On several occasions I have been asked by family and friends: ‘Do you edit your photos?’ I understand where the question comes from and probably would have asked other photographers the same question myself before I bought a camera. But when you start taking pictures the answer becomes irrelevant, and also more philosophical. The question assumes that the truth can be captured; that there is a real representation of the environment. And this is simply not true. It is impossible to depict the world as it is and every representation is disconnected from the environment and just represents itself.
Thus, when people ask this question, what they often really mean is: ‘Do your photos look like it did in reality?’ And again, there is no right answer. Different people see different things in reality, pay attention to different details, some see green and red, others only see browns instead. Additionally, the effect of a scene is not only influenced by sight, but also many other senses that cannot be transported in a simple photo. So maybe the photo looks somewhat like the reality to me, but not to you.
An additional layer that is often forgotten: The picture is already hugely edited in camera. The photo receptors just capture some limited amount of light which is very different from reality. Besides this raw data, cameras often produce JPEG-images with already applied color profiles that interpret the raw data. This profiles can boost colors, contrast, or luminosities; or decrease them. Let’s take one of the easier settings that is present in all modern cameras: the white balance. The idea is to tune the information received from red, green, and blue light photo cells to display neutral colors (white, grays, or black) as such. The automatic white balance often fails during sunrises or sunsets because there are no neutral colors in the frame: everything is tinted with deep blues, shy purples, defiant magentas, or lush yellows. Take a look at the following two pictures. Both show the exact same frame only with different in-camera white balance settings:
So which one is more correct? Impossible to answer. It depends on what I want to show and what you want to see in the image. Because cameras are not as powerful as computers, it often makes much more sense to edit photographs in a specific software instead. Then, you can fine tune the picture without depending on the limited options that are present in the camera.
So, yes! I edit my photographs! Sometimes only in camera, sometimes heavily in software. It depends on what I want to show. Sometimes the edited photos look more accurate to my perceived reality than the unedited photos; sometimes I use editing deliberately to transfer a feeling or message and don’t care about a ‘realistic’ depiction. Sometimes the photo is perceived as unrealistic even though it’s straight out of camera. Sometimes a photo is perceived as realistic even though it’s heavily edited. Ultimately, photography is just one of many arts, I will create what appeals to me, and if it also appeals to someone else: even better.
All these photographs were taken on last Saturday. Again, my dad and I started at 4 a.m. in the morning to view the sunset. This time not in the Harz Mountains but from a smaller peak in Hessen close to Hoher Meißner. During the two hours on the peak we saw many different colors and I tried to represent all of them in the next pictures. Enjoy.
Replication is one of the basic building blocks of science. The replication crisis is still ongoing: many scientific studies regarded as milestones, especially in the social sciences, cannot be reproduced. Also in natural sciences it’s equally difficult to define experiment protocols in such a way that they can be successfully replicated. Replication is also one of the basic building blocks of learning: it can be seen in animals when they imitate their parents behaviour from a young age on. The same is true for humans, also later in life when picking up new skills: In every new hobby, we first have to replicate what someone has done before us.
I have had a few different hobbies in my life that I pursued thoroughly and in most of them I never got over the step of replication. Art seems to be somewhat different: Already the first picture I took is unique. But even though I am immediately creating something novel when taking any photograph, the techniques and contents of my shot are far from innovative. Instead they are also largely influenced by what I have seen from others, what inspired me, which techniques I got thought, and so on. The two lonely counter-examples for me, where I got beyond replicating, are probably 1) route setting for climbing (at least to some extent), which I see as an art, 2) and my work.
Only after I replicated for a long time, with different role models, from different styles, with different materials, I was able to slowly move on: from replication to innovation. I could find my own style by mixing what I learned. I could create a new method by expanding on learned skills. For work, this has required over ten years of education and, hence, over ten years of replication. But slowly I feel that I am not only replicating anymore. From time to time there is some innovation. And if I keep going, the same will apply to photography some day.
I finally did it! I started printing photos and I can’t stop anymore. And it is at least as much fun as I hoped for. But getting there was also quite stressful, so what happened?
As written in my last post, I bought a used photo printer on the internet as well as a full set of ink. In this case it’s the Canon Pixma Pro-1 that is running on 12 pigment ink tanks costing approximately 25€ per tank. When it arrived I enthusiastically started to test it out – and sadly had to realize that one of the print nozzles was clogged. No matter what I tried I couldn’t resolve the issue. Thus, I did not only buy an unusable printer, but also wasted a lot of ink during my iterations of cleaning the print head and trying to print. While I could get back the money for the printer, I still lost a lot of the ink. And more importantly: I couldn’t print even though I was eager to do so.
After two weeks of weighing my options I finally bought a second printer, also used, but this time in person. I had to travel two hours one way to get it; however, the hassle was worth it and this time everything went well: Not only does the printer work flawlessly (at least for now), but furthermore the seller gave me lots of high quality paper for free. And this paper is at least as expensive as the ink: Only later I realized that a single A3+ sheet goes for over 5€.
That’s it. My small adventure of buying a printer. What follows is my still ongoing adventure of figuring out how to use it properly. I still have very little knowledge of what I am doing; but the printer and paper already produce results I am really proud of. I tried to capture it on camera, but unsuccessfully. It’s very different to hold a print in your hand than to see a picture of it: The stunning overall visuals, all the little details when you examine the print closely, the texture of the paper, the smell of paper and ink, the weight of the print: I love it. And thus, I have chosen three of my first prints I will give some short additional information on:
The first picture is one of my all-time favorites: Two goose in the morning fog at our local lake which is only a few minutes by bike. It’s printed on a matte and thick paper, the Hahnemühle Photo Rag, 308 gsm. Texture and details in the print are marvelous.
The second one is an abstract black and white photo of grass and frost I took in the Harz mountains when I went out to photograph the sunrise. It was one of my first dedicated photo trips and until today I never had such good conditions again. I think I still took several of my best photos so far on that morning. It’s printed on the Hahnemühle FineArt Pearl, 285 gsm, which is a semi gloss paper that works beautifully with contrasty black and white photos.
The last one is a picture from our early morning adventure I already talked about here. Clouds blend with rows of trees while the sun hasn’t quite conquered the horizon. Again, there is so much to discover on this photo when you hold it in your hand printed out. So many details I have missed before when just looking at the digital version. It’s printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Baryta, 315 gsm.
I have compiled an additional small collection of some detailed shots of further prints. For now, I have only printed A4 and A6 with one exception: I created one A3+ print of a photo from Mädchen Klitzeklein; it’s the one hanging already on the wall. For now, I only have to sell the broken printer again…
Time flies, day by day.
It speeds and leads
to paths unknown;
It has no needs,
In between, a lovely scene:
Fine cuisine, regards with love,
Outside wind blowing, doves above.
But it keeps going, the machine.
And one might ask:
"Why so? Which way?"
I know my task,
and thoughts don't stay.
Time flies, day by day.
Preface: This post will be a difficult one and is mainly meant for myself. I you keep on reading, be prepared for a challenging and heavy topic; and also read the addendum.
I think people think drowning isn’t nice. And I agree: it’s not; at least in the beginning.
(Nearly) Every year, for 10 years, a group of friends and I have been on vacation to the same coast section of the North Sea in Denmark. And every year, we enjoyed swimming in the troubled sea, with high waves breaking onto the shore. Why? Because it is a lot of fun: getting lifted by the waves, struggling to keep your balance, hearing the roaring sounds of wind and water. We also thought we know about the dangers and can judge them. But actually, we, or at least I, could not.
And in 2018, I had to experience it myself: As always, we went for a swim during a stormy day, with high waves continuously crashing around us, sometimes far out on the ocean, sometimes only at the last moment when rolling onto the rocky beach. As always, we were staying really close to the land: I was able to feel the ground between most of the waves. And as always, we were watching out for each other; quite a large group this time, some in the ocean, some on land, all of us with the sharp wind in our faces and salt on our lips.
But this time is also different: The waves are irregular and hard to predict, water and wind are cold and unrelenting, and I think I am in control — although I am not. After several minutes of childlike pleasure of dancing in the waves, I slowly realize that I am feeling rather cold. It’s not an abnormal feeling for me: I am rather skinny and my body always cools down quickly in the water. I decide that it’s time to get out and I start to paddle towards the land. It seems only a few metres away and the warmth of the towel already feels in reach. I take some steps and some strokes, always between two breaching waves. Ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps; ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps.
30 seconds later it feels like I should have reached the coast; but I realize I have not gained a single inch. The feeling of cold has already turned into an intense feeling of freezing; my limbs feel numb, my teeth start to chatter. I take stronger strokes, but only get more exhausted. And the waves don’t care. Ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps; ride the next wave, two strokes, two steps. And then: I don’t ride the next wave, it rides me. After I am back on the surface, I try to pull myself together and look around: I did not notice before that we have drifted off from the people on the coast who are already further away than I thought. But next to me is a good friend, still dancing in the waves and enjoying the elements. But it doesn’t feel right to call for help: The coast seems still close, I am a physically fit guy, not a great swimmer, but I have been in this ocean many times before. I can also still sometimes feel the ground below my feet, between the never stopping waves rolling in. And: What should I even tell him? How should he help me?
Another 30 seconds later, I feel as uncomfortable as I have never felt in life before. I still have not made any progress; the harder I try, the less progress happens. I feel a glimpse of fear creeping into my heart and it’s enough that I try to reach out to him, just a few metres away in the water. I tell him I am feeling uncomfortable and that I do feel like I am not able to reach the coast. But the wind carries away every single word from my lips into the far distance. I try it a second time. I try it a third time. And now, the fear isn’t creeping anymore, I am not dancing in the waves anymore. I am an immobile object that gets thrown around in the ocean as easily as a little pebble of sand in the wind. In only one minute I have lost any bit of control I thought I had. And suddenly, there is no weighing up of my manliness against some unknown fear of showing weakness, there is no more time to loose. Suddenly, I realize how serious it is: I need help. And I need it now. I scream, and finally I get noticed. It still takes a few more screams before the seriousness of my situation is clear to him. The next wave crashes above me and my body is slammed into masses of water. There is no sense of up and down, there is only water everywhere. I loose all sense of orientation. I still have air left, but the attempt to find back to the top depletes most of it. Suddenly, I am above the water again, take a deep breath in a hopeless try to fill my lungs again. But the next wave already slams into my body. And it repeats: wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave after wave, second after second, every breath shorter than the one before.
I feel that my body slowly disconnects from my thoughts. I cannot feel my limbs let alone control them in any serious attempt. At some point in time, the air gets too scarce. And these few seconds, which feel like eternities, are also the ones where I experience panic and fear as I never done have before. It occupies the mind, every bit of it, fills your bones and muscles, and drowns you a second time, emotionally. There is no deciding any more. The body does what it needs to do: Fights the waves, fights the cold, fights towards land. And the mind does what it needs to do: It does not accept the unthinkable but also doesn’t see a solution. There is only fear. And, like the cold, it paralyzes my body a second time. And the waves keep coming, endlessly rolling above me. And my lungs keep filling, but not with air anymore, but with salty water instead. And slowly everything around fades away. I cannot see anymore, I cannot hear anymore, I am trapped within my brain unable to do anything about my fate.
And then it changes. I do not feel the raging ocean or the sharp winds, I do not feel the freezing cold or the rocks on the bottom of the ocean in my face. More importantly, the fear goes away and the panic is silenced. It’s gone. Completely. No more thoughts about what I might miss out on in live. No more thoughts about the persons I am leaving behind. Family. Friends. Hobbies. Work. It’s meaningless. The feeling that replaces these thoughts is much much stronger, it is more powerful. It is Happiness. It is tranquility. Absolutely impossible to put into words, but there it is: absolute salvation. Life can be strenuous, life can be exhausting, life can be difficult, and life can be disappointing. This right here is the opposite. No more distress, no more struggles, no more obligations, no more fear; no more life. If this is what the ending feels like, I am not afraid anymore. I am ready. I am free.
By now, my friend in the water has reached me and tries to push my body towards the shore line. Also, the people on land have noticed. And as you might guess, I got rescued by my friends early enough, but from my point of view it was as close as it could be. What I remember from the last minutes is not much and it’s mostly about my internal feelings. My body cooled down so quickly that I was not able to comprehend most of my surroundings any more. When I got pulled ashore I could not breath, nor see, only barely stand, or talk.
I had to learn that being back on land does not mean that it’s over either. First, it took several hours until my body could navigate this foreign world again. Then, it took some weeks to get my thoughts back in order. The following months after the incident, there were several occasions where I woke up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. For a few seconds I would not realize where I am or what was going on, but only experience the unrestrained panic I experienced in the cold water. And then, it took years to comprehend what this experience means for me, and this process is still ongoing. The year after, not a single one of us went swimming.
When I am writing about it, as I do here for the first time publicly, my hands still shake and my breathing is fast. I have been swimming two times since: The first time in an indoor pool where I could not finish 25 metres without the edge right next to me. As soon as I felt exhaustion in my muscles, I got panic attacks. The second time was in a lake close by and it was already far better. But I still hesitate when to go for the next try.
For me, the scary thing is not that I nearly drowned. I already nearly drowned once before as a little child but cannot remember much. Later in life, I got almost run over on my bike by a really fast car. And I have probably had other close incidents that I am not even aware of, as probably all of us have. For me the scary thing is to remember the feeling of the real happiness I could experience in these last brief moments. It was the most pure feeling I have ever experienced. And I struggle to comprehend it; even more to communicate it properly. I think it’s simply impossible to even remotely describe it, how it was, or what it was; and there is nothing I have found so far that resembles it. Remembering this can make life feel dull from time to time. But the more time passes the harder I can grasp how it felt.
So why am I still here? Because why not. I can be rather certain that there will come the day where I will get to experience that same feeling again; this inexpressible emotion, this other-worldly perfection and completeness I am craving for sometimes. But I learned that there is no hurry. And every moment I have on this world is one moment more that I can cherish for what it is. And thus, every moment here can also feel special no matter how difficult it might be. And it also reminds me: It doesn’t really matter what I am doing here; I have to create purpose myself. Only then I can find some sense.
I think drowning is nice. But it’s not; at least in the beginning.
Addendum: I struggled a lot with these experiences. Not only in the beginning, but also later on. Back then, I also searched intensively for reports from other people on the internet because I wanted to know how they felt, and how they dealt with an equal experience. But such reports seemed to be quite rare; this is also why I decided to share my own report here, even though it is difficult. By now I am fine; but I also got (some) professional help and advise anyone who is unsure, to seek out for help as well. I also have only talked rarely, or not at all, about this with friends and family. Because when speaking it’s even harder to find the right words. So to everybody who is reading this and has not heard about it before: I want to apologize that I can only pass on my thoughts in this form for now instead of telling you personally. And if you wondered: all photos are from the exact same stretch of coast, but from other years.
Have you ever cooked an elaborate and complicated meal? First, you research a recipe. Then, you go out shopping for all the right ingredients, sometimes even to a few different shops. Lastly, you carefully prepare the ingredients and cook them in just the right way to create a wonderful meal. And then, imagine, you just throw it away, without smelling or tasting it, and start with the next one.
Have you ever started a laborious project for work? You research the topic thoroughly and speak to all your colleagues about the tasks ahead. You then sit down for several weeks and work on the project day in day out. You neglect family, friends, and health because it motivates and captivates you. And then there is the day where you are finished: You can harvest the results from your hard work and you see that it payed off. And then, imagine, without showing your results to anybody, you just close the folder on your smart machine, lock it away, and start with the next project.
There is always a last step you should take. And to me it feels like I have been missing out on the last step of photography until now: I spent many hours into researching gear before I bought my first camera. Since then, I have invested many, many more hours into researching how to use it properly, how to get the settings right, which lens to buy next, how to edit photos, and so on. I spent hundreds of hours outside, walking through sun and rain, with frozen feet and hands in fog and snow, with sweat and exerted muscles in the sun. I have spent hours editing photos and shared them somewhere on social media for some people to see. And then? I have closed the photo file on my laptop, maybe looked at it one or two more times on my tiny smartphone screen, and went out to shoot new pictures. But I have never done the last, and maybe most wonderful step: Using the digital information for which I have spent countless hours to get, all the single bits of 0 and 1, and capture them into physical form: a photo print to touch, feel, smell, and look at.
I have printed two of my photos on fine art paper at an online shop some months ago. While the result is nice, it was also rather expensive, but more important than that: I want to learn this last step myself. And I want to be able to fine tune the results exactly as I want them to, and I want to experience the process of printing. So I bought a printer (quite expensive), some ink (even more expensive), and some paper to test on and I will attempt to print myself in the coming weeks. I do not have anything to show yet, but hopefully soon. Until then, here are some spring photos, mostly from the botanical garden of our town, including pasque flowers, the common black bird which always visits us in the evenings, a great tit, and a humble fly.
Information and entropy are closely related: Infrequent events carry more information than frequent ones; or, in other words, the lower the occurrence probability of an event the higher its information content. The total information of all possible events is the sum over their individual information content weighted by their occurrence probability. Conversely, with more information, events can be predicted better. And low information means a high entropy, thus low predictability. This is commonly referred to as the Shannon entropy and does not only apply in computer science.
We took one week off before the Easter holidays, but it’s difficult to plan vacations in these uncertain times. For two days and one night we took our T4 and went out into the unknown towards the Southern Harz Mountains. With little information what to expect, what to do, or where to sleep. For me, the less information, the more it feels like adventure. If you want to read in detail what we did, check out the latest blog post from Mädchen Klitzeklein. I will just show some of the photos I shot.
Our sleeping location was on top of a small hill and there was a wonderful evening mood and night sky. The views were calming and the colors powerful. The sun set slowly behind a group of trees and left behind unusually warm air for this time of the year. After another hour, the full moon rose over the next town.
The morning started early at 6 p.m. with some shots of the distant wind turbines. I also couldn’t resist to try some macro captures with the morning dew. The sun reflected beautifully on all the water droplets in the background.
Most of all, I am proud of the following macro shots of toads, ants, and oil beetles. Oil beetles are rather rare in our region, but on one of our hikes we saw multiple ones on a single path. On another hike, we stumbled over a lonely toad on the way. Very excitedly I took some shots before it leaped into the deeper grass towards the water reservoir. When we hiked further, more and more toads were crossing our path, which culminated in a section where it was even becoming difficult to avoid stepping onto them. I made well over 100 photos, but these three are the ones I like the most. The capture of the ant on the tree trunk is also Mädchen Klitzeklein’s merit who evoked the ants’ interest.
I bought an expensive lens last December for photographing birds and wildlife. In the beginning there was a steep learning curve and, for now, I have been using it mostly for birds. I am satisfied with only a few shots so far, but it’s always a lot of fun to use; and it also motivated me to extend my ornithological knowledge. But from the beginning I was also very keen to shoot wildlife: red deer, fallow deer, foxes, rabbits, badgers. But I rarely found the time to either gain the knowledge and to research how to do it properly or to go outside and try it out. But by now, I think I have made enough research on how to approach the challenge that I feel at least confident to give it a few tries outside: Always care for the wind, camouflage appropriately, research the animal you are aiming for, and most importantly, be ready to invest a lot of time and be patient.
On Thursday and Friday I made my first two attempts. Due to work, I started at the unusual time of 2 p.m. My location research seemed to be quite good though: On both days I encountered several deer, multiple rabbits, and a fox. However, all of the shots are totally unusable because I never could get close enough or a nice angle. Mostly, because I did not dare to get closer to the animals; but also two times because I scared some of the deer away when they noticed (I guess) my smell because of turning winds; and multiple times because they got scared by other people walking the paths in the narrow woods.
So, for now, I can only offer the first flowers blooming in the forest and simplistic landscape shots from these two days. But I am hoping that I soon find the time to go for more attempts in the early mornings and some first proper shots. I am also planning to check out other areas and to try a stationary hide instead of stalking.
Reinforcement Learning is one of three main approaches for machine learning and can be described as follows: An autonomous agent observes the environment and performs actions to reach a pre-defined goal. A reward function gives feedback to the agent according to how close it was to reach the desired goal; otherwise, the agent has no information on which actions lead to the largest reward. The agent tries to maximize its gained reward in each learning iteration. And in every learning iteration the agent is caught in the exploration / exploitation dilemma: It could either exploit the already gained knowledge of the environment to safely receive the highest reward that it currently knows. But then it may miss other, still unknown options with potential higher reward. Or it could explore the still unknown environment to search for even greater reward. However, it may potentially walk off with even less than when taking the save option.
Solving the dilemma efficiently is difficult, but one intuitive way is as follows: In the beginning, most of the environment, and thus potential reward, is unknown, so the agent has to start by exploring a lot. With time, the agent knows more and more of the environment and can start to utilize its knowledge from time to time. After many iterations, it can then maximize the reward with the known options and only infrequently explore new ones.
The same applies in photography: I could either exploit a known place with known reward, or I could explore an unknown location. If I only choose the first option, I will never find all the beautiful spots out there. And if I always choose the latter, I will miss many good opportunities at good locations while checking out some new places.
Last weekend we decided for the latter: My father and I entered the parking lot at 5 a.m. to, again, get on top of Achtermannshöhe in the Harz Mountains before sunrise (check out Clear Skies and Minus 14 Degrees). From the weather forecast it was unclear if we will be engulfed in clouds or if the clear sky would stretch out above us. Luckily, it was mostly the latter, with some distant orange strips of haze and clouds illuminated by the rising sun. We persevered for 90 minutes in the freezing cold with numb hands and feet, but a breathtaking view made it worth it. In the North, the silhouette of the Brocken towers; in the East, black trees in contrast to orange and purple plains stretching behind; rolling hills dipped into pastel colors in the South; and in the West, the Upper Harz in blue and purple with alternating rows of dead and healthy trees.
After the hike back down we entered the parking lot for a second time, but this time with good memories and full SD cards. For the next adventure, I think I will choose exploration instead.
The composition of a photo can be balanced when the objects are equally positioned in the frame; the colors can be balanced by choosing a consistent or diverging color palette; the brightness can be balanced when the luminosities are equally distributed. Photos that are in balance can look more pleasing or calm and can help to guide the viewer through the frame. However, imbalance of specific aspects can also be used deliberately: to concentrate focus on specific areas, to evoke feelings of discomfort, or to cause tension.
In mathematics, when a target function is non-convex there are multiple local optima and finding the global optimum is difficult. Imagine the landscape around you: If you always ascend in the steepest direction you will likely end up on a hill, but not the highest one. And then it’s hard to leave, because at first, all surrounding areas will be lower. To reach the global optimum, you need to adapt your strategy and find balance: Where should you start your search? How large should be the steps you are taking? Is the steepest direction always the best one? And might it be worth to leave the current local optimum to find a better one?
Balance is important in life: Most of all, balance between work and spare time, but also between friends and family, between body and mind, balanced sleep, balanced food, and so much more. When I am working long hours, I am craving for some free time; when I have longer stretches of free time, I get restless or feel useless. As in photography, the difficult part is to choose what should be in balance right now and in which aspects some imbalance might be fine: How to choose the right colors? How to tune the brightness? How to position all objects of interest in one single frame? And as in mathematics, the path of finding the right balance is uncertain as well: When to leave a local optimum? When to take larger steps? How to find the global optimum? In life even more so, because the landscape is not static with the highest peak fixed at a certain position – instead the landscape changes with time and a high peek once found may become a valley over time.
When I have been outside in the recent weeks to find some balance, I have been mainly shooting early spring flowers. But we also visited lambs in the neighborhood and goose are roaming the fields where we often go for an evening walk.