Welcome friends - I'm posting published articles and sundry items as time allows. Most subjects pertain to conservation, photo trekking and tourism in borderlands Arizona, USA. More of my articles can be seen on my publisher's website

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Article: "Just Folks"

(Published August 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

Your pesky suspicion that I spend more of my time in nature than with people might be right. My photography does, after all, focus mostly on the splendor of southern Arizona’s natural and rural heritage. 

People can be the harder subject. They are also probably the most likely subject for professional photographers, since pictures of people and of the circumstances surrounding them put the bread on the table for most professionals.

Patience is a virtue when photographing a bird or butterfly, and it’s wise to show similar restraint with the people in your pictures. Your careful approach with a human subject before the picture is taken is a key to success. Having a deliberate approach versus a candid one depends on the situation. In either case, the best people photographers have a natural chemistry putting subjects at ease. 

In the borderlands area, Hispanics and native-Americans make splendid human subjects; together they define this country's heritage and are naturally photogenic. Their images capture the essence of this place.

Horsemen and women also define the borderlands. An image of a galloping wild horse is timeless and evocative, and a photo of a skillful western rider atop a horse evokes a way of life fundamental to our local heritage.

People are the subject of most photography, in one way or other. Many aspiring professional photographers yearn to be journalists capturing dramatic images which will have a social impact.

A combat photographer captures the grimness of war, working in harm's way. A fashion photographer records gazelles strutting a runway wearing couture having a split-second shelf life. A portrait photographer interprets a person’s character using heightened levels of studio formality and preparation. A commercial photographer employs images of people to sell a product or notion.

The photographer must charm and relax his subject, capturing the person's essence without affectation: a genuine countenance with no posing. The subject will be within his element, enveloped in a setting enhancing a message. A series of photos will include semi-abstracts, such as a close-up photos focusing on hands, feet, face or eyes.

You’re at risk if people don’t want their picture taken. You’re safe with folks performing in some kind of public show since photos are expected unless explicitly forbidden.  

Position yourself at the height of the subject; with kids, this often means you must crouch or kneel. The exception to this approach involves an intentional point using a relative angle.

Add a sense of scale by including an object next to a person. Watch that your photo doesn't become unintentionally abstracted due to lack of scale.

You, the borderlands photographer, while outdoors capturing images of our natural and rural heritage, should also exploit opportunities to add our cultural heritage to your album, in the form of the people here who represent living history.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Roads Caller

Opinion: Ending the Iraq War

(From letter to editor by another reader of Washington Post)

"Thank goodness this obscene, diabolical mess is finally over. Sincere regrets to the 4000+ American military personnel and contractors killed [and their families], and grave apologies to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi families whose lives were disrupted or destroyed for the sake of American ego. We can only hope that someday, Bush, Cheney and their neocon brethren are brought to justice for their indiscriminate slaughter."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Opinion: Video Gadgets Such as I-Phone & Games

This technology moves people apart. It takes them further and further from each other, from nature, and from the world. It ruins their eyes and their bodies. It erodes their humanity. It's another opium for the masses. It's not good.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Article: "Close-ups in a Widescreen World"

(Published July 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

How can the bronzed and windblown borderlands photographer take his or her eyes off of our famously widescreen panoramas to focus on the minuscule?

In the movies, a young Ava Gardner or Grace Kelly, among other starlets new to their career, yearned for a first chance to have a classic cinema close-up: a photograph of her face, or even closer, of her eyes, which would stamp an indelible impression upon the audience.

A tender wildflower against a prickly pear cactus.
This close-up had the power to make someone a star. Here in Arizona's borderlands, a simple, blown-up image can be more memorable than one depicting a wide-open panorama stretching beyond the horizon.

Today’s borderlands photographer has the chance to make a star image out of so much that resides here just out of range of normal sight. Taking the time and effort to photograph the little things yields big rewards.

Vigorous effort often is needed to reach the object or critter ready for its first great photo close-up. Bending over, kneeling down, even lying flat on your stomach with your elbows in the dirt is often the physical price to pay for a good close-up shot. The intrepid photographer always is ready to contort to achieve the right proximity.

Distance and angle in relation to your close-up subject are crucial to obtaining a great result. 

A horned lizard is ready for a star turn.
Distance affects how much of your subject will fill the frame in order to achieve a high level of detail. Distance will also affect the depth of your focus zone. Angle will help capture the “good side” of your subject and create visual impact. Angle will help achieve the right lighting contrast for an artful image.

Very close-up images can become truly abstract – removed from context and hard to define – presenting an entirely new option for photographers. Abstraction provides an escape from the bounds of literal photography, setting the artist free.
The fruit of a barrel cactus provide some unexpected color and shape.

Technically, folks often use special-purpose lenses for close-up work. These “macro” lenses are designed to focus sharply on very small area, leaving the surroundings blurred. Further afield is microscopic photography.

But close-up photography doesn’t require the purchase of special equipment if you’re careful about the variables influencing depth-of-field, or focus depth. These variables include distance from subject, lens focal length, and aperture setting. An inexpensive 300-mm zoom telephoto is what I use as my “butterfly lens," allowing me to achieve the right distance to fill a frame sharply with a small subject. Also, there are many opportunities using a standard lens that comes with your camera and the close-up settings on most of today’s digital equipment.

As a borderlands photographer, you'll spend most of your time “panning” your camera across this region's expansive landscapes, but instead, go ahead and add close-ups to your mix. This will provide refreshing variety to your collection of images. 

Live large by thinking small!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Opinion: A Way Forward - NYTimes Op-Ed: Dr. King Weeps From His Grave

By Cornel West, August 25, 2011
THE Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was to be dedicated on the National Mall on Sunday — exactly 56 years after the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi and 48 years after the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Because of Hurricane Irene, the ceremony has been postponed.)
These events constitute major milestones in the turbulent history of race and democracy in America, and the undeniable success of the civil rights movement — culminating in the election of Barack Obama in 2008 — warrants our attention and elation. Yet the prophetic words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel still haunt us: “The whole future of America depends on the impact and influence of Dr. King.”
Rabbi Heschel spoke those words during the last years of King’s life, when 72 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks disapproved of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to eradicate poverty in America. King’s dream of a more democratic America had become, in his words, “a nightmare,” owing to the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism.” He called America a “sick society.” On the Sunday after his assassination, in 1968, he was to have preached a sermon titled “Why America May Go to Hell.”
King did not think that America ought to go to hell, but rather that it might go to hell owing to its economic injustice, cultural decay and political paralysis. He was not an American Gibbon, chronicling the decline and fall of the American empire, but a courageous and visionary Christian blues man, fighting with style and love in the face of the four catastrophes he identified.
Militarism is an imperial catastrophe that has produced a military-industrial complex and national security state and warped the country’s priorities and stature (as with the immoral drones, dropping bombs on innocent civilians). Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists.
Racism is a moral catastrophe, most graphically seen in the prison industrial complex and targeted police surveillance in black and brown ghettos rendered invisible in public discourse. Arbitrary uses of the law — in the name of the “war” on drugs — have produced, in the legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s apt phrase, a new Jim Crow of mass incarceration. And poverty is an economic catastrophe, inseparable from the power of greedy oligarchs and avaricious plutocrats indifferent to the misery of poor children, elderly citizens and working people.
The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.
As the talk show host Tavis Smiley and I have said in our national tour against poverty, the recent budget deal is only the latest phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule.
The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.
King weeps from his grave. He never confused substance with symbolism. He never conflated a flesh and blood sacrifice with a stone and mortar edifice. We rightly celebrate his substance and sacrifice because he loved us all so deeply. Let us not remain satisfied with symbolism because we too often fear the challenge he embraced. Our greatest writer, Herman Melville, who spent his life in love with America even as he was our most fierce critic of the myth of American exceptionalism, noted, “Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges; hence the conclusion of such a narration is apt to be less finished than an architectural finial.”
King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.
In concrete terms, this means support for progressive politicians like Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor; extensive community and media organizing; civil disobedience; and life and death confrontations with the powers that be. Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Opinion: Big Food and obesity are a disgrace

Friends - Support FoodCorps and fight the national disgrace of obesity and Big Corporate Food.

Click the above website and find out how we can all help to reverse this trend over the past 30 years when this country's health really started to go to hell.

Folks must renew pride in fitness; it's time that patriotism be equated with physical fitness.

Help out!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Article: "Vanishing Ranchlands"

(Published June 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

Preserving open spaces in Arizona’s borderlands doesn’t always require the ultimate conservation measure of setting aside pristine landscapes untouched by development or agriculture.

A scene of wide-open freedom in a pristine valley
on the Arizona-Mexico border.
Ranchlands, whether private or leased from the government, represent an expansive rural heritage of Arizona as significant as the natural heritage of undisturbed desert habitat. Importantly, for you, the borderlands photographer, they also provide great picture-taking opportunity.

Some of the various habitats, or biomes, of the Sonoran Desert and surrounding areas here in southern Arizona have enabled ranching to various degrees of success. From desert grassland to the pine forests, grazing continues.

Photo opportunities abound within both the living and the preserved, or converted, ranchlands in our area. I describe living ranchlands as domains of folks who still lead a classic western life on a range with cattle, horses, and other livestock.

I categorize preserved ranchlands as those tracts which have been set aside from prior ranching use and allowed to revert more or less to their original natural form. These ranchlands have been protected by a wide variety of conservationist interests, from private activists to non-profit foundations and the federal government. Examples locally are Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge at Arivaca, the Empire Ranch/Las Cienegas Conservation Area at Sonoita, and the Audubon Society’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch at Elgin.
Historic, precious ranch structures add character
to an image of the vanishing ranchlands, here
seen in Muleshoe Ranch in south central Arizona.

What great destinations these places are for the borderlands photographer! You can't beat the wide-angle thrill of an afternoon monsoon storm bursting over the yellow grassland vista.

Constantly, the living ranchlands furnish artful western scenes, from cowboys at the corral to horses galloping to cattle grazing to spinning windmills (one of my favorites). 

Further, both the living and the preserved ranchlands contain structures of character and historic significance, such as adobe barns and mesquite fences, also fertile subjects for the photographer.

Go wide! Often the wide open, sprawling country begs for panoramic photos of grasses bending to the breeze and distant mountain horizons reminiscent of western films likely made there.

Men of the range, Empire Ranch, Sonoita, Arizona.
The borderlands photographer uses a wide-angle lens or instead, stitches two or more digital shots together to seize this widescreen grandeur. He or she remembers that quality landscape shots require a tripod for maximum sharpness.

Early morning or late afternoon is best for capturing these landscapes Also, the lucky photographer shows up when there is some weather happening, when skies are filled with more than the dreaded plain blue sky. Landscape shots beg for skies filled with feature and definition. Often the drama of ranchland skies is the highlight of a borderland image.

At day's end you'll have recorded a very fine part of America's heritage. And finally, when you leave for home, after immersing yourself in big-sky country, don’t forget to close the gates!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Article: "A Mission to Photograph"

(Published May 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

Churches are photogenic, especially ones that are heritage subjects. But they don’t have to be ancient or elaborate to be good photo subjects. Denomination aside, in this article I’m using the word “church” in a generic sense and I’m visiting some large and small regional buildings purely as architectural photographic destinations.
The mission at Tumacácori is the supermodel of the
 borderlands region: the camera loves her from any angle.

The serenity, charm and visual splendor of any house of worship, whether it’s a church, synagogue, mosque, or other form of this structure, derives from its inspirational purpose and the attention given to its design and maintenance. These structures either contain works of art, or are themselves works of art.

So, naturally, they make great photo subjects. In the Arizona borderlands, some of the original European colonial religious structures sadly are gone or have been reduced to lumps of clay. Others have been stabilized and protected, and there are a few which are remote and hard to protect, so their access is restricted.

These remnants usually aren’t very good photo subjects anyway, since lumps of adobe or mounds of earth don’t amount to much visual impact. The most notable restorations are at Tumacácori just north of the Mexico border and, near Tucson, at San Xavier.

A great little church in a troubled 
place: the border town of Sasabe.
These two structures, Mission San José de Tumacácori, and Mission San Xavier del Bac, are among the most photographed structures in the borderlands region. They’re so popular, in fact, that they amount to a photographic cliché, like Grand Canyon.

But I’ll do it anyway, since they have such significance to you, the borderlands photographer. Briefly, the facts are as follows: I’m not an expert on the Jesuits and Father Kino, so I’ll say little about history; there are at least four different ways to pronounce “San Xavier”, so take your pick; San Xavier is still a fully functioning parish church within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson; Tumacácori is administered by the hardy souls of the National Park Service. 

These structures merit photographers' attention because they’re so striking that it’s hard to take a bad picture of them. Just point and shoot. 

San Xavier may be the greatest gem in Arizona, and Tumacácori is the next best, with its semi-restored frontier splendor and the dramatic backdrop of the nearby Tumacácori mountains and the slightly more distant Santa Rita mountains.

Currently, visitors to San Xavier are a bit disappointed because the west bell tower of their “White Dove of the Desert” is ensconced by scaffolding and sheeting. Visitors want to take a postcard-perfect picture of the structure with a sunset or rainbow background, and they can’t. (Plans are in progress to remove the scaffolding on the west tower, and to begin similar work on the east tower if funding permits.)

But the inventive photographer to San Xavier soon finds more opportunity than just a frontal view of the main structure. For example, inside. This mission is the rustic equivalent of a major European cathedral with artworks throughout the interior. Capturing this detail requires a tripod and the right camera time exposure to compensate for the dim light. Regular flash is inadequate.

Outside the church, the photographer avoids the scaffolding by focusing on other parts of the building and grounds, such as the rear of the complex, the courtyards, mission school, the Mortuary Chapel and, of course, people. The Hispanic and native-Americans residing in the area surrounding the mission who work, worship, or school there can themselves be some of the best photo subjects.

St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson, Arizona.
Farther south, the folks visiting Tumacácori, on the other hand, are mostly tourists, so the best trick there is to avoid them in your viewfinder completely and wait until they pass!

Truly, just about any angle at Tumacácori can provide great images. Different times of day multiply the opportunities using natural light and the resulting shadows. The smooth curves of the plastered adobe walls on the main structure and out-buildings yield results that make any photographer feel like an expert.

I mustn’t forget some other churches in the area. The large St. Augustine Cathedral in downtown Tucson recently underwent minor improvements. More modest area churches are St. Rita in the Desert in Vail, and structures in the tiny border villages of Sasabe and Lochiel.

While the smaller buildings are less imposing as architecture, the skillful photographer can exploit the charm of their design and milieu, using creative camera angles to prove these churches are as photogenic as any others in the borderlands region.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Roads Caller

Opinion: Conflicted About Nature?

Re: NY Times article "As We Seek Nature, We Wall It Out"
We're not conflicted at all about wild nature. The preponderance of human activity screams the conclusion that we "like" nature and feel sorry for it, but we won't let it get in the way of human "expansion." Thus, its inexorable decline and destruction.
Tamed and cultivated nature is another matter.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Article: "Sonoran Moods"

(Published April 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

Isn’t the Sonoran desert grand? 

It's not just big, having a range northward almost to Prescott and southward across the border to the tip of Mexico’s Baja California. I also mean fabulous and awesome. 

Being one of you, a borderlands photographer, it’s a bit hard for me not to capture images common to the Sonoran desert. A venerated subject of nature photography, the Sonoran desert includes archetypal landscapes and the saguaro cactus. The iconic image of the Saguaro is clichéd, but for the purpose of my column this month, so what! The saguaro is grand, and enduringly popular.

That said, my photography often veers away from Sonoran images, dwelling instead on scenes in higher-elevation zones of the Santa Cruz river area, such as the mesquite-bosque, desert scrub, desert grassland, and riparian zones of this region. Sonoran images are well covered already by other photographers, and besides, our borderlands region offers so many diverse alternatives. However, the nearby Sonoran expanse begs my interpretation of it.

The village of Tubac lies on the eastern edge of the Sonoran desert, near a transitional grasslands area bordering the Chihuahuan desert farther east. I feel a bit sorry for points east since, by and large, they don’t have the saguaro and appear sparse without it!

Threats to the Sonoran desert are many and extreme. Ignorant and greedy development is foremost, and illegal border activity, off-road vehicle abuse and invasive species such as buffelgrass add to the crisis. Currently, freeway by-pass construction is a major threat in Pima county which must be fought vigorously.

But even with all the stress imposed by humans, the Sonoran desert still provides a world of unique photographic subjects, including vast open spaces with few scars yet, carpets of seasonal wildflowers and thousands of native American sites of photogenic rock art, most of which are still secret.

Broad expanses. 
Among trackless open spaces nearby is the Tohono O’odham Nation. This native American land is a giant slab of southern Arizona which, in a way, is another Sonoran desert national park which will never be developed (except, of course, at the edges with casinos). You should go visit this vast place. If you do, and want to head into the back country, you will need a permit that’s available by calling tribal headquarters in the town of Sells. Here, your landscape photography should often feature the sky, especially during monsoon season. The desert's clear blue skies do actually become tiresome; the clouds of the brief stormy seasons create the most awesome skies available anywhere on the planet, providing the drama of color and texture to the sky.

Wildflowers are among nature’s most popular desert photo subjects, under the right conditions of moisture and temperature. February and March are the best times for Sonoran wildflowers and, locally, some of the best places to see them are Picacho Peak State Park, Ironwood Forest National Monument, and of course, Saguaro National Park, which is split into eastern and western districts. I often visit the eastern district’s southerly-facing Hope Camp Trail for a multitude of wild blossoms. Seasonal snow runoff provides an extra benefit: streams and waterfalls.

The big guy.
Another wildflower, the big one, is the Saguaro blossom which blooms later, peaking in late May. Also, saguaro oddities are a favorite photographic subject in the Sonoran desert. The strange and fantastic shapes of the arms of mature saguaro, including the rare crested saguaro, a mutation, have infinite variety. Once you’ve found something unusual, it’s best to work carefully on the angle of your photo to capture the odd shape in the best way, often upward with the sky in the background to provide clear contrast.

Archaeological sites. 
Rock art can be found in Ironwood Forest National Monument, but you must search for it, as sites are not officially marked in order to preserve them. If you discover pictographs or petroglyphs, never touch them or walk on them. Just take lots of photos from a short distance. When you do, make sure plenty of light exists to highlight the faded artwork, preferably in open sunlight or with flash. Rock art often creates fine black-and-white images and these can be improved by increasing contrast to elicit the patterns clearly.

Be careful.
The open Sonoran desert involve risks existing throughout this region, only more so. To paraphrase "Duke" Wayne, everything in this country either sticks you, stings you, or bites you. I never wear shorts while hiking even on the hottest days. The primary danger is rattlesnakes, and 80 percent of bites happen in the lower legs. You might consider buying gaiters, or lower leg chaps, designed to be snake-proof. The other 20 percent of bites are in the hands and arms, so always be careful where you reach. There’s no treatment for rattlesnake bites except anti-venom administered by medical personnel.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Bees, Butterflies and Blossoms"

(Published March 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

This month’s topic is a very manly one. It's “mucho macho.” 

Real men love bees, butterflies and blossoms. Now, spring is just around the corner in the borderlands and very few photo opportunities during the season will surpass the vivid beauty of this topic.

In a way, this article is a sequel to last month’s, which was about birds, since bees and butterflies provide a similar delight and challenge to the borderlands photographer.

Bees are bathing in a saguaro cactus blossom's pollen. How 
can they fly like that?
I enjoy taking close-up images; some of my favorite shots are close-ups. One of my books is on this month’s topic [link]. Close-up photography reveals a whole new world that escapes most humans. Also, there are probably more opportunities for capturing striking close-up images than for landscape photography – there’s simply more content available, if you look for it.

In close-up photography, the subtle play of light and shadow and shape combines with a rainbow of colors coming from your subject, creating a universe of options. As with bird photography, the subject’s surroundings can turn a bee, butterfly, or blossom photo into artwork.

To me, butterflies are as beautiful as birds and probably easier to photograph. Getting close to butterflies for good shots is not as difficult as with birds, since generally they don’t scare off so easily. There are exceptions, of course, and some butterflies are skittish subjects for portraiture.

I use a zoom telephoto lens for taking most butterfly photos. I’ve come to call it my “butterfly lens” since it allows me to position myself at just the right distance from the critter to fill a frame, while providing narrow enough depth of field, or focus area, for the image to have a blurred background. This background is what can produce a fine image, when your subject itself is well focused. The background may be filled with color, shadow, and light but blurring it allows the photographer to highlight the photo’s central subject, the pollinating critter.

Bee and prickly poppy blossom.
In borderland Arizona, I started out taking cactus blossom pictures, which is common. While a flower by itself can be a great image, a better composition is a picture that combines a shot of a flowering plant with an energetic pollinator. This does require patience to achieve the right composition. The position of the critter should either emphasize its pollinating function or its inherent beauty, or both.

A bee or butterfly which is hovering is the best, requiring a high camera shutter speed. Technically, butterflies don’t really hover, so catching them in flight with the camera is sometimes harder than capturing a bee.

A dazzling blooming ocotillo and friend.
There are many specialty lenses used for close-ups. By and large, they are called macro lenses. Whichever lens you use, depth of field is the key to these images. Your focus depth should be enough to highlight the subject but narrow enough to blur and simplify the background so that it’s not too “busy” and doesn’t distract from the subject. When using a zoom lens, the farther you zoom, the less depth you get.

Many artful shots, as distinguished from reference shots, don’t require the subject to be entirely in focus. With butterflies, it’s important to have a clear image of the head and antennae and proboscis (or “tongue” which sips nectar). With flowers, often just parts of them are required to be in focus, such as the stamen and pistil together, or several petals. 

The wings of butterflies are the highlights of the show, and it’s good to remember that the undersides of wings sometimes are not as striking or colorful as the top of the wings.

Dragonflies and damselflies are very fine subjects, too. These critters are delightfully delicate; it's best to get their entire wings focused if you can, in order to highlight the detail. Improving your odds is the fact that dragonflies and damselflies are more patient posers than bees and butterflies.

Finally, for the amateur naturalist in borderland Arizona, the scientific identification of a photo’s subject is a big part of the fun. Field guides exist en masse to help you with this, and can be used for taking notes while you shoot, or better, back at the ranch with your finished pictures in front of you. I often use the internet for reference. For identification of any critter, it’s best if you achieve shots from different angles, and for flowers, you should include shots of its stem and leaves for quicker identification.

Good hunting.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Roads Caller

Article: "Birds in Action"

(Published February 2008 in Murray Bolesta's "The Borderlands Photographer" in Tubac Villager.)

The high season for birding is upon us. The next few months are a peak time for our feathered friends, and for those human friends who visit southern Arizona to witness the spectacle. 

I’m neither a bird expert nor a specialist in bird photography. But I have grown very fond of them since moving to the borderlands.

The birds I’ve photographed are mostly common, either as permanent residents of this area or as migratory visitors. I don’t spend a lot of time hunting for a particular bird to fill an objective, but instead I roll the dice and take what the day provides. Common birds make great photo subjects.

Ash-throated Flycatcher
Patience is a virtue when taking pictures of birds. Many photo professionals use blinds and sit and wait like a hunter. My style is an impatient one: I’m a marauder with my finger on the shutter like a gun's trigger. Generally speaking, a hunter's luck is improved by venturing outdoors a whole lot. When arriving at a likely spot, try sitting still and waiting (unlike me) in one spot for 20 minutes or more. Let the birds come to you.

Mr. & Mrs. Acorn Woodpecker
I’ve built a selection of bird images due to living near Madera Canyon of the Santa Rita mountains. In south-central Arizona, the geographic sphere of this newspaper, Madera Canyon with its creek is a major birding destination. Any place with a spot of water in this area will support plenty of winged creatures, as long as there also exists good native tree and brush habitat.

Apart from Madera Canyon, some other central borderlands birding destinations are: the lush cottonwood-willow riparian environment of the Santa Cruz River, especially from Rio Rico north to Tubac; the river’s Sonoita Creek tributary from Patagonia downstream; Aliso Springs, Puerto Springs and Sycamore Canyon in the Tumacacori Highlands area, and Arivaca Cienega; Bog Hole in the cinematic San Rafael Valley, Parker Canyon Lake and the famous Ramsey Canyon near Sierra Vista.

Next I'll list a few tips I learned the old fashioned way. These tips mainly involve getting as close as possible to your prey. As mentioned, let the birds come to you.

Use a telephoto. I’m not really big on hardware, as in comparing the length of my lens to the other guy’s, but one piece of equipment is necessary for taking pictures of birds, and that’s a telephoto or zoom telephoto lens. I use zoom telephotos, either a 70-300 mm or a newer 80-400 mm vibration-reduction (VR) lens. The latter lens is a heavy brute and its effectiveness beyond the older lens is marginal. Some birders use the new binoculars with built-in cameras.

A Roadrunner, "peacock of the desert."
Specialists in bird photography employ even more powerful and expensive lenses which bring in huge amounts of light and magnification, and require a tripod or a monopod. (In Alaska long ago, I met a bird photographer using a very long lens mounted atop a contraption that was built for holding a camera as if it were a rifle or machine gun, complete with grips for both hands and a gun-like trigger.)

My style is a rapid-fire one, always on the go, with no tarrying about. So, I don't use a tripod at all for birds. I’ve blurred many a shot that way, but I’ve also achieved other great ones which wouldn’t have been possible while lugging a tripod. The VR lens mentioned above is made for that, heavy as it is. My style is to photograph while trekking actively in the wild, avoiding controlled circumstances. 

Beauty is close up. Even a common bird looks extraordinary if you can get right next to it. You’ll discover that a plain bird, or the female of a species which is usually less resplendent than the male, displays wonderfully delicate patterns of feather texture and color when viewed in extreme close-up.

Orange-crowned Warbler upon landing.
The eyes have it. In the movies and fashion photography, the eyes of the subject are the focal point of the universe. This applies no less to bird photography. If you have a telephoto, you should often be able to get in close enough to capture the bird’s eyes. A point of sunlight reflected from dark eyes is even better. The points of light are tiny but they add dynamic charm to the image. Larger birds of prey such as owls and hawks have the most gorgeous eyes. Capturing them in a picture is mandatory. 

Direct sunlight can be good or evil. The best part of birds is their feathers. The way to exploit this beauty is to achieve a side view of the critter using uniform lighting from direct sunlight. Bright sunlight highlights a bird's spectacular feather colors and textures. Luck is needed to avoid the high contrast of direct sunlight and shadows caused by objects and the bird's position. For some bird and hummingbird photography, flash is used; high dollar equipment includes flash extenders.

The surroundings and circumstances make the art. As you acquire more experience, you'll master the skill of capturing a bird with perfect light and clarity, and yet, the image may be static. This is a reference photo. An art photo, to make a distinction, will use the qualities of the milieu, such as colors, shapes, motion, or shadows, to create an effect which enhances the overall image. 
Action pictures are best. Good pictures with motion often are the hardest to achieve. In your art photo, the bird will be doing more than just sitting and resting on a twig or fence post; it'll be hunting or flying or playing with a mate. This dynamism will add a flash of borderlands magic.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Article "A Charm Not Yet Lost"

(Published December 2007 in Arivaca Connection.)

My motivation was strictly commercial. Working for the highway department, I was planning a new freeway from Nogales to Yuma along the international border, which will double as a border wall.

The border wall (in 2007).
If this sounds farfetched, you haven’t lived in modern-day Arizona for very long.

For me, in reality, there’s nothing more charming and anachronistic than an international border fence which is comprised of a couple strands of beat-up barbed wire designed to keep the cattle in check.

A day-long rocky photo-trek, demanding of one’s ankles and all the rest, satisfied my photographer’s curiosity and need to chronicle the length of a fabled canyon, in its fall-color splendor. Most of all, it revealed an international border monumental in its political magnitude but archaic in its appearance.

Believe it or not, I’m hesitant to talk about it, since in current-day Arizona, just mentioning an existing length of this old fence begs fate to bulldoze it overnight for something much bigger, and uglier. 

Poets will write with more eloquence about the societal ugliness that surrounds a border wall. They’ll write about the wall as a symbol of many things, of the failure of governments or the futility of this or that. But I prefer a naïve conclusion that says that I’m coincidentally witnessing a era of wall-building that is but temporary, in the span of the natural world.

I believe gullibly that the entire proposed border wall may yet not be built, due to an imminent new federal administration. And, I believe that if it is built, the wall will eventually be taken down (but probably not in my lifetime).

Yikes! My toe was an illegal immigrant to Mexico.
Trekking to the border inside the depths of the legendary Sycamore Canyon, of the Pajarita Wilderness, took me through a day of complete solitude. On that day not even a nature-lover was to be seen on my path. The only mega-fauna I encountered was what appeared to be a Mexican cow having scooted northward under the creek-span of a decrepit border fence. 

A 10-hour round-trip forced march of rock-hopping and bushwhacking propelled me the 11 miles to this fence, with stops for photo-taking, of course. Rewarded by the raw spectacle of the canyon around every turn, I passed the test of endurance. Satisfying also, was the sight of a charming little wire barrier at the mouth of the canyon, marking the international border, and, by its unimposing quaintness, symbolizing so much more that is being lost.