Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Safety measures on a ski slope

Local authorities go to absurd lengths to ensure all possible safety precautions are implemented. For example, you must have a fence around a swimming pool, regardless of whether there is a need for it or not. The Ocean King restaurant is not allowed to operate its dim sum business because the tables are too crowded; a supposedly fire hazard.. The list goes on and on. On a ski slope, however, all precautions are thrown to the wind. It is said that on Mt Hotham alone, there is an average of 6 accidents a day on the ski slope.

I am not a skier, but it confounds me to see that there are lots of opportunities (or loss of opportunities?) to implement safety measures. Where is the local council when you need them? For example, foam paddings could be placed around trees and other solid obstacles. Nets or cushions could be placed in strategic areas to catch a skier that has lost controls while making a turn. I wish our ski operators would do more to make the ski slopes more accident free. Perhaps we should send some of our local council members for a safety tour of the place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Best Chinese dictionary app

Having taken some Mandarin classes in my primary schooldays, I have always wanted to learn the language a bit more. I admit I am not linguistically gifted, but language is something everyone can pick up, sooner or later. With pinyin, I thought looking up Chinese words will be easier than learning the characters. Of course, nothing is that simple. Now, here is one app I am really excited about. It has got to be the BEST and most complete Chinese dictionary there is. It won't make you speak Mandarin as well as Kevin Rudd rightaway, but it will instantly give you control over the language.

This app is called Pleco, a very unflattering name that refers to a fish that eats scum from the bottom of the tank. Here are some screen shots from my Android phone.

You can enter your word in pinyin, or in English, or by writing out the character in Chinese. It will then give you the meaning in Chinese, as well as how it is used. You can also search for the character in "compound" words or common phrases. The words appear in both simplified strokes as well as traditional strokes. The different colours are for intonation. Don't know how to write the character? There is an OCR add-on that can recognize the character and tell you the meaning as you move the camera over the word. All these features can work offline.

One very useful feature is voice recognition (note: works only online). You can say the word in English or Chinese, and the word will be searched instantly. For example, if you say "president", it will return several words in Chinese. You can choose whether you mean president of a country, or a club, a school, etc. Pleco can say out the word for you in Mandarin.

This app is free. If you are lucky enough to own an Android phone, several of its add-ons are free until 31st Dec this year. After installing Pleco on your mobile device, make sure you also install all the free add-ons while you can. If you are on an Apple platform, be prepared to pay for these add-ons: the character recognition (US$15), the audio pronunciation  (US$15?). You can also add various other paid dictionaries to Pleco.

Review of Instagram

I enjoy using well written apps and other software. Instagram is not one of them. For the amount Facebook paid for this company, I fail to see how it is going to survive in the next few years. I admit the photo enhancing effects work properly and are enjoyable to use. The sharing bit is atrocious. Here is my first hand user experience.

Using Instagram on my Android phone, as I said earlier, it does a bug-free job of adding effects to my images (but this is by no means unique to Instagram. Lots of freeware can do this). As I modified each image and posted to Instagram, I noticed it was also saving a copy in another folder. Nice, I thought. But for some unknown reason, it only saved about half of them.

Now I wanted to upload my modified images to my PC. Since I don't have all the images saved (see above), I had to launch Instagram and did a "share" to my Dropbox. It seemed to do it, but when I opened my Dropbox on the PC, only the text titles appear. No images.

Next, I tried to "share" from my Android to Facebook, so that my wife can enjoy the images I had posted. Guess what? Another disappointment. I think the app on my Android is not able to share to Facebook, as it kept saying it could not locate a manageable folder on Facebook.

Looking at Facebook page, I think Facebook is not written to handle Instagram seamlessly. I would expect an Instagram folder or section to feature prominently on Facebook. It doesn't. If I spend a million dollars on an expensive car, I would park it right in front of my house.You get my point.

Finally, I thought I could send a link for my friends to click on their PC to view my Instagram images. I expected that to be a given (something like Picasa or Flickr); but good heavens, there isn't any website to view Instagram!

So how does one share his Instagram images? Only by installing Instagram on their mobile devices? Duh? This has got to be the worst photo sharing app I have ever used. It is a billion dollar insanity.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Photo exhibition in Warragul

I went to see a photo exhibition today in Warragul. The images are from a recent state competition  organized by the Warragul Camera Club. I quite liked a couple of the black&white images, which I took pictures of using my phone camera. The picture of a woman looking out of the window was taken in Salzburg, which caught my attention because my wife was there last year. The other black&white shot is surreal. The cloud appears as a flying saucer to me. It is very out of this world.

The winning shot in the whole competition is that of an old woman, titled "Sad". She immediately struck me as a witch. The picture certainly has an impact, but I really did not like the idea behind the shot. I don't mean any offence to the photographer or to anyone shooting similar images, but doesn't this demean the character of the person? When I take a portrait of someone, I want it to be a flattering image of his/her real self. In this case, I cannot see how this image can be flattering to the old woman. That is just my personal opinion.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Camera trends

Photography has always been a evolving, but never quite a dramatic as at the present moment. It seems that every year or two brings yet another wave of improvements that makes for a very compelling reason to upgrade. The present crop of low cost entry-level digicams are more than capable of replacing a whole bagful of camera gear (camera, videocam, chargers, lenses, filters, etc.) that some of us can reminisce of carrying on a fondly-remembered family vacation. We still have the poorly exposed pictures and nausea-inducing videos as proof.

Here are some of the exciting trends I can foresee or hope to see in the world of photography.

A) Fast learning curve (scene-based shooting)
Of course this is not new, but it is getting better all the time. Unlike the physical components of a camera, software and processor speed keeps on improving. I guess we just have to use it to believe that even seasoned photographers may one day be using scene modes as comfortably as using manual mode. What is easier and faster than using scene modes in a constantly changing environment like shooting a wedding? Added to that, I would like to see advanced settings in scene mode for pro users to fine tune on the fly.

B) Perfect focusing (touch and shoot)
How many times have we sighed over an otherwise great shot, because the focus is at the wrong spot? With touchscreen coming to cameras, some cameras (e.g. Olympus OMD EM5) allow you to touch at the point where you want the focus to be, and also trigger the shot at the same time. I would love to see that in more cameras. This innovation comes from smartphone apps, which goes to show camera manufacturers have not been thinking outside the box. I would like to see a mini touchpad (like in a Blackberry phone) for the thumb to move a cursor quickly when shooting through an electronic viewfinder. This will enable a pro shooter to shoot faster while still holding the camera with both hands for stability.

C) One-touch post processing
Every professional photographer does post processing to a varying degree. Smartphone apps developers pioneered this. Many new cameras now feature art effects to attract the new generation of users. Existing post processing software like Lightroom and many others already have "presets" to do what I call one touch processing. What I would like to see is more finesse and sophistication, instead of the usual kitschy art effects like retro effect, pop art, film negative, etc. I would like to see each preset come with advanced setting sliders that allow the user to fine tune to his taste.

D) Tripod-free, flash-free shooting (super high ISO)
There was a time when you couldn't possibly shoot at night without a flash (read: film days). With a decent smartphone you can shoot a reasonably good image at night without a flash or a tripod. While lens technology is already bound by the laws of optics, sensor technology is still evolving.

E) Miniaturization (including full frame DSLR)
I believe a light-weight and slimmer full frame DSLR is bound to emerge. There is really no need for a reflex camera, the reason for the weight and bulk of a DSLR body. CSC's (Compact System Camera) such as Panasonic GF series, the Sony NEX, and many others have demonstrated that there is no advantage to hanging on to the reflex mirror.

Let's see what this year's Photokina will bring in terms of cameras. It will be held in two month's time!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Night shots using Samsung Galaxy S2

Camera phones are quite fun to play with. They enable you to take pictures that you otherwise not have taken with a regular digicam due to extreme conditions. These three pictures were taken with my Samsung Galaxy S2, without using a flash. Viewed small, the image quality is surprisingly good. At full size, the pictures are grainy, but not as bad as I thought they would be. Night shooting is certainly a lot of fun with a smartphone.

Another area to experiment with a camera phone is at the snow. A regular digicam would have problem with condensation on the lens. However, I was told buy several people that they have absolutely no such problem with a camera phone. The pictures come out crisp and clear. That will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Is Facebook going out of control?

Facebook seems to be trying to do too many things at once. First, it acquired Instagram for an astronomical US$1bil. Till now, I do not see how Instagram has become an integrated Facebook experience for the end user. Using the same log-in account for both Facebook and Instagram, I added some pictures to Instagram and expect to see it popping up in Facebook, or at least appearing in an intuitive way. That did not happen.

Next, Facebook tried to hijack users' email account by switching them over to a Facebook-generated email account. That did not go down too well with many people. To add salt to the wound, some users reported that have lost some emails in that fiasco. Facebook has since rescinded on that track - for now.

Facebook now wants to be your online bill payment system. It is trying to get users to pay their bills and other online banking functions in an integrated manner, unlikely as it sounds (what - doing online banking while facebooking with friends?). It is planning a beta launch with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia for an imminent release.

My question is, has Facebook lost the plot? Is it trying to do too many things at once? In software development, this is called scope creep. Perhaps it is trying very hard to impress the stockholders, now that it has gone public. Scope creep is seldom a good sign. Software turns into bloatware. Users' experience turns into frustration as unwanted features start taking over and dictating to the users what they do not need. In the end, the software loses its original identity and the very reason that attracted users to it in the first place. Remember Nero? Nero was the most popular CD burner software in its time. Then it tried to do everything, including video creation, image editing, music, etc. The do-it-all product was released and that was the end we have heard of it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Smart TV - is it worth it?

TV manufacturers try to entice you to upgrade every few years by coming up with bigger and better TV's.  First, it was the switch from CRT-based TV to plasma TV. Then it was from analog-reception to built-in tuner for digital TV. Then it was plasma to LED. Now they are promoting smart TV. And all the while the TV display grows larger and larger.

If you are new to this, a smart TV is one with built-in capability to connect to a network, and with built-in software to visit some of the websites that you normally do on a computer or a mobile device. Is it worth getting one?

At the moment, the price of a smart TV is several hundred dollars more than that of a regular TV, if display size and quality remains the same. I won't say it is a bad idea; it is just not cost effective. Furthermore, with the technology still maturing; the feature will get obsolete faster than your TV. For just a AUD$100+ dollars you can buy a media player or a BluRay player that will do a similar job of making your TV smart. Also, because it is a separate unit, you can upgrade your media player for a small price, without being locked into an expensive investment.

I have just bought a 60" full HD LG plasma TV for AUD$1200 (to be fair, it has been marked down ~20%). Granted it is not LED, the picture quality is just as good, only less energy efficient. It is just a regular TV - no computer brains to make it smart. It does have several HDMI connectors and USB port to play media straight from a USB device. For another AUD$100+, I can enjoy all the things a smart TV is supposed to do.

I am not saying smart TV is a bad idea. I am only saying it is not necessary to pay a huge premium to get a smart TV. In time to come, all TV's will be smart, only without a big price premium attached. The novelty factor will wear off and people will come to expect it to come with a TV. After all, one can now buy a PC on a USB stick for $50, but that's another story.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sony Alpha NEX-5N review

Trying out a new camera is always fun for me, especially when it is one of the more popular ones. This week I have the good fortune of testing out the Sony NEX-5N. I am delighted with the image quality and the fast and sharp focusing. When set in iAuto mode, taking a sharp and well-exposed pictures is, well, just a snap.

So what sets this camera apart from the average mid-range shooter? The controls are very well laid out. It has a touchscreen LCD (which I don't care much about). However, as far as I know, all the items on the screen can alternatively be selected by the use of the two context buttons and the control wheel (think of a Nokia phone's four-way controller and two selection buttons, held sideways).  I wish it had physical buttons for ISO and metering, though, for faster operation.

I liked the panorama mode (see below). It does an excellent job of stitching up the shots for you in an effortless way. I like the ability to shoot at very high ISO without visible loss of quality (see picture of cables below, taken at ISO 12800 at 1/80 sec. I think the image stabilization works very well, as almost every shot I took showed no sign of camera shake. The colours are lovely and accurate, thanks to good auto white balance.

There are many camera effects to play with, although I think not many serious photographers will make use of them very often.

Overall, I find this a highly capable camera. The lack of sufficient physical buttons will slow down your work - not so good if you are shooting sports or wedding. It is great for casual shooting and for taking with you on a vacation. There are enough capabilities to match a regular DSLR, if you can afford to call up the menus.