Photography ... astronomy ... art ... design ... technology
(... and the odd rant)

All of these make my world go 'round, to some extent, and they will all be found here at some time or other. Some of the photography can be purchased from my Redbubble site. I can also be found at Tempus Fugit (no longer being updated).

Friday, March 2, 2018

Photographic colour printing with an RGB LED enlarger system

It's been a long time since I made photographic prints from colour negatives. I'd been on the photographic team at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh for over 15 years, and left professional photography behind in 1998, when I quit that job for good. During that time I was employed on some pretty exacting work, meeting the scientific demands of the end-user.

In response to a Twitter friend describing her progress in building an enlarger using an RGB LED system, I've delved into the memory banks to work out how that would relate to conventional YMC colour printing. I'll apologise in advance for lack of images; I've been too busy working out the details that follow. If you want pictures, you might find one or two in the links at the end.

In essence, a colour print needs the right blend of red, green and blue light to produce the desired result. Although some advanced emulsions have employed more than just three light-sensitive layers in order to compensate for the limitations of photographic dye technology, a photographic film or paper at its most basic has layers sensitive to red, green and blue—the primary colours of light*.

* At this point, artists usually start to struggle a little, because they have always been told that the primaries are red, yellow and blue; this is true with pigments, but not with light. Look at a rainbow: red light mixes with green to produce yellow, and green mixes with blue to produce cyan (red and blue are at opposite ends of the visible spectrum, so there is ordinarily no magenta in a rainbow).

The normal method of making colour prints involves a single exposure through yellow (Y), magenta (M) or cyan (C) filters. These are the secondary colours of light and when used in printing, you need just two filters to produce the right balance of colour; in most cases, only the Y and M filters will be used. Because each filter is used to reduce the effect of image-forming light, it is called subtractive printing.

The more Y filtration is used, the less exposure the blue layer receives, and the more M filtration, the less exposure to the green layer. It is only necessary to balance the ratio of these two factors with the (effectively fixed) red exposure, while the length of exposure controls the final print density. The actual amount of Y and M filtration required depends upon the film stock and how it was exposed, as well as the printing paper; different batches of film and paper will require different levels of filtration.

The good thing about this system is that you have just one exposure, during which any dodging and burning—to alter local print density—will affect all colours equally. The downside is that you need a more expensive enlarger with a 'colour head'.

The alternative method of colour printing is additive, where individual exposures are made sequencially through red, green and blue ('tricolour') filters; by this means, each colour layer in the paper receives the appropriate level of exposure for a balanced print. The upside to this method is relative cheapness: you only need a BW enlarger and a set of 3 gelatin filters. The downside is that you have to make sure you don't nudge the enlarger or printing easel between exposures (which will disturb the registration of the three exposures), and also that it becomes very difficult to do dodging and burning that evenly retains the proportions of R, G and B light, because you have to dodge/burn identically in each exposure.

A variation of additive printing appeared in the form of the Philips PCS-150 "Tri-One" colour head. This allowed the arguably more intuitive R, G and B filtration in a single exposure, so that dodging and burning are as easy as in BW or subtractive colour printing. An RGB LED system would allow single-exposure printing, just as the PCS-150 did.

But what about an RYB LED setup? Is it possible to make colour prints using the artist's primaries? Let's think about this…
  • Red, being a light primary, will affect only the red-sensitive layer
  • Yellow, being a light secondary, will affect both red- and green-sensitive layers
  • Blue, a primary, will affect only the blue layer
So yes, using RYB LEDs, you could in theory expose all three layers of the print, but in adjusting the Y output, you would be exposing both red and green layers. In practice, this means that if there was just a green cast in your test print, you would need to reduce the Y exposure—but you would also need to increase the red exposure, because the red layer is getting some of its exposure from the Y LED.

Now, suppose the R and Y exposure levels are identical, and you want to remove that green cast, you reduce the Y exposure by a given amount, and you then have to increase the R exposure by the same amount. But what if the R and Y exposure levels are different? Now you'll need to calculate the relative proportions of red exposure that come from the R and Y LEDs, and adjust the R to compensate for the change in Y. Not impossible, but unless you relish the challenge of building a system that makes the compensation automatically, I'd avoid this approach. It's a recipe for headaches.

What about YMC, using an RGB LED system? Here, the waters are a little murkier, but let's dip a tentative toe in. First, let's think about conventional YMC printing: typically, the enlarger head has a mechanism that lets you "dial in" the desired levels of filtration for each colour, and this is achieved by progressively swinging a dichroic filter into the light path; the more a filter is moved, the greater the amount of light that it intercepts and the more effect it has on the colour reaching the negative.

For example (and let's make it simple by assuming 0-100 units of filtration are available): by setting Y-M-C at 0-0-0, the light is unfiltered, and effectively 'white'. By dialling in 50-33-0, the yellow filter blocks 50% of the blue light, and the magenta filter blocks 33% of the green; there is no cyan filtration. Expressed in terms of image-forming RGB light:

50Y = 50B
33M = 67G
0C = 100R

blue is reduced to 50%, green is reduced to 67% (just 33% is blocked), and red is at full strength. If this gives a perfect print, then those are the RGB values we're aiming at.

Now let's see how it works out using the RGB LEDs to produce yellow, magenta and cyan light. Dial in the same levels, Y-M-C 50-33-0; the situation is now somewhat different: instead of cutting blue, green and red light by those amounts, you are producing light as follows:

50Y = 50R + 50G + 0B (you haven't just blocked blue light by 50%, you've produced red and green)
33M = 33R + 0G + 33B (you haven't just blocked green light by 33%, you've produced red and blue)
0C = 0R + 0G 6+ 0B (you haven't just reduced red light by nil, you've produced no light at all)

Now simply add those light levels to get the total amount of R, G & B light:

83R + 50G + 33B

Compare these figures with the 100R+ 67G + 50B that the filtration produced, and you can see that the two methods aren't equivalent, at least, using the same numbers. So, let's try turning it around a little, to see if we can make it work. Adopting the principle that one of the RGB colours should be at 100% (because there's no point in reducing all three, if you have the opportunity to maximise light output), and if we make it the red that's 100% (because in practice, cyan is rarely dialled in for a normal neg), how do we get 100% red? Well, ths is where is starts to get tricky. Both Y and M will contribute red light, so do we set both Y and M to 100? It looks like this:

100Y = 100R + 100G + 0B
100M = 100R + 0G + 100B

Add these together and so far, we have:

200R + 100G + 100B

But you can't have 200% light output, so reduce these values by 50% to get:

100R + 50G + 50B

Compare this with the 100R+ 67G + 50B that we're aiming for, and you can see we're under by 17G. No problem, just increase the green light by that amount. How do we do that? Well, green comes from both Y and C (Y is red + green, and C is blue + green). The headache is starting, about now...

17G comes from 17Y + 17C, right? Yes, but you've also now added 17R and 17B, so you end up with

117R + 67G + 67B

I'll get the painkillers!

So, it looks like any attempt to generate the right mix of light by using the R, G and B LEDs to work in pairs to generate Y, M and C light is either unnecessarily complicated or doomed to utter failure. The bottom line is: you need R, G and B light to act upon the emulsion layers sensitive to those colours, so what you need is there from the start; there's no need to try to replicate YMC subtractive printing.

As for which might be more intuitive for an artist-photographer, with a somewhat uncertain foot in each colour camp, you would approach RGB colour correction by saying "is the print too red? ... then reduce the red light"; "is it too yellow? ... then either reduce yellow (red and green) or add blue".

For an overview of subtractive colour printing, this Lomography article is a good start, as is this Shutterbug article. This Google books preview talks about both additive and subtractive printing.

For information about tricolour printing filters, see this Kodak page.

And for Lilly's journey in building her system, here's the Tweet that prompted this post. I might even order one for myself...

Monday, November 30, 2015

Bagpipes: an anatomical overview

A colleague sent me a link to a Scottish comedian's performance in Sydney; said it was a good giggle. I was a bit dubious, given that he went by the name of "Danny Bhoy", which really suggested more of a Hibernian heritage, but whatever. When later he asked if I'd seen it yet and I said no, m'colleague went on to describe some of the highlights, including the intro, which was amid swirling mist, with the sound of the pipes, and Danny himself backlit in the dramatic scene, carrying what looked like a set of bagpipes. Colleague continued the narrative, including the revelation that the supposed pipes were just a bar stool with some ribbon tied to the legs, and Danny was also holding a wee tin whistle. It sounded good, right enough.

Recently I had a few minutes while waiting for a program to think about a process, so I followed
Colleague's link to see what the fuss was about. Sure enough, it looked like a piper, but you you could tell it was a spoof as the camera zoomed in so you could see his left hand fluttering away at the 'whistle'; no piper, he. All was revealed a few moments later, and the intro joke concluded successfully. Now Dear Colleague, about that 'whistle'...

Colleague really should have known better, given his Irish heritage, even if their pipes are a little different. The 'whistle' turned out to be the appropriate item for the job after all: a chanter. Chanter, Peter ... chanter; from the French, 'to sing'. A slightly flared pipe of ebony or somesuch, perforated and finished in ivory, which is played as you might play the recorder, except at waist level—it being connected to the bag, not directly to the mouth.

The chanter is the part that produces the song; the melody. The twiddly stuff that either lifts the spirit and stirs the soul—simultaneously raising the hackles on the back of your neck—or irritates/scares/panics anyone within earshot. Maybe that should be ears, shot...

There are tunes, written for the pipes, that just sound right. They are often assertive, vigorous, and have a direct connection to every one of your red Caledonian blood corpuscles - and, quite possibly, some of the white ones as well. Depending upon your disposition and ear for a tune, there may be something about them that you can't put your finger on, but it's no big thing ... until a well-known tune, written for a more conventional instrument, is played on the pipes. Then, it may seem that the piper either doesn't properly know the tune, or is being unadvisedly free with performing his own version. The reality is that the pipes do not have a wide range of notes available; no, the frugal Highlanders have made do with just nine. Furthermore, there are no 'chromatic notes' (no, I don't know either) on the Great Highland Bagpipe—a' phìob mhòr, if you're a Gael. This lends pipe music a limited sound, but I often felt that Joni Mitchell was similarly afflicted. So, the pipes are stirring, alarming, and slightly* edgy to anyone with a remotely musical ear in a modern, western sense.

 * this word is really superfluous here

Back to the chanter though. Its job is to produce the intricate stuff; the notable part of the piece, which you might be inclined to whistle, if the mood took you. In a battle situation—and remember that in the Great War, the Germans referred to the Scots pipers as 'the ladies from hell'—the chanter is used to produce the main assault on the enemy, the part that says "we've had our breakfast and it wasn't really what we wanted so we're a bit pissed off, and now we're coming to pick a fight with you." And so it goes; hell is raised with a leather bag, a few wooden pipes* and some reeds. One side of the piper's stern face may be blown out into an alarming bulge, while his fingers beat a 'fuck you' rhythm** that is translated into a no-nonsense assault tune.

 * nowadays, synthetics are becoming more common
 ** a former colleague, ex-Scots Guards, used to 'play' his pen like a chanter, during committee meetings; perhaps he was quietly expressing the same sentiment.

Seaforth Highlanders with piper

That's what the chanter does.

The pipes though, have a secret weapon: the drones. These 3 longer pipes are not played as the chanter is; instead, they simply emit a constant note for as long as the bag is full of air and under pressure ... not unlike a politician. Their function & purpose is therefore quite different to that of the chanter. While the enemy is being given fair warning of the impending fight (Scots soldiers are nothing if not fair—it's the Highland ethic), they are simultaneously confused by the background noise, the drone. There is no tune to this. Think instead of a teenager whose voice has just broken, and who is in full flow with a moan against everything: parents, school, food, lack of internet, the entire Universe. It's a noise that nobody should have to suffer without the opportunity to decline.

The pipes therefore have this two-pronged approach to putting the enemy on edge: the chanter and the piper's nimble fingers are saying "right; here we come, ready or not," while the drones are mentally hitting them for six. They can't quite work out where the moaning is coming from, and about what, so they are now mentally, if not physically, completely out of step with everything else that is happening. Bombs, machine guns, mortars and the whine of incoming shells are all straightforward and to be expected; bagpipe drones are not. It is a singular weapon that was probably banned under the Geneva Convention.

So, Colleague, the chanter. Not a tin whistle. That just wouldn't cut it.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Personal artistic expression and greatness

Recently, Dan K posed a question on Twitter:

The question brought various answers and comments, and then this response from Dan, which set me thinking:

I know what he was getting at: if the words aren't your own, how can you be expressing yourself by singing someone else's words? His own response is arguably more provocative: the question about greatness seems to be general, rather than specifically about photography, but then the brevity of the Twitter format may be responsible. Then there is the assertion itself: that he will never be great, whether it is in photography, writing, or whatever.

Can someone express themselves with words or music written by someone else? I think they certainly can, if they are up to the job. I'd say the expression is distinct from the act of creating the original text or score, but there is certainly expression in performing someone else's work. Think amateur theatre compared with Blanchett, McKellen or Olivier; the performance is not just presentation, but interpretation as well. Or in music: it is said that Dylan declared Hendrix's All along the watchtower to be the definitive version. And if you have ever seen Sid Vicious performing My way, you'd have to admit that it wasn't anyone else's way but Sid's. Some of the words may have been changed, and may not have been written by Sid, but are we in any doubt that he was expressing his anarchistic, cynical self, behind the theatrics? In all of these cases, the base expression will be that of the writer or composer, but it is necessarily overlaid with the expression of the artist that performs the work.

How many great speeches are heard and either admired or loathed for their content, when they are delivered by someone other than the writer (I'm talking paid speechwriters, not plagiarists)? And yet the message is delivered and perceived as the expression of the orator's own sentiments and emotions—and if the oration is any good, the message will be seen as being totally owned by them, and doubtless is in at least some cases ... but with politicians, who can tell?

Maybe the most genuine expression is in performing someone else's work. It at once affirms an association with the work and any meaning it may have, and allows the performer to overlay their own brand on the material. If the performance stirs something in the listener, then it is likely that not only is the work of some merit, but the performance is adding something extra. Cover versions come to mind: if every cover version sounded exactly like the original, you'd have to ask “what's the point?”, but if the cover is an individual and novel performance (as distinct from merely a novelty*), then it must contain some individual expression on the part of the performer.

* But even a novelty version (Barron Knights, I'm looking at you) is in itself an individual expression.

Still, I grant that your own words, performed by yourself, are nothing if not expressing yourself.

The second issue is the question of greatness in one medium if you find yourself 'naturally' expressing yourself in another. Why should one preclude the other? However, there is a personal resonance here, which is probably what prompted me to dwell on this, in the first place, and to respond in words, in the second. I never used to be much good with words, be they written or spoken, and still find that to express myself most effectively, I need to gather my thoughts and round them up on paper/monitor. I suspect in fact that the introduction, in 1986, of Yours Truly to Mr Word Processor was a turning point in my desire to write anything of substance. I did write a few humorous lines in the early 80s, with a typewriter, but I was frustrated by the business of having to either get it substantially right first time—notwithstanding the corrective magic of the Tippex papers—or rewrite another version. 1st Word on the Atari ST changed all that, and I was free to express myself, and it was legible to others where my handwriting was not. Of course, there was that small matter of creative merit to get right; 29 years later, I think I might be getting close.

The fact that polymaths and multi-talented individuals are something of note does provide an answer to the question within Dan's thesis, but it's not necessarily the only one. It is entirely plausible that Dan may excel in photography or drawing as well as writing (and so, for that matter, might I), but what governs that outcome? If there is any spark of talent at all, is it not possible to develop it to a significant level by study and practice? Maybe the answer lies where the heart does. For some time, I've had the realisation that although photography was an early passion—which later became a profession—I do get particular satisfaction in expressing myself in writing. It is also a pursuit that can be carried out no matter where I am, whatever the time of day, whatever the light (as long as there is some), and without darkroom, chemicals, expensive optics or huge amounts of RAM. It can also be a several thousand-word technical document or a six-word story; each gives satisfaction in the completion.

Dan went on to say “I just feel if images were my primary medium of expression I'd be more prolific...” What if you take but one photograph in your career, or shoot just one film, but the outcome is the photographic equivalent of To kill a mockingbird? I'd venture that greatness is not so wedded to quantity as quality. Still, point taken.

It is also clear to me that merely reading about photography gives pleasure beyond simply the acquisition of knowledge. The vicarious pleasure of photography by proxy? It is similar to looking at good photography, but not quite the same. Should I be worried? I should perhaps be more worried by an inkling a couple of years ago: it occurred to me that I could possibly derive much pleasure in simply walking around with an empty camera; aiming, composing and firing the shutter (a proper mechanical shutter, that is, not the electronic sound file that digital cameras are endowed with), and enjoying that very process, as well as the thought of the photographs that I'd 'taken'. There would be a huge benefit: no expense on film and processing, and no hours afterwards in going through the negatives and either scanning or printing them and trying to get the best out of them; naturally, the photographs would all be great. I'd also have more room on the walls for Steiglitz, Weston, Adams...
The architect wrote the lyrics, but the final expression is mine

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Yet more kitchen capers

Occasionally, when either necessity dictates or the mood takes me, I set to in the kitchen, and concoct something that I hope will be edible. I dislike using recipes, so tend to either stick with standards (meat, veg and multi-ingredient mash; fish and whatever; bolognese, con carne, or just stuff mixed and cooked in whatever time-honoured fashion is appropriate... you get the picture) or invent something as I go. The latter can be a risky venture, leading to unpalatable or just disappointing results, but thankfully I can usually pull off something worthwhile.

Tonight, I fancied something inspired by a simple rice-and-lentils meal we enjoyed with friends years ago, when we dropped in with little warning. It was tasty and simple, and despite their disclaimer that it was nothing special, I liked it very much. Why I should wait 22 years to attempt something similar is beyond explanation.

Here's the gist of it:

Lentils with rice and vegetables

• 1/4 cup green lentils
• 1/4 cup brown lentils
• 1 cup rice and ancient grains (or just brown rice)
• 1 onion, chopped
• 1 carrot, grated
• 2 cloves of garlic, mashed
• a dozen or so round beans, chopped
• 1/2 small red capsicum, chopped
• handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
• 1 can chopped tomatoes
• small amount of chopped salami, cabanossi, etc, if desired (I desired)
• sprinkle of basil and oregano

Simmer lentils for about 10 minutes, then top up with cold water, add rice and simmer for another 20-30 minutes or until cooked.

Saute onion until soft, then add garlic for a minute or so. Add carrot, beans, capsicum, chopped tomatoes and herbs (and meats if used), and simmer while rice & lentils are cooking. When all is nearly done, add cherry tomatoes and simmer for another 5 minutes or so.

Drain rice & lentils when ready, rinse with hot water, and add vegie mixture with salt & pepper to taste.

If daughter is not eating with you, add mushrooms to the vegie mix, or anything else that she would otherwise object to.

It was scoffed satisfactorily, and Young Man of item-with-daughter status ate his before leaving the kitchen, then obliged with preventing a leftovers situation from arising.

It's what's called a result, I believe.

There was no photograph, so here's something completely different.

Lunar occultation of Saturn, 14 May 2014

Sunday, October 25, 2015


I virtually always carry a camera with me; two, if you count the one in the phone. Very often, I also carry a desire for a coffee. Not that I'm a caffeine addict: at home, I drink decaf - it's simpler, as Heather doesn't do caffeine if she can avoid it, so we only have to have one jar in the cupboard, and that decaf is as satisfying as a legit cafe brew.

When we were in Ipswich some time ago, we were gasping for a cuppa, and couldn't seem to find anywhere that looked like they served a decent brew; when we finally found somewhere, it was pretty disappointing, so we effectively wrote off Ipswich as a coffee-free zone. Since then however, we have found a few places worth a second visit.

One such is Nourish Real Food Cafe, in Brisbane St. It's fairly new, light, airy, and the tables aren't crammed in together. The food is adventurous and the coffee perfectly good. The building was renovated about 18 months ago, and they have gone for the bare brisks look, contrasted by a faux laneway to one side, presumably going to other premises.

My camera eye can be drawn by all sorts of things, but the play of light and shade is usually pretty tempting. Once, at a gallery, I was as fascinated by the shadows cast by a series of exhibits mounted on a row of small shelves as I was with the art itself. There was no artist statement attaching to the shelves. Here, it was the clean lines and subtle shadows on a textured white wall that stopped me in my tracks.

Inside the cafe, it was the walls that fascinated me. Nothing new or terribly unusual about bare brick walls in a modern establishment, but it was the pattern that seemed unusual. Heather knows a thing or two about bricklaying bonds (who'd have thought?), but this didn't seem like a bond that would have made it through building control. What would I know? The apprentice's first attempt?

The last few posts have touched on my inability to abandon film photography, but these were taken with the digital camera that I usually carry. I suspect that in the next five years it may expire; it's unlikely to last another ten. However, I have just bought a bulk load of black & white film, and shall soon run it through some cameras still going strong after 40 years or more. After film camera values plummeted in the last decade, they are becoming valuable again as a new generation of photographers discovers the appeal of traditional non-digital methods.

I shall also be exploring the world of developing the film in coffee and vitamin C—a combination known as Caffenol—which sounds nuts but is chemically quite plausible and has a growing number of advocates and practitioners. And why not do something different, if it works? Watch this space.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


A bright, clear crescent Moon did shine down last night, and with a young man interested in seeing through the big scope, I stirred myself to grant his wish. While looking at the ancient surface, I noticed that the seeing was pretty good, so got the camera mounted for a few snaps.

There's nothing groundbreaking about a pic of the crescent Moon, of course, but it's always pleasing and never looks the same twice—unless you wait a long time and look at every possible opportunity. On this occasion though, there was a pinprick of light inside a large crater, evidence of day breaking upon a central mountain peak ... and who doesn't like a mountain sunrise?

The telescope is effectively acting as a 1200mm f8 long lens, which is pretty big on a crop sensor camera (Canon 40D). At ISO-400, the exposure would be reasonably short, except that I wanted to make the most of that little sunlit mountaintop, so took exposures of 1/13, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/200 second, to get detail in both highlights and dark areas near the terminator (the day/night boundary). I then combined all 5 exposure levels to make an HDR image.

The southern highlands, at top, appear more heavily cratered as they haven't been overlaid with lava,which process produced the dark 'seas' in the northern hemisphere.
Maurolycus, with central peak lit

The crater trio Catharina, Cyrillus and Theophilus, beside the Sea of Nectar
Sea of Tranquility; Apollo 11 site circled


Sunday, October 18, 2015

A peripatetic camera

It's been far too long since I've posted here, so here's a post I made as a guest on the 35mmc (35mm compact camera) blog. I became temporary custodian of a point and shoot camera ("The Traveling Yashica"), and used that quaint but not-yet-dead medium, photographic film. It was fun, even if I didn't love the camera. The premise is simple: receive the camera and shoot a film, then blog the results:

"I have decided to send my Yashica T5 around some of the nice folks I cross paths with on twitter, get them to shoot a roll of film then send the camera to someone else who wants to take part.
All I ask is that anyone who ends up with the camera sends me some photos and a little bit of a backstory to go with them." -- Hamish Gill

As I still love the look and palaver that goes with using film (I never stopped, just stopped shooting it except on very rare occasions), I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do.

Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium at dusk
The Traveling Yashica: Duncan Waldron (Camira, Australia)

Monday, May 12, 2014

Time will tell

There has always been a bit of a left-of-centre* streak in my photography, albeit with plenty of straight-down-the-middle conventionalism to balance. I studied photography in a 3-year diploma course, specialising in applied photography in my final year, and encountered all sorts of photographic possibilities along the way. That course led me into employment at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh; not your average job for a freshly-minted young photographer. (* When I say 'left-of-centre', I suppose I should say 'right-of-centre' as well, since I dabble with 3D stereo pairs, but that's another matter; you can investigate here.)

Laser dispersed through flashbulb

When I started snapping in the early 70s, you took a roll of plastic material (coated with dry gelatin & suffused with silver halide salts) and inserted it into a camera. That's right: the back of the camera opened up, and a roll of film went inside, which allowed you to take a limited number of photographs—usually 8, 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 36, 48 or 72—before you had to stop and reload. Imagine a memory card that limited!

As an aside, whenever I use film these days, the smells take me right back to 197X; they were just an incidental part of the photographic process until the 90s, but now they are an incredible nostalgia trigger. I should get a bottle of Paterson Acutol, just so I can open it for a sniff every now & then. (I don't miss the benzene-based colour chemistry of the 70s & 80s; it just smelt psychoactive.)

So, how did my left-of-centre radicalism manifest? Often, it was just through taking a shortcut to a result, such as shooting a pic on a cut-down sheet of enlarging paper, rather than load a whole film. Or processing in a developer not intended for the job, just because it was available. Sometimes though, I'd shoot pictures with the question 'what if?' in mind. I was always an advocate for the idea that, never mind what the rule book says, have a go, and see what works. I suppose it's surprising, given that attitude, that I never took to cross-processing, but there you go. I wouldn't want to be predictable, would I?

These days, as well as doing less and less photography as time goes by, I use traditional materials on a very infrequent basis. One thing that does get me loading a camera with light-sensitive silver-based materials is pinhole photography. It is possible to do pinhole with digital, but the small sensor size—even if using a full-frame DSLR—is rather limiting, as is the field of view. So, when I see a piece about anyone using traditional materials, or cameras before electronics really took over, I'm immediately interested.

 Extreme-wideangle pinhole selfie

Pinhole photography is photography almost at its most basic (I'll allow that photograms are even more basic): no lens, no shutter, no aperture, no light meter, no viewfinder. Just photographer and instinct. In practice, I might use a hand-held light meter to gauge the right exposure, but it's not absolutely necessary, after a bit of experience. There is something very satisfying about creating a photograph without all that modern technology has to offer.

When I read of a project to create pinhole photographs with 100-year exposure times, I was therefore immediately interested. For a few years, folk have been creating solargraphs—year-long exposures that record the Sun's movement, both east-west and north-south. These photographs are taken using photographic enlarging paper, but are not developed in the normal way; instead, they are scanned as soon as the camera is opened, to record the image that has appeared on the light-sensitive material.

A typical solargraph - source article

Now, somebody has come up with the idea that you could load a simple camera with black paper, and expose it for a hundred years to create a record of urban change during that period. Not black photographic paper, mind you, just black paper. Photographers, as well as scrapbookers, generally like the idea that a photograph will last for a very long time, if processed and stored properly. Cheap paper can contain acid from the manufacturing process, and will consequently not last for a very long time if exposed to light (the acid will also harm any other materials stored with it, but that's another story). Papers intended for archival use will last much longer, but ultimately, papers exposed to light—especially UV-loaded daylight—will fade or turn yellow, and that will be the mechanism that's relied upon in this project.

To anyone who has used that lovely material, Cibachrome, there may be a resonance here. Unlike every other photographic material where exposure, followed by development, created an image with either granular silver or colour dye, each Cibachrome print began with a sheet of enlarging paper that contained all the dyes already in place; it looked brown before exposure etc. The technical beauty of Cibachrome (for me) was in the process of developing a silver image and then bleaching that image and the dyes associated with it, leaving only the dyes that weren't affected by the exposure, leaving a direct positive image (it was used for printing from colour slides, not negatives). (It also meant that the image was sharper, as the dyes in the unexposed emulsion limited light scatter.)

I just loved the brilliance (both literal and metaphorical) of the Cibachrome method, and thought that it had been discontinued years ago, after it had been renamed Ilfochrome; however, the Ilford site says that it is still available. This chap seems to think that it was on the way out, and shows the material being used for original in-camera photography, rather than for printing.

The point about that apparent digression is that the photographer behind this project is using black paper, which should gradually be bleached away to a positive image; or so the theory goes. There are many questions, of course, about this project: will the cameras still be there in 100 years; will the exposures actually work; will the images be worthwhile, in any broad sense of the word? If all goes to plan, it might make for a fascinating exhibition/book/blog post; it if fails, then likely very few people will notice or care … but I suspect that's art for you.

Read about the project here:

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In search of caffeine

When we lived in Edinburgh, one of our favourite pastimes was to go for a drive through East Lothian. We'd just pick a road and head down it; with plenty to choose from, we'd have a different journey each time. East Lothian is a coastal county, bounded to the north by that well-known Scottish linguistic joke, the Firth of Forth. It is a green place, containing both coal-mining towns and pastoral land—and even the odd site of historical importance (a hoard of Roman silver was found on Traprain Law in 1919).

 Ripening Harvest, East Lothian

Having moved to the New South Wales north coast 16 years ago, we found the opportunities for similar explorations a little more limited, although we did have a few favourite roads through the Coffs coast hinterland. Four years ago, the move to Brisbane's southern suburbs reduced the opportunities even further, although we have taken the occasional meandering route home through some of the older suburbs, to enjoy a glimpse of the city's older residential architecture.

More recently, we have been nursing a notion that moving inland to a large country town might be a good idea. Although there is no mandatory retirement age in the Brisbane City Council, I start drawing my UK Civil Service pension in less than five years, with the old age pension 5-10 years beyond that (depending upon how far those particular goalposts are moved by government policy).With that notion in mind, we finally took a trip to Toowoomba, having said many times that we should.

My introduction to Australia (apart from the few days in Sydney after arrival), was two years spent in the small country town of Coonabarabran, the local centre for staff working at the UK Schmidt Telescope, to which I had been assigned for a while. Coming from the cultural sophistication—not to mention the ancient roots—of a city of 300,000 people, I felt as if I'd arrived in the Wild West. The strange shop awnings, some unsealed roads, and huge cars that you could play 5-a-side football upon, were a world away from the Georgian architecture and horizon-to-horizon asphalt of Scotland's capital. However, I took to it pretty quickly: the change was refreshing, and I grew to like living among just 3,000 people, in a simpler, more honest way of life. In a way, this place seemed to have a lot in common with the in-your-face bluntness of Glasgow, than the behind-closed-doors cliqueish attitudes of Edinburgh. And, because Heather had grown up in such places, whenever we travelled thereafter, we would compare places to Coona', which seemed like the 'real Australia'.

It is partly with that feeling in mind that we feel drawn to smaller town life, although I would also welcome a move to the drier side of the Great Dividing Range, where tools don't go rusty and camera lenses (among other things) don't do mouldy, like they do in a humid coastal environment.

The Warrumbungle Mountains, on the Great Dividing Range

In between our first planning to see Toowoomba, and our actually going there, Heather had gained a friend just an hour further west. The visit was therefore to kill the proverbial two birds. We could have done with another day or two, but it had to be something of a flying visit—which just means we have an excuse to do it again later on.

So, what's important in our choice of town? I've said for some time that I could pretty much live anywhere, that home can be where I hang my hat. Coming to Brisbane has been enjoyable, although that might not have been the case had we not managed to find a home in the suburb that we settled upon. Here, there is easy access into and out of Brisbane, on relatively uncongested roads, and the public transport is good; my journey to work is a fairly trivial run of less than 20 minutes, and the suburb itself is good. Retiring to a country town though, there will be no drive to work, and the way out of town will be pretty straightforward anyway.

We have few vices, but one that we do have is the pleasure of seeking out a cafe that makes a good coffee. There is plenty of average coffee around, but I can make that at home, if I'm being sloppy. Joining the Brisbane Coffee Lovers Meetup group introduced us to a few places, and we have found more ourselves. So, we would hope that anywhere else that we settle has at least one place we can repair to, for a well-made cup. After a terribly long drive from home (OK, about 90 minutes), we therefore stepped into the first likely place that we saw, to slake our coffee-flavoured thirst. Sadly, it was quite average. Not bad, but not great. After that, we went walkabout, to see what the town centre had to offer, stopping to buy some things for lunch on the way, which we later scoffed in the botanic gardens. Good, there is at least one excellent deli in town.

Nature, ignoring unnatural boundaries

Nature, being natural

The day soon went, as we meandered about both on foot and by car. We had agreed to be at our friends' place for 6, so leaving around 5 was the plan, but we had need of another coffee, after a hard day swanning around†. We spotted a place that looked like it was trying to be a Melbourne lane cafe, and after a quick butchers inside, decided that it seemed authentic enough. Sadly, the coffee wasn't to my palate, so another one was crossed off the mental list.

Urban retro-chic

After our night in Dalby (where the sky was dark and the stars bright), generally chewing the fat evening and morn, we headed back east around midday. This late on Anzac day, the ceremonial parades had finished, and we found Toowoomba to be mostly closed. After another walk around town, we had a delicious lunch at the Biriyani Hut, followed by ice cream and sorbet at the corner cafe, followed by … wait for it … a gorgeous coffee. We'd found it at last, and know where to go next time. The iced delicacies were very good as well, so no complaints there at all. Mission accomplished.

The drive home took us back across flat pastoral land, with cotton, sorghum and who-knows-what-else? Coupled with a blue sky scattered with meteorological cotton-wool above the agricultural kind, a few photos were called for. I dare say I'll be back for more.

Cotton-wool clouds after the harvest

Do swans 'people around', when they're on a long lead?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Nocturnal lunacy

Time was, we counted the passage of time in Moons. It's a convenient measure: short enough that one is 'only recently' but long enough that a dozen or so will take you through a set of seasons. 'Moons' in this context, means lunar months—or more specifically, the synodic months from New to Full and back again to New; a period of 29.5 days. (The other lunar month is the sidereal one, when the Moon returns to approximately the same position among the stars.)

The Moon is endlessly fascinating. Whether you are watching a Moonrise over the bay with nothing but your eyes (and possibly a glass of something convivial), or you are studying it at high magnification through a large telescope under a crystal-clear dark rural sky, it has a universal appeal.

For my part, I have watched with telescope and without; with binoculars; with camera; and with all sorts of permutations thereof. I have watched its phases come and go. I have watched the Sun's light slowly creeping across that distant landscape, illuminating crater floors and mountain peaks: a constantly-changing chiaroscuro that Buzz Aldrin described from its surface as 'magnificent desolation'.

Purbach, Arzachel & the Straight Wall

In 1976 I was given a second-hand 6-inch (150 mm) reflecting telescope. I had arrived. At last, I had an instrument with a proper mount, driven to follow the movement of the stars (actually, the rotation of the Earth, but let's not quibble), with which I could employ substantial magnification upon celestial sights near and far. By that time I had already decided that I needed to learn about photography, so that I could record what I was seeing through the eyepiece. Little did I know the challenge ahead...

I did try to mate my somewhat ancient SLR camera to the telescope, trying to get decent photographs of Moon and planets, but the results were generally disappointing. Fuzzy, shaken images discouraged me and until I was introduced to the Thomas Cooke 6-inch photovisual refractor at the City Observatory in Edinburgh, I did no more telescopic photography. The Cooke was a fine instrument in a poor situation. Murky city skies and poor 'seeing' were constantly conspiring to reduce image quality, but I did dabble a bit, and even recorded the second Scottish image of Comet Halley with it in 1985.

Copernicus, Eratosthenes & Appenines

I have the good fortune these days to work at the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, which is equipped with a Zeiss 150 mm refractor. The beauty of that instrument is that it sits on a coudé mount, which means that the viewing end doesn't move with the telescope, which in turns allows any camera to be mounted without upsetting the balance. The drawback to this telescope is its optical system: as an ordinary 'achromat', it is subject to incompletely-corrected colour, so that when taking photographs there tends to be a blue haze around bright objects. (The Cooke, with a 'photovisual' triplet objective, was corrected for red, green and blue light.) So, after trying for a while to take some decent lunar photographs through the Zeiss, I find that unless I want to discard the blue channel and go for a greyscale image using just the red and green, it's of limited use. Which is where I come back to the old reflector (the 'CF', it having been manufactured by the old Charles Frank company in Glasgow).

The Zeiss refractor, with Yours Truly observing the Moon.

The reflecting telescope was devised by Isaac Newton as an alternative to the simple lens telescopes of the day, which were even more plagued by false colour than any modern achromat (a-chromat ... meaning no colour, but they don't quite live up to that name). I'd never achieved much with mine in the past, but would a modern digital camera make any difference?

One of the great benefits of digital imaging is the immediacy of it: you can see the image without waiting for a film to be processed and printed. So, when you need to assess the accuracy of focus, exposure or subject targeting, you have almost instant feedback. If the camera has live view focusing then the focus can be refined before shooting, under high magnification (although even then, checking the images on a large monitor allows a final decision).

Fortunately, the image scale of the CF is almost perfect for a crop frame DSLR: the Moon sits comfortably in the frame, while allowing some room to move; it's effectively a 1200mm long-focus 'lens'. I have become enamoured of hitching my Canon 40D to it, and recording our nearest natural neighbour, although it's hardly ground-breaking stuff. No two images will be the same though, due to the changing phase and libration—the apparent east-west and north-south wobbling that allows us to see 59% of the lunar surface (even though the Moon keeps nominally the same face to us all the time).

Here then is a set of images taken over the last month or so, as well as a 3D stereo pair using another image from last year. Enjoy.

 The Moon's size varies because of its elliptical orbit. A so-called 'supermoon' is a Full Moon when it's at its closest distance from Earth, although it's only about 14% larger than the opposite extreme.

Waxing and waning gibbous phases. The images have been processed to enhance the subtle colouration due to different mineral composition; the Sea of Tranquility is noticeably more blue than its neighbours.

The total eclipse of 15th April 2014. 5 minutes before the end of totality (left), and about 30 minutes later, in partial eclipse (right); the latter image has been HDR-merged from 3 separate exposures that cover the great brightness difference between the shadowed and sunlit portions.

A crescent Moon in two bites, showing the 'Earthshine' that brightens what would otherwise be the dark side.

It might just look like 2 Full Moon images, but this is a stereo pair. Try crossing your eyes, then bring the middle of 3 images into focus. If you can manage it, you should see a round Moon instead of 2 flat images.