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:

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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:

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

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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.

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You can now pair the device and use the app:

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(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.

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Exposure Ramping is a very cool feature:

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  • 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:

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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:

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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.

“No RAW Please, We’re Reuters”

No RAW for Reuters freelancers anymore, we saw yesterday:

http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/19/9759620/reuters-raw-photos-ban-worldwide

The Verge gets it right in this article. The policy, while somewhat understandable, is shortsighted, because:

  • A JPG can also be manipulated, so mandating “JPG” is no guarantee of an unedited image.
  • Some cameras, like my 1Dx, even allow editing of RAW pictures in camera to produce an edited JPG.
  • Now journalists have to get exposure and white balance right in camera, when shooting. As well as colour space, sharpening, contrast, saturation. These are in fact all set in camera prior to the JPG being made, so every JPG is a “manipulated RAW”. Why does it make a difference whether you do this manipulation in camera or in Lightroom? If you have to do it all in camera, you waste valuable shooting time.
  • [edit:]Now, journalists cannot “expose to the right”: a technique designed to limit noise and hence to obtain maximum quality.
  • Size. Often, news editors have requirements like “a 1MB file”. You have control over this in Lightroom, but not in camera.

A much better policy would be: do whatever you like, but if the JPG you send us was edited in Lightroom, make sure you include all the EXIF data (i.e. do not restrict that when making an export).

 

World Naked Bike Ride photographers: RAW, or In The Raw?


As for the ethics angle: sure. It is sensible to set limits to what you can do, namely:

  • Exposure, colour, colour space, and white balance adjustments are fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Saturation, clarity, and vibrance adjustments are fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Cropping is fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Rotating is fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Lens corrections (e.g. architectural corrections) are fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Removing chromatic aberration is fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Noise reduction is fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • B/W conversions are fine, but only with “standard” channel settings, and not to manipulate the truth.
  • Sharpening is fine, but not to manipulate the truth.
  • Not fine: vignetting, graduated fill, spot removal/the healing tool, adding grain, and any other change to the image, especially, of course, changes designed to manipulate the truth.

“Manipulating the truth” means changing anything that changes the facts. That can include removing or adding objects. Changing sizes and shapes to change positioning or distances. Making skies darker using graduated filters. Anything, in other words, that causes a photo to be interpreted in such a way that it does not reflect the actual truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Above all, it is important to have a clearly stated policy. Nothing worse for a photojournalist than to have uncertainty over what is, or is not, allowed.

And that, for the record, is my $0.02.

Ring a Ring o’ Roses

I talked about ring flashes recently, if you recall. This time, a few notes about the Orbis Ring Flash—a flash that is not a flash.

It is a flash modifier. An attachment with clever light guides, that makes your speedlight into a ring flash. In order to achieve this, your flash fits into the bottom:

Result: a ring flash. And a remarkably good one, with amazingly even light all around the circle:

This needs you to insert your flash into the unit’s base, then set it off using light- or radio-driven TTL, or some other way. You hold the flash in your left hand, while you hold the camera in your right hand, with the ring around the lens.

And this works remarkably well. See the characteristic halo, and the very recognizable ring flash light, shown by student Tony:

And again, as shown on my intern Daniel:

As said, this device contains incredibly clever engineering. To make it this even, the light paths have to be very cleverly engineered. And they are: whatever I tried, the ring always lit evenly.

From prior experience, I am sure the cheap knockoffs that seem to be around do not work nearly as well.

You can, of course, also use it off camera, rather than around the ring. It also works well when you do that, still providing better light than a straight flash. Like here:

I can see that this device is going to be a fixed part of my flash gadget bag. Thanks to David Honl of Honlphoto.com for sending this to me.

And, um, yeah… it is even good for shooting cats.

…including the donut shaped catch light that tells you immediately that this is a ring flash photo:

And I can tell you that this is a remarkably good device for shooting…

….you guessed it:

…cats! (Canon 7D with 100mm macro lens, f/5.6, 800 ISO, 1/125th, ring flash).

 

Primes

As I so often say, prime lenses are fun. They are often better than zooms, lighter, and faster. And they enforce compositional discipline.

Like the 85mm f/1.2 lens that I rented it from www.gtalensrentals.com (because when I can not afford a piece of equipment, or when I want to try it out, or when it’s something I would use only a few times a year, I rent.)

All shot handheld with the Canon 85mm f/1.2L prime lens.

What I love about this lens: The quality. It is ridiculously sharp. Its focus mechanism, whether engaged (manual focus) or not is ridiculously smooth, a real pleasure to use. No scratchy scrapy movement: smooth effortless “air hockey” gliding instead.

This lens is razor-sharp wide open, too, and has beautiful bokeh (the “creamy” nature of the blurry background):

f/1.2, 1/50th sec, 3200 ISO

What I like less: if his lens had IS (stabilization), that would be great. And if it could only focus a little closer… its closest distance is almost one metre/3ft.

You see, that startles Mau as well:

These shots were made at 1/200th sec, f/1.4, 3200 ISO in a pretty dark room. The kind of thing you can do with a prime.

Go rent this lens: since I returned it, it’s available. Warning, though, I plan to get it again for Tuesday’s corporate portrait shoot!