Back in my day…

… we ate every bit of the mammoth!

Okay, this is way before “my day,” whatever that may be; the camera I’m about illustrate was produced from 1949 to 1955 or so, a solid decade or more before I was even born. The camera that the family had while I was growing up was a Kodak Brownie Super 27, while my first camera, aside from yard-sale finds, was a Palmatic 110 from an unremembered manufacturer (I suspect whoever first used the word “palmatic” failed to register it and so several manufacturers ended up using the same name.) That camera had the option for an electronic flash, but I didn’t receive it and couldn’t afford it myself (I was twelve at the time, I think,) so I used Flip-Flashes for it, a plastic bar of eight flash bulbs, purposefully raised above the lens to prevent red-eye; fire off four shots, then flip the bar over to plug in the opposite end and fire off four more. No other options or controls, and even the film loading was via drop-in cassette, so hardly a challenging camera. When I later moved up to a true 35mm film camera, my mother happily took over the 110 camera and used it until the film could no longer be found, even after I bought her two 35mm cameras of her own.

Eventually, I acquired a Graflex Graphic View II, which is a classic full-motion large format rail camera. I haven’t done a lot with it, for several different reasons which we’ll be coming to. But first, let’s examine the concept that is “large format.”

Graflex Graphic View II large format camera
What this refers to is the film size, which in this case is 4×5 inches, or 100×125 mm if you like – much bigger than a 35mm film frame (24×36 mm,) which itself is larger than the vast majority of DSLR digital sensors (15×23 mm, give or take – it varies by manufacturer.) Rather than making a huge roll of film to crank through some apparatus, the film comes instead in single sheets, reflecting its origin in chemically-treated metal plates, and later on glass panes, both of these well over a century old now. 4×5 film was the ‘portable’ version, reduced from the old standard of 8×10 inches. Roll film first appeared in the late 1800s, but couldn’t compete with the clarity and detail of sheet films, especially glass plates, for a long time.

So with large format, this large piece of film pretty much takes up the entire back of the camera, and instead of putting a shutter curtain in front of the film itself (what’s called a focal plane shutter,) the shutter was built into the lenses, generally as an iris diaphragm that doubled as the aperture – in other words, it would slap open to a fixed point, the ‘f-stop’ setting of the camera, when the shutter was tripped. Most LF lenses come bundled complete with the shutter mechanism, though variations exist. This does, of course, make them expensive in their own right.

Now, to throw an image over such a large area, the lens usually has to be further away from the film. Moreover, there was no such thing as ‘zoom’ (variable focal-length) lenses during the heyday of LF, so each lens was a fixed focal length. Thus, let’s say an object six meters from the lens would only be in sharp focus if the lens was 30 cm from the film (I’m making these up for brevity’s sake.) To focus, you moved the lens, mounted on its own board, the correct distance from the film.

Which is where those bellows and rail and all that come in. The front of the camera, with lens board and lens attached, could slide forward and back as needed, usually on a small crank wheel attached to the rail, but sometimes on a track beneath the lens board (you’ll see these on the old pocketable rollfilm cameras.) To keep this heavy apparatus balanced on a tripod, usually both the front (lens) and back (film) portions of the camera could move independently.

Achieving sharp focus was much more fun, and now you’ll know what those guys were doing under the dark sheet (usually, anyway – I won’t say they never took the opportunity to fish out a booger or anything.) Before the film was even put into place, a ground glass back was affixed to the exact same location that the film would be, and this would allow the photographer to see the image that would eventually make it to the film, since it acted as a see-through projector screen. But it had to be pretty dark to make it out clearly, so hiding under a blackout cloth was necessary. The photographer would put their head underneath, then open the shutter to throw the image onto the glass, and focus and compose the image as they desired. Once it was all set, they would lock down the settings and close the shutter.

Graphic View II showing ground glass focusing screen and hood
[You can see the ground glass focus screen here, the grey area within than pop-up hood, etched with grid markings to make composing images easier.]

4x5 film holder

Film holder with darkslide partially removed – note the dot pattern on the white edge of the reversible slide, used to tell if the film on that side has been exposed or not

Then, they would remove or flip away the ground glass back, and insert a film cassette. With the old style glass pane film, this cassette was often wood and pretty bulky, but as acetate film came into common use, the film cassette could become slimmer and lighter, made of plastic and light metals. These, by the way, were preloaded in a darkroom, because of course the film couldn’t be exposed to light before the photo was taken. The 4×5 cassettes that I used are double-sided, one sheet of film per side, with a thin plate over top to seal out the light. By the way, large format film comes with a notch pattern along one edge, because film has to face a certain way, so loading it in complete darkness would be haphazard without this – the notch also tells the type of film you’re handling, a kind of photographers’ Braille. Which makes me wonder why cameras don’t have Braille markings on their controls. It’s discrimination…

Once the film cassette is in place and the shutter has been confirmed closed, the cover plate over the film, called a darkslide, can be removed. At this point the film is ready for exposure, and the shutter can be safely tripped. Once the film has been exposed, the darkslide is reinserted and the cassette can be flipped over to use the second sheet of film therein.

Let’s go over that again, right from the start, just so you get the entire idea. Get out on location and set up the tripod – this is typically very heavy, because the camera is heavy and the weight will make it more prone to tipping, plus it needs stronger materials just to be held motionless. Open up the camera case and take out the bellows and rails, and affix to tripod. Crank out both lens and film standards (the bellows end frames attached to the rail that hold their respective components) to rough working distances and to maintain balance. Select a lens, already attached to a lens board, and slot it into the lens standard. If necessary, affix the ground glass back, then drape the blackout cloth over top of the back of the camera.

The *cough* author using a large format cameraGet underneath the cloth, and lock open the shutter (most shutters have separate controls to lock open, for focusing, or trip the shutter for exposing the film, more often in the fractions-of-a-second realm.) Adjust the standards and the tripod until the subject is framed as desired and in tight focus, and adjust aperture until desired depth-of-field is achieved. Lock down all controls. Close the shutter.

Get out a film cassette and slot it into place – the Graphic View II has a spring-loaded glass back (‘Graflok’ back) that simply lifts up out of the way and lets the film cassette slide in underneath, so it doesn’t have to be swapped. Take out exposure meter and determine the proper exposure for the scene at hand and the already-selected aperture – no, there is no auto-exposure meter built anywhere into this assembly, so light readings have to be done with a handheld meter.

Remove darkslide from film cassette. Ensure everything looks hunky-dory, and trip the shutter. Replace darkslide. Congratulations – you just took one frame of film!

As you might imagine, large format isn’t used for anything except the most exacting of images – not sports, for instance. The benefit is the extremely fine detail that can be made into very large prints, because the film is so large and the grain commensurately smaller for the final print. But because so much time and effort is expended into just one frame, typically the photographer will ensure that everything is ideal, as perfect as possible, before tripping the shutter. This means a lot more time is spent picking the right location, the right conditions, and the right light – but it also means that nearly all images taken, once someone is familiar with the whole process anyway, are keepers. There is little to no experimentation – the photographer usually knows exactly what they’re going to get, and has paid attention to, for instance, how deep the shadows under the trees will render, and where the clouds are in the sky. Solely due to the effort involved, large format makes the photographer compose the image meticulously, ensuring that what they take will be captivating.

In this way, it’s an interesting learning tool, but there are cheaper and easier ways to accomplish this too. One is the exercise of only shooting one frame a day, with the idea that it has to be a keeper, able to be displayed – I’ve done this a couple different times over the years, and it remains beholden to both conditions and available time. This can also be done by not limiting the number of shots per day, but still stipulating that at least one is meticulously planned and cannot be discarded. And then there’s simply the ‘checklist’ method, where you ensure that a list of factors has been checked or met before tripping the shutter – this can be as simple as ensuring the settings (like white balance and aperture) are optimal, or as complicated as following some specific composition rules like determining that every part of the frame contributes to the whole, or the subject maintains the proper framing and relationship to the background.

But wait! We haven’t even touched on some of the unique reasons for using large format, or specifically one with full-motion standards. And for this, we’re going to have to illustrate some traits.

First off, LF lenses are typically optimized for the flat plane. If you think about it, the center of any lens is closest to the center of the film plane, with the edges of the film plane being a smidgen further away, so LF lenses are ground to accommodate these slight differences – and well outside of the normal field of view too, because there’s a specific use for this.

Let’s imagine shooting a tall building, for instance. To get it all in the frame, you’d have to tilt the camera back a bit and aim upward, and what this does is tilt the film plane too, with the end result that the film is no longer parallel to the front face of the building, with the top edge leaned away. Coupled with the lens distortion, this exaggerates the ‘taper’ of the top of the building and makes it seem to be leaning away from the camera/viewer (and in a way, it is.)

Graphic View II with forward standard shift
So instead of tilting the camera back, the film plane is maintained vertical and parallel to the building, and the front standard with the lens attached is raised vertically – itself still parallel to the building too, but much higher horizontally than the rear film standard. You might think that this means the image doesn’t even reach the film, but LF lenses are designed with this in mind, and throw a large enough image area that the film still falls within the circular image projected by the lens. Basically, the light path is not horizontal, but at a vertical diagonal, with the far end being the top of the building and the near end being the film itself. With film plane and lens held parallel to the building, the leaning distortion vanishes. They even make specialty lenses for SLRs that can do this same trick, called tilt-shift lenses, and they’re expensive as hell while having a limited application, largely because the mirror box (the space between the lens and film/sensor where the reflex mirror sits) is only so big and cannot accommodate much of a shift in the light path.

A full-motion rig can also maximize depth-of-field, especially for closeup subjects where the depth often drops much shorter – the more you magnify something, the shorter the depth-of-field. So picture a scene with an insect or reptile or something. Typically, the top of the frame contains stuff that is further from the camera than the bottom of the frame, with the subject (the focused point) falling in the middle. This can mean that the top and bottom of the frame go out of focus, because they’re not at the right focal distance. But if we tilt the rear film standard to mimic this slope, leaning the top forwards while keeping the front lens standard vertical, we tilt the film closer to the focal distance for as much of the frame as possible, increasing the sharpness of those areas which are not at the focal distance, and making depth-of-field increase greatly.

Except, we actually tilt the film backwards, because all lenses throw the image upside-down onto the film/sensor, so we have to move the bottom forwards, because that’s the top of the photo. And yes, this means that, when composing and focusing the image on the ground glass, it’s upside-down.

This trick has also been used in reverse, usually on large scenic images, tilting the standards to minimize depth-of-field and throw everything but that at the correct focal distance well out of focus – there are even digital filters to do this now without needing a tilting film plane. When this is done, it gives the appearance of a macro photo with its very short depth-of-field, and can make a standard landscape suddenly appear to be a model, just because the focus seems to indicate this.

I still have this camera, but haven’t dug it out in a while. Large format doesn’t lend itself very often to what I shoot, and I never developed the style and subject matter to take best advantage of it – this would typically be large size prints of elaborate landscapes (or, you know, big group portraits intended to fill a lobby or something.) I did a few experiments on B&W film, developed myself and contact printed, but did little more than that. Right now, the market for my own images isn’t what it should be, and I can’t imagine developing a market for specialty large format slides. Still, it remains in my possession until I either sell it to an enthusiast or decide to start working on a different aspect of photographic work.

4x5 monochrome contact print

8×10 inch contact print of 4 experimental negatives

Confession time

Three years ago on this very day, I wrote about a curious enigma, a potentially mystical path known as Squirrel Level Road. I’m going to encourage you to go read that post first, because it’s important to the thread. When I wrote it I was working from memory, which I pride myself on.

Or used to. You see, since that time, I’ve had to drive through the area twice, or four times if you prefer, because it was two round-trips. The first pass, I saw no vestige of Squirrel Level Road and suspected that, having drawn so much attention to it with my voluminous readership, the otherworldly properties of that curious path caused it to vanish from sight, perhaps to reappear someplace deeper in the hills. But on the return trip, I spotted the signs, big and distinct and clear, “Squirrel Level Road,” indicating that I wasn’t imagining it after all.

Except, this was not just a sign on an overpass, and not in rural Virginia, and even had its own exit. It was right at the edge of Petersburg which, while not a huge metropolis, cannot really be called “rural.” So much for my memory. And of course, with its own exit I could have stopped easily at any time to see this peculiarly-monikered footpath for myself.

I didn’t, however; a reflection of my driving habits. Even with the shortest leg of my journey ahead of me, I still had two hours of road time to go, with much, much longer on the outward portion, and couldn’t convince myself to take the time out of my trips to reassure myself that the road really existed. No, not even for the obvious excitement that a follow-up post about it would have generated. I did examine it on Google Maps, and determined that it probably wasn’t a highly traveled road after all, barely meriting its own exit, so there yet remains the idea that setting foot or tire on it might not be the wisest choice.

While I’m at it, I’ll tell you that I also found the exit in West Virginia that I mentioned in the same post, the one where a weary traveler could pray all they want but couldn’t pee. That can be found off of Interstate 64/77 right at the town (and I use that word loosely) of Sharon, West Virginia. The town was as I recalled, but it was nowhere near as far south as I remembered being for that trip, so we can see that my memory, again, isn’t what I believed it was. Getting old – but we knew that already.

Actually, I think I’m supposed to be at work right now…

*    *    *    *

I just have to note this. After finishing this post but before I published it, I checked my e-mail and had received a bit of spam entitled, “Have tinnitus and ringing ears? Your memory could be next.”

At this point, it should go without saying that I have tinnitus, but at least I have something to blame now. Not my age at all. Nope.

Let’s milk this subject some more

This is going to be another observation about our visit to the North Carolina Museum of Art last month, and yes, it’s coming from one of the Great Unwashed, so feel free to skip ahead if that bothers you.

We pretty much toured the entire museum, which included the multi-faceted European section; plenty of examples of the styles and techniques usually considered ‘classic’ and what most people think of when it comes to discussing art – you know, Rembrandt and Botticelli and so on. I admit we skipped past the Italian Medieval section, which mostly consisted of flat depictions of people with halos. Grouped together as they were, it was easy to see an overriding style, a popularity of approach within each of the periods, but there’s always the question of whether the majority of artists at those times tended to stay within those styles, or if only those that did were selected to represent the galleries (or even became popular because they stuck with a particular style.) Were there cubists during the Renaissance that people simply thought were talentless hacks?

But then, in the Dutch section we came across a prominently-displayed still life, Banquet Piece by Jan Jansz. den Uyl, which was immediately impressive. After a very large number of drab-colored depictions of people with disturbing proportions in unrealistic poses, this one had an almost photographic quality to it, inordinate attention to detail and accuracy. Listen, I’m cool with impressionism and moods and such, but I personally find the real talent is depicting something as it is. There’s a part of me that believes too many artists, struggling to get the skin tones right, simply give up and claim it’s representative of some damn thing or another. But hey, you can see it for yourself because it’s public domain under Wikimedia Commons:

Banquet Piece by Jan Jansz. den Uyl

Banquet Piece – Jan Jansz. den Uyl, from the North Carolina Museum of Art collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Clicking on this, by the way, will take you to the source page where you can see it in better detail than we even could in person. It took me a little while to find this, because I couldn’t remember the name (I was thinking Van Der Rijk,) but my webbernets expertise paid off.

I will draw attention to the light quality overall, especially the reflections and shadows, but also the texture of the linen – exacting attention to detail. Moreover, the perspective on all these elaborately-shaped vessels is bang-on, something that can be hard to get right even when copying from real life or a photo – it’s easy to take the curve a little too much in the wrong direction (yes, I speak from a bare minimum of experience, because I still draw and paint a little.) Note the highlights on the golden centerpiece, and the reflection of the linen in the lid of the overturned pitcher to the left. It’s easy to believe that he was working from a staged scene in front of him rather than imagination, to be this accurate, and it’s still impressive for that.


There’s one little aspect that was missed, something that didn’t quite ring true. If you like these kind of challenges, I’ll let you check out the image to see if you spot the same thing that I did.

I’ll just add a few dead lines in here to carry the reveal down out of immediate sight.

No peeking ahead now.

Dum de dum de dum de dum…

Found it? Okay, well, first off, I’ll mention the owl that can be seen at the top of the golden thing, because Uyl (the artist’s name) is Dutch for owl, and so he usually included an owl someplace in his paintings. That’s not what I was talking about, but a bit of trivia that was listed on the plaque in the museum, which would have made it much easier to find had I remembered it.

What I’m referring to instead is the glass goblet right in the center. I suspect, actually, that this was not part of his original composition or the setting itself, but added later on, because the details seen through the glass have no distortion at all. From long experience shooting into aquariums and various glass containers, I know that even seeing at an angle through perfectly smooth and clear glass will distort what’s beyond it, and this will be enormously so when it comes to curved glass – that’s what defines a lens, after all. But the objects behind it in the painting haven’t the faintest indication of this, and having gone into the really big version available at the source, I can find no evidence that it was not painted over top of the finished painting, a later addition. In fact, there’s another bit of evidence for this, something that I didn’t notice until writing this post. Now that you know where to look, can you spot that?

[I really am curious to know how many people find it with these clues – maybe it’s obvious, maybe not, I don’t know. I just know I missed the second one, even though I spotted the first in the museum within a minute or so of examining the painting.]

There appears to be no reflection whatsoever of the glass goblet in that same pitcher that reflects the linen, though you can see the reflection of its own handle, as well as the centerpiece and possibly the candle holder. There might be a faint indication of it, the bright spots between the reflections of the gold/brass items, but that’s hardly as distinct as I would imagine it to be, seeing as how the goblet appears to be resting against the handle of the pitcher itself.

It’s easy for me to believe that the goblet was added in, perhaps to provide a little more detail to the center of the scene, perhaps because the artist wanted to play around with glass and reflections some more (and except for the lack of distortion, it’s really well done.) So far, nothing that I’ve come across has made any mention of it, but I admit I haven’t looked very hard into the painting’s history. I know some artists often tinkered with their work, never really finding their favorite pieces to be ‘done,’ and I’ve been that way with model kits at times (not trying to make a direct comparison, just observing that I know the feeling,) so maybe this was the case here? Can’t say, but I felt like pointing it out. I have to admit that I appreciate the realism that the still life trend brought to paintings, and that I don’t even want to know how many hours this took.

Storytime 1

So, this year the weekly post will be an image with a story behind it – maybe informative, maybe amusing, more likely trivial to be honest (I don’t lead an exciting life, or at least that’s what I tell people to throw them off the trail.) I guarantee that they will post at least before 8 PM so you can read them to your kids at bedtime, because I’m that helpful. Finding a therapist for them afterward will be up to you however.

To start off, we’ll feature one that’s been sitting in the blog folder for a bit, because I’m lazy right now.

likely grass carp Ctenopharyngodon idella in apartment complex pondWhere I lived in Florida, the apartment complex had a decent-sized pond right outside my back door, handy when poking around casually for interesting pics (and testing out experimental equipment.) Within were innumerable minnows, some small panfish that were possibly perch, and some monster fish that I’m fairly certain were grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella,) an Asian species introduced into the US primarily as weed control. When the light was good, these could be seen cruising around slowly, or nibbling on the weeds within.

One day as I was standing on the little footbridge that crossed a neck of the pond, I watched one of these carp patrol slowly below, and when it was almost directly underneath me, I distinctly saw it blink. I’m fairly certain this photo was taken within seconds of that, but at the very least it illustrates what I was seeing at the time.

After a moment I blinked myself, not as a signal nor in a yawnlike involuntary response, but because fish do not have eyelids, so they can’t possibly blink. I was left wondering what I actually did see.

Just a little later on, I had even more to wonder about, because I realized that the eyes of the fish are those bulbs directly along the sides, and not the distinctive things more on top of the snout. Those resemble nostrils more than anything, which is unsurprising because they are nostrils, something that I did not think fish had until I started researching piscine anatomy for this post to determine what they did have. But of course it makes sense, because how else are they gonna smell when something’s burning? Now, why these have the ability to blink, or to be more specific, appear to retract momentarily, is something that I have not yet found, but I saw it clearly enough that there’s little doubt in my mind. I’m a little jealous mind you, since I can’t close my nostrils without one of those little swimmers’ things that horrify people when they find them in your bathroom cabinet, and I’ve had to deal with vulture vomit. It’s not fair.

But setting aside this gross injustice, here’s another view of the same species, this time with an escort which gives a small indication of scale. It’s a wonder, actually, that we still had raccoons visiting the pond…

possibly grass carp Ctenopharyngodon idella and unidentified minnow

Podcast: Modren Art

Let’s start the new year off right with a rambling collection of uninformed opinions that no one asked for, shall we?

Walkabout podcast – Modren Art

Some of the things we heard about in the audio:

NC Museum of Art

Georgia O’Keeffe, of course.

My own ‘version’ of the approach. Not really intended (and even less so now,) but just happened that way.

Candida Höfer.

And Cynthia Daignault, who impressed me the most. Definitely check this link out. The exhibit that we saw is entitled, “Light Atlas” and is featured on her site. I’ve included a couple of my own photos of it below, though it’s better and a little more complete at that link.

section of 'Light Atlas' by Cynthia Daignault
detail of several panes from 'Light Atlas' by Cynthia DaignaultI was shooting with my [*blech*] my smutphone, without the benefit of a flash, so I ask that you excuse the quality of these images. No, wait, never mind – it’s intended to look this way; it’s incisive yet whimsical commentary on technology from a post-neo-farcical standpoint…

One particular effect that I noticed, which may or may not hit others as well, was that I thought I almost recognized several of her painting locations. The likelihood of her actually choosing anyplace that I knew as a subject for one of the panels is extremely low; instead, I suspect that what she chose were scenes that had a fair commonality with many regions of the country, representative of, for instance, certain building styles or ecology.

Again, the combination of minimal brush strokes and detail with the notable accuracy in colors and shading just captured my attention, pure efficiency (though I suspect that’s not a descriptor most artists seek.) Very cool.

There was one aspect that I neglected to mention in the podcast, one of the other photographs that we saw early on. It was a scene of an amusement park at dusk, lots of detail and complication which communicated the popularity and crowds. But right away, I could see the evidence of digital manipulation, with the streaks of a car’s taillights curving through the people, ostensibly a time exposure of several seconds. Yet only a few of the people themselves were blurred even slightly, while an ascending roller-coaster train and a freaking plane in the air remained sharp, evidence of a shutter speed no slower than 1/30 second. To me, that’s a significant alteration which no longer makes it a photograph, but instead a composite or digital creation – this doesn’t necessarily make it less artistic, but it does take it out of the realm of strictly camera work. This is becoming more common, especially with astronomical landscape images (the ones with a distinct and elaborate starfield appearing above a sharp and well-exposed field or tree or whatever, next to impossible to accomplish in one frame,) but I personally still opt for such things to be clearly labeled as manipulations, if only to distinguish them from the in-camera shots that really do take a bit of skill and planning.

But yeah, go ahead and say it: “Hey, Al, at least they’re taking some photos!” I deserve that…

December’s Abby… something

sunrise on North Topsail Beach
Don’t make me explain the movie reference in the title…

Given that I’ve shot maybe six creative frames throughout the entirety of December, this month’s abstract shot comes from back in May, a cropped version of one of the many (hundreds, I think) sunrise images that I obtained while at North Topsail Beach. I did a slight tweak in contrast to bring out the waves better, but otherwise the colors are as found, a nice alien landscape. It’s funny – as I look at it, I could easily believe that it was taken this month, because the overall humidity cut out a lot of the yellow registers, making blue dominate the frame and giving the appearance of coldness. It wasn’t, of course – I was standing in the water in shorts and sandals, though I suspect The Girlfriend, had she been out there that morning, might have worn a light sweater mostly due to the stiff ocean breeze.

Just a little later on (less than two minutes actually, as I check the EXIF info,) I endeavored to do a fartsy composition with a seagull, firing off numerous frames as it cruised near the sun. These all came out less than ideally, partially due to most of the frames catching the wings at a downward angle, but also due to the lower light. Even slightly underexposed, the shutter speed was slow enough for a bit of wing blur to come up each time – I think the best effect would have been with the silhouette tack-sharp, so maybe next trip.

seagull against sunrise, North Topsail Beach
Notice how this one is a bit more orange in comparison to the one above it; this is actually what was happening at the time, because I had the white balance set for full sunlight so it wasn’t altering anything in-camera. The exposure probably shifted a little, as the sun emerged further from some of the semi-obscuring clouds and got a lot brighter – you can see the clouds underneath now look a little darker.

And if you look closely, you can tell how far the sun moved between frames. In the top image, there is a ‘fork’ in the clouds at upper left on the sun, and that same fork is still visible in the second image at lower left. Bear in mind that the sun was not rising straight up, and never does at this latitude, but instead shifting diagonally up and to the right – you can see an animated sequence of this motion within this post.

My New Years’ resolution is going to be either a) take more photos, or b) stop whining about not taking enough photos. I’m not sure which is the more attainable goal…

Per the ancient lore, part 42

Bodie Island lighthouse at sunrise
And so, we reach the last Ancient Lore post of the year, and coincidentally we’ve finished our third pass through the folders, ending here with Sunrise/Sunset. “But wait, Al,” you say sharply, “you’ve been doing this weekly; shouldn’t this be number 52? Or somewhere in that general vicinity?” Which is pretty cool how you talk in URLs like that. Except that I started late in March, because I took my own sweet time trying to decide what to do as a weekly feature.

This is from March 2006, and I was now using the Canon Pro90 IS, my first digital camera – nothing exciting, but it had some cool uses. The aforementioned Jim Kramer and I had taken a trip to the Outer Banks strictly for photography, which is where I nearly lost my life to a treacherous quicksand trap. Or something. But that was yet to come – later this same day, in fact. At sunrise we were out by Bodie Island lighthouse, where the sky was resolutely uncooperative and almost totally without clouds, which doesn’t make for the most dramatic of sunrises. Nonetheless, we still got a hint of sunrise color, which can be seen by the faint yellow color cast on the lighthouse itself and the pinkish clouds. I have also used this image to demonstrate how light is tinted differently depending on conditions, because looking at the foreground boardwalk shows a blue cast that’s typical of open shade and hazy days; the reds and yellows scatter first and don’t bounce into the shadows, but the blues do.

In looking at the EXIF info, I find that I shot this on Auto White Balance, a poor move to retain the sunrise colors because the camera will often notice the color cast and try to correct it towards neutral. Yet this actually looks fairly accurate, or as near as I can recall about the conditions anyway. I suspect this is because there are enough shadowed portions in the lower region of the frame and they balanced out the sunlit portions with an opposing color cast.

same image tweaked with more orange/redIt’s also easy to do a little color tweak and make some more dramatic colors without looking unrealistic at all – except that I know there was too little humidity, and too few clouds, to produce this. [Yes, it’s really been altered slightly – look closely at the grasses if it helps.] And it’s easy to get into the whole debate about what’s appropriate when it comes to editing, and a lot of it may depend on usage; artistically, you could paint a picture in any damn color you wanted, so is there any big deal when producing an art photo print? While for photojournalistic purposes and some contests, the practice is frowned upon.

This boardwalk, by the way, no longer exists, having been replaced with a larger and better one. So one day this image will be immensely valuable for its historic record, I’m sure. Because, you know, no one else ever took any photos from this perspective…

Ten down, um, how many to go?

So as I said previously, today marks the tenth anniversary of the first blog post, which is a little curious to me. I wasn’t really sure where it might lead, and had no serious expectations – though I know where I would have liked it to have gone. At the time, blogging was exceptionally popular, and there were a lot of sites out there with some interesting and thought-provoking stuff; more than a few people had parlayed a web presence into things like speaking engagements, publishing books, and so on. So yes, I entertained the idea that this might lead someplace ‘big.’ Did I believe it? Not really – I’m somewhere between a realist and a pessimist – but it certainly wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t venture the time and effort. And as it says in the Welcome page, it’s just as much a writing exercise as anything else, which helps me organize my thoughts and feed my own interests. If someone gets something out of it, great! And if they were chased off, well, so be it.

Since that start, blogging waned a bit in overall popularity, and several of the people that I’d ‘known’ back then disappeared, leaving the practice behind for other things. But I happen to like it, and while the blog may not add anything in particular to the main part of the site (that dedicated to showcasing my photographic pursuits,) I doubt it detracts from it in any way either. The popularity and ‘bigger things’ never materialized (yet, anyway,) and may not ever, but I’m cool with that. It’s my soapbox, and I’ll give it up when I’m good and ready.

All that said, let’s take a look back at some of the posts that I particularly like – perhaps it’s because I felt the writing expressed what I was after pretty distinctly, or perhaps the photos were ones that I felt proudest of. Maybe you’ll agree, maybe you won’t – feel free to chime in if you like.

By the way, I was attempting to narrow it down to just one per year, and gave that idea up; there may be a small selection for any given year.

There was just one post back then, Oh, is that what I’m doing?, so it must be the best. And the worst. The wisest, and the stupidest.

I don’t get emotional too often (or at least, not what most people imagine when you say things like that, which is maudlin or something, though I can manage irritation and pissiness just about anytime,) but Flashback is a rare exception, relating something from a previous life. While What I did over summer vacation wraps up with a perspective that still strikes me dumb.

Go us! is a bit of a rant, but I’d like to believe that it could make people think a little about the vast amount of effort expended over something completely superficial.

One thing that I really like about critical thinking is its value in eviscerating sophistry, and unmasking false assertions is fun too, so Dealing with the real world is an obvious choice; it’s a shame that the originating article has been taken down now.
There’s also Nuclear whoas, one of those controversial topics of course, and Cultural blind spot, another hopefully thought-provoking perspective like 2010’s choice above. And as intimated earlier, the disappearance of the forum that I cross-posted it to eradicated quite a few interesting replies. Such is the webbernets.

I started getting into my stride, as it were, so we’re getting a few more choices now. Personal god is another rant, but more than a little justified I think. To offset that, we’ll have a photo post with Good morning!
Too smart to be intelligent illustrates why I find most philosophy to be utterly worthless, while Seneca Falls, we have a problem examines a disturbing disconnect between critical thinking and a lot of popular feminism.

Much ado about “fucking” is, like, my personal philosophy, and interpret that as you will. Both Too cool, part 18: Hubble turns 23 and Drama are choices for photography; the former isn’t mine yet is damn cool, while the latter introduces my trend towards uncomfortable closeups of arthropods. And a bit of humor with All the answers.

Mass challenged and Life is not all spiders and mantids and It’s all good for something are all here for the photos. Then a break with But what if the third time is the charm? to trash Pascal’s Wager (again,) before we have a dramatic photography outing with I know better.

The struggle for an appropriate title is a favorite when I probably should be ashamed of it, and that might be intriguing enough to get you to click. On the horizon is an examination of artificial intelligence, because. Then we have She has a great personality and Keep coming back to ’em for the extreme closeups. The myth of “live and let live” is always going to rank highly with me, while Cry, “Sexism!” and let loose… illustrates that pursuing an agenda (not mine) can produce some utter nonsense.

It’s mostly photos this year, partially because I was now taking a lot more, but partially because my efforts were improving and thus I don’t feel as accomplished about the older stuff, you know? What this says about my philosophical posts we’re going to leave unexamined…
Anyway, we’ll start off with A tiny bit of diversity, doing some serious closeups on newborn mantids, and go to The snakes are taking a beating in the same month, actually much more diverse because it features a family of red-shouldered hawks. Then we’ll have Podcast: The mindset of a nature photographer, because I think it’s the most helpful to those interested in the topic. We’ll close with Too cool, part 32… and maybe 33, featuring a question that as yet remains unanswered.

A pretty productive year, if I say so. We’ll open and close with some philosophical stuff, such as Of matters big and small because again, you know, soapbox. Too cool, part 35: A modicum of success is the post about Chinese mantises, since I finally did something useful with video. I’m only doing the first link of three regarding a super-productive beach trip; that’s The week of mellow, but wait! We had a total solar eclipse that year too, so Podcast: Yeah, me too has to be in there. And if there’s one perspective that I’d love to reach as many people as possible about, it has to be The measure of humankind.

Once again, we start with huge blocks of text, because winter, so that would be “No kill” is a myth that needs to fucking die already. But hey, I had preceded with photos: The color of the day is “white” and its follower deserves a look too. It’s been a bit turtley lately is a sentiment I’m sure you’ve heard too much of by now, but I was the first. I must inflict The unwanted and uncalled-for sequel because I didn’t feature the first; all necessary further commentary is within.
And 2018 saw me starting slideshows, with the least-painful example being Podcast: Yet again

That should be enough to keep you busy during the lean months, but just in case, while doing the ‘research’ for this I ended up adding a few more to the Favorites page, so you can go there for more bloggy goodness. You know, if you’re feeling peckish. Meanwhile, I’m going to try and sneak at least one more out before the end of the year, and it might be a podcast. However, The Girlfriend’s birthday is coming up, and she considers this a disturbing milestone though that’s unwarranted, so don’t hesitate to tell her so.

So just in case I don’t catch you before then, have fun starting off yet another arbitrary demarcation like we’re prone to (I’m referring to New Years with that.) Cheers!

Behind the scenes

holly berries against blue sky
I know I say this far too often, but I’ve been quieter than intended recently, and there are more than a few reasons for this. The holiday season has a bit to do with it, but more it’s been my work schedule, falling right after the trip that I had to make to New York. More distinctly, though, has been no photography to speak of – between work and bad weather and no subjects at this time of year and no place that I can go to find any right at the moment, the cameras have been getting no use at all. I suppose a lot of people would find this perfectly reasonable, but to me it means something’s wrong. On top of that, a persistent sinus infection, and the general seasonal ho-hum-ness (it’s not anything near depression, just a noticeable lack of motivation,) all add up to not having jack shit to post about.

But enough whining! I’m actually in the middle of something larger coming, because in a few days we hit the tenth anniversary of the blog, which is slightly startling to me, and I’m going to have something up in recognition of this (notice that I didn’t say, “celebration.”) While I’m not yet sure what, exactly, this will be, I do know that I’ll have a list of my favorite posts for each year.

self-deprecationMaybe. You see, I’m not exactly a rating and comparison kind of guy, and things strike me differently on different days. Plus there’s the whole pedantic, “Wait, do you mean best as in writing style, or important content, or illustrative photos, or–… I mean, let’s pin down some criteria here.” I have enough trouble doing this at the end of the year for just one a month, and have cheated a few times, so narrowing it down further to one a year? Not sure how this is going to work out. And I already have a Favorites page linked right up there at the top, so is this superfluous? I’ll let you judge.

Right now I’m thinking that I should have simply gone with posting unused photos from the past year, because going through each month and picking the more likely candidates, then reading them to compare their qualities, is a bit more time-consuming than I like. Not to mention that I don’t have many uninterrupted periods to accomplish this within. Maybe I’ll just bake a cake.

Anyway, whatever it is will be coming in a few days, which gives you enough time to read everything that I’ve posted and see how many you agree with, right? I’m sure you’re not that busy yourself. But just to show that I’m not totally worthless and should consider becoming an accountant (again,) I leave you with another photo from yesterday, which like the one at top I took while waiting to meet with a student. They are, if nothing else, proof that the camera still works. I have to maintain reasonable goals for myself, you know?

mourning dove Zenaida macroura in bare tree against blue sky

Per the ancient lore, part 41

night time exposure showing star trails
Another week down, and nothing to show for it here – seriously, you’re not missing anything on my end. You want me to write about, like, what I had for dinner? I could feature some images from my friends’ trip to Costa Rica, except they’ve been so busy since they got back I’ve only seen the photos of them crashing a whitewater raft…

So today, in recognition of the winter solstice and thus the longest night of the year, we have Space. Back around this time of year in 2006, I had a borrowed Canon 10D, used to take these photos, and one night (or early one morning, if the EXIF clock was accurate,) I set it up on a tripod and locked the shutter open for a 906-second exposure, otherwise known as fifteen minutes – okay, fine, 15.1 minutes. Better? The trails that you see come of course from the rotation of the Earth, and almost hidden there in the branches over to the left is Polaris, the North Star, so named because it sits almost exactly straight up from the geographic north pole, dead along the axis of the planet’s rotation. Therefore, it’s in the same position all night long, every night, while all other stars in the sky shift position throughout the night and throughout the seasons.

And no, it’s not that bright blotch – it’s actually to the right of the blotch, the one single spot of light in the image (not counting the sensor artifacts, the ‘noise.’) In fact, I’m not exactly sure what that bright blotch is. Let’s have a closer look:

inset of same image
This is full resolution, and Polaris is the more-obvious center of the arcs. A lot of people think Polaris is the brightest star in the sky, but it’s not – that would be Sirius, which is dimmer than some of the neighboring planets anyway (chances are if you see an especially bright ‘star’ it’s Venus or Jupiter.) And no, Sirius is not that close to Polaris, and there are no particularly bright stars that close to Polaris, so what the hell is that blotch? I honestly don’t know. Since this was about 6 AM, I might have caught sunlight reflecting from a satellite, such as an Iridium flare.

Seeing things at this resolution, you can not only notice the noise, credited to the long exposure, but also that focus wasn’t bang on, which isn’t surprising to be honest. The sky did not look anywhere near this bright as I was framing the shot, and even spotting Polaris in the viewfinder can be tricky – autofocus is naturally not an option. So the best one can do in such situations is to pick a bright star and adjust focus manually until it looks the brightest and sharpest. By the way, you can’t simply crank the focus ring all the way out thinking this will automatically be ‘infinity,’ because most modern lenses have some additional play in their focus travel and you will only ‘pass’ infinity and be defocusing again. If the lens has a specific infinity pointer, that will get you a lot closer, but even a tiny bit off will result in, well, this. And framing foreground elements will have similar issues, because you might see them well enough with the naked eye, but the viewfinder is notably darker.

plot of Polaris within StellariumA couple of bits of trivia, while I’m here. Polaris is not exactly along the line of Earth’s rotation, and actually describes a tiny circle over 24 hours (which you will only capture around this time of year from well up north during the Arctic night – in populated areas you have to contend with daylight of course.) Polaris is used to align alt-azimuth telescopes, especially those with tracking motors that counteract the Earth’s rotation to allow for long exposures without these kind of star trails, but they have to be aligned with the true axis of rotation, the celestial north pole, which sits a little ways away from Polaris, as illustrated by this plot from Stellarium. Anything in the foreground, like the trees that I captured in the above photo, will be blurred into arcs themselves by the counter-motion of the telescope. And while we all know that Polaris was used to orient towards north for centuries, there is no real counterpart at the south pole of the Earth, no helpful star sitting right above the opposite end of the rotation axis. Well, that’s not exactly true; there are three which sit even closer, but they’re too dim to be spotted easily. Instead we have the Southern Cross, or Crux, four stars in a kite-shape that point in the right direction even while quite some distance from the celestial south pole. Alpha and Beta Centauri are two bright stars not far away, which can also be used to align south; Alpha Centauri is actually two stars in close proximity, part of a trio where the third is too dim to be seen without aid, and the three are our closest stellar neighbors, being a little over four light years away. While Beta Centauri, another triple system appearing similar in brightness to Alpha, is nearly a hundred times more distant.

A little before the above image was captured, if I remember right, I did an experiment on film that also made use of the apparent motion of the stars in the sky, that one being much more captivating. It’s a cool thing to try, but in a couple of weeks; we’re hitting full moon right now, and the light from that will seriously affect star trail photos.