Photographic philosophy

Today on a Reddit sub that I read people were posting photos of sunsets they had taken. I posted this one, which I took at Port Willunga in South Australia some years ago:

Earth, Air, Water, Fire

One person asked me if I’d “tweaked” the photo from the original, or if this was the original photo. Here’s what I wrote in response (edited slightly for clarity):

I captured the original image in RAW mode, which basically just counts the actual photons in each colour channel of the camera. To make a JPEG file, it’s necessary to process it in at least some minimal way. Raw photon counts do not accurately track the human eye’s sensitivity to light, so if you just convert the raw numbers to RGB channels in a JPEG in a linear fashion, the image always looks dull and washed out. To get an acceptable image for computer display, you have to at the very least apply a tone curve – a non-linear mapping from photon counts to RGB intensities. In a camera that saves JPEGs, it does this processing automatically, and the JPEG you get is “straight out of the camera” in some sense.

My camera can capture in RAW mode, which I prefer, because I can adjust the tone curve at processing time, rather than use the default. This is a first level of processing where human judgement comes into making the picture look artistic.

The next level is choosing the colour balance. The human eye adapts to changing light conditions with an effect known as colour constancy – a blue object appears blue to us under white light, yellow light, green light, etc. A camera can’t tell what the overall lighting tone is, so a human needs to make that adjustment so that the photo better represents what a human would have perceived under those lighting conditions. Again, you can aim for varying levels of realism versus artistic representation.

The camera also introduces various distortions in shape and colour. The main one of interest in this photo is the vignetting, or darkening around the edges. This is an artefact of the lens, usually observed at the widest apertures, and does not reflect reality, but is so familiar to us in photos that it is perceived as an artistic effect. In processing you can choose to either remove the edge darkening to better reflect reality, or leave it in (or even enhance it) to enhance the artistic effect.

Finally, when dealing with my best photos, I often do detailed editing in Photoshop, adjusting the tone and colour and contrast locally by varying amounts in different parts of the image. I don’t remember exactly what I did with this one, but I’m pretty sure I applied this sort of detail editing quite a bit. Oh, I also straightened the horizon by rotating the image a bit. 🙂

The RAW image as processed into JPEG by the camera manufacturer software’s default tone curve looks like this:

So yes, there’s quite a big difference between that and the final version! But photography is an art, with artistic decisions made at many stages in the process. The final image better reflects my personal feeling of being there at that beach on that evening than the default image does. Unprocessed photos of sunsets often look underwhelming compared to the sense of being there yourself – because you really need to add some heartfelt artistic interpretation to the image to better capture that feeling.

Any photographer who tells you that an unprocessed image is “better” because it better represents reality is kidding you. Photos never accurately represent reality, because they can’t.

The one important take-away is that an “unprocessed” digital photo is still processed, just with some default generic decisions that somebody at a camera company made. There’s no reason to ever assume those default decisions are any better than processing decisions made by the individual photographer under individual conditions. In fact, for most purposes they can’t possibly be. Only the photographer knows what the intent of the image is, not the camera company.

So, that was my rant about processing photos. Some people occasionally express the opinion that digitally processing and adjusting a photo is somehow “cheating”, and that only the photo straight out of the camera is a true representation of reality, and therefore is somehow better or more pure. That’s simply not true, because photos straight out of a camera are affected by imaging artefacts and are processed according to the manufacturer’s algorithms. In one sense that actually makes them worse than photos edited by the photographer – though I’ll settle for just “different interpretations”.

Apart from that, today I mostly worked on writing a new Proof that the Earth is a Globe, but it’s not ready for publication yet. Hopefully tomorrow.

New content today:

Some cooking

This morning I finished off that new article for 100 Proofs that the Earth is a Globe that I mentioned yesterday. I’m very pleased with this one, as it’s so surprising how the shape of the Earth becomes important to a topic where it initially seems completely irrelevant.

Around lunch time I went for a walk, since the rain finally decided to stop late this morning. We had almost twice the average September rainfall in three days, but nobody’s complaining because it’s the only significant rainfall we’ve had since May and we really need it. The one thing it did was really increase the humidity, and although it wasn’t hot it was a bit sticky after walking a few kilometres.

Besides taking Scully out to enjoy the weather and get some exercise too, I spent much of the afternoon cooking. I boiled up some chick peas I had soaking since the morning, and then fried them up with some chopped potato, carrot, broccoli, onion, garlic, and a bit of tikka masala paste. This became a stuffing to go into some puff pastry, which I then baked in the oven for dinner. I also made some sweet treats for dessert. Mashed up a carrot cake loaf (bought from the supermarket), mixed with cocoa powder, apricot jam, and rum, then rolled it into balls and coated them in chocolate sprinkles – et voila! Home made rum balls. Last time I made them I used a banana cake and they turned out really nice, so I thought I’d try carrot cake as the base this time. Recipes I’ve seen all say to use a plain vanilla butter cake, but I like the extra flavour.

Another small thing I did today was that I found an interesting photo while trawling through my old photo folders looking for photos to illustrate my Globe proof. It’s not a great photo, but it is a photo of some very interesting birds:

Little penguins

These are little penguins, which I photographed back in 2006 while on a trip along the south coast of Australia. They are the only penguin species to nest on mainland Australia – in fact there’s a colony in Sydney Harbour, not far from where I live. The reason I was excited to find this old photo, despite the long distance and somewhat blurred image, was that I hadn’t counted this species among my list of bird species that I’ve photographed. I keep a list, and try to add to it whenever I get the chance, and I’m now up to 276 species.

I maintain a manual list here, and a while ago I started work on a version with a database of all my photos behind it. The new version isn’t fully populated yet, so most of the links lead to empty pages, and the page design needs to be made a bit more fancy, but you can see where it’s going if you click on some of these species: Bell miner, Crimson rosella, Little wattlebird, New Holland honeyeater, Pied oystercatcher. It’s going to be a bit of work adding in all of my photos…

New content today:

Cleaning and creating

Housecleaning day! After dealing with the usual Saturday morning routines, I spent some time organising details for the special Magic: the Gathering games night I’m running for my friends in three weeks. I have still have quite a bit of prep to do, and will be devoting a few days to it in the coming week. No details yet, to avoid spoiling the surprise for my friends! I’m getting more excited about this every day though.

In between I worked on some photos from my trip to Portugal in May, completing another day of the trip, which meant that I could complete my travel diary entry for the day.

View of Porto

I also did some Real Work type work, reading through a proposed ISO standard for photography and writing up comments on the draft. This is work that I started when I had a job at Canon (and got paid for it), and am now continuing in an independent expert (i.e. unemployed) capacity, because I believe in supporting the work and representing Australia’s interests in these international standards. The next face-to-face meeting of the ISO Photography committee is in Cologne, Germany, in the last week of October, and I am going to attend – I’ve booked my flights and hotels already. Standards Australia may provide me with funding, dependent on their budget and how important they think it is for me to attend this meeting – but I’ve already spent the money, so I’m going whether I get funded or not.

While in Germany, coincidentally the huge Spiel board gaming fair is on in Essen just days before my ISO meeting. And since Essen is less than an hour from Cologne, I’m taking the opportunity to visit and attend the fair – probably a once in a lifetime chance for me. So I’m pretty excited about that!

New content today:

Prep for Science Club

Today I did final preparations for Science Club at the school tomorrow. I checked all the lasers, got spare batteries, and copied the dimensions of the slits in the slides to a sheet of paper so I can read them easily during the experiment, rather than having to squint at tiny print. The blue laser is cool, but it’s difficult to see the diffraction patterns after passing through the slits – I suspect because our eyes aren’t nearly as sensitive to blue as they are to green and red. Hopefully it’ll work better in the dark library at the school.

This morning I did some grocery shopping. I do almost all the cooking at home and I like browsing around the vegetables looking for interesting things to cook with. Corn cobs were on special today, so I bought a couple. Not sure what I’ll make with them yet. Probably just boil them up and eat them on the cob, with something else on the side to fill out the meal. I also bought a chicken breast, but that’s for Scully. We don’t really cook meat at home, except on very rare occasions. (I don’t cook it very rare…)

My wife had her Rock School end-of-term concert this afternoon. Normally I attend in person, but today they were live streaming the concert and she was only singing lead on three songs, so I stayed home to get some other things done while watching the stream. I had to clean up a few messy piles of stuff that I’ve had eating up space on the dining table for a while.

For dinner tonight I made pasta with pumpkin, feta, walnuts, and chilli in burnt butter. It’s one of our favourite ways to have pasta – the nuts add a nice crunch which creates the range of textures with the soft pumpkin chunks, creamy feta, and al dente pasta. (Last night I made a frittata with potatoes, broccolini, caramelised leeks with balsamic vinegar and garlic, and of course eggs. It turned out pretty good, I thought. Taking a solid half hour to caramelise the leeks before doing anything else was worth it.)

The other thing I did today was process and upload a few more photos from my trip to Portugal back in May. Going through travel photos always takes a while, since I take a lot of photos! I started going through photos after our arrival in Porto. Porto is built on very hilly terrain:

Porto is on a hill

Here’s the Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, a spectacular church with azulejo tiles on the front edifice.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

New content today:

Announcing mezzacotta Café v2.0

It’s Wednesday, Ethics teaching day. I walked to the school, taught my class, and walked home – a total walk of 8 kilometres. Well, I took a slightly indirect route home because it’s a more pleasant walk than along the main road.

Back home, I did a bunch of work for the ISO Photography standards committee that I’m still on. I started on this committee back with my old job at Canon Information Systems Research Australia. When the company decided to close down, I decided to continue working on the committee, since it’s a good way to keep up with professional photographic technology research, and I wanted to make sure Australia maintained its role in the international committee. Anyway, I had a bunch of documents to go through, so that took some time.

Then I spent time solving puzzles from the 2019 MUMS Puzzle Hunt, which started today. I’m part of the team “mezzacotta” with some of my friends.

In between I worked on integrating HTML/CSS to make the new mezzacotta CafĂ© look nice. Here’s the old original version. And here’s the new updated version made with our new mezzacotta Random Generator technology. The new version began with the same vocabulary a few days ago, but has had a few new additions made to it already. And it looks nicer!

Ethics day

This week is the first week of the third school term of the year, and on Wednesdays I volunteer to teach a class on Ethics to Year 6 children at a local school. This is part of the New South Wales Primary Ethics program, a volunteer program to offer classes in ethics during the weekly lesson time set aside for religious education, as an alternative for parents who don’t want their kids to attend religion classes. I’ve been doing this for a couple of years now.

Today we started a new topic: Moral Responsibility. The first lesson involved a couple of stories providing contrasting choices: helping storm victims who live near you, versus tsunami victims in another, poorer country; and providing mining and forestry jobs, resources, and money for schools and hospitals, versus leaving wilderness areas untouched for future generations. We read the scenarios and then discuss them. The kids were pretty evenly split on helping local disaster victims versus foreign ones, but they were mostly in favour of preserving wilderness, even at the expense of jobs and infrastructure for people in the present. It’s always interesting listening to kids’ perspectives on these topics.

I walked to the school and back home, a trek of 8 kilometres according to my fitness tracking app. So that took up most of the morning. This afternoon I took it a bit easy, hacking a little bit on the mezzacotta random generators code.

On the walk home, I found a patch of nasturtiums in the warm winter sunlight. They looked cool from above, but even cooler from below:

Under the nasturtiums