Tag Archives: photography

Toronto, part 2

Some of you have said that you like my photos of Toronto. Most of the photos I included in my Toronto post were of the place more than of the people. But of course what makes Toronto Toronto is the people. I’ve gone through my last several years of photos from Toronto and pulled out a bunch more, including many of people (and a few more of places). And all of them were taken in Toronto. This time they’re all just in more or less the order I took them. There are many more on my Flickr site.


On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure. Continue reading

The size of the equipment

This article isn’t about words. Sorry! I couldn’t come up with a word-based excuse for it. It’s about cameras, but it’s about something you don’t need to be an insider to appreciate. Because it’s about the size of the equipment, and how much it means to some people.

Recently, the photo news site PetaPixel published an article about Donald Trump’s presidential portrait. They weren’t focusing on how the picture looked – though there are things that could be said about that. They were talking about the equipment used to take the picture. You can get this information from the digital file. The camera records it and anyone with the right software can see for themselves.

The thing that seemed amusing at first look was that the camera used is one that was released in 2007 and is no longer being made. It’s out of date in its technical specs. Why not use the latest, greatest equipment? If you’re the Donald?

A thing that caught my attention was that it was shot at a comparatively high ISO (allows for faster shutter speeds but sacrifices some image quality, especially in older cameras), even though it was shot with a wide aperture (which itself allows for higher speeds). Why do that?

But I know the answer to both questions: If you’re the Donald, it’s gotta be huge. It’s gotta look impressive. And the camera he was shot with was huge. Huge. And, even more important, the lens he was shot with was HUGE. Big and impressive and professional-looking. (I recently had some things to say about “professional“…)

The camera was a Canon EOS 1DS Mark III. See it on DPReview: It’s 15 cm by 16 cm (about 6 inches by 6.5 inches, the size of a dinner plate but thicker) and weighs 3 pounds even before you put a lens on it. It’s not up to current professional standards: 21 megapixels and top ISO of 1600. I have a camera sitting on my desk that’s the size of my (admittedly large) hand that blows it out of the water (and costs a lot less). But my camera is not impressive looking. The Canon EOS 1DS Mark III is exactly what the average non-photographer thinks of when thinking of a pro photographer’s equipment.

And then there’s that lens. If you think the camera is huge… I mean, no, it’s not the hugest lens you can get. But anything huger is not really appropriate for a portrait photo. See it on DPReview: It’s 20 cm long (that’s 8 inches), and it weighs more than three and a quarter pounds. Altogether, the equipment used to shoot Donald Trump’s presidential portrait weighed more than 6 pounds and was (once you add the body thickness to the lens length) almost a foot long.

And when you’re shooting with a rig like that, you need to shoot at a high shutter speed to make sure you don’t have motion blur – if you’re not using a tripod (as you should!) or the subject won’t stand still. In this case, the shutter speed was 1/320 of a second, which isn’t all that high – apparently the photographer didn’t have a full studio lighting setup, but I doubt that he/she was a currently working professional photographer, given the old equipment – but it’s enough to compensate for shaky hands or a moving subject.

So there it is. The reason for the rig (and the shutter speed and ISO) is that Donald got someone – maybe a friend or family member? – with a big, impressive-looking camera to shoot his picture, but whoever did it was not a studio pro and did not use studio lights or, probably, a tripod. Possibly it was a retired paparazzo. Maybe the camera was Donald’s own. Given that he’s using an old unsecure smartphone to tweet with, and given that his idea of quality is my idea of fugxury, that seems plausible.

Just by the way, PetaPixel also gave the info on the cameras used to shoot Barack Obama’s official portraits. Both were shot using Canon 5D bodies, which are slightly smaller cameras that still produce similar image quality to the 1D. (They’re still bigger than my Sony a7ii or a Leica, but they’re very versatile and are preferred by many professionals.) The photographer, Pete Souza, used the model that was most current at the time: the Mark II and then the Mark III. He shot the portraits at 1/125 of a second at much smaller apertures (for greater depth of field) but at low ISO for good quality, which means he was using proper professional lighting. Oh, and the lenses? Both comparatively “long” focal lengths – 105mm first, then 85mm, which is a standard portrait length – but much smaller than the lens used for the Donald. The one used in 2012 was only 3.3 inches long. But I really don’t think Obama felt he had anything to prove with the choice of photo equipment. He just let his official photographer use what was best according to his expertise.


How much is too much? When can you hold no more, when are you sated, satisfied, saturated?

In chemistry, it’s not such a hard question. Any substance that can dissolve in another substance will have a saturation point for any given temperature, above which no more can be dissolved, and that’s that. When the weather person tells you the humidity, it’s always in percentages, and 100% would be full saturation: any more moisture entering the air would not be able to stay in it for even a moment; it would condense or precipitate. When air is colder, it can hold less moisture, so the relative humidity is higher on cold days even though it doesn’t feel all that humid.

In other things, however, it is a more flexible concept. We talk about media saturation, or about reaching a saturation point in our use of technology or any other thing we figure we could reach a maximum tolerable level of. We’re often wrong – we have yet (as a society) to reach a social-media saturation, for instance, or for that matter any kind of technology saturation – and even when we’re right, it’s very hard to judge, and it changes. When has everybody had enough of this or that famous person?

Socially, any given person may have a particular saturation point, too. I know that if I’m at a party, once it passes a certain number of people, I find myself becoming a wallflower or finding a less populated room. It’s paradoxical: in chemistry, the thing that there is too much of precipitates out; socially, by contrast, the person who gets too much precipitates out.

Saturation comes from Latin saturare, which comes from satur ‘full’, which is related to satis ‘enough’. So sate and satisfy really are related to saturate. There may be things you’re sure you just can’t get enough of, but you’re probably wrong – although you may never get enough of them to find out how much is too much. I once remarked to a roommate that there was no such thing as too much basil in a pasta sauce, and whaddya know, he proved me wrong. Oh boy did he put a lot of basil in that sauce. Wow.

I think the use of saturate in publishing and photography gives a nice illustration – literally. It referred originally to the purity of an ink – the more saturated, the less diluted with black or white (and the richer in the intended colour). In other words, more saturated colours are purer, more intense.

But what inks are you using? Today, when we do so much on screen, our “inks” are pixels of red, green, and blue. So saturation these days means how little mixing of other colours in with the colour at hand, and how bright that colour is too. While this is in one sense paradoxical (since saturation in chemistry is a question of increasing mixture), your eyes will tell you that this saturation is indeed saturation: an increasing intensity, like sugar in a beverage or humidity in the air.

When you adjust the saturation on an image in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or Image Ready (or some non-Adobe product), you can go down to 0% or up to 100%. But that 100% isn’t truly the maximum. You can take the resulting image and increase the saturation even again. You could iterate this quite a few times to get a saturation that would be several hundred percent – chemically impossible, but this isn’t chemistry.

Here’s an old barn in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. This is the original, with no adjustment of the saturation.

If I reduce the saturation by 25%, you can see that the colours are less intense. They are, in fact, more evened out between the three colours that make up your screen. It may look a little “older,” because films of times past were not always quite so vivid, and because prints tend to lose their vividness over time.

Let me take it down 75% – that is, to just 25% of the original saturation.

It looks almost black and white, doesn’t it? You can barely discern the green of the grass. If you desaturate fully, you get a black-and-white image (there can be more to a good B&W conversion than that, but I don’t want to glaze your eyes here).

Now let’s increase the saturation. If I push the slider up to 100% increase, you can see that the grass and barn and everything are very vivid.

This is a popular thing to do these days. Look at your Facebook news feed and you’ll probably see some “amazing!” photos that have had the saturation cranked way up. It’s like adding sugar to a sauce. The focus groups love it. It just seems so… wow.

But why stop there? Do those colours look like pure red, green, or blue? I think not. Let’s add another 50% (which we do by taking the 100% saturated image and treating it as the base for increasing saturation).

That graffiti is beginning to be pretty colourful, isn’t it? But wait: what about that old wood? It still looks grey. We have already learned that grey is what you get when you desaturate. I bet that the grey of that barn is not perfectly balanced between red, green, and blue. If we crank up the saturation even more, whichever colour it tilts slightly towards will come out in full force. Here, let’s increase the saturation another 100% on top of the last image, to make it 300% from the original.

Whaddya think? LSD vision, pipe dream, nightmare, or “mind=blown” Instagram filter? You still see the darks and lights – relative lightness is a separate matter from saturation – so you can still see that it’s a barn. But all of a sudden it looks, um, tie-dyed or something.

Some people like to max their saturation. They go to impossibly packed bars, binge-watch TV shows, drink Red Bull iteratively. Others prefer a life less vivid (or “loud”), more austere. Do you think oversaturation is a problem? Do you want to find a solution? You may remember the old saying “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I prefer the chemists’ version: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” Consider that every oversaturation is just a solution that was taken too far. At which point something has to drop out. It may or may not be you.


How can you tell a photo from a telephoto lens?

You… can’t, actually. You can spot some photos that are almost certainly not from a telephoto lens, and you can spot some that very likely are from a telephoto lens. But the thing that makes a telephoto lens a telephoto lens is not discernible in a photograph.

For those of my readers who are not notably enthusiastic about or well versed in photography, let me say first that any lens that is a telephoto lens is a lens with a relatively long focal length – but (and this will surprise some camera buffs too) the converse is not true.

What is focal length? Imagine looking through a cardboard tube from a toilet paper roll or a paper towel roll or a wrapping paper roll. The longer the tube is, the narrower the angle of view at the other end. Camera lenses are like that, except that whatever you see at the other end fills the whole picture, no matter how long the lens. Perspective narrows. So long lenses make far-away things look closer because they enlarge them. But they also compress perspective: buildings at different distances can look like photos stacked together.

What is long, by the way? If you’re using a 35 mm film camera (named after the width of the film, not any lens), or its digital equivalent, a “full-frame” sensor, a “normal” lens has a focal length of 40 to 50 millimetres (50 is the usual standard length). Anything shorter than that is at least a bit “wide” and anything longer than that is at least a little “long.” 85 mm is a “portrait” lens (good for taking head shots of people because their features are not distorted by perspective and because the background is blurred out a bit – oh, no, I am not going into depth of field today), and real “long” lenses start at 100 mm or so and go on quite far, increasing in price as they go (there are other factors that also increase the price and no, I’m not digressing into them today). Smaller sensors or film will have a correspondingly shorter focal length for the same angle of view, and longer ones (medium and large format) will have longer focal lengths.

I’m going to give an illustration of all this below.

Since you’re reading this, you’re probably a word buff, and that means you almost certainly recognize tele and photo. That’s tele from Greek meaning ‘far’, as seen in television, and photo from Greek meaning ‘light’ as in… oh, come on, you know as in what. If you’re a photography buff, you may well think of telephoto as another way of saying ‘long’ as in ‘long lens’ because long lenses let you see far-away things better, like a telescope. But it’s not. It’s really a way of designing a lens so that the light paths telescope in, so to speak. That is, the lens acts like it’s longer than it really is. It might be a lens with a 135 mm focal length that’s physically less than 130 mm from front to film (or sensor). Considering that focal length is nominally the distance to the back of the glass in the lens, not the front, you can see that this lens is somewhat shorter than a simple design would make it.

So if you’re in a camera store and someone’s trying to sell you a lens that’s comparatively long, and they keep calling it a telephoto lens, should you point out that not all long lenses are telephoto lenses? No, you should not. They probably know that, and anyway, nearly all modern long lenses are telephoto lenses, because why have a lens that’s physically larger than it has to be? Telephoto lens designs have been around since the late 1800s. So unless you’re buying a lens for a bellows-based camera (a large-format camera or certain medium-format cameras), the salesperson is not wrong. And what do you care about anyway? Taking pictures you like or making sure everyone knows you know the exact meaning of something?

Now. That was the words part. Here’s the photo part. I took a few photos out my bedroom window tonight with three different lenses. Here are the lenses.


The one on the left is a 20 mm lens. Since my camera has a “four thirds” format sensor, which is smaller than a full-frame sensor and so cuts down the angle of view in the picture, this lens has about the same angle of view as a 40 mm lens on a full-frame camera would. The middle lens is that 135 mm lens I was talking about above. When I put it on my camera, it’s like having a 270 mm lens on a full-frame camera. The one on the right is a 350 mm lens, and yes, it’s telephoto too. There’s only so much you can do with the materials available to make the lens shorter. It has an angle of view like a 700 mm lens on a full-frame camera.

How long is 700 mm? About 2 feet 4 inches. What angle of view is that? Well… Here are some pictures taken using that 350 mm lens.

Here are some pictures of the same subjects taken with the 135 mm lens.

And here is a picture of the whole scene taken with that 20 mm lens. It all fits in the one shot, with so much more.

Obviously not a telephoto design. But also, because this is a mirrorless camera, not a retrofocus either. A what? …Never mind.


Look at these trees. They exhibit a pleasing play of shadow and light: shadows on the right side, light on the left – a nice moderate light, glowing.

Now look at the buildings behind them. Look at where the light is. Look at the direction the shadows are going in.

The sun is to the right. South-southwest. This is Bryant Park in New York on an October afternoon, and we are facing east-southeast toward the New York Public Library (remember, Manhattan is not truly north-south). The bright side of the trees is the one away from the sun. The direct sunlight is blocked by buildings on the right: just shadows there. The soft glow is thanks to light reflected from buildings on the left.

When I first stopped to think about that fact – how the bright side of the trees was from reflected light – I thought something like “Well, I’ll be…”

I’ll be what? I’ll be doggoned? No. Albedo.

Albedo. Take a moment to reflect on that word. It takes all its time to reflect on you… and on everything else. And from everything. You included.

The sun gives light: as it burns it releases photons. If you stand in the sun, you stand in the path of a small, small wedge of those photons. They don’t make it through you. Some are absorbed; some bounce back off. The number and nature of those photons bounced back depends on the colour of your skin and clothes. If you are wearing a blue shirt, it keeps most of the photons that aren’t blue, and bounces back – gives away – more of the blue ones. This is how we have colour: surfaces keep the colours they don’t show and give away the ones they do show.

Meanwhile, the space behind you, including the back of your head, is not in utter darkness; it is lit by photons reflected off other surfaces – and diffused by bouncing on molecules in the atmosphere.

Albedo is the percentage of light a surface gives away – doesn’t keep. A surface that kept all the light would have an albedo of 0 and would be perfectly black; a surface that reflected it all would have an albedo of 1 (i.e., 100%). The reflection can be directional – as with a mirror – or diffuse – as with paper. Highly reflective but not perfectly flat or even surfaces give a mottled light.

The word comes from Latin albedo ‘whiteness’, from albus ‘white’. You will recognize the root from abumin and albino and Albus Dumbledore (which, in full, means ‘white bumblebee’). Albedo was first applied to the reflectivity of surfaces by Johann Heinrich Lambert in 1790. An important current usage is to refer specifically to the reflectivity of celestial bodies – such as the earth.

It is also important for environmental science. Snow, for instance, has a high albedo, but once it starts melting and the water runs away, more and more dirt and dark matter is left, giving a lower and lower albedo, which means it absorbs more and more solar radiation and melts faster and faster. The glaciers of Greenland are currently demonstrating this, and it is a matter of some concern. It becomes an accelerating self-destructive cycle of selfishness, as it were.

Separate albedo can be calculated for each wavelength. Some people have suggested that since a blue surface keeps the light that is not blue and gives away the light that is blue, its real nature is not blue. I do not agree. As you go through life, you receive love and hurt, joy and anger, comfort and pain; you do not give all of it back to the world, but only those things that you wish others to receive. A person who receives hurt and joy but gives only joy to others is not a person whose nature is hurt. We do what we want to do and what we are able to do. Our character is our able-do; it is our albedo.

And in the darkest moments of our life, when the sun seems blotted out, there is still light: the albedo of others.


The focus. It burns.

Focus a magnifying glass on a piece of paper and let the sun make a little image of itself. So bright, so hot. Smoke soon rises.

Focus a camera lens on a subject. With the iris wide open, the subject is sharp, striking home, blazing itself into the film or sensor, and all else around it is softening into the balls and blurs of bokeh. It is like the word focus: soft at the peripheries (/f/, /s/) and sharp in the centre (/k/).

With the iris tighter, more appears in focus; you get more picture, more context, but more distraction too – more in focus makes it less focused.

With the iris too tight, nothing is quite sharp but everything is equally in focus and equally diffracted. You see all equally clearly and nothing quite clearly enough.

I have a lifelong ambivalence about focus. I like seeing things clearly and sharply. I have worn glasses since I was twelve, and I have a desire to make out small details in the same way I have a desire to understand motivations: I yearn because I am not good enough at it. But too much focus traps me, imprisons me. I cannot sustain single-point focus on a thing for too long without bursting into flame. I need to be elliptical…

An ellipse, as you may know, is a geometric figure with two foci; it is defined as a line such that the sum of the distances to the two foci is always equal. Stick two nails into a board and tie a piece of string to them, one end to each, that is somewhat longer than the distance between them. You can then use a pencil to draw an ellipse simply by keeping the string taut as you move the pencil: always the same sum of distances, the length of the string. Not one focus, two foci – the two nails. Other figures also have two foci: a parabola is an ellipse with one of the foci at infinity; a hyperbola is a curve such that the difference between the distances to the foci is always the same. A circle is an ellipse where the two foci are in the same place. It has a singular focus. It is perfect, contained, cold. But hot in the centre.

When I take photographs, I like to have something in sharp focus most of the time, and other things out of focus.

Sometimes I like to look at something very small and see just the smallest part of it in focus, a still moment of the eye and mind on the edge of dreamland and release. And the closer it is the less of it is in focus.

But I like to shift focus. Sometimes I like to have many things in sharp focus so that I can move my own focus around as I look at the picture. Keep things at a distance and you can focus on them without being threatened by the intensity of so much intimate detail.

Sometimes I like to shift focus in the act of taking the pictures, from one picture to the next.

Sometimes I like to let the focus go a bit. Erase the wrinkles of life. Soften the colour, add to the mystery. The seeing eye sees a little less.

Let it go even more. Like a dream. Let the burning ease. Abstract.

Sometimes I like to focus on something peripheral and let the real object of interest remain an obscure object of desire, lest it gorgonize me.

The geometry of attention and re-presentation. The circle of attention. Ellipses. Parables. Hyperboles. Through what lens – or what lenses – do you focus?

The first person to use focus in geometry was Johannes Kepler, a man familiar with optics. It had already been in use to refer to the point where a lens makes an image of the sun on a surface. That hot little point. The place where it strikes home, the heart, the furnace.

Focus: Latin for ‘hearth, fireplace, home’. Its modern Italian descendant fuoco means ‘fire’.

It burns, the focus.