Photographing Pelagic Birds

Black-footed Albatross

Black-footed Albatross

A large number of birds spend nearly their entire lives at sea – only begrudgingly landing on remote islands to breed for a couple months a year. The rest of the time, they’re aloft or afloat – following the rich food sources that lie just beneath the waves. If you’ve only been as far as the shore, it’s doubtful you’ve seen any of these birds. We’re not just talking seagulls, but Petrels, Shearwaters, Jaegers, Skuas, Albatrosses and more – these are the Pelagic birds (a fancy word for “the open ocean”). If you want to see – or photograph – them, you simply have to get out there.

Just about anywhere there’s coastline, you’ll find someone who has set-up a Pelagic Birding guide service. Generally, these will be operated by a few guides familiar with the species – their habits & appearance, and a charted boat more accustomed to fishing trips. Just let Google do the work, and find a trip that works for your schedule. On the central coast of Oregon, The Bird Guide Inc. is one such service, and I highly recommend them – the guides are excellent & knowledgeable, and the atmosphere is fun.

These trips can take place any time of the year, but most are scheduled when the weather is favorable, and the birds more interesting. In the northern hemisphere, the shoulder seasons of fall and spring see a lot of migrating species that spend the rest of their year in the far north, on remote breeding islands, or to the south. The summer can yield more locally-breeding birds, but those tend to be species you can see from shore nearly as well. Most guide services will have detailed information about their scheduled trips, including lists of birds and what was seen during the most recent similar trip.

Most guide services will have their own tips and advice about what to expect, what to bring and what to wear, but just a few general tips…

Don’t overpack: Space will likely be at a premium, and you’re not going to want to fiddle with a lot of stuff while you’re out there; try to get everything into one bag.
Food: If you think you can eat and not get seasick, bring a few simple snacks… Save complicated meals for after your return. Very simple foods like saltines can help settle your stomach a bit.
Clothes: Dress in layers, avoid cotton. Even if the weather forecast is clear and dry, wear a waterproof outer layer – expect that an errant wave will give you a good soak.
Camera: Bring the longest lens you can hand-carry, and a lot of memory. A clear plastic cover to keep the salt spray away from your electronics would be a good idea.
Bleeeeeaugh!: A lot of people get sick on these boats regardless of the conditions… I can’t add a lot to what’s written elsewhere about this. Just… good luck!

Shooting on a pelagic boat trip

Here are a few general tips, and things to think about…

Lens & support

When you’re shooting birds, you can never have a long-enough lens. However on a boat like this, you have to balance focal length with weight & maneuverability. You’re simply not going to be able to use a tripod & Whimberly head to mount your 600mm F4 monster. I have a 400mm f4 DO (diffractive optics) lens that’s a good balance of length vs. weight. To this I add a 1.4x extender to give an effective 560mm f6.3 lens. Any lens can become heavy to hold for extended periods. If you’re not actively shooting, rest your arms and back. Don’t hold that lens up to your face waiting for the next shot – before long, you’ll be tired or hurting, no matter how good of shape you’re in. It’s just a matter of physics. If you can rig some kind of small strap or monopod to help support the weight of the camera, go for it… But that monopod will work better if it’s secured to your body somehow. As the boat rocks around, your body will be adjusting and compensating. If you have a monopod resting on the boat, it can be hard to keep your eye in position. And speaking of straps – it’s a good idea on a boat. There are a lot of expensive cameras at the bottom of the sea.

Focus

Pink-footed Shearwater

Pink-footed Shearwater

Continual auto-focus will almost always be a better choice. On Canon, this is called AI Servo (AF-C on Nikon), this will constantly adjust the auto-focus, locking-in on the nearest focus-able item within one of your selected focal points.  You’ll generally have better luck using a zone-focusing pattern, and not a single focus point. It can be very hard to get the target in the part of the frame you intend, so the bigger the focus area, the better.  However, this can be a problem when a bird is on the water, as your auto-focus will often lock-in on the water in front or behind the bird. In that case, a  small zone or a single focus point would be better. Trouble is that the boat and bird are usually moving so much that you have a fraction of a second to get it right. More than anything, you’re going to need some luck.

If your telephoto lens has a switch on it to limit “autofocus searching” to a particular range, use it. For example, on my 400 f/4 lens, I can switch between “3.5m to ∞” or “8m to ∞”. Nearly all the birds I was shooting were more than 8m away. So, the autofocus was much quicker with this switch set to “8m to ∞”, as the camera would not try to focus on anything closer than 8m away.

Even with all that, expect a lot of blurry birds. In fact, expect a lot of shots that were nearly fantastic but the @#^%@$^!!! autofocus was about 1m off – such is life.

A special note for Canon users – know the difference between AI Focus and AI Servo autofocus modes. AI Focus is supposed to be a smarter mode that can anticipate a moving subject. However, I’ve found that it almost never works as you’d like. Just stick with AI Servo.

Exposure

First thing: Put your camera on manual exposure. This is one of the most important tips on this entire page, and one that few people take to heart. If you rely on auto-exposure, your exposure settings are going to fluctuate wildly – one second, you’ll be pointing at a dark ocean, the next at a bright sky. These two environments are going to be telling your auto-exposure very different things, however the correct exposure setting will nearly the same for either situation. So, how do you pick the right manual setting?

California Gull

California Gull

Start with your camera in aperture-priority mode (Av), and lens “wide open” – at the lowest aperture setting (for the lens I described above, that’d be f4, or f6.3 with the 1.4x extender attached). Then let the auto-exposure work… take a few shots, and look at the histograms on them. Ultimately, you’re going to want two things: a good histogram, and a fast-enough shutter speed.

Got a good histogram? Good… now look at the exposure settings for that shot: shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. Let’s say for example it’s: 1/200 seconds, f6.3, and ISO 800.

Now put your camera in manual exposure mode. Yes, manual exposure mode, not Av, not Tv, but M. Dial-in those same settings: 1/200 seconds, f6.3, and ISO 800. Every shot you take will now use those same settings, no matter where you point. However, you have a problem – 1/200 seconds is way too slow to get sharp photos of fast-moving birds from a rocking boat with a long long lens. You could maybe get away with 1/400, but 1/800 will be much better. So, let’s get to work…

First, adjust your shutter speed to 1/800. But, while you do this, count the number of “clicks” the little dial on your camera makes… click, click, click, click… you’re at 1/800. The number of clicks will depend on how you have your camera set-up, but let’s just say it was 4. So, to keep that same exposure you’re going to have to adjust your f-stop or ISO “4 clicks”. You can’t adjust the f-stop, it’s already as low as it’ll go. So, you have to adjust the ISO an equal number of clicks upward – click, click, click, click… and you’re at ISO3200. Yikes!?!? 3200?! A lot of photographers eschew these high ISOs because they think it’s too grainy. Well, grain is better than blur, and frankly, that’s all there is to say about that. You could maybe try to compromise, and get away with 1/400 at ISO 1600 –  you just might get a lucky shot, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Common Murre

Common Murre

Be sure to check the histograms of your shots from time to time. You’ll probably start your trip in the dull light of dawn. As the day lightens-up, you will need to start backing-down the ISO to keep the histogram looking nice. If you get down to about ISO 200-400, you can start bumping-up the aperture to give you a little more room for error in the focus. You might even try bumping-up the shutter speed to 1/1000 or more – remember grain is way better than blur!

One more tip about exposure – it’s better to get a few shots in good light, than a zillion backlit ones. It’s best facing where there is good light, and wait for birds to pass by – either with your back to the sun, or to one side. There may be cases where you can’t avoid this however – if there is a flock on one side of the boat, that’s where you have to go. Plus, the boat can move quite a bit, and you might just have to go with the flow.

Shooting modes

A lot of people like to put their camera into “rapid-fire” mode and shoot away. I’m a bit mixed on this. The biggest issue is usually focus – best to make sure you can nail that. But getting a good in-focus shot requires luck too, so simply clicking away can increase your odds. One situation where the rapid-fire approach works very well is shooting large flocks of birds. Just snap a zillion of them, and maybe one will be really interesting!

Flash

A fill-flash with a Fresnel lens (like a Better Beamer) can be handy – often the lighting can be a challenge, and I’m of the opinion that fill-flash on birds is almost always helpful. However, it can be windy on boats, and that Better Beamer can act like a sail. In addition, a flash is one more thing that’ll add weight to your setup… and it’s one more thing that can get doused with salt water, or knocked sideways by an off-balance fellow passenger. So, this one is up to you; none of the example shots on this page used a fill-flash, as it was just too much to deal with.

Important: A flash is not intended to help “add light” when it’s too dark. That’s not the purpose – the flash should not affect your exposure settings. The flash is there to fill-in the shadows on an otherwise contrasty or shadowy subject. This is the purpose and very definition of a “fill-flash”. A fill-flash can help turn a photo that’s mostly silhouette into something where you can actually see the details. If you use a fill-flash, be sure to set it to high-speed sync mode. In this mode, the power of the flash will be reduced, but it will actually work at a fast shutter speed like 1/800.

And in the end…

Enjoy your time out there – live in the moment. Don’t get discouraged, expect a very low success rate – the boat is moving, birds are moving (pelagic seabirds are very fast), people are moving around the boat, and light & environment will be problematic. But, the experience is one that can only be lived.

Black-footed Albatross and friends

Black-footed Albatross and friends

 

Are Dental X-rays Causing the Boom in Thyroid Cancer?

A few years ago, I was turning 40 and figured it’d be a good idea to have a routine physical exam. I hadn’t been to the doctor in years and wasn’t really using that nice health care insurance I had access to. The doctor discovered a lump in my throat. One biopsy later and bam! I had cancer.

Xelfie

Xelfie: The bright dots are a couple cancerous lymph nodes, which absorbed the radioactive iodine post-surgery.

I was of course shocked and freaked-out. I had a thing growing inside of me which didn’t belong there. What followed was a furious bit of googling, a series of appointments, a 3-hour surgery, radioactive iodine treatment (complete with a few days of isolation), and a lifetime of pills to substitute for my now-missing thyroid gland. As cancers go, they call Thyroid Cancer “the good one”. Screw that – no cancer is good. Granted survival rates are pretty high when caught early, and since the cancer is made of thyroid cells, it’s fairly easy to isolate and treat (thyroid tissue soaks-up iodine, so just make the iodine radioactive and blamo – you’ve poisoned the cancer). But thyroid cancer is often asymptomatic, going undetected until it’s spread and caused all kinds of serious complications. Mine was a 5cm tumor – about as big as they get before spreading. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have caught it just in time, and I’m immensely grateful to my doctor, who may have saved my life by simply feeling my neck.

Thyroid Cancer Types

There are four types of Thyroid Cancer

As soon as I learned I had thyroid cancer, of course, I scoured the internet looking for answers. In addition to concern about my prognosis, I wanted to know how this happened. Was this just random chance? or did something specific cause this? What I found was alarming. Thyroid cancer has tripled in prevalence over the past 30 years. While some of this may be due to improved detection, that doesn’t account for all of the increase. Something is certainly causing it – something that has changed in the recent past.

The only certain cause of thyroid cancer is exposure to radiation – especially in one’s youth. Even moderate exposure can dramatically increase the risk of developing cancer when you’re older. There have been many studies to show this link, such as this one. The onset can be decades after the exposure, which makes linking cause and effect difficult. Did I wander past some radioactive facility when I was young? Maybe… Was the basement of my childhood home filled with radon gas? Possibly (in fact, this might be an interesting thing to investigate). Or perhaps I was just randomly unlucky; even without a distinct cause, thyroid cancer still happens. But, my concern is more than just personal. This didn’t just happen to me. Something is happening throughout our society – and in fact, throughout all developed societies.

If exposure to radiation is the most certain cause of thyroid cancer, what are the most common exposures to radiation? And have any of these changed dramtically in the past few decades? While there are many possible sources of radiation exposure, from radon gas to nuclear test fallout, one thing immediately jumps out – x-rays. In particular, dental x-rays. Since the 1950s, access to professional dental services has grown exponentially in the US, and throughout the developed world. As a child in the 1970s, I was subjected to dozens of x-rays during my regular visits. Either my teeth were crappy, or the family dentist was “drilling for dollars”. I had a lot of cavities, and a lot of x-rays.

Thyroid Cancer Rates - from NIH

Thyroid Cancer Rates – from NIH

My suspicions got a serious jolt when I learned this fact: The use of x-ray equipment in the US is virtually unregulated. That’s right, your dentist could be blasting you with any level of x-ray radiation, and nobody cares or knows. Nobody is measuring machines to see if they’re operating as expected. Sure, we know that excessive exposure to x-rays are incredibly harmful, but you can’t see them, and the harmful effects are only apparent years later. Who would know if you’re being blasted with the equivalent of a nuclear explosion at every exam? The dentist might not have a clue either. For all I know, my childhood dentist got his x-ray machine from the army surplus dump after WWII, and it had the level set to maximum. Why not? If it makes for easier operation, and clearer x-rays, who was to care?

What makes this particularly concerning is that dental x-rays are directed at an area very near the thyroid gland (which sits right about at your collar bone). Sure, x-ray operators will cover your chest and neck with a lead vest, but this is hardly a rock-solid protection, and I have no memory if or how this was done when I was a kid. Vests are not always situated properly, and the x-ray beam can be directed such that it bypasses the vest altogether & goes straight to the neck.

The good news is that modern digital x-ray machines use far lower levels of radiation, and are certainly a lot safer. But, there are still plenty of older machines in service. New equipment is expensive… and the older equipment doesn’t go to the dump, it goes to the third world, who are just getting on-board the dental hygene train and all that comes with it.

How can we figure out if this is more than just speculation? A couple studies have looked at this. This is a particularly good one, and quite striking too – the conclusion is that there is indeed a measurable link. However, this is looking at broad population. The challenge is that dental practices & patient experiences vary widely. A dentist who used x-rays sparingly, was very careful with neck shielding, and had a low-emission x-ray machine would have given their patients very low exposures. Some patients may have received a lot of x-rays as a youth, others only a few. A study comparing the outcomes of patients of specific dentists ~30-40 years on would be far more interesting. I’m hopeful there are epidemiologists with ideas of how this might be accomplished. The data exists, the challenge is combing through it – ultimately looking at groups of people treated by specific dentists, and see if some groups have a higher incidence of thyroid cancer ~30-40 years later than others. Dentists keep good records, and one might be able to determine which equipment they were using, and which patients had how many x-rays. There are likely issues with privacy though, I’m not sure how you get around that one.

There are a number of articles raising this issue. And there are a number of articles telling people not to worry about it. Those downplaying the link essentially conclude “It hasn’t been proven, so don’t worry about it”. They claim that dental x-ray radiation is “low”, without mentioning that it’s unregulated, unmeasured and widely inconsistent from dentist to dentist. They claim that the increase in thyroid cancer incidence is primarily due to increased awareness. That might certainly contribute, but don’t we owe it to ourselves to do an actual detailed study? There’s a lot of vested interest in maintaining the status-quo. Can you imagine the costs involved to replace all the aging x-ray equipment still in use? What if people get irrational and panic, eschewing all x-rays? X-rays have saved millions from serious dental problems, but that doesn’t mean they’re 100% good.

So, that’s where things sit. I have no tools to take this much further. It’s my hope that this blog post will find its way to someone who has more experience or resources and can look into it. I’m not a conspiracy nut, but this is a problem craving for more study. Thyroid cancer is a huge cost to society – in dollars, in time, and in quality of life. Maybe the answer isn’t dental x-rays, maybe it’s something else? But, we simply don’t know. One thing is completely unacceptable – denial of a potential problem simply because we don’t have the data. All I’m asking is that it’s thoroughly studied, and proper regulations are put in place so we know what our x-ray equipment is emitting. Everyone should be in favor of that. Something is causing this, and we owe it to ourselves & our children to figure out what it is.

If you’re reading this as a newly diagnosed Papillary thyroid cancer patient, don’t panic. You’re not alone, and your prognosis is likely pretty good. This is unfortunately a common cancer, and treatment is almost like a formula. It goes something like this:

  1. Someone feels a lump in your thyroid. Perhaps this is precipitated by some symptoms of low Thyroid levels (sluggishness, fatigue, etc), or you just happen upon it. Thyroid cancer is often asymptomatic – even the lump may not be noticable.
  2. You get a biopsy. Even if this doesn’t show cancer, your doctor might treat it as such. Thyroid nodules (semi-solid growths) are fairly common, and while many of these are benign, they can grow and turn cancerous.
  3. Surgery to remove your thyroid. It’s a delicate surgery, though common. Mine took about 3 hours, plus a day in the recovery room. Risks are damage to the parathyroid (a completely different gland that sits snuggly against the thyroid), and damage to other things in your throat (my vocal nerve got nicked, and I couldn’t talk for a week afterwards). Recovery is anywhere from a few days to a week or so. You’ll likely acquire a 2-3 inch scar on your neck.
  4. Radioactive Iodine treatment (RAI). Since thyroid tissue soaks-up iodine, they can feed you radioactive iodine, which any remaining thyroid tissue soaks up. The first step in this to give you a low dose followed by a full body scan to see if you have any hot spots. In my case, the cancer had just started spreading to a nearby lymph node. They missed this during the surgery, but it showed-up like a beacon in the scan. So, I did the high-dose treatment a few weeks later. (this involes going on a low-iodine diet beforehand, and stopping thyroid replacement medication). After a year, I had another scan, which showed the hot spot was gone,and there was no other uptake – I was clear.
  5. A lifetime of pills. Your thyroid gland does one thing – produce thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone essentially enables your cells to metabolize energy. Luckily this hormone is easy to synthesize, and cheap. It’s also one of the most common prescribed medications. Many people get T4, which is what the thyroid produces… it’s most commonly known by the brand Syntheroid, but there are generic equivalents. T4 breaks down into T3 in the body (and it’s the T3 which actually does the work). You might also get prescribed a T3 replacement (most commonly known by the brand Cytomel). Personally, I take 125 micrograms of T4 and 10 micrograms of T3 every day. Your dosage may vary depending on many factors, such as your weight and how well your body uptakes the medication.
  6. Monitoring your thyroid levels. It’s a good idea to get your thyroid levels checked every year to make sure your doseage is correct. If you have symptoms of low thyroid levels (fatigued muscles, tiredness, chills, fuzzy thinking) see a doctor. Too much thyroid hormone can be a problem as well.
  7. Checking for Thyroglobulin. Your thyroid gland also produces thyroglobulin, which is a fatty very of thyroid hormone. A few months after surgery & RAI treatment, you should have zero thyroglobulin. If you have any, it might mean there are rogue thyroid cells (i.e. cancer) in your body somewhere. It’s good to get a thyroglobulin check every 5 years or so.

Stereolab

Sometime in the mid 1990s, I first heard Stereolab – it was unlike anything I knew… yet entirely familiar.

How do you classify Stereolab? It’s a little electronic, a little rock, often French, a bit new wave, a bit classical, a bit pop. It’s filled with infectious ever-changing rhythms and sounds, and an endless array of instrumentation – everything from buzz-saw guitars to Moog organs to sliced-up xylophones. Topping it off are the interlaced vocals of Laetitia Sadier rambling on in diva-esque French as often as English, and Mary Hansen backing with a flourish of lovely ba-da-dums.  You might consider it 21st-century lounge music. It’s something you’d expect to hear while relaxing on futuristic furniture, contemplating the clouds with your fellow cyborgs.

For years I didn’t give them much thought as my musical tastes wandered all over the map. The band didn’t stop though. They released a flurry of albums throughout the 1990s and 2000s, each exploring new ground, and slightly evolving always in interesting ways. Eventually I picked up another album… and another. As I started building a library of Stereolab songs, it took over more and more of my headphone time. I got all their albums. Then, thanks to the Internet, I found tons of singles and other obscure tracks, until I thought I had everything they’d released. About this time (2009), the band released their final 2 albums, and went on a “permanent hiatus”.

But, I didn’t stop listening… just the opposite. Somehow, Stereolab has become the background to my life. The amount of music they produced is immense, and I love nearly every track. Even recently, I’ve been discovering new tracks… I’m now up to about 304, including a few live sessions and collaborations.  That kind of depth means it just never gets old. Even if I listen to hours a day, there isn’t much repetition. I simply can’t decide which I like best, or even why. But, at this point I must have listened to more Stereolab than only a few others on this planet. Thanks to iTunes keeping track of my habits, I know that most of their catalog has over 100 listens… a few over 200.

In case you’ve never heard of them, I thought I’d make this post a bit of an introduction… perhaps a thanks to “The Groop… and a bit of a love letter too. It’d be futile to make a “best of Stereolab” list – their music is too consistently rich. Every time I start a new tune, I think to myself “maybe this is my favorite…”. So, consider this just a sampling.

To start things off, how about one of their more accessible and dare I say “popular” songs from the mid 1990s, Wow and Flutter. It’s not especially representative (no backing vocals?), but it’s a nice little tune. Interestingly, this version on YouTube is a different mix than what’s on the album Mars Audiac Quintet.

Taking a hard switch to classic Stereolab of the late 1990s, how about this track from Dots and Loops – Rainbo Conversation. What is this song about? start guessing.

If you really want to get deep, try Refractions in the Plastic Pulse – the very next track on Dots and Loops. It’s 17 minutes long with 3 or 4 distinct parts twisting throughout – how do you even classify the part that starts at the 8:08 mark? If you stick through this whole track… you’re hooked.

Just about every track on Cobra and Phases is Classic Stereolab… and I could post any one of them here to get at their essence. But, I’ll leave you with the last track, Come And Play in the Milky Night – a simply-constructed and especially lovely tune.

Stereolab started their run a bit heavier, with droning, buzzing guitars. Their first few releases follow this style. But, even here the elements that make them unique are being developed. A great example of this early period is John Cage Bubblegum.

For others in this vein, try Farfisa or Super-Electric.

Stereolab were masters at the the limited-release, only-in-Japan, pink-vinyl b-side singles, that nobody knew even existed until years down the road. The difference with Stereolab is that nearly all of these obscure tracks are interesting. I’m not sure if the band considered them throwaways, but I’ve kept them in heavy rotation. How does it get any more 21st-century lounge than Fluorescences? One of those singles that’s easy to overlook.

Stereolab’s song and album titles are often da-da-esque nonsense, but the songs themselves are filled with intricate stories & observations. Deciphering the dreamy lyrics opens another dimension. I’d listened to International Colouring Contest for years without bothering to hear what was said… in part:

Before Armstrong took his steps she’d been there with friends
They took all instruments and recorded on the moon
Gathered variety of sound from where the air is different

Then there’s a song like Long Life Love – one of their very best, and a rarity with Mary Hansen on lead vocals. It’s another track they just quietly popped onto an EP. The story is about as involving as the song.

The lyrics:

The skeletal ghost twirling in the sea
For having been disobeyed to people
The father had drowned his daughter’s body
No one could remember why exactly
A lost fisherman thought he’d caught big fish
The hanging bones were instead nightmarish

He rushed back home with her caught in his line
Lit a fire which appeased his panic
Kind ladies untangled her from her cling
To keep her warm covered with furs and hides
Starting to soften in the warm silence
Fell asleep untempted by her presence

He was dreaming, a tear formed in his eyes
She saw it shine, suddenly felt thirsty
Unfurled her bones, brought her mouth to the tears
She drank and drank, it felt like a river
Plunged her hand in and gently pulled his heart
Harp and full drum that would follow her prayer

They woke up all entwined breath against breath
Got up to live by the sea where they were fed
By the ocean
No they are not afraid death has its place
In order to create, in order to live

She’d beat the drum and would sing for new flesh
Sing for hair, eyes, chubby legs, hands, and breasts
All that are warm and needs (?wood and surface??)
She sang some more to bear the sleeping child
Slipped in back with him new skin against skin
Returned the harp and magnificent drum

This crazy fairy-tale is set against what otherwise sounds almost like a children’s song… but is anything but.

This came about the same time Sound-Dust was released… One of my favorite albums, and possibly their least-discussed. A number of tracks on Sound-dust have wonderful trippy transitions such as Space Moth or Double Rocker, with the tune finishing completely not where it starts. They delved into darker territory with Suggestion Diabolique. The transition/jam after the 3:22 mark is about as good as it gets.

Tragically, Mary Hansen died in a biking accident in 2002, soon after Sound-Dust was released. The band marched onward, surely shaken… and while they lost Mary’s special sparkle, what remained was as interesting as ever. Their next album – Margerine Eclipse – was essentially a tribute to Mary as only Stereolab could produce. Feel and Triple is an obvious heartfelt message to Mary. Sudden Stars is a bit more subtle.

Stereolab kept at it for 7 years after Mary’s death, releasing dozens of additional tracks. Their sound continued to evolve, now with Laetitia shouldering the load of vocals. The songs on Chemical Chords are shorter and more straightforward, but no less inventive or infectious. For a sample try Valley Hi!

I could go on and on with more tracks, but this post is already too long. While Stereolab isn’t exactly a secret, it seems to me that they were never as popular as they might have been. Perhaps it was too much French? Perhaps some of their live performances were a bit stiff (with this music, there’s simply a lot of standing around – no other way to perform it.), But most likely, it’s simply because Stereolab was too unique for the fleeting attention spans deciding what’s popular – How do you package something that doesn’t fit into a box?

A Morning at Ankeny…

Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge – located just south of Salem, Oregon – is one of a handful dotting the Willamette Valley. While these refuges can be great places to spot birds, February is not the best month to visit. I was having a pretty unproductive day when I stumbled upon this Ruby-Crowned Kinglet. These excitable little birds rarely sit still (this one posed for only a few seconds – and this is why accurate & quick auto-focus is important) I’ve missed a lot of shots of them over the years… finally got a good one.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

Here’s what the surrounding landscape looked like. This will dry out a bit in the summer, but for much of the year, it’s pretty swampy.

Boardwalk at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge

Here are some more shots from Ankeny & other Willamette Valley wildlife refuges.

Walking Portland

We had this book for years before bothering to crack it open. When we finally did, a whole new world opened under our feet.  Portland Hill Walks, and the sister book Portland City Walks are wonderfully detailed guided tours, filled with stories of Portland’s history…

hill-walks  city-walks

The amount of research and care that went into these books is astounding, and every bit of it is interesting. The only challenge is trying to follow along and keep it all straight as the miles pile up behind you. Portland owes Laura O. Foster a huge debt. Without these books, many of these amazing stories would be lost to time. Instead, the history comes alive as you walk some of the Portland areas most interesting neighborhoods (Hillsboro is noticeably absent… though, it might make an interesting footnote in a future book).

Each walk is about 4 to 6 miles in length, with a map, general advice/directions, and key point marked on the map and text to help you keep track of where you are in the narration vs. ground. I take a photo of each map, and use an iPhone app called Map Overlay, which overlays the map on my iPhone GPS… This makes following all the turns a lot easier. (Maybe someday, we’ll have GPS-enabled narration too, so you can listen while you walk?).

In addition to the interesting history, it’s nice to have a reason to explore Portland’s many neighborhoods. The walks have taken me to many places I’d never have discovered otherwise, and they’re all right here in town. At this point, we’ve done about 2/3 of the walks in both books – that’s a lot of walking. I’m not sure if there is some kind of prize for completing all the walks, but perhaps there ought to be?

As you might guess by the title, “Portland Hill Walks” focus on the hilly areas around the city… these also tend to be pretty interesting neighborhoods anyway. The walks utilize the labyrinth of concrete staircases that connect streets all over the city. There are more of these than you might realize – they’re like secret pathways…

There are staircases like this one hidden in hilly neighborhoods throughout Portland. This one is in the Nob Hill area of NW Portland.

There are staircases like this one hidden in hilly neighborhoods throughout Portland. This one is in the Nob Hill area of NW Portland.

Inevitably the walks take you by homes most of us can only dream about. This one isn’t even especially notable… I just happen to have a photo of it.

This house could be yours for the low low price of $1.175M. 3 Bedrooms, 2 baths... 3486sq ft... and a killer location in the NW Portland hills. I'm a bit amazed that anyone can afford to live in these places. My mortgage payment is only half of what they pay in property tax!

This house could be yours for the low low price of $1.175M. 3 Bedrooms, 2 baths… 3486sq ft… and a killer location in the NW Portland hills. I’m a bit amazed that anyone can afford to live in these places. My mortgage payment is only half of what they pay in property tax!

Once nice perk of the hill walks are the views… this is a well-known view from near Pittock Mansion, in Portland’s west hills.

A view to the east on a hazy morning. Mt. Hood rises above the city skyline of Portland. The sun was reflecting off the buildings, giving a sort of back-glow.

A view to the east on a hazy morning. Mt. Hood rises above the city skyline of Portland. The sun was reflecting off the buildings, giving a sort of back-glow.

The walks slowly take you by the underside of places you might otherwise drive by without a thought.

I'm not sure who brough English Ivy to Portland, but I hope they're happy. While this invasive weed can look neat on passing observation, it completely envelops anything it encounters, choking native trees and plants. It's a constant struggle to contain, as it's very difficult to remove.

I’m not sure who brough English Ivy to Portland, but I hope they’re happy. While this invasive weed can look neat on passing observation, it completely envelops anything it encounters, choking native trees and plants. It’s a constant struggle to contain, as it’s very difficult to remove.

Many of the walks head through trails in Portland’s many parks. This one is a short section just below Council Crest.

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I think we’ve walked through about a dozen cemeteries as well. They’re peaceful, moody, creepy, and just plain neat. This one is Greenwood Hill Cemetery, in the southwest hills.

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Speaking of spooky walks through the land of the dead… Here’s a view inside the Portland Memorial Mausoleum in the Sellwood neighborhood. This place has nearly 6 miles of hallways… and while there are lots of residents, none of them are living.

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Ok, enough of the dead… how about a stroll through Crystal Springs Rhododendron Park? Try to visit in early May to catch the Rhododendrons at their peak.

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Another neighborhood a little bit out of my price range…

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The walks pass by many of Portland’s city colleges. It’s a good excuse to visit these campuses – otherwise only the realm of faculty & students. Doyle is an old dorm hall at Reed College. The books include all kinds of details about how these places came to be as they are.

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It’s fun to stumble upon pathways I never knew existed. This pedestrian bridge crosses a ravine on the Reed College campus.

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And this walkway connects a couple buildings together at OHSU.

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One constant on many of the walks… cats. This fluffy individual demanded attention!

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Around every corner, there’s a new discovery to make you smile and say “neat!”

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A few of the walks venture into Portland’s outlaying areas… from Forest Grove to Oregon City. One of them heads through Lake Oswego. I might poke fun at the snooty attitude that’s pervasive in “LO”, but some of these lakeside properties are quite nice.

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We’ve done walks in all seasons… But, mostly we seem to do them in the winter, as they’re a quick way to get outside, and comfortable enough to do even if the weather is a bit yukky. Here’s a little fall color in a park in north Portland.

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I’ll be sure to post many more walks as they happen – this post is simply to catch-up a bit.

 

 

Nibble Comes for a Visit

We had a fun visitor last weekend. My sister Karen was out of town for a long weekend so we watched her cat Nibble back at our place.

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She liked seeing what was happening outside.

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She kept popping-up in unexpected places.

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Things never get too serious when Nibble is around.

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But, she can look regal when she wants to.

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Sometimes she just looks like she’s in charge of the place… and she was!

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Nibble is quite the hunter. The floor is not safe for yarn and fuzzy stuffed mice!

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Just hanging out on the rug again…

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Maybe it’s time for a break…

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I hope she’ll be able to come back soon!

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Welcome to the Sausage Factory

Sausage was once a euphemism for “all the left-over stuff at the butcher shop you don’t want to know about”. Thankfully, we’ve grown out of that time… at least in the suburbs of Portland. Sausage takes on a whole new meaning with fresh ingredients, and a personal touch.

There’s no magic recipe for sausage, and really no hard rules. For this first foray, I mostly stuck to the basics – 1.5 yellow onions chopped small, 1.5 heads of pressed garlic (from the garden!), 8oz of medium cheddar cheese, some curing salts from a kit, and well… the “casings”, which is a euphemism for… casings.

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After preparing all this, next step was mixing with 10 pounds of ground pork, and 2.5 pounds of ground beef. Luckily, we live just down the street from The Meating Place – which is like a candy shop for carnivores.

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After mixing it all up, it looked like this:

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While I was chopping and mixing, the casings (ok, pig intestines… and yes, they reek like it) were soaking in water. They had to be loaded onto a tube that attached to the sausage stuffer. I found that it was easiest to cut-off the final 2 inches or so of each casing to make it easier to find the opening. I also had to keep everything lubricated with water.

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Next, it was time to pull out the sausage stuffer (thanks Paul!), and get to business.

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The stuffer has a plunger in the middle that you crank down. The sausage comes out the tube, and you get a long length of sausage. If you want links, you have to twist them as you go… Twisting is a bit of a challenge, as it’s easy to untwist the previous link when you do the next one. I tried to alternate twisting directions to keep everything together… somehow I managed, and only blew-out the casings in a few instances. The process looks a bit um, vulgar… but, uh… ya. I’m gonna eat that.

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Turns out that 12.5 pounds of meat, plus the extra goodies was just about enough for half a pack of casings – perfect. And it was just enough to fill the smoker – double perfect! Thanks again to Paul for the use of the smoker & the hickory chips.

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Here they are, all loaded-up and ready to go.

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Then, it was about 6 hours of smoking… though, really only about 3 pans of chips. Each pan lasted about an hour, so between the smoking hours was a lot of sitting in luke-warm air. I felt a bit like I was making this up as I went, but it seemed to be working.

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By the third pan of chips, things were looking pretty good inside.

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The smoker didn’t get especially hot… and the process really dictates that the sausages get up to 180F or so (Did I mention I was kind of making this up as I went?). So, I plunked them in the oven at ~180-200F for an hour. After this, here was my bounty.

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After a day in the fridge to cool down & stiffen up a bit, it was time for some vacuum sealing. While sausage curing & smoking was invented to help keep meat fresher longer (and with the added bonus of flavor), I’m sure if the old generations had a vacuum-sealer, they’d have used it! I like sausage, but this is… well, a lot.

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Finally, it was time for a little reward. For a change, I know exactly what’s under the casings of this one!

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And, yes, it tasted as good as it looks!

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Star Wars: What’s next… I hope.

the-force-awakensI’m not a total Star Wars nerd, but I was a kid when the first three movies came out… and they’re just a part of my DNA. They were what a kid wants all movies to be: Explorations of fantastic places that exist only in our imaginations, yet complete enough to seem somehow real. The three prequels weren’t great as movies, but they did add to the “universe & mythology of Star Wars”– just this idea there could be a galactic republic, what would that look like, how it would work, etc. Of course, you need a story to keep the viewer engaged… and they were considerably lacking on that front.

So, now everyone is buzzing about “Episode 7”. I thought it was fun, and a welcome departure from the prequels. There are a few things I might have wished were different (can we think of a different super-weapon, please? This is like the 3rd death star the rebels have blown-up), but I couldn’t complain too much – there was a lot more I liked with “The Force Awakens” than I disliked.

Now, I can’t help but look forward to Episodes 8-9, and wonder how it might play-out. So, here’s my outline:

Luke’s quest to find the ancient Jedi temples made him realize something – the entire history of The Force has been a constant struggle of light vs. dark, with incredibly destructive to everyone else. Think of all the millions who’ve died in the crossfire due to conflicts between Sith and Jedi. The Force always tries to achieve balance, so when one side gets too strong, the other brings it down. This same thing happened when he tried to resurrect the Jedi order – he lost his star pupil to the Dark Side. He may even shows Rey evidence of this… historical tomes showing it. So, he decided the only solution was to quit the game – let the force go quietly into the night… and all the destruction with it. He dispersed any remaining novices without training & somehow wiped their memories so they’ll never know the power they have. That’s why he’s holed-up in the middle of nowhere. He’s assuming the likes of Snoke will inevitably seed their own destruction. If he and other users of The Force get involved, it’ll be worse in the long run. We also find that the ghosts of deceased Jedi (Obi-Wan, Yoda, Anakin…) have faded over the years… they rarely visit Luke anymore & Luke feels a bit lost in the wilderness with no guide.

Rey tells Luke he’s full of crap – giving up is no answer. She’s going to fight! In essence this plot is similar to Wargames – the old master is content to let the world burn, but the kids are like NFW! There could be a lot of good dialog & character-building in this argument. Rey eventually gives-up on Luke and leaves, saying she’ll fight with or without him. Luke is troubled… Luke is aware of Rey’s origins & power (or at least suspects it), but doesn’t tell her this. If he trains her, the cycle continues… but if he doesn’t train her, the Dark Side may either kill her or control her. Some choice.

It seems Rey was one of the potential students dispersed and hidden by Luke. However, there was someone watching her on her home planet Lor San Tekka (Max Sydow) – the guy we see in the very first scene of Episode 7… the one who had the map to Luke. He was a friend to Luke – a bit of a disciple perhaps. That’s why he had the map. Luke had told him to keep it a secret, but Lor realized things were headed south with the First Order, so he gave the map to Poe. In fact, he basically says this very thing in Episode 7… but the first time you see the movie, you don’t know what he’s talking about.

We find that Snoke is really the master behind “the Emperor”… he was never killed, but rather fooled The Emperor into thinking he was dead. He’s been pulling the strings behind the scenes all along. We also discover Snoke was responsible for the “virgin birth” of Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader), and had some kind of dream/plan to assume control over Darth Vader to become immortal. After Vader’s death and the unraveling of that plan, he’s been back at it… he succeeded in producing another “Virgin Birth” – that’s where Rey came from – Rey has the same origin as Anakin, and Snoke has the same intention for Rey – that he’ll somehow use her for his own immortality. This also explains why Rey is so powerful in The Force even without training.

After Rey leaves Luke she confronts Kylo Ren again… but this time Kylo has more training (a few training sequences with Snoke & Kylo would be cool), and he has Snoke right there with him. They capture Rey… Snoke tells Rey of her origins and “her destiny” & she’s distraught… They don’t torture her, but keep her in a “gilded cage” of sorts, tempting her with the power of the Dark Side & twisting it to make it seem like good is bad & vice-versa (You think we’re evil, but we only seek peace and order). There’s a lot of opportunity for some great acting & writing with this kind of thing – a theme of good and evil depending on one’s point of view (as Obi-wan might have put it).

Finn & Poe (with the support of Leia) go find Luke & tell him what happened. Luke realizes he has no choice but to be involved this one last time… He ultimately confronts Snoke & Kylo. We find that Luke knows exactly what Snoke has been up to with Anakin & Rey – he learned this from the Jedi archives a well. He either kills Snoke, or weakens him to the point where the others can kill him. But, Luke dies in the process (for example: Luke is hanging off a precipice, and slices off Snokes arms… This causes him to plunge to his death, but leaves Snoke defenseless). Luke knows this is likely to happen – it’s part of his plan to bring balance to The Force – to zero-out the most powerful entities. Rey fights Kylo, but he escapes, and remains our lead bad guy, now more powerful than ever… and in a sense happy to be rid of Snoke (though, wondering if Snoke just faked his death again).

So, that leaves it for the story to just keep going… Luke might die, but he’ll come back to some extent as a “ghost Jedi” like Obi-wan did. Where the story goes from there is anyone’s guess. I’m out of ideas for now – Force out!

Enchanted

Growing up in the lowlands, I was sold an image of mountains. Mountains had pointed peaks, steep granite cliffs, gnarled fanciful forests, tranquil reflective lakes… surprises at every turn. As I grew up, I realized the reality of mountain landscapes doesn’t always live up to the dream. Sure, they were big, bold and beautiful… but usually missing some secret ingredient.  However, there is a place where that childhood vision becomes real; it’s located on the eastern flanks of the North Cascade mountains in Washington State. And it’s aptly named: The Enchantments.

Click here to see the Enchantments gallery

Getting There

As with many of the best places in the world, this one is hard to get to. There are no shortcuts; it simply takes a lot of effort and determination.

Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake

Prusik Peak and Perfection Lake

That effort starts with getting a permit. In an effort to reduce the crowds of well-meaning interlopers, the forest service limits the number of overnight camping permits issued for various areas in and around the Enchantment Lakes basin. Advance permit applications have to be submitted by a deadline in the spring. That takes a lot of advance planning. Alternately, you can simply show up at the ranger station in Leavenworth, WA early in the morning, and try to get a limited number of same-day permits. But, it’s hard to count on that. (Though, there are other very nice permit-limited areas nearby, and you can usually get a permit for one of them).

I’ve never seen this stated, but my suspicion is that in order to get an overnight permit for the lakes basin proper, you’ll need to request at least 3 nights. My hunch is that the forest service thinks people overestimate their ability to get to or from the lakes basin in one day, so they want make sure you have ample time to cover the distance.

Rainbow Over Nada Lake

Rainbow Over Nada Lake

The effort continues with a brutal approach hike. The high alpine terrain of the Enchantment Lakes basin is usually the goal. To get there, you have two choices of trail – long and steep, or not-quite-as-long and steeper. The first choice approaches from the north, heading a dozen miles up 5500ft in elevation gain, past some burned forests, a couple lower forested lakes, and finally over a series of steep granite slabs, where the “trail” becomes more of a suggestion. And that’s the easy way. The other approach is shorter – only about 7 miles – and requires less climbing – only about 4400ft. But, the last 1000ft is a nearly vertical scramble up a crumbly and often icy indistinct route over well-named Aasgard pass. It’s certainly hikable – hundreds do it without incident. But, there have been accidents as well. Be careful, and know your abilities.

When to Go

Next, you’ll have to decide when to go. The lakes basin melts out in July most years. It’s a pretty destination in the high summer and home to a healthy population of friendly mountain goats. But, if you can get lucky with good weather, the fall color of the larches is really over the top. From a distance these distinctive trees look like typical conifers. But, their needles turn golden and drop off in the fall. The color usually peaks around the first week in October. After the 3rd week in October, no overnight permits are required, but the larch needles will have fallen, and the snow and cold will be taking over.

For this most recent trip, I left the Snow Lakes trailhead (the long route) in the early morning, and got to the far end of Snow Lake by evening. Just beyond Snow Lake is a steep ascent to the lakes basin. I technically had time to get up to the lakes basin for sunset, and return. But, it would have meant coming down steep granite slabs in the dark, and alone – not exactly a safe idea. Plus, the weather was still clearing from a recent storm. Often, those conditions are great for dramatic photos. But in this case it was mostly socked-in up there.

Shooting in the Enchantments

So, I got up early to clear blue skies, climbed up the slabs, and arrived in the basin in about an hour and a half.  If the weather cooperates, there is good shooting much of the day in the Enchantment Lakes basin. As the sun travels, it matches the slopes of some of the nearby mountainsides, casting some dramatic side-light even hours after sunrise.

Enchanted Reflection

Enchanted Reflection

Calm winds are more common in the early morning and late in the evening,  giving great reflections of the trees and peaks. I prefer just a tiny ripple of wind to give a hint of water, and a “ground” to a photo. A pure reflection is neat, but it can make a photo hard to frame, as there is no obvious base. Think about how things look when you press that shutter button. If I’d taken this photo 20 seconds earlier or later, the reflection would have looked very different. The clouds were changing rapidly too – this image caught a good mix of interesting balanced sky and a reflection that was “just right”. It would have been nice if the mountain was illuminated too, but I’ll take what I can get.

Prusik Peak

Prusik Peak

The sharp spire of Prusik Peak is the most prominent feature on the ridgeline, and can be a convenient exclamation point in a composition. The shape of Prusik Peak changes radically depending on the viewing angle. From some directions, the peak doesn’t look much higher than the nearby ridge.

The most obvious stars of the landscape at this time of year are the Larch trees. The golden Larches glow in the light, and provide great contrast against the white snow or deep blue skies. Look for all kinds of light – sidelight, backlight, frontlight… each can make a scene glow in a different way. One of my favorite angles is to get the light coming from the back/side. This way, the individual needles glow from the light, but the background isn’t all washed-out from the sun. This angle of light can yield shots illuminated like the image below/left. This image also captures the uniquely twisted spine of these hardy trees. Another approach is to use a tranquil lake to fill in the color. The other images below use this approach. The image to the right is a reflection rotated 180 degrees – remember, there are no rules in photography – present your images however you wish!

Twisted

Twisted

Reflections

Reflections

Ripples

Ripples

Equipment

Because this was a longer and relatively difficult hike I had to carefully pick which lenses and other equipment I brought. On these hikes, I always start with my most versatile lens – the 24-105 zoom. Next, I added a few accessories like a close-up lens, some graduated ND filters, a remote timer. I still had a little weight left, so I splurged and brought my heavy 100-400 zoom. I’m not sure if that was the wisest choice. As it turns out, I didn’t use it much… and hauling that heavy hunk of metal and glass was a bit of a burden. But, I’ve had too many instances where I’ve seen a once-in-a-lifetime shot that I could only get with such a lens. So, it’s like an insurance policy. Lastly, of course, I brought my tripod. I have a lightweight carbon-fiber Feisol tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head. All this stuff (and my camera body, an extra battery, memory cards and some cases) probably added up to 10-15 pounds. But, I made it there, and made it back. Whatever extra pain the weight caused is dulled by the results!

Time-Lapse Photography

Sometimes, the most interesting aspect of a scene is impossible to capture in a still frame – swirling clouds, the movement of tides, patterns of shadows, the moon or sun… these all make excellent subjects for time-lapse photography.

But, how do you do it?

In short: set up your camera on a tripod, take a series of images every 5 seconds or so, and later assemble those stills into a video. Simple?… Ok, maybe a little more explanation would help.

First, you need an interesting scene, where something is happening… slowly. Clouds are nearly always in motion, and make great time-lapse subjects. Likewise, the shadows of clouds can add real drama to a scene. Maybe you’d like to show how a frosty leaf melts in the morning sun. Your imagination is the only limit.

Just remember – if you have a single camera and are using it to shoot a time-lapse movie, that’s all you’ll be shooting while it’s happening. Sometimes, you just have to make a choice.

Ok, so now you have an interesting scene. It’s time to go manual – manual focus, manual exposure. If you leave your camera on automatic exposure, the settings will change as the light changes. This will lead to some really distracting flickering as individual frames will be slightly brighter or darker. While there is software available to fix this (more on that later), it’s a lot easier to avoid this problem. If you’re doing something really fancy – like a time-lapse that goes from day into night… you might need to use auto-exposure, and fix the flickering later.

If the scene is getting brighter through time, best to start the first image underexposed, so that by the end of your shooting period, the scene won’t be over-exposed. Vice-versa with scenes that are getting darker.

For this reason, I almost always shoot time-lapse scenes in RAW. Yes, the individual images use more memory, but the results are far better, and this gives me the ability to adjust my exposure settings with a RAW converter.

In the following example, the sun was rising. I knew the scene would be getting brighter, so I started the time-lapse with the scene under-exposed. It turns out that I didn’t compensate as much as I should have. by the end of the video, the bright clouds were fully blown out. Luckily, the video medium is a little more forgiving with these things:

My camera includes a small-RAW (sRAW) shooting mode. Time-lapse is a great application for sRAW. The image files will be smaller, but still give the flexibility of RAW. You won’t need all those extra pixels for the final video. High-definition video (1080p) is at a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, that’s only 2 megapixels. My smallest sRAW mode is about 6 megapixels, leaving me plenty of cropping options.

While technically you could stand next to your tripod with a stopwatch and press the shutter release every 5 seconds, it’s a heck of a lot easier with an automated timer/cable release. It just takes a moment to program an interval (say, 5 seconds), and the timer will do all the work. I have a Canon TC-80N3, which works perfectly. There are some other models which work pretty well too.

So, how long to go? A little math can come in handy. If you don’t want your final video to be jerky, you’re going to want a good number of frames per second in the final video. Let’s say your final video will be about 24 frames-per-second. If you shoot a frame every 5 seconds, that’s 12 frames per minute. So, every 2 minutes, you’ll have 24 frames. 2 minutes of real time = 1 second of video. If things are moving really quickly in real time, you might want to take frames faster.  I’ve learned that I can never shoot a long enough clip. If the results are good, I always wish I shot twice as much!

Just make sure to have enough available memory in the camera.  My camera tells me how many more pictures I can fit – a very handy reference. Though, if you do run out of memory part way through a time-lapse photo, you might be able to change the memory card quickly without noticing too much of a gap in the final video.

If it’s dark outside, you might need a pretty long exposure for each shot. For example, the video below starts with a time-lapse of the night sky. Each frame was 30 seconds, and I included a noise-reduction frame which added another 30 seconds. I added a 5 second safety buffer to my interval timer, so I was taking a frame every 65 seconds… It took 3 hours to get about 10 seconds of video!

So,  now we have 300 (or maybe 3000) still images in sequence. From here, I use a similar workflow to still photos. First, I import them into Lightroom. The next steps are easier to describe in a video:

If you’re interested in LRTimelapse, visit Gunther’s site here. The software is free to download, but I’d recommend donating some money to his cause.

Now we have a series of still images. How to make them into a video? There is a lot of fine video editing software on the market. I’ve found that Sony Vegas does a pretty good job for a reasonable price. Plus, it has a capability to handle time lapse images very smoothly:

So, there you have it. I hope you found this a little helpful for getting started creating your own time-lapse movies. Here’s a version of the time-lapse I created in the above two videos…