Space Needle at Night

Took this one from my hotel room when I was in Seattle. I was using aperture priority mode and I dialed in -2/3 EV exposure compensation to keep the color in the sky. On my first try, I handheld the camera with auto ISO. That one came out well, but the sky was really noisy due to the high ISO selected by the camera. A nighttime shot like this will take you right the limits of a small image sensor like the one in my X20. I wanted to dial down the ISO but there was no way I could handhold the camera with the slow shutter speed that would result. I also didn't have a tripod, so I dialed down the ISO and held the camera on the railing of the teeny-tiny balcony. Came out pretty well.


Grand Floridian

The Worst of All Worlds

So I just got back from a conference for my day job. The topic of this conference is communications industry taxation. One thing really struck me. The world of tax is largely defined and populated by politicians, lawyers, and accountants. Think about that for a moment. It combines the disciplines of politics, bureaucracy, legal maneuvering, and bean-counting. Is a more unholy combination even possible?


Astronomy Tower

Temptation Bundling

I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast that talked about a cool technique termed "Temptation Bundling". It's a simple but powerful tool for dealing with lack of willpower or procrastination. The idea is you tie together two activities. One is something you that's good for you but that you don't enjoy (e.g. exercise, mowing the lawn, paying your bills, etc.) with another activity that you like to do but isn't good for you or you ought to spend less time doing (watching TV, surfing the web, drinking beer, etc.). You link them together in such a way that you don't allow yourself to indulge in the latter without the former. So for example, you only watch Game of Thrones when you're pedaling on the stationary bike. Or, your reward for mowing the lawn is a trip to Dairy Queen. The ideal bundling has you engaging in the activities simultaneously (listening to music while dusting the furniture, for example) because it bolsters the motivation factor. But where that's not possible, the next best bundling is to indulge in the thing you like only when you've completed the thing you don't.

So for me this week I temptation-bundled getting through my work e-mail backlog that accumulates overnight (since my employer has worldwide offices, that can be a lot) with my personal e-mail and web surfing. In other words, every morning this week I didn't allow myself to deal with my personal e-mail, RSS feeds, Facebook, or even this blog, until I'd had gone through all the work e-mail that had come in the night before. In fact, this blog post is being written now that I've gotten through last night's e-mail.

I gotta say, it's been surprisingly effective. I found that just this dumb little trick made me a hell of lot more productive and reduced the odds of an important work e-mail "falling through the cracks". It didn't take a lot of willpower because there was a very clear and achievable path to get to the activity I wanted to do. And I felt good about myself because I was dealing quickly with an activity that I sometimes drag my feet on.

Very cool technique. Now I'm looking for new things to bundle...


The Virtues of Traveling Light

Ever since college I've been a fairly frequent traveler. In college, I packed for long trips to foreign countries. Nowadays, I usually pack for short 1-3 day business trips to domestic cities. Over time, I've developed some ideas about how to ease the burden of business traveling. The most important one for me is to travel light. My appreciation for traveling light came from backpack camping. You start to question the need for every little thing when you have to schlep it on your back for several miles. But packing light improves business travel too. The less you bring, the less time and effort required to carry, pack, and keep track of stuff. And that makes trips a lot more enjoyable to me.

The golden principle: Bring only what you know you'll need and don't pack for contingencies.

So how does that work in practice?

  • Find out the weather forecast and bring only the clothes you need for the predicted conditions and your predicted activities. I don't try to pack for every possible situation, only the ones that have a high probability of actually occurring.
  • If you're going into cold or erratic weather, bring layers instead of packing a big heavy coat. It will take up less space and it will be more versatile in inconsistent weather. I will usually bring t-shirts, outer shirts, one thin fleece sweater, and a light jacket, all of which pack down really small and can be added or taken off a layer at a time as the weather changes.
  • Plan out your clothes for each day and bring no more than that. This is important. You have to exercise some restraint here. If you absolutely must bring extras, then bring one extra change of clothes and no more. In fact, what I usually do is limit it to one extra pair of underwear, socks, and tee-shirt. And normally I don't even do that. If for some reason I go through my clothes quicker than planned, I can always launder some at the hotel, but I've never actually needed to do that.
  • So what do you do if something unexpected comes up and you don't have the clothes you need? Well, I go to a store at my destination and just buy them. In over 30 years of traveling this has occurred only a few times for me! That's a trade-off I can totally live with. I'd much rather spend a little dough once in a blue moon than lug around a bunch of junk I don't need on every single trip. So the most important thing I pack for contingencies is a credit card.
  • Shoes are your enemy if you want to travel light. Ideally, try to plan your clothing so that you only need one pair of shoes and then wear them on the plane. That frees up a ton of luggage space! Of course this isn't always possible, especially for vacation travel where you might be strolling on the beach in the morning and eating at a posh restaurant in the evening. But at least try to minimize the number of shoes you bring, and narrow down your clothing colors so you don't have to bring multiple pairs of the same type of shoes.  
  • Don't just grab all the toiletries out of your bathroom and pack them. That's packing a month's worth of stuff for a few days of travel. Instead, use travel-sized bottles of your toiletries. Since I travel frequently, I have duplicates of all my toiletries in containers big enough for about 5 days of use, that's it. For my typical trip, any more than that is just carrying around too much useless stuff. I put it all in a small bag ready to go whenever I need it.
  • Fold all your clothes carefully and make use of any cinch straps in your luggage. This will not only let you get more stuff into your luggage, but it will also reduce wrinkles. You can roll your clothes too which is the most space-efficient method, but I only do that if I'm backpacking because I don't want to deal with the wrinkles.
  • Choice in luggage is a tough one and I'm not sure I have settled on the best thing yet for me. I like to have luggage that is size-appropriate for my trip. So I have a few different bags including a very small overnight bag, a small backpack, a sports duffel bag,  and some proper rolling luggage for longer trips. If I'm trying to avoid checking in my luggage, then I like to use a bag that is small enough that I have an extremely high probability of getting it into the overhead bin even if I get a crappy boarding pass number (which is most of the time). Usually this is either my duffel or a backpack. I'm not a fan of rolling luggage for carry-on because nowadays flights run out of overhead room more often than not and rolling bags end up getting checked. 
  • When I'm at my destination, as I use up my clothing, I will fold it up neatly and put it in a drawer in the hotel room. That way, packing for departure goes really quickly, which is important to me because I often have early morning flights on departure and I don't want to stay up late or get up any earlier than necessary to pack before the flight. I like my sleep, especially when traveling.

I've gotten so into traveling light that I actually make a bit of a game out of seeing how small I can go for a trip and still have everything I need. Now, I don't recommend people going that far with it, but I do encourage people to try traveling light and see if it might make their trips more enjoyable.


Father to Son

When I first got serious about photography, I was more comfortable photographing things. People photography is a little more daunting to an introvert like me, because it feels intrusive. You may have to ask your subject for permission, ask her to pose or give a particular facial expression, and then you have to stick this phallic looking device in her face. All of this while simultaneously trying to build a rapport with your subject because people tend to take their best photos when they're comfortable with the photographer. I find all of that very unnatural and a tiny bit intimidating.So I always saw myself as better suited to things like landscapes, architecture, still life, and just cool pictures of stuff.

But over time, I've come to realize that people pictures tend, on balance, to be more emotionally engaging. That's not to say that landscapes or whatever can't be emotionally engaging. Good ones certainly are! But adding a person to a photo instantly adds an emotional or story telling element that's a lot harder to achieve without them. Take this photo for instance. Earlier in my photography I might have waited until they left to take my picture. Or I might have composed them out of the shot. Hell, I might have even Photoshopped them right out of there! But without the people, this photo would be a garden variety landscape - nice, pretty, somewhat interesting on a technical level, but not that remarkable. With the people, however, I think it takes on new meaning. Instead of just being a pretty scene, it becomes a story about a young boy fishing with his Dad, the details of which are left to the viewer. Maybe it's their first fishing trip together. Maybe it's their last. It all depends on what sort of feeling or memories it evokes. For me, it reminds me of when my father taught me how to fish and our summertime camping trips to the mountain around Ruidoso, New Mexico, and that brings on feelings of longing and nostalgia.


Orchids On Purple

It's been awhile since I've done a still life. My wife's orchids have really thrived in the breakfast room of the new house in NC, so I figured I'd take advantage of the blooms. I shot this on a white backdrop with a purple gel and small softbox mounted on a flash and shot up the backdrop to give a nice gradient. I was trying to tie the background color in with the color in the middle of the flowers. It's not exactly the same hue but it still works nicely because the purple contrasts with the yellow on the main part of the petals. The light on the flowers is another softbox from the top-right, along with a reflector on the left for some fill.


Tea House

Last weekend we took a well-needed break and rented a cabin in the mountains around Linville. It was nice. Got to do some fishing and general relaxing. I made a point of leaving my laptop at home and not checking my e-mail on my phone. We got up early Saturday morning to do some fishing on a river on the first day of trout season. Unfortunately a cold front had rolled through and it was seriously chilly on the river, especially wading into it. The kids were pretty miserable at first, but once it warmed up a little they got into it. Only caught a few fish, but still it was very peaceful and relaxing, very A River Runs Through It.. Sunday morning I got up early to get some pictures around our cabin from which this shot comes. There are several cabins on the property along with a lot of lanscaping, including this replica Japanese tea house. It was frosty and things weren't green yet (that only started in earnest this last week), so I decided to process a lot of my photos in black and white. Afterwards, we had an Easter breakfast with the kids and let them hunt Easter eggs. Then the drive home to get back to the grind on Monday..


Dumeril World

This photo was the result of plinking around with this neat little iPhone app called Living Planet, which creates those "tiny planet" panoramas that you may have seen. I just shot a pano of my studio, then loaded it into Living Planet, and fiddled with the settings a bit. Pretty cool for $2. I'm looking forward to trying it with a more compelling pano. It also does videos, but I haven't played with that yet.


Five Things I'm Diggin' – 3/27/14

  1. Rogers Family Coffee – This family-owned coffee company has addressed the two biggest issues I have with my Keurig 2.0. First, Keurig K-cups are indefensible from an environmental point of view. I didn't know this when I bought it, but it's true. Rogers has mostly solved this by creating their own pod which is 97% biodegradable. They're working on 100%, and unlike Keurig, they're serious about it and I expect they'll attain it in the not-too-distant future. The second issue Rogers solves is they give away with their coffee a little clip that defeats Keurig's infamous DRM system, which keeps the 2.0 coffee makers from working with non-licensed coffee pods (such as the Rogers pods). Everybody hates the Keurig DRM system. It's punitive to both customers and coffee vendors, and it's clear that it was crassly designed to drive licensing revenues for Keurig which is just plain greedy. But Rogers' clip installs unobtrusively and fools the 2.0 into thinking every pod is has the necessary DRM tag.  None of this would matter if Rogers Family coffee wasn't any good, but it is very good indeed. Perhaps not my very favorite coffee pod, but it's up there. The price is reasonable as pod coffee goes; definitely worth it for the environmental benefits.

  1. Flipside 3X wallet – The wallet reimagined. What I like about the 3X is 1) its small but rugged; 2) it organizes my wallet contents nicely; 3) it protects my credit cards from RFID scanning; 4) it forces me to not be a wallet hoarder; and 5) there are expansion attachments for adding capacity when I need it (like I'm going to a tradeshow and I need to carry business cards). I have to admit I'm lukewarm on the plasticky look, but from a purely functional point of view it's a terrific design. And no, the hard design is no more uncomfortable than a normal wallet.

  1. Tracktion DAW – I finally settled on Tracktion as my DAW. In the end, user interface won out. Tracktion's UI is exceptionally easy and fun once you learn just a few key concepts. In fact, I think the learning curve for Tracktion is shallower than any other DAW I've used, which includes Pro Tools, Sonar, Reaper, FL Studio, and Ableton Live. I love its consistent use of drag-and-drop; I like the modeless, all-from-one-screen interface; I love how it uses context sensitivity to hide irrelevant buttons and options; and I greatly prefer its flat UI design that doesn't clutter the screen with photorealism. The only mixed feelings I have about its UI concern the fact it doesn't have a traditional mixer view (a casualty of the single screen philosophy). It's easy enough to adapt to, but the vertical arrangement of channels means that you can't see as many of them on your screen at once. On the other hand, Tracktion's mixer is infinitely configurable which is really cool. For all its ease of use, Tracktion doesn't give up functionality. I don't claim that its a feature-for-feature match with those other DAWs, but it is their equivalent from a music capability standpoint. (Except for Ableton Live, which has some pretty unique features for live performance.) In other words, there is a reasonable way to accomplish virtually any task you need to do in recording music. I don't feel in any way limited by it. And since it was taken over by the original developer team, the support for Tracktion has been excellent. The only knock I have on Tracktion is that it doesn't come with many plug-ins.

  1. Aviator Smokehouse – This is the restaurant side of the Aviator Brewing Company in Fuquay Varina. Their BlackMamba wings are some of the best wings I've eaten. The name sounds like they'd be scorching hot, but they're fairly mild. The name actually derives from the fact that the sauce is made from Aviator's BlackMamba Oatmeal Stout beer, which apparently makes a killer wing sauce. Of course the beers at Aviator are all excellent as well. The aforementioned BlackMamba stout is a favorite, but the HogWild IPA, and the WideOpen Red are good as well. Highly recommended.

  1. 3 Displays – My office mate at work opted to relocate early to our office in Durham (we're all moving there in a few months) and left his two computer displays. I commandeered one of them to supplement my own display. So including my laptop's built-in display, my system now has three displays spanning my desk and I've configured my computer to use them as one big desktop spanning all three. It feels positively decadent. The desktop metaphor for operating system UI has been prevalent since the late '80s. But I've always joked that its flawed because no one would use a desk that was as small as a computer display. Well, three displays is a right proper desktop! I think I'm forever spoiled.


Get A Grip!

I got my MB-D11 battery grip working again with my D7000. It had a problem with intermittent power losses, which caused the camera to stop working for a moment and sometimes lose a photo it had just taken. I reasoned that it was probably an issue with a faulty electronic connection between the grip and camera, or between the battery tray and the grip. So I removed the grip with the idea that I'd take some DeoxIT to the electrical contacts and see if that fixed it. But I never got around to it and I eventually just got used to using my camera without a grip. Yesterday – by coincidence one year to the day that I removed the grip – I finally cleaned the electrical contacts with DeoxIT and that did in fact fix the problem.

Wow. I'd forgotten how nice it is to have a grip! For big hands, it's really great to have something more substantial to hold. And it makes portrait-oriented shots less clumsy and more steady. It also makes the camera balance better with longer, heavier lenses. And of course, it adds extra battery capacity when you need it. The drawback is that it adds considerable extra weight and it makes the camera less stealthy, but for the kind of photography I do the benefits are well worth it.

I only wish I hadn't waited a year to fix it.


Data Back-up, Revisted

Things have changed a little bit since I last wrote about data back-up. The basic principles are the same, but the migration to Lightroom and Tracktion have required me to adjust my process a bit.

Photo Back-Up

Capture  My camera provides two SD memory card slots. I've configured it to write the RAW file for each photo to both cards. So from capture I've already got a back-up.

Import – I import photos from one of the cards into Lightroom, at which time the RAW images are copied to an external USB drive that is my primary working drive for photography. Once imported, I try to keep the RAW images on the SD cards until that working drive is backed up. Otherwise I'd be flying without a net.

Post-Processing – While the RAW images are stored on the external drive, my Lightroom catalog is kept on my computer's internal drive. I do that in order to take advantage Lightroom's Smart Preview feature that allows me to edit photos even when the working drive is disconnected. To use Smart Previews, the catalog needs to be on the computer's local drive. However, I've configured Lightroom to back up the catalog to the external working drive every time it exits, so the catalog is always backed-up as well.

By the way, the default behavior in Lightroom is to back up the catalog once a day upon exit of the program. But I don't like that scheme because of the way it's implemented: it will back up your catalog the first time you exit Lightroom for the day, then it won't do it again until the next day. I'm likely to exit Lightroom several times a day. In event of a catastrophe, this means that instead of losing "at most" a  day's worth of edits, I'm likely to lose most of a day's worth of edits. So I have it back up on every exit. It doesn't take too long at my current catalog size and I'm assured at losing at most a single session's worth of edits. Maybe once my catalog grows really big, I'll change my scheme but for now while the catalog is small, this makes the most sense.

Off-site – After the RAW images and catalog backed-up are on the external drive, I will take the drive to work at the earliest opportunity and back-up its contents to another external drive I keep at my office. I use FreeFileSync for that. It works great and the only way it could be priced better is if they paid you to use it. So with this step I have an off-site back-up for both the RAW images and the catalog. I can now remove the RAW images from the SD cards.

Export – When I'm done post-processing my photos, I take all my favorites and export them as high quality JPEGs. These "Finals" are written to the external drive and to my Google Drive, which uploads them to the cloud and distributes them to all my computers that have Google Drive installed. The Google Drive also gives me ubiquitous access to them from anywhere on the Internet. Any new Finals photos are also backed-up to the drive at work whenever I do the off-site back-up. Honestly, I'm most concerned about the long-term preservation of the Finals photos, as they are the keepsakes in my mind, not the RAWs.

Audio Back-Up

My audio back-up strategy is much simpler due to system performance and data size constraints. The working copies of my audio projects are kept on my computer's primary hard drive for performance reasons. A single Tracktion project consists of lots of little files - audio clips, MIDI clips, rendered files, etc, During a project, I will regularly export an archive file (a Tracktion file format that stuffs all the various files associated with a project into a single file) to the same external drive I use as my working drive for photography. Then, when I do the off-site back-up of my photo files at my office, I include the audio project archive files as well. My final mixed and mastered audio files are put on my Google drive to provide online back-up of the audio "finals", similar to what I do for photo Finals.


All Your RAM Are Belong to Lightroom

Some more early impressions on Lightroom... One thing I've noticed is that Lightroom is not very efficient with RAM usage (compared to AfterShot anyway). My laptop has 8GB, which I would consider middle of the road in terms of RAM  certainly not loaded, but not paltry either. This laptop doesn't have many processes running in the background either since it's also my audio recording system; I went through and uninstalled or deactivated all the usual junk that ships with a computer. My Lightroom catalog currently has about 9,000 photos, which is well below what I understand to be the performance limits on catalog size.  So last night a 16MP RAW image with somewhat extensive editing got my system page thrashing badly. I tried exiting and restarting Lightroom with the idea that, if it was a memory leak issue, killing the program would free up orphaned RAM. But that particular image still caused excessive page faults after the restart. I am surprised by this because, although RAW images are big, they're pretty small compared to the cumulative size of multi-track audio projects and this system deals with those and hardly raises its pulse. Perhaps the sheer size of audio files forces DAW vendors to be a lot more clever about managing memory. Of course, it's not that simple. For instance, my system is 64-bit which is going to use more memory than a 32-bit system for the same data, and I'm not really factoring that here. In any case, I guess I'm going to need to upgrade to 16GB in the near future. Fortunately RAM is relatively cheap. This laptop has two memory slots, but I'm not sure how many of them are used by the 8GB that's currently installed. Hopefully only one, as it will make the upgrade cheaper.

[Update 3/10/2015 – The factory installed memory on my laptop did in fact only use one slot. So I installed an additional 8GB SODIMM for a total of 16GB. No more page thrashing. Problem solved for $70.]


God Only Knows How Geniuses Are Made

A wonderful video of two personal heroes exploring the nature of creativity while dissecting God Only Knows.  This is flat-out awesome.