Sunday, April 26, 2015

ShopNBC, err, EVINE goes back to 2006 for computers

I was looking for a laptop computer for someone else.  I looked at one of the shopping channels just to see what they had.

I'm always amused that they cheat by not really being specific.  It's rare that they tell the display's actual specifications, such as the resolution or the graphics hardware behind it.  You can bet that 1366x768 is the 15.6 inch display's resolution and that it has the basic, integrated graphics hardware that is part of the CPU package.

As I've been annoyed in the past with tablet sales from the shopping channels, they're overcharging for laptop computers, as well.  I noticed a mid-2014 MacBook Pro Retina bundle was US$1100 extra for the lovely accessories.  Instead of paying US$1799.99 from various stores, you'll pay US$2899.99 from HSN.
 
What was really curious was an IBM ThinkPad T60.  Remember that IBM sold their PC business to Lenovo a few years ago.  You'll notice that the display has a 4:3 ratio rather than 16:9, as it typical today.  The processor is typically ancient--an Intel Core Duo T2500.  That was replaced with the Core 2 Duo a long, long time ago, and the latest are the Core M, the way Intel brands them.

Even more sadly amusing is that the price is US$214.99 for a refurbished machine from at least 8 years ago.  They should be selling it for just the US$16.99 shipping and handling--or maybe, they should be paying customers the price for taking it off their hands.

In the end, I saw many curious offers for people who can't get out to a real store or those who are not knowledgeable about companies such as Newegg, Micro Center, or even Best Buy.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

I just ordered photographic equipment I never expected: Pentax

I've been searching for a resolution to my lower light problem that wasn't going to cost a fortune, or three.  I found a couple of solutions that might work:

Nikon D750 + Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8
Nikon D7200 + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8

At least, US$2000 was required for a solution that wasn't often needed.  You see, I don't photograph at indoor skate parks much.  The solution could help me with indoor gyms and swimming pools and similar situations with poor lighting, but those situations aren't a huge part of my life right now, unlike two years ago.

What's wrong with my current equipment?  Panasonic and Olympus aren't getting the best sensors from Sony, and at a pixel density similar to APS-C at 24 MP, you don't have a lot of luck.  Even the D7200 is not a great substitute right now but it may have enough of an advantage, if I find a bigger need.  In my experience, the Panasonic GH4 is doing well at ISO 3200 with 1080p video but neither the GH4 or Olympus E-M1 did well with photos.

The D750 would be a much better substitute, but considering that the cost would be US$3500 plus tax, it is even more risky in making my money back.

Therefore, I'm doing something that even I didn't expect.  I'm buying a Pentax K-50 body, now with kit lens, flash, and SD Card for US$419.  Yes, that doesn't solve the lower light problem by itself but it's inexpensive enough, and weather-sealed, that I can become comfortable with it before investing even more money.  I'm actually buying two.  The other is for one of the riders who keeps borrowing my equipment, so that he and his friends can freely make video clips without using me or my equipment as a resource.  I don't think that the kit lens is formidable but I've seen plenty of good that's been done with kit lenses on lesser equipment.  I'll probably try the equipment as a consumer for a week, just to see how that works.


I've mentioned in the past that Pentax firmware is quirky.  Ricoh hasn't changed that, unfortunately, because the company has also had quirkiness of their own.  However, they have proven that their images seem quite noise free, and they have been stating a top sensitivity at ISO 51,200 for quite a long time.

The Pentax 16-50mm f/2.8 lens currently $849.95 seems useful, but the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 has been on my list.  The Pentax lens is weather-sealed and the Sigma lens is not.  The Pentax lens is heavily discounted and the Sigma lens is selling for a typical full price.

There is also a unique 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 fisheye lens available from Pentax, currently at $475.95 but on backorder.  Obviously, this maximum aperture will not be nearly as useful in lower light situations.

The K-50, however, is a compact body.  I don't believe that it's smaller than the Panasonic GH4 and I'm willing to use my older, larger Four-Thirds lenses on the GH4 and they are generally a good combination.

If I've lost my mind, I hope that this is a good insanity.  I looked at Pentax back in 2003 and 2004 when the *ist was their digital model, and after looking at Pentax, Nikon, and Canon, I chose the Olympus E-1 body.  A lot of time has passed and technology has changed.  Further back, I would have bought a Pentax ME Super film camera because it was quite good and the K-mount was new at the time.  I was using a FujiFilm SLR at that time, which used the Pentax screw mount, so the two brands were fairly close.  Around the same time as the Pentax ME arrived, FujiFilm brought the Fujica AZ-1 to market with Aperture priority automatic exposure--and a K-mount.

Update 2015.04.21: The package arrived with both K-50 bodies.  For $419, it included a K-50 body with the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 with the newer, plastic lens mounting.  It's great that it's a light lens, but I have memories of people with their Canon 300D/Digital Rebel with part of the lens in their hand and the other part still attached to the camera.  Obviously, the lens mount itself didn't fail but was it ever ugly in real life experiences.

In the box was also a 4GB EyeFi card.  Since the K-50 came standard with support for the card, it should be an easier way to transfer JPEG files to phones and tablets.

The Adorama kit also included a Monster Cable Advanced 32GB SD Card and a Pentax AF-200FG external flash.  I'm not certain how reliable the SD Card will be.  I always think of Monster Cable products as overpriced junk.  Hopefully, it will be fine.  Obviously, as part of the kit, it wasn't overpriced.  The flash seems good enough, as an add-on to overcome the shadow that might come with the in-body flash and bigger lenses.

The group of items included in the price seemed generous.

This is the first time I've ever owned a lower end dSLR.  However, because this one is weather-sealed, it hardly seems at the lower end.  In my hand, the body seems rugged and well built.  The lens doesn't seem that way, but it seems sufficient for what it is.  I wasn't expecting much.

After charging the battery completely, I inserted it into the slot carefully.  It doesn't have a typical slot, as it can be powered by four AA batteries.  The lithium ion battery fits into the grip, as expected, but it doesn't have a dedicated space.

There was a bit of setup asking me which language to use--Japanese was not an option, unfortunately.  It asked for a time zone and whether daylight saving time (DST) was in use.  It also asked things like date format, and had me enter the date and time.

After the initial setup, I went through some options.  I noticed that the camera came with firmware version 1.00.  I'm fairly sure that the firmware update isn't difficult.  I was reading something about it earlier.  It's only up to version 1.02 anyway.

I really hope that there are fixes to keep the rear display off until I want it enabled.  The tiny (~1000 mAh) battery isn't enough to keep the display going that long.  Adorama has a price of $44.00 for the original replacement.  That seems similar to the Olympus OM-D E-M1 battery, which is small also, and about the same price as the Olympus dSLR battery, which has about 1.5 times the capacity.  The Panasonic GH3/GH4 battery is much bigger and about $80.

The menus are just as awful as everyone else's, though they are shorter, so you don't have to scroll vertically.  I'm hoping that familiarity will save me at some point in time.  While there is a status display, there doesn't seem to be an equivalent to Olympus' great Super Control Panel or Panasonic's Quick Menu, but that may be that I just haven't found it yet.  I'd like to say that it is much easier to use than Olympus or any other menus, but I'm not finding that to be true.

I like that they have two custom user sets of settings.  Now, I just need to learn to fill those and save the sets.

I've taken a few quick shots, just to see how the auto focus and image quality is indoors and in typical lighting.  It responded quickly, but ISO 3200 doesn't seem particularly wonderful with noise reduction disabled.  Auto focus seemed okay, even though it apparently doesn't focus lower than EV -2.  It should be interesting to compare it to the Panasonic GH4, which focuses to EV -4 but often in good light doesn't focus where I want when there are fences or walls available.  As well, the Olympus E-M1 has great face detection and it's great for portraits.

It should be an interesting adventure.  I'll first use it in the simplest modes with JPEG files only.  I will jump to raw files later and really see if there is a bit difference, other than the 4 bits of color per channel.

Update 2015.04.22: The firmware update was painless, virtually the same as Panasonic's updates work.  The exception was that the camera turned itself off, rather than waiting for me to acknowledge that it had completed the update.  That left some doubt in my mind as to whether it had finished correctly or terminated abnormally.

Update 2015.04.23: Geez, let me remove the SD Card easily, please!  Who designed this contraption that puts the card too close to the door?  The card also won't just slide out once it is unlocked.  I tried to tilt the body in several directions and the card did not fall.

Also, who designs a camera body to allow it to do video, but makes it difficult to actually take the video?  Turn the mode dial to movie mode and press the shutter release isn't difficult, but would a red button on the back be too much to ask?  There is a green button on the back panel, but who has green buttons?  Pentax, only, apparently has them.

Update 2015.04.26: For a company that doesn't care about video, the video I've seen from the camera looks good.  I'm not saying that it's in the same league as the Panasonic GH3 but it's certainly as good as the Olympus E-5 that I have.

The scooter rider who has the same equipment bundle that I'm using has been using it very successfully.  He uses it through Live View almost always.  I was taking some video for him and I could not see much of anything that was on the rear display.  I wasn't even sure when it was taking video.

At one point yesterday, I needed to take a photo from just off the road but there wasn't a place where I could park.  He set up my camera to take the shot, and I stopped the car on the shoulder of the road.  Unfortunately, he put it in Live View mode, and handed me the camera.  It would not focus where I wanted.  I couldn't get it to do what I wanted, and I tried several things, in a bit of a panic.  I finally found the Live View button and after disabling it, the auto focus went where I expected.

Also, the Eye Fi card is very useful.  You need to download the Eye Fi Mobi app for either iOS or Android to be used in conjunction with the card.  The K-50 showed the interface as disabled when I first put the card into the camera body.  I enabled the card to Auto, within the camera's menu.  Then, I started the mobile app and entered setup, entering the activation code.  They quickly communicated.  I took a few shots and when I accessed the mobile app again, it transferred the photos I had just taken.

The only thing really disappointing with this bundle is the kit lens.  The only "kit" lens I've had was more expensive than this whole bundle--the Olympus HG ZD 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5.  The Pentax lens isn't horrible.  It's exactly what you should expect from a US$100.00 lens.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Comcast is so broken--it's such a cable company

As a former Philadelphia, PA area person, I had to laugh about this Ars Technica article about Comcast.

When I lived in the area for eight years, they were likely the most hated company in all of Philly.  Their TV service was poor, and their customer service was hateful and nasty.  If you had a problem, it was only your problem.  They didn't seem to fix anything.

I was so lucky to live outside the city and twice used Suburban Cable, and then, American Cablecom, from the Washington, DC area, was at one apartment complex.  They had a 28 day fix clause in their contract and they would fix things on day 28, but they were still better than Comcast.

When I was in Florida, there was some small cable company and we were all wishing that Time-Warner Cable would take over.  When they did, they played games with us.  Several years later, having my own house, Time-Warner switched many locations with BrightHouse Networks.  Unfortunately, they kept their game-playing employees.

I've had DirecTV (or however they write it now) since 2008 and I'm pleased.  I'm still concerned about SBC/The New AT&T buying the company, but they can't hurt it totally, can they?

Comcast sends me a flyer weekly, but I don't want to deal with them.  My adoptive mum did, and she got no satisfaction dealing with them.  The problem was supposedly with her TV set.  When she switched to their box, due to digital upgrades, she not only got to pay more, but changing channels took many minutes for the actual change to occur.  Eventually, they replaced the remote several times, then the box, and then, they discontinued service.  The local people were pleasant at the end, but the people on the toll-free number were so awful that I would never consider having service with Comcast.

I'm just as thrilled with the way Dish Network treated her, hanging up on her regularly.  We learned at the end that the installer put up satellite dish without a clear view of the satellite.  Apparently, the company didn't do any quality inspections for two years.  They were concerned about the issue just before she died.

Update 2015.04.28: They're not merging/buying Time-Warner Cable, since they learned that the government was against it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Metabones SpeedBooster + Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 for video

I haven't done much with video but in the last few weeks, I've taken over 100 video clips.

While it seems easier to get good quality 1080p video than 16 MP photos, it isn't easy.  The camera tries very hard but it has to struggle a bit to handle auto focus, exposure, and more, even with an f/2.8 lens.

I'm not a film maker, and I don't expect to be.  However, I had a short conversation with someone who is, and he recommended the Metabones SpeedBooster and Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 for the Panasonic GH4, a combination he uses.

It's not cheap, and it's not weather-resistant, which could be a problem, as most of my equipment already is.  I must always be aware of the difference because it would be an expensive disaster if I would forget.

I've been to slow to embrace Sigma lenses.  When I sold equipment, they were a remote third party with poor quality.  Even recently, with Four-Thirds lenses like the 30mm f/1.4, I wasn't quite comfortable.  The lens wasn't calibrated properly (for anyone, apparently) and it had a yellow cast.

Recently, they've been coming up with some good lenses.  The ART series is getting good reviews, although they started by re-labeling their micro Four-Thirds lenses with "ART", to make them seem better than they were.  I'm still not sure the 19mm, 30mm, and 60mm f/2.8 lenses are worth what they charge--and around $200 each, they're not horribly expensive.

The 18-35mm f/1.8 made a huge change.    I was shocked.  I've been using the Olympus 14-35mm f/2.0 for a while, and it is an impressive lens.  If Sigma could do more for a third of the money, I would be surprised, weather-sealed or not.

Still, it comes in a limited number of mounts, and that wouldn't include Four-Thirds or micro Four-Thirds, naturally.  Then, Metabones arrived with their adapters and SpeedBooster focal reducers (reverse teleconverters).

Can you turn an existing lens into a faster (lower aperture number) lens just by adding an adapter?  Apparently, you can, and the other effect is that you get a wider focal length.  According to the chart, you reduce the focal length multiplier from 2.0x to 1.42x for a typical micro Four-Thirds camera body.  It boosts the lens' effective aperture by one f-stop.  Since I haven't found any photos above ISO 3200 to be useful, it would be interesting to see how far into the dark I could shoot and still have useful photos.

I've considered using lenses with an aperture of f/0.95 but I'm not sure if those Voigtländer lenses are what I want.  They certainly cost a bit, for an experiment, and using a single focal length lens is not typical of my style, having had so many great Olympus zoom lenses.

If the Sigma 18-35mm turns into 36-70mm effective 135 Format equivalent focal length normally, 25.56-49.7mm with the focal reducer seems close to the lens' target for APS-C, 27-52.5mm.  Considering how difficult it is to get wide angles with the Four-Thirds sensor size, any focal reducer is appreciated.

I'm also considering the Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, especially since it is weather-sealed/moisture-resistant.  Of course, I'm also thinking about a couple of Nikon bodies--the D750 and the D7200 to use these lenses natively, responsively.

Update 2015.04.13: Considering the difficulty of shooting in low light, the D750 is look better and better.  DxOMark gave much better results for the sports ISO number than the D7200 by more than 2x and naturally, almost 4x over the GH4 or E-M1.   While I consider these numbers to be a guide, something that the company uses for their own software, they are relatively useful.

Regardless, I wouldn't just use the lenses on one system or the other but I'm fairly sure now that I don't want to make films--only sports videos.

Update 2015.04.18: Well, this has changed dramatically in just a few days.  I bought a Pentax K-50 kit.  The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 is available for Pentax but there is no Metabones SpeedBooster adapter.  I can use the Voigtländer adapter but without the lovely focal reducer.

Apple Watch: Who will Buy?

Obviously, the watch is out of the bag, after their Spring Ahead event.

I've been asking for a while about this product, especially as Sony and Samsung have made failure after failure.  Pebble is really the only company that has made an interesting product that works in a way that is desirable and useful.

Apple changed their idea to make it a medical device, as they were having a difficult time with reliable information.  Still, they have some applications in mind, and will likely end up solving the problems eventually.

It's easy to guess who will be the first buyers--the fashion conscious, even though the smaller face is still a bit large for a woman.  There should likely be a large group of iPhone users who will buy the phone no matter what.  The fashion conscious will buy one and a few bands, naturally.

On the other hand, I belong to a group who finds value important and doesn't currently wear a watch.  I haven't worn a watch since maybe 2005 or 2006.  That is a long time without one.  Also, my most expensive watch was around US$150.  The minimal Apple Watch will be over twice that much.

I suppose this would mean much more to me if I kept my phone in a bag.  With my photographic equipment and a computer in my bags, I don't keep my phone in there.  It's usually in a front pocket.

I was at the nearest Apple Store today and they were pretty happy to get the new "experience" display for the watch.  They tried to increase my enthusiasm but I'm just not into it.  By the way, you need an appointment for the experience of trying the watch.

Supposedly, there are many restrictions to keep things more orderly at the start.  Once everything is comfortable and they have more supplies, it will surely become more casual.

Who will stand in line at the first?

Update 2015.04.10: They're already sold out of the first batch today, and all of the categories are apparently available in 4-6 weeks.  Seriously?  Maybe, there were fewer available than expected.  Certainly, the big deal about sapphire watch crystals and GT Advanced lengthened the wait.  Drama over watches?  Who knew?

Update 2015.04.21: Google seems to be finishing an update that will be useful, if only for retaining current Android Wear customers.  I suspect that as soon as Samsung get their hands on Apple's Watch, they'll be seeing what they can use, but Apple and Google will carefully copy each other, making smart watches actually useful.  At some point, the majority may want watches, though I'm skeptical that will ever happen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sony's A7 Mk II a good start

Way back when, I loved Sony for audio, and then, they became very, very average.  More recently, they bought Minolta's camera division, a very, very average group in its own right, and they improved upon it with better technology.

I was not a fan, but I was glad to see a third camera maker with a fat wallet.  Canon had become slow and fat, and might as well be named Compromise (especially with anything under US$3000), and Nikon was returning to the fight but seemed to have manufacturing issues at important times.

When I was selling SLRs way back when, Minolta was a safe choice.  It wasn't good but it wasn't bad.  In 135 Format, Nikon, Olympus, and Pentax were good with Minolta a step below them and Canon wasn't even a factor.

Sony's A7 came at a critical time.  The company was bleeding money and needed some success, any success.  There were so many people chanting "Full Frame Full Frame" as if it was some panacea, that Sony took advantage of the situation and created a 135 Format-sized sensor with box of electronics around it.  The reviews weren't overly optimistic.  While the image quality was very good, the operational characteristics were bad.  At least, they were serious about lenses, attention their NEX-system wasn't getting.

The A7 Mk II has fixed a lot of that, apparently, according to early reports I've seen.  I'm actually thinking about what it could do for me because I'm in love with the idea of it, even if the execution isn't amazing.

They have increased the responsiveness and given the sensor 5-axis image stabilization, so that every lens will be stabilized--not at easy feat given the size of the sensor.  If it works as well as Olympus' 5-axis image stabilization, I'd be happy.

You can bet that they've looked at every review of the A7 and put attention to every negative comment.  The grip and overall handling didn't suit me, and it seems that they've been busy.  I wish that all mirror-less camera makers would consider the battery size more important.  Panasonic is pretty much the only company that has, with the GH3 and GH4, because of video recording.  It works well.

Just this past Friday and Saturday, I was photographing a scooter competition in a huge indoor skate park.  ISO 3200 was necessary.  That is the maximum sensitivity I will use and keep photos.  The GH4 video looked better than the E-M1's photos at that sensitivity but then, 1080p video doesn't cover as much area.  Still, I was thinking that a Nikon D750 or this A7 Mk II would take care of the problem much better.

The D750 would likely be a whole lot more responsive.  The Expeed 4 processor would probably be better at clean images, given that it has been used on the highest end bodies.  The A7 Mk II (and most mirror-less models) seems more for anything but sports.  The E-M1 and GH4 are very responsive, but there are times when they seem to be thinking instead of doing.

As I've been thinking, the improvements make the Sony A7 MK II a good start.  In two more generations, it should be a great body.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Panasonic Lumix X 35-100mm f/2.8 continues to disappoint

This weekend, I was photographing and video recording a skateboard and scooter competition.

Since the skate park was fairly spacious, and so many people were everywhere, I used the Panasonic Lumix 35-100mm f/2.8 instead of the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8.

I have not really used the 35-100mm lens since sending it for repair due to a very ugly purple lens flare with the sun out of the frame.  That was over one year ago.  If I need such reach, I get one of my Olympus dSLRs (E-1, E-5) and use the Olympus 35-100mm f/2.0 or 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5.

However, recently, Panasonic had developed and released firmware to make the Optical Image Stabilization better than it had previously been when recording video.  Apparently, it stuttered terribly.

In any case, I took 1014 photos and 23 video clips.  A buddy and I were going to work with the video clips today, and I tried to weed out the worst of them.  I was shocked at how horrible and jumpy they were.  I don't have such a problem with the GH4 and the Olympus 12-40mm f/2.8 or the Leica/Lumix/Panasonic 15mm f/1.7 lenses, and they're not stabilized at all.  (The still photos were reasonable, especially since it was afternoon and there was plenty of sun.)

This lens is unfortunate, especially at a retail price just under US$1500.  The image quality is good, especially for a lens that would cost $750 (compare to Sigma's 18-35mm f/1.8 for US$799.99), but it's only average for a $1500 lens.  The build quality seems weak for such a lens, although it is supposedly weather-sealed.  Zacuto mentioned in an online interview with Panasonic representatives that it seemed much less high quality (did he say "cheap-feeling construction"?) than the 12-35mm f/2.8 also made by Panasonic.

I swore off Panasonic lenses, but the 15mm f/1.7 was too good to ignore.  It functions well, aside from some low light AF hunting.

I was considering the 12-35mm f/2.8 because of the OIS but forget that.  I've been told that it was much better, but that was before the firmware release "fixing" the 35-100mm f/2.8 lens.  If this is normal behavior for the 12-35mm f/2.8, how are they selling any of them?  How can I be more disappointed than I already was?

After handling the Olympus 50-200mm f/2.8-3.5 for 14 hour days, I wonder if Olympus' new 40-150mm f/2.8 will be a problem to hold steady on the GH4 or E-M1?