Saturday, April 18, 2009

Panoramania #2

This is actually the first panorama I made -- this one is in Red Hook, looking back from where the Beard building juts out into the ocean. It was made up of three hand-held shots. The building on the right behind the old streetcars houses the Brooklyn Fairway, which is a worth destination in itself of course. The Statue of Liberty is visible in in the distance as well. Once again this is much smaller than the full-size panorama.


I've been in Brooklyn occasionally shooting some photos, and I don't know, one thing led to another, and, suddenly, I've started shooting some stitched panoramas. This one was shot on the boardwalk at the Empire-Fulton Ferry Park in Dumbo, out of eleven distinct pictures. There are a few artifacts (that boat is actually longer than it appears, and the railing is blurred oddly) but I'm pleased with the way it's come out.

This wasn't even shot with a tripod -- these are hand-held shots stitched together with hugin, a vigourous-seeming open-source project. Also, the version above is only about a fifth of the resolution of the actual finished panorama.

Now, I wonder where you can get this sort of thing printed (cheaply)...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

With the grain

I was wandering around Manhattan and Brooklyn snapping a few pictures today and I found myself musing on why I've taken a liking to photography recently. (If you haven't been paying attention, it's my latest obsession.)

I realized that I like taking pictures that are at the limits of a camera's capabilities; I've always liked low-light photography, and I also like images with extreme dynamic range. The phenomenon is similar to "euphony" in the sound world, which is when a sound reproduction technology fails to reproduce the source realistically, but does so in a way that is pleasing to the ear. The canonical example is electric guitar amplifier distortion: the amplifiers which created the sound of rock couldn't reproduce the electric guitar signal cleanly at the volumes guitarists needed, but the distortion added harmonic content to the signal and actually made it sound better. Today it's hard to imagine electric guitar without it.

Cameras do something similar. In fact, they capture images far less transparently than today's audio recorders do; they have trouble dealing with light levels in which our eyes function near-perfectly, and even in the best of conditions, transform the captured image. Film grain (or digital noise and artifacts, as in the picture above) can be pleasing or ugly, and of course I prefer it to be pleasing. But I think there's something a bit deeper than that at work: while audio pretends at perfection, the camera makes no attempt to hide the fact that it cannot make perfect copies of reality. As its image loses its focus or softens to noise, it allows a veil of modesty to be drawn between the viewer and reality.

Our perceptions are far from perfect, and the camera does not hide this but actually accentuates it. It tells us not that we are all-knowing (and by extension all-powerful) but reminds us that we have limitations. It advises us not to grip too tightly to our ideas, because there is some knowledge that will always be beyond our grasp. And perhaps best of all, it tells us to know our limitations, and use them to our advantage.