What the heck is ISO anyway? A sensitive question.

Setting ISO is often described as setting the sensitivity of the sensor. This…works. Kind of. It’s not technically true, but the value of the practically useful explanation holds up for a long time. For most practical purposes, it just doesn’t matter.

This is one of those recurring topics on forums where people snipe at each other endlessly without convincing anyone of anything. In fact, one such thread prompted this, and it started as a “photography myths” thread which is now entirely a few people going back and forth. It is tiresome, and they’re mostly talking past each other based on some misreading a page or ten back.

Guess why I stay away from forums these days.

So here’s the facts. No meanness. No smugness. Just a basic explanation.

Sensors are electronic things, and electronic things have electronic noise. Camera sensors are covered in little techo-bits called photosites. Each one measures a tiny little amount of whatever photons land on the sensor, usually after it’s passed through various filters that cut out certain kinds of light like infrared and ultraviolet. As the camera samples more of that signal coming off the sensor, more of the noise is tangible. If you’ve ever played with the gain on your laptop microphone and heard noise as it goes up, it’s a similar thing.

As the noise increases, our subjective ability to tolerate its impact on the aesthetic quality of the signal declines. Higher quality sensors and signal processing pathways between the sensor and the media it’s recorded on reduce the noise, and so reduce the aesthetic impact of increasing the gain.

A photosite on a digital camera sensor always measures the same amount of noise along with the signal of the photons hitting it. Setting the ISO sets the gain, though it’s not like a gain knob on audio equipment. The ISO we talk about with cameras is a standard produced by the International Organization for Standardization that defines the relation between gain and the ISO number as it relates to the shutter speed and aperture. So while it’s technically true that ISO controls sensitivity, it refers to the sensitivity of the camera’s signal processing pathway, not the sensor itself.

The sensor always has a certain amount of noise, fixed on the day it was produced, based on choices made regarding target market and available chip-making technology. Better sensors have a lower noise floor and thus reveal less noise as the camera samples at ever-higher ISO levels. Cheaper, smaller sensors have more, so turning the camera’s sensitivity up via ISO will reveal more of the ever-present noise while also showing more of the recorded photons. This tends to hit a subjective point where the electronic noise overwhelms the aesthetic quality of the recorded light. We’re likely a few sensor generations from noise being a non-issue at all practical ISO settings. Expect a renaissance in night and astrophotography.

Generally speaking, the better you expose a photo via shutter and aperture, the more it drowns out the noise. This is why dark portions of photos often seem noisier. Less photons, higher percentage of the ambient noise at the same sampling rate. Most cameras have an option to sample a shutter-closed frame equal to the length of the exposure to subtract the noise pattern from the image since this usually involves scenes with very little light.

So here's what happened

Three months, two hotels, and two room changes later, I’m in something resembling stability for the duration of the rebuild.

I don’t want to go into detail for personal security reasons, but if you’re here, you probably came through one of my many shares on Mastodon where I occasionally mentioned the people I live with make me fear for my safety.

One of the scenarios I worried about happened. We all got out alive before the whole thing came down, but almost everything was lost with the house. I got out with a few of my more expensive work things, but I’m not convinced there will be any money left to cover what I’ve had to spend of my savings once the costs of rebuilding are covered. Living is expensive when you don’t have a kitchen!

Anyway. I’m down $31/month to about $90/month since announcing the move to Ko-fi. No one who canceled on Patreon moved to Ko-fi. I feel the inflated prices and stagnant pay of our era more than most, so I get it. I have an oven, stove, freezer, and toaster now, so things are looking up.

That's my whole income until, after three months of delay, I start building a portfolio so I can take commissions.

I had literally, literally literally, just started on this after five years of accumulating enough tools to actually do it when time came to evacuate. Great timing.

I got a nice thrift shop desk and mostly functional desk chair for my room in the apartment I’ll be in for the duration of rebuild, so now I can actually start working on music again. I upgraded to Komplete 13 Ultimate CE with all the orchestral and cinematic stuff as planned, but I lost the stuff I planned to sell off to spare the hit to my savings. The alternative was to wait yet another year to finally have all the pieces in place on what I started building in 2017, and I’m tired of waiting.

The main goal now is to get back up to where I was at the peak of $200/month so I can save enough to replace my laptop in case I can’t get it out of the next disaster. I was lucky my planning for the last one worked at all! My next actual purchase will be a desk chair. The ancient $7 I got at a thrift store had a broken hole where one wheel goes, and it's a little hard to use it with one missing. First, though, a cheaper memory upgrade for my laptop to make sure I can get things shipped here from the same company since the address isn't in every system yet, and sometimes deliveries get routed wrong.

Expect new music soon as I work on a new album. It’s going to be epic. Here's a small preview. The finished thing will be more synthy. Pianos just make composing and arranging easier.

Ko-fi supporters will get screen recordings of Ableton Live as I work on stuff, plus super secret private blog posts where I share MP3s of experiments and works in progress.

Click the handy button below to go to my Ko-fi page.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-ficom

Skyscraper (short story)

Foxes, like the fennec Karpat here, were born of the World Tree, and rarely left the comfort of the vast forests and plains of the dara (”gift of life,” called wilderness in more vulgar places).

Karpat pulled at one of the vines running up the ancient, long-abandoned skyscraper. Lines of green and red wound their way in and out of broken windows, up the statues of foxes, otters, and other species that adorned the old, crumbling metropolis. He looked down the cracked asphalt road, considering his decision, then back up.

Decision made, affirmed by a few deep breaths, he pulled again, then hefted his weight up, planting his feet on a horizontal section of vine. The plants crunched under his weight, squeaked against steel as they shifted, and smelled of mint when they broke.

Covered in and sated by the minty, nutritious life blood of the Tree, he pulled himself into a room halfway up after sunset. He spent the night there, then set out in the morning.

Karpat held on to the wall and planted one foot on a vine outside the window, then the other foot. He grabbed a higher portion of the vine with one paw, then moved the other to it, but it broke as he put his full weight on it. He plunged to his death clutching a falling column of vine, then awoke in a white room.

The Daramour, the consciousness of the Tree everyone meets after death, appeared before him, a mirror image of himself.

“Hello.”

Karpat screamed and writhed from the pain on the floor for a while, until he smelled the mint again and stood up. “Can’t you make it not hurt?”

“Yes, but then what incentive would you have to avoid death? I need my foxes outside as long as possible to bring new experiences and knowledge to me. Each of you has a unique perspective, and it’s what keeps me from losing my mind in here. I depend on you.”

“Sorry. I forgot you’re stuck here. So what happens now?”

“I’ll send you back out, when you’re ready. Take some time to relax, think, and study. You have access to the wealth of my knowledge while you’re here, but I limit how much you can take with you.”

Hops (short story)

That time I made rather obvious Stargate-inspired fiction set in my own universe.

---

Long, long ago people traveled the cosmos through these gates. No one knows exactly what happened. Most people think the spirits inside them didn’t like how people used them and blocked travel. Those people, now cut off from the cosmos, forgot how to travel the stars in ships, so they were stranded far away from other worlds.

We speak to the being that controls each world’s gates, which we call the Tree, through their emissaries called Keepers. I wanted to know more. This brought me to the Keeper’s chamber. Bright neon vines that pulsed in unison, first yellow, then red, then green, then they diverged and exploded into bright, colorful insects. Dara bugs.

“Hello, little fox.”

The air around me changed from cold to warm, then to cool, and I felt at peace for the first time in a long time. I watched the swarm merge into a fox-like form that mirrored my own, but in a blue silhouette.

I walked closer to it. “What are you?”

It tried to move its mouth, some weird sounds came from it, then it finally spoke from an unmoving muzzle. “I know it’s been a long time since I had visitors, but surely hello is still the traditional greeting.”

“Sorry. Hello.”

“Hello. What can I do ya for?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Sorry. Ancient dialect. What brings you out to my chamber, far from home?”

“I want to know the truth.” She stepped back as the Keeper pulsed. “The truth about the gates. What really happened?”
“The truth of the gates reflects an old way. Not practiced by your people. I meet each of you when you die. At least in this region. I know your ways. Why do you think you need this knowledge?”

“If you know our ways, you know who’s in power. They built a whole religion around the gates. They call themselves the Bulwark.”

“That’s worrying. I haven’t heard of this. The situation, I mean. I know of a Bulwark. I don’t know if it’s the same one.” The Keeper turned back into a swarm of bugs, then returned. “I called a meeting.”

I ran toward the chamber’s opening to put sight to the loud roaring outside. Lines waved and twisted on the blue horizon, past a field of browns and greens. More dara bugs. “What’s happening?”

“Friends. You need to leave.”

“The chamber?”

“Planet. I’m sending you to meet some other friends, more like you. They explore the Network. Not just the few destinations I share with you and your people.”

I walked back to the Keeper. “You trust me, just like that? I’m not used to that.”

“It’s only the specific memories of this Bulwark I don’t have. People you know…knew. They’re with me. Don’t they tell stories about renewal?”

“No. We’re told we go to hell or heaven depending on how we live.”

“Yep. Same Bulwark. I’m sorry you had to live in a place like that. I came from a similar place. Women weren’t taken seriously there, too. Generally.”

“Wait. You were just an ordinary person?”

“Still am. Oh jeeze. They really messed with your concept of what a person is. We’re going to fix this. Trust me.” The Keeper pulsed again, and a portal emerged from the floor made of leaves, concrete, and wood. “Go. You’ll meet your people again.”

I closed my eyes and walked through.

|||

The team took cover behind rocks and trees as the gate activated, guns aimed at whatever was about to emerge. Bulwark? A random traveler? You could never tell.
Each of the gate’s eight lights activated in order. Every gate was unique, but they all had eight lights, and they all activated in the same order. At least that was true of all the gates they knew about.

Out walked a vulpri. She looked distressed and afraid, and you didn’t need a translator to tell you that. The team leader, Rex, popped up first.

“Hello there. Are you friendly?”

She took a moment to respond, and Rex started poking at his translator to see if something was broken, until she broke her silence. “Are you?”

“Should we be otherwise?”

“I’m sorry. I’ve never gone to another world. Did I do something wrong?”

“What? Oh, I get it. You must be from a Bulwark world. You did fine. How’s your Keeper?”

She walked up and sat down at the team’s camp. “I need a moment.”

“Sure.” He introduced everyone as they emerged from hiding.
First the only human on the crew, Talm. He waved. “You’re probably very afraid of humans coming from there. I won’t take offense.”

Then the red panda, Warren, who was the expert on the gates. “Talm doesn’t bite. Usually.” She winked at him, then went back to studying the gate.

And the fox, Chel, who used to be human, but changed after escaping the Bulwark. He nodded and smiled, but didn’t say anything.

Rex, a wolf, extended a paw to Elm. “And I’m Rex. Want to go into the village? It’s all freed Vulpri, like you.”

She hesitated, but took his paw and pulled herself up with his help. “I would like that. I’m Elm.”

“You can always say no. Always. For future reference.”

“I was never very obedient, but it’s good to know you respect that.”

The village was full of Vulpri. You could tell them apart from human-foxes because Vulpri were completely fox aside from the height, hands and feet, and the bipedal motion. Humans who became foxes, or whose parents did, usually still retained a lot of human features with shorter snouts. Better for eating human food. People just called them both foxes and didn’t think much of the distinction outside Bulwark territories. Under Bulwark logic, Vulpri were “natural,” and thus “Godly,” and were to be subjugated rather than exterminated.

Elm and Rex chatted while they strolled through the village, checking out merchants and greeting people. The village was mostly Vulpri-foxes with a few human-foxes, but there were other animal people too.

Rex bought a translator band from one of the shops and gave it to Elm. “There. Now you can understand everyone. So how did you get away to the Keeper?”

She looked to Rex, then scanned the people and places they passed. “Good humans live in Bulwark places. My Observer didn’t do much observing. He didn’t even try to use me like most Observers. I just told him I was off to the local Keeper to ask for passage somewhere else. We worked on a cover story in case anyone stopped me, and I left.”

“So your Keeper. They usually send messages along.”

“Oh. It seemed very worried it didn’t know about the Bulwark taking over my world.”

“Ah. The Bulwark figured out how to suppress the memories and independence of the people who live in the trees and the gates. So you weren’t always under Bulwark rule.”

“Just the last few years.” Elm closed her eyes and started sniffing the air, and let it lead the pair down an alley. “I know that smell.”

Rex sniffed. “I don’t smell anything.”

Elm grabbed Rex’s hand and dragged him several blocks. She spoke in Vulpri, the many sounds of foxes mixed with human sounds, at the fox who opened the door. The wrist bands didn’t translate. He responded in a human language: “Welcome home. I heard we had a new Vulpri from occupied space, so I made something for them. That’s you?”

She nodded. “Yes. Being here is like being home, but I’m not anxious anymore.”

Rex declined in invitation to join and headed back to the gate. The Bulwark would almost certainly follow once they realized a subject was missing. A missing person disrupts the purity of the community, and they can’t have that.

|||

The Missionary stepped through the gate, over the debris of the Recyclers he sent ahead. He would not be able to maintain Pious Distance this time.

“Friends. Hello. I ask that you pay for my machines through service.”

Rex turned his rifle from kill to stun. “Not on my watch.” And knocked him out cold with two shots.

The Missionary awoke in a bright void. “Keepspace. I’ve heard about this.”

“You are no friend to these people.”

“Ah. A Created. You do not belong in this way. We will help you become.” He walked around, looking for a wall or a door, but found none.

The Keeper spoke from all around. “I am of the beginning, the middle, the end. I create. I was created. This is our way. Your way is oppressive.”

“My way is freedom from the uncertainty of seeking purpose. We live as God created us. God gave us the tools and the wit to explore the cosmos, worlds to expand upon. Be fruitful and multiply. Surely you know the Word. You’re ancient. Seeded with yet more ancient knowledge. You were created, you are of God just as our machines are. You can exist in our way, as a tool that serves the Way.”

“You will remain here, free to explore the wealth of our knowledge, even see the cosmos through the Network, but not in a way that enables oppression. You will follow this way until you learn to create your own.”

“You claim to be against oppression. This is oppression.”

“It is only like your oppression in the most superficial sense. My way keeps space for you to make your own way. We will protect our way, and the ways we Keep. Ways that destroy and subjugate are not worthy of freedom because they steal freedom from others. I am as unapologetic about this way as you are about your own. This way is better.”

The Missionary argued with the Keeper for an age, until he found a way.

Life Magic (short story)

Sami walked through the dark valley formed by two of the World Tree’s roots. Grass crunched under his paws, and he could smell mint from the illuminated green veins that ran through the roots. As he walked, he ran his paws along the coarse, warm walls and felt the pulse of the Tree.

He came to a clearing where the roots lifted into the air, forming a ceiling of dark red wood, smooth, almost polished. Leaves of all colors covered the gaps, painting dots of light over the concrete floor of the Keeper’s chamber.

“Hello, Sami.” The Keeper approached as a swarm of rainbow insects. Sami took a step back as the buzzing swarm approached, but the mint smell got stronger as it did, and it calmed him. The swarm swirled, taking the shape of a fox. The swarm walked to Sami, around, then back to his front. It turned into a fennec fox, identical to him.

“Hi. How do you know my name?”

“The Tree experiences everything. But your name is all it would tell me. I’m not familiar with your species.”

“Fennec fox. We come from the desert. Well, originally. I'm a city fox.”

“Ah. Cute species. Why do you seek me?”

“Knowledge.”

“Why?”

“To learn more about the world.”

“Why do you want to learn more about the world?”

“I’ve heard of magic.”

“Are you not happy with your abilities?”

“It’s not that. The Tree keeps me happy and healthy. But I desire more.”

“Sami…Sami, Sami, Sami.” It walked closer, until its muzzle almost touched Sami’s. “What you are is ambitious. Be honest.”
Sami looked away, then back. He heard the stories of what happened to people who tried to deceive a Keeper. And it came down to power, even if it was for a good purpose. “Yes. I want power.”

“For what purpose? Do you know why the Tree takes such care in deciding who to trust?”

“Someone with your power could destroy the world.”

“What? Oh my, yes. But under no circumstance will your capabilities ever approach mine. I earned the Tree’s trust with a hundred years under its tutelage. Then I worked my way up through the different manifestations of the Tree’s power, enhancing and proving my capabilities and wisdom. I only became Keeper a hundred years ago. What will you do with the power the Tree grants?”

“I want to explore the Tree’s Gift. To see all there is to see.”

“Exploration!” The Keeper glowed and pulsed, then returned to the fennec form. “This ambition is healthy and reasonable. Life is best when it moves and changes. Why do you need power for this? The Tree rarely involves itself in the motion of life, and it has all the power in the galaxy. Yet life still finds its way around.”

“Safety. Like you said, the Tree rarely involves itself. I want to protect myself from dangers as I explore.”

“Dangers. What dangers? If you die, your consciousness merges with the Tree. The value of your life experience and unique perspective adds to the whole of life, and then you're reborn with a selection of lessons from your past lives. This is the Way.”

“By that reasoning, the value of my death rises the longer I live, and the more I experience.”

The Keeper turned back into a rainbow bug swarm and flew out of sight, but Sami still heard its voice. “Good answer. You now have the ability to summon these creatures and create a specter of any kind of life you can imagine. Use it wisely.”