Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Killing machine

The Great Horned Owl is efficiently designed for the purpose of detecting and capturing prey. Not a single feature is wasted on anything other than that purpose. This particular owl was on display at the Nature Arboretum near Flagstaff, Arizona, and was being handled by an expert in large carniverous birds.

The eyes of the Great Horned Owl are large in relation to the size of its head. If a human’s eyes were of a similar size, they would be as large as softballs. The owl can see up to 100 times better in low light than humans. The forward-facing eyes also provide increased depth perception. The slightly concave disc of feathers that make up the bulk of the owl’s face funnels sounds into the bird’s ear canals, located just behind the eyes.

The ear openings are asymmetrically placed on the owl’s head, giving the bird a sense of three-dimensional hearing. When potential prey is spotted, the owl will bob his head up and down and from side to side, taking in sound from all directions as he triangulates the precise location of his next meal.

Once the owl has sized up his prey, he will swoop down in silence. Each feather on the owl’s wings have softened serrated edges and a fuzzy upper surface, muffling sound as the feathers move through the air.

An owl’s talons are also adapted for successful hunting. The outer toe on each foot can swivel back and forth, giving the owl the option to have two toes in the front and two toes in the back, providing a strong, even grip on its squirming prey.

Very clean, very efficient.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Ghost pictures

Yes, I know the lower right corner of this photo is fogged. That's what you get when you invade an unseen being's sacred space. I've seen it happen before. Let me explain.

My first job as a teenager was sales clerk in a camera shop. One day an old woman came in, a bit distraught. She had a package of photos and negatives with her and asked if we could make an enlargement from the extreme edges of a negative. She really wanted the special positioning of the print.

Before I could ask why, the woman explained that she lived alone in an old house with an old upright piano that was a family heirloom. Strange things would happen when the old woman approached the piano. Objects would move from a nearby table and fall to the floor. Sounds like footsteps would emanate nearby - the usual B-movie type stuff, I thought.

The old woman then added that photographs taken of or near the piano would sometimes be mysteriously fogged and occasionally reveal the apparition of a human form. She then showed me a photo of the piano with the lower right corner fogged a bit. I just assumed it was a problem with the camera’s flash or the classic finger-over-the-lens error. Then she showed me the negative.

At the edge of the negative frame, in the middle of the fogged area was clearly the image of a human face, its eyes wide open and mouth agape, staring straight into the camera. I turned to the store manager, who had been listening to my exchange with this customer, and before I could ask if we would reprocess the negative, received a terse, “No. We can’t do that.”

I knew full well that we could. We had a darkroom upstairs and could position a negative any way we wanted to in the carrier. For whatever reason, the manager just didn’t want to go there. I handed the photos and negatives back to the old woman and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am.” She sadly left the store.

Fast forward thirty years. I’m standing alone as evening falls over the high desert of Arizona, where 800 years earlier a people group lived their lives and buried their dead. I had come to photograph the ruins of the pueblos at the end of the day. I circled the largest pueblo, nicknamed “The Citadel” because it sits atop a bluff overlooking all of the other pueblos in the area, trying to angle a large cloud into the picture frame to my liking.

While tracking over the rocky terrain, I couldn’t help but wonder if the area around this particular pueblo and an adjacent crevasse was some type of sacred space for the people who lived here. I still wonder because I discovered, after I received the processed film, that all three frames I had shot of the pueblo from this angle were fogged in the lower right corner.

The photos on the negatives either side of this series were just fine, as were all other frames on the roll. It couldn’t have been a reflection from the fading sunlight on my lens or filter. The camera was angled away from the setting sun, and before the relatively long exposures, I had opened my jacket to shield the camera and tripod to steady them against a strong wind that blew in from the west, blocking any ambient light.

I've spent some time manipulating the corner of the photo, playing with levels and contast, even blurring and sharpening to see if anything - or anyone- might show up. Nothing so far.

Just kind of makes you go "Hmm." Happy Halloween.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

This was home

The rock walls of 800-year-old pueblos dot a desert landscape once home to thousands of people. This photo was taken in Wupatki National Monument northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona as the sun was setting.

Wupatki is adjacent to Sunset Crater National Monument and sits on a plain some 1500 feet below the volcanic domes. In the fading light, I wandered among the remains of the pueblos, absolutely alone in the Arizona high desert.

And I felt that this could be home.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Basalt and aspen leaf

The southwestern U.S. has a very violent history. I’m going way beyond the gunslinging days to its prehistoric past. Most of the states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado are what remains of a vast volcanic field. Most of the present landscape in this region is the result of eruptions, explosions, lava and ash and the erosion of those features over time.

On our recent road trip, my wife and I spent a morning exploring the Sunset Volcano Crater northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. An interpretive trail takes visitors through the basaltic rock formations of the crater.

A few hardy plants have made a go of it in the harsh rocky conditions of the crater. A nearby aspen tree was in full autumn bloom when I spotted this discarded leaf on the floor of the crater on a sheet of basaltic rock.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Boom and bust

I can only speak for the stretch of old Route 66 east of Flagstaff, Arizona, but the state with the most kicks along Route 66 would have to be Texas. Where else can you find leaning water towers, art deco diners, giant crosses and ten cadillacs buried nose first in a field in a line matching that of the Cheops pyramid in Egypt? Not too many places, I would venture.

At the same time, Texas has what I consider the saddest stretch of the old roadway. (Missouri has the kinkiest stretch; there must be a dozen billboards advertising adult book and video stores between Joplin and St. Louis, bringing new meaning to Missouri as the “Show Me” state, but I digress. Oklahoma wins for highest CPM – Casinos per mile – but I really have to get back on topic.)

The post-World War II travel boom made Route 66 a place of opportunity for entrepreneurs who sought ways to serve the growing number of travelers on the road and make a buck doing it. Unfortunately for many of them, the advent of the limited access highway in the late 1950s/early 1960s began to siphon off traffic. It was only a matter of time before the developing “get there quick” mindset of interstate travel combined with more and more highway business franchises to make mom-and-pop business survival untenable. Texas has a number of ghost towns or near-ghost towns visible from Interstate 40, the successor of Route 66.

I snapped a few pictures in the business district graveyard of Wildorado, Texas. Wildorado is a thriving farming and ranching community, but let’s just say its commercial zone has long since seen better days.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

On the south rim

I love this picture. One, because my wife is in it, and two, because she saw it first. We were heading back to the car after having taken the two previous pictures when we saw the twilight sky through a frame of trees and an old fortress at the overlook at the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

I remarked that the color of the sky was very nice, and planned to keep going. She asked, “Do you need a person in the photo?” After a second’s thought, I answered, “Yes,” and began to set up my tripod. She walked over to the large rock and asked, “Here?” It was perfect. I framed the shot and made two exposures. The whole thing took maybe three minutes.

Sometimes things just come together like that.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Canyon colors

Another view of the Grand Canyon, shortly after the sun had set. Harsh shadows were gone and the flat lighting brought out the colors of the canyon walls.

Taken about 15 minutes after sunset. 30 seconds at f22, ISO 100 film.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

South Rim sunset

The thing about the Grand Canyon that surprised me the most on my first trip there was the range of color I was able to capture. I purposely avoided taking pictures during the day, since the bright sun would create contrast problems. Instead, I hoped the flatter, more even light of late day/early evening would afford better opportunities for striking images.

The flat light that emerged as the sun slid below the rim of the canyon seemed to awaken a range of blues and magentas that I had not anticipated. I took a number of long exposures long after the late afternoon crowd of tourists had left the Devil's Den overlook.

I’m trusting my memory since I shoot with film and my camera doesn’t capture any exposure information with my shots. I believe this shot was at ½ or 1 second at f22 with a graduated neutral density filter to even out the tones of the sky and canyon walls.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Phoenix panorama

This photo is best viewed larger. Click on the picture to enlarge it. The Phoenix area got a lot of rain last weekend while my wife and I were there. It's autumn and the weather is wetter than usual.

Before heading north to Flagstaff and connecting with old Route 66, we hiked partway up Lookout Mountain, one of several peaks in the Phoenix metro area. From there, we got a panoramic view of the city and a bank of storm clouds blanketing the area in the early morning hour.

This is stitched together from two photographs.

Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Road trip completed

Just got back from a week-long drive across the country. My wife and I flew to Phoenix, Arizona on business late last week, then rented a car and drove back to the Chicago area, more or less along the historic Route 66. I say more or less because much of it no longer exists, having been replaced by a series of interstate highways in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

What’s left of the fabled roadway parallels most of the modern Interstates 40, 44 and 55, appearing as a frontage road along the main highway or a snippet of roadway preserved by local municipalities. Purists can access turn-by-turn directions to access every last vestige of the road bed, but I chose to adopt a close-enough-is-good-enough approach to the trip.

So in the days ahead, I’ll share some photos taken along the way and offer some perspective gained from long hours driving across America.

Photo: Classic car show, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Color desaturation, vignetting and blur added. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Storms and travel

Got our first snow of the season today. Several squalls passed through today. Just a dusting of snow that melted quickly, but an indication of things to come.

My wife and I are off to explore the sunny(er) and warm(er) western U.S. for a few days. We're flying to Pheonix, then driving back to Chicago along the remains of Route 66 (more or less).

Of course I'm taking the camera with me.

Storm off Racine, Wisconsin. Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

By lunar light #2

Another photo of the beach at Evanston, Illinois using the full moon as my only light source. The tricky thing about doing night photography is that you can't really see exactly what you're doing. You can't see to focus. I thought I had a small flashlight that I could use to illuminate a piling or a rock so I could use my split screen viewfinder to focus, but it was not there. So I shot most of these by estimating the distance to what I was trying to focus on, then using the distance scale on my lens to approximate the distance and hoping that the wide angle lens and small f-stop would give me enough margin for error. The focus is admittedly soft on this one. It may have been my blind focusing, or it may have been that my tripod settled in the beach sand over the course of the 360-second exposure.

But it's still an interesting image. The foot-tall breakers of the lake were reduced to a smooth misty plane by the length of the exposure. And I still can't get over the blueness of the night sky. Some vignetting added for effect.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Night beacon

As Chicago grew in prominence as a shipping port in the late 1800s, it became apparent that a navigational beacon was needed to guide vessels around the large point of land north of the city. The Grosse Point Lighthouse in Evanston was put into service in 1873.

Now a secondary aid to navigation with the advent of electronic positioning devices, the second order fresnel lens, the largest on the Great Lakes, continues to send its beam into the night.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Monday, October 09, 2006

By lunar light

This photograph was taken two and a half hours after sunset. It is lit completely by moonlight. The amazing thing to me is that the colors of the day are still there in the dark, our eyes just can’t see them in the diminished light. I guess I should know that, but experience tells me the night sky is black, not blue. But 480 seconds of exposure on film tells otherwise.

That misty stuff is the rolling waves of Lake Michigan. In the distance is the pier from the last couple of photos posted. The pinkish glow on the horizon to the left are from lights in the city of Wilmette, Illinois.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

That silver shell

Beauty is a form of genius - is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts in the world like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark water of that silver shell we call the moon.

- Oscar Wilde

Thus I present this portrait of the moonlit night off the beach of Evanston without comment.

Taken with a 35mm-70mm zoom lens set at about 50mm, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter. 300 seconds at f22, 100 ISO film. Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

This time, I’m ready

Back in June, I wrote about how a moonrise photo expedition had gone wrong. I had miscalculated both the time and the location of the moonrise and had to settle for a couple of quickly composed frames without the foreground I was looking for. Ah, well.

Last night was the arrival of the harvest moon. A check on a weather Web site showed that the moonrise and sunset would occur within 17 minutes of each other, giving enough light to catch foreground details while providing for an exposure time that would not overexpose the moon.

Having been to the beach at Evanston, Illinois the week before, I wanted to return to a relic pier that stretched into Lake Michigan, and having been there at sunrise, I had a good idea of where the moon would make its appearance.

I set up my camera on a tripod on the rocky beach, framed the pilings and waited for the star of the picture to arrive. And arrive it did- on time and in position. All I had to do was not mess it up inside the camera.

Moonrise over Lake Michigan at Evanston, Illinois. 135mm prime lens, circular polarizer and 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, 30 seconds at f16, 100 ISO film. Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

It’s the cows: A news website in Sweden picked up one of my photos to accompany a story on a milk producer that distributed milk tainted with bacteria. I post photos at Flickr with a Creative Commons license that allows reproduction with attribution. I guess Tennessee cows look like Swedish cows.

Empty beach

The first thing that greets visitors to the beach in Evanston, Illinois is a large sign informing that the beach is officially closed. Summer has faded into autumn. The bright light and colors are now muted. The crowds are gone.

The skies last weekend over the Lake Michigan shoreline provided a variety of moods, as the last several posts here have shown. Glad I decided to go to the beach.

Taken with 35mm lens, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter. 1/60 at f3.5, 100 ISO. Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


At one time, a long pier serviced the ships coming into the port of Evanston, Illinois. But somehow along the way, the need for a port at Evanston diminished and the pier eventually gave way to the elements depicted here - the ever-flowing water of lake Michigan and the ever-changing atmosphere.

The water still flows and the atmosphere still shifts and morphs. And both continue their slow consumption of something that used to be important.

Taken with 35mm lens, 1 second at f22, 100 ISO film. Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Colors of autumn

The autumn colors in northern Illinois leave somewhat to be desired. We don't get sweeping vistas of blazing colors here. I have to travel elsewhere to see those. Mostly, the landscape fades to yellowish-brown, then the leaves fall off the trees.

We do get the occasional overachiever tree, like this one and the one pictured above. They're the individual ornamental trees selected and planted precisely because they do color in the fall. The tree above is located on the grounds of a church in Woodstock, Illinois. My wife and I passed through the town on our way home from Wind Point, where we witnessed the storm sequence pictured in the last several posts.

I hope to get out for some of those sweeping vista shots in the weeks ahead.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Calm after the storm

The approaching storm depicted in yesterday's post unleashed itself moments after I snapped the shutter, prompting a dash to our car. My wife and I waited for 20 minutes or so while wind and rain pounded the area around Wind Point.

After the storm passed, I ventured out again, circling the lighthouse and taking pictures from all angles of the now-lit tower and receding clouds.

The day's storms were now over and the curtain of clouds had drawn back to reveal the calm that existed beyond the storm the entire time.

Storm quotes
After a storm comes a calm.
Matthew Henry, 18th-century theologian and a master of the obvious when he stated this.

It doesn't matter what people say about me. I weather the storm.
Terrell Owens, oblivious to the fact the storm is usually of his own making.

Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn't people feel as free to delight in whatever remains to them?
Rose Kennedy, who weathered as many storms as anyone.

Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

For what it's worth
This is post number 500 on Points of Light. I've been at this for 17 months, which in internet-years is about a decade. There are a lot of photos here. Feel free to browse the archives.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


While my wife and I took in the view of a line of storms over Lake Michigan (yesterday's post) at Wind Point, this is what was brewing behind us. The day's weather had one more punch left and we were about to receive it.

I quickly set up the shot with my camera on a tripod. While I calculated the exposure, my wife grabbed the camera bag and headed for the car. I shot four frames. Immediately the wind picked up and great big drops of rain began to fall from the sky, accompanied by the low growl of thunder.

I grabbed the tripod and began a sprint to the car. It was only a couple of days later that I realized that the metal tripod would have made a dandy lightning rod.

We waited out the storm in the car. When it was over, I ventured out again to catch the Wind Point light and the calm post-storm sky.

That photo tomorrow.

Click on picture to enlarge - you can almost hear nature's snarl. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Storm over Lake Michigan

A series of storms hammered Wisconsin and Illinois yesterday, striking one after another, then drifting out over Lake Michigan. My wife and I arrived at Wind Point, north of Racine, Wisconsin, as the latest storm moved out over the water on its way to Michigan.

We arrived with the intent of getting some sunset shots of the lighthouse at Wind Point. I had taken a number of images of the moody sky over the lake throughout the day as we traveled up the lakeshore from our home in suburban Chicago.

I remember thinking that I was glad that I could safely watch this storm from a distance as I captured a number of shots of the roiling clouds, thick walls of rain, and for a brief time, a segment of a rainbow as the moisture retreated from the afternoon sun.

After a while, we turned our attention to the lighthouse behind us to begin to plan how we would set up for the sunset shot. We soon saw that there was at least one more storm in the day's arsenal.

That photo will be posted tomorrow.

This panorama is best viewed at the large size. Click on picture to enlarge. Photograph © 2006 James Jordan.