Goodbye Lightroom?

Lightroom 6, the last free-of-subscription version, was released in early 2015, over two and half years ago. Its age shows and an update to it has been long overdue. An update came earlier this month, but not one I was hoping for.

Lightroom 6 is discontinued. Its successors are Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC. Neither is offered as a standalone version, which is something I prefer for a number of reasons. So naturally, my first instinct was to stick with Lightroom 6 for the next year or more. After all, what ain’t broken need no fixing. But upon further thinking, this option doesn’t seem too feasible.

Apple’s High Sierra came out last month with several under-the-hood changes – a new file-system, a new API, Metal 2, used across the system and more. These made the upgrade to High Sierra a more dangerous affair than usual. With such fundamental, platform level changes in the operating system, complex apps usually need some work before they become rock-stable. I held off upgrading my machine to the point-zero release, instead opting to wait for the point-one or even the point-two release.

In light of Adobe’s announcement, this means when I eventually upgrade to High Sierra, my installation of Lightroom 6 could potentially be rendered unstable or at worst, unusable. My plan is to stick with my setup for now and for the next few months lay the groundwork to make my transition as easily as possible.

  1. Trim my library – Over the years, my library has bloated with unused, out-of-focus and in general low-quality images, mostly because I’m a pack rat loathe to deleting stuff. Whichever software I opt for, a smaller library will be easier to migrate and manage.

  2. Try out software – The next few months, I’m going to be installing trial versions of as many software as I can – Capture One Pro, RawTherapee. I’ll copy over portions of my library into each and see how well my workflow suits them. Is the software capable? Is it performant enough? Do outputs look good? How easy is it to manage a catalog? These are some aspects I want to explore.

  3. Research, research, research – Adobe’s roadmap has left a lot of photographers unhappy and several are exploring other options like me. I expect several posts and blogs reviewing Lightroom alternatives and describing their migration strategies. These will help.

Hopefully by the time macOS 10.13.1 or 10.13.2 is out I’ll have decided my next photography software.

Photography & Exposure – How I Expose

For a long time DSLRs have been sophisticated enough to cleverly expose the scene in front of them. Essentially all DSLRs start by metering the subject, which means they use the in-built lightmeter to determine the intensity of light reflected off or emitted by the subject. The DSLR next calculates the different possible exposures which would bring the subjects intensity to 18% grey.1 Modern DSLRs use sophisticated algorithms to figure out what the subject is – a group of faces, a close-up portrait, a landscape etc. This information helps it fine tune the exposure. For instance if the camera detects one or more faces in the frame, it tends to open the aperture as wide as possible to give a shallow depth of field. Similarly, if the camera detects a landscape shot, it closes the aperture to give as wide a depth of field as possible.

More times than not, this automatic exposure works well. So why should one manually expose? For me there are two motivations – one technical and the other philosophical.

The technical one first. When the photographer doesn’t manually expose, he lets the camera choose the subject. He also lets the camera decide the intensity of the subject, which it slavishly does (remember, the sole driving factor for all automatic exposures is that the intensity of subject should be 18% grey). This transfers creativity from photography to post-processing. During post-processing it’s just not possible to freeze motion, or add motion blur to a background, or simulate a shallow/deep depth-of-fields well. Adjusting the exposure, contrast, editing curves etc. are all the adjustments that can be done to some degree. So, depending on how close the camera exposed the scene to the photographers vision, this post-processing effort could be anything from an impossible feat to zero effort. The photographer should always decide his exposure.

Now for the philosophical motivation – these days DSLRs don’t enjoy the automatic image quality advantage over other camera systems (mirrorless, smartphones etc.) that they used to a few years back. The raison d’etre for a DSLRs existence is the quick manual control it affords to the photographer. On a prosumer DSLR body, all controls are just a fingertip away, allowing the photographer complete and immediate control over all aspects of exposure. If manual exposure is not your cup of tea, why go for a DSLR?

Exposure Modes

Exposure is determined by the Aperture and the Shutter Speed. Exposure, along with ISO speed, or the sensors sensitivity, contribute towards the overall look of the captured image.2 All DSLRs have (at least) 4 modes of exposure control, each mode giving the photographer varying degrees of flexibility and ease to adjust the exposure.3

Programmed Auto(P): The camera evaluates and meters the scene, and comes up with a list of possible, and usually equivalent, exposure values. For example, these are all equivalent exposures:
+ 1/60s, f/5.6 @ ISO 100
+ 1/120s, f/4 @ ISO 100
+ 1/30s, f/8 @ ISO 100
The photographer can step through these exposures and pick the one that gives the best look. For a beginner this mode is useful to get a feel for different exposures and how they affect the final image.

Aperture Priority(A): The photographer chooses an aperture. The camera selects an appropriate shutter speed. This mode is useful when photographing static subjects, where control over the depth of field (deep for landscape vs shallow for portraits) is critical.

Shutter Priority(S): The photographer chooses a shutter speed. The camera selects the right aperture. This mode is useful for photographing sports or other fast moving action where creative control over the look of motion (frozen vs a blur) is important.

Manual(M): This is self-explanatory, the photographer picks both the aperture and the shutter speed.

In all modes, the photographer can either specify the ISO or set it to ‘Auto-ISO’, in which case the camera determines the ISO too.

I started dabbling in photography with a simple point & shoot camera. It gave no direct control over the exposure, one had to play around with different profiles (Overcast/Landscape/Profile/Night etc.) to affect exposure. So, when a friend brought along his DSLR for a vacation and I got to play around with it, I was blinded by power! Its buttons and dials allowed me to change the exposure without taking my eye off the viewfinder, just by using muscle memory.

Pretty soon I had bought my first DSLR, a Nikon D3100. I jumped to manual mode. But after a few outings with it, I realized Aperture priority mode worked better for me. I was getting more and better photographs that way. In retrospect, I can see why that was the case. The D3100 has only one command dial. With it you can change only one parameter – either Aperture or Shutter Speed. To control both quickly meant using one of the external buttons to overrride the command dial. But I was using one already to shift the ISO. So Aperture-priority it was.

A few years later, I added the excellent Fujifilm X100S to my kitty. It is a beautiful small mirror-less camera, with mechanical dials and aperture rings. So none of my motor skills with the DSLR adapted to it. Nevertheless, I got pretty adept at handling it quickly. One of the features I liked most about the X100S is it’s auto-ISO mode, which was more sophisticated than that on the Nikon. Basically, you set a range of acceptable ISO’s and depending upon the aperture and shutter speed that you have set, the camera picks an appropriate ISO. This approach worked well.

I now use a Nikon D500 almost exclusively, with a Nikon D7200 playing the role of a backup body. Both are in the professional to prosumer end of Nikons’ range of DX cameras and have two command dials. This allows me to effectively work in manual mode. Sometimes, depending upon the situation, I use auto-ISO to help me.

For the most part my photography has been restricted to landscapes and events. My method to expose for these underwent considerable change over the years before I settled down on something that works very well for me now.

However, over the past year or so, I’ve been getting more and more interested in bird photography. It is here that my methods are still quite raw and see experimentation.

To quickly switch between these two ‘modes’ I use custom banks on my D500 and the U1/U2 settings on the D7200. The first mode, for static subjects, is fully manual. Both cameras give me quick access to shutter-speed, aperture and ISO without having to take my off the viewfinder. The second mode, for bird photography and other action oriented photography, differs from the first only in that auto-ISO is ON.

Landscape Photography

Over the years my method to expose has evolved. Initially it used to be a simple feedback loop – ‘guess’ the appropriate exposure, take a photo, look at the preview, adjust the exposure, take another photo, check the preview and on and on till the preview looks good. I ignored the lightmeter.

Since this was an iterative process, I ended up taking several photographs with slightly different exposure settings. Besides being time consuming during photography, it also meant greater effort during post-processing – to import and triage. Nevertheless, it was a good learning experience – there is no substitute for experimenting with settings. Playing around with different settings and seeing for myself how they affected the image in the back of my camera helped me get a good handle on the basics of exposure.

The preview on the cameras LCD screen doesn’t really represent the actual exposure, it depends on the quality of the screen, its brightness and the preset that the camera applies to generate the preview. Since I prefer the look of dark, moody images more than bright ones, several times I’d get an image more underexposed than it should have been. I handled this during post-processing, by boosting shadows, but this added noise to the overall image, worsening it’s quality. In retrospect, relying on the camera’s built in LCD screen for judging the exposure just wasn’t a great way to work.

The next stage in my method was to start using the lightmeter in conjunction with Spot or Center-weighted metering. I moved the central focus point (because it is the most sensitive) onto my subject and used the lightmeter to see if it was under or overexposed. Accordingly I made changes to the aperture or shutter-speed as the situation warranted. If light-levels were too low, then I’d step up the ISO. Once I had the exposure and ISO locked, I recomposed and took the photograph. This was a big step forward in my photographic process – I was was using a deterministic approach to arrive at the exposure instead of by trial and error. As I look back at the images I took during this period, the general quality of exposure shows an improvement and the number of edits done in post a reduction from before.

I deviate from this approach sometimes, when the scene has a high dynamic range despite being well lit. My usual approach in such situations would result in a base ISO exposure but with too dark shadows. Pulling them up during post-processing adds noise.

For instance, this was photographed late on an evening around sunset. The sun is low, near the horizon and therefore in the frame, which gives the scene fairly high dynamic range. The camera ends up underexposing the image, since its exposure calculation is dominated by the bright sun.

As metered by the camera.

Here, I’ve brought the overall exposure up a bit and also increased the shadow level in Lightroom.

Shadows brought up in post

A 100% crop of this post-processed image shows the amount of noise that is now apparent.

A 100% crop shows just how much noise there is in this image

This is where Expose-to-the-Right (ETTR) helps.4At base ISO of a camera, to get the least amount of noise in the final image, it is best to maximize the amount of light captured.5 But this is a fine line – let in too much light, and you lose highlights in the image. So the trick is to over-expose as much as possible before clipping the highlights. After having done some tests, I know that on my D7200 and D500 an overexposure by 3 stops can still be recovered in post-processing. Similarly, at the other end, an underexposure of about -3 to -3.5 stops can be recovered before details disappear amongst pure noise. With this knowledge, my aim was to overexpose the brightest parts of my subject by 3 stops. This maximized light capture and allowed me to bring the exposure down in post, reducing noise levels in the overall image.

For instance, this is a scene which suited itself well for ETTR. I overexposed the image by about 2 stops. The captured image looks completely overblown.

Over-exposed by 2 stops, the sky and the marble structure in the center look unrecoverable

In Lightroom, I brought the exposure down by 2 stops and recovered highlights. The image (after a few more adjustments) looks a lot better now.

After having brought down the exposure in Lightroom, it looks much better

A 100% crop of this image shows how little noise there is.

About as clean as it gets

Bird Photography

In bird photography, the subject and conditions typically don’t allow me to work with the same method as before. Birds keep hopping around, move behind bushes, fly into or out of the shade which keeps changing the settings needed for a good exposure. Most of my concentration when photographing birds is on keeping them in focus and in the frame. So, for my exposure I need as much help as possible from the camera.

I manually set the shutter speed and aperture, but use auto-ISO. The shutter speed is set at 1/1000s as baseline so that I can quickly move up or down as dictated by the situation. The aperture is typically set to the widest possible to gather as much light as possible. So in most situations it is only the shutter-speed that I control. Since my focus point is always on the bird (in as much as it’s possible), the camera exposes for it. Therefore to counter it, I dial in an exposure compensation of about +1 stop. More times than not, ETTR doesn’t matter here, since ISOs I’m working with are well above the camera’s base value. Almost all the keepers in my In the Wild series have been captured this way.

Nevertheless, in several situations the camera gets it wrong. The commonest is when the bird is not big enough in the frame and the camera ends up exposing for the background or elements around the bird, resulting in an under- or over-exposed bird. At other times when the bird is itself dark, say a raven or an ibis, the camera again overexposes increasing the ISO to the high thousands.

Here the camera exposed for the snow, this is a recoverable image

Here the camera exposed for the bright sky, this image is unrecoverable

My experiments to nail exposure in these cases continue. Eventually I want to be using complete manual mode for bird photography as well. That requires a lot of experience to ‘know’ the exposure for a given situation and also some nimble camera work on it’s command dials without taking my eye off the viewfinder.

  1. This subject could be a spot, a centered area of the frame or even the entire frame; each of these is a so-called Metering Mode. 
  2. Perspective and quality of light are some other factors, which I don’t talk about in this post. 
  3. I describe the modes on Nikon DSLRs. Canon and Sony have equivalent but perhaps differently names modes. 
  4. Why this holds good only at base ISO is best explained with an example. Let’s say at ISO 100 overexposing by 3 stops requires too high a shutter speed than feasible. So you jump to, say, ISO 400. At this ISO, you’ve lost out on dynamic range and have intrinsically increased noise. Also, depending upon your sensor, it might have been better to underexpose at ISO 100 and raise expose during post. 
  5. Noise is a fiendishly complex topic. At the simplest level, there are two kinds of noise in DSLRs – Shot noise and Read noise. Shot noise is inherent in the light that is captured, while Read noise is that which is introduced by the camera when reading off the sensor. Maximizing light captured improve SNR with respect to shot noise, while lower ISOs help reduce the read noise. This is why ETTR works, overexposing just the right amount at base ISO maximizes SNR and minimizes read noise. Finally underexposing during post-processing reduces any visible noise even further. 

Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge

When – 3rd and 10th July
Where – Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge

During our John Heinz Wildlife Refuge a fellow (more experienced) birder suggested we visit Bombay Hook Wildlife Refuge in Delaware. Unlike John Heinz, it is remote, located in the countryside. This, and the fact that it is a vast tidal marsh, enables several species of birds and small animals to thrive here. With our enthusiasm for birding quite high from recent successes, we visited Bombay Hook on successive weekends.

A single, unpaved road runs through the refuge. Vast sections of this road are along the many marshes here and it is quite common to just pull over alongside to bird watch or photograph. In some places, there are a few breakaway paths that lead to lookout towers that give a great overview of the marsh.

At this time of the year, in the summer, early mornings and late evenings are the best time for bird photography in wide open spaces. Once the sun gets higher up in the sky, blown highlights and heat haze are some of the problems one has to contend with. Since Bombay Hook is a short drive away from Philadelphia, only about an hour and a half, this allowed us to make early morning visits to the refuge, to get some photos in the soft warm light.

During both visits, we were impressed by the scale of the refuge’s ecosystem. Vast open marshland, teeming with small fish and snails and worms support a huge number of water birds. This photograph perhaps best represents the refuge – in one frame we have egrets, yellowlegs, herons and stilts.

Great Egrets are perhaps the commonest birds here, at least at this time of the year. They keep moving about the marshy plains in small groups. Every so often a few will swoop in from inaccessible areas of the refuge offering great opportunities to photograph them.

Snowy Egrets, distinguished from the Great Egrets by their smaller size, black beaks and yellow feet, are aplenty too.

Great Blue Herons, though fewer in number than the egrets are quite common as well. They seem to be more persistent hunters, and will spend longer on the marshes picking up fish and other critters.

In between the larger wading birds, smaller Lesser Yellowlegs dart about pecking at the shallow water and mud picking up worms and critters.

There are plenty of Avocets too. Their slender upward curved beaks are striking, you can’t miss them. This group of three gracefully flew in and started to swish about the shallow waters with their beaks to feed.

The Black-necked Stilt is a beautiful bird, with a spotless white body and deep black wings. It’s slender legs and narrow beak make a nice symmetry when in flight.

Glossy Ibises too visit the refuge. They are beautiful birds that glisten in the sun, but are deceptively difficult to photograph well. Most of my shots came out underexposed (I wasn’t quick enough to adjust the metering) and I had to pull the shadows in post which added noise. This one though came out quite clean.

Plovers like this Killdeer are abundant too. They tend to feed in big groups of about 10-12 individuals (called a season!). Maybe because of their smaller size, they typically feed around the edges of the marsh where the waters are shallower still and muddier, which sometimes brings them quite close to the drivable path.

With so many birds, and a rich ecosystem, raptors and vultures were bound to be around. Besides the omnipresent Turkey Vulture, we spotted Bald Eagles and a lone Golden Eagle too.

Although Bombay Hook is famous for water birds, it is home to a lot of other species too – marsh wrens, grosbeaks, blackbirds, terns and more. Starting late July (now), the concentration of such birds is expected to increase as more of them start their migration south. We’ll surely be making more trips to Bombay Hook.

Tale of two photos

Every monsoon Kharghar, a scenic node in Navi Mumbai, becomes home to dozens of waterfalls. Most of these can be viewed along main roads, making even short drives a pleasure. We were hoping for such a scenic drive when heading out to Kharghar this weekend.

Sadly, the sight we actually saw was a bit different. Over the years Kharghar’s falls have only grown in popularity and in India it is mostly a bad thing…

What a chaotic mess!

Local municipal authorities are surely well aware of the popularity of this area during the rainy season (if not that is another failure in itself), but they haven’t yet thought of placing a single trash can to collect waste. Building stalls and renting them out to street side vendors to keep the place neat and also generate some money (to maintain the area, not pocket!) has also not crossed their mind.

Of course, the lack of civil responsibility on the part of the public needs to be called out too. Nevermind non-existent trash cans, surely people could abide by the simple rule to pack-out what they pack-in. It’s high time people stop expecting ‘someone’ to always clean up after them.

Traffic discipline is (and has always been) a bane across India. Due to the number of people essentially pulling over on a main road to take in the view, this section of the road is a bottleneck for regular thoroughfare. As is the norm, any traffic hotspot is accompanied by screeching and honking. So much for serenity!

Having pulled over, orderly parking seems too much to expect. Cars, bikes and pedestrians all on criss-crossing paths fight for inches of space.

Indifferent governance and indifferent public. I wish this place never became popular…

Introducing ‘In the Wild’

I’ve recently started to get my feet wet in wildlife photography…well, mostly bird photography with a hope to expand to wild animals.

Already I’ve come to realize that wildlife photography is more about technique when compared with, say, landscape or even street photography. It’s a function of three factors – the subject, the environment and the equipment.

With jittery subjects like birds, hopping across branches between sunlight and shade, it’s sometimes a herculean task to track it through the lens. Framing and then tracking such quick moving subjects through a long telephoto lens is hard. Their sometimes erratic movement prove to be a challenge for the best of camera autofocus systems – never before have I experimented so much between the 9 – 21 – 51 point focus on my camera. Getting the right exposure is no easy task – its always about keeping the shutter speed fast enough to freeze motion but slow enough to get the lowest ISO. More often than not, wildlife photography is a high-ISO game. Post-processing plays a significant role too – almost all my photographs underwent cropping, de-noising and other tweaks.

Since this is a new kind of photography for me, I think it is a good idea to maintain a photographic timeline of sorts to document my learnings which hopefully will show a gradual increase in quality as the timeline grows.

Another reason I got into wildlife photography is to learn more about them – to be able to get close to a bird or an animal you need to understand its behavior. After photographing a bird, researching it to identify it and in the process learning about its habits, its habitat, behavior etc. is as much fun as the photography itself. This timeline will help me catalog the birds and wildlife I photograph.

Lastly, since this is after all primarily a photography blog, the timeline will also help showcase some of my better efforts.

In the Wild – a new section on this blog is that timeline. Instead of grouping photos by species or by outing, it has a separate post for each significant or good photograph. Each post sets the stage for the photograph and includes my critical comments. Your critiques are welcome.

Apple’s Software Quality

Walt Mossberg got the ball rolling with this piece on The Verge; soon Jim Dalrymple and John Gruber got on the bandwagon. John Siracusa, Marco Arment and Casey Liss too chimed in on the latest episode of their podcast, ATP. Here are my two cents.

While Mossberg, Dalrymple and Gruber write short articles citing specific instances of where Apple’s software fails them, the trio over at ATP talk about this with a broader scope. Software quality has different aspects to it:

  1. Crashes – Is the software stable?
  2. Bugs – Does the software do what I want reliably, quickly without adversely affecting my data?
  3. Functionality – Does the software do what I want it to do?
  4. UI – Does the UI invite a layperson while at the same time not appear too simple for a power user?

While Apple has gotten better at the former two (less crashes, bugs), the latter two aspects are where Apple has dropped the ball.

I agree overall with Siracusa and Marco, that it is seemingly Apple’s focus on oversimplification (hence less bugs, crashes) that caused this. Starting with Mac OS X Lion (10.7), Apple went on an oversimplification drive. Also the fact that Apple has generally struggled with cloud software has, in an increasingly cloud dependent world, made the software problem more glaring.

To me, Apple’s ecosystem during Snow Leopard was at its zenith. Especially around 10.6.4 (or maybe a couple of point updates later but before the release of the Mac App Store), it was a happy place. For most of my basic computing needs, Apple’s software worked great. Snow Leopard was stable, reliable, snappy, functional. The built in Mail app worked just fine (I synced 3 Gmail accounts with it and everything just worked). iPhoto (I forget the version) was truly useful – I loved its Places feature – as a catalog of photos and for basic edits. For casual writing Pages was great and Keynote was slick. iTunes was my go-to media player and music catalog.

Mac OS X took a bit of a back seat after Snow Leopard. This was around 2010, when the iPhone was the rising star and understandably Apple’s focus was on iOS. After a great iOS 4 (and iPhone 4) launch, followed quickly by iOS 4.3 (and the iPad) launch Apple teased us with the ‘Back to the Mac’. Seemingly, Apple would focus on the Mac now. The next OS X release will be another tour de force we thought. But that was not to be. By ‘Back to the Mac’ Apple meant bringing back iPhone OS’s philosophy to Mac OS X. More skeuomorphism, full screen apps, simplification, Launchpad and a huge push towards the app model.

Now, El Capitan is a pretty OS littered with bugs, functional deficiencies and sometimes is slow-as-molasses. Trash doesn’t ever show me the correct size, it always shows the size it previously was; Mission Control doesn’t hold a candle to the combination that Expose + Spaces once was; Mac App Store is a pain to navigate (it has its own set of challenges). Finder is just bad, I only wish now that Apple would somehow let me open each folder in its own window. Never mind that whole discoveryd fiasco in Yosemite.

Photos replaced iPhoto sometime last year. It threw away most of iPhotos’ features in the name of simplicity. Every photo that an iPhone takes has forever been geo-tagged. Photos has this information, yet there isn’t any location-based search or a photos-on-a-map feature. There isn’t any batch editing – if you want to edit a bunch of pics, be prepared to mechanically click the same set of buttons and controls for each one. Photos seemingly forsake all of iPhotos functionality for iCloud integration which, to be fair, works well. But when things go awry, there isn’t a way to figure things out and fix them. I’ve now switched exclusively to Lightroom for all of my photo cataloging and editing needs.

In mid 2013, Apple set out with a goal to achieve feature parity in iWork applications across Mac OS X and iOS. They did this, surprisingly, by stripping down features from the Mac OS X versions. That meant a few .doc/.docx and .ppt/.pptx documents I had didn’t open faithfully anymore. I’ve long since avoided Pages and Keynote, sticking to the web versions of Microsoft Office.

I still use iTunes as my music catalog, but thats only because of my dependence on the iTunes Store, Apple Music. iTunes is a dinosaur – the store UI is terrible, scrolling brings the UI to a stutter, navigating through your music library isn’t great…the list is endless. An iTunes rework(not by cutting features!) is long overdue.

While most of the software quality talk is on the Mac side of things, it is by no means restricted to it. Apple has problems on iOS too. The iPad Pro, a tablet designed with productivity in mind, makes apparent iOS’s deficiencies – iOS is a great phone OS, a great OS for consuming content on tablets but a very mediocre OS for productivity on tablets.

It took 5 versions since Lion before we have a general perception that Apple’s software quality is on the wane. I suspect it will take a similar length of time before any steps they take will show effect on their software. I hope they start sooner than later.

Nikkor 18-140mm

I started dabbling in photography with a basic Sony P&S. At the time, I was thrilled with its 8x zoom range – from wide angle landscapes I could zoom into a car in the distance. Very flexible, but the camera was quite low quality like most point & shoots.. When I finally transitioned to a DSLR, the Nikon D3100 it came with a 18-55mm kit lens. Although I wasn’t too thrilled with the roughly 3x zoom range at the time, it took some splendid images. Soon, I bought the Tamron 70-300mm to cover the long range, which meant I was carrying around two lenses almost all the time.

So recently when I upgraded my camera, I opted for the 18-40mm which has a roughly 8x zoom, covers a wide range of focal lengths and has got good reviews all around. Unfortunately my experience with this lens wasn’t quite as good as the other reviewers.

I find two critical faults – the image quality at wide focal lengths is poor and the lens doesn’t achieve good focus at wide focal lengths.

Lets start with the first. This is the scene I used for my tests:

A busy scene, with lots of foliage and detail

A busy scene, with lots of foliage and detail

Since most lenses aren’t very good fully wide open, I decided to take these photos at an aperture of f/8, which is usually around the sweet spot. All these are 100% crops from the top right hand corner of the image, which exhibited the poorest image quality.

18mm: Terrible distortion, there is chromatic aberration as well

18mm: Terrible distortion, there is chromatic aberration as well

24mm: Just as bad

24mm: Just as bad

35mm: Although the spatial distortion is better, there is still a tinge of  chromatica aberration

35mm: Although the spatial distortion is better, there is still a tinge of chromatica aberration

50mm: Now images start becoming usable

50mm: Now images start becoming usable

85mm: Quite good

85mm: Quite good

140mm: These leaves are out of focus, but dot distorted

140mm: These leaves are out of focus, but dot distorted

All focal lengths below 50mm exhibit high distortion – note that its only in this part of the image, the rest of the image doesn’t have such poor quality. Its like a linear scale, as you move up the focal range, from 18mm to 140mm, the overall image quality improves.

The second critical flaw is with the focus at wide angles. At 18mm, when the camera says you have focus, you really don’t. Look at the image below, it is a wide angle shot of a beach. It looks alright at web resolutions.

Wide Angle Focus-23 mm

But crop to 100% at the center of the frame and you see its not sharp at all. This image, despite its beautiful colours, is one I can’t print.

Wide Angle Focus-100-23 mm

This isn’t a lens I can use wide open with any confidence. I cant trust the image quality enough to print them or export at high resolutions. So, this lens in effect has a focal length range of 50-140mm – quite disappointing.


Arstechnica is among the sites that I visit daily. Today, news from another planet happened to be the first thing I read.

This exoplanet, one ”HD 189733b … resides a bit over 60 light years from Earth”. 60 light years. Thats 5.676×10^14 kilometres, or roughly 567 Trillion kilometres!

To figure out how fast the winds in the atmosphere are, you have to ‘look’ at the atmosphere. To do that, “…you have to wait for it to pass in front of its host star. Then, some tiny fraction of the star's light will pass through the atmosphere of the planet on its way to Earth.” And if it turns out that this light is ”… red- or blue-shifted due to the Doppler effect, then it implies the atmosphere is moving.” The extent of the red or blue shift, while factoring in the planet’s speed of revolution around its star, gives an idea about wind speed.

Think about the precision of the instruments used. This planet has an ESI of 0.88, so lets say its atmosphere is about as thick as Earth’s, approximately 100 kilometres. To figure out the red or blue shift of something a 100 kilometres across over a distance of 567 trillion kilometres is the equivalent of playing a video on your phone, placing it on Mercury and then watching the video from Earth.

It boggles the mind!

Save Seawoods Lake

In only about a month Seawoods Lake has taken a visible turn for the worse. 

Authorities are doing their bit by landscaping the walking path circling the lake – preparing sections of flower beds, laying out proper approaches to the path at different points, keeping the path clean, maintaining lampposts etc.

That it is the people for whom the lake is being developed for, are doing the all the harm is ironic and sad. 

Dumping garbage into the lake is rampant, so much so that the Nerul end of the lake is now a stinking cesspool, with floating garbage bags and the frothy slimy black waters that accompany refuse matter. Litter lines the walking path – picnickers don’t clean up their rubbish. Pristine tiles are coloured by spots of red – an open spittoon for the paan lovers. I guess everyone expects someone else to clean up after them. Sigh.

Look how beautiful the lake is!   

 The lake, like all places, desperately needs an increase in awareness, otherwise we stand to lose out on a wonderful little spot of nature in our concrete jungle.

Peek & Pop

Apple announced the iPhone 6S and 6S+ just a week back, on 9th September; a solid incremental update over the previous generation iPhones. Among all the features shown and demoed was 3D Touch, which is touted as the next big leap in multitouch technology.

3D touch brings two new ways to interact with elements on screen. Based on the videos on Apple’s website Peek/Pop seem to work in three scenarios:

  1. Within an app to preview nested content like in Mail,
  2. Across apps, where from within App1 you preview content in a small window of App2 and choose whether you want to switch over or not, and,
  3. On the Home screen as a sort of right-click on app icons to jump into specific views
In App Peek-Pop

In App Peek-Pop

Multitasking Peek-Pop

Multitasking Peek-Pop

Shortcuts Peek-Pop

Shortcuts Peek-Pop

All look great!

I’m most excited about the second use case – its a change in the multitasking paradigm in iOS, and not one that requires 3D Touch.

Consider the address in an email scenario. With 3D Touch, it works like this – you ‘press’ lightly on the address in the email and you Peek into a mini floating Maps window. Press harder on it and you Pop into Maps, coming out of the Mail app.

Without 3D Touch it would translate to – tap on the address in the email and you Peek into a mini floating Maps window. Tap on it again and you switch over to Maps. Slick. No more being hijacked from one app to the other because of a misplaced tap.

I hope iOS 10 (or will it be iOS X) brings this for all iPhones.

Seawoods Lake

Nestled between the fast developing concrete jungles of Nerul and Seawoods, is Seawoods Lake. Driving along Palm Beach road I’ve observed the lake develop from an ignored drain to beautifully landscaped patch of greenery in the last few years. Today I visited it. With a walking trail (almost) all around it, the lake makes for a beautiful evening walk – calm, breezy and peaceful.

IMG_0771 IMG_0773  IMG_0774


IMG_0777  IMG_0779

IMG_0780  IMG_0781


Over time, the number of people visiting the lake has been steadily increasing. Unfortunately it means there are points along the Palm Beach road, especially those with easy access to the lake water, which are slowly accumulating filth.



I wish people would treat public places with respect, as something everybody shares instead of a garbage dump.

In 2009 Seawoods Lake was a dumping ground. It had been saved and I hope it doesn’t go back to being one again.

Bahubali – A Review

Bahubali released to theatres a week ago, on 10th July. The films marketers claimed this to be the biggest Indian movie to date – in terms of cost, in terms of distribution and in terms of scale. Movie critics waxed eloquent about its epicness, its visual effects, how it is the perfect blockbuster and more. The movie scores 9.4 on IMDB – more than each of The Lord of the Rings trilogy , movies whose scope Bahubali seems to be inspired by.

Its had solid beginning

I too got caught in the movies hyped awesomeness and, boy, what a dud it turned out to be.

That Bahubali is ‘touted to be’, ‘reportedly’ the most expensive Indian film to date has been spread far and wide. But why hedge claims? Doesn’t anybody know? Is it too difficult to ascertain? Oh well, its probably the movies’ marketing department at work. Nevertheless, the money, however much, wasn’t wisely spent. The film is simply overhyped.

As I was watching Bahubali, I couldn’t help draw parallels with Amish Tripathy’s Immortals of Meluha, a book I had a less than charitable opinion of. Both are exercises in mediocrity 1. Similar settings, similar characterisations, equally hammy dialogues, similar storyline arcs.

Bahubali plays out in the fake-mythic ancient city of Mahishmati, the Immortals of Meluha has titular Meluha for its setting. Both works have similar characters – Shiva in the movie is a stand-in for the Shiva of the book, Avantika is Bahubali’s Parvati while Katappa is Parvateshvar.

Whether through aggressive editing or simply poor screenplay-writing, the actions and emotional responses of Shiva, Avantika (and others) are at odds with their character. Shiva goes from being a silly village bum to knowing he’s the crown prince in waiting just as quickly as Shiva in the Meluha trilogy does. Avantika sheds her Amazon warrior princess clothing to a hapless, weak in the knees teenager with a severe bout of cupiditis all because a muscled guy climbs over a waterfall for her. Sigh…

Traditionally, movies coming out in India (more so in South India) have an aversion towards understatement, restraint in all aspects of film-making. Bahubali epitomises this. Everything is amped up. Palaces so big and ceilings so high that everyone looks a Lilliputian in Gullivers house. Truer, conversational dialogues take a break, louder punchlines are centerstage. Melodrama is the name of the game – one character spends decades collecting twigs, falling on a giant courtyard absent of trees, for a funeral pyre to light up the antagonist in! Characters are either saintly or pure evil, no one is real. When movies started a century ago, the hero would consider himself lucky if he managed to land a punch on a baddie. Now, the protagonist of Bahubali takes on armies. Heck, a central character takes a lawn mower to battle and leaves behind the smell of freshly cut grass wafting from the battlefield.

All reviews highlight Bahubali’s special effects. I’ve appreciated mediocre movies only for their CGI – The Matrix Reloaded, Avatar come to mind. But Bahubali disappoints here too – VFX are quite mediocre. Verisimilitude is absent. Its easy to tell what is CGI and what isn’t. The waterfalls, the entire city of Mashimati, the entirety of the war sequence towards the end are literally as good as a game running on a high-end computer. At no point do they seem life-like – this ain’t no Lord of the Rings. Sometimes, a shimmering halo outlines characters, a dead give away that they are in front of a green screen. Some other times, while a character moves smoothly across the screen, the background looks pixellated and choppy – yet another shabby job. These are the highs in the movie’s CGI. The lows? Fake butterflies, the avalanche sequence. They were just bad.

I feel conned. The hype surrounding the movie hurt it for me. Interestingly, I didn’t come across any negative reviews of the movie online. I wonder whether critics appreciate movies like this – if they do, they aren’t critics? Or is that they just cant call it as they see it? Both are scary possibilities.

When you look closely, the title of the movie is ‘Bahubali – The Beginning’. Arghh! No wonder then that the movie ends with the tale unfinished. ‘Bahubali – The Conclusion’ hits screens some time in 2016 for a second round of mediocrity. The joke is on us.

  1. But the movie is still better than the book! ↩︎

Traffic Woes

I have been travelling from Nerul to Bandra-Kurla Complex and back every day by road for the last 5 years. Since my daily peregrinations started, the travel time has steadily come down – a good sign of increasing connectivity and improving road conditions (despite my rants). Now it seems to have settled down to about an hour in the morning and a little under two hours in the evening – a little better and a lot stabler than it used to be.

However, every passing day as I drive and observe traffic around me, I become more convinced that despite all the complaints about poor road conditions, the bulk of the blame for gridlocks squarely falls on us drivers, those who blatantly ignore rules and exhibit poor road discipline.

Small pockets of intense congestion are commonplace. These are almost always caused by some truly atrocious road sense1. Few drivers know that RED means STOP. Some do stop, but several metres ahead of the bright zebra crossing forcing pedestrians to navigate between vehicles with revving engines. At unmanned junctions vehicles don’t stop, they keep inching forward, ever so slowly, so much so that 4-way intersections inevitably end up dead-locked during rush hour. Lane driving is nonexistent2. Vehicular turn lights are used cursorily – announcing “I’m taking this turn” rather than indicating “I will take the next turn”.

Take a look at road etiquettes. How often do slow lumbering vehicles hog the rightmost lane? How many times do vehicles give way to another? More often than not, when two vehicles come to an impasse, a honking slugfest ensues. Incessant bursts of blaring horns whenever the traffic lights change. Pedestrians are hurried off the roads.

All in all, it’d be fair to say that I don’t enjoy driving around in Mumbai. Rarely do I get a smooth drive in the city.

This condition of drivers showing complete apathy towards road rules, even the most basic ones, is worsening. And its not just private or commercial vehicles(taxis) that flout the rules, even government vehicles – BEST buses, garbage collecting trucks, tow trucks, even police vans themselves – are completely oblivious to them3. Its contagion. With everyone in a hurry, all it takes is one errant driver to inspire everyone else to jump a signal, overspeed, drive rashly. Collectively we seem to be heading towards chaos on the streets.

One way towards better traffic conditions is to collectively undergo a change, inculcate discipline. But thats perhaps too optimistic.

Something more grounded in reality is to hope that someday our traffic policemen start penalising errant drivers strictly. The more that indiscipline goes unchecked, more will be the incentive to bend rules. Unfortunately, our traffic policemen don’t do much to enforce or inculcate discipline. They are concerned with more earthly affairs – look cool with shades, pull over trucks and carrier vehicles across lanes further disrupting traffic, pull over cars for having darker-than-allowed-window-tints, pull over two-wheelers for not wearing helmets. Obviously, these ‘broken rules’ lead to fatter wallets for the cops.

Traffic policemen, with their modus operandi, are ineffective. Exercising stricter policing for a sustained period of time might help. Having a safety drive every few months, trying to ‘raise awareness’ isn’t working. But there is a bandwidth problem at hand – the number of vehicles is too vast and our road networks too extensive for a limited number of traffic cops to actively monitor. Perhaps it would be a good idea to have traffic cops simply note down vehicle registration numbers along with the offence and send the vehicle owner a ticket with a hefty fine? Maybe fines should be higher for vehicles on government duty? Execution is key. All this easier said than done.

My cars’ odometer tells me that my office is 26km from home. Considering the fact that most of this distance is along wide, well laid roads – Palm Beach Road, Sion-Panvel Expressway, SCLR – it shouldn’t take more than 40min to cover. Here’s hoping that someday I’ll be able to leave home just a little later in the mornings and get back home a little earlier, a little saner.

  1. Driving license tests in India seem more geared towards making sure that the driver knows how to work the car mechanics and less towards road rules and common driving etiquette ↩︎
  2. Most vehicles think of roads as obstacle courses, zig-zagging between lanes ↩︎
  3. Government vehicles should lead by example – a reckless “Maharashtra Shasan” car does most harm. ↩︎

Roadworks Development Life Cycle

Developers and IT folks out there know the Software Development Life Cycle(SDLC) by rote:

Design, build, test, design, build, test, design, build, test…is the central theme of SDLC.

It seems that BMC has taken it to heart with an annual cycle – build a road, dig it up for repairs, build a road, dig it up for tiling, build a road, dig it up for concretisation, build a road, dig it up for expansion and so on year after year.

Most Indian cities now face traffic snarls and daily gridlocks. Unending work on Metros along with roadworks in all arterials throughways make for terrible driving and commuting conditions day in and day out.

Come out of SDLC guys!

Peace in a noisy city

Mumbai, a city that never sleeps, always has some activity or another going on everyday. And all this activity makes for a very noisy place. Be it honking road traffic, building construction workers beating away with their jackhammers……the list is endless. Frankly, the city is an infinitely powerful noise generator and one that gets noisier by the day.

This holds true every single day of the year – through weekdays, weekends, festivals, nationally significant days – the noises don’t abate. Holidays are the worst! On festival days, usually it starts a few days before, all temples blare out chants on loudspeakers in an attempt to spread the word of God. On Independence/Republic Day, various schools, housing societies play the Anthem, other nationalistic songs on loudspeakers – patriotism must be hammered in into the citizenry after all. On a national holiday of lesser significance, local political honchos exercise their mediocre oratory skills…again blaring full volume on loudspeakers. We Indians don’t need much reason to make noise.

All days that is but one – the 1st of May. Known also as, May Day, all construction workers follow this holiday religiously and through sheer luck(and to my great relief!) it does’t coincide with any festival(which we are never short of). Perhaps the fact that it is also Maharashtra Day also has something to do with it.

May Day is the one day when I can sit at home and hear my thoughts. Reduced traffic on the streets make the odd drive out fun which is an added bonus. All in all, 1st of May is easily the holiday I look forward to most in Mumbai.