Here is the sun

There is no substitute for being there. If you search the web for information on how people use plants at home in Japan, you will find a ton of pages talking about historical styles, how the rich build their private gardens, and which Japanese plants you can buy for your own home. In truth, most people in Japan have tiny homes, and not much space to build huge gardens. But plants are very much part of their lives. So every little house in a city will have a small space with plants. On a gloomy day, as we walked from the famous Golden Pavilion of Kyoto to the equally famous gardens of the Ryoan-ji, we kept stopping at every second doorstep. In a tiny space, sometimes only the width of a step from the street to the door, every house had a plant or two. One of them was this cascade of yellow flowers which I could not recognize. The narrow focus of my macro lens gives lovely photos, but may not be ideal when you want to identify a plant from its photo. Can it be some kind of an anemone? Is anyone from a temperate region of the world ready with an identification?

As I took the featured photo, The Family found the larger garden whose entirety you see in her photo above. I can recognize asters. But the rest are outside my experience. The pot in the foreground is a whole Japanese garden in itself: at least three plants, arranged tastefully to show colours at different times, but green most of the time. Of the three, one stands tall, one droops and the one with the springtime colour spreads. Such meticulous planning! Each piece can occupy your attention, and that is the purpose of gardens after all.

Nothing is real

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;

T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The featured image is not a photo of a breakfast table being cleared. It is a portrait of one of my companions in an African safari in a coffee spoon. Why would you linger at a breakfast table while it is being cleared around you? Why would you do it when others are out hunting cheetah? Perhaps because you got back late from a dawn safari with four lions in the bag?

Let me take you down
‘Cause I’m going to strawberry fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry fields forever

John Lennon, Paul McCartney (1967)

Is that an aerial view of a lava field? A dead caldera leading down to a volcanic plug? No, just a close up of a felled tree.

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.

Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation

When a live tree begins to sprout mushrooms you know you are looking at deadwood. A dense mat of the fungus has already spread through the dead corpse of the tree and sending out spores to find and colonize other dead trees.

How agonized we are by how people die. How unconcerned we are by how they live.

P. Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought

A photo of fractured rocks leading down to the sea? Not at all, this is a close up of the cracked mud outside a water deficient village in the Thar desert.


Leaves, eats, and shoots? I don’t think I got that right. Must be the punctuation I think. I’m no good at this. I think I’ll stick to shooting leaves. In black and white. Everything looks better in black and white. When in doubt, leave out the white. At least that’s the dress code that my nieces seem to follow. Whatever. I’ll do shades of gray instead. Leaves are at their best in shades of gray.

That goes for the slowly unfurling new leaves, like in the featured photo. But it’s also true for a very common leaf, like the one above. It looks nondescript in colour, but what a lovely silvery sheen it has when you look at it in monochrome. I rather like the idea of doing simple black and whites every now and again.

Midweek mobile 9

Rooms with large windows get more light than those with small slits for a window. Similarly cameras with small aperture lenses collect less light than those with larger apertures. Another artifact that small openings give is not usually visible with the naked eye. You may think of light as traveling in straight lines, but it is actually a wave. Where that becomes visible is at the edges of the windows: it can bend slightly around windows, making edges look fuzzy. This is called diffraction. The same thing happens in photos: edges of things become slightly fuzzy. Diffraction limits the resolution of your photo, sometimes more than pixel size. In order to keep this as clear as possible, I’ll not describe apertures by f numbers, but by the actual diameter of the part of the lens which is collecting light.

Here I compare images taken with a phone camera and a bridge camera. The phone camera used a lens aperture of 12 mm. I used that to take the street photo of a lemonade vendor in Puri. That image came as a 9248 pixels wide jpeg (all photos are in 4:3 aspect ratio) which I’ve compressed to 1250 pixels wide in the featured photo. (I think the red is too bright, but sensors have a problem with red. That’s a topic for a different post.) The bridge camera used an aperture of 62.5 mm and gave me the photo of the dragonfly as a jpeg which was 4608 pixels wide. I reduced it to 640 pixels in the view above.

Here is a zoomed in view of the two photos. In both of them I’ve selected a part of the photo 1662 pixels wide, and reduced them to 640 pixels for use here. In the photo of the dragonfly I can begin to see noise in the background; it was a very gloomy day and the photo was taken during a monsoon shower. But the edges look pretty sharp. In particular the veins in the dragonfly’s wing are quite clear. In the photo of the cart I can see that different colours are beginning to bleed into each other at the edges.

Finally, here is a zoom into a section of the originals which is 834 pixels wide. The images are reduced to 640 pixels wide for use here. I can see aliasing artifacts in the handle of the bucket: the straight line of the edge looks like a jagged lightning bolt if you look closely. There is no such artifact in the other photo. The veins on the dragonfly’s wings are still pretty sharp, but the joints between planks in the body of the wooden cart look soft. This is the diffraction limit on the resolution beginning to show. Software corrects for it, but that creates other artifacts. The bottom line? You can’t use the 64 million pixels of the phone image to zoom in a far as you can with the 16 million pixels of the bridge camera.

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 3

Amazement is very natural when you begin to look carefully at photos which have 65 million pixels. The featured photo of a bushbrown butterfly is as good as anything I’ve posted on this blog. I didn’t take this with a zoom. I did not try to creep up on the butterfly. I stood at a distance and took a photo of a meadow with my phone. That’s the photo you can see on the left in the diptych below. You can see a couple of patches which have been converted to monochrome. I could crop the photo to yield two close ups.

The butterfly photo that is featured was cropped as you see in the monochrome block and then reproduced at about 90% of the size of the crop. The result is quite acceptable on a laptop screen, and seems quite nice on my phone. That’s what 65 million pixels, and 20 Megabytes of memory gets you! The ability to crop pretty drastically and still get an acceptable photo.

Let me digress on the word size. You could think of size by the number of pixels in the photo (or equivalently) by the file size of the image. When I say reduction to 90% I’m speaking of the number of pixels. But you could also think of it in terms of the amount of screen space it covers. That depends on the screen. A phone screen has between 720 and 1440 pixels across the width of the screen. A good desktop screen can have a higher pixel density. Since devices differ quite a bit, I will not talk of sizes on the screen. Your perception of a photo will depend very much on it, of course. A million pixels shown in a small area will give a sharper feel than when it is stretched out over a larger area.

Here’s the second image cropped from the same original. In the gallery above you’ll see that this is a cropped out of a smaller area of the original than the butterfly. After the crop I reduced the size to almost 25% of the original. There’s still enough detail to see the plant and its strange flower. I’ll write about the flower later, but for that blog I’ll use photos taken with a macro lens. The reason is that there is a limit to the crop which is essentially set by the limit of resolution of the lenses.

Here is a crop from the second original in the gallery. Again the area which has been cropped is indicated. When I took this photo I thought I hadn’t charged the macro camera I took on a walk with me. So I took this photo of the lovely blue flower with my phone. After I’d gone forward I realized that the other camera was actually charged. But by then I’d forgotten this flower, and I never saw it again. You can see that I got a pretty decent photo of this flower, but it isn’t quite sharp. I think I hadn’t bothered to tell the phone which point of the field of view the focus should be on. Phone cameras are not quite ready to replace macro lenses yet, but maybe in a year or two the situation will change.

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.

A small and dangerous world

We spent a couple of nights last week in an extremely wet part of the Sahyadris. I’d expected the room to be full of mosquitos. It wasn’t. I discovered why only when I turned my macro lens on the lovely brick wall that the architect had designed. It was meant to be a substrate on which moss would grow. Indeed it does. But my camera caught more than moss, as you can see. The canyons between the bricks were walls of silk.

Mosquitos, and other insects were decimated by the microscopic predators which live in the environment that we have built for them. My macro lens barely caught a glimpse of the spiders; they are less than a millimeter across (you can barely see it in the photo above). I won’t find it listed in a field guide. If I want to identify it I will have to catch an expert. I wonder where they used to live before humans began to build an ecology specially for them. We worry so much about feral dogs and the loss of cheetahs. We have no idea what havoc we play on the ecology at these sub-millimeter scales.

In the jungle

Millimeters high jungles sprout in a tub where The Family had scattered a pinch of methi seeds. The monsoon is good for microgreens. These methi leaves (Trigonella foenum-graecum, fenugreek) will add flavour to our salad. And I can see evidence of animals in this jungle. We’ll have to harvest the leaves before these tiny herbivores eat up our salad.

First shower

Petrichor is the smell of rain hitting parched ground. Equally wonderful is the sight of raindrops on petals and leaves in that first monsoon rain. That’s the photo. The monsoon is on schedule. More than a week on, I woke on the day some places in the high latitudes will celebrate La Fete de la Musique, or, later in the week, Midsommar, and looked out at a welcome dreary drizzle and completely overcast skies. Just the day to walk out in a tee and shorts, in flipflops, to walk through the rain on Marine Drive, munching a cone of fresh roasted peanuts. Too bad it is a working day.


All I wanted to do was to take extreme close ups of flowers. Unfortunately, winter is the time when all the bees and butterflies throng to flowers and refuse to give you a clear shot. As I took the featured photo I saw two bees which seemed to be nuzzling. By the size and colour they were the common dwarf honey bees (Apis florea). I played back the photo. Not nuzzling. What were they doing? Were they pushing about another insect?

I took a second shot. OMG! The horrors seem to be bullying a smaller insect. Should I report them to the mother? But they are known to be aggressive and territorial. Mother probably would probably laugh me out of the brood chamber. Before I could make up my mind the two had flown away with a smug and satisfied air. I looked back at the flower for the poor insect they had been nudging about, and I found that I couldn’t remember which of the many flowers I’d seen the bullies on. At least I got photographic evidence of their aggression.

Deep dive

The dwarf honeybee (Apis florea) that you see in the featured photo caught my attention because of waggling bottom. I’ve heard about their language of dance, so I’d imagined they would be supple, but this was quite amazing. It wagged its whole body to work its way deeper into the flower in order to reach its cache of nectar. Never having seen such a diligent bee, I took a photo. The flower was spectacular too.

A compound flower. The photo on the left focuses on the disk flowers, the other on the ray flowers.

I’ve written posts on compound flowers before, explaining the failure of Fibonacci numbers in accounting for the number of petals. This is a wonderful example, although I don’t know what the flower is called. A large flower like this has a central disk, where bees find nectar, and large petals on the outside. If you look closely, the center is full of tiny fully formed flowers, which are called ray flowers. The “petals” around it are each a separate flower, which are called disk flowers. Here you see that the disk flowers are actually each also a complete flower. You can tell that they have no separate chamber for nectar, because no pollinator comes to them. It’s a fantastic missing link between simple and compound flowers.