Brno

Since people have been asking, I thought I’d share a bit about my journey to the Czech Republic. The Aeolus Project (what I do at work) is having a meeting here, as a substantial number of my colleagues work here.

I haven’t travelled internationally much. Back in 2007, I visited Mmofra Trom in Ghana. The Czech Republic would have been the second country I ever visited, keeping an inadvertent trend of only visiting places less geographically-savvy people couldn’t find on a map, if not for a brief stop in London. (I figured that if I was flying to Europe for the week and had never been, I might as well spend the weekends sight-seeing.)

Here is an obligatory photo from London:

(It’s a HDR composite done with Photomatix — the net result looks a little unrealistic, and yet it’s what it actually looked like.)

London was great, though outrageously expensive. And English accents are even more awesome than you might expect. The Underground, besides having an iconic logo, puts the MBTA to shame. I knew that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but I didn’t think it would impact me as a tourist who wouldn’t be driving. What I realized is that it’s terrifying as a pedestrian, especially at multi-way intersections, because you have absolutely no clue where cars will be coming from.

We took a WizzAir flight from London to Brno, a large city in the south-eastern part of the Czech Republic. Yes, “WizzAir” is a real airline, and yes, I was hesitant to book a reservation on it based on the name, but it was a nice enough budget airline.

The hotel has absolutely terrible Internet. Here’s what happens when I ping the wireless router:

--- 192.168.2.250 ping statistics ---
49 packets transmitted, 45 packets received, 8.2% packet loss
round-trip min/avg/max/stddev = 4.035/593.420/2627.601/702.471 ms

(Note that 593ms average latency, and the 8.2% packet loss, on a LAN.) This is entirely the fault of the hotel, though — in my company’s office, the Internet is just fine. We’re apparently only about 125ms away from Boston here.

The official language here is Czech, a West Slavic language that sort of seems like Polish to someone generally-ignorant about languages like me. I’ve come to realize that I’m rather afraid of being in a place where I can’t communicate, even though I’m surrounded by bilingual coworkers. It’s rather isolating. The good news is that many people, especially those in customer service venues (and people under perhaps 30) seem to speak some English, so I can get by when I’m at McDonald’s. (More on that soon!) Of course, my coworkers here all speak excellent English, so it’s not as if I’m really stranded not speaking the language. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about it.

Last night, some friends and coworkers (thanks Tomas and Imre!) took us to a local (indoor) rock-climbing place and gave us training. It’s worth noting that the place served beer, though no one was actually drinking and climbing (or belaying).

I’ve never climbed before, and am deathly afraid of heights. So if someone had told me a few years ago that I’d one day find myself at an indoor climbing facility in the Czech Republic, I’d have thought they were insane.

And indeed, my first time up, I did chicken out after about 6 feet. My second time, I made it up perhaps 10-15 feet before I looked down. But the third time, I had the courage to make it to the top. (I really have no idea how high it was, but I’d guess perhaps 30-50 feet.) The photo of me actually at the top is… not flattering… but here’s a slightly less embarrassing photo of me midway up (exhibiting rather poor form, but hey, it was my first time…):

 

It might be interesting to note that the place had a small bar. This observation did not exactly help calm my nerves, though it ended up being a non-issue — the only people I saw drinking were chatting over a beer when they were done climbing. My fear that drunk people would be falling from the walls turned out to be entirely unfounded.

And speaking of fears of tolerance leading to mass chaos being unfounded, the country apparently has relatively lax (read: sane) drug laws.

None of us were particularly sure what this stuff was (a hemp hand cream was our best guess), but it led to an interesting discussion about drug laws here. Apparently, possession or use of small amounts of drugs (not just Cannabis) is decriminalized, though the general sale is not. (Which leaves me moderately confused about whatever this display case was.)

At first, it seems mildly insane that small amounts of LSD or cocaine (!) are legal. But it reminds me of something I saw on TV once, which was a (real-life) look at a city police department doing a drug sting. They had an agent sell small bags of cocaine to people, and a cadre of heavily-armed police agents would then swarm and tackle the buyer to the ground. As if this wasn’t appalling enough, there was a clear trend among the drug buyers in terms of race and socioeconomic status, and these people can face years in prison. (And time in prison, in turn, significantly reduces their odds of ever getting a decent job, causing what’s probably a vicious cycle.)

But just as there weren’t any drunks falling from the climbing wall when beer was served in the facility, I haven’t seen any drug addicts in the streets of Brno, or even been had reason to think drug use was a problem. Instead, it seems like the police are free to focus on crimes that have victims, and people with addictions are now able to seek treatment with legal impunity.

Apologies for the accidental political rant. Perhaps it is time I closed with a picture of the city, from my hotel balcony the other night:

Wish: An HDR Camera

I’m a big fan of HDR. These days, it’s done by taking a bracketed set of photos and then using software like Photomatix to combine them.

I’d like to think that some day I’m going to tell people about this process, and it’s going to sound just as absurd as describing how, once upon a time, photographers took their pictures on light-sensitive plastic film, washed it through a blend of horrible chemicals, and then projected it onto light-sensitive paper to expose an image… Which then went through more horrible chemicals.

If you view that image as the very small image I’ve posted, it looks great. The HDR really just makes it look more like it did in person. The camera just can’t capture such a wide gamut of brightness and colors.

But if you click on the image and view it at any reasonable size, you’ll realize that the image is worthless. The leaves are cloned all over the place. This is my biggest problem with HDR (well, that and the fact that it typically produces unrealistic-looking photos): in stacking the images and picking the ‘best’ parts of each, they rarely line up right. The software can correct for shifts — I moved the camera slightly from one shot to the next, and it’s easy enough for it to align them. But what it can’t possibly do is realize that the leaves and waves are in different positions in each shot and correct for that.

Last time I tried my hand at HDR, all of the shots were utterly useless because of similar problems, though it had more to do with me not holding the camera. So this time I brought a tripod. But it turns out that, if there’s any wind at all, you just shouldn’t bother.

I eagerly await the day when camera sensors have a couple extra stops of dynamic range on either end, so that it only takes a single exposure for shots like these.

Building a Better Camera

Thinking about a $22,000 lens got me thinking about “real” cameras a bit more. And it occurred to me that Canon is in kind of a weird spot right now.

Their flagship camera has always been the EOS-1. With digital it was the 1D, which was followed by a 1Ds. The s designates that it’s meant for studio work, with a higher resolution but lower framerate. After a while Canon replaced them with the “Mark II” edition of the 1D and 1Ds, and a few years (?) ago, the Mark III edition.

The Mark IIIs were well received. The 1D Mark III supported up to ISO6400 if unlocked, allowing great low-light performance. The 1Ds Mark III is what really got people drooling, though, with a 21-megapixel resolution. I think it was around 10 megapixels that people started saying that resolution wars should really be considered over. 21 megapixels, in the eyes of many, bests medium-format cameras. People shoot for two-page magazine spreads and billboards with lower resolutions.

The awkward sitution comes from the Canon 5D Mark II. The 5D is still a very high-end line, but it’s meant to be second fiddle to the 1D. But the 5D Mark II boasts 21 megapixels, the same as their flagship 1Ds Mark III. It records 1080p video. And what really wins me over is that it gives Nikon’s D3 a run for its money: ISO6400 out of the box, and you can enable “High ISO” support for ISO 12,800 and 25,600, allowing photos to be taken in absurdly low light. It sells for $2,700, less than half of the $7,000 1Ds Mark III.

So it’s high time for a Mark IV series. I haven’t even seen rumors about it yet, which tend to start long before the camera’s released. But here are some of the things I’d really like to see Canon release in a Mark IV edition:

  • Higher ISO support with lower noise. I’m not sure many people even imagined ISO6400 in the days of film (though it looks like there may have been such a thing, though it certainly wasn’t sold in Walmart), but the trend has been started. ISO12,800 and ISO25,600 are kind of experimental modes that remain very noisy (grainy). When I’m in the market for a new digital SLR in a few years, I hope it’s got a noise-free ISO25,600, or higher. Consider that increasing sensitivity just twice more would bring “ISO 100K.” Canon and Nikon, it’s a race. You heard it here first. I want the 1D Mark IV to put Canon in the lead, and Nikon to come out with a D4 to try to one-up them, with the end result being a camera that can take photos in dimly-lit rooms without five-figure lenses.
  • Get rid of the mechanical shutter. Sample the sensor for the necessary duration. It seems there are design challenges in eliminating the shutter, but it’s really a vestigial organ on a digital camera. This removes a common spot of mechanical failure, and paves the road to higher shutter speeds. I don’t think any camera (possibly excluding ultra-expensive scientific gear) can exceed 1/8000th of a second shutter speeds right now. Accidentally shoot outside at f/1.8 and ISO1600 on a sunny day and tell me it’s not a limit. (Yes, yes, why would you want to do that? Because I needed the shallow depth of field and forgot my camera was cranked to ISO1600. The real question is: why couldn’t the camera handle it?)
  • RAM is cheap. Like $10 for a 1GB DIMM. I doubt cameras have DDR2 DIMMs, but why can I only take a couple shots in rapid succession before I have to wait for the camera to write things out to the card? On the flagship model, give us a crazy-huge buffer.
  • For the love of God, give us an LCD that we can see when we’re working outside. And while you’re at it, spend the money on a great LCD. Look at an iPhone screen for a while, in fact, and see what 150 dpi looks like.

A Little Photography

I haven’t been taking photos as often as I used to. I suppose having a full-time job and a 100-mile-a-day commute can do that. So I wanted to share a few photos, as well as a commentary on the ExpoDisc.

When I first got it, I knew that photographing in Margarita’s would be the ultimate test. They have red lightbulbs. The atmosphere’s great, but the pictures end up coming out like this:

Auto White Balance

That’s with the camera set up to automatically adjust for the right type of light. Obviously, this is a major headache if you’re trying to take photos. And it’s really not that easy to fix up in Photoshop because the colors come out so far off that you can’t salvage much.

Adjusted Flowers

It’s underexposed and boring, but here they are after I calibrated my camera with the ExpoDisc to the light hitting the fake flowers. It’s not quite perfect in my mind: it’s got a tiny bit of a green cast. But something like that is easy to fix in Photoshop. (The problem was that there were “green” lights in the parking lot coming in through the window, red light bulbs indoors, and orange light coming in another window from across the street. It’s pretty much impossible to have things look great in that case.)

Honda Accord

This is an entirely unrelated photo, but I was on a long car ride and decided to practice panning. (Car companies almost always do this for their photography.) I shot at ISO100 and f/8, so that not much light was coming in. This meant that a fairly slow 1/30-second exposure was needed. At 60 miles an hour, the trees in the background became blurred, since 1/30-second was entirely too slow to “freeze” them. But since we were roughly matching the speed of the car, it remained in place on the frame, causing the car to “jump out” as the only object that’s not blurred. Besides looking cool, it gives a sense of motion. The sun was setting, and a little Velvia Vision magic helped bolster the already-nice light. It might not win any awards, but it’s still a shot I’m happy with.

New Use for Megapixels

I tend to look skeptically on claims of megapixels. As I think I’ve mentioned before here, I have a 20×30″ print hanging up, taken by my 6-megapixel EOS 10D. Now I shoot with a 10-megapixel XTi, but typically keep it down at “Medium” quality, which is a 5-ish megapixel image. The reason is that I can take many more pictures, and that there’s no good reason for me to exceed it.

One thing I lament, though, is how “short” 200mm can be, even with a 1.6x crop. (So it’s effectively a 320mm lens.) I think the 100-400mm zoom (loving that it has a Wikipedia page!) would do the trick, though it’s a $1,500 lens. (On sale at Amazon?)

At the RedSox game, I bumped the resolution to its full setting. In a, “that’s really not quite an accurate statement” way, I effectively had a 5-megapixel, 400mm setup. Because 5 megapixels is all I needed anyway, this “zoom by cropping” thing actually works pretty well.

The main problem I’m noticing is that at 10 megapixels, I’m seeing a lot of imperfections in images that I didn’t see at 5. It doesn’t ordinarily matter anyway, since no one views images at 100% in ordinary situations, but I really feel like all the extra resolution does is amplify imperfections inherent in the lens.

Some More Photos

Yesterday I was in the back yard working, when I noticed the setting sun was illuminating a fern in the woods, causing it to glow brilliantly while its surroundings were black. This would be a good photo.

By the time I came back out, the fern had fallen into the shade, but the light continued to be just right.

Mi Favorito

Often, losing details in the shadows or highlights of a photo isn’t desired. Sometimes it takes special precautions (e.g., bracketing for HDR) to not lose any details. But there’s something neat about having a strongly-backlit leaf that’s so bright compared to the background that everything else is pitch black. That photo might be a little too fine-artsy, but I still like it.

Birch Leaves with Guests

Here, the background was also backlit, just less so, but your eyes are still drawn to what they should be. And I’m loving that this lens, as cheap and light as it is, can be pretty darn sharp. (I did do software sharpening afterwards too, but that’s SOP.)

Daddy Longlegs

There’s a close-up of a few of the leaves, complete with two Daddy Longlegs.

Shooting those last night, BTW, was one of those times when I switched to full-manual*. I spend a lot of time in aperture priority, but photographing a strongly-backlit leaf isn’t something the camera’s metering is really meant to deal with, so it was overexposing by a good deal. I locked it at 1/250-second exposure with good results.

I took a set of 99 photos, but many were flawed. The biggest problem was that, for some of these photos, the sun was just out of frame, so even a lens hood didn’t work. For some I tried to use my hand to block out some more light, but there’s a fine line there, where you go from not quite blocking enough to having your hand in the frame. (Although with a long zoom and a decently fast aperture, the only effect was minor vignetting… Which in some of these photos wouldn’t have showed.)

Going to Fenway tonight, though I suspect 200mm will be far too short for anything all that good.

* The EXIF will betray that I actually went to shutter-priority, but since the camera wanted a wider aperture and the lens was already wide open, switching over to full-manual to ‘lock’ the aperture would have done exactly the same thing.

Damnum absque injuria

I was pleasantly surprised by what my little 55-200mm Sigma can do! I’ve noticed that if you’re not exacting in aligning the polarizer, you lose a lot of contrast, BUT it’s very easily fixed in Photoshop. I’ve also noticed that, short of focus problems, most everything is easily fixed in Photoshop. (I’ve stopped thinking of the images out of the camera as the final product, really.)

Out!

Shot at ISO 1600, with less noise than I’d expected, even after ‘lighting up’ the shadows a bit in Photoshop. There’s noise if you look for it at high resolutions, but I’d forgotten that 1600 can be quite usable.

As I mentioned at the top of the post, I’ve started doing a lot of post-processing in Photoshop. It’s something I hadn’t really been tuned into until I started doing a lot of photo enhancement, but a lot of images have a sort of ‘haze’ to them. (Shooting through a window, or shooting through a misaligned polarizer, will do this… But some cameras with crappy metering equipment do this on their own.) That’s easily fixed with Levels. Some images aren’t quite as tack-sharp as they should be, which can also be tweaked in Photoshop. Even the best cameras have imperfect dynamic ranges, leaving some details in darker areas obscured, and brighter portions overexposed (“blown out”). So my workflow (that’s a major buzzword right there) is to align images (rotate as needed, and adjust any that have sloping horizons), perform a Shadows & Highlights enhancement (CS2 and newer, I believe, have this feature, which is invaluable!), adjust Levels, and then apply an unsharp mask (I’ve been tending towards Smart Sharpen, 55% over a 1-pixel range, but it gets tweaked as needed.) Periodically I’ll play with Variations to get colors just right, and boost (or tone down, depending) an image’s saturation, but that’s only as-needed.

IMG_2766

That’s straight out of the camera. Not necessarily a bad picture, though a bit underexposed for my liking. (I’d gotten a batch of slightly overexposed shots, so I set it to underexpose slightly, which ended up being a mistake.) But here it is after 60 seconds in Photoshop:

Huh

It’s a striking difference: the apparent ‘haze’ has been lifted: the image is brighter (properly exposed!) and sharper.

It’s really not a great shot, but I tried the obligatory HDR shot:

MerchantsAuto.com Stadium

It’s an okay shot, but I think it’s a case where HDR really isn’t appropriate. It ends up being a very busy shot, and the very bright (very saturated!) colors in the crowd end up drawing attention away from the batter.

Nashua Fishercats Panorama

I’m also becoming a fan of panoramas. I’m glad Mr. T recommended Windows Live Photo Gallery or whatever it’s called; it’s worked pretty well. This ended up being a GIGANTIC photo (15297×1263 pixels, and that’s AFTER a very heavy crop, since my images didn’t line up that well, leaving huge black areas on the top and bottom). The downside is that there’s really no good way to view it; Flickr’s next size up (if you click through) is 1024×85 — 1024 pixels is a good width, but an image 85 pixels tall is practically useless. After that is the original, which I don’t recommend unless you have a fast connection and a lot of time to scroll around.

Anyway, it was fun… We left at the close of the 6th inning because it was getting late, but we (Manchester Fishercats) were losing 8 to 14. But I got some good pictures.

SLRs

I think the best thing about SLRs isn’t their elimination (well, exponential reduction) of shutter lag, nor the support for high ISOs, or even advanced exposure and metering modes. It’s that even at relative high apertures (f/5.6), you can keep a shallow depth of field. Consider this photograph:

Something-flower

(Does anyone know what type of flower this is, BTW?) The photo wouldn’t be half as good if everything were in focus, as a normal camera would have rendered it. But by throwing the distracting (and ugly!) background out of focus, the shot comes out a lot better. I don’t entirely love the depth of field on this one; I wish you could see a little more of the plant clearly (which would have required that I stop the lens down a bit more), but I also wish the background were even further out of focus (which would have required that I open up the lens a bit more). BTW, a little bit of HDR going on here, as it wasn’t the best lighting.

mIMG_2571

There’s another example. Too shallow, or at least, I should have manually selected the autofocus sensor to use one on the left, so that all the caterpillars were in focus. But the background (green and purple bushes) are pleasantly blurred, keeping your attention on the tree.

m-IMG_2593

Here I totally disregarded the rule of thirds. I like it anyway. The other leaves were pretty nearby, so they’re only slightly out of focus. But again, it draws your attention in closer.

m-IMG_2596

There’s the best example. The trees in the background were across the street, and thus extremely out of focus. The camera focused on the leaves, which are tack sharp.

And now, I’m going to go finish mowing the lawn. There were just too many photo opportunities I noticed… 😉

Although I’m attending a Fishercats game tonight… It’ll be my first time with an SLR there. Let’s see how that goes.