Sunday, May 22, 2011

New Kid on the Block

Since 2006 I've been a loyal member of the Flickr community. It's been a great place to post my work, view and comment on others work and participate in discussions. I have long had a few gripes with a few things on the Flickr site, but what could I do? It's not like there was another quality photo community to go to. Sure there are other photo sites, but their "free" accounts were extremely limiting, or their look and feel left something to be desired.

Say hello to I hear they've been around since 2003, but somehow Id never heard of them till recently. I checked them out, opened a free account and gave them a test drive. My findings, highly impressive! You get more options with a free account than you do with most paid or "pro" accounts at other sites. But what really put a smile on my face was the sites layout. Everything about it is designed to present your work in the most eye catching manner possible. It even lets you create a portfolio slide show. It's really all quite beautiful and rivals some photographers official websites!

After setting up my account and uploading a few photo's, I began noticing a few things. As I browsed through other photographers galleries, I found there seems to be a high level of work across the board on 500px. It was very difficult to find anything that looked amateurish. Unlike Flickr, there were no profiles where they just used it as a "photo sharing" site and dumped their entire memories cards contents onto their account. No profiles with 5000 photos of a family reunion. No profiles with an endless stream of someone taking self portraits in a bathroom mirror. None of that non-sense, just jaw dropping, amazing photographs. In fact the quality seemed so much higher than most sites, I was very selective in what I choose to upload into my new gallery. The standard just felt... higher.

Now of course there are a few complaints with 500px and even a few notes they should take from Flickr. After all, Flickr didn't become the Goliath it is by accident. But it's their slowness to change or innovate which has led photographers like myself to be open to their options and try new sites. Ok, so here's a short list of dislikes.
  • Zero Photo Protection - All these beautiful photos are yours for the taking with a simple right click, "save as". Even Flickr puts an invisible layer over the photos which will only show up as a 1 x 1 pixel when you attempt that same technique. 500px MUST give photographers some options to protect their work. Many deny it but photo thieves are out there and are stealing photos daily. They will publish your work as theirs, they will create websites with your work, they will put together entire portfolios based on your photos if you don't do something about it. I use a light watermark across my photos. Some people say it detracts from the image. I'm fine with that because that's the same thing being said by the person trolling websites for that perfect image for their latest Ad campaign.
  • No Lightbox View - When I'm viewing someones 500px gallery, give me the option to go "lights out" and use my keyboard to move from one photo to the next. Its sleek, elegant and really lets you get into someones work. Not to mention looks great. Right now you have to manually click, click, click... ugg. Even Flickr has a series of keyboard commands to control and navigate their site. Its nice.
  • Lose the "Dislike" Button - People either click "Like" or just move on to the next photo. I feel like im giving someone a kick in the stomach by clicking "Dislike" before moving on. Not to mention, most photos are so nice I can't say i really dislike any of them. Anyhow, it just seems un-necessary. Save the dislike button for songs I can't get through on Pandora.
Ok, that's all I really have for dislikes about 500px. Im sure these are things they've already looked at and for all I know, might be rolling out soon. It seems like a rather young website still and changing fast. It also appears to be very popular with Russians. haha It seems like 3 out 5 profiles is written in Russian. Which is fine, their work is amazing. Just seems like a high ratio.

Overall is visually everything I wish Flickr was. I can see this website growing very quickly. It will be interesting to see if they continue to grow and improve, or stagnate like Flickr has now. I hope they grow and continue to really cater to photographers and not people who want "photo sharing". I was so impressed with what 500px has to offer it only took a quick search to find the promo code for $10 off their pro, or "awesome" account, bringing it to $40 for a year. I felt it was worth it, i'll give the site a year and see how I feel. Oh the promo code is friends. :)

So check it out, see what you think, see if it could fit your photography needs. You can check out my profile at

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Xoom, Xoom!


Where to start? Well, this is a Motorola Xoom. An Android tablet. There are a few Android tablets out now and I'd wanted one since the moment I saw them. I didn't think I'd be buying one quite so soon, but after stopping buy Best Buy for a hands on test drive I was sold. Most of these new tablets are running Android 3.0. Which ill say, is quite a bit different from the 2.x version currenly runing on Android phones. Its a bit more polished and optimized for tablets which really provides a nice experience. If you've used Android at all, 3.0 is even more intuitive and solid feeling. I've had the Xoom for one full week now and this is my opinion and review of the device.

The device has a 10.1 inch screen, dual-core 1ghz Tegra 2 CPU, 1gb of ram with 32gb of hard drive space, expandable to another 32gb via SD card. Really nice specs and actually tops the ipad2 in hardware terms. One of the key features I was happy to see was Motorolas choice to make the screen out of Gorilla Glass. This stuff is incredibly tough and practically scratch proof. So no need for one of those annoying stick on screen protectors. The Xoom is under half an inch thick, so its very easy to carry around. Its light but definitely feels solid and not like some cheap, plastic toy. I really like that it has a micro USB and HDMI out. Transfering files and music to the tablet is as easy as pluging it into your computer and dragging files over to it. The HDMI allows you to connect it to you TV and show movies or photos from it, to the TV. So cool. Do that, crApple. It has a 5mp rear camera with dual LED flash and 2 speakers. On the front its got a 2mp camera for vid chats.....but which doubles nicely as a mirror. :)

So, what do I really like about it? Actually lots! It's small, light weight, has an awesomely sharp screen and its fast. I was recently asked if this will totally replace my laptop? In short, no. But it does manage to replace about 80% of what I used my laptop for. Which is what I bought the Xoom to do. Things once handled by my laptop such as email, facebook, twitter, flickr commenting, web browsing and online shopping are now easily handled by the Tablet. But tasks such as working in Photoshop or Lightroom are really best left for a laptop/desktop where you have the precision control of a mouse pointer and a bit more graphic horse power. Not to mention those applications are not available for tablets at this date. But I do love the "instant on" of the Xoom tablet. Being able to hit the web, running in just 2 seconds is very nice. Another thing I like is that Adobe Flash is supported. So when you go to a website that uses Flash for parts of the page, you still see the page as it was meant to be seen. Things such as embedded video's work nicely. If your'e wondering about battery life, you'll be happy to hear its VERY GOOD. I can easily get a full day of tinkering and web surfing in one battery charge cycle. In fact the first few days I had the Xoom I was bringing it to work and doing lots of "show & tells" with it all day. By bedtime, I still had 35 to 40% battery life remaining. Nice! Now, movie watching can change that. When watching a movie I had the screen brightness really turned up and it did eat a good chunk of the battery. But that is expected. Overall I can carry the Xoom around with me during the day and leave the charger at home.

Now the question, is there anything I DON'T like about it? There are a few rough edges I'm sure will be addressed in time. I think my biggest gripe is Honeycombs (Android 3.0) webkit/browser. Using Facebook is a perfect example. The page loads, but using it is a major pain. You cannot close incoming chat windows. I click the X, but they just don't close. So I now have 5 old chats at the bottom of the screen I cannot get rid of. Frustrating. Typing in text fields are also slightly delayed. Now this only seems to happen on Facebook. Which leads me to think its something to do with the way the page is scripted. I haven't encountered this on any other website. Now, I did download the Opera browser from the Android Market and Facebook performed quite a bit better. Another option is to just use the Android Facebook app. Which works pretty well.

There are still a few bugs with some apps since weren't written for the tablet screen resolution. Some won't download to the tablet. Some will download but won't open. Some will open but crash when you try to use them. It's only a small percentage which do this and I'm sure it will improve in the months to come. I also found myself trying to download all the same apps I have on my Android phone. Then I realized I didn't need some of them. For example, my banking app. I no longer need an app for it. I can now just go to the website. Which really does work better.

Wrap up:
In conclusion, I absolutely love the Xoom tablet. The most common question people ask is 'how does it compare to the ipad'? Well, I chose this over an ipad so that should answer that question. You get more tablet for less money. I feel its a better device overall as well. Then again, I'm not sucked into the apple PR machine and tied to itunes. The Xoom does everything I need it to. I am a power user... not a beginner so I ask a lot of a device. Despite going through a few early adopter bumps with the first Android Honeycomb tablet, I see huge potential from the device.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Race Day!

Sling It

After a months wait, the weekend was finally here. I was headed up to Thackerville Oklahoma to shoot some photos of my good friend JB and his son in a cross country race series they participate in, known as the TCCRA. As the week came to a close, weather reports were all saying we were in for a good soaking the coming Sunday. Perfect. That was race day. Now, most people would dread the idea of doing any outdoor activity in the middle of a thunderstorm. But I knew cross country dirt bike racing takes on an all new dimension when you mix those bikes, with dirt and then throw in a little (or a lot) of water.

JB informed me his race was the first of the morning, starting at 9am. I accepted the reality that I would not be able to get myself out of bed early on a cold, rainy Sunday morning and drive 45 minutes north into Oklahoma to find a rural race track. So I decided to camp out with JB and his family in their RV, at the track. Wise decision on my part. Saturday evening was gorgeous. Warm temps, perfect sunset with clear skies. But at 4am I was awoken by the loud crack of thunder, followed by a torrential downpour which lasted all the way till the race start time. And with the rain came a cold front. Saturday's temperature was a balmy 85f. I stepped out of the RV camper and into windy 40f temps with monsoon-like passing rain showers. The rain held off just in time for the start of the event, which had to be delayed as they re-routed the course because some parts were impassable now.

Even though I had brought a few cold weather clothing items, I was woefully un-prepared for this change in temperature. I layered pretty much everything I brought with me and headed out with my camera gear. The race course was just as I suspected... a muddy quagmire which always makes for some amazing action photos, but would make for a challenging day for me as well. After being outside for just a few minutes, the rain started. I could only stand there thinking, this is going to be a long, cold wet, miserable day. It was just then that JB's wife Diana offered an extra rain poncho for me to use. THANK YOU!! Now I was able to prevent my clothes and camera gear from being soaked to the core. I then moved to the starting line and got on with my day of photographing the event. It's so much more easy to concentrate on the task at hand when you're not shivering and soaking wet.

Now, I want to take a moment for a bit of gear talk. My main equipment for the day was my Canon 7D, with an attached Canon BG-E7 battery grip. I only used two lenses all day, the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L and the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS. According to Canon all of these items are "Weather Sealed" which was actually a strong selling point for me when I first bought the 7D. But, I'd never truly put it to the test. Today was about to change that. By the end of the day I can honestly attest to the weather resistance of the camera body and lenses. I stood out there shooting in virtually non-stop rain, ranging from light drizzle to a complete downpour. I hid the camera under my rain poncho when not shooting. But it was fully exposed to the elements when I did shoot. I used the sleeve of my hoodie to wipe down the camera body when I could. But other than that, it was pretty much soaked. The 7D didn't even blink. No errors, no lock ups... it just worked. Even the next day after it all dried off, it still operated completely normal. It's a huge relief to know the camera can take that kind of punishment and not fail. So if you were ever wondering what exactly "Weather Sealed" meant, shooting in a steady rain, falls under that category.

As for my cameras set-up for the day, my goal was to freeze this high speed sport the best I could. I wanted to capture as much detail in the bikes, riders and flying mud as possible, but still use the telephotos lens to separate them from the background. For the most part, I kept the 7D set to Aperture priority mode. Focus mode set to AI Servo so it could track fast moving subjects and the drive mode set to high-speed burst. Although the 7D shoots a blazing 8fps, I really only shoot in bursts of 3 to 5 on average. From those shots I can usually pick out the one I'm looking for which best captures the moment. I kept my aperture at f/3.2 for most of the day. A lot of people seem to think you can only get a nice DoF by keeping the lens set on f/2.8. This isn't true with a telephoto and shooting at f/3.2 enabled me to lock focus on the bikes numberplate and get most of the bike and the rider in sharp focus. It also gets the aperture into a sharper range than the wide open f/2.8. But at the same time is a wide enough aperture to maintain a speedy shutter. Obviously, a high shutter speed was important in this type of motor sport and on this very cloudy and very overcast rainy day, I had to really bring the ISO up. I found the sweet spot to be ISO2000. This allowed me to keep a shutter speed of 1/1000 or better throughout the day. Because of the sport and the camera's ability, I wasn't really worried about digital noise which can come from shooting at a high ISO. I knew it would blend in well with the editing style I had in mind for the photos.

Images were shot in RAW and processed in Adobe Lightroom 3. I use a couple presets which I use as a starting point, then I tweak each image for the desired effect and adjust highlights, darks and color tones in order to try and capture the intense, gritty feel of off road racing in bad weather.

I actually left the event a little early. My pant legs were soaked from having no cover from the poncho. My hands were numb from not having any gloves and the rain showers were getting more intense. I had taken plenty of photos and I was just exhausted. After I got home I heard it started hailing before the end of the event. Glad I came home. :) Overall it was a blast to photograph. Big thanks to my friend JB and his wife for letting me crash in their RV the night before the race.

So long... until my next adventure!