It seems that I’ve been focused on the small world lately.  I’ve taken many more close-up images of invertebrates than I usually do.  All the shots shared in the post were taken recently with one of my macro lenses that allow me to focus on things close to the lens.  And all of these shots, except one, are insects.  I thought it would be interesting to share my lens and lighting choices for these shots.

Many times when I shoot insects, flowers or other small objects, my go-to macro lens is my 105 mm lens.  It is short enough that I can reach into the scene and move grass blades, leaves, etc. out of the way (which doesn’t work most of the time with wild invertebrates like most of those shared here); but it is also long enough that my tripod legs don’t usually bump the plant and scare the bug or shake the dew off the leaves and petals.

For some large, flying bugs that are easily frightened, like some butterflies and dragonflies, I’ve started using a 200 mm macro lens on a crop factor body (for a 300 mm lens equivalent).  It can be a little slow to focus, and I can be so far from the subject that there is a great chance for grass and limbs to be between me and the subject, and I’m so far away that I have to move from behind the camera to bend them to the side.

And, I’ve started using my 60 mm macro more.  It gives me more depth of field IF the subject will allow me approach close enough to fill the frame (and lots of bugs will not do that).  I have to be so close though, that I have to take great care not to accidentally move the plant that my subject is on.

And most of the time when shooting close-up subjects, I choose to use an off-camera flash with a diffuser or reflector of some sort – and if I’m shooting with a friend, we’ll often add a gold reflector for some warmth.  In most of these shots, I used off-camera fill flash, but on one shot I used a ring flash and another was shot in natural light.

The other piece of equipment that I usually use with close-up shots is a tripod.  Once I get so close to your subject, I have to really stop down my aperture, which means my shutter speeds slow down.  So, for all but one of these images, I was using one of my tripods.

So, with that introduction, here are some invertebrate shots from the last several weeks.

The first is a male Halloween pennant dragonfly perched on an old aster seed head in a transmission line right-of-way beside my office.  I noticed several fall flowers that I wanted to photograph as well as several skittish dragonflies, so I spent part of an afternoon and part of a morning out photographing them.  This shot was taken in warm afternoon light, and I was able to maneuver so the light was over my shoulder, so I shot it in natural light.

Dragonfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/10, 1/640th second, ISO 900, tripod, existing light, slight crop.

A few days later, I heard a familiar voice out in the vestibule of my office.  Kiss my foot, if my friend Chris Funk (check out some of his great work at: http://www.feral-onephotography.com/) had not accidentally walked into the building where my office is at!  I knew he was coming into the area for a day or three, but we had not touched base yet, and he accidentally found me!  I pointed him in the direction of a few cool dragonflies, but could not join him in the field that afternoon.  The next thing that I know, he is posting pictures of seaside dragonlets, one of the dragonflies that has been on my “want list” for over a year.  He said the boat ramp at the end of the road was swarming with them.  So, I made  a chance a few mornings later to spend some time near the boat ramp at the end of the road, and got a seaside dragonlet shot.  Now, these dragonflies are called dragonlets for a reason – they are SMALL!  This little girl was a delicate 1 and ¼ inches long!  (But oh so colorful!)

 

Dragonlet

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/13, 1/80th second, ISO 1000, diffused off-camera fill flash at -1 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

 

As I was maneuvering to photograph the seaside dragonlet, a little bit of nothing floated off a piece of grass.  That little bit of nothing turns out to be the smallest known damselfly – a citrine forktail.  This cute little thing is less than ¾ of an inch long and has a body diameter about the size of a #2 pencil lead!

 

Damselfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200mm (300 mm equivalent) at near minimum focus distance, f/11, 1/100th second, ISO 360, diffused off-camera fill flash around -2, tripod, cropped to about 2/3 of frame.

As I was photographing the Halloween pennant, there were some small wasps flying around.  Some of those wasps were true paper wasps, and some of them were small dragonflies (though small Odonates would be re-defined by the seaside dragonlet and citrine forktail).  But at the time, I thought eastern amberwings were small.  I got some cool shots of eastern amberwings while I was shooting the Halloween pennants.  But a few weeks later, I got more chances at eastern amberwings, and got to photograph them doing a pretty cool behavior.  This eastern amberwing is perched in an obelisk posture.  This shot was taken on a warm (okay HOT) Mississippi afternoon.  So this dragonfly was adjusting the shape of its body to minimize solar absorption and maximize cooling as it perched on top of a smartweed inflorescence (note that some bug had been feeding on this particularly tall inflorescence to the point that it wasn’t attractive at all).  I couldn’t move to where the sun was at my back, so I had to photograph this dragonfly while it was backlit by the sun.  To counter that lighting, I did not dim my flash very far so that I could almost match the brightness of the background.

Dragonfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/8, 1/800th second, ISO 250, diffused off-camera flash at -1/3, tripod, full frame.

 

Not too far away, there were flies that looked like little bees (which is to their advantage if a predator thinks they can sting, then they MAY get left alone) feeding on smartweed and partridge pea blossoms.  I photographed a few of them.  This little fly was just under ½” long, which underscores the tiny blossoms on the smartweed spike.

Fly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/7.1, 1/500th second, ISO 200, diffused off-camera fill flash at -2 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

 

It turns out that looking like you can sting is no deterrent to robber flies.  These cool aerial predators were snagging bee mimics left and right (I photographed 2 different ones eating bee mimics in less than 20 minutes).  This robber fly had taken his bee mimic to a partridge pea so that it could pierce the abdomen and suck all the good nutrients out.

Robberfly

Nikon D300s, Nikkor 200 mm (300 mm equivalent), f/5.6, 1/400th second, ISO 200, diffused off-camera fill flash at -2 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

I was working around the cabin one day, and a particularly colorful eastern lubber grasshopper was crawling along in some crepe myrtle and pear leaves that had dropped because of the lack of rain.  I figured that he would let me get pretty close, so I chose my short macro lens to allow me to get more depth of field easy.  Even with the size of eastern lubber grasshoppers (this guy was 2 ½” long) and my tripods that go to ground level, it is hard to get eye-level with a grasshopper on the ground – so I chose not to use my tripod (depending on fast shutter speed to give me a sharp picture) though I did make sure to brace very carefully and actually put the bottom of the camera lens plate on the ground for this shot.

Grasshopper

Nikon D3, Nikkor 60 mm, f/8, 1/160th second, ISO 500, diffused off-camera fill flash at -2 1/3, handheld though braced on ground really well, slight crop.

And for the non-insect shot, I’ve got a polychaete (worm).  Actually, I’ve got the tube the worm used to live in.  And it was the tube the worm used to live in a LOOOOOONG time ago.  This worm lived in the bottom of the warm, shallow ocean during the Cretaceous, when that ocean was up around Starkville and Columbus, Mississippi.  This is a fossil Hamalus worm casting that my daughter collected recently, and I photographed.  This worm casting is about ¾” inch long.  The worm lived in the round part in the center.  I photographed this casting on black velvet.

Worm Casting

Nikon D3, Lester A. Dine 105 mm, f/32, 1/125th second, ISO 200, old ring flash at minimum power, tripod, slight crop.

So, for close-up shots, my normal “go to” is to use my 105 mm macro, use a tripod, and use fill flash… except when I do not.  And in the past little while, I’ve not done my “normal” thing several times – but always for a good reason, and I’m pleased with the result./13, 1/80th second, ISO 1000, flash at -1 1/3, tripod, slight crop./13, 1/80th second, ISO 1000, flash at -1 1/3, tripod, slight crop.

Photographing RS-25 Rocket Engine Test as part of a NASA Social Media Event: My Perspective

I enjoy photographing wildlife, whether it is a deer, a bird, a frog or an invertebrate.  I photograph flowers, especially cool native flowers.  I photograph a landscape here and there.  At one time, I’d have described myself as a nature photographer, but since “hand of man” is eschewed by many nature photography groups, I’ve gone up-periscope to a broader descriptive term of “outdoor photographer”, especially as I’ve started photographing more and more people doing outdoor pursuits.

Most of my photography has been solo or in very small groups, though workshops that I either attend or lead can be much larger.  And, because I’m a “dad with a camera”, I’ve photographed birthday parties, school events, sports matches and more.  I’ve also done a good bit of event photography, but mostly outdoor-related events like retrieving dog trials, sporting weekends, field tours and such.  Recently, I applied to attend a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Social Media event at their John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County, Mississippi where they were testing the RS-25 rocket engine that will be used to power the Space Launch System to Mars and beyond.

#NASASocial

#NASASocial

So photographing a rocket engine test and related background presentations that NASA had prepared for us is a little outside of the kinds of things that I normally photograph.  That said, it is directly related to the biological work that I’ve done in the past and some of the things that I’m doing now.  Many, many years ago, when the John C. Stennis Space Center was called National Space Technology Laboratory, I worked there doing floral and faunal inventories (especially of rarer species) and acidic deposition  studies.  Now, I work with two large groups based out of Stennis and work with large landowners in the adjacent sound buffer zone.  And I often go out with photographic groups to photograph things that aren’t “nature” or “outdoors”; for example, I’ve learned a lot about how I can use my flash with flowers and birds by going on product photography meet-ups or going to photograph models.  So, photographing a NASA rocket engine test is outside of what I normally photograph, but it is associated with what I do and that sort of event photography helps me continue to hone my photographic skills.

The first thing that I had to decide was what gear that I wanted to take.  Now anybody who knows me knows that I like to have all my gear available so that I can choose what I need when I need it.  For this social media event, we would be meeting at a Visitor’s Center in the buffer zone and getting onto a bus with our gear.  That means that I would not have access to all the gear that I would normally have in my truck, and that I needed to be able to easily carry my gear onto a bus (that luckily had overhead compartments).  Knowing that I would not have easy access to my gear and knowing that gear breaks at the most inopportune time, I thought carefully about the gear that I would carry and tried to make sure that I had some sort of back-up plan.

Once we got a detailed agenda of our NASA Social Media event, I could start planning what gear to carry.  It looked like our tour would involve indoor and outdoor briefings and an opportunity to photograph a large barge.  It helped that I had been on the site many times in the past, though never specifically to photograph things.  I also hoped for a chance to photograph some of the static exhibits around the Stennis Space Center.  We were also scheduled for a relatively up-close view of a test stand and the actual rocket test where we’d be some distance away.  I figured that the rocket engine test would be where I would need my longest focal length lens.

I e-mailed John Yembrick, NASA’s Social Media Manager and my contact for this experience, and asked him how long of a lens he would recommend for the engine test.  He checked with an unidentified photographer based out of Stennis who said that a 200 mm lens would be sufficient.  That was a big help, because that means that I could leave the “big guns” at home and not have to carry around that extra weight.

John Yembrick, NASA Office of Communication Social Media Manager, provided great information to help me prepare to photograph the event.

John Yembrick, NASA Office of Communication Social Media Manager, provided great information to help me prepare to photograph the event.

 

I started, of course, with my main “walking around” gear, a full-framed camera body and a short telephoto lens.  In my case, that is a Nikon D3 and a Nikkor 28-85 mm lens.  I used that combination a good bit.  Being photographically-inclined, I also took a back-up camera body; in my case a crop-factor D300s that I initially paired a Nikon 80-400 mm lens.   I also used that combination a good bit.  Having those two bodies and lenses basically gave me fairly full coverage from 28 mm to 600 mm (1/2-x to 12x magnification).    Having those two lenses pre-mounted on a body kept me from opening my camera body up in potentially dusty environments and getting dust spots on my sensor – though I did change lenses in buildings and on the bus a time or ten.

I also expected some tight spaces and small rooms, so I packed a Sigma 15-30 wide angle lens as well which came in very handy.  I also wanted to be prepared to photograph small items on displays (or a cool bug or frog or lizard), so I packed a 60 mm macro lens as well.  I think that I made less than a half dozen exposures with that lens during the day, though in hindsight, I missed a few more shots that I could have made using that lens.

I also expected some of the areas to be dark, which would result in slow shutter speeds, so I packed a sturdy tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 ballhead.  I used an OpTech tripod strap to enable me to carry my tripod like I do one of my hunting rifles.  The tripod got used a LOT!

I also carried my flash, flash cord, and an off-camera flash bracket.  I figured that many of the inside shots, some of the brightly lit outside shots, and any close-up shots would likely benefit from an ability to change the light a bit.  While I did not expect much of an opportunity for action photography, I thought there might be times when I’d want to use the flash again quickly, so I packed my (heavy) Quantum Turbo external flash battery back.  I also carried a gold/silver circular polarizer, spare camera battery, circular polarizer, notebook, bottle of water.

So, then the question became, “How do I carry all this gear?”  In my mind, I had two options, I could use a photo backpack or I could use a big waist pack.  I opted for an older LowePro waist pack with a shoulder strap.  I could put one body/lens combination and my flash and smaller gear in the main compartment and the front pocket.  I could put a spare lens in one side compartment and a bottle of water in the other side compartment.  I added a couple of more lens cases to the belt for an additional lens and other small gear and clipped my Quantum Turbo battery to the waist belt.   My walking around camera went on a strap around my neck, and the tripod was slung across a shoulder.

When the weights were totaled up for the gear, I was carrying just a hair over 29 pounds of gear for the day.  What would I leave at home next time?  The Quantum turbo flash battery!  (I’d carry  5 AA batteries in case my flash battery died instead and not worry about how quick my flash recycled).  Other than that, I think I’d carry exactly what I carried for this NASA Social media event.

What would I have added to my load or done differently?  I think that I might have added my point-and-shoot to shoot video with (or shot video with the D300s).  In hindsight, I wished that I’d put one camera on a tripod with the shutter intervalometer set so that I captured a time lapse sequence of the entire rocket engine test.

When I went to check in for the NASA Social media event, I noticed that most of the other participants were not carrying quite as much gear as I was.  Since it was a social media crowd going to an event heavy on technology and engineering, I expected more photo nerds to be present in the group (and I’m using nerds in a very kindly and appreciative manner since I are one).  Many of the social media posters were very capably using cell phones or tablets for photographs and videos.  A few were using GoPro type cameras and a few were using (mostly entry-level) digital single lens reflex cameras with short telephoto lenses.  In the group of approximately 40 participants, I think I saw 4 tripods, and those were generally the relatively inexpensive, wobbly tripods that folks often buy as their first tripod.  I felt a little concerned and out-of-place.  When the bus load of traditional media folks joined us with their larger cameras (DSLR and video) and larger tripods, I felt much more comfortable.

As a person whose social media posts focus mainly on biology and post-processed photography, I was definitely in the minority.  Judging by the questions that other participants asked, they follow NASA’s policies, plans, specifications, announcements and rumors as avidly as I follow biology and land management information.  It was interesting too at the rapidity information was shared during the social media event.  Most of the attendees shared information as texts, videos and photos in real time.  While I shared 4 photos during the event, other folks shared 50 or more!  As soon as a speaker finished speaking or we got back on the bus, I could look around and see 2 or 3 other heads looking around, everybody else was busy Tweeting, Facebooking, Googling, blogging or otherwise posting a live update.

As the speakers spoke, the NASA Social media attendees videoed, photographed, Tweeted, Facebooked, Instagramed, blogged and more...

As the speakers spoke, the NASA Social media attendees videoed, photographed, Tweeted, Facebooked, Instagramed, blogged and more…

 

 

I was really, really surprised when only one other social media attendee went to take shots of the Space Shuttle rides in the kiddie area next to the bus parking - especially since most of them were much younger (and assumably much hipper) than me.  I thank the other hip Social media attendee for photographing me piloting the Space Shuttle!

I was really, really surprised when only one other social media attendee went to take shots of the Space Shuttle rides in the kiddie area next to the bus parking – especially since most of them were much younger (and assumably much hipper) than me. I thank the other hip Social media attendee for photographing me piloting the Space Shuttle!

As expected, I had to shoot under a wide variety of conditions; and, as noted above, I was glad that I brought the gear that I did.  Lighting varied from dimly lit rooms to super bright sunlight.  Having a flash (I only noticed one other photographer use a flash), really, really helped with a few shots.  I did try to NOT use my flash overly much out of respect for the presenters and the folks shooting video.

When I photographed most of the presenters, I did so from the back of the room where I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way with a long lens.  I often used the 80-400 at maximum extension on a crop factor body, which meant that I was shooting at a 600 mm equivalent.  That meant high ISOs and SLOW shutter speeds; the slow shutter speeds then meant that I needed a rock solid tripod and good long lens technique.

Shooting from the back of the room with a long lens worked, but the flash wasn't quite reaching the subject as well and my shutter speed were slow enough that I really needed to pick times when the subject was being still. Nikon D300s, Nikkor 80-400 @ 195 mm, f/5.3, 1/20th second, ISO 3200, no flash.

Shooting from the back of the room with a long lens worked, but the flash when I used it wasn’t quite reaching the subject and my shutter speeds were slow enough that I really needed to pick times when the subject (in this case NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps) was being still.
Nikon D300s, Nikkor 80-400 @ 195 mm, f/5.3, 1/20th second, ISO 3200, no flash.

 

For this shot of NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps, I was able to get closer and use a shorter lens and fill flash, I got better color and more detail - but my shutter speeds were still slow enough that I got some blurring as the subjects moved. Nikon D3, Nikkor 28-85 @ 85 mm, f/4.5, 1/60th second, ISO 500, bounced flash as main light.

For this shot of NASA Astronaut Jeanette Epps, I was able to get closer and use a shorter lens and fill flash, I got better color and more detail – but my shutter speeds were still slow enough that I got some blurring as the subjects moved.
Nikon D3, Nikkor 28-85 @ 85 mm, f/4.5, 1/60th second, ISO 500, bounced flash as main light.

Camera-subject distances ranged widely too – from about 8 inches to about ¼ mile.  I only had to use the close focus ability of the macro lens one time, but I’m glad that I had it.  Of course I could have shot this particular shot any time.  There were a few other displays and such that I wish that I’d made time to shoot with a macro lens.

This was the only shot that I really used the close-focusing ability of my macro lens.  I could have done without it (or carried an extension tube).  But there were other opportunities to use the macro lens that I should have taken.

This was the only shot that I really used the close-focusing ability of my macro lens. I could have done without it (or carried an extension tube). But there were other opportunities to use the macro lens that I should have taken.

 

RS-25 rocket engine running in test stand A-1 at Stennis Space Center; we were about 1/4 mile away behind a rope line.

RS-25 rocket engine running in test stand A-1 at Stennis Space Center; we were about 1/4 mile away behind a rope line.

 

There were photographers, videographers and observers VERY close to me on all 3 sides; getting to the rope line early was very important if you wanted to get pictures of the engine test without people in the foreground.

There were photographers, videographers and observers VERY close to me on all 3 sides; getting to the rope line early was very important if you wanted to get pictures of the engine test without people in the foreground.

I was also constantly constrained by time and the presence of other people.  I had to either work hard to get a shot without other attendees in it or include them as a part of the shot.  Many times, I had to use a wide angle lens, when I’d have preferred to back up and use a longer lens.  I often had to select a spot in advance of knowing exactly what was going to happen.  Many times once you were in a spot, you were there for some time with a limited opportunity to change positions – especially at the engine test itself.

The B-2 rocket engine test stand; I had to get up at the front of the group and use my wide angle at 15 mm to barely get the whole test stand in the image.  This resulted in a lot of distortion that I had to adjust in post-processing (and I had to add a little water and concrete to the lower image left).

The B-2 rocket engine test stand; I had to get up at the front of the group and use my wide angle at 15 mm to barely get the whole test stand in the image. This resulted in a lot of distortion that I had to adjust in post-processing (and I had to add a little water and concrete to the lower image left).

 

Social media attendees learn about the rocket engine test stands at Stennis.

Alternatively, I could go towards the back of the group and get a shot of the social media attendees learning about the test stands.

 

So, how did I do?  I reckon you’ll have to be the judge of that.  There is a short overview here:  http://photobiologist.com/rs-25-rocket-engine-test-at-nasas-john-c-stennis-space-center  I shot 632 shots in just under 9 hours.  I kept around 500 of them and worked up 61 of them; many were duplicates or horizontal vs. vertical or slight variations.

To get an opportunity like this yourself, follow one of NASA’s 500+ social media accounts and keep an eye out here:   http://www.nasa.gov/connect/social/index.html   If you attend one of these events, don’t be shy.  Introduce yourself to the NASA hosts and the other attendees and have a great time!  I hope my perspective helps a future NASA Social Media attendee with a photographic bent have a great experience.  Different events will be different, and even another rocket engine test at Stennis Space Center might well be different (especially if different test stands and different viewing locations are used).

#NASASocial  #SLSFiredUp

On Thursday, August 13, 2015, I had a chance to go on-site at NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in western Hancock County, Mississippi to view and photograph a rocket engine test as part of a social media tour.  I jumped at the chance for a whole lot of reasons.  First, because it is a super cool opportunity to learn about some of our cutting-edge technology right in the area where I work!  (In my day job I’m working with two different groups based out of Stennis Space Center, and monitoring easements on about 1/10th of the sound buffer zone surrounding the Center.)  And, its where I started working full-time; when I graduate from Mississippi State University, I came down to Stennis Space Center (or to National Space Technology Labs as it was known then) and worked on a bunch of cool projects that involved all manner of flora and fauna, including endangered species, prescribed fire, and acid deposition.  And, it was at Stennis that Kristin and I first met.  My father-in-law worked at Stennis as well, and a set of bricks for him and each of his grandchildren is in place out in front of the Infinity Science Center.

Honorary bricks in front of the Infinity Science Center.

Honorary bricks in front of the Infinity Science Center.

 

When I arrived at the Infinity Science Center, I saw all the static displays out front – the rocket engines, the NOAA data bouys, the US Navy riverine craft, but it was the sculpture out front that caught my eye.  Marlin Miller turned a lot of beach-front trees killed by Hurricane Katrina into really cool wildlife carvings using a chainsaw and a small sander.  He has a sculpture of an eagle in front of the Infinity Science Center that is made from a single, large live oak with metal parts from Stennis engine test stands and Space Shuttle engines.

Marlin Miller's eagle sculpture framed by two tour buses.

Marlin Miller’s eagle sculpture framed by two tour buses.

I checked in and got a bag of information and a personalized social media credential for the day.

Name tag for the day!

Name tag for the day!

 

The folks with NASA did a great job of preparing the social media users for the SR-25 rocket engine test.  We listened to NASA employees and contractors and learned all kinds of details about the Space Launch System, and what it will do.  We learned about the Orion capsule that will house human beings as we go beyond near-earth orbit and on to Mars and beyond.  And we learned about the RS-25 engines from their history to how they are being adapted and used today.

Scale Model of Space Launch System including the main rocket, Orion capsule, and pair of solid rocket motors.

Scale Model of Space Launch System including the main rocket, Orion capsule, and pair of solid rocket motors.

 

The day was full data and specifications, many of them superlatives!  The Space Launch System and the RS-25 rocket and all of the other parts needed to support the upcoming missions are truly amazing.  If I remember correctly an RS-25 engine has four turbos, and each turbo generates 7,000 horsepower!  The Space Launch System has 4 RS-25 engines at it’s base plus to solid rocket motors on the side – and it needs them to generate enough lift to get the 5.5 million pounds of mass off the earth and out of earth’s gravitational pull!  The temperatures inside the engine are at extremes – the liquid hydrogen fuel is coming in at -425°F and at one point is separated from the products of it’s combustion at about +6,000°F by around 14 inches!  The exhaust is leaving the engine at around 13 times the speed of sound!  I only wish I could remember half the cool statistics that I heard.

The presenters were challenged to find things we could understand to compare the SLS and the RS-25 to...  Many times they used the Apollo program (represented by the Command Module for Apollo 4 that we saw!) or a sport-utility vehicle or a racing car.

The presenters were challenged to find things we could understand to compare the SLS and the RS-25 to… Many times they used the Apollo program (represented by the Command Module for Apollo 4 that we saw!) or a sport-utility vehicle or a racing car.

 

We listened to a large number of presenters share information about NASA, the Space Launch System, the Orion capsule, the RS-25 engine, the support teams and companies.

John Yembrick, NASA Office of Communication Social Media Manager, did a great job of preparing us to soak up a great deal of information.

John Yembrick, NASA Office of Communication Social Media Manager, did a great job of preparing us to soak up a great deal of information.

 

Panels of NASA employees and contractors gave us overviews and answered questions.

Panels of NASA employees and contractors gave us overviews and answered questions.

The panels and speakers were the folks who were actually doing the job.  It was very, very interesting to hear their individual parts and how well all those parts are adding up to the final product.

We had a surprise speaker, Dr. Dava Newman, NASA Deputy Administrator.  It was her second time at a social media event.

We had a surprise speaker, Dr. Dava Newman, NASA Deputy Administrator. It was her second time at a social media event.

 

We took a trip to the B-2 Rocket Engine Test Stand (currently undergoing renovation) so that we could see a huge test stand up close before watching an engine test from afar.

Social media attendees learn about the rocket engine test stands at Stennis.

Social media attendees learn about the rocket engine test stands at Stennis.

During lunch NASA Astronaut Dr. Jeanette J. Epps told us about astronaut training, potential future missions, and answered questions.

Astronaut Jeanette Epps responding to a question.

Astronaut Jeanette Epps responding to a question.

Then we headed back out for a tour of the rocket engine facilities and  to the A-1 rocket engine test stand to watch, listen to and feel the RS-25 rocket engine test.  We were about 1/4 mile from the engine test stand, and there was no doubt that something major was going on when the engine fired off!  The ground rumbled, the sound was loud (even with hearing protection), and the immense plume of steam coming out of the test stand all gave evidence to the power of a single engine running in place.

RS-25 rocket engine running in test stand A-1 at Stennis Space Center.

RS-25 rocket engine running in test stand A-1 at Stennis Space Center.

 

After witnessing that impressive, immense display of technology and power, we climbed back on the air-conditioned bus to gulp bottles of cold water.  We got just refreshed enough in a few minute ride to stop by the canals that were dug from the East Pearl River by the US Army Corps of Engineers to the test stands.  Many of the rocket engines and parts are delivered by barge from the Pearl River up through a system of locks.  In the lowest lock was the Pegasus – NASA’s barge.  Pegasus recently underwent modification to enable it to carry the Space Launch System – that involved cutting the barge in half and adding 50′ section to the middle so that this enclosed barge is now 310′ long – just barely long enough and wide enough to carry the Space Launch System.  A minor technological achievement to enable major technological achievements later!

Pegasus, a 310-foot long barge, in the locks at Stennis Space Center.

Pegasus, a 310-foot long barge, in the locks at Stennis Space Center.

All in all, a very long, technology-filled day!

#NASASocial #SLSFiredUp

If you look at the currently published range maps (which are usually several years behind to start with for almost all species…) for American cliff swallows, they are not supposed to be in coastal Mississippi.  When we moved back to coastal Mississippi a few years ago, there were cliff swallows nesting under a bridge just up the river from our rental house, and I found another colony under yet another bridge that was easy (okay, relatively easy) to get some decent shots of them nesting.  And in all cases in Mississippi, I’ve seen a mix of cliff swallows and barn swallows.

I had taken pictures of barn swallows gathering mud to build nests several years ago (when I was still shooting film), but had never had a chance to do that again.  They only build nests for a 2-week or so period every year.  I guess I was in the right place at the right time because I got the chance to photograph not only barn swallows, but also cliff swallows gathering mud to build nests recently.

The barn swallows landed on relatively thick mud and pecked up a ball of mud, sometimes picking up small fiberous sticks and roots first.  The cliff swallows “hover landed” over very soft mud and pecked up a more gooey ball of mud.

Here’s a pair of cliff swallows fluttering as they pick up mud.

Swallow

And here is a barn swallow picking up a beak of mud for it’s nest.

Swallow

The two different species build nests that look different as well.  The cliff swallows build a vase-shaped nest with a narrow tube opening.

Swallow

Swallow

The barn swallows build a cup-shaped nest that is open at the top.

Swallow

Both nests are amazing works of architectural art work, especially when you realize that they are built from mud with a few sticks, roots and feathers mixed in without the use of hands!

I had a chance to meet Jason & Nicole Hahn for their Birds of Prey Nature Photography Workshop (http://www.outdoorphotoworkshops.com/) near their home in central Florida.    Having shot with Jason in the field before and hearing other folks talk about their workshops, I knew that it would be an enjoyable, productive trip.  As I drove far into the night on Friday, I was questioning my decision.

But my decision was primarily made on wanting to get an environmental portrait of a southeastern American kestrel.  The population of these diminutive little falcons that are native to the Deep South and breed in the open, frequently burned piney woods is declining precipitiously.  I wanted an image that showed one of these photogenic little falcons in their native habitat.  And I knew that there just might be that opportunity on this workshop.  I also knew that there would be an opportunity to photograph a dozen or so other species of raptors.  As it ended up (if my mental recall is correct), we had an opportunity to photograph 18 individual birds of 14 different species.

Nicole was great on the phone and via e-mail leading up to the workshop, and I could tell that she was organized.  I had no idea how organized until she opened her 3-ring binder with releases and information as she checked us into the workshop!  I knew that Jason and I shared a similar approach to photographing wildlife, but wasn’t aware that his approach to workshops was similar to that shared by Gary Carter (www.garycarterphotos.com) and myself – do everything you can to make sure the participants are getting the shot before you pick up your own camera.   Jason and Nicole make a great team for a workshop participant, whether the photographer has just got their first camera or has been photographing for decades.

We met at the rehabilitation facility where we were going to shoot.   The facility rescues, rehabilitates, and reconditions raptors for release into the wild.  The birds that we got a chance to photograph were not candidates for release, either because of an injury or because of early imprinting on humans rather than their own kind.  These avian ambassadors allowed for up close photographic opportunities that would take months and months of field time to have a slight chance of getting something as good in the wild.

We started out photographing a trio of owl species, and then quickly moved on to the kestrels – the main reason that I was there.  And I was able to create an image of a kestrel that is obviously in a southern longleaf pine habitat (except that it was really in an old pasture).

Kestrel

A southeastern American kestrel perched on a longleaf pine branch.

Jason was really good about thinking through shot opportunities out loud all through the workshop.  He constantly talked about camera settings, backgrounds, compositions, perspectives, etc.  And it was his prodding to “not forget a profile shot” that resulted in me getting this shot of a kestrel apparently peering from a nesting/roosting cavity.  (Yes, kestrels are cavity nesters.)

Kestrel

A kestrel peers from a cavity entrance.

Having lived on the Satilla River within a mile or so of 7 different swallow-tailed kite nests per season for a few nesting seasons, I’ve had many, many opportunities to see and photograph flying and nesting swallow-tailed kites.  I’ve seen a few in captivity, but not had a chance to photograph one up close and personally in good light with a good background.  I had that opportunity in spades on this workshop.  Swallow-tailed kites  are neotropical migrants (they winter in South America and breed in the southeastern United States).  They seem to require large tracts of mature bottomland hardwood forests for nesting.  Needless to say, they are not doing well either.

Kite

A swallow-tailed kite perches on an oak branch.

In addition to perched shots, because the rehabilitation facility had falconers, we had a chance to photograph several species in flight.  We watched an impressive peregrine stoop at a lure.  Unfortunately, while 1/1250th of a second was fast enough to freeze the falconer’s motion, it was not sharp enough to freeze a peregrine in mid-stoop.  But there were other chances to photograph the peregrine (and a couple of other falcons as well).

Peregrine

A peregrine falcon perches on a falconer’s glove after a successful stoop at a moving lure.

The barn owl in front of the barns was a fun shoot.

Owl

A barn owl glides silently across the farm yard.

They also flew a pair of the mischievous Harris hawks at the same time.  Choosing a favorite flight shot of a Harris hawk was not an easy task.

Harris Hawk

A Harris hawk peers carefully as it soars, just waiting on a chance to pounce.

 

I just barely had room for this whole red-tailed hawk in the image as it decelerated to land on a perch.  Note the leather falconry field jesses and radio transmitter hanging in the image.  The handlers were great about helping pose the birds in such a way at times that the jesses, leashes, and bands wouldn’t be seen in the resulting images.  At other times, the falconry gear was a critical part of the story and images.

Red-tailed Hawk

A captive red-tailed hawk flares as it prepares to land on a perch.

It was a treat to be able to create an iconic bald eagle image in front of an American flag as well.  The hard part was choosing a favorite bald eagle and American flag image!

Eagle

A bald eagle perched in front of the American flag.

And the queen angelfish photographic opportunities were great as well.  As I walked into the local hotel the night before the workshop, I noticed that they had a nicely done saltwater tank that was very clean and had very few reflected highlights on the glass.  Since the lobby was deserted around midnight when I checked in, as I returned the luggage cart, I took a camera & lens with me to see if I could get a decent fish shot…

Angelfish

A queen angelfish swims by a coral head.