Life in winter forests

This year, we had a full week of “hiihtoloma” (Winter Vacation) – a very welcome break into the busy schedules. I took the opportunity and challenged myself to go out into the nature and look a bit closer at the nature this week.

Firstly, it was interesting to notice that even the “common birds” can provide new experiences and look indeed very different, depending the time of day, weather conditions and particularly light affecting the composition in different manners. Endless opportunities for improvement and experimentation there.

Secondly, during this week I learned to appreciate the winter feeding of birds better. There are people who dedicate countless hours every winter (and indeed considerable sums of money – which some of them have very little) into e.g. forest feeding of wild birds. For many birds this is the only way they can make it through the hardest, coldest parts of the winter alive.

In winter feeding spots it is possible to take photographs of even some rather rare and elusive bird species, if you are patient, stay still and quiet for long periods of time (sometimes in freezing temperatures) and respect the disturbance-free, peaceful environment that such birds require for getting their daily nourishment. Unfortunately it seems that as nature photography is getting increasinly popular, some rare winter birds (such as herons and kingfishers in Finnish winter) attract so many photographers that the huge interest can even endanger the survival of some of these birds. There are only few hours of light and milder cold time every winter day, and the birds need all that time to find the food they need to make it through the next, very cold night. Note though, that no doubt the majority of experienced nature photographers behave responsibly, respect the safe distances, and keep the well-being of the birds as their top priority.

I did not personally visit any sites of such “super rarities” this winter. There was a lot of interesting things to photograph, even without risking the rare ones.

There are many places in Finland, such as our national parks and many hiking areas that have paths that are accessible also in winter time. And when the crust of snow is hard (“hankikeli” is Finnish), one can rather easily walk over marshland or at lake shores, sometimes spotting interesting bird species, but primarily to enjoy the nature and beatiful winter weather. I also visited e.g. Siuronkoski rapids, where white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus; koskikara) lives – there is a popular walking path going just next to the rapids, and the birds are so accustomed to humans moving in the area that it is possible to photograph them without disturbing their feeding.

One delightful theme that appeared this week was encountering woodpeckers. There are nine woodpecker species that one can theoretically see in Finland – though some of them are super rare (like Picus viridis). Visiting local forest paths and some winter feeding spots, I managed to photograph four woodpecker species this week, which really delighted me: Dendrocopos major (Käpytikka), Dendrocopos minor (Pikkutikka), Picus canus (Harmaapäätikka) and Dryocopus martius (Palokärki). Previously I had only met the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major), so this was three new species for me – in just one week. This proves the value of getting our of one’s common paths and trying exploring some new, also less-visited areas every now and then.

The 2nd of March was a particularly excellent day, as it was rather warm, sunny, and we made a longish trip with the entire family, exploring some Pirkanmaa and Satakunta region nature areas together. There were fields where a number of whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus; Laulujoutsen) had already arrived – a sure sign of Spring! While driving home in the evening, we had another surprise encounter: a white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla; merikotka), accompanied by an inquisitive and plain greedy crow. These eagles are are the biggest birds of prey in Finland, and also the biggest success story of our nature conservation efforts: in 1973, there was only 35 nesting couples in the entire county, and the species was facing extinction due to chemical pesticides and other factors (in the early 20th century, there was even bounty paid for killing the eagles – and negative attitudes towards birds of prey persisted for a long time). WWF Finland volunteers started winter feeding the eagles, carrying clean and safe meat into islets and rocks where birds could find them, for two decades. Today, it is estimated that there are 450 nesting couples living in Finland. One of the main remaining threats is the use of lead birdshots particularly in Åland islands, leading to lead poisoning of eagles eating carcasses. A third of young eagles continue to die of lead poisoning in Finland every year (see

To sum up this week of nature experiences: there is so much to see, experience, study and learn in nature – both next door, in one’s own yard or city park, or in the surrounding nature areas. One thing that I became also aware, was that I was using our petrol-powered family car to drive into some of these, more far-away nature locations. I have now started planning of upgrading into an electric vehicle (EV) – but more about that perhaps later. Let’s enjoy and study the nature, responsibly!

Winter wildlife

During the long, isolating months of 2020, and at the start of bright new year 2021, wildlife photography has been one of my constant comforts. Like all photography, it challenges one with its surprising combinations of accidental conditions, changes in lightning, and need to attempt pushing the boundaries of technology. When photographing animals, there is the additional challenge of trying to keep cover, stay silent and undisturbing, while simultaneously trying to find the perfect angle of view, and artistic composition to the subject.

I suppose many professional wildlife photographers resort to the use of purpose-built wildlife hides, and some kind of baits to increase the odds of seeing a rare animal in the first place, and then getting it into a position where an impressive composition – with the right light, background, depth of field, etc. – can be achieved. If one is under the pressure to produce results from one’s photography, such approaches obviously make a difference.

As a hobbyist photographer, I am happy to just go out and enjoy the nature. If I’d see wildlife that is a plus, and having some kind of photograph from the encounter is even more special. The common skills of nature photographers are something that I continue to learn, slowly over the years. Moving slowly and quietly – using one’s ears a lot: listening bird sounds, tiny cracks or snaps within the foliage. I have gradually started to realise that moving restlessly from photo position to another will make me less likely to achieve anything, and also lessen the mental effects of nature photography as a sort of ‘zen practice’ towards joy and peace of mind.

It is good to wake up early, make some sandwitches and coffee, and be at an interesting site before the sunrise. The upside of short winter days of the North is that “before the sunrise” can be rather easily achieved, during the winter months.

It is also interesting to learn to read the tracks: combining whatever knowledge one has about the daily and annual rhythms and behavioural patterns of different species can be combined with the signs, footprints and animal tracks that are particularly visible in fresh snow. Seeing the tracks tells stories, and one can learn that at least there are certain species in the area, even if they are too wary to make an appearance.

I think Hannu Hautala, the famous Finnish wildlife photographer veteran had sometimes said that luck favours the hard workers (or something like that). I do not really have time, opportunity or motivation to make long nature photography trips into exotic or spectacular places. I just move around our home and city, sometimes making small hiking trips in the close surrounding forests. And I do not put too many hours into this, and accept that my odds are thus not very high for seeing anything except the most common species of birds and animals that can be met in this area. But it is fascinating regardless to see what one is able to make out of those rather modest starting points.

Today I met an energetic, furry fox hunting for bank voles during my morning photo walk. It was rather dim, it was cloudy, and there was a bit of snowfall. But fresh snow made everything soft and somehow luminous, and I was happy to test using silent shutter and long telephoto (600 mm in crop, equal to 930 mm full frame) not to disturb the fox too much. It could see me, and moved a bit farther away to continue its hunting. There must have been plenty of bank voles; I counted it catching at least three while I was watching.

Another happy encounter in the life of amateur nature photographer. It is moments like these that enrich our lives, and motivate one to find fresh respect for the beauty and diversity of nature.

Black-and-grey photography?

Sunday morning walk.

I was just reading reviews of the new, Leica M10 Monochrom – a rangefinder style (“retro”) camera by the venerable German company (with history going back to 1914, and even further), which is designed to shoot only black-and-white. There are certain benefits to making dedicated b&w cameras, most importantly in the fact that all image sensors actually are black-and-white ones, with just different techniques such as applying “Bayer filter” on top of the b&w photosensors. This means that there is a grid of RGB colour filters on top of the sensor, so that some pixels in the final image are produced with only the red, green, or blue wavelenghts of light. This then needs to be further processed, with a demosaicing (or “debayering”) algorithms to construct the colour image out of (filtered) b&w information coming from the different parts of the image sensor.

And then, when this kind of colour digital camera is used for taking black-and-white photos, there needs to be further processing, as the colour values are removed to get back into a monocrome image.

A dedicated monocrome digital camera has the dual benefits of getting more light to the sensor, since there is no coloured filter layer on top of the sensor. This means that it can have perhaps 1 to 1.5 EV stop better light sensitivity. And also, there is usually slightly better dynamic range than in (filtered) colour sensors – e.g. in scientific equipment non-filtered monochrome sensors are often used, as they can capture higher range of wavelenghts, and operate better in low-light conditions.

The monochrom digital camera body by Leica has price tag of over 8000 dollars, and a good lens on top of that is perhaps 2000+ dollars more, so we are talking about 10 000+ dollars/euros investment. Also, the retro style ergonomics, old-school focusing system and lack of many features that are common in today’s digital cameras means that this camera is not for everyone. I would say that the main point of this kind of device is in producing social and cultural class divisions (relaying Bourdieu here). That M10 Monochrom surely would look nice on top of the dashboard of your Classic Porsche 911…

It is also true that at some point camera tech is like Hi-Fi audio tech: you can pay more and more, and at some point the final gains are so minor, that only those who are true believers are capable of noticing anything. (There are, after all, cameras like Phase One XF IQ3 100MP Achromatic, where the digital back alone costs over 50 000 dollars/euros.)

In my style of amateur photography, such factors as ease of use and flexible camera controls mean more than Hi-Fi sensor quality, so for my purposes even my Canon EOS M50 is capable of delivering “good enough” quality in b&w, particularly when shooting RAW. Here, below, are some early hour experiments from today, my Sunday morning walk.

It is obvious that as the proper winter seems to be largely gone, as another sad side effect of global climate change, the outdoor conditions here in wintertime are more like an “eternal November”. The low-light capabilities certainly matter now for a photographer, as do sharp and wide-aperture lenses. But I am personally hunting for certain mood and feeling, and thus I am not so concerned about blur or softness – it can even positively play a part in the artistic style I am looking for.

Photos in the dark

Winter is dark here. It is a bit challenging to engage in photography under such conditions. For example, the dark translates into long exposure times, or blurred or underexposed photos, or both. On the other hand, difficult conditions can also function as creative challenges. It is interesting to find tones in the dark, hues and feelings in a grainy scenery. But the laws of composition and the effort required to find interesting topics to photograph remains.

Pokémon GO Plus: The challenge of casual pervasive gaming?

Pokémon GO Plus package contents.
Pokémon GO Plus package contents.

Our research projects have explored the directions of pervasive gaming and more general ludification trends in culture and society. One of the success stories of last year was Pokémon GO, the location-based mobile game by Niantic (a Google spin-off) and Pokémon Company. When winter came, the player numbers dropped: at least in Finnish winter is became practically impossible to play a smartphone outdoors game in below-freezing temperatures. Considering that, I have been interested in trying the Pokémon GO Plus accessory – it is a small bluetooth device with one button that you can wear, so that constant handling of smartphone is no longer needed.

Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications via iPhone in Pebble Time 2 smartwatch.

Based on a couple of hours quick testing, this kind of add-on certainly has certain potential. It reduces (an already rather simple) game into its most basic elements: the buzz and colourful led signals when there is a familiar (green) or new (yellow) Pokémon creature nearby, ready for catching. Pressing the button will automatically try to capture the virtual critter: easy ones usually register as “captured” in a few seconds (rainbow-style multi-coloured led signal), more challenging ones might “flee” (red light). When one arrives next to a Pokéstop, there will be a blue light & buzz signal, and with a press of button one can quickly interact with the stop, and get all available items registered into ones inventory. This is actually much more convenient than the usual routine of clicking and swiping at stops, Pokémons and balls. When the “Plus” is active, the game app itself also keeps running in the background, registering walking distances also when the phone is locked. This is how the game should function in the first place, of course. It seems that it is also much easier to capture Pokémons with the “Plus” than without it (how fair this is to other gamers, is a subject of discussion, too).

Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.
Pokémon GO Plus notifications on iPhone 6 Plus screen.

The larger question that remains is, what “casual pervasive gaming” will become, in the long run. If this kind of devices show the direction, it might be that a casual, always-on game will be more like a “zero player game”: an automated simulated of gaming, where game server and game client keep on making steady progress in the game, while the human player is free to concentrate on other things. Maybe it is enough just to check the game progress at the end of the day, getting some kind of summary of what the automated, “surrogate player” had experienced, during the day?

Playing Pokémon GO with the “Plus” add-on is not quite there, though. There were moments today when the device was buzzing every few second, asking for its button to be pressed. I quickly collected a nice selection of random, low level Pokémon, but I also ran out of Poke Balls in a minute. Maybe the device is made for “Pokémon GO whales”: those players who use real money to buy an endless suppy of poke-balls, and who are happy to have this semi-automatic collecting practice going on, whole day, in order to grind their way towards higher levels?

The strategic element of choice is mostly missing while using the “Plus”. I have no specific knowledge which Pokémon I am trying to capture, and as the game is configured to use only the basic sort of Poke Ball automatically, any “Great”, or “Ultra” balls, for example, are not used, which means that any more challenging, high-level Pokémon will most likely be missed and flee. At the same time, the occasionall buzz of the device taps evokes the “play frame” of Pokémon GO – which relates to the “playful mindset” that we also have been researching – so it is easier to keep on having a contact with a pervasive gaming reality, while mostly concentrating on mundane, everyday things, like doing grocery shopping. Some of us are better at multitasking, but experiments like Pokémon GO Plus provide us with a better understanding on how to scale both the game-related information, as well as the in-game tasks and functionalities, so that they do not seriously interfere with the other daily activities, but rather support them in the manner we see preferable. At least for me, wearing the “Plus” made those winter walking trips a bit more interesting and motivating again today.