Most winters we get half a dozen or so snowfalls here in Placitas. One or two of them are generally fairly deep. Deep for us in recent years has been six inches or so. I always like to try and get some good photos when the snow falls. It is so different than the normal dry desert around here.

This winter we have only had three snowfalls that stuck to the ground and only one of those was about six inches. I managed to get a few good photos of birds in the backyard while the snow was falling. There haven’t been many birds around this winter so there wasn’t a lot of subjects to choose from.

The next morning dawned with six inches of very dry snow on the ground and small flakes falling from a light overcast. I went out for an hour or so around sunrise and took some nice shots of the area around our house. By mid afternoon the sky had cleared off quite a bit. Generally, when the sun comes out after a snowfall around here the wind picks up and starts blowing the snow off of all the trees. The sun also heats up the trees and rocks and starts melting the snow even if it is still below freezing. So the trees are normally free of snow a couple hours after the snow stops falling.

This time the wind was almost zero so I was hoping the sun didn’t melt off all the snow before it got low enough in the sky for some good photos. Around 3:30 in the afternoon I headed over to the BLM land just north of the Sandia Mountains about fifteen minutes from our house. Conditions were just about perfect with a lot of snow still sticking to the trees and the rock faces up in the mountains. I came away with some of the best images I have gotten of the north side of the Sandias since we moved down here. The only thing that would have made them better was if I was there later in the day for warmer light and more color in the sky. Alas, I had to get back home so I left before sunset. It was still the best landscape photoshoot of the northern Sandias I have ever had.

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Central New Mexico is blessed with a large number of migratory birds each winter. Many of the birds are smaller species that come to our backyard feeders or ducks that show up in the local lakes and ponds. But there are two large species that are particularly popular with photographers. I am referring to the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. Around the beginning of November each year they start to shown up in the Rio Grande Valley. You can see them along the river and eating in various farm fields in the valley.

I always try and get out at least a couple times a year to photograph of them. While you can find them at a lot of places in central New Mexico in the winter there are two great wildlife refuges that are well known as hot spots for these species. The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in central New Mexico just south of the town of Socorro. It was founded in 1939 and is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge is 57,191 acres and straddles the Rio Grande River. Large numbers of birders and photographers come to the refuge each winter to see and photograph the birds. The Festival of the Cranes has been held at the refuge around Thanksgiving each year for 35 years. For the first time in 2020 and again in 2021 the festival was virtual due to the COVID epidemic.

The other great wildlife refuge, which is not as well know, is the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex. This is a group of four conservation areas in central New Mexico near Belen managed by the New Mexico Department of Water Game and Fish. The Bernardo Wildlife Management Area is a unit of the complex that covers 1,700 acres. There are three observation decks along a 2.8 miles (4.5 km) dirt road near the Rio Grande. In recent years this area has had been at least as good as Bosque when it comes to birds.

Several friends and I went down for a three-day trip to these two areas in late November of 2021. Since New Mexico has been in an extended drought, and 2021 was particularly dry, the amount of water at both areas was very low. The Crane Pond at Bosque, which is usually one of the prime Sandhill Crane viewing areas, was completely dry. There didn’t appear to be any corn planted at Bosque in 2021 either so a lot of the birds were spending the nights in the ponds at Bosque and flying up to Bernardo and other fields to eat during the day.

We had a really good trip with nice weather and managed to get some nice shots of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. We also saw a lot of smaller birds along with several flocks of wild turkeys and some mule deer that came very close to the car.

We purposely chose the dates for the trip to coincide with the full moon and one of the two evenings the sky was clear enough for some pretty good moonrise shots. The last morning was also a spectacular sunrise over the main pond at Bosque. All in all it was a really fun trip.

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Aspens in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Fall is one of my favorite times of year. In most of North America fall means great color in the trees and plants. In New Mexico the color is mostly yellow. There aren’t lot of hardwood trees that turn reds and oranges although there are a few places that they occur. There are good reds and oranges in some of the smaller bushes, particularly near water. I did get a chance to go out for fall color shoots several times this year but in most cases I missed the peak of the color. There were still some nice photo opportunities.

In late September I went up into the mountains in northern New Mexico near Taos and Red River for a week with my wife. I was hoping to shoot the Aspens turning yellow. Since we were having a particularly warm fall there was basically no fall color on that trip. We did get to spend a couple days at the Red River Folk festival however and it was some really great music.

Bridge over the Rio Grande new Taos

In the week and a half after that I went out several times hoping to get good photos of the cottonwoods turning yellow. It is less than half an hour from my house to several parks along the Rio Grande so it is a pretty easy trip. I managed a few decent shots on one of the trips but didn’t really hit it at the peak.

Cottonwood and Sandia Mountains
Cottonwoods along the Rio Grande

Some friends and I made one trip up to the Sangre de Christo mountains above Santa Fe and the Aspens were pretty close to the peak on that trip. We drove the road to the Santa Fe ski basin which isn’t the best Aspen spot but there were a few good photo ops. I’m happy with several of the shots from that trip.

Fall color in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains

We get a fair number of nice sunrises and sunsets here in New Mexico. Although you can’t really call it “fall” color I got some nice shots of a few of them last fall.

Sunrise over Placitas from my driveway
Sunrise at Bosque del Apache

Some friends and I also went down to the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge which is about an hour south of Albuquerque. We usually drive down there for the birds since it is a great winter spot for Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. This time we went in January to scout for landscape and fall color locations. Even in the winter there are still some reds and oranges in the brush and grass so I took a few shots while we were there.

Winter color at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge

From what I have been reading the timing and intensity of fall color is changing all over North America. I certainly can see the difference between what I saw in the late 1970s when I was in grad school at the University of New Mexico and what I have seen the last few years here. I’m still hoping next fall will be a little better for fall color then the last few years have been.

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Once again this year I participated in a portfolio group with the Enchanted Lens Camera Club. The portfolio groups meet from the fall until the following spring. Members work on their individual portfolios with input and suggestions from the rest of their group. Portfolios are twelve or fewer images with an accompanying artist statement. At the end of the club year (usually in June) all of the individual groups get together and each participating photographer shows their portfolio to the entire club membership.

This was my second year in a portfolio group. This time I chose Bending Light as my theme. I love images with full dynamic range and rich, saturated colors. I also like subjects that have a little bit of unpredictability in the results. So, this year I explored the reflection of light from waves, the refraction of light through glass and the interference of light from bubbles.

The images in the final portfolio are shown below. I hope you enjoy them. I am already thinking about possible subjects for next year’s portfolio.

Cheers,

Mike

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White Sands National Park is one of my favorite places on earth. I have been there numerous times since my first visit when I was in grad school at UNM in 1979. The park is a little less than a four hour drive from our current house in Placitas. When my wife and I got our second COVID shot I talked to some of my photography buddies about a short trip down there. A couple weeks later we went down for three days (two nights) in mid-May 2021.

The first afternoon the sky had some clouds which is usually good since most of the time it is just clear blue skies down there. We got some pretty nice images in the late afternoon. Just before the sun dipped below the horizon we saw a huge dust storm coming north up the valley so we started back to the car. The same time as we got to the car the temperature dropped about twenty degrees and the wind hit. Visibility dropped quickly to about a quarter mile or so. Needless to say, we headed back to the motel.

The next morning dawned clear but because we hadn’t called two weeks in advance, we were not able to get into the park before sunrise. The wind storm the night before had wiped away all the footprints on the sand so we got some nice dune shots in the early morning.

After a late breakfast we headed up to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site which is run by the BLM. The site is about forty miles north of our motel in Alamogordo. Since we were there at mid-day the photography was mediocre but it is a very interesting place to visit. There are over 21,000 petroglyphs at the site and nice views of the valley as well. After shooting there for a while we drove back to White Sands but the clouds had rolled in by mid-afternoon and it was overcast, windy and eventually raining. We adjourned for the day and got an early dinner.

The final morning was clear but the rain from the night before had flattened all the ripples in the dunes pretty much whipping out the photographic opportunities. So we had a fun trip but didn’t get the beautiful sunset shots we were hoping for. I guess that gives me a reason to go back again.

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I’ve always liked abstract, graphic images. Several years ago I did some studio studies of bent and folded paper. While they were OK, the lights I had available to me at the time we simply too large to accomplish the vision I had for the images. The other problem I faced back then was the smallest lights I had were Nikon macro flash units. With any flash units in the studio, you have to position them and select the power levels based on your best guess. Then you fire the flashes and see what you got. That allows you to make any corrections and take another shot. This process can take quite a while to get the image dialed in where you want it.

Fast forward more than ten years to now and I have very small LED continuous lights made by LumiCube. These allow the position of the power level to be adjusted in real time. You can see what you are going to get without having to go through a lot of rounds of adjustments. This is a huge advantage in the studio. With these lights in hand, I decided to have another go at paper studies. This time I was able to get the images I had envisioned years ago.

I still have some additional ideas for arrangements of paper and lights that I will try in the future but for now I am very happy with the images I got.

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Dark Eyed Junco in the snow on a Juniper

One of my goals for the winter of 2020-2021 was to get some good winter shots of birds. I was hoping for some snow on the trees and as a background. We got two nice snowfalls in early December when the wind wasn’t blowing hard. I went out with my camera and my 150-600mm Sigma zoom lens and shot for a couple hours each time. I didn’t see a large range of species coming to the feeders but they did seem to be less shy than they normally are so I was able to get some pretty nice shots of several sparrow-sized species.

Female House Finch in the snow on a Juniper
White-crowned Sparrow in the snow on a Juniper

I also went out a few times around sunrise or sunset on calm days and got some nice high contrast shots of some of the birds that frequent our feeders.

Pine Siskin at sunrise

Next winter I am going to try heading up into the mountains with my camera looking for some different species to shoot.

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As a kid when I first saw some photographs taken by Harold “Doc” Edgerton and stop motion shots by other photographers I was blown away. I first did some similar photography using a high-powered strobe when I was shooting an article on a world record setting model airplane developed by my older brother and me. Those shots were taken on film and although I got the images we needed the success rate as low and we used up a lot of film. Because of that I never did any more stop motion shots with film cameras.

Fast forward thirty years to 2010 and I now had a decent DSLR. Since the “film” was now free I decided to try some stop motion water drop shots similar to what Doc Edgerton had done. There are two big problems I had to deal with: getting enough light so the shutter speed would be high enough to stop the drops in motion and timing the shutter release to capture the drop at a good location. Edgerton and others who are really serious about this kind of photography use high powered flash to solve the first problem and some kind of electronic detector/trigger to solve the second. At the time, in 2010, there were a few photographers who had developed kits specifically to trigger the flash and shutter on digital cameras for water drop shots. There are actually several enthusiast groups who are really serious about water drop art. I didn’t want to spend several hundred dollars on the gear so I decided to use the brightest continuous lights I had and try to time the shutter. Unfortunately, my lights weren’t bright enough to get shots that weren’t grainy. Timing the shutter worked but the success rate was really low. I did manage to get a few shots that I kept however.

Fast forward another ten years to now and I have recently purchased some nice LED lights for studio use. I decided to give the water dop shots another try with those new lights. I was still using eyeball timing to decide when to trip the shutter so the success rate is still low. However, the amount of light (and a newer, better Nikon D850 DSLR) was now sufficient to get some really nice shots.

 I have always liked subjects that have something of an unpredictable nature to them and water drop shots certainly qualify on that count. Perhaps some day I will spend a couple hundred dollars and buy a water drop kit to do some really spectacular water drop art but for now I am happy with the shots I got.

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Mourning Dove

With the COVID pandemic widespread across the country, my wife and I have been staying at home this summer. My photography has been limited mostly to shooting in our yard. That has meant mostly shooting flowers and birds. Since we live in the upper Sonoran desert our yard doesn’t have any tall trees in it except for a couple we planted in the front garden that are still pretty short. There aren’t as many bird species in our yard as there are in many other areas. Even a few miles away as you go up into the Sandia mountains the number of species is greater.

We have eight bird feeders, a quail block and a birdbath next to the patio in the backyard. These attract several kinds of birds that I like to take pictures of. The most interesting in the summer are the hummingbirds. We get Rufous, Calliope, Broad Tailed and Black Chinned hummingbirds here in Placitas. We do have quite a few plants that flower in the summer that the hummingbirds like. The Red Yuccas are the ones that attract the most hummingbirds. Unfortunately, there are so many red yuccas in our yard the hummingbirds never seem to feed on the one I am set up next to. So almost all of my hummingbird photos have been taken around our hummingbird feeders. I either shoot the bird flying next to the feeders or sitting on branches close by. Hummingbirds are a particular challenge since it is always as trade off between high shutter speed to stop the wings from blurring which results in grainier pictures from high ISO and shallow depth of field or slower shutter speed which leaves some wing blur. I usually go with slower shutter speed and accept a little wing blur. Fortunately the hummingbirds are not very skittish and you can get pretty close to them with a camera. I have a 150mm – 600mm Sigma zoom which I use for all my bird shots except occasionally hummingbirds.

Rufous Hummingbird Flying

Of the other birds that come to the garden in the summer the other ones that I like photographing are the larger species. We get both Gambel’s Quail and Scaled Quail as well as Roadrunners, Mourning Doves and Rock Doves on a pretty regular basis. On rare occasions a raptor will show up but they usually just fly over and don’t land. I did have a Cooper’s Hawk land twice this summer when I was out with a camera.

Cooper’s Hawk flying

Most of the other birds are fairly small, what birders refer to as LBJs – Little Brown Jobs. They are harder to get good photos of since they tend to be skittish making it hard to get close enough for a good photo. Most of the photos end up being pretty heavily cropped which reduces the image quality. They are still fun to go out and shoot.

Sage Thrasher

I’m looking forward to the end of COVID so I can get out more. In the mean time the winter birds are starting to show up in the yard in the last couple weeks so I will at least have them to take photos of.

Cheers,

Mike

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Soap Bubbles

I have been photographing soap bubbles in my studio on many occasions for more than ten years now.  Like some other types of photography, such as refractographs and wave reflections, there is a bit of a treasure hunt quality to photographing them. Their geometry is continually changing as they mature and finally pop. The interference patterns on their surface change even more quickly. With the COVID restrictions this year I have done some more soap bubble shots in the last couple of months.

It is the geometry and the interference patterns that make bubbles so interesting.  Soap bubbles always assume the shape with the smallest possible surface area for a given volume. This means single bubbles form spheres. In a plane two bubbles meet as circles intersecting at a line. For more than two bubbles in a plane the bubbles will meet in groups of three with all angles at the intersections being  120 degrees. This means they form hexagons (just like honey combs).

In three dimensions the same principle of minimum surface area for a given volume applies. Two bubbles will meet at a common circle with the angle being 120 degrees. As with the planer case we can see from experiment that bubbles always meet as triples of lines with all angles being 120 degrees. Interestingly, while the geometry has been know for thousands of years, even the simplest planer case was not proved mathematically until 1993 and the proof for three or more bubbles in space is still open.

Thin-film interference is a natural phenomenon in which light waves reflected by the upper and lower surfaces of a thin transparent film will interfere with each other. Certain wavelengths (colors) are intensified while others are reduced depending on the thickness and index of refraction of the film. This constructive or destructive interference produces narrow reflection or transmission bandwidths. The observed colors are rarely separate wavelengths but a mixture of various wavelengths. Thus, the colors observed are rarely those of the rainbow, but rather browns, golds, turquoises, teals, bright blues, purples, and magentas.

I have shot bubbles using many different  set-ups in the studio. My favorite set-up uses four sheets of translucent Plexiglas about 2 ft. x 2 ft. to form a shooting tunnel. The rear of the tunnel was closed off with a sheet of black mat board. A spray can lid is placed in the tunnel and filled with bubble solution. The camera with a macro lens was placed in front of the tunnel and focused on the front edge of the spray can top. I have used various combinations of flash units underneath, above and to the sides of the tunnel along with gels and colored mat board to get different effects. This type of set-up gives the largest possible range of results.

I have tried many other set-ups shooting either a single bubble, multiple bubbles or a bubble film. The images created can be very striking. The whole process is fascinating to me since you never can tell what kind of pattern you will get or how it will change with time.

Cheers,

Mike Stoy

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