Monthly Archives: September 2012

Technology

Useful Links: September 2012

A list of items I’ve come across recently that I found potentially useful, interesting, or just plain funny:

  • Rubular – Ruby regular expression editor and tester (via Kristian Brimble)
  • Classic Shell for Windows – Expose hidden features in modern Windows versions (via Scott Hanselman)
  • Traveline NextBuses – Useful mobile website for searching bus timetables
  • Baking Pi – Free operating systems development course for the Raspberry Pi
Technology

Social Media: Taking the Plunge

January 2012 new year’s resolution: to join the 21st century!

With two young children, the past few years have flown by in a time-starved, sleep-deprived haze. Juggling motherhood with work has left little time or head-space for anything new.

I’m firmly stuck in the age of email. If I want to contact someone, I call them or I email them. Very occasionally, I text. MySpace and Bebo passed me by. Facebook and Twitter are things that other people do and LinkedIn is somewhere I ought to be.

After many months of procrastination, I reluctantly dipped my little toe in the water this summer and joined LinkedIn. I felt slightly exposed having an on-line presence for the first time. The photo is still proving a sticking point.

Needing a further push, I went along to a social media event hosted by flexible working specialists Ten2Two. Aimed at individuals like myself, who have somehow missed (or avoided) the social media revolution, the workshop gave a useful insight into LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and blogging. Around the room, questions and concerns included choosing the best media, privacy and security, and of course the holy grail for all working mums, finding the time.

Which Media When?

Yes – I’m on LinkedIn – but my sad lack of photo is a no-no. The privacy issue with Facebook has always been a concern for me. But, while it may not be the best place for B2B connections, I do need to get to grips with it before my children are on-line. I see the value of Twitter for keeping up-to-date with news and hot topics but remain slightly alarmed at the thought of constant tweet distractions. While there may be guidelines for using social media, there are no hard and fast rules. You simply have to get signed up, try it and see.

The Sticky Issue of Privacy

One of the reasons I’m not on Facebook, don’t tweet and have never blogged before today is; how do I keep my private life private? The answer is, with social media, you can’t! And you can’t keep work separate from your personal life. I’ve decided on the following approach: With anything that I put on-line, I have to be comfortable with the idea that my customers, colleagues, parents, friends, children’s teachers and school-run acquaintances could read it. I also have to be happy that anyone from my past could read it – as well as anyone I may meet or work with in the future.

Finding the Time

The old problem of finding the time won’t go away. But I’ve put aside some time to write this blog post and I’ve enjoyed it! The moment it goes live may be slightly nerve-wracking (will anyone read it, what will they think…) but equally rather liberating!

From a personal and professional point-of-view, I’ve learned that I can no longer bury my head in the sand. Ignoring social media and hoping I can carry on as before is no longer an option. And so with a deep breath, I take the plunge!

Technology

Some thoughts on social media, the importance of IT literacy, and “humanising the web” (channelling Dave Coplin at #SMWB2B)

Yesterday, I spent the morning at the fifth B2B Social Media Huddle, organised by Kerry Bridge (@KerryBridge) and Neville Hobson (@jangles). I’ve written about these events before – and I find them fantastic because they are focus on using social media for business to business communications, whilst many events are focused on consumer audiences. Some would say that doesn’t matter – the channels are the same (i.e. the same social networks) and you are still communicating with people (and, fundamentally, people buy from people, so it’s about building relationships) but I do believe that the two markets have very different needs (B2B is not just B2C scaled down, as someone once suggested…).

Unfortunately I had to leave before the unconference started – so I’m sure I missed some great content later in the day but I wanted to call out some of the fantastic points that Microsoft’s Dave Coplin (@DCoplin) made in his fantastic opening presentation.

Restricting access to social media at work

Firstly, taking a look at the view that employees shouldn’t be allowed access to social media at work.  Thankfully, IT departments are becoming more enlightened and the number of organisations blocking access at the firewall is dropping but there are still issues in management. The concerns generally boil down to:

  1. I don’t want my team wasting time.
  2. I don’t understand the value (of conversation flow, etc.).

As Dave eloquently pointed out, if you are concerned about people wasting time on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, you should probably also frisk them for newspapers with crossword and sudoku puzzles.  And, as Helen Reynolds (@HelReynolds) added on Twitter, whilst you’re at it, ban small talk and daydreaming!

Understanding the value is harder – like Dave, I thought Twitter was a waste of time, until I saw a moderated stream used alongside a keynote video. These days I’m hooked (although Twitter’s apparent desire to self-destruct might change that one day soon…). Another way to look at this is that we might once have struggled to see value in email, or the world-wide web – and now there are large groups of employees for whom we would not envisage a world without those tools (or something similar). Social media is the next iteration of modern communications and, whether its on internal or external networks, there is immense value in many of the conversations to be had.

One important point that Dave made for those who think social media is just “for the kids” is to take a look at the #bbcqt hashtag on a Thursday night and you’ll see a lively debate from across a wide spectrum of Twitter users. Social media is certainly not just for “Generation Y” – and even those middle managers who frown upon its use at work probably use at least one social medium, even if it’s just to follow their favourite sports team, or to pick up deals from a brand with whom they like to transact.

IT literacy

Dave Coplin suggested that there are two common threads when talking to people (real people, not IT or technology marketing people!) about IT. The first is the “I know nothing about computers – I need my son/daughter to control the insert piece of technology here” response, suggested as if it were a badge of honour (i.e. “I’m not a geek”). Dave continues to comment that “I know nothing about computers” should not be acceptable; people need to realise that they are part of society and digital literacy is as important a skill as reading and writing in a traditional sense. I’m not suggesting (and I don’t think Dave Coplin was either) that everyone should be able to write computer programmes, but the idea that some people are proud not to understand how to use common technology like smartphones, video equipment, an Internet browser is a social problem that needs to be addressed.

Secondly, companies that say “don’t worry about IT… we’ll deal with that for you” are not helping – they need to empower users to take control of technology and use them to good effect (writes the man using a corporate PC with so much “security” software piled on it that it takes 5 minutes before it is usable after turning it on…).

Many of the issues are about educating people for a digital future [I’d say a digital present] – not just children but every member of society – and Dave suggests that we need to change our approach, to start teaching skills not tools.

He went on to illustrate the point, something like this (although it might need to be adjusted depending on the audience, this worked for the Generation Xers in the room yesterday!):

  • Our grandfathers went to school where there was no electricity.
  • Our parents went to school when there were no PCs.
  • We went to school when there was no world-wide web.
  • And our kids will go to school in a world without hover-cars.

In other words, technology develops at pace and it’s no good teaching people about technology – we need to equip them with the skills to apply as new technologies come on stream.

In another example, there are signs in various parts of the world advising drivers not to follow satellite navigation (e.g. lorry drivers under low bridges, motor vehicles along footpaths).  I’m sure that the creators of the sat-nav technology didn’t intend to take away the responsibility of the driver to apply some common sense – technology should augmenting human reactions, not replacing them.

In other words, Dave Coplin suggests that the world we should strive for is one of human plus machine, not human versus machine and critical thinking is a more important skill than word processing.

“Humanising” the web

Humanising the web is Microsoft marketing-speak. The company I work for talks about a “human centric intelligent society” and I’m sure there are others in a similar vein but the point is  a similar one – tapping into a network of people to change the way in which services are delivered.  Somewhat cynically, I tweeted that this just sounds like crowdsourcing but there is more to it than that.

Our smartphones are permanently authenticated to us as individuals – they are truly personal devices and that gives companies the opportunity to deliver personalised services.  For example, Dave suggested that mobile can make accessible mean something to a wheelchair user – “what’s the best route into a station – and which of the eight entrances has a ramp?”.  There are other opportunities to augment reality too – like translation, or overlaying information onto pictures. But why stop there, asks Dave? Why not stitch things together and deliver new experiences – applications that know our preferences and suggest activities accordingly?

Much of this depends on “big data” and machine learning – and, the more we use data, the more we can provide new insights. Data scientists will become increasingly important as we find a way to navigate information, without over-reliance on algorithms – which are really powerful but can have unintended consequences when combined.  Dave gave an example whereby, if enough people perform a search, then the engine will decide that it’s important and adjust the results accordingly – that can have unintended consequences (a bit like the example in this old blog post of mine).

Of course, when looking at humanising the web, we need to consider social implications too and there are, undoubtedly, some people whose online behaviour leaves a lot to be desired.  We’ve seen that before though – fifteen years ago, people would interrupt conversations to take a mobile phone call but these days it’s normal to use silent rings, or to divert to voicemail. As a society we have learned how to integrate mobile telephony into our conversations but we are less mature in other areas. Dave Coplin suggests that Facebook is not a problem – the way the (some) people behave on Facebook is the issue – we’re still learning how to behave online – we troll, bully, etc. And that leads to a society that gets really challenged…

Which leads on to privacy – we all have a line above or below which we are comfortable. For example, my Facebook is just for friends and family (although I have extended it to aquantainces from my “real” life too); whilst LinkedIn is only for people I have worked with professionally (and whom I would like to work with again some day); meanwhile I’m pretty open on Twitter, sharing a mixture of the less-personal personal stuff, with technology, things I find out and topics related to my hobbies.

But, as a society, our definitions and expectations of privacy change over time. In one of Dave Coplin’s anecdotes he spoke of how the landlord in your local pub knowing your name and drink of choice is an accolade of social acceptance. But what if you walked into a pub in a different town and the barman said “Hello Dave, pint of the usual is it?” – that might be a little strange (how do they know your name and how do they know what you drink?).  Ultimately though, it’s just personalisation of service – and we will increasingly see this on the web as our expectations of privacy and information sharing evolve.

We’ve seen this before – in another example Dave reminded us how Caller ID used to be something to avoid (“what, give out my number to someone when I call – no way!”) but these days we use it extensively and screen calls that don’t show a number that we recognise. Technology evolves, as does our use of that technology, and our acceptance of the implications of its use.

Empower others, be human, and don’t just engage – enchant!

Dave closed his presentation with three points about their use of IT, in particular in their use of social media:

  1. Empower others – to make decisions, to interact, to learn.
  2. Be human – companies need to have humour and personally in their online interactions and too many just want to sell (or be dull).
  3. Don’t just engage, enchant. John Lewis’ ads don’t tell us where the stores are and what they sell – instead, they reach out to us emotionally and drag us in.

Dave was speaking of last year’s Christmas ad but the same can be said for the latest “Never knowingly undersold” ad, which continues in that vein (and is far more sophisticated and, dare I say, enchanting, than earlier ads featuring a selection of products on sale):

Video

For those who would like to watch Dave Coplin’s B2B Huddle presentation, a copy is embedded below:

[Update 2 October 2012: Added video of Dave Coplin’s presentation]

Technology

Review of the second Milton Keynes Geek Night (#MKGN)

A few months ago, I wrote about the first Milton Keynes Geek Night and, last night saw my return to a converted bus station (now a community arts centre) in the centre of Milton Keynes to join around 200 geeks from the creative industries to talk about design, technology, and other such “stuff”.

Once again, Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins) and David Hughes (@DavidHughes) did a fantastic job of recruiting speakers and sponsors (free geek events still need someone to pay for drinks, pizza, and the venue) and I really think that the mixture of short (20 minute) and lightning (5 minute) talks, with some “one minute wonders” (for sponsors, recruitment opportunities and community activities) works well. Every three months seems like a good interval between geek nights too.

The speaker line-up obviously changed somewhere along the way as the content strategy talk from Relly Annett-Baker (@RellyAB) that was mentioned previously didn’t happen and changes were still happening on the night as Microsoft’s Martin Beeby (@thebeebs) had to leave early for personal reasons – maybe we’ll get his four-minute-fifty-eight-second slot on Windows 8 development at another geek night? There were, however, some great talks and I’ll try to give a quick summary here.

Patterns generate relationships between people and things

First up, Cole Henry (@cole007) spoke about patterns generating relationships between people and things.  I wondered where he was going with his discussion of a previous career as an archaeologist looking at patterns on pottery but he described four fundamental elements about the process of craftsmanship:

  1. A craftsman is a conduit through which products are made but they may not have a preconceived idea of what they are creating. Their craft is a marriage of tools, medium and meaning.
  2. Craft is transformative – it takes something and makes it something else – instilling meaning and imparting the craftsman’s personality into creating a product.
  3. Craftsmanship is inherently social – it exists for people.
  4. Crafting binds people and things.

Fast forward to today and we can see that web design has progressed enormously from the work of 1997 with table based layouts to transform text sites into something more visual. Today’s websites use CSS for a presentation layer and JavaScript for rich Internet applications. They also need to work on a variety of devices and form factors. Yet, Cole says, the process (design, visualise, get signoff and bill for the first milestone, hand over to developers to create) has not moved on – it’s the same as the process used for early website designs (often by former graphic designers) – and these increasingly rich designs don’t necessarily work in all contexts. Web design is still concerned with visual products rather than the process of creation – the “cult of the aesthetic” – and Cole suggests that designers need to learn from the craftsmen of the past:

  1. The designer is a conduit to marry tools and funnel them – they need to understand which HTML elements work well, what happens when you hover over a button or submit a form, etc.
  2. Because design is transformative – designers need to consider meaning, not just visuals.
  3. Design is social – the web involves people.
  4. Design is binding – the whole function is to bring together people and materials.

Five minute lightning talks

The lightning talks are designed as “tasters”, or for people will less experience (or confidence) as speakers and Rachel Shillcock (@MissRachilli) spoke about understanding what makes us special – how to overcome a lack of confidence and to aim high (something that was echoed in a later talk) – summed up with a quote [which may or may not be from Michelangelo]

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

Food for thought? Aim high, push yourself and work to your limits, says Rachel – and remember that failure can be a learning experience.

Penetration tester Nick Draze (@SonOfSunTzu) gave 10 pieces of advice from his 12 years in information security – and it was an interesting talk, even if it also stretched the boundaries of a 5 minute lightning talk (10 minutes!), without really giving much away. I think I’ll hold the details on this one back to include in another post but if ever I needed convincing that security guys are paranoid, this was the talk to do it. Nick asked (and I think the audience respected his request) not to be photographed, claiming that there are only three pictures of him in existence on the web… I’d like to know how he avoids CCTV, random street shots (from photographers or even just passers by using their mobile phone to take a picture of something else) but that misses the point somewhat – we all need to take care what happens in our digital lives in order to protect our information, and our identities.

Next up, Emily Heath (@gradualist) talked about bringing site maps to life, visualising web site structures to: test information architecture; audit competitor websites; and to provide a deliverable to impress clients who can’t see the full picture and experience of working through a site. It’s an interesting idea – one that I’ve tried from another angle (an architecture-led approach to re-designing a system that I work with), but I’ve also been accused of it being too technical… I guess it all comes down to understanding your audience!

One minute wonders

I didn’t note the details of all the one minute talks (except that the event was sponsored by Oxford Computer Group and All Your Base) but I did take the Opportunity to plug Peter Onion (@PeterOnion)’s work setting up Milton Keynes Raspberry Jams. The next jam (on 30 September) is full and operating a wait list but there is an online forum for local Raspberry Pi enthusiasts – that’s a good place to watch for details of upcoming events (and to get in early for tickets next time around).

Departing the Comfort Zone

The final keynote was from Ben Bodien (@bbodien) who gave an inspirational talk on stretching our boundaries to get out of our individual “comfort zone” – something I’d been discussing only a few hours earlier with my wife (is that serendipity?)!

If you ask someone who they are, after giving their name, they will typically respond with something built around a job title. Ben suggests that people like to organise and classify things – to put things into virtual boxes and label them – but that we are also doing ourselves a massive disservice by simply defining ourselves based on a job role.

The “nine dots” puzzle is the origin of the term to “think outside the box”, joining nine dots in a 3×3 grid with four straight lines, by moving outside the constraints of the (perceived) box that the dots form.  We define ourselves by the things around us – daily tasks, routines, etc. – but reality is more complex.

We also fall into habits and cycles – taking on a new project, which is exciting, until it’s not. Typically, we persist with the project until we are able to “kick it out of the door” and the cycle starts all over with a new (exciting!) project. We blame clients, or the projects but really we’re stuck in a pattern.

The key to breaking this cycle is to never stop learning – multiple projects lead to stress but we tend not to get bored – so avoid working on the same things over and over. If we do the same things, we’ll find ourselves inside our comfort zone but we’ll also become stagnant and won’t develop or grow. Instead, we can branch out and shift our focus – to work outside our comfort zone to have more influences, push our craft forward, unblock hidden talents and diversify.

Recognition is the first step to solving the problem and departing the comfort zone – after which Ben suggests:

  1. Start saying “yes” to the scary things…
  2. Set weekly goals (you might try other timeframes, like fortnightly – but a month may be too long) with things that are new to you and you want to try out. They might be work related, or they might not. Write the goals down and stick them close to your workplace so they are in peripheral vision. Writing it down lodges it in one’s memory. Sticking it nearby makes it harder to forget…
  3. Embrace experiments “not working out” – sometimes new things just don’t work. Learn from this (may be they were not interesting to you, or not part of your skill set) and use the experience to guide the path to the next experiment. And talk to people about how things work out.
  4. Benchmark realistically. It’s easy to follow people on the web who are producing outstanding work. The chances are that they have been following their craft for years (In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggested it takes 10,000 hours to become expert in something [others dispute the meaning of this quote]) – so figure out how you’re doing based on where you are coming from – and look back at your own journey. Set your goals high so that, even if you miss, you are still doing well. In another anecdote, Ben spoke of Ira Glass’  storytelling videos and how part 3 talks about “good taste”, pushing across a “desert” before you produce work that you feel proud of. Do the best you can, get feedback, set deadlines, and you will eventually get to other side and produce work that you can be proud of.
  5. Note your accomplishments – and use that to redefine yourself.

And the next time someone asks “who are you?” you can tell them, and it’s won’t just be framed around a job title!

When’s the next MKGN?

The next geek night is scheduled for 6 December – watch out for details on the Milton Keynes Geek Night website, or on Twitter @MKGeekNight.

Technology

Reducing website errors with HTTP 301 redirects

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a WordPress plugin called Redirection. I mentioned that I’ve been using this to highlight HTTP 404 errors on my site but I’ve also been using the crawl errors logged by Google’s Webmaster Tools to track down a number of issues resulting from the various changes that have been made to the site over the  years, then creating HTTP 301 redirects to patch them.

Redirections as a result of other people’s mistakes

One thing that struck me was how other people’s content can affect my site – for example, many forums seem to abbreviate long URLs with … in the middle. That’s fine until the HTML anchor gets lost (e.g. in a cut/paste operation) and so I was seeing 404 errors from incomplete URLs like http://www.markwilson.co.uk/blog/2008/12/netboo…-file-systems.htm. These were relatively easy for me to track down and create a redirect to the correct target.

Unfortunately, there is still one inbound link that includes an errant apostrophe that I’ve not been able to trap – even using %27 in the redirect rule seems to fail. I guess that one will just have to remain.

Locating Post IDs

Some 404s needed a little more detective work – for example http://www.markwilson.co.uk/blog/2012/05/3899.htm is a post where I forgot to add a title before publishing and, even though I updated the WordPress slug afterwards, someone is linking to the old URL.  I used PHPMyAdmin to search for post ID 3899 in the wp_content table of the database, from which I could identify the post and  create a redirect.

Pattern matching with regular expressions

Many of the 404s were being generated based on old URL structures from either the Blogger version of this site (which I left behind several years ago) or changes in the WordPress configuration (mostly after last year’s website crash). For these I needed to do some pattern matching, which meant an encounter with regular expressions, which I find immensely powerful, fascinating and intimidating all at once.

Many of my tags were invalid as, at some point I obviously changed the tags from /blog/tags/tagname to /blog/tag/tagname but I also had a hierarchy of tags in the past (possibly when I was still mis-using categories) which was creating some invalid URLs (like http://www.markwilson.co.uk/blog/tag/apple/ipad).  The hierachy had to be dealt with on a case by case basis, but the RegEx for dealing with the change in URL for the tags was fairly simple:

  • Source RegEx: (\/tags\/)
  • Target RegEx: (\/tag\/)

Using the Rubular Ruby RegEx Editor (thanks to Kristian Brimble for the suggestion – there were other tools suggested but this was one I could actually understand), I was able to test the RegEx on an example URL and, once I was happy with it, that was another redirection created.  Similarly, I redirected (\/category\/) to (\/topic\/).

I also created a redirection for legacy .html extensions, rewriting them to .htm:

  • Source RegEx: (.*).html
  • Target  RegEx: $1.htm

Unfortunately, my use of a “greedy” wildcard meant this also sustituted html in the middle of a URL (e.g. http://www.markwilson.co.uk/blog/2008/09/creating-html-signatures-in-apple-mail.htm became http://www.markwilson.co.uk/blog/2008/09/creating-.htm-signatures-in-apple-mail.htm) , so I edited the source RegEx to (.*).html$.

More complex regular expressions

The trickiest pattern I needed to match was for archive pages using the old Blogger structure.  For this, I needed some help, so I reached out to Twitter:

Any RegEx gurus out there who fancy a challenge, please can you help me convert /blog/archive/yyyy_mm_01_archive.htm to /blog/yyyy/mm ?
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson

and was very grateful to receive some responses, including one from Dan Delaney that let me to create this rule:

Source RegEx: /blog\/([a-zA-Z\/]+)([\d]+)(\D)(\d+)(\w.+)
Target RegEx: /blog/$2/$4/

Dan’s example helped me to understand a bit more about how match groups are used, taking the second and fourth matches here to use in the target, but I later found a tutorial that might help (most RegEx tuturials are quite difficult to follow but this one is very well illustrated).

A never-ending task

It’s an ongoing task – the presensce of failing inbound links due to incorrect URLs means that I’ll have to keep an eye on Google’s crawl errors but, over time, I should see the number of 404s drop on my site. That in itself won’t improve my search placement but it will help to signpost users who would otherwise have been turned away – and every little bit of traffic helps.

Technology

Redirection – an essential plug-in for WordPress users

Last year, a combination of a loss of service from my hosting provider and my appalling backups meant that this website was temporarily wiped off the face of the Internet. It’s never recovered – at least not in terms of revenue – and it taught me an important lesson about backups (it’s all too easy to forget the hours of effort that go into a “hobby” site like this one…).

Whilst the blog posts were restored, and I took the opportunity to apply a new theme to the site (it’s probably due another one now…) but some of the images had got AWOL along the way. I’ve been ignoring that (mostly) but decided I really should do something about it when an old post was picked up by a journalist today and I realised it had a missing graphic.

I remembered a WordPress plugin that I used on another site recently, for managing redirects when access to the .htaccess file is not available. The plug-in, written by John Godley, is called Redirection, and one of its modules will report on HTTP 404 errors, like the ones that my missing graphics will create. I know there are other tools that can do this for me (Google’s Webmaster Tools, for example, or trawling through the web logs) but it’s an easy way to see when a 404 has been returned in order to investigate accordingly.  So far this afternoon, I’ve tracked down and replaced around 8 missing graphics and one broken permalink using the logs from Redirection.  I’m now scanning through the rest of John’s plugins to see what else I’m missing and will certainly be donating later…

Photography

Three trips to London just to get one image right: I hope it was worth it!

Unless they’ve been living under a rock, it would have been difficult for anyone in the UK to miss the fact that the Olympic Games took place in London recently and that Team GB and Northern Ireland (Team UK surely?) did rather well.  In true British style, many of us (myself included) were deeply cynical about many of the decisions made by the Olympic organisers (I still think that the ticketing was a mess, and that sponsors got a little too much brand exclusivity for their money) but, as the medals came flowing in, our positions softened and the nation came together as one in a way that I honestly don’t think I’ve seen before.  Strangers spoke to one another in the streets (where I live in rural Buckinghamshire that’s normal – at least on weekdays when the commuters are at work – but not in London) and the universal common denominator of comment was no longer the British weather but the success of Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis, Katherine Grainger or one of the many other athletes who have become household names this summer.

Less broadly publicised (although the Mayor of London Presents website is a good resource) were some of the surrounding events taking place in London during the Olympic (and Paralympic) Games and it was purely by chance that I attended a London Bloggers Meetup for a photo walk along the Thames taking in the light shows on many of London’s landmarks.  Actually, I didn’t really manage to attend – I started out with the group but, because I’m a photographer first and blogger second, I fell behind, missed the boat and ended up on my own photo walk (I still got a set of photos that I was pretty pleased with). Except for one of them, showing the Union Flag projected on the side of the Houses of Parliament, which looked OK in camera but was pretty awful when I got it loaded into Lightroom.

I know a bad workman blames his tools but that image is really fuzzy on one side – spoiled by my 24-85mm f2.8-4D lens which seemed good when I used to shoot on film, or on a cropped-sensor DSLR (my old D70) but which has shown itself to be very soft around the edges (especially at zoomed out and at wide apertures) since I switched to a full frame D700. Nikon say this there is nothing wrong with the lens (they still charged me a chunk of money to service it though) but Ken Rockwell also found it lacking in sharpness in his review so I’d have to say it’s a design “feature”, not a “bug”.

A return trip to London a couple of days later with my family (sans DSLR and tripod but with my Coolpix P7100) gave me another go, which was better, but the P7100 just doesn’t have the low-light performance of my DSLR. With a couple of trips to the Paralympic Games planned (as well as a photography weekend coming up in North Yorkshire), I decided to splash out on a new lens (Nikon 50mm f1.4D) but only had one opportunity to shoot the projections on Parliament again.  The original Olympic show ended with the Olympic Games, but a re-worked version is currently running for the Paralympic Games, except that I’m busy at the weekends, and it’s not on this week because Parliament is in session. That left me with two possible evenings to try and get the shot and, as Amazon delivered my new lens so quickly, last Wednesday I was back in London for a wander around Westminster, culminating in lots of night shots on and around the Thames. This time I think I nailed the shot (I hope so anyway!) but it took two hours (8 viewings of the projection on a 15 minute loop) before I was confident I had the image(s) I wanted in the bag.

The final problem is that, when shooting the projection, the clock face of “Big Ben” is just too bright and the highlights are burned out. Unfortunately, the minus one stop exposure that suited the projections onto Parliament was not enough for Big Ben – and that needed to be underexposed by closer to 4 or 5 stops. Thankfully I was able to take two images in the few seconds during which the Union Flag was projected onto Parliament, grabbing shots at -1EV and -4EV (both at an aperture of f4 and using the same focus point). Then, working in Photoshop, I layered the two images, with the darker one on top, and created a mask to hide all but the clock face of Big Ben, allowing the main elements of the -1EV image to show and the composite image to be correctly exposed.

Union Flag on the Houses of Parliament/Paralympic Projections (9)

This is the resulting image and, although a wider angle would have been preferable (as would have been twilight rather than a pitch black sky), I can’t have everything, the weather was kind to me, and I’d rather have a sharp, correctly exposed, image!

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