"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Before and After: Flaming Feathers

I think it’s possible that flamingos may have lost some of their social standing over the years — in North America at least — as a result of their objectification as plastic lawn ornaments and even, occasionally, as Christmas decorations. Their presence at the entrance of many zoos — and their ubiquity as unnatural icons on many lawns (not mine!) — made me feel like they were sort of a zoo-cliche and that I might just discard their photos from my collection. But then I thought: ah, well, it’s not the birds’ fault, is it? — and decided to run a few pictures I had from Zoo Atlanta through my Lightroom and Nik Collection workflow to see how they came out. After a bit of trial and error to get the colors right, I ended out with a “look” to the photos that I liked: one that brought out the detail and thickness of their feathers, emphasized the contrasts between pink, orange, and red on their bodies, and rendered them almost as pretty as Fancy Beasts and Snakes on a Blog.

With one exception, Lightroom adjustments for these photos were pretty standard as I felt like I would want to do most of the color and contrast adjustments using the Nik Collection Color Efex filters. So other than basic exposure adjustments and sharpening, I decided to remove most of the shedded feathers scattered throughout the backgrounds or in the water as they were distracting to my eye, and I knew the filters would emphasize them and make them even more obvious. Lightroom spot removal to the rescue! Though I’d hate to calculate how much time I spent removing tiny clumps of feathers from each of these images, it was true that they acted like little light-catchers in the Color Efex filters — as I learned after missing some and having to continue the spot-removal effort even after I thought the photos were already done.

Among other things, the Nik Collection filters excel at enhancing colors, creating contrast improvements, and correcting color cast. In the Before and After gallery (scroll down a bit), the third picture in the second row shows a substantial color cast, where the yellow and brown from the background permeate the whole image, likely because of sunlight throwing a reflection across the scene. The fourth picture in that row shows how it looks after correction, where the yellow/brown is gone and the original colors of the bird and rocks have been restored. The filters I used to create a relatively consistent look across these photos were: White Neutralizer (which corrects some of the color cast and emphasizes whites); Brilliance/Warmth (which adds saturation to the colors and also helps separate background and foreground elements); and Pro Contrast (which completes the color cast correction and enhances contrast throughout the photo). For some of the photos, I also used Darken/Lighten Center to add brightness and create a focal point in the picture, to draw the viewer’s eye from the background to the main subject. The effects of this filter are most evident in the last four photos in the Before and After gallery below.

Here are the final versions of the twelve flamingo images; select the first one to see larger sizes.

If you would like to see how the images looked before and after the processing I described above, select the first image then page through the slideshow:

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Snakes on a Blog!

When I was a youngling, I kept snakes. Not exotic snakes like boas or pythons that might be fashionably impressive today, but the sleek black, brown, and yellow-or-green-striped garter snakes that are common to many parts of the world. They’re sometimes incorrectly identified as “garden snakes” and often referred to as “common garter snakes” … but I don’t call them that because that’s just rude.

Catching and keeping snakes was my early foray into dabbling with nature: there was a swamp about a mile from where I lived, complete with a freshwater pond and an old wooden bridge spanning the narrowest part that provided great access for small hands and feet to the clear pond waters. The area has since been drained, filled, and leveled, but I still recognize the faint outlines of the swamp and the pond because I spent so much time there amid the hawks, dragonflies, cattails, minnows, frogs, pollywogs, and snakes. I suppose there were mosquitoes, too, but nobody remembers mosquitoes.

Each May or June, as the pond crackled to life after another long northern winter, this misplaced oasis would burst out wide with color, movement, and sound. I’d lift up rocks scattered around the pond or crawl through the surrounding grass until I found two or three snakes to relocate to an aquarium remodeled as a terrarium, stationed outside our house for, uh, family reasons. I’d keep the snakes through the summer before returning them to the swamp in the early fall; and I’d keep them as satisfied as possible by heading back to the pond a few times a week to catch them some tiny frogs. Because snakes need friends – and snacks – too.

I handled them often and they always seemed to get used to being held. After initially jabbing my thumb with their teeth a few times, they’d settle down and wrap around my wrist and arm. They’d then often react to my presence or that of someone else outside the terrarium by looking through the glass right at the human. And given how most people respond to snakes, being a slightly devious snake-keeper and being able to demo a garter snake twirling around my arm was great fun. Me and the snakes kept this up for several summers, until one summer three of the largest garter snakes I’d ever had – they were all over two feet long – sneaked out of the terrarium, slithered into the house as a gang, and scarfed down three newborn tabby kittens sleeping under the kitchen table in a box.

Heh-heh-heh … everything in that last sentence didn’t happen. But just for a moment … did you believe me?

There is a theory about the evolution of dogs – and the evolution of domesticated animals generally – that those individuals whose appearance and behaviors were favored by human beings gained a genetic distinction over other members of their species, resulting in a kind of human-influenced natural selection occurring over thousands of years as the relationships between animals and humans developed. The theory tries to explain our fascination with animals – especially those we take into our homes as companions – as based, at least partly, in our reaction to the appealing looks they have and the looks they give us as we interact with them. Facial features, eyes, a certain way of gazing that humans find pleasant and captivating all combine to create a form of human-to-animal empathy that may or may not also be on the animals’ minds, depending on what research you read. This theory, if true, also means that even in our short lives – in evolutionary terms – we influence the development of future generations of animals by the choices we make and the relationships we have with those whose physical worlds cross into ours.

“Domesticated animals” is, of course, a very broad term, and would cover all kinds of non-human creatures and an enormous number of ways animal culture and human culture intersect. And our favoring of animals by certain elements of appearance (and behavior) is as highly subjective as it is culturally influenced: large numbers of human beings would, and do, regard similar animal appearances as “cute” and certain others as “ugly” without really questioning those preferences any more than they question their preference for their favorite colors or foods. I don’t mean this to sound critical; rather, I’m just emphasizing that these preferences and reactions are subjective, often reflecting early life experiences – and with the added glue of cultural norms that come into play, they seldom change once formed.

All this to say: snakes are quite beautiful in their own way. If you don’t think so, try forgetting they’re snakes for a moment and just look at the variety of facial features, eyes, colors, color patterns, and the way they own their space. And consider this: if humans over many generations who keep snakes — even in zoos — select and breed those that have certain more-appealing physical appearances, it’s just a matter of time before we have pythons with puppy faces and baby king snakes that look like kittens. It’s bound to happen. Some of the snakes in my pictures might just be their future ancestors….

The slideshow below is organized by snakeskin color (because that’s what they wanted). Enjoy the snakes!

Fancy Beasts

Below is a selection of superfine reptiles from the amphibian and reptile exhibit at Zoo Atlanta. They’re surprisingly photogenic creatures; as you can see from the pictures, they all turned toward the camera to let me capture their delightful smiles and that intense reptile-brain look in their eyes. And be sure to take a close look at the most-excellent talon manicure in the last two images.

In the fifth century B.C.E., the Greek philosopher Protagoras pronounced, “Man is the measure of all things.” Such an assumption makes us overlook a lot. Abilities said to “make us human” — empathy, communication, grief, toolmaking, and so on — all exist to varying degrees among other minds sharing the world with us. Animals with backbones (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) all share the same basic skeleton, organs, nervous systems, hormones, and behaviors. Just as different models of automobiles each have an engine, drive train, four wheels, doors, and seats, we differ mainly in terms of our outside contours and a few internal tweaks. But like naïve car buyers, most people see only animals’ varied exteriors. — from Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina

Thanks for stopping by; stay tuned for a coming attraction: Snakes on a Blog!