Fireflies

My backyard is asparkle with them.

This was a fun shot to make. The photo makes it appear as if all of the fireflies are lit at the same time. In actuality, I set up a long, tripod-mounted exposure, and individual fireflies may have been represented multiple times.

In order to illuminate the peach trees and the rhubarb patch in the foreground, I walked around the perimeter of the scene with a flashlight while the camera’s shutter was open, reflecting diffuse light off a lawn chair turned on its side. I had to take a few shots to get the exposure just right. This one took about a minute and a half, as I recall.

I love the unexpected results of this kind of shot—it reminds me to appreciate the photography of yore, when long exposures were necessary under even the brightest conditions, and a degree of uncertainty was the norm.

I’m sure that some of the fireflies appear in the photo not because of their own phosphorescence, but because they are being lit from the side by my flashlight. The glowing effect is magical nonetheless, and hopefully it captures the spirit of an early summer evening.

In Praise of Mr. Chickadee

A great resource for do-it-yourselfers (or those who would like to be)

Have you ever wondered how people made things in the olden days before we had power tools, die casting, injection moulding, 3D printing, sheet metal stamping, or robot welding? Well wonder no more, because Mr. Chickadee will show you.

I’ve fallen in love with—and subscribed to—his YouTube channel, which features episodes on how to make all manner of things from split stones, forged metal strap hinges, door latches, and masonry heaters, to entire systems like a timber frame workshop built entirely by hand. There’s also a blog that features some thoughtful writing and photographs, but there’s something magical and mesmerizing about watching the process unfold before your eyes in the movie format. His carpentry skills are exquisite.

Sometimes content on YouTube can be hit-or-miss, but this channel’s production values really shine, and mirror the fine craftsmanship of the work being documented. The films are beautifully composed and shot, and expertly edited. Presumably this is the work of Mrs. Chickadee, who makes appearances in several of the episodes (when she does, the camera seems to be tripod-mounted, versus hand-held). Playful cameo appearances by their pets add an endearing touch.

One of the most notable features of these movies is the lack of background music or verbal narration. All you get are the stoic sounds of the work being done, set against a meditative backdrop of natural sounds like rain, crickets, birds, etc. At first this can be a little disorienting if you have no idea what is being done and are looking for answers in familiar written or verbal form. But if you are able, be patient, learn to trust your eyes and to absorb the information visually. Mr. Chickadee will not let you down. Onward to self-reliance!

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Treework

A short film documenting the felling of a tree.

There was a tree in my yard that was leaning about 20 degrees off its vertical axis. Years ago—maybe decades—someone who lived here before me had apparently used this poor tree as a fencepost. There was a three-inch wide ring carved out of the bark a couple of feet above the ground, extending around the girth of the tree. I feared that someday a combination of heavy snow and strong wind would bring the tree crashing down, crushing one or more of my peach trees, and possibly taking out a corner of my barn. I knew I needed to fell the tree, before it fell on its own terms. Because of its height, I knew I needed to take the tree down in sections.

I thought about calling a professional tree service, but in the spirit of Matthew B. Crawford’s excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft—wanting to be “a master of my own stuff”—I set about to do the job on my own. I already had the necessary tools on hand, and I didn’t want to spend money on something I thought I could reasonably do on my own. (Don’t worry, when I need a new roof I will call a pro.) I won’t lie—there were moments when I questioned the wisdom of doing this job myself. But now it is done, and I am pleased with how it turned out. I filmed the process and edited it down to a bite-sized nugget of a film, which I hope you enjoy.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go:

  • Take a shower
  • Sharpen my chainsaw blade (there’s a rotary tool bit for that)
  • Make dozens of wood-burned log slice trivets as gifts for my friends and family (and for my Etsy shop)
  • Split logs for next year’s firewood
  • Make chainsaw sculptures
  • Plant some new trees, to replenish the stock
  • All of the above.

Making Homemade Almond Milk

A short film about making almond milk at home.

Homemade almond milk is delicious and nutritious. It doesn’t contain all the unnatural chemicals and preservatives that commercial boxed almond milk does. It’s easy to make, so I thought I would make a little movie to document the process. You soak a cup of raw almonds in water overnight, rinse them, then purée them in a blender for a few minutes with a pinch of sea salt and a dash of vanilla. Then you strain the mixture through a nut milk bag into a container. Store it in the refrigerator and use it as you would milk. That’s really all there is to it.

The reason I use raw unpasteurized almonds is that they are alive and full of healthful natural enzymes. You could sprout these almonds and grow trees from them. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires almond producers in the U.S. to pasteurize or steam their almonds, so I buy almonds that are imported from Spain. (Incongruously, the FDA allows food producers to poison the American food stream with obesity-causing high-fructose corn syrup and all manner of artificial preservatives, growth hormones, and pharmaceuticals, so I question that agency’s authority where it comes to natural foods and food safety.)

It is my sense that live organic almonds obtained from a reputable source (a small grower that takes care in its farming practices… or a TREE) are a safe bet. I haven’t had any problems with them so far. If you are in doubt, consult your doctor, or simply use pasteurized raw almonds.

Almond skins contain an enzyme-inhibiting substance that keep the almond from prematurely sprouting. This same substance makes it hard for some people to digest almonds. Fortunately, you can soak the almonds overnight and rinse them to neutralize and remove that substance.

Springing Forward, Falling Backward

All of this time zone switching is upsetting our circadian rhythms. Let’s pick one time zone and stick with it.

A traffic sign outside of the local fire station flashes a reminder: “Change your clocks, change your smoke detector batteries.” It’s a clever association, but I would argue that only one of these periodic tasks is necessary. Smoke detectors save lives. I’m happy to spend an hour per year installing fresh batteries so that I won’t be awoken at 3:00 in the morning by a periodic chirp from who knows where in the house. But “springing forward” and “falling backward” jars our circadian rhythms. Why do we continue to do this to ourselves?

There are several urban myths purporting to explain why we change our clocks. One has it that shifting clocks forward gives farmers more daylight to work their fields in the summer. Another theory has it that changing clocks back in the fall makes it lighter—and therefore safer—for school children to board buses and walk to school early in the morning. Flashlights, anyone? Yet another story has it that we save energy in the summer by leaving our lights off until later in the evening. This seems to be loosely related to the legend that Benjamin Franklin advocated for people to arise earlier, so that they would make better use of morning light, and consequently burn fewer candles. But I have yet to see any compelling evidence that changing our clocks helps us. A growing body of evidence suggests that it does not.

Checklist of clocks to change
Checklist of clocks to change

How many clocks do you change twice per year? I change seven (not including my iPhone and my computer, which are smart enough to change themselves). I’ve got a watch. An old digital clock radio. The clock in my camera. My microwave oven. My regular oven. A manual wall clock in the kitchen. The clock in my car. Don’t get me wrong—I’m deeply grateful for each of these luxuries. But each of them has its own peculiar way of setting the time, and some of them are less intuitive than others (I’m looking at you, Hyundai).

As silly and monotonous as this chore seems, I’m not opposed to doing the work. I like to tinker with things, so I find messing around with clocks to be enjoyable on a certain level. But I am loath to endure what amounts to bureaucratically imposed jet lag twice per year. We humans are sensitive creatures. Furthermore, we are not the only things that are impacted by this biannual ritual–consider all the time-dependent software that stands to go awry. A few years ago my iPhone’s calendar events got mixed up for days after a time change.

I agree with Tom Emswiler, who argues that we in Massachusetts should defect from our time zone, and join the Atlantic Standard Time Zone (one hour ahead of Eastern Time) year-round. It makes sense—New England is farther east than many other states on the Eastern Seaboard. Among other sound arguments, Emswiler cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which found that heart attacks increased for three days in the spring following the start of daylight saving time. That “lost hour” may be fraught with deeper repercussions than the modern productivity-oriented mindset understands or wants to admit.

I realize that time is an abstract, and that nothing is really changing but our “framing” of it. Clouds, trees, fish, and birds (apart from the cuckoo) don’t pay attention to what clocks say. But when society decides that a store opens at 9, employers say that work starts at 8, and a friend wants to meet for lunch at noon, we have little choice but to adopt the new frame when it changes.

But what if we didn’t? What if we stopped trying to change time? We would do well to heed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.” In the context of timekeeping, we could be more patient with the short days of winter and the long days of summer, accept the strengths and limitations of each part of the cycle in the particular place where we live, and embrace the ebb and flow of light through the seasons without jolting our biological rhythms in the process.

Back in the Rink

I’ve come out of retirement. I’m playing hockey again, and loving it.

In an earlier post, I announced my retirement from the hockey league I’d been playing in for several years. Well, that didn’t last very long. No sooner had my equipment dried than I’d developed a hankering to skate again. I’ll stop short of saying that hockey is an addiction. But I will say that I had sorely underestimated its importance in my life.

Previously I had adopted the view that I was getting older, my body was becoming more frail, and I needed to protect myself from physical harm. While this may be true, it’s even more important that I work hard to counteract the perils of a sedentary desk job, and exercise intensely so that my heart stays strong. Playing hockey does this. I would argue that hockey also teaches virtues that can be applied in life outside the rink: balance, patience, sacrifice, teamwork, humility, effort, effort, and more effort.

The key for me has been to find an independent group less rough and competitive than the league I had been playing in previously. Thankfully, I have found such a group.

We all dress together, and teams are formed anew every time we skate. There is greater variety, and more camaraderie than competitiveness. The level of play is as high as I’ve ever known, but the stakes are lower. We don’t keep score, and there are no penalties or referees. We’re simply a bunch of adults who are out to have fun, and prove nothing.


Update, March, 2017: I sustained enough minor sprains and injuries in the 2016–2017 season that I’m considering stepping down from organized play again. The realities of an aging body are upon me. Henceforth I plan to continue to play pond hockey, go to public “puck time” sessions at local rinks, and go to public skating sessions as often as possible.

All-Season Rope Swing

Of all the crazy things that kids from Massachusetts do, this is one of my favorites.

When you hear the words “rope swing,” you may think of a hot summer day. Maybe you envision lolling at your local swimming hole, swinging from a shade tree and plunging into the cool water below. But what if it’s that time of year when the days are short, it’s freezing outside, and your favorite pond is covered with a thick layer of ice? Watch as a young skater from Easthampton, Massachusetts demonstrates that a rope swing can be enjoyed in the wintertime too. I tried this swing a few times myself, and it was a blast.

I had captured the raw footage in 2010, but until recently it had sat on my hard drive taking up space and gathering digital dust, as so many other movie clips do. I want to make more movies, but sitting down to teach myself the filmmaking craft requires a level of commitment that until recently I hadn’t made. It’s further complicated by one of my new resolutions: to be more mindful about the amount of time I spend in front of glowing screens. But facility with the filmmaking medium seems like an important attribute for a visually-oriented communicator to develop, so I’m biting the bullet and sacrificing a few more hours to the cause.

Sure, this film may be a little crude: the stylized cloud shapes in the title sequence are cheesy ready-mades from the Final Cut library. The funky Duality typeface (by one of my favorite type designers, Ray Larabie) pairs well with the clouds, but probably isn’t the best fit for the overall subject matter. The choice of music doesn’t particularly support the narrative, either, but I wrote and recorded it, so at least my intellectual property karma is clean.

Who knows, maybe if I allow myself to play more freely and unselfconsciously, and embrace a few inconsistencies, I will grow artistically, and will develop an authorial voice and a stronger narrative vision. The important thing is that I keep doing the work, sharing the work, and learning to use the tools. Meaning can emerge.

I am trying to get over being such a perfectionist that I never publish anything. Hopefully the more I do this, the more comfortable I will become with letting my awkward learning process show. Thank you for indulging me. Your encouragement is appreciated. I hope you enjoy this sketch.

Apple of My Eye

Sometimes bad things happen to good software.

It is an interesting time to be a customer of Apple computers, devices, and software. The hardware is gorgeous and efficient. The iOS 8 and Mac OS X “Yosemite” operating systems are powerful. Many aspects of the new software interfaces are delightful. I like where things are going with cloud-based services and the vision of seamless syncing among devices. But the transition to this new era of Apple software design is not without its growing pains. Continue reading “Apple of My Eye”

My Photographic Process

Some tips and tricks for making better photographs.

Here’s a photo I posted on Facebook (by way of Instagram):

Haviland Pond

Lots of friends “liked” it and a few commented. One comment in particular stuck in my mind:

How do you capture light as you do? No, don’t answer. I’m content believing you have some magic.

The magic, if there be any, consists in the miracle of consciousness and attentiveness. I approach a composition as a little meditation, full of gratitude and reverence for the moment, and I am rarely let down. I love that other people enjoy my work and think I have a special talent, but I believe that making beautiful pictures and movies is a learnable skill. Anyone with the will—and access to a few essentials—can cultivate a style all their own and a powerful body of work. In this spirit, I share some of the techniques and approaches that work for me.

Choose your subject matter

Mount Norwottuck, as seen from Mount Pollux

The subject matter I’m most interested in is the light. Indeed, it is the fundamental ingredient in photography. I like the way sunlight plays on natural environments, and in some cases the human-made structures that occupy them. I especially love the quality of light and shadow that the sun makes in the early morning and late afternoon. I rarely use a flash. I love dramatic clouds.

I live in a bucolic area, so I have access to a lot of natural beauty. You may live in a city or a desert or somewhere else, and that is fine. The sun doesn’t discriminate. Figure out a subject that resonates with you, and continue to photograph it at different times, in different seasons, and from different angles. Back in art school I heard this referred to as “thematic development.” Eventually your oeuvre will emerge.

I don’t often publish photos of people. Partly this is out of respect—I don’t particularly like for people to publish photos of me unless I’ve approved them. I do take a lot of portraits for my private collection. Mostly, it’s that I’m more interested in studying and photographing landscapes, which predated humans, and will probably outlive us.

If your situation is such that getting out into the wild isn’t practical, you could make an interesting series of photos of nothing but things lying around your basement or kitchen, or of origami sculptures you’ve made. Or clouds. Play around, and be creative.

Scout a good location

Pond in the woods

Once again, this relates to attentiveness. In the course of my daily travels I encounter dozens of spots that I look forward to photographing. Sometimes I’ll leave early or stay late, and allow myself a little extra time to explore. Other times, I’ll make a mental note to return to a particular spot at a different time. Obviously, if you’re scouting a particular scene and you see a double rainbow, a thick bank of fog, a moose, or a tree about to fall, drop whatever you are doing and take that picture now.

Oftentimes I see a scene and mull it over in my mind a while before I actually get out on foot (or bicycle) to capture it. How is the subject situated? Cows on a hillside might make a nice picture, but will they be back-lit later in the afternoon (i.e., with golden highlights across their backs)? If so, that might make for a better composition, so I’ll plan to come back later, or on another day. Similarly, a perfect mountain photo might be made even more perfect if taken on a day when the sky is filled with clouds.

Study interesting compositions

Barn interior

Photography can be a lot like juggling. There are so many things to think about and keep in balance in a single moment. It’s a little overwhelming at first. But keep practicing and it will become second nature. Think about exposure (the overall amount of light in a scene), contrast (the relationship between the light and the dark), saturation (the intensity of color), focus, texture, conceptual juxtaposition (e.g., natural vs. human-made), and compositional balance. This last one is subjective, but there are some rules of thumb that can help.

Mt. Tom. Rule of Thirds illustration.

One such rule is the so-called “Rule of thirds.” It’s one of those esoteric principles like the Fibonacci sequence (on which the golden rectangle is patterned) that occurs in nature, and resonates with us on a subconscious level. The idea is that you divide your picture plane (whether it be a rectangle or a square) into imaginary vertical and horizontal thirds. The four resulting points where the dividing lines intersect are where the most compositional excitement occurs. It’s a rule that can be broken, of course, but it does provide an anchor for locking in on a great composition. Sometimes I will move forward or backwards until some combination of elements in the viewfinder align with these points and lines.

If a composition has a horizon line, I usually try to keep it as horizontal as possible. If the angle is off by a little, an app might help to fix the photo after it’s taken.

Know your equipment

Icicles

Most of the time I use an iPhone 6 Plus, and a combination of a few apps. I have a “real” camera (an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II—crazy naming scheme) that I use when I want to control depth of field, experiment with different lenses, zoom in on subjects, or make a long night-time exposure. But the advantages of the iPhone camera are obvious: I can take a picture, do a little editing, and post it on the web without going through the rigamarole of getting to a computer, connecting cables, managing files, etc. The computer workflow is great for a certain kind of work, but it’s not my main workflow for everyday posting. The adage “the best camera is the one you have with you” is so true. Fortunately, the iPhone camera is a pretty good camera to “happen to have with me” most of the time.

If you don’t have a great camera, fear not. A lot can be done with whatever you’ve got. Even a homemade pinhole camera can make some amazing photos.

Edit

This might sound strange, but I usually take anywhere from three to around a dozen shots for every one that I publish. I like to try different angles and exposures until one seems “just right.” Needless to say, I turn off the feature in apps like Dropbox and Flickr that offer to upload all of the photos I take.

forestdale

My secret weapon is the Pro HDR X app. It takes two exposures in succession—one metered on the highlights and the other on the shadows—and overlays them. The catch is that to use this app successfully you have to stand shock-still for a second while the app takes the two exposures. With this app, I have no qualms about taking pictures looking directly into the sun.

I also like to use the Aviary app for general post-processing, like cropping, straightening the horizon, sharpening, blurring, color-balancing, etc.

I initially capture images in full color, but sometimes a composition will benefit from being converted to black and white. My favorite tool for doing this is the Vint B&W app. Of all the apps I’ve tried, this one offers the best tonal sensitivity. Its photos most closely approximate the look of real black and white film photos taken through an amber or red glass filter.

I’m not a big fan of using retro “filters” on most of my shots, but I make exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Often the Pro HDR app will deliver exactly the look I want, right out of that app. If you happen to use a less-capable camera, then a filter might enhance your shots. Follow your gut.

Publish the work

Ludlow as seen from the bridge to Indian Orchard

Right now I like Instagram. At first I had mixed feelings about being limited to the square format, but I’ve grown to like it. The square is a great canvas in its own right, but it works particularly well on today’s mobile web, where you’re never sure how people will be viewing your photos (phone, tablet, or computer).

Often I mirror my Instagram pictures to Facebook, where they receive more feedback than they do on Instagram itself. Sure, Facebook can sometimes be a sea of unedited thought, sensationalism, commercialism, and privacy violation. But it’s possible for the cream to rise to the top and become a signal among the noise. A thoughtfully illustrated post by a real person with purity of intention will easily hold its own against a typical click-bait article. If I manage to add a bright spot to someone’s day with one of my pictures, then I will have succeeded. For some reason I’m not compelled to post every day or even every week. There needs to be some digestion time—I just post whenever it feels right.

Flickr is another service I use, but only half-heartedly these days. Back when I first joined (2007) the interface was a lot more functional and less cumbersome. But as of this writing, both the iPhone app and the desktop website feel a little heavy-handed in their emphasis of the slick user interface at the expense of easy access to the photos and community features. That slickness quickly falls apart as soon as you try to use your browser’s back button, or scroll to the bottom of a page. As Jeremy Keith succinctly put it, “Infinite scroll. A footer. Choose one.

But Instagram has a flow that feels light, simple, and unfettered, so that platform is where I’m publishing most of my photos now.

Video is another matter. All the aforementioned services—Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr—compress and degrade video quality to an extreme degree (if I can even get video to load on Flickr). Vimeo, on the other hand, does web video right. YouTube offers pretty good encoding quality, but there is little control over what shows up after your video plays. I’ll write more about video in the future.

I could of course post all of my photos here on my own website. But it wouldn’t be as much fun without the social features and the attentive audiences offered by one of the social networks.

Above all, enjoy the process of taking pictures and sharing them. Thanks for reading.