Leaves

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.

Bullies?

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.

Gardens

My plan to take a walk in the garden this weekend came to nothing. We had a scare; a work contact tested positive for COVID. On Saturday we took an appointment for a test, and began to isolate. On Sunday night we found we were negative. Relief and frustration were the theme of the weekend. Relief at escaping the infection once again, and frustration about my plans for flower photography. So I had to search my hard disk for old images.

The featured image and the one above were taken in 2013 in Shillong’s Lady Hydari Park at the very end of October. The flowers are beginning to dry up. Photography made me begin to look closer at nature, and these photos marked a turning point for me. After looking at these flowers I found myself reading more about the structure of flowers. Each of these things, which I had taken to be a single flower should be properly called a pseudanthium, or a compound flower. Each is a collection of many flowers. It turns out that the lovely red and pink “petals” are each a complete flower. They are called ray flowers. Each of the central yellow flowers is also a complete flower and is called a disk flower. Single flowers only ever have three, four, five or six petals. Anything else is a compound flower.

I skip forty years

Lewis Carroll

I can hardly hope to match Carroll’s nonsense, but I skip four years to the next photo. It was taken on a rainy day early in October on the Kaas plateau. The plateau is full of plants which can’t be found anywhere else, and most of them flower in a week or two at the end of the monsoon. What I makes this image special to me is neither the flower, nor the whorls of hairy leaves which protect it, but the way the hairs prevented the rain water from wetting the plant . On this plateau, which is dry for nine months of the year, you can be sure that this is an adaptation which has survival value.

The next one is not a particularly beautiful flower, but three things give it a value to me. First, that it was the first flower I photographed after emerging from last year’s hard lockdown. Simple pleasures like walking in a garden seemed so unusual! I had only my mobile phone with me. But these phone cameras can now capture the delicacy of the light. That’s the second special thing about this photo: that the lovely mild colours were taken with a phone camera. And third, this is another kind of a not-so-simple flower. The large “petals” are modified leaves, and the real flower is the small five-petalled yellow thing.

This set of three images of the same flower come from the new camera I bought last year. It’s a great tool for flower identification. As I began to learn more about flowers I realized that identifying wild flowers is much easier when you pay attention to the whole plant. That’s why a wider view like the first is useful. But when you go close, those details require focus stacking; the image on the left is a composite with several different focal lengths. It also needed a digital equivalent of an ND filter to even out the light across the photo. The middle is a crop with one of the exposures, chosen to keep the focus on the yellow pollen sacs. The final photo is a closer crop of another exposure, which emphasizes the soft texture of the petals, and the way they repel the rain.

I wish I’d been able to walk out into a garden this weekend, but dipping into these old photos, especially viewing them in the different ways suggested by multiple challenges, was also quite a treat for me. It’s also a nice way to say thanks to people who have been trying to create communities from bloggers.

The weird beauty of the tiny

When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

Max Planck

When I decided to get a new toy, a small camera which is perfectly suitable for taking good macros in all weather, I did not realize that it would change what I saw. Quite by accident I saw that it takes sharp photos of things which are so small that I cannot see them clearly without a magnifying glass. As a result, I’ve taken to pointing it at things which I can barely see. The results are weird and wonderful. Here are some flowers which I would not have seen without this new tool. The four tiny pink petals of the flowers bursting out of their pod that you see in the featured photo is one such.

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.

Werner Heisenberg

The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine—it is queerer than we can imagine.

J. B. S. Haldane

When I pointed the camera at these tiny white flowers on a bush, I hadn’t planned on getting anything but a clear photo. All I could see with the naked eye was a pentagon. The photo shows a compound flower, and each of the florets is so tiny that even my little tool is unable to see the petals. Is the universe nudging me to get a better camera? I will resist for a year at least.

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.

Neils Bohr

A mat of vegetation covered the edge of the land around the lake behind the dam on Jawai. Bera is not quite a desert because of this river, but it is still dry enough that the mat did not clear my shoes. I bent to get a photo of these buds. Hairy, aren’t they? But these aren’t hair. At this scale our normal language fails. You can resort to the technical term, trichome, or give up on using language with precision. I will go with the metaphoric hairy. Merriam-Webster reminds me that hairy can also mean difficult to comprehend. This tiny world is certainly that.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars- mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them too. But do I see less or more?

Richard Feynman

With my naked eye I could not really see these beautiful white flowers: the five petals surrounding a yellow center. A variation of colour in a flower is often a signpost to the nectar meant for pollinators. In this bare land what could possibly pollinate such a tiny flower? A bee would break the stem. An ant could crawl up, but would it find such a tiny bead of nectar worth its effort? My camera found a pollinator, just barely, stuck to the web a spider had woven. In this miniature landscape the savage logic of the savannah was repeated: plant, herbivore, predator. How beautiful!

Man has a fundamental urge to comprehend the world about him.

Hans Bethe

Several small plants were entangled in a patch of the ground hugging mat I was looking at. I should have done the tedious thing I’ve learnt: tease aside the strands and follow them by separating the leaves of different shapes. But being lazy, I took a simpler route. I pointed my camera at the different flowers that I saw and took photos. I can see three different plants. There may have been more, because some of the plants may not have had flowers that day. Still, I wanted some idea of the variety that there was, not an exact count. Another day, with another tool, I will spend more time on the task.

Bohr was inconsistent, unclear, willfully obscure and right. Einstein was consistent, clear, down-to-earth and wrong.

John Bell

Cornflower blue is not really a common colour in nature. So these flowers caught my eye while I was photographing the bush with white pentagonal flowers that you saw in one of the photos before. When I bent down further to look at them, I found another set of pentagons. Again, the flowers are a little too small for my camera to capture a sharper photo. Do I need a better lens or a larger sensor. Or should I invest in a good gorilla pod before jumping to conclusions? When you are looking at something so small, the tiniest movement of your hands can cause a blur.

Never underestimate the joy people derive from hearing something they already know.

Enrico Fermi

Enough of the tiny. Let me end with something easier to see: the false daisy (Eclipta prostrata). At almost a centimeter across, these white flowers are a giant compared to the ones I’ve shown you before. What you see here are a flower in bloom, and another which has gone to seed. Like its enormous cousin, the sunflower, this is a compound flower, many flowers joined together to seem like one. The wiry white petals of the ray flower look quite different from the darker polleny-yellow tubes of the disk flowers. So nice to be able to name at least one of the flowers that I photographed in our last morning in Bera.