An Essential Tool

If you take your photography seriously, you need to avoid one thing in particular: running out of battery power just when you need it. (Have you noticed, batteries never fail at a convenient time?)

The solution is simple. Buy a battery tester, and use it before you go and shoot.

A battery tester, which sells for about $7–10 in your hardware store, is a meter with a “battery” mode. That mode does not just measure voltage; instead, it measures voltage under load.

IMG_0532

You recognize it by its mention of batteries (like “AA”, as in this example).

Before every shoot, measure your batteries, and if in any doubt, replace them. That takes away one big drawback of battery-powered equipment.

  • Where do you use rechargeables? A: In gear that you use intensively and often: namely, in your flashes.
  • Where do you use Alkalines? A: In equipment that uses little current and that lasts many months between battery changes. Namely, in your PocketWizards and similar radio triggers.

One more note: if you use rechargeable batteries, make sure that you use an appropriate meter. NiMH batteries have a lower voltage than Alkaline batteries, so you cannot measure NiMH batteries with a meter intended for Alkalines (or vice versa).

 

It’s coming. Be ready.

Hold on tight and be ready. Those are words that can instil fear. Something is about to happen, and you somehow need to understand it and be ready for it, “or else”. It happens to everyone in life, and it happens in every industry, but its effects are particularly dramatic in an industry where technology plays such a central role as in photography. Things change, and they change dramatically.

An example everyone knows is Kodak, which went from being the premier company in photography to essentially disappearing in the course of just a few years. Oh, they saw “digital” coming all right, that wasn’t the issue; they saw it coming like a thundering express train while they stood there right in the middle of the track, not moving, sheepishly staring at the disaster that was about to befall them. Paralyzed, they stood there until, well, until… splash.

The general consensus has it that the reason was that they really didn’t understand what industry they were in. They thought of themselves as a chemicals company. They employed lots of PhD chemists, and got chemistry prizes and awards and patents. Chemistry experts, that’s what they were. Except, of course, they were not. They were an imaging company, and if they had realized that they would’ve switched simply from chemicals-based imaging to transistor-based imaging. They would not have been hit by that train.

20160916-1DX_0458-1024

Glass plate, celluloid, or phototransistors: who cares?

Today that pace of change is still happening in the photography field. The pace of change is enormous. You learned on an SLR with film; now you need to know how to use a digital SLR. You shot at 100 ISO; now you happily shoot at 6,400 ISO. Yes – but wait. Maybe we will switch to mirrorless cameras next year. Or to 3-D cameras. Or to cameras that allow you to focus after the fact. You are a photographer, but perhaps in ten years you will think of yourself as an image – based storyteller.  Or something entirely different. Maybe  instead of a photographer, you will consider yourself a computer image manipulation expert. Or maybe you’ll become a videographer.

The point is: be ready for constant change. If you have not experience the following changes yet, chances are that you will:

  • Photoshop to Lightroom.
  • Low ISO to High ISO.
  • Crop frame to Full Frame.
  • Mirror to Mirrorless.
  • PC to Mac (or, for that matter, Mac to PC).
  • Disk storage to hybrid storage.
  • Hybrid storage to solid state storage.
  • Local storage to cloud storage.
  • Stand-alone photography to photography integrated into web, social media, cloud, etc.
  • Stand-alone hardware to “the Internet of Things”.
  • No GPS to built-in GPS everywhere.
  • CF to SD; SD to Micro SD.
  • USB to USB 2 to USB 3 speeds.
  • USB connector to Mini USB to Micro USB.
  • Proprietary to universal formats (even Sony is stepping away from proprietary to industry standard, who could have imagined!)

Now, those are just a very few predictable changes—so you can get ready and prepare for those, and you should. Plenty of help available (I, um, know an experienced educator and photographer who, um, wrote a series of books and teaches, um, a whole lot of courses (more coming soon!). And there’s Internet resources, like this blog.

But there are also—and here, unusually, I will give Mr Donald Rumsfeld credit—such things as “unknown unknowns”. The changes above flow naturally out of known trends, but many changes do not; they are the result of unexpected events. Black Swans. No-one in Hammurabi’s Court could have predicted Quickbooks Accounting software. No-one in 1217 could have predicted electric drones (“Look! It’s a miracle! I see a buzzing angel”). No-one in 1736 could have predicted DNA-based crime analysis. And so on. These are the things that will make you feel old. And I know that you do not want to feel old.

20161022-MW5D1471-1200

So my advice to you is this: take courses, do seminars. Join photo clubs. Read up on the Internet. Read books on photography. Read blogs, like this one. Listen to blogs, like TWIP (This Week in Photo). And see yourself as a maker of imagery in the broadest sense. It is silly to waste any brain-energy on questions like “Canon or Nikon?”—especially when perhaps 20 years from now you will all be using Apple i-See (or iSight) cameras. Do not fossilize.

Do not look from the tools to the end product, as Kodak did (“we know chemistry, so we will make chemical photography stuff”). Instead, look from the end product back to the tools (“we want to make beautiful images, so we will use whatever technology is most suited for that today”). That’s how you stay honest and fresh. 

 

Review: Alpine Labs Pulse Camera Controller

“Late December” is a great season, with Christmas, Hanukah, and various other gift-giving opportunities. Especially when Santa brings presents. And Santa brought me presents this year—did he ever!

For starters, my son Daniel bought me this:

20161226-mw5d2449-1024

Superb.

But hardly as interesting to my readers as one of the gifts Jason, my other son, brought me from California—namely, the device I am reviewing here. Here it is:

20161228-1dx_2974-1200

This $99 (US) device is the extremely cool Alpine Labs Pulse camera controller:

20161228-1dx_2974-1200-2

What does a camera controller do? Um… It controls your camera. Duh.

Let me explain. First, here’s how you operate it:

  1. Mount this controller on the flash hotshoe on your Canon or Nikon (but not Sony) camera.
  2. Connect the cable to the mini USB/micro USB input on the camera. Unlike traditional remote triggers, this one uses Bluetooth, and it connects to your camera using the USB port, not the trigger port.
  3. Install the “Pulse Camera Control” app on your phone/tablet (search for it under that name). Both iOS and Android are supported.

20161228-1dx_2970-1200

20161228-1dx_2971-1200

You can now pair the device and use the app:

img_8660

(That pairing, incidentally, could be handled more elegantly. Rename your device and yet it often returns to the default name. But that is a minor issue, and even during my testing I received at least one firmware update, v.1.21. The iPhone app I tested with is v1.3.0.506e570. More about bugs later.)

The device had no trouble recognizing my Canon 5D Mk3 or 1Dx. The Alpine Lab web site has a list of cameras that will work: most current Nikon and Canon cameras are supported.

You can now use the app to control your camera in the following way. First, set the camera to manual focus and preferably to manual exposure mode.

Now use the app to:

  • Set exposure: i.e. set Aperture, Shutter and ISO (your camera should ideally be in Manual mode, and it should be set to manual or back-button focus).
  • Take pictures by pressing the “shutter button” on the app. After you take a picture, you get a preview, which although it is small, low-resolution, an blurry, is very useful. You can also get a histogram, which is also very useful.
  • Take Video, the same way.
  • Make Time Lapse sequences. This is an extremely cool and easy-to-use feature; see the screen capture below. Easy and flexible: It allows exposure ramping, and you can even pause the exposures. Don’t forget to turn off picture review on the back of the camera when using this mode, or you will drain your battery unnecessarily quickly.

img_8662

Exposure Ramping is a very cool feature:

img_0058

 

  • Take Long Exposure pictures. Without this, all you can do is up to 30 seconds, or use the “Bulb” mode, where you yourself have to hold down the camera’s shutter for the required shutter time. Now, you can easily take 35 second exposures, or 55 second exposures, or any exposures up to an hour and a minute. (You can still use “Bulb” mode also, if you wish, and you can start with a delay).
  • Take HDR combinations. Take 3-9 images, up to 7 stops (!) apart from each other. Pulse allows you to take the pictures; it does not combine them for you. You can do that in Lightroom or whatever app you use.
  • Photo Booth: a very simple photo booth mode where the app takes 1-10 pictures when you hit the shutter; 5-10-15-20-etc seconds apart.

Here’s the selfie, taken with the Pulse, whose preview you saw in the earlier screen shot:

20161228-mw5d2480-1200

This great app does have a few little bugs, but seeing the frequency of updates I am sure they will be fixed soon. Bugs I observed included:

  • The “LED brightness” setting did not work reliably (or at all? Hard to tell).
  • The LED stays on sometimes. Just constant, i.e. non-flashing, blue. At other times, it is completely off. Perhaps these states mean something, but if so: I have no idea what.
  • Several times, the “OK” button on the app screen was obscured by the iPhone’s keyboard. Resetting was the only fix, since there was no down arrow “remove keyboard” key.
  • The “select an accessory (this may take a few seconds)” screen takes up to 20s to appear sometimes.
  • Cosmetic bug: see the camera name in the first screen shot above?
  • The app (or device?) went to sleep sometimes. At these times, a complete reset of camera, device, and app were sometimes necessary to get everything working properly again.
  • When I connect the Pulse to the computer, every few minutes I get this warning:

screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-10-05-18

These are relatively minor issues, most of which will no doubt be fixed soon. None of these stop me from using the camera, and some may well have been the result of me trying out all the modes. Still, robustness could be improved.

Overall

Many devices do some of what Pulse does; few or none do all; and none do it in such a simple and, I dare say elegant, way. This device will have a permanent place in my bag, and you can expect to see time lapse photos etc in my future.

EDIT: Jan 15, 2017: a firmware update fixed at least some of the issues I mention. Stand by for more updated information soon.

Stars and stripes

A technical post today—after all, this is a technical learning blog.

When you see a picture with details like this (from my Mac’s background picture)…
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-10-10-24-pm
…then you know that a small aperture was used for this photo.

The only way to get the sharp star shape you see here, you see, is to use a small lens opening. Meaning a small aperture (“aperture” means “opening”). Meaning a high “f-number”. In this case, I used an aperture of f/22. The reflection is from my flash, which was aimed straight at the car.

I have other clues. Other detail in the picture includes:
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-10-10-10-pm
That is at least proof that the lens was not wide open. If it had been, the polygon at the top would have been not a polygon, but a circle.

Other notable facts: the lines (there’s your stripes) all converge where the sun is. And finally, the lens is probably an expensive one: the polygon has seven sides. Most have five or six sides. The more sides, the more the lens approaches the ideal, a circle. That ideal gives you great bokeh.

Bokeh

THE TERM BOKEH, by the way, when used correctly, is used to describe the quality of the fuzzy background. “I want bokeh” is not a correct term: when people say this, they usually just mean “I want a blurry background”.

Correct usage: A lens that has great, beautiful bokeh is a lens whose blurry background is wonderfully smooth and evenly creamy. A cheap lens, on the other hand, has bokeh (especially “fully open” bokeh) that is more like clotted cream: much less smooth, more uneven. I can tell a cheap lens from an expensive one immediately, and I bet you can, too, when you see them side by side.

And that concludes today’s lesson. For more, attend one of my many upcoming workshops: scroll down to read more.

 

Doggone it

I have dogs on my mind, it seems.

Why? Because I did an outdoors portrait session of two dogs today. A little challenging, because it was cold (-9ºC), and it was bright, and the dogs would not sit still.

I started with flash held by an assistant (in casu, the dogs’ owner) and the standard outdoors settings. That gave me:

20161219-1dx_2758-1024

But TTL is not easy here, because of the dark subject offset against the reflective snow, and “manual” means “keep the distance of the flash from the subject constant”, which is near impossible. So on to additional ways to shoot:

20161219-1dx_2654-1024

Additional advantage: fast shutter speeds are now possible. When you use flash, 1/250 or 1/200 sec is all you can do. Without flash, this limitation is removed. Note that I use back button focus, and this means I need to keep pressing the button as I point at the subject. Having first, of course, selected AI Servo (Nikon calls this AF-C).

After this, I did some with simple on-camera flash, which can be perfectly OK if, as in this case, you mix with lots of ambient light:

20161219-1dx_2756-1024

And finally, I did some standard bounced indoors shots:

20161219-1dx_2829-1024

The lesson here is threefold, namely that you must know a multitude of techniques; that you must be prepared, willing and able to switch between them; and that you must be able to do so quickly.

This, incidentally, is what I teach in my workshops; including the January 28 one in Toronto, for which there is still space. See http://learning.photography for details and to book. If you know the starting points, the magic formulas that match the situation at hand, you can easily and quickly vary from them: your starting point will already be close enough to get acceptable results. Also, you will feel more confident.

After the shoot, I sat in traffic for a few hours, then downloaded and finished the images in a few more hours, and finally I uploaded a preview web site for the client to look at.

If you have every considered hiring a photographer, you now know why this costs some money. Knowledge, experience, expensive equipment, spares, and time all combine.  “My nephew has a camera too, so he can shoot this to save money” simply does not work except in the simplest cases. And as today showed once again, the world rarely consists of simple cases.

And yes, I do pet pictures too.