Monday, July 20, 2009

Bamberger Ranch Images

David Bamberger's post this week about Hes’ Country Store reminded me that I have an image of Hes’ in my library, and caused me to take a fresh look at one of the heretofore unassembled panoramas I shot on ranch the same day, May 20, 2007.

The image of Hes’ has its origins in my habit of arriving at the ranch in the middle of the night (only when invited, naturally), intending to catch some sleep and be up around noon (I am not a morning person), to go looking for photos. In this case, it was the one wet year the ranch had encountered in some time, and I wanted to record the return of water to the land. (Unfortunately, it turns out that the water hadn't so much returned as stopped by for a short visit.) Margaret had arranged for me to sleep in Hes’. I arrived earlier than expected, maybe 3 AM, unpacked my gear, and decided to walk the Bromfield trail, which begins near the store, to see what night life I might encounter. All I found were a lot of spiders that seem to weave very large webs each night, and take them down again when day arrives. Everything else probably heard me coming and decided to be somewhere else. Except the fish; they slept peacefully in their burbling creek, unperturbed by my passing, and the red light of my flashlight.

As I walked back from the end of the trail along the single road that winds through the central valley of the ranch, I came upon Hes’ from above, sitting in its pocket of the valley, among its grove of trees – the only source of warmth and light anywhere to be seen. It was a tiny oasis in a great big night. It was beautiful. The little house radiated welcomingly in the dark, light streaming through the windows, and peeking out through the knotholes in the walls, all from a single, small lamp I'd left on when I'd gone to walk the trail several hours before. That image I wanted to capture. I didn't succeed.

I added some light to the scene by turning on the porch light on the opposite side of the house. I thought that the backlighting would set it off from its surroundings nicely. I knew I needed to shoot multiple exposures, so that the illuminated parts wouldn't be overexposed, and the barely illuminated areas wouldn't vanish into the shadows. I knew that the shots would have to be wide-angle and close-in, so that the road running past the front of the house wouldn't dominate the image. They'd have to be manual focus, too, because there wasn't enough light for the autofocus system to work. I decided to set the focus for infinity, and, in order to keep the images reasonably sharp, to use as small an aperture as I could get away with before the long exposure times would swamp the images with noise. At some point, I had the brilliant idea of using my flashlight as an accent light on the front porch, hidden behind the wooden indian, and to finish setting-up the camera using I-don't-know-what for light. Anyway, the result of waiting out a lot of long exposures, was that I finished shooting around 6 AM as the sky began to brighten, which was also when I noticed that I'd set the focus on the lens all wrong. I thought I'd set it for infinity, but had actually set it for something more like 10 feet.

With the exposures combined, the picture is still somewhat interesting, but only when seen small, because that helps to hide the sensor noise, and the lousy focus.

Hes’ Country Store, an oasis in the twilight.

Ordinarily, I'd've just let the photo moulder in my library, but since David brought up Hes’ this week, it seemed like this might be the photo's only chance to ever be of any use. So there it is. Maybe it wasn't a completely wasted effort, after all.

Finding that photo in my library also caused me to take a look at one of the panoramas I shot later that day; one of the very large number of panos that I've shot, but never assembled, because they didn't look promising enough to merit the effort.

This is shot from below the dam in the creek near the start of the Bromfield trail. As you can see, the dam—split equally between the left and right edges of this 360° image—is sunk deep into the limestone walls of the creek bed. Not only is that dam solid enough not to be going anywhere, it's gradually being assimilated into the limestone, as the moss and other plants that grow on its wet face slowly accumulate minerals from the water and turn into stone, on top of which more plants grow, turn to stone, and so on. The rest of the shot is all natural; the water-carved limestone walls, here and there decorated by maidenhair fern; the deep pool with its comfortable fish (trust me, they were there, and comfortable); the young bald cypress tree sinking its roots into the stone and water; and behind that, the outflow channel that continues the creek.

And, yes, to get that shot I had to setup my panorama rig in the creek. With the camera already mounted and aligned in the pano head, and secured to the tripod, I didn't want to tear it all down to fit it into my waterproof backpack, so I climbed down there with great care. I've setup in much more difficult watery settings, though, to get, for instance, one image of a creek and its waterfall, I setup my rig in chest-deep water. The waves lapped at the bottom of the tripod head. I'm not sure that one was worth all the effort and risk, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Finally, apropos of little, here's a photo from November of the same year of a portion of the main valley of the Bamberger Ranch, with the gold- and red-grassed hillsides lit in the deepening yellow light of rapidly approaching sunset.

Originally, I wasn't satisfied with this image, but I've repeatedly tweaked it in passing over the years, and now I think it does work, after all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why Safari Ruins the Text in Some SVG

I recently had the opportunity to write a fun bit of software: an automatic organization chart generator that generates the chart using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG).

Little did I know that, when I sent an example of the software's output to my boss, declaring it to be working, and rather nicely I thought, what he saw when he viewed it in Safari was a hideous mess – unrecognizably bad compared to how it looked in Safari on both of the Macs I use. For one thing, the text was incredibly ugly. Seemingly bit mapped. For another, the portions of the text that were supposed to be bold were rendered plain (and, again, incredibly ugly). To top it all off, the conformance of the text to the stated metrics was terrible. Had I known that my boss would see something so awful, I wouldn't have sent it.

It took some back and forth, but I finally figured out why the SVG looks so bad on most other people's Macs. It's a setting in the "Appearance" pane of "System Preferences"; the one at the bottom labelled "Turn off text smoothing for font sizes __ and smaller." I believe the default value is 12, though I changed the setting so long ago, I don't remember for sure. In any case, being a big believer in anti-aliased type, I always set that value to the smallest one possible, which is currently 4. In my org. charts, I was using a font size of 8 pixels. While I'm not sure how we're mapping pixels to points these days, the key was that the font size in the SVG fell beneath the system's "Turn off text smoothing" threshold. So, "unsmoothed" text was drawn, and, judging by how badly it scaled and how ghastly it looked, I think it actually reverted to a bit map.

Interestingly, Firefox ignores that setting and uses "smooth" fonts anyway. Also, Firefox, at least as of version 3.0.11 and Safari 4.0.1, draws the text much nicer (for lack of a more specific term) than Safari – even after you get Safari using "smooth" fonts. Usually I find that Safari's SVG support is better than Firefox's, but not in this case. Well done, Firefox developers.

An example organization chart is included below. It describes the structure of the U.T. Austin Computation Center in February, 1988.

A lot has changed since then. One change is that U.T. Austin no longer has a Computation Center, and is rapidly running out of people who remember when it did have one, which is a shame. Also, only a handful of the people in that chart still work for the University at all.