Oct 162015

A few days ago Svetlana Alexievich received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. At 1 pm the Committee announced the decision, one hour later I saw the news, five minutes later I had her book “Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster” on my tablet. That’s what I currently read.

I chose that book, because I know a lot obout the catastrophe, because it happened in my early adult life, and because I often think about it. At that time we were told not to eat mushrooms. So much time has passed since, but it is just about the half-life of Cesium-137 or Strontium-90. Half of what rained down on Europe is still here. What do we do now? We eat mushrooms and call ourselves an intelligent species 🙂

How the book is? Well, it’s a collection of short chapters, each one based on one or more interviews with survivors and people who lived there, were evacuated and returned. It is a book that does not try to relate the events, instead it tries to give us a feeling for how it is to have been there, to have lost a beloved partner or a child. There is this certain mix of love and death, that is heart-wrenching. Absolutely recommended.

Jul 082012

Strange song for that image? Well, maybe, maybe not. The Cantigas de Santa Maria are a collection of pilgrim songs from medieval Spain, so maybe the bus stop, the road and the motorbike are not completely off.

I had a time, about 12, maybe 15 years ago, when in my voyage through musical history I had arrived at a point where I couldn’t easily go back any further. Those pilgrim songs, the songs of the troubadours, the original Carmina Burana, they all lack reliable notation. All performances are speculative. In the early fourteenth century, with the advent of Ars Nova and its notation capable of denoting rhythm, that all changed, but still, think of all the controversies about how to perform Mozart, and that although Mozart employed a rigid notation system. What could we possibly expect from the thirteenth century?

Any earlier than the troubadours and music stops being interesting to me anyway. Gregorian Chant? Sorry, it bores me to death and I find nothing that differentiates one song from the other. I admit, I didn’t try hard though 🙂

The Song of the Day is “Santa Maria, Strela do Dia” by Jordi Savall. It’s not a bad version and it’s available in my collection, as digital download and on YouTube.

May 212012

Sometimes it’s hard to decide what the Image of the Day shall be. None of these three images is breathtaking, all are more or less OK.

This is a small bookshop that displays used books in baskets out on the street. I intended to take images of the books, when suddenly a man passed by. I had only half of his body in the frame and somehow I liked the idea. Some seconds later I had this image.

The bicycle is in one of the typical poses that never fail to catch my attention. With the OM-D’s articulating screen it is very convenient to take these images from waist level.

And of course finally there is the creamy bokeh of the background flowers. The flowers won, greatly helped by the title 🙂

The Song of the Day is “Purple Haze” from the 1986 Kronos Quartet album “Music by Sculthorpe, Sallinen, Glass, Nancarrow, Hendrix”. Hear it on YouTube.

Mar 282011

Let’s talk about the Panasonic DMC-LX5, my workflow, and what this means in terms of image quality.

All images apart from the biker in Vienna were taken yesterday, Saturday, the biker image is from Friday morning.

Image quality of the LX5 is lower than that of the D300, that’s clear and was expected, but now we need to look at how much lower it is, if it’s still high enough to make the images usable right from the camera, what can be gained by switching to RAW, and if it’s always necessary or not.

In terms of color, I think the LX5 does an excellent job. I have not yet played around with “Film Modes” (things like “Standard”, “Vibrant”, “Natural”, etc), but the standard colors really impress me. Of course my workflow influences colors as well, but all these images are near to what the camera delivered.

Just look at the red light of the semaphore in this image. Yes, I have boosted saturation a little, not much, but the interesting thing is, that on the D300, despite of the bright day, the red light would most likely not have been red, it would have burned out in the center. Not here. There is simply no highlight clipping in the red channel. Impressive.

In general I am not really pleased with the quality of the JPEG files. Even at base ISO 80 you see some grainy noise and artifacts of noise reduction.

No problem, I always use RAW, this camera can record RAW+JPEG, thus I have been using RAW right from the beginning.

I am still on Photoshop CS3 (and currently see no reason to change), thus I’m on Adobe Camera RAW 4.6, and ACR 4.6 does not support any camera considerably newer than my Nikon D300. The LX5 is definitely unsupported.

ACR 5 and ACR 6 don’t work with CS3, but fortunately Adobe’s free DNG converter is a stand-alone utility and it can produce DNG files readable by ACR 4.6. The only drawback is, that DNG is a huge format, even when you don’t embed the original RAW file. When the RAW file is around 10 MB per image, the DNG file is between 35 and 45 MB. Anyway. I convert without embedding the original, and then I throw the originals away.

Thus the first step for me is always to convert the Panasonic’s CR2 RAW files to DNG. Then I open the DNG files just like any other RAW file via ACR in Photoshop. In ACR I disable all sharpening and all noise reduction, even color noise. The first step in Photoshop is then to use Topaz Denoise 5. There I use the lowest value (preset “RAW lightest” for ISO 80) but increase color noise reduction considerably. For higher ISOs I may use a stronger preset, but in doubt I choose detail over smoothness.

PTLens already supports the LX5, so I may use that next, mostly for architecture, almost never for landscapes. If I need to correct perspective, straighten the image, etc, I might also do it in PTLens, or otherwise at least at that stage.

Whatever follows next is not different from what I might do with a D300 image. Even the last step, sharpening, is not different.

I use a copy-merged layer, put it in “Luminosity” mode, sharpen it with “Filters / Sharpen / Unsharp Mask” with extreme values of amount 500, radius 0.3 and threshold 0, then double click the layer to open its “Blending Options”. There I let the whites and the blacks of the sharpening layer fade out softly (hold Alt while clicking-dragging one half of the slider) and reduce the layer’s opacity. Finally I may select parts of the image (like the sky) apply a layer mask and immediately invert it, effectively masking what I have selected. Grainy skies look really bad while grainy walls or streets look perfectly OK.

If you look at the three details from the bike above, you see that the lens of the LX5 easily out-resolves the sensor. Look at the roof patterns in the first example. The in-camera JPEG gives you two featureless, gray roofs, while the RAW version shows a clear roof pattern on the right roof and a weaker and seemingly random pattern on the left roof. The texture on the left roof is obviously way beyond this sensor’s resolving power, and the only thing sharpening produces is sort of a noise pattern.

But look at the biker, his shoes and the asphalt, and also look at the construction lift in the background of the third example, and finally at the trees on the right side of the third example. There is clearly a lot of detail to be had from this camera.

Be careful though. This kind of over-sharpening works fine with architectural details, works with cars, generally on the street, even works well with twigs in front of a bright sky (like in the Image of the Day). Where it tends to fall apart is the kind of infinite detail that you see in nature. Distant forest (like in the background of the shopping center) consists of almost ONLY unresolvable detail, thus it is especially susceptible to random patterns, and the result may look weird. In general, this interference effect is called aliasing. Most digital cameras have a built-in blur filter to handle aliasing, and what we do by sharpening so strongly with such a small sub-pixel radius, is to cancel the effect of the anti-aliasing filter. Still, I prefer to mask away sharpening artifacts over smudging the whole image.

The next example shows our book shelves. The image was taken at 1/4s at f2 and ISO 800. This is the highest sensitivity that I can recommend. At ISO 1600 there is still a lot of detail, but the luminance noise is already unacceptable, and at ISO 3200 there is hardly any detail left at all. Look at the wood grain of the shelf. On the in-camera JPEG the grain is almost gone, on the RAW version it looks very good.

I have corrected white balance in the RAW version, and later, when I cooked up these comparison images, I have tried to use color filters in Photoshop to get the JPEG colors as near to the RAW version as possible. Look at the blotchy green/yellow spots that come up when I change colors in the JPEG. Of course the ability to freely set white balance is another big advantage of RAW.

For your reference you can download the whole original JPEG and my version from Photoshop. Not too bad for ISO 800 on a compact camera.

And that’s it. With the D300 I routinely go up to ISO 3200, with the LX5 I try to stick to ISO 80 and raise ISO up to 800 if I must. Everything above is unusable and worse than ISO 6400 on the D300.

I’d say the LX5 is at least 2.5, probably 3 stops worse than the D300, has much less dynamic range, considerable noise even at base ISO, but on the other hand, its lens is excellent, it is one full stop faster than my main lens on the D300, and due to the excellent stabilization, I gain at least one stop, likely even two, and at that point the D300 mostly shines due to its higher base image quality.

The Song of the Day is “The Flow” from the 1992 “Love Symbol” album by the artist most of the time known as Prince. I have tried to upload it to YouTube, but the brothers Warner insist on blocking it worldwide. Sorry for that.

Oct 082010

Books come in different sizes, and when you are like me and order your books alphabetically by author, then there is always a book that does not fit.

Like this one. It’s the “Codex Derynianus”, an encyclopedic collection about Katherine Kurtz’ “Deryni Chronicles”, a fantasy series spanning hundreds of years of fictional history in a medieval setting.

But that’s not what I really wanted to say. It’s more that, well, … do you realize how softly this bicycle goes out of focus?

I mean, the real thing is, that I had been provoked in the most outrageous way. This hunk of glass had been sitting squarely in the window of a shop right around the corner. FOR DAYS!!!!

Uhh … without much ado … Ladies and Gentlemen, the Nikkor 85/1.4 AI-S 😀

The Song of the Day is “Softly Baby” by Dinah Washington. Hear it on YouTube.

Feb 152009

We had another wonderful, sunny day in Carinthia, and again I have chosen to not go out photographing.

I’m tired at the moment. It’s not a lack of creativity, it’s a lack of motivation. Whatever I did these two days, I did it slowly, almost had to force myself. I guess I’m slightly overworked.

It felt good staying at home though, essentially doing nothing. I had made some images at about 11 am, when I went to the local baker’s shop, nothing really usable, so I used the last rays of sun coming in through the living room window.

Technically the image is strongly overexposed and then in the highlights overlayed with a strongly blurred version. Works fine to bring back smooth gradients. Of course this is surgery, but the result has more of the original atmosphere than an HDR would have, and it is dirt cheap to make as well.

The Song of the Day, “Sweet, Soft ‘N’ Lazy”, is from Belgian singer Viktor Lazlo. At the beginning of the 90’s she (yes, Viktor Lazlo is a woman) was very popular in Europe, but although she has continued to make music and seemingly still does, she could never repeat her early successes.

The album that I have is not available any more. The nearest thing is “Canoë Rose/Pleurer des Rivières”, having almost the same list of songs. Hear her live on YouTube. And while you’re at it, why not hear “Pleurer des rivières“, her wonderful french version of “Cry Me A River”?

Feb 012009

I am 44 now, 45 in 27 days. That’s as good a time as any to ponder about mortality, right?

Fact is, that I read about 20 books a year. Let’s be generous, let’s make this a whopping 33.3 or 100 in three years. This is a pretty optimistic average, but let’s pretend that when I retire, I will begin to read like mad.

Fine. That makes 1000 books in 30 years, 1500 books in 45 years. Now, you may remember that I mentioned some 3000+ books that we had to move to Villach and to shelve alphabetically. Begin to see the problem?

Of course there’s about more than half of the books that I won’t bother reading anyway. Many were not bought by me, many even are heirlooms. Hey, we even have an original copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, and I have read that. Interesting thought that someone could have read this book and later pretend, he had not known what Hitler would do. But that’s another story.

And that’s not even all. There are some hundreds of books more in Vienna, and each year I buy about two thirds of the books that I read, thus the collection constantly grows. At the moment there is quite some shelf space left, but I guess this won’t last for more than three years.

It’s not only books either. Have you learned all the languages that you wanted to learn? Seen all the movies you wanted to see? Visited all the places that you want to visit? Heard all the music you wanted to hear? Been in all the museums and collections where your favorite painter’s images hang?

And if not, and if you’re brutally honest, do you believe you have any chance? How do you cope with that? How do you cope with the problem of a finite lifespan?

And are these not the very questions that make us ponder much too much about facts that are set, facts that we have no chance to influence, at least not in a decisive way? Is the answer to not care about it? But if we don’t care, are we even able to value? And if we don’t value what we have and do, who should?

For some people religion is the answer, and that’s indeed tempting, because it allows to pretend that the problem does not even exist. After all, there must be pretty much time to read books in eternity, huh?

And creativity? Art? It’s a way to leave something behind, isn’t it? It’s pretty sure that many more people know Vincent Van Gogh than ever knew him during all his lifetime. Do we create for eternity? And did he?

All of today’s images were shot in my living room in Villach, because weather was about as disgusting as yesterday and I did not want to go out. I used the Sigma 20/1.8, handheld at f1.8.

The Song of the Day is “All Good Books” from Paul Weller’s 2003 album “Illumination”. See a video on YouTube.

May 042008

The inspiration to this image came from Ted’s post “Pigeon“. There he presented three times four ways to have fun with a lighthouse. All of the images are gorgeous wide angle shots, and one of them has a whale’s jaw in the foreground, lying in the grass.

Gosh, I thought, it’s a long long time since I last did wide angle. Of the three processing variants that Ted presented, the third – his choice, he called it “heavy metal” – did not really ring with me, but it sparked an idea. In that particular series of images I would have liked a softer variant, but contrasted with an object. Something like the whale’s jaw in composition, but an object that would be clearly out of place. A surreal element.

The other thing that led to today’s image is, small wonder, the image of yesterday, “In Children’s Stories“.

It was clear now that I’d do a wide angle shot, it was clear that I would do it from the tripod, using HDR if necessary (which it was not), and the idea of the forest, of green filtered light, still kept me.

That was the concept. An image in the forest, and in the foreground an out-of-place object. Now I needed only two things, an object and a place. Thinking of yesterday, I first thought about a children’s toy, ideally an old, damaged doll. This would have given an element of danger, but unfortunately I had no doll. Hmm … must remember to find one.

From there it was not far to the book. It would have to be bound in red, preferably a big old book, if at all possible something that would survive lying on the ground, and so I finally selected the Collected Works of Shakespeare, that I had once bought very cheaply.

The first place that came to my mind was the gorge where I have shot a series of images about 16 months ago (see “Quake in a Gorgeous Gorge“, “Down Again“, “Probing Deeper” and “Substitutions“). Forest, water, book. Looked good to me. The only problem is, that I have recently seen wood workers around that place. I wanted to avoid any traces of human presence, thus I decided to simply try my luck with a new place.

The first choice was another gorge, but that one was completely inaccessible, at least from the side that I tried. I gave it up for today and instead drove to another place that I know. I have shot “Logging Again” there and almost a year later “Happy Birthday“. There is no water, but the logs would do as well.

On my way there, about two curves before, I found what you see here. Water. Not waterfalls, not even much water, but I absolutely loved how the water repeated yesterday’s metaphor of the way. Here we are now.

The Song of the Day is “My Book” from the 1990 Beautiful South album “Choke“. See Paul Heaton perform it in the original video on YouTube.

Oh, by the way, it’s “Richard III” where the book came to rest. Whatever that means.