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Badger cull: not in this farmer’s name | Steve Jones | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

So as Defra ministers sign the death sentence for thousands of England’s badgers, my message to them is this. Not in my name. Not in my name should you hoodwink the public into thinking that killing badgers will help struggling farmers, because you are betraying farmers with this unscientific policy. If you really wanted to help farming, you would help it reform and modernise, you’d actively support rather than hinder badger vaccination, you’d take the fight to Europe to green-light cattle vaccination. But instead, it’s far cheaper and easier to just let farmers kill badgers.

More than 120,000 people so far have signed an e-petition calling for the government to kill the cull. For the sake of democracy, science, animal welfare, conservation and farming, I hope they listen.

Good piece. I have signed the petition. I urge you to do likewise.

http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/38257

Shades of Grey

The human eye has evolved to see colour. We live in a world where colour is as important to us as movement. Humans use colour to attract and to warn. Colour excites us at a very fundamental level.

Why, then, does black and white photography remain so appealing?

For much of its first century, photography was monochromatic. This was chiefly a function of the chemistry used to capture and recreate an image. Colour capture and rendition—beyond hand-tinting black and white prints—had been the subject of experiments since the beginning of photography. Affordable colour photography only really started in the 1930s, as industrial chemistry advanced to allow the subtle hues of the world around us to be captured reliably on an inexpensive film substrate.

Even so, black and white photography continued to be in the ascendant until the 1960s, by which time the overall costs of colour film production and processing allowed it to become the accepted norm.

Black and white became the exception, rather than the rule, some time in the 1970s. Black and white seemed old fashioned, a throwback. Even movies and television were in colour, so why would anyone use black and white film? Enthusiasts and art photographers continued to use black and white, of course, but colour was king.

Colour imaging remains top of the heap, in our high-definition and almost infinitely accessible digital world. Everyone has access to a digital imaging device, be it a cell phone, compact camera or top-flight SLR. The world is shot in colour, shared in colour. Surely there is no place for monochrome photography any more?

There are fancy “effects” modes on every device that mimic sepia or black and white, but these are meant as playthings. Snap a photo of the kids playing in the garden, convert it to sepia to make it look old-fashioned, and upload it to your social networking site for the world to see. It’s just a gimmick.

Black and white photography, however, simply won’t go away. Perhaps due to the relatively simple processing techniques, professionals and enthusiasts alike have continued to photograph using black and white film. Digital photographers, too, are keen to convert their work to black and white. There are plug-ins and tutorials specifically designed to let you convert your digital images to monochrome and even to add simulated film grain. I’ve been selecting and converting my digital photos into mono versions since I got my first sensible digital stills camera a decade ago.

Type “black and white” into the search bar of Flickr, and the results are interesting.

  • Over 8.5 million images are returned tagged with the search term “black and white” alone.
  • Two groups are listed, between them with almost 175,000 members who have posted over 3.5 million black and white images. There are numerous smaller groups starting all the time. I’ve recently joined a new one, called The Monographer. It started about a week ago, and already has 29 members who have posted 111 mono images between them.

What is the draw? Why does black and white photography still hold a fascination for us in this technicolor world? These are hard questions to answer.

For me, shooting black and white—I have actually set up a custom setting on my DSLR to shoot monochrome in camera, but more on this later—is a way to concentrate on the art of photography. A mono image removes the visual clutter of colour, leaving the viewer to see detail and subject matter more clearly. Losing the element of colour seems to make me work harder at choosing subjects.

Telling a story is part of being a photographer. Removing distractions in your images helps this storytelling process. Landscapes and skyscapes appear more dramatic in monochrome. B&W also works well with graphic elements and abstracts. Perhaps this is why black and white photography is still with us.

Where am I going with this? My initial idea was to try and work out why I have found myself going out with my camera set to monochrome. I want to shoot in black and white so often of late it’s become something of an obsession—and one I seem to share with many other photographers it seems.

Let me fill in some background first. Back in the good old days of 35mm film, I owned two Olympus OM-10 bodies. One would be loaded with a 400 ISO black and white negative film, the other with colour. I would use the mono camera in a documentary style, capturing details, mood and so on. The colour camera just recorded the scene.

As I moved to digital, and I started caring about processing my images in the “digital darkroom”, I would often try a mono version of a colour image. I would also try desaturating, colour toning and all the other gimmicks available. I found I liked a good, contrasty mono image over a colour one. Something about that style of image spoke to me. Darker shadows, slightly blown highlights, some noise that mimicked film grain.

I continued to convert colour images to mono as I progressed with my camera gear. With my first Canon DSLR I switched to shooting RAW quite quickly. The RAW format, as its name suggests, is all the data, warts and all and unprocessed, captured by the sensor at the time of pressing the shutter release. With the right software you can open the RAW image and work with it. You can change colour balance, pull back blown out highlights or underexposed shadows to reveal detail otherwise lost and so on. The possibilities are almost endless, and include making the image monochrome.

Interestingly, you can also work the other way. As I mentioned earlier, most cameras can be set to capture monochrome images. The snag usually is it only works in JPEG format, which means it’s a black and white image as soon as it’s saved to your camera’s card. If you later decide B&W isn’t right, you’re stuffed. It is possible with the Canon—I assume also possible with other brands—to shoot a mono RAW image. Remember, shooting RAW captures all the unprocessed data seen by the sensor. This also includes colour data, even when shooting monochrome. What happens is the camera shows you the black and white JPEG preview, which means you can work in black and white on a shoot without having to try and guess how an image will turn out later in post.

It also means you can restore the colour in post.

I’ll let that sink in for a second or two. Shoot in mono, and still get the colour later? It’s win-win: shoot in black and white, but know you can restore the colour if the image might benefit from it. I love it!

What caught me out at first is the need to tell your favoured processing software to import with the monochrome tag in place. I was a bit surprised to see colour images on first importing my black and white shots!

I am not a great fan of HDR, as previous posts here testify. However, I have seen some stunning HDR black and white work. Yes, the technique does work for mono images, and has the bonus you don’t see the over-saturated colours that are the hallmark of bad HDR.

I fully intend to continue making black and white images directly in my digital camera. I enjoy it, I like the results, and I think it helps to improve my photographer’s eye.

To finish up, here are some comparison images. All were originally shot in mono in camera, with some post processing enhancement. The comparison colour images are from the same original RAW with my usual processing. I’ve cropped them to fit the blog format. I leave it up to you to decide whether the mono or colour image is best. I know which I prefer.

Jubilee

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My parents recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. They married in March 1962, almost a decade to the month after Elizabeth II ascended to the throne of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth in 1952.

It’s easy to pretend people like my parents lived in more deferential times. After all, everyone went to church on Sundays, everyone stood for the national anthem at the end of a film showing at the flicks, everyone adored the Royal Family and so on.

My mother tells a slightly different tale, however. In her younger days she was an usherette at a local cinema. It was the norm for the auditorium exit doors to be opened wide as the credits rolled, and for the staff to stand well clear to avoid the stampede as everyone made a quick exit before the national anthem was played. To many it was a matter of pride to be out of the building and heading home before you got caught and had to stand while the anthem staggered to a close.

I was a naïve thirteen year old at the time of the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. We all got caught up in the pomp and glamour, made fancy dress and organised bunting and so on. I don’t think we had a street party, but I’m sure there was a do of some kind in the village hall. I still have my commemorative crown coin, worthless though it is. Like most people, my family were monarchist. They were proud of having a monarchy, proud of the traditions and all the flummery that accompanied it. It was something that was just there, like the sky, and you felt it was part of your identity.

That sense of pride I think stemmed from the Queen’s father, George VI, who had led the country through the dark years of the Second World War. He had done much to rebuild the family firm after his older brother had abdicated in 1936, and Elizabeth carried on the tradition. A beautiful young woman, with a young family, seemed to hold much promise for the future. In many ways, it was a fairytale affair.

As I get older, I find I have become a republican. I find the notion of a hereditary post of head of state out of step with the modern world. Why should who holds a position of power be down to an accident of birth? I find all the tradition—much of which was invented in more recent times than many realise—very much a hangover from less enlightened times. I also find there is an active and growing republican movement in the UK. 

Today, as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is marked by a drizzle-sodden motley selection of boats floating down the Thames, and the media goes into a union flag-bedecked frenzy about everything royal, a few dissenting voices can be heard. Take Jack of Kent, for example. He wrote “A Jubilee Letter from a Republican” this morning, and I found it chimed with my overall feelings exactly:

 

Sixty years of public service is something to be celebrated.  And the way the queen has done it also should be cheered: her self-control and lack of personal showiness is a model of what a monarch should be like, if we are to have a monarchy at all.

There are somethings to be said for the crown in domestic politics and law.

First, it is less important for the power it has than for the power it prevents others having.

Second, it provides the most general concept of the state we have in (at least) English law – almost all executive, legislative and judicial power is exercised in the name of the crown, one way or another.

And third, it provides a superficial sense of continuity from medieval times (if one ignores that in 1640, 1660, 1688, 1714, and 1936, the fate of the crown was determined by others).

All that said, there is a basic principle: supreme executive power in any modern polity really should be in the hands of someone who is accountable and capable of removal by some formal process.

 

 

The thing is, I don’t hold any particular malice towards the Royal Family. It can be argued that Elizabeth didn’t really have any choice in taking on the rôle, and she has carried the burden well for six decades. What sticks in my craw is being told I must celebrate such things, that if I wish to gainsay the “jollity” I am committing some kind of treason. 

I went out for a photographic location scouting mission earlier today, partly to get away from the hoo-hah. As I drove around various villages and towns of north Kent, the numbers of houses and buildings with bunting and flags could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It struck me that the national mood being portrayed by our media wasn’t quite matching up to the reality I was seeing. A long weekend, yes, but not one of marked celebration that I could see.

I choose not to celebrate the jubilee. It doesn’t matter to me, as long as I am not forced to take part. I do happen to think it’s time we, as a country, began to rationally discuss the alternatives to a hereditary monarchy as head of state. I fully realise I may never see a Republic of Great Britain in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be grown-up enough to talk about it.

 

BBC News – Think-tank calls for all bank holidays to be scrapped

If public holidays were scrapped it would add £19bn to Britain’s annual economic output, a think tank says.

Why not go the whole hog and make the us work 24 hours a day, seven days a week? That would sort out the economy pretty damned quickly!

The Centre for Economics and Business Research is completely wrong on this. Germany has more public holidays than the UK, and has an economy that appears to be recovering nicely.

The CEBR appears to want us to go back to the 19th century. Wage slaves apparently are not entitled to time off, time to relax and be with their families, or to just get away from it all for a short time. As one of the commenters wrote below the article: “Whatever happened to taking pleasure in life?”

EDIT: Simon Price has rightly pointed out the real story here is not the headline from the press release, but who is behind it. 

CEBR is a right wing think tank, run by a friend of George Osborne, the UK’s finance minister. So, no agenda here then. Why does the mainstream media not pick this kind of stuff up, rather than running with the press release alone? They are doing themselves and us a dis-service.

Change is inevitable

The media is currently on tenterhooks as Yang Guang and Tian Tian, a pair of giant pandas currently resident in Edinburgh Zoo, look like they might actually be in the mood for love.

Good news, if you are a fan of that lovable black and white furry thing, notorious for being unable to breed and eating nothing but the wrong kind of grass.

I used to be a person who worried about the fate of the giant panda, the white rhino, various rare tigers and innumerable other species that inhabit the planet with we humans. I used to worry about the fact that animals were in danger of extinction. We had to save them!

Sadly, no matter how hard well-meaning folk try to save the various species, it seems inevitable that many will become extinct—extinct in the wild, at least. There are active captive breeding programmes at zoos and wildlife parks around the globe whose aim is to breed enough of the near-extinct creatures that they can be reintroduced into the wild.

Presumably, once in the wild, they will promptly go extinct again.

As I’ve got older, I’ve come to realise that trying to save cute animals from the inevitable is flawed. Not wishing to poke fun at the panda, let’s look at some facts about them:

  • They live in bamboo forests in China.
  • They eat the bamboo.
  • This is odd because they’re a bear, and bears generally don’t eat grass as their staple diet.
  • Female pandas ovulate once a year, and remain fertile enough to breed for about three days.

On the face of it, the panda should be left for evolution to deal with. It has nothing going for it, save being cute to look at, and being the poster child of all kinds of well-intentioned eco-friendliness.

Take a look at the white rhino. It’s not as cute as a panda, but it’s also endangered. It’s reached this stage because the rhino’s horn is believed to have medicinal properties in certain Asian countries. The poor old white rhino is killed, just so its horn can be hacked off and sold

All kinds of efforts have been made to prevent this pointless and senseless poaching, yet it continues. It seems the white rhino will soon follow its black savannah-mate, and only be seen in captive environments.

All kinds of animals and plants are in serious danger of going extinct. There are various reasons for this, but the main one is humans. Humans are just too resourceful, and outbreed everything except bacteria. Some of these humans, though, want to retain the status quo. They want to see animals in the wild, and want to help protect them.

This argument is flawed. Something like 99% of all species that have ever existed since this planet began to support life have become extinct. It’s what nature does. Things change. Humans, rightly or wrongly, are accelerating the changes, but that doesn’t mean we should be trying to prevent animals dying out. No amount of hand-wringing is going to prevent an inevitable natural outcome of there being too many humans.

Besides, killing an animal just for the flawed belief the tail or horn is some fantastic medical cure-all really just proves to me that humans don’t deserve nice things any more. We should be pragmatic about nature, let things die out, be hunted and poached to extinction in the wild, because once they’re gone the poachers will be out of luck, too.

My attitude is perhaps a depressing one, but I think I’m being realistic. Despite the WWF’s fifty years of campaigning, little seems to be really changing for the better. In that time, the human population on Earth has virtually tripled. With all the will in the world, I can’t see how we can save other species from extinction when we can’t stop our own species from outbreeding the resources available. In fact, by what measure do we think we are even capable of preventing natural extinction due to human greed? We’re as much a part of the biosphere as any other species. 

So, I say we should let species die out in the wild. They may remain captive curiosities, but in many ways perhaps seeing them in zoos may make us realise just what damage we’re continuing to do to our world. Do not ignore the fact that all things will change, and humans too will one day be extinct—especially if we carry on the way we are now.

Lightroom 4 vs. Aperture 4 | A Lesser Photographer

Lightroom 4 debuted recently and, since, I’ve read a glut of opinion on what Apple should do to play catchup in Aperture 4.

Peppered throughout these pieces is a sense of entitlement along the lines of, “I’ll stop using Aperture altogether if Apple doesn’t implement the follow enhancements: <insert a list of obscure features that somehow weren’t needed until last year and that I’ll use once for the novelty and forget>.”

Mr. Photo Blogger, before you threaten to leave photo software (which I’m sure Apple and Abode fret about nightly), be sure the features you seek can’t be supplanted by being a better photographer.

I am an Aperture user, and frankly I don’t use most of the features the current version has. I can’t understand why people feel this sense of entitlement over new versions of software. We live in strange times.

Pass Along Your Best Stories | A Lesser Photographer

Pass Along Your Best Stories

Images corrupt and apps are unreliable. Your backups may not be backing up what you thought. Websites suffer neglect.

A few years after you die, your files may not even be readable, if someone even cares to look after them.

The truth is, there’s no such thing as an archival digital format. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily for the photographer. The photographer’s enjoyment is in the moment.

Once a year, put your best images (stories) in a book. It’s not for you. It’s for anyone who enjoys a good story, even long after you’re gone.

A thought-provoking idea. One I shall seriously consider, because there won’t be anyone to care about my digital archives when I’m gone. At least a book might find a home somewhere, and may well outlive the digital images that it contains.

New Shiny Announced!

World goes bonkers!

Anyone with even just a passing interest in digital photography can’t have failed to spot the rumour mills and industry monitors grinding into life this past few weeks. New DSLRs are very much in the news, if you care about such things.

Canon announced a new professional flagship model, the EOS-1D X, back in October 2011. Aimed at replacing the current top-flight DSLR models they produce, it’s slated for release sometime in 2012. I won’t bore you with the technical details. If they interest you, they’re on the press release and everywhere else!

Nikon, meanwhile, has just unveiled their D3 series replacement, the FX-format D4. I can’t immediately find official release dates, but again, if you are sufficiently interested in the technical stuff, it’s in the press release and everywhere else!

These press releases are timed to hit the CES 2012 shindig in Las Vegas, Nevada, US. The Consumer & Electronics Show is one of the biggest international gadget-fests going, and everyone who is anyone in the technology world will be there. Except Apple, but there you go. That’s an entirely other story.

So why do I bring you this earth-shattering news? Am I being sucked into the technolust vortex? Will Snaptophobic end up as just another technoblog, regurgitating press releases about every new gadget or software without even pausing to breathe?

No. Not a chance.

If I am completely honest I have never been free of the vortex, but I find the effort needed to get incredibly excited about new gear has waned in proportion with my age and bank balance! Yes, I am interested in it, but only in a peripheral kind of way. Being a Canonista, the new EOS-1D X is interesting, but it’s so far beyond my budget that I can effectively ignore it. It’s a camera that may be of interest to me if I were a professional photographer and it was to be my key tool, but as I am not a professional and I already have a camera that’s more than adequate for my needs, I won’t be letting myself be sucked too deeply into the vortex.

With Nikon’s announcement, there will now be an inevitable increase in the Cankon/Niknon fanbois crowing over features that trump their arch nemesis. This is partly why I haven’t bothered you with the technical features of each new camera, because they are really irrelevant to you and me. The kind of people who will find that sort of information at all of real interest are those who are not—in my opinion, I hasten to add—real photographers. 

So, while the baying over megapixel counts, burst frame rates, astronomical ISO levels, focus points and other geeky stuff begins to inexorably grow in volume, remember this: it’s not about the gear.

The camera is just a tool, a means to an end. Some of my best images were taken using a 35mm film camera that cost £20. Learn to use the tool you have, and make great pictures. If you can afford one of the new shinies, or can justify one for your work, go to it with my blessings. If you just want to leave it in idiot mode, slung round your neck as techo-jewellery … words fail me.

No, really, they do.