It’s only black and white (but I like it)

How important is colour? Satchmo obviously thought it was wonderful and who could disagree.

 I see trees of green, red roses too
 I see them bloom for me and you
 And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

 I see skies of blue and clouds of white
 The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
 And I think to myself, what a wonderful world

This is one of my favourite songs. I love Armstrong’s gravelly voice and the clarity, simplicity of and sense of uplift conveyed by the lyrics. But how would it be if trees were black, roses were grey and skies were always white? Supposing we saw the world as a zone system?

I guess it would be boring if we were used to colour but perfectly acceptable if that were all we had ever known. I tried to get a simple answer to whether non-human animals see only in black and white but it does not seem so straightforward. I was lost in the physics of cones and the switches between diurnal and nocturnal vision and how supposedly humans dream in black and white. There is quite a nice attempt at an explanation here.

For me the question relates to photography. What works better in black and white as opposed to colour and why? I often produce two versions of the same image, one in colour and the other digitally processed to B&W. Here is an example – with only minor cropping differences it is the same image:

When I started I thought this would look better in B&W. I gave it a slightly old-fashioned feel in keeping with the antiquity of the shop. It reduced the annoying glare off the bright lights and somehow it just looked less “busy”. Perhaps the image itself doesn’t work. I was standing outside the shop and didn’t want to disturb the lady. I was using a reasonably wide aperture to keep the speed up but even so it was only 1/25s. I could have used a higher ISO. But there is a lot of foreground distraction and a few paces in would have been better but I am sure I would have lost the chance of the shot.

Eventually I was disappointed with the finished result so I went back to the colour version. On my monitor it looks slightly subdued when uploaded into WordPress but it looks better in Lightroom. On balance I find the colour additive. The red and gold in particular stand out. It still feels cluttered in the foreground but it has more life to it. Getting the colour balance right is tricky under artificial light – this is not too bad but it is more easily dealt with in B&W. Adjusting the tonality is less critical as the zones blend smoothly.

In both images I added some vignetting to bring the focus more into the centre of the image where the lady sits at her table and my personal sense is that this is more effective in B&W. The conclusion therefore is that neither image meets my threshold of satisfaction. I like elements of both but I would not like to be without colour as an option. I have read that to be a good B&W photographer you do have to learn to visualize the subject matter in monochrome and this dual processing helps me towards that goal.

Here is one image I do think worked well in black and white:

I leave you to decide whether you agree.

No doubt it is a wonderful world even if we do our best to screw it up at times. We don’t have extremes of seasons in Hong Kong. A lot more variation than in Singapore where you can rely on a 365 day weather forecast. But our frangipani tree is beginning to shed its leaves, the first reports of autumn migrant birds are coming through and with a bit of luck the temperatures and humidity will start to drop a little. We are coming to the end of the Hungry Ghost Month. And I am coming to the end of this post.

The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.



Vote for Lulu

I am on a nostalgia trip. A week ago I entered “Hereford” into the Flickr search engine. I grew up there from 1960 to roughly 1975. I then visited regularly until 2000, when my mother finally passed away. Most of my formative years were therefore spent in a small, relatively sleepy, agricultural city. No offense. And of course it didn’t seem that way at the time. The population was about 50,000 and on Thursdays it was swelled by the hill farmers of Wales coming in for market day. The Cattle Market was a true market for farm animals and not a Wanchai nightclub. More baaa and moo than Soo-zie Wong.

By the way, if you ever get the chance to watch the film “The World of Suzie Wong” do so. Its freely available on any Cathay flight with a decent entertainment system. Stars William Holden so you can guess how old it is.

The photos I found were both contemporary and old. It was the old ones that fascinated me. Buildings I remember, long gone now I suspect. In the name of progress, knock it down. The fashions, the vehicles, the advertisements all took me back and I was once again a teenager. I have some slides my father took in the 60s and 70s. I want to get them scanned. Somewhere I know there are slides of the great floods that covered the playing fields of Bishop’s Meadow, so high they covered Victoria Bridge. I must find them if they have not been mislaid as I have moved around the world. I remember having sufficient interest in wildlife to go to the museum and see the stuffed birds in glass cases. They were past their best then so I can’t believe they are still there. I was briefly fascinated by fossils and joined the Woolhope Club. Now I almost qualify as a fossil myself. I went for long walks with my father in Haugh Wood (pronounced ‘hoff’) and occasionally we ventured to Queen’s Wood. Apart from the normal struggles of growing up life was pretty simple.

What is also fascinating to me is the journey I have taken from those days in Hereford, when a 4 mile drive was something of an event,  to where I am today. I think little of doing a day trip from HK to Abu Dhabi. Last year I flew into Heathrow from HK at 5am, did a day in London at the office and flew back to HK in the evening. I get used to being moved past immigration by protocol officers in “difficult” countries. Never queue. I travel there in cars with an armed guard by my side, cars front and rear. I take the kalashnikov for granted! It is something of an unreal existence at times and I can’t wait for it to end. It is not glamorous, I promise you. On Thursday night I boarded my Cathay Pacific flight from Dubai to HK at 11pm. We took off at 3.30am on Friday. Over 4 hours waiting for the plane to be deemed safe to fly. No aircon. Outside temperature was almost 40 Celsius. I was in row 2. I could wander around, stand in the doorway to get some breeze, chat to the pilot and the crew but at the back it was Dante’s Inferno. Each row further back was the descent into hell. Frayed temperatures, melting children, boiling parents. The perfect argument for teleportation. Beam me up, Scotty. When I arrived home in HK I had missed my afternoon meeting and I had managed two hours sleep in 36.

In 2004 I met a group of uni friends for the first time in 25 years. Just a dozen of us. It was an alarming experience. Only two of us were what I would call well-travelled. Most had settled in to a routine that worked for them but would have driven me mad. One died shortly after the reunion. I have lost touch with most of them again. I wonder what a school reunion would be like? In Hereford. I’d jump at the chance. Fly 6,000 miles to take part. But I fear I would again be the struggling teenager, unable to fit in. I’ve been in Papua New Guinea, Galapagos, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Lima, Kathmandu, Kakadu….. I met Yvonne Goolagong at Ayers Rock – what about that?! And yet I would love to go the cattle market again, see The Bulls play at Edgar Street, visit Castle Green, walk through The Close and hear the choir sing in the cathedral. Why, it must be about time for the Three Choirs Festival. I would drive out to Mordiford, up to Hay, down to Symonds Yat to see the peregrines ……. I would walk through the churchyard of St. Paul’s, Tupsley and see if Mrs. Foley is still in Hampton Dene Road. I would walk the roads we lived in and remember the family friends we grew up with. On reflection, it beats the Kazakhstan kalashnikov experience.

A friend wrote to me this week bemoaning the state of the UK. The looting and rioting is sickening to watch. He speculated that this is just the start of the war between the Haves and the Have-Nots. I guess I am a Have, I am not sure. And I will never live in Britain again. But Hong Kong has similar tensions, not yet so strongly manifested. I think the crisis is more profound. I think it is a crisis of leadership, a dearth of people prepared to stand up and do what is right. How many Madibas are there out there? Not many. And that is more worrying. The world is so connected today. Now more than ever we need people who can take a global view. Volunteers please step forward. In the absence of anybody better here is my candidate:

Princess Lulu

Now don’t you just think everybody would vote for my dog? Never mind O’Barmy, Cameron, Merkel, Gillard (is she a real person or straight out of madame Tussaud’s?), or indeed Mr. Wu the window cleaner, VOTE FOR LULU.

The ups and downs of life

After seeing my pension fund slide dramatically last week I had every reason to feel pretty down come the weekend. The politicians have conspired to make a crisis out of a drama. On both sides of “The Pond” credibility is close to zero and the man in the street suffers as a result. I will sit it out and hope sanity returns but it is not a comfortable ride. From AAA to AAArgh.

Then on Saturday we visited a schoolfriend of my wife. Terminally ill at 5o-something and a last chance to say goodbye. Pretty sobering. Cancer. Aggressive. Spread throughout the major organs. Too weak to talk. Stick thin, hair in wisps but still forcing a smile. Shirley held out until we left then the floodgates opened. Her friend’s sister has nursed her throughout. As we left she comforted Shirley and said “Don’t be upset, she has had a wonderful life”. Of such stuff are heroines made.

On Saturday afternoon a rare visit from a good chum of mine to talk moths. We are both busy and it was great to see he is on the up with more and more work coming in. I hadn’t run my trap for a while but after a couple of hours chin-wagging I thought I would see what was on the wing. I lit up at about 7pm and got up at 5am to check the night’s arrivals. I don’t kill and set them. Nice specimens are photographed and released, others just fly away when the light is eventually turned off.  I keep trying to convince people that moths are pretty things – the butterflies of the night – but most are unconvinced, Shirley included. So here are 3 from last night to gainsay all you Doubting Thomas types.

Actias selene - male

This is a moon moth. Quite beautiful and as large as a side plate. The left forewing is slightly marked but otherwise this looks a lovely fresh specimen. These are not common but neither are they rare. I see them maybe once or twice a year.

Dichocrocis zebralis

Now who on earth named this? Zebralis! It is of course slightly smaller than a zebra with a wingspan of 25mm. And whoever saw a zebra with a wingspan of any dimension? I am simply baffled why anyone could be so daft! It is however most definitely not a little brown job. And here is another cracker….

Lygropia quaternalis

Now that’s a real beauty – a tad smaller with wingspan 17mm but beautifully marked. I saw 3 or 4 of these last night. Look at the black kneecaps! To the lep man this is a crambid (not to be confused with a cranberry).

I have maybe another 40 or 50 photos to go through and many species to identify. But it keeps me off the streets. Three weeks in a row away from home. The last 2 weeks in Singapore, the next in Dubai. And it is Ramadan. And 46 degrees Celsius. Woe is me. Roll on retirement and roll up the equity markets. Please.