Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Alexa ... Open the pod bay doors

Amazon Echo is amazing. The voice command interface is responsive and capable. Sound quality is quite good but I would like the option to adjust an equalizer through the app.
Amazon Prime members can take advantage of Prime Music for unlimited listening on everything from Classic Rock to Pavarotti to "Who's on First" from Abbott and Costello. Add in your Google login to allow Alexa access to your calendar. With a simple "Alexa ... What's my schedule for tomorrow" she'll read off your itinerary. Then she'll ask if you'd like to hear more.
The Echo can tell you jokes, give you facts about the song you're listening to or respond to statements like "Open the pod bay doors." It all leads to an interesting interaction that becomes more competent and responsive as you use it. Next step for me is to try some home automation.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fujifilm X-Pro 1 Review: A film fanatic's perspective

I started in film long before digital was even plausible for consumers. I prefer film and, to be honest, doubted I'd ever find a digital camera that didn't have soft images. Fujifilm has changed the game forever with the X-Pro 1.

Let me give a little background. I became a more serious about photography over 20 years ago (when I was 17) and got my first 35mm SLR for a photography class offered at school. It was a Minolta X-370 with a 50mm f/1.7 lens. It wasn't fancy yet it was able to spark a passion I wouldn't want to shake even if I could. But, like most entry-level anything I eventually outgrew (or at least felt I'd outgrown) the limits of that camera.

I moved from Minolta's X-series to their Maxxum series (8000i and then a 7) and from a hodgepodge of aftermarket manual focus lenses to mostly Minolta AF lenses in search of higher quality images. As I became more experienced it seemed that fine detail in enlargements (11x or larger) was just not to my liking and I moved on to medium and large format.

My use of large format is limited to a pressview 4x5 that yields insanely detailed negatives. Anyone who has shot large format knows its challenges and also the rewards. Over the years I've found that for my own style and way of shooting 6x7 medium format really provided me that fine detail in enlargements and handling I was looking for. A full-blown 4x5 camera with all its swings, tilts and shifts doesn't work for the way I like to shoot. Though the argument surely can be made that image quality for enlargements can be subjective. And, that 4x5 inch negatives will offer more of that fine detail than 6x7 centimeter (2-1/4x2-3/4 inch) negatives I think few would argue that 35mm film could ever compete with medium or large formats for large prints. And, as I've already said, up to this point digital did not really impress me as the images were always soft. So, how does this relate to the Fujifilm X-Pro 1? It's about the fine detail in the images. Fujifilm figured it out.

As a long-time Minolta shooter I naturally went to the Maxxum 7D when Minolta thought that it was time they got back in the digital SLR game. It had a 6.1MP sensor when Canon and Nikon were releasing 8MP sensors. And though, as time has gone on, I've played with both Nikon and Canon DSLRs and have seen some very nice images from those cameras they, along with my Maxxum 7D, always seemed to fall short in that area that had me leave 35mm so long ago ... lack of fine detail in 11x and bigger enlargements. For a long time I couldn't put my finger on why.

Was it that the lenses just didn't work as well with digital? That turned out to be partially the case with all manufacturers as there has been extensive design changes in not only the optical corrections but the coatings as well in recent years. All changes necessary to get the most out of digital sensors. The real problem was the anti-aliasing filter. It didn't matter how high the resolution of the sensor was or the resolving capabilities of the lens because a stupid filter on the sensor always softened the image to prevent moire. I hate the damn anti-aliasing filter!!

Along comes the Fujifilm X-Pro 1

When I read about the X-Trans sensor and how Fuji got rid of the anti-aliasing filter and their sensor experienced little to no moire I was intrigued. Had someone finally figured out what really needed to be done to make a digital camera that wouldn't lose the finest details? It didn't take too many shots to figure out that Fuji was on to something.

The beauty of film:
Kodak 400UC scanned on Epson V750-M
©2004 P.T. Dante Ciullo
In medium format I shoot only film and I shoot Mamiya and Fuji. In Mamiya I have both an RZ67 Pro IIkit and a 7IIkit. My Fuji is a GF670. All three are fantastic. The lenses, when coupled with fine-grained slow ISO films produce stunningly detailed images that can easily do 30 inches and have detail to spare. Hell, not even just slow ISO films. I have some Portra 400UC negatives (left) from Rome in 2004 that printed at 24x30 have detail to spare.

I admit that my standards for comparing small-format digital are skewed unfairly against digital. That said I will say that I don't care if they're skewed against digital. I moved on from 35mm film because it just wasn't giving me what I was looking for so I'm certainly not going to settle for less because 20 years ago someone believed the anti-aliasing filter was "good enough." For me, it isn't. Thank you Fuji for no longer sitting there and accepting decades of status quo.

Having spent a fair amount of time shooting the Fujifilm X-Pro 1using the 14mm,35mmand 60mmI will say that, for the first time in my life ... I'm impressed with digital. Very impressed. My Mamiya lenses are some of the best lenses on the planet. The GF670's lens is superb. They are the standard I hold the lenses in other formats to. Unfair? I don't care. Taking everything into account regarding size of the imaging sensor vs. the size of a 6x7 neg I will say that these Fujifilm lenses are some of the finest optics I've used ... ever. They blow away anything I've used from Minolta/Sony, Canon or Nikon. But the lenses are only part of the equation.

One of the first portraits taken with the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and 60mm Macro lens
First Portraits:
Fujifilm X-Pro 1 w/ 60mm XF Macro lens
There are many reviews about the pros and cons of the X-Pro 1. I borrowed a kit to test it out because of those reviews. Unless you're going to hold one in your hand and get familiar with it you'll never know the joy the X-Pro 1 System brings to photography. Yes, it has bells and whistles that the purist might be turned off by and yes its autofocus system doesn't do moving subjects well. I do portraits and travel photography mostly. And, for the first time ever someone has produced a digital camera and lens kit that stands up to my demands for fine detailed enlargements. The first serious portrait images I shot (right) through the X-Pro 1 with 60mm macro lens excited me when I saw them on the screen. I've never been too excited about the images I'd gotten from other digital cameras. And some cameras, like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-L1K with its Leica lens, were huge disappointments. So, outside of the image quality, what do I like or dislike about the X-Pro 1?

The optical viewfinder was one of the features that appealed to me. The way it switches between optical and digital is really well thought out. I do have to say that precisely focusing on someone's eye with the 60mm using the optical finder and autofocus was more miss than hit. Switching to the digital finder and manually focusing produced consistent, highly detailed images. When using the optical finder with the 14mm or 35mm for most photos I was able to get images focused where I intended as long as I didn't try to focus on something like a person's eye. It seems to me that with the optical finder that the focus zone size cannot be made smaller (like when using the digital finder/screen) and that may have an influence on the finite focusing on something like an eye.

I like the retro-ish rangefinder style. The camera is small and quite functional. With analog dials, and especially a real aperture ring, this camera is quickly set up even in full manual. The metering is very accurate and the film emulations are fairly good. The "Q" menu is truly handy. The B&W emulation for green doesn't work as I'd expect it to when compared to having used green filters on real B&W film. The emphasis of reds seems off ... that is minor though. The exposure compensation dial gets bumped easily so you have to pay attention to that.

Since I seem to have to use the digital finder when taking portraits the battery life is less than impressive yet livable. Luckily the one I borrowed had two batteries. So, if you get a Fujifilm X-Pro 1 be sure to pick up a second battery... You won't regret it!

In small format digital (APS-C and FX) sensors I was hard pressed to like the results of the many digital cameras on the market. None ever impressed me as all their images seemed just a little softer than I'd like them. And, when enlarged 11x or greater, the images from those sensors just didn't hold up to critical viewing as defined in Way Beyond Monochrome 2e: Advanced Techniques for Traditional Black & White Photography including digital negatives and hybrid printing(fig.11, page 138). I believe the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 is the first camera that comes close to hitting the mark, despite the physics that would say otherwise, because of the X-Trans sensor. When budget permits I will be picking up my own X-Pro 1 with 14mm, 35mm and 60mm lenses. I also look forward to trying out the 58mm f/1.2 that should be released soon. Until then I have use of the one I borrowed for a little longer so I'm going to enjoy it while I've got it.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: Beyond Point and Shoot: Learning to Use a Digital SLR or Interchangeable-Lens camera

Beyond Point and Shoot: Learning to Use a Digital SLR or Interchangeable-Lens camera by Darrell Young and published by Rocky Nook does an above average job of informing its target audience. As the title states, the target audience for this book is someone transitioning from a point and shoot camera to a DSLR or a mirrorless ILC. As a professional photographer, instructor and a reviewer for O’Reilly I scrutinized Young’s writing to assure that the target audience was not misguided.

Young does very well at bringing terms into clarity for the layman. When he’s not going to dive deep on a term or topic at that moment he clearly states as such. He also does well at describing the relationship between ISO, Shutter Speed and f-Stop. Overall I think this is a valuable introductory book for the intended audience. As advanced amateurs are not the intended audience there is very little they will gain from this book.

  • Good at defining terms and concepts to a layman level. Choice to assume reader knows nothing is perfect for the target audience and even most entry-to-slightly-mid-level photographers.
  • Good at mentioning he’ll be talking about an advanced topic later when he’s not going to define a term. Doesn’t leave the reader hanging.
  • Really nice job talking about how the number of Megapixels can be a detriment based on sensor size and making it clear that larger pixels on larger sensors tend to lead to more accurate color, sharper and lower noise images … all hallmarks of what are considered ‘high quality’ images.
  • Emphasis on better glass and how generally you don’t know what you need until you need it is solid advice. That said, it still may lead to people buying higher-end to top-of-the-line cameras first due to fear that they might need better. I was enthusiastic and didn’t need more than a Minolta X-370 until my skill level grew to the point where I could make money with my photography if I upgraded equipment (especially lenses). I explain my point further in this sub-point. You can skip it if you want.
    • Like anything you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t know I’d do this professionally when I first started. All I knew was I enjoyed making photographs and wanted an inexpensive 35mm camera to learn on. Once I learned how to control the camera I was hooked. I agree with Young that having to switch systems is expensive. Like cars and computers it’s not “one camera/system fits all.” Just because a system can achieve something doesn’t mean it’s the best tool for the job. I can use my Mamiya RZ67 to shoot sports or my Minolta Maxxum 7D to shoot portraits and landscapes. The Mamiya blows away the Minolta in landscapes and especially portraiture. The Minolta handles much more nimbly shooting sports than the Mamiya. Point is, you may eventually switch systems because your needs change. So, just because the author loves Nikon doesn’t mean Nikon is the best choice for your needs. I don’t recommend any particular equipment to my students until they know that they want to commit to this very expensive hobby/living.
  • Pleasantly surprised Young didn’t overlook sharing how stopping down the aperture past f/11 typically results in higher diffraction which causes softness. This is something often ignored in entry-level books I’ve looked over.
Cons or erros in the book:
  • Misguided information on Zone and Hyperfocal focusing and the use of the Depth-of-Field scale. If you took away the parking brake in my Jeep I wouldn’t use the parking brake. The reason why the Depth-of-Field scale is used less and less is because the manufacturers have taken them off (most likely to save a few bucks). Zone focusing is very much used by street photographers. Young is on the fence when it comes to Hyperfocal focusing yet seems to be willing to let it fade away as an “old technique.” This technique is used all the time in landscape photography and a lot in travel photography. I think this is a failure on the part of the author to dismiss Depth-of-Field scales in this way.
  • Incorrect terms used when talking about the inverse relationship of equivalent exposure. Young states: “In other words, if you reduce the size of the aperture one stop (f/5.6 becomes f/8), you must increase the shutter speed by one stop to compensate for it (1/125s becomes 1/60s).” The user is NOT INCREASING the SHUTTER SPEED, they are DECREASING the shutter speed. They are INCREASING the TIME in which light is allowed to reach the film by using a slower shutter speed. Editors really should’ve caught that!
  • Shunning Manual exposure as if you’ve “decided to approach photography as if it were 1905” is unbecoming rhetoric. This ignorant way of looking at manual exposure will propagate to the inexperienced reader as though they should avoid it like the plague. It’s rhetoric like this, along with inexpensive low-end cameras and lenses, that has everyone who can afford to buy a DSLR thinking they’re a professional photographer when they don’t know an f-stop from a bus stop. Try using aperture or shutter priority with studio strobes and see what happens. Just because the target audience of this book is currently not working on becoming a professional photographer (or even advanced amateur) it doesn’t mean they won’t go in that direction. Bad advice early on leads to long-term ignorance.
  • Center-weighted average meter description is more like a large spot meter. Center-weighted average meters typically read heavier in the center and bottom of the frame, de-emphasizing what would be the sky in a horizontal landscape photo. I’ve seen this in a number of camera manuals over the years represented the way I’m describing it. Basically, if your subject is standing in the middle of the frame and the horizon split the viewfinder horizontally down the middle then it should read the central subject and ground with more emphasis than the sky. There may be some now that work like a giant spot meter but in the past that was not so much the case with center-weighted average in my experience.
  • BibbleLabs sold out to Corel in January 2012. The core of Bibble Pro 5 became the basis of Corel’s Aftershot Pro. As a big fan of Bibble I’d hate to see users having to spend money on Adobe Lightroom because a writer misled them by directing them to a product that didn’t exist at the time of printing.
  • Fluorescent lights are not always corrected by adding blue. In the case of the book it references the greenish color which is corrected by magenta. Actually, I’ve never heard of having to add blue to fluorescent lights but only to tungsten lights. Doesn’t mean there aren’t fluorescents out there that need blue just that since all the way back to the film days magenta (FLD Filter) was the correction for fluorescent lights.
  • Learn through repetition approach can seem like author is just trying to fill space at times.
Overall I say this book is worthwhile for the target audience of those transitioning from point and shoot to DLSR/MILC. I will recommend it to my students or anyone I meet who I feel can benefit from it. That said, I will also point out the caveats mentioned above and hopefully Young and Rocky Nook will correct some of the errors or clarify on what has created a difference in opinion between myself and the author.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Italian Cultural Week Cancelled in 2013

Italian Cultural Week offers free entrance to state-run musuems, monuments and archaelogical sites

XV Settimana della Cultura, or the 15th Annual Cultural Week, in Italy has been cancelled due to the Country's rough economic climate. This is sad news. Typically during Settimana della Cultura a number of cultural sites are free for visitors. Some of these sites include the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum in Rome, the Uffizi Gallery, Medici Chapels and Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence as well as the Gallerie dell'Accademia and Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Venice. Not wanting to completely disappoint visitors, the MiBAC is doing a Two-for-One ticket to several cultural attractions. If you happen to be in Italy today be sure to enjoy a Two-for-One ticket at a few of the listed sites!! Link is in Italian, sorry!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Essential Travel Tools: Sony PSP

PSPGo has been discontinued. A new PSP, code-named NGP, is slated for release in 2011
PSPgo - Pearl White
Traveling today has become more time consuming. Having to arrive early to get through security checks often means having to spend time ... a lot of time ... waiting. Waiting to board a flight. Waiting to check in. Waiting means you need a distraction. Are you a movie lover? Music lover? Gamer? If so, then the Sony Playstation Portable (PSP) is an ideal travel companion.
The most current versions (PSP Go* and PSP 3000) as well as the PSP 2000 systems not only let you game, listen to music or watch movies on a large, bright screen but also allow you to read comics, surf the Internet and make phone calls via Skype. Both the 2000 and 3000 series require Memory Stick Duo cards (up to 32GB available) if you want to store music or movies but the PSP Go has 16GB of built in storage and a slot for a Memory Stick Duo giving you a maximum storage of 48GB. That’s a lot of space for plenty of music, movies and games! The PSP Go doesn’t accept the UMD game cartridges of the older systems so you must purchase and download games from the Playstation Store. Some might find that inconvenient but I think it has a huge advantage over having to carry multiple UMD cartridges. Good news is that the PSP 2000/3000 series can download games to the Memory Stick Duo ... so get as big a card as you can afford.
PSP 3000 is, as of this writing, still in production
PSP 3000 Core Pack - Black
Both the PSP Go and the PSP 3000 have a built-in microphone and speakers allowing you to make Skype calls without any additional hardware. PSP 2000 series, though they have speakers, requires a headset/microphone combination if you’re interested in being able to make Skype calls via wireless from wherever your travels take you. Being able to make free phone calls from anywhere in the world via Skype through a PSP makes it an incredible tool for the price.Both the PSP Go and the PSP 3000 have a built-in microphone and speakers allowing you to make Skype calls without any additional hardware. PSP 2000 series, though they have speakers, requires a headset/microphone combination if you’re interested in being able to make Skype calls via wireless from wherever your travels take you. Being able to make free phone calls from anywhere in the world via Skype through a PSP makes it an incredible tool for the price.
The built-in on-screen keyboard works well enough for basic web surfing or sending simple e-mail messages through GMail or other web-based e-mail solutions. Even without a touch screen, which I feel is a flaw on the PSP Go considering its competition, the combination of features are noteworthy. With a larger screen and actual gaming controls most gamers would be hard pressed to choose and iPhone or iPod Touch over a Sony PSP system. Maybe the next generation PSP** will add a touchscreen and 64GB of built-in storage thus thrusting itself into the forefront of travel essentials. Until then, either a PSP 2000, 3000 or Go is a welcome travel companion.
*20Apr11 - Sony announced that they will no longer continue production of the PSPGo. As of this writing the PSP 3000 is still in production and the new PSP, code-named NGP, is expected to go on sale in late 2011.

**The new PSP, code-named NGP, does have touchscreen, GPS and a motion sensor.
**UPDATE: 1 Dec 11 - The next-generation PSP is called the PSP Vita
Originally published in The Beacon Newsmagazine October 2010