Photo

Canon Powershot Zoom review

DNP D820A review

TL:DR: a very solid and trouble-free printer that makes excellent prints, including spectacular panoramics, for a significant fixed price.

Despite striving for the paperless office, and believing photographic prints are mostly a relic, I have a substantial collection of printers (as my daughter points out, it’s 5 printers per person in my household):

  • HP OfficeJet Pro X551dw (extremely fast using PageWide fixed head technology, quite economical, huge paper tray capacity, very bulky)
  • Epson EcoTank ET-16600 (prints and scans A3, very economical, also very bulky but not considering the print size)
  • Brother QL-700, QL-820NWB, QL-1110NWB label printers (can make labels any length you want, the latter two are AirPrint compatible)
  • Rollo label printer (will take practically any label stock you can throw at it)
  • Fuji Instax SP100 instant photo printer (kids love them)
  • Canon Selphy QX10 portable dye-sub sticker printer for my daughter
  • two Dai-Nippon Printing DNP DS820A 8" dye-sub printers, one in storage
  • An Epson Stylus Photo R2400 in storage
  • a couple of Brother TZe label makers
  • a Dymo LabelWriter 450 Twin Turbo (unreliable garbage, at least on Mac, avoid)
  • A Selpic P1 on the way
  • A Prusa i3 MK3S 3D printer (not sure if that counts)

The DNP DS820A replaced my Epson R2400 for two reasons:

  • I print seldom enough that inks clogging in the nozzles was a big issue.
  • The Epson is a behemoth that is very hard to find a place for, even before I downsized.

The DNP uses dye-sublimation technology to make its prints. You may have encountered one at a drugstore self-service photo kiosk, or at photo events like Macy’s Santa Claus portrait sessions. These printers are designed specifically for these two use cases, and are built like tanks with a steel chassis. Since most events typically gang two or even four printers to maximize throughput, they are also very compact, with a footprint barely larger than an A3 sheet of paper, mine is on a lower shelf in my IKEA FREDDE computer desk.

Until the advent of fine-art photo printers with 6 or more color pigment inks, dye-sub was the top-end digital photo printing technology, thanks to the continous tones it can generate, like photographic processes (e.g. Fuji Frontier or Noritsu QSS digital minilabs, or large-format laser enlargers like the Cymbolic Sciences LightJet or Durst Lambda/Theta). Dye-subs have all but disappeared from the consumer market, however, apart from some Canon Selphy compact printers, and are now largely reserved for professional applications, with a price to match. The DNP DS820A used to cost $1100. They lowered the price to under $1000 a few years ago, but cheaped out by removing the print-catching basket that used to be included in the older package.

You pop off the front panel and install a roll of paper and a reel of dye ribbons in a tray above the paper inside the printer, then pop the front back in. Nothing protrudes and the media is protected from dust, which is really nice. There are two different sizes of media, 8x10 (130 prints) and 8x12 (110 prints). The size is mostly relevant for the dye ribbons that have CMY sections sized in increments of 10 or 12 inches, but a surprising consequence of this is that you cannot switch from 8x10 to 8x12 and vice versa (you can make smaller divisions and the printer will trim them to size using its built-in cutter). The cost per print is about $0.65 for 8x10, $0.80 for 8x12, $1.30 if you get the premium metallic paper. Since the paper and ribbon is consumed no matter the coverage, it’s a constant, unlike the variable costs of an inkjet printer.

The print quality is excellent, as can be expected, as is the color calibration out of the box. It may not quite have the tonal subtlety of an Epson, but there is no visible pixellation. Furthermore, the prints get a clear protective laminate, which makes them smudge-proof and very tough. You can even choose one of four different finishes applied by a roller so no media change required: glossy, luster, matte and fine matte.

One of the marquee features of the DS820A and its little 6" brother the DS620A is the ability to make panoramic prints. Each print is made by combining multiple pages together, with about 2" of overlap wastage, so if your printer is loaded with 8x12 media you can make 8x22 or 8x32 prints, with 8x10 media you can make 8x18 or 8x26. The 8x32 panoramic prints are absolutely spectacular, although finding a suitable frame for them is not a trivial undertaking, that not being a standard print size.

Unfortunately this functionality is not built into the printer driver, but you must use the DNP Hot Folder utility, and while it is available for both Mac and Windows, only the Windows version can make panoramic prints. DNP Hot Folder is meant to use for events where a single PC or server controls multiple printers. You drop the files into a directory per print size (hence the name “Hot Folder”) and the software will automatically print it on the next available printer loaded with the right media. Since the printers run in parallel, even if the print speed is not incredibly fast (about 30 to 60 seconds per print), aggregate throughput is sufficient for a busy event. I have mine on a USB switch (the printer has no network connectivity) to share it between my Mac and my gaming PC.

Virtual Reality for the people

I have been shooting stitched panoramas for almost 20 years. I have used manual panorama heads like the Kaidan Kiwi+ and more recently the pocketPANO Compact, robotic heads like the Gigapan EPIC 100, and four successive generations of the Ricoh Theta (Theta, Theta S, Theta V, Theta Z1).

Setting up and iterating a manual head is incredibly tedious. The Gigapan makes it less so, specially when using long lenses (my standard setup is a Leica M typ 240 or M10 with a 90mm f/2 Apo-Summicron-M ASPH). The Theta series was a major breakthrough in that it could produce nearly seamless 360° panoramas with no motion artifacts or ghosting. The Z1 with its large 1″ sensor finally yields image quality that I am happy with.

The viewing situation has also improved. In the early days you needed Java applets or dubious plug-ins. Nowadays, it can all be done in HTML5 with the aid of JavaScript libraries like Panellum. The user experience is still one of scrolling an image through a rectangular viewport in browser window. The experience on mobile is a bit better because it can use the accelerometer so you scroll by panning with your phone or tablet. It’s still not a fully immersive experience.

This Friday Facebook announced a price drop for its Oculus Go VR headset, the entry-level 32GB model being at a near-impulse purchase price of $150, and of course I yielded to the impulse. I had bought the original Oculus Rift to get a sense of what the potential of VR was, but tethered to a beefy PC, it made for impressive demos but not much more.

The Oculus Go changes this completely because it is standalone (it has the guts of a midrange smartphone circa 2018) and affordable. One of the ways they kept costs down is by removing motion tracking: it can detect angular motions of your head, but not when you are walking around, but for purposes of viewing 360° panoramic stills and videos, that is not required.

One of my concerns was how deeply it would be tied to the Facebook privacy-mangling machine. My New Year’s resolution for 2019 was to delete my FB account (my 2020 resolution was to switch all my digital camera clocks to UTC and never again bother with the abomination that is Daylight Saving Time)—underpromise and overdeliver, that’s my motto… Any requirement to have a FB account would be a total deal-breaker for me.

The second concern was how much of a hassle it would be to set up and use with my own photos. Camera-makers are not known for outstanding software and Ricoh is no exception. There is an Oculus third-party app for Theta cameras, but it hasn’t been updated in ages and only lists Theta S compatibility.

I was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly it went. You can avoid the FB account by using an Oculus account (I used mine from the Rift), and no additional apps are required. Just install the Android File Transfer utility if you are on a Mac, copy the files to the headset’s Pictures directory. I would recommend using subfolders because the built-in Gallery app is not smart about caching thumbnails and is very slow at regenerating the view if there are more than about 20 images or so in a folder.

The image quality is not exceptional. Mike Abrash, who worked on the ground-breaking 3D game Quake, and is now Chief Scientist at Oculus, says fully immersive VR requires resolution halfway between 4K and 8K in each eye (vs. 2.5K shared for both eyes on the Go), and is at least a decade away. The immersive nature of the Go does provide that elusive Wow! factor, however, and more than makes up for its designed-to-a-budget shortcomings. The 2560×1440 display with an apparent field of view of 100° yields 3.7MP in the FOV but spherical trigonometry calculations reveal the entire 360° sphere would require a 26MP image to cover it entirely, which is slightly more than the 23MP images the Theta Z1 delivers. Fully immersive VR requires very high resolutions!

It even handles video transparently (you do have to convert Theta videos from the native format to equirectangular projection video with Ricoh’s app, which is excruciatingly slow). Keep in mind that video sizes are large, and with a 32GB model, there are limits to how much you can store on the device. If you plan to view immersive videos, the 64GB model is highly recommended.

The Oculus Go also has a “Cast” feature that will stream what the person wearing the headset is seeing to the phone it is paired with. You can have a friend wear the headset and narrate what they are seeing, I tried this with my architect mother-in-law as I was showing her the sights in Jerusalem, much to her delight (her master’s thesis at SOAS was on the Dome of the Rock). The Go has a unique sound projector developed by Oculus that means the user doesn’t have to wear earbuds, and can hear you speak. I would recommend you change the default display sleep time from the ridiculously short 15 seconds to 3 to 5 minutes, so you can swap the headeet without losing the cast session or resetting the app. Sadly, the battery life is nothing to write home about. I would guesstimate it at 1 to 2 hours, tops.

I still need to figure how to share my 360° VR photos using WebVR so other people can view them from their own Oculus Go (or other headsets).

One essential accessory for the Z1 or another similar 360° camera is a selfie stick or similar implement, otherwise your hands will appear prominently in the final panorama. Ricoh sells three models.

The TM-1 is a very well designed tripod (rumored to be made by Velbon) with a magnetic quick-release mount. It’s easy to deploy with one click, unlike a conventional tripod, and fully extended the camera is at eye height for a natural perspective.

The TM-3 is a short telescopic stick. It’s long enough that your hands no longer appear in the picture but low-profile enoough that the TM-3 itself is invisible. It is well-made, unlike most generic Chinese selfie sticks, unlocks and locks with a simple twist, and the TS-2 case for the Z1 has an opening at the bottom so you don’t need to detach it before putting the camera back in its case, a nice touch.

The TM-2 is a longer version of the TM-3 with an unnecessary swivel head, I haven’t tried it but the swivel head would defeat the invisible factor.

How big can a panorama get?

I use the Kolor AutoPano Giga panorama-stitching software, recently acquired by GoPro, but I have yet to produce a gigapixel panorama like those they pioneered. This brings up an interesting question: given a camera and lens, what would the pixel size of the largest 360° stitched panorama be?

Wikipedia to the rescue: using the formula for the solid angle of a pyramid, the full panorama size of a camera with m megapixels on a sensor of a x b using a focal length of f would be:

m * π / arctan(ab / 2f / sqrt(4f2 + a2 + b2))

For single-strip panoramas of height h (usually a or b), the formula would be:

m * π * h / 2f / arctan(ab / 2f / sqrt(4f2 + a2 + b2))

(this applies only to rectilinear lenses, not fisheyes or other exotics).

Here is a little JavaScript calculator to apply the formula (defaults are for the Sony RX1RII, the highest resolution camera I own):

MP
mm actual 35mm equivalent

MP
MP
MP

The only way I can break through the gigapixel barrier with a prime lens is using my 24MP APS-C Fuji X-T2 with a 90mm lens.

Update (2020-01-21):

Now I could reach 10GP with my Nikon Z7 and the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 PF.

Scanner group test

TL:DR—avoid scanners with Contact Image Sensors if you care at all about color fidelity.

Vermeer it is not

After my abortive trial of the Colortrac SmartLF Scan, I did a comparative test of scanning one of my daughter’s A3-sized drawings on a number of scanners I had handy.

Scanner Sensor Scan
Colortrac SmartLF Scan CIS ScanLF.jpg
Epson Perfection Photo V500 Photo (manually stitched) CCD Epson_V500.jpeg
Epson Perfection V19 (manually stitched) CIS Epson_V19.jpg
Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M (using a carrier sheet and the built-in stitching) CCD S1500M_carriersheet.jpg
Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 CCD SV600.jpg
Fuji X-Pro2 with XF 35mm f/1.4 lens, mounted on a Kaiser RS2 XA copy stand with IKEA KVART 3-spot floor lamp (CCT 2800K, a mediocre 82 CRI as measured with my UPRtek CV600) CMOS X-Pro2.jpg

I was shocked by the wide variance in the results, as was my wife. This is most obvious in the orange flower on the right.

Comparison

I scanned a swatch of the orange using a Nix Pro Color Sensor (it’s the orange square in the upper right corner of each scan in the comparison above). When viewed on my freshly calibrated NEC PA302W SpectraView II monitor, the Epson V500 scan is closest, followed by the ScanSnap SV600.

The two scanners using Contact Image Sensor (CIS) technology yielded dismal results. CIS are used in low-end scanners, and they have the benefit of low power usage, which is why the only USB bus-powered scanners available are all CIS models. CIS sensors begat the CMOS sensors used by the vast majority of digital cameras today, superseding CCDs in that application, I would not have expected such a gap in quality.

The digital camera scan was also quite disappointing. I blame the poor quality of the LEDs in the IKEA KVART three-headed lamp I used (pro tip: avoid IKEA LEDs like the plague, they are uniformly horrendous).

I was pleasantly surprised by the excellent performance of the S1500M document scanner. It is meant to be used for scanning sheaves of documents, not artwork, but Fujitsu did not skimp and used a CCD sensor element, and it shows.

Pro tip: a piece of anti-reflective Museum Glass or equivalent can help with curled originals on the ScanSnap SV600. I got mine from scraps at a framing shop. I can’t see a trace of reflections on the scan, unlike on the copy stand.

Update (2018-10-14):

Even more of a pro tip: a Japanese company named Bird Electron makes a series of accessories for the ScanSnap line, including a dust cover for the SV600 and the hilariously Engrish-named PZ-BP600 Book Repressor, essentially a sheet of 3mm anti-reflection coated acrylic with convenient carry handles. They are readily available on eBay from Japanese sellers.

Colortrac SmartLF Scan review

TL:DR summary

Pros:

  • Scans very large documents
  • Easy to use
  • Packs away in a convenient carrying case

Cons:

  • So-so color fidelity
  • Hard to feed artwork straight
  • Dust and debris can easily get on the platen, ruining scans
  • Relatively expensive for home use

Review

One thing you do not lack for when your child enters preschool is artwork. They generate prodigious amounts of it, with gusto, and they are often large format pieces on 16×24″ paper (roughly ISO A2). The question is, what do you do with the torrent?

I decided I would scan them, then file them in Ito-Ya Art Profolios, and possibly make annual photobooks for the grandparents. This brings up the logistical challenge of digitizing such large pieces. Most flatbed scanners are limited to 8.5×14″ (US Legal) format. Some like the Epson Expression 11000XL and 12000XL can scan 11×17″ (A3), as can the Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 book scanner, but that is not fully adequate either. One option would be to fold the artwork up, scan portions then stitch them together in AutoPanoGiga or Photoshop, but that would be extremely cumbersome, specially when you have to do a couple per day. I do not have access to a color copier at my office, and most of these are only A3 anyway.

I purchased a Kaiser RS2 XA copy stand (cheaper to get it direct from Europe on eBay than from the usual suspects like B&H) and got a local framing shop to cut me a scrap of anti-reflective Museum Glass. This goes up to 16×20″ for the price of a midrange flatbed scanner, but it is tricky to set up lights so they don’t induce reflections (no AR coating is perfect), perfectly aligning the camera with the baseboard plane is difficult (I had to shim it using a cut-up credit card), and this still doesn’t solve the problem of the truly large 16×24″ artwork (stands able to handle larger formats are extremely expensive and very bulky).

I then started looking at large-format scanners like those made by Contex or Océ. They are used by architecture firms to scan blueprints and the like, but they are also extremely large, and cost $3000-5000 for entry-level models, along with onerous DRM-encumbered software that requires license dongles and more often than not will not run on a Mac. They are also quite bulky, specially if you get the optional stands.

That is why I was pleasantly surprised to learn British company Colortrac makes a model called the SmartLF Scan! (I will henceforth omit the over-the-top exclamation mark). It is self-contained (can scan to internal memory or a USB stick, although it will also work with a computer over USB or Ethernet, Windows-only, unfortunately), available in 24″ or 36″ wide versions, is very compact compared to its peers, and is even supplied with a nifty custom-fitted wheeled hard case. The price of $2,000 ($2,500 for the 36″ version), while steep for home use, is well within the range of enthusiast photo equipment. I sold a few unused cameras to release funds for one.

Once unpacked, the scanner is surprisingly light. It is quite wide, obviously, to be able to ingest a 24″ wide document (see the CD jewel case in the photo above for scale). There is a LCD control panel and a serviceable keypad-based (not touch) UI. The power supply is of the obnoxious wall-wart type. I wish they used text rather than inscrutable icons in the UI—it is much more informative and usable to see a menu entry for 400dpi resolution rather than checkerboard icons with various pitches.

After selecting your settings (or saving them as defaults), you load paper by feeding it from the front, face up. It is quite hard to feed large-format paper straight, and this is compounded by the lack of guides. On the other hand it is hard to see how Colortrac could have fitted photocopier-style guide rails in such a compact design, and they would be likely to break.

The scanner is simplex, not duplex, unsurprisingly at that price point. The sensor is on top of the feed, which helps control dust and debris sticking to it, but when scanning painted artwork, there will inevitably be crumbs of paint that will detach and stick to the sensor platen. This manifests itself as long dark vertical lines spoiling subsequent scans, something I occasionally also see on my Fujitsu ScanSnap document scanner. Cleaning the Colortrac is way easier than on the ScanSnap, as unfolding rear legs and releasing front catches opens it wide, and a few passes with optical cleaning wipes (I use Zeiss’ single-use ones) will do the trick.

By the manufacturer’s own admission, the scanner is designed to scan technical drawings, not art. It uses a linear contact image sensor (CIS) like lower-end flatbed scanners and document scanners, unlike the higher-fidelity charge-coupled device (CCD) sensors used in higher-end graphics arts and photo scanners. The light source is a row of point light LEDs that casts relatively harsh shadows on the paper. They do make CCD scanners for graphics arts, but they start at $10,000… Contex makes an A2 flatbed CCD scanner, the HD iFlex, but it costs $6,700 (at Jet.com of all places), their iQ Quattro 2490 at $4,500 is the most viable step-up (it uses a CIS, but offers 16-bit color, AdobeRGB and beyond gamut, calibration and magnetic paper guides).

The scanner’s resolution is 600dpi. Scanning 16×24″ originals at that resolution yields a 138MP file that is nearly a gigabyte in size. The 400dpi setting yields a much more reasonable 200MB or so, and compressing them further using tiffcp with zip compression (not an option on the scanner) yields 130-140MB files.

Unfortunately, I ended up returning it. There was a 1cm scratch in the glass platen, which manifested itself as streaks. It takes quite a bit to scratch glass (I don’t think it was Lexan or similar), and I wasn’t scanning sandpaper, so it must have been a factory defect or a customer return. When I looked at the color fidelity of the scans, I was not inclined to order a replacement, and got a Fujitsu ScanSnap SV600 from Japan instead from an Amazon third-party reseller (25% savings over the US price, even if you usually forgo a US warranty on grey-market imports).

ArtisanState review

TL:DR—avoid them.

I seldom print photos any more. When I do, I prefer to make photobooks, as the format is way more convenient than loose prints, takes little space, and looks more polished than a traditional photo album.

Unfortunately, most photobooks are printed on HP Indigo digital presses, which use a technology somewhat similar to a laser printer, but capable of better quality photo reproduction. Indigo presses were originally designed to produce personalized junk-mail, not high-quality photo reproduction, and the quality, while decent, is not at the same level as that of true RA-4 photo paper exposed with a laser or LED light source as done by most digital minilabs (e.g. Fuji Frontier or Noritsu QSS) or higher-end imaging systems like the Océ/Cymbolic Lightjet or Durst Lambda.

There are higher-quality options. AdoramaPix has a good reputation for its albums, which are printed on RA-4 paper and bound in a lay-flat binding without a gutter, a technique that lends itself specially well to panoramic prints. They also have a “Hudson” line of premium albums where the photos are laminated on thick cardstock for a more luxurious feel. In researching this flush-mount process, I discovered a company called ArtisanState. It is based here in San Francisco (manufacturing is in China), their pricing seemed attractive, so I decided to give them a try.

I used a selection of my panoramic prints and ordered a 6×8 album bound in genuine leather. They offer two grades of paper, Fuji Crystal Archive Lustre and Fuji Crystal Archive Pearl Metallic, and I opted for the latter. Metallic paper, first introduced by Kodak under the Endura brand, has mica particles embedded in the RC paper base under the photographic emulsion. The photo looks as if it is painted on metal, which can be spectacular, specially with specular highlights (although I would not recommend it for portraiture such as a wedding album, the fashion industry seems to be quite fond of it). The Fuji lustre has a grainy finish that resists fingerprints, but I don’t find it attractive, and would much prefer a satin finish without an obvious texture like the one Moo uses in its business cards.

When I received my album after 2 weeks, I was impressed by the reproduction quality and the metallic effect, but there was also a very visible texture on the pages, similar to an orange peel. After some research, I found that mounting metallic papers seems to cause orange peel unless done very carefully using a low temperature on the mounting press, and they are the exception to the general rule of thumb that Fuji products are superior to Kodak’s (although true to form, Kodak’s bean counters degraded the quality of the product by cutting corners to shave costs).

At the price they charge ($104 list, but I got it at 40% promotional discount), you can rightfully expect perfection. I wrote to ArtisanState to complain, got the run-around, and reviews online suggest my experience with unresponsive support is far from unusual. I am going to try again with AdoramaPix: they may be more expensive, but the product won’t be made in China and in the end you get what you pay for.

A Passel of Miniature Tripods

The ultimate irrelevance of image quality

Months ago I showed my father how to take screen shots on his iPad and iMac, and he routinely takes them while using FaceTime video conferencing with my 1 year-old daughter. Due to poor bandwidth at home (we live in San Francisco and are subject to the tender mercies of AT&T’s not-even-third-world-grade DSL), the image quality can be described as blurry VGA at best. Yet he is happy with the results, and even made a photo book featuring many of these screenshots, showing the wide range of fleeting expressions she displays. When printed at passport photo size, the fuzziness is surprisingly passable. He has also gotten my technophobe mother in the game.

I spend a lot of time obsessing over the finer points of camera and lens technology, and how to wring the best technical quality out of my photos, but my parents show how content trumps presentation.

Sony RX1 first impressions

Despite my hatred of all things Sony, I purchased two of their cameras in the last few months: a RX100 for my wife, and a RX1 for myself. the bragging rights of a full-frame sensor with a Zeiss 35mm f/2 prime were too much to resist.

  • This thing is built like a tank. It feels very dense.
  • The mode, AF and exposure compensation knobs, while not locking, have tight detents and are impossible to knock off their settings by accident.
  • The big lens means limited handholds, and the lack of a textured grip means it is quite slippery. I dropped mine on a concrete floor, entailing expensive repairs (it was still functional, but the focus ring was no longer spinning smoothly). A wrist or neck strap is a must-have with the RX1.
  • It is not compact by any means, comparable to the Sigma DP2 Merrill in bulk. Due to the lens protrusion, it is less pocketable than my Fuji X100.
  • The lens, while excellent in terms of sharpness and vignetting, has very severe barrel distortion. Lightroom can correct for that, but you lose resolution in the process.
  • Unfortunately it is merely a Sonnar, not a Planar or better yet a Biogon. I don’t remember the 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar in the Contax T3 having this much distortion, though.
  • Autofocus is only so-so.
  • Image quality at high ISO values is outstanding, as you would expect from a full-frame sensor from the leading manufacturer today.

Prints not-so charming

Ansel Adams wrote a celebrated series of photo instructional books. It is organized as a trilogy: The Camera, The Negative and The Print.

Of these, the camera business is still going strong, buoyed by sales of digital cameras and upgraders to DSLRs (although market saturation looms). Negatives are an endangered species as digital photography largely supplanted film. Prints are still going strong, whether using traditional silver halide, inkjet or offset printing, but that probably won’t stave off Kodak’s impending demise.

Last year, I wrote to X-Rite to complain that their software for the Colormunki color calibrator wouldn’t let me profile the full brightness range of my monitor, and limited it to an artificial ceiling designed around the limitations of print. Their response:

The ColorMunki software will not allow a range over 140cd/m luminance value.  This would basically defeat the purpose of using a device to measure luminance when you set the values this high.  While your monitor can be extremely bright however using a value of 300+ would allow your monitor to show you a brightness value that would negatively affect your prints and they would end up coming out so dark that you would be unable to see them.  The industry standard for photographic works is to use the luminance values setup at anywhere from 80 – 120cd/m.  That said, if your ambient light conditions are ranging very high then you should probably be using a value of 120cd/m which is the industry standard and what we recommend.

In the ColorMunki software there is an option to set the luminance according to your ambient light conditions.  This is a pretty high threshold in the software where as you have to read somewhere around 350-400 lux to get a target luminance above the 80 threshold.  If it does go above this value then you certainly will want to stay within the 120 range.  Anything below that will give you a target value of 80.

Implicit in this response is the assumption the only reason why you would want to calibrate your monitor is so you can make more accurate prints. Prints only have a 100:1 or so contrast ratio, compared to LCD monitors for which the static contrast ratio is closer to 1000:1, and plasma TVs go higher yet. This is why images on screen look more vibrant and punchy than prints, as did slides back in the day.

If Apple does indeed come up with the oft-rumored iPad 3 with double the resolution of current models, or 2048×1536 at 260ppi, you would have an easily portable display device with near gallery-grade resolution and massive storage capacity. At that point, prints would lose the last advantage they still hold over digital display technologies.

Image display on screen is the new normal, and X-Rite needs to get with the program. I want to see the full dynamic range and contrast of my images on my screen, not a Hobson’s choice between inaccurate color and crippling them with limitations from legacy print technology.

 

How prevalent is high-ISO photography?

Low light performance is one of the most important factors I consider when buying a camera. At one point I did an expensive switch from the Canon system to Nikon, when the D3 came out, for its amazing high-ISO performance (I returned to Canon when the 5DmkII came out).

On a popular forum for users of Micro Four Thirds cameras (which struggle beyond ISO 800), a poster recently questioned the rationale for high ISO performance, stating 99% of users will never shoot beyond ISO 800. I quickly looked at my statistics in Lightroom, and found over 54% of the photos I took in 2011 (to date) are at higher than ISO 800.

That begs the question: who is more representative, him or me? Flickr.com publishes statistics on popular camera models, but apparently not on other interesting EXIF metadata. I whipped up a quick and dirty Python script to sample recently uploaded photos from Flickr and collect the ISO speed from their EXIF tags, when available.

Of 3020 photos I sampled, fully 399 were shot at ISO higher than 800, or 13% (the 95% confidence interval is 12% to 14.4%). Thus significantly less than my proportion, but far higher than 1%.

Clearing custom crop aspect ratios in Lightroom

Lightroom’s crop tool allows you to constrain the aspect ratio to a proportion of your choice, e.g. to 4:3, defaulting to the same aspect ratio as the original. The last 5 or so custom crop aspect ratios are saved, but a minor annoyance is you are unable to clear the list.

Python on the Mac and SQLite to the rescue: this simple script  lraspect.zip will reset them. If you use a non-default name for your Lightroom catalog, you will need to edit it. To run it, quit Lightroom and run the script. It will back up your catalog for you just in case.

Needless to say, I cannot be held liable if this script corrupts your catalog or eats your dog (who ate your homework), use at your own risk.

#!/usr/bin/python
import sys, os, sqlite3

# edit this to point to your LR3 catalog if you do not use the default location
lrcat = os.path.expanduser('~/Pictures/Lightroom/Lightroom 3 Catalog.lrcat')

os.system('cp -i "%s" "%s.bak"' % (lrcat, lrcat))
db = sqlite3.connect(lrcat)
c = db.cursor()
c.execute("""select value from Adobe_variablesTable
where name='Adobe_customCropAspects'""")
crops = c.fetchone()[0]
print 'aspect ratios:', crops
c.execute("""update Adobe_variablesTable
set value='{}'
where name='Adobe_customCropAspects'""")
db.commit()
print 'Custom crop aspect ratios reset successfully'

Is this a Google Street View car?

Update (2011-05-12): the answer is no, it’s a Navteq 3D mapping car with a LIDAR array. Thanks to Darrell Kresge for the clarification.

As I was walking to lunch today, I caught sight of this weird contraption, and had just enough presence of mind to grab a few snaps of it.

One strange feature is a spinning white cylinder inside the arm canted at a 45 degree angle.

It doesn’t look like any of the Google Street View vehicles captured before, nor does it have the Google markings. The Michigan license plate is a bit odd as well. A prototype, perhaps? Or is some other company is getting into this racket, perhaps Microsoft?

First test roll from the Fuji GF670

Panasonic GF1 first impressions

I bought a Panasonic DMC-GF1 compact large-sensor camera in a kit with a small 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens on Monday to replace my Sigma DP2 as my everyday pocket (well, jacket pocket) camera. While the 17.3x10mm micro four thirds sensor is nowhere near as large as the full-frame 36x24mm sensors on my Canon 5DmkII or Leica M9, an APS-C sensor like the one on the upcoming Leica X1, or even the 20.7×13.8mm Foveon X3 sensor in the DP2, the big draw in the GF1 is its excellent responsiveness, as the autofocus and autoexposure lag in the DP2 is that otherwise excellent camera’s Achille’s heel.

The GF1 has been extensively reviewed elsewhere, technically by DPReview and hands-on by Craig Mod, and if you are interested in this camera I encourage you to read those very thorough reviews. I will not attempt to duplicate them here. Here are just salient observations from using this camera that I have not seen elsewhere:

  • The image preview mode is deceptive. At the maximum 16x magnification, pictures appear far worse on screen than they really are. I can only assume the interpolation algorithms used are terrible. The camera’s review mode is useless for editing images or rejecting poor ones in the field, you have to return to your computer to get an assessment on critical focus.
  • The orientation sensor is inexplicably part of the lens, not the body. The 20mm pancake does not include one. Even Canon’s cheapest digital Elphs or Rebels include an orientation sensor, its absence in a $900 camera kit is inexcusable.
  • In program mode, the camera seems to always select f/1.7, even when lower apertures with more reasonable depth of field are available.

Leica Monovid review

Leica recently introduced the Monovid monocular. Monoculars are more compact than binoculars, but you lose stereo vision, which is why birdwatchers tend to shun them. I myself have a very strong director eye and correspondingly poor binocular vision, so this is not such a big deal for me.

Monovid

The Monovid is supplied with an accessory screw-on close-up lens that reduces the minimum focus distance. This is useful for butterfly or hummingbird watchers, but the arrangement is clumsier than the (admittedly much larger) Minox Makroskop.

Monovid

The Monovid is essentially half of a pair of Ultravid 8×20 BL binoculars. The barrel is 3-4mm longer to accommodate the threads for the close-up lens, and it has a goiter-like knurled protrusion towards the end for focusing. The eyecup is the same, and can be either pulled out for normal viewing, or left in for eyeglass wearers. This is a far better arrangement than fold-up rubber eyecups. The leather case for the Monovid is quite bulky, and features a screw thread to hold the close-up lens as well as an ingenious ribbon that pulls the monocular out of the case when you flip the lid open. It also has a magnetic catch unlike the Ultravids’ snap button.

Monovid and Ultravid

Unsurprisingly, the performance is nearly identical, that is to say, stellar. The image is bright (most monoculars are in the 12-15mm aperture range). There is no hint of distortion or chromatic aberration across the field. It is quite sensitive to perfectly centered eye placement, specially when you are wearing eyeglasses, otherwise you will black out.

Sadly, the price is not half that of the binoculars, closer to two thirds. Considering that it is not all that much more compact and you lose stereo vision, if you are considering one, I would recommend the more versatile Ultravid 8×20 BL (or the cheaper BR) instead. Another option to consider is the respected line of Zeiss monoculars (most are more compact than the Monovid, but the 8×20 is nearly the same size and not as well built) or the slower but smaller Nikon “high grade” monocular series (unfortunately the 7×15 has been discontinued, but old new stock is still readily available).

Update (2012-11-26):

I purchased a new-old-stock Nikon High Grade 5×15 monocular. It is much lighter than the Monovid, has much closer focusing at 60cm vs 1.80m, no futzing with accessory lenses required (although to be fair the Leica focuses to 25-30cm with the close-up lens).

The fit and finish on the Japanese-made monoculars (vs. Portugal, not Germany, for the Monovid) is superb, with deeply engraved and paint-filled markings (even superior in execution to AI-s Nikkors). The supplied case is made of genuine leather, unfortunately it does not include a belt clip. The aluminium shell is not monocoque like the Monovid, and seems less robust. There is also no mention of the Nikon being nitrogen-purged and waterproof. The finger indents make it quite comfortable to hold and the hexagonal cross-section means it is unlikely to roll off a table. The neck strap on the Nikon is also lighter and far more practical than the bulky hand strap on the Leica. Surprisingly, it is not easier to hand-hold despite the lower magnification – the heft of the Monovid stabilizes it somewhat against shake.

The optics are excellent. It’s hard to compare to the Leica, due to the lower magnification and aperture, but like the Leica, the image is clear across the frame with no color aberrations across the frame. There seems to be some slight chromatic aberration at the very edges that you don’t get with the Leica.

The Nikon 5×15 HG is discontinued, but it appears in their 2012-2013 sports optics catalog, along with the 7×15 HG, so there is a possibility it will be resurrected. It is readily available from Japan on eBay and occasionally Amazon as well.

Update (2017-02-21):

I seem to be collecting monoculars. Some other models:

  • Steiner 8×22 Miniscope: plastic piece of junk, avoid it.
  • Minox 8×25 Macroscope: very bulky, decent but not astounding optics, the focusing knob is not very ergonomic. It’s sole saving grace is its very close focusing distance. It’s best to think of it as a loupe with very long clearance, and as such I would expect it to be ideal for naturalists, entomologists, field geologists and the like.
  • Nikon HG 7×15: much the same as the 5×15, with narrower field of view, smaller sweet spot for eye placement and shorter eye relief. The 5x is a better monocular in most circumstances, if you really need the higher magnification you are better off getting the Monovid or proper binoculars.

Olympus E-P1 hands-on impressions

I had the opportunity to handle an Olympus E-P1 camera at Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto. There has been quite a bit of excitement on sites like Rangefinder Forum and many were expecting this to be the first pocketable camera that could compete with SLRs in image quality.

The Sigma DP1 and DP2 were actually the first cameras with large sensors and reasonable pixel counts, bucking the marketing-driven trend towards too many pixels squeezed onto too small a sensor chip, with horrible noise as the result. I own both, and their image quality is indeed stunning, but they have one Achilles’ heel — speed, or the lack thereof.

The E-P1 is very compact, almost the same size with the 17mm as the Sigma DP2 (some photos released suggested it was closer to the Leica M8). The build quality is fine, and it is nowhere near as heavy as some early users suggested it was. They probably compared it to a plastic fantastic compact rather than a more substantial camera like a Leica or a DSLR.

I was surprised to find the 17mm AF hunted quite a bit, overshooting and then backtracking. Oddly, it did this even on the next shot when the lens was already in focus. I don’t know if this is specific to the 17mm lens, but it is certainly not encouraging.

From my test shots, I was also distinctly unimpressed by the optical quality of the lens, or the noise performance at ISO 1600. The Four-Thirds and Micro Four Thirds formats are hobbled by sensors one half the size of the APS-C used in most entry-level DSLRs, with predictably higher levels of noise and limited dynamic range. I had to go back to 2003 and my then Canon EOS 10D to find similar levels of noise. The Canon Rebel XT was definitely superior in high-ISO performance, let alone current SLRs. Olympus fanboys seem to be in denial about the limitations of Four-Thirds sensors, but you cannot fight against physics and expect to win.

The other disappointing thing about the 17mm lens is that it is not particularly sharp, specially for a prime lens of relatively modest maximum aperture. The pictures were nowhere near as crisp as the lovely Sigma lenses on the DP1 and DP2. This is all the more a let-down as Olympus was renowned for the quality of its miniaturized prime lenses in the days of the ground-breaking OM system. I wasn’t expecting Pentax SMC Limited pancake lens levels of performance (we are talking of a lens one third the price, after all), but there is no point in having 12 megapixels (at least 6 too far in my book) if the lens can’t actually exploit them.

I had preordered an E-P1 with the 17mm kit lens and viewfinder from Amazon. After handling the E-P1 and taking a few test shots, I canceled my order.

Fuji GF670 first impressions

Fuji GF670I just received my Fuji GF670 from Dirk Rösler at Japan Exposures. This is a folding medium-format rangefinder camera, an anachronism in many respects, but I regret not getting a G690 when they were still made and since this is a limited edition (apparently quite a popular one at that), I went ahead. I have not yet shot a roll, but here are my first impressions:

  • The unfolding mechanism is a bit finnicky. You have to be careful to get the front standard aligned with the film plane. Once deployed it seems fairly stable. Folding it back is also quite tricky.
  • The meter indicator LEDs and controls are very reminiscent of the Epson R-D1, not surprising since both are actually made by Cosina.
  • The leaf shutter is amazingly quiet. It makes a Leica sound like a clunker in comparison.
  • The camera is quite light for MF, it feels lighter than a R-D1 (even though it weighs nearly twice as much) and is not that much larger.
  • It does not exude quality like the Fuji-manufactured TX-2 (Hasselblad XPan II).
  • The rangefinder patch is bright and clear. The RF base length is very short as in a VC Bessa, and will probably not be as precise as a Leica, XPan or Zeiss Ikon.
  • The film loading mechanism is very easy to use, and built as well as other Fuji MF cameras such as the G617.
  • You have to remember to reset the lens to infinity focus in order to fold it.
  • You get a choice of 6×6 and 6×7, 120 and 220.
  • The optional case is a snug fit. I wish it included a belt loop.

In grand old techno-fetishistic tradition, I put up an unboxing gallery.

Update (2009-08-27):

I have finally uploaded a gallery of my first test roll from the camera. The lens’ optical quality is outstanding, unlike most older folders (well, apart from the Plaubel Makina, of course).

Fuji GF670