Saturday, June 09, 2012

Standing still and letting the Farmers' Market walk by

Holding Camera Still and Letting People Move at Dane County Farmers' Market
Beautiful warm, sunny day at the Dane County Farmers' Market. Sometimes it's more interesting to use Autostitch without moving the camera. Let the people do the moving, and let the software blend them as it will. Makes for some interesting effects.

Wisconsin Pasture

Wisconsin Pasture

Between Verona and Riley's, Military Ridge Trail.

Sure, I could have shot something like this with my Nikon D90 and the Sigma 10-20mm lens. But who wants to take all that gear? iPhone and Autostitch are much simpler.

Wohoo! At last! A photo editing app for my iPhone with a clone stamp that works!

Wohoo! At Last! A Photo Editing App for My iPhone with a Clone Stamp That Works!

I like the pattern these escalator steps (Hilldale target store, Madison) make, especially side by side, but this abstract diptych is really intended to illustrate a point. I tried several photo editing apps this afternoon, trying  to find one with a clone stamp I could use on my iPhone. A couple of apps, PhotoForge and Photogene, both have a lot of bells and whistles and used to have clone stamps, but their current versions for the iPhone no longer do (don't know about iPad). Then I tried Filterstorm. It has a full range of features, including macros, masks and layers, but it also has a very useful clone stamp that is implemented elegantly in the small surface area of the iPhone screen.

I decided to use the image on the left as a quick test. There's little documentation that I could find, but the interface is pretty intuitive, and within five minutes of downloading the app I had used the clone stamp to take out an easy target -- the bit of yellow at lower left. You can zoom in for detailed work, so I assume I could use Filterstorm for more challenging situations as well. In addition, Filterstorm will work with and export high-res images (like panoramas, for example...)

Now I really do feel I have a photo editing studio in my pocket. Whether I need it is another question, but it's nice  to have it.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Pine Bluff Observatory

Pine Bluff Observatory
Sure, the big scope at the UW-Madison Astronomy Department's Pine Bluff Observatory is just measured in inches (36) when the really big guns these days are measured in meters. Pine Bluff  was built on a hilltop 15 miles west of Madison in 1958 to replace Washburn Observatory, which was surrounded by light pollution and housed a 15.6-inch 19th century refractor. These days the UW  shares time on big telescopes far away, including the 11-meter South African Large Telescope (SALT).  Pine Bluff is just used for teaching and some research now, and is on the verge of obsolescence,  but it's fun to take a look at if you happen to be out driving around the hills near Cross Plains.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

DSLR resolution from your iPhone -- and HDR, too!

Getting the Most Out of Your iPhone Camera in Tricky Lighting Conditions Outdoors

For photographers who want to go hiking without taking a lot of gear, the iPhone is a godsend. Not only are the maps and GPS apps useful, but the iPhone camera is a powerful photographic tool that eliminates the need to carry a lot of gear in most cases. Trouble is, as anyone knows who has snapped an iPhone picture in the woods on a sunny day, the 5mp camera is no match for the high-contrast dynamic range of the dappled lighting under the trees, let alone the extremely fine detail that surrounds you on all sides.

There are fixes for these problems, though, as this photo taken and processed this afternoon in the Edgewood College woods entirely on my iPhone shows. First, I turned on the camera's HDR function, which really tamed the shadows in the 7 overlapping images that I took. Then I imported them into AutoStitch for the iPhone and stitched them together, creating a large 5516x3042 file (16.8mp -- not bad for a cellphone). That took care of the fine detail. Then I imported it into the Snapseed photo editing app to tweak color balance and open up some of the remaining shadow detail a bit. And then I uploaded the 8.2mb file directly to Flickr from Snapseed over a wifi connection.

To see more detail scroll through the Large (2048-1129px) size. Or check out the Original (5516x3042px) size to inspect the really fine detail. In the latter, you'll see a bit of fuzziness here and there. Some of that is from the breeze during the twin exposures of each HDR image, and some is from the stitching process. But the result is still far sharper than any single cell phone camera image could be.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Ray Bradbury and the dark side of the American Dream

The summer of my run-in with the Martians, I had never heard of Ray Bradbury but he scared the hell out of me. I was in a new home, lying in bed on a summer night, anxiously absorbing the unfamiliar sounds and darkness of the Wisconsin countryside. Places in my life had changed from one to another unexpectedly, and the significant adults in my life had shape-shifted confusingly.

Night could be a spooky time, and I would have slept with the light on if they had let me. Instead, I turned up the radio. An expedition was arriving on Mars. And miraculously, each crewmember found on the strange red planet the small town of his own Midwestern childhood, in all its innocence. The white frame houses with welcoming porches. Somewhere, the smell of apple pie baking in a summer kitchen. And relatives and loved ones who'd died long ago had all mysteriously returned.

It seemed impossible, but there it was, and the men had no choice but to reunite with their friends and family. Later, though, when night came and the men were tucked into their childhood beds, the relatives who had greeted them changed. They morphed into the real Martians. They had read the men's minds, recreated what was dearest to them, and used it to lure them to their death. I can still hear the bloodcurdling screams and ominous thumping sounds.

I was a suggestible child, and the story terrified me. The darkness closed in and I was terrified that my room would melt and change around me. I clung to the radio, turning the dial, searching for distant stations amid the crackling static, reassuring myself there still was a world I knew out there. There was a radio tower on the horizon outside my window, and for some reason it had always made me feel safe. Its blinking red lights had to be real. I clung to that thought and eventually fell asleep.

In the morning fear shadowed my room like the memory of a bad dream, and I had to remind myself it was all just a story. At the time, that was a comforting frame to put around an experience that was so disconcerting and touched on such deep fears and apprehensions.

That was my first encounter with Ray Bradbury. Later I learned that I had been listening to an episode of  the science fiction radio program "X Minus One," a dramatization of "The Third Expedition," one of the stories in The Martian Chronicles by the elegiac Midwestern fabulist who died this week at the age of 91. Ray Bradbury's science fiction, tales of fantasy and stories of small town life in the Midwest often had a sunny wholesomeness that was undercut by something darker. Ray Bradbury knew how to work in the shadows.

I went on to read everything by Bradbury I could get my hands on. He was one of those writers who deeply influenced who I became and how I looked at the world. 

He was a master at celebrating the American Dream while giving the American Nightmare its due, especially the fear of the other, the alien, that has always been so central to life in this wild and crazy melting pot.  Our neighbors include people very different from us. We're usually polite and friendly to each other, but we have our fears.

Most of Bradbury's classics were written during the height of the Cold War, when the other was the Communist, a time of terror when a single miscalculation could have ended life as we know it on this planet. His work reflected those fears, but the fears did not begin with the Cold War, and did not go away with its passing. They are as contemporary as today's battles over immigration and the angry resentments of the Tea Party. They're as contemporary as events in Wisconsin, the demonization of "union thugs," teachers and other public employees as parasites feeding off the public trough.

It's always the same fear: We're surrounded by other people who at first glance seem harmless enough, but what if they're really monsters who will turn on us if we're not careful? Aliens are everywhere, and we must defend ourselves.

As long as politicians continue to exploit these fears, as long as we let them keep using fear to divide us, America -- for all our sunny prosperity on the surface -- will continue to be a dark place. Ray Bradbury didn't just say that. He wrote it, far more eloquently, in unforgettable stories that will be with us for a long time.

The cause endures

The Cause Endures
Ted Kennedy's words, photographed last year, but probably even more relevant today.

Observing the Transit of Venus

Double Transit
We made a family trek to the top of Frederick's Hill in order to be able to observe the transit of Venus from a vantage point with a clear view of the horizon.

Supplies included the special glasses for viewing the sun I got from UW Space Place, a pair of binoculars and plain white paper to project the sun's image -- and in case the sun stayed hidden, an iPad for virtual observation. We had faith the sun would come out, though, and near sunset, it did.

 The transit eyeglasses were sort of useless, in the end. To the unaided eye, the sun was so small and relatively dim and red in the glasses that you really couldn't make out Venus, that little flyspeck, unless you had better eyesight than we did. I also tried photographing through the glasses with my point and shoot (I wasn't about to risk my DSLR sensor on a little piece of plastic). That might have worked -- if I had brought a tripod. The image was so dim -- as it was supposed to be -- that even at ISO 3200, I had to use 1/2-sec exposures -- and that made for blurry pictures, handheld in the wind.

 That old reliable standby, the binoculars -- a familiar projection device from solar eclipses in the past -- worked great, however. I like the shadow silhouette and the double image the binoculars provided.

 More photos of the transit, including a closeup of the projection, in this Flickr set.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Sometimes a single voice is the most powerful of all

We were downtown, and T wanted to walk into the Capitol for a quick election day visit. This is what we saw. A woman in red, standing silently, as if in meditation. And then she started singing. Just a single voice resonating in that beautiful rotunda, singing "We Shall Overcome" -- with a unique final refrain.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Woodland Dunes Trail at Kohler-Andrae

Woodland Dunes Trail
We were at Kohler-Andrae State Park, Sheboygan, the other day and took a trail we had never been on before, the beautiful Woodland Dunes Trail, which-- due to the climate -- features a unique blend of tree species from northern and central Wisconsin. The trees were planted during the Great Depression to stop erosion of the dunes and now provide a unique environment. (iPhone 4 Autostitch panorama.)