Are We Alone? (Part Two)

This continues a rather long-winded essay on my part. In Part One, I talked about the idea of extra-terrestrial life from the standpoint of cosmology, the planetary conditions that might be needed to produce it. In that post, I went out on a speculative limb, always a dangerous thing from the uneducated. Here, I’m going to compound the error as I talk about the definition of “intelligence.” Please turn your irony meter off before proceeding.

A brief interlude

The other day I chased a pair of Southeastern Five-lined Skinks as they ventured around the opening of a hollow tree outside my place. I was hoping to catch some feeding behavior, but it was not to be.

However, on examining the photographs in detail after unloading, I noticed that the breeding male (distinguished by his bright red head) had done exactly what I have, far too many times when walking through the forest. I have to give him a bit of credit, though – he appears to be dealing with it a lot better than I ever do. Despite having gotten (mostly) over my phobia of spiders over the years, I can’t walk through a web and not flinch. I certainly can’t go without peeling the damn thing off, especially if it’s as laden with past meals as this one. But to Joe Cool here, it ain’t no thang.

That’s Lizard Cool, that is. I’ll have to work on it…

Are We Alone? (Part One)

I’m warning you ahead of time, this is going to be long, as evidenced by the “Part One” bit above, but hopefully it’ll be interesting as well. I’ll do my best.

One of the staple topics of all-night bull sessions, and not just in college dorm rooms, is the concept of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, or to keep it simpler, elsewhere merely in our own Milky Way Galaxy. And you can’t discuss the topic properly without bringing up two “key” factors: Drake’s Equation, and Fermi’s Paradox. Both of them, however, do more to bring up questions than provide any answers. I’ll state right off the bat that this was actually the intention of both, though they typically are used exactly the opposite way. I’ll be brief, though.

I’m not sure what happened

So, here’s the scene. Several years ago, I was living in Florida and trying to get steady income, and one of the avenues I explored was working as a wedding photographer. I was working alongside a couple of established photographers in the area doing backup and creative shooting – photojournalistic style, candids, B&W, that sort of thing.

One particular morning, ten minutes before I was to be picked up by the photographer for a wedding, she called me and asked what I was wearing. Ummm, standard black shirt and slacks, why? Then I was asked, did I have any leathers? This photographer was a biker on the side (no, really) and did custom leather work, so I knew what she meant, though my answer was still in the negative – even though I used to ride for quite a few years, I never liked the Harley/biker style and didn’t dress up to use my motorcycle.

“Well, I just got reminded that this is a biker wedding,” she told me.

“Uhhhhh,” I said alertly.

“Don’t worry about it, as long as you’re in black. I’ve got some leathers you can wear.”

“Uhhhhh,” I repeated, in case she had misinterpreted me.

“It’s cool, it’s just a theme wedding. I’ve got you covered, and I’ll be there in a few.”

I dug out some black boots, but that was the best accessory I could scrounge for my ensemble. When she showed, I complemented those with a black Harley cap, black fingerless gloves, and a dark brown leather vest that said, “Property of Robin,” on the back. If I’d had even just a little more forewarning, I would have skipped shaving. This was before I had the beard, and trust me when I say I was more mistakable as a Best Buy salesman than a scooter-jockey.

On the way to the wedding in the photographer’s white hearse with a skull on the dash (you think I’m making this up, don’t you?) I drew more than a few interested looks from passing motorists, undoubtedly due to the dashing figure that I cut in my manly duds. Our first stop was at a motor lodge to pick up the bride, since she wanted to arrive in the hearse. No, wait, listen: the wedding was at a park pavilion and there were no facilities for getting ready, so the parties had to get dressed off-site, and the motor lodge was already in use for some of the guests, okay? And some people just like to be different.

So, I’m in the front part of one of the rooms, waiting for the bride and ‘maids to get ready, and of course the dresses are still around. My keen senses alerted me to the fact that the bridal gown and bridesmaid dresses didn’t really have much of a biker flair, and wouldn’t have been out of place at any other wedding I’d been to. I started wondering about this, but then caught sight of myself in the full-length mirror and almost scared myself, I was that bad looking. No, I lie, the biker thing wasn’t working at all, and I have to say the vest and cap put me more in mind of a National Geographic photographer. I have a friend that wears a photo vest all the time when meeting with clients – the vest serves no serious purpose, but it seems to say “professional” to them. Nevertheless, I have yet to purchase a photo vest.

So, we bundled the bride into the hearse (she had the sense to ride up front, so I stretched out on the platform in the back) and headed to the park. Once there, I noticed a curious absence of biker gear, or even bikes. I pointed this out to the photographer, who said that other guests would probably be arriving more thematically. Now, let me outline something from shooting a few dozen weddings, at least in Florida. No matter how upscale, no matter how old or young the happy couple, some guest would show up in camouflage pants and a cap. We always had to shove them into the back of the party pictures and get them to hide the cap.

But not this wedding. Even the guests that wore cowboy hats were in nice slacks and a dress shirt. The entire wedding party was in tuxes and dresses – appropriate to their gender, even. There was just the photographer and I making our hoodlum way around the proceedings. Even worse, a videographer that I knew from photographers’ club meetings was there, and pointedly asked me what the hell I was wearing. All I could say was that I was told this was a biker wedding.

Nothing in that wedding was “biker,” with one tiny exception: a pair of plastic motorcycles on the wedding cake. Not the happy (and perhaps giggling) couple, not the minister, not the ceremony, not the guests, not the reception music, not a damn thing. Yes, I was undoubtedly set up, but I really don’t know by who. The only saving grace was that the photographer who had contracted the job was in her own leather getup and bandanna.

Now, here’s another little thing: photographer’s assistants get to do things like prepping the couple for the formal shots, which means straightening the bride’s dress and arranging the accent flower bouquets. Are you picturing this? The groom certainly didn’t miss his opportunity to point out how good I was at flower arranging, but he couldn’t keep a straight face through it.

And because I know you don’t believe me, I provide proof. That’s me in the shot, though I’d shucked the vest by this time (the reason you see bikers wearing a vest over their bare torsos is because the damn things are hot.) You can’t even tell that I wear glasses, which of course simply added to my badassedness. This is the only memento I have of that occasion, and it’s a scan from a weathered print. The awkward position I’m standing in, besides showing off how badly my slacks were cut, was to try and get the best framing possible. The background down the dock wasn’t working too well, but across the dock, aiming downriver, was much better. I had to stand with my heels on the edge of the wood and lean back to get the framing right, and the happy couple was instructed, should I go backwards, to catch the camera as I threw it into the air. Hell, being soaking wet at that wedding wasn’t going to make anything worse, but there was no way I was taking a chance on losing the camera.

I have little doubt that somewhere, one or more of those guests show off their own photo of me to their friends when flipping through pics, and have a nice giggle over it. That’s okay, I’m cool with that, have your fun. But I charge a lot more for theme weddings now…

On composition

If there’s one thing that I emphasize above all else in photography, it’s composition. Don’t just take a photo, but put the elements together within it to your satisfaction. This, to me, holds up far more than what kind of equipment you’re using and how technically proficient you are with it. And it’s not an easy thing to teach – I’m still at the point where, even though I can name umpteen different compositional tricks, rules, and recommendations, I also shrug and say, “You have to develop an eye.” What an “eye” is is debatable – much of our appreciation of photography takes place subconsciously and is very hard to pin down, but I encourage students to examine their favorite images and try to determine what it is that strikes them the right way.

The image here is kind of a lucky accident. Only a couple of weeks ago I took advantage of scattered clouds blown by a stiff wind in front of the full moon and shot a large number of sky and moon shots. This one is a long exposure (45 seconds) as the clouds blew by – the moon is high to the right, out of the frame. What worked with this is, the clouds were blowing in the same direction as the road, so they streak in harmony with the lines and unseen traffic. As I said, this was accidental – it was right out in front of my place and I didn’t plan it that way, but it would have had far less impact, I think, had the clouds been moving in any other direction. The clouds, the treelines, and the road all bring focus to a single vanishing point in the distance, and the clouds seem to race past in contrast to the stillness of the rest of the image. The few stars that I captured, while moving against all of this, hadn’t moved enough to show distinct streaks and thus don’t counteract the clouds and lines. There’s even a curve in the clouds that mimics the “influence” of the trees. If I actually tried to achieve all this, it might have taken me a hell of a long time to find a road facing the way I wanted with the wind, the right clouds and moonlight conditions, and no traffic. But I’ll still take credit for it anyway ;-)

And of course, there are times when it doesn’t work. I don’t particularly like this image, for a number of reasons. After shooting it, I realized I would have liked it better if I’d set the camera slightly offset from the line of footprints, so they angled across the frame a little rather than directly into it. Those tracks are mine, purposefully made for the image, but I should have remembered that I really do walk that splayfooted and made some effort to walk a little more normally. And the strobe that I used to give illumination and definition to the tracks is a little too bright and blue, and seems to indicate that there’s something bright just out of the frame to the left, counteracting the idea of a lonely, empty road. Even a single, dim light in the distance (or perhaps none at all) would have worked better than the multiple sources flooding in from the sides. So I consider this one a miss, and a learning exercise. I’d actually envisioned what I wanted, but failed to execute it to my satisfaction.

Does this mean I should stick to winging it, like the top image, rather than planning like the bottom? I hope not, because that’s not a good way for a photographer to operate, but in this case, at least, it would have been better with more foresight. Long exposures at night are tricky things to get proper light levels within, so be ready to experiment a lot when you try them. And always think about the elements in your image and what they seem to say or imply – these can be subtle. How you use them is up to you – that’s your own style. But the powerful images are ones that seem to contain more ideas than simply the subjects within the frame.

The stage is set

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned the concept of staging shots in nature and wildlife photography, and I’m finally getting back to tackling that as a subject. I’m going to attempt to throw some things out there for consideration without inserting too much personal opinion into the mix – we’ll see how that goes ;-)

While I don’t know if it has ever been measured by poll, I think most people believe that nearly all of the images they see of wildlife subjects have been shot on location and demonstrate natural behavior. Not only that, I think a large percentage actually bear some resentment towards the photo (or nature program) that is staged in some way. From experience in the field, and knowledge of lighting, behavior, and conditions that you’ll find these animals within, I can tell you that a hell of a lot more photos are staged in some way than most people think. For instance, most of the calendars showing owls, wolves, and the big cats are not shot in the wild. Most nature programs are staged either partially or completely, something that fans of The Crocodile Hunter and such really don’t want to hear, but seriously: do you think anyone, no matter how experienced, wanders up on animal subjects in the wild as often as these shows demonstrate?

There’s several debating points here. The first and biggest is, “Lying to your audience.” And I will readily agree that claiming that a staged shot or captive animal is actually “in the wild” is unethical. But, if you notice, most shows, calendars, photo credits, etc. make no such claim at all. They simply let you believe it, and take pains to hide the extra cameras, the edges of the set, the lights and reflectors, and all that. They imply a wild setting, but make no positive claims of such.

So, is implying unethical? Hmmm, good question. We are bombarded by it throughout our media, from commercials featuring “doctors” to every reality show out there, and everyplace in between. We’re happy with the suspension of disbelief that is required to get anything at all out of our entertainment. And in fact, there’s no small resentment when an actor that we like turns out to be a bigger asshole than the character they portray. There seems to be little argument, however, that we see nature photography and programs differently from, say, MTV’s “Real World.”

One can argue that nature photography can have a goal of demonstrating appearance, coloration, habitat, or behavior, and that staging doesn’t actually change this. Yes, it’s a closeup of an owl, one that it would be virtually impossible to achieve in strictly natural settings. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s adorable! Yes, it’s perched on a real branch and has foliage in the background – that’s just part of the setting. Is this wrong, or deceptive? Does it have the same impact on us if it’s perched on the handler’s glove, or an obviously manmade perch? Is that difference all in our expectations?

Cost is an issue, too. Let’s say I want to see a hummingbird feeding its young. How many times have you seen hummingbird nests? I have yet to find any myself, even though I know there’s been one within a hundred meters of my place (because of the presence of a family at my feeder.) It might be a dozen meters off the ground, well hidden in a tree. Getting close enough for good detail shots means being in the trees near it, with a clear shot through foliage, and with adequate light to keep the images from blurring. Too close, and the hummingbirds aren’t going to like my presence, and might even abandon the nest. I might spend days to weeks at a time trying to get a couple of simple photos of feeding behavior.

Does this mean I can sell those images for a hell of a lot more money to an editor, because they’re genuine and took lots of effort to get? The chances are slim. Will the sponsors of a nature program pay a lot more for footage in natural conditions? Nope – there’s only so many commercials they’re going to stick in the program, and only so many viewers that these programs typically get, anyhow. Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter) gained as many viewers as he did because he was an over-the-top character, and because people were waiting to see him get bitten. And while his show was one of the few that might have gained enough sponsor money to do everything in the wild, this was certainly not their approach.

So, how much “staging” is okay, and for what purposes? I’ve photographed hatching Ground Skink eggs in a terrarium – the behavior was natural, the setting was not. I’ve done plenty of shots at zoos – should this limit where and how those shots are used? For an article in a local newspaper or magazine about eagles, should any images be taken in the wild, or are these simply illustrations? Does the practice of setting out food and waiting for the photo subject to come by count as staging? And here’s a crucial question: would you pay more for a calendar of penguin photos that was guaranteed unstaged and natural? A whole lot more? And what counts as staging? Does habituating the animals to the presence of a photographer count?

I’m not leading anywhere with this, just providing some of the perspective. And of course, you should have guessed by now that, if I used that image at top for this post, it was staged – look closely and you’ll see the white of the bathtub peeking through the leaves. I tweaked the color and contrast to appear more like natural light conditions. The snake itself was quite wild, however – I had rescued it hours earlier from an old casting net it had become entangled within, and getting these shots earned me several bites and no small amount of juggling as it launched itself from the bathtub (not to mention cleaning the bathtub afterwards.) I was after detail and identifying markings, but is this an adequate excuse? And if I sell it, should there be specific markets I aim for?

[And if it helps, I usually make great effort to shoot in natural settings, and have never misrepresented an image. Just to put your mind at ease ;-) ]

Happy Birthday Hubble

Hubble Floating Free (2002)
Twenty years ago today, the space shuttle Discovery carried a brand new telescope aloft into space, to be settled into orbit the following day. And this was a significant delay over plans – the Challenger accident had occurred only eight months before the tentative launch date of Hubble in October 1986, and set its schedule (as well as everything else) back several years.

The telescope was (and still is) named after Edwin Hubble, the astronomer who determined that the blob we knew as Andromeda was not within our own galaxy, but was a whole other galaxy in itself, and with that discovery he expanded the size of the universe (or what we believed it to be at that time, anyway) by many thousands of times.

Naming the telescope after him was a highly appropriate tribute, but only after a bad false start. A horrifying fact emerged immediately after the first images were transmitted back to Earth: the 2.4 meter diameter primary mirror had been ground incorrectly and was both slightly unfocused and astigmatic. Orbiting in space was a multi-billion-dollar screwup. Image processing programmers created algorithms to correct the images digitally, but this was a workaround and didn’t begin to approach the detail and resolution of the original design. Three and a half years later, the first servicing mission to Hubble replaced both a mirror and a camera and corrected that focusing issue in much the same manner that corrective lenses can assist human vision. It was a phenomenally creative fix for what could have been a disastrous mistake.

And in the years since, Hubble has been responsible for literally hundreds of the most captivating images from space (both images here link directly to much bigger versions from the source,) and has expanded our knowledge of the universe by an immeasurable, but vast, amount. Hubble produced the first measurements to indicate that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating, something that hadn’t been considered before then, and eventually leading to the concept of dark energy (because something has to be causing the acceleration.) And to even make that observation, it first had to pin down the measuring stick more accurately: the spectral shift from distant stars. This alone made our distance measurements far more accurate for all telescopes.

But perhaps the most stunning, and humbling, of images is the Ultra Deep Field photos. Aimed at a (until then) perfectly empty section of space, Hubble took cumulative exposures totaling over ten days and revealed an unreal mass of incredibly distant galaxies, each with millions of stars. And since light takes its own sweet time to get here, what we see is what those galaxies looked like billions of years ago – most have changed or even vanished by now, and all are much, much farther away than when the light that created our images started its journey in this direction. Even that is pretty awe-inspiring: those little photons emitted by countless stars traveled uninterrupted for billions of years and quintillions of kilometers to pass through Hubble’s little aperture and end their journey dumping a minuscule amount of energy into electrons in the cameras’ sensors.

It almost seems rude to halt that trip in our little telescope, but not half as ignominious as the photons who petered out against some little asteroid or dust speck. Even worse, some of those photons might just have produced a smidgen of energy in a satellite’s solar array, boosting the cellphone signal of a photo of someone’s penis…

Like all satellites and spacecraft, Hubble will eventually cease operation, and this is expected sometime within the next few years, whereupon it will be allowed to deorbit and reenter our atmosphere in a safe trajectory – safe, that is, for human population, but rather hard on the telescope itself, which is expected to become little burning chunks. It’ll be a shame, but that emotion is evidence of how successful it was after its shaky start. And it has served its purpose, but we are now moving on to other observations. Hubble is limited to the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation we call “visible light” (and just a little beyond that,) but there’s a lot more to see in other wavelengths, and more scopes to probe them: Spitzer, Chandra, the upcoming Webb, and others yet to come. The pursuit of knowledge moves on and leaves most of its tools behind – that’s how it goes.

Check out Hubble’s site for lots of remarkable images and great info. It’s definitely worth it. And try to see it pass overhead with your own eyes some night before it goes.

Happy Birthday Ben

As I finish typing this, it will be April 15, 2010. My cat Ben, pictured here, turns eighteen years old.

Well, more or less. Ben is a shelter cat, adopted at roughly two months of age in June 1992. He was born sometime in April it would seem, so I arbitrarily picked the middle of the month.

At the time he was adopted, he was a ghost tabby – a black cat with deep grey classic tabby markings, the blotches sometimes described as a “bullseye.” He was also then considered a female, not being the most prepossessing male kitten ever seen in the shelter. So at first, “she” was called Raven, largely because ravens can display much the same coloration sometimes. But around four months, the testicles became apparent, and the adult coat came in – all black, with one little smear of very deep brown on the shoulder. He was renamed “Benedict,” because he was a turncoat of course, and Ben he remained thereafter.

He’s everyone’s friend, and loves company. He’s lived in four different states with me, including this one twice, which is quite a chore for someone who hates being in the car – he’s logged several thousand miles just going to new homes. He’s not very bright, never has been, but he’s amiable.

Ben’s showing his age now, has been for a while, and it was questionable whether he would make this milestone – legal age, able to vote and join the armed forces. It may not be much longer, but I can’t feel too sad about that. He’s hung around longer than many cats do, and been a good friend that whole time. Never got lost, never got terribly sick, no major operations save neutering at six months. He has virtually no teeth now, and his coat gets matted easily – he looks pretty messy (the pic is a few years old.) And of course, he just jumped into my lap right now to help me compose this. No, my mistake, he just wants attention.

Happy birthday, old guy.

Things that go burp in the night

It’s been longer than I planned since my last set of posts, and I actually had something else intended this weekend that didn’t work out – basically, my telescope was way the hell out of collimation. For a reflecting scope to work properly, the mirrors have to be precisely aligned, otherwise you can’t get properly sharp images. It’s still not up to snuff, so I’m leaving that photographic project as a post for another day. I’m digging in my archives for this one.

You might have already guessed by now that I’m fond of photographic experiments. I purchased a used camera kit from someone a while back, and included with it was a Metz Mecablitz 40MZ 3i strobe unit, or a “flash” in the common tongue. And in figuring out what the flash was capable of, I found it had a neat little option: firing off a rapid string of light bursts like a strobe light. With an appropriately long shutter speed and dark conditions, this meant I could use the flash to produce a string of individual images of a moving subject all on the same frame. The very brief duration of each burst of light (probably somewhere between 1/1,000 and 1/10,000 of a second) would “freeze” most subjects and allow for a succession of its progress as it moved, like motion picture frames all combined together. Neat!

Last summer, as I was down at Jordan Lake taking a chance on seeing the Space Shuttle Endeavour cut across the sky (the launch was bumped), I quickly realized the dark night sky was simply bursting with activity, in the form of insects, bats, and one probable nighthawk that cut so close alongside my ear I heard the burr of wings. And suddenly I remembered the flash. Hey, all I needed to do was fire it off as I saw a bat passing, and try to have decent focus!

Yeah, right. There’s only so much power a flash unit can put out, especially if it’s trying to fire off 16 bursts without recharging. That means going for a wide aperture to let in as much light as possible to even get an image, and that means the focus range is very narrow. Not the best thing when going after incredibly fast-moving flying critters that you haven’t even gotten a decent look at, much less a chance to focus. So, the only thing I could really do was take a stab at a focus distance and hope for good luck.

Now, despite what you might think looking at these two images, I actually consider myself lucky to have gotten anything. Sure, I would have liked better, but to capture something really worthwhile I’d probably need to control the conditions a bit better. However, I captured something, I think, more than intended. If you look closely at the top image (and this is a full resolution crop from the original frame,) you’ll notice that the shapes and colors seem to alternate a bit. You would certainly expect a flying subject to be in different positions for each burst, but color and size? What I think I might have caught here was a bat pursuing a moth, right before (or at) capture. I’m open for other explanations – the detail obviously isn’t overwhelming. But it certainly seems to be two different critters there, at different distances from the camera – the smaller one is sharper, and has more mothlike wings.

One other frame, at right, was also successful, to a small degree anyway, and this looks far more like a bat. Again, not in the focus range, but at least I got it better in the frame. The strange background is 16 successive images of the nearby tree, while not holding the camera steady (hey, it was bad enough even trying to see a bat in the dark, there was no way I’d get one to swoop nicely through the frame while the camera was on a tripod.)

Perhaps someday, I’ll tackle the project of getting a good photo, or sequence, of a bat on the wing. But the preparations necessary to increase the odds beyond blind luck are extensive, and I’ll get into that in detail in another post. Or, I could simply shoot madly for long periods of time in the hopes that at least one will come out great, but that’s hardly an efficient way of doing it. This brings us into one of the debating points about nature photography: staging shots. That might even turn out to be more than one post, but not right now. Stay tuned.

On Belief, Part Three

Yeah, yeah, I’ll be back to nature photography or something really cool in the woods or water shortly – I’m just hashing some thoughts out. You won’t be failed for skipping this assignment. And while it can stand alone, it’s an extension of Parts One and Two.

One of the foremost arguments from a great many people, both religious and non (believe it or not,) is the social benefits that come from religion. Yes, faith may be a really poor way of viewing the world, but it provides a few positive aspects as well. Except that, I’m not really so sure about that. I may be biased, but before you jump to that conclusion, hear me out.

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