Friday, November 18, 2016

Soulful Journey: C'Est La Mort

Why do we die?

This question may be one of the most over-asked, cliché, unanswerable and even ridiculous questions posed.  But I am serious.  I don’t mean something religious or something noble.  Obviously people die for causes—in defense of liberty, family, or sacrifice for the life of another.

I’ve traveled across my own country, visiting many cemeteries and memorials.  

I wandered the U.S. Nation’s premiere places of rest for the valiant and brave.

I sat and pondered where soldier and politician are lain to peace.

I roamed some of the oldest burial places in the nation.

Full Spectrum and Infrared photos of these places add elements of eerie surrealism and mystic beauty.  

We spend enormous resources to inter the body of loved ones, whether they were cherished, decrepit, or barely tolerated in life.

Everyone dies, and yet everything in life belies the original question:  Why must we die? 

In part my question is philosophical but ultimately it is biological.  I understand that death is inevitable, and I know that religions and belief systems have constructed scaffolding around our crumbling biology to give death meaning.  I do not want to assess those myths or beliefs. 

We pay a lot of homage to something with so little explanation.  It yields the ultimate power over everyone--wealthy, healthy and happy as well as poor, sore and morose.  But why does nature force us to die?

The photo above won an international award almost a decade ago.  The model of both photographs (taken at Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado), the photogenic and youthful Reina, tragically passed away only months after it was taken.  When her family reached out to me to get copies of her portfolio, I was shocked about her death. 

I studied biophysics in graduate school, and a good portion of my time was spent in research at the Institute of Gerontology at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where we debated the actual bio-molecular reasons for aging and death.  Why is youth turned into decay at the sub-cellular level?

Science has a few answers about aging:  growing evidence suggest a major yin-yang component to aging are molecules called telomeres.  Telomeres are DNA–protein structures found at both ends of each chromosome.  Like shoes on our feet, they protect our genome from getting stubbed and damaged by various processes. They string like beads at the chromosome terminals, and each time a cell divides, there is a probability of losing some of those telomeres.  The length shortens as we age.  Once they are used up, science shows that it brings on dramatic effects of aging because without these telomeres, the chromosome is highly prone to damage.

But why didn't nature evolve a way for us to replenish the telomeres and stave off the effects of aging?  In fact it did--the enzyme telomerase rebuilds and rebinds telomeres back to chromosomes.  However, the yang to the telomere aging yin is that uncontrolled telomerase replenishing is implicate in cancer.  In other words, too much of a good thing can cause a bad thing.

I have confidence that science will eventually solve the yin-yang of aging-cancer, and it may bring about a kind of immortality.  But is that a good thing?  Evolution has produced a few species which don't age.

The bristlecone pine tree in California named  "Methuselah" is 4,848 years young. Scientists have studied the pollen and seeds from bristlecone pine trees about as old as Methuselah, as well as very young bristlecones and found literally no mutations or degradation between new and old seeds.  In a bio-molecular sense, these pines don't age.

A year ago, traveling through Utah's national parks, I came across one of the most photographed bristlecones, whose immortality seemed to embolden it as it dared to grow precariously, as if tip-toed up to the cliff's edge of sunrise point at Bryce Canyon.  I would say that it has more chance of a tourist destroying it than it does falling from its perch.

Perhaps death hangs over everyone for good reason.  Most of us who have brushed shoulders with death (I did in a 2011 bicycling accident) understand that without the fear of death, life may grow dull and uninteresting.  Evolution uses mutation to alter each generation, to compete with other evolved species that are mutating, and selects the most fit of each species to continue evolving until over epochs of time, we have great diversity of life and creatures, all still vying for the same limited resources.  Some speculate that evolution selects species who live long enough to reproduce and yet die not long after they're no longer fertile, in order to leave resources for their offspring.  Without death, there would never be enough resources remaining for the next generations.  Imagine the environmental collapse if there were no death, and only birth.

Perhaps it is good to recognize death's utility and be thankful for the life we have, ready ourselves to depart and let the youth have their turn at experiencing the splendor the world offers.  Sunset dawns on each life. Make yours spectacular!

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Technique: Surreal Color Photography

Would you love getting even better, richer and more vibrant colors from your NIR photos?  Read on...

This blog is a bit longer, due to technical complexity. Hopefully it will explain clearly a technique useful for NIR photographers.

Long ago (from about 2004-2010) I had a website called which described filters and techniques for obtaining more diverse colors from NIR photography, when using a full spectrum or red-filter converted camera.  I will offer techniques like those and more in this blog, starting with how to use an R66 or Red 25 type filter for getting vibrant colors.  The plot below is a common way of describing the response of filters, of scene reflectance (i.e, from a leaf) and even the sensing response of a modified camera. The vertical axis shows the relative response level, in this case, the transmission of light through the filter, from 0 to 100% (1.0).  The horizontal axis shows the wavelength or color. Most people are not familiar with wavelength numbers. The human eye can see blue (400nm), to green (500nm) to red (600nm), and begins to fade at longer wavelengths beyond 700nm. The plot below shows the response of the R66 filters in the red to near infrared  (660-1000nm), and the Red 25 filters from about 600-1000nm.

As I discussed in the "Reflecting on Plants" blog, most plant life exhibits very high reflectance in the deeper band (720-1000nm) and a very low reflectance in the more visible end (660-720nm).  On the other hand, water, sky and many other scene elements have a flatter response across the red-NIR range.  (See plot below).

While understanding the reflectance of scene elements and the camera’s optical response to them is important, to take advantage of the color of infrared, it is important to understand how the camera calculates white balance and what it does to the coloring of converted camera using a red/NIR filter.  When a camera records light that one cannot see with the unaided eye, it is electronically translating that light through the three color channels—red, green & blue—into colors on displays that we do see.  How it translates, through color balancing, is important, much like translating from one language to another.  A normal (unmodified) camera sees red, green and blue about the same way as the naked human eye.  An infrared modified camera has responses in the red, green and blue to the near infrared and translates the near infrared colors to your monitor red/gree/blue display.  Here is a plot of the near infrared camera color response (sensitivity).

The important take-away is that the red sensitivity to the infrared range is broader than the green/blue NIR sensitivity (which is almost at the same wavelengths as plant reflectivity), such that there can be color in the NIR between the channels, if care is taken when shooting a photo.  Much of this is done through custom White Balance.

Custom White Balance and Historgrams

Some of us use the live histogram of our camera to get proper exposure.  It is also very useful to understand the histogram in order to optimize and produce great infrared color images.  Color is quite dependent on the white balance used.  The camera generally computes a custom white balance (WB) by looking at the histograms of red, green & blue channel.  A histogram is a tally of how many pixels are at each dark or bright level, as shown for the histogram of an unprocessed image shown below.  Most of the scene pixels are in the medium gray area, which almost none in the darkest levels or few at the brightest.
To compute a WB the camera processor finds the max, min and median values from the entire scene in each channel and computes a color correction (rotation matrix) that will put the histogram of each channel so that the max data values are placed at the highest display value, and the lowest data values are placed at the lowest display values, with the mid point re-calculated based on a variety of statistics.  This is shown in the histogram plots below from the same WB process in Photoshop.  The before (left plot) shows that there are few if any pixels at the very darkest levels and very few in the brightest, with a sharp peak near the middle.  After the WB (and contrast stretch) transformation (right plot), the histogram places many pixels at the darkest value and many at the brightest value, with a smoother mid level shape (with slightly altered mid point as well).

How you perform a custom WB in camera will make for different effects and improve the potential post process results.  For example, the following scene--while not the most aesthetically pleasing but illustrative--was taken by custom white balancing off of a frame of just plants with exposure compensation of +1 stop.   The plant life in the scene has very little color, while the pond water has a significant reddish tone.

The white balance can be taken off of the pond (or sky) to give a different effect, in which the plant life will have significant color relative to the pond water, as shown below (WB can be set in software when using a RAW file).
We can examine the histograms of each red, green and blue channel to understand a little more about the scene.  Below are shown the Red, Green and Blue channel images with corresponding histograms.
The pond water is brightest in the red channel and darker in the green and blue channels (with pond pixels shown in the red circles of the blue/green histograms). The plant life is about equally bright in all three.  This is a demonstration that the three channels have about the same light transmission in the near infrared range where plant life is most reflective. 

So if they are equal, then why does plant life generally appear blue-green instead of white?  The relative differences in the histograms, as used to compute white balance (color balance) show the reasons.  When the red channel is stretched (the max/min pixels pushed to the brightest/darkest values), the pond pixel values are about the same as the plant life values.  When the blue & green channels are stretched, the plant life pixel values are pushed high up the brightness scale, while the pond pixel values  are pulled to the darkest scale.  This contrast difference offers a relative brighter level for green & blue than for red in the plant life pixels, and a relative darker level for pond pixels for the same. 

So what does this mean to the artist?  It helps to understand where color is coming from.  It derives from two places:  (1) The light reflected from scene elements (plants & water) as transmitted through the camera internal red/green/blue filters in the near infrared. (2) the relative number of pixels of sky/water (dark pixels in blue/green channels) to the number of pixels in plant life (bright pixels in red/green/blue).  Understanding how your scene content will interact with the spectra of optics and the internal (or post) processing will enable you to predict and optimize scene capture for the desired effect.

How does one put this into practice?  As shown above, you can emphasize the color of elements by white balancing off of the opposing ones.   To wit, if you want:
  • Saturated colors in sky/water → then WB on plant life.
  • Saturated colors in plants → then WB on sky. 
Once you have set the capture to emphasize the color gamut desired, it will help to reduce color processing noise by limiting the amount of post processing required to get desired effects.  Every time the color balance, gamut, saturation or other properties are changed on 8-bit images in post processing, it introduces image noise.

A common practice in near infrared color photography processing is the "Channel Swap" method.  I will not give a tutorial here, but you can find many by searching online. In summary, the red channel is swapped with the blue so that what is red in the camera data appears blue on the display, and what is blue in the camera data appears red on the display.  It actually makes for more pleasing presentation of infrared images.

A few examples of color processed images are shown below.

The above scene is the photo when custom WB of off the plant life, and then processed with channel swap and finally auto-levels (with auto color balance) in Photoshop.  It gives very white, colorless plant life, but intensely saturated blue water.

The above scene is the photo when custom WB of off the water, and then processed with channel swap and finally auto-levels (with auto color balance) in Photoshop.  It gives dull water color, but saturated plant life.  The plant color can be altered using the Hue slider in Photoshop (not described here at this time).

Another example of this is given in the images below.

There are other scene elements that can be used for white balance that may give different effects, such as colored cards, building structures (concrete, asphalt) clouds, etc.  Experiment with WB and see what brings out different color tones and saturations in your imagery.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Science: Reflecting on Plants

The primary subject of near infrared photography are plants; leaves particularly.  They appear ghostly, bright; often angelically white, sometimes in pastels of pink, mint, lavender or sky blue, depending on the filter used. Even when taking on a green tone with certain optical filters, near-infrared reflectance off of leaves appear between twice to quince times brighter than the darker green tone we see with the naked eye.  A basic principle is that color of any object depends on the slice of light from the sun's full spectrum that is reflected off the object and reaches our eyes.
A healthy leaf, or granny-smith apple reflects green light, which is what we see.  However, it also reflects light we can't see, in the near infrared.  If you want to capture better infrared photos of foliage, knowledge about what causes the dramatic increase in near-infrared reflection, and when it happens, could aid you in this pursuit.

To understand why this happens, let’s dissect a leaf.  There are four main layers in a cross-section of leaf, going from the top sun-side through the middle and to the underside: top/underside epidermis, palisade mesophyll, spongy mesophyll, intraspace/ion-exchange/veins.

Blue and red light from the sun are absorbed by chloroplasts (chlorophyll containing cells), popping off electrons from CO2, and transformed through a bevy of chemical reactions into O2, C and eventually storage energies such as sugars. Green light is not as heavily absorbed because the metal complexes of chlorophyll do not have transitions in the green energy.  Roughly 15-20% of green light is reflected from the leaf surface (at and just under the top epidermis), a fraction transmitted through the leaf, and the rest absorbed by deeper layers which are heated by the sun’s green light energy. 

The plot below is a common way of describing the color response of  various elements (i.e., filters, of scene reflectance from a leaf, the sensing response of the human eye or of a modified camera, etc.). The vertical axis shows the relative response level, in this case, the amount of light absorbed by chlorophyll (and carotenoids from fruit).  The horizontal axis shows the wavelength or color. Most people are not familiar with wavelength numbers. The human eye can see blue (400nm), to green (500nm) to red (600nm), and begins to fade at longer wavelengths beyond 700nm. The plot shows that Chlorophyll A absorbs light (meaning it keeps the light in the molecule and converts it to chemical energy) in the deep blue (430nm) and in the far red (680nm).
Have you ever lain in the cool grass on a hot summer day? If you touch a leaf on a warm sunny day, it won’t feel as hot to the touch as you would expect, and much less than even the light gray paint of a car.  That’s mostly because the bulk of the sun’s energy, residing in the infrared, is only very slightly absorbed by the leaf. 

Again I offer a plot, where the vertical axis shows the relative response level, in this case, the reflection of light off of leaves, from 0 to 100% (1.0).  The horizontal axis shows the wavelength or color. The plot shows that near infrared light is reflected at about 50-60%, and most of the remaining amount is transmitted through the leaf (not shown), with a small percent absorbed as it reflects multiple times inside the leaf (not shown). 
Try photographing a leaf on the top and on the bottom and you may find it is about as bright on both sides.  You may even find photos of trees and leaves are as interesting looking up through them at the sun and sky as photographing them from beyond their canopy.

You may also notice that leaves and grass look softer in the near infrared than in the green. When NIR light enters the leaf, it reflects in the interior many times, creating a diffuse broad-angle reflection or scattered transmission on the underside.  This effect is even pronounced on bright cloudless days, while shadows form crisp edges, but the leaves remain softened.

Why are leaves red in fall? When the leaf begins dying, the chlorophlasts (and their chlorophyll pigment/metal complexes) decrease in absorbing the red light, such that instead of absorbing red it begins reflecting in increasing amounts of red, causing the green to mix with red, transitioning from yellow to orange to red tones as autumn (and leaf death) progresses. As the blue light also increases reflectance, the leaf appears brown and even gray upon complete death.

With most infrared photography filters, obtaining fall colors is difficult because far more light reflects in the infrared than in the green or redder autumn.  However, in future blog I will describe custom filters that I use to pull out various colors even in NIR photography.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Soulful Journey: Unseen Transcendence

[The following blog is an edited version written a year ago.]

In pursuit of a new artistic show, I have focused my attention on cypress knees surrounding where I live in Florida, with a new optical filter I recently developed to make more vivid the surreal colorism of my world view--a view that I created well over a decade ago after I began modifying digital cameras.  Following are a few examples of the scenery, seen in a new light, I encountered in my meanderings along the Shingle Creek banks in Central Florida.  

(click on the images to see any of them larger)

(All photos are copyrighted 2016 by David Twede.  Permission must be granted for any use)

A cypress knee is a distinctive structure forming above the roots of a cypress tree.  Its exact purpose is speculated, ranging from extended root foundation support in marshy ground, to a structure meant for respiration above the water line.  Scientists are still baffled by the cypress knee, but the artist in me can see a purpose.

While I was out shooting I also listened to music on my headphones.  The songs moved from serene piano baroque pieces to contemporary pieces.  Songs like Pachelbel's Canon in D, well known to me, played in the back as I snapped shot after shot of inspiring scenes.

The diversity of human individual experience leads to a diversity of belief.  I find in the cypress knees vast iconic representations of this spectrum of belief.  No knee is truly the same, but they are all of the same genus, and in groups they sprout from a common tree. Each knee representing distinct experiences of the one--some growing large, some remaining small, each clinging to life in an unsettling marshy ground.

There I listened and took in the surreal beauty around me. As song transitioned to another, I came across a cypress knee that took the form of a hand.  The symbolism took on a direct connection to emotions that were bubbling up inside me.  An unseen hand of a sort touched a chord deep inside me.

There are times in one's life when we are enormously connected with the world, the universe, science, or whatever higher power to which you ascribe, that the simplest thing reveals enormous detail.  You find the weave of a sweater or the glistening light from even plastic just amazing.  Something as simple and humble as a muddy root can teach us much about beauty, love and tolerance.  We can touch the hand that reaches for us from deep within ourselves, even if just in form of Plato's shadow.

-- my own hand's shadow across the "cypress hand" --

I felt overpowered by the beauty of nature that we can’t even perceive with our natural eyes.  There is so much hidden under our limited experiential abilities, our narrow ego tunnel of squat human sensory bandwidth.  But this day, I felt a pair of Next Eyes opening.

Seeing the colors, shadows, illuminations, dimensions in the viewfinder of my altered camera opened me to the idea that the world is so beautiful and we barely see it in our narrow eyesight. I started to analyze it, but felt the emotive sensation evaporating as I did, so I stopped and let it flow.

When I had developed surreal color photography over a decade ago, I had felt these connections and near mystical insights—seeing the dreamlike world I captured in my camera for over a decade now.

I felt this grandeur and expansive connection to the world, gathering even a hope of something larger out there. I also felt saddened by so many losses:  My younger life that was at times narrowed in black and white viewpoints; the loss of relationships, and the burden of knowing that my youthful dreams hadn’t quite fulfilled. Then I realized what an amazing journey my life meanders through.  I couldn’t have planned any of it, but it has brought me to so many places and experiences that I wouldn’t trade away. 

You know that moment when you learn something profound for the first time?  Reading a well written verse, or novel that fires off all levels of new thoughts? A newness brought by insatiable curiosity; as we grow older keeping the eyes of
 a child who's fascinated as her world continues opening to new exploration.  This art brings an altered view of the world and is the eye-candy store that continues to give.

The words at the end of the movie American Beauty resonated into my mind.  
“... there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”
That was how I felt at the moment I watched myself connect with the world through light that is unseen.  It was as if I could see everything literally and metaphorically in a new light through the vision glowing on the LCD of my full-spectrum converted camera.  In a short moment, ages passed and I felt as if I had gain the experience of years, all in a few dozen heart beats. 

I felt yearning.  Humans crave an answer to a question we haven’t yet completely formalized.  I really wish I knew the answer, if there even is an answer to a question ill-formed.  But what am I asking?  It seems we all inquire, generally—is there meaning in our chaotic and seemingly random life?

I've studied the various forms of answers--So many and really no satisfaction.  At times I feel beaten by life; at others I find awareness raised as I look across the various forms and shadows we sculpt into meaning. 

Some find meaning in family, a belief about a blessed mother and perfect child who became the deliverer of meaning through expiation, binding the family together.  It drives at the most essential connection every person has—the desire for comfort and familiarity in the embrace of loved ones.  However, for some, family hurts when human weakness injures their bonds.  They look for self-reliance and abandon the pain.

Some find meaning in pondering.  Most recently, I have pursued a solitary search.  Seclusion allows an inner-focused practice of contemplating the meaning of self, and sometimes finding the eradication of ego.  Meditation has even found support in factual neuroscience, but by digging deeply into the psyche, self vanishes and meaning evaporates along with it.  For some it is a truth they accept humbly; for many the yearning remains unsatisfied.

Some find meaning in pleasure.  Each of us has punctuated moments of self-indulgence.  If there is no meaning, then the import is gratification.   Life is short enough to waste, they say, and squander time on meaningless pursuits of elusive meaning.  Hedonism promises instant rewards, and ancient religions and fertility gods such as Min have been devoted to its pursuit.
Some find meaning in life after life after life.  The impoverished find themselves unable to devote time to philosophical searches or hedonistic paths.  This life has starved them of rewards and peace.  Facts are useless to the hungry.  They hold to the promise of life after life, where we live many different versions to gain a broader and more complete perspective.  
Some find meaning in facts and science—the field in which I work.  My art is based on my own scientific pursuits in technology to sense unseen light.  Science delivers, as seen in the exponential burst of technology that even promises to save us from universal hunger, from pain to deliver prime fulfillment, and perhaps even reward future generations with immortality. Facts, however, yield no obvious meaning to the yearning about deeper purpose. 
And even some find peace in ignoring all meaning, and relaxing like a cat along the lazy river a quiet life provides.  The feline doesn't need meaning; just a good scratch behind his ears.  Carefree, whimsical,  happy, unburdened and able to just ignore the yearn that irritates the rest.  These happy-go-lucky souls supply an embrace of solace on our journey to wherever this quest takes us.

Not one school of study, not a single philosophy, nor a particular creed actually has the full gamut of satisfying promises, fact and peace.  Some have peace, but lack extraordinary promises of treasure beyond the earthly.  Some have fact and study, but lack the peaceful answer to the hunger of meaning. Some have promise of splendor hereafter, but lack facts to support their claim.  Many interesting narratives exist.  Diversity of individuals find different narratives gratifying.

I ache for answers like others standing at the edge of the waters of life.  But like the mysterious purpose of the cypress knee, the purpose of life still eludes most of humanity who are humble enough to realize the answer is not obvious.

Along the banks of the Shingle Creek, as these feeling ebbed, I figured I had primed my emotions with the music and scenery; this concoction of emotions, beauty, peaceful surroundings and seeing in a new light opened me up to experience myself in a way that doesn't happen often enough.  We crave this because it feels so alive.  We feel big and tightly loved.  We feel small and ineffably important.  Contradictory elation and sadness all in the same bottle-opening moment, which overcome and fill us with so much wonder.  Everlasting curiosity is a kind of soulful journey itself.  Exploration can be an unseen transcendence. 
(All photos are copyrighted 2016 by David Twede.  Permission must be granted for any use)