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

Affirmation Phrases are as Emotionally Nutritious as Cotton Candy

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Now that is a good click bait title, right?


“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me” — Stuart Smally

For those of us of a certain age, we remember the Stuart Smally pseudo-self -help skits by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live.

The catchphrase became an oft quoted in regular conversation, both joking and more than a bit serious.

In reality, there are an awful lot of resources out there that tell us about self-talk, about taking a strong stance, about giving ourselves positive affirmation phrases to bolster our courage and bring us to great heights.

Good words are all well and good, but do they actually work?

Here’s the thing, all the pretty words in the world are not a replacement for the discipline needed to actually take that first step.

Mohammad Ali told himself and the world that he was the greatest fighter that ever lived, then he went out there in the ring and proved it.

He did that not because of his hype words, but by putting in the training work well before the fight. The kind of work that’s less pretty words and all the more necessary.

What I’m saying is: The road less traveled doesn’t get traveled until you strap on your boots and walk it.

Self-care and self-discipline matter a whole lot more to your success than the perfect laser cut vinyl words stickered to your wall.

Live, laugh, love is all well and good, but you have to live by taking care of yourself, drinking enough water and for god’s sake eat a salad now and again.

You have to laugh, even when you are in such a dark place that laugher feels hollow. Sometimes it takes work to find anything funny, but once it’s there, the laugher soars.

And love, a lovely romantic notion but real true love takes hard work, which is, unto itself, cotton candy words. We all talk about “how hard” it is to make a marriage work, but you have to commit yourself to actually doing the work, to sticking around when everything in your brain says to run, to firmly holding that trash can while the love of your life barfs their brains out three days before the wedding.

Okay, that last one may be just a bit too personally specific.

How about this one:

Huh, really? Pretty sure that is impossible. There will ALWAYS be someone more than happy believe the bad stuff about you, even if you were the best person that ever lived.

Shouldn’t it be more like “Live in such a way that if someone spoke badly of you, it might make you sad for a little while, and then maybe you get a little drunk or eat french fries about it. Then you either hold on to that pain for a lifetime or you talk to your therapist about it and find a way to move on.”

I know talking about “doing the work” isn’t crazy cool, fun, and sexy. It doesn’t look cute on a shirt with butterflies and shooting stars. But that is how you get where you want to go, and by that I mean real, tangible results take effort.

Which is not to say you shouldn’t have some fighting words in your pocket to inspire when it is go time. I’m trying to say that catchy words are fine, but they don’t get the work done, so don’t get so lost in the memes, wallpaper or the “inspirations” aisle at the craft store that you forget to focus.

I mean, if you want to chant a phrase to get you fired up, get you off the couch and augment your inner motivation, then by all means!

I myself love to watch YouTube videos of tribal Maori doing a Haka dance. The strength and passion gets me fired UP to go out there and kick some butt.

I am not Maori so I try not to appropriate anyone’s culture, but I admit sometimes in the bathroom before a big presentation, I’ll stick my tongue out to my reflection in the mirror and make my best Haka face. AAAAGH!

Photo by Old Youth on Unsplash

Then I go out there and do the work. I stand tall and get it done. If I succeed or I fail, it wasn’t because of my affirmation phrases or my faces, but because I put in the time, dug deep, and did the work.

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

—–

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

Two Decades Later

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The year was 1998. I was a young professional, new to California, and working for a big company. The big company had just merged with another big company and the employees of neither company seemed to be happy about it.

There was a lot of rabble rabble about how we needed to do a better job partnering. How we should act like one company. The leadership wanted to take two companies, each with their own very strong corporate culture, and smash them together fast.

Phone calls were had. Terse emails were exchanged. And then leadership had an idea, as leadership tends to do.

Each site from both companies (we each had a lot of locations) were tasked to send an employee to visit the new headquarters. We were going to have a “team building” event. (I use the scare quotes purposefully, as they convey more than my words could do)

Being young and dumb and not smart enough to move faster when leadership wants to force a volunteer, I was designated to travel to represent our site. In hindsight, sending someone so green was probably a good way to show HQ just how much our site wasn’t going to play ball. But fine, okay. I’m not bad at making friends and I like to travel, so load up!

Headquarters was located in Virginia, so this girl from the west was handed a plane ticket headed east. My travel plans worked out where I had a day there on my own, and my hotel was located right by a Metro station, so lo and behold, I found my way on board and took my first trip into Washington D.C.

Washington D.C., capitol of these United States, home to an overwhelming number of things I’d read about in history books in school. After a short Metro ride, I found myself on the National Mall with eyes wide and a full day head.

The Ken Starr report had just been released, so there was a weird tension in the air. Every now and again, one or several black Suburbans with blacked out windows came hurtling up the streets with police escort. There were questions about things the leadership of our country did or did not do, and it was a weird time to be in D.C. But there I was.

I walked from one end of the Mall to the other. I started at the Lincoln Memorial and made my way uphill. For obvious reasons I couldn’t get near the Capitol Building, but got closer than I thought I would.

I saw a painting that I would never forget at the National Gallery of Art, saw the actual Star Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian, looked at buildings, statues, and items that I never imagined seeing all the while feeling very patriotic.

I enjoyed my time in D.C., but I also felt very out of place. I tend not to follow politics much and my memory for history is pretty terrible, so I felt like I stuck out like a hayseed. After a full day, I headed back to my hotel after a fun tourist day thinking that D.C. ain’t my kind of town, and I ain’t D.C.’s kind of girl anyway.

And that was that. Over the last two decades I’ve availed myself of Dulles Airport several times, as it’s a decent stop on the way to and from Europe, but haven’t spent any more time in D.C. itself.

All that changes next week as my job for a much smaller company has decided to send me eastward for training in support of my new job role.

I had thought this training was going to be a casual event, exchanging ideas, best practices, whatnot. Turns out it’s kind of a big deal and a VIP is scheduled to attend the event to give a talk. So yeah. New Mexico by way of California is going to D.C., and this time I get to stay at a hotel inside the Beltway, right in the heart of town.

This is happening just after yet another report is being released tomorrow with questions about some things the leadership of our country did or did not do. So that’s an odd parallel. A decade apart and politicians are still (allegedly) behaving badly. (no comment)

On this trip, however, I have a guide. A fixer. An inside person. One of my coworkers is also going to the training, and she used to live there. Used to work right where we’re going to be staying, and knows her way around. She’s originally from Texas, but we forgive such things. She’s promised to take me to her favorite restaurant for what she claims is a good local bourbon.

And suddenly Washington D.C. seems a lot more like my kind of town.

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Speaking of New Mexican’s in Washington D.C., here is a boost to Silver City native and fellow New Mexico expat Avelino Maestas. Hit that Instagram link to take a look at his gorgeous photography in and around Baltimore and surrounding areas.

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Though I will be staying near here, I think I have missed D.C.’s legendary cherry blossom explosion


Photo found from NBC Washington news site. Link here.




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