Jul 21, 2012

Photography Tour to Munnar - Part 1

I went on a photography tour to Munnar in Apr 2012, organized by Darter Photography. My wife found out about Darter Photography guys through internet and gifted me this trip - I guess she could not handle the amount of dust that had been gathering on my photography gear :) I had a wonderful time during the trip.

I am generally a big fan of road trips (driving myself) that include photography - but, have never been on a organized tour focusing on photography. One great thing I felt about this Darter trip was this - you just take your photography gear and shoot and every other logistic issue is taken care by them. That's great!

Travel from Bangalore to Munnar and Back
The cost and the arrangement of travel to and from Munnar is not officially included in the Darter tour. But Arun - our tour organizer and landscape photography expert - mentioned to me that he could arrange for the travel through bus for additional cost covering the bus fare. I took that option and am very happy for that - everyone on the tour was actually travelling from Bangalore in the bus and we had good time. Our onward journey from Bangalore to Munnar is booked through KPN travels. There was one glitch in this from the bus operator's side - the sleeper coach that we were actually booked on, only runs till Udumalai Pettai. From Udumalai pettai to Munnar they have put us on a dingy van for around 85 Kms.

Return trip was booked  through SRS travels. They have run the sleeper bus from Munnar to Bangalore without any "changeovers". The bus was more comfortable as well for the group to sit together and have nice chats.

Stay at Deshadan Mountain Resort
Deshadan Resort, Munnar - Inside the room (HDR)
Deshadan Resort, Munnar - Beautiful View from Inside the room (HDR)
Darter has booked us all in the Deshadan Resort at Munnar. They advertise this resort as the highest (in terms of altitude) mountain resort in Kerala. I am not sure about the claim - but I am very impressed with the rooms, the views they offer and the food. The manager was very helpful and took care of the group's needs well. The downside with this hotel is that, it is located pretty far from the Munnar town. This means that you either need to have your private vehicle or be dependent on taxi for going out to see places. In our case, this was not a problem, as we have had vans or jeeps arranged for our group's travel.
The tour group of 10 enthusiast photographers at Deshadan resort, Munnar
The photography tour officially started off after our lunch on the day that we reached Munnar. There was at first an indoor session about some basics of photography in general and landscape photography in particular. The plan was to go for a photowalk along a road overlooking the valley for sunset. Weather apparently did not like our plans - it was rainy and gloomy and we did not get to see the sun.
Curvy Intersections - Munnar
Curvy intersections, Munnar
So, we focused instead on trying to shoot some interesting pictures of the valley with the bad light. I have tried shooting the curvy roads and patterns that are available in abundance at Munnar.
A Lonely house
A lonely house and curvy roads
Early morning trek to a viewpoint near Deshadan
On the next morning, we have started early (around 6) for a short trek up towards a viewpoint near the resort. Even that day was cloudy, but not as bad as the previous evening. The sun still didn't show up initially.
Photographers at work, Munnar
Fellow photographers at  work
I had bought my tripod quite sometime back - but have never really used it on a photo shoot, mainly due to laziness! But in this trip with all the fellow photographers working with the tripod, I have shot with it for the whole time and enjoyed the freedom it has given me to keep my shots at a low ISO and longer exposure.
Lone Man Standing - Taken at Munnar (HDR)
Lone man standing (HDR) - some light started to show up
The moody sky and misty landscape had its own tinge of nice colors.
Slopes and the moody sky (HDR), Munnar
Slopes and the moody sky (HDR), Munnar
All the directions that one turns to, provide a beautiful view of stacked mountains with a nice contrast in colors, because of the light.
Stack of mountains (HDR), Munnar
Stack of mountains (HDR)
The hill lock that we have climbed on, did not have anybody else at that moment - all the views and serenity, just for us!
Solitude (HDR), Munnar
Solitude (HDR)
Competition (HDR), Munnar
Competition (HDR) - Improved light and the blue sky

Later on the weather improved a little bit more. Though the sun did not show up well, there was more light and some definition in the sky and clouds. A lot of these photos are processed as high dynamic range (HDR) images. This basically means taking multiple exposures for a given scene and then merge them later. This will help expose all the areas in the scene better - to some extend, like a graduated ND filter.

I shall write more about this photography tour in some followup posts - which shall cover our trip to one of the oldest tea estates.

Jun 27, 2011

A Trip from Bangalore to Ooty

Its was nearly 6 months since our last vacation - a trip to Hampi. Me and my wife had decided to go for another trip this May. But in May, the choice of places gets limited heavily because of the summer heat in most places in India. We were debating if it should be Ooty or Coorg - finally decided on Ooty. We had also decided that we would not be driving down to Ooty and instead take a KSRTC bus.

Travel and Stay
We have booked tickets in KSRTC volvo (Airavat) - which starts from Kempegowda (Majestic) terminal, Bangalore around 10 PM and reaches Ooty by 5 AM. The bus journey was very comfortable - we reached Ooty earlier than expected by 4:45 AM. We have stayed at Ooty 3 nights - 2 of them at KSTDC hotel Mayura and 1 night at Holiday Inn Gem Park. KSTDC Mayura was located on the outskirts of Ooty - near GoodShepard school and honeymoon boat house. The location was beautiful with a full garden in front of the hotel - the garden has been maintained by horticulture department.

Bangalore to Ooty Route Map (266 Km)

Chained Flowers
Chained Flowers - Taken near KSTDC Hotel Mayura, Ooty
One major complaint about the place is food - its pretty bad. Add the fact that it is away from the town - Food is a major issue if one doesn't have own vehicle. Holiday Inn was pretty good - located in a hillock very close to the town. The stay at Holiday Inn was very comfortable and posh (it better be, considering the Rs 6500 tariff!). But I again found the food to be a bit disappointing. 
Panoramic view from the 9th mile shooting spot, Ooty (HDR)
Panoramic view from the 9th mile shooting spot, Ooty (HDR)
Ooty Lake and Honey moon boat house 
Honeymoon boat house is a smaller boathouse which was actually closer to the KSTDC hotel that we stayed at. This boathouse is a lot less crowded compared to the main boathouse.
Honeymoon Boat house, Ooty (HDR)
Honeymoon Boat house, Ooty (HDR)

Alone.. - near Boat House, Ooty

Another major attraction around this boathouse is the paved walkway around the lake - it is very serene and beautiful, at least in the morning (around 8 AM) not so crowded. I spotted this lonely looking sparrow (or may be not) near the lake. One can go horse riding around this lake.
Siblings - Waiting for the mother, near boat house, Ooty

St Stephens Church
This is the oldest church in Ooty - nearly 180 years old, built on 1830. Built by the British - one of the first buildings built by them at Ooty. 
St Stephens Church, Ooty - Exterior View (HDR)
St Stephens Church - Exterior View (HDR)

St. Stephens Church, Ooty (HDR)
St Stephens Church - Interior View (HDR)
St Stephens Church Ooty Panorama (HDR) - Interactive version is at my blog
Panoramic HDR of St Stephens Church Interior
We have visited this church on a Monday morning. I had the full liberty to try out interior HDR photography, when the caretaker told me that photography is allowed - there weren't any other pilgrims or tourists around. I have also created a interactive HDR panorama of the interiors - have posted it in a separate blog post.
Pykara Lake
Boat house at Pykara lake, Ooty (HDR)
Boat house at Pykara lake, Ooty (HDR)
Pykara lake is located 19kms away from Ooty. It is a huge lake with pretty clean water and serene surroundings - with a lot less crowd :) The banks of the lake makes wonderful leading shapes and colors that are great for photography
Play of light and shadows at Pykara lake, Ooty (HDR)
Play of light and shadows at Pykara lake, Ooty (HDR)

Golden Shine
Gloden Shine - Taken near tribal museum, Ooty

About HDR Processing
Most of the photos in this post (other than the sparrow, horses and the flowers) are HDR images.  I have used Luminance HDR - an open source HDR imaging software - for merging multiple exposures and tonemapping. There are various tonemapping operators in Luminance. My favorites are Mantiuk, Drago and Fattal - these are basically implementations of algorithms proposed in research papers. Most of the images here are a blend of images made by Mantiuk algorithm and Drago algorithm (using GIMP layers).

Jun 18, 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns - by Khaled Hosseini

If you are contemplating A Thousand Splendid Suns as your next book to read, then it is highly likely that you have read Hosseini's earlier book The Kite Runner. The Kite Runner is a great book - one of the best I have ever read. I started with the same apprehension people have, when they start reading the follow-up book, after a great first book from an author - Will this book live up to the standards of the previous oneBut the fact is that it is as enthralling and moving story as The Kite Runner, if not better - another masterpiece from Hosseini.

This book is similar to The Kite Runner in some aspects - friendship and Afghanistan. Both these novels start around the same point in time - sometime before 1973, when Daoud Khan overthrew the King of Afghanistan to become the president of Afghanistan - and ends at a point in time just after the Taliban was overthrown. This timeline enables the book to feed you with some history of this troubled country through its most troublesome time. There are bits about Daoud Khan's bloodless coup, his and his family's assassination after Soviet invasion, the freedom and education that Afghan women enjoyed during the communist (Soviet) regime, countless young men and women who lost their life in the (holy) struggle against the Soviet - a west sponsored Jihad, eventual withdrawal of  Soviets and much celebrated victory of Jihad and the Mujahedeen, how the infighting between Mujahdeen left Kabul as a city where rockets and gunfire are part of daily life (and death), rise and eventual takeover of Taliban - the darkest time for Afghan women and finally, the fall of Taliban.
The core of the book is not really about Afghan history. Its about two women - set apart by a generation, their unlikely friendship, suffering and eventual redemption. Mariam is an illegitimate child born to a wealthy business man and his housemaid in Herat - a north western city in Afghanistan, bordering Iran.  Her father Jalil, who cannot legitimise her for the fears of a societal fallout (he was already married thrice with a number of children), provides for the mother and daughter and keeps them away in a remote hut outside Herat. He visits them every Thursday, for which Mariam longs for. Mariam's life was pretty much event-less till she was 15 - alone with her mother, who abuses her as a Harami (illegitimate child), father who visits every week and a affectionate Mullah (a teacher, who teaches Islam) who visits the hut to teach her lessons of Koran. One fine day, when she went inside Herat to meet Jalil against her mothers wishes, her life took a serious turn that lead to her unendurable suffering and the friendship with Laila.

Laila was born in Kabul just around the time that the communists took over Afghanistan, which is roughly 20 years after Mariam was born. She had a much nicer family - a university educated father who was a teacher, a cheerful mother  and two elder brothers. When her brothers decided to join the Jihad against the communists, the life in the family took a turn for the worst. It had lead to a great depression and mental instability to her mother. Her father was fired from his job by the communists. Even then, she had  a lot better childhood compared to Mariam with a good primary education and an affectinate father - most of all she had her best friend, Tariq. Her life took the serious turn when the infighting among Mujahideens led Tariq's family to leave Afghanistan and her own parents to die in a rocket-fire.
The story unfolds in parts from the perspectives of Mariam and Laila - such a storeytelling technique works wonderfully well for this book. The characters seem so real and believable. Even though the settings of the story are so foreign and difficult to imagine (for example, "everytime there is a whistling sound overhead, it is the sound of an approaching rocket"), author makes us feel the characters' reactions and responses are genuine.

About the audiobook rendering :
I have actually "listened to" this book.  The audio-book was read by Atossa Leoni. She has done a wonderful job with her tone, which fits the moody style of the book very well. She has also done a great job in keeping a different accent throughout the book - I guess that's how an Afghan accent would sound, at least it sounded similar to Khaled Hosseini , who actually read the audio-book of The Kite Runner.

All in all, a great book. I would recommend it to any one, who doesn't mind a few dark and painful (depressing) passages in the story.

Jun 7, 2011

Fixing odd pinkish color casts in Firefox browser

I am running Firefox 4. I recently started noticing some odd pinkish color casts on images displayed in Firefox. The images look alright if I download and view them locally using an image viewer. They also look alright with Chrome as a browser. Following two images show the effect on an image in flickr - first one (with the odd color cast) in Firefox 4 and the second one in Chrome (without the color cast).

Flickr image - viewed with Firefox 4, extreme pinkish color cast in sky
Same Flickr image viewed in Chrome - no color casts, blue sky
In the images above the color casts in the sky are extremely odd and unacceptable. If you are viewing this post from Firefox (which has this issue), you may not be able to distinguish between these images - you need to save the jpgs to computer and view them locally to see the difference.

Fixing the problem:
This issue has something to do with ICC color correction feature of Firefox. Of course, this feature seems to work alright for most people. But there are apparently few cases where it goes awry and creates these pink color casts.
To fix, follow these steps :
  1. Type "about:config" in Firefox address bar - to access advanced settings and parameters. There may be a warning page - proceed further anyway.
  2. Look for the parameter named gfx.color_management.mode. You may use the filter above by typing "color" there.
 3. Double click the parameter gfx.color_management.mode. Change the value from "2" to "0".

 4. Close all Firwfox windows and restart Firefox. DONE!! Now the issue should have been fixed.

You can see the same Flickr image in Firefox below - Without the odd color cast

FIXED - Firefox without color cast

Does this work for you? Please let me know by commenting.

BTW, I am running Ubuntu 11.04 as operating system on a Dell Studio 15 laptop. But, I think the issue and the solution are independent of these parameters.

May 15, 2011

My first attempt at panoramic HDR photography and interactive virtual tour - St Stephens church, Ooty

Running the panorama
This interactive panorama is published as flash. You need flash to view it (obviously)! Sometimes, it may not be loaded in the first loading - just try refreshing your browser. The interactive panorama is hosted with dropbox - which may not be accessible behind the firewalls of some companies :(. If thats the case, please try at home !!!

What can be viewed
You can zoom in and out using the mouse wheel. You can look to your right and left by clicking and moving in left and right directions respectively. You can also look up and down (to a limited extent). This is a partial panorama with cylindrical projection (244 degrees).

About this place
St Stephens church was one of the first modern buildings to be constructed at Ooty. It was built by the British around 1830 - More about the church at Wikipedia.

St Stephens Church Ooty Panorama (HDR)
St Stephens Church, Ooty - Panoramic HDR : Final Image
Making of the panorama 
I have taken the photos handheld - tripod would made the picture much better, but I was a bit lazy. I took ten frames with three auto bracketed exposures for each (EV -2, 0, +2) . But some of the +2 exposures are shaken badly that I have to discard them. Finally I had 26 pictures in all.

I have used Hugin Panorama tools for stitching the photos together. This tool also has an option to blend multiple exposures (-2,0,+2) of the same image and then stitch. This option will produce a tiff file with high dynamic range. I have used this option for this panorama.
I have used Luminance HDR/ Qtpfsgui for HDR and tonemapping. I have used the resulting tiff file from Hugin as the input and created two tonemapped images (one with Drago algorithm and the other with Mantiuk algorithm). I merged these two images with GIMP with different opacity settings.
Please let me know your comments, criticisms and suggestions!

Apr 10, 2011

Sacred Center and Royal Enclosure at Hampi - Road trip from Bangalore to Hampi Part 2

As mentioned in my earlier post, we hired a guide for the whole of first day. There are two major temples at the Sacred center (and of course, so many smaller temples all around Hampi ruins) - Vittala temple and Virupaksha temple. We started our tour from Vittala temple. Vittala temple can be reached in multiple ways - one road for cars and buses that reaches from Kamalapur side and the other most popular trekking path that runs alongside the river from Virupaksha temple. We took the road through Kamalapura and drove by our car. 

Vittala temple:
Cars need to be parked around 1.5 kms away from Vittala temple. From there on, one could either walk or take these battery powered carts.  These cars created a bit of controversy lately - the auto drivers feel that this is taking their pie away! A worthy point of debate, I guess. Other thing one would notice here is that these electric carts are driven by women only. This is a government mandate towards empowerment of women.
Battery powered cart - driven by women

The road that leads from the parking place to the vittala temple goes through the old market area - a long straight road in front of the vittala temple, on whose sides, various merchandise were sold at the golden years of vijaya nagara.
In a way, Vittala temple gopura symbolizes the current state of the once great empire - ruins! I think, the damage to this gopura is more due to weather and negligence, rather than the invaders. There are no poojas conducted in the Vittala temple.
The famous stone chariot
The stone chariot that is used as the symbol of Karnataka tourism, is inside the vittala temple. Its an excellent piece of art. The wheels of the chariot can actually move, though restrained now to avoid damage due to tourists. I really couldn't get a shot of this chariot without the tourists in front
Looking upwards at the stone chariot

Vittala temple complex
Vittala temple has multiple mantapas inside. The main mantapa has multiple musical pillars. The tourists cannot go inside this mantapa - possibly because of the damage the tourists have done to the musical pillars, by curiously trying it out!
Musical pillers at Vittala temple, Hampi
There is a kalyana mantapa (marriage hall) inside Vittala temple - it was used for the marriages in the vijaya nagara royal family. The pillars and ceiling in this manta are decorated with excellent carvings depicting various stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata.
View of the stone chariot from inside the royal marriage hall

Intricate stone carvings on the ceiling of royal marriage hall inside Vittala temple

Beautifully sculptured stone pillars of the royal marriage hall
The main mantapa in the Vittala temple was also used for queen's private dance performance for the king. At those times, the whole mantapa would be covered by a screen cloth. The hooks for the screen are very nicely carved into the stone itself.
The screen hooks on the main mantapa of Vittala temple
The vittala temple is completely surrounded by rocks. Its just rocks, rocks and rocks everywhere. Vegetation is very hard to find - other than for the temple tree, which also was devoid of trees. But still, there was this lone parrot near the Vittala temple gopuram!

A Parrot at Vittala temple - a bird at the middle of this forest of rocks
Side entrance and gopura of Vittala temple
Leafless tree inside Vittala temple
Virupaksha temple:
Virupaksha temple is a Shiva temple located inside the Hampi village itself. This temple was somehow not damaged by the invasion - there are multiple stories for that. Also, this is one of the very few temples at Hampi, where there is still some regular poojas happen.
Virupaksha Temple, Hampi
Virupaksha temple main gopuram, Hampi

In Viupakshatemple, one needs to pay for bringing their camera in - but photography in general is permitted.
Inside Virupaksha temple
There is a temple elephant here,  which will bless you if you pay him for it. The interesting part is that it'll bless you for a short while if you pay by a coin. If you pay him a Rs10 note though, it'll bless you longer and let you come close and stand for long enough to take a picture with it :-)
Virupaksha temple at Hampi
Virupaksha temple - view of the temple elephant and the main gopuram

Virupaksha temple was built by two kingdoms - the portion in the front (shown in the photos here) was built by Vijaya nagara empire. Where as, the back portion (which includes the sanctum) was built by the Chalukyas (which dates farther back in history)

Hemakunta hill:
Ruined temple, Waiting for worshipers - Hemakunta Hill, Hampi (HDR)
One of many small ruined temples on top of Hemakunta hill - HDR

Hemakunta hill is a small hillock adjacent to Virupaksha temple. It has many small temples - some of which are adopted by the villagers and some pooja goes on.
View of some (green) farms from Hemakunta hills
This hill is famous for the views it offers over most of the sacred center of Hampi and also for a nice sunset view.
Temples on top of Hemakunta hill - Sunset View (HDR)

View of the Virupaksha temple and adjoining temples offer an excellent view from Hemakunta hills, especially in the morning or in the evening.
View of virupaksha temple complex from Hemakunta hill
The two storied stone mantapa on top of hemakunta hills is another iconic structure of Hampi.
Two storied mantapa on Hemakunta hill

Royal enclosure:
Royal enclosure is a large area that contains places where the Vijaya nagara royal family lived and conducted the government. Queen's bath is a private swimming pool for the queen. This building is built in the Indo-Islamic architecture and the pathways around the pool are beautiful.
Queen's bath, Hampi
A beautiful archway around the queens bath

Near the royal enclosure one can find many of these unused rocks. The holes in these rocks explain the method in which the rocks were cut during the Vijaya nagara days. These small holes are made in a large rock and a powder that generates immense heat (not sure on what kind of powder that is - may be the gun powder itself) was placed inside them. After some time (may be days), the heat makes the rock to crack along the line formed by the holes.
Extra slab of stone near royal enclosure - exhibits the method used for cutting the stone

Pushkaran - a beautiful stepped tank in the royal enclosure at Hampi
Pushkarini - a beautiful stepped tank in the royal enclosure at Hampi
Pushkarini - a beautifully stepped tank - is inside the royal enclosure. The geometrical perfection in this tank makes it a great visual treat.
Elephant stable - viewed from the top of Mahanavami Dhibba
Lotus Mahal is said to be a place for royal women to socialise. The architectural style is significantly different compared to other structures at Hampi - IndoIslamic style.
Lotus Mahal - a place for royal women to socialize
I have tied my hand at High Dynamic Range (HDR) with lotus mahal. Following picture is the result! A more detailed post on what I did, is here.
Lotus Mahal at Hampi (HDR)
Anther shot of this beautiful lotus mahal - An HDR image