18 July 2012

Country Does Urban: Does Your Grass Bring Eggs to The Yard? 78

These days the blogosphere seems to be all abuzz over Urban Farming. And why shouldn't we get excited about connecting with nature, beautifying our environments, turning a hard, grey expanse of concrete or chemically manicured, quilt of lawns into a eye pleasing edible greenscape? With the popularity of ever consuming technological devices, there is a growing digital divide - we as a society, are becoming less in-tune with our surroundings.

The growing force behind this country-does-urban  lifestyle is the feeling of less connection with our food sources, a lack of use of our primal "hunting and gathering" skills and just an overall want to be the architects of our futures - using our hands and hearts, not apps and alerts.

Now true to everything, comes planning. You might awaken some morning and say "Eureka - I will be an urban farmer!", which is all well and good, but researching best practices and laws in your area are musts before attempting anything. In this instant gratification culture, it sometimes can be disappointing to take things slow and have a thorough plan. Depending on where you live, there are probably city ordinances specific to urban agriculture.  
Alpha female surveys the yard.
Rights Reserved. Click to view larger.

In my city, here in Oregon, you are allowed 6 chickens in a brood, on your premises, within city limits. That means one rooster (male) and 5 laying hens (female) or just 6 hens.

Why am I talking chicken? My children, with me in tow, got to be urban homesteaders for a week, minding our neighbors brood, while they were out of the country. We learned the fine nuances of feeding,   habits and behavior, of these odd descendants of dinosaurs.

You might be thinking - "Chickens - in my backyard? In earshot of my neighbors? How is that possible." I can reassure you, living just over the fence. That these creatures are less noisy than a barking dog. In fact, I have more trouble with barking dogs down the street than these birds.

Getting back to my first hand account, I will tell you that the weather smiled on us this week. We were blessed in the early mornings with bright beautiful rays of sunlight streaming across the yard, throwing looming shadows in striations. And the evenings were dewy and cool.

The first thing you must remember about taking care of chickens - wear old clothes and shoes that can be disinfected. If your chickens are "free range", this means an excess of chicken excrement on any surface the chicken can walk or perch upon, which in turn has bacteria, so you do not want your shoes tracking this into your house (those that garden know first hand that chicken manure is beneficial). So, after touching eggs, re-laying hay and feed - be sure to leave your shoes on your porch and wash your hands with soap and water. Toss your clothes in the wash.

Chickens, like children, are creatures of routine. They like to rise with the sun, and be told to go to bed. The first chore of the day is to open the hen house in the early morning hours. For precautions most doors are latched at night - to ward off predatory raccoon or possums. The hen house we watched over had no ladder or ramp, the chickens just jumped into, or out of the structure.

Get To Know The Hen House.
Rights Reserved. Click to view larger.

As the chickens burst out of the hen house and down to freedom, now is the time to check for eggs, or the 2nd chore.

Eggs in the nest.
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This brood shared a nest, and would take turns laying among the 5 of them. These chickens all were of different origins, which made every egg a delightful color. Chickens, depending on age will lay 1-2 eggs on average daily. 

It is important to note that fresh eggs must be washed, before refrigeration, to limit spread of bacteria. Likewise you must wash hands after this process of handling.

Did you know eggs come in different colors depending on breed? Here is an infographic of different poultry by breed.

Source: wilco.coop via Amber on Pinterest
This brood was an Ameraucana, Black Australorp, Bantam Cochin, Golden Laced Wyandott, and a Black Sex Link. And let me tell you - they each had their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. And like most "packs" there was a leader, the alpha female (seen above), the Black Sex Link. She was queen chick in this coop! She would scold, fluff her feathers and get the brood all riled up.

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With the chickens and eggs evacuated from the hen house, and the pen now vacant, as the hens made their way out to the green, cool grass, for scratching and pecking, now the real maintenance could begin.

Hay spreading!
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Chore #3, laying fresh dry hay down in the brood's pen. The kids loved this part, spreading a layer of the sweet smelling straw. Chickens are programmed with certain behaviors - besides a pack mentality, pecking and scratching up their pen is the most common.  It is important to put fresh straw, to discourage pests and allow for a comfortable environment so the hens feel comfortable to do what they do. 

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The fourth chore, as equally important, is fresh water. A bowl they can drink from throughout the day is especially important - dehydration can affect egg production.

Here the Ameraucana hen takes a drink of the fresh water (pic at left). This chicken resembled most it's dinosaur cousins. Such a pre-historic resemblance. The cool thing about these hen's eggs is they are naturally a blue to green tinge. If you hard boil these eggs, they have a blueish green appearance, as opposed to normal eggs. It is a trip!

Hens at Feeding.
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And the most important chore of all #5, feeding the brood. The hens are fed two types of food - the first type is a balanced organic feed, which has all types of ruff-age, protein and nutrients. You can either buy organic chicken feed or make your own. It is important these hens get enough protein, or it will lead to disease, leave them prone to parasites and poor egg production within the brood.

The feed is measured out and scattered among the hay, to encourage the hen's natural behavior. Once the majority of the feed has been devoured, the 2nd type of feed can be scattered (in a limited amount) which is organic layer feed or chicken treat - this brood got bits of hard corn kernels.

The most fun was observing these birds and their behavior. Did you realize chickens have a complex language? It is true. They have all different types of clucks, squawks and clicks. They will grumble when scratching for food, send a high pitched clucking when on alert and even cluck hello if you are a recognized care-taker. 

The brood was allowed to explore the confines of the fenced yard well into dusk. Chickens are very inquisitive creatures. When darkness fell upon the yard, it was sleep time. The sixth and final chore was wrangling the hens toward the pen and into the hen house. This brood was rather intelligent - they were mostly ready and awaiting the signal for bedtime. All I needed to do was vocalize "bedtime" in a soothing way and the hens would jump up into the hen house one at a time. Of course, there were some stragglers, but there wasn't much resistance.

Here are the lovely eggs we collected:

Beautiful Eggs!
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Beautiful Eggs!
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Beautiful Eggs!
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Beautiful Eggs!
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Beauties aren't they!

14 June 2012

Food Photography #2: Three Flavors of Light 48

Today, let's take a look at some of the different flavors of basic lighting: Ambient Lighting, Built-in Flash, Off Camera Flash.

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” - Audre Lorde

©2012 Lee/Spinwave Photography
Click to enlarge photo.

Lighting Flavor #1: Ambient lighting

Ambient simply refers to the existing light. Ambient light can come from sources such as the sun, light bulbs, or candles. That doesn't mean the existing light sources can’t be manipulated to suit your needs. You could change the angle you shoot at, turn lamps on or off, move a candle to a different location, or use bounce cards to boost the amount and angle of the light.

To see what the ambient looks like, set the camera to “P” mode (it’s just like auto, except you can set the ISO and turn the flash on/off yourself). With the ISO set to 100 and the flash off, the Canon G12 calculated f/2.8@1/25th and took this:
With the ISO set to 100 and the flash off, the Canon G12 calculated f/2.8@1/25th
Click to enlarge photo.

That’s actually a nice photo and most people would be really happy with that (there’s a reason people say, “P’ is for ‘perfect’ “). I see gentle, mostly-even diffused light, adequate detail and texture, with enough specular highlights and shadows for visual depth.

There are, however, two things that really bother me. The first is the black-hole-ish area in the lower right-hand corner. This is a natural consequence of all the light coming in from one direction. The other is the blown-out sky that distracts you from the real subject of the photo, the food.

So how do we reduce the background brightness? The first thing most people think of is to simply dial down the exposure compensation. That’s moving in right direction, but this is a global adjustment and will darken the subject as well as the background. If only we could separate the two! Oh wait—we can, by setting the camera to manual mode and adding some light with a flash.

Lighting Flavor #2: Built-in flash

G12’s built-in flash, turned the mode dial to “M”, set the aperture to 2.8 and increased the shutter speed to 100
Click to enlarge photo.

I turned the on G12’s built-in flash, turned the mode dial to “M”, set the aperture to 2.8 and increased the shutter speed to 100 to darken the background.Whoa! Too much light on the subject! Using the G12’s menu system.

I adjusted the flash output as low as possible (1/3 power) and tried again:

With the ISO set to 25 and the flash adusted to 1/3 the power.
Click to enlarge photo.

Now that’s more like it. Increasing the shutter speed from 25 to 100, darkened the background. But now we have a different problem: the salad is only half-lit due to the position of the G12’s built-in flash.

A bounce card could help balance the lighting, but it wouldn’t get rid of the flash reflection in the window. And depending on the angle of the bounce card, a second reflection might show up.

Lighting Flavor #3: Off-camera flash

Time to bring out the big gun. Flash gun that is (or strobe, or external flash, or Speedlight, or Speedlite). I’ll stick with the term “flash“.

We could simply place the flash directly in the G12’s hotshoe. But without a nearby white ceiling or wall to bounce the flash off of (another lighting flavor for another day) this would create a similar effect as the built-in flash. We really need to get the flash off the camera body to control the direction of the light.

Flash Hot-Shoe

The easiest method of using a flash off-camera is by using an extension cord. In this case I used a Canon OC-SC2 cord (these were replaced by the OC-E3 a few years ago, but they have the same functionality). When paired with a compatible flash, all the TTL metering info is sent through the cord to the flash for a (hopefully) perfect exposure.
Flash Unit, Canon G12 and Off-shoe core.
Click to enlarge photo.
I dialed the flash down to -1/64th power and experimented with the flash in several positions, settling on 45-degrees to camera left and about 60-degrees above the plate:

-1/64th power, 45-degrees to camera left and about 60-degrees above the plate
Excellent speculars, shadows, depth, color and detail. With just a little bump in contrast and sharpness in post-production, we get the final image at top of post. (all other photos are straight out of the camera). 

Special thanks to Ed at Spring Creek Coffeehouse & Deli for the excellent Grilled Veggie salad (mixed greens, grilled onions, grilled bell peppers, grilled mushrooms, tomato, cucumber, avocado, feta, and olives) and for allowing me to photograph on location.

 My apologies to readers for the lack of set-up photos. All of my assistants had scheduling conflicts for this shoot.

 The tools: Canon Powershot G12, Quantaray QWC-900WA flash, Canon OC-S2 off-shoe cord; post-production in Apple Aperture.

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