Tag Archives: photography


I’ve made a book. It’s a book of photos, but it has words in it, because they’re photos of graffiti. Not clever or funny graffiti, just graffiti that I find very visually attractive: the colours and textures and patterns. The book is available at Lulu.com in softcover (a hardcover will be coming, but due to factors beyond my control, the list price will be excessive). But I’m also going to send a copy of it to everyone who is supporting me on Patreon for $5 or more per month as of December 31, 2020. Also, I’ve made a PDF of the book that’s available for free to all Patreon supporters regardless of level. (I have almost 20,000 subscribers to Sesquiotica, but right now I have only 16 – sixteen – patrons on Patreon, and most of them are at $1 or $2 a month. It barely covers the cost of running the website.)

And I’ve made a video of the book. Take a look! (Advance warning: there are some vulgar words in it, because of course there are, it’s graffiti.)


Negative is a negative word. Right?

Are you positive? Continue reading

16 insights for photographers

I don’t earn much of my income through photography. People don’t pay me for advice on how to take pictures. However, I’ve been taking pictures – with proper full-control cameras in several film sizes – since I was about six years old.

I learned photography, including darkroom developing and printing, from my dad, who was a professional photographer at the time. I love photography, I look at a lot of photographs, I take a lot of photographs. I also love photographic equipment and I know a lot about it.

So, as a little cherry to put on top of my 12 days of gifts for writers, here – in one day – are 16 insights for photographers. If you’re a lifelong serious photographer, each of these is probably something you already either know or disagree with (or both). If you don’t care about photography, skip this. If, however, you like taking pictures but would like more thoughts and insights, here are some things I’ve observed that might be useful to you. (If you don’t like frank language, well, be forewarned.) Continue reading


I had a bit of a party yesterday to celebrate a bit of a birthday. For half a day (I mean 12 hours) I took over the party room on the 33rd floor of the building where I live, and a goodly number of friends joined me to celebrate my attainment of half a century – or, as my brother reminded me, a third of a sesquicentury. (And 50 is one and a half times 33, so there’s that too.)

A 50th anniversary is a golden one, but 50 is the atomic number of tin, not gold. As it happens, my hair used to be gold, or goldish anyway, but is now much more the colour of tin. If you see 50 on a tin in Canada, it may be a can of Labatt’s 50, which is a beer. I suppose I could have been clever and served Labatt’s 50 at my party, but it’s not the sort of beer I buy often. Anyway, I was more focused on the sparkling wine, of which I bought two cases to serve those present (along with two cases of still wine, which may not be sparkling but it’s still wine).

The word fifty is obvious enough in its parts: fif meaning ‘five’ (the v in five was established later – in Old English, [v] was just a possible pronunciation of /f/ between vowels) and -ty a suffix meaning ‘ten’ and coming from a word meaning ‘decade’. But there is another suffix -ty that is related to Latin -itas and makes nouns of quality, such as beautyroyalty, and plenty. If royalty is ‘royalness’, fifty could almost be ‘fiveness’. That might be nifty – but it’s not so.

Many things are 50 in number. The states of the USA, for instance – and Hawai‘i, being the fiftieth to join, wears the number. But 50 is not so often a number of completion; more usually, it’s halfway, or an equal share, although it doesn’t always seem so – a 50% grey looks quite dark to most eyes; for a shade to look halfway between white and black, it needs to be closer to 33% grey, i.e., just 1/3 black (so a third of the way, just as my party room is a third of the way to the 100th floor – if there were one – and I’m a third of the way to being a sesquicentenarian). But 50 can also be a standard. In Canada, for instance, 50 kilometres per hour is the speed limit on any street not otherwise specified. And in 35 mm photography – and its digital equivalent, “full-frame” sensors – the standard “normal” lens has a focal length of 50 millimetres. In truth, it’s a slightly narrower angle of view than would best match what your eye sees in the same image area, but the length was established by Leitz for their Leica cameras on the basis of what they could make best at that time.

As it happens, I was using a Leitz 50mm lens during the party – I had it on my Sony camera; I took a picture of nearly every friend and family member who came (I missed a few). After night fell, I swapped to a faster, glowier 50mm lens. So it was 50–50, but it was always 50, though not for the sake of cleverness; I just wanted the look those lenses have. And so here I present what getting to be 50 has meant to me more than anything else: people. My family and friends. Here are 50 pictures of them (among which is one of me). Continue reading

TORONTO: the book

After my tasting of Toronto with pictures, and its sequel Toronto, part 2, I decided it would be fun to make a photo book with five-and-a-half dozen photos of Toronto, mainly to give some to people such as my parents. I was going to publish it via Lulu, where I’ve done Songs of Love and Grammar, but it turned out that for printing photos at a decent quality on decent paper I would face a choice of using one of their (ghastly, trite) templates or making an overlarge, very expensive volume. So I used Blurb instead. As you can see, it is a reality:

Alas, Blurb is not so cheap either. As you will see on Blurb, this 72-page book, not much over six inches square, lists at $35 Canadian ($28.69 US right now), which is rather a lot given its size – but a larger format would cost proportionally more. However, as the creator, I can order quantities at a discount, and I ordered a few to give to family with a few left over. If you fancy buying one off me for $25 Canadian (plus postage if necessary), let me know – email james at harbeck dot ca.

(If, on the other hand, you’d like a PDF copy of it, that can be arranged in exchange for a drink or some similar consideration; just email me to ask.)


What’s the take-away on abstracts?

Ha. Abstracts are the take-away.

An abstract can be any of several things, of course. It can be a short statement at the beginning of a paper or dissertation saying what the gist of the effort is – the synopsis, the tl;dr, the elevator pitch, the take-away. It can be an epitome, a microcosm or essence or distillation of a thing – when you take away all the variable excrescences, it is what you still have. It can be a work of art with most or all representation taken away – or should I say it has bits of what you can perceive taken away from all the other bits and presented in a purified form. Continue reading

Toronto, part 2

Some of you have said that you like my photos of Toronto. Most of the photos I included in my Toronto post were of the place more than of the people. But of course what makes Toronto Toronto is the people. I’ve gone through my last several years of photos from Toronto and pulled out a bunch more, including many of people (and a few more of places). And all of them were taken in Toronto. This time they’re all just in more or less the order I took them. There are many more on my Flickr site. Or you can get the book.


On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure. Continue reading

The size of the equipment

This article isn’t about words. Sorry! I couldn’t come up with a word-based excuse for it. It’s about cameras, but it’s about something you don’t need to be an insider to appreciate. Because it’s about the size of the equipment, and how much it means to some people.

Recently, the photo news site PetaPixel published an article about Donald Trump’s presidential portrait. They weren’t focusing on how the picture looked – though there are things that could be said about that. They were talking about the equipment used to take the picture. You can get this information from the digital file. The camera records it and anyone with the right software can see for themselves.

The thing that seemed amusing at first look was that the camera used is one that was released in 2007 and is no longer being made. It’s out of date in its technical specs. Why not use the latest, greatest equipment? If you’re the Donald?

A thing that caught my attention was that it was shot at a comparatively high ISO (allows for faster shutter speeds but sacrifices some image quality, especially in older cameras), even though it was shot with a wide aperture (which itself allows for higher speeds). Why do that?

But I know the answer to both questions: If you’re the Donald, it’s gotta be huge. It’s gotta look impressive. And the camera he was shot with was huge. Huge. And, even more important, the lens he was shot with was HUGE. Big and impressive and professional-looking. (I recently had some things to say about “professional“…)

The camera was a Canon EOS 1DS Mark III. See it on DPReview: It’s 15 cm by 16 cm (about 6 inches by 6.5 inches, the size of a dinner plate but thicker) and weighs 3 pounds even before you put a lens on it. It’s not up to current professional standards: 21 megapixels and top ISO of 1600. I have a camera sitting on my desk that’s the size of my (admittedly large) hand that blows it out of the water (and costs a lot less). But my camera is not impressive looking. The Canon EOS 1DS Mark III is exactly what the average non-photographer thinks of when thinking of a pro photographer’s equipment.

And then there’s that lens. If you think the camera is huge… I mean, no, it’s not the hugest lens you can get. But anything huger is not really appropriate for a portrait photo. See it on DPReview: It’s 20 cm long (that’s 8 inches), and it weighs more than three and a quarter pounds. Altogether, the equipment used to shoot Donald Trump’s presidential portrait weighed more than 6 pounds and was (once you add the body thickness to the lens length) almost a foot long.

And when you’re shooting with a rig like that, you need to shoot at a high shutter speed to make sure you don’t have motion blur – if you’re not using a tripod (as you should!) or the subject won’t stand still. In this case, the shutter speed was 1/320 of a second, which isn’t all that high – apparently the photographer didn’t have a full studio lighting setup, but I doubt that he/she was a currently working professional photographer, given the old equipment – but it’s enough to compensate for shaky hands or a moving subject.

So there it is. The reason for the rig (and the shutter speed and ISO) is that Donald got someone – maybe a friend or family member? – with a big, impressive-looking camera to shoot his picture, but whoever did it was not a studio pro and did not use studio lights or, probably, a tripod. Possibly it was a retired paparazzo. Maybe the camera was Donald’s own. Given that he’s using an old unsecure smartphone to tweet with, and given that his idea of quality is my idea of fugxury, that seems plausible.

Just by the way, PetaPixel also gave the info on the cameras used to shoot Barack Obama’s official portraits. Both were shot using Canon 5D bodies, which are slightly smaller cameras that still produce similar image quality to the 1D. (They’re still bigger than my Sony a7ii or a Leica, but they’re very versatile and are preferred by many professionals.) The photographer, Pete Souza, used the model that was most current at the time: the Mark II and then the Mark III. He shot the portraits at 1/125 of a second at much smaller apertures (for greater depth of field) but at low ISO for good quality, which means he was using proper professional lighting. Oh, and the lenses? Both comparatively “long” focal lengths – 105mm first, then 85mm, which is a standard portrait length – but much smaller than the lens used for the Donald. The one used in 2012 was only 3.3 inches long. But I really don’t think Obama felt he had anything to prove with the choice of photo equipment. He just let his official photographer use what was best according to his expertise.


How much is too much? When can you hold no more, when are you sated, satisfied, saturated?

In chemistry, it’s not such a hard question. Any substance that can dissolve in another substance will have a saturation point for any given temperature, above which no more can be dissolved, and that’s that. When the weather person tells you the humidity, it’s always in percentages, and 100% would be full saturation: any more moisture entering the air would not be able to stay in it for even a moment; it would condense or precipitate. When air is colder, it can hold less moisture, so the relative humidity is higher on cold days even though it doesn’t feel all that humid.

In other things, however, it is a more flexible concept. We talk about media saturation, or about reaching a saturation point in our use of technology or any other thing we figure we could reach a maximum tolerable level of. We’re often wrong – we have yet (as a society) to reach a social-media saturation, for instance, or for that matter any kind of technology saturation – and even when we’re right, it’s very hard to judge, and it changes. When has everybody had enough of this or that famous person?

Socially, any given person may have a particular saturation point, too. I know that if I’m at a party, once it passes a certain number of people, I find myself becoming a wallflower or finding a less populated room. It’s paradoxical: in chemistry, the thing that there is too much of precipitates out; socially, by contrast, the person who gets too much precipitates out.

Saturation comes from Latin saturare, which comes from satur ‘full’, which is related to satis ‘enough’. So sate and satisfy really are related to saturate. There may be things you’re sure you just can’t get enough of, but you’re probably wrong – although you may never get enough of them to find out how much is too much. I once remarked to a roommate that there was no such thing as too much basil in a pasta sauce, and whaddya know, he proved me wrong. Oh boy did he put a lot of basil in that sauce. Wow.

I think the use of saturate in publishing and photography gives a nice illustration – literally. It referred originally to the purity of an ink – the more saturated, the less diluted with black or white (and the richer in the intended colour). In other words, more saturated colours are purer, more intense.

But what inks are you using? Today, when we do so much on screen, our “inks” are pixels of red, green, and blue. So saturation these days means how little mixing of other colours in with the colour at hand, and how bright that colour is too. While this is in one sense paradoxical (since saturation in chemistry is a question of increasing mixture), your eyes will tell you that this saturation is indeed saturation: an increasing intensity, like sugar in a beverage or humidity in the air.

When you adjust the saturation on an image in Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom, or Image Ready (or some non-Adobe product), you can go down to 0% or up to 100%. But that 100% isn’t truly the maximum. You can take the resulting image and increase the saturation even again. You could iterate this quite a few times to get a saturation that would be several hundred percent – chemically impossible, but this isn’t chemistry.

Here’s an old barn in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. This is the original, with no adjustment of the saturation.

If I reduce the saturation by 25%, you can see that the colours are less intense. They are, in fact, more evened out between the three colours that make up your screen. It may look a little “older,” because films of times past were not always quite so vivid, and because prints tend to lose their vividness over time.

Let me take it down 75% – that is, to just 25% of the original saturation.

It looks almost black and white, doesn’t it? You can barely discern the green of the grass. If you desaturate fully, you get a black-and-white image (there can be more to a good B&W conversion than that, but I don’t want to glaze your eyes here).

Now let’s increase the saturation. If I push the slider up to 100% increase, you can see that the grass and barn and everything are very vivid.

This is a popular thing to do these days. Look at your Facebook news feed and you’ll probably see some “amazing!” photos that have had the saturation cranked way up. It’s like adding sugar to a sauce. The focus groups love it. It just seems so… wow.

But why stop there? Do those colours look like pure red, green, or blue? I think not. Let’s add another 50% (which we do by taking the 100% saturated image and treating it as the base for increasing saturation).

That graffiti is beginning to be pretty colourful, isn’t it? But wait: what about that old wood? It still looks grey. We have already learned that grey is what you get when you desaturate. I bet that the grey of that barn is not perfectly balanced between red, green, and blue. If we crank up the saturation even more, whichever colour it tilts slightly towards will come out in full force. Here, let’s increase the saturation another 100% on top of the last image, to make it 300% from the original.

Whaddya think? LSD vision, pipe dream, nightmare, or “mind=blown” Instagram filter? You still see the darks and lights – relative lightness is a separate matter from saturation – so you can still see that it’s a barn. But all of a sudden it looks, um, tie-dyed or something.

Some people like to max their saturation. They go to impossibly packed bars, binge-watch TV shows, drink Red Bull iteratively. Others prefer a life less vivid (or “loud”), more austere. Do you think oversaturation is a problem? Do you want to find a solution? You may remember the old saying “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I prefer the chemists’ version: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.” Consider that every oversaturation is just a solution that was taken too far. At which point something has to drop out. It may or may not be you.