beautiful distortion

On the few occasions that folks have asked me for photography help, I’ve had to explain what “ISO” means and how it works. It’s kind of a tricky subject, especially since its meaning in digital photography is a little different than its origins in the world of film. What it comes down to, ultimately, is sensitivity.

ISO, in analog photography, refers to a standard for identifying how well film captures light. The higher the number, the more sensitive. Higher sensitivity comes with a trade-off, however; you get distortion. In film this comes in the form of larger crystalline structures on the resulting negative, or “grain.” So pictures taken on film with a high light sensitivity look a little coarse and lose some of the fine detail. To many photographers the grain is only a slight trade-off since it can add depth and character to images. Different film stocks from different manufacturers have varying qualities under particular lighting conditions.

In digital photography, ISO refers to the camera sensor’s responsiveness to light. When you crank up the ISO to a higher number you can capture more light. But you still have that trade-off; increasing the ISO on a digital camera creates visual distortion, or “noise.” The best digital cameras, in my opinion, degrade gracefully at higher ISO settings. The noise looks less like static on a television and more like, well, film grain. I’ve seen it on certain Ricoh point-and-shoots, Leica’s crazy high-end digitals, and even my iPhone 4 (when converted to black and white).

This graceful degradation reminded me, recently, of another artistic tool where distortion isn’t all that bad: guitar amplifiers. A great deal of guitar amplifiers have a knob labeled “gain,” and this is directly analogous to a digital camera’s ISO setting. That’s because it’s increasing the equipment’s sensitivity to the incoming signal (in this case the electrical sound signal from a guitar). If you turn up the gain too high you overload the amplifier and the sound output starts to break up, creating distortion.

Quite a few musicians enjoy their distortion, of course, but have varying tolerances for how easily it kicks in and how evenly it builds. Amplifiers that allow players to crank up the gain without distorting the sound can fetch a pretty penny. Nikon’s D3s and Canon’s 1D-MkIV, similarly, don’t come cheap, because of their respective abilities to crank up the ISO setting with less noise than other cameras. Some amps, on the other hand, are desired specifically for their distortion characteristics, and famous makers such as Marshall, Fender, and Orange, are sought after because of their signature overdriven tones. Likewise, I might choose Kodak’s Tri-X film over Ilford’s Delta 400 because I prefer the look of one film’s grain structure over another.

So maybe this will clear things up if you play electric guitar, I suppose. Or perhaps it will confuse you further. I just hope this makes ISO a little easier to understand for some folks.

On a Molecular Level

Incredible! The BBC reports on IBM’s research that has led to the imaging of a single molecule and its bonds! Just as fascinating (to nerds like me) is the imaging methodology:

Their version of the device acts like a tiny tuning fork, with one of the prongs of the fork passing incredibly close to the sample and the other farther away.

When the fork is set vibrating, the prong nearest the sample will experience a minuscule shift in the frequency of its vibration, simply because it is getting close to the molecule.

Comparing the frequencies of the two prongs gives a measure of just how close the nearer prong is, effectively mapping out the molecule’s structure.

I, Robot

Tonight I finished reading Isaac Asimov’s acclaimed collection of short stories: I, Robot. This is my introduction to Asimov’s writing but I enjoy it already. While I enjoyed his style of writing, I was most impressed by the heady concepts which I found pervaded the anthology. Besides the in-depth consideration of the psychology of robotic machines, we’re presented with a picture of the human impact of the presence of such technology from its near introduction to its startling potential future.

At a brief 256 pages (or 192 in my 70’s edition belonging to my wife’s late father) it makes for a quick read of all stories. Now I feel like it’s but a small taste to whet my appetite for more of Asimov’s work.

Palm Pre

I followed along with Engadget’s coverage of the Palm Pre announcement, and I have to say that I’m initially impressed by the screen shots and interface descriptions. I’ll reserve judgment, however, until I get a chance to actually play with one in a Sprint store.

I’m not at all feeling a desire to abandon my Apple-shaped ship, but I’d like to see strong competition to the iPhone and its operating system. Only stiff competitive pressure can drive Apple to continue improving and innovating (in my mind), so the more the merrier. At the least, it’s nice to see another serious phone OS that has the potential to continue burying the abysmal Windows Mobile.

UPDATE: I’m not an interface designer or a patent attorney, but a LOT of the interface idioms from the OS on the Palm Pre seem straight-up copied from the iPhone OS. I don’t know how many ways there are to gesture/display/etc, nor what could be considered “obvious” to the patent office, but check out this demo clip to see for yourself, if you’re at all familiar with the iPhone interface first hand.

Stuff Happens, or Why Bill Nye Is Still My Hero

Tonight Valerie and I watched, for the first time, Stuff Happens. Here we have a show hosted by Bill Nye (the Science Guy!) that explores the environmental impact of our everyday lives in an industrialized nation, and the two half-hour episodes we caught investigated the common kitchen and breakfast foods (an apt pairing, I’d say). There a plenty of statistics, demonstrations, illustrations, and so forth, all presented in that down-to-earth and quirky Bill Nye fashion.

I know the distribution of the Science Channel or Planet Green isn’t too widespread, but if you have either one, check it out. Entertaining and informative.