Monday, March 23, 2015

See those wildflowers now, they will be gone soon

Whenever we visit wildflower areas in California, we are conscious that the flowers will wither and fade as the plants cycle progresses. When we visited Antelope Valley and the Carrizo Plain area this year, we saw that solar energy installations had replaced some fields of flowers. We had a sense that we we return in coming years, there will be fewer fields of flowers and more development.

Wildflower field in the Carrizo Plain area

The Carrizo Plain National Monument itself is not threatened but the private land north of the monument is being converted into large scale solar energy farms. The installation of dense rows of solar panels disturbs the soil and the panels shade out vegetation beneath the panels. As more of these developments fill the north end of the plain, the National Monument will be cut off from the land farther north. The Carrizo Plain has been part of a band of undeveloped land that stretched for about 150 miles from the south end of the monument to the edge of the city of Hollister. The value of the monument as part of a larger natural environment is being diminished.

Solar energy farms are replacing fields of flowers in the Antelope Valley as well. We saw new solar installations along Highway 138 and the side roads where we had seen flowers in the past. The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is not threatened but many of the best flower areas are outside the reserve. Development for homes and businesses as Lancaster and Palmdale expand westward also threaten to replace fields of flowers. Antelope Valley's flowers can be enjoyed on an easy day outing by the large urban populations of Southern California. If we expect urban Califorians to value California's natural environment, we need to preserve places like the flower fields of Antelope Valley so that people can see experience the beauty of nature for themselves.

For several years, the development of solar energy has had a gold rush character fueled by government land give-aways, massive subsidies and short-circuited review processes. The result has been to site installations without adequate consideration for the effect on the natural environment. It will take much more public awareness and concern to replace the gold rush by a process that doesn't permanently damage the natural environment in California.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Taking pictures in the last hour of daylight

Several times in a recent 9 day wildflower trip as the light level got low, we saw new and interesting flowers that we wanted to photograph. We got some good pictures but we missed others. Some of our pictures were usable but not as sharp as we normally get.

The low light level resulted in slow shutter speeds and made it harder to see the subject well enough for focusing. There was often a breeze blowing which moved the subject around. Lesley uses a monopod and I use a tripod; that helps keep the camera steady but it doesn't help with a moving subject. When you are down to a 1/8 second shutter speed, a gentle breeze is enough to produce a blurry image. An example:

This one is almost sharp.

This one is less sharp.

A breeze made this image completely blurry.

The experience made me think about ways to improve results.

- Increase the sensor sensitivity (ISO value). We normally use ISO 400 and change to 800 as light levels fall. However, if we are losing shots, why not try 1600 or 3200? Each doubling of the ISO setting doubles the shutter speed.

- Upgrade to the latest and greatest camera model. That might allow us to use 3200 or even 6400 with the same results as 1600 or 3200 with our current Panasonic G6 cameras. This is an easy, obvious improvement but it costs real money.

We usually use aperture values of f7.1 or f8 to get enough depth of field to get all of the subject in sharp focus. However, we could use f3.6 or f4 to get a doubling of shutter speed. At our usual working distances (12-14 inches from sensor to subject), depth of field would be reduced. Backing away to 19 inches would give our desired depth of field at the cost of a small subject on the image.

Carry a small “tent” to shield the subject from wind. We often work close to our car on these trips so carrying a “tent” made of plastic sheeting with short rods to hold the plastic in place may be feasible.

Use flash to get more light and to freeze the subject. The built-in flash isn't great but I could try it. An accessory flash unit would be much better but they cost real money.