Storytime 27

long exposure star trails over Jordan Lake
I’m running a little behind today, since I normally have the storytime post up by now, but I wasn’t feeling very well last night and had several other things to tackle. But it’s not like I’m being audited or anything. I don’t think.

full resolution inset of above frameThe main image above comes from just barely over nine years ago, taken July 3rd 2010 out over Jordan lake. I’d had some decent success getting images of the Milky Way while facing in the opposite direction, which were much darker skies, but decided for a longer exposure star trail. The exposure time was 559 seconds, which is slightly curious – that’s nine minutes, 19 seconds, and I usually aim for round numbers. I might have cut the exposure short thinking that a plane was going to enter the image – note the bright spot within the trees at right. Anyway, the residual city glow from the area was too bright and the effect wasn’t too compelling, but I stuck it in the folders anyway.

And then, looking for images to use last night, I noticed something, and so I’m including this full-resolution crop to show it as clearly as I can without very specific contrast adjustments. Because there’s a curious pillar of light rising from the horizon, and it goes way the hell up in the sky.

[While we’re examining the photo, of course, we’re going to completely ignore the red and blue spots that come from sensor noise – this is the old Canon Digital Rebel, the first iteration, and it never performed particularly well in this regard, but long exposures in digital tend to suffer from sensor noise anyway and I had the ISO boosted way up, plus I never did the noise reduction trick on this frame.]

Anyway, see the thin stream of light coming from the horizon and stretching up? That is, I believe, what’s called a sun pillar when it occurs during the day, but they’ve also been observed on particularly cold nights with streetlights and so on. I’ve caught the former before, but not the latter, or at least never realized it. The idea behind a sun pillar is, high altitude ice crystals that sit pretty much flat, parallel to the ground surface, reflect light back down to the viewer, so they act like a million tiny mirrors of bright light sources, but because of their orientation it only occurs in a line straight up from the source (more or less of course – when it occurs with the sun, there’s no ‘straight up’ that applies to orbital positions, but from our egocentric perspectives it’s close enough.)

You might think that July in NC wasn’t going to produce ice crystals, and it wouldn’t down at our (egocentric) level, but it doesn’t take a lot of altitude for the air to thin enough that ice forms easily. I’m more curious about the very distinctive single pillar, because I would have thought the sheer number of light sources in the middle distance would have produced lots of them, and cannot think of any particular source that differed so noticeably to produce the pillar. I could see nothing of it while I was out there that night, and indeed missed it several times over when sorting and examining the images for possible retention, but it’s clearly there, and by playing around with sliding the image back and forth, I can see vestiges of it that extend well up into the frame, at least as far as I have cropped right here – it may not be as easy to see on your screen, but that might be because you’re doing something incredibly silly like looking at anything at all on my site with a smutphone and not a proper desktop computer.

I know almost precisely where I was standing for that shot, and can plot a fairly accurate line of sight on a mapping service to see what might lie along that line, but I’m not sure how much that might tell me – again, I have no idea what kind of light source might be so different, and of course nothing of the sort will show up on maps. The best I can hope for is to see something different along the line, something that either sparks some recollection or makes me believe there are distinctive lights there, but I’m not counting on it being so easy. Still, that’s the kind of idle investigation that I get wrapped up in at times, so perhaps we might see an update a little later on.

Because I’m petty

damselfly, probably American rubyspot Hetaerina americana, on reed with dew
I’m doing this because Mr Bugg was crowing that he’d be having fun while I have to go into work this afternoon, and I pointed out how far behind he was with his posting. Naturally, I have to put these up from this morning’s session before he gets to it.

The location is the head of the Neuse River, an old haunt that I still get back to infrequently. It was a little slow today, but we managed to find a handful of things to photograph, like a horde of damselflies all over the place, which I believe are American rubyspots (Hetaerina americana.) The above photo is cropped a little from full frame, which took away some detail, so I’m adding the one below – it’s the same shot, just a little below full resolution. I had to show off.

damselfly probably American rubyspot Hetaerina americana, inset
I can certainly live with those results, shot freehand in ambient early morning light.

But one more, just for giggles.

a lot of damselflies, probably American rubyspots Hetaerina americana, on reeds
Nope, not ‘shopped, just happened to catch a bunch together – when they’re begging for attention like this, well, you do what you have to do.

And June just said, “See ya,” and left

six-spotted fishing spider Dolomedes triton with egg sac over unidentified amphibian eggs
After a busy May, June was just kind of nondescript to me, without a lot to say for it, and I really only have a handful of photos from the month. Still, here we are at the month’s end and thus we greet our abstract.

Following heavy rains one particular night, I was checking out the nearby pond, which has cut some new drainage channels from overflow, one of which becomes a few semi-connected standing pools once the rain stops. Within one of these was a notable amount of critter activity, two varieties shown here. Several patches of unidentified frog or toad eggs were floating on the surface, but not far away I found a pair of the eastern narrowmouth toads (Gastrophryne carolinensis) in amplexus, otherwise known as ‘getting it on,’ so there’s a fairly good chance that we can credit the eggs to that species. The angle of the flash and softbox shows how the eggs protrude from the water slightly, just buoyant enough to extend a hair’s breadth above the surface.

The other player in here is a six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton,) and this is a little curious to me. This one’s quite small, maybe 30mm in leg spread, what I would have taken to be a juvenile because I’ve seen them a whole lot bigger – yet she has an egg sac attached to her spinnerets. Granted, this is the south, so perhaps this is simply what we should expect.

There were several of the fishing spiders in this small pool, but this was the only one expecting, plus she perched momentarily above the toad eggs, so I was intent on getting the shot. This meant having to shoot down past some weeds erupting from the pool’s edge, which is why those fuzzy green lines are in there; this is what something way out of focus in front of the lens looks like.

I visited a few days later, and only the fishing spiders were seen; the eggs and all traces of tadpoles had vanished, but we’d had another rain in the interim and perhaps they’d simply moved further along the ecosystem. I would have liked to have collected some tadpoles to see what developed, but our backyard pond here already hosts some and telling them apart would be difficult. Just have to put in more ponds, I guess…

Storytime 26

Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis eating another
I had prepped this one as a potential illustration for the last composition post, but decided to use it instead for storytime – not much of a lateral shift, I know, but this one bears a little explanation. Taken a few years back at the old place, within the towering pampas grass that we had there, I spotted a very large Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) deep within, partaking of a massive meal. This was about the time that the female mantids should be producing their egg sacs, and so their appetites were prodigious – and more than a little disturbing, at least from our perspective. Because that’s another female mantis of the same species, quite likely pregnant as well, that she’s eating.

Most of us would view this with distaste, but that’s because our species is cooperative and relies on social interaction – not so with mantids. When it comes down to it, another mantis in the area means two things to them: a ready, abundant source of nourishment, and competition to their own genetic heritage. I’ve said before that I suspect the newborns engage in cannibalism, though I’ve never seen it directly – their numbers drop drastically within weeks. From a natural selection standpoint, this is what worked best among the options that appeared; the ‘goal,’ if you will, is to pass along one’s genes, and even if the young are eating siblings that have the same genetic traits, as long as one reaches reproductive age, this is successful as far as genes go. But here, we have a double-whammy, ensuring adequate sustenance for the developing young as well as eliminating the number of other mantises (with the wrong genes) that will be competing for food come spring.

Nonetheless, I’m curious as to how much of the meal she was able to finish – it already looks far beyond what I would have imagined she could handle in the first place. I had initially taken it to be a grasshopper of some sort, but no – those hind legs definitely indicate another mantis. I’m sorry that I missed the altercation, really.

On composition, part 28: The story

It’s been a while since the last composition post – I think I’ve covered nearly everything now ;-). But at the risk of talking out of my ass, I’m going to tackle an aspect of composition that’s often very important to get a good feel for, and I say this because I’m not as accomplished at it as I should be, and nowhere near as accomplished as many others. There are definitely some genres of photography that benefit more from having a story within the image itself (rather than, as my weekly posts have it, a backstory told orally,) but almost every genre can benefit from the ability to express one – it feeds that thing inside us that’s interpreting the image, not as a collection of colors and contrast, but as a scene, or idea, or yes indeed, a story. Yet, in many cases, it can be exceptionally tricky to pull off.

staged photojournalist illustrationThe first part that I’ll talk about is perhaps the easiest, which is illustration. Just about every photographer ends up tackling such a thing at one time or another; some of us do it routinely. But even product photography requires a certain skill to portray the product in the best manner possible – sometimes this is angle and lighting, sometimes this is the right setting or background, and sometimes this is elaborate staging. When we’re trying to show something in particular, it’s important to give the correct impression to the viewer, and the first step is knowing what this should be in the first place. Following close behind is detaching ourselves from the sense of place that we have, just being there, and recognizing whether or not the viewer can get the same sense (or, even better, an entirely different one that we nonetheless express, falsely as it were.) That might be a bit confusing in the abstract, so let me provide an example. We know, from simply being there, that we’re at the beach, or someplace late at night, or whatever, but the image doesn’t necessarily express this unless we include the necessary details therein. Conversely, many of my macro shots, while done in broad daylight, still look like they were done at night, because the aperture and shutter speed reduce the ambient light so far that it doesn’t expose the image very well, while the flash unit provides the main lighting for the subject, yet fails to reach the background. But even showing someone at their profession or hobby takes having an adequate representation of those within the frame. For an artist, it’s not enough to show them drawing on a canvas; we should have a variety of artistic tools visible as well. If we think of an image illustrating a pilot, we ask, what kind of pilot? Commercial, military, bush, glider? Only the knowledgeable viewer would be able to tell these from a glimpse of controls and gauges, so we need to provide more details to inform all of the viewers of what they need to know. Even the subject’s basic appearance and expression counts for a lot – a portrait of a nurse is likely to require an entirely different expression from a portrait of a judge, to give the impression that we want to give. And of course, knowing how to evoke these from a subject, especially so they look natural and not forced, is a huge skillset all its own.

black ant pyrrhic victory
[By the way, there are a couple of websites dedicated to bad stock photos, where the photographer put together several elements that they thought would express a particular idea while having no clue themselves how these elements were actually used – labware for scientists, for instance. Some kind of blue water always appears in a beaker or testtube somewhere, because chemicals are blue, right? There’s this curious balance point in such instances, because the photographer wants to adequately express the idea of the laboratory scientist, even to the uninitiated, while the reality isn’t very expressive in itself – yet if the sale is aimed at anything actually scientific, like a journal or textbook, the image becomes ludicrous. And we really want to see people’s eyes – it’s just our nature – but they’re not visible when a microscope is being used correctly, and that image probably wouldn’t sell. It’s fun.]

tourists trapped by snoozing Amercian alligator Alligator mississippiensisMuch harder is the genre of photojournalism, which is what most people think of when we talk about an image with a story. In most cases, we have no ability to stage any portion of the shot, or even mess with lighting, so we have to take it as it is and still get the message across. This means framing and timing become the most important aspects to control, sometimes the only things we have control over. Many times, it means anticipating some particular aspect – action or expression, mostly – and firing off the shutter the moment it happens. An acute awareness of everything in the photo is often necessary. I often tell my students about my wedding photography days, when I was after the ‘first dance’ of the newlyweds. There is actually a very narrow timeframe when the elements tend to come together, because if the guests are in the shot, you want them all looking at the happy couple with delight or warm expressions – one guest looking away, or bored, or eating, is going to spoil the mood of the shot, and this becomes more likely as the seconds pass. Meanwhile, try to find a shooting angle which shows both faces of a couple that are facing one another. And a decent background. And good lighting. These are the kind of things that beginning wedding photographers rarely realize are the skills they never thought to develop. Which is why I say that you save money on a photographer at your own risk.

[If you’re noticing that I’m not illustrating this post with many people shots, the primary reason is that I don’t post people without express permission, unless they’re unrecognizable or in a public place – but I also don’t photograph many people anyway.]

ruby-throated hummingbirds Archilochus colubris squabblingWe read the expressions of any given animate subject (and some inanimate ones,) and nearly every photo can benefit from having something more expressive, more emotional, than simply a straightforward shot. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of observation, and finding the right angle, but most often it takes timing and anticipation. It’s easier with people of course, because they express the emotions that we’re familiar with and we often know when they’re due to arrive. With animals it’s usually very different – most times it doesn’t occur unless the animal is relaxed and acting normally, which is much trickier for wildlife, but can even be a chore when the family pet knows we’re up to something. But for most species, they don’t actually express the emotions we recognize, and when we get something that appears expressive, this is more often than not simply a mistaken impression – which still works just fine, we just can’t anticipate or even provoke it.

And then there’s the scenes, the happy accidents that tell us something just from the details, the items in the image that have their own meaning or mood. A flower lying on the concrete can be simply trash, or it can have its own story (strictly imaginary, but that’s okay too,) depending on how we approach it – angle, lighting, and surroundings. We might wait for someone to walk past the flower, and shoot them receding in the middle distance from a low angle – in reality, the factors are unrelated, but the viewer puts them together and forms the story of the rejected lover or whatever. In such cases, we need to be alert for the possibilities and the moods that any given element might provide, and exploit them as needed. Remember that lighting plays an important role here, setting mood or even hiding distracting details, so knowing how to manipulate this to our advantage is a useful skill. Referring back to the macro comments above, know that you can underexpose an image intentionally and use a flash unit to provide specific light onto a subject or portion of the frame, rendering the whole thing shadowed with attention (the brighter light) drawn to just one region; the same thing in reverse can be done by strategically blocking the ambient light where needed.

The more of an emotional response we can provoke from the viewer, the more memorable our photos will be – for good or bad, it must be noted. Being able to evoke those ‘thousand words’ from our images can add a lot to the impact that we have.

The author's promotional self-portrait - now you know why he's not doing as well as he'd like
I’m throwing this in here, even though it falls more into the line of ‘career portraiture’ than ‘story,’ but as I said, I don’t do enough stories myself. Realizing about ten years ago that I had no images of myself that I wanted to use on the site, I set about to take one. The setting was pretty carefully chosen to reflect ‘nature photographer,’ using the little splash of fall colors that I had available. The light was muted, which kept the shadows under control, and from the right angle to do just enough shaping of my lumpy forehead. The branch in the foreground conveys a sense of discretion, of hiding in the foliage a little, as does the color of my shirt; the leaves actually fall into good positions for framing without blocking or interfering with anything. And while I liked this pose and used it, my arm is actually blocking the camera itself – that could be a spotting scope on the tripod. It would also have worked better to have a little light hitting the lens to give a bit of color in there. Had I been viewing this as the photographer, however (you know what I mean,) I would have changed some aspects: how the shirt was hanging, chin higher, left arm, things like that. But for this version I at least dubbed out the damned pine straw hanging on the foreground branch…

Used to be pretty good

A brief conversation the other day sparked this post idea, which I suppose is better than getting them from sitcoms or a random phrase generator, but the margin may be slim. It could be that I’ve already posted most of my really deep stuff and used up all the good ideas.

Anyway, our topic today is used equipment, and I feel especially qualified to write on this since very little of my camera schtuff, from the moment that I started shooting some four decades ago, has been new. The primary reason for this is due to my own outlook and financial situations combined, but the results have presented more justification for the approach than the primary reasons.

Let’s start by looking at the new equipment that I’ve purchased. It’s not a long list:

In the mid nineties, I got my first ‘serious’ camera outfit, a Canon Elan IIe, a Sigma 28-105 f2.6-4, and a Canon 75-300 II 3.5-5.6. Plus a Canon 380EX flash unit and the RC-1 remote of course.

In the late nineties when I was probably making the most money relative to living expenses, I got my Sigma 170-500 f4.5-6.3, a Manfrotto 3401 tripod with a ballhead that I can’t recall right now, Sigma 105 f2.8 macro, and extension tubes.

In 2000 or 2001, I purchased a 2x teleconverter and my first film scanner, the Minolta Dimage Scan Dual I, SCSI interface! (That may not even make any sense to half of the people reading.)

In 2006 I believe, I purchased a Giottos MH1001 ballhead and a selection of quick-release plates. Probably about the same time I got the Dimage Scan Dual IV, this time with a USB interface.

And right at the moment, I have a new ballhead on its way. There’s probably a couple of items that I’m forgetting, but really, it hasn’t been much, especially in comparison to what I’ve used over the years and what I now own.

In a minute, we’ll talk about their fates. Right now, we’ll address how many, perhaps most, people seem to view new equipment. The most-common attitudes seem to be split among two main bodies of thought:

1) That new equipment is less likely to be prone to problems and will last the longest before needing to be replaced, and,

2) That new equipment has the greatest advances or technology, and will produce the best results.

It is this latter one that many people seem to adhere to, necessitating the need to ‘upgrade’ their equipment routinely, and believe me, I can’t count the number of people that I’ve known that are obsessive about this. Listen, whatever floats your boat; if you feel better doing something and it harms no one else, knock yourself out. But if you’re into critical thinking and sound financial decisions, don’t try to justify purchases with weak rationales. And seriously, that’s what so much of the equipment-chasing mentality boils down to. In far too many cases, people think it’s a reflection of their success if something that they have isn’t the newest and bestest, as if any purchases that one makes should be judged against what other people think about them. You’re the one using the equipment, and very bluntly, it’s not at all the equipment that gets the photo, it’s the photographer – the equipment, at best, provides an edge and that’s it.

[I will sideline here for a moment to reflect on how often someone sees my camera and says something like, “Wow, you have a good camera there!” Know what makes a good camera in their eyes? The battery grip, and a mounted lenshood. Seriously. They say this about camera bodies that had been discontinued at least eight years previously. Too few people actually know how to tell any of them apart, so don’t bother chasing their opinions. And for those few at the serious level of photography, if they’re judging you on your equipment and not your results, they’re not very focused on what’s important either, so dismiss them too.]

But note, too, that it kind of contradicts the first point, especially the longevity thing; if you’re always buying the newest version of something, who cares how long it actually lasts, as long as it lasts to the newest version? About the only thing that you might be concerned about it trade-in/resale value, and that rarely approaches even 75% of the cost of a new item no matter what.

Personally, I started out with no disposable income, so photography equipment purchases came sporadically and often after saving up a bit, and I was always looking for the best deals. But even as I could afford better or newer purchases, the frugality remained, enhanced by the simple knowledge that too much of the field is overpriced specifically because many people feel that cost=quality – this is actually a common trait in marketing. But I also developed a little guideline in my endeavors: new equipment should be funded by income from my photography. While I do not always follow this idea, and have purchased items due to desire or frustration, it remains tempered by the idea that it should still pay for itself, and not simply be a vanity or acquisitive thing. Purchases of equipment often wait, giving me time to consider how much I might use or need them, and are balanced against how much they might improve my sales.

All of these mean that damn near every image you see on the site (not just the blog) has been shot with used, outdated, often discontinued equipment – I throw that out there to let you judge on your own. Meanwhile, here’s the outcome of some of that new equipment:

The Canon Elan IIe body was still going strong after about 10 years when I retired it in favor of the much-more-capable EOS 3, but I’d used it to shoot weddings and all outings within that time, so good news there. The same with the 75-300 lens purchased at the same time, which The Girlfriend used until I got her a superzoom. She still has the 380EX flash too, after all my wedding use – it had to undergo a repair to the flash tube after I fumbled it in Savannah, but worked just fine following that. The RC-1 is still in occasional use.

The Sigma 28-105 failed back in 2004 – broken flex cable that the model was prone to. It remains in use, however, as my extreme macro lens – not a paean to its longevity, really, but a nice bonus from the performance of the glass anyway.

The Sigma 105 macro failed sometime in 2007, I believe – probably the same issue as above. While considering repairing it, I switched over to two other options, one of which was the Mamiya 80mm macro that was probably about 20 years old then, and is still in routine use. Granted, it’s a manual lens so there’s not a lot to fail on it – which is not a detrimental trait unless you’re really married to autofocus and auto-aperture, and I’m not. I can’t fault its performance.

The Sigma 170-500 was recently retired when I purchased a used upgrade, but was getting balky in autofocus, and had been in for a repair which I don’t think they did very well, also not packing it adequately so the front objective lens was cracked/chipped along the edge in shipping. Did not improve my views of lens repair.

The Scan Dual I did fine, and probably still works, but the SCSI interface was obsolete within a few years. The Scan Dual IV, however, had buggy software that the manufacturer never fixed, Minolta soon selling their scanner division out to Konica who had no intention of retaining it. Very problematic to use. I picked up a Scan Dual III, however, and have been using that for the past few years. I also have a used Nikon Coolscan III, I think, considered one of the top-of-the-line film scanners, and never liked the results (it’s available if you want it.)

The original Bogen ballhead was not designed well and was a little fussy to use, so I eventually sold it. The Giottos was better, but still not capable of fully tightening with a heavy load on (too much settling,) so that’s being replaced as we type/read.

How about the used equipment? I’m not even going to try and list it all, but I’ll feature a few representative highlights:

I’m still using a Canon 30D purchased 7 or so years ago, the shutter count in my possession being over 50,000 – who knows how much was on it before I got it. The same could be said for the Digital Rebel that I used before that, which also hit over 50,000 frames before I retired it. The second camera is a Rebel T2i, used mostly for video but also as a backup or lightweight carryaround – much lower shutter count on that. A 40D that I picked up damaged and repaired myself is now starting to do duty as my main macro body.

The T2i came with a Canon 17-85 f4-5.6 IS USM, which soon developed problems – I later found that the model is prone to these, and is discontinued by Canon (evidence that name-brand and higher cost does not always equal better quality or longevity.) Nonetheless, I repaired it, and it’s presently in use. I picked up both body and lens for a very decent price, it must be noted.

Another little find is the Canon 100-300 f5.6 L lens, probably at least 20 years old (long discontinued.) Somewhat slow and noisy autofocus, but that’s a model trait that even the new ones had; moreover, it doesn’t look or feel like a quality lens. Yet the results are astounding – remarkably sharp for a lightweight carryaround telephoto.

I have two main flashes right now: the Metz 40MZ-3i, superb options and performance, and an obscure Sunpak Auto322 for macro work, also possibly 20 years old. I’ve used both extensively, and loved them both enough to pick up replacements for their eventual demise. I also managed to find the AC adapter for the Sunpak, which saves batteries when I’m close enough to an outlet to use it.

While in Florida, I was given an old Olympus OM-10, and had a selection of lenses from a previous iteration that eventually failed, and used that as a carryaround and for esoteric experiments – it could remain loaded with monochrome film while I used the Elan IIe for weddings and such. That eventually went to The Girlfriend’s Sprog for her film class many years ago, and to the best of my knowledge still works fine. This camera dates from the eighties.

I could go on, but here’s the main takeaway: Spending more, or buying new, guarantees nothing. And while it’s true enough that buying used may mean that you’re buying someone else’s problem or abuse, that’s not a rule, or even an accurate guideline. It’s usually pretty easy to tell who takes care of their equipment, and a few simple tests can reveal most hidden issues. Bear in mind that, if you’re using a camera for a few months or longer, it has now entered that ‘used’ status that you might feel is prone to problems – yet when buying it new, you would have expected to get several years at least of trouble-free use from it. Meanwhile, I refer back to that point above about the price drop on resale. In other words, you might pick up a piece of equipment that has 90% of its longevity left while paying 75% (or much less) of the new price. A little careful examination and questioning is all that’s really required.

Overall, the money that I’ve saved buying used is easily in the thousands of dollars – though granted, in some cases I never would have bought the new version anyway; I got a used bit of equipment simply because I had an idle interest and the price was right. In other cases, I couldn’t even stomach the idea of paying what was asked for something, and made do with a ‘lesser’ item or even made it myself (we’re not talking lenses, here, but mounts and rigs, mostly macro stuff.)

I can’t let the weird idea of ‘upgraded’ equipment go by untouched. In far too many cases, a new model is brought out mostly because a manufacturer feels obligated to do so, and counts on that portion of the populace that is obsessed with that kind of thing, while the improvements are trivial at best – software is especially notorious for this, one of the biggest ripoffs out there (Adobe and Microsoft, I’m looking at you.) And sure, a flip-out LCD is an improvement over a fixed one – an actual issue that I’ve dealt with regarding the T2i and video work – but in a very real sense, it’s putting a price on convenience, and oftentimes a very high one. This says nothing of the idiocy of chasing megapixels when someone is still using consumer lenses and never printing their stuff larger than an 11×14, much less bothering to think about what makes an image compelling.

[Another side note: I corrected the stationary LCD problem, not with another body, but with an external viewfinder, which also allowed mounting away from the camera at any angle, using a eyecup to shield glare, and was capable of adjusting brightness, contrast, and color register – all for far less than a new, or even used, body.]

Finally, there’s the distinct issue of new model blues, the large number of failures, quality-control issues, software bugs, and the like that often appear in a new version, of anything, really – there’s a common adage about not buying the introductory model of any car. Waiting a bit to let the manufacturer iron out all the kinks, as well as hearing consumer feedback, can mean a lot less frustration – and remember, that new model might have been purchased to avoid the frustrations caused by the old model, so it probably works better to know that you’re not simply exchanging annoyances. People tend to think that buying used is a gamble, and it certainly is, but buying new doesn’t guarantee that you’re not gambling; any equipment you purchase is a gamble. You just pay a lot more to reduce the odds by an unknown degree.

Again, you do what suits you best, and what you feel most comfortable with. Just bear in mind that the impression isn’t always the reality, and if you have other things that you might want or need to spend that money on, well…

Everybody gets the day off

I had planned to give a little more warning about this, but see previous post intro. So we sit here practically as it’s happening, and for that I do apologize, but better than telling you tomorrow that you missed it, you know? So I’ll go ahead an announce that today is the June Solstice, often known as the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere, because you may not have heard – you count on us nature-boys for that kind of thing. I wonder if Mr ‘Wahoo’ Bugg is going to post something?

The other holiday also occurring today needs no introduction, because everyone has heard about it, but I’d feel bad if I failed to mention this, so let’s squeeze World Humanist Day in here too – just gonna clean the grocery stores out of clam juice and Pockys with all these holidays.

Now, I’ve posted about the day and the concept once or twice before, and I have a ‘But how?’ post coming up regarding the curious and pointless misdirection that often occurs in religion, so I won’t belabor the humanism thing right now. I’ll simply say that, as an ideology intended to help guide us towards a stronger and less-contentious society, I have yet to discover anything better, and yes, that’s a challenge – change my mind, as the sign says. And I can’t really speak about other places in the world, but certainly here in the US, we need a bit more focus on social goals and cooperative culture, and less on ego, individualism, and competition. A really disturbing amount of our present culture revolves around ‘status’ and one-upmanship, which has practical application in only a very narrow and specific way – certainly not as a way of life.

Let’s put it this way: we wouldn’t even exist without a cooperative culture. Our distant ancestors would have been quickly wiped out by predators if it weren’t for tribal behavior. Our present status as arguably the most advanced life form on the planet is owed not only to this (because we’re far from the only species that possesses such traits) but also our ability to communicate in such great detail. And while we might like to think that we’re beyond the necessity of tribal protection now, we can’t deny that we rely on such shared efforts as healthcare, road and social services structures, and large scale food provision – imagine that there were no grocery stores, and farmers didn’t sell their produce. I don’t have to grind my own lenses because we have a society where mass production can be used to benefit large numbers of people.

And it’s reasonable to expect due compensation for such efforts – a fair trade, as it were, the barter system writ large. Yet, without limitations, this kind of thing can run away, and change from being beneficial to being supremely harmful to society, culture, and even our species as a whole. When setting a price on goods or services, there’s a distinctive difference between, “I can get this price,” and, “I should get this price” – admittedly, this is imposing an abstract and undefinable concept of ought onto things, but there really isn’t any need to get too restrictive in definition anyway. The self-limitation of a free market is a complete myth, as should be abundantly obvious to anyone in this country at the very least, and if we don’t want government-imposed regulations on virtually everything, then we need to demonstrate that we can limit ourselves. I personally can’t think of one advancement, one innovation or service or product or bit of technology, that could possibly justify a multi-million-dollar salary, and let’s be real: it’s never the CEOs or founders that come up with such things anyway.

Yet there’s more to humanism than curbing runaway capitalism (there’s many that would claim that it has little or nothing to do with that, though in overall goal, it’s hard to argue that it would fail to target such practices.) Individually, the idea is to recognize what works best for us, as a culture, as a society, and as a species, and to even ask, before any serious decision, if what we’re doing is aimed in that direction. We can be swayed by superficial influences, far too easily, while it really isn’t hard to reason our way past them – mostly, it takes just a little more emphasis that we should be trying to begin with rather than, for instance, justifying anything that we do by who else does it, or that we deserve it, or that it was ordained from on high by some being that couldn’t even get our knees right.

It is, naturally, a good thing that we embrace this holiday as recognition of how often we can and do exercise this simple aspect of judgment – it would be a shame if it was the kind of thing largely ignored while news stations throughout the country report on, I dunno, what some fucking groundhog was doing or something. But even so, I offer a simple challenge: at some point, within the next week, stop before any given decision just to ask, “Is this going to make things better for us?” That’s not a lot, really.

Storytime 25

Slow week blog-wise, unfortunately – been wrapped up in too many other things. I did shoot a few video clips, which may appear here eventually when I have a more coherent plotline, but little else of nature-photography-production value (although I had three students so, you know, still plugging away.) For now, it’s storytime, so let’s get past the whining, shall we?

parent and juvenile great egrets Areda alba in nest, Venice Area Audubon Society Rookery
The time is April, 2009. The place: Venice Area Audubon Society Rookery in Venice, Florida, perhaps the most amazing locale in the US to photograph wild birds. The Girlfriend and I had made our first (and so far only) trip to Florida together and had gotten up before sunrise to be down here at first light, which is well worth the effort. I’ve talked about this place before, but it bears repeating. On a small pond on public works land in the middle of Venice sits a small island, maybe the footprint of a medium-sized house, so completely covered in trees and bushes that the ground is literally not visible, and it is here that many species of birds have found their promised land. It is so ridiculously crowded with birds that it has to be seen to be believed, and no place else have I ever observed nests so damn close together, like a Tokyo tenement building. I had fretted that we were arriving in April, well past the nesting season, which shows you what I know, since we witnessed every stage of reproduction on that single day, from nest-building to fledging out. As The Girlfriend’s introduction to bird photography, well, she still talks about it in awe.

Here, we have a parent great egret (Ardea alba) with two young, very close to fledging age but looking like a pair of crones shrieking warnings of impending doom. Which wasn’t far from the mark – they were instead importuning the parent for food in the wheezing, clattering way of egrets. The humidity that morning was pretty dense, so the sky was featureless and the sunrise light a bit muted; you can see the faintest hint of yellow on the adult’s back, but no real golden-hour effects that morning.

When going through the digital stock for bird photos, this is notable in that there are very few images for this day, though I shot a ton of photos. The reason was, as soon as the light came up to a decent level, I switched off to slide film and handed the digital body over to The Girlfriend – she has more digital photos in her folders than I have that day, but I have a few pages of slides, so we’re good. And this is a detail crop to show off the expressions of the harpies young-uns, but the full frame is below, just to give the right idea. For the best view, a set of binoculars or a focal length exceeding 250mm is recommended, but then again, if you’re into birding those are a given anyway.

same image full-frame of great egret Ardea alba nest
By the way, I need to return to do video, because it adds several dimensions to the whole thing, not the least of which is sound. As you might imagine, the cacophony of territorial calls, hungry fledglings, and warning croaks is stunning, especially first thing in the morning. And after we had spent close to two hours out there, we returned to the motel room to get ready for breakfast (which is a pretty typical schedule for nature photography.) The TV was on, with a special about birding, and we instantly recognized the spot where we’d just been shooting as it appeared onscreen, even with the tighter closeups of bird activity – it’s pretty distinct. Alas, no film crews were there when we were, so no appearances of either of us, but plenty of other bird photographers were around, many of them clustered around the base of a palm tree hosting a woodpecker’s nest, hoping for a peek at the fledglings when they appeared in the opening. I’d waited a short while alongside them without a sign, and then left them to their pursuits – I have a tendency to avoid crowds and catch what’s happening where no one else is paying attention.

Storytime 24

waxing gibbous moon during late afternoon
I had thought I was posting the most recent Storytime post so far, but I’d forgotten about this one. However, this is still pretty current, since most of the images are only a couple of days old.

I mean, except the one above. That’s a month old today, taken May 14th, in the same photo session as the osprey series. The osprey, as cooperative as they were, did not pose near the moon, but it occurred to me while I was out there that I had not tried the new lens with a moon shot, so I did a quick couple of frames then, intending to do a more serious approach later on. That chance came a few days back now.

waxing gibbous moon with Copernicus at terminator
We’d had a lot of rain and overall yucky days, and visibility was nonexistent, but then we had a brief clearing spell and the moon was shining down brightly this past Tuesday evening. I did a couple of handheld shots, just to see how the lens stabilizer worked, but went back in and got the tripod to stop messing about. Now, I’ve mentioned countless times before about catching sunrise on Tycho’s central peak, which I eventually determined that I’d caught anticlimactically, without trying, many years before. And observing it Tuesday night, the chance was past by about a day. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t catch sunrise on Copernicus’ central peak!

gibbous moon with pertinent craters markedSo let’s meet the players. Tycho is the one marked in blue, obviously well past sunrise now. Eratosthenes is marked in red, sitting at the end of the lunar Apennines mountain range, a nice distinct curve that, at the right times, is visible even by naked eye because of the shadows it throws. And so, marked in yellow and sitting on the terminator, that edge of light and shadow, we have Copernicus; larger than Tycho but a bit shallower I believe, so it is not as distinct because the shadows it throws are thinner. Still, it looked as if my timing might be right to catch the central peaks within the crater as the sun first touched them.

I say again, sunrise on the moon is a lot slower than on Earth, because of the moon’s orbit and rotation – a full lunar day is about 29.5 Earth days long, as opposed to 24 hours like ours. So sunrise moves pretty slowly, and timing can be a matter of hours instead of minutes. Copernicus’ central peaks are smaller than Tycho’s and less distinct, meaning that they might not even be visible without a telescope even in the best of conditions, but I was going to try anyway.

Some of these images, by the way, we taken with the 2x teleconverter attached to the Tamron 150-600, because I wanted to see how they performed together. Most times there is a little image degradation, and definitely there’s a loss of two stops of light, meaning a longer shutter speed and more time for vibration to affect the image. My teleconverter is 19 years old now, not at all matched to this lens, so probably not optimal, and initial tests indicate that it’s okay for non-critical uses, but not ideal. With a tighter tripod and a different subject, we might see slightly better results – more on that in a second.

inset of gibbous moon showing Copernicus
Here’s a tight crop of the target area, Copernicus sitting right there almost in shadow, with sunlight hitting the far rim. We’re really not far away from the sun getting into the crater. So, I checked back in a little under an hour.

inset of gibbous moon near Copernicus
I was playing around with exposure during these, so this image is a little brighter exposed than the previous, which means that I can’t be sure just how far the sun has progressed across the lunar landscape – some of the difference may simply be due to getting in a little more light.

Moon exposures can be tricky. It’s lit by the sun with no clouds in between, so the exposure is more or less for full daylight – a lot faster than most people suspect. You still can’t trust autoexposure, unless you have a tight spotmeter reading only the moon. For a full moon, the exposure is f11, 1/[ISO], meaning if your ISO is at 250, shutter speed should be 1/250 second. But that’s a full moon; every other phase is catching the light more obliquely and exposures have to get commensurately greater, and I usually bracket shots (and focus, because it can be hard to pin it down in the viewfinder and autofocus is often untrustworthy in such conditions.) The exposure for the above image was f8, 1/40 second at ISO 400, but part of that was from losing two stops of light due to the teleconverter.

And then, fate struck, as is its wont. Actually, fate is striking constantly, isn’t it? Violent little cuss.

waxing gibbous moon through faint haze of cloudsAlmost two hours later now, the clouds had started to roll in – just a faint haze at first as the temperature dropped, but enough to obscure fine details on the moon. I watched for a little while to see if there might be a break in the clouds, but it looked solidly overcast to me, even as thin as it was – what would have turned the sky very pale blue to white during daylight.

I want you to note the slight change in position in the moon now, rotated a little clockwise as it descended towards the horizon. Actually, it was facing the way it always had, but my camera was more oriented to the horizon and not the plane of the ecliptic, so we have what appears to be rotation perpendicular to the moon’s axis. I could have corrected easily, but who cares? It’s not like it would have made a difference to what I was after.

[By the way, I just wanted to point out a tiny bit of trivia. Within the Lord of the Rings movies, at times they show the moon in the sky, and to anyone that’s familiar with how it appears, it’s upside-down. Well, it is to those of us in the northern hemisphere, anyway. But since the movies were shot in New Zealand, the moon’s north pole points down towards the horizon instead of up. This is a vital clue as to where Middle Earth used to be located.]

Anyway, let’s go look at the detail, what there is of it.

inset of Copernicus under hazy conditions
It still doesn’t look like sunrise has touched the central peaks yet, but I was expecting just a few pixels to betray the event in the first place, and it’s possible that it really was occurring and the minimal light was scattered into the haze. Regardless, the conditions were only worsening and it was clear (a ha ha) that I wasn’t getting anything further that evening – or morning, by that point.

By the way, if you want a nice detailed look at Copernicus, you can go here, and compare it against Tycho here (click on the images to see a bigger version.) And then, you can compare them against my successful attempt here, and note how trivial that spot of light appears in the best of conditions. As I said, I expect Copernicus’ peaks to be less visible when it occurs, so we’re pushing things here.

Now, while all of this was going on, I noticed that I was having some issues with the tripod not being perfectly steady, and eventually realized that the mounting plate at the top of the center column, to which the ballhead attaches, wasn’t fully secure. That began an attempted repair session, that I wasn’t successful at that evening/morning, partially because I knew I was going to need some power tools to complete it and wasn’t doing that at 2 AM. It also started me considering a new ballhead that performs a bit better, but I’m a cheapass and an Arca-Swiss or Novoflex ain’t happening, so the quest is the best bang for the least bucks. Then, out with a student yesterday, I started noticing that Shutter Priority mode on my main body wasn’t operating as intended, which is not a good sign. Part of the fun of such pursuits – repairs and replacements have to be part of the budget.

But I’ll close with a comparison shot, taken Thursday evening, so two days after the others (and a few hours ago as I type this ahead of time.) Those clouds rolling in Wednesday morning led to rain most of the day and evening, so no chances there, but it had cleared by Thursday late morning and I had the chance for further shots, pretty comparable in phase to the frame that opened the post (though much later in the day of course.) Copernicus is now well into sunlight, with the faintest of shadow from the central peaks, while Eratosthenes is throwing so little shadow that it’s almost indistinguishable – which is why full moon shots aren’t the best for detail and textures.

later waxing gibbous moon
Oh, wait. I almost forgot – while out shooting that one, there were a couple of tiny little wisps of clouds that would pass by, and I caught a couple as they crossed the face of the moon, so I’ll include one of those for illustration too. It’s much better when it’s right alongside a clear shot.

later waxing gibbous with hint of clouds
And now, I’ll close. I’m in the middle of some projects, so more should be along shortly.

But how? Part 25: This week’s explanation

I made it a point, throughout most (if not all) of the ‘But how?’ series, not to attack religion in and of itself, but to defend/explain the secular standpoint. This is not due to any kind of altruism – I have attacked religions just a few times in the past here – but instead to stay true to the subtopic itself, which is answering the questions posed so often from religious folk. I’m going to depart from this a bit here, by reversing the direction, and instead posing a leading question to religious folk in return: But how do the explanations keep changing?

While I’ve touched on this concept before, I was prompted to approach it more directly by the article ‘Path across the stars,’ by David MacMillan, a self-admitted former creationist. Within, he talks about a trait that is remarkably present in apologetics, which is the practice of turning to a new explanation every time a previous one works out to be dead wrong. In his particular case, it revolved around the radical disagreement about the age of the universe: 13.772 billion years by scientific measurements, but just a few thousand according to abrahamic religious scripture – that’s a really goddamn big difference. The scientific view is supported by countless actual measurements, not just of the speed of light, but also radiometric decay and gravitational measurements, which also tie in extremely well with geologic deposition and even DNA mutations rates (not mentioned within the article, but corroborating the numbers derived in other disciplines with trustworthy accuracy.) And many others besides – it’s this corroboration that gives us the confidence in these numbers to begin with.

The abrahamic figure (most often quoted) for a six-thousand-year-old universe comes from scripture, but not even directly – it’s an extrapolation of the various generations detailed within, and not completely in agreement even among the faithful within any given sect or splinter of those following that scripture. Which says nothing of all of the other religions the world over, which all have different claims for the age of the universe, and mankind, and all that. This is bad enough, but not even the topic that I’m approaching right now.

Since we have real measurements and dependable physics, which we use constantly, apologists are required to explain why the scripture says something so incredibly different, and this is where the fun begins. Note that scripture provides absolutely no explanations or even suggestions regarding this topic; it’s all outside speculation by apologists. And I’ll take a moment to comment on this, because speculation is just fine – it’s one of the ways that we start investigating our world and determining just what any given cause is. But there’s a radical difference between scientific and religious speculation. In science, a lack of confidence and solid supporting results is virtually always present; it’s almost a procedure to couch things in terms of, “This is a possibility, but we don’t know yet.” Within religion, on the other hand, such speculation is very frequently offered with utter confidence, no caveats or indeed any supporting factors. “God made it appear like there’s a speed of light, and an old universe,” and all that – no maybes or admissions that this might serve to explain what we see and measure.

And very frequently, it doesn’t. Most notable is how there is no agreement on any given explanation even among the faithful, who want to find a way to support scripture. Those that consider themselves christian may range from the young-earth creationists, who consider every scriptural passage to be unquestionably correct and the entire universe only six thousand years old, to the vague theists who believe in some kind of creation, but that science is mostly on the right track. I’ve personally been in countless discussions with people ranging throughout this spectrum, and it bears noting that the majority feel that their version is the only correct one, with little recognition of any other standpoint nor admission that any part of their own is speculative. Religion really does breed a shitass trait that humans don’t need at all, that of false confidence and assertion, causing people to veer away from an honest appraisal of any given situation, and/or from seeking support for an argument or standpoint. Much as I don’t like rules and proverbs, it’s usually a safe practice to automatically distrust anyone that assures you that something is true without bothering to demonstrate how or why.

Which is going a little afield, because in this topic, there are explanations – just, ones that don’t hold up, or that fail to account for everything we see. The explanations for the age of the universe have ranged from the speed of light being wrong (it isn’t – we use it to very fine decimal places,) to it having changed at some point in the past, to it being affected by local conditions. None of these hold up, and really don’t take much knowledge of physics or more than a little careful thought to establish as wrong. The same can be said for the fossil record, which not only provides evidence that the Earth is much older than scriptural accounts, it supports evolution and trashes the whole ‘created in final form’ thing. “No no!” say the creationists, “Geologic deposition all occurred during the great flood four thousand years ago!” or, “Radiometric dating is wrong,” or “Radiometric decay was different in the past.” Again, not hard to put the kibosh on.

But like anti-vaxxers and their various claims regarding the dangers of vaccines, once any given explanation of how the laws of physics really aren’t as we interpreted is shot down, there is no recognition that maybe, just maybe, they’re barking up the wrong tree. Instead, there’s the desperate attempt to find a new explanation, and the hunt goes off in another direction. And lest you think that I’m exaggerating a couple of isolated cases, there’s this link to a list of creationist claims – quite a few of them, some of them contradictory, and all of them answered or refuted. Now, in scientific circles if the theory doesn’t work, it’s abandoned, but within religion and fringe beliefs, the ‘theory’ (it isn’t, not by a long shot) is maintained while evidence to support it is sought after – cart before the horse and all that. Rational thought involves a chain of evidence that leads towards a conclusion, but rationalizing is the exact opposite, settling on a conclusion first and trying to make it sound like it works. This is generally the purview of people who are desperate to indulge in some desire at the expense of reality.

It isn’t even a matter of competing theories, even though the efforts are made constantly to couch things in those terms (you know, ‘teach the controversy’ and all that bilgewater.) Because the scientific model works just fine, and is used constantly to great effect – and really, there are very few who don’t know this in their hearts. It’s the reason why so many supposedly ‘scientific’ explanations are sought, and held up triumphantly – few people feel that they can argue against the solid results that we achieve every day (and rightfully so, really,) so they try to make it sound like science really does support scripture in some way. But it’s not like there are egregious flaws in the scientific models presently in use, and what we still seek, what we don’t know yet, hasn’t been replaced with assertions or explanations without evidence – we just say we don’t know yet, even if we append that it might be this or might be that. Our understanding of the universe and its physics, while far from complete, is overwhelmingly solid and undeniably useful. No alternative explanations are necessary, for the vast majority of our knowledge base, nor has any alternative presented by apologists served any function whatsoever, much less better explaining any given factor of evidence. It is abundantly clear that the only function that such explanations serve is to try and salvage the nonsense that is within scripture – and the only use for this is crass self-indulgence. Scripture doesn’t lead us towards a better understanding of the universe, or even human nature. It doesn’t provide a path towards any improvement, and in fact, it offers more excuses than knowledge, outright saying that we’re not supposed to understand what the creator is up to.

I have to sidetrack slightly, because I’m me. Anyone even passingly familiar with the abrahamic religions knows how often the adage that “we cannot know god’s plan” is repeated, and humility is very frequently promoted as well. Which makes it especially amusing to hear how unbelievably often any self-proscribed religious spokesperson will distinctly tell us how things are, despite the fact that nothing at all regarding their pronouncements can be found within scripture. You’d think this hypocrisy would be noticed more often.

A final aspect (that usually goes ignored) is the consequences, and this can be applied to virtually every religious argument there is. In short, the scripture tells us one state of affairs, and our examination of the world tells us something entirely different, and I want to stress here that these are not equally plausible scenarios; we use our scientific knowledge every second of the day in billions of ways, while in the entire history of mankind we have yet to see any miracle, any talking snake or bush, any worldwide flood, and so on. Our scientific knowledge has allowed us to predict thousands of new findings, from star formation to new periodic elements, while scripture has predicted jack shit. Yet if we, for the sake of argument and humoring apologists, accept the premise that all of the evidence that we have of an ancient universe is actually wrong – that everything that we’re not just measuring, but using to good effect, is a deception – then what purpose is this supposed to serve? Cause and effect, learning from what happens, is the primary way that we even survive. And the message from apologists – from, supposedly, the word of god himself – is that we’re supposed to ignore all of that in favor of something that really goes nowhere? Sure, the universe looks billions of years old, but that’s just a trick to… um… do… something, I guess. The typical response is that this is to ‘test our faith,’ because there’s some game that god must be playing where we’re not supposed to believe our senses – which seems extraordinarily useful. This becomes a nice existentialist dilemma, because where is that supposed to end? Should we start with not believing the senses that we’re using to read scripture?

Moreover, if we actually had taken such a message to heart, if we simply ignored all of this ‘false history’ and stuck with what scripture tells us, we’d still be in bronze age technology, if that. All of our scientific advances came about because we examined our world and learned from it, and that includes all of those bits that tell us that scripture is dead wrong. Mind you, it’s the same scientific methods that those funny little claims above, about how the speed of light is wrong and all that, are trying to glom onto to sound legitimate and trustworthy – it seems that even the uber-religious aren’t really buying that premise (or capable of seeing the obvious conclusions, which certainly makes their guidance so valuable.)

In parting, I present two observations:

1) If the explanations for any given standpoint or hypothesis are continually changing, the chances are overwhelming that the standpoint/hypothesis is horseshit;

2) The pursuit of knowledge can only accurately take place with a mind open to the evidence, whether we like it or not. If we are intent on trying to force a particular end result, we’re not after knowledge, but only self-indulgence. We should be bigger than that.