We have attempted to supplement the written narrative in all the blog posts that have appeared on this site with a meaningful photograph. The effectiveness of a visual image to help the reader interpret and relate to written content cannot be overstated and is the primary communication technique in many genres such as photojournalism. But examples in three recent Soggy Bottom posts raise the value of the photographic image beyond photojournalism to a level that makes it an absolutely essential mechanism for conveying the narrative.
An obvious example is in the blog post on our use of trail cameras by which images of normally unseen animals are captured by the surreptitious, always picture-ready camera (Trail Camera, July 15). Trail cameras function as an ancillary set of eyes that allow animals and events in nature to be seen that would otherwise be invisible. The more that trail cameras are used, the more that is seen and, consequently, the more that is learned about unobserved events in nature. However, you just can’t stick a camera anywhere and expect to record images of value. You need to understand what and where animals are likely to occur and what they may likely be doing at these places in order to get meaningful results. This understanding only comes from long-term use of the cameras with attendant successes and failures coupled with an astute sense for interpreting what you find in the images and what you know about the animals. There would be nothing to say about these animals and their antics if it wasn’t for the trail camera images.
The second example is in the blog post on swallows where a modern mirrorless camera allowed fast action sequences, normally too quick to be clearly visualized by the unaided eye, to be frozen in time and observed as a remarkably detailed static image (Swallows, July 8). As a long-time admirer of the grace and beauty of flying swallows and of the exquisite control they exert as they turn on a dime in the air, I was mesmerized by the actions of these birds as they hunted the air space over Soggy Bottom meadows. The challenge was to relate this admiration to the readers of this blog. Everything that the swallow does is done at high speed and is barely discernible to the naked eye. The equation changed when I purchased the modern camera that allowed adjustment of exposure parameters, including shutter speed, and allowed burst mode shooting of 10 frames per second. With a complimentary lens, I set the camera on a tripod in the barn and focused on the barn door opening that the swallows used to enter and exit the barn. Wow! I obtained pictures of form, shape, and posture that revealed grace and beauty that went well beyond anything I had previously seen or imagined. And, I am pleased to share these images with the readers of this blog.
This ability of the camera to freeze an instant in time during rapidly-occurring action was further used to reveal and demonstrate the steps followed by a parent swallow when it fed recently fledged chicks. Suddenly, things that occurred right before our eyes like the placement of a captured insect morsel into the open maw of a chick were newly revealed through the frozen-in-time, camera images.
To further demonstrate the value of the camera’s ability to capture a frozen instant, I took pictures of hovering hummingbirds feeding on flowers. The wingbeat frequency of a hovering hummingbird is on the order of 80 times per second – far too fast for the human eye to discern features of wing motion. The image of the wing obtained by the unaided eye is just a blur. Approximation of this naked-eye, real-time image is presented in the accompanying photographic sequence (Sequence 1) taken with a shutter speed of 1/60 second. This is about the limit for humans to form a static image in the mind’s eye; any movement during that 1/60 second is perceived as a blur and the fast-moving hummingbird wing moves appreciably during 1/60 second.
Photo Sequence 1
But the camera can freeze an image of this fast-moving wing by exposing the sensor to a much briefer instant of time. In the rapid-shutter photo sequence (Sequence 2), the shutter was open only for 1/8000 second during which the hummingbird wing moved very little. The result was a reasonably sharp image of the wing showing fine detail of wing position and feather pattern. With this sharp detail, wing motion can be analyzed and, indeed, we were able to detect rotational twists of the wing during upstrokes and downstrokes. It is this rotational twist while the wing is beating up and down that allows the hummingbird to hover and, even, to fly backward, feats that no other bird can perform. Thus, the camera reveals fast-action mechanisms that explain the amazing and unique flying ability of the hummingbird – mechanisms that cannot be discerned with the unaided eye. With both the swallow and hummingbird examples, freezing an instant in time during a fast-action sequence is a valuable dimension that photography adds to the nature narrative.
Photo Sequence 2
The third example is enhanced observation of subjects at a distance as demonstrated in the post on insect-eating birds working the small space under a clump of cottonwood trees in the pasture (Micro-habitat, July 12). The insect eater that drew my attention to this space was a small, grey, nondescript bird that perched on a branch in that space and repeatedly sallied forth to catch nearby flying insects. I didn’t know the identity of the bird. I set up the camera with the telephoto lens and focused on the bird’s perching spot. I took the captured images, displayed them on the big computer screen, and opened the bird book to the section on flycatchers. The photos were so crisp and detailed on the enlarged screen that I was able to match feature by feature in the photograph with the identifying feature description in the bird book; the bird was a Western Wood-pewee. I could not have identified that bird without the photographs. Without the bird’s identity, there was less to be said about what was going on in the air space under the cottonwood trees.
(Valuable telephoto pictures were also featured in the post: Apex Predator, July 5)
In essence, through the camera and its ability to clarify and expand images of subjects at a distance, we are able to observe nature with the visual acuity of an eagle - an eagle’s visual acuity is roughly 5-8 x that of a human. To demonstrate the advantage of enhanced visual acuity, I show pictures of rabbits coming out of the brambles to feed on Soggy Bottom grass in the evening. The first picture in the sequence was taken with the lens set at the standard 50 mm focal length – equivalent to unenhanced visualization by the naked eye. In the second picture, the lens focal length was changed to enhance visual acuity 3x. In the third picture, the lens was changed to produce a 12x enhancement. And, in the fourth picture, the lens was changed to produce a 24x enhancement. Thus, the camera, with the current telephoto lenses enables nature to be viewed with greater visual acuity than is possessed even by an eagle!
Photo Sequence 3
Look at the eye of the rabbit in the 24x enhanced photo and tell me that that image does not give you a more intimate insight into the animal than the unenhanced photo. One gets closer to the animal’s soul and achieves a closer connection to natural details through the visually-enhanced photos.
Missing from the above is mention of the role of video in telling nature stories. In our blog series, video was used to tell stories of the Sharp-shinned hawk catching a towhee in the plum tree virescence (Little Story····, Jan 22), of the coyote catching a shrew in the pasture grass (Small Mammals, Mar 10), of the parable in which the aging buck deer used the swimming strength of the young doe to help him cross the river (Parables····, May 3), and of the huge male black bear standing up and scratching his back against the tree (Trail Camera, July 15). Each of these stories evolved in ways that written narrative alone could not capture but each was conveyed nicely through the video record.
It has been noted by many naturalists that the primary research tool of the early ornithologists was the shotgun. Drawers and drawers of preserved specimens in museums around the world attest to the broad use of this old-time research tool. The camera has changed this; modern cameras have replaced the shotgun not only in ornithology but in other areas of natural science – like preserved bird specimens, pressed flower and plant collections are now a thing of the past. Further, field biologists are now using trail cameras extensively, in conjunction with GPS telemetry, to record animal movement and behavior. Things like animal migration patterns, highway bypass use, and even the occurrence of rare animals are being newly learned from the records obtained with these new research tools.
We at Soggy Bottom are not at the technical and artistic level of David Attenborough and his BBC production crew, but our skills with the camera are improving to the point that the readers of this blog can expect that photography will become an ever more important part of our nature storytelling.
I am adopting the tool of the modern naturalist to facilitate my storytelling about nature on the small piece of the earth on which I now live, i.e., Soggy Bottom Farm. It’s great fun.