2023-01-21 🐍 Project notes from Laughing Lost in Briars.
Briars is 1 part nature journal, 1 part digital experiment.
Call it meditation, gratitude, delight. I do this to remind myself of the remarkable world right in front of me. Figured I’d bring a few friends along for the ride.
A visit with an old friend that got this project started, and keeps it moving. During a visit to the US, my childhood Chinese teacher (she’s a business consultant these days) gave me a notebook filled with details from Qi Bai Shi’s ink and brush paintings.
Qi’s crickets and cicadas were my favorite when I was a kid. His work was so different to anything I’d ever seen. It made me smile. It still does. When my teacher handed me that notebook, she gave me an idea and Briars got its start – that was 10 years ago.
Keeping it real
These pictures are made as a diary. The story is nonfiction.
For Briars, like with any story, nonfiction is defined by how you interact with your subject and your audience.
The audience for this project started with friends in China. We (mostly) grew up in some of the world’s biggest cities, in a culture where the stories surrounding agriculture and nature are different than in the Anglosphere. Those differences fueled my friends’ curiosity, and my own.
Briars initially went out to those friends via direct message on WeChat, later expanding to Instagram. Although I no longer use those 2 platforms, I am always tinkering with new ways to share the project.
Viewed on a phone, these tiny images need to have low information density. I want a concise message and a composition that works at 600px 1:1.
I do my best to remember all this when I frame the scene, choose one picture over another or write a caption. I want to keep it real.
Researching the story
I like to use field guides, iNaturalist, and free publications from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
It’s amazing what you’ll find when you keep looking. In that spirit, another inspiration for my project is Hidden Prairie, a project by ecologist Chris Helzer, which he photographed entirely within a single square meter of Nebraska prairie over the course of a year.
To the best of my judgement, I prioritize the welfare of the places, plants and animals I’m photographing. This PDF from the International League of Conservation Photographers is a good way into the topic.
I feel lucky to have the opportunity to spend time out on the land. Access is not trivial, and this is something I don’t take for granted.
Structuring the story
Early on, I realized that I would need to experiment with my storytelling format. How do you tell a cohesive story bit-by-bit, on multiple platforms, and in 2 languages? I was getting overwhelmed.
- I needed new workflows, both for better time-management and because of technical constraints.
- I wanted to rethink my old models of how to tell stories using photos.
A friend, who is a designer, suggested I look up Brad Frost and experiment with his “atomic unit” strategy.
Even if you’ve never heard the term before, you’ve seen the concept in action on websites and social media platforms. The aim is to divide information and interfaces down into their most basic pieces. Figure out how simple you can make things before you can’t take them apart any more – atomize your patterns, your information. Then, combine and re-combine those elements to form bigger chunks as needed. As a project becomes more complex, it can scale efficiently, cohesively, using this method.
See this article at A List Apart for more on atomic units.
To structure this project, I decided to borrow as much as I could from the information architects and their atomized patterns.
For Briars, the atom is a diary entry – a single picture, its metadata, occasionally some notes. It’s not too different from the classic image-plus-caption structure familiar to photojournalists. What is new (to me) is how these little pieces flow and scale.
Structuring the story this way lets me:
- Jump between social media platforms.
- Switch between languages, i.e. Chinese and English.
- Scale up the project over time.
All the other stuff I use is grouped into separate structures, e.g.:
- Finished captions are a discrete atomic unit of their own; the content, tone and language vary.
- Reference pictures and video, e.g.: for looking up plant species in a botanical key.
The atomic unit is a powerful conceptual tool that’s helped me to organize this project. Briars wouldn’t have grown without it.
Of course, this story form is everywhere, thanks to the remarkable success of social media platforms. It feels like the default texture for the web. But I still remember trying to wrap my head around this 2009 blog post explaining NPR’s “create once, publish everywhere” strategy the first time I read it.
I briefly experimented with using Obsidian, a plaintext note taking app, in my workflow: First, I used ExifTool to capture and then print photo metadata to specially-formatted markdown files. Then, those text files were brought into Obsidian. The app has a graph view tool that can display links between notes and user-defined metadata tags. Being able to link tags, plaintext notes and image files together is something I’d love to incorporate into the backend of the project. I’m still experimenting with Obsidian but right now it is not one of my core tools.
Briars is created with an emphasis on quick turnaround. Pictures are shot as JPG files whenever possible, then cropped 1:1 in Photo Mechanic on my Mac. Any notes or captions are stored in plaintext files alongside the images.
(Using the Sony RX100 cameras has slowed down my workflow. The on-camera JPG engine is so terrible I was ready to sell the camera until I begrudgingly switched to raw files, and, crucially, started using DXO Photo Lab to create JPGs from those raw files. So much better.)
For images published via this website (as well as images shared directly using email or messaging apps), I first prepare JPG files on my Mac. It’s a quick, drag-and-drop process that relies on an Automator script and ImageOptim to create, and then optimize, down-scaled copies of my pictures. Occasionally, I try out cutting-edge image file types like WEBP and AV1. I’m sticking with JPG right now because it has good support for metadata and works everywhere – including in the software I use to run this project!
Finally, everything gets moved to my phone so it can be published via mobile apps. I use Syncthing to sync files between Mac and Android.
(Previously, Briars was shared over WeChat and Instagram. Because social platforms optimize image dimensions and file size on their servers, I uploaded a big, 1:1 crop of the image so there was plenty of data to use. That was nice and simple.)
Tools and cameras
Portability matters with this project. The technical aspects of image quality are less important. Generally, I only use whatever photo gear I can fit in my pockets.
The first 3-years-worth of images were made with cell phones and a cheap action camera. Then, I switched to a hand-me-down Nikon compact. Right now, I’m using a secondhand Sony RX100 m4.
To add some protection from sweat, dust and rain, I use either a 4x7-inch Loksak bag or a tiny, #1010 Pelican case.
One useful thing about working with phones and compact cameras is that you don’t need to look through a viewfinder. You get to keep your peripheral vision. I’ve come to prefer working this way, actually. And I especially appreciate it when the weather is changing fast, or when I’m working around animals. The trade off is that under bright, midday sun I can’t really see the interface on the screen.
For quick closeups I use a small flashlight. It’s the kind of thing you need routinely when you work outside, so I just upgraded what I already had. For the past few years I’ve been using Jaxman E3 lights, which I run on a single, rechargeable AA-size battery. I use both the 4000K and 5700K Nichia versions of this light. Each is rated at 90 CRI.
I also keep a collapsible reflector in my car but I’ve only used it once. Animals really seem to hate that thing. Camera flash isn’t much better. Many critters are more willing to accommodate continuous light, I’ve found.
Last updated: 2023-01-21