Monday, March 31, 2014

Setting Up the Lumix DMC-LX5

Larry - No Flash, JPG (no Raw), Film Type Set for "Dynamic", With +1  Added to Contrast, Saturation, Colour Balance and Noise Reduction
I've come up with two set-ups for the DMC-LX5 - note that a great feature of this camera is that it can hold up to four Custom set-ups. These are stored on the Dial positions C1 (which holds only 1) and C2 (which holds up to 3). I'm not sure why they did it this way, but it works OK. This is a great feature for any camera - to be able to store your favourite set-ups.

For beginners, this camera, like all of 'em, has a PHD (press here dummy) mode, which is marked "iA" on the dial. It stands for "Intelligent Auto". So, you've got this, and up to four more. So far, I've made two Custom Setups - one for JPG, and one for RAW. For a third one, I might do one for Black and White, but I prefer to do B&W conversions on the larger computer screen, so I can see the subtle changes in tone.

So, now it's time to do your first Custom set-up - let's do one for a Dynamic JPG, like Larry's sportin' above. Larry is actually beige, not orange, so what I've done here creates some colour inaccuracy.

  1. Turn on your camera, press "Menu" (not Q. Menu), and the first menu item is "Film Mode" - choose Dynamic if that's what you want, or for more natural colour, choose "Standard" or "Nature". You'll notice underneath each type, there are sub-menus with sliders to adjust Contrast, Saturation, Colour Balance and Noise Reduction. I added +1 to each of these. Also keep in mind here that all camera settings, included the ones with switches and dials are going to be stored on your "C1" position - so now is also the time to decide which shooting mode, aspect ratio, etc you're going to use for this set-up. I used "A", as I explained in my post about "PSAM" You might prefer "P" for more goof-proof exposure, or if you'll be using a flash a lot. You should also choose what else you'd like to automate. 
  2. For Sensitivity, choose i-ISO, and for ISO Limit Set, choose 1600 - any higher, and your shots might be extremely noisy. 
  3. For picture size and quality, go with full size - 10m, and highest quality, but not RAW - that comes later. 
  4. For White Balance, use "AWB". Some pro photographers discourage this, instead saying you should set it for sunny. cloud, flash - whatever the light is like around you - but this camera does a great job in Automatic (WB). 
  5. For AF Mode, use the big block in the centre, which means you focus on your subject with a half-press of the shutter button, then re-compose the picture while you're still holding the shutter half-way, then press the shutter button all the way down to take the picture. You could choose the AF Mode > "all the little squares", which puts focus automatically in the hands of the camera, but this creates a risk that the camera might focus on the wrong thing, making your subject a bit blurry. 
  6. For Metering Mode, use the brackets with dot in centre (.) for goof-proof, or, for slightly brighter pictures at the risk of over-exposure, use the Brackets only () and also, set I-Exposure to "Standard". Same for I. Resolution - "Standard". 
  7. Also, turn "Burst" to On (the stack of Rectangles). This camera does reasonably good Burst shooting in JPG -only Mode, but it's terrible when using RAW - so for the RAW set-up, this will be turned off. 
  8. Finally, you might as well go for maximum Zoom in your JPG set-up, because Digital Zoom is not allowed with RAW. So turn i.Zoom and Digital Zoom both to "On" - this allows the normal 3.8X Optical Zoom to go all the way out to 20X, but with a corresponding loss o picture quality, especially beyond around 7X. Now, for Step Zoom, this is a cool feature which I like - when it's On, the Zoom acts like real individual lenses - 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, etc. I'm used to that, so I like it. Otherwise, when it's off, it's more like a normal small camera with 1X, 2X, 3X, etc.
  9. Now that you've got everything the way you want it, navigate your menu down to the little wrench symbol, then arrow down to Custom Set Menu, and select C1. You'll then be prompted to verify this - select "yes".

You now have your basic JPG set-up for a "Dynamic Film Mode" set on Dial Position C1. Every time you go back to C1, this will be your set-up. As long as the camera's turned on, you can make any changes you want - like if you want to do a 1:1 (square) picture, you can change the switch on the lens barrel. You can also make any change you want within the menu (like change Dynamic to Standard). But when you turn the camera off, and then on again, it reverts back to your original C1.

My RAW Setup, which I saved to C2-1 is pretty much the same, except I didn't use Digital Zoom (because you can't), and I turned Burst Shooting off (because with RAW it doesn't work so well). Also, with a RAW set-up, things like your "Film Mode" and "White Balance" don't matter so much, because a RAW Data File isn't really a picture, until you've processed it on your computer - and there's way-way more things you can do with RAW Conversion Software, with plenty of lee-way to correct mistakes. Some famous professionals, like Ken Rockwell, don't like RAW, because it takes too long to fiddle around with just one shot - he prefers to get the look he likes just by setting up the JPG's in his camera (which frankly to me always looks like a trip to Disney World!).

I always set up with RAW + JPG (small) so I can see both, and compare one to the other - I can always make a RAW look a whole lot better. But sometimes, a JPG comes in handy when you want to make it look "worse" - kind of like people do with Instagram - "a worser but cooler" kind of vibe. Actually, the DMC-LX5 has a "Nostalgic" Film Mode that looks like an Instagram setting. It also has a whole bunch of Scene (SCN) Modes and Art Filters (the little Artist-Pallet Icon on the Dial) that are sort of Instagram-like. You might choose to use nothing but these choices for Social Media shooting, but its nice to know this camera is way more capable - you can actually get some close to DSLR -like perfect pictures with it.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Cat Show Test

A Very Long Siamese (Lumix DMC-LX5, ISO 1600, 1/80 Sec, f2.3)
We went to another cat show yesterday, and sad to say, this was the worst one ever, and I don't just mean photographically. This time, the judging stations had absolutely no lighting, making proper viewing,  and picture taking without flash impossible. I went in with the EOS 5D but within 5 minutes, I was right back out again to put that camera back in the car. Because I carry the Lumix DMC-LX5 in my shirt pocket everywhere, I used it to manage just a few pictures, with flash.

For me, using flash at a cat show has it's issues. Although it doesn't seem to bother the cats when a lot of other people are happily flashing away, I'm certain with the super sensitive eyes which these noble creatures posses, it must bother them, or maybe even create long term harm, over time. It's never been an issue before, because in past shows, every judging station had good florescent lighting across the top of the display windows. But not at this show. Also, as you can see, it's rather hard to control shadows and red-eye with a compact camera flash. If this is some kind of energy saving , or budgetary thing, somebody should let the show organizers know about the latest in LCD lighting technology.

I am not very well equipped when it comes to flash. I do have a little Canon 270 EX II for the 5D, and I should get a bounce-diffuser I suppose, if they sell such a thing small enough to fit - that might have saved my bacon yesterday. Needless to say, I wasn't expecting this degree of blackout at the judging windows.

The whole affair reminded me of the limitations of pocket sized cameras. Although image quality is exceptional, and there are lots of new-breed enthusiast pocket cams on the market now that produce superb pictures, the biggest problem I was running into was a slow write to memory time. With the 5D, I can burst 3 or 4 RAW shots per second; most newer DSLRs are even better, but with the little Lumix, it's more like 1 RAW shot every 4 seconds. This is not good at a cat show, or any other high motion event. In my view, this is merely the price of convenience - cameras such as the DMC-LX5 are far, far better than Smartphone cameras as your constant companion in every respect. The bad for human health Smartphone is an absolute last resort, in my opinion, and I seldom have mine with me anyway. Other well known small camera problems show up in the above picture too, especially the nearly impossible ability to blur the background. This can only be done with the subject less than a foot away, as seen from this picture:

Merlin (Lumix DMC-LX5, ISO 400, 1/15 Sec, f2.0)
Even here, with the aperture wide open (f2.0), although the background may be out of focus, is's far from being true "Bokeh". Again, the cost of convenience - we simply have to accept there are certain things that only a DSLR can do.

Back to the cat show - I noticed another disturbing trend - vendors that have nothing to do with cats were set up throughout the room, doing nothing but taking up valuable space, and breathable air, leaving very little room for the actual cat judging stations, nor even to leave decent space around the participants and their felines. When I go to cat shows, the last thing I want to see is the "Watkins Man", and one so called vendor even had a yard sale going on! If this is what it has come to, count me out from now on - the best cat show for me is always the one going on every day and night inside our house.

Friday, March 28, 2014


DMC-LX5, f2.3, Shutter 1/2000

DMC-LX5, f5.0, Shutter 1/1000
If you're looking at buying your first digital camera, or to upgrade from an inexpensive, or very old one, there are a couple of essentials you absolutely must have. The first is that it must be capable of shooting Raw Data Files, or RAW, and sometimes known as DNG (Digital Negative), and most of you who've been reading my Blog will already know what that's all about - it provides you with the means of making your shots look far better than a plain JPG file by using computer, or mobile device software. The second capability is that the camera you're considering should have a dial on top with the letters "PSAM", in addition to a lot of other little icons. These two are essential - the rest of it is totally a matter of what you're expecting from a camera. There are a full range of cameras available, from very pocket-able "enthusiast compacts" through to absolutely huge and heavy, professional grade DSLR's which have these two criteria available. Personally, I see the place for both of these types of camera - a DSLR, especially a Full Frame (35mm) model is essential if you need the ultimate image quality and / or shooting performance, and an "enthusiast compact" is necessary if you truly want to have a camera with you at all times (phone cameras don't count). To own something in-between, like a mirror-less interchangeable lens (MILC) to my way of thinking, is rather pointless. This type of camera can nearly match a DSLR for image quality, yes, but with a lens attached, it's hardly a camera you'd take with you everywhere.

There's nothing wrong with owning both - an enthusiast compact for your pocket or purse, with you at all times comes highly recommended, and either a DSLR or MILC for around your neck when you know you're going to do some serious shooting.

So, back to PSAM... every DSLR and MILC has these letters on the top dial, or in the case of certain super-pro models, some other way of getting at this functionality. These letters stand for the following:

"P" = Program  - a Mode in which the camera sets most of the values for you, but certain things are still "Programmable" by the photographer, such as picture size, RAW or not RAW, ISO Auto or Manual, exposure compensation (brighter or darker), white balance and flash function. Some models also include "Program Shift", which behaves more like "M" Mode (see below)

"S" - Shutter Speed Priority, also known as "Tv" for "Time Value" on Canon cameras. This is an automatic mode that allows the user to choose the shutter speed, and optionally all the other things available in "P", but the camera chooses the Aperture to give correct exposure. One example of this would be to capture the detail of a full moon, you would need to choose a much faster shutter speed than would normally be used at night.

"A" - Aperture Priority Mode, also known as "Av" - Aperture Value on Canon cameras. This is an automatic mode that allows the user to choose the lens opening or aperture size, and optionally all the other things available in "P", but the camera chooses the shutter speed to give correct exposure. This is the most used mode. Aperture size is what determines what parts of  a photo are in sharp focus, and also has the most impact on the biggest range of variables in picture quality. Consider the two shots above - there's a subtle but noticeable improvement in quality of the second picture, because I chose a one-stop smaller (numerically higher) aperture setting.

"M" - Manual Mode. This is not an automatic mode, although your auto-focus will still work. Everything in "M" Mode related to exposure needs to be set by the photographer, including both the shutter speed and aperture value. As I mentioned above, for "P" Mode where some cameras (not all) permit a Program Shift, this is primarily what is accomplished in "M". If you select a slower shutter to let in more light, you need to compensate with a smaller (numerically higher) aperture to let in less light, and vice-versa. This is also known as a "Program Shift". This is easily accomplished on cameras that have dual control wheels - one for shutter and one for aperture, or with a lens which has an aperture ring. It's rather useless, however, if you need to hold a button while turning a wheel to select one or the other values. "M" Mode is particularly valuable if you're using older, high quality manual lenses where you're selecting the aperture value and focussing manually via the lens rings anyway.

My advice is to stick with Aperture Priority shooting, as it will provide the ultimate control over picture quality. Occasionally, you might prefer to use "P" Mode, especially when using flash, because flash is a big part of the camera's automation, and in some situations does not come off quite right in the other modes, unless you really know what you're doing with flash.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

George's Last Days - Another End of an Era

All Pictures Shot With Lumix DMC-LX5
Along with the disappearing landmark of Radio Canada, Sackville is losing another friendly face. George's Roadhouse and Kitchen, the only establishment of it's kind in Sackville, will be closing on April 1st. George's is a place located directly across from the (also closed) Via Rail Sackville Train Station, not to mention that the remains of the old burnt down Enterprise Foundry is literally in the backyard of George's.

This small building is what it looks like now from the outside:

Indoors, there is an old painted monument of what was it's former grandeur:

At one time, George's was a three story Canadian Pacific Hotel located next to the Foundry's water tower, a stop-over place for rail travelers, which also offered lunches for the hard workers at the Enterprise Foundry. What remains may look like an over sized mobile home from the outside, but plenty of space is offered inside to enjoy draft beer, and big plates of pure Canadian comfort food.

But unquestionably, George's real claim to fame is the ongoing appearance of some great musicians, and I'm told that "the joint" will remain open for these live performances only.

Aside from seeing performances by Petunia, Ray Bonneville and Gypsophelia on George's Sound Stage,

Kathy and I have more recently enjoyed Brunch every Sunday with a group of true regulars, the local Anglican Church Women.

Kathy's Mom, Mrs. Nora Tapley, who just celebrated her 100th birthday, never misses a Sunday at church, nor a Sunday Brunch at George's. Here she is seen placing her usual order, from head waitress Pat:

Mrs. Tapley
So, the Foundry burned down, the Train Station closed, the CBC Shortwave Station has completely disappeared off the horizon - what's next?? I tell ya, "If I Had a Million Dollars", I'd buy George's Fabulous Roadhouse and Kitchen. Here's a short photo album, which I might add to next Sunday - the final Sunday....

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Camera Body Emulation?

Lumix DMC-LX5, DxO Optics Pro 9, No Emulation

Lumix DMC-LX5, DxO Optics Pro 9, Leica M Emulation
Quite some time ago, I did several articles on Film Emulation, starting off a bit sceptical, but then warming to the idea, having found and purchased the Gold Standard, that is DxO Lab's Optics Pro with Film Pack software. After using and enjoying this software, which is really a highly specialized Raw Data Converter which digitally optimizes whatever camera / lens combination you're using, and additionally adds film characteristics of many different brands and types, I found that it also has the ability to emulate several different camera bodys' characteristics, this time without consideration for the lens. In other words, it automatically tweaks a photo to correct optical and colour imperfections according to the camera / lens which you are using, but then offers the option to add the body / sensor characteristics from a choice of many different cameras. The first pair, above, shows the results from a DMC-LX5 already corrected from the DxO database for that camera, and then optionally what it looks like with added Leica M body emulation. Notice how there is a definite improvement in the background clarity and separation between subjects, as well as a deeper colour saturation.

I'll show another pair, this time which will show the full process, with the first being the out-of-camera Jpeg, and the second being made from the Raw Data file, corrected by DxO Optics Pro 9 with an added camera body emulation:

Lumix DMC-LX5 Straight From Camera Jpeg
Lumix DMC-LX5, Raw Data Developed via DxO Optics Pro 9, Added Canon EOS 5D Emulation

I really should get set up so that these comparisons can be made with a "mouse-over" instead of showing two separate images, in which case you wouldn't need to scroll up and down. However, the difference here is noticeable enough, and you can eyeball the foregrounds on your screen without scrolling. Note how, with reference to the camera Jpeg, the basic DxO treatment transforms the Raw Data picture's foreground from "good" to "superb", vastly increasing the textures in the muddy road, separating the space between the three people extremely well, and really making the foreground "lay flat" to give a greater sense that you are invited into the shot. And all this from the small-sensor LX5 Pocket Camera! Then when you add the EOS-5D camera emulation, you get that camera's characteristic brightness, and super realistic colour (scroll up and down between this, and the Leica M emulation of the first pair - the Leica colours are typically nice, but highly saturated.)

I notice that the camera Jpeg (no external processing) does offer a lot more shadow detail in the snow, but that comes especially at the expense of everything else. The DxO / EOS 5D rendering gives a lot more detail in the background trees, with a lot more "roundness" (something else I look for), more light and shadow detail on the building in the background, and especially notice how the two cars look less "squished" and are sitting more level, not to mention are exhibiting a lot more selective brightness. This would all be in accord with the basic lens correction which the DxO optics pro software is famous for.

My personal method of criticizing photos doesn't involve any pixel peeping. My experience as a painter, and the art lessons I've had, causes me to look at a photo more like a painting, which is why I look for "roundness", "foregrounds that lay flat and invite you in", "separation between subjects" and "great light and texture". You'll hear me speak of such things time and time again.

I will finish up with several more examples of this same shot, using DxO Lab's Camera Body Emulation:

Canon EOS 6D Emulation - similar to 5D but a bit less bright

Nikon D4 - Best of the bunch, with shadows in snow restored, best separation between subjects, clearest detail throughout, most natural colour and preservation of brightness
Sony A-900 - looks a lot like the Nikon D4, although with less shadow detail in the snow

Sony NEX - not bad, but there's a noticeable overall reduction in detail and more muted colour, with an overall "cool" caste.
Leica M9 - deep contrasts, rich film-like colour saturation bordering on "unnatural", slightly less highlight detail than the Nikon D4, but best shadow detail of all

I think what amazes me most of all is how well this works, that is, how well I can actually spot the differences. I really don't know how "true" each camera rendering is, because I'll never own a D4 or an M9, but WOW - hats of to the DxO Software researchers which allowed me to emulate all of these fine cameras from one very small pocket camera which is not taken very seriously among the elitists. In a way, the DxO Optics Pro 9 has become my new camera.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My Solar Power Project

Four Panels on Roof
I haven't mentioned what I've been up to lately, and what has been occupying a bit of my time. I've invested in a small Solar Photo-Voltaic Cell (PVC) project, intended for emergency backup power. You might consider this a photo-documentary of the project, not to mention that these are "photo-cells", and so photography related - they catch light!

It starts with the panels mounted on the roof of our small two story home. The roof, as you can see, is a very steep pitch, which is perfect for winter sun, and also has a very good south south-west exposure. This picture was taken today at exactly 9:58 AM, to demonstrate how ideal the solar collection time is.

Solar energy was a very exotic, and not very cost-effective means of generating electricity as little as five years ago. Back then, panels were about $4 per watt, and also, to have adequate efficiency, had to be quite large. But things have changed - I purchased these panels this month from a local solar contractor for exactly $1 per watt. They're 250 Watts each, there are four of them, and so 1000 Watts cost me $1000. This is not the only cost of a PVC installation - far from it, and the grand total is far more than that, as I will show you. I still consider it to be not quite cost effective, but it is rapidly getting there, and a lot depends on what you are doing with the power being generated. You can get by "on the cheap" with some, albeit major, lifestyle changes.

The next essential component in a system is the Charge Controller -

MorningStar 45 Amp Charge Controller
This device is rather puzzling as to exactly what it does, but in actual fact, it does just about everything. First of all, it can be equated to the Electrical Entrance of your system. Remember way back decades ago when houses were said to have a "40 Amp Entrance"? Yes, your Great-Grandfather's old place might have made do with this capacity, but then, your Great-Grandmother was probably doing the laundry with a wash-board and clothesline, and your "ice-box" was exactly that - an insulated box with real ice dug from the river in the bottom! Houses nowadays must have a minimum 100 Amp Entrance, because our electricity demands are now so much greater. You should now be starting to realize what can be done with 1000 Watts of solar power - the answer is, about the same as what your Great-Grandparents were doing with a 40 Amp electrical entrance! To put it in perspective, my total winter month electrical consumption from the Power Company is just over 700 kilowatt hours. My 1000 Watt PVC installation will provide me with 180 kWh, which is one-quarter of our winter consumption. This is obviously not adequate, but yet, it's pretty close to what our Great-Grandparents might have used. For someone willing to make a major lifestyle change, a four panel installation like I have done might be just all you need.

Let's get back to that Charge Controller before we move on. This one is the best on the market, and cost $500. There are less expensive ones available, but with this device, you really do get what you pay for. In actual fact, it is a battery charger with an electronic brain. It converts the 60-70 Volts DC coming down from the solar panels into the 12V, 24V or 48VDC needed to charge the batteries. The thing is, every battery type has unique charging requirements, as they go through various stages of charging. A Charge Controller such as this will figure this all out and actually improve upon it as every day goes by, as it stores your load demand and charging cycles in it's computer memory. In theory, this device could be not used at all, if you were to wire your batteries in a series 48 Volt configuration, and connect the solar panels directly to them. The problem with doing this is that your batteries, the most expensive part of the whole installation, would be ruined in a matter of weeks or months, because they wouldn't be cycled properly. Potentially dangerous situations could also be created, as your ruined batteries begin leaking acids and hydrogen. The Charge Controller then, is the brain of the system, and in fact, makes real magic happen. I find that after a whole night of discharging, this little box actually recharges my batteries back to full power within two hours of the sunrise, and once it has done that, manages to keep them at "float voltage" for the rest of the day, as the solar panels produce a surprising amount of electricity very quickly, and even on cloudy days; even when covered with a layer of ice and snow!

Next are the batteries -

4X 139 Amp-Hour Batteries = 556 Amp-Hours
This is actually the part I started with. They were government surplus, and I bought them at 1/3 the retail price. If you buy batteries retail, expect to pay around $1200.00 for this measure of capacity. Like I said above, the batteries are the most expensive, and potentially the most trouble prone part of your system. This is why many people are opting to set up a "Grid-Tie" system, which doesn't use batteries, but instead, connects your AC Power output directly to the Power Company's "Grid". Money savings are realized as your electric meter actually spins backward when your solar panels are producing more power than you are using. This is a great idea, except for one thing - you're still at the mercy of the power grid, and when it goes down, you're completely without power, just like everyone else. I've been worried of late if I actually made the right choice, but just yesterday, my doubts were completely allayed. We actually had a life-affecting 3 hour power outage, just at the time when supper was in the oven! No worries - I simply plugged in our table-top convection oven into my home system, relocated the chicken burgers and fries into it, and supper was ready in 20 minutes! After supper, as the sun was setting, I wanted to do some reading, so I simply plugged a lamp into the system, and enjoyed my book. If I had wanted to watch TV, I could've plugged the entertainment system into the Solar and everything would've been fine. Oh yes, I wanted a cup of hot tea as I read my book, so I put a couple of tea bags into the coffee maker and plugged it in. All of this plugging in is done via running long extension cords around the house, by the way - far from being legal where electrical codes are concerned, but this set-up is for emergency power, much like a gas powered generator. So, you see, the batteries are very useful when the power company has an unplanned interruption.

Many people are building "hybrid" systems that use both Grid-Tie and batteries, with the former carrying most of the load, and he batteries kept charged and ready to automatically kick in when the power grid goes down. This is the "Cadillac" way to go, if you have the money to invest in it, remembering that batteries are still the most expensive bit.

Notice how large (in diameter, or gauge) my wiring is which interconnects the batteries. This is because of a "golden rule of electricity", Ohm's Law, that basically states for any given Power (P) consumption, the lower the system voltage (V), the greater the Amperage (A) (current) is required to transfer that Power. I am using the lowest system Voltage possible (12V - I'll tell you why in the next paragraph); therefore I am creating the need for the maximum possible Amperage at the batteries, and to accomplish this, I require the largest wires at the batteries. Wires this large are expensive, and very hard to work with - there is a better way. Simply wire four 12 Volt batteries in series, and you have a 48 Volt system, which requires 1/4th of the Amperage at the batteries to produce the same power, and this way, you can use wires that are 1/4th of the size.

My problem here is that I locked myself in at 12V with this purchase, from Canadian Tire-

MotoMaster Power Inverter
Although it works just fine, it was a mistake - even though it was on sale at a real good price ($300), it was still a mistake. I'll explain first what a Power Inverter does. It's the next link in the chain, after the batteries. It "inverts" the DC voltage from the batteries into usable 120V AC standard household current. This is where your system battery voltage gets "locked in" so to speak. This particular Inverter is more at home in an RV or boat, which strictly use, like a car does, 12 Volt electrical systems. My fateful decision to buy this meant that everything I did from then on had to be set up to work on 12 Volts, meaning that to get full Amperage from my batteries, I need to use much heavier, and more expensive wire, and suffer a moderate loss in efficiency too.

Along with the PVC Panels and Charge Inverter, I also bought one of these-

Magnum Energy Power Inverter
Now, this one is the serious business. It is not intended for RV or Boat use (although it certainly could be used that way). It is designed for long, happy years in a residential PV Solar application - as you can see here, it connects to household AC wiring on the output side:

MagnaSine AC Connections
However, because my purchase of the MotoMaster Inverter, I had to purchase the 12 Volt version of this beast - it is also available in a 24 Volt version, which makes far more sense, and either way, the price is $800. It also has a bigger brother, which puts out 4 times as much household AC power from a 24 Volt battery set-up, for $1875 - a price I was not yet ready for, especially as I would have to triple my Solar Panels and Batteries in order to match it, in which case I would be looking at a complete off-grid system which is wired directly to the existing house wiring too, via that Magnum E-Panel also shown. If you're going to do this, there are some big decisions you need to make in terms of scale versus affordability. My budget this year for this project had to stay under $4000.00, and so my set-up is scaled for an "emergency only" purpose.

I've shown you all the major components involved in a basic PV Solar emergency power set-up. I know the vast majority of people would simply buy a gasoline AC Generator for emergency power - all Hardware and Canadian Tire type stores have stacks of these available for less than $500. I know all about that - I once owned one. In fact, mine was Diesel, not gas, because I knew that during an extended black-out, it would be rather difficult to find gasoline, if gas retailer's pumps are subject to the same blackout. A Diesel generator makes far more sense if (like I do) you heat your house with oil, because Diesel fuel and home heating oil (HHO) are the same stuff, and both have a storage life of several years, while gasoline only lasts one year if you're lucky. But the problem with generators is - up until this past Tuesday, we've never had a blackout in the twelve years we've been living here! I never had to use it, but yet, I had to go out and start it up several times through the year to keep it from seizing. I wonder - would a typical hardware store gas generator owner even think of that??? Anyway, I sold the generator last year.

But I still want emergency power. And believe it or not, I'm still stuck with the same problem - sort of. In order for all this equipment, and the batteries, to last, just like a gasoline generator, it all needs to be exercised. Batteries have a shelf life, and the electronics involved will get all corroded inside if they're not turned on and actually used, at least occasionally. But, unlike a gasoline generator, I can actually use my PV system all of the time, which is exactly what I'm doing.

The Yellow Exercise Wire
See that bright yellow wire? That is a heavy duty contractor's outdoor extension cord which runs from the MagnaSine Inverter to the back of the house, where it re-enters, and is connected to our deep freeze and refrigerator - two moderately light loads that are always switching of and on, thus keeping my whole system dis-charging and re-charging in a permanent maintenance mode. It also takes two big appliances off the grid, saving me a little money in the long run. It would be very difficult, with the added cost of gasoline, to exercise a gas generator in this way. Yet, it is essential to the extended life of your system.

Finally, the matter of safety and protection. The PV system needs to be fused at three points:

The 200 Amp Fuse Between Inverter and Batteries
The 15 Amp DC Breaker Between the Solar Panels and Charge Controller

The 50 Amp "Maxi-Fuse ((Automotive) Between the Charge Controller Output and the Batteries
The final item will be soon replaced with a 50 Amp Breaker Switch, to be mounted neatly inside a box, along with the 15 Amp input breaker. Also, At some point, I am going to build a much safer housing for the batteries, so that the terminals are not so dangerously exposed. This explains my temporary measure of laying that pathetic little strip of wood along the battery's +ve terminals.

Also, every piece of equipment in this system should be grounded to the same point:

Ground Wire From the Solar Panels
I'm waiting for the snow to melt so I can get my ground wires through that hatch into my cellar, where the house electrical ground point is located.

There's a lot more I could talk about here - maybe a Part B is in order? One thing is that the Canadian Tire Inverter is a "Modified Sine Wave" unit, and the MagnaSine is a "Pure Sine Wave" unit. I should explain the difference - another time. Meanwhile, you can probably guess at which one is better.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lumix DMC-LX5 Image Quality Review

Canon EOS 5D, EF 70-210 f4 Lens

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
To make comparisons of image quality requires taking the same picture with a reference camera, which should be a "best" camera, compared to the camera you want to compare. I happened to be so equipped for my story on the needless and sad destruction of Radio Canada International, and I managed to take two similar pictures, one with each camera. In order to be equal and fair, although I was shooting with Raw and Jpeg with both, I decided to use the Jpeg only for comparison, because with Raw data files, it's so easy and tempting to make a shot look much, much better. One thing I did with both however, was to add the same film emulation (that being G'MIC's Fuji Velvia-50) to both Jpeg's, with this being a simple one-click enhancement which would be applied equally. In actual fact, both Jpegs needed a little extra something, as they were both rather dull looking out of the camera, as is usually the case. I should also mention that both were shot at f8.0, with the Zoom set at 90mm - the maximum limit on the LX5, and close to the lower limit on the Canon EF70-210.

Keep in mind what we're comparing here. The reference camera is my EOS 5D Classic, with a 12.8 MegaPixel full-film 35mm sized CMOS sensor - a big heavy brute of a DSLR with a very old, heavy EF Telephoto Range lens, whilst the subject camera is my DMC-LX5 - a fully pocketable 10 MegaPixel on a 1/1.63" (approx. 12mm) CCD Sensor, with a Leica 24-90mm Zoom Lens. The two cameras couldn't be more different in design, except for one thing - they're both built for top-notch picture quality in their respective class.

In comparing the two pictures above, one would be tempted to think the LX5 shot is a bit darker than the Canon shot, but in making comparisons in the snow, and not in the sky, it's easy to see this is not the case - the exposures are the same, but the white balances are vastly different. White Balance would've been changed by my addition of film emulation, but keep in mind they would've been changed in exactly the same way. Knowing that the transmitter building is painted pure white, I would say the LX5 did a better job here. The LX5 also portrays a more natural tone to the sky, with the Canon leaning more to Cyan than blue.

However, when it comes to capturing detail, the EOS 5D is the clear winner, and with such a huge difference in sensor size, we can only say that "it had better be so". Immediately, we see that the big Canon captured virtually endless detail in the sky and clouds, and as every part of the pictures is examined, we can see how the 5D serves up more detail. But the LX5 is no "distant second" here! There is still an amazing amount of "micro-contrast" provided by this tiny camera. Both pictures exhibit plenty of "roundness", and both pictures "lay flat" with plenty of real depth that invites you into the scene. I've noticed how early digital cameras (meaning 4 MegaPixel or less) rendered a "painted wall" appearance, especially when compared to film, which was still king back in the early 2000's.

Naturally, with the EOS5D being a full-frame semi-professional camera, especially with the truly great, and rather old (read- "meant for film") EF70-210 f4 lens, a small-frame consumer pocket camera wouldn't be expected to win at image quality. It seems like a crazy idea to make a comparison at all, but like I said above, it's always a good idea to use your best reference camera. But what we've seen is how the Panasonic DMC-LX5 is no slouch when it comes to out-door image quality, and that it does meet every expectation for what we would call "great" quality - not "the best", which we would naturally reserve for professional grade cameras. My verdict is "surprisingly good", and this makes the DMC-LX5 to be not merely a good pocket camera, but a great one in my books.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

They're Tearing It Down!

March 14, 2014

January 15, 2013

I knew this day would come - the total tearing down of the Radio Canada international Shortwave Relay at Sackville, NB. At present, they are about halfway completed tearing down the iconic towers and it appears the job of removing the elaborate web of antenna wire is totally complete. Since the early 1940's, this field array, built on the highly reflective Tantramar Marsh, a part of it known as Cole's Island to be exact, became visible on the horizon when approaching Sackville, regardless of route or direction. It was certainly the one landmark which spoke very clearly, "now approaching Sackville", just as clearly as it broadcast "You're listening to Radio Canada International" to every part of the globe.

As it was mentioned almost two years ago, on the actual day that RCI ceased broadcasting, this was an example of modern engineering at it's highest level. It's difficult to imagine a site like this being re-created, with it's towers standing perfectly vertical in swampy ground for decades, along with the elaborate, spider-web-like mesh of antenna wires which bounced that mega-powered radio signal off the salt-water ground and sent it skyward at precisely the right angles for good reception anywhere in the world. Doing these things simply aren't taught any more in our changing world! Soon there'll be nothing left but more hectares of flat marshland. I guess it is fortunate that just a few kilometers down the road, across the Nova Scotia border, there is an equally iconic array of wind turbines, providing us with the much needed renewable power we need in today's world.

I would at least wish that the transmitter building itself would remain with us, perhaps to contain a museum of modern technology - this building alone is a real thing of architectural beauty:

Taken March 14, 2014

Taken March 14, 2014

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Grand-Kids and a Decent Pocket-able Camera

The DMC-LX in White (Stock Photo)
Call it Retail Therapy, but I bought yet another one. I didn't actually push the checkout button until I was certain that one of my two EOS 5D Classics were going to sell - I'm keeping the one I did the mirror repair on, and selling the one I bought last year. Either way, I'm making several hundred dollars in profit by doing this flip.

So, what I bought is a Lumix DMC-LX5 in white. That is a more up to date LX7 shown above, but the outward differences are minor. I went for the least expensive one on Ebay, and I expect it was bidding low because it is a white one - far less popular than black. A camera's outer colour doesn't concern me too much, as long as it isn't pink or purple - it's the inside that counts. I was getting tired of not having a camera handy when I need one, and for years I've been aware of the relatively good quality of Panasonic's Lumix DMC-LX series. Sure, I've written articles here about how a Canon Digital Rebel can be "pocket-able" with a small pancake lens on it - well, that is, "pocket-able" in a winter jacket perhaps. And what about all those small film cameras like the Olympus Trip-35? Well, the Trip-35 isn't small enough to fit a normal pocket - again, a large winter parka is your only choice. I've also got an Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80, which actually does fit my shirt pocket, but it's a very poor performer. As it turns out, the Lumix DMC-LX5 is exactly the same in every dimension as the Zoom 80, with the lens retracted in both cases, and therefore, pocket-able!

Certainly, there are other cameras that are more pocket-able than this - yes indeed, like the Lumix DMC-FH27, which I bought on sale a couple of years ago, but never warmed up to it - the touch screen controls aren't my cup of tea, and in spite of it having a "Leica" lens, I found it's image quality to be not much better than my Samsung Galaxy II Smartphone. The Lumix LX series is in a totally different league from all the rest of Panasonic's cameras, and they just keep getting better. It is well known that this series of cameras have also been re-branded as Leica's D-Lux series - Leica puts the Panasonic works inside their own case, throws in some Adobe software, provides a 2 year warranty, instead of Panny's 1-year, then they add 50% to the price. But, they are indeed, exactly the same camera. The German's are good at doing this - take the Audi A3 Wagon. It's exactly the same car as the VW Golf Wagon, without the roof rails, but again, with 50% added to the price.

The DMC-LX5 takes some amazingly great pictures. I don't know why, but Rockwell won't even give these a passing glance. He covers every other Japo camera brand (aside from the main contenders, Nikon and Canon, he reviews Fuji, Sony, Olympus, Pentax and Sigma), but he doesn't do Lumix. One time he kind of brushed one off with a very insulting review of the Leica D-Lux4, which was the same as the Lumix DMC-LX3 - sure it may be considered a poor excuse for a Leica, because, aside from the lens, and even that's questionable some say, it isn't really a Leica, but - go figure! To me, any camera should be judged by the pictures it takes, not by the badge on the front. Here are some shots that show what this little honey can do -

The First Pic I Took - High Wire Act - Installing My Solar Panels

The rest were taken at my Son's house, featuring my two Grandsons.


Note the nice out-of-focus bakground. Although not a "Bokeh King", most compact minicams would never manage even this much subject isolation.

A touch of red-eye here, but I just looked - I didn't have the flash set right to reduce red-eye.

This boy loves to mug for the camera!

Now for some B&W - I'm amazed at how much "soul" this camera catches - almost "like a Leica". In my opinion, that probably is a real Leica lens.

I should also mention - this camera catches the moment perfectly - every bit as fast as a DSLR. If there's any hint of compact camera shutter lag, I'm not feeling it. Amazing bit of progress here!


Here I notice that White Balance is nothing like a Canon. But at the same time, there's nothing wrong with it either. I prefer it, actually. Rockwell complains about colour a whole lot, and has a very strong preference to Canon's way of doing things, followed closely by Nikon. But I'm still baffled as to why Panasonic Lumix cameras aren't even on his radar.

Finally, I'll offer my brief list of pros and Cons:

The Lumix DMC-LX5: What I like-

  • Image quality
  • Great colour which I actually prefer to Canon
  • Incredibly soulful B&W
  • Leica lens
  • AF works good - better than my EOS 5D (but given the 5D's age, this is expected)
  • The Multi-Aspect Ratio switch on the lens - I especially like 1:1 Square
  • AF Mode switch on the lens (includes Macro)
  • Flash enabled by popping it up, instead of fiddling with Menu
  • It even looks cool in white
  • Imperceptible shutter lag
  • Good build quality, except the dials and switches feel a bit cheap
  • Dual action rear control wheel, which doesn't feel cheap. Canon could learn from this for their Rebel DSLR's!
  • Turns on quickly, but not instantly
  • Nice heavy rubber grip adds to feeling of quality (this is optional on the Leica version!)
  • Zoom can be continuous, or step-able at 24, 28, 35, 50, 70 and 90mm - how cool is that?
  • Shoots RAW & JPG -  a must have these days.
  • Good Quick Menu function
  • Built-in "Film" Emulation presets
  • A real clip on lens cap that hangs from a string - these protect the lens much better than the more typical butterfly openings found on most compacts

What I don't like:

  • No viewfinder, although both an EVF and an OVF are expensive options (but then, when you add a VF, it's no longer a pocket-able camera). I'm thinking of buying one of these instead
  • The "all or nothing" Info display on the live-view rear LCD screen
  • Zoom is slow - not sure why this would be these days.
  • The Quick Menu is great, but the Main Menu is bizarre
  • Turning on in Play Mode has to be done by holding down the Play button while turning on the Power Switch - a minor complaint which is offset by how you can go direct to Shooting Mode by pressing the shutter button halfway, and the transition is very quick. 
  • Maximum Zoom is 90mm (105 with 1:1 Aspect Ration selected) - a bit short, but then, this camera has a bigger than usual Image Sensor, meaning the Zoom has to remain short to remain pocket-able

The pro's and con's have a lot to do with the question - "do you want a good pocket camera to supplement your DSLR or don't you?" This camera may do a lot more than merely "supplement" my big heavy brute. Again, we shall see.