Of image manipulation

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched on a dry reed (2009_12_19_044990)

Ted recently talked about how he cleans up his photos in post-processing, such as removing shadows and bits of dirt.  My friend Nathalie is so adept at image manipulation that she can remove whole people to leave behind the perfect child-on-horseback shot without revealing the adult who was keeping the horse in place.  And my friend Warren, while referring to the background image on my Twitter profile, mentioned something about it being a nice pic considering I don’t do image manipulation.

These things got me thinking about post-processing photographs and what I do and don’t do.  As I said in the comments on Ted’s post, most of my disdain for manipulating images after the fact stems from my concrete inability to do so.  Sure, I can sharpen an image, remove noise, tinker with lightness and contrast, and various other primitives in the world of post-processing, but beyond the simple stuff I have to leave things alone.  Why?  Because I totally suck at it.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched on a twig (2009_12_19_044914)

Add vignetting?  Only if you want it to look like you’re in a train tunnel.  Remove dust and debris from the image?  Only if you want it to look like I removed dust and debris.  Heck, I don’t even know how to create a mask or layer, steps necessary for more advanced manipulation techniques.  And the truth is I have no interest in figuring those things out.

Why?  The answer is twofold.  First: There are many things I would rather be doing than learning how to “Photoshop” an image.  If there are power lines in my landscape photo, then you’re going to see the power lines.  Second: Ignoring that I can digitally create scenes from my photos that never existed in the real world means I have to focus more on the photography and less on creating something later.  No, I’m not a professional photographer by any stretch of the imagination, yet I do think myself at least somewhat capable with a camera after spending years forcing myself to show what the lens caught just like it caught it rather than making the picture after the fact.  To wit, I’d rather be outside taking pictures than sitting inside trying to fix them.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) eating a seed (2009_12_19_044888)

That means learning about filters, such as polarizing, neutral density, UV/haze, IR and intensifiers.  It means learning about ISO and f-stops and exposure and hyperfocal distance.  It means making certain that the camera does the work up front that I can’t and won’t do later.  All that turns into more time doing what I love and less time sitting at a desk cleaning up messes.  Because the more time I spend tinkering with an image, the more of a disaster it becomes.  Heck, I can’t even make small changes to highlights, midtones & shadows or brightness & contrast without washing out the image, so trust me when I say you really don’t want to see me delving too far into post-processing.

There are religious purists who think any manipulation beyond the basics is akin to photographic heresy, an untruth perpetrated to further illicit goals of world domination through image manipulation.  There are liars who create whole false scenes that never existed and present them as though they were real, showing dramatic pictures of rented animals while calling it wildlife photography.  Then there are the masses who exist somewhere between those extremes.  I’m counted amongst the masses with a focus on getting the picture with the camera rather than hoping I can somehow make it later.

A Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) perched on a dry reed (2009_12_19_044987)

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All photos of Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis).  All post-processing consisted of cropping, noise removal, sharpening, and saturation increases.  All photos taken with only a UV/haze filter.


I suppose it’s all in how you look at things…

A sweat bee (Halictus farinosus) collecting pollen on a musk thistle (a.k.a. nodding thistle; Carduus nutans) as a cyclist rides by unaware (20080601_06090_ab)

I said to someone on Facebook a while back that the birthdays ending with a zero tend to be the most problematic, at least from a psychological standpoint.  Once you get beyond 20, which comes as a right of passage*, all the other zeroes come along like specters portending your demise, each of them declaring another decade of your life gone by and much less time left to live.  Each zero makes us feel like we’re older, getting older, older and moving toward ancient.

So as my fortieth birthday grew closer this year, I wondered what it meant I was leaving behind.  Yet reaching the big 4-0 began to lose its threatening demeanor with everything else that has happened since I turned 39 last December.

And now that the day is here, I realize my perspective on turning 40 has changed.  In truth, I’m ready to leave 39 behind me.  It kinda sucked.  Hitting forty today feels more like turning a page, hopefully to a new and better chapter.

Either a broad-tipped conehead (Neoconocephalus triops) or a round-tipped conehead (Neoconocephalus retusus) hanging on the front of my dad's farm truck

So I guess it all really is in how you look at things.  Perspective makes a world of difference.

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  1. A sweat bee (Halictus farinosus) pillages a musk thistle (a.k.a. nodding thistle; Carduus nutans) as the world passes by.
  2. Either a broad-tipped conehead (Neoconocephalus triops) or a round-tipped conehead (Neoconocephalus retusus) hangs on the front of my dad’s farm truck.  I didn’t get any photos that showed the details necessary to determine the exact species.

* Strictly speaking, it should be “rite of passage” in terms of turning 20 being a customary observance, but by “right of passage” I mean to refer to our tendency to feel we’re owed everything at that age, world be damned for thinking otherwise.

Warmer and drier

It scant feels like December 15th.  Texas weather this season feels more like a struggle between spring and summer.  Yesterday’s high struck at 68° F/20° C, and today’s forecast high is 74° F/23° C.  Worse than the unseasonable warmth is the dearth of precipitation.  The last appreciable rain was in September when the remnants of Hurricane Hermine brought floods and tornadoes through the heart of the DFW Metroplex.  Since then?  A big fat lot of nothing.  Moderate drought has overtaken the region and has grown worse daily with frightening rapidity.

Fire Weather Watches and Red Flag Warnings continue unabated in meteorology discussions.  That Hermine came late in the growing season meant her deluges caused a last-minute growth spurt which promptly died in subsequent freezes and the lack of rain.  In no uncertain terms, the entire region is one vast pile of kindling waiting for a spark.  The U.S. Forestry Service has banned campfires in all national forests throughout Texas.  Burn bans cover more than half the state, and the drought map has more than three quarters of the state colored in various hues of dry.

Last winter we had snow storm after snow storm after snow storm after snow storm, not to mention a cataclysmic freeze that left behind scenes more appropriate to the Arctic than Dallas.  But this year is the polar opposite.  Pun intended.  Thus is the curse of La Niña around these parts: a warmer and drier winter.  Much warmer and much drier.

Before anyone gets an “I told you so!” attitude and points to these extremes as evidence of climate change, brace yourself: You’re wrong!  Disappointing though it might be, in terms of weather and climatology this winter, our lack of seasonal norms means nothing more than the predictable, oft repeated product of La Niña, a recurring oceanic pattern that, like her brother El Niño, comes and goes with nary a thought for anthropogenic climatic effects.  Having lived here forty years, I can tell you the no-show cold this season comes as no surprise.

I can also tell you that mild winters like this can mean good things in terms of wildlife.  The few killing freezes we’ve had coupled with the worsening drought will likely see fit to curtail next year’s mosquito population, yet the warmth also means creatures that normally would die out or hibernate instead continue to thrive as conditions permit.  Like this Mediterranean gecko (a.k.a. house gecko; Hemidactylus turcicus) found meandering about the patio one morning:

A Mediterranean gecko (a.k.a. house gecko; Hemidactylus turcicus) clinging to my finger (198_9811_hnd)

They live in the walls of my patio and garage.  And I’m thankful for them.  Coupled with the diurnal green anoles (a.k.a. Carolina anole; Anolis carolinensis) who also live in the walls, the nocturnal geckos complete the circle and provide me with round-the-clock insect control.  Rather than chemicals, I have natural protection from the various critters that would otherwise amass around my home.  (Not that I dislike arthropods, mind you; on the contrary, I adore them.  But some level of insect population control in subtropical climes is always a good thing lest home and hearth be overrun.)

Seeing active reptiles in winter is cool no matter how much I miss the Snow Miser’s touch.  And active reptiles need active insects, something I’m also grateful to see when the world is otherwise painted in earthen tones of slumber.  Though I might dislike La Niña’s effects in winter since I do love the cold, cognitive dissonance means I’m also thankful for her visit since it means enjoying glimpses of life that would otherwise be absent for the next few months.

Though I suggest no one light a fire in Texas for a while.  It wouldn’t be safe.  For any of us.

Shooting the messenger

I have spent the last week hunting down illegal uses of my images and filing DMCA claims as appropriate.  In just seven days I filed more than 250 such copyright violation claims.  And I had barely scratched the surface of the thousands of entries I pulled from my server logs.  I grew more frustrated as I went along.

People had them on their blogs, on their MySpace and Facebook profiles, in forums, and even on fake search engines that provided code that could be used to embed the images on other pages.  In the first 100 entries I looked through, I even came across someone hosting a variety of my images on his site whilst claiming they were his work.  In all these cases, they were linking directly to my server and thus using the bandwidth and hosting space I pay for each month.

I threw up my hands in defeat.  There was no way to catch up with, let alone get ahead of, this wholesale theft of my property.

But then it occurred to me: I’m smarter than that!  We’re talking about technology here, right?  And if there’s one thing I know, it’s technology.

Hence, as of today I’ve written and implemented a new image hosting program for my site.  This new program kills all existing hotlinks to my images except those I’ve explicitly approved.  I’m still working on that list, yet I can say this with absolute certainty: it is and will continue to be a short list.

This new system allows me to randomly change the image host and associated links en masse without harming any of the approved uses no matter where they are on the internet.

So starting now all existing links are dead unless I’ve discovered and approved them.  That includes search engines, some fellow bloggers, feed readers, and those very few forums where I myself have posted my images.  Otherwise, all direct links and hotlinks to my images are now broken.  This enforces my copyright and use rights even for those who feel everything on the internet is public domain (speaking to you and your ilk, Judith Griggs!).

Since I can’t be certain I haven’t killed a few small and hard to find feed readers, I’ve included an image in this post.  Here it is:

That’s Loki in case you were wondering.  I’ve always loved that photo.  Anyway…

If you can’t see the picture, comment on this post or send me an e-mail and let me know so I can follow up with you to identify and authorize your reader.  Also, if you’ve embedded one of my images somewhere and it no longer works, you’re free to contact me about it (Ted, Amber, TGIQ and a few others: I already addressed your uses, so you should be OK.).  Assuming I think your use is legal, I’ll fix it, but otherwise you’re SOL.

Moving forward, all image URLs will change on a regular basis, perhaps even as frequently as every week.  This will not impact authorized users since it takes me less than ten seconds to force an update to all authorized links across the internet.  Otherwise, it’s for my peace of mind knowing that anyone who slips by will get caught in short order.

How does this impact you?  Not at all if you follow my rules when it comes to using my images.  But if you embed an image in a page somewhere or directly link to an image—and that includes in an e-mail message, and you do so without my express consent, you’re out of luck because it ain’t gonna work.  If you want to link to an image, you must link to the post that the image appears in; this requires no approval from me.  If you want to embed an image in a page somewhere, you must get approval first and you must provide me information on where the image will be used so I can authorize that site.

I used a rather blunt instrument for this, which happens to be the best security method in all cases: deny all and allow few.  That means all sites are denied before a few sites are allowed.  Thus I will watch all failure messages from this point forward in order to (hopefully) catch anything I missed.  And you’re welcome to let me know if I missed something should you catch it before I do.

In the final analysis, know this: From now on, my images show up only where I say they can show up, so no more hotlinking in forums or in e-mails or in Facebook profiles or on blogs.  You can find them in search engines and you can find them here; aside from that, though, your options are now quite limited.

Oh, it should be abundantly clear I’m livid about this.  I’ve never been one to pay attention to stats.  I don’t track visitors, I don’t watch how people get here, and I don’t pay attention to traffic.  Imagine, then, how utterly shocked I was to find an amount of abuse orders of magnitude beyond anything I’d ever imagined.  I’m no professional photographer, but these images are my work, my time, my effort.  They are also legally protected.  Is it too much to ask that they only be used in ways I approve and that I be credited for them when they are used elsewhere?  No, I didn’t think so.

(Obviously I can’t stop someone from downloading an image, uploading it elsewhere and using it from there.  But at least in those cases I’m not paying for the storage and bandwidth used by thieves.)

More than birds

Though there’s hushed talk in the halls of meteorology about possible snow flurries early next week, right now we have cool nights and warm days.

Even subfreezing temperatures last week failed to halt the march of the arthropods.  Yet their prevalence in warm afternoons and their scampering about in drops of sunlight fail to hide the sense of strident pearl clutching, worrisome critters knowing each freeze brings them closer to the end.

A female spotted orbweaver (a.k.a. cross spider or redfemured spotted orbweaver; Neoscona domiciliorum) hanging in the middle of her web (2009_11_28_042667)

The herd is thinning.  Each drop to or below freezing sees to that.  Nevertheless, one need only look carefully to see how much the insect and arachnid communities continue to thrive even now, even in December as we approach winter’s official start.

Texas leafcutter ants (a.k.a. Texas leafcutting ant, town ant, cut ant, parasol ant, fungus ant or night ant; Atta texana) (2009_12_13_044586)

And being a La Niña year, a warmer and drier winter could well allow many to survive right through the season into next spring.  Assuming, of course, that “warmer and drier” isn’t occasionally pummeled by “colder and wetter” brought on by the Snow Miser’s muscle, such as a polar vortex, the McFarland signature or an unexpected progressive pattern.

A brown morph female short-winged green grasshopper (Dichromorpha viridis) sitting on a dead leaf (2009_11_21_040808)

So while it lasts, it doesn’t hurt to watch for the bounty nature offers this time of year that normally would be all but missing.  The observant can find more in winter than birds and brown landscapes.

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  1. Female spotted orbweaver (a.k.a. cross spider or redfemured spotted orbweaver; Neoscona domiciliorum)
  2. Texas leafcutter ants (a.k.a. Texas leafcutting ant, town ant, cut ant, parasol ant, fungus ant or night ant; Atta texana)
  3. Female short-winged green grasshopper (Dichromorpha viridis); brown morph