Monday, December 7, 2009

Windows 7 – is it worth it?

Software Review

I don’t know about you but I have found Vista to be the most frustrating Windows system I’ve used to date, and I’ve used almost all Windows versions since 3.1. I’ve had more crashes, BSOD’s (blue screen of death) and system hang-up’s whilst using Vista than I’d care to shake a stick at and at times I’ve sworn I’ll never touch another dam Microsoft product ever again. There’s no two ways about it, Microsoft well and truly lost the plot with Vista and have alienated more users than anyone thought possible. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’d recently invested quite substantially in a quad-core 64-bit photo-system complete with 8gb ram and twin monitors early last year, and that my entire software library is Windows based, I would have turned to the dark side by now and bought a Mac. I think Steve Jobs said Vista was the best bit of advertising Apple had ever had and he wasn’t wrong.

So why you may ask did I plumb for Windows 7. Well to try and get me out of a hole. Normally I’d give any new Windows system a wide berth for at least a year and not until the first Service Pack had been issued. But I just couldn’t face another year of constant, almost daily problems with Vista-64. I just had to do something, it was driving me mad. I, like many others, have come to loath Vista with a vengeance. I had two options, revert to XP-64 Professional or risk Windows 7.

Windows 7 certainly seems to have been well received by the press, it’s generally had great reviews, is reputed to relatively stable, and promises a quick boot up and a more responsive system. Well, lets face it, it wouldn’t take much to be a more responsive than Vista, a system which couldn’t hold a lick of paint to it’s predecessor, Windows XP.

But which version to buy, Home, Professional or Ultimate? Well one look at the fine print and I realised the much cheaper Home edition is of no use to me. I need the 64 bit version and I need XP backwards compatibility (as some of my older industry related software only runs with XP), so I had to fork out just under £150 for Windows 7 Professional ... what a rip-off Microsoft!

The Installation

I had a stroke of luck here. I downloaded and ran the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor program from the MS website and in doing that I came across the Windows Easy Transfer program. I’d already backed up all my data and user files to external (and internal) drives, but decided to run this and give it ago. It took a long time however, over 3 1/2 hours to create a 32.8 gb MIG file on an internal HD. By the way, I’d been told by my PC manufacturer to go for a clean install, so I did NOT buy the Windows 7 upgrade version. Reading the feedback on Amazon had already made me wary of that. I placed my 64-bit version in the DVD drive and crossed my fingers and prepared for a long wait.

Rather surprisingly the installation went very quickly, certainly a lot faster than other installs I’ve done in the past (which are too numerous to mention), so I was quite surprised to be staring at a clean desktop just over an hour later. First impressions were good, opening, closing menus and moving windows certainly seemed a lot more responsive, and boot up time was much much quicker than Vista, but far from being fast.  I can’t say I liked the new large task bar which displays just Icons, but thankfully you can configure it to look like the far more sensible taskbar we’re all used (why do MS keep messing with things?). I also found many new drivers had been installed and my internet connect worked first time…things were looking promising. However, the new Nvidia control panel seemed to have rendered garish oversaturated colours to the desktop.

Windows Easy Transfer
I then decided to try the Easy Transfer and double clicked my saved MIG file. I’d saved all my email, documents, pictures and UAC settings and it even allowed my to merge my previous user account with the new and different named account in Windows 7. Initial timings suggested this process was going to take forever, but that gradually decreased to somewhere in the region of 5 hours. I went to bed.

The next morning I was surprised to find my old desktop had been restored complete with icons (although some were empty), all my documents, pictures and music files were present and correct and even some software seemed to have been installed (VueScan). Other desktop folders were present too, my internet favourites and preferences for some other software reinstated too, even though the software hadn’t been re-installed.

I then had to go through the laborious procedure of re-installing all my software (in my case a hell of a lot), and I’m still doing that even now, a couple of days later.


First Impressions

To be honest it looks just like Vista. There appears to be very little difference. The taskbar as I mentioned is different, the notification area (those little icons at the bottom right) has had a makeover, and the start menu is pretty much the same. But gone are the quick launch icons to the right of the start button. I find this incredibly annoying. This is one of the features I used constantly in XP & Vista and now it’s gone. Well, actually it’s hidden and now almost impossible to find. Why Microsoft do this sort of thing is quite beyond belief. I had to search on the web to find out how to get the quick launch back and found good instructions here.

Items can now be pinned to the taskbar, but in reality is no different from the old quick launch menu which worked just fine. Gone also is the Show Desktop icon, it’s now a menu item when you right click the taskbar and also as a blank button at the far right of the taskbar after the time (which I found by accident). If you opt for items on the taskbar to display Icons and text you will now have the text ‘Quick Launch’ where before you had just icons. There is probably a way to get around this but I don’t want to waste another hour trawling the internet trying to find it. This is another retrograde step I’m afraid and just another reason why I hate Microsoft. It’s just SO annoying when you have got used to a process that works perfectly well and then the designers suddenly decide to do away with it for absolutely no good reason. It’s a sure fire way to piss-off your users. The very least Microsoft should do is have a one click button to gain access to your ‘classic’ interface.

You can now shake a Window title bar and it will close all other windows, drag it to the top of the screen and it will expand to full screen, features no doubt for the touch screen users in mind but only a minor cosmetic change for most.

After just a couple of days I’m still getting used to the new system but most things are familiar, however it definitely appears much more responsive. Copying files seems faster too, which is quite important for us digital photographers, although I’ve yet to do any timing tests. The dreaded UAC (user account control) has been toned down somewhat, so you are no longer pestered with so many confirmation dialogs when you want to copy or move files, although you still get them when installing software. 


Potential Problems so far

It took less than 24 hours for my first crash and I have a few more since. Internet explorer keeps locking up every once in a while, which I suspect may be due to one of the add-ins, probably my Adobe Acrobat 8 standard, which I’ve had problems activating. My photos and screen colours seem much more saturated. I’ve downloaded the latest driver for my Nvidia 8800 GT card and have calibrated both monitors with my X-rite ColorMunki but they still appear more saturated than before. I still haven’t got to the bottom of this one yet. My Logitech VX Nano laser mouse failed to work, but a download of the most recent driver seems to have done the trick. As I mentioned earlier some of my old software is XP only and won’t install. I can set XP compatibility mode for a program that has already been installed, so no problem there, but have yet to find out how (or if) I can install a program in XP mode. I'm having exactly the same problems with sleep mode as I did with Vista. When the PC wakes more often than not my mouse won't work and I'm forced to do a hard boot. However most annoying of all, is that Microsoft still haven't fixed the bug in Explorer if you display files in details mode. The column width still truncates long file names forcing the user to right click the column header and select Size All Columns to Fit. There must be a million posts on the web regarding this problem just in Vista alone never mind Windows 7, so for Microsoft to retain the same bug is just so staggeringly mind blowing it makes you wonder whether those programmers at MS ever actually use the software themselves! 

Missing Stuff and Downloads

There’s no Live Mail, no Instant Messenger, no Parental Controls, no Movie-Maker, and no photo Gallery included with Windows 7. Presumably victims of EC anticompetitive laws. You can however obtain these as free downloads from Microsoft where they have all had a makeover.  One new addition is Windows Live Writer (which I’m using now) which allows bloggers to compile their blogs offline and upload when complete. It even offers integration with the most popular blogging sites, but although my theme was successfully downloaded, it failed to recognise any of my previous posts.

SO Is it Worth it THEM?

On cost no way, it is vastly over-priced, and to be honest after the Vista debacle Microsoft should have been giving this away as a free upgrade. Vista didn’t do what it said on the tin, so to charge this much money for what is really a Vista fix is robbery. Lets face it, most of Windows 7 is Vista code anyway, so we, the hapless consumer are largely paying for the same stuff twice. On ease of use, so far so good, a vast improvement over Vista; I’ll keep you posted on that one. For me I really didn’t have much option to upgrade or not, rather I had too. I still hate Microsoft for all the re-installs and troubleshooting I had to do, and all the countless hours I’ve wasted trying to fix Vista. My initial impressions is that Windows 7 is very much a Vista Service Pack in disguise. For people frustrated with Vista Home, then at least Windows 7 Home is a relatively cheap option and my advice (although some what begrudgingly) would be to bite the bullet and upgrade. For Professional and Ultimate users it may calm your Vista frustrations but offers very poor value for money. If you’re a happy XP user and don’t feel the need for a fancy looking interface I’d stay stick with it for the foreseeable future.

A Personal Opinion

It seems to me that Microsoft have lost their way somewhat since XP, roughly about the time Bill Gates relinquished control. Love him or hate him I think they have floundered since. I used to admire MS but not anymore. They don't appear to listen to their customers, and imposed what they think we should have, rather than listen to what we actually want. They remove features and change interfaces we have used for years and replace them with new ones forcing the user to waste time re-learning our day-to-day software with no options to revert back to the interface we're used to. Who the hell wanted ribbons for instance, why remove or hide menus. It's completely bonkers. I’m aware of several major companies within my occupational industry who refuse to upgrade to Office 2007 because nobody likes the new interface and they don't want their employees to waste further time being retrained even to be able to perform just the basics tasks. Microsoft have managed to piss-off so many of their core customers over the last few years, people who have grown up using Windows and liked the way it functioned. Forgetting them as Microsoft has done is nothing short of appalling. I think the time is ripe for other companies to challenge the Microsoft dominance.

Friday, November 20, 2009

False Kiva, Canyonlands

Photographic Location

I first became aware of False Kiva location from the excellent Canyonlands and Arches DVD by photographer Steve Kossack from his series Photographing The Great American Landscape. My purchase at the time was more out of curiosity and to gain further insight to landscape photographic technique rather than a specific interest in the locations covered. At that time I only had dreams of visiting locations like these. However that changed in the summer of 2009 when the Birch family decided on a fly-drive holiday in the USA.
 False Kiva (Jul 2009) 0070
Whilst researching possible photographic locations for our trip I came across a picture of False Kiva by the photographer Stephen Oachs. His is entitled "The Tribunal" and to be quite honest I was simply blown away, not just by his stunning photograph, but by his capture of such a breathtaking location. I decided that this was a place just too good to miss. It is however, the photograph "Ruin in a Cave" by celebrated Moab based photographer Tom Till, that brought notoriety to this location more than any other photograph, so if you get to Moab don't forget to visit his gallery and see his version first hand too.
I soon found out that False Kiva is not the easiest place to find. It's situated in the Island In The Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, about 35 miles from the town of Moab. It's a category II listed archaeological site and is not marked on any maps or guides, nor will you find any signs for the trail. In fact it's almost a secret location. However, if you ask at the park visitor centre the rangers are obliged to give you directions. In my case a young female ranger presented me with a single page summary in a folder for a few minutes and I wasn't allowed to take notes. She didn't say directly but I was left in no doubt that she didn't approve of me visiting the site, especially when I mentioned photography. I was also requested not to divulge it's whereabouts to other people. The details presented were sketchy to say the least. Had I been familiar with the park and the terrain it may have meant more, but I was not, so I knew I wouldn't be able to recall enough detail to get me there. I left the visitor centre with the distinct feeling that the general public are totally discouraged from visiting this site. There is perhaps, good reason for the rangers attitude, as many of the archaeological sites over recent years have been vandalised and treated with disrespect. I was not one of those people however, and can't abide or comprehend what causes any person to commit such an act. It seems photographers around these parts don't always have a good name.
The following day I made an early morning trip to Mesa Arch to photograph the sunrise and had the good fortune to meet two fellow photographers, Jim and Tom. After the glorious red glow beneath the arch had faded our conversation turned to other locations and photography in general and I brought up the subject of False Kiva. Lucky for me (and Jim too), Tom, a Canyonlands regular, had visited the site a few times before. Jim and I were keen to go, and Tom kindly agreed to take us so we agreed to meet at 5pm later that day and hike out to try and catch the late afternoon sun.

You may be wondering why this location is called False Kiva. A kiva is a room used by Puebloan Indians, thought to be used for spiritual ceremonies and communal purposes. Many kivas comprise circular rooms which are often sunken into the ground, bearing a thatch roofs with a central opening and ladder for entry. The ruin at False Kiva simply comprises a low circular wall, so it is not know whether this was a true kiva or not.

The path to False Kiva commences just before the trail head to Aztec Butte on the road to Upheaval Dome and we all met up near the parking spot by the side of the road. The trail heads out across the mesa top and gradually descends over a dry waterfall and down a boulder and scree section which takes you well down below the mesa top where eventually it levels out and crosses directly below False Kiva, before ascending into the alcove from the far side. It's a bit of a scramble and you need to watch your footing, especially when loaded with photographic gear, but it's not as difficult as some web sites make out. Just take care and plenty of water if you go when it's hot. It probably took us the best part of an hour from the road.

When you arrive in the alcove the view (to coin an American phrase) is truly awesome. False Kiva is set in a huge half dome shape alcove set back into the mesa cliff face with stupendous views over the green river canyon and candlestick butte in the distance. You can see for over 50 miles. The stone circle is set in central position toward the front and there's plenty of room for tripods behind. There's an eerie cathedral like silence and presence within the alcove and you can see why the Pueploans thought this a spiritual place. It is indeed a very special place.

The afternoon storms had arrived during our hike and now the skies were dull, grey and full of cloud, and the canyon below overcast and devoid of contrast. Still, one could help shooting off several frames no matter what the weather. We chatted and waited and hoped for break in the weather, but still the clouds persisted. The company was good, lots of banter, both photographic and other topics, and time past. This was still and awesome place and it felt good to be there. Then just when we were beginning to discuss leaving, the clouds abated to the north and golden sunlight lit the canyon floor and walls and shutters snapped to and fro. Dramatic stormy skies, and sun, all we could have hope for.

Eventually the sun light faded and soon it would be getting dark. Time to pack up and head back. By now we could hear voices approaching as a party of 4 made their way across the scree. And guess who it was, no other than the young female ranger who had been so discouraging to me, and yet here she was bringing a party of her friends to the site. Just a tad hypocritical don't you think? We left leaving them in the alcove. The best light had long gone. After about 15 minutes walking, we observed the other party set off back too and to our surprise a couple of their members decide to try a short cut from the wrong side of the alcove down the steep boulders. Very ill advised. We turned out of sight as they struggled with their poor decision.

False Kiva is a fabulous photographic location and for me the high light of my US trip without doubt. Don't be put off by other parties, it's well worth the effort, but do respect the nature of the site, don't disturb anything and leave only footprints.

Photographic Information

The alcove is in shade in the afternoon. If the sun is bright there will be high contrast between the dark alcove, the sky and canyon floor. I found I needed to use ND grads to compensate. I tried from 2 to 5 stops (3+2), but settled on a 3 stop grad for most shots. Unfortunately this really darkens the roof at the right side alcove which appears in the frame, but is needed to hold back the sky (see Tom Till's photo). I did try bracketing in the hope to try some HDR but the clouds were moving too fast and this rendered an unsatisfactory and unnatural looking sky. You'll need a wide angle. I used my canon EF 16 35 mm F2.8 and shot most frames between 18-22mm on a full frame Canon 5D MII. I brightened some of the dark areas with the adjustment brush in Lightroom, and adjusted clarity, vibrance, some minor chromatic aberration and added some sharpening.

Recommended Links

Photographer Stephen Oachs 'The Tribunal'
Photographer Tom Till
Steve Kossack's F8 And Be There
Nation Parks Canyonlands Site
PDF Map of Canyonlands

Photographic Locations Nearby

These are almost too numerous to mention. Mesa Arch, Green River Overlook, Deadhorse Point to mention but a few. Don't forget Arches National Park too.


I stumbled upon this  blog the other day, that of a ranger who obviously detests photographers. Our visit to False Kiva occurred around the same time although she certainly wasn't the ranger I talked to at the visitor centre that day and we certainly didn't stand within the Kiva circle. Maybe Tom or Jim can recall if she was one of the party. Not all rangers are like this however. On the whole I found them to be well informed, courteous and extremely helpful. Kicking over cairns seems a somewhat drastic, stupid and inordinately inane action to take as these provide guidance and safety for hikers. There is a trail to False Kiva there is no denying that, it's just not well marked and if rangers can visit with their entourage then why not anyone else. No doubt this particular ranger would be quite happy if a photographer got lost and walked off the edge of the mesa. What a hypocrite!


And last but not least, a big thanks to Jim and Tom for such good company on an extremely enjoyable late afternoon.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Lightroom 3 Beta Release - First Impressions

Software Review

image I was quite surprised, like many others no doubt, to find out last Friday that Adobe had released a beta version of Lightroom 3 just 15 months after the full launch of Lightroom 2. They certainly managed to keep that one quiet! Lightroom has become my software of choice for DAM and RAW processing and I’ve used it from the very first beta release of version 1, so I was very keen to try out the new LR3 beta version. Some of the new features touted by Abobe are as follows:

  • New performance architecture, to allow for growing image libraries
  • Noise reduction for high ISO shots
  • Watermarking tool
  • Portable sharable slideshows with audio—designed to give you more flexibility and impact on how you choose to share your images, you can now save and export your slideshows as videos and include audio
  • Customizable print package for custom print layouts
  • Film grain simulation tool
  • New import handling dialog
  • More flexible online publishing options including ability to post images to sites such as FLICKR

Needless to say, after only a day or two there are already a substantial number of detailed reviews, first looks, videos and blogs (some of which I listed below) out there already. Most of these I suspect, have been posted by members of the Alpha testing group who are able get their hands on new Lightroom versions long before the general public do. Funnily enough I've only seen Michael Reichmann admit to being an alpha tester.


First Impressions

Firstly, I've only had a weekend so far to look at LR 3 beta so these are my very first impressions.  When I first saw the list of improvements and new features from Adobe I can't deny I was a tad disappointed. Where were Soft Proofing, Lens Distortion Correction, Perspective Correction, and a decent Keyword Manager? These were all around the top of my list of improvements, and plenty of others from what I gleaned from the various forum and web postings. I can't say Film Grain Simulation, Exporting to Flickr and Watermarking were anywhere near getting on my list, so I really can't understand why any time has been spent on these rather trivial features. However, this is by far from the finished package, and like the release of LR2, I can only assume they are saving the best till last. At least I truly hope so. Lets take a look at some of the headline changes.


New File Import Dialog

Well it's called a dialog box, but it's long, thin, very dark, has rounded corners, has a horizontal work flow and dims the rest of your screen when it's opened. It's quite unlike any dialog box I've seen before. In fact once expanded, it bears a more resemblance to a Lightroom module rather than a dialog box and has side panels and even a flourish! So just what is going on here?


Well there is more functionality perhaps, but I'm really not sure about the way it's been presented. What's the old adage "If it aint broke , don't fix it". There was absolutely nothing wrong with the old import dialog box in LR2 and I wasn’t aware of any significant proportion of users reporting problems with it. It performed admirably in my book so I have to confess I'm rather surprised time has been spent on developing this. You can however, you can have far more thumbnails visible (albeit with some weird vignette applied) and zoom in on photographs before importing them, which is perhaps a good thing. However, the way this is now presented, it's now surely an Import Module, and is no longer a dialog box. If that’s the case may be we should be seeing it as proper module and listed on the Module Picker.

I can understand why Adobe have gone with the dark colour, so you can judge your colour photographs against a similar background before importing them. However if it's going to be a dialog box, make it look like the others please, remove the stupid corners and make it match the other dialog boxes, lets have some continuity through out LR. As presented here it now looks very much like a bolt-on application and I truly hope the rest of the dialog boxes within LR are not going to end up looking like this.


RAW Processing

We’re promised faster and better RAW processing as the desmosaic engine for LR3 has completely been re-written from the ground up. However, being a PC user it’s not easy to determine, as this version seems optimised for Macs not PC’s. Just read the feedback on the forums already and you’ll see what I mean. Fast on a Mac, slow on a PC. I guess that’s understandable as I’m sure LR3 Beta is probably developed on Macs and then ported to PC’s, and who can blame Adobe when you have the awfully sluggish Windows Vista to deal with. 

My primary catalog has in excess of 100,000 photo files now, and it’s got to the stage where the size of the catalog has effected the speed of my workflow even on a quad-core 64 bit system running at 3.2 gHz, so speeding up my catalog is another key feature I was looking for. Unfortunately you can’t import your existing LR2 catalog into LR3 beta so I can’t test this feature. To import files and preserve your existing LR2 modifications you have to first save your edits as XMP side car files (Save Metadata to File from the Metadata menu in the Library module or via CRTL+S) and then read them back in once you imported the files into LR3 beta (Read Metadata to File from the Metadata menu in the Library module or via CRTL+R). Unfortunately there is a bug that prevents the user importing more than one folder at a time. Thus it’s highly unlikely I’m ever going to import my whole catalog folder by folder to test this feature.

I’ve tried a few side by side comparison of how LR3 beta processes RAW files as compared to LR2 and so far I can’t tell that much difference. On a few it definitely seems better, much smoother, but oddly quite a few of my pictures were rendered noticeably darker but I suspect this is something to do with a change in the way post crop vignetting works. It’s a bit too early to for me tell.


If you import a picture processed in LR2 you will see a little grey alert icon above the histogram on the left-hand side in the Develop Module. To take advantages of the the new LR3 beta process engine and controls such as the new noise control, and new post crop vignetting, you’ll need to click on this to upgrade. You can also choose which process version to use from Settings | Process Version.


Noise Reduction

The Colour Noise Reduction algorithm has been re-written for LR3, but if you elect to use the LR3 beta process engine you’ll find the Luminance Noise Reduction option greyed out. The latter I guess is still work under progress.  The Colour Noise Reduction is supposedly greatly improved, with criticism of the old version being that it tended to soften your image too much.  There is a noticeable improvement with the Colour Noise Reduction but I, like most I suspect, have used well established 3rd party products (in my case Noise Ninja Pro) which have provided sophisticated results and provide the ability to apply selective noise reduction to different parts of the image. Unless the final release of LR3 intends to add noise reduction to the brush tool I see little here to threaten the wide use of the third party products or alter my existing noise reduction workflow.


Custom Print Package

Lightroom 3 allows custom print layouts which gives much more control over your print layout, and you can even add colour backgrounds if you wish. This is some welcome additional functionality, but what we really want is the ability to add custom borders, frames, mattes and text.



Watermarks have been improved..a little. You can apply text or graphic and adjustable size, position, and opacity.


Other Improvements

At long last you can now choose to backup your catalog when you exit Lightroom rather than the next time it starts. You can sort Images by aspect ratio now too. You can also now create a collection directly within a collection set by simply right-clicking on the collection set, and you can now select to have an icon displayed on the grid thumbnails to indicate that image is part of a collection. One other point that pleases me is that filters are no longer ‘sticky’ to a folder or collection. Many’s the time I’ve returned to a folder and wondered where many of my photographs were only to eventually remember I had some filter applied. Catalog file optimisation is now selectable from the File menu rather than been hidden. Some of the more popular print sizes have been added to the crop presets, although I’m sure most of us will have already have created our own. You can also export your slideshows as movie files, even in full HD at 1080p. Post cropping vignetting has been modified ability to select either Highlight Priority or Colour Priority, and can produce a more pleasing effect. You can also now add grain to your pictures, to emulate film grain. I thought this a rather odd function to add as it’s normally the realm of Photoshop or third party plug-ins to provide these type of features. May be this is a sign that Adobe are eventually going to add some of the functionality oh Photoshop to LR. I certainly hope so, the less Photoshop the better as far as I’m concerned. There are also many other minor improvements that I’ve not yet had time to investigate.


What other features can we expect?

I guess I’m really hoping that this is not it, as I suspect there are not nearly enough new features to temp the majority of user to upgrade based on this feature set alone. As with the release of LR2 I’m pretty  sure Adobe will have kept one or two barnstorming features for the final release that will tempt even anti-upgrade stalwarts to relent. As Tom Hogarty stated in his Lightroom Journal blog “We're not even close to finished in terms of features”  and this is reiterated in Michaal Reichmann’s review on the Luminous Landscape. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.


Lightroom 3 Beta Resources

Download Adobe Lightroom 3 Beta from Adobe Labs
Adobe Lightroom 3 Beta Release notes
Lightroom 3 Beta Learning Centre
Lightroom 3 Beta First Look – Luminous Lightroom
Lightroom 3 Beta Tutorials – Juleanne Kost

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Magic of Mono

Photographic Location

You'd be forgiven if you thought I was going to discuss the benefits of black & white photography or something to that effect. I'm referring of course, to Mono lake in California, one of the oldest lakes in North America. Mono Lake is located in the Mono basin, flanked to the north by the Bodie Hills, to the west by Sierra Nevada Mountain range, and to the east by Crowtack Mountain of Nevada, and adjacent to the town of Lee Vining almost 6,800 ft above sea level. The scenery is a stark contrast from the pine forests and alpine meadows of nearby Yosemite Valley 75 miles over the Tioga mountain pass, comprising a semi-arid, desert-like landscape, dominated by distinctive igneous geology with many volcanic craters.

It is a lake that is not without controversy either. Back in 1941 the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began water extraction which was to eventually exceeded inflow and as a result the lake level began to drop. By 1982 the lake surface area had been reduced by over 30 percent. This also began to expose submerged tufa towers; large limestone spires formed by calcium waters transported to lake bed by geothermal springs, reacting with the salt-rich lake waters and depositing layer-upon-layer of calcium carbonate over time. It also drastically effected the salinity of the lake, exposing salt rich deposits to erosion and now the lake is 2½ times more salty than the ocean. Not much can survive in that, and not much does (there are no fish), however the lake is home to Artemia monica, a tiny species of brine shrimp, no bigger than a thumbnail, that are entirely unique to Mono Lake.
 Local inhabitants formed the Mono Lake Committee in 1978 and many years of legal proceedings and representations followed which have eventually resulted in a directive to reduce water extraction and (hopefully) eventually return the lake to it's former levels. However the battle still continues on.

Mono Lake and the surrounding area provide a truly unique and interesting landscape but it is the tufa towers that provide great interest to photographers. I'd past through Lee Vining briefly back in 1984, but never visited the tufa areas, now designated as a California State Reserve Park. The Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Centre, just off Highway 395 to the north of Lee Vining, includes a variety of exhibits about the natural and human history of the Mono Basin and is a good place to research your photographic location if you have time beforehand. The best area for photographers is South Tufa, on the southern shoreline, where are tufa spires up to 30-ft high and ranging in age from 200-700 years old are exposed, providing a surreal landscape. I didn't have the luxury of a reconnaissance trip before my dawn shoot, so it was up at 4:30 am and a drive out in the dark for me during my summer 2009 visit.

As I drove out from Lee Vining and turned onto highway-120, there was a beautiful pre-dawn red glow reflected in the lake that made it seem like it was on fire and I began to wonder if my 4:30am alarm call had been early enough. There were other cars in the car park too, so I set off briskly down the wooded walkway in the dim, pre-dawn light with my head torch lighting the way. It's quite strange visiting a location for the first time in the dark (not the best thing to do), but I didn't have the opportunity to explore the day before and I could just about make out the shadows of the eerie tufa spires all around. I found three other photographers with tripods already set-up at the beach at the end of the boardwalk, so I set up beside them and began to chat. Luckily for me one turned out to be Ralph Nortstom, a delightful chap, and professional photographer conducting a small workshop. Ralph was kind enough to give me some pointers and shortly I was snapping away with the rest of them. You can smell the salt at Mono lake and as it got lighter I became aware of the millions of lake flies floating on the water and along the shore line which ripple away in vast waves as you walk towards them. Thankfully they don't bother or bite. As the light gradually increased I became aware of many other photographers arriving and others scattered amongst the tufas. I must have counted over 30, so this is definitely a very popular spot. I went for a walk eastwards through the large shore bound accumulation of tufas and tried several other spots, but soon the good light had gone, but I found exactly the right location for my shot for the following day.

The next morning I was first to arrive, but the pre-dawn glow didn't seem anywhere near as intense as the day before. The sky was cloudless again too. It was so much easier to find my location this time; it certainly pays to investigate your location beforehand if you can. I had envisaged catching silhouettes and shadowy reflections of a tufa island just offshore looking eastward into a red dawn glow. Despite the lack of brilliance, stopping down increases the saturation and as the light increased I used graduated ND filters to hold back the sky and balance it with the reflections within the lake. I also tried additional ND filters to lengthen my exposure time to smooth out the surface of the lake, an effect I quite like. Soon the golden light had faded and I tried other shots. There are so many unusual shapes within the tufa you can spend ages here. It's a wonderful spot and I was really pleased with my shot. I hope you agree.

How to Get There

Head south from Lee Vining on US-395 for approximately 5½ miles. Get into the left hand lane and take a sharp left onto Hwy-120, which is signposted Benton 46 and Mono Lake South Tufa 5 miles. After a further 4.7 miles you'll see a sign to Mono Lake South Tufa. Make a left onto Test Station Road, just where Hwy-120 turns begins to turn sharply to the right. The road is paved but not for long. Take the left hand road where the road forks; the right goes to Navy Beach. This is the end of the paved section but the gravel track down to the car park is fine for most vehicles. From the car park it's a 5 minute walk down a boardwalk to the beach. The end of this path is a good location, but better locations can be had by heading off to the right (eastwards) and following one of the several paths through the large tufas to the beach beyond where your will be able to photographs tufas offshore silhouetted into the dawn or rising sun.

Recommended Links

Mono Lake Tufa State Nation Reserve
Mono Lake Committee
Ralph Nordstrom Photography

Photographic Locations nearby

Bodie State Park - quite probably the best ghost town of all.
Sand Tufas near Navy Beach

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Where the #%*! are my Pictures?

Video Review: Guide to Assett Management - Where the #%*! are my Pictures?
By Michael Reichmann & Seth Resnick

If you are into photography and have never visited the Luminous Landscape web site then shame on you. Do so immediately; it's just about THE best resource for almost anything photographic and there will be something of interest to just about every photographer no matter what format you use. It's run by the Toronto based photographer and photo journalist Michael Reichmann, a veteran of over 40 years within the industry. However, he is not the sole contributor, far from it in fact, and you will find articles from many other well know photographers and industry related personnel too. It's not just the equipment reviews, tutorials and photographic tips that make this site rather good, but rather uniquely, it also provides downloadable video journals and tutorials, and it's one of the latter that I want to talk about today. Ah! I here you mutter, other sites have downloadable video tutorials too...not like this they don't!

Michael is one of those photographers who is 'in the know', an A-lister if you like, and a member of that fraternity of photographers that has access to not only to the boys at Adobe, but is well enough respected by the industry to get to do hands on reviews of the latest equipment releases typically long before it's let loose on the general public. His tutorials are not some 3-5 minute clips either, but generally comprise a whole DVD's worth, set out in several chapters. The videos are hi-res downloads (1080 x 720) and are typically co-hosted, in many cases with Jeff Schewe, but in this particular tutorial Michael teams up with fellow photographer and DAM guru, Seth Resnick a Florida based photographer.
So what is Where the #%*! are my Pictures?, and why should it be of any importance to you? Well it's a tutorial of Digital Asset Management (DAM) and if you shoot digital and have amassed great quantities of digital images that now litter your hard drive (or hard drives!), then this should be of interest to you. I consider myself to be pretty well tuned up to DAM. I've researched it on the net, read books on it (The DAM Book by Peter Krogh is a fine example) and have used Adobe Lightroom since it's inception to manage and keyword my image library, which includes not only digital images, but slide, negative and photo scans. So would I learn any thing new?

First of all, like most of the videos on the Luminous Lightroom, this is a large download, consisting of 2.9 GB in 9 files, comprising 11 video sections, each in 1080 x 720 resolution. The program starts with an introduction to the concept of Digital Asset Management and stating why you may need this even if you think you don't. The format takes the form of a general but light hearted discussion between Michael Reichmann and Seth Resnick, with Seth presenting his strategies and Michael asking the questions a typical user would ask, and prompting for clarification where he thinks necessary. The whole program is focused on Digital Asset Management within Adobe Lightroom, but don't let this put you off even if that is not your preferred choice software, as many, if not most of the methodology is applicable in many other scenarios. The tutorials are well presented and even entertaining, and Seth comes across as been quite obsessive (he uses another word) particularly about his key wording and back-up regimes. There are sequences on file organisation, importing and naming conventions, editing selection and ranking, captions, key-wording, and filtering with metadata. He then goes on to explain how to take a remote catalog on the road and yet still be able to work with all of your files, and then covers XMP sidecar files and the DNG option, before finishing up with archiving and backup. There is a lot of stuff covered here and while you may not particularly agree with, like or even need all of the detail and degree into which Seth goes for your own particular photo library, there is some here for everyone and I can almost guarantee it will change the way you manage your photographs.
I was quite surprised by this video. I didn't buy this for quite some while after it was available, as I thought I had DAM pretty much sown up and that I didn't need this. I was wrong. I got much more out of this that I thought possible. If you're a Lightroom user then this will be of particular appeal. It is informative, entertaining and enjoyable. Guide to Asset Management - Where the #%*! are my Pictures? is available as a $29.95 download from the Luminous Landscape website store.

Now if any tutorials turn up with Michael, Seth and Jeff Schewe all together, I'd buy it no matter what, just for the entertainment value, now that would be a prospect!

By the way, I've acquired all Michael's video journals. If a number of you are interested in a particular journal, send me a request and I'll consider a review.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Eagle and the Snake

I've been lucky enough to work in Uganda over the last couple of years and this has given me the fantastic opportunity to photograph some of Uganda's amazing wildlife.

I certainly don't profess to be any sort of bird or wildlife expert, far from it in fact, and before working in Africa I could hardly tell one bird species from another. However, when it comes to birds of prey, even they generally get the attention of many a non-ornithologist.

As they generally say, the best photographs require a high degree of luck and this one was no exception. A friend and I had gone for a drive in the Kabyoya Game Reserve, a small region around Kaiso on the eastern shore of Lake Albert in Albertine Rift valley of north west Uganda. Not far from us was the Lake Albert Safari Lodge and quite a lot of the normally high savannah grass had been burnt to the ground in the annual burnings. This is a good time for eagles, as normally hidden prey is revealed and less well camouflaged against the blackish brown, scorched earth, and stubble. Prey is one the move, trying to escape the burnings. We spotted the Brown Snake Eagle in a tree top and pulled over to try and take some photos. My friend sported a Pentax with 50-500mm Sigma lens, me with my trusty Canon 5D and my EF 100-400mm, f4.5-5.6 Zoom. Contrary to most wildlife blogs we don't have time for tripods and hours of waiting, ours is a few hours to catch what we can, so everything is shot hand-held from a car window. Image stabilisation (IS) I find invaluable.

I only managed to fire off a couple of frames (being on the passenger side) before the eagle took flight. Another disappointment. We drove on, just passed the tree, when suddenly there is a faint flash of something light coloured off to the drivers side, the next thing I hear is "It's got a snake!". The eagle had swooped down the other side of the tree and caught a cobra; the flash being the underbelly of the snake as it writhed around the Eagles talons, one talon firmly fixed on the cobras head. We pulled up as close as we dare and started shooting as fast as possible. I had to shoot across the driver so there was no time for even thinking about composition, just get the photo. I managed about 18 frames during which the eagle bit off end of the snakes tail, cloaked it's prey, then it flew off back to the top of tree grasping the wriggling cobra. I keep my camera set on AV, apperture wide open, with only the centre focus point enabled. I try to focus on the eye and quickly re-frame. It usually works well.

I was pretty sure I'd got a good shot but was disappointed when I saw the frames uploaded to Lightroom later on. There was a long blade of grass bowed over and blurred in the foreground which went right across the eagle in every frame. The burnt stubble background was almost as dark as the bird and several frames weren't that sharp. None of the snake were sharp.

It was several months later however, when I took another look and my shots. Really they weren't that bad, perhaps I'd been too critical at the time, it was perhaps ok the snake wasn't that sharp. Time for a bit of Photoshop and Lightroom work. I patiently cloned out the offending blade of grass, together with a distracting leaf in the foreground, adjusted the contrast, clarity, vibrance and saturation to make the bird's colours stand out as much as I could against the brown background. To finish off I applied a gradual blur to the background to accentuate the lens bokeh, sharpened the eagle and cropped the frame; this did the trick. Now I had a decent photograph, one that I was pleased with anyway.

Back up Devices - The Drobo

I can't stress the importance of backing up your data and image files as in the past I've been guilty of not doing this on a regular enough basis, and I have almost paid the price. I went for years without any hard drive failures at all, and was lured into the false sense of security that these devices were almost infallible. However, in the last year I've had 4 hard drives fail, and these were not some cheap makes either. I've had 2 external hard drive system crater, a 320 GB LaCie drive and a Western Digital 1.0 TB MyBook. Recently I've had a relatively new Seagate Barracuda fail in my Desktop and I lost my whole system. The makers replaced this under warranty but it left me without my main PC for some time and a further several days re-installing all my software. On top of that a hard drive failed in a Toshiba Satellite notebook at work. All this has made me totally rethink my back up strategy and change my set up.
External hard drives seem relatively cheap these days and present a very attractive option for back up and storage, with 1.0 TB drives selling for as little as £80 here in the UK and $100 in the US,. Having 3 such devices had worked fine for me for quite some time. However the recent problems and having over a Terabyte of image files and growing, a major reassessment was due. I looked at various RAID arrays, NAS units and even Home servers as options, but all seemed overly complicated. I wanted something I could just plug in and my photo's would be protected, irrespective of drive problems. Then I found the Drobo.

Made by Data Robotics Inc., the Drobo is a sleek, black, metal housing (smaller than a shoebox), that holds up to 4 Sata hard drives that you can simply slide straight in by removing the magnetically held cover on the front. Not only does it look cool, you can mix and match drives and capacities and all your data is protected even if a hard drive fails. It even warns you if a drive is having problems and needs replacing. Run out of capacity; simply pull out a drive and add a larger one. When I first saw these I thought yes, that's exactly what I need, then I saw the price, over £500 in the UK and that was without any drives. Well some time has passed since then and Drobo version 2 is out which supports firewire 400/800 as well as USB 2.0. The good news is that they are easily available in the UK and prices have fallen significantly. There are still not cheap min you, but with the fall in HD prices and my recent problems I bit the bullet and order one.

I'm not going to give a review of the Drobo here; there are plenty of other sites you can google that present in-depth reviews and all the technical details. Suffice to say, I've been living with my Drobo for a few months now and it has performed flawlessly. It's so simple to set up, just turn on and add the drives. I have mine populated with a few Samsung Spinpoint 1.5TD Eco Green drives and 0.5 TB drive I rescued from the remains of 1.0 TB WD MyBook that failed. It comes with a simple but adequate back up program, and Drobo dashboard, a small footprint, memory resident program, that monitors the Drobo and your drive space. I have my Drobo configured as one single 16 TB drive (the maximum), which is what Windows Vista sees the drive as, although I don't have anywhere near 16 TB installed. Hence I can add more drives when I need more space. It's that simple.

I wonder why nobody has come up with a system like this before, it's simplicity itself. Now wouldn't it be great if all PC's had this built in. Just think, no more opening up the PC cases, installing additional drives, fiddling around with small screws and cables, formatting. You could just open a door and slide in another there's a thought.

If you a professional photographer, or have loads of images and/or data files, then this could be the device for you. There are much faster devices out there, but this is no slouch either. It certainly gets my recommendation.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Mesa Arch - The Photographers Holy Grail

We've all seen hundreds of pictures of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. It's an iconic image and a location that is hugely popular with photographers from all over the world. You may well think it's been over-photographed, but the temptation to add this to your portfolio if you get the chance is just too good to an oportunity to miss. It's almost the holy grail for photographers and besides, for amatuers like myself it's a chance to compair your own results with the big boys and see if your technique is up to scratch. This summer (August 2009) a family holday touring Califiornia and South West USA, brought such an opportunity to me.

Part of our holiday included 4 nights in Moab to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We travelled up from Page and had 3 full days to explore both parks, although after 3 weeks of travelling the family had become a tad travel weary. One day then, was set aside for time by the pool and shopping.

We visted Canyonlands on the first day and I made sure a walk to Mesa Arch was included. We arrived early afternoon and the slightly overcast weather restricted any photography to just holiday snaps. I made a mental note however, of how long the hike took and where was the best placement for my tripod.
I got up at 4:30am the next morning. I'd heard Mesa Arch can get very busy and wanted to make sure I got a good spot. From Moab it's 38 miles to Mesa Arch. 11 miles out of Moab NW on highway-191 you find the turn on to UT-313, Island In The Sky Road; follow this and it takes you all the way there.  The park entrance is about 20 miles down this road with the Visitor Centre soon after. A further 6 miles brings you to the parking lot for the Meas Arch Trial. I'd been told to allow 1 hr 15 minutes in the dark, but did the journey easily in under 50 minutes. There are 2 trails from the parking lot. I took the one on the right as it's a little shorter. It was till dark when I set off so a head torch is necessary. Just as I set off another car pulled up and I could see other lights in the distance; still I was first and that's what I wanted. It's about a 10-15 minute, comfortable walk from the parking lot over a well marked trail. There a gentle climb up and over some stepped sections and then the trail drops down over a shot section marked by occasional small stone cairns and old pine logs. By the time I reached the latter light on the horizon meant I could make out the shadow of Mesa Arch.

I set up my tripod where planned and within a few minutes two other photographers were unpacking theirs. We chatted whilst setting up our gear. It turned out Jim and I were new to this location, but Tom had been several times before and was happy to provide some helpful tips. Turned out he thought I'd got the best spot too. Tom told us the sun would rise just on the left flank of the La Sal Mountains on the horizon; in the Winter it moves to the right. I had already checked the compass on my watch and had researched sunrise for most of our holiday locations back in the UK. You're also pretty close to the Arch at this point (just a few feet) so the wider the better and I slected to use my Canon EF 16-35mm F2.8 zoom lens. There a pretty big drop off the edge too so care must be taken setting up in the dark.

As soon as the sun broke the horizon we started shooting as the underside glow to the arch occurs pretty quickly; you're pretty much shooting directly into the sun too. You've got a 15-20 minute window to get the best shots. Once the sky brightens significantly the glow fades. To get the foreground in focus I found I was shooting at pretty much the smallest apperture (F22) although I did try some up to F16 (the sweet spot of this lens). I found it hard to focus at first, but once there was enough light I selected just one focus point aimed at the farthest point of the underside of the arch within my frame. This involved angling the head to get the focus spot on the right part of the arch, autofocusing, then switching the lens back to manual focus, and re-framing (being careful not to alter the zoom) before taking the picture. If you want to get a nice start-burst then you need to work with a very small aperture and pinch the sun on the underside of the arch. For once I found not having a centre column to my tripod a major drawback as it became awkward and too time consuming to adjust the hight to the position of the sun. Tom seemed a dab hand at this and captured many really nice start-bursts. I thought I was doing OK from what I saw on the LCD, but later on my laptop I realised I had terrible lens flare and never did achieve a decent start-burst (flare is a problem with this lens). I found my best shots were with the sun hidden behind the upper part of the arch. I used a cable release and mirror lock-up. I bracketed my shots too, shot in RAW and processed my files in Lightroom.

I returned the next day this time using a EF 24-105mm F4.0 lens, and adding a polariser to maybe help reduce flare. Although much better, I still didn't capture the type of start-bursts that Tom achieved. Placing the sun off-centre helped. I also tried some different angles, like framing the crest of the La Sal Mountains under a similar contoured part of the underside of the arch. One shot at the far right of the arch I also thought worked well. I moved the tripod back after the other photographers had left and took a few frames to stitch into a panorama which I cropped to remove any sky. This I think worked quite well too. All in all I think I got some good shots and really enjoyed my visit to Mesa Arch. If you get the chance don't pass it up.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lightroom Tip - Panel End Mark Star Ratings

I can't remember where I saw this simple, and very effective tip, but it's one I've found particularly useful so I like to present my particular take here.

I've must admit I've always found the Panel End Mark displayed at the bottom of each panel rather odd. They seem superfluous and in total contrast to the sleek streamlined interface displayed elsewhere throughout Lightroom. In LR1 I found them distracting and removed them completely, however by LR2 I just left them at the default flourish graphic and more or less ignored them. You can easily select others by: Edit > Preferences > Interface > Panel End Mark and can even import your own graphic. I've seen people use graphics of cameras and even a film canister, but that's not for me.

I also like the ability to set up custom colour designations (Metadata > Colour Label Set) for each colour which can be displayed in a handy tool tip when you hover your mouse over the each colour in the Toolbar, but found it rather annoying I can't do this for Star Ratings. After all, Star Ratings are specifically designed to rate your photographs, yet a 3-star rating for one person may mean something completely different to another. I'd certainly like to see the ability to have multiple Star Rating Sets added to version 3 (please take note Adobe).

Well someone out there had the excellent idea of making Star Ratings into a small graphic and displaying them as an End Panel Mark, thus your ratings are always there to remind you. The example I saw was a simple one line for each rating. My ratings however, are a little more complex than just good, very good, excellent etc., so I used multiple lines to convey the precise criteria for each star rating. I created my Panel End Mark in Xara Xtreme Pro (a highly recommended graphics package) but I guess any graphics or drawing package would do. It may take a little messing around to get the right size, but the end result is something infinitely more useful than a flourish! I hope you'll agree.

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