Monday, October 20, 2014

Pleiades Rising Over Wingra Park

Pleiades Rising Over Wingra Park
These lovely companions of the fall and winter night sky are back, the Seven Sisters of mythology, the star cluster of astronomy.

Note: Parts of Wingra Park are dark for a city park, but the sky isn't very dark by astronomical standards. All things considered, I'm pleased with the result I got after freezing my fingers and fumbling around a lot in the dark and making a dumb mistake by leaving negative exposure comp on from another shoot, especially since I was using a compact camera.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Entropy In a closed system, everything rusts, decays or falls apart eventually. One reason open systems are good.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Simple way to digitize the occasional slide or negative -- b&w or color -- without a scanner

What My Wayback Machine Looks Like
Like most people who came to digital photography after years of shooting film, I have a lot off stuff sitting around that's not digital -- black and white negatives, color slides, and color negatives. How to convert them has always been a thorny issue for me. The easiest way is to scan prints, but I never made all that many enlargements, and the prints I have are too small to create a really good file. (I've rephotographed some of my old drugstore prints and it works pretty well, but that's strictly a low-res option, only useful for screen resolution on a computer.)

Scanning slides and negs is problematic. Scanning film and slides on a flatbed scanner is better than it used to be, but it's time-consuming and still doesn't give great high-res files. Film scanners made to do the job can do it, alright -- but they're expensive, and I never could justify the expense for my old photos, most of which I just don't like that much anymore. (It would be different if I planned to shoot a lot of film in the future, but that's not likely, although I really respect the people who do. Me, I'm too impatient.) So what to do?

I solved my problem with the Opteka Slide Duplicator -- $29.95 at Amazon. And with it I can get better digital copies than most flatbed scanners produce, comparable to the results of a film scanner at a medium resolution setting. You can get them for most digital SLRs and a few compacts. (Note: This particular model doesn't seem to be made anymore, but last time I looked, there were others out there for just a little more money.)

Yes, it's a plain old slide copier with a 52mm thread that screws into many of my Nikon lenses, including the tack-sharp 50mm f/1.8, which seems to work best. It has a built-in closeup lens, a tube that holds a slide at the appropriate distance (there's an attachment for holding negs, too -- and, surprise, it also works pretty well).

Will Jesus Save the Live Nude Girls?Slides are the easiest. They slip right into the holder from the top. You'll need to manually focus. It's a good idea to stop down to about f/11 for the extra depth of field needed to keep the entire (slightly curved) slide in place. Aim at any neutral light source and set your white balance on auto. Crop and tweak in any photo editing program, and there you are. This digital copy, which I took in Times Square in 1976, looks better than the slide, since I could make minor adjustments that weren't possible on the original.

Digitized from the B&W Neg with Slide CopierBlack and white negatives are also a breeze. I took this photo on Tri-X in Madison in 1985. There's an adapter the size of a slide that has slots in the side for film strips. Insert the adapter, and then slide in the negative strip from the side. You'll get an image of the negative, which you can "invert" in any photo editor so that it becomes a positive image. Tweak brightness and contrast to your taste, and there you are.

Digitized from the Color Neg with Slide CopierI took this photo in Miami Beach in 1985 on Kodacolor. Color negatives are more of a challenge, because of the orange mask that is part of the color negative process. It has to be properly removed, or you will end up with colors that can't be fixed by any amount of photo editing. Click on the photo to see my description of how I did it myself. You could also buy scanning software like VueScan that does it more or less automatically, and which works with jpeg files as well as scans.

I used to have bad associations with slide copiers from the days of film: The colors would never come out right, there was an awful contrast buildup, and you had to bracket the hell out of every shot to even get in the ballpark. You had to have just the right light source. And there was visble image degradation from the second-generation copy effect, going from film to film.

But digital cameras have come so far they're eliminated these problems. You see what you get and can easily reshoot. Auto exposure and auto white balance take care of most of the problems. And if you shoot RAW, as I do with the D90, you have a lot of flexibility in white balance correction. You can tweak in postproduction. And a 12 megapixel camera like my D90 will give you resolution comparable to a 3,000dpi scan on a film scanner. Good enough for me, and a lot quicker.

Will it work for you? That depends. If you're mainly trying to digitize lots of old photos of friends and family so they can be viewed on a computer or TV, or made into snapshot-size prints, use a flatbed scanner with a film and slide attachment. It's faster, and you can set up a regular production line. The quality will be sufficient for your purpose, and the software will help with the orange mask on color negs. But the files you make won't be real high-resolution files suitable for large reproduction.

If you're a serious film shooter today, or have a large quantity of film images you want to digitize at the highest possible resolution, you've probably already invested in a film scanner, which at the high end gives by far the best results. But, again, they're expensive and not exactly speed demons compared with the instant it takes to make a copy with the slide duplicator.

If, like me, you only occasionally want to reach back and make a high-res digital copy of a film image, and you want to do it quickly, the slide copier is perfect.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Autumn Rain in Wingra Park

Autumn Rain As the seasons turn, raindrops cling to falling leaves and clover that's still green.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Autumn Magic Along the Military Ridge Trail

Autumn Magic When photographing milkweed, add drama by using selective focus to blur the background and exposing for the highlights to darken the background.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The Great Egret Goes Fishing

Making Waves
This late in the season, the Great Egret is still hanging out at Stricker's Pond and taking its meals there.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

I stayed in the neighborhood to photograph the eclipse

Blood Moon
Lunar eclipse over Wingra Park, Madison. I used a very useful app called The Photographer's Ephemeris to plot the sightlines for the lunar eclipse early this morning. I found a perfect place to photograph it across the lake from Monona, from where it would have appeared to hang blood red over the downtown Madison skyline. But that would have involved driving across town and finding an unfamiliar street with my GPS in the predawn hours when I would be half-awake. In the end, I opted to shoot it in my neighborhood instead.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


That time of year -- iPhone, Military Ridge Trail between Verona and Riley, WI.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Five Photographs of a Banana in Seach of a Theme

Five Photographs of a Banana in Search of a Theme This made perfect sense to me once. It started out as a high concept illustration years ago. Trouble is, I no longer remember what the concept was. Now it's just five photographs of a banana in search of a theme.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Kodak: When Giants Fall They First Go Bonkers

Kodak played a major role in developing digital photography, but like Xerox before it with the personal computer, they had no idea how to bring it to market as a consumer product (mainly because they were concerned about cannibalizing film sales). By 2006 they were thinking about playing catch-up, but it was already too late. That's when they made this batshit crazy promotional video to show at sales meetings and other corporate gatherings. It's hilarious in a funny-sad benefit-of-hindsight sort of way.

Great Egret on the Prowl

Great Egret Still at Stricker's Pond yesterday. Wonder how long it will stay around.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Marilynne Robinson by Alec Soth in The New York Times

I really liked this portrait of author Marilynne Robinson in the Times by photographer Alec Soth, better known for his 8x10 view camera photographs. If you want to see more by this photographer, there's a major survey show of his work at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) through January 4th. Gorgeous prints. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Friday, October 03, 2014

How to Focus on a Wet Window

Sudden Downpour on University Avenue
A heavy rain cascading onto a window creates marvelous pictorial effects, but capturing them with a camera can be difficult because autofocus gets in the way. Point your camera or phone at the window, shoot your picture, and the rain just disappears, because the camera focuses on objects in the distance, not the wet window.

You either have to focus manually, usually with a DSLR, or you have to trick the autofocus system. Most point-and-shoots and many phone cameras will let you lock the focus on a selected point. The trick is to lock focus on something sharp that's in roughly the same plane as the window. Indoors, that could be the edge of the window frame. You can do the same thing in a car. Last summer, when I was caught in a sudden deluge on University Avenue, I locked the focus of my iPhone on the line where the dashboard meets the windshield. This was the result.

When It All Came Together at Tiedeman's Pond

You never know when the magic will happen. We were walking around Tiedeman's Pond in Middleton late one fall afternoon a few years ago when we found ourselves surrounded by milkweed pods launching their little seed pods into the afternoon light. I began photographing them. Although each new pod seemed more beautiful than the last, the beauty wasn't registering on the camera. Each image looked like just another milkweed picture. I began to focus less on individual pods and more on clusters. I kept shooting, trying different angles, and gradually the light changed as the sun dropped in the sky. The background fell into shadow, and suddenly the slanting rays of the sun made the milkweed glow with light. Pure magic.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries
When I see them I'm always reminded of one of my favorite films, and so, of course, I see them in black and white.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What Is the Future of Libraries?

What Is the Future of Libraries?
"Asking about the future of libraries is another way of asking where this big, hot mess of information is taking us... It depends on us."
                                                                            -- Los Angeles Review of Books

Monday, September 29, 2014

Color Landscape Photography: Frederick's Hill

Color Landscape: Frederick's Hill

When shooting digital landscape photographs, color is the default option -- and a tempting one. It seems to capture the "real" look of nature. It's eye-catching and often inherently pleasing to the eye. Who doesn't like a pretty color image?

But not everything is as it seems with the apparent naturalism of color images. Color vision is a complex process, less an optical phenomenon than a psychological one. Our brains construct the color we see, providing us with a more or less stable visual environment in wildly different lighting conditions, all of which photograph differently. In addition, film doesn't have nearly the dynamic range of the human eye (neither does a digital sensor), so there were always tradeoffs. Professional film shooters required considerable technical finesse to match what their eye saw on slide film, juggling many variables, including the choice of film itself --each had its own characteristics that determined the final image. Hobbyists usually settled for what the processor gave them. It was a hit and miss proposition, often pleasing -- but rarely matching the original scene very accurately.

Things got even more subjective with digital photography. There is no physical reference copy, no one "real" rendition of a scene in color. How it turns out depends on the processing algorithms built into the camera, and those are all different. Most serious photographers do additional post processing in an image editor like Photoshop. They are trying to recreate the color palette they saw on a computer screen -- or deliberately distort it for creative purposes -- but in either case, it's a very subjective process. (In fields like technical photography and advertising product photography, enormous technical effort is expended in trying to create a more or less accurate color match -- but this still just reduces the subjectivity; it doesn't eliminate it.)

For all these reasons, color photographs -- including my own -- sometimes seem to me to say more about color itself, and the photographer's preferred way of seeing color, than the actual subject. This photograph records the way I saw Frederick's Hill in Branch Conservancy, Middleton, WI when I processed the file, based on my memory of the scene and how I thought it would look best in color. A hundred different photographers could have shot from the same spot with different cameras and processing techniques, and there would be subtle -- and not so subtle -- differences between all their photos.

"Realism" in photography remains an illusion, often a beautifully crafted illusion, but an illusion nevertheless.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Friday, September 26, 2014

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Equinox Eve

Equinox Eve The last summer evening of 2014, fading like a wisp of cloud at twilight. Allen Centennial Gardens, UW-Madison.

"Summer" at PhotoMidwest

"Summer" at PhotoMidwest
I'm pleased that one of my favorite Lake Wingra images was selected for the PhotoMidwest Festival Invitational Juried Exhibit,  showing through the end of November in Galleries I and II of the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison. The exhibit was juried by Wally Mason, the director of the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska. The opening reception is this Thursday night from 6 to 9 at the Overture Center and will feature a juror's talk by Mason at 6:15.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Night Vision

Night VisionPushing the iPhone 5s to its limit -- UW-Madison Arboretum, Monroe Street, Madison.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Architectural Gem in Downtown Madison

Architectural Gem in Downtown MadisonThere's an interesting Frank Lloyd Wright house hidden away just two blocks away from Madison's Capitol Square. It's the Robert M. Lamp House at 22 North Butler St. It's not well known, because it's in the interior of the block and you can't get a good look at it without going up the walkway into the interior of the block.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Time Travel on University Avenue

Time Travel on University Avenue I was instantly whisked back to an earlier century the other day, when I was passed by this Ford Model A on University Avenue. Just had time to snap this before it sped by in the fast lane. No idea if it was an original or a replica, but it was moving briskly, and it was a beauty.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Deer Pondering the Two-wheeled Animals on the Military Ridge Trail

Watching the Two-wheeled Animals on the Military Ridge Trail
We were riding to Riley on the Military Ridge Trail yesterday when I passed this deer at the side of the trail. Our eyes locked just long enough for me to take the picture, and then it turned and leaped away  through the tall grass. As if to say "Ha! Your wheels can't do this!"

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Glulam Abstraction

Glulam Abstraction
How small trees become mighty beams -- cross section of glued laminated timber (glulam) beam at construction site, Arbor Drive, Madison.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Exploring with the iPhone 5s

During February 6 of my photos were selected by Flickr's mysterious algorithm to be in Explore, the daily display of the 500 most "interesting" photos on Flickr. The number was unusual. I've never had that many photos in Explore in one month. Even more unusual was that they were all taken with my iPhone 5s.

Since upgrading my phone last November (mostly for the camera), I've been doing almost all of my personal photography with the iPhone. There are several reasons why I've been leaving most of my gear at home, the most immediate being our brutal winter. It's easy to keep the phone warm in a coat pocket, and shooting requires just the briefest touch, while using a DSLR on a cold winter day is a great way to suck all the warmth in your body out through your fingertips.

But there's more. The resolution is much better than my old iPhone 4. The lens is faster than those in older iPhones; the sensor and low light performance are better. Processing apps have become more flexible and powerful. I love the immediacy of shooting on the iPhone, and I like being able to process images on the phone while the memory of what I was trying to capture is fresh. I really like black and white, and the improvements in hardware and software allow me to make excellent bw conversions right in the camera.

Of course, the iPhone can't do everything. There are times I need a bigger sensor, full manual control, a longer lens or a much wider lens.That's not surprising.

What does surprise me is how many things the little phone does well.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

In-camera processing on the iPhone

Overture Center for the Arts
I took this photo in Madison's Overture Center and processed it on the spot in-camera. It's a whole new way of working.

One reason my iPhone is replacing more and more of my "real cameras" is the incredible photo processing power of in-camera apps. By using Snapseed's HDR function in conjunction with its B&W conversion using color filters, I have amazing control over B&W tonal range -- all in real-time, on-the-spot, in the palm of my hand, while my own visual impression of the image is still fresh -- not hours or days later in PS post.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Fire and Ice, Memory and Forgetting

Fire and Ice, Memory and Forgetting
I came across this fragment of someone else's life in the icy snows of Wingra Park on one of the coldest day of the year. It had been touched by fire (perhaps someone had been burning papers in the fireplace, and this little piece flew up the chimney), and now it lay frozen in the snow.

First I thought it said "Mt Remembering," which led me to imagine some huge snow-capped mountain of memories stacked as high as the eye could see, but that didn't make much sense, and looking more closely, I saw that it said "Not Remembering."

When we come across notes that have been discarded or lost by other people, they usually raise more questions than they answer; this was no exception, and it came with its a paradox of its own: Usually we write notes to remind ourselves of something, in order not to forget. But why write a note to remember "not remembering"? And why write it on both sides of the paper, as indicated by the faint reverse lettering? And why "not remembering" instead of simply "forgetting"? Is there a difference, and if so, what? It's a mystery, as are so many things about memory and forgetting.

"I can't remember" means different things to different people. For some, forgetting something is a momentary irritation -- wait a moment, and it will some back. For others, the loss of memory is connected with a profound struggle to preserve a sense of self. Most of us are somewhere in between the extremes, and we negotiate our own tradeoffs between memory and forgetting, writing down the reminders we need, and letting go what we don't need. Nobody can remember everything. And again, some can remember very little.

"Forgetting It All" is the title of a powerful essay in the NYT by Floyd Skloot, a poet and author and father of best-selling science writer Rebecca Skloot. A viral attack 25 years ago devastated his memory centers, abstract reasoning capability and sense of structure -- all qualities that would seem vital to a writer. And yet he has not only coped, but had a productive career as a writer in the years since his illness. His account makes fascinating reading, and we can all learn from it. I love his closing lines:

Since I can’t assume I’ll remember anything, I must live fully in the present. Since I can’t assume my experience will cohere, I must prize its fragmentation. Since I can’t fix or escape my damaged brain, I must learn to be at peace with it. And since I can’t assume I’ll master anything I do, I must let go of mastery as a goal and seek harmony instead.