Viral Image Decay

Here’s a great article that’s basically about JPEG compression artifacts: http://www.theawl.com/2014/12/the-triumphant-rise-of-the-shitpic

I like the idea of “counting the rings” to see how old a viral image is. This also opens up a question about tools like Google image search. I wonder if their algorithm takes decay into account when it searches for the “original” image.

Advertisements

Lightroom Publishing Plugins

Lightroom is a tremendously powerful piece of software, but there’s no way for Adobe to satisfy all the needs of every customer. That’s where plugins come in. There are tons of plugins for giving your photos a certain look, but there are also plugins for publishing your photos. Here’s the difference between publishing and exporting, as far as I understand it:

  • Exporting saves the input picture (usually RAW format) as a JPEG after applying whatever development settings you have selected. That JPEG can be included in your collection, but it’s basically a separate file at this point. Yes, you can “stack” it with the RAW file, but that functionality is out of the scope of this post.
  • Publishing creates a JPEG as well, but Lightroom keeps track of changes to your published images and can sync changes between the published images and the RAW images in your collection.

For example, if you export 0001.raw as 0001.jpg, then upload 0001.jpg to Flickr and then delete 0001.raw, 0001.jpg will remain on Flickr. However, if you publish 0001.raw to Flickr and then delete 0001.raw, then 0001.jpg will be removed from Flickr. Other development settings can be synced with publish as well.

Your workflow may not benefit from this functionality, but I like working this way, specifically while publishing to my hard drive. This gives me the option of having a mirrored set of smaller web-friendly JPEG’s (3200px at 60% quality) that stays in sync with my collection. I can then sync that directory with my cloud service of choice without paying out the nose to host the RAW files. This mirrored set stays synced even if I go back and delete or edit a photo from 2008.

Lightroom’s publish functionality doesn’t mirror your folder structure by default, so I use the Folder Publisher plugin from Jeffrey Friedl. He offers several other “goodies” for Lightroom including several other publishing plugins. Check them out and see if you can’t make your life a little easier.

Stabilized World Record 41m Rally Jump

This kind of thing pushes almost all of my buttons. Image processing, photography, snow, cars and novelty. Reddit user The_Egg_came_first created this… let’s call it a panoramic gif. The steps are outlined here. The gist of the process involves extracting frames from video and then aligning them to stabilize the ground. Since the video footage panned to follow the car, the result is basically a fast moving panorama.

A similar technique was used to stabilize this ski jump. Many other examples can be found in the /ImageStabilization subreddit.

Cloud Photo Storage Roundup

The Verge has published a roundup of cloud photo storage options. Not a day goes by without a new cloud storage or photo sharing site. I use SkyDrive for backup and sharing with family and 500px for “social” stuff including a portfolio, but I’ve tried tons of others. The Verge article is very iOS and OSX heavy and it leaves out a few options, but it has some good information.

Cloud Photography Part 4: Conclusions

Finally, the epic conclusion to my cloud photography experiment.  In part 1 I laid out the details of the experiment in which I would pretend I was a photographer who had to live entirely in the cloud.  Part 2 described the particular challenges of using a cloud based operating system for handling RAW files.  In part 3 I discussed the various web-based photo editing software available today.

The world of cloud computing is moving fast.  After I wrote part 1, Apple announced iCloud and Google began selling ChromeOS laptops.  The argument could be made that cloud storage is pointless since hard drives have become so cheap, but cheap digital storage goes both ways.  If it’s cheap for you to buy one 1TB hard drive, how cheap do you think it is (per hard drive) for Google to buy 10,000 of them?  The biggest argument against cloud computing is the requirement that we hand over our trust to external entities (Google, Amazon, Apple, Dropbox, etc).  The risks of remote storage are real and Dropbox users like myself were recently given a strong reminder of that fact.  Dropbox had a small coding bug with the unfortunate effect that any password would work to log onto any account.  Whoops.  As always, the forces of security and convenience are battling each other.  Do I really need access to my entire digital life from anywhere?  Maybe not.

The cloud, it turns out, is best in moderation.  Placing all of your data in the cloud and relying on web-based tools to process that data can be just as restrictive as working 100% locally.  I ran into one difficulty after another trying to remain cloud-only.  For now, I’d say I’m fully committed to working on my desktop computer with Lightroom.  If you do want to try living in the cloud, here are some things I’d recommend to make things as painless as possible:

  • Work with JPEGs.  Work out what camera settings you like and learn to live with them.  Set the contrast and sharpening low to give you more latitude when editing the JPEGs later.
  • Do as much editing, deleting, and processing as you can before uploading your photos to the cloud.  Google+ has the best photo gallery I’ve seen yet, but it still sucks at quickly going through a lot of photos and deleting the uglies.
  • Watch the terms of service.  This depends on how Serious with a capital “S” you are about your photos, but be careful not to give your rights away as soon as you upload photos to the cloud.
Next, I’ll go through just how much cloud is in my photographic life now.
  • Editing, processing, and exporting is done on my desktop using Lightroom with RAW files.
  • RAW files and full-size JPEGs are backed up locally and to an online backup service not optimized for photos or sharing
  • Large web-sized JPEGs are uploaded to Picasa for personal use, to flickr for sharing, or to this blog for whatever it is I do here.
  • This gives me access to the backups from anywhere and a nice collection of shareable photos that can be embedded in forums, blogs, or wherever with ease.
Ok, how’d the photos turn out?  Below are my favorite 10.  The results were acceptable, but as I said I’m not a convert.  Maybe in 5 years I’ll try again.  Or maybe I won’t have a choice…

Cloud Photography Part 3: Post Processing

This is part 3 of my epic investigation into cloud computing for photographers.  Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

As mentioned in part 2, I was unable to find a web-based photo editor that supports raw files and the size limits for all the editors prohibit the use of 16-bit TIFF files.  After wrestling the files into JPEG format in Jolicloud, I was ready to apply some post-processing.  The post-processing I’m talking about includes basic things like exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpening and cropping.

All of Them

Every single web app I tried lagged so far behind Lightroom and GIMP in terms of processing speed, feature set and file compatibility that I can’t recommend any of them as your primary photo editor.  None of them work well as part of a multi-file workflow.  If you choose to edit photos this way, you’re looking at a one-at-a-time painfully slow process.  Also, the results I got were kind of ugly.  A big part of that comes from trying to work with JPEGs instead of raw files.  However, editing a JPEG with GIMP seems to yield better results than any of the web apps.  All of the web apps I tried were free.  Big plus.

Adobe Photoshop Express

Adobe is the big dog here and I was excited to use their editor.  They clearly have the upper hand when it comes to photo manipulation software and I think that Adobe Lightroom is the best piece of software (not just photo software) I’ve ever used.  Don’t worry about any bias towards Adobe though, because I think Flash and Reader are just plain awful.

What did I think of Photoshop Express?  I don’t know.  It’s got 2GB of free space, which is good.  However, it crashed every time I tried to load a file, which is bad.  I tried Chrome and Firefox and a couple different files, but nothing worked.

Let’s recap:

  • Pros:
    • Free
    • 2GB of storage
  • Cons:
    • Didn’t work at all

Picnik

Picnik is mostly free and it’s integrated well into Picasa, Google’s online photo gallery.  The integration with Picasa makes Picnik the best web app by far in terms of workflow.  Also, Picasa now offers unlimited space for photos that are 2048 pixels or smaller.  Not good for backups, but great for online photo sharing and small prints.

First, the good.  The interface is easy to use and includes enough control for small edits.  I also like that you can export the results directly into your Picasa gallery with the option to overwrite your original file or create a new file.

On the negative side, Picnik is constantly bugging you to sign up for the premium non-free version which gives you more control and a few more presets for Lomo-ish effects.  The free version gives you controls for exposure and compensation with a few finer controls for shadows and highlights, sharpness, and “local contrast.”  Unfortunately, adjust any of the sliders more than just a bit and you’re going to end up with a muddy mess of a file.  Also, “local contrast” is a checkbox and not a slider.  Checking it makes your photo ugly.  Unchecking it restores your photo back to normal.

Overall I found it pretty difficult to get decent results out of Picnik, but the direct integration with Picasa is worth a lot.

Aviary HTML5 Image Editor

HTML5 gets talked up constantly on the web, so I was excited to try this one too.  This editor seemed more like a proof of concept than a full-fledged application.  The exposure controls were way too simple.  Also, they did nothing.  Something was broken and none of the adjustments showed up on the photo.

Aviary Phoenix Image Editor

Phoenix is Aviary’s Photoshop-esque editor and was my personal favorite.  The interface was great and the feature set was incredibly powerful.  With patience and skill I’m sure you can achieve some great results.

Two things kept Phoenix from being my editor of choice for this experiment.  First, it’s JPEG-only.  Yes, all the other apps were JPEG only also, but the Phoenix editor is so powerful that it’s begging to be used with a raw file.  All that power is wasted on the measly 8 bits of a JPEG file.  The second reason is a lack of workflow integration.  You can upload multiple images to Aviary, but it’s hardly a full-featured gallery or photo-sharing site.

The Winner

In the end, Picnik won out, but not because it was the best.  Every single web app I tested was crippled by a lack of raw support.  There’s only so much you can do to a JPEG, so you might as well use the software that’s quickest and easiest to access.  Aviary has a complete suite of web-based image editing apps and they should be applauded for what they’ve created.  However, for my purposes, it just wasn’t worth the hassle of leaving the Picasa bubble.

There was a lot of frustration, but it was fun trying out these web apps.  It’s good to challenge our beliefs from time to time and to learn what’s out there.  I now have a better feel for the state of the art in cloud computing for photographers.  Everything I tried here was free, so I recommend giving some of them a shot and seeing what you can come up with.  Coming up next is the thrilling conclusion where I’ll share the photos that I dragged through the mud just to get them on the cloud.

Remember when photography was fun?

Two major announcements have been made recently that promise true innovation in photography land.  The responses to them show a startling lack of imagination and open-mindedness.

The first is the Pentax Q system.  Smaller than a credit card, the Q is an interchangeable lens camera with a tiny point and shoot sized 1/2.3″ sensor.  Looks like great fun to me.  The lenses must be about the size of an Altoid.  At $800, the camera is not cheap, but niche products rarely are.  The internet reactions to this camera range from “it’s way overpriced” to “what’s the point of changing lenses when the sensor is so small” to “Pentax is a bunch of Nazis!”  Ok, I made up the Nazi one, but you know that comment must be out there, right?  It seems that the overwhelming response to the announcement of the Q is negative.  Why?  Nobody is forcing you to buy one.  I probably won’t buy one because of the price, but the concept looks like fun.  I’d love to play with one for a week.

The other announcement is from Lytro, a new company promising to eliminate the need for focusing before taking a picture.  Their product uses an array of micro-lenses to capture the entire light field and reconstruct an image where the focus plane can be chosen during post-processing.  Unlike the Q, the responses to this have been mostly positive.  Of course there is the predictable grumpy photographer response of “great, how easy does picture-taking have to get?  Now NOBODY will need a professional photographer.”  If the only thing you offer over amateur photographers is correct exposure and focus, then you aren’t worth your price.  The other reaction is a complete misunderstanding of the technology.  I’ve seen several comments from people hoping to use this to fix their blurry film photos from the 80’s.  Not going to happen.  The comments that actually bother me are the ones asking “what’s the ISO?  What’s the focal length?  What’s the f-stop?  What’s the shutter speed?  How many megapixels?  Isn’t Lytro just a bunch of Nazis?”  Seriously?  Are we (photographers on the internet) that blinded by spec sheets?  You’re being presented a revolutionary new imaging technique at a reasonable price (supposedly) and your reaction is “how many megapixels?”

Come on, Internet, get your excitement on like you did for the Fuji X100 before it was released and you realized that it was imperfect just like every other camera.  Photography is a fun activity and cameras are fun to play with.  Let’s encourage innovation because we have more than enough megapixels already.

Cloud Photography Part 2: Jolicloud

This is a continuation of my experiment in cloud computing as it relates to photography.  Read part 1 here.

Cloud computing is moving forward at an astonishing pace and one of its benefits is operating system independence.  If your operating system can access the internet, then you can play in the cloud.  The purpose of this experiment is to determine the viability of a “cloud only” approach to photography.  That is why I am using Joli OS for this experiment.  It was designed specifically for maximizing interaction with the cloud and minimizing local computing.  Also, I just wanted to play around with Jolicloud for the fun of it.

Installation

Trying Jolicloud is easy.  You can create an account and use it right from your browser.  After setting everything up, you can download and install Joli OS right beside your current operating system.  Setting up your computer with two different operating systems (i.e. Windows and Joli OS) is called dual booting.  In the past, dual booting could be nightmarish, but it has become fairly simple.  Just run the Joli OS installer and after a reboot, you’ll be ready to go.  When you power up your computer, you’ll see a choice between Joli OS and Windows with a timer counting down from 10 seconds.  Unfortunately, the Joli OS installer defaults your OS choice to Joli OS, but that can be fixed with a bit of searching.

Setup

Once booted, you create a device password  and you can login with the account you created in your browser.  All of the apps you installed will be there along with a few other settings like connections to Dropbox or Google Docs.  In addition to the apps you set up in your browser, there are a few local apps and access to your local storage including all the files on your Windows partition.  There are tons of limitations to using Jolicloud imposed by the cloud-only approach, but there are advantages as well.  A big advantage is that all it takes is one click to install apps and they are ready instantly.  Of course “installing” an “app” basically amounts to no more than adding a bookmark with an icon to your desktop.  Below is a screenshot of how I set up my desktop.  I took the background photo while on an airplane and I find it to be nice and literal.

Updates

Since all of your apps run on the web they are all automatically up to date.  Any data that needs to be synced locally is taken care of when you first log in.  Updates of the OS itself are done in the background.  Living with a computer that you don’t have to worry about updating is a huge advantage of the Jolicloud approach.

First Impressions

I knew before I even tried Jolicloud that it wouldn’t work as my primary OS.  That’s fine though, because it’s not intended for that purpose…yet.  It’s intended for use on netbooks, laptops, or computers “up to 10 years old.”  After installing Joli OS on at least one device, you are awarded with a “recycler” badge assuming that you revived an ancient computer from its dusty grave.  Not so in my case, but it’s a nice thought and if I had an old computer lying around I’d certainly try using Joli OS to revive it.  Of course my primary computer is a 4-year-old desktop, so maybe it’s already ancient.

So far, I think I like the idea of Jolicloud more than I actually like using it.  I like how lightweight it is, but it’s hard to get past that it’s really just a desktop with a browser and some links.  Responsiveness is a mixed bag.  Apps come up quickly, but web apps just don’t run as smoothly as native software.  Growing up with computers that run native software and maybe pull a few things off of the web makes adjusting to the cloud-only approach a little difficult.  Let me elaborate.

Getting Photos from the Camera to the Cloud

On a phone, getting photos from the camera to the cloud is easy.  On a computer with a full OS such as Mac, Windows, or Linux: also easy.  Using Joli OS: not easy.  The laptop I was using has a built-in SD reader, but when I plugged in my SD card nothing happened.  After some searching online, I found out that memory cards and USB devices work “sometimes” in Joli OS.  I tried removing and reinserting the card several more times with no luck.  Now what?  Warning: this might get a bit Linuxy.

Since Joli OS is really just a stripped-down version of Linux, it comes with access to a terminal which can be used to actually do things.  There is a normal terminal available with user-level access or root terminal with device-level access.  Guess which one I had to use to get the SD card to work…  Yup, the root terminal.  I used the following commands to do the equivalent of importing photos using Lightroom or Picasa:

mount -a (provides access to the SD card)

mkdir /home/bryan/Pictures/[folder name] (for each destination folder I wanted to copy photos into)

cp /dev/a/DCIM/[folder name]/* /pictures/[destination folder]/* (copies every file from the source folder on the SD card to the destination folder on the computer.  Must be done for each folder being imported from or to)

Great.  Now I’ve got the files on my laptop’s hard drive.  The problem with this approach is it requires root-level access and that only works if you are using a computer that you own.  What happens when you try to do this on a hotel computer or your school computer?  I guess you better hope they’re not running Joli OS.

Working with RAW files (*.DNG)

Adobe’s DNG files are the closest thing to a standard for RAW files.  Support for them is great… on desktop software sold by Adobe.  I couldn’t find a single web app (paid or free) that provides support for processing RAW files of any format.  Some supported TIFF files, but upload limits and obscene file sizes conspire to ruin that option.  One of the few local apps available in the Joli OS apps directory is GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program).  The GIMP is a fantastic piece of software available for free on multiple platforms, but it doesn’t natively support RAW files.  Luckily there are plugins available help the GIMP process RAW files.  Unfortunately, none of them were available from the Joli OS apps directory.  Back to the terminal again…

The best RAW plugin I found is called UFRaw.  It has a graphical user interface (GUI) for one-by-one processing, but it also has command line support for batch processing.  It’s no Lightroom, but it will do.  Installing it required the following command:

sudo apt-get install gimp-ufraw

Once installed, all I had to do was double-click my files and they would open in the UFRaw GUI where I could edit them in all their 16-bit glory.  Unfortunately, it takes a while to load each file and what do I do with the duds?  Also, UFRaw is a native app and the purpose of this experiment is to test out web apps.  I decided to give up the fine-tuned control and I asked UFRaw to automatically spit out a bunch of JPEGs for me to upload and process in the cloud.  Throwing away all of those extra bits is painful, but the cloud made me do it.  I used this command to batch process my DNG files using the default exposure settings:

ufraw-batch –exposure=auto –out-type=jpeg /home/bryan/Pictures/[folder name]/*.DNG

It took about 15 minutes to make it through about 150 pictures, but it chugged along quietly in the background.  When the conversion was done, I used the Picasa app (really just a link to picasaweb.google.com) to upload the resulting JPEGs.

It was disappointing not to be able to edit RAW files in the cloud.  If anyone has a recommendation for a site where this can be done, please let me know in the comments.

Jolicloud Conclusions

I wanted to like Jolicloud, but in the end I just don’t think it’s for me.  There’s still a lot to like, but not enough for me to consider using Joli OS as my primary operating system.  The Jolicloud developers should be applauded for taking an open, forward-thinking approach to OS design.  Jolicloud’s goal of resurrecting old computers is fantastic and I could recommend Joli OS for an old computer, a netbook, or a tablet without reservation.  On a current desktop or laptop however, it just feels like a waste of computing power.  The workarounds required for doing a basic operation like grabbing pictures from my camera shouldn’t be necessary.

Joli OS is a great netbook operating system and I would definitely use it over Windows 7 or XP on a netbook or tablet, but I don’t own a netbook or tablet.  It was fun trying it out and it was free, but I didn’t miss it too much when I went back to using Windows 7.

Tune in next time for Cloud Photography Part 3: Image Editing.

Cloud Photography

I’ve recently developed an interest in cloud computing.  As this is a photography blog, I’ve decided to perform an experiment to see whether it’s worth our time for photographers to move to The Cloud.  First, what is cloud computing?  The goal of cloud computing is to provide users with constant access to their software and data from anywhere using any device.  You’re probably already a part of the cloud just by using web-based email.  Your emails sit on a server “in the cloud” and you can get access to them from anywhere with a browser.  Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are the big players in the cloud computing arena, offering lots of free or cheap storage.  Microsoft and Google both offer an entire suite of free office software that runs entirely in your browser.  It’s up to the user to decide whether it’s worth trusting one of these companies with their data in exchange for a lot of convenience.  Convenience that lasts only as long as a constant internet connection is maintained.  Trade-offs abound.

What does this have to do with photography?
Just as there are office apps that run in the browser, there are also photo-editing apps.  Are these apps as good as their desktop counterparts?  That’s what I aim to find out.

What are the benefits of cloud computing to photographers?

  • Persistent backups
  • Instant sharing with clients, friends and family
  • No need for 5 TB hard drives and supercomputers
  • Access to photos and software from anywhere – edit photos from the computer in the hotel lobby or at grandma’s house

And the drawbacks?

  • Software choice
  • Cost – large storage plans can get pricey while good hardware keeps getting cheaper
  • RAW processing – see software choice
  • Trust – forced to trust that Microoglesoftazon will keep your data safe and private
  • Internet connection is mandatory
  • Calibration – colors on different devices vary wildly

Jolicloud
Using Windows or Linux or OSX will make it too easy to cheat and use familiar desktop tools.  Therefore, I will be using Joli OS, the installed version of Jolicloud.  Jolicloud is a free operating system based on Ubuntu Linux that can run entirely in a browser.  When installed on a computer, Joli OS is essentially just a big browser window.  There are some apps that run locally such as GIMP, but for the most part everything it runs must be a webapp.  Joli OS provides some local storage space, but I am going to treat it as a temporary place to store my data before flinging it up into the cloud.

The Experiment
I want to see what it takes to get a batch of RAW files from my camera processed and stored in the cloud using only Joli OS running on a laptop.  The only rule is that I must do the entire process from either Joli OS or a browser.  I’ll document my frustrations and my successes on this blog.  Whatever my conclusion turns out to be, I know I’ll learn a lot along the way.

Predictions about the FUTURE…

Future Or Bust!
Future Or Bust! by Vermin Inc

The future, Conan?

The only thing more fun than predicting the future is looking back at old predictions of the future and seeing where they landed.  Digital photography eclipsed film way faster than most people expected and is still progressing rapidly.  Predictions of the future for cameras usually involve the viewfinder (optical or electronic), camera size, sensor size, and the number of megapixels.

If you’ve been paying attention, the most-talked about cameras lately have been EVF (electronic viewfinder), small-bodied, large sensor (4/3 or APS-C), 10-20 megapixel designs.  Sony showed what happens at the extreme end of the small camera size large sensor with the NEX, which suffers from a poorly designed interface (not necessarily a consequence of its small size) and lenses that have to be large enough to cover an APS-C image circle.  Why Sony is releasing the gigantic 18-200 zoom for the NEX before a set of pancake primes is beyond me.  Panasonic started with a tiny 40mm-eq f/1.7 lens that makes its GF1 almost pocket-able (depending on your pockets).  They’re soon releasing a 28mm-eq pancake prime, so all they need to do now is sell a third prime in the 70-90mm-eq and they’ll be set.  APS-C DSLR’s are still going strong and make up the vast majority of the non-digicam market.  Full-frame DSLR’s are still popular with pros and some enthusiasts, but they make up a tiny part of the overall market.  Fill in the remaining gap with Sony’s SLT cameras which are fairly small with a large (APS-C) sensor and an EVF and that’s where we’re at today.  Oh, and Nikon and Canon are still selling bucketloads of heavy, oversized, but very good DSLR’s and large lenses with image stabilization as an expensive option.

But what were people predicting back in 2005?  That was only 5 years ago, but in the digital world that’s an eternity.  I was taking a look at some of the archives at Luminous-Landscape when I came across a couple of dueling predictions with some interesting thoughts.  The two authors were Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer and Michael Reichmann of Luminous-Landscape.  For readability, let’s go with MJ and MR.  The first of the articles is here.  The second and third articles are here and here.

MJ predicted the following:

  • DSLR’s will be a dead-end within about 10 years (from 2005)
  • Sensors will get smaller (than 4/3), not bigger
  • Sensors that record all 3 colors at each photosite will become the norm (similar to Sigma’s Foveon sensor)
  • Separate media cards will go away, because the memory will be built-in
  • Lenses will be smaller, even on professional or advanced cameras
  • Cameras will routinely plug into printers with the image processing done in-camera

I found this interesting:

Will cameras continue to have eye-level finders, whether optical or virtual? Probably, because there will be situations in which photographers won’t want to use a bright, glowing 2D display. But how this will end up being implemented is something I won’t guess about (except that it won’t be a flipping mirror).

Hey, he predicted the SLT five years ago!  It’s too soon to make a call on MJ’s first two predictions, but I can’t say I see much evidence that he’s wrong yet.  Olympus has all but confirmed that 4/3 DSLR’s are done for, so it may only be a matter of time for APS-C (probably a long time).  Sigma’s Foveon is still the only non-Bayer sensor, but it has yet to spread to other manufacturers.  I’m sure this has a lot to do with patents and marketing.  For some reason, cameras still don’t have any built-in memory.  Build in 8GB for an extra $20 and forgotten memory cards will be a thing of the past.  Lens size is all over the place right now, but that will trend along with sensor size because of physics.  I’d say he’s wrong on the last point because the people who would use that feature are not printing their photographs.  As for eye-level finders, they’re not dead yet.

MR’s response was that large sensors will never go away and he called APS-C the new 35mm.  I agree with this and I think the benefits of full-frame are fading fast.  DOF scales inversely with sensor size, so the question becomes how thin does our DOF need to get to have artistic freedom?  Digicams have far too much DOF, but APC-C seems like a sweet spot.  I don’t have enough experience with 4/3 sensors to comment on DOF.  My hunch is that it’s just fine.  Looking at the camera-landscape today, I’d say I agree with MR that we won’t see much smaller than 4/3 for serious cameras.

MJ makes the point in his rebuttal to the rebuttal that more DOF can be a good thing and that the benefits of smaller sensors and thus smaller lenses will far outweigh the want/need for thin DOF.  He’s right from a logical standpoint, but it doesn’t look like the market is headed towards sub-4/3 territory yet.

A lot has changed in the digital camera market since 2005.  The announcement of the micro-4/3 mount changed everything.  Prior to that, new camera releases touted nothing new but an improved sensor and some extra features, but now we are seeing true innovation.  Who knows what cameras will be like in 2015!

Nikon Vs. Canon: Who Cares?

Balanced Rock, Balanced Camera
Balanced Rock, Balanced Camera, by Bryan Davidson

This is a big part of the reason Nikon and Canon bore me.

When was the last true innovation from Nikon or Canon?  They sell very high quality products, sure, but where’s the evidence that they are creating anything new?  These are some of the big camera innovations of the past couple of years:

  • Minolta (now Sony, Olympus and Pentax): Sensor-based stabilization
  • Pentax: high-quality, compact, APS-C primes
  • Olympus: 4/3 mount which led to the following innovation
  • Olympus and Panasonic: micro-4/3 which is innovative because of packing a large sensor in a small camera and for multiple companies sharing a single lens mount
  • Samsung: Mirrorless APS-C camera
  • Sony: Worlds smallest APS-C, the NEX-3 and NEX-5 with unfortunately one of the worlds worst user interfaces
  • Sony: First digital translucent mirror cameras, the A33 and A55
  • Sony: Sweep panorama, in-camera GPS, phase detect auto-focus during live view, least-expensive and highest resolution full-frame DSLR (A850), best viewfinder (A900)
  • Sigma: First large-sensor compact camera
  • Sigma: Foveon sensor (every pixel collects red, green and blue compared to Bayer sensors where every pixel only collects one color)
  • Leica: first full-frame digital rangefinder (M9), and most expensive logo (D-Lux 3)

Neither Nikon or Canon have sensor-based stabilization, a large sensor compact camera or anything that sets them apart other than market share.  I’m not trying to say that Nikon and Canon are bad, they’re just boring.  Kudos to Nikon for the D40 and to Canon for the Digital Rebel, but other than incremental improvements what have they done lately?

The Deknobification of Cameras

Exposure with Kiev film camera
Exposure with Kiev film camera, by b1ur

Yet another technology leak occurred recently.  This time it was the not-so-highly-anticipated Sony A290.  I have an A200 and I love it.  It fits my hands perfectly.  It has a simple, intuitive interface.  Just the right amount of buttons, knobs and switches.  Others might think it needs a second control wheel or an LCD screen on top, but after using this camera for 2 years, it seems just right to me.  The A290 has the bare minimum amount of buttons, forcing the user to dig into the menu every 3 minutes.

I know that digital cameras are more complicated than the space shuttle, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are still only four controls that are truly necessary: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, shutter release.  The rest is gravy.  Lumpy gravy with lumps of smile detection, blink detection, 38 scene modes, and sausage.  That’s the brilliance of the Canon S90.  It has enough control wheels to control the necessities with menus to get the less used options.  Granted, once you enter menu-land, you won’t return until days later with sore fingers.  But you don’t have to use the menu very often at all because the controls were thoughtfully laid out.  And they exist!

That’s the problem I see with the new Sony NEX cameras and the Olympus EPL-1: not enough knobs.  You have to menu dive to get to anything.  I blame Steve Jobs.  Wha!?  That’s right, I went there.  It’s Steve’s war on buttons that has convinced product designers that buttons are ugly and should be banished.  The iPad is a beautiful object, but it’s beauty comes at the cost of a USB port, an SD slot, and even a keyboard that some people tend to find useful (if only there were a product out there that included all of those things… oh yeah: the laptop).  At some point, form stopped following function.  Recently, it seems, form tied function up and left it for dead in the desert.

One of the reasons that I enjoy using older cameras so much is the mechanical controls.  I like the feel of rotating a ring to set the aperture and spinning a knob to set the shutter speed and ISO.  If we keep taking away knobs and dials and control rings, everyone’s camera will start to look like this:

Fisher-Price toy camera
Fisher-Price toy camera, by John Kratz

Robbed by a Camera

We See You
We See You, by Me

This news article is about a group of people in Washington state protesting the use of red-light cameras.  The private companies that build and monitor these cameras are given a license to print money.  Patrick Bedard from Car and Driver has written a couple of times about this issue.  I am 100% against both red-light and speeding cameras.  Why? Mr. Bedard puts it nicely:

Let’s be clear about the tyranny here. This is not about running red lights. Camera enforcement is a revenuing scheme that depends on an end run around the fundamental American principle of innocent until proven guilty. The glassy-eyed accuser is a robot, and it’s not subject to cross examination. Moreover, it’s a robot employed by a for-profit business that makes its profits from guilty verdicts. It makes nothing on innocent verdicts.

Exactly.  In response to the protesters, there is a lot of the old argument, “if you don’t run red lights, then you won’t get a ticket.”  Hogwash.  How many people can honestly say they’ve never been in the gray area at the beginning of a yellow and chosen to go through the light safely rather than slam on their brakes, risking a rear-ender?  An officer can tell the difference, but a machine gets set with a threshold that it applies no matter what.

Washington is a pretty anti-car state in general, unfortunately, but the comments on the Seattle PI story are downright scary.  I understand the people who get annoyed at terrible driving and blatant red-light running, but there are apparently people out there who want even more surveillance.  How about this gem of a comment:

All those who want to replace cameras with more cops should tax themselves. I rather have my taxes lowered, so the more cameras, the better. I say stick a GPS into each car and transmit speed directly to insurance companies.

Really?  Of course, that comment was only in response to this equally crazy suggestion:

When you get caught running a red light the fine is tripled and you don’t get to contest it in court. If you cause an accident while running a red light the fine is quadrupled, your license is suspended for up to one year, and you don’t get to contest it in court. If you cause an accident and a death is involved, the fine is a minimum $10,000, jail time, and license suspended indefinitely. […] With the higher fines, that will help pay for those extra police officers. If you’re not allowed to contest the infraction, the courts will have more space. (Of course this would NEVER happen, violates too many rights I’m sure. )

Since this commenter is against the red light cameras, I guess he is relying on witness testimony to determine who ran what light in that accident.  Too bad he doesn’t think you should be able to contest the ticket in court.  I guess you’re walking for the next year now.  What about the Seattle man mentioned in Bedard’s article who got a ticket meant for someone else driving someone else’s car while he was home sleeping?  Should he not be allowed to contest the ticket?

I don’t understand these authoritarian impulses.  Are we really that eager to give our money away and let somebody monitor our every move?  I find the responses like the ones above to be much more upsetting than the red-light cameras themselves.  Wasn’t the whole point of forming this country to get away from thinking like that?

Back to the Drawing Board

In this entry, I praised Ricoh’s newthink approach to camera design and I wrote about the 12-year-old Minolta Dimage 1500 which sported an on-board scripting language.  It turns out (shockingly) that I’m not the only one who thinks programming your camera would be a cool and useful idea.  Thom Hogan has thought about this a lot more than I have and he has written an essay about where he thinks camera design should go in the future.  His main point is that the camera of the future should be modular, programmable, and communicating.  Amazingly, Minolta’s Dimage 1500 from 1998 met 2/3 of those requirements.  Don’t be too harsh on Minolta for missing the third (communicating), since WiFi wasn’t all that popular back in the 20th century.

I agree with just about every part of Thom’s essay.  Modularity is good for camera companies and their customers.  For example, I love the form factor of my current DSLR, but it’s sensor could use a replacement for better low-light performance in a couple of years.  Programmability is a sticky issue because it can make a product very painful to use.  However, if it’s implemented well, the product can me much more customizable and reach a larger market than a non-programmable device.  Communication is really the key to bringing cameras into the future (or is it the present?).  Imagine your camera had a 4G connection to the internet.  Forget the ability to post pictures directly to Twitter, Facebook, etc.  Instead think about being able to automatically back up your photos online as you shoot them.  You could spend a month on vacation and only need one memory card.  And if your camera gets stolen, you haven’t lost a single picture.  What if your camera could search your Facebook friends and match photos of them to automatically tag the people in your photos?  It’s not that far-fetched.  The latest version of Picasa does an impressive job of face detection and identification.  This quote from the essay sums it up best:

My iPhone can tell me where I am, tell me where the sun is and the moon will be, put watermarks on my images, stitch panos, apply tilt-and-shift-like effect, email them or send them directly to places I want them, and much, much more. My US$7999 D3x can’t do any of those things. Doesn’t anyone else find something wrong with this picture?

Image quality has gotten pretty dern good, but the user experience of the camera is still stuck firmly in the past.  Why not focus some resources on creating the next truly revolutionary camera?  Canon and Nikon may be on top for now, but they are the two least innovative and boring companies to watch, in my opinion.  They make great cameras, but they still don’t even have sensor-based stabilization in their DSLRs.  The most popular camera on Flickr is not a Nikon or a Canon, or even a camera.  It’s a phone.  There are two reasons that the iPhone is the most popular camera on Flickr: 1) people always have it with them and 2) it’s easy and quick to post pictures directly from the iPhone to Flickr.  Combine that functionality with good image quality and you’ve got a winner.

But what do I know?  The camera I’m carrying around with me today is an Olympus OM-10, which doesn’t even have a USB port.

Mount Saint Helens from Mount Rainier

Colors
Colors, by Me

This picture is from a hike I took last summer on Mt. Rainier.  It was a clear day, so you could see far-off places like Mt. Saint Helens, which is almost 100 miles away.  This hike was the first and only time I’ve used the JPEG mode on my DSLR.  I knew the theoretical benefits of shooting RAW from the day I bought the camera, so I never bothered with JPEG.  I wanted to try it and see if I could save myself some post-processing time by just taking whatever came out of the camera.  Like a dummy, I didn’t use RAW+JPEG, I only saved JPEGS.  The hike was on a sunny day with lots of snow, so nailing the exposure was a bit of a challenge.  Rescuing the images that were off was made much more difficult than if I had simply shot RAW.  This was a good learning experience because prior to that point, I hadn’t actually tried to edit JPEG’s from my DSLR.  Now that I’ve done it, I won’t have to try it again.  Nothing can beat getting the exposure right in the camera, but if you don’t it’s nice to have a safety net.

What I learned from this exercise:

  • Don’t trust the image on the LCD screen.  Use the histogram.
  • If want JPEG’s out of the camera, use RAW+JPEG.
  • Get the exposure right the first time.
  • Try new techniques all the time.  If you succeed, then you’ve added another tool to your kit.  If you fail, then you’ve learned a valuable lesson that you won’t forget next time.
  • Mt. Rainier is beautiful in the summer time.

As an aside, check out this photo of Mt. Saint Helens.  It’s a 360 degree panorama taken by Gregg M. Erickson.  Clicking on the photo will bring you to its Wikipedia page where you can download the giganto version (119 megapixels!).  Download it, it’s well worth it.  The tiny version below does not do it justice.

Mount St. Helens Pano II, by Gregg M Erickson

Death of a Camera

Broken Digital Photocamera, by Max Mayorov

I own several cameras, but I take the majority of my photographs with my trusty Sony A200.  Not to be confused with the latest A230 and A3xx cameras from Sony, the A200 is a serious camera for people with fingers.  That’s a different story, though.  This website has shared a brutal dissection of a broken A200.  I have to admit that seeing this made me cringe, since that’s my main camera.  Still, the pictures are fascinating.  I’d like to see some more detailed analysis, but this provides a great peek at what’s going on underneath the skin of your DSLR.  There is so much computing power in today’s cameras that it won’t be long before they develop intelligence and possibly even emotions.  Think about that next time you catch yourself complaining about the performance at ISO12800 or a missed autofocus.  You don’t want to make your camera cry, do you?

Innovation from 1998

Ricoh GXR System
Ricoh GXR System

The Ricoh GXR is the latest mirror-less camera to enter the small-camera/large sensor market.  In a truly unique move, the GXR allows the user to swap out the lens and the sensor.  This theoretically allows Ricoh to better match the lens to the sensor.  The customer purchases the camera and then he or she can choose which lens/sensor combos to create the camera that best suits the task at hand.  Thus, the same camera can have a large sensor and fast, fixed lens for shallow DOF shots and good low-light performance, or it can have a small sensor and slow zoom lens for a versatile, easily pocket-able package.  Actually, those are the only two current options until enough people buy into the system for Ricoh to safely expand to more modules.  Non-imaging modules could also be sold such as a miniature portable printer that could turn the camera into a modern Polaroid.  The biggest drawback to this system is the high price of each module and the limited number of components.  Kudos to Ricoh for trying something radically different.

Minolta Dimage EX 1500
Minolta Dimage EX 1500

But… how different is that idea?  Minolta, who never seemed afraid to innovate, sold a similar camera 12 years ago called the Dimage EX 1500.  The sensor and lens were detachable just like the GXR, except in the Minolta’s case, the sensor was a 1.5 megapixel CCD for both available modules.  The modules available were a 28mm (equivalent) fixed lens or a 38-105mm zoom lens.  Minolta planned on the camera being future proof, by allowing upgrades to future higher resolution modules.  I think the Dimage 1500 body would have struggled processing the 12+ megapixel images that are common today.  That seems like the biggest difference between releasing a replaceable sensor camera 12 years ago versus today.  The megapixel race has slowed (and hopefully almost stopped), so processing requirements will not change as quickly as they were at the turn of the century.

The Dimage 1500 had another cool feature: an implementation of the Digita scripting language, which allowed the user to program their camera and customize its functionality.  It sounds like it was too limited to do anything too mindblowing.  Look at some of the things apps for the iPhone camera can accomplish for an idea of how useful it would be to be able to program your camera (or download things others have programmed).  Brave Canon users can use the Canon Hack Development Kit (CHDK) to do this, but it is unsupported by Canon.  Any kind of programming language or scripting implemented on a camera could potentially kill the usability, but couldn’t manufacturers supply an optional download with customization options?  Don’t hold your breath.  Read here if you’re interested in the DPReview article about the Dimage 1500.

Between micro 4/3, the GXR, and several other mirrorless cameras being introduced within the year, we are at an exciting time for digital photography.  In 1998, digital photography was still playing catch-up with film, but now digital has begun to reach a point of sufficiency in image quality.  That means that camera manufacturers can focus on improving handling, size, low-light performance, etc.  Exciting.

The Micro 4/3 Movement and a new camera, the Olympus E-PL1

E-PL1
Olympus E-PL1 with 17mm Lens by The Digital Story

The Micro 4/3 mount has been moving forward at a blistering pace.  DSLR design has been and still is stuck with the same basic size and shape requirements from the film era.  Point and shoot cameras have shown design innovation, but their sensors are far too small and their lenses are far too slow and far too permanently attached to be of serious interest to enthusiasts.  Full frame DSLR’s are the darlings of professional photographers and amateurs with demanding image quality requirements, especially in low-light.  Of course, some simply like having the biggest  and the best (mostly just the biggest).  Those people don’t usually care about being discrete, so they probably aren’t the target market for Micro 4/3 cameras.

The major innovation that makes Micro 4/3 different from conventional SLR design is the lack of a flappy mirror.  SLR’s give a view of exactly what the lens sees by reflecting the light from the lens up to an optical viewfinder.  This allows for a true “live” view of your subject.  Not to be confused with “live-view” which is how point and shoot cameras and most SLR’s display their images on the back LCD screen.  The problem with that mirror is that it takes up a lot of space.  It’s also loud.  Both things that will get you noticed in a bad way when you are trying to take candid photos of strangers, friends, or geese.

The second innovation (arguably) of the Micro 4/3 standard is the smaller sensor.  The sensor is still much larger than point and shoot cameras, but it is roughly 1/4 the area of a full-frame sensor (full-frame means the sensor matches the size of one frame of 35mm film).  Full frame sensors were the goal simply because they match the size of a piece of film which allowed camera designers to continue working within well established confines.  How could a size that was settled upon by experimenting for over 100 years using chemicals and paper just happen to be the ideal size for a piece of silicon with millions of tiny light-buckets on it?  That would be quite the coincidence.  Large sensors have a lot of benefits based on laws of physics that have remained the same for at least the last couple of decades (that’s a joke, physicists, sit down).  Simply put, they capture more light, allowing for better low-light photography.  Unfortunately, large sensors require large lenses to cover the entire area of the sensor with an image.  So now we’ve got a large camera and a large lens and the combination has made hunchbacks out of photographers since time began.  Isn’t it possible that a smaller sensor could be a better mix of price/performance/size?  In-camera noise reduction and optical correction is only going to improve, so the reliance on physics alone for good low-light photography is being diminished.  Whatever you may think about the Micro 4/3 standard (there are a lot of LOUD arguments about this topic), you can’t fault companies like Olympus and Panasonic (and Samsung and Sigma and Leica) for finally attempting some innovation.  Why should cameras look essentially the same 25 years after the first autofocus SLR?

This picture shows the difference in size between a conventional DSLR and a Micro 4/3 camera.  The difference in image quality is nowhere near the difference in size.  No wonder people are SHOUTING about this subject all over the internet.  Just read a few of the comments to this article at Wired.com.  It seems that the emotions and personal attacks on the author are a little out of proportion to the subject matter.  People are calmer discussing abortions and gay marriage.  The picture below shows what happens when you walk around with a DSLR: you get noticed.  I think it adds to the picture, but I’d rather get noticed by choice, not by accident.

Duck Food
Duck Food, by me

My problem with the Micro 4/3 movement thus far has been the prices.  Up until now, you’d be set back a minimum of $900 to buy into the system, where an APS-C SLR with potentially better image quality only costs about $400.  The balance is shifting, though, because Olympus has just announced that they are releasing the Olympus E-PL1, which will sell for $599 with the foldable 14-42mm lens.  Not a bad deal, even though I’d rather buy it with the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7.  I’m guessing I won’t see that bundle any time soon.  Still, progress = good.