Panoramas of Stockholm, Sweden

I now have a gallery up of the panoramas from Stockholm, Sweden. While this was not the best time of year to be photographing that far north (except for the availability of fall colour) I generated a lot of panoramas of various sorts. The main reason was I am trying some new panorama software, known as AutoPano Pro. This software is one of the licencees of the interesting SIFT algorithm, which is able to take a giant pile of pictures, and figure out which ones overlap and setting up the blend. The finding algorithm isn’t as important to me, because I recently wrote a perl program that goes through my pictures and finds all the runs of portrait shots with fixed parameters taken over a short period of time, and that helps me isolate my panoramas. However, the auto blending, even for handheld shots, means that it’s a lot easier to put together a larger number of panoramas.

I will be doing a more full review of the software later. Unfortunately while this is great in finding and building panos, and does an automatic job a fair bit of the time, when it does goof up it’s harder to fix it, so no one tool is yet ideal. This software also does HDR and not just multi-row but random “shoot everywhere” panos so you may see more of these from me.

One difference — because this made it easier to assemble my lesser and redundant panos, I did assemble them, and they can be found on a page of extra panoramas of Stockholm.

4-segment tripod where bottom segment screws in

I have tripods with both 3 segments and 4 segments. A 4-segment tripod has 3 clamps per leg, which means 9 of them to open and close in extending and collapsing the tripod. That’s a pain. Enough of one that you sometimes find yourself asking whether a shot is worth setting up the tripod. But even 3 segment tripods are only a bit better.

I have my 4-segment legs because I can pack the tripod down into a reasonably small suitcase. I do most shooting when I travel so this is actually my best carbon fiber tripod. But when I am out carrying the tripod, or more commonly carrying it in the car, it doesn’t need to be this short. Unfortunately, the tripod fully extended, with camera and pano mount on it, is too long to fit in most cars, so I have to collapse one set of legs. That’s not so hard but it’s still very long and unweildy with just one set collapsed.

Here’s a possible answer: A 4 segment tripod where the bottom two segments join not with an external clamp, but which screw or snap together to make a smooth double-length segment. You used to be able to get monopods like this. Of course, the threaded join is not very convenient, and is not adjustable. However, you could readily take it apart to pack the tripod in a suitcase. If it can be made strong enough, a snap-together join would be best, with some recessed buttons to push to pull the legs apart. Then takedown and setup could be quick enough that you would also use it to put the pod into a backpack.

However, what you would have when put together is a 2-segment tripod, because the lower pair of segments, with no bumpy clamp, could feed up into the upper two segments when both of those are extended. In other words, you would have a nice tripod you could quickly reduce to half its length and back with just 3 clamps. A reasonable length for carrying and a very easy length to put into a car trunk or back seat.

You would not, however, be able to make the tripod any shorter than half-length without undoing the bottom join. Then you could get the tripod down to 1/4 length for low shots and for placing on tables and stone walls if half-length was just too high. That use is rare enough that I could handle that, especially if it’s just snaps.

The same approach could apply to your center column, or you could have just a 1/4 length center column, which is fine for most applications, since you don’t want to extend the column unless you have to, normally.

Note that the top join would be normal, so you would have 2 clamps per leg, and one hard-join. You don’t want a hard join at the top because presumably that will thin the inner diameter of the pole if you want it strong, stopping the lower segment from telescoping inside.

The 3rd segment (2nd from the ground) into which the bottom segment snaps, could also possibly have a spike or small foot coming out the center, which goes into a hole in the bottom segment. Or a place to attach such a foot. This would allow you to also configure a shorter, 3-segment standard tripod when you don’t want to snap in the lowest segment.

Professional lenses with built in sensors

A friend (Larry P.) suggested that the time was here for serious (ie. DSLR) cameras to undertake a design revolution. The old SLR design, with a mirror that flips up and must sit between the last lens element and the sensor, creates a lot of problems in designing the lens and camera systems. Yes, being able to view directly through the lens with your eye is a very useful thing. But at what cost?

We’re already seeing the disappearance of optical viewfinders, even rangefinders, from small consumer cameras, if only to save space. Few people were using them any more, since the screen display turns out to show a lot more, and is even better than the eye in low light.

Serious cameras aren’t seeking (too much) to save space. We want image quality most of all, and the tools to shoot good images. Looking through the viewfinder is one of those tools, but again, at what cost?

So a proposal is put forward that now that sensors are dropping in price — even full frame sensors — that each lens have its own sensor, and shutter, that is part of it. There would be a body which has a digital (and mounting) connection with the lens. The body would have display, processor, controls, battery and so on. It’s a pretty radical proposal. Let’s look at the advantages:

  • There is much more freedom in lens design, and lenses can be smaller, less expensive (for the lens at least) and lighter.
  • Each sensor can be custom fit to the lens and its image circle. Some lenses could have small sensors and some have large ones. You could work with both super large hi-res sensors on a 28-70mm zoom, and also carry a small, dense sensor which offers you a (higher noise) super-tele in a tiny package.
  • Each sensor can be tuned to the flaws of a particular lens, ready to correct distortions and other problems. (This could be done with a protocol for communicating those distortions to the camera too, and we’re finally starting to see things like the 5D’s database of lens light fall-off.)
  • You would not get dust on the sensor
  • You could build special bodies and/or lens holders that could hold multiple lenses, as now there is only an electronic connection to each lens. As a result you could switch among lenses instantly!
  • It might be possible to have standarization, so you could mix and match lenses from different vendors as you choose.
  • Image stabilization designs could be done with both sensor and optics, whatever works best.
  • The lens could be some modest distance from the “body.”
  • Body design can also be liberated, as the mechanical linkage with the lens can be designed without the need for a light path.

There are some downsides

  • Obviously, sensors are not yet so cheap that this isn’t a more expensive approach initially. But serious lenses are often more than $1,000 and this approach might not increase their cost by more than a few hundred dollars. For cheaper lenses, putting on a high quality sensor would not make sense, cost-wise.
  • In turn, where now you might put a lot of money into your one sensor, here it must be spread.
  • Today, if you get a new body with a new sensor, you now get the better sensor with all your lenses.
  • You lose the TTL viewfinder and focusing screen.
  • You need all new equipment, and probably want new mounting hardware too.

Sensors may not be cheap enough to do this today, but they are getting cheaper, and thanks to Moore’s law this will continue. We’ve pretty much got all the megapixels we want now, so the main focus will be in improving sensor quality and ISO speed. Until sensors get so cheap that we might buy several that we know will be obsolete in a few years, one approach would be to still have a mount, so that sensors on a lens can be change. However, this need not be a quick disconnect mount, it would be more intended so you could swap out the sensor on a lens.

And of course, there could be a “sensor” on the lens which is not a sensor, but rather a mount to go on a body with a sensor, as we have today. However, this would have to be a body without a flip-up mirror, as the focal planes of these lenses would be much closer to the last lens element than they can be with an SLR. And I could also see the potential of a super-fancy rangefinder, which uses its own lens, but is digitally tied to focus and other information from the real lens to give you a view identical to the main lens, though DOF preview and manual focus would still be best on the screen.

Aside from the option of better lens design (and thus better image quality for the money) the two most appealing features to me are the instant electronic lens switch, and the ability to use different size sensors. Much as I would like to, even if I wanted to pay $6,000 for one of those amazing super-tele fast lenses that sports photographers use, I would only carry it around rarely. On the other hand, I might very well carry a short 85mm lens with a small sensor of the sort found in P&S cameras that gave me the field of view of a 600mm lens with 10 megapixels. It’s going to get me photos I would not otherwise get because I’m just not going to carry a 600mm f/2.8 in my bag. Instant lens switch might also change your desires about what zooms you want, since one of the goals of a zoom is to switch focal lengths quickly, though another goal is to have fewer lenses in the bag. If not using a mount that holds multiple lenses, lens switch could still be a very quick unsnap/snap, with no caps to remove and no seal to make.

Of course, to do this would require a very high-bandwidth data/control/power bus that ideally was standardized over vendors and designed to be upwards compatible with the future, faster bus that might come along. There is already a Camera Link bus specification, but the technologies behind SATA-600 (also 6gb) or 10gig ethernet might make sense.

So I suspect that as sensors get cheap enough, we might see things move this way.

Wide angle lens

Let’s consider how this might help us produce a wide angle lens. Good wide angle lenses are expensive. It takes work and good design to keep them free from distortions, vignetting and to make them rectilinear with a flat focal plane. Flare is also always a problem, as is doing all this for a sensor that is far from the last element. And these things are hard to do for a big image circle, though smaller image circles require very short focal lengths.

A sensor-included wide-angle could select the right focal length and image circle to get the best price/performance at suitable low noise. The sensors’s pixels could sit in distorted rows to match the distortions of the lens — indeed, one could go all the way to a fish-eye lens and put a fish-eye sensor on it to make it rectilinear. (This could also be done in software with some loss of sharpness.) The sensors could be designed so that they are larger (or have larger covering lenses) at the corners, to perfectly account for vignetting. And of course, one could use the short-focus design common in view cameras that can’t be done in SLRs because the focal plane is so close to the last lens element.

It’s not out of the question that such a lens/sensor could even be cheaper than a high quality lens able to put a great image on a 36mm full-frame sensor, and take better photos.

Why night panos are such a challenge

In my previous post, I noted that I had not done many night panoramas of Burning Man. I thought I should outline just why they are such a challenge.

To shoot at night, you need a time exposure, typically a second or more. You can capture lights and fires with far less, but if you want to capture the things illuminated by those lights and fires, you need a long exposure. Having both the light source and the illuminated subject in a shot is like shooting into the sun. There are a few things you can do to get away with a shorter exposure, but they don’t work well for this sort of work.

  1. You can bump the ISO on your camera. If you do that, you make the picture more noisy. This ruins it when you try the next technique…
  2. You can apply curves in photoshop to brighten the shadows but not brighten the highlights, which tend to be much brighter than the shadows, because they are the light sources themselves. But if you used high ISO, you will immediately highlight the noise. You can’t do both.
  3. You can be tricky about how you do your curves. I recommend first using colour range select to mask out the actual light sources and areas near them (highly feathered) and then do your curves so you are not brightening the area right next to the lights at all.
  4. You can use a fast lens, wide open. But if you do this, you will get a shallow depth of field, meaning that if the foreground is in focus, the background is blurry, or vice versa. Problem is, for panoramas, trying to capture a large sweeping area, shallow depth of field is not a good idea. My daytime panos are shot at f/8 or f/11.

So you’re stuck with a long exposure. Right away that’s going to cause a problem with moving things, notably people and vehicles. There is simply nothing you can do about this with a long exposure, unless you can command the world to stop.

  • I like to shoot panoramas from up towers, to capture the whole city. But towers at Burning Man are rarely built super-stable. They are usually scaffolding. If other people get on them, they wobble. That ruins almost any length of exposure.
  • Over the years, the only really stable platforms have been the man, when he was a pyramid, and the Black Rock Refinery of 2002. Other platforms would be stable if I could get them to myself, but that’s hard at Burning Man.
  • A boomlift can be good if you get it to yourself. But nobody on the boomlift can even shift their weight while the shutter is open.
  • In the dark, it’s easier to make mistakes, like leaving autofocus on. Or if you are doing manual focus, it’s much harder to do it. The autofocus often doesn’t work, and your eyes may not have something good to focus on either.
  • If what you are shooting is lit by fire, then the lighting is going to change form one frame to the next!

Now it gets worse. Since a full panorama like I take uses 36 shots, to get a perfect pano, every single one of them must be good. And that’s not going to happen. So you tend to take each shot 2 or 3 times, and hope that one of them works out. Problem is, the longer you wait between moves of the camera, the more likely something in the scene is going to move between frames, causing a blending problem.

You can check on the camera screen if the shot came out, but that’s very time consuming and just makes the moving car problem even worse. I have wished for some time that cameras had a review mode that was “Show me a full 1:1 pixel zoom of the region of the photo with the highest contrast and sharpest edges.” If that region is blurry, you know your photo is blurry. If that region is not your subject, you know you had bad focus. A button to cycle through the sharpest edges in the photo would help confirm this.

Some Nikon cameras had a mode to do this automatically — take 3 photos, and save the one with the least blur. I wish that mode appeared on my cameras.

So all in all, it’s a wonder they work at all sometimes. This year I had high hopes, because one crew built an 11 floor tower out of giant steel I-beams. But it wobbled a great deal at the top with all the constant traffic. It didn’t wobble as much on lower floors, but sadly at night they put up a giant screen and projected rather uninteresting photos onto it. The combination of the screen, and the projector light shining right at you, made photos from the stable levels impossible.

First six panoramas of Burning Man 2008

Back from Burning Man and still dusty, here are five large panoramas to give you a sense of it.

This year was great fun as always, this time in our own small Esplanade camp, rather than with Camp I Am. The main downside this year was the horrible playa conditions — think dust, including drifts that made it very difficult to bicycle in most places, and even my new art car was difficult to ride in a number of places, especially deep playa. It also meant whiteout dust storms on Monday, Saturday (delaying the burn) and Sunday. Nothing too bad but certainly frightening for newbies.

I’ll post more observations later, but here are a few for now:

  • An art car is great, and the car I inherited generated praise everywhere we went. Felt a little guilty taking it sometimes, but you can’t explain to everybody that you didn’t build it.
  • Next time, I’ll bring 3 spare air filters, though I don’t think it will be this dusty again. A snorkel on the air intake might also help. Plus, I think I would like to convert to battery power for the lights, though that will be a major operation.
  • With the big red ATM sign I bought, the ATM got a lot more traffic and we handed out almost all the playa money.
  • The phone, as usual, worked poorly for the first few days because the network never seems to work out in the outer city for some time. But it got some pretty giant lines, and heartwarming stories. We need to make a logbook.
  • The photo wall is getting too big. It documented 9 years this time (I removed 2001 since the photo is not that remarkable) and shrunk many others. I need to take a new approach, or get help building it, or both.
  • The theme went off OK, if anything the response was too wussy. Lots of flags, and while there was protest art it was not at all edgy or shocking as one might have expected. Most people stayed away from the theme, by and large. Not a failure like the Green Man but not a grand success like the Floating World.
  • Next year’s theme, Evolution, looks more promising.
  • While there are lots of quiet spaces, I never seem to find them. I left Camp I Am in part because most of what was left of art there was going to involve loud music (live, and good quality, but still loud) and that’s not compatible with my phone. Instead we got Entheon (which promised no music dome) playing very loud music in their non-dome right behind us, and Bomb Squad’s mobile music platform stayed at home more nights than it left. Sigh.

In the panorama collection this year are two rather interesting ones. One is a shot of the temple burn. Because I am in the crowd, the view behind me shows the clear faces of the people watching. Solemn, still, some crying. It says a lot.

Another shot, my largest single panorama to date, is a shot of the whole city, up close, from the tower of Babel. The tower 11 stories tall, all-steel construction, in the deep playa. The highest viewpoint built to date. Even with the steel beams, it was not stable enough for a photo at night at the top, and they blocked the ability to take photos from lower levels with a screen.

Update: I’ve added one of the temple.

Want a lossless jpeg editor

Photographers constantly debate about jpeg. Should they shoot in RAW or JPEG, for example. RAW preserves everything, but is much harder and bulkier to work with, so you will see serious pro photographers, who you think would always vote for the “never throw away” logic of RAW, tell you they work mostly in JPEG. I’m one of them. I use raw only for shots with high dynamic range, like night photography, and often shoot RAW+JPEG to work with the JPEGs and pull the RAWs if you need it.

If you do work with JPEG, you still want to avoid editing with jpeg — loading, changing and recompressing. Most people go to TIFF at that point, or PNG, because for the few photos you will actually work on, the space issue is minor, and TIFF can be used in almost all software that uses JPEG.

There are a variety of tools that will do a lossless rotate of a JPEG. If you have a JPEG that was shot in portrait mode, they will rotate the picture and create a new jpeg without loss of information. That’s because JPEG compression breaks your photo up into little 8x8 blocks and loses data within those blocks. However, you can rotate those blocks at no loss in a picture which, like most, has dimensions that are multiples of 8.

Still, sometimes there is a temptation to do other edits on a file you have in jpeg, such as crops, touch-ups with the clone or healing tool and such. To assist that, a photo editor could support mostly-lossless jpeg editing. If, when saving a picture back, any particular 8x8 block of pixels has not changed since the original, write it back exactly as it was. For bonus points, handle rotating of such blocks, too. For other blocks, you must recompress, though you could arrange to always recompress at a quality level which will provide minimal loss.

Strictly, this would require crops to be on block boundaries. I think people might tolerate that. Alternately, one could do a special crop which creates an image with a small white or black border to allow the crop lines to be anywhere. If the user insists on cropping out those, the crop will no longer be lossless, and they should switch to tiff or png.

This requires a photo editor that is aware of the jpeg structure behind a photo, so it may not be trivial. But it would be handy.

Panoramas of Wyoming: Yellowstone, Tetons

Last weekend I had a great trip to Wyoming, staying in Jackson for a bit and then into Yellowstone with a Cody side-trip.

As always, tons of photos and a new gallery of panoramic photos of the area. My last trip to Yellowstone featured poor weather and a very early (low quality) digital camera so I was pleased to photograph it again.

Check out my Gallery of Panoramas of Wyoming

One thing that was different: In the bookstores at both parks there were books on how to photograph the park. This was something quite new, and is an artifact of the great rebirth of photography that digital cameras have brought. Often when I enter an area I will ask the locals for the good photographic spots. These books answered those questions, and did more — told me when to visit the spots, or where to go at certain times of day. For example, the book told me I would get a rainbow at 9 am on upper Yellowstone falls from Uncle Tom point, and indeed I did. (It must be timed for summer.)

Everybody shoots Old Faithful — here’s the crowd around it at sunset:

Advice on what digital camera to buy

I do enough photography that people ask me for advice on cameras. Some time ago I wrote an article about what lenses should I buy for a Canon DSLR which has turned out to be fairly popular. The thrust of that article, by the way, is to convince you that there is only minimal point in buying a DSLR that can changes lenses and getting only one lens for it, even if you plan to get another lens later (after your camera has depreciated plenty without using its real abilities.)

However, many people come with the higher level question of which digital camera to get. There are many cameras, and lots of right answers, but hopefully I give a few in “What Digital Camera Should I Buy?.”

Here, the advice has some specifics and some generalities. Both Canon and Nikon are good, but stick with the major brands so you get accessories and an aftermarket on eBay. And the answer, if you are serious about your pictures, may be to buy more than one. We’ve got three — plus another 2 we don’t use.

Panorama of Marienplatz, München, Germany

Here’s my latest assembled panorama, of the main square of Munich, known as Marienplatz, taken from the St. Peter’s Church bell tower just to the south.

This is a 360 degree shot, taken just after sunset. This is a very technically difficult panorama, and as such not perfect. First of all, a tripod is not practical at the top of this tower, where the walkway is so narrow that it’s hard for two people to pass. It also has a metal grille with holes large enough for the camera but not much bigger. So we’re talking handheld long exposures.

And you must walk around the tower, which means parallax, so perfect joins are not possible. This effort has some distortions to get around that but does cover the entire city.

That’s the Rathaus (town hall) prominent in the center of the picture, and the Frauenkirche to the left of it, and the moon in the upper right.


Detecting bad photos in camera and after

As I’ve noted, with digital cameras we all take tons of photos, and the next task is to isolate out the winners. I’ve outlined better workflow for this and there are still more improvements we need in photo management software, but one task both cameras and photo management software could make easier is eliminating the plain bad shots.

I’ve always wanted the camera to have a display mode that immediately shows, at 1:1, the most contrasty (sharpest) section of a photo I have taken. If I look at that, and see it’s blurry then I know the whole photo is blurry, whether it be from camera shake or bad focus. If it’s sharp but not the thing I wanted to emphasize, I may realize the autofocus found the wrong thing. (My newest camera shows in the review pane what autofocus points it used, which is handy.)

Indeed, if a camera finds that there is no section of the photo which is sharp, it might even display or sound a warning. Yes, sometimes I will take shots of fuzzy clouds where this will be normal. I can handle the false warning then. It might be so dark I can’t get a good shot and will also ignore the warning, but other times it might tell me to shoot that one again.

(Nikon cameras have a feature where they take 3 shots and keep the sharpest of them. That’s handy, but I still want to know if the sharpest of them is still no good.)

The camera could go further. With more sensitive accelerometers, it could actually calculate how much the camera rotated while the shutter was open, and since it also knows the focal length, it could calculate the amount of motion blur there will be in the shot. Again, it could warn you when it’s too much, and tag this acceleration data in the EXIF fields of the file. Yes, sometimes one takes a tracking shot where you pan on a moving object and deliberately blur the background. In theory the detection of sharp objects in the field would reveal this, but in any event you can also just ignore the warning here.

For those will full flash cards, such detection could help in removing turkeys when you have to delete.

Until our cameras can do this, our photo management software could help. As noted, the first task in photo management is to divide the photos into groups. I divide into 5 groups myself — bad shots, boring shots, average shots, winners and super-winners. Winners go into the slideshow for the particular shooting trip, super winners will go into a “best of the year” category.

The photo management software could scan over the photos, and find ones that are blurry. It could then let me do a quick scan over them, either as large thumbnails, or perhaps again showing me at 1:1 zoom the highest contrast crop. I could quickly pull out any pictures I still want and relegate the others to the bad photo pile, or even delete them. The same could apply for images that are obviously overexposed and underexposed. Again, I will still scan to see if there is anything to save, and in the case of the underexposed, I can do the scan in a mode where a compensation is done to brighten them to see what can be recovered. But after that, I don’t want them in the way of my real workflow, to find the winners.

Rotating digital picture frame

Digital Picture Frames are finally coming down to tolerable prices and decent resolutions. We are about to give my mother one that’s 1024x768 and 15” on the diagonal. In part that’s because I never got around to building one out of a laptop though I still think a linux distro that turned an old laptop into a digital PF would be a great idea because the ability to do wireless networking to subscribe to flickr and other feeds is the waiting killer app for these frames. (Or frankly, I just want the wireless module for flat panel displays I have spoken of before.

However, turnkey appliances still have their attraction, and digital picture frames are one of the hot items for this year and probably a few to come.

However, one thing bothers me about them (and all other computer slide shows.) I take a modest number of photos in “portrait” mode, which is to say tilting the camera on its side to make a picture that is tall rather than wide. Of course I take many landscape too. And most digital picture frames are set up in landscape mode. When you see a portrait picture you lose half the resolution. You could get two frames — one arranged in portrait mode and one in landscape, but I propose making a frame where the panel and frame have a small motor on them. Every so often the motor would rotate the frame 90 degrees, and the frame would then switch to doing the pictures that are right for that orientation, and later switch back.

You would want a silent motor of course. It need not be very fast, and you could blank the screen while it turns, or even put up a clever animation that itself counterspins around the axis point so it looks still. It would not work if you only had a very small number of portrait photos, but should be fine for most folks.

Slow, quiet stepper or servo motors are not very expensive, much cheaper than a second frame, though this does add moving parts.

I’ve wanted something similar as well for projected slide shows. There the motor could turn the internal panel, or perhaps just a mirror. If these things existed, people might take more portrait pictures. Today, seeing most photos on computer screens, there seems to be no reason to shoot portrait (other than to get a wider field of view.) If you will always view on the computer, shooting portrait — for those who don’t understand its value as a compositional tool — may just seem like a waste. Now it would not be.

Burning Man Panoramas for 2007

I have generated several of my panoramas for this year’s Burning Man.

This year featured a double rainbow, and of course much of the week with no man on his pedestal.

News: Burning Man burns on Monday

Update: I now have a whole Burning Man area on the blog!

I’ve not been blogging of late because I’m at Burning Man, and while normally I don’t report breaking news in this blog, we just witnessed a strange event. Through accident or arson, the Man was set alight this evening shortly after totality began in the eclipse of the moon.

The man was not loaded with explosives or fireworks as he is before his planned burn, so it was a more sedate affair, and soon fire crews arrived to “save the man” — something we have been asking for in mock protests for years. They did put him out, and he still stands, a bit worse for wear.

I managed to get some photos of the burn….

Efforts to save the man…

The injured man, missing a hand and burnt, under the eclipsed moon…

Photo server being dugg

Well, this site is at a crawl now because the panorama I assembled of San Francisco in 1971 is on the front page. If you haven’t seen it before it’s on the San Francisco page, the panorama of SF from the top of the Bay Bridge in 1971.

My hosting company, Defender Hosting/PowerVPS, has been kind enough to do a temporary upgrade of my server capacity to their top level, though the site’s response is still poor. This is something that virtual hosting can do that you can’t as easily do with dedicated hosting, though virtual hosting has its own costs, mostly in wasted memory.

I think it would be nice if virtual hosting companies sold this “bump” ability as a feature. When your web site gets a lot of load from a place like digg or slashdot, this could ideally be automatically detected, and more capacity made available, either free for rare use as a bonus, or for a fee. Most site owners would be glad to authorize a bit of extra payment for extra capacity in the event that they’re subject to a big swarm of traffic. (The only risk being that you might pay for capacity when under a DOS or spam attack or when being used by crackers or spammers.)

One place this might happen well is in the Amazon ec2 service, which I have yet to really try out. EC2 offers a cloud of virtual servers on demand. In this case, you would want to have a master controller which tracks load on your server, and fires up another virtual server, and then, once it’s up, starts redirecting traffic to it using DNS or proxy techniques, or both. If a web site is highly based on an SQL server, all the copies would need to use the same SQL server (or perhaps need an interesting replication strategy if not read-only) but making SQL servers scale is a well-attacked problem.

Has anybody done this yet with EC2? If not, I expect somebody will soon. The basic concept is fairly simple, though to do it perfectly you would need to do things like copy logs back after the fact and redirect any pages which want to write data to the local server to a common server if one can. For a site with static pages that don’t change due to user activity, such replication should not present too many problems.

Burning Man 2006 Gallery

It’s way late, but I finally put captions on my gallery of regular-aspect photos from Burning Man 2006.

Some time ago I put together the 2006 Panoramas but just never got around to doing the regulars. There are many fun ones here, an particular novel are the ones of the burn taken from above it on a boomlift.

I also did another aerial survey, but that remains unfinished. Way too much processing to do, and Google did a decent one in google maps. I did put up a few such photos there.

Enjoy the 2006 Burning Man Photos.

Many new panoramas of Alberta, Banff, Jasper and Rockies

I’ve been remiss in updating my panoramas, so I just did some work on the site and put up a new page full of Alberta panoramas, as well as some others I will point to shortly.

The Alberta rockies are among the most scenic mountains in the world. Many have called the Icefields Parkway, which goes between Banff and Jasper national parks, the most scenic drive in the world. I’ve taken it several times in both summer and winter and it is not to be missed. I have a wide variety of regular photos I need to sort and put up as well from various trips.

This image is of Moraine Lake, which is close to the famous Lake Louise. All the lakes of these parks glow in incredible colours of teal, blue and green due to glacial silt. In winter they are frozen and the colour is less pronounced, but the mountains are more snow-capped, so it’s hard to say which is the best season. (This photo is available as a jigsaw puzzle from Ratzenberger.)

Enjoy the Panoramics of Alberta. And I recommend you book your own trip up to Calgary or Edmonton to do the drive yourself. I think you’ll find this to be among my best galleries of panoramas.

I also recently rebuilt and improved my shot of Ginza-5-Chome, Tokyo’s most famous street corner. While it was handheld I have been able to remove almost all the ghosts with new software.

Photo editors: Embed your text in the jpegs

Hey photo editing programs — I’m looking at you, Photoshop — a lot of you allow people to place text into graphic images, usually as a text layer. Most graphics with text on the web are made this way. Then we export the image as a jpeg or png/gif, flatting the layers so our artful text is displayed. This is how all the buttons with words are made, as well as the title banner graphics on most web sites.

So photo editors, when you render and flatten the layers, take the visible text (you know what it is) and include it in a tag inside the file, such as the EXIF information. Possibly as the caption if there isn’t already one. Let us disable this, including on just a single layer, but providing it would be a good default.

Then all the web spiders/search engines would be able to find that text. Web page editors could offer that text as a possible “alt” text for the graphic. And the blind would be able to have their web-page readers read to them the text embedded in graphics.

Digital cameras should have built-in tagging

So many people today are using tags to organize photos and to upload them to sites like flickr for people to search. Most types of tagging are easiest to do on a computer, but certain types of tagging would make sense to add to photos right in the camera, as the photos are taken.

For example, if you take a camera to an event, you will probably tag all the photos at the event with a tag for the event. A menu item to turn on such a tag would be handy. If you are always taking pictures of your family or close friends, you could have tags for them preprogrammed to make it easy to add right on the camera, or afterwards during picture review. (Of course the use of facial recognition and GPS and other information is even better.)

Tags from a limited vocabulary can also be set with limited vocabulary speech recognition, which cameras have the CPU and memory to do. Thus taking a picture of a group of friends, one could say their names right as you took the picture and have it tagged.

Of course, entering text on a camera is painful. You don’t want to try to compose a tag with arrow buttons over a keyboard or the alphabet. Some tags would be defined when the camera is connected to the computer (or written to the flash card in a magic file from the computer.) You would get menus of those tags. For a new tag, one would just select something like “New tag 5” from the menu, and later have an interface to rename the tag to something meaningful.

As a cute interface, tag names could also be assigned with pictures. Print the tag name on paper clearly and take a picture of it in “new tag” mode. While one could imagine OCR here, since it doesn’t matter if the OCR does it perfectly at first blush, you don’t actually need it. Just display the cropped handwritten text box in the menus of tags. Convert them to text (via OCR or human typing) when you get to a computer. You can also say sound associations for such tags, or for generic tags.

Cameras have had the ability to record audio with pictures for a while, but listening to all that to transcribe it takes effort. Trained speech recognition would be great here but in fact all we really have to identify is when the same word or phrase is found in several photos as a tag, and then have the person type what they said just once to automatically tag all the photos the word was said on. If the speech interface is done right, menu use would be minimal and might not even be needed.

Panorama in ad, and more on automatic reset.

I’m pleased to see that more of my photography is getting licenced for ads and web sites these days. I like the job that this PDA ad does with my 360 degree view of Shanghai People’s Square. Of course I can’t read the text very well.

By the way, I learned the hard way how valuable the feature I proposed earlier for digital cameras — where they would notice if they’ve been set in an unusual state after a long gap between sessions — while on my trip this month to Edmonton, and one of my favourite spots on the planet — the rocky mountains in Banff and Jasper. Just before the trip I had put the camera into the “small” image size mode because I was shooting some stuff for eBay, and you really don’t need 8 megapixel shots for that. Alas, I left it there, and this is one of those mode switches which is not at all obvious. You won’t notice it unless you pay careful attention to the tiny “s” on the LCD panel, or if you download the photos. Alas, on my 4gb card I can go a long way without downloading, so a full days shots, including a lovely snow dusted Lake Louise were shot in small size, high compression.

The other way you would spot this is the camera shows you how many shots you have left. My 4gb card shows 999 when it starts even in large mode. But after shooting for a short while it eventually starts counting down. I only noticed I was in small mode when the 999 didn’t start counting down with hundreds of shots.

So this is definitely a case where the camera should notice it’s been days since I shot, and warn me I’m shooting with this unusual setting. I will still get quite serviceable web photos from that day, but not the wall sized prints I love.

Cameras (Canon) -- handle reversion from specialty settings better

My Canon cameras have a variety of ways you can change their settings to certain specialty ones. You can set a manual white balance. You can set an exposure compensation for regular exposures or flash (to make it dimmer or brighter than the camera calculates it should be.) You can change various shooting parameters (saturation etc.) and how the images will be stored (raw or not, large/medium/small etc.) You can of course switch (this time with a physical dial) from manual exposure to various automatic and semi-automatic exposure modes. On the P&S cameras you can disable or enable flash with such settings. You can change shooting modes (single-shot, multi-shot.) You can turn on bracketing of various functions.

And let’s face it, I bet all of you who have such cameras have found yourself shooting by accident in a very wrong mode, not discovering it quite for some time. If you’re in a fast shooting mode, not looking at the screen, it can be easy to miss things like a manual white balance or even a small exposure compensations.

The camera already features an option to auto-revert on exposure bracketing, since they decided few would want to leave such a feature on full time. But auto bracketing isn’t dangerous, it just wastes a couple of shots that you can just delete later. And it’s also very obvious when it’s on. Of all the things to consider auto-revert for, this was the least necessary.

To my mind, the thing I would like auto-revert on most of all is manual white balancing. I recently was shooting fast an furious in a plane, and learned after lots of shots I still had the camera in an artificial light balance setting from the night before. The camera can do a good job here because it can usually tell what the temperature of the ambient light is, and can notice that the balance is probably wrong. In addition, it can tell that lots of time has passed since the white balance was set manually. It really should have a good idea if it’s out in daylight or indoors, if it’s night or day.

And I’m not even asking for an auto-revert here. Rather, an error beep which also pops a message on the screen that the white balance may be wrong. And yes, for those who don’t want this feature they can disable it. However, what would be cool would be if the screen that pops up to warn about a possibly bad retained setting, would be the ability then and there to say, “Thanks, revert” or “Don’t warn me about this again” or “Don’t warn me about this until the next ‘session.’” The camera knows about ‘sessions’ because it sees pauses in shooting with the camera off, and as noted, changes from night to day, indoors to out.

Of course it would still keep shooting. For extra credit if it suspected something wrong, it could hold the image in RAW mode in its buffer memory, and if you ask to go to another setting that only changes the jpegs, it could actually redo the jpeg right.

Now of course, photographers often shoot in manual modes for a very good reason, and they are doing it because they don’t want the camera’s automatic settings. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be reminded if, after a longish bout with the camera off, they are shooting in a way that’s very different from what the camera wants. That can include exposure. I’ve often left the camera in manual and then forgotten about it until I saw the review screen. (Of course P&S users almost always look at the review screen, they don’t get this trouble.) Again, I want the camera to shoot when I tell it to, but to consider warning me if I turn warnings on that the image is totally overexposed or underexposed. At night it would take a more serious warning since in night shots there often no “right” exposure to compare with.

A smart camera could even notice when you aren’t looking at the review screen, because you are shooting so fast. But like I said, those who want the old way could always turn such warnings off.

Another option would be an explicit button to say, “I’m going to make a bunch of specialty settings now. Please warn me if I don’t revert them at the next session.” This could extend even to warning you that you turned off autofocus. Review screens don’t show minor focus errors, so it would be nice to be reminded of this.

(I actually think an even better warning would be one where the camera beeps if nothing in the shot is in focus, as is often the case here. The camera can easily tell if there are no high contrast edges in the shot. Yes, there are a few scenes that have nothing sharp in them, I don’t mind the odd beep on those.)

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