Friday, November 25, 2016

La Madre dell'Ucciso - Franscesco Ciusa

One can go long and long about philosophy of arts, various artistic mediums and their final effect on human perception and psyche, skills of the artist and so on. But the greatest of the art pieces have something in common irrespective of the mediums, aesthetics, craft of the artist or the popularity; the ability to poignantly express human conditions. Look at Edvard Munch's Scream or Michealangelo's David or Van Gogh's At Eternity's Gate. Of course, "what is great art" is subjective but the common denominator of human subjectivity, I guess, overlaps greatly with the complete possible spectrum of "greatness".

I first visited Sardinia in 2015 and the island struck a spell on me with its landscapes, seascapes, history, nuraghes, food, people and beautiful small towns. I visited it again in 2016 and stayed at Nuoro for a night. It's a hermit city quietly resting in the mountainous inland of the island, away from the bustle of touristic businesses along the coastlines and has still preserved that "aboriginal" feel. It was a little boring or precisely expressed, a little lifeless compared to other cities like Bosa on the island, but there was something different about it. I usually plan some of my travel days specifically according to the Musuem opening times and if fact, we visited three Museums in Nuoro in just one and a half day. It is said to be Athens of Sardinia for its native brewed writers, painters and sculptors.

The second museum was a Nuoresi sculptor's museum. It was almost empty during the siesta hours with only handful of people walking and gazing at the sculptures of the artist. The corridor was long with small rooms on both sides and at the end, on the left side, there was a quiet darker room. Upon entering the room I was frozen for a second to see a life-size sculpture of an old woman wearing a headscarf, sitting stoically, holding her knees together with her old frail hands. A small light was amplifying the mystery by just throwing enough light from the top that one could barely see her forehead under the scarf. The wrinkles on her face were telling, her cheeks were showing bones and the veins on her hands were so alive that I could not stop observing every inch of the carved stone. The most striking thing about it, was the expression on her face and her slightly pursed lips: she was sad but proud, she was old but strong, there was a touch of regret, pain and misery on her face but nothing called for pity. Minutes flew by, I stood there, locked, wondering about the old woman and at the prodigious skills of the sculptor. Then I looked down to read the name of the sculpture, it was like those rare revelations: "La madre dell'ucciso" with an English translation on the label "Mother of the killed".

Those few minutes left one long impression on me and even after months, she keeps on mystifying me when I think about her. I didn't have a camera with me, so I take liberty to post her photos here from Wikipedia.

La madre dell'ucciso - Franscesco Ciusa
Photo by Davide Mauro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Coming back to my point about the greatness of art, this sculpture has become one of the most beloved pieces of art for me for its sheer humanity, besides the awe-inspiring craftwork from Ciusa. It is perfectly executed with precise dimensions and proportions just as if she was alive. No blood is flowing through those veins and nowhere is there a beating heart, yet it deeply moves the onlooker. I believe Ciusa poured an eternal life into something which was once just a stone. And that makes great art really great.

La madre dell'ucciso - Franscesco Ciusa
Photo by Roburq / CC BY-SA 3.0

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Photographing in Raw Format

When I switched from my point-and-shoot Fujifilm to a DSLR, for a month I tried to soak as much technical information regarding digital photography as could. One of the most covered topics was the raw format, but I could not find any satisfactory practical article which enlightened my noobness. Some articles even unabashedly bashing the JPEG format to an extent that it left me with an anti-RAW feeling just for the sake of it. Fortunately those zealots didn't affect that tiny objectively thinking part of my brain much. So I thought of giving it a try during my trip to Amsterdam.

It was a back-lit sunset situation at around half past six in the evening. I haven't become a photography ninja as of yet, so I just applied my limited knowledge and took this photo in manual mode with my Nikon 5300D and 18-105 Lens. I was in manual mode on a purpose to learn the ins and outs of exposures. Honestly, this situation called for exposure bracketing, but I just wanted to experiment and see to what extent this otherwise unexciting photo can be recovered in Lightroom to get hands on RAW recovery experience.

Original Image as taken at 1/200 f/9.0 ISO 160

After doing some editing in Lightroom it turned out like this:

Recovered Image in Lightroom.
Place your mouse pointer anywhere on this image to see the original image hidden beneath in layer for easy comparison!

Though zooming right in the recovered areas do expose the noise, I must say the quality of the recovered image is outright acceptable given that this photo had so much shadows in it and if I was shooting JPEG it would have ended up in trash. RAW did more than just impressing me, it convinced me to keep it a standard format on my DSLR: (by moving your mouse over to the edited image) Look specifically those pinkish red buoyancy floats on the boats on the middle left side of the image which were more or less lost in shadows in the original image. Also those beautiful sunlit leaves of the cropped tree on the right side. Even the lens flare in the center right is completely invisible in the original image.

I can totally understand those excited opinions regarding RAW Format. JPEG does have its place in those mass point and shoot occasions or some banal photos. RAW on the other hand is the way to go for me during a thought out shooting walk or when the highest leverage in post processing is necessary. It would have been a fair experiment if I also had an original JPEG image. In that way I would have two originals and two recovered images one from RAW and one from JPEG to compare the recoverability of RAW and JPEG side by side. But from previous experience with JPEG, I can safely say the recovered image might not even come close to what was recovered with RAW here.

You can download the original RAW image here in case you want to experiment yourself with it.

Here is another pair of recovered image from that session. I tried to push the limits of sense to get whatever amount of details I could get but the recovered image has that unnatural over-the-top saturated HDR look.

Just don't overdo it or it'll look like an ugly HDR photo.
Again for the sake of showing the squeezed juice, move your mouse over to see the original unedited image.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Gadgetry Upgrade

For the past 4-5 years, I used a Lenovo Ideapad Z575 which had long given up its edge, a broken HTC mini one which is now replaced by a smartphone given to me by a cousin of mine which was lying around his workplace and a Fujifilm F600 EXR point and shoot camera with a dust on its sensor which leaves its black footprint on each of the photo I take with it.

My laptop screen was dead some months ago, which I replaced. Even the replaced battery was such a retard that I couldn't stay away from the power plug. In the summer, the core temperature of CPU reached up to 100 degrees, ultimately resulting in unexpected shutdowns in the middle of skype calls or a nervous La Vuelta mountain stage. For a month ago, without any prompt or windows BSOD, my laptop just gave up. The keyboard and mousepad works only in BIOS, when windows boots, I couldn't move a damn thing or type my password. Probably a north-bridge issue. Well to keep the story short, I let my considerations and bank account off the leash and decided to upgrade the gadgetry.

So, a month ago, I treated myself with a DELL XPS 15, a beautiful Dell U2415 Monitor, a Logitech MX Master bluetooth mouse and a Nikon D5300 with 18-105 Kit lens!

First I ordered the well received portable XPS 13 but my clumsy fingers weren't happy with the small size factor of the 13 inch laptop. So I returned it back and got its bigger brother. In my potential list were macbook pro for that cool trackpad/display and few other windows laptops but then I went with this one because:
  1. Specs and aesthetics: XPS 15 is a sheer wonder to look at. The thin bezel (border around the screen) just nailed the design factor for me. The laptop is housed in a sturdy metal body which feels stiff and the carbon fiber area near the keyboard provides a rubbery smooth feel for the fingers and palm. Just a pure aesthetic bliss! 4K touch panel version was stretching my budget too far. The one I got has a Full HD IPS panel, external Nvidia GTX 960M graphic card, 8GB RAM, 1TB HDD(which I got replaced with my 256 Gigs SSD and the HDD now acts as an external storage) and it runs on a Skylake i5 quad core. It hosts enough ports for my needs and a SD card reader which is quite useful. 
  2. OS Comfort factor: I have always used Windows/Linux and I have my own scripts written for productivity. The specific keyboard shortcuts are deeply ingrained into my finger muscles that I don't want to unlearn and relearn it for mac or rewrite scripts for the platform.
  3. Ecosystem: I had two iPods back when I was in college, a 1st Gen iPod shuffle and later a 2nd Gen iPod touch. Though those were the loveliest of gadgets that I owned, I hated the whole iTunes business. The whole ecosystem of mac world puts me off. I have my own set of freeware on Windows like Q-Dir, AHK, Notepad++, MusicBee which will need a replacement if at all possible. That's too much of a hindrance for me.
  4. Exclusivity factor: To be really honest, I see uncountable macbook pros and airs in the hands of business travelers and girls/guys in cafes and everywhere here in Europe that it isn't really exclusive anymore like it was back home in Mumbai. Well, I admit I am a vain ass and the non-exclusivity factor did affect my choice.
  5. Value for money: Though there were other similar spec laptops from Lenovo and Acer lineup which were cheaper than this one, I gave up on my pursuit of "maximum bang for the buck" in exchange for the look and feel of the XPS.

After a month of use, I must say there are some things which might be annoying to nitpicky personalities:
  1. Smudges: Oily smudges on the palm-rest area pop up just after light usage. The right photo above speaks for this case.
  2. Speakers: Placement of speakers underneath the front edge of the frame is a questionable decision given that there is enough space on the surface left because of the smaller keyboard. External Speakers are advisable for those who want a better sound experience, though the speakers are not that bad. For audiophiles, I need not suggest!  
  3. Keyboard: Why did they waste so much real estate on the frontal area? Neither did they place speakers besides the keyboard, nor did they design a bigger keyboard which could have been ergonomically better given the 14/15 inch footprint of the ultrabook. I think they probably wanted to optimize manufacturing costs by using the same keyboard for XPS 13 and 15. Considering the price point, that seems outright unjustifiable to me. 
  4. Webcam: A well discussed issue with the XPS's; due to thin bezel, they had to place the webcam under the front IPS panel on the left side showing unflattering view of the your face. Well, it has a good side though, you humbly realize that you don't always look as cool as you might think you look ;) I do have an external USB webcam, so not an issue.

I even let go of my aversion of mice and got me a Logitech MX Master to try it out. Man, after using it for a month now, I am thinking of getting another at work too. That is one supercool piece of a mouse. Ergonomically, that is from weight and shape point of view, it suits my hand really well. It's expensive for a mouse but after thinking about how much time I spend every day working with computers(avg 12-13 hours a day including work!), I think the money is well spent even if it enhances the experience tiny bit; this mouse is a day and light difference to those standard mice which I used before. It has even helped me get rid of that RSI feel. At work, currently I use two mice; one for each hand, because they are small and light, I get wrist pain after a while.

Finally, the whole new setup has enough oomph for my multitasking needs: surf with thousands of open firefox tabs, watch HD videos seamlessly, do Lightroom/GIMP stuff, run light VMs and play games. Overall, an aesthetically pleasing place for me to go about spending considerable amount of my time.

Well, I won't write about the Nikon now, I'd rather post the photos I take with it ;)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Practice Run by Grégoire Bouguereau

It was in the winter of 2013 that I came across this heart wrenching photo from Grégoire Bouguereau. It was selected as the wildlife photo of the year 2012 by National History Museum and it was showcased in an exhibition I attended. The frightened calf in a hopeless run for life is haunting and reminds us of the cruel order of the nature. The cheetah cubs probably not only devoured the calf but also "learned to kill" it until it actually lost the hope of freedom and died. I think that is what hurts more; its not the death itself, its the way.

Practice Run, Photo Credit: Grégoire Bouguereau

The photo left my bones cold and I actually ended up sketching it when I came back from the exhibition. I should have avoided keeping the sketch under other pieces of paper as you can see the smudges and yellowing of the paper on the edges. Now it finds itself organized safely in a nice display file in my portfolio folder.

Sketch of the photo on 16x12cm Paper
Do check out other stunning wildlife photographs of this photographer on his website