Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What do you really want?

In Repose
The eyes of Ruby Tuesday are upon you.
Back in days of old, when I was a high school teenager, I would occasionally get so passionately involved with something, and as a consequence, so tightly wrapped around the axle over it, that my father would stop me and ask these Five Important Words:

"What do you really want?"

My father could have easily told me what to do. But to do so would have introduced a longer term problem: I would not have learned how to solve my own problem and I would not have been as motivated to follow through because it wasn't mine, but my dad's.

So I would think about the problem, decide what was really important based on what I really wanted, and come up with a reasonably acceptable solution. It might not have been perfect, but that was part of the learning process too. Each time I went through this, the process became more refined and the results more satisfactory.

So here I am, some 40 years later, passionately involved with photography again (digital instead of film) and once more wrapped around another axle. And the question once again is, "What do you really want?"

This current problem got started back in December when I purchased my E-P2. It was a little darling in a number of quarters, and was lauded about the blogosphere with many a glowing review (such as mine). And it is indeed quite the fun little camera. It wound up becoming my carry-everywhere camera. The body, with a lens attached, fit into a Domke F6 bag with four other lenses and various paraphanalia. The overall size and weight come in to less than half what my Kata bag with its E-3, 12-60mm, and 50-200mm weights. It wasn't environment proof, but it was inertia resilient; it was so easy to reach in and grab the E-P2 when the opportunity presented itself. The E-3, by comparison, became the camera you had to think about using.

What's more, I noticed I liked the images coming out of the E-P2. They appeared to have more detail at the same resolution. I can honestly tell the difference. That's not to say that the photos coming out of the E-3 are bad, but that the photos coming out of the E-P2 were just a might noticeably better. I never warmed up to the art filters; I certainly tried them, but after trying them I've come to ignore them. I even shot some video, and continue to do so occasionally. But the primary use of the E-P2 in my hands is as a still camera, and I've started to shoot RAW (ORF) completely. I've discovered I like how Lightroom 3 handles my raw files, both from the E-3 and the E-P2.

And then I started to fall under the sway of primes. Right now I have four; a ZD 50mm f/2, a Sigma 30mm f/1.4, an M.Zuiko 17mm f/2.8, and an OM 50mm f/1.4 (I actually have two OM copies, but only use one). And I started to hang around sites like Steve Huff's, where "wide-open prime" photography (usually on a Leica such as the M4 or M9) reign supreme, with spectacular results.

On Steve's site (and others of a similar nature) I came to notice that the photos I really took a liking to shared these similar features:
  1. They were shot wide open (or one stop down), with a dramatic fall-off in field of focus. What was in focus was spectacularly sharp. And I'm not talking bokeh.
  2. There was plenty of exquisite detail and long smooth tonality in every photography. The tonality can be a product of post production, and I'm aware of that. But the detail has to be there to begin with.
I'm fully aware that a lot of those images were taken with Leica bodies (such as the M9) and M-series lenses (some Leica, some not). But I've also noticed the same features with other 35mm-sized sensor cameras, such as Canon's and Nikon's. And it reminds me of when I shot film, and how I was able to achieve similar results with fast primes (notably 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2.8). And I want that look back. And I'm not achieving it to the level I want with my current crop of lenses on either body.

I could spend more money and buy a Sigma 24mm f/1.8 or 50mm f/1.4 (both having a native 4/3rds mount and autofocus). Or I could buy the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 for my E-P2. In other words, I could throw more money around and not be fully satisfied. The question comes back around to;

"What do you really want?"

Here's a list of what I believe I really want in a camera. It may change over time, where I add or remove features.
  1. I want a sensor with more detail than I can currently get with either the E-3 or the E-P2. And by more I mean noticeably more, that you can see without post-processing tricks or pixel peeping.
  2. I want a sensor that can provide more dynamic range than I'm currently getting, by at least 1 full stop.
  3. I want a sensor that can produce excellent (low noise/grain) results up to ISO 6400.
  4. I want a camera body with a shutter that is very, very quiet. In fact it would be ideal if the shutter was totally silent.
  5. I want a large bright viewfinder that makes manual focusing a snap, as with an OM 4T's optical finder and screen. And if autofocus is enabled, I want it to be fast and accurate.
  6. And I want it all in a camera body that's reasonably sized and environmentally resistant.
All (or most) of my wanted features might be satisfied with a future replacement for the E-3, or it might be satisfied with another brand and a larger sensor. The key blocker is cost. My budget is no where near large enough to afford the luxury of a Leica M9, Nikon D3, or Canon 1D. Facts are facts, and the economy combined with my other adult responsibilities precludes me from indulging in the personal fantasy of owning one of the high end elites.

I could invest in a Nikon D700 or a Canon 5D Mk II. Their cost is down to more moderate levels, relatively speaking, and either could satisfy my six requirements listed above. Unfortunately their $2,500 price tag still gives one to pause and think. I could even consider the Nikon D300 or the newer Canon 7D (not the 60D). They use an APS-C sensor, which is 20% larger than the 4/3rds sensor. Canon has pushed the resolution of their APS-C sensor to 18MP, which gives a pixel pitch nearly identical to the E-P2's 12MP 4/3rds sensor.

And then there's Photokina 2010 coming up the end of September.

I still have a lot to think about. I also have more work to do with regards to achieving that look I'm after. In particular I could save a whole lot of money by investigating and investing in the Panasonic 20mm. Although it currently costs $380 most places, it's a pittance compared to the cost of a new system and lenses. And I can certainly continue to hone my skills with my current equipment and post processing software.

I know I've barely scratched the surface on how to use Lightroom 3. But there's a point of diminishing returns in that route, both in loss of information as images are over-manipulated as well as the time invested. And I have little of both to waste.

Now that I have my list, I think it's time to sit back and chill out, waiting for the announcements that are certain to come between now and the end of Photokina. I'll know a lot more in four weeks. Perhaps I'll have an answer.

Equipment Used
Olympus E-P2 with M.Zuiko 17mm wide open at f/2.8

Subject
Ruby Tuesday asking me "What do you really want?"

Olympus Disappoints in µ4/3rds Announcements

E-P2_rightside_black_closed_kit_XL
New All Black E-P2 Kit
Today Olympus announced the availability of two new all-black E-P2 kits and two new µ4/3rds zoom lenses. None of what Olympus announced today is what I would classify as exciting nor innovative. Instead, it illustrates what appears to be a slowly growing morbidity within the entire Olympus camera division. In this instance all that has occurred are cosmetic changes on the Pen kits and a regurgitation of older 4/3rds designs with the zooms.

The E-P2 was originally released in December 2009. It came in two kits; one with the 17mm silver M.Zuiko all-silver lens, and the other with the collapsing M.Zuiko 14-42 zoom in black with silver trim. Both versions came with the VF-2 electronic viewfinder, and they both retailed for $1,100. Today's EP-2 kit releases are a minor variation on the original in that the lens is now an all-black 17mm across both kits, with the variation being a kit with an all-black FL-14 external flash (what is what is shown to the right) or a kit with the VF-2.

The cost of these new kits is $1,371 with the VF-2 and $1,332 with the external flash, a bit more than what they cost in December 2009.

Oh. I forgot to mention. You also get a snazzy new lens cover with the Pen F symbol stamped on the front.

I purchased the December 2009 E-P2 kit with the zoom because I felt the zoom would be the more useful lens to start with (and it was). And I was very satisfied with it (and still am). But now Olympus has bucked the downward pricing trend of the original kit by "refreshing" it, and selling it for even more money. With no more than cosmetic changes, the new kits are no better than the originals, and frankly, not worth purchasing.

The zoom story isn't much better. Olympus has introduced a pair of zooms, an M.Zuiko MSC 40-150mm f/4-5.6 zoom and an M.Zuiko MSC 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 zoom. The MSC accronym stands for Movie Stills Compatible, which Olympus claims indicates the zooms are fast and silent, suitable for both video and stills photography. This feature is also a part of two of Olympus' earlier zoom lenses, the M.Zuiko 9-18mm f/4-5.6 and the M.Zuiko 14-140mm f/4-5.6.
MZD-ED40-150mm_Black_XL
M.Zuiko MSC 40-150mm f/4-5.6 zoom
My complaint about the 40-150mm is its price, at a suggested MSRP is $300, or some $100 more than the original 4/3rds lens plus a suitable adapter. It comes complete with a plastic lens bayonet (which the regular 4/3rds zoom did as well). In my book $300 is a bit much to ask for an all-plastic lens, especially with a plastic bayonet, I don't care what its pedigree is.
MZD-ED75-300mm_09m_Black_XL
M.Zuiko MSC 75-300mm f/4.8-6.3 zoom
And then there's the 75-300mm, with has a suggested MSRP of $900. That's a lot of money for such a little lens (Leica examples not withstanding). Even more ominously, it's a very slow lens, especially at 300mm. Keep in mind that due to the multiplication factor of the 4/3rds sensor, you multiple any focal length (given in 35mm lengths by the way) by 2 to get the equivalent focal length of the lens, which in this case is 600mm at maximum focal length. That's an awfully long, slow lens for such a small body, especially to hold by hand. This is definitely a lens that needs to work in broad daylight for decent results. Else you're going to start climbing through the ISO range pretty quickly. And as much as I like the Pens, high ISO performance are not their forte.

I have lost a fair amount of enthusiasm for Olympus over the last six months, especially with this announcement. I am very disappointed with the high prices, especially for the warmed over E-P2 kits. All of these newly announced products range from overpriced to very overpriced. Equivalent 4/3rds lenses (the 40-150Mk II and the 70-300mm) are 1/3rd the cost of these newly announced zooms. Unless you absolutely have to have these new items, I would not spend the money, looking instead at the older kits for far less money, or even looking at alternative brands and even small DSLRs. I don't know where Olympus is going with all of this, but they've pretty much left me behind.

Update

Panasonic Lumix GF-1 with Lumix G 20mm f/1.7 prime
Not interested in paying such a high premium for Olympus' warmed over µ4/3rds Pens, but want a camera that matches the overall quality and features of the E-P2? Then take a look at Panasonic's GF1. The kit comes with the highly regarded 20mm f/1.7, has a built in flash, the same 4/3rds sensor (with matching resolution), and is priced between $700-$800, depending on the seller. You can even purchase an EVF for it for another $200 if you so desire. The biggest mark against it in my book is the lack of in-body image stabilization (IBIS) as Panasonic sells zooms with in-lens image stabilization (ILIS). But at that price differential even I would overlook that deficit.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Primary Day 2010

2010 Florida Primary, 24 August
Outside my precinct voting station before closing.
Orlando Diary

Woke up at 6am this morning, then spent the next hour puttering about the house, getting things straightened out, before heading over to my local precinct to vote and then to work.

I voted this morning; the picture to the right was shot in the evening on the way home from work. Turnout in the morning and in the evening looked to be pretty light. I faced more traffic from students heading to UCF than voters to polling stations.

Biggest pleasure of the day was finding out that Kendrick Meek beat billionaire Jeff Greene for the Democratic Senate nomination. Meek will face off in November against Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio and current Florida Governor and independent candidate Charlie Christ. Christ is currently in the lead according to the polls.

The contest between Meek and Greene was particularly raucous, with both trading harsh insults and barbs. It was Greene, however, who drew first blood. Greene entered the primary at the very last minute, and then used his fortune to flood the area with TV ads that attacked Meek, calling him corrupt and unfit. That's just another example of the pot calling the kettle black. Yes, I'm cynical and jaded at this point, but I wasn't about to reward Greene with the nomination and the idea that any billionaire can just walk in and buy his way into public office. Or at least not as blatantly as Greene tried to do.

An interesting political fact: the voting precincts in my part of Orange county were held in churches. Up until 2008 they were held in local schools, but I guess the Orange County School System felt its schools were the wrong place to practice the fundamental democratic right to vote. After all, think of the proper example you want to set for your children. Besides, whatever happened to the separation of church and state?

My precinct (111) voting location was Christ Community Church, while just a mile north on South Apopka Vineland Road, St. Lukes United Methodist was the location for precinct 125. I guess only Protestant churches can host precinct voting stations; Palm Lake Elementary, on Dr. Phillips, where precinct 111 used to vote, is right across the street from St. Judes Catholic church, while Holy Family Catholic church sits right next door to St. Lukes. Funny old world, isn't it?

Equipment Used
Olympus E-P2 with Zuiko Digital 40-150mm and Olympus MMF-1 adapter

Thursday, August 12, 2010

At Work with Linux: Linux Mint 9 Gnome and KDE

Linux Virtual Machines
RHEL 5 VM running on RHEL 5 host.
One of the nicer features about the office lab is the fact we have a number of still-powerful workstations on which to run various operating systems. We've chosen to run Redhat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) as the primary host operating system on every machine we have, which consists predominantly of Dell Precision 690's outfitted with a single quad-core Xeon (2.4GHz E5345) processor and 32GB system memory.

These are not exactly what you would call "home systems". A current home system might have half the memory these workstations have, although 4GB is still considered the norm. And the Xeon E5354, while somewhat "out of date", can nevertheless support a more-than-decent computational load when called upon.

One of the benefits of all this horsepower coupled with all this memory is the ability to run virtual machines on the workstations. For that, we've chosen to install Oracle/Sun's VirtualBox (currently at version 3.6.8), and using that, I've installed a variety of Linux distributions for testing. In this post I'll be talking about Linux Mint 9, both Gnome-based and KDE-based. But before I mention Mint let me make a few comments about VirtualBox.

VirtualBox is probably the easiest VM manager I've used to date. It has reached a level of commercial polish where it is easy to install, setup, and operate. Although I've used it primarily on Linux, it is also installable on Windows and Apple OS X. I've performed some limited use of VirtualBox on Windows, hosting a Linux distribution for parallel development and testing, and it's equally easy on Windows as on Linux.

Under RHEL 5.5 as the host, everything in VirtualBox works as described, and pretty much out of the box, except USB device sharing. The virtual machines will list every available USB device on the host system, but won't allow you to mount any of them. This in spite of following all the directions in the manual, as well as certain suggestions on the support forums. The workaround for this is to just ignore it, using the shared folders to move files around.

As you can see from the VirtualBox control screen below, I've created a number of virtual machines, running five different distributions: CentOS 5.4, Fedora 13, Mint 9 (KDE 4.4.5 and Gnome 2.30.2), RHEL Workstation 5.5, and Ubuntu 10.04. Many of those distributions are deployed across four separate virtual machines (in this case VM136 to VM139). That's to support various configurations of application software that many be running at any given time.


Linux Mint 9 KDE was actually the second Mint 9 distribution installed; the first was Linux Mint 9 Gnome. This gave me an opportunity to figure out and solve little gotchas with the Gnome version that were applicable to the KDE version.


In both these screen shots, I've brought up the distributions respective file explorers; KDE's Dolphin and Gnomes Nautilus. I bring them up for a reason, looking at VirtualBox's VBOXADDITIONS virtual ISO. And that's to illustrate what I consider a 'bug' in the way CD/DVDs and other mountable devices (such as USB thumb drives) are automatically mounted. You can't just drop them in and expect to have the desktop automatically mount the device and then start Dolphin/Nautilus. You have to deliberately bring up either one on their respective desktop before the device is even mounted (in this case under /media). This can get quite annoying when, especially when you are at a shell prompt on the desktop, you drop in a DVD, and then expect to navigate in the shell to the DVD. No, I have to bring up a graphical file explorer and then select the removable device before it shows up mounted under /media in the shell. This is a definite change from older releases, and not necessarily a change for the better.

As far as general looks and behavior are concerned the KDE desktop as supplied in Mint 9 is reasonably polished. Unfortunately, it's been so long since I ran the older KDE 3 desktop that I can't say with certainty which one is better, but I will say that I didn't care for the Oxygen window decorations, and changed it to Plastik.

One big quirk with Mint 9 KDE was in trying to upgrade the VirtualBox Additions to the latest release. Mint 9 appears to ship with version 3.2.6, while I upgraded to VirtualBox 3.2.8. Normally when that occurs I install the latest guest additions, which requires that gcc and kernel packages be installed before hand. Installing VirtualBox guest additions is as simple as running the script VBoxLinuxAdditions-amd64.run as root; every module is built and properly installed. Unfortunately I couldn't get the proper kernel packages installed in Mint 9 KDE. This was not a problem with Mint 9 Gnome.



For general use I consider Mint 9 Gnome to be the better distribution, especially for getting inside and tinkering about. It's also better to just stick with the Gnome desktop throughout, even if the Mint 9 Gnome desktop is using the slab-style mintMenu. At least if folks get annoyed with the pretty Mint Gnome menu, they can install the more conventional Gnome menu bar.

I feel that the Mint 9 Gnome desktop is snappier than Mint 9 KDE in operation. This is purely subjective, and it may be due to the fact that the VirtualBox additions in Mint 9 KDE are not aligned with the latest version of VirtualBox.

Some of the minor nits with Mint 9 Gnome include the fact I don't like the elaborate fortune cookie spewage that greats one when a shell is launched. I reached a point where I'd had enough and hunted down where it was invoked, in /etc/bash.bashrc. Comment the last line and you're greated with a clean shell prompt. This, by the way, is different than Mint 9 KDE; it was located in the login home's .bashrc, where, frankly, it belongs. Having to touch a system file to get rid of an annoyance for a login is in itself annoying.

Another nit has to do with defining proxies. The lab lives behind heavy firewalls and uses a proxy server to reach certain parts of the net. You can't just define the proxy via System | Preferences | Network Proxy. You have to also define it application by application. For example, I've had to define the proxy for Firefox, Eclipse, and Mint's Update Manager. And what makes the Update Manager worse is I have to define the full proxy URL; forget to explicitly add "http://" in front of your proxy's URL, and you're left scratching your head as to why you can't get updates. Why is this significant? Because every other application that needs it doesn't require it. But the bigger issue, not just with Linux Mint, but with every other Linux desktop distribution, is why we can't have a centralized proxy management system. In the second decade of the 21st century there's no reason for this type of issue to exist.

From a "big picture" desktop perspective, both distributions are surprisingly complete. Audio and video work on the Dell 690, even through the virtual machine. For example, Mint 9 Gnome, which comes with Google Chrome, is able to play back Flash video from sites such as CNN. I would believe that if you installed it directly on hardware that it will work as advertised. it's only in oddball environments such as the lab where you'll run into issues, and then those can be worked around.

I wanted to bring this up because it's quite fashionable these days to bash Linux incessantly at sites such as LinuxHaters and TMRepository. I can assure the critics that if Linux were as bad as they would try to lead the world to believe, then we wouldn't be running it here. But for real, non-trivial work loads, it works quite well, and we'll continue to use it and recommend it for tasks where it makes the best sense to use it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

BP, like its oil in the Gulf, is disappearing in Tallahassee

Out-of-business BP signageThis past weekend I drove up to Tallahassee to drive one of my daughters back home for a two week mini-summer vacation. She'd spent summer school up at FSU so she could stay on track to graduate next spring.

As we were driving around Tallahassee, I kept noticing that every BP station we passed was closed. This one to the right, at the corner of West Pensacola and South Ocala, had a Chevron across from it on the opposite corner doing lots of business. While I certainly didn't drive all over Tallahassee to see if there were any open BP's, I saw enough that were out of business to wonder if they were all out of business (the other three I saw were on the corner of West Tennessee and North Monroe, North Monroe and Torreya, and Thomasville Road an Glenview).

Are all these BP stations (and perhaps others in the area) closed because of a boycott against BP in the Tallahassee area? Is BP short on money already because of the billions currently paid, and even more billions to be paid out in the future? Or is it just cagey politics on BP's half, in that it's not a good idea to keep telegraphing your continued presence to the seat of state government?

Things that make you go "hmmmm".

On that note, here are a list of environmental stories I've collected since my first list.
  • Depths of the disaster - A nice, graphical piece put together by CNN. Interesting statistics, the most frightening is the total amount of oil that spewed into the Gulf: 4,900,000 barrels.
  • New Questions Arise On Dispersant Use In Oil Spill - It isn't enough that the oil is toxic in its own right. But now we get to worry about the "liberal use of chemical dispersants whose threat to sea life remains unknown." Isn't that lovely.
  • Many in Gulf are outraged at reports of vanishing oil - Out of sight, out of mind they like to say. By July 30, when this story was published, many were saying that the oil was pretty much gone. And it may have looked that way if you were flying up high over the Gulf. But down at the surface, too many were seeing as much if not more oil than they'd seen before the gusher was capped. I even heard stories that some were questioning if the disaster was overblown. If you believe that, go back to the first link in this list and consider that at nearly 5 billion barrels of oil, the BP blowout is now the largest single oil disaster in US history.
I could keep going, but it gets depressing.

Equipment Used

Olympus E-P2 with M.Zuiko 17mm

Monday, August 02, 2010

Ruby and Max

Orlando Diary

Ruby went to the vet this past Saturday to have her weight and blood checked. Max, of course, tagged along. You can't take one without the other; they're thick as thieves. Even though we arrived at 8am that morning, as luck would have it there were other patients ahead of us, such as this little Spaniel sitting behind the feet of the owner. The Spaniel warily eyed the Traveling Twosome, while the twosome kept trying to go over and visit. Eventually they sat down and then Max leaned over onto Ruby's shoulder, where I got this shot. You can almost hear the little characters gossiping.

Sitting in the waiting room, checking things out

It wasn't long before an examination room opened up for us, and we all went tramping in, going through a gauntlet of staff stooping down to rub Ruby's and Max's heads and making a general fuss over them, especially Ruby.

Max watches over Ruby

Max kept his eye on Ruby the whole time we were in the exam room. The vet who helped Ruby when she first fell ill came in to check her out and give her rubs. We were happy to get the report back that Ruby is indeed loosing weight, and at a healthy rate. Right now we're feeding her Science Diet r/d, which is what the vet carries and what Gainesville strongly recommended.

Oh the way out a very nice female Standard Poodle was waiting her turn to go in. Max, of course, immediately zeroed in on the Standard. Ruby, as usual, started to give Max a lot of attention and kisses. The owner of the Standard kept remarking how much Ruby loved Max. I didn't have the heart to point out that Max had taken an instant infatuation with the Standard, and Ruby was desperately trying to remind Max that Ruby was there first.

Such is life with Labs.

Update

The reason we'd gone to the vet on Saturday was so that they could run blood work on a sample from Ruby. The results came back this evening. Everything is back to normal, specifically her red blood count (RBC), white blood count (WBC) and her platelet count. All of those had crashed 48 hours after the incident started, with the platelet count going so low by early Tuesday that it was essentially zero. Those are the kind numbers that scare you. Although DIC stands for Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation, it's also informally known as Death Is Coming and Dead In Cage.

It was, indeed, a miracle that brought Ruby back.

Equipment Used
Olympus E-P2, M.Zuiko 17mm

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Almighty Dollar (#666)

The Almighty DollarOrlando Diary

Saturday, 6:30pm, driving home after getting a haircut at a local WalMart, the thermometer on my Prius registered a toasty 100° Fahrenheit. It was so warm that even the Labs decided they'd rather stay in their air-conditioned home instead of taking an after-sundown walk. It just wasn't cool enough.

Today I had to run over to a local Lowe's and return a cheap and busted plastic exterior light fixture. I'd already replaced it with one made of metal, but I hadn't had time to take the busted one back until today.

It was another blazing hot day. I stopped at a local Burger King near the Lowe's on 50 to get a large diet Coke, heavy on the ice. The BK is across the street from the local über sized cross. I'd taken a picture of it back in March 2009, sitting behind a pile of bulldozed tree roots. I'd walked in to the BK to get my diet Coke My Way. On the way back out to the car I looked up and saw the perfect confluence of church, state, and the almighty dollar as exemplified by McDonald's.

Update

I didn't realize it until I looked in Blogger's Dashboard, but this is blog entry six three-score and six, or 666, the mark of the beast. A special number indeed considering the subject and the date I wrote this.

Equipment Used
Olympus E-P2, Digital Zuiko 40-150 f/4-5.6 w/MMF-2 adapter.