Category Archives: People

Stories about some of my favorite people.

2015 Chatham County Photography Workshop

The workshop last Saturday in Chatham County was a lot of fun, and some great images were created. We met before dawn on the shore of Jordan Lake. Persistent thick fog provided wonderful light. Before we started shooting, I gave a short talk about the visual language of photography and encouraged everyone to avoid photographing the lake, and instead make images of color, texture, shape, line, contrast, pattern, etc.

Maggie Zwilling created this wonderful black and white image with leading lines and high contrast.

Maggie Zwilling created this wonderful black and white image with leading lines and high contrast.

Kim Hawks created this surreal abstract impression by focusing on the reflections of pines along the lake shore.

Kim Hawks created this surreal abstract impression by focusing on the reflections of pines along the lake shore.

While discussing composition I was distracted by this brown-headed nuthatch.

While discussing composition I was distracted by this brown-headed nuthatch.

After several participants made photographs of these charismatic sticks in the lake, I created this image to demonstrate how shooting from a lower angle causes the sticks to cross the horizon, creating a more visual impact.

After several participants made photographs of these charismatic sticks in the lake, I created this image to demonstrate how shooting from a lower angle causes the sticks to cross the horizon, creating more visual impact.

As the fog began to lift we moved to a forest along the Haw River. The spring ephemeral wildflowers were just getting started, and the cloudy skies provided excellent light for plant photography. I encouraged everyone to choose a subject and work it for the next two hours before we took a break for lunch and moved to the classroom portion of the workshop.

While searching for trout lilies I came across this 1/4 inch wide scene. The perfection of a rain drop on each and every leaf tip seems impossible.

While searching for trout lilies I came across this 1/4 inch wide scene. The perfection of a rain drop on each and every leaf tip seems impossible.

Rachel Jones made one of the best trout lily photos of the day. These tiny flowers are challenging subjects, and she worked very hard for this image, lying on the wet ground and trying different ideas until she found one she liked best.

Rachel Jones made one of the best trout lily photos of the day. These tiny flowers are challenging subjects, and she worked very hard for this image, lying on the wet ground and trying different ideas until she found one she liked best.

Julie Tuttle gave herself a very challenging subject when she decided to work on beech drops. It takes a special eye to appreciate the beauty of these parasitic plants, but an eye for their beauty is not enough. Julie also put in the time to work this subject until she came up with this excellent composition.

Julie Tuttle gave herself a very challenging subject when she decided to work on beech drops. It takes a special eye to appreciate the beauty of these parasitic plants, but an eye for their beauty is not enough. Julie also put in the time to work this subject until she came up with this excellent composition.

Our two hours along the Haw River flew by, and most people only had time to work one subject well. After lunch we spent the rest of the day in a classroom reviewing our images, discussing which we liked best, and going over ways to improve our favorite images on the computer. I am always impressed with the different perspectives and ways of seeing that come out of these workshops.

Species Novum

A new species of wildflower has been formally described this week in the latest issue of Phytoneuron. You might expect new botanical discoveries to be from an unexplored tropical jungle, but this wildflower is found in the Piedmont of North Carolina. You might also expect that living for so long in such a populated area without being formally described would mean this plant could only be appreciated by a botanist with a hand lens, but that is not the case. This new wildflower is a strikingly beautiful species of Barbara’s-buttons.

A goldenrod crab spider hunts for prey on the newly described Oak Barrens Barbara’s-buttons.

You might also be surprised to learn this is not that unusual, and there are other plants in North Carolina, just as spectacular, that have only been recently described.

One summer evening in 2007, after a thunderstorm, I was standing on the porch of an historic house in Beaufort, North Carolina with Misty Buchanan, a botanist with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. We were there with a group who gather twice a year to help with field work for the Carolina Vegetation Survey. My time in the field with this group helped me learn to see the North Carolina landscape through the eyes of botanists and ecologists so I could make the images for Wild North Carolina. But this group of enthusiastic and knowledgeable people inspired me in many other ways as well. While standing on the porch, Misty told me,

“few people realize that new species of plants are still being discovered in North Carolina. About 13 new species have been discovered but haven’t been formally described because there is no funding to cover the fieldwork, herbarium research, and molecular analysis that will be necessary to understand these species well enough to formally describe them. Until these species are formally described, no regulatory agency will be allowed to take action to protect them. Some of our rarest species remain completely unprotected because we can’t get the funding to describe them.”

That conversation inspired me to create a collection of photographs of some of the newly described plants in North Carolina as well as some plants that are being studied to determine if they warrant their own name. Finding these plants was not easy. First, most of these plants have gone so long without being described because they are very rare, some only occurring at one location. Second, only a few people know when to expect these plants to be at their most showy. I could not have made these images without the help of some of the State’s best botanists, advising me where and when to look for these plants and how to recognize them.

Dr. Alan Weakley of the UNC Herbarium was particularly helpful in either advising me or directing me to the appropriate expert. You can look up all these plants in his new Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States, available as a free pdf download from The University of North Carolina Herbarium website.

The important work of the UNC Herbarium, North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program, and others is essential to assure that the full wonder of our State’s flora is realized and its conservation accomplished.

Oak Barrens Barbara’s-buttons (Marshallia legrandii). This plant had been known since the 1950s from a single specimen collected from a site where it is no longer found. In the 1980s, Harry Legrand, with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program, discovered a small population of these plants growing on a site in Granville County North Carolina with an unusual basic soil. This plant is most similar to Spoonshape Barbara’s-buttons (Marshallia obovata) but blooms about a month later. Today these plants are known from only 3 sites, 2 in Granville County North Carolina and 1 in Halifax County Virginia.


Sandhills Bog Lily (Lilium pyrophilum). This “fire-loving” lily is one of the rarest species in North Carolina. Only 250 individual plants have been found, all in small populations. These plants were first noted in the 1940s, but for years were assumed to be just a variation of Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii). Later, this species was thought to be the same species as a rare lily from the Gulf coast of Florida. Dr. Mark Skinner, a National Plant Data Center botanist, and Bruce Sorrie, a Southern Pines botanist and UNC-Chapel Hill Herbarium associate, were the first to formally describe the plant in 2002. Unlike similar lilies, the Sandhills Bog Lily grows in bogs, blooms later, and has smaller flowers and leaves.


Rhiannon’s Aster (Symphyotrichum rhiannon). This very rare plant is known from only one site in the southern mountains of North Carolina with unusual soils derived from a rock type known as serpentine. Although the site is on National Forest land, the plant was threatened by mining interests until it was discovered and protected. It was first noted as something different in 1980 by Laura Mansberg (now Laura Cotterman of the North Carolina Botanical Garden). Rhiannon’s Aster was formally described in 2004 by Guy Nesom, Gary Kauffman, Tom Govus, Alan Weakley and Laura Mansberg and is named after Alan Weakley’s daughter. You can read the story of how this plant was named on the Endeavors web site.


Hill Cane (Arundinaria appalachiana). This rare native bamboo was described as a variety of Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea var. decidua) almost 90 years ago. Botanists began to question that identification because, unlike Giant Cane that grows tall along rivers, this short plant was found on hillsides. It also drops its leaves in the fall after they turn a bright yellow while the other two native bamboo species are evergreen. Hill Cane was formally described as a distinct species in 2006 by Jimmy Triplett, Alan Weakley and Lynn Clark.


Yadkin River Goldenrod (Solidago plumosa). J.K. Small discovered this species in 1894 growing on river-scoured rocks along the Yadkin River. This rare goldenrod was believed lost when it’s only known habitat was flooded by the construction of two dams in 1917 and 1919. In 1994, almost 100 years to the day after it was first (and last) seen, Dr. Alan Weakley searched for and found these plants growing along a small rocky stretch of the Yadkin River that had escaped the flooding. The only known site for this species is currently unprotected.


Savanna Onion (Allium sp. nov.). This rare plant was originally collected by Steve Leonard, former curator of the UNC Herbarium, in the early 1980s. It is only known to grow on a rare type of longleaf pine savanna underlain by limestone. The unusually high pH of these soils support many rare species. This plant is similar to nodding onion (Allium cernuum) which is only found in the Piedmont of North Carolina and west, while savanna onion is found in the outer coastal plain. This plant also flowers at a different time, and the leaves are a different shape. Dr. Alan Weakley and Richard LeBlond are currently working to formally describe this plant. This plant is protected on only one site in Pender County managed by The Nature Conservancy.


Batson’s Lobelia (Lobelia sp. nov.). This species found in wet streamheads and seepage slopes in the Sandhills of North and South Carolina is under study by Dr. Bert Pittman, a botanist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage Trust Program. It will be named Lobelia batsonii in honor of Dr. Wade T. Batson, former curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina.


2012 Bald Head Island Photography Workshop Results

I thought I would share some of the images I made during the Bald Head Island photography workshop last week. When we arrived at Cape Fear Point just after 4pm the sun was too high to make dramatic landscape light but it was making interesting shadows with the sand fences.

Sand Fence

I’m not happy with this image but it is the best I was able to do under the circumstances. I would have preferred to find a perspective without any grass so I could make a more abstract image of just the fence and the shadows on the sand.

As the sun moved closer to the horizon it started to light the sand in interesting ways, especially near the point where the tide had sculpted repeating patterns in the shore. Eyes are naturally drawn to the sun as it sets but it is important to look around you at what the light is doing.

Tide Sculpted Sand Patterns

I made this image to demonstrate how the setting sun was causing the sand to glow and to show the colorful effects of mixing the warm light of the sun with the cool light of the shadows lit only by the blue sky.

Tide Sculpted Sand Patterns

The moment the sun dropped below the horizon I swung the camera around and started shooting in the opposite direction of the sunset. Here the sky is often lit by a range of pastel colors. Water and wet sand easily pick up this color.

Some participants did not have tripods and as the sun dropped below the horizon it became more difficult for them to hold their camera steady enough in the fading light. Rather than fight the slow shutter speeds I suggested they use it to their advantage and make intentionally blurred images.

Abstract Seashore

I made this image to demonstrate for the workshop participants the effect of panning the camera horizontally with a slow shutter speed to create an abstract painterly effect.

The next morning we returned to Cape Fear Point before dawn to photograph the sunrise. There were a lot more pelicans, terns, and gulls to photograph during the morning session.

Three of the participants at the Bald Head Island photography workshop photographing the sunrise from Cape Fear Point.

Sunrise over Cape Fear Point

I liked the curve of the shore and the sun reflected in the wet sand but not quite enough to make an image. When the pelicans flew through the scene it added some additional interest.

One of the participants photographing birds in flight.

Brown Pelicans

Brown pelicans and terns over Frying Pan Shoals.

But the coolest images I made were at night. I invited all the workshop participants to join me at Cape Fear Point for a bonus free session to photograph the peak of the Orionid meteor shower from 3 to 6 am. No one took me up on that offer so I had the beach to myself, except for a fox that hung out with me for a while. Somehow, in the light of the milky way, I noticed the silhouette of a fox trotting down the beach. I watched it trot to within about 30 feet of me where it sat down as if this was the exact spot it had been determined to reach. We sat there together for about 5 minutes, looking south toward the milky way, but the fox evidently had a busy night and could not stay long.

Orionid Meteor Shower

The Peak of the Orionid Meteor Shower from Cape Fear Point. This is a composite image of 34 minutes of exposure time resulting in 29 captured meteors. Some of the more faint meteors are not visible in this low resolution jpeg.

After making the meteor image I noticed the planet Venus rising within the almost vertical band of zodiacal light. It is difficult to describe the feeling of standing on the edge of the sea, bathed in starlight, with the universe wheeling overhead, but I think this last image captures something of that feeling.

Venus Rising in Zodiacal Light

Venus rising in zodiacal light. Click the image to see a larger version.

Chatham County Photography Exhibit

Join me and the photographers who participated in my recent Chatham County photography workshop for the opening night reception of our exhibit at the NC Arts Incubator Gallery in Siler City. The exhibit features 60 prints created during the two month workshop by 23 photographers of all skill levels. The reception starts at 6pm on Friday the 17th and is part of the Third Friday Artwalk in Siler City. If you are new to the Artwalk in Siler City check out this episode of North Carolina Weekend from earlier this year.

The workshop and exhibit were sponsored by the Chatham Conservation Partnership as a way to raise awareness and appreciation for conservation efforts and the value of nature in Chatham County. The exhibit celebrates the diverse ways of seeing and appreciating the natural wonders and rural character of Chatham County. In creating this workshop, I wanted to give the participants not only an opportunity to learn new photography skills, but also give them the opportunity to use those skills to help their community. They invested so much time and effort into this project and have generously donated the use of their images to the Chatham Conservation Partnership. The exhibit will be on display in Siler City until September 14th, then it will travel to various locations around Chatham County. After the last exhibit we plan to donate the prints to a Triangle Land Conservancy fund raising auction.

This workshop and exhibit would not have been possible without the dedicated tireless efforts of Gretchen Smith, a volunteer with the Chatham Conservation Partnership. It is a joy to work with someone who gives of herself so freely and is so effective. She not only helped me plan and execute the workshop but she also found co-sponsors to provide funding so we could offer the workshop free of charge, found all the venues for the exhibits, and arranged field trips with experts for the participants to learn more about the area. A few days ago I helped Gretchen and her volunteers install the exhibit. I really enjoy this part of the process, when ideas have finally become real physical objects.

Gretchen Smith

Gretchen Smith and volunteers installing the CCP 2012 Photography Exhibit at the NC Arts Incubator in Siler City, North Carolina

Another thing I enjoyed about this workshop is it gave me an excuse to spend some time making images in Chatham County. A selection of the images I made during this workshop can be seen in the Recent Images Gallery. They include images of the Haw and Rocky Rivers, a storm over Jordan Lake, and the subject for my contribution to the exhibit, images of the Devil’s Stomping Ground Scenic Byway.

Wedding Photography

I photographed my brother’s wedding a few weeks ago. Wedding photography requires a very different process from my usual work. You have one chance to capture a significant meaningful moment, and then it is gone. I am used to being able to work on an image as long as it takes to get it right. To mentally prepare for the wedding, I had to keep telling myself that the moment and the emotions were most important and that the more technical aspects of the images would just have to fall where they may. I am happy with the results, but I told Linda (the bride) that I could not take all the credit. I had some lovely subjects to work with, and Jason (the groom) cleaned up pretty well too.

Linda was ready for the ceremony with about 15 minutes to spare so I asked if I could set up my lights and do a quick formal portrait. I wanted to get an image of Linda before the ceremony but after she was ready. With all the hectic preparations before the ceremony and the celebrations after, this was my only chance to have a calm moment with her. I showed her where to stand and asked her to wait while I worked out the lighting ratio. After a few tries I had the lighting worked out, but then I realized she did not need any direction. She was waiting for me to finish with the lighting, and she had just the look I wanted to capture of her waiting for the ceremony to start. This was her moment. She was perfect.

I made a few more compositions, and then it was time for the ceremony to start. While I was photographing the wedding party getting their act together, I saw Linda peeking out of her dressing room to see if it was time for her. I had only a few seconds to make the image before she disappeared back into the dressing room.

Photography was not allowed in the sanctuary during the ceremony so this was my last image before assuming my position on the second floor.

I could not see faces or emotions very well from the perch where I was allowed to photograph the ceremony, but I did have an excellent vantage point to show the entire spectacle.

After the ceremony, the wedding party rode to the reception in a trolley. It was a rainy day so while we were outside the light was spectacular. The rain did not dampen any spirits, and the raindrops on the window of the trolley were beautiful.

When we arrived at the reception, all of the bride’s maids ran to the building to get out of the rain, and there was no one left to help Linda get her dress out of the trolley. Jason was still on board chatting with the driver, oblivious to Linda’s plight. I was in position hoping to get a romantic image of Jason helping Linda out of the trolley or at least the bride’s maids giving Linda a hand. While I watched Linda struggle I thought maybe I should help her, but before I could she took matters into her own hands. I love the look on her face as she realizes it is all up to her.

Photographing the reception was a lot of fun. The ceilings were suitable for bouncing flash, although it was challenging to balance the flash exposure with the ambient light because the room was so dark. I also had to filter the flash to match the color of the incandescent lights. My favorite images from the reception are of the bouquet toss. It just worked; I could not have photographed it any better if I tried.

Instead of throwing rice someone had the brilliant idea to have the bride and groom exit through a cordon of guests wielding sparklers. It probably sounded cheerful and colorful, but these were the biggest fire shooting sparklers I have ever seen. I was actually concerned someone might catch on fire.

Best wishes you two! And welcome to the family, Linda. It is wonderful to have a new sister.

Ayurveda Photography

I recently did some graphic design, photography, and web site development for my massage therapist. I don’t usually stray too far from nature photography on this blog, but I doubt I would be doing any photography today without Gin’s help.

Gin Brunssen

Gin Brunssen

I was pretty much out of commission for several months in early 2007, and I did not understand why. My doctor had no idea what was causing the pain and the various drugs he prescribed had side effects that were almost as bad as the pain. After months of this, I was not any closer to understanding what was going on, and things were not getting any better.

I knew I had a slight abnormal curvature in my spine in the vicinity of the pain so I thought a chiropractor might have some ideas. I found a great chiropractor, Dr. Hedgepeth, who could tell right away that the muscles in my lower back were in severe spasm. My doctor had never checked that! It’s not really his fault though, at the time I was not very aware of my body so I could not describe my symptoms accurately. I decided to look for a massage therapist to help me with the muscle spasms and that is when I found Gin.

Gin is very knowledgeable and skilled in a variety of massage techniques, and she has a rare ability to communicate her expert knowledge in a language that anyone can understand. There is just something healing about her. Gin not only relieved the pain from the muscle spasms, she also helped me become more aware of my body so I could better recognize the early symptoms of the muscle spasms and take appropriate steps to minimize them. Gin’s ability to communicate really helped me understand how my behavior was contributing to the problem as well as what I could do to improve my situation.

Gin recently started her own Ayurvedic massage business but she continues to do neuromuscular massage therapy as well. Check out the web site I designed for her if you would like to learn more about this ancient natural healing system.

Making the photographs for her web site was an interesting challenge. The treatments inspire some unusual images. The shirodhara treatment involves pouring warm oil over the forehead. This is a profoundly relaxing treatment, but finding a composition that conveys that feeling was difficult. I eventually settled on this very symmetrical composition.



There is obvious left/right symmetry, but there is also top/bottom symmetry in the dark shapes of the oil pot and hair. I think this symmetry helps give a sense of calm and balance that is hopefully picked up by the viewer.

The gandharva treatment uses a crystal singing bowl for sound therapy. The sound this thing makes has to be heard to be believed. You don’t just hear it; you feel it with your whole body.


Crystal Singing Bowl

I could not think of a way to photograph sound so instead I simply showed the bowl in use. This was the only shot that I did not have to light. The light from a window created just the right amount of depth and contrast.

I struggled with the meditation photograph. I tried several times to come up with something using several different models but was not happy with the results. On my third try, Gin modeled for me. I tried a number of different compositions against a red background similar to the photograph above, but I felt something was missing from those. Then, for some reason, I decided to shoot into the main light source (a window).



At the time I did not know what led me to do this but after giving it some thought I think I understand it. This is not just the hand of a person meditating, this is Gin’s hand. Her hands hold special significance for me because they saved me from months of pain. This light gives her hand an angelic quality. It conveys, at least to me, some of the awe and admiration I feel for her skills and her healing spirit.