Saturday, March 15, 2008
Sunday, March 02, 2008
This post was prompted by a question I am asked often- what kind of lens should I buy with my new dSLR (that question usually follows- 'I have a point-and-shoot for 2 years. Which dSLR should I get?'). Now I am by no means any sort of expert in photography, although I have been waving my Olympus E-330 around a lot these days. But I have found some interesting ways to get cool effects by controlling light without shelling out an arm and a leg, and a chunk of your mortgage, for a top class lens (or as the pros call it- 'good glass').
A creative photograph essentially boils down to creative control of light. Good glass (read- very expensive lens) is one that can open to a large aperture at long focal lengths. Google 'F number' for your desired level of explanation. The wikipedia link is here. A large aperture essentially allows the lens to take in more light. A large aperture also means that a lot of the light will pass close to the edge of the lens which is hard to make perfect. so naturally, the lenses are more expensive. Until a couple of months ago, I thought that getting fast glass was the only way to get great pictures. Then I discovered a cool way around it. Basically, if you can control how much light you work with, you can get great pictures with your existing kit lens. The great part is that the equipment needed for better light control costs a fraction of good glass and is a lot more forgiving to rough handling.
Strobist.com is an excellent first step for anyone wishing to take control of your light. It requires 2 main things- you are using a camera that has a hot-shoe (all dSLRs and some ultra-zoom cameras have this), and you have one or more external flash units. It then encourages you to take the flash off-camera. By doing so, you get to control both the direction and intensity of the light hitting the subject. The Strobist blog is pretty full-featured with how-to's and where-to's for complete beginners to advanced professionals. Here are some of my early attempts at 'controlling light'-
This photo shows you my test shots of the setup of wireless flash receiver set that I bought from Gadget Infinity. They are called the Cactus v2s and they stopped working after two days. I am using another stop-gap wireless trigger set with one flash for the time being till I have some $$$ saved to buy a more reliable set of triggers. You can see 2 flashes on the floor illuminating the closet door. The cool thing about wireless triggers is that you can sync more than one flash for optimal lighting.
The first pic was shot in ambient light (60W bulb). The second one was shot with a Sunpak Super 383 flash on the lower left of the flower. The effect on the composition is striking.
The picture above was shot with the flash on the left side. This creates a 'hard light' effect and also brings out the texture of the wall.
The flash is inside the vase.
Even when you fire the (external) flash on the camera, you can use what is called a 'snoot' to direct the light on a small spot on your subject as illustrated in the picture above. It is really easy to make a snoot. I just folded a cereal box to make a cuboidal 'tube' to fit on the flash head.
Though it is highly recommended to use dSLRs to get maximum flexibility, you may also use the popup flash of your megazoom camera for the same/ similar effects. I am of the opinion that you can be very creative with your point and shoots as well and good photographs depend on the photographer much more than on the camera. This is why I encourage people to first explore their current camera capabilities and hone their composition skills. Learn about lenses, f-numbers and exposures before jumping to buy a dSLR. There are far too many people who keep their dSLR on 'Auto', thereby making their creative input nil, which completely defeats the purpose of a dSLR. Get your camera dial off 'A' and get creative!
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
There are a lot of things to do in New York any given day. Things that suit the easy-going and the finicky, the poor and the rich, the dabbler and the artiste. Last week, I decided to go see a Burlesque show.
"So what", I hear you say, "lots of people like Burlesque"
Naturally. However I went to one having an idea how it would be, when I really hadn't seen a Burlesque show before.
It started when my friend offered me tickets to one of the best groups in the city- called Pinchbottom NYC. He had seen their shows before and asked if my wife and I would be interested. What the heck, it was for art. My wife's first (wise) question was "what's Burlesque?"
me: "Its a form of theatre. Its sort of titillating and risque. Very vaudeville."
me: rolling eyes "Vaudeville" I had actually no idea what vaudeville is/was "Its like the Lido"
Now my wife is a culture vulture and has travelled the world over long weekends like a woman on a mission. She has actually been able to afford to see a Lido show.
wife: "wow, that should be good. And the tickets are only 15 bucks? We should definitely go"
So we took the tickets and like any conscious person with typing skills, immediately typed 'Burlesque' in Google. We saw a YouTube video by this particular group. The story was rather interesting The show did have a striptease, but the strategic areas were concealed with a smiley face and two cute sunflowers.
wife: "so no nudity?"
me: "of course not. I am sure they have to apply for a license for that."
So came the day and we dressed up and went into a converted studio at the corner of Broadway and Canal Street. Both of us were very happy that a lot of couples came. Not the shady crowd of unsatisfied pervs that go to strip clubs. But obviously, because there is no nudity.
The show starts. The storyline is pretty cliched and vaguely funny in parts. The first lady comes up, dances a bit, starts to strip. Catcalls everywhere. The tease stops with her clothes flung around the stage. No biggie- she has a thong and two dangly things from her whaddyacallems. We knew that.
Then comes the second performer. She starts dancing behind a lit screen so we can only see her shadow. Very nice. Suddenly she tears through the screen.
wife raises an eyebrow: "she looks naked to me"
me: trying to see if its an ingenious disguise on her privates. Nope. "Gak!"
And then more and more women come up dancing, not particularly well or within rhythm. They are a mix of young and old, slim and cellulitey, big and small. Most of them wobble. There facial expressions are perfect. Then one by one they do the striptease and pretty soon all of them are wearing nothing but makeup.
wife whispering: "this is not like the Lido"
I should mention that it was a great performance, if you are a Burlesque enthusiast. We were certainly exposed (groan!) to an artform that was totally unknown to us. I admire the courage and motivation it takes to perform where you have to stand naked in front of dozens of strangers. I also have a friend who does Burlesque shows on the side (scientists are interesting people!). And to all Burlesque artists- I applaud you. But I must admit I was sort of distracted by the en-masse nudity. For me it felt out of context (unlike in a strip club) and sort of uncomfortable. Maybe we need to see more Burlesque shows.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
As I was putting up my poster on Monday night at the Biophysics meeting, a bored security guard nearby (lets call him Deshaw) came upto me (B) and we had the following conversation:
D: "So wat is yo stuff about?"
B: with pins still in mouth "Essh abou visad" all pins out "Its about the visual receptor"
D: "Cool" Reads the poster for a while "Man, didya make all of this sh*t?"
B: wincing slightly at this description of 4 years of data "yes, it is my work"
D: after carefully trying to read everything "What are ya sayin' here bro?"
B: "Well, we show how many units of these" points at the rhodopsin diagram "are needed to be able to see" laughs mentally at the generalization he just made
D: "Um..hmm. Aw! Is this how books get written?"
B: surprised and happy "Yes that is how it eventually goes into books"
D: also surprised and eyes gleaming "That be so cool dawg, so damn cool"
B: feeling rather nice about himself and the scientific community in general "Thanks!"
D: "You know wat tho bro? You guys should come up with a new kinda math"
D: "Dude, math right now is jus too hard. I would read if I cud understand it li'l better, y'know wha I'm sayin'?"
B: "Actually, you may like a special display tomorrow. Its by a friend of mine. She has made a molecular fitting program to work like a video game"
This was indeed one of the most fascinating displays at the meeting. My colleague wrote an API for a force-feedback based haptic device to work with a software that docks small x-ray structures into a big model of a complex protein. It is like playing a video game where you maneuver the molecules into the model like a jigsaw puzzle. The joystick rumbles when you get clashes or repulsions between the molecules and guides you to the correct orientation. I have used the software with a mouse before, but using the joystick really blew me away. Its like Flight Simulator for geeks. I immediately saw the potential of the device in teaching biophysics in schools.
The next day when I was wrapping up my poster, I met Deshaw again:
D: "Man, I went upto that bada*s thing dawg. That thing is sick"
B: "So you liked it?"
D: "Yeah man, it was awesome. But the chick kept talking about some electron potential sh*t that went over my head y'know. She was real pretty tho"
B: "She was probably trying to explain what she did to make the software"
At that moment, the aforementioned colleague smiles at us as she passed by.
D: "Daaammmn! She's soooo fiiine"
and before I knew it-
D: "Man, I gonna hook you up with her"
D: "You looked out for me dawg, I gonna get you her number. You guys can get a li'l sumthin sumthin goin' on"I could only hope that by 'little something, something' he meant a scientific collaboration
B: "No no no. She is our collaborator. I have her email. I am married. She is married. She is going to her lab people... Wait, Deshaw come back here. Come back. DESHAW!!"
Sunday, February 03, 2008
Recently, the American Geophysical Society faced an unusual problem before their annual meeting. As an international group of scientists dedicated to greening the planet, the act of holding the meeting where scientists from all over the planet converge by aircraft at one spot would mean a huge contribution to the baddie gases by the members motivated to protect it. Thus a discussion arose as to what could be done to green scientific meetings in general. For people reading who have no idea why scientists have to meet (much less have an idea what they actually do) regularly- take my word for it- its important. I am typing this on my way to the Biophysical Society annual meeting across 2500 miles from where I live, in a half-empty Airbus A320. It is one of the biggest international meetings with more than 5000 attendees from any part of the world that has a reasonably fast computer (theoretical biophysics) to sophisticated particle colliders. This year, we are meeting in Long Beach, CA. The American Chemical Society is so huge that it needs to have two such huge meetings every year. Finally, one needn’t be an exclusive attendee at one meeting- you can go to any number depending on your time and ideas (both of which scientists have a lot of). Scientists need to exchange ideas and set up collaborations on a regular basis. Meetings are the best place to discuss recent data (data that is published is usually more than a year old), generate ideas and ask questions directly to the people whose papers you read. A major perk of being an academic scientist (actually, an academic anything) is that you get to travel a lot if you want.
One obvious idea that was floated was to persuade the organizers to set up a virtual meeting via videoconferences. There are certain obstacles to this- time zones, IT networking ease, differing internet speeds and the ability to record your discussion surreptitiously. Having given many talks and attended discussions via videoconferencing, I must say that the technology needs to get far more robust and integrated than it is now. Few may know that a seminar delivered over the web is called a Webinar and this word was voted one of the ugliest words of 2006. However, the future will no doubt see this mature and hopefully get a spiffier name. Another idea is to decrease the number of big meetings and have small, focused meetings in areas close to universities. One example of this series is the Gordon Research Conferences where students and professors all live in university dorm-style housing and eat together at meals. These conferences are very productive both in terms of teaching and collaborations. A third alternative may be to expedite the publication system of scientific data by the journals. The publications should be made online only and the current peer-review system should be done away with. The online scientific community decides which papers are good by a system similar to Digg. The peer-review system does not have high success in detecting fraudulent data and adds many months to the publication of results. I think in future, we will see a mixture of the above and have less of these mega-meetings, thereby making science greener.