Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Going steady with your smart phone camera

We’ve all heard this before: The best camera is the one you have with you.

To some, this means $15,000 of equipment so massive that a backpack is inadequate, requiring what looks like a multi-tiered, chrome-plated baby stroller to push it around. Others never leave home without their tried and true point-and-shoot camera with its compact size and ease of use. The great equalizer has become the smart phone, the ultra thin electronic marvel that doubles as a camera and graces nearly every pants pocket from Wrangler to Versace.

At the Arboretum, it would be unusual to spot a visitor without a camera. Half are using DSLRs and point-and-shoots, but the other 50% are using their smart phones—alternately snapping photos, talking, and texting as the scenery and their social circle dictates.

I was a confirmed digital SLR user for a decade, but when my shutter malfunctioned (and I had neither the money to repair the camera nor purchase a new one), I reached into my pocket, pulled out my iPhone 5, and decided to make it my full-time camera replacement.  

Even with all its fancy camera features, like an 8 megapixel image sensor and F/2.4 lens, my biggest disappointment was that there is no way to attach the phone to a tripod. Even pro photographers with image stabilizing lenses use a tripod to get their sharpest image, and every point-and-shoot has a tripod mount, so why doesn’t the iPhone?

There’s no app for that, so over the past year, I have explored a handful of solutions that allow me to capture a satisfyingly sharp image.

The lowest tech way to stabilize any camera is to use what’s nearby. At the Arboretum, I will often brace my phone on a tree, a boulder, atop someone’s head, or lie down and use my knees or elbows for support. When out in the open, I’ve learned to cross my arms Cossack-style, using my locked, horizontal forearm as a rigid support.  This latter technique works for shooting video, too.

But these are just coping mechanisms, and useless for a self-timer, stop-action, slo-mo, or capturing a sharp flower macro.

So I researched and purchased several aftermarket solutions, starting with the Joby Griptight Mount. Despite its name, its spring-loaded grip on my phone was tentative at best. When the wind blew down my tripod and the Joby’s cheap plastic broke into three separate pieces, I cried—but not as hard as I would have if my phone had still been in it.

The Olloclip Quick-flip case was my second purchase, setting me back more than twice as much as the Joby. It’s a more elegant solution that combines a form-fitting case that slides into a U-shaped tripod mount. The mount then screws securely to a tripod. After a few months of use, part of the plastic tripod mount broke off, leaving me a barely useable set-up.

My most recent discovery is the Anycase, a solid aluminum tripod mount that fits any size smart phone, with or without a case. It holds my iPhone securely, feels very stable, and its metal construction gives me confidence that it will outlast anything made of plastic. It’s my favorite so far. 


With the phone now firmly attached to a tripod, you still have to tap the screen to take a photo, and this can cause some vibration. To remedy this, the volume control on the stock iPhone ear buds  doubles as a shutter release, reducing camera shake to nil.

Even better, I recently purchased the Ipega Bluetooth Remote Control Self-timer that works with both iPhone iOS and Android phones. As long as I am within 30 feet of my phone, the Bluetooth connection wirelessly triggers the camera’s shutter to capture intimate portraits or video of stampedes, active beehives, or squirrels—all from an unthreatening distance.The portrait of the rock squirrel (above) was taken with this setup.

There are plenty of reasons to keep your DSLR or point-and-shoot camera, but if your smart phone happens to be the one you have with you, keeping it rock steady is the best way to capture an enviably sharp photo—at the Arboretum, or anywhere. 

Ipega Bluetooth Remote Control Self-timer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Five questions for Tree Tour leader and Certified Arborist Jeff Payne

Jeff Payne on collecting trip in 2010.
Among Arboretum horticultural specialists, Jeff Payne is our only Certified Arborist. We caught up with Jeff for five quick questions about his passion for trees, volunteerism, and a sneak preview of a few things he plans to point out on his next Tree Tour on Sunday, June15, 2014 at 8am.
Q: What did it take to attain your Certified Arborist credential?
A: Months of studying and completing a 5 week training course. During the training course sessions, I had to discipline myself and set aside at least 2-3 hours every night to study and about 6-8 hours during the weekends. The certification exam takes about 3.5 hours to complete. It is a professional certification where Continuing Educational Units (CEUs) are required to maintain the certification, as well as the certification fees associated with it. I volunteer with the Arizona Community Tree council as a Board of Directors Member and Education Committee Member. I also have been coordinating their Certified Arborist Training Program which prepares individuals for the ISA (International Society of Arboriculture) Certified Arborist exam. I also maintain a Sustainable Landscape Management certification. 

Q: Do you have a favorite tree here at BTA, or a "Top 5" specific trees that you always make sure to show guests on your walk?
A. My favorite trees are the ones that take care of themselves and do not need any extra work or maintenance. Unfortunately, those are few and far between here at BTA. If I had to choose a few favorites, they would include: Cedrus deodara, Condalia globosa, Pinus eldarica and Quercus buckleyi. Two of those are on the monthly tree tour. Join me for the next tour and I'll tell you their common names and why they are my favorites. 

Q:  What's the most common misconception you've heard about desert trees?
A. There are a couple misconceptions about a tree's root system. First, roots do not seek out water. Trees are smart, but they do not consciously seek out water. Roots only grow in the soil where there is adequate soil moisture, oxygen (yes, roots need air to live and there is oxygen in the upper soil zones) and available nutrients. This brings us to the second biggest misconception, rooting depth. Since roots only grow in soil where there is adequate soil moisture, oxygen and available nutrients, their roots are mainly located in the top six to 36 inches of soil. Some trees do have tap roots that extend down past this level, but they basically only offer anchorage for the tree. Almost all our native legumes here in the desert southwest only have a rooting depth to a few feet. Makes sense considering the total amount of precipitation we receive here annually. 

Q. Which trees do BTA visitors find most interesting--and why?
A. Every visitor's experience on the Tree Tour is different, as well as their interests and level of knowledge regarding trees. Some are amazed about roots and rooting depth. Others find interesting that palms are not trees at all, but an arborescent grass. Another thing they learn is that our cycads in front of the Smith Building are NOT palms at all, but more closely related to conifers. When asked about the sago palm, which is a cycad and not a palm, I elaborate on the importance of knowing the scientific name compared to its common name and how misleading common names are. Each tour brings with it a different set of questions and interests based on those individuals on the tour. I amend the tour based on the atmosphere of the group.

Q. You work with many volunteers; are you looking for more? And for what specific jobs, if yes?
A. Volunteers are the strongest link in the chain in regards to the Horticulture Department. We are always looking for and NEEDING volunteers to fill this capacity. My position is multi-faceted involving many areas of responsibility. Trees are not my primary focus, and only occupies a very small percentage of my time here at the Arboretum. I am responsible for trying to maintain the high profile gardens here, such as the Demonstration Garden, the Hummingbird/Butterfly Garden, the Taylor Family Legume Garden, a large portion of the Australian Exhibit, the area around the Visitor Center including the Main Trail Succulent raised bed located on the east side of the Visitor Center,  our South African collection and a few other areas. I also maintain our Accessions and Records Database, our NAPCC (North American Plant Collection Consortium) Quercus Collection, do public outreach and perform public speaking engagements. Most volunteer opportunities with me would be in the gardens whether raking leaves, pulling weeds, deadheading flowers, some minor pruning, hand watering specific plants and collections, planting and other seasonal tasks. In the areas of my responsibility there are annuals, perennials, trees, cacti and succulents. I have made it my specialty to know as much as I can about every plant here at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, and not to focus on just one or two plant collections or types of plants. You can too when you volunteer here with me at the Arboretum. Every day it is something different going on and no two days are ever the same. 

Editor's note: Tree tours are offered on the third Sunday of most months, including the summer. The next is Sunday, June 15 at 8am. Jeff's Tree Tour repeats at 8am Aug. 17, then moves to 10am Sept. 21 (the month that daily hours return to the fall-winter schedule), and  then Oct. 19 at 1:30pm. Visit the EVENTS link at for up-to-date details of guided tours and events. 


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hearts Schmarts


    This week brings St. Valentine’s Day which has been so-named for a historically murky Catholic saint who was supposedly murdered (and not by Love) on this self-same day. In my opinion, this was not a very good way to start a holiday that celebrates romantic love. Being the skeptic I am, I also have to arch a brow in the direction of “romantic love” since that is a term strongly suggesting an unrealistic view involving desire, possession, and general human frivolity. (Imagine how fun I am at weddings!)

     I feel the same eye-rolling bemusement over the notion of the heart being the repository for our romantic emotions. To me, this is a strange denial of our most species-unique organ, the brain. We all know deep-down that the heart has nothing to do with emotions - it pumps blood. But I have gotten into arguments with people who are absolutely convinced that the heart has some control over our ability to “experience emotion”. These people get upset when you intimate that the brain is the actual seat of those “finer” feelings. The brain is a trouble-maker, I’ll readily admit, but it is also the three pounds of neurons that puts our world in some kind of order and allows us to fall in love, depending on mood, hormones, and financial status.  

     But here we are in a culture that expresses love by liberally posting heart-shaped emoticons via the Internet. Where is the brain emoticon? Are we so alienated by the very thing that enables us to build cities, launch rockets, cure disease, invent Snuggies, and deny reality in favor of “moonshine and magnolias”, that we can’t even honor it with an emoticon?  When did thinking become something shameful?

          Historically, the heart-shaped symbol that we learned to draw at a very early age - and that we now see plastered ad nauseam on anything we want to sell as sincere - had nothing to do with the organ that beats in your chest. Originally, the heart-shape was used to denote the botanical world, namely leaves. And because trees and vines were ubiquitous in most of the places that humans roamed, the heart-shaped leaf symbolized the natural bounty that nurtured all living things.  It wasn’t until the 12th Century, when the leaf symbol was transmogrified into a heart symbol (something inward and personal instead of outward and shared) by a religious European culture. (A great website to go to for this history: 

     Interestingly, it was during the 12th Century that the European folk tale Tristan and Isolde captured people’s imaginations. Undoubtedly you recall this story in detail, but allow me to share a brief sketch: 

     Isolde was a beautiful woman who was about to marry the uncle (who was rich and a king, naturally!) of Tristan. But a love potion (#9?) caused Tristan to fall in love with Isolde and, even though she got married to the kingly uncle, Tris and Iso had a torrid affair that, like all such things in life, was gloriously happy until ending in utter tragedy and the gnashing of teeth. The lovers died and were buried side by side. From out of the graves grew two trees that, over the years, twisted together to form one united tree.  Here was a story that conflated “eternal love" with enjoined trees. Alas, it wasn’t long though before botanic love was replaced by blood red hearts love. The heart, in turn, has been culturally fortified by hundreds of years of commerce.  Tsk! With a plant, at least, there is a direct connection to all life on earth that is plain to understand and demonstrate.

     So, by all means, celebrate your love ones this day. Buy them some chocolate and flowers (both items which might still suggest the early idea that connects our emotional needs with botany). And tell them you love them oh so much. One day, however, it would be nice if we could turn our red hearts back into green leaves while also giving a little more credit to the unsexy gray mass that resides in our heads for the emotions we feel.

     All I am saying, is give leaves a chance.

T. Stone