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 I can also be found at Tempus Fugit (no longer being updated).

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.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A public bookmash

I discovered the art of the bookmash—a.k.a. book spine poetry—via Stan Carey, who maintains the blog Sentence first. I have dipped my toes only briefly into the bookmash pond, as it were, and not for some time. Today, however, I found myself in one of our regular charity shops, and thought: bookmash!

I once introduced the owner of one of Brisbane's second-hand bookshops to this practice, and even perused her shelves in search of an example, but have never—despite threats to do so—rearranged any retail bookshelves to satisfy this particular creative urge.

If you're not familiar with it, the idea is simple: look at book titles and find an arrangement of them that seems in some way poetic; Stan has his collection here. Today's effort was put together fairly quickly, with all of the books already in one small section of the shelf; all that was required was a little shuffling. Judge for yourself if this is poetry:

Tangled webs, kiss, pillow talk.
Lies I told about a girl, tangled up in you.
The dance of anger; Sunday's silence.
The road.

Whether or not anyone else noticed this ephemeral poem is a matter for conjecture … but I doubt it. It's just our little secret.