When good enough is good enough – when it’s my trusty Asus X54C-BBK7 laptop.

A few days back I ranted on about our obsession with needing to update to the latest technology all the time and how Crapple treated us badly with regards to my daughter’s iPhone 5c. Well, here’s another story to balance it out.

I bought my laptop a few years back and, like all Windoze systems it’s had a few (solvable) problems over the years and is now getting a bit slow, despite the ”amendments” I have made to it (upped the RAM to the max 8GB, and replaced the DVD drive with a 1TB HDD second disk). I do a huge amount of image processing in GIMP and other CPU-hogging software and I was thinking it’s about time that I replaced it, even though it goes against the grain of my psyche to get rid of something that still works.

160818_Asus

I then wondered how long I had had this little workhorse so I went through my records and was stunned to see that I bought it July 2012 as a refurbished model from Groupon for the princely sum of $299 with free shipping!  I had forgotten this, a sign of my impending dotage, I guess.

When I consider the artwork that I have created and sold with this laptop over the last 4 years it surely doesn’t owe me anything at all. Even adding the cost of my upgrades brings it up to about $450 total spend.

It truly amazes me that people doing similar work to me wring their hands and fret about how they are going to pay the $2000-$4000 on computer systems (or double that for a Mac) they “need” for their work when they can often do so with their existing equipment. Sometimes I think people just need to be honest and say they want something because they “want” it, rather than trying to justify a spurious “need” for it.

So, I sat back and thought, no, I am not going to replace it but instead I will pull out the original 320GB HDD with a new 480GB SSD, which I can get on Amazon for about $120 and see how it goes.

If I go quiet for a few days you can assume I may have been wrong…!

~Richard

The prime numbers don’t add up, at least not initially

There seems to be few things that some photographers like to do more than argue the relative merits of their opinions on equipment; whether it be the age-old Nikon vs Canon battle (see here for my parody), or whether DSLRs are better than mirrorless cameras, what is the best crop-sensor size or, one of my favorites: the time-honored argument of prime lenses vs. zoom lenses.

Thus, when starry-eyed, enthusiastic newcomers graduate to cameras with interchangeable lenses (ILCs) from their point-and-shoot kits (P&S), as we pompous photogs like to call them, they are barraged by a “wealth” of conflicting gibberish about the latest must have lens in order to take their photography “to the next level.” In fact, a quick look at my twitter and pinterest feeds show that around 10% of the traffic crossing my path concerns this crap at the moment.

Well, not to be outdone I’m going to add my opinion to what I view as a sea of consumerism, shrouded in pointless perfectionism, specifically focusing (!) on the prime vs zoom lens argument. So, here goes:

For the uninitiated the logic goes like this – camera lenses are a complex set of individual glass elements which fit together to allow image focus at a certain distance. Prime lenses have a fixed focal length whereas zoom lenses, by very definition, do not. Zoom lenses give you much more flexibility on composing your shot but this comes at some cost to image quality. In order to achieve this flexibility the zoom lenses must have more elements and therefore be more complicated. It also is not designed to be “perfect” at one focal length and therefore has to compromise throughout the focal range. This compromise is what drives many photographers nuts, mainly because they are obsessed with the concept of obtaining the ever-elusive “tack sharp” image.

To be brutally honest the there is one huge advantage that prime lenses do have over zoom – the availability of much wider apertures for the same focal length, but please read on…

My view is that unless you are planning on producing a print that it larger than, say 40” (100cm) on one side, or have a penchant for specialist photography such as macro, or starlight, or you want a compact 50mm (that’s a 25mm for us m4/3 users!) for street work, then generally speaking, swapping a zoom lens for a much more expensive prime lens isn’t really worth it, at least not until you discover your niche area of photography (if you ever do). In fact, given that the vast majority (>99%) of images are never, ever printed at any size, I’ll put it another way –  don’t rush out and spend your cash on expensive prime lenses, until you have worked out if you have a real need for one.   

As a budding photographer, surrounded by a maelstrom of magazines and blogs that are often nothing more than pages of advertisements,  what does matter is honing your skill as a photographer in understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and (that so-antiquated term) ISO. That, and the ability to actually focus and knowing how to compose a shot to tell the story you want to convey! It is for this reason the good old zoom lens is a great lens to have as it allows you to experiment, and experimentation is the best way of learning any new skill.

In my experience the kit lenses (usually zoom) that are provided with an ILC have been perfectly adequate for 95% of the photographs I take.

And if you think this is all bull, then here’s a sobering thought – I have sold several large prints to buyers, some up to 27” x 36” (68 cm x 91 cm) taken with an iPhone 5, so where does that leave the “you must invest in an expensive prime lens to take a good photograph” argument?

~Richard

Making Sense of Sensor Cleaning – Part 2 (or the benefit of camera insurance)

Making Sense of Sensor Cleaning – Part 2 (or the benefit of camera insurance)

Disclaimer: I am recounting only my experience and not endorsing any form of sensor cleaning through this posting. You take full responsibility for any actions you take as a result of reading my ramblings…

This is a continuation of my previous post on sensor cleaning from three weeks ago. I will start off by saying it didn’t go the way I expected, but in the end turned out as a pleasant surprise.
As mentioned in the previous post I had purchased a VisibleDust m4/3 sensor cleaning kit and used it to try and clean the blemish on the sensor of my GX8 which was causing all sorts of problems when the lens was stopped down. Although this kit appears to be adequate for general dust removal, the blemish  I had seemed very stubborn. I used all the swabs and solution in the kit and had a beautifully clean sensor – apart from the bit I wanted to clean! So, I am now thinking it may be sensor damage, although it doesn’t look like a scratch under a magnifier. My last-ditch  attempt was to think big and go the route of using Pec Pads and Eclipse solution, that someone on fineartamerica had suggested,  so that I could try more than four attempts at sensor cleaning before running out of pads or solution again! The new products duly arrived from Amazon and I carefully removed a 4” x 4” Pec Pad, cut it into a strip and then folded it over the end of one of the plastic swabs from the earlier kit (having first removed the original pad, obviously) and fastened it with a piece of tape to the handle. I repeated the cleaning process with the new Eclipse liquid and it did a great job, but still couldn’t budge the mark! In desperation I tried this 5 or 6 more times and it seemed to be having no impact whatsoever. The mark didn’t get any smaller so I finally resigned myself to having to send the camera for repair.

As I was mumbling to myself about the likely cost of this and trying to figure out how the sensor got damaged I suddenly recalled that I took out  Squaretrade accidental damage insurance when I bought the camera 6 months ago. Well done great pre-senile memory! Ironically, this is not something I would normally do, so perhaps it’s not surprising I had “forgotten”.

160314_Sensor
You cannot see the blemish, but the refraction is pretty!

Amazingly I found the details buried in my gmail, completed a claim form online and the same day I received confirmation that the claim is good and a return label. Over the weekend I found a suitable box and packed up my beloved camera with charger and battery and sent it off. I didn’t expect to hear anything for several weeks and then thought I’d be in for a fight. So, imagine my surprise when I returned from work last night, only 5 days after shipping it back, to find a brand new GX8 sent to me straight from B&H Cameras!

Now I am a very happy photog again 🙂

So, what are the lessons I have learned from this rambling episode?

  1. Sensor cleaning is nothing to be scared of, as long as you are methodical, careful,  and clean.
  2. Pec Pads and Eclipse solution work as well or better than a cleaning kit and will do a great job for general cleaning a sensor of minor dust at a lower cost. (They can also be used on lenses too)
  3. SquareTrade insurance is a great value product for your camera, especially if you buy it in conjunction with your camera purchase through Amazon (which makes it about half the cost of their own website).

 

~Richard

My Boy Scout Camera Bag

It is amazing what photographic kit you can actually fit into a small camera bag that can be attached to your belt, or easily hand held.  To be more specific, I am describing my 3-year old Case Logic DCB-304 Camera Case that measures a reasonable 7.5” x 7.5” x 5” (19cm x 19cm x 13cm) when packed.

The major reason I took up the micro 4/3 mirrorless camera format in the first place was due to its compact size compared to DSLRs. By careful packing of this little bag I think I have proved my point and was able to easily carry all the equipment I needed for a hike along a river trail and a trip to the ski slopes this afternoon.

I found it a convenient way to carry the following:

Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GX8

Panasonic Lumix G H-H020AK 20mm F/1.7

Panasonic 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6

Battery charger and two batteries

Several SD cards

and either an iPhone or a fun pancake lens such as the Olympus 15mm f/8.0 Body Cap Lens

If you don’t believe me see the images taken in my “studio” (the basement ironing board!) when I got back from the trip:

160228_Bag1
kit and caboodle
160228_Bag2
lens in first
160228_Bag3
GX8 on top facing the “hinge”

Simply (I so love that word!) flip the hood back over the big telephoto lens and pack it horizontally in the base of the bag, then cover with a lens cloth and add the GX8 horizontally too, as shown.

Next put the charger in one side pocket, and two spare batteries in the other side pocket.

The SD cards fit easily in the inside pocket in the flap and the little front inside expandable compartment will hold either your phone (will fit an iPhone 6) or the Oly body cap lens for a bit of fun.

OK, it’s not exactly a survival kit, but it’s a pretty good compact set-up for a scouting photographer and  I think Akela would be happy enough with my efforts.

~Richard

Making Sense of Sensor Cleaning – Part 1

Making Sense of Sensor* Cleaning – Part 1

Disclaimer: I am recounting only my experience and not endorsing any form of sensor cleaning through this posting. You take full responsibility for any actions you take as a result of reading my ramblings…

One of the great things about using ILC cameras, like my trusty Panasonic micro four-thirds, and also DSLRs, is the ability to swap lenses for different situations; a prime lens for street work and landscapes, or a telephoto for wildlife perhaps. This comes at a price though; namely that there is always a risk in getting the sensitive camera sensor contaminated with dust, fibers, and other extraneous crud when changing lenses.

I have been relatively successful over the last few years due to a pathological obsession with how I change the lens (ALWAYS facing downwards) and also because the GX1 and GX8 have automatic sensor cleaning on startup so generally will shake off any dust themselves. However, as is the norm, all good things must come to an end, or the honeymoon period was over, or some such other relevant idiom applied…

160224_GX8sensor

 

I first noticed an “artifact” as it is called, a few weeks back and assumed it was dust or, hopefully not, a scratch on the lens. This was easily disproved by cleaning the lens and then swapping it with another. The artifact was still there indicating something on the sensor. My initial joy at having not damaged a lens was quickly replaced by trepidation though as this meant the sensor needed cleaning.

Having never had to deal with this before this sent me into a bit of a panic, and started off a trail of research on the web to find out what to do next.  

 

Next step, a cup of tea and a few quiet (and ultimately frustrating) hours on the laptop. Between google, youtube, discussion boards on dpreview, fineartamerica, and other blogs I learned only one definitive thing, namely:

There is absolutely, definitively, no agreed way to clean a camera sensor “properly”. Period. For every expert that says you should do it one way there is another opining why you should not. The information is almost as useless as arguing the merits of Nikon vs. Canon, or DSLR vs m4/3 format.

There is not even agreement whether this should be done by an individual or a professional. Some (usually camera stores) say to send it to a camera store, others say return it to the manufacturer, others complain that the manufacturers make it worse. Some say it’s easy and others, even professionals, seem scared to do the job.

In fact, the only thing that does seem to garner consensus is the first part of the cleaning process, as outlined here:

  1. Confirm that the sensor is contaminated. This is done by taking a shot of a neutral object at the smallest aperture available, with the lens defocused (use manual focus). Most like to say f/22 but the lens I had on only stopped down to f/16 but was still good enough to see.  For a neutral object I used the cloudless sky as it was available that day!
  2. Use a hand air blower, such as the Giotto Rocket to clean dust off the camera body and lens. DO NOT use compressed air as it contains propellants that can contaminate the optics
  3. Expose the sensor (remove lens and lock up mirror for a DSLR, or simply remove the lens on a mirrorless ILC.)
  4. With the sensor facing downwards blow air over the sensor to dislodge particles and let gravity take them away. DO NOT touch the sensor!
  5. Re-check your sensor by repeating step 1.
  6. If you are lucky then the artifact is gone and congratulations to you on a job well done!

For me though, this was not the case, so over to stage 2 cleaning, as I shall call it, and this is where it gets interesting, and confusing, very quickly.

Several photographers state you should start with a statically charged brush such as the VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly and, if that doesn’t work, move on to dry swabbing and then wet swabbing with a solvent. Others state that dry cleaning is wrong as this could scratch the sensor. Yet others preach that chemicals should not be used but rather your breath or a light steam from holding the camera over a cup of warm water!  Some say use proprietary swabs and cleaners such as Eclipse or VDust, others say use simple lens cleaning fluid, or a highly volatile organic such as methanol and swabs made of Pec Pads. The possibilities go on and on and on, each one with its evangelizing defender expounding how they have “done this for years successfully”.

The only take home message that I could really get is that should be possible to clean the sensor using a variety of methods as long as you are careful and methodical, are scrupulously clean, and do not apply too much pressure to the sensor surface when using some form of lint-free applicator!

So, like everyone else who simply uses their own experiences, I will share mine, to date:

I had begrudgingly purchased a kit from Amazon, specific to my m4/3 sensor size and I was amazed at the cost of four lint-free swabs on sticks and a tiny bottle of solvent. It really it quite staggering how this price is maintained in a free market economy. I guess we photographers are saps for this type of thing!

I followed the sparse pictorial instruction, added solvent to the pad and then attempted to wipe the sensor from left to right, hitting my first snag. Although the kit was labelled as being specifically for micro four third sensors the swab was too wide! So, with solvent rapidly evaporating I do the only thing I could do and wipe the sensor from top from top to bottom. Using my handy illuminated head magnifier (see, I knew this would be handy one day!) I could see that the mark had not been removed from the sensor. Drat! So I repeat the process with a new swab with the same result. That means I have used half my swabs and not achieved anything…

… so ends Part 1 of this saga as I consider what else to do. 😦

~Richard

* Of course for the pedants out there we’re not actually cleaning the sensor in reality, but the anti-alias layer that covers it, but what the heck, it’s all the same in the end as it degrades the image

Latest Cameras from Nixon and Conan

Amid great fanfare the two flagship camera manufacturers today launched their latest and greatest DSLR products to an eagerly awaiting crowd of photographers at KameraTek 2016 in Berlin, Germany. The Conan CIII-p0 and the Nixon RII-d2 are similarly priced and are clearly aimed at the aspiring professional photographer, as well as those amateurs with bags of cash, who must have the latest gear. But how do they shape up in the field? Well, few have been able to get hold of the models yet as both manufacturers have kept them under tighter wraps than the details of a Donald Trump political plan, but we are able to report that novel technology is used in both models as we had pre-release models.

The Conan boasts a staggering new focus system, ADHD, with 1024 focal points being monitored to ensure that it’s almost impossible to get a blurry shot. Meanwhile Nixon has finally been able to launch its new OCD image stabilization system after more than 2 years in beta-testing.  Interestingly, both models now appear to follow the same algorithms of Sunny’s latest WTF image capture engine which users of the iPharce 6 may find similar to Abble’s Live Photo feature, that became so popular in the last year.

Not to be outdone by the big two, Olympix  also announced their latest m43 flagship model the Olympix OMG, which packs an astounding 26.8MP into this crop sensor, a 30 fps continuous burst mode and a new array of mouthwatering lenses to fit its rangefinder style body. Interestingly, although they have adopted a new RoFL mount system, it remains compatible with the old LoL system too, which is great news for those who committed to the much older technology introduced way back in 2015.

Cameras 9 ©2016, Richard Reeve

All these advancements of course will make very little difference to any photographer’s skill at being able to compose an artful composition, but then that isn’t part of the design. We consumers have an insatiable appetite for the latest changes, however incremental, and readily gobble them up on  a six-monthly schedule in the never-ending quest for the latest gear. And the manufacturers are simply feeding the beast.

Carry on clicking…

~Richard

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