Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

Publishing the unpublishable

Surely I’m not the only photographer whose photos sometimes come out slightly different from what they thought it would be. Like this photo of a little ringed plover (Charadrius dubius). The light was wonderful. I was close, but the bird hadn’t seen me. I just didn’t notice the abandoned slipper also in the photo. The whole thing was a charade, but it was a dubious bird anyway. You can only take these photos with a dose of humour.

On a walk through a forest with family, my nieces decided to take a selfie. I don’t remember why they had to rig up a field tripod, but the contraption they made was funny enough to keep the rest of us in splits. I decided to make a record of their first piece of architecture. I’m not sure they want it for their portfolios.

When you have a martial monument with this wonderful photo op, you can’t pass it up. I fumbled in my back pack to photograph a whole line of pigeons sitting on the sword. By the time I took the photo only two were left. They aren’t exactly the paloma blanca of peace. Still, this was quite a “beat the swords into ploughshares” moment.

Watching a crowd is a favourite pastime with me. The very different expressions on the faces of people are funny when you compare them. The ceremony of beating the retreat at the Wagah border crossing is so involving that you can really sit back and take lots of photos of the spectators. I could also call this an ambush photo: taking photos of photographers with their subject. But it is a crowd ambush. I like that expression on the face of the soldier in the corner.

In the pandemic years I’ve largely moved to tourism in less crowded places. So I do have several photos where animals do the unexpected. This spiny tailed lizard (Saara hardwickii) gave me a brilliant shot, with its mouth open, as if it was panting with the exertion of doing push ups.

A vision of colour

What is a garden all about? I take a stroll in a garden now and then when I have to sort out a knotty problem. The Family enjoys a walk in a garden because she meets people there, some old friends, some people whom she doesn’t know more than to nod at. My mother would spend time in her garden picking up dry leaves, digging at beds, and arguing with the gardener who would come by to help her. And then there are times when I take my camera on a walk to photograph flowers and bees. And I always wonder whether the bee sees what I see.

What is colour? There has been a century long dispute about this among philosophers. Before you dismiss it as just another meaningless dispute, think about this. Would a flower be any different if my brain was rewired somehow so that I saw the colours in the image on the right where every other human saw that in the left hand image? Certainly not. I can run this experiment by leaving a camera to take images by itself and display it to me on a screen in a room, but invert the colours before showing me the photos. In a while I would learn the colours of the different flowers, and those of the honeybees which visit them. My recognition of the object is not tied to its colour. We consciously use this notion when we use colour codes, or show images in false colour. But, as the experiment shows, all the time, in everything that we see, colour is an arbitrary label which we put on the world.

If colour does not reside in the object, does it reside in the light that reaches our eye? Didn’t Newton prove that white light is composed of several colours? A version of this story enters the Lord of the Rings, when the wizard Saruman the White changes into Saruman of Many Colours. But if the colours are intrinsic to the wavelength of light, then how is it that we can combine two different colours to produce a third? And how is it that there are colour blind people? We know that the answer to both questions has to do with the colour receptors in our eyes, and their wiring in our brain. That’s the origin of many optical illusions involving colour. Insects and birds have more colour receptors than we have, so they see more “basic” colours, and an infinitely more variety of colours than we do. Octopuses have no receptors for colour, but are still able to see colour through a totally different mechanism. So colour does seem to be an arbitrary label which animals use as a convenient means of organizing their perception of colour. Colour does not seem to reside in the material of the external world, but only in the states of our minds.

Shakespeare is so often correct: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose // By any other name would smell as sweet.” He provides an entry to our understanding of our senses as providing arbitrary and useful labels to understanding the world outside us. We live in Plato’s cave. We only see shadows of the world. The bees which harvest the nectar of flowers see a different shadow of the world. Even if they could talk to us, we might have a hard time understanding what they are saying. Which is the flower: the featured photo, or the one above? Or neither? Or does it really matter? Isn’t the beauty of the colours all that you want to enjoy?

Easter rambling

Unprovable secret histories are the best. Especially when they are so old that there is nothing more you can add to the controversy. Take the Venerable Bede’s contention that Easter comes from the pre-Christian feast for the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre. Did he know that Roman plebians and slaves probably celebrated the story of the resurrection of their Christ in the festival of Paschim six hundred years before him? He was a historian of the church. He would have known. But maybe he also asked exactly what bothers me: how did eggs get associated with this celebration? All this gives me a nice excuse for food photography.

Photographing an egg with a mobile phone seems like an easy job. But when I looked at the brown egg I’d taken out of the fridge through the lens of my phone, I saw that it didn’t get the colour right. I’d read a lovely blog post last week (can’t remember where, otherwise I would have linked to it) about the trouble CCDs seem to have with capturing reds. When I looked at the histograms I realized I’d run into this well-documented problem. There are fixes if you are working with a good camera, but my phone camera is basic. So my solution was to tweak the photo to get some of the red back. While doing this I realized that the coarsening of the condensed water droplets on the eggshell was also a nice thing to pay attention to. Hope you see the progression from tiny droplets to bigger ones which succumb to gravity by sliding off the shell.

The Latin word for eggs, ovum, gives its name to the oval shape. I could extend my research to other red oval shapes that I find in the fridge. So red grapes it was. The same trouble. The photo looked paler than in real life. But the same tweaks brought it to a closer semblance of what the unaided human eye can see.

A white and yellow Wednesday

Cosmos in Bikaner’s Lalgarh palace garden are full of bees this spring. Industrious little red dwarf honeybees are at work individually, not bothering to gang up on other insects. Perhaps in this hot desert land there are not so many other insects which need flowers.

I decided to go with a softer focus for this pair. I wonder whether it works.

Growth is decay

It was a bright cold day … and the clocks were striking thirteen.

1984, by George Orwell

I’m not out to deliberately confuse truth and falsehood as the political system in Orwell’s book does: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” What I mean instead is that buildings decay when nature invades. The constant churn that is the natural state of a biosphere is the end of buildings. Black, yellow, green. The three colours of moss that I saw growing on this pink Kota limestone cladding on a wall is exactly what I mean.

The deliberate fracture of language practiced by elective dictatorships is not what I have in mind when I say that growth is decay. You see the same in a garden. Stop tending it for a month, and see the weeds sprout, the grass become patchy, the flowers you planted begin to wilt, the plants themselves begin to sag and spread like teenagers on a sofa. I prefer wilderness and unplanned nature, but I don’t mind a well-tended garden either. But the effort that is required!

Colourless green flowers sleep furiously

It makes no difference
If it’s sweet or hot
Just give that rhythm
Everything you’ve got

Duke Ellington

I’m no Duke Ellington. I only potter about with images. But I asked myself whether it matters that a flower smells or looks great? Can’t I just give the texture everything that I’ve got? I didn’t want to use an AI assistant for this experiment, just my own eyes and hands (that was the reason I chose a title which recalls Noam Chomsky’s famous counter-example to an early version of AI). How much texture could I tease out of a photo?

The simplest test might be to take a white flower and check out how well it does in black and white. I’m pretty happy with the monochrome version that you see above. I think I managed to get its rough texture better in B&W than I could in the coloured version. When you are working to get more dynamic range in the whites of a coloured image, you begin to affect the colour balance. That’s a whole lot of extra variables to track. Perhaps that is what an AI assistant can help you with, if it has the proper controls.

This second example seemed to be a little simpler even that the previous photo. The starting colour was almost monochrome, different shades of green. But not really. Hidden in the green are reds and blues. So, trying to enhance the texture in coloured version again produced colour artifacts which I had to then compensate. Very tedious, and, more importantly, limiting. There are some adjustments in texture space which I could not compensate in colour space (perhaps a better navigation tool in colour space is needed). The B&W is not only easier to deal with, you can do more fiddly adjustments in both the light and dark parts without worrying about colour.

I was happy doing this myself. AI assisted photo editors are becoming more common these days, and they seem to produce magical images at the push of a button. It is good to figure out a human way of doing the same things, because you can then do things that these assistants are not yet trained to do. Staying a little ahead of your tools is always a good thing.

And the featured photo? I will leave you to compare it with its coloured version, which I’d posted long back.

The tomorrows past

My hard disc is full of ghosts. Electrons streamed through complex orderings of magnetic fields. I dredged out a few images. The end of December is always a calm and quiet time it seems. In years without the omicron I have strolled through gardens, walked on deserted beaches, sailed through calm lagoons.

We seemed to have traveled without a passport on most Decembers. The furthest photo in this bunch was the beach in the Andaman’s Neil Island. We have travelled north, into the colder parts of India, or stayed by the warm shorelines.

Every time I look at a collection of photos, something different leaps out at me. This time it was this photo taken in Mumbai’s Chor Bazaar. The duo look like chess players: looking into the interior of a baroque piece of ancient electronics. A very close look before the next move, I’m sure.

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