Thursday, January 26, 2017

Use It Or Lose It - photographing eagles

crows and eagles in Sheffield Mills
"Use it or lose it" is a commonly used phrase that Ive heard many times over the years. I never gave much thought to the origins of the meaning, but it gets applied to my life on a frequent basis these days.

For decades the term has been used to describe the best way to deal with the issues that come with aging. If we keep exercising (or maybe for some of us, if we actually start exercising) then we keep in shape. Likewise, if we keep exercising our brain, we continue to think better.
Ive never been good at exercising, which is one reason that its great to be a dog owner. At a certain time of day, my dogs can guilt me into going for a walk by simply coming and sitting and giving me "the look". If the look doesnt work, pawing my leg usually gets my attention. Their joy is my reward. How can I grumble about our four kilometre walk when I see how happy it makes them? Although I have to admit, I dont feel the joy while Im bundling up in my winter coat, boots, hat, scarf, and whatever else I can think of to block those icy winds. But I do feel wonderful when were actually out and on the go. 
As for keeping my brain active, thats becoming an important routine as well. Reading the newspaper is a vital, and these days somewhat emotionally painful, as I try to reason whats going on in the world. My daily sudoku is a fun way to get my brain going. To my dismay, I have started to realize that the books I read are not as complex as they used to be.
Words seem to be escaping me a lot of times now, and conversations can be a little embarrassing. Sometimes names dont come to me quickly. "Hi, you" doesnt seem like an appropriate greeting to someone that Ive known for years when their name doesnt pop to mind. I used to get extremely embarrassed about forgetting words when I was talking with someone, but now I laugh it off and blame my aging brain.

"Old age isnt for sissies" has been attributed to Bob Hope, but apparently Bette Davis quipped that line. And if you have to ask who Bob and Bette were, then you dont fall into the definition of old yet.

Worst of all is that sometimes now I have to re-learn things that Ive learned before, and sometimes not too long ago.
I took this photo several years ago, and it won second prize in the Nature category of a provincial photo contest
There is a wonderful event in Sheffield Mills every year that bird watchers and nature photographers love to attend. The Eagle Watch falls over two weekends - the last weekend in January and the first weekend in February. Local farmers throw their chicken carcasses onto a field, the eagles get a free lunch, and photographers record the show. Visitors come to the site from all over Nova Scotia and far beyond. In the past, we have met people from Newfoundland, Quebec, and various places in the States.

I dont like to fight the crowds on the official weekends, so my husband and I head out during the weeks before the big event. We have missed a few years, and felt that it was time to get back into the habit so we headed over to the valley during the second week of January. We picked a good day. It was raining lightly and I had the field to myself. Were not early risers, so we never arrive when the feeding frenzy is happening. But there are lots of photo opportunities despite this.

It was when I was fumbling with my equipment and having trouble following the eagles in flight with my lens that the expression "use it or lose it" popped into my mind. I hadn
t quite lost it, but my action photography skills had certainly got rusty.

Patience is not my greatest skill, but I took a deep breath and calmed myself down. There were dozens of eagles in the trees lining the fields, and as I worked with my camera I became aware of what was happening around me. The eagles were "talking" to each other with unique calls and the sounds were coming from all directions. I started to get into the moment, relax and my memory snatched enough recall to get my hands and eyes moving fast enough to capture some action.

this eagle chose his meal to go - there is a chicken carcass in his talons - taken in 2013 when my skills weren't as rusty
Purists will tell you that capturing images from this event is not real nature photography. That same argument can be applied to animals in wildlife parks, and zoos, and even our backyard bird feeders. Regardless of how you feel about staged nature watching opportunities, this is an experience that everyone should enjoy at least once, even if they are not photographers.

The majesty of these birds is unequaled in my mind. And to see so many of them together is absolutely amazing. Fair warning to those who attend - bring your binoculars if you are a spectator and your longest lens if you are a photographer. The first year we attended, the eagles were just distant specks in the trees. The best time to go is early in the morning, when the feeding frenzy is in full throttle and you can see the eagles in action, as well as the brave crows and seagulls who will attempt to steal food from them.

if you arrive early in the morning, you'll see the feeding frenzy that occurs when the chicken carcasses are thrown on the field - taken in 2013
Its quite an adventure, and on the two event weekends there is a festival type atmosphere in the crowds. Watching nature in action is always something good to focus on, regardless of whether we're photographers, adventurers, or lovers of life.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Go Amuse Yourself

Do kids ever say they are bored these days? I'm not sure. Even young children seem to be online all the time, gaming, texting and whatever else. However, I imagine that most readers of this blog will remember the days when kids would say "I'm bored". And you all know what the answer from our parents was..."go find something to amuse yourself with".

For me, that usually meant reading or drawing. I did have three siblings, but they were much older than me. And I did have school friends, but they lived a fair distance from me and I wasn't able to get out and play with them as often as I would have liked. We lived on a busy street and although we all walked everywhere back then, most parents didn't want their kids walking by themselves to my home on one of the busiest streets in the city. 

The end result of all of this was that I became quite able to amuse myself with hobbies and imagination. I'm not sure whether I started out as an introvert, but I sure ended up that way.

Something interesting that I've noticed is that some of the same challenges apply as we age. We often have to find something to fill our time. I was a little shocked recently when it occurred to me that I have been retired for nine years now. Part of me wonders, where did the years go? And part of me is pleasantly surprised by the fact that I have been quite happily amusing myself for almost a decade.

I wasn't unhappy when I became an empty nester. And I certainly wasn't unhappy to sell my business and retire nine years ago. There are so many things to do! And never enough time to do them.

However, that is not to say that every day is a day of excitement and adventure. 

Some days I have to follow that old advice and find something to amuse myself with. One of the good things about being a photographer is that I have lots and lots of raw material to play with. Even bad photographs can turn into something interesting with a little bit of imagination and a tad of luck.

I am an anomaly in this age of selfie taking, but was tasked to take one for a photography challenge our club was assigned last summer. I had a vision in mind that I wanted to create, and took a trip to my local Frenchy's to find a skirt that would billow in the wind. I couldn't find what I was looking for, and had to settle for something different. Not quite my usual style, it was leopard patterned sheer with a small black slip. It made quite a statement. With my apologies to the original owner, I wasn't about to wear it until the moment I was ready to take the photograph. 

Even though this was a selfie exercise, my husband was willing to tag along so we headed to Hirtle's Beach with the dogs, camera, tripod, and outfit. I picked a spot and pulled my new to me skirt over my jeans and set up my camera on the timer mode. John held the dogs and watched me as I ran back and forth in my leopard skirt and tried to get two scarves to flutter in the wind. A lack of wind, incorrect exposure setting, a photo bombing dog, and the fact that I forgot to take off my Blundstone boots, all contributed to a set of selfie images that weren't quite the artistic vision I had in mind. 
The "before" photo - too dark, photo bombed by Riley, not enough wind, generally a bad photo!

I did manage to capture something similar to what I had in my mind's eye when we had a second excursion to Beach Meadows a few days later. No photo bombing dogs, and a better location suggested by my husband helped me achieve the look I was going for.

Now, what has that all got to do with where we started in this article? Well, on a recent snowy day with no tasks that needed to be done, I was finding something to amuse myself with. I was organizing all my images from last year and came across the photos from my selfie session. Since playing with photographs is a lot more interesting than digitally labeling and filing them, I picked one and started editing. The photo bombing dog got cropped. The clunky boots got cropped. I adjusted the exposure and decided to discard the colour. And then I played with a preset effect on some computer software. Voila, I had an image I was happy with, creating something out of an image I was going to discard.
The same photo with a bit of editing - I was going to discard the original photo, but I love it now!
I know not everyone is a photographer, and not everyone has the same luxury of time. But now and then we all get bored and need to amuse ourselves. And even a boring bit of organizing can turn into something interesting to focus on.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Blank Page

Published in The Chronicle Herald - Nova Scotian on January 16, 2017 and the South Shore Breaker on January 11, 2017
Facing a new year is a little like looking at an empty journal. Its exciting because its fresh and new, open to all possibilities and with the potential of greatness.

But it can be a little intimidating too. Some of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to create something wonderful and memorable. Bigger and better than last year. A new me, a new future, a new start towards surpassing past results.

We want to get in shape, lose weight, have big vacations, accomplish spectacular goals. Anything seems possible at the start of a new year.

But what if we looked at that blank page and decided that we don
t have to fill it with a story that climbs to the top of the New York Times best sellers list? What if we contented ourselves with a quiet read full of every day things and every day life?

In years past, I used to spend part of New Year
s Day writing my goals for the coming year. My husband could never understand this and wondered why I had to write things down, why I couldnt "just be". I'm starting to come around to his way of thinking. Maybe its my advancing years, or maybe its just that twenty five years with this man has got me thinking more like him. (oh, the horror).

Seriously, I
m not sure Ill ever totally stop my list making. Thats just part of who I am. A planner. A dreamer. A believer that sometimes writing things down can be the first step toward dreams coming true. On the other hand, a long list of "to dos" can become an anchor that weighs us down and holds us back from living in the moment. If we take lists too seriously, it can backfire and become de-motivating and disheartening if we dont accomplish our goals. If our lists are too demanding, they can set us up for failure and become a tool for our minds to reinforce a feeling that we just arent good enough.

If we lack self confidence, a long list of difficult goals could lead to more stress and less faith in our abilities. The key for me when making my own list is to keep it real, keep it light and manageable, and keep it personal. And you know what? I did make a list last New Year
s Day, but I have no idea where it went. My almost total lack of memory means that I dont know if I accomplished what I wanted to or not. I guess Ill mark that down as a success. My list obviously didnt give me any self imposed stress!
If you had told me at the beginning of last year that I would write and publish thirty five articles, I would have laughed at the crazy thought.
I do remember one of my goals was to create a photo book of my favourite images to commemorate the end of five years of drug therapy for cancer. Although we did celebrate five years of being considered cancer free, I didnt work on a book. Instead, I went down a totally different road and started writing a weekly column for this paper. If you had told me at the beginning of last year that I would write and publish thirty five articles, I would have laughed at the crazy thought. Its an example for me that no matter how much I plan, being open to what the world throws at me can bring me great satisfaction and personal growth. It can also bring trepidation and fear, but that can be a good thing in small doses. If we accomplish something that scares us a little, it can stretch us and boost our confidence.

Some people like to give themselves an annual challenge, and one of mine was to read 50 books each year. Then I thought that setting a goal to read a specific number of books made it seem too much like a chore to tick off my to do list. I thought maybe it was more important to read at no particular pace and no particular time. Some days I sit and read for hours, and some days I don
t get a chance. Since I am a list maker, I keep track of the books that I have finished and make a note of which authors I enjoyed. And I do try to alternate my need for familiar authors with stretching my mind to new authors and writing styles. The library is truly one of my favourite places.

A lot of photographers join daily challenges, but I have never jumped on that bandwagon. Well, I should be honest and say I did try it briefly in the past, but stopped fairly quickly. I find that having to take specific photographs doesn
t usually work with the way I like to capture images.

As I contemplate 2017, and look at the blank page that is my coming year, I wonder what it will bring. If I was to write a list for myself, what would I like to see happen?

Of course we will continue to day trip around Nova Scotia with our dogs, traveling the coastline and finding new beaches to explore. I hope to finally visit the Kejimkujik Seaside Adjunct this year, and maybe capture an image of some seals. Another item on my photographic wish list is to find a snowy owl. 

At the top of my list will be - "Just Be" - and perhaps that will be the biggest challenge of all.
At the start of a new year, some of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make lists and set goals. bigger and better than last year. Perhaps more of us should try to “Just Be”.
Whatever your hopes and dreams are for the coming year, whether you write them down or keep them in your head, I hope this year brings you the things you truly need in life - good friendships, laughter and love. For those are truly good things for us to focus on.