Review: USB Memory Direct Branded Flash Drives

Blue Planet Photography USB drive from USB Memory Direct
Back in April, I was contacted by Patrick Whitener, the partnership coordinator at USB Memory Direct (https://www.usbmemorydirect.com), maker of custom and branded flash drives. He wanted to know if I’d like to partner with them, try out their product, and write up a blog post about my impressions. I’d been thinking about a ‘giveaway’ for my workshops and classes, something like a USB drive loaded with lesson materials for my classes, writings and other materials for my workshops. Since it wasn’t going to cost me anything other than a review of the product (which I would likely be doing even if I purchased it), I agreed.

He contacted me on April 2 and I spent a few days thinking about it, whether I wanted to get involved or trust this offer. I did some research on USB Memory Direct and discovered they have a pretty good reputation. I’ve dealt with other promotional product companies before that were less than desirable. In the meantime, Patrick sent me a couple emails asking me if I was still interested. Not pushy, just checking in. I appreciated that. No hard sell, no stupid jokes. Just email, too, no phone calls.

I chose the type of USB drive from the offered selection, the Tower style. Made of wood (the description says “pine.”), the cap is attached by a couple magnets which are strong. Personally, I’d prefer an integrated cover, like their Ninja model, because a separate cap without a lanyard or other means of attachment is just going to get lost eventually, but that one wasn’t available for the promotion. I like the natural wood look. It goes with my business name and “nature” theme.

USB drive showing magnetic cap attachment

I had to tweak my logo to fit the dimensions of the drive space available for printing (but they will do that for you if you wish) and sent Patrick the file. I asked if he could print my website on the back and he replied, no problem.

USB drive showing front logo and back website address printing

On April 21, I received a pre-production image of a drive they had made up for me to review. It looked great, except for some reason my logo had been shifted slightly and “photography” had been re-typed and misspelled as “photogrphy”. I let Patrick know and it was corrected without fuss. Patrick asked me if there was any content I wanted them to pre-load to the drives for me. I hadn’t decided what content I was going to put on the drives, so declined the offer. This is a service they offer, though, free of charge, as far as I know. So, if you are ordering a bunch of drives (even 25) having them add the content saves me/you a ton of time. Loading 25 drives from a single or double USB port would take a decent amount of time that I could be spending doing something more productive. But, having a blank drive gives me the freedom to customize how many drives receive what content, whenever I get that figured out.

The 25 8GB drives were shipped on April 24 and I received them on May 5, 7 business days (12 calendar days) later. Their estimate for shipping is 5-7 days once the drives are ready. The drives came individually wrapped in plastic envelopes, like a plastic sleeve for a greeting card or matted photo, rubber-banded in groups of 5, then wound with bubble wrap. There were no additional papers (that I remember) in the typical plain brown box. Though, I think there must have been an inventory sheet. The full color printing is crisp, the color accurate, and appears to be quite durable. I’ve had a couple other promotional items where the printing flaked or peeled off after a short time. This printing looks and feels like it will last longer than the average bear.

Being the cautious type, I ran a couple of the drives through a virus scan and they came up clean. Of course, a company selling promotional USB drives wouldn’t want to send off products infected with a virus or malware, but I had never dealt with this company before and, despite the great reviews, it never hurts to check.

This style of drive, the Tower, fits nicely on my desktop machine and my Surface, and doesn’t impede adding a second USB drive where there are multiple ports. I have another novelty USB drive I received at a conference that’s shaped like a rabbit, and it takes up all the space to either side of the port, so it’s nice to have a thin drive in case I need to transfer from one drive to another or grab files from a second drive without removing the first. My logo is clearly presented, also, which is good promotion for me.

Single drive in USB port on desktop
Single drive in USB port
USB drives in adjacent ports
USB drives in adjacent ports

Next came the big question. If I ordered these drives without the promotion, how much would they cost? The Tower 8GB drives are USB SLC (Single Level Cell) which are faster and more reliable than typical consumer type USB drives. The drives I received are USB-A, but there are USB-C styles and also dual USB-A/C, like the Ninja model I referred to earlier. So, the price for the tower drive, as of around mid-May, 2020, in a quantity of 25, is $9.75 per unit, or $244 total. Increasing the quantity to 50 reduces the per unit cost to $8.00 each. The Ninja, all metal integrated construction, USB A/C, is $15 each, or $374.50 for 25. An order of 50 reduces the per unit cost to a little over $13. Capacity up to 64GB is available, priced accordingly.

With that price, comes free printing, free data loading (check that to be sure), lifetime warranty, and a price match guarantee.

The drives I received are fast-loading. I haven’t tested them all to check that they all work, but the two random ones I grabbed do. If that changes, I’ll post that additional information here. I will assume they are all fine. Overall, I’m pleased with the experience and the product from USB Memory Direct. This is the first promotional item like this I’ve tried and once I figure out exactly how I’m going to incorporate these drives in my classes/workshops and other promotions I’ll likely go back to Patrick for more. Since I let Patrick know I received the drives, I have not heard from him. No pestering about whether I wanted to buy more, when was I going to get my review up on my blog, etc. No hard selling, which I really like. It makes me more comfortable to go back to USB Memory Direct when and if I decide this is a promotional item I would like to incorporate, without dreading the follow up. I appreciate that.

The one thing I might change is to put the web address on the front, so it’s more visible (promotion, you know). However, I like the simple logo front.

Canon EOS R: Review

For a trip to Iceland in November, I rented a Canon EOS R mirrorless camera as my workhorse for 10 days. I hadn’t shot with a mirrorless camera before and my expectations were mixed. I’d had a Sony Ar series in my hand at one time and didn’t like it. The small form factor ergonomics and menu-driven operation turned me off, as did the off-balance feel I had with long lenses attached. But, recently I read a couple good reviews of the EOS R and decided to give it a go. What pushed me over the hesitancy is the larger body. I’m used to shooting with larger DSLR bodies with controls ready to hand, relying on the menu system only for specific situations and for “set it and forget it” types of operational controls.

Canon EOS R front

So, here we go. I received the camera on rental from BorrowLenses, a company I have rented from several times in the past. I’ve recommended renting gear, camera bodies, lenses, etc. if you’re deciding whether to buy. Renting for a weekend or a week is an easy and inexpensive way to “try before you buy”. Anyway, if you followed my posts on Facebook and saw my first Facebook Live video from that trip, you might guess that I wasn’t at all pleased with the camera. At the time, you’d be right. While the EOS R is, internally, a mirrorless version of the 5D, getting used to a new operation can sometimes be frustrating, even though I’d received the camera a couple days before leaving. The ergonomics of the EOS R body is great. The size, weight, and how it fits in my hand were all very familiar and comfortable. I’ve been a Canon shooter for a long time, and my current DSLR is the 1D Mark IV, a camera that is very near its end. But the body plan, the large grip (also similar to the 1Ds which I used for a decade) lets me hang on to the camera securely while operating most of the controls and while carrying it in hand.

I’m not going to give any technical specs. This review is based on my own personal preferences with how and what I shoot. Any “technical” information is more or less going to be subjective and based on practical use. I hope that’s useful to you.

When I first fired it up and began setting it up at home, there was a mysterious shutter lag of about 1/2 second that was “fixed” just as mysteriously as I worked through the setup. I suspect it had to do with one or more of the shooting control operations, but I wasn’t able to pin it down. It could have been related to the dual pixel focus setting, which I eventually disabled. I didn’t run into that specific issue again during my trip (but see below for more info about shutter lag I experienced).

Operationally, here are my critiques:

1. I set up operation for back-button focus but the shutter release focus wasn’t disabled. So, I would back button focus then when I pressed the shutter release it would refocus. It’s possible I missed a step somewhere, but I’m pretty sure I had it set up properly.

2. I’m not a fan of the electronic viewfinder. It’s nice to be able to review the image in the viewfinder, but with review turned on you get the preview in the viewfinder while you’re trying to shoot. Several times I was fooled into thinking I was looking at the actual scene when it was just the preview image. I eventually turned off the preview function (which also disables it on the large rear LCD and you have to manually press the preview button. Not completely a problem, but sometimes was inconvenient). It would be nice to be able to have a setting of preview only on rear LCD.

3. Another aspect of the electronic viewfinder I didn’t like was I couldn’t look through the camera if it wasn’t on. If the camera is off, so is the viewfinder. There’s no way to compose prior to making a photograph if powered off or in sleep mode. This, of course, will apply to all cameras with electronic viewfinders, so this is a characteristic I’m not liking across the whole spectrum of mirrorless cameras. This reduces battery life.

4. On the body that I had, the light meter tended to overexpose by about 1.5 – 1.75.

5. Rear LCD touch screens are both a help and a hindrance. Useful sometimes for focusing in odd situations and for adjusting camera settings. But a hindrance at other times when the focus point shifts at random when your hand or nose brushes across the screen while you’re composing or carrying the camera and the screen gets activated.

6. The viewfinder shut off sensor became a frustration when I used my rain cover, which has transparent panels so I can see the camera controls. The sensor kept shutting off the LCD screen when it sensed the rain cover, treating it like it was my face at the viewfinder. I had to hold the panel away from the sensor with my thumb, hand inside the rain cover.

7. The menu touch strip, located just to the right of the viewfinder, turned itself on at random when I had the touch strip turned off. I would get a notice in the viewfinder asking me if I wanted to enable it or not if I brushed my thumb or face across it. I’m not sure of the utility of this feature.

8. I’m also not a fan of the toggle setup for the back control. I have a pair of waterproof/windproof gloves I can easily use with my 1D and its control wheel and buttons, but I found operating the rear toggles and the buttons (which are slightly recessed) very difficult with these gloves on and often had to remove them. I prefer the rotating control wheel over the toggle.

9. The low light focus was pretty good, but with my EF 70-200 f2.8L there was a lot of hunting in low light after sunset (that’s probably more of a lens issue, I think).

10. The menu system is familiar to me and organized in a logical way that’s easy to navigate, though there are more categories on the EOS R than on the 1DS. It would be nice to simplify the menu system with an option to disable categories that aren’t used, like the picture style/JPG processing features, that some photographers like me may never use.

11. Perhaps it was just me operating a new camera, but at slower shutter speeds, 1/4 sec or slower, there was no shutter release indicator (no sound, no “click”). It was as if the shutter release timer (2 sec delay) was engaged. Sometimes I wouldn’t realize the shutter had been released and moved the camera during the exposure. This didn’t happen at faster shutter speeds when I had a tactile signal from the shutter button that it had been depressed enough to release the shutter, and no shutter release delay.

12. The jack for the cabled remote is a mini-plug and the remote for the EOS R doesn’t have an intervalometer or timer. I prefer the TC-80n3 remote.

13. Battery. The EOS R uses the same small battery as the 5D. I also rented the battery grip and an extra battery, so had extended use as well as a bit more body to hang on to.

Instead of a control wheel on the top for switching shooting modes, there’s an LCD screen, a mode switch, and a wheel. I found this somewhat inconvenient to use, though you can see the modes in the viewfinder when the mode switch is pressed. It wasn’t a showstopper and eventually I would probably get used to it.

Image quality

I’ve been going through the files from the trip and I don’t have any image quality complaints. I do notice more pronounced chromatic aberration than I do with the 1D, but that may be due to the larger file size making it more apparent than it does with the sensor (yes, CA is created by the lens).

One of the reasons I rented this camera was for the reported high ISO quality (much better than the 1Ds) specifically for night shots of stars and Aurora borealis. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much opportunity for the Aurora, but I did shoot some night scenes at reasonably high ISO (2500) and the noise was easily taken care of with Photoshop noise controls. One very useful aspect of mirrorless cameras is with long exposures and telephoto shots. It’s essentially a permanent mirror lock-up situation and camera vibration is greatly reduced, especially when using a cabled remote.

My frustration abated somewhat as the trip progressed and I became more familiar with the EOS R’s operation and particular idiosyncrasies. For me, while I ended up liking the camera overall, it wouldn’t be a camera I would buy as a replacement for my 1D at this time. I would likely still opt for the 5D, even though it seems that model is on its way out. Here’s another issue. Lenses. The EOS R has a different lens mount, so your EF lenses won’t work without an adapter. And, the RF lenses for the EOS R line are amazingly larger and heavier than EF lenses (and there are fewer of them at this time). I think there’s promise in the EOS R line if a “Pro” model was made with the larger NP-E3 battery (and the associated larger grip) and a control wheel on the back instead of the toggle, an optical viewfinder option, and remove the touch strip. These are, of course, operational critiques. Camera operation, where controls are and how easily they are to use – bare handed or with gloves – is just as important (to me, anyway) as image quality, focus accuracy, and ISO performance. You can have the most advanced camera with amazing image quality and performance, but if it takes you 15 seconds to change the ISO or shooting mode or focus point selection, or you can’t operate it under certain conditions, it will be mostly worthless, no matter how much money you spent for it.

I did like the articulated rear screen. It makes low and high angle shots more pleasant. I’m not a vlogger or selfie taker, so the forward-facing capability didn’t concern me, but might be a feature others would appreciate.

The weather sealing on the EOS R is pretty good. I used the camera with a rain cover in heavy rain and without in light rain conditions and there were no problems with water affecting controls or getting into the body. Weather sealing is better with lenses that also have that capability.

My conclusion is the EOS R is a pretty good mirrorless camera. Of the cameras I’ve had in hand, this one is more practical in the hand for me, easier to handle, better balanced with long lenses, and a familiar layout which is easier to transition into. This is, of course, because I’m a long-time Canon shooter and they’ve kept their layouts fairly consistent. It’s larger than the Sony and that body type, especially with the RF lenses. If you’re looking for a compact mirrorless, the EOS R isn’t it. But if you want a camera that fits your hand and is comfortable to use, that is balanced, performs well in all weather and puts out a nice image file, the EOS R might be what you’re looking for. I’m just hoping future models will accommodate a more practical “field layout” that is functional using gloves.

Book Review: The Creative Path: a view from the studio on the making of art

The Creative Path: A View from the Studio on the Making of Art, by Carolyn Schlam, published May 2018.

This book is a recounting by the author of her beginnings in the 1960’s as a painter and her experiences and insights with her mentor, painter Norman Rabinowitz, a “Mr. Miyagi” type instructor. The introduction describes the influence of Norman on the author’s work ethic and practice and Norman’s influence is stated throughout the book. The book is organized into chapters expressing different stages or thought processes within an artist’s potential career: Inspiration, Your Instrument, Intention, Ways and Means, Truth and Beauty, Commitment, Observer/Critic, An Artist’s Life, Voices, and finishing up with The Big Picture. The book is part recollection, part instruction, part art history, part exercise. At the end of each chapter are exercises or asana’s that draw on the topics and principles described in the chapter. And an appendix includes notes and texts written by Norman, a bibliography, and acknowledgemnts.

The book is easy to read and is written in a conversational style with a philosophy of art loosely following the Gestalt philosophy of visual perception and promoting Godly inspiration as the source of an individual’s art.

This is a “painter’s book” more so than an “artist’s book”, with emphasis on the author’s perception of paint on canvas and the associated colors and textures. In the chapter Truth and Beauty, the author states “Think about this. There is something about overly bright colors that rings false. The reason is that the real world is not candy-land. There is a reason that we dress our children in bright colors but we choose off-colors for ourselves. The atmosphere of the Earth has the effect of softening color. Soft, off-color has more reality. Things that are too smooth, too shiny, too bright, appear slick and false, a comic book reality.”

While the text is easy to read, there are descriptions and uses of terms, such as synesthesia, percept, and ekphrasis, that vary considerably from the commonly understood meanings. I’ve been doing some serious research over the years regarding the psychological and neurological underpinnings of art making and I have some disagreements with how this approach is handled by the author. The author makes some claims that are difficult to reconcile from a scientific perspective. For example, she gives an incomplete and generally incorrect description of synesthesia, which is the stimulation of a sense perception by an unrelated sensory stimulus, i.e. seeing letters in different colors or perceiving certain odors related to particular musical notes. The author implies that all artists have synesthesia but describes its influence with ordinary sensory responses: “our ears help us to create noisy patches in our work…our sense of taste helps the eye to select colors and textures that make the menu of the painting…our sense of smell helps us to make color choices that create a palette of complementary scents…our sense of touch leads us to make wet and dry and rough and smooth sensations to pleasure us.” Another term is “percept”, which in the science of perception is simply the thing that is perceived by our sensory apparatus (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue, etc.) according to the capabilities of those sensory organs. In this book, the author describes the percept as a kind of thing, a “pure feeling”, unemotional, neutral, unordered and uncategorized sensations “ready to be organized by the mind” that “does not play by any rules other than those we make up.” The percept, as described by the author, is influenced by our experiences, biases, education and skill and is how artists develop their unique style, which is described as “simply a set of formalized preferences. Artists do not choose a style; their preferences create one.”

While an individual’s own unique experiences, knowledge, biases, skills, etc. contribute to an artist’s style, it is not correct to say this is a percept, it is more correctly described as a person’s way of being, or as biologist Jakob von Uexkull termed it, umwelt. Later, in the chapter Ways and Means, the author then contradicts herself by saying “…the more you give up your likes and dislikes, your prejudices, biases, assumptions, conclusions, judgments, in other words, the more open you are, the more you you will be and the more individual your work will become. You will not make your art. Rather, you will arrive at it.” In truth, your prejudices, knowledge, skill, etc. are the foundations of your art. Your job as an artist is to be aware of their influence and inspiration and respond according to the type of art you’re making, not ignore everything in your life that drives your desire to make art. However, the author’s concept follows from her belief that “the work we make flows from God and when our art fails it’s because we’re “futzing” with what God created.” So, if God is the creator of our art, where is the artist? Later, in the Commitment chapter, the author reverts back, stating “Our choices are determined by what interests us, what we do well, our values, what we think and want to say…These predilections basically set our course in art and will limit our choices.”

This book contains many contradictory approaches to art making. The author describes and promotes one way of making art, then later describes a totally different way. This isn’t really new. As an artist myself, I encounter many contradictory situations. I change my mind all the time. But this book seems to be intended to be an artist’s guide despite the retrospective or autobiographical feel. The author’s goal or intention is unclear, the tidbits of artistic guidance are scattered. Perhaps, as an artist’s guide, it is eventually too personal. The descriptions of Norman and his method of teaching were interesting to read, sometimes funny, also sometimes contradictory, and his personal definitions of some terms informs the reader why the author has developed her own definitions, as described above. Reading the book frustrated me because I have read books with similar intent that were so much better.

Review: The Photography Exercise Book

Some time ago I was asked if I’d be interested in reviewing Bert Krages book The Photography Exercise Book: Training Your Eye to Shoot Like A Pro. Published by Allworth Press in 2016, I’d seen it while browsing in the bookstore. I picked it up and thumbed through it, wondering if it would be a good reference for me and my classes and workshops. At the time, nothing stood out to me about the book other than it seemed to be written for beginning photographers and, at the time, I was working on my own book and there were more advanced concepts rummaging around in my head. So, I put it back on the shelf.

When I was asked to review the book, I remembered looking at it that one time and thought I should give it another chance. Bert Krages is an attorney and photographer living in Oregon with a couple other books in his bibliography; Legal Handbook for Photographers and Heavenly Bodies: The Photographer’s Guide to Astrophotography. I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen and thumbed through both of those books at the bookstore. The Legal Handbook for Photographers delves into an aspect of photography that has many fewer references available than for any other aspect of photography. If you are a photographer interested in your legal responsibilities and liabilities, that book and others would be beneficial to you.

Mr. Krages begins The Photography Exercise Book by describing its purpose and who it is for. In my own classes, I describe three groups of photographers; those who are technically-inclined, those who are not, and the largest group that’s somewhere in between. This book is for people who have at least a comfortable understanding of camera operation, in terms of using the various exposure modes and making exposure adjustments, but it does not discuss exposure settings, focal lengths, filters, flash, the “Rules”. This book is not a “how to use your camera” book, but a “how to explore your surroundings” book. It’s for photographers who are starting out and for those who need a little inspiration for exploring. It is a book of photography exercises after all.

I agree with most of the author’s premises: to become a better photographer you must make photographs, you must pay attention to the world around you, you must experiment, you must keep an open mind and always look for opportunities. The Photography Exercise Book is divided into sections that begin with letting you know you should have a basic understanding of how your camera works, some general tips about composition, and the importance of evaluating your work. The rest of the book includes the exercises. The exercises are a bit open-ended, which is good because it allows you freedom to find subjects and situations at the time you’re doing the practice. You don’t have to seek out a specific situation, wait for a certain time, or amass various props and equipment to do the exercises. This approach may not work for some individuals because the exercises are not “recipe-driven”. This is why I mention the need for comfortable understanding of camera function and photography principles. None of the exercises instruct you to use f8 at 1/125 and ISO 200 with a 85mm lens. You’re given the concept of the particular practice, like photographing people who are in action or light, shadow and shapes when clouds are passing overhead, or revisiting a location multiple times.

The final two chapters are about “photographer vision” and Thinking Like an Artist, with a little history of art and the relationship of photography with other art forms, discussions about defining your own individual approach to photography and what you would like to express with the medium, inspiration, and work ethic. Nothing too deep, but put straighforward and simply.

Some of the exercises, admittedly stated in the introduction, won’t be for everyone. But, like the author suggests, try them anyway. You never know what you’ll learn that will apply to other situations. Overall, The Photography Exercise Book is a useful reference for photographers who are starting out and who would like a little guidance for exploring and improving your craft.

Gelaskins Review – 17″ Laptop

A while back, I had a scary incident passing through security at the airport. A guy ahead of me was in a hurry to catch a flight he was apparently late for, and in the melee of putting things in tubs and taking them out, grabbed my laptop rather than his (both black 17″ HP laptops). I would not have found out about the switch had I not had time before my flight and decided to do some web surfing to pass the time. When I tried to plug in the power cord, it would not go in. There was no input port for the power cord where I expected it to be. On further inspection, I realized it was not my laptop. Knowing the guy was late for a flight, I panicked and took off through the terminal looking for him, leaving my stuff behind. Luckily, we both were in a “dead end” terminal, so I only had about 6 gates to check. I eventually found him as the plane he was on started to board. He had told me he was on his way home to Australia, so that would have been the last I saw of my laptop and all my photos and data. My laptop is password locked so my data would have been inaccessible. But, he would have come out ahead because my laptop was a newer model.

A lesson learned. To keep my laptop distinguishable from all the other black, 17″ laptops out there, I purchased a skin and customized it using one of my own photos. What’s a skin? Simply put, it’s a sticker, a decal. Though, it’s not your typical paper sticker, but a durable vinyl material made by 3M, similar to the material used to wrap images and logos on vehicles. The adhesive on the skin does not damage the finish of your device and the skin can be removed easily and repositioned during the application process (which I had to do 3 times to get it centered) or removed and trashed when you decide to replace it.

I checked the various companies offering skins, including Gelaskins and Skinit . While both companies offer the same products and, as far as I can tell, use the same material, Gelaskins is $5.00 less at $24.95 than Skinit’s $34.99 price for a skin on a 17″ laptop (you get free shipping with Skinit on orders of $35 or more). With shipping, the total for the Gelaskin came to $34.90. Product quality from both companies looked the same on their respective websites, so I went with the Gelaskin.

The skin arrived in a large, stiff, mailer envelope with “Do Not Bend” stamped on the front. Opening the envelope revealed the skin in a clear plastic sleeve on a backing card of stiff paper. Simple instructions were printed on the decal card. I cleaned the lid of my laptop, removed the skin from the card, and applied it to the lid of my laptop. The skin doesn’t cover the entire laptop lid, so getting it centered and level takes some patience and a decent eye. I needed to reposition the skin three times before I was satisfied with the placement. Removing the skin was easy enough, though I figured I needed to make sure the adhesive side didn’t come together or I would be out of luck. It looks ok, except for the incorrect color of the image. I’m about to leave on another trip, so it’s too late for a return/exchange. Plus, I’ve applied the skin, which voids any return or exchange option. I’ll have to accept it and maybe contact them later if I decide to do another one. There is no help on either the Gelaskins or Skinit sites regarding color fidelity.

I created my image in Photoshop, adding my company name and phone number as both an advertisement and an easy way to contact me if me and my laptop ever got separated and an honest person found it. Gelaskins provides the dimensions of the skin which makes it easy to create yours in an application like Photoshop then upload it using their customizer tool.

Here is the image I uploaded:

laptop_skin_surf-400.jpg

My computer monitor and software are color calibrated so I’m ensured of accurate color when I’m editing and processing my photographs when files are printed on color-calibrated equipment. When I received the Gelaskin, this is how it appears:

gel-product.JPG

The photo of the installed skin was made on my iPhone in overcast daylight, but the representation is accurate. Overall, the image is dark, lacking the green and brightness of the original. It’s very disappointing. I know how difficult it can be to match color; a few years ago I was creating dye sublimated products for clients sending me image files processed with no color calibration or with custom embedded profiles. But, I do know that color should be represented fairly accurately when both ends of the process use color calibrated equipment. Again, there isn’t any information I could find at either Gelaskins or Skinit that addressed color accuracy.

My main reason for getting the skin was to differentiate it amongst other, similar, laptops and, honestly, the only person that will know the color is not the same as the original is me (well, maybe not now). Print quality is good, however. Fine details are rendered sharply. The skin is not smooth or glossy. There is a textured, grid pattern to the surface, giving the image more of a matte or luster finish. Other than the issue with the color, I’m pleased with the product so far. We’ll see how the corners and edges hold up and if they begin to peel up after some use. For now, I’m relieved I have a distinguishing characteristic to my laptop, but will still keep my eye on it as it goes through airport security.

Review of the Promote Control remote for digital cameras, Part 1

Promote Control

While technological advances in digital photography have opened up many creative doors, the downside is often the increased need to carry more equipment; laptop, software, external power supplies, cables, etc. If you’re working in a studio, the extra equipment can get in the way but it’s manageable. Once you leave the confines of the studio and readily-available power, things get more problematic.

Promote Systems
, has built a multi-functional remote control for Canon and Nikon cameras that allows the photographer to ditch the laptop and head to the field (or reduce clutter in the studio) to create HDR exposure brackets, time lapse series, Bulb ramping, focus-stacked macros, HDR time lapse, HDR bulb ramping, and HDR focus stacking. The Promote Control also operates as a one-shot remote and has a built-in hyperfocal distance calculator.

The major advantages of the Promote Control are:

1. Multi-functional control in one small, very portable, device (it’s the same size as an iPhone but twice as thick).
2. It’s easy to set up and use. The menu system is straightforward and button operation is clean and precise.
3. Increased functionality for owners of Nikon and Canon cameras limited to 3-exposure auto exposure bracketing for HDR, no intervalometer remote (or on camera), or limited capability remote control.

I’ve used the Promote Control (PC) with my Canon 1D Mk IV and it works great. But, while the PC expands what I can do with my 1D MK IV, it would add significant functionality and abilities to owners of cameras like the Canon Rebel series, 30D, 40D, 50D, 5D MK III, Nikon D40, D50, D60, and other Canon & Nikon models with limited functionality when it comes to HDR bracketing and intervalometer capabilities. Camera bodies with Live View will have more capability using the Promote Control.

Here are some of the features of the Promote Control I’m currently testing and will report on in Part II of my review coming soon:

* Auto exposure bracketing from 2 to 45 exposures for HDR or other uses in 1/3EV – 9.0EV step range between exposures and programmable shutter speeds of 1day10hour to 1/4000+
* Time lapse sequences in exposure intervals from 00:00:01 to 99:99:99 and 1 to infinite number of frames
* Mirror lock-up prior to each exposure for all modes (with optional shutter cable)
* Focus stacking
* HDR focus stacking
* HDR time lapse
* Bulb ramping (for time lapse sequences over changing light conditions such as sunrise/sunset, with optional shutter cable)
* Bulb HDR

Other features are

* One Shot: operates like a regular remote shutter release for making single exposures, except you can change the camera settings (aperture, shutter speed, ISO) using the Promote Control (shutter speed control requires the optional shutter cable)
* Manual Shutter Hold: For single timed exposures in bulb mode using an external timer. There isn’t a built-in timer for this function like in the Canon TC-80N3 or Nikon MC-36 remotes. Operation is a simple click to open the shutter and a second click to close it. I would like to see a timer function added in a future firmware upgrade. As it is now, this would be the least useful feature for me on the Promote Control
* Hyperfocal distance calculator for full-size, 1.3X, 1.5X, 1.6X, and 2X (4/3) sensors plus 6×7, 6×6 and 645 film
* AC power jack for external power
* Capability to receive commands from external remote sensors (noise, light, motion, etc.) and compatible with any sensor capable of triggering a Canon Rebel
* Can use the Promote Control with motorized panoramic heads

What all is included with the Promote Control?

* the unit
* 2 AA batteries
* instruction manual (also available in PDF form online)
* semi-hard carry case
* neck strap
* USB cable for firmware updates
* USB remote cable for your camera model

Optional accessories are the camera-model-specific shutter release cable needed for some operations, a soft case for mounting on a tripod leg (with clear panel for button access), wireless remote sensor, and a remote control hub that allows you to control multiple Promote Controls for things like 3D HDR and 3D time lapse.

The Promote Control is a very useful device and is compact enough to ride in my camera bag or backpack.

** Carry case UPDATE ** I received the new case today and it works great. It’s the same size as the original carry case, but thicker to be able to hold the camera to Promote USB cable and an optional shutter cable. I wasn’t able to fit the Promote to computer USB firmware update cable into the case along with the other two cables, but as previously mentioned, you’re not likely to need to carry the firmware USB cable with you all the time. It will probably ride in your accessory cable bag or laptop bag, anyway.

Stay tuned for future reviews of the specific functions as I compile them. Just a teaser, here’s an example of a focus stack I did of one of my pocket watches:

pocket watch

Adore Noir – An online magazine specializing in fine art B&W photography


In April, 2011, a new Canada-based specialty magazine arrived online, Adore Noir. Catering to connoisseurs and practitioners of black and white photography, the magazine’s mission, as described by Chris Kovacs, the editor and publisher, is “To provide a stage for photo artists around the world to showcase their work. To gather information from prominent figures in the art world. To provide inspiration to both collectors and photographers.” The magazine, strictly online, showcases 6 noted or emerging black and white photographers from around the world in an extensive interview format and image portfolio covering approximately 12 pages per artist. Notably, many of the photographers profiled to date use digital manipulation prominently in their work, an expected change from the ‘old’ silver halide process even though a couple pinhole photographers have been profiled as well. I expect more film-based photography will be profiled in future editions, as well as other monochrome methods.

Additional articles are also found within the 95 – 105 pages in each issue covering topics such as “The Artistic Mind”, “The Nude in Public”, and “The Muse”. Articles have been written by regular contributors Spiedr Thorne and Kovacs’ wife Sandra, but future issues will contain contributing authors from around the world via submissions. The articles in the first two editions have been well-written and insightful.

The photos in the artist portfolio are reproduced very well, shown within the text and one-per-page, large, with ample negative space.

With the first issue, Chris Kovacs intended the magazine to be published quarterly. But, the popularity after that first issue prompted him to move to a bi-monthly publication. June 1 saw the second edition and the third is in the works, scheduled for an August 1 release. Issues(PDF download) are available online for $2.95 (CAD) each.

Website of the Week

I used to post each week about an interesting photography website I’d come across in my internet wanderings. Somehow, that got dropped (like posting regularly to my blog, if you hadn’t noticed. I’m working on fixing that). I’m not sure if I’ll resurrect the Website of the Week feature as a regular blog post, but I’ll continue to occasionally tell you about interesting sites I come across.

Regardless, I’d like to profile in this edition a photographer from Poland; Kryzstof Wladyka

I first came across his website listed in Adore Noir magazine (more on that in another blog post) and what caught my eye was this spectacular photograph:

The vision of a wolf carrying a stuffed animal in its mouth through a darkened forest immediately brought to mind the issue of wolf reintroduction and management in Idaho and the deep-seated fear (and hatred) many people have of wolves, especially out here in the western U.S. As an artist and photographer, I could appreciate the photograph for its artistic merits, the feelings and emotion created by the monochromatic image, the grungy, pinhole-type look adding to the mood. As a wildlife biologist, I’m conflicted because the image plays on generally unfounded fears (at least here in the U.S. wolf attacks are quite rare). In Europe, however, there is a long history of wolves attacking and killing humans, so the image in that part of the world would perhaps invoke stronger emotions.

That image prompted me to look further into Krzysztof’s portfolio. Under descriptive but enigmatic titles such as Animalies, Heroes, Plasticon, Scarecrows, Strangers, Mono, Five Minutes to Midnight, and others, his work is interesting, abstract, quirky, and thoroughly fun to browse. If you get a chance to check out his site, I think you’ll enjoy what you see.

Topaz Labs Lens Effects – First Impressions

New from Topaz Labs, Lens Effects is a Photoshop/Lightroom plug-in that gives you the ability to create a diverse range of lens, filter, and camera effects by controlling such things as bokeh, vignetting, adding tilt-shift, pinhole, graduated neutral density, creative blur (“lensbaby” effect), gradient color, “old school” preset styles and more. Plus, by using the effects and presets in combination, recreate the toy camera style looks of Holga and Diana cameras.

The working area is divided into three zones. At the left are the effects (top) and presets (bottom) panels. The presets can be used as is or as a starting point and further adjusted to your liking. The middle shows the image preview (press space to toggle between before and after, or click on the split screen icon at the top right to show them at the same time). On the right side are the effects sliders and controls. If you create a look you want to keep you can name it and save it as a preset for future use. The Apply button finalizes the effect. You can stack effects by clicking Apply each time you complete an effect, but there is no undo. So, you have to start over if you end up with an effect you don’t like.

Topaz Lens Effects has some built-in tools to make working with the application easier:
Smart brush: Makes selecting specific areas easier, especially when creating or adjusting depth maps for the bokeh effect.
Apply button: As described already, allows for stacking of effects.
Split screen: Also described, for comparing before and after effects.
Select Effect Center: With a single click you can designate where the center of the effect will be in your image.

I used Lens Effects on a photo I recently shot up in Riggins, Idaho. I used the effects of Camera – Pinhole and Lens – Creative Blur.

The release date of Lens Effects is May 5, 2011. Pricing information is not available at this time. I’ll update when I have it. You can view a 30-minute demo video on YouTube and a free trial will be available for download. To order Lens Effects or any other Topaz Labs plug in, click Here.

My impression of Lens Effects is good. I think there are other products out there that do the same or similar, and without pricing data I can’t really compare them at this point. I found the creation of shaped specular highlights using the aperture shape adjustment in the Bokeh – Selective effect a little difficult, primarily because the process is not detailed (there was no Help or tutorial provided with the Beta). You must first manipulate the depth map to select the highlight areas you want to effect, then adjust the highlight brightness, and select the aperture shape (# of blades). Some further adjustment was warranted to get an effect I was working toward. But, it does provide plenty of opportunity for fine tuning the effect.

I also use Topaz Adjust, and in combination with the other plug-ins Topaz Labs has available, I think Lens Effects would be a useful addition to that toolbox.

UPDATE 5-7-11: The retail price for Lens Effects is $79.99, but until June 1 is being offered at $49.99. To order, click here.

Review: 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More

I think I’m an organized person. I’ve even been told that by my friends. And I am, compared to some, but not so much compared to others. I’m also, some would say, strongly independent. I’m not a fan of books by authors who are telling me what I should do because most of the ones I’ve browsed (and there have been many) are more about the author and how great they are than about any practical or useful solutions, programs, or processes I can use (or understand) in my own life or business. But, please read on.

When I was asked to review Stever Robbins’ new book 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More, I was initially reluctant, since I think I’m biased against “self-help” type books. I had never heard of Stever Robbins (the Get-It-Done-Guy) but, luckily, I was given a preview site for the book (www.getitdoneguynews.com). After reading a sample chapter, viewing a couple videos, and listening to a podcast, I agreed. I liked his style and thought he was worth a closer look, especially from the point of view of a freelance photographer. Maybe this guy did have something useful to offer.

In my experience (personal and otherwise), creative people would rather be creative than be organized. The business aspect of being in business is boring and takes away from our ability to create by distracting us with minute details, rules, paperwork, marketing, networking, managing our time, and other activities not related to the actual creation of the work we do. But, unfortunately, if you’re in business these are the things you must take care of or you won’t be in business very long and you won’t be living a happy, successful, creative, life. Freelance photographers (even staff photographers) are already struggling with organizing, tracking, and archiving our digital files. How much time does that take away from actually photographing? We need to be organized and lead a somewhat structured life to maximize the time we have available to photograph and just enjoy ourselves; even if that structure is fairly simple.

Stever Robbins has written a book photographers can use.

9 Steps to Work Less and Do More is just over 200 pages in, coincidentally enough, 9 chapters, each covering one of the 9 steps. This book is a guide to help you figure out what works for you, not someone you don’t know telling you how to fit your life into their “formula for success”. Ultimately, you are the only one who can make the decisions about what works for you and what doesn’t. Stever Robbins breaks down this process into easy to understand and very doable processes you can integrate into your daily routine. His writing style is conversational and reads like a transcript to one of his videos or podcasts. Stever is an entrepreneur, author, professional speaker, business coach, involved in some major business start-ups, and dabbles in stand-up comedy. It’s easy to imagine this book as a personal lecture from Stever.

The chapters (steps) go like this:

Step 1: Live on Purpose. This isn’t an exercise to “discover or craft your life mission” but to identify the goals that mean something to you and your life, then doing that stuff and not the stuff that isn’t helping you reach those goals.

Step 2: Stop Procrastinating. We all want to find ways to avoid procrastinating (can you actually do that?). Stever suggests several easy approaches to altering our behavior and staying on track.

Step 3: Conquer Technology. Technology can be a real time sink. In this chapter, you’ll learn some simple things to reduce the time spent messing around with it.

Step 4: Beat Distractions to Cultivate Focus. How to manage interruptions, set boundaries, saying no, organizing your work week.

Step 5: Stay Organized. File organization, tossing clutter, organizing your stuff, and tracking projects.

Step 6: Stop Wasting Time. Doing work that matters, the 80/20 rule, overcoming perfectionism.

Step 7: Optimize. Dumping useless productivity systems, using feedback, getting help, listening to yourself.

Step 8: Build Stronger Relationships. Don’t be happy with a mediocre life. Building close relationships, cutting the small talk, preventing conflicts and ending them quickly, taking responsibility.

Step 9: Leverage. “Getting outsized results without having to put in more resources or work”. Using your strengths and skills that come naturally to your advantage.

This book is an easy read with useful, simple, practical and common-sense suggestions to getting your life more organized so you can “work less” (spend your time more productively) and, thus, “do more”. If you need a friendly kick in the pants, you should check this one out.