Direction: Hawthorn

Direction: Hawthorn

There has been too little time to appropriately maintain the blog lately. Lots of work, some routesetting, and other hobbies devour my time. I also often feel restless when I have some free space, it feels like I need to use these hours in some meaningful or productive way – whatever that means. When I have a free evening I mostly go outside to take some pictures. Last week I was on a small hill south of our home town for the sun set. After many days of rain, the sun finally showed again and all plants sprouted, especially the hawthorn.

After shooting panoramas and macros, I also tried some new techniques for abstract nature photography as such images always appeal to me when I see them online: Images where it is unclear what exactly is depicted, images that leave room for interpretation but follow patterns. The first 100 tries were uninteresting, but then I changed settings substantially and started playing with the lens zoom while shooting longer exposures:

After another 300 photos I felt somewhat satisfied with the results that also were quite unique from what I have seen. The hawthorn and my 10-24mm lens made a nice combination with the evening light, resulting in textured hawthorn spirals:

When I started the blog I had little idea in which direction it would evolve. So far, I like the loose combination of computer science topics and everyday life observations accentuated with my latest pictures. However, the writing often takes longer than taking pictures and my backlog of pictures is slowly building up. Thus, I am thinking about some new blog post format that mainly consists of pictures, but I didn’t come up with an appealing idea yet. If you have any, please let me know! Additionally, I would like to make some longer blog posts about specific interest of mine (if time allows), as well as integrate further hobbies into the catalog of potential topics. So, in general, the blog will probably become more diverse, as the hawthorn pictures in this post: Sometimes great vistas, sometimes specific details, and sometimes quick abstracts.

Cherry Blossom Slam

Cherry Blossom Slam

Our society likes labels. People like labels. Putting things into distinct boxes reduces the complexity of life. Putting people into categories simplifies the complex communication with and about them. We also choose labels for ourselves. It is neither necessary nor impossible; conversely, it is quite arbitrary. The labels we assign are always chosen with respect to our environment and with respect to our own position.

There is a concept in autonomous automation called simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM): An autonomous agent has to navigate in an unknown environment by using its sensors that observe the surroundings. Thus, it needs to localize itself with respect to the world and it needs to map the environment. The former step, localization, requires a map – only with a correct map it can use its sensor data to infer the current position. The latter step, mapping, requires the exact position of the agent in order to build an internal representation of the world with respect to the current sensor data. So which task should be performed first?

Generally, solutions to SLAM are careful: mapping the environment and inferring labels has to be done simultaneously and with caution. It also relies on large amounts of data. Typically, SLAM is solved via iterative updates of both, the own position, and the map with labels. In every iteration, the already gained information about the own position and environment can be used to improve the estimate of both. Early overconfidence is not advised and can result in disastrous accidents; when used in cars, and when used by people. Sometimes, the latter are not careful enough.

Colors of the Morning

Colors of the Morning

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.

Pastel colors illuminate receding mountain ranges separated by morning haze; 45 minutes before the rising sun.

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:

Two different settings of white balance on the same photograph; 20 minutes after sunrise.

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.

The color of light is getting warmer with the rising sun and illuminates the meadows below.

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 / Innovation

Replication / Innovation

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.

Completing the Last Step

Completing the Last Step

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

Time Flies

Time flies, day by day.

It speeds and leads
to paths unknown;
It has no needs,
proceeds alone.

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.

The Last Step

The Last Step

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.

On Information and Adventure

On Information and Adventure

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.

Wildlife Photography(?)

Wildlife Photography(?)

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.

Exploration / Exploitation

Exploration / Exploitation

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.