The guy whose feet are too big

When you have a tiny little flower waiting to be photographed, why do you want to ignore it and concentrate on the tinier droplets of water on stalks in front of it? As George Mallory is famous for saying, “Because it is there.” One of my last trips with a Panasonic of many years, was to Kaas Plateau, that unique and very difficult habitat which contains some species of wildflowers not found anywhere else. I’d scratched the lens when I fell off a slippery boulder, and spent a year thinking I would replace it. Also, sensors had become better, and data buses faster, so it made sense to replace the camera.

I dug up this image because in the last few days I’ve been obsessed with figuring out how to do at least a half-way decent job with black and white photos. It is something to worry about, but I’m getting there. The plateau bursts into flower for a couple of weeks towards the end of the monsoon. I’ve never been there when the sun is out. You see marvelous (but tiny) flowers, but you are always wet. It is a job keeping your equipment dry. Doing it in a mask is one thing that I do not want to try.

We don’t see the world as it is …

Someone said something like “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Who? A search, filtered through my web bubble, ascribed it to Stephen R. Covey, Anais Nin, Albert Einstein… The trail is complex enough that the Quote Investigator has an article on it. When you start thinking about the path from the the eye to the perception of the world around us, you realize that the world is so complex that the brain’s computations can only create an approximation. A frog sees a world of moving objects in exquisite detail. A butterfly sees the bright patterns in ultraviolet light that flowers have evolved to attract them. We do not. And the camera, that instrument that we carry around in our pockets, does not see what we see. So it takes a little work to tweak a camera’s output to get the impression of dark water, its surface reflecting the clouds above, its transparency letting you see a rotting leaf slowly sinking, its beading on the fresh leaf to reflect the sun, into what you think you see.

The cold war led to the development of CCDs to act as eyes on spy satellites. In the same year, 1976 CE, that they were first used for this purpose, they were also used for astronomical observations. The very next year they were put into the Voyager satellites, our first eyes to travel to other planets. Kodak labs had developed the first CCD camera in 1975, but it wasn’t till 1988 that the first commercial digital camera became available. There is enough information in the output that what looks like a perfectly black image at first can be used to tease out details. Even without using raw data, I could recover an image of a gaur (Bos gaurus) that I saw on a dark night in a forest. You see that imposing creature in the photo above. This was an old camera, so there is a lot of noise, but I like it that way. After all even our eye/brain does not see too well in the dark.

Colour perception is another whole kettle of fish. The simple RGB colour space model which cameras use is a very crude approximation of what our eye sees. Actual human colour perception is still an active research area. So the images that come out of a camera require colour correction. And the interaction of attention and colour; let’s not even go there. When I looked at this lotus pond inside a forest my first reaction was to the bright red of the flowers. Only later did I realize that the number of insects on it was enormous. And was the water strider (Gerridae) there for the flower, or its shade? I forgot all about the red. To reproduce a semblance of this attention I had to tweak the photo.

Lens artists will want to see the” originals” too. The step from raw to jpeg is all digital magic, so nothing is really original. For that matter, our eyes are not particularly great instruments, so the brain’s chemical-electronic magic is really needed to build up, see, the world around us.

Gratuitious photo

A walk in the garden on Perihelion Day was a bit of a disaster. In most years this is the best time in the garden in Mumbai. This year the pandemic meant delays in turnover and replanting. As a result, the garden was mostly freshly turned beds. Only one row of plants was flowering, the lilies that you see here. Backlit, I wonder which version looks better, the colour or the monochrome. What do you think?

Happy Dusshera

I stepped out to buy a loaf of bread on Saturday and found a parking apron taken up by a trio busy stringing marigolds into streamers. Of course, the time-keeper in my head told me, “Tomorrow is dusshera.” It wasn’t very easy to track this year, with no lights, no festivities, no night-long dances. But it was hard to forget too, with all the sighing and complaining from friends and family about missing everything this year. I didn’t actually, I’m a happy bear these days. I’m a day or two late, but a happy dusshera to you.

But while lost in uffish contemplation of these photos snapped off quickly with my phone, a monstrous jabberwock raised its head. Do you recognize a subtle bit of structural racism here? Let me explain. A phone camera is no longer the simple light catching device that a camera was forty years ago. The image is mediated by software, and the huge improvement in this decade has been due to the addition of AI to the mix. That tweaks the exposure and colour according to optimizations it has been trained to use. Many of these improvements involve recognizing and enhancing faces. Just check your photos from five years back, and you’ll see how much better faces look in recent photos. I say usually, because it depends on the skin colour.

The AI is trained on data sets selected by Google, and these are largely biased to lighter skin colours. See, for example, a photo taken three years ago, by a six year old phone, in Madrid’s Atocha station. I have taken a random face from the shadows and inset it to show how well the AI has captured that. All I did was to increase the overall illumination in the inset. See the subtlety with which the details and shadows are rendered. Compare that to the inset face (with the same tweak for overall illumination) visible in the photo above that: the AI has rendered the bamboo framework in the background better than the face. This comparison shows that it is not light or darkness that makes a difference; it is algorithmic bias. It took me a bit of work on the featured photo to make the face visible. It is because of this bias that a DSLR or a good bridge camera still remains superior to a smart phone for street photography in India and most of the world.

Perihelion photoshow

The year should rightly begin on Perihelion Day, tomorrow, January 4, when the earth is closest to the sun. On the Perihelion Eve of the end of the fourth century of the Keplerian Era (Why do I feel like Linus sitting in the pumpkin patch?), I thought of examining the ghosts of Perihelia past. One year ago I was in the Little Rann of Kutch. As the sun set after a full day of photography, the batteries on my camera ran out soon after I took the featured photo. That was a spectacular way to end Perihelion Day.

I haven’t been consistent about taking photos on Perihelion Day. I had to go back five more years, to 2014, before I found a set of photos I’d taken on Perihelion Day. It was a Saturday, The Family was at work in the morning, and I was at a loose end. I took a series of photos of a cape gooseberry. I liked the difference in texture between the fruit and the leaves which enclose it.

Two years before, in 2012, that Perihelion Day was on a Wednesday. I was in Mahabaleshwar for a meeting, and had the morning off. Somewhere near the edge of the plateau I could see the hills marching off into the distance. The layer cake of the Deccan traps turns from red to hazy blue as you look away towards the horizon. The Sahyadri mountains are spectacular, and it is a pity we seldom go out there in winter any more. Perhaps that’s something we should start doing again.

The previous set of photos that I took on a Perihelion Day was in 2009. That year Perihelion Day was on a Sunday, and I walked out into the garden with my new camera to take test shots of flowers. Looking at this photo brings back memories of a warm winter morning, and a camera I really enjoyed working with for the next few years.

My digital photo album goes back a few more years, but there are no photos taken on Perihelion Day. Four photos at the end of a century is rather careless. I should track Perihelion Days better in future.

People in Hagia Sophia

I wanted a clear and unobstructed photo of the marble door in the south gallery of the Hagia Sophia. This is not easy, because a continuous stream of people go through it. After a long wait I decided that I should be taking photos of tourists instead. In any case, ambush photography is great fun: you take photographs of people who are being photographed by others. The Family and I had an argument a few days before about whether Chinese tourists outnumber everyone else.

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I’m not terribly good at pinpointing nationalities, but by my count about two and a half photos out of the eight in the slide show contain Chinese people. A significantly larger number come from eastern Europe. Add in the west Europeans, Turks, and a smattering of people from across Asia outside of China, and I think you begin to get a picture of where the tourists come from. About half of them take selfies, a fourth have someone else take their photo, and the rest are not interested in their own photos. My survey was interrupted because I was spotted while taking a non-ambush photo. I had to go back to being a tourist interested in the marble door again.

Black and white Bougainvillea

You’ll usually find colourful Bougainvillea draped over fences and climbing up walls. Most photos of these flowers emphasize the colour, but I think the texture is equally nice. That’s why these two photos: enjoy the texture of the bracts and the leaves. No disturbing colours. It’s a Monday after all.

Street Photographers of Shamian

The modern incarnation of Shamian island seems to have been built for street photography. We walked through it in the middle of the week, but the leafy roads were full of people clicking photos. The pair in the featured photo took themselves in various poses with the statue you see, and then sat down to look at the photos carefully.

This pair had found a much more interesting background, I think. Although the front camera is being used, it doesn’t look like the girl is taking a selfie. Perhaps the front camera is being used so that the subject can see herself in the screen and control her image better. What is better than taking a selfie? Have a friend take your selfie for you, clearly.

When people are so absorbed in taking their own photos it is much easier for a tourist to take photos of them. Did I feel like a voyeur? No. There were others equally busy documenting the modern Chinese need to put their photos on Weibo and Wechat. I’m used to my nieces taking each other’s photos for Instagram. They do not notice what I’m doing at such times. Sometimes they post the photo I took of them taking their own photos on Instagram. The meaning of privacy is much more nuanced now.

Whatever social medium is being used, some people are more professional than others. This pair could be creating portfolios: the woman as a model, the man as a photographer. But much more likely they will post it on Wechat. The pair noticed me, but did not care. Their portfolio/profile was much more interesting.

This guy was a serious amateur. If you look at WordPress, Flickr, or Instagram, you’ll see some really outstanding amateur photographers from China. This guy could be, or could become, one of them. I liked the fact that he was photographing a statue of a photographer. It gave me a chance to go another level meta.

And then there are tiger moms. The child did not want to pose any longer, but when mom says you have to do it, you have to. Not a hint of rebellion shows in her face or posture. Hard to believe that between shots she was complaining. This set is definitely going on the family Wechat group.