Up in the air

herring gull Larus argentatus winter plumage preparing to dive
Ha! Another title pun! This one not only deals with aerial subjects in the photos, but refers to further developments on the site that haven’t yet come to fruition. Such depths to the humor!

[Ahem] So, I did manage to get out for a shooting session recently, though mostly what it did was emphasize how little there is to shoot right now. This was a student outing again, and we mostly concentrated on practice with long lenses and semi-unpredictable subjects, in this case birds. I’ve said before, I don’t pursue birds as subjects too much, especially not songbirds – just not my thing. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never done it, nor specifically avoid it, and there’s a skillset involved in two particular aspects: following bird movements, and predicting their behavior. These are true enough for any wildlife really, but with birds, opportunities can appear and disappear in fractions of a second.

Above, we see a trait that can be telling all by itself: the abrupt “backpedal,” the slowing, pause, or even hover in midair that can signify something interesting is about to happen. For herring gulls (Larus argentatus,) as well as any diving bird like terns, eagles, or osprey, this often indicates that they’ve seen something interesting below and may be about to dive for a meal.

By the way, the image above is cropped a little bit, partially to reduce the distractions of the background, but also because it’s usually not a good idea to be shooting too zoomed in or tight on birds. Tracking their movements is a lot easier when you have some wiggle room in the frame around them, space to compensate for their changes, as well as some forewarning of what is about to happen in the background – panning past something particularly photogenic, or exactly the opposite. Staying “back” a little bit helps keep from cutting them off, makes it less likely to drop them from the focus area (causing the autofocus to wander,) and lets you time shots for ideal backgrounds – you can always crop in tighter later on, and can also use this opportunity to frame the subject more appropriately, something that can be hard to do on the fly.

Being back too far, however, and making the bird too small in the frame can also be bad for autofocus, as well as for exposure – the camera reads too much of the bright sky with the bird being too small to affect the meter, and the exposure gets set for the sky and not the subject. Very often, it helps to overexpose such shots by a few thirds or half-stops to keep the subject from becoming a silhouette.

If you’re on your game, you can occasionally capture moments of drama exactly as they occur. Catching them every time requires skills more advanced than my own.

herring gull Larus argentatus almost completely submerged
The same gull seen at top did indeed go in for the kill, and I tracked it down but missed the crucial moment of contact. However, I’m cool with this shot only a fraction of a second later; by itself, it might have been a bit too confusing, but following behind the descending gull above it’s pretty clear what’s going on, and it illustrates how deep this one went (unsuccessfully, I might add – I don’t think we saw any fish consumed that day.)

A quick word about timing. It can be very hard to time something in particular with birds, especially something like catching the wings in an optimum position. Many people believe the solution to this is to set the frame rate for continuous, where the camera keeps firing off shots as long as the shutter is held down; they imagine that one of the frames is bound to capture the action. This isn’t often the case, however, and continuous shooting should not be mistaken for, like, video. Most video rates are 24, 30, or 60 frames a second, while the fastest frame rates for still photos might run as high as 10 frames a second, but more often in the realm of three or four. This can actually miss a lot of action, and can even synchronize with wingbeats so that, even if you fire off 30 frames, each one captures the wings in the wrong position. Sometimes it’s worth the try, but don’t count on it to capture the shot.

There’s only so much you can do with gulls, however, and since we were near the airport we did a short session of aircraft chasing. Now, I’m a flying enthusiast, but don’t chase plane photos any more than birds; even less, in fact. There’s only so much you can do or show with aircraft photos, outside of things like airshows or actually shooting from something airborne. So I managed a few shots, but didn’t see a lot of fartistic stuff happening.

NCDOT Sikorsky S76 seen against possibly undulatus asperatus clouds
I’m more a helicopter enthusiast than planes, especially over commercial airliners, and so fired off a number of frames as the NC DOT’s Sikorsky S76 banked in on final approach. There’s nothing remarkable about the shots, except that I captured a thin example of a cloud formation that I failed to notice while I was there – partially because it was so distant. To the best of my knowledge, this is a tiny formation of undulatus asperatus clouds, another example of which can be found here.

WTVD 11's AS-350 news helicopter against tumultuous sky
I captured a little more cloud and helicopter action as an Aerospatiale/Eurocopter AS350 cut across the sunset. This is most likely WTVD’s “Chopper 11,” because they’re one of the only two news helicopters to operate out of the region, the other being a Bell 407, and because I saw it sitting on the apron before it departed in the same direction that this one returned from. Plus the ENG camera and transmitter are in the same configuration so, you know, sticking my neck out here identifying a bare silhouette. The tiny section of sky captured in the shot makes it look stormy and dramatic, but in reality this was a small patch near the setting sun on an otherwise humdrum sky. Nonetheless, I started firing off the frames as it passed the colorful bits, and picked this one from among the collection.

Still working on scaring up more material and the time to post it. Bear with me.

Sunday slide 51

bridge to unnamed island on Haw River
So some years back, Jim Kramer (the Official Other Blog Image Contributor) drove us out to a small island in the middle of the Haw River outside of Burlington. At one point well in the past, the island had been occupied, with the remains of a house thereon, and at the time of this image access was still available on foot, though the road up to this bridge was closed to any vehicles. It was a neat little area, even though we visited on a pretty crisp day, and I would certainly like to return, but sometime in the intervening years access has been closed off by the property owner, so it’s not an option unless they happen to be reading this and realize what kind of fantastic images I can provide them. Yeah, anyway…

Now, my attempts to mess with the reader notwithstanding, I’m wondering if this image conveys the same thing to others as it does to me, so feel free to pause for a moment and suss out the ambience or whatever.

Because I like to think that the condition of the bridge gives a good idea of its age, and the feeling that this is not in regular use anymore – it’d be nice if the graffiti wasn’t there, but there are people everywhere whose minds are as small as their penises, it seems. Is there a hint of abandon and loneliness in the image? Does it seem to imply something long forgotten? I’m not sure how successful the image is in these regards, but at least I like the dramatic lines and angle. Looking at it now, I wish I’d done some more images with the dark shadows at the far end, making them more prominent and foreboding – a little contrast with the bright light and colors here where we stand, and the gloom that you will enter if you dare to cross the bridge. I constantly advise working with interesting subjects in as many ways as possible, to see how many different moods or perspectives can be portrayed, so I’m always a little irked when I think of something afterward, especially when I can’t return.

Blogging conditions: 2

Yeah, sorry, I really haven’t been posting much at all, and while I’m aware of it and trying, there really hasn’t been a lot to say. Photography has dropped down to almost nil, and I’ve been busy with countless projects (one of which, at least, will eventually be evident,) and also recovering from some walking difficulty which makes me understandably reluctant to go out looking for photo subjects. On top of that, the cold weather plays havoc with my sinuses and it can be literally painful to be outside at times. Things will pick up at some point, I promise, but for now there might not be a lot to see here.

large leaf cocoon, possibly polyphemus moth Antheraea polyphemus, hanging from treeOn the last photo outing a couple of weeks back, I didn’t get a whole lot of photos of interest, but did run across this large cocoon, approximately five centimeters in length and three in girth. Due to the appearance and size, I’m leaning towards this being the work of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus,) but if questioned I will categorically deny any and all certainty. I could simply have collected it and kept an eye on it come springtime to see what hatched, but I tend to leave things where I find them unless I have a specific project or need in mind. If you’d like to see what an adult looks like, I have photos of one here, but I’m kind enough to warn you (it’s nearly christmas, after all, and I’m still hoping to get a Porsche) that they don’t show until after you scroll past a wickedly large and, uh, aesthetically-challenged spider.

However, we’ll go in a bit closer to this cocoon to see the detail, which came up quite well at this particular light angle and revealed the actual construction material; from normal viewing distance, the cocoon appeared to be fairly uniform in color and texture, easy to believe it was entirely silk. Going in close with the Mamiya macro lens again (rather than, for instance, backing off a couple of meters to use a 150-600mm lens, which would be just silly,) we can see the true nature of the materials at hand. And going still closer, but showing a tighter crop at higher resolution, we get some almost-tactile textures from the shot:

detail of large leaf cocoon, possibly of polyphemus moth Antheraea polyphemus
What I like about this is how the leaf veins can almost put me in mind of, you know, veins that carry blood, which changes the impression from, “oh, yeah, leaves,” to, “oh god it’s got veins!” Leaf veins are fine, but fleshy veins are creepy, you know? Okay, never mind.

But if you want a challenge, so if you can discern when one leaf stops and another begins.

spiraled buds of phlox with raindrops
stray phlox blossom hanging from invisible web strandBut to just get something up here, we’ll go back earlier in the year (and perhaps further) for a few images that I never did post when I got them. There’s no theme here, or much reasoning behind guilt and obligation to actually maintain content and remind people that yes, the blog is still active.

Above, buds of a variety of phlox showed off their lovely spiraled nature, offset with a raindrop, while I was touring UNC Botanical Gardens again, mostly chasing anoles. Raindrops in flower gardens are a nice opportunity for extreme macro work, in that they can act as lenses and, if you live a clean life and get very lucky, you can get miniature images of the flowers in the background through them. It takes nice round drops (so, generally hanging,) and the right position of a blossom in the background, so it’s a lot trickier to arrange than it might seem at first, and did not come about this time around. I have more than a mild suspicion that, of the many times that I’ve seen examples, more than a few were artfully staged, the drops (and possibly even the flowers themselves) placed there by opportunistic photographers.

Not too far away on another plant, a conspicuously-dangling blossom alerted me to the possible presence of spiders, which you should know by now are routine subjects of mine. Some varieties of white crab spider can develop accent patches of color very close to these flowers and so I was keeping my eyes open, but it was not to be on this trip. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never seen them.

central detail of pond lily blossom
This one was taken at the same time as these, but didn’t fit my purposes then, so it appears now. This is a tighter crop of the center from the original, because I liked that detail and the contrasting colors. This is purely natural light, by the way, from a slightly hazy day, with saturation and contrast boosted slightly to compensate for the lack thereof from the light, a typical setting for such conditions.

cecropia moth Hyalophora cecropia caterpillar being bashful
I’ve had this one sitting in the blog images folder since this post, because it was too similar to others therein, but I liked it for the lighting and position and knew it would reappear someday – today’s the day! I’ll let you provide your own impressions of the image and what it says to you, and merely point out a curious detail: we’re seeing this cecropia moth caterpillar (Hyalophora cecropia) from the hind end – you can see the array of legs clutching the branch extending towards us at the bottom of the image. My subject was reacting to the perceived threat of a nature photographer (you know how we are) and curled up protectively, so I had to reposition myself to get the face shot. There’s just something about the deep shadows and the near-translucent skin…

And to close, we go back to last year, from a trip to Jekyll Island, Georgia. Out doing sunrise on the beach, I came across a couple of deceased sharks, just slightly longer than my foot; one of them bore a moderately-sized wound, but it was around the gills and appeared to be post-mortem to my untrained eye. I later found out that the inlet that the beach borders is a breeding ground for sharks, apparently because of its conditions, though what exactly those might be I cannot say (me and the sharks have a non-disclosure agreement.) I didn’t pass on the opportunity to do a couple of fartsy, supposedly poignant shots though, using the pristine sands scoured smooth by high tide and so-far-untouched by tourists. Except lone nature photographers. You can decide if you like it or not (the pic, I mean, not nature photographers or the habits thereof.)

washed-up juvenile shark on Driftwood Beach, Jekyll Island at sunrise.
Don’t give up on me yet – I’ve got more stuff in the works.

Sunday slide 50

curious colors and textures in bark of unidentified tree
Many years back I sometimes hired myself out for various photographic jobs, and one of them was for the museum. They had an ancient parchment map delineating the borders during an unknown period in European history, and wanted some detailed photos of it so they could make measurements without chancing damage to the fragile original.

I’m lying again – the real story is almost as interesting, though. This is the bark of a tree, and the entire photo spans about the length of your hand if I remember right (I’m not sure I’m accurately recalling how long your hand is.) The colors and lines seen here are perfectly natural, but I couldn’t tell you if they were ‘normal’ for this kind of tree or if this is evidence of some kind of fungal infection, or parasite activity, or what, really. I’m almost certain I had photographed the exact same tree a few years before, but wanted to redo the shot with greater depth of field, and eventually happened across it again; this seems to tell me it’s not a common trait, at least. This is from 2001, and from the trails alongside Falls Lake.

If you can enlighten me about this at all, feel free. Meanwhile, come spring I may check out those trails again and see if I don’t run across the same kind of thing. In sixteen or more years, the tree may be radically different now, if it’s there at all. I’ll try not to leave you hanging.

Tell me what you think

Among the other things that I’ve been up to, when I’m not posting as regularly as I should be, has been studying art in an effort to improve my photography. It’s led to some interesting speculation about how we interpret some particular pieces, and made me want to throw it out there to my myriad (3) readers to see if you had similar reactions. So here are a couple of images for your consideration, one of mine and one that’s not, to provide a comparison. Feel free to chime in and tell me what you think.

great blue heron against contrast reflections in water by Ansel Adams
This one is by Ansel Adams, which I think most people know by name even if they’re not necessarily familiar with his work. Here’s what he himself had to say about it, as quoted from Adams: The Mystery and The Passion from Haubercourt Books:

When the heron paused and raised its head, I was struck by the interplay with the post-sunset light on the ripples of the river, and quickly tripped the shutter. The complete silhouette actually meant that there is no heron there, just a heron-shaped gap in the alternating pattern of light interference. It put me in mind of white noise and static, the hallmark of the industrialized world, and how nature provides a break in the cacophony. The fluid lines and curves of the waterfowl distinctly offset the linear aspect of the background, telling us of the grace of a world untouched by Man.

To me, that’s a lot of what art is: recognizing the metaphor and symbolism that can be drawn from the image, and I’ve been finding it interesting seeing how the more-accomplished photographers went about it. I suspect that we all recognize the elements subconsciously, but the presentation of the image is what drives them from the subconscious to the conscious, bringing these reactive elements up to where we take notice.

The next image is mine, and I’m going to come right out and say that I’m not promoting this as high art, and I’m not even sure of my feelings about it – I like it, but I don’t think I know why yet. Nonetheless:

stark bare branches against delicate sky colors
And my description, for eventual submission to galleries:

The black fingers of the bare branches seem to be drawing the last of the warmth from the autumn sky, making room for the cold blue winter. Smoke from a nearby fireplace chimney also helps mask the faint feeble rays from the sun, themselves inadequate to provide the necessary warmth. The scene tells us that it will be a while before the return of spring, the re-emergence of the leaves and the songs of the birds; for now, we will have only the shrill whistle of the wind.

So what I’m asking right now is that you pause, re-examine the image, and tell me if you think I’ve captured the essence of it, or alternately if you think I’ve missed anything.

Take all of the time that you need – I’m going to work on cleaning off my desk a little.

[Why am I still hanging onto this?]

All set? Feel comfortable with your response, and what kind of feelings the image evokes? And more importantly, did you agree with Adams up there, and see the aspects that he did?

Because it’s all bullshit. First off, Ansel Adams was born in 1902, so he would have been 3 years old at the time that shot was ostensibly copyrighted – it’s actually one of mine, and nowhere near Adam’s style in any way. Adams also wouldn’t have known about white noise or static at the time, and there’s no such book, and so on. Basically, everything in there is a lie.

But there’s a well-known effect (that probably has a name which I’m not going to bother looking up) where people perceive a greater level of integrity or artistic merit, what-have-you, when they believe something was created by someone prestigious. It’s kind of backwards, really; the prestige that they have has (usually) come from producing art that resonates well with a lot of people, but we’re capable of assigning this property based on the prestige we feel it’s supposed to merit.

In fact, both images above are ones that I took without any particular metaphors or symbolism attached – it was strictly the visual aspect that made me snap the picture, and while I like them both, I don’t consider them high art in any way. That’s why I chose them, really. Because it was the descriptions that were supposed to influence how you felt about them, what you noticed, what you actually thought. The second image was really taken in March, right before the leaf buds started to emerge, and the smoke is not smoke, but simply another level of clouds. No wind.

An awful lot of art is exactly like this: visually unprepossessing, but buttressed with a lofty (and often spiritual) description that’s supposed to evoke something deeper within the viewer – which is actually the reader. Now, it can be argued that this is a part of “art,” and I won’t necessarily disagree – there’s a skill and often an emotional component to creating the descriptions, and of course you’re on a blog which relies heavily on my ability to express my thoughts in an adequate manner (notice how I said nothing about succeeding at this.) However, if the description is needed in order to even imply the supposed properties of the image or piece or whatever, then does it even matter what the piece is, or how much skill is involved in it? I don’t spend a lot of time looking at art galleries or exhibits (and I lied about studying it, above,) but I still come across a few local displays. Much of what I see is butt-ugly, and not particularly skillful from a craftwork standpoint, appended with some overblown description to try and make it transcendental in some manner. And yes, this is personal opinion; all art, and all art appreciation, is, which is why I find art critics and wine tasters and suchlike to be completely superfluous. Critical thinking is a large aspect of my outlook, and so I tend to be more sensitive (or so I believe) to situations where things don’t seem to jibe, where I suspect someone is trying to influence me towards valuing something higher than it deserves.

I won’t dismiss the possibility that such descriptions or the emotions or the backstories or whatever are legitimate, accurate depictions of how the artist feels, and they simply don’t have the skills yet to express this to me in their chosen medium. However, I’m not going to buy the idea that it’s all like that; I think the vast majority of artistic descriptions are simply bullshit. It’s marketing, pure and simple, and it’s done because it works, because all too often people can be more influenced by what they think someone else believes than by what their own senses have provided.

For another viewpoint, most of the advice that I found when starting my own website of photographs was that they should be presented simply, with a neutral grey or black background and no descriptions – as if in direct avoidance of the trends among other forms of art. I personally elected to dismiss this advice, and included some form of description with most of the images; in most cases it’s more of a backstory, to provide something of interest (hopefully) to the viewer, but on occasion I provided my own suggestions. Feel free to call this hypocritical if you like – I never took it seriously myself, and think I expressed that adequately within, especially since the vast majority of suggestions are humorous. Yet, you might also argue that this is simply another form of influence away from what the image is capable of communicating on its own.

You might have been influenced by the descriptions that I provided above, if only by a little bit, or you might have seen right through it all. You might even have found yourself agreeing with either of them, or some aspect, after I admitted they were just made up; I did aim for something that at least seemed plausible. What I’d suggest is, look something over and get a nice impression fixed in your mind first, before seeing what the artist has to say. Maybe you’ll understand the piece better. Maybe you’ll find there’s little relation between the two. But if you find yourself more impressed after reading their description, perhaps you’re responding to the prose and not the piece. And I’ll leave it up to you to determine if that’s what works for you as art.

And yes, the post title is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since my point is that I’m trying to tell you what to think with those descriptions. I’m not impressed by that approach, myself.

The measure of humankind

I’ve had this topic sitting in the background for quite a while now, waiting for me to sit down and put the thoughts into a more coherent narrative. I’m not saying that I succeeded, and it’s likely that further development of it will show up later on. Regardless, I wanted to bring up the idea that we’re, as a society (and maybe even as a species) pretty poorly guided towards what we should consider “important.”

Let’s get the overriding aspect out of the way first: very large portions of our lives, our cultures, our very fabric of society, revolve around the idea that the measure of our success and value is defined solely by money. Well, not entirely money, but closely enough that trying to deny it is simply splitting hairs. It reflects in what we purchase, from trivial items to the major expenditures like cars and houses, and especially how concerned we are about the reaction of others to our purchases. We don’t even like wearing old clothes in public, because we think this indicates how little money we actually have or, horror of horrors, we might be considered destitute, unemployed, or even homeless. And we all know how worthless those people are.

While I definitely want to avoid overstating the case, or painting everyone with the same brush, it’s impossible to know how few people have, for instance, reached a certain level of income and decided that this was “enough,” forgoing advancement and raises and so on, or taking all income above a certain comfort level and donating it to worthy causes. It certainly doesn’t seem like many people, does it? Is there anyone that you know that would deny an increase in income?

Now, let’s be realistic: we are driven not as much by our needs as by our wants, and soapbox lecturer that I am (by even making this post,) I’m no different myself. We are acutely conscious of our discomforts, to say nothing whatsoever of the fear of not having enough money to live on – even when that’s a remarkably low amount. In all honestly, meeting our bare needs isn’t particularly hard, but we’re all driven to have more than some basic protein in our meals, more than a heated shack to live within. Don’t let me give the impression that there’s anything wrong with this, and viewing it from the standpoint of an evolved species, the individual that has better resources is more likely to propagate the species: better food, better protection, better health care, et cetera, all spell a better chance of survival. This is true among so many species on this planet that we can’t conscionably separate ourselves with special rules. This is, in fact, where the drive comes from, in all likelihood anyway. The genes that fostered more emphasis on resource attainment were more likely to pass along.

But we have to be careful judging things from what evolution has produced. Up until the last one or two percent of our history, throughout countless species, resources were a hotly contested commodity; it’s only very recently that our survival as humans became virtually guaranteed, and the idea that a local tribe could actually die out has almost entirely vanished. And this is largely due to the fact that we are not entirely competitive – the social instincts were (and are) actually pretty damn important too, and responsible for the cultures that we have now where we don’t have to farm our own food or practice our own medicine. And we can also thank our brains, and the ability to weigh the emotional desires against the practicalities and consequences to find better actions, overcoming simple instinct with rational thought; without a doubt, the most functional evolved trait that we possess. For a bit of perspective, we have sex drives too, and it goes without saying that they’re fundamentally important to our survival as a species – but indulging them in their ‘raw’ form is socially verboten. Shit, we even have trouble with mere nudity on TV…

Yet there’s still a lot of things that slip under the radar. Sports are 99% utterly pointless, contributing nothing beneficial to us while fostering inane tribalism, yet they remain multi-billion-dollar industries. Alcohol is the triumph of crass self-indulgence over rational consideration, still exuberantly championed as “the way to relax” despite the countless detriments that it carries, while the euphoric effects are sporadic and not terribly impressive; we’ve built a culture of justification around it in rampant denial of its extremely low value. And getting back to the subject of this post, capitalism has become disturbingly prominent in, not just US culture, but a large number of them across the globe.

Sure, money is the number one commodity, the ultimate resource – with it, you can get virtually anything that you need or want, at least from a survival standpoint. But only a moment’s thought reveals that, past a certain point, we’re really not talking about survival, or even indulging crass desires; can we say that a billionaire is somehow more “fit” than a mere millionaire, or even someone with no debt and a modest $75,000 annual income? How many bottles of Dom Perignon does one need to drink, anyway? Yet the practice of conspicuous consumption is rampant in our society among those that can actually indulge in such, as if it’s considered a requirement of being wealthy. Again, not everyone does this, and I don’t want to wantonly dismiss those that exhibit a little rational thought, but it’s still amazingly prevalent, isn’t it?

And as intimated above when talking about old clothes, if someone doesn’t have a certain level of income and/or assets, there is no shortage or people in our culture (and many others) who will consider them the dregs, the leeches, the unwanted, the losers, and so on. Being destitute is very frequently considered on a par with being a criminal, and there is no shortage of people who are quite certain they know how someone became homeless, for instance, without even having spoken to them. As for the idea of actually contributing a few bucks? “Hey, I earned my money – let them go out and work for it!” Yet the same people wouldn’t even dream of interviewing someone like that for any employment position…

Meanwhile, esteem is garnered, by a huge margin, by how much money someone makes, often in total disregard of how it was made. Actual criminal activities are still largely frowned upon, but the sports figure signing a multi-million-dollar contract? They’re somehow heroes to way too much of our population. We have a cultural concept of “the 1%” because it’s routine for large corporations to be raking the vast majority of their overall income into the payrolls of a select few chief executives, usually while most of their workers are not even making a living wage – and too often we find someone blaming the workers for this state of affairs, as if this is what we should all aspire to. Think it doesn’t happen often? Watch the typical reaction whenever the idea of raising minimum wage comes up, since this is usually considered the domain of the Walmart and McDonalds employee – why should they be able to pay for their own apartment? Meanwhile, those corporations are among the largest in the US, with a net worth that makes it clear they could easily afford to increase the payscales, without any commensurate raise in prices too – it would simply mean a lot fewer people pulling down salaries measured in the millions. How does someone actually earn a salary like that, I wonder? You’d think it would have to be some fucking amazing ideas that they come up with, but I can’t really find the evidence of it in those establishments. Or indeed, in any…

And it carries all the way through our cultures. People are often embarrassed to be driving a 10-year-old car, even when it runs fine; many have to trade in their cars every three years, perpetuating payments because they need to display something new in their driveways. And what can we say about cell phones? Granted, a lot of them are replaced because they’re fragile as hell and have a cracked screen from everyday possession, but just as many, perhaps more, are replaced because there’s something newer out there. A few years back, the battery on The Girlfriend’s phone wasn’t holding a charge and I went into the local provider’s store to get a new one. They literally gave me this blank, lost look: no one replaced batteries. I had to order it online.

I could go on, but you know how many examples are out there. And the most disturbing thing about it all is, this does absolutely nothing for us, as a culture, as a species, as anything. It is, bluntly, a raw urge to remain competitive enough to obtain a viable mate, not just carried over into the rest of our lives where it has no purpose at all, but adopted into our cultures and glorified to the point of huge detriment, with barely the slightest recognition.

It’s not hard to understand, for instance, seeking gratification of desires with some kind of substitute, a kind of mental masturbation; this is pretty much what sports do for our actively competitive instincts, the hunter or fighter within us. And naturally there’s the sex drive and, you know, non-mental masturbation. But it would probably be much better for us if the method of satisfying these desires had little to no negative impact, and especially didn’t dictate large aspects of our cultures over such a trivial instinct. It would also be better if it actually worked, rather than fostering an increasing anxiety over our personal standing and apparent worth. We like to believe that we’re rational, that we frequently override the survival impulses (that the ‘lesser animals’ are slaves to) with considered actions and the knowledge of consequences, but it seems we just as often find ways to justify following these impulses and believe that we’re rational, when all we’re doing is rationalizing.

There are so many ways in which our pursuits, our standards, our measures of esteem, could be beneficial to us all, contributing towards a better social structure if not actually the improvement of our standing as a species. We even have instincts toward those, and they’re responsible, as noted above, for a lot of what our culture is now; the very fact that we’re a social species allows us to even define ‘culture’ in the first place. We are not, and cannot actually be, individuals with complete independence from one another. Imagine, if you will, a landscape of farms and livestock pens strictly for personal use, each of us with our own smithies and looms and leech parlors.

And yet somehow we feel, all too often, that we are individuals when it comes to income and status and all that, in direct competition with everyone else around us. How unbelievably self-centered this idea is! And what can this possibly accomplish?

What if we, instead, concentrated on things that can actually improve our lives? What if, in lieu of pursuing a nonsense abstract of “status,” we aimed for things like contentment, fulfillment, and satisfaction just as a bare start, but perhaps even advancement and strengthening our standing just as human beings? You can easily see the two different approaches just in this question alone, so let’s examine these separately.

The personal aspect: I don’t mean for this to sound selfish, and its a form of selfishness that I’m decrying above. But all too often, when we’re in pursuit of this concept of status, we can spend our lives chasing an elusive and poorly-defined goal when we have achievable, tangible goals available. Sometimes, it’s this simple: do what you enjoy. Sure, it can be exceptionally hard to make a living with this, but the first thing to remember is, “making a living” all depends on what you choose as ‘standards,’ or a minimum or whatever. Maybe painting or writing isn’t going to net us a $500,000 home in an upscale neighborhood, and we believe that “it isn’t going to pay the bills.” And just expressing it that way makes the flaw seem obvious, doesn’t it? We just don’t actually express it that way to ourselves very often, if at all. Sometimes we simply need to ask ourselves, do I want this big house/new car, or do I want to create/express/whatever? Do I agree with working for this large corporation to support a lifestyle that’s expected of me, or would I rather be cooking new dishes, or teaching kids, or exploring new areas? There’s certainly a balance point – few of us can simply quit working and pursue what we most feel like doing, but at the same time, how many of us are going to look back on our lives and think that we accomplished something? If most of our time is spent doing something we don’t like or agree with in order to occasionally (or ‘sometime in the future’) engage in what we appreciate the most, is this really making sense? Why not now? And most especially, is caring what others might think really doing anything? Are we adopting the standards of others simply because that’s what everyone else does? If our culture is defined by what the majority of people do, but it’s gotten to be insipid or pointless or poorly directed, who’s going to change this by continuing it?

Which brings us to the less personal, more ‘social’ and humanistic aspect, sometimes considered to be almost the opposite; you know, the selfish desires weighed against the altruistic and ‘good of mankind’ goals. And it’s true: very often, if we feel that we would like to improve any aspect of society, it means forgetting about what we personally want and concentrating on others, often to the point of sacrifice. The biggest example is simply looking at the meals we eat compared against what others have available to them – that’s enough to stir instantaneous feeling of guilt. Yet that’s not my point, exactly. First off, there will always be unbalance, and there will always be a situation that we can compare ourselves against that can make us look selfish and entitled or whatever. And this can go both ways; we can always find someone who should feel much guiltier than we do, more excessive, more indulgent, and so on. The idea isn’t comparison; the idea is, what can we do that helps out, even a little? Hey, I don’t need this new phone, even if it’s pretty damn cool – maybe I’ll donate half the cost to a worthy cause. I have a habit of treating myself to dinner out every Friday – maybe I’ll skip one or two a month and put that towards disadvantaged kids. Weighing the positive against the negative in such situations is easy, and usually makes such decisions pretty straightforward – we just tend to avoid thinking like that.

Yet, we usually feel pretty good about making these efforts, because we’re a social species, and a certain level of guilt over self-indulgence is built into us, so to speak. And, of course, the more people who openly engage in such, the more the trend goes in society. Again, we’re not competing against members of our own species, and this is a phenomenally pointless way of thinking. We’re not even competing against other species – it’s not competition at all, despite the common belief that evolution and survival means something wins and something loses. True enough, Mother Nature is unyielding in this aspect – species, including us, can go extinct by not being adapted to the conditions, and if we develop a dependence on something that we’re using faster than it can be produced, we’re in deep shit. Which doesn’t say a lot for the brains that we think are so marvelous, especially when we refuse to take simple steps because they’re inconvenient. But more to the point, we can easily see how and where we can improve our cultures, our societies, our standing as a species on the whole – we just have to do them. Without making excuses, and without expecting someone else to do them, and without creating this false idea that we should be ‘better’ than someone else. What, exactly, should our criteria of ‘better’ be anyway?

There are a lot of measurable benefits to such a change in outlook and pursuits. A ridiculously large amount of people are in debt, and the anxiety that often accompanies this, simply from the warped idea of what they need to be doing – the house or car they need to be seen in, the possessions that will somehow drastically improve their lives. Yet there’s no such need at all. Trying to impress people with such shallow criteria of worth as the newness of our car is incredibly pointless, so just not worrying about what other people think is a simple yet highly effective method of releasing so much anxiety. But we can also seek esteem through more progressive and beneficial methods: helping others, concentrating on our kids’ values, trying to make change, however small, in some unfortunate aspect of our lives, or country, or world. Sometimes all that’s needed is a little spare time, and it does more for you than you might think. But even the ‘selfish’ aspect of doing something that we’ve always wanted to do, becoming accomplished at some skill or pursuit, is a lot better for our mental well-being than struggling to maintain the ‘capitalist dream.’

Listen, I’m not trying to be all preachy here, or instill guilt or change the world or any of that shit. I’m just trying to introduce a bit of perspective, in a society that has created its own peculiar outlook, one that really doesn’t contribute much (if anything) to us at all. Think about it, at least.

Sunday slide 49

great blue heron Ardea herodias in top of tree overlooking misty valley
So to begin with, this is another where I can’t quite remember where it was taken, but since there are no big hills in the area and I hadn’t been to the mountains when this was shot back in 1998, I have reasonable certainty that it was taken overlooking a lake. I don’t think I’d yet discovered Falls Lake, so I’m going with Jordan. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific; I know how important this it to you.

But I’ll take this opportunity to mention something here, especially for all those who are thinking that a long telephoto lens is going to do wonders for their photography. In some circumstances, you will actually get better results without it. You see, had I used a much longer focal length (which I didn’t even have at the time) to bring this great blue heron (Ardea herodias) much closer and larger in the frame, a lot would have been left out. For starters, most of the color, which occurs down low. At a certain point the background becomes nothing but white and the setting a kind of spindly tree. While the branches do an excellent job of framing the heron, it’s still not a strong composition by itself, but backed off like this is and showing a broad expanse, we get more of an isolated feel; the heron is not quite obvious, though easy to find, but definitely all alone high in the air. The autumn colors now visible tell us the time of year, and the vaguely visible hills/trees in the distance tell of a foggy morning. Now, we have a cool, quiet, almost forlorn feel to the whole scene, which is a scene, and not just a pic of a heron.

Sure, it’s always nice to see more details of the bird, and we tend to believe this speaks of our skills when get wildlife “up close” – which is occasionally true, but speaking as someone who’s been within a few meters of wild herons many times, not exactly accurate. Sometimes the fartsy print comes from creating a mood or a scene that someone wants to put on their walls, and that very often takes more elements than just a bird, or indeed, and other singular subject.

So while there are certainly uses for long telephoto lenses and bringing a subject much closer, we shouldn’t neglect the possibilities that any focal length may provide, or the factors that might express more to the viewer.

The quick and dirty way

Those that follow and espouse pseudoscience, paranormal activity, alien visitation, conspiracy claims, alternative “medicine,” and plenty of other fringe beliefs can be found everywhere, and are often quite willing to get into a discussion/debate/argument/rant over such things. While there are a few of us that specifically seek to engage any such claims and are more-or-less prepared for the debates (which, let’s face it, is what they usually become,) many others aren’t so keen to go down that rabbit hole. I can’t really say that I blame them, because it’s the kind of thing that can go on forever and become very frustrating – even when you’re experienced with it. Believers, by a huge margin, aren’t the type to arrive at their conclusions through careful consideration of the pros and cons, pluses and minuses; usually, they latch onto something for much simpler reasons, often emotionally, and then try to find factors that help justify their emotions and thus make it all appear to be in the realm of rational decisions. So what’s most effective in dealing with such arguments is finding the way to display the lack of rationality, the little exceptions, or the blatant hypocrisies. But this is a type of fencing that can take some time to develop.

There’s a simpler way, however, and it works for a great many of these types of debates. Are you ready? Just say, “Okay, now what?”

Knowledge and learning have a particular trait, a goal if you will, and that’s to move forward, to know more about how our world works, to try and derive something useful from such endeavors. ‘Winning a debate’ is not a part of this process, nor is, ‘justifying an existing attitude,’ but that describes the goals of nearly all believers. It’s personal. They just don’t ever recognize this, and “Now what?” is a great way of laying it bare, because there almost never is an answer. I’ve used this a handful of times now and it’s stopped the debate dead each time.

It’s funny, because it can do a lot for highlighting the anachronisms and dichotomies that exist in the entire edifice.

“Well, scientists need to be investigating these things better!”

You just told me scientists aren’t trustworthy, part of the big conspiracy to hide the truth.

“See, that’s proof of alien visitors!”

Really? Cool! Where are they from, what energy sources are they using, do they have similar DNA, how do we contact them, do they play sports? Holy shit, I have a zillion questions…

“We need to shut Big Pharma down, go back to natural remedies!”

Hey, knock yourself out – sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you. Or just wait a few generations, and you’ll be the only ones left, right?

“There’s too many stories that show that ghosts exists to ignore them.”

Sure, okay. So what should I be changing in my life?

Seriously, it can be a lot of fun. Virtually every time, the goal of such debates is only to promote agreement, if that – sometimes the believer feels that they’re right if their opponent simply walks away, because dismissal is actually a sign of an unassailable position, right? It’s only their opponent’s intransigence that prevents them from admitting to it. Nobody that I’ve ever found, however, is ready for acceptance and especially progression – the next step simply doesn’t exist in their minds. And by that, you know what you’re dealing with.

Another simple tactic is to redirect their attentions. “Wow, Kennedy was killed by the CIA? It’s funny – I heard it was puppets of Castro.” Or, “You say jesus is our lord and savior? Well, what are you talking to me for? There’s a whole world full of other religions to convince first.” It’s a way of highlighting the peculiar demarcations that are drawn, where “Kennedy conspiracy” or “most of the world is religious” or “there are millions of people who swear by natural remedies” is support of their position, completely disregarding the thousands of conflicting claims underneath those big umbrellas. This can be especially fun, because just about everyone recognizes the presence of fanatics and isn’t ready to engage with them, even when they appear to be closer to meeting the believer’s own point of view than we are. Presenting the believer with the task of, ‘convince them first, then get back to me,’ will chase them away instantly and permanently.

The only topic that I can think of right now (I’m sure there are more) where the Now what? approach isn’t very effective is the anti-vaxx cult, primarily because their individual actions not to vaccinate their own children can affect the well-being of countless others who have parents with working brains – herd immunity is a thing. In such cases, engagement is the only legitimate response (since dismissing the matter is nothing but cowardice, with a lot of lives at stake,) and it helps to know at least a little about the topic. Not much is needed, really – the major proponents are laughable, the science ranging from a high of ‘dismal’ down to ‘nonexistent.’ This is one of the fields where the arguments are easily turned against themselves, since making a case that vaccinations are bad requires a scientific study, but the proponents routinely dismiss science as flawed or in the thrall of Big Pharma or whatever bugaboo is the dire threat of the month (it changes a lot, as do the supposed effects of vaccinations and the methods of countering them.) So, where exactly are these people getting their figures from? Ah, an ‘independent study?’ But how do you know they’re not paid shills? Show me how you prove this…

I am, as surprising as this might be, a big fan of elaborate sarcasm and, in some cases, outright derision – there really isn’t a point to treating something stupid with any kind of respect, and I’m inclined to think that it works against the skeptical goals to believe that we should. When employing this particular tactic, however, it helps to be as neutral and disingenuous as possible – after all, it’s a perfectly valid and logical response, one that effortlessly highlights the lack of social benefit for most of these topics. It’s not uncommon to hear a believer lament, “Scientists don’t take [so-and-so] seriously,” but this is more than a little hypocritical; science generally has standards and goals exponentially higher than any believer. It is precisely because the topics are taken seriously that they get dismissed through their lack of evidential support and/or because they lead nowhere.

I still love this lens

Or, The Ballad of an Equipment Experimenter.

unidentified backlit grasshopper OrthopteranYesterday while the Irascible Mr Bugg and I were out in the woods arguing over lens changes, I spotted a flash of pale wings in the sun and followed them. Turned out to be a variety of grasshopper (one of the big ones, that I tend to call a locust) that had spooked at our approach but landed on a nearby tree trunk, obligingly sidling around to get the sun behind itself. Okay, fine, I get the hint. I popped off a few frames with the Canon 100-300 L, since I already had it on the camera and I was working from a short distance off, then attached the Mamiya 80mm macro and crept closer. I eventually got close enough that the entire grasshopper, which measured all of 50mm in body length, couldn’t fit within the frame, and even had my own fingers the same distance away about to capture it, before it realized its terrible peril and flew off again.

I attempted to identify it once I was back home and had unloaded the memory card, but it turns out I had nowhere near enough photos to do this – there are a veritable assload of grasshoppers in the US, with very subtle differences between them (often enough seen only from directly over the back) and a lot of color variations among the same species that can make positive identification questionable even in the best of circumstances. These were not the best of circumstances, so the most I’m going to say is that I think this might be of the Subfamily Melanoplinae.

More interesting, to me at least, is some of the detail that could be seen when viewed more closely. The following image is full resolution from the original:

unidentified grasshopper Orthoptean in fine detail
I’d be inclined to say this is a Mediterranean species, judging from the hairs on its back, face, and chest, but maybe that only applies to humans…

Stupid stereotypes aside, I’ll let you determine how fine those hairs really are, but it’s safe to say we’re talking in the realm of spiderweb diameter. I was shooting wide open at f4, so focus range was short, as you can tell from looking at other areas of the grasshopper where the focus starts to go fuzzy, but just being able to resolve details at this level is impressive to me. And I didn’t even have the extension tube attached.

So, a bit of background explanation. The Mamiya 80mm macro is a lens intended for the Mamiya M645 series of cameras, medium-format film bodies long discontinued now. Manual focus, manual aperture. I had it for my M645J body, but adapted it to the Canon when my old dedicated macro lens started acting up and I didn’t have the money to repair or replace it. That was years ago, and I’m still using the damn thing, because it’s sharper than anything else I’ve ever used. To fit it onto the Canon bodies, however, took a little playing around.

homemade adapter for M645 lenses to Canon bodies
I used to be an avid model builder, and there’s a little bit of slang from those within that cult: “kit-bashing,” meaning scavenging parts from multiple model kits or old models, often not even related to the new one, to create additional parts or special details. That ability comes in handy when you like experimenting with camera equipment, because it can let you fit a lens that’s not even remotely similar to the body you want to use. In this case, I used a rear lens cap for the Mamiya M645 lenses (the largest diameter bit above) and drilled out most of the flat face, then epoxied in a reversing ring for Canon EOS bodies, itself only a few bucks online (a reversing ring is used to mount lenses backwards onto the body for extreme macro work, so it has an EOS mount on one side and filter threads for the front of the lens on the other – that’s the bit in the image with the red dot on it.) M645 rear lens caps don’t really lock on, however, they just snug down – they’re intended for dust protection, not actually holding the weight of the lens. So I had to create a locking tab.

locking tab details for homemade M645 to EOS adapter
Since the Mamiya lens doesn’t actually interact with the Canon body in any way, it doesn’t matter too much how they line up, so I just got reasonably close. I shaped the key pieces out of clear hard acrylic, because that material holds up the best out of those able to be worked easily with hand tools. The tab was carefully shaped to engage in the lens and pivot out of the way, then drilled through the middle for a pivot pin. The spring was scavenged from those little pins that hold watchbands to watches (a great source of tiny springs) and the pivot pin was just a portion of a straight pin, held at each end by little blocks of acrylic, with a hole drilled halfway through each, then epoxied to the Mamiya lens cap – you’re seeing one of them end-on here. Simple!

I wasn’t expecting a lot of use from it before something failed, but believe it or not, I used it for three or four years before I finally bought a dedicated adapter for about 40 bucks.

dedicated adapter for M645 lenses to EOS bodies
My homemade one still works just fine, because I used it to get this photo, but I have to say I consider such things a temporary measure – one cracked plastic piece can send your lens crashing to the ground, and the properly-machined metal adapters are recommended by far. Sometimes, however, such a thing isn’t close at hand, or even available, so if you’re handy enough and obsessed enough, you make do. It’s been working out well enough for me, at least.

On composition, part 27: Seeing ghosts

spiderweb with spider and dewdrops and background spiral
There appears to be, at least to me, a fundamental difference between how we view photographs and how we view ‘real life.’ It might say something interesting about our perceptions, but that’s a philosophical post for another time. When out someplace photogenic, for instance, we tend to notice certain things and yet entirely miss others, even when they fall within the frame of the photo that we’re taking. And we’re probably more alert to the details when we’re taking photos than otherwise. There’s a trait called “inattention blindness” that’s often very easy to demonstrate, with more than a couple of online videos showing how it works. From a photography standpoint, it’s how ‘photobombing’ can take place, where someone can show up in our photos because we never noticed them when taking the shot.

variable reflections and framingWhen we view the photos themselves, however, we tend to see most of the details. I suspect this is because, in the open world, there’s too many individual objects to pay attention to, and we pick the ones that our brains tell us are important. There’s also undoubtedly the visual aspect, most especially of depth perception, where we focus on something in particular and other things, out of focus, just don’t attract our attention. A photo is just one object, however, and we tend to think of it as ‘complete’ – what’s in there is intended to be in there and thus has some importance to the scene, mood, idea, whatever. Depth is flattened, with distance and separation between elements lessened or even eliminated, so background trees can easily blend into foreground bushes. It’s something that I warn my students about routinely.

But let’s take a look at that process, and most especially, seeing the unseen elements and using them creatively. One way that I demonstrate the difference is, when alongside some body of water, asking a student what color the water is. Usually the answer is something like, “Kind of greenish brown,” but for a photograph, this only applies if that’s the color register that’s going to appear in the image itself. Depending on the angle and the lighting, the water may reflect the sky or the background foliage, or show the color of the creek bottom, or even be inky black from reflecting nearby shadows – it’s easy enough to have combinations of these. By recognizing this, you can occasionally have the background of choice by changing which angle you’re shooting from and thus what the water is reflecting in your frame.

It’s not just water, however. Any portion of the background can become a useful element in the scene you create. Very often, it helps to position your subject against a contrasting background, or one that frames or surrounds it, while avoiding background elements that might interfere – the classic “pole out of the top of the head” is a prime example. As often as not, this means positioning yourself instead; crouching down can put a subject against a bright sky and eliminate clutter from background foliage, and for small subjects, you can even place a large leaf to change your background (or, in the macro studio, use a photo itself to provide a natural-looking background instead of the tabletop or garage walls.)

depth of field comparison images of skink

It’s probably obvious that the background behind the skink’s head could easily have been dark and thus wouldn’t set it off as well, but the difference in depth of field shows how this affects the impact too.

One of the harder aspects to manage is how the background will render due to depth of field, since most cameras routinely maintain the widest aperture, for clarity of vision and improved autofocus, up until the shutter is actually tripped; what this means is that depth of field will be the shortest available at that focal length and focus point in the viewfinder, but the image itself may render entirely differently. And while our eyes don’t have infinite depth of field, they focus so rapidly that we often consider everything to be in focus when examining the scene before we take the picture – it can be hard to know just what level of focus and blur is ideal. A lot of cameras have a depth-of-field preview option and it helps to know how to use this, but the view in the viewfinder/LCD is far removed from the finished image in size and resolution, so there usually still remains some guesswork.

dragonfly atop pond leaves casting shadow beneathWhat’s more fun, though often challenging, is to capture subtle details that don’t immediately leap to the viewer’s eye, but can be found on closer examination – there’s a certain delight in the discovery, and a recognition of your efforts to put together a clever image. Initially you may miss these yourself, but over time you’ll develop an ability to notice small details, or realize that a different approach might yield something twice as interesting. In a lot of ways being able to see things that others miss is a mark of a creative photographer, and can make the difference between a nice photo and a captivating one. It also helps to know what kind of effects you can produce, either in-camera or by editing; some scenes are obviously interesting, while others may become interesting with the application of a certain technique. This might mean adjusting exposure to make something darker and moodier, or boosting contrast to make it stark. It might even mean using a reflector or a focused light source to brighten a particular aspect of the scene and draw more attention to it, or simply converting it to monochrome or sepia tone – a faint hint of sepia and a bit of extra grain can instantly age a photo fifty years, but this often works best if you think of it when taking the original image.

The way that you frame (or subsequently crop) the shot can have an affect on how easy it is to see that extra element, since we’re used to expecting the important parts of the image to show up in certain areas – not too close to the edges, for the most part, but also balanced to a degree. If the subject seems too far off to one side or edge, we’ll be looking through the rest of the frame to see if there’s something else that was captured, and you can use this trait or intentionally thwart it if you like, sneaking in another element that falls too far from ‘proper’ framing to attract attention immediately.

butterfly with background leaves matching antennaeThere’s also a knack to seeing a particular element – a certain shape, or a certain color, or just a specific object – and realizing that it would work best when composed with another element, such as a contrasting color or complementary shape, then seeing if this can actually be accomplished; a simple example would be a yellow flower with another color blossom offsetting it from the background, which could require a significant shift from a ‘normal’ position to line the two up, but the end result is magnitudes better than the flower among neighbors of the same color, which is what everyone else sees.

Naturally, there’s the opposite side of the coin, where we have to see the subtle and unnoticed elements that we don’t want in the image in order to keep them out and avoid distractions – again, the photobomb effect, but it also applies to bits of trash or electrical wires or other things that we’ve tuned out but become far too noticeable in the resulting image. Granted, this is a pretty fundamental aspect of composition and it might seem like I’m belaboring the obvious, but it’s also true that all of us still miss things like this on occasion. It helps a lot to examine the surroundings in detail before even taking the camera out, so when the ideal subject or conditions or what-have-you captures our attention, we’re not wasting time looking over the entire frame to see what we don’t want in there – we’ve already chosen the vantage or angle that works best and is free from such detritus. As the bird crosses the sky, we already know that there’s a nice opening through the branches right there, or the clouds are optimal here, and can trip the shutter at the ideal moment even as we pan to maintain focus on the bird. Alternately, we might already have the lens aimed at a good spot (fixed on a tripod perhaps) and can nail the pic as the subject enters the precise portion of the frame. A little forethought can help a lot.

As we close, I’ll direct you back up to that opening image of the spiderweb. Yes, the spider was obvious and intended, a counterpoint to the focused dewdrops on the web, but what wasn’t intended was the spiral in the background, a bit of iron scrollwork on the porch behind the web. The resulting image was entirely different from how it looked in the viewfinder, due to aperture and flash, and I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than darkness back there. But the spiral is located very well in the frame, and forms a complementary curve with the most prominent strand of the web, not exactly lined up yet still tracing the same decreasing ratio – a nice addition to the image that was pure dumb luck on my part. Still not enough to offset the creepiness of the spider perhaps, but hey…