Big Light

Awhile back I bought a 48" octabox off e-bay and I finally got a chance to experiment with it. Here are my initial impressions.

I know these things come in 7 foot versions, but 48" is big. Big enough to do a full length portrait or shoot 3-4 people.  It looks petty imposing on a stand. For the self-portrait above, I had it set up at a 45 degree elevation and 45 degrees to camera-left. It's pulled in really close, not far outside of the frame. I also placed a silver reflector on the other side to lighten the shadows a little. As you can see, the quality of light is lovely. As you'd expect, it casts very soft shadows and it does an admirable job of deemphasizing my crummy complexion. As a result of the size, it's almost laughably easy to get great lighting.

The design of the octabox is basically a silver bounce umbrella with a diffuser. It's pretty efficient due to the silver reflective surface and the fact that the light only goes through one diffusion panel, unlike my EzyBox which shoots the light straight out the front but through two layers of diffusion. The fit, finish, and materials are all of very reasonable quality. It looks professional and I don't have any worries that it's going to fall apart prematurely. In terms of usability, the umbrella design makes it really fast and easy to set up, which is a hard requirement fo me. The octabox included a grid that velcros onto the front rim of the softbox to contain light spill. My initial impression is that the grid is pretty much a necessity for a bigass box in my tinyass studio. The grid works exactly as advertised and the spill that did occur onto my backdrop had a really nice gradient that added to the mood of the photo. One thing that I didn't get a chance to experiment with yet is feathering, but I expect that the possibilities will be terrific on that front with the octabox design and the grid.

As expected a 48" box is more of a workout for a single speedlight than my smaller softboxes, but I still had several stops of power to spare as I was shooting at ISO 100 and f/8 aperture. But I think I will pick up a double or triple coldshoe bracket so I can load it up with additional speedlights when necessary.

One downside of the design is that the flash unit (it accepts speedlights or studio strobes) is placed inside the octabox. This makes wireless triggers mandatory and it means that if your triggers don't support TTL or remote power control, you have to open up the diffusion panel and grid to adjust the flash power, which is a hassle. To minimize this, I left one corner of the panel partial unsealed until I got my flash dialed in, then I sealed it up and installed the grid as one of the last steps before I starting shooting for real. Another drawback of the design is that the lightstand passes through a zippered slit in the bottom of the octabox. The slit provides only a small amount of tilt adjustment range. So a boom is highly recommended if you want more range, which you will.

On balance I'm really happy with this softbox, especially in terms of its performance as a lighting modifier. It's a no-brainer for the $65 I paid for it.


Bacon, The Easy Way

If you prefer to eat bacon, rather than spoon with it, here's a great tip I learned from my step-mother-in-the-law (no kidding!): How to cook flawless bacon without making a mess.

Just lay the strips out in a casserole pan and bake it at about 380-400 (don't bother pre-heating it)! It will cook more evenly than pan frying because the heat is applied from all around, instead of just the bottom. So you don't end up with under-cooked, curled up ends. Like it crispy? Trust me, it will crisp up just fine. I keep an eye on it and flip the bacon over using tongs about halfway through the cooking cycle. It takes about 20-30 minutes depending on how well-done you like your bacon. So it takes a little longer than frying. But the big payoff is that there's no mess on your stove from grease splatter. Having all the grease in the pan makes it easy to dispose of (or freeze and save for cooking as we like to do).



After lo these many years, I've finally found the perfect jeans. Levi's 513. A slim, clean fit without being skinny jeans. An adult look without being Mom jeans. I would consider them a reasonable, mid-priced jean - less expensive than a designer brand, more expensive than a store brand. They come in a lot of different colors - with corresponding differences in the fabric - but they aren't festooned with overdone stitching. None of the colors have the sort of heavy denim you'd find in 501's, but then again, that makes them cooler and more comfortable. Which is a particular virtue in Houston. I wish I'd discovered them a long time ago.


Facts Are Not Facts!

A long time ago, I was debating with my girlfriend at the time. I should say that this woman was straight-up brilliant. A wickedly smart person with a great command of facts and information, coupled with formidable debating skills. I was in over my head to begin with but to make matters worse, our relationship was already well on its way to an acrimonious end, and so we were prone to being argumentative, unreasonable, and mean-spirited with each other. I can't remember what the debate was about, but I do remember that she had laid out an impressive array of supporting arguments, and then finished with a triumphant and smug, "Facts are facts."

In my stupid exasperation, my retort (yelled of course) was, "Facts are not facts!"

Yes, in my early twenties, I often distinguished myself in the annals of debate. Occasionally I still come up with gems like that.

That little episode lodged itself into my memory with more permanence than anything else from our relationship. My epic logic fail made me look pretty damn stupid and I certainly lost the debate (if you consider coming out on top of a debate with your lover, "winning").

But I've always disliked that phrase, "Facts are facts." It seems simple and true enough on the surface. However, it's typically used to mean that the facts presented lead inescapably to one conclusion. But the world is just swimming in facts, data, statistics, anecdotes, specifications, principles, and platitudes. And by cherry-picking the right ones, you can put together a fact-based support structure for just about any loony position on any topic. That's how people can come to such radically different interpretations of the same situation, using exactly the same data.  In fact, people generally don't collect facts to figure out their position on a topic. They collect facts to support a position they already held. Worse, many "facts" are half-truths, embellishments, long-debunked theories, rumors, or outright lies. But people still trot them out and point to them as unassailable evidence of their rightness about something.  And for the record, I've done this too. But in my moments of honest reflection, I know I've done it, and I'm not proud of it. I consider it an intellectual dishonesty, perhaps helping me win a battle but ultimately lose a war.

If those many years ago, my mind hadn't been so clouded with frustration and the raw emotion of an extended breakup, my response would have been, "Facts are facts. But facts aren't necessarily truth."



Well, the 2488 bit the dust last weekend. It powers up just fine, but it comes up in a weird state and the buttons and controls seem to be mapped to the wrong functions! I have a theory that perhaps some ribbon cable to a controls PCB isn't properly seated, or has some connectivity problem. So this weekend I'm going to open it up to clean and reseat all the connectors I can get to in the hope that that fixes the problem. But I'm not very optimistic about it. So now my studio is basically neutered - it's not much of a studio if you can't record. I shouldn't be too disappointed - I got 10 years out of service out of the 2488. That's not too shabby for digital technology. Not at all.

In the event that my repairs are unsuccessful, I've been pondering my options. I'm not sure it's worth the money to send the 2488 back to Tascam for repair, assuming they're even willing to repair it.

First thing to settle was whether to go the standalone recorder route again like I did when I bought the 2488, or join the 21st century and commit to a software-based DAW. I've used software DAWs in the past, but I'm one of the handful of people who actually preferred a standalone recorder. We all know that software offers levels of control, flexibility, automation, and expansion that simply blow any standalone recorder out of the water. There's no comparison on those fronts. But a standalone has a few advantages that I really appreciate. First, a standalone is simply easier to use. Fewer options means less time and thought spent weighing them and fiddling with them. Second, a standalone works seamlessly, with less effort, right out of the box. Since everything is pre-integrated, you don't have to spend time optimizing performance and troubleshooting problems with latency, compatibility, configuration, etc. Finally, and most importantly to me, a standalone unit is all but immune to The Upgrade Cascade.  All of this boils down to spending more time recording and less time futzing with the technology, which is a huge advantage in my book.

But despite all that, the standalone recorder is a dying breed and at this point almost anachronistic in a recording studio. So I'm interpreting my 2488's demise as a sign from the audio gods that I should finally commit to a software DAW.

Which one then? I haven't settled that. Ten years ago, I would have chosen Pro Tools without hesitation. It was the standard. But today the choice isn't as clear-cut. Avid has fallen on hard times. Pro Tools is a sizable investment, even for the low-end systems, and I'd hate to spend my money only to have them go under (although the audio division of Avid has such a strong brand and customer base that I can't imagine it wouldn't be acquired by another entity). If I expected to be importing/exporting my work to and from commercial studios on a regular basis, Pro Tools would still the best bet. But I work almost exclusively independently, and that affords me the opportunity to work with other software systems. Some of them, like Ableton Live, are frankly more innovative than Pro Tools, especially for electronic music. But Live is expensive too and budget is always a concern. So I'm leaning towards Reaper, Reason, or Tracktion, at least short-term until a day comes that I can afford Live.

I like Reaper because it's full-featured, very well supported, and has a sensible upgrade policy. I like Reason because it has tons of great plug-ins, the audio recording is very straightforward, and there's a strong community of users out there. But you better like Reason's plug-ins because VST plug-ins are not supported. I like Tracktion because I find its user interface to be clean and very facile once you learn it. Plus, now that Tracktion is back in the hands of its original developer, it is once again well-supported. On the other hand, it's not as deep feature-wise as other software on the market and it doesn't come with very many plug-ins. All three are very reasonably priced.

As for audio interface, I'm leaning towards either the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 or the 18i8, depending on how much money I'm willing to spend. I like the Focusrite mic pres, the ability to add more inputs using a Lightpipe octal preamp, the built-in MIDI interface, the apparent stability of the drivers, and the price.

I'll post a follow-up when it's all sorted out.

Update 6/8/2014 – I've made a few decisions over the past couple of days. One, I'll be going with the Focusrite 18i8 as my audio interface. I realized that I had enough outboard gear to augment the 18i8 with as many mic preamps as the 18i20. One thing I will be giving up with the 18i8 is some line outputs, which might be handy to have for external signal processing. But I'm willing to forego that to save a little money since I think I'll be plenty happy to do all my processing in the box. The second decision was to go with Reaper as my software DAW. First, after looking into it a bit more, there does seem to be a number of bugs to be sorted out with Tracktion. Secondly, a lot of Mackie customers with "lifetime" Tracktion licenses got left stranded when Mackie sold Tracktion back to its original developer. Considering that that customer base was probably one of Tracktion's largest user constituencies, it doesn't give me much confidence about their long-term customer support. Yes, the upgrade fee was not very much money, but on principle, when you sell somebody a "lifetime license", you ought go the extra mile to see that its honored, even through the sale of a business unit.  Anyway, Reaper also has the advantage that I've multiple friends using it, so that should encourage collaboration.


Five Things I'm Diggin' - 5/15/14

It's been awhile since my last Five Things I'm Diggin', but here you go...

  1. Google Play Music - Back around 1998, I was trying to kick-start a company with a good friend of mine. The initial concept was a new Internet-based model for music marketing. The concept went through several iterations until it had morphed into the notion of taking the iPod to the cloud (although it wasn't called the cloud back then). The idea was predicated on the fact that when you purchased a CD (remember, 1998), the law grants you "fair use" rights to make personal copies. Our idea was to create a song warehouse on the 'Net containing every song we could legally license from record labels through partnership deals. The songs would be digitally stored and ready for streaming. We would offer a subscription service whereby consumers, if they could prove they owned a CD, could stream the CD's songs from the warehouse to whatever device they were using at that moment. This would be the Internet equivalent of fair use. In most cases, it wouldn't even be necessary to initially copy the songs from the CD to the warehouse because the warehouse would already have the song obtained from the record label. The service would keep track of the song stream counts and pay royalties back to the labels based on actual plays (ala radio). I was really in love with the idea because it was just so right - ubiquitous access, easy up-sell of new songs for the labels, and legally/morally on the up-and-up. However, we abandoned the idea because 1) consumer bandwidth was a bit limited, 2) many music devices were not connected, and 3) the major labels would never go for it as they were waging a war against consumers to save their old distribution channels. In the fullness of time, and with an amazing effort by Steve Jobs on that third point, all of these obstacles were eventually cleared. Google Play Music is exactly the service I had envisioned, plus some additional innovations. Of course, Apple, Amazon, and others offer equivalent services too. But I like the Play Music because it works on virtually any device (including Android) and the free version of the service provides a buttload of song storage space, as well as scan-and-match.
  1. Klymit Static V - We did a number of camping trips back in the fall with my boys' Cub Scout pack. I bought a couple  of Static Vs for the wife and I and gave our old sleeping pads to the boys. Wow, sleeping pad technology has really improved! These things are light, roll down to the size of a water bottle, blow up in a dozen breaths, and are surprisingly comfortable. Highly recommended.
  1. Black and White - I've been doing a fair amount of B&W photography lately. I just love it. Instant gravitas. 
  1. My Studio - A few weeks ago, on a quiet, lazy, Sunday afternoon, I went into my studio. I plugged  into my 50 watt Marshall and dimed it. You know, the way God intended. If you're not a guitarist you probably don't understand, but that's the recipe for great guitar sound from a vacuum tube amp. Tubes do magical things at the limits of their intended operating specifications. Anyway, after a couple hours of giving my eardrums what for, I powered down and went back into the house. My wife had been reading on the living room couch the whole time and I asked her how loud it was. She said she never heard me. My brother built me one fine room.
  1. Apple iPhone 5s - I've bought several Apple products, but never for myself! I don't know exactly why because I've long admired their stuff and I have no particular affection for other brands. I've just never spent the dough on myself. I'd been suffering along with an original Samsung Galaxy S for the last few years. That phone is a turd, but it was provided by my employer at no cost to me. I decided that when I did have to buy myself a new phone, it would be an Apple. So now I'm the happy owner of a spiffy new 5s. It is exactly what I hoped it would be - elegant, well thought out, and a pleasure to use.


An Uncomplicated Life


I'm really pleased with the painterly look of this one. It was a pretty nice photo straight out of the camera. But I used a combination of diffused softening on the background and local contrast enhancement on the cow when post-processing the image and got a really cool (in my opinion) look.


The Fujifilm X20 and Remote Flash Triggering

Here's something I just discovered: The X20's popup flash will trigger optical slaves very nicely! Now, acting as the master in an optical triggering arrangement isn't very special, but the X20 does so very elegantly which is.

I'm embarrassed that I just now figured it out, since it's actually in the manual. The manual that I read cover to cover. In my defense, that section is worded pretty awkwardly (as is most of the manual). The light didn't go on in my head until I happened to re-read that section today.

Here's the scoop: By simply turning on the "External Flash" option in the Shooting menu, then popping up the built-in flash, the X20 is ready to trigger an off-camera flash, assuming said flash supports optical slaving. The remote flash has to be in manual mode; TTL won't work. If you're like me, you'll also want to set the camera itself to manual exposure and manual ISO modes so that it isn't making unwanted exposure compensations. Any compensation made by the camera will be off the mark since the camera has no clue what the remote flash power is. When the "External Flash" option is turned on, the X20 will suppress its usual TTL pre-flashes and pop a single, minimum-power flash of light to trigger slaves. My initial experiments indicate that the light from the pop-up flash will have almost no effect on the exposure unless you're really close to your subject (I was just testing it at about 2.5 feet and it was negligible).

A couple thoughts I'm having about this.

First, since the X20 has a leaf shutter and there's no RF trigger circuitry lag to contend with, this triggering method is good for shutter speeds way faster than the typical 1/200 or 1/250 sync speed of a DSLR. In my experiments it worked great up to 1/1000. According to the Strobist site, the leaf shutter on the X100S cannot go faster than 1/1000 when the lens is at f/2 (wide open on the X100S). Apparently there's some sort of physical limitation with the shutter that will cause edges to get less exposure (sort of like vignetting) when the shutter is faster than 1/1000 and the lens is wide open, so Fujifilm just doesn't allow you to do it. I would expect a similar limitation on the X20. To get faster shutter speeds (and faster flash sync speeds), you have to stop down the aperture which works against one of the primary reasons you would want ultra-fast flash sync speeds - to enable you to open the aperture in order to maximize depth of field in bright, sunny conditions. On top of that, full power on a flash is usually around 1/1000 second in duration, so faster shutter speeds than that won't be able to use the full power of the flash (which might not be an issue). All things said, even the worst case of 1/1000 is really screamin' if you're used to DSLR sync speeds!

Second, an X20, a speedlight, and a small modifier, makes for an incredibly small and nimble portrait kit! I'm thinking my LumiQuest Softbox III is absolutely ideal for this. I've got a business trip coming up that may be the perfect opportunity to test it out.

My next task: To take a good portrait with this kit to prove that big power can come in small packages. So far, all I've done is practice shots to learn the ins and outs of it.


The Spoils of Plunder


I was walking the grounds of The Hermitage, near Nashville and turned around to see this nicely framed scene. I respect the way the Hermitage treats the subject of Andrew Jackson's practice of slavery. They deal with it head-on, not sugar-coating it but also not allowing it to completely color all thoughtful analysis of the former president. They present it, in my opinion, without extra softening or vilification. It left me with appropriately mixed feelings about Jackson and The Hermitage. An impressive and serene estate, conceived in principles grander and nobler than the moral capacity of its owners, and built off the unwilling suffering and sacrifice of others. A perfect microcosm of that period of American history, actually.


Music City

I spent last week in Nashville for my company's annual user conference. I've been to Nashville a couple of times, but this is the first of any duration. As a former resident of Austin for 23 years, I can't help but notice the many similarities. They have comparable populations and the hilly terrain is somewhat similar. And of course they're both music towns. But there's a civic pride, genuine appreciations for arts, and an all-out embrace for local things that is rare to most cities, but common to these two. Other than the sociopolitical and religious timbre of the city, I could totally see myself living in Nashville. It's a fine place.

I spent most of my time downtown and got a pretty good exposure to the music there. I must say, as terrific as Austin's music scene is, the level of musicianship in Nashville is very clearly a step higher - if my experience is representative of reality. I swear I didn't hear even one hack singer. Every single one that I heard was strong. Likewise, every guitarist I heard in a club was excellent. I mean, seriously accomplished. And I have pretty high standards on that. I can't say either of those two things about Austin, or any other city I've visited. Very impressive. The one advantage I'll give Austin is that its music scene is more diverse. Nashville isn't all country, but it is mostly country.

The picture is of the lobby of Union Station Hotel in downtown Nashville. It's a converted train station and it is incredible. The architecture is amazing, but I think it's the craftsmanship that really knocked me out - the stained glass, the woodwork, the wrought iron, the masonry, the painting and finishing - it was all just gorgeous.