Saturday, October 25, 2008

Getting to be that time of year: We've got the ectoplasm flying around the rafters again

Starting to Have Problems with Ectoplasm in the Rafters Again
Hard to pin down. You see it, and then you don't. Just when you think you imagined it, there's its pale phosphorescence again, grinning at you mockingly. What to do? Could try calling Ghost Busters, but they never inspired much confidence in me.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Fall comes to the garden of the Thai Pavilion

In the Garden of the Thai Pavilion
The Thai pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens is one of Madison's great photo destinations. From the website:
A pavilion, or sala, is a common structure in Thailand generally used as a shelter from rain and heat. Olbrich's pavilion is more ornate than most roadside salas in Thailand and represents those found at a temple or on a palace grounds. However, Olbrich's pavilion is not a religious structure.

The pavilion was a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai Government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. UW-Madison has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. college or university.

Olbrich was chosen as the site for the pavilion because of its garden setting and its proximity to water. Water is important to Thailand because of its implications for good health and prosperity.
Of course, the UW-Madison is also located in close proximity to water. It always struck me as a bit sad that the University could not find a lakeside setting for this magnificent gift. But it all turned out for the best. Olbrich has gone on and built an enchanted garden around this beautiful building, filled with additional surprises and grace notes.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

An allusion to the credit crisis in the wake of the mermaid's tail?

These days, signs of the credit crisis seem to be everywhere. I thought I saw it illustrated last weekend in the wake of the mermaid's tail on the blackboard in the Mermaid Cafe on Winnebago Street: In a time of collapsing asset bubbles, too many people are being dragged down because they owe too much money to too many people they can't repay.

How did we get there, and where do we go from here? Apparently tiring of experts who seem as conflicted as everyone else, the Op-Ed page of the New York Times turned away the other day from the world of finance to the world of literature for a different view. Novelist Margaret Atwood:
But we’re deluding ourselves if we assume that we can recover from the crisis of 2008 so quickly and easily simply by watching the Dow creep upward. The wounds go deeper than that. To heal them, we must repair the broken moral balance that let this chaos loose.

Debt — who owes what to whom, or to what, and how that debt gets paid — is a subject much larger than money. It has to do with our basic sense of fairness, a sense that is embedded in all of our exchanges with our fellow human beings.
Maybe as a society we're in the process of relearning one of the oldest principles of all: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rhyming with the Sky

Rhyming with the Sky
Captured in our bike ride across town Sunday -- detail of Timekeeper, the 1983 installation by American sculptor Robert Curtis in Madison's Law Park. It looks a bit like an "M for Madison" with wings, but I like to think of these rounded blue curves as suggesting clouds, rhyming with the sky. It's the 25th anniversary of the installation of the work of public art that doesn't seem to get much respect from anyone but me: Timekeeper, the sculpture that everyone in Madison except me seems to think is a joke.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The smallest garden at Olbrich Gardens is also a magical, kaleidoscopic wonder

Not a Christmas Tree Closeup, but Something More Kaleidoscopic
In fact, it is a kaleidoscope -- of a very unusual sort. It's an artist's garden kaleidoscope at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Of the many wonder there, this is one of my favorites -- partly a rotating miniature garden, partly an interactive sculpture, and partly an optical toy. And pure psychedelic magic. I described how it works last year, when I visited with my Minolta Dimage X (there's also this Flickr set, buried back in my stream). We were there this weekend, and made a stop at my favorite toy. Turns out, it provides an even more spectacular view when I shoot through the eyepiece with my Nikon Coolpix. Next time you're there, give it a spin.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Analog image recorder in Brittingham Park mapping 3D space onto 2D space by hand

Analog Image Recorder Mapping 3D Space Onto 2D Space by Hand
Hard to believe, but there was a time when people actually made pictures by hand. Some still do. We passed this Sunday painter in Madison's Brittingham Park, working en plein air, as the French put it, on our Sunday bike ride. I asked if I could take a photo, and he said sure, "if that's what you consider a picture."

Sometimes I'm not sure what I consider a picture. I've never painted outdoors, but some years ago, I did get tired of analog still photography and made a sketchbook my point and shoot instead. It took longer, the sketches weren't anything special, but for me they were powerful jogs to memory in a way few photos are. I was drawing all the time, stopping here and there to make a quick sketch where now I would stop and take a photo. I still find those old drawings of mine more evocative personally than most of my photos (though they might not mean much to anyone else), because of the time and concentration that went into them, even if they were no big deal. Looking at the sketch brings back vivid memories of a time, a day, a place.

Then I got my first digital camera and the drawing stopped almost overnight. It just took too much time. But I still think of a pocket camera as a kind of sketchbook. And sometimes I miss using a real sketchbook.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Starkweather Creek Bike Path at night: Notes on how this photograph was made

How This Photograph Was Made
Night shooting in the city under streetlights with a tripod is always interesting, even though the scenes often exceed the dynamic range of the camera sensor -- that is, the range from the lightest to darkest tones. That's part of what gives night photos their unique look, especially in black and white -- the extreme range from impenetrable black shadows to completely blown out white highlights with no detail. But sometimes you want to hold some of that detail, either in the shadows or the highlights, or both.

One way to do that is with what's called HDR (High Dynamic Range) Software. It enables users to take multiple exposures of the same scene (often three: shadow, midtones and highlights) from exactly the same point (this is usually done on a tripod, but can be done manually if you're careful). The software then merges all the exposures (users can control the mix) into one final image that retains detail across the tonal range, because it blends exposures appropriate to each tone. People often say of the result, "That looks like a painting" -- which is understandable, because painters rarely paint shadows all black, or all white highlights. HDR is used more often for color images than black and white, although the same principles apply to both. This may be because black and white has a long tradition of conventions regarding tonal range to express different effects or moods that goes back more than a century, and which was developed working within the limitations of photographic emulsions, not electronic image sensors. Many serious black and white shooters like to work within those conventions. In contrast, in color digital photography there's often more of a wide-open, "anything goes" spirit that welcomes computerized experimentation.

There are close to 1 million photos tagged HDR on Flickr. Personally, I'm usually not fond of the results. Often they strike me as unnatural, or surreal in an unpleasant sense. But there are exceptions, and I've seen some that I like very much, in which the processing is carried out with subtlety and sensitivity. And in some cases, it's simply a valuable tool. For example, if you're shooting architectural interiors in daytime, it's a great way to balance the indoor lighting with the view through the windows without having to illuminate the interior to daylight levels.

Still, since I haven't personally been confronted by a situation where I feel I need HDR software, I haven't bought it or experimented with it. But there are situations which come close. This photo of the Starkweather Creek Bike Path overpass over east Washington Ave. in Madison is an example. I figured I would expose for the shadows and the midtones and let the highlights blow out. I thought I would like the bright, flaring effect, and mostly I did. There was only one problem: That delicate, Frank Lloyd Wright-influenced patterning on the big lights atop the bridge piers is a signature design detail of this bridge. The patterns are easily visible to the eye at night. But in a photograph exposed for shadow detail, the detail is lost entirely. There's nothing there.

So what did I do with this image that I really liked otherwise? Fortunately, I had bracketed the exposure, and in another frame the rest of the bridge was too dark, but the lights looked fine. I selected the lights in the darker photo, feathered the edges a bit and darkened the lights a bit more. Then I pasted them over the blown-out lights in the other image, did a bit of touch-up around the edges, and that was that. Maybe I could call what I did "pseudo HDR."