Still Totally Awesome

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017, was my fourth complete solar eclipse. I’ve seen two annular eclipses, 1994 and 2012, and two total eclipses, 2001 and 2017. Annular eclipses, or rings of fire, are worthy spectacles but nothing compares to a total solar eclipse. Some things have to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Unless you have stood under the Moon’s shadow you don’t really know what it’s like. Pictures and recordings all miss the mark. Maybe one day, when virtual reality directly hooks into all our senses, it may be possible to record totality but until then you have to get under the Moon’s shadow and, this is absolutely crucial, only totality counts!

Here in the Boise Idaho area, many people decided 99% was good enough. This is not even wrong! The August 21st eclipse took place right in the middle of Western Idaho State Fair and like all make a buck opportunists the fair promoted an “enjoy the eclipse with us event.” There was only one problem: Boise wasn’t in the totality zone so advertising dollars were spent reassuring fair-goers that 99% was close enough; that a measly 1% difference was no big deal; that it wasn’t worth refraining from shoveling junk food down your obese pie-hole on the overpriced midway for a few hours. Cosmic spectacles cannot be allowed to suppress the bottom line.

Fortunately, I knew better. The difference between 99% and 100% is vast. Solar eclipse awesomeness is not linear! It’s actually more like a logarithmic step function with a really big step at totality. XKCD accurately summarized this with his with recent eclipse cartoon. He correctly notes that total solar eclipses are off the scale.

XKCD accurately notes that total solar eclipse “coolness” is off the scale. Totality in on an entirely different plane than partial or annular eclipses.

There was no way I was going to miss totality, especially when it was in my backyard, so we got up at 4:00 am on the 21st and headed east to Mackay Idaho. I’d already driven around southern Idaho and Oregon scouting eclipse watching locations. My preferred location was on Sunset Peak in the Lost River mountain range of Idaho. Unfortunately, Sunset Peak required that we climb the mountain the night before, camp out near the summit, and then wait for the eclipse the next morning. It would have been cool. Sunset Peak is slightly over 3,050 meters with nice views to the west and east. It would have been possible to watch the Moon’s shadow race over the Boise and Sawtooth mountains, blacking out one peak after another. I was all ready to pack up and go but my wife no longer camps out in tents. This is a problem I am still working on.

With the mountain summit vetoed we checked out the Snake River Valley near Huntington Oregon and Stanley Idaho. Both locations are very scenic but both required traversing easily congested roads. To ensure totality we would have had to go the night before. So we were right back to camping in tents. My third option Mackay Idaho was a nice mixture of, easily reached on good roads, large enough to find parking on public lands, and far enough out-of-the-way to avoid big crowds.

Mackay is about four hours from Meridian. To make it before first contact, shortly after 10:00 am local time, and to miss projected heavy traffic, we started at 4:00 am. In retrospect, we could have left later. Traffic was light on I84 and almost nonexistent on Idaho highway 20. We hardly saw another car until Highway 20 crossed the road to Sun Valley. Sun Valley was in the totality zone but it was too far from the center line for me. Leaving early paid off when we reached Craters of the Moon: a smoke reddened Sun was creeping over the eastern horizon and illuminating the black volcanic flows.

We left Meridian at 4:00 am and headed east to Mackay Idaho to see the eclipse. On the way we caught the Sun rising over the Craters of the Moon. It was a good start to eclipse day.

Turning north at Arco Idaho we headed north to Mackay. There was more smoke in the air than I would have liked. The further north we went the thicker the smoke got. When we reached Mackay you could smell the smoke. Mackay sits in a valley. Details on mountains to the east and west were obscured by smoke but the sky was completely clear of clouds and at totality the sun would be high overhead. I worried about smoke’s impact on the corona but I cheered myself up with the thought that sunblock cream wouldn’t be necessary.

Getting ready for totality. This shot shows how much forest fire smoke was in the air. The mountains of the Lost River Range are almost completely obscured in the background. The smoke probably reduced our view of the corona at totality but it increased the darkness and helped cast a deep orange red 360-degree dusk.

Being two hours early Mali decided to nap in the car while I walked around Mackay taking pictures. Main Street was blocked off and street vendors were setting up tented stalls and big meat smokers. Others were busy selling souvenirs. Most of the stores were closed. The eclipse was a good excuse for a holiday. I waited in a donut line and chatted with other eclipse tourists. One Maryland couple had just arrived in a rented car from Salt Lake City. A few Italians had come all the way from Naples. I saw lots of Utah, California, Alberta and Nevada license plates. Total solar eclipses gather the multitudes.

Mackay blocked off Main Street for anticipated eclipse crowds. The number of people that showed up underwhelmed. The only eclipse complaints I am aware of were made by businesses hoping to cash in on massive crowds. Crowds were down over the entire country. Too many people were scared away by horror stories about traffic and the rest bought the malarkey that 99% coverage is close enough to 100%. Eclipses are not tests. That last 1% obscures a vast unfathomable difference.

After checking out downtown Mackay I drifted back to the Centennial Rest Stop where Spanish science students were setting up equipment to observe the eclipse. They had come all the way from Spain to watch the eclipse in tiny Mackay Idaho. The moon’s shadow turns even the most unlikely places into tourist attractions. The scientific utility of total solar eclipses in the 21st century is not what it used to be but eclipses do offer great excuses for globe trekking and the re-enactment of historical experiments. The Spaniards were busy preparing weather balloons and getting ready to photograph the corona. They were also making objective lens solar filters for people who brought binoculars and telephoto lens. I considered having some made for my 16×70 astronomical binoculars but decided against it. Instead, I went back to our car, woke up Mali, and then started hauling eclipsing paraphernalia to the viewing area. Unlike many present, we didn’t have a lot of gear: just binoculars, three-legged folding stools, cell phones, cameras, and eclipse shades. Shortly after setting up our stools the Spanish students started counting down to first contact. Shortly after 10:00 am the eclipse started.

A group of science students came all the way from Spain to watch the eclipse in Mackay Idaho. They brought a collection of telescopes, sun filters, and weather balloons. They released a balloon just before the eclipse, presumably to measure the eclipse induced temperature drop which was considerable. Mackay’s elevation is almost 1800 meters. When the Sun goes down the temperature drops. The wind was blowing from the north and their balloon took off towards the south. They probably had a little road trip to recover it.

At first, people were excited to see the Moon slowly nibble at the Sun’s disk but they quickly quieted down. I got the impression that many were questioning the so-called awesomeness of solar eclipses. It’s just a boring black cookie-bite Sun. What’s the big deal? I think many were also surprised by how long it took for the Moon to cover the sun. I’d seen this phase before so I wandered around the crowd taking pictures while the Moon slowly covered the sun.

Fifteen minutes before totality the changing light was getting hard to ignore. The human eye adapts logarithmically to changing light levels. At this point in the eclipse more than 90% of the sun was covered, dropping light levels by a factor of ten, but it was only in the last five minutes that it became obvious that it was getting dark. I spotted a flock of pigeons gathering on the fences nearby. They were disturbed by the change in routine. As totality approached people started counting down. I peeled off my eclipse shades and glanced directly at the waning light. As the sun squeezed down to a pinhole of brilliant light I saw dazzling rainbow halos around the sun. I’m developing cataracts. When I stare into bright point sources I see rainbow halos. I had never looked at a point source as bright as the Sun and the effect was both beautiful and alarming. I will have to do something about my cataracts in a few years.

At totality, the blasé crowd erupted. Many started squealing, pointing, and yelling. Mali pointed to a flock of pigeons, the same flock I had spotted on the fence before, tearing through the air. I briefly looked all around to see the 360-degree sunset. I was expecting a deep orange dusk all around up but it failed to appear. We were too close to the mountains. Then I pointed my 16×70 binoculars at the eclipsed sun. Three flares were visible and the corona’s filaments were as beautiful as ever. The corona was not as extensive as the 2001 eclipse and the core region near the sun seemed brighter. I looked around for planets and stars. Venus was easy. I was expecting to spot Mercury and Mars but I the only star I saw near the Sun I later identified as Regulus. I didn’t try to photograph my first total solar eclipse but near the end of totality I grabbed my DSLR and fired off a few 300mm telephoto shots just to see what might come up.

I didn’t try and photograph my first total solar eclipse but this time I fired off a few 300mm handheld telephoto shots just to see what might come up. The result was better than I expected.

Then, as suddenly as it started, the Sun burst forth. One bystander yelled, “Do it again!” The small crowd kept buzzing as more of the Sun was exposed. The consensus was, “Yeah, total solar eclipses are freaking awesome and totality is totally worth seeing.” Later, while standing in line to view the Sun and receding Moon through a Hydrogen Alpha filtered telescope, I overheard a fellow in the crowd say, “I’d read about shadow chasers, people who go all over the world to see total eclipses, I thought that was crazy, until today!”

The next total solar eclipse is in 2019. The greatest eclipse is in the Pacific, later the shadow runs over parts of Chile and Argentina. I’ve always wanted to visit the large observatories in Chile and view the southern sky from the super dark high elevation skies of the Atacama. This with totality is close to amateur astronomer heaven.

Affinity Photo Review

There’s a new image processor on my computers. Recently the chief developer of one of my favorite image editors, Picture Window Pro (PWP), sent out a sad email letting all PWP users know that he is stopping PWP development. He thanked us for over twenty years of support and as a last gift converted the final version of PWP to freeware. You can now download and run Picture Window Pro without a key. PWP is a superb program! It’s still the fastest and meanest image editor I have ever used and I am constantly trying image editors. If you’re interested in getting a free copy of PWP download the program before the distribution website shuts down.

I was saddened by this news but all good things eventually end. With PWP going away I decided, for the nth time, to look for alternatives. I reconsidered Photoshop. I’ve used full-blown Photoshop but frankly, I’ve never been impressed. It’s expensive and slow! I use an old copy of Photoshop Elements, mainly to remove blemishes on film scans, but in my opinion, the only Adobe image processing product worth paying for is Lightroom. Adobe is the evil image processing empire. They squeeze you with sluggish performance and abusive subscription payment models and then act like they’re doing you a favor. It didn’t take me very long to abandon Photoshop (again) and keep looking for PWP alternatives. Lucky for me there’s this thing called DuckDuckGo that quickly led me to Affinity Photo.

Affinity Photo is a relatively new image editor that got started in the Mac world and, as of November 2016, is also available for 64 bit Windows systems. Affinity has snagged dozens of positive reviews and, unlike Photoshop, is reasonably priced. I decided to give myself a little Christmas present and bought Affinity Photo.

The Affinity Windows download file is large: over 200 megabytes. Affinity Windows depends on  .Net 4.6.2 which is also installed if it’s not on your machine. It took a few minutes to suck down and install all the required bytes but things went smoothly and I eagerly started the program.

Before relating my impressions of Affinity Photo I will describe my binary image format philosophy. Image editors typically create and manipulate vendor specific proprietary binary image files. Binary image files like PSDs, NEFs, DNGs, and now Affinity’s AFPHOTOs, have a nasty tendency to evolve on vendor whim. This poses fundamental long-term image storage problems. Even if you conscientiously backup and archive your original image files you may discover, a decade hence, that you can no longer load them with current software. I hate this! Photography is for the ages, not the marketing cycles of software and camera companies! If you have ever wondered why the lowly JPG image format still reigns supreme despite its abundant technical deficiencies stop wondering. The JPG format is an open and well described eight-bit channel format. Any competent programmer can write software to read and write JPGs. The same holds for TIFs, PNGs and a few other open formats. This is not true for vendor dominated formats. The specifications, even if disclosed, can change on a moment’s notice.

How can photographers deal with transient binary image formats? There are two basic approaches. You can convert all your images to an open image format. Some photographers convert camera RAW files to high bit TIFs. Converting large numbers of image files is a tedious and resource hungry process but it’s probably the best bet for long-term storage. I use the second lazier approach: maintain at least two independent image programs that can read and write the binary image formats you work with. I use Nikon cameras; they crank out proprietary NEF binaries. Currently, I have four programs on this machine that can read NEFs: PWP, Lightroom, Affinity and ThumbsPlus. I will tolerate proprietary binaries if and only if I have options. Don’t let software and camera companies box you in.

I started using image editors about fifteen years ago. My first editor came with my first digital camera: a one megapixel HP. I cannot remember the name of this program; I only used it long enough to discover its appalling deficiencies. Within a week I had purchased my first version of Photoshop Elements (PE). I was happy with PE until I encountered posterization (read the link for the gory technical details). Posterization wreaks prints and it’s easy to posterize eight-bit channel images. The answer then, as it is now, is to increase your working bit depth. Adobe recommended upgrading from PE to full Photoshop. Why fork over $70 bucks when you can fork over $500? Photoshop Elements has a long history of half-assed support for sixteen-bit channel images and the reason is painfully obvious. If Photoshop Elements fully embraced sixteen-bit channel images there would be very little need for full Photoshop. You could save yourself hundreds of dollars. Adobe decided not to compete with themselves and adopted the time-tested pseudo-monopolistic practice of sodomizing the customer. I did not embrace the butthurt! I started looking for low-cost programs that properly handled sixteen-bit images. It didn’t take me long to find PWP.

This early experience shaped my entire image processing approach. Instead of adopting a single monolithic “industry standard” program and joining the nerd herd I decided to go my way and use many small programs. Instead of a Goliath, I went with many Davids.1 When you take the David approach interoperability moves to the top of the stack. The output of one program must effortlessly become the input of another. How programs play together matters. Additionally, when you apply the David approach, you never look to completely replace your tool set. General purpose tools like Affinity may be able to do all the things more specialized tools can do but probably not as efficiently or as well.

So, before adding Affinity to my trusted tools I asked:

  1. Does Affinity play nice with others?
  2. Is Affinity’s user interface (UI) tolerable?
  3. Does Affinity streamline common tedious tasks?
  4. What new capabilities does Affinity offer?

With these points in mind let’s look at Affinity Photo.

Does Affinity play nice with others?

One of the first things I look for in image processors is tolerable loading times. Part the reason I’ve never been able to stick with full Photoshop is because it takes forever to get the damn thing up. Affinity on Windows easily beats full Photoshop but it’s still slower than good old C coded PWP. PWP comes up in a flash. It’s one of the many reasons I stuck with it for over a decade. Affinity’s loading speed is comparable to GIMP, Photoshop Elements and Lightroom: fast enough to not drive me crazy.

After loading Affinity, I immediately started testing the program’s ability to read and write sixteen-bit TIF files. The basic single layer sixteen-bit TIF file format is one of the best supported lossless image formats. It’s often the only way to move information from one program to another without trashing bits. JPGs are universal, but every time you write a JPG you lose data: that’s the lossy part of JPG compression. Lossy image formats are fine for the web and final presentation but are a total disaster for image editing. Affinity can read and write sixteen-bit TIFs. It can also read and write a number of other important formats like Photoshop Elements PSDs. Affinity converts PSD layers to AFPHOTO layers. It also handles JPGs, PNGs and many RAW formats like Nikon’s NEFs. Affinity plays well with others.

Is Affinity’s user interface UI tolerable?

Once I had satisfied myself that I could slosh bits through Affinity I started evaluating the program’s user interface. UIs have ruined many editors. I’m immediately suspicious when reviewers start lauding a program’s UI before spending a few hundred hours using it. UIs either help or hinder. Affinity’s UI is decent. If you have ever used a layer oriented image editor you will quickly adjust to how Affinity works. I strongly recommend watching the Affinity tutorial videos; they are among the best video tutorials I’ve seen and quickly show what the program can do.

Once Affinity is loaded it’s pretty zippy. Common image handling operations are fast enough to fly under my annoyance radar. Image processing can be very demanding. Don’t expect to stitch 500-megabyte panoramas from original RAW files instantly. With current hardware and software, some things will take time. It’s fair to say that Affinity’s performance compares favorably to other image processors. I can put up with Affinity’s user interface.

Does Affinity streamline common tedious tasks?

After playing with Affinity for a few days I used the program to help restore some old scanned slides. Old pictures are always damaged; they all need a bit, or a lot, of retouching. The problems most people associate with old pictures, tears, color changes, and loss of tone are usually easily fixed in most editors. The biggest job is removing thousands of scratches, spots, and stains. Most restorers give up and crop or blur away such defects but I’m with Lady Macbeth: “out, out damn spots.” Any tool that helps me hunt down and exterminate spotty pests will be lovingly embraced.

The Affinity inpainting brush works a lot better than the corresponding Photoshop Elements healing brush. In particular, it crosses linear backgrounds, buildings, fabric patterns, and so forth without unduly destroying detail. Removing long linear scratches that cross regular structured detail is a soul draining chore. Whenever I see such defects I typically give up and find another picture to restore; I have a big backlog of scans awaiting restoration! This slide of the southern end of Beirut Lebanon, taken by my

I am still exploring the Affinity Photo image editor. I used it to restore this scan of a Kodachrome slide my father shot from a hotel window of the south coast of Beirut Lebanon in 1968. The Continental Hotel is visible in the lower left corner of this image. My mother often stayed in the Continental when she visited me in Beirut. I fondly remember having continental breakfast in the Continental. The original slide was overexposed and covered with splotches and sky fingerprints. The retouching tools in Affinity Photo are better than corresponding tools in Photoshop Elements. I particularly like the Affinity inpainting brush; it works well on textured and linear subjects. I was able to remove long scratches cutting through the buildings in this image without unduly wreaking building detail. I also used the inpainting tool to remove a cutoff street light and a car it was shading on the bottom of the image. It's easier to remove objects with Affinity Photo than it is in Photoshop Elements.

I am still exploring the Affinity Photo image editor. I used it to restore this scan of a Kodachrome slide my father shot from a hotel window of the south coast of Beirut Lebanon in 1968. The Continental Hotel is visible in the lower left corner of this image. My mother often stayed in the Continental when she visited me in Beirut. I fondly remember having continental breakfast in the Continental. The original slide was overexposed and covered with splotches and sky fingerprints. The retouching tools in Affinity Photo are better than corresponding tools in Photoshop Elements. I particularly like the Affinity inpainting brush; it works well on textured and linear subjects. I was able to remove long scratches cutting through the buildings in this image without unduly wreaking building detail. I also used the inpainting tool to remove a cutoff street light and a car it was shading on the bottom of the image. It’s easier to remove objects with Affinity Photo than it is in Photoshop Elements.

father in 1968, is typical of many images in my backlog. There were dozens of long linear scratches running through the buildings. It would have taken hours to fix them with PE. All it took was a few passes with Affinity’s inpainting brush to remove them. I was impressed. This single tool significantly speeds up restoring scratched and spotted images and justifies Affinity’s purchase price all by itself.

Another Affinity tool that streamlines common image processing tasks is the Affinity panorama tool. Most modern image editors have fairly decent panorama tools and building a panorama is easier than it used to be. In the image editing Dark Age, you had to manually select control points and master blend masks to build decent panoramas. It could take hours to align a single image. Current editors use effective automatic control point detection and advanced blending algorithms. In most cases, it’s a simple matter of using good capture technique followed by loading the individual images into a panorama tool to generate decent to excellent results.

We are living in a panoramic golden age but there are still problems. I shoot entirely in RAW because RAW preserves the most information and affords the greatest post processing options. Panoramas often encompass scenes of high contrast. Image tones will vary from extremely bright to very dark. It’s not uncommon for ordinary panoramas to span twelve or more stops of dynamic range. When processing high dynamic range pictures it’s extremely advantageous to do all your work on sixteen-bit or thirty-two-bit channel images. Blending eight-bit panoramas can release the posterization Kraken; trust me, you don’t want that monster savaging your scenes.

Unfortunately, the Photoshop Elements panorama tool is inherently eight-bit. This means I must do all my major tone adjustments in Lightroom before panorama stitching. Adjusting the tones of a single image is tedious, doing it for many panorama frames is cruel and unusual punishment. Adobe’s answer is always the same; give us a lot of money and we’ll release you from eight-bit Hell! Lucky for us Affinity gets us out of eight-bit panorama Hell for a lot less.

The following panorama of the mountains near the eastern entrance of Glacier National Park was directly generated from Nikon NEF RAW files. All feature detection and blending calculations were high-bit. Tone adjustments were aided by regular tone mapping. Tone mapping is like an automatic Zone System. Compared to what I used to put up with ten years ago Affinity panorama building is almost as easy as scanning scenes with an iPhone. Affinity significantly streamlines routine retouching and panorama building.

Looking west from just outside the eastern side of Glacier National Park near Saint Mary. The weather was grim and dark, just the way I like it, when I braved the rain to snap the frames that went into this panorama. I built this panorama directly from Nikon NEF files in the Windows version of Affinity Photo. My favorite image processor, Picture Window Pro, is being retired and I am exploring alternatives. I rather like this result.

Looking west from just outside the eastern side of Glacier National Park near Saint Mary. The weather was grim and dark, just the way I like it when I braved the rain to snap the frames that went into this panorama. I built this panorama directly from Nikon NEF files in the Windows version of Affinity Photo. My favorite image processor, Picture Window Pro, is being retired and I am exploring alternatives. I rather like this result.

What new capabilities does Affinity offer?

So far, the features I’ve discussed are common to most image editors. Does Affinity offer anything new or special? There is one Affinity feature, the FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) Denoise filter, that greatly mitigates one of my long-standing retouching nightmares: regular patterns.

Many old portraits were printed on patterned paper. The following is a crop of an old (1935) baby picture of my mother.

evelynpattern

My mother as a seven-week-old baby. This 1935 picture was printed on patterned paper. Patterned paper often adds luster and depth to photographs but it also makes it more difficult to retouch them. The Affinity Photo FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) Denoise filter can remove regular patterns without unduly softening images.

As you can see the entire picture is covered with tiny regular hexagons. Patterned prints were popular in the early and mid-20th century. The pattern adds depth and luster and has the nice side effect of making prints difficult to copy. Patterns also make retouching difficult. Retouching spots and scratches on patterned backgrounds tends to make them more, not less conspicuous. If only there was some way to remove the damn pattern before retouching. Affinity’s FFT Denoise filter does just that.

I applied the FFT Denoise filter to my mother’s baby picture and then ran through my regular retouching regime: see the following before and after diptych.

For some restorations, the ones that please or annoy me, I create a before and after diptych. I want to convince myself that my restoration work was worthwhile. Most of the time the restored image is better but in more cases than I would like the original scan is superior. And, every now and then, I cannot decide which one I like the best. This rendering of an old faded patterned print of my mother as a baby is one of those images. The original print is on patterned paper. The pattern imparts a quality that the restoration lacks. Ansel Adams once wrote that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. For restorers, the scan is the score and the restoration is the performance. Sometimes the music is glorious and clear and sometimes it's rap – rhymes with crap!

For some restorations, the ones that please or annoy me, I create a before and after diptych. I want to convince myself that my restoration work was worthwhile. Most of the time the restored image is better but in more cases than I would like the original scan is superior. And, now and then, I cannot decide which one I like the best. This rendering of an old faded patterned print of my mother as a baby is one of those images. The original print is on patterned paper. The pattern imparts a quality that the restoration lacks. Ansel Adams once wrote that the negative is the score and the print is the performance. For restorers, the scan is the score and the restoration is the performance. Sometimes the music is glorious and clear and sometimes it’s rap – rhymes with crap!

Affinity Conclusion

Affinity, like PWP, is a great value. The first Windows version is already superior to every version of Photoshop Elements I’ve ever used. It’s not as comprehensive as full Photoshop, but if you subtract the marginal features of Photoshop and keep the essential core elements, you’ve basically described Affinity’s feature set. Affinity is a layer editor but it’s not a Photoshop clone. The UI is completely modern, RAW development is built in, sixteen-bit layers are the default, and useful stack operations like automatic alignment are a click away. Affinity also supports thirty-two-bit HDR file formats and high dynamic range composites. There’s a lot of bang for the buck: strongly recommended!


  1. If you remember what happened to Goliath siding with David doesn’t seem like much of a risk.

Milliblog: Photo Captions

This blog is still alive and kicking. I post when I post. Currently, my energies are deployed on other fronts. If you absolutely must get your Analyze the Data not the Drivel fix look over my extensive millibloggy photo captions.  Here’s a typical example:

The “miraculous staircase” in the Loretto Chapel. After paying your three dollar entrance fee you can enter the chapel and see the staircase. When I was there people were milling around while a recorded message told the breathless story of the miraculous staircase. The story goes something like this. The chapel needed a staircase. Some nuns prayed to the sky fairy of carpenters and low and behold a carpenter showed up with a bag of simple tools. Over the next month this remarkably skilled carpenter fashioned this beautiful wood staircase using only his simple tools. Apparently he constructed the staircase from the floor to the upper level without central supports. Even now the staircase lacks the standard central beam of spiral staircases. The masses were amazed! How could the staircase stand without a central support? Surely this is the work of the divine. This is what passes for a miracle among sky fairy believers. It’s the same type of magical thinking that invokes aliens to explain the pyramids. Just maybe the carpenter knew what he was doing and had the technique to pull it off. Occam’s razor people: It cuts deeply.

The “miraculous staircase” in Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel. After paying your three dollar entrance fee you can enter the chapel and see the staircase. When I was there people were milling around while a recorded message told the breathless story of the miraculous staircase. The story goes something like this. The chapel needed a staircase.  So some nuns prayed to the sky fairy of carpenters and low and behold a carpenter showed up with a bag of simple tools. Over the next month this remarkably skilled carpenter fashioned this beautiful wood staircase using only his simple tools. Apparently he constructed the staircase from the floor to the upper level without central supports. Even now the staircase lacks the standard central beam of spiral staircases. The masses were amazed! How could the staircase stand without a central support? Surely this is the work of the divine. This is what passes for a miracle among sky fairy believers. It’s the same type of magical thinking that invokes aliens to explain the pyramids. Just maybe the carpenter knew what he was doing and had the technique to pull it off. Occam’s razor people: it cuts deep.

What is Required: Print Captions on the back of Photographs

I am tired of waiting for “the market” to exploit painfully obvious opportunities so I will now provide guidance, in the form of milliblog entries, that tell our less imaginative entrepreneurs just what some of us would buy if we could.

Here’s a deep request. How about printing captions on the back of photographs?

I just went through the excruciating ordeal of ordering about one hundred prints from SmugMug. SmugMug prints meet my high standards but their online ordering software is clunky and clearly geared toward very small print runs. If you have hundreds of pictures, of varying and custom sizes, the software will punish you. The obvious steps of setting a paper type, selecting all your images, and then letting the software work out the paper size from image aspect ratio is not available. You must go image by image setting one easily derived parameter after another. I would print a lot more if it wasn’t such a frigging chore.

As annoying as SmugMug print-ordering is at least I get the prints I want with one major exception. If you check out my online photographs you’ll see I use captions like nanoblog entries. Many people have told me they really like my captions. One of my pet peeves is unlabeled photographs. I have wonderful hundred-year-old photographs of elegantly posed complete strangers because nobody left a clue on the back.

So, in addition to printing timestamps and file names on the back of photographs, include captions as well!

P.S. It takes about five years for the market to meet my obvious requirements; don’t hold your breath.

Photospheres Away!

Photographers are notorious gear-heads. Everybody has a favorite lens, camera or tripod and, no matter how much gear we have, more is always better! Hey, somebody has to stimulate the moribund Obama economy. Gear lust is not entirely irrational. Good cameras really do take “technically” better pictures than mediocre or poor cameras but here’s the infuriating thing. Technical merit does not make the image!

Image quality depends of many things and changes over time. If you doubt this imagine you have an old locket that frames a Daguerreotype of your great-great-grandmother. I’d bet that every single portrait on your shiny new iPhone is “technically” superior to that old Daguerreotype but I’d also bet you’d chuck your iPhone before giving up that old Daguerreotype.  An image’s quality goes far beyond MTF curves and pixel counts.  Photography and geometry are both bereft of royal roads.

In the early days of photography gear was a serious constraint. Getting a good picture was a technical and artistic struggle. Imagine shooting a panorama using large glass plates covered with a home-brewed ASA 0.5, (you read that right ASA 0.5), blue light-sensitive emulsion. Despite such limitations early photographers managed to create some great images. Imagination and gumption have always been the most important photographic tools with good lenses as a distant third.  Well, the 150 year reign of the lens has ended, software has displaced the lens as the primary modern photographic tool and Google’s Photosphere cell phone application neatly demonstrates this technological shift.

A photosphere is a panorama on steroids. It’s a complete 360 degree look around image. The Google photosphere app derives from Google Maps street view. Street views are shot with special multi-lens cameras that look everywhere at once but some bright spark in Google realized that you could get roughly the same result from a single lens if the photographer was willing to endure a vertigo inducing dance. Shooting a photosphere takes at least three twirling 360 degree passes. You have to shoot the ground, horizon and sky.  It takes about twenty frames to build a photosphere.

There is nothing new about multi-frame panoramas. Photographers started shooting multi-frame panoramas shortly after the camera’s invention. I shot them when I was teenager. Panorama software isn’t new either; it’s been around for decades. Two “new” developments make photospheres possible: photosphere viewers and cameras (cell phones) that are more software than camera.

gert-driveway

I shot this panorama in the 1960’s. I rotated in my grandfather’s driveway shooting an entire roll of film with my Instamatic camera. Many years later I scanned the prints and used panorama software to stitch the images together. Click on the image for more panoramas.

The sphere cannot be mapped onto the plane without distortion. This mathematical fact limits how wide-angle your wide-angle shots can be before they are unnaturally distorted. A flattened 360 degree view of common rectilinear subjects looks wonderfully, or horribly, weird: straight lines become curves and areas lose proportionality. Many natural vistas can tolerate such torments but average street views cannot.  Photosphere viewers fix this problem by simulating how we look around.  Every time you browse a Google street view you are running a photosphere viewer.

Shooting panoramas and photospheres is like any other type of photography. It takes lots of practice! It was hard to “practice” shooting such images before cell phones could run stitching and viewing software because you couldn’t see what you had until you took your twenty frames back to the “lab” and tediously put them together.  Ten years ago panorama software required a lot of manual intervention. I spent hours putting three or four frames together. I didn’t put a twenty frame panorama together until I snapped my first iPhone Photosphere.

The iPhone lens is a pretty crappy short focal length lens. Any decent camera lens easily outclasses it yet I cannot shoot photospheres with my expensive Nikon’s while my cruddy little cell phone can.  What’s the difference?  Software!

iPhone Google photospheres are fun but they’re flaw ridden. You can easily see stitching errors, blending artifacts, ghost people, and other blemishes. Now that we can shoot photospheres the race is on to shoot quality photospheres! Software will dominate but hardware has to catch up to make this happen.  Before long you will be able to buy a special multi-lens photosphere ball camera that you can literally throw into the air. This ought to fix the viewpoint problem for people with good pitching arms and the rest of us can drop the little sucker from a drone. Photospheres away!

Panono Ball Camera

The Panono ball camera is a small multi-lens camera that shoots 360 photospheres by simultaneously capturing images from all its lenses and stitching the result together. It is designed to be thrown into the air. Photosphere baseball is going to be huge!

Review: Finding Vivian Maier

I suffer from SLAM (Spouse that Likes Art-house Movies).  I’m sure you’re familiar with this common affliction. It strikes when you want to see Spider-Man 2 but, because you dearly love your spouse, you settle on some “uplifting work of art” that can only be seen in a cramped, look around the pretentious fathead ahead in front of you, dingy art-house cinema. SLAM suffers get a break in St. Louis; there are only two art-house cinemas and their usual yard-sale like fare is dull even by art-house standards. But, as any yard-sale addict will tell you, there are diamonds in the debris and Finding Vivian Maier is a gem.

vivian-maier-small

Vivian Maier 1956. Vivian enjoyed self-portraits and mirrors. This is not vanity. All photographers fall prey to self-reflections. I am certainly guilty.

Finding Vivian Maier is a documentary about a great street photographer, Vivian Maier (1926 –2009) that you have probably never heard of. I had never heard of her and I’m a keen amateur photographer with a nagging interest in the history and technology of photography. I’ve read all three of Ansel Adams classic camera books, plowed through many giant histories of photography, and endured as many Photoshop and image restoration tomes as I can stomach.  I’m not an artist; I’m a technisté! A technisté is someone who has technical artistic skills but is not phony enough to be an artiste. Vivian Maier is an anti-technisté. She’s a true photographic artist that showed astonishingly low levels of interest in the craft and technology of photography.

Her story, as one lady in the film noted, is more interesting than her work. Nobody had heard of Vivian before 2007. She isn’t mentioned in giant histories of photography published before 2007 so it’s not surprising I missed her. She worked most of her life as a nanny. She didn’t hang around with other photographers and she apparently never made a serious effort to show her photographs. Even stranger, she rarely printed her pictures and shot thousands of frames that she never developed. She must have been content to look at her negatives if even that. This astounds me!  I cannot tell if I have a good shot until I “develop” it.  For most of her long life she snapped away in the background and it’s likely that her astonishing body of work would have vanished if John Maloof hadn’t bought a lot of her negatives at an auction in 2007.

For Vivian the act of capture sufficed and what wonderful captures they are. Her work is being exhibited around the world. I will certainly be looking out for the next show coming my way. You can see some of her pictures here and, for those of you that care, Finding Vivian Maier is much better than Spider-Man 2.

Minnie’s Pictures

Minnie E. Raver 1881-1977

While going through my late mother’s pictures I came across a box of my great-grandmother Minnie’s old photographs. When my great-grandmother died in 1977 my grandmother Hazel took her pictures and stuffed them in her Hoarder’s level junk filled basement.1 After Hazel’s death my mother recovered Minnie’s pictures from Hazel’s hoard and promptly filed them with her pictures where they remained until I found them. Minnie’s pictures have already seen off three generations of my ancestors and I’m next in line. Are they worth it?

Many of Minnie’s pictures are over a hundred years old. The oldest probably date to the 1870’s or 1880’s. Despite their age they’re in excellent condition. Obviously Minnie took care of her pictures and thankfully Montana basements and attics are often high and dry. I spent an entire day studying Minnie’s pictures. Her old portraits are superb examples of small studio 19th and early 20th century photography, see the following wedding portrait, and her snapshots are candid shots of the people she knew and loved. All of which brings me to my current problem. I don’t know who these people are!

Callie Davis Frank Smelser wedding 1905

Callie Davis (Minnie’s sister) and Frank Smelser wedding portrait 1905.

I have never had much of an interest in family trees or the entire quasi-delusional undertaking of genealogical research for the simple reason that most of it is bullshit. The basic genealogical problem is simple: people have always screwed around and then lied about it. When you get right down to it you cannot be certain, without DNA testing, that your own parents are your biological parents. There are good reasons to suspect that at least 1% to 5% of children result from cuckolding and for some social classes it may be as high as 30%. In other words your daddy may not be who you think it is! Cuckolding varies with culture, time, socio-economic status and so forth but it’s rarely zero. A cuckolding rate of 5% implies that by the time you’ve traced your ancestors to the great-great-grandparent level there is a 19% chance that an alleged, perfectly documented, ancestor is not really an ancestor. By the time we get back to the time of Christ, roughly 100 generations, there’s a 99.99% chance that any alleged ancestor is not really any ancestor. Genealogy without DNA is a hollow dead-end.

As bad as cuckolding is it’s the least of our genealogical problems. Genealogical records are incomplete, contain serious errors and are often complete frauds. As late as the 19th century the settlement of estates was very sensitive to birth order. If you were a first-born son you got everything while your baby brother got squat. It was even worse for women; they got less than squat. In such an environment there is a powerful incentive to forge records. Old handwritten documents may look official to modern eyes but you cannot assume they’re accurate. With a well-placed bribe first-born Johnnie suddenly disappears from the record. People have always lied about the important things.

Given all these obvious problems I usually ignore people going on about the exploits of their glorious ancestors. Your roots are unreliable people! You really don’t know who your great-great-great granny was and if you insist on telling tales about her I will insist on DNA evidence. I know that many of the dead in Minnie’s pictures are probably blood relatives and some are probably direct great-great or greater grandparents. I cannot be 100% sure they’re genetic ancestors but I can follow obvious document breadcrumbs and learn enough about these people to attach stories to their pictures.

I wasn’t looking forward to the giant chore of scanning, restoring and researching Minnie’s pictures2 but following breadcrumbs was more interesting than expected. It turns out that there’s a lot of dead people on the internet. When I started looking for death and marriage records I immediately came across a cemetery record for my own recently deceased mother. It was surprising to find her so soon. There’s an active world-wide ghoulish group of people photographing cemetery monuments and posting their findings online. It’s ironic but a Facebook for the dead preceded the Facebook for the living. Starting with my mother I backtracked through my alleged ancestors looking for a “Lydia.”  “Lydia” was scrawled on the back of what looked like the oldest of Minnie’s pictures.

Lydia Jane Ayres

Lydia Jane Ayres 1839-unknown

If the records are correct I believe this “Lydia” is Lydia Jane Ayres. There is a very good chance that Lydia is one of my great-great grandmothers. Lydia married Albert F. Raver in 1863 in Brant Ontario. Albert was the mother of Minnie’s husband Bert Raver.

I didn’t find any pictures of Albert Raver in Minnie’s collection and that’s too bad because I suspect Albert had an eye for the babes. I looked for his death record and found this confusing census entry. Here was an Albert F. Raver with exactly the same age and birth origin remarried to a Lydia L. Raver. At first I thought it was a mistake but Albert’s marriage to Lydia L. Ayres was in 1906. That did not compute. Then I remembered a story my grandmother Hazel told me years ago when we were talking about her grandparents. She told me that one of her grandfathers married twice to two women with the same first and last names. She complained about how difficult this made sorting Christmas and birthday cards. I cannot remember if the name was Lydia Ayres but what are the chances? It seems Albert married  Lydia Jane Ayres in 1863. Somehow they parted ways and later, at the age of 68, Albert remarried in 1906 a younger Lydia L. Ayres. Having been divorced and remarried myself I can only marvel at Albert’s ingenuity. The last thing you want to do in your senile dotage is call a second wife by your first wife’s name. Before social security that could have been a fatal mistake. Randy old Albert neatly dodged that bullet.

The randiness was not confined to the Raver branch. Equally intriguing is this old portrait of “dad’s old sweetheart.” Here Minnie is likely referring to her own father and my great-great granddaddy Howell Cobb Davis. Screwing around, contrary to boomer mythology, wasn’t invented in the 1960’s.

Dad's old sweetheart

“Dad’s old sweetheart.” Probably an old girl friend of Howell Cobb Davis.

Minnie lived to 96. I was in my twenties when she died so I remember some of the people in her snapshots. Here’s Minnie with her first-born son Vernon standing in Marble Canyon Arizona in 1949. I knew Vernon as a boy. He always posed exactly like you see him her.

Vernon and Minnie Raver Marble Canyon Arizona 1949

Vernon and Minnie Raver Marble Canyon Arizona 1949

You can read the poor guys mind. “Do you really need another picture? Well if that’s how it’s going be I’m going to assume my petulant spoiled fat boy pose.” You cannot blame Vernon. His photographic life got off to a dreadful start. Look at this gem.

Vernon F. Raver 1904-1964

Vernon F. Raver 1904-1964

In the early 20th century women liked to dress up their baby boys as girls. Vernon got the full girly treatment. You cannot blame him for being scarred for life after such trauma. Here’s a clue ladies. Boys are not girls. Gender is not arbitrary. People that assert the contrary are idiots. Sorry if that sounds like mansplaining; the truth is not always polite.

I doubt I’ll ever get through Minnie’s pictures. There are hundreds of images to scan, restore and research. I just don’t have the time or energy but in the years ahead I will occasionally pick out and upload attractive images. Here’s the gallery to follow if you’re interested.


  1. If Hazel was alive today she would be a star on TV’s Hoarders.
  2. Despite their good condition it was still a lot of work to restore the images posted here. To judge what I had contend with browse this gallery of before and after diptychs.