Photographing Art

Medieval POC has a post today about one of the works I photographed in the Gemäldegalerie. It’s not a photograph I’m especially happy with, suffering from a lot of reflection and over-exposure along the upper half, especially visible in the closeup. My fault for not buying a circular polarising filter. But! Not writing excuses here.

Mpoc (yeah, I actually say, “Em-pock” in my head) compares that photo, Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba with the one on Wikipedia. The latter is much darker, slightly more saturation, and bonkers amounts of contrast. So here I am, writing about photographing art and what I try and do.

Let’s dispense with the assumption I have a fancy camera (as much as I’d love a Canon 5D (Mk III, DS, whatevz) or … OK, I shut up). I took many photos I love, and learnt masses about photography with my Sony Ericsson K750c, a now ten year old unsmart phone; went from that to a Panasonic LX3 which taught me masses about working with a fully manual camera, and then to my current LX7. The LX series, not quite a compact camera, nor a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, though when I first picked up a 5D Mk III, it was strangely familiar. I shoot mostly in Aperture mode, occasionally in Shutter if the light is too dim and I think I can get away with fixing a dark image (nope, not bloody likely). I use Available White Balance because even if the artificial lighting is the same in every room, the colour of the walls, the size of the room, even the position of the painting on the wall mean I’ll end up with something far further from reality if I try and be fancy and set it any other way. Oh, and I shoot in RAW. Probably the single thing that makes the most difference.

Having a stupidly amazing f/1.4 lens wide-angle lens (24-90mm, 35mm equivalent) means lens distortion, so I set the zoom around the middle, walk back and forth until I find the right framing (filling the frame with a bit of space to allow for cropping), then usually walk around again to find somewhere without reflected light glare. Being pedantic here, I hold my camera with both hands, like a two-handed gun grip, use the electronic level, and breathe out. I take as long as I like before squeezing the shutter, because half a millimetre off on the monitor corresponds to “OMG! WTF?!” once it’s on my laptop, and because museum lighting is deceptively dim so even with all that f/1.4 it’s a dance between limiting ISO to 400 and trying to keep exposure time faster than 1/30s. Describing it like that sounds slightly disturbed, but all of this is habit. This year already I’ve taken 4000 photos and probably half of them I’ve gone through this dance.

If I’m shooting details, I almost always use square format, otherwise I swap between 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9, whatever fits the painting or sculpture best. Something I’ve also been trying recently, and not quite sure if it makes things better or worse, but certainly allowed me to get presentable images out of the Alte Nationalgalerie is using exposure lock. Rather than letting the camera automatically set the exposure (and simultaneously white balance) on the painting, which particularly in works with a lot of dark colours or varnishing end up looking nasty, I set and lock the exposure on a neutralish spot on the frame and wall to one side, then move back to the painting. All this is of course relying on the LCD being remotely accurate to what the camera is doing. It’s not, but over the years of using these and other cameras, I have (I pretend to myself I have) a vague idea of the correspondence between what I’m seeing and what the camera sees.

What else? For particularly long or tall or large works where distortion is an issue (when a painting finishes 4 metres above my head, it’s an issue), or where reflection or light hot spots make a single image messy, I take multiple images and make a panorama from them later. Lots of work, yes, which is why the museum visit itself is not even half the process. But it is a museum visit. I’m going to see art just like everyone else, and part of that deal is not to be an obtrusive wanker, with or without a camera. I spend far more time looking at the pieces, reading the captions, listening to the audio guide than I do taking a few snapshots.

Home and sorting. I’m still using Aperture despite Apple canning it. Photos (the iPhoto replacement) doesn’t cut it, even though I only use Aperture for managing and not editing. Then to the Photoshop! I don’t do anything in RAW conversion, probably I should learn, but I find the tools in Photoshop itself better for the task.

The first thing is taking care of lens distortion. Even the sad mess of Hendrick Heerschop’s Die Mohrenkönig Caspar (it’s worse in the gallery) scrubs up surprisingly well. Usually a bit of vertical (and occasionally horizontal) alignment, removing barrelling, and slight rotation brings even what look like hopeless cases into line. Then there’s the skew transform to fix up the corners, and occasionally warp transform for asymmetric barrelling and pinning. It’s a lot of unavoidable manual work. I’ve tried plugins that claim to automate somewhat or speed up the process but the results are sad.

Cropping time. I always crop out the dark edges where the painting frame has left a shadow, they cause too many problems in the next steps, and anyway, doing this fifty or eighty times per museum when I already have a tendency to take things too far, it’s not like pissing around over 20 pixels is going to do the end result any favours. All this is only for the full painting or sculpture; for details photos it’s straight to ‘colour balancing’.

Inverted commas, yes. Photoshop’s default automatic contrast, tone, and colour balancing work on the assumption that skin colour is Teutonic. (Or it’s an automatic “LOL! Blackface!” generator, in which case, my bad, works perfectly.) Going manual is honestly no better (because the same algorithms underlie the process). Anyway, I try and do as little as possible, seeing I’m not working on images photographed with a colour chart and so only have my poor memory of the artwork to work against. First thing then, duplicate the layer. Knowing what I’m going to do later, mostly the auto contrast I can get away with, and auto tone about half the time (and half of that needing its own duplicate layer to wreak ‘balancing’ on). Auto colour though, oh am I laughing. Its interpretation of gilt, which there is no shortage of in mediæval art is something approximating copper when it’s oxidising and turning green. Then I drop the edited layer’s opacity down to zero and scrub back and forth until I’m not too appalled. Mostly between 27 and 36%, though depending on the conditions as high as 63%. It’s reasonably minimal. I’m trying to clarify what the camera saw, compensating for its slight under-contrast and colour softness, rather than making something up from my memory, or creating an idealising artifice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it turns everything to shit.

Save as tif, close, next. Repeat until finished. Unless …

Sometimes parts of images even without reflection end up with odd, horribly blown-out parts, or the upper half or one upper corner is significantly lighter. In that case, it’s duplicate layer time once more. I’m going to mangle things. I use curves and the ‘darker’ preset. Often twice. Then a layer mask to hide everything, and brush back in only the upper part. Then that opacity-scrubbing thing again until I work out approximately where the stygian upper parts match the original lower parts. More brushing and erasing on the layer mask, and repeat with more layer as necessary. There are some improvisational tricks I pull to deal with extreme reflected glare also, but eh … it’s kinda desperate and the whole time everyone in the painting is whispering, “Just fucking buy the fucking polariser already. Fuck’s sake.” and giving me the side eye.

It feels somewhat mindless, but without the luxury of being paid to do this, setting up softboxes, using colour charts, amazing camera and lenses, doing the editing next to the painting on a balanced monitor, the whole doodaa, this is what it takes me to turn what often look decidedly average coming out of the camera into something occasionally I look at and know what I’ve done isn’t fooling myself, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s what it was, that’s what I felt when I looked at it, that’s how awesome it was, that’s fucking art.”

… and!

Comparisons. First: Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba as I photographed it, followed by my edited version, followed by the version on Wikimedia. (I’m not sure mine’s an improvement over the original RAW, but the real painting is nothing like Wikimedia version.) I’m often surprised how little contrast and how soft the colours are in so much art, and how seductive it is to bump but the contrast and saturation. Second: Hendrick Heerschop’s Die Mohrenkönig Caspar. A truly beautiful painting made nearly worthless by its glass covering and being hung opposite the windows, so all the subtleties in the dark golds and browns of his clothing, in his skin, in the background even, are lost.


Tanami Track & Desert

Somehow I got from trying to find my way across Berlin to several hours traipsing up the Tanami Track and across the desert in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Along the way I found a couple of impact craters, marvelled at the astoundingly and diversely complex geological processes across central Australia, followed dry, braided rivers to their inland deltas, seasonal lakes and waterways, found airport runways, a scrawl of tracks, trails, roads, paths that faded in and out, cattle stations, groups of houses, mines, diggings, scratchings, was amazed at the quantity of signs of human existence in the blankness, more amazed still by the utter beauty of the land, realised it looked a lot like my favourite kind of art and some of the stuff I was doing a while ago, and I was better just to take screenshots than a paintbrush, also that I am unlikely to ever see this land from the ground, and to see it like this, from surveillance satellites mapping the planet down to metre-resolution is something I’ll never experience.

Well, That’s Disappointing

I’d been waiting for my new MacBook Pro for weeks, and yesterday it finally arrived. I was rehearsing in the evening, so decided to postpone the unpacking until today because I wanted to photograph it like I did six years ago, and because I was planning to install everything anew. Today being lazy, it was around 4:30pm I got organised.

Half an hour later, just when I’m pulling the wrapper off the thing itself, getting ready to plug it in, I discover a fucking dent on the bottom case. A fucking dent. On my new, 2947.00€ MacBook Pro. I couldn’t believe it. I almost said, “aw, fuck it, whatever,” and then thought, “Wait, I just spent three thousand euros on something that I expect to last me six years, which I’ve already chosen to ignore the slightly dirty cable packaging and the definitely not clean bottom case, and now a fucking dent? Fuck this.”

So I packed it back up, put the lid back on the box and called BetterWorx. Oops. Closed. Wait ’til Monday. I’m not even going to speculate on how a new laptop can arrive buggered, but it’s going back and I’m fucked if I’m accepting this one.

Mavericks? I would have called it 10.9 Anarchists myself

Mainly it was because iCal and Address Book lose that utterly vile skeuomorphic stitched leather look, and also realising my afternoon was slightly free, and I’d downloaded the 5.31GB of OS X 10.9 Mavericks, and I was dead lusty for all the new stuff, so 40 minutes later or so I was booting on my venerable (but definitely alive) 2008 MacBook Pro into the first non-cat OS in 12 1/2 years. (Actually a bit more because I was messing around with pre-release versions even before that).

And that was easy, wasn’t it? (Besides needing to reindex my Mail which caused 20 or so emails from years ago to try and send themselves until I mashed the ‘off’ button for Wi-Fi). Tabs in the Finder? Nice! Not sure I’ll use Tags, mainly due to having a decade of junk on my laptop already organised. iCal’s new look and the Day view are especially pleasing (though adding notes is still not entirely possible with keyboard). Safari’s Inspector has been given a new set of clothes. iBooks! Awesome! Really brilliant that it’s finally on Macs. And Maps! My short play with it hasn’t revealed whether it can replace my current map choice for tracking my training rides, but the 3D view of around here makes the trees look like Krynoids from Doctor Who: Seeds of Doom.

Important stuff like Apache, PHP, and MySQL worked almost immediately: the former just needing its httpd-vhosts.conf file updated; the mid needing the former’s httpd.conf edited to load the PHP module and the last working without a problem. And that is the easiest setup for my localhost environment ever.

I also had to buy Little Snitch, which no longer worked, but considering how much I use it, it’s €30 very well-spent – especially considering 10.9 was free. Oh, and iWork, Aperture, bunch of other stuff also updated. Pity I can’t afford one of the new MacBook Pros.

New Computer Logic Board!

Oh indeed it’s going mental around here with overuse of the word, ‘New’.

A couple of weeks ago my nearly-four-year-old laptop went completely black when I dragged an image to be edited. Panic! High blood pressure! Gnashing of teeth! Somehow it decided to restart after half a day, and I of course began my usual assault on the internet to find out wtf was that wtf.

“macbookpro4,1 black screen” gave some pretty definitive answers, and as soon as I checked I had the dreaded NVIDIA GeForce 8600 GT graphics card, I was pretty sure I was staring “ugly immediate future” in the mouth.

One large Mac shop nearby Technische Universität was distinctly unhelpful (unlike last year when my top case gave out), and said my laptop wasn’t covered as I had a blaaaahblllaaaa … (won’t dwell on the minutia). So I resorted to running the fan on high which seemed to be the only solution for temporarily deferring inevitable logic board death while I a) tried to get through a stack of work and b) alternately pondered what to do or whined.

Being not one who likes to lose an argument when the price of doing so is about half that of a new laptop, I searched for precedents. Excitement, yes. Found them and called Apple just as my screen gave out again and on the very last day of the four-year period Apple would cover replacement for free, and received a definitive, “Yes, my supervisor says you’re covered.”

All of which found me on Tuesday in BetterWorx, really hoping that previous definitive wouldn’t be graced by a conditional. And I’ve seldom been so happy to see my laptop fall apart when tested as I was when they ran the graphics test and it threw back the NVIDIA failure.

More agonising as I was informed I might not make the deadline and …

Friday arrived and so did my laptop, ahead of the deadline by a scant 8 hours. And!

New 500gb hard drive installed (been sitting on my shelf since before the floods in Thailand doubled the price). Wonky latch also fixed!

I spent last night doing a completely fresh install (ten hours of trawling through all my forgotten system tweaks that suddenly and glaringly weren’t there), and now hoping nothing more goes askew (could do with a new battery some time), and I get at least the rest of the year out of this poor, clobbered thing (pulled an enormous dustball out from under the command key when I noticed the backlight was a little askew).

(This is a thank you also to everyone at BetterWorx.)

hate/love apple

Lucky I was in London for the long weekend, and so enjoying the longest break from my laptop and the internet I’ve had in years. All the better considering it was in a shop, where I hoped it was being repaired.

By the time my last laptop, a beautiful 15″ PowerBook, had reached the end of its life, it was a decorticated zombie, battery, hard drive, DVD drive all dead, and case bearing the crumbling patina along the front edge, held together with an external portable FireWire drive that when I accidentally knocked the cable would bring everything to a graceful and irreversible crash.

As with my new MacBook Pro, it suffered from some distinct hardware issues. First, the peeling of the light case border, then the death of hard drive and the problematic Matshita Combo Drive. All variously and uncomplainingly replaced by MyMac in Melbourne for free, thanks to the joy of AppleCare.

My new laptop, after several months of far less harrowing use than that PowerBook began to exhibit odd behaviour, the trackpad and keyboard freezing, which after some messing around I realised was caused by the battery. Or rather, the topcase somehow didn’t get on well with the battery. For much of the last – more than a – year, I’ve been using it sans battery, and poking with my finger at the underside of the trackpad to bring it back to life on the occasions I did include non-mains power.

Not much of a laptop then, and despite being all over the Apple discussion boards, this finger-poking fix wasn’t ideal. I took it into one shop in Kreuzberg, and they said it would be difficult to prove I hadn’t damaged the case myself, so for a long time endured an expensive, hobbled device. Finally, as also documented numerously on the Apple boards, even the finger didn’t work.

Gravis is rather shiny and large, in Ernst-Reuter Platz, and I acquired a beautiful 500gb 2.5″ FireWire 800 drive from there for the unthinkably low price of €120 not so long ago. I’m still awestruck by the capacity and cheapness of drives now compared to eight years ago when 20gb was just beginning to pass from acceptable for a laptop. With my now completely paralysed laptop, and me feeling as though I’d had a significant portion of my identity eviscerated, I ventured there shortly before going to London, thinking at worst I could buy an external mouse and keyboard and get another couple of years out of another zombie laptop.

Not so attractive as a friend pointed out, when I keep people’s Macs running as a job, and should really be able to speak highly of them, instead of turning up with a Frankenstein.

At Gravis, they listened to my explanations, notes on the Apple boards, took my baby away for a few minutes, then came back and said I could pick it up this week. Today I did.

On why I hate/love Apple…

Yes, there is the exceptional software and hardware design, but there always seems to be issues that affect a lot of users, and having had two laptops with serious issues it is very easy for me to feel deeply frustrated with the only computer and OS I’d consider using. Really, if I had to use a PC running Windows or more likely Linux, I’d dispense with the hassle altogether and find something else to do.

As with my previous laptop, I bought AppleCare for three years, and as with that previous laptop, it paid for itself the first time I had to use it. My revitalised – and working with battery – baby has an entire new topcase, the price of which, including labour is greater than the cost of this insurance. The simplicity with which my problem was dealt with, fast, no arguing, pleasant, and most importantly, free are the reasons that even though there are problems with hardware and software (and had this one not been dealt with in such a good way, I would be far more pessimistic), I remain in love with Apple.

(Yes, there is a moral to this story, or rather a couple: Buy AppleCare, use the Apple discussion boards to diagnose your problems, and backup early and often.)

(I’ll stop now and caress my beautiful laptop for a while.)


Not much blogging the last months and I feel shame. Though I have excuses.

Firstly, the intermittent trackpad/keyboard freezing problem that has gone on with my MacBook Pro since around 9 months after I bought it became irreversible. The normal fix of not triggering it by putting my battery in, and poking with my finger at the underside of the trackpad to unfreeze it after I had – all endlessly discussed and documented on Apple’s own user forums – finally failed altogether.

So my Mac, data safely backed up thanks to an emergency intervention,is in a shop hopefully getting fixed under AppleCare. I on the other hand, am writing this on a venerable 13″ PowerBook G4, running 10.5, with my home folder on my external drive. Of course this does cause myriad problems and is buggy and crashy as all fuck. Somehow it is (marginally) workable, but I feel I’ve lost half my brain and bodily functions to a stroke.

In the meantime, I’ve just got back from London Festival of the Art of Japanese Bondage, which I shall write about soon.

… return

I was up till quite late last night methodically going through installing all of my add-ons, plugins, bits and pieces that make doing things on my laptop so much quicker and often just possible to be done at all. Not a few of these I had to find the latest versions now that I am on 10.5, which is rather nice. I’ve decided to play with some of the new features instead of my usual one-step up from command-line simplicity, to see if they are indeed useful and not just candy.

My biggest moment of terror though was opening ecto and finding around 500 of my blog entires completely not there, and anything I tried to do made things worse. Eventually, things seemed to be normal-er-ish, though all my custom tags had vanished, and while I’m sure I recall seeing them in some .plist, I couldn’t find them and re-entered them by hand.

There is an ecto3 beta out, but if this doesn’t crash when I try and post it, and retains a semblance of order, I’ll stick with this till everything else is ok-ish.


end … begin

Since mid-December I have been using one of the Centre for Astrophysics white MacBooks, which has been a joy. A proper working laptop, not the Frankenstein monster my beloved old PowerBook had become. Dead battery, dead hard drive, dead optical drive (with Japanese sexploitation film stuck in it).

Today I turned it on for the first time in three months, not even as its own machine, but slaved through FireWire to the MacBook, and then overwrote its disc with two and an half hours of:


Then I went and bought a new MacBook Pro.