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Monthly Archives: February 2010

I just came across a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson, author of my favorite poem.  I think his words nicely summarize my view of travel:  “There are no foreign lands.  It is the traveler only who is foreign.”

Ever since childhood, I have found those brief durations of dawn and dusk to be the most enigmatic of the day.  There is simply something special about the early morning as the stars fade into a deep blue sky and the colors of refracted sunlight begin to display overhead.  Even more moving to me is when the reverse happens in the evening, when after a potentially beautiful chromatic experience one is favored with the wonders of a starry night.  Galen Rowell wrote eloquently about the magic of the “golden hour”, that time when the sun is still just below the horizon, when colors are warm, when shadows are long.  I am grateful to witness such moments each and every one, and sometimes even think past the awe to pick up the camera.

One of the best ways I have found to improve my photography is through online research.  I do not mean to suggest that anything can replace the central importance of spending time behind the lens, but instead that times between photographic outings can be ones of cognitive fecundity.  There is no doubt that Wikipedia provides the nature photographer with a wonderful range of information.  However, I have derived major utility and enjoyment from reading a number of other websites dedicated to photography:

1.  The Cambridge in Colour Digital Photography Tutorials provide a wealth of detailed, yet highly accessible, articles on topics ranging from metering and exposure to digital sensor technology and how to read an MTF graph.  The site also features a number of useful calculators (e.g., diffraction limits, hyperfocal distance, effects of crop sensors on focal length).  It is also worth noting that the site offers a growing list of tutorials on photography techniques.

2.  Digital Photography Review provides regular updates on all things photographic.  More importantly, the lens and camera reviews are second to none.

3.  Photozone also provides reviews on a wide range of cameras and lenses.  My experience is that the pages often require a click of the “reload” button to load properly, but aside from this peculiarity the reviews are quite informative.

4.  As a Canon shooter, I make it a point to daily check Canon Rumors.  The site is authored in a surprisingly humble manner.

5.  The LensWork Technology Blog is a relatively new resource.  Written by the editor of the eponymous magazine, the blog provides what might be described as a more mature and artistic perspective on the technologies and toys often relevant to photographers.

As I said above, the ultimate classroom for the photographer is in the field.  However, any worthwhile class requires significant reading.

I realize that these comments come long after the release of the movie.  However, having just seen Avatar for the second time, I now feel  more competent to evaluate my own perceptions of the movie and the reasons thereof.  I  admit that I very much enjoyed both viewings of the movie.  As a scientist and nature photographer, I am struck by the sheer beauty of both the imagery and the implicit philosophy we observe on the fictional moon of Pandora.  I also wonder whether some members of modern society have forgotten that such real beauty exists on our own Earth, and that it does not necessitate an interstellar voyage to be among it, even if only for a brief moment.

When I was in college, a psychology professor once exhorted our class that the most important analytical tool in science is the use of the eyes.  Perhaps this lesson applies to nature photography.  Sometimes, making the shot relies on looking at things from a different perspective than the norm.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education demonstrates an interesting intersection of science, photography, and the potential social power of an open-source approach to knowledge as the property of all individuals.

As the snow continues to fall while the temperatures float sufficiently near freezing to taunt the sensibilities with the possibility of warmer days, I find myself beginning to look forward to the colors, scents, and warmth of spring.

As a lens property, sharpness is affected by resolution (the ability to clearly resolve alternating black and white lines) and acutance (the ability to resolve such lines with high contrast; see here for a excellent tutorial on this and many other phenomena).  Prior to the popularization of CCD and CMOS technologies, inquiries into sharpness were limited to lens performance.  One could certainly opt for a film emulsion with finer grain (e.g., Velvia 50), but the relative invariance of emulsion used by a given photographer meant that sharpness was largely considered a sole property of the lens.  This “primitive” state of technology nonetheless provided plenty of image quality issues to consider:  spherical aberrations (longitudinal and lateral), chromatic aberrations, coma, curvature of field, astigmatism, barrel and pincushion distortions, and vignetting.

With the advent of digital photography, and the ostensible megapixel war among the major manufacturers, we are now faced with prospects of pixel peeping.  I can honestly say that I never gave much consideration to the limits of diffraction on image quality before moving to digital.  I was aware that one ought not to shoot 35mm film with an aperture much slower than f/16 or f/22, but the apparent difference in most slides or prints between this and faster apertures seemed somehow less than crucial, especially when attempting to maximize depth of field for a landscape shot.

Now, with the ability to view my 12MP digital shots at 200% or even 400%, I can clearly discern the limits of sharpness imposed on the sensor by diffraction (cf. the recent debate elsewhere regarding the relative merits of the Canon 7D’s 18MP sensor).  Does this imply that my work, which today is arguably far better than it was when I began shooting nature photography 7 years ago, is somehow inferior in sharpness to my original work shot with Velvia?  I think not.

I realize that some photographers will disagree with the following contention, but I suspect we have become overly enamored with the importance of sharpness in photography.  It is clear that digital sensor technology allows us to perceive the limits of diffraction like never before.  Perhaps what is now necessary is a reevaluation of whether a slightly “soft” photo is somehow inferior to one that has been sharpened in post-production.  I seek sharpness, just like anyone else.  At the end of the day, however, the most important thing to me is whether I make the shot.

I perceive travel as an act of study.  Travel to different environments, be they natural or cultural, provides opportunities for acquiring a broader perspective on self and the world.  Perhaps this is most true when one visits a foreign country, or when one leaves the city and spends time in or near wilderness.  Such experiences potentially serve to enrich the individual by challenging a priori assumptions about the norm.  As the Bard said through Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  How much more enjoyable these experiences are when a camera is part of the personal adventure.

There are those rare moments in one’s life when one is truly humbled beyond words, when there is an internal recognition for a fleeting moment of one’s infinitesimal place among the broader cosmos.  I have experienced such moments of awareness in select locales, such as standing amidst giant sequoias or viewing Denali on a clear day.  My experience is that seeing nature through the lens can either enhance or detract from the experience.  The camera can be a mean, or an end.  Quo vadis?