Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Month In Pictures: Michigan Autumn


I spent most of November in Michigan.

Which isn't a bad time of year to spend in the Midwest. 

November is fall colors and migrating birds and apple cider and hay rides. Pretty great if you're a photographer.

Pretty good if you're not a photographer too.

Not great for my mobile bandwidth though. I tend to take a lot of pictures. Given that I make a not insignificant fraction of my income from photography, I don't suppose that's any sort of surprise to you. And of course, if you follow me on social media, you know I post a lot of images to my various audiences on multiple platforms. Which is, as I said, not real great for mobile bandwidth. I burned through 150GB, all of my primary mobile hotspot, in about 28 days and was well into my reserve allocation on my backup device when I finally was able to pack up and return home. 

So, instead of posting my normal week in pictures from the road, you're getting the whole month all at once. 

I spent most of my time in Michigan at my mother's place outside of Middleville, a small farming town turned Norman Rockwell bedroom community in the Lower Peninsula's southwest. 

Long ago, the place used to be a mill town and a stage coach stop on the routes between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. The mill is long gone, so is the stage coach and the railroad that replaced it in later years. The old rail line is now a Rails-to-Trails conversion and a popular path for hikers on the North American Birding Trail. 

The old dam that once held back the Thornapple River is still there though, a fixture of downtown, and still doing its job generating some small amount of electricity and regulating the flow of the river. And because of that, the miles-long millpond that once powered those long gone wheels and grinding stones is still there too. It's shallow these days, a wetland overgrown with cattails and reeds, home to white sucker fish, trout, bass, carp, leeches, several species of squirrels, chipmunks, a half dozen species of turtle, mink, fox, bobcat, deer, muskrats, ground hogs, seven species of woodpecker, cranes, herons, jays, sparrows, finches, juncos, coots, grebes, ducks, geese, swans, a colony of kingfishers, and a vast, vast biome of native and imported plant species. 

It is the perfect stop for migrating birds. 

Such as these sandhill cranes:

For certain reasons, I shot the cranes primarily in the very early morning hours before the sun was fully up or in the late evenings at and after sunset. 

Now, normally, this would be less than optimal, photography wise, but the equipment I'm using (Nikon's latest mirrorless system, the Z9 and the Z8) is very, very good in low light. And I'm fortunate enough to own very good, very fast glass (i.e. lenses that are able to both provide high magnification and a very wide aperture). 

So if low light is what you have, said I to myself, quit bitching and make the most of it. 

It takes some experimenting to get it right and capture these ghostly apparitions in the dark.

It's not just a matter of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. In these conditions, the light changes. The quality and the wavelengths of light change. The sun is low on the horizon, certain wavelengths (colors, in layman's terms) are filtered out by those extra miles of dense atmosphere, by rain, by moisture, by clouds, by temperature, by dust, and pollutants in the air. The color changes. The amount of light changes. Very rapidly. Sometime there's a bright moon, sometimes it's as dark as a cave on the far side of Pluto. 

You might have only a very few minutes to get the shot. Sometimes less than that. And remember, the subject has to cooperate in that brief period as well. 

In the old days, you'd need to swap out film as the light changed. You'd get pretty good at it, like a soldier reloading a weapon in the dark. But it was complicated and clumsy and not particularly optimal. Or you could carry multiple cameras, each loaded with different film, sensitive to different wavelengths and light levels, that would produce different results. 

That gets expensive and logistically complicated pretty quickly. 

Nowadays, most of us use digital cameras. 

This is where the purists spit on the ground, but modern digital sensors make for photography that would have been simply impossible not very long ago. Film has some pretty specific limitations as dictated by chemistry and physics, and there is only so much you can do with it. Chemical emulsions can only react so fast, at least the ones most of us can afford or are safe enough to use.  

Digital sensors have limits too, of course, but those boundaries are often much, much broader and can be adjusted in the field very, very rapidly (if you know what you're doing). 

Don't get me wrong, it's still about physics.

Photography is ultimately about light. And light is physics. And physics is the law, there's no way around it. 

You want to see in the dark, in color, then you have to gather more light. More light means bigger lenses (or mirrors, if you're an astronomer). Bigger lenses mean more glass. But more glass can mean less light if that glass isn't very, very optically pure in the wavelengths you want. And what that means in a practical sense is: money.

More light means more glass means it's going to cost you a lot more. 

And it's heavy. 

My big lens, a Nikkor 600mmf4E weighs about 18 pounds (that's without the camera) and costs about what a decent small car does (then again, people spend that on golf clubs, so your mileage may vary). 

I'm not actually trying to impress you with the quality of my equipment or trying to dazzle you with technobabble, but I keep getting asked: How do you get photographs of birds, sharp, in motion, in color, in the pitch dark? 

Actually, the question I usually get is: Settings? 

That's the question professional photographers get asked most often. What are your settings, exposure and shutter speed? 

What were your settings for that image of sandhill cranes at night reflected like ghosts in still wine dark water?

Will you tell me?

And I can do that, I can give you those numbers, and I will, but it likely won't do you much good. 

For the reasons I've described above, you can't just plug those two settings into any camera and get the same results. 

I'm not saying you can't get similar results with lesser equipment. I'm saying you can't get it by just plugging in a couple of numbers you got from some random guy on the internet. 

What I'm actually saying here is this: If you want to do photography (and I highly encourage any and all to do so, the more the better, the world needs art and it's never been easier or cheaper to make than it is today) as opposed to just clicking selfies and snapshots, then you have to learn how your equipment works.

Experiment. Take notes. Make mistakes. Shoot a lot of crappy pictures. 

And learn what works for you.

There's an old truism among photographers: Amateurs talk about equipment, professionals talk about results

I find that to be pretty true  -- after I just spent how many paragraphs talking about equipment? Heh heh. That said, I hope my results speak for themselves. 

It took me a lot of years to get where I not only liked the results I got, but also to be able to predict with decent accuracy what results I'd get in any given situation. 

I'm still learning. 

I think that's true of most photographers. 

I have days, fairly rare now, where I shoot a thousand shots, sometime ten thousand shots, and don't like any of them. 

Most of the time, I get something that I like -- and sometimes I really, really like it. 

Sometimes I take one shot, but that's the shot. That's the one. 

I'm always looking to do better. 

And not just do better, but help others do better too. 

Art is subjective. 

Some of my own work, stuff that really speaks to me on a personal level, elicits little more than a "meh, nice" from my audience. 

And some things I think might be derivative or done to death or not my best work gets tens of thousands of likes and comments and goes viral on social media and I sell hundreds of copies. 

And that's great. That's what pays for the gear, and my mortgage. 

But, you never know what will appeal to people. 

Because art is subjective. 

We like what we like and that's okay. 

The point of making art isn't so much for the audience, but that the artist enjoy it.

If you're getting the results you want, so long as you're not hurting others or making the world a worse place, then you're probably doing it right.

That means you don't have to be a professional or have hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear.

It means you just have to enjoy doing it for your own sake and to hell with the critics. 

Note that this is also true of any other art, not just photography. Paint. Write. Make the music you enjoy. For your own sake. 

Speaking of liking your own work, this blue heron fishing in the very early morning light is probably my favorite shot from this month. 

It was a tough shot, long distance, weird light, damn bird kept moving and turning its rear at me. I kept waiting for him to strike, and waiting, and waiting, and it was about 13F, and waiting, and my hands were numb, and waiting and I had to wrap my hat around the camera to keep the batteries from dying in the cold too fast because I'd left the spares in the car, and my ears were about to fall off, and waiting, and waiting, and finally he slammed his face into the water and came up with that white sucker fish and the light was just right and, yeah, I got the shot. And it's a hell of a shot. It's a shot I love.

That's a good morning. 

That's what makes it worth it. That's what makes it fun. 

This is probably the most popular shot I did this month.

It's one of those things that took a lot of work. Several weeks of tracking the cranes' flight path as they returned to the pond each night. Watching the phases of the moon. Figuring out the right spot to get both in the frame at once. Right equipment. Right settings. And then it all lined up and I got it. 

But it was mostly just to see if I could.

This was one of those shots that I did for myself and didn't think anyone else would care. Meh, birds, moon, whatever. You know. 

Instead, it's the one that appealed to everybody and I got the most requests to put in the store.

You never know.

Or maybe it's this little chickadee I like the best. 

I love every bit of how this shot came out. The colors, the framing, the soft focus but dead sharp on the berry in the bird's beak, the pastel colors, the implied motion, the feel of the season. 

This is the kind of image I love, right here.

Most of these images will available for purchase in various formats, prints, canvas, metal, puzzles, mousepads, and more, in my store, this coming weekend. Just in time for Christmas, along with a selection of my other art, pens and seam rippers and so on. 

I'm uploading now, but it's not fast even with my office connection. 

That's it. 

That's the month of November in pictures. 

Hope you enjoyed this little break from the ugliness of the world. 


Prints, Puzzles, Calendars, and other products featuring my work are available for purchase from my store.  // Jim