One More, From the Road
November 2020 is headed out the door, with its sole redeeming feature being delivering a crushing defeat to Donald Trump, and for that we are truly thankful.
I've been a bit preoccupied/distracted, but plan to make a more consistent effort here in December.
There are a few pieces incubating. The first is my campaign experience, the good, the bad and the ugly. Also a return to the climate emergency, my thoughts on our chances (50-50, I think) and the range of possible pathways from a near-death experience to, well, death. Yeah, the Marmot can often be dark. He lives underground, after al.
Because I remain something of compulsive new tech consumer (somewhat diminished by my advancing years, and experience that today's new and shiny is yesterday's old and busted pretty damn fast), I've got a 13" Apple Silicon MBP en route.
I lamented to my spouse that I'd just bought a 2019 13" MBP refurb for my birthday back in June. The 2020 models were somewhat down-specced at the low end, so it represented the best value to me. 2.4GHz quad-core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel graphics. My 2012 13" MBP Retina had been my daily driver for close to eight years, connected to a 27" Apple Thunderbolt Display. It had a 2.7GHz i7 dual-core processor and an 850GB SSD. At the end, it was intolerably slow at nearly anything, so I bought this 27" iMac with every available option save the largest SSD and RAM configuration, and it's a pretty solid experience. The point is, I didn't require a laptop with a lot of comp, but something that could keep me productive for weeks away from the iMac.
Then Apple made the M1 announcement and I'm bereft!
Well, God bless Mitzi. I'd bought her a 21" iMac for her birthday. She'd been doing a lot of work for a volunteer organization, laying out and editing its fairly substantial newsletter on a 2012 MacBook Pro. Apple sold that model through 2016 (when we bought it), which is pretty crazy. It shipped with only 4GB of RAM. It replaced her nearly-identical but much older 13" MBP. I installed another 4GB for her some time ago, which improved things somewhat. I offered more RAM and to install an SSD, but she said no. She was doing a lot of visual layout work on a 13" low-res screen and it broke my heart. So I got her a nice 21" iMac and she's much happier.
She's also a pretty savvy customer. She'd just sold her old laptop to our son-in-law for a fair price, and when she started working again, her employer gave her a new-ish, company 13" MBP. But she wants one of her own, so she said, "Why don't I buy you the M1, and you can give me your old one?"
Heh. "Old." Right.
I said I'd think about it and let her know. About 10 minutes later, I let her know I'd pulled the trigger. Ordered the base model 8GB/256GB SSD, because it matched the specs of my 2019 model. I'm losing two USB-C ports, but I have an extender. I bought it through the Apple Veterans Store, which offers a 10% discount, and paid it with my Apple Card so I get another 3% back as Apple Cash. It turns out that I paid quite a bit more for the "old" laptop I'm giving to her!
So I'm looking forward to playing with that. I have a lap desk with a thick cushion on it because these laptops get so hot, they're too uncomfortable to use on your, you know, lap. Plus the battery life claims never matched my use cases or experience. Certainly it was far better than the 2012 13" MBP Retina, but about three hours max is what I was seeing. I debated about getting the Air, but I decided the bigger battery, along with the possibility of driving the processor harder and longer added more utility than the lighter weight and silent operation of the Air.
Anyway, that's probably more than anyone wanted to know about that.
So thanks for dropping by the burrow. Hope to see you again soon!
Until then, stay safe, stay well.
In the Noise
Photography is an intensely personal hobby, and what you get out of it is function of not only what you put into it, but your personality.
For some, perhaps the best photographers, it's all about the image. How they create it, the camera they use, is a secondary consideration that draws little interest, apart from how it may or may not facilitate achieving their vision.
For others, the gear has its own appeal. These are the gear-heads. They constantly suffer from GAS, "gear acquisition syndrome." Digital photography followed the same exponential development curve that computers followed, with very short intervals of time between significant increases in capabilities, until it reached the limits that it seems to be at today. So for many of them it was an arms race between this year's "new hotness," and last year's "old and busted." This kept the camera manufacturers busy and happy, but that golden age has come to a crashing end. There are fewer hardware improvements, and all significant developments in photography today are coming from software and processing power, or "computational photography." Mostly driven by the mobile device industry.
Instead of chasing new, genuine improvements in capability now, gear-heads hop between platforms and lens systems, seeking some equipment nirvana that eternally eludes their grasp.
Early on, digital cameras had significant limitations in resolution and dynamic range, compared to film. But it wasn't long before resolution was conquered once sensors reached about 5 megapixels, depending on print size; and the dynamic range of color slide film was probably achieved over a decade ago. But "noise," or visible grain, in an image remained a problem (if you regard noise as a problem) for some time. It's still a problem, but really mostly for gear-heads who like to obsess about specifications and performance (this is called "measurbation.")
Big digital SLRs were the high-margin systems back then, and largely out of reach for the interested hobbyist of modest means. So there was a market for capable compact digital cameras, and while the high-end of these cameras was still pricey (and profitable), they were more affordable for consumers. As a result, there were a number of very capable, fixed-lens, compact digital cameras introduced based on smaller sensors than DSLRs. I have become emotionally attached to one of these, the Olympus XZ-1.
Introduced in January 2011, it was a serious compact, based on a relatively large sensor for a compact camera. It was distinguished by an electronic zoom lens system that Olympus marketing said was the first such system to deserve the Zuiko brand (Olympus's lens system brand name.). (Parenthetically, Olympus had been putting outstanding lens systems on nearly all of its high-end compact digital cameras. None of them could be truly said to be "compact" though.)
In any event, I was shooting with DSLRs at that point, the Olympus E-520 and the E-30. The E-30 was a significant upgrade from the E-520, having a more modern 12MP sensor, superior image stabilization, an articulating screen, "art filters," and other features and refinements. While smaller than their counterparts from Canon and Nikon, neither was especially small, and while I always had one with me while I was out walking Bodhi, they weren't kind of cameras I would take out for an evening, or on a casual day trip. If I took them with me anywhere, it was specifically for the purpose of taking pictures.
The XZ-1 was well-reviewed, and I frequented the forums at Digital Photography Review and read people's impressions of the camera and saw the images they produced. I was very impressed and wanted one, but for some reason I felt I couldn't afford the $500.00 MSRP.
Well, as technology and commerce would inevitably have it, the XZ-1 was replaced by the XZ-2 in September of 2012. And in October 2012, I bought a brand-new white XZ-1 from Amazon for $199.00! It was my first white camera, and apparently they don't sell as well as more traditional black ones.
I fell in love with it. It was small, you could hang it off your wrist and hardly notice it, it took phenomenally good pictures in good light and very good pictures in low light. It had remarkable macro capabilities, and the "dramatic tone" art filter that my E-30 lacked, which I wanted so much. It rendered skin tones in some special way that appealed to me when I photographed the faces of my granddaughters. I could take it with me to the clubhouse when watching football and step outside and capture a great sunset by the pool.
At some point, the shutter button developed a problem where it wouldn't always trip the shutter. A little spritz of Deox-It! seemed to resolve the problem, but it concerned me. In 2016, I bought another brand-new XZ-1 from Amazon (black this time) for $119.00! So I had a spare, in case the white one failed, as it inevitably will. In 2017, I bought a "Titanium" XZ-1 on eBay from a Japanese seller. This was to be something of a "completist" as a collector. I had one of each of the different colors. The Titanium originally shipped with an external electronic viewfinder, which this seller had stripped and sold separately. And lastly, I bought a new "old stock" black XZ-1 in December 2017 for $125.00, just to have another spare. Along the way, I bought the dive housing for the XZ-1 from B&H in 2013 for $119.00, which normally sold for several hundred dollars more than that. I could now take my XZ-1 into the ocean with me, although I've never dove with it. I've since acquired the evf that shipped with the Titanium model, so it's really complete now. (Yes, I probably need an intervention.)
So, about the title of this post. The XZ-1 has a CCD sensor, not a CMOS sensor and certainly not a back side illuminated (BSI) CMOS sensor. CCD sensors were less sensitive than CMOS sensors, so less dynamic range (though that's not the only reason), and greater noise (though that's not the only reason). Those are the two main reasons why CMOS sensors have replaced CCDs in cameras. In good light, they're great, though you're not going to get a lot of shadow detail. In low light, you're going to get some noise, which manifests as "grain" in the image. At small sizes on the web or instagram, this is no big deal; similarly for small prints. But as a photographer who looks at these images on a 27" 5K monitor, yeah, it's pretty hard to miss. And it's okay.
So, here we are in 2020, and compute power is enormous and software development has increased in sophistication and power, and so computational image noise reduction is now an incredibly powerful tool.
I use Topaz Denoise AI.
I brought an XZ-1 with me to the Finger Lakes last summer (because why wouldn't I?), I and I enjoyed shooting with it from the deck overlooking the lake. I usually shot sunrises, but one night the full moon came up and I tried to get it with the XZ-1. Well, even though it has a bright lens and I'd use a tripod or rest the camera on the rail to keep the ISO low and use a low shutter speed, the lack of available light on such a small sensor inevitably leads to noise (shot noise, the largest source of noise in modern sensors, varies as the size of the sensor).
On a whim, I processed one of the XZ-1 images through Topaz Denoise, and I was very impressed. In the past, noise-removal algorithms typically just smeared all details so the noise disappeared along with the details. Images would appear "painterly" on close inspection, and not in a desirable way.
I've also just recently discovered a much easier way to manage my workflow. Many image editing apps offer a way to extend the capabilities of the application through the use of plug-ins, software from other developers that perform unique or specialized tasks that the host application doesn't support. Aperture offered that, but Photos did not. An app developer created an External Editors extension for Photos that allows you to use applications that don't offer built-in extensions for Photos. I can use this extension to send an image I wish to work on in Denoise AI right from the Photos library into Denoise and back to Photos. When I initially used Denoise, I was exporting jpegs to the desktop, then opening them in Denoise and saving the edited image as a separate file back to the desktop, and re-importing it into Photos! Doh! If you wish to use a RAW image and you're using iCloud as your main storage volume, you'll have to select "Convert to TIFF" in the External Editors window before Denoise AI will appear in the list of editors. (You could convert to JPEG too, but then you might as well have just used the JPEG from the Photos library. Use the TIFF, better data.)
So, anyway, all this is to say I'm happy that an old camera that I love can still shoot images that please me, and do so even more than before because of the advancement of software technology!
Going to try something a little different here. I uploaded three images (originals and edited with Topaz Denoise AI) to SmugMug, and I'm copying the embed code for a little slide show here. I think you should be able to click through to the gallery and view larger versions, but we'll see after I post this. (Update: Nope! I'll post a link below the slide show.)
Old school bloggers will get the reference; but for the uninitiated, this is the textual equivalent of Instagram's "picture of my food."
It's really just me trying to orient myself in space and time again, post-election, post-campaign, mid-apocalypse.
When we last met, Mitzi was enjoying the retired life with me. Since then, she's gone back to work! Yikes!
It's cool. We don't need the money, but I think retired life kind of bored her and a perfect opportunity came along and she seized it. Of course, it kind of screws up the idea of living with only one car. But since it's dangerous to go anywhere in Florida, it hasn't been a problem so far.
I had hoped to get out into "the preserve" and do some photography immediately after the election, but the weather wasn't great and then last week I had what Billy Crystal called "a procedure" in City Slickers. Spent a couple of days at Mayo Clinic, had to have general anesthetic. It was nothing big, but I wanted to get it done this calendar year since I've already met my deductible, and before COVID blew up again. Just in the nick of time, it seems. >10K new cases announced Sunday. Those were the kinds of numbers that were showing up when we fled Florida back in June. Alas, there is no escape now.
So, I've been sitting around on "light duty" as we used to say. I'm reading a book about the lives of Michael Farraday and James Clerk Maxwell. Farraday was a remarkable man, and if you're into biographies or the history of science, this is a fascinating read. I'm in the latter portion of the book about Maxwell just now. It's great because it's not politics, and it's about smart people thinking about things, which also seems to be not about politics.
On the photography front, I bought myself an early Christmas gift, an Olympus OM-D E-M1x. As you may or may not know, Olympus is exiting the photography business, and they've sold that portion of the business to a private equity firm. Early indications are that they intend to focus on the high-end OM-D line (E-M1x, E-M1 Mk3, E-M5 Mk3) and exit the lower tier, meaning the PEN series and perhaps the OM-D E-M10 series.
I found this to be very sad news, as I've become invested in the Olympus system (micro four-thirds lens mount), and have a lot of good experiences with their cameras. But the E-M1x is a "pro" body, and it was priced that way at introduction in January 2019 - $3000! The body is larger because it has an integrated portrait grip and duplicate controls. It's also built to a higher standard of weather resistance and has a shutter with some ridiculous anticipated life of 150K actuations. It's a beast.
Well, Oly reduced the price by $1K, to $1999 and then offered an additional $300 off if you offered to trade in a body you already owned to a third-party reseller. You had to submit an offer to trade to get the discount, but you don't have to actually make the deal. The reseller gives you their best offer for your trade-in, and you can accept or reject it as you wish; it makes no difference to Olympus, you still get the discount code.
Since I think this is likely to be the last truly flagship camera ever produced by the storied Olympus brand, I wanted to have one. (Some will say the E-M1 Mk3 is the last, but, while it is a remarkably good camera, it's not the same as the 1x.) So, now I own one, brand new from the factory. Looking forward to using it, hopefully this week.
Because this is my blog, and this is a blog post, I feel I should link to another blogger. This morning's choice is Rob Fahrni, longtime blogging friend and twitter interlocutor. Here's his most recent post on the iPhone 12! Here's a link to his iOS app Stream. (Weirdly, this web page links to the Mac App store - perhaps because I'm on my iMac - and not the iOS app store. It's an iOS app.)
My experience on Facebook this past election cycle was unpleasant, to say the least. And I'm thinking about deleting my account (again - didn't work last time). Blogging got a bit "unpleasant" during the run-up to the Iraq war, and many people who got along swimmingly before the war had serious falling-outs as it inevitably, inexorably and inexcusably materialized. But I don't think it ever descended to the level of vitriol and spite that Facebook tolerates and foments.
But, "everybody's there!"
Which is perhaps the problem. So maybe this is a better fit for me.
Anyway, that's probably enough about all that. Until next time, remember, we're on our own. Take care of yourselves. Stay well, wear a mask, keep your distance. The prevailing policy seems to be that once enough of us have died, everything's going to be just fine. Don't see that changing anytime soon.
It's going to be a dark "winter of our discontent."
Is This Thing Still On?
Test post to see if I remember how this works...
More to follow. But maybe not today.
The marmot speaks!