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DSLR – Please Die

I’ve been shooting professionally since 1989, and yes, I’m a bit of gear head. The arc of my career (so far) has involved hacking cameras to make them do what I want, not necessarily what they were designed to do. It’s always been fun, but also a struggle. As an example: to capture high-speed images of bats in flight, I use a special shutter mounted on the front of the lens. This is hooked up to laser sensors, high-speed flashes, and a shutter driver. The camera’s internal shutter must be locked open and remotely controlled. Its kind of an elaborate affair and takes a quite a bit of time to calibrate and set-up. I’d much rather spend my time engaging bats, and working to get photographs of them flying.

Sadly, my iPhone has a camera feature I love, but does not have the capability to capture high-speed images of anything really. But many clever software designers have come up with pretty cool apps that have given my iPhone camera seriously interesting capabilities. Just not quite what I need.

Imagine a world where Sony, Canon, Nikon, or Panasonic opened up their top-end cameras to app designers. I think the time of the traditional DSlR (a derivative of the old film SLR) has come to an end. Allow me to purchase a top end camera that is designed to be hacked. Let the designers and coders create interesting tools that stand or fail on their own merits.

I shoot Canon, but I have no brand loyalty. No editor has ever asked me what camera I was shooting with. They don’t care. They want interesting and engaging images. If I look into the future, I see no DSLR’s – but I’m not sure if Canon, Nikon and Panasonic have come to grips with this yet. Please – allow me to be as capable and creative as possible. I just don’t care about the next incremental improvement. Give me something disruptive and awesome.

Red Tree Voles – a rare glimpse

This is one unique little beast. The red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) is a rare species of  rodent that is found only in coastal old growth forests of Oregon and northern California. They exclusively eat the needles of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsyaa menziessi). They often spend their lives in just one tree, and many generations will live in different parts of the same tree.

A male red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) among Douglas fir needles.

A male red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) eating a Douglas fir needle.

Douglas-fir needles are poisonous, so the vole had to come with a cool trick to consume them. They carefully remove the toxic resin ducts along each edge of the needle, discarding these or using them for nest lining.  As far as I know, these are the clearest images of a red tree vole actually eating a needle.

A young red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) eating a Douglas fir needle.

A female red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) among Douglas fir needles.

Red tree voles are nocturnal and live in tree tops, which makes them very challenging to see. So how did I capture these images? Thanks to Professor Eric Forsman and grad student Chad Marks-Fife for giving me time and access to the captive population currently residing in their lab. I created a mini studio with Douglas-fir boughs and let the voles run around and do their thing.

A male red tree vole (Arborimus longicaudus) among Douglas fir needles.

Someday I might be able to capture images with motion cameras set up in trees, but for now I’ll enjoy the images of the camera trap codger.

Cold, quiet hike to Lost Lake

Lost Lake sits nestled in old growth forest in the foothills of Mount Hood. In the summer it is a destination resort, but in winter the camps are closed and the roads are gated as snow settles in. This year, the snow is behind schedule, and so it appeared to be a perfect opportunity to hike up to the lake on a moonless, windless, and freezing night to capture images of stars reflected in the surface of the lake.

Lack of wind was an important factor, as I wanted the lake’s surface to be undisturbed for a clean reflection. The forest was whisper quiet and dark. I carried three flashlights and tracked my hiking route via GPS. Hiking alone, in this magnificent old forest, illuminated only in the narrow beam of of my flashlight was frankly, a little creepy. I made an attempt to adjust my eyes to the starlight and see if I could manage without the lights – but after several minutes of standing alone in the dark I could see nothing but the brilliant stars above the tree canopy. Lights back on, I kept going.

Arriving at the lake was obvious as the forest disappeared into a black hole. I carried with me notes about where the views of the mountain were best, because I wasn’t sure it would be visible even with a white cap of fresh snow. Sure enough, as I picked my way down to the shore, all I could see were stars with a vague sense of the surrounding hills. I could not see the mountain at all.

My solution was to randomly aim my camera into the back void and shoot a 30 second exposure at f2. The mountain was clearly visible on the LCD screen. Through trial and error I managed to line up and focus the camera.

Mount Hood with star reflections in Lost Lake.

The lack of any sound was strangely troubling, so when the call of a loon echoed across the lake it was reassuring, and also rather haunting. After about an hour, as I was wrapping up another sound shot across the lake – this time much more mysterious. I’m not sure how to describe it. It was either a coyote in distress, or a barred owl caterwauling. Perhaps neither.

Mount Hood at night with stars reflected in Lost Lake.

For the first time in my little hike I began to feel uneasy. There is nothing like being alone in the darkest of woods with an unidentified and disturbing sound nearby. However, I made a point of finishing my final shots and checking focus, and then properly packing all the gear away. I admit hiking the mile or so back to my car was rather unsettling even though I never heard the sound again. The imagination runs wild. The forest had a primordial feel, as if at any moment a dangerous predator might spring from the blackness. It occurred to me that countless numbers of my ancient ancestors had faced such a scenario, although back when there was more magic and yet also real danger in the woods. By comparison I was taking a walk in the park.

Annoying Kitchen Fruit Flies

Late summer into fall brings an explosion of fruit flies in our house. This has been a rather consistent phenomenon for the past few years, and this year I decided to challenge myself with the task of photographing the tiny creatures. Specifically, I wanted to photograph them in flight with a high-speed camera. Working at such a small scale brings a whole slew of problems. To begin with it is hard to find a lens that actually performs well with ultra close-ups as they tend to lose definition through chromatic aberration. The smaller the scale, the narrower the depth of field becomes as well – so with most ultra close up lenses it is only possible to focus on part of a fruit fly. Add in the component of motion (and fruit flies are pretty fast fliers) and the equation for success becomes much more difficult.

Luckily, there was one ingredient that helped with the odds of success: sheer numbers. I had a lot of fruit flies, and more seemed to arrive every day. This meant I had an opportunity to take hundreds, if not thousands of photographs, and hope that I would capture a few that were actually sharp and interesting.

This worked better than I imagined.

The fruit at the bottom of this image is a blueberry and a rather small one at that. I’m pretty sure the fruit fly is a common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster).

common fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are attracted to ripe American blueberries (Vaccinium corimbosum). Western Oregon.

I was particularly surprised by the above image. Three fruit flies, all squarely in the field of focus, all exhibiting different behavior, and all fairly well placed in the composition – what are the odds?

common fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) are attracted to ripe American blueberries (Vaccinium corimbosum). I’m not sure why the fly on the right has a blue abdomen. Western Oregon.

Another surprise was to see the cobalt blue abdomen of the insect on the right above. I discovered later that abdomen color in fruit flies is indicative of what they are eating – and that scientists use this trait in genetic research that fruit flies have been instrumental in advancing.

This project was interesting and fun, but it left me with a problem. Too many fruit flies. To help control population I eventually built a fruit fly trap, which worked pretty well. After a few days there were hundreds of fruit flies in the trap and I left it up for several weeks. But it was never enough. It’s been weeks since I completed the project. The fruit fly trap is gone. I have no fruit in my office/studio. I still have fruit flies.

Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica)

I spotted this giant bruiser of a bee while looking at flowers near the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee. My first assumption was that it was a large bumblebee – but it was unusually fast and aerobatic in the air. It also seemed somewhat curious and spent some time circling around me with a quick and somewhat threatening deep buzz.

Once I had a closer look, and referenced these images for I.D. – I learned it was a common eastern carpenter bee. Not a bumblebee at all, but still an important pollinator. In fact, in these images pollen is clearly covering nearly every inch of the insect. I have been unable to determine if this is a male or female.

Not an easy catch with the high-speed camera – but after a concerted effort – I’m pretty pleased with the results.

eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)
Xylocopa virginica

eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)
Xylocopa virginica

Dunn’s Salamander (Plethodon dunni)

The Dunn’s Salamander (Plethodon dunni) is a species of salamander in the Plethodontidae family. Photographed at night near Balch Creek in Forest Park, Portland, OR. Natural habitats include temperate forests, freshwater springs, and rocky areas. Its diet consists mainly of small invertebrates.

Dunn's Salamander (Plethodon dunni)

Dunn's Salamander (Plethodon dunni)

Scouting Locations – Old Growth Forest

I’ve been looking for patches of old growth forest in Oregon or Washington to set up trail cameras. This isn’t easy. There aren’t many old growth forests left, and the larger intact tracts are tourist or hiking destinations – not a good place to leave a camera for several weeks. Luckily, with the help of friends, I have made great progress in finding small isolated patches of ancient trees that few know about. Seeing these huge trees is amazing.

The following images resulted from my travels to find the old growth forests. These are places with old growth trees, but for various reasons would simply not work as locations for remote cameras. My quest continues, but the looking has been half the fun . . .

Eagle Creek

old growth forest

Whale Creek

Black Bean Aphid (Aphis fabae)

Many aphids are green and typically blend in with their host plants. Not these. They are easy to spot and I can’t understand why small birds wouldn’t immediately devout them. While they are exceedingly tiny, they tend to hang out in large groups making them easy to spot en masse.

Aphid feeding
A black bean aphid (Aphis fabae) feeding from a plant stem.

Aphids feeding
A small group of black bean aphids (Aphis fabae) feeding from a plant stem.

Gratuitous Bee Photography

Yes – I have been on a honeybee kick these past few days. Just a few more images . . .

lavender pollination
A western honeybee (Apis mellifera) pollinating lavender ( Lavandula angustifolia) in western Oregon

western honybee
A western honeybee (Apis mellifera) in flight.

Western Honeybee
Close up of a western honeybee (Apis mellifera)

honeybee (Apis mellifera)
A western honeybee (Apis mellifera) pollinating wild mustard flowers (Brassicaceae) in western Oregon.

Bees communicating

This was not an easy photo to capture as bees move fast, and using an Canon MPE-65 lens is almost like trying to point a telescope at a specific and distant star. In other words, aligning the lens to what you see with the naked eye takes a fair bit of time since the subject is so small. Frankly, luck and determination made this work as I have been trying to capture this behavior for years.

I’m not sure anyone fully understands what bees are communicating with this activity. I imagine they can check affiliation (are you from my hive?), but I’m guessing there is more too it than that. Scientists researching bee behavior have discovered much already. In fact, recently a team of scientists trained bees to stick out their tongues in the name of research: http://www.jove.com/about/press-releases/50/scientists-train-honey-bees-to-stick-out-their-tongues

Insect Communication

Insect Communication