Island Life


Back in the day, when I was aspiring to be a garden photographer, I found myself holding my breath a lot. In part I found there was a practical reason of sorts for doing that, even though in the end the lack of breathing did not have any real impact on the final outcome. It was kind of a subliminal response- it was both a sign of worry or concern about getting the shot, and it was an act intended to help reduce any airflow around the subject to a speed of zero. This was in the time of high quality and low speed color film- the slower the film, the finer the grain and the crisper the shot. Many times I would head out in the morning just before sunrise in summer because that was when there was generally little or no wind. With only the diffuse light of the unrisen sun, we had not gotten into the time of uneven heating and cooling of the earth’s surfaces, which is what is generally attributed to wind creation. The reason we did not want any wind was because it wasn’t bright enough at that time of day for the higher shutter speeds that might minimize any blurring motions that might result. We also had to slow the shutter down even further because of the higher f-stops (smaller openings) that allowed for greater areas of the photograph to be in focus.

There was another reason for shooting early in the morning or late in the evening, and that was because, without direct sunlight, there were fewer shadows and more of things were in view with less contrast. You can get a similar effect on cloudy days, but then you run the risk of getting rained on, as well as getting your stuff blown around as a rider on the storm. In the mornings and the evenings, the sunlight is actually passing through more of the atmosphere, which tends to create a warmer light that helps to intensify colors, while the brighter sunlight later on serves to wash things out. Another realization that came to me at this time was that I was no longer the steady, holder of cameras that I used to be, although I was never able to hold one still at the quarter or third of a second or slower that these exposures often required. This meant one had to rely on a tripod for a rock solid base, and a shutter release cable so one did not jiggle the camera by directly pressing the shutter button. We will not get into locking up mirrors or setting self timers- instead we just held our breath and pressed the plunger of the cable.

One of my favorite t-shirts these days is the one that says: “Everyone is a photographer until M”. If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it, until, of course, M. For the most part, with a modern day, digital point and shoot camera, the Auto or Program settings on the mode selector dial will allow one to take photos of amazing quality. One might say that this is one of the good things about technology that borders on the magical. That’s at least how I see it. In truth, the main reason for getting a point and shoot, of which I have a couple, is so that one can relax when snapping away at the world that is passing by, and still be assured that the photos you get are more than worth looking at. I will admit though that for a long time I hesitated when it came to using a video function on a still camera. For me, that was a bridge too far. That would be like checking your heartrate on your watch, or taking a self portrait with your dog with your phone. And so we move on into this twenty first century.

I can’t remember, but I think it has come up in this space previously that the reason I have been shooting a lot of plant portraits this year may have come from a cultural and situational inspiration rather than an artistic choice. We could be talking subliminal messages here, but I think in the end the reason I became fascinated with the small worlds and environments around pieces of plants was because the field of view involved was so contained and constrained. With everything else all around going to complete, less-than-holy hell, there was a degree of comfort in standing out in the open air whilst focusing on focal plane passing over a plant part and revealing only a fraction of what was there. There was a found truth where things were in their sharpest focus- the rest didn’t really matter. In some ways, that was the essence of what I was looking for, in others that wasn’t quite true. Sometimes I would find that something in the far distant background was so out of focus that it became an object of light or texture that added to the composition, not because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t. Some of the blobs of what seemed to be light where actually leaves reflecting the sun or the sky from another angle. Amorphous bits of color might have been flowers too far away to reveal their true identities, or glimpses of sky that were not washed out by a brighter sun. Parts of the same plant sometimes trail off into a disguising blur, either allowing one to ignore their escape, or to force one to extrapolate out as to what their true shape might have been if I hadn’t been restricting its true form by leaving the f-stop open as wide as it would go.

It was this jumping around in the focus game that caused me to think about the possibilities of using the magical touch screen on my newest camera to be used as a focus puller in a short video. In the big boy land of film making, you have the guy or girl with their eye on the viewfinder and keeping the action where it should be in the frame, and then you have the attendants who take care of all the other intricacies- focus, zoom, elevation. I decided to try using the 100mm macro lens and camera set up that I had been shooting close up stills around the yard with, and try shooting with it over a distance, first touching the LCD screen on the camera on one side and bringing a far or distant object into sharp resolution, and then hitting a point at the other side of the screen and watching the magic focus-puller bring another thing into equally crisp view. It was a gimmick, but it worked- it didn’t matter any more that I was violating the sacred use order by extracting a moving vision from a tool formerly designated for capturing the objects that were noble but motionless. It was time to jot this one down as a bit of a success and move on to the next thing out in the garden.

We went back to recording the still and partly visible as items of interest in individual frames. Then it came to that time of year when growy things tend to either give it up or give it a rest. And so it was that we found when we were out on our sort of regular sojourns around the yard that we were coming up with fewer visual objects of desire. There were the colorful leaves and the bright red berries, and there was not much else. And then the Oregon grape hybrid out in the driveway circle began to send up its spikey clusters of yellow flowers. It has seemed like this particular off-season bloom has come on earlier and earlier as of late, or maybe it is just me. With its spiney, dark green foliage and pale yellow flower bunches though, it is a spectacular solo act wherever it might be in one’s yard at this barren time of the year. If that wasn’t or isn’t enough, it is a plant that is treasured, if not anticipated, by our resident pack of hang-around hummingbirds, as it is one of the few natural sources of nectar at this time of year.

I have thought about filming all the feeding frenzy activities there, and perhaps I still will. Even though the bloom spikes began their ascent back in October, they are just now reaching the peak of their bloom. Each cluster has ten to twenty spikes in it, and since this plant is now probably ten feet high and fifteen feet across, it is dotted with numerous bloom sprays on many levels that afford at least two or three hummingbirds adequate food to fuel their all day ballets and aerial battles over who gets what and when. I have been standing out there lately for hours on end, just waiting for the right angle on a shot to manifest itself. While waiting, I have begun to notice patterns of pause and flight and a very soft bit of bird chatter in between. For a while I had been trying to do the deer hunter thing- waiting for the perfect shot and then taking one frame at a time. But slowly I have once again come around to the twenty-first century thing and flipped over to the camera menu place where it allows one to select high speed continuous shooting. We are, after all, shooting on memory cards, so multiple bursts of the shutter are not wasting film, but rather offering one a greater stab at the lottery that claims that somewhere in that clatter one might have captured a shot worth all the wait. By cranking up the ISO and the shutter speed, what can be revealed when the digital dust settles (hopefully not on the sensor) is something Eadweard Muybridge could probably not even have dreamed of. Out of all of that, one gets to see individual wing flaps of what normally looks like a blur. If one clicks through the groups of images even somewhat rapidly, it can look a bit like one of those motion simulating flip books which, I know, tread very closely to having a film come out of a still camera. But like I said, I already did that, so it doesn’t scare me anymore. So with these and other barriers breached, who knows what will come along in this new year that is fast approaching. I can’t wait, can you?