Saturday, October 12, 2019

At last, the perfect camera!

Well, no, actually; we all know there is no such thing, right?

Despite what might be suggested by camera manufacturers, reviewers and even photographers, every camera is a package of many compromises. Even money can't buy you a perfect camera (sorry Leica) because many of those compromises concern the laws of physics and the limitations of manufacturing processes. And let's not even start on the fact that your 'perfect' might not be the same as my 'perfect'.

Nevertheless, as photographers, many of us seem compelled to get as close to gear perfection as we possibly can. Perhaps, we think, it is our inferior gear that is holding our photography back? But what if it's not; what if it is our obsession with near-perfect gear that is distracting us from focusing on the very things that would improve our photography?
Muria Falls: Sony RX100 m3: 1/640 sec @ f5.6 ISO 125
I'm a couple of months into an experiment. I want to know what will happen if I leave my backpack of expensive DSLR kit at home and downsize my gear to the fixed lens, point-and-shoot category. Am I crazy? Probably. But there is a method in my madness - I want to travel lighter and spend less time wrangling gear and more time making pictures. Part of my problem too, is that I am both a visible light and an infrared photographer, something that adds an additional complication to my gear-carrying needs.
Nelson Cathedral organ pipes: Sony RX100 m3: 1/30 sec @ f1.8 ISO 320
So, instead of a backpack full of DSLR gear and lenses, I have narrowed it down to three small point-and-shoot cameras: one with a 1" sensor (but limited 'reach'), another camera with a 600mm equivalent lens for nature shots, and another camera set up for infrared work. They all fit into a small shoulder bag with plenty of room to spare. On a recent trip, I found it so much easier to whip out the appropriate camera than to fuss around with DSLR bodies and lenses. I took more pictures, worried less about what gear to use and didn't miss the backpack (or the shot).
Tui: Canon SX620 HS: 1/125 sec @ f6.3 ISO 125
Downsizing from a full-frame DSLR would have been unthinkable a few years ago but the quality improvement in cameras and, importantly, post-processing software, makes it possible to produce DSLR-like quality from much smaller sensors. From a quality perspective, I would be confident putting the pictures from any of my three point-and-shoot cameras alongside my DSLR pictures in a photo book or even at larger sizes on a wall.
Nelson Cathedral: Canon Elph 180: Infrared 720nm, 1/200 sec @ f3.2 ISO 100

About the cameras

The Sony RX100 m3: I have had this camera for over four years and still can't see anything in the market which can replace it for my needs. It wasn't a cheap camera but the quality of output is excellent and it can be used in anything from manual mode right through to fully automatic. It shoots RAW but, in my view, Sony have really nailed it with the automated JPG modes on this camera - all these shots were from in-camera JPGs.
World of WareableArts: Sony RX100 m3: 1/30 sec @ f2.8 ISO 800
The Canon SX620 HS: Some people will slate this camera for being a bland automatic with no manual control. It's smaller than the Sony and with its 24-600mm (35mm equivalent) focal length it is a dream at getting the fleeting nature shot. Like Sony, Canon has also mastered the art of in-camera JPGs, making this an ideal shirt-pocket camera for every-day use.
Weka and chick: Canon SX620 HS: 1/500 sec @ f5.6 ISO 200
The Canon Elph 180: The little Elph is the cheapest camera that Canon makes. This also makes it an ideal candidate for tearing apart for an infrared conversion. Like the other two cameras, it has a 20Mp sensor and produces some lovely detailed pictures in good light (which infrared usually is). It has a zoomy lever thingy and a shutter button - not much else. It does the business.
Kaiteriteri: Canon Elph 180: Infrared 720nm, 1/60 sec @ f3.5 ISO  100
Each of these pictures was taken during a recent four-day trip to Nelson. I took about 240 photographs and made about 90 'keepers' (37% - a very good ratio for me). These aren't the best shots, but they are representative of what each camera produced in differing photography styles. Last time I went away with the DSLR gear, I took 380 shots and produced 55 'keepers' (14% - much closer to my expected average). On that basis, I have produced twice as many keepers using my three small cameras than I did with the DSLR gear.
Busker, Motueka market: Sony RX100 m3: 1/125 sec @ f4 ISO 125
I've still got the DSLR gear, but it's on notice - at the moment I'm doing better and having more fun with my point-and-shoot cameras.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

IR Chrome

Time-ball station, Lyttelton Harbour
My latest camera arrived in the post the other day. It's a Canon Elph, converted to full-spectrum infrared and fitted with the latest IR Chrome filter from KolariVision. I might talk about the Elph later, for now, this is about the IR Chrome filter.

The IR Chrome filter was designed to replicate the look of Kodak's Aerochrome film from the days when we all shot film. Aerochrome is now history and I never got to use it, so I don't know how well this filter matches the original film look. What I do know, after only a short acquaintance, is that it produces some stunning results.

Pearson Park, Oxford
What the IR Chrome filter does, is capture quite natural colours in everything that doesn't reflect infrared wavelengths. Anything reflecting infrared (grass, trees, etc.) is produced in brilliant red tones. Seeing everything that should be green, represented in red, can be a bit disconcerting at first but somehow the simple green/red swap doesn't seem as confronting as some other false-colour infrared representations.

It's important to get a good white balance set in the camera and this filter white balances to a very high Kelvin - something north of 50,000K (normal daylight photography is around 6,000K). Fortunately, the Elph can handle this but, if you shoot RAW, your RAW converter may not - mine tops out at 50,000K but many won't go beyond 25,000K and that's just not enough for the look you see here.

Provided that the camera can set an appropriate white balance, then the JPG files from the camera will have the correct white balance baked in and that is what I have been using for these shots - until I resolve the RAW processing issue.

Sumner Beach looking towards Cave Rock
It's not all brilliant reds, sometimes it just pink; like these tiny black muscles clinging to the rocks but reflecting infrared, and the trees and bushes - too distant to make a bold statement. It's a strange world that this IR Chrome filer portrays, but one worth exploring and full of new compositional opportunities for the photographer to learn.

Sumner looking towards the Southern Alps

Monday, July 22, 2019

IR 720nm processing using LAB

A long post for the brave souls of the Infrared Photography Group ...

720nm infra-red (IR) photography sometimes gets a bad wrap. On the one hand, it gets accused of being colourless by those who are looking for false colour IR and, on the other hand, for not being sufficiently contrasty by those looking for black and white IR at the 850nm end.

720nm is often considered the standard infra-red filter - it lets through almost no radiation in the visible spectrum and is the lowest value filter that might be considered 'pure IR' (or, to be more accurate, Near Infra-Red or NIR). Filters at 590nm let in IR and some visible light (which is why it is usually thought of as more colourfull), while filters around 850nm are more aggressively IR, allowing only radiation from 850 (right up to around 1000+nm where most camera sensors stop recording) and gives contrasty black and white images. The 720nm filter, therefore, occupies a middle ground between colourful and contrasty while apparently excelling at neither.

But the 720nm filter can produce spectacular colour and deep, contrasty, black and white without going to the expense and inconvenience of carrying a range of filters for other purposes. The secret (if secret it is) is in the post-processing of the 720nm files - particularly in the use of the LAB colour space.

If, as a photographer, you believe that captures 'straight out of camera' (SOOC) are something to be sought after, or your post-processing is limited to Lightroom, then this approach will not be for you. But if, like me, you have struggled to get the results you want from 720nm IR captures, then you might want to give the LAB colour space a try.

About the LAB. 
LAB is a colour space, just like RGB or CMYK are colour spaces. They are each different ways of expressing the data that makes up an image.

RGB says, let's make three channels, one for red, one for green and one for blue. In the red channel, we will define how bright the red is for each area of the picture, and we will do the same for the green and blue channels. When we overlay the three channels we will get a coloured picture. RBG is like having three transparencies (red, green and blue) that you lay on top of one another to make a full-colour image.

CMYK is similar but is mainly used for printing. It defines the amount of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black needed to make the image colours (rather like mixing paints). Your printer may well contain ink for each of these 'colours' which it adds to the paper to make the image. Commercial printers may well ask for print jobs to be defined in the CMYK colour space so that they print as intended.

LAB is somewhat different. Like RGB, it also contains three channels -  L, A and B.  The 'L' channel is for Lightness or brightness - it contains data detailing how light or dark an area of the picture should be. The 'A' channel contains data about the balance between magenta and green in each area (all magenta, all green or a mix of the two) and the 'B' channel about the balance between blue and yellow. The main advantage of LAB is that you can manipulate brightness quite separately from colour or colour separately from brightness - this is what makes it so valuable for IR processing.

Programs like Photoshop allow you to choose which colour space you want to work in. You simply ask Photoshop to convert the document into a different colour space. Affinity Photo, however, works differently; it allows you to use an alternative colour space for a specific adjustment which makes using LAB so much easier. For example, both the Levels and Curves adjustments in Affinity Photo, have drop-down boxes allowing the user to choose between making the adjustment in RGB, CMYK or LAB. Nevertheless, if you are a Photoshop user, you can still make use of this technique in Photoshop, you just need to convert the whole document to LAB (and back again afterwards). What you can't do is work in Lightroom, which doesn't support LAB at all (at least, not when I was using it!).

Let's get started
There's processing to be done before you get to the LAB but, for the purposes of this demonstration, I will assume that you have an image that is properly white balanced, cleaned up and ready to go. I'm going to use Affinity Photo, but you should be able to follow along in your image editor of choice provided it supports the LAB colour space. If you have a well white-balanced 720nm image, the colours should appear something like this:
 

This is typical of a 720nm image - pale blue foliage with amber coloured sky and fairly flat. If your picture is all red and magenta, then you have a white balance problem that needs to be fixed before you proceed.

After loading the image into Affinity Photo. I choose a Levels adjustment layer:

Into the LAB
In the drop-down that currently says RGB, I choose LAB.

And in the drop-down that currently says "Master", there are three entries that interest us - Lightness, AOpponent and BOpponent. Lightness controls the brightness of the picture, the AOpponent the balance between green and magenta and the BOpponent the balance between blue and yellow.

Starting with the Lightness: the graph shows the amount of the picture which is dark (on the left) and bright (on the right). You can see that the graph extends nearly all the way to the left side, indicating that there are some good dark values in the image. However, at the bright end. the graph peters out well before the right-hand side, indicating that there are not many very bright values. To compensate, we will slide the White level slider down to about 85% so that it is nearly touching the rightmost edge of the curve.

This brightens the highlights and brings more contrast to the image. If the image is still either too bright or too dark we can use the Gama slider to adjust it to taste.

Now the real fun begins. In the dropdown that currently says "Lightness" go and have a look at the graph for both the AOpponent and BOpponent. They will look very different from the Lightness graph - just a few peaks in the middle and nothing at the sides. The BOpponent will normally be a little fatter than the AOpponent, but not by much.

Remember that the AOpponent controls the green and magenta colours - green to the left and magenta to the right. The fact that the graph is all in the middle tells us that there aren't many pure green or pure magenta. colours in the picture - most colours are a mixture of the two and sit in the middle. The same is true of the BOpponent which is a mixture of blue (on the left) and yellow (on the right). The graph is fatter but, still, there are no pure blue or pure yellow colours - just mixtures of the two. This ties up with our observation of the original picture which has some obvious pale blues with amber in the sky.

Let's start with the BOpponent. The labels on the sliders still say "Black level" and "White level" but, in the case of the BOpponent what they really mean is "Blue level" and "Yellow level". Slide the Black level slider up to nearly touch the curve and the White level slider down to nearly touch the curve on the other side.

 Looks pretty garish eh? But don't worry it will get worse yet! Make a note of the BL and WL setting (44% and 57%) and switch to the AOpponent. Now enter the same values for BL and WL. We could have used different numbers for the AOpponent, squeezing them in a bit tighter, but using the same numbers tends to keep a better balance between green-magenta and blue-yellow. You can tweak and experiment later if you like.

At this point, the picture is probably screaming in pain, and so it should, because we have just pushed the colour contrast almost to the limit. Don't worry, we will dial it back later but this is the point to talk about the next trick - blue sky and yellow foliage. This is a similar effect to channel swapping in RGB (though not identical).

To achieve a LAB swap, simply exchange the values for the BL and WL sliders in both the AOpponent and BOpponent - essentially you are reversing the colour curve and, if you want, you can do it for both or for either of the Opponents. For now, let's do it for both. So, the BL becomes 57% and the WL becomes 44%. on both the AOpponent and the BOpponent Your picture should now look something like this:

Dialling back the colour
If you thought that your 720nm problem was lack of colour, you now need to work on dialling it back and achieving a better balance. This is the role of the Gama slider and the black and white output sliders. In the Opponent channels, the gama slider controls the balance between the two colours in the opponent - green-magenta for the AOpponent and blue-yellow for the BOpponent. While the output level sliders control the amount of each colour. If you were to move both the output sliders to 50%, those two colours would disappear and would become greys.

I find it best to start with the BOpponent as it usually has more colour to work with than the AOpponent. Then switch back and forth between the two until you get a result that you can work with. I ended up here:

As with any radical colour manipulation, you need to watch out for image noise. IR images are frequently noisy anyway, so it's important to keep on top of the noise as it occurs. Usually, I will denoise the input file prior to using the LAB process and will probably denoise again when colour manipulation is complete.

The LAB process is just the foundation and I usually build on this with HSL adjustments and other filters. In this case, I chose to take the image in this direction (including cropping):

Note that this has all been done with global adjustments. There has been no hand selection of colours for differing parts of the image and no masking of effects - just overall image adjustments.

Black and white
So, what about the 720nm for black and white work? Well, a good black and white image often starts as a good colour image. So, based on the work already done, there are two approaches. First, you can take the final image above through any standard black and white conversion processes to provide the desired  gradation:

This is pure greyscale, though you could add any black and white toning approach you prefer for your monochrome images.  A second black and white approach is to go back to the LAB adjustment and move the black and white output sliders very close to the 50% value. By playing around you can generate a monochrome picture with just a tiny hint of colouration which can be a very effective alternative to standard black and white toning.

The 'Aerochrome' look
Because it is all the rage at the moment, I spent a few minutes looking at whether something close to the Aerochrome look can be generated from a 720nm filter. Using the original image, a LAB and two HSL adjustment layers later, we arrived here:

It's not perfect and I did have to paint out some colour from the stonework, but it can be done and it is another demonstration that the 720nm filter coupled with LAB and HSL adjustments can produce some impressive results.

Which version  (if any) of this image you prefer is down to personal preference, but the route to each of these images has started from a 720nm capture using simple LAB  and HSL colour space adjustments. I hope that I have demonstrated that a lot of different looks can be achieved with that humble 720nm IR filter and that all is not lost if you don't happen to have a 590nm, 850nm or IR Chrome filter for your new wide-angle lens.





Wednesday, June 26, 2019

A new Publisher in town


 
Affinity Publisher has now hit the streets and joins Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer to provide a complete creative solution for artists, designers and publishers. With the arrival of Publisher, the Affinity suite now provides a solution that rivals (and in some areas, surpasses) the Adobe Creative Cloud at a fraction of Adobe's cost.

Having worked in software development for a large part of my career, I'm more often than not disappointed by the quality of new software. In the rush to completion, things like usability, reliability and functionality often suffer, sometimes irredeemably. It is, therefore, a cause for some celebration when a new piece of software is delivered that lives up to its pre-release hype and, in most respects, approaches some sort of perfection. Such a piece of software is Affinity Publisher.

In my day-to-day working life, I use Adobe's InDesign for publication. It's become an old 'friend' (in the sort of way that a prison cell-mate might be considered a 'friend'*). I use InDesign to produce large documents that average around 100 pages, sometimes 200+ pages, have multiple sections, a variety of created and imported content types, and are revised frequently prior to publication as print and interactive PDFs. This is not lightweight use.

Though I had been involved in the Affinity Publisher beta programme for about six months, the beta had lacked some of the features I frequently use in InDesign and so I had never pushed it in the same way that I push InDesign. That changed when the final completed version was released and I recreated one of my larger documents in Affinity Publisher. This is not a review as such. but this is what I discovered:

  1. There was nothing that I do in InDesign that I couldn't also do in Affinity Publisher. I might have to do it differently, but it could all be done.
  2. Affinity Publisher needs learning. Many of InDesign's features work differently in Affinity. I don't think any were worse (just different). 
  3. Affinity's free video tutorials are pretty comprehensive and made learning easy.
  4. Overall, I felt I was more productive at some of the tasks I need to do in Publisher (e.g. managing imported PDF files and managing a document with multiple sections).
  5. Affinity Publisher provided rock-solid reliability on my Windows 10 desktop (Mac and iPad versions are also available).
  6. The integration between Publisher, Photo and Designer was first-class and exceed anything Adobe offers (Photo and Designer features are available from within Publisher without leaving the Publisher application).
  7. A perpetual license for all three Affinity products (Publisher, Photo and Designer) costs less than four months subscription to the Adobe Creative Cloud.
  8. Affinity Publisher is the sort of friend that might neet you at the gate when you finally get out.*

Affinity has the capability to go head-to-head with Adobe, especially if you don't need access to other tools in the Adobe Creative Cloud, like Premiere or After Effects. But, if you or your team are focussed on the main tools for raster graphics, vector design and publishing, then you may find the Affinity suite a much better fit. Find out more at: https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/

* No direct personal experience - just second-hand reports :-)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Walk in the Gorge

I love this time of year, and I love this place; just before the Ashely completes it's dash through the hills and starts to spill out on to the plains.

It's ten-thirty when I start my walk and the sun still hasn't crested the sides of the gorge. A muted light filters through the Autumn leaves and a carpet of orange covers the path - still wet from last night's rain. The bell-birds chime heralding the coming sun and I head on up, hoping to meet the sun coming down.

Those extraverted poplars have already stripped off. While others, more bashful, are still slowly undressing. Across the river the modest evergreens watch on; shocked perhaps by this display of deciduous daring.


Further up I find the sun shamelessly playing among the leaves like a five-year-old in gumboots. I busy myself looking and composing, carefully capturing the light before it moves on. Only later wondering why I didn't pause to let my boots kick through the pile of leaves; to wind back the clock sixty-five years ...

... But I think I know why; alone here with only the sun, the birds, the half-naked trees, there's a quiet magic in the air, crackling like static, demanding that the spell not be broken. There is nothing I can add to this. It is gift.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Gemini turns one

So, a whole year of daily Gemini PDA usage; time for an update.

Planet Computers'  Gemini PDA has been my sole phone, communications and portable computing solution for a whole year. In that time, it has met my expectations and more - I am well pleased with my purchase. But there are some qualifications, largely in software, support and Linux. But first, the hardware:


Hardware
There is one overriding reason to buy the Gemini - the clamshell design with a 'proper' mechanical keyboard. I am writing this review on the Gemini. The keyboard is a solid performer, if rather too small for ten-finger touch typing. I have found that the best and fastest input is from the use of only three or four fingers and thumbs. It's not touch typing but it achieves the best balance between speed and accuracy and makes the Gemini keyboard a joy to use.

The clamshell design has stood up well to many openings and closings every day and seems to perform just as well as when it came out of the box. My only criticism being the sharpness of the metal edges around the closure points (once bitten, twice shy). The case has worn well and, although it is obviously not new, it is free from any major scratches and blemishes, despite sharing my pocket daily with sundry other metal objects.

Other users, however, have reported issues with cracked hinges and less than optimal keyboards. It is hard to pin down the reasons for this - perhaps there is manufacturing variability and perhaps differences in how the device is handled. I can only report on my own experience, which is very good.

Software
Planet Computers software is another matter. Notes, Data, Agenda, Airmail as well as a number of utilities come with the Gemini. Personally, I don't think that Planet Computers have the resources necessary to develop good software. The applications tend to be clunky clones of old Psion software and in my view are, quite frankly, best avoided. Fortunately, there are many Android apps to choose from which perform very well on the Gemini, and much better than the Planet versions.

Many people bought into the Gemini on the promise of Linux compatibility. They have been mostly disappointed. Linux is available on the Gemini, but it is reported as awkward and incomplete (I don't use it myself). Having previously spent a lot of time with Linux, my feeling was, and still is, that Linux is largely for hobbyists,  hackers, servers and black-box systems. If companies like Canonical struggle to produce an open-ended, consumer-grade Linux OS, then there is no hope for a little company like Planet Computers. Try Linux if you like tinkering, otherwise just stick with Android.

Mostly, Android runs well on the Gemini. But Planet seems to contract out their Android integration to a less than wonderful company. Android updates are best avoided on first release. Expect to wait a couple of weeks after release, until other (braver) users are reporting that it updates and runs ok. While my Gemini runs well on Android, in the last year I have also experienced loss of functionality on the silver button for several weeks and Google Maps ceasing to operate for a while. These were addressed eventually, but I won't be rushing to update to Android Oreo until I hear that the road is clear.

Support
Planet Computers suffer from poor communications and patchy support. They let issues fester before making any public statements about them (Apple do this too). They over promise on dates and regularly under deliver. Support seems spotty; some users report being very happy, while others can't get any response at all from suppport. All this could be put down to Planet Computers being a startup. But, two years down the track, things should be getting better and there is no evidence that it is.

If you are likely to need hand-holding or have high expectations of any company you do business with then you may want to avoid Planet Computers - at least based on current evidence.

Conclusion
I like my Gemini. It fits my style of working perfectly and is the natural successor to the Psion PDAs and Nokia Communicators of the early 2000s. I have the next version (the Cosmo Communicator) on order so that should tell you how pleased I have been with the hardware. Would I suggest it for my non-technical family members? Probably not; it does occasionally require some basic troubleshooting to deal with, or work around, a software issue. If you aren't comfortable with that then the Gemini might be best avoided.

To keep things in context; there are some downsides (mainly software reliability) but for me, they are outweighed by the considerable upsides - it fits my lifestyle and, quite frankly, there is nothing else available that can come close to replacing it. I hope that the Cosmo Communicator is at least as good as my Gemini.

Monday, May 6, 2019

One big adventure

Since the last post, Annette and I have had a small holiday and I have turned a vase. We tend to take small holidays - just a few days at a time - long enough to see and do something different, but short enough not to miss the familiar comforts of home.

A few hours drive got us to Mosgiel, near Dunedin where we had a comfortable eco cabin in the middle of nowhere. We were last in Dunedin when Bethany was having her spine straightened (about fourteen years ago) so a visit was well overdue. While there, we took the train up the Taieri Gorge and the Queen of Hearts found her throne at Larnach Castle.


The Otago Settlers Museum was well worth a visit and is a very affordable family venue with plenty for young people to see and do as well as a remarkable zero entry fee. We also enjoyed mooching around the railway station - a remarkable witness to the affluence of Dunedin in the 1900s.


Dinner with the Dunedin Prattleys rounded off the trip and the next day had us heading North towards home where, back in the shed, the lathe awaited a fresh piece of wood. Which, eventually, gave birth to this Kwila Vase. This is my second Kwila piece and I really like this timber - it is very heavy and coarse-grained, and working it feels almost like turning soft metal rather than wood.


When it's all stripped down, life is an adventure. Whether its a road trip, turning a piece of wood, making images, or simply learning something new - it's all one big adventure. I like that. Tomorrow, of course, there is another adventure waiting at the office. (It's true, I tell you. It really is!)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Green house, blue

Eventually it had to happen; after 25 years in the green house it was way past time for a lick  (or  two) of paint. Wattyl call it "Scandinavian Grey" - I call it pale blue. Whatever it's called, it's a nice facelift for the southernmost outpost of the Ford clan. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Light in the darkness


After Friday's massacre in Christchurch, I wanted to lose myself for a while in some wood. I started a bowl but, somewhere along the way, I began to think 'candle'.

Also, along the way, I began to see something on the news that I have never seen before - I began to see reports of masses of people standing up in public and saying, in various ways, "No!" Not just in Christchurch, nor just New Zealand, but around the world people were coming out and joining together to proclaim their "No!" Human beings don't do this they said, this is not what being human is about. To be human is to care - deeply. To be human is to love and have compassion. To be human is to weep with those who experience loss - those left grieving.

In all my years I can't recall such a worldwide outpouring of humanity - this is the light of the world. This is the light that cannot be put out, this is the light that pushes back against the darkness of hate.

It took the darkness of a massacre to reveal the light, but the light is burning; may it never flicker.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Acorn box

Turning a lidded box was the next challenge. A box is like turning two small bowls and making them fit together. Depending upon the use, the lid may be loose, snug or tight. My preferred fit is when you can lift the whole box by the lid, but a slight pull will release the lid with a satisfying 'pop'. Enter box No. 2, the "acorn box" (Box No.1 was a test piece).
Acorn box
As with all the other projects, time spent on YouTube watching the way others make a box is invaluable. It's no substitute for doing it yourself, but understanding the process before you begin saves making many simple mistakes. Anyway, what was a 100mm piece of beech firewood, has become a 80mm diameter by 170mm tall, acorn box. (The acorn used as a model is inside.)

Acorn box and acorn

I'm finding that there is something deeply satisfying about taking a piece of would-be firewood and working it into something that looks and feels good. Beech has an inner beauty that only comes to light when you start removing the bark, shaping it and putting a gloss on the new surface. It's like creating a random collision between the natural flow of the wood-grain and the deliberate shape of the object. At the end of the day, you might have something that looks good, but you know that your part has simply been to uncover what was there while trying hard not to spoil it.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bowl No.3

Picture to the contrary, bowl No.3 is not yet finished. I turned this one while the wood was still wet, which was nice turning, but the bowl is now in the process of drying and reshaping its self. It's lost over 10% of its weight in the three days since it came off the lathe and, when it is done, it'll be out with the sandpaper again to finish it off. I think that the final shape will be more rugby ball than football, but I do like the Black Beech figuring with the dark heartwood.
Bowl No.3
What would have been Bowl No.4, died. It was going to be a small winged bowl but a catch, during hollowing, had it escape the chuck and break one of its wings in a crash landing. Perhaps a winged bowl was just a tad ambitious for No.4. or perhaps I just need to be more careful!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Bowl No. 2

Bowl No.1 is probably worth about $2.50, which is roughly the value of the loose change it currently contains. It also has some torn grain and a nick in the rim where it hit the floor after I failed to catch it when it came off the glue-block. Bowl no.1 was a learning experience.

Bowl No.2 - 185cm
Bowl No.2, is in another class; not perfect by any means but, for something originally out of the firewood pile, it has a certain Pygmalion simplicity and charm. It was, initially, a rather gnarly piece of burr which had the lathe going walkabout, until the out of balance bits got cut away - all a bit scary really.

I've come to the conclusion that woodturning is like playing the guitar - fairly easy to do, but very hard to do well - I'm still in the easy part; rather surprised that something recognisable has come off the lathe, but beginning to wonder how long it will be before I stop creating pieces with so many imperfections.

Yesterday, next winter's firewood got delivered. So the woodpile is restocked and I noticed several pieces of nicely coloured Black Beach. Not sure how it will turn but I think I can feel bowl No. 3 coming soon.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Firewood at 1,400rpm

Actually, it was only 750rpm when the wood was all angles and the chips were flying, but it soon got to be round and the speed went up.

Looking back, it seems rather odd that I managed to get to 70 years old without having ever turned a piece of wood on a lathe. But there you go, having given away most of my woodworking gear when I got sick and didn't think I would ever get the chance to use it again, my new lease on life has seen me get an old lathe to play with. One grotty piece of firewood, a fist full of revs and a brand new carbide cutter later, and I have a woodworking mallet (all rather meta, perhaps?)

As a first effort, I'm quite pleased with the result. It's probably the most expensive mallet in the world at the moment, and I have no idea what wood it is made from (firewood?) but it looks good and it felt good in the hand when I cut it off the lathe.

And I discovered something else, woodturning is quite a therapeutic process; almost meditative. It demands your absolute full focus - firstly to manage the tools, secondly to achieve the form you want and third to keep safe. (Not that woodturning is dangerous in the way that jumping out of an aeroplane is dangerous. But wood, turning at speed, can do a lot of damage if it comes loose, so protective headgear is a constant reminder of the risk.) Anyway, I best go and rummage in the woodpile again and see if I can find a bowl, or a platter or a lidded box.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Topaz JPEG to RAW AI

I’m a Topaz fan, but Topaz are over-hyping their latest product, “JPEG to RAW AI”. It’s a deceptive title which has a lot to do with marketing and very little to do with reality. The program does try to make the best of a file in the JPG format, but does it create a RAW file? Emphatically not. Not even close.

This is a shame because, after forcing myself to ignore the hype and stay with the testing, I did find a program which is useful, even though it doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Here’s a look at what it can do.

Sometimes, all you have is a JPG file and no amount of wishful thinking or regret will get you the RAW file that you wish for. Some of us develop strategies to get the best out of these JPEG files, some just give up and go take another picture. But now, JPEG to RAW AI does bring something extra to the party. Whether it is extra enough to be worth paying nearly US$100 for is another question.

I did tests; lots of tests. Here is one test that is fairly indicative of them all. The original JPG file was well exposed and taken at a low ISO. Nevertheless, the results are not that pretty - this is a screenshot of a portion of the picture at 200% magnification. As you can see, it’s fairly ‘gritty’ with both JPEG artefacts and noise. On an arbitrary quality scale of 0-5, I’m going to score this at the bottom = ‘0’ (the best sample will score a ‘5’). (You may need to view the pictures larger to see the differences.)

In the second screen-shot, I applied just enough noise reduction to remove the ‘grit’. I used Topaz DeNoise 6 on a fairly low setting and then added a bit of sharpening. It’s better, the grit has gone, but now the grass is turning to mush. This is the typical noise reduction tradeoff and, depending on your personal preference, may raise the quality score to 1 or maybe a 2.

The third screenshot is what I usually do with JPEG files, I use Topaz AI Gigapixel to reduce the file size by 50% which removes most of the grit, and then enlarge by 200% which restores some clean detail using Topaz’s AI algorithms. Finally, a touch of DeNoise 6 deals with any small amount of remaining ‘grit’ while also taking the edge off of AI Gigapixel’s aggressive sharpening. The result is much better all around but, at 200% magnification, some ‘staircasing’ is evident and the very finest of detail has been lost - this is almost invisible at normal viewing magnification. For me, this jumps the quality score up to about a 4 and produces a usable file

Finally, I run JPEG to RAW AI and again, because this deals with JPEG artefacts but not actual noise, I have to add a touch of DeNoise 6, just as I did with the other samples. This deals with all the ‘grit’ in the original file, shows no ‘staircasing’ and retains the finest of detail. This is the best of all the four tests and therefore sets the upper bar of the score table at 5.

Topaz also claim an improvement in highlight and shadow recovery. Quite frankly, I could find no evidence of this beyond that which anyone can get from converting a JPEG file to a 16 bit TIFF before attempting the recovery - and you don’t need expensive software to do that.

All this creates a dilemma; JPEG to RAW AI does do a very good job but I already have AI Gigapixel and can get most of the way there without spending another US$100 on a new piece of software (which, by the way, takes several minutes to process a 20Mb JPEG file). If I can get ⅘ of the improvement without spending a cent more, then is JPEG to RAW AI worth its rather high price for that last little step? Probably not.

And, Topaz, please drop this JPEG to RAW nonsense - it’s just embarrassing and makes you look silly.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Coulsdon - a short Memoir

I was four years old when my family moved to Coulsdon. We lived there through most of the nineteen-fifties, the sixties and early seventies. In the seventies, I got married and moved away and, shortly after, my parents left Coulsdon for High Wycombe. Despite having no current links to Coulsdon, the memories and impressions formed growing up there, endure.
I know that wall!

Prompted by a post on the "Coulsdon History" Facebook page, I climbed into  Street View (I now live in New Zealand) to pay a visit. Street View dumped me in front of a wall - it was a wall I knew well and the young man running past could easily have been me from 1960 (his shoes are smarter than mine were). This is the town-end of Malcolm Road, where we lived. At the other end of Malcolm Road was what used to be Smitham Primary School. The buildings still stand, but one wonders for how much longer before developers get their hands on the site.

What used to be "Smitham Primary Scool"
Almost opposite the brick wall, on the corner, used to be the dairy (now a Waitrose). It was where we went for butter and cheese and was the depot from where milk was delivered to our front door. What is now a carpark, used to be full of milk floats (those slow-moving electric vehicles) coming and going with milk. I have an impression of the shop being a place of cool, white and blue, glazed tiles where little boys handed over a few coins in exchange for some cheddar cheese, which mum would be waiting for, back at home.

The Facebook post which prompted all this nostalgia, was a view from near the old station, asking whether anyone could recognise anything - so much had changed. And from that spot, a lot has changed, but I was surprised by how much had not changed in the last fifty-odd years. Businesses come and go, but Boots the chemist still sits on the main street (and I still have a working photographic light meter that I purchased there in the mid-sixties) and, further along, Coughlans Bakery. The bakery was a favourite, after-school drop-in, as the cakes that hadn't sold that day could be had for one penny, for a large paper-bag full ("a penny bag of 'stales' please") a real treat!

Woolworths, on the other hand, seems now to be a Tesco and my favourite electrical shop, Sparks - where I spent many a Saturday with my friend, Alan Wrigley, searching racks of records for new music - is nowhere to be found (it may have been on the corner of Victoria Road). But the layout of the town is largely intact and I can trace the routs I used to follow as a youngster. Perhaps the biggest travesty is the missing Red Lion - how did such a cultural icon, central to the town, get replaced by Aldi?

Around the corner in Chipstead Valley Road is Coulsdon Home Hardware. That was a later weekend job that had me pumping paraffine in a fume-filled room out the back. Needless to say, that job didn't last long! What did last a long time was my prior employment as a "newspaper boy". Unlike today's free advertising papers, these were the daily and weekly papers that customers paid to have delivered (yes, milk deliveries and newspaper deliveries really were a 'thing').

The newspaper shop was up Station Approach Road (I think, on the corner with Edward Road). Every day at 6:00 am us 'paper boys' would collect a shoulder bag full of newspapers and set out on our delivery round. After proving yourself for a few years, the older boys might be offered a weekend round, which paid better but involved much heavier loads (weekend papers were twice as thick). Also at the top of Station Approach Road, my father had his business "Surrey Sidecars" and, later, a hardware shop located (I think) somewhere where the new flats now stand.
Woodcote Secondary School (as it used to be known).

After a few years of living on the same street as my school, I got sent to Woodcote County Secondary School about a mile or so up the hill. It was certainly a better school than I was a pupil. My lack of academic potential was quickly acknowledged, and I was streamed into the 'D' stream (there was also an 'E' stream but that was reserved for the radically hopeless - their judgement, not mine). Later, in the fifth year, I got promoted to 'C' but that was because all the 'D' and 'E' pupils were expected to leave at the end of the fourth year. It turned out, long after school, that I love learning, just not the way the school system wants it to happen. C'est la vie.

Mr Johns, the principle at Woodcote, was just a name - I never recall meeting him. But there were three teachers that have stuck in my mind; Morris, Williams and Thompson. Morris was a bully. Rumour had it that he taught at borstal but, whatever the case, his reputation went before him and his math classes were something to be feared. Fortunately, I managed to keep out of his way for most of my secondary schooling.

Mr Williams was different. He had a strategy; put the fear of God into the first and second years and by years three, four and five you can begin to build a relationship. Williams taught history and was my form teacher in year five. He was a fine teacher and I ended up liking him a lot. Best of all the teachers though, was Thompson. Thompson took technical drawing and his philosophy was that he was there to help you succeed. I sat Royal Society of Arts at the end of year five, but Thompson encouraged me to step up and sit GCE in technical drawing. I got it and left school to start work in a draughtsman's office. It turned out to be a great start in life.
Up on Farthing Downs

Later, after I had left school, our family moved house, ending up in Fairdene Road. Though this had great access to Farthing Downs (and a girl that lived a little further out) I still think of Malcolm Road as our Coulsdon 'home'. Nevertheless, Farthing Downs was, and is, a treasure. It's not really big enough to get lost on but, for a young boy scout, in the dark, or when the cloud comes down, it is sufficiently wild to stir the imagination. I guess, like a lot of things, Farthing Downs would appear a lot smaller today than in my memories.
"Our house, in the middle of our street" (Malcolm Road)

There's more I remember (lots more) like trying to keep up with the fleet-of-foot Thompson on the way up the hill to school. Or coming off my bike on the way down and waking up in the hospital ("Is my bike ok, Dad?"). Scouts at the Methodist church (which seems to have lost a couple of wonderfully large trees) - I was there at scouts when JFK got shot and hoped like mad that it wasn't "the commies" and the start of another war (it wasn't, but such are the thoughts of a fifteen-year-old).

Will I go back? I doubt it. I have no family there now and good memories are best left as that; not sullied by current realities - I want Farthing Downs to be big and scary, to still find LPs in Sparks, and the newsagent on the corner where I turned up sharp at 6 am each day. Those are the things I remember, that was the Coulsdon I knew.