Rock & Scaffold

I took pictures of rocks, and also some buildy things. Then I messed around with them in the GIMP. It was fun.

(UPDATE: I took out two of the crappy ones with the bad gradient skies and replaced them with two slightly less crappy ones)



a blurry neon escalator
the sunset behind the burj khalifa
a cracked lamp
sage and thyme

Still trying to get the hang of the 58mm Zenit lens. Getting better, but need to clean a lot of dust out of it (as seen in the Burj Khalifa shot).


How to Make Stylish Black & White Digital Photos with the GIMP

Road Picture - beforeRoad Picture - after
How exactly do you turn the dull, boring image on the left into the one on the right? Easy, read on for the tutorial!

01. The Basics of GEGL

For this tutorial, you will need the GIMP. It’s a program much like Photoshop, only it’s open source and free. If you don’t have it, you can download the latest version here.

(Sorry, Adobe users, I haven’t used commercial software for more than 5 years now, so my Photoshop knowledge is woefully out-of-date. There may be a method and plugin in PSD that does similar things, but I have no idea if that’s true or what it is. If you do, then please leave a comment about it at the end of the page. Thanks.)

Once you’ve installed and started the GIMP, open your photo (please work from a copy so as not to mistakenly overwrite your original file!) and navigate to the Tools dropdown menu and select GEGL Operation… as shown below left.

Select GEGL Operation from ToolsClick on Operation and select C2G
Now the GEGL Operation window will show up. Click on the currently-empty Operation box and select C2G. If you don’t want it to start working on the image as soon as you click it, uncheck the Preview box. If you leave it on, then it will take a while depending on your computer and the size and complexity of the image to apply the effect on the picture.

The Default values of the C2G plugin
Above you see the default values of the C2G plugin. For now we’ll leave them as is. Depending on the picture, you may not need to tweak these at all, but for this tutorial I have chosen one that does need a bit more work. If the default values work for you, go ahead and click OK.

Picture of the road with the default C2G values
This is what the picture looks like with the default values. First of all, the sky looks hideous. The C2G plugin has a knack of picking out detail you may not even know existed in your pictures. I’ve found it to work especially well on overexposed or low-contrast images. But in this case, it’s done a bit too much. I also don’t like the lack of subtle greys and blacks in the picture; it looks a little too much like a computer effect.

But first thing’s first: fixing that sky.

02. Flattening the Sky

Use the magic wand tool to select the skyPick the light color in the sky
We’re going to have to make that sky a lot simpler so its hidden details don’t get picked up by C2G. Select the sky with the Magic Wand (Fuzzy Select) tool. Add to the selection by keeping shift pressed when you click until the majority of the sky is selected. It’s okay if a few bits near the mountains aren’t because we don’t want to chop any of them off.

Create a new transparent layerNow, using the Eye Dropper tool pick a light colour in the sky that you want to fill it with. It doesn’t matter if it’s almost white, as we will see later. Right now you just want an even tone. In the Layers pane, create a New Layer (and make sure you select ‘Transparent’) above the current layer (i.e. your original image). This is where we’ll paint in the flat sky’. The marching ants will still be visible around your selection of the sky, and using the Paint Bucket tool, fill in this selection on the transparent layer with the light colour we selected before (as seen below).

Fill in the selection with the light colour

Now that the sky is mostly flat and white, go to the Layer dropdown menu and select Merge Down. The flat light sky has now been pasted onto the old one, and we can get back to converting it to Black & White.

03. Tweaking GEGL

C2G conversion with flattened sky and default valuesC2G conversion with flattened sky and tweaked values
Reopen the GEGL operations window and select C2G as before. Now that it has been flattened the sky renders as a smooth grey. But the default values still aren’t producing the desired results (left) so I tweak the variables in the C2G window until I am satified, and get the image on the right.

My tweaked C2G values
Here are my tweaked values for this picture. I have increased the radius to 400 — I find that this gives me better grey tones in the foreground elements, and less harsh black/white sections. I also increase samples to 5, as this puts in more black into the image. And finally, the iterations go up to 15 resulting in a smoother, less-noisy image.

It’s hard to come up with an all-purpose setting for this, but I’ve found that for most of my photos, somewhere around these values produce the results I want. Fool around with them and see what suits you. Remember, however, that as the samples and iterations go up, processing time will too. It’s already a pretty slow process, and without a progress bar it’s a bit unnerving to sit there waiting. My advice is to put preview on, let it do its thing, and apply when it’s done. Go do something else in the meanwhile. Fix yourself some coffee, or check your email. The results are worth the wait!

We aren’t done, however, as that sky is now just a little too flat for my liking. Let’s see what we can do with it.

04. Un-Flattening the Sky

You’re probably wondering why I’m tweaking the sky after converting it to Black and white using C2G. The answer is because I’ve tried doing it after the next step, and you don’t want to see how ugly the results were, he he. So save any gradient tinkering — as we will do below — for after the conversion, or C2G will bring out revolting shapes in it just like it did the clouds in the original, untweaked image.

Select the sky again with the magic wand
Using the Magic Wand tool again, select the now-grey sky. The C2G process has probably added in a good deal of noise here, so it won’t select as much as it did before, and you can probably spend a half-hour shift-clicking like crazy to get all of it selected.

Adjust the thresholdInstead, adjust the threshold on the magic wand tool’s options (at the bottom of the left-hand pane). I found that 50 worked for me here (the default was 15). Don’t put too high a number here or half you image will be selected, not just the sky! As always, pushing the numbers up a little at a time will get you to the sweet spot easier. Now, go ahead and select the clouds as above. You don’t need to get all of it like before — a few gaps here and there are okay.

Use the eyedropper to select the grey colour the sky has now become before the next step.

Use FG to BG in the Gradient ToolNow we need to remake the sky, so to speak. Select the Gradient Tool. In the right pane, make sure FG to BG is selected. The Foreground Color (FG) is the grey we selected, and by the default the Background Colour (BG) is white. This will do nicely, as the C2G process usually adds a white glow around sharply defined shapes like the tops of the mountains here.

Create a gradient keeping in mind the horizon line
Now create a gradient for the sky keeping in mind the horizon. In this picture I have the handy telephone poles acting as a natural perpendicular to the horizon. Since its a skewed image, just make sure the gradient is drawn more or less parallel to this line as shown in the picture, ending a little bit above the edge of the selection where the white glow and the grey intermingle.

The finished gradientAnd here we have the finished gradient. If you are satisified that it all looks okay, clear any selections, because there’s one final step.

05. Adding a Bit of Colour

The odd thing about Black & White images is that they aren’t all truly black and white. In the film days the chemicals and elements used in each film stock produced subtle variations — subtle colours — in the final image. Sepia images have a brownish tinge, and cyanotype ones blue. How to recreate these in the computer, while keeping the black and white image as we’ve just done?

Thankfully the folks over at have come to our rescue! You can follow their detailed tutorial on sampling toned images here (but I’ve covered the basic method below). The real resource you’ll need, though, is their massive collection of Toning Samples. Download the ones you need, the ones you’d like your photos to look like. I find that I like Platinum Palladium the most, so I’ve used it in all of these examples, and in this tutorial below.

Use Sample Colorise to tone the image
Once you’ve downloaded a sample, while keeping your C2G tweaked image open too, open the toning sample. Select your black and white image’s window. Now you need to map the tones to this image, so go to Colors –> Map –> Sample Colorize…

The sample Colorize windowThe Sample Colorize window will come up, hopefully showing your image on the left (Destination) and the tone map on the right (Sample). If not, select each until as shown above from the drop down menus.

Then, click on Get Sample Colors to transfer the tones from the sample to your image. You can fiddle around with the setting to your liking, but I usually find that the defaults work okay. Finally, click Apply.

And that, in a nutsell is it! The image has been converted to Black & White, and given a spiffy tone. Here’s the result:
The final black and white image

06. And Finally…

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on my personal method of black & white conversion. All of this information can be found through a quick google search in other places, but I always find that there are always tiny variations and quirks to how each photographer interprets and employs a technique, and so another one doesn’t hurt.

I leave you with some more Before/After examples of pictures made with this method. Enjoy.

Cloudy Morning Sky over Turhalli, Bengaluru - BeforeCloudy Morning Sky over Turhalli, Bengaluru - After

Dome of a mosque in Sharjah - BeforeDome of a mosque in Sharjah - After

Exhaust stack of a power station in Ajman - BeforeExhaust stack of a power station in Ajman - After

Portrait of two men - BeforePortrait of two men - After

Close up of a cement mixer - beforeClose up of a cement mixer - after

Two men walking with power plant in the bakground, Jebel Ali - beforeTwo men walking with power plant in the bakground, Jebel Ali - after


Head in the Black & White Clouds

The top of a cloud in black & white

I mentioned in a previous Black & White photo post that while I love the aesthetic I’d never done much of it, i.e. I’d never bothered to process my (colour) digital pictures into adequate black & white photos. But now that I’ve hit upon a method whose results I like, expect a lot more black & white posts on this blog!

Today I’m presenting 5 shots taken mostly during my last India trip (except the first, which was taken in Khor Fakkan). I hope you like ’em, and if you’d like to find out how I did them, do check back here in a few days when I’ll put up a tutorial on how to convert images to B&W using the GIMP. (You can follow the site’s RSS feed, and me on twitter).

The central column of a cement factory against thick rain clouds, in black & white
Khor Fakkan

A bank of thick clouds over Bengaluru in black & white

A tangled electric pole against rain clouds in Navi Mumbai in black and white
Navi Mumbai

A tree stump in Borivali National Park, Mumbai, overlooked by the Kanheri caves, under a cloudy sky in black and white
Borivali National Park, near Kanheri Caves

Clouds reflected in the water at Lal Bagh, Bengaluru, in black and white
Lal Bagh, Bengaluru

Remember to come back to the journal in a few days to catch the tutorial!


The Burj Dubai, Day & Night

Photo of the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world, in the afternoon with a Dubai metro station and footbridge in the foreground

Oddly enough, despite the Dubai Mall being open for over a year now, I have never taken my Pentax SLR out in it to snap a few shots.

But today when my friend Amit was in town (we were meeting after 15 years despite living the the same city for much of that time — and that’s a whole ‘nother story), he asked me to bring along the ‘fancy camera’ to take some touristy shots. Since I rarely take touristy shots, I was looking forward to the challenge! 🙂

And wouldn’t you know it, the batteries were flat and I didn’t have time to recharge them. Lucky for me the Pentax K200D uses four ordinary AA batteries, so I was able to get up and running after a quick stop at a gas station convenience store for some alkalines.

Literally the first shot I took, seconds after popping the batteries in was the one above. It’s not a great shot, but you do get to see a Dubai metro station in the foreground, and once again the speed of an SLR — nearly as good as instant response of the film cameras I cut my teeth on — amazed me.

Later in the evening we found ourselves in the Dubai Mall, outdoors near the fountain. I got one half-decent shot of the fountain, below, which I can’t decide is bad because of the column obscuring it, or likable precisely because of that rogue column in the way. Such is the way with photographs, sometimes.

Picture of the Dubai fountain, near the Burj Dubai and Dubai Mall, in the Old Town development and Business Bay

Needless to say, I need to go back with a tripod someday (of course, first I need to find a tripod that can steadily hold my beast of a camera).

Then followed several unsuccessful attempts at taking shots of the nearly-finished Burj Dubai, all of which were blurry (including one with a borrowed tripod). Finally I managed to get a good, properly composed shot by employing a trick I learnt from the esteemed Samir Bharadwaj — I leaned against one of the same offending columns that had earlier come between me and the fountain.

All was forgiven between me and that piece of decorative architecture, because it helped me get this shot below:

Photo of the Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world, at night with most of the lights on

And that, along with an excellent evening of good food and laughter with friends of old (and some new ones too), made the evening quite worth it.


A Grand Day Out in the Natural Beauty of Dharavi

leaf growing out of the grille of an abandoned ambassador car
Quick: what is the first think you think of when I say the word ‘Dharavi‘?

Slums. Squalor. Crowds. That movie that everyone was talking about a while back…

Of all the answers you came up with, I doubt that Nature Sanctuary was one of them. But that is indeed what you will find in Dharavi, smack dab in the middle of Mumbai.

Mahim Nature Park (also called Maharashtra Nature Park) is confusingly not in Mahim as most people define it, but sits unassumingly opposite the Dharavi Bus Depot, a five minute rickshaw ride from Sion Circle. Most people have probably never heard of it because you can’t find a single swing-set, merry-go-round or snack stall inside. You will however find plenty of twisting pathways and dense foliage, countless species of plants, flowers, and bugs, all for a meagre Rs.5 entry fee.

It’s a no-frills slice of nature, and a photographer’s dream. Fantastic for a shutterbug’s Sunday out, and a great roadtest for a new camera or lens. I took my Pentax K200D out with me on its first real shakedown, and once again I am reminded that isn’t the camera that needs improvement, it’s my photography skills!

Still, out of the nearly 400 pictures I took on Sunday, quite a few didn’t suck. And here they are:

brick pathway through shallow ditch
young peepal leaves growing out of the bark of a large tree
macro of a caterpillar on a mostly-eaten leaf
large leaves catch the sun and a few raindrops
twisting brick pathway through the foliage, strewn with moss and leaves
a sprig of dry leaves resting on fresh ones
more young leaves of a creeper
old rubber slipper
parijat flower on ground
several parijat flowers
closed flowerbud of a gourd plant
spider versus camera lens
bees feed on the nectar of flowers
sunlight pokes through the thick canopy and hits two young leaves
another mossy, twisting pathway
blue flowers

I had a blast that day despite the heat and humidity, and highly recommend it to any nature lovers & photographers in Mumbai.


More Mountain (well, Hill) Photos

Thumbnail header swatch of quarried mountains in Fujairah
A while ago on a drive through Fujairah and the Northern Emirates I took a bunch of photos of the landscape from the car. It was a nice enough day, but far too grey and harsh, and I didn’t think any of the photos were any good.

A few days ago I was looking through those same photos before archiving them to DVD, and tried playing around with some of the levels. Lo and behold, the peculiar, lovely color of Kodak cameras came into play, and the pictures were suddenly pretty good!

So here are fifteen of the best. You should keep in mind that the day didn’t look like this — but hey, who cares now, the pictures came out good. Enjoy.

Mountains in Fujairah
Dark rain clouds over Mountains in Fujairah
Colourful orange-red Mountains in Fujairah
Quarried Mountains in Fujairah
Quarried Mountains in foreground, other in shadow -- Fujairah
Dust rises from a quarroied mountain in Fujairah
Communication tower at the top of mountain in Fujairah
Dirt road through the mountains in Fujairah
Donut skidmarks on sunny road in front of shadowy mountain in Fujairah
Dry salt marshland at the base of mountains in Fujairah
Four yellow earth movers lined up in front of mountains in Fujairah
Red rocky hill and mountains in Hatta
Highway in Fujairah with streams of sunlight coming through the clouds, and a cement factory in the distance
Undulating range of hills in Ras Al Khaimah
Mountains half in shadow under clouds, in Ras Al Khaimah


Playing Around With The Pentax K200D

Macro shot of the Pentax K200D dslr camera taken with a Kodak C875 compact
A couple of weeks ago did my bit to help ease the credit crunch by put a good deal of cash into retail spending. I bought myself a Pentax K200D digital SLR camera. It’s the first professional camera I’ve ever owned, and while everybody and their mother told me to get a frakking Canon or Nikon, this one — quirks, warts and all — is the one I wanted (also there was a rumour going around that the model was discontinued, and indeed it took me a week to track it down in a store).

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks testing it out. With no real SLR experience behind me I haven’t half a clue as to what I’m doing. The days have also been brown and grey, which doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm to take pictures. Here’s a bunch of decent ones I’ve taken so far (out of hundreds of lousy ones, heh).

The ceiling of the airport tunnel in Dubai
The Burj Dubai, tallest building in the world, and an earth scooper in the foreground
a piece of a camel's jaw I found washed up on a beach once
My glasses and my cavernous nostril
The end of a burnt incense stick
A Sony Ericsson K500 phone.
A macro shot of an oil lamp in the dark
The legs of an artist's mannequin
A mynah on the windowsill obscured by a kahwa pot
Pedestrian signage in Deira
The Radisson Dubai Creek, formerly the Intercontinental
A fancy mobile phone cradle
The mountains near Dibba
Dust stains after a drizzly morning on the wing mirror of a Ssangyong Rexton



Mountains near Yitti in Oman
Small hill by the side of the road near Yitti in Oman
Silhouette of mountains on the road home from Yitti

(These three were taken in Oman last July)