Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Circuitous Conversations, Episode 39

In this week's episode, we talk about what goes into picking out the best camera (or anything, really).

We touch on some of the differences between NIkon and Canon, and even get into some personal preferences about how we use our cameras and why.

Here's a link to the show, and here's a link to the notes at Bill's blog.


Thanks for listening!

Digital Cameras: Medium Format, part 1

Medium format cameras have long been considered the tool of choice for professional photography. Sure there are tons of professionals out there using 35mm-sized camera systems, but if you were tally up every owner of a 35mm system and compare that list to a tally of every owner of a medium format camera system, I'd bet that there are way more pros on the medium format (MF) list. A large part of this has to do with the cost associated with MF; with the bigger size film/sensors, physically larger lenses and build quality, things can get pretty pricey. This is generally considered "the cost of doing business" in the industry.

One of the coolest feature of MF cameras is that they have a tendency to be very modular. Sure, there are some simplified "closed" systems, but the most common pro cameras can be broken down to their basic elements - camera body, lens, finder, winder, and back. For those of you less familiar with MF, I'll explain a bit.

35mm-sized cameras are small and self-contained. In the old days, with film cameras, you'd pop open the back of the camera, load your film, unwind the film out of the canister frame after frame as you shoot. Once you hit the last frame of film, you'd  rewind the film back into the canister (using a little crank with a flip-out lever; that was always one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid). Pretty straightforward stuff.

Now, let's say you've got a shot all set up, and you wanted to so some basic bracketing, just to make sure you got everything exposed right. You'll need maybe 8-12 shots to do this. Oh, and let's also say that you wanted to have that same image on both black & white and color film. WIth a 35mm system, where the rolls of film would come in lengths that would give you 24 or 36 exposures (frames), once you had the film in the camera, you'd have two basic options. You could either shoot all the way through the roll, or you could just end the roll early, wasting the remaining film.

With a MF camera, things are different. First of all, the film used is close to four times the size of the 35mm film. To keep costs reasonable, a typical roll of MF film will yield about 12 exposures. I say "about" because different MF cameras have different frame sizes and dimensions. For example, Hasselblad cameras make square images which are 5cm by 5cm, and Mamiya cameras make rectangular images that are 6cm x 4.5cm.

Rather than building the film transport mechanism into the camera body, MF cameras have a separate, removable mechanism. It's kind of like how a gun works, with interchangeable clips. You don't need to fire all of the bullets in a clip; you can swap out at any time without losing any shots. The mechanism that contains the film is referred to a "back", since it sits on the back of the camera. You load the back just like you would load a 35mm camera, but there's no camera on the front. Instead, there's a light-tight piece of metal called a "dark slide", which keeps the film from being exposed.

The interchangeable back system has some really great advantages. First, you can have several backs all loaded and ready to go, making continuous shooting a lot easier than having to pop the camera open and change film. With two film backs, you could have an assistant handle the loading and unloading of film, and as soon as you finished the roll in the back that you've got on your camera, you simply put the dark slide back in, pop the back of (just like changing a lens, only faster), hand off the back, grab the next back, attach it to the camera, pull the slide, and boom, you're back to shooting. Experienced pros can do this in like, five seconds.

The other obvious advantage of interchangeable backs is the ability to have different film types available on a per-shot basis. In high-end studio sessions, it is very common for prelighting and test shots to be made with polaroid film, so you can get a good idea of what you're going to get before you commit it to film. Polaroid backs are available for all of the major players' cameras. So you'd shoot your polaroids to check your exposure (not unlike how we "chimp" our LCDs on our cameras these days), then pop on your back loaded with black and white film, fire off a few frames, and then maybe swap that back with another one with some color film in it. This is just an example, obviously; I'm sure there are some pros who never went that far with it.

Here's where things get interesting. As the digital sensor (CCD or CMOS) evolved, and got more sensitive, bigger, and capable of producing higher and higher resolution images, camera designers began to develop digital backs for MF camera systems. Think about it - it makes a ton of sense - you've got thousands of dollars already invested in a great MF system of camera bodies, lenses and accessories, and now you can instantly turn your entire rig into a digital system, just by slapping a new back on your camera. Just like changing from black & white film to color film.

There are a few things to take into consideration, obviously. The most significant is that the sensor's size isn't as big as the area on a piece of film. This means that your lenses will behave/look a little differently, similar to how "cropped" sensors differ from "full frame" sensors in the DSLR world. What's more is that there are a couple of different size/resolution options out there from a couple of different manufacturers. While this does complicate things, I think it's an advantage to the consumer, in that you can get exactly what you need.

Another consideration - and this is a big one - is that these digital backs are really expensive. You know how a current top-end Macintosh has always been the same price, year after year? Year after year, they just make the machines faster and more capable, and the pricing pretty much stays the same. It's the same with digital backs. A current top-end back will run you upwards of $40,000. Yeah. Forty thousand. There are cheaper options out there, obviously, and there's a pretty active used/second-hand scene, but still - you can't really get into the MF digital scene for much less than $10,000.

Suffice to say, the majority of digital backs out there in use today aren't privately owned by individual photographers. Rental companies and studios tend to have full camera packages, which, all things considered, are pretty reasonably priced to rent.

The final thing to consider is how dramatically the digital back changes the workflow when taking pictures. In the early days of MF digital, the backs didn't have LCDs. If you wanted to see what your shots looked like, you'd have to connect the back to a computer via a firewire connection, and use some special software to render the RAW file on screen. Modern digital backs all come with LCDs now, but they are pretty small when you consider that you're going to be reviewing an image that is probably bigger than 40 megapixels in size. Because of this, the general practice when shooting MF digital is to always have a computer on hand for image review (talk about chimping!). In the studio, the camera stays tethered to the computer, and special software pops the image on screen a few seconds after it's shot, full-screen. This is imperative for checking focus. Out in the field, some people shoot to CF cards, but many shoot to laptops.

This has become such a standard that there is a whole niche industry surrounding it, called "digital capture". There are folks out there who specialize in putting together whole computer/camera rigs and workflows to facilitate this otherwise tricky and failure-prone way of doing things. I used to work at a company that specialized in this, and now I do that kind of work on my own, as a freelancer. Folks that do this kind of work are commonly referred to as "digital techs".

In part 2, I'll talk a little about some of the digital backs themselves, and what goes into using them.


Thanks for reading this, and let me know if you've got any thoughts or questions about this stuff.






Thursday, May 26, 2011

Circuitous Conversations, Episode 38

Hey, I should probably start posting links to the podcast up here, now that I'm back on the wagon.

Here's a link to the latest episode, and here are the show notes at Bill's blog.

Let me know what you think!


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Digital Cameras: Nikon and Canon

If you've been following along, you know that I got my start on Nikon cameras. As a kid, and for a good while after that, it's safe to say that I was a pretty major Nikon fanboy, to the extent of bashing other camera brands and flaunting my ignorance about them. I think there are many people out there who fall into this category, and not just with cameras, but with computers, cars, sports teams, religion... Fortunately, as I got older and more experienced, my perspective broadened, and I became more open-minded and accepting of the other brands.

These days, I like to consider myself relatively impartial, choosing only to "hate on" something if it has truly proven itself to be worthy of hating. I still have strong opinions about things mind you; I'm just more inclined to spend more time giving something new and unfamiliar a chance.

That all said, these are my personal opinions, so take this all with a grain of salt.

It's pretty safe to say that in the world of professional photography, if your'e  shooting with a 35mm camera, it's going to be either a Canon or a Nikon. There are definitely some nice underdogs in the running, but if you go to any kind of press event and take inventory of what the throng of shooters have in their hands, it's gonna be one of the two biggies.

That fact right there should tell you something - when you can look at a large group of people and see that there is that kind of natural selection happening, it's significant. Humans have a tendency to want to use the best tool for the job. If you see a photograph that you like, or someone says to you "hey, can you make me one that looks just like that?", the first thing you do is determine "how did they make that?". You do some research, and you figure out how that thing was made. What tools did they use? How did they use them? And chances are, assuming that you're skilled enough and good at figuring things out, once you've equipped yourself with those same tools, you should be able to get something that looks pretty close to what you were going for.

The other, shorter, version of this is showing up to a place where the guys that are doing what you want to be doing are hanging out, and just watching them do their thing, while you jot down notes about what they're using and how they're using it. This happens all over the place. I can remember as a kid, learning to play the drums, scouring every inch of every page of any magazine article and photograph of my favorite drummers, trying to figure out "what's he using to get that sound?". And of course, I'd run out and buy whatever that thing was (for better or worse).

My main point here is that on a certain level, you need to have the right tools for the job. How you use them is a completely separate discussion. But long story short, most pros are shooting with Nikon and Canon.

I've had less hands-on experience with Canon equipment, but over the past 2-3 years, I've developed a pretty good impression of their cameras and lenses. The first time I picked up a Canon DSLR (with the intent to actually use it, not just to hold it in my hand), I spent a few moments looking over the various controls and user interface. Most cameras have a core set of common functions, but I'm always amazed how vastly different some of them are from one another.

The first thing I noticed while holding the Canon was the giant thumbwheel on the back. I like simple, obvious controls, and the "big wheel" is about as simple as it gets. After using it for a while, forever, I found that the wheel was maybe a little _too_ big, and I had to compromise my grip on the camera a little to use it. The one area where the big wheel shined, however, was scrolling through pictures during playback. It's super-easy to navigate back and forth with a big controller like that.

The next thing I noticed was the way that the various buttons felt when pushing them in and/or holding them down. There seemed to be a little too much room left for the button in the hole, if that makes any sense. They felt a little too loose and wiggly for me. The overall placement was good and logical, but the feel and operation felt a bit off. The biggest culprit here, surprisingly, was the shutter button.

Finally, after handling the camera for a bit, I started to play around with the menus in the camera. Yikes. Definitely a bit rough around the edges. I could see how someone who spent a lot of time with these cameras might dig the whole numbered page/feature thing, but to someone who's new to it, this system was _not_ pretty. I'd go so far as to make an analogy to Windows vs. Macintosh here. Both get the job done, but one looks a bit nicer.

You're probably wondering - "dude, which model were you using?" Honestly, I can't really remember, but I feel comfortable enough saying that these comments hold true on the two current high-end cameras and their predecessors, which I've had some considerable time with - the 1Ds (mark 2 and 3) and the 5D (mark 1 and 2).

Once you get past the user interface, things change. All of these cameras take amazing pictures. The full frame sensors are big (21 megapixels), and they make some really nice-looking files. Another thing that Canon has going for it are its lenses. There are a handful of really amazing lenses in the L series. Specifically their fast primes (the 35, 50, and 85). Once you've seen what these lenses can do, you start seeing them everywhere. They have a certain look to them (which is very popular right now), and it's a nice look. There is no wonder why they're so popular.

Speaking of lenses, another thing I kinda like is the way the Canon mount works. I think it requires a little less of a turn than the Nikon system, and I feel like I can change a Canon lens a little faster than I can a Nikon.

The last thing I'll mention about the Canon system is auto-focus. They might have been the first company to figure out how to do it right way back when, but man, the way it's controlled and the way it behaves on their current cameras makes it feel like they haven't been paying attention to the competition.


Nikon DSLRs have definitely matured over the years, and the current state of their user interface is in a really good place. I still get a bit frustrated by the subtle differences between some cameras (like the D3 and the D3s), where they'll swap a few buttons, or move a feature from one side of the camera to the other. But from a "build" standpoint, I think it's safe to say that Nikon's cameras feel pretty awesome in one's hands. The way the buttons are laid out and the way they feel makes me think that they spent a lot of time working on it, and I think it paid off. I also think the design and placement of the front and rear "command dials" (as they're called) makes more sense than Canon's big wheel on the back, and little wheel on top design. You don't have to move your fingers around as much, and once you familiarize yourself with the buttons, you can make a lot of changes one-handed. Digging into the menus, I think Nikon has the advantage here, as well. The way they've implemented a traditional hierarchical system is a lot more intuitive than the Canon left-to-right system.

There is one feature that the Canon 5D mark 2 has that I'm surprised more cameras don't offer - quick access to user presets. One the 5D2, there is a mode dial right on the top of the camera which has three custom setting places. You can set up the entire camera however you want it, and then save those settings to one of the custom slots, and bang - switch from one to the other instantly. I think the Nikon D7000 has this feature, so who knows, maybe future Nikons will come around, too.

Lens-wise, Nikon has a lot going for it, as well. Their recent updates to their high-end lenses, the G series, are right up there with the Canon L glass in quality. They have a different look to them, obviously, but that's kinda the point, right? One advantage Nikon has is its legacy. For better or worse, Nikon has managed to maintain their venerable "F" lens-mount system since it was first released, back in the 60s! With some exceptions, you can pick up just about any Nikon (or Nikkor, if you're being persnickety) lens, and shoot pictures on just about any Nikon body, including the current models. Sure, things like auto-focus and auto-exposure aren't going to magically appear on the older models that predate that technology, but I think it's pretty awesome that I can grab that old 1969 vintage 105mm/2.5 lens that my dad used to use and slap it onto my D3 and still get great-looking shots with it.

The other stand-out advantage Nikon has over Canon is with its flash system. Nikon's TTL (through-the-lens) system is called the Creative Lighting System (or CLS). And honestly, it's pretty darned cool. They came up with it in the early 2000's, and when you've got more than one or two of their compatible flashes (aka "speedlights"), you can do some pretty neat stuff with wireless remote control.

Canon also has a wireless TTL system for its flashes, but I think it's safe to say that their technology isn't as slick and polished as the Nikon system. Which, considering that it's not as mature, makes sense. I have a feeling Canon is working on this though, taking into consideration how crazy the whole Strobist scene has been these past few years. It'll be interesting to see, for sure.

I'll close with this: I think both Canon and Nikon systems are great.

In the proper hands, amazing pictures can be made with either. If you spend time with both of them, you will notice that they have different looks, and once you get to know them, you can choose which system you want based on the look you want.

Some people will choose based on a single lens. I know someone who chose based on autofocus. And another who couldn't turn away from a huge existing investment in older lenses. And then some people go for the sensor, and the megapixels.  At the end of the day, there are tons of people out there making money, winning awards, and pushing the boundaries with both of these systems.

I just think that Nikon stuff feels better. So that's where my money goes. But don't put it past me to rent or borrow a 5Dmk 2 with that 85mm/1.2 - that's a helluva nice look.


Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thoughts on digital cameras, part two

In 2001, I decided to purchase a Nikon Coolpix 5000. I wanna say it cost me about $500 or so. It was a 5MP "high end" model, with a pretty decent lens, an articulated LCD screen (an important feature to me), and a flash hotshoe (which I remember thinking was also important). Creatively speaking, this camera did two things significant for me: a) it had really fantastic macro performance - it could focus on stuff that was less than an inch away from the camera (with some pretty serious falloff, granted), and b) the LCD screen - having the ability to compose shots without needing to have the camera held up to my face really changed the way I thought about composing pictures. Needless to say, a lot of the work I did with that camera was abstract and macro. But it was a good start.

From there, I moved onto the Nikon Coolpix 5400, which was basically an updated version of the 5000. Virtually identical, with a couple of minor upgrades. I got it because I had basically beaten the crap out of the poor little 5000, having carried it around all the time.

Still very much in the "hobbyist" frame of mind, my next camera was my first DSLR - the Nikon D70. This was another game changer for me. Suddenly, I was able to start using all of the old lenses that my dad and I had when I had first started out. As a bonus, because of the fact that I had been using Nikon digital cameras in the past, I was already used to Nikon's user interface design. I felt right at home with this camera very quickly.

Still working in the IT business, I was still well within hobbyist territory. I was getting more and more curious, however, and any time I'd run into a pro photographer (either as a client, or in passing), I'd spend as much time as I could talking shop and learning stuff. I'd been pretty familiar with all of the aspects of print production (scanning, printing, layout, retouching, etc), but I never really got into the actual picture-taking end of things.

Around this time, I was very active as a musician, and had many friends who were in many different bands. It became pretty commonplace for me to bring my camera to shows, and to help out with doing promo work here and there. One of my favorite tricks for getting cool shots at concerts was to stick one of my old Coolpix cameras on a monopod, and use the flip-out screen such that I could hoist the camera a good 10 feet in the air or so, and either with a remote or the self-timer, snap some "bird's eye view" shots of the action on stage. I was still shooting JPGs, and hadn't really gotten into using a flash.

Fast forward to 2006, when I moved from Chicago to New York City. It was a big turning point for me, and a lot of things were in the midst of shifting. I was taking a big break from music, and I was turning my back on a pretty well-established freelance career, in favor of starting over from scratch in a new city. I still had my D70, but I wasn't really that inspired, photographically. I had taken a position as a Mac Genius, working on the very first official overnight team at the only 24-hour Apple Store - Fifth Ave. This was an overall good experience for me, in that I was able to make some really great new friends quickly, and I was getting exposed to all sorts of interesting folks that would come into the store late at night for help.

One of these folks was an amateur photographer, and in our conversation about photo stuff, she happened to mention the word "strobist". I didn't really think anything of it at the time, but for some reason, it stuck with me. A few weeks after that, a friend of mine was having some sort of an event (I think it was a party or a concert; I can't really remember), but whatever it was, it had inspired me to think about photography again. And because this was an indoor-at-night thing, I knew I was going to need to use a flash (by this time, I had gotten myself an SB-600, which didn't really see much use). I remembered that "strobist" thing that girl at the bar had mentioned, and found David Hobby's website easily enough.

For the next few weeks, all I could think about was photography. I went back to my dad's place and raided his collection of gear for every single piece of flash-related equipment I could get my hands on. This was an old SB-16, an SB-24, and a couple of cheap slave sync gizmos. It was enough to get me started, though.

After chewing through the stuff I'd find online, I began to slowly but surely start building myself a nice collection of gear. Starting out with home-made bits, doing a ton of ebay hunting, and even purchasing brand new items from time to time. All the while, experimenting and figuring stuff out.

Over the next couple of years, I played catch-up, and read up on what had happened in the higher-end world of professional photography. I saw that Canon had taken the dominant position in the world of photojournalism (the last time I'd paid any attention, everyone was using Nikon. And film.). I saw that people were still shooting with large and medium format, and that there was this slick new gizmo called a "digital back". And oh, the lights. And the modifiers. And the accessories. I was making the shift from hobbyist to semi-professional. Slowly, but surely.

In 2008, thanks to the "economic downturn", I was let go from my job as an IT consultant. This turned out to be just what I needed, and I decided that it was time to officially turn the corner on IT, and return to my roots. I was going to work as a photographer.

Obviously, this isn't the kind of thing that just happens overnight. I knew that I had a lot of work ahead of me, and that I was going to be starting out from scratch. But I also knew that because of the fact that I had several years of professional/life experience under my belt, working with people, learning stuff, and networking - that I would have an advantage. And thanks to a bit of persistence, a lot of legwork, experiments with Craigslist, and a bit of luck, I have been able to meet and work with some really fantastic people, and learn a whole bunch of new stuff.

In 2010, I was offered a job at a digital retouching and digital capture company called Dtouch. They don't advertise, and they don't have a website. But their clientele are among the best and busiest in the industry. I'm not going to drop any names, but it's safe to say that if you've ever spent any time in front of a newsstand looking at magazine covers, you've seen work that's passed through Dtouch in one way or another.

My responsibilities were very well-suited to my strengths. I was in charge of all of the computers, and all of the camera equipment. During my time there, I was exposed to tons of different systems, ranging from expensive and obscure cameras like the Leica M9, to Sinar view cameras, to all of the current pro 35mm DSLRs, and most significantly - medium format digital systems. Hasselblad, Mamiya, Phase One; we even got our hands on the new Leica S2 system for a bit. As you might imagine, this was an invaluable opportunity for me, and I made the absolute most of it possible.

After spending a little more than a year there, I had decided that I had learned enough about these systems, and it was time for me to return to my original path - working for myself. Armed with this new knowledge and some new contacts in the industry, I've re-rentered the freelance world, and have begun looking for work. Not just as a photographer, mind you - but also as a "digital tech", and as an assistant, as well.

So - that all said - I consider myself to be pretty well-equipped to offer good advice and opinions on lots of different aspects of photography and the technology surrounding it. I'm still constantly learning and getting better, mind you - there are still tons of things that I need to learn. But I'm at a point where I feel comfortable calling myself a professional, and it feels pretty great making a living doing the kind of stuff I want to do.


I guess this first bit was a bit more biographical than technical, huh? Sorry about that, if you were misled. I promise to get to the good stuff in future posts.


Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Thoughts on Digital Cameras - a series

As you have probably noticed, I've taken up writing again. Since the name of this blog is "Dan Gottesman, Photographer", I feel like there should be at least _some_ photography-related stuff in here.

So, I've decided to start a series of posts discussing my personal take on a number of different digital cameras. Before I get started, however, I think it might be relevant for me to go over my personal experience with cameras in detail. I mean, if you're going to be reading someone's point of view on something, the more you know about them and where they're coming from, the better, right? I'm less inclined take advice from someone that I don't really know, despite how great of an expert they might be. And out here on the internet, unless you're famous, have a lot of followers/subscribers/fans/whatever, and/or have a large body of work online and available for reference, then how is anyone gonna know where you're coming from. Or, perhaps more significantly - how you got there.

Let's see. I'm gonna skip over my prepubescent and adolescent adventures in what I'll call "point-n-shoot" photography, and jump right in at around 1990. Before then, all of the camera I'd used were low-end consumer products, including the Kodak Disk, a Canon AS-6 (Aqua Snappy waterproof camera), an old Polaroid, and one of those little Kodak brownie-esque cameras, which used the little interchangeable flash cubes that you'd have to snap onto the top of the thing manually. The good old days.

In 1990, I got a Nikon FM2 for my birthday (in black, natch). At that point in my life, I was in high school, and I was a bona-fide Nikon fanboy. I would read anything and everything I could get my hands on that had anything to do with Nikon stuff, from reviews in magazines to product literature. I remember reading Penthouse magazine, and noting that they actually included the specific cameras and lenses used for their photo layouts. Bob Guccione used a Nikon FG back in the day, yo! My dad even took me to check out the amazing "Nikon House" - a kind of combination store front, gallery, showroom and service center (not that unlike an Apple store, now that I think about it), right in Rockefeller plaza. I think the Lego store is in its place, now. Anyway, Nikon House seemed to have every single product that Nikon made, including the super-high-end stuff, and some of the more famous items, like one of the cameras that went up into space. The coolest part, however, was that you could actually play with the stuff! So you could bring your camera body in and attach it to that 300mm/2.8 lens or whatever. Very cool for me, as a kid.

My preference towards Nikon can be traced directly to my father. He put together a really terrific kit over the years, based around his old school Nikon F, from the late 60's. He had about  5 or 6 lenses and a bunch of accessories, and actually knew a thing or two about photography, having worked in the darkroom and shooting for his college newspaper, and later, the US Coast Guard. My interest in photography seemed to reignite my father's passion, and for about two or three years, we'd do a lot of photo stuff together. Going out on [what are now called] photo walks, and, more impressively, processing our own transparencies (E-6) in our basement sink.

For those who are unfamiliar - transparencies are also referred to as "slides" or "chromes" (in the industry). With transparency film, you're not shooting a negative image, which needs to be inverted through the process of printing onto paper - you're shooting a positive image, which you can hold up to any light - say, a light box, or a projector - and see exactly what the camera saw. I always kinda dug that bit - the fact that with printed film, you're technically looking at a second-generation copy, whereas with positive film, that's the original source.

In an effort to minimize our costs and to get our results as fast as possible, we set up a little developing station in the basement. This comprised of a changing bag, a couple of different Petersen tanks and reels, and a small fridge where we kept the chemistry. We used simple plastic slide mounts that were easy to recycle, and we even bought bulk film and rolled our own cartridges, towards the end. Good times.

With the ability to go out shooting in the afternoon and then have the results of the shoot projected onto a wall that evening, I was able to learn a lot about photography in a relatively short amount of time. I'd say it was the modern equivalent to learning using a digital camera today; it was about as close to instant gratification as you could get.

It was around this time where I started to think about "what I wanted to do with my life", and it became pretty clear to me that I would either be heading into the world of music, or the world of art. Since I had a bit more of a head-start with the art thing (and I think I was better at it, too), that's the route I chose. It was around this time that my sister, a few years younger than me, had her Bat-Mitzvah. The photographer that shot the event was a really nice guy named Brad, and he seemed to like my enthusiasm and interest in his work. He was using gear that I had never seen before - all medium format cameras, including a Koni-Omega Rapid 100 and a Mamiya RB67, along some big old Speedotron strobes with umbrellas. I can't remember the exact details, but somehow (I think through my folks), I was able to land a job as an assistant to Brad. Since I had a driver's license, all I needed to do was show up - in a tuxedo (which he actually purchased for me) - and help out with everything.

For a good year and a half, I would find myself going to about one event a week, sometimes as many as three, working as both a photo and video assistant. Keeping pockets full of film and batteries, shooting candids on the dance floor, and helping carry stuff around, obviously. It was a really great experience. And because of it, I can assume that I've attended well over 100 weddings and Bar Mitzvahs over the years. I think that experience has a lot to do with why I'm not the biggest fan of fancy events like that...

I decided to take a crack at studying graphic design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and my photography a pretty significant portion of my college application portfolio. Once I got to school, however, my interest in photography began to wane, and I became obsessed with making things on the computer. Scanners, printers, big monitors... I ate it up at any chance I could get. At school, the Art & Technology department was right next to the video department, and it didn't take long for me to totally turn my back on film photography, and dive into video. We had a couple of Video Toasters, an early Avid system, and some Macs running the first versions of Adobe Premiere (the one with the horse on the splashscreen). That was the first time I'd ever seen a progress bar with an estimated time to completion that reported "about a day".

We'll skip ahead to about 2001. I was working as a Mac tech guy that specialized in the graphic design field. My clients were mostly small design firms, advertising/marketing agencies, and the occasional school. One of my clients was a direct mail design firm - they designed those credit card applications you'd get in the mail from various banks or department stores - you know, junk mail. One of the art directors at this firm was a rather creative fellow, and he put together a little two light studio in an empty cubicle at their office, where he would take these really great-looking digital photos of the various credit cards that they would use in their designs - with a Nikon Coolpix 900 (I think? I know it was one of those 3MP swivel-jobs). I was totally blown away by the quality of the results that he was getting. Little did I know that the quality of the light he was using was a big part of that, but suffice to say - it was enough to get my attention. He upgraded to a Nikon D100, the first "affordable" consumer DSLR, and that convinced me - it was time to go digital.

In my next post, I'll talk about my first digital camera, and get into my thoughts about Nikon.

Thanks for reading.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

iOS Game: Super Stickman Golf

I've been a "moderate" video gamer for the past 5 or six years. When I first moved to New York in 2006, I decided to purchase a Nintendo DS Lite (the white one, which was all that was available at the time), and it wasn't long before a bunch of my friends at work got NDSes of their own, and the next thing I knew, we were playing multi-player Mario Kart DS, having loads of fun.

The Mario Kart DS thing reminded me of just how much I prefer multi-player video gaming, specifically in real-time, where everyone is in the same room (at least within earshot of one another). The game that introduced me to this concept (back in the mid-90s) was Red Planet (and also BattleTech), from the (now defunct) Virtual World Entertainment Group. But that's a story for another time. Another Nintendo-specific example of this would be Super Bomberman for the SNES (with 4 or 5 players). Seriously fun times.

Recently I was turned onto an iOS game called Super Stickman Golf. I was pleasantly surprised with the overall cleanliness and simplicity of the graphic design of the game, and after playing it for about five minutes, I could tell that this was going to be a good game. Granted, I do have a soft spot for games of this nature (the old Apple II game "Howitzer" comes to mind, along with Pocket Tanks, too), so it wasn't that hard of a sell.

The game has been seeing a lot of press lately (I've seen it mentioned a lot over the past couple of weeks), so I'm not going to get too into the basics. What I will get into is the one aspect of the game that takes it over the top, putting into "this is a great game" territory - multiplayer.

Now, we all know that golf - in both its traditional form, and its derivative forms (miniature golf/putt-putt, and even disc golf) - is a game that is made a bit more fun and challenging when playing against others. If you and your two pals go out to play together, the object of the game is to complete the course as efficiently as possible. Whoever makes it to the end with the fewest strokes wins. Easy.

You might think that in a video game version of golf, this same set of rules would be used for a multiplayer game. But this is where it gets interesting - Super Stickman Golf is set up as a race. Whoever sinks the ball in the hole first wins that round. When playing with (the maximum) four players, there's a point-based ranking system, where the first place winner gets 3 points, second place gets 2 points, etc. Which means that the scores can actually swing pretty heavily from round to round.

Having only had the opportunity to play a four player game once (for about 10 minutes), I can already tell that this game scratches the same itch that Mario Kart and the other real-time multiplayer games scratched. There's just something about being able to see and hear the excitement and frustration of your opponents while you are all playing together.

I know that there are other games out there that use the internet, along with a headset and/or a camera, but I don't think it's the same. I'm trying to think of non-video games that are in the same category, but the only thing that's coming to me is Hungry Hungry Hippos. Man, that was a loud fucking game.

Anyway, if any of you folks who are reading this decide to splurge on this game - which, I might add, works on both iPad AND iPhone, so if you own both, you can actually have a little two-player action for the price of one - and you happen to be set up with Apple's Game Center - hit me up. My Game Center user ID is "-dg".

I'm telling you, it's tons-o-fun.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Hand Trucks. (or, how I manage to travel in the city with all of my stuff - without a car)

When I moved to New York City from Chicago in April of 2006, I did so with my trusty Subaru Impreza mini-wagon. I loved that car. It was small enough to fit into tight spots, but big enough on the inside to hold a ton of stuff.

By August (a mere 4 months later), I had realized that it was financially unfeasible for me to own a car. I had already gotten two or three parking tickets, my insurance premium had nearly doubled (from what I was paying in Chicago), and I was still paying off the car. It was something like $500 a month, all together. And given that the majority of the driving I was doing was just moving the car from one side of the street to the other a couple of times a week, it just didn't make any sense.

A couple of craigslist posts and a week or two later, and I was able to sell the car, essentially handing over the payments to the new owner. Nice and simple.

Of course, that put me into a new category - someone who has a lot of stuff, but doesn't have a the means to move it around. At the time, it made a lot of sense: I wasn't playing the drums actively (all of that stuff was actually in a storage unit, anyway), and I was working at Apple on the night shift, full time. So it's not like I had a ton of stuff to carry around.

But as I settled into becoming a New Yorker, I started to get back into playing music, and it wasn't too much longer before I decided that I wanted to become a professional photographer. And you know what that means, right? Of course. All professionals must have tons and tons of gear. It's a simple matter of fact. So how the hell was I supposed to carry around my drums and/or camera and lighting gear around? Big backpacks were a definite help, but what if I needed MORE? You guessed it: hand trucks.

I've had a folding hand truck of some sort for quite some time; I actually kept it in the trunk of my car back in the day. The first one I got was one of these: a Ruxxac fold flat cart, with an extended toe plate (that's what they call the bottom part of the cart, where your stuff sits). This cart is great. It's light weight (only a few pounds), and it really does fold down to be like, 2" thick. I actually still have it, and use it from time to time, depending on the situation.

The downsides to this old guy are that it's starting to get a little "loose" in its old age (it's over 10 years old, at this point, so I don't think it really owes me anything), and it takes about 15 seconds to set up. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but believe it or not, the modern day incarnation of this design has been vastly improved, and can be set up in like, 5 seconds. And when you're standing out in the rain at 3am, trying to break down your cart so you can get it into the back of a cab, every second counts. More on that later.

Once I started getting busier with playing the drums here in NYC, I found myself needing to solve the problem of getting my stuff around with the least amount of effort and expense possible. Sure, I could use a Zipcar or take a taxi, but those options are a bit pricey and sometimes just impractical. Catching a cab in Bushwick was next to impossible, anyway.

So the Ruxxac is a great cart for hauling around a bass drum case (ranging in size from about 18x18x18 up to 26x20x20 or so), along with another bag sitting on top of it. It could also handle a nice stack of small photo cases, like the Lightware MultiFormat case I use for my lights, the Pelican case for my camera, and a couple of older Domke satchels, filled with other odds and ends. I'll generally bungee a stand bag to the back, as well.

Sometimes, however, the Ruxxac is a little too much of a cart for the job. It's a little bulky to carry around folded up (I'm too short to just hold it by its handle; it hits the ground as I walk), and again, it's slower to set up and break down. So I was shopping around one day and came across this little guy: the Magna Cart. It looks bigger than it really is in the pictures. This cart is essentially the same as the Ruxxac, but it's about 20% smaller. It also has some nice features that let you set it up and break it down with just one hand (and a foot) in like, 5 seconds.

This cart is great for smaller, more compact loads. Like, a stack of 2 or 3 photo cases, or just one big fat stand bag, bungeed to the handle. It can't handle much more than 100 pounds, though, so you can't get too crazy with it.

There's only one shortcoming that I can speak of with this cart: the handle is a bit too fragile. The handle is made of (I'm guessing) aluminum squared tubing, and the design is such that the top section telescopes into the bottom section. Just like the built-in pull handles found on most wheeled luggage these days. There's a nifty lock/release bar just under the main grip at the top of the handle, which is usable with a single hand (just pull up on it, and you can adjust the length of the handle; easy).

So let's say you're walking down the street with your Magna Cart, and everything is swell. You're pulling it behind you, and uh-oh - the cart gets stuck on a bump or a large crack in the sidewalk. You weren't pulling that aggressively, and the cart slips out of your hand. Because of the angle that you were pulling it behind you, the cart doesn't land back on its base plate (or toe plate), it instead tips forward, and ends up landing on the handle. Depending on the load and how you've got it secured, this can put too much stress on the thin aluminum tubes that make up the handle - causing them to bend. I've dropped mine in this fashion maybe 3 times, and I can tell that it's only got maybe one or two more drops left in it before the handle gets bent enough to become unable to properly extend and retract. Fortunately, I've been able to muscle it back into a usable shape, but again, it's not really constructed that strongly, and I think it's days are numbered.

That all said, I think it's a fine cart. Especially for the price; I think I spend about $35 on mine. My Ruxxac cart cost closer to $100, I think. But I bought it from Calumet Photo in Chicago, and they aren't exactly known for the their rock-bottom pricing.

The next cart I got was my favorite. I say "was" because, unfortunately, I managed to misplace it while moving this winter. I picked up a Wesco Maxi Mover from Adorama, and it was great. It had the speed and convenience of the Magna Cart, plus the capacity and larger toe plate of the Ruxxac. I've decided to wait until the Ruxxac completely dies on me to replace it, however.

Why? Because I'm crazy, and I figured if I was gonna spend money on yet another hand truck, I should get something that could hold even more stuff, and be easier to move around. I'm sure you've all seen the kind of cart I'm talking about. I used to see photocopier repair guys with these things all the time. They're made of steel, and have this nifty little feature - a second set of smaller wheels with a little "kickstand" that supports the cart at the optimum 45ยบ angle you'd hold it at when pushing or pulling it.

I did some more shopping and research, and decided that this one would be the best compromise as far as cost, size, and capacity were concerned: The Clipper 880. A bit more expensive, yes. But - this thing can hold a TON of stuff, and it feels really solid. And man, that little rear wheel thingie kicks ass. It's really nice to be able to just let the cart sit there, ready to roll, without having to "knock it over" into position any time I get moving again after coming to a stop. Which, given my current living situation (in a neighborhood where there are lots of trains nearby, but they're all a good 5-10 minute walk away) happens a lot.

I've only had the Clipper for a few weeks, so I can't really speak to its durability just yet, but so far, it's been a real champ. Another nice feature is that when you flip the helper wheels back up, they let you use a pair of metal rails that make sliding the cart up or down stairs relatively painless (down is obviously way easier than up).

My only knock on the design is that the helper wheels don't seem to lock into place when they're not being used. I might keep a small bungee cord on hand to keep it secured for situations where I won't need it (or if I've got a lot of stairs to deal with).

So that's my take on hand trucks. Gotta love 'em!




Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cool iOS app: Instacast

I've been a podcast listener for a pretty long time; I'd guess 3 or 4 years at least. As the podcasting world has grown and evolved, I've found myself subscribing to more and more of them. Hell, I've even joined the ranks myself (but that's a different story altogether).

I thought I'd share my thoughts on one of my favorite new iOS apps: Instacast. It costs two bucks.

Here's the nutshell review:

Instacast allows me to download podcasts directly from my phone (on both WiFi networks, or over 3G), has a much better "info display" than the iPod app, and has the ability to play in the background. My favorite feature - the ability to tweak the << and >> buttons to skip backwards and forwards in specified intervals (5, 10, 30 seconds; even up to 10 minutes!).

Now, the details.

I should preface this by stating that I get the impression that this is a relatively well-maintained app, and that the developer is one of those types that is constantly trying to improve things. In the short time that I've been using it, it's been updated twice; both times adding some nice new features.


When you first add a new podcast, the app will list all of its available episodes. The first thing I'll do after adding a new one is to mark them all as played, which can be done in a single step. Then I'll go through the listing individually, tapping on any episodes that look interesting, and then reading their descriptions. This alone is way better/easier than doing so in iTunes on my computer, as iTunes only offers the first 100 or so characters of what might be several paragraphs of text. This is also where any show notes/links might be found, should the podcast's producers include them in the subscription. You can tap on the links, and it'll take you right to them, which is nice.

Once I've found an episode I want to listen to, I'll mark it as unplayed (either by pushing the little button in the lower left corner, or swiping from left to right in the episode listing. This is a little confusing at first - left-to-right swipes toggle played/unplayed status, where right-to-left swipes toggle starred/unstarred status. I haven't really needed to star anything, but I can see how some folks might find that useful.

All unplayed episodes will appear in the master "All Episodes" list. From here, you can decide how you want to handle each new episode - you can start listening it to via streaming, you can download it, or you can mark it as read or star it. If you have a bunch of episodes in there, you can add them all to a batch download queue (the app calls this "caching"), and it'll download them in the background - even if you're not in the app. Pretty slick.

The application has a few nice little sound effects for feedback, and it will bring up notification dialogs when new episodes are available and/or finished downloading.

To really get things working the way you want them to, you'll need to spend some time in the app's settings page, which is kept in the iPhone's Settings app. Here is where you can set your preferences for how often it'll check for new episodes, whether or not you want it to auto-download them or not, whether or not it will use 3G (handy for those with bandwidth caps), and a bunch of other options as well.

Again, my favorite option is the way you can set the << and >> buttons to behave. It's not uncommon for me to have been listening to a podcast using the iPod app, and want to pause it. My headphones don't have a remote on them, so the quickest way for me to do this is to double-click the home button on my phone, which brings up the simplified iPod playback controls - << (rewind), > (play or pause), >> (forward), and the volume slider beneath them - and then hit the pause button. I can't tell you how many times I've miss-hit the pause button and wound up hitting one its neighbors instead. If you hit either of these buttons, the podcast will either jump to the next one in your list, or start over from the beginning. Super annoying. Sometimes, it'd even lose its place, and I'd have to go back into the iPod app and scrub around manually until I got myself back to the spot where I'd left off.

In Instacast, the << and >> controls function as "skip" buttons. So when I fat-finger the >> button by mistake, I'm only jumped ahead 30 seconds. And if I want to go back, I can just hit the << button, which will take me back 30 seconds. Very cool. I also use this feature for skipping some of the more heavy-handed advertising, just like one might do with a Tivo to skip commercials.

So there you have it. This app has definitely changed the way I do the podcast thing (for the better), and it might do the same for you.


Bigups to my good pal Kiran for turning me onto it in the first place.



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

how to upgrade the firmware on an OWC SSD without installing Windows

Wow, has it really been almost 2 years since my last post?


Well, let this post mark my triumphant return to the blog-o-sphere.

If you're here to read about how to do the upgrade, skip to the bottom. Read on for the full story.

A couple of months ago, a friend of mine gave me a 120GB OWC SSD. One of these, to be specific. She was having issues with the drive after having installed it into her MacBook (one of the older, first-gen white ones), where the machine would seem to arbitrarily freeze up. This would happen a few minutes after the machine had been powered up and/or awakened from sleeping.

I took the drive home, and figured I'd install it in my older, MacBook Pro (a 4,1 machine; the last version prior to the unibody models), figuring that it'd give that machine a nice little performance bump.

And sure enough, after getting everything installed and set up, the machine was booting in 15 seconds, launching apps instantly, and performing very impressively. This wasn't my main machine, however, so I wasn't really spending much time working on it.

Skip to this past weekend, where I decided that I'd take a crack at experimenting with some audio software (for an upcoming project), and lo and behold - after about 20 minutes of regular use, the machine would just seize up on me. Spinning beach ball, no errors, no warning. The only way out was to power the machine off forcefully (by holding down the power button for a few seconds).

The machine would come back up quickly, which was nice, but the freezing issue seemed to persist. I noticed that it would also happen after putting the machine to sleep by shutting the lid and re-opening it.

I did some basic troubleshooting; re-installed the OS, ran diagnostics, etc, but nothing seemed to stick.

I started doing some research online, and found that OWC had recently released a firmware update for their SSDs, which allegedly addressed this issue, along with another problem related to sleep/hibernation that other folks seem to be experiencing.

Here's where things start to get annoying. For some reason, despite the fact that OWC's target customer base is predominately Macintosh-based (macsales.com, hello?), the firmware updater is only available for the Windows operating system. To their credit, OWC did put together a pretty well laid-out page of documentation, but all of their solutions involve either installing Windows, or having access to a machine running Windows.
And the kicker here is that the drive MUST be connected to the computer via SATA - so you can't simply plug the drive into a drive sled and bring it over to your pal's house and plug it in via USB. It has to be attached via SATA. I'm not sure if eSATA would work... but I'll go out on a limb and guess that it won't, cuz eSATA can be a bit finicky.

So. My first thought was to call up my good buddy Bill. He's got a nice little home-made Windows box, and he pulls drives in and out of it all the time. I speak to him, and uh-oh - his recent switch to the Hackintosh Way means that he doesn't actually have a bootable version of Windows set up anymore.

Strike One.

My next option is to take the documentation's suggestion to go ahead and install Bootcamp and Windows on my machine, and run the update that way. Sigh. Fine.

So I go ahead and download and burn a Windows 7 installer, and go through the whole Bootcamp/Windows installation routine. This takes some time.

Finally, I've got the old MacBook booting into Windows, and yay, the updater is downloaded and installed, and ready to roll! I fire it up and hit the "update" button and - FREEZE. The machine completely locks up. White space where the dialog just disappeared. No cursor. Frozen. Sigh.

I reboot again, and figure "huh, maybe there are some software updates I need to run or something". So I go through the hassle of downloading and installing every Bootcamp and Windows 7 update I can find.

Again, no luck. Freezetown, population: me.

Strike Two.

Finally, it's getting late, and I decide to give the folks at OWC a call. Can't hurt, right?

So after telling my whole story to the nice fellow from OWC, he puts me on hold for a bit, and comes back with a suggestion, which, I'm happy to report, actually worked. And best of all, it turns out to be WAY EASIER than going through the hassle of installing and updating Windows.

So, without further ado, here's what I did:

First, I assembled the necessary items to complete the task:

1x Windows installer (I used a Windows 7 SP1 disk, but I'd imagine that any 7, Vista, or XP disc would work just fine)

1x USB flash drive, formatted as a FAT32 volume (most of these come this way by default)

1x copy of the OWC SSD firmware updater software

Step one: MAKE SURE YOU'VE BACKED UP YOUR SSD. I don't think that this process is destructive, but you never know. You should always back your drive up before doing major stuff like this, anyway.

Step two: While booted into the Mac OS, you should add an additional MS-DOS formatted partition to your SSD. I already had one of these from my Bootcamp experiment, but from what I understand, the disk needs to have an MS-DOS/Windows-friendly partition on it in order for the firmware updater to see it.

To do this, simply fire up Disk Utility, select the SSD device from the menu on the left, then click on the "Partition" tab. Hit the "+" button in the lower left corner to add an additional partition - it'll appear as a white box underneath the existing (blue) box in the Volume Scheme section of the window. Click on it, and under the Volume Information section, be sure to select the "MS-DOS (FAT)" option from the Format pop-up menu. Name it whatever you want. Make it however big you want (you'll be deleting it afterwards).

Then hit the "Apply" button. This process shouldn't take too long.
When it's done, you should see a new hard drive icon appear on your desktop (assuming you have that setting turned on in the Finder), and you now have a Windows-friendly partition on your SSD.

Step Three: Download the SSD firmware updater, decompress it, and copy it to the top level of your USB flash drive. Be sure to grab the whole folder (it's got 4 files in it, if you count .DS_Store files as actual files).

Step Four: Insert your Windows installer disc, and restart your computer. As soon as you hear the startup chime, hold down the option key on your keyboard. When you see the cursor arrow appear on your screen, you can let go, and in a moment, you should see an optical disc icon with the word "Windows" under it. Click it, and hit return.

Your screen should turn black at this point, and you will probably see a flashing white cursor in the upper left hand corner of the screen. You might also get prompted to "press any key to boot into Windows" or something like that. Go ahead and do that. You should hear the optical drive spin up, and eventually, the Windows installer will appear.

Select your language preference, and get to the dialog where you get to choose if you want to do an install or a recovery. You want to do a Recovery.

You can plug your USB flash drive in at this point, if you haven't done so already, by the way.

Now, I should mention that I'm far from an expert when it comes to Windows, so I can't really tell you how this will work with install discs that aren't Windows 7, which is what I used.

Moving forward, once you get to the "recovery" dialog, you should see an option to use a command prompt. On my disc, it was the bottom-most one. Select this, and you should then see an old school DOS window appear. It took me a few tries, but I was able to eventually find my USB flash drive at E:. For those who don't know how to hunt/peck, here's what I did: at the prompt, type "C:". This should be one of the volumes on the SSD. If you get an C:> prompt, you can type "dir" and hit return, and that should give you a directory listing. If you don't see your firmware update folder, then you can move onto the next letter. Type "D:" (return), and then "dir" (return). Keep doing this until you find your files.

Once you've found your files, you can access the directory by typing "cd" and then the directory name. I was pleasantly surprised to find that hitting the tab key auto-completed the directory name for me (unix stylie), so I didn't have to type the whole thing. Once in the directory, I did another "dir", and just typed the name of the executable file, which is called "ssdupdate.exe". After hitting return, a new window popped up, and I found myself looking at the firmware updater application window. It looked a lot like what I saw before, but it was a little different. It had more of a Windows 2000/XP sort of feel to it.

Anyway, from there, I just followed the same steps as I tried before - selected the firmware .pkg file, checked the little checkbox for the drive I wanted to update, and then... I hit the button. And to my delight, the dialog went away, the window redrew itself properly, and lo and behold - the firmware update completed. It look like, 15 seconds.

I restarted the machine, and everything seemed fine. All of my data was there, and it booted up as if nothing happened. I went into Apple System Profiler to check on the firmware version number, and sure enough - it was updated. I went back into Disk Utility and removed the MS-DOS partition,

So. That's the whole story. I've been using the machine for a few hours now (since the update), and it hasn't frozen up yet. I suppose there's still a chance it could happen, but so far, so good.

Sorry for the big ramble. Hopefully this was helpful for you.