Saint Nicholas Parade 2014

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On 15 November Saint Nicholas arrived in the Netherlands with his Black Peters having traveled here on his steam boat all the way from his palace in Spain.

The day after, he participated in parades all over the country. I went and took pictures of his parade in Amsterdam.

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The past two years there has been an intense debate, if you even want to call it that, about Saint Nicholas’ famous helper, Black Peter. There are people who figure if they cannot destroy racism, they could at least have a go at what they perceive to be a symbol of racism. Racists have come crawling out of the woodwork by the hundreds of thousands to ‘defend’ Black Peter, by which they mean that they claim the right to call every person of colour ‘black peter’ any time they want (reducing said person to a cartoon character).

And everybody else (the majority) is closing their eyes, hoping this will all go away.

The anti-Petes started a lawsuit last year, claiming that the city of Amsterdam should not have issued a permit for the Saint Nicholas parade in Amsterdam considering that Black Peter represents a negative stereo type of black people (bright red lips, golden earrings, curly hair and so on). The court agreed with them (Dutch) and came to the curious conclusion that the city should reconsider the permit for an event that had already taken place.

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Lacking a time machine, the Netherlands did not go back to November 2013 to cancel the parade.

One of the reasons Black Peter is black, legend has it, is because he has to clamber down and up chimneys to deliver presents. The soot is so persistent that it no longer comes off. That is why the city of Amsterdam decided that this year some of the Petes would appear in a semi-sooted state. To be honest, I did not notice many Roetpieten (Soot Petes), as they were soon dubbed. Most of the Black Peters in the parade looked the same as they did last year.

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You have to wonder if this was a serious attempt of the city to find a middle ground, or if the people that govern us belong to the group who want all this to just blow over.

Interestingly the Head Pete (Saint Nicholas’ right hand, bearer of the book of names of all children and the most authoritative figure in the parade after Saint Nicholas himself) did show up as a Soot Pete this year.

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Shown throughout this posting are a couple of photos I took this year.

In 2013 I posted the photos I took of the parade that year as an album on the Flickr account of 24 Oranges. My co-blogger asked me not to do that this year. That is why I posted them to my own Flickr account. See for yourselves if you think Amsterdam has done enough to kill of any racist stereotypes. You can find my 2013 album here, and my 2014 album here.

Note that the 2013 parade was already supposed to be toned down in that Black Peters had shed their golden earrings.

You would probably like to know what my opinion is of all this. The thing is I do have a position and I would love to share it, but my position is based on a lot of anecdotal evidence and I am not sure it would hold up to even the lightest scrutiny. As a result I don’t think sharing what I feel about this sordid affair would, at this point, add anything meaningful to the debate.

A thing I like about photo workflow tools

The past few years I’ve started to take my amateur photography more serious, even though you cannot always tell from the quality of my output.

As a result I also spend more time behind my computer editing photos. It is still completely true that it is better to get a photo right in the camera than to have to salvage it in post-processing, but there are things you can do in post that you cannot do in the camera. This helps to give you an edge and to express yourself even better through photography.

Having been a contributor for the GIMP—an open source, so-called bitmap editor for photos—I am convinced of the program’s qualities (even though it doesn’t do 16 bits per colour), but recently I have started working a lot with workflow-based editors.

Bitmap editors work by giving you a virtual easel or canvas (neither metaphor is perfect) upon which you can do anything you like. Typically you use them to:

  1. Work on a photo.
  2. Save the final product.
  3. Move on to the next photo in the set.

Photoshop is another example of this category of editor.

Workflow-based tools let you swap steps 2 and 3. They also let you perform edits on a whole series of photos at once. Examples of this category are Raw Therapee, Lightroom and Aperture.

The workflow-based editors have several features that come in handy:

  • Non-destructive editing.
  • Image organization.
  • Profiles/recipes.

Non-destructive editing means that the software stores a list of edits alongside your original photo. If you want to undo some of these edits, you can. With a bitmap editor you have to make a copy of the photo and some mistakes cannot be undone. (Bitmap editors have features like multiple undo, layers and adjustment layers that help ease some of this pain.) Once you are happy with the edits of all your photos, you run a batch job to produce a final album.

Image organization helps with this because it lets you preview several images at once. You can even compare images in a half finished state. Again, the workflow-based tool does not destroy the underlying image when you save the image, but only stores a list of changes.

There is no particular reason why the makers of bitmap editors could not add this functionality to their tools. In fact I know the makers of the GIMP have discussed non-destructive editing in the past. In the end other features received a higher priority, which is understandable.

The reason I use the Canon tool instead of the potentially superior Raw Therapee is hidden in the word ‘potentially’. Raw Therapee does not fulfil the two minimum requirements for a usable workflow-based tool because its photo organiser does not let you preview edited photos correctly. (This may be a problem with the Windows version only, I haven’t tried the Linux version.)

Profiles/recipes, by the way, are sets of edits that you re-use across multiple photos. I find that I have little use for these. I started editing albums of photos because I still shoot roller derby and the lighting conditions of roller derby bouts tend to be such that every photo is its own set of problems. I can imagine though that if you have the same light in all or most of your photos, such recipes could prove useful.

Similarly, if you only have the odd photo to edit and don’t care as much about putting a little extra work in getting a consistent look with the tools you know, you might as well stick with the bitmap editor of your choice.

[Screenshot of a workflow editor.]

The changes I make in the toolbox to the right will show up in the preview to the left, but will not affect the underlying image file. If you need a file with these settings, you need to select File / Convert and Save in this editor (DPP).

Long and rambling review of the Ducky DK2108 computer keyboard

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Ducky Zero DK2108

Abstract: buy it if you want to try it, or not, it’s all good.

I wanted to own a real keyboard.

The currents of modernity sweep into curious directions. For instance there is a strong tendency among manufacturers to make things that break easily. This forces consumers into buying the same thing—or a slight up- or downgrade of that thing—over and over again. (See: planned obsolescence.)

Also the desktop PC seems to be on its way out. Plumbers and archdukes alike seem to perform the majority of their computing tasks on ever shrinking devices. I’ve even seen programmers switch to tablets. I do not belong to that group of people. Big and fast devices make my job (I am a web developer) significantly easier.

These days if you want to buy a keyboard, you buy a plastic affair for 10 bucks that starts to disintegrate almost the moment you join the queue at the computer store’s check-out.

I moved the other way and went for a 100 euro mechanical keyboard, the Ducky DK2108.

This is a review of that keyboard. It is unnecessarily long and rambling, because I wrote it twice and then haphazardly merged the two reviews, and then I failed to reach a solid conclusion. Go figure. I post this because I think it can still be useful, but you may have to bear with me a bit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Photographing running events, what I learned

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I should probably make this a series of notes-to-self whenever I try a new category of photography.

Anyway, I went to the Amsterdam marathon last October, which is held conveniently close to my house (or inconveniently—I had to cancel a photo walk because I was in the middle of an artificial island bordered by blocked roads).

You can find my photos of this event at Wikimedia Commons.

Usually I check Google before I engage a new photographic subject, but since I am decent at indoor sports, and indoor sports typically is a bit harder than outdoor sports, I figured: meh, I’ve got this.

Turned out I did not.

So, back to basics:

  • When shooting sports, familiarize yourself with the sport at hand. Figure out what makes this sport interesting, what its rules are, who is playing which role, what emotions you can expect from which players and so on.

Furthermore:

  • If in the Netherlands: bring an umbrella (or at least check the forecast).
  • Don’t photograph black athletes under a leafy canopy on a clouded day (or use flash?). The moment I moved away from under the leaves I no longer needed post-processing to make facial features visible.
  • Having audience members in the background can add to the photo, but with athletes running at their side of the road, the audience can get in close focus and become part of the foreground. That can work in some circumstances, but preferably needs to be a conscious choice of the photographer.
  • Look otherwise for clear backgrounds.
  • You don’t get a second chance after all (unless the athletes are running in circles), so determining the background for each athlete (or the choice to just wing it) should be a conscious decision taken beforehand.
  • The long end of my sports zoom (Sigma 50-150mm f2.8, 3rd generation) is the weakest. So far I’ve mostly been shooting athletes indoors, where the softness of the lens at the long end is only a part of the mix of things that also influences the wide end. Outdoors the softness of fully zoomed in was too much of an annoyance, but I was struggling to figure out if perhaps I should shoot at 100mm and crop later.
  • Photographing runners near the start: everybody still looks fresh; everybody’s still running in a group. Everybody’s still running. You may get the occasional lone runner.
  • Photographing runners near the finish: solitary heroes who look tired. You miss out on runners who left the race earlier on. Figure out which you want by asking yourself the question: why am I shooting this event?

What I already knew:

  • Use a fast shutter speed to freeze a moving subject or combine a slow shutter speed with following the athlete with your lens to create a nice stripey effect.
  • Get low so that your subject appears more heroic. Outdoors this means you maybe you shooting against the sky, so adjust your exposure accordingly, that is: underexpose.

I realise this list could be much longer.

One thing I noticed when looking at Google Images for photos others took of marathons is that some photographers prefer artistic race photos, which could be interesting to experiment with.

If you want to use this photo, head over to its Wikimedia Commons page and read the terms and conditions of the license.