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Carl Safina

11 Secrets of Wildlife Photographers

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Carl Safina

There is something about seeing a wild animal—a stalking tiger, soaring hawk, splashing whale, or slithering snake—that captivates the imagination. Yet these creatures are elusive, and it’s not easy to capture their splendor. So how can you get the perfect picture of a wild creature? Luckily, there are people out there who have devoted their lives to the art of wildlife photography, and mental_floss talked to a few who were willing to share their tips.


Florida-based conservation photographer Mac Stone says it’s a misconception that good photographers need top-of-the-line equipment in order to get a good shot. “There’s an old saying that goes, ‘The best camera is the one that’s in your pocket,’” he notes. Stone, who shoots all kinds of wild creatures from American alligators to burrowing owls, says the key is knowing how to use the equipment you have: Read your camera manual and experiment before going out to shoot in the field.


Elephants in Amboseli National Park in Africa. Image credit: Carl Safina

If you want to catch an animal on camera, you need to think like an animal, says Richard Slattery, a Long Island-based professional photographer who has been photographing wild animals for more than 20 years.

“While I’m not a scientist, I’ve spent a lot of time with animal experts who have taught me to look for signs preceding animal action,” he notes. For example, when photographing humpback whales on whale-watching trips, Slattery has learned from whale experts to look for “bubble nets” on the water’s surface. These bubbles of air, exhaled from underwater, always precede a whale surfacing to swallow up fish and plankton—a perfect photo opportunity. Slattery suggests attending public lectures, watching documentaries, and reading books about wildlife to learn how to anticipate animal action.


Besides knowing how to read animal behavior, it’s also critical to know how to read your environment, says Kristofer Rowe, who’s been professionally photographing ospreys and other birds since 2011. Once you know about the species you want to shoot, “you can increase your odds by knowing where and when to position yourself for optimum images,” he notes. Between April and October—osprey season in Connecticut, where he is based—Rowe says he uses the sunrise, tides, and winds to help him find ospreys and craft the perfect shot. The same educational strategies for learning about animal behavior can also be applied to learning about their environment.


Laysan albatross chick and parent. Image credit: Hob Osterlund

Professional wildlife photographer and writer Hob Osterlund has devoted her life to the conservation of one species: the albatross, a large seabird native to Hawaii, the state where she’s based. Albatross face many challenges to their survival, including feral cats, invasive species, ocean plastic, and habitat destruction. To get the best possible photos of these birds, Osterlund says, “Take shots that make people love and respect the animal. They need your help much more than you need an award.”


Ecologist, author, and Safina Center founder/president Carl Safina has been photographing wild animals for decades. Over the years, this Long Island-based wildlife expert has traveled the world amassing thousands of beautiful photos of all kinds of wild creatures, from wolves to walruses. The key, he says, “Is to shoot lots of frames of the same thing; never think you’ve ‘got’ it—you can always get it better. Then, when you’re back home, comb through your images and delete those that don’t work so you can focus on the best images you’ve taken.”


You can expect to get at least a little mud on your shoes when trying to photograph wild animals (they live outside, after all). But Osterlund says you shouldn’t be afraid to really get down and dirty to get the shots you’re after. “I learned from the great Melissa Groo to lie down,” says Osterlund. “Get at eye level [with an animal] as much as possible. Buy elbow pads so you don’t tear your flesh off. Carry a small tarp.”


An incoming osprey. Image credit: Kristofer Rowe

It can be challenging to get a steady shot when on a boat or trying to photograph moving animals (or both), says professional photographer Jodi Frediani. Frediani, who is based in California, spends a lot of time photographing whales and other marine creatures. She says there are many situations where it pays to take advantage of your camera’s pre-focus feature in order to get a clear shot, such as when you’re on a boat. For example, when trying to get photos of humpback whales, Frediani says she’ll “pre-focus where I think a serial breaching will come up next.”


It’s easy to get discouraged in the field if you don’t get the shot you’re looking for on the first try. But Stone says it’s important not to give up on the images you want even if you fail a few (or many) times. “Really attack an image and go after it until you get it,” says Stone. “Go out every day to the place you want to get the image and really focus yourself on your task.” Eventually, with enough stubbornness, Stone says, you’re likely to get the image you’re after.


Southern Pacific humpback whale mother and calf in Vava'u, the Kingdom of Tonga. Image credit: Jodi Frediani

Some of the best photographs of wild creatures capture very regular parts of their lives, such as feeding and sleeping. Frediani says she especially enjoys watching humpback whales lunge upward through the water’s surface to get a mouthful of krill, plankton, and small fish. While whale feeding is an everyday behavior, Frediani says she gets excited every time she gets on a boat to watch “these leviathans ‘making a living.’”


When it comes to crafting the right shot, framing is very important, says Safina. When you look through your viewfinder, think of its confines as a picture frame. You can always crop a photo, but often the best shots are framed correctly even before they’re taken. “Everything else you are aware of about your surroundings and the circumstances, the viewer will never see,” Safina says. So pay special attention to getting what you need in the frame and excluding the things that may distract your viewer.


Perhaps the most important secret to keep in mind is to respect the animals you’re photographing, Slattery says. Each type of animal has its own comfort level around humans. “Think about the ethics of each situation you’re in,” says Slattery. “If you could be harmed by getting close to an animal, or the animal could get stressed, stay far away and use a long magnifying lens.” It should go without saying, but no picture is worth harming an animal—or getting injured yourself.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.