Friday, 24 April 2009

Between reason and emotion

Another interesting post at the Landscapist recently on the distance between science and art. I see the point but I think intellectual pursuits are more of a continuum than that.

As an engineer I see a good fit with photography, and see them as something of the middle ground.

Engineering is a very practical science - it's about getting things done or made. But it is still based on scientific principles and the scientific method. However, theory needs practice and data are rarely complete, let alone perfect and time is limited. Experience and judgement are a large part of good engineering practice.

In a similar vein, I think photography treads a middle path between the empiricism of science and the subjectivity of art. Photographs depict precisely what they see, in all bitter detail. But then there is the imperfection of point of view, crop, focus. These are it's interpretistic nature. We can practice photography in a strictly literal, scientific way, or highly subject. It may be suggestive or explicit. But never is it entire one way or the other.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Windows computing for photography: upgrade pt1

Staring at the ceiling, contemplating life, April 2009

After my previous posts on investigating upgrades, I went and bought a bunch of stuff. As I mentioned before, prices of computing gear have come way down. Normally I have a budget for upgrading the storage after about 2-3 years, For that money I've actually bought 4 drives & 2 external bays, an SSD boot drive replacement and 8GB memory. Over the next few weeks I'll post my impressions of each of the upgrades as I apply them and test them out. Of course, I'll be reporting on performance of photography applications, with general notes on wider performance. Like all my other reviews of stuff, this will be very subjective but hopefully I can offer some insights for others who might be looking to improve their system.

Preamble out of the way, let's get into the first part: memory upgrade. This is the first part because it's easy and so got done first. I bought 4x2GB OCZ modules which have a better spec than the original OEM stuff loaded. Fitting the memory is fairly straightforward and the system instantly recognised it. Some will be asking why I've installed 8GB on a 32bit OS (XP Professional in this case), which can only get at 4GB. I'll explain a little later.

As I expected, the memory itself doesn't have a huge impact. XP reports about 3.1GB available. I don't run programs that regularly overload RAM. I don't have huge, multi-layers Photoshop files. Probably the biggest strain comes from panorama stitching. Very few files over 100MB. So why add more memory? Two reasons: cache & RAM disk. This is where things get interesting.

If applications aren't pushing RAM limits, nor processor capacity limits then the bottleneck is elsewhere in the processing chain. There are some great candidates: poor software programming (way more common than I'd like), disk access limits or latency problems (how long it take to get stuff done - this can be a memory speed or disk access issue).

In my normal photography processing I don't push large files. I don't have a copy of Photoshop CS in any variant and don't do large, layered files. Thus, memory capacity isn't a huge problem for me. I can't actually remember running out of space on the 2GB. The paging file (virtual memory) is another story. Most software I run seems to need as much paging as real memory I'm sure in the dim, distant past that virtual memory was a last resort, not so now. This leads to a large amount of background disk access. I've been finding that to be the biggest bottleneck. I also think this is quite a big difference between Mac and Windows systems (lthough I'm no expert and am happy to be corrected) that Mac uses virtual memory much less than Windows does.

Enter RAM disk. I downloaded Superspeed's RAMdisk Pro. This allows access to the memory above the 4GB limit of 32bit systems. It was painless to set up my excess 4GB as a disk. Then I set this as the system virtual memory. Run a few apps, and suddenly background disk access vanishes. Responsiveness is high. Processor usage is up, way up*. Things fly by. The biggest noticeable gain has been with Lightzone, which is slow on a good day. Suddenly conversions fly by and normal processing is smooth with no hang-ups. Nice. Single export on Lightroom don't even show a progress bar. Batch conversions in Lightroom show marked improvement, too. All that processing that used to swap in and out of disk is now all in memory.

The 8GB extra RAM plus the software comes in at around $150. I'm not sure I could get as much performance improvement for the money any other way.

Next step was to install Superspeed's SuperCache. This takes me back. In the ancient world of DOS, it was good practice to assign a small portion of RAM to disk cache to remove the delay in disk writes. I used to use 1MB on my 8MB system for such a purpose, with delayed write**, and it really made my system fly. Now in 2009, we're back in the same world. The difference is that cache size (from real RAM, within the 4GB limit) can be varied by drive. It also seems to be applied as needed, rather than being permanently assigned memory.
As I've got 10 partitions on my system, that's a help. Only draw-back is I can't assign cache to network drives, too. Simple business to set up the cache, together with the "lazy write" feature (which delays writing to the disk). Now the latency of large disk write activities is gone. I ran a test, copying a bunch of files from one partition to another (over 100 approx 50MB TIFFs) with and without SuperCache active. Using SuperCache was about twice as fast as without.

*So much so that I over-heated the system running a whole lot of CD ripping one evening.

**NOTE: there are risks of data loss with this method. Be careful.

Friday, 17 April 2009

This is the Matrix

Self portrait, London, March 2009
yes, the camera was upside down. And I'm sure i'm not as ugly as that.

How one appears in the Matrix is residual self-image: how, you'd like to be seen, your own view of yourself.

Writing in blogland is like that. I have no idea of the age, skill, education of bloggers. I'm constantly surprised when I read personal profiles. Inner character shines. The older but young at heart write like much younger people. Young and jaded reads old and tired.

How do I come across? No idea but I bet I'm starting to be old enough to match my cynicism (although I'm a less cynical photographer than I am engineer).

Photography, psychology

A strange thing happened to me the other day when looking at this photograph by Matt Alofs. I'd seen it a few days ago, and then returned to look at it again yesterday. Nothing strange there.

When I first look at a photograph, I create a mental picture of it and carry that a round with me for a while. With even a short viewing, I can get a pretty accurate mental picture and use it to formulate further thoughts and feelings about it. I have a very visual memory.

What was particularly strange about this one was that when I returned to it, I was surprised that it was in black and white (even more surprising as Matt doesn't do colour). My mental image was in colour: green grass, soft yellow light. I also wonder if I view certain colour images in black and white - mentally removing the colour, retaining form only.

How often am I doing this particular colour-reversal trick? Is my mental model of particular scenes that influencing my mental picture of a given image? As with my own photography, do I inherently see particular scene in colour or black and white?

I might come back to this idea after some more reflection.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Sometimes things are as they should be

Anyone who regularly reads my more technical posts will realise I'm constantly frustrated/annoyed by rubbish user interfaces. I like software and hardware to be easy to use, yet powerful in function. I don't like the design getting between me and results.

On this thought but unrelated to photography, I bought a Sonos music system this weekend. A much needed addition to my music system since my multi-CD player packed up and my desire to listen to decent radio. That's not the point here.

The point is, this stuff works. Just like it should. No fuss. The design, interface and set-up is super easy. It is so well designed that it makes Apple products look fussy and complicated. There are always a few minor niggles but they are just that. As a music system it's great and it is also making me rethink the way I do my home WiFi network. 3 rooms & a pair of speakers took 20 minutes to set-up. Compare that to weeks of fiddling and twiddling with my simple point-to-point WiFi to get decent performance.

Simply put, I wish more products were like this. Taking out the hassles. Getting to a usable set-up quickly and easily. A design stemming from the simple notion of "what does a regular user want this thing to do?"

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

and nothing but...

St Paul's Cathedral, London, March 2009

There's some to and fro between The Landscapist and Paul Maxim on the nature of truth, and that awful adjective "absolute". Just like physics, it's all a matter of scale, like the Newton-Einstein-Heisenberg thing. Get close enough, and nothing is certain - we can't know everything properly, truth is nominal. Just like the physics: Heisenberg says we can't know the position & speed of a particle but throw a baseball at my head and it's very empirically (and pretty shortly tactilely) Newtonian.

And photography can be like that. We can get in close and make it seem like anything we want. The truth is wider: either by physically stepping back, using a wider angle or presenting a larger story. This is why Frank's "The Americans" is truth - for all the symbolism and themes, truth will out from the quantity of evidence.

Ad of course, while I was preparing this post, Paul came back with another using similar thoughts, although with a slightly different conclusion to mine.

Monday, 6 April 2009

On the virtual tripod

Wall art and lamp, London, March 2009

UPDATE 06/04/09: Added the missing figure

You may have seen already the new image stabilising testing at Imaging Resource (posted at TOP yesterday). Alongside the reviews is their white paper on testing methodology. Being of the geeky persuasion in these things, I read the whole thing. I've noticed some very interesting things, besides the straight results that I wanted to air.

Overall, I think it is a good effort. They've fairly well achieved the goal of repeatable, comparable results. Highlighting the statistical nature of such things is pretty important - no one will get perfectly sharp images every time when hand holding, IS or no. Being able to compensate for the human factor, in a manner that has meaning for real results is quite important in this context.

The second big thing to take away is the importance of focus in achieving good photographic results. They talk about it at length. The testing method completely eliminates focus problems but for real shooting, that will be an issue. reading through the rest of the white paper, it's pretty clear that photographer technique is (as to be expected) as important as any of the technical assistance, be that in AF or IS. We would all do well to keep that in mind.

The big thing that came to my mind, however, was rather technical and concerns type of motion. Something briefly mentioned but not addressed in the testing protocol. Let me explain.

For the purposes of a discussion on IS, there are three directions of movement that we are interested in: vertical translation, horizontal translation (left-right) and rotation about the lens axis. (I realise that vertical and horizontal motion isn't pure translation but for the purposes of this discussion, and practically, it can be approximated to such. It is also a little easier to conceptualise than rotation about the other axes.) The Imaging Resource results seem to lump the translational results and don't mention rotation at all.

Why is it important to distinguish? It goes to how stabilisation systems work, how photographers move and how one relates to the other. I reckon there are 4 major movement effects going on that cause blur: high frequency "jitter" vertically or horizontally due to holding the camera, low frequency sway due to how one stands (try standing perfectly still without any kind of movement), and last some rotation of the camera as the shutter is released due to the force applied to the button.
Mechanical stabilisation systems are really designed to only address only the first two. And with those, the relative effect of each will be determined by how steady the photographer is in general and how the camera is held. The swaying effect is unlikely to cause problems except for long exposures.
But what about rotation? How important is it and can anything be done about it? As to importance, I would rate it pretty highly given what I see in photographs. When friends ask me about blur in their photos, I reckon the biggest issue is rotation. It's fairly easy to spot: look across the frame and you'll see vertical blur that varies markedly from left to right. As stabilisation is normally designed to work vertically or horizontally, rotation won't get corrected. For lens-based systems it is impossible to correct. But for in-body stabilisers it could be possible. See the figures below. The first shows the sensor and its possible range of motion. The second and third show vertical and horizontal shifts, the fourth shows a possible rotational shift.
And in the great debate of which system is better, this isn't ever mentioned: in-body stabilisation has the potential to cure a mode of movement that in-lens cannot.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Windows computing: learning part II

So I've got a long way down the road to upgrading my computer. As ever, as I learn more, the more find I don't know and the more my original ideas have to change. I've also had a bit of assistance in understanding how some of this works.

Here's where I'm at:

The most important thing I'm learning (and this will be useful for those buying a new system) is that by buying a well specified machine first off, from a good source, I have a whole load of very good system components. The machine is over 3 years old but most stuff is suitable for quality upgrades with current components. In the past, I've found technology has passed my system components by, limiting my upgrade options. Not now. [For the nerdy: I find my motherboard is fully PCI-Express & SATA 3.0 compliant, with plenty of expansion space and will take DDR2 667 to 8GB. That's far more capability than I was expecting.]

For the first time in my PC buying life, I think standards are sufficiently stable that I can reasonably expect current upgrades to be compatible with any box I put together in 2 or 3 years' time. In the past I bought what I thought were future-proof systems, only for all the standards to move. This also falls into line with my theory that for most uses, computing power is converging on sufficiency.

I'm going to move my main working storage out of the box but not Ethernet, as I was planning. Turns out there's this external SATA (eSATA) spec. Pretty obvious in hindsight but I wasn't aware of it before. (I don't keep up to date with all technical stuff - prefer to update my knowledge as needed.) Looks easy enough to install a controller and external box. This will make future system upgrades easier - I can just move the storage over to a new configuration, or just do an intenals upgrade on the current box. [Nerdy bit: I'll be running 2 eSATA boxes each as RAID0, with the PCI controller running RAID1 between them. That way I get fast speed and redundancy against drive and controller failure.]

On top of all that, a memory upgrade and an SSD to replace my boot drive. Seems like a lot, but I reckon I can do the whole thing for about $600 (controller, 2 drive bays, 4 drives @500GB, memory & SSD), which is what I've typically paid for single drive upgrades in the past. (I remember doing a storage upgrade to 500MB for about that money years ago - at the time that storage had just dropped to under £1 per MB. Now it's more like £0.10 per GB.)

Friday, 3 April 2009

Lightroom: nearly but not quite

Regular readers will probably be aware that I've been a long-term Lightzone user but recently have been writing about Lightroom.

Lightroom has almost completely taken over my photo-editing and management duties. It has many features to commend it - simple to use, pretty quick for most tasks, great organising features and solid printing system. However, it is just a few notches short of being quite all there.

First, as Kjell has noticed, are the problems with local adjustments. I'm sure that'll get fixed in time. Most of the time I only want small amounts of local adjustment for which it's great.
Next, and a big one for me, is the handling of sharpening. I use high radius, low amount (hiraloam) sharpening on a lot (if not, most) of my work for local contrast enhancement. I find Lightroom is not so good for that - clarity is a bit heavy-handed and I can't fine tune its effect. And I'm not enamoured of the sharpening tool in the details section. Again, not the control I'm used to with USM (or PWP's excellent advanced sharpen). This is particularly bad for scans (which usually take much more aggressive sharpening). I'm finding I have to take most images elsewhere for sharpening adjustments.
I'd also like to have support for advanced plug-in in the way Photoshop does. I've tweaked my workflow to deal with this but it does mean some back-and-forth.

I could add a list of other things I'd like to see, but then it would move Lightroom away from the things that make it good.

So what about Lightzone? Well, I do still use it but for limited applications. It is still has the best shadow recovery tools anywhere. The ability to do selective white balance is invaluable as is the ability to white balance processed files. I still it has the best masking system around especially after I discovered the clunk that is Lightroom masking. And Lightzone is still my favourite black and white converter: selective masking by area, colour, tone means I can apply multiple filter effects in lots of subtle ways. There are a couple of B&W things I do that I can't do any other place.
But Lightzone is quite rough around the edges: generally slow, memory inefficient and a host of other niggles. Development doesn't seem to be going anywhere and they are lagging behind the competition.

I think my perfect editing tool would have the layering and tools of Lightzone, integrated into the Lightroom workflow. Now that would be a powerful product. No, I don't think using Lightzone as an external editor from Lightroom fixes that. It would be nice to have a develop panel in Lightroom for Lightzone, running it as an engine underneath, controlled from the same xml file format that Lightroom uses. That would get me to the core differentiator in Lightzone (the adjustments engine) without having to suffer the niggles.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

SoFoBoMo takes over

If you've not already, go read Paul Butzi's latest post - hilarious.

It seems to be that time of the process when people are turning to thoughts of their projects, matching travel plans etc. No such difficulties for me! I currently have 4 solid project ideas (i.e. projects that I know can be completed in the fuzzy months) plus at least one other possible. At this rate, I can see a SoFoBoMo challenge for myself in a couple of years being to produce a book a week for each of the eight weeks.

I'm also hoping to put out a book of some of my Tanzania photos in a couple of weeks. This one I also intend to format differently to challenge some accepted notions of photobook design and test some ideas I have (more of which in a later post). That's part of my preparations for SoFoBoMo. I'm really going to spend some effort challenging myself on the book design aspects this year.