Art vs. misdirection

Listen, I’m not in any position to tell someone what “art” is, not only from my poor ability to execute it myself, but overall just from the term being so ill-defined and subjective. If you get any kind of acclaim or recognition for what you do, great! And even if you don’t, self-expression is still a legitimate pursuit and if it makes you feel good (and doesn’t harm anyone else,) go for it!

And naturally, with all that said I’m going to come out with something a bit more negative, or at the very least, thought-provoking – I just have to get the clarifying statement out of the way first before anyone categorized this post differently ;-)

The ability to edit images has been around since almost the dawn of photography, and remains an inherent trait – we’ve always been able to change contrast and affect how bright something is selectively, and with masking we’ve been able to composite together portions of images from completely separate settings or locales. Going digital just made this cleaner and far less time-consuming, but it hardly introduced the practice; it just introduced a new verb, “Photoshopping.”

Bodie Island lighthouse against impossible starfield and Milky WayBut for some reason, this has really taken off when it comes to astrophotography. While the image seen here is my own because I’m not going to target any specific example from someone else, it is representative of many such efforts that can be found now, and it is manifestly impossible to capture in-camera; no one would be able to ‘take’ this photo. Not just is the Milky Way impossible to even see in post-sunset conditions where the glow from the sky can color the lighthouse, it cannot even appear in this position by the moon, and the light from our galaxy is hundreds of times dimmer than the light from even a half-moon (or a lighthouse beacon,) so in an exposure that captured that cloudy look, the moon would be so overexposed that it would appear like a sunburst in the frame. Moreover, it would scatter so much light from atmospheric humidity that, like the sunset glow, it would overwhelm the Milky Way. It’s simply not happening, and this image is just as fake as one showing me shaking hands with Albert Einstein (who died ten years before I was born – I’m not that old, you shithead.)

Astrophotography is a challenge. The really interesting stellar subjects are pretty dim and low-contrast, so getting a decent image of them requires long exposures, at the very least – from several seconds to several minutes. And they usually require being someplace where light pollution has a minimal effect, so traveling to an ideal (and usually remote) location. That’s fine, and part of what makes the subject interesting in its own right: if it takes skill and effort, then fewer people can do it. This has always been a mainstay of photography, and what so many of us seek. But it largely defeats the purpose when images are digitally constructed. I don’t have anything against digital compositing as a tool, but as a skill set it’s not particularly impressive or rare.

And when it’s being used to represent an astrophotograph that should take skill and effort, that is by its nature known for being tricky, well, what’s the point? I cannot tell you what motivates all of the people who present such composited images, and I’m sure it isn’t all the same thing – but can we consider it any different from any other manipulation?

Most especially, very few of those that I’ve found actually admit that such images are manipulated, which seems to suggest that they don’t want it to be known, and/or don’t want to be recognized for editing skills instead of photography. It’s misleading at best.

And it does a disservice to all others out there who don’t fully understand the demands of the subject matter and want to try such shots on their own, because it simply isn’t going to happen. Really distinct and sharp images of stellar dust and galaxies and so on are going to require very long exposures, and that means counteracting the rotation of the earth while this is going on – in other words, a tracking support that pivots the camera in the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation so the camera remains pointing at the same spot in the sky the entire time. These are expensive, or tricky to build, and require very precise alignment – it’s a skill in itself. And of course, you can forget about foreground subjects because now the camera is moving to track the sky and everything earth-bound will be blurred. Photographers have been dealing with these issues for decades. So when you see a really sharp deep-sky shot with a really distinct foreground subject, the chances are overwhelming that it’s complete horseshit, pasted together from separate frames of hugely different exposure times.

[I’m going to insert a specific caveat here. Many photographs produced by telescopes and NASA, especially the Hubble images, are also digital manipulations and composites, but of a special kind. Hubble, for instance, has a monochrome image sensor that only captures light intensities without any color at all, and a selection of color filters that range far beyond what our eyes can see, while even images from ground-based telescopes often use special filters for certain wavelengths specific to hydrogen or oxygen and so on. Separate exposures are made solely to see how much light is being produced within a very narrow range of wavelengths. The purpose is to tease out information about the nature of the dust clouds, or the age and formation details of stars and galaxies, and when they’re presented for public viewing, they are often ‘false-color’ representations of multiple exposures for better definition and, yes, artistic effect. While these can be misleading for anyone wishing to tackle telescope photography, NASA at least is very good about labeling them as false-color composites, and the primary purpose of the images is scientific, not wowing people with something vivid. I give such pictures a free pass from my rants.]

Astrophotography isn’t the only topic that sees a lot of digital manipulation, since a lot of landscapes (especially exotic locales) show evidence of a technique called high dynamic range, or HDR, which even in name is misdirection – photography has not undergone a significant increase in the range of light levels (dynamic range) that it can capture, and in fact, digital photography actually possesses less range than films of just a few years ago – especially when displayed on the abysmally short range of a computer monitor or LCD screen. HDR is just pasting together images of two or more different exposures, and it’s so trivial that it is an option within some cameras and smutphones. For a typical scene with a wide range of light conditions (such as a sunlit beach and a shadowed cliff overhang,) the camera can capture only one set of light conditions usefully, while any others will suffer from bad exposure – get the beach looking right, and the shadowed area under the cliff will drop into darkness too far. Expose for this darkness, and the beach will be bleached out and overexposed. So two or more exposures are taken and put together using the portions that look best in each.

In a small way, I’m more in favor of this than of compositing night sky shots, because our eyes capture a very wide range of light, more than photography can yet achieve, so in some cases the resulting composite image hews a lot closer to what we see than any in-camera efforts. But again, it’s editing skill (and not very significant at that – I can show you how to do it within a couple of minutes) and not photographic skill. Once again, for years, photographers had to cope with these limitations, and found creative ways to handle them – that’s what made good images of some of these subjects so notable. And while it might be useful to throw down an HDR shot for advertising purposes, does it reflect any particular skill of the photographer? Is it art of any kind? Especially, I ask again, if the photographer somehow never admits to it being a composite?

When I’m teaching people how to use their cameras, two of the key topics are contrast and low-light photography, because they’re constant issues that every photographer deals with regardless of experience. Some things just aren’t going to happen, like stopping action in even moderately low light levels, and in many cases the answer is simple yet not at all encouraging: pick the factor that you need the least in an image, because that’s what you’ll have to sacrifice to the gods of photography. Generally, this is a choice of speed, depth, or quality, but in more extreme cases (and astrophotography counts as such,) it might even be all three. The thought that everyone has regarding photos is, “Hey, I like that shot! I need to know how to do it,” and with too many dramatic images nowadays, I have to explain that it’s not a photograph, but an editing creation. And while the opinion of the legitimacy of this as an art form is all down to personal taste, in many cases, people are far less impressed when they find out that it’s not an in-camera endeavor.

Personally, I’m a fan of full disclosure: if you had to edit it beyond simple cropping and color/level tweaks, then own up to it. Not only does it give people an accurate impression of what can, and cannot, be done with a camera, it even serves as motivation to accomplish the really tricky shots that do take a lot of preparation and effort – that’s the kind of thing that everyone can be proud of.

Seriously, see Sunday slide 6

Wrightsville Beach wetlands channel
This one has appeared before, some years back when I was ranting about a trivial phrase, but I also came across the original slide again last week as I was looking for a candidate then. There’s something captivating about it, forlorn and yet somehow inviting. It’s easy to imagine taking a kayak up that glassy channel, endeavoring not to break the silence, not because there was anyone nearby to disturb, but simply because it seemed wrong.

There’s another aspect of this shot that I won’t mention now – maybe in a few days. Or maybe not. For now, if you can lose yourself in the scene and mood, well, good – that was the intention.

Podcast: What to do in the winter

Night snow exposure showing light pollution

Okay, so these are conditions where you could be taking photos, but this is a night exposure experiment, with all light coming from city light pollution reflecting from the low cloud cover and the snow itself

I’ve mentioned far too many times that it’s the slow season, but now, I’ve finally done something about it! And that something is, telling you what you can do about it. This fulfills my personal obligations and alleviates my guilt, so I don’t even have to follow any of my own advice imparted aurally, just below:

Walkabout podcast – What to do in the winter

And a few other links to expand on topics touched therein:

Cold weather tips, for when you do actually get out to do some shooting.

Using weather as a compositional element might help too.

Tackling black & white photography when the conditions support it? Then the posts on monochrome and contrast may offer some assistance. And while I’m at it, this one on mood & metaphor might contribute too.

Oh, and a post on cleaning lenses.

ringflash, voltage regualtor,m and focusing light projectsProjects? Here’s one example, and another – you’ll have to gauge your own shooting needs and what will work for you.

The image to the right, by the way, is evidence of three separate projects: an adapter to make a ringflash work with a reversed lens, a voltage reducer to keep the flash power from frying the sensitive camera circuitry, and a focusing light for macro subjects.

I mentioned planning trips, and here’s one that anyone might be interested in, the total solar eclipse this August. You know what I said about contingencies? Good – if you are planning to get this, have a couple of other topics or things to visit during the trip, in case the clouds prevent you from capturing your primary objective.

Ever wanted to mount a webcam in a birdhouse or above a nest? Do it now, before nesting season starts.

And here’s a project that I’ve just reminded myself of, good for not just the insect photographer in all of us, but garden and flower and even bird images: purchase the seeds that you need for the right kinds of flowers and plants and start them off indoors, getting that head start on spring weather. Perhaps you might want to order some mantis egg cases as well.

Hope this helps! Good luck!

The end of the beginning

Otherwise known as January’s month-end abstract:

tight crop of hindwing of Low's swallowtail Papilio lowi
I said this might be back, and you scoffed – don’t deny it, I heard you distinctly all the way over here. So let’s gaze deep into the hindwings of the Low’s swallowtail (Papilio lowi) and the curious pattern thereon. Don’t ask me what exactly it accomplishes, but I want you to see something. From a short distance, the wings appear to have gradient tones, shading that almost gives them a three-dimensional shape, but on close examination we can see that the scales come in only two colors, black and pale blue. The shades are produced only by distribution, a lower density of the blue scales giving more of an impression of shadows. This is almost a good mimicry of hollow tubes or stems, but there’s a flaw: the centerline of each should be the brightest blue to carry the impression, the reflection of more direct sunlight, rather than having a darker line which hints at a hollow or crease. Again, I can’t think what this is supposed to communicate, if anything – it might simply be to attract the attention of predators more towards the non-vulnerable hindwings, or it might be a sexual display, or simply something to confound bloggers…

Monday color 17,241

Duke Chapel at sunset
I’m doing that count from memory, so I’m not exactly sure that’s the right number, but it’s somewhere up there, anyway.

As I was going to meet with a student at Duke University at 5:30 last Tuesday, Duke chapel suddenly became visible between the buildings, illuminated by the setting sun, and the stark coloration naturally grabbed my attention. Extending well above the trees and surrounding buildings, the bell tower captured the light of the sun as it was dropping to the horizon while just about everything else was in shadow. White balance was set for full sunlight, which basically means no correction, though I admit I tweaked this a little bit – I bent the curve a tad towards blue for the sky alone, which would have reduced yellow by the same margin – the effect to the tower itself was not even visible.

Many years ago I was working for a place that printed the school newspapers, and I would go to another building nearby at 1 am to pick up the pasteups, driving up chapel Drive directly towards one face of the tower. The chapel is always lit by floodlights from all four sides throughout the night, but on one particular night, during an extremely dense fog, the floodlight on my side was out while the remaining three were still alight. The effect was fantastic, the dark silhouette of the elaborate tower standing out against the brilliant white of the floodlit fog that twisted and billowed gently like steam. See those faint patches of sky peeking through the bell openings at midpoint? Yeah, the light was coming through those too. The appearance of a horned demon with glowing eyes, looming from the smoke of the pits, was undeniable – and alas, I wasn’t carrying a camera, nor could I easily go back to get it. Probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so it remains a regret of mine, but I’ve gotten a couple of other nice pics since then, so I guess I’m okay…

Sunday slide 5

ring-billed gull Larus delawarensis looking pompous
Last summer, I talked about a trip I took to the Outer Banks, and how I hadn’t been there in a while. It appears it was even longer than I thought, because this slide is from the last time I was there, I believe, and dates from 2007! That’s just not right. I’m going to ensure that I don’t wait anywhere near that long between trips, ever again…

Anyway, this ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) was posed on the first high point of the beach looking around with a pompous air, and I got low and fired off a few frames against the water and sky; when it finally turned towards me, I was lucky enough to have a curler break in the background. You might think, at the coast, this is a trivial thing to capture, but the truth is, waves don’t always break in a dynamic way, and they do so in sporadic locations along the beach, so having one in the frame for the couple of seconds that the gull turned towards me was more chance than guaranteed. The image accompanying this post was taken during the same shooting session, and I waited a few minutes for the waves to produce a nice inverted mimicry of the cloudbank above. Not to mention that the beach wasn’t as deserted as it appears at all, and the tight vertical composition there cropped out the nearby bathers. I often end up doing this on beaches… but not, as I said, as often as I should.

Of matters big and small

I have a text file that sits in my blogging folder, of ideas that came to me at one point that I felt I should sit down and put some effort into, and the first portion of this post was one of those topics. Recently, another forum produced some further thoughts, and I finally decided to sit down and throw out some perspective.

Language, as useful as it can be, can also be inordinately troublesome as well, and it may play a part in this first aspect, which I’ll introduce with a commonly-heard saying: “It’s my child and I will raise her how I please!” Now, I think we all know that such phrases are the defensive battle-cry of the shitass parent, but is there a subtle aspect that influences our thought processes in there? When we say, “It’s my child,” we’re indicating that we are a parent, the one who contributed genes to this particular human, but how often is there a sense of possessiveness as well, exactly the same as if we said, “It’s my car and I’ll put on headlight eyelashes if I please!” Children are not possessions; slavery is illegal, and even when it wasn’t, it still wasn’t safe to say we could own a living and free-willed being. The best that could be said was that the violence, abuse, and deprivation used for coercion wasn’t going to be punished in any legal manner.

But this idea of possession, even in extremely subtle forms, is a ridiculous and damaging attitude to have. Children are, of course, developing adults, and are only our responsibility – a responsibility to guide them towards sound decisions and behavior, to bring them through their formative and vulnerable years to the best of our ability. This does not make them customizeable, for instance indoctrinated into our preferred mindset regarding politics or religion et al, or guinea pigs, beholden to our astounding ideas about what constitutes proper medical treatment (it’s truly amazing how we know that physicians require years of college and constant refreshers to practice medicine, but think reading a fringe magazine article is enough to pass judgment on their entire education, if not the entirety of internal medicine itself.) All too often, it seems the goal is to produce a little clone of us, when it really should be to foster someone even better than us. I mean, who can argue against this? But to do it, our self-absorbed ego must take a backseat to the simple idea that there are aspects of ourselves that can actually be improved. We need to stay away from the (even internal) assertion that we know what’s best, and ask ourselves if we can actually support this view. A bit of self-doubt is an extremely useful thing, because it makes us seek solid answers. In contrast, believing that we’re right, to the point where we avoid even considering the possibility of being wrong, is far beyond pointlessness, very often producing damaging results. Humility is a good thing.

While I haven’t tackled the topic too often here, if ever, when it comes to the topic of abortion I’m distinctly pro-choice, mostly for a very simple reason. Quite frankly, if someone doubts their ability, financial situation, emotional makeup, dedication, or anything else required to raise a child, then by all means they shouldn’t be raising a child, and requiring someone to do so is hardly a tactic that’s going to instill these necessary traits, is it? And while I wish I could say that any of the various arguments against abortion were compelling or made valid points, that’s unfortunately not the case; the best rely on unsupportable premises, while some of them become downright insipid.

It goes without saying that the various religious arguments hold no water for me, and to be blunt, the kind of people who feel that the garden of eden and planet-wide flood stories are anything less than totally absurd are not the kind of people I’d be inclined to take advice from. While the phrase, “life begins at conception” is a popular one, it has no basis in science – even an unfertilized egg and lonely sperm are alive – but more to the point, why should we find that the key factor in all of this is “life”? I’ve seen too many abusive and unloving households, and I’m sure you don’t need my stories to make the point, because you’ve seen your own – but you know, those abused children, even if they’re chained in a corner of the cellar, are “alive,” so chalk one up for religion, right? I wish I could say that religious folk actually had higher standards than that bare minimum, but take a look around you and see where all of the effort is going, and what the key points of the arguments are. Hell, just count how often you hear, “quality of life” – you won’t need more than two blank lines on your notepad.

Yet to me, that’s a key factor: a household, a family, should be dedicated and devoted to raising a child. Again, we are talking about a human being here, regardless of whether or not it is magically imbued with either ‘life’ or ‘soul,’ and children can easily be influenced in their development by households with poor attention or affection, inadequate economics, inferior healthcare, instability, and on and on and on; the negative effects ranging from social deprivation to outright misery can last for years and even impact the entire adulthood of this precious life. You know, we often put our pets to sleep with an overdose of anesthetic when we find them suffering too badly, but to hear far too many churches tell it, humans deserve much less. You’re alive – be happy, you little ingrate.

I also love the argument that, “you should have thought of that before you had sex,” and all of the various abstinence-only approaches, actually and measurably demonstrated to work far worse than quality sex education and stigma-free birth control (don’t confuse religious folk with numbers and especially facts – you know how offensive that word is.) I’ve mentioned before the irony of the religious thinking they’re somehow better informed than everyone else, but think about this one for a moment: their argument usually is, you made a mistake (goaded by the strongest emotions that mankind possesses, and who might we blame for that?) so, as penance for your idiocy, you now have to be responsible for a child until they’re of legal age. Making the tough choice to keep a child or not, despite the reasoning that might be applied in this decision, is not allowable; instead, you just better get ready, by magic I suppose.

Now, not only is this a pretty brainless approach to humanity overall, it makes the child the instrument of punishment for bad decisions. Again, I thought we were talking about human beings here, but I guess not enough to be worried about their actual welfare. Much, much better to have someone grow up in any manner of untold bad situations than disappear as a zygote with no nervous system at all, exactly the same as the estimated 50% of fertilized eggs that never implant in the walls of the uterus, perfectly naturally.

I’d ask how anyone could actually think this is a viable approach, but I know better: thinking is not involved in the slightest. It’s all kneejerk reactions to senseless platitudes and sound bites, shamelessly manipulated by religious organizations (which have more than enough money to actually fund a better quality of life among their communities) that resort to arbitrary claims and misleading images and outright fraud to make their case. Lying is a sin of course, unless it’s really handy.

It’s a blog, which is a fancy electronic version of a soapbox, so yeah, I get to rant every once in a while. You can start complaining when I print up a few thousand pamphlets and start a day camp to influence young minds with utter bullshit before they’re smart enough to know better.

But here’s the second part, the one sparked by the forum a few days back. The topic had come around to infidelity, specifically a case when a guy felt his kid didn’t resemble him at all and was wondering if he should try to obtain a blood test. Now, there are countless different bits of advice that would be forwarded in such a situation, and of course the dynamics of any particular marriage are not something that are going to be comprehended from a forum comment. But there are two primary questions that occur to me right off the bat, and they are, “Is that your only evidence?” and, “How much does this really matter?”

I’m not one to be cavalier about marital infidelity, and I think honesty and communication are pretty important, yet there are a lot of situations that can occur. One instance of extra-marital sex is a pretty minimal thing to break up a marriage over, considering the huge number of mistakes that can befall us all even without the assistance of alcohol. Let’s face it: our partners/spouses probably had sexual partners long before we came along, so it’s not like there’s this exclusivity thing that we should expect, unrealistic scriptural references notwithstanding, so does it come down to something occurring during a particular period of time that we should expect to be the sole sexual partner? That almost sounds like a technicality, when it’s put that way. And if it’s ongoing, there are probably a lot of things to address in such a domestic situation.

Our egos have a huge role in such situations, and it’s almost entirely undeserved. From an evolutionary standpoint, we have a vested interest in propagating our own genes – that’s really the kind of behavior that’s going to win the selection lottery, when it comes right down to it. Male lions, when they take over a new pride from another male, often kill all of that male’s offspring, just to ensure that their own genes are the ones that will survive; it’s not a reasoned course of action, but evolved behavior, and Homo sapiens hasn’t escaped the same kind of traits, despite our tendency to believe that everything we do is reasoned and intentional.

Yet, genetics is only a tiny part of what we are as people, with all of the rest being how we’re raised and the values and reactions and decision-making we come to possess, products of our environments more than genes, and an awful lot of that is what parenting is actually intended to accomplish. Let’s face it, we have adoptions, and fostering, and surrogate parenthood, and all sorts of jazz like that going on; parents are the ones who raise a child, regardless of what genes have to say. How is it that we could happily raise an adopted child but somehow resent or abandon one from an undisclosed parent? Isn’t that just semantics, a difference that exists only in our own heads? If we were perfectly fine with the situation before we received some crucial bit of info, then what exactly changed?

We come back to the influence of words, the ones always resorted to in such situations, such as, “lying,” and, “cheating,” and “cuckold” (always a good one,) and many more besides, the ones that fill us with righteous indignation – or so we believe. Are we simply conditioned by our culture to have certain reactions? Some people have open marriages, engaging with multiple sexual partners, soooo… the difference is knowledge, or permission? Some people have really crappy marriages, despite no infidelity or outside shenanigans at all. There are lots of different situations, but it’s up to us to define how acceptable they are or not. And this should probably be based on something more functional than our egos, than feeling put-upon or misled or anything else.

… most especially when a child is involved; then, it’s beyond the personal affront or expectations, beyond the idea of a partner being ‘with’ us or not, but a family, a different circumstance altogether. A lot of what that child becomes will be owed to who is doing the parenting, and how. And when we think about our heritage, it’s not really as a collection of genes that we’re passing along, but what our children accomplish and how they behave. Genetic benefits take a ridiculously long time to provide marginal improvements, while directed and willed benefits – for instance, our human advances in healthcare and energy efficiency and communication and so on – take affect thousands of times faster, and are responsible for damn near everything that we’re proud of as a species. It’s why a teacher can be proud of their class even though none of the students provide any kind of genetic heritage to the teacher.

Among the various stories that popped up on the forum was one where a guy found out that the child wasn’t “his,” instead a product of his wife’s affair, and ended up divorcing her. He lamented that it tore him apart, and that he was really fond of the child. And while I was silent on the forum, internally I was asking, “And what did you accomplish with that?” So, he’s miserable, the wife is a single parent, the child has now had one parent abandon her, annnnddd… is there an up side to this story? Is he especially pleased that he fixed the situation? Does the child understand and approve, or will she eventually? Did the ex-wife take it to heart and strive to become an exemplary single parent? I sincerely hope that there was some way in which this situation worked out as an improvement for at least somebody, and was not just a kneejerk reaction spurred by wounded ego. But you and I both know what people are like, and how often exactly that kind of scenario played out somewhere.

Any kind of major decision stands to benefit from careful consideration, but this applies to family life exponentially more. We need to be able to ask ourselves, what are we trying to achieve? What are the consequences of any given action, and who is affected by it? Are we correcting something, improving our future selves in some way, or simply reacting? We cannot change past events, but we can decide how to move forward from them.

Most especially, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that it’s not about us. While we may not be happy about something, that need affect no one else, and it’s just a state of mind anyway; there will always be plenty of things that we’re unhappy with, and the only function of this emotion is to improve matters, not try to enact revenge or make someone else unhappy – that’s just petty. When there’s a child involved, well, are they even going to comprehend what’s going on before they reach late adolescence themselves? If not, then should we do anything that impacts them negatively, or even stands the chance? Can we ensure ourselves that our actions are going to be more beneficial than, for instance, just letting it go, or dealing with it in a manner with distinctly minimal impact?

We consider people who put themselves at risk for the sake of others to be heroes. And while swallowing our pride isn’t exactly risky, it’s also easier to do, and stands a much better chance of fostering something to really be proud of a little further down the road.

Some days, not even then

exotic plants in Museum of Life & Science, Durham NCSo, yeah, it’s winter, the slow season, and there isn’t a lot to photograph, which means it’s time for our yearly visit to the Museum of Life & Science, specifically the butterfly house, though on occasion we get some other types of images as well. Unfortunately, the day we scheduled this for was overcast and rainy, and since the butterfly house is a giant greenhouse, this meant light conditions inside weren’t very good either, not just slowing shutter speeds down and creating more gloomy shadow areas, but causing the lepidoptera to be sluggish and uninspiring as well. We had to be fairly selective with what we tackled, and the number of useful frames produced by this excursion was definitely lower than previous years.

By the way, while I said it was rainy out, this image was taken indoors, and the glass panels of the roof are in fine shape; the moisture is courtesy of the misting stations set up at strategic points around the enclosure, helping produce the rainforest conditions that make the butterflies happy. But the same conditions make photography slightly challenging, most especially from the standpoint of when you can actually be ready to shoot. The Impatient Mr Bugg forgot my admonitions not to remove his lens cap before his camera had completely reached the temperature of the air in there, and fogged up his lens as the humidity lovingly adhered to the cooler glass; this meant he had to wait even longer for this to clear than if he’d simply kept the cap in place for the required amount of time. This is one situation where taking a quick peek is a no-no, like opening the darkroom door to see if anyone has film out.

Low's swallowtail Papilio lowi in tight head-and-shoulders shot
I had foregone the flash rig (mostly due to being short on time as I went out the door) and was shooting in ambient light, and so was doing some esoteric experiments with creativity and being fartsy. I said they were experiments – I didn’t say they were successful. But I still like the way the antennae of this Low’s swallowtail (Papilio lowi) echoed the leaf structures of the background. Those pale iridescent patches on the hindwings will probably turn up in better detail a little later.

possibly Heliconius posed on wavy leaves
This one is likely a longwing species, genus Heliconius, but don’t quote me on that – the identifying images I have all show the dorsal surface of the wings and not the ventral seen here. “Longwing” is a relative term, since from proboscis to wingtip this specimen doesn’t exceed 4cm, giving an idea how short the depth of field is; another impression can be gathered from the antennae, one of which is flat to the focal plane and sharp almost the entire length, while the other points almost directly towards the camera and nearly defocuses to invisibility. While it’s not the best image for identification or anatomy, I like it as a portrait, and it gives a good impression of dense foliage.

just a snail on a big leaf
Is this some kind of exotic snail from southeast Asia, or perhaps even a snail-mimicking rodent? Doubtful, since such rodents don’t exist, and it looks exactly like the snails we have around here in abundance. But while it was cruising the large leaf with both eyestalks and feelers in sight, I had to go for the minimal diversity that it presented. Seriously, even the flower blossoms were sparse on this trip.

Meanwhile, apparently we weren’t the only ones doing the observing. I turned around at one point and found this one watching me through a gap in the leaves.

unidentified butterfly glimpsed through a gap in the leaves
After my previous experience with butterflies, I have very limited trust of them, and we started addressing each other with code names after that, and took a circuitous route home. Can’t be too careful…

Sunday slide 4

First, the pic:

very young American alligator Alligator mississippiensis sprawled behind mother
And now the backstory. This one’s kind of a favor to the Impertinent Mr Bugg, though Bob knows he doesn’t deserve it, not just for being rude, but also because he still hasn’t done two of his assignments even as he’s messing with his posting dates again.

In March 2000 I was once again touring Florida, cruising down Tamiami Trail (Rt 41) through the Everglades, and had stopped at Shark Valley Visitors Center, which featured a long asphalt loop trail deep into the Everglades. I wasn’t planning on spending a lot of time, but I wanted to see what could be found. And perhaps half a kilometer from the parking area, right alongside the trail, basked a mother American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and several of her young.

And I mean right alongside the trail – I could easily have walked up and yanked on her tail if I so desired. The US is so litigious and liability-phobic that you might imagine the entire trail would be closed in such circumstances, but Florida is a special place, and this kind of thing happens all the time in the Everglades; visitors are warned not to approach too closely, but that’s about it. Alligators can be dangerous, and this one was well in excess of two meters long, but for the most part they’re lazy, and only pose a problem if they feel threatened – this one was probably so used to people that, even with her young so close, she really didn’t care. I set up the tripod at a circumspect distance, using the 170-500mm lens, and kept an eye on her behavior as I shot the babies, which were about 30cm or so in length – you can kind of get an idea of their size by the reeds seen here, but there wasn’t anything else I could do to provide scale, since I did not have a banana on me (leave it alone.) And yes, that’s mama’s tail in the foreground.

And here’s mama:

Mother American alligator Alligator mississippiensis basking alongside trail, Shark Valley Visitors Center
Funny, for years I couldn’t locate this place again on the map, for a couple of reasons. The first is, no one had tagged it with its name, and while I seemed to recall ‘Shark Valley’ (and don’t ask me how it got that moniker since a shark couldn’t come anywhere near the place,) I wasn’t absolutely sure about that. And the second is, Tamiami Trail is a long and feature-challenged road, not quite as boring as Alligator Alley (I-75, further north,) and there are almost no landmarks to be found at all along a hundred-kilometer stretch. Skimming along the map didn’t turn up the spot, until this morning – click here if you have Google Earth installed, though the placemark is only approximate; the spot was somewhere along that stretch of trail.

I will return at some point, because Florida – I mean, c’mon! But I have yet to find the spot on the same road where I took an airboat tour…

Nothing too serious

While we had another fog this morning, one that lasted for quite a while, I couldn’t be arsed to go out to someplace photogenic to chase pics, so I just went over to the pond to see what could be found. None of the landscape shots that I contemplated were really doing it for me, so I just shot a handful of macro frames, really just noodling around. Two of them, however, produced some nice effects – the same nice effect, in fact.

mist drops on vine showing lens effect
In the twisted crook of a small vine, some spider webs caught the mist in a cluster of tiny spheres, and cropping down the original frame fairly tightly showed off the multiple Sauron eyes, actually two tree branches in the immediate background brought up by the lens effect of the water. It’s always better to have something really cool to see in such circumstances, and extremely difficult to do. The drops act as fisheye lenses, which makes everything seem smaller, so to see anything with real detail, it has to be extremely close, and at the right angle behind. And it helps if the drops are nice and round.

So then we get to the second one.

mist drop on pine needle showing lens effect
That’s a cluster of pine needles, many of them with drops perched at their tips – I just chose a particular one to pin focus on. Did I mention that, in order to see the background sharply through such lenses, focus has to be very specific? Forget autofocus, and we’re not even talking about a fine touch on the manual focus ring; what we’re looking at here is trying to hold still at a precise number of millimeters from the drop, and timing the shutter release within the infinitesimal swaying of my whole body. I’d take credit for excellent control, but I’d be damned to hell (or maybe Manhattan) for lying, since this is one of eight frames and the only one that’s sharp enough. But another was close.

It’s easy to believe you’re seeing more branches in that drop, but you’re not – they’re all pine needles, with a faint peek at the treeline against the water in the distant background. I think, in fact, that the yellow stripe in there is a reflection of the needle that supports the drop. Someday, I’ll locate a scenic little cabin after a snowstorm, and catch a nearby tree just as the snow is starting to melt off, and do a natural snowglobe pic. Sure, that shouldn’t be hard to arrange…

But in lieu of more scenic images from these fog conditions, I’ll return to the last fog, and an image you’ve already seen (probably.) For giggles, I cut it down to just the red channel, which was the least distinct for this image, and a tighter crop to highlight the ghostly nature of the tree.

tree in fog, red channel monochrome
That’s a really narrow dynamic range, and I like how the top of the tree almost vanishes into white. This is unaltered, by the way, just the way that the red channel looked, and you can see below, in the top row, exactly what the histogram looked like: not exactly an abundance of shadow tones.

histograms and curves showing various effects
The lack of any peaks at all towards the left side of the histogram tells us that there are not even decent middle tones, much less any deep shadow, like that wasn’t obvious from the image itself. But in the middle row, I shifted the bottom end to make the tones within the image fill the entire range from black to white – while it looks like I just clipped out the shadows (left side of the histogram,) technically what happened was telling the program to move the darkest tone, still quite high, all the way down to black, which has the result seen in the accompanying thumbnail.

All tones shifted evenly with this, however, making the top of the tree more distinct than I liked, so in the bottom row, I tweaked the brighter tones back up to where they were, and gave a very slight nudge down in the darkest tones to increase contrast in the foreground grasses – again, the accompanying thumbnail shows the end result. But if that’s not sufficient, here’s the larger version:

tree in fog with curves tweak
So, which one do you like better? I have my own favorite, but I’m curious to know how others see it, so I’m not going to influence your decision.

By the way, the near-monochrome image that I passed on posting for last Sunday’s Slide? It was another fog shot, so I’m glad I skipped it, otherwise I would’ve felt bad featuring even more thin white pics.