28 February 2009

Dwindle or kindle

Recently, Daniel Okrent (editor-at-large, Time inc.) predicted an imminent "Death Of Print". Co-founder of Netscape, Marc Andreesen, claim the same for printed news in a TV interview. In the same vein, Pentax USA claims that their online gallery is "the next step" up the evolutionary chain from the Pentax Photo Annuals produced by the Japanese fan club "Pentax Family" (and their Swiss branch office). Similar sentiments reverberates through the blogspace too, leaving advocates of paper looking like luddites.
In this respect the Pentax Discussion Mailing List (PDML) must be a true forum for luddites, suddenly scrambling together to produce, yes, a printed photo annual. Implicit in the title is even a threat to make it a tradition.

One blogging member from PDML, Tim Bray, calls himself "bookish", but still anticipates the printed book's future as coffee-table ornaments and collectibles.
What strikes me is that most people seem sad to let go. Mr. Okrent cherish the smells and the feeling of flipping through pages, and the smoothness of touch to a well-done hardcover. The PDML is all oohs and aahs over their recently received copies, produced by Blurb in USA and transported to all corners of the world in less than a fortnight. Tim Bray states that "this [the PDML annual] could only have been done on paper".
I think he is right. For the moment.
And while this is true, the PDML Annual is a damn fine little book. And all for the benefit of child cancer research.
Grab it before the paper mills of the world file for bankruptcy protection. Or before oil shortage prevents efficient distribution. It's definately worth its payload of carbon dioxide emissions. Let it kindle your inspiration in a way that the Amazon Reader can not.

26 February 2009

Turning 100

The above picture, shot with K20D and DA*300/4 became my 100th shot into the Pentax Photo Gallery. I think this allows for some celebration tomorrow. :-)

17 February 2009

A small cosmetic change

After reading the blog of fellow Pentaxian Frank M. at exposingpixels, I realised that despite my partiality to Pentax, I would like to be more about photography in general. So I have removed the reference to Pentax in the title of the blog.
Also, I've finally got my finger out and created for myself the first edition of a logo for Alunfoto. That's the odd blue icon added in the title. The shape is the map outline of the lake from which this blog has got its name; Alunsjøen.
The reference to pain and suffering connected to photographing locally is also gone. The reason why will remain undisclosed.
Today's picture was captured on the way home from the skiing trip I wrote about in my previous post. Sunset takes just about forever at this latitude. The light lingers after sundown while a frosty mist forms and roll over the ice on Lake Alunsjøen. I got this picture of some fellow skiers before they noticed me, stopped, and pulled out a compact camera to photograph my silhouette in the same way. Naturally I had to give them my best pose in return for theirs, but I believe I got the better deal anyway. :-)
Camera: Pentax K20D
Lens: DA 16-45/4

14 February 2009

Just a beautiful day

It has been one of those days.
When everything comes together and you feel content when looking back at it.
The snow that fell last week is still cold and soft as silk. After a spell of temperatures down to -20°C, it has come up to just minus 5 or 6. Add blue skies arriving for the week-end, and you're all set. At least I was. :-)
Today I went cross-country skiing for 20 km (12 mi.), starting from just outside my door. There were, of course, hundreds of people doing the same thing, and it didn't take long to meet friends along the track. Here's one little fellow called Vebjørn who is thoroughly enjoying himself; tobboganning behind mom in what we call a "pulk" in Norwegian. A sort of snow-sleigh for people transport.

In one narrow little valley I came across a place that had accumulated some beautiful growth of frost. It was as if the branches were sprouting elaborate snow crystals. In the shot below, the cylindrical thingy is a birch catkin awaiting spring. Looks like it has to be patient for a while yet.

Both shots were made with Pentax K20D. The first one with DA 16-45/4, the second one with A*200/4 macro at 1:1.

11 February 2009

My Next Camera wishlist

Okay Pentax, listen up!
Yeah right... :-)
But anyway, I've been thinking about a few things I would like to see in my next camera. Not in lines of that tedious pixel peeping or FF (Fool's Format?) howling, but things I would actually need for what I do. Of course other people's needs will differ, and you may think me as much of a fool for my wishlist as I do for the FF dreamers. But do go ahead and make your own list! And take some time to think through why those features are important to you. Not "better" to the world in general for whatever reason.
So here's my list; hoping that what I open is not a can of worms...
One thing I really like about the K10/20 is the quietness. I can assure you from direct experience that both Nikon D3 and D700, and Canon's 1D mk II and 5D are noisier that the Pentaxes. Just slightly, but noisier. However, I could live with a louder mirror flap from Pentax if I got a faster mirror flap. In other words, a higher frame rate. For continuous shooting with the K20D there's a "hi" and a "lo" setting, but there's hardly any difference between them. Pimp it, Pentax! Make the "hi" setting worthwhile having. 4 or 5 FPS would be great! To me, this is important for catching the significant moments in action-filled interplay between animals.
If you told me a year ago I would put this at the top of my list, I'd scoff at you. But there it is. I have to admit there are situations where "timing" can only delimit a timeframe where many things happen too quickly to anticipate. That's when to hold the button pressed and do the file sorting later.
A second thing I really like is the versatile battery grip that comes with K10/20D. With the extra battery and room left for a spare SD card and a remote control. However, I do have a suggestion for improvement. I would like to leave out the remote control and spare card, and put in an SSD disk. Or a full stack of SDHC cards connected to the camera, like a second card slot. My reason for wanting this is only partly connected to the higher number of exposures anticipated by the first wish. More importantly, it would nearly eliminate the need for an extra portable disk to unload filled-up memory cards. A device which needs its own batteries and charger. And not to mention the fiddling when swapping cards. Particularly in winter, see next point. For most of my trips I know I would do well without an extra disk if the camera had 128 GB storage (or more) on board. I also know that I really hate to manage battery chargers. A reduction by one would be welcome.
The third thing I would like is for the camera to be operable with gloves, or even mittens, on. The K10/20D operates fairly well in the cold as far as the electronics go, but the buttons become too fiddly. Particularly the four-way controller with the OK button in the middle. My suggestion would be to increase that controller enough to make the OK button 30-50% larger in diameter and size up the rest accordingly. The Tv/Av wheels could also be a tad larger, just so that it's possible to feel them through the gloves. The reason is wish for this is of course that I live in a country where wearing gloves in the outdoors comes very naturally. I also know that if cold, I don't make very nice photos.
A fourth thing I would like to see is improved noise-curbing. I'm not all together happy with the K20D there. When shooting in "B" mode, the dark-frame subtraction seems to become inaccurate with longer exposure times. I have deliberately put this at the bottom of my list because these are issues that all the manufacturers are racing to be best at anyway. I'm sure we'll see substantial improvement in noise handling with the next generation of Pentax cameras as well. For myself, I only wish for more user-control over how and when the noise reduction is applied. There is some, but not enough, in my opinion. Like for example that it cannot be turned off all together. Nor can dark-frame subtraction be adjusted when working in "B" setting.
This last thing is something I want because the K20D has rekindled my fascination with long-exposure light photography, and I'd love to have even more creative control over this.
A last thing I dream of is a fuel-cell power source. That's a really far-fetched one, I know. Toshiba has showcased some small prototypes for cellphones, however, so implementation is probably more down to cost of mass-production than to technology. I guess it won't make it into the next model, but maybe a couple of years down the line? Maybe implemented with the SSD disk in an accessory "superpower-grip"?

That's all.

Hope I'm not too modest... :-)

The shot above, btw, is made with the DA*300/4; and Pentax K20D. Taken from the same hide as the previously posted goshawk picture. The tight crop is not by choice. I remember wishing for the DA* 60-250/4 right then...

08 February 2009

Breaking the ice

Half a week ago, fascinated brits watched snow pouring down. I read both enthusiastic and frustrated reports from friends as the weather brought traffic to standstill.
Now, in this country, aka The Frostpit, you could expect that such weather would not precipitate chaos, but it does. We received whatever was left in the clouds yesterday, I think. About 40 cm in my front yard!
Fortunately I didn't have to go anywhere except to the local grocery store. That's just walking distance. And also fortunately, it was Saturday so I had the day off. After clearing the gate from the drifts I took position in my garage and broke a dry spell.
The spell in question is that it's been 3 years since my last decent snow crystal photo. Partly bad luck with the timing of snowfalls and available time for photography, and partly that the required conditions never came together in the last years.
The temperature has to be right; the best interval is between -3°C and -10°C. There can't be too much wind either, because then all the crystals come down all mashed up into fragments. And finally, I have to have time off from work and family to do it.
Last night it all came together. My technique has grown a little rusty since 2006, so for the first hour I got mostly half-melted or broken crystals. Here's one of them. I think it looks quite nice despite being half-melted and broken, and serves well as a token for the situation. :-)

02 February 2009

Some observations on Laptop screens

Rob Galbraith recently published a review of screen quality in four select laptops. One of his conclusions is probably very unwelcome with Apple; their new 15" MacBook Pro comes last in colour accuracy; even beaten by a tiny 10" netbook.
At the top of the heap is a discontinued model from Lenovo; the T60. When this model was current, some manufactureres (not only Lenovo) tried to implement higher-quality panels in their laptops for the sake of more flexible viewing angles. Higher colour accuracy came in the same bargain, but I can't recall it as a feature reaching the marketing hype.
Anyway, the secret behind those screens were a panel type called IPS, as opposed to the cheaper and more prevalent TN. I recommend Wikipedia for reading up on the various panel technologies.
Today, IPS panels are only found in large, high-end desktop monitors such as the ColorEdge series from Eizo. They are no longer produced in laptop sizes. Well... I'm only 95% sure of that, but I have visited the websites of all the major TFT/LCD manufacturers, and the only non TN panel I have found is a 17" wide-screen from LG-Phillips. I suspect that the optional non-glare panel with the coming 17" Macbook Pro is actually this one, but that's not verified anywhere.
As far as I have been able to make out, there are currently no other 17" laptops on the market using this panel.
However, there's more to laptop screens than just panel type. Screen brightness is also important, and so is gamut (the number of colour hues discernible).
Screen brightness is mostly determined by quality and quantity of the light source(s) behind the panel. Traditionally, the backlight is provided by a cold-cathode fluorescent tube (CCFL). In laptops it's most common to use only one tube to conserve power, whilst in desktop screens one can find up to 4 tubes. One problem with CCFL lights, in particular when using just one tube, is to maintain even illumination across the whole screen area. Low-quality screens will often be darker towards the lower half and/or the corners. In Galbraith's test, by the way, there is one CCFL-based screen with two tubes. Even with two tubes, the screen suffers somewhat from low brightness. So I guess there's not much hope for further improvement with this sort of backlighting. At least not without a serious drain on the batteries.
That's where the new LED-based backlighting in eg. Apple's MacBooks or Dell's Precision series comes in. LEDs are superior both in terms of brightness and illumination evenness. It is therefore unfortunate that all the panel manufacturers have put TN panels on top of the LEDs.
I say "unfortunate" with reference to the last of my selected parameters to define a good screen; the width of the gamut. TN-panels are limited to representing red, green and blue hues with 6 bits each (ie. 26 x 26 x 26= 64 x 64 x 64 = 262,144). That's not really a big number of hues between all-black and all-white. IPS-panels, on the other hand, will display 8 bits for each of the primaries, giving you a total of 16,777,216 hues. In theory, at least. In practice the IPS panels don't achieve that wide a gamut, and the Lenovo T60 is a good example of that in Galbraith's test; displaying a considerably smaller gamut than the rivalling TN-panels. However a potentially 64 times bigger gamut than a TN panel will count for something in a good implementation. It's not without reason that the high-end desktop screens still use IPS.
The TN-panels also vary much in the width of the gamut they display in practice. Most of the panel manufacturers give these numbers as a percentage of the NTSC gamut, which is the standard colour space for TV sets. The sRGB is a smaller colour space than NTCS, but I'm not sure how Adobe's RGB relates. The figures stated by the manufacturers vary from a standard around 45% up to, and exceeding, 100%. With hardware supporting only 6-bit representation, I suppose it means that each colour is just "spread out" into a wider colour space. However it may also be the result of what someone in a forum described as "colour dithering". Apparently this is a task performed by the machine's operating system to map the real colour into something viewable on the screen. There was some usual trench-war between Mac and Windows users as to which system provided the best rendering, but I didn't learn much. And stupid as I was, I didn't even bookmark the site. :-(

Well, some technical rant, huh?

The upshot is that it is currently very difficult to purchase a laptop that is both reasonably transportable (ie. smaller that 17" screens) and reasonably well suited for image editing. Despite Galbraith's conclusion that Apple is no longer king of the heap, I would say that the 17" MacBook PRO with non-glare screen looks worth waiting for. It's a bit too big for my taste, but very light for a 17".
I would probably have to run Windows Vista on it, though.
(Grinning, ducking, and running like h...)

Anyway, I will keep looking. My goal is to decide on a laptop before summer. Meanwhile I could simply try to save up some money. As always, quality doesn't come cheap.