Entries Tagged as 'Digital Media'

Digital Photography

Most of my digital photography for the last several years has been with my Canon 20D and Nikon D40 DSLRs.  Often I shoot in RAW mode and then use an image editor (GIMP) to reduce the image and optimize it for web viewing (JPEG).

I consider the Canon to have by far the best image quality; but the Nikon is much smaller / lighter and easier to carry around.  The Nikon is actually much newer than the Canon; I got it for convenience.  Both of the cameras are great; and come from a long line of DSLRs.  If you’re serious about digital photography either of these would be a good option.

I also have a point-and-shoot camera.  A Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX33S which I carry with me when I just cannot afford the extra space and weight a DSLR would cost (outdoor activities) or when the risk to damaging a DSLR would be too great.  I personally don’t care for point-and-shoot cameras, and I hate to shoot without a real view finder (and LCD panel on the back of a “camera” is awkward for me at best).  There are times, though, when I’m thrilled to have a descent camera with me, and this is a descent camera and very compact.

My older digital photography was done with a host of cameras; starting with two of the first Kodak digital cameras in the late 1990’s.

Before that I shot almost exclusively with a Nikon F2 and Nikon F4 and a Yashica Mat 124G (6x6cm – twin lens).  I have some shots using a Canon F-1 (borrowed) as well.

I’ve never been very skilled with a camcorder; but I do have some old footage done on two different JVC DVC models and will be taking more with my Panasonic HDC-SD10 HD solid state unit.

Canon 20D
Canon 20D

Nikon D40
Nikon D40


Panasonic DMC-FX33S

Panasonic
Panasonic HDC-SD10

Originally posted 2010-02-26 01:00:09.

GIMP

GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed program for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring.

It has many capabilities. It can be used as a simple paint program, an expert quality photo retouching program, an online batch processing system, a mass production image renderer, an image format converter, etc.

GIMP is expandable and extensible. It is designed to be augmented with plug-ins and extensions to do just about anything. The advanced scripting interface allows everything from the simplest task to the most complex image manipulation procedures to be easily scripted.

That’s what the GIMP site says; but what GIMP is is a free Open Source alternative to programs like Adobe Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop Pro that runs on Linux, OS-X, and Windows.

GIMP is reasonably easy to use, powerful, and rock solid.

If you understand the principles of image/photo editing you’ll be a pro at using GIMP in no time — far easier to use than Photoshop, far more functional than Paint Shop Pro.  And it’s free — totally free — just download it an install it.  There’s lots of plug-ins for it as well (so make sure you take a look at some of those add ins).  Be sure and review the online documentation, tutorials, and FAQ; plus there are a number of well written books on GIMP available for purchase.

GIMP.org

Originally posted 2010-03-08 02:00:45.

Nikon SB-400 Speedlight Unit

Nikon

I purchased a Nikon SB-400 Speedlight Unit for my Nikon D40 DSLR.  Mostly I purchased the flash unit because I’d read some good reviews, it’s very small and compact, it’s inexpensive (about $99 online), and I had enough credit card point to pay for it (and nothing else I really wanted).

When I got the unit I was impressed with how small it was.  I’d expect it to be a little larger than it was, but I was quit happy (for reference, it’s about the size of the battery plus battery charger, but lighter).

The instruction manual is clear and simple (you can download that from the Nikon web site if you want to review it).  Attaching the flash and using it with a Nikon DSLR is straight forward.  You can also review the key features and specifications on Nikon’s site, I’m not going to copy them here.  See the end of the post for the URL for the Nikon SB-400 Speedlight Unit.

I immediately shot a dozen images inside under conditions ranging from almost not needing a flash (fill) to almost total darkness — with a distance of just a few feet to right around ten feet (all my tests were done bouncing the flash off the ceiling in landscape orientation — the flash only tilts, it doesn’t swivel, so you can’t bounce from the ceiling in portrait orientation).

The images I took that used the flash in fill mode turned out exceptionally well; and really showed off what an asset a small flash unit like this can be.  The images I took that used the flash in near darkness showed that this unit really isn’t capable alone of being used under those conditions, and you really should consider a dual flash setup if you’re going to shoot in total darkness).

My absolute biggest complaint with the flash unit is that it exacerbates my biggest complaint with the D40 — the body is so light, it has an unusual center of gravity (even with a small lens on it), by adding the flash unit it makes the center of gravity even worse.  NOTE:  The only solution to this I’ve read of is adding a battery grip, and while that would help pull the center of gravity back and down, it would make the camera substantially larger; and many of those units are reported not to work very well.

Pros

  • Small
  • Light
  • Easy to use
  • Inexpensive
  • Works well as a fill flash in landscape orientation
  • Well constructed
  • Uses two AA batteries

Cons

  • Not suited for near total darkness conditions
  • Does not swivel for use in portrait orientation

Personally I’d say the unit is an incredible value, and well suited for a number of indoor applications.  The one that came to mind immediately was using it to take pictures of small items you were going to sell online.  Of course it also works well for any type of general indoor photography, but you’ll have to get used to shooting in landscape (even in conditions where the subject matter is obviously portrait) and just crop down the image.

Would I recommend buying one.  Well, I think you have to consider what you want to use it for.  If you want something that’s very small, very inexpensive, you’re only going to use it indoors, and you can tolerate the landscape only limitation — sure, buy it… you’ll be quite happy with it.  But if you can afford to pay more, can tolerate a larger unit, and need to shoot outdoors or absolutely require portrait I think you’ll be happier with another unit.

Nikon SB-400 Speedlight Unit

Originally posted 2009-02-16 01:00:43.

Video Editing on a PC

I purchased a Mac Pro and Final Cut Studio to do my video editing, simply because I felt that PC solutions were just not there.

Adobe Encore is a joke, the only thing it was good for was crashing (and thinning out your wallet).

Sony Vegas was a descent application (and solid), but difficult to use and didn’t seem to expose as much control as I wanted over DVD production.

Times change; and now I’m not as concerned with DVD production as I am with just video editing, and two of my friends have shown interest in video editing and really don’t want to invest in a Mac (there is only one real choice for video editing from Apple, and that’s a Mac Pro, and the combination of the hardware and software is a little scary).

One of my other friends has used Vegas for quite awhile, and he’s been happy with it (of course he’s never done video editing on a Mac).

I’ve decided my project for the next several days will be to evaluate Sony Vega Pro 9.  I’ll try it out on Windows 7 and write a BLOG post that tries to detail the strengths and weaknesses without directly comparing it to Final Cut Studio; though I may use Final Cut Studio as the “standard” for what a high end video editing suite should do.

Originally posted 2010-02-19 01:00:15.

WD TV Live Plus – Network Media Player

I purchased the WD TV Live Plus about a month ago from Amazon (good price, free shipping, great return policy if you need it)… I looked at several other alternatives including the Seagate FreeAgent Theatre, Roku Digital Video Player, and Apple TV.

Rather than high light the weaknesses I perceived in the other devices, let me underscore the abilities that I felt were compelling in the WD TV Live Plus, but let me start by listing the minimum requirements.

  • support full HD (1080)
  • support component video (I have one older panel that doesn’t support HDCP)
  • support TOSLINK and/or SPDIF digital sound
  • support HDMI (video plus audio)
  • support Netflix streaming
  • support media from local sources

Additionally there were a few more items on my wish list

  • not require any proprietary software installation (ie iTunes)
  • support MPEG2, MPEG4, h.264 plus as many other CODECs as possible
  • support audio
  • support browsing SMB/CIFs shares
  • support media servers
  • straight forward user interface
  • reputable vendor with reasonable support and updates

The WD TV Live Plus (don’t be confused by the other models WD offers — only the high end one supports Netflix) did everything I required, and everything I wanted — plus it has features beyond what I care about.

Let me start by saying I unpacked the device, plugged it in, and it worked — I didn’t need to read the manual, I didn’t need to change any settings, I didn’t need to do anything to play local media off of file shares or media servers.  The only thing I had to do to play Netflix through the device was type in the device registration code on my account screen online and it was up and running.

I cannot say that the device is perfect; but I can say that it works as well as any set top box I’ve ever used (including cable boxes, satellite receivers, U-Verse IP-TV, and HPCs).

Like all those devices you’ll get sputters on occasion (though I’ve never seen any issues with playing local media that is properly encoded), but a quick power cycle (the power button on the device actually seems to do a reboot of the device — but unplugging the AC adapter is always a sure fire way of resetting the device).

My Netflix queue started with well over 100 items in it; I’m actually watching items in the queue faster than I’m adding new items to it… it’s just so easy to watch, and so comfortable.  You kick back on the sofa and watch a movie as you’re writing a BLOG post (like I’m doing now).

I really like this device, and I’ll buy a second one for the panel in the bedroom, but I’m hoping that WD will reduce the price to be a little more competitive, and I hope that they continue to update the firmware and improve the device.

For the moment, I recommend you read the information on Western Digital’s web site – that will help to answer questions you might have.  I found that downloading and reviewing the user manual was actually the fastest way to answer most of my questions.  You can also read many other articles about the various media players available — but always keep in mind when you read the opinions of others that they are looking at the device for their needs with their perspective… consider what they say more than their conclusions.

And keep in mind, buy it from Amazon and if it doesn’t meet your expectations the return is as easy a printing a return label with the click of a button and dropping it at the post office.

WD TV Live Plus

WD TV Live Plus

Originally posted 2010-10-16 02:00:43.

Adorama — Follow Up

This is a follow up to a fairly unflattering post I made on a purchase from Adorama.

First, the time line of the entire espisode for reference, my thoughts follow.

  • 2008/12/26: I order a Sunpak CF-7078 Twin Filter Pack (52mm Ultra-Violet and 52mm Circular Polarizing) from Adorama through Amazon (Amazon was out of stock).
  • 2008/12/18: Adorama ships my order, and sends tracking information.
  • 2008/12/31: My order arrives, but Adorama has substituted a Tiffen filter set without contacting me (the invoice clearly indicates that it’s intentional).
  • 2008/12/31: I contact both Adorama and Amazon via Amazon’s web interface).
  • 2008/12/31: I contact my credit card company via telephone; they indicate their will be no issue initiating a charge back, but ask that I give the merchant time to resolve the matter first.
  • 2009/01/01: Amazon replies to my inquiry and indicates that vendors may not materially change an order and that the Amazon A-Z Guarantee would apply should I not be able to resolve the matter with Adorama.
  • 2009/01/04: Adorama has sends me a pre-paid UPS shipping label for the return of the items via email.  Though the instructions indicate that I must drop off the item at a shipping location.
  • 2009/01/05: I’ve also been contacted by Helen Oster, Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador who has read my BLOG post and interested in investigating the matter.  I’ve already sent her enough information to get her started.  I’ll be sure and post anything of interest that happens.
  • 2009/01/06: The Tiffen filters to Adorama via UPS, my regular UPS delivery person picked them up for me, so I didn’t need to drive to UPS to drop them off (but I was still out packing material and time).
  • 2009/01/09: Adorama has offered an explanation (that their buyer felt it was acceptable to replace an out of stock item with an in stock item that retailed for more, without contacting the customer first); while I accept this as an explanation, I find it an unacceptable practice.  Only I can decide what product has equal or greater value, since only I am able to gauge the metrics of the products I choose to fit my needs.  Also, Adorama is attempting to “make this right”, and I certainly applaud their effort — but it would have been easier on everyone had someone just ask what I wanted before shipping a substitution.  Additionally Adorama offers a single Hoya filter as a replacement; I reject that offer simply because I would still need to buy an additional filter.
  • 2009/01/10: Adorama offers two Hoya filters in place of the Sunpak.  I agree to this and they ship the filters (I have an order pending for the Sunpak filter set on Amazon; that’s what I wanted, and that’s what I’ll have — but I certainly felt like I needed to let Adorama exercise their right to “make it right”).
  • 2009/01/16: The Hoya Filters arrive as promised.

Let me start by saying that this matter probably should be characterized as one individual making a bad decision that was inconsistent with the Corporate polices of Adorama, I think Helen’s dedication to making things right, and Adorama’s willingness to incur substantial costs in this matter is evidence of that.

I rarely appraise companies by whether or not they make mistakes, but rather by how they address their mistakes.  While I would have preferred to just get the items I ordered in a timely fashion; or been told their was no stock, I would put forth that you simply could not find a company more willing to go the extra mile; or an individual (Helen Oster) with more moral fibre and tenacity to make sure the right thing is done.

Initially I felt that I would never deal with Adorama again; but my feeling is that they’re certainly worth a second shot (each of you will need to decide for yourself, since this is my only dealings with Adorama I do not have a feel for statistically how often something like this may happen, other than to say my gut tells me it’s rare).

Originally posted 2009-01-16 01:00:20.

Gallery Images

I’ve started to add more pictures to my gallery. The first set are in and around San Francisco, CA. Since I spent twenty years living there, and visited there uncounted times before there’s a great deal to post.

I will probably break from posting San Francisco pictures and post other things as I sort through my fairly substantial set of digital stills.

It will take quite awhile before I even thing about putting up any of my old film shots.

I may try my hand at posting some high definition h.264 video clips as well (but I’ll need to get a great deal better with the camcorder before that happens).

If you desire to use any of these images, you must obtain a written authorization from me.  While I’m happy to share these for you to view, they do belong to me and I do not want them used by others (not that I really think any of them are that great).

Enjoy.

Originally posted 2010-02-25 01:00:21.

Google Music – Release

Back on the 17th of November Google announced the generally availability of Google Music…

We’re excited to announce that Music Beta by Google is officially graduating from beta today! Google Music will remain a free service, and you can continue to store up to 20,000 songs in your personal music library.

As well as an updated terms of service, and a music store (that works via Android Market).

The terms of service clarifies that each individual uploads and maintains his individual copy of a music file (unlike Apple’s service which may well substitute your copy with one from the iTunes store).

And while I think Google Music is a great value (it’s free), I think it might still be a little buggy…

My music library has in excess of 30,000 MP3 files, and while I understand that Google will not upload all of them, and that I might not be able to control exactly which 20,000 songs they upload without creating a copy of the songs I have in a separate directory structure, I’m at a loss as to why I only have 19,088 from my collection uploaded — and the error I see in the load is “too many files in account”…

While I wouldn’t have been shocked if I got 19,999 songs uploaded, it seem to me that there’s definitely a deficiency in Google’s uploader and it’s logic for determining when you’ve reached 20,000 songs in your library.

Like I said, I think the Google Music service is a good value; but it does lack the ability to use it as a “backup” of your music library (there’s really no facility to retrieve the music you upload, other than the very painful, manual effort you’d have to put into retrieving files from the cache it builds as you play them and renaming them).

An alternative is the Amazon Music service; they only provide 5GB free, but for a modest yearly payment they do allow unlimited (Google hasn’t even set pricing for raising the limit on their service); and with both the song you purchase don’t count toward your limit.  The upside of the Amazon service is that it does work nicely as a backup; you can retrieve the music you upload.

For the time being, I’ll use the Google Service; but my guess is that I’ll just migrate to Amazon if Google doesn’t really focus on making the service work correctly, and provide for additional storage.

Originally posted 2011-11-25 02:00:48.

Upgrading Drive Firmware

First, if you’re not having problems with your drive (unless it’s brand new, has no data on it, and you don’t have an issue returning it to the place of purchase or manufacturer) DO NOT DO IT.

Second, make sure you give yourself plenty of time, don’t try and do it quickly, or in between other commitments.  Do it when it’s quiet.  Make sure you have a UPS on your computer and that the weather is clear (so that there’s no likelihood of power outages).

Third, run the drive diagnostics from the manufacturer first.  If the drive shows it’s having problems — return it to the manufacturer for replacement (most manufacturers will do advance replacement at no charge with a credit card; that gives you a drive to migrate your data onto, and a shipping container to return the failing drive in).

Fourth, many manufacturers support upgrading firmware directly from Windows (a few from other operating systems).  I high recommend you choose the bootable CD approach — that way there’s no question whether or not you have something installed on your computer that might interfere.  And if you’re using SATA I recommend you set your computer to SATA IDE/Legacy mode to insure that the upgrade (and diagnostics) don’t have any issues with your SATA controller (IDE/Legacy as opposed to SATA/Native, SATA/RAID, SATA/AHCI — different BIOS manufacturers will call it by a different term, but it’s the lowest setting for the controller, likely it’s what the default was).

Fifth, make sure you obtain the firmware update only from the manufacturer’s web site; and make sure that it is for your drive; and that it’s recommended as a general installation or specifically addresses an issue you’re having.

Sixth, make sure you read and follow the manufacturer’s procedure for updating firmware.

Seventh, power off your drive before you attempt to use it after updating the firmware.  Most drives will not use the newer firmware until they are power-cycled; some drives just flat out won’t work until they’ve been “hard reset”.

Hopefully all goes well, but many drives become a brick if your firmware upgrade fails; a few can revert to the previous firmware and keep on running.  If you have problems, contact the manufacturer, most drives under warranty can be replaced — but data recovery is not included.

NOTE:

Upgrading drive firmware may also change the first several sectors of the drive; I highly recommend that you backup the drive before upgrading the firmware.

Originally posted 2010-02-09 01:00:56.

Video Encoding

A little over a year ago one of my friends with a Mac wanted to get into re-encoding video; I knew about the tools to do it on a PC, but none of the tools really had a OS-X port at that time, so I set out on a quest to find tools that could enable a person who didn’t know much about video encoding to accomplish it.

One of the first tools I stumbled on was HandBrake; it was an Open Source project leveraging off of a number of other Open Source products intended on creating a cross platform suite of tools for video encoding that was reasonably straight forward to use and produced reasonable good results.

Well, the version I tested was a near total failure… but the project showed promise and I keep tabs on it for quite some time.

Over the past year it’s steadily improved.  In fact, I’m probably being a little hard on it, since right after I played with an early version a much improved version was available that did work, and did allow my friend to accomplish what he wanted.

Last month HandBrake released a new version — a much improved version.

With Windows, OS-X, and Linux versions you can try out HandBrake for yourself and see the results.

I did two separate tests (and for some reason I always use the same two DVD titles — Saving Private Ryan, and Lord of the Rings — the reason is that both movies have a wide range of  video type from near still images to sweeping panoramic views to everything in motion (blowing up)…

I had two separate machines (a Q9300 and a Q9400 both with 8GB of DDR2) doing the encodes, and did both normal and high profiles; one test was H.264 into a MPEG4 container with AAC created from the AC3 5.1 track; the other was H.264 into a MKV container with AAC created from the AC3 5.1 track in addition to AC3 5.1 pass-through and Dolby Surround pass-through with [soft] subtitles.

For the high profiles: Lord of the Rings took a little over three hours; Saving Private Ryan took just under two and a half hours — so don’t get in a hurry, in fact, run it over night and don’t bother the computer(s).

The high profile achieved about a 2:1 reduction in size; the normal profile achieved about a 4:1 reduction in size.  The high profile’s video was stunning, the normal profile’s video was acceptable.  The AAC audio was acceptable; the AC3 5.1 was identical to the source, and in perfect sync.

There are a number of advantages to keeping your video in a MPEG4 or MKV container verses a DVD image… it’s much easier to catalog and play, and of course it’s smaller (well, you could keep the MPEG2-TS in a MKV and it would be identically sized, but I see little reason for that).

The downside of RIPping your DVDs is that you lose the navigation stream and the extra material.  Do you care???

HandBrake will read source material in just about any format imaginable (and in almost any container as well)… you can take a look at it’s capabilities and features online.

I’ve got some VCR capture streams in DV video that I’m encoding now — trying a few of the more advanced settings in HandBrake to see how it works (well, that’s not really testing HandBrake, that’s testing the H.264 encoder).  My expectation is that once I get the settings right, it will do a fine job; but with video captures you should never expect the first try to be the best (well, I’m never that lucky).

While HandBrake is very easy to use, your ability to get really good results from it is going to partially depend on how willing you are to learn a little about video re-encoding (which will require a little reading and a little experimentation).   But that said, NO product is going to magically just do the right thing in every case…

Overall I would say that HandBrake is one of the best video encoders you’re going to find, and you cannot beat the price — FREE!

Here’s some additional notes.

For Windows 7 you will want to download the DivX trial and just install the MKV splitter (nothing else is needed) so that Windows 7 can play media in a MKV container using it’s native CODECs.

With Windows Media Play 12 and Media Center I haven’t figured out how to switch audio streams; so make sure you encode with the audio stream you want as a default as the first stream.  With Media Player Classic and Media Player Classic Home Cinema it’s easy to select the audio stream.  Also, Windows Media Player will not render AC3 pass-through streams, it will just pass them through the SPDIF/Toslink to your receiver — so you won’t get any sound if you’re trying to play it on your PC.

Don’t delete any of your source material until you are certain that you are happy with the results; and you might want to backup your source material and keep it for six months or so just to be sure (yeah — I know it’s big; but a DVD will fit on a DVD).

Handbrake

Originally posted 2009-12-17 01:00:07.