Sunday, January 29, 2012

1/29/12 Elk Viewing, First Wildflower for 2012

This morning after surveying the elk herd locations, on a hunch I walked a part of Lost Valley hiking trail looking for wildflowers. Our weather is now abnormal, I worry that is it permanent, and the daffodils are up and not blooming, but everything seems to be ahead of schedule. This poor flower bloomed in the recent warm weather and was drooped over in the morning frost. This is VERY early. I do have a witness too. I believe the plant is a toothwort, it is pretty tiny.

Don't forget frost blossoms in the early mornings. They are a great photographic subject and will fine tune your exposure control.

I will be doing a special entry on wildflowers this week.

The elk were following the recent patterns pretty well. There is one herd in zone 1 that is rotating between the woods, vacant Ponca fields, and the woods to the west of 43 behind the Ponca Bible Camp (private land). The second herd is down by the 43/21 intersection and they were close to the road this morning, actually on both sides of the road.

Frost Blossom Lost Valley 1/29/12
Remember bull elk keep their antlers until about April 1. The two herds have been viewable now in about the same locations for about two weeks. They are bothering no farmer since they avoid cattle. The herd down by 43/21 is grazing in fields that were planted as a food plot to attract elk. Certainly there is no complaint there.

This is just outstanding weather to hike. I recommend taking a hike in Lost Valley. The falls are running hard and the forest floor is now coming to life. There is something to be said for the beautiful cutting light that animates forest trails during leaf off.  As my attention gradually turns to wildflowers, I like to hike there often to see the entire wildflower cycle from the first sprouts through the climax of the season.

If I were homeschooling a child or just teaching kids about nature, the unfolding from now through the spring offers many lessons not only about plant species, but the dynamics of micro environments in the valley. It is also a great time to teach geology.

Friday, January 27, 2012

1/27/12 Update, Elk and Bald Eagles, Great Weather

This promises to be a perfect weekend for winter hiking and sightseeing. If you have been hanging back for ideal weather to shake off your cabin fever, this would be the weekend to visit. Today is just perfect and heading into the 60's, a nice mid-winter treat.

This morning there were two elk herds in Boxley Valley and there was a bald eagle at the mill pond. The mill pond has a lot of ducks right now, and the trumpeter swans were flying and landing. All of these are great subjects for photographers and wildlife watchers.

The waterfalls should be pretty good. We have had a lot of rain and it is still running off pretty well. The river is also running well and up for cold weather floating with a wet suit.

Today for the first time in quite a while I saw an outstanding white-winged crow. These birds are rare, but there is a great specimen right now around the 43/21 intersection.

Today's map is below:

Saturday, January 21, 2012

1/21/12 I Elk Herd, Bald Eagle at Mill Pond

Only about 35 elk in the valley this morning, all focused down on the south end. A late rutting bull is with a number of cow elk down by Cave Mountain Road, south of the river. A small bull herd is south of the 43/21 intersection on the east side of the road.

Like most days, none of the elk were on grazing land. This is pretty standard in Boxley Valley. Talk of elk and cattle is nonsense, elk hate cattle and avoid them. Resting fields have no grass and the elk go elsewhere. 50% of the time they forage in the cane line and in the woods. Let's get the facts straight. There is no farmer elk problem.

Yesterday there were 2 bald eagles at the mill pond, but today only 1.  Still they do roost on snags just behind the pond and are an easy shot with a long lens.

Today's elk map:

January 21, 2012 Elk Herd Map, Ponca, Arkansas 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Learning Composition -- Questioning & Visualization

This Picture is an Elk Painting Animated by Angular Light
Elk Photos are Elk in Context -- That is the next level
I got a note the other day I have not answered, mostly because I don't have a simple answer. The questioner wanted to know how I get the elk pictures I get, what advice I could offer. I have been thinking about it from two perspectives. First, how do I take elk pictures. Second, how did I teach myself to take elk pictures (or anything else for that matter).

Anyone who reads what I write knows that in my mind, composition is the point of photography. Everything else is secondary. Good composition transcends equipment, bad composition is indifferent to great equipment. Composition is the key. It is composition that communicates.

So, how do you take pictures of a new subject? I know my basic approach is to deconstruct the subject, then look at composition of the "chunks", then reconstruct the subject combining the chunks. I break the subject into parts that move, and parts that don't move. I also look at context, the setting, the time of day.

I spend a lot of time practicing composition through visualization away from the camera. Careful thought can equip you with "virtual experience" that you can draw on when opportunities arise.  Research supports visualization as real practice.

Sounds pretty simple eh? Let's look at elk composition as an example:

Driving Legs and Counterpointing Antlers Make This Post-Rut
Sparring Pretty Good -- Better Than Statues Tapping Antlers
Deconstructing the Animal For many years now when I see a subject I see a collection of shapes that combine to make the whole animal. The head looks like a triangle, the body like a rough rectangle, the legs like sticks, straight, crossing or bent, the neck like a strip, the haunches like ovals superimposed over the body, antlers like hoops, unique shadows, and so on. Static shapes.

Movement moves these shapes in relation to one another. Is the elk twisting, or head up or down, or is the head folded over the body? Is the body straight on or angled? Are its lines resonating with other lines in the composition? Is its movement counterpointed with another elk? And how? How do they counterpoint? Dynamic movements.

There is a larger message in this madness (if you haven't walked away). Good composition hinges on great questions. It is the quality of your questions that will drive your understanding. Tip: When you are stuck, try to dig out the question you are answering. You probably need to ask a better question to get to the next level. This applies to just about everything I have learned in life. Experts ask great questions. Figure out the questions and you will learn very fast. Do not shop answers. Questions matter most.

Deconstructing the Context  Animal photography occurs in a natural setting. That context includes light of all sorts and angles, contour, geology, fence lines, tree lines, tree trunks, curves like streams and swails, buildings, roads, etc.  And so on. It seems impossible, you need a great combination of the animal and its context to get a killer photo.

Putting it Back Together -- Reconstruction and Synthesis
Now we return to visualization. This is where what seems hopelessly complex comes together. In your mind's eye, assemble your subject, elk in this case, into a context you know. Visualize what you consider to be ideal images based on these elements. Because you are visualizing, words fall away and reconstruction now becomes easier.

Trust the Unconventional, Juxtapose the Unexpected
I Chased this Photo for Years After Pre-visulalizing It
I have used this analogy a few times, but it fits. Athletes deconstruct their movements, learn new ones, then drill incessantly until they instinctively do the right thing. This discipline never ends.

When you take your photography to another level, you need to take apart what you do, take apart your subject and the context, ask great questions about combinations, then, and only then, visualize what you seek away from the camera. This visualization will inform your compositional voice. It will also sharpen your anticipation in the field.

Creative expression is a blissful, but focused practice. The pathway to an unending stairway of improvement is focus, questioning, deconstruction, reconstruction, and visualization. You need to do this for every new subject. While much is the same about different subjects, much is different. You will never get the final picture of any subject,  but you will be on an unfolding path to deeper engagement and mastery of your subjects and art.

My gift to any student is to help them become excellent questioners and self-learners.  A great philosopher Exupery said education is not a forcing in (answers), but rather a leading out (questions). I hold to this.  Ask me a question, and I will ask you to question. You have gifts that I can see in you that you need to trust. You don't need my answers.

1/20/12 Fog, But 30 Elk, 2 Otter and 2 Bald Eagles

Typical Post-Rut Bull Herd, Prince and the Boys
Today there was only one herd in the valley and it was in the field adjacent to the Ponca Access. Because of the weather, I think the elk around the 43/21 intersection were holed up.

The high point this morning was otter feeding in the Boxley Mill Pond. I watched them for about a half hour swimming in the north end of the pond under the watchful gaze of two bald eagles. I have seen otter in the mill pond recently a few times. If you visit keep your eyes peeled for them.

This weekend should be excellent for all kinds of photography. These frontal changes and somewhat stormy weather generally provide diffuse light and nice cloud formations. If you like to take landscape photos, partly cloudy weather definitely beats a cloudless blue sky.

Updated map is below. There are now about 30 elk visible in the valley.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

1/19/12 Great Elk Viewing, Beautiful Weather

Prince in Bachelor Bull Herd
This morning there were two herds in the valley. One near Ponca, the second around the 43/21 intersection. Neither herd was in a field that competed with livestock. This is pretty standard.

I got a nice picture of Prince, a few actually. He has put on some weight since the rut. His focus is now on eating and recovering from the rut.

Absolutely perfect elk viewing weather for this weekend. Photographers will want to consider landscapes as well.

More later.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Imagination and Communication in Photography

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader's."  
Stephen King

So too in photography. 

Gifts Given and Moment's Captured to be Shared
Your artistic expression must charge straight into the imagination of your viewer. Leave it to a writer to distill the essence of our craft. 

This reminds me of a recent session with a workshop participant. I had her bring photos that she loved but felt there was something missing. I took one of her images and interpreted it, and asked her if this edit was what she saw. She said yes, that is it exactly. It was a little spooky for her I think. 

If one examines an image with the heart, looking for the expression that must be there, it can be revealed in post processing. Ansel Adams had it right when he said the negative is the score, and the print is the performance. 

We must not lose sight of the fact that cameras come up short in capturing light. They get about half the tonal range of what you see in reality. Often this means they do not capture the intimations of your heart. 

In the place behind your reason, you feel why you took certain photos. You were drawn to them intuitively. You might think the composition to death, but there is that other dimension. Be courageous in your post processing to restore your creative vision. Open up your heart's expression to finish in your viewers heart. 

1/15/12 Elk Viewing Outstanding

Winter Dawn in Boxley Valley 
This morning there were 3 photographers in Boxley Valley besides me. I knew one of them and he came from Ft. Smith to do one thing, photograph elk. I don't know about the others, but I did not recognize them, I suspect they came from other areas if not other states.

Big Bull at Sunrise by 43/21

Mind you this is the dead season for tourism. People come to this area to do two things in winter. Hike and watch the elk. This is a needed income injection for our area, one that should not be dismissed. Looked at correctly, everyone in positions of authority should understand how fundamentally important elk viewing is in Boxley Valley. It is not about just the valley, it is about the region and the state.

Any consideration of hunting elk in Boxley Valley is absolute economic suicide. Game and Fish must walk away from this hunt idea. There are plenty of places to hunt elk. With a tiny herd, there is no reason to hunt in Boxley Valley. We cannot afford to take the tourism loss.

There were two herds in the valley this morning. One in the south Ponca fields and a second around the 43/21 intersection. It was just beautiful to see the elk in the frosty fields. There were some strays other places in the valley.

Below is the map for today's elk herds.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

1/11/12 Elk Herd Map & Report

Elk viewing was good today. There was only one herd of any significance in Boxley Valley and it was in the south end down by Smith Creek. That field has been hands down the best field for the last six months. It is not worked and is fallow. The elk seem to love it with its abundant grass and river right behind the field.

This herd still has a major bull working it. He showed some "running" gestures this morning, a surprise this late after the rut.

This morning I got a picture of Prince sparring. Computer problems have prevented me from posting it today, but I was re-assured to see this magnificent national class bull today. He is the rarest of the rare.

There were some bulls sprinkled here and there, but mostly except for this one herd, the valley was vacant. Often the valley is completely vacation. The diet of an elk is only about 50% grass according to biologists, so they spend a lot of time eating along roadsides and in the woods.

It is difficult to understand how so few elk can be considered a problem by those dedicated to hollering that they are a nuisance. When weighed against the extraordinary tourist traffic and revenues generated by elk viewing, expanding and now in all seasons, surely any talk of hunting in Boxley Valley is self-defeating madness.

There must be no elk hunting of any sort in Boxley Valley. There are plenty of places to hunt, but to foul a multi-state tourism magnet is plain foolish. It is also not safe, but that is not the point. The point is tourism, and badly needed tourism that must be protected in a down economy that continues to deteriorate. We need to wake up people in authority and kill any proposal for hunting in Boxley Valley permanently. It is misguided and self-defeating when we need tourism revenues.

Let's remedy the farmer complaints by paying them for damages and grazing competition.

Our leaders should not lose sight of the fact that Missouri has started an elk herd. Missouri wants our elk tourism. We should not make it easy for Missouri to take our elk tourists by hunting in Boxley Valley.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ozark Wildlfower Season 2 Months Off

Crested Iris -- Lost Valley
Mark your calendars to visit for spring wildflower season. The spring season runs from late March until about the first of June. The easiest way to time the beginning of the season is to track the emergence of daffodils. When the daffodils are ready to bloom, the very first wildflowers should be in bloom.

Wild flower season follows pretty predictable patterns each year, but the blooming dates shift around according to weather and micro environment. This can move peak blooming dates a week or so.

Maybe the most interesting part of this is micro environmental factors. Lowlands and hollers bloom first and mountains much later. There seems to be a difference in bloom times in different hollers. For example, Lost Valley is about a week ahead of Smith Creek Preserve.

Selective Light and Dreamy Bokeh Convey the
Emotion of Spring Wildflowers -- Lost Valley
Some of the destinations favor certain wildflowers. For example, Smith Creek Preserve is great for Dutchman's Breeches, Lost Valley has a great Ozark Wake Robin (trillium) bloom.

Remember that there are early species and late species. The bloom dates between them can be over a month. To get all the species you need to make many visits and visit different locations.

Make this the year you start a "bucket list" for wildflowers. My bucket list has gone beyond collecting species and now includes getting better poses for each species.  I will do a few different posts on wildflowers in the coming weeks.

You never actually "get" a flower species, your compositions show different moments in composition, time and light. My belief is that taking pictures of wildflowers is a powerful way to strengthen your compositional skills. When you see a great wildflower picture, you are witnessing the command of the camera, an understanding of existing light, the play of color, and negative space, etc.

Because wildflower photography is deceptively difficult, working at wildflower photography will carry over to all your photography. Wildflower photography is more than a great time, it will strengthen all your skills. The 2012 season is now just a bit over 2 months away.

1/10/2012 Updated Elk Viewing Report & Map

There was only one herd in Boxley Valley the last two visits. It has been located in the southernmost field near Smith Creek on the south end of the valley. This was probably the best single location to view elk in 2011. The field is largely fallow and it is close to quality refuge and water.

Elk graze in the woodlands about as much as in pastures. This year's outstanding acorn harvest has given them many food choices. Perhaps they have spent a bit more time in the woodlands that other recent years.

Latest location map is below:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Elk Viewing Excellent 1/6/12

This morning there were 3 herds in the Boxley Valley fields. In addition, there were two small groups of bulls in post-rut herds. Overall I would rate the elk viewing as excellent and pretty much covering the valley from end to end. It very seldom gets better than this.

One of the bulls has a wound on his back. I have been emailed about him. I saw him this morning and he seems to be healing well. He lost a pretty big piece of hide last year, possibly in a hunting injury, but it is not clear to me how it happened. The good news is that he seems to have scabbed over and looks healthy.

This is a perfect weekend to visit and see the elk. This weather is ideal for hiking with moderate temperatures and outstanding leaf-off scenery.

See the map for details on the elk herd locations. These are pretty reliable between updates of the map. There are more elk now in the valley than in a while.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Elk Viewing & Locations

Today there were three herds in Boxley Valley -- two of them were large.

For many days now there has been one herd in the Ponca fields north of the observation pullout near Lost Valley. Other days it has been up closer to the launch in the northern most field. When we went past there this morning the elk were still in plain view at 9AM.

The second large herd has been around the 43/21 intersection now for a few days.

The third herd is an all bull herd in the first field north of the Buffalo River down by Cave Mountain Road. This is just a few animals, but they are large. Most people will not see them because they are quite far from the road -- Highway 21.

Remember to check Lost Valley when you visit. Today that Ponca herd was quite close to Lost Valley and could well rotate into those fields tonight.

Be safe. Elk viewing will be great for months yet.

Steps to Photo Mastery in 2012

This first day of 2012 was perfect. This was a morning of fewer opportunities but it was wonderful to be out shooting and just walking around. Old photographers, like old hunters, appreciate just being out there. There is no bad day with the camera, especially in the wild. 

This morning I hiked a short upper wilderness stretch of the Buffalo National River, known as the Hailstone. Yesterday I got pictures of otter in a nearby farm pond. Otter often move every day and today was no different. I bet on a couple of upstream pools that might hold them today but that turned out to be wrong. I thought it was no better than a 30% shot that I would see them -- it was OK. 

Long Scale, Two Colors, Shapes & Lines
Winter Photography is a Time to Learn
I did get a decent landscape, but like most winter river landscapes it is austere. I consider winter the best time to work on your skills as a photographer. I love the simplicity. 

I stalk through the ice, detritus and steel blue water shopping patterns and long tonal scales. What were bright colors are now shades of brown. This is a season that favors black and white, and minimalists like me. 

I practice one fundamental exercise with many variations. I challenge myself to find photos where there seem to be none. Generally I will do this with one lens. There is no distraction from the task at hand. My goal and focus is to find photos where there seem to be none

At its base, a photo is a symphony of colors, lines, shapes and tonal values organized in a pleasing pattern. You task is to recognize what is plainly in front of you, then make choices about what to include, and what to throw away. This includes choosing with your heart. It is a simple idea, but tough to pull off. 

Becoming more thoughtful about the creative process of deconstruction and reconstruction will be one key to your success. There is such a thing as talent, but there is nothing here that cannot be taught and improve anyone's skills. Even the talented, perhaps especially the talented, need to understand what they do naturally through deconstruction if they are to reach the next level

The point of practice some ways is to make the intuitive deliberate then more deeply intuitive, in a deepening cycle of learning. Much as athletes do drills regardless of skill level, photographers must do their drills regardless of skill level. Pablo Casals, the great cellist said that one day without practice and he would notice it, two days without practice and his audience would notice it. 

The point is this, the path to mastery has no final destination. We all travel this path. If we work at our craft, we continue down the mastery path closer to the destination that will never be reached. If we do our exercises, we will move down that path more quickly. The satisfaction comes in the learning process, and experiencing days like today. Surely one thing learned along the path to mastery is that accepting what nature gives us is blessing enough.