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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.

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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