Monthly Al pic something-or-other

rain on a forgotten flower's reproductive organs
It is the last day of the month, and in the time-honored traditions of my culture (what an absolutely nonsensical phrase,) that means we need an abstract image. I am woefully unprepared, thinking a couple of days ago that I had plenty of time to work on blog stuff and somehow working on far too many other things instead. So as you ask me what this flower is (you didn’t, and likely don’t care, but I made it a point early on to provide that info,) I have to say that I don’t know. The Girlfriend bought these as decoration for some planters on the front porch, and she’s told me what they were several times and I’ve forgotten each time. But anyway, they’re wet. I’ve done this before, haven’t I?

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Okay, so, part of the idea of doing a ‘routine’ on your blog is to goad yourself towards making regular posts, which helps visitors find something new nearly every time they come by. And one of the hazards of this is that you’re obligated to be creating new content, even when you might not necessarily have something strong to post. A lot of sites suffer from this now, putting up stuff that’s not terribly interesting, or even searching other sites to repost or copy their content.

I started the Daily Jim pics to handle a large number of photos forwarded to me by Jim Kramer, following his productive trip out west. Which is fine. But now that I’m finding myself with very little time while I still have a couple of subjects that I can be tackling, I’m spending it fulfilling this daily obligation while letting other content slide. So now that we’ve hit forty days, I may be letting this flood subside a little in order to get some more of my own content up. There will still be Jim’s pics coming, just not quite daily, with more interspersing of my pics and/or curious self-absorbed ruminations.

For now, we travel to the “Badlands” of South Dakota, appropriately if unoriginally named. I prefer, “the Realm of Disreputability,” or, “Geologically Forbidding Locale.”

rock spire in South Dakota Badlands by James L. Kramer
The rock formations are stark enough, but made even more dramatic by the contrast with the clear deep blue sky; some clouds would have reduced the impact. But we’re going to compare this against another photo to see just what I was talking about with lighting in some earlier posts.

nearly two-dimensional rock peaks in South Dakota Badlands by James L. Kramer
The light angle is only a little bit different here, now almost directly behind Jim, but it’s changed the appearance significantly. The hills have gone much flatter, becoming almost two-dimensional without the sharp shadows to define the ridges and valleys.

Portrait and studio and macro photographers can position the light sources for maximum impact, of course, but for landscapes it’s a bit more demanding. Unless you want to spend a lot of money on some really huge lightstands, you have three options: 1) Pick another time of day when the light is at a better angle; 2) Pick a different section of landscape that shows the relief and defining shadows better; or 3) Move around (sometimes a lot) to position yourself in a more optimal spot in relation to the sun. Obviously, getting just the right effect might take a bit of effort or time.

Oh, yeah, I forgot the fourth option: carry around a lot of thin dark stain to paint in the shadows that you want. That way, you’d even be able to create textures where none actually existed. Sculptors have wasted a lot of time actually shaping the rock to their liking, the idiots…

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rock face composition in Custer State Park by James L. Kramer
And so we close our visit to Custer State Park with a rock formation under a little smear of clouds and a gibbous moon – the exact same moon that produced the recent solar eclipse, as hard as that may be to believe.

I’ll use this image to illustrate a basic trait of photography: photos always have increased contrast over what our eyes see at the time, which is why it’s important to pay attention to how bright and sharp the light is. See that dark cave in the rock face? If your monitor is adjusted properly, you should be able to just make out that it’s not a cave at all, only a shadow of the boulder to the immediate right, but there’s a good chance all you see is blackness there (especially if you’re viewing this on a phone or some other piece of shit that doesn’t allow you to adjust the dynamic range usefully.) Standing where Jim stood, you would likely have been able to see that it was just a shadow, but the darkness was increased within the photo – not by anything that Jim did, but just by being a photo with a limited range of light available. Looking into the real sky would probably also make you squint a bit, but the photo doesn’t hit you that hard, does it?

inset of deep shadow lightened considerably, by James L. KramerIf it helps, here’s an inset of that same shadow, brightened considerably – proof not only of the lack of caves, but that the scene managed not to exceed the range of the camera, even when it got damn close. It can be easy to lose detail within shadows in such light conditions, and for brighter areas to bleach out to pure white as well. Which is why I always say that, with high-contrast light (bright with distinct shadows,) look for low-contrast subjects – in other words, not brilliant flowers, and not zebras. And not people, on the whole – the shadows makes faces almost into caricatures. Plus there’s the squinting.

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rock spires in Custer State Park by James L. Kramer
I think we’re still in Custer State Park, and I’m not going guess at the process that formed these distinct rock towers – oh, hell, yes I am. It’s likely layers of a harder stone, formerly sedimentary, that got uplifted by geologic folding and then weathered away. But that’s not important (sorry geologists.) More useful to us – since you’re on a nature photography site – is the way the light works. Textures like these beg for sharp and distinct sidelighting, which emphasizes their coarse nature. Direct light, such as immediately behind the camera, wouldn’t make these half as forbidding. High contrast light can have a negative effect on many kinds of photos, but it’s situations like this where it works very well, throwing all of those edges into sharp relief. And the framing with the tree layers really kicks it, too, providing a lot of depth to the scene while mimicking the rock formations. I like it.

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pronghorn Antilocapra americana profile by James L. Kramer
I don’t care how the stupid song goes, this is not an antelope – there are no antelopes in North America. This is a pronghorn (Antilocapra americana,) more closely related to giraffes than antelopes. I expect you never to make that mistake again (or suffer the wrath of a nature photographer – you know how we get.)

Meanwhile, Jim’s got this thing about his subjects facing right. It probably says something deep-seated and psychological about him. Walk around to the other side, Jim! It looks like the light was better there anyway…

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wild white donkey, mule or burro and foal by James L. Kramer
This, and the last few days worth of Jim pics, were all from Custer State Park, where apparently there are a lot of wild donkeys or burros. Something vaguely horselike, anyway. I’m guessing there’s not a lot of white ones, which makes this pair notable at least, but seriously, most of my attempts at elaborating on these images are going to be wrong to some degree, so we’ll just hope that Jim happens along with more accurate details. Or a more interesting fabrication. Whatever works.

Podcast: Yeah, me too

long exposure from base of Looking Glass Falls in Brevard NC
So, it was time for another mountain trip. It had been a few years since I’d been last, to the Blue Ridge area in NC, but over fifteen since I’d been to the Lake Rabun area of Georgia. This time around, I was accompanied by The Girlfriend and The Girlfriend’s Sprog, neither of which had been to Lake Rabun. We only had time for a brief trip, but it was enough time to see what we were after. The audio tells the story a bit better.

Walkabout podcast – Yeah, me too

The opening image, by the way, is Looking Glass Falls in Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, near the town of Brevard – definitely the easiest waterfall to access that I’ve come across. As empty as it seems here, it was actually a busy day down there, and I waited until several people were out of the frame before snapping that one; a couple of minutes later, several more visitors decided to swim in the pool directly underneath the falls, which doesn’t create the ideal shot. I spent a little time chasing frames of opportunity.

time exposure of small torrent at base of Looking Glass Falls
But our key destination was still over an hour south into the mountains of north Georgia, because we had to get into the path of the total solar eclipse. Did you really expect otherwise from me? Well, you could have been wrong, because it wasn’t going to take much to convince me not to bother, for reasons stated within the podcast. I had also been considering meeting up with Jim Kramer (that name may sound familiar,) since he lived very close to the path of totality in Kansas and I’d been looking for an excuse to get out there anyway. But I also considered the possibility that the weather would go bad in any particular location and there would be little or nothing to see, and figured that if we each remained (more or less) in our own areas, we’d double the chance of one of us, at least, getting useful viewing conditions.

Jim, unfortunately, did indeed run into some adverse cloud conditions, though he still got a few worthwhile images:

partial solar eclipse through cloud cover by James L. Kramer
As you can see, the weather wasn’t quite cooperating where he was.

A quick note here. Jim splurged for a dedicated solar filter intended for photography, an expensive little bit of equipment useful primarily for eclipses and sunspots. I, on the other hand, am a cheap bastard, and I fashioned a solar filter from basic materials, which I also provided to the Indomitable Mr Bugg, who also ran into clouds, right before peak coverage in his area, though he’d gone out to Myrtle Beach where the eclipse wouldn’t be total, just 99%.

But here’s another example from Jim, showing what a dedicated solar filter will do:

partial sollar eclipse by James L.Kramer
Curiously, the edge of the moon is quite sharp, but the edge of the sun has a peculiar effect which I’m putting down to the exposure that Jim used, or possibly clouds. He may come along and correct me.

In contrast, here’s what I was accomplishing with my homemade filter:

partial solar eclipse showing sunspots
I didn’t really get much edge detail from the moon, but it’s not as bad as I’d feared, and I still captured a couple of sunspots on the sun’s limb. And don’t ask me why astronomers use the word “limb” in this manner. Or why I bothered to perpetuate something I find so silly.

Now I take a moment to sidetrack for a curious observation. It could be noticed that the light wasn’t quite as bright as the eclipse moved towards total, but it was much more subtle than I imagined it would be and could easily be missed if one wasn’t alert. On a whim, I set the second, unfiltered camera manually for ‘Sunny 16’ and snapped a couple of frames, then did some at full auto exposure. Here’s my comparison:

comparison frames nearing totality between Sunny 16 and auto exposure
On the left is the kind of exposure that Sunny 16 should produce on a clear day, while on the right is what it did produce as totality loomed a few minutes away. The actual settings for the left side of the frame was 1/10 second at f4.5, a couple of minutes before totality, which is seven stops less light than an unobstructed sun, or 1/128th the amount of light. The darker frame on the right was actually 13 minutes earlier than the one on the left, when the sun was less covered. While standing out there, as I said, it didn’t really seem that dark.

I did a sequence of frames every minute leading up to totality, but as it closed in I went for the thinnest sliver of sun I could manage. Which wasn’t too shabby, despite some filter fudging.

last tiny sliver of sunlight immediately before totality
To the naked eye, this would be producing the ‘diamond ring’ effect; totality occurred a scant second later. And then I could remove the filter and shoot direct, which allowed some better detail.

total solar eclipse showing corona and solar prominences
See the pinkish blobs around the lower and right edge? Those are actually solar prominences, or ‘flares’ erupting from the surface of the sun, and yes, they were just barely visible to the naked eye. I’m quite pleased.

By the way, this is 1/50th second at f11, ISO 100, which would have been enough to slightly overexpose a full moon, just to understand the brightness of the corona.

While I was playing my games, The Girlfriend was snapping away with her own camera, without the benefit of a tripod and trusting auto-exposure – not the best approach, but I was quite busy and she hadn’t asked for guidance ahead of time. One of the frames she got produced a great effect, so I have to share:

cat's pupil effect from total solar eclipse caused by moving camera
Seriously, we didn’t touch this except to crop in tighter. What happened was, she moved the camera during the exposure, and the ‘cat’s pupil’ was the section of the eclipse in the middle that didn’t get bleached out by the corona – kind of a Venn diagram of the overlap between both ends of motion. If you’re not understanding what I’m saying I won’t blame you – I’m having a hard time describing it succinctly even when I understand just how it happened. But here’s another that she got when the motion was virtually absent:

total solar eclipse shot freehand with auto-exposure, without motion blur
And yes, that’s a star at upper left – Regulus, to be specific. I regret now not zooming out a little when doing my own shots, because my frames were too tight to capture it. As has been said, the period of totality is very brief – 140 seconds where we were – so there’s not a lot of time to experiment and arrange tricksy shots. While the long lens was aimed at the sun where the sun had been, I was shooting other frames with a shorter lens at the surrounding landscape, trying to get both the eclipse and some kind of foreground in the same frame. I barely managed it, insofar as one frame shows a black silhouette of trees against an almost-black sky, but the light levels weren’t cooperating in this regard any more than they do for a sunny day, and to get more I would have badly overexposed the corona and obscured the blocking moon. I also realize now that, to get a decent pic of the ‘diamond ring,’ you have to shoot without any filters exactly during emergence, or the bare end of totality. Maybe next time…

The brief period of totality, along with the difficulty in seeing anything at all wrong with the sun during partial phases, leads me to question the various accounts of natives that supposedly freaked out during eclipses. You’d barely get a good froth going before the sun re-emerged, so I suspect few, if any, primitive cultures actually reacted as the European accounts relate. And bear in mind, the Europeans were the ones that engaged in witch hunts, so…

[While driving through the mountain roads to get on location, we passed a church that had offered a “special eclipse service” the day before. I’m left wondering what possible way they managed to make an astronomical event something to build a sermon on. But it couldn’t be just crass opportunism, I’m sure.]

long exposure of Minnehaha Falls at Lake Rabun shot near the base
Afterward – actually, while still during the partial phase but you couldn’t tell from the light – we went only a few kilometers away to Minnehaha Falls, another easy waterfall to reach and much more dynamic than Looking Glass – I’ve done it a few times before; in fact, I have a series of seven or eight frames that I use with students to demonstrate how one should ‘work’ a subject and examine different perspectives, angles, and possibilities. Again, I was a bit limited this time around, primarily because of the eclipse – not because of the light, which actually helped, but because there were a lot more people in the region and very quickly the falls looked like a playground. It was time to start the (ridiculous) drive back, but I’ll close with another shot from The Girlfriend, capturing some dipshit playing in the water and getting into the frame of her own compositions. Some people just have no consideration…

annoying nature photographer intruding into frame of Minnehaha Falls

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atypical tableau by James L. Kramer
I’ma let Jim explain this one.

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American bison Bison bison with longneedle pine branch hanging from horn by James L. Kramer
Fashion these days…