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Lytro – Misunderstood but with promise

March 8th, 2012 No comments

There’s been a lot of buzz about the Lytro light field camera and with buzz comes inevitable confusion and misunderstanding.

I’ve been watching this technology since I first heard about Lytro many months ago and while I can’t justify the expense of buying the hardware yet, I was and remain extremely intrigued. The problem is that there’s a lot of what I perceive as ‘missing the point’ in how much of the online photo community is reacting to it. One of my favorite photography blogs, Scott Bourne’s  Photofocus features a post there now that addresses a lot of the misunderstandings he and I both see on the web about Lytro.

There’s also something he and I seem to be differing on and he’s called me out on Twitter for having an “agenda”. In part this post is for Scott to better understand what I have been unable to say in 140 character chunks but it’s mostly about the bigger picture, so to speak, with Lytro.

Let’s start with what Lytro is. The best way to do that is to read this from Lytro  themselves to explain it. The link to the CEO’s dissertation is also worth reading, even skimming if you prefer not to get too deep into math and optics to understand better how it works.

There are a few key points the above will make clearer so please, have a read and come back.

Read up? Ok, good, thanks. Here we go. The key points I see as being misunderstood by the web photo community in general.

First, light field needs a lot more pixels than you will see in a final image. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s not a ‘flaw’ it’s simply a fact of the technology. The issue is now, with this first product, the final output size of the images is not comparable to what you would get from a similarly priced camera. That’s fine. A similarly priced camera can’t be focused after the fact either. People wrongly compare the low resolution output images to comparably priced or even cell phone cameras and, I think profoundly miss the point. More on this below.

Two, it’s a first product offering and it’s offered as a consumer product. Again, not a problem. It means Lytro can evolve the product and may even manage to do so for customers who already own the hardware. One should never buy a product based on the promise of a future update but a reasonable hope there are such updates in the offing sure is nice and Scott is a reliable source in my experience.

But, even with new features, perhaps even improved image performance in the main area this release seems to fall short, low light, the hardware is inherently limited in this *first* consumer product. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it. It’s cheep compared to a professional DLSR and one or more good lenses. It’s not intended to be, nor is it a good use of what makes it special to compare its value based on the pixel count of the output files or the spec sheet of a comparably priced camera. There’s something unique here. Something new but, again, more on that below.

What both of these things mean is that this will start, we hope , to get a lot more interesting as time goes by. Light field photography has enormous potential. It has limitations. It has artistic constraints. Constraints are good. They change creativity. Depth of field and how it’s used in composition with focus are limitations of traditional photography that have been the basis of spectacular art. The lack of predetermination of focus and depth of field at capture time adds a new creative dimension and more important, to me, is that the viewer of the image can be empowered to interact.

Lytro’s player provides interactive interface to let the viewer change focus, and, perhaps, in future, depth of field is a new limitation, a new opportunity for the photographer. How do you compose an image where you empower the user to change it as they view it? What do you have to do differently as an artist when you let the viewer engage, when the expectation, the requirement is that you create an image that you know will be used this way? It gets interesting and that’s good!

Years ago, I was interviewed about how I and my then colleagues used another form of photography that allowed the user to interact, to alter what they saw of a photograph. Some of those same ideas apply here and I think Light Field and Lytro will bring a new means of expression to the photographer. I think this is great. Every medium has limitations and often the more interactive the medium the more interesting and challenging it is to do something compelling by using those limitations.

In a Twitter conversation about the following concern, Scott Bourne thought I had an agenda in asking a question I still don’t know the answer to. He’s right. I do. It’s nothing nefarious though. It’s very simple.

I asked Scott if he knew if the Flash application that let viewers of the images interact with the selective functionality made possible with Lytro’s tech had to be hosted at Lytro’s site. By all indications, yes that appears to be the case and that concerns me, a lot. While the Lytro desktop application will let the photographer use selective focus and publish a static image from the source light field image captured by the camera, it seems one must host one’s images at Lytro to publish and share images that allow the viewer to interact. If this is true, this is a problem for two major reasons.

First, editorial. Lytro would take a business risk acting as the publisher of images that may be controversial. The artist should be able to decide how far to push the boundaries of ‘good taste’ (within the limits of the law) and if they want to publish work in the tradition of Andres Serrano rather than Ansel Adams they should be able to do so without concern that Lytro’s business needs preclude them being comfortable hosting the images. Lytro’s Terms Of Use:  indicate that Lytro, wisely, retains the right to decide if images they host are ones they are comfortable with.

Second, business. There’s more to read at that terms of use link above but the current state of affairs, and what I was asking Scott about, would indicate that photographers currently need to rely on Lytro to host images in the Lytro ‘light field picture player’ (A flash app). This has the obvious risk that, should Lytro change their business model, perhaps charge for hosting add advertising or, though Scott reassures me they have plenty of funding, fold or sell out, then the photographer’s images may not be available, or available the same way with the same interactivity in future.

There’s reason to hope right in those same terms of use. Lytro makes reference to approved players and my hope is they release an open source player for their images. They can do this without compromising their IP rights to the light field imaging technology and in doing so, they’d reassure photographers investing not the trivial cost of the camera but the priceless value of their artistic efforts invested in creating images they wanted users to be able to interact with.

This is hardly the last word on this topic and all I seek to do here is start a conversation. Hopefully get Scott and other talented photographers thinking about the interactivity and Lytro to think about opening up what’s needed for people to host their images themselves.

P.S. It should be obvious, I hope, that light field photography, the ability to change focus after the fact is also a possible boon to other non-artistic endeavors from security to manufacturing quality control and machine vision applications. Light field moving from research paper to reality could be huge and Lytro could be a very smart place to invest.

 

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D800 First Impressions

February 15th, 2012 No comments

It’s not shipping yet. Firmware isn’t final yet. There’s even a lot of confusion about what the damned thing even is. All that said, as an ecstatically happy Nikon D700 owner, here’s why I will, barring disaster, be buying a D800.

Why do I love my D700? It’s a “Pro” body. Why do I care about a “Pro” body?

It’s the handling.  What does this really mean? It means you’re never three menus deep trying to get off a shot. It means you have a readily accessible button for damned near anything you’d want to change on the fly. It has a magnesium chassis and rubber covered grip surfaces making it feel better and be easier to hand-hold without camera shake. Real ‘pro’ bodies (f5, D1, D2, D3, D4) have built in vertical grips for access to command dials, a second shutter release and more as well as a Jay Leno chin’s worth of space for larger (or more) batteries.  The D700 is a ‘gripless’ body with the option of a really good screw on vertical grip. Historically, add on vertical grips have been fiddly, plastic and not well integrated with the rest of the camera. Not so the MB-D10 for the D700. I can have essentially all of the portrait orientaion handling of a D3/D4 pro body if I want to, or unscrew the grip and have a leaner, lighter and less imposing body  to carry around and attract less attention. Yes, many bodies offer these add-on grips but the MB-D10 (D300(s)/D700) and, presumably, MB-D12 (D800) bolts on and blends in like it’s part of the body. The grip can also take AA batteries!

It’s the viewfinder. What does that really mean? It means you have a huge, bright marvelous optical finder to look through. That finder takes diopter correction lenses that *stay on* (I correct my viewfinder to let me shoot without glasses and I can’t do that without pegging the diopter adjustment and adding a corrective lens.)

All of these benefits are almost impossible to fully appreciate until you hold and spend quality time experimenting with a camera. With the exact same image quality (and that’s rarely the case), a “pro” body will be easier to use, more reliable, more flexible and become an organic extension of your eyes and hands. They also hold resale value better (though bodies depreciate faster than lenses by far). You read the specs, you see the weight, you think “big deal, so what”. That the feel, the handling is so important yet so hard to describe is one of the many reasons you want to maintain a relationship with a really good local camera shop. A chance to really handle, try out, perhaps even rent this gear is what you get when you have a good shop you can visit. It should go without saying that this means buying stuff from this camera shop. Not just going in and test driving and going home to order online. Build a relationship. That means learn who works there who knows things, you’d be surprised how different an employee at a real camera shop is than some kid in a blue polo shirt at a big box store. Real photographers work at pro camera shops. They can and often enjoy teaching you things. If you show them respect, actually buy things there, you will find you may get a call when something you have been waiting to see comes in. You will find they can be honest with you about where they can, and can’t discount and how much. Show them you value you them, need them. Buy things from them. Don’t be afraid to ask “Hey, is it still helpful if I buy these ten (often higher margin) accessories from you but grab the body at BH because they have it in stock?” Be honestly willing to support them and you can be sure they’ll still be in business when you need them. Plus, they often run rental shops, sell used gear, can help you sell your used gear and in the case of my personal favorite local shop, have studio facilities you can rent out for your bigger projects.  I can’t stress this enough, build a relationship. Saving twenty bucks by trying theit demos and buying online is short sighted self defeating in the long term and, frankly, downright dishonorable. Hell, saving a hundred bucks can be stupid if it’s going to mean they won’t be there when you crack a filter and need help getting it off. (My personal favorite ‘real humans work there’ camera shop is E.P Levine, or as I am known to call them “Eeeps!” if you live in the Boston area, are serious about your photography and don’t shop there, you’re missing out in a very, very big way. Yes, I know the owners, yes I’m biased. I also happen to be right. Just go….oh,…and they sell online and have a constantly updating used inventory too.)

It has features most people don’t even know matter because they don’t shoot on a tripod, (or a good enough tripod). Shutter release delay to avoid shake from mirror slap. A lever-operated shutter blind to keep light leaking in from the finder and mucking with metering when your face isn’t mushed up against the finder doing the masking.

It has a screw cam that can drive older non-AFS lenses.

It has a pop-up flash. Do I *use* that flash as a flash? Almost never. Do I use it as an Infra-red trigger for an off-camera flash? Often. Very often. Is it nice to have it there for a bit of fill when I don’t have a flash? Damned skippy!

It’s also FX. Why do I care about FX? There are more and better lenses available for FX that go, in my case, back to 1980’s vintage lenses.  FX feels ‘natural’ to me. When I see the world, I can, having learned photography an all manual on 35mm film Pentax Spotmatic my mother was kind enough to lend me, see how a shot will frame at a given focal length. I don’t need to remember my 50mm will frame like a 75mm. I don’t need to think “oh, and my ability to isolate subject from background with depth of field is different too”.

It’s really, really good in low light. How good? It eats film’s lunch. You can get effectively noiseless images at ISO 1600 and damned nice ones even at 3200. At 6400? The shot you’d never have bothered taking 5 years ago can be had and cleaned up in post to acceptable quality.

The autofocus is fast. The metering is stellar. Nikon’s CLS /iTTL flash system is shockingly good. It is, for all intents and purposes, a D3 for half the money with more flexibility.

All these things are what I love, love, love about my D700. I hated my D1. I hated my D2h because they just couldn’t touch film in terms of quality despite being beautifully made, I love my D700. It is, for me, the camera that stopped me pining for the money and time to shoot more 35mm film. That’s not to say, at all, that film doesn’t continue to have value but I just can’t justify the cost and slower feedback loop I get shooting film. I improve faster as a photographer with digital because I see the results of my mistakes sooner and can learn and adapt with immediate re-enforcement I just can’t get waiting even a day for processing film. Also, if you consider digital post artistically valid (and I do) you can have all you’d have had with 35mm film and more. (Note that I stipulate 35mm film and not medium or lager formats. Larger film formats are a different best altogether.)

Why do I want a D800?

100% viewfinder coverage.

It has two card slots. Sadly, one of them is an SD card but I get backup in the camera if I want it.

I get a dedicated Bracketing Button

Better auto-focus when I attach a teleconverter and lose a stop and a half of light (depth of field doesn’t change) 1.7x more reach making my 70-200 into a 119-340.

But, and here’s where the “barring disaster” kicks in, I also get a roughly 15mpx DX body at the same time!

If I want that “DX reach”, I can crop in like mad and still have 15 mega pixels worth of resolution. Why do I say barring disaster? Higher pixel density, all other things being equal, comes with the penalty of inferior noise performance and especially at high iso.

The question is, are all other things equal? Well, early indications looking at the sample images are that things aren’t equal. The sample files I have seen online so far suggest the D800 will be no noisier than a D700. Advances in sensor technology and in camera processing seem to have worked magic. Will it be as good in low light as a D3s? I’m guessing no. Do most people need a camera that can shoot in the dark like the D3s can? No. Does my eye *expect* to be able to shoot in the dark using the ‘mental map’ I cling to based on experience with film? No. The hi-iso performance of a D700/D3 is really, really good. Better than film. (Some argument might be made about the potential dynamic range of film vs digital in the hands of an extremely skilled photographer. The same can be of the aesthetic charms of grain vs this hideousness of noise. There are also important considerations about archival media. All these points are valid. I’m not, and I am pretty sure most of you aren’t a good enough photographer to make them most of them matter in a meaningful way. I do know this, shooting more with a DSLR and really thinking about what you learn has made made me a better photographer for all the reasons above.)

The D800 looks to be just dandy in low light and, when it’s not, I if I don’t need to crop, I can scale. When I scale down to D700-class 12 megapixels, I get noise reduction for free as the noise is averaged out in the down-sampling. Will all my uncharacteristic optimism about the hi-iso peformance prove valid? I won’t know until the camera is shipping but sure looks like, barring disaster, the D800 will match a D700 in noise performance which, for me, is plenty good enough!

With both my trusty D700 and a new D800, I have my tele body and my wide body. A day with fewer lens swaps, a backup, long continued good use from my D700 and a new class of opportunities that come when, since I can’t afford, or carry, a 500mm lens I can use a TC more freely and get the option to crop to DX (or tighter) and FINALLY get a good shot of that hawk that lives in my neighbor’s tree.

Side note: I hold the heretical belief that DX is a dead-end format for lenses. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to buy them or even that there won’t be more new ones introduced. There will be DX bodies for the foreseeable future as ‘hobbyist’ products but, if you’re going to invest in a DSLR and the ‘system’ that goes with it because you are, or aspire to be a pro, you’re basically nuts to buy DX glass. An un-popular view I’m sure but I’ve bought and then sold exactly one DX lens. (I don’t even remember what it was exactly. I bought it when I had a D2h because there were no wide-enough-angle FX lenses I could afford.)

Mirrorless has been coming for a long time and it is, now, finally coming into its own. If you want cheaper, smaller, lighter kit, you’ll end up wanting a mirrorless system. After enjoying a mirrorless system, you may decide you want to upgrade to the larger sensor size and optical TTL viewfinder you get when you choose a DSLR and an inexpensive DX body might be a good way to start but, if you do, you’d be unwise invest heavily in DX glass.

You’ll outgrow your DX body eventually. The high resolution of the D800 was inevitable. The desire for ‘a body with DX reach’ is or, if the D800 falls short, will be irrelevant. You’ll want your investment, the largest and most long-term part of your investment in photo gear to be in FX glass. I own nine, ten if you count the teleconverter, FX lenses. The resale value holds up well. The used market is good. (I have lenses I’ve used since I got my first Nikon, an N8008 film body) . The cost of glass, as a function of my total investment in photo gear, is the lion’s share. Sure, want some lighter, slower DX lenses to let you explore focal lengths you might not otherwise invest in? Geat! Want something lighter or cheaper? Fine! But to make a significant and growing investment is a ‘set’ of DX lenses is, for lack of a kinder word, loopy.

Oh? Video, yeah, the D800 shoots video and early buzz it will kill in that market vs Canon’s current offerings. I don’t care. You might.

Some links:

Rob Galbraith on the D800

Cliff Mautner on the D800 (with some stunning example shots) two links: The Nikon D800!!!! and A Few More Features To Point Out.

The Nikon Imaging D800 Page

Also see Thom Hogan’s bythom.com.  He doesn’t make his ‘news articles’ easy to link directly to but there’s lots of good stuff to be read on topics discussed above.

Chris Foreseman’s D800 article at Ars Technica. I won’t telegraph the title too obviously here but it’s an insightful piece. Some of the comments thread are bozo-liscious which is always fun.

Expect more on this later. Also, D800 vs D80oE? I don’t know yet which but don’t whine the E costs more money. Nikon aren’t removing a part and charging more, they are changing a part and charging more. There’s good reason to believe will be a the lower volume product and, as such, there are inherent costs involved. Don’t whine! It’s not the same as charging you too much for a remote shutter release. Whine about that, that’s a fair complaint.

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Macworld|iWorld thoughts and reminiscences

February 1st, 2012 No comments

Macworld|iWorld thoughts and reminiscences

There are several great articles reviewing last week’s Macworld|iWorld and I would urge you to read these two in particular:

Christopher Breen of Macworld.com’s “Macworld Expo is dead, long live Macworld | iWorld

And Ted Landau, of The MacObsserver’s “Macworld | iWorld Reinvents Itself

To those, I’d like to add this:

This year’s Macworld|iWorld was, and will be marvelous to me because it reminded me of QuickTime Live!

QuickTime Live! was managed by Paul Kent, the same person who’s been in charge of Macworld content for IDG for several years. QuickTime Live! was the drop-dead-best trade show experience I have ever had.

QuickTime Live! was a small event held, if I recall correctly, for three years before it was merged into and ultimately digested by WWWDC.

Sure, there were ‘vendor-driven’ how-to sessions (and some good ones too!) and there was an exposition hall with products and tools you could see, touch and discuss with their makers but the ‘expo’ was hardly the main thrust. The expo portion was sort of a ‘visual aid’ and a ‘chance to do some business’ but it was the sessions, the content and the social interaction that defined the show.

Sessions were great. Yes, some were WWDC-like in that they were ‘how-to’ sessions run by a tool-maker (including Apple). Sessions like those are important and happened and I think will continue to happen at Macworld|iWorld. But, and probably in part by dint of Apple’s QuickTime Team being smaller than Apple as a whole and, frankly, exceptionally kind and smart folk, there was a looseness, a comfort level in those sessions you rarely see at WWDC (except from Sal Soghoian  who always manages an epic, enlightening and endearing WWDC presentation)

WWWDC, is an Apple Developer Relations event. The conference is toeing the corporate line and has a *necessary* agenda about not just what but how. Apple isn’t typically inclined to get into matters of content and entertainment goals. They are there to teach and evangelize ways of working that advance the platform in specific ways. They are there to sell and teach at the same time. Apple’s WWDC audience is overtly the developer community and covertly the press and Wall Street. That’s not to say WWDC doesn’t have ‘fun’ but it’s always a managed sort of fun.

QuickTime Live! was special to me because the general thrust of the sessions was much more self-critical, self-effacing and, in many cases, driven by the theme of ‘project post mortem’. “Here was a project I worked on and here’s what I learned that might spare you some heartache” was the undercurrent of most of the sessions (and all of mine). People were honest about their experimentation. Presenters were keen to teach *and* learn.

QuickTime Live! (at its best) happened at The Beverly Hilton in LA and combination of Paul’s brilliant management setting the above general tone of the sessions and a quirk of architecture led to what I have called the “lobby bar phenomenon”.

The ‘lobby bar’ was just a bar with an adjacent ‘conversation pit’ where attendees used to informally convene share projects, ask advice, boast of success or admit failure. It was located in a way that, like Moscone West’s floor lobbies, all traffic had to flow past it.

The interaction in the lobby bar was social and it encouraged people to engage as peers. Yes there were parties. Yes there were Krispy Kreme Donuts in in the mornings but what happened there was an almost continuous collaborative conference session with fluid topics driven by what was just presented in a formal session moments before and what the community shared enthusiasm and interest in as it happened to just pop up. The communities and conversations formed around shared areas of interest and experience and they happened across industry, national and cultural boundaries.

QuickTime Live! was a profoundly special experience for me because it fostered meaningful community, knowledge sharing and a deep sense of camaraderie in the attendees. People I met taught me things, introduced me to people I later hired to consult on projects I was working on and, I hope, learned from the sessions I presented.

The QuickTime Developer community didn’t just go to see the latest toys and tools. We didn’t just go to take or teach a class in a technology or tool. We went to move relationships from virtual spaces (list-servs and web sites) to real face to face interaction. We went to spend time with like-minded people we liked and respected. We went to teach, learn and collaborate and have fun working. I do mean working. While there were parties at QuickTime Live!, they were hardly the main point.

We went with questions and came home with ideas.

The Macworld|iWorld I enjoyed this year embodied that spirit. You could feel it in the sessions, at the tables in each floor’s lobby at Moscone West. You could feel it at the musical performances, the art exhitions and at the sessions.

I saw people seated around tables in the lobbies really talking to each other. Saw them not just resting their pounding trade-show-feet or post Cirq Du Mac hangovers but talking, sharing, introducing each other . I ran into old friends, was introduced to new ones, connected with the faces to match the Twitter handles. I saw small companies showing their products. I was able to make designers and developers of those products smile genuinely when I told them what I loved about their products or react to what they demonstrated with feedback and ideas. I was able to ‘do some business’ on the show floor. I was able to discover new things. I wasn’t getting yelled at by Power Computing. I wasn’t getting ‘spun’ by Apple.

My session, though more sparsely attended than I liked,  had people with great questions.

I was there too briefly. I wanted more.

The way I see Macworld|iWorld evolving based on what I saw this year will move even more toward my QuickTime Live! ideal. I am really looking forward to next year!

Disclosure: I have been an attendee and usually speaker at Macworld Expo every year but one for close to twenty years. I was a speaker at all but the first QuickTime Live! and even did a ‘day keynote’. I’ve watched Macworld Expo show go from happening twice a year on the left and right coasts (and Japan and UK) to just once a year in San Francisco. I was there for the move from Boston to New York and back to Boston. I have been involved through at least two different management entities being in charge. I have had the good fortune to work pretty closely with Paul in the past and even served on his Macworld Expo Customer Advisory Board. I have ‘skin in this game’ and I care but I mean it… Macworld|iWorld was and will be something special.

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