Thursday, November 27, 2008

Exploring High Dynamic Range photography

Now that I got myself started on photo impressionism, I would also like to mention here a digital imaging technique that has intrigued me earlier on. Used with discretion, it can be a very powerful technique. However, over-use of it will quickly wear down its novelty. The theory behind HDR (high dynamic range) can be easily found in Wikipedia; it is not my intention to expound on it here. The technique involves taking 3 shots of the same scene, with exposure bracketing for under- and over-exposure. A handy software such as Dynamic Photo HDR does the rest for you in a few simple steps. It is that easy!

This is an example I got from the website. An ordinary shot has been turned into a surreal picture. Google on HDR will quickly reveal lots of beautiful HDR images.

Below is my first attempt using a trial version of the Dynamic Photo HDR software. See the difference between a normal shot and an HDR-rendered image.

You can also do a simulated HDR using a single shot instead of bracketing 3 shots. Below is an example using a plug-in imported into Photoshop. (Newer versions of Photoshop CS has built-in HDR tool).

It is easier to achieve satisfactory result with HDR than with digital infrared photography. I guess now I'll have to write about my experience with IR (infrared) photography in my next blog.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Photo impressionism

Pictorialism is coined from the word "picture impressionism". Pictorialism started in the late nineteenth century, around the time impressionism was gaining popularity. Here is a typical example. The grainy effect simulates the rough brush strokes of an impressionist painting.

Modern digital camera makes it possible to create photographs that emulate an impressionist painting in colour, as shown in this beautiful example.

Some photographers venture into the realm of extensive digital manipulation to emulate the impressionist style of the great masters.

Others produce abstract work under the umbrella of impressionism.

Here is my work with a camera. The only photoshop work on this picture is cropping. Hopefully you noticed the background more than the flowers. This picture is about how the background emulates what you see in an impressionist painting.

Monday, November 17, 2008

China's GDP "growth" doesn't add up

We have all heard that China's GDP "growth" was 12% last year and will "slow" to 7% this year. However, we have also heard that as many as 20% of China's factories are in trouble, and that production in many of its steel mills have slowed to a crawl. Australia's mining companies have seen their mineral prices plummet, along with their share prices, largely due to a big drop in demand from China. This fact is borne by stories of migrant workers in China returning back to their rural homes because of factory closures.

Something doesn't add up. GDP by definition is the total value of all goods and services produced in a country. If China's growth is slowing down, that means it is still growing albeit at a slower pace. Nothing in the newspapers have said anything about contraction. So, what is holding the GDP figures up, I wonder? I can only imagine that the talks about China's GDP growth slowing down to 7% is not true. The facts are clear for all to see: China's GDP is simply NOT GROWING. This implies that the world cannot count on China to prevent us all from sliding into a recession. Bearing this in mind, is it any wonder that share prices continue to see-saw downwards?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My first visit to Knox Photographic Society

Tonight I dropped in on my first visit to the KPS (Knox Photographic Society). It was everything I expected. There were about 60 people at the meeting, which is held on alternate Wednesdays. I liked what I saw: lots of people who have a genuine passion for photography, a lot of activities to encourage development of skills, and friendly people who just love to talk shop. I can see my interest in photography getting a big "shot" in the arm (pun intended). I can't imagine why I waited so long for this to come along. It was quite by chance that I decided to surf the internet to look for a club nearby.

At tonight's meeting, some of the members brought along their favourite photos to show. Some were in prints, some slides, and some were just soft copies projected from a laptop onto a a screen. After that, there was a half hour slideshow of this year's winning entries to the APS (Australian Photographic Society). The pictures were truly beautiful and inspiring. Suddenly I find myself inspired to set a new goal and a new purpose for my hobby: to make a winning entry to the APS some day!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A$6.2bil assistance for local car industry

Over the next 13 years the government is going to provide A$6.2bil in various incentives to help the car industry to survive. A pure capitalist would be repelled by the idea; survival goes to the fittest, they say. Australia has a small population; as such they would argue that we have an uphill battle against the economy of scale. Let's put some perspectives into the issue (with figures quoted freely from Shaun Carney's article in today's The Age newspaper):

1. A$6.2bil may be a big sum of money, but try comparing that with A$10bil which the government is pumping into pensioners' pockets next month. Unlike the $10bil pensioners' bonanza, the $6.2bil will be spent over 13 years, to help 60,000 tax-paying workers directly employed in car manufacturing, and another 200,000 workers in related industries.

2. Unlike the Malaysian Proton which is well known as being inefficient and surviving on the government's protectionist policies, Australian car manufacturing is world class. Unfortunately it is on an uphill battle - not due to economy of scale - but due to uneven tariff policies. While Australia is going to reduce the imported car tariff from 10% to 5%, we are importing cars from Thailand (tariff on imported cars is 80%), Brazil (35%), Europe (10%), and China (25%). This is a ridiculous arrangement. Why are we spending $6.2bil to keep the car industry alive, while at the same time doing nothing about tariffs? At the least, perhaps all government vehicles should be local productions.

3. About economy of scale, the US has a very large market for its car industries. Yet GM and Ford are reeling over in this financial crisis. Even before the crisis, GM and Ford have seen their market share being taken over by Japanese imports. The US government has pumped in money several times in the past to rescue its car manufacturers, but continues to openly expose themselves to policies that can only result in transferring all their manufacturing bases overseas. This may enrich the rich capitalists in the country (cheaper labour = greater profit), but certainly impoverishes all the workers who make up the vast majority of the population.

Perhaps it is time that governments wake up now and take a bourgeois view of the economy and how it should be managed. Unbridled globalization policies is what dries up employment. In developed countries, the manufacturing base had been replaced by a financial services industry, which everyone knows has now exploded into pieces. Kevin Rudd has done the right thing to help keep the manufacturing base (hence, employment figures) going. A$6.2bil is a good start; let's hope that's not the end of the story.

(Footnote: Columnist Kenneth Davidson wrote in The Age the following day:
"Financial services based on increasingly complex financial products built on financial engineering cannot fill the gap left by the decline in manufacturing, nor can a revival in manufacturing be left to the market when nascent industries must compete on equal terms in global markets.

"... If the government is serious about creating an internationally competitive vehicle industry, it must shape policy to exploit strengths and identify weaknesses.")

Monday, November 10, 2008

What's good about my old digicam

My new DSLR (D90) has opened up a lot of photography possibilities for me, yet in some ways I think digicams still have a significant role to play. DSLR, by virtue of the pentaprism, makes a sound when the shutter is released. Ah, I miss the moments when I could snap quietly without announcing to the unsuspecting public "Hey, I am taking a picture of you!" This, coupled with my tilting Live View LCD, has enabled me to take many pictures in public places. I simply place my old Sony F717 at waist level and shoot, looking as if I was just fidgeting with my camera.

The other day when I went to the Derby Day races, I took my D90 with me. It seemed like I was the only one with a DSLR, although there were a few others with small pocket cameras. Subdued by my self-consciousness, I ended up not taking very many pictures. I would have taken more if I had a little digicam with me.

Some side notes.....
The lines are already starting to blur between DSLR and digicam.
1. DSLR's are beginning to sport Live View and articulated LCD. Leica and Panasonic already introduced articulated LCD with Live View in their DSLR one year ago. Olympus introduced articulated Live View LCD in its newly launched E-30, while Sony also has tilting Live View LCD (e.g. A350). Hopefully, it won't be long before Canon and Nikon add articulated or tilting LCD to their Live View. Shooting from waist level gives a more correct perspective to photographing people.
2. Hybrids may one day sport DSLR-size sensor. The Panasonic DMC-G1 uses Micro Four-Thirds sensor and does away with the pentaprism. This reduces the size of the camera, while allowing for interchangeable lens. I am hoping that this sensor may also find its way to some future digicams that will be small enough to carry in the pocket, yet gives SLR-level image quality.

Friday, November 7, 2008

GPS: Garmin Nuvi 260

I bought this as a birthday gift for my son. This is the first time I have hands-on experience with a GPS and I am very impressed with the design of it. The overall design is very well thought out:

1. Size and weight: it is about 2/3 the size of a PDA, as light as a calculator, and does not have any protruding antenna. It does not require a special charger; it just uses a USB port which is almost ubiquitous nowadays.

2. Performance: The touch screen is very responsive. The screen is bright enough to use in bright daylight. Screen resolution is clear and appears more pleasing than other brands in similar price range. The in-built speaker is loud and clear and the volume can be easily accessed on the touchscreen menu. The soft buttons respond well and the pages open up quickly. The battery is specified to last 5 hrs, which is exceptionally high among its peers.

3. Features: The touch "buttons" are very simple to navigate. On the home screen, you just choose if you want to go somewhere, or simply look at the map to see where you are. No need to sweat over an array of choices. This model is a dedicated tool for GPS purposes and is not integrated with a camera, music player, etc., which is the way I like. You can set it to automobile, bicycle, or pedestrian mode, depending on how you move about. I took it to Jell's Park for a walk and it worked just fine, showing you all the trails in the park. When I drove home, I placed it backwards on the passenger seat and it calls out the directions with no problem (not that I expected any). Best of all, I like the fact that it calls out street names. Finally it has a picture viewer; not a fancy one, but it is good to have. I can imagine how useful it would be when going on a trip. It would be useful as a do-all note keeper: say a picture of your packing list, picture of someone you are supposed to pick up at the airport, a place you are supposed to look for, etc, etc.

This is a great gadget to have. It is not a "must-have" item, but it is great to have it around. At $242, I think it is at a decent price point where it will find its way into many pockets, homes and hearts.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

First 10 days with my D90 DSLR

After many years of delayed gratification, the question I ask myself is: how did it turn out? Has it lived up to my expectation? Did it suddenly make me into a great photographer, producing pictures like those on my favourite online albums? I think the short answer to those questions is: a great camera to a photographer is like a great instrument to a musician. It is capable of producing great works but only in the right hands. My hands are not trained yet for producing professional work, but with the right tool now I can work towards that.

The greatest experience with the D90 is the freedom to shoot in any light without using a flash or a tripod. The above picture was shot at 1/30s speed (which would normally require a tripod), and at ISO 5000 (boosted), which is not possible on a digicam. The D90's in-built noise reduction did a wonderful smoothening job on the picture, and the D-Lighting feature gave it the nice details you see in the shadow. Apart from this picture, I have lots and lots of fun shooting in the dim lights and still getting decent looking pictures.

As for the lens, the wider angle lens (27mm equivalent on 35mm camera) needed some getting used to. I kept getting slanted buildings and wide-faced portraits when I am not careful. The maximum zoom of about 6x is indeed sufficient for me, without weighing me down with unnecessarily long zoom. I had been able to carry the camera for one whole day at the Derby yesterday, without feeling that it was any heavier than my old Sony F717. The 18-105mm kit lens was indeed a good choice for me, although I initially wondered if I should have gone for the 18-200mm lens.

Features on the D90 that I am excited about and will use most:
- the selectable auto ISO can boost up ISO when light is too dim
- very small aperture setting for maximum depth of field (constrained me before)
- very capable and easy to use manual focus
- high speed continuous shooting

The video capturing mode did just what I expected it to do. Nothing more to it. I have not planned on doing lots of video shots, but it is there when I need it. Same for live view. I don't use it very much because due to design constraints of the pentaprism in a DSLR, the focusing is slow. It is not difficult to adapt to shooting through the viewfinder, although I miss the ability to composed shots using a fully articulated LCD. (Panasonic and Sony are breaking grounds that will eventually see high quality, non-TTL viewing that will allow use of articulated LCD on a DSLR)

My first 10 days in short: Carried the camera almost very day. Loved it. Still trying to produce pictures like those I admire in my favourite online albums.