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Kids @ The Minton Pool
One thing about living on an island is that as since we’re completely surrounded by water, it’s practically a life-skill requirement for all of us island-dwellers to learn how to swim! We often brought Hannah as a young girl to our old condo pool, and took a lot of pictures on the now six year old setup: a cheap Canon IXUS HS115 protected with its dedicated underwater casing. This little camera over the years has survived loads of water dunking, beach sand etc. without ever breaking a sweat figuratively, and the little Canon compact camera always emerged unscathed and continued to work perfectly.
If there are limitations to the HS115 with underwater setup:
It shot full HD videos at a fairly pedestrian 24 fps rate that’s closer to film than home video.
It didn’t shoot in RAW – and color sensing was very occasionally off, given the significance presence of blue colors in a typical pool or underwater image.
The camera slightly heated up after extended use – which in itself doesn’t hurt the camera in any way, but it inadvertently caused condensation to build in the air cavity in front of the glass lens elements and housing’s lens protrusion.
Water droplets occasionally retaining on the lens protrusion: resulting in ugly blobs on pictures taken.
With our trip to Phuket coming up shortly, I’ve been looking into replacing this setup for pool and underwater pictures. Despite that dedicated underwater housings – what I’ve been using – are supposedly more reliable than underwater compacts, they are also by their very nature bulky, and also are a hefty additional expense – the HS115’s housing being a rare exception as I bought at a very low price. I did find a fairly cheap third party manufacturer of housings, so kept that in view for the GX7 Mark II.
So – looking at underwater compacts then. Most of the large camera manufacturers – Panasonic, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Fujifilm – carry their own compact underwater cameras, with many costing at least SGD300 and more. But with the exception of a couple of the higher-tier (i.e. expensive) models, the cameras routinely do not support RAW. More worryingly though was that no matter how highly rated and well-reviewed each model was, there would be a few reviewers @ Amazon who’d comment on water seeping into their units – sometimes eventually, at other times shortly after purchase – typically rendering the camera useless thereafter. And manufacturers apparently do not honor repair warranties for damage from water for their underwater cameras. The irony!
The solution I eventually went with was different: the Samsung Galaxy S8+ is water-resistant (note – not waterproof though!), so why not just couple the phone with a dedicated waterproof case? And the S8+ would offer RAW support, touch-AF and controls, 4K video at 30fps – all the nice trimmings of a full-featured compact camera. And the housing isn’t technically sophisticated since there are far fewer dials or buttons on the S8+. The case just needs to be solidly waterproof. And to begin with, even with some water got in, the S8+ is water-resistant!
After a lot of exploration around competing cases, I found a S8+ case that was well-reviewed @ Amazon, and made by what sounds like an Asian – likely Chinese – company called UBeesize. The small number of negative feedback mentioned its bulkiness – but still way smaller than a dedicated camera housing – and issues of sound echoing when the phone is used, a non-issue as I do not intend to use the phone in the pool. And the case costs just USD22 – so it’s it doesn’t burn the pocket. But being the kiasu person I am, I ordered also an Amazon Basics generic waterproof case.
Both items have arrived, and after the usual extended water test using absorbent material, the UBeesize got taken out for a spin at the pool over the weekend – and the results were wonderful! The case kept the S8+ fully dry, and I had no difficulties triggering pictures and videos (note: touchscreens do not work underwater, so the phone needs to be configured to snap pictures using one of the physical buttons). And the images and videos coming out of the S8+ were pleasing too, though all were taken at fixed focal length.
And a quick video. The source is 4K 30fps, with YouTube’s usual video compression algorithm applied too. But the short 14 second clip shows pretty decent results.
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 3
Just over a week with the new G7X Mark II, and more comments:
This is my first ‘serious’ Canon camera, albeit a compact one and not counting the six year old Ixus HS115 that I use exclusively for underwater pictures. And the debuting Digic 7 processor certainly renders pictures out of the box quite differently than the m4/3 cameras. In fact, having used Olympus and Panasonic m4/3s for almost half a dozen years now and before that Nikon DSLRs, I think I still prefer the colors out of Olympus cameras than other systems.
The camera certainly is portable. Not as petite as the G9Xs, but it’s small enough now for me to seriously find one of those uncle-styled waist belt pouches to drop it into!
Like the OMDs E-M5 and E-M1, the camera starts up very quickly. Powering on the unit automatically extends the lens, and in the time it takes for you to bring the camera up to framing position, the G7X is all ready for shots.
The 24-100mm lens focal length is at a great range: easily wide enough for selfies/wefies, capable of decent magnification when zoomed all the way-in.
Focusing is responsive and fast enough, though there seems to be some softness when I take pictures wide-open at f1.8. Detail resolution also isn’t quite what you’d get on an interchangeable lens system, and I typically have to do a bit more sharpening in post than I normally need to using say one of the m4/3 primes on either of my OMDs.
Pictures and comments!
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 2
Usability and handling notes!
As with all digital cameras in general, these imaging devices tend to do better when taking pictures in good light – and the smaller the sensor is, the most pronounced will be the issues of noise in low light photography. So, I’ve not been under any illusions that the new G7X Mark II would be a low light photography wonder.
The G7X starts up quickly, and is ready for pictures about a second after starting-up. There’s the familiar ‘chime’ song played at start-up, but it’s something you can easily disable in Settings – and likewise also the Canon startup logo too.
The camera is jam-packed with features. There are two different auto settings, scenes modes, bracketing, time-lapse, a somewhat configurable shooting info display, Face ID, different C-AF modes, ND filter, ability to set an upper ISO limit and adjust rate of change when in ISO Auto. While the G7X doesn’t support 4K, I appreciate that the camera out of the box supports both NTSC and PAL video systems. Some of the cameras from other manufacturers – including my Panasonic GX85 and also likely the Sony RX100s too – only support PAL for the local models, which in turn fixes video shot to 25fps, or 50fps if the camera happens to support it. I prefer my videos to be in 30fps – so there.
AF is quick though not what I’d call instantaneous. There’s some AF hunting in low-light, more so if I turn off AF-Assist (which I always do). Still, nothing quite as bad as the X70 though whose AF sometimes went forwards, backwards, forwards etc. as if it had a mind of its own LOL.
Muting the camera will not get you totally silent shooting. Triggering the shutter release will still produce a soft and pleasant ‘click’ sound.
The mode and exposure compensation dials are stiff and offer good resistance. One huge problem I keep having on the E-PL6 has been how easily the command mode dial turns – often just by putting or lifting the camera in and out of my messenger bag. Too often, I’ll pull the E-PL6 out of my bag to take a quick shot – only to see that the picture is significantly over/under-exposed because the mode dial has been turned to ‘S(hutter)-Priority’ instead of ‘A(perture)-Priority’ that I normally shoot in. The G7X’s buttons also offer adequate resistance, don’t feel mushy, and put out a muffled ‘click’ sound when depressed.
In several very nice usability touches too, the camera includes a Step/Continuous selector that lets you decide whether you want the control ring to turn smoothly, or with graduated ‘clicks’ to provide a more tactile experience. The ring turns smoothly silently on the RX100s – which of course is important when I’m taking videos: you wouldn’t want clicking sounds to be recorded! However, the clicking feedback is very useful when I’m taking stills. Canon offers both – just amazing. Finally, the G7X has a rubberized handgrip – missing on the RX100s.
I’ve come to realize how convenient is it for my cameras to support in-camera charging, as it really lightens the amount of clutter we have to haul on vacations. Charging using the micro USB port on the G7X is a little fiddly. Not in that the micro USB port is loose or anything like that, but the port seems just a mite larger than a typical micro USB connector. Not a deal breaker, but it’s a little annoying to have to jiggle the connector until the camera detects the appropriate connection for charging to begin.
In case the connector fails at some point, Canon includes a separate AC battery charger – something that the RX100s do not. Cheapskake Sony and hooray for Canon!
Next post on pictures!
Canon PowerShot G7 X Mark II – Part 1
I’ve always found taking pictures with the smartphone fiddly. They’re pocketable yes – but the lack of a handholding grip makes holding the phone to take any sort of a picture a routinely nervous experience. So, over the last half-dozen years or so, I’ve had a few dalliances with small non-interchangeable lens compact cameras – including the Panasonics LX7 and LX100, and the Fujifilm X70. The use cases for these acquisitions were quite specific: a berms-pocket-friendly camera when my messenger bag isn’t with me, and for family wefies. Of the three, two have been sold away: the LX100 had great specs and handled well – but wasn’t particularly compact, and there was an obvious image softness and also color rendering that I couldn’t get past. And the LX100 couldn’t be used for wefies for its lack of a flip-up or articulating screen. The X70 was compact, but perhaps because of the larger APS-C sensor and the shallow depth of field, it was routinely hard to get all four of us in sharp focus, unless the lens was stopped down significantly.
Many industry observers have reported on the gradual demise of the small sensor compact camera segment, in large part because the imaging you get from it is now matched – and in specific aspects even surpassed – by the current generation smartphones.
There is one holdout segment though: and it’s the one inch sensor compacts. I’ve long kept a close eye on developments and models here, and been tempted to get one for years now. Sony especially has been particularly aggressive with its RX cameras, with the almost yearly iteration of its very popular RX100 series of 1″ compacts. And Panasonic has also just got onto the bandwagon too last year with its aggressively priced LX10. In the last several years though, there was always one issue or another about these models that made me hesitant about picking one up. Whether it’s the asking price – the relatively new Sony RX100 Mark V comes with an eye-watering SGD1399 RRP price tag – or a specification that disappoints, e.g. battery life, AF or optics.
Our upcoming Phuket trip though made me quicken any purchase decision I might be making: on account that unlike our Western Australia trip in June this year, I didn’t think I’d want to prop my E-M1 on a tripod in a busy street just for a picture of the four of us. Moreover, it’d be icing on the cake if I could find something which had an equivalent underwater casing that won’t cost a bomb. Y’know, if we’re kayaking in Phang Nga bay and a rogue wave hits us haha.
As it is now, the leading 1″ sensor compact models are the Sony RX100 Marks III to V – which other manufacturer still puts on shelves three iterations of their current line LOL – the Canon G9X and G7X Marks II, and the Panasonic LX10. Of these six models, the G9X is the smallest sized and very attractively priced at about SGD600. But the lack of a flip-up screen meant it was knocked right out of consideration. The RX100s also have a small electronic viewfinder, but do not support touchscreen AF. So, after a lot of price comparisons and hunting around – including from pre-loved resales – the summary of it was:
The almost 3.5 year old RX100 Mark III model is the equivalent of the G7X Mark II and LX10, price-wise.
I found a camera store that was selling the RX100 Mark V with significant discounts: at just SGD1,145. This model is top of the line in almost every single regard – imaging, AF, burst mode, 4K stabilization etc. – but the electronic wizardry takes its toll on its already small battery. This RX100 will run out of juice faster than all its predecessors.
The LX10 is about SGD820 and almost the equivalent of the Mark V. But there were a few odd videos I saw on YouTube that showed the camera having issues video focusing. Also, there were no affordable underwater casings for it.
The G7X Mark II was released about 1.5 years ago and Canon is expected to issue an update to it sometime early next year – maybe. The camera is very slightly larger than the diminutive RX100s, and has a cheap third party underwater casing for it. Its’ AF, imaging and optics are pretty good – if not quite where the RX100 is.
And when it finally came down to it, I went for the G7X Mark II over the weekend – largely on account of the price I got it for: SGD699 or USD513 – significantly lower than Singapore’s recommended retail price of SGD799 and even Amazon’s listed price of USD679. Of the three contending models, the G7X was the cheapest. And to think of it: a year and a half ago I was about to buy the G7X Mark I already – but changed my mind to X70 at the last minute. So, this is like coming back full-circle.
More notes on the usability next!
Phuket 2017 – Itinerary v1
Oddly, while it’s just about 6 weeks before our year-end 8 day Free and Easy holiday in Phuket, I’ve felt less of a compulsion to blog about our developing itinerary than say 11 day trip to Western Australia. It’s probably a mix of several factors – including that Phuket is such a well-known and traveled-to place for residents in our part of the world, I’m not sure how much I’d be able to add to the volume of information there’s already out there on it! Secondly, unlike our WA trip, our current Phuket itinerary is less structured – on account that I’m honestly having difficulties now filling it up with activities suitable for kids too.
Still: our current itinerary looks like this:
It’s a fairly light itinerary, and some of the key highlights being:
Bang Tao Beach: OK and certainly less crowded beach area than the Patong area.
Patong Beach: party capital of the island and maybe even the region.
Kawai Beach: less busy and tourist-y stretch on the southern-tip of the island.
Kids Club Phuket / Kidzoonia / Molly Fantasy: indoor playgrounds for our kids
Phuket Elephant Sanctuary: a protected reserve for elephants, and unlike a few other places on the island pretending to be such – this one is the real deal. Admission prices fairly pricey though.
Soi Dog Foundation: from the web site’s brief: “Soi Dog was created to provide a humane and sustainable solution to managing the stray population and to address their medical needs.”
Phuket Trickeye Museum: just for laughs – and fun photos!
Phuket Old Town: exploration of the old historical center of the island.
Phuket Seashell Museum: this one’s for Peter and his fascination with sea shells.
I was initially toying with the idea of repeating the round-island trip with the same provider we went with 9 years ago – Simba Sea Trips. But while they are as highly regarded as they were back then, their prices seem to have also skyrocketed. And since we won’t be swimming or snorkeling, I wasn’t sure how much the kids and us would get out from the trip. So, that got dropped in the current iteration of our plan.
We’re seriously thinking of opting for canoeing around the Phang Nga Bay, and for that we’ll need to engage a day operator. More to come soon enough!
The Pet Project – Part 10 – Cleaning and Maintenance
This is a post about poop!
There’s a pretty vibrant and lively FB group for guinea pig owners in Singapore, and there’s a lot of sharing, discussions and cute to-the-max photos of cavies in the forum. A frequent question that comes up is the amount of cleaning and maintenance required to keep up with cavies. So, here’s my offering:
Guinea pigs defecate more than hamsters – by a lot! For Stacy – our just over a year old Syrian hamster now – we just need to change her sand bath every 3-4 days, and do a full clean-up of her enclosure ever month or so. That’s it. For Rudolf and Danny, our two boar cavies, their clean-up work happens everyday.
Guinea pig poop is, essentially, solid, odorless and easy to sweep or pick-up by hand even – unless there’s something wrong with their diet. Their urine though can be quite a stench. It’s not too bad if there’s plenty of air movement – e.g. a ceiling fan is on and the windows are opened/air-conditioning is switched on. But when it’s not, the smell build-up can be quite strong, e.g. when we’re back home from work.
A lot more clean-up materials are required. Our arsenal includes a mini-brush with dust-pan, animal-safe wet-wipes, two different types of pee-pads, and small pet recycled pellets as litter.
Our current enclosure is a simple C&C of 90x60cm and still evolving. With that in mind:
I use two types of bedding:
- Two layers of charcoal pee pads (totally four sheets of 45x60cm) as the base layer.
- A third layer (of 33x45cm) at their favorite pee spot, which at the moment is the furthermost right corner of their current enclosure. This third layer is secured by letting their house and cage wall sit on it.
There’s also a 280mm x 228m x 150mm Gex square toilet that I first place a pee-pad inside, then fill with about 4cm of small pet litter on top of it. I’ve been using Pets Dream Paper Pure from Pet Lovers’ Centre for a year now, but am just switching to Nature’s Eco Recycled Paper and giving that a try. The pee pad here and pellets are changed every 3-4 days, and the toilet unit gets washed (I have a second toilet of similar size and color that gets rotated in). As our two cavies like to pee/poop in the far corner of the toilet, I scoop up and dispose of the most obvious poop bits, and also re-arrange the pellets to spread the used pellets.
If the cage wall base is coated with dried poop, the wet-wipes come in for spot-cleaning.
The top (of two layers) of charcoal pee paid is changed every 7 days, and the bottom layer kept as it is as a backup-layer.
Every month, everything gets dismantled for a thorough cleaning. It takes a bit of time to scrub all the dirt off and have it sun-dried, but I’ve got plenty of cage spares.:)
All in; my daily maintenance takes about 5 minutes, and the weekend maintenance maybe about 10 minutes in all. Quite manageable!
Blurb Vol. 8 – Disappointment
The two Blurb Vol. 8 books arrived a few days before the scheduled delivery. The interiors were perfect – well, aside from a small quarter-page photo that was accidentally repeated. The exterior however was a very different story. Check out the books’ spines:
I’ve printed about a dozen Blurb books over eight years now, and the jacket covers have always been correctly aligned, so this is the first time I’ve seen such a thing happen. So, an email got sent to Blurb support asking them to check – which they did in short order to explain that it was user layout error. This picture was included in their reply:
So, I checked the source version that I worked on and see what they meant. The incorrect layout against book spines however were extremely easy to miss, and the warning messages in BookWright not helpful enough for users to have realized it. And I thought I was a fairly expert user already. Finally, I didn’t remember BookWright’s Expert PDF Proof showing the misaligned cover pictures in this fashion too.
In any case, fine – my bad. I did not however need both books to be reprinted as the contents themselves were fine – just specifically the dust jackets were in error. So, I asked how I could reprint just the jackets.
To which Blurb replied nein, not possible to print just the dust jackets. To get the correct jackets, I’ll have to fully reprint both books again, but here’s a 35% discount coupon to offset the several hundred dollars I’ll have to spend to get them redone. And even with that, I reckon I’ll have to spend about SGD300.
Frankly, even though BookWright’s UI made it very easy for users to miss the layout anomaly, I admit I goofed the layout here. But I just don’t see why book jackets can’t be re-printed separately: the books themselves are fine.
So, in conclusion, reminders to self that in future:
Check again, and again, and again.
Do not use Blurb again. Not because of their printing quality, but their lack of satisfactory remedies when things go wrong.
Zhiyun Smooth Q Smartphone Gimbal – Part 1
Many imaging devices of both the still type (e.g. cameras, smartphones) and video (e.g. camcorders, smartphones too LOL) like to claim that they are stabilized, and feature mechanisms and technologies to reduce if not eliminate what’s commonly known as ‘camera shake’. Olympus of course has the very nifty five-axis optical stabilization technology that the company has continue to improve over its micro four-thirds cameras. For instance, their current top of the line model – the E-M1 Mark II – is able to fairly easily obtain sharp five-second exposures. And this fellow here was even able to hit 20 seconds!
Reducing shake seems also quite different between both types of imaging devices, and I reckon it’s harder when it comes to recording video than still images. The old Panasonic TM700 I’ve owned for almost 7.5 years now – and still working perfectly albeit that it’s covered now with all manner of dings and scratches – has superb optical stabilization for video. But it doesn’t do 4K resolution. All the videos we took in our last vacation were in 4K, and the Huawei Mate 9 was clearly struggling to stabilize the video footage. I reckon trying to reduce shake on crazy high-resolution videos require lots of sophisticated machinery that simply won’t fit into a smartphone form factor.
So and looking around. Apparently, there are fairly straight-forward gadgets that work on more or less the same premise and lets one capture stable videos on smartphones: you mount your smartphone on a three-axis electronic gimbal that tries to sense and buffer your most extreme wrist movements. The solutions have come from quite a few manufacturers – including crowdfunded projects – and typically cost several hundreds of dollars. The most expensive, and maybe also the one which is most effective in its job, is the DJI OSMO – and it costs a whopping SGD430. That’s a crazy amount of money to spend on a handphone accessory. Albeit a very useful one, but no way I’m going to pay for that kind of money.
Most other gimbals cost SGD250 and more too, but I found one from a Chinese manufacturer which costs substantially less – the Zhiyun Smooth-Q, and I picked it up for SGD178. The manufacturer also makes a number of other gimbals, and the general consensus among reviewers in my pre-decision fact-finding is that:
It’s crazy cheap.
It’s reasonably well-built for the cheap price, but slightly lacking the premium build in some of the very pricey devices.
It offers nearly all the features – e.g. object tracking, silent operation – you want in top-line devices, and even more impressive considering its very low asking price.
Some of the user documentation and interfaces might be in Chinese, but it can be forgiven because of it’s dirt-cheap price.
Have I already said that it’s crazy cheap?!
So, a few hours of watching YouTube reviews later, I picked one up from Lazada SG – and it was delivered in two working days after placing the order. A comment about this particular e-commerce company too: I’ve made a number of orders from this site for more than a year now, and am quite impressed with its reliability and speed of delivery.
To be continued in a next post!
Home Recording – Part 3
I didn’t think for a moment that home studio recordings were going to be easy. Never mind that I wasn’t going to do both video and audio recordings and any mistakes would be very hard to correct. I reckon professional musicians typically do multiple takes when doing studio recordings, then splice and re-edit them so that what you get is often a piece that comprises the best bits of multiple takes. That’s why live recordings are often regarded as the most authentic performances.
Moreover, the fairly small living room and its odd shape, coupled with the against-wall placement of our piano also meant that sound would be bouncing everywhere and creating echos and reverbs that would be very tough to correct in post-processing. What I was totally unprepared for though was the physical exertion involved. I was perspiring buckets after a two-hour recording session on a weekday morning, even though the living room was air-conditioned!
Microphone-placement was also extremely difficult to get right, compounded also by the awful reverb in the room – so it’s something I’ll have to keep trying until I find something that works. The raw video and audio files were at least manageable, though I was able to clean up only a small part of the echoing and muddy bass in Audacity. Also another part of the workflow I’ll have to read up more on.
I did a total of 23 takes of eight pieces over the two hours, of which seven takes for seven songs were the least sloppy LOL. Here’s the first one: Mika’s Song, a lovely piece written and performed originally by Korean pianist, Yiruma. The tempo I used for this song is a little more brisk than the original recording:
Home Recording – Part 2
Coming out a crash course on home recording equipment, the basic outlay seemed to be:
Microphones: two basic types are dynamic, and condenser – with the former more suitable for low-frequency audio signals (e.g. drums), and latter for higher-frequency audio (e.g. piano). Condenser microphones can be several orders more expensive and in the thousands of dollars range though, but I found Amazon selling pretty decent large diaphragm condensers for USD70 each – the Samson C01. And these weren’t run of the mill ones either, but well-regarded and fairly well-reviewed too.
Microphone cables: these can cost a bit too, but I went with the cheapest that could be delivered to Singapore through expedited and free shipping – at USD7 each. Hooray for cheap Amazon house-brand stuff! Had to make sure that the connector ends were of the correct type with the microphone and audio interface unit though.
Microphone stands: again, not willing to spend a lot on this. The cheapest decent stands – I needed two of them – was available on Amazon: the Samson MK-10 Boom Stand with a very attractive price-tag of USD20 @ Amazon, but the item would not ship with free expedited international shipping. Even Amazon’s slightly cheaper house-brand required shipping fees. Boo! Fortunately, Lazada lists local resellers who carry this item, so two were picked up at SGD40 apiece.
Audio interface: another item I had to read up about as a total noob. Basically, this is a electronic box that interfaces between the computer’s digital audio software and the recording equipment, and the best (i.e. most expensive) ones permit large numbers of audio inputs of multiple types. These can cost several hundred USDs. And as I was just trying out home recording, I got lucky again finding one – the U-Phoria UMC202HD – that was rated highly, and from Behringer, a German audio equipment manufacturer, that cost USD60. Perhaps as a testament to how popular this particular model is, I pretty much bought the last available unit on Amazon – as immediately after ordering it, the item went out of stock – with the next availability at 4-6 months as reported by Amazon.
Digital Audio Workstation: is really just a fancy name for the application software that takes care of the editing and post-processing parts of an audio recording. The professional versions can run to thousands of moola, so I went with the open-source and very free equivalent: Audacity, the widely-praised digital audio editor that I’ve been using for about ten years now after getting introduced to it as part of work.
And since I’ll still be recording video that I’ll merge the new audio layer into, I dug up my old copy of Adobe Premiere Elements and have to start learning how to use it.
All in, the expenditure was about SGD377 – quite a bit lower than what I’d earlier resigned to spending during the initial exploration phase. With two of the key items – namely the microphones and audio interface – high-quality models even!