Sometimes I simply can’t

I’ve been trying all day, really I have, but it’s just not happening, so I have to apologize to you. Today, November 30th, is Annual Make Up A Bogus Holiday Day, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anything…

What? Last day of November?

That means it must be time for my warped idea of what an abstract image is.

autumn leaves in green channel with radically increased contrast
The autumn colors largely escaped me this year – you will likely see just a few images in another post at some point – but I snagged a quick pic in high contrast that I decided to play with a bit. Remember channel clipping? This is just the green channel, which produced a cool effect from the leaves by itself, but then I kicked the contrast up a bit to make it even more unnatural, because we all know that I can’t do art, or even shoot a compelling image in-camera without tricks.

I like how it kind of seems (to me at least) that the leaves aren’t even photos, but cutouts pasted onto the background. In fact, the photo that I had originally edited and uploaded had a few stray branches peeking in from the sides, well in the background, and these detracted from the dramatic effect, so I re-cropped the image to take them out and make it more surreal. The original, full-frame, sits below, so you can see what I started with.

original frame of autumn leaves

Too cool, part 36: Better than a lava lamp

And I like lava lamps.

This video comes courtesy of NASA, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s an elaborate computer simulation based on satellite and weather data, and shows the wind activity in the north Atlantic just a few months ago, during the peak of hurricane season.

It’s surprising to see such detail so soon after the season occurred, but it gives us a good view of how the severely damaging hurricanes of this year developed, and the various contributors. You can also see the effects of the west coast wildfires and how far the smoke travels, much less the sand dissipated from the Sahara in North Africa.

A little detail that I only noticed from living in the area and thus looking closely at it: numerous small sources of smoke, almost certainly local wildfires, start springing up in the southeastern US, pulsing almost rhythmically. It’s not particularly surprising, since we often see late summer droughts and this produces lots of dry fields and forests that are susceptible to fires. Countless patches of localized hot air, from sun-heated ground surfaces, form thundercells as they carry humid air high into the atmosphere, which in turn produces lightning strikes that are capable of starting fires in such dry conditions (in addition to the other causes of fires that occur.) Florida is especially known for such cells because of the humid air from the Gulf of Mexico that blows directly across the state and receives additional heating from the land as it passes; you can see how the peninsula seems to have separate air masses from the bulk of the country.

The next day’s APOD started raising a few questions in my mind. It shows a massive storm system in the clouds of Jupiter, not unlike the video:

cloud system on Jupiter captured by JUNO probe, courtesy NASA, JPL-CalTech, SwRI, MSSS
Now, here’s what I find interesting. When you watch the video, you’re seeing the effects of sunlight warming the waters of the oceans and the land masses of the continents, coupled with the air following the North Atlantic Gyre (which the video is centered upon, a big rotating mass of water that comes west across from Africa, runs northward along the east coast of North America, and crosses east over to northern Europe and back south to Africa again.) It’s clear that the land masses and the waters themselves, influenced by the rotation of the Earth, shape the storms that we have, and even create the hurricane season in late summer.

But Jupiter is a gas giant – it’s not even clear if it has a surface, or just gets denser and denser as it gets closer to the center of mass. While I can see rotational influences having some affect on the different elements within its clouds, it seems odd that so much activity could occur solely due to, for instance, the different densities of the various gases and their varying abilities to absorb solar radiation. I have the impression that things should become a bit more homogenized, the gases mixing together and presenting a more uniform ‘surface’ like Venus, or at the very least forming little more than striations from the rotation, but maybe I have the wrong impression of their properties. Or perhaps there’s a lot more going on under their obscuring cover than we know, with something more heat-absorbent providing the impetus towards storm development. Now I’m going to have to start looking for explicit details about Jupiter to see how much I’m missing.

Sunday slide 48

Eastern pondhawk draognfly Erythemis simplicicollis on skin of West Indian manatee Trichechus manatus
I’m fairly certain the dragonfly is an eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis.) But that’s not the only species visible in the shot. Take as much time as you need to find the other, before you check out Sunday slide 13, which should visually clue you in. Yes, they were taken at the same time. I kind of like the idea of how it’s an unprepossessing image, until you know a little more about it.

Just because, part 25: the lead in

backlit water lily with reflection
The two images here both (perhaps obviously) came from the same outing, a student session, but are the inspiration for a composition post soon to appear. Sometimes it takes a little effort to separate ourselves from the concepts we hold of our surroundings to see what’s actually right in front of us. The image above is more subtle than the one below, but both made use of the flower’s own reflection as an element in the frame; below, it is probably even more distinct than the flower itself, despite the brightness of the colors. Both were casual shots, but if I really wanted to do high art, at least I should have picked those distracting bits out of the water and done some slight tweaks in positioning. Of course, if I was really into art, I wouldn’t tell you how the images could be better…

pond lily on long stalk with curved reflection

I still have reasons

Four years ago, I posted a rant about smutphones, and why I wasn’t about to get one. And so we revisit the topic as times change, because now I own one.

If you’re expecting some epiphany, some radical change of opinion, even some abject hedging, well, I’m happy to disappoint you. Most of the stuff that I mentioned in that previous post still holds entirely true. There are just three things that are different now that caused, or permitted, or whatever, this change of heart:

1. I got it for $20;

2. I’m still using the same pay-as-you-go plan that I was using for the flip-phone, which means less than $15 a month for usage fees;

3. A few too many people that I know cannot grasp e-mail very well (in some cases, at all,) and have to periodically communicate by text message, which is inordinately painful on a numeric keypad.

I’ve had it for just six months now, and boy has my attitude changed! No, wait, it really hasn’t at all – I still find them almost as annoying as I did before I had one. I still refuse to use it in any way while driving, and don’t carry on conversations in public – the most I’ll do is make a quick call to, for instance, confirm details about something. Even with the advancements in technology in the intervening four years, touch screens are still ridiculous and awkward – versatile, from an input interface standpoint, but not really adapted to such a small size and poorly suited to the main purpose of entering text. I don’t have big clumsy hands or fingers, but they’re still far too large for phone screens.

My primary reasoning behind the purchase was, I intended to do some remote hiking and kayaking, and wanted to have something GPS capable. The cost was significantly better than any standalone GPS unit, though probably less capable and by far less rugged. And I will openly admit, it’s pretty remarkable to have a versatile computer that’s actually smaller than my wallet (no, I did not opt for a larger model.) So, how many ways have I found to enhance my everyday activities with this magical device?

Not many, really. And I could certainly be using more of the capabilities of the thing if I tried, but the demand really hasn’t been that great. Here are some (if not all) of the ‘major’ changes that are facilitated now:

1. A notepad. It’s fairly handy for notes that I’ll refer to frequently, or reminders of stuff that comes up occasionally, like the size of a picture frame that I’m keeping an eye open for.

2. Remote access to e-mail. From time to time, I have to refer back to a recent e-mail that I’ve received, like for a student’s phone number or meeting time. However, I don’t read e-mail on the damn thing, much less write or reply. Those still wait until I’m at my workhorse desktop computer.

3. Voice recorder. I use this less than imagined, but still occasionally.

4. Weather. Sometimes it’s handy to know what’s coming my way, and even handier to have something that syncs to my current location.

5. MP3 player (especially Bluetooth.) At my other job, we have a Bluetooth receiver/speaker system, so I can play tunes easily. However, it’s more often the tablet that fulfills this duty, because it has a heartier battery. The car stereo has its own MP3 player.

6. Bathroom breaks. Yes. Primarily sudoku. The number of other games I have downloaded for the phone can be counted on one hand – the tablet has slightly more.

7. The occasional amusing photo to harass friends with. Maybe as much as once a week, but usually less. I can’t say my life would be poorer without this.

What it’s not used for:

a. Selfies. What an unbelievably vain and fatuous pasttime. And I say this knowing that this is the primary activity of a friend of mine.

b. Conversations. I have a landline for those, and don’t engage in them very often anyway. No, not even

c. “Important business calls.” When I’m out, I’m busy, and especially when I’m out with a student or client, I’m not interrupting them for another call – I find it inexcusably rude. But even if I’m ‘free,’ I won’t have a notepad, calendar, or anything else at hand to handle business calls, so those go to voicemail and I get back to them when I’m in my office.

d. Boredom. I can usually find something else to do.

e. Social media. It’s even stupider now than it was four years ago, so no.

f. Watching movies and video. Holy shit, no. Why would I inflict such a tiny screen on myself in this manner?

g. Car GPS. I already had one for the car, and it’s far better than the phone. By the way, I still look up my route at the desktop before I leave, and generally use the GPS only to know when the turns are coming up, since the route-planning logarithms in GPS units invariably suck.

h. Remote web access. I have used this a couple of times successfully, and attempted it several more. The interface is abysmally bad, and the results rarely ever useful. It is far more likely to greatly increase my annoyance than to provide some useful information.

“But Al,” you say, “haven’t you discovered the plethora of apps that can be downloaded that are tailor-made to your own lifestyle?” And I thank you for implying that I can in any way be said to have a style. Yes, I’m familiar with apps, and have even selected a few that add a small amount to my nature photography pursuits – not a lot, mind you, and perhaps I’m missing some real gems. First off, I have to say that I have installed and subsequently deleted at least four times as many apps than I have retained, simply because they didn’t work as intended or had poor interfaces. It can get kind of tedious. And this says nothing of the huge number of apps that I looked at but never installed, because they wanted far more in the way of ‘permissions’ to snoop around on my phone and usage history than was warranted by the ostensible functions of the app.

[Before you ask, I’m using Android, for reasons that should be obvious if you look at the costs above, but also because nothing that I have ever seen from Apple in the past fifteen years has been impressive in the least, while numerous traits have been serious game-stoppers, like ‘proprietary’ horseshit and their attempts at exclusivity.]

But here are a few apps that I have found of some use:

Heavens Above – I’ve been using this on the desktop for years, and the app is even cooler. Let’s you find visible passes of satellites, including the ISS, and will even give you a live pointer if you hold your phone up to the sky (and have the necessary hardware, which most have nowadays.) But much better on a bigger screen, so the tablet is the go-to device for this app, really.

3D Compass Plus – Not just a compass, but will overlay the pointer of your choice onto the camera’s view, so fairly useful for orienteering when you have to plot a precise compass direction – say, that tree is right at 272°, so we walk in that direction. There are a ton of other options out there of course, but I settled on this one from among those that I’d tried.

GPS Status – A very fast and handy plotter; no directions, but good for precise location as well as speed, altitude, magnetic declination, and so on. Good inclinometer too, which means it can be used to level the camera for those crucial applications.

LightMeter Free – Knowing how to use an ambient and reflected light meter can be fairly handy for photography, especially in situations where the camera’s onboard exposure meter can be easily fooled. Dedicated meters can be bulky and awkward, so this is a nice little substitute, and so far, has proved pretty accurate.

DoF – A handy little depth of field calculator, with a nod towards the crucial bit, which is how big you intended to display the resulting image (the bigger the enlargement, the lower the impact of depth of field – blurry stuff becomes blurrier with enlargement.)

Airport + Flight Tracker Radar – Nice realtime flight tracker, able to be used to know when someone’s flight is due in (before you get into the terminal snarl,) or just to see which aircraft are approaching the airport of your choice when you’re doing long exposures, as I used here. Not a huge help to most nature photography applications, but if you like light trails…

Timely Alarm Clock – One of perhaps a gazillion out there, but this one has been in use for a couple of years now, only on the tablet – I don’t leave the phone alongside the bed because I am not about to be woken up by cell calls or random alerts. Anyway, this alarm clock works great, especially in using a sound file of your choice as the wakeup tone. Years ago I had an alarm clock that played cassettes for just this reason.

And two more from the tablet:

ISS HD Live – Yep, realtime video from the International Space Station as it orbits, though occasionally defaulting to archive footage (courtesy of NASA, not the app.) Also plots the current position of the ISS on a map. Pretty cool.

QuickPic Photo Gallery – Mostly used for the students, but also just for showing friends (sometimes forcefully) a few of the images that I’m most proud of. I tried several different apps for photo albums but this one has been serving well for a couple of years now.

You are welcome, and in fact invited, to pass along anything in particular that you feel can benefit nature photography (or critical thinking, or wretched attempts at humor, et al) – I’m more than happy to examine the possibilities. So far, however, I just haven’t found any significant enhancement of my life from smutphones, even when I’ve embraced them – albeit distantly, like that aunt with the mustache.

Now, if there was an app that actually worked to market my images, well, then we’d see…

Let’s do it again

harvest moon rising over Jordan Lake
Today, October 6th, is International Time Warp Day, and to celebrate, I’m going to use the oft-ignored option in WordPress to publish this post at a random date, either ahead of or behind when I’m actually typing it. I couldn’t ever find a use for the function before, but I realized it was handy for this holiday.

Last night, the Insurmountable Mr. Bugg and I went out to Jordan Lake to try and capture the sunset, which, as I’ve said before, can be hit-or-miss – it’s really hard to predict just how the colors might turn out, even just an hour in advance. You might think that conditions like completely clear skies or complete overcast would let you predict that the sunset would be crappy, but I’ve seen things change in only minutes to produce some really great colors and skyscapes. Just, you know, not this time…

The moon, however, was more cooperative. As you can see from the widget on the sidebar there [okay, maybe not] the moon was full last night, and rose with a lovely golden hue. For reasons unknown, I hadn’t brought the tripod along, so I was forced to shoot handheld, not the best of options for clarity in telephoto shots. The old Canon 100-300 L lens was in my corner though, and I got more detail than I really expected. To give you an idea, the image to the right is the full frame of the detail crop that’s coming below.

By the way, I will repeat something that I’ve often mentioned, here and to students: you can’t try to shoot the moon with autoexposure. Go full manual, but knowing the settings can be tricky. When the moon is full and high overhead, the settings should be aperture f11, shutter speed of one-over-ISO – in other words, 1/100 second if you’re shooting at ISO 100, 1/400 second if you’re shooting at ISO 400, you get the idea. Near the horizon and showing colors like this, that exposure guide doesn’t work, and it doesn’t work for different phases of the moon either. For phases, you can refer to Keith’s Moon Photography page, but for the colors, you kind of have to wing it; start with the recommended exposure for a bright moon (in whatever phases,) but then start increasing exposure times or aperture opening because the moon is darker than when overhead and white – do a lot of variations. In this particular case, the exposure was f10 at 1/200 second, ISO 800 – meaning the moon was about two and a third stops darker than it would be when overhead. I had boosted to ISO 800, despite the noise that this introduced, because I was handholding the camera (actually braced against a pole,) and trying to keep the shutter speed high enough to prevent camera shake and thus blur the image a little bit.

Did it work? I’ll let you judge.

full resolution crop of moon handheld with Canon 100-300 L
This is a full-resolution crop from that second pic up there, and I really can’t complain about the results. The Canon 100-300mm f5.6 L is a long-discontinued, push-pull zoom with an ancient autofocus system, a bit slow and noisy, but for an easy-to-carry and affordable mid-tele, damn it’s sharp! There are plenty of reasons why it wouldn’t fit into any individual’s shooting style, among them the slow nature (in both autofocus and aperture,) but I don’t think I’ve ever come across a lens on the used market that’s a better bang for the buck.

Anyway, the Draconids meteor shower is peaking in a day or on, on October 8th and 9th, with the Orionids following about two weeks later on the 21st and 22nnd, so be sure not to miss them! And get ready, because fall colors are coming, and it promises to be a good show this year!

Sunday slide 47

lone American sweetgum Liquidambar styraciflua leaf floating on smooth water of Falls Lake
We go back to 1999, or maybe even slightly farther, for this one, an old staple of my abstract images. This is mostly because all of the slides I just scanned for potential use this week didn’t really pass muster, and I’m too tired to scare up some other choices.

Falls Lake, as I mentioned earlier, used to be a regular haunt of mine, and one fall I was out in the morning when the air was preternaturally still. A single American sweetgum leaf (Liquidambar styraciflua) offered a splash of colors against the extremely muted reflection of the sky, and so I framed the way it felt right and fired off a shot.

Actually, if memory serves I found the leaf floating closer to shore, and tossed it further out to use the gradient tones of the water reflections better, rather than shooting more downwards where the light would penetrate to the clay bottom. Yeah, that’s us unethical nature photographers: always tampering.

Woooo, I’m a ghost!

What that title means is that I’m here, but you’d never be able to tell, at least not from my posting or indeed from the number of photos that I’ve shot recently. There’s been too much going on, yet not anything worth mentioning here (and you know that’s not exactly a high bar.)

I got out, very briefly, in the past couple of days to do a few pics, even though the fall colors aren’t really too impressive now, partially due to the weather conditions, partially due to my delay in pursuing them. I can always find the occasional tableau that makes it look like I know what I’m doing, but nothing that’s going to win awards or acclaim or my own sitcom.

fall foliage against sky at West Point on the Eno
The weather has gotten a bit brisk, with a couple of overnight frosts, and the frogs within the front planters have long ago vanished, I’m almost certain burying themselves in the soil of the pots. Curiously, however, while The Girlfriend and I were doing a little autumn yardwork yesterday, I spotted a small Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis,) again no bigger than an actual thumbnail, barely nestled in the fold of a vinyl cover in the backyard.

juvenile Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis semi-protected in vinyl cover
Where it sat, it had a good view of the two of us marching back and forth, and was clearly aware of our presence though not too concerned with it, and it was in the same spot when I went past it much later that night, though a slightly different position. There’s a front pushing through and the rain due any minute, so perhaps it was enjoying the warmth and anticipating the moisture? I certainly expected it to be holed up for the winter, and I haven’t seen it anywhere in the vicinity for at least weeks.

One of our tasks for the day was repotting a couple of bushes, which provided another small surprise. As The Girlfriend shook out some potting soil from an open bag we’d had sitting under the porch, a bright green misshapen object distinguished itself from the nearly-black soil, and I realized what it was almost instantly, before it roused from its winter stupor and began trying to right itself. One of the resident green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea) had wintered itself within the bag, which would have been a pretty good choice if it hadn’t been for our rude intrusion. If you’ve ever wondered what an amphibian look of reproach was, it’s this:

adult green treefrog Hyla cinerea unearthed from bag of potting soil
adult green treefrog Hyla cinera having enough of our shenanigansI quickly moved it to a safe location so we could continue our chores, but knew I’d be back to do a couple of photos. When I eventually returned, it had taken up a sleeping position against a rainbarrel, but I attempted to convince it to settle into the pot of the newly-transplanted bush, even very gently burying it to give it the idea – it was having none of this, and was making the effort to leave us well behind. After the images, we let it be and so have no real idea where it got itself off to, but I expect that we’ll see it again come spring, when perhaps it will have forgiven us. Or perhaps not. You know frogs and grudges.

One more autumn pic, which brings us to just about the total number of images that I’ve shot is the past two weeks or so worth sharing – it’s been pretty bad. Maybe I need to plan a trip out to Hanging Rock State Park. Somewhere, anywhere, as long as it has something more to shoot than here – but of course this also requires the time to expend on it. Any avid readers out there want to spot me airfare to Belize or Costa Rica? I’ll make the rest of it work if you do, and I promise to present at least an extra post or two in appreciation – I’m that kind of guy.

autumn colors shot up the trunk

Sunday slide 46

juvenile yellow-crowned night heron Nyctanassa violacea hunting in Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary
Yeah, I kind of slipped in a twofer again. Sue me.

Same location and date as the previous post, only minutes apart. At a small clearing along the boardwalk in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a juvenile yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) was among the dozens of birds enthusiastically fishing among the water plants. Yes, there’s water down there under all those leaves, and a whole lot of fish too. At least seven different species of waders were busy there that day, almost completely oblivious to the cluster of people on the handrails nearby gawping at them.

If you compare this one to the previous post, you’ll see the radical difference in juvenile and adult coloration for this species, which is about the size of a crow but with longer legs and a more extendable neck. I liked this shot for the mimicked position from the little blue heron in the background, and how it illustrates the thickness of the water plants. A wood stork close by demonstrated that the water itself was not even a half-meter in depth, and I’d already seen for myself that it was surprisingly clear – as flat as Florida is, you’d expect such a swamp to be murky and perhaps even stagnant, but there’s a significant flow from Lake Okeechobee so it’s fresher than imagined. The Sanctuary is definitely worth a visit, even if it seems a little remote from other areas of interest – you might see anything there.

A small aside: When doing the previous post, I double-checked the scientific names of the species, having been burned before. Yep, it’s been changed since I last mentioned it, having previously been Nyctcorax violacea, and now I have to change it on at least one webpage in the main gallery. This kind of stuff happens a lot.