Tuesday, September 15, 2015

How Operating Systems Stack Up For Photography

A few days ago, I put up a 3 part series about the Chrome OS and the possibilities it offers for photographers. This time, I'd like very much to briefly give my opinion about some other Operating Systems and how well (or badly) they perform for photographers and everybody else. I'll do this alphabetically, as my own personal prejudices will show up soon enough:

Android - The OS of choice for Smartphone and Tablet users, unless your choice is an Apple iPhone or iPad. Personally I have a love - HATE relationship with my Android phone. For photography, I still find it quite useless, even with one of the better rated cameras (I have a Sony Xperia II something or other). If it's the only camera I have with me, I still seldom use it, simply because once the camera can be turned on, you've probably missed the shot, not to mention the fact that even though a photo you took looks fantastic on the phone's screen, it looks really shitty on everything else. The only Apps available seem to be the "Fun Filters" - few of which I really would ever take seriously.

Smartphones are amazing with what they're capable of - I like mine the best as a Navigator, and for quick look-ups of restaurants, motels, etc. I also use it a whole lot as a music player, but it frustrate the hell out of me when the Walkman App does an upgrade and everything changes. I don't Text, I don't Tweet, and I seldom make a mobile call. So why do I even have one of these? Even though Android is a computer OS, I really can't stand it when I go to pick it up and accidentally touch an Icon that launches an App.

What I really need is a separate pocket camera (got one), a separate iPod music player (had one) and a separate Sat-Nav (should get one), and cancel my smart-phone contract the next time it comes due, and then, use Chrome OS on my cancelled phone as a super mini-computer around the house - yes that can be done.

Chrome OS and The Chromebook - for photographers, it's merely passable, but for general computer users, it's fantastic. I had promised to evaluate lots of the Photo Apps available in the Chrome Store, but after trying for a couple of days, I soon realized the futility of this. There are a few, however, that almost fill the bill, and if Chrome were your only OS, these do offer a fair bit of functionality. The big 3 are i) Polarr - a lightweight Lightroom for raw files; ii) PicMonkey - for a greatly organized, serious but fun at the same time collection of Filters, Frames and Art Effects and iii) Pixlr - a very well done clone of Photoshop Elements. If you're into Chrome, and happen to find anything else beside these three worth having, please send me a comment below.

For everything else you might do with a computer, other than heavy sound and video production, and hi-fi music listening, Chrome OS is the cat's cream. It operates very fast on the smallest of hardware footprints, and is as easy to learn as a web browser, without the usual learning curve, or frustrations associated with computers. There are a lot of smart people out there who simply cannot learn about computers - if you see a Windows user with dozens of Icons plastered all over their screen, you've found such a person. Chrome OS brings all that to an end - it works totally differently and actually helps frustration-users to actually "get it", and learn to use a computer the correct way.

Linux - at one time, the "propeller head" OS, but not any more. Linux in all of it's many flavours has become the d-facto alternative for just about everything else, but especially for Windows. Linux, in just about all of it's "Distros" is now much easier to install and manage on "normal" computers and/or laptops, which, by the way, are still the best kinds of computers to have around if you need to do any kind of "heavy lifting" such as raw-file development / conversion, serious photo and video editing, serious music listening or recording, and serious enterprise or even personal productivity.

When it comes right down to it, Linux is beautiful. It has some of the greatest photography packages ever created (we don't call them Apps here folks), unless you're stuck on Photoshop / Lightroom and are willing to fork over the $$$. Gimp, with it's companion G'mic Plug-In is simply the best Photo Software you can have (except for raw files - Gimp doesn't do raw, but neither does it's pathetic look-alike Photoshop Elements). Gimp - G'mic simply is better than Elements because it does so many more things, and although it was built by Linux, it's been available for Windows for several years now. If you've never tried Gimp, now is the time. And while you're at it, give Photivo and RawTherapee a go - you don't need to commit to Linux to try these out - they're all available for Windows, free f charge, and install easily - in fact, Photivo is easier to install under Windows than it is with Linux.

The only down-side with Linux is hardware compatibility. Although it seems to run well on any computer or laptop I've tried, it doesn't do so well with peripherals like scanners and printers. At one time, I had my specialized photo scanner and printer up and running, but then, the Vendors who supplied the drivers decided to not bother with them any more. This happens because Linux, as great as it is, still hasn't caught on in a big way, and to develop device drivers, and keep them current, is difficult to do - especially for free. If your devices happen to be held within a major Distro's "Repository" (the open-software equivalent of an online store), such as Debian's sane for scanners and cups for printers, you'll be OK. But in my case, I struck out both times - should have done more research before I bought my peripherals.

Mac OS-X - well, this seems to be the one that most Window's haters gravitate to. I personally have had very little experience with Apple - Mac products with the exception of the above mentioned iPod, so I'll keep my comments limited. What I hear is, if you have a Mac, you love it to death, and what's more, you're willing to shell out double the money every time Apple launches a new product, and stand in a huge line-up to do so. And I'll admit, I start to drool every time I see a Mac computer being used. And have you ever noticed, on TV, whenever it shows someone using a computer, it's a Mac, with the ubiquitous Apple symbol proudly displayed?

I cannot comment on Mac photography, because I've never tried it. But I will say, if there's such a thing as "high-end" in the computer world, Mac is it - everybody seems to know this, and those who go in are willing to keep paying the extra for life. You pay double just to buy the computer, and from then on, you pay big money for everything you want to put on it, both for apps and for content. Nothing is free in the Apple grove, but devotees don't seem to object to this.

It must be good stuff!

Windows - ahh, the utter stupidity of the mass market. Most people run Windows simply because if you buy a reasonably priced computer, that's what comes on it - and even built into the price of the computer, it's still a far lower entry level than a Mac.

So, for photography, Windows gives you the best and the worst options. If you're stuck on Adobe's products, I suppose that's the best, but I've never tried anything but Elements, which quickly drove me back to Gimp. But for me, the best of all is DxO Optics Pro - for raw processing, lens optimization and noise reduction, it simply blows the doors of anything else. How do I know it's better than Adobe Lightroom let's say? Well, I've never tried Lightroom, but the DxO product is so damn good, it simply must be better. Unfortunately, I have to boot to Windows in order to use it. And that's how Microsoft has cornered the market - there's a Windows Program for absolutely everything, and the market is flooded with so much 3rd party, which all simply works best with Windows. In order to have something similar for Linux, somebody has to reverse engineer and clone a Windows program, and often not get paid for their efforts.

But Windows itself, as a product, as trying to be all things to all people, is an absolute piece of shit, and I make no apologies. It's slow, stupid, and has a never-ending learning curve. Nothing about running Windows has ever been straight forward, which explains why so many people simply end up plastering a bunch of ugly icons on their "Desktop" - Windows makes it so difficult to do anything else. So many people, who are not at all stupid, have to resort to doing stupid things with Windows, which, by the way, Windows allows them to do... to the point that Windows simply runs slower and slower until something breaks, and then the customer has to take their computer into the shop for a tune-up. Windows makes people think of their computers in the same way they think about their cars - periodic maintenance is required, and if they can't do it themselves (most can't), then thy have to take it 'to the shop" to get it fixed up and running again.

Linux is not at all like that - it is built to self-manage beautifully, it never slows down and it never breaks. I suppose this is what drives people away from Windows to Mac, which is quite similar to Linux under the hood - but with Mac, the self-management is even better than Linux because you pay a huge premium to get it.

So, there you have it. I could've written a lot more about how bad I think Windows is, but I figure that enough people have discovered that already, with some real examples.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Audio Too

If Ken Rockwell can do Audio on his Blog, so can I. Seemingly, interest in the high end of photography often goes hand-in-glove with the higher end of audio. The recent extreme popularity of any good camera's ability to make high-definition video brings these two worlds together.

Alesis iO2 Top Panel
I thought it was about time to reveal my other side. There was a time in my distant past when I was a "boutique audio retailer", back in the early 90's. Boutique audio is not "high end" but in most cases it comes close. I was selling brands like Mission, Quad, Meridian and Onkyo from my house - not quite in the esoteric high end range, where the changing of a single resistor in the circuitry would "make a noticeable audible improvement", but brands such as this, now available under the "Vintage Electronics" section of Ebay, were far far better than gear from Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer.

Come ahead 20 years, and we find that audio gear, just like camera gear, has changed completely. Although CD's still have a place in the audio chain, and vinyl records are making a huge comeback, and, no surprise at all, vacuum tube amplification, made in China, has become very popular and affordable, the main source of music is now the on-line download of music files. The most popular file format is the .mp3, but one can also subscribe to superior download formats like .wav and FLAC, if you're willing to spend more money.

But as it is with my camera gear, so it is with my audio - I want to spend less money on everything, because, well, I still like the hobbies, but I'm living on a pension.

So let's begin. In or new age of digital downloads, the main source of audio has become the personal computer. The beauty of this is, it can be any computer - the most lowly Chromebook laptop will download audio files just as well as the most expensive gaming computer - there's absolutely no difference, and this is still true if you're downloading mp3, wav or FLAC - the computer used makes absolutely no difference, whereas 20 years ago, the CD or Record Player used certainly made a huge difference in sound quality - in fact, the "source" playback device was considered the mot important link in the chain.

However, there is no computer available off the shelf - except maybe a Mac, that is optimized for boutique or high end audio playback of the files you download. A Mac is better than most, especially the Mac Pro, or the older Power Mac, but even with these, or any other personal computer, you can make two basic modifications to better optimize for audio. First, you'll need a better DAC (Digital-Analogue Converter), and second, you'll need a low latency operating system. Your computer already has a DAC and an OS, but neither are up to the job, except maybe a Mac, but we're on a pension here remember?

At Home on Top of my HP P6720 Case
So, starting with the DAC, here are a few pictures of what I'm using, and it only cost me $5.00 - yes that's right - 5 bucks at a yard sale got me an Alesis iO/2 Digital Audio Interface, which connects, and is powered by the USB connection of any modern computer. The DAC is a specialized piece of computer hardware that is built into this little gadget. The iO/2 itself is a bit of a cross between a USB-DAC and a professional studio mixer, for use by a studio technician who is working on-the-road with a Laptop. It has two switchable microphone / instrument inputs, coaxial s/pdif input and output, and MIDI in-out. But I'm not using any of this - all I need are it's USB input, the DAC within, and it's completely separate headphone and main-out pre-amps. That's right - the headphone circuit is completely separate from the main stereo line output, each with their own volume control. How cool is that?

Rear Connections
The rear panel connections are (left-to right) midi-out, midi-in, stereo right out, stereo left out, s/pdif out, s/pdif in, and finally the USB connection. This is an older piece of gear, so the s/pdif part is coaxial only (no optical). These are for connecting certain CD players, Dolby surround, digital signal processor, etc. directly into, or through the unit, thus bypassing the DAC built into the iO/2, and using the one built into the source device. Not for me, but the option is there.

Now, what do I mean by a low latency operating system? "Low latency" means having a system which is fast enough to decode audio data without any glitches, making the analogue sound output as smooth as possible. Audio latency is the delay between that time that sound is created and when it is heard, and normally, a computer's Operating System is a bottleneck that has to be dealt with. If you insist on using Windows, here is an article that talks about tweaks that you can do to make Windows more audio-friendly. My preference is to use a low-latency version of Linux - the most well known and easiest to deal with is the Ubuntu Studio Edition. This OS will look after all of your computing needs, including the best possible playback of audio, (and recording if you're into that).

I don't have the golden ears I had 20 years ago, but trust me - this issue of audio latency is important, and I can hear the difference between my un-optimized Windows 7 and Ubuntu Studio - my computer will dual-boot between the two systems, and so the hardware chain is identical. I can't comment about how well the Windows tweaks work, as I have no use for them.

Realistic Custom Pro Headphones (Koss, USA Made)
Now, at the very least, the Alesis iO/2 is a superb headphone amplifier, especially with it's own built-in, and completely separate headphone circuit noted above. What's more, it is much more compatible with older 1/4" jack headphones, not the new higher impedance models designed for portable audio. This means you should either dig out your father's oldie's, or shop for your phones in the Vintage Electronics section. I got mine at a flea market complete with the original box, with no signs of use or unpacking, for $40.00. They're the old Radio Shack (Realistic) brand, but are actually made in the USA by Koss, and they sound absolutely amazing.

Centrios Powered Monitors
Next, the amplifier and speakers - and this is all you need to complete your system, because everything is now playing from your computer, remember? You don't even need an AM/FM receiver, because all FM is available on-line - even your local stations. Think of your computer, along with the above two audio upgrades, as your receiver.

A great solution is to try and find a set of "powered studio monitors", sometimes also known as "active speakers".. In a sense, these are nothing more than high quality computer speakers, but with a more powerful built-in amplifier, and the lack of a headphone jack. Overall build quality of Monitors compared with computer speakers will be far superior. My monitors are branded "Centrios", which is an old brand used by "The Source", which in Canada took the place of Radio Shack. So these aren't the best, but at the time, back in 2006, these were discounted in "The Source" local store by 70%, so I got them for around $45.00. Ken Rockwell has a review for something quite similar.

Another solution is to go back to the god old Vintage Electronics section and shop for some of the tremendously great amplifiers and speakers of yesteryear. This is the upgrade approach I would take, probably using pure single-ended Class A tube power and vintage single driver speakers. This would work very well for me, as my room is very small and I normally sit about 1 Metre away from the speakers.

Finally, if you're so inclined, you can go with a full Dolby Surround system which begins with installing a good high-end sound card in your computer from Sound Blaster, Creative, or Asus, with all the appropriate home theatre hardware downstream. I would not take this approach for two reasons - 1) high cost and 2) Dolby Surround has nothing to do with the way we normally hear music - normal stereo is far more real sounding (and there are many audiophiles who would argue that monaural ("mono") is even more like the real thing).

I would love to write a lot more about this - what would be my most significan upgrade - to subscribe to higher quality downloads, or go with an amplifier / speaker upgrade?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Chrome OS Photography - Part-3

PicMonkey "Yesterday" Effect

I've tried out a few Photo Apps from the Chrome Web Store since yesterday, and I should first warn you - there are a few not worth considering - "PhotoRulez", "Rollip", and "Photo Editor" come to mind. It's pretty easy with the ratings / reviews available for each App - if only a few people provide 3-stars or less out of 5, just assume "there ain't nothin' here".

But I found one that's a whole lotta' fun--- and quite powerful too, called "PicMonkey". It is a semi-free App, meaning that most of the features are free of charge, but you have to sign up for a 30 day free trial, after which they bill you a small fee to open up even more of the arguably better features. But there's plenty to do with the totally free bits to keep me happy.

PicMonkey gets 4.5 / 5 Stars with over 2000 Reviews, and when I started using it, I could see why - it's very well done, with a long column of well organized effects down the left side of the frame, and basic importing, saving, un-do and re-do buttons at the top. The not-for-free effects are marked with a little "crown" icon.

This is exactly what I like - no silly stuff, in spite of the App's silly name perhaps. Every effect remains "photographic", and also offer various adjustments within each effect, including how much of the effect to actually layer in.

So, here are a few I tried, starting with a "Yesterday" treatment in the first photo above, and for reference, here's the original photo below, processed from raw via DxO optics Pro:

Original Raw From EOS 5D with EF50mm f1.8 Lens and DxO Optics Pro
PicMonkey Orton Glow
PicMonkey Cross-Processed Green Tint
PicMonkey B&W, Not Quite Fully Desaturated*
(* A wee bit of color remaining)

PicMonkey "Spotlight" Effect
PicMonkey "Lomo" Effect
Yes, I know - everybody's doing this stuff now with Camera-Phone Apps - but PicMonkey is not yet available on Android or iPhone devices, and it does provide a way to reach for all of it's stuff in an exceptionally organized, un-monkey-like fashion. Also, some layering of effects can be accommodated with seemingly limit-less "un-do's" (try that on your camera phone!), all of the features can be applied to photos taken with your best DSLR, and then re-saved at the original size with no degradation.

And best of all, PicMonkey is designed for Chrome OS, so you can get on board with the easiest to use and lowest device cost.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Chrome OS Photo Apps - Part-2

Raw Processed With Polarr
In Part-1, I did a brief introduction to the Chromebook and it's ingenious Linux based Chrome OS. In my opinion, for general everyday computing that doesn't require any heavy lifting, this is by far the easiest to use personal computing device on the market. It is also the least expensive complete package - the Chromebook being equipped with an 11" screen, comprehensive keyboard, and touch-pad / key combo. The Chrome OS requires so little horsepower to keep itself running, it's very quick, lightweight and cool running. There is an overall lack of frustration factor when compared to ANYTHING else out there, and that includes Google's own Android system for mobile devices, and especially includes anything put out by Microsoft.

As a Photography Blogger, it must be my task to try out a few of the Chrome OS Photo Apps. I'm starting off with one called Polarr, which is a Raw file "developer" or converter, not unlike Lightroom, RawTherapee, or Photivo. It contains all of the essential raw file workings, along with a good array of one-touch filters. Raw file converters are one of those things that usually require a lot of computing power - this is especially true of my favourite - DxO Optics Pro, and I'll admit from the outset that Polarr is nothing like DxO. But it's not bad. It does it's thing surprisingly quickly too, and unlike most other Chrome Apps, it opens in it's own window, not a new browser tab. The Chrome OS Web Store doesn't have a lot of other raw converters available. There is one particularly bad one called "Raw.Pics.io" which only does one adjustment - Exposure Value (EV), and when it's applied, it results in something that looks like a very bad JPEG. It might be useful if all you have are raw files and you're in an extreme hurry - you could simply open the raw, do nothing else, then save it as a .jpg. But Polarr is certainly a keeper, with it's nice array of one-click Instagram-like Filters that are applied in raw, not jpg, which allows all picture data to be retained for working on the same file over again later.

Another must have is the now well known Pixlr Editor. For all intents, it looks and behaves just like PS Elements, and is meant for working on many common file types, with the exception of raw files. Just like PSE, it is a lot like GIMP with less features. This is the App to use for making significant adjustments (including "auto-levels"), rotate and crop, layers, re-touching, etc, again very much like Elements and GIMP.

Then within the Web Store, there are seemingly hundreds of other Instagram-like Filter Apps. I personally don't like these much, because in spite of some of them being touted as "Vintage", or "Retro", there was never any old school photographic films that looked like any of these Filters. But i will spend some time trying out some of them.

I really prefer my digital photographs to look like photographs - and I especially like film emulations. I'm not sure if any film emulation apps exist yet in the Google-sphere, whether in Chrome OS or Android. it is now possible to port Android Apps to Chrome, but this is for developers, not ordinary end-users.

One last thing I'd like to mention before I get into using and reviewing a bunch more Chrome oS Photo Apps - that is - the Chrome OS universe is rapidly growing with the advent of new, super small computer hardware, like the Intel Stick, Chromebit, and for the more ambitious, Raspberry Pi-2.

Working Photography with Chrome OS - Part 1

This will be a very short series of articles about Chrome OS, and the new trend in Fly-weight Computing in general.  I'm developing an enthusiasm for something which was introduced over five years ago - "thin client cloud network computing", and am beginning to explore how well it can be made to work with photography. I haven't yet sorted out just who is the market champion in Cloud Computing. I suddenly got interested in it when Kathy picked up an Acer Chrome-book, and left me the "chore" of getting it set up for her. As it turns out, there doesn't have to be a whole lot of setting up to be done. Everyone should know this by now, but all you need to make Chrome OS function is a Google account. She already had one, because a Google account can consist of G-mail, Blogger (which I'm using right now to write this), YouTube, Google+ and Picasa. A single username and password can be your key to all these service, and much more - or, if you wish, each service can have a different un-pw. Because she had used YouTube once several years ago, she has a Google Account. All I had to do to get her little Chrome-book up and running was to enter this un-pw at start-up.

This tiny gem of a laptop was ready to use within about 8 seconds - it's phenomenally fast, because all it really has to do is get it's low-power but specialized hardware up and ready to run the now well known Chrome Internet Browser. If I recall correctly, Google had created this browser, along with the Linux based Chrome OS at about the same time, back in 2010. It was touted as the Ultra-light  champion in both the Browser and OS category at the time, and I quickly installed both the Linux and Windows-7 versions of the Browser on my dual-boot Desktop computer. As for the OS, I never gave it any more thought - until recently, when on the very same Acer Netbook, I created another account with my own log-on.

When the Browser first came out, Kathy owned a similarly sized, but even lower spec Acer "Net-book", which really struggled to run Windows-7. Needless to say, we soon got rid of that. I had even tried Lubuntu on it, which is the most light-weight version of Ubuntu available, and it offered only a marginal improvement in performance. Chrome OS was just starting to come along back then, and I didn't have the interest, or the time, in trying to make it work on "the little lap-top that couldn't". Had I taken the time then, I would know a lot more about it now, but it's never too late, and five years on, Chrome OS is now a mature product, with hundreds of Apps available to run with it - and all of the Apps are designed specially to run in the Chrome Browser. Nothing "heavy" is being done within the device itself; rather, everything is handled on the Google Chrome OS network.

Naturally, this means something very powerful, which I'm only picking up on now, because I'm rather slow on the uptake, so to speak. What this means is that you can use your Google Account in combination with the Chrome Browser to build your Chrome OS system on any computer, at any time, anywhere, simply by "adding" (as opposed to "installing") the Applications you want to the Browser, which all simply open up and function in a new Browser Tab. Secondly, you can upload any and all files you would wish, to the Cloud, which in Google's case, is simply called "Drive", and is sized according to a very small monthly payment - the first 50 G-bytes are free, to get you started. And then finally, you can customize various look and feel type things for the Browser itself, and each App individually to suit your taste, again using any computing device with a Chrome Browser - it doesn't have to be the Chrome OS net-book. But when you log -on to the Chromebook / netbook, all the magic you've created elsewhere is right there waiting to be used.

Does this mean you should create your personalized Google OS environment on a bigger, more capable machine? No, certainly not - everything you need is available from the tiny Chromebook. It might have occurred to you by now that the higher your Internet speed, the better everything will work, especially your first Chrome Browser set-up, so this might justify using a bigger machine "at home" on a fast connection, but otherwise, a Chromebook is all you need to get started.

If you're already set up with a real computer because you need lots of horsepower to deal with programs like Photoshop or DxO Optics Pro, then a Chromebook will only work for your other less intensive computing needs. But starting with Part-2, I'll be looking at the many Photo Apps, especially the ones that handle raw files, that are available in the "Chrome Store".