"Understanding Exposure" by Bryan Peterson

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's one of the best books for learning photography.

The Long Version: I bought Bryan Peterson's book "Understanding Exposure: How to Shoot Great Photographs with a Film or Digital Camera" (Amphoto Books) after reading multiple recommendations for it on several photography forums. It's one that I've read several times, and one that I've started recommending to anybody who wants help learning how to control their camera. On Amazon.com it's the second most popular photography book, only beaten by Scott Kelby's opus, Don't You Think I'm Funny In The Digital Photography Book.

"Understanding Exposure" is broken into four main sections. The first deals with the technical aspects of the cameras' controls, and does a good job explaining the relationship between shutter speed, aperture values, iso, and the whole idea of 'stops'. The explanation is as good as any I've read, which means it will probably still be confusing to many – it's a tough concept to really get – but the book doesn't get dragged down into the technical details. The point of the book is to make creative choices instead of just technically correct ones.

The bulk of the book is in the two sections that deal with aperture and shutter speed, and why particular values would be used in different situations. It provides a solid introduction to what most photographers come to know intuitively, skipping a lot of the whole learning-from-experience drudgery. It may even provide a useful summary even for those who have already put in the time. The sample photos are inspiring and clearly illustrate the techniques being taught, and Bryan Peterson sneaks a surprising amount of instruction into his stories and captions. It's something of a beginner's version of McNally's The Moment it Clicks, which is very high praise.

The book concludes with a discussion of light and special techniques which may be useful for those who haven't read similar material in every other how-to-photograph book. He includes a couple of useful tips on how to find neutral grey and other references in real-world scenes, which makes these chapters worth reading, and the final film-versus-digital section is so dated that it's quaint. Sometimes 2004 seems so so long ago.


Used Computer Parts

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Your mileage will vary depending on the quality of your neighbor's cast-offs

The Long Version:
I was feeling guilty that my girlfriend's computer monitor was a tiny and very old 15" CRT that was blurry and had both ghosting and burned-in areas.
How can you truly enjoy People.com when the photos are small and nasty, and the type isn't sharp?

Pricing LCD replacements gave me a case of sticker-shock, especially since I use my computer 10 times more than she uses hers, and do a lot of critical PhotoShop work that deserves a better display than I've been using.
But do I get myself a new one and then make her suffer with my hand-me-down screen?
No, that just doesn't seem right.

Recently I stopped into the computer repair and parts store around the corner to check for good deals on games and random hardware, and the used monitor section caught my attention. There were a few 17" Dell CRTs for the yard sale price of $9.99, so I figured that even with the No Returns, No Refunds stipulation it was worth a gamble.
The owner hooked my choice up to his system and let me see a very uninspiring and unhelpful desktop photo with some icons for type sharpness, but the monitor was operating fine and it just had to be an improvement, so I took the chance.

Got it home, hooked it up, did some minimal calibration with grayscale and color test images, then a little fine-tuning using my own photos. Took a shower while letting it warm-up some more, then did some additional calibrating.

The Result?
Looked so much better than the monitor I'm used to that I got really jealous, and went back a few hours later for my own awesome $10 Dell.
Had to reject two during in-store testing, but the one I eventually bought is every bit as nice as the first. A few minutes spent getting the black and white points set, then tweaking the image placement within the screen, and I could not be happier.

I would estimate that our old monitors were a 5 and a 3, while the new-to-us ones are a nine and a 9.5
This was a serious upgrade at a laughable price.

You can have your expensive LCD displays--I'm more than willing to live with bulky and hot CRTs for a few more years when the image quality approaches perfection and so does the price.
This was a steal, twice!
19 inch are around $30 in several local shops, so I may be going bigger soon.

No picture accompanies this review because there is simply no practical way to convey the quality improvement between computer monitors in a digital photograph; much like there's no way to convey the reality of a fine art print over the internet, you have to experience it for yourself.
The rare and delightful unphotographable subject.


Garfield Minus Garfield

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Who's strip is it, anyway?

The Long Version:


Garfield Minus Garfield is a brilliant piece of work. The idea of getting rid of the cat has the effect of removing the punch-line from the joke, leaving only the odd and sad story that surrounds it. As the author of the site writes, "Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? "

Jim Davis, quoted in the cleverly-headlined Washington Post article "When the Cat's Away, Neurosis is on Display" has called the remix 'inspired'. I can't really argue, and the article is worth the read. For one thing, the reporter manages to identify the creator of Garfield Minus, which was more than I was able to do. Scooped by the Washington Post -- the story of my life.

But the new strip often turns out to be very dark. Like watching Eeyore instead of Winnie, there's a real melancholy to Jon's life that cuts through the comedy. It isn't that the strip isn't funny, but rather that Jon becomes a sympathetic character. I consider a work of art or satire to be successful if it changes how I perceive its subject. Garfield Minus Garfield has done that for me.

I've actually gone back to the original -- and this review marks it's thirtieth birthday, making it just a few years younger than me -- to find the strips that include the full cast. It's still funny, but now when I see Jon, I also imagine him without a wisecracking talking cat and instead picture just a lonely man with nobody else to talk to.

Garfield Minus Garfield is a brilliant idea, but to find a ranking for it I have to consider that this is a repurposing of the original. The execution is well done, but I'm really not sure who the strip belongs to. I'm just glad that it exists, and hope that the copyright issues don't deprive us of this kind of creativity.

updated september 2008: Jim Davis has to be one of the coolest guys around.  Instead of getting all RIAA'ed over the strip, he's publishing the altered versions next to the originals in a book.  (Details here.)  Now I know what I want for Christmas.


Toronto City Hall

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It is but ugly from North-East-West; when the view is Southerly, it can tell a hawk from a handsaw.

The Long Version: This review is about the architecture: the container, not the contents.

The building itself is a square base with two curved towers cupping a flying-saucer shaped council chamber. It's an excellent piece of Modernist architecture, completed in 1965, and designed by Viljo Revell as his only work outside of his native Finland. It faces south, looking at the public square in front of it, Queen street, the Financial district, and Lake Ontario. Seeing the structure from Queen street is an impressive sight -- soon to get better once the square is redone -- exactly the way the architect intended it.

There's a lot to like about the New City Hall. It has outdoor art, a much-photographed fountain that turns into a mushy skating rink in our increasingly mild winters, and even has a peace garden with an eternal flame lit by His Holiness Pope John Paul 2. There are free concerts and art festivals in the summer, it hosts Christmas and New Year's celebrations in the winter, and has hot dog vendors all year. What more could you ask?

How about wanting a better metaphor for city governance?

The photo at top of this review shows the other side of City Hall -- the sides that face the city. Here all of the positive associations are reversed: the building has its back to the city it serves, showing only windowless walls as the towers huddle inwards to shelter the council chambers. It's ugly and unwelcoming, to the point where being buried in more glass condo towers with uninspired names will be a relief. Ever the source of understatement, even Wikipedia has an opinion: "The north, west, and east elevations are plain in contrast with the south elevation; each presents a view of unrelieved concrete."

Displaced to build it in the mid 1950's, much of Toronto's Chinese population moved just a little north and west to Spadina avenue, largely but not entirely displacing most of Toronto's Jewish population, who also moved a little farther north. Since then, the city has expanded tremendously, all to the north, east, and west of the building that houses the city's management and forms its logo. You literally cannot see the vast majority of the city from city hall.

Given that architecture is a form of communication, and that this building is a monument to public life, there's no excuse for such an insular and literally self-centered design.



Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Anything's better than pigeons.

The Long Version: Unlike pigeons, I have a certain respect for seagulls. Not only do they fly, they're pretty good at it, and sometimes do it for fun. I've even heard stories that they exist outside of cities, where they actually work for a living.

And if that wasn't enough to earn them a little credibility, around here they take food from pigeons.

While I still call them seagulls, the bird that illustrates this review is properly called a ring-billed gull. They're the most common variety in Toronto, but we do get the occasional herring gull as well.


Olympus 770SW and Friends

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: For a compact digital camera, it's da bomb-proof.

The Long Version: I own the Olympus 770SW, and have had plenty of opportunities to play with its newer friends, the 850SW and 1030SW. So while this is primarily a review of the 770, it broadly applies to the others as well. These cameras are remarkable for being incredibly tough and waterproof without any sort of accessory case.

A note on nomenclature: In North America Olympus uses the branding "Stylus", apparently thinking that their cameras can be used as a writing instrument, while elsewhere they're called the "µ[mju]" line. If this is the precedent that made Sony call its newly-purchased DSLR camera line the "α", then Olympus has a lot to answer for. But wherever you may be in the world, the name is dumb and best forgotten. I call these cameras by their number designation alone.

I first learned about the SW series - which stands for Shock and Water proof - in early 2007 when the 720SW was already on its way out of the market. So instead of taking the old model, I pre-ordered the new 770SW from a local camera store, sight and images unseen. I took two: one for me and another for a co-worker. I wanted one for a vacation and kayaking camera, he wanted one because he has kids. The third third person working in the warehouse bought his own when he saw ours. It's so different from everything else that it simply has no competitors. Even though a year has passed since my initial decision, there's still nothing on the market that rivals these little cameras. And no, before someone leaves me a nasty comment, the Pentax Optio W series doesn't count. Not by a long fall.

First of all, believe the press release and all the ads you see. These cameras really are waterproof. I've had mine in the Pacific ocean on a couple of continents, scrubbed plaster dust from it after a hard day of kitchen renovations, use it in the rain on a regular basis, and have taken photos from the wet end of a fountain just for fun. I can't say that I've dropped mine onto concrete from 5 feet - which is what the 770 and 850 are good for, the 1030 is rated for six-and-a-half - but I don't doubt that it would survive. And for the sake of this review, I just tested its crush-proof rating by standing on it. No problem.

Before you continue reading this review, please consider getting your own personal point-and-shoot camera out of storage and standing on it.

Admittedly, I'm a little shy of the full 100 kilos (220 pounds for American readers) that the SW series is rated to withstand. But I have a lot of experience with Olympus cameras and how tough they can be. And instead of scaling back their claims for the SW series, the newest model - the 1030SW - is advertised as being even tougher than the others. I have a lot of faith that these cameras can be pushed as far as they say that they can.

When the 770SW was new, anti-shaken / image stabilized / vibration-reductioned compact cameras were exotic. These days some sort of physical stabilization, either optical or sensor-shift, has turned into the oxymoronic mandatory feature. This is one of the two ways that the 850SW and 1030SW fall short of their store-shelf neighbours. I'm sure that if there was a way to get a tough-enough stabilization into its shockproof cameras Olympus wouldn't hesitate to do it, but for now there's only the "digital" option that involves boosting the iso setting. It's not the same thing, and it doesn't work nearly as well.

But to keep this in perspective, I'm not sure how well optical stabilization will work on an Elph after it's been dropped, stepped on, and then kicked into the bottom of the swimming pool. I bet that the greater viscosity of the water would mess with its accelerometers, or perhaps there would be some other disappointment with its performance. (If anyone's tried this, please let me know.)

The other way the SW series falls down is its use of xD cards, which is the vestigial flipper of the memory card world. Everyone else, except for Sony who have their own problems, is using the cheaper and faster SD cards. Of course, Olympus originally pinned their hopes on the Smartmedia card, so they do have a history of not being on the same bus as the rest of the world. It's not a big deal; if you buy an Olympus camera, you'll just have to buy a new memory card that will never be used in another brand of camera. The way memory prices keep dropping, that's probably true anyway.

And yes, the LCD does get washed out by bright sunlight. Short of an optical viewfinder, which only a few Canon and Sony cameras still have, this is a problem for everyone.

Olympus has learned a little about how people use cameras. With the 770SW in review mode, an information overlay appears on each photo as it's called up. This gives detailed information like iso, shutter speed, and aperture: all of which will mean very little to the average user and is completely outside the user's control in any event. (Okay, iso can be controlled, but that's it.) It's annoying. Fortunately the 850 and 1030 don't do this, and instead have a cute little wipe-animation as each new photo comes up. Also annoying, but a little more user-friendly.

But even with those two or three minor issues, I simply adore this camera. It's small enough to carry without being too small to use, and its strong construction gives it a nice heft. The english language lacks a word to describe the satisfaction that comes from using a really well-made tool, which is what I feel when using this jewel. And now that I no longer do any 'serious' lunch-hour photography it has replaced my SLR(s) as the camera that I carry with me when I'm at work or scooting around town. It lives in my backpack or jacket pocket, and I never have to worry about it being set down too suddenly or getting wet from condensation from a beverage or wayward rain. The real reason for someone like me to have a compact camera is to be able to carry it all the time, and this one really meets that requirement.

Olympus also builds a couple of eccentric features into its cameras. For one thing, they double as travel alarm clocks. Feel free to scoff - I did when my mother first told me that her Stylus 800 could do it - but it's surprisingly useful. (If nothing else, set it to go off at 8pm every evening so that you don't lose the little thing.) And holding down one of the buttons with the power off will trigger its little LED illuminator to light for 90 seconds. How can I not love a camera that has a built-in flash light? Sure, it's no LED mag-lite, but it gets the job done when there's nothing else available.

If something tragic happened to my trusty 770SW, I wouldn't hesitate to replace it with the new 1030SW. It has a better lens, as it goes to a wider 28mm-equivalent, which is also the biggest real difference between it and the 850SW. The current cameras also include face recognition, which can be handy if you like people. There's not enough reason for me to outright upgrade from a perfectly good camera quite yet, but I'm sure that eventually there will be a new SW camera in my life.

Finally, A Few Words About Image Quality:

Some people think this is the most important feature of a compact camera. It's not. For the definitive word on the subject, I offer a heavily edited excerpt of this advice from Mike Johnston:

"I won't keep you in suspense. Here's the upshot: they're all shit. And I don't mean "shit" as a pseudo-hip way of registering a connoisseur's disapproval of the demotic or an enthusiast's disdain for the democratic. I mean that despite their cunning little shiny bodies and technologically marvelous innards, as cameras they're little stinking turdlets of fresh, steaming excrement.
Accordingly, the best advice I can offer with regard to choosing a digital point-and-shoot is: don't waste your time. I am not speaking colloquially—I don't mean you should forego the activity altogether. No. I'm saying if you spend long hours reading reviews, comparing features, gathering opinions, and agonizing over slight advantages and disadvantages, weighing pros and cons, you will be losing precious minutes and hours of your time on Earth that you will never get back. [...] Once you get your new camera home, then spend some time. Spend an hour or two carefully and thoroughly reading the instruction manual, all the way through. [...] Go over it enough times so that you feel you've got it mastered. [...] Good photographers can actually learn to use point-and-shoots reasonably effectively, and you can, too. But only if you try."

(emphasis added.)

So there you have it. Reading this review has probably consumed all of your decision-making time. If you like the sound of an indestructible camera, go buy one. I'd suggest the 1030SW or whatever new model is the current top-of-the-line in the SW series. Remember that you won't break this one, so spend the extra money. If image stabilization is the most important feature, then pick the Panasonic or Canon camera that's closest to the door.

And then have fun with it.


Mini MagLite LED Upgrade Combo by Nite Ize

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: We'll see how it holds up.

The Long Version: I'm a sound engineer for rock bands, so dark nightclubs are my "office" and a flashlight is not just handy to have, it's absolutely vital.
For almost 20 years the 2xAA Mini MagLite has been my choice, and a large percentage of musicians and techs concur mostly due to the excellent build quality for the price.
The LED revolution has impacted MagLite's market dominance with brighter lights that don't kill batteries nearly as fast, and MagLite has finally fought back with LED versions of their old favorites as well as LED replacement bulbs, but at premium prices.

An alternative I'm enjoying is by Nite Ize, a maker of many useful flashlight accessories.
It consists of a 3-LED bulb section, a matching reflector, plus a tail cap switch.
The tail cap switch is important to me because without it the Mini MagLite requires two hands to operate. Like a gun, when you really need light you need it fast, and quite often my other hand is busy with the sound mixer or light board, a beer, etc.
I really love this part of the upgrade kit and in fact had been using a different flashlight for the past year because of it's tail cap switch, but found it too bulky in my back pocket for comfort. The MagLite fits into the space next to my wallet very nicely, with the head sticking out so I can grab it easily.

As for the LED part of the kit, installation is a breeze as long as you're aware that the LED module is polarity sensitive--if it doesn't work just turn it 180 degrees so the pins swap holes.
What kind of improvement can you expect?
The LED upgrade is maybe 40% brighter (a quick estimate) and also tends more towards the blue spectrum than the original incandescent bulb as seen in this daylight-balanced photo.
More importantly, the light is also much more uniform and you no longer have to bother turning the flashlight's head to focus the beam, which saves time.

The LED conversion is available separately for around $5, while this kit goes for $10 at Target and WalMart but only $7 at Academy, making it a steal.
My only complaint is that the tail cap switch feels a little flimsy; the button rattles around in it's housing in both on and off positions.
Having used it for only two nights, durability is a big question mark but I'll be sure to update this review should any problems arise--for now I carry the original tail cap in my toolbox just in case.
I've had the LED conversion in one of my MagLites for two years and it's still going strong.

Note, and I quote: "Replacing the original components with the Nite Ize Upgrade components will void the Mag instrument LIMITED LIFETIME WARRANTY covering the AA Mini Maglite flashlight.
Made in China"

My thanks to Matthew for inviting me onto this site. I'm already having lots of fun with it and look forward to reviewing more of the things that are important to me for one reason or another. Keep in mind that I'm always after a killer deal and carefully weigh price versus performance. This will play a big part in my future reviews of items such as vodka, computer monitors, collectible toys and food.

I quit using this flashlight a few months ago.
The LED conversion seems to have a connection problem somewhere, and despite my best efforts at fixing it the light would dim or go out until I gave it a good whack. I'm a sound and light engineer and KNOW about fixing bad connections, so have concluded that there's a design or materials flaw somewhere.


What the Duck

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Is it only a photographer thing?

The Long Version: There are only two comic strips that I read on a regular basis, and the only one that I absolutely must read every day is Aaron Johnson's What the Duck. It's following the career of a photographer who happens to be a duck - or a duck who happens to be a photographer - as he struggles through the difficulties of his profession. There's a healthy cast of characters, and after almost 500 episodes, the strip shows no sign of sharks.

This is going to be a short review simply because there's really not much that I can add. The humour has a large amount of truth to it, and it's not always a happy truth, but it's mostly drawn from the reality of being a 'working' photographer. A clever quirk is the way dialog always covers the faces of any actual people, or they will be too tall to fit in the frame. The hero is a duck, and ducks are short. The way Aaron Johnson never loses sight of the oddity of the situation, while still keeping it unremarkable, is a big part of the charm of the strip.

I've been following the strip for ages, to the point where "Chimpin' ain't easy" is part of my regular vocabulary, and my girlfriend has a list of WTD merchandise that I would like as gifts. (I'll forward my postal address to anyone who wants to send me a Duck U messenger bag.) It's quirky, well written, and consistently funny. It's also free. What more could I ask for?

Here's the link again: whattheduck.net.

For those who remember the beginning of this review, the only other comic strip that I make an effort to read is Garfield Minus Garfield, which I have also reviewed.

The image used to illustrate this review is copyright 2006 Aaron Johnson, and is used with permission. It's cool to get an e-mail from someone famous.

Updated 17 June 2008: What the Duck's home page has announced that it's been picked up by a number of newspapers, including one of my own city's, the Toronto Star. I look forward to seeing all of the characters in newsprint. Today also marks the strip's 500th appearance. Congratulations on it all, Aaron! (Can I call you Aaron?)

We're growing!

I'm pleased to announce that KeithAlanK, a friend and fellow photographer from San Antonio, Texas, will be joining `thewsreviews. His is an opinion that I've sought out and trusted for many years, so I'm looking forward to seeing the wit and insight that he brings to his observations of the world.

Keith also has the distinction of being the first to point a link at `thewsreviews from his own website, something that I still haven't done even as we approach our second birthday. More of Keith's view on the world can be found on his photo blog, Views of Texas.

Good times!


Queen Video (Bloor St. Location)

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It would be a "5" for execution if they had more of what they have in stock.

The Long Version: Small video stores are great. They've been the subjects of songs, movies, and probably even books. But it's something that many people love in theory more than in practice: those big chains with the hidden charges and twenty copies of each of their twenty movies clobber the little independents over and over again.

But it didn't work that way in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood. The crowded shelves and aisles of the neighbourhood Queen Video created a thriving, vibrant contrast to the stark airport-corridor emptiness of the Blockbuster Video that was almost directly across the street. The massive American chain store - with its video games, great lighting, and no late fees - is now gone, with its sign pulled down in an attempt to make its defeat anonymous. Soon a new grocery store is about to take over it's space; hopefully it's better than the neighbourhood Dominion, but it would be hard for it to be any worse.

But back on subject: Queen Video is the reason why I don't have cable TV.

Exploring the aisles of Queen Video is either a great pleasure or an experience in frustration and claustrophobia, depending on the time of day, my mood, and whether I'm trying to find something in particular. The most popular titles are arranged around the walls of the long narrow space in a rough approximation of the alphabet, but with no other organization. Hollywood films, foreign cinema, documentaries, and pr0n all exist happily mixed, and most of it will be rented out at any one time. There are also vast quantities of titles stacked with just their spines facing out, grouped roughly according to genre, but the alphabet is still a fuzzy concept and it's hard to know when to give up the search. I'm still not convinced that they don't have a copy of Buffalo Boy - an excellent film by a man who's a friend of my father and stepmother - but I haven't wanted to spoil the game by asking for it.

My only true frustration with Queen is that some of their titles are perpetually rented out. The documentary Helvetica really is excellent, but I had to find that out the hard way. After seeing its empty box on the shelf, I looked for it every time I went in for at least six weeks before I finally just broke down and bought a copy for myself. It took a month before the first season of Get Smart was available, and I made a dreadful mistake by not renting season two when I had the chance. (I missed it by that much.) I'm okay with the idea that a specific title that I want may not be available - something that Blockbuster offered at the expense of Queen's variety, culture, and intelligence - but sometimes I wonder if they've just lost the velcro-backed tag that indicates when something's back in stock.

Queen Video's Bloor location is open from 11am to 11pm every day of the week.

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