Reflections on society, politics and nature XX

Continued from previous posts…. These posts are collections of brief notes on society, politics, and nature. I sometimes include a few short personal notes as well.

A more formalized type of mirror. I am not much into astrology or tarot, although I recognize that it can be helpful. At their best, they combine archetypes, projections, and synchronicities in a powerful and potentially life-transforming way.

Both have systemized some basic archetypes and some of their dynamics. And since archetypes are universal, they will resonate with whomever is receptive to it.

Both can serve as very good projection objects. We see ourselves in the astrology charts or a tarot card or layout because we put ourselves into it.

Synchronicities can play a role in both. Something going on in our life – and especially in our mind – can be reflected in astrology and tarot.

In all of these ways, astrology and tarot can serve as a mirror for us. They can help us see and get to know aspects of ourselves.

It seems less useful if we have a simplistic and heavy-handed approach to astrology, tarot, or anything else. For instance, if we think they tell us something that’s going to happen. That can create stress, and even self-fulfilling prophecies (or the reverse).

And it seems more useful if we hold it all lightly. If we consciously use them as mirrors for ourselves. And if we are conscious of the archetypes, projections, and synchronicities.

Of course, the whole world is a mirror for ourselves. We don’t need astrology, tarot, or something similar to see and get to know aspects of ourselves. We just need to recognize that the whole world – and especially what in the world and our life currently draws our attention – is a mirror for what’s here now.

Astrology, tarot, and similar things are more formalized, structured, and explicit mirrors for ourselves. Life is the mirror we live with all the time, and we may need a somewhat structured approach to make use of it. For instance, some form of inquiry.

Unedited photos from Bryant Park, New York.

Editing photos. When I take, select, and edit my own photos, I need one or more pointers for myself to guide me. Here are some of the pointers I tend to use:

Something I would like to look at over time, and again and again.
Something that gives me pleasure.
Something that is interesting.
Something where I can keep discovering new things. 
Something that conveys a certain mood.
Something that conveys a certain way of perceiving the world.

Something that feels right at a deep level.

Of course, not every photo need to satisfy each of these. And a photo can be interesting for other reasons. But these are useful pointers for me, at least for now.

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Unedited photos are more honest and genuine?

A few times, I have taken photos of someone, edited the photos for color balance and light levels, sent these edited photos to them, and they have asked for and used the unedited photos instead –  even if these unedited photos are off in their color balance and light levels. (I often underexpose my photos to capture details in the lighter areas and bring the exposure up afterwards to make it look more like it did to the eye.)

It may be that they just like these dark and underexposed images. But more likely, they have the idea that unedited photos are more pure, honest, and genuine.

That’s a noble idea, but misguided.

All photos are inevitably edited, even long before the shutter button is pressed.

They always reflect the camera settings (which may not have been optimal, and the strengths and limitations of the technology. Here are a few examples:

Our cameras are designed to reflect our particular human perception of light. Other species perceive other regions of the light spectrum and would make cameras reflecting their own perception. (Of course, since the photos are meant to be seen by humans, this doesn’t matter. But it does show that the photos are strongly edited before they are even captured.)

Before color film, photos were “edited” by technological limitations filtering out color, and converting different wavelengths differently into black and white. That’s the case today as well, in other aspects of the image. (For instance, most cameras have a far lower dynamic range – the span between black and white – than human vision due to technological limitations.)

There are many decisions and assumptions built into the cameras from the manufacturer’s side. Other decisions and assumptions would make the images look different, and sometimes very different.

The settings from the user’s side also heavily influence how the image looks. The image may be set so it will be under- or over-exposed. On digital cameras, the colors may be set to be more or less vibrant, or to emphasize different wavelengths. The depth-of-field may be short or long, determining how much of the image is in focus. The grain level may be set to be high or low. (And that, in turn, influences degree of motion blur.)

When it comes to basic aspects of the image, such as color balance, exposure levels, depth-of-field, and grain levels, the idea of a pure or unedited image is misguided. The image that comes directly out of the camera is heavily influenced by technology and decisions and preferences from the manufacturer and user. It’s edited before the image is even captured on the memory disk, and may or may not reflect what the human eye saw as the image was captured.

It’s, of course, different when it comes to photoshopping to delete or include elements that are not in the original image. In that case, the original is usually more honest.

In my case, it’s been slightly frustrating when the recipient choses to use the “unedited” photos even if they are too dark. The edited version is often much closer to how the scene looked to the eye. But I also realize that it pleases the recipient, for one reason or another, and that matters more. That makes it OK.

I have also noticed that it’s typically people less experienced with photography seem to prefer the unedited photos, so maybe some education is in order. That’s partly why I chose to write this article.

And just to have mentioned it: The photo above is unedited because it was correctly exposed. It’s one I took a couple of years ago at the cabin in Norway.

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The World at Night

The World At Night (TWAN) is a program to create and exhibit a collection of stunning photographs and time-lapse videos of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites against a nighttime backdrop of stars, planets and celestial events. TWAN is a bridge between art, humanity, and science. The eternally peaceful sky looks the same above all the landmarks and symbols of different nations and regions, attesting to the truly unified nature of Earth as a planet rather than an amalgam of human-designated territories. Those involved in global programs learn to see humanity as a family living together on a single planet amidst the vast ocean of our Universe. This global perspective motivates us to work for a better, more peaceful planet for all the world’s inhabitants. Astronomers Without Borders was created to work toward this goal. TWAN is an innovative new approach to expanding this global perspective.

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Memento mori


All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
Susan Sontag

I came across this quote earlier today at a exhibit of Binh Danh‘s beautiful photos.

A photography is always about the past, something that is already gone. It is a reminder of the ephemeral nature of any situation, experience and life. This situation, experience and life will be gone too, and so will eventually all of humanity.

In the same way, I find that thoughts are always about the past. They are either obviously about the past, apparently about the present – yet really about something that is already gone, or apparently about the future – but always projections based on the past. All thoughts are memento mori as well.

I can explore this through stories, reflect on how ephemeral my experiences and life is, find a new sense of urgency and appreciation that way, and a help in reorganizing my priorities in life.

And I can explore the ephemeral nature of everything in immediacy, as it happens here now. I can expore it through the sense fields, one field at a time. When I bring attention to the sounds, what do I find? Do any sound hang around? If a sound seems to last for a while, does it really? Can I notice how stories about past, current and possible future sounds create a sense of continuity? Can I find continuity outside of those stories? Can I notice how a story tells me a sound is similar to or the same as a previous sound? Is it really the same?

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High dynamic range photography: a simple how-to

I haven’t used my film SLR camera for several years, and one of the reasons was my frequent disappointment with the limited dynamic range of the photos. Very often, details in the light or shadow areas were lost, merging into a flat white or black hole in the picture. The only remedy was to get out my camera only in low contrast conditions such as overcast weather, or just before sunrise and after sunset. Even then, the shadows or highlights would often lose detail.

With digital SLRs, it is now easy to take high dynamic range photos, provided the subject doesn’t move too much. Since I got my first digital SLR a couple of weeks back, I have experimented some with HDR and am surprised of how easy it is to get decent results.

The hdr workflow is simple:

  1. Take three or more differently exposed photos of the same scene, respectively exposed normally and for details in highlights and shadows
  2. Import them to Photomatix or Photoshop CS2 or other hdr software and output the result through tone mapping
  3. Edit in Gimp, Photoshop or other image editing software

Here are a few more details:

  1. Taking the source images
    • Since the source images are combined into one, it works better with subjects that don’t move much. Some movement within the scene is usually OK.
    • It is helpful to use a tripod, but handheld works fine as well.
    • The easiest is to set the camera to auto-bracket the exposure, keeping the aperture constant and changing only the exposure time.
    • Feel free to break the old rules and choose high-contrast images: shoot into the sunset, include a bright light in the scene, or a backlit subject.
  2. HDR processing
    • Photomatix is free for most of its functions, and about $100 for a full featured version. Photoshop CS2 also has an HDR function, but is more expensive.
    • When importing, remember that the resulting image has a tonal range far greater than what your computer screen can deal with, so it may well look awful on the screen. Don’t worry. It is supposed to.
    • Experiment with the tonal mapping to translate the raw hdr image into something that can be shown on a screen or printed on paper. Try several settings and choose the best one. Save it as a 16 bit tiff file.
  3. Final editing
    • Import the tone mapped image into your image editing software. GIMP is a good choice since it is free (open source) and does most of what Photoshop does.
    • Edit as you would any other image. Although you have a wide dynamic range in your image, don’t be locked into the idea of having to preserve all the detail in the highlights and shadows. Some images work better when the contrast is a little higher, and you have more freedom to play with this when your source image has a high dynamic range.

Here is a scene that normally has too high contrast: a wall in the shade with a bright sky in the background.

I took three handheld exposures of this Portland street scene, using the auto-bracketing feature on my camera. The first image is normally exposed, and the two following under- and over-exposed two stops. (Three exposures and two stops either direction is the maximum on my camera, which is OK but a little limited for hdr photography. Five exposures and three or four stops cover a greater range and may be needed for extremely high contrast scenes.)

Normally exposed image with good details in the mid range.
Underexposed image, with details in the sky and clouds.

Overexposed image with information in the darkest shade areas.

I then imported them to Photomatix, and got this result on the screen. Moving the cursor over the image shows the area details in a separate window. (I have included two examples, one of details over the door and one in the clouds.) Photomatix automatically align the source images, and does a good job even with handheld exposures.

The hdr combination of the three source images, with information in the lightest and darkest areas.

And tone mapped it using the tone compressor option, and experimenting with the different settings to include as much information in the final image as possible.

The tone mapped output, ready for final editing.

The colors on the tone mapped image can get a little weird (it depends on the settings you use), so for the final editing, I like to keep the normally exposed source image up on the screen as a color reference. I used level, curves, color balance and hue adjustment layers for this image, and also masks to treat the sky slightly differently from the rest of the image. The final editing in Photoshop gave this result:

The final image, after editing in Photoshop. I went for a vivid but still relatively realistic look.

If you have questions, I’ll be happy to answer to the best of my (very limited) ability. Just post them below.

Here are some resources I found helpful when I first explored it:

hdr as an anology


photo by Automatt


photo by John in Japan

High Dynamic Range imaging is a way of extending the tonal range of a photo, or said another way, to include details in both the highlights and the shadows. It has been used in film for a while, and is now also increasingly used among digital photographers, where three or five or more photos of the same scene, each exposed differently, are combined into a single image with an extended tonal range.

A HDR image itself has a tonal range far beyond what any screen or any paper can represent, so it needs to be compressed and processed down into something that can be represented in these forms. It is similar to a “digital negative” that needs to be developed, and there an infinite number of ways of doing this, and no one set way that works in all situations. The processing is different each time, and tailored for the specific image and its purpose.

This is a good analogy for talking about Big Mind, about finding ourselves as this awakeness and its content, inherently absent of an I with an Other.

Big Mind is beyond what can be touched by words, as a HDR image is far beyond what can be accurately represented on screen or in print. And in each case, there is an infinite number of ways to translate it down to something that can be expressed. There is an infinite number of ways to process a HDR negative, and an infinite number of ways to put an immediate experience of/in Big Mind into words. And in each case, how we do it depends on what we want to express – a particular image, an aspect of Big Mind, and the circumstances – what it is going to be used for and what purpose it is intended to serve.

Any analogy breaks down somewhere, which is why it is only an analogy. And this one breaks most clearly down in that a HDR negative and finished processed image are not different in type, only in tonal range, and that Big Mind is inherently free from anything that can be expressed in words, even as it is (attempted) expressed in words. Big Mind is beyond and includes any polarities, and words only works within polarities.

In the case of HDRs, it is a difference in degree, and in the case of Big Mind and words, a difference in type.