Saturday, August 29, 2009

Notes to myself: A good photography syllabus

Today is the start of another advanced beginner’s course in photography, in which I went to help out as needed. I thought the syllabus was exceptionally well structured. One and a half hour theory and half an hour hands-on are dedicated for each class, structured as follows:

Week 1: All about focusing and use of Aperture Priority mode.

Week 2: Use of Speed Priority, and the various effects of showing motion. ISO and white balance.
Week 3: About lighting and flash photography.
Week 4: Composition
Week 5: Travel photography talk, Photoshop demo, and Proshow Gold demo.

This really is an excellent scope for anyone wanting to master the basics of real photography (as opposed to “happy snap” photography). First, it is essential for a photographer to know how to do selective focusing. Everything in photography revolves around this one key element. Following that, speed is the next crucial setting in an SLR. While aperture setting helps to draw the eye to the centre of attention, speed setting freezes action or helps the mind to visualize motion. Naturally, once you can control aperture and speed, you want to be able to control the lighting as well. This is where many photographers let off, preferring to use natural light or ambient light. It is a shame, really, because lighting control does go a long way as another creative tool. Therefore a serious photographer should pursue that with equal ardour.

A Roman courtyard

Early this month, my wife and I made a visit to the Melbourne Museum to see the Pompeii exhibition. Walking through the exhibits did give one a sense of being in Pompeii during the first century A.D., thanks to the displays and exhibits, and of course, the lighting. One of the things that fascinated me was a computer simulated walk through a Roman house. You can use the computer mouse to wander though the different rooms (everything you see is on the computer screen).

The point of interest is this: in the middle of the Roman house is an open courtyard. The courtyard was meant to collect water for use by the household. This was how many houses in Malaysia were built in my childhood days. I grew up in one. I do not know to whom do we owe this credit. Neither a traditional Malay house nor a traditional Chinese house are designed in this way for rain water collection. It could be a legacy of the colonial masters. In any case, the idea is similar to the Roman’s. The central part of the roof slants down into the courtyard area. Gutters run round the roof to collect rainwater. Just shows that we can learn a lot from history.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Notes to myself: How to win in photo competition

I think I'd better start writing down some things I have picked up from the competitions, just to sharpen my strategy for winning in the club's monthly mini judgings. Tonight's judging was done by the Camberwell club's president. Although my entry "Apollo and Artemis" won first place in the novice category, I think it was a fluke shot, as I realized today my only strategy was to produce as good a shot as I could, without really considering what the judges wanted to see. A few other club members had multiple winning entries and I could tell they were consistently doing well competition after competition.

Tips picked up:
1. The image has to "leap" up from among all the entries. Imagine the entries are all laid out on a table for the judge to pick the winner. Your image has to be the one that attracts the most attention.
2. Competition shots stand a better chance than a PJ (photo journalistic) shot or an archival shot (shot for preserving memory). A competition-worthy shot has to have a point of attraction in the image. It has to tell a story. It has to pull your eyes to itself.
3. A picture of an art piece (e.g. a beautiful vase or a sculpture) is just that; it doesn't quite give merits to itself as a beautiful image. I have just learned today to avoid submitting such a picture.
4. White space on the edge is frowned upon as it leads the viewer's eyes away from the picture.
5. Tight cropping adds to the "oomph". Always crop tightly.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Philosophy of life

In the bible, Matthew 10:39 says: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

My problem with reading the bible is that sometimes I get carried away with one part of a verse but not the context it is written in, hence leading to a different interpretation. In this case, I used to interprete this verse as saying whoever dies for the gospel will receive eternal life, or something to that effect. The context of this verse is:

Matt 10:37 "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

Surely this verse is talking about what a person prioritizes in his life. If you seek to build a comfortable existence in life with your family members all nice and cozy around you, and if you shy away from any sufferings with Jesus, then when you find what you want in life you are going to lose it.

Two interesting things to note here:
1. Jesus says if you lose your life for his sake you will find it. He means finding eternal life. After all, what else would matter if you indeed die for Christ or for the gospel?
2. On taking up your cross and follow him. .. Jesus said that long before he literally carried the cross to Golgotha. An amazing prophecy, isn't it?

See also Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, and John 12:25. The message is similar but given in different context.

Canon Powershot G11

Here is a compact camera worth considering. The newly released Powershot G11 is a compact camera that should satisfy a large segment of users, from professionals to non-photographers who want a very good camera without all the hassles of an SLR. My enthusiasm for this camera is solely based on the information released on 19th Aug 2009. I am sure that before long there will be many reviews abuzz on the internet. Chances are, the reviews will be good based on the pedigree of this model, going all the way back to the highly popular G5. The G series has since become a compact camera of choice among DSLR users who need a backup, carry-anywhere camera.

G11 brings back the articulated LCD, much to my delight. Movie resolution is still 640x480 30fps, but in the newer H.264 format. Flash sync speed has increased to 1/2000sec, while max ISO went upto 3200 from 1600 . Apart from those, the other critical specs are still the same as for the G10: 5x zoom, f2.8 lens with F2.8-F4.5 maximum aperture. Pixel count dropped from 14MP to 10MP in the G11 (but supposedly better sensitivity CCD).

Spec-wise, the G11 could do better by giving us HD movie and F2.0-3.0 lens (as it did with the G5 a long time ago). I would be happy to pick this one up if I were to get a new compact camera today.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Notes to myself: Masking in Photoshop

Here is another note to myself but readers are welcome. For a long time I have not been able to master the use of Mask in Photoshop. Today I managed to pick it up after following a tip in a photography magazine.

Here is one technique that uses Mask to darken the sky while keeping the foreground constant. First, open the file in Photoshop. Make a duplicate (drag the "background" layer to the "create a new layer" icon). Use Lasso tool to get a rough outline of the sky area that needs to be darkened. Go to Select>Colour Range; and while holding the shift key click on different parts of the sky until all the black in the preview area disappears. Next, click "add layer mask" icon to turn the selection into mask. Now grab the Blend mode pulldown menu and switch to Multiply. Finally, to fine tune the area where the sky meets the horizon, use Gaussian Blur.

Variations of this technique include:
1. Instead of the Blend option, use Levels to change the brightness of the sky.
2. Instead of using the Lasso tool, use one of the Channels to aid in selecting the target area. Remember to also use Levels or Contrast to aid in isolating the target area.

Hooray! I feel I have crossed another milestone in Photoshop!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Publishing a video

Here's an idea I caught from eavesdropping. No, I didn't intentionally eavesdrop, but as I was sitting in a cafe, I couldn't help but listen to a conversation that was going on. An obviously enterprising lady was describing to her friend how she is making a movie for commercial use. She started a year ago by learning how to shoot and edit, and she plans to sell the video to schools.

For people who love to teach, to publish a book (and in this case, a video) is to build a lasting legacy. Many university professors teach from their own published material. I am sure there is a hungry market waiting for good tutorials to help students excel. Many teachers have made a successful career out of giving tuition classes to students sitting for their VCE exams. Wouldn't it be a good idea if they were to videotape their teaching sessions and mass-market the DVD's? Students will be able to play the video over and over again at their own pace until they master the topic.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Motorized bicycles

Making cars more fuel-efficient is not the best way to reduce energy consumption. In the first place, proper town planning will go a long way towards reducing daily travel needs. However, as town planning is not something that can happen overnight, the next best thing to do is to have a more efficient means of transport. In my opinion, a motorized bicycle will be a great boon. It does not require much investment and it is not a high-tech solution. Anybody who knows how to ride a bicycle should be able to handle a bicycle that is fitted with an small electric or a gas-powered motor. Local laws and legislation can be enacted to handle widespread use of this vehicle, which I propose should not require any licensing. A network of bicycle paths incorporating rest areas, toilets, and rain shelters are something that can be built in all districts. Indeed, local councils should be challenged to take responsibility for implementing a good network of bicycle paths. This will also encourage people to take longer walks to school or to work, furthering a lower dependence on cars.

If the above sounds appealing to you, why is the state government not doing this? Instead we see the government spending millions and millions of tax dollars on studies and consultation fees to find ways to reduce congestion, to reduce carbon emission, or to build more toll roads. While the government is willing to give subsidies for building a more fuel-efficient car, it seems to have overlooked a more obvious solution. Perhaps there is no money in making a better bicycle.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Same scene, different times

Today after dinner my wife and I sat at the dinner table as we usually do. Our children have left the table and they were just going about doing their own things. We were left to oursleves. Just the two of us. I played the guitar while my wife read the papers. Just a typical after-dinner scene in our family. One thought came to me this evening, though. It could have been a scene during our courting days. During those days the two of us used to sit by ourselves at the dinner table (minus the dinner). I didn't play the guitar then and she didn't read the papers. We just talked.

I just wonder how it will be like in ten or twenty years' time. The children would be on their own by then, and so we would be re-playing the same scene again. Yes, probably the same scene, but different times.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A picture never lies, or does it?

In this digital age, the adage "a picture never lies" is about as accurate as saying "a politician never lies". I am used to receiving many pictures forwarded back and forth through the internet by friends. Being a user of photoshop to modify images, I can tell if there is a strong likelihood that an image has been digitally modified. Perhaps the adage should now read "If a picture looks too fantastic to be true, it probably isn't true."

Video clips tend to have more credibility but even then one should not believe everything he sees unless it is "live". Yes, even video clips can be digitally modified, as in the case of a sawn off body of a horse running across the paddock. Or that of a sawn off woman in the park who uses her hands to "walk" away from her legs.

Fortunately, in the internet the amount of true and accurate information far outweighs mis-information or lies. The danger is that sometimes you will get lies masquerading as truths. One just cannot be too careful. Perhaps we should allocate one day in the year to spread April Fool jokes around the internet just to remind people not to believe everything he reads and sees, or receives in the email.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A great teacher

I am taking a course in how to conduct training. One of the most important lessons I recently learned is that you cannot shove information down the student's throat. A good teacher is one who understands what the student is capable of understanding. He tries to "link" with the students. He relates to things the student already knows and he builds it up from there.

In this sense, Jesus was a marvelous example of a great teacher. He used parables when he spoke to the common people during the time of his ministry. He gave lots of examples. He was well versed with scriptures (which he often quoted) but instead of dazzling his audience with his immense knowledge, he spoke to them in simple terms that they could relate to. Jesus did not confine himself to the synagogues to argue with the rabbis. His "training package" was designed for uneducated simple folks. Yet when challenged by the religious and political leaders of that time he could stand up to their intense questionings without a waver.

Through Jesus, God has given us a message that all the people in the world can understand, from the most learned down to the simplest peasant. God did not give mankind an instruction manual that only certain trained people can read and understand. God's way is certainly higher than our ways. He knows how to teach us in ways that are most effective for learning.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Discrimination or over-sensitivity?

I have recently enrolled in a night class. In the class are two Chinese (which includes myself) and 12 Aussies of various non-Asian extracts. On the first day of class, I found myself paired up with the other Chinese when it comes to discussions. The others seem to quickly "gelled" with one another before I had the chance to make a move. I felt a sense of isolation, but I told myself I was matured enough to be able to take this. I thought that I have finally come face-to-face with the sort of racial prejudice that many foreign students must be feeling as a minority group in an Australian class.

Fortunately, by the end of the first class, we all seemed to be spontaneously opening up to one another. Not as quickly as Aussie-to-Aussie, but certainly a lot more conversations flowed. By seizing a chance to team up with an Aussie for an assignment, the ice thawed further. By the third day of class, I no longer felt that I was a minority and I started seeing the other students as fellow students, without any feeling of racial prejudice. I felt that they too see me as a fellow student and they now talk with me as they talk with the others.

Looking back, I think I had been oversensitive on that first day of class. I can see that if I were one of the Aussies, I would have done the same; i.e. not as ready to talk to someone of a different race until I felt at ease to do so. I am glad I made the extra effort to break the ice. I'm sure it helped. What I experienced on the first day of class had nothing to do with racial prejudice. We are just human - all of us.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

How to catch snatch thieves

Snatch thieves practically run wild in Malaysia. This crime has become so common that people are resigned to the fact that the police can do nothing about it. Women are taught not to carry a handbag when they go out. If they do it is just a matter of time before someone comes along on a motorbike and snatch the handbag away, sometimes causing grievous injuries to the victim.

Here is one easy way to catch them all. Place a self-exploding device in the bag that will cause a splash of bright indelible ink all over the thief. Send out undercover agents all over town carrying a loaded handbag like this. I am pretty sure the success rate will be very high.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wearing earphones in public

Do you notice how many people go around in public with a pair of earphones stuck in their ears? Do you realize that it is almost invariably the young people who are so into music that they must have music piped into their ears all the time? Or is it to send a message to people around not to intrude into the person's privacy?

Of course, what I am about to say is just a matter of perspective. I can imagine that to a deaf person, natural sound and even naturally-occurring noise would be sweeter than music to his ears. Not even the finest music composed by man can sound better than the sweet chirping of a bird, or the soothing sound of palm leaves swaying in the wind. So, before you start piping music into your ears and cause premature deafness to set in, think about what you are going to miss in the future. Picture a world where there is permanently complete silence, and you may start to appreciate what you can hear.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What really is amateur photography?

When somebody says he is an amateur photographer, there is a high chance of a misunderstanding. The dictionary defines amateur in two ways: someone who engages in a pursuit as a pastime rather than as a profession, OR, one lacking in competence or experience in an art or science. Unfortunately most people tend to associate an amateur with the second definition.

Personally, I like to think of an amateur as someone who does something for the love of it. In the mid-nineteenth century an amateur was a highly regarded gentleman who pursues a pastime for the love of it. I wonder how many non-professional photographers take pride in being called an amateur! Or how many "serious amateurs" would get offended if referred to in this way!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Rising house prices - is it good?

If you read what the papers say, you'll be forgiven for thinking that a rising trend in house prices is a good thing to have. The impression one gets is that it is a sign that the economy is improving; that it is something we should all be happy about. Perhaps the writers have something to gain from an increase in house prices, but I believe as a whole the general population stands to lose.

An increase in house prices is a form of inflation. We all need an inflation in house prices as much as we need an inflation in petrol price, in grocery bills, and in utility bills. When house price increases, the homeowner does not really gain anything until he sells his house (at which point it will cost him more when he buys the next house). However, every single one of his children will have to pay the increased prices when they buy their own houses in the future. So, how can house price inflation be a good thing? Yet the newspapers always report this in a positive manner, as if this is a great thing to have for the economy.