This life in pictures.

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Instagram for Android?!? I’d Rather Not

So, Instagram finally became available to Android users today. Of course, being the app whore that I am, I scooped it up as soon as I could. I have to say, I was somewhat surprised to discover how underwhelming the app really is.

“How dare he say such a thing?!?”, I’m sure some iClone just snorted before leaving my page in a huff. For everyone else, just stick with me for a minute or two and I’ll explain.

I am a reformed Mac user. I made the conscious decision to leave all things Apple behind several years ago after spending good money after bad every couple of years when my iPods would die (as if on a timer). It was also time to replace my elderly mac desktop and I couldn’t justify spending thousands of dollars for a new one when I could get more for less with a PC (so far, so good, by the way). I was already on my way out the door when the iPhone came out and I saw no need at the time to have anything more than a regular dumb phone, so I just stayed out of the iCult.

In recent years, I have been turned onto photography. I also finally had a chance to graduate to the world of the smart-phone. Unfortunately, the money to upgrade two lines to iPhones just didn’t exist. Besides, at the time, it was only available on one network and we were about to be grandfathered into an unlimited data plan with the one we had. We weren’t going to switch carriers, so we got the best Android smart phones with the best built in cameras possible that we could afford (a couple of refurbed DroidX’s which literally cost next to nothing).

So far, I’ve been very happy with that decision. Sure, there are times when I see how easily the iPhone handles certain tasks and get a bit jealous, but overall, I’m very happy with how my phone performs. I must say, however, that I have always been jealous of the gated community that was Instagram. Every day I’d see people posting incredible images and having a great time doing it, and I said, “I want to go there”. I’ve tried many different ways to get that sort of experience out of the Android, but I’ve always been left feeling a bit let down.

Well, today the storied gates finally came down and Instagram let us Android riff-raff into the pool. I wondered at the slick interface… the ease and speed of navigating the image pool… the shiny, happy iPeople holding hands as they ran through golden meadows… then came time to upload my first image. I snapped off an absurdly average image and went to work on going through the deeply textured, immensely layered and complex editing interfa… no wait, that’s not what happened…

After all of the hype, after two years of waiting, after facing all of the snobbish iElitism… it turns out Instagram has only a dozen or so bland, nonadjustable filters… no exposure controls, no ability to crop a photo (unless it’s being imported, presumably to cut off the forced border from some other bland filter app), no real enhancement features of any kind. Ok, you have the option of turning the frame portion of the filter off and there’s this weird auto-enhance button that makes most everything look like an overdone HDR photo, but that’s all you get.

So, it’s an unimpressive filter overlay generator, at best. I already have a dozen of those and most look as good or better. What’s left then? Oh, right… the social aspect.

First, let me point out that taking a photo, applying a filter (I refuse to call this editing on any level), tagging it and sharing it off to Twitter, Effbook, Tumbler and FourSquare are very easy and fast. Second, let me point out that once a photo is posted, people actually see it right away. There’s no strange minimum number of hearts or comments required (I’m looking at you Molo.me) for it to be seen by the populace, so that’s nice. The problem is that the iNazis that make up the populace DON”T WANT US THERE! To these people, being an Android user is like having digital herpes. They might appreciate our photos now and again, but once they catch sight of a sore, we’re shunned!

So, to recap… I find Instagram to be a mediocre photo enhancer made solely to funnel images into a community that wishes to segregate the “i’s” from the “I’d rather nots”. I say let them have their outdated app and their gated community. There are still plenty of options for those of us on the outside (including my new favorite, Aviary). Me, I’ll probably keep posting to Instagram for the pure joy of watching the iFrownyfaces make their faces all frowny and because it is super easy to get a photo out to Twitter and Tumbler. Of course, now that I find that to be such an important feature to my workflow, I’m sure I can find a native Android feature that does it just as well.

Oh, and if anyone does want to find me at the Instagram Country Club, I’m jedwardferguson.

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Falls & Fowl: Why It’s a Good Idea to Always Carry a Camera

Falling Geese
Falling Geese

Falling Geese

I was on my way past the waterfall next to the Assembly in Harrisville, RI last night, right at the perfect moment of sunset. The light was shining right across the water and making everything perfectly golden. I was looking at the house on the shore (this one) and debating whether or not to stop and take some snaps of the absolutely perfect reflections with my phone when I caught sight of these geese just chillin’ atop the waterfall itself. I wished nothing more than to have my dSLR on me at that moment, then I remembered I did! It was sitting in the backseat in hopes of using it at the event I was heading to.

It’s really amazing how quickly the light can change at sunset. I whipped the car around by speeding through the “village”, potentially cutting someone of in spectacular fashion, and parked across the street from the falls. By the time I’d gotten across the street, the magnificent golden glow was gone. The time frame from spotting the scene to having the camera to my eye was only 90 seconds or so, but what a difference that minute and a half made. Oh well, the geese were still there, and that’s the shot I was after. See, I’ve shot all of the landmark spots in this town so many times that It’s hard to get very excited about going back. It takes a monumental change in the scene (a forty year flood, ice feature, wildlife element, etc.) for me to even bother taking off the lens cap now.

So, the shot… I was able to walk (slowly) right up to the fence at the edge of the falls. The geese were so comfortable being where they were that I probably could have run right up on them, but why take the chance? I still had the 40-150mm, f4-5.6 Zuiko attached to my Olympus E-600 from the last time I shot. I started off in my old standby aperture priority mode set to f8, then I tried opening the aperture to f5 to get a shallower depth of field.  I was hoping to blur the fore and background and get some added definition to the geese, but I soon realized that I’d rather have the water be blurred.  To achieve this, I switched to shutter priority mode and set a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second. The camera selected an ISO of 200 and an aperture of f8. I kept the lens zoomed all of the way in for most of the shoot, which gave me some stability issues. In hindsight, I probably should have sped the shutter up to around 1/30th of a second (or been lucky enough to have my tripod in the trunk!).

I spent about 5 minutes taking photos. Since there were a pair of geese, I needed a bit of patience to catch both of them with their heads up and necks stretched in a pleasant way. I spent about half the time shooting with manual focus, but finished up using auto-focus, selecting which focal point to use and then using focus lock. It had become hard to tell if the focus issues I was seeing were because of camera shake or my poor vision, so this at least took one of the factors out of the equation. By the time I shot the last two photos (the one presented here and another in vertical orientation showing more of the water), I knew most of my focus issues were taken care of and I had gotten what I needed.

Today, I loaded the set of 24 images into Lightroom. I was able to eliminate 15 or so right off the bat for focus issues and/or unflattering poses. The rest I processed very similarly; adding contrast, clarity and saturation then reducing noise, warming the shadows and adding some vignette. To be honest, I really only do this to the first photo in the set when they’re all similar, then I just paste the settings from the previous photo and hit the auto exposure button. This works out more times than not.

Once all that basic processing was done, this photo stood out as the clear winner, but I was dissatisfied by how flat it looked. The answer, as is usually the case for me, was to convert to black and white. The image still looked flat after pushing the B&W button, so I had to add some more contrast. I did that by using the adjustment scrubber in the contrast and B&W mix panels. I really love that feature in Lightroom! It allows you to grab whatever specific tone you wish to adjust right in the picture and drag it to your liking. Very slick. My last step in the process was to do a bit of sepia toning using the split toning panel.

There you have it… a shot I never would have gotten if I didn’t have my camera on me. Being able to carry a camera phone around at all times is all well and good, but there’s those moments in life where you just need the real thing.


And Then There Was Aviary

Material Bias: Wood
Material Bias: Wood

Material Bias: Wood

I posted last week about some of my favorite photography apps for Android. I knew at the time that it wouldn’t be too long before something would come along to render my stated preferences, for all intents and purposes, entirely moot… well, almost anyway.

Material Bias: Brick

Material Bias: Brick

It’s no secret that I’ve been harboring a deep jealousy for the photo editing capabilities of the iPhone. I never had much of any intention to reenter the cult of mac, however. Instead, I’ve been waiting ever so patiently for some of the great iPhone only app masters to get around to noticing the huge market us Android users represent and, well… exploiting us. Largest among many of us has to be the ever present threat of Instagram finally jumping over.

Over the weekend, Lifehacker.com posted this little gem about the Instagram jump finally being imminent. I couldn’t get to the article fast enough, but I took a moment to read through the first few comments and had a bit of a change of heart. One person pointed out that we’re excited over a fad that’s 2 years old. Another clarified that the post was only telling us that we could sign up to be notified when the app actually came out and not a hard fast promise of any actual imminent realease. Then someone mentioned Aviary.

Material Bias: Vinyl

Material Bias: Vinyl

For those not in the know (such as myself a couple of days ago), Aviary is very much an Instagram knock-off, just without the social aspect. It allows for very deep fine tuning of virtually every photographic aspect of the image. Details such as exposure (brightness), contrast, saturation, cropping and orientation are easily handled using a very intuitive and slick interface. Then there’s a full featured selection of available Instagramish filters (ten are incuded with two more packs of six available for a buck each). The free and paid filters are very nice and useful. Additionally, there are quirky “sticker” effects that can be overlayed, such as fake glasses or an eyepatch (which I have no intention of ever using, but which I’m sure 14 year old girls can’t get enough of).

The best part of the app, however, is that the final images are FULL RESOLUTION! I have a DroidX, which has an 8mp camera. It really bugged me when I’d edit something in another (sometimes paid) app and the resolution has been hacked.

Material Bias: Wood and Glass

Material Bias: Wood and Glass

So, I’ve had this app… wait, I keep calling it an app, but it’s really just a plug-in. Aviary isn’t accessed as a stand-alone editor like Vignette or Magic Hour. Instead, you simply send the image to the plug-in using the share button in your gallery viewer (I use QuickPic personally). It’s all very slick and easy and (so far so good) stable.

Ok, so I’ve had Aviary installed for a few days now. I purchased the available filter packs right away (I do hope there are more in the works). Up until today, though, I’ve only had a couple of photos to test drive the app on. But today, a bit of setting sun shining across the wood fence in my driveway caught my eye, and before I knew it I had a six photo, themed set of images to put through the ringer. All of the images in this set were captured using the Quicksnap camera app, by the way.

Material Bias: Wood and Nails

Material Bias: Wood and Nails

Editing with Aviary really is a breeze. Simply select the photo in your gallery, hit the share button and select Aviary as the destination. Once there, you face a very simple and intuitive interface. I started each of there images off by hitting the “Enhance” button then selecting Auto. I know this sort of thing can be hit or miss, but each of these photos benefited greatly in both exposure correction and creative enhancement. Each of the photos also got a run through the cropper, as I wanted the set to be square. From there, it was a matter of running each through the available filters until I found the one that worked best for each and finally adjusting the brightness, contrast and saturation (something that could have been done anywhere in the process, really). Until you set a default, you’re asked what resolution you want to save in (I set mine for 8mp and there it shall stay). You can also have the image open automatically in your gallery, which makes sharing to other social sites or whatever very easy.

Material Bias: Stone

Material Bias: Stone

Overall, I am having a love affair with Aviary at the moment. So much so, that I am no longer waiting for the arrival of Instagram to Android. Sure, you lose out on access to the Instagram community, but I’m already using Lightbox, which scratches that itch just fine. The only complaint I have about Aviary is that the creative components of the filter system are not available on their own. In other words, you can’t grab the border from this filter and put it with the toning of that filter and so on. I certainly won’t let that negate the fact that Aviary is a great tool to have in your phonography arsenal.

Try it. You won’t have to pay a dime until it comes time to get the extra filter packs. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


Through the Frames: Why I Vignette

I’ve been threatening this post for a couple of months now, but being slow to get back into a regular shooting schedule kept me from having the appropriate selection of images to include. The stretch of unseasonably warm and awesome weather last week got me up and out with a camera in one hand and a 4 year old in the other. While it’s true that i was revisiting all of the old haunts that I’ve grew sick of already, but the hiatus helped to give me a fresh perspective.

Anyway, the reason I’ve gathered you all here today is to talk about vignetting. More specifically, the reason why i use vignette so damn much! It’s something that more than a couple of people have made snarky comments about in the past, and I readily admit I have taken the effect too far at times. What people don’t really understand, however, that i see my world in constant vignette. I wear glasses. Worse yet, thick black framed glasses. My whole world is darkened around the edges!

Seems a simple explanation, doesn’t it? From the time I take a photo all the way through the editing process, the photo just doesn’t quite look right until I move that magic slider to the left in Lightroom.

Anywho, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s talk about the photo. My family decided to start up a new tradition of a weekly nice weather evening picnic. This happened to be the end of the inaugural outing (the weather has since turned back to seasonal for march). We had spread our blanket besides the waterfall next to the Assembly in Harrisville, RI. This photo was taken on our walk back from exploring the falls. I had my longer lens (40-150mm, f4-5.6 Zuiko) fitted to my Olympus E-600 and I decided to hang back for awhile as my wife and daughter walked hand in hand towards the glow of sunset.

I’ve kind of fallen in love with leaving the camera set in aperture priority mode with f8.o selected as a standard. So far, that setup has yielded consistently useful results and I admit guilt for not pushing myself out of that bit of complacency, but whatever… it worked out here. I manually set the white balance for clouds and nudged the exposure compensation to -1 to darken things up a bit (as I type this, I realize that shooting in RAW and editing in Lightroom probably make this bit of info less relevant). Being in aperture priority, the camera automatically selected an ISO of 800 and shutter speed of 1/200th of a second.

As I said, I was hanging back quite a bit, so I was zoomed in all the way to 150mm. On the Olympus E-600, that gives an equivalency of a 300mm lens on a 35mm film camera. Even so, I still had to crop a bit in Lightroom to get rid of some distracting elements at the edges of the frame. I tried very hard to keep this a color image, but it was just too dull. I couldn’t really get much contrast into the scene until I took the color out. I made the conversion by simply pushing the black and white button and adjusted the contrast by tweaking the curves then using the scrub tool in the black and white adjustment panel.

Once that was all done, I had to deal with a bit of noise. Sadly, the E-600 is a pretty noisy camera, and this image was pretty loud. I found that by trying to remove too much of the noise in Lightroom, I was causing the image to blur. The solution was to ease back on the noise reduction a bit, then add in some film grain to mask everything. Then I added in some ever present vignetting and I was done. I did add quite a bit of vignetting in this case, as I really wanted the it to help move the eye into the photo and up into the glowing sky.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out. I really like the way the sunlight is outlining the girls and the overall contrast of the photo. I really wish I could have gotten them just before their hands separated. I think that small detail detracts from the overall image quite a bit, actually. They were way too far away at that point to hear me yelling about it over the passing traffic, though, and a retake would have looked too staged, so I let it go.

I have uploaded a couple of other images from that picnic to my Flickr page. If all has gone to plan, they should be appearing to the right here (if you’re reading this within a few days of posting, anyway). Please take a moment to check out some of my other photos if you like what I do.


Letting a Dead Dog Lie

I came to realize recently that I have to many projects going on. Ok, most people would consider them hobbies, but I am trying to find ways to monetize them. Either way, I knew I was spending far too much time on the various projects. Mostly, this was because I was stubbornly refusing to give up my ancient Apple G4 PowerPC (non Intel) system. I got the thing used about five years ago, and it was already starting to slow down then. I had put more memory, upgraded the processor and managed the hell out of the file system, but I could no longer ignore the weakest link in the chain… it simply did not have an Intel based processor, and software developers had decided to leave users like me behind.

The largest hurdle in my way regarding the upgrade was that I couldn’t afford to get another Mac. Even used systems were out of my price range. The thought of having to rebuild all of my software and preferences and file system gave me night sweats, so I put it off as long as I could. When it started taking more than 5 minutes to perform simple photo edits, I knew there was no choice but to switch.

A friend of mine has a cousin that owns a computer store nearby. Occasionally, people will drop off machines for repairs, find out how much the repair costs will be and never return to pick it up. Luckily for me, I was in the market for a decent performing used machine right around the same time as this guy was deciding to sell off the orphans. As a result, I now have a fairly new Dell laptop with decent specs, and i got it for a song.

I don’t think you can really appreciate how bad a situation has gotten until you see it from a new light. This can be true about ending a relationship, starting a new job, test driving a newer car, and upgrading a computer system. i know I don’t have a fast computer by any means, but this thing smokes what I was using. It’s allowing me to finally speed my workflow for photo editing, web store maintenance, blogging and music recording to the point that I can give all of my projects the attention they deserve.

Now all that is holding me back is my own proclivity for procrastination.