It’s Super Sunday! That day when nearly everyone in America gets together with friends or goes to sport pubs and watches the last two football teams standing duke it out for the championship. It’s also the day when everybody overeats and quite a few drink too much. This year it’s the Denver Broncos vs. the Carolina Panthers. The storyline is that Peyton Manning, the veteran quarterback who owns most important records for that most important position, is likely retiring after this game. And even if he decides to stay one more year, this is almost certainly his only chance to go out on top.
Peyton has been one of the best QBs to ever play the game, but his skills have diminished somewhat because of age and a devastating injury to his neck 5 years ago. He still has what it takes from the neck up, but arm strength is not what it used to be. His counterpart on the other side is the complete opposite of Manning in every respect. Carolina’s Cam Newton is young, just coming into his own. He is the odds-on favorite for most valuable player this year. He runs and passes with devastating effectiveness (most QBs do not run much).
Newton is 6 feet 5 inches and 260 pounds, an unusual size for a QB and a nightmare to bring down. He’s capable of running over a linebacker on one play and then throwing the ball on a rope into the end zone on the next. His personality couldn’t be more different than Peyton’s, with his old-school business-like manner on the field. Cam dances and plays to the crowd, and obviously loves the camera. He’s gregarious and demonstrative, and this rubs some fans the wrong way.
Newton is also black, and while there have been plenty of black QBs in the NFL for years, it still seems to be an issue for some. I think his dancing and other antics are absolutely no big deal. It’s not my style, but I’m not him and you can’t argue with the way he plays. As long as he doesn’t taunt the opposite team (and he doesn’t), I really don’t care how much he dances. Others are really bothered by his style and personality, and some commenters point to race as the reason for this. I don’t believe that either. Other than the relative few but typically noisy outright racists, I think most of the criticism of Newton arises from an age/personality conflict. Peyton, by the way, is white.
A bronco throws a panter, I mean a buckaroo! Small-town rodeo, eastern Oregon.
My team is out of it, but I’m definitely rooting for a team. Can you guess from the photo which team? I’m like many fans outside Carolina in that I want to see Peyton go out with a Super Bowl ring. Also, the Panthers are favored and I normally go for the underdog. Finally, the Broncos are a western team, and I’m a western boy. In order to win, most agree the Broncos will need to run the ball well, play stellar defense, and not turn the ball over. Peyton will also need to have a near-perfect day. Carolina has a strong balanced team and can run the ball well. Denver’s defense has been the league’s best for most of the year. It will probably need to force two or more turnovers in order to win.
Okay, let the game begin! Go Broncos!
Saratoga Springs surprises with so much water in such a dry desert.
Happy Friday! Here’s another installment of Likes/Dislikes, where I give my totally personal opinion on a trend or issue in photography. I want to do a series on videography soon, so why not preview that by taking a subjective look at video? I have so many still images from recently at Death Valley, so forgive me if I share them instead of videos. So here we go!
LIKE: The ability to shoot video on most cameras today has changed the way we use our cameras. I love being able to just switch modes from still to live action on a whim.
DISLIKE: There is an explosion in photographers switching over to making videos. It’s trendy, which for me is a reason to view it with some skepticism. I realize most photographers shoot video simply because it adds profit, and that’s perfectly fine. But it’s a lousy reason to create something artistic.
Abstract of the reeds reflecting in Saratoga Springs, home of those cute pupfish!
LIKE: When they’re well done, nature videos are quite educational, even inspiring. They’re similar to the best of that series Planet Earth. Videos that feature humans can be eye-opening as well.
DISLIKE: I have a confession. I don’t like most videos I see. I’m not sure of the total reason, but part of it is explained in the next Dislike. For example, nearly all time-lapse videos bore the heck out of me (probably in the minority there). When in school I really enjoyed being exposed to time-lapse for educational purposes. Who doesn’t love seeing exactly how a flower blooms? But most time-lapse goes for the wow as with still photography. And it fails miserably.
Line and pattern: Ibex Dunes, Death Valley N.P.
LIKE: Seeing good interesting action is such a different experience than viewing a still. Good videos are engrossing.
DISLIKE: When you view a still image you are in control of the experience. You can look as long as you want and focus on different parts of the picture at your leisure. Videos on the other hand, control the pace and duration of your viewing. And before you even watch it you’re being told how long it is. When the first thing I experience with imagery is the duration of the experience, the life can be sucked right out of it.
The pan near Saratoga Springs features unusually soft and puffy evaporite deposits.
LIKE: The world is filled with wonderful sounds, and I’ve often lamented the inability to include it in a still image. I want to create those greeting cards that play a short audio segment when you open the card. That would be cool!
DISLIKE: It’s hard to get sound right, even if you have a separate microphone and the gear to monitor and adjust audio. To make things worse, humans seem to be in love with making noise. Our world is now filled to the brim with noise pollution.
I can’t count the times I’ve been inspired to record sound in nature only to have Murphy’s Law strike! I’ll get my microphone out to record some lovely bird call or the wind through tall grass. And just before I press ‘play’ a plane suddenly drones overhead. Recording audio at Yellowstone’s thermal features is near impossible without people talking. You have to go late at night or hike to some off-trail thermal areas.
A desert five-spot blooms near Saratoga Springs.
LIKE: What about creating videos? That can be fun and a nice change of pace. It may even stoke your creativity. There are several different variations, such as time-lapse and slow-motion.
DISLIKE: Although shooting natural-time videos can be very enjoyable, making time-lapse videos is like watching paint dry. You have to sit there with your camera clicking away, automatically taking shot after shot. Boring!
Most time-lapse shooters do something else while the camera is doing its thing. They snooze in their cars, look at their phones, and essentially disconnect with their subjects. And as I mentioned above, I think viewing time-lapses isn’t much better than making them.
LIKE: Moving pictures can tell you more about the subject than a still photo can. For example it’s easy to see exactly how graceful a lynx is as it walks across the snow. A still might hint at that grace, but it’s nothing compared to seeing it in action.
DISLIKE: Videos can be either distracting or boring, often in the same video. Sure you can eliminate distracting elements just as with a still image. But it’s far easier to cut right to the point with a still. A bad still is easy to ignore. A bad video may get good, so you’re tempted to stick with it. You often end up disappointed.
Please add your take on videos in the comments below. Do you like doing them? How about viewing? Why? Have a fantastic weekend of shooting you all!
Sunset colors over the Ibex dunes, Death Valley N.P.
Recently I spent a few days at a dune field I’ve been wanting to photograph for quite some time. With a great name (Ibex Dunes) and a fairly remote location in the far southern part of Death Valley National Park, California, they are a natural magnet for someone like me. A bonus: nearby Saratoga Springs gives rise to a large wetland, attracting birdlife and hosting a number of endemic species, including pupfish.
I was there long enough to see a windstorm move through, out ahead of a big rain and snow storm that hit southern California this past week. It was one of many this winter that are related to El Nino. That gave me the idea to do a Two-for-Tuesday post.
Sand dunes are a bit like glaciers. They move and evolve over time. Glaciers are under the influence of gravity combined with year-on-year snow in their higher reaches. The driver of a dune field is the wind combined with a steady supply of sand.
For the Ibex dunes, there is a large valley with fine sand and salty sediments west of a range of craggy peaks. The prevailing winds are from the west, so they pick up that sand and essentially throw it up against the mountains. Anywhere wind is forced by topography to change direction it slows down, potentially dropping it’s load of sand.
Wind moves sand over the Ibex Dunes in Death Valley National Park.
The great thing about wind and sand dunes, at least for fans of texture and shape in nature, is that not only does the wind bring in new sand, but re-sculpting takes place as well. Footprints are erased, ripples and ridges are sharpened, curves are smoothed.
In open terrain dunes move along, driven by the wind. For the Ibex Dunes, eastward movement is arrested by the mountains. But you can see how dunes have migrated up onto the alluvial fans and to the north (where with a decrease in sand supply, they are smaller and partly stabilized by vegetation).
If you get the chance to visit sand dunes in wind, don’t miss it. The sand in your hair is a minor inconvenience compared to the opportunity to see dune formation in action. Thanks for looking and happy shooting!
The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.
Lizard tracks from the previous night in Death Valley, California.
This is the final of three parts on the circular polarizer. In Part II we looked at how you can use the filter in order to maximize its benefits while handling most of its drawbacks. There is more of that kind of advice in this post, along with some practical tips that apply to any screw-on filter.
EFFECTS OF A CPL & HOW TO HANDLE THEM
- A circular polarizer appears to change the colors in some images. Mostly it’s the blues you’ll notice, but it can also saturate and brighten the warm tones. A good CPL will not cause much of a color shift per se. It’s more of an apparent effect and doesn’t happen in all images. But in any case if you’re shooting RAW it’s easy to warm (or cool) things a bit using the white balance sliders in your editing program. You can also get a polarizer with built-in warming.
Dramatic skies plus a polarizer make for a nice chance to shoot from a low point of view in the Nevada desert.
- You may end up with uneven-looking blues in the sky when using a polarizer. It’s one of the main problems I run into when shooting landscapes with this filter. Patches of darker and paler blues, while they do occur naturally in parts of the sky, can be exaggerated with a CPL, making things look unnatural. If you’re using a wide-angle lens this effect is pretty obvious and hard to avoid. All you can do is rotate the CPL less and/or change composition. Try pointing the lens at a different angle to the sun and include less sky overall. If you’re using a lens with a longer focal length, pointing at right angles to the sun should give you an even effect no matter how much you rotate the CPL.
In this shot at Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, you can see the obvious effect in the sky from using a CPL with a wide-angle lens (18 mm.). It’s a hard thing to correct on the computer.
- Although a CPL often amps up your colors just the right amount, it can also hinder natural color saturation in some instances. For example, I’ve found in frontlight (sun is behind you shining on the subject), and with fall colors, using a polarizer will often take away a little vibrance. If it’s cloudy and the leaves are wet it may do the opposite, blocking reflections and allowing colors to come through as described in Part II. But be careful about using the CPL when shooting colorful subjects, especially in frontlight.
The Colorado Rockies.
AVOIDING MARRIAGE BETWEEN LENS & FILTER
- Last but not least, let’s not forget about your threads. No, I’m not talking about clothes! It’s quite easy to tighten the filter too much on your lens. Then you can’t get it back off! A CPL is worse than other filters because you’re always rotating the filter element to adjust it, maybe tightening it even more.
- Prevention is the key. Getting a good filter with brass instead of aluminum threads will help. And of course, try not to tighten it too much. When you rotate the outer ring to adjust filter strength, occasionally go the opposite way (left). Just don’t do this much or you may rotate the filter right off your lens and drop it. Mostly rotate the same way you screw the filter on, to the right.
I avoided using a CPL on this blooming desert gold in Death Valley because it wouldn’t do much except increase the possibility of flaring.
- More prevention: Keep your filter clean and lubricate. Use a hand-blower to get rid of little pieces of grit that try to get in between the rings. Also, occasionally lube the filter threads with silicone spray. Go outside away from your gear and spray the silicone into a small cup or bottle cap. Then use a Q-tip to carefully apply the lube to the threads and along the seam where the CPL rotates, avoiding the glass. Don’t use too much! Then screw the filter on and off your lens, rotating it back and forth a few times to spread the silicone evenly.
- If you get a filter stuck you can try a couple things. One or two fat rubber bands, like the kind on broccoli at the grocery, allow you to better grip the filter and perhaps the lens. Try not to pinch. Spread your fingers and use even pressure all around the filter. If a filter is really stuck, try this: Get some of that tacky rubber material made for lining drawers & shelves. Cut a couple flat squares and on a table lay your filter flat on one of the squares. Spread the other square flat and tightly onto the filter’s outer ring. Using your palm or fingers evenly spaced around the rim, gently and evenly press down while twisting to the left.
Thanks for reading. Enjoy your weekend!
No polarizer was necessary for this image of desert mountains near Beatty, Nevada.
Recently-flooded wash in Death Valley, California.
Last week I got all technical about how circular polarizers (CPLs) work. Of course you don’t necessarily need to know all that to shoot with them. But it certainly doesn’t hurt. The more you know about how CPLs work the better able you are to extend the situations in which you use them. You can more competently go beyond landscape photography, which is where they’re primarily used (and where I’ll focus this tutorial).
Now let’s get into the meat of things and learn how to employ these great filters in your photography. As usual it’s a good news/bad news story. We’ll start with the bad.
Staying in Death Valley, this dramatic side-light didn’t really need a CPL. I used one but dialed down the strength a bit.
DOWNSIDES & HOW TO MINIMIZE THEM
- First off, it’s a filter, the kind you screw on to the end of the lens. This adds another layer of glass between your subject and your sensor or film. That introduces a chance for flaws in the way light is transmitted, at least in theory.
- But as long as the filter isn’t cheap and you keep it fairly clean, it should yield perfectly sharp images just as when you’re not using a filter. I’m not the type of photographer who puts a lot of stock in the idea of an imperfect image. If I can’t detect any fall-off in quality then it’s simple: the benefits of using the filter outweigh any theoretical considerations.
Arches National Park, Utah. I used a CPL, maximizing “punch”, mostly in the sky.
- Again because it’s a filter, a CPL will increase the possibility of flaring: those often annoying but sometimes interesting bright colorful spots that show up in your pictures when you shoot toward a strong light source like the sun. But you can control flares by keeping your filter and lens clean, by using a hood, and of course by not pointing directly toward the light source.
- Sometimes you have no choice, your photo demands pointing it toward the sun. Then you simply roll the dice and keep shooting until you get flares that are easy enough to remove on the computer.
Washington’s Olympic Peninsula at Lake Quinalt. These are the kinds of flares that aren’t too hard to clone out on the computer.
UPSIDES & HOW TO MAXIMIZE THEM
- So you know a CPL filter reduces reflections. But this may or may not be what you want. In the case of mountains reflected in a lake, you’ll want to be careful to rotate it just the right amount to maximize the color and light in your reflection. If you rotate it fully you’ll begin to see what is underneath the water, if it’s shallow enough. In the case of wet rocks or plants, you may want to use it fully to help bring out the color of the rocks or greenery.
For this hot spring, I wanted to see the subtle colors of the algae growing along the little falls, plus I wanted smooth water. Cutting reflections and lengthening exposures is a great two for one when using a CPL.
- A CPL also reduces the total amount of light reaching your lens. Some models reduce the light only slightly (called “high-transmission” CPLs), but most block between one and two stops of light. In a way this is a downside because it can hurt you when you’re hand-holding the camera and need a fast shutter speed. You may need to raise ISO. But it can help too. For example when you’re on a tripod and want to lengthen shutter speed, say to blur a waterfall (see above photo), a CPL can provide just the right light-blocking strength.
Without a circular polarizer.
- A circular polarizer will darken and tend to saturate colors a little, especially the blues in a sky. When there are white clouds it increases the contrast between blue sky and cloud, quite a lot if you’re shooting at a right angle to the sun. A typical landscape shot with a CPL has more “punch”, or mid-tone contrast. The photos above and below, which are deliberately sort of “average”, show the difference.
Same scene as above with a CPL.
- As the pair of shots above show, a CPL can do nice things for colors, especially when you consider that when shooting RAW your images often come out looking flatter and more washed out than the real scene was. But as you can also see, contrast is increased over the RAW image as well. That’s why a CPL can often be used to great effect when you’re shooting for black and white. Try it.
A polarizer can lend black and white images a little more drama: Panamint Valley dune field, Death Valley N.P., California.
Okay that’s it for now. Next time we’ll conclude with more guidance on using CPLs, along with tips on maintaining them. Happy weekend everyone!
Soap-tree yucca growing on the dunes of White Sands National Monument, New Mexico glow in the bright morning sun
The circular polarizer (or CPL) is a must-have for any landscape photographer. This handy filter can be used in many different situations, but like any piece of photo gear it helps greatly to know exactly what it does and what its benefits and downsides are. This is the first of two parts.
WHAT A CPL IS & HOW TO USE IT
- A circular polarizer is a filter that screws on to the threaded front end of your lens. It has two pieces of glass sandwiched together. So it also has two rings for you to grip. If you grip the ring closest to the threads you will be able to screw the filter on and back off your lens.
- Once it’s on (not too tight!), grasp the ring furthest from the threads to rotate the front piece of glass relative to the other (now fixed in place). This is the way you adjust the filter’s strength. It goes from minimum to maximum effect with 90 degrees of rotation, then back to minimum if you continue rotating all the way to 180 degrees.
I used a polarizer for this shot in Death Valley recently because I wanted to maximize the effects of side-light to show the texture in this awesome alluvial fan, visible in the lower part of the image.
HOW A CPL WORKS
- The CPL filter works by polarizing light in a couple different ways. When light is reflected it becomes polarized to one degree or another. Light rays can be thought of as vibrating waves. When emitted by some source (like the sun), the light waves vibrate in all directions. When light hits a reflective surface and bounces off it, the waves vibrate mostly in one direction, parallel to the reflecting surface. The light has become linearly (or plane-) polarized.
Light reflected from a lake becomes polarized.
- A circular polarizer works by first polarizing the light linearly, then turning it into circularly polarized light. In the case of the plane-polarized reflected light above, the front glass element of the CPL acts as if it has slits, either allowing the polarized rays through or (partly or fully) blocking them.
- The rear glass element, the 2nd one the light passes through, takes that linearly polarized light and polarizes it further, but this time circularly. If you think of the linearly polarized light as a line on a graph, with both horizontal and vertical (X and Y) components, the CPL is blocking one component (vertical, for example) more than the other. It turns it into a vibrating wave that sort of spirals. The light that finally reaches your lens is now circularly polarized!
Diagram of a circular polarizer in action. Click on image to go to source website.
- As described above, you adjust a CPL by rotating the front glass element. This increases or decreases the degree of circular polarization. And if you have reflected light, off a lake or river for example, rotating the filter also changes how much of that plane-polarized light you’re blocking. Again, think of that front glass element as having ‘slits’, which when crossed at an angle to reflected light will prevent some of that naturally polarized light from getting through.
Yellowstone’s Lone Star geyser erupts.
- By the way, that crossing of the slits to plane-polarized light is called cross-polarization, and it’s how polarized sunglasses work. Their “slits” are fixed in a vertical position, enabling them to block the plane-polarized light reflected off of water, roadways and other horizontal surfaces. Look at the reflection off a vertical store window with your sunglasses on and you’ll see they allow that light right on through.
I used a polarizing filter at this pool in Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge, Nevada in order to show some of the detail under the water.
BASIC FIELD USE
- Again the effect increases as you rotate the moveable (outer) ring. In the case of light reflected off water or glass, rotating the filter to its max. position (90 degrees from minimum) will cut the reflection dramatically.
- And for similar reasons, as you point the camera close to right angles (90 degrees) with the sun or other light source, the polarization effect increase dramatically as you rotate the filter to its max. position.
Those are just the two basic ways to use a circular polarizer in the field. There are quite a number of other, more subtle ways to use a CPL in photography. And next time we’ll look at using the filter to improve your images, all the while emphasizing its strengths and dodging the inevitable drawbacks. Have a great weekend and happy shooting!
The barren, channeled nature of a Death Valley alluvial fan is highlighted by strong side-light. I used a CPL but not set to its max setting.
I can count on one hand the number of re-blogs I’ve done. But this reminded me of the kind of travel photography I really have been missing lately. And of course it reminded me of that wonderful country Malawi.
Africa far and wide
We had an old log at the back of our garden. While it added an element of charm, I thought I’d enjoy it more on my verandah, as a table! And so I began to enquire about ‘Sawmen in the Nchalo area.’ It would be an easy job no doubt. Just one log. Switch on the machine and slice it up like piece of paper.
I was given a number for a Sawmen by the name of Jofrey. I called him and he said he’d be there at 6am the next day. He gave me a daily rate and we agreed. He’d bring his friend too, Luca.
It was going to be another scorcher. We were in our 3rd week of temperatures reaching the mid forties. The rains were late and Al Nino was in full force; sucking the countryside dry of all moisture. Plants drooped, baked alive by…
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Kolob Terrace in Zion National Park wakes up to a cloudy dawn.
I’m finally concluding this series with tips on photography at Zion National Park. Believe it or not I will get back to regular Friday Foto Talk posts next week, promise!
Actually, there is one extra topic for Zion that I’ve been avoiding, at least until I get back there for more shots that match the theme. That’s life and biodiversity at Zion. With the great variation in elevation and available water in the park, there is an amazing diversity of plants and animals.
For example it’s relatively easy to see desert bighorn sheep but much tougher to find the Zion snail, or to notice other interesting plant and animal species. But it’s certainly a worthwhile topic to learn about, especially if you’re a nature photographer. Here’s a good website for that.
A family of bighorn sheep survey their realm in East Zion.
I feel the same way about telling you what and where to shoot as I do recommending specific places to go. I don’t want to be like that tour guide who leads you to some viewpoint where he looks expectantly at you and your camera. Then he’s slightly annoyed if instead of taking a picture where everybody else does you stop and shoot in odd places, throwing a wrench in his agenda. But I do want to provide some guidance. It’s a fine line, so please consider the following as suggestions only.
The road in Zion Canyon is lined with beautiful cottonwoods.
PHOTOS AT SUNRISE
East Zion is my favorite area to shoot at sunrise. Hiking up the slickrock where it’s not too steep will get you the necessary elevation above the road. Tip: you can walk very steep sandstone slickrock without slipping because it offers amazing friction, belying its name. You’ll see most people shooting from near the road, but that follows a canyon, often putting you just a little too low.
A full waterpocket reflects the light of sunset at Zion National Park.
Waterpockets are pools of water that hang around on the sandstone bedrock well after rains. Do some exploring during the day and try to find some of these at Zion. You’ll have much more luck in East Zion than elsewhere, but anywhere high up, like Kolob Terrace or up on one of the rims of Zion Canyon, offers good waterpocket hunting. Of course if you’re there off-season, by next morning you could find your pool frozen. But so much the better!
Canyon Hiking in the early morning can offer very nice image possibilities. Most canyons face generally west, but in the right light, shooting in canyon bottoms at Zion is perfect (and uncrowded!) at sunrise.
A walk in any wet canyon bottom can reward with simple pleasures like this swirling eddy.
PHOTOS AT SUNSET
Zion Canyon faces southwest, so late afternoon light tends to flood up the canyon in fall when the sun is to the south. When the sun sets more directly west in spring and summer the sun sets behind mountains. But you’ll still have good shooting if some clouds are around reflecting and sweetening the light.
The Virgin River at sunset is a nice low-energy thing to try. Walk anywhere along its length from the entrance on up to the Narrows. Even with the sun itself obscured you may get that special glow seeping down into the canyon bottom.
Hike high up on Zion Canyon’s sides, as high as energy and terrain allow. Then you can either shoot up-canyon in front-light or down-canyon in back-light. I have several spots like this that I’m fond of. I gave away one in the last post (whinny!), so I’ll keep the rest to myself and let you find your own.
I found this view of the Patriarchs while stumbling around up on the sides of Zion Canyon
Kolob Terrace is great at sunset, or sunrise if clouds are kicking around. Drive up the road from Virgin early so you can do some exploring to find unique perspectives.
The Kolob Canyons area also faces west, so going up there for sunset, then heading back down to camp at Red Cliffs Campground is a good plan. It’s at the mouth of a lovely wet canyon that faces east for sunrise photos.
Ranch Land on the western approach to the park offers nice front-light in late afternoon. Fall colors here linger a bit longer than higher in the canyons. You can find peaceful pastures to shoot with Eagle Crags in the background (Eagle Crags is a good off-beat place to hike to as well).
Horses and Eagle Crags near Rockdale, not far outside Zion National Park.
Anywhere: If you’re lucky enough to have stormy weather at Zion, or the daytime light is otherwise spectacular, try any of the above ideas, or just wander around with your eyes open.
The Canyon Overlook Trail near the east tunnel entrance, while it’s best at sunrise, offers a spectacular view of Pine Creek Canyon at any time.
I got lucky with stormy weather one early morning from Canyon Overlook.
Riparian Zones are plant-filled riverside canyon bottoms. They’re a challenge to shoot because of all the “stuff”. But they are nonetheless worthwhile places to look for intimate landscapes. Try walking Pine Creek either up or downstream from the bridge.
The Aeries of Angel’s Landing and Observation Point are sublime spots for overview shots of the canyon.
There are plenty of other places to shoot at Zion if you do some wandering around. And I haven’t even spoken of all the places outside the park. So use your imagination and don’t follow the crowd.
That’s it, we’re done! I hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and the pictures as well. I was surprised I had so many that were worthy of posting. But would you think me greedy if I said I wanted more? Have a great time at Zion National Park!
Hiking up on the steep slickrock of East Zion at sunset I found this image with the crescent moon. Worth a dark hike back down.