July 7, 2020

I have adopted an answer to the mystery of the strange photograph: The Phantom Gnat!

You remember this photograph I posted yesterday, an image I was surprised to find among my sunrise photographs and not something I was trying to do:


I had said in the comments: "I know it’s out of focus, but why? And why is the sun a full circle? It was only a quarter of the way up."

Oddly, some people were talking about the "circle of confusion" (a complicated subject in photography) and others were talking about the song by Cyrkle, "Red Rubber Ball" (because, as Paul Simon wrote in the lyrics, "The morning sun is shining like a red rubber ball").

Several commenters usefully brought up bokeh — which I understand — but, as I said in the comments, "I thought the camera would do that in the parts of the photo that were not deemed to be the subject. I've aimed the camera at the sun like this thousands of time and I've never seen it 'decide' that the sun is the subject and everything else should be gently fuzzed — especially with this additional effect of completely reshaping the sun, showing a circle for something that was visible as less than a half circle."

Kylos responded: "It’s actually the opposite. It’s focused on something nearby instead of the sun. My experience is that shooting into the sun can cause autofocus to get confused. Possible a lens flare or glowing dust particle caused the autofocus to think the subject was inches from your camera. Because the sun is also completely out of focus, it’s circle of confusion ends up projecting on top of the darker horizon."

That pointed me at what I declare to be the answer: "Maybe an insect flew by, got focused on, then went off camera as the image was captured. That's my theory! The phantom gnat!"

Interesting to wear a buzz cut in 1966. From the Wikipedia article on Cyrkle:

The band was formed by guitarists and lead singers Don Dannemann and Tom Dawes (who also played bass guitar), and Jim Maiella (the original drummer), who all met while studying at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Dannemann enlisted in the US Coast Guard in 1966....
I guess that explains the hair, but you know, they had wigs back then.
They were originally a "frat rock" band called The Rhondells but were later discovered and managed by Brian Epstein, who was best known as manager of The Beatles....  John Lennon provided the unique spelling of their new name....
The respelling of "circle" as "Cyrkle" is a Beatles thing to do. Don't get me started on that. Byrds, Monkees, Phish, Korn, Def Leppard... you can go down that road without my guidance.

As for The Rhondells, if you feel like you've heard of them, you're probably thinking of The Shondells...

... maybe with a little Rhonda in them...

You can listen to Simon and Garfunkel sing "Red Rubber Ball" here.

Now I know you're not the only starfish in the sea.

There are so many starfish in the sea and so many gnats over Lake Mendota.


mikee said...

When randomly cruising You Tube, I somehow always end up playing "House of the Rising Sun."
That disturbs me.

Joe Smith said...

Not a great theory...it would have to be a huge insect or something stuck to the lens for the camera to attempt to focus on it.

But yes, it looks like it was trying to focus on something closer than the sun at 93,000,000 miles, but that's just the effect. The cause could have been nothing more than a glitch...phone cameras and even high-end digital cameras get confused sometimes...

I would just be happy with the result and call it a day : )

exhelodrvr1 said...

A fake gnat? Or some fake gnus?

Ann Althouse said...

If you're looking for an open thread — a "cafĂ©" — please go one up to the next post.

Keep this thread focused — focused on the topic of focus... or whatever the Mystery of the Phantom Gnat really is.

Ann Althouse said...

Also feel free to discuss all the other topics in the post: buzz cuts, Tommy James, the respelling tradition in rock-band names, the brilliance of the word "starfish" instead of "fish" in "Red Rubber Ball," your own experiences with phantom insects and mysterious effects in photographs, joining the Coast Guard in 1966....

Two-eyed Jack said...

I do not wish to strain at gnats, but I find the Cyrkle hairstyles amazing. If three guys walked into a bar today with Shondell haircuts people would wonder what was up with the look. "Time travelers" would be the most obvious explanation. Three guys with the Cyrkle styles would just be three guys. The most obvious explanation for them living in 1966 is . . . "time travelers."

Churchy LaFemme: said...

That's the great Al Jardine on the lead in "Help Me Rhonda". He's the only (living) Beach Boy who still has a great voice (though the 2012 reunion tour proved they still do sound great together). Looks like Brian is having a good time on stage too, which is a bit late in the game as HMR was a hit in '65, and I think he stopped touring in '64.

As was not uncommon then, singles were often re-recorded and punched up. The album version of HMR was a totally different, "Fanny Mae" harmonica-rich arrangement. The title was even spelled differently "Rhonda" vs "Ronda". When Capital Records put out the "Endless Summer" double LP compilation which revitalized the Beach Boys career, they did it without any group input (the group had long left Capital at the time) and got the wrong, non-hit, versions of several songs, most noticably "Help Me Rhonda" & "Be True To Your School" (but also "Fun, Fun, Fun"). CD releases fixed that. I spent years looking for the hit version of BTTYS.

The BB also jammed on Rhonda with The Grateful Dead at the Fillmore East, and for years after that played a shambolic rock arrangement of the song with its roots there. (It was awful).

I can't leave Rhonda without mentioning the phychodrama that went down when Murray Wilson (just fired as manager I believe) turned up at the vocal session for HMR.

CJinPA said...

I have to ask: Tom Dawes in The Cyrkle played guitar and bass IN THE SAME SONG? Looks like that's what he's holding. But they're lip syncing, not really playing in the video, so it's hard to tell.

Also, I lived in Easton, PA, where the band members met. Lived down the street from the downtown traffic circle that provided the name. Never knew of the connection.

Unknown said...

Red Rubber Ball is really an awesome song; a simple progression paired with sublime vocals and harmonies with a nice key change near the end; I never get tired of hearing it. But since we're talking about focusing, Sony describes some circumstances that prevent successful focusing that perfectly describe Althouse's circumstances:

> Subjects with no contrast such as blue skies or white walls.
> Multiple subjects with different distances within the focus area.
> Bright or backlit subjects.
> Shiny or glossy subjects such as water surfaces.
> Fast moving subjects.

robother said...

THe Crykle/Rhondells seem more like the model for the Wonders in "That Thing That You Do" than any band named Wonders, down to the guy who joined the military (Marines in the movie).

bagoh20 said...

They play around with the focus a lot in that video to the point that it's distracting. I never noticed that was a breakup song, but I've only heard it a couple million times.

Paul said...

Wigs??? Maybe Dannemann was just PROUD HE JOINED THE COASTGUARD!

Fernandinande said...

My Canon cameras sometimes focus on dust particles on the front lens element when they're in "macro" mode. And it doesn't take much dust. (Yes, they're designed to focus as close as the front element).

RichardJohnson said...

I just found out thatRed Rubber Ball was the creation of some rather illustrious musicians: Bruce Woodley of The Seekers and- Paul Simon. Granted, Red Rubber Ball was not one of Paul Simon's better creations, but still...

Which reminds me that back in the day in Berserkeley, I knew a guy who claimed he had been in a musical group with Simon and Garfunkel back in his high school days. I do know that he was a competent guitarist and Internet searching decades later showed that he, like Simon and Garfunkel, had graduated from Forest Hills High School in Queens. And, he was about the same age as them. So he may have been truthful about his high school era connection with Simon and Garfunkel.

tcrosse said...

I saw Tommy James and the Shondells play the Wisconsin Union Great Hall back in 1965 or so, for Fasching, IIRC (and I usually don't).

DavidD said...

I actually like sun ghosts.

I spent a lot of time taking pictures while I was stationed in Germany for 3-1/2 years a lifetime ago: near the end, I had an opportunity to take a photo at the Tower of London with the sunlight coming in just right and was quite pleased when the film was developed to see that the sun ghosts had turned out just like I’d planned.

Mr. Forward said...

The phantom gnat costume was what Joe Biden was going to wear for Halloween.

Breezy said...

How would you explain the subtle red reflection on the water if its a phantom gnat flying by?

tcrosse said...

The focus is on the gnat's phantom, silent G, similar to the silent G in horse trough. It's poignant.

Joe Smith said...

"He's the only (living) Beach Boy who still has a great voice (though the 2012 reunion tour proved they still do sound great together)."

We saw Brian Wilson a few years ago at the Sydney Opera House. We were there for my wife's work, saw a poster, and bought tickets. Brian was a hollow shell. The man could barely move and mumbled his way through the songs.

Al Jardine was with the band (not billed as the Beach Boys) and seemed to be the de facto conductor. He was terrific. His son was also terrific and carried all of the falsetto parts.

Even though Brian was a bit out of it, it was a very enjoyable evening and people seemed to have a great time. I've seen many iterations of the Beach Boys over the years starting in the mid-'70s or so, but the Opera House is actually quite an intimate setting and it was memorable.

Ann Althouse said...

"How would you explain the subtle red reflection on the water if its a phantom gnat flying by?"

I'm not saying the camera interpreted the gnat as the orange circle. That is indeed the sun. The issue is why is the entire thing in soft focus (and also why is the sun a circle when the full circle of the sun was not above the shoreline).

My answer is that the gnat flew across just as the camera was choosing the focus — and focused on the gnat — then took the picture an instant later — when there was no longer a gnat in front the lens. That left nothing in focus and everything subject to the bokeh effect, which affected the sun shape by turning it into a circle.

Hey Skipper said...

Six months ago I was driving in eastern Oregon on State Route 95 towards Boise, just after sunrise. Very clear, dead calm winds.

Then I noticed the far side of the valley was decidedly odd — briefly anything above eye level was like looking through wavy water, then the same effect at eye level, then below eye level.

Took a few minutes to figure it out. Denser cold air had flowed into the wide valley overnight, displacing the warmer air, and because of the calm air, resulted in a very sharp temperature/density shift about four feet off the ground.

Think driving through a large, very shallow lake, and your eyes go from just being below the surface, at, and above, with the surface.

It is possible that you took the picture with your line of sight being just above such an inversion layer, and it is reflecting the top half of the sun to give an apparent whole.

PJ said...

The H in Rhondells suggests Rhonda, but Ronettes + Shondells is a good sound fit.

MikeD said...

I, personally, would've chosen Widespread Panic's "Ball of Confusion" for the musical interlude.

Rick.T. said...

To keep on the musical theme it appears the red rubber ball turned into a “Ball of Confusion:”

People movin' out, people movin' in.
Why, because of the color of their skin.
Run, run, run, but you sho' can't hide
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Vote for me and I'll set you free
Rap on, brother, rap on.
Well, the only person talkin' 'bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems nobody's interested in learning but the teacher
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation,
humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball Of Confusion that's what the world is today (yeah, yeah)
The sale of pills is at an all time high
young folks walkin' 'round with their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time, and oh the beat goes on...

khematite said...

I feel as if I've heard of the Rhondells because of Bill Deal & The Rhondels (so poor they could only afford one "l"). They had three Top 40 hits in 1969.


WhoKnew said...

The acoustic guitar player behind Tommy James is a riot. There's a guy having fun while lip synching.

khematite said...

7/7/20, 10:09 AM
Blogger RichardJohnson said...

Which reminds me that back in the day in Berserkeley, I knew a guy who claimed he had been in a musical group with Simon and Garfunkel back in his high school days. I do know that he was a competent guitarist and Internet searching decades later showed that he, like Simon and Garfunkel, had graduated from Forest Hills High School in Queens. And, he was about the same age as them. So he may have been truthful about his high school era connection with Simon and Garfunkel.

Perhaps he was a member of Tico & The Triumphs (though that didn't include Garfunkel)?

"Tico and the Triumphs were a group Paul Simon and several of his friends formed in Queens, NY. Original members included Mickey Borack, Paul Simon (who kept his stage name of Jerry Landis), Marty Cooper, Howie Beck, and Gail Lynn, who didn't continue with the group when they started recording. Their greatest success came with the release of "Motorcycle" which peaked at # 99 on the US Billboard Singles chart on January 6, 1962."

Charlie said...

I know someone who knows Paul Simon and he claims Simon hates this song and is embarrassed he wrote it. He still cashes the checks, though.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

Don't forget "The Hondells", a project of friend-of-brian producer Gary Usher who got a hit single out of The Beach Boys' "Little Honda" because they somehow couldn't be bothered to put it on 45 or something.

Churchy LaFemme: said...

If Simon hates RRB, he shouldn't. He used to know how to write fun songs like "Baby Driver", "Keep The Customer Satisfied", & "Kodachrome" in along all the art-major depression songs. Seems like there were fewer and fewer as time went on.

Andrew said...

It's the wrong color, but that photo reminds me of Gatsby.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning -- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Your light is red, not green. So stay where you are.

ColoradoJim said...

I agree it was probably some sort of insect that was close to the lens at the time of the shot. I doubt it was something as small as a gnat though as they are very difficult to even focus lock on in the air. Perhaps something like a dragonfly that can hover for a moment and quickly zoom away. I clicked on your photo at the flicker site and it shows that lens was wide open at f1.8 compared to f2.4 for the normal sunrise shot taken within a minute. It surely sounds like the lens was wide open focusing on something close at that time. Depending on the camera software the exif information attached to the photo can give a lot of information on a specific shot. Some will give you the actual focus distance which was not provided in this case.

gpm said...

Don't know why, but I loved Red Rubber Ball when it first came out and I was, what, ten or twelve years old. I vaguely remember even buying the lyrics. Which, some 55+ years later, and probably about the same distance since I thought about it, I could mostly sing along with (and even anticipate before they got to it, especially the final verse about the roller coaster ride).

To this day, OTOH, Tommy James songs make me retch.

“Ball of Confusion:” "And the only safe place to live/is on an Indian reservation."


Daniel Jackson said...

I'm sorry; but, I think there is another explanation: Mirage.

The reflection (or refraction) of the full sun above the horizon "bounced" off the lake midway between its relative position and the position of the camera. Hence, the mirage of the rising sun. Not only is the image of the sun captured; but, so is the horizon below it.

The mirage sun, being the brightest object in the camera's field, the auto focus naturally centered on that, adjusted the settings, and grabbed that. Since the mirage is halfway between the horizon, everything beyond and in front is out of focus. A good example of depth of field.

Here are a few links to help with the mystery:





One other thing to consider. Sometimes on the surface of still waters, wisps of moisture hover over the depths especially in the middle of such waters. Instead of a gnat, perhaps a gentle breeze moved across the field of vision at the moment of the capture. This has two effects: increasing the power of the Mirage Sun and obscuring what is beyond.

Regardless, it is a great picture.