Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's All About Storage

EOS Rebel XT, EF 55-200
I've just realized that I haven't added a new Post here for two weeks. Snow removal has been one of the biggest distractions lately, but not the only one. There's also been the madness of our Christmas season, which gives way to my favourite holiday of all - the New Year.

I bet you thought I'm going to talk about how best to store your pictures, weren't you? Nope - I'm going off topic today. Personally, I'm anticipating something very ominous in 2014. Not wanting to sound like a dooms-day prophet, I'm feeling more than ever that the smart move in 2014 will be to "get prepared". This has occupied a lot of my thinking lately too - at least as much as snow removal!

It would be a very wise thing this coming year to get stocked up. Most of us are of modest means, and it's always difficult to build a nest egg - mainly because whether you know it or not, our modest wealth is being systematically stolen form us. The means by which this theft is being carried out is actually hiding in plain sight, within the world financial system. I'm not going to elaborate at all on this, except to say that massive debt ultimately cannot be paid off by printing more money - I remember being taught this way back in High School, and it's still true almost 40 years later. There must ultimately come a reckoning, and it could be this year.

How NOT to be getting prepared for this is illustrated in my photo above. If what you're doing is shovelling your wealth into a bank, or any other financial institution, you may wake up to find that it has all been trucked away - then what will you do???

Money and securities are deteriorating in real value steadily, which ought to be well known to everybody, so in order to stay ahead of this, the "smart money" should be going toward your own personal necessities you will be using in the near future. My own personal take on this is - first, to get your assets all paid for - your real estate, vehicles, or anything else that the system could foreclose on when the crunch comes - make them all 100% yours, if you possibly are able. Even if it's just one thing - focus on that at least, so that you can own something outright, and eliminate a monthly payment.

The next thing is, store up things you'll need to survive through a rough stretch - most experts advise three months worth. I'm not talking about digging an underground bunker and filling it with food.. it doesn't have to be that complicated. Just look for good deals on non-perishable food, paper products, trash bags, soaps, and buy some extra to tuck away.

Simply doing the two things mentioned above is better than doing nothing. But there are some other things that will help you immensely, although maybe a little more difficult to accomplish. In terms of emergencies, it is wise to store up some fuel.

My preference is electricity. It is the easiest of all fuel's to store, as well as being the most versatile. It is very easy and inexpensive to store your own; also easy to create your own, although not cheap. For storage, start by purchasing a couple of very high capacity batteries, a suitable battery charger, and a DC to AC Inverter, along with several extension cords. If used carefully, depending especially on the batteries you buy, you could store enough electricity to last you a week. This is the heart of your basic system, to which you can add solar panels and / or a small wind turbine. Many people put an equivalent amount of money into gasoline powered generators, and do their best to store up some gasoline. This is not my preferred solution, because gasoline goes bad after a few months - or if you add stabilizer to it, it might last for a year, maximum. Keep in mind, if you're undergoing a long term power outage, chances are, all local gasoline pumps will be without power too. I once thought I had this licked, when several years ago, I bought a Diesel powered generator. Diesel has many advantages, the most important being that it remains usable for years instead of months, and if you happen to use an oil fired furnace for home heating, your home fuel oil can also be used in the generator. A big disadvantage, however, is that a Diesel generator costs twice as much as a gasoline model, and almost nobody sells them in local hardware stores - they're kind of a specialized Industrial Supply item.

Another problem with any generator, Diesel or gas, is that no matter if you're using just a little bit of power, or a lot, the generator must be running at full-speed, in which case, you'll be going through one tank of fuel a day, regardless of how much, or how little actual power you're using from it. This is a very bad, built-in efficiency problem. It could be overcome by using a combined generator - battery - inverter solution. This would work very well in terms of efficiency, but  you must ask yourself, is it better to spend the extra money on the petrol powered generator, and still run the risk of not being able to buy fuel for it, or should you spend it on solar - wind? Only you can best determine what will best suit your needs.

Finally, it might be wise to have some "real cash" stashed away in your house, in the event of a bank failure. A probable scenario would be a short period of hyper-inflation, followed by a long and severe Recession. Having some real currency (pure silver) would help get you through both scenarios. During the former, prices will increase madly, but so will the value of your precious metals. Then with what follows - a Depression, prices will fall to 1930's levels, with bread being perhaps ten cents a loaf, but if paper money and common coinage become worthless, will you even have that ten cents on hand? Precious metal coins, although their values will fall along with everything else, will more likely be worth at least their face value, so if you have some stored away, you'll at least stand a chance of buying some groceries.

Just to get a little bit back on topic, it would also be a good idea to have some "barter-able" items in your storage - like, some real prints of your photos. If you need to go to a Doctor or Dentist, let's say, they love having nice pictures hanging on their waiting room walls.

Monday, December 16, 2013

OK, So What About That Christmas Party?

EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, ISO 1600, -0.5 EV, 1/60 sec., f2.8
Yesterday, I wrote about how I'd snapped perhaps one of my best pictures ever at a Christmas party, without even looking through the viewfinder (or rear LCD live view, because my camera doesn't have that.) Aside from this, I was moaning about how so many of the other party pictures came out so wrong, because I was trying to get enough light to not use a flash by opening my Aperture real wide... after all, my Sigma f1.4 lens is designed for this, isn't it?

Sure it's a superb lens that opens way up to f1.4 with very little distortion or vignetting, at a very reasonable price (many say it's too expensive). But I was putting way too much faith in the lens, and the EOS 5D (original 2006 version) camera, as great as it is, has a very crappy 2006 era rear screen, so I wasn't seeing how slightly out of focus so many of these shots were. I've learned my lesson - all lenses go soft when opened up, and older cameras don't have quite as good Auto-Focus performance as you'd get today, with the highly tweaked newest cameras.

Let's talk about the above picture first - this one I'm happy with, but as you see right away, it's just not quite right. I'd say this is a bad shot of a great picture. Blurred, but so happy and spontaneous. This girl wasn't posing at all - we were just talking about her dog, Phoebe:

EOS 5D, Sigma 50mm f1.4, ISO 1600,  -0.5 EV, 1/15 sec., f2.8
I said - "you're the owner, right?", and raised the camera and snapped her picture at exactly the same time I was saying those words. She struck up the pose and the smile extremely fast, as soon as she saw me about to take her picture, so, with the combination of her quick movement, and my very quick movement with the camera, perhaps it's motion blur we're actually seeing here. Same as for the dog - notice my shutter speed had dropped way down to 1/15 - and my camera doesn't have image stabilization either.

But I could've prevented this very easily - by under-exposing by -1.5 EV or even -2.0 EV, instead of -0.5, I could have reduced my Aperture to f4 to give me greater focus depth, or increased my shutter speed enough to stop the motion blur. I already have proven time and time again that the "secret sauce" of the EOS 5D is it's remarkable noise immunity, made possible NOT by aggressive in-camera noise reduction, but because with only 12.8 Mega-Pixels on a 35mm (full-frame) sensor, it has very large picture elements ("pixels") that capture lot's of light without introducing noise. Stated another way, it has an extremely good signal to noise ratio, allowing me to under-expose like crazy, and recover the shadow detail on my computer when working with the Raw Data file. I knew this, but for some reason, this time I didn't make use of it. This is a truly rare camera with which you can easily break the "expose to the right rule" (read: slightly over-expose), and instead when necessary, you can "under-expose like crazy, push it back up when processing, and don't worry about it" much like film.

The golden rule of digital photography - "Really get to know your camera, and use it accordingly". I was shooting this party as if I were using a Canon Digital Rebel instead of the far more capable EOS 5D.

But some of the photos worked, in spite of my big mistake. I really like these -

Here's the whole set.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Art... From the Hip

EOS 5D, ISO 800, -0.5 EV, Sigma 50mm f1.4, 1/90 f6.7, DxO Optics Pro Ilford Delta-400 Emulation
I can't say much more about this picture than I already wrote about it in the Caption... except for one thing.... I wasn't looking through the viewfinder! And, oh yes - my ancient EOS 5D Mk-1 doesn't have Live View. But, it's certainly one of the best photos I've ever taken. This was at a community Christmas paty, I was sitting down in a chair with my camera switched on and hanging from my neck at waist level, so I simply took blind aim and clicked the shutter.

I took quite a few other shots at this party, and most of them really are not very good... I had the lens aperture open too wide. I thought I had to be at around f2.8, because everything was indoors, with no flash, so for all of the other shots, I was jogging about at between f2 and f3.5. People write reviews about these fantastic, and expensive lenses that'll open up to f1.4, but of course everyone knows that getting something in focus at such a huge aperture is next to impossible. So, how did it come about that I happened to have it set to f6.7, the lighting was ample, although indoors, and these two attractive girls would be right in front of me? And furthermore, my best guess at shooting blind from this low angle would be just about as good compositionally, as anyone could ever do???

But it's not the good providence of my aim that is so remarkable here. Instead, the question is, how is it that my Aperture got set to f6.7 when all afternoon I had been shooting at f2.8, and hoping the "quality" of the big Sigma lens would come through? How indeed? This shot would never have worked at f2.8. At least one of the girls would've been badly out of focus.

I really learned a lot with this party. First and foremost, no matter how good somebody says your lens is, f2.8 or bigger is still going to leave stuff out of focus - that's the whole idea - and if you're shooting into a group of people that requires some depth of focus, even f3.5 might not be enough. Second, I was forgetting how great the old original 5D is at suppressing noise, meaning I can safely push into under-exposure to get a decent shutter speed, because of it's low pixel density. I had written much about this, but for some reason, forgot all about it at this party, and ended up with a lot of badly focussed shots as a result - except for this one.

LIVE AND LEARN - and also, sometimes, a great photo is nothing more than dumb-ass luck!

Oh. By the way... I have no idea who the girls were, and they have no idea that I took their picture!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Color Film Emulation Added to GIMP!

The now very famous Open Source (free!) GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) has just received a major boost with the addition of color film emulation! It has had B&W film emulation for a number of years, but thanks to GIMP's spin-off project called G'MIC, which appears as a hugely functional plug-in within GIMP, it now performs Color Film Emulation in much the same way as DxO Lab's "FilmPack" product range - that is, it'll take any 8-bit JPEG image file and make it look like specific brands / types of film.

DxO Labs is one step ahead of GIMP, in theory at least, because it has built the very same Film Emulation product into it's super fantastic Raw Data file converter - Optics Pro Ver.9. This means that you can select your film emulation within the Raw File conversion process, which should be much better than either of FilmPack or GIMP's new capabilities, which relies on having a JPEG file already converted, as it will not work with Raw Data. But is it really better? I'll let you decide as best as you can from several conversions I made of this one rather bad picture (I want you to look at the image quality over and above my own so-called artistry). The very first one is or reference - it is a DxO Raw File conversion based solely on my camera body, not FilmPack. As such, it may be the best looking one of the bunch. But the real idea here is to compare how well GIMP's execution of Film Emulation works on an already converted 8-bit JPEG, up against DxO Lab's more direct application of Film Emulation to the Raw File itself.

RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Generic - this is the Reference JPEG
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Agfa Vista 200
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Agfa Vista 200
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Fuji Superia 200
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Fuji Superia 200
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Kodachrome-64
Reference JPEG, GMIC GIMP Kodachrome 64
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Kodak Ektachrome 100
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Kodak Ektachrome 100
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Kodak T-Max 100
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP Kodak T-Max 100
RAW, Direct Conversion With DxO Optics Pro, Rollei Ortho 25
Reference JPEG, GMIC-GIMP, Rollei Ortho 25


To my eyes, the similarities are remarkable. The same challenge of Film Emulation is executed here within two totally different products - one you pay a lot for, the other one is free, yet, the overall look of the simulated film types is remarkably similar. This means that both teams really did their homework. I was actually skeptical enough about film emulation that I was expecting to see highly visible differences between the two.

As for which does the job better, I would have to say, as expected, the DxO optics Pro with FilmPack Plug-in has better contrast, texture, and color vibrancy, but not by much. In the B&W examples, I can see almost no difference, and for Agfa Vista 200, I think GIMP actually looks more appealing. There are many other films to choose from in both products, as well as the ability to tweak the end result with both.

One thing to really keep in mind - GIMP is free, and DxO Optics Pro will set you back the price of a new compact digital camera! Also, of you're not into shooting Raw Files - like, if your camera won't do it, or if you're like Ken Rockwell and don't see the point, it's a no-brainer - this wonderful new G'MIC-GIMP Plug-in is free, and it works in Linux (also Windows and Mac). DxO Labs does not sell products that work with Linux.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Take a Walk on the Wide Side

EOS 5D with Quantaray 19-35mm Zoom.
I must admit - I do very little wide-angle shooting. When I bought my pre-owned EOS 5D Mk-1, it came with a Quantaray 19-35mm f3.5-f4.5 wide angle zoom, and I've done very little with it. It turns out to be a fairly decent lens for what was always considered a "bottom drawer" lens brand.

There are a lot of "enthusiast compact" cameras now on the market that are equipped with a fixed-focal-length 35mm (equivalent) lens, which implies that "enthusiasts" prefer to shoot wide. My personal preference is anywhere from 40mm to 60mm, with occasional reaching toward 85-100mm, but anything below a 40mm equivalent lens spends a lot of time in the camera bag.

The reason for this of course is that with a wide angle lens, it's difficult to get a subject. Also, contrary to conventional wisdom, wide angle shooting is rarely your best choice for shooting landscapes, with the rare exceptions of being at the Rocky Mountains or the Grand Canyon. When using a wide angle lens, you have to pick a subject for your picture, and then get extremely close to it - for example, if you're shooting a landscape with a covered bridge in it, you'd best get very close to the covered bridge, and have fun with various perspectives with the bridge in it's surroundings. With a wide angle, you can't be standing 50 feet from the bridge, aim at it as if it's your subject, and hope to get a good shot. But at ten feet, especially with so called "super wides", you can probably get the entire bridge and some of the scenery around it too.

In the above photo, with the lens set at a very wide 19mm I was less than three feet from the truck. Same with the photo below - at 20mm, the plow had almost taken my toes off when it went past me!

But as difficult as wide-angle lenses are to use, I can see why "enthusiasts" like them. If you do manage to get your subject close enough, the drama that is captured using a wide angle lens, or a fixed wide angle camera, is tremendous.

After getting some good shots, I started playing around a bit, like so:

Above is a perfect example of perspective distortion, especially as seen in the background. Love it or hate it!

Below is an example of not being close enough - even at 35mm, which is the furthest reach for this lens, this man walking his two dogs wasn't really very far away from me - he was probably able to hear my shutter:

Sometimes you can get closer to your subject using a crop, as follows:

Original JPEG
Cropped RAW File, Converted With DxO
Wide angle photography takes a lot of practice - there's no way around it, you have to get close, and that's what makes it so challenging.