Thewsreviews New Look

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm biased.

The Long Version: When I first decided to go back to writing for a hobby, I never really expected anyone but me to see it. As a result, I chose a template design that I like for my own reason, and not the one that's the simplest, most legible, or most appealing. Making matters worse, over the past eighteen months I've increasingly gravitated to simple monochrome layouts, and shot-on-white photography. The look of the blog was not working the way I wanted it to.

The new layout is a better match to my other websites, looks more like my photography, works better with my Blackberry, and uses Verdana throughout, which is a more legible humanist sans-serif and a better match for my usual Myriad. I like it, and hopefully it makes the site easier and more pleasant to read.

And a bit of thewsreviews trivia: I picked the old template as a tribute to the original blogger site for The Online Photographer. I've been playing with a new layout on my test site for a little while now, and finally made the switch in honour of TOP's fourth birthday. I've previously mentioned that the Luminous Landscape is one of my top three influences on this blog; TOP and Mike Johnson is one of the others.


Spinning Tokens - The 2010 TTC Fare Increase

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: If only they'd done this before.

The Long Version: TTC tokens are great little things. Unlike the paper tickets that the Toronto Transit Commission phased out in 2008 (for adult fares), they don't get ruined if the go through the wash, they work in the automatic turnstiles that the TTC uses in all of its entrances, and they're more difficult to counterfeit - notwithstanding that the new bimetal design was introduced to get rid of five million fakes of the old aluminum design.

A TTC token has no face value - they're worth one ride, no matter how much that costs. The 2010 fare increase makes them the safest investment in town; their value is guaranteed to jump from $50 to $55 per troy ounce. According to information from the TTC, reprinted by the Globe and Mail newspaper: "Although there are about three million tokens in circulation, staff rely on about 400,000 tokens being recycled throughout the day in order to keep from running out." That means that there's only a seven or eight day supply in the system, and now people have a good reason to hang on to them. What could possibly go wrong?

The twenty-five cent fare increase was announced two months before it comes into effect, so it's no surprise that the TTC has had a surge in demand. They quickly - but not immediately - rationed token sales before eventually stopping them completely, which is the same thing they did the last time they increased the transit fares. But the TTC also has a corporate culture that emphasizes blaming their customers when things go wrong, which includes people actually using the transit system. The Toronto Star recently published an article "Hoarders Foiled as TTC Halts Token Sales" which is one of many articles that contains my favourite quote of the week: "TTC chair Adam Giambrone said the commission could have lost $5 million had it not suspended token sales."

Five MILLION Dollars! (and Curses, foiled again!)

To have their customers stockpiling tokens cost them five million dollars of lost revenue, then we would need to be holding on to every single token ever minted and have the fare increase by $1.67. Even the earlier unspecified loss of 'millions' in unearned revenue from customers buying their fares at a lower rate is implausible when the fare is only increasing by twenty-five cents. One million tokens, a third of the total in circulation, will increase in value by only $250,000 unless there's something seriously wrong with my math.

But token hoarding works both ways. The TTC is spending $50,000 to print temporary paper tickets that will only be valid for two months, and they'll need to be topped up by adding an extra 25¢ to the farebox each time they're used in January. The TTC won't be selling any more tokens until the fare increase comes into effect, which means that the TTC will also be hoarding tokens to its financial advantage. They'll make back the $50,000 investment - twenty-five cents at a time - by not selling a mere 200,000 tokens until after the price increase. By their own numbers, that's an average half-day's volume, and only one-fifteenth of the three million tokens in circulation.

More fun with numbers: inspired by information supplied by the TTC, the Globe and Mail writes in an article from November 22, "Ticket hoardings were costing the TTC an estimated $45,000 a day as frugal riders bought 20 per cent more tokens than they needed, stocking up in anticipation of the increase." [Note to the editors: Hoardings are temporary wooden fences. The correct phrasing should be 'Ticket hoarding was costing' - but I digress.]

A twenty percent increase on four hundred thousand is sales of an extra eighty thousand tokens a day, and at 25 cents each that's a potential loss of $20,000 - not quite half of the amount that the blame-the-riders movement is trying for. But even if the claim that the TTC makes of $45,000 a day is true, it's still less than half of what they'd need to reach their claimed loss of $5 million, even assuming that their losses started the day the fare increase was first proposed. And just for fun, let's remember that these costs are potential revenue that they won't get from the fare increase, which is valued at some $65 million dollars over the course of the year, and most of which will come from more expensive transit passes.

The TTC is using implausible numbers to villainize a huge number of its own customers, in what seems like a calculated effort to make themselves look like victims when people don't want to pay 10% more for the same intermittent-to-lousy service. This is nothing new, but it controls the discussion and intentionally directs it away from talk about how the system - transit and funding - is broken, and what can be done to fix it. Costs go up; the day-to-day and year-to-year fumbling of the status quo remains unchanged.

There's no question that the TTC is underfunded. There's also no question that the senior management hates its riders. Could those two things be related?


Manfrotto 345 Tabletop Tripod

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Save some money and buy the expensive one first.

The Long Version: I've bought several tabletop tripods over the years, and I still know where a couple of them are. The Manfrotto 345 is far more expensive than the others that I've bought, but it turns out that it's worth it. This is a very solid little tripod that holds small cameras and speedlights with complete reliability, and can be persuaded to hold bigger gear, as well. It has probably appeared in more of my reviews than anything except for white bristol board.

I see that there's also a Manfrotto 709B, which looks similar but isn't the same. The 709B is part of the lower-cost Modo line, and the ball head is different. The much-more-expensive 345 is built out of a 482 ball head, 209 legs, and 259B extension. It also includes a case, which might be a reason why the whole 345 'kit' is a greater cost than the sum of its parts.

The tripod can work with or without the extension in place, and is much easier to pack when it's in pieces. (Note that I've never actually used the case that comes with the kit.) It's solid and not particularly light, but when I took most of the contents of the photo above (an E-510 replaced the E-1) on a trip to Australia, there was no way the tripod was staying at home. It's part of my standard kit for product photography because it can handle a strobe with a little 6x8" softbox attached, and takes up less room than my gorillapod. What it gives up in flexibility, it makes up for in stability, although with the way the extension tube telescopes, it's actually pretty flexible as well. Naturally, since it's essentially a low-level tripod with a long centre column, increasing the height decreases the stability. Compounding that limitation, its leg length and angle can't be adjusted, so there's no way to level the tripod on an uneven surface. TANSTAAFL.

When it's low and positioned with a leg forward under the lens, the 345 can handle something as heavy as an Olympus 35-100/2.0, and for added entertainment I've added the 1.4 teleconverter and an E-1 with the battery grip. The total load is about six pounds, so when it's heavy but balanced it still holds securely. I wouldn't want to do this with the extension in place, or on a windy day, but that has as much to do with the small footprint of the legs as the strength of the Manfrotto 482 ball head. I'm not going to endorse it for all-around field use, or say that it can overcome physics - it's just a small tabletop tripod. But it is a very good one.

I have two complaints about the 345, aside from the fact that it's more expensive as a kit at B&H than it is as functional components. The first is that the telescoping extension isn't the easiest to use. I've added the rubber bands for a little extra grip, which makes turning the locking collar much easier. Some additional knurling would have solved that particular problem, and it's not like Manfrotto to miss something like that. It's also not uncommon for photographers to solve equipment shortcomings with rubber bands and tape, so I can let that one go. The other problem is that after six years, the little cork non-slip disks have fallen off of the tripod feet. That's a bit more of a stumper, but I'm sure that a little ingenuity will be able to solve that problem, too.

My two highest endorsements are these: when I'm using it, I forget what it costs; and if something tragic happened to it, I'd go out and buy another one. It's not sexy, but it's reliable and it works. That's enough for me.


Timbuk2 'Covert' Classic Messenger Bag

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: I'm nothing if not timely - they're on to version 2.0 by now.

The Long Version: While I love my large T2 messenger bag, it's, well, large. My plan was to use my Seal Line bag for the summer, but I had come to like the T2's flexibility too much. So when I was poking around on the Timbuk2 website and saw that they had a clearance on their all-black Covert messenger bag, I decided to take the plunge.

This is the medium-sized bag, and it is significantly smaller than the large size. I do like it when there's a clear difference between products, because it makes the choosing part much easier. This bag is big enough to hold my 800ml water bottle, although the top does poke up a little, along with the other odds and ends that I like to have with me. There's a thermal bag that will hold three cans of coke and a large ice pack, a novel or slim textbook, a camera up to the size of a D700, and a small towel that I carry with me. Allegedly it's to protect the camera and absorb any condensation or water that sneaks in, but really I just always need to know where my towel is.

The big deal about the Covert bags is that the centre panel hides an effective reflector that's wrapped all the way around the bag. It only lights up when a direct light hits it, and has just a subtle sheen to it the rest of the time. The current Covert design has added the 'matrix' fabric that includes some reflective threads in the weave for all-around effectiveness. I'm a big fan of being visible to drivers at night, but generally wear dark colours, so this is a perfect fit for me. Sometimes I'll even wear it mostly-empty when I'm biking at night just for the added visibility and extra place to put a rear LED flasher. Not too shabby.

Of all of my various bags, this is the one that I use the most. It's large enough to carry what I need, and small enough to hold on my lap when I'm in crowded public transit. It's my favourite non-camera-bag camera carrier, being both (figuratively) bulletproof and unremarkable on the downtown streets. If I could only have one of my T2 bags - this or the large-sized custom one - it would be a really hard choice. While messenger bags certainly aren't for everyone, I've been using this one for eight months now and haven't even been tempted by any other designs. For me, that's saying a lot.


Delta 1 18% Gray Card

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's pretty much neutral.

The Long Version: This cardboard grey card is marketed by Delta 1, a company out of Dallas, Texas. Their website is a little short on details; apparently the page for the grey card didn't make the transition over from Geocities. But the packaging comes to the rescue, saying that it has a reflectance of 18% (+/-1%) 'on which all external and internal light meters are calibrated.' There's more here by Thom, which is interesting reading if you're planning on using these for their stated purpose: getting accurate exposures.

The other way to use them is as a grey reference for white balance. The manufacturer doesn't endorse this, but my simple comparison tests show mine as being colour neutral - or at least close enough that it doesn't make a difference. It may not be as reliable as my new Passport, or even my Ezybalance, but my motto for colour management is "close enough is good enough" - it's just that "close enough" depends on the situation. This cheap cardboard will get you pretty close.

B+H sells a single one of these for about $5, and Adorama sells a pair for $12, unless you get them via Amazon for $15. While that's a bit spendy for grey cardboard, don't think about it as buying two cards, think about it as 160 square inches of eyedropperable surface. Buy one set, cut them down into little pieces, and get a lot more milage out of them. The smallest useful size will depend on what you shoot, but conversely it's about the only way to get one small enough for macro photography. My favourite size is 2"x3.5", so that they fit into my business card case. Since I have one in my camera bag(s) anyway, I'm never more than arm's reach away from a reasonably right white balance.


Earth: The Biography: The Story of Our World

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 1 out of 5
Yeah, but: The last two hours of each disk are great.

The Long Version: This is a series that's in the same class as the BBC's Planet Earth & The Blue Planet, but with a couple of differences. Instead of looking at ecosystems or geographic regions, Earth - The Biography divides its approach into forces of nature, such as ice and volcanoes. The other difference is that it's narrated by a Scotsman, Dr. Iain Stewart, instead of the much more aloof Sir David Attenborough. Indeed, Dr. Stewart is a character in the drama that he records, giving him more of a Michael Palin style to his storytelling.

The cinematography is beautiful, the stories are compelling, and even as an owner of the Blue Planet Earth DVDs, there's information here that I hadn't heard or seen before. Sure, it took me a while to stop snickering at the host's recurring mentions of bubbling lava pools - the pronunciation seeming to drop the final 'L' - but the series is very well done. Add in the bold editorial indecision that gifted it with a subtitle and a secondary subsidiary subtitle, and there's not much not to like.


Both DVD disks start with commercials for other DVDs, and they can't be skipped. For a rented movie, that would be annoying. For a DVD that I spent a not inconsiderable amount of money to purchase, specifically so that I can re-watch it at my leisure, it's completely unacceptable. I'm glad I've seen these episodes, but I wish I hadn't bought them. In fact, I wish I had taken the DVD back to the store and demanded a refund because I would argue that the disks are defective. It's rare that I say not to buy something, but in this case, don't.


Pocket Wizard Plus II Transceiver

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: They're a little dated, but nearly in a class by themselves.

The Long Version: They're more than just flash triggers: Pocket Wizards are a photographer's expensive rite of passage into professional reliability, and if you need what they do, then there's no substitute. They will fire a remote flash, or certain cameras, with absolute certainty over ridiculous distances. The Plus II and the more elaborate Multimax Pocket Wizards are without equal for this; even Pocket Wizard's new Flex and Mini - the TT line, like the old-skool p0rn star - have some issues with range and reliability so far.

The only time I've ever had my Pocket Wizards not fire is when I've accidentally bumped one of the switches off of the appropriate mode or channel - typically while it was in the bag, and solved with a little tape - or have forgotten to turn one on. In exchange for that reliability, the PWII's take a hefty toll on the wallet. They're selling for anywhere between $170US to $240CAN, depending on where you like to shop, and that doesn't include the pictured hot shoe cable. Each light needs its own PW, and one goes on the camera as well. It adds up very quickly, but to rephrase what I said before, if you really need the best reliability and range, then it's a non-decision.

But who needs them?

There's a new generation of low- and mid-priced wireless flash triggers on the market that didn't exist when Pocket Wizards established themselves as the pro photographer's standard equipment. They may not be as reliable, or have the range, or the reputation and interoperability of genuine Pocket Wizards - but they might do most of it. There are also the different camera's own wireless triggering methods, which work with full TTL flash control over shorter distances. Not as bullet-proof as Pocket Wizards, but quite reliable indoors.

For the price of another Pocket Wizard and hot shoe cable, I could buy a Nikon SB600 and have change left over. I've been wanting to add another flash to my kit for some time, so you can guess what an upcoming review will be.

One other great thing about the excellent reputation and durability of Pocket Wizards is what the can sell for on Craigslist. But I digress...


x-rite Colorchecker Passport

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's not quite foolproof, but it's a big improvement over the stock setup.

The Long Version: Alright, so I'm a joiner - I'm okay with that. Last night when I saw Michael Reichmann's review of the Colorchecker Passport by xrite, nee Macbeth, my eyes went wide and I was bolt upright on the couch. I've had the full-size color checker chart for a while, and had nearly bought the credit-card version a half-dozen times. Its price stopped me - it's a lot of money to pay for something that will take a lot of wear and tear as I'd be subjecting it to use away from the protected confines of studio shooting. Sure, the Passport is actually more expensive, but it's a plastic clamshell design that's strong and self-standing. If the stores hadn't been closed, I would have had one last night.

Instead, I was out of the house before 10am on a Saturday - something that happens only once every couple of months and usually involves a cookie from Starbucks as a bribe. I was actually worried that the local Canadian Tire of camera stores would sell out. (Okay, so it's a very slim chance, but it is possible that there are that many Toronto photographers as skewed as I am.) Happily there was still a half-dozen in stock, and I was on my way back home after a quick detour to the Apple store to pick up a new iPod. It's easy to guess which one I unpacked first - yes, I am that much of a camera geek. I'm also easily distracted and absentminded, so I've added a couple of strips of silver/black reflective tape to help the all-black Passport stand out among the various black cards that I invariably have scattered around when I'm shooting jewellery.

Most photographer's reviews don't mention that the reverse side of the colour chart is a light grey white balance target. It is somewhat redundant, and feels a little like there was some blank space to fill. Perhaps it could be useful when the subject is too far away to use the smaller squares in the two colour targets, but I'm reaching to try to understand this one. It's also interesting that it's a much lighter tone than my various grey cards, so perhaps it's been corrected for the 1/2 stop underexposure that an 18% grey card will cause, but x-rite only calls it a white balance target. Regardless of that mystery, the Passport is a more practical tool than the older Gretag Macbeth card that's also in these photos. The larger charts' size and cardboard 'protective' sleeve makes it excellent for the main studio and not much else.

Taking a brief detour, I've put this photo in black and white to emphasize my favourite Lightroom white balance trick. Using the eyedropper tool is never precise, and I know that my monitor isn't calibrated well enough to judge the hue by eye. Lightroom has a handy "grayscale" button. I hit it, and if the visible colour doesn't change, then I know I'm good regardless of my monitor's accuracy. Easy-peasy.

The Colorchecker Passport is perfectly named - except for the missing U - as it is indeed almost exactly the size of my Canadian passport. Its thickness is half-way between a passport and a Moleskine notebook, which is another classic back-pocked item. It's large enough to be a useful size, but small enough to carry and hold. The design is a clamshell that covers a middle panel with the standard and WB targets on opposite sides, and the way the clasp is done it's simple to just open it to the half that I want to use. With all three panels open it's self-standing, and there are detents in the plastic hinges that let it stand at different angles. Someone put a lot of thought into how this color checker would be used, which is the exact opposite of the traditional and mini charts. I'm very impressed.

But wait, there's more! The Passport also includes a CD with software for building custom Camera Raw profiles. Sure, no big deal - Adobe Labs had a DNG profile generator out in 2008 that does the same thing. At least that's what I thought before I tried it out. I launched the xrite software, fed it the DNG of the (uncorrected) image above, and it automatically recognized the chart and did its thing. All I needed to do was name the profile it was going to create, and it even put it in the right spot for Lightroom to find it the next time it launched. (I'm using the format "yy-mm-dd Lightsource".) But I didn't even need to work that hard; it also includes a Lightroom plugin that creates a new profile without ever needing to see the stand-alone application. For comparison, I tried to use the Adobe Labs software, and gave up on the second step because I couldn't remember how to get it to work. Once again, xrite has just nailed the practical aspects of actually using their product.

After one day, I can't imagine doing any colour-critical photography without using this target. It's more powerful than a grey card and not much more difficult to use. The only problem I can foresee is that I'll be littering my Calibration panel with various presets, but smart naming will help with that. My xrite Colorchecker Passport is about to become indispensable.

Three-Week Update: Now that I've integrated the Passport into my photography, the results have been as good as I hoped. I've been using it for some of my casual photography, where it gives me a white balance reference even if I don't go all the way with a custom profile based on that particular moment of light. For product photography, I'll import all of the images, find the image of the Color Checker that I want to use, create a profile based on it, and then quit and relaunch Lightroom. Once LR reopens, I'll set that image (still open in the develop window) to the new profile and correct the white balance, go back to the library in grid view, select all images, and sync the calibration and WB. Then I'll tell Lightroom to build my 1:1 previews, and go make a sandwich. The sandwich actually takes longer than creating and using the profile.

Before I shifted most of my 'serious' photography to my Nikon, I had all four of my Olympus SLRs profiled using the Adobe Labs software and the full-sized colour chart. This lets me use any body with very similar colour results. There's no reason why I can't also do that with the D700, but now that I have the Passport, it's just as easy to create a profile for each specific lighting setup for even more accurate results. There's still significant value in doing a dual-illuminant profile - not least of which is that it can be included in a Lightroom preset - but ironically that will be more useful for my general photography than the really colour-critical work.

Compared to my stock profile that I'd created through the Adobe Labs software, the xrite profile (left) is significantly more saturated, and I'll also say that it's the more accurate of the two. That's not a huge surprise, since my Labs profile was created years ago and under different light; both are more accurate than the default Adobe profile. I will eventually get around to creating a 'generic' profile for my Nikon, but that won't stop me from taking and using reference shots for profiles and reality-check comparison.

One other nice design feature that's worth mentioning is the little identifiers on the creative white balance target. The neutral squares are square with a little protrusion in the middle of one side; the warm/cool squares have one corner notched out, with + or - signs in varying size to indicate the amount of shift. This makes it easier to quickly tell what adjustment is being applied, even if it's a little out of focus. It's such a useful indicator that it took me three weeks to spot it. You know what they say about photographers: we have a gifted eye for detail.

Incidentally, Michael Reichmann's Luminous-Landscape.com website has always been a favourite of mine, even when I haven't agreed with him. (Can we say Olympus E-1?) He's certainly one of my top three influences for the writing, format, and approach of the camera portion of thewsreviews. I was working in the camera store when he bought the viewfinder for his GF1, and while I recognized him immediately, I didn't say hello. Maybe next time.


Sony Memory Stick

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Is any memory card something to be enthusiastic about?

The Long Version: Two words always seem to come up when someone mentions Sony's Memory Stick format in a camera review, so I'll get them out of the way now: Expensive and Proprietary. Frankly, it gets a little monotonous. (Here, here, here, here, here, here...) No, they aren't sold at the local dollar store - on the shelf next to the toothpaste from South Afrlca - but their cost is in line with similar-speed SDHC cards from Sandisk and other reputable manufacturers. And if something being proprietary is such a problem for people buying P&S cameras, then why do cameras that take AA batteries, like my Canon SX20, hit so much resistance? Certainly, if someone already has a stack of SD cards, then a Sony device needs some pretty compelling features. Someone who has had a bad experience with a Sony camera, and wants to switch brands, won't have her day improved by telling her that she needs a new memory card as well. But these are relatively uncommon scenarios, and even cameras that take SD memory usually need a new card to go with them. We're past the point where buying enough memory to last through a week-long trip is a significant expense - as long as it's not an xD card, anyway.

I do have to confess that I find the many different names and formats of Sony's memory card(s) confusing, and even the wikipedia entry doesn't help much. I bought this card, a Memory Stick PRO-HG Duo, because the plain old Memory Stick PRO Duo Mark 2 that lives in Penny's Cybershot S800 isn't certified to work with my PCM-D50 recorder. There's also an elusive "High Speed" model that isn't listed in the Wiki article, which has the same colour scheme as the PRO-HG card, but I have no idea what the differences (if any) might be. I suspect that Sony has hit the same wall that Sandisk recently climbed when it had to redo its names for the "Extreme" cards. There's only so many superlatives you can throw at a product; once you get to the Extreme Ultra Super-Duper PRO Special Edition to mark yet another format change or meaningless speed bump, your nomenclature is pretty much pooched and customer confusion is inevitable. The "Class X" system that SDHC cards use is vastly superior and does make it easier to understand some of the difference between cards. I want to say that Sony should adopt something similar, but that means either renaming existing products, or adding even more information to the already too-complicated names. Neither option is a good one, and there's already far too much nearly-meaningless marketing twaddle out there to make remembering all of it feasible.

But really, does anyone know what actual difference a Class 4 or Class 6 SDHC card will make in any of the hundreds of consumer cameras currently on the market?

So aside from a befuddling naming system that has lasted at least a half-decade too long, these cards are pretty much unremarkable. What I really wish for is an easy way to get a fingernail on these slippery little beasts - the scuff marks on mine are from needing my Swiss Army Knife's tweezers to get the card out of the PCM-D50's wimpy little pop-out slot. It makes me miss my Canon SX20's ability to fire its memory cards across the room, but since that's my biggest complaint about the PCMD50/Memory Stick combination, I'll live with it. What other option is there?

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