Down the memory lane with Digit

My tryst with the modern PCs started in the mid 90s when the internet was almost non existent in India. At the time, software and games were not easy to come by and magazines like Chip which have away trial versions and freeware in CDs along with their copies were quite sought after. Chip later became Digit in India but the freebies continued.

Digit magazine July 2019

It was with this thought that I attended the Digit Squad Tech Day in Mumbai today and it was fun to see all the colourful assembled desktops, consoles and mobile phones placed around the venue and fellow Digit Squad members participating enthusiastically in the different contests. Felt quite nostalgic to soak in the geeky environment.

Didn’t sit around idle of course and instead captured a few videos of the front camera fall detection in action for the smartphones on display. You can catch the video here.

OnePlus and Oppo seem to be catching on quite soon and they flash a dialog on screen while Samsung seems to be partially retracting their module. The Redmi K20 pro is similar in terms of responsiveness to Oppo and OnePlus but it closes the camera app instead of showing any alert. The Asus Zenfone 6z provides an interesting experience where you can see the arc on screen as the module rotates to its resting position.

And here are a few more shots from the event

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The camera that’s taking over from my DSLR aka a year with the iPhone 5s

I ended up with a broken screen on my beloved Nokia Lumia 720 over a year ago, and thus began my search for a new phone. After lots of deliberation and the delayed launch of the Lumia 930 with its mixed reviews, I ended up with a 16 GB gold iPhone 5s that had just received some price cuts thanks to the iPhone 6 launch. It’s been a very satisfying photo taking journey with the iPhone thus far barring some hiccups. It is a very versatile shooter that gives amazing results even in its auto mode. Then of course, there are the manual controls introduced in iOS 8 that hand over the reigns to the photographer. Plus the entire photography workflow from shooting to editing to publishing and backing up can be performed on the same device.

The iPhone 5s has been my primary camera for nearly a year now, and there have been only a few occasions like stage shows that I’ve used my Canon EOS 550D. I carried the DSLR with the 15-85 mm lens on my Goa trip in March but hardly shot with it, and then altogether skipped it on my last trip to Kolkata. In fact, I’ve been giving away some of my DSLR accessories that I rarely use over the last few months.

In terms of reliability, the iPhone series easily beats its Android counterparts as the camera app launches in a jiffy and the focusing speed and shooting latency are top notch. These parameters have been thoroughly tested in the last one year thanks to my daughter who’s 2 1/2 years old now.

Processing and sharing photos is also a breeze with the numerous apps, and this is one part of the workflow that has been completed integrated with the photo taking effort unlike in a standalone DSLR. Then of course there are the automatic backups through iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Photos, Flickr et al that ensures that the memories remain intact. It’s only natural that Microsoft and Google are trying to automate the album creation and tagging process on their photo storage services given the huge volumes we’re shooting.

The only fly in the ointment has been the storage space as 12 GB of usable is barely enough to hold all the photos after you’ve loaded a few apps. Then of course there are the videos which are all full HD and pretty enormous in size. I’ve managed to make do thanks to the iCloud photo library introduced in iOS 8 that automatically backs up and removes old photos from the device. In fact, I have gone beyond the 5 GB free tier and upgraded to the 20 GB one.

Then of course there’s the loss of variable focal lengths and being stuck with a wide angle lens. I do have a personal preference of shooting medium telephoto lengths with the 50 mm prime being my DSLR favourite. Cropping manages to take care of some of these issues when the lighting is good, and I like to think of the iPhone 5s as a camera with a wide angle prime lens.

When it comes down to image quality, I’ve found it good enough compared to my DSLR except in very low light situations. The focus speed can be a bit slow compared to the DSLR as well and this is one aspect that’s been upgraded in the iPhone 6\6+. Video quality is of course superb and the electronic stabilization makes a real difference, but the storage space gets in the way for longer videos.

There are of course other features like slo-mo 120 fps videos that are just not possible on the DSLR, and shooting time lapses or hyperlapses is a breeze compared to the elaborate setup required with the DSLR.

So, do you want to buy a DSLR? Please don’t – just get an iPhone (or even one of the Android flagships like LG G3\G4 or Galaxy S6)

So you want to buy a DSLR?

It’s been over 3 years since I got a DSLR, and 4 lenses, tons of book and a bunch of accessories (and overall expenses just a bit south of Rs 2L) later here’s my take on whether you should get a DSLR (yes, whether) and what you should start with if you decide to take the plunge.

First things first

A lot of it depends on your budget – not just the initial amount but also the amount you will be spending (or be tempted to) after you have taken the plunge. The minimum amount you will have to spend to start off will be in the Rs 25 – 30K range (unless you bag a second hand deal) and this will net you a starting DSLR body plus a kit lens. However, if you really want a decent starting combo then be prepared to invest at least Rs 40-50K. If you have a lot of money burning a hole in your pocket, then the good news is that you can easily spend over Rs 1.5 lakh and get a pro level kit and have the option of spending lots more in the future as well. Then again, I doubt that you would be reading my post if that were the case. As for your options, I’ll come to that in a bit after I’ve covered my second point.

The Second thing (or the first thing actually) – Why do you want a DSLR?

If you are thinking of taking the plunge solely for better photographs, then think again. Most mid-range Point & Shoot cameras give pretty decent images these days and will cost you half to a third of the starting DSLR option. Plus, they are a lot more convenient to carry around and the ultra-zoom models (we’re in the 50X+ zoom range now and they’ll cost you about as much as a starting DSLR kit) will easily outrange your starting DSLR kits. In fact, you will need to spend upwards of Rs 1 lakh to match the range of even a 20X ultra zoom P&S.

If you really want to spend Rs 30K on a new camera for better quality photos, take a close look at the Sony RX100. It has a pretty high resolution large sensor for a Point & Shoot which will give you near DSLR quality images (should match the quality of 5-6 year old DSLRs easily) in a pocket friendly form factor. Plus, it uses a Carl Zeiss lens with a pretty good range (28-100mm), something that will require you to spend 10-15K more on a starting DSLR kit. The camera also has an amazing burst rate of 10 fps that rivals the top end pro DSLR models.

The second generation model of the RX100 is also out and it costs almost 50% more, but gets you a tiltable screen and a better sensor among other improvements. For more compact options with larger than usual sensors, you can also check out the Canon PowerShot S series.

Another option to explore, particularly if you have an old smartphone (or none at all) is the Nokia Lumia 1020 with its large 41 MP sensor that enables lossless zooming and excellent low light capabilities. It is hands down the best camera smartphone around and gives mid-range P&S cameras a run for their money. This will not just enable you to take better photos, but it will also be with you all the time so that you can capture all those moments that you’d miss with a dedicated camera. Plus, you can edit the photos directly on your phone, back them up online and even share them easily through online services and social networks.

The above two options also mean that you will save a lot of money in the long term and not lose out on much on the photo quality front. Think about them long and hard…

Nothing doing, I really want a DSLR

Well, that was pretty quick, but it is always good to know your options and rationale before taking the plunge. So, why should you get a DSLR? Better image quality is just one part of the equation, and this too is mostly applicable to low light scenarios. What else do you get? Better control over the images you take for one, though this is partly covered by advanced settings available on many Point & Shoot cameras and also in Nokia’s Pro Camera app on its high end Lumia phones (plus similar apps on other smartphone platforms).

The real power (and real costs) of DSLRs is in their interchangeable lenses. They allow you to take photos in many different scenarios that would not be otherwise possible, like in low light without a flash in the case of wide aperture lenses, or from far far away like in the case of telephoto lenses used by wildlife and sports photographers (P&S may give you better range, but not the quality), or big picture scenarios possible through wide angle lenses (one area where Point & Shoot cameras are really lacking). Depending upon the lens the focus speed can also be blazingly fast (handy for action shots).

Then there is the whole new world of accessories like flashes, lights and filters that allow you to sculpt the kind of images you want to. Then there is also all the jargon that you will have to get used to (don’t worry, it takes a year or so), and also the constant gear temptation that you will have to put up with.

To put things in perspective on the gear and expenses front, the cheapest lens you can buy for a DSLR cost around Rs 6-7K and does not zoom (the nifty fifty, i.e. 50mm f/1.8). So, you are looking at investments (or splurges) in the 10s of Ks range at the bare minimum. Basically, buying a new lens will cost you as much as buying a decent entry level to mid-range Point & Shoot camera at the very least, and decent quality lenses will cost you as much as the good quality P&S like the Sony RX100 I had recommended earlier. As for the pro lenses, they run into the 6 figure range.

Another thing to keep in mind is that lenses don’t really come down in price unlike electronic items. In fact, their prices may even go up dramatically (10-20%) depending on supply and demand. You will also find that some of the lens designs are really old (10-15 years), and have not really come down in price. Plus, the second hand market and lens rental options are also pretty limited in India (rentals and second hand are two of the common suggestions on online forums). Of course, this is where having a bunch of DSLR touting friends comes in handy as you can share a bunch of gear among yourselves.

So, what should I get?

I’m going to give you some more time to think about what I have covered in this post, and cover the options in the second part of this series. Just be prepared to increase your budget to around Rs 40-50K, and ditch that kit lens.

Playing around with CHDK and HDR imaging

I had stumbled upon the CHDK firmware for Canon cameras through a Wired article some time back, and finally got around to trying it out on my PowerShot A630 today. I also discovered that it is possible to create HDR images by shooting images at different exposures and subsequent manipulation through appropriate software (tutorials: Photoshop / CS2, GIMP / GIMP using a script, Paint.NET or Photomatix).

So, the first thing I did was to download the CHDK build for my camera (I used the AllBest oneusage instructions). Then, I followed the instructions and copied the files to a spare SD card I had, and put it into the camera. I started the camera in play mode and used the menu to activate the CHDK firmware (this is only temporary, and needs to be activated every time the camera is switched on). Once activated, I could switch between the two versions using the Print button. There are a ton of options in the CHDK menu including support for scripts (written in uBasic), enabling additional shutter speeds and indicators among many others.

With the firmware nicely set, I went ahead and started shooting for making HDR images. Initially I tried an HDR bracketing script available to shoot some of the photos. The script seemed to have some problems focusing at times, but I managed to get some shots. I also discovered the ability to do exposure bracketing in the continuous shooting mode, which I also used to shoot a few photos.

I then used the trial version of Photomatix to create the HDR images as I was feeling too lazy to go through all the steps to create HDR images in GIMP (there is a contrast blending script which takes of this though) or Paint.NET. The only drawback of using the trial version is that it inserts a watermark into the end result. This is ok since I was experimenting with HDR imaging, and I’ll switch to GIMP or Paint.NET for serious photos. One of the things I noticed in the resulting HDR images is that they can tend to look a bit cartoonish or unnatural.  Anyway, here are a couple of results.

I have created a collection on flickr for the HDR images (both sources and results are included). I’ll be adding to the collection as and when I get the opportunity. There are quite a few HDR groups on flickr too, and they do have some good looking photos. For something more interesting, have a look at this (not by me).

Update: Just discovered an open source HDR imaging software – Qtpfsgui. The output (sample on this post) appears to be a bit more cartoony due to a different algorithm being used. (via)