Wednesday, January 4, 2017

AMA 2017 edition

Hello and welcome to the 2017 edition of Ask Me Anything. The rules. My readers supplied the question, and I supplied the answer. You might get more than you bargained for. You might want to go pour a big cup of coffee or glass of wine, depending what time you are reading.

Have you ever killed a character named after a cat?
Not yet. Maybe this year. Characters named after cats include:
-Curtis, the mysterious but enigmatic operator of a classy hole in the wall 24 hour breakfast joint in a very obscure location;
-Celina, a spy and one of the operatives of an éminence grise, sometimes hangs out in Curtis's place. She has her eye on another character, but he doesn't know it yet;
-Amelia, an elected official in a position similar to Prime Minister on an alternate world (she is the one closest to being killed, though Celina now, hmmmm.);
-Sebastian, an ambassador from Amelia's world who is suspicious of his counterpart who he thinks is from this world and is worried about being lured into unethical activities in the defense of his world.

Other cat names I haven't used yet include Thorin, Bernard, Nefertiti, Fuzz, and Peaches. Other people's cats I know at least a little include Jade, Domino, Betty, and Beans.

As a bonus, when it comes to naming cats or characters, I like to live with them a bit to get a sense of their personality. Eventually their name will come to me, and it's usually fairly soon.

For character names, if I'm stuck (some are easy) and I don't want to stop the words, I'll just go with easy names in alpha order. My thinking is to label them and move on, and eventually when they've lived with me for a while they'll tell me their real name. And what they're up to.

So there is a gang of minor characters that showed up in Curtis's place one day, they are Alfie, Bill, Clint, and Doug.  They interest me and I've no idea where they came from. The vibe I get so far is a sort of Time Bandits gang crossed with Dortmunder's crew.

There is a quasi-military infiltration team, they are Archer, Baker, Charlie, and Delphi. These names might stick, though they might be code names. I know what they are up to, and a bit of their personalities, but so far they are all business.

Some of Amelia's group in the government are Amelia, Brandon, Carson, Dexter, and Elaine. Amelia will stick, and maybe Elaine, but I'm not sure about the others. All of them but Amelia are non-entities that show up for a meeting but don't say much. From other context I know Elaine is a stickler for expense reports.

The characters I know best in my works are Ceridwen, Leslie (male), Ronnie, Belinda, Mitch, Jim, Thomas, Ed, Betsy, Kelly (female), Hardisty, Janice, Penny, Tia, and Gart. There's a ton of other minor characters floating around, maybe too many.

How do you get from a shot out of the camera to the edited shots I love and why doesn't the iPhone shots look as good?

First the iPhone thing. Actually the iPhone is a pretty incredible camera considering how tiny it is. If you take a shot in reasonable light, of an ordinary scene that isn't too far away or too close, or moving too fast, the camera makes some pretty good choices and you often end up with a pretty good picture. The file size is usually around 3 MB and is a JPEG format. You can play with it a bit with image editing software, but some of the image is baked in and you can't change it.

My DSLR is set up to produce RAW files. That doesn't stand for anything, it just means it's the  information used to produce an image. It's all the information; my camera files are about 25 MB each. Once developed you can make choices how big the developed image is. What I put on Facebook or here on my blog are typically between 700 and 900 KB. One that I've prepared for printing is 12.5 MB.

Sometimes you can't tell looking at a photo if it was a phone or an actual camera, till you zoom in a bit, or look at the fine detail. The sensor is the biggest driver to improved image quality. My camera's sensoris bigger than the iPhone so it can gather more light under wider conditions. There are cameras with sensors that are larger yet. Lens quality is important too. I've done some lens comparisons and put the results here and here and here (though you'll have to scroll down a ways on that last one, but there is a pair of images that show exactly what I'm talking about with zoom.

As for the process from camera to edited, there is no one way of doing it. It depends on what the shot(s) look like out of the camera, and what I'm trying to produce. Sometimes I have an idea (moonrise over downtown), sometimes I make the best of what I've got.

This one was the easiest ever. I took it to show Linda how far away from something I had to be with a new lens (70-200mm) to get it to focus. I paid almost no attention to the shot. All I did was crop it to 9x16, no further tweaks. I love the colours, and use it as my own desktop image.

As an aside, Lightroom does nothing to the image itself. It's always there just as it came from the camera and you can reset to that at any time. This is really handy if you mess up, and I have. It remembers what you've done to the image, and keeps track of it as a series of instructions. A recipe, if you will. When you call up that image in Lightroom, it looks at the original image, then applies the instructions you've given it so you see the image. All in the blink of an eye. This gives you choices since you can manipulate all the information that goes into the photo.

Next more complicated is to tweak the contrast and exposure, white and black, shadows and highlights, then clarity, vibrance, saturation, then dehaze. All this is through moving a few slider controls back and forth and looking to see what changes in the image. The actual numbers you change are not important, only the changes you see in the image are important. Usually I end up going back to tweak a setting depending on how the image has changed. Sometimes back and forth several times to get things looking nice.

Nice, meaning what you intend for the shot, which could be something entirely different than what the next photographer would do. It might be to look as natural as possible. Or you might want to brighten and sharpen the image a bit to make it pop. You might have seen that image of all the crosses done in black and white, except for the red of the poppies and Canadian flag. I did one where I wanted it to look a little flat and saturated like one of those artist's concept photos. You might crop out all sorts of stuff that detract from the image you want. There's lots that Lightroom can do, and if you put the image into Photoshop the sky isn't the limit, that's just for starters. There are no limits what you can do in Photoshop if you know how to use it.

For most people this is total overkill. The phone applies some corrections to the image so the JPEG is bright and colourful. It can deal with red eye. Putting them in the Photos software lets you do more things, and with Instagram you can filter your brains out. The problem with that is the computer is just following software rules. A human might make better choices if given a chance. Or the human might break the rules and end up with a more artistic image. That's why there is no standard list of things to do in Lightroom to develop an image.

One could spend a long time playing with the various controls. It's fun, mostly. But really, you have to think where it's going to be viewed. If it's a so-so shot only meant to go on Facebook, tweaking the finer points is likely a waste of time. If it's meant to print out as a big canvas, I'll want to make sure everything is tweaked just so.

I have the time to play, but for the pro photographers, time is money. They have a bazillion wedding shots to edit and get back to the client. They want to make sure each shot comes out of the camera as close to perfect as they can, so there is less editing to do in Lightroom after. Then they want to get in, tweak, and get onto the next shot. No messing around.

Just like writers have to read a lot to see what makes good writing, photographers have to look at a lot of photos to learn what makes a photo good. When to follow the rules, and when to break them. How to find good light, and arrange your subjects in it. Knowing how to set the camera and lens for the shot at hand, first time, every time. No messing about. Understanding what the client wants, or even what you want from a shoot. It does little good to get up in the flower's face if you don't have a macro lens on the camera.

So here's an example, before and after. Normally I wouldn't play with an image so badly underexposed or poorly composed, but I wanted to see what could be done on the exposure front. I'd gone from a really bright setting to this quite shadowed setting without tweaking the camera exposure settings. The only thing Lightroom can do with bad composition is cropping, and sometimes that isn't enough.

Normally I start by cropping, but I couldn't even see what was there, so I started with the auto button. This is a bit of a magic wand to get you started. It's the computer's best guess, and gives you someplace to start from. After I winced, I cropped it. Then run the exposure way up, almost to the very top. Try auto again, then tweak contrast and exposure. Then deal with black and white clipping, meaning slide it back where there is too much. Then clarity, vibrance and saturation to try to get it looking like a nice photo. Then dehaze to try to reduce noise. Since the photo was a learning experience I didn't tweak it more to try to get it looking better. That's a waste of time. There were lots of other shots from that trip that are worth spending the time on.

If you were to look closely at the finished image, you'd see there is a funny moire pattern in the darker materials of their clothes, what little you can see of their skin tones looks terrible, and there's lots of noise in the snow. Lots of noise everywhere, now that I look. That's a result of pushing the exposure so much when it didn't have quite enough information to work with.

Then we get into HDR images. High Dynamic Range, which is when part of an image is really bright, and part is really dark. Usually taking one photo means that it's either over or underexposed in places. The solution is to take 3 photos one after the other as fast as possible, preferably within a second, one over exposed, one under exposed, and one in the middle. Then you take the middle one and edit like I explained above. Then apply those same edits to the other photos via copy paste. Then export the photos to another program that merges them together, and gives you some choices on exactly how the colours balance. This takes the bright parts of the under exposed image, and the dark parts of the over exposed image, and combines them with the middle exposure so everything kind of evens out and you can see detail in the brights and shadows. Then you can import it back into Lightroom and tweak it some more.

For example, this screen shot of 4 images. Top left is the finished image. Look at the colour of the bridge, the buildings and the sky. Top right is the best one image could do. Note barely visible clouds and bland sky. Bottom left is overexposed to get the red of the bridge and roof texture, but look at the washed out sky. Bottom right is the dark version, you can see the detail in the clouds but the bridge looks black.

Then there are panorama shots, where the computer stitches together several photos into one. One application of this is to build a landscape by zooming way into it, and taking several shots from side to side. Or you can get really fancy, by taking 3 HDR shots, moving the camera a bit to one side, do three more HDR, and so on. Then edit the individual HDR shots, and merge those into a panorama, then do any finishing tweaks. That means lots of time sitting at a desk tweaking images, but the results can be stunning. Huge, but stunning.

There used to be a saying, "the camera never lies." Well, it wasn't true then, not really, and it's certainly not true now. When you look at a photograph, you are looking at an artist's impression of the scene. It could be an accurate rendering of the scene, in that the colours are the way we would see them, and the exposure looks good. That can take a certain amount of artistry, or it could be dumb luck with the computer's choices. Or it could look entirely different, not quite a photo anymore, yet not a painting. Whether it's the equivalent of a master painter, or a kindergarten kid producing fridge 'art' is sometimes up for discussion.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Bringing rational thought to other people. Especially to people that bleat out sub-literate expressions of inchoate thought in the comment section. However I fear that's beyond the scope of any super power. I'd settle for people getting a grip on their emotions. I'm tired of so-called adults behaving like 2 year olds. This actually prompted a minor rant, here if you missed it.

When did you first realize you were bitten by the writing bug? The photography bug? Running/triathlon bug? Was there a specific circumstance or event to bring you to this realization in any of them?

A long time ago I started as a reader. I clearly recall a grade 3 reading textbook. Bright yellow. It included some science fiction, namely a story by Arthur C Clarke. There was a story about the (then) new atomic submarine Nautilus. Even then I got the allusion to the famous one by Jules Verne. I understood people wrote those words, but the process was not clear.

In high school my mom insisted I learn to type. She phrased it as a great way to meet girls, but it's probably the most useful course I've ever taken. Thanks mom! (Lots of times when companies send people on software training, they are wasting their money. They should be teaching people how to touch type. It hurts my soul watching some people 'type'.) There was a job assembling word processors and I knew those would replace typewriters soon. They did.

Then working at the plant for the City. I had some strange dreams there, about the place. About a murder and a novel way of disposing of bodies. One character showed up, then some others. I started writing it down. Those initial notes have been migrated from an Atari 800XL, to a Mac 5200, to a cube, to an iMac, to a laptop. A couple of the transitions were a little rocky. Damn obsolete writing platforms!

The word count expanded dramatically during several NaNoWriMo events. What I have now is a group  of interlocking stories:
-The Bone in the Digester. The first story. A fairly straight up mystery and love story, sort of. It keeps wanting to be a techno thriller. Introduces Ceridwen.
-The Sweet Elixir. Next one written, set quite some time after the first, roughly contemporary with modern day. What happens when stem cell technology becomes cheap? This is way too long of a novel to be published, it could probably be broken up into two short novels, or a series of stories.
-Bone to Elixir, how Ceridwen gets from one to the other. This is a bit more science fictiony, and is actually a branching novel. One branch goes to Elixir.
-Untitled from NaNo2015. This is the other branch, considerably more science fiction, dealing with some alternate worlds. Except the plant from the first one is intimately involved.
-Regan. This is a parallel novel to all the others, building in some much needed conflict, and tells the story of people we haven't met in the other books, who are the antagonists. But this is written from their point of view, and of course they see themselves as the good guys. I'm struggling with this one just now.

I love the writing, buried in detail, trying to make what's in my head make sense. There are a couple problems to be solved before publication. This is not genre fiction, easily described to an editor or book seller. I'd swoon with joy if someone called it literary fiction, but I'm not gonna hold my breath waiting. There is a lot of dialogue, and not so much action, and it needs a little more description of setting and characters. I've deliberately been minimal on this, since I can see them in my head, and can add the detail when wanted, preferably avoiding the dreaded expository lump.

I never liked getting my picture taken. The camera loves some people, but not me. The solution was to be holding the camera. We had a 35 mm point and shoot. Getting photos back from the lab was always an adventure because we'd forgotten some of the places we took pictures. We didn't take many shots; we'd usually forget the camera.

Then there was a digital camera that had to be fastened to the computer and the data migrated. That was ok. Then an iPhone and the picture taking really took off. A surprising number of people liked the photos I took. Then I started getting interested in it, trying to compose shots, and take better photographs. During a visit to one garden in Victoria, Linda pointed to a birdhouse and said it would be a good photo. It would, but I knew it would be invisibly tiny in an iPhone photo.  That got me thinking about a better camera.

Once I retired I decided to get serious about it, and spent a bit of money on a camera (Canon T6i, if you wanted to know) and nice lenses (look at the links in the photography section above, one of them talks about the lenses in detail). It's been a ton of fun so far. I'm still learning the finer points of how to set the camera to get the next shot, which lenses are good for what, and what Lightroom can do. I expect that to continue for a while.

Every now and then I wallow in camera or lens porn, but I'm pretty happy with my equipment. By and large, if I can't get the shot I want, the problem is me. I don't know how to set the camera for that shot, or I'm in the wrong place, or at the wrong time. My thinking is that I won't get any more gear unless I can articulate exactly why I'm buying it, and not just I want a bigger/better/faster gear.

I think the first night shot I got during one of Neil's classes hooked me. It was a lights on the water shot from Poppy Plaza, shooting the condos across the river. I was thrilled with the shot, even though now I know I can do better now. It's a little bit like gambling. I can't really tell how good a shot is from looking at the camera screen. Some of the shots are what I expected, for better or worse. Some don't work out and I try to figure out why. Every now and then a good shot shows up in the camera that you didn't expect, and it's stunning when it's developed.

Triathlon, or really, fitness in general:
There I was, a skinny kid. There are very few photos of me younger than grade 5, on the order of a dozen. Lots of people have more than that by the time they're an hour old. We had a house fire. There are more photos of me as a teenager, long haired and skinny. Then not so many photos of me for a long time, quite recently in fact.

There were some pudgy times, and over the years I gradually gained weight. I was getting less active and Linda is a really good cook. In my mid 40's I had a revelation. I was fat. It was hard to tell because it was evenly spread over my height, but I could tell. I'd heard of myself described as moon-faced.

I was working at a place where lots of the people ran. They ran before work. They got the lunch call early to load up and set aside plates so they could eat after running at lunch. They organized a system to cycle people through the showers. They ran after work. They ran when it was hot, and they ran when it was cold. I didn't get it. I've since apologized to some of those people.

I had run in high school and was in pretty good shape back then. I swam lots in the early 80's, then gave it up with shift work. A 1000 m in 20 minutes wouldn't even get my heart rate into the aerobic zone. A sub 18 minute K was routine, and I was hoping to break 17 minutes. Then I didn't swim for a long time.

Susi got into triathlon, and was a bit of an activist about people getting more active. I realized I was getting to work early to beat the traffic, and putting in more hours than I needed to. I figured starting to swim again would be a good thing.

Holy doodle. I remembered swimming being easy. The first 50 m had me wondering if I was going to make it back to the shallow end. 100 m and I was done. I'd have to go back through old notes but I think it took 2 years to break 20 minutes for 1000 m again. The first time I did it I nearly puked at the end. 2 days later I took 30 seconds off that time and could have kept going.

Susi was training for a full Ironman, and telling me how much fun it was. I looked at the distances and nearly blanched. An Olympic distance is usually 1500 m swim, 40 K bike, and 10 K run. A half is 1900 m swim, 90 K bike, and 21.1 K run. The full Ironman is 3.8 K swim in open water, bike 180 K, and run 42.2 K, better known as a marathon. There's a reason one of the slogans is "Brag for the rest of your life." Except it ain't bragging if you done it.

Somehow I got the idea that I might be able to survive doing an Olympic, but I knew I couldn't do a half in the time limit of 8 hours. Somehow, some why, I set the goal to do a half ironman. I figured if I could do that I'd be in shape. I got a smoking hot deal on a carbon fibre bike, and Estela has been so good to me over the years, even though I don't ride her as much as I'd like.  My very first spin class, the very first words I heard someone say was "What's a little vomit between friends?" and I wondered what the hell I'd got myself into. I still know her now, btw. (Hi KF!)

Starting running again was brutal. Lots of times I wondered what the hell I was doing. Somehow it started getting good. Seeing the weight come off gangbusters was one motivator, I have to say. I went from nearly 300 pounds, down to just under 220 in a couple of years. I've floated up a bit over the last couple months. Oh all right. I just got on the scale right now, right after eating lunch. 227. Sheesh. The things I do for my readers. It's just a number. I suspect my 'natural weight' now is between 220 and 225. I have cheekbones.

Along the way I attended a swim camp and was videoed. By then I was one of the faster swimmers, but it was still an eye opener. I thought I was a good swimmer, and there was so much to fix! I never did a full on triathlon training camp, though I lived vicariously through several buddies that did.

I got through that first half iron in 2008, just barely. There's been a bunch of other half irons, the full ironman in 2010, some running races, and by and large I got through all of them, but nothing more. Several times I was the last finisher, and in one race they took away the finish line by the time I got there, and I was still well under the stated time limit.

Racing was never particularly fun. It's fine for a benchmark, but I'm not really a racer. I'd get out of the water fairly near the front of my age group, usually around the first quarter or so, then everybody would pass me on the bike. It's like I was peddling through molasses. Then running through it, or more accurately, running like T Rex caught in a tar pit.

Somewhere along the way, I think was on vacation, or between jobs, I was wandering around and feeling cranky, but not knowing why. Then I realized my routine had been messed up and I hadn't gone for a run in a while. After a short run I came back feeling great, and knew I was hooked.

I did a lot of running last year, more than ever before, and almost all of it felt great. I over did it a couple of times, and was on the ragged edge of recovery for much of it, but the running was good. Having the best run buddy ever really helps, and I can't say that enough. (Hi MC!) She dragged me through a couple runs, and there were several I started only because we'd planned to meet up.

More importantly than preparing for a race, the fitness has become a way of maintaining quality of life. Being active is one way of staying active. I enjoy getting outside to enjoy the scenery, it doesn't really matter if it's a run or bike. Even the swim I've enjoyed some awesome sunrises looking out through the pool window.

The photography is often standing there, waiting for the light, but sometimes getting to the spot means humping a bunch of equipment up a hill, then back down again. Sometimes when running I'll make a mental note to bring the camera another time.

Some people work till they retire, then they don't know what to do with themselves. They've never had a hobby, or been able to figure out what they enjoy doing. It is no surprise to be reading their obituary a few years after retirement, and how sad for all involved. That's not gonna be me!

Even though it's only been 4 months, I'm up and at 'em every day. Linda gets dropped at work and I go for a swim, or a photo shoot, then on with whatever else is planned. About once a month I'll drop her at the LRT station and go back to bed. The days go by in a blur. First thing I know Linda is home again and it's getting dark. Gotta love it!

1 comment:

  1. I especially enjoyed reading about how you use Lightroom, Keith. I still haven't bought it but have been thinking about it. Shooting in raw and dealing with resulting data issues doesn't appeal but it would be nice to be able to play around with images a bit more.


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