Laughing Lost in Briars

2022-08-02  🐍  Project notes from Laughing Lost in Briars.

Milkweed and grasses in a field at dusk

Briars is 1 part nature journal, 1 part social publishing 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.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed plant Milkweed plants in a field

Project inspiration

Briars is inspired by the ranch where I work as a hired hand, and by some of my favorite nature journals, too. Mostly, though, it was 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.

Cicada climbing deeply fissured bark on a big Post Oak tree

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 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

To learn more about the ecosystem processes happening in front of me I like to use field guides, iNaturalist, and free publications from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Learning this stuff is important for land stewardship, obviously, and helps me to be a better observer in general. Studying a bit of natural history helps me to make better pictures, too – it provides context for storytelling. What I learn improves my chances of being in the right place at the right time. For example:

  • Stay low and don’t silhouette when photographing bees, climbing snakes, wasps and other creatures that are preyed on by birds.
  • Move softly and deliberately. This is critical when working around things that might bite, kick, or shove back.

To the best of my judgement, I prioritize 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.

Samples of grass seed heads on a table waiting to be identified Perennial rye grass in a field at dusk
Left: Samples of grass seed heads on a table waiting to be identified. Right: Perennial rye grass in a field at dusk.

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.

IPTC metadata tags graphed as a network
IPTC metadata tags graphed as a network. Since this project is already organized using plaintext files, I briefly experimented with using note taking app Obsidian in my workflow. First, I used ExifTool to capture and then print photo metadata and captions as markdown files. Then, those text files were brought into Obsidian.

To structure this project, I decided to borrow as much as a 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.

Publishing workflow

  1. 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.)

  2. 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!

  3. 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.)

Baby copperhead on oak leaf litter
Baby copperhead. This viper is small enough to fit in the palm of my hand.

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.

Cameras

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.

Oak leaf on rain-soaked car windshield Cameras I use for this project
Left: Waiting out a storm in my car. Right: Cameras used for this project.

Light

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.

Remnants of a storm over oak forest.

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Last updated: 2022-08-02
Published: 2021-03-18