4g CO2 Per Email. Really???

Burning Email

Disentangling a well-known “fact” about email

There’s a lot of “received wisdom” kicking about on the internet – ideas and “facts” which are essentially presented without question on the basis of “he said it, so it must be true”. This afflicts many fields, and sustainability is no exception. One common example is that “sending an email generates 4 grammes of CO2 or more”.

There are a couple of problems with this figure. One is that it doesn’t pass what one old manager of mine called “the giggle test” – email processing sits very lightly on computers and the amount of processing, and therefore energy consumption, for each is clearly tiny. We need to understand what else is included in this figure, or run the risk of discrediting otherwise valid environmental impact analysis by using it.

The bigger problem is that this figure is then taken, without unbundling its elements, and multiplied by large corporate email volumes to come up with massive estimates for the environmental impact of email which are clearly wrong – I have seen cases where the energy saving claim for an email improvement exceeded what we know to be the power consumption of all the company’s systems put together.

Finally because this is specifically about “email” people start to believe that other mechanisms, such as instant messaging, must be more efficient when the exact opposite may be the case.

We need a better way to understand and estimate the environmental impact of emails and similar mechanisms. In this article I try to develop one.

Where Did the 4g Figure Come From?

Although the figure is “all over the internet”, dig behind it and everything goes back to the work of Mike Berners-Lee, an academic at Lancaster University (by coincidence my own Alma Mater), who researches carbon footprints and has published a useful reference for them in his book “How Bad Are Bananas?: The carbon footprint of everything”. The 4g figure is widely quoted from the original 2010 edition. A revised analysis in the newer 2020 edition quotes smaller values for some cases, but even larger values for others.

While it’s a great book, providing much food for thought, there are a few challenges with the figures, particularly in this case. Berners-Lee doesn’t really “show his working”, and each section tends to present the answers, with a small following discussion, but you are left to try and unbundle the separate elements and decide which apply in which circumstances. The email figures are dominated by “preparation time” and embedded emissions, both of which need to be treated with caution. In addition the focus on “carbon” makes it a bit more tricky to reconcile his figures with actual measurements.

Power Consumption, not Carbon

While quoting the “equivalent carbon emissions” of different activities allows wider comparison, it’s actually a bit counter-productive for things where the primary source of emissions is electric power consumption, and I instead prefer to use kWh, or equivalent, for a number of reasons:

  1. Power consumption figures are unambiguous, whereas carbon equivalence varies between locations, over time (both seasonally and with longer-term changes), and with energy-sourcing arrangements. Carbon is to some extent subjective, whereas 1 kWh is the same across time and space.
  2. Carbon figures can be “gamed”. It’s very easy to say “we have no emissions because we only buy green electricity” or “we offset all our emissions with carbon credits, so we’re already net zero”. Neither helps to understand where consumption is happening and how to reduce it.
  3. Quoting carbon instead of consumption adds a layer of opacity to the calculation. If we’re just multiplying Watts by Seconds (or some multiples thereof) the calculations are easy, if we’re then applying a variable equivalence factor then things become more difficult to follow.

At the very least carbon figures need to be heavily qualified, e.g. “1 kWh means about 193g CO2 emissions in the UK using the typical generation mix in 2022”. Working at least as far as the penultimate line in power figures is easier.

Preparation and Reading Time

Berners-Lee’s estimate is not really about “sending an email” itself, and is dominated by the use of the computer to prepare and digest the email content. I think this needs to be excluded, or at least treated separately, for two reasons:

  1. It’s not predictable: there is a direct relationship between the size of an email and the work computers and networks have to do physically processing it. That does not exist for the writing and reading stages. A funny picture at the size limit of the system may take a few seconds to send and another few for each reader to look and laugh. At the other end of the scale a 5-line email about business restructuring and possible redundancies may take the boss a morning to write, and will then sit on the screen, being processed by its recipients, for the same time.
  2. It’s nothing to do with the use of the email channel. The preparation and reading effort will be similar if the same content is sent via WhatsApp, Teams, Snail Mail or hand-delivered using a gold Rolls Royce. The first two will have a similar “delivery” carbon cost to email, but I can promise you that the others start to get much larger!

The best way to handle this is to separate out two things. The first is the energy cost of sending and receiving the email. This is calculated, based on real measurements, below. Then there’s the “cost of using a computer for office work” (to distinguish it from more expensive variants like gaming or complex modelling). A modern PC with something like a 24” monitor and typical home or office networking uses around 50-70W. For an 8 hour working day that’s a total of about 0.5kWh, or about 100g CO2 using the current UK electricity generation factor, say 12g per hour for all your computer activities. If you’re just working on a phone, or on a low-spec laptop with the screen dimmed the figures will be much smaller again.

Embodied Emissions

Embodied emissions are those generated in the manufacture and delivery of a device. Berners-Lee quotes figures around 400kg CO2 for a range of laptops. Compared with the runtime emissions that’s enormous – if a laptop consumes an average of 20W and is left on 24 hours a day its annual power consumption is about 175 kWh, or about 34kg CO2 at the current UK equivalence (0.193kg / kWh). If it’s more efficient, and off or in a low-power state when not in use, then the power consumption is going to be a small fraction of the embedded emissions.

The challenge with including embedded emissions in something like a “per email” figure is twofold. First you need to choose a realistic, consistent life-cycle and duty-cycle over which to allocate them, and small changes in those rules will make a massive difference to the per-use emissions, dominating other considerations. For example, do you average them over the typical 3 year life and 10 hours per working day of a new corporate PC, or over the much longer actual lifetime of a typical PC including the second-hand phase, possibly 10 years or longer?

The other problem is they don’t scale, except in the most gross terms. If you have a system (PCs, servers and network) comfortably capable of handling 40,000 large emails per working day (see boring details below) then the embodied emissions are exactly the same whether your daily email volume is 40,000, or 4. If you do something dramatic and reduce your email volume by a factor of 100 then the “per email” emissions increase by the same factor. Even if you get rid of email altogether if the same people still have a PC then the reduction in embodied emissions is limited to maybe one server.

What you absolutely cannot do is take a relatively high “per email” figure and then multiply that up by a large volume to get the total. If the same system is able to handle that large volume, then the embodied emissions element simply does not change.

Unless you are comparing options for a device which will only ever be used for a single task (e.g. email) then it’s probably best to exclude embodied emissions from any task-specific calculation, but consider them alongside the general environmental cost of the computing infrastructure.

A Better Estimate for Email Processing

My initial approach was to try and come up with a theoretical model based on known power characteristics for typical computing equipment. The problem is that those models generate figures around a thousand times lower (milligrammes rather than grammes of CO2 per email), and I came up against repeated challenges of the form “but the internet says it’s 4g per email”.

To try to short-cut these arguments I’ve actually measured power consumption sending and receiving test emails, and derived some practical guidelines from the results. The approach taken is as follows:

  1. Measure power consumption of a test PC, and test duration, while sending and receiving a number of test emails
  2. Measure CPU activity on the email server used to process the emails
  3. Calculate the power usage for the test, both as a total value and as an increment over background consumption
  4. Derive an average energy cost for emails of different sizes, and the related estimated carbon emissions

The focus is on the physical creation of the emails (equivalent to pasting prepared text), sending, processing and receiving them. The time to write the email and other content, or to read after receipt, are not considered for the reasons set out above.

The following table shows the results from tests with various email sizes and volumes. The top section shows the total power consumption, the lower section the incremental consumption over background:

The following should be noted:

  • The test PC (a Dell XPS 9500) has a relatively high specification and consumes more power than average office devices, so the total power figure is higher than quoted above. However it is expected that the greater processing power should result in a faster test execution, and therefore to some extent cancel out in the additional power model.
  • Sending and receiving were automated using Microsoft Outlook, and therefore the PC processing should be representative of typical office or home environments.
  • The email server is an AWS t3a.small instance with 2 vCPUs and 2GB RAM. Email processing is Linux-based, but does include some moderately complex routing and spam filtering, and is therefore broadly indicative of generic email processing.
  • I use a figure of 200g CO2 emissions per kWh for simplicity. The DEFRA recommended emissions factor for the UK in 2022 is 193g.

The following observations can be made:

  • For smaller emails gross power consumption is of the order of a few kWh per million emails.
  • Average emissions per email are therefore <1 milligramme (mg), even allowing for other elements such as the PC’s monitor and networking
  • The incremental power required to process an email on a system already in use is even smaller, <1kWh per million, substantially less than 1mg per email
  • Power consumption and therefore emissions rise roughly linearly with the size of the test email, giving a gross estimate of 8 kWh per million emails per MB. For emails at the maximum practical size of around 20MB this gives an estimate of 160 kWh per million.
  • The proportions between the different elements are very consistent except for the smallest emails, at about 82.5% send, 13.5% receive, 4% server processing

Recommended Estimating Approach

I recommend the following estimating basis. For the actual email processing:

  • To send emails estimate 7kWh (~1.4kg CO2) per MB average size per million. For small text-only emails allow 0.5kWh / million
  • To receive emails estimate 1kWh (~0.2kg CO2) per MB average size per million. For small text-only emails allow 0.5kWh / million
  • For email processing estimate 0.6kWh (~0.12kg CO2) per million. This allows for each email passing through two servers, one sending and one receiving, which is fairly typical.
  • The proportion of the above figures which represents the power dedicated to email processing (above background activity) is about 20-25%.

These figures give a total end to end equivalent carbon emissions cost of about 1.6mg per 1MB email, assuming one recipient.

To include preparation and reading time, use a figure of 0.5 kWh (100g) per working day, which covers a typical modern PC, monitor and network, or an equivalent alternative figure if your arrangements are different. Then think about the number of emails each user processes per day and what proportion of their time they spend doing that. For example, if a typical user spends 20% of their working time on email and sends or receives 50 emails per day then their “per email” figure is (0.5 * 20%) / 50 =  0.002 kWh per email, or about 0.4g CO2. We need to double that to get the full send and receive picture.

I’d recommend keeping the embedded emissions separate, because they are fixed and tend to distort the picture. However for completeness if the PC has embedded emissions of 400kg CO2, has a complete economic life of 10 years, and is used 200 days per year then each working day equates to about 400 / (10 * 200) = 0.2 kg/day, or about 0.8g CO2 per email per user on the same basis as above.

Can a Figure of 4g or Above Be Justified?

Yes, but with significant caveats. Now we have a better understanding of the elements we can see a number of ways to get to a figure of 4g, or even much larger, although whether these are true typical “per email” figures which can then be multiplied up is somewhat dubious:

  1. Include processing time and embedded emissions, but average the embedded emissions over a much shorter time and fewer emails. If we take our PC with 400kg embedded emissions but only consider a typical 3 year corporate life-span and also use a lower figure of 25 emails per day we get a net figure per email something like 6g per email. However as noted above it’s incorrect and misleading to scale up a figure including embedded emissions.
  2. Have a high-spec PC sitting powered on but idle most of the day, just used for occasionally checking email. If the machine sends and receives 25 emails per day then the power consumed per email is 0.02 kWh, or about 4g emissions. If it’s on 24×7, not just in the working day this goes up to about 0.05 kWh per email. However this is a far from typical arrangement, and the figures break down as soon as the PC is also used for anything else, or a sensible power management scheme is put in place. Again you shouldn’t scale up from such an atypical figure.
  3. Setting aside processing time and embedded emissions, it is possible to get to 4g total power consumed per email – simply send a 20MB email to 1000 recipients!

How Can We Reduce The Impact of Email?

It’s important to keep things in context. A short textual email sits lightly on the world, using a tiny amount of electricity for its processing, and making no difference to already-present embedded emissions. Email is arguably a very efficient mechanism for such messages – some instant messaging programs are much heavier on PC resources. Saying “thank you” or “I agree” is not going to single-handedly melt the ice caps as “How Bad Are Bananas?” seems to imply.

Conversely, while blocking spam and encouraging the reduction of other “low value” emails is absolutely the right thing to do for usability and security reasons, the emissions impact is relatively small.

If the same content has to reach the same people then ultimately all electronic mechanisms are going to be broadly similar, but there are some additional considerations for larger documents. If most recipients use an email program like Outlook which downloads the whole email to the PC in one go, with attachments, then use that mechanism. The attachments are downloaded once, in the background so there’s no waste of either human or PC time waiting for them to download, and can be re-opened from local storage as many times as required. By contrast sending a link to a central location means the user has to wait for the attachment to download and open, potentially many times. There are other good reasons for sending a link, for example to ensure users see the latest information in a live document, but it may be less efficient.

If, however, not all recipients of the email need to see the full document then the best practice is to send a short textual summary in the covering email, and let each reader decide whether they need to download and open the full document. To do this the summary needs to explain what the document covers and significant findings/details. Compare:

Please find attached the progress report [Att: PrgRep.pptx, PrgRep.xlsx]

and

The Emissions Progress Report is now available. We have completed our submission for an extra £50k budget. All workstreams are green except Email Emissions which is amber, and should return green with the publication of the report this week. Please see Emissions Project October 2022 [PPT] for details

This strategy has usability benefits, but potentially also materially reduces the amount of data being shipped around.

You can go further – for example set up your email client to only download pictures and attachments on demand – but there’s a trade-off between marginal energy savings and a significant usability impact, and if the user has to sit waiting for the attachments then the energy saving may be wasted.

Generally good email etiquette aligns with efficiency – don’t send emails to large circulation lists unless absolutely necessary, and let the recipients decide whether they need to dig into detail or not. Think about the convenience of your recipients, not your own.

All electronic communications do have an environmental impact and in this energy-conscious world it’s our duty not to waste it. However ultimately the impact is small, significantly smaller than the “received wisdom” asserts, and I’d suggest that the value of communicating clearly and politely outweighs other considerations.

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Walker’s Reserve

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Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-04-2022 13:58 | Resolution: 4851 x 3032 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/200s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 20.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

With timing more serendipitous than deliberate I spent the eve of Earth Day at one of Barbados’ newest features – the nature reserve being created as the old sand quarry at Walkers in St. Andrews is being wound down. This was fortuitous in more ways than one: I’m always keen to see new attractions when we visit Barbados, but I can now claim something of a professional interest as well. My latest engagement with Aviva centres on their ambition to become the leading financial services organisation in respect of sustainability, and it was good to go hands on with a small but very practical sustainability project.

The site is in a corner of Barbados which doesn’t support much agriculture, and has since 2016 been designated as a National Park (along with most of Barbados’ East and North Coasts). When I’ve previously looked down on the area from the surrounding hills, or during a wonderful microlight flight in 2019, it’s always seemed somewhat ugly and barren, so the idea of turning it back into a semi-wild reserve seems perfect.

The Walkers Reserve site in 2019, early terracing work visible (Show Details)

There are some challenges. Although Barbados is green everywhere you look, and I’m writing this in the middle of a truly Biblical downpour, the reserve has to be designed on a "water deprived" basis, as it has to cope with both protracted dry periods, and then heavy rains most of which, unless trapped, will just drain straight to the sea. That affects both the choice of plants, which have to be tolerant to salt, heavy rainfall and dry periods, and the landscaping, designed with multiple traps to catch and slow rainwater for irrigation.

Much of Barbados’ agriculture is mono-cultural, especially the large areas dedicated to sugar cane, with all the associated physical and economic risks. Planting at the reserve is by contrast a deliberate polyculture, with multiple different species deliberately alternated. It’s a good example of taking some short-term pain (e.g. more tricky harvesting of the fruit) for longer-term benefits.

They also have to manage the endemic vegetation and wildlife, which includes a number of invasive species, most noticeably the weed which fills the freshwater ponds. Barbados doesn’t have a great record on invasive species management. One of the creatures which crossed our path on the tour was a mongoose – now a significant part of the Barbados fauna, but originally introduced to try and keep down the (also introduced) rat population. The problem is that rats are nocturnal and mongeese are diurnal, so never the twain meet…

Education is a major part of the reserve’s mission. Some of the biggest challenges relate to the behaviour of local people and visitors, and will only be addressed by cultural change driven by that education. Littering has long been an issue across Barbados, and during heavy rains the reserve gets a graphic measure of this as anything deposited in the local waterways is washed down through its rivers and ponds. Plastic bottles are a constant nightmare, but my guide Meike has even seen a dumped fridge. Educational and information campaigns are starting to have an effect, but without a recycling culture (and with few local recycling facilities) it’s going to be a slow process.

Other behavioural challenges include persuading local farmers to use fewer chemicals, and persuading the owners of ATVs and dirt bikes not to use them on the fragile, protected dunes on the coastal side of the reserve.

One of the most graphic examples of where behavioural change could help is the "harvesting" of coconuts. Wherever there’s a coconut palm tree there will be coconuts, which will just rot if they fall on the ground, and there will usually be someone who wants to harvest them. They are definitely a renewable natural resource. So far so good. However what tends to happen with the vast majority on Barbados is the coconut is tapped for the coconut water, and then the rest of the nut, including the flesh/cream and copra, is just left to rot almost where it fell. There’s no attempt to extract and use what must potentially be a valuable food resource (surely at least for animal feed?) On top of that many of the illicit "harvesters" use spiked shoes to climb the trees, with a devastating effect on the tree bark. One can’t help but think that there has to be a better, longer-term approach.

As part of your visit you can plant a tree, which is a great opportunity to both make a practical contribution and offset the carbon emissions of your flight. I was given a Jamun tree to plant. These are fast-growing trees which produce both edible fruit and eventually useful water-resistant timber. As they can grow to over 10m tall one tree should comfortably offset the 2 tonnes or so of CO2 generated for a return Economy flight across the Atlantic, but it puts it in perspective that for true offsetting every passenger should plant such a tree on every trip, and that’s certainly not happening.

Even one tree helps the staff with their current project. Apparently the Jamun fruit make excellent wine, and the bee colony is now producing enough honey that they’ve started on making mead. That’s one Barbados tradition which doesn’t need to change, growing stuff and turning it into booze!

Walkers and Windy Hill from a Microlite (Show Details)

As with any post-industrial change there are both positive and negative impacts. Barbados will no longer be self-sufficient in sand for construction, and those who quarried and transported it will have to find alternative work, replaced by biologist/farmers, who also have to do a turn as tour guides and educators. It will be interesting to watch how things progress, but I hope that Walkers Reserve will succeed as a considered greening of an old industrial scar. It’s well worth a visit, and I hope its educational mission succeeds in building longer-term, more environmentally-focused thinking on Barbados and elsewhere.

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Meet the FrankenTripod

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Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 27-12-2021 10:30 | Resolution: 2774 x 3698 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/6s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 13.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

Is this the perfect travel tripod for the man who doesn’t actually like carrying a tripod? Legs from a 45 year old Slik 500g. New head from Manfrotto – lightest in the range. I did have to cut off the old head, and mount a new screw adapter which meant a bit of work for the tap and die set, but total weight is 675g and it fits neatly into the side pocket of the new bag!

OK, I wouldn’t use this with a Canon 5D and 600mm lens, but for my Panasonic G9 it’s about perfect. Now, about all that money I’ve donated to Messrs Gitzo and Manfrotto over the years since I bought the Slik…

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A Heretical Proposition

Ancient town of Matera (Sassi di Matera) at sunrise, Basilicata, southern Italy.
Caption: Ancient town of Matera (Sassi di Matera) at sunrise, Basilicata, southern Italy.

Here’s a heretical proposition: Quantum of B**locks is clearly the worst of all the “real” Bond films, but is No Time To Die the second worst? The release of a new Bond film is always accompanied by almost hagiographic sycophancy, but the reality is that No Time To Die is a very poor entry in the Bond franchise, if not an actively bad one.

It has to be said that the warning signs were apparent even before we got to the cinema: the over-long running time, the major changes in production team including the producers’ parting of ways with Danny Boyle, a long list of writing credits. These are common failings with horrors such as the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean 3, so didn’t bode well. However we arrived at the screen hoping for the best and wanting to be entertained. Unfortunately the film over-promised and under-delivered.

The problem isn’t the core plot of the film. This story could have been delivered with aplomb in a tight, flowing 2 hour package which kept up the Bond film standard. Instead it rambles with lengthy introspection more worthy of Jean de Florette. The action sequences when they come are fine, but several are also much longer than required and one, the fight through the villain’s lair takes so long it almost becomes boring.

The villain’s motivation is never really clear. If you’re going to launch a WMD which could kill off half the world’s population you really need to explain why. Call me old-fashioned but I like a bit of monologuing. Gert Frobe couldn’t speak English fluently, but his explanations in Goldfinger are exemplary. Rami Malek mutters darkly and you’re none the wiser.

The same story could have been told without killing off Blofeld, Leiter & Bond! These deaths, particularly Bond’s, set a horrible stamp of finality on the film which is hard to explain. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were “he fell in the canal and the body was never recovered”, but being respectively poisoned (in front of Bond), shot/drowned and blown up by a cruise missile are going to be hard to come back from…

What next? Does the next film start with Moneypenny waking from a horrible dream? Are they going to outsource the 00 section to some equal-opportunity collective? (That’s actually not the worst idea – in Edge of Darkness Harcourt and Pendleton get GLC funding via a black lesbian collective, maybe they could work that in.)

It’s almost as if the producers saw Avengers: Endgame and thought “we could do that”, but forgot that unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s a single somewhat key character in the Bond series. I know that this is Daniel Craig’s last Bond film, but the previous “last” films (those which were known as such at the time) are celebrations of the actor’s run, not a memorial service.

This is definitely a Bond film too far for Daniel Craig. He never looked truly comfortable in the role, but in this one he looks actively tired. I know this is supposed to be about his “feelings”, but he just looks worn out. Moore, Dalton and Brosnan all carried and acknowledged the grief of Tracy’s tragic death. Licence to Kill is largely driven by Bond’s desire for vengeance after Felix’s near death and his wife’s murder. Roger Moore was older than Craig when he did his last two films. But none of these resulted in a screen Bond who looked uncomfortable in his own skin.

The joke that during Bond’s retirement 007 has been allocated to a black woman falls flat. It ignores the fact that throughout Bond’s history (except, oddly, in the Daniel Craig era) there have been lots of strong female characters, many rival agents of comparable rank and ability to Bond. It doesn’t help that the new 007, Nomi is portrayed as solid and capable but almost deliberately unexciting. She’s underwritten and is not allowed to actually do very much – it’s left to the rather more stereotypical Paloma, a leggy high-kicking CIA agent in a skimpy dress to make a real impression.

As far as humour goes that’s about it. In common with the other Craig films this is dry as a bone. I prefer the world to be saved by someone with a quizzical raised eyebrow, nicely straightened tie, and an appropriate one liner for each despatched henchman.

Many of the other traditional markers of a true Bond file are also absent. The Bond team pretty much invented the signature stunt (think of the car jump in The Man with the Golden Gun, the ski/parachute jump in The Spy Who Loved Me, or taking a motorbike over a hovering helicopter in Tomorrow Never Dies), but aside from a couple of decent motorbike stunts there’s none of that here – it’s been abandoned to the Fast and Furious and Mission Impossible teams. (And remember, Tom Cruise is 6 years Daniel Craig’s senior, doesn’t look shagged out, and does most of his signature stunts himself.)

The body count is high, but mainly because too many people just get shot by machine gun, in long running battles. There’s no ingenuity to the resolution, just dogged determination to shoot the bad guys before they shoot you. If that’s the sort of film you’re making you don’t need Bond, James Bond, you need Casey Ryback.

With one exception the music is awful. The whiny alleged theme tune (as far as I can work out it fails the definitions of both “theme” and “tune”) drones on through a credit sequence which would never have met Maurice Binder’s approval. The incidental music is unremarkable, and unless I missed it the great Monty Norman theme is notable by its absence, maybe because there are few moments of real flair to justify it. This was another aspect of the film which suffered from a mid-production change of direction.

Did I like anything? I loved the Italian locations in Matera and Sapri, with the car and bike chase through the former probably, for me, the film’s high point. The scenes set in the Norwegian forest were good. The re-use of We Have All The Time In The World is inspired, but it does remind you that there’s a much better, 52 year old film about 007’s life and loves.

If this is really the final Bond film it’s a disappointing one. If not, then I have some suggestions for the next one…

It should start with Samantha Bond as Moneypenny waking from a bad dream, and pick up (with new cast) where Brosnan and co. left off. To cast Bond himself, find a 35-year-old actor who has already shown himself able to play a leading role with some flair and panache (Richard Madden? Kit Harington? Chris Hemsworth?) Make him debonair and suave, not a thug in a suit. Give him a sense of humour and write the lines and situations to exploit it. Balance this with a range of strong female roles of all ages, on both sides of the battle (remember, Die Another Day had Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike).

Re-create a healthy interest in stuff: clothes, cars, gadgets, locations, and shoot in a cheerful colour palette to match. If you can find someone who’s prepared to write and perform a proper Bond title song (e.g. Ivy Levan who did the one for Spy) great. If not suck it up and get the rights to Emma Bunton’s Free Me – a perfect Bond theme waiting ready for use.

And, this is most important, if someone suggests that the film should be about exploring Bond’s emotions: shoot them, with a machine gun.

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It’s Screen Time!

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Camera: SONY DSC-RX100M7 | Date: 28-07-2021 06:25 | Resolution: 4939 x 2469 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: -1 EV | Exp. Time: 1/30s | Aperture: 2.8 | Focal Length: 9.0mm (~24.0mm)

Is this what they mean by “too much screen time”?

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"This is Bloody Dangerous!"

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Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 21-07-2021 16:50 | Resolution: 5116 x 2878 | ISO: 200 | Exp. bias: -66/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/80s | Aperture: 6.3 | Focal Length: 17.0mm | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

More MacBook battery woes – this time it’s serious.

The title is a quote from arguably the greatest of Hollywood Musicals, Paint Your Wagon. The words are uttered by Mad Jack Duncan, a gold miner engaged in digging a shallow tunnel under the arena where a bear and bull fight is being staged. He’s right – that activity is “bloody dangerous”.

Using a 2015 MacBook shouldn’t be. But it bloody well is.

Mine has now suffered the third near-catastrophic battery failure in three years. As before there was no warning, no on-screen indication of any problem. At least on the previous occasions I was regularly travelling with it and noticed when the distortion of the body was great enough that it would no longer sit flat on a surface when I was typing. This time my wife was using it in a fixed position with an external keyboard, so we had no such indication. Yes, the fans were running a lot but they always do on that model and the weather’s hot. Yes it was getting a bit sluggish, but computers do from time to time.

Finally on Sunday it gave up the ghost and suffered a “blue screen of death” failure. I managed to nurse it back to operation but it failed again and there was clearly a major hardware problem. As soon as I lifted it off the desk the problem was apparent – the back was so distorted that it had parted from the chassis in a couple of places, and everything was red hot. If the batteries had gone one step further and leaked there would have been a fire, on a desk surrounded by papers. I shudder to think what the implications might have been.

The 2015 MacBook is one of the worst excesses of the Jonny Ives era, and “unmaintainable by design”. However I’m getting good at this, having had lots of practice, and once again followed the Andrew Johnston patent method for MacBook battery replacement. This time, the back was so distorted that two of the screws were completely jammed and had to be drilled out. After the second failure of an Apple OEM battery I’d purchased a Duracell-banded replacement hoping that would last better, but if anything the damage was worse this time, so it’s obviously a fundamental design flaw.

The new battery works OK, but the laptop still won’t boot. What appears to have happened is that the distortion due to the battery expansion was so bad it’s damaged one of the circuit boards. I’ll try taking the back off and making sure all the connectors are properly located, but as almost all the components are soldered I’m not hopeful.

This may be ending its life with me on eBay for “spares or repair”, which will also make it the worst value computer purchase of my career. Good riddance.

As portability is no longer a priority for this PC, and Frances fancies a larger screen, the replacement will be an Alienware R17. That has enough cooling it almost qualifies as an air-conditioner, so fingers crossed!

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No Middle Way

Scary SatNav
Resolution: 595 x 368

A study in UX atrocity – the Mercedes Benz COMAND SatNav

I drive a 2011 Mercedes. Like many of its brethren, most of the vehicle is a demonstration of engineering excellence: smooth, efficient, safe and smart (in both senses of the word). Its controls are clear, precise and beautifully weighted. The intelligent brake and start/stop systems are almost telepathic once you get used to them.

But there’s a fly in the ointment – the appalling COMAND SatNav system. It does have a comprehensive UK address database, and will get you close to where you want to go, but that’s about the best which can be said for it. The user experience is atrocious, to the point where one wonders if it was considered at all.

The problems start with the routing algorithms. If it can, the car will recommend a route using motorway-class roads to the maximum extent. That’s fine, but it will then pursue that strategy to ridiculous extremes. Get off the motorway a junction early, and the system will determinedly try to re-route you back on, even if there’s a direct main road from your current location to the destination, and rejoining the motorway would add many miles.

However that pales in comparison with what happens if you either select a non-motorway route, or despite its best efforts the car really cannot find one. Plan B is to impose strict optimisation for distance. This ignores quality and size of road, the number of junctions and all similar considerations. There may be a direct route on a fast dual carriageway main road, but if the Domesday book mentions a cart track which saves a few metres the car will try and take you down it instead.

On one occasion this led me off Dartmoor on a dark November evening down a road with a 100m stretch narrower than my garage, with high granite walls on both sides, both front-end proximity sensors sounding continuously. Recently we had to get from the A4 to the A36, both substantial main roads which link together on the edge of Bath. The SatNav found an alternative – using single track roads and an ancient toll bridge for which we had to hand over £1 in cash!

None of this would matter if there was some way to set your optimisation preferences. Well the COMAND system does, sort of. It actually provides four routing options:

  • Dynamic route. The default, described above
  • Fastest route. This is the motorways-only model on steroids. It will happily take you 20 miles out of your way to use one. Plus it doesn’t take any notice of traffic warnings!
  • Shortest route. I shudder to think what this involves, but levitation and off-roading are safe bets.
  • Eco route. There’s not much guidance on what this entails, but since the most economical route is either the most direct or the one on which you can maintain a good speed unimpeded, I suspect it’s going to be similar to the default.

There are also a few "Avoid" checkboxes which you can add to the calculation. "Avoid tolls" might be useful (but see below), most of the others don’t apply in the UK or near continent. I’m not even sure what a "vignette obligation" is – do I have to stop to take a photograph with dark corners at regular intervals?

The options really don’t help much. Instead of aggressive optimisation for distance why not road size/quality (which you can easily estimate in the UK from the letter in the road number) or the expected speed based on speed limits?

To add insult to injury COMAND does recognise some restrictions, but at random. When travelling from England to Wales it always asks about trying to avoid the Severn tolls, no longer in operation, which would mean a 50 mile detour off the very direct motorway route, but it didn’t ask in advance about the active toll in Bath. After yet another cart track, when we programmed in our route back to hotel it had the bloody cheek to ask "your destination is in an area with restricted access do you wish to continue?" The only challenge turned out to be the hotel gate which is a good 2.5m wide, a clearance of at least 30cm either side of my Mercedes, neither proximity detector triggered. My wife has started to anthropomorphise the system as actively mischievous.

Other UX issues are equally frustrating. You can only turn off voice guidance by a long press on the mute button while it’s actually speaking. Once off there is no way to turn it back on without cancelling and re-programming the destination. Surely it ought to be possible to provide a menu option to just turn the voice on and off?

At least the navigation function’s voice is a pleasant female with a clear British accent, who can correctly pronounce most English place names and will have a decent stab at Welsh ones. When speaking she gently fades the music and restores it afterwards.

She shares the box with the traffic warning "lady". I assume this second voice is also meant to be female, but it sounds like Stephen Hawking having a fight with a Dalek. She abruptly buts in, just silencing the music, and her attempts to pronounce UK place names are scary. Reigate (pronounced Rye-Gate) comes out as "Ree-a-gaa-ter", anything more complicated is unrecognisable. The best is probably the motorway between London and Southampton, the M3, which is renamed the "cubic meters"!

As a software architect I find it shocking that a closely related pair of systems, which do collaborate to adjust routes around traffic problems, ended up with two separate text to speech systems, a good one and an appalling one. How on earth did this mess get through the first stage of Mercedes QA? As a user all I can do is wince and try not to be distracted from the road trying to understand the encrypted names of traffic locations.

[That said, this is a schizophrenic car in other ways. It can be a saloon or a roadster. It can burble along with the best of luxury limos, but push the Sport button and it releases a snarling monster which has to be actively restrained. Perhaps the dual personalities of Saint Teresa of the Sat Nav and Mad Traffic Tracy are just a further expression. It would have been the ideal car for Dr. Edward Jekyll.]

Two things are apparent. The "designers" of this system (using the politest term possible) either didn’t think about usability, or didn’t care. They then either refused to get independent testing and review, or actively ignored its results. One can only hope the same has not happened with a more critical but less visible system.

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Cool Cab – Hold It Right There!

1110 7D 2999
Camera: Canon EOS 7D | Lens: EF-S15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM | Date: 17-11-2010 23:43 | Resolution: 5407 x 3041 | ISO: 1600 | Exp. bias: -1/3 EV | Exp. Time: 1/6s | Aperture: 10.0 | Focal Length: 15.0mm (~24.3mm) | Lens: Canon EF-S 15-85mm f3.5-5.6 IS USM

I continue to be blown away by what modern AI-powered processing tools can do with early digital photos. This photo was taken from the back of a very jittery 1950s Ford Consul, by someone unfamiliar with my camera, in fading light which meant a 1/6s exposure time but still a high ISO. The result was a decent memory shot of an entertaining ride in an ancient Cuban cab, but it was a bit shaky, to say the least.

Cool Cab – Shaken but not stirred! (Show Details)

Mainly for my amusement I decided to see what would happen using the latest tools. First I re-processed the original RAW file with Capture One, to adjust the aspect ratio, lift the shadows and fix the blown highlights. Then I fed it through Topaz Sharpen AI in Stabilise mode, to reduce the effects of camera, photographer and platform (1950s Ford Console) shake. This produced an image which was much sharper, but a bit noisy. Finally I passed that image through Topaz Denoise AI, with a relatively low noise reduction setting (just 15%) but moderate sharpening. That seemed to be the best compromise to retain the original textures but remove the noise.

The result is above. It’s not only removed the blurring of my face & glasses, but also sharpened the lines of the scenery passing and the rain on the windscreen. I think it keeps the feel of the original, but is a bit less apologetic. What do you think?

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Disasters and Dystopias: Where Are We Now?

Dystopian Films 2
Resolution: 749 x 711

There’s a darkly humorous meme doing the rounds:

Dystopian Films

It makes you chuckle, but it’s wrong. Firstly, I’m not sure even the most disheartened would actually claim to be living the events of The Matrix. Of course, there’s always the possibility that the machines have plugged us all into an artificial reality in order to harvest us as batteries, but [a] I’m not sure that’s the most efficient way of powering themselves and [b] don’t you think they would have chosen a more cheerful script to keep the batteries happy? However more importantly, there are some very real aspects of our current situation which have been foreseen on film, and they’re missing from the list. The list above are all great books or films, but they are a bit out of date. We need a new version.

So what version of the picture actually reflects where we are now? Which disaster and dystopian movies and TV shows have portrayed or predicted key elements of our current predicament?

Contagion. Tick, tick, tick. Zoonotic pandemic starts with bats interacting with food animals in China, and spreads quickly through international travel. Tick. R0 is about 3. Tick. Significant sectors of the world economy shut down. Tick.  Healthcare systems struggle to cope, but the professionals keep going till they drop. Tick. Part way through new variants arise which are even more transmissible. Tick! Well-known figures publicise quack “cures” and sow discord, but meanwhile hard-working scientists develop a real vaccine. Tick. OK, it’s a flu not a coronavirus, it’s more lethal, it affects all demographics roughly equally, and the US is portrayed as a willing participant in the WHO, but otherwise it’s scarily accurate. Also, by and large America hasn’t yet suffered societal breakdown as a result of Covid, but the article is yet young…

On a more positive note since this isn’t the Zombie apocalypse, and we haven’t (yet) taken to bombing infected towns, Outbreak and World War Z are off the list.

While we’re thinking about heath care provision, there is a great action/conspiracy film about health care inequality: Elysium. We haven’t quite got to the stage where the rich have to fly their Bugatti air-cars up to an orbiting hospital to get the care their money deserves, but many of the trends are recognisable. Tick.

We are of course living through, and causing, another albeit slow-moving disaster: climate change and the Anthropocene mass extinction. You’d think that this would be a rich seam for film-makers to mine, but so far that hasn’t really been the case, although there are a few candidates. Medicine Man brilliantly portrays the wanton destruction of the Amazon and its biodiversity, and the effective war on its indigenous people. There’s the added poignancy that we know John McTiernan and the producers wanted to film it where he’d shot Predator, 5 years earlier, but that patch of rainforest had already been cleared. Tick. The Day After Tomorrow captures the causes and the political inertia we’re seeing, but so far it looks like the outcome will be more like the hot, dry world of Mad Max. There were a couple of decent TV Movies in the early noughties about climate-change driven extreme storms (Category 6: Day of Destruction and the rather more bonkers Category 7: The End of the World), but where are the films about massive forest fires, habitat loss, desertification and rising sea levels?

One related theme which has been well served is the risks around toxic waste, and the extreme corruption related to it. In my DVD collection there’s Fire Down Below, Sahara and Transporter 3, and that’s just scratching the surface. Even in The Dukes of Hazzard Boss Hogg’s skulduggery is in aid of a plot to strip-mine the titular county! I’ll take Fire Down Below as representative of the genre.

Set aside such wanton callous indifference, and deliberate acts of villany or terrorism, many real and fictional disasters are caused by bosses ignoring warning signs in favour of political or commercial expediency. In the “true life disaster” genre we have real examples such as Chernobyl and Deepwater Horizon. These are all brilliant, but if we’re sticking to fictional portrayals of current or near future risks they are probably excluded. While we haven’t yet got to the point where people are being eaten by theme park dinosaurs, Jurassic Park has this as a major theme, as does Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The latter also includes a major pandemic and the consequences of our mistreatment of other sentient species, so it gets a tick.

Thinking about theme parks, we can probably ignore Westworld for now, but Skyfire gets an honourable mention as we have, sadly, seen tourists killed while visiting an active volcano which erupted at just the wrong time. However I’ve excluded such as The Wave and Supervolcano which portray natural disasters which “will happen, we just don’t know when”, based on known science, but are not high on our current worry list.

Turning to the human condition, which is really the focus of the diagram above, which films most accurately capture current threats and trends? The new series based on Brave New World doesn’t really, although the concept of tourism to view poor people does ring a little true. However the previous film version of the story, Demolition Man is spot-on to a number of aspects of modern society, and a remarkable piece of futurology (detailed review here). Tick.

Minority Report scores on a several points. The police are using a AI and data mining (albeit with a group of prescient individuals) to try to predict and prevent crimes. People are tracked, surveilled and recognised wherever they go and then subject to a barrage of tailored advertising. We don’t yet have ubiquitous holograms, but otherwise many of the interactions look familiar. Tick. Surrogates accurately captures what may happen to humankind if we forgo direct physical interaction in place of the virtual, even if we don’t yet have the physical avatars it portrays. Tick.

AI is becoming a threat in its own right. Hopefully we’re still some way off the worlds of Terminator and Robocop, but we are developing killing machines with increasing remote and autonomous capabilities. We also run the risk of our own data being used against us. Let’s include Terminator Genisys, which covers both themes, and Eye in the Sky which deals with the moral and legal issues. After that you may be ready for some light relief: my favourite depiction of rampant AI, in a world not very far from our own, is the hilarious X-Files episode Rm9sbG93ZXJz. The challenges of being an analogue player in a digital world are the central theme of Johnny English Strikes Again, or the alternative version, Skyfall.

I’m not aware of a mainstream film dealing with the “post truth” world in which objective reporting is subservient to self-selected news sources supporting the rise of conspiracies and the extreme right, but it was handled well in the penultimate series of Homeland. Homeland also deals with other major concerns, including Islamic terrorism and the uncomfortable global interactions around it, and what happens when the upper layers of government cannot be trusted. Tick, even if it stops short of a right-wing mob storming the Capitol in an attempted putsch. Perhaps there is still a place for 1984 or Farenheit 451 in our list.

Let’s talk about the end of Trump, shall we? Personally I’d love to see El Presidente being hit by a meteorite or devoured by a velociraptor, but we don’t always get what we want. However there is a film which portrays the last days of an unstable tyrant unable to accept defeat, and blaming everyone but himself. Downfall. Tick. The US version of House of Cards depicted a US president wilfully corrupting the electoral system to cling to power, but eventually having to give way. It’s not quite right, as President Underwood is much cleverer, a skilful operator rather than a populist narcissist, and actually wants to do some good with his power, but it’s close enough. Tick.

So here’s my assessment of how our current state relates to all these disasters and dystopias:


Disasters and Dystopias

Is there any good news? Well at least we haven’t included Armageddon,Independence Day or Supernova. We can control or prevent all the ills above, although whether we have the will to do so is debateable, and time’s running out on climate change and deforestation, to the point where things may already be destined to get much worse before they get better.

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Multi-shot Photography: Alive and Clicking

Kolor stitching | 4 pictures | Size: 13833 x 3717 | Lens: Standard | RMS: 3.39 | FOV: 78.11 x 21.53 ~ -3.11 | Projection: Panini | Color: LDR |
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 04-11-2020 07:28 | Resolution: 13833 x 3717 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/50s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 21.0mm | Location: Combestone Tor | State/Province: Holne, Devon, England | See map

When I first made the transition to digital photography, I got into several forms of multi-shot photography, techniques where you take two or more independent exposures and combine them to get a result not possible with a single frame. As cameras and processing have improved I have sometimes questioned whether these techniques are still required, but after a recent trip to Dartmoor I’ve come to the conclusion that they very much are, and they still suit my style of photography well.

All these images were taken in a single session at a single location: Combestone Tor.

Panoramas

Combestone Tor: panorama from 4 images (Show Details)

Let’s start with a non-controversial one. Sometimes a scene is wider than your lens, and the subject matter suits an image with an aspect ratio of 2:1 or more. The simple solution is to take multiple shots, rotating the camera between shots, and then join them together after processing. There are few workable alternatives for a high-quality image. You might get enough of the image into one frame with a really wide lens, but my widest lens is 14mm equivalent and I find that it is still not wide enough for a genuine panorama, plus it introduces a number of distortions which are not present in a good multi-shot panorama merging shots taken with a lens somewhere between 28mm and 50mm equivalent. You could use your phone in panorama mode, or a 360 degree camera like the Ricoh Theta, but that’s a compromise on quality. You could go the whole hog and get a dedicated panoramic camera like the Hasselblad XPan, but that’s an expensive film-based option, and means carrying a large piece of “single purpose” kit. None of this is necessary if you have a DSLR or mirrorless camera, or even a point and shoot as long as it has manual exposure control.

There’s a bit of technique required. Firstly you have to either select a scene with little/no movement, or you have to choose a shutter speed and shooting strategy so that moving objects are either blurred consistently (e.g. moving water) or excluded from the overlaps between images (e.g. people). You have to select a manual, fixed exposure and white balance which will work across the image, so check that it won’t be over-exposed at the brightest point, or too far underexposed at the darkest. The exposures need to be made in a controlled sequence (e.g. left to right), making sure that they have sufficient overlap, are level, and have some room to crop at the top and bottom beyond the desired subject matter. All of this is easy using an “advanced amateur” camera like the Panasonic G9 which has a level and shooting guides built into the EVF display, but benefits from practice. If the subject is all at least 3m away there’s no need to worry too much about “rotating around the optical centre” and you can just either twist your body (if working handheld) or rotate the camera on top of the tripod. (Both the panoramas in this article were taken handheld.)
If you do want to include much closer elements then you need to counter the effects of parallax (near objects moving relative to the background between frames). As always there are all sorts of complex, over-the top “perfect” solutions, but I’ve found a very simple yet reliable one: I have a plate about 6” long with a tripod screw hole at one end, and a slot with a 1/4” screw (the same size as a standard tripod fixing) at the other. I mount the camera with the tripod attached to the plate’s screw hole, and the camera attached to the other end of the plate so that the front lens element is positioned roughly over the centre of the tripod. Rotate the tripod head and the camera rotates around its optical centre. This approximate method is good enough to eliminate parallax issues in all but the most extreme cases.

There are a number of options for processing the images. I process the RAW files in Capture One, making sure I apply the same exposure and colour corrections to all frames, and also ensuring that the images are not cropped at all at this stage (Capture One’s Copy and Apply Adjustments functions work perfectly for this). I then drop the developed JPEG files into Autopano Giga to create the finished panoramas. Autopano does a pretty good job of automating most steps, but you have full control including a range of different projections for the panorama if needed.

 

HDR

Sunrise over Coomestone Tor (Show Details)

There seem to be four schools of thought regarding multi-shot HDR…

“You can get any shot using ND grad filters if you know how to use them properly”. This is complete rubbish. Now I have no desire to diss generations of hard-working landscape photographers who have done their best with the available tools, and there are many great photographs taken with ND grad filters which I truly admire. However the reality is that this is a painstaking, static method and unless there’s a pretty straight horizon between the areas of different lighting there are going to be major compromises. Look for mountains with the top much darker than the bottom, or trees and rocks arranged against others when breaking the horizon would be a much more dramatic composition.

“With modern cameras and processing there’s no longer any need for HDR”. This is partially true. With the increased dynamic range of modern sensors, and better highlight and shadow recovery, you may be able to get much of the same result from a single frame. The following is my attempt to re-create the image above but from a single original. There’s a trade-off: the single image version is likely to be sharper and look more “natural”, the HDR version may be more dramatic. There are also hard limits: no single image will capture a dark interior with a well-lit scene outside the window.

Sunrise over Combestone Tor. Single exposure version. (Show Details)

“If you can’t get an image using the first two methods it’s not worth taking.” Pure, unadulterated snobbery. There’s a closely related version “I like to get things in one shot rather than messing around on the computer”. By all means choose not to take such an image, but accept that doing so is a limitation of your technique, and may disbar you from getting a great image.

“HDR still has a role to play, but needs to be used carefully and appropriately”. Absolutely correct. With a modern camera and processing software it’s an easily-accessible tool which you can use when it’s useful to do so. If you have a way to set up your camera to take a high speed exposure bracketed sequence you have the best of both worlds – develop a single frame, or use several for HDR, or both, and make the choice at your leisure after the shoot.

Like any multi-shot technique you need to pay attention to any moving elements, and you also need to check the shutter speed on the slowest frames. I can usually take HDR brackets hand-held, but the slowest frame for the image above was 1s, and I did need my tripod!

There are numerous options for developing such images. My solution is to develop the RAW files in Capture One, applying any desired crop and with the option to further tweak the exposure per frame if required, and then combine the JPEGs in Photomatix Pro.

 

Focus Stacking

Detail in depth: focus blend from 6 exposures (Show Details)

Just as a single image may not be able to capture the breadth of a scene, it may not be able to capture it’s depth, at least not all in focus. To get a close-up object and those further away all sharply focused then you have to use a smaller aperture, but you may hit the limits of your equipment, or simple physics. The effects of diffraction become noticeable above about f/6.5 for a 20MP micro-four thirds camera, and above about f/8 for a 50MP full-frame camera.

At this point you can choose to ignore the softness of the more distant elements, you can increase the f-number further and accept some loss of overall sharpness, or you can use a larger aperture and throw the more distant elements deliberately out of focus. These are all valid artistic choices, but they are work-arounds, not resolutions.

However if you’re in an environment which supports multi-shot photography there’s a further option: take a set of images bracketed at different focal distances, and use focus stacking software to combine them.
The usual multi-shot constraints apply, especially in respect of any moving elements. Where panorama and HDR software tend to be able to deal with “ghosts” (items which only appear in one frame, or move between frames), focus stacking software is less able to do so. Unless you’re a very steady photographer getting a suitable set of images may demand the use of a tripod, although I now get fairly reliable results hand-held with the Panasonic G9’s high-speed focus bracket mode.

The gold standard for focus stacking software is probably Helicon Focus, which works well with Capture One or similar for the initial image development.

3D

If you have the ability to display 3D images, such as a 3D TV, then this is a very rewarding type of multi-shot photography. To my annoyance I didn’t take any 3D photos on Dartmoor, I just wasn’t in that zone for some reason, but I have written about how I create 3D images at length here.

If you work with a single camera the usual constraints apply to moving elements. You can take these constraints away if you have two cameras with the same sensor and lens – simply mount them side by side with identical settings and trigger both simultaneously – but the single-camera method is probably easier.

 

Image Stacking

This is a technique I use less often, but there are valid cases for it. The idea is simply to take a number of “near identical” frames over a period of time (tripod and some form of automated shutter release required for this one!), and combine them. There are two very different objectives:

  • Removing moving objects from the scene. For example you can take a number of frames each of which has other people in it in different places, but combine them so the net image has none.
  • Combining the elements which have changed between the images. The best known application of this form is star trails, like here.

How you take and combine the frames will depend on your objectives for the overall image, and I’m not an expert, but when I have used this technique I’ve found plenty of guidance and solutions online.

 

Setting Up Your Camera

You can use just about any digital camera with a reasonable level of manual control for any of these techniques. Just make sure the exposure is under your manual control, and either consistent across the frames (for panoramas, focus stacking, 3D and image stacking) or varied in a predictable way (for HDR). However more recent cameras in the “advanced amateur or professional” class tend to have a number of features which make things very much easier. The Panasonic G9 is a good example.

It’s very much easier if you can program good default settings for each technique as a custom mode on your camera. On the G9 everything except the frame rate and auto/manual focus can be set in a custom mode, and, intelligently, Panasonic enable high frame rate when you select a bracketed mode, even if the switch is on “single shot”. Here’s how I set up my custom modes:

  • HDR

    • Aperture f/6.3
    • Auto-exposure bracketing 5 steps ± 2EV
    • ISO 200
    • Auto white balance
    • Auto exposure bracket burst mode (This enables the bracketed set to be taken quickly with one shutter depression, even if the camera is nominally in single-shot mode)
    • Standard AF & metering
    • 3:2 aspect ratio
  • Panoramas

    • Manual exposure: f/8, 1/60s (This is a starting point, the first action is to adjust it to fit the brightest part of the scene)
    • ISO 400
    • Daylight white balance
    • Level On
    • Single shot
    • Standard AF & metering
    • 4:3 aspect ratio
  • Focus Blending

    • Aperture priority: f/6.3
    • Auto ISO and white balance
    • Focus bracket mode: 5 step, 5 images, sequence 0/+ (This moves the focus from the point you select for the first image to infinity in 5 steps)
    • Low speed burst mode
    • Standard metering
    • Natural Picture Style (This is so that in my workflow I can quickly identify focus bracket sets and move them to a separate directory)
    • 4:3 aspect ratio
  • 3D

    • Aperture priority: f/7.1
    • Auto ISO and white balance
    • Single shot
    • Standard AF & metering
    • Scenery Picture Style (Again just to identify 3D pairs in my workflow)
    • 16:9 aspect ratio

If your camera doesn’t really support custom modes, and instead has explicit switches for everything, then it’s worth making a note of the starting point for each multi-shot mode rather than having to make it up as you go along. It will be a bit more work, but perfectly feasible.

Conclusions

“If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” While developing your mastery of “getting the shot in camera” is important, single-shot techniques won’t get every image, and it’s important to have other options. Specialist equipment, or the steadily increasing capabilities of phone cameras may come to the rescue, but a number of simple multi-shot techniques will work for almost any camera, anywhere, and provide you the raw material to create great images which might otherwise escape.

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Last Light: A New Dawn?

201104 G9 1010714
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 04-11-2020 07:35 | Resolution: 5182 x 3239 | ISO: 640 | Exp. bias: -33/100 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 7.1 | Focal Length: 25.0mm | Location: Combestone Tor | State/Province: Holne, Devon, England | See map | Lens: LUMIX G VARIO 12-35/F2.8

We awoke on day 2 of the Dartmoor trip to a changed world at multiple levels: news from the US election of Trump’s likely demise, and much crisper, drier weather over Dartmoor. Lee decided to return to Combestone Tor for the pre-breakfast shoot, so we could see it literally in a different light, and it was scarcely credible as the same location. We had the sun rising clear in a pale orange sky, the valleys below the tor filled with frosty fields and wisps of fog, and glorious red light on the stones as the sunlight reached them. Almost too many things to point a camera at.

Combestone Tor (Show Details)

After breakfast we took a short drive, and slightly longer walk, to the Windy Post, an old cross next to a small weir which rewards a low viewpoint and long exposures.

Windy Post Granite Cross (Show Details)

After that it was back to the hotel, which was threatening to lock the doors and barrier the car park at 4pm, to form a long convoy for the next part of the journey, to Saddle Tor. At the top of the Tor we were delighted by having a beautiful Dartmoor pony pose for us in front of the stones, and lower down we got shots of the fascinating Holywell rocks. I ate my lunch behind the rocks, with almost no-one in view for miles around, yet all the car parks were absolutely packed, with a very large number of other people having the same idea of enjoying the last good day on Dartmoor before lockdown.

Saddle Tor, and a nice Dartmoor pony! (Show Details)

The day’s last location was Bowerman’s Nose, a great outcrop which really does resemble a head and shoulders bust. The drive out was really hairy, as by then dark had fallen and at one point I had to negotiate a stretch of road at least 100m long between stone banks closer together than the walls of my garage, which set both front sensors on the car tweeting continuously. Fortunately I got out without a scrape, and in another stroke of fortune Gurinder had discovered that the Travelodge on the M5 was still taking overnight bookings for the Wednesday night, so at least I could defer the long drive back home to a very pleasant Thursday morning. Mission accomplished.

Bowerman’s Nose (Show Details)
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Last Light Before Lockdown

Kolor stitching | 4 pictures | Size: 11442 x 4169 | Lens: Standard | RMS: 3.06 | FOV: 157.44 x 57.37 ~ 7.16 | Projection: Spherical | Color: LDR |
Camera: Panasonic DC-G9 | Date: 03-11-2020 16:07 | Resolution: 11442 x 4169 | ISO: 400 | Exp. bias: 0 EV | Exp. Time: 1/60s | Aperture: 8.0 | Focal Length: 12.0mm | Location: Brentor Church | State/Province: Brentor, Devon, England | See map

After the cancellation of my Patagonia trip in March at a few days notice, and our short trip to France at 12 hours notice in July I was really hoping I could make my final attempt of the year work. The plan was to travel down on Monday 2nd, have two days photographing Dartmoor in Autumn under the expert guidance of Lee Frost, and drive back on Thursday 5th. It was therefore somewhat inevitable that on the Saturday Boris announced a national lockdown starting at midnight on the Wednesday!

Lee decided to go ahead with the course, although it became apparent that the plan to stay over Wednesday night in our hotel and travel back on the Thursday morning wasn’t going to work. For a while it looked like I’d be doing a 200 mile drive after dark on Wednesday evening, starting in the middle of Dartmoor, although fortunately we eventually found a better solution.

After an uneventful drive down, and a pleasant dinner with the others on Monday night, Tuesday dawned wet and blustery. We did manage a pre-breakfast shoot at Combestone Tor, but it wasn’t terribly edifying. The main thing I established was that my old Russian hat will keep the rain out for some time, as will my 20 year old microfibre jacket, but my new hi-tech down coat won’t! Soaked through, the latter item didn’t serve any useful purpose for the rest of the trip…

The River Webburn at Buckland Bridge
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After breakfast things lightened up a bit and we headed to Buckland Bridge, where the River Webburn joins the Dart. Both rivers were swollen and dramatic, there’s a beautiful old granite bridge, and there was still a lot of autumn colour in the overhanging foliage. The combination of fast-running water and still foliage demanded long exposures to slow the water’s movement, but I’d had a relatively long walk in from my parking space and had (maybe foolishly) opted not to bring my tripod! However the amazing dual image stabilisation of the Panasonic G9 and its lenses came to the rescue, and I discovered that with an ND filter on the front I could slow the exposure down to as much as 0.4s, but still get a sharp image hand-held. You judge the results.

The River Webburn at Buckland Bridge
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Over lunch we trekked over the moor to Nun’s Cross Farm, an abandoned farmhouse literally in the middle of nowhere. I don’t really do “dark and gloomy”, and to my mind the boarded-up building falls between two stools, neither pretty nor really ruined. It was cold, wet and muddy. Nul points! We did see the local hunt, out themselves beating the lockdown and, one suspects, some of the rules about hunting with hounds. It does have to be said that I have never seen so many mounted huntsmen be so polite and friendly, so full marks for the charm offensive.

View from Buckland Bridge
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We ended the day at Brentor Church, a beautiful 14th Century church with a commanding view of much of the moor. This is a great location, and I found a lot to shoot, although we were again fighting the weather. However the frequent squalls delivered an amazing sight, a full-arc rainbow (with a partial second arc), but sunlight on the church itself. Shot of the day.

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