Part-time Passions: Bringing Nature Into Focus

IEEE members pursue their passion for taking photos—of nature’s beauty and its fury

7 June 2012

Virginia Hetrick

IEEE Member Virginia Hetrick visited her first national park at the age of 3 and took her first picture at 7. Her passion combines those two lifelong loves.

Most of Hetrick’s photography captures foliage and landscapes. She has visited 358 of the 397 national parks in the United States, as well as others in Brazil, Canada, England, and France. She is now close to visiting the remaining 39 U.S. national parks, including those in its territories, camera at the ready. She hopes to get to them all by the end of next year.

With her Sony Alpha 700 digital single-lens-reflex camera in hand, she has captured a whopping 128 800 photos.

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“Photography gets my head out of computers—except when I have to upload the pictures,” Hetrick says with a laugh. She is a former associate dean for computer information systems, as well as game and simulation programming, at DeVry University’s Southern California campus.

She spends some three months a year visiting and shooting parks, turning her favorite photos into calendars and Christmas cards for friends. She occasionally enters her best images in contests, and she has won prizes.

Her favorite subjects are wildflowers, like the beavertail cactus flower shown in the top left photo. She also likes shooting mountains, beaches and, lately, some other subjects including 18th-century wood-burning stove doors.

“My favorite park is probably Olympic in Washington State, because that’s where I grew up, where I picked up most of my outdoor skills, and where my parents first met,” she says. “I used to go climbing and hiking in the mountains as a Girl Scout. I only took pictures in black and white, but wildflowers were special. If I found a really beautiful bunch, my mother would take a color slide.”

Hetrick’s picture taking ramped up in 2006, a year before she retired, when she bought her Sony and switched from film to digital.

“Digital photography wasn’t a mystery,” she says. “My work involved designing and using satellite image–processing labs, so I knew about things like adjusting for color.” She prefers to shoot RAW images—which allows the most control in editing because it contains every detail captured by the camera.

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What started as a curiosity for Senior Member Hartono became a hobby, then a profession. Now it’s affecting international building codes.

Hartono—who like most Malaysians goes by a single name—has spent the past 22 years snapping pictures of buildings around his town that have been damaged by lightning, such as the building in the photo above. He also publishes scientific papers on mitigating lightning’s effects on structures.

He’s in the right part of the world for his interest. Kuala Lumpur has about 200 days of thunderstorms each year. There’s so much lightning damage around the city that he goes out daily, shooting with his digital Sony Cybershot DSC-H1 to augment his research, conference papers, and presentations.

Most of the time there are no burn marks, but concrete blocks can get chipped at the corners. The size of the chip varies with the magnitude of the lightning current. “It takes a trained eye to know that it’s the result of lightning,” Hartono says.

“As far as I know,” he says, “I’m the only one in the world taking photos of lightning-damaged buildings on a large scale.”

He recently joined a working group of experts at CIGRE, the Paris-based international organization for improving electric power systems, to study lightning strikes and develop a new way to make tall buildings less prone to such damage.

Hartono bought his first camera, a Nikon FM SLR, in 1977 while an undergraduate at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, England, to snap campus scenery. A few years later, he began photographing lightning damage to electronic equipment as an electrical engineer doing maintenance work for the Telecommunications Department of Malaysia (now Telekom Malaysia). In the late 1980s, he saw a photo of a lightning-struck building in a telecommunications magazine. Shortly after, he began taking similar photos. His passion ultimately led him to start Lightning Research, in Kuala Lumpur, to advise architects, engineers, and companies on ameliorating lightning damage.

Over time, Hartono’s pictures revealed that most lightning rods should be placed in roof corners, which have triple the chance of being hit.

“Place a lightning rod correctly, and there’s no damage,” he says. “Place them randomly on the roof, and damage will occur.” His rod-placement suggestions have been included in international lightning protection standards.

Hartono came close to being struck once, running from one tall building to another during a particularly violent thunderstorm. “Objects on the ground can emit streamers—electricity jumping points,” he says. “I could feel my skin tingling. Now I don’t go out during thunderstorms any more.”

Top: Virginia Hetrick (2); Bottom: Hartono (2)

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