Phottix Strato II Upgrade

Disclaimer: In no way do I claim myself to be an expert in photography equipment or lighting. I don’t really know how they work technologically like an engineer, but I know which settings to modify on my camera and flash to achieve the desired results without understanding the nitty-gritty details of the technology. I’m a point and shoot kind of photographer and as long as it gives me great photos, I don’t care.

Cactus V4 versus Phottix Strato II (Introduction)

For the last three years, I have been sporting the Cactus V4 Wireless Flash Trigger

sold by Gadget Infinity. When I purchased them almost 3 years ago, I really didn’t know what to look for in a wireless trigger so I picked the one recommended by the Strobist blog since, apparently, that is what people were recommending for a cheap/eBay trigger. When they arrived, I fired off a few test shots, confirmed that they worked while the strobes were sitting on my laps and called it a day never touching it again for another 3 years. Little did I, know 3 years later, when trying to use these Cactus triggers that one of the triggers has a really poor range of 2 feet. I later resolved this problem by using quality alkaline batteries instead of rechargeable NiMH batteries. Apparently, 1.2 Volts of the rechargeable versus the 1.5 Volts of a regular alkaline cell made an enormous difference in the performance of the Cactus V4 receivers. But too bad, I had already ordered a new set of wireless triggers from Phottix, known as the Strato II.

At the time, the Cactus V5 Wireless Trigger was out and featured a transceiver type design found in the higher-end wireless triggers such as the PocketWizard Plus II, but costing nearly a quarter of the price of the PocketWizards. With a transceiver design, each unit can act as both a transmitter and a receiver, hence the term transceiver. The benefit of a transceiver design is that when a unit fails while on a shoot, you could easily replace the faulty unit with any other unit. This is a big improvement from the older Cactus V4 design, which featured a separate transmitter and receiver units. Another benefit of the transceiver design was the availability of a hot shoe which could be used to attach a flash while the ‘transmitter’ was mounted on the camera hot shoe. This was my biggest gripe with the Cactus V4 because I wanted to be able to trigger remote flashes, while still keeping a flash mounted on top of my camera. The Cactus V5 solved that problem for me. However, there was one problem: The Cactus V5 did not transmit TTL information from the body to the flash if there was a transceiver mounted in between the two. For my casual event photography, this was important to me. I wanted to have 2 remote flashes pointed at the dance floor and another flash on my camera body for artificial light. While the cactus allowed me to do this, albeit in manual mode, I wanted a solution that allowed for TTL pass through while the flash was mounted atop the wireless transmitter on the body.

In comes the Phottix Strato II Multi 5-in-1 Wireless Flash Trigger to the rescue. It features wireless flash triggering with the ability to pass through TTL information if the flash is mounted on the camera. This is exactly what I needed. However, the unit is not a transceiver type design like the Cactus V5s allowing you to use any of the modules as a transmitter or receiver interchangeably. The Phottix Strato II features a separate transmitter and a separate receiver module. The disadvantage of this design is that your entire flash system has a single point of failure, your transmitter. That being said, the Phottix system is priced significantly more expensive than its Cactus counterparts. At nearly twice the price, one would expect the system to be reliable in both longevity and triggering. My decision to purchase the Phottix Strato II was based solely on the pass through TTL feature.

Phottix Strato II Multi 5-in-1 Wireless Flash Trigger (Hands-On)

The transmitter and receiver units appear to be solidly built and the plastic feels to be quite thick, relative to the feeling I get when holding the Cactus V4 triggers. The hot shoe of the transmitter is metal, while the rest receivers were given a molded plastic shoe. The Photix Strato II provides both a channel (1-4) and zone (A-D) selectors. The channel selector is useful if other photographers are using the same triggers or there are interfering equipment nearby running on the same radio frequency. The zones allows you to control which zones fire when the zones are turned on from the back of the transmitter. I also use the zones to keep track and label my receivers. Since I have four receivers, each of my receiver is in a separate zone. I use try to rotate my receivers as frequently as possible to avoid prematurely aging the components of just one receiver. The zones also allow me to setup all my strobes throughout my scene and then selectively turn off certain strobes as I try to achieve a different effect. Finally, the range is more than adequate for my needs. I was able to fire my flashes from a distance of 140-ft away, which is plenty far enough for most photographers doing local strobist work. I can understand wedding photographers needing more range to light up the dance floor in a larger venue.

Conclusion

The Phottix Strato II receivers (for my Nikon) is a great piece of technology for any photographer. I don’t personally see the need for more expensive PocketWizards as my early tests have proven that the Phottix units can fire reliably 100% of the time. If you are in search for a wireless trigger, I don’t think you can go wrong with the Phottix units, or any of the other low-end units for that matter. It is best that you understand your needs and pick the features that works best for you. For me, it was important that I had a hot shoe TTL pass through. For others, having the flexibility of a transciever design or universal use (Canon, Nikon, Pentax) might be more important for you.

Transitioning from Nexus S to Galaxy Nexus

Introduction

I picked up the Samsung Galaxy Nexus yesterday on a new 3-year contract with Bell for $169.00. You can also find them on eBay for as low as $600 today with overnight shipping from these Galaxy Nexus Smartphone sellers.

Coming from the HTC Nexus One and then the Samsung Nexus S, there are many things I love about the new Galaxy Nexus, and a few things that got me scratching my head and at times saying, “WTF?”.

This quick review is to talk about my 18-hour experience of transitioning from the Nexus S to the Galaxy Nexus and the things I’ve discovered. These are the same things you will discover when you first pick up and use the Galaxy Nexus with Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), the Android 4.0 operating system supplied by Google for this device.

Unboxing

The packaging is a mess. Once you pull everything out of the box to get it up and running, you have a heap of cardboard and paper to deal with. But who cares, it’s a damn box. Into my closet it goes.

User Manual

Do not make me laugh out loud (aka LOL) because if you have never used a smartphone before, consider signing up for Smartphone 101 classes. There is no user manual for the Galaxy Nexus. If you head over to the Google Galaxy Nexus website, you are greeted with a “Galaxy Nexus Owner’s Guide Coming Soon” text on the main page. Again, not something I’m going to cry about, but for first-time smartphone users, this is not a good introduction into the handheld computing world. Patience or a 12-year kid is needed for training.

While waiting line at Best Buy, two elderly customers came in asking for help on basic functions for the Galaxy Nexus that is now second nature to most of us. They had to be thought that these phones allow you to ‘swipe’ and ‘press-hold’ certain areas of the screen for more functions. The Best Buy employee trained them for 1.5 hours on how to use the phone. This would be funny, if it wasn’t sad.

Form-Factor

It is very big and very thin. Photo of the Galaxy Nexus placed beside the old Nexus S.

User Interface

Now let’s cut to the chase and showcase the UI experience from a Nexus One/S owner to a Galaxy Nexus owner. Note that you can capture screenshots on the Galaxy Nexus by pressing the Power+Volume-Down button at the same time. Finally, a screen capture feature.

Lock Screen

The lock screen allows you to Swipe-Left directly into the camera, or Swipe-Right to unlock the phone. For a photographer, the Swipe-Left directly into the camera is a much appreciated feature. I do miss the swipe feature to change volume to vibrate and wish Google added a Swipe-Up and Swipe-Down feature for users to customize additional swipe functions.

Desktop

As applications are installed, they are automatically added to the desktop. Great idea, but can be annoying for some users. The desktop now supports folders and you set it up just like the iPhone, by dragging one icon onto the other. Tap on the space below the icons to give it custom name.

You can customize icons on the dock. Press-Hold an icon on the doc to get started.

Notification Pull-Down

When pulled down, swipe on the notification row to get rid of individual notifications. This is a very nice addition and still better than the iOS design on my iPad.

Notification Light

The bottom of the Galaxy Nexus features a notification light that displays when there are unread notifications. I greatly missed this feature after leaving the Nexus One and this has caused me to lose many e-mails and SMS’s that had to be sent urgently. Now I am happy again.

Task Switcher

There is a dedicated multitask button on the bottom navigation row. Again, swipe on the running task to kill that task or click on it to open it.

Widgets

Gone is the old-fashioned way of Press-Holding on the desktop to add widgets. You can find widgets in the drawer by Swiping-Left to switch to the Widgets tab on the right side of the drawer.

Quirks

Now here are some oddities with Ice Cream Sandwich that has left me scratching my head. There are (count them) THREE menu buttons to replace the ONE menu button Google took away from us. Depending on the app, the menu button can appear in any one of three locations. The menu appears as three vertical dots if a menu exists.

At the top of the application.

At the bottom of the application.

At the bottom-bottom of the application in the navigation row.

Identity Crisis

Google isn’t sure whether it wants to follow Microsoft’s Metro concept or go with the more traditional vertical scroll. So it decided to use both just to be sure.

In the Images app, the tiles scroll horizontally and are cut-off in the Metro style.

In the contacts, the tiles scroll vertically.

Minor Bug

I was unable to transfer the photos from my Nexus S to the Galaxy Nexus initially. When I copied the photos into the DCIM/Camera folder, the copy process would hang on Windows and Mac. Later, I discovered that there was a permissions problem with the folder and the fix was to delete the DCIM/Camera folder and then recreate it. After that, images transferred without issues.

Wishlist

I am still waiting for these features to show up on Android:

  • Pinch to rotate the screen so that I can set auto-rotate off and rotate the screen as desired.
  • Fix for the Auto-Brightness. The screen is too dim on auto.

Conclusion

Despite some of its trivial oversights, 98% of this phone is great and is the best smartphone I have ever owned. It is fast, it is big, and there is enough spacing between keys on the keyboard for me to type with high accuracy. I would buy this phone without hesitation.

Reach for the Nearest Camera

Introduction

This article is going to be a variation of the “get out and shoot” theme, except with emphasis on your choice of camera (or lack of camera). When it comes to photography, I (usually) don’t care which camera I use as long as the picture or the moment is captured forever by something, anything. The quality of the photo, while important and gets you praise, is not always important. Capturing a rough photo with a camera, that barely qualifies as a camera, is better than not capturing anything at all and losing that moment forever. Even with a rough photo, you can still tell a wonderful story by adding a bit of narrative around it and sharing your experience with friends and families through Facebook or your blog. For this reason, I never waste an opportunity to capture a photo if it presents itself regardless of what camera gear I have on hand. For professional or paid work, using the best tool for your need is always a safe approach.

For my hobby, I use various different classes of cameras depending on what is most accessible and convenient for me at the time. My photography toolbox includes any one of the following cameras (some barely qualifying as a camera):

  1. Google Nexus S (my phone)
  2. Apple iPhone 4 (my wife’s phone)
  3. Panasonic Lumix DMC LX-5 (P&S camera)
  4. Nikon D90 (digital SLR)

Google Nexus S

The Nexus S is my smartphone and it is always by my side. For photos that I want to quickly capture and post to FB or Twitter, this is my go-to tool. I don’t intend on doing any fancy post-processing with photos captured through my phone, but I make sure to take several pictures to ensure that the focus, color, and composition are technically correct. Just because I am using a smartphone, doesn’t mean I should be ignoring the rules of photography that would turn an OK photo into a great photo.

The above photo of the Bellagio was taken with my smartphone while having lunch at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Las Vegas. I wasn’t expecting to take any photos, so I didn’t bring my camera with me that day.

Apple iPhone 4

My wife uses an Apple iPhone 4 and there have been times where my own smartphone was not within reach or forgotten at home. Again, I won’t miss an opportunity to take a photo just because I didn’t bring my smartphone. Usually, I will steal my wife’s iPhone (which has a great camera by-the-way) and snap away. When back at home, I will e-mail the photos to myself and then wipe it off her phone (common courtesy).

Similarly, my wife has given up her Canon SD600 P&S camera since getting an iPhone. She herself enjoys photography, but don’t want to deal with the complexities of a high-end camera. Therefore, the phone works for her and she will often use it to capture the same scenes I do.

Panasonic Lumix DMC LX-5

Patricia Lake Rental Boat Dock

The Panasonic LX-5 is a high-end point-and-shoot (P&S) camera I bought for using on vacations. After several vacations carrying a heavy DLSR system, lenses, and accessories I vowed to never carry over 15-pounds of camera equipment over my shoulder when on vacations anymore. Plus, instead of having a vacation and enjoying it, I was spending just as much time fiddling with the camera than I should have. So I looked for a high-end, compact camera that gives me great low-light capabilities and full manual control like my DSLR. The Panasonic LX-5 was compact, high-quality, and was up to the task. I have since taken this camera for all my vacations and captured well over 10,000 photos from all my trips. I also use this camera around town when there “might” be an opportunity to take a photo, but where I don’t want to bring my heavy DSLR with me.

Nikon D90

BW Self-Portrait

Finally, for everything else (and usually the last camera I reach for) I use the Nikon D90. This heavy camera is brought with me when I know I want to take quality photos at a pre-planned event, location, or date. This is always bring this to weddings and parties where I know low-light is going to be an issue. I am also an avid member of various photography clubs in Edmonton where I attend meetup events with this camera (plus my Panasonic LX-5 as backup).

Conclusion

There you have it. My photography kit is fairly plain and simple. I try not to complicate things or allow the type of equipment to get in the way of my hobby. Just use whatever you have at the time. Some of my best photos were taken on my smartphone, mainly because it was the only available tool at the time.

P.S. The feature photo for this post was taken with my work’s Blackberry Curve 9780. It was the only phone left in the house after the rest was staged for the photo needed in this article. 🙂

Your One Cup Solution

After buying our Keurig B-70 B70 Platinum Single-Cup Home Brewing System, we were disappointed to see so few k-cup selections at our local stores. Most stores carried the standard coffee cups, but none of the interesting specialty flavours of coffees and teas advertised on the Keurig website.

Fortunately for us, while at Costco buying the specialty coffee maker, the customers ahead of us told us about specialty k-cup stores throughout Edmonton.  So today we stopped at one of them located in the industrial park of west Edmonton called, Your One Cup Solution. To our surprise, we found more flavors at the store than what was advertised on the website, but hey, who’s complaining.

The pictures speak for themselves. The awesome thing about this particular store is that they allow you to pick single cups in a carousel so that you don’t have to buy an entire box that you may not enjoy. The cost was $20 for 24 cups.

Check it out for yourself. Your One Cup Solution store address is 10532 178 Street NW, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and they are open Tuesdays through Saturday from 10am-6pm.

Post-Processing Techniques for Indoor Photos

Every photographer has a different post-processing style that defines them and becomes their photographic identity. Pick any of your favorite photographers and you will see that there is a consistent style that is applied to all their photos in their portfolio. It is important for your post-processing style to maintain the same, consistent look throughout your entire portfolio, especially if you are in the business of photography because when your client signs a photography contract with you, they are signing up for your style. It would be a great disappointment if the photos they receive look wildly different from those that are on your portfolio, which could be equated to false advertising.

In my photos, I like to keep a natural, high-contrast look throughout. It is easy to over-process your photos as you become more familiar with the different adjustment tools in software such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or Aperture. It is certainly beneficial to understand how the different settings affect the look of your photos, but in the end, you have to settle on a style.

My post-processing goal for photos taken indoors is to maintain a colder hue to the skin tones by reducing the orange/red hues. I do this to set the subject of my photos (i.e., the humans) apart from the scene which is usually warm and lit by incandescent lighting.

My post-processing steps are as follows:

  1. Get your white balance perfect. Use a white reference point if available.
  2. Crush the blacks by moving the slider to the right.
  3. Bring some of the black back by adding fill light.
  4. Dodge/burn.
  5. Adjust the hue of the red/orange channels to mute the orange tones.
  6. Bump up the luminosity of the red/orange channels to bring some brightness back.
  7. Adjust split toning to make the image greener.
  8. Adjust the exposure to the far right to bring up the brightness.
  9. Turn up recovery to tone down the skin highlights.