Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Red-eyed fly

Red-eyed fly

Up until now, I've been unable to get a real decent shot of a fly. It seems the weight of my glance is enough to send one airborne -- as soon as I spot one, it takes off. This one was an exception. I spotted it on top of a tall plant about five feet away while walking through the Paul Wolff Forest Preserve near Elgin, Illinois.

I took my time moving into position and slowly pushed the camera ever closer. The fly came into focus and I fired, but the fly was turned more face-on to me and I really wanted a side view, so I came at it again. The fly turned sideways while I focused, then froze. Got it.

I am continually amazed at the level of intricate detail in the macro world.

I'm also pretty happy with my lighting setup, which delivers a nice dose of soft flash on the subject while maintaining a minus one to two stop exposure on the ambient. Makes the shots more dramatic that way. And it's all done with a 25-year-old flash unit, a cheap bracket and duct tape.

Pretty fly for an old white guy.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Twisted thoughts on a Monday morning

Walking a crooked mile

The past several days have been pretty rough on 50-year-old guys. First Michael Jackson, then Billy Mays came to a sudden stop. Maybe I would not have thought much about it had I not been a 50-year-old guy myself. But I am and I did.

What I have been thinking about is how fine a line exists between creative genius and insanity. The very thing that causes creatives to think differently from everyone else causes them to think differently than everyone else. Those who are comfortable thinking the same as everyone else generally labels that type of thinking as “weird.”

Would Michael or Billy have made the same kind of impact in their lines of work if they thought and behaved like everyone else? I doubt it.

The same-thinking crowd recognizes that creativity is valuable. That’s why they make reference to it frequently in conferences, staff meetings and on job descriptions. The truth is, if they were to experience the full force of a truly creative person, it would scare them to death. Real “thinking outside the box” changes the box forever, and very few people are comfortable with that prospect.

Instead, most organizations practice a sort of “safe creativity” – push the envelope, but not too far, the result of which is still homogenized with everything else that organization ever did; a unique shade of beige perhaps, but beige nonetheless.

I’ve never been happy with beige. I like bold strokes of color. Extreme contrasts. Paths that take unusual turns. Stuff that 90 percent of everyone else would never have thought of doing, or if they had thought of doing it, not doing it for fear of being labeled “weird.” I guess that makes me weird.

OK, I’ll take it.

Photograph © 2008 James Jordan; licensed by Getty Images.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cat on white background

Cat on white

The title pretty much says it all.

My daughter's cat, Boomer, doing a little face preening after finishing the kitty treat that was used to lure her onto the white photo backdrop.

Hope your weekend is filled with lots of little tasty bits. Have a good one.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

After the storm

Mountain or molehill?

From last weekend's storms that rolled through northern Illinois. I was out hoping to catch some lightning/storm cloud photos, but the storm caught me first. I hunkered in my car until the rains let up, then got a few pictures of the clouds clearing out.

Top photo: Pile of dirt and gravel at a construction site near Elgin, Illinois. Below: utility pole and storm clouds near Elgin.

Electric storm

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A coupla more bugz

Itza bug

Don't know why, but this bug made me think of the actor who played Officer Murray in TV's The Odd Couple.

Just hangin' 2

This one looks like a cross between a gymnast and a zucchini as it hangs by one leg from its web waiting for a hapless schmuck to come along (the photographer doesn't count).

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009



The nasty end of a male earwig. Males tend to have larger, curved pinchers while females' pinchers are shorter and straighter.

These nocturnal critters are on a continual search for water and damp places and can squeeze into the smallest areas. They'll follow exterior water pipes into houses and they loooove basements.

They rarely do so, but earwigs are capable of flight. I once had one buzz around my head as I sat near a light one summer evening. It then flew down my shirt collar and delivered a couple of pinches to my neck before I gave it the ultimate pinch.

Using the extremely shallow depth of field of my lens reversal macro setup to advantage here.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Mmmmm ... blood

Mmmmm ... blood

They're heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere! A mama skeeter tanks up on some O-positive so she can make some more skeeters. We've had lots of rain over the past several weeks here in northern Illinois. Now we have the by-product of all that moisture -- mosquitoes are beginning to emerge. And they're hungry.

I was out looking for insects to photograph over the weekend and several mosquitoes found me first. This one was tapped into my elbow and was nicely engorged when I discovered her.

I had my macro rig with me, but it's heavy (camera, two lenses, metal bracket and flash unit) and requires two hands to keep it steady (one to hold it and the other to trip the shutter). Since one hand was unavailable, I set the self timer and moved the camera into position within the ten second time frame, resting it on my upper arm to steady it and get a low angle on the blood-sucking bug.

No mosquitoes were harmed in the making of this photo. After I had snapped a couple of shots, I flicked her off my arm and headed home. No sense making a mess.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Storm over the meadow

Storm over the meadow

Storms are rolling across northern Illinois today, bringing wind, rain, lightning, hail and the threat of tornadoes. This storm moved across northern Kane County and southern McHenry County about 9:30 this morning. Rotation within the storm caused the National Weather Service to issue a tornado warning, which was recalled within a few minutes.

I saw the storm approaching via weather radar on the internet and went out to meet it with camera in hand. I couldn't get a good view of this particular storm cell other than a shelf of clouds along the intake area. But it did produce a pretty good lightning show as it passed.

More storms headed this way. We'll see about getting more pictures.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.



Gossamer wings that will fly no more. Tyler Creek Forest Preserve, Elgin, Illinois.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

And the anther is ...


... the part of a flower that produces pollen. Usually found atop the stamen.

This is the stamen and pollen-coated anther of a red lily that had just opened up for business in my backyard. More closeup macro goodness via lens reversal and off camera flash, which creates a portable mini photo studio approximately one cubic inch in size. All the better to capture the marvelous details of our world that escape our attention each day.

Tech info: ISO 400, f/16 at 1/125th with flash on a bracket bounced through a diffuser. Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Just call him "Hub"

Just call me "Hub"

Long spindly legs converge on the compact body of a harvestman, also known as a "daddy longlegs" spider. Technically, the harvestman is not a spider due to the lack of discernible segments on its body. It does not spin a web, has no venom and only has two eyes, located on a small dark "turret" on its back, which you can see between the first two legs closest to the camera. The harvestman is a hunter and scavenger, using two small forelegs, seen above held close to its body, to grasp prey and stuff it into its mouth.

This guy was chilling on a leaf under a leaf. It took some doing to move the covering leaf aside and get the lens in position to get a nice portrait of this critter from somewhat of a side angle.

I keep both eyes open when moving the lens into position to shoot small subjects. As I slowly move in on the subject, the left eye helps me navigate the camera to keep the subject in the center of the lens (and to make sure the subject hasn't run or flown off before I get there), the right eye keeps tabs on the image forming in the viewfinder until I begin to discern a dark spot appearing in the haze, which is (hopefully) the subject. Then I close my left eye and concentrate on getting the blurry spot in focus.

Needless to say, you have to not mind putting your face within six inches of a spider or other creepy crawler to get these kinds of pictures.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don't know much about bugs ...

Sith bug

… but I am getting better at photographing them. If Darth Vader could be a bug, he’d probably look a lot like this bug. This guy was found perched on a leaf at the Hawthorne Hills Nature Center in Elgin, Illinois. I can’t ID the species (still Googling), so if any entomologists are reading this, let me know what I’ve photographed here.

The weird thing is, when I’m out making bug pictures, I don’t know what I’ve photographed until I get home and begin to look through the images on the memory card. There is so much concentration involved in getting into position, not scaring the bug away (for some reason bugs get nervous when a huge object comes within a fraction of an inch away – go figure), then working to get the focus just right –the only way to adjust is to slowly move the camera closer or farther from the subject a smidgeon at a time – and then I’m only concentrating on the bug’s eyes – if I have them in focus, then I figure the rest of the picture follows. All I know at the time is that I’ve got some good images of bug eyes. I have no idea what the rest of the bug looks like until I study my shots later.

Bug photo tip: it’s very tempting to shoot down at a bug. Don’t do it if you can help it. Do whatever you can to come at the bug from the side (I look for insects on foliage that’s between waist and shoulder height to make the task easier). For one thing, coming in from the side is less scary for the bug (they have feelings too, you know), the second thing is that you’ll get a nice profile shot with the subject separated from whatever it’s perched upon.

Making the ranks Chase Jarvis reports on one organization’s attempt to ascertain the top 20 photography blogs on the interwebs. He links to the organization's site which compiled the rankings along with various Top 50 lists in twenty metrics-related categories.

Interesting that Points of Light cracks the Top 50 numbers-wise (but is not listed) in seven of the twenty categories. Makes me wonder how they categorized photography blogs and how accurate the counters are (both theirs and mine).

At any rate, there are some very good photo blogs listed, many that I visit on occasion. Check them out.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, June 15, 2009

More small stuff -- Meet Katy

Katy 2

A katydid nymph hangs out while cleaning its antenna. Taken in my backyard. I'm continuing with lens reversal and off-camera flash technique to delve into the world of small. At the moment, Katy is all of a quarter inch long. She'll grow. I'll try to document her growth, although it will become more difficult to approach her as she matures.

More small stuff to come this week, mainly insects, some extreme floral details, and -- you've been warned -- there will be a spider pic; a massively cool shot of a daddy longlegs.

Today is Nature Photography Day here in the U.S. The twin goals of establishing such a day are to promote photography and conservation. So, if you can, step outside your home, your cubicle, whatever, appreciate the natural world around you, and if you have a camera, use it.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sweating the small stuff

Bug portrait

There's an alternate universe right under our noses that doesn't often get our attention. Yeah, there's the bigness of outer space. As Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe put it,

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

But space goes on infinitely in both directions. If you turn in the opposite way, you encounter a world of bigness on a small scale. Fantastic, exotic creatures and landscapes are everywhere, disguised as ordinary plants and insects.

I've been messing about with macro photography over the past week and had some limited success with using closeup filters on a lens zoomed at 200mm. But that's just peanuts compared to what I came up with yesterday. Lens reversal. I had experimented with it before and gotten some OK results, but abandoned it because it's tough to use the technique in available light.

Yesterday the thought occurred to me to combine lens reversal with flash. So ... I put a 50mm prime lens on my Nikon DSLR, then placed another 50mm prime lens on the first lens with the rear element facing out then taped the lenses securely together. A half-inch area now becomes a 10 megapixel image, with sharpness across nearly the entire image plane.

I attached a flash, outfitted with a reflector and diffuser, onto a bracket grip, then oriented everything to rain soft light down toward the end of the lens, which must be placed a fraction of an inch from the subject (which is why shooting available light is so tough -- the lens blocks most of the light). I opened the reversed lens to full aperture and set the normally mounted lens to f/16. Shutter speed was dialed to to 1/125th, camera set to ISO 400 and I set off to explore the world of small.

This photo was taken while walking through a local forest preserve. The bug was standing on the tassels of some grass. I moved in with the camera very slowly and fired as the bug's head came into focus. If anyone can help me ID this insect (and subsequent insects yet to be posted) I'd appreciate it.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hi, I'm from Michigan

Michigan leaf

In addition to marking another passing year of marriage, June is the month in which I moved my family to Illinois from Michigan, where I spent the first 32 years of my life. This June marks 18 years in the Land of Lincoln, although I don't think Honest Abe would be especially pleased with the place were he to visit these days, but I digress.

We all know about the economic troubles of the state. They've always been a part of the fabric. Michigan always seemed to be the first state to feel the effects when the economy soured. We were used to seeing the storm clouds roll in, and just as used to doing what we had to do until the storm passed.

My father introduced me to the incredible natural beauty of Michigan. Our family took summer vacation trips that, over time, crisscrossed the state and took us around the circumference of the state's shoreline on the Great Lakes. Together, we hiked woods, explored beaches, investigated the remains of Michigan's glacial history and ate a lot of s'mores.

Since the move to Illinois, Michigan has continued to dialog with my family via its tourism commercials. We'd see or hear one occasionally throughout the years and I'd think to myself, been there, done that, loved it.

A couple of years ago, the commercials took an abrupt turn. Instead of the upbeat, happy-happy invitations to explore the state, a poignant piano and orchestral score underlaid a voice that was at the same time new and familiar, reminding us about things we might have lost along the way and suggesting how to reclaim them via a visit to Michigan.

I've admired the commercials. The writing, the voice, the music. For three years, I produced and wrote a one-minute daily radio program for a non-profit organization. I admit that those Pure Michigan commercials were an influence on how I wrote many of the 400 spots I produced.

It was only recently that I had to know more about the Pure Michigan commercials -- the agency, the score, and especially the voiceover guy. He was so good at what he does, but why hadn't I heard him doing other commercials?

Okay, so the answers ... McCann-Erickson (always a powerhouse ad agency in the state), the Main Titles theme from the film The Cider House Rules and the biggest surprise for me ... Tim Allen, a fellow Michiganian whose voice is nearly unrecognizable from his Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor/Buzz Lightyear personas.

Those ads are like a postcard from home, a spot of sunlight for a guy who still points to a place on his upraised right hand when asked what part of the state he's from.

Photograph (taken near Kalamazoo) © 2009 James Jordan.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Cascade of time

Cascade of time

Like a river, time flows over our rocky exteriors, forging an imperceptible constant of change as the seasons pass one by one. Every so often we pause to take stock of those changes, celebrate the good, learn from the bad and marvel at the speed with which the cascade has passed.

Thirty one years ago today, a couple of kids with heads full of dreams joined each other to tackle the rapids together. I'm happy to say those two are still together, ready to face what awaits on our 32nd trip around the sun.

And we're still dreaming.

Happy anniversary, dear.

Photo: Greeter Falls, near Altamont, Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau. Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Film revisited


Got my first batch of pics back from the trusty old Canon Canonet that was gifted to me (I used to abhor nouns used as verbs, but now I think it's a simply cromulent way of embiggening the English language -- just don't get me started on apostrophe abuse).

Where was I? Oh, yeah, the Canonet, a 1970s vintage rangefinder camera. Its history with me started as a footnote to this blog entry. Had a frozen shutter which I was able to unfroze. Filled it with Acros black and white film and shot about half the roll before realizing that Acros has to be developed in B/W chemicals, not C-41 color, like TMax film. Nobody nearby does straight B/W anymore (and this is Chicago we're talking about). I'm considering buying some developing equipment and doing it myself, like I used to long long ago in a darkroom far far away.


In the meantime, I slapped in a roll of Fujicolor Sensia (slide film), which I had cross processed in C-41 at good old Walgreen's. I discovered that Sensia does not take as well to cross processing the way a higher end film like Velvia might. Sigh. Some color desaturation and fiddling with levels in Photoshop rescued some images.


During the couple of weeks it took me to shoot up the roll of film, I played a game of me vs the camera. I let the camera pick the exposure on half the shots. I chose the rest, based on a decade of experience shooting film. I won. The Canonet tends toward overexposure. A lot. It could be the age of the camera. It could be that the modern battery discharges more juice than batteries in the 70s, making the electric eye hyperactive. Anyway, I'll trust my own judgement from here on out.

Birch foliage

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Bugging out


I was taking some trash out to the bin behind my garage yesterday when I saw a rather interesting looking bug. After I dropped the trash in the bin, I told the bug not to move and I ran inside to get my camera. I placed a +7 stack of closeup filters on a 55-200mm zoom and headed back out. The bug graciously had stayed put, so I took several shots in the available daylight, but none of which made me happy.

The problem was that even with the ISO pumped up, I couldn't get a shutter speed fast enough to counteract the shake from hand holding the camera. The extremely shallow depth of field from a wide open aperture also made it hard to focus. I ran back inside and attached a flash bracket to the camera and oriented the bracket and the adjustable flash head to train the light just past the end of the lens, then headed back out.

The flash allowed me to shoot at a more respectable ISO setting (200) at a very small aperture (f32). The shutter speed almost became a non-factor and I was able to capture several insects fairly easily. You almost wouldn't know that all of these photos were taken with a flash.

Fly with a gasmask
Fly with gas mask

The only thing that bugs me (sorry) is that the closeup filters are really no match for a dedicated macro lens, of which I have none, and don't have the thousand dollars or so needed to acquire one. The 200mm/filters combo gets me closer than I've ever been able to get to a bug, but I pay for it in color fringing away from the center of the photo. Since my whole compositional game is to place subjects off-center, that doesn't bode well. I suppose I could partially solve the problem by backing off a bit or shooting larger bugs.

Fly with back hair

Speaking of larger bugs, I was in a garden center earlier this spring and came across packages of praying mantis eggs. The idea is that the mantises will hatch out in the garden, then eat all manner of pests throughout the summer. I picked up a package -- as much for future photo opportunities as insect control. The package consists of an egg case (about the size of a golf ball) in a plastic net, which is hung in a secure place in the garden until the eggs hatch. The label assured me that approximately 300 mantises will hatch out once the outdoor temperature remains consistently above 75 degrees, which, with the looney weather we've had lately, has yet to occur.

Stay tuned.

Macro focusing tip: If you're shooting super closeup shots and can't use a tripod, try this: lock the focus on your camera and rock slowly back and forth while framing your subject in the viewfinder. Your photo will go in and out of focus while you are rocking. Press the shutter just as the subject comes into focus.

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Trying to tell me something?

I was cut off in traffic the other day by a woman driving a minivan with this bumper sticker on it. Either she desires a world of impatient, pushy drivers, or she desires a world full of people who do not mind that she is an impatient pushy driver.

Or maybe she just borrowed the minivan and doesn't care much about changing anything.

Facade of justice

Hall of justice

The Grundy County Courthouse in Altamont, Tennesee sits on a high point on the Cumberland Plateau, making the structure visible from a distance as you approach from the west. The imposing building is a stark contrast to the small houses, farms and shacks that line state highway 108.

These classic ornate columns were put in place in the mid 1990s when the courthouse was rebuilt following a fire. The original courthouse was built in the late 1800s. The inset photo shows the courthouse from the front lawn at dusk.

As imposing as those in the county government would like the presence of justice to be perceived, stories of corruption within the local law enforcement agencies are common, making the facade of the house of justice just that -- a facade.

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Now appearing in cosmo


A frilly little number with flowing fabric and understated color -- elegant in its simplicity, from a top-name designer.

Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Romancing the rust

South Shore & South Bend Railroad car #14

At the Fox Valley Trolley Museum in South Elgin, Illinois, South Shore & South Bend Railway car number 14 slowly oxidizes along with a number of other relics from the days when inter-urban travel by rail gave folks a reason to keep the cars maintained.

What is it about people that causes us to hang onto stuff long after its usefullness has past? I have a basement full of things that I haven't used in years, but can't find it within myself to ditch them. Why is there romance in the rust and dust?

Five images taken with circular polarizer and combined in Photomatix Pro. Photograph © 2009 James Jordan.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Up a tree

Up and away

Each year, our local public works department holds an open house at its facilities on the edge of town. Residents can tour the facilities, see all the big machines purchased with their tax dollars, learn a little about the scope of responsibilities of the department and participate in some hands-on (or feet-on) activities, like climbing a tree with a harness and pulley system.

I went to get some photos of big machines, but they were all parked inside the facility, which was designed for storage, not photography.

I did hang around the tree climbing exhibition for a bit and photographed one lad getting outfitted, instructed and hoisted. These pictures were all shot wide angle, which meant that "photographer behind camera is closer than he appears."

Getting instructions

I picked up the "act like you belong here taking photos" mode of shooting from working with some news photographers a dozen years ago. It comes in handy when you want to get into peoples' faces with a camera. I don't do it often, but have never been challenged about it. I sometimes get asked which newspaper I'm working for, and I just answer, "I'm a freelancer," which usually satisfies the asker's curiosity.


The lighting under the tree was a horrific mix of shade and sun with a bright parking lot and sky beyond just begging to be blown out, so I opted to shoot the photos as dark as I dared, then later processed the photos into separate exposures which were combined in high density range software, which imparted an illustration-like quality to the images.

Photographs © 2009 James Jordan.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Make a wish

Helping nature along (alternate crop)

This shot was tacked onto the end of a photo session. I had just finished some family backlit/shade poses when inspiration hit as I spied some dandelions close by. Not just little run-of-the-mill dandelion seed heads, but big huge puffy ones, ripe and ready to fly.

I don't normally advocate shooting in open sunlight at midday (or even propagating the spread of pesky weeds) but this was too good to pass up. I knew that the only way to capture the flying tufts would be in bright sunlight against a shaded background. A willing volunteer provided the wind power. Post processing with shadow lightening helped cut the contrast to an acceptable level.

This is definitely something I have to include for every family portrait shoot from now on. Or maybe soap bubbles. Yeah, bubbles. Note to self: Buy small bottles of bubbles to keep in camera bag.

If you try this at home, use a long lens/zoom in. Set your aperture wide open to throw the background out of focus, which will also increase the shutter speed to help freeze the action, although I like the slight motion blur of the seeds in this shot. Then make a wish.

It just might come true.