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Houston, We’ve Had A Problem Here!

February 17, 2019

While the problem we face today is not as perilous to life and limb as when Jack Swigert immortalized those words in April of 1970, as Apollo 13 had its cascading failures, we still have an issue that has the potential to lead to a cascading failure of our economy.  Perhaps it is better to put it “America, we have a problem here!”

That problem is our national debt.  The current national debt exceeds $22-trillion. It has never been that high before.  To service the debt (pay the interest and principle we owe) requires more and more of the government’s annual income from taxation.  The more we pay to service the debt, the less there is for things like the military and the other departments of the government.

It is easy to get caught up in pointing fingers at this President or that, one Congress vs. another, but that does nothing to address the issue before us.  We must cut costs AND raise income to reduce the huge debt we owe.  If we wish to avoid a financial crisis such as the one faced by Greece recently, we must address the issue now.

Historically, we’ve used our national debt to spur the economy, and it has worked, but what is too much debt?  At what point is the burden of debt more harmful than the upswing in the economy?  One of the common measures of national debt is as a percentage to Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  When looked at like this, we can see some interesting trends since 1950.

The chart shows the GDP for each President’s last year in office.  Two datasets are used, the first being the actual Last Year In Office (LYIO) and the second being the Last Budget Year (Last BY).  They very slightly and illustrate our National Debt does correlate to the influence of the President.

Here are the percentages using data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis:


*President Trump’s figures are
estimated for end of 2019

What is interesting is what was going on with the US economy when we increased the percentage of debt to GDP.  When the Great Depression hit, and throughout World War II, we increased our national debt to keep our economy growing.  After the war, we were able to reduce the percentage ratio by controlling spending, keeping revenues high (taxes) and growing the economy and our GDP output.  From President Truman through President Carter, the ratio of National Debt to GDP either went down or took a slight bump (i.e. the Nixon/Ford years) upwards.  Then came President Reagan!

President Reagan had two primary priorities as President.  The first, repair the damage to the office of the president caused by the resignation of President Nixon and Watergate.  Second, stop the Soviet Union’s increasing influence in developing nations.  It is the second priority that had such a drastic effect on our National Debt.

Regardless, if you agree or disagree with President Reagan’s approach to the Debt, in the end, forcing the Soviet Union to match our spending and buildup of our military did have the desired result, their economy collapsed, and the Union fell apart.  Of course, there are a million other contributing factors for the collapse, but the spending is one of the primary factors and certainly drove our National Debt up – way up!

While President H.W. Bush was President in 1991 the Soviet Union formally dissolved, it was at the beginning of his term.  We also fought the Gulf War in 1991, but as wars go, it did not have a huge impact on the National Debt.   At that point, we could have started reducing the Debt but there was a push for “no new taxes” and President Bush’s signing of a modest increase into law cost him his reelection bid and Congress had little incentive to work on the issue and the National Debt went up.

Then it was President Clinton’s turn.  Putting his personal failings aside, his term as President showed it is possible to grow the economy, eliminate the budget deficit and reduce the National Debt percentage when compared to GDP.  We could have used the surplus to reduce the National Debt further by buying back a portion of our debt, much like companies are doing right now with stock buy-backs, instead, it was paid out more like a dividend through a reduction in the tax rate after President Clinton left office.

President George W. Bush entered office and a cacophony of events that upset everything followed.  First, President Bush acted on the surplus in the budget by cutting taxes in Jun of 2001.  Then the 9/11 tragedy happened.  Not only did it cost a considerable number of lives, but it also damaged our economy.  Airlines were the hardest hit, but industry, in general, took a punch and the country was in the mood to give business a break.  That break came in the form of another tax cut in 2003.  So, we began the war with Afghanistan, and while still underway, began one with Iraq, cut taxes and to no one’s surprise, our National Debt increased at a fast pace.  At the same time, the budget deficit returned.

Unlike when FDR battled the Great Depression and World War II, both of which drove up the National Debt, we did not raise taxes to offset the increase in spending.  We financed the increase by selling government securities.  Securities have to be paid for at some point, with interest.  

Also, under President GW Bush, deregulation, which was started by President Clinton, picked up and our financial institutions followed the same type of disastrous path they did in the 1920s.  It all came to a head in 2008 with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. 

When President Obama took over, the economy was in the toilet, we were at war, and tax revenues were down.  We needed to jump-start things and it was done with a very large economic stimulus package.  Again, by increasing the National Debt. Again, just like FDR’s various programs, the economy recovered.  Once our economy had legs, we began to reduce the deficit.  At its highest in 2009, it was $1.4-trillion.  In 2013 it was down to $753-billion, or about half of its highest.

It should be noted, to decrease the National Debt requires buying back the debt.  To buy back the debt a surplus is required in the budget.  We will only have a surplus by cutting spending or raising taxes or better yet – both! 

Now it is President Trump’s turn.  Rather than continue to reduce the deficit and working towards reducing the National Debt, we have increased our rate of borrowing money (over $2-trillion since President Trump took office) and we cut taxes again increasing the deficit.  Our National Debt is getting to a dangerously elevated level.

By the end of 2019, our National Debt will be around 109% of our GDP.  When Greece had its financial collapse, their National Debt was 143% of its GDP.   While our economy is much more dynamic than Greece’s, we still need to fix this problem now, before we take on more debt than we can repay.

We are beyond the typical liberal/conservative approaches to governance.  We need to work the problem with every tool we have.  Liberals will not like cuts, conservatives will not like corporate taxes, but both are needed to address this.  What we don’t need is companies, like Amazon, earning billions in profits and paying little to nothing in taxes.  Reports show Amazon will earn about $11.2-billion in profit this year and pay zero in taxes.

To be clear, it is not Amazon’s fault.  They are simply using the tax code to their best abilities.  Which is to be expected from every person and company in the United States.  The problem is we have a Congress and Executive Branch that continue to spend money while lowering taxes.  That must change and change now.  Remember the old axiom “When do you fix the roof?  Before it starts to rain.”  My friends, look to the horizon and see the coming storm.  We need to fix our roof, we need to acknowledge we have a problem.

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Birds On A Beach

February 2, 2019

Endless birds,
adorn the beach,
oblivious to passers-by.

I venture close,
’bout to reach,
they explode upon the sky.

In a flash,
the scene is set,
as Plovers obscure my view.

It was a glimpse,
I’ll not forget,
this dimming of daylight’s hew.

‘Twas my choice,
that morn to make,
as I walked along the shore.

Pass them by,
and make no wake,
or enjoy them all the more.

Picked the one,
that made me smile,
by my sending birds to flight.

Ask of them,
forgive my guile,”
requesting this glorious sight.

Up to us,
just what we see,
as we trek about this place.

Give a nudge,
to what will be,
and see this world with its grace.


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The Bird Fight!

January 9, 2019
Bird Fight!

We have several bird feeders in the backyard and it is always interesting to see who visits, but sometimes things get as heated as a K-Mart Blue Light Special on Black Friday.  The other morning was just such an occasion.

The Feeder in Question

It started out innocently enough, a bird or two stopping by, taking their fill and flying off to parts unknown.  That is the deal, we put out food, they visit.  We get to enjoy seeing them, they get a full belly.  It works out for everyone.  That is until two birds want the same feeding station!

This is the feeder in question, a Stokes Select Large Hanging Tube Bird Feeder, 6 Feeding Ports, 3.5 lb. Seed Capacity model we recently purchased at Walmart of all places.  Six feeding ports!  One would think that would be plenty to go around.  I mean the birds tha use it weigh maybe about an ounce or two, and the damn thing holds 3.5 pounds of food.  There is more than plenty to go around.  If only the little creatures would have the patience to wait their turn.  And there’s the rub!

So, we hung the feeder, filled it with Wagner’s Deluxe Blend Wild Bird Seed with 20% sunflowers, and a healthy sprinkling of mealworms.  Only the best in our backyard eatery!  As they say in their advertisement “TRUST YOUR BACKYARD BIRDS TO THE EXPERTS AT WAGNER’S!”  We did not have to wait long, within a few minutes several sparrows, finches and chickadees stopped by.  We were all smiles.

Mr. Squirrel

OK, so if you are not a bird enthusiast, you may not know the issue with squirrels.  These backyard bandits can empty a bird feeder in a matter of seconds.  That’s why you have to develop a strategy with feeding.  Put too much on a platform feeder and it just feeds the squirrels, put too little and the birds ignore the offering.  That’s one advantage to the tube feeders, squirrels don’t seem to put in the effort to get the goods.  They try and spill some, for sure but with its large capacity there is plenty for the birds.  This is where the fun began, the next morning I had just finished restocking the cedar feeders, you know the type that look like a little house with glass walls for the hopper and a rim around for the birds to perch while feeding (squirrels make short work of these if you leave the full of seed), and I decided to set up my camera on a tripod and see if I could capture some nice images.

The Gathering Storm

Less than 10-minutes later, boom!  Birds from everywhere arrived at all four of the feeders.  The new tube being of particular interest.  At first, it was just busy and things we looking good to capturing the detail images I was after. Of course, that did not last long!

The Approach!

We have a mental image of small birds and being fast and crafty and they are.  I just never knew they could become so violent so quickly.  You would have thought the sky was falling the ruckus the two pugilists made.

Putting on the Breaks

At first, it just looked like a bird coming in for a landing.  After all, it’s not like all the ports we occupied.  Silly me for thinking logically.  The one bird was minding it’s business then all of the sudden bird two took a line right for it.  Notice the one bird is on the middle level.  It was the first bird approached but not the one in the fight. Things went very quick from this point.  The flying bird made not sound, but the one on the perch realized trouble was on the way and let out a chirpy screech that caused the flying bird to put on the breaks.  It’s almost looked like the bird was flying backwards like a hummingbird but that might just be my perception.

Thinking Twice!

I had my camera in continuous shooting, so I was able to fire off pictures quickly, but even that missed a lot of the action.  These guys are fast – very fast!  The whole episode only lasted maybe a second.

It was on the second approach the action really heated up.  This time with a bird on one of the lower ports.  The amazing thing is, all the other bird not involved, could not have me less interested in the commotion just next to them.  Somehow, they knew it was not going to spill over and become some sort of bird riot at the feeder.

The Attack!

The flying bird took it’s best shot but the bird on the lower perch had the advantage and held its ground.  I think it was more show than an actual strike, but I bet those little talons could so some damage if they really wanted.

Regrouping

The attacking bird figured out it was not going to work and needed to regroup.  So much energy was used up by it in such a brief time there was no way it could attack again.  It was time to thing of the next move.  A stern look from the first bird warned it off trying anything new on that front. 

Pretty much, just that quick the fight, for lack of a better word, was over.  The attacker was repelled, the victors watched the retreat with a sense of satisfaction.  All the other birds still could not be bothered to look up.  It’s as if the little fight never took place.  I guess for them it is all too common an event to give it much notice.

Seeking Higher Ground

Still, the retreating bird had to do something.  It just could not hang out in mid-air.  It was time to move on.  Still, it did not seem the bird was willing to abandon the feeder.

In another instant, the choice was obvious.  Just find a spot and wait it out.  Afterall, there was plenty of food, it’s not like it was going to all be eaten before a port opened up, not to mention the feeder was never really full in the first place.

So, in the end, it was “much ado about nothing,” and the whole event could have been avoided, but then I would not have had the chance at getting some interesting images. 

Why Didn’t I Do This in the Fist Place?
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New Feeder is a Hit!

January 8, 2019
Shot with Nikon D810 w/Nikkor 70-300mm at 155mm, ISO 5000 f7.1 1/800sec
(Click image for larger view)

OK who can help me identify these little birds? I think they are some sort of sparrow but not sure.

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Red-Tailed Hawk

January 7, 2019
Take 1/7/2019 on St Simons Island, Georiga

I really enjoy the backyard. We have lots of birds but none more intersting than the red-tailed hawks that visit. They are always up to something and unlike the golden eagles, they don’t mess my our chihuahuas.

We have several dead pines back there and the hawks take up a perch and survey the grounds for something to snatch. And they do! These guys even go after snakes.

Hawk with snake

Still, I like seeing them fly or sitting watching what is going on. They seem stately somehow.

On the look out!
Off he goes!

They are just very cool birds to watch. I know the world is worried all about conservation and I am sure on the band-wagon but I have to say we have more birds here today than when I was a kid. Big birds that is, the hawks and eagles.

Each day is a new adventure with them. This is a great place to live!


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Shooting Birds

January 5, 2019
Click Image to enlarge

I’m often asked what the best way is to capture images of birds.  That is a big question with more and one right answer.  A better question is to ask where to start when capturing birds with a camera. 

Here is how I go about it:

When shooting birds, I use the larges lens I have available to me.  Most of the time I use my Nikkor 70 – 300mm 4-5.6 G.  It is not as crisp as a prime but gives great results and in 99% of the cases, I do not need to go shallower than f5.6. For the camera body, use what you have, of course, but if you can choose between a crop or full sensor, go with the full.  It makes a huge difference in post-processing.

First off, I want to control the camera, so I shoot in Manual most of the time.  Sometimes I will use Shutter Priority, but I find it easier to just pick my settings, then let the ISO float as needed with ISO-Auto on.  Either way, manual or shutter priority, I set the ISO to at least 800, then keep the ISO-Auto on so it goes higher as needed. 

A note about JPG vs. RAW:  If you have the ability to shot in RAW, do so.  I only shoot in raw and never have my camera create JPGs.  Relating back to the days of film, JPGs are like the finished print and RAW is like the negative.  The print (JPG) is done, little can be done to fix issues with it, the negative (RAW) give us the ability to change almost everything in post-processing.  I am the photographer, not my camera. I control my images, not the little silicon brain in my camera.

Next, you have to understand how your camera focuses.  In most DSLRs and some point and shoots, you can control how the lens focuses on a subject.  I will either use small-group or single-point focus.  I use single-point unless I anticipate the subject flying away.  I have found my Nikon D810 keeps focus better with a small-group setting than single-point when birds are flying.  Single-point will give you the sharpest image if your subjects cooperate.  However, what I pick I stay with as I don’t like to change in the middle of a shoot.  That works for a small group or single bird.  For a flock or large group, selecting the multi-point focus options will give reliable results but they are not required by any means.

I stet the DOF to something on the shallow side of middle, f7.1 or lower, f9 is as deep as I go for single birds or a couple of birds unless I have something specific I want to achieve.  Because I have ISO-Auto on, I set my shutter to 1/1000” to start and shot some test images.  I then adjust up or down as needed.  A stationary water bird might get an 1/800” or even a 1/650”, but never lower than that handholding a lens with the reach to shoot birds.  For fast birds, like hummingbirds, I set the shutter speed as high as 2000 but will keep my eye on the ISO to make sure it is not maxed out and giving improper exposure.

Often, it is desired to drop out the background in an image which normally needs a shallower DOF than 5.6.  The trick to solving this problem is decreasing the distance to the subject.  For most of us, our 300mm lenses only go as low as 4 or 5.6.

The DOF for a Nikkor 70-300mm at 300mm, using f5.6 is:

Distance (ft) DOF (inches)
10 1.37
20 5.47
30 12.30
40 21.86
50 34.17

As you can see, the sweet spot for dropping out the background will be between 20 and 30 feet.  Anything less and you will loose focus on parts of the bird being shot, anything more and you will need to post-process and edit in Photoshop or the like to get a decent result.

Now that the DOF is set and you know your target distance, most often at 20 feet of greater, you will need to crop your image to get the desired detail and to mimic the goal of filling the frame, this is where the use of a full-frame sensor pays dividends.  At 20 ft, the field of view for the Nikkor 70-300mm at 300mm is around 3 feet horizontally.  At 30 feet it’s around 3.5 feet.  Most likely, cropping will be needed to produce an image that is artistically appealing.   Because of this, it is critical than the subject be in focus.  Imperfections will be amplified.  Single point of focus and a higher shutter speed will give you crisp results.

Keep in mind, hand-holding a 300mm lens requires a shutter speed of at least 1/600”, even with a FX (full-frame) camera body.  Purists will point out that with a full-frame 1/300” is all that is needed. That is true enough, if you don’t crop, but cropping is the trick in getting the effect of a lower DOF lens with a f5.6 lens that fills the frame.  Given that you will not know if cropping is needed until post-processing, it’s best to shot as if it is needed.  What you give up in shutter speed you can make up for in in sharpness.

As for white-balance, shooting in RAW allows me to change it in post-processing but it is better to get the right balance from the start.  I use an expodisk 2 to set the Kelvin value for me.  Otherwise I simply place it in AUTO and adjust in post.  I also set the exposure metering to spot, this is key in dropping out the background as the exposure will be set to enhance the bird and not the background.  

Another benefit to shooting stationary birds with a higher shutter speed is they do not stay stationary long, especially when moving closer.  You will not have time to adjust your setting, so it best to be prepared for the inevitable.  Some of my best images came from exactly this scenario, I wanted to capture something like a Blue Heron feeding, only to have them fly off. It was being ready for 5 or 6 seconds of flight that allowed me to capture the image.  Had I worried about camera settings, it would have been too late.


Click Image to enlarge

Now that all that is set up, it’s time for you to get creative.  Before I shoot, I see in my mind the image I want to create.  I frame my shoot and focal point to give me that image.  For example, I shot this image of the egret at the pond using my D810 and Nikkor 70 – 300mm at 300mm, ISO-Auto (220) f9, 1/1000” white balance in AUTO and spot metering.  I rotated my camera to portrait to include the reflection of the egret.  In landscape, it is just a bird on a green background. I also used the rule of thirds and set both the bird and reflection on the right third line.  I only cropped the image to a 5×7 format with no enlargement at all.  The only non-standard post-processing was to tone down the greens to give them more contrast adding to the image’s depth.      

In the end, that are many ways to achieve the results you want and this is truly just a starting point.  This is how I do it with the equipment I have.  Not all of us can plop down 6-grand on a 600mm f1.2 lens. There are no hard rules that cannot be broken.  Shot what works for you but shot!  You will not get the shot sitting on your couch.  You might take a hundred images to get the one you want to share.  So what, as long as you get the one!     

Happy shooting!

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What to do with all the “average” images

January 3, 2019

I grew up in photography having “take the shot” drilled into my head.  It makes sense but it does create an issue – what to do with all the images that are not quite good enough to fully develop? Tilt-shift is one good possibility.

Tilt-shift lens have been around for years.  They are used in some of the advanced technical types of photography.  Today, we have the option of creating a tilt-shift effect in post-processing.  It is a creative why to breath some life into your collection less than stunning images you pass over when selecting which ones development time is spent.

Most all commercial post processing software, like Lightroom and AlienSkin, offer some level of the effect.  Here is a good example, Image 1 in the image before tilt-shift. Image 2 is the same image with only the tilt-shift applied.

Image 1: Anhinga at Pond, No Tilt-shift
Image 2: Anhinga at Pond, Tilt-shift applied

With tilt-shift, we can take what is a flat image, with little pop, and change it into something that resembles a toy model.  Not a whole lot of application but at least it’s an option on something we can do with the hundreds of images that did not make the cut.

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