Entries Tagged as 'Digital Media'

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 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.

The Worst Company in America

I’ve long held that one of the best measures of how bad a company is is how much they advertise, particularly direct mail advertising, and how they build their mailing lists.

Clearly we have a winner by this metric…  DirectTV of El Segundo, CA.

Three to four times per week I get a direct mailing from them, and once per week I get an insert in a advertiser newspaper.

Additionally I’ve filed for countless prohibitory orders through the United States Post Office (and I still get as many or more mailings from them).

Obviously there service is so pathetic that they desperately need new customers to replace the ones who bail as soon as their misleading contracts are up.

Today I called Direct TV and attempted to have my address removed from their database — they seemed to have a problem understanding that because they had taken my name and address from the telephone company listings and it was under “Solicitation Prohibited” that they didn’t need my real name to locate the record, and why they needed any name was beyond me (no it wasn’t, they were attempting to collect more demographic information to target even more advertising — they have no intent of removing my address from their database, if they had they would have done it when the United States Postal Service sent them the first prohibitory order over a year ago).

I don’t understand why anyone subscribes to satellite TV services… but then again I don’t understand why couch potatoes sit around watching mindless television programs when they could be doing something constructive with their lives.

Again — those who support unethical companies like DirectTV are part of the problem… and you should be ashamed for enabling them to operate.

Help me help DirectTV go out of business — boycott them and every other company that thinks they can continue to barrage you with direct mailings after you’ve filed with the USPS or requested removal of your address.

Originally posted 2011-01-21 02:00:39.

NoFlix

Perhaps NetFlix should consider changing their name to NoFlix.

I can’t get over companies that charge for services, fail to deliver the services they promise, and then tell you that they’re not going to refund you a penny.

Yep — that appears to be NetFlix’s policy. I’m waiting on confirmation from Reed Hastings NetFlix CEO (I’ll follow up with anything I receive, if I receive anything) — but that’s what I was told by Sean Callaghan today after I called because NetFlix was down (unable to stream to any of my multitude of NetFlix enabled devices — or any of my friends either) for quite some time.

I was told it was due to a “service outage” beyond NetFlix’s control.

But let me provide a few more highlights of my call. When the agent I spoke with proved to be unable (or unwilling) to resolve any issue I was having — I requested a supervisor. Originally I was told that he was a supervisor and he did not have any manager there. That was then modified to be that he would not escalate the call (suggesting there were actually at least one manager there), and when that change was questioned he again modified the statement along the lines of there was no reason to escalate the call because he had answered my questions. Of course, he was apparently to say anything he wanted since he also told me that NetFlix does not record customer service calls when I ask him. That one statement really does say it all… I don’t think there’s much I can add.

Also, I pointed out — this evening was the only time this month I had cared to watch a movie (I think I had demonstrated NetFlix streaming on my Droid for maybe 3 minutes total — but I don’t really consider that using the service)… and I had no NetFlix DVD in the house, so I expected to be able to sit back and enjoy a movie via the “unlimited” streaming service I paid for each and every month from NetFlix (even though I rarely use it).

Well… not only do I have to say I find NetFlix’s service questionable, but when you consider how difficult they make it to contact them on an issue (NetFlix enabled devices aren’t even an option to report an issue to them) — how long they expect you to stay on hold, and how completely inept their customer service staff impressed me as being — I see no reason why I’d want to send them any of my money, much less putting up with them almost doubling the cost of what I have in a month (which I might add will be four times what I paid when I first signed up for NetFlix, not all that long ago).

I would say that the only thing the agent on the phone was able to do competently was cancel my account; but even that he proved to be inept at — and failed to tell me before doing so that NetFlix wasn’t going to refund anything for unused service.

It’s a joke — and the customer service agent couldn’t reference me to anything that provided information support his claim that NetFlix wasn’t going to refund any of my service fees (even though over one third of my bill cycle remains).

Then I tried to access both there “Terms of Use” and their “Privacy Policy” through both links in the emails they send and the footer on their web site as was presented with “The page isn’t redirecting properly” — I guess yet another “service outage” that was beyond their control.

I’ve closed the virtual card number I used to pay for NetFlix services; and I’ve filed a charge back dispute with Citibank… if they decide not to reverse the charges to my account; well, then I guess I can eliminate a credit card from my wallet as well.

Personally I’m tired of companies promising to provide services, then continually increasing the charges, decreasing the services, and feeling like they have no responsibility to actually fulfill their commitments to customers.

I can say this categorically — I will never use NetFlix again. Amazon provides similar services at better prices, and I have great faith that Amazon will work very hard to meet the expectations they set for their customers… and if they fail, I’m betting you won’t even have to ask for a refund, they’ll be one step ahead of you.

Most every one I know is canceling their NetFlix service before the rate increase in September, and that was my intent anyway — but as of today, I live in a NetFlix free zone, and encourage everyone to ban those red envelops from their mailbox and streaming services from their devices and computers — support a company that deserves your business and watch yet another failure shrivel away and die.

Originally posted 2011-07-22 02:00:36.

HDX Media Player

I ran across this site while reading on the web.  The HDX 1000 and HDX 900 look like they could be interesting devices to hookup to your high definition panel to give you options in how you acquire and manage your content.

I haven’t played with one, so all I have to go by is what’s on the web site.

http://www.hdx1080.com/

Originally posted 2008-11-13 12:00:36.

Hardware MPEG2/MPEG4/MPEG4-AVC/H.264 Transcoding

Leadtek Research Inc has release the WinFast PxVC1100 PCIe x1 add-on card which uses four of the Toshiba encode/decode cores  (SpursEngine SE1000 — BXA32110) derived from the joint Sony/Toshiba/IBM alliance (STI) Cell (Cell Broadband Engine Architecture, CBEA) processor (used in the Sony PlayStation 3 game console).

If you’re serious about video encoding this card is way more powerful than leveraging your GPU (nothing stops you from using both).

I couldn’t find a retail price on the PxVC1100; from what I’ve read it was delayed, but should be available in the US soon.  I expect it’ll be fairly expensive since Nikkei WinPC’s benchmark showed a high-def video in MEPG-2 TS format was transcoded to H.264 using the WinFast PxVC1000 about 2.9 times faster than a Core2 Q9650 (3GHz).

If you want to check out other vendors that offer a SpursEngine enhancement, some Toshiba Qosmio laptops and the Thomson-Canopus Firecoder Blu PCIe add-on card are candidates.

Originally posted 2009-01-03 12:00:46.

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.

Flat Panels

So you decided to get that large flat panel high definition LCD TV for yourself…

That’s so last year.

The new display technology is based on organic light emitting diodes (OLED), and they promise to provide much high contrast images, blacker-black, and way better energy efficiency.

Right now there’s a premium associated with the price; but all that is changing (and changing rapidly).

OLED and related technology are becoming the commodity technology that’s used in computer monitors, televisions, and portable device displays.

Your big-block electronic store might only have one OLED model for every ten LCD models at the moment, but the CES is just around the corner, and manufacturers will be looking for ways to lure consumers to spend more of their hard earned money, and offering them compelling reasons (in the form of phenomenal displays at reasonable prices) to get their share of your paycheck.

Not to far down the road we’ll see PLED, the flexible version — which may finally deliver on the dreams of “LCD Paper”…

To help you understand the new acronyms, here’s a list you might want to familiarize yourself with.

  • OLED = Organic Light Emitting Diode/Device/Display
  • AM OLED = Active Matrix OLED device
  • FOLED = Flexible Organic Light Emitting Diode (UDC)
  • NOID = Neon Organic Iodine Diode (CDT)
  • PhOLED = Phosphorescent Organic Light Emitting Diode (UDC)
  • PLED = Polymer Light Emitting Diode (CDT)
  • PM OLED = Passive Matrix OLED device
  • POLED = Patternable organic light-emitting device
  • RCOLED = Resonant Colour Organic Light Emitting Diode
  • SmOLED = Small Molecule Organic Light Emitting Diode (Kodak)
  • SOLED = Stacked Organic Light Emitting Diode (UDC)
  • TOLED = Transparent Organic Light Emitting Diode (UDC)

For more information on these technologies, get yourself a snack and beverage and spend a few hours reading the results of an Internet search.

Originally posted 2009-12-19 01:00:36.

So you want to be in pictures…

Or rather should I say that you want to be able to play “moving pictures” on your computer…

You computer may have come with software for playing back video, DVDs, etc — or the operating system version you installed might support some formats; but eventually you’re going to reach a point where you want to play something that you don’t have support for and you might not feel like spending a lot of money.

There are two major issues with playing back media:

  1. Your computer needs software that is able to decode the audio and the video portions of the media; and
  2. Your computer needs software that is able to “break apart” the audio from the video.

The first piece of software is call a “decoder” — or often times a codec.  And you’ll hear things like MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4, H.264, etc for video and things like AC3, AAC, PCM, DTS, MP3, etc for audio.

The second piece of software is called a mux (specifically for play back a de-mux) — and those take particular containers and split them into the separate audio and video streams.  The file extension generally tell you about the “envelope” the data is contained in, or how it was muxed.  Some standards mux specifications, but even when the audio/video standard includes a way to mux the data, it might be in a richer envelope that supports alternate audio streams, alternate video streams, hyperlinks, closed captions, multiple languages, etc.

A growing open standard for containing audio and video is the Matroska format.  It’s generally designated as .mkv for audio/video files and .mka for audio files.

It’s a rich standard well supported on Windows, OS-X, and *nix platforms.

For more information visit the Matroska Offical Homepage:

You’ll not only find information on the Matroska format, but links to many free tools to help you play back that audio and video format you’re having trouble with.

Originally posted 2008-12-14 01:00:52.

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.