A Geek in Lockdown

I’m comparatively fortunate that the coronavirus and covid-19 have not affected me or anyone I know directly. Having spent the last 15 years working from home, life has not changed as significantly as it has for others.

So, apart from staying home and doing nothing much, what’s a geek to do to contribute back?

First, contribute data. As often as I remember, I update the KCL/Zoe app to say I’m still alive.

Second, grid computing projects.

There’s a significant amount of computer power available and machines would otherwise spend their time idle. A couple of months before the coronavirus became known, I had already installed BOINC, perhaps the oldest and best-known grid-computing system. As the scale of the Covid-19 problem became more apparent, I discovered the Rosetta@Home project which has been working to predict structure of proteins involved in the disease.

For mobile devices, there is Vodafone’s DreamLab project which similarly uses one’s iphone/ipad/tablet’s downtime to perform computations hopefully to identify drugs to fight Covid-19.

Third, art.

This took a bit of thought, but recently RedBubble who I use for selling my photography added the option of selling masks alongside the usual prints, mugs, etc.

I wasn’t at all sure what to make of it. The idea of profiting off others’ health and necessity jarred with the idea of art being a luxury item. However, a friend pointed out that if face-masks are to become normalized in society, having interesting art designs on could make them more approachable. There’s also the bit where Redbubble match each mask bought with a donation to an appropriate charity. So, a net good thing then.

Inspiration struck and I spent much of the weekend designing an image to represent the coronavirus (using a fragment of its gene sequence as a background, naturally) and even rendering a little video from it, both using Povray, my favoured ray-tracing software from the late 1990s(!). Naturally I made the scene description and other sources available as open-source: the-lurgy (on github).

The “lurgy” design and a selection of other landscape images are available on redbubble as face-masks with a profit margin set to 0.

And of course work continues, producing more photos to go on my website, ShinyPhoto

Exploring Strathearn

I spent a happy evening exploring the Quoig area in Strathearn – the floodplain of the river Earn between Comrie and Crieff, south of the A85. Disused railway line, Sir David Baird’s monument and a luscious sunset. Can’t complain 🙂


Focus-Stacking with the Fuji X-H1

For years I’ve been a fan of superresolution – taking multiple images of a scene with subtle sub-pixel shifts and upscaling before blending to give a greater resolution photo than any one source.

One of the features I used occasionally on the Pentax K-1 was its pixel-shift, whereby the sensor moved four times around a 1px square; this gives an improved pixel-level resolution and full chroma detail at each point.

Having exchanged that for the Fuji X-H1, I still look to perform super-resolution one way or another. Hand-held HDR always works – in this case even better than either the K-1 or the X-T20 because the X-H1 permits 5 or 7 frames per bracket at ±2/3EV each, which is ideal.

But I thought I’d experiment with a different approach: focus-stacking. This way, the camera racks the focus from foreground to background in many fine steps. Keeping the focal-length the same, the effective zoom changes subtly between successive images. Essentially, where hand-held HDR varies the position stochastically in an X-Y plane, focus-stacking means pixels from the source frames track a predictable radial line in the superresolved image.

The X-H1 has focus-bracketing but leaves the blending up to the user in post. That’s OK.

First, an overview of the scene:

Scene overview: Fuji X-H1, 18-135mm lens at 127mm, f/8 narrow DoF

The X-H1 made 50 frames, focussing progressively from front to back. These were blended using enfuse:

time align_image_stack -a /tmp/aligned_ -d -i -x -y -z -C [A-Z]*.{tif,tiff,jpg,JPG,png}
time enfuse -o "fused_$base" /tmp/aligned_* -d 16 -l 29 --hard-mask --saturation-weight=0 --entropy-weight=0.4 --contrast-weight=1 --exposure-weight=0 --gray-projector=l-star --contrast-edge-scale=0.3

The results are a little strange to behold – while the effective DoF is much increased (the distant wood texture is clear) the rock detail is quite soft; I suspect some of the above numbers need tweaking.

However, with a bit of work – both enhancing the local contrast and using in-painting to tidy up the rock itself – a pleasant image emerges:

The final polished result: banded rock on wood, Fuji X-H1

A definite improvement. I may have to use it in my landscape work a bit 🙂

Lone Ash Tree, Glen Devon

Thanks to my friends Fox in the Snow Photography over on Facebook for their permission to steal one of “their” favourite trees in Glen Devon as a photo location this past weekend. Less gratitude for the attendant weather, however!

On approach, leaving the car across the road, there was quite a white-out blizzard – snow blowing up the glen, everything shades of grey, low clouds. There’s a whole hillside lurking behind the tree here, not that you’d notice:

First things first, I established it’s an Ash, Fraxinus excelsior. That probably explains some of the funky characterful shapes.

I had a bit of fun exploring the various compositions around the tree. The obvious thing is to get the whole tree in the frame, from sufficiently low on the ground to obscure the road behind, letting the visible grass merge, flowing, into the background.

One idea I’d had was to emphasize the curve of the split trunk by using it to fill the frame, leaving the branches and twigs flying around in the wind during a long exposure, Medusa-style:

Fortunately the spooky mood didn’t last long, as the weather was coming and going in alternating waves of white-out cloud and brilliant sunshine flowing over the tree.


An exercise in uniformity: over the course of three days, I took the camera out for an hour’s walk, using the same settings (28mm f/3.5, auto-ISO, centre-zone auto-focussing) and took snaps – free-form composition, quickly grabbed, around the streets and countryside surrounding Auchterarder and in woodland outside Cambusbarron, Stirling. Every image was processed using the same settings in RawTherapee (with slight changes to exposure) and the same black+white sepia-toning.

From each day I chose the best 19 and averaged them with enfuse, slightly tweaked the contrast. Presented together they give an impression of abstract canvas texture with the merest hints of structure. 

Glen Artney

Just one photo from a quick afternoon excursion to explore Glen Artney earlier in the year. Well, one photo, processed 3 ways.

This was the first, and so far only, time I’ve felt the urge to invert the tripod centre column; in the process I discovered that the Pentax K-1 live-view display will happily invert the image correctly, but leaves all the exposure and histogram overlays the wrong way up – as if trying to use the thing upside-down was not hard enough itself! Oops.

A pleasant waterfall in the Allt na Drochaide burn, a tributary to the Water of Ruchill, Glen Artney.
This was the first, and so far only, time I’ve felt the urge to invert the tripod’s centre-column and dangle the camera millimetres above the water. In the process, I discovered a bug with the Pentax K-1: if you use live-view upside-down, the image inverts itself correctly but all the settings controls (histogram, etc) do not. It’s tricky enough wondering where the control dials have gone, let alone where the numbers they control are to be found on screen. D’oh!

A pleasant waterfall in the Allt na Drochaide burn, a tributary to the Water of Ruchill, Glen Artney.
This was the first, and so far only, time I’ve felt the urge to invert the tripod’s centre-column and dangle the camera millimetres above the water. In the process, I discovered a bug with the Pentax K-1: if you use live-view upside-down, the image inverts itself correctly but all the settings controls (histogram, etc) do not. It’s tricky enough wondering where the control dials have gone, let alone where the numbers they control are to be found on screen. D’oh!

A pleasant waterfall in the Allt na Drochaide burn, a tributary to the Water of Ruchill, Glen Artney.
This was the first, and so far only, time I’ve felt the urge to invert the tripod’s centre-column and dangle the camera millimetres above the water. In the process, I discovered a bug with the Pentax K-1: if you use live-view upside-down, the image inverts itself correctly but all the settings controls (histogram, etc) do not. It’s tricky enough wondering where the control dials have gone, let alone where the numbers they control are to be found on screen. D’oh!

Morvern 5/4: The Road Back

And so we come to the last post in the series, a set of photos not entirely in Morvern but more on the way back up the shores of Loch Sunart and Loch Linnhe to the Corran Ferry, across and down to Loch Leven at Ballachulish.

There’s something wonderfully uplifting about rattling along these wee roads on beautiful sunny days, admiring the light.

Morvern 4/4: The Viewpoint

After the long drive, the walk in the woods, the angst of the cleared township, the second part of the walk resumes through the woodlands up hill to the viewpoint, looking out over Loch Doire nam Mart to the caves in craggy Beinn Uamh and beyond. On a sunny day with a few white clouds in a crystal-clear blue sky, it doesn’t get much nicer than this.

After a second walk through the woods around Aoineadh Mor, towards the top of the hill one comes across this beautiful view: conifer trees, Loch Doire nam Mart and more trees scattered on the slopes of craggy Beinn Uamh, all beneath a crystal clear blue sky.

Well, it does get a little better – Doglet had his dinner on the shores of the loch in amongst the rushes. Lucky chap.

A Day In Clouds

That was 2017-06-20, that was. A beautiful blue sky with white fluffy wispy cirrus cloud catching the setting sun…

…followed by a noctilucent cloud display around 1am:

NLCs are the highest-flying clouds, occurring at altitudes up to 80km where the next highest type (cumulonimbus) only reaches 12km and most are lower still. Most typically they resemble a fine silver filigree of ice-cold pale blue, although more complex forms have been seen. First maybe-seen in 1885, they only really came to prominence since the 1980s, as a canary for changes in the upper atmosphere linked to climate change.

As I stood and watched the display, a patch of silver mist formed over Strathearn and made its way west along the A85 toward Crieff, so I made a little timelapse video – 17 minutes’ data compressed into 1:


Continuing the mega road-trip drive from a day in April: having taken in Dunnottar castle I proceeded up to Portknockie on the north Moray coast. A well-known location with lots of scope to explore, sitting on a transition between red sandstone conglomerate and quartzite underlying rock.


Bow-Fiddle rock itself is situated just beyond the mouth of a cove with interesting caves to the north side:

The approach to Bow-Fiddle rock at Portknockie.
We’re heading down to that strip of a pebble beach…

There’s a classic composition to be had by heading down to the boulders just beyond the pebble beach, plonking one’s tripod on the rock and adding enough ND filters to make a long exposure. With the right light and the wind kicking-up choppy waves, it can make for pleasantly dramatic arty photos. And despite being a sunny day, having to lie down on the hard rock to keep my shadow out of the shot, it definitely didn’t disappoint…

Technical details:

Pentax K-1; Samyang 24mm f/1.4 lens at f/11; Nisi ND1000 (equivalent to a Big Stopper) and circular polariser filters; ISO 100; 30s exposure using pixel-shift for a total of 2 minutes’ exposure at high resolution.

Landscape, Photography and Land Management

This is going to be a long post, drawing on several disparate areas of experience and interest. Welcome to my mind…

Photographic Influence

Cirrus clouds above a line of old beech trees, Portpatrick

Nice beech and hawthorn trees – shame they aren’t there any more

The Highlands are not like 18th-century Venice. On driving around – which you can do around here – the landscape is raw, rugged, elemental, positively harsh on a cold day. We do not sit around in powdered wigs playing the harpsichord of an evening.

It is my opinion that landscape photography exists not to make merely aesthetically pleasant images, not even to convey a “feeling” from the photographer’s mind in the name of art, but rather to show and tell forth something of the landscape.

It is all too easy to go for a stroll, to get out into “nature” seeking photographs, to see only the shapes and forms of the land, hopefully cover it in contrasty dappled light; but if that is all that is seen in a photograph then it is the most absurd way to trivialize larger forces at work.

Worse still, it’s even easier to get into a mentality of visiting only known-good photo locations. “Saturday afternoon, Falls of Bruar” – nothing against the Falls, far from it, but it becomes a photographic rut devoid of sense of exploration.

I used to have a motto: “no landscape photos without saying something about the rocks you stand on”. It’s still a good thought, but even though the geology might date back 3.5 billion years, that is only one aspect of pertinent story, perhaps even the cheap and comforting option – looking straight to Old, bypassing the anthropocene; it reduces taking a principled stand to throwing out bland “statement”s or little stories and/or personal feelings, offensive in their inoffensiveness.

The PSNS Experience

A couple of months ago I attended a lecture at the Perthshire Society of Natural Science (PSNS), part of the “Curious Minds” series; the presenter worked for SEPA at Stirling University, and he spoke about Sustainability. Being brutally honest, it was not the most approachable of talks: a business person speaking from a mind of systems-thinking about corporate matters, with that peculiar management tendency to present a metaphorical briefcase of ideas supposed to be complete but leaving one wondering what nuance is missing – that’s not likely to engage the common individual who only wants to know how best to run their own house. I couldn’t help thinking of the only two occasions I’ve had any dealings with SEPA – first to ask how to dispose of film-processing chemicals and second for maps to avoid flood areas when buying a house; if SEPA are to offer the public a service, they have a PR hurdle to overcome…

However, I came away with the seeds of several thoughts that have since germinated.

The lecturer explained how SEPA sees companies on a spectrum from “climate criminals” (knowingly damaging the environment) through careless to compliant to champions. A lot of words containing “C” and “A” and a nice gradation from red to green, but that illustrates the systems-think.

More usefully, SEPA has expanded their remit so they now see Scotland from three points of view: there’s the environment which they still protect for its own sake; there’s social (concerning wellbeing when people go for a walk in the forests); and there’s an economic aspect.

Experiences of Farming

For lack of reason to the contrary, I’ve always kept an open mind opinion about livestock farming. As a confirmed carnivore, living somewhere between town and country, it’s not easy to see bucolic bliss as harm. However, in the past five years there have been three experiences that sounded warning bells.

First: in Galloway, I spent 7 months living in a run-down farmhouse in the middle of a livestock farm on a nondescript C road. If we left the gate open, sheep would come and mow the lawn and cows walk past the study window and fertilize said lawn on their travels. It’s all very well feeling close to “nature” when the sun shines, but when it rains and the slurry runs 4 inches deep corroding your boots whilst walking the dog, it is far from pleasant. It also “never snows in Galloway”, which doesn’t explain the 3′-deep snow that winter, requiring the farmer’s assistance to dig out the surrounding roads – which were made impassable by his own tractors bouncing along compacting the snow into undulating waves of ice in the first place.

Second: also in Galloway, when I spent 15 months living next to a different farm: there was a beautiful line of old beech and hawthorn trees running up a small hill, just round the corner from where we lived; the farmer chopped them all down to make way for root crops to feed his sheep.

Third: two years ago, I went for a walk along a glen and found a particularly pleasant viewpoint, a U-shaped glacial valley with corrie lochan and lonely pine tree in the basin.

The light and landscape that provoked further exploration


Seeking to revisit and explore further, I researched the area on Google Earth and figured, with a choice of two, the better track would be one running up the south/”left” side of the glen to reach further into the mountains. So a month ago I set forth, with young dog on a lead beside me, to explore.

About 300 yards from the carpark, we rounded a corner and saw a herd of Highland cows and calves. By chance, the farmer came by in his Landrover at exactly the same moment and said not to take my dog any further. Fair enough – answered my dithering wonderings on the matter pretty quickly – and the exchange was pleasant enough.

However, that does not explain why, having driven off ahead of me, he promptly shut and padlocked a 6-foot-tall gate across the path, leaving me and my dog on the wrong side with the cows.

Inconsiderate farmer shut this gate right across the path, blocking my escape with a young dog.

With no way through or around the gate, I had to persuade my dog to climb precariously over that ladder, knowing that if one paw slipped he could be seriously injured.

As for outdoor access code – “right to roam” – it would have been more considerate if they had erected some sign warning of impaired access nearer the carpark…

With three strikes against livestock-farming kind, it’s time to start formulating an opinion.

Connected Thinking

So after a bit of a delay we rejoin the walk along the glen, this time going down the right side of the river instead.

Realisation dawned.

The first realisation was that the view I had seen a couple of years previously relied on a trick of perspective – the grassland appears continuous over distance while actually the river lurks below the level.

As I reached the furthest point of my walk a few miles into the glen, turning back, I observed how the river had cut straight vertically down a metre or two, exposing dead tree roots in the bank.

Half-way back, I noticed dead trees all along the river bank, and just off to the side of the path I found a large expanse of land full of the bleached white remains of pine tree roots and it hit me that this was a peat bog – a genuine example of the kind of thing one reads about in “the Highlands”, as though that were some far-off place – well here we are, soil/mud/peat at our very feet.

Genuine peat bog, full of bleached white roots and remains of pine trees

And so I looked at it through SEPA’s eyes. Environment + Social + Economy <= Sustainability.

Following research, peat is deposited at a rate of about 1mm per year, so the 1.5-2m depth of peat beside the river corresponds to 1500-2000 years’ accumulation.

What we have here is not the wilderness beloved of landscape photographers, it is barren.

The interplay of light and shape and form of the landscape is utterly irrelevant while the natural pine trees that should be here lie dead in a large carbon sink, their place taken by monoculture fenced-off in enclosures for commercial gain. The parts of the glen that are not directly peat bog are bare through grazing of livestock whose methane and CO2 emissions are a major contributor to global warming. In the words of Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO’s Livestock Information and Policy Branch: “Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation“.

This is not wilderness, it is barren. It is not a wonder of nature, but artificial. It is not contributing to society’s welfare but its unsustainability harms the planet.

Sometimes, one has to remove the rose-tinted sunglasses and see how one glen encompasses in every aspect a microcosm of all kinds of problems. Just because it’s a sunny day does not make it a happy story.

What Next?

I’m still thinking about it. I’ve spent long enough wondering if certain environmental charities are “a bit hippy”, but the facts are irrefutable: that glen stands for the worst combination of (un)sustainability factors. Peat bog itself is a valuable ecosystem, but given the choice I would far rather have the pine trees back that belonged there in the first place. The idea of rewilding meets with favour. While I would not want to join or recommend any “-ism” (vegetarianism or veganism being defined in terms of negative ideologies), I am also in favour of taxing the supply of meat and other livestock products to better reflect the true costs, including environmental factors.

Winter along the Provost’s Walk

This is fast becoming one of my favourite walks around town – not least because it’s less muddy than the other track out the back. Yesterday I awoke to find the world had turned white, complete with snow-drift piled-up on the front lawn by a passing snowplough. Naturally, over-inflated reports of traffic confusion abounded, although by the time I had to drive anywhere in the evening, the roads were as clear as a bell.

Anyway. I like this path. The Ruthven Water makes a great spot for the Doglet to paddle. All very relaxing and shiny in the white snow.

This is what it’s like around here…

Provost’s Walk:

Arty photos:

All shots taken on the Pentax K-1 using my new hand-held HDR workflow.

West Woods of Ethie

My friend Tom and I went for a stroll in the West Woods of Ethie in Angus. Not a woodland I’d encountered before, but it was quite magical in some ways – quite conscious of lurching from one clearing to another, surrounded by the characteristic shapes of beech trees in their green and yellow-orange autumn plumage.

For a slightly more immersive view of the woods… click this and wait a while 🙂

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The Least Amount of Landscape

Just to disprove the idea of deterministic landscape photography, as I was driving back from Acharn through Grandtully along Strathtay, the sky took on a most beautiful glowing cobalt-blue colour of dusk combined with the icy diamond clarity of sub-zero late autumn temperatures in the Highlands.

One of those scenes where it took a little work to convert the camera’s recordings back to something resembling what I saw: after dark fell I couldn’t make out what was in the fields beyond the car headlights; there was nothing but horizon and the glow… and one tiny fragment of wispy cloud.

It doesn’t get much more minimalist than this…

Loch Lomond: At Inversnaid

There’s a couple of picturesque views to be had just below the hotel at Inversnaid harbour – the waterfall cascading down amongst the rocks one way, and opposite, a line of boulders leading toward the Arrochar Alps across Loch Lomond. Can’t complain.

I don’t often use the Pattanaik algorithm in LuminanceHDR, especially for colour results, but it seemed to work really well with the waterfall, nicely balancing low-key levels and saturation.