Doctor Domoore

Like many people – actually, a ridiculous number of them – I grew up with this idea of being a “friend” to the animals. I can remember, from a very early age, going on a camping trip and sleeping in a pop-up camper, wishing (now that I was out in nature) that a raccoon would slip into the camper and curl up on my back to sleep; this was my way of thinking that I was “in tune” with the animals.

It probably had a lot to do with how I grew up. My parents and grandmother (whom I never met) were some of the founding members of the local Animal Welfare Association and worked with wildlife rescue – in fact, one of our kayaks had an AWA identifier on it – and my older brothers were Boy Scouts and had plenty of tales of wildlife encounters; one of them raised snakes and picked up wild skunks for amusement. Without the obvious retribution, I might add. So while I was too young to participate in any such shenanigans, I was still immersed in the environment and mindset. I can remember, very distinctly, being along with my dad when he was out trying to spot an escaped flamingo in the marshy area of a local pond, in south Jersey where I grew up. He saw it and tried pointing it out to me, but at that time I had not yet been diagnosed with Ludicrous Myopia, and as he attempted to direct my gaze to the subtle pink shape moving at the waterline, all I could see in the dusk were the taillights of the cars on the road behind it; I was trying to figure out how flamingos could glow as brightly as that.

Later on in my adolescent years, I began reading nonfiction books about wildlife rehabilitation and encounters, such as the Durrell books and Frosty: A Raccoon to Remember. These started to give me a more realistic impression, that wild animals have their own habits and attitudes, for want of a better word, and these do not revolve around being buddies with people – even when they’re raised in a human environment. You don’t turn any animal into a “pet” just by getting them when they’re young. Sure enough, some animals can be habituated to view human contact as non-threatening, perhaps even beneficial, but this does not translate into domestication, which takes many generations. We’ve had cats and dogs for thousands of years now, and still find that they have specific behaviors that don’t disappear.

But it was funny. Far from being disappointed, I was fascinated by the aspect of working with animals, even when I recognized that I was unlikely to do so routinely, much less for a living. But soon after moving to North Carolina, I got involved with a local humane society that performed animal rescue services, including wildlife, and was soon immersed in wildlife rehabilitation. While I attended all of the volunteer workshops for the species that could be found in the area, I received specific training for raptors at a dedicated facility in the state, the Carolina Raptor Center outside of Charlotte. This allowed me to work with the injured birds of prey that came through our door, and I started noticing little details.

This very trait may owe its origin to the Doctor Doolittle stories by Hugh Lofting, which I read in my adolescence. The good doctor is taught how to ‘speak’ with many different species by his parrot, and (to Lofting’s credit) she indicated that most animals communicate through body language and behavior, rather than through sound – accurate to a degree at least, because while it serves a purpose of indicating mood and intention at times, it likely isn’t intentional or conscious; that’s just the way things are. However, after introducing this concept, Lofting appeared to have forgotten about it forever thereafter…

[Time out for a favorite but distantly-related rehab memory.] We had an adult American kestrel (Falco sparverius) in once, possibly from an encounter with a car but with no broken bones. Nonetheless, it was unable to fly, and for birds that depend on flight to obtain food, this is often a death sentence. It came to us in poor condition, probably not having eaten for several days, and we set upon bringing it slowly back up to speed; it has to be done carefully, because a full meal when the condition has dropped that low can simply kill the bird.

After a couple of days of fluids and blended proteins (a vitamin supplement and the soft parts of mice, yes, blended – rehab is not for the squeamish,) the little falcon should have been able to take solid food on its own, but it was refusing and being stubborn. I still worked the desk in the busy shelter and couldn’t devote a lot of time to the task, so I decided to take the bird home in a carrier and tackle the task there when time was more lenient. Kestrels are small for raptors, a little bigger than an American robin or thrush, and that evening I wrapped it firmly within a small towel, to immobilize the wings and talons while keeping the head and beak free. I had prepared several choice sections of mice on a small plate, and grasped one in a set of forceps and attempted to ease this into the bird’s beak. It remained just as stubborn and was having none of this, and I struggled with this task for quite some time – failing to notice that the towel was slowly loosening.

American kestrel Falco sparverius perched on cassette rack

Okay, okay, it looked back once

At one point the kestrel seemed to have gotten fed up (without yet having gotten a speck of food,) and seized the forceps in its beak, then shrugged fiercely and burst free from the towel. I remained calm and made no hasty moves, because it would be very easy to injure the bird trying to immobilize it, and it would be far better to let it escape into the apartment and capture it again than to try and subdue it when it was struggling. But the bird did not fly or hop off, or even attempt to leave; instead, now perched freely on the towel draped across my left arm, it wrenched the bit of mouse free from the forceps, then to my great surprise, bent down and slammed a talon down onto the fragment of meat, tearing off a portion and swallowing it without the faintest sign of this being extraordinary. Fascinated, I retrieved the forceps slowly and grabbed another mousepart, offering it to the falcon, which accepted it like I was its butler; in this manner it consumed a small but complete meal without any struggle at all. I was growing a little concerned, because the towel had slipped and the bird was now pinning down bloody mouse bits directly on the base of my thumb, but the imagined mistake never occurred and I remained intact. When it finished its meal, I quickly flipped the towel back over my patient and slipped it into the carrier with a minimum of fuss. From that point on the kestrel never looked back, and in fact performed its return to flight within a day or so in the same apartment.

At the same time as the raptor work, I was also close to the dog training programs, and learned how a lot of dog behavior ties in with the pack dynamic, the necessities of interacting with other dogs as part of the social structure that the canids have. This carries through into how a dog interacts with a family, and illustrates a blind spot that we humans often have: we like to think of other species in our own terms, like “friend” and even “obey,” failing to recognize that other species have their own interactive structures (or lack thereof) and see everything in those terms – a mutual blind spot, if you will. Seeing things from this pack perspective helps us to realize that, despite our best efforts at training, some things will fall outside of the reward and status structure that we use as training methods, such as when a squirrel appears. This is why I often smile indulgently when someone tells me their dog can be off-leash because it is on “voice-command” – there really is nothing that completely overrides some basic instincts, loathe as anyone might be to admit it.

Throughout this, I was building my photography skills and starting to do more and more wildlife photos. By now, I had come to realize how other species all have their own dynamics, reflections of the factors that are key to their survival. I would watch the seagulls competing over perches, and recognize which one was considered the ‘alpha male.’ I noticed that a lot of species could be approached obliquely, allowing someone to get closer as long as they did so on a diagonal. I had known for a while that the mere appearance of humans isn’t as disturbing as sudden movement but found, to my delight, that mimicking the species’ behavior could quell their distrust to some extent.

And I was involved in critical thinking, and studying evolution, and no small amount of philosophy of the mind. This was the latest of steps towards my current perspective, and hopefully not the last. Evolutionary psychology is the concept of how the behavior of species is dependent on the same selection that built their body structure, and how animals (including us) have predetermined importance, emphasis within the brains and emotions themselves, that reflect the survival pressures faced. As such, most species have no reason to be “friends” with humans in any way; if they have any social functions at all, it’s in support of their own species, because that’s what evolution favors. You see, we have the concept of friends because our tribal interactions were part of our development, group hunting and shared shelters and farming and so on; we thrived with an interactive and cooperative community. Some other species have variations, but they’re specific to their own needs, and rarely bridge the gap to a species other than their own, since there’s just no need. And this may apply especially to bridging over towards humans: we’re pretty good about hunting other animals as desired, and often don’t see much benefit towards mutually cooperative relations. While there’s a peculiar trait within us that fosters the idea that we may get a worthy companionship with species like dogs and cats, they do not necessarily have the same ideas; we cannot really say how they view us. But this little trait of ours becomes more than problematic when we apply it towards wilder species, thinking we’re in tune with bears or that if we’re non-threatening to the deer that visit the backyard that they’ll feed happily from our hands.

Which is where this whole post is going. With what little impact I have, my explanations and advocacy for more realistic expectations from wildlife, my pointing out behavioral traits to students and occasionally just passers-by when shooting in a public place, my efforts to rehabilitate animals without any belief or desire that they would even view the situation fondly (much less without terror or loathing,) I have become more of a “friend” to the animals than I imagined in my youth – this time defining it as a mutually-beneficial relationship. Because yes, I get something out of it as well, the fascination in working with other species, the good feelings from seeing previously debilitated animals released back into the wild, the pride in getting some shot that illustrates a trait or even just provides a mistaken impression of ‘personality’ or ‘mood.’ We should never expect to be buddies with another species, even when it can happen with domesticated animals – the wild ones have their own ideas of proper behavior, and will remind us of our mistakes, sometimes in very unfortunate ways. Anyone that I reach when I say, “Respect them, and maintain safe distances and responsible behavior,” becomes more beneficial to them than anyone who thinks they’re bonding in some selfish and na├»ve way.

When that kestrel up there was released, it flew to the top of a nearby telephone pole and perched there for about two minutes, producing the most complicated serenade that I’ve ever heard from a raptor, before flying off and vanishing into the distance. And by “serenade,” I’m being poetic but unrealistic: I have no idea what the purpose was, but I’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t intended as any communication to me – that’s not what bird song is for. Far too many people would have viewed it differently, and could have believed that I was being thanked, or perhaps even scolded for the captivity, but those are human ideas, and should go no further than us.

Color week Monday

juvenile katydid with early morning dew
Early one morning, before the sun was breaking through the trees and clearing away the night’s dew, I caught this juvenile katydid warily eyeing the drop off the edge of the leaf.

[No, that’s not true, look at those hind legs. These insects can leap ridiculous distances – they’re not scared of heights. I doubt the concept even exists within the brains of the arthropod phylum.]

Color week Sunday slide 20

Let’s use today’s slide to start off a whole week of color posts, okay?

double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus in profile against blue sky
I have referred to the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center as the Avian Modeling Agency, and with good reason: on my one visit there back in October of 1999, I obtained a load of portraits of birds that, until then, I had never even gotten close to. Sure, they were captives, only, not exactly. Everything that I took was either of released birds that were hanging around for handouts before they rejoined their flocks, or of perfectly wild birds that were hanging around for handouts because it was much easier than hunting on their own. Or birds that simply liked that the property was backed onto the Florida Sound and weren’t too concerned with my presence. In fact, one of my business card images, as I was settling on the name of ‘Wading In Photography,’ was taken there too.

I’m fairly certain this double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) was a former patient, and if you’re looking for the crests in the name, don’t bother; they’re only present during breeding season. It’s a simple profile pic, nothing exciting, but the eyes carry it, don’t they? Cormorants are the only birds I’ve seen with eyes even remotely this color – brown or yellow are the norms (and occasionally red.)

This image shows a common trait of lenses, more pronounced in some models over others: light falloff. Due to the nature of spherical lenses, there is often a loss of light in the edges when the aperture is wide open, seen as the darkening towards the corners. Mostly, anyway; there were some clouds in the sky, way out of focus in this image, that changed the background tones, and you can see the evidence of it faintly in lower center. Regardless, I knew better, and there was more than enough light to stop down to f8 or lower, which would have eradicated the effect – I’d just forgotten about it. Or maybe the bird was moving around too much and I’d opted for a faster shutter speed to combat this. Yeah, that’s probably it…

All aflutter

male tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor making a fussThis Saturday, May 13th, is National Migratory Bird Day, and I know that’s got you as excited as this guy here. I will be on the road at least part of that day, so I don’t know whether I’ll get the chance to do any appropriate shots or not – we’ll just have to see. But I figured I’d get a little head start on it, because I have the time today and a pair of semi-cooperative subjects.

Due to taking down a few of the damnable longneedle pine trees in the yard and my inherent laziness in selecting a new location for the birdhouses that had been affixed thereto, we only had one birdhouse mounted when nesting season rolled in, and it was occupied by a tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) family, despite my initial suspicions/hopes that it was a flying squirrel. At present, the young are hatched and growing both older and more noisy, at least when a parent arrives with food but, as you will soon hear, even when they’re not there yet. I could easily sit up on the back deck with the long lens and do a few shots as the parents came around, though they were aware of me and not in an approving way.

Both sexes take turns feeding the young so it’s not hard to get comparison photos – the male tends to be a lot noisier though. The day’s overcast and that area of the yard is usually in mixed shadow anyway, so I have a lot of blurred shots as the hyperactive birds moved faster than my shutter. I also missed the opportunity to get one of the parents removing feces from the box; the nestlings produce a lot of shit, but it comes out coated in mucus and the folks just snatch it up in their beak and carry it away (otherwise I think it would lift the roof off the box.) If you really want to see this though, let me know and I’ll do a doody stakeout.

male tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor with orthopteran meal
Like above, this is dad again, watching me warily before deciding I was holding still enough (despite the shutter noise) and popping down into the nest box. The tree is an American sycamore, but it’s not the one that the nest box is attached to, it’s just a neighbor with handy lower branches, since titmice like to pause nearby and scope out the surroundings before revealing where their vulnerable young are. Often the meals they bear are small and subtle, so I was glad to capture this one with a more prominent meal, an orthopteran of some kind, likely a young katydid. They also adore inchworms, which is fine, because those little larva do too much damage to plants that we’re trying to keep intact.

But I couldn’t stick to just photos – not when I have the little audio recorder. I tried one session where the recorder hung on the side of the tree a short distance from the nest box, but the audio was too faint, so I attached the lapel mic and poked it through a hole in the box.

female tufted titmouse Baeolophus bicolor on side of nest box
I had to include this image, both because it shows the position of the mic and because it seems like the female is eyeing it curiously; I’m pretty sure it’s out of her line of sight however. And it worked very well. The recording opens with the young inside responding to the adults outside – if you listen carefully you’ll hear their seemingly-distant calls (“distant” in this case meaning a handful of meters, still within the backyard.) And you should be able to tell when the male (with the meal you saw above) enters the nest. You might even pick out when he leaves if you’re listening closely.

Titmouse nest noises

And by the way, Wednesday May 17th is Endangered Species Day, of which titmice admittedly don’t count. Again, we’ll have to see if I can scare up some appropriate photos, but it will be a lot more challenging, partially from the very nature of it – they’re scarce if they’re endangered, duh!, so finding any of the North Carolina species on the list could be difficult. But you know I’m up to the task.

Sunday slide 19

autumn reflections in shaded pool in Duke Forest
I’m going to have to experiment a bit more, because I suspect the light source in the slide scanner is out of wack, and getting these scans to look like the original slide is more work than it should be – at some point you may see “Sunday slide 19a” as I change methods. Anyway, today we have a still pool in Duke Forest reflecting the fall sky and foliage, showing a typical trait. Reflections are always darker than the source, and when picking your exposure, you will often have to favor one or the other. In this case, it worked better to have the reflection in good range over the sky itself, since we see more of it and the branches fit into the composition better. By the way, reflections from water and glass (anything non-metallic, really) are polarized, and using a circular polarizing filter will have an affect on your images, to varying degrees depending on the orientation of the filter – sometimes you might eradicate the reflection entirely and see beneath the water surface. But here, the deep blue was important, offsetting the yellowing leaves and the muted colors of the rocks. It leapt out at me when I reached a certain angle to the pool, demanding to be taken, and I’m a coward, so…

And I’d like to thank the Academy

mosquito larva curled up under water surface
I spent a little time chasing a couple of specific subjects from the backyard pond yesterday, and I’ll be posting about them in detail a little later on, but right now I want to go over this one real quick. Which is not to say this one, as in, the photo above – I’m just using this as a lead in, because I’m going to go even creepier and I wanted the chance to give fair warning. I say this with a certain amount of ironic delight because I know a lot of people can’t be bothered to read the text and are going to blithely scroll down to be greeted by the images unprepared. Serves ’em right. But anyway, the photo above is a mosquito larva, pictured where they spend all but their adult phase, which is under water. I’ve captured a sequence of them emerging before, but am after different, and better, pictures.

Last year, a fishing spider had hung around the pond for a short while before disappearing, likely a victim of the frogs, and I managed to get a few extreme closeups before it vanished. The green frogs overwintered in the pond and I have at least three living within it, but I think the count is more like five or six. For this reason, I wasn’t expecting to see any fishing spiders again, so I was surprised when I found a small one living among the scouring rushes (Equisetum hyemale.) By the way, I had said last year that I had the goal of obtaining some for the pond, and The Girlfriend’s Mother (who I sometimes call my Not-Mother-In-Law) was kind enough to buy me some when she ran across them, so I have a nice pot of them established in the pond now.

juvenile female six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton at base of scouring rushes Equisetum hyemale
This is a juvenile female six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton,) and if she remains within the scouring rushes she’s relatively well-protected from the frogs. She was consuming a meal when I came across her, and though she gave a few anxious starts and shifts as I leaned in with the camera and flash, she stayed put and I was able to get a few pics. This is a different species from the previous one pictured in that link, and while I think this one averages a little smaller than that one, they both can get impressively big.

As I was pursuing my other subjects with the help of the macro aquarium, I wondered if I could get some nice detail shots of the fishing spider, especially showing the legs on the surface. The challenge was already apparent in my mind: the macro aquarium sat on the porch, and needed to because of the lights and the necessity of a table for steadiness at high magnification, so it would mean capturing the spider and bringing her up to the tank, then convincing her to remain in the tank while I got my photos, and then of course returning her to the pond again. That’s a level of cooperation that’s not warranted in any portion of the animal kingdom, but especially not arthropods, and super-especially not shy spiders. But I figured I’d give it a try.

To my surprise, I coaxed her into a small cup without too much difficulty, where she floated on the surface of the centimeter of water and stayed at the edge, ready to flee if she felt the need, and bobbed there gently as I walked her over to the porch and up the stairs. At the aquarium, I nudged her gently out and she skated across the surface and paused at the edge, still floating, showing no sign of wanting to scale the very low sides and escape across the table. Fishing spiders are more than capable of operating on land, so just having her stay on the water was luck enough.

Even better, as she wasn’t quite facing the way I wanted and the sides were preventing me from shifting position, I gently nudged her with a pipette and was able to redirect her position into a head-on perspective, finding then that she still wasn’t done with her meal (or had obtained another,) several hours after the first pics. This might have had something to do with her docility. Either way, I was able to go in close for a portrait, and we’re well down from my original warning so I take no blame.

extreme closeup of juvenile female six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton showing prey
Now, I feel the need to mention something – egotistically, if you prefer: this is full frame. This is using the reversed Sigma 28-105 at 28mm, with a 36mm extension tube added, and the full impact of this will hopefully soon become apparent, but for the time being, I would like to point out the curvature of the water under the pressure of the pedipalps, those two little ‘legs’ in front. To the best of my knowledge, they’re just resting on the surface casually, no pressure or support intended, but they’re bending the water down a smidgen.

Now let’s get a scale shot, taken later in the evening after I’d returned her to the pond and then realized I should have something more illustrative for this post.

six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton with measuring scale
Her body length was about 9mm, and with leg spread this brought her up to roughly 30mm; a quarter coin measures 24mm if it helps. So when you scroll back up the the portrait shot, you know that the vertical span of her face is maybe 3mm? Yeah – high magnification.

I’m just going to point out the reflections of the softbox attachment in the water at the base of the rushes. nice round spots from a nice round softbox. Much better than rectangular, or even umbrella-shaped.

I credit this session to a lot of luck, with the possibility that her meal(s) made her a little more cooperative; some arthropods seem more likely to sit still while they’re eating. But I have to wonder how much of the success I can credit to having done this a lot. For instance, to capture her I submerged the cup edge in front of her and then gently nudged her from behind, coaxing her ahead, and she just skated across the water surface into the cup. It was almost the same when transferring her into the aquarium, except I couldn’t submerge the cup edge because the aquarium was too narrow, so it was rested against the edge and then tipped until the water was about to spill out, so all she had to do was clamber across the lip. Once in the tank, I settled for gentle nudges on the hind legs to turn and position her, or a simple trick: drawing a thin object (in this case the tip of a pipette) through the water nearby – the turbulence will cause the water to follow and thus anything floating on the surface. I always use small objects and come in low, never overhead, and make the barest of contacts when necessary.

So while there were a lot of things that could have gone awry, there were a lot of things that I could have done wrong too. So I’ll at least take a little credit.

April deserves three

Actually, there’s no particular reason why April should have three end of the month abstracts, except that a) I had three, and b) April 30th is National Do It Thrice Day (what some people with filthy minds call the “3X” day.) The only stipulation to the holiday is, it has to be something that you do routinely, but not repeatedly. Which ruled out me posting bug pictures…

abstract dead wood "Starry Night"  patterns
Once again, I knew when I took this one that it was in the running for the month-end abstract, unless I got something better, but then the holiday came along, so here we are. In case it isn’t evident, it’s a curious weathering pattern in a long-dead stump, where the roots split away from the trunk – I kinda liked the “Starry Night” impression (which was impressionism itself, so does that make it redundant?)

And then a week later, I found another wonderfully-textured trunk, and shot that as well to compare them and see which won. But then the holiday came along, so here we are.

tortured souls texture in dead trunk
To me, this is more than a little reminiscent of old illustrations of specters and tortured souls and all that, and I wish I could tell you why. I mean, the style is there, but how did it come about? Is it, like so many styles of artwork, taken from a single popular illustration considered ‘iconic,’ or is there a fundamental reason why such shapes evoke post-mortem ideas? We really need to find out about this.

And then just this morning, as I was chasing sunrise pics at the nearby pond, I happened across a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) which might have been looking for a place to lay her eggs, or just returning from such. She (I am assuming) simply drew herself in and stayed put, throat flexing gently, hoping I would go away but willing to try and convince me if I drew too close. I had a great view from dead-on, so I affixed the macro lens and scooted in on my belly as close as I dared. Then, I cropped the resulting image much tighter because it was the end of the month. And the holiday had come along, so here we are.

extreme close-up portrait of common snapping turtle Chelydra serpentina
Looking at these, I’m now sorry I didn’t save them all until October, when it would have been more appropriate. But October 31st isn’t National Do It Thrice Day, so I would have had to narrow my choices down to one. Or find some ridiculous excuse to post all three…

Sunday slide 18

sunset skies over Fort Myers Florida
This is one I’m undecided on. Some of the images that I take I know are strong (at least compared to many others that I’ve taken,) but this one has me on the fence. I always seem to like it when I come across it, but I know it could be stronger, and really don’t know how others might see it. So, weigh in if you feel like it.

On a photo trip to Florida, I’d been driven indoors by the typical afternoon monsoon that can be found frequently in the summer months, and had considered various plans as I ate dinner in Fort Myers. Leaving the restaurant, I found the skies not only clearing, but the sun breaking through, and only a short ways down the road the sunset began turning colorful, so I started watching for some kind of foreground to go with it. Almost immediately I happened across a small boat launch area onto an inlet or river, and pulled in to use the water. The clouds played very nicely with the descending treeline, and I used that and the reflection to build an arrow across the frame.

Of course, if it pointed someplace, that might be better. Or if I’d caught a bird in the sky or the water. Or even just more dramatic clouds. You see why I’m on the fence?

If memory serves, this was actually taken on my birthday, since I remember being in the restaurant and someone else was celebrating a birthday there. I was traveling by myself, so you might imagine I was lonely or whatever, but I’d had a pretty productive day shooting (this image notwithstanding,) and that works just fine for me.

Going through channels

shadow against fall reflections on water
So this past fall, seeing my shadow falling across a view of reflections in still water, I decided to get a little fartsy again (I’ll never learn) and make it an intentional part of the image. I didn’t really want a shadow of someone in the peculiar and recognizable position of taking a photo, so I set the camera and held it down by my hip, assuming a more natural-looking profile. Aiming blindly of course, it took a few attempts, but I eventually achieved what I was after.

Since then, I’ve never been sure if it has the effect I was after or not, which is one of those things that arises in photography. I know what I was doing, and can see the shadow and know what it is and which way it’s facing, but I’m not sure how obvious it is to anyone else seeing it. Is it too subtle, or not subtle enough, or simply not very strong overall? I lean towards the last, which is why it hasn’t appeared until now.

[Yes, this means that I do indeed reject photos from display, making me an even worse photographer than you credited me. Hard to fathom, I know…]

By the way, this shows a little trait that I like playing with sometimes, where the water is transparent close to the viewer (bottom of the image) but becomes more reflective as the viewing angle decreases towards the top. It can produce some pretty cool effects in the right conditions.

Anyway, at some point I started doing the channel-clipping trick to see how the image rendered in monochrome, and made an interesting discovery. I’ve seen this before, but never as distinctly as this. First, here is the same image in only the red and green channels respectively:

same image reducd to only red and only green channels
Neither one of these really worked for my intentions; the shadow is distinct in the red channel (left,) but the reflected tree loses a lot of detail, while in the green channel (right) it gains some of it back at the expense of the shadow.

But now here’s the blue channel:

same image in only blue channel
Wow! Completely eradicated the key part of the composition, and suddenly the twigs on shore (that you might not even have noticed before) leapt out.

Here’s what happened: The reflection of the background sky was visible throughout the entire image. But close to my feet, the sunlight behind me was able to penetrate the water to the bottom and bounce back to the camera; mostly because of the color of the leaves and silt, what came back was in the red and green channels. The shadow served to block this light and let the reflection come through stronger, but when the image was reduced to all reflection, it essentially became all shadow.

Nothing that I tried really made the image stronger, to my eye, so it was wasted effort, except for the cool effect. But now it’s something to watch for, and see if I can’t do something more interesting with similar conditions.

Podcast: Failure is not an option

Just some thoughts on a more useful attitude towards photography – or at least, my opinion of such. It’s possible that I have it all wrong.

Walkabout podcast – Failure

A little perspective. When you see the images of other photographers, bear in mind that you’re not seeing everything that they do. The average “keeper” rate seems to lie somewhere around 25%, meaning they throw out three out of every four images taken – and this is from people who supposedly know what they’re doing. That stunning image that you saw from them? It might just be a fluke, or a lucky accident, or a matter of timing, conditions, and luck all coming together at once. Sometimes, the only reason they have that photo in the first place is by failing to get the same photo through repeated attempts, and learning something each time. And sometimes, it’s because they didn’t give up until they got it, and this might’ve taken hours, days, or even years. That’s often what makes it special in the first place.

When I was out with a student the other day, a dragonfly presented itself nearby as they occasionally do, hovering in largely one spot for a few moments before darting off again, only to return to almost the exact same location. While the student was experimenting, I amused myself with trying to capture a sharp photo of the dragonfly in mid-air.

dragonfly in midair - full frame
This is the entire frame, handheld with a Canon 17-85 (non-stabilized) lens at 85mm. Moreover, this is manual focus, since autofocus would never stay put on a subject this small and fleeting, and would waste valuable time tracking in and out, or locking onto the background. Now, let’s go in closer and see the image as a full-resolution crop:

dragonfly in mid-air, cropped
Can’t complain about that, can I? Well, I probably could, since the light angle is poor and the dragonfly facing away from me, so it could be better. But knowing how difficult it is to get a sharp image in such conditions, I’m exceptionally pleased to actually capture such wing detail while they were flapping, of a subject that, though hovering, still wasn’t perfectly motionless. Here’s another from the same session:

dragonfly in mid-air, full frame
And now the full-resolution crop:

dragonfly in mid-air, tight crop
Much better light angle (pure luck, credited to the dragonfly deciding to shift position by a meter or so,) and better background, though still no face shot. But yeah, I still feel a sense of accomplishment. And now, I have specific goals for the next time I’m in such conditions. Maybe I can watch for one that keeps returning to the same perch, and try to time the shot for the millisecond before landing, legs outstretched to grab the leaf – wouldn’t that be cool? And I’m going to miss a lot of the attempts, no doubt.

When the student saw me doing this, she decided to try herself, but was getting frustrated, and no surprise. Not only did she have limited experience in using manual focus, and knowing which way to turn the focus ring to track movement towards or away from herself, she also had a dragonfly that was far less cooperative, darting around more and hovering for much briefer periods – essentially, one that I would have ignored myself simply because I knew the attempt would be more frustrating than fruitful. And that knowledge came from having attempted this an uncountable number of times over the years; you might imagine how often I’m in an area where dragonflies congregate.

Soon afterward, a small flock of birds was demonstrating a curious diving behavior over the same river, about 20 meters away, and I was determined to at least capture a detailed enough image to identify the species, but also hopefully snag a shot that illustrated the behavior nicely. And yet, despite my experience with timing and following a moving subject and manual focus and all that jazz, from 27 frames, I have not one keeper. One might be able to be used for ID of the species, but that’s about it, and I’m not even going to bother editing it to show here, that’s how bad it is.

Which is another aspect of photography: show only your best work (which I shall immediately violate.)

slimy salamander Plethodon glutinosus with bad lighting

One of many misses

Now here’s something else to consider, and something that I coach my students about too. There are a lot of options for improving photos, and many of them are camera settings. And these are of no use if you can’t get to them fast enough or don’t know what they do. There is a huge advantage to being able to switch settings very quickly, often without taking your eye from the viewfinder, and this will only come from handling the camera, or lens, or tripod, a lot. Sometimes even with closing your eyes and doing it by feel. This is experience, and does not have to come from actually shooting a lot of frames – often just fooling around with the camera in hand is enough. No amount of theory or reading will replace the ‘muscle memory’ of doing it, and it often spells the difference between an okay shot and a great shot. You might feel funny just sitting at home and playing with your tripod [ahem], but when it comes time to needing it, you’re not fumbling with the releases or leveling. And it might also tell you that the quick-release is balky and needs to be watched carefully, or how much tightening is necessary to keep the camera steady but allow for small repositioning with a firm nudge. You soon discover that you like the tensioning knob to the left, or that having just one leg facing directly upslope makes leveling much easier. Some of this stuff is so automatic to me that I’m not even conscious that I’m doing it.

So overall, the message is try, and try, and try again – that’s the only path to improvement, but it’s a guaranteed path.