"Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man."

More Thoughts On Photos

12:11 Wednesday, 22 April 2015

I've had a bit more time to play around with Photos, but this is not intended to suggest I've explored every one of its features. I'm just sharing some observations.

One of the things I like about Photos, which I didn't like about the former model wherein Photo Stream shared all of your photos to all of your Photo Stream enabled devices, is that if you make a deletion on one device, the deletion propagates to all your other devices. Previously, in my case, I'd import my images in Aperture on my MacBook Pro, and Photo Stream would import them into Aperture on my iMac. Now, Sturgeon's Law says that "Ninety percent of everything is crap," and I'm sure that goes for my pictures as well. I've never deleted images in that proportion from my imported images, but it would often be half to two-thirds. If I delete them on my MBP, I have to do the same work over again on my iMac! That was never any fun, and it often didn't happen.

iCloud-enabled Photos seems to suggest a unified photo library across all your iCloud-enabled devices, and for things like deletions, edits and albums, it appears to working, and that means it saves me a lot of work and keeps my iMac's library at a more reasonable size.

But it's also misleading, because Smart Albums aren't shared across all devices, a serious omission for a model that promises a unified photo library structure across all devices.

It's made worse by the fact that Photos apps on iOS and Mac don't have feature parity. You can do things in Photos on MacOS that you can't do in Photos on iOS. For instance, I've found no way to get exif data from within the iOS apps. When I'm shooting, sometimes I'll take a shot with both my iPhone and whichever camera I'm carrying. If the camera is at a fairly wide-angle setting, say 24-34 mm, and the shot is in good light, it's sometimes difficult to tell the iPhone image from the camera image (Yay, iPhone camera!). If it's high-ISO, it's usually very easy to tell. In any event, one work-around is to create a Smart Album for each camera model. Smart Albums are essentially saved searches of your Photos library. I attempted this work-around and created a Smart Album for each of my cameras, only to discover they aren't shared across devices. They simply don't appear, and because you can't create Smart Albums in iOS Photos, you can't just locally replicate them.

Even more oddly, the folders for the Smart Albums appear in the iCloud Photos web app, but they have no images in them! Instead iCloud suggests you add images to them manually.

Another unfortunate feature of the iOS Photos app is that it assigns its own file name to every image imported into the library. With today's wifi-enabled cameras, or cameras using wifi-enabled storage devices, you can send images to your iOS photo library, but Photos insists on giving it the IMG_ prefix and some sequence number determined by iOS. Later when you import your images from your camera into your MacOS devices, they come into Photos with their filename intact, as constructed by the camera. iCloud appears to rely on filenames to determine if photos have already been imported, as it offers to import only "new" images, so it doesn't recognize images that have already been imported and uploaded to iCloud from wifi-enabled cameras, and happily imports the duplicate image as a "new" one.

That could be fixed if iOS respected the file name of images imported from other devices, or relied on other aspects of exif data to identify duplicates.

As for editing images on iOS, if you're only interested in making casual edits, it's probably fine. But it doesn't have feature parity with Photos on MacOS. Chiefly, it lacks any kind of sharpening or local-contrast (also referred to as "detail" or "definition" or "structure") enhancements. You can work around this by using other iOS image editing applications, and those that offer extensions seem to offer the kind of round-trip experience that iPhoto and Aperture offered in their External Editor function. MacOS Photos no longer offers any external editor functionality, though there have been suggestions that it will be forthcoming as other MacOS photo editors offer extensions to Photos. The MacOS Photos editor does offer sharpening and definition, however; but lack of feature parity between Photos apps leaves those adjustments out of iOS.

Sadly, the recent update of Snapseed 2.0 omits any extensions to iOS Photos.

I'm sure there's some kind of broad, fuzzy line between "casual" and "serious" image editing, but iOS Photos stays well to the "casual" side of that line, to the extent that it doesn't even offer all the features its MacOS counterpart offers, and I think that's a serious omission on Apple's part. Especially if the rumored 12-inch iPad Pro is true. You could do some useful work on a 12-inch Retina iPad with even the limited feature set of Photos on MacOS, but iOS doesn't offer feature parity with Photos on the Mac.

What perhaps makes this more complicated is that Photos is also based on non-destructive editing. That is to say, iCloud (I'm guessing) stores all the adjustments made to the image; and, presumably, you can "revert to original" from a Photos app on any device. How that works with image editors that offer extensions isn't clear to me. Presumably the API specifies a format for storing edit data, so all edit data, the adjustments, appear the same regardless of editor.

In the short term, if Photos offered feature parity across iOS and MacOS devices, you could get some useful work done managing your Photos library on iOS devices. The lack of feature parity significantly limits that effort, chiefly to deleting images that are obvious clinkers.

One of the nice features of Photos on the Mac is the ability to send images to your Aperture library from the Share menu.

For the time being, I'll continue to use Aperture and Photos in parallel. I'll move images that I wish to work with in ways that Photos doesn't offer to the Aperture library. I'm not ready to enter the Adobe ecosystem, and doubt I ever will be.

Apple offers a web page to submit feedback about Photos. I've submitted feature requests for the omissions I've mentioned above. I expect Photos will evolve to a more capable application over time, though it will likely always remain well to the casual side of the casual/serious spectrum. If we can get a truly unified library structure and feature parity, Photos can be a useful tool in managing your image library, and for making casual adjustments to your images.

iPhone 6 vs. Olympus XZ-10

16:02 Friday, 10 April 2015

I took my Oly XZ-10 with me on my run this morning. Thought I'd try to get a shot of the Vystar Credit Union building reflecting into the retention pond. The water is usually pretty still in the early morning. I wanted to shoot the same scene with the iPhone 6 and demonstrate the difference (again) between a mobile phone camera, and a halfway decent compact camera shooting in the hour before sunrise. The Oly XZ-10 has been discontinued, but it has a 1/2.3" sensor (about the smallest sensor in a compact camera these days) and a decent lens. The iPhone 6 is one of the best mobile phone cameras, but it has an even smaller sensor and a tiny lens.

The iPhone is always with me because I'm using RunKeeper, and it's a good safety feature to have a phone along with you on a run. The XZ-10 is small enough that I can easily carry it in my hand without tiring. I carried it with me on the Donna Half Marathon, but I used a pouch which bounced a bit as I ran. For a five mile run, I can just carry it without the pouch, providing no rain is anticipated.

First, the iPhone 6, handheld:

Picture of a building reflected in a pond taken before dawn on an iPhone 6

Next, the Oly XZ-10, also handheld:

Picture of a building reflected in a pond taken before dawn on an Olympus XZ-10

Lastly, I switched the XZ-10 from auto-ISO to ISO 100 and placed the camera on brick retaining wall next to where I'd been standing. I was in a hurry to get back to my run, or I'd have pulled that fern out of the frame.

Picture of a building reflected in a pond taken before dawn on an Olympus XZ-10

You can see that the iPhone 6 image is much noisier, and the character of the "grain" isn't pleasing, details are smeared. And the white balance is wrong, the XZ-10 captures the colors more accurately. The XZ-10 is at ISO 800 in the handheld shot, while the iPhone 6 is at ISO 400. The iPhone chose 1/15s shutter speed, while the XZ-10, with the slightly faster lens and higher ISO chose 1/20s shutter speed. You can see noise in the XZ-10 image, but it's of a finer grain and relatively pleasing compared to the iPhone 6's smudgy sky and water. At ISO 100, the shutter speed on the XZ-10 is 1/3s and there is little to no noise in the image. While you can hold an iPhone against a steady object, it has a rounded case and it's still not easy to keep still. The flat bottom of the compact camera makes it easy to put it on a low wall, a car, I've even held them in portrait orientation against tree trunks. Of course, a tripod makes all that moot, but if you're going to carry a tripod for your phone, you might as well just carry a better camera. The noise filter is turned off in the XZ-10's images. I don't mind the noise in the images, and with it turned off, more detail is preserved.

I could have made better images with both cameras, but I was just doing snapshots, which is what is what most of us do, most of the time.

If you like taking pictures, and sometimes or often do so in low light, you should consider getting a decent camera. Even a small compact (2012 or later) can outperform a mobile phone camera.

Photography and Cameras

14:15 Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Woe betide the passionate and opinionated hobbyist (artist?)! In the collision of art, science and human nature that is the world of photography, it is ever thus.

Human nature is, of course, the most volatile ingredient. We bring with us all of our insecurity, our need to measure ourselves against others, to feel validated and vindicated in our choices, and therefore the need to occasionally diminish and disdain the choices of others that are different from our own.

For a long time, I eschewed calling myself a "photographer," allowing only that I was a guy who liked "taking pictures." Calling oneself a "photographer," I thought, implied a certain level of knowledge and serious commitment. Well, I think I've put in the requisite time and money to demonstrate commitment, and I've managed to pick up a little knowledge along the way; but I'm still basically just a guy who likes taking pictures.

But, being a guy who likes taking pictures, I tend to seek out other people who share my interest, and hopefully learn from them. Mostly, though, what one finds is a never-ending conflict between various camps, membership being determined chiefly by what means one chooses to take pictures, i.e. "format." This is a familiar conflict, and one that seems to exist in every endeavor that relies on differing types of tools. Ford vs. Chevy. Windows vs. Mac. Linux vs. the world. Playstation vs. XBox. iOS vs. Android. The list goes on.

It's exhausting.

Even within particular formats there's often bickering. When Olympus chose to go exclusively mirrorless with the introduction of the OM-D E-M1, many of the owners of Olympus DSLRs (larger cameras using the same size sensor, only with a mirror and an optical viewfinder) felt angry and resentful. They felt that they deserved better treatment from Olympus for their years of "loyalty."

What gets lost in this all-too-familiar repetition of human behavior is why we like "taking pictures," and what we hope to achieve while doing so. It almost seems as if most "photographers" would rather argue about formats than take pictures. They definitely prefer arguing about formats to discussing what they hope to achieve with their photography, as if that should be manifestly self-evident.

I like to take pictures because I'm a visual person. I don't know if it's because I grew up watching TV or if I it's just the way I'm wired, but I like "seeing." (Coincidently , I'm horribly near-sighted.) I see things I like, and taking a picture allows me to hold onto it better than my memory can. The image can help me recall feelings. I see beautiful things, and I want to capture them. I know it can get repetitious sometimes, sunsets over the back pond, Snowy Egrets, dragonflies, but I don't seem to grow tired of seeing them.

Having learned a little bit about photography, I also enjoy experimenting with technique. Does an image need to be "sharp" to be effective? Not necessarily, but how to achieve sharpness is interesting work to explore. Photography allows you to see things that you can't really "see," like long exposures, or freezing a bee in flight, or high-magnification macro images where you can make out the individual facets in an insect's compound eye. These all require specific techniques.

I like sharing images, but it's not the main reason why I take pictures. I have over seventy thousand images in my Aperture library, and I've probably only shared a few thousand. Truthfully, I could probably delete three quarters of those and never miss them. Funny, but it's hard to do that.

Now that everyone that has a phone with a halfway decent camera, and really decent cameras are affordable to anyone with even the slightest interest in photography, the world has gotten vastly more complicated for "real photographers." Add to that the ubiquitous presence of social media and, Oh Em Gee, we're living in the Golden Age of picture-taking! (Notice I didn't say "photography.")

So let me offer a few thoughts about cameras, and how they may relate to your vision of "picture-taking" or "photography." (Either way, picture-taking is not meant as a pejorative, merely to make you feel more comfortable thinking about cameras and what you like to photograph.)

If you're a serious hobbyist, you don't need much input from me. Chances are, you've already put some thought into what you wish to achieve when you're out taking pictures, and you're sorting out your own choice of tools. The best advice I could give to someone like that is to not listen to other people, but do your own investigations. You can rent different cameras if you feel another format would help you realize your vision better. Your own experience is your best teacher. The rest of it is just opinion.

If the only camera you own is a mobile phone camera, but you find yourself taking a lot of different pictures, enjoying them and sharing them, then you may be a photographer! If that's the case, then you owe it to yourself to give it a little bit of thought.

Any tool has its limitations. Anyone who is good at anything understands the limitations of the tools they're using, and knows how to work within those limitations to achieve the result they want. You have to look at the images you're taking and understand something of what inspires you to pull the camera out. Are they mostly friends in social situations? Are they mostly landscapes? Pet photos? Food? Flowers? What is the dominant time of day when you shoot? What is the lighting like? While you may shoot a variety of subjects, there are likely one or two that are more common.

If you mostly shoot landscapes in good light (after sunrise and before sunset on mostly sunny days), you've probably got a pretty good camera already, and you can think about things like composition, or exploring some high dynamic range apps, or perhaps shooting in black and white. But if you find yourself trying to shoot the moon a lot, or the sky before sunrise or after sunset, you're going to have to refine your technique with a mobile phone, usually with a special camera app that allows longer shutter exposures, and a tripod. Or you may want to think about a different camera where that wouldn't necessarily be as big a limitation. (Truthfully, low-light photography is challenging for all but the most expensive cameras. But there are inexpensive compacts that can shoot rings around mobile phones in low light.)

Social situations may be your preferred subject. If you shoot at night, indoors, and use the phone's built-in flash, does everyone have a weird skin tone, and eyes that look like they're possessed by demons? If you like that "look", then look no further. That may be your vision, how you see and wish to portray the world. A world mediated by the experience of ubiquitous mobile-phone imagery! It's a valid choice.

If you think you'd like to see something that looked a little more natural, then you may wish to look at a different camera. A built-in flash in a compact camera can give a harsh appearance as well, and that may be appealing to you, again, as an artistic choice. But there are techniques you can use to moderate that harshness, even with the cheapest compact. (Keep a small square of white plastic from a half-gallon milk bottle in your wallet. When you shoot with the flash, pinch the plastic between your fingers and the body of the camera in front of the flash. It's not ideal, but it can take a bit of the glare off. Many cameras allow you to adjust the flash output.)

The key here is to kind of understand what it is that inspires you to pull your phone out to snap a picture. If you find that much of the time the results leave you feeling rather underwhelmed, then you may wish to consider a different tool, or diving deeper into understanding the limitations of a mobile-phone camera and how to work around them. But if you're happy with your images, then by all means, enjoy them!

If you feel as though you'd rather have a tool that involved less effort to overcome its limitations, then you probably want to think about buying a digital camera.

There is no shame in buying a compact point-and-shoot digital camera. They are far from obsolete. Many people will tell you that a mobile phone camera is "just as good, and it's always with you." In daylight, yes, I'd say it's just as good. Put it indoors, or after sunset or before sunrise, and it's bumping seriously up against its limitations, long before a compact digital will. The disadvantage of a compact digital camera is that it's simply not as easy to carry as a mobile phone, and it requires a little bit of investment in terms of experimentation and experience to get the best results from it. But again, if you're happy with your mobile phone images, you're the only person whose opinion counts. It's your vision. It will evolve over time as your relationship to photography and your phone evolves.

If you look at your mobile phone images that are taken in good light and you're not happy with them, then you probably need to look a little deeper before thinking a dedicated digital camera will give you better shots. Even with a mobile phone camera, there are techniques that are common to all cameras to help you achieve a good image. Are you holding the camera steady? If the light is great, you can probably get away with one-handed shooting, but if it's at all questionable, use two hands, exhale and gently tap the shutter. If you're not happy with something else about the image, you have to recall what inspired you to pull the phone out of your pocket or purse in the first place. Perhaps it's a problem with composition. There are ways to frame an image to make it more visually appealing. Look into something called the rule of thirds. The point is, if you're working well within the mobile phone camera's limitations (chiefly good light and fixed (wide angle) focal length) and you're not happy with your images, it's not the camera, it's your technique.

This could grow into a much lengthier post, and we're in an era of tl;dr ("too long; didn't read"), I've probably lost most of you already.

The point of this post is that photography is a personal endeavor, and the act of taking a picture must have some meaning to you. You may wish to share, and others may find your photograph pleasing or interesting, but that's really not the point. Well, it is and it isn't. Mostly isn't. For all of us, if we're not just reflexively snapping everything before our eyes, the work lies in understanding what happens between when you see something and when you bring your camera (or your phone) to your eye. If you don't understand that, you'll never understand anything about a camera. Well, let me take that back. I have known people who know everything about a camera, but have little idea what it's used for.

The reward in photography isn't in just achieving a good image, that's just the evidence, the physical manifestation of the process, the journey. Most of the real work doesn't go on in the camera, but in your head, in your heart, in your relationship between you and what you see. And, like any relationship, many of them can be good, but some of them are bad. We all need to "work on our relationships." We need to understand our tools and their limitations (imagine, for a moment, the limitations of the tools of communication).

We choose the tools we use because they match our relationship to our endeavor. If we choose tools without understanding what we're hoping to achieve, if we choose tools because we like to acquire hip and trendy things, with no intention to explore their capabilities and limitations in achieving something meaningful to us, then we're just accessorizing.

That said, there has never been a better time to explore photography, our relationship to it, and the world we see before our eyes.

Cheese Bagel: What's Up?

10:27 Tuesday, 7 April 2015

So, a generic update about the happenings in my normally uneventful life…

Had things gone according to plan, I'd be up in Albany, NY today; but things didn't go according to plan.

Two weeks ago today, about this time, I was browsing the NY Times on the computer when my phone rang. It was my girlfriend, Mitzi. She said she didn't want me to panic, but she thought she'd broken her foot. She wondered if I might come over and give her a hand? (In lieu of a foot, I suppose.)

The way she'd described it to me, she'd turned her ankle stepping out of her house into her garage on her way to work. I figured she'd probably just sprained her ankle, as I didn't really know how you could break a "foot" by turning your ankle. I wondered how severe the sprain would be, and how much difficulty she'd have getting around NY City, which was to be the first stop on our trip.

I got to her place and found her on the floor in her kitchen. One look at her ankle and it was pretty clear it wasn't a sprain, it was broken.

We got her into my car and I took her to the ER at Mayo Hospital. In many ways, this particular injury was a lucky break. ;) She's been seen at Mayo before, and therefore intake would be relatively paperwork-free. The hospital itself is geographically close to both of our homes, between the two of us. Her office is actually located on the Mayo campus. And she has a friend on the staff there, who gave us a needed bit of help later in the day. Plus, I'm retired, so I'm, you know, available.

To make a long story short, x-rays revealed multiple fractures; and the only fix was going to be surgery. We were sent home with her foot in a plaster splint, some pain pills Mitzi was reluctant to take, and told to wait for a call for a surgical consult appointment.

We met the orthopedic surgeon, the foot and ankle specialist at Mayo, on Thursday. I'd tried to do some research about him online, but only came up with a few comments, none too flattering, mostly due to his "bedside manner." Of course, the conventional wisdom is you should ask how many times a surgeon has performed a particular procedure, so that's what we did. He answered, "Well, at least once." I'm not sure if he was trying to inject a little levity or if he just resented the question. We did a little back-and-forth and he came up with, "Look, I hate to say this, but if this happened to me, I'd be the guy I'd want to fix my ankle." Fortunately, Mitzi's friend was familiar with some of his patients through her work, and had a very good opinion of him as a surgeon.

Continuing in the "lucky break" streak, apparently OR scheduling is tight at Mayo and they'd just had a cancellation that morning for a surgery that was scheduled for the following Tuesday. Mitzi said she'd take it, and we began a series of pre-op appointments right then and there. That's one of the things I like about Mayo. It's a comprehensive facility, everything is right there on campus, usually in one or two buildings. I wheeled Mitzi around in a wheelchair for the rest of the morning, and we had a nice lunch in their cafeteria before concluding the appointments for that day. We had to come back the following day for two more appointments, but everything checked out and she was scheduled for surgery.

We were to be at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. We arrived on time and didn't have to wait long before they got her wheeled into pre-op. They brought me back there to wish her luck before they took her in, and then I went and had breakfast at the cafeteria.

I don't think I was back in the waiting room for more than 15 minutes when the surgeon walked in, showed me a print of her x-ray with seven screws and two plates holding her tibia and fibula together. I think she was on the table maybe an hour. One of the surprises we learned at the surgical consult was that it was an out-patient procedure. I thought that meant she wouldn't undergo general anesthesia, but I was wrong. They took me back to be with her in recovery and she was in good spirits and no discomfort. Then one of the pain team nurses grabbed me and we went out to discuss the equipment they would send home with Mitzi. That's where I learned they wanted me to spend the night with her. (Which isn't unusual, but she's usually at my place. I have Bodhi and pair of cats to look after. I got one of my neighbors to look after the critters.)

So I learned about the pumps that numbed the major nerves to her ankle, how to remove the catheters and disassemble the pumps and place them in the return packaging. They gave me a number to call if we had any problems, and mentioned that someone from the pain management team would call every day to check on her until the catheters were out. They figured they'd last two to three days.

When they released her, it seemed like everything was going to be just great! Little did we know…

I think it was something akin to an anesthesia hangover. It was nausea city, and we were unprepared. Now I know why they wanted me to spend the night.

We got through it okay. Life goes on. But wow.

It's been a struggle for her, learning how to manage the pain. She spent the first few days in bed, until that became unbearable. She was able to negotiate the stairs back down to her living room with a little different scenery and the ability to sit up with her foot elevated.

One of her daughters came out last Friday and has been looking after her, which has given me a welcome break. Mitzi is doing better, day by day, and we have a surgical follow-up a week from today, where hopefully they'll be putting her in a fiberglass cast. Right now, she's still in a splint.

Our trip, naturally, was cancelled. Major props to Delta Airlines for fully crediting us with our flights. I rebooked to go home for Mothers Day, and Mitzi has a credit for future travel. I thought the best we were going to be able to do was to pay a $150.00 change fee for my flight, and I had no idea what we would do about Mitzi's ticket. I spent an hour on the phone with Delta and they took very good care of us.

As John Lennon once noted, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. This has been quite the adventure, but again, we're very lucky in many respects.