The heavens

Although I don’t have a deep interest in astrophotography I’ve always had a fascination with the photographic technique used to capture star trails. The allure, I suppose, is that they are tricky to record. Rather than turning your camera to Auto and clicking away, there are quite a few things one has to think about before successfully recording one of these shots. The most important things to be considered are the weather and the phase of the moon. The best captures may be had on a clear night of the new moon. I’ve got a useful piece of software, that I highly recommend, called The Photographer’s Ephemeris. While it won’t predict the weather, it will tell me much about the phase of the moon, the time of moon rise and moon set, and the relative positions of each to my location here at the farm. I first thought I’d like to experiment with star trails after seeing a short video posted by Tony Northrup. Since then I’ve watched the weather and the moon, closely. It wasn’t until this past Thursday that our local forecasters made specific mention of the cool temperatures and clear over-night conditions that they were expecting. I checked the Ephemeris and, sure enough, the new moon was two days out and on this particular night the moon would be a waning crescent of 7.9%. There was rain in the forecast for the weekend so I set my alarm for 3 AM. Because I hadn’t attempted to photograph the night sky before, I decided to go with a simple plan to capture a shot of the Milky Way. I had fun and I hope you enjoy the result. Yesterday’s moon was a 3.5% crescent and the new moon will occur tonight. I was pretty darn tired yesterday and am guessing that the predicted weather front will be here this afternoon. I’ll cross my fingers for clear skies on August 25, or September 24, or October 23. Joanna always says, patience and perseverance, and she is right. I’ll get those star trails. Eventually.

On a completely different matter, if one isn’t an astrophysicist or a cosmologist (or I suppose, even if one is) images such as the one I present below are supposed to get us thinking about space, time, the heavens, heaven, and perhaps even about religion and all-things-spiritual. Whether you derive comfort from the concept of heaven or from thinking about infinity, stellar evolution, galaxies, and alternate universes is of no matter. What I want to report is that looking into the sky the other night made me pause, for these last days have been difficult, especially after hearing about the untimely passing of a good friend. There will be a funeral for him tomorrow. Although I am grateful for not having to attend many funerals in the recent past, the reverse of that coin is that I haven’t had a lot of practice at funerals. I’m always uncomfortable and uncertain about what to say and do. It bothers me to think that whatever I say may sound forced and perhaps even trite. In a post from 2012 I talked about the Mind Meld. If this is something with which you are unfamiliar, a Mind Meld is a (fictional) technique for sharing thoughts, and memories with another individual. It is a form of telepathy. My point is this; I wish I could express my thoughts about my friend’s passing without having to speak, for I know I will do that badly. I wish that I could perform a Mind Meld with each member of his family. If I could, they would then know that I admired my friend. I admired his strength (both physical and emotional), his skills and accomplishments, and his strong character. If I could, they would then know that his passing has affected me in perhaps more ways than I am currently aware. And, if I could, they would then know that I am still having difficulty thinking about this world without him.

Before the rain

Although hot and humid weather is a seasonal rite of passage here in central Pennsylvania, such conditions always take me by surprise and I am affronted by them. I limit work out-of-doors during the afternoon hours when it is so very hot and I do away with morning and evening chores and feed and water the livestock once at mid-morning. Even then, when it is relatively cool, the humidity drains my energy. The animals take such conditions in stride and do not complain. Hank and Argus, Anatolian Shepherds, are happy to be invited to spend the day in the under-croft. They work hard to make themselves two-dimensional, thereby increasing the surface in direct contact with the cool, concrete, floor. They lay sleeping, slobbering, comfortably. Their twitching eyelids and paddling extremities give away their dreams. Folks ask us about the sheep, and whether they have difficulty in the heat. The same people will also ask about the very coldest part of winter. To both lines of questioning I provide assurance that the sheep are, always, just fine. As far as their current comfort level, the adults were sheared not long ago and lambs carry only three months of fleece. The behavior of the flock adapts to the heat as well. Whereas, in winter, the group will forage during the day and hunker down at night, in summer the group first stirs at sunset and will graze by the light of the moon or in total darkness. Once the heat begins to build, the lot will settle down to wait out the day in the ample coolness of the shade of Walnut trees. The cats become entirely nocturnal and spend their days holed up in the barn. The only animals which seem unaffected by the weather are the layers. Although pastured meat birds are much influenced by the heat (which is why we have them processed and in the freezers by the time summer heats up), our free-range layers can be counted upon to go about their usual business. That being said, it is the winter, and the very cold feet it brings with it, which they disdain. And so it was that the farm was quiet today so I took the camera to a farm I know along the river. As I pulled alongside the large barn and stepped out of the truck I was met with a wave of heat and humidity which wafted from under the barn itself. The folks that own this place store hay and straw in the cavernous mow above and house beef cattle and replacement heifers below. Although the under-croft is open and large fans work incessantly to bring in fresh air, large numbers of ruminant animals produce lots of heat (which is why, incidentally, dairy barns are rarely heated). The animals were well fed and watered but seemed restless. I watched as they jockeyed for position in front of the many fans which were spread evenly around the spacious pad. I always enjoy walking around a barn, especially a working barn, and this one didn’t disappoint. The sheds and out buildings were crammed with equipment. The sweet smell of fermented forage rose from the bunks and the automatic waterer droned on, harmonizing pleasantly with the soft groans and footfalls made by the animals as they moved about. As I walked I came upon this school bus which serves as a storage shed. The bruised metal and shattered windows stood in contrast to the brilliant green of the maturing corn crop and rapidly gathering storm clouds. I like strolling past machinery, crops, and livestock, looking at each knowingly, and thinking about how it is that the first two are used, along with much dedication and hard labor, to produce the third.


Toot, toot

Forgive this egregious violation of proper etiquette. In my book at least, one should never, ever, under any possible permutation of twisted circumstance, toot his or her own horn. I must say, however, I thought it nice that the newsletter editor of the North American Shetland Sheepbreeds Association chose to use one of my photos for the recent cover of that quarterly publication. The image was presented first here, at WordPress, in a post of entitled Early morning kerfuffle, perhaps you will remember it? Although I sent the editor a high-resolution copy of the image, it didn’t seem to make the transition to the cover well. If you would like to view a high-resolution version of this photo you may do so here.

Switzerland revisited

Few will remember a post, from nearly two years ago, in which I presented a gallery of images taken while in Switzerland as Joanna and I had the opportunity to travel there to attend the wedding of our daughter. Well, my sister recently asked if I could have one or two of those images printed for her to display in her home. Going back to the photo archives got me remembering much of that beautiful Swiss scenery. When I was in Switzerland I had not yet purchased my D600 but did have the trusty Sony HX9V along. It, in retrospect, did a highly commendable good job, I think. You might be interested to compare the image of the windowed-facade below with that which was presented in the 2012 post. Very different processing, using very different processors (GIMP in 2012, versus Adobe Lightroom in 2014). Before signing off I did want to take the opportunity to tell you about my daughter’s blog, The Scrappy Traveler. She’s been living in Switzerland for a good part of this last year, on her own, while her husband has been working to finish an academic appointment here in the States. Her blog is funny and discusses the trials and tribulations of adjusting to a new job, a new language, and new people and culture in a place far-from-home. It has all be quite the experience and has provided much for her to write about. Check it out, if you have time and inclination.


Illuminating an interloper

Although the blooms of Campsis radicans are more typically pollinated by hummingbirds, I discovered a number of opportunistic wasps scouting the depths of Trumpet Vine flowers yesterday afternoon in the side yard. I assumed the easiest way to ensure good illumination of the far reaches of the inflorescence was to position the sun at my back. This worked well enough, but to properly expose the bottom of the flower I needed to open up and, although you would have thought that this would have allowed for proper exposure of the wasp, it didn’t and the little beasts were underexposed and lacked detail. Opening up any further would have blown out exposure at the base of the flower. A good batch of thunderstorms was brewing and the afternoon was hot and uncomfortably humid. I was about to give up and seek refuge inside when I passed around the backside of the vine. The sun was intense and its light, now directly in front of me, illuminated the petals from behind, and this had the dramatic effect of setting the corolla aglow with a beautiful golden light. This illuminated the interloper nicely, don’t you think?


Sunrise and artistic vision

Joanna and I agree that colorful sunrises and sunsets have been in short supply this year, and so it was that I took great delight in the dawn of July 6. The Photographer’s Emphemeris tells me that sunrise on that day was at 5:42 AM. The photo below was time-stamped at 5:41 AM and it was the last that I captured before the sun rose above the horizon, putting an end to the beautiful twilight. I had been experimenting with a remote shutter release which allows me to more effectively use the bulb setting on my DSLR. The longest programmed shutter speed on my D600 is 30 seconds; the bulb setting allows me to hold the shutter open indefinitely, allowing for very long exposures. To capture the dim light of dawn I was using exposures as long as two and three minutes. I wonder if the photographers out there know the origin of the word bulb, as it is used in bulb setting? If you ever owned a film SLR you may recall that there was a small, conical, depression in the middle of the shutter release; it was there that you could connect a long, sleeved, cable which allowed you to release the shutter without having to touch, and shake, the camera. At the end of the sleeve there was a plunger which was either attached to a cable which ran through the sleeve and actuated the shutter, or there was a piston at the business end and a bulb which you could squeeze, at the other. This release worked pneumatically such that when you squeezed the bulb the increased pressure in the sleeve would force the piston out to trip the shutter. So, it is the actuator bulb of the remote release to which the bulb in bulb setting refers. So much for photo-trivia. Anyway, as the twilight intensified, the shutter speed required for exposure shortened and the photo below was taken at 1.0 second. Proper exposure in the sky dictated that the hayfield in the foreground be underexposed, and herein lay the beauty of a RAW file. Although I couldn’t see any details in the field when I first viewed this image, I knew that these could be recovered with a selective adjustment to exposure using Lightroom. I’m wondering if the effect looks unnatural to you? Because my pupils responded to the light in the same way the camera did, I did not view the scene as you see it below; although the sky looked alright, everything below the horizon was dark in my field of optical vision. But my artistic vision for this shot called for a juxtaposition of the colors and textures of the sky above with the colors and textures of the ground below. I liked the transitions from blue, in the high sky of twilight, to shades of purple, rusty-ochre, orange, and yellow in the illuminated cloud bottoms. Contrast this with the field; the textured seed heads in shades of golden brown and the more uniform understory of bladed grasses in muted green. I was also aware of a sense of movement, of both sky and field, toward the point-of-focus, the sunrise itself. I don’t know … am I making all of this up? To quote the lyric by Noël Regney, … do you see what I see? I wonder?


Two approaches to animal portraiture

One of my followers has commented that animal portraits seem to be my specialty. I will admit that the farm provides many good subjects and having raised animals for all these years has given me a good practical understanding of how individual species and breeds think and behave. The fortunate coincidence of opportunity and experience has, I will admit, allowed me to capture some nice shots. There seem to be two schools of animal portraiture; I have experienced both. Nearly a decade ago some dairy-farming-friends called to see if I would be interested in helping a professional photographer take some photos of a few of their prize-winning Brown Swiss dairy cows. Such images are recorded to demonstrate fine achievements in selective breeding, advertise the sale of an individual, or to highlight the prowess of a herd sire (photos of the bull are also important, but not as much as images of heifers or cows which represent his good influence). The beautifully posed portraits of Get-R-Done Braiden Gigi (on the left) and of Lee-Ann’s Braiden Glitter were taken by Cybil Fisher of Cybil Fisher Dairy Photography out of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Both of these animals provide proof of the very fine genetic potential of a bull, Blessing Tex Braiden, whose semen may be purchased at Select Sires of Plain City, Ohio. These shots have utility in that they record dairy phenotype, that suite of physical traits so important to diary farmers across the country and around the world. When I dropped in to help out my friends I learned just how difficult this sort of portraiture is. What do you notice about these two excellent portraits? How were they engineered? Both girls have had a very thorough bath; hooves and dewclaws have been painted and glossed; tails have had their switches augmented to make them look fuller; each is late to be milked, allowing her udder to show its capacity; milk veins are massive and shown to best advantage; the right-side hind leg has been placed to show the shape, placement, and attitude of the right-front teat; the girls have been placed in front of a light (artificial) background to accentuate the uniformity of the top-line; and they have been made to stand with their front hooves on a slightly elevated surface which serves to keep them alert, head-up, ears forward, and on-their-toes. There are other small tricks as well, involving mostly powders and sprays, which I won’t take time to mention. Can you imagine getting a cow, one who has little clue as to what’s going on, to do all of these things? And, at the same time? Take a quick look at the Fisher photo, bottom on the right, and you’ll see that cows are simple beasts and find all of the fussing quite trying at times. Suffice it to say that getting a really nice shot of this sort is very hard work and excellent photos, of the sort taken by Cybil Fisher, should be greatly admired.

And so now, to the Pairodox approach to animal portraiture. Certainly there is little practical utility to such casual shots in this second gallery of my own images. I believe, however, that in contrast to the shots required of the livestock industry, the images I have captured provide a feel for the animals themselves, as individuals. Maybe my images allow you to get just a little bit inside-their-heads. Perhaps you are of the opinion that animals are animals and lack character and personality. Not true. I speak from years of experience. Species have different character (horses, versus cattle, versus goats, versus sheep, versus dogs, versus cats, versus poultry, versus rabbits), and breeds within species have different character (Angus, versus Swiss, versus Holstein, versus Devon, versus Charolais, for example, among the bovines), and individuals within species can display unique personalities as well. I hope this sort of disparity (rather than diversity) among species, breeds, and individuals comes through, to at least some degree, in the animal portraits I have created.

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