Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Been cruising around northern Norway

We're on our way south to Oslo now, but it's been a very nice holiday up here north of the Arctic Circle. The weather has been overcast a lot of the time (it's raining in Bodø right now) but it was quite amazing: as we drove over a bridge from the Versterålen Islands to the Lofotens, the clouds cleared and we were greeted with blue skies! So we definitely saw the summer side of the Lofoten Islands.

In a couple of days, work will start again as we head to Svalbard for another LuminOdyssey! We meet up with some of the participants in Oslo tomorrow. There'll be updates throughout the trip on LuminOdyssey.com.



Continue reading "Been cruising around northern Norway"...

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Back in Tromsø (Norway)

After ~36 hours of travel, flying from Melbourne to Bangkok to Oslo to Tromsø, we finally arrived at our pleasant little hotel on the waterfront at Tromsø. It's a very nice place, and I'm being mellow enough that I'm not really upset that my main checked duffle back got its metal frame bent out of shape somewhere between Melbourne and Oslo. At least it protected the equipment that was inside!

The last time I was in Tromsø was over 18 months ago when I worked as Artist in Residence on the Hurtigruten ship MS Trollfjord. We visited this port a total of six times during my stint (at least several hours at a time). Here in port this afternoon is the MS Richard With, a slightly older ship in the line. It's possible that we'll catch up with the Trollfjord over the coming days: it's making its way north at the moment.

Before crashing for the evening to reset our body clocks, we went for several strolls around town. It's definite strange for me to not see snow everywhere here, but there were lots of familiar sights!
Continue reading "Back in Tromsø (Norway)"...

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I'm leaving, on a jet plane...

Today's the start of another big adventure!
Leaving some family behind to keep the home fires burning (well, it IS winter here) we're headed off to somewhere even colder. First northern Norway (north of the Arctic Circle) where it's about 10 degrees at the moment in the grip of summer (which is going to be interesting for me since my last visit there was in the depths of winter 1.5 years ago). Then after a short holiday we're off further north to Svalbard where I'll be leading a photography expedition.

I expect to continue posting from mainland Norway, but once we head up to Svalbard we'll only have intermittent status reports at LuminOdyssey.com by satellite. You'll of course be able to track our movements throughout this time via the map that appears on both the davidburren.com and LuminOdyssey.com sites.

Mind you, I'm not only a cold-weather photographer. Once we get back from Svalbard I'll only have a week or so before I have to head off again to Kenya. Madness I tell you!

Stay in touch!
Continue reading "I'm leaving, on a jet plane..."...

Monday, July 11, 2011

To DNG or not to DNG?

Many times I've been asked by students and workshop attendees whether they should be converting their RAW photo files to Adobe's DNG format. There are various pros and cons to this issue, so I'll do my best to list them here along with where I've ended up on the issue. Hopefully it will help you review your own conclusions.

First, a quick intro: DNG (Digital NeGative) is a format devised by Adobe for storage of photographic RAW data. The standard is published by Adobe, and many software vendors have added support for it to their products (whether by using the libraries that Adobe provides, or their own software from the ground up - DNG is built on top of the well-known TIFF format). Rather than each camera vendor needing to have their own proprietary RAW format and make incompatible extensions to the format for each new camera model, DNG provides a common format. The standard does get modified over time to support new features but this is done in a backwards-compatible way. Some camera vendors have chosen to leverage this format and have their cameras produce it "out of the box". Tools such as Adobe's free DNG Converter, Camera Raw (a plug-in for Photoshop and Bridge), and Photoshop Lightroom can also produce DNG versions of any supported RAW file.

Incidentally, the TIFF standard was also devised by Adobe and published in the same way. Anyone concerned that DNG is an "Adobe-controlled standard" should have a look at how comfortable they are with the TIFF format that has become an industry standard. This isn't an issue that concerns me.

So, should you keep the RAW photos from your cameras in their native format (e.g. CR2, NEF) or should you convert them to DNG?

Pros

Orangutan, Borneo (N1_A13)
  • As of DNG 1.2, it supports an internal MD5 checksum of the RAW data within the file. Software can verify this to be sure that your files are undamaged. Note that currently there are no efficient tools that use this to verify large numbers of files (Lightroom 3's Develop module will just check the current image, the DNG Converter insists on creating new DNG copies with no verify-only option, etc). Hopefully better verification tools will appear soon.
  • DNG files are usually smaller than the corresponding proprietary RAW files. Mind you, disk space keeps getting cheaper.
  • The preview embedded into DNG files can be updated to represent the "current" processed form of the image. This means that if you're using non-ACR software (i.e. something other than Bridge or Lightroom) to manage your files that the thumbnails and previews will not be stuck at the version of the image rendered by the in-camera JPEG processing. Note however that this preview updating is often not automatic (which would add a significant performance overhead).
  • DNG provides a stable future-proof format for archiving of RAW images. If files are being committed to write-once media (e.g. DVD) this is a good choice. If files are being stored on hard drives then large volumes of proprietary RAW files can be accessed and updated as and if needed. However, current Adobe software can handle all the historical "official" RAW formats I'm aware of.
  • DNG provides a RAW format for images from cameras that your current RAW-processing software doesn't support. For example if you have a camera newer than that handled by your installed Photoshop/Lightroom version, you can either update your software or you can use the latest version of Adobe's free DNG Converter and then process the DNGs.
Note that while DNG is a stable format for archiving of RAW images (e.g. to write-once media) that does not by itself imply that your "working" files need to also be converted to DNG. And if your archives are on easily-accessed media such as hard drives (even if spanning multiple terabytes) then it may be just as easy to convert them to DNG as-needed in the future (e.g. if support for old files was somehow going to be dropped). I think it's highly unlikely that Adobe will drop support for older file formats, and if they do you'd probably hear about it with plenty of opportunity to convert affected files. There'll always be third-party tools (including open-source tools) to allow access to those files.

Cons

Orangutan, Borneo (N1_925)
  • Creating DNG files takes time. It's usually not efficient to convert RAWs to DNG as they're being ingested/imported, although conversion can happen later.
  • Metadata (keywords, etc) are stored within the DNG file instead of in a sidecar XMP file. This means any change to these will trigger many backup systems to copy the whole DNG file instead of a tiny XMP file. The disadvantage here is speed. Of course the same issue applies to JPEG/TIFF/PSD files anyway. Note that a single change to your keyword hierarchy in Lightroom can change the inherited keywords for thousands of images.
  • Unless you embed the original RAW file within the DNG (which does away with any size advantage) or maintain separate archives of the original files, you will not have the option of processing the files through non-DNG-capable software (such as Canon's and Nikon's own software) in the future. This might or might-not be an issue for you. 
Some people would list the embedding of metadata within the file as a "pro" for DNG instead of a con, and that seems to be because they're afraid of losing track of XMP files. Any reasonable management software will move/rename/etc these files alongside the matching RAW file. Both Bridge and Lightroom do this for example. Or maybe it's because they're looking at folders with tools such as Finder or Windows Explorer (neither of which are good tools for managing folders of images anyway) and getting "offended" by all the extra XMP files. It's always been a non-issue for me.

Conclusions

You can draw your own conclusions, but I'll tell you about my own workflow:
  • I do not convert RAW files to DNG as they're being imported. The speed trade-off is not worth it. Currently I do not do the conversion until the files are on my office systems. If I'm on an expedition with 300+ GB of RAW files, I like to be able to save metadata from within Lightroom to have the XMP files as additional backup. With sidecar files this keeps the backup synchronisation in the field reasonable without having to wait for all 300 GB to be backed up again.
  • I do convert files to DNG later, but currently this is purely to give me the peace of mind of the internal checksums. I'm looking forward to having decent bulk checksum-verification tools.

Years ago I converted all my images to DNG as it saved me hundreds of MB of storage. These days this issue doesn't worry me so much: although my file sizes have got bigger with newer cameras, disks have also increased in size and decreased in cost.
The other reason I did this conversion was because I was using Expression Media to manage my images (and ACR to process them) and the preview/thumbnail issue meant I could see in EM what the image "really" looked like. That issue went away when I started using Lightroom.

Hopefully this post helps you make your own decision about the use of DNG!


Fern sprout, Borneo (N1_925)
All the photos in this post are 10 years old, taken in RAW with an EOS D30.
Continue reading "To DNG or not to DNG?"...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Another example: benefits of simple file storage

I wrote recently about the perils of fancy RAID image/file storage. Two of the issues I highlighted were:
  • although it protects against the failure of an individual hard drive, you still need multiple separate copies of your data, and
  • if the RAID device itself has a problem, your data may be inaccessible.

I was referring in that article to portable RAID devices for use in the field, but the same does apply to devices used in the office, and I was reminded of this earlier in 2011.

On my return home from a long expedition I found that a RAID fileserver on my local network was off. This device (a ReadyNAS NV+ with 3 TB of useable space) has been on the network for quite a few years now, with the four hard drives inside gradually upgraded over time (from an initial 1 TB). But it wouldn't turn on again, no matter what I did. It was protected by a UPS (battery-backed power supply) from any nasty power spikes, and every nine months or so we shut it down and remove the covers and all the drives in order to blow out the inevitable dust that builds up (heat build-up due to this is a big killer of computing hardware) so the cause was a bit of mystery.

It turned out that the power supply module in the chassis had failed and needed replacing. Unfortunately this is a custom part that uses a different connector to any other known power supply. Without the power supply all the data on those disks (almost 2 TB worth) was inaccessible. Connecting the drives to standard SATA interfaces would not yield useful data, as the RAID formatting could only be accessed via a ReadyNAS. I either needed to get a new power supply, or another NV+ (costing almost $500) to put the drives into. But the retailers that sell ReadyNAS units don't sell spare parts for them.

Getting a replacement power supply was complicated a bit by the fact that although the NV+ is a relatively current device, I bought this one before the manufacturer (Infrant) was swallowed up by Netgear. Emails and calls to Netgear's support people (on the other side of the globe to me) to track down a replacement spent some time bogged down in conversations telling me that my device's serial number was invalid! But in the end Netgear sent a replacement power supply free of charge, and the NV+ (and data) came back to life.

We were without access to that data for several weeks, but luckily (?) this fileserver is mainly our local repository for music and recorded TV. It does have some other data on it too, but nothing business-critical. The biggest problem I faced was complaints from the family about not being able to access the TV episodes that had been recorded!



I'm not saying that you shouldn't put important data on a RAID device, but keep in mind that you may be introducing a new "single point of failure" when you're trying to protect against hard drive failures. Do keep multiple copies of your data on different devices so you can still access it when something goes wrong, and when setting up a RAID device (be it a ReadyNAS, a Drobo, or anything else) do check into the availability and cost of replacement parts.

I'll stop harping on this topic for now!

Where did I put that backup Albatross?

Continue reading "Another example: benefits of simple file storage"...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Expedition news: Africa, and Macquarie Island

If you've been watching the LuminOdyssey news feeds you would have seen notes about these, but in the interest of spreading the news I'll mention them here also:
If you're interested in these locations (especially as a photographer) please contact me, and if you know anyone else who might be interested, please let them know. ASAP.
Thanks!

There should be more news on the Macquarie Island thing over the coming days. We may even be able to fit in some New Zealand activities beforehand.

Continue reading "Expedition news: Africa, and Macquarie Island"...

Laptop non-saga

We're going to be heading off to the Arctic soon, so when my MacBook Pro's audio started misbehaving (internal speakers would not work as the system was stuck on using digital audio output) I got a bit nervous. A web search indicated that the problem I was having might be a motherboard problem, so I figured I'd better get it fixed ASAP. The last thing I want is for my computer to develop more-serious problems when I'm thousands of kilometres from tech support and in the middle of generating and processing gigabytes of photographs and video. I do have enough redundancies in place that I would survive, but the loss of my laptop would involve compromises I'm happier not having to deal with.

So this post is the story of the repair process. It demonstrates some of my IT setup with backups and redundancy, which is why I decided to share it with you.



Conveniently for me there's an Apple Store with Genius Bar and service centre in Doncaster, not far from my home. So I made an appointment, made sure my backups were up to date, and dropped in to get an official diagnosis. They soon decided that yes it would require the logic board to be replaced, they had the parts in stock, and it was covered under warranty. But it would mean I'd be without my machine for "3-5 days". This machine is my main computer, and while I can do some things without it (thanks to my iPhone) being without it for that amount of time would put a significant kink in my productivity. I also had a presentation coming up which I was planning to run out of my Lightroom library. I took the MacBook Pro home, having booked the service to start when I dropped it in over the coming days.

This machine (a 2010 15" Core i7 model with 8 GB RAM) has had its DVD drive removed to an external USB chassis, and replaced with a second hard drive via an OptiBay. So it has a combination of a 500 GB and a 750 GB drive, giving me enough storage for extended standalone work trips. But if I transferred the drives to external Firewire cases I could use them to boot this or any other Mac (within reason) and have my environment running while the MacBook Pro was being serviced. In my office an older iMac could be taken away from its jobs of recording TV and handling one of the printers, and for the upcoming presentation I could borrow a laptop for the evening. This level of flexibility is one of the things I like about the Mac platform (and one of the reasons I've held on to the iMac).



I opened up the machine and removed the hard drives, swapping them with the drives from two external drive cases (which I had recently emptied and happened to be sitting on the shelf). The "new" drives were smaller in capacity, but that wasn't important. This does require some care and the right tools, but the repair guides at iFixit.com help a lot. My background in computers and camera repair do also give me a lot of confidence in delving "inside the box". Incidentally, I carry the appropriate tools for this when travelling, just in case something goes wrong with a hard drive.

It only took about half an hour to install bare-bones OS X onto the MacBook Pro's new boot drive and check that it still exhibited the audio problem (the Apple folk had in fact already booted off a USB test drive and reproduced the problem to check that it wasn't a software issue). So it was ready to head off for service, and I dropped it in to Apple at about 3pm.



Back in my office I was running along on the iMac. Mind you, this iMac is a lowly 2006 20" Core 2 Duo model with only 3 GB RAM, so it definitely wasn't going to be the same as running on the MacBook Pro. But with a simple Firewire 400-to-800 converter cable it was able to access all my external storage, and everything ran as expected. I hooked up the 24" monitor that's usually connected to the MacBook Pro, so I still had two monitors with lots of space to work in.

I didn't try to run any Adobe Creative Suite tools (they might have complained about not being activated on this machine and gone into trial mode, although that could be fixed) although I did run Lightroom. It's been a while since I ran a large Lightroom catalog on a machine this small, and I was seriously impressed at how well the latest version of Lightroom ran. My main catalog has over 113,000 images in it, and upon a request from a client I had no trouble finding a portrait from last year (I'm glad I'd keyworded all the corporate mugshots!) and exporting JPEGs to send to them. The machine did slow down as the RAM filled up, but it wasn't unbearable for the limited work I was asking it to do.

And then at about 5:30pm I got a call from Apple saying my MacBook Pro was finished and would be ready for pickup in the morning! So much for "3-5 days": it's nice when they under-promise and over-deliver.



The next day I picked up the laptop and transferred the hard drives back into it. Apple had reset the motherboard's serial number so most software will recognise it's the same machine as before, but the MAC address of the Ethernet port has changed. This address is used by Apple's own Time Machine to identify the backup drive associated with this machine (why don't they use the serial number?) but Snow Leopard simply asked if I wanted to re-associate the drive with this machine, and we were good to go! Note that I didn't hook up the Time Machine volume to the iMac as I wanted to avoid this issue.

All-in-all it was a remarkably painless process, and I'm quite happy with the level of support I'm getting from Apple. And I've got one less thing to worry about on my way to Svalbard!

Continue reading "Laptop non-saga"...

Monday, July 4, 2011

False-colour Infrared Photoshop action on Photoshop Exchange

Just a quick note: the Photoshop action I wrote some years ago for processing images from IR-modified cameras has been made available through Adobe's Photoshop Exchange.

It's always been available for free download: this is just a new location for it.
Note that the action is NOT intended to produce "IR-like" images from normal photos. You'll need an IR-modified camera with an IR filter that passes wavelengths shorter than 750nm or so.
I personally don't use the action much any more, since I tuned Lightroom and Adobe's Camera Raw to optimise these IR images. But it's still occasionally useful even when working from RAW files.


Infrared acacia, Serengeti (F1_50C6)
Continue reading "False-colour Infrared Photoshop action on Photoshop Exchange"...

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Photographers! Take care of your tripods!

Recently I helped one of my friends buy a used carbon-fibre tripod. Because it was local to me I was able to inspect it for them pre-purchase. This tripod (a Feisol CT-3442) had had little use since it was bought new last year and taken on last November's Odyssey to South Georgia and Antarctica, so I had some idea of how it had been treated. Overall it was in great condition, but I was surprised by the amount of grit in the lower joints. This had started to make slight scratches on the lower leg sections. I ended up disassembling and cleaning the tripod before posting it to my friend, and I'm confident it has a long and productive life ahead of it. But it's a reminder that all photographers should take good care of their gear, and clean it regularly.

Cleaning tripod joints is quite easy. The exact procedures depend on the design, but the concept is the same. Loosen the joint enough that the whole leg section comes away, take it apart and wipe everything down (if you manage to leave the grease on any exposed threads you can avoid having to re-grease them with the right lubricant, so don't put them down in the dirt!) and then reassemble.

The twist joints as used on the Gitzo and Feisol tripods have some plastic bushings inside which you need to clean and then replace in the right order, so take careful notes when you're removing them! The Feisol ones have sets of plastic rings in each joint as well: pay attention!

The latches such as those on some Manfrotto tripods often have an extra bolt that needs to be loosened to allow the joint to come away from the outer/upper section (you need tools to do this, unlike the twist joints). Reassembling these can involve a bit of fine-tuning to get the tension of the latch to where you like it, but it's worthwhile.

Because we often don't extend the tripod legs completely (unless we're very tall and/or the tripod is relatively short) it's often tempting to leave the lower leg sections until last when setting up the tripod. There's certainly a little truth to the story that the lower leg sections are the least stable (they're thinner, after all) than the upper ones, but if that lowest joint ends up sitting in the mud you're making more maintenance work for yourself (or if you don't clean them: shortening the life of your equipment).

I don't think this issue with cleaning is specific to this brand or model. I have a small Feisol CT-3402 which I use as my "travel" tripod, a large Gitzo GT3541XLS which is my "workhorse" tripod (it's a pleasure to work with!) and an old Manfrotto aluminium monopod. They all occasionally get cleaned like this, especially after "extreme" outings. However the Gitzo "G-Lock" joints do have fewer components and this does help both in keeping them dirt-free and in cleaning them.

Incidentally my monopod/tripods all have "4-section" legs, mainly to reduce the size of the collapsed device and make it easier to transport. Over the years I have developed the habit of usually extending the lower leg section even if only by a few centimetres, and I'm sure this has helped reduce the amount of mud/poo/water/salt/sand the joints have been exposed to. When possible I also try to wipe down the legs before collapsing them, as I'm conscious that whatever's on there will be drawn up through the joints.

If I've been using my tripod at the coast or in a river and the water level's been above the joints, then it's likely that water and other contaminants has got inside. This doesn't stop me using the tripod in those conditions, but it does mean I try to clean it as soon as possible afterwards!



Why was this friend keen on getting a tripod? Possibly because I carry and use one a lot, but also because last month while I was teaching a class near the Hunter Valley we stayed up late and took star-trail photos. That's pretty hard to do without a tripod (those nights they borrowed my CT-3402).

Actually, that time we didn't have a lot of success because of clouds blowing across the sky (giving the trails a "dashed" appearance) but the previous weekend on my Travel Photography workshop in Gippsland (yes, there was a bit of travel last month) we managed a few, including this:


Star trails (A2_076501)
The trees are lit by nearby streetlights: this was taken from the lawn outside our accommodation.
These trails are only about 40 minutes long.


Star trails plus obscuring clouds (A2_076502)

Continue reading "Photographers! Take care of your tripods!"...

Friday, July 1, 2011

EOS firmware updates and card speeds

Recent firmware updates from Canon (check out the appropriate model at Canon's websites and look in the Downloads or Drivers & Software sections) for several cameras promise to "Improve the writing/reading speeds when using UDMA 7-compatible CF cards". Having earlier published some speed results for the EOS 7D and 5DmkII cameras (my workhorse bodies) it was an obvious step for me to re-test after updating.



The Belt of Venus
Dusk off the coast of Patagonia (A2_074532)
The end result? Na-da. No noticeable change in speed with my cards.

This isn't really surprising, as I have no UDMA 7 cards. The only such card I'm aware of is the 128 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro (advertised as a "100 MB/s" card). Given that B&H [affiliate link] currently sells this card for US$1150, I don't think this is an issue I have to worry about just yet.

In any case, I gather from some fine print at one of Canon USA's sites that these cards won't be significantly faster than my current cards:
With these updates, the 1D Mark IV’s and 5D Mark II's card-writing speed for UDMA 7 CF cards is about 3.3 times faster than it was with earlier firmware versions. However, even with the new firmware, the cameras’ card-writing speed is about the same for both UDMA 7 and UDMA 6 CF cards.
Sounds like there was a bug in the earlier handling of UDMA 7 cards...
Continue reading "EOS firmware updates and card speeds"...

Mornington, here I come

On Thursday the 7th of July I'll be in Mornington talking to the Mornington Peninsula Camera Club's monthly meeting. The purpose of my visit is as a photo judge, providing feedback and critique (and picking "winners") on their monthly competition. I will also be showing a small set of my own photographs and talking about them.


Talking to local photo clubs is a fairly regular activity for me. In May I visited Shepparton Camera Club (and gave a talk on Antarctica to a class at Goulburn Valley Grammar School the next day) and in June I visited the Preston Photographic Club and the Diamond Valley Photographic Society (as well as running a weekend travel photography workshop for the Coal Country Camera Club in Gippsland). Sometimes these visits are for competition judging and photo feedback, sometimes they're just to educate club members about various topics. I'm also a member at Knox Photographic Society.

If you're interested in meeting up with other photography enthusiasts, drop by a nearby club some time and "try them on for size". Each group has their own slightly different community feel, and you won't know if you'll fit in until you try. In most areas there are several camera clubs available (especially in big cities where you can just go to a nearby suburb).

If you're in the Mornington area on the 7th and you come along, please introduce yourself!
Continue reading "Mornington, here I come"...