Archives for posts with tag: desert

Well, at least in the world I live in, they aren’t. The title comes from Gilbert and Sullivan (specifically HMS Pinafore, and a generally nonsensical duet between Buttercup and the Captain, for those of you who are counting), but the sentiment comes from me, and specifically my Nikon, and even more exactly from, well, snails again.

[To interrupt myself for a moment, it’s been a while since I encouraged my reader to visit my photography website, so consider yourself Officially Encouraged. Also, there are in fact photos in this blog entry, there are just a lot of words before you get there. Thanks.]

In the past, I’ve blogged about my obsession with snails and the tiny universe they live in, pretty much oblivious to how very, very important I am (“Up Close and Escargotal“). That led me to wax poetic (putting my random bloviations in the kindest possible light) about humanity’s place in the universe, which is really quite a leap.

Not surprisingly, snails pop up again here, and for that I apologize. Well, I actually don’t apologize, and for two reasons: Reason One, I like snails and this is my blog and so there. Reason Two (and more loftily), just as snails make a remarkably excellent vehicle for the ingestion of yummy garlic butter (partly because eating spoonfuls of garlic butter is generally discouraged, and partly because if you’re going to eat what amounts to spoonfuls of garlic butter, then you should have to at least pay some moral price to offset your wallow in self-indulgent gluttony, and that price is you have to have a mollusk floating in your butter), so too they make—at least in my fevered mind—a remarkably excellent vehicle for making broader generalizations about other things.

(By the way, if you successfully navigated that last sentence then you are a truly unique person of admirable reading skills. Congratulations. On the other hand, if we lost you somewhere in the parenthetical prior to the em-dashed digressive clause, I promise that it gets easier from here on.)

This blog entry is really expanding on the subject of close-ups, and what isolating bits of a subject can do to the nature of the subject, and the viewer’s experience of something completely other than what it is he or she is looking at. It’s not unlike what I’ve observed about taking pictures of the landscape from high in the air (“Abstracted at 30,000 Feet“): At a certain point, whether you’re really up close or really far away, the thing-ness of a thing can disappear altogether into something much more than the limited subject itself. Because I like to make up names for things, we’ll call that phenomenon, that approach, “isolative photography,” because it sounds kinda smart very Serious.

Perhaps I shall write a wordy treatise on it one of these days, making copious use of parentheticals and em dashes and semicolons. And that’ll be way different from what’s been going on here so far.

Anyway, snails don’t entirely fit in to this, because my macro work with the aquarium is really pretty traditional macro work: Thanks to a 105mm 1:2.8 Sigma DG Macro lens, we can now demonstrate conclusively, for anyone who was wondering, that Yes, snails do have teeth:

 Close-up view of a snail

But what that does illustrate is the importance, or at least the coolness, of getting really close to a subject, and finding—as I did here—something not really expected. What I’d expected was a cool close-up of a snail’s face, with all those little tentacles waving around. And what I got, when I looked at the photos, was a big toothy snail-smile. (If you click on the photo, it will loom large, and you can examine the dental characteristics of the common bivalve to your heart’s content.)

More to the point, though, is this:

 close-up view of a recessed weapon on a fighter jet fuselage

What appears at first glance to be a steampunky robotic eye is in fact one of the recessed weapons on the fuselage of an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. But in isolation, only the most nitpicky of aircraft enthusiasts would know that.

When he heard that I’d been to an airplane museum, my father—who is quite the aircraft aficionado—pleaded with me not to send him any pictures of airplanes. (“I really don’t want to see another three-quarters view of a P-51,” he said—because he talks that way—as if I would ever send him such a thing. Others do, though, knowing his interests, so I sympathize.) Of course, it’s highly unlikely that I would take such a picture. Whether or not he wants extreme close-up views of a recessed gun or a propeller on a pretty red airplane or the turbofan on a jet engine or  is another question, but that’s what he gets from me.

Like life, isolative photography is not just about airplanes and snails. Here’s an interesting (well, at least to me) juxtaposition of an aerial “abstract” of the Western United States, and a close up of a similarly-colored rock near Palm Springs, California.

And here are close-up views of carnival glass and a Prius headlight, both of which become much more interesting abstracts in isolation from the rest of the object. A picture of a vase, and a picture of a car, are (at least to me) not very interesting. But in getting close, in isolating parts from the whole, they take on a more uniquely evocative character.

It’s interesting how the view through the viewfinder can show the photographer how the isolated image flattens compared with the dimensional reality of the subject. This photo is a perspective shot of a canvass awning-covered walkway on the campus of the California State University in Long Beach.

At the end of the walkway is an enormous blue corrugated aluminum pyramid (don’t ask) that houses a basketball stadium. Here, though, the image is forcibly flattened in the frame, and becomes more interesting (again, to me at least) than a pleasant location shot showing off a Southern California college campus.

The main thing I’m going on about here, I guess, is that it’s often pieces of things that are more compelling than the things themselves. The fact is that anyone can, these Webbish days, see all the pictures they want of airplanes and cars and vases and landscapes. The whole world seems to be equipped with perfectly functional cameras built into their phones, and millions of people every day blithely take snapshots that do the trick if you’re wondering what something looks like.

The trick is to go beyond the “looks like” and, to go back to the snails again, briefly, find the teeth. Look for the interesting details, the pieces in your viewfinder that become more than a vintage jet fighter and take on an independent character all their own. Get up close to your subjects, and then get closer, and you’ll find new and unexpected—and sometimes better—subjects right in front of you.

One of the few joys I find in my frequent business travel is that I get to look out the window. OK, let me be more Serious: I enjoy taking aerial photos of the landscape. Whatever. Now that, of course, requires that I actively seek out window seats (on long flights, this has the downside of requiring me to climb over two fellow passengers to reach the aisle, but that’s really their problem more than mine).

What I’ve found over the years, using a Nikon D80 and D90, with telephoto and DX 18-105 lenses, is that the landscape, particularly of the southwestern United States, takes on a wildly abstract and interestingly non-geological appearance when viewed from the air. It’s likely a combination of the nature of the landscape itself, coupled with distortions resulting from the extreme angle at which “down” pictures must be taken through a tiny airliner window when the photographer is strapped in inches away from the plexiglass, along with the modest processing the images go through in PhotoShop. But whatever the reason, the results can look more like Jackson Pollock than Google Earth, and I love that.

Aerial view of Green River, Canyonlands NP, UtahAerial View, Great Salt Lake, Utah

I’m not sure what to call this. “Aerial photography” always sounds to me like someone with too many pockets on his shirt rented time on a Piper and flew around taking fabulous pictures leaning precariously out an open doorway. Snapping photos while twisted around in a 17-inch wide coach seat, lens pressed against a scratched 16×11 plexiglass window, holding the camera at a wrist-aching angle, doesn’t really qualify, at least in my mind, as something as exotic and professional-sounding as “aerial photography.”

Nomenclature aside, though, it’s something that I like to do, and that makes the frequent business trips I take much more creatively stimulating. I don’t mind that I make something of a spectacle of myself–a bald, middle-aged guy contorting himself and clicking his camera rapidly out the window like a nine year old on his first flight. I may not be leaning precariously out an open airplane window, but from time to time I brazenly defy the order to “turn off all electronic devices” and take photos with my digital camera during final approach and landing. I am terribly sneaky about this, waiting for the flight attendants to go to their seats before surreptitiously pulling the camera back out and shocking my row-mates with my flagrant scoff-lawery. My Nikon has yet to interfere with Boeing’s complex electronics, however (to the best of my knowledge) and does not seem to have brought down any planes. I do apologize for putting my fellow passengers at risk, but sacrifices must be made for art.

Aerial View of Seattle, with Space NeedleAerial view of UNLV's football stadium, Las Vegas NV

The biggest challenge I’ve found to this sort of aerial photography is picture quality. There is simply no way these puppies are going straight from the camera onto the web. At thirty thousand feet, even on a clear day, there is haze and glare that simply must be Photoshopped away. The image below shows the before (on the left) and after versions of an aerial view of southern Arizona. As you can see, there’s a lot of nasty haze and glare that the camera picks up that my eye, at least, doesn’t really register. The “after” image looks pretty much like what I recall seeing.

Comparison of original v Photoshopped aerial image of AZ desert

Here’s how I do it. There may be better ways, different adjustments to make, but I’ve found through a lot of trial and error that the most natural-looking and final image, the one most faithful to the actual appearance of the landscape, is achieved through two steps. First, a basic manipulation of RGB layers. Then some tweaking with contrast and desaturization (to eliminate the over-coloring that can result from the contrast change).

In manipulating an aerial photo to eliminate haze, the first step in Photoshop is to go to Layers and select “New Adjustment Layer” and “Levels.” That will pop up a window asking you to name your new layer. The default is fine, so click OK. That will open the RGB adjustment window. Simply drag the black pointer that’s on the left side of the display slowly toward the right, until it is directly beneath wherever the graph begins (usually with a simple horizontal line), and click OK. Here’s how that should look:

RGB adjustment

Now you’ll need to save the image as a JPG, since all this diddling with levels will have autosaved it as a Photoshop file. Once that’s done, open your new image and make any necessary adjustments to contrast, spot fixes, etc. You’ll likely need to adjust saturation down; these adjustments often result in colors that are a bit too vivid. Remember how that landscape looked while you were peering at it through your camera? Try for that. The goal (well, at least my goal; others may have different goals of course) is to illustrate how the natural landscape resembles abstract art, as accurately as possible.

Aerial view of AZ desert from 38,000 feet

Of course, as I said earlier, sacrifices must be made for art. I have, I must confess, occasionally wiped out entire small towns, farmsteads, and roads that interfered with the abstract image I was trying so hard to recreate naturally. I justify such artifice by telling myself that the goal is to show the abstract landscape, and the manmade objects mess that up. In any case, don’t be afraid to carefully spot-heal away villages or random buildings that distract the eye and give away the game.

There’s something else I love about my obsession with window seats, and that is this: It makes me look out the window. On long business trips I could, of course, pop open my laptop and peer obsessively at Excel spreadsheets. I could (and do, of course) turn on the Kindle and read, or plug my ears into my iPod and bounce in my seat while Lady Gaga tells me to “Show Me Your Teeth,” immediately followed by somebody singing about being the very model of a modern major general (I’m eclectic in my music). I could (and sometimes do) take a nap. But mostly I can look out the window, at the surprisingly consistent beauty and interest of the landscape below. Sometimes, there are even surprises:

Aerial view of natural geological formation somewhere in southwestern Colorado, due east of Egnar and south of Naturita. Coordinates 37.91219123585559,-108.597316688116.

The desert southwest is particularly photogenic, I’ve found, but there’s a majesty in the irrigation circles that dot the flat land like checkers on a board across the midwest. There’s the mystery of small cities drifting beneath the plane’s wing, filled with thousands of people who have no idea who I am or that I’m staring down at them. The old and rippling landscape on the eastern side of the country is beautiful, and the oceans, while a little monotonous, occasionally spring a surprising reef or island or some enormous ship going from someplace to somewhere. It’s all out there, a fabulous world beyond my window. Oh sure, I whine and complain about having to travel to cold and boring cities to sit in endless meetings in anonymous hotel ballrooms, but really in this case, as in so much else in life, the treasure is in the getting there. Right outside my window, as long as I keep looking.

shadow of jet on clouds, with rainbows circling

%d bloggers like this: