April 24, 2017

Phone cameras and depth of field

Some four years ago, while playing with Hipstamatic’s TinType addon, I had remarked:

My biggest gripe with phone cameras is the lack of depth of field and with apps like these I am able to scratch that itch somewhat. I am sure it’s only a matter of time before the software and improved optics allow you to emulate the depth of field and bokeh of SLR lenses right on your phone.

It was easy to see things that were happening in that space - both with hardware (e.g. Lytro) and software, and call that depth of field in phone cameras would go mainstream soon. Last month I upgraded to iPhone 7 plus and have been playing with the depth effect” that the two lenses on its back, coupled with some clever processing in software, enable.

You switch the stock iPhone camera app to Portrait” mode and if you have a subject at the right distance, it’ll show you a live preview with blurred background. While I’ve had best results with human subjects (it’s called Portrait” mode after all), the effect works with pretty much any animal, plant or object. That said, results with non-human subjects can often be unpredictable - the software might blur too much or too little of your subject. For a particularly infuriating example, if you look closely in the picture below, you’ll see that it missed the sliver between the top of the tulips. It also blurred the stalk of the rightmost tulip too much so it seems to magically float in the air1.

Had it not been for the straight lines of the rails of the boat in the background, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed this. Still, I am not convinced enough to stow away my 135mm prime lens. At the current pace, the technology will probably threaten it in 3-4 years. I am quite enjoying shooting with the new camera though - not so much for the simulated depth of field but for the better quality of pictures in low light at 28mm due to bigger aperture (f/1.8 vs f/2.2 on iPhone 6 plus) and the extra reach of 56mm.

  1. The wife asked me to share it on facebook pronto. No one would notice this on their tiny phone screen, she said. She was right.

April 21, 2017

Seville - Day 1

The words two-and-a-half-hour flight” get me nostalgic about numerous flights I used to take between Bangalore and Delhi. In Western Europe, a flight that long gets you to many different countries. It’s a comfortable duration and that played its part in getting me and the wife to agree on Seville as a location for a short vacation in February. For its duration, the flight packed in a fair bit of geographical diversity.

We landed in Seville around noon. Luckily, just as we stepped out of the airport, we spotted the bus that’d get us to the part of the old town from where we could walk to our apartment.

We knew pretty well that vegetarian food and Spain don’t go together. We entered the food court we had chosen for lunch close to our apartment with low expectations. And still, we despaired a little at how meager our choice really was.

After lunch, we walked along Canal de Alfonso XIII to enjoy the late afternoon sun. Coming from Amsterdam, the sun felt as novel as the television antennas on the roof of colourful houses across the river.

We always find the first day of a vacation in a new city a little disorienting. At 5:00 PM it was already a little late to visit any landmarks or museums so we walked across the Puente de Isabel II bridge and explored the neighbouring district of Triana.

We came back just after sunset and lingered around the El Carmen - a small chapel and its belfry built in early 20th century in a neo-moorish style .

The market alongside it had already closed and we were too tired to do groceries and cook in our apartment. We therefore made the defeatist but convenient choice of picking a roadside Dominos for dinner. Landing a vegetarian pizza was not a problem but even with google translate by my side, I couldn’t manage to order sparkling water in Spanish. Apparently agua con gas doesn’t work. Here in the Netherlands, the colloquial way of ordering sparkling water is to ask for Spa Rood1 - the brand is synonymous with sparkling water. I wonder if I missed a similar trick for Spain.

If we were younger, we would’ve picked this shop selling churros and potato crips. A pizza from Dominos is no health food but theres are only certain degrees of unhealthiness that our bodies permit as we age.

  1. Spa Red - because fizzy water of this brand comes in a bottle with red cap

April 4, 2017


Spring in Amsterdam always takes me by suprise. After just four months of looking at dull, wintery landscape you forget how colourful and vibrant March and April really are. These days, I find nothing more relaxing than spending spells of cool, sunny days walking in the numerous parks in the city and snapping pictures of flowers. Here are three favourites from early March.

March 19, 2017

Blue skies and teapots

I spent considerable time in the 90s tinkering with the POV Ray ray-tracer. You’d use a C-like language to describe placement of camera, lights and objects in a three dimensional coordinate system and the POV Ray ray-tracer would render them into beautiful images. My creations weren’t anything like the photo realistic submissions at the Internet Ray Tracing Competition. They were simple scenes involving primitive geometrical shapes, chequered floors and skies. I had all but forgotten about those days. One day while walking home, the colour of the twilight sky reminded me of the colour I had once used for the sky in a scene. Turns out that POV Ray is still around and works on Mac. I was able to get it running with minimal effort and recreate that gradient of MidnightBlue with Cornflower Blue that I had so cherished.

For some reason, chequered floors and teapots used to feature a lot in 3-D computer graphic demos in the 90s1. Even the POV Ray distribution used to include one:

As common as tea is in India, in most houses it isn’t prepared in teapots. The closest thing to a teapot I had seen in my house was a transparent Borosil carafe that you could directly place on a gas hob. And even that was hardly ever used for making tea. Tea at my parents’ home is prepared by heating water and tea leaves in an open steel vessel with a generous helping of sugar and milk and bringing it to a boil. The wife’s notion of tea involves tea bags steeped in boiling-hot water in a cup for 2-5 minutes. It is consumed without sugar and the milk is only used as a creamer. After years of marriage, traveling and living outside India, my notion of tea has firmly shifted towards hers. I no longer enjoy the preparation I grew up drinking2.

A common friend at work had told us about how much he enjoys the tea from the Simon Levelt tea shop. We came across a branch of the shop at Amsterdam Centraal Station and picked up a packet of long leaf Assam tea. This was going to be our special treat on wintry weekend evenings. To prepare it properly, we decided to invest in a tea pot. Of course neither of us had any idea how much one costs. As we started looking around, we realised that most shops would sell you beautiful coloured teapots for about 35-40 €. The plain, white, utilitarian thing we were after was exceedingly hard to find. We eventually found one for 10 € at Hema. With the spell of cold weather making a comeback, are quite set to enjoy our new weekend ritual for at least a couple of more weekends.

  1. I learned today that the teapot is called Utah teapot and has a story to it.

  2. This upsets my mom a little when I visit. It’s one of the many little ways in which I have changed as a person, but of course there is no explaining that to parents.

February 4, 2017

Kaleidoscopic Dutch houses

I might be going a wee bit overboard with some of the effects I discovered yesterday in Pixelmator.

I had clicked the original some two years ago in Groningen. I didn’t think much of it till it occured to me that I could use it as a starting point for something interesting. This is why I am sometimes wary of deleting pictures - who knows what the image processing tools of future might allow me to do with them?

February 3, 2017


The original:

A mind-bending but somewhat plausible version:

A descent into Dr. Strange-esque madness:

p.s. The location on google street view