Bird Photography with Antonio Vázquez

My past few months in the photographic department had been distinctively anthropogenic, spent in the tubular labyrinth below the capital city of the world. For days I had navigated the endless subterranean seas of living human bodies and formations of ceramic and cast iron almost venerable enough to be geological, searching for those elusive points in space and time for my upcoming London Underground Photo Exhibition. The end of January saw the completion of this mission, freeing up camera time for something different. There could hardly be a better time than this to be offered an opportunity to return to my early interest in wildlife photography.

It was a great privilege for me to join the acclaimed Spanish photographer Antonio Vázquez and his son-in-law Raúl Rodríguez for a bird photography session at the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust’s Welney Wetland Centre in Norfolk. It does not really need mentioning that Antonio has had a remarkable career decorated by prestigious awards and a long list of books. In this brief biography there is a funny anecdote about getting his first camera that is a testimony to his commitment right from the outset.

Antonio’s grandfather, though not a photographer himself, infected young Antonio with a love for nature and animals by showing him beautiful pictures. Later on, Antonio was inspired by the great Spanish naturalist and filmmaker Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente who tragically died in an air crash while doing what he loved in Alaska. Why photography and not video? It is a matter of personal preference, Antonio says, to capture the special moments in still life, and I happen to identify with this. I also find it heartening that he is a wholly self-taught photographer, which in some ways gave him more space to explore and develop his own unique style, the very thing I am struggling to do myself.

At Welney, the recent snowmelt and subsequent rainstorms had brought upon a great flood that inundated all but the biggest hide. Strong winds were whipping the water into white-capped waves decidedly uncharacteristic of wetlands—just what we needed for some dramatic pictures. We wasted no time deploying the weapons systems.

A view of the great flood from the main hide at Welney Wetland Centre. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Antonio Vázquez with the Nikon D3x and 600mm f/4. Photo: Yangchen Lin

Antonio prioritizes on fast autofocus with no teleconverter, and achieves full control over the position of the active AF sensor in the viewfinder by manually toggling the four-way button on the D3x rather than relying on the camera’s automatic 3D tracking. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

I had intentionally travelled to the UK without what I affectionately called my ‘intercontinental ballistic missile’ (400mm f/2.8), my priority in the UK being scientific research. Antonio said that the 400mm f/2.8 was the best supertelephoto of all, surpassing the 600mm f/4 by a slight margin in terms of image quality (and of course, speed). I resolved to take it out more often in the future and savour its legendary sharpness and colour. For now, my armament ranged from 16mm to 200mm, and I set about doing the kinds of photography appropriate to those focal lengths.

Pochards swimming at Welney Wetland Centre

Atlantic Fleet: an attempt to evoke the magnificent lyrical turbulence of Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. The 70–200mm f/2.8 is not inadequate for birds provided one does not attempt to apply it in ways for which it has not been designed. Photo: Yangchen Lin

I was also curious to hear Antonio’s opinion on 800mm supertelephotos, Nikon having recently introduced their latest incarnation of the 800mm f/5.6. He feels that it compresses, or flattens, the perspective too much for birds at the usual distances, but is great for large oceanic waves. In an ongoing photographic project on coastal storms, he uses the 600mm with the 1.7-magnification teleconverter to get into firing range.

Nikon D3x | 600mm f/4. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

Raúl is Antonio’s disciple and enjoys using the Nikon D800 with the 200–400mm f/4. Juggling a career in the transportation industry with family commitments with young children means that he is unable to go all out with developing his own photographic art at the moment, but he follows Antonio and learns all he can.

Raúl Rodríguez with Antonio Vázquez. Photo: Yangchen Lin

The golden light prized by Antonio. Copyright Antonio Vázquez

Sunset at Welney Wetland Centre with Antonio Vázquez. Photo: Yangchen Lin

It was dusk when we finally packed up and headed home. As the rolling landscape out the car window steadily receded into darkness, we contemplated the future of photography. Antonio fears that photography may eventually cease to be a profession. With the advent of the Internet, photographers are no longer competing within their respective countries to sell their work, but with competitors from all over the world. As the number of photographs available on any given subject grows rapidly, individuals and organizations are on average becoming progressively less willing to pay the true value of a good photograph and less discerning between outstanding and not-so-outstanding photographs. Antonio now sees countless superlative images offered online for a tiny fraction of the amount invested in getting the shot—in the background research, equipment, logistics and creativity. And there is competition of another kind. Computer graphics have advanced to a point where it is no longer possible to tell a real photograph from a computer-generated image of a watch or a car in an advertisement.

Perhaps all is not lost, however. Antonio recalls a morning in Grand Teton National Park. It was 6 a.m. and –12 degrees Celsius—but 250 photographers were already in position at exactly the same spot, cameras all pointing towards the great mountain ready to freeze that magic moment in eternity. Despite the seemingly hopeless situation for getting anything that isn’t identical to 249 other copies of the same thing, Antonio insists otherwise. He gives an example: the vastly different photographs he and I took today, from the same spot.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Copyright Antonio Vázquez


How to make a realistic digital personal Chinese seal

One of the timeless manifestations of the Chinese language is the oriental seal, a unique, personal essence of oneself, an object whose physical symmetry adds to its hypnotic attractiveness. Seal carving and usage have a long and fascinating history; read more about the materials science and engineering of seal carving in James Eckman’s article which also has numerous links to more valuable information. The present article will guide you through the main steps in making personal digital seals that look reasonably realistic, using my seals as examples (scroll further down to skip the part about the meaning of my name).

Malaya Straits Settlements 50c Japanese Occupation Okugawa Seal

This red seal, in Japanese kanji script that looks similar to Chinese, was used during World War II. Read more about it here.

What does my name mean?

There are often interesting hidden meanings in a person’s Chinese name that appears on a seal. For example, my surname 林 (Lin) means ‘forest’. Albeit by coincidence, I grew up in the shadow of the great Dipterocarp rainforests of Malaya and Southeast Asia and came to appreciate their diversity and grandeur. My first name 揚塵 (Yangchen) is derived from the idiom 塵土飛揚, literally ‘dust-soil-fly-spread’, meaning dust flying everywhere. What? This derivation is only the first level of hidden meaning. The next level of hidden meaning in my name as conceived by my parents is even less obvious, but Ken Rockwell hits home with this statement in his (caution, may be subjective) review of the Nikon D4 (which I do not own):

The Nikon D4 is Nikon’s fastest, tightest professional camera ever made for sports and action photography. It leaves consumer cameras like the D800 and Canon 5D Mark III completely in the dust. — Ken Rockwell

Metaphorically, my parents wanted me to be the Nikon D4, the fastest horse, the Saturn V rocket carrying Apollo 11 into space. It has become one of the great asymptotic challenges in my life, a boundary condition that mathematically cannot and need not be attained but that my parents hoped I would perpetually strive towards.

Instructions for making your own seal

1. Design the seal. Two alternative methods, automatic and manual.

Method A: automatic. Input your name in Chinese characters at this online Chinese seal generator. It offers a variety of typefaces and other options and carves your png seal in two seconds. It automatically adds the character 印 (‘seal’) to make up four characters if your name has three. It’s a really nice programme.

Raw output from the online Chinese seal generator at

Open the resulting png file in Adobe Illustrator. Convert it to vector graphics using Live Trace with the ‘detailed illustration’ preset. The vectorization gives maximum flexibility for subsequent manipulations. Expand the trace and change the colour to one of your choice. The traditionally used seal paste is a luxuriant red obtained from mercury (II) sulphide (HgS).

Use the Direct Selection Tool to select and remove the square rim, which looks especially digital because the round corners don’t merge smoothly with the straight edges. Replace the rim with a self-drawn one, most straightforwardly accomplished with the Rectangle Tool. I went for a square with thick borders, considerably thicker than the weight of the character strokes, and unrounded corners (see figure below) to convey the kind of authority and formality you’d experience in an Imperial setting.

For the Chinese characters themselves, you may want to square off the ends of the strokes rather than leave them rounded, again to accentuate the feeling of Imperial strictness. I did this by adding rectangles, making sure that the edges were lined up precisely—Illustrator helps by snapping to paths. You may have to subsequently shorten a couple of strokes whose squared-off ends venture so close to other strokes that they appear unsightly and, worse, joined together when viewed at small sizes. Do this by drawing a shape over the part you wish to remove and clicking ‘minus front’ in Pathfinder. Avoid simply drawing white shapes to hide things, as it would be preferable to maintain background transparency to enable the seal to be used over any background.

After Live Tracing, changing the square rim and squaring off the ends of the strokes.

Method B: manual. Look up the seal script for each character in your Chinese name at Using the Pencil Tool in Adobe Illustrator, trace out the characters over their images or just write them yourself. In this case I used rounded caps on the strokes for a less regimental, more artistic air. Avoid perfectly straight and perfectly vertical or horizontal lines. Fine-tune the stroke thickness after you have finished tracing all the characters and grouping the objects (strokes) within each character, so you can judge how it looks as a whole. I went with relatively thin strokes this time to give it some gracefulness, but not so thin that the characters vanish into the pixels at small sizes. Update: you can also look up your characters in fonts of small seal script available here.

Use the Pencil Tool to draw the smooth irregular boundary of the seal. Then use Live Paint to fill in the shape (e.g. this tutorial). Why not the Pen Tool that’s specifically designed for drawing closed shapes? Because it’s more difficult to make the well-behaved Pen Tool do those warts and dents that impart a handmade feel.

Next, manually and individually position the characters within the shape, focusing on filling the space evenly rather than aligning the characters to one another. Perfect alignment isn’t part of the analogue beauty of prehistoric writing. Refrain from rotating the characters—this could easily detract from the vertical flow of the language. Finally, Object > Expand the characters to turn them into shapes, and use Pathfinder’s ‘minus front’ to punch them out from the seal.

Hand-drawn vector reproduction of Large Seal Script (Zhou Dynasty, 1045 B.C. – 256 B.C.) by Yangchen Lin, based on characters from the database. I also tried to emulate the transverse section of a stone worn smooth over the eons by the rushing waters of rivers and waterfalls in the great gorges of China.

Although the ‘manual’ design looks more hand-carved, both still scream DIGITAL. A little more work on them would make them more consistent with the fact that there were no computers during the Chinese dynasties.

2. Paste the seal into Photoshop. Next up is an ingenious trick I learnt from graphic designer Owen Jones: apply Gaussian Blur to the image and use Unsharp Mask to make the edges hard again. What for? More details can be found at his tutorial for creating a rubber stamp effect. What this trick does is to create the subtle impression of ink being absorbed into the fibres of the paper as the seal is applied (see figures below). You might try tweaking the transparency also but I didn’t do that since seal paste tends to be thick and opaque.

3. The final step is one of the various methodologies to realize what is popularly known as the grunge effect. In essence, one makes a logo look used and worn by infusing a texture—grainy, scratched, brushed—into it by Layer Masking it with a contrast-enhanced photo of a surface with the desired texture. Here’s a helpful video tutorial by YouTube user Digital Yard Sale:

I did an additional step at the end, hiding the textured backgrounds to reveal the seals in their naked glory. The texture photo I used for my seals is from The final results:

The Official Seal of Lin Yangchen (surname is written first in Chinese tradition). Notice the subtle blunting effect of the Gaussian Blur + Unsharp Mask treatment.

The Seal of Lin Yangchen

The strokes are still somewhat too neat to be totally convincing, although that is less obvious at the smaller sizes in which personal seals are usually seen. The particular texturization I used may have been reasonably successful at emulating scratches and abrasions, but it doesn’t go far in the way of simulating the kind of random yet nonrandom irregularities that would be produced by a less than perfectly even seal surface and patchiness in ink colour caused by variations in ink consistency and muscular pressure.

Despite the sophistication of Illustrator and Photoshop, truly realistic effects are difficult to achieve, requiring much manual tweaking. There is no instant automatic substitute for a 2000-year-old seal carved by hand.

Postage stamps of Malaya: the coconut definitives

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Theoretical Photography of Black Holes

I recently met Rob Hocking, a Canadian mathematician who is passionate about visualizing theoretical physics in photography. He showed me some fascinating images of how everyday objects would appear if a black hole were in the vicinity—a predicament one would think twice about wanting to experience in real life. Those images had been computed using conventional photographs as raw data. ‘Light rays from the object are bent by the black hole en route to the observer, resulting in a distorted appearance which can be artistically pleasing’, says Rob. The bending effect is called gravitational lensing, a term photographers may find appealing.

Illustration: Rob Hocking

Gravitational lensing. Illustration: Rob Hocking

In the figure above, light rays from different directions are deflected to varying extents by a black hole before reaching the observer’s eye, including rays (example in blue) from behind, making it possible to see objects not normally within the human field of vision. In order to accommodate this, a photograph that sees in all directions must be used to generate the hypothetical image of ‘environmental’ black holes. This photograph, known as a spherical panorama, is a composite of photographs covering all points on a sphere with the camera in its centre. The number of photographs needed to construct the panorama depends on the focal length of the camera lens and the desired resolution.

Spherical projection. Photo: Rob Hocking

Spherical projection. Photo: Rob Hocking

This is a spherical panorama of Rob and his yoga instructor Kevin Elander, which stretches the floor and ceiling in the same way that Antarctica and the Arctic are projected on many world maps. The panoramic tripod head that Rob uses can be seen in the mirror at far left. It has been programmed to rotate the camera through 40 different positions while keeping the optical centre fixed. The only direction it cannot look is straight down; that view is covered by an additional, handheld photograph.

There is an ingenious device, patent pending at press time, for capturing spherical panoramas. This consists of a ball studded with cameras pointing in all directions. The ball is thrown into the air. When it reaches maximum altitude, the internal motion sensor sets off all the cameras at once. I assume it survives the impact of return to earth.

A work of art: one of the equations used to add black holes to a spherical panorama. Source: Rob Hocking

Abstract art: one of the equations used to add black holes to a spherical panorama. LaTeX source: Rob Hocking

Given the panoramic photograph, the next step is to calculate the trajectories of the deflected photons using the geodesic equations from Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This information is then used to remap the photographic pixels. The following diagram shows four calculated examples of the infinitely many possible trajectories of photons around a black hole on their way from a given point to the observer. Photons may orbit the black hole any number of times before shooting off at a tangent.

Illustration: Rob Hocking

Some calculated photon trajectories. Illustration: Rob Hocking

The remapping of the yoga photograph is shown below, with two black holes situated above the yoga and math gurus. Because of the infinite number of photon paths, there are in fact infinitely many secondary images of the gurus around each black hole if we assume infinite photographic resolution; only one of the images is visible for each black hole, the rest being too small to be resolved on the digital display. This example is intriguing as it incorporates two interacting black holes.

Meditating on black holes. Photo: Rob Hocking

Meditating on black holes. Photo: Rob Hocking

Here is another of Rob’s spherical panoramas featuring the Great Wall of China, along with one of his signature black hole photos derived from it. The odd patch in the sky is not a renegade black hole—it is the consequence of camera misalignments during the production of the composite photographs. Rob had to handhold the camera, not having a panoramic tripod head at his disposal at the time.

The Great Wall. Photo: Rob Hocking

The Great Wall of China. Photo: Rob Hocking

Photo: Rob Hocking

Hole in the wall. Photo: Rob Hocking

Check out more of Rob’s thought-provoking photographs here. I’m grateful to Rob for telling me about his work and for his valuable assistance with the editing of this post.

Rob Hocking is a PhD student at the Faculty of Mathematics, University of Cambridge. It’s great to meet someone who is able to unify the photographic and relativistic meanings of the slogan where Photons meet Black Holes. See more of Rob’s fascinating stuff at his blog.

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