Blog images from the past year: 403 ME

When you try to structure a retrospective of your favourite photos from a year’s worth of blog posts, you have a lot of choice. You could rate them in various ways, arrange them by colour or theme or chronology. But no matter what organization you choose, you still leave yourself a bit of leeway with the introduction. So it was with me. Having chosen to structure this post chronologically, I still had to figure out what to use as a featured photo. When it comes to visuals, I think you should be able to tell a book by its cover. Since my year was full of birds, I will start with a photo where I managed to get close enough to a hunter to see the colour of her eyeballs.

It seems hard to recall now, but the year started with the last of the major variants of the virus which divided our life story into before and after. January was omicron time, and I was mostly at home. Highly infectious variants of a virus run through the population very fast. So the wave was over earlier than I’d expected. As a result, I could spend the next month walking through my own city after a long time. I still had time left over to try my hand at blank verse in iambic pentameters. I discovered that counting syllables is not easy, and I had to approximate.

But soon enough we were back in the wilds. One special sighting was of the lost Taiga bean goose, probably separated from its west Siberian flock, and tolerated as an honorary member of a flock of bar-headed geese. I spent some time with maps trying to understand how this strange companionship might have developed, and learnt a valuable lesson about the world unsettled by us.

Between visits to the wilderness, it was interesting to watch the city come alive. Those were the last days of continuous working from home, and I could finish my day’s work early and roam the streets of Mumbai as life resumed after the pandemic. Most people were already vaccinated, and although the latest variant had infected large numbers, most did not need hospitalization. There was palpable relief on the streets.

India harbours a large variety of cats, and it’s a pity only the big cats attracts so much attention. In 403 ME we were lucky to sight several of the small cats. They are elusive creatures, wary of humans, The jungle cat is the most common, and I’ve seen it only thrice. I’ve never seen a fishing cat, the manul, or the Asian lynx. I’ve seen a caracal briefly as it sped off as soon as I chanced on it walking along a deserted road. So I feel I was lucky to have got photos and a video of one which was probably the desert cat. I was a bit puzzled by the ecology of its desert habitat, and it helped me fill in a bit of the puzzle.

After that I went tiger hunting in the same place where Bungalow Bill, made famous by the Beatles, shot his tiger. But more than half a century on, I was happy to see that not a single visitor had either elephant or gun. I have shown photos of these tigers too often; having seen them after three years. So here I post a photo of two butterflies, one called the common tiger, and the other the common crow. Pat yourself on the back when you figure out their names, but remember that there’s a whole lot we do not know about these two milkweed butterflies.

When you spend most of your leisure time in the jungles of India you cannot fail to notice the unremarked creatures which shape the land: termites. The jungles would regenerate slower without them, because these distant cousins of cockroaches are the most efficient metabolizers of wood. I was astounded when I found how old some of their cities are.

As July came along, we left for the hills. In the high desert of Ladakh, headaches and worse stalk those who forget about the lack of oxygen in the air. Among the most interesting sights here are signs of ancient humans who lived and left their art on rocks in this unhospitable part of the world. But the most interesting photos were from the cham at the Hemis monastery. I found the juxtaposition of masks interesting: one set elaborate and hand made according to several hundred years-old tradition, the other set stamped out in a factory for export to a foreign culture. Trust children to create something new.

Meanwhile, in the plains, the monsoon had set in. During breaks we travelled the Sahyadris, as we’ve been doing in the past two years, looking at the blooming of wildflowers in the otherwise arid volcanic soil. I hadn’t seen the misnamed Glory lily for several years, and had almost forgotten its name. But I remembered a true crime story associated with it.

A collateral pleasure of this new passion for wildflowers is the glimpse we get into life in small villages in the middle of Maharashtra. These places were traditionally very poor, but in the last seven decades roads and irrigation projects have made a very great difference to the lives of people who live here. Earning a living is by no means easy, but I think someone from my grandfather’s generation would be surprised. As for me, the differences from city life sometimes surprise me as much as the similarities.

After the monsoon it was time to get back to the mountain wilderness in the Himalayas. In this short trip around Diwali I was happy with the number of birds I saw. This pied kingfisher was not the most difficult to photograph, but it certainly gave me one of my favourite shots of the year.

Before you realize it, the sun picks up speed as it falls towards the lowest point in its orbit. The northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, which sits at the focus of the orbit, and for me it is winter. No one in their right mind goes to the mountains at this time. But did I claim to be sane? Winter weather is clear and cold, perfect for views of four of the five highest mountains in the world (Chomolungma in the center, Lotse to its right, Makalu at its left). The zoom required for this photos excluded Kanchenjunga, which is just off the right margin of the shot.

An finally, when the earth whirls past its closest approach to the sun, it is the true new year, 404 ME. We are ready for another whirl around our nearest star. It is unlikely that a new Buddha will arise soon, and even less likely that he will be the Manjushree Buddha, one who cleaves ignorance and fear with his sword. But we can all wish such a happy new year to each other, can’t we?

Door flowers

I was surprised when Kunzum led us to a cottage at the top of the rise. Our morning’s walk to see Chomolungma had not left me hungry. Perhaps it was the altitude, after all we’d reached a place which was a little over 3 Kms from sea level. Or perhaps it was the nice, but heavy, breakfast of parathas and steaming hot potato curry. Still, I was happy to sit and shed some layers. The last climb had left me a little sweaty.

As I was doing that, The Family had shucked her backpack and walked back out into the yard to take photos of the house. The soil in the yard was parched and hard with the cold, but the house was bright with potted plants. This is one thing about hill houses that really cheers me up: every house has rows and rows of flowering plants lined below windows, around doors, and anywhere possible on exterior walls.

I stayed in for a moment, enchanted by the beautiful light in the pantry and dining room. The full Singalila trek takes experienced trekkers four days or so (it would have taken us maybe about six). Along the road are these “tea houses” where people can spend a night or get something to eat. The pantry reminded me of century old black and white photos of Himalayan houses. I took a few photos and decided the light deserved monochrome.

The light was less dramatic in the dining area, behind the wide open windows, but still mild enough that the place deserves a black and white photo, in keeping with historical precedent. In truth though, you must imagine it as being very colourful in a pastel sort of way. The Family leaned in through the windows and said “Come out. Look at the flowers here.” I pulled on my jacket and followed her.

I suppose I could try out monochrome shots of the flowers, but they were so lovely and colourful that I think they deserve a full colour treatment. Some were wilting a bit in the extreme dryness of the atmosphere up here. The air pressure at this altitude is about 70% of what it is at sea level, and that means water can evaporate pretty rapidly. But in spite of the dryness at the edges of the petals, these flowers looked really pretty.

The two of us took our phone to every flowerpot we could see. Now when I look at the number of flower shots we took, I think we must have been slightly addled. Still, that gives us a nice big set to select from.

10 images from year 403 which I liked on second view

For my post on the last day of the year 403 ME, I decided to look through the photos I took of the past year and pull together all those which still looked interesting to me: water birds scolding, wheat fields ripening, water buffaloes wading into a lake, and other such. Even as you look at them, the earth is speeding towards that special point in its orbit, that place where it is closest to the sun, the perihelion: that unique point from which one can truly count the beginning of a new year. The earth has been falling since July, picking up speed as the year ends. It has been moving faster and faster as it whizzes downhill, towards the new new year. Tomorrow, as it turns past that mark, it will begin to lose speed as it climbs up to July again.

Yellow grass
Tsechu in the Hemis monastery
How many Chital (Axis axis)?
Cattle egret turn into tractor egrets
A coot leaves behind disturbed water as it takes off
Micro green forest
Make way! Make way …
St+Art Mumbai: art must be engaging
Red dwarf honeybees (Apis florea) having a water cooler moment
Roadside tyre repair shop
A hospital can be beautiful
Two long-billed pipits (Anthus similis) confer
Cactus flower: angiosperms come in such variety!
Hog deer (Axis procinus): now you see me …

10 phone photos from Year 403

Was 403 ME (Modern Era) a step back towards the normal? Certainly, travel for work has come back into our lives. We got to travel a little on short breaks from work, so in that sense too it was getting back to normal. But things were still a little different. I’d never really thought of the interior of a water bottle before. I’ve been at teas with more substance, and worked at tables which were less dusty. On the other hand, gems hide in the dust sometimes. You can now see people react differently to stress.

High tea?
You need to dust your table more often
A moth I’ve never seen before
Moonscape Ladakh
You can deal with a traffic jam
The sound of a monsoon stream
An architect’s hut

I used my phone a lot more this year. The good thing about a phone is that it is always with you: for example, when you see a new species take over a niche vacated by those which are locally extinct. There are processes in nature which adapt around the disturbances we create. And I had the chance to stay in a beautiful structure which adapts to the world. Perhaps you’ll find that the oddest thing about this bunch of 10 photos is that I’ve counted in octal.

Year 403 in ten pictures

The first photo of 403 ME, the featured photo, is of a female and male black buck at the height of the breeding season. This was taken in February at the Tal Chhapar sanctuary in Rajasthan, not far from Bikaner. Both Bikaner and Tal Chhapar are worth a visit.

The second photo shows a Greater Flamingo at the lake created by the Ujani dam on the Bhima river near the town of Bhigwan in Maharashtra. This is a wonderful place for birds, and March, when we went there is perhaps almost at the end of the season.

We did not travel much in April. This photo was taken in the garden of a bungalow in Lonavala, where we spent a nice relaxed weekend with friends.

In May we visited Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. In the Dhikala range we had a tremendous number of tiger sightings: perhaps the maximum number of sightings that I’ve ever had in a three day period. Sometimes luck is with you.

In July we travelled through Ladakh. This photo is of the dance at the Hemis monastery which is always held at this time. You will have to go to one of my posts with a video to listen to the music which accompanies this ritual dance.

We had heavy monsoon rains in August. That is perfect for the farmers in the parched interior of Maharashtra who depend on the rains to grow rice. The beautiful Sahyadris are home to an immense blooming of wildflowers at such times.

The rains continued in September. Tired and wet after a morning’s walk in search of wildflowers, I sat on the balcony of our hotel room and took photos of a dragonfly sheltering from rain. I was happy to have caught the glitter of tiny water droplets on its wings.

We saw this Koklass pheasant in October. It was sunning itself in a little meadow about 25 kilometers from Almora in Uttarakhand. This was a couple of meters above our heads, and the pheasant was quite aware that although we could see it, we could not climb the cliff.

In November we listened to the Mingus Dynasty play several compositions by Charles Mingus, whose birth centenary year this happens to be. Mumbai has hosted jazz festivals for long periods of my life in the town, and I’m happy that we had one after a break for the pandemic.

We made the last planned trip of the year in December. The sight of the rising sun on the snows of Kanchenjunga is unforgettable. This is the light which gives its name to the mountain. Darjeeling, and Tiger Hill, are must-visits for this sight alone.

Midweek Mobile 16

Sunlight on pines and grassland, mountains behind. It was a lovely scene which I captured with my phone. The phone used a lens which is 4.7 mm wide and has a fixed aperture f/1.7. It reported an exposure of 1/1043 seconds and an ISO of 100. The sensor on my phone has 4608 x 3456 pixels. This is an aspect ratio of 4:3, which I’ll retain in all the experiments I show here. The original jpeg image the phone gave me had 9248 x 6936 pixels. I compressed the image down to 1250 x 938 pixels in the header photo. It looks rather nice on my phone, and also on my laptop screen. The image has areas of bright illumination and areas of pretty heavy shadow. It also has some sharp colour contrasts. I was interested in how well the images look when I zoom in so that one pixel in the photo shows up as a single pixel on my laptop’s display.

Here is a zoom into brightly lit pine needles. I took a section which had 832 x 624 pixels and reduced it 640 x 480 pixels to show you in this post. All the following images also do exactly the same. You can see lots of digital artifacts. The most noticeable is aliasing: smooth lines and curves appearing jagged in the image. The software has teased out a lot of detail both in shadow and in full light, but the jaggedness makes it look somewhat artificial.

Next I zoomed into a portion of the dappled shadows. This is where your own eyes will play tricks. The camera captured almost nothing in the deepest shadow and the brightest light, but it does quite a good job even in the lighter shadows, apart from the aliasing problem. The best parts of this zoom are the portions where there is a strong contrast of illumination: bright details against dark background. But where a dark portion is seen against a bright background you see strange curves and squiggles. This is due to aliasing.

This zoom shows you a situation where the contrast is in colours, not so much in the level of illumination. Both the sky and the leaves are bright. I’m surprised by the amount of digital noise in the sky, in spite of the ISO being 100. Apart from the aliasing problems, I’m surprised by how soft the pine needles look. This is caused by a problem I’d written about earlier. The image is created by adding together a very large number of separate exposures (a technique called adaptive multiframe image averaging), and the breeze at that height causes the pine needles to move. The softness is due to the motion between different exposures. This is not a problem that a DSLR has; not does it ever have this digital noise in the sky.

I also found incredibly bad digital artifacts in a portion of the photo which looked pretty easy to take. The squiggles in the far slopes are due to aliasing. The strange halo around the shadows is another weird algorithmic effect. The light on the branches is like little bits of paint dabbed on by a bad painter trying to emulate the impressionists. The pine needles are just masses of colour. This zoom makes me think I should never again look at a phone photo blown up to see it pixel for pixel.

If I want sharp details, I should use a DSLR. A phone is what I would use if I wanted a quick snapshot which I would look at only on a little screen which fits in my palm. Conversely, if you want to see the defects in the phone photo, look at these examples on a big screen, not a phone.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Midweek mobile 15

Modern phone cameras get sharp and bright images with awful lenses and jokes of sensors. The most important aspect of the images is that they are usually viewed on the small screen of a phone. A quick search led me to an estimate that people take 4.7 billion photos every day. Be suspicious of such facile estimates. But it is clear that far less than a percent of a percent would be viewed on a large screen, where defects can show.

I stress tested my phone camera in exactly this way. My phone has a sensor with 4608 x 3456 pixels. I reduced it to 1667 x 1250 pixels for the leader photo. That looks good. But I asked what it I looked at it pixel for pixel: one pixel of the sensor for every pixel on the screen (1:1). I did that in the most detailed photo in the slideshow above. The next one compressed 4 pixels of the photo into one on the display (4:1), the next 16 pixels of the photo for one on the display (16:1), and the next (the featured photo) is shown 32 pixels per pixel of display (32:1). But for the post I compressed these views a little more; the closest is at 9:1, the rest are 36:1, 144:1 and 288:1. The result begins to show digital artifacts in the 9:1 view, although they are not overwhelming (at 1:1 they are unmistakable). Of course, I can’t predict what screen you’ll see them on, but if you have a choice looking at them on the biggest screen you have would be interesting.

On a whim I took a photo of a beetle and gave it the same treatment. Here you see the views in the ratios 9:1 (nine pixels of the photo to one of the display), with the successive frames showing 36:1, 144:1 and 288:1 compressions. It is only the last which looks sharp. On my phone the display is even smaller, so the image looks much sharper. But why this big difference between flora and fauna? I compared the exposure first. The flowers are taken with an equivalent exposure of 1/100 seconds and ISO of 100; the beetle with 1/50 seconds and ISO of 223. This means that the number of frames which are superimposed to give the final image is twice as many in the second. Slight hand movements could create the effect that you see, but the phone must compensate for that. But the ISO is also a factor; you can see more “grain” in the image of the beetle. I think another important factor must be the contrast between the object and background. That’s much smaller in the second photo. I’ll try to explore this further.

If you want a moral, I would say “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Your phone does not replace a good DSLR in image quality. Be happy with what it shows on its small display.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Midweek Mobile 14

From darkness to light; I tried to take my phone camera to another extreme when we stopped at a cafe for our elevenses. The phone sensor has 4608 x 3456 pixels. The software multiplies each sensor pixel into 4 image pixels to give me 9248 x 6936 pixels in the image. I reduced it to 1667 x 1250 pixels for the leader photo. The sunlight streaming in through the window, refracted in the glass of the bottles and through the water, or reflected on the coffee would give the camera quite a spin I was sure. The leader looks very good; the resident AI is designed to build images which look good compressed down.

If you want to look behind the screen all you need to do is to look at higher magnification. Here I’ve taken two parts of the photo and examined them at two scales with an aspect ratio of 4:3 in landscape orientation. The lesser zooms show an area which is 3100 pixels across (reduced to 640 for this post). The more extreme zooms show an area which is 780 pixels across (reduced to 640 for this post). You can see lots of digital artifacts: aliasing appears in oblique lines, there is a lot of digital noise in the shadows in the coffee cup (even though the ISO is only 105), but most of all, the really bright areas are not only blown out, but also very irregular. Look at the caustic lines on the surface of the coffee in the image, and then hold a coffee cup up to light. You’ll see that the bright reflections never look so irregular in real life.

All these artifacts are due to the fact that the lens is about 3 mm wide and the sensor has pixels which are just a micron across. They never manage to gather as much light as a good camera does. A lot of computation is used to compensate for that. It looks good when viewed on a phone, but when you look at it pixel for pixel it is full of flaws. I think I’ve concluded that if you are a serious photographer looking for a phone camera, then do not look at distractions like how many megapixels an image has. Look instead at the specs and buy a camera with as large a lens as possible and a sensor which is big. Measure these sizes in mm or inches, not in pixels or f numbers.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Midweek Mobile 13

More lessons can be learnt from the experiment I reported last week: push the performance of my phone camera to an extreme by doing very low-light photography. The camera spews out 64 Megapixel images (9248 x 6936 pixels for each photo). I took a segment which was 3300 pixels on the long side of a 4:3 aspect ratio and reduced it to a 1250 x 938 size for use in this blog. (All photos here use this aspect ratio without further comment, and I quote only the pixels on the long side.) That’s the featured image. We were looking for owls in a dark woodland using a flashlight on a new moon day, and the only lighting on the subject was its reflection from leaves. Not a bad photo given that, you can see the photographer, his shirt, the camera, and his hat. The amazing thing about the photo is its ISO of 17996! That’s the only way that the phone has of getting an image using a 1/10 s exposure with a lens that’s less than 5 mm across.

The photos that you see above comes from zooms to 830 pixel wide areas, subsequently reduced to 640 pixels across for use in the blog. The lighter image is taken from near the collar and arm of the shirt in the featured photo, and the darker shows the barrel of the camera. I’m not surprised by the lack of detail, the colour aberrations, and the enormous amount of digital noise in the photo. There was hardly any light at all to begin with. How did the camera actually manage to get anything useful with that incredible ISO?

Part of the answer is the Sony IMX471 CMOS sensor that’s used by my phone. The sensor has 4608 x 3456 pixels, with each pixel being 1 micron in size. Amazingly, this pixel size is about the minimum that you can achieve in visible light. The reason that the phone produced an image at all was due to the large number of sensor pixels that it could play with. The rest was the kind of statistical guesswork that is today called artificial intelligence or machine learning.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Darkest before dawn

When the sun is a few degrees below the horizon, you can see the highest visible peaks of mountains just barely catch the light. The highest peak I could see clearly was Trisul, and only the peaks of 7100 m and 6690 m were visible from my viewpoint. I find this a magical time of the day. You can look up into the grey sky and find it blank, not a single star visible any longer. And you can look down into the valleys and see nothing, because a deep mist shrouds all the lights of villages in this transition between the seasons of sharad and hemant. Your hand is forced if you want to show what your eye sees: I used ISO 160, aperture f/5 and exposure of 1/250 s.

For the next shot I zoomed back, still keeping the focus on Trisul. A long shot shows you the surroundings better. I wanted to capture the valley in mist, and the ranges rising towards the high Himalayas. I was standing below 2000 m, above a slope of pine-dotted grassland. I panned west to the lower peaks around Nandakot (6861 m) caught the sun. This gave me a wider view of the valleys immediately below me. Both photos are taken with ISO 100, aperture of f/4 and exposure of 1/100 s.

This camera setting was just right for a shot of the valley. I could see the great river of clouds seething as the sun just began to touch its surroundings. You could argue that I should have used a wider aperture and a shorter exposure for this; perhaps the details in the clouds could be caught better. Perhaps. I will not argue much if that’s what you think. It is certainly worth trying. At this time of the year the clouds would boil away in an hour. A couple of weeks later the mist would take much longer to clear.

Two minutes later the horizon had tilted by about half a degree and the sun was visible just above the distant mountains. This was the hardest photo to take. I took it with ISO 100, aperture of f/2.8 and exposure of 1/250 s. Any less would have muddied the colour, any more and it would have blown out the mountains. Out of the box I didn’t have any colour in the vegetation. I had to do some tinkering to get some of the foreground. It is at times like this that I wish I was in the habit of exposure bracketing; that would have given me a couple of more images to play with. But then it would put a bigger strain on my external hard drives. You have to optimize.

Two minutes more, and the horizon drops to the east by another half a degree. The sun was now high enough to light the pines in front of me. I caught this photo of our driver and guide, Arjun, enjoying the sight of the sunrise. I upped the exposure to 1/80s for this photo, and you can see how the line of mountains has been blown out in order to bring out a little more detail in the foreground. The previous day had been a hard drive for him: from the plains to this village halfway up Kumaon. The plan for the day was lighter: just a foray into the grasslands to look for pheasants.