Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year's Resolutions for Photographers

The title is taken from an article in the PCWorld magazine I read this morning. I am reproducing the tips here because they are actually what I have been doing for the past one year:

- Turn off Auto.
It was an unplanned move for me, but over the past one year I found myself using the Manual mode more and more, especially for flash-assisted photography. It gives the exposure more consistency.

- Edit and share your images.
Lightroom makes editing an entire day's shooting very easily. My workflow typically takes less than an hour from transferring out the images to my computer, edit in Lightroom, and upload to Facebook. Facebook is excellent for sharing lots of images after an event. It is easy to post an entire folder of images, edit captions, and allows viewers to post comments easily. I have recently started doing that and I am sure my friends appreciate it.

- Learn to note shutter speed.
Not only that, I have also learned to take note of the exposure indicator in the viewfinder. I have been using that very often since I started to use the manual mode more and more.

- Stop thinking a new piece of gear is going to make you a better photographer.
It's a mindset change. I have stopped looking at new lenses and camera since I bought my 24-70 f2.8 lens (which is still under-utilized). On the other hand, I have gained new respect for my studio accessories.

- Commit to practising.
I agree with what the author says: it's the only thing that will make you a better photographer. I take every opportunity to shoot at parties and outings. I feel I have improved through this, and still have much to learn.

- Study the work of photographers.
I think I need to do more in this area. I have also started to read up about paintings. It helps to see what make a painting work, and apply that to photography.

- Don't use a regular flash outside. Use slow sync flash.
This is something new for me to work at.

- Learn to use a camera's flash compensation.
I have done that, and I have also learned to use the exposure compensation regularly. This has worked wonders in improving my exposure control more than anything I have tried.

The article has several other useful tips. To read this article, go to:

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

About the CR-48 Chrome notebook

Google recently launched a notebook called the CR-48 to test the market. What is unique about this is that it is exclusively driven by the Chrome internet browser. It does not use a regular operating system and you do everything through the built-in browser. You cannot do things like copy and paste a file on the "desktop" by simple right-click options. So far, the concept has not made big waves yet.

One magazine review I have read says that this idea is bound to fail. Who would want to give up all the conveniences of a regular operating system and still have any internet browser you wish? Wouldn't that be a step backwards?

The same writer probably thought that the iPad would fail when it was first introduced. At that time I wrote in my blog that the iPad is reaching into a market that is still unexplored (disregarding Microsoft's dismal failure with PC tablets, which were actually regular PC's on a slate). In a similar way, the CR-48 concept is reaching into un-marketed territory. There is potential for the lightweight Chrome browser (not just the CR-48 notebook) to find its way into the TV set of every living room. It could reside in a set top type of device and turn every TV set into an internet access terminal. Or it could be incorporated into the TV itself.

The Chrome browser has a higher aim than to simply browse the internet. Together with cloud computing, it could potentially do away with the familiar OS altogether. It will be easier to learn and easier to maintain. A computer like the CR-48 takes just 10 sec to boot from sleep, and is instant-on from standby mode. The computer acts like an appliance; you don't need to know how the OS operates. You just see the browser interface. If I am not mistaken, you can't do any maintenance work like cleaning up the desktop, running virus checks, defrag, etc.

In time to come, the personal computer may not be so "personal" anymore. Digital content will eventually reside in the computer cloud. One can then access his work seamlessly from any internet access terminals. A Chrome-based portal is simply helping to hasten that change as it weans users away from OS-based operations to app-based operations. Apple Computer started the trend with the iPad; Google is going to finish it off (and Microsoft?) with the Chrome. If Microsoft still thinks that Chrome is just another browser, it can be forgiven for thinking that the iPad is just another PC tablet.

Monday, December 27, 2010

When to be compassionate?

A video news report is currently going around in the internet about a burqa-wearing woman who laid a false accusation charge against a policeman in Sydney. On 7 June 2010 she was pulled over and subsequently issued a summon. Luckily for the policeman, the actual scene was caught on the police video and the woman was sentenced to 6 months in jail. She lied in her statutory declaration and she declared that the policeman tried to rip off her burqa. The video proved otherwise. She is out on bail now pending appeal. A spokesman from the Australian Islamic Association said she should be shown compassion for the sake of her 7 children. The reporter said the accused did not show compassion on the policeman. And, may I add, his career and life would have been ruined, along with his family's as well.

This brings me to a question. Should the woman be shown compassion and be let off without a jail sentence? While I teach me children to repay good for evil; this incidence causes me to pause and wonder.

Reflect upon the parable of sheep and goats:
"Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ " (Matthew 25:41-43)

I will still teach my children to repay good for evil, but tread with wisdom.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tuning in to the past

In the place where I work sits an old radio. Perhaps it has been there on the same spot for decades; I don't know. I just find old radios to be so fascinating. Most of them still work long after many other mechanical or electrical appliances have been happily replaced with modern ones.

From the radio, if you are an oldies fan, you will hear the same old melodies wafting out of the speakers. Close your eyes for a moment and you might be transported back to your childhood years.

I love old radios. I have had one where the built-in clock had a flip display. I bought it in Kmart when I was in college. The well-heeled college kids had a full hi-fi system in their room but I was happy enough with my little clock radio. It kept me entertained for several years and introduced me to songs that today's children call the oldies.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Through the artist's eyes

A painting, unlike other forms of art, is unique in the way it brings the viewer into an enhanced vision of reality. It does this in a way that a photograph is able to imitate to a certain extent. I'll explain why.

Have you ever wondered how a lovely scenery may remind you of a painting that you admire? Actually the converse is equally true; the lovely painting is what helps you to appreciate the scenery. The human mind does not process 100% of what the eye takes in. It subconsciously plays down unnecessary details and focuses on what it likes or chooses to see. The artist puts into his painting what the mind "sees". He leaves out a great deal of extraneous details and concentrates on the vital elements that make a great picture. He uses textures in his strokes to further achieve the desired effect. He uses colour in a way that non-artist have not been trained to do. For example, many people see the cloud as white in colour, but the painter would add a tinge of other colours to enhance the effect. Pure white alone does not replicate the real cloud, if you are observant enough.

A photographer is like a painter. The camera was invented to capture an image as realistically as possible, yet an exact copy of the real world is not what makes a great picture. It is the enhanced reality created by a seasoned photographer that makes an image appealing. In the enhanced reality, the photographer uses selective focusing and creative lighting (to put it simply) to help the viewer enjoy beauty, more or less imitating the way the mind works. Image editing techniques provide the photographer additional means to enhance the image after the image has been captured.

To this end, one may start to wonder whether photography is really art. I'll leave it to you to ponder and comment.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book: How to look at a painting

I stumbled upon this book in the Monash Library last week. It is called "How to look at a painting," by Justin Paton. I borrowed this to read because as a photographer I am keen to know how other people view a painting or a photograph. This book is a delight to read because the writer is passionate about art, unpretentious in his opinions, and articulate in the way he writes.

This is what Paton says about how to be looked at by a painting: "When something is puzzling or beyond belief, what we most want to do is look. And often, when we look hard enough, it can feel as though we're the ones being scrutinized. Looking at paintings is never more memorable than when one looks right back at you."

Here is how Paton describes viewing art in Venice: "What's lovely and slightly absurd about looking for art in Venice is that Venice is all art and artfulness, from its shining spires to its waterlogged toes. You're heading for the museum, but the city is a museum. You're looking for paintings, but every patch of crumbling plaster looks good enough to frame."

(Written on the back cover, Paton is an art writer from New Zealand, presently a senior curator at Christchurch Art Gallery, and a frequent commentator on art on radio and television)

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Democracy in the developed world

The developed countries generally think of themselves as defenders of the democracy. In a way that is correct; these countries make sure that everyone has the right to vote and every vote carries equal weight. Apart from the voting machinery, these countries are anything but democratic - in my opinion.

A democratic system is supposed to make decisions that favour the wishes of the majority of the population. These days, the population only choose who they want to represent them and the people voted in office quite often do things contrary to the wishes of the majority of the people. True democracy has long ceased to exist. Countries are now run according to the wishes of Big Supermarkets, Big Banks, Big Miners, and Big Mouths.

As for the individuals, yes they still have a voice. It is called Individual Rights. When you wield this weapon, it doesn't matter if the majority of the population is pissed. The odd ones are appeased. Think of shutting down Christmas music in public places, so that "individual rights" are preserved. Is that democracy?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Photojournalism today

To be at the right place and at the right time, and with a camera... that is what made many pictures famous. Take this picture for example. It is called "V-J Day in Times Square", taken in 1945, and published in Life magazine a week later. In those days, it is usually a career photographer who manages to capture such an iconic image.

Today, cameras are everywhere, especially in the form of mobile phones. Whenever a newsworthy event occurs, there will be no lack of cameras nearby, ready to shoot or videotape everything at a moment's notice. What does that mean to photojournalism today, I wonder?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A minimalist phone

These days there are so many smart phones with advanced features. The prices have also come down quite a bit. At one time I used to look at which ones I would love to have, carefully comparing all the specifications and features. I have stopped doing that now. There is such a glut of good smart phones with decent prices to match that I am actually put off by them all. Now I just wish somebody would come out with a bare-bone minimalist phone.

Here's what I propose. First of all, I just want the phone to handle only calls and text messages; no camera, no social networking, and not even an MP3 player. I just want a large screen with e-ink that is highly readable in bright sunlight while consuming very little power. Without an LCD screen and without 3G or Wifi, and powered by a low-end processor, such a phone would theoretically last for weeks on a single charge for somebody like me who likes to keep calls short. It would probably be very cheap to make. It would probably be small enough to turn into a wearable phone that I can wear like a watch (borrowing the idea from the Apple Nano, which unfortunately draws so much power that it needs to be charged everyday). That would be my dream phone - for now.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Selling out Australia

Australia is being sold off and sold out by the very people who have been trusted to run the government. State after state is selling off public utilities in a hurry, often against the wishes of the people. The latest in this scandalous and immoral assault on the public family jewels is the NSW government. Due to go for re-election early next year (in which the incumbent government is widely believed to stand a huge loss), the NSW government is rushing to privatize the state's energy retailers and electricity generation. This is to boost the election war chest by up to $5 billion in order to shore up its re-election chances.

I think it is utterly irresponsible of any government sell off any major public asset without going through a referendum. Public assets belong to the public. The political party elected to run the government should not assume they have a mandate to sell off what does not belong to them. If a family's fortune is placed in the hands of a trustee and the trustee starts selling off the assets, wouldn't anyone immediately put a stop to that? In the same way, the ruling party should be seen as only a trustee of the state's assets, without any right to sell off any public property without the owner's (in this case, the general public's) permission.

Finally, I question the timing of the sale. Australia is not going through a financial crisis now. I can understand if Ireland, Spain, or Portugal were to resort to such a move at this time, but goodness gracious... not Australia! If public utilities are sold off in a time of plenty, what do we have left to sell when bad times fall? Our best farmland? Our richest mines? (er, brace yourself... that has already been going on....)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Watch out for the National Water Commission

In today's The Australian, it is reported that the federal government is considering linking prices to dam storage levels and opening the water supply in cities and towns to further competition. I am alright with the first part. It makes sense that water bills rise when storage levels go down, as long as water bills also go down when storage levels go up.

What worries me is the second part: in order to boost competition, it is reported that the government may dismantle some public monopolies that control supplies in big dams. We have seen that all the so-called "free competition" that is supposed to result from selling off of public monopolies has only resulted in private monopolies. Even where more than one player exists, there seems to be a collusion going on between Woolworth and Coles, Telstra and Optus, Shell and Caltex, the Big Four Banks, etc, etc. The government needs to gain back more control over the supply of essential goods and services, not less. The government should set up a government-run bank to compete against the big four banks. The government should set up a housing development unit to lead the way in bringing down house prices. Yes, in this era, we need more government control, not less. Private companies are having a party making record profits, while pretending to be victimized whenever any policies are in place to take away their freedom to print money.

Watch out for more spin form the NWC. James Cameron, the acting chief, is going to tell you how good it is to privatize the remaining controls Canberra has over water supplies. Perhaps the federal budget is running into deficit again.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What I think of Wikileaks

Julian Assange should not be prosecuted for leaking information that some government officials prefer to keep secret. I think many governments have gone overboard about what should be kept secret and what should not. I would love to know what has been agreed behind closed doors to allow the Myki and the desalination plant projects to be given such generous terms to the companies awarded the contracts. In the name of "official secrets", the public has been deliberately kept ignorant to suit the convenience of those in power. Many deals with private companies have been declared state secret by the now-deposed Brumby government.

Australia has gone even further by enacting privacy laws to provide secrecy to criminals after they have been released from jail. You don't know if your new neighbour is an ex-pedophile or a released murderer. I would be happy to see every hardcore criminal be named and identified publicly in Wikileaks for the protection of everyone else.

Should anyone be prosecuted for finding out another person's secret? If you have a secret, it is up to you and you alone to protect it. If another person manages to find out about your secret, you cannot take the person to court, can you? Why should Wikileaks be any different? The government in the developed countries who are supposed to champion freedom of the press are also at the forefront now to shut down Wikileaks. Judging by their panic reaction to Wikileaks, my guess is that most state secrets are just dirt that certain politicians prefer you and I not to know about.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buying things on eBay

My wife has suddenly discovered the thrill of shopping on eBay. Before anyone starts congratulating her on her new-found technological prowess, let me tell you that it is not quite as thrilling for me. She sees everything as a bargain. She gets attracted by the pictures and the product description. I have a hard time trying to explain to her that this is not how you buy things on eBay. So how do I buy things on eBay?

I am not an avid shopper on eBay, but I have bought a number of items there. I want to make a distinction between "shop" and "buy". To shop is to search for goods or services. To buy is to make the acquisition after you have decided what you want and how much you are willing to pay for it. I do my shopping in the physical world whenever possible. I go to the shops to see and touch the real thing. I make my buying decision after familiarizing with the product. Then I would turn to eBay to make the purchase if that is the best place to get it. Sometimes it is not worth the trouble or risk.

Would you look at a printed catalog and make a purchasing decision based on the pictures and the write-up there? Likewise, it is risky to shop on the internet. You won't know the product until you see it, touch it or try it on. You can't tell if a mattress will be comfortable. You won't know if a furniture will not creak, or a bed will not sag. You can't tell if a sound system is going to sound good just because it looks good. My point is, do all your shopping in the real world. Don't just browse the online catalog and make a buying decision there and then.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Hindsight on desalination

I cannot understand the need to keep the Tugun desalination plant in Queensland running at minimum capacity, now that excessive rainfall has rendered this project a white elephant. The idea is that the plant can be brought to full capacity within 72 hours. But is there really a need to bring the plant to full capacity within 72 hours? Would there suddenly be a drought? Would the existing dams suddenly drop to critical level? Wouldn't it be alright to take three months to bring the plant up to full running capacity? Or six months?

I also cannot understand the need for Victoria to build such a huge desalination plant in Wonthaggi. Is there a need to ensure that the whole of Victoria will have enough water to use to everyone's heart's content, to get us through a cyclical drought? As it is such an expensive option, wouldn't it be sufficient to build just a small desal plant to provide enough for emergency needs only? After all, drought comes and goes, if weather patterns are to be believed. And they are.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What's driving your mobile device

The life blood of any mobile electronic device is the battery. The humble battery is often overlooked in many purchasing decisions, and yet it is the most important factor to consider. The iPad, which has a battery life of 10hrs, will suddenly be far less appealing if it were equipped with a 4-hour long battery. I used to own a Pioneer PDA which had a battery life of about 4 hours. It was a high-end PDA at that time. I was not able to make full use of all the features the PDA had, simply because the battery life was too short. I had to reserve the battery life for the more important uses, hence also limiting my use of the PDA.

The smart phone will not be quite so appealing had battery life improvements not kept pace with the computing power needed to run the smart phone. Putting it another way, the battery needed to power a smart phone for 3 days would probably be good enough to power a very basic phone today for 3 weeks. Now, that's a smart call (pun intended). We all need a phone to keep in touch, whereas the other functions in a smart phone are non-time critical (well, some people may argue with that...). The way I see it, perhaps phone manufacturers should start making solar-powered basic phones that can run indefinitely without having to recharge the battery. I will be the first to adopt it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Making wise decisions

The $1.2bil Tugun desalination plant in Queensland is to be mothballed now, less than a year after opening. This is due to excessive rainfall. The same fate may befall Victoria's much more expensive desalination plant at Wonthaggi. The question we should be asking our politicians is whether they have made wise decisions. Many politicians have an inspiration (to put it kindly), and off they go, selling the idea and selling out the public. Sometimes they are are armed with survey results and statistics, which they rely on to vindicate themselves in the eventuality of failure. And the public seems to accept that. Not me. Politicians should be held accountable for making wise decisions. To do so, they have to consult the right people. Julia Gillard is not an IT expert. John Brumby is not an expert on the weather.

Back to the Tugun desal plant. Do we not have decades of data to tell us what the rainfall pattern is? Rainfall can very from year to year, but it is very hard to believe that a drought can suddenly happen that has not happened before in recorded history. Weather pattern is fairly consistent over thousands and thousands of years. It may vary slightly from year to year but it cannot change suddenly. Our water supply contingency plan should be based on year-to-year fluctuation. We should not interpret a cyclical drought as one that is about to change the landscape forever.

Tricyle for the overgrown baby

When I saw this 3-wheeled motorcycle, I thought it resembles the tricycle I used to ride on as a child. It even has the same kind of back seat for the rear passenger. This contraption must have been designed with the overgrown baby in mind. Some of you might recall the kid's tricycle that I am talking about.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Christmas gift idea

People nowadays are materially much better off than ever before. It is very hard to buy a present for anyone. Everyone has everything that he or she could possible need, and often in multiples (think watches, shoes, game consoles, mobile phones, etc). Gone are the days when you can delight someone with a present he or she really needs or wants and doesn't already have.

But "it's the thought that counts!" How often we hear that, so why don't we just do that? Here's how to do it: buy any item; just a small and simple one. Then package it as elaborately as you can, one layer after another. For example, take one simple candy bar. Wrap it in an expensive tissue wrapper. Place this in an nice present box. The wrap again in an expensive wrapper, complete with a ribbon and a gift card. Place this in a beautiful paper bag that is specially made for presents. This will really make a gift that is thoughtfully put together for someone who already has it all.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Most popular e-reader today

These two charts are from CNET ( Click on the charts for a larger view.

It appears that the Amazon Kindle is the most popular e-reader, while Sony and Nook are distant competitors (5%, and 4% respectively, as compared to 47% for kindle and 32% for iPad). Apparently, the iPad is fast gaining ground. I suspect this does not really mean that Kindle users are switching over to iPad, but rather the number of iPad users are growing faster than the number of Kindle users. I am a Kindle user, and I am have not grown tired of opening up the Kindle each morning to read the newspapers.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Image of the year

This image won the Image of the Year award at my camera club. This is a really great honour and I didn't expect to win the top prize this year, being only a 2-year old member of the club. There are many good photographers at the Knox Photographic Society and many great images were submitted for this year end competition. I am truly humbled and awed. I know I've still got a long way to go to become a really good portrait photographer. Looks like my emphasis on portraiture is paying off!