An Elephant’s Life

Elephants are all mixed up;

They do things wrong way ‘round;

Their trunks are not for storing things,

But grabbing things they’ve found.

Their mothers must get mad at them,

They bathe to get all dirty;

To cool, they throw dust on their backs,

So hardly can stay purty.

Their food is eaten upside down,

Like pointing north for south;

They hold it in their nose just so,

Then lift it to their mouth.

When something tries to block their path,

They merely have to bump it;

But nearly always they will play

A warning on their trumpet.

They wag their ears to let you know

They’ve got a thing to say;

And even if you don’t agree,

They’re sure to get their way.

Their balanced meal is not like yours,

With icky things you hide;

They have to hold it level so

It won’t tilt to one side.

Your mother’d never let you do

An elephant’s worst habit,

Like stuffing things inside its nose

Then use its mouth to grab it.

When riding on an elephant

You rock from side to side,

As if you were a little boat,

Bobbing on the tide.

Just watch a line of pachyderms

Go walking to the river;

You’ll find them swaying side to side

With much more than a quiver.

Beware the plodding elephant,

As on its way it goes;

You dare not step in front of it

Unless you want flat toes.

They come already built with toys

As everybody knows;

To splash their friends is never hard:

They use their built-in hose.

Their babies don’t get cuddled much;

They soon must go to town;

They walk as soon as they are born,

Though sometimes look like clowns.

Their teeth stick way, way out in front

And nearly hide their faces;

But still I’m sure you’ve never seen

An elephant wear braces.

Their legs are bigger than most trees,

Their feet look just like stumps;

And just before you see their tails

Come mighty pairs of rumps.

Their skin is oh, so very tough,

In fact, they call it hide,

Because that’s really what it does

To what they have inside.

If you could see their skin up close

And touch it with your hand,

You’d find it very papery:

The kind that’s made with sand.

Like all they have, the tails they wear

Are elephantine size;

They swat them to the left and right

To keep away the flies.

Among the land-based animals

They beat them with their height;

To find one in the wilderness

Would surely give you fright.

This tale about the pachyderms

Has lasted long enough;

And so it’s time to end our talk

Of elephantine stuff.

Bringing Food to Light

Close-up Photography on a Lightbox

Inspired by Harold Davis’s latest book, Creative Garden Photography, I decided to make a series of lightbox photographs of food items. The concept is to record the iconic shapes of fruits and vegetables up close. My basic technique is to slice translucent subjects very thin, then pose them on a light pad so they are backlit against a white background. For opaque subjects, a little front lighting is added so their colors and textures are visible.

To make the photographs, I placed my subjects on a 17 x 24” light pad. The pad is large enough so that, in addition to solitary slices, I can create larger arrangements in various configurations. The light pad I bought can vary the intensity of its luminosity. For translucent subjects, the light from the light pad is sufficient illumination. Their shapes are revealed by the light shining through the thin slices. Opaque subjects require some front lighting so that in addition to the white background their colors and textures are visible.

In crafting these photos, my goal was to create strong images that reveal the iconic structures and graphic qualities of my subjects. When they are arranged in groupings, I sometime build visually interesting patterns. These might be organized chaos or arrangements that use the photographic concepts of line, color, form, and texture. In either case, I wanted to build images with strong graphic quality that reveal the essential characteristics of the subjects.

Yunnan Golden Needle tea leaves

It’s important to understand the photographic intent in creating the photos. While each photo is unique, the goal is to reveal the inner qualities of the subjects. In the case of the stringy Yunnan Golden Needle tea leaves, my goal was to use the apparent randomness of shapes and display that quality. I do not think this image would have worked if I had arranged tea leaves in a more orderly pattern.

Lima beans with single kidney bean

The arrangement of the beans presented a different opportunity. The subject was amenable to an arrangement that emphasizes line and form. At one level, the photo is about the structured organization of the smooth skinned lima beans. But the predominant theme is clearly the color contrast between the light limas and the solitary red kidney bean. Compositionally, the arrangement is orderly, with the red bean at about the rule of thirds point where its impact is maximized.   

The photo of the mixed legumes emphasizes yet another compositional principle, the use of color to achieve impact.  Here again I’ve employed a rather carefully organized chaos to suggest randomness.

Pear slice

The fruit and vegetable slices present still different compositional opportunities. In these cases, the compositions are the iconic profiles and colors of the subjects themselves, which makes them quite recognizable and yet unusual graphically. Unlike the tea leaves, beans, and legumes photos, where some front lighting supplemented the light pad, the fruit and vegetable slices were entirely backlit.

Red bell pepper

To reiterate a key point, the pictures in these compositions were intentionally organized in the patterns they display. They are by no means random scatterings that reflect only happenstance. Instead, in building each composition I carefully placed the elements in arrangements that seemed to me to be effective.

A technical note is in order. I made these photos with a Nikon Z7 mirrorless camera, which has a resolution of 45.7 megapixels and gives me a high degree of resolution. I set the ISO at 64. The camera is mounted on a Smith-Victor Pro Duty 36-inch copy stand that allows me to shoot straight down on my subjects.

My lens for these photos is a Zeiss Milvus f/2 50 mm Makro Planar lens, which is a manual focus lens. I achieve sharp focus by zooming in on the LCD screen so I can see the details up close. I set the f-stop at the higher end of the range, typically f/18, so that I get as much depth of field as possible. The exposures vary. I normally shoot multiple exposure sequences that enable HDR processing.  For this series, in some photos I’ve chosen to display only a single image from each exposure set. For others, I used layers and masks in Photoshop to combine several images to enhance the final result.

I plan to use these and similar images to make a set of food-themed note cards and to hang some of them in my kitchen. These images represent only the beginning of my explorations of this fun technique. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it, and more images to display, in future postings.

British Church Note Cards

I’ve traveled quite a lot during my life. One of the places I’ve visited most often is Great Britain. Always cameras in hand, I’ve recorded many of the sights and scenes I’ve encountered. One of the most fascinating things for me are the churches. Great Britain has a rich array of them, many with long histories. They are often wonderful exemplars of architecture and decoration that are well worth being captured photographically.

Nativity Window, Chester Cathedral, Chester, England

My bulging files are filled with colorful images of these gems. The question is, what can I do to display them and make use of my experiences? After much thought, I settled on creating a set of note cards that feature representative scenes from a variety of subjects and locales.

Church of St. Peter, Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Denbigshire, Wales

At first, I created them as gifts for family and friends. Then, seeing how well received they have been, I decided to go a step further and offer them for sale on Etsy. I’m pricing them to sell: a set of 12 cards, two each of six scenes, are priced at $12 plus $3 flat rate shipping per set.

Vaulted Cellarium, Fountains Abbey, Near Aldfield, North Yorkshire,England

The technical details: they measure 4 ¼ X 5 ½ inches, come with envelopes, and are printed on Red River River Linen 60 lb. note card stock.

Truro Cathedral, Truro, Cornwall

Additional card sets featuring rural scenes, covered bridges, railroad wheels, and colorful scenics will soon follow. And I have ideas for even more photo note cards representing other aspects of my photography.

Tomb of the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England

Whether or not the cards become good sellers, they are fun to make and offer another creative outlet for my photography. And that, in the end, is what makes it all worthwhile.

A Lesson in Tough Love

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is best known for his classic The Little Prince, he authored other books that merit attention. One of these, Night Flight, also a classic, is set in the early years of airmail delivery connecting far-flung cities in South America with daily flights from Buenos Aires to France. Written in an era when airmail across the Andes was dangerous and not yet fully established, Saint-Exupéry tells the story of the fight to maintain reliable and safe airmail service linking the widespread populations of South America with Europe.

Drawing on his life as a pilot, Saint-Exupéry’s work is filled with the stories of pilots flying in dangerous and unpredictable weather over difficult terrain to keep the mails on a regular schedule. Beautifully written in language worthy of emulation, Night Flight is an interesting short read about the early struggles to improve communications across widely separated places and the lives of the pilots and crews who made it a reality.

But beneath the surface lies a deeper story, and a moral. The central character, Rivière, is not a pilot but the flight supervisor to whom pilots and ground crews report. It is he who is charged with seeing that the mails are not only delivered on time, but that the very concept of airmail delivery is cemented into established practice.

Throughout the narrative, Rivière governs the pilots, ground crews, and clerical staff with what appears as an intolerant iron fist. He is a stickler for adherence to established procedures and is swift to discipline both deviations and failures.

Sometimes, it seems, stern action offers the greatest act of kindness

But beneath his hard face lies a struggle between the necessity for excellence, on the one hand, and his love for his men, on the other. In the end, he concludes that he can best show that love by holding them to the highest standards of performance. Though victory—over the elements, over the timetable—remains of paramount importance for Rivière, it is his tough love that both saved lives in this dangerous undertaking and allowed the experiment of airborne communications to ultimately succeed.

Sometimes, it seems, stern action offers the greatest act of kindness. So it was with Rivière.

Losing Focus on Purpose

I’m a sharp focus kind of photographer. I’ve sought out the best lenses for sharpness. I use a tripod whenever possible. And I do a lot of focus stacking to get sharpness throughout the depth of an image.

But just maybe, I’m in a photographic rut. What if I broke out of this routine and approached image making in a novel way?

To help me set out in new directions, I’m currently enrolled in Lori Lankford’s Creative Closeups class, which is offered through the Capital Photography Center. Lori’s full of ideas on how to build exciting close-ups using a variety of techniques that, frankly, are new to me.

Although this looks like an array of flower petals, in fact it is a defocused close-up of the air intake grill on my truck!

The current lesson urges us to seek out light in ways that will reveal interesting bokeh. Bokeh, a Japanese term, refers to the out of focus portion of an image. There is good bokeh and there is bad bokeh. The goal is to create out of focus areas, usually in the background behind a sharply focused subject, that is pleasing to the eye.  When you achieve it, you’ve got good bokeh.

This image is of a portion of a translucent yard ornament. The colors were enhanced in post-processing to create this vivid abstraction.

In carrying out my assignment, I chose a somewhat different path. Rather than focusing sharply on a foreground object, I decided to defocus my lens entirely so that no part of the image was recognizable. I shot wide open, using a Voitlander 100mm macro lens at f/2.5.

Another interpretation of the yard ornament.

This was a totally new experience for this sharpness nut and it opened my eyes to wonderful new possibilities. I’m still experimenting, mind you, but already I’ve learned a few things I’ll use in the future. Here are some takeaways:

  • I can get some very artistic effects by defocusing entirely
  • I get my best results shooting into the light against backlit subjects
  • Speculars, like the glint of light on water drops or tiny reflections on other objects can yield geometric patterns due to the configuration of the lens’s diaphragm blades
  • Backlit translucent objects are great for shooting through to create abstractions
  • Subtle colors in the raw files can be enhanced in postprocessing to create brilliantly hued abstractions
  • Tack sharp shooting is definitely not the only way to go

I’m excited to have learned this lesson and I’m eager to see what else I can learn as I continue this course.

Smell the Roses, Then Shoot Them

It’s no secret that I read a lot of books in an attempt to enhance my skill as a photographer. Many of these have been written by Harold Davis, one of my favorite authors on things photographic. His latest volume, Creative Garden Photography, is one of his best, if not in fact the very best one he’s written.

The book covers a wide range of subjects related to garden photography, including:

  • The types and sizes of gardens, many of which he’s visited and photographed worldwide.
  • The practice of photographing flowers in gardens using a variety of techniques to achieve stunning effects.
  • Studio photography of flowers, including lightbox photography.

As he does in all his books, Davis shares his photographic and post-processing methods in enough detail that they can be replicated by the reader.

This book is filled with photographs that are not only beautiful but also inspiring and educational. For each, he carefully details how and where the image was produced, both in the camera and the digital darkroom. But though the photographs provide valuable information for photographers, non-photographers will also find this beautiful and informative book worthy of a serious perusal.

In crafting this book, Davis is generous, both in the volume of ideas he presents and in his spirit of sharing his knowledge.  As a result, it is replete with techniques and inspiration that will stimulate my photography for a long time to come. I’ve already begun to implement some of his ideas, especially lightbox photography, and I have plans to do more.

Even if flower photography is not your interest, this book contains many ideas that can be applied to other subject matter. For that reason, this book makes an important contribution to the photographic technical literature. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Looking to 2021

With each new year come new opportunities. Likewise, new challenges arise. Some of these we cannot anticipate, of course; but others, we set for ourselves, to expand our capacities and extend our visions.

I have many ideas for personal development and accomplishment in the year ahead. At the risk of future embarrassment at my presumption, here are some of them.

  • As a newly appointed member of the Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services Board, I want to fully comprehend the range of services it offers the community and to carve out a meaningful role for myself in contributing to it. I see an opportunity to use my position to enhance public information about the agency’s services and educate citizens and public officials about the value of social investments such as these.
  • I want to expand my mind by studying things that are new to me, especially Greek philosophy and the philosophy of the Roman Stoics.
  • I want to develop a portfolio of photos for sharing on the web and with potential purchasers and exhibitors.
  • I want to create a sequence of macro photos that are interpretive of deeper themes and go beyond being merely documentary.
  • I want to use my photos to create a line of note cards I can offer for sale.
  • I want to enhance my photographic post-processing skills.
  • I want to develop my skills at creating artistic images as a part of my portfolio.
  • I want to publish a coffee table book on the rural fences in the horse country where I live.
  • I want to continue writing monthly reviews of woodworking books.
  • I want to teach two new hands-on woodworking classes.
  • I want to make natural edge coffee tables for gifts and for sale.
  • I want to continue making boxes for gifts and for sale.
  • I want to complete some other woodworking projects, including a book rack and a desk.
  • I want to provide ongoing leadership to my local photographic club, the Shenandoah Photographic Society.
  • I want to learn the basics of playing the uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), whose sound I’ve come to love. I want to first learn to master the manipulation of the bags and the key strokes on the chanter and by the end of the year to be able to play a simple tune or two.
  • I want to visit family members.
  • I want to do something some training in photography, Covid permitting.

I know this is a lot to endeavor. And perhaps it’s more that I can achieve in 12 months. But if goals are not challenging, what is the use of having them?

Following Dreams, 2021 Style

The transition between the old year and the new is a time long recognized for both looking back at what has passed and forward to what might become. January is appropriately named for the Roman god Janus, the two-faced god who simultaneously looked both to the past and to the future. It is a time when we often reflect on what was or might have been and what may yet become.

Looking to the past should be more than an exercise in reminiscences. It is also a time to reflect on things we did well and those where there is room for growth and change. A serious self-assessment is essential to our development as well functioning people and something anyone who seeks to be both competent and thoughtful will wish to undertake.

The beginning of the year is also a time for looking to the future. That is the stuff of dreams. It’s an opportunity to elevate to consciousness our aspirations, about things that might be possible, if only.

“You can get what you want or you can just get old.”

Billy Joel

There is much to be valued in dreaming. Dreaming need not be mere idling away the time in pointless escapism. It can, instead, be a well-used exercise, a source of enrichment, a creator of opportunities, of inspiration, of fresh ideas and new pathways. All too often, though, we neglect and abandon the objects of our desires. When we do so, our neglect comes at a cost that is often high. We miss opportunities we might have seized. We may resign ourselves to living in a rut. In extreme instances, we may fall into depression. Unfortunately, we easily find all sorts of reasons not to pursue our dreams.

“If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.”

Albert Einstein

In my life, I’ve chosen to follow some dreams while neglecting others. On the positive side, I’ve followed my passion for photography, made a once-in-a-lifetime African Safari, and indulged my need to express myself in words, among other things.

But there have been failures as well. Despite my love of music, I never studied the piano sufficiently to learn to play. And though I am enchanted by the sound of uilleann (Irish) pipes, I feared to take up this difficult instrument and ran away from it.

What explains my failure to follow my dreams? A fear of failure is part of it. Resisting the work needed to succeed is another part. And the judgment that I do not merit success lies beneath them.

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve always imagined.”

Henry David Thoreau

But now, 2021 beckons. Sure, the Covid pandemic will be a major factor constraining us in the coming year. But still, many opportunities remain. So, for 2021, I am planning to follow my dreams as far as they will lead me. Here are some I intend to pursue. I will seriously explore learning to play the uilleann pipes. I will work toward publishing a coffee table book of my photography of local fences. I will contribute to public service by serving on the RRCS board. I will enhance my skills in photo editing by studying the methods of the masters. And, to balance these fresh opportunities, I will make a thorough assessment of my successes and failures during 2020.

How about you?  What do you feel you did well in 2020 and where does your room for growth lie?  And what dreams to you plan to pursue in 2021?  I’d love to hear from you about them.

From Waste to Wonderful

One of the most exciting photo books I’ve read recently is Lisa and Tom Cuchara’s Create Fine Art Photographs from Historic Places and Rusty Things. These outstanding photographers, whom we might call denizens of the dusty, frequent abandoned factories, prisons, and asylums among other neglected places in search of creative and often iconic images. In these unlikely spaces, they find, or rather, they make photographs of great beauty and artful composition. In so doing, they breathe new life into what was once vital.

Their book displays many exciting photos that reveal both the latent beauty and the hidden colors of the spaces they visit. But the photos are more than merely beautiful; they often lay bare the soul of these forlorn places as they tell the stories of those who lived and worked in them.

Still, the photos are more than graphic interpretations of neglected spaces and abandoned things. They are also a set of lessons on photographic practices and how to bring potential to reality. Using HDR, panoramas, time exposures, creative lighting, and careful post-processing, they employ their photos as instructions in technique.

Above all, this book is a high source of inspiration. It witnesses the power of well executed photography to build exciting images in spaces that on the surface are run down and easily avoided or overlooked.

Above all, this book is a high source of inspiration. It witnesses the power of well executed photography to build exciting images in spaces that on the surface are run down and easily avoided or overlooked. There are lessons aplenty in this fine book. Whether you ever intend to set foot in an abandoned factory or junkyard, the Cucharas have plenty to teach about composition, technique, patience, and vision. And those are skills every one of us can benefit from by studying.

Wise Words for Grown-ups

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the early French long-distance pilot and author, is most famously known for his enduring classic, The Little Prince. But he wrote many other books, mostly drawn from his flight experiences in Africa, South America, and during World War II, when he ultimately died during a reconnaissance flight.

The Little Prince is famous for its sage and gentle advice. Though usually heralded as a children’s book, both it and his other writings contain many wise thoughts worth pondering by adults. Some of these are collected in a small volume of just over 80 pages, titled A Guide for Grown-ups. It contains thoughtful and pithy sayings grouped thematically in six categories: Happiness, Friendship, Love, Responsibility, Fortitude, and What Is Essential.

Here are several of his sayings that I find particularly meaningful.

“If I summon up those memories that have left me with an enduring savor, if I draw up the balance sheet of the hours in my life that have truly counted, surely I find only those that no wealth could have procured me.”

“It is much harder to judge yourself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself, it’s because you are truly a wise man.”

“Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

“A civilization is built on what is required of men, not on that which is provided for them.”

“What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it.”

This slim and inexpensive book contains much that is worth reflection.