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    “You just like it because it has Galaxy in the name”


    2013 - 01.15

    Continuing the march of super awesome new gadgets in my 2013 life, & as foreshadowed previously, I am now the happy owner of a Samsung Galaxy Note II, my first Samsung phone ever.  I’m sporting it au natural (sans case) thus far, but eventually I’ll get something to protect the fantastic plastic.  First impressions: Holy smokes.  Sammy sure does know how to build a screen–the display on this thing is eyeball-popping.  Vivid, bright, saturated, & rich are all suitable adjectives to describe the picture quality.  I need to get some sweet games on this baby, starting with EDGE.  An official Rockstar port of Vice City is dropping soon too.  Y-y-y-y-yessssssss.

    Of course the most exciting thing about this phone though is the stylus.  I’m going to try to use it on a regular basis to create sketches of anything and everything.  At this point I’m still learning all the tricks this Note has to offer, which are legion.  I’ve created a few drawings while experimenting with the S-Pen software… so far nothing worth crowing about but hey practice makes perfect and I’m a pretty un-practiced doodler.  Maybe this will change?

    Other thoughts:
    * Its main camera is like, super wide-angle.  No dedicated camera button; I know I’m going to miss that.  But on the positive side, maybe this fresh start will encourage me to use Instagram more, which is just another way of saying ‘take more random pictures’.  Overall, it’s a respectable cell camera so far.
    * The giant screen real estate is glorious.  Yes, it is quite a stretch for those moments of one-handed wrangling.  But most of the time, two hands are free and the extra space does pay.  Text is bigger.  I notice that I hold it further away while reading, which is probably easier on the eyes.  So far no pockets have been overstrained.
    * Google’s “Project Butter” added vertical-sync, triple-buffered, 60Hz refresh to Android.  Although it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with my outgoing Droid X, I’ve got to believe that the buttered-up screen makes it easier to look at.  Without a doubt, I do feel less eyestrain during a long reading session.
    * Sammy sweetens the deal further with an option to invert the display color, which can convert anything to white text on black background.  NICE!!  Good frickin call.  I never understood why black background isn’t the prevailing text format for computer displays.  It’s just better.
    * Another brilliant Samsung customization: frequently used settings like GPS, airplane mode, bluetooth are all located in the notification tray when you expand it.  Very useful.
    * 1.6GHz Quad core and 2GB of RAM.  Jeez.  These things really are becoming pocket computers.
    * About that pocket computer thing: I got the “Smart Dock” accessory which adds HDMI output and three USB ports, to which you can connect mouse and keyboard.  I’m tying this on my phone, using a full-size keyboard, and it’s SWEET.  There’s a mouse cursor.  Scroll wheels work, forward and back buttons work, and there’s keyboard shortcuts, even.  Impressive.  Haven’t tried the HDMI yet…
    * Dropped in a 64GB MicroSD card and loaded this baby up with like 15 gigs of awesome music.  My phone is ready to tackle the longest of roadtrips.
    * I wonder if there will be any extra S-Pen/stylus-centric apps still to come?  The included drawing app is quite solid, but already I can see how it’d be nice to have more Photoshop-esque functionality, like layers and opacity control for all brush types.
    * Rephrased: When is Adobe going to make ‘Photoshop Mobile’ or whatever?
    * There’s an option to change the default system font to Helvetica.  Rock on, you typography nerds.

    Impressions on the Velodyne vPulse


    2013 - 01.06

    This year for christmas, I received a gift from my lovely fiancée that I’m pretty excited about: vPulse in-ear headphones made by Velodyne.  These things are an interesting product: Velodyne is almost exclusively a subwoofer manufacturer, and a pretty good one.  It’s a bit random that they decided to come out with some headphones.  It’d be like if the people who make Swiss Army Knives, a renown and very specific product, were like, hey, let’s make a circular saw.  Those guys probably have a good idea about what specific attributes would make a good circular saw, but it takes a different set of expertise to actually manufacture that.  Can they pull it off?

    I get the distinct impression that Velodyne’s designers had owned and lived with in-ear headphones for a decent amount of time before coming up with the vPulse.  I’ve had a set of Etymotic Research ER6i in-ear headphones for many years now and they’re a great set of headphones.  But they embody many of the pitfalls characteristic to in-ear headphones: the cables easily get tangled up when you store them, those same cables tend to make noise if they brush against anything (read: your shirt) when you’re listening, the rubber noise-isolating tips can get uncomfortable in longer listening sessions, and of course: the bass is literally absent.  Not just crappy bass–NO bass.  I imagine two Velodyne engineers having a conversation: “Hey, how do you like those Etymotics?” “They’re pretty nice.  No bass at all though.  I usually listen to them with my subwoofer running too.  Kinda defeats the point of in-ear, but I gots to have them low notes.”
    So how did they do?

    Amy Winehouse’s voice sounds rich and present on “Tears Dry on Their Own”, a favorite song of mine from her album Back to Black.  I can hear some subtle phasing effects I’d never noticed before on the opening synths from Llorca’s “The End”; that’s maybe a simple byproduct of the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever listened to that tune on in-ear headphones before.  Different listening setups, without question, will emphasize a different set of nuances in any given recording.  I hear the backup vocals a lot more on Eric Krasno’s “Be Alright”.  A large number of previously obscured details pop out on “ReEmergence” by Sound Tribe Sector 9.  And the elephant in the room: all this stuff has bass!  Specifically, the basslines are well defined and full.  There’s no bloated resonances of particular notes.  Pitches and key changes are distinct.  Sometimes bass-heavy setups can sort of smear that low-range into a nebulous barrage of noise, which is not the case here.

    Of course the lowest of the lows are still missing, which is only logical.  Deep, deep bass is felt more than heard.  Bass drum is the most apparent manifestation of that fact.  Basslines definitely have the juice in these babies, but the forceful punch-in-the-chest of a kick drum is something that’s intrinsically reproduced only by Velodyne’s main product, a subwoofer.  That said, the vPulse are extremely capable.  If you’re looking for some noise-isolating headphone with real kick to them, this is IT.  These things are going to be heavenly next time I ride an airplane: they’ll totally block out all the annoying kids, the overly loud intercom announcements, and the obnoxious business travelers yapping about synergy.

    A few other listening notes for anyone who might be interested in a pair of these:

    • For anyone who’s never had in-ear headphones before, note that you will hear NOTHING happening outside of your music.  Someone could be sitting right next to you, loudly calling your name and you will be oblivious.  You would not want to use these, say, going for a jog down the street.  They would be perfect for a quiet office or a loud subway train though.
    • I listened with a mild EQ: a dip of maybe -3dB at around 2kHz.  Maybe my ears are especially sensitive at those frequencies, but I think anything and everything always sounds better with a small midrange cut.
    • The cables on these things are flat and thin, which I like.  Only time will tell if they resist tangling or become permanently bent-up like the Etymotics did.  I have a good feeling about them.  The hard case which comes along will help keep them in good shape I think.
    • Best way to avoid cable noise is to use the clip on your cable and hook it on your shirt close to the neck, so that both sides have plenty of extra room to make a wide swing around before reaching the ear.
    • I was actually made aware of these headphones by this review.  Says something strong if you’ve got a hundred pairs of headphones to listen to but you keep coming back to these…
    • The rubber ear tips are comfortable!  If I listen to my Etymotic ER6i’s for more than an hour or so, my ears start to feel sort of sore.  I’ve yet to experience that with the Velodynes.
    • The basslines on “To Feel Good” (accessible in the navigation bar music player from this website, or for download in the music section) sounded authoritive, powerful.  Those basslines were some of the most challenging low-frequency material I could throw at the vPulses and they handled it great.  There’s some strong sub-bass sine waves in there which simply aren’t present listening back on other systems without the proper bass-response.  Color me impressed.  Velodyne hooks it up!

    Revisiting some gadgetry that caught my eye


    2012 - 10.17

    Looks like Motorola has killed off the Webdock, citing insufficient demand. I’m definitely guessing it was simple pricing that killed it. $500 (later $150) for what essentially amounted to a hollow shell that projected your phone onto a bigger screen; that just won’t fly in today’s world of Android tablets that cost around the same price. I still think it was a cool idea; a multimedia-friendly dock that turns the content on your phone into something more akin to a laptop. But apparently it just wasn’t meant to be. Bon Voyage, webdock! We hardly knew ye.

    Incidentally, I still think tablets are stupid; an awkward in-between format that tries to combine laptop with phone but has the best of neither. Apparently I am far from the only one either. A very solid chunk of my random Google searchers wind up here to laugh at that derisive photo of Steve Jobs holding up four iPhones duct-taped together. Still relevant!

    And, about half a year after complaining that I was craving a new phone, guess what, I still have the same phone! Last time around I was debating the merits of the Lumia 900 and the Galaxy Note. Well come November both of these will have sequels (the Lumia 920 and the Note II respectively). Switching from iPhone to Android was cool because it was a change in ‘vibe’. That wording maybe oversells it, but I did enjoy a ‘fresh take’ on what a phone should be like. I am still interested in turning the page yet again when it comes to smartphone interaction, so I was closely following Microsoft’s take, but now it appears that the Lumia 920, the win-phone king for 2012, will be an AT&T exclusive, because in the over-dramatic-but-maybe-somewhat-true words of Gizmodo “Verizon hates you and everything you love”.

    That leaves me with the Note II, which is supposed to come to big red. A Wacom-designed stylus that has deeply-integrated support baked-in to the whole software sounds like it could really affect the ‘feel’, and possibly even what you do on it. 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity will definitely make for some bomb sketching. I do anticipate that there will be times when the large size is an annoyance, but still. I think the Note II should offer an unusual day-to-day interaction which I’d like to check out for a few years. I’m betting whatever I eventually replace it with years down the road will probably return to being normal-sized… But for a while, I’d like to live with it and see what a monstrous fiver is like. Begin the countdown now!

     I think it’ll be sweet!

    I Want a New Phone: The State of Tech in Early 2012


    2012 - 03.22

    I usually don’t write about phones on here because I think they’re an ultra-transitive subject. In one year’s time, it’s likely that all phone discussion will be completely irrelevant and not worth reading, or even skimming. That’s the paradox of a cellphone; it’s the essential piece of technology that you can’t leave the house without, and which you interact with constantly, many times throughout the day. It’s extremely important–and yet it has no permanence–in a few years time it wears out and you need a new one. So this will be a phone discussion wrapped in a State of the Technological World discussion. Let’s hit it!

    I think the lifecycles of tech companies generally goes like this: Up-and-coming Company X introduces a new product which is not perfect but is pretty great. Everyone wants it. Pretty soon, everyone has it. As their market share goes up, innovation dies, bloatware multiplies, and they stop listening to anyone about the flaws in their product. Wicked and annoying quicks become enshrined under the banner of “Whaddya gonna do, chumps?! Leave us?! We’re the only game in town, so you’ll take our crap and you’ll LOVE IT! You got no other option, suckerrrrrrs!”

    In the 80s and 90s, Apple Computer was a niche market, catering to those who wanted to “think different” or those bored with the endless phalanxes of Microsoft beige-box machines. Apple was a scrappy underdog, fighting to differentiate themselves and carve out a small following against the near-monopoly of MS. Oh, the dripping irony of how time has reversed those roles! Today Apple is the most valuable American corporation. They’ve come full circle from fighting ‘the man’ to becoming ‘the man’ themselves, complete with gargantuan Asian sweatshop factories that struggle to quash suicide controversies. The iPhone is getting long in the tooth, with a dated UI design that they can’t change or abandon now, and Microsoft, of all people, are the ones with the hip’n’with-it fresh ideas! What world do we live in?!

    I had the original, first-generation iPhone shortly after it came out. And I will give it to them; it was far ahead of its time. It took a long time for Google to catch them. But eventually they did, maybe in 2009 or 2010. I’ve always hated iTunes with a passion; its slowness, the ridiculous refusal to play nice with FLAC files (which continues even several years later! Seriously, What.–TheF#%K.), lack of cool visualizers (hello Milkdrop!), lack of support for 3rd party plugins (Compressors. They make every song better. Ever. Times eight), but most of all the syncing. Oohhh boy, the syncing. You can’t share mp3s onto your friend’s iPod (like that’s going to stop anyone from burning them a CD). You can’t put songs from other computers in your own house onto your own iPod. And anytime you download a new track, you have to manually import it into iTunes, make sure it’s tagged (Apple: “What are these ‘file-names’ you speak of?”) and then wait fooorrrrrrreeeeevvvvvvveeeeerrrrrrrrr if you’re putting music onto an iPhone because it needs to do some DRM-BS with every single ‘app’ you ever downloaded. This syncing induced blood-boiling rage on many a night when I had just found some slamming new track that I knew I’d be dying to hear tomorrow. Try syncing before bedtime. You’ll be awake at least an hour longer than you intended.

    Eventually iTunes broke me. Two years ago I made the jump to Android. This netted me turn by turn GPS, better cell reception on Verizon, voice recognition long before Siri, and most importantly, access to SD card storage. Having my phone be able to function as a flash drive is the most under-appreciated part of Android. I use it constantly, every day to move files around, freely transfering them between computers and accessing them on the phone itself. And if I get a hot new track I want to listen to, it’s copied over with windows explorer in a mere seconds. No importing, no syncing, no tagging. Done. This is how it should be.

    I’ve been rocking a Motorola Droid X for nearly two years. When I first got it, it was a mean machine. One time a waiter even asked me, “hey is that the new Droid??” As a photo-nut I also love the idea of a physical, dedicated shutter release button. But lately it’s been doing some very unfortunate things which it definitely should not be doing. Like rebooting at random, and just generally getting really slow. Having owned the phone for almost two years, I know that it should not be feeling this sluggish. Something is wrong. Once, (and thankfully only once) it even committed the cardinal sin of rebooting in the middle of a phone call. That’s grounds for dismissal right there. In its defense, I have used the utter bejeezus out of this thing, even far more than I ever used my iPhone. I’m getting antsy to replace the Droid X, but honestly all the phones Verizon is offering at the moment are boring, outdated, and unimpressive.

    New phones are a dime a dozen, and even with my near-daily reading of Gizmodo and Engadget, I always skip the phone coverage. So I’ve been educating myself lately on what’s out there. I definitely don’t want to go back to Apple. I’d sooner choke myself with a 32-pin connector than suffer through another round of iTunes slogging/slavery. Plus, a bigger screen is quite nice. You get used to that. And the turn by turn GPS is majorly helpful, especially driving stickshift. But do I want an Android? What else is there?

    Google, particularly in the last several months, has been more and more annoying. They’ve come out with a unified privacy policy, which I’ve had to click ‘okay’ for, like, 50 times now. And I know what it really means. It means, ‘all this time, we’ve been collecting every single thing you do online, and now we’re gonna totally sell that shiz and get like a bajillion dollars richer for it. And you can’t opt out. Whaddya gonna do, chumps?! Use Altavista?! We’re the only game in town, so you’ll take our crap and you’ll LOVE IT! You got no other option, suckerrrrrrs!

    Actually, there is a new game in town. Microsoft has been steadily working out their “metro” UI, which was pioneered on the Zune (remember that?!), refined on the xbox, and now reached its logical zenith on Windows Phone. “Skeuomorphism” is the guiding principle behind a lot of Apple’s interface design, where the notes application looks like a yellow-page notepad, the calendar has fake leather, all the icons look like digitally recreated glass, etc–it’s feeling, idunno, tired. Metro is a clean slate, literally. It’s solid blocks of color that feel fresher and cleaner than a cluttered iOS homescreen with fake water droplets under fake glass icons (or for that matter, the me-too design aesthetics of Android).

    I really dig what Microsoft has done there, and the fact that Nokia, a very experienced hand when it comes to mobile hardware, is leading the charge on Windows phone–that interests me. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve got Carl Zeiss printed around the lenses on those phones, even if they are plastic lenses. Searching through the MS app store, I see they’ve got all the essential apps I use; pulse, shazaam, wordpress, and the obligatory facebook (another company we’ve all become slaves to). Hmm. This is all looking pretty appealing. And I could break out from the pervasive we-know-everything-you-do-and-are-totally-getting-rich-off-it ethos of el Goog.

    Only thing is that none of these phones are available yet in the US. The Lumia 900 is totally sweet. I’d be over at the Verizon store today pickin that up if they sold it. In white. Hmm. Same story on the Lumia 610, which also looks nice. So what else is there of the “what else”?

    The biggest strength of Android would probably be choice (in many senses). Accordingly, there’s an Android phone for anyone. As I wrote about on here long, long ago, I totally went bananas for the Microsoft Courier concept videos. Sadly and stupidly the project ended up being abandoned, and MS lost one of their biggest design gurus in the fallout. Rightly so. One of the big appeals Courier held for me was the premise of using a stylus to allow digital sketching; visualizing ideas, handwriting recognition, doodling over photos or screencaps, and also for just trying to get artistic and sketch something! I still feel very drawn to that idea. Enter the Samsung Galaxy Note. (aka the Galaxy Journal on Verizon, release date…. soon??)

    It’s way oversized for a phone. The display is 1280×800, which makes 285ppi on the 5.3″ screen (wowzers). That’s monsterously, perhaps even irritatingly huge… yet that real estate is purposeful; it allows you room to draw, which is a central feature to the device. I actually went over to the local AT&T store to try this sucker out. The handwriting recognition requires careful penmanship. The stylus isn’t perfect. But it does have a wacon-designed 128 levels of pressure sensitivity, and you can certainly make drawings with it, faster, easier, and better than with a plodding fingertip, beyond question. That a pretty unique feature for something that will always be in your pocket. One that I think could potentially challenge me to sketch more, be more artistic, and maybe even pay dividends here on the website, in the form of amusing drawings to accompany blogposts, or even new hand-drawn artwork for headers and various other pages throughout the site.

    Hmph. That’s definitely food for thought. Being able to sketch might be worth flying the Android flag for a while longer. Although I do envy that sleek new Metro UI. I guess we’ll just wait and see which phone becomes available first! Expect a sequel to this post…..

    Last thing I’ll mention on the State of Tech 2012 is the disturbing trend toward “appification” in the newest crop of OSes. I don’t want “apps,” I want “programs!” The first preview version of Windows 8 dropped last week and it continues Microsoft’s unification of all platforms under the Metro UI language. As stated, I love the concept of Metro, but what I don’t like is the idea that eventually all programs will be run full screen, and frozen while not in the foreground. This is not, at all, how I use my computer now. I sometimes render timelapse video in Premiere while making beats in Reason, which has multiple windows. Multitasking and multi-window programs, which inherently improve productivity with user-customization. I hope the desktop paradigm never shifts away from that. Because if it does, I’m staying on Win 7. Call me a technophobe. ;P

    Megapixels have officially jumped the shark


    2012 - 03.01

    Okay, there’s a few interesting new bits of technology in the news that I’d like to riff on. The brand new Nokia 808 PureView, the Nikon D800, and the Canon C300. People love to focus on numbers, stats, specifications. Especially in the world of cameras, how things look ‘on paper’ is important. For many years, megapixels were kind of the end-all-be-all number that told you how good a camera was. Those days are over. In fact, they’ve been over for several years now but that won’t stop people from beating a dead horse.

    Observe:

    Nikon’s new flagship DSLR is the D800 and it’s got a whopping 36 megapixels (that makes a dastardly 7360×4912 image). This guy gets a free pass because okay, maybe some professionals are using it to shoot images which might be printed onto billboards or something. But this new Nokia 808 PureView phone (seriously, a PHONE!) has… are you ready for this? 41 megapixels. That’s just absurd. And yeah, in the end, that number is nothing more than a headline-grabber, marketing mumbo-jumbo garbage, as the final image max size which gets saved is… 8MP. Hah. But my point here is that dudes, we need a new number to focus on. Megapixels are the new gigahertz (as in computer CPUs)… they are a distraction from what’s actually relevant.

    The Canon C300 sprints boldly in the opposite direction. To be clear, the “C” stands for “Cinema” and this camera costs 16 large. However, its max still image megapixel count is a modest 8MP. And video maxes out with 1080p at 24fps (not counting interlaced modes, because f–k interlacing). However… It’s a light-eating monster. Canon should have some standardized number they could point to, which compares it to other cameras and shows how much drastically better the C300 is, in terms of real-world shooting.  Like a light sensitivity index or something.  Maybe the square micron area of the individual pixel size?

     As an aside, check out this video below, in which they compare footage from the C300 versus the Canon 550D, aka the Rebel T3i, which happens to be the camera I own!  For a camera that costs $500ish stacked up against something that costs 32 times that amount, I think the scrappy little Rebel holds up well!

    When it comes to lenses, aperture is an excellent number to compare lenses by. But try to explain what aperture actually means to someone who isn’t intimately familiar with photography: F-number, it’s the ratio of the pupil diameter of the lens (which is proportional but NOT equal to the aperture diameter) divided by the effective focal length, which is the distance from the optical center of your lens to the film plane. That distance changes as you zoom, and so does the physical size of the aperture even when set to the same f-number. The aperture diameter at 50mm f/8 is actually not the same at 100mm f/8. Oh, and it matters where the aperture is inside of your lens too. Confused yet? Good! But you can look through say, the Canon lens lineup, and instantly tell which lenses are better ones, simply by saying hey this f/2.8 lens is a lot nicer than that f/4.5 one. (I know for the heady-est of heads, that isn’t WHAT makes a lens great or sharp, but painting with a broad brush, the statement “bigger aperture=better lens” generally holds true, in the same sense that bigger magnets generally equal better loudspeakers. A giant magnet isn’t the end-all be-all of WHY a speaker is good, but hey, you don’t slap a mammoth, expensive magnet on an otherwise crap speaker.)

    What I’m saying is that we already have a standardized number, the f-stop, which rolls in a lot of really hard to discuss ideas into a nice, neat two-digit quantification. We should have something like that for light sensitivity.

    And also, it kinda seems like we’ve hit a wall with 1080p/30fps video. Why are more cameras not featuring 1080p/60fps? That sure would be nice. And for that matter, why do we not have modes like 720p/120fps? If resolutions aren’t increasing anymore (and they won’t for a long time to come because you can’t buy a consumer-grade LCD with high enough resolution to actually display anything much higher than that!), then why aren’t our framerates skyrocketing? Everyone loves slo-mo, right? I have a prediction to make: we’re going to see high-speed video modes on a friggin phone before any (consumer) interchangable lens camera gets it. It’s so backwards, but that seems to be how the industry works.

    Transitions Between Epochs ~ The Novation Impulse 61


    2012 - 02.29

    As of about a week ago, I have an awe-inspiring new arrow in my artistic quiver, and one that I really should have acquired ages ago: a USB keyboard with knobs, drum pads, and sliders. Specifically, the Novation Impulse 61. I’ve had a full-size 88-key digital piano for many years and it was a superb instrument for learning keyboards, and to a limited extent, producing with Reason. The problem was that no matter what I tried, I could never seem to overcome the problem of MIDI latency (ie lag between a keypress and the actual sound). Over 3 or 4 different computer builds and windows installs, there was always some kind of latency. Which was a real bummer, because it meant I could play chords and figure out notes for a melody, but I could never input any rhythmic passage into Reason; be it a drumbeat, a synth line, a bassline, a chord stab, anything.

    At this stage in my musical life, I don’t see myself sitting at a piano and leaning to master it purely with no accompaniment. However, I do have a whole ton of fun making tracks in Propellerheads Reason, and this is definitely a way that I see myself growing more comfortable with the keyboard and maybe even learning a pinch of music theory as well. Having a USB keyboard with no latency is a huge, huge advancement toward that end. Plus, having those assignable buttons, knobs, and sliders to tweak Reason in realtime is über-schweet.I may even call this the beginning of a new epoch in the compositions I make for fun, and by extension, my overall musicianship.

    Going forward, my goals here are to use this thing pretty much as often as I can, and also to try to post more music online with it. Historically, I always seem to obsess too much over having a track be ‘perfect’. This also leads to the tendency to start things but never finish them. There’s literally hundreds and hundreds of Reason tracks on my hard drive that started out real cool but then fizzled, as I couldn’t figure out what direction to take. I want this new epoch to be the end of the ‘beat graveyard’ so to speak. I’m really hoping this keyboard will be an impetus to break me out of the same ways of thinking, to get me more in the habit of following through, and just finishing compositions a whole lot more. This will need to be a change in mindset as well.

    All that said, I intend to start posting a lot more musical “sketches” on here–Reason compositions that aren’t “polished” but can be called “good enough”. I have this mental resistance to the phrase “good enough”… like it’s giving up on how good things could be. But you know what? “Good enough” is a whole lot cooler than “nothing”!! Here’s to turning the page, people!

    Camera Lust: the Pentax K-01 and the Fuji X-Pro1


    2012 - 02.04

    Pentax is blowing up the interwebs this week with news of their newest sweet photo machine, the K-01. New sweet photo machines are a dime-a-dozen, but what makes this one interesting is that it’s the first mirrorless interchangable lens camera (we’re going to stick with the acronym MILC here) that actually shares a lens mount with their normal SLRs, meaning you can attach any of your existing K-mount lenses right on to this baby. Now that’s progress! No need to repurchase thousands of dollars in precious glass to be totally outfitted.

    You’ll also notice it’s offered with a shockingly thin (read: skimpy?) 40 f/2.8 prime. That’s an odd novelty, but with glass that tiny, does it actually take decent images? Anyway, I don’t care much about that, back to the body–It’s cool to finally see someone make a mirrorless camera that doesn’t demand a whole new army of lenses. It’s about time!

    And still no MILC from Canon… I’m waiting fellas!

    Runner up for interesting new camera in the mirrorless world would be that Fujifilm X-Pro1. It’s predecessor, the X100, was featured on here a while back and remains on the short list of extreeeemely lust-worthy photo gear that I would totally buy if it were only a little more affordable. The X-Pro1 would probably get a whole post devoted solely to it as well, if it weren’t even further into the netherworld of unaffordability. At $1700 for the BODY ONLY, I wonder how many units of this thing Fuji is going to be pushing. For that price, you could get a rock solid Canon or Nikon DSLR AND a lot of great glass too. Unfortunate. But it does have enough unique features that I want to blab about it for a minute. Let’s start with some choice blurbs from the official press release:

    blurb #1:
    The new color filter array paves the way for an ideal sensor that does not need an optical low-pass filter. While the optical low-pass filter is indispensable for the reduction of moiré and false color generated by conventional sensors, it also degrades resolution. Fujifilm has developed a new color filter array that is inspired by the random arrangement of fine film grain, removing the need for an optical low-pass filter to solve moiré and false color issues. In the array, RGB pixels are arranged in 6×6 pixel sets with high aperiodicity (randomness). Increasing the degree of randomness eliminates the fundamental cause of moiré and false colors – a problem that occurs in conventional arrays when shooting stripes and other repeating patterns. The presence of an R, G and B pixel in every vertical and horizontal pixel series minimizes the generation of false colors and delivers higher color reproduction.
     
    blurb #2:
    Extending Fujifilm’s photo film legacy
    In film cameras, capturing multiple exposures is the unique photographic technique of superimposing one image on another by double exposing a single frame of film. Through advanced digital processing the X-Pro1 can simulate this technique by simply selecting the Multiple Exposure mode and taking the first shot. By viewing the image via the Hybrid Multi Viewfinder or on the LCD screen, you can see how the finished multiple exposure will look and then precisely frame the second shot.  
     
    Further enhancements have been made to the Film Simulation modes with the new Professional Color Negative Film Modes (Pro Neg. Std and Pro Neg. Hi) designed for X-Pro1 users working in the studio. The X-Pro1 also offers Film Simulation bracketing, along with AE, Dynamic and ISO bracketing; plus the ability to capture the colors and tonal qualities of popular FUJIFILM emulsions through the vibrant colors of Velvia, the softer skin tones of ASTIA and the natural look of PROVIA.

    That multiple exposure thing is pretty rad. Every camera should have that, using preview on the LCD. That’s science. The coolest thing about this camera is definitely the color filter array though. Okay kids, put on your nerd caps, cuz shiz is about to get hardcore up in here:

    Every digital camera uses an image sensor to collect the photons (light) that make up the picture. Since the sensor itself cannot discriminate colors, filters are used to split the light into RGB (red, blue, & green) components. By combining RGB in different combinations, you can then spell out any color imaginable. Old school photographic color film accomplished the same idea by having (at least) 3 seperate layers of silver halide salts which were dyed differently. Since film was a chemical/analog process, those salt crystals weren’t arranged in any sort of perfectly aligned matrix, they were just scattered all over, however they happened to fall. The characteristics of any given film (contrast, sensitivity, resolution) were determined by the crystal sizes and the amounts of the silver halide for each different color layer. Fancier films had up to 12 different layers used to reproduce colors! So it wasn’t just RGB, it was a whole lot of different colors being combined, and each “pixel” in the film was of variable size.  Click the image of those Kodak T-grain silver halide crystals to see more Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images of different films.

    To obtain digital color images, almost all sensors use the standard 2×2 “bayer” color filter, named after a clever Kodak engineer who came up with the scheme during the 70s. (If you’re wondering, Bryce Bayer chose to use an extra green pixel to emulate the human eye’s sensitivity to green light, which is kinda neat!) So nearly every digital camera uses this method of light collection, and even those rare cameras which deviate from the standard color filter configuration still have some kind of repeating, contant pattern. Although it’s not completely clear from the Fuji PR-speak, if their color filters really are randomized across the whole sensor area, woah, that is a major difference in the way light is gathered… and a pretty ingenius mimicry of analog. As a giant in the tradition of film and therefore owner of masterful knowledge upon the characteristics of it, seeing Fuji bring the lessons learned over decades of experience in color reproduction using silver halide emulsions to bear in the new digital era is… way cool. If anyone can do it, it’s them (or Kodak?).

    The story of the transition between the analog epoch and the digital epoch is a tale chock full of “back to the future”-isms. In the sense that as digital technology gets better and better, the goal seems to be emulating the way analog things used to be. We see this is audio mastering (see TRacks-tube/tape emulation mastering software), audio reproduction (vacuum tube pre-amp stereos, and progressively higher sample rates to recreate a more ‘analog’ waveform), musical instruments (amps and effects pedals that strive to recreate the analog ‘warmth’, synthesizers that model their vintage predecessors), and even video games with roms and emulators built to resurrect the early days of gaming. To me, it makes perfect sense that photography, when the technology gets good enough, will undergo this same trend of digital modeling to recreate an analog era gone by.

    Right along those lines, Fuji’s film simulation modes are an ultra-sweet concept that I have seriously been wishing someone would do for many years now. I wonder how those work, exactly… searching for information doesn’t turn up any explanation; I’d be willing to bet that the only difference between the three film simulation modes are simple tweaks to contrast and saturation. The example images shown on this excellent webpage would seem to support that theory. Although it’s complex to compare film ‘resolution’ to an equivalent digital resolution, analog film has somewhere between 15-25 megapixels of ‘resolution’ depending on who you ask. My 18MP Canon t3i starts to inch into this territory. As sensor design pushes even further into the higher megapixels, it’d be really cool to see the characteristics of old school film emulsions replicated not just at the post-processing (software) stage, but at the light-acquisition (sensor/color-filter) stage. Software enhancements are never going to beat photoshop at its own game… but hardware that captures color in a new way? That would be an innovation.

    What would it take to truly create an honest digital carbon-copy of film emulsion? You’d need a variable color filter and as many megapixels as you could throw at it. As in, a color filter where you could actively switch which pixels recieve which color, and do it on the fly. We’d be aiming to mimic the salt crystals as you see in the SEM image, with variable sizes and variable locations for each individual exposure. You’d have some kind of randomization that would rearrange the configuration every time a new photo is taken, within a given set of parameters for each different film emulsion. To really nail it, you’d also want to not just use RGB in your color filter, but a larger variety of color shades to mimic the dyes from many-layered emulsions.

    I lazily mocked up the idea here with a grid over an SEM image of Kodak Portra 160VC  Professional portrait negative film. Average grain size: 1μm.  I only colored in some film grains because it would take forever to do the whole thing and I got tired of clicking.  I did RGB and CYM(K) with a lot of K, I guess.  But you could use many combinations of colors in your color filter, both echoing classic film emulsions, or even getting creative with more funky configurations.

    That kind of light capturing would offer something you could never do in photoshop, due to the fact that it would change the way the actual sensor is classifying colors of photons which make an image *as they come in*. I have no idea how one could create a variable or “active” color-filter, but man, if you could do that, it would open up incredible possibilities in the way light is captured. Think ultraviolet and infrared too. It’s all conjecture, but I find this stuff awesome to daydream about.

    </nerdery>

    The Perfect Camera is the One You Have With You


    2012 - 01.15

    For a long time now, smartphone cameras have been eating up the camera market for pocketable cameras. It’s easy to see why; smartphone cameras are ‘good enough’ for most people, and why carry around a possibly redundant second thing in your pocket? This week in gadget nerd news, I see that Polaroid will soon be introducing an android-powered camera. This is flirting with a dream object of mine: the awesome compact camera that so happens to have a phone built into it.

    For a long time now we’ve seen thousands of high-quality smartphones… that happen to have a decent camera on them. But there still does not yet exist a high-quality camera… that also happens to have a decent smartphone in it! It’s so obvious. Why has no one does this? For serious guys. It’s a photo nuts dream machine. Slam. Dunk.

    There’s even companies who already make excellent smartphones AND excellent cameras, like Samsung or Sony. Man. How hard can it be to combine these things? Apparently, impossible.

    There have been a few halfhearted attempts, like the Samsung sch-w880 (Asia only, and not Android), or the Panasonic Lumix Phone 101P (shown above) which is Japan only, but it IS Android. That lumix comes the closest to what I’m wishing for. You could probably import one, for like a thousand dollars. That’s so sad. This new Polaroid SC1630 is actually nothing more than a rebrand of a phone that’s been on the market in Asia for a long time now, called the Altek Leo. I was kind of excited by the Polaroid phone until I figured that out.

    While all these phones are interesting, I would still posit that none of them are doing it RIGHT. All of them are still trying to compete with phones on slimness and not offering the features that would make the photo geeks salivate. By that I mean no product exists that offers a serious high quality lens with a phone… in a fat body which barely fits in a tight jeans pocket, one that is brazenly and unapologetically a still a camera first and foremost.

    And so, just for fun, I’ve decided to make a fake advertisement for cameraphone of my dreams that would cater to the hardcore photo niche. If you know what “Av” stands for, and have level 10 Photoshop skillz, this is for you. Since Kodak has been in the news lately for their almost-bankruptcy, I’m imagining it as a comeback product for them: a sexy vintage rangefinder that could steal people away from the Fuji x100 AND the ‘Droid-of-the-week in one fell swoop!  And one that relied heavily on advanced knowledge of what made film so beautiful.  (If this website is slow, the same file is also hosted at Flickr here)

    Maybe I’ll clarify a couple things: I envision the camera and the Android section as essentially independent entities. They both use the same SD card, and they both use the same Android set of buttons, but with different functions depending on the position of the camera/android switch. Also observe that there is an AUTO setting on the ISO dial… this means you could set it to Av, pick your aperture, and have the camera autoselect your shutter speed AND your ISO. That would be super duper nice, to help avoid camera shake. When distracted, I get caught by slow shutter speeds in Av mode all the time, it happens easily.

    A few final thoughts: the body isn’t exactly what I wish it could be, as I was limited by my ability to find a rangefinder camera that had high resolution photos taken of it from the front, top, and back. Given the boring backsides of many film cameras, finding the back image was surprisingly tough. It would definitely be two-tone though. No question there. Another limitation was my own Photoshop ability and how much time I wanted to invest getting an idea across. If I were sketching this thing from scratch, I would’ve probably laid out the controls slightly different, but this conveys all the features I wanted, maybe just not in the exact right positions. I thought a edited photo would be a lot more enticing than a sketch though, so I went that route.

    For anyone who’s curious, what’s here is a touched up version of a Zorki-4, an old Soviet rangefinder. I also used the spun dials from my old Marantz amp, a photo of the screen on my Droid X, and the camera/play switch from my old Canon A60 (that switch always felt so sure and right under my finger, with a satisfying click into each position). There’s a few things that did get left out; I would’ve liked to add a neat looking lens cap that tethered to the body with a small cord to stop it from getting lost. Also I would’ve liked to mock up pictures of the accessories, but it would’ve taken a lot of time. It’s hard to translate something in your mind to something visual.

    Last thing I’ll add is that it’s sort of wild that Kodak is even in the position it is… I learned on Wikipedia that in 1976 Kodak had a 90% market share of photographic film sales in the United States.  That’s a lot.  Maybe they should draw on that colossal expertise and build a camera like this one, instead of inkjet printers and digital picture frames.  It’d be cool to see them turn it around and make incredible gear.

    Project Chronos begins, and my slider shooting from Bear Creek 2011.


    2011 - 12.31

    This post is going to be a wild mashup of things, all of which I’m pretty excited over.

    The fangled contraption below is something film geeks will recognize as a “slider.” Not a slider in the White Castle sense, but a smooth rail that moves a video camera from one point to another.

    As it is shown above, the slider is equipped for video use. I’ve built a set of legs attached to ball-head tripod mounts which allow it to be positioned in a wide variety of configurations. There is also a shoulder mount, and an extra grip for one-handed wrangling. This is essentially a customized version of the DIY slider described at ZaZaSlider.com, meant to be an improved version of the Glidetrack Shooter slider. Any filmmakers who feel inspired by these shots, you can create the same thing yourself by reading up at the ZaZa website and ponying up maybe $250-350.

    For anyone who’s curious, I’d comment that this thing is somewhat impractical for shoulder-mounted use. Yes, it works; the hand grips are comfy and the shoulder padding keeps it from getting fatiguing. Yet… it’s just heavy and big. Even made of lightweight aluminum, a one meter slider is a lot of bulk to double as a shoulder rig, and on the flip side of that coin, anything smaller than a meter is getting into the territory where it’s not enough length to get a decent looking slide. So can you have it both ways, a slider AND a shoulder rig? Eh, sort of.

    Shoulder rig ho-humming aside, the slider does work great. The following video shows it in action at Bear Creek, which was the first time I put it to considerable use. The video also shows a good amount of Steadicam footage, shot on a Steadicam Merlin which I rented for the fest. It was a terrific amount of (photo-dweeb) fun to use these both!

    These shots are a compilation of cool videography from the festival grounds and miscellaneous shots that wouldn’t logically fit into any of the New Mastersounds or Lettuce videos I posted before. I still have more stuff to sort through… I haven’t even posted the Soulive yet!

    I learned quite a bit in doing these videos. Number one lesson was slide SLOW. It’s best to push the slider from its base, and keep hands off the camera itself. Wind can also jostle the camera around. A tougher ball head on the carriage itself may address that issue. Right now I have a pistol-grip Sunpack head on it, which certainly isn’t the paragon of build quality. As for the Steadicam, I was surprised to find that the Merlin was not nearly as well constructed as I expected it ought to be. For $800, I assumed it would be a piece of finely-crafted, impeccably-machined precision. It was not. Given, I was using a rental unit, which probably had been subjected to rough ‘n’ tumble treatment, but still, the joints had wiggle, the bottom counterweight could be bumped or moved in and out, easily throwing off the balance, and worst of all, the quick release plate only loosely held onto the steadicam itself. In the wrong situation, I could see a camera getting dropped by that quick release. Yikes.

    I also learned that 30fps is NOT fast enough for quick pans or fast steadicam moves. I defintitely regret not shooting in 720p/60fps, as some shots were blurry messes at 1080p/30fps. I believe it is due not to the framerate itself, but more to the fact that each frame of your movie is actually an exposure of 1/30th of a second when you have low/medium light and video autoexposure is enabled (you could shoot manual but that’s a lot of monitoring and adjusting, when you could be thinking about framing instead). 1/30th of a second is not really fast enough to prevent camera blur, even at wide angle. If you had very bright light, you could might get away with 30fps modes as the autoexposure would be forced into a faster shutter. This is something I need to remember, moving forward as a videographer.

    It was super fun to use the Merlin, and it did pop out some mondo-sweet footage. When it works, it SINGS. But after seeing this thing up close and in action, I don’t think there’s any way I’d pay more than the price of my SLR for one. Maybe in 2012 there might be a DIY Steadicam build. But that’s looking far ahead. I digress. Back to the slider:

    In addition to duty as a hand-powered video slider, I’m also planning something very ambitious for it. There’s a section on OpenMoCo.org (short for open source motion control systems) called “Project Chronos”. It adds a stepper motor’s super slow motion capability to the slider so that you can do timelapse while your camera moves, like they do in all those super sexy timelapse videos–only for a fraction of the price compared to commercial systems that do the same thing! When I saw this existed, I knew I HAD to build it. This is going to require a lot of soldering, troubleshooting, emailing, and above all, patience. I’ll do some periodic updates on the progress as I go along.

    For the boldest and most tenacious of readers who may be interested in attempting their own Project Chronos, mastermind Chris Field has pictures, videos, circuit diagrams, Arduino code, and finished product samples all online for your consideration. I have also began a build thread of my progress over at Timescapes.org for anyone who wants to read the gory details. At the moment I have built two PCBs as pictured below. The blue one is actually a kit with very comprehensive assembly instructions online which made its construction relatively simple. The green PCB is the Chrono-specific circuitry and still a work in progress. More posts on this as it develops.

    Also, soldering shit in my free time makes me feel like a badass. Maybe it’s the smoke, or maybe it’s the hardcore nature of building your own circuits. Busting out my resistor collection and putting it back to use felt really good. I said to my girl; oh yeah, these resistors aren’t just going to sit inside a box forever, these have got a cooler destiny… ultra-sweet timelapse!

    Bring on 2012!

    It Begins with Cheap Binoculars…


    2011 - 12.19

    Ah, like the first snowflake of an avalanche-to-be, I have spent $25 on astronomy. This is surely the start of a costly and destructive addiction.

    This week in the mail, a pair of el-cheapo Tasco 7×35 binoculars arrived. I had been watching the binos classified on astromart.com, waiting for an awesome pair to show up, hopefully made by some telescope maker. A couple weeks ago there were some 10×50 Celestrons and I got all excited, thinking, ooh, this is it! Then I searched for reviews on them and found out that everyone was bad mouthing these binoculars. So much for patience and diligence paying off! Buried in one of the threads on the cloudynights forums, I found someone who said that they have several pairs of pricey binos but that these Tasco 7x35s were just so comfortable and easy to use that they did all of their observing with them. The guy even went on to say that they had tried like thousand dollar binoculars (seriously, there is such a thing?!) and that these cheapo Tascos felt just as good. Okay, screw it, I’m just getting these then.

    The other night I busted them out and checked out the full moon, which was pretty sweet.  You can see plenty of detail on it, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how many stars reveal themselves, even from a light-polluted backyard.  There’s a nice double star just above Vega that jumped out at me.  Sweet…

    Also, binos, like rhinos and dinos is my new favorite word.