, photographers had to cope with these limitations, and found creative ways to handle them – that’s what made good images of some of these subjects so notable. And while it might be useful to throw down an HDR shot for advertising purposes, does it reflect any particular skill of the photographer? Is it art of any kind? Especially, I ask again, if the photographer somehow never admits to it being a composite?

When I’m teaching people how to use their cameras, two of the key topics are contrast and low-light photography, because they’re constant issues that every photographer deals with regardless of experience. Some things just aren’t going to happen, like stopping action in even moderately low light levels, and in many cases the answer is simple yet not at all encouraging: pick the factor that you need the least in an image, because that’s what you’ll have to sacrifice to the gods of photography. Generally, this is a choice of speed, depth, or quality, but in more extreme cases (and astrophotography counts as such,) it might even be all three. The thought that everyone has regarding photos is, “Hey, I like that shot! I need to know how to do it,” and with too many dramatic images nowadays, I have to explain that it’s not a photograph, but an editing creation. And while the opinion of the legitimacy of this as an art form is all down to personal taste, in many cases, people are far less impressed when they find out that it’s not an in-camera endeavor.

Personally, I’m a fan of full disclosure: if you had to edit it beyond simple cropping and color/level tweaks, then own up to it. Not only does it give people an accurate impression of what can, and cannot, be done with a camera, it even serves as motivation to accomplish the really tricky shots that do take a lot of preparation and effort – that’s the kind of thing that everyone can be proud of.

Seriously, see Sunday slide 6

Wrightsville Beach wetlands channel
This one has appeared before, some years back when I was ranting about a trivial phrase, but I also came across the original slide again last week as I was looking for a candidate then. There’s something captivating about it, forlorn and yet somehow inviting. It’s easy to imagine taking a kayak up that glassy channel, endeavoring not to break the silence, not because there was anyone nearby to disturb, but simply because it seemed wrong.

There’s another aspect of this shot that I won’t mention now – maybe in a few days. Or maybe not. For now, if you can lose yourself in the scene and mood, well, good – that was the intention.