Near Horizon

Open & Shut Case

canon g9 with open back
Samir is cleaning his Canon G9 camera. It’s a few years out of warranty and always comes back from vacations to India with dust specks. Far too annoying a problem to ignore, far to small a problem to pay a fair deal of money to get repaired professionally any more.


Testing out the new old Pentax-F SMC 50mm 1.4

dubai karama metro station taken with a pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
I recently acquired a new old lens, a Pentax SFX-era F1.4 50mm autofocus from the 1980s. While it is a lens ideally suited for night photography, I recently had the chance to give it a whirl while out and about. Here are a few of the good photos I got.

index tower and burj khalifa shot with a pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
The Index is one of my favourite buildings to look at in Dubai, and not only because a friend of mine lives there. This Foster & Partners building is perfect for the Dubai landscape, with its pleasingly retro angles and box grater shape, its use of textured materials. And yet it’s completely different to the chrome and glass towers that make up most of the city’s skyscrapers. Chief among them is the Burj Khalifa, tallest building in the world, of-late Tom Cruise’s personal dangling venue of choice. I’m fairly indifferent to its design, though I guess it could have been a lot worse.

ras al khaimah emirates road shot with a pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
Despite the modern image of the Emirates being a glass & chrome metropolis, drive a little out of the city and you’ll end up on a road that looks very much like this, no matter where you go…

national paints roundabout traffic jam shot with a pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
…and once you get bored and decide to return to the cities, chances are you’ll end up in a traffic jam that looks very much like this, no matter where you go!

acrobatic jets with smoke trail shot with a pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
It’s a small concession that once every couple of years, when you do get stuck in a traffic jam you at least get to see some aerobatics. (Also, I really, really need to clean all the dust spots from my camera sensor.)

business bay bridge, culture village tower and burj khalifa shot with a pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
The lens, by the way, performs admirably, even shooting straight into the setting sun. You can’t see it at this size and treatment, but I can read the number plates on most of the traffic in this shot.

pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera
These last two shots further demonstrate how marvelous this lens has turned out to be. Both of them are shot through a very dirty window, with harsh corridor lights behind and above me casting all manner of reflections on the glass. The second one, in fact, was taken at a sharp glancing angle to the glass. It’s a wonder I managed to get anything at all!

pentax sfx pentax-f smc 50mm F1.4 autofocus lens with cokinlight 49mm uv filter on a pentax k200d digital slr camera

Needless to say, I’m only scratching the surface of what this lens can do, and future experiments will follow.


Black & White in Bombay 2

A ball of twine
It’s been nearly six months since I last went to Bombay; a trip I have mixed feelings about, since I mostly went for my cousin’s wedding, and despite being there for a month weather and schedules and general fatigue conspired to keep me grounded most of the time.

I took a lot of pictures — thousands — but most of them are personal, of family and friends, and I don’t share those. Looking through my haul before committing them to DVD backups (remember, kids: back up frequently, often, and in multiple mediums), I found that in between the personal photographs I had snuck in an artistic one here and there.

A hand holding a small spider-man figure
As I mentioned in a previous post, I had got a lot of photographic toys that month. One invaluable purchase just before we left for India was a cheap manual flash and a wireless trigger. It helped out a lot in the finicky lighting of the wedding venue, and while I still have no idea how to use it effectively, a lot of fun was had experimenting with my equally photo-crazy cousins — such as in the shot above.

Photo of a shirt on a chair and a man taking a photograph
Sometimes you’re stuck at home with nothing to do, and when the urge to photograph strikes you’ll point a camera at anything just to scratch that itch. This isn’t a bad thing, as you can get plenty of interesting pictures around the average household.

Close up of leaves of a potted plant
And sometimes, all you need to do is look at things in isolation.

Photo of a man's hands
Speaking of isolation, a willing human subject is always a good thing to photograph, and if they aren’t made up and feeling pretty first thing on a Sunday morning, you can still get a good photo out of the rest of them.

picture of a taxi in dadar
At last! A chance to go out. Planting myself firmly in the front passenger’s seat, we set off for Navi Mumbai. The good thing about any Indian wedding is that there is always the possibility of traveling somewhere for it and various ancillary functions.

mile marker at vashi
I had just attached my 58mm manual zenit lens, this was my first time taking it out of the house — and it was stuck at F2 since I hadn’t modified the aperture pin yet.

scooter parked under a tree
Considering all these factors plus the moving car, and my general failure at taking to new things (or old things, for that matter), some of these pictures didn’t turn out half bad.

y-shaped column of flyover construction
The joy and excitement of doing something new and unfamiliar is sometimes just the thing required to make you stop over-thinking things. Sure, many of these pictures could be better, had I spent hours and hours getting to grips with the lens at home, learning its finer points on pictures of bottles or something — but a trial by fire (or a trial by moving car on insane Indian roads while manually-focusing at F2, as it were) is often the best way to do something new.

brickwork on a building
Put another way: you need raw brick to make a solid building, even if said raw brick is never seen by any of the occupants. Look, a cliche metaphor and an appropriate picture to go with it!

picture of a flowering plant
In the end, of course, thinking about things helps, and whenever you get a chance you should definitely stop to smell the flowers, and maybe take a photo or two.

macro shot of flowers
Keep Looking. The photos will find you.


(NOTE: All the photos in this post, shot in colour, were post-processed by simple saturation, contrast and gamma alteration in IrfanView, hands down the most simple and invaluable image viewer and editor on the planet. I’ve been using it nearly every day for 14 years now. If you haven’t, then do give it a try.)

5 Minutes with a 500mm Mirror Lens

My Pentax K200D with a 500mm Samyang mirror lens attached
Last year when I went to India I enlisted the aid of a cousin who was coming in from the States to bring me a bunch of photo equipment — most of which I subsequently never used, except for the M42 mount adapter ring that allowed me to use my old 58mm manual F2 Zenit lens on my Pentax K200D digital SLR.

Because the Zenit has sat on my camera for the past six months (I love it!), I have not really given much thought to using the other lens I got, a 500mm mirror lens. Mirror lenses are odd beasts, behaving like reflector telescopes rather than straightforward lenses. The upshot is they’re a shorter size for more zoom, and give you odd donut shaped bokeh.

The downside is that this one, a Samyang 500mm F6.3, is heavy, super-sensitive to focus, and has a very steep learning curve. Also, since I live in Dubai I’ve been too afraid to take it out with me and try it, mostly because I don’t want someone to think I’m wielding some strange super-weapon and toss me in jail.

So, I basically haven’t touched the thing in ages, but thought I’d at least see what I could get around the house in 5 minutes.

I got, um, one.

Photo taken with a Pentax K200D with a 500mm Samyang mirror lens attached

Not that I was trying very hard, and oh man do my hands ever shake. Need to fix that. Deep breaths, cut down on coff–naw.

Photo of donut bokeh from a Pentax K200D with a 500mm Samyang mirror lens attached

Truth be told, I bought this thing mostly for the donut bokeh, which I think looks quite pretty.

My Pentax K200D with a 500mm Samyang mirror lens attached

And here’s another shot of the beast, to close this post out.


Objet d’Art

Bobble head doll
Bicycle leaning against a wall
Girl checking a camera
Lamp next to a curtain

At some point after I returned from India I thought I’d just set the camera to B&W (cyan pass, JPEG) and shoot an entire card. What’s the use of a digital camera if you can’t just practice for a while?



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).


Burj in the Clouds

Apparently, the best thing to do when photographing a shiny new city like Dubai is to do it with an old 1970s Zenit lens…

Dubai Traffic

Dubai Traffic as seen from Sana fashions signal, with the Dubai Metro, Etisalat building, Trade center, Emirates Towers and Burj Khalifa in the background.

Possibly the most common sight in Dubai — the tail lights of several cars in front of you, that is. 🙂

Post-processed in the GIMP, using some of the GEGL Black & White Conversion Method I’ve outlined here, while keeping th original colour layer, adding in some more on top and generally freewheeling it until it looked right.


Cheap Robots & the Men Who Buy Them

Macro shot of a cheap transforming robot toy's head

I‘m very much an 80s kid. I grew up with Transformers and G.I. Joe, not Rugrats and Ed, Edd n Eddy. Though I did spend a good chunk of my childhood in the 90s, growing up in Muscat, away from the twin cultural juggernauts of India and the US, meant that some things arrived later, and stayed around more. And 80s cartoons, and a love of the toys that came with the subculture, is one of those things.

Now as an adult with a minor disposable income and questionable taste, I can indulge myself by getting some of the toys I just couldn’t as a kid. Alas, living in Dubai now means that toys are horrendously overpriced (seriously, one of those big Optimus Prime toys that cost $50 is over twice as much here), and I don’t really want to bother with shipping them in, because I have too much stuff anyway.

Still, once in a while I’ll pass through the supermarket’s toy section and come upon some cheap range of toys that are surprisingly good, if kitsch, and pick one up. The last time this happened I got the awesome Dark Warrior toy.

Today, I picked up this ‘Transbots’ action figure. It’s not particularly well painted, but the original mould (I’m guessing it was an official Transformer once***) is solid and for something that costs AED 24 it’s not bad at all. I literally haven’t played with it yet, but in robot mode it’s very poseable, with nicely jointed legs.

I have some Revell paints left over from when I bought a Star Wars jedi starfighter kit, and may repaint this guy at some point. And maybe I’ll even pick up another from this set to go with it.

So maybe I don’t have all the fancy toys I’d like to; honestly, I can’t say spending my money on a huge toy collection is a great idea. But I do have an increasing number of strange Chinese knock-offs, and they are for me what toys should be: fun.

Macro shot of a cheap transforming robot toy in its robot form


***(UPDATE: Identified the original as a Starscream toy from the Transformers: Cybertron ‘Galaxy Force’ line. This knockoff has basically stripped a few of the more complex clear plastic parts)

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!