Spare time…

…of which right now I have quite a lot. My store/studio (www.michaelwillemsphoto.com) is still open, but only for passport/ID photos and curbside delivery/pickup, so the days are super slow.

So I get to do some hobby stuff. And my hobby intertests are wide. They also include electronics and computers, and the other day, I bought an Arduino-based Altair 8800 simulator kit (from www.adwaterandstir.com). An excellent kit, by the way, highly recommended.

The Arduino is a modern microcontroller, and the Altair 8080 was really the first personal computer, way back in 1974.

After seeing that article, a couple of young students from Harvard decided to write a BASIC interpreter for it, and the rest is history – you may recognize the names in the Altair BASIC manual:

Anyway, the Altair looked like this…:

And the simulator I built looked like this:

And then it looked like this:

And now, after seven hours of soldering and constructing, looks like this:

And it works! So now I can watch blinking lights (loom up “blinkenlights“). And I can program some BASIC to calculate primes:

..and I can rum CP/M, play Othello and Star Trek and Zork, and in general, do the things you could do in 1977.

Why on earth would I want to do this?

Because it’s a cool conversation piece. And it looks super cool: the Altair with its lights and data/address switches was based on the Data General NOVA.

And because it’s a special thing to run the original Bill Gates/Paul Allen Basic (even “Micro-Soft” did not exist yet) – the project that made Gates $100 billion, and that is responsible for most computer stuff you have now. And to type the same “PRINT 2+2” command that Paul Allen typed in New Mexico to demonstrate the project to MITS, the makers of Altair, and to see the same “4” appear that impressed them enough to buy this BASIC, is quite an experience too.

And above all else, because just like photography, this takes me back. Back to the 1970s and 80s. I feel like I am 20-odd years old again!

And it’s always handy to know prime numbers. I guess.

To Crop or Not To Crop

One of the most important things to do in photo composition is to decide the crop.

A tight crop can be good, like here in my dinner last month:

That tight cop makes it simple, and simplicity is everything in photos – and it draws attention to the subject win a clear manner. So that’s a good crop.

Other crops are less obvious. For example this photo:

That’s all good – except if you were to frame it. The frame’;s mat would cut off the photo very close to, or even on, the top of the head.

Also: you need to crop for the frame. And a 4×6 has a different shape from an 8×10, for example.

So the wise thing to do is to shoot a little wide, so you can crop the image to size later. Do not have your subject touch the edges of the photo, in most cases!

We can often add extra sides to your photo that we fill in to look natural, by the way. Like when you ask us to print a 4×6 as an 8×10! But if you shoot wide ion the first place, it isn’t necessary, and that saves you money!

Shoot!

Yesterday, we shot Orleans’s X-uvia Soccer Academy. And we put both kids and adults in front of a green screen, like so:

Because that way, we can put the kids where they belong – on a soccer field.

To shoot “green screen” like this, you use a chroma green background, and then you use software like Photoshop (with a technique explained previously on this blog), or, like in my case, dedicated Green Screen software to put the background behind the subject.

To do this, keep in mind that the subject must not wear green – or they’ll be transparent. But often forgotten: also avoid things that reflect green. You can see some of that effect in the soccer ball above.

As a finishing touch, let’s add logos (which is easily done in Lightroom):

Of course you can also take a way the background completely…:

That way, if you save it as a .PSD file, the image can be put on a web site or in a publication with text all around the subject.

And that’s hoop it’s done! Now, back to finishing the images…

A note on contests

Photography Contests… they’re fun, and I have won a few, which is even more fun. So why not participate in every photo contest you see?

Sure. Within reason. And that means, in my mind, two things:

First, I never take part in contests where you have to pay to enter. A lot of these exist, and they come in two flavours: vanity contests (“we are so honoured to be allowed to place your work”) and plain scams (“the annual XYZ Great Artists contest and book”). Now, “never say never”, of course: there are a few contests that I would pay something for, sure; but these are by reputable organizations and the cost is minor, and covers actual expenses. Other than that, paid contests are a hard “nope” for me.

Second, there are many contests like this one:

Looks great. Wow, a legit organization and it’s free. The BIA (Business Improvement Area) is real and local. And you can send as many pics as you like. Great!

But….

Now read that last paragraph. Permission, promotional materials: you are giving away the rights to your advertising photo for free. Yes, you are working for them, for free.

Yes, this is the BIA trying to get away with obtaining free work rather than pay a photographer for their advertising photography.

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure: the BIA are not my friends. BIAs were founded to fight malls, and this shows. Last year I applied for a “Digital Main Street” government subsidy, paid for by provincial and federal governments and administered by the BIAs. I qualified on all counts (a long list of requirements – the forms took me a few days to complete).

One of these requirements was “You must be in or near a BIA”. This mall is right next to the BIA, so I was sure I’d get it. But to my astonishment, the BIA decided that even though I met all the requirements (in, as said, a long list), I wasn’t getting any money: the mall is the enemy. So I guess since they want to be my enemy, they’re not in my good books either.

But that’s not why I mention this example. There are many of these efforts to get free work from unsuspecting amateur photographers, and I think it is a shame that amateur photographers do not realize the value of their work.

Bottom line: If anyone is interested in your photo, it is worth money. Don’t give it away. And certainly not to the BIA. 🙂

Instead, find legit contests, like those held by photography magazines and photography clubs, local art organizations, and so on. There’s plenty of them, and you can fill a lot of time submitting. And that is fun.

Why you do not make your own passport photos…

We love doing passport photos – precisely because they are a challenge.

And I do not mean the taking of the photo. Yes, that too needs to be done well: pure white background, neutral expression, looking straight at the camera, no shiny skin refections, no shadows, well lit, good colour, veils must not cover eyebrows, glasses discouraged but if used no refections – and so on.

But the really fun challenge is to get the format right. Here, for example is China’s required format:

Take a good look at that – the specificity of all the different dimensions. And if you get them wrong, your photos are rejected.

What if the person has an afro? Or if the hair is wild? The top means “where the skull is”. It can be hard to tell…

And what if a person has a very wide face – like a small child? Then it may be almost impossible to get the picture to meet those requirements. So this needs care and attention and, dare I say kit, some artistic feeling as well as mathematical insight.

And then there’s digital. “354 x 472 pixels” – specific much?

And of course most countries’ specifications differ from most other countries’… and they can change over time – as well as per embassy!

And this is why we love doing passport photos: because others do NOT do them well. We virtually never get them rejected. And it’s always fun too do a good job.

Mars Ethics

So NASA released this amazing picture of a spacecraft actually landing on Mars:

Fantastic.

But the first thing I, as a photographer, think is “Damn. That’s not sharp”. Click to see the image full sized to see that it is indeed not sharp. Hey, it’s from a dangling spaceship on Mars, so this is not criticism!

But still… I can make that better.

Using the AI sharpening software I use, with only very little effort we get this sharpened image:

Again, click and view full screen to see the sharpness. Amazing, no?

Now. Is this unethical? Am I altering, doctoring even, a NASA image?

There’s two ways you can materially change a photo:

  • Manipulating images to make them art is OK if you say it’s art.
  • Distorting for nefarious purposes (like to “prove” that the earth is flat) is not OK.

But this is neither art nor distorting the image. This is simply bringing back a clearer picture of the reality that there actually is. Just like correcting the white balance would be.

So I think we’re good here. Enjoy the sharpened image.

Go wide.

It may be tempting to think that to take good pictures, you need a long (telephoto) lens. And that is sometimes true – but not always, and not even usually.

Like the photo of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, August 2007.

Wide angle: 16mm on a full-frame camera. And above all: close to something – it is that factor that gives you the feeling of “reality”, perspective, 3-D. In this case, the ground is the “something” I was close to.

Nope.

You know, I though I’d found a good photo sharing site in YouPic. Not American, not Puritan, a good way to share some of my work. Even the work that American platforms do not allow: violence is ok, but the human body is not. Yes, the American excuse for morality is skewed, and wrong.

But at least they’re honest.


As for YouPic: Puritans they may not be, but tacky East Europeans, they are. My advice: stay away from these people. They send messages from aliases, people without surnames – God knows if they actually exist. If you send emails to the addresses they send email from, these emails immediately bounce. A sure sign of a scam. Even on their web site you can’t send them a message without allowing all sorts of “compulsory” nonsense. And no phone numbers you can call, obviously. All giant warning signs.

And if you ever sign up for a paid account, then without warning, they charge you double the next year, without warning – and refuse to refund if you ask, quoting agreements, rules, and policy. Apple may be dictatorial, but they’re hones5 and would refund. As would I: it is inconceivable to me that I would have an unhappy customer and I would force them to pay against their will. I guess the ex Soviet nature of whatever Baltic state these people are from shows its history.

Do I sound pissed? Yes. And that is because I am. Because these cheap kind of scams annoy me. This is 2021. You don’t tell customers that this is allowed, that is compulsory, or such-and-such is “forbidden”.

These people seem to think that they are doing me a favour by publishing my work. It is the reverse. I’m doing them a favour by being on their platform, obviously.

All right, so the search is on for the next platform. No Puritans, but also no scammers. Any ideas welcome. As long as they’re not YouPic.

And otherwise we’ll set up our own!