Some tips from my first few weeks with a GoPro Hero action camera

I’ve been interested in having a play with an action camera for a while now. I figure I can get some fun footage on the bikes, as well as ski-ing next winter, and I missed not having a waterproof camera when I was lake-swimming in Switzerland a few weeks ago!

So, when I saw that a contact who had upgraded to the Hero 5 was selling his GoPro Hero 3 Silver Edition, I jumped at the opportunity.

My camera came to me with quite a few accessories and I picked up some more for not too much money at HobbyKing (shipped from China in 3 weeks – don’t pay GoPro prices for things like a tripod mount or a lens cover!).

Whilst getting used to the camera’s controls (oh yes, and opening the waterproof case for the first time), I came across some useful tips on the ‘net… including loads of videos from a guy called Bryn, whose new users guide was useful to make sure I had everything set up as I needed:

Once I had everything set up and a fast 64GB card installed, My first outing on a bike with the GoPro was helmet-mounted. That was OK, but it’s a bit weird having all that weight on your head and also not too handy for working out if the camera is running or not. Since then, I’ve got a bike mount so when my GoPro is mounted on my bike, I have it below the stem, which means technically it’s upside-down:

No worries – the Internet delivered another video telling me how to set the camera up for upside down recording:

One thing to watch out for is the battery life – don’t expect to be filling your memory card on a single battery – but it should last a while. It’s just that a GoPro isn’t going to work as a DashCam or similar (there are actually some good articles on the ‘net as to why you would probably want to use a specialist dashcam anyway – I have a NextBase 402G for that). Anyway, I don’t want to have to edit hours of footage so knowing I can only record a few minutes at a time is good for me (I have hours of recordings on MiniDV digital tape that have been waiting to be transferred to disk for years!).

I did recently use the GoPro to record some presentations at work: great for a wide angle view – but it got pretty warm being plugged into a power source the whole time (so again, a proper video camera would be the right thing to use – and don’t think about using a DSLR or a compact camera – I tried that too and they generally switch off after 20-30 mins to prevent overheating). One thing I found is that each video recorded on the GoPro is chopped into chunks of around 3.55MB (I was recording 1080p). The file naming is worth getting used to.

Each video uses the same number (0001, 0002, etc.) but you’ll find that the first one is named GOPR0001.MP4, the next is GP010001.MP4, then GP020001.MP4, etc. So, when selecting a group of files that relate to the same recording, look carefully at the index numbers (the date and time stamp should help too).

Also, depending on how you import the videos (i.e. copying directly rather than using an application like MacOS Image Capture), you may see some .THM and .LRV files. The GoPro support site explains that these are thumbnail and low-resolution video files respectively.

So, that’s a few things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and just a little bit of GoPro tinkering. Please leave a comment if you’ve anything more to add!

Restoring Adobe Lightroom from backup (on a Mac)

For well over a year now, my digital photography workflow has been in tatters. The Mac that I use for photo editing had some defective memory which corrupted the file system and the “genius” at the Apple Store reinstalled OS X. Data and application re-installation relies on me though, and it just hasn’t risen high enough on my list of priorities… until now.

So, I needed to:

  1. Re-install Adobe Lightroom (and the various other tools that I use).
  2. Restore my Lightroom catalog.
  3. Repoint Lightroom to the new location of my images (I’ve given up trying to maintain enough space locally and they all now sit on a Synology NAS, backed up to Microsoft Azure).

This post may be more for my benefit than for readers of the blog but you never know… someone might find parts of it useful.

Re-installing Lightroom

Re-installing Lightroom is reasonably straightforward and these are the steps I took:

  1. Install Lightroom 5 from physical media (My Mac has no DVD drive, so I needed to use a USB-attached DVD drive).
  2. Launch Lightroom from the finder.
  3. When prompted, enter the serial number (or elect to use it in trial mode). My copy of Lightroom 5 is an upgrade, so I was prompted for the previous serial number too (from Lightroom 3 in my case).
  4. Lightroom needs to create a catalog. Let it get on with it.
  5. Lightroom then detected that an upgrade was available (5.0-5.7) and it directed me to the Adobe website, from where I downloaded 5.7.1. Incidentally, I have a feeling that these updates are the full product, and I could probably have used this for the original installation. That may be one to try next time… [Update: that’s confirmed by Lightroom Queen.]

Restore the Lightroom Catalog

Nex up, restoring the catalog. Amongst the many excellent posts from the Lightroom Queen is one titled “How do I move Lightroom to a new computer”, which is kind of what I wanted to do, except in my case it’s “How do I move Lightoom from a backup of my computer to the currently-running version of my computer”.

Starting Lightroom had created two files in ~/Pictures/Lightroom called:

  • Lightroom 5 Catalog.lrcat
  • Lightroom 5 Catalog Previews.lrdata

I made some backup copies of these, then tracked down the last versions on my backup disk and copied them to the folder.

The Lightroom Catalog Previews file can be pretty large (mine was around 37GB), so this took some time…

Ideally, I would also have restored the following:

  • Preferences, from ~/Library/Preferences/com.adobe.Lightroom5.plist
  • Presets, from ~/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Lightroom/ (there are more details about these in Lightroom Queen’s Lightroom 5 Default Locations post).

Unfortunately, these were missing from my backup (I’d had some issues backing up the Library in single-user mode), though I did find the presets on another machine and may be able to restore them later…

Helping Lightroom to find my images

Whilst I was waiting for the Lightroom catalog to copy, I started preparing for when I open Lightroom using the new (old) catalog. In my original installation, my images were in ~/Pictures/Digital Camera Photos but now the images are on my NAS. So, I created an alias for the folder on the NAS and moved that to ~/Pictures, hoping that this would look to Lightroom as though my images are in the same location…

Unfortunately, although Lightroom was able to follow this alias (symlink), it was smart enough to work out that the folders within it were at a different location – and not on Macintosh HD. Thankfully it wasn’t too big a task to select each orphaned folder in Lightroom (displaying a ? over the folder name), right click and select Find Missing Folder. Once the catalog was re-connected with the images, the ! on each preview went away and I could view the full-resolution image. More details can be found in the Lightroom Queen article I referenced earlier.

Wrap-Up

So, Lightroom is re-installed and my photos are back where I need them. Now all I need to do is sort out my workflow… and there’s the small matter of picking the best images from the 50000-odd that I’ve taken since I started using a digital camera so I can print some albums. Because, sometimes, analogue media is good.

Bulk renaming digital photos for easier identification

Managing digital content can be a pain sometimes. Managing my own photos is bad enough (and I have applications like Adobe Lightroom to help with my Digital Asset Management) but when other family members want help whilst sorting through thousands of photos from multiple cameras to make a calendar or a yearbook it can get very messy.

For a long time now, I’ve used a Mac app called Renamer to bulk rename files – for example, batches of photos after importing them from my camera.  The exception to this is my iPhone pictures, which Dropbox rather usefully renames for me on import using the date and time, suffixing as necessary to deal with HDRs, etc. I only have a couple of gigabytes on Dropbox, so I move the renamed files to OneDrive (where I have over a terabyte of space…). The problem with this is that there needs to be enough space on Dropbox for the initial import – which means I have to use a particular PC which recognises my iPhone and remembers which photos have previously been imported. If I use another PC it will try and re-import them all (and fail due to a lack of available space)…

My wife has a different system. She also uses OneDrive for storage but has some files that have been renamed by Dropbox (to yyyy-mm-dd hh.mm.ss.jpg), some that have been renamed on import by something else (to yyyymmdd_hhmmsssss_iOS.jpg) and some that are just copied directly from the iPhone storage as IMGxxxx.jpg. My task? To sort this lot out!

Multiple images with the same time stamp

We decided that we liked the Dropbox name format. So that became the target. I used Renamer to rename files to Year-Month-Day Hour.Minutes.Seconds.jpg (based on EXIF file data) but the presence of HDR images etc. meant there were duplicates with the same time where a whole second wasn’t fine-grained enough. We needed those fractions of a second (or a system to handle duplicates) and Renamer wasn’t cutting it.

The fallback was to use the original filename as a tie-break. It’s not pretty, but it works – Year-Month-Day Hour.Minutes.Seconds (Filename).jpg gave my wife the date/time-based filename that she needed and the presence of the original filename was a minor annoyance. I saved that as a preset in Renamer so that when I need to do this again in a few months, I can!

Renaming digital photos in Renamer using a preset

No EXIF data

Then the files with no EXIF data (.MOVs and .PNGs) were renamed using a similar preset, this time using the modification date (probably less reliable than EXIF data but good enough if the files haven’t been edited).

Thousandths of seconds

Finally, the files with the odd format. Mostly these were dealt with in the same was as the IMGxxxx.jpg files but there were still some potential duplicates with the same EXIF timestamp. For these, I used progressive find and replace actions in Renamer to strip away all but the time a RegEx replacing ...... with nothing allowed me to remove all but the last three characters (I originally tried .{3}$ but that removed the 3 characters I actually wanted from the tail end that represent thousandths of seconds). One final rename using the EXIF data to Year-Month-Day Hour.Minutes.Seconds.Filename.jpg gave me yyyy-mm-dd hh.mm.sssss.jpg – which was close enough to the desired outcome and there were no more duplicates.

What’s the point? There must be a better way!

Now, after reading this, you’re probably asking “Why?” and that’s a good question. After all, Windows Explorer has the capability to provide image previews, the ability to sort by date, etc. but it’s not up to me to question why, I just need an answer to the end-user’s question!

Using Renamer is reliant on my Mac – there are options for Windows like NameExif and Stamp too. I haven’t used these but it appears they will have the same issues as Renamer when it comes to duplicate timestamps. There’s also a batch file option that handles duplicate timestamps but it doesn’t use the EXIF data.

Meanwhile, if anyone has a script that matches the Dropbox file rename functionality (including handling HDRs etc. which have identical timestamps), I’d be pleased to hear from you!

[Update 1 January 2017: These Python scripts look like they would fit the bill (thanks Tim Biller/@timbo_baggins) and James O’Neill/@jamesoneill reminded me of ExifTool, which I wrote about a few years ago]

Hardware lineup for 2013

For the last couple of years, I’ve written a post about my “hardware lineup” – the tech I use pretty much every day (2011, 2012) and I thought I’d continue the theme as we enter 2013.

In these times of austerity, there’s not a lot of scope for new geek toys (some more camera lenses would be great, as would a new MacBook) but there’s no harm in a bit of aspiration, and it’s always interesting to take a look back and see how I thought things would work out and how that compares with reality.

So here’s the tech that I expect my life will revolve around this year…

Car: Volkswagen Tiguan 2.0 TDI Sport

My company car was replaced in April (a nice 40th birthday present) and the Volkswagen Tiguan I drive will be with me for at least 3 years. Whilst there are plenty of more capabile 4x4s and the space afforded by a 7-seater might be nice at times, “the Tig” has been great – my family all love the high riding position, my wife is happy swapping between this and her Golf (she should be – they are practically the same underneath the covers!) and, whilst I miss some of the refinement of my Audi, I get a lot more for my money with the Volkswagen.  Putting a retractable towbar on this car has created new possibilities too, allowing me to use a 4-bike towbar-attached carrier for family cycle trips.

Verdict 8/10. Hold (tied into a 3-year lease).

Phones: Nokia Lumia 800 and Apple iPhone 3GS

Apple iPhone 3GSNokia Lumia 800My initial enthusiasm for the Nokia Lumia 800 waned considerably, after Microsoft announced its Windows Phone 8 plans and the handset lost 60% of its value overnight.  That means I won’t be trading it in for a new model any time soon and, depending on whether Windows Phone 7.8 ever makes it out of the door, I might consider looking at options to run Android on the (rather nice) hardware instead.  Still, at least we got an update a few months ago that, finally, enables Internet Sharing on Lumias (Windows Phone 7.5 supported this capability, but the Lumia 800 firmware did not).

I still have an iPhone 3GS provided by my employer (and my iPad) to fall back on when apps are not available for Windows Phone (i.e. most of the time) and, whilst I’m unlikely to get another smartphone from the company, I am considering a second-hand 4S to replace this as the 3GS is getting a bit long in the tooth now…

(Lumia) Verdict 5/10. Hold, under duress.
(iPhone) Verdict 3/10. Not mine to sell!

Tablet: Apple iPad 3G 64GB

Apple iPadMy iPad never replaced a laptop as a primary computer but it’s still great as a Kindle, for catching up on social media content, and for casual gaming (read, occasional babysitter and childrens’ amusement on long car journeys). I was disappointed to have to pay to replace it after the screen developed a fault, but there’s no reason to trade up yet and there’s still nothing that comes close to the iPad from a media tablet perspective (except newer iPads).

If anything, I might consider a smaller tablet (maybe a Google Nexus 7 or an Amazon Kindle Fire) but and Apple’s decision to stick with a 4:3 screen ratio on the iPad Mini means I have little interest in that form factor (it’s almost the same hardware as my current iPad, albeit in a smaller package). If I were to get a new tablet, it’s more likely to be something that could really be a laptop replacement – perhaps a Microsoft Surface Pro? We’ll see…

Verdict 7/10. Hold, although it’s getting old now.

Everyday PC: Fujitsu Lifebook S7220 (Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Fujitsu Lifebook S7220This PC is my main computing device. I’d love a ThinkPad, but the Lifebook is a perfectly capable, solid, well-built notebook PC, although I frequently find myself running out of memory with the number of tabs I have open in a typical browsing session! A recent hard disk failure meant my free space dropped (my 250GB drive was replaced with a 160GB one) but it’s due for replacement soon.

I’ll be looking for a smaller form-factor device to reduce the weight of my work-bag – at least until BYOC becomes a possibility (an ultrabook, Surface Pro, or a MacBook Air would be nice, but not available to me on the company’s catalogue).

Verdict 6/10. Unlikely to be with me for much longer now, although still hoping for a BYOC scheme at work.

Netbook: Lenovo S10e (Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, 160GB hard disk)

Lenovo IdeaPad S10Yet again, this device has hardly seen the light of day. Usurped by the iPad, it now runs Ubuntu and is only ever used for tech projects (e.g. uploading software to my Arduino). My kids have one too but even they are frustrated by the small screen and tend to use my wife’s notebook PC instead.

Verdict 2/10. Not worth selling, so keep for tech projects.

Digital Cameras: Nikon D700 and Coolpix P7100

Nikon D700Nikon P7100I still love my DSLR and the D700 will be with me for a while yet. Indeed, it’s more likely that I would buy some new lenses and a flashgun before I replace my camera body.  Newer bodies offer video but I don’t miss that, and the low light performance on the D700 is pretty good, even 2 years after launch.

The P7100 continues to function as my carry-everywhere camera (it lives in the car), offering entry-level DSLR levels of control in a small package, although it’s not as responsive as I’d like.

(D700) Verdict 9/10. Hold.
(P7100) Verdict 7/10. Hold.

Photography PC: Apple MacBook MB062LL/B (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz, 4GB RAM, 750GB hard disk)

Apple Macbook White (late 2007)My MacBook is getting old and, although I upgraded to a 750GB disk, I’m struggling with disk space whilst 4GB of RAM is starting to feel a bit light for big Photoshop jobs but new Macs are expensive.

Still too expensive to replace, I think this will last another year, at least…

Verdict 4/10. Hold.

Media: Samsung UE37ES6300 Smart TV

Samsung UE37ES6300My most recent technology purchase, this replaced an aging (c1998) Sony Trinitron 32″ widescreen CRT and has given us back a lot of space in the living room! I’ve been really impressed with the Smart TV functionality (more on that over the next few days) and Internet-connected television is now an integral part of my media consumption habit.

In time, it may be joined by a sound bar (to improve the experience when watching films) but at the moment the TV’s built in speakers will have to make do.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Media: Apple Mac Mini MA206LL/A (Intel Core Duo 1.66GHz, 2GB RAM, 120GB hard disk)

(+ iPad, Lumia 800, iPhone 3GS, various iPods, Altec Lansing iM7 iPod speakers, Samsung UE37ES6300)

Apple Mac MiniNo change here since last year – except for the addition of a Smart TV – and I still haven’t re-ripped my CDs after the NAS failure a couple of years ago. I still haven’t bought the music keyboard and this PC’s role as a multimedia PC for the office with Spotify, iPlayer, etc. has been replaced by a Smart TV in the living room.

It may not be the most powerful of my PCs but it may be brought back to life as a media server as it takes up almost no space at all.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

Gaming: Microsoft Xbox 360 S 250GB with Kinect Sensor

Microsoft Xbox 360sI don’t play this as much as I should to make full use of it but the arrival of BBC iPlayer and the death of our DVD player promoted the Xbox to be our living room  media centre, at least until the Smart TV arrived (and the two still complement each other). My sons are reaching the age where they play games too now, so the Xbox is starting to get a lot more use.

Verdict 9/10. Hold.

Servers and Storage: Atom-based PC, 2x Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, various USB HDDs

The Atom-based PC still provides infrastructure services for the home, whilst one ReadyNAS is used to back up my work and the other has still not been recovered from its multiple disk failure a couple of years ago. I recently bought a 3GB Seagate Backup Plus Desktop drive to replace an assortment of smaller USB hard disks and am preparing to supplement this with suitable cloud storage as we become more and more reliant on our digital assets.

Verdict 6/10. Hold.

New toys from 2012: Arduino Uno, Raspberry Pi, Canon ImageFormula P-215 document scanner

At the end of my 2012 post, I mentioned a few potential purchases and I did pick up one of the first Raspberry Pi computers, which is a fantastic hobby/educational machine to use with or without my children.  I also started to play around with electronics using an Arduino – which is great fun – and I hope to be doing more with both of them this year (more Raspberry Pi postsmore Arduino posts).

I’m slowly regaining control over my filing with the aid of a dedicated document scanner. It doesn’t matter to me that it’s portable, but the fast duplex scanning to PDF and multiple sheet handling (with very few mis-feeds) is a huge step forward compared with the all-in-one printer/scanner/copier I have in my home office.  Mine was an “Amazon Warehouse Deals” purchase (which saved me a few pounds) and the advertised condition suggested it may have a scratch or two but it seems to be in perfect condition to me. It will certainly be a big part of my push to digitise much of my paperwork this year.

(Raspberry Pi) Verdict 10/10. What’s not to like about a computer that costs just £25?
(Arduino Uno) Verdict 10/10. Inexpensive, with loads of scope for electronic prototyping and a thriving community for support.
(Canon P-215) Verdict 9/10. Impressive scanner, although a little on the expensive side.

Potential new toys: Nest learning thermostat, Romotive Robot, Lego Mindstorms

Of course, as a geek, I have my eye on a whole host of potential purchases and these were two that took my fancy in last year’s post, plus one more that I’ve had my eye on for a while (may be something for the kids to get and Dad to play with?).  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I’ll be buying much at all this year, but anything I do is likely to be in the general electronics, robotics and home automation field.

Useful links: December 2012

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

After several years of monthly “useful links” posts, I’ve decided that this will be the last one – the plugin I use to read from my Delicious account and generate the post stopped working a few months ago, and the useful links can also be found directly (on my Delicious feed) or via Twitter (@markwilsonit, prefixed [delicious])

Selective sharpening of an image using the high pass filter

With a few notable exceptions, I dislike photos of myself. I like to be behind the camera, taking pictures not starring in them, but sometimes it’s necessary to have the camera turned in my direction.

For instance, over the last few months, it became increasingly obvious to me that I needed a new profile picture. The last one was taken in 2008 when I was a) younger and b) heavier, but I’ve been struggling to find the right image.  I was going to ask one of my many photographer friends to take one for me but then, whilst at the recent B2B Huddle, I found myself in the company of John Cassidy, who was creating fantastic headshots of attendees for a very competitive price.

In just a few minutes (John normally spends more time with his clients), shooting tethered into Adobe Lightroom with a Nikon D3, 85mm f1.4 lens and a collection of lights and reflectors, John managed to create the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear in that he made me look quite presentable! In fact, I was amazed at what he had done with me*. One of the resulting images is now my profile picture on most of the websites that I use (I keep finding odd ones with old pics that need to be mopped up, and I still use an image for my Flickr profile that Benjamin Ellis took of me, “caught in the act” of photography, although he’s since removed the image from his photostream).

I also wanted a higher-resolution image for my about.me page but, to my eyes, the image I’d selected seemed just a little soft around the eyes. It was taken at a reasonably narrow aperture (f5) but I wanted to sharpen up my face (just the face – as sharpening my suit created some strange results due to the weave of the fabric). A few minutes in Photoshop was all it took to create the effect I required for a punchy on-screen image, although it would be inappropriately sharp for a printed version:

These are before and after images, at 25%:

 

It’s a useful tip, and I’m not the first to write about the high pass filter – it’s all over the ‘net – but it’s a technique that’s worth knowing about if you really like a shot but are finding it just a little too soft for your taste. In addition, the eyes may be sharper now but it does have the side-effect of enhancing wrinkles, etc. in my skin. That’s probably OK for a 40-year-old man but not too flattering for a woman so more selective editing may be required.

* My wife used the word “handsome” but I wouldn’t go quite that far.

Tour of Britain photo shoot

The rest of Team Sky (3)

Today, I’m not at work. In fact, as you read this, I should be starting to make my way back from North Yorkshire after a long weekend of photography (heavy rain/floods permitting).  It all started a few years ago when my long-suffering wife suggested that, instead of hijacking our family holidays and leaving her on her own in a cottage (without power on one memorable occasion) whilst I go out to take pictures, I should have a couple of dedicated weekends a year instead. So, that’s what I’ve be doing this weekend!

Getting read for my jaunt to Whitby, the surrounding coast and the North Yorkshire Moors reminded me of my last photography outing – a trip to watch the Welsh stage of the Tour of Britain a couple of weeks ago.  I contemplated trying to catch the race in two places but, in the end, decided that Welsh roads, traffic and weather were likely to conspire against me getting ahead of the peloton so, after a quick location scout on an already-crowded Caerphilly Mountain, I took up position back in the town, sitting on a street sign, on the last corner before the finish line, in a spot where I should see the riders come past me twice.

"This is the line..."I was amazed at how close to the action it’s possible to get with the Tour of Britain. Back in the mid-90s I went to watch some stages of the Network Q RAC Rally and could literally stand on the side of a forest track half way up a mountain as cars shot past at very high speed but I imagine these days “health and safety” have taken over and it must be a lot more controlled. The last kilometre of the cycling has barriers for crowd control but with two loops of Caerphilly Mountain inside towards the end of the race the crowds were up there, rather than in town. I later saw from the television pictures that the mountain spectators were all over the road, right up to the riders, shouting encouragement, just like on a stage of the Tour de France or Vuelta a España – very un-British and fantastic to see.

I know we’ve had an amazingly successful summer of cycling here in the UK with the Team Sky/Bradley Wiggins Tour de France success, followed by the Olympics (road and track) and even a fourth place for Chris Froome in the Vuelta but it was great to see so many people out for the Tour of Britain. Sadly, Wiggo pulled out of the Tour that day and mountains were never going to lead to a strong finish for Cav (his last few days in the rainbow Jersey) but it was great to see another Brit in the shape of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke take the Gold jersey (before he went on to win the Tour two days later).Matt Stephens  After the presentations, I could (almost) get to the Team Sky bus (the “Death Star”), could definitely get close to the other teams, and even managed to say hello to Matt Stephens (Race Controller and TV Presenter). Unlike some sports, it seems that the stars of professional road race cycling are still (reasonably) accessible for the fans.

My #ToB2012 in numbers: stage 6; 405m/8h15 travel; 3h wait; 2 cameras; 621 images/1 video to edit; 1 autograph :-) Thanks @
@markwilsonit
Mark Wilson

Although my wife thought I was mad to drive to Wales and wait around for hours to take some pics of blokes on bikes zooming past, I had a great day out.  Here are a selection of the images from that day – and I’ll be back at my desk and blogging again later in the week, hopefully with a load more pictures to share.

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!

DSLR sensor cleaning hints and tips

I started to write this post back in September 2010 but it’s been sitting in my drafts folder since then, waiting for me to check my facts.  Even so, as I found myself taking up more of my friend Andy Gailer’s time than I suspect either he or I would have liked (as he helped me to clean the sensor on my DSLR a couple of nights ago), I knew it was time for me to finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and finish this off…

It’s a fact of life that, the more often a lens is changed on an SLR camera, the more likely it is that some dirt or dust will find its way into the chamber. Back in the days of film it was easy – grit would scratch your negatives, but a few specks of dust were rarely a problem (indeed, the action of winding on the film moved the dust/dirt away from the active area). Ask anyone with a DSLR though, and they will almost certainly regail stories of frustration as they try to remove dust spots from their sensor (or at least the low-pass filter immediately in front of the sensor).

This post has a few hints and tips that might help you if you have ugly spots appearing on your images. I also recommend reading Thom Hogan’s excellent article on cleaning sensors.

Dust off reference image

I use a Nikon DSLR and it includes a feature called teh dust off reference image. The idea behind this is that, by taking an image that shows the dust spots, this can be compared with others and changes made automatically. It’s a nice idea, but it requires the use of Nikon’s Capture NX software. I don’t use Capture NX (I use Adobe Lightroom), so this feature doesn’t help much… I’m not sure what Canon (and other manufacturers) do, but probably something to be aware of if you have a Nikon DSLR.

In camera sensor cleaning

My Nikon D700 has the ability to clean its own sensor at startup/shutdown but I’m not sure how effective this is.  Even so, it’s probably worth leaving the option enabled – it won’t do any harm.

Arctic Butterfly

One tool in my friend Andy’s arsenal is his Arctic Butterfly. Basically a selection of brushes with a motor to spin off any dust, this kit allows skilled operators (i.e. not me!) to lift away dust by breaking the static bond that is attaching it to the sensor. You’ll need to lock up the mirror (the camera will usually have an option to do this in its firmware) in order to access the sensor.

It’s a useful tool and on at least two occasions now Andy has helped me to clean away most of the dust (there’s always some left behind). The downside is that the Arctic Butterfly is quite an expensive piece of kit.

Rocket blower

I spent at least half a day working through a multitude of boxes, drawers and even some more unlikely places hunting high and low for my Giottos air blower but I can’t find it anywhere.  If it doesn’t turn up soon, I’ll almost certainly replace it as it’s an excellent investment for blowing loose particles away.  The trick is to hold the body with the lens mount facing down, then blow upwards (so that any dirt falls away from the camera and towards the ground). If you’re lucky, this is all you need to do to clear away the dust, but never use compressed air blowers (the propellant can sometimes get squirted onto the sensor) and, certainly never be tempted to blow with your mouth! I found, to my cost, that even a dry mouth will result in saliva on the sensor… which leads me onto the next tip…

Sensor swabs

Sensor swabs can be used for removing stubborn stains (like saliva… or grease).  Available in specific sizes to suit full frame 35mm or APS-C sized sensors, I have used the Photographic Solutions Sensor Swabs Pro product previously, but my swabs seem to have gone AWOL with my rocket blower…

As it happens, Andy had some swabs from Visible Dust that probably did a better job – the main difference was that they needed to be  moistened with a special fluid instead of being pre-moistened and sealed in a foil packet.

Checking for the presence of dirt on the sensor

Regardless of the technique(s) used to clean the sensor, it’s necessary to check for the continued presence of dust/dirt on the sensor.  Some spots will be too small to view with the naked eye but, thankfully, it’s relatively straightforward to take a photograph that will show any problems.

  1. Take a picture of a plain object (e.g. a sheet of paper) from about 10cm away in good light. Make sure that you use the following settings:
    • A narrow aperture (e.g. f22) for maximum depth of field.
    • Zoom in as far as possible.
    • Focus to infinity (you may need to do this manually).
    • Some people suggest setting the exposure to +2.0EV but I tend not to do this as the dirt will still be visible on a grey image and over-exposing may blow out the image leaving no dust spots visible.
  2. View the image at 1:1 scale in your favourite image editing software. It may take a while to view the whole image (with several scans across and up/down) but it should be possible to see if there are any remaining dust spots. If the largest ones have gone and there are only a few left (especially at the edges), it may be advisable to cut your losses and leave them there…

Disclaimer: I feel the need, in today’s increasingly litigious society, to point out that this information has been given in good faith but that I can’t be held responsible for any damage to equipment as a result of following the advice on this website.

New cameras, raw image support and Adobe software

In yesterday’s post about my Nikon Coolpix P7100, I mentioned that I’d had to invest in new software when I bought a new camera (as if a new camera wasn’t a big enough expense). As I’m reading about Adobe’s beta of Lightroom 4, I thought it was probably worth eleborating on this, as once of my friends also had a similar experience last year – and it’s something that pretty much all Adobe users will come across if they buy new cameras and shoot raw images.

Whilst some might argue that there is no noticable difference between a fine JPEG image and something generated from a raw file, the simple fact is that multiple edits on compressed files will lead to a gradual degradation in quality. I prefer to capture in the highest possible quality, work on that, and only save to .JPG at the end of my workflow (typically before uploading to the web, or sending to a lab for printing).

So, when I bought the P7100, I found that I needed the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw to read the .NRW (raw) images that it created. That wouldn’t have been a problem, except that Adobe Camera Raw 6.x doesn’t work with the software I was using at the time – Adobe Lightroom 2.x and Photoshop CS4. So I purchased Lightroom 3, although I have to make do without editing my P7100’s images in Photoshop – it’s just too expensive to upgrade at the drop of a hat.

It’s not just me – a friend who bought a Canon EOS 600D last year suddenly found that she needed to upgrade from Photoshop Elements 8 to Elements 9 in order to work with her raw images (she could also use Apple iPhoto… but it’s seriously limited for anything more than the most basic of edits).

With the coming of Lightroom 4/Photoshop CS 6, I guess we’ll see Adobe Camera Raw 7 and, if past history is any judge of what’s coming, I’ll expect that will not work with Lightroom 3 or CS 5. In effect Adobe is forcing us to upgrade their software, in order to use the raw capabilities of a new camera.

Obviously, Adobe would like us to all use its digital negative (.DNG) format for raw images (indeed, Adobe offers a free DNG converter) but, given that neither Canon nor Nikon – the two largest camera manufactirers – are showing any sign of moving away from their proprietary formats, that doesn’t help a lot.

There may be other tools to convert from the P7100’s raw images to .DNG or .TIF for working on, but I can’t help feeling Adobe’s decision to tie Camera Raw to certain releases of its software is a retrograde step, and it won’t encourage me to upgrade my software again until I am forced to (probably by a new camera purchase…).