Wildlife Photography(?)

Wildlife Photography(?)

I bought an expensive lens last December for photographing birds and wildlife. In the beginning there was a steep learning curve and, for now, I have been using it mostly for birds. I am satisfied with only a few shots so far, but it’s always a lot of fun to use; and it also motivated me to extend my ornithological knowledge. But from the beginning I was also very keen to shoot wildlife: red deer, fallow deer, foxes, rabbits, badgers. But I rarely found the time to either gain the knowledge and to research how to do it properly or to go outside and try it out. But by now, I think I have made enough research on how to approach the challenge that I feel at least confident to give it a few tries outside: Always care for the wind, camouflage appropriately, research the animal you are aiming for, and most importantly, be ready to invest a lot of time and be patient.

On Thursday and Friday I made my first two attempts. Due to work, I started at the unusual time of 2 p.m. My location research seemed to be quite good though: On both days I encountered several deer, multiple rabbits, and a fox. However, all of the shots are totally unusable because I never could get close enough or a nice angle. Mostly, because I did not dare to get closer to the animals; but also two times because I scared some of the deer away when they noticed (I guess) my smell because of turning winds; and multiple times because they got scared by other people walking the paths in the narrow woods.

So, for now, I can only offer the first flowers blooming in the forest and simplistic landscape shots from these two days. But I am hoping that I soon find the time to go for more attempts in the early mornings and some first proper shots. I am also planning to check out other areas and to try a stationary hide instead of stalking.

Exploration / Exploitation

Exploration / Exploitation

Reinforcement Learning is one of three main approaches for machine learning and can be described as follows: An autonomous agent observes the environment and performs actions to reach a pre-defined goal. A reward function gives feedback to the agent according to how close it was to reach the desired goal; otherwise, the agent has no information on which actions lead to the largest reward. The agent tries to maximize its gained reward in each learning iteration. And in every learning iteration the agent is caught in the exploration / exploitation dilemma: It could either exploit the already gained knowledge of the environment to safely receive the highest reward that it currently knows. But then it may miss other, still unknown options with potential higher reward. Or it could explore the still unknown environment to search for even greater reward. However, it may potentially walk off with even less than when taking the save option.

Solving the dilemma efficiently is difficult, but one intuitive way is as follows: In the beginning, most of the environment, and thus potential reward, is unknown, so the agent has to start by exploring a lot. With time, the agent knows more and more of the environment and can start to utilize its knowledge from time to time. After many iterations, it can then maximize the reward with the known options and only infrequently explore new ones.

The same applies in photography: I could either exploit a known place with known reward, or I could explore an unknown location. If I only choose the first option, I will never find all the beautiful spots out there. And if I always choose the latter, I will miss many good opportunities at good locations while checking out some new places.

Last weekend we decided for the latter: My father and I entered the parking lot at 5 a.m. to, again, get on top of Achtermannshöhe in the Harz Mountains before sunrise (check out Clear Skies and Minus 14 Degrees). From the weather forecast it was unclear if we will be engulfed in clouds or if the clear sky would stretch out above us. Luckily, it was mostly the latter, with some distant orange strips of haze and clouds illuminated by the rising sun. We persevered for 90 minutes in the freezing cold with numb hands and feet, but a breathtaking view made it worth it. In the North, the silhouette of the Brocken towers; in the East, black trees in contrast to orange and purple plains stretching behind; rolling hills dipped into pastel colors in the South; and in the West, the Upper Harz in blue and purple with alternating rows of dead and healthy trees.

After the hike back down we entered the parking lot for a second time, but this time with good memories and full SD cards. For the next adventure, I think I will choose exploration instead.

Finding Balance

Finding Balance

The composition of a photo can be balanced when the objects are equally positioned in the frame; the colors can be balanced by choosing a consistent or diverging color palette; the brightness can be balanced when the luminosities are equally distributed. Photos that are in balance can look more pleasing or calm and can help to guide the viewer through the frame. However, imbalance of specific aspects can also be used deliberately: to concentrate focus on specific areas, to evoke feelings of discomfort, or to cause tension.

In mathematics, when a target function is non-convex there are multiple local optima and finding the global optimum is difficult. Imagine the landscape around you: If you always ascend in the steepest direction you will likely end up on a hill, but not the highest one. And then it’s hard to leave, because at first, all surrounding areas will be lower. To reach the global optimum, you need to adapt your strategy and find balance: Where should you start your search? How large should be the steps you are taking? Is the steepest direction always the best one? And might it be worth to leave the current local optimum to find a better one?

Balance is important in life: Most of all, balance between work and spare time, but also between friends and family, between body and mind, balanced sleep, balanced food, and so much more. When I am working long hours, I am craving for some free time; when I have longer stretches of free time, I get restless or feel useless. As in photography, the difficult part is to choose what should be in balance right now and in which aspects some imbalance might be fine: How to choose the right colors? How to tune the brightness? How to position all objects of interest in one single frame? And as in mathematics, the path of finding the right balance is uncertain as well: When to leave a local optimum? When to take larger steps? How to find the global optimum? In life even more so, because the landscape is not static with the highest peak fixed at a certain position instead the landscape changes with time and a high peek once found may become a valley over time.

When I have been outside in the recent weeks to find some balance, I have been mainly shooting early spring flowers. But we also visited lambs in the neighborhood and goose are roaming the fields where we often go for an evening walk.

Love is in the Air

Love is in the Air

Last Sunday, I explored a small nature reserve close to our home I haven’t visited before. It’s characterized by small, shallow lakes, surrounded by reed belts and swampy meadows. The weather was rather disappointing but also typical for such an early spring day. The wind was blowing strong and cold from the east and the clouds scurried quickly across the dark sky. I had abandoned the first lens I bought back in October last year in favor of my newer ones, but I retrieved it for that day. It was an enjoyable change, trying to shoot some simple landscapes and to capture the mood of the moment. I also experimented quite a bit with some of the more hidden options of my camera and felt the black and white mode was appropriate for the scenery:

The day before, I had also spotted a lonely stork at the same nature reserve when driving by. He was on a wooden post that had not been occupied the year before, but I stopped only briefly for some quick photos:

So on Sunday I was hoping to meet him again to shoot some additional pictures. I was not only not disappointed, but this time he also had company. And both of them seemed to be neither interested in the dull weather and the light rain nor in the cautious photographer. Instead, they were rather occupied with themselves. They checked their nest under construction, watched each other gently, and synchronized their movements (intentionally, as it seemed to the external observer). In these situations, it is easy to forget the weather, the rain, the place, and time. I hope I can come back soon, and if the weather plays along, I am hoping for a picture of the two in front of the full moon next week.

At the moment I often feel as fortunate as I imagine these two storks feel in their newly built home. I also have someone to share home with, someone to fool around with, someone to synchronize with. It takes time, and sometimes it takes effort, but most of all it doesn’t take, but it gives: It gives moments of bliss and happiness and moments of gratitude and comfort. It’s the short daily breakfast, and the long adventures outdoors; it’s the willingness to try something new, and the teasing and playful banter; it’s the more profound conversation, and it’s the silent walks. And I feel my love growing more and more from day to day.

Bees, Data, and Everyday Life

Bees, Data, and Everyday Life

Bees are responsible for the pollination of <insert your favorite number here> percent of all agricultural crop.

Some website, at some time, somewhere on the internet.

If you are searching long enough, you can find every information you are looking for somewhere on the internet — and it’s tiring. Oftentimes, I want to answer a seemingly simple question (For how much pollination of agricultural crops are bees responsible?) and then I am occupied for the rest of the evening searching for some truth within a vast number of secondary sources. This post was supposed to be a short one about some evening photos of the first bees I spotted; instead it is a collection of thoughts about information on the internet, and the environment.

There is quite some stuff going wrong in this world and I think one of the causes is the complexity, variety, and multiplicity of available data. Thus, people who want to push their agenda can easily select, transform, or present data to support their point. Or just manufacture false data that becomes hardly distinguishable from ‘real’ data and blurs the line between fact and fiction. How scary this can get can be easily seen when looking at the election interference during the 2016 presidential election in the USA or the general data manipulation and surveillance in China. But also in everyday life, I find it increasingly difficult to make informed decisions because finding the best data is time intensive and one has to weigh up many different aspects:

You want to support the environment by avoiding plastic packaging? Sounds like a superb idea, but be prepared to invest some thoughts about the alternatives. Single-use glass and bottle packaging is probably worse due to increased weight and associated CO2 emissions. Cotton bags are too resource-intensive in their production. Paper packaging is even worse with respect to its carbon footprint and uses lots of wood- and water-resources. And in general: Is it even worth it when looking at the amounts of waste that is produced in the general economy? (However, you should definitely try it and also (if you are German-speaking) check out this.)

You want to stop livestock farming by going vegan? Also wonderful, but be prepared to closely question all of the substitute products which will in turn be wrapped in tons of plastic, destroy rain forests with their palm oil, and are shipped twice around the world. When looking at the health side, it becomes even more complex: Inconclusive studies with diverging results about how diets do or don’t influence your health depending on your physical condition, characteristics of your diet, and other factors. (However, you should also definitely do it because exploiting or killing animals surely cannot be the alternative.)

And then there is climate change in general: Can you justify to fly several times a year or that you to have two cars? Can you justify a large flat with enormous heating and electricity costs? And what is the most effective way as an individual to achieve a small CO2-footprint? Is it enough to pay for carbon compensation for these things? How does carbon compensation even work? And then there are the popular politicians who still believe in coal until 2038, drive off renewable energies to foreign countries, and do not care about the next generations that will inhabit the planet. We, as individuals, need to strongly adapt our lifestyle, and we, as a community, probably need to restructure our society to be prepared for the changes that are coming.

For now, I guess, I can only focus on some areas and try to progressively add more and more data, and thus more and more changes into my life that are based on informed decision and coincide with my moral and ethical values.

By the way, depending on how and where you are counting, bees are responsible for some of the pollination of agricultural crops, depending mainly on the crop itself, the trans-regional and regional context, the year of observation, and a multitude of other factors. Bees are also declining faster than ever before, however, it is also difficult to confidently quantify this decline. Depending on the country, research seems to agree that their yearly decline is from 10-50%. The following photos are from the first bees I spotted at one of the large intersections in my home town. I adore my macro-lens, the Fujinon 80mm f2.8, as well as the bees — they are wonderful.

And in compliance with all the other articles out there I was too lazy to include any sources for all of the claims here; you have to take the journey yourself and will likely arrive at different conclusions in the end.

Patterns

Patterns

I am quite fascinated by patterns; they are abundant, in nature and in the human-made environment. They help to order and classify, to understand and comprehend. During my work, I am regularly searching for patterns in sequences of characters (more on that in a later post). However, mostly it is not only about finding the pattern, but finding the irregularity, the absence, or the variation of the expected pattern.

If you consult the most-visited nonprofit website, there is a whole list of different types of patterns that occur in nature; a non-exhaustive extract: symmetry, which can occur along multiple axis and dimensions. Trees and fractals are commonly found in plants. The former also emerge naturally as patterns in more complex concepts such as evolutionary relationships. Spirals are a common feature for animals. My favorite category includes chaos, flow, and meanders, the latter ones often caused by flowing water. I have seen countless examples of such wonderful patterns in the nature of Iceland, e.g. check out these photos by Kai Hornung. Waves and dunes are formed by the wind – the ocean is beautifully captured by Rachael Talibart. And then there are all the other ones like tessellations, cracks, spots, or stripes.

All of these are often represented in abstract macro or landscape photography. In the following you find a collection of patterns that we encountered in frozen puddles during our last hike in the Harz Mountains. You can already spot a bunch of the mentioned types, however, I will be looking out for all the other ones I missed so far with the hope to continue this collection in the future.

Clear Skies and Minus 14 Degrees

Clear Skies and Minus 14 Degrees

On the 31st of January this year we went on an early morning hike in the Harz mountains. There was severe snow fall the weeks before and this was one of the first days where the forecast promised clear skies for the higher altitudes – and this time it was correct. Moreover, it was one of the most gorgeous mornings I experienced in quite some time. We had to share the small mountain top Achtermannshöhe with several others who had the same idea, but the light of the slowly rising sun was capturing everyones attention.

I remember the two hours we spent there regularly, and especially how the blue and purple light illuminated the landscape before the sun conquered the horizon. It was also my first attempt to capture a panorama shot with my camera, but I made several mistakes during the process: The only usable part of my attempt is the featured image in the beginning of this post which is merged from three different photos and spans more than 15.000 pixels. Enjoy the images.

Brocken, 1141 metres above sea level, at 07:37 a.m.
Rising sun behind Wurmberg, the cold temperatures were slowly creeping through the clothes.
Sea of clouds towards the south, covering our home town somewhere in the far distance.
Finally, the sun appeared in the east, and all colors changed from a cold blue to a warm orange.
Again Brocken, illuminated by the first rays of light. When zooming in on the full sized picture, you can spot tons of people on the summit.

A few additional impressions from that day:

Fog Clears the View

Fog Clears the View

Forecast: Clear skies, sun the whole day, frosty temperatures in the morning. Reality: Dense fog, no sun for the first hours of daylight, temperatures not cold enough for frost.

That’s how it mostly is – it never comes as expected. I still have to learn to adapt my expectations from forecast to reality. On this particular morning I hoped for ice crystals in front of the rising sun – what I got instead were goose painted on a blank canvas.

Fog drowns the noise and highlights only what is in front of you. And sometimes the unexpected is even better than the forecast: The grey heron was hunting mice directly in front of me and I was able to get closer than ever before.

Know Your Resources

Know Your Resources

On an ordinary day during the last autumn, I saw, for the first time, the common kingfisher – what a beautiful bird. Despite its divergent blue and orange coloring, it is quite hard to spot when sitting still. Only when the kingfisher changes its branch from which it hunts you see a brief blue shimmer darting close above the water. It belongs to the family Alcedinidae whose species are scattered across the whole globe; and most of them are at least as colorful as the common kingfisher (e.g. check out the oriental dwarf kingfisher!). Since then, we have seen the common kingfisher multiple times at a lake close to our home and I have tried to get in on camera at multiple other locations around our town. I spoke with others where to find it, I spent lots of time waiting for it, and I made hundreds of photos of empty branches and little blue dots in the far distance. On some occasions I was somewhat successful, but the clear sight was always interrupted by branches at the locations I visited. Then, last Friday evening after another day of home office, I sought out one of the last spots around our town I haven’t been before during my search for the kingfisher. It’s only 3 minutes from my normal working location but due to the current situation I haven’t been there for a year. And there, directly at a small pond, the perfect location for the king fisher is prepared: A stick curved above the water, a sign that warns uninterested bystanders of the curiosity, and nearby benches and bushes for the interested photographer. I guess, I have to come back next autumn and try my luck here; in the photos below you see my best attempts from this winter.

Work often feels similar to this experience: You search something for a long time before you unexpectedly find it somewhere else. And sometimes you find even more: In this case it was a wonderful sunset and the first spring flowers: