Look! I took pictures!

bare branches against frozen pond
No, I have not started the new year with a turnaround from the thinner posting schedule that I maintained last year, and it presently doesn’t seem likely. But I’ll take whatever opportunity I get to post new content, and (for better or worse) I’ll still be podcasting now and then.

thin ice patterns on pondMoving on to real content rather than excuses, we did not escape the winter weather that hit the east coast, actually getting a pretty decent snow – not as much as threatened or feared, but in the immediate area it was a couple of inches (pardon me for not using metric, but it just sounds better this way.) Alas, I still had commitments, and had to drive in it for each of the worst days, just not very far. But that meant that I didn’t have much opportunity to shoot photos of it – the first day I spent a lot of time clearing off the cars and the driveway, plus it was overcast and not quite finished snowing, and I didn’t bother even trying to go out. So I did a quick look around on the second day when the sun was out, and by then, the neighborhood had been out with their dogs everywhere and the pristine white blanket was all torn up, greatly limiting my options. Above, I took advantage of the sky reflecting from the textured and incomplete ice cover on the pond and started doing the fartsy thing; seen to the right, the just-barely-frozen surface in another section of the same pond yielded some unusual patterns.

Snow cover can be very informative about just what kind of wildlife is visiting the area, at least if you’re halfway decent at reading tracks. I can identify most of the common visitors, but I still get stumped occasionally. I know, I know, it’s a deplorable state of affairs, hardly what you should expect from someone of my extensive educational background; you’re welcome to contact Nonexistent Polytechnic and ask them to revoke my Super Doctorate…

alternating bird tracks in snowInitially, I thought I knew what made these, but now I’m not exactly sure. The mark from the prominent “thumb” toe (hallux) indicated, to me, a woodpecker of some sort, supported by the size of the tracks, about 35-40mm overall; the woodpeckers have larger-than-average halluces for bracing against trees as they drill for food. But two things made me pause a little. The first is the left-right alternating steps, which doesn’t seem correct to me, but I admit I’ve only seen them scaling trees and not foraging on the ground. Most of the birds in this area hop, keeping both feet together, and the only one I can recall seeing walk left-and-right are crows, but these tracks were too small for them. The second detail is the drag marks between. Again, I thought this was from the hallux, but as I looked at the photos I realized it was from the third phalange, the middle toe, skimming the snow. So at present, I’m not going to positively identify the creator of these tracks.

[You know where I said above about all the snow being torn up? This is a very small section that I chose for clarity, and you can even see the faintest hint at the top of the frame where I cropped out the human and dog tracks – it really was hard to find a decent expanse of untouched snow…]

red-bellied woodpecker Melanerpes carolinus making a reluctant appearanceSoon after spotting the tracks, I also caught a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) zooming from down low up to a safer tree branch, seeming to confirm my identification. And it still might, but there remains a couple of points to note, such as not being the only bird visible in the area by far, and the snow having gone through an overnight refreeze by the time I was out shooting, turning the surface into a hard crust that was far too tough for a medium-sized bird to leave distinctive tracks; this trail was from the previous day. However, in an area of our yard where The Girlfriend had tossed out some beef and bacon grease, I found an extensive cluster of the same tracks, and woodpeckers are very fond of grease, so make of that what you will.

Or you can correct my ornithological shortcomings, right out here in public, because we’re past the christmas season and there’s no need to be on good behavior any more. Like, you know, everybody was being so cheerful and selfless before the holidays rolled around…

Mr Bugg, who’s lagging far behind in both post and photo count, decided to be snarky when he finally put an update in a few days back, which just meant that I didn’t bother telling him when I was heading out this morning. Well, that, and the fact that the fog conditions that I was after, courtesy of the warm front that’s rapidly melting the snow, would clear very fast and I had no time to waste at all if I wanted to get something decent.

tree in heavy sunrise fog at Mason Farm
There aren’t a lot of options in the immediate area for fog settings, and I was running later than I should have for optimum conditions, so I simply hit Mason Farm Biological Reserve a few kilometers away. The sun was already rising above the thick fog banks and the snow cover was patchy, so I picked the layouts that I could to make the most of it. I should have been out the previous evening when the fog rolled in under a full moon that occasionally peeked out, but by the time I got free I was tired and not really motivated to go out looking for abandoned barns or old cemeteries, the kind of subjects that work well in those conditions; I still haven’t pinned down a couple of go-tos for fog like I should’ve. Ah well, I’m still pleased with what I did get.

sun bursting from behind trees in heavy fog conditions
Longneedle pines are not the best trees to use for blocking direct sunlight, but whatcha gonna do? By this point the light was getting far too bright to have coming directly into the lens, and the opposite direction wasn’t producing any nice landscapes.

Spiders (oh, shit, yes, we’re back to spiders) are surprisingly weather-hardy, and there were still a few patches and strands of spiderwebs to be found here and there. Coupled with the heavy humidity and backlighting, just like a previous visit, they provided a little something to work with.

spiderwebs against near-frozen drainage channel
At the best of times, the low winter sun can get in the shots, but sunrise doesn’t help at all – I couldn’t avoid the green ghost lens flare. Well, I could, and did – another shot has my hand visible at the top of the frame, blocking the light, and the autofocus wandered off the webs and onto the background, rendering the photo unusable, so we’ll cope with the ghost (won’t we?) It’s just a shot to show the webs against the winter conditions anyway, and that patch of ice is probably gone now. But of course I went in closer on a nice dew display – it’s not a photo outing for me unless I get the macro lens out.

fine dew on winter spiderwebs
There were some very fine droplets flanking that big one, up until I inadvertently bumped the plant, but this served to isolate the drop in space, so happy accidents, eh? In this light, the web could appear and disappear with very slight changes in position, and I purposefully chose this one to levitate the prominent drop. You can’t quite see that it’s showing a view of the landscape behind it, and this could have made a neat shot had I gone in closer, but I doubt I could have held still enough to get it sharp, and the tripod wasn’t an option for this particular subject, so here we are. If I hadn’t told you that it might have been better, you would have been perfectly happy with it – I should learn to keep my mouth shut. Or my fingers still. Whatever.

Changing focus

Some time back I posted some thoughts on the potential that the stories of jesus in the christian bible might have had the barest smidgen of support, in that he might have been a historical figure. Annnnddd that’s about it, really; there isn’t anything else to say that is the least bit plausible. Recently, Why Evolution Is True featured a paper by Peter Nothnagle, who presented the case that jesus was entirely mythical and his reasoning behind this theory. Let me say this right up front: if you’re interested in the topic, I would strongly encourage you to read both my own post and Nothnagle’s paper [pdf download] before continuing, because I’m not going to reiterate the entire collection of points. And if you’re not interested, naturally you’ll want to skip to another post, which is why I’m putting the remainder below the page break.
Continue reading “Changing focus”

Sunday slide 2… and 1

Yeah, so, I missed out on starting this new weekly post for the year by a week. Partially because the film scanner wouldn’t play nice with Windows 10 (imagine that,) partially because I’ve been busier than intended with countless projects these past couple of weeks, but mostly because it didn’t occur to me to start this until a few days ago.

But as the title implies (actually outright states,) we’re delving back into the slide film stock for these, scanning in something new from the file cabinet – or really just one drawer, but a stuffed drawer – full of slides, back when film was the only option and when editors only wanted to see transparencies. By my reckoning, I can maintain one a week for, lessee… about 160 years I think.

No, that’s not true. There’s no way to backup slides easily, so a lot of them are in-camera dupes, a second copy of the exact same thing to cover myself in case of damages, unreturned slides, or copyright violations. And as hard as it may be to believe, a smattering of them, a very select few here and there when something really untoward happened, aren’t really that interesting.

[That’s what literature snobs call ironic hubris. Or probably not, but they can if they want.]

Regardless, let’s take a look at the choices for the first two weeks of 2017. I stayed right in the front of the file drawer with the Birds category, because that’s what I have the most of. If you find that hard to believe, it simply reflects the evolving approaches, which I think is fairly typical of any photographer, or indeed any artist or craftperson. It wasn’t until I was shooting mostly digital that I really started tackling the arthropods in earnest, even though I was doing a fair number of them at any point, but it’s also a symptom of not being able to travel much in more recent years. Which brings us to number one.

wood stork Mycteria americana profile
This is a wood stork (Mycteria americana,) and believe it or not, this is what they actually look like – this one wasn’t a victim of a Roadrunner cartoon explosion or an organic herbal shampoo. It is, in fact, why I took the picture, because seeing this in detail is informative, and this was my first close encounter while on a photography trip in Florida. The faint haze across the bottom of the image is the edge of the passenger side window, well out of focus, as I shot across the seats from my car as the stork on the roadside verge eyed me curiously.

Why do their heads look like that? I haven’t the faintest idea. My wild guess would be something to do with heat dissipation, since the cranes also have bare patches on their heads. So do vultures, but that’s supposedly to assist them in sticking their head in animal carcasses when feeding, and storks do nothing of the sort, feeding instead on minnows by sitting motionless with their open beaks in the water waiting for fish to swim within. So maybe (he says as the idea suddenly occurs) this serves as camouflage, making their heads look like an old wood snag? I can’t say that I’ve seen this method myself, instead watching as one hunted in the manner that I was accustomed, stalking in the shallows and peering into the water, occasionally using a wing to shield the overcast sky from reflecting onto the surface – it’s next to impossible to see beneath the water’s surface with an overcast sky.

Either way, you have to appreciate the dried oatmeal look. And the little neck-ruff of feather that remind me of Phyllis Diller (look her up if you need to.)

Moving on.

great egret Ardea alba alongside dock at Key Largo
Our next slide comes from the exact same location and time as this image, just aiming 30° to the left and using a different exposure for the dimming light; that’s even the same dock in both images. A great egret (Ardea alba) was hanging out by the docks when I scampered down to catch the sunset colors, and at one point I repositioned the tripod to frame it among its surroundings. A curious effect occurred when it moved its head in the longer twilight exposure, giving it a thinner, ghostly appearance as the bright reflections from the water behind overwhelmed and washed out the darker head.

By the way, there’s a certain amount of effort that goes into digitizing images like this, because film scanners don’t always nail the true colors of the slide by default. Digital sensors in current cameras don’t either, to be truthful, but since there’s nothing to compare them against they remain the way they are, yet the prissy little bastard in me tries to render the slides as faithfully as possible – and here you thought I had no faith at all. It means some careful tweaking in the curves function, but the result is almost exactly like the original slide, because you mean that much to me.

I mentioned getting the film scanner to play nice with Windows 10 (and 7 and 8, apparently,) and the method might prove useful to others that are using the Minolta/Konica-Minolta Dimage scanner models. What you have to do is create a new .inf file, which is simply a text file with scanner information on it, and save it where it can be found easily. After the initial software install, the scan utilities will not be able to find the scanner, but all they need is the new .inf file installed as a driver for the device. However, since Windows now requires a “digital signature” for all new software, it will reject this install unless you disable this inordinately stupid roadblock. See this helpful page for all the details – it should take no more than a few minutes all told.

Been saving this abstract

And again, I’m not sure how well it fits into the specific definition of ‘abstract,’ and I don’t care either.

hoverfly on white flower
This came from the same outing mentioned here, and is a vertical crop from a slightly larger horizontal frame – I was very pleased with the detail from both the hoverfly and the petals themselves, and slotted it to use for the final abstract of the year. For a quick grab shot where I didn’t have time to mess with exposure compensation, the brightness of the white petals came out pretty well, with only a little overexposure blowing sections out into pure white – most of the details and shaping of the petals remains. It’s very easy to either a) have the white areas taking up so much of the frame that they dictate the exposure and go quite close to middle-grey tones, or b) overexpose the white so details are too lost. This one could have been a little lower in exposure, 1/3 to 1/2 a stop or so, but it still works, and you may not have noticed the bleached areas at all if I hadn’t mentioned them.

Anyway, have a great new year! And just to thwart meaningless segmentations and time periods, have a great everyday too!

Podcast: Nothing in particular

As the year winds down, I present the tenth podcast since I restarted them in late June – not exactly one a week, but not too shabby for something I’m still just toying with. And ‘toying’ is perhaps the most appropriate word for this one, as I tackle nothing in particular, and at times a bit roughly too.

Walkabout podcast – Nothing in particular

Terry Pratchett, in case you have somehow escaped his influence. At some point in the future I may do a review of one of his Discworld novels. Yes, yes, I promise I won’t do an audio version, okay? Sheesh…


Did you catch the part in there where I got the movie title wrong and had to dub it in much later on? This is a lot harder than it seems like it should be, not from a technical standpoint (which is only cut-und-paste,) but from a seamless sound quality one, since matching voices on separate occasions, even when it’s your own and you can hear it and are just trying to replicate it, is elusive. Or at least it is for me. But yes, Leeloo was not in The Sixth Sense. I know better, I was just mixing up my numbered Bruce Willis movies.

But here she is (or to be more accurate, the actress who portrayed that part) showing off her vocal abilities:

Milla Jovovich – The Gentleman Who Fell

And as a bit of bonus content (or to make up for the podcast – whatever works for you,) I inlcude a link that The Girlfriend passed on to me after I’d recorded the audio, a live bald eagle nest cam in Ft Myers, Florida. As I type this, someone has noted that one of the two eggs is showing hatching activity (in December? Seriously?) so I provide this not a moment too soon. It has infra-red, so you can check it out anytime:


“Happy hogwash, everybody!”

The gift of empty boxes

That’s always a hilarious joke whenever it’s played on humans, but it backfires a bit when it comes to the big cats:

I had featured a similar video a few years back and was going to repost it, but came across this year’s offering instead. This is courtesy of Big Cat Rescue out of Tampa, one of several rescue organizations across the country that specialize in animals impounded from unlawful private ownership or illegal cat trade, not to mention the collapse of small tourist attractions and such. We have one nearby, the Conservators Center, which we’ve visited a few times. Always interesting, but photography is not a prime pursuit in such places because the settings and backgrounds are almost invariably ‘unnatural’ and the fencing ubiquitous.

lioness at Conservators Center
The Conservators Center offers photo tours for a premium price, which allows photographers to shoot through openings provided in the fences, but that does nothing for the settings and backgrounds, so I’ve never sprung for the cost. With some judicious framing and the right conditions, it might be possible to pull off some decent portraits without revealing the setting, but that remains of limited use.

As I’m typing this, The Girlfriend is in the other room baby-talking to our own cats, which seems appropriate. Both of them (the cats I mean) were quite interested when the tree was first put up earlier this month – we won’t talk about how much earlier – but they remained more reserved than the big cats in the video, which we usually consider staid, aloof, and ‘majestic,’ and a lot of that may have to do with the typical conditions of observation in the wild, where the cats are well aware that people are around and their behavior is a reflection of this knowledge, like how we don’t belch exuberantly when company is present.

Little Girl under the tree
But I’m rambling. Happy holidays, everyone!

Very early Friday morning color

Just fooling around…

christmas lights and reflections
I shot a handful of frames, and chose this one because of the halo around the blue light, which was purely coincidental. All of the out-of-focus orbs are reflections of the tree in the nearby window, in case it wasn’t clear – the crossbar is the decorative frame between the double layer of glass. Thus the stacked orbs, except for those that fall right on the crossbar, which is between the glass panes and preventing a second reflection from the back glass. But whatever, I just liked it.

Podcast: Equipment

I realize that this isn’t exactly timely when it comes to the holiday season, but I can’t imagine there are a lot of people who are turning to me for guidance in what to purchase for christmas, so I refuse to feel bad about it (See? You can justify anything.) Regardless, I present just a few thoughts about equipment and perspective.

Walkabout podcast – Equipment

ruby-throated hummingbird Archilochus colubris drinking from sage flowerThis image was shot with a consumer zoom lens, a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.6 Image Stabilized lens. It wasn’t the equipment that provided the pic, but being in the right place, patience, luck, perseverance, and picking the settings that would work the best – see here for more details. While there are certainly cases where better equipment will increase your chances of capturing a particular shot, these represent a small percentage of the factors involved; the majority of things that will impinge on your chances are related to technique, knowledge, and just constantly trying harder. For instance, I knew the hummingbirds were coming to feed from these flowers frequently, and knew both their appearance (even out of the corner of my eye) and the sounds they make. I positioned myself where the light was the best, and chose camera settings to increase my chances. And waited, near-motionless with camera raised, in sweltering weather. A much more expensive lens might have made this shot marginally sharper, or might have produced a few more frames that were worth keeping, but it never would have taken the place of any other factor involved – I would have had to have been using the exact same habits.

chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis eating aphid
And this was taken with a broken lens, and a consumer zoom at that, a Sigma 28-105mm f2.8-4 (okay, so it was a failed aperture motor, and not any kind of cracked glass or anything – allow me a little poetic license.) While a reasonable performer used normally, it does excellent macro work used backwards on the camera – the juvenile mantis in this shot is not 12mm in overall length, and that’s an aphid being consumed. Credit must also be given to the lighting source used, which I’d modified for my own purposes – it was later superseded with a different version. You can save a hell of a lot of money with a little knowledge and a little creativity. Another example of this lens’ performance can be found here, still my favorite arthropod portrait (yes I’m weird.)

By the way, I mentioned in the podcast about wrenching my arm while preventing a nasty fall? That occurred only minutes after this image was taken, which by the way was using that same lens, only before the aperture stopped working.

Meanwhile, my workhorse lens is a Mamiya 80mm macro, designed for the Mamiya M645 series of medium-format cameras (in other words, not digital, and not even autofocus) – I use it on my Canon bodies with a simple adapter, even though I’d purchased it to use on my Mamiya body. There are a lot of options out there, most of which don’t require throwing any money at them at all. Take some time to examine all of the possibilities, and spend your money where it will do the most good and stretch the farthest. Or at least, that’s my advice.

And back again

Sometimes it’s funny, the things we notice and the things we don’t. Today is the winter solstice, or the day with the least amount of sunlight in the year – daylight will only be increasing now up until June, which I consider a good thing. And it’s also credited as the first day of winter, which is completely ridiculous even when you narrow your frame of reference to the northern hemisphere (in the southern hemisphere, it’s the first day of summer.) Back when I lived in New York, the weather was notably “wintry” long before this, and even here in North Carolina we’ve occasionally had snow by this point, and we usually only get a couple of snowfalls per year; none yet this year, by the way, but we’ve had a couple of frosts. The real winter weather is still ahead of us.

SnowcapsI can look on this day and think, Yeah, now the daylight will be returning, even though it’s so gradual there’s really nothing remarkable about today, and nothing will be noticeable for weeks. As for the return of warm enough weather to provide shooting subjects? That’s a couple of months away – we’re not even halfway through the ‘dead season’ for most of the subjects I tackle. Can I look forward to perhaps doing some nice winter snowfield shots? Mayyyyybe, but as I said, the snowfalls here are sporadic, and when they’re good enough to make lovely shots they’re also heavy enough to make the roads treacherous, and there aren’t many options within walking distance.

So let’s face it: this is an astronomical event, and the vast majority of those go past without notice. The only real reason we’re even aware of this one is that ancient cultures had to notice it; the position of the sun was the only way for them to keep track of the days and seasons, since calendars were a long ways off. Thus Stonehenge and the “midwinter” (heh!) feasts that were later co-opted by christians as the birthday of jesus, despite the fact that no one had bothered to record that magical day and all indications from scripture point to it occurring in the spring, but someone had to take a stand against a completely mythical being (I’m talking about saturn here, and not yahweh or jesus. Just in case it wasn’t clear.)

Maybe I should simply create some arbitrary holidays next year, just to make particular days ‘special’ in no meaningful manner at all. Let me think about this…

Friday night color

sunrise colors under clouds with faint sun pillar
The other morning as I was rushing out the door, the sky was displaying some rich and gorgeous colors, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about them. Well, there was, if I wanted to get fired, but sometimes you have to prioritize. As I was up early enough again this morning, I kept a close eye on sunrise, and was rewarded with some not-quite-as-gorgeous colors, so I present them for you before the day closes here.

You’ve seen those dock pilings before, or if not, you have now (the water was higher then.) But what’s also visible if you look closely is a faint sun pillar, a column of light reflected from high-altitude ice crystals, in this case pointing towards the not-yet-visible sun and framed in both the gap in the trees and the space between the pilings – again, just subtle positioning to improve the overall affect. When you have conditions like this, you need to move fast – they won’t last long. The photos I have span all of four minutes (I realize as I checked this that I haven’t updated the camera clock for Idiotic Daylight Saving Time,) and the color was already fading.

Yes, I’ve done better earlier this year, but it’s winter, or technically late fall, and I’m taking what I can get, at least until I get those plane tickets to Belize for christmas…