My 2016 in Photos

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

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I tried to be more purposeful in my photography this year, both in topic and technique, with a mix of tripod and hand held. The photographic year started in January, with a new, and much longer, telephoto lens, that gave me more photographic reach than I’ve ever had.  Along with the winter moon, the new glass helped me capture and identify a lot of the wildlife around the Hollow, including ducks, geese, herons, hawks, bluebirds, grosbeaks, warblers, turkeys, deer, and a red fox.

Great Blue Heron

I’ve already blogged about using my new telephoto to capture shots of the wood ducks on our pond, and a couple of previous blog entries explain my week’s vacation shooting the 17 year cicada.   My camera also helped me explore the vernal pools that characterize the 5 flat acres along the northern edge of the Hollow. In March and April, several small pools come alive with noisy amphibians and busy aquatic insects. While my in situ work wasn’t exactly ready for National Geographic, crawling around the muck in rubber boots,  I at least managed to document the existence of fairy shrimp and blue-spotted salamander.

Tadpole

Most of the shots you’ve seen of small amphibians and aquatic insects in books and nature documentaries were taken under studio conditions in a tank (surprise).  I collected a couple jars of salamander eggs, tadpoles and some caddis fly larvae. I set up a small plastic dish on a table, creating a makeshift studio to get some close-ups of these interesting little underwater creatures.

Caddis Fly Larva

People are interesting, too. I took my camera to three different sporting events this year, starting indoors in March when the Holmes County Training Center Bucks played the Community All Stars.

Bucks v All Stars 2016

In May, I spent a very wet afternoon shooting calf roping at a rodeo in Sugar Creek. The weather was terrible, but all the mud and water made for a lot of photographic drama. This was my first chance to try my new telephoto at a sporting event, and I thought it did a great job of focusing on the equine action.

Calf Roping 2

In September, I went to the 25th Ohio Cup Vintage Base Ball Festival, at Muffin Field in Ohio Village (Columbus), this time shooting my lighter and less awkward 70-200 F4.  Local amateur sporting events are great places to shoot—they usually let you have the run of the place, and there aren’t a lot of crowds to get into your way.

Muffin Field

Columbus is also the home to one of the best state fairs in the country, and I had a pair of photos accepted into the fine arts exhibit.   Elizabeth and I went to the Ohio state fair grounds to see the art, and then spent the rest of the afternoon looking at cows, pigs, and people.

Amanda the Cow

Most of what I photographed this year was relatively close to home, but I ended up with an afternoon and several evenings to kill on a business trip to London. I brought my pocketable Sony RX100M4, and had a chance to grab some views of Canary Wharf from a burgeoning new neighborhood around the O2, which was a drab and muddy part of London when I biked through in 2009.

Canary Wharf

I brought my small camera along on a late November business trip to Vegas, where a co-worker and I took a short trip into the desert to visit Seven Magic Mountains, a surprisingly intriguing temporary art exhibition.

Seven Magic Mountains

Always a sucker for signage, I managed to take a 1 hour tour of the Neon Museum.

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I did one paid-for shoot in 2016, driving out to Pittsburgh to spend a very interesting late afternoon wandering around a former industrial site in a photo event organized by Matthew Christopher, whose Abandoned America Workshops are always interesting. Most of the obsolete Carrie Furnaces installation has been razed, but a pair of blast furnaces from the Homestead Steel Works are still standing.  It was a fascinating place to visit, and unlike most of what I photographed this year, at least everything was standing still, making for a more contemplative, tripod-oriented photographic session. 

Blast Furnace

I also organized a fall foliage session in Amish Country for my camera club. We started the day at The Farm at Walnut Creek, taking horse drawn wagon rides through a gauntlet of exotic ruminants, all looking for a handout.

 Cow Tongue

After The Farm, the various club members split up, exploring southern Holmes county on their own, and visiting some of the sites and suggestions that I’d mapped out earlier that month, a variety of 1-room schools, old farm houses, and country churches.

Doughty Valley School

It was a more colorful fall season than last year, with the oaks showing much more red this year than they did last year.

Pond Reflections

2016 was also an interesting chance to try a couple of practical photographic exercises. A neighbor put their house up for sale, and asked if I would take pictures for the realtor’s web site.

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Another neighbor asked me to take head shots for her LinkedIn page (I’m not taking sole credit for her successful job search), and I spent several hours, at three different locations, doing a senior photo shoot.

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At least through the various lenses of my several cameras, its been a great year.

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Feathers of our Lives

Sunday, March 20th, 2016

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Wood ducks are one of the harbingers of seasonal change at Heiser Hollow. We start seeing them about the time the pond melts in the late winter, and then after disappearing for the summer, a few of them return in the fall. I think most of them must be migratory. Some of them are regulars during the summer, hanging out along a secluded bend of the creek that borders the northern edge of our place, but we usually only see them in front of the cabin during migration time.

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Careening out of the early morning sky like so many feathered bowling balls, they somehow manage to make a graceful and relatively quiet landings. Punctuated by the quietly piercing upward jeeeb call of the drake, the ducks, which usually arrive in pairs of 2-8 birds, dabble around the pond, grazing around the edges of the pond, sometimes walking several feet out of the pond, and hurriedly by silently scooting across the center of the water.

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They also hang out in the trees surrounding the pond, sometimes roosting within site of it for several hours.  They are brilliant fliers, much more adept at zipping around trees than are their larger mallard cousins.   Masters of the vertical take off and landing, the former typically accompanied by the teeWEE alarm call, they can run rings around geese (which we haven’t see this year). In spite of their obvious comfort with heights, there is something a bit disconcerting about seeing ducks in the tree.  They have claws on their webbed feet and they can land on the side of a tree trunk.

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Whenever the ducks are on the ground or water, it seems to be a subject of interest for our local hawks—or at least those that are equally comfortable in arboreal settings. This afternoon, I watched a red tailed hawk, frequently seen checking out our pond and woods, sail 40 feet over the top of 4 wood ducks and land in a tree just beyond the dam. When shooting most of the duck shots in this blog entry, leaning out our bedroom window, a young cooper’s hawk shot right over the top of the cabin, swooped low over some dabbling woodies, and perched on the far side of the pond, bright yellow eye of prey keenly interested.  Although the wood ducks are always watching, and fly at the least sign of danger, they evince no fear of birds of prey.

 Immature Coopers Hawk

While the majority of our anatine visitors only seem interested in a meal and snooze, a couple times every spring, one or two pair suggest that they might be sticking around for the summer.   A pair of wood ducks can get very frisky, and spend an hour tightly circling the pond, weaving in and out of the tree tops, quietly screeching, as only wood ducks can do. I once found a small, dark yellow egg lying alongside the pond, apparently a premature and inconvenient arrival.  For the last three years, we’ve had a duck nest box hanging over the pond.  Although it has apparently raised several generation of screech owls (even more elusive than the woodies), only once did a see a wood duck hen fly into it and check it out.  For a brief 10 minutes, I thought we might play host to a family, but something about it just wasn’t what they were looking for. It never seems to be.

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Earlier this month, I really thought that a pair would setup housekeeping with us.  Arriving early one morning, without a larger flock, they very quickly took to the trees, never sitting in one spot for long. The drake flew on top of a broken stump of a red maple limb, right outside my office, and began gently encouraging the hen to join him.  Last spring, that hollow and cracked branch had providing a nesting site for a litter of squirrel pups.   The male called, whinnied, pleaded, looking alternatively lonely and encouraging.  The hen flew up next to him.

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He flew to a nearby branch on another tree, continuing to whicker at her, while she carefully inspected the site.

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They flew around the pond, landed on some other trees, checked out a big knot on the side of a sugar maple, and then she returned to the broken limb. She sniffed it carefully.

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She experimented with a landing at the base of the broken limb. 

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She tested the route between bedroom and kitchen, to see how long the trip would be.  She discussed the local school system with the drake while they tried to envision how easy it would be to avoid predators.

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She tried the nest on for size, roosting in the hollow space for at least 10 minutes. 

By that time, and all of these photos were taken of the same pair of ducks during a 40 minute period,  I was very hopeful that they’d decide to stay.  I was already envisioning our being able to watch (and photograph) the entire cycle of wood duck life, envisioning fluffy little ducklings following their mum around around our pond.  But something about it just didn’t their (or probably her) standards.  They decided that this particular nesting site wasn’t all that it was ducked up to be, and they flew off, never to return. Or maybe they did, but that was the last time I saw any of the ducks roosting in that spot.

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Our little half acre of woodland water is probably a better for resting than for roosting—at least from the point of view of a wood duck. While the pond is surrounded with the homes of countless ground hogs, multiple squirrels, robins, orioles, sometimes a pair of buzzards, and one very territorial pair of eastern phoebes, Aix sponsa is particularly shy.  At this time of year, just opening my office door and walking out onto the cement pad is likely to result in the alarm call, as one or two pair of hidden ducks quickly depart.  A midday delivery from Ron the mailman immediately results in a wood duck exodus. It would be nice to think that they could build a home within site of ours, but they are just too shy for it.

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Notes on photography: Nature photography isn’t really my specialty area, and photographing wild animals is just not something I have much patience for. Sitting still for hours at a time to shoot something, with camera or gun, is just not how I’m wired. Yet we are surrounded by nature, and a constant parade of animals, so earlier this year, I supplemented my Canon 7DII DSLR with Sigma’s new 150-600mm telephoto. Together, the lens/camera combo tops the scale at a sobering 7 pounds, which is a lot of weight to hold steady, especially when the tiniest motion of such a long telephoto can blur the image. It does have an image stabilizer, which helps a lot. I quietly slid down the lower half of the window, and rested the lens on it. To keep from startling my subject, I set the camera in a special mode that keeps the shutter quiet. It was a bright and sunny day, with harsh beams of light shining through the trees, making a very contrasty light source.  I’d been shooting at a relatively high ISO in order to keep the shutter speed up close to 1/1000, but I was afraid that with such high-contrast light, higher ISOs would result in either burning out the highlights, or losing the shadows. When the hen turned toward the sun in the shot immediately above, her wing bar lit up an iridescent blue that I’ve never seen on a female woodie.  At that point, I had the sensitivity set at what I’ve found is relatively low for this telephoto, at ISO 500. At 562mm, just shy of full extension, and shooting wide open at f/6.3, there wasn’t much depth of field to be had. While it did a nice job of blurring out the background, it also meant that by focusing on the drake’s bright red eye, I’d thrown the front of the hen slightly out of focus.  The moment didn’t last long enough for a second chance.   I like how it turned out, but I’m still learning what ISO, shutter speed, and aperture to use with this honking big bird lens.  All of the above were shot in camera RAW and processed with Adobe Lightroom.

Let’s Take Our Picture at Tiananmen Square

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

Beijing

According to the state travel guide, Tiananmen Square has become a relaxing place for the common people to fly kites and walk. I didn’t see any kites, but they did have the biggest fake floral arrangement I’ve ever seen in my life.  And I saw a lot of visitors, many of whom were quite relaxed and presumably common.

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Finding myself isolated in a huge crowd of people in the center of China at the start of a holiday week, I noticed that everybody else was taking their picture, so I thought, I’d take their picture, too.

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There was some photo action around the flower pot, one of many in town for the holiday week, but the heaviest photo action was on the side of the square facing the Tiananmen Gate and the entrance to the Forbidden City. There were even a couple kiosks with professionals taking tourist snaps and printing them out on the spot.

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I spent all of my limited free time in Beijing just looking for photo ops, so I don’t want to seem hypocritical by asking why anyone else is preoccupied with taking pictures.

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I merely observe that having your photo taken in front of tourist locations, in a wooden pose, is characteristic of several flavors of Asian culture (they do make the cameras).

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A steady stream of snapped shots carefully placed Mao in the background.

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And of course, the ubiquitous camera phone makes it possible to take your own self-portrait with the Chairman.

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It probably is just a rumor that ‘selfie’ is a Chinese word that means ‘Let’s start on a new photo album’.

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Perhaps the ultimate selfie is the Mona Lisalike portrait of Chairman Mao, benevolently, steadily, and subtly smiling across decades of dramatic change. 

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[The first post in this series of  Beijing blogs can be found be clicking here.]

Hidden Views of Forbidden City

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016

Large Stone Carving

Attempts to photographically capture a 1000-building palace complex can easily result in a cliché-like sameness, a sort of generic been-to-Beijing-done-that.  So I tried to see beyond the buildings, and take in some of the Forbidden City’s details, such as its gorgeous stone carvings.

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A huge bas relief from the Ming dynasty has 9 stone dragons playing with pearls. The approach to the nearby Hall of Preserved Harmony sports 1,412 carved marble dragon head rain spouts. Their blunt noses reminded me of the dragon heads carved on the Mayan pyramids that Elizabeth and I saw on our honeymoon to the Yucatan.

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The complex  has a lot of beautiful glazed tile works, mostly in yellow, with some green, often displayed against a ruddy background.  Dragons remain a common theme.

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The rooflines were punctuated by long lines of fanciful ceramic animals, many of them dragons.

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Hard materials like bronze, stone and glazed ceramic seem a good choice for a facilities nightmare like the Chinese imperial palace.

Faded Glory

Although all the buildings were intact, many of the details were in poor repair.  The Forbidden City has a lot of cracked and flaking paint, dim reflections of glory that faded before the first world war.

Detail of The Hall of Supreme Harmony

Only a few painted exteriors had been recently reworked, providing a colorful suggestions as to the elaborate level of decoration that must have greeted the Emperor and his concubines.

Emperor's Bedroom

There were several receiving rooms, ceremonial areas, and even some living quarters dimly visible through dingy windows, a disappointing reward for wading through the curious crowd.  The Emperor’s Bedroom was the most interesting of the interiors, with wall, bed and elaborately gilded ceiling in relatively good repair.

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After a few hours of gold dragons, I worked my way to the end of the imperial grounds.

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I walked through the Shenzen Gate, the interior lined with sleepy visitors on a bench, I checked my audio guide into a booth, and I exited the Shenwu Gate, and set out to explore Tiananmen Square.

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[The first post in this series of  Beijing blogs can be found be clicking here]

Frozen Falls Frustrate Fotography

Monday, February 15th, 2016

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Enjoying the constantly shifting patterns of water, rock, and ice, is one of the special pleasures of living within 5 minutes hike of several hundred feet of a stair stepping sandstone falls.   Sometimes I visit the falls several days in a row. I always see something different as winter works its magic on sedimentary stone, but I continue to struggle to share the beauty and wonder of my favorite part of our property.

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If the falls have any potential as a landscape shot, I really haven’t figured out how to depict it. The base of the falls remains a beautiful and mysterious spot, but my attempts to capture the totality of the thing are insipid and uninspired. Framing out 10 foot long sections that have interesting angles helps, but still doesn’t result in a picture that I would want to hang on my wall.

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I’ve decided that the trick the trick to compelling photos of our falls is to move in closer, finding the small compelling dramas of ice and ever-eroding sandstone.  Are those flows of water, or icicles? Aren’t icicles just flows of water that are trapped in a different time stream?  As the photographer can manipulate the experience of time, so does the nature’s cycle of freezing and thawing manipulate the experience of water.

Iceticles

Sometimes spraying water freezes into hanging globules that I call isticles. Chains of moss anchor these frozen chunks of water until the next thaw. A little more than an inch in length, its almost impossible to capture sharp images of such small objects without using a tripod.

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The steps and landings comprising the most interesting part of our falls are cramped and awkward places to work, making it difficult to hand hold a camera, and often impossible to setup a tripod.  Sometimes I use a monopod, and I take a lot of shots, hoping the camera will be still enough to capture the textures of ice and stone.  Wavy ice of varying thicknesses creates a focusing challenge that is only partially compensated for by small apertures.

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The water continues to flow, even when its below freezing, and you can almost see the stalactites and stalagmites forming before your eyes.

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Sometimes the spray and overflow coat the surface of a sandstone boulder, the pinched and dimpled ice trapping moss, air bubbles and sediment, making a marbled pattern. Placing the camera within a few short inches of the surface provides a random abstract of green and brown swirls.

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A dedicated macro lens allows me to get even closer to a congealed horizontal pool, a higher level of magnification providing a totally different abstract of sharp angles and jagged crystalline lines.

Busy Beavers

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015

When the beaver dam first appeared, one of our neighbors said that if we knocked a hole in it and waited, we’d soon see some beavers. We had the patience to try that—once.  Then we came up with the idea of using the game camera to find out when they were active, and what they were up to. It took a couple weeks of experimentation to figure out where to put the automated camera and how to use it. Our initial results came up with just about everything but a beaver, including the surprising appearance of a bobcat.  The stills from the game camera confirmed that our beaver were entirely nocturnal, so we decided to set the camera in video mode and enjoy the beavers from the comfort of indoors.

 

This short video contains the best of several weeks worth of observation.  Over that period of time, the dam became at least a foot taller, and probably several feet wider, creating a pool that was at least 4 feet deep in places.  The beaver pond became a popular hangout for wood ducks, a heron, and served as a bridge for squirrels, chipmunks, and at least one very fat raccoon.  The dam also was totally incompatible with local agriculture, blocking the drainage from several hundred acres of farmland.  The dam would have to come down, and last Friday, it did.  However, the beaver are still at work, now on a new dam, and I’ve reset the game camera to see what they do.