Cross-Country, uh, Wrestling?

Back in 2009-2010, we decided to spend two weeks in the Canadian Rockies over Christmas and New Year’s.  On this particular day of that trip, I’d managed to talk Pat into renting cross-country skis.

My logic was simple.  It was about -22 degrees Fahrenheit that day.  We were either going to end up sitting in the lobby of our hotel all day (and it was not the kind of lobby you want to hang out in) or we were going to find something to do outdoors that would keep us warm.

I don’t know of any outdoor activity that keeps a person warmer than cross-country skiing.  It’s the equivalent of going running with trekking poles.  You use every muscle in your body, including some you may not have known you had, and the only time you get a rest is if you happen to go downhill.

Since Pat had never cross-country skied before, we chose a flat, groomed trail listed as easy.  This may not have been the best idea–Pat never got to experience what gliding down a gentle hill feels like.  In fact, I don’t think Pat got to experience what gliding felt like at all–for him, cross-country skiing was more of a wrestling match.

As it turns out, cross-country skiing does not keep a person warm when said person must stop and wait for wrestling spouse to catch up every 5 minutes or so.  And, shocking as this may be, being impatiently waited for every 5 minutes or so does not exactly make the wrestling spouse enjoy his wrestling match more.  This was not one of those activities that turned out to be good for our marriage.

I’m better at being patient when I’m not cold and he’s better at learning a new activity when I’m not around doing it better than him.  The fact that he had never done it before and I had did not seem to make him feel any better.  It certainly didn’t keep me any warmer.

I did my best to pretend I was grateful he was taking so long because it gave me time to shoot.  It also allowed us to see some deer along the trail who didn’t notice we were there, possibly because they couldn’t perceive we were in motion.

The trail was 18K to the lake and back.  We had read that doing the first 5K was well worth it.  If we made it out 2K, I would be surprised.  But it was good we turned around when we did–the sun was already getting low in the sky by the time we made it back to our car.  Days are short up North at the end of the year and the darker it gets, the more bitterly cold it gets.

Pat determined we could have hiked faster and declared that we weren’t going to bother with cross-country skis anymore.  So far, he’s a man of his word.

Portraits without Flash

Having spent several hours on post-processing more images from my latest attempt at portraiture, I thought I would do a second post from this shoot.

I mentioned some of the challenges I was unprepared for in my previous post on this topic, but what I didn’t talk about was the flash.  Several month ago, I had the realization that I needed portable lighting while shooting the same couple.

At the time, I had recently invested in some studio lights.  When, however, the couple who volunteered to model for me wanted to shoot outdoors, I was stuck with nothing but the built-in flash on my Canon 40D.  In other words, no lighting at all.

So, I invested in an off-brand, all manual flash and started learning how to use it on a flash stand.  But, when I subsequently upgraded my camera, I got distracted relearning the things I thought I already knew how to do and the flash sat in a corner, unused.

I had started taking an online course on flash photography and learned that maybe my off-brand manual flash wasn’t the best equipment to start with.  That led to me delaying purchasing radio controllers for the flash, thinking I might end up buying the latest, built-in radio flash unit if I figured out what I was doing and decided it made sense.

All of this led to me continuing to use a long cord from the flash stand to the camera when I wanted to us my flash.  And, in case you thought I was never going to get to the point, led to an accident involving knocking over my light stand with the cord when I was attempting to light a mimosa tree a couple months ago.  What I didn’t know was that the adapter broke when the stand fell over.

Having put off scheduling this follow up shoot for so long, I hadn’t had my flash unit out for many weeks.  And, of course, we had a last minute invitation to have dinner with friends before they left to go out of town.  So, in a nutshell, I was rushing to get ready for the shoot before racing off for an early dinner with our friends and then racing back to meet my models for the shoot.

Which means, I didn’t discover the broken adapter until I got to the location and was trying to figure out how to make it work.  After fiddling around with it enough to get it to mount sideways with the flash twisted back to the front, I realized I wasn’t going to have enough power to light both of my subjects from far enough away to shoot wide enough to capture the setting, which my models wanted in their images.  So, after waiting months to shoot them outdoors with a flash, I was stuck with natural light after all.

This is a really long way of saying being prepared might be a good idea.  🙂

Snow Surprise

Because I am taking a learn to row class 5 days a week and recovering from said rowing class the other 2 days a week, I have not been doing a lot of shooting lately.  As such, I have returned to my photos from our 2010 trip to Glacier National Park.

We stayed at Glacier Park Lodge a couple of nights at the end of our stay in the park.  Getting to the lodge is not difficult.  It’s an easy drive from West Glacier.  What is less easy is the long drive up the East side of the park to St. Mary’s Lake.

The memory of one early morning drive up the East side of the park still haunts me.  Montana has a “fence out” rule about livestock–if you don’t want them on your property, put up a fence.  Otherwise, they’re free to range.  While I don’t know enough about the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to argue for or against, I do know that it resulted in two dead horses spread across the road at about 7AM one morning.  As we drove past, my stomach lurched and I hoped they died quickly.  We were debating who one is supposed to call when there are two dead horses on the road when, a couple miles down the road, we passed a front loader headed at full speed toward the gory scene.  I had to look away.  The thought of the horses being scooped up in a front loader was a little too much for me.

But, on to happier thoughts.  When we awakened our first morning in the lodge, we discovered an unexpected snow had moved in overnight.  While Pat slept in, I wandered around the lodge looking for photo ops.

A red jammer was parked in front of the lodge loading up a group of senior citizens for a tour.  I perched up on a walkway above the scene and started shooting this historic vehicle.  About then, the snow started sliding off the roof of the hotel in enormous chunks.  One tiny lady (the top of her head is just visible through the window of an open jammer door if you look closely in the photo) got pummeled repeatedly by chunks of snow before someone ran over and shielded her.  I felt a little guilty standing there shooting, but I was quite out of reach.

When Pat got up, we drove to the small town nearby (Browning) in the Blackfeet Indian reservation (and yes, it is called “Indian” and not “Native American” there for whatever reason) where we found a trading post that sold rubber boots.  Pat bought a pair and we proceeded to go take an easy walk around a lake before driving up to St. Mary’s.

On the way to St. Mary’s, we encountered many cows on the road.  We also had to pull over so I could shoot some of the scenery with snow.  It might have been unseasonably cold, but it was beautiful.

Crap Shoot

When Pat called to tell me that Mars, Saturn, and Spica were all going to be in the vicinity of the moon the other night, I, of course, had to get out my camera.  It’s a funny thing about astronomical events.  I get all excited because I get a chance to get a picture of white dots in the sky.  I could probably put white dots in a shot of twilight a lot more easily and I wouldn’t have to wait for the actual event to occur.

But, as it turns out, I’m somewhat old fashioned when it comes to photography.  This is rather strange given that I’m a relative new comer to the art.  For whatever reason, I prefer to attempt to capture the real white dots in the sky as opposed to creating my own.

That said, what does one do when one walks away from shooting and, the next day, looks at the images and smacks oneself in the forehead and rolls one’s eyes while wondering what in the heck one was thinking during the previous evening’s shoot?

I had a vague notion that maybe I could take a bunch of exposures and then combine them using Photomatix to create star trails, I guess.  I think I would have needed to shoot for about 3 more hours to create decent star trails.

But there were other problems with my shooting.  First, I couldn’t see Saturn, Spica, or Mars when I looked through the view finder.  As a result, I didn’t shoot as tight as I should have and I ended up with the moon lower in my frame than I would have liked because I guessed wrong as to where they were.

I have to pause here for a moment.  Why is it you can look at the sky and see something plain as day and then look through your viewfinder and have it disappear?  It was even worse trying to use live view mode.  I had to give up on that entirely.  Perhaps if I would have waited longer after twilight the planets and star would have shown up better in the sky.  As it was, I was trying to catch the deep blue of twilight–was there ever a better color of blue?

Having come up with mostly crap, I decided to play with HDR processing a bit more than usual.  I tried combining photos that were not actually shot in a sequence for combining.  I turned off the features that align images and remove ghosts.  I created a scene where we have two moons in one image.  In another, I just ended up with what looked like sun spots reflected in the lens.  It was fun to play with it even though I didn’t really get anything I like out of it.

As an aside, Tisen’s girlfriend, Twiggy, is staying with us again this week.  I caught them napping on the couch together.  They swore they were just napping.  I believe them.

Shoot

I haven’t used the flash in many weeks.

I actually bought the flash because I needed it when trying to shoot a couple for their “Save the Date” announcements.  The plan was to do a follow up shoot to get something they can use for a decorative idea the bride had for their wedding reception.  However, it took weeks for me to get the flash unit and figure out how to use it.  Then, I had the new camera I was trying to learn to use and they were busy.  Finally, we scheduled a date but then it rained.  I would love to shoot in the rain, but I don’t think that’s what they’re looking for.

At long last, this Sunday I pulled out my flash stand and flash again and we went off to the Nature Center and Arboretum.  Assignment:  Get a shot of the happy couple in a natural setting that reflects how much they enjoy the outdoors.

Fortunately, they are members of the Nature Center so we were able to shoot up until dusk.  This was very helpful.

 

When we arrived, the first problem was the weather.  It was so incredibly hot and humid.  It hurt to breathe.  I felt a little sorry for myself lugging around so much equipment in the heat, but the bride-to-be was wearing what looked to be the most uncomfortable dress, so I stopped feeling sorry for myself and was grateful I didn’t have to wear anything hot.

The second problem was the insects.  I know my precious birds wouldn’t survive long if there weren’t a gazillion insects for them to eat, but I really resent that insects find me so tasty.  I guess better me than the bride.

The third problem was the sun.  It was far too bright when we arrived, leading to many squinty pictures.  We moved into a shady area to shoot until the sun started to drop, but this led to the fourth problem:  the place was completely surrounded by trees.  The sun went from too high and bright to too dark in a matter of minutes.

But the final, and most difficult problem to solve was me.  I find myself having no interest in thinking of interesting poses (or looking for poses on the internet).  I’m so focused on the subjects faces that I have to force myself to notice anything else.  I’m looking for a moment of expression when the muscles relax and just do what they really do.  Sometimes it’s very subtle.  I don’t really care if the hair is perfect or if the clothes are smooth or anything else because all I want to see is that split second when the muscles of the face sink into an unforced expression.

I find I do care about the out-of-place clothes and hair after the fact, unfortunately.  They make a difference when they distract, I find.  I just wish they would distract me a bit before I shot the photo.

Feeder Watch

Apparently there were more exciting things going on in Chattanooga last Saturday than sitting around watching bird feeders because I was the only one at the visitor’s center diligently watching the feeders.  However, this gave me the opportunity to get some shots of the birds that I wouldn’t have been able to get had a crowd of people showed up, so it worked out just as well.

The House Finches were the most plentiful by far.  There seemed to be a couple of males who had collected large harems.  Or, perhaps they were couples who had many almost-adult daughters but no sons?

The cardinals and titmice were close seconds in number.  One of the feeders at the visitor’s center has a mechanism that closes off access to the seed if something heavy lands sits on the perch.  This keeps squirrels off of the feeder.  However, it also means only one bird can perch and feed at a time.  This creates a great study of bird learning.

Some arrive, see another bird on the feeder eating and attempt to join it.  If the bird eating is an experienced and assertive bird, it will flap and squawk at the newcomer, attempting to deter it from landing.  If successful, the newcomer will go perch nearby and wait until the first bird leaves or it gets impatient.

If it gets impatient, it may land on the perch far enough away from the second bird so that it leaves it alone.  However, the extra weight causes the perch to lower and the doors to the seed close.  Then both birds fly away and, usually, a third bird swoops in to take advantage of the opening before the other two birds can regroup.

Some birds simply give up and join the squirrels on the ground hoping for someone to knock out a bunch of seed while eating.  They are joined by the birds that prefer to eat off the ground regardless.

For me, I got a rare close look at both a male and female Eastern Towhee.  I say rare because I rarely saw them in Columbus and so far, in Chattanooga, they have mostly been perched high in the tree tops when I’ve seen them.  Apparently all I needed was a feeder.  Chipping Sparrows seemed to keep them company.

Even though the brown-headed nuthatch is a common bird here, having never seen one before, I was pretty stoked to get to see three of them gathering at the feeder.  They don’t make it up North, so I’ve only seen white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches in the past.

Not at the feeders, but nearby, a Carolina Wren called from the gate.  Then, a Brown Thrasher showed up under a feeder-less tree.  If that wasn’t enough, a wild tom turkey went strutting by the parking lot fence and crossed the railroad tracks in plain view.  We’d seen a whole family the last time I was there, but Tom was fun to watch, too.

Not a bad birding day.

Going Dark

I am not a woman of my word.  I have sworn off shooting sunsets so many times now, I don’t know how anyone can believe me if I say I’m not going to shoot anymore of them.  This is an unexpected side effect of having a great view–I seem to notice the sunset much of the time.  It may also be a side effect of being in a river valley where interesting clouds form on a regular basis.  I still haven’t figured out if sunsets are really that much more beautiful here that much more of the time or if I just wasn’t paying attention when we lived in Columbus.

I originally shot these each with 5 different exposures thinking I might want to process them using Photomatix for an HDR effect.  However, I found I liked the slightly under exposed images enough that I didn’t bother with the HDR processing.  In fact, these are barely post-processed at all.  They are very close to what came out of the camera.

It’s funny how watching a sunset with a camera in hand can quickly result in about 100 photos (or more) of virtually the same thing.  I am learning to wait between shots.  I wait until something really spectacular happens or until a few minutes have passed.  I figure, on the one hand, you don’t know what the peak moment was until after the entire sunset is over, and then it’s too late to go back and shoot the best moment.  However, I want there to be enough difference between shots that I don’t sit there staring at them trying to decide if one is actually any different than another.

The first time I went to San Diego many, many years ago, I took a little film camera.  Something cheap and horrible that had tiny little negatives and was fully automatic, I’m sure.  I shot an entire roll of film of one sunset but we only watched it for a total of 15 minutes.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t even the last 15 minutes of sunset or, even better, the last 5 minutes of sunset and the first 10 minutes of dusk.  It was just 15 minutes of the sun moving lower in the sky with a couple wisps of clouds that turned a little bit more pink over a roll of film.  Then I was stuck with a stack of photos that looked nearly identical that I didn’t want to get rid of because they were prints.

Now, I have 5 exposures of each shot to delete–I’m already filling up a 2TB hard drive.   This is precisely why I swore off shooting sunsets.

Plus, relaxing into sunset is a little easier when I’m not shooting.  Shooting makes me busy with my camera, changing settings and getting in position and checking to see what I got.  It’s not the same as sitting back in an Adirondack chair, drink in hand, and watching the dark chase the light over the horizon.

Cloudland

We made it back to Cloudland Canyon for the 3rd time a weekend ago.  We managed to hike the West Rim trail after going there once completely unprepared to hike and once just to show friends the views from the parking lot overlooks.

This time, we went prepared.  Well, semi-prepared.  I decided to wear my monkey feet (as Pat calls them)–my black five fingers shoes–since they’re by far the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever hiked in.  However, they’re not so good on sharp stones and there were plenty of those.  That led to Tisen and Pat having to wait on me while I picked my way over the trail.

The other issue was that I opted not to bring a tripod, but I had a polarizer on my wide angle lens since we were hiking during some of the worst light of the day.  I love my polarizer when I need it.  I does wonders to cut out the bright reflections and remove glare from a scene.  However, there are two problems with a polarizer.  First, a stop and a half of light is a pretty high cost to pay when you are tripod-less.  Second, a polarizer works best when it is used at 90 degrees to the sun.  When hiking, one does not have control over what the angle to the sun is.  So, sometimes it does it’s thing well and sometimes it doesn’t.

The part I didn’t think about before taking off down the trail was whether I would want to remove the polarizer and, if so, what I would do with it when I did.  This meant I either had to shoot with it on or I had to recruit Pat to hold it for me.  Given that it was mostly overcast that day, I probably would have been better off without it.  I had to scrap many photos because of movement blur due to slow shutter speeds.

But enough technical talk.  Cloudland Canyon was beautiful that day.  With big puffy clouds appearing and disappearing as sunshine streamed around them one minute and rain streamed from them the next.

We got wet more times than I counted.  This was another thing I was unprepared for, rain.  It was so hot, I had no need for a rain jacket–the water simply steamed off of my skin.  But, my camera wasn’t that hot.  Fortunately, I had packed a wide-brimmed hat which worked well to shield my camera each time it rained.

Tisen did amazing on the trail.  He stayed much closer than he has in the past and stopped when told to stop.  He could teach Pat a thing or two.

After completing the 5 mile hike around the West Rim of the canyon, we got a nice shower on our way to the car.  We piled in as quickly as possible–the rain started to pour down hard about the time we were ready to go.

It was a great day.

Birding 101

Birds reveal themselves to me slowly.  I must see them many times before I understand who they are, what they look like, what interests them, what they sound like, and I can recognize them like an old friend.

When I hear a bubbling American Goldfinch flying by behind me, I smile to myself, envisioning it’s scooping flight pattern, called “zooming” in hang gliding school.  How the goldfinch must love the zip of the dive followed by the lift, stalling and diving again and again, riding its invisible roller coaster and able to stay airborne because, unlike a hang glider, it can flap.

When I see a Great Blue Heron gliding in for a landing at the wetland, I know that the theory that dinosaurs did not all become extinct but some evolved into birds is true.  If ever there was a remnant of a pterodactyl, surely it’s the great blue heron with its crooked neck gliding awkwardly on giant wings, miraculously able to perch high in a tree on it’s fragile, stilted legs.

And now, I am pursued by brilliant Indigo Buntings.  They perch and sing their songs to me, over and over, determined that I will recognize the sound of their voice.  At long last I have learned to know them by their song.  I can smile and look and see a tiny silhouette off in a distant tree top, point, and say, “There is an Indigo Bunting.”  It seems like magic to those who have not listened to the bunting’s song 3x a day for months.  It seems like magic to me, even though I have.

No matter how familiar a few birds have become to me, there is always another bird to meet.  My latest friends are fly catchers.  The Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher is easy to recognize.  But the Eastern Phoebe and the Eastern Wood Pewee still manage to confuse me even though I thought I knew what a Phoebe looked like for many years now.  My human friends play the same trick on me–I often recognize them only to discover I’m saying hello to a complete stranger.  At least the Phoebe tells me its name over and over again in its distinct call of “Fee – bee.”

These are things I like to share with others.  I love to see people get excited about seeing a bird for the first time that they’ve walked by without notice for decades.  I love to see someone realize that a bird they thought they knew looks completely different up close through binoculars.

For this reason, I have started leading beginning bird walks for the Audubon Society.  I am not the best birder in the world–there are many species I would be hard pressed to even guess at.  But, having struggled long and hard to learn what I do know, I know what’s helped me learn it.  Maybe that’s why people say “those who can’t do, teach”?

Regardless, I’m happy to share smiles, even if it’s over a robin.

Bloodroot

I don’t have photos to go with what I want to write about today (thankfully).  In looking for photos, I stumbled across these macro images of bloodroot flowers, blooming in the early spring, lasting only a few days, and then blowing away in the wind.  This seems like the perfect symbolism for the topic on my mind.

I scanned the names of the dead from the Aurora massacre, hoping not to recognize any of the names, having worked with many colleagues in the vicinity.  I didn’t.  But it broke my heart anyway.

I cannot imagine what makes a person start buying weapons for a war and then go wage that war in a local movie theater.  It’s the most troubling part of the whole thing:  Why?

There have been times when I have said I wanted to kill someone.  What I meant was I wanted to have the power to make the other person regret whatever it was they did that upset me.  Even in my fantasies this is accomplished via a stern and thoroughly brilliant speech.

I ponder this feeling for a moment.  I wonder where the line is between being angry and imagining some sort of reckoning where we are righteous and brave and we smite our enemy versus actually resorting to physical violence?

I also wonder how much the anger and frustration I unleash upon the world creates more anger and frustration in a domino effect.

When I used to ride my bike 26 miles to work and back, if I rode with the expectation that cars were going to run me over and the attitude that I wanted to “kill” them for it, I frequently got honked at, buzzed, and generally terrified by passing cars even though I did not perceive myself to be riding any differently.

When I rode so thoroughly enjoying the ride that I didn’t have any space left for anger, I realized I smiled and waved at drivers whenever they did anything considerate, feeling grateful they were thinking of me.  No one ever honked at me when I rode with this attitude.  I didn’t get buzzed and I wasn’t terrified.

Is it possible we ultimately can prevent killing sprees with something as simple as a smile?

If we can make a connection, can a potential killer see us as real?  That is, see us as they see themselves–intertwined, interdependent, beautiful flesh and blood?  Shouldn’t finding that connection, nourishing it, keeping it alive as long as possible be our top priority no matter where we are, who we’re with, or what we’re doing?

Maybe we can’t stop someone from becoming a killer, but maybe we can at least reduce the number of people who walk around fantasizing about killing people.  And maybe that will lead to more smiles and a little more joy all around.  After all, if I’m going to get gunned down by a homicidal maniac, I’d like to have spent the time I had smiling.