Sunday, October 18, 2009

Watching Orlando Unravel 6

I haven't written one of my Orlando Unravels entries for some time now because it's too depressing and I've been very busy doing other things, like holding on to my job. So busy is good. In fact busy is wonderful.

I felt compelled to write another Unravels entry because today, while out picking up a few necessities with the wife, we happened to stop by a local Books-A-Million store. This particular store is at the corner of Lee Road and I-Drive (Kirkman/I-4 exit), in the same complex as Sweet Tomatoes. It used to be open four weeks ago. Today, when we drove up, the store was locked and completely empty. We had no idea they were going out of business, and there are absolutely no signs anywhere indicating where they might have moved if they moved. The only thing left is the store with the unbleached wall showing where the letters used to be.

That entire store block is empty now. That Books-A-Million was the last store in a block of stores that once contained a Micheal's Crafts and a big Hallmark Card's store.

Former Books-A-MillionEmpty Block
Universal EmptinessUniversal Emptiness Plaza
Finally Finished and EmptyEmpty and locked up


The photos are, going from left to right, top to bottom:
  • First row: former Books-A-Million on the left, the store block on the right.
  • Second row: Two views of a large empty office complex right behind Universal Studios, across the street from Dr. Phillips High School.
  • Third row: An office complex near my house at the corner of Della and Dr. Phillips, while on the right is another office/shopping complex across from Universal Studios on Vineland.
The economy is still in the pits. The unemployment rate is still climbing. And businesses, minor and major, are still closing their doors faster than they can open newer businesses to take their place.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Olympus E-3

One of the reasons I invested heavily in the Olympus system was the E-3 body. The E-3 body is built of molded magnesium, has a bright full-frame optical viewfinder with 1.15 magnification, image stabilization in the body, an articulated LCD with live view, is dust- and splash-proof, and has IMHO one of the best 4/3rds sensors on the market.

Full Frame Viewfinder

The viewfinder, more than just about any other feature, was the deal-maker for me. It's an optical penta-prism design that shows 100% (or nearly 100% according to the ad copy) of the image that will hit the sensor, while providing a magnification factor of 1.15x. This helps produce a bright, sharp viewfinder that's very easy to focus with, especially compared with my older E-300. Don't get me wrong. I love that E-300 and still continue to use it, but the E-300's viewfinder, a porro-based penta-mirror, is darker and at times difficult to use, especially in low-light situations. The E-3 in comparison is blindingly bright.

The E-3 also comes with a built-in eyepiece cover. The eyepiece is closed when using Live View (more about that below), where it's closed to avoid exposure inflation due to light coming in through the eyepiece.

All is not perfect harmony with the finder. A minor nit is the clip-on eye cup. It can be easily knocked off; I've spent more effort than I care to admit noticing it's gone and having to re-trace my steps to find and put it back on again. I've lost the original that came with the body; I ordered its replacement and an additional spare (at $8 a pop).

Body and Environmental Protection

The body is constructed from injection-molded magnesium alloy, wrapped in fiber-reinforced plastics and rubber-like coverings. It's the biggest body you can purchase in the Olympus line, and the heaviest. In spite of being the biggest and heaviest, it's not too big nor too heavy for me. The size and shape of the body fits my hand like a glove, especially when I slip my hand under the attached AS-GS3 grip/hand strap; it feels like one with my hand. The body is "balanced" with an HLD-4 vertical grip/battery holder bolted onto the bottom. Over the past ten months I've learned where everything is (reading the manual, practice, and with the occasional questions on forums about certain features). I'm quite comfortable with operating the camera, and the more I use it the more I grow to like it.

In spite of how well the whole assemblage feels to me, there is a problem with the body and grip combination mounted on a tripod. I own a Benro A-269 M8 tripod. I discovered during a Labor Day weekend shoot that with the E-3/HLD-4/50mm macro mounted on the tripod head and with the camera on, that moving the entire assemblage (camera + gear + tripod) will cause enough of a flexure between the grip and the body that the camera momentarily looses electrical connectivity with the grip and causes the body to reset itself. I'd read of this issue before. Once I encountered it I simply turned off the camera before picking everything up to move it. It's the most annoying quirk in an otherwise excellent system, and the obvious work around is to turn off the camera before you move it mounted on the tripod, but that problem shouldn't be there. I have heard that the E-30 and HLD-4 combination do not have this issue.

What was that?Sensor

The sensor measures 17mm by 13mm (hence the aspect ratio of 4/3) and is capable of 10mp resolution. There have been more than enough reviews of Olympus DSLR models and their various sensors; I'll let you hunt them all down. However, if you want the definitive reason why Olympus developed the 4/3 sensor, you can read about the benefits of the four thirds system here.

While there are now higher resolution sensors (12.3mp) in newer models (E-30, E-600/620, and E-P1), the resolution, dynamic range, and noise are more than adequate for my needs. I have discovered that the range from ISO 100 to 800 produces excellent results. In a pinch, and keeping prints and images down to 5x7, I can shoot all the way up to ISO 3200 and get very good results.

The E-3, like so many current Olympus models, has image stabilization built into the body via the sensor support assembly. This is one key advantage over other systems that insist on adding image stabilization to the lens; with a contemporary Olympus body (E-5x0, E-6x0, E-30, and E-P1) every single lens, from the least expensive to the most, benefits from image stabilization.

Living Red SatinArticulated LCD and Live View

This was a feature I didn't appreciate immediately; it's usefulness to me grew with time until I find it almost indispensable, especially combined with live view and macro work.

I own the Olympus 50mm f/2 macro. When used for its primary purpose, macro photography, its performance is second to none. The best way I found to use it with the E-3 is to mount the E-3 on a tripod and then rotate the LCD out and enable live view, using the now-comfortably positioned LCD to compose and critically focus the image. I can not only immediately view what I'll eventually capture, but I can also view the effects of aperture, exposure compensation, and color temperature selection as well. I'd much rather take the time setting up a good shot rather than blindingly shooting away.

The only problem with near-perfect feature is the heat generated by the sensor in live view. While shooting outdoors in direct sun one hot Florida day (temperature in the mid-90's), the sensor overheat indicator illuminated on the LCD. I shut the camera down momentarily (it would have shut down on its own) and moved out of the direct sunlight for several moments before turning the camera back on and continuing. In the future I'm going to put up a small umbrella to shade the camera if it's out in the direct hot sun. That's the only time I've ever had a heating problem. Other than that, it's been a stellar feature.

BookendsIn-body Image Stabilization (IS)

A key feature that I have found useful in low-light situations is the in-body IS. Unlike other manufacturers that add IS to their lenses (such as Nikon, Canon, and Panasonic), having the IS in the body means that any lens attached to the body becomes image stabilized. To give you an idea of how useful IS can be, consider the image of Ruby and Max to the right. This image was shot, hand held, with the 12-60mm at 60mm, f/4 (wide open), ISO 800, at 1/5 second. The image is sharp enough that you can easily see the stitching on the sofa as well as details on the dogs (Ruby's eyelashes, for example).

IS is best for those shots in low light where the subject is fairly static; active subject will blur anyway due to their motion, which negates the reason for turning it on. Most of my experience has been with IS1. I've tried IS2, but I've not been too satisfied with it, and prefer to just turn off IS and pan with the subject (like I did in the 'old days' with film). And there have been several instances, specifically with flowers blowing in a breeze, where IS caused the image to be blurrier than if I had just left it off. In all cases I was shooting outdoors during the day in direct sun and the flowers were in sunlight.

Once again though, thoughtful application of the feature can return excellent results.

Oh, and one other peculiarity of the IS feature. If you leave it enabled and turn the camera off, the camera will emit a low buzz or 'rattle'. This is the sensor calibrating itself. It is disconcerting to hear it when it goes off, and I have never quite gotten used to the noise. Call me silly but I've learned to automatically turn it off before turning off the camera.

Overall

Complaints aside, I consider the E-3 an excellent camera. The E-3 has opened up a whole new world of photography for me with respect to the E-300, and has helped to build upon the capabilities of the Olympus system I first discovered with the E-300. The E-3 combined with High Quality lenses such as the 12-60mm, 50-200mm, and 50mm has produced impressive results for me and for others for whom I have taken photographs. I'm very glad I purchased the camera, and look forward to adding new bodies and lenses to the system.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Camera Website Homage

Backyard Sunset (anatomy of an old Geek)Ever since I bulked up with the Olympus E-3 Christmas 2008 (and actually, even before then) I've been hunting down and reading many an on-line photography blog and review site in an effort to gather as much useful intelligence as possible about the pros and cons of the current state-of-the-art in camera gear.

And make no mistake; I'm more the gearhead than the photographer. And why not? A camera is the ultimate convergence of optics, mechanics, material science, electronics, and cybernetics into one convenient awe-inspiring hand-holdable device. The only other device with nearly that much 'pull' in its construction is the smartphone, and it doesn't take nearly as good a photo, in spite of what may be written.

To scratch both the gear as well as the artistic itch of photography, and to make sure I know how much it's going to really cost me, I've developed a list of sites over the last 10 months where I go and seek the wisdom of the oracles. So here, in no particular order, are the sites I frequent on a simi-regular basis so I don't miss out on anything.

1001 Noisy Cameras It wasn't the first one I found, but it comes pretty close. The proprietor (or proprietors, I can't determine which) work to aggregate news from other enthusiast sites of interest from around the web. They're good about giving proper attribution to sources, and they have a number of sub-sites devoted to rumors, news, reviews, and special camera deals. Noisy claims no favorite brand; as a consequence their coverage is both broad and deep. A nice touch is to tell you about a review but not spoil the conclusions of the review. They will provide a link to the conclusion if (like me) you just want to cut to the chase for the executive summary and then read the details at your leisure. You need to go there on a fairly regular basis, since the news flows fast and furious and you may miss something if it slips off the front page before you get there. If you've got a Twitter account you can follow them @1001noisycamera.

Photo Tidbits and Biofos These sites are included together because they are devoted to Olympus DSLRs and equipment. The Biofos site goes further in talking about Olympus film equipment as well. I heavily depended upon both those sites before making my purchase, as both sites go into great detail about the features and operational characteristics of all the current Olympus bodies and lenses, as well as a few non-Olympus lenses. Photo Tidbits is more approachable in its layout, but both will reward the reader with critical information about Olympus equipment.

dpreview Everybody knows about, or should know about, dpreview. They have extensive reviews of nearly every brand and model of camera gear. Their reviews are long (20 or more pages) and extensive, with enough detailed gear shots to sate anyone's lust. They also devote quite a bit of pages to sensor performance, as well as comparing test images with what they consider equivalent cameras. It's that part of the review you can take with some grains of salt. They redeem that part of the review with an extensive collection of test images at the end of the review, and it's there that you can really see if the camera produces the kind of output you're looking for. If there's a part of the site to stay away from, it has to be the discussion forums. It doesn't take very long before you find flamers and trolls in abundance who make Linux and Windows flamers and trolls look like rank amateurs. It might be flawed (and critically so in some areas), but it is an important and reasonably authoritative site.

The Visual Science Lab This site is run by a highly talented professional photographer named Kirk Tuck. Kirk lives and works out of Austin, Texas, and has so for decades. Kirk has worked with multiple camera brands over the years, but recently he sold his Nikon gear (including a D700) and settled back to using Olympus (two E-1's, an E-30, an E-520, and two E-300s). Kirk brings a lot of talent and a no-nonsense point of view to digital photography. He stresses repeatedly what's important about photography, which is the photograph, and backs this up with his own work as well as the work of others who are like-minded. To me he's a breath of fresh air in a crowded and pretentious nation of digital photographers. It should be noted that Kirk writes as well as he shoots, and he shoots extremely well. Kirk has published three books, two of which I own, and which can be found on Amazon.

ThewsReviews I first ran across this site around January while looking for reviews of the Olympus 7-14mm UWA zoom. I didn't buy the zoom because of the cost (deciding to purchase the 9-18mm for roughly 1/3 the price of the 7-14mm). I stayed to read Matthew Robertson's other reviews on Olympus gear and third-party gear that worked (or didn't) with Olympus. His style is fresh and funny, as exemplified by his story of autofocus woes with the Sigma 150mm f/2.8 macro and his E-3. Matthew is another practical no-nonsense working pro, and it shows in his wide-ranging reviews. He's since added a Nikon D700 to his camera arsenal, and his reasons for doing so are reasonable and logical.

Torontowide I found this blog while looking for substantial information on the 9-18mm (see above). The author of this site works at TorontoWide, a news site dedicated to promoting Toronto's arts community. The blog (and its author) are interesting because he's a photojournalist who shoots Olympus. He's written about his working experiences with the 9-18mm, 35-100mm f/2, as well as the E-3 and E-30. Read the fine print at the bottom of all the postings and he'll tell you what equipment he used. If there's a problem with reading the blog (and the site) it's that I'm in Orlando and not Toronto; it hurts to read about such good (some might say stellar) productions and not be able to go see them.

There are certainly a lot more sites to read about, but these are the ones I visit on a regular basis (read: about once a week on average), and that's about all I can handle with everything else I need to do to make a living. I'm unabashedly pro-Olympus and will remain so, unless, of course, Olympus does something drastic like drop out of the DSLR market. And even then I'd keep what I have and buy up off the used market. Using Olympus (or any brand) should never be about any particular item; it should be about the overall system and how it helps you take photographs. In the end it's all about the photograph, not the camera.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Menagerie

We've got five animals in our house right now; three cats and two Labs. The cats are all rescues, as is one of the Labs. One of the Labs was purchased from a local breeder, something we haven't done since we were first married 25 years ago.

Peek-a-boo RubyBookendsEar Cleaning
Lulabelle Checking out the CompetitionSnugglesOne Tired Cat

The Labs are named Ruby and Max. The cats are Lulabelle, a common mackerel tabby, Ellipse, a long-hair mix, and Lucy, a mackerel mix with a lot of white. The Labs are buds and travel together constantly. The cats generally get along, but every once in a while there's the loud cries of two cats challenging one another. But mostly everybody gets along peacefully.

I love all the animals we have. I didn't go looking for the cats, they just started showing up about two years ago, first via my oldest daughter, and then a year later when Lucy literally walked in the front door. I didn't consider myself a cat person at the time, but I just didn't have the heart to say 'no'. The Labs and the cats mix together quite well, and two of them (Lulabelle and Ellipse) treat Ruby like a big cat (in the center lower picture Ellipse is cleaning Ruby's muzzle).

The animals extend and enrich my life. My family comes first, and I love them all equally, but the animals in the house further enrich my personal life. They won't live forever (I've already watched three Labs live out their lives with us), but I hope we have some animal in our household until we can no longer look after them, and I hope that day is still a long way off.

Postcards from Paradise

I've taken to shooting with my Olympus E-300 again, far more than the more advanced E-3. I've even gone so far as to set exposure (aperture and shutter speed) using the sunny 16 rule; since I shoot primarily ISO 100 (with some ISO 200), that would mean f/16 at 1/100 second (or 1/200 sec @ISO 200). In my case, because I like to shoot at f/5.6, I increase the shutter speed accordingly to 1/800 second (1/1600 for ISO 200). I do that because f/5.6 gives the best lens performance and the higher shutter speed gives crystal clear shooting.

It's funny, but it's more liberating to set a camera on full manual and ignore the bleeping display, especially when you're outdoors on a sunny Florida day. The light changes in interesting ways from sunup to sundown; when I'm done and I go back and download the images, they're pretty close to what I both saw and experienced the moment I took the picture.

There is some post processing. I use Olympus Master, and within Olympus Master I increase contrast and play with the tone curve in order to make the colors more vivid than they already are. Depending on the lens (such as the Olympus 14-45mm kit lens at 14mm) I also clean up any pincushioning and barrel distortion the lens might add. I like distortion, but paradoxically I like my lines straight.

The pictures that follow are all from the E-300, using the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 along with the Olympus 14-45mm and 40-150mm kit lenses that came with the E-300 when I bought it. By the time those lenses are stopped down to f/5.6 to f/8, they are tack sharp and contrasty. I have more expensive lenses to use, but again, walking and driving with this kit in a Kata DR 467 backpack is fun.

Parking Lot GrillVarious BeigesBK
BakeryBerriesStops


ElectricalDough
531Ghetto
HighwayYou

Thursday, October 01, 2009

It's been a while

Road Work Ahead ColorThought I'd drop by, clean off some of the cobwebs and dust off the book cases, as it were. I've been busy.

Living the Digital Life

I nuked my Twitter account (@wbeebe). After a little more than a year I finally had all I could stand and left. Twitter's primitive interface/API, which are perversely hailed as avant-guarde by many of the digerati, finally drove me out. Spam re-tweets were the biggest annoyance, followed by the Ponzi/MLM schemers and 'sex workers' who arbitrarily followed me. I blocked far more than I allowed following.

I still have my Facebook account. It's a better Twitter than Twitter itself, but that doesn't make it good in the general sense. I have yet to decide if I just want to let it go and die from bit rot, or just delete the account completely. I may just let ennui set in and let it rot away.

I still post regularly to Flickr (see the image at the upper right for example). Right now I'm in a "post digital" mode where I've taken my older Olympus E-300 DSLR and set everything to manual (sunny f/16 rule) or else aperture-priority auto exposure. I'm trying to practice composition and "seeing the light". Even though it's a cropped sensor (4/3rds) and just 8 MP, it's amazing the quality of the images that come out of the camera. And it's just fun to carry around and shoot with.

Linux

I've got RHEL 5.3 running in the office lab on a number of workstations. As long as those workstations are targeted to a specific task I have no issues. And because they are RHEL, and the contracts are current, there is support on the other end of the phone in case I have issues. So far I haven't.

That tempted me to install Fedora 11, and then Ubuntu 9.04, into Sun's VirtualBox under Windows XP. VirtualBox installed without issue, but getting a distribution to install turned out to be every bit as problematic as onto bare metal.

Fedora 11 refused to boot into a working live desktop, just like it won't natively. I have a Dell D630 with a T7700 Core 2 Duo and nVidia graphics along with 4GB of DRAM. Anyway, after the first and only failure I tossed it aside and grabbed Ubuntu 9.04. It did boot into a live screen, and I was able to install it. It took several installations to find out that (1) Ubuntu requires a minimum of 4GB to install something that works, and (2) it won't run anything larger than 800 by 600 resolution.

In the end I figured I would just use putty, ssh and VPN to get to the RHEL machines in the lab for what I needed, so I removed all the VirtualBox and Linux cruft from my Windows notebook and moved on.

Fini

Béranger grew bored with blogging and put his blog into hibernation. He's now got a Twitter account, which you can follow (if you so desire) at @beranger_v4. I wish him luck and hope he finds the attention he so craves, but never seemed to find while blogging.

Linuxhater's blog has turned into a full-blown parady of itself. Anonymous posters (posers?) keep trying to out-flame and out-troll each other and Linux (and Windows and OS X). Linux has failed, and so now has its most significant critic to date.

Linux itself keeps shambling along, like one of the title characters out of Zombieland. The only reason I pay attention is because of its use in the lab in very specific applications, usually as a server platform for which we would have used Unix in the past. For everything else (and I mean everything else) we use Windows or Macs. I have translated all my open tools to equivalents on Windows (Java, Ruby/JRuby, Eclipse, JBoss, etc), I've moved off of OpenOffice and back to Microsoft Office; in other words my software tools are back to being an end to a means instead of some cause célèbre, and I am reasonably productive and happy.