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Art, Birds, Animals, And Whatever

October 6-22, 2016
Written October 10+
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,

This is another not-much-happening diary, but one I BELIEVE we need in order to not look back and think October 2016 was a near-vacuum. I may have become too dependent on these scribbles and pictures to have any memory of current life events, but that's the way it has turned out.  And, we have 18 years of memories to review whenever our soft, pink brains need refreshing.

As I was looking ahead at October, I knew we would have some art-centered events  on Marianne's side and I hoped to do some photography on my side.  When I started, this seemed to lend itself to a two-column spread, so that's what I did.
Marianne's Art World (Mostly)


On the first Thursday of every month, the Fresno ArtHop offers exposure to a couple dozen local galleries and opened studios.  Because this is such a visual event, and because art is central to Marianne, we've featured the event several times in these pages.  This month, we managed four stops:

d161006_10_figtree.jpgFig Tree Gallery.  Featured Stephanie Pearl, a local painter whose works have textures and colors that our own in-house artist resonated with.  (The house photog was positive as well.)

Corridor 2122 gallery.  Una Mjurka, a now-local immigrant from Latvia, showed her works which she hopes give a sense of the immigrant experience. (Interesting factoid: Since 1989, Latvia has lost about a fifth of its population to emigration.  Consider the the effect of the USA loosing 80-million people.)  Maybe we liked the story more than the art, but perhaps that is the point of art.

Robert Ogata Studio.  Robert Ogata became Marianne's new favorite artist.  Maybe mine too.  His large-scale paintings have a combination of imagination and flawless technique that is mesmerizing.  At the ArtHop, he opened his studio and charmed anyone who listened as he answered questions about his work and his forty-year career as a successful artist.  His is an inspiring example of great art being created in Fresno.

Our last Thursday stop was at Clay Hands Studio, a co-op of eight to ten ceramicists. Several members were there, making use of their open-studio time, making things and sharing their enthusiasm for their co-op.  Anyone want to join?  (My favorite was a selection of porcelain wine "glasses".  Maybe I was just thirsty by now.)


Our next pure art event is a charity event in Los Banos on the 20th, with a fine display of some of Marianne's work!  But until then, Our left-hand column will show our Sunday treat: "Schizzo di Vino" at Cardella Winery, our current favorite local winery.
We have driven an hour west to Cardella a pair of times before, most recently with Marianne's mom, when we enjoyed a bit of wine, a picnic on the patio, and a pleasant conversation with Suzanne, the winery marketing manager.

d161009_08_food.jpgAt the "Schizzo", the crowds were bigger, and the winery provided music and the "picnic" food, but the atmosphere was just as pleasant with hundreds as it had been with just the three of us.  (We have joined their wine club, so we can look forward to similar events every Fall and Spring.  Join us next time!


d161012_02_entrance.jpgFresno is the capital of Fresno County, one of the most important farm counties in America. So, of course, it has a county fair.  The two-week extravaganza is humbly called "The Big Fresno Fair" (BFF). 

My thought had been to use the fair as an opportunity for more bird photography practice ("birds are where you find them") and that part of the fair experience is in the right-hand column.  Over here are the art experiences: exhibitions and food.

The first exhibition building showed art and photography, but I have to say the paintings were not even as good as the monthly ArtHop offerings.  I did not take example pictures.
  Photography was a better story.  Several of the judged prints were quite good and, in my view, the best ones were in the display of the Fresno Camera Club ("the oldest camera club west of the Mississippi".)  I will try to join this club to provide my self-teaching a boost.
The potter from Fresno Ideaworks was also showing (or showing off?), a nice combination of art, craft, and friendly display of the concept of a "maker spaces" where creative types can share space and ideas.
d161012_10_midway.jpgOf course, any good fair has its midway and the Big Fair has plenty of midway offerings.  In fact, I don't think I have ever seen a fair or carnival midway this big.
There were booths selling kitsch, knick knacks, nice and not-so-nice jewelry, and food. Lots and lots of food.

Our "favorite" (looked, didn't eat) was this multi-pound lump of french fries.  My goodness!

The other "art" we sampled at the Big Fresno Fair were the farmy displays of award-winning fruits and veggies. 
Sun Maid, the raisin-farmer co-op that dominates the world market for the shriveled grapes, was started in Fresno 150 years ago.

 The beekeeper is less famous.

Grapes and ribbons -- Fresno specialties.

A nice seasonal touch and it is art, of a sort.

Animal photography from the BFF is over on the right.


d161020_02_library.jpgOn October 20th, Marianne took a selection of her wood panels over to Los Banos for a "Small Art Sale and Benefit" by the local Friends of the Library.  This is an annual affair and this year she was invited via a complex connection with Patti, the chief organizer.

d161020_04_setup.jpgd161020_06_kathy.jpgWe didn't really know what to expect, but the setting was nicely prepared and Patti made us feel very welcome.

d161020_10_mandolin.jpgd161020_08_tedned.jpgSoon after its 5pm start, the small library was filled with people enjoying wine, nibbles, and chit chat.  Clearly, this group was mostly regulars at the yearly event and they brought their small town friendliness.  Nice.
But, Marianne had art to sell.  Expectations were not high, as we have not really figured out the mass marketing aspect of an art career. Nevertheless, before the night was over, she had seven new customers!  A sales bonanza at our normal scale.
A success story to end the art part of this diary!
(I expanded the photography part to use the extra space over here.)
John's Picture-Taking (Mostly)

I enjoy taking pictures.  I keep intending to take some photography classes or workshops, but I never seem to get around to it.  In the meantime, I just keep plugging along the self-teaching path.

Last month, I tried night pictures of the Milky Way, and that effort that was great fun, even if the products were not so successful.  Clearly, there needs to be a repeat night.

For now, however, I am teaching myself about bird photography, not because I am a  aviary fan particularly, but because I just want to get better than feathered snapshots.

Of course, there are any number of internet sources for instruction, but in all cases, the suggested key is practice, practice, and then more practice.  That's what I am setting out to do, once I have obtained all the appropriate technology I can afford, because I ALSO like techno gadgets.

I had already bought a big-but-barely-affordable zoom (150-600mm Tamron, in case you want to know details) and, based on one of the internet suggestions, I now had a "Better Beamer" flash extender.  A gadget with a cute name, I could not resist.

Then, I needed birds.  My photographer friend Larry does very nice bird pictures, but he lives in coastal Florida, so his subjects are just around the corner.  Lucky him. 

In the Spring, we have a fair selection of birds at our backyard feeder, but by now they seem to have moved on to feast in the abundant farm fields surrounding us.  I did manage a picture of this bird which we regularly see flying above our neighborhood.  It's that sort of neighborhood.
Lessons learned: Birds are where you find them and it's not so easy pointing a 600mm lens at anything that is flying, even if it is big and noisy.


d161011_01_where.jpgThe next step in sophistication involved a two-mile trip to the Fresno Chafee Zoo, the closest safari destination we will manage for some time.  I needed an hour-and-a-half excursion to get in some fun practice and, despite myself I think, I did learn lessons.

First, some example products and then a summary of those lessons learned.
(Kind of) wild geese.  Closeups are easy with a long lens, but I still should have knelt down to get a clearer eye.
No-flash versus flash.  The artificial light allows a lower "film speed" (ISO 400 instead of 2500) and hence less grain.  But, color may not be as nice.
The "Better Beamer" cannot be used too close to the subject or only part will be lighted.
Light and dark birds, with flash.  Without flash, the images would have been faded or fuzzy.
Flash makes the cage screen visible, but without flash, the high ISO (6400) introduced a graininess.
Two more condor pictures without flash, but ISO above 5000 made things "soft".
d161011_32_emu2.jpg(my day's favorite)
The Emu.  Taken with the lens at 500-600mm, from just a few feet away.  Flash or no-flash did not change things much.  There is no substitute for eye-level shooting.
Egret (I think) without flash (left) and with.  The flash pushed the "film speed" from ISO 6400 to ISO 400 and got rid of graininess.
Flamingos are flashy, no matter what.  Zooming in on the pinpoint eye is harder than it seems, but yields a better picture.
Feathers, from a Flamingo and the Emu.  Natural light was plenty to keep the ISO speed reasonable.
This guy shared the Flamingo enclosure.  The head shot is at 600mm and the flash helped give a reasonably sharp picture, despite my tired, shaky hand.  A tripod or mono-pod would have helped, but I can only lug around so much gadgetry.

Lessons learned: A seven pound camera-and-lens-and-flash gets heavy after 20 minutes.  Get low to birds that are low.  Concentrate on eyes.  Flash helps by avoiding high ISO "graininess".  Remember a second camera for broad shots.


Complementing the BFF story on the left is a collection of not-so-wild-animal photos over here.  I am not convinced this is educational, but I know it is fun.
Wild beasts in glass cages.  The Bearded Dragons seemed particularly photo-worthy.  Maybe some day I will spend weeks and thousands of dollars finding them in their natural environment.  Maybe.
d161012_54_birds.jpg Birds.  I wonder, are they less pretty for being in a big tent instead of a big forest?  I don't think so.  Again, an in-the-wild photo excursion would be nice, but until then, I will settle for BFF practice.  (Lesson: flash helps in back lit settings.)
d161012_60_animals.jpgAnimals were in the aptly named "Cow Palace", just not the famous one.
For photography, it was hard to be inspired.  The sheep were pretty cute, especially little Yoda here, but cows were too big and dull and the little piggies were just brown lumps.  I guess one needs to be a farmer to appreciate some of this.

Chickens were colorful and hence good photo subjects.  They were hard to capture because their heads bobbed around all the time. (Lesson: take lots of shots.)
This "ring neck pheasant" stayed still enough, but would not face the photographer.  The little chickies were pretty dynamic, but cute enough to be worth all the throw-aways.  (Lesson: lots of shots.)
Pigeons were perfectly happy to just sit and pose (or sleep).  This "Pigeon Club" reminded me of stories of stuffy men's clubs, after a heavy lunch.  (Lesson: some dull pictures reflect dull parts of life.  That's OK, I guess.)
So, that was another practice session for bird (and animal) photography.  Lessons:  Eyes still matter most and, for fast-moving birds, take lots of shots.


d161020_21_sign.jpgWhile Marianne was setting up her art at the library benefit, I drove out to the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  My plan was simply to plan a future bird-photo session, some time when I would have enough time and when the winter vacation session for the migrating birds arrives.

I stopped by the visitor's center and learned that the migrations had not started much yet, although there were signs that the Merced NWR, a few miles east, was starting to see cranes, geese, and other early travelers.  Maybe tomorrow.
Instead of migrating birds, I headed out on a two-mile "auto tour" route that encircles the fenced Tule Elk enclosure.  Since I had my camera with me, and my purpose was birds, I did try a few shots of fence-sitters.  Not great, but more practice at handling the camera and long lens combination.
(Lesson learned: Even local birds are cute.)

Continued from right (pink) column

d161020_38_water.jpgAt one point, I got out of the car alongside a "riparian corridor" (small drainage) and discovered other flying animals: mosquitoes and dragonflys.  The mosquitoes were unbelievable, but too small and quick to photograph.  Trust me, they out numbered the birds. (Lesson learned: bring bug spray.)

I worked to get dragonfly shots, but I failed on two key points: clear focus and eyes.  Oh well, it was fun anyway.

However, the main attraction would be the elk.  In the 1800's, an estimated 500,000 Tule Elk were found throughout the Central Valley, but, by a century later, hunting and loss of habitat had decimated the elk population to as few as 20 to 30 individuals. In 1974 conservationists set up this 780-acre paddock with 18 animals to rebuild the herd and today there are over 4,000 here and transplanted to other refuges in the valley.  Nice story.

The fenced enclosure is quite large, and the main elk herd seemed to have selected a resting ground as far as possible from the viewing station.  Even with my longest lens, it was hard to see much detail.

The "bachelors", male elk without harems, were off in a different corner of the paddock, closer, but I still needed all the lens length I have.  Good practice.


After Friday breakfast with Ted and Nancy, we headed to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge where yesterday's ranger had said the first of the migrating cranes would be found.  There are three refuges in the area, yesterday's San Luis NWR, today's Merced NWR, and the San Joaquin River NWR, a bit north.  The 45,000 NWR acres are winter home or rest stop to 30 species of waterfowl.  Each refuge seems like a small island among the hundreds of thousands of acres of the San Joaquin Valley ranches and farms.  The refuges are funded by "duck stamps", taxes paid by bird hunters, and illustrate the complex support system for conservancy.

Friday was intended to be a scouting visit, in preparation of a longer excursion in a couple of weeks.  The idea is that really good pictures require considerable preparation and practice.  Where to go.  Where to park.  What is car-accessible versus hiker-only.  When birds will be most active.  What compositions work?  How reachable areas are  in the preferred sunrise/sunset lighting.  (The NWRs are open 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.)  Then there are all the camera-technical things: which lens; what speed and "f-stop"; tripod or not; "film" speed.  Honest, it's harder than iPhone selfies. And I am an absolute amateur when it comes to birds.
The first observation was that the Merced NWR is easily accessed by car, about 30 minutes outside Los Banos.  Right at the entrance is an observation platform. Not much wildlife was visible in the sparkling wetlands, but the warm sun was very pleasant.

d161021_10_backlit.jpgd161021_12_pairbacklit.jpgPhotographically, the sun from this observation point was a problem.  The glare was everywhere and the birds almost disappeared in the back lighting.  I suppose bird silhouettes might be pleasant, but I doubt it.  Any opinions?

All the rest of the pictures would come from the five-mile "car route" that runs along the outer edge of the refuge.  Marianne drove and I shot from the backseat window.  It is a productive setup, with the window ledge substituting for a tripod.  Now I could get down to business.

My first composition question was the merit of pictures of groups of birds versus one or two by themselves.  The following group shots seemed ok enough, especially the graceful flying cranes.   And who can object to ducks-in-a-row?   Reportedly, there can be great sunset shots of hundreds of cranes lifting off the water en mass as they head off in search of night roosting trees.  That needs more planning, more patience,  and more birds!  What's your thought?

On this day, I think I preferred single birds or pairs.  Maybe that was because it was a lot easier to concentrate on one or two birds, especially for the ones who were just standing in mirror-calm water.  Here is a set of those guys.  Opinions?
d161021_06_blind.jpgd161021_07_blind.jpgd161021_08_blind.jpgMost of the Merced Auto Route is "no parking", with the expectation being that shooting from the car is good enough - and generally it is.  However, on the southern edge, there is one small blind, with a single parking space.  I can picture aggressive birders fighting over the spot, or is "aggressive birder" an oxymoron?  When I come back in a couple of weeks, I'd like to spend a sunset here, despite the abundance of bugs!

The most challenging pictures came from the birds in action, flying action.  They do not take direction well at all.  No matter how much I urged them to fly toward me, eyes visible, they generally didn't listen.  And then there is the whole question of focusing on a moving target.  Nevertheless, there is no substitute for action.

OK.  Bottom line, lessons learned:  Work on lighting, even fill flash; work on moving focus (my camera has great capability, but I need to learn and practice); bring bug spray; bring water; learn about birds.

And that's it for now.  Stay tuned.

John and Marianne


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