Thoughts

Fun with everyday objects

Continuing along the same lines as my previous post, you can have lots of photographic fun with everyday objects you’ll find in your kitchen or your living room. You just have to slightly re-imagine them in a different light or a different angle. Here are a few photos that do just that.

 

A simple round ceiling lamp can be reimagined like this, emphasizing its glow by overexposing it and vignetting the corners.

Even something as banal as a furniture surface or a carpet can be photographed in such a way that it would make for an interesting desktop wallpaper.

I hope you’ll take a bit of time to experiment and have some fun with your cameras!

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Thoughts

New, lower pricing on web use photo licenses

I’ve decided to try something different, and lowered the prices for the web-use photo licenses (the 1 megapixel sizes) to $3 for personal uses and $5 for commercial uses. These sizes are great for article illustrations, or for header images for your websites, or even for desktop wallpapers. A typical 1 megapixel image is a little larger than 1200×800 pixels.

This is essentially micro-stock pricing, but you get access to my premium image collection. I’m going to see how this works out in a few months’ time, and I may adjust the price back up if the economics don’t make sense.

If you’ve been on the fence about licensing a few of my images, now is the time to jump in and try things out. Have a go, browse my catalog and see what you like.

Make sure you read through my simplified licensing terms as well. Thanks!

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Thoughts

So long, Contenture

According to their website and blog, Contenture is going out of business. That’s unfortunate. I signed up with them back in June of 2008, endorsed their services here on my site, and while I didn’t make a lot of money with them, I knew the idea of micropayments for web content was something that would eventually catch on, if only given enough time to take root. It’s sad to see them go, and I’m sorry they couldn’t hang on until they saw some profits.

I only know of one other company that offers similar monetization services, and it’s called CancelAds. Here’s hoping they stay in business, and the idea of micropayments/subscriptions for web content continues to gain momentum.

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Reviews

Using Contenture to handle micropayments

Back in April, I wrote about micropayments, and why I thought they were an equitable way to reward web publishers for their time and effort. I shared my thoughts on ad revenues, which, for most people, are minimal and not enough to live on, unless you are one of the relatively few websites that gets massive amounts of traffic.

In that same article, I also talked about how I thought micropayments should work, via a standard, instant way to charge readers a few cents per article, through protocols that were integrated into each browser. Instead of charging fees for each transaction, which would be impractical for such small amounts, micropayment processing centers would charge for bundles of transactions which exceed a set limit.

Fast forward a few months, and ZDNet publishes an interview with Barry Diller, one of the early Internet millionaires, where he talks about the very same thing: the need to go beyond falling ad revenues by charging small amounts for useful information. That article was hotly debated on FriendFeed, which is where I found out about it. Among the comments, I found one pointing me to Contenture, a newly launched micropayment system (it saw the light of day on 5/26).

contenture

Contenture’s method of handling micropayments is different from what I envisioned, in that it involves a monthly subscription. Here’s how they say it works:

“… a fully automated system that requires no user interaction. Users simply pay a set fee to Contenture on a monthly basis, and that money is automatically distributed to the sites they visit. How much each site gets from each user is determined by how often that user visits that web site, relative to all of the other Contenture sites they visit. Users get their seamless experience, and the site actually makes money. Everybody wins.”

So what’s involved on my end? I installed Contenture’s WordPress plugin and pasted in an extra line of code to customize the ad hiding behavior. Others might need to paste a Javascript snippet in their footer, which is basically what the plugin does for you.

On your end (the reader), the code will check to see if you’re a Contenture user, and will automatically distribute your subscription fee to the websites that you visit, based on how often you visit each site. As an immediate benefit, all ads on my site are hidden from you. They’ll load as the page loads, but they blink out of view and the ad space collapses unto itself as soon as the page finishes loading. It’s pretty cool.

Other benefits I might be able to offer you in the future are the ability to view exclusive content, or perhaps to even close off the archives to those who aren’t Contenture users, although I’m not too keen on that, since Google won’t be able to index me properly any more if I do it. At any rate, the ability to offer more benefits is built in, and that’s nice.

Contenture’s model is opt-in (also called freemium) and so it has some limitations, in that I don’t get paid for everyone that accesses my content. My micropayment model, the one I envisioned and the one Barry Diller and others are talking about, is standardized across platforms and browsers and works for everyone, all the time. Eventually, I think we’ll get there, but Contenture has made a good start of it, and they did it now, which is why I signed up with them.

To let site visitors know they can support my site, I placed a small link in the header, as you can see below. I also have a link in the footer, also shown below.

header-screenshot

footer-screenshot

I look forward to seeing Contenture’s user base grow, so I can tell whether I’ve made the right choice. I want to keep writing and publishing online for a long time to come, but the only feasible way for me to do that is if I get rewarded properly for my efforts. I believe micropayments are the way to do it. It’s affordable for the readers, and it scales up nicely for me, the web publisher. Time will tell exactly which micropayment method will work best, and you can be sure I’ll continue to monitor the options available out there.

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How To

Use a Nokia N95 as a Bluetooth modem on a Mac

One of the reasons I bought a Nokia N95 was the ability to tether it as a Bluetooth modem on my MacBook Pro. I wanted to access the internet via my mobile phone if I’m away from home or from a WiFi spot. While Nokia’s PC Suite of applications includes an option to tether the phone to a Windows machine with just a few clicks of the mouse, it’s not that simple for the Mac.

Fortunately, once you go through a 5-10 minute initial setup process (outlined below), connecting to the net via the N95 becomes a simple matter of two mouse clicks. Keep in mind that this tutorial will help you configure a Nokia N95 phone only for the T-Mobile network; you’re on your own when it comes to other service providers, but the process should be fairly similar.

I’m indebted to this pre-existing tutorial from The Nokia Blog. However, I found the instructions a bit confusing, as the Mac OS X operating system has been updated since and the network preference screens don’t look the same. Consider my post an updated tutorial, with screenshots from the current Mac OS X (10.5.5).

1. Get the 3G modem scripts for Nokia phones from Ross Barkman‘s website.

Look for the section called “Scripts for Nokia 3G (EDGE/UMTS) phones”.

He’s written numerous such scripts and posted them for download on his site. They work fine for countless people, so please, if his script works for you, show your thanks by donating a few dollars to him.

2. Drop the “Nokia 3G” folder containing the modem scripts (yes, the entire folder), in the /Library/Modem Scripts/ directory at the root level of your Mac’s hard drive.

It should look like this once it’s in there:

3. Add your Nokia N95 phone as a paired Bluetooth device.

If you haven’t added your phone as a Bluetooth device yet, click on the plus sign in the lower left corner and go through the wizard to add it. Make sure to check both boxes shown below, and to pair it as well.

If you have already added it as a Bluetooth device, you may want to run through the configuration wizard again, making sure to mark both checkboxes, as seen below. Click on the phone to select it from the list of Bluetooth devices (see screenshot above), then click on the little gear icon in the lower left corner of the dialog box and select “Configure this device”. You will get the following screen. Click on Continue and run through the wizard to the end.

4. Configure the Bluetooth service preferences.

Go to Network preferences. Here’s where you have a choice. If you’re going to want to use multiple mobile phones or Bluetooth devices as modems, you may want to duplicate the existing Bluetooth service and configure each copy separately, naming them accordingly (Nokia N95, iPhone, etc). To do that, select Bluetooth, then click on the little gear in the lower left corner and select “Duplicate Service”.

I’m only going to use the Nokia N95 as a Bluetooth modem, so I chose to work directly with the existing Bluetooth service, as you can see below. To do that, click on the Configuration drop-down menu and choose “Add Configuration”. You’ll be asked for a name. I named it “T-Mobile Internet”. In the Telephone Number field, I put “internet2.voicestream.com”.

Now click on Advanced, and you’ll get a whole series of preference panes. Modem is the first one. Make sure the information matches what you see below.

Now click on DNS. Some say you should pre-fill DNS server addresses, because your mobile service provider may or may not give them to you. Thankfully, T-Mobile will automatically assign you two DNS server addresses when you connect, but just to be on the safe side, grab one or two more DNS addresses from a public DNS server list like this one and add them to the DNS preference pane. If you look below, the two DNS addresses that are grayed out were automatically assigned by T-Mobile after I connected through the phone, and the single address in black was the one I manually added.

Don’t worry about WINS or Proxies, go to PPP, where you’ll have a drop-down menu. The Session options on the PPP preference pane should look like this:

And the Configuration options on the PPP preference pane should look like this:

Some people say you should disable “Send PPP echo packets” and “Use TCP header compression”. I left them enabled, and my connection works just fine. But, if you should have problems connecting and staying on, you may want to disable them. Just uncheck them and hit OK.

5. Apply the changes and click on Connect.

The Bluetooth modem status should change in the menu bar and first say “Connecting…” then “Authorizing…”. After it connects, it should show the time elapsed since the connection started, like this:

There’s one thing I haven’t been able to figure out though, and I would appreciate your help on this. Getting the Mac to connect to the internet reliably through the phone, every single time, is still something that I need to work out.

That first evening after I configured things as outlined above, I was able to connect and disconnect at will. However, the second morning, I got a “Could not authenticate” error. I clicked on the “Set Up Bluetooth Device” (shown above), and re-configured my N95 (as detailed in Step 3). After that, it was okay for the rest of the day, but the same connection issue re-surfaced the next day. I’d read that keeping iSync open while you connect will help, and I tried it, but it didn’t seem to work reliably for me. What has seemed to work is logging in and out of my account on the Mac, and rebooting the phone.

It seems that Nokia would be best equipped here to make things easier and more reliable. I do wish they’d release a tethering app for the Mac, just like they released an iSync plugin that lets the N95 sync with the Address Book and iCal. Until then, you can try any of the following workarounds when you experience connection issues:

  • Re-configure the phone as a Bluetooth device (as outlined in Step 3 above)
  • Disable “Send PPP echo packets” and “Use TCP header compression” in the PPP Configuration preference pane
  • Open iSync before you try to connect to the Internet through the phone
  • Log out of your account on the Mac and reboot the phone

Once the phone is tethered properly, it’s an enjoyable experience. There’s a newfound freedom I feel when I can go online from just about anywhere. There’s something elegant in using my phone as a Bluetooth modem. It can stay in my pocket or on the table next to my laptop, tethered wirelessly, still working fine as a phone while also letting me get on the Internet. Cool stuff indeed.

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Thoughts

A rule of thumb to help you avoid accidents

So many traffic accidents happen when we don’t keep our proper distance from the cars in front of us. Here’s a simple equation to help you do just that:

Distance (in car lengths) = (Speed/10) – 1

Let me explain it. Say you’re going along at 20 mph — the distance between your car and that in front of you should be 1 car length. If you’re going along at 40 mph — the distance between your car and that in front of you should be 3 car lengths. Obviously, the formula given above is no good at speeds below 10 mph, so use your judgment there. I try to leave half a car-length to 1 car length between my car and someone in front of me, even if my speed is fairly low. I never know when they could brake suddenly. People’s actions can’t be predicted, and it’s best to have a little room for error in our calculations and reflexes.

I would go further and add an additional car length to that distance — in other words, modify the equation as follows, if you’re older and have problems seeing, if it’s dark, or if it’s rainy or foggy.

Distance (in car lengths) = (Speed/10)

If it’s snowing or it’s icy on the roads, by all means, drive slower and keep as far away from the car in front of you as you can. There’s no way to approximate distances in those situations. You never know just how your car will behave when you brake. Just hope you don’t have to brake on a particularly icy portion of the road, because you’ll skid all over the place, and chances are you’ll hit something.

MINI Cooper S on snowy country road

One additional word of advice. If you’re going to drive through snow, sleet or ice, make sure you’ve either got winter tires on your car, or you’ve got good all-season tires that aren’t worn out. And be sure that your brakes are in good working condition.

I don’t claim to be a traffic safety expert, so don’t think this rule of thumb is written in stone. See how my advice will work for you, and let me know if you think my equations need some adjustments. The idea is to keep the math simple so that everyone can understand and benefit from this.

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How To

A bit about Wide Color Range and Lightroom

Those of you who follow my blog know I love color. I always look for ways to increase the intensity and range of the colors in my photos. I like to call it WCR (Wide Color Range). Who knows what it’s really called… Since I’m self-taught, that’s what I call it. I wrote recently about one of the ways I post-process my photos, and have gotten a lot of great feedback on that method. But it’s not suited to every situation. While it works very well for architecture, some nature, and even some portrait photography, the colors get to be too harsh in other situations.

So I started to experiment, and found that Lightroom is quite capable when it comes to achieving most of my post-processing goals. I really like the ability to make tonal and individual color adjustments without opening Photoshop. For example, I find Lightroom’s heal tool much easier to use than the heal tool in Photoshop. There’s a very practical reason for preferring to work in Lightroom as well, and it’s this: every time I transfer a RAW image to Photoshop, it turns into a 45MB file. Add an extra layer, and it doubles in size. That means every finished PSD or TIF file gets to be anywhere from 90-135MB or more. Compare that with 7-8MB for the original DNG file, and you can see how quickly hard drive space becomes an issue, particularly when a typical photo session of mine yields about 300-400 photos or more.

The key to using Lightroom (at least for me) is to be bold, to not be afraid of potentially ruining a photo. There’s always the reset button in case my results are off the mark. That means I can experiment all I want, non-destructively, which is hugely beneficial.

Here are a few of my recent results with Lightroom. In this photo, the sky was a fairly colorless light blue, though there were some tonal differences that allowed me to change hues and their intensity and really bring out the greens.

Green power

Here the sky was a light blue, but I wanted a different look, since I have tons of tree photos in my library.

Sensory perception

This was fairly simple, just slight vignetting with blue and green color enhancements, but I really like the result.

Windswept but steady

This one was a bit more complicated, with lots of tonal, hue, saturation and lightness adjustments. I really like how all of the trees are straight, spaced closed together, and yet still allow a nice view of the horizon. That’s why I photographed them.

Get up, stand up

There was no blood on the tracks in this photo, nor was there any red paint. There were some dark orange rust spots though. I changed their hue from orange to dark red in Lightroom, then increased that particular color’s saturation. Finally, I decreased that color’s lightness in order to darken it. In real life, those railroad tracks look perfectly normal, though rusty from a winter’s disuse.

Blood on the tracks

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How To

My own sort of HDR

I’ve been intrigued by HDR (High Dynamic Range) post-processing for some time. At its best, it renders incredible images. At its worst, average, and even good, it renders completely unrealistic, overprocessed, unwatchable crud. Even some of the best images made with HDR methods seem weird. They’re not right — somehow too strange for my eyes. But, I did want to try some of it out myself and see what I’d get. The challenge for me was to keep the photo realistic and watchable. I wanted to enhance the dynamic range and color of my photos in an HDR sort of way. I also didn’t want to sit there with a tripod taking 3-5 exposures of the same scene. As much fun as that sounds, I don’t always carry a tripod with me.

By way of a disclaimer, I have not researched the production of HDR-processed images thoroughly. I have, however, seen a boatload of HDR images on both Flickr and Zooomr. I did read the tutorial that Trey Ratcliff posted on his Stuck in Customs blog. Of course, we all know Trey from Flickr, where he posts some fantastic HDR images on a daily basis. So, given my disclaimer, realize I don’t say I’m the first to have done this. I’m just saying this is how I worked things out for myself. If indeed I’m the first to do this, cool! If not, kudos to whoever did it before. I’d also like to encourage you to experiment on your own and see how things work out for you. Change my method, build on it, and make something even better. While I’m on the subject, I’m not even sure I should call this processing method HDR. It’s more like WCR (wide color range). What I’m really doing is enriching the color range already present in the photo while introducing new color tones.

When I started, I experimented with Photoshop’s built-in Merge to HDR feature. Using Photoshop, after a few non-starts that I deleted out of shame, I got something halfway usable. Have a look below.

Brook and rocks

Here’s how I processed the photo above. I shot three exposures of that scene in burst & bracket mode, handheld (no tripod), in RAW format. Then, I darkened the low exposure, lightened the light exposure, and exported all three to full-res JPGs. Used Merge to HDR in Photoshop, got a 32-bit image, adjusted the exposure and gamma, converted to 16-bit, adjusted exposure, gamma, colors, levels, highlights, then smart sharpened and saved as 8-bit JPG. It came out okay — not weird, at least not too much, anyway, but still not to my satisfaction. I should mention I also used a sub-feature of the Merge to HDR option that automatically aligned the images. As I mentioned, I shot handheld, and there were slight differences in position between the three exposures. Photoshop did a pretty good job with the alignment, as you can see above. It wasn’t perfect, but definitely acceptable.

I know there are people out there saying Photoshop doesn’t do as good a job with HDR as Photomatix. It’s possible, although I got decent results. Maybe at some point in the future I’ll give Photomatix a try, but for now, I’m pretty happy with my own method — see below for the details.

But first, what’s the point of HDR anyway? When I answered that question for myself, I started thinking about creating my own (WCR) method. The point as I see it is this: to enhance the dynamic range of my images. That means bringing out the colors, highlights and shadows, making all of the details stand out. Whereas a regular, unprocessed photo looks pretty ho-hum, an HDR-processed photo should look amazing. It should pop out, it should stand out in a row of regular images. It should not look like some teenager got his hands on a camera and Photoshop and came up with something worthy of the computer’s trash bin. As I’ve heard it from others, the standard way to postprocess a scene in HDR is to take 3-5 varying exposures, from low to high. Those exposures can then be combined to create a single image that more faithfully represents the atmosphere and look of that scene.

But, what if you don’t have a tripod with you? Can’t you use a single image? Yes, you can shoot in RAW, which is the equivalent of a digital negative, and good HDR software can use that single exposure to create multiple varying exposures, combine them and create an image that’s almost as good as the one made from multiple original exposures.

What if you want to make your own HDR/WCR images, in Photoshop, all by yourself? I wanted to do that, and I think I arrived at a result that works for me. Here’s what I did. I took a single exposure of a brook in the forest, which you can see below, unprocessed.

Brook, unprocessed

There’s nothing special about this photo. It’s as the camera gave it to me, in RAW format. The colors are dull and boring. There’s some dynamic range, and the color range is limited. It’s all pretty much made up of tones of brown. I took this single exposure, converted it to full-res JPG (but you don’t have to, you can use the RAW directly,) put it in Photoshop, created three copies of the original layer, called them Low, Medium and High, then adjusted the exposure for Low to low, left the exposure for Medium as it was, and adjusted the exposure for High to high. Then I set all of them to Overlay mode. (The original JPG, preserved in the Background layer, was left to Normal mode and was visible underneath all these layers.) The key word when talking about exposure here is subtle. Make subtle changes, or you’ll ruin the shot.

As soon as I adjusted the layers and changed them to Overlay, things looked a lot better. The dynamic range was there, it just needed to be tweaked. So I went in and adjusted the individual exposures for each layer some more to make sure parts of the photo weren’t getting washed out or ended up too dark. Then I threw a couple of adjustment layers on top for levels and colors. Finally, I duplicated the three layers and merged the duplicates, then used the smart sharpen tool. The adjustment layers were now on top of it all, followed by the merged and sharpened layer, and the three exposure-adjusted layers, which were no longer needed, but I kept them in there because I like to do non-destructive editing. Here’s the end result, exported to a JPG.

Brook, processed

This is the sort of post-processing that pleases my eye. The details were preserved, the colors came out looking natural yet rich, and things look good overall. Even though some spots are a little overexposed, I like it and I’m happy with it. Let’s do a quick review. Using my own WCR/HDR-like method, I accomplished the following:

  • Used a single RAW/JPG exposure
  • Didn’t need to use a tripod, could shoot handheld
  • Didn’t need special software, other than Photoshop
  • Achieved the dynamic range I wanted
  • The photo looks natural, at least to my eyes
  • The post-processing was fairly simple and took about 30 minutes

There is one big difference between my WCR method and the usual HDR post-processing. Done right, the latter will help bring detail out of the shadows. Because of that single or multiple exposure done at +2 EV or more, spots that would normally be in the dark in a regular photo can be seen in HDR. Not so with my method. Here the darks become darker. The atmosphere thickens. The highlights become darker as well. The whole shot gains character, as I like to call it. So this is something to keep in mind.

Just to clarify things, the image above was the first result I obtained using my method. There was no redo. I then processed some more images, and got a little better at it. It’s worth experimenting with the Shadow/Highlight options for each individual layer. It helps minimize blown-out spots. It’s also very worthwhile to play with the Filter tool for each layer. This really helps bring out some nice colors. It’s sort of like taking three exposures of the same scene with different color filters. The results can be stunning if done well. You also don’t need to use three overlays. It all depends on the photo. Some photos only need one overlay, while others need four or five. Subtle changes in exposure can help bring out areas that are too dark. You can see some photos below where I used my own advice.

Brook, take two, processed

Meeting of the minds

Parallel lines

There you are

I hope this proves useful to those of you out there interested in this sort of post-processing. It’s my dream to see more natural and colorful photos, regardless of whatever post-processing method is used.

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Lists

Another EepyBird Diet Coke + Mentos Video (Experiment #214)

This one’s called “The Domino Effect“, because it uses inter-connected Coke bottles that start each other, in series:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-274981837129821058

And, for good measure, here’s their original video, which I’m sure you’ve already seen:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2755541280271963544

Their videos are by far the best Diet Coke + Mentos experiments. Not only are their videos coreographed and set to music, but the two dudes do a decent job acting in them as well. For more of their videos, visit their site, EepyBird.

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Thoughts

Onion tea is really gross, onion tea I hate the most

Those of you who are regular readers know that I’ve been sick with some sort of flu-like viral infection – whatever it is, it’s nasty, and it still hasn’t gone away. As a matter of fact, it came back this week for another in-home stay. I’d like to evict it, but I don’t know how.

One “nice” fringe benefit of this thing is that I get to cough a lot, and my throat hurts when I swallow. My PCP says I shouldn’t worry – thanks, doc, thanks a lot! – because it’ll go away eventually. She didn’t prescribe any medicine at all – no antibiotics, no cough medicine, nothing… So, I had to resort to finding some sort of cure, and apparently onion tea is the thing for coughing. Everyone swears it works, although they say it tastes really gross. So, after much prodding from Ligia, I caved in and decided to try it out. Boy, is it nasty! I have to drink 2-3 cups a day, and I almost vomit every time. When you look at it, it’s innocuous enough, but the taste is what kills me. Photos don’t do it justice, but I posted two of them below anyway.

I really think the only thing that would do it justice is a poem. That’s right, a poem! Let’s call it Ode to Onion Tea. I wrote it last night after drinking a cup…

You onion stew, such vile brew,
You make me sick – a nasty trick,
I know.

There you are, a filthy cur,
You stand aloof, nary a spoof,
But real!

I’m all grossed out, your stench
Is all about, you lout!
Anon –

I’ll drink you now, I must,
I know, but I’ll wince, and pinch
My nose.

I can’t complain, th’effects are known,
They’re not a bluff; you heal
My cough.

But must you stink to heaven high
And taste a bit like stale lye
And when I gulp, I want to cry
Enough!

You leave behind a fart-like taste –
I kid you not, the aftertaste
Is smelly.

My pores now reek, right as they leak
In highest feverish pitch,
Of leek.

My urine smells of onions fried,
At least that’s what I hope!
Belied!

How gross you are, o how I wish
That something better did exist
To cure my ill!

The remains of the onion tea

Onion tea

Now, dear reader, after this, could you be able to drink this vile thing?

[The title of this post is a bow to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (2005). The song lyrics in that movie were fantastic!]

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