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Petri Wessman's weblog

Scorchio!

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Even though it’s hard to believe it now, with rain drizziling down from a leaden sky, last weekend was “Scorchio!”-tastic around the Turku-Hanko seaside (Kasnäs, to be more exact). Even though there’s a lot of trip prep stuff to do, we decided to take the weekend off and go sailing for a few days on a friend’s boat (well, boat belonging to a friend’s parents, to be more exact). We drove down there Friday after work, arriving at the marina a bit after 9pm, after which we settled down for a quick onboard dinner and some drinks. The marina had wifi connectivity, which was a new feature for me even though I’m told it’s quite common nowadays. Somehow, sitting in a sailboat and browsing the web on a netbook was a bit strange. I got over it.

The next two days were hot. Unfortunately they were also a bit on the overly calm side, so we just motored around on Saturday. Sunday the wind had picked up a small bit so we unfurled sails and did some actual sailing. Nothin fancy, but it’s always more pleasant to move on windpower instead of marine diesel… at least when the weather is nice.

Good short trip, and it helped reduce pre-vacation stress levels a bit. Now we’re approaching the point where we actually have to start packing soon; so far we’ve just made checklists of stuff to bring and have done some shopping along the same lines. I got a new camera bag (well, two actually), a new carbon fiber tripod, a small Gorillapod, and some other stuff. Photowise I should be all set now, and I also tested the workflow from CF card to card reader to netbook (Lightroom) to home workstation (Lightroom with some actual processing power). Seemed to work fine. Also cleaned the camera sensor (long overdue and cause for angst on previous Lapland trip) and updated the camera firmware to latest.

It’s always the same thing before a long trip abroad. The few weeks before are hectic; you try to tie up loose ends at work, you try to think of all you’ll need, you try to finish off the most critical parts of your “todo” list. Once you actually get on the plane things lighten up, before that it’s always a bit of a hassle. All this is magified a bit, since we need to do some “extreme packing”: first we go hiking in Iceland, in an area in which there is a real possibility of snow even at this time of year. Then we go to the Nevada desert and Burning Man, where temperatures around +40C are quite possible. Oh, and everything needs to both fit in the airplane loggage allowance and be as portable as possible. We have some experience at this already so it’s not as bad as it could be… but it still needs quite a bit of planning. This will also be the first actual field test for our new high-tech Hilleberg Nallo 3 GT tent, both in Iceland and at Burning Man. If our trusty Terra Nova Ultra Quasar has managed Burning Man, the Hilleberg should too. But we’ll see.

Back in from the cold

We’re back, more or less in one piece. Was a great trip; even though I was initially a bit sceptical of the idea of camping in subzero temperatures for a week, it turned out to be very cool (pun intended). Nice physical workout too – even though our daily distances weren’t much worth mentioning, the act of skiing with a backpack on your back is work in of itself. It was a strange and somewhat alien feeling to find out that you can both survive and be quite comfortable while camping out on an icy plain, in temperatures that would kill an unprotected person fast. As long as you have proper equipement and know what to do, you don’t have a problem.

In total, we slept 4 nights out in the wilderness in a tent and 2 in wilderness huts. The first “hut stop” wasn’t an intended one; we originally intended just to stop there for lunch and then soldier on, but then Janka’s ski binding suddenly broke (in a non-fixable fashion) and our stay became an overnighter. The hut (which thankfully was close by at that point) was out of GSM range, so we sent a written note back to Kilpisjärvi via some snowmobile-equipped visitors and hoped for the best. Lo and behold, the next morning the Border Guard guys came along and dropped off a pair of skis plus ski boots, obtained from the Kilpisjärvi Travel Center (Retkeilykeskus). Wow, that’s both “my tax dollars at work” and damn good service. A huge thanks to both parties, and also to the couple who carried our note back.

Things I learned:

  • winter/arctic camping is actually quite fun, assuming you have good gear and good company
  • despite what some claim, for a beginner it’s not easier to ski with a backpack as compared to a pull-along sled (“ahkio”, in Finnish). The weight of the backpack made ski control a lot more tricky than it needed to be, and during difficult descents my legs tired very fast – and the backpack wasn’t even that heavy, 18kg or so.
  • always remember to check camera lens for dirt after each day of shooting. Didn’t do it this time, and as a result I have a lot of nasty splotches in the raw “footage” that ends up consuming a lot of post-processing time.
  • even though it’s not a pro body, our trusty Canon 20d performs well in subzero extended stays, too. A week in arctic temperatures and 300+ pictures: no problems, and no need to swap batteries. Impressive.
  • next time I’ll take along an extra pair of “technical” long underwear. Even though I did ok with just one, baing able to switch to a clean set halfway through would have increased my comfort level.
  • wool-padded winter (rubber) boots plus thick wool socks rock for camp footwear.
  • next time I’ll probably want to have my own set of skis, preferably with some (small) telemark-suitable site cuts. The borrowed set I had along now performed fine, so this is more of a “tweak” than anything else.
  • The Kilpisjärvi area of Lapland has pretty awesome scenery.

All things considered, a huge success (cue “Portal song” here). Even though I guess it goes into the “extreme camping” category, the trip felt like a wonderful vacation and I feel mucho relaxed now. Seeing how we were all already talking about “next time” after the trip, I think everyone felt pretty much the same way.

The weather was (mostly) fantastic. Almost too hot in the beginning, it dropped to a wonderful “few degrees below zero” for the rest of the week. The coldest temperature we recorded was -16C one night just before crawling into the tent to sleep. That started to be a bit on the chilly side, but not too bad. The final day was very windy, and our last few kilometers of travel were done in the middle of a honest snow storm; visibility in the 20m department and wind howling. Fun at that point, but would have been a lot less fun further out in the field.

Huge thanks to Timo for both the initial idea and for being the “winter camping expert” of the expedition – and for being a great field chef, as always. Our pizza and lasagne (made in a camp cooker oven thingy) in the middle of the wilderness raised more than a few eyebrows and got us some envy points.

I’m still working of doing post-processing for the pictures, but a small selection from the first 3 days is available now. I took a lot of handheld HDR pictures, using the 20d’s auto-bracket feature (+/-2 EV). Some pretty nice results, though the dirt on the lens I mentioned forced me to do a lot of post-proc work – and some of those still need more tweaking later on, you can still see artifacts here and there that I want to clean away at some point. Still, for handheld HDRs I though some of the results were quite acceptable.

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Web photo galleries

I’m not really happy with Gallery. The built-in themes either look crappy or are full of bugs (or both), the permission system is confusing and seems to work in a wonky fashion, and it has way more functionality than I really need or want.

Anyone know of any alternate software for running a web photo gallery? I’m reluctant to try Flickr, for a variety of reasons, I’d rather host photos on my own server. I don’t need much special functionality, just something that looks at least decent and is usable – both of which are quite subjective things, of course.

Maybe I’ll just have to roll my own, if nothing else surfaces. Or play around some more with Gallery, to see if I can get it to act more to my liking.

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Photography and Lightroom

I’ve always liked photography, but haven’t done much of it for ages even though we are starting to have a very nice “prosumer” kit; I guess it’s one of those things that comes and goes. Lately I’ve started dabbling in it again, partly because Burning Man is coming up and one of my favorite things there has been walking around with a camera – there’s just so much to photograph. And no, I don’t mean the naked chicks…

Another thing that has woken me up is the introduction of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Up to now I’ve used the tried and true “file pictures in folders, and use Gimp to process them” workflow. It works (though I’d use Photoshop if I had access to a copy), but… as anyone knows who has done any amounts of this, it’s a pain. Lots of separate programs involved, cumbersome viewing and selecting of pictures you want to keep, etc etc. It’s doable, but not fun. And now, probably in response to Apple’s Aperture, Adobe came out with Lightroom.

It rocks. Enough to make me seriously think of buying it, even though it requires me to work in Windows (don’t have a Mac yet) and even though it costs something in the ballpark of 250e. I’ve never paid that much money for software.

Adobe is a smart company and they provide a 30-day trial license + download of the full thing (no stupid “limited demo version” crap). It’s a smart thing to do, because once you start playing around with this thing you really don’t really want to go back to the old filesystem + Gimp/Photoshop hassle.

What makes it good? Lots of things, but they boil down to one thing: it has a user interface and functionality that is tailored to one specific thing, producing web/print -ready results from digital camera input. It also acts as a very nice image storage catalog, with keywords and other metadata allowing you to organize your pictures “virtually” in pretty much any way you want. On the processing side, it has all the image enhancement/processing tools you normally need and lots of exotic extras besides – sure, you’ll still need Gimp/Photoshop for very specialized stuff, but I suspect 99% of the time I can stay totally within Lightroom and get the results I want. As an additional bonus, Lightroom now includes some very nifty image enhancement tools (“clarity”, “fill lights”, etc) which would require either lots of manual work or add-on plugins in Photoshop. I’m just a hobbyist – but the fact that a lot of pro photographer workflow input has gone into the UI design here really shows.

There are too many good features to list, but I guess the best part is that everything is non-destructive, the originals are always kept untouched and all changes are layered on (and are undoable directly through a stack view of operations). This works for JPGs, too, not just RAW.

My workflow now is:

  • import new pictures from camera (via USB cable) into Lightroom, automatically adding some EXIF tags for copyright info etc.
  • use the Library view to scan through the images, marking obviously failed shots with a “reject” flag. After this is done, delete all images marked for reject.
  • go through the surviving images, mark the ones I want to display (i.e. work on) with a “pick” flag. When done, filter view to only show picks. This leaves me with a view with only my “want to work on these” pictures.
  • do white balance correction (incl black levels and possibly fill light), cropping/straightening, interactive HSL balance, clarity, vibrance, sharpening, and other fun tools. Maybe add some lens vigneting, as an effect.
  • when I’ve done with all the images, I select them and go to “export”, which dumps out scaled JPG copies to a separate folder.
  • the exported JPGs are uploaded to the gallery, and I’m done.

This is so much nicer than the old flow, especially since I can go back to the pictures whenever I want and add (or remove) some processing. The only bad part is needing to boot to Windows for this; sometime in the future I hope to have enough cash for a Mac OS X laptop which I could start using as my normal workstation. Oh well, one thing at a time.

I don’t have any documentation as such on Lightroom, but Lightroom Killer Tips has a pile of short training videos that demonstrate parts of the system. I watched them all, and it helped substantially in figuring out how the basic usage is supposed to go. For a “first look” impression of Lightroom 1.0 straight after beta you can read this, it goes through the major features. Lightroom is now at version 1.1, the upgrade brought some major improvements including image catalog import/export, a really cool ”clarity tool” plus versatile sharpening tools from Adobe Camera Raw 4.1 (this article gives an overview of how those work), and lots of nice tweaks here and there. For something with a “1.1” version number, this is one cool piece of software. Excuse my gushing here, but I’m rarely this impressed by software and it’s a joy to find something that really does what it claims to do, and does it well. I’m sure there are bugs and annoyances here, but I’ve yet to run into any even semi-serious ones. Oh, and it’s pretty fast, too (at least on my machine).

On a tangent: up to now I’ve used the best-quality JPG setting on our Canon 20d, and the results have been more than good enough for me. However, many photographers swear by RAW and claim it’s the only thing you should use… while some others basically say JPG is almost always better. I’ve yet to decide one way or the other, though I did try shooting in RAW last weekend. A few nice pictures, but I’m sure they would have been just as nice as JPGs. At the moment, I think I’ll stick with best-quality JPG for normal shooting, and switch to RAW when doing low-light shooting and other difficult lighting conditions (where the tiny extra bit of information lurking in RAW may help salvage borderline shots).

If anyone has any strong opinions on the RAW vs JPG debate, please let me know. Right now, it’s looking like using RAW is just a way of filling your CF card and hard drive up faster. Does it really give you extra benefits, when you take into account that new tools like Lightroom allow you to work non-destructively in JPG, too?

Oh, and I finally got around to testing our new and shiny 70-200mm 4.0 IS L. Wow. This thing is worth every penny, even though it costs quite a shitload of pennies. Frankly, this lens is way too good for my skill level… but I’m not complaining. The image stabilizier is a joy to use, the image just starts to float in the viewfinder and you can take handheld shots at surprisingly low shutter speeds. This tech works.

Our kit now consists of: Canon 20d, 50mm 1.4, 17-40mm 4.0 L, 70-200mm 4.0 IS L. If I take crappy pictures, there is no way I can blame the equipment.

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