I was at the Virtual Futures conference over this last weekend and decided to take a camera and, purely for fun, try photographing the event. This process brought together a number of pieces of technology besides the camera itself, and when I sat down afterwards and thought about it I was amazed at how far photography has come since I was last seriously interested in it 10 years or so ago, when my camera still used film. This is best demonstrated by one particular photograph from the weekend…

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A little while ago I wrote about using close-up lenses as a possible cheap alternative to a macro lens. I was quite pleased with the results, but decided to try another cheap alternative – extension tubes. Essentially extension tubes move the lens further from the camera, allowing you to focus on objects closer to the lens, and therefore produce larger images. They have advantages and disadvantages over close-up lenses…

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I’ve always wanted to have a go at close-up photography, but never quite summoned up enough enthusiasm to shell out for a decent macro lens. Last week I came across a set of close up lenses on Amazon, for the bargain price of £8. Yes, £8. Clearly they aren’t going to be the highest quality, but for £8 I thought it was worth the risk. They might just be good enough to get me hooked, and enthusiastic enough to buy some proper kit!

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Eye-Fi Connect X2A little while ago I got an Eye-Fi card. My first impressions of it are here. The more I used it, the more useful I’ve found it. One thing I’ve found really useful is the ability to take photos on a real camera, edit them in various simple ways on my iPod Touch, and then post them online – Facebook, Twitter, etc. To do that, though I need a MiFi. The photos go from the camera up to Google’s Picasa (in my case, but could be one of many similar services) via the MiFi. I then download them from Picasa onto my iPod, tweak as necessary and post. The ability to do this out in the field, without the need for a “proper” computer, is more useful than I expected. The iPod, and moreso an iPad if only I had one, is a pretty handy photo editing device when fed with decent resolution images. The only downside is the need for the MiFi. Mobile broadband isn’t always hugely fast, and sending high resolution images through it several times eats up my monthly data allowance pretty quickly. But things have just changed…

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Follow-up to Playing with an Eye–Fi card from Steve’s blog

Yesterday, I thought I understood the Eye-Fi architecture. The Eye-Fi card connects to your PC if it can, and transfers images to the Eye-Fi Center software running there, and from there images go the various online sharing services you’ve configured. If it can’t connect to your PC, the images stay on the camera until it can. And if you want to operate without a laptop, Eye-Fi have a hotspot service you can buy (£25/year) that allows that.

At least, that’s what I thought yesterday. A little experimentation last night and this morning has disproved all that, though. I configured my Eye-Fi to connect to my MiFi, and discovered that with my PC off images still end up in Picasa and in Eye-Fi’s own online storage system, and are eventually delivered to the PC when it is turned on. But that’s what I thought the hotspot service was.

The more expensive cards come with a year’s hotspot service bundled. Mine isn’t one of those. Perhaps it has it by mistake? If any other Eye-Fi users have any idea what’s going on, do please let me know! In the meantime, I’ll continue enjoying functionality I didn’t realise was there…

Writing about web page http://www.eye.fi

I was a keen photographer many years ago, but when kids came along I didn’t have time to keep up with it as a serious hobby. Consequently my recent photography kit has been from the, er, consumer end of the spectrum. Recently, though, my eldest has developed an apparently quite serious interest in photography and we have, between us, invested in a digital SLR – a Sony Alpha A500.

Alongside this, I’ve been researching lots of peripheral kit (any excuse to play with gadgets:-) and one thing that caught my eye was the Eye-Fi card. This is an SD memory card with WiFi built-in, which essentially adds WiFi capabilities to almost any digital camera. After a little bit of research and conversations with a few people that have one, I’ve finally taken the plunge and bought one. There’s a range of cards that provide different capabilities. I bought the most basic one – the 4GB Connect X2.

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I’ve been a big fan of Autostitch for ages now. I’ve always found creating panoramas by hand very difficult and extremely time consuming, so I never really got into it. Autostitch automates the whole process. You just throw a collection of photos at it and it does the rest. You don’t even need to tell it the order – it figures that out by itself and does all the blending for you to hide the joins. There are times when it doesn’t do a brilliant job but most of the time it does at least as good a job as I could have done by hand, and it does it far faster and with almost zero effort.

Then along came the iPhone version and I bought it instantly. I didn’t really expect it to do such a good job as the Windows version but actually I’ve been surprised at how good it is. Here’s a quick comparison. These two panoramas were created from the same set of three images taken in the iPhone. The first was done by autostitch on the iphone itself and the second by autostitch on Windows:

iPhone version

Windows version

It is actually quite hard to choose the better of those two. They each have good and bad points. Fairly obviously the Windows version hasn’t managed to blend the exposures very well. Because I was shooting into the sun, and the iPhone camera is completely automatic, the exposures were not consistent across the three images. The iPhone version of autostitch has handled that very well while the Windows version has pretty much failed miserably. I could even the exposures by hand first to help it out, and the result would then be much better.

However, the Windows version has matched the images up much better. If you click on the images to zoom in, you’ll see quite a lot of ghosting on the iPhone version where the separate images haven’t been properly matched up. I guess that’s where all the processing work is needed, and so where they’ve cut a few corners to get the iPhone version working at an acceptable speed. I hope they improve this in future as it really is the whole point of autostitch in the first place!

The other disappointment with the Iphone version is that the resolution of the output image is lower than I’d like. By the time the image is neatly cropped it is less than 1MP while the Windows version comes out at 2.5MP. I’m not sure of this is a limitation of the iPhone OS, or autostitch, or me not using it right. More investigation required…

Overall I’m really impressed with how good a job the iPhone version of autostitch does, and I’m happy to have paid £1.20 for it. A little bit of work on the image matching, and the ability to get higher resolution results, and it will be perfect…

I didn’t take pictures as often as I wanted to through the eclipse, and gave up at totality rather than staying up half the night to capture the other half, so my collection isn’t half as good as Nathan’s. He does have a bit of an equipment advantage over me too – at least that’s my excuse!

Anyway, to cut to the chase, here’s what I ended up with:

Overall I’m quite pleased with how this turned out. It would have been nice to have the time to take more shots, and to shoot the other half of the eclipse too. Maybe next time…!

It isn’t a great photo. This was a serious test of my camera and it failed in a couple of ways!

  • The electronic viewfinder and rear display were both useless on a subject this dim. I just couldn’t find it. I had to take a photo, preview it to see where in the frame the moon was, adjust the camera position then zoom in a bit and repeat until I had a full-frame shot!
  • The longest shutter speed I had was 2s, and so I had to use ISO320, which is pretty noisy on my camera.

There were also a few things the camera did well:

  • Auto-focus didn’t work of course, but the camera has manual focus so I could just set it at infinity.
  • The zoom is nice and long (12x – 35mm equivalent of 420mm).
  • I could pre-set the white balance while the moon was still white, and so get a “proper red” rather than have the camera changethe colours on me.

Afterwards, this was run through Neat Image to remove some of the noise, but there’s another failure of my system. Neat Image couldn’t find a piece of the picture good enough to build a noise profile from. I had to do that by hand and the profile isn’t great so the results aren’t, either.

The end result is this:

All in all, I’m quite pleased with this. It doesn’t look great, but under the circumstances I expect I’d need much more expensive equipment to do significantly better.

I have a series of shots leading up to the totality, but I’ll post those some other time. It is bedtime now!