Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lens Upgrade Hell

My walk-around lens (Canon EF-S 17-85mm) choked. On vacation, where it was the only lens I had with me (i.e. "walk-around") it was giving me error messages rather than showing me the image (that it sometimes took anyway) telling me that I needed to clean the contacts. I cleaned them and it continued to choke.

taken just outside of Kelowna, BC, in-between chokes
According to my new, internet lens-buddies, this was a not uncommon occurrence with this lens. And I had my choice of what to do about it: 1) I could send it to Canon, who would charge me more than the lens was worth to fix it; OR 2) I could buy what may-or-may-not be the device that needs fixing on e-bay, buy the tools required to swap out said device, watch videos that purport to demonstrate how to swap out said device that may-or-may-not be the culprit, and then attempt to fix it myself; OR 3) I could take this opportunity to sell the lens (the glass is perfect) and buy an upgrade.

Door number 3.

And thus I embarked on the search for what that upgrade may be. Anyone of you who has ever tried to find the perfect walk-around lens knows that I had just entered the deranged realm of the astigmatic brain and the pixilated gaze. FOR WEEKS!

It was so simple when I was about to purchase my first DSLR. Then it was just a matter of asking for advice on one photo forum and taking what seemed to be the most sensible suggestion. It was the right choice for six years.

Ah, but now that I know more (or just think I do) and am familiar with more sites that are supposed to help me make an informed decision, I spent weeks narrowing my choices down and then rented the two top contenders based on quality and my checkbook. And then went over the same ground that had led me to these two lenses again and again.

The sites that talk about and/or demonstrate lens image quality are wonderful tools and will drive you to drink (or to substantially increased drinking).

The Optometrist Approach: Which is better, number one or number two? The people who go to the enormous trouble of taking lenses through all of their settings with some sort of image quality chart (a popular one shown below as rendered by Stephen H. Westin here: are doing us all an enormous favor. 

 These tests do reveal a lot.  And, after overuse, can reveal one to be obsessive/compulsive and in need of glasses. AND, some of us then feel the need to reproduce (very badly) what these experts have already done. Over and over. And then one comes to the conclusion that nothing looks clear, just more or less clear. 

--Seriously though (for a minute), I really do recommend taking a look at this excellent site for one of the easiest to use tools where you can plug in two different lenses, match f/stops and cameras and compare the results. Just don't drive yourself nuts with it: 
Pause for my kind of clarity with my trusty macro lens.
Hamamelis × intermedia 'Jelena' blooming right now

Now if you want to take this sort of thing further--and who wouldn't?--there's a subset to the Optometrist approach some have called:

Pixel-Peeping. One wants a sharp lens. Yes one does. But it would seem that there's sharp and then there's SharpIf I'd wanted 
Sharp, I should have been willing to spend multiple-times more money on "L" glass--professional grade for full-frame Canon cameras. But mine is not full-frame, and I am far from professional. To peep at pixels then is to compare relative lack of perfections but not to achieve perfection. One throws images up on a computer screen, enlarges a portion of an image until all one sees are pixels or just short of that, and then gazes at relative soft edges.

However, is this how one actually looks at photographs? No. I know this. I don't even print my images, so they remain computer-screen sized which makes most decent shots look like they were chiseled by fairy hands. Ah but I know those pixels are there, lazily spilling out over their borders. It maddens me. And yet I have little choice. Better not to look. Though I do.  

And then when I have thoroughly driven myself and my spouse crazy, I turn to the only people left who can stand to work these questions even further into the ground:

Internet Forum Opinions or Seeking Swarm Intelligence: Oh god, this is the worst. Why would I seek the opinions of strangers? And why would their opinions matter unless they owned both lenses? And why would they own both lenses? 
Actually, what they hate helps more. Loving a lens just means you haven't found it to get in the way of your photograph. It hasn't frustrated you or ruined a shot for you. Looking at your photos tells me nothing other than your skills or lack thereof as a photographer. I don't really care. But if you tell me that you dislike the soft edges this lens always delivers or that you find the focus ring to be sticky, that tells me something useful.
And yet what I really want is for someone to tell me I'm making the right choice. sigh

I did make a choice and am satisfied with it. So now there's just the drumming of fingers until UPS arrives with my new lens. Just in time for several weeks of rain.

Another macro lens shot while I'm waiting.
Dwarf Maiden Grass
Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio'

Thursday, November 7, 2013


There are lots of spider webs around here. I mean LOTS of them. The delivery woman carries a stick to slash through the tangle strung across the porch so she can bring packages to the front door without having to worry about arachnids crawling through her hair. There's one that's been dangling in front of our kitchen window for months (spider not delivery woman). It occasionally catches a fly and consumes it while I'm stuffing a chicken. And Bailey sometimes trails the remnants of a web as he dashes in to escape what stays caught on his ears and tail. They are everywhere.

And they're beautiful in their delicacy, the way the light breaks across the drops of water caught on the strands and splits into colors, the way strings of those drops drape like ropes of pearls: Nature's Flapper necklace.

But without the moisture, when the filaments double back on themselves, they make the flowers look unkempt, fussing up the smooth petals, contorting the leaves by pulling at the surface, and dulling the colors of the plant until, perhaps, we no longer see the plant at all.  

I think this might have been a red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), but now it just looks like the armature for a spider's nervous breakdown, strung with illogical knots and aborted strands headed nowhere.

If I'd never seen this plant before, what would I look at first?  Would it be the damage, the web?  Would I dismiss the plant and move on to something else?  Would I even recognize what it used to be and still was?

Which brings me to a minor health event. While waiting for my sutures to come out this past week, I wondered, "Is this the way I'll see my face:  pulled and lined and dulled like a web-twisted plant? The doctor will see the quality of his work; the scar has a beauty for him. He knows what he accomplished, and my face becomes for him another creation, another success. 

But I will see how it pinches and slices what was once (relatively) smooth. I imagine how others will stare, caught by the web the scar presents, no longer seeing me as I was.

Before I got my stitches out, it was difficult to see beyond the green/blue Frankenstein sutures. I'm not prone to body art, so accentuating the twisted tissue into a kind of face-painting didn't do too much for me--hell, I don't even have pierced ears.  And, believe me,  I know the main thing is that the cancer is gone. I know others who have battled (won and lost) far more formidable opponents than mine. 
All the same, I was afraid of what I'd see and of ceasing to be who I am in the eyes of others. 

 And then the stitches came out.  I have a scar, a canal arcing down from my left eye and then branching out into two short red streams.  It's not at all as bad as I'd feared.  And though I notice eyes darting to it, lingering just a moment longer than a heartbeat, they return to my eyes and nothing has changed.
Campanula punctata 'Cherry Bells'

The spiders are still active in the garden.  But the flowers that have continued through Autumn don't seem much bothered by them.  The Campanula on the right barely tolerates the cobwebs that attempt to anchor themselves to its petals.  The color alone almost burns through the lacing.

And the spider silks pulling at the Anemone bud below aren't going to keep it from flowering. 


Thursday, September 5, 2013

We're Still Here

I just watched a video of Elaine Stritch singing "I'm Still Here" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Even though she spends part of the time forgetting, trying to remember, and then struggling to hear her accompanist singing out the words to the song, she brings down the house (which includes President and Michelle Obama). How much more perfect could it be? Before beginning, Stritch bemoans the fact that she's heard women in their 60s, their 50s, and even one in her 40s doing this number. But, to her mind, you've got to be at least 80-something to really mean it.

So why begin my blog post with this? The song is swimming around in my head now. I usually hate it when I get an earworm, but this is different. It's comforting somehow. First of all, it's Sondheim, and I adore his work. But second, the guts and the promise of the song gives me courage (as well as a few laughs).  And--you knew I'd get there eventually--it's so like a garden. 

Haven't you had a plant that keeps coming back, year after unlikely year? You try to help it through tender youth, forget to cover it for its first winter, perhaps it stays dormant (perhaps dead) the next year, but then doubles its original size the following year? 

It does well; you ignore it in favor of other, newer, showier garden purchases. But it flourishes anyway. Then you notice it's wilting; you over-water it, and now it's turning black. You nearly dig it up before it infects its neighbors but you forget (lots of forgetting in gardening). And it comes back stronger the next year, and you don't remember that it nearly died. It makes it through weather, drought, flood, several presidential administrations, general neglect, and YOU. And it's still here.

There are those spots where someone some time ago thought a plant might look good.  She watered it for a season, then tired of the maintenance. Other projects took precedence, maybe someone else bought the property and the plant was part of the package, no more to the new owner than the paint on the walls or the rusting bench. But it survived.

Fresh paint and a pair of Adirondack chairs revive an old house in St. John's, Newfoundland. But those neglected, stunted shrubs look like they're simply hanging on out of a kind of botanical perversity.  They don't really "belong" anymore, but they're still there.

I'm a long(ish) ways from 80. But there are times when I feel like this lone, lopsided apple, hanging on towards the end of the season. 

Other times, this one-eyed Eastern Screech Owl (I think it's a Screech Owl) reminds me a little too much of how my body can restrict and even fail me.  Yet I love how thoroughly pissed off he seems.

But most of the time, I like to imagine that I'm a lot like these beach grasses:  tough enough to withstand weather, isolation, neglect, and time, at least while there is still time.

Or the biker. 

   (The biker is waiting for a ferry, but that's just a tad TOO symbolic, don't you think?)

 Watch Elaine Stritch singing "I'm Still Here" here:

Monday, August 5, 2013

Other People's Gardens

Apparently I don't look it, but I'm shy.  And big parties can make me especially nervous. So when we were invited to a barbeque where I'd only know two people, I figured having a prop might be a good idea. When people noticed I was hauling (OK, it's not THAT big, but definitely more noticeable than any P & S or iPhone) my Canon 60D, they'd say, "Oh, you've got your camera." And with a smile I'd reply, "Yes I do." Then I'd quickly put it up to my eye and shoot something, anything, and thus I would seem both friendly and occupied. A winning combination. Much better than the Scotch neat I used to carry years ago to get me through a house-full of relative strangers (or strange relatives--but that's a whole different story). And, in my experience, one's hosts appreciate the attention one is paying to their gardening efforts far more than they would the chattering of a formerly quiet but now alarmingly outgoing guest.

However, it turns out there are more advantages than just giving a tongue-tied person something socially acceptable to do. As I've said too many times here before, I'm lousy at landscapes. Yet it appears that when I'm driven to take a wider view of an unfamiliar place, and when that wider view is as beautiful as the one in this particular garden, I'm not as bad as I'd thought.

This is one of those places where you drive several miles along a gently winding road so thickly lined with tall trees that you can't see the properties that might or might not lie just behind them. There are glimpses of the mountains further away, but that's about it. However, once you take the turn off the road and drive the long gravel path to the house, the sky opens up, and you're somewhere else entirely. A beautiful somewhere else.

And while there is a difference between shooting your own flower beds (over and over again) and shooting in an unfamiliar space, there is a special joy in photographing a private garden.  Most public grounds have views so consciously created and so identified with the place itself  that they're practically labeled "photograph this from here, no, two inches to your right." This is known as "the postcard shot" for its guaranteed, generic beauty at almost any time of year. Nice, but one feels compelled rather than inspired to take the shot. 

Private gardens have views too, but usually they've been designed by the people who live there every day, who walk the grounds at all hours, and have no board of directors to please.  There is no one, special place to stand, so the views are, in a sense, created each time by the viewer.



I am still a macro photographer at heart, and, even with my walk-around lens, flowers and butterflies on a lovely summer's day are almost impossible to overlook.  And, of course, there's the added bonus that a crouching person who's holding her breath as well as a heavy camera is best left alone.

Other people's gardens can inspire the photographer as well as the gardener. And though I'm not at my best photographing people, my lovely friend, Louise, seemed so much a part of the experience of this beautiful view, that I had no trouble taking the shot.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Letting Go of Gardening (for a day)

Summer is the season for watering, weeding, and wondering what needs to be added, subtracted, or simply altered. It's a time of lists and listlessness (and alliteration). Sometimes it feels like I'm deadheading more than delighting in (no more alliteration, I promise.); I see more spent blooms than I do fresh ones. And weeds. Need I say more?

So I gave myself a day off:  No pruners, kneeling pad, bucket or spade. Even carrying a tripod and a heavy, macro lens seemed like too much, too focused (I didn't say there'd be no puns). So armed with only my walk-around lens ( 17-85mm) and sunscreen, I took a stroll in my own garden.

On my way to photograph a giant Common Mullein, two butterflies formed sailors' knots around the Catmint (Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low' ) and Lavatera thuringiaca.

Nepeta x faassenii 'Walker's Low'

Lavatera thuringiaca
It's funny. Often I plant flowers for the birds and butterflies, but I don't often take time to watch them enjoying the garden I planted for them.

 Oh yes, I'll look up from my weeding when one flutters by, but the sweat dripping into my eyes makes me turn my head back down to my task. 

Today I simply got to watch them garland the garden, vibrating along with the flowers in the breeze.

Verbascum thapsus

 After they flew off, I moved on to this year's curiosity. I know, I know, Common Mullein is called that for a reason. But it wasn't common to me. It began as just some fuzzy leaves at the base of a Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima). At first I thought it was
Lamb's Ears (Stachys byzantina), but the color was a bit too green.
I left it there for two years to see what would come of it. The first year, it was just a rosette of leaves.  But the second year, it shot up with a flower stalk, just shy of eight feet and still growing! For something so common it's pretty darned impressive. I did pull it out though. The Feather Grass is prettier and the mullein is a weed that will spread.  But seeing it evolve was worth the time, much better than simply reading about it. 

Further on was the new Rockrose (Cistus × dansereaui 'Jenkyn Place' ).  Even without a macro lens, I could get close enough and crop tightly enough to really get into the design. There's something so "Southwest" about that red area, like a hand-woven rug or a hand-painted skirt.  This was nothing I noticed when I bought it. 

I ended the morning with a stubborn Meadow-rue (Thalictrum 'Elin' ).  A Douglas Fir branch had blocked some of the sun and all of its growth trajectory, so it bent, swerved, and looped its way up to seven feet, and then (and only then) it flowered in one big AHA!  I didn't see the spider web until I uploaded my pictures into Lightroom.  There's something magical about Meadow-rue.  I always seem to see more once I'm looking at the shots on the computer screen, as if the plant continued to evolve digitally.

My stroll took me all of ten feet into one of the beds (probably about a third of the circumference).  I don't know if I learned more about letting go of plans and expectations as a photographer or about letting go of the gardening as a gardener.  But both work.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Significance of the Insignificant Flower: or,

As I've written several times before (see "My Macro Lens and Me"), I photograph with a narrow eye; expansive I am not. Once in awhile I can capture a barn in a field, but large areas of garden overwhelm my brain. Just like crowds and malls and large urban train stations, gardens in bloom distract and then quickly engulf me. I go into full sensory overload. However, unlike crowds and malls and large urban train stations, gardens don't make me shut down or feel the urge to flee. But I also don't feel the urge to pick up my camera. Where to focus when everything is singing (or screaming) to be photographed?

I AM working on this, but, for now, it's back to my macro lens. And what shows that off better than teensy, tiny flowers that look like points of light or nothing at all in a landscape photo?

For instance, Siberian Miner's Lettuce makes a lovely ground cover for part-shade, 

but you have to get close to really admire the individual flowers.  The common name "Candy Flower" makes more sense now.

Claytonia sibirica

 It's true that plants with distinctive foliage like the Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost' are often grown just for the attractive green and white leaves alone.  And they're pretty cool. . . . I mean, leaves are good. . . . I like leaves. (sound of drumming fingers). . . . . Leaves are important. (more drumming)   However, I don't think I'd have bought the plants (I have several) without those tiny, blue flowers in spring.
Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'
And then there are the plants that offer little more than a boring clump of leaves that grow in the shade. At least the Brunnera is varigated. Take the bland (really bland) Epimedium. For me, they were just some plants that suffered silently in the shade until part-way into summer, they'd shrivel and die. I'd water the dead leaves. And watch them stay pretty much dead except for one or two that would revive. Exciting stuff. I mean the common names are things like "Bishop's Hat" and "Barren Wort."  What do you expect?   But THIS year was different! Not only are they thriving (yes, they weren't as dead as they looked), but they bloody well flowered!  A little.

Epimedium x rubrum

 Not the prettiest posies in the world, but there they were, waving around under the (boring) leaves, trying to get my attention.  And they did.

 Right now, my absolute favorite is the glasses-not-optional flowers of the 'Purple Fantasy' Fleeceflower:

Yes, the Polygonum microcephalum (Persicaria microcephala synonym) does have cool leaves and a kind of odd-ball shape filled with kinks and unexpected patterns. But the teensy, tiny flowers just blew me away. You REALLY need a macro lens and some cropping to get a close look. But it's worth it.

What are your favorite "insignificant" flowers?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Meditations on White

A long, long time ago, in a city far, far away, my photographs were never in color.  It wasn't only that black and white film was a lot less complicated to develop and print; I just didn't much care for color. (I also spent a lot of time going to Ingmar Bergman films by myself, if that helps). And I had very little interest in gardens, although I lived in a climate of four-season flowers.

Now I live where growing time is limited and color is precious. So white flowers don't really do that much for me. Yes, they light up dark areas in a garden and do a good job of attracting pollinators in forests. But there's something too cold, even forbidding about them.

White in western culture brings to mind purity, innocence, even a clean-slate. Brides, babies, and new beginnings. But most East and South-Asian cultures wear white to funerals.  And in "The Whiteness of the Whale" chapter from Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes of the fear induced by the paleness of the dead, the white shroud, the ghost that arises. Then there's the horror experienced when confronted by the abyss that is no color and all colors.  When staring up at the star-filled night sky, Ishmael wonders if the indefiniteness of whiteness "shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?"

carrot flowers
(Daucus carota subsp. sativus)
 And there's just something sort of creepy about white flowers.  The flowers on the left that bloomed from carrots I never dug up have that "bride of death," horror film feel to them.

 The sweet-smelling yet highly toxic Lily of the Valley below is often used for bridal bouquets.  Seems like an odd or at least an ironic choice.
Convallaria majalis


Maybe my aversion is more about the idea of purity and innocence.  
Actual innocence is a kind of blankness, a lack of experience.  Do we exalt that state because it is valuable or because we mourn our spotted lives, our lives cluttered with good and bad, right and wrong. We long for a chance to begin again, to try for perfection by consciously returning to a state of perfection. But it doesn't work that way.

Life is messy. We all do terrible things. And we must live with that. What could be more poignant, what could be more human? This is not to say we should celebrate our mistakes. We celebrate that we live with them. And every experience, every spot and every tear, adds to that life. And, for me, a touch of color adds to, even redeems, the whiteness of a flower.

Starflower (Trientalis borealis)

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Fine Art of Botanical Self-Defense: Spines

So you think spring is the time of soft, green grass; brightly, colored flowers; and sweet smells. And it is. But don't be fooled. That innocent-looking garden is armed and (somewhat) dangerous. Welcome to the world of thorns, spines, and prickles.

First, a quickie lesson and/or review.
Roses don't have thorns--though many poets would have it so.
Roses have prickles.  They can--with the right gloves--be scraped off.  Thorns and spines, not so much.

The sharp plant bits that snag our clothes, puncture our gloveless fingers, and surprise unwanted guests are defined by their tissues rather than the pain they produce.

Thorns are modified branches: think hawthorne trees and flowering quince
Spines are modified leaves: think cacti and holly
Prickles are modified bark or skin (sort of), basically epidermal tissue: think roses

The spines in my garden come in two varieties:  ones that appear at the leaf margins and ones erupting from the branches.

Some California Lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) have small holly-like leaves.  And for most of the year, they're really all you see.  But when the flowers begin to bloom, I often lose sight of the rest of the plant, and want to lean in for a better look

Ceanothus gloriosus ' Pt. Reyes'

But they are so small and the flowers are so very small, that you're practically nose-to-nose with them before you realize how close you're coming to some less than friendly spines.

Barberry (Berberis spp.) was one of the first new plants I encountered when we moved up here. I loved the textures and the colors; it seemed both fierce and graceful and now I have four of them.

The darwinii has these amazingly orange flowers, and, like the Ceanothus above, it has small, spiny leaves.

Berberis darwinii 
Berberis thunbergii 'Rosy Glow'

On the other hand, the lovely 'Rosy Glow' has smooth, soft leaves. But the spines hide underneath them. 

These spines do more than frustrate the tactile gardener; they protect the plant from actual predators. Neither large animals nor small insects (with relatively large mouths) like munching or even walking through "armed" (truly, the technical term) plants.  Which is probably why these particular shrubs make charming hedges for those whose neighbors are less than congenial.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Brain Mumbles

Maybe it's the rain, but my brain will not latch onto anything, not any one thing. What's a term for being tongue-tied with writing and/or photography? It feels like trying to say "goat snouts mouths" over and over quickly. 

 Go ahead and try it.

That's what my brain feels like.

So the solution is to post nothing? Though I'm more likely to shoot off a "roll" of blah photos than I am to scribble random thoughts, I'm reluctant to post them.  So I just park myself in a corner and sulk.

It's been a year, yet I'm still a total beginner at this blogging thing.  My dear friend (and fabulous blogger)  Dee Dee recently reminded me that not every post needs to be "perfect."  Not every image needs a reason beyond my liking it.

I like this image   

And not every word needs to be anything more than mine.

Maybe I just need to air out my thoughts--once the rain stops--take a deep breath . . . and admire some plant hairs.

I like this image too