It is a Day, and we’re on Earth, so…

yellow flag water iris Iris pseudacorus against reflection of sky
It is, naturally, Earth Day today, though you didn’t need me to tell you that – you should have been able to feel it in your bones. Many times past I have commented on this, provided suggestions, and so on, so you know the drill. Get out and do something, you know, earthy.

I have tentative plans, but they’ll depend on weather and other things that I need to get done, so we’ll see what might appear here later on. For now, I leave you with these yellow flag irises, or water irises, or whatever other name someone might know them by (while the scientific and botanical communities – you know, over on the other side of town – know them as Iris pseudacorus, because they like to do everything differently,) against the reflection of the sky in the nearby pond, taken the other evening while waiting for the sunset not to pan out. Sometimes, success in nature photography is all about your expectations. I now go out seeking a really boring or unimpressive sunset, and am rarely disappointed.

Meanwhile, I have to point out that the position of the blossoms and the reflection of the tree branch were not accidental, but purposefully framed to fall together yet not touching in this way. Tiny little shifts in shooting position can make a significant difference, so pay attention.

Storytime 16

Chinese mantid Tenodera sinensis hatchlings on oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia leaf
So, to the undoubtedly-voluminous number of readers who come in first thing in the morning on Fridays to find the Storytime posts, I apologize – I am quite late today, mostly due to having a really shitty week. But partially due to my subject here, and so this is going to be the most current Storytime post to date, since these images were taken only minutes ago.

I mentioned earlier about finding some Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases, or oothecas, to distribute in ideal locations around the yard and hopefully get some photos or video of the moment of emergence, something I have yet to capture. Unfortunately, I did not find the time to properly place them in the yard, and a day or so ago two of them hatched out. Thankfully, this was on the screened porch and not, for instance, in the office (I’m not that stupid,) but it still meant that I had to capture several dozen/hundred 10mm long buggers to bring them outside. This isn’t too awful hard – they tend to drop at the first sign of danger, so for the most part all I had to to was hold a container underneath them and touch them gently with an index card – but the sheer number of them, and the hiding places available on the porch, means that this will be an ongoing pursuit for a couple of days. So in between mantis rodeo sessions, I not only mounted and distributed the remaining egg cases, I did a few photos of the ones I’d already released. These in particular had been relocated to the oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) plant, the same one that appeared here. But here’s a closer look of the same foreground mantis – remember, overall length is 10mm.

detail crop of previous Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis
They were being shy and darting away every time I leaned close, but this one held its ground and, for one decent frame anyway, I managed to nail focus. I’ve said this before, but it’s as much a matter of luck and timing as it is skill – effective focus range is measured in millimeters or less, and I wasn’t bracing against anything. You try to hold perfectly still at a precise distance from something.

At the time that I first spotted them, a jumping spider had already discovered one by itself – quite likely the same spider seen in the previous post. I had to leave for work shortly afterward and couldn’t even begin to corral the mantids outdoors, but I figured the spider’s capture would hold it for a day or so.

jumping spider likely Platycryptus undatus with newborn Chinese mantis Tenodera sinensis
While it’s tempting to lament such a fate, it likely will hold true for countless of the mantids – dozens emerge from an egg sac, but only a few will reach adulthood; this is one of the few where I’ve actually witnessed its demise, while I suspect that cannibalism may be a factor at times. Seems barbaric to us, but evolution only sees to it that a set of genes passes along, and if just one survives to reproduce, even at the expense of others from the same brood, that’s still a genetic win (as opposed to none of them making it, of course.) But I’m aware of this too, and the newborns were distributed across a broad expanse of the property, much broader than they would have achieved on their own at this stage – the equivalent of several smaller egg cases rather than one large one. Is this an advantage or not? We might just have to see.

Broken record

jumping spider likely Platycryptus undatus with house fly prey
No, not a world record, or even a personal one – indeed, no kind of superlative at all; just about the opposite. I’m referring instead to something that will soon disappear from our vocabulary, the idea of a skipping vinyl LP playing the same damn bit over and over. Because the posts are yet/still thinner than I’d like, and than I intend, but I haven’t been able to do anything about it recently, even though I have a handful of images to put up, and topics to talk about. I’ve just had too much of my time taken up with other things.

Partially, this is good, because I’m/we’re getting things done around the house (including evicting some grey squirrels from an attempted nest in the eaves of the house.) And then some of it is stuff that I’d really rather not have to do, but such is life, right? And I’m whining again.

So for now, a jumping spider, probably the common-as-muck Platycryptus undatus, with its capture on the screen yesterday. Curiously, it remained in the general vicinity of the middle of the screen for quite a while, but on looking out there today I found the dead fly abandoned on the sill right underneath where they’d been. I have no good explanation for this, but I’ll make up something cool-sounding if you like.

I have a few more recent photos to post – this one was unrelated to the others plus I don’t want you thinking I’d moved away from creepy things – which will come at another time. Not to mention a couple of photographic projects that, if successful, should be fodder for some really slick posts. So, “soon.”

Storytime 15

As you undoubtedly recall, today is the 58th anniversary of mankind’s venturing into space, being the day that Yuri Gagarin orbited in Vostok 1 back in 1961. Since it also fell on a Friday this year, I had planned to have an appropriate image shot especially for the Storytime posts, but it didn’t work as intended. I was out Wednesday night trying to capture a visible pass of one of the boosters remaining in orbit, but the humidity conditions weren’t allowing anything but the brightest of stars to shine through; the next evening was even worse. So we’re resorting to a much older, not-exactly-thematic but still space-related image for Storytime this week.

full moon multiple exposure
This image was a product of careful planning and staging, in response to an idle challenge, and yet still didn’t come out as I’d intended. But it wasn’t my fault (this time.)

The backstory: For a few years in the early 2000s, a bunch of us on a particular newsgroup participated in a regularly-scheduled challenge, one that had rotating themes, and the theme for this period’s challenge was, “Entrances and Exits.” This fit in with an idea that I’d had some time in the past, and more importantly, fit in with the precise time of the month when I could accomplish it. I was shooting film then, which was even more challenging for this kind of thing, because it required a series of multiple exposures – actually, spread out over two days and many hours. In essence, due to the rotation of the Earth, the moon (and the sun) move their own width across the sky in 150 seconds, two and a half minutes, and so, if you fire an exposure every 150 seconds, you can produce a series of moons touching themselves like a line of beads. More or less; as seen here, the moon actually varies in its distance from Earth and thus its apparent size, so when it’s further it moves its own width in a little less time.

Of course, it rises and sets in roughly opposite directions, but more importantly, the full moon in summer rises and sets in twilight, its appearance at the horizons taking place right at the very edges of night, so the sky is a little too bright to pull this off – even though only a couple of exposures will be during twilight, they’re enough to expose the frame and make it “not night.” Worse, that sky light will wash out the moons that were recorded either subsequently (for moonrise) or previously (for moonset.) Do you get the picture? Each frame will show the full sky, but only if the sky is dark will the moon be more-or-less properly exposed, because there will be no light bleeding through from another exposure. Yet the moon is staggered with the sun, which is what produces the phases in the first place, and so the day before full moon it sets in near-total darkness, being about an hour before sunrise, and the day after full it rises about an hour after sunset. The difference in phase is trivial at those points, especially for a wider-angle shot.

I also knew that the moon would come in and out at somewhat opposing angles, and since I was doing this on just one frame of film, I had to plan accordingly to ensure that I did not overlap the images (though this might have had its own cool effect.) So at moonset, the morning before the moon was to be full, I was facing out westerly over the lake, with nice clear skies and an excellent series of frames. Those are the line on the left, and you can see where a few thin clouds near the horizon made an appearance. You can also see an accidental double-exposure on one of the them, the one that washes out too bright.

A quick note here. The Canon Elan IIe body had a multiple-exposure function built in which doesn’t advance the film after the shutter closes, which is great, because on earlier film bodies you had to release the film sprocket gear manually to recock the shutter curtains, and it always let the film shift a bit under its own tension – I know because I tried similar shots years before with Olympus cameras, with pretty crappy results. Also, the exposure to capture nice detail in a full moon is brief, which helps keep the sky dark. Now, the Elan IIe only allows up to nine exposures on a frame – unless you reset it sometime in the middle, allowing you to extend the number indefinitely (at least as long as the batteries held out.)

Which leads to part two. I wasn’t going to be back and do the moonrise exposures for two days, which meant at the very least ending the exposure and advancing the film a frame – in this case, it likely meant that I’d be wanting to do other shots in that time period (and my only backup camera was one of those aforementioned older Olympus models.) But Canon’s film advance system was pretty slick and accurate; you could take note of the frame that you were on, rewind the film (as long as your Custom Functions were set to leave the film leader out, which they were,) and reload it later, advancing it to the same frame, and be perfectly aligned. In fact, I did this routinely, because different films had different strengths, so I would unload and reload as needed to match the film to the situation. The only thing you had to ensure was that, you couldn’t just advance the film, you had to actually fire the shutter, so for the preceding frames, as not to double-expose them, you had to set manually for a very brief exposure and fire the shutter with the lens cap on, essentially doing a double-exposure but one of them was pure black.

The rot set in for moonrise, two days later. Now facing east out across the Indian River Lagoon, I had my timing and framing down (this included estimating where I’d placed the horizon in the previous frame,) and was all set for the appearance of the moon. Except, the clouds didn’t cooperate, and the moon remained hidden. Counting on the possibility that things still might change, I dutifully fired off each exposure at the appropriate time, hoping that a little later on as the moon became more visible I’d still have that nice beaded line, but as you can see (this time it’s the line to the right of the frame,) it just didn’t pan out. Not one frame had an unobscured moon in it. So much for Florida’s clear skies.

By the way, all or nearly all of the horizon lights came from this second set of exposures; there were no lights visible at the far side of the lake for the first set, except for maybe radio towers. And if you were sharp eyed you might have noticed that the angles of moonrise and moonset seem different, which doesn’t make sense – it’s the same axial tilt for both, so they should match. Unless I was aiming out over a lake with no discernible horizon in the view finder for one of them – I probably had the camera tilted a little without realizing it, not having brought a level with me to ensure the body position of the camera. Okay, I meticulously planned most of it…

I’ve always intended to tackle this again sometime later, but the switch to digital pretty much put the kibosh on that, since most digital bodies don’t do multiple-exposures, figuring that you’ll simply ‘Photoshop’ the same effect. Which plenty of people do, but what’s the charm or effort in that? One frame, 30 to 40 exposures, spread over two separate nights; that’s a challenge. Pasting in a moon repeatedly? Pssshhhffft.

A little piece here, a little piece there…

Okay, like, it’s spring, right? The end of the slow season, so stuff to photograph, yes? So the, you know, nature photographer blog posts are supposed to be increasing in number and quality. Stands to reason.

Well, yes, but I still have other things going on, unrelated to nature photography, so what’s been happening has been grabbing a few shots here and there (and, as yet, things haven’t started really popping,) but then not having enough time to do anything with them. I now have a little time, so we’re finally getting a post. And just because of that snark, I’m starting off with the spiders.

One spider. I shot a couple, but there’s only one I’m featuring here, for curiosity’s sake – and you know what they say about curiosity. Yet my razor-sharp naturalist wits tell me this isn’t really a cat. I just don’t know what it is.

Under the revealing reflections of the LED headlamp, I homed in on this medium-small wolf spider (genus Lycosidae,) and noticed that it seemed to have a meal, so I knelt down on the damp ground and got a reasonable closeup, but I don’t think it helped.

wolf spider Lycosidae with unidentified meal
First off, that yellow stuff is pine pollen that’s all over every damn thing right now – in two days it accumulates enough that I can’t even tell what color my car is. But besides that, I’ve been looking at what the spider is chowing down upon and have yet to figure it out. You’re welcome to try, and to that end, I provide a little bit closer look.

inset of spider meal
That shape, and the details that can be seen, fit absolutely nothing that I can bring to mind. I’m aware that the spider might have had this for some time and has been gnawing away at all of the outer structure, but even given that, the bits don’t seem to add up, especially that joined whatsit to the left, reddish-brown. You know, emerging from the hoof. If it helps, the width of the entire meal is probably in the 6-8mm range. I’d be happy to hear what you think, but in the meantime we’ll move on to things slightly more photogenic – we’re building up slow.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon basking on branch at sunset
On the same evening that I shot the month-end abstract for March, I spotted a northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon sipedon) basking on a branch at the water’s edge. The light was quite low at this point and I wasn’t carrying a flash, so I did a quick couple of frames, knowing that I was toying with camera-shake from the shutter speed dropping too low, and managed to get enough of an illustrating shot, provided that you don’t get too close. Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and while I’ve been shooting with a camera body whose pop-up flash hasn’t worked for years, I forgot that I wasn’t using that body, but another that I’ve been rebuilding, one whose flash works just ducky – I could have gotten a better pic, had I been thinking. Anyway, as I went in for a closer shot, I was too incautious (or the snake overly cautious – I like that one better) and it shot into the water without hesitation. Then, as The Girlfriend pointed out, it popped up again almost immediately and sat there watching us.

northern water snake Nerodia sipedon sipedon watching while submerged
I’ve been by the same spot a few times since, but it’s been mostly at night, and so far I haven’t spotted the snake again. We’re still at a point where the evenings can get a mite chilly and it’s been hindering the movement of the snakes, at least. During the warmer daylight hours, there’s likely more activity. That was at least in evidence the other day when I was doing yard work and stirred up a tiny example.

worm snake Carphophis amoenus n portrait
True to its namesake, this worm snake (Carphophis amoenus) is perhaps slightly larger than the average earthworm and a little more brightly colored, but otherwise it’s easy to mistake for one, at least if you’re not used to them – if you are, however, they move entirely wrong and are visibly not sticky, so when I turned it up in leaf litter I had it in hand before two seconds had passed. Then after I finished with the yard work for the day, I attempted a little photo session, which is a lot more challenging than it might sound. Provide enough of a natural-looking setting, and they’ll do exactly as their habits dictate, which is to disappear under it, and I spent a few minutes alternating between unearthing it from the litter and snagging it as it shot out of the shallow baking dish that I was using as a ‘studio’ and hurtling off across the table on the back porch. Eventually, it paused long enough to do a couple of portraits, and then I needed a scale shot.

worm snake Carphophis amoenus in hand
As usual, I was shooting alone, though in this diminutive case I could probably have convinced The Girlfriend to do the holding, despite her dislike of snakes in general – even she finds these guys cute. Nonetheless, I carefully cradled my model in my left hand until it settled down faintly coiled, then juggled the camera one-handed (including removing the extension tube from the lens and resetting the flash power) to shoot the snake in my own palm. The manual lens from a medium-format camera doesn’t provide auto-aperture – I usually adjust this with my left hand – so this is shot wide open at f4 with the subsequent lack of depth. I might be making things harder on myself than they need to be sometimes…

I have, time permitting, been checking on the amphibians in the backyard – I see the occasional green treefrog and less occasionally a Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis.) One evening, a recent emergent climbed the potted oak-leaf hydrangea sapling (Hydrangea quercifolia) and posed fetchingly on the new leaves thereon.

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis on oak-leaf hydrangea Hydrangea quercifolia
I’m still waiting to determine how many will be active in the yard this year. We had plenty of new hatchings last year, though a lot of the tadpoles and newly-emerged frogs went unidentified, but the odds were favoring the regular residents, which are these Copes greys, the green treefrogs, and the aquatic green frogs. We have several that live in the little backyard pond liner now and seem to be doing very well – they’re always the first to peek out, but also the hardest to photograph since they’re also primarily nocturnal but very spooky. I have been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to photograph one peeking out of the water, but the other evening I managed to creep up on one sitting on the bank instead.

green frog Lithobates clamitans resting on pond bank
As I mentioned, this is a green frog (Lithobates clamitans,) extremely common in North Carolina, and we always have residents in the pond, though they appear capable of sharing the water with the treefrogs during tadpole season. Let’s go in tighter on that same shot for some eye detail.

green frog Lithobates clamitans eye detail
I happen to like that little bronze filigree pattern, I have to admit. The overall length of this specimen was about 7-8cm, average for the species, but the size and coloration can vary a bit. As one example, I present another from the nearby, larger pond (where the water snake was) that had a solid 1-2cm in body length over the one above, sitting patiently on the grass since it likely knew that the water was a little too far away for a clean escape. However, the headlamp that I use also helps, since they’re dazzled by the bright light and thus hold still better.

green frog Lithobates clamitans showing off battle scars
I was seeing how much detail I could get from the eyes before it leapt away, and this was as close as I could get without the extension tube. But I caught a few other details as well, ones I wasn’t aware of until examining the photos on the computer back home. The scarring on the nose is obvious enough – not sure why I didn’t notice it then – and I couldn’t tell you what produced it, but it’s extensive, isn’t it? The other, much more subtle detail is atop the eye, where a small aquatic insect perched – I’m thinking it’s a form of springtail, but don’t have enough detail to be sure of that.

And one more thing, paying attention to the eyes again. The big white circle from the flash diffuser is clear enough, but then there are three points of light in there as well; these are from the headlamp, which I should probably remember to shut off when doing my shots. They’re subtle enough here, but might become distracting in other circumstances, and I have a focusing light embedded in the flash diffuser anyway. The lack of pollen across the skin of the frog tells me it wasn’t long out of the water, because, seriously, I can see the stuff passing through the beam of the headlamp like sleet.

My last shot, from the same location but a few nights earlier, also demonstrates this pretty well. This is an American toad (Anaxyrus americanus,) stoically waiting for me to finish my shots and get the hell out of its face.

tight portrait shot of American toad Anaxyrus americanus
Actually, despite the dyspeptic visage, the toad wasn’t being patient at all; it was simply confused by the light, though I’d used better habits for this one and shut the headlamp off when the focusing light was on. Immediately upon my standing up and switching off the focusing light for a moment of total darkness, the toad leapt away – whether it was the sudden change of lighting, or that it could now see that I was right in front of it, it became aware of its danger and hopped a meter or so off in a flash, so abruptly that I was startled to find it missing after I switched the headlamp back on. But yeah, I do like my disturbingly close portraits, don’t I?

Storytime 14

agricultural sprinkler in open field
This week, we have, ‘the other side of the story.’ Or perhaps, ‘what it really looked like,’ except that it’s not because it’s in monochrome and I still have color vision. Maybe it should be just, ‘what a photographer might get up to when experimenting.’

Thirteen years back, after discovering that my digital camera then could do infra-red shots with the sole addition of a filter, I’d taken a day to go out and do a bunch of shooting while the film camera was loaded with B&W film. I have only a vague recollection of where I was at the time, since I was touring around in the northern part of the county where I didn’t often go because, really, the only thing that’s up there is farmland, and it doesn’t even lie along the route to something else. Of course, now I’m going to have to pore over a map and try to determine exactly where I was…

Anyway, the reason I’m featuring this here is that it’s the counterpoint to this image, which was in infra-red. It demonstrates the significant difference between the two, an almost-but-not-quite negative inversion; this is because foliage reflects IR very well while a clear blue sky reflects/transmits practically none, and of course the sprinkler itself and the barn in the background got their own contrasting effects. Actually, I’m a little curious now as to why the barn shows so darkly in the other version, because most buildings have a mid-range, grey effect, but it might simply have been from the contrast alteration that I did for fart’s sake since the sky in the original wasn’t quite that dark either. And I have to admit that, since I was experimenting, I didn’t really think to shoot the same scene in color for the third perspective; I didn’t know how well the IR version would come out, and that it would become one of my gallery shots (though I now tend to favor the vertical crop of it more, I think.)

But I think it also shows that I was concentrating more on the IR version, because that one’s framing is much better than this – the trees were not cut off in that one as they were here. Perhaps I recognized that the contrast in simple monochrome really wasn’t significant enough to make the photo striking, but in infra-red it kicked it a lot better.

This, by the way, is a little foreshadowing of a project that I’m in the middle of. Hopefully, anyway. If it works out, you know you’ll see it here – well, not right here, but elsewhere on the same blog.

To the rear, March!

March has gotten a bit long in the tooth, so it’s time to send it out to, uh, live on that nice farm in the country. Yeah.

spide silhouetted against sunset sky
So our end-of-the-month abstract is quite current, being only a few hours old – it was shot at sunset on the 30th. The Girlfriend and I did a quick check on the nearby pond, and the sky colors cooperated a little bit, so I did a couple of odds and ends. A couple more might appear here a little later on, and I have two projects lined up from discoveries on the same evening. So more will be coming – of that I can assure you.

Storytime 13

enigmatic grave marker in Eau Gallie Cemetery, Florida
When I lived in Florida, there was a cemetery not far away that had a lovely mix of new and old grave markers, thick twisted trees and patches of lush lawn, which made it a nice place for long night exposures, especially given that a couple of streetlamps not far away would shine, in places, through the cemetery. But it also holds this small, subtle, and enigmatic marker, which hides a story all by itself, one that I can’t relate in the slightest. What I present here is virtually everything that I know, save that this appears in the Eau Gallie Cemetery in Melbourne, Florida. I’m not patriotic in just about any meaning of the word – I not only think we belong to one world community and spend way too much time creating arbitrary “us-and-them” distinctions, I feel the US has some pretty shameful policies and behaviors, especially regarding other countries. Nonetheless, a lot of people from Cuba considered our country a much better alternative than theirs, especially in 1968, and I purposely framed the shot with the flag in the background as an accent – if I remember right, it was soon after Memorial Day and thus many graves in the cemetery sported flags.

Countless refugees/émigrés from Cuba came to America, most often Florida, by means of boats, some homemade, many dangerous, and more than a few Cubans died in the attempts; I’m left thinking that this marker reflects such a circumstance. Curiously, though, Melbourne is well up the coast, north of the easiest landfalls by a wide margin, and this alone adds some mystery to the story. Clearly there could be a lot to tell, but I’m not sure if anyone actually knows it anymore.

Just because, part 28

A quickie here, before I have to leave. This is just to show how fast I can do a post. Of course, it doesn’t show anything of the sort, because posting times aren’t included and you have no idea when I started, but let’s just say that it’s 1:20 PM right now and I have to leave at 1:50. But the pics are already taken and resized, so…

Copes grey treefrog Hyla chrysoscelis looking grumpy
Remember when I commented that the green treefrogs seem to be the first out, back on that post where I featured the first green treefrog, and then said the grey treefrogs seem to follow later on? Of course you do, no reason to provide a link back to a post just a few days old. Well, this afternoon the first Copes grey treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) made its appearance in the yard.

Well, I say “yard,” but true to form, this one didn’t want to be found on anything natural-looking either, instead choosing a vinyl-encased barrel (part of a mosquito control system that I have yet to fire up) right next to the unnaturally blue rainbarrel that forms the background of too many images here. Seriously, guys, you could make my life a little easier. I’m providing you all of this exposure

[Ha ha ha, get it? Not just exposure like, you know, photographic exposure light levels and all that, but the kind of ‘marketing’ exposure that so many yahoos think they can provide to photographers in lieu of actual money. My humor rides on so many levels.]

To illustrate (because wasn’t I just talking about that?) I provide some more images, real quick now.

Copes hiding place without and with fill flash
I backed off a little and fired off a couple of shots of its hidey-hole. For the first, I shot just natural light, which is adequate but makes the treefrog a little subtle, and for the second I popped the flash to fill in the shadows a bit – not full strength, and to be forthright with you, getting the light levels correct in such scenarios is pretty tricky, in no small part because trusting the LCD on the back of the camera, especially when in bright sunlight or total darkness, is a stupid thing to do. You can a) spend some time getting light levels with a meter and doing some quick calculations, b) fire off several shots at varying power levels to choose the best later on after unloading the card, or c) wing it with a guess, which is what I did here. Not the best or most accurate of options, but again, time was short, and anyway here we are. I’ll take credit for my awesome experience and photographic prowess anyway, because that’s the kind of guy I am.

Regardless, for a quickie post, it also shows how fill flash works and what it can do for the image. I find this slightly amusing in itself, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the past working on illustrating images for posts and pages, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and this one just fell together. I’ll credit this to experience too.

It’s 1:40, by the way…

What’s in the package?

It’s funny – I’ve been thinking for years that I should perhaps look into leading a weekend nature photography outing to some promising locale, for instance the Outer Banks of NC, but always hesitate over two things: that I could find enough people to sign up that would at least cover the expenses; and that I wouldn’t be blamed if the weekend turned out unproductive, which is one of those wild variables that occur in such pursuits. Or at least, it does for me – I honestly can’t say if, you know, competent nature photographers always come back with lots of photos, but I suspect luck plays a role with them as well and some days are just crap. I’d like to think that, if such an outing really did pan out with few subjects, people would be understanding, and I could still make it worth their time in imparting some useful information.

This made me reflect on what kinds of things that I am talking about during, for instance, routine student outings, the couple-hour-long ones done locally, and decided to give a few examples in a post. Naturally, I talk about camera controls and won’t reiterate them here; I find composition is much more important (and have another composition post in the works,) but most students need help knowing how all the little dials and options work first, so I spend more of my time concentrating on those. But when it comes down to outings, actually out on locations and chasing natural subjects, these are some of the things that I’m yammering about:

Good hiking habits. Dressing appropriately, of course, and I often stress carrying a disposable rain poncho in the camera bag, always. Layers of clothing if, like this time of year, there can be a wide range of temperatures during an outing – chances are, going back to the car for anything is more effort than it’s worth. But a lot of it has to do with having to spot copperheads, which camouflage really well in leaves and undergrowth, and always watching one’s footing. In really high risk areas, this means a habit of surveying the ground closely for a meter or two immediately ahead, then allowing oneself to look for subjects elsewhere for just a couple of steps before returning one’s gaze to the ground, and anytime a promising sound is heard, stopping immediately. Most especially, not walking around with the camera raised to your eye – that’s asking for trouble, even just from camouflaged holes.

It’s actually very easy to get focused on a subject and start jockeying for position, forgetting that we’ve never checked the immediate region for danger or unsafe footing, so I stress this often – never let your guard down in high risk areas. But even just being aware of twigs and leaves, because they’re noisy and can alert potential subjects to our presence, and because leaves will camouflage a hole, as well as hiding dangerous critters better. Another example is logs. Never, of course, reach under one or even blindly loop fingertips under an edge, and when stepping over one, we make sure that our legs don’t get too close to the far, blind side and be in a prime location to get bitten or stung by what lurks there. And when rolling one over to see what kind of fun stuff might be underneath, we roll it towards ourselves; this ensures that the suddenly-open gap is facing away, so startled snakes don’t have a clear shot at us.

Orienteering. Not to any serious level, to be honest, because I’ve never led any outings to great distances away from known areas – usually we’re in parks or small plots where ‘civilization’ isn’t far away. But once we go off the trail, I make sure we’re paying attention to how to get back. People have a wicked tendency to believe their phones are useful in this regard, but this requires three distinct things: 1) that their phone is in working order, not damaged and not suffering from a dead battery; 2) that their phone is receiving an adequate signal, and this is crucial, because cell signals tend to be weak in just the areas that anyone may be hiking; and 3) that they actually know how to use the functions in the first place. A compass, or even a set of GPS coordinates, tells us absolutely nothing if we don’t know where we’re supposed to be, and most downloadable terrain maps are on a scale that does not assist hikers in any way, nor will they usually show the trail we’re trying to regain. So I more often point out orienting by the sun, and reading the lay of the land (such as the valleys that lead down to creeks and rivers,) and even knowing what the region looks like ahead of time, by getting familiar with maps. Any time someone relies on one factor, like a working phone, that means only one failure and they’re screwed.

Sounds, of course. This ties in multiple ways. For orienteering, the sound of the river or distant traffic can be helpful in finding a way. But mostly it’s to assist in finding subjects. Not only knowing the calls of the wildlife in the region, but what alarm calls are, can help point towards photo subjects. Even a small rustle near our feet can alert us to lizards, snakes, or rodents, and a plop in the water can indicate turtles, snakes, waterfowl, and so on. Some of this comes from experience, and knowing what typical sounds are (rustle of leaves and the creaking of tree trunks in the wind) and what isn’t normal background noise. Naturally, the moment we hear anything of the sort, we stop and assess it, or start to home in.

Identifying species. I’ll be honest, I can’t pinpoint everything, even in my own area, and I’m only so-so at birdsong, but I contribute what I can. And if there’s any trivia connected to them, I’ll add that too. When on the more popular hiking trails, I’ve told more people about snake species and how to identify them than I can count, usually with a live specimen on hand to illustrate. But this also extends to ‘spoor,’ the catch-all term for evidence of a particular species, whether it be feces, tracks, fur, or specific behavioral traits. Sometimes I can even provide a rough time frame of a visit, from the dampness of the muddy tracks or the freshness of the chewing marks.

Composition, naturally. While the blog is devoted to showing particular species and expressive animal portraits, more often than not, I stress the fartistic and communicative aspects of photography as much as I can, without trying to impose my ‘style’ (word used with wild abandon) onto others. Often, this means pointing out the backgrounds and how a change of angles accomplishes something different, or reminding people what effect some particular trait has. When I’m shooting, it’s often not immediately obvious that I choose position more than casually, and try to illustrate or demonstrate this when I can. I don’t push students towards particular activities or session goals, which might be to their detriment because I feel that the post-shooting examination of the images is important too.

Further along those lines,

Purpose and expression. By this I mean, what is the goal of the image? What are we trying to say with it, or what use is it intended for? As I said, much of my stuff tends to be illustrative, with the occasional nod towards being fartistic (which may not actually be acknowledged anyway.) So, if the idea is art, is the image balanced? Is it direct, with a strong focal point? Does it contain distractions or detractions? Or if the purpose is illustration, does it show what’s necessary? Scale, setting, behavior, enough detail? This is one of the benefits of digital, in that we can immediately ascertain (to a point, anyway) whether we captured the right lighting or focus. And one of the trickiest aspects of taking photos is the detachment from our inherent sense of place. Standing there out in the field or wherever, we know where we are, but are we communicating this through our images adequately? Are we illustrating the conditions or climate as needed? Or (and this is a useful aspect all by itself,) are we giving a purposefully misleading idea of ‘place’ to the viewer, for instance hiding the fact that the image was shot in a planter or at a park?

Fairly frequently, I realize that something I’m shooting may make for a decent blog post (I said, “may,”) and this starts me composing it in my head, which often leads to ensuring that I have all of the images that I anticipate needing. It doesn’t always work, but it works much better than coming up with a post idea at home and then realizing there are things that I’d like to illustrate but never got any images of. A little forethought while on-site can help a lot.

Professionalism. In some cases, this means considering all of the different uses some potential future editor might have for photos of a particular subject, and attempting to meet as many of those as possible. In some cases, it means taking the time to ensure that we’ve captured the best photos of the subject that we can, given the conditions, and even pointing out how different conditions will change the photo. And in some cases, this means behaving with respect to the subject, environment, and anyone else in the area. If we see someone else shooting, we stay out of the way, and if we detect that someone else is hoping to get the same perspective as we have (for instance, at zoos or aquariums,) then we move aside as quickly as we can to allow them their own chance. Very often, I spot a potentially spooky subject and coach the student in their approach while foregoing my own shots, knowing that there’s probably only one chance before it flees. I have occasionally encountered other photographers who are arrogant, selfish, and even snide, and I have no time for that kind of bullshit – it certainly doesn’t define ‘professional’ in any way.

I reiterate, from time to time, the simple criteria of, ‘Stay safe.’ Too many people feel that getting the good photos involves some risk, and that there’s a certain cachet to danger. Utter horseshit. The professional knows that risk is a gamble that invites negative consequences, the bad shit that’s eventually going to happen, and it adds nothing to the image. When we take on the practice of nature photography, we take on the knowledge of negative consequences and the behavior to avoid them, and it’s getting the good photos while maintaining these standards that earns our prestige – not betting that we can get away with something stupid like some YouTube mook.

And even,

Good organization and maintenance. If there isn’t any subject immediately visible, I might start talking about the before and after. For instance, a distant subject like a bird or a raccoon might be visible for mere moments, while a macro subject like a frog is more inclined to stay put. To this end, having the longer lenses affixed most of the time increases our chances of capturing any given subject; the macro subjects will wait for a lens change more readily than the distant, fleeting ones. Too many lens changes, however, increase the dust within the camera and on the sensor. Most-often used equipment should be easy to get to, but our bags should also have a selection of the handiest accessories. And putting the equipment away securely before tackling any kind of treacherous footing is paramount.

This also carries to the post-shooting habits. Do we have good organization and sorting of our photos, and the ability to catalog them well enough to find them again as needed? Are we recording all pertinent information? Are we determining correct species? And are we maintaining routine backups? Are we ensuring that we never edit an original, but only copies? Are we routinely cleaning and maintaining our equipment? Some of these questions actually become embarrassing, but that’s okay – that’s what goads us towards better behavior, sometimes. I don’t try to be a hardass, but I will make my students aware of the potential consequences, and I’m not above saying, “I told you so.”

Now, here’s something that occurred to me, as I was typing this. I occasionally wonder just how I come across, and how I should be improving my approach. You see, a lot of students are brief, one or two sessions and that’s it, and I can credit this to three separate things:

1) They found out the crucial things that they needed and didn’t have further use of my services;

2) They lost interest in the pursuit, or got too busy with other things; or

3) They didn’t like my method, approach, or style, or thought I was overcharging, or something of that nature.

I virtually never hear direct negative feedback or even indirect for that matter, which could mean there isn’t any, or it could simply mean that people wouldn’t ever say this directly. Naturally I worry about not meeting students’ needs or expectations the most, but I’m never sure that this is the case (or how often – I can’t imagine that it’s never occurred.) But here are two things that I am aware of:

A) I get plenty of direct compliments, and people usually seem quite engaged when I’m working with them. I don’t say this out of ego (much, anyway,) but to demonstrate that, no, I can’t feel too insecure about what I’m doing;

B) I have never had an openly angry, disappointed, or upset student. At all. I mean, being in the public service, just about anywhere, you can certainly expect it to happen occasionally, and I’ve definitely fielded it enough in other jobs unrelated to my photography, some of it deserved, most of it just overreactive (or manipulative) people. But not here. Which is startling, but gratifying.

So, yeah, maybe I should start looking into leading some bigger field trips. Let me think about this.