Monday, January 26, 2009

The Grand Show

John Muir , the old man of the modern environmental movement, reminded us back at the turn of the century that nature goes on with or without us: "This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn ...each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

At this time of the year we on southern Vancouver Island get amazing sunrises and sunsets. And, even though I know there will be another one along in some few hours, I still look up at around 4 o'clock and say "Time to head down to the ocean. This is going to be a great sunset -- I can't miss it!"

I took this shot January 19, 2009, on Willows Beach, looking south-east over Oak Bay and the distant Juan de Fuca Strait, to Mt. Baker. Baker is an active volcano and has a constant cape of snow and ice. In January, when the air is cold and the haze of pollution from Vancouver to the north, and Seattle to the south is noticeably less, Mt. Baker stands out sharply.

The soft run of pastel colours makes a good backdrop to this shot. I particularly like the blend from blue to purple-pink. I needed to use a graduated neutral density technique for this image. I set my camera's exposure for the mountain itself. This turned out to be 1/40 second at f4, with an ISO of 200. I was using my 24-105 zoom, at 105. Moreover, I wanted to emphasize the fading sky light, so I stopped down 1/3 of a step. This made for a pretty dark foreground and ocean.

Cue the graduated neutral density technique -- I don't own the hardware necessary to put a graduated ND filter on my lens (quite cumbersome -- to say nothing of pricey), but Lightroom 2.0 has a technique that mimics the process. A typical ND filter had a graduation from grey to clear glass. Usually the greyest portion covers the brightest part of the photo -- typically they sky. With the sky now a bit darker, the photographer can get a picture with detail in both the sky and foreground -- nothing is "washed out".

I used Lightroom to apply a graduated filter to the image after the fact. This let me keep the darker sky and bring up the brightness of the ocean and foreground. I have to say, I'm pleased with the effect, but it is good to know that if I fail I can always wait for another glorious sunset. John Muir assures me that this grand show is eternal.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Trumpeters on the wing

More Trumpeter swans for me to go gaga over! These ones were at Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary , a quiet green space close to Victoria BC.

I don't have one of the lovely long lenses so prized by bird photographers. I shot this with an old 75 - 300 inexpensive (but very light) Canon zoom lens. It is not as sharp as I would like, but still, this picture is not too bad considering both the lens and the photographer! Actually, this was more a combination of dumb luck and number of frames, because I had the camera off the tripod and was following these birds as they took off.

The details: 1/250th of a second at f8, 300 mm, with an ISO of 200. You can see some blurring if you view this photo at its original size. But, the effect of the light on wings is just too enticing to ignore. Sometimes I think sharpness and crisp focus are totally overrated!

Notice the lead and following Trumpeters. They are all white. These are adults. The mottled grey birds are juveniles. See how much you've learned about this species just by keeping up with my blog!

My friends Jan and Alan have engaged in a new twist on an old addiction -- Green Birding -- and they have invited me to join them. They are absolutely dead keen on birding and are experts at it. The twist is in seeing how many different birds they can find without generating carbon emissions (other than what comes naturally). This means undertaking a birding expedition completely by way of their own steam: Birding by bike, by foot, by kayak, etc.

Green Birding looks to be an up and coming trend, and with 94 species on their GB list to date, Jan and Alan are shooting stars in the Vancouver Island Green Birding community. It is lots of fun to doddle along on the bike, stopping frequently to look around. You get a good sense of an area's biogeography. Every little stream, copse of trees, or tangle of brambles can be prime environment for birds. A day spent biking and birding certainly lets me look at my surroundings with new eyes.

Swan Lake horizon

Monday, January 12, 2009

Grey Skies, Grey Seas

So far the month of January has been grey, grey, grey. But, as I recently found out, that is so much better than white, white, white! For several weeks at the end of December we in Victoria had snow and ice. It was not easy to get around. I even fell off my bike riding in the snow. Now the icy white stuff is gone, and for that I am happy, but the grey, just like in this photo, has descended.

This picture was taken on Friday, Jan 9, 2009 a few blocks from my house down at McNeil Bay. The view is across to Trial Island on the left, with the Olympic Mountains of Washington state in the background. There was a bit of clear sky and just a touch of warm golden light available on this otherwise very grey day. You can see the touch of gold on the water and across the mountain backdrop. Hopefully better weather will come our way soon and I'll get off to the surrounding hills for something a bit more cheery!

I used HDR (High Dynamic Range) for this shot. I wanted to pick up the detail in the ocean and keep the ridgeline of the Olympics in view across the back of the photo. HRD involves taking three or more pictures of the same scene, but at different exposures. These exposures are then blended in an application like Photoshop. This technique allows you to capture a wider range of brightness in the scene than can be recorded in one shot by the camera.

For example, in this photo I wanted to keep the detail in the mountains, while at the same time letting viewers catch a glimpse of the light and detail on the wavelets in the foreground. If I took a shot that accurately captured the foreground I would "blow out" the highlights over the mountains -- that part of the photo would just be a blast of white. If I exposed the mountain ridge correctly, the wavelets in the foreground would be almost black. So, like Goldilocks, I took one picture that was too "hot" (over exposed), one that was too cold (underexposed), and one that was just right (according to the camera). Then I blended them in Photoshop.

Our eyes are truly miraculous organs -- we can look at a scene and catch a huge range of light, seeing detail in both shadows and light. The camera just can't do that. I am getting used to seeing a scene in the field and thinking that it might make a good HDR. But the process in Photoshop is still a dark art as far as I'm concerned. It is just lucky when something turns out even a bit. I wonder if this is the case for others who create HDR shots?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

My 52nd birthday: Jan 7, 2009

Birthdays can be a good time to take a close look at those things that make a person feel grand. And, since I believe people should get at least one wish on their birthday, I've done exactly that. For me it is quite simple: I have to be out in the hills, far from the madding crowd. It lets my spirit soar -- it always has.

What I get from an adventure in the hills and mountains is sheer joy -- even (especially!)if the day or the trip features inclement weather and hard going. And joy is, after all, what I think we all strive for. When speaking of his exploits on Mt. Everest and why he undertook such danger, Sir George Mallory said " We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for." A very sensible outlook if you ask me.

This picture is from one of my favourite mountain parks -- Mt. Revelstoke National Park, near my home town of Revelstoke, BC, Canada. I hiked and climbed in this park from my days as a teenager who often played hooky from school to spend time in the hills. I still try to get back for a look-see every year.

This shot, which is probably my all-time favourite picture, was taken with a Canon Digital Rebel -- the first version Canon brought out. The lens was the inexpensive kit lens that came with the camera. I couldn't love this shot more if Ansel Adams himself had taken it with the very best equipment money could buy.

The day, July 30, 2005, was perfection itself -- my husband Mike and I were out for a doddle and we decided to head up the Jade Lake Pass. The weather was balmy, a fresh breeze kept the bugs down, and we had this view all to ourselves.

The details: f/16 at 1/125 second with an 18 mm lens. ISO 100.

I plan on spending a lot more time in places like this -- hopefully making more pictures like this.

I think that Edward Abbey, that great anarchist of the American western desert summed it up best:"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit". I'm looking forward to another few years of searching out the bare necessities of life.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Trumpeter swans at Martindale Flats

These Trumpeter swans Cygnus buccinator are in the wetlands that form around Martindale Flats, on the Saanich Peninsula north of Victoria BC. Although we on southern Vancouver Island see these swans regularly over the winter, they are something of a miracle. In the 1930's there were only 77 Trumpeter swans breeding in Canada and only 50 in the US. An intensive international effort that included transplanting swans, breeding in captivity, and the protection of these swans in endangered species legislation, has resulted in returning these birds from the very brink of extinction. Although their range is considerably reduced, there are over 16,000 Trumpeters in the wilds of Canada and the US. They are no longer considered endangered.

Back at the turn of the 20th century we humans hunted these birds relentlessly. Unfortunately, we are still trouble-causers for this species. Habitat loss from expanding human population pressure is the biggest threat to Trumpeter swans. Hopefully we won't let the survival situation of these creatures deteriorate. Certainly, the world is a far better place with Trumpeter swans in it!

I took this picture on Jan 1, 2009. It was at the end of a day of birding. The sky was starting to get dark, so I had to use a higher ISO setting on the camera (the swans wouldn't sit still for a longer exposure!). A higher ISO gives a bit of a rough, grainy texture to the shot that I think works well with this image -- kind of gives it a "homespun" feel.

I used Adobe Lightroom to increase the contrast, remove a bit of the grainy "noise" introduced by the high ISO, remove a bluish colour cast, increase the exposure slightly, and saturate the non-blue colours a bit. Since I had Photoshop open, I popped the cropped image in and gave it a border.

1/60th second at f/8 with a 50 mm Canon 1.8 lens. ISO speed is 800. The metering type is "partial", with the metering centred on the swans.

This is not a "perfect" technical shot in any way. The lens is not the best one I could have used -- just the only one I had with me. I could have done a custom white balance in the field but I didn't because it would have taken longer than I had. No, the only thing that this image did well, as far as I am concerned, was capture a perfect moment at the end of a fine day.

More info on the Trumpeter: Hinterland Who's Who - Trumpeter Swan.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Birding with buddies: Jan 1, 2009

The bright red berries of winterThe first day of 2009 dawned cold, a bit sleety, and not fit for a good bike ride. As an alternate a birding expedition was arranged -- Jan and Alan collected Mike and I for a walk through Panama Flats, Viaduct Flats, James Island pier, Island View Beach and Martindale flats .

I selected this picture to be the lead shot for my 2009 photo-journal for a few reasons: First, the picture was taken on New Year's Day -- almost the first picture of the year; Second, it has a sense of expectation about it -- full of possibilities.

These berries jumped out on a day that was grey and cloudy. With a lot of snow on the ground, they were a flash of colour that could not be ignored. They are from a Hawthorn tree. This small tree is not native to Victoria, but adds colour in both the winter (with berries) and in spring (with pink-red blossoms).

As the day was grubby, I was out with my "dirty day" lens -- my 50 mm 1.8 Canon. Not that this lens is particularly easy to use, but it is quite sharp, and I've found it versatile enough for some fairly close shots, as well as "portrait" style landscapes.

This image lets me see how each berry is enrobed in water. The temp was dropping, so I wouldn't be surprised if this covering didn't become a layer of ice.

I particularly like the drops of water hanging from some of the berries. They give the image a sense of expectation, like a stop-action. Also, some of these berries will, if all goes well, become new Hawthorn trees in the fullness of time. And, in the spring these trees will produce lovely blossoms, and then more berries, and so the circle goes. Fitting, don't you think, for the first day of a new year?