The Serendipity Of Nature Photography

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One little camera. One little bird

 

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

This weekend I found myself at the UC Botanical Garden and marveled again at how rich it is with subjects to photograph. Gorgeous trees and plants, winding walkways, seasonal flowers in bloom, epic views of Strawberry Canyon.

I have taken many photos here and find endless new things to photograph on each visit.

Plants are easy, but photographing wildlife is a bit more difficult. For me, at least.

I know the old adages, one that patience is required in shooting wildlife, another that one should expect to take a lot of shots to get to one good image.

I’ve been shooting long enough to know better. But I’ve also been me long enough to know that patience isn’t always my virtue.

Under the auspices of “the best camera is the one you have with you” I tend to shoot a lot on my iPhone. There is hot debate on the topic in the various photo clubs I belong to. Some of my fellow photographers see iPhoneography as a perfectly acceptable medium and encourage the ease and accessibility of on-the-fly photos.

Others of my peers scoff and say they will never accept iPhone photos as legitimate (really, seriously, in 2019 they say this). In that particular photo club I strip the exif data off of my photos before posting to our monthly theme review. They won’t look at my photos if they know for sure it’s an iPhone photo.

So while I shoot a lot on my iPhone (the header image, for example), I also feel the limitations of the hardware. The light has to be good to get anything worthwhile. The image quality, even in good light, is not always the best. And zoom? Forget it, the pixelation from the software zoom is more than I want to deal with.

About a year ago I decided I wanted a camera that was a little less than my big boy camera and a little more than my iPhone. After some research, many reviews read, and lots of waffling, I finally settled on a Sony Cybershot. It’s cute, fits into my pocket or purse, and has a real optical zoom versus a software zoom.

It’s a neat little camera and does a whole lot more than point-and-shoot devices used to do. In fact it’s scary how good simple pocket cameras have become.

I’m still learning the Sony and it surprises me every time I give it a try.

Like, for example, this photo:

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I was enchanted by this little bird at the botanical garden. I have no idea what type of bird that is, I’m not that good at identifying species. My husband and I watched it flit from branch to branch, often coming quite close to us. The light was good, but the movement was way too fast for an iPhone. (though my husband used Live Photo and that worked pretty well)

I tried pulling out the Cybershot and fiddled with settings. I found one I hadn’t used before called “reduce motion blur” and gave it a go. I tracked the little bird, zoomed in and quick took a snap expecting very little.

No planning the shot. No endless patience waiting for the bird to turn in the right direction. No one hundred shots to get one good one.

One snap, one photo. Got it.

Because I’m naturally superstitious when shooting, I took another photo. I did so thinking I knew more than I did with the first photo, so I must be able to take a better photo, right?

Truth is, I had much less luck on the second shot (note the bird butt in the top left corner):

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

And with that, I gave up. Yes, I took only two shots and got one worth keeping. How often does that happen? For me, not very often. It was a good reminder lesson in allowing serendipity in my photography.

Maybe knowing a bit more when taking the second shot turned out to be a hindrance? Maybe on the second photo I was trying too hard?

In photography, I can get rigid about the shot I want to make. I have been known to see a shot evolving in real time and then pressing too hard when trying to take the perfect version of it.

I can get obsessive and fire off image after image and come back with nothing worth looking at. In those moments I wanted the photo to be something I was not capable of producing.

Sort of the divine struggle of photography, right? To produce an image that is how you saw it in real time.

What have I learned from this serendipitous nature photography moment?

  1. Right place, right time. Meaning let the image happen the way it wants to evolve.
  2. Don’t press, just let it flow and let it go. If I don’t get the shot I wanted, okay to try again, also okay to move on.
  3. It helps to know your camera. In this case, I tried a new setting, but knew pretty well how to use the features of the camera including zoom, focus and settings.

It is not hyperbole when I say that little bird is among the best wildlife shots I’ve ever taken (the first one, not the bird butt one) in that it comes very close to how I saw that beautiful late afternoon winter sun on the green and yellow and brown botanical garden.

True, wildlife photography isn’t my main focus, and practice would certainly improve my images, but dang if I’m not pleased with that photo of one little bird taken with one little point-and-shoot camera.

Does it have less value since it wasn’t taken with a “real” camera? (scare quotes used on purpose. Isn’t any camera a real camera?) I don’t think so. Others might disagree.

But I like it, and that is what matters the most. Trying to shoot something I think will please someone else is always going to be hard road with no destination.

One of the things I love about photography is that it is both so easy (just get the exposure triangle right!) and so very difficult.


Note: I have done no post processing on any of the photos in this story. I could certainly fiddle with all three of them, but that was less important for me and not quite the point of this story.

My Fear of Flying

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It never goes away, it can only be managed


Photo by Lucas Ludwig on Unsplash

“I love to travel, I just don’t like what it takes to get there.” — Me, before every trip

Last week I was delighted to pack by bags and head out on a business trip on behalf of my employer. My job gives me the opportunity to travel once or twice a year and I am happy to get out of the office and on the road. I really do love to travel. Anywhere. Large, small, domestic, international, if there is travel to be done, I’m in.

Over my life I have traveled a lot, not the “gold status for a lifetime” kind of amount, more like 3–4 trips a year, sometimes more. I’ve seen quite a few countries, with a whole lot more to go.

My first plane ride was at seven years old. My mom, sister and I traveled to Oregon to visit my mom’s family. We flew to Salt Lake City, changed planes, then on to Portland. I remember the excitement, the thrill of the ride, the joy at seeing how lush and green Oregon was in comparison to Albuquerque.

I love seeing places I have never seen before, just as much as I love going back to a place I know and remembering all the things I like about it.

One thing that hasn’t changed over a lifetime of traveling: I’m moderately terrified of airplanes. Okay, to be fair, I am not a nervous flyer gripping the armrest like a life raft, but I do have trepidation every time I board a plane.

I’m usually cool as a cucumber getting to and through the airport, but once boarding is called and I am on the jetway, the reality of what I am about to do takes hold. To cope, I have to run through a well-practiced serious of thoughts to calm myself down enough so I don’t turn around and sprint back off the plane.

What I am saying is most of the time I do just fine. I’ve gotten used to your average passenger plane, three seats on each side, air safety is pretty good, all of that. But it’s still a hard thing for me to give up all control of my fate, pack my ample curves into an narrow and uncomfortable seat, accept being sealed inside a tin can, and allow one human being to pilot me and my fellow passengers high into the air.

Every once in a while, my travels throw me a curveball. A few years ago I was beyond excited to be asked to travel to Porto, Portugal. I think I said yes so fast I broke the time-space continuum and said yes before my boss even asked the question.

However, when the day of travel arrived what I found waiting at the airport gate was the largest passenger plane I had ever seen in my life. I actually started laughing out loud. “I am not getting on that thing,” I said to nobody but myself.

A plane so large it needed a special gate at the airport to load. Called an Airbus A380–800, it’s occasionally referred to as a whale. This plane has two floors. It has an actual staircase inside. I mean, come on now.

Airbus A380 on MAKS 2011. Image from Wikipedia and used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

 

I had to sit down and really, really ask myself if I was going to willingly get on that plane and ride for the eleven hours needed to get to Frankfurt. On the logical side of my brain, I reminded myself of watching loaded C-130s take off from a nearby military airfield, so I knew this plane was possible. The dimensions of the thing were just more than my brain could take.

Well, this past week, I had the opposite problem. After flying from San Francisco to Houston, I was to board a small regional plane that would get me over to Knoxville. I have flown very small planes before, including one bumpy ride on a terribly noisy turboprop, but for some reason I was not prepared for the plane that awaited me at the gate.

An Embraer Air ERJ-145, new, shiny, sleek, and terrifying. I texted my husband this photo with the caption “aw, shit.”

Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

I knew I was going to be flying a small plane to Knoxville, I’d even made a joke a few weeks back about “Flying on a La Bamba plane.” When faced with the reality of the situation, the joke just wasn’t funny anymore.

When the glass door opened and I stepped out onto the tarmac, I began to run through my usual mental roll call of thoughts: “You are going to be fine, you don’t have to get on this plane if you don’t want to, these are professionals who do this every day, planes are very safe, you are safe, but you have choices.” And so on like that.

I locked up pretty good, but given my stubborn nature, I refused to let myself balk. I gamely walked up the ramp, got my stuff stowed, and crammed into the seat. I texted my husband, “I’m in my seat. I think I’m now wearing this airplane,” as it certainly felt snug about the hips.

This plane has two seats on one side and one seat on the other but is fairly comfortable. I was lucky to be on the one seat side, enjoying both a window and the aisle.

Once the doors were shut, I immersed myself in my book and did my best not to think too much about it.

If my trip to Frankfurt was riding a whale, to Knoxville I rode a sardine, and in both instances got there safely, on time, and no worse for the wear.

Look, fears and anxieties aren’t always rational, that’s kind of the point. I know flying is very safe, but my mind still has an awful lot of questions about the wisdom of being 30,000 feet above the surface of sweet, sweet Mother Earth.

One upside? The Sardine had nice big windows, all the better to capture a Tennessee sunset above the clouds.


Photo by the author, ©2019 Karen Fayeth

The Ballad of a Walnut Bladder — Tales of a Pressing Need To Go

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Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash
___

I was born with a troubling affliction. It’s been difficult to manage my whole life, and is embarrassing to discuss. Today I feel is the time to go public with my ailment.

I am affected by a disorder known colloquially as walnut bladder. Yes, it’s true. I so much as look at a glass of water and I have to pee.

In such times that my walnut bladder-itis impacts the life of my husband, he refers to me as a frog. “You know, you pick up a frog and it piddles in your hand?”

That’s me.

As a child I presented quite a challenge to my folks who liked to take road trips. You see, I had the kind of dad who refused to stop once we were on the road. “Gotta make good time,” he’d say.

The average child has to pee frequently but I was even more prone than normal. It was a problem.

We used to spend summers in a small town in Eastern New Mexico. The drive from our home in Albuquerque took about three hours, plus or minus. Even as an adult, three hours is just too long for me without a pit stop.

This vexed my mother terribly as she had to manage both my bladder and my straight-through-without-stopping father. Once she threatened to use a clothespin to clamp off my leaky plumbing.

Well that got my attention.

From that day forward I planned well ahead for any family road trip. My plan was to cease intake of liquids at least a day in advance of the trip and steadfastly refuse to drink any liquid until we arrived and a toilet was in sight.

In hindsight, not having much liquid while living in the high desert probably wasn’t the best idea, but it worked, thus avoiding any clothespin type of situations.

In my adult life I manage my ailment by working a path between my desk at work and the restroom. At home I get up a minimum of once a night to pee.

There was a recent situation where I again recognized the utter torture of a completely full bladder and no good plan to empty it out.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It was a typical afternoon at work and I was, as usual, drinking lots of good fresh water. Stay hydrated, right? That means ol’ Walnutta has to be actively managed.

Before a work meeting I will use the restroom right before heading into the conference room to help ensure I can get through the hour stretch.

On this day, I was so busy with work and in other meetings that I bumped right up to the top of the hour when my next meeting was due to start. I did an internal gut check and then a clock check and thought, “Yeah, I’m ok.”

Silly, silly me.

At about twenty minutes into the hour and a half long meeting, a job interview with a prospective candidate no less, I had that first twinge of “oh…hmm, I’m going to need to pee here pretty soon.”

As the seconds on the clock ticked by with molasses speed, and the candidate droned on and on and on, things started to get bad.

I began to go through the stages of grief:

First, denial: “Pfft! I’m fine. No big deal. I can make it.”

Then bargaining: “Ok, well, if I can make it just ten more minutes, maybe I can excuse myself and take care of this. Please please bladder don’t let me pee my pants.”

Anger: “Dangblamit why did I drink so much water today! And why is my bladder so tiny? And why can’t I just distract myself and make this feeling go away!?!”

Depression: “Dude, you are such a loser. Look at everyone else at the table, they can hold their liquids. What is wrong with you?”

Acceptance: “It’s going to be ok. I’m going to make it. I’m not going to pee my pants. And if I do, it will be fine, right?”

Over the course of an hour and a half I moved up and down and back and forth through all of those stages while squirming mightily in my chair.

Look, my attention span isn’t that long to begin with, add in a full to bursting bladder and I don’t hear what anybody has to say on any topic.

It was horrible. At one point I thought I might even cry, I had to pee so badly.

And finally! Finally at the hour and forty five minute mark that damn candidate stopped talking and I was free to go use the restroom all the way over on the other side of the building.

Then it becomes that age old question of walking or running in the rain.

As in:

Do I walk to the bathroom thus taking longer and upping my odds for peeing my pants?

Or do I run thus jangling my bladder and making it more likely I’ll pee my pants?

I chose the middle road: a sort of tight-legged shuffle which worked and I made it safely to the bathroom stall.

Once in the safe zone my whole world looked a little brighter. A little happier. A little more at peace.

I know everyone has gone through the ballad of the full bladder at one point or another. When you have a walnut bladder it happens a little more often than I’d like.

For any reader who might have questions about my affliction: it’s been this way since I was a kid, I have discussed it with more than one doctor, and it just happens to be a feature (not a bug) of the big Karen machine.

Please Notice

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“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

― Kurt Vonnegut Jr., from the book A Man Without a Country

Last night I ran across these bon mots from the author Kurt Vonnegut. This is not the first time I’ve seen the quote, it’s fairly well known, but for some reason this quote had a little more resonance than usual.

Miles of text have been written by people like me about their feelings on this quote and on Vonnegut himself. To be fully candid, I am not a devotee of Vonnegut only because I haven’t actually read any of his books.

I know, I know. Who didn’t get Slaughterhouse Five in High School? Me along with all my fellow students in the Albuquerque Public Schools. Saaaaalute.

My beloved is a fan of Vonnegut’s work, and has read most or all of his published writing. Let’s be honest, he had a better public education than I did. But let’s set that aside for now.

Vonnegut seems to be quite quotable. I mean who can ignore this brilliance of words like this:

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

Can’t argue with that. But back to the quote at the top, about taking the effort to notice those moments where the prevailing winds are happy.

That sentiment is a little bit different from prevalent mindset to be found online and in the media. There is a real drive to getting mad about just about anything and staying mad about it. About taking the maximum offense as often as possible. About grinding out misery. I guess perpetuating the agony keeps the eyeballs coming back, and eyeballs = ad revenue.

I really do get it.

But I just can’t thrive with that anymore. In the real world, not online, beautiful things happen every day. Happy moments exist and it’s not only good to notice them, it may be a matter of survival.

For example: There is a quirky scrub jay that inhabits my yard. I put out a bowl of peanuts and the bird picks through them like the pickiest toddler in the history of food, tossing aside the items that don’t meet exacting standards. It’s a funny moment of joy when I scold an unscoldable bird to “just take that one and stop being so picky!” The scrub jay never listens.

There’s the unscoldable rascal!

Today at work I did a nice thing for a coworker that really wasn’t that difficult, was right in my wheelhouse for the work I’ve spent a career doing, and helped my coworker out of a jam. They were so surprised and delighted I felt like I’d performed magic.

This morning I woke up next to the most wonderful man in the world. Tonight, I get to come home from work and hug him again.

See? If all of that is not nice, then I don’t know what is.

Feels good just to notice. Makes me want to keep noticing. Makes me want to pause a little when my own outrage seems to take the lead in my response to anything I read or hear or see.

Maybe I’m running too hard, reading too fast, reacting too soon.

Maybe I need to fart around a little more.

Maybe I can just remember it’s never as bad as it seems. Nor is it as good as it can be. But everything is always just a little bit better than I give it credit for. Leaning more toward the side of doing okay rather than not.

And that’s more than nice.

For Just a Moment, Time Pauses Long Enough for the Moonlight to Catch Up

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Dateline: May 18, 2019, Las Cruces, New Mexico

It is a full moon Spring night and I am on the back patio of a home I know so well. Not my home, but the home where I live sometimes in my dreams. A storehouse for that part of me that exists back in my homestate while I live a bit farther out West.

The decision to leave New Mexico was made a long time ago, and with time I can see many of the reasons were wrong and many were also quite right. That audit can only occur looking backwards.

Tonight, time pauses because I am back home. I am where I belong with people who care about me. I am in a place so familiar I don’t even have to think hard about it, I just need to be.

It’s not always so easy just being me. It has been a bit of struggle lately. A tug of war inside my mind, but tonight is a welcome cease fire. I get to let my guard down a little, a lot, quite a bit.

“I was drunk…the day my mom…got out of prison,” we sing in full, robust, well-fed, and drunk voices. “And I went..to pick her up…in the rain.” We’re all in time but off key, which makes the sound that much more perfect. Our voices blending into a harmonic patchwork quilt.

This is a celebration of birthdays for four people. One of the four is me, and the other three are people who matter a whole lot to me. We eat, tell stories, drink a little more and remember the past. The past and the present merge until it is just us and now and then. Tomorrow is something to think about later. It will come back, but we don’t think about that now. The Wayback Machine is running at full capacity.

More dried bark and wood chips go into the firepit, making flames leap up. We keep the unseasonably cold desert wind at bay with flame and firewater.

An iPhone, an Apple music account, and a Bluetooth speaker keep the old songs rolling. Current technology pushes the old, old songs back to our ears. Patsy Cline, Jim Horton, George Strait, Foster and Lloyd, the Mavericks, Johnny Rodriguez. That’s only an appetizer plate of the ten course musical meal we serve. The music is like seeing old friends, and we sing. And we drink. And we dance.

I’m dancing around the brickwork patio with my best friend’s husband and I find myself looking down. I’ve known him for thirty years, so there are few secrets left between us. I say “It’s been so long since I danced, I have to look at my feet to make sure I still remember how.”

“Karen, you don’t have to look at your feet, it’s like riding a bike.”

I raise my head and look him in the eye. He’s right, of course.

“Besides you always were light on your feet.” I smile. It’s an awful nice compliment.

As the final notes of “Heard it in a Love Song” wrap up, he spins me around. In the centrifugal force I feel just like I did back when we danced to the same songs at Corbett Center or at Cowboys bar. We laugh a little, and then we hug. It’s good and right and fun. We’re both a little older, but it feels just like the good old days, dancing together and singing along with the music while we do.

I find my seat, my drink, the next song on the playlist. We all go “yeah! This one!” or “Haven’t heard this song in so long!” or “What else do you have on the playlist?”

It’s easy. The simpatico of friends who are family. We have a new friend in our midst, and she sings the songs as loud as any of us. She’s instantly our family, folded in like she was always here.

“We have to howl at the moon,” she says and we all howl like a mangy half-drunk (full drunk?) wolfpack. She makes each of us howl in turn, giving constructive critique, the director of our backyard opera. When we all meet her exacting criteria, we’re asked to howl together once more, and we do. And it feels good.

The songs keep rolling and the stories told a thousand times before seem fresh again. We laugh and laugh. Everything is funny. No mean words or contentious topics are exchanged. No need for that. We are in our groove, where we know who we are and what we are and we have nowhere to be other than right here with each other. We’ve laid our burdens down by the fire. They will be there for us in the morning.

I look up at the full moon between the branches of a mulberry tree. I look over at my best friend and her husband dancing together, looking like they did so long ago. Back when they first met and love was new and we knew then like we know now that they were simply meant to be.

It’s good. It’s right. It’s a balm on my wounds, mostly self-inflicted, invisible but quite real.

A moment where time has stopped. We’re together. We’re happy. And we dance.

They’ve done this together once or twice before

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All photos ©2019, Karen Fayeth and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right column of this page.

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