Category: Photo Comments
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
– Tao Te Ching
Saturday, December 19, 2009. In the small hours of the morning snow falls gently to the ground. I wake up, watch, doze back off. The shiny black streets and sidewalks tell me that it’s too warm for snow crystal photos. Maybe later, maybe in the morning, maybe in dreamland.
In the morning a thin layer of crusty snow and ice rests atop automobiles and cold garage roofs. The gentle snow persists – why not try, just a few photos…
Here’s the best of a very brief excursion – and I like it. I think it is one of the best photos I’ve made all year, and I say that in December. And I like it because it is unlike anything I have ever seen before, or done before. It is a one drop oasis in the vast desert of sameness – and yep, my photos – so many of them – are right out there in the badlands. Sometime a drop of water is more refreshing than you expect.
A lightly different take on the photo can be found at the Story of Snow blog.
Of course – the photos don’t change. The photographer does, however. So often the perception of a photo is tainted by the impression we had when taking it, the subject matter, or even how we were feeling at the instant when the shutter button was snapped. All those things are distinct from the final image that is made, but still influence our own subjective impressions.
And sometimes our initial impressions of a photo may lead us to dismiss it, simply because it didn’t seem significant at the time that it was taken. That was the case with the photo shown here - Chicago Harbor . At the time it was taken, I felt that that the sailboats were order less and akimbo, the details of the lighthouse and break water were too insignificant, and that the water and sky lacked punch.
But after a little work in Photoshop the sky and the water started to work, and I started to like the boats, each heading in its own direction.
I might hate it in a week, but after pulling some 12x12 inch prints, right now I like this shot.
This was a surprise to me. On Friday, March 30, I headed out to the woods south of Kalamazoo, to see how the wildflowers were coming. Last year I made my first excursion to this place on April 7. At that time the woods was still covered with dead leaves. There was no wild garlic, and just a few hepatica flowers poked out of the ground.
This year, things are far more advanced. The wild garlic is already out in large green clumps. The smallest trees are starting to leaf out, and the woods was full not only with hepatica, but also with the first few springs of spring beauty, false rue anemone, and blood root. The blue hepatica, which seems to be one of the first wildflowers to arrive on the scene, was particularly beautiful.
Last year, I worked with reflectors and diffusers, and approached the flower blossoms from a straight on, almost documentary perspective. I was interested in the work of Karl Blossfeldt, which studied the forms and structures of various botanical subjects. Like snow crystals, the individual wildflower booms express an exquisite sense of design, with symmetry and structure, form and variation, all coming together.
The current feature photo is a nice example of this approach (at least in my opinion.) The image gets its strength from the patterns of color in the flower, and the repetition and variation of the forms in the petals and stamens.
This year I stuck with that approach, but experimented with using a more shallow depth of field, less diffuse light, and with a more angled and less straight on, documentary approach. I guess there is only so much that you can do with a flower – and I was not excited about repeating last year’s work.
Friday was a great day in the woods. I arrived at 10:30 am, and spent the day shooting lots and lots of wild flowers, plus several landscape shots of the spring woods, just starting to come to life. I left in the late afternoon – muddy, sore from squatting, kneeling, twisting and turning to capture various shots.
In the course of the day I managed to break my old and trust Bogen 3021 tripod (maybe Mr. Bogen can sit on his tripods – but I can’t!) And, before the day was over I had bought a version of the same tripod. The new tripod gets down a lot lower than my decade old version, so I’m looking forward to getting out again at the end of this week, and working with the new flowers that will be at hand.
Last year I spent a lot of time with the wildflowers, and they seemed to unfold in a slow and regular progression, day by day, week by week. Over the course of just 5 weeks – from early April to mid May, the wildflowers came out in a steady progression. This year things seem to be moving much more quickly, and without the progression of species that I saw last year. I suspect that the season will come and go more quickly this year.
This year I also noted that the hepatica was literally a buzz with native bees, hover flies, drone flies, and other pollinators – so let’s hope that presages and early start to the insect photography season.
Larger shots, and several dozen other images from Friday, and be found in the Image Stream.
The seasons are changing with astounding speed. Just three weeks ago I was outside in the 25 degree temperatures, capturing the last snow crystal shots of the season. Two week sago I ventured into the Allegan forest, only to get stuck in almost a foot of wet, slushy snow on one of the side roads.
But then by the middle of this week I was able to snap a shot of a bee dancing in a crocus flower. Yesterday I ventured back into the Allegan Forest, only to find the snow all but gone – just a few traces lingering on the north side of hills and ditches. The roads were not only clear, they were dry, and very first blue hepatica already were blooming! Spring is indeed coming up fast.
I was glad to be able to get into the Allegan forest after the winter reprieve. While the small seasonal roads remained passable until mid January, once the winter snows began to fall in earnest there was no way to get back into the woods – at least not with my car. So the trips that I mad out there were all pretty superficial, just short excursions from the main roads, hikes back into the woods a bit. Usually I was walking (without snow shoes) in knee to thigh deep snow, which made even those short hikes difficult.
Yesterday I was able to venture back into some the Oak Savanna clearings. These are bleak places yet, but already the vegetation is starting to come to life.
The snow melt off was hurried along by a few days of heavy rains, so there was a tremendous amount of water run off. But the extremely sandy soil in the Allegan Forrest was already pretty dry. The thick moss that carpets the ground in many areas of the pine barrens was soft and spongy – by June it will be dry and crunchy.
My first walk around was in a section of Oak Savanna north of the Kalamazoo River. It’s a great place to get photos of all sorts of butterflies and dragonflies in the summer, and is also the home to a lot of interesting birds and, of course, deer. There wasn’t much happening here on this day – I did fine a hawk’s feather jabbed into the ground, and a few other feathers and small bones laying on the ground. Perhaps an unwary hawk swoped in to scavenge a bite from an animal carcass, and was nabbed by a fox or a coyote.
I then followed the road back to a bluff overlooking the Kalamazoo river. It must be turkey season, because there were several hunters blasting away in the woods. At the top of the bluff I found that a tree that had been hanging onto the sandy hilltop had fallen over since I was last there. This is a spot where people come to shoot skeets and have bon fires, so it looks like there will be an good supply of wood for future fires.
In the pine forest along the top of the bluff, I became interested in the details of the bark of the pine trees. I took several shots,, trying to capture the patterns and sometimes very bright colors found in the tree bark. These were not typical pictures of trees – but a fun and interesting subject for exploration nonetheless.
I then made my way down the steep trail to the river’s bank. The water was well into flood stages and the trees in the flood plain made for another interesting photographic topic.
But then as I was turning back, I was surprised to see blue hepatica already flowering on the hillside I had just climbed down. I assume that the steep, south facing hillside warmed up quickly, resulting in the flowers blooming at this early time. I was doubly surprised because the Allegan Forest, as former farm land, there are few solid patches of woodland wildflowers there at all. And these hepatica definitely were a week or two ahead of what I’d expect, since the harbinger of Spring (a few samples of which were also found in Allegan) is just starting to bloom in Kalamazoo.
But it was a welcome surprise and I was able to snap the first wildflowers shots of the year. Given my work schedule I won’t be able to devote the time and effort to wildflowers that I would like. But – I’ll be pursuing them as much as possible.
After leaving the river I made stops to several other areas within the forest. Like I said, the snow was gone but there were still several large mud patches in the roads. I delt with these by just revving up to 40 or 50 mph, and plowing through them - relying on the momentum of the car to carry me through the muck, which in several cases was deep enough and thick enough to snag the car.
I didn’t see any bees, and the first dragonflies of the year are probably just in the process of migrating up from southern Illinois and Indiana. But – they will be here soon.
Other photos from the day can be found in the Image Stream .
So here it is – the first full day of spring. Every March I hope to glean a shot of a honey bee in one of the handful of crocus flowers that bloom in the yard. This year was no exception, and with the sudden arrival of a warm front, I went out late this evening to see if the bees were buzzing.
One lone Apis mellifera was out, making her way through the crocus flowers. Last weekend I devised a new flash bracket to work with the Pentax K10D, and I wanted to try it out and also get a preliminary assessment of the K10D’s anti-shake feature for macro shots.
The bee didn’t hang around for long – was already past 7 pm when I stepped out and the sun was setting into a cloud bank, that is drizzling rain as I type this. I still used the Slik monopod, but the K10D and the flash worked well – a happy harbinger of future insect images to come over the next few months.
Last fall I noted that honey bees are among the first and the last of all insects to appear in spring and fall, and once again they made their arrival right on schedule. And to think that a few weeks ago I doubted that it would be even close to warm enough by now for a bee, or any insect, to appear.
I've been worried about the bees this spring. A new disease is killing off the domestic honey bees, so I wondered if I would see any. But I saw this one, and that makes me glad for now.
As I've noted many times before, you never know when you see the last bug - either the last of the season or the last forever. Its only in hide-sight that you say "Hey, that was the last time..."
This won't be the last time - but I worry that, with the plight of the honey bee, there will be a last time that I see a honey bee, Apis mellifera.
The flash bracket is one of the usual contrivances, made from hardware store L-braces and other bits and bobs. A photo of it, with the K10D and A*200 f4 macro, is shown below.
Home made is alright by me.
This little bee stands in stark contrast to the toy camera shots I posted yesterday. If you love subject matter then well gosh, here you got a cute bug and a pretty flower. But I love the bees just as I love the little dots and toy camera shots.
In the end, it’s all the same stuff..
Yesterday I headed off to the Allegan Forest for the first time in several weeks. I had visited the forest in early winter, and again during some the coldest days of late January. But yesterday was the first really warm day we’ve had for some time, so I was eager to head out and see how the forest looked.
Allegan is closer to the lake than Kalamazoo, and so it gets a lot more snow. Lake effect snow. And as I headed down the main dirt roads, time and time again I saw some of my favorite two track roads, all too buried in snow to be passable. At least in my Subaru.
Finally I made my way to 121st street – definitely not a two track, and definitely a well traveled road. But still a seasonal road, not plowed or cleared of snow in the winter.
There were a lot of vehicle tracks leading down 121st street, and so I decided to head in. After a couple dozen yards I realized that the slushy melting snow under the wheels was not working. I decided to back out – and carefully started to back up towards the main road.
It only took a second to slide off the packed down tire tracks and slip into the deep, slushy snow. The car stopped, the wheels spun, and for all my rocking forward and back, I was stuck for good.
So there I was. I called home, my wife looked up a wrecker service in Allegan on the internet, I called them and waited for the truck to come. In the pre-cellphone days I would of had to walk the mile or so to the ranger station (whcih is often empty) or flagged down a passing motorist (who are rather scarce out in the woods.)
I had set aside the day to try to scrounge out some photos – so, while I was waiting I figured I may as well take a few shots.
Stuck in the woods under blue skies with the sun shining through the trees. The obvious landscapes shots were wanting. I started to think about Harry Callahan and his shots of grass stalks in the snow. Instead of grass stalks in the snow, I was captivated with the shadows of small saplings and tree branches – really twigs – on the snow. And so I spent half and hour shooting shadows in the snow. I probably wouldn’t of done it if I hadn’t gotten stuck there, but I’m glad I did. No masterpieces, no compelling photos – but an interesting exercise, maybe something worth pursuing in the future.
When the wrecker came we tried digging the car out of the snow with shovels. I don't think the truck operator wanted to venture too far back on the side road.
It didn’t work. The slushy snow was compacted into ice half a foot down – and it was on that ice that I was just spinning my wheels.
So we hooked my car up to the truck with a long rope and with one small tug it wound up back on the packed down snow – the path I was originally trying to follow. A minute or two in reverse and I was back on the plowed road, $75 poorer but better for the time spent among the shadows.
From there I decided to head to safer ground, so I drove over to South Haven the check out the lighthouse. A few weeks ago I had been there in a howling snow squall, but today all was calm. It was also uncannily warm, as I walked out onto the pier in shirt sleeves, the ice on the pier melted or melting.
The lighthouse was still fringed with icicles – but with predicted highs up around 60 F in the next few days, these won’t last.
As usual, a steady stream of photographers was snapping away at the lighthouse. I always enjoy my visits to the lake - but lihthouses are sort of a subject matter of last resort. I probably would have done better to have stuck with the shadows and snow, whether stuck in the snow or not.
Here it is, mid March, and the winter is fading fast. I once shot a honey bee in a crocus bloom on the 19th of March. This year the news is that the honey bees have suffered a drastic die-off over the winter, so maybe no bees this year. But something will come along. A lot of snow has to melt – but things should be picking up in the weeks ahead.
More shadows and snow can be found in the Image Stream.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves." -- Wm. Shakespeare
Yesterday, for the first time in far too long, I headed out to photograph along the Lake Michigan shoreline. My destination was one of my favorite spots – the Northpoint Conservation district, located just north of the VanBuren State Park.
I shouldn’t blame the weather for my lack of productivity these last few months, but I do. It’s been dark, bleak, and uncannily warm this winter. Most winters are dark, bleak, and cold. There’s something about stepping out into frosty cold morning air that snaps you out of the malaise that cloudy bleak days bring on. To some extent, winter’s cold is an antidote to the winter blahs – and stepping out into a dark morning in 30 or 40 something temperatures just deepens the sense of malaise.
Well, again, I shouldn’t blame the weather.
So yesterday I schlepped to Northpoint with the Pentax K10D. I really love this camera, though I haven’t had a chance to do much with it yet. At Northpoint I snapped a variety of landscape shots, pictures of trees, shots of the ruins that are claimed to be Al Capone’s incomplete villa, and photos of the big lake.
Not much came of the day. The two shots I like the most are shown here, more are in the image stream.
“Lake Michigan In January” is my favorite of the day. Two years ago I took in an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s waterscapes. My shot is obviously inspried by (and derived from) his work. But what the heck – it was the first time I could stand on the bluff overlooking the lake and not have to worry about the wind blowing the camera over.
A good degree of manipulation was applied to this shot – the vignetting in particular is a post exposure construct. But ultimately, I like how it looks.
“Fungus and Leaves” is my other pick from the trip. (You know you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when you sing the praises of fungus.) The warm weather has left the fungus green. (I’m no botanist but I’d swear fungus doesn’t have any green chlorophyll in it…) Well, maybe the algae that lives on the fungus is green. Anyhow, the green fungus and brown leaves on a dead tree limb that was sinking into the muck made for an interesting study.
Oh, I wish it would get cold and snow…
But the fault lies not in the weather, but in myself. Every second in every place there are great photos waiting to be taken - but woe the milky eye (or spirit) that cannot see...
“If the little fox, after nearly completing the crossing, gets his tail in the water, nothing is accomplished..”
"Those are pearls that were his eyes."
It’s been snowing here in west Michigan, the steady wave after wave of lake effect snow that comes with the first real blast of arctic air. And so tonight brought the second round of snowflake photography of the winter.
Unlike the wildflowers or dragonfly chronicles, I have few new observations to offer about day to day changes in the environment. The garage remains essentially unchanged.
The sustained cold spell has meant that the garage has cooled down quickly, and unlike last year when it took weeks for the interior temperature to drop comfortably below freezing, this winter the garage is already quite cold.
So – on with the snow crystal photography.
First off, I decided to abandon using the new Pentax K10D for this venture. It’s a great camera and I’ll be posting a rave review of it in due time, but it really is not the best tool for this job. I need TTL flash that works with an archaic system of bellows, extension tubes, and reverse mounted lenses. The K10D’s flash system is marvelous – but no longer has the backwards compatibility to work with this kind of setup. So, my trusty *ist-D has a permanent commission.
So tonight I picked up more or less where I left off, catching snow flakes on a glass plate. I was not happy with the results of session from a few days ago. I have my excuses – the snow crystals were of poor quality, I was struggling to adapt to new gear, the garage had not quite cooled down enough, etc… Tonight ‘s results are a bit better – I can raise some of the same complaints, but I feel a little closer to the flow of things now.
After all – one of my best snowflake photographs was taken on a March day. Then the crystals were only so-so and in the warm temperatures they melted as they hit the glass. But still the results were fine.
When you enter a body of water, you walk through the shallow areas. That’s the awkward phase. But suddenly you reach a point where the water lifts you, and if you can swim awkwardness is gone and movement is easy. And then you reach the point where the current carries you along, and you are really in the flow of things.
At this point, with snowflake photography, I’m still wading into the river. My ankles are wet. I waded into it with wildflower photography last spring and with dragonfly photos in the summer. Eventually the current took hold, and I drifted along for a while. Maybe my sorrow at the passing of the dragons was just an expression of the frustration of being washed ashore again.
Better snow crystals are on the way - maybe not in the next post, or even the post after, but in time.
The handful of snow flake photographs from tonight's session can be found in the Image Stream.
Although late fall and early winter is a definite off season for outdoor photography in Michigan, I still carry a Holga or other toy camera around in the car. It’s more or less drive-by shooting – when something of interest catches my eye I either hold the camera up to the window, or hop out of the car, and grab a quick shot.
Here are a few recent (late October – November) shots. The full set is in the image stream.
“Waiting for a Train” is probably the best of the batch. Probably because I had so much time available to work on perfecting the shot (I really was waiting on a rather long train.). There’s something appealing about the basic sense of perspective in a shot like this.
Scanning the film introduced a few annoyances, though. I often marvel at the ability of the film scanner to pull detail out of the thinnest of negatives. In this case the lower potion of the train is all but clear on the film – there’s nothing there, not light got in and hit those silver crystals.
But still the scanner tries to pull more detail out. In this case the result is a lot of noise mucking up what should be the dark, near silhouette of the train. Well, maybe a re-scan will help things along….
The skeleton is, of course, a Halloween decoration. In this case it was hanging blandly on the front door a house near a stop light. The original capture on the Holga was OK, but boring. So it was transformed from a junk-camera shot, to a junk-manipulated digital image. Of well, you gotta do something to keep from being bored in the cold dark months…
Winter has pounced on Michigan like a cat landing on an unsuspecting mouse. Where just a week or so ago we were enjoying balmy temperatures in the mid sixties, now waves of lake effect snow are rolling in. The temperatures today didn’t get much above 20 F.
And so – time to start snow crystal photography again! This year I’m somewhat prepared – I put together the bellows, macro lens, and lighting setup a few weeks ago, and also cleared out a small space on the table in the garage.
Usually, it takes several days after the first serious cold snap and snow storm before the garage actually cools down to a temperature below freezing – but the deep cold of the last 48 hours has moved that process along pretty well.
And so this evening marked the first snow crystal session of the winter. Overall, it was not too productive.
The first attempt at shooting snow crystals is usually an exercise in re-learning. It’s been months since the last shoot, and getting the eye for the fine focus (no easy thing looking through a foot of extension), lining up the shots, dealing the virtually no depth of field – all this comes back, but only after a few hours of fiddling, remembering, and getting back in synch.
And then there is the snow. Today’s snow was (and still is) coming down too hard, too clumped together. The individual crystals that I did try to get had bounced out of larger clumps, and showed the signs of that passage. The air is more humid that it will be later in the season, and the snow crystals that do emerge individually have more effervescence on them, than the crisp clear crystals of mid winter.
Topping it off, I decided to use the new Pentax K10D for this work. Having only had the camera for a few days, I wasn’t sure how it would fare in the cold, and with this sort of extreme macro photography.
The K10D had a few surprises in store for me as well. First off what the discovery that P-TTL does not seem to work with a reverse mounted lens on manual bellows and extension tubes. As a result the flash fired at full power no matter what. It’s always possible that I had things configured wrong – working with long flash cords in sub-freezing temperatures is an invitation for error – but the flash kept defaulting back to just plain “TTL” mode – an older setting not supported by the new camera body.
Well, manual flash is pretty easy to use with a digital body, so I just flipped over to that, adjusted the power settings, and started shooting. The speed of the new camera (its very fast) made it a real pleasure to work with, and the large LCD in back made it easy to assess the quality of shots as they were being taken. And happily, the rechargeable battery seemed to hold up despite the cold and prolonged period of operation.
At the end of the day, I’ll probably go back to the 6 megapixel *ist-D for snow crystal work, if only for the flexibility of TTL flash and being able to use the body’s exposure compensation to fine tune the flash power.
As for the day’s shoot – well, nothing here that would make it into the permanent snow crystal gallery. But then I think about that bleak day in March when I took the first wildflower shots of the spring – and how a pretty good wildflower season rose up out of that humble beginning.
Snowflakes are winter’s wildflowers, and I hope this is the start of a good season.
The three presentable shots from tonight are in the Image Stream.