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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!

ISO125, f1.8, 1/60s. It was quite bright on the outside, so I increased shadows setting, reduced highlights and slightly saturated the colors on the RAW file to get this. The dynamic range isn’t quite where interchangeable lens cameras are, but it’s still workable.

ISO125, f2, 1/80s. We’ve started looking for Christmas decorations and a new tree to replace our 5 year old one! The strong presence of red hues didn’t confuse the G7X.

ISO125, f1.8, 1/80s. These two like going to Fairprice – because there are always a lot of fresh milk samples to try. H was standing a little closer than P in this shot. Her face was very slightly out of focus in the shot, so I had to correct it in post. Guess depth of field remains a challenge even for 1″ sensor cameras.

ISO125, f1.8, 1/200s. Another picture with a strongly lit backdrop for me to try working with the G7X Raw files. Applied again a good degree of adjustments to shadows and highlights to get a more pleasing picture.

Family wefie for the three of us!

ISO800, f2.2, 1/100s. Have to post up happy pictures of P – when we feel like strangling him (a lot of times).

ISO250, f1.8, 1/60s. H calls it “Little Red-Riding Meerkat”.

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:

  1. Two layers of charcoal pee pads (totally four sheets of 45x60cm) as the base layer.
  2. 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.

Either the cavies recognize that this is their designated pee area, or their human slaves have adapted to their habit of doing their business in this part of their world. Either way, this top-most pee-pad layer is the most heavily soiled part of the cage and gets changed daily. The current pad here is sold at Daiso, and contains 8 pieces for $2. The Daiso pad is barely adequate in its job. So, once the current supply gets exhausted, I’ll look for something that holds fluids and odors better.

The cavy house and cage wall base sits on the pad, though that won’t stop the cavies from – occasionally – pulling it out. The cavies early on did very occasionally chew on the cage bars. Maybe out of boredom?

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.

This is approximately the 24 hour output on the toilet from my two boars, with most of the poop on the 33x45cm pee pad. I left the grid in too as my boars were digging up the pellets haha. Most of the poop is in the far corner, so I’ll typically resettle the fresh unsoiled pellets on top of the soiled ones. The entire toilet gets washed and its bedding replaced every 3-4 days.

My arsenal for all occasions!

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:

Arrrggghh.

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 easy to miss.

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.

Comes in a box that’s about as long as the device.

Opening the box reveals the gimbal, a user guide, a micro USB cable, and a carry strap. The carry case reminds me of a miniature guitar bag LOL.

The gimbal itself. Measures about 28cm from head to toe when set in a compact posture.

The phone-clamp. Perfect for smaller phones, and it just about barely fit the Samsung S8+ – sans case.

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!

Most persons would recommend that the top board be opened, and if possible, and if one is strong enough, even the upper and lower front boards. I found though that removal of these boards resulted in the piano becoming deafeningly loud in the living room! The two Samson C10 microphones were also relocated to further away from the wall too.

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.

Behringer U-Phoria UMC202HD. It’s a pretty compact box, attractively styled, and seems quite well-built.

Two low-latency audio inputs, equipped with MIDAS designed Mic Preamplifiers with +48 V phantom power. The general feeling among enthusiasts is that this unit offers a crazy good feature set at a rock-bottom price.

The Samson C01 Condenser microphone comes pack in a plastic carry case and protected by dense foam.

The mic has a 19mm large diaphragm, and is driven by the 48v phantom power coming out of the audio interface. I did an early test of it on our piano, and it has a pretty wide audio pick-up pattern. That is both good – and bad LOL.

Two Amazon Basics microphone cables, and the two Samson MK-10 Boom Stands that was purchased separately from Lazada SG.

Audacity sound editor – so very free!

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!

Home Recording – Part 1

One of my life-long ambitions has always been to do a proper studio recording of pieces I play on the piano. There’s been sporadic occasions over the years where I’ve attempted to do variations of that. For example, using a Korg keyboard work station to record my piano compositions in the early to mid ’90s and then using sampled notes from a Steinway & Sons Grand Piano to render the MIDI files to CD-quality audio recordings. And more recently, HD video recordings using the E-M1 – which I’m still not yet brave enough to make public on YouTube LOL.

I’ve never been fully satisfied with either method. Recording via MIDI format results in pristine audio quality, but the approach always felt a little unauthentic. You’re essentially recording computer data that gets next mapped via instrument samples, then finally rendered to an actual audio recording. The benefit of a MIDI approach though is that you can fix note errors and dynamic issues before mapping.

Recording via camcorders and digital cameras is closer to a studio recording – but the built-in microphones in these camera devices are usually second fiddle to imaging. These devices are first and foremost imaging devices not sound-recorders! The camera microphones do not offer good dynamic range, pick up all kinds of odd noises, and most significant, do not present a proper stereophonic experience.

So, earlier this year I resolved to get round to trying the real deal: I’ll find out and learn what is necessary and how to do home studio recordings. This is of course a highly specialised and professional industry, and those beautiful and warm-sounding acoustic piano recordings we hear are the intentional results of a whole host of contributing factors: including the performance of the artiste, the ambiance in the recording venue, the equipment setup, and the sound engineering.

The initial survey was pretty intimidating and learning curve very steep: a lot of the learning material both text and videos, and even equipment documentation seem to be written for persons who’re already familiar with the domain of professional-standard recording. I wasn’t ready to throw a lot of money into this thing either – professional level condenser microphones can easily cost thousands each – but I found very well-regarded branded equipment that were at entry-level prices, and was lucky enough that Amazon was able to ship them here too using free international shipping. More on that in the next post.

Freshly arrived kewl lewt from Amazon and Lazada SG.

There’s a last method too: using digital pianos, or acoustic pianos with silent piano modules – like the Yamaha U30BL upright we have at home. The U30BL’s module though hasn’t quite resulted in the kind of audio fidelity that I need, so in case this simple home recording studio setup still doesn’t work well, I’ll have to either revisit recording using the U30BL’s silent piano module, or think very hard about getting a digital piano – if we can find space at home for it to begin with!

The Piano Project – Part 7

Hannah has been attending piano lessons using the Suzuki method for about a year now. From the looks of it, I reckon she’s at a level of technical competency higher than what I was able to reach at her age and at this point after a year. A good deal of it I think is because of her teacher’s emphasis on grounding his students on sound fundamentals. I accompanied H on one such lesson a few months ago – a very rare occasion since her lessons are typically on weekday afternoons when I’m still at work – and later quipped to Ling that I don’t recall my own piano teacher at the lower ABRSM grades ever being so exacting in how my fingers were landing on notes, or how they were to be curled in a specific fashion. According to the Suzuki method, parental involvement at home is important too, so the techniques that she is taught in her lessons get practised at home too.

However, the downside of this level of rigor is that H, of late, seems to ever be slightly reluctant to get on the piano to practise. She’d still do so dutifully of course, but the enthusiasm we saw in the early months has clearly diminished quite a bit. I wondered whether it was because the reinforcement instruction at home can sometimes be a little negative, or it’s because she’s only playing pieces in the Suzuki books. To be honest, I don’t recall my piano lessons in the early grades to be much fun either, and there were (many) points where I absolutely wanted to give up, and even one time where I had to be literally dragged to piano lessons by my mom.

Hannah @ her teacher’s piano.

I remember though that I only started to really enjoy the piano around Grade IV, when I was able to improv on a lot of music I heard by ear, e.g. from the locally produced TV drama serials. I think our neighbors around our old home at Sembawang Hills Estate were probably annoyed that I was belting day-in-day-out the main title of The Awakening, an early 1980s television drama series! And then in the mid-1980s, I started playing Richard Clayderman. Our intention for H to learn the piano has never been for her to pass exams or reach a certain level of ability – though as parents, we’d be happy if she did. But no – we want her first and foremost to enjoy herself, in good part also because my learning the piano as a young boy is one of the two most important skills (the other being in computing) I acquired in my growing years, and we wanted her to be exposed to the same opportunities.

So, I decided to give that approach a try: encouraging H to play things she likes, rather than the pieces she has to play. And we got lucky: the pieces from Frozen are a little complex for her, but she loved the songs from The Sound of Music. So after having us watch the 1965 film on Blu-Ray several times, and buying and listening intently to four different editions of the recorded music – Telarc’s 1987 studio recording of the musical’s music, the 50th Anniversary edition of the film soundtrack, a 2006 recording from the London Palladium Cast, and finally the soundtrack from NBC’s live adaption of the musical – I picked up beginner versions of several songs that she liked the most: including The Lonely Goatherd, Do-Re-Mi, and Edelweiss, and got her started several days ago.

Several of my old piano books – from 30 years ago.

All three pieces involve both hands, so it’s going to take weeks before she can properly play all three – but at least she’s enjoying herself again!

 

The Olympus 40-150mm f2.8 – Updated

A check on my ongoing log of camera equipment purchases shows that my last lens purchase was almost exactly two years ago now, and specifically the 40-150mm f2.8. There are still a few m4/3 lenses that I’m keeping an eye on – including an ultra wide-angle of roughly between 7 to 14mm coverage, and also a general all-purpose travel lens of 12-80mm or so coverage. None constitute a real pressing need though since our travel photography needs are largely met by the 12-40mm and 40-150mm f2.8s, so I’m happy to wait until good deals for these other lenses show up, either new or as pre-loved equipment.

The one lens that has turned out to be quite a surprise from projected to actual use is the Olympus 40-15mm f2.8. Specifically, at the point of purchase, I’d intended the lens to be just for occasional use. But the two years I’ve had this lens have seen it become a regular staple for me to take pictures of our kids whenever we’re out of doors both in and out of Singapore, full moons, and most recently now – of our Syrian hamster and two cavies.

The lens really lives up to its ‘Pro’ designation: it’s unfailingly sharp even wide-open at f2.8 – though subject motion, especially when coupled with lower shutter speed settings that are necessary when I’m shooting our pets at home is a perpetual challenge – and the lens, interestingly, seems to find the optimal focusing solution ever so slightly quicker on my Panasonic GX85 than the Olympus E-M1.

Pictures as always!

Danny, our black/vienna chestnut, remains the more timid and skittish of our two cavies. He can also be a little rough. On more than a few occasions, we’ve observed him snatching food from his more affable and also genial brother, Rudolf.

Rudolf, our chocolate-coat Sheltie, is now distinctly larger, possibly on account that he’s a much more carbo and fiber person, preferring hay and food pellets over veggies, while Danny is the total opposite.

We’ve been bringing the kids out to ride their kick scooters on weekends. Peter is still unable to launch himself confidently though, and prefers to piggy ride on my e-scooter!

Hannah on the other hand scoots with ease. In fact, the speed in which she can coast along is about 13-14 km/h now, which is about the speed I go on the Passion10 e-scooter when on shared paths.

The two do bicker a bit at home – usually starting when Peter takes one of Hannah’s things without her OK-ing it first, but the two seem to still genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Hope they’d be forever be close!

Olive Oil

There was a time when olive oil was all the rage for heart health. Almost every family has a bottle of it sitting in the pantry.

Then came along coconut oil and supermarket shelves started displaying a respectable range of coconut oils and we all went ga ga over its health benefits.

Then we got a shocking news that many well known brands of olive oil were selling us adulterated olive oil. How can this thing happen, right?

And the latest cooking oil saga came through a report by some ang mo country that advised against the use of coconut oil and recommended olive oil, canola oil and yah lah yah lah.

So I have dumped dubious brands of olive oil and turned my attention to some less known but looked trustworthy brands (seriously, I just randomly picked one that has a nice packaging in a dark glass bottle.). “Oh, from Australia ah, they have better quality control and standard right?” Hence, I have been using the extra virgin olive oil by Cobram Estate for cooking. Didn’t think much of it except for loving its mess-free dispensing snout. Made me feel like a celebrity chef dribbling oil over a frying pan (ok, thermomix mostly) to cook stuff. I was nearly done with using my first bottle and decided to check if it had a rancid smell. Am happy to report here that it smelt wonderfully of extra virgin olive oil. Definitely sticking to this brand.

I also have this jar of aromatic coconut oil (or fat) at home. I thought I could convert to using this oil many moons ago but I guess I’m too old to change. I use it mostly in baking if I wish to incorporate that lovely coconut flavor.

I suppose the best approach to good health is still a combination of balanced diet, exercise and plenty of laughter. Lol.:)