Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The addictive nature of shooting eagles...

Ever had one of those days when you get all excited and primed for success and the the world taunts you and you can't find the opportunities to do what you planned and you start becoming unhappy and begin telling yourself that you're going to just walk away and do something else but then you wait because - maybe - just maybe you'll miss some action and then this cycles a few times and when you're really going to pack up and do something else (this time you're serious) something neat happens and you instantly become happy again and forget the previous few hours of failure? - I think that little rush of excitement is why shooting eagles is so addicting…

Today was a long frustrating day, but (for me at least) one fishing sequence makes it all worthwhile.

Probably not a bad lesson for most things in life. When things aren't going your way just remember that the frustration makes things more exciting the moment that they do... (bigger versions)





Monday, December 28, 2009

Filling the buffer...

There are times when I know what I'm doing, I'm happy and everything seems to be be going perfectly... and then I hit a wall and everything just stops. After an experience this weekend I have decided to name refer to this phenomenon as "filling the buffer".

Long after I had settled in to a session up at the dam an eagle had made an approach a bit closer than I expected, the angle was good but I was thinking maybe a bit more light than I expected and before I had time to adjust it dove and started a run. So my mind stopped thinking of adjusting the settings and everything I had went into locking focus and tracking the eagle. This shot out of the sequence has the eagle perfectly lined up and positioned for the catch, eyes and talons set, legs reaching forward, tail feathers kissing the water and wings ready to regain balance and carry away the prize... this was the shot I wanted...

and as the shutter kept going for the carry suddenly the eagle glanced upwards and at the same moment I had this awful feeling... the frame rate dropped because I had filled the buffer and instead of shooting at 7 frames per second I was down to 1 every two seconds... (bigger versions)


Now in the air an eagle can roll over and defend with it's claws but too close to the water and there is just no escape. As the roll started, the attacking eagle slammed into it's back sending the fish flying to the side and the eagle almost completely under the water.


Moments later it regained it's composure but remained for a bit just floating, half stunned and half confused. (I really wish I would have gotten those shots of the collision)


Happily it didn't suffer any permanent damage and was able to lift off again (this was the first time I saw an eagle float and also the first time I've seen one lift off from the water - It's an amazing amount of power they use - the wings stretched out almost completely and the both wings and the tail thrust down hard lifting the body up a few times before there was enough effective lift.


I got the shot I wanted (and the eagle got it's fish) but I ended up missing something unexpected because I kept my finger on the trigger a bit too long and saturated the buffer... I guess the moral here is not to be so wrapped up and focused in what you are doing that you find yourself in a situation you lack the resources to get out of... whether it's time, money, camera buffer space or altitude - always always always leave room for the unexpected future that may be there in but a moment.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Nature just is...

One of the most wonderful and at the same time annoying things about Nature is that it just exists. We can tease apart pieces of it, distill apparent rules that allow us to predict what will happen. We can harness aspects of it to our will. We can create barriers and change local environments to our liking. In the end, over time, Nature always wins. (bigger versions)

We are a part of Nature, but it is perhaps our self awareness that leads most of us to think of it as everything but ourselves. Any perceived obstacle to our individual goals becomes a problem that can be solved by religion, science and technology. We tend to behave as if special knowledge is the only limit to our achievement, our exertion of will on everything, our ability to have everything that we wish and nothing we do not. Special knowledge, regardless of the discipline, has become the most valuable thing in most cultures, it is the foundation of all trade.

In a way it's surprising how few people realize this. Most people desire money… for "obviously" more money would allow more beautiful possessions, more situations to have others do work for yourself, more perfect land to call your own. The problem is money is always a generalized and dilution form of power, it is the glittering shiny object to wave before the masses, it has practical uses, but the desire to attain money instead of knowledge, instead of understanding, becomes a tool that will be used by those who seek to control others. Those who seek money are destined to become slaves, perhaps happy and unaware, but still slaves.

Other people seek land or weapons or laws. The problem here is that all possessions and territory are yours only as long as everyone else decides to play by the same rules. From time to time one country will invade another and cast aside the agreed boundaries. Thieves will take what they wish. All weapons will be surpassed or evaded over time. Laws and regulations are modified to the needs of the people and ignored by others. Things, even virtual ones, are never permanent.

On the grand scale of things we don't have very long to make whatever impact on the world we will… Perhaps the greatest thing we do is pass what we have learned to those who follow, to give them a chance of reaching higher, of achieving more of what they wish, of being more than we can be ourselves. Eventually though, Nature wins. All that we have, all that we create or learn or achieve will be lost because we are only a part and can never be the whole of all that is or all that will be… as time flows, all things decay, erode and are lost.

Faced with the confusions and trials of daily life we all usually tend to seek some balance… a balance that usually tips more to the practical parts of life as we age. It is a sad thing to lose that wonder of simply existing and experiencing. But the time when we have no worries or responsibilities is short lived and as we begin to understand the world we begin to lose the best connection with it that we as individuals will ever have…

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Double negatives and self improvement...

In life it seems that many people obsess about the "best" whether it's the schools their kids attend, the house in which they live and of course the computer and photographic equipment they purchase. It's an interesting thing to look at opinions and ratings, but like money it is not really the best criteria on which to make a decision. It certainly feels good to have something apparently objective to backup our choices in life and that hint of confidence is often enough to self-justify our decisions. The problem is that this approach leaves no room for improvement… (bigger versions)

There will always be better schools, nicer houses, faster computers and more accurate and precise photography equipment. By following the path of trying to choose the "best" we are all destined to continually chase the ones that follow and end up in the pursuit of something we can never really obtain. More importantly, this approach leads to the incomplete understanding of what we already have. For example, if one chooses a lens because it is the "best" at something (let's say portraits - bokeh, low aberrations, focusing distance, tight depth of field…) then that's what we will expect and tend to use it for… Over time we acquire a collection of objects, each with it's own purpose and area of expertise and we happily choose the "best" tool for the job and are completely confident. As adults this is the strategy we use for most things in life - choose what you know will work.

This isn't the approach we used as children. Hand a lens (or even a cardboard box) to a kid and they will attempt to do a seemingly endless series of things with it. Kids tend to try everything to find the possibilities of all that can be done with an object while adults tend to define things by expectations and limited categories of usefulness. My suspicion here is that adults tend to care about how they are viewed by others and retreat into the safety of acceptable behavior and that children are unbound by this… It doesn't really matter why, most of us tend to self impose more and more limits on our behaviors as we become adults in society.

Sometimes, rather than trying to choose the "best" tool it is sometimes better to look at the problem as not choosing the "wrong" tool. Once you begin to redefine things by their limitations rather than their areas of known use there is a potential to find something new. There is a potential then for you to grow - learn new ways of doing things, achieve better understandings, see unique perspectives, gain new skills.

Good long lens technique is absolutely critical and unforgiving. The reason I use several different approaches is that the commonly accepted methods don't work equally well in all situations. There really isn't a "best" long lens technique that will work perfectly in all situations for like all things in life a particular approach to a problem always has an ideal fit under a limited number of circumstances and becomes more generalized in others. I select the method based on experience and adapt as needed to changes in the situation. Selecting a camera, lens, tripod, light modifiers or any of the hundreds of settings and variables involved is much the same… Of all that I have before me I try not to choose the tools that I know from experience won't work in a given situation. Oftentimes I make a choice that looking back upon I would not make again… That is a great thing, for at that moment I learn something I didn't know before… If I had instead chosen the "best" tool or technique then I would have been left unchanged.

It really comes down to this: If you choose the "best" tool for a job then your chances of achievement are higher but your chances of impairment are nil. If you don't choose the wrong tool for a job then your chances of maximum achievement are lower but your chances of improvement are higher…

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Before I had words...

There is a part of me the world never sees… my true self… unchanged by the world… that existed before I had words… (bigger versions)

Before I had words, a means to communicate with others, I just was… Without words there was no way for the world to change who I was, there was no way to learn things I didn't experience, nothing was bound and everything was endless. Then words and symbols, languages written and spoken became important. Over time the world became manageable, predictable, understandable. There is a such a practical nature to symbols and words that they became everything to be for years. Doors opened, information flowed in and I felt that the more I could absorb and master the greater my life would become… the problem was that it took me away from my my true self… the part that existed before I had words…

As I grew older and became frustrated and annoyed with parts of life I came to realize that the only time I ever really felt "right" was in the fleeting moments of twilight before dreams. That time became special to me, I was safe and comfortable and peaceful and I for a few moments I felt as if I understood everything all at once that I was a part of everything all at once and that no moments of time or space existed apart from me… I could bear the world for the day because I knew at night I could just be... as I existed before I had words…

Now we all have to grow up and cast aside the "foolish" things we do as children. Our make believe games without purpose, our imaginary friends, our days watching clouds and rolling in the grass. If we resist, society compels and we find our way in the world. The problem here is that society is at it's core dependent on communication, those words and symbols become tools and resources. As I mastered them, life became easier and superficially better… but I had become more and more dependent on them… I lost sense of the I that existed before I had words…

That true part of me is still there, unaltered by words or time, and still appears in the moments before dreams, when I suddenly act - trusting my gut without knowing why - without thinking, when I am moved with unexpected emotions that I cannot explain… Sometimes, very rarely but sometimes, I can get to a place that bridges the boundary between what the world knows and that which it never can… if only a moment behind the shutter, before I had words…

Monday, December 14, 2009

Sometimes it's worth it...

Long ago when I bought my 300mm AFS f/4 ED-IF Nikkor I knew that people had complained about the tripod collar having too much flex. I probably spent a few months reading reviews and looking at examples of which shutter speeds would be affected the most and possible solutions. Of course I decide to buy the lens anyway since the weight, price and optical characteristics all seemed to be a good match for what I wanted. The lens itself is fantastic and has easily stayed in my top three most used lenses. The AF tracks birds in flight quite nicely on both the D80 and the D300s. With the TC-14EII teleconverter it's a bit slower on the D80 but just as fast on the D300s. I was surprised that the D300s seems to have no problems at all tracking eagles in flight or small animals with the TC20EII (my understanding was that it really shouldn't work, but it does as long as you hit the initial focus – if you miss the initial focus it takes a long time to hunt at effectively f8).

So over almost a year of shooting with the normal tripod collar (probably 20Kish shots over a few hundred sessions) I had convinced myself that ether Nikon had changed the tripod collar since the bad reviews about it were written, or that the controlled tests people had done didn't apply to the real world, or (selfishly and incorrectly) that my technique was just really good...

Well, it happened that one day last summer I was placing an order and saw the Kirk KINC300 NC-300 replacement collar for this lens people had raved about and on a whim I added it to my order. The very first time I shot with it I realized what a complete fool I was for not doing it earlier. The feeling I got was almost exactly the same as getting a new car when you had was 12 years old. You don't realize the looseness of the suspension or the lack of precision in handling because you didn't know anything else and got used to what you had... It is especially clear with the 2x teleconverter (I had always expected some image degradation, but didn't realize that most of what I had been seeing was vibration and not the converter). In short, it really does feel like having a new lens.

So why didn't I pay attention to what other people had tried to tell me? On reflection it seems to me that it's not that I had developed a mistrust of people's advice but rather that I didn't know at the time who had advice that was meaningful. I may not have saved all the links from the advice I should have listened to, but these are the ones I kept:

http://www.naturfotograf.com/AFS300_test_images.html

http://www.bythom.com/300afslens.htm

Whenever I talk about equipment I feel like I should add that nobody has given me any equipment and I did not receive any compensation... These are (for better or worse) just my opinions. (bigger versions)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Special places...


Sometimes I find a specific location that I keep going back to throughout the seasons. I study the way the light changes as the sun moves, the weather changes, the plants develop and the animals behave. I develop an affinity for certain places and they become comfortable places, places where I feel I should be at times... (bigger versions)

This particular location at Great Falls National Park in Maryland is probably well known to many photographers that shoot there often. It isn't the place most people travel but it's not hidden. What's special here is that for a few minutes almost every morning there is the potential for really special light. On this day the sun rises far behind and off to the left - as it approaches a crest of a hill it it forced through the trees and that narrow band is all that illuminates another set of trees across the potomac and the light reflecting back off them off the river and then reflected up to me. Otherwise only a few high scattered clouds above bounce a small amount of light unfiltered by the trees across the entire area. From one place (maybe 20 feet wide) for a short amount of time (less than a minute) there is the potential for light that really appeals to me.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Moments of knowing...

There are times when I come across something that just resonates with me... I know it's an image that I want to capture but I don't have the time to think about exactly how I want to capture it - to get into the right position - to setup equipment - or any of the hundreds of other adjustments and preparations I try to make before I set out for a session. (bigger versions)

Sometimes I just have time to experience it before the moment is lost. Othertimes I do the best I can before the moment is lost. It's a tradeoff really... on one hand I get to experience it more fully (but with no lasting record, no image to go back to) and on the other I get a fragment of a memory that I never fully experienced and am left only with a bit of hope that I can salvage something of value.

Most of the time I choose to just experience the moment. For about 15 minutes I watched this fox reposition itself in slowly moving bits of sun breaking through after a rainstorm. I threw away the opportunity for the best shots when it was curled up in the falling rain, when it was still dripping wet and stretching out, when the steam from the heat of the sun formed a bit of fog, and just experienced it... I only have two images, one of a moment unaware I was watching and one where it knew I was there... I hope every day to improve my ability to know the right moment to shoot, because the moment I choose forever changes what I would have experienced if I had just waited... (bigger versions)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Extensions of you...


Ideally one wants to become comfortable enough with a tool that it becomes an extension of oneself… at this point the mind logically binds that tool to it's sense of self. The physical characteristics become part of perceived space and all the magic spatial things the brain does to stop us from bumping into things apply…

No longer do we have to prethink about how to hold a pencil or swing a bat - it just happens. Photography starts out worrying about all the technical details and statistics and prescribed advice on the right way to do things… that's a good thing. It helps us learn how to use the tools and understand principles.

The problem is that it doesn't lead to the camera becoming an extension of ourselves (and this is when photography becomes really fun). When you learned to write with a pencil, you probably spent countless hours thinking about forming every letter, every word, every paragraph and so on… you likely weren't focused on the content of what you wrote but only the details of writing - these are two totally separate things. In order to write well that pencil has to become an extension of yourself first.

Photography is similar, but we generally approach it at a later point in our lives. It's easier to build upon the skills we already have, it's easier to find advice, it's easier to see results… The problem is that it's also easier to find excuses and reasons not to practice, not to improve and to settle for "good enough". Unless you physically get out and practice and work hard to improve no tool will ever become an extension of you and like writing it will be hard to express yourself until it does… (bigger versions)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Interestingness...


What makes people interesting? For me, the "interestingness" seems to be related to how different that person is from everyone else… (bigger versions)

It isn't the way in which their outward appearance differs from others, but rather it's wrapped up in the ways in which they look at the world. Sometimes it's frustrating when people have opposing opinions or interests that I don't share, but it is from these people that I have a chance to learn and grow.

These people offer something that I can't do myself no matter how much effort or time I spend, and that is a very valuable and special thing. In some ways I find that the same concept applies to most things in life, in the untended green spaces, in the alleys, in the forgotten parts of the world we walk past everyday... interesting things exist everywhere and the key to finding them seems only to be not walking right by them. One of my goals for the upcoming year is to not walk blindly by so many of the interesting things...

Smugmug and flickr...

When I tested the waters and first posted images on Flickr I thought that perhaps I would upgrade it to a pro account so that I could load many more, but I found that I wasn't comfortable with the lack of uniqueness I could add to the site... Smugmug is more expensive and is really setup for people to do business, but while trying it out (2 weeks free) I realized that I had found a comfortable place... things just made sense to me... I could change things as I see fit whenever I wished and this made me happy. It is also easier for me to link images to posts on blogs (like Nikoncafe - hands down my favorite online photography community). I came to realize that the homogenous aspect of Flickr made it ideal for people to feel a part of a group and therefore socialize. Smugmug is much easier for me to place lots of images that are important "to me" for whatever reason while Flickr is a place where I only post images that "I" think may be interesting to someone else (which doesn't mean that other people care about them at all)... Most people that know me will check my Smugmug account and people that don't "may" stumble across my Flickr account. My Smugmug account more closely represents my view of the world. My Flickr account more closely represents my guesses about how other people view the world. They are both valuable to me, but for different reasons.

Failure...

At some point in our lives we will all experience failure. It doesn't matter if you are young and inexperienced or an adult with proven skills... It just seems to be the nature of life that things will go wrong. We've all been told to keep trying and not to give up and to some degree that's true. (bigger versions)

The important thing to me is why... I don't think that final success in any given endeavor is all that critical, but rather that the journey to improve doesn't stop. It seems to me that more and more people are overly concerned with the end results and not the process of getting better by gaining skill and experience. People shun their own mistakes and mock those of others. People prance about and define themselves by their past achievements and possessions and not the path they took to achieve them.

While there is nothing wrong with achievements or possessions, something is wrong when society values them more than skill and wisdom. Unlike society, Nature always selects for what really works and not what's culturally in vogue at a given point in time. Eagles miss catches, drop fish, and have them stolen in flight all the time but I have yet to see an eagle pile up more fish than it can eat to show off or refuse to try again after it loses a fish.

For me, the most valuable thing people have to offer to society is the potential for future accomplishments, not what they have done in the past or the objects they own... Failure isn't something to be afraid or ashamed of and prior success isn't something to be proud of...

Determination...


On a rainy windy and otherwise unpleasant day I was out taking pictures and pushing the limits of what I knew how to do with the equipment I had with me... I was getting frustrated and a bit depressed that I wasn't going to have a good session, but it was a long drive to get there so I stuck with it, made adjustments to what skills I was going to work on that day, pushed the camera outside my comfort zone, ignored the little voice in the back of my head telling me it was pointless and I should just go home and give up and then I see this eagle that caught a much larger fish than he expected. Usually they make it back into the air after a successful catch quickly, but this one couldn't quite get enough lift and struggled for around 50 feet before it was clear he wouldn't have to drop the fish or crash into the water. While I got a number of decent shots from that sequence I liked this one the best. It isn't the best technically, but to me it shows that moment of decision where one commits to continue rather than give up and try again later... (bigger versions)

Why do I post images and ideas with obvious flaws?

Well, if I were to choose to only express myself with things which I think are perfect that I would likely find myself at the end of my life locked away in a room having never spoken to anyone and will have lived my life trapped only in my own thoughts. That seems pointless to me. Life is messy and imperfect and oftentimes I find that as I grow older, I look at the world differently and my beliefs about it change. It's not that wisdom comes with age, but rather think it comes from experience. It's all the times I was challenged and lost, that I found flaws in my understanding of the world, that someone taught me things I never knew existed… these are the seeds of what little wisdom I have gained. More importantly, it seems that the imperfect and messy parts of life are the ones I find the most value in… For me life is to be lived and not perfected; hopefully, becoming more interesting as I age.