FERDY CHRISTANT - JUL 18, 2014 (12:15:41 PM)
It's been well over 2 months since I last posted any JungleDragon development news, but here's a brand new feature I'm announcing today: a weekly newsletter, called "JungleDragon Highlights". In this post I will explain all aspects of this newsletter, including the why, how, what, and what it looks like.
Why a newsletter?
I know, when hearing the term "newsletter", few will jump for joy. Email has a bad vibe and newsletter emails even more so. Still, hear me out.
Despite the bad vibe, email has proven time and time again to be the most effective way to engage with community members, far surpassing alternatives such as social networks. I've experienced this also within JungleDragon. Two years ago, the email mechanism of JungleDragon was down for 3 full days. As a result, traffic plummeted. That's how important email notifications are.
So why a weekly newsletter specifically? The idea is to provide a "summary" service to members both new and old. At a glance, members are able to see a summary of the week at JungleDragon, saving them time but also hopefully triggering revisits. I believe it is useful, and those that disagree are unsubscribed in a single click.
Opt-in or opt-out?
Here comes the tricky question: should members automatically be subscribed to the newsletter and unsubscribe when they don't want it, or should they explicitly opt-in to wanting it?
Opt-in is the friendliest approach, however, I have still decided to go opt-out on this one. The reason is not that I am evil, wanting to email you things you did not ask for. I am fine with either decision (subscribe/unsubscribe), it is yours to make. The problem is that I don't have a decision. After signing up, members rarely ever change their settings (profile settings). That means that for 90% of all members, I am unsure of whether they want it. And I am sure that most will never make the decision explicitly.
With very few members ever making an explicit decision, if I would default it to "NO", it would mean that effectively the newsletter will be received by almost nobody. I believe it is useful enough to be seen by most members, therefore, I have set the default to "YES".
Summarizing, here is the situation:
- For new members it is automatically enabled
- For existing members it is not enabled by default, however:
- I am considering enabling it for the "top 100", to get an initial audience.
- They can manually enable it in their profile->notification settings
- Unsubscribing is a single click
Needless to say, I will monitor these choices.
How does it work?
Let's get to it, and see how the newsletter works. Every Friday at 6PM CET, a script runs automatically that will generate the initial part of the newsletter. This part will not yet be sent out to subscribers, instead the administrator (me) will get an email that a new newsletter is ready:
Next, as an administrator I open the newsletter edit form:
In this form, I can craft a custom subject and intro message for this edition of the newsletter. In the bottom panel, I can preview the fixed part of the newsletter that the system generated automatically, getting an idea of what newsletter subscribers will get to see, before actually sending it out.
Once I am done with my edits, placing the newsletter in "ready to sent", I can actually send out the newsletter. This process will create emails in JungleDragon's "outbox", which will then be picked up within a few minutes, and sent out to recipients.
The above publishing and sending process means that the weekly newsletter will not always arrive at the exact same time, since it depends on my edits. Still, in most weeks you should receive it friday evening (CET).
The actual newsletter
Let's see what the actual newsletter looks like. I have tested it in the following popular email clients:
|Gmail|| Exactly as designed
| Yahoo! mail
|| As designed, tiny padding issue
|Outlook.com|| Exactly as designed
| Android Gmail app
|| Exactly as designed
| iOS mail
|| Exactly as designed
| Outlook 2010/2013
|| Some table width issues, yet acceptable
At the start of the email, there is an instruction message. As many email clients disable image downloads by default, the message asks that you enable it for jungledragon.com in your mail client. That same instruction message also shows a link to view the newsletter online, so in any case there is an issue (formatting, or images not downloaded), there is a robust fallback. Here's an email newsletter shown online:
I'll now continue to break the newsletter into parts and explain their purpose:
The first block starts with a branding header, making it clear from which site this newsletter is. Next, is a custom subject (green) and a custom intro message. These I will write manually each week. This blocks provides an attention-grabbing summary of the week at JungleDragon.
The second blocks is an optional block. If any new entries have been made in the "news" forum in the last week, they will appear here, up to a maximum of 5. Therefore, at a glance you get to see important announcements, such as site changes and new contests arriving. If no such news has been published in the prior 7 days, this block will simply not appear.
This also is a great improvement for myself as an administrator, as before I had virtually no way to broadcast key messages to all (or most) members.
Up next is a grid of the 16 most popular photos of the last 7 days, rated by karma points. Needless to say, clicking such photo will take you to that photo at JungleDragon.This block is one of the key features of the newsletter, since in mere seconds you simply see the best photos of the week.
Up next is the species block, which shows the 12 most recently introduced species at JungleDragon. Each new species is a row with the species photo, followed by its common name, binomial name, and an extract of its description.
This block is not strictly tied to a week. In weeks where less than 12 new species have been introduced, some species of the prior week may be repeated. As said, it shows the 12 most recent species, not tied to any particular week.
The next and final block is static. It is basically a feature panel, advertising some powerful JungleDragon features that are often not well known amongst new members.
Finally, we arrive at the unsubscribe link:
I'm not hiding it in small text, nor do I bother you with surveys. Just click it to unsubscribe. You don't even have to be signed in:
The unsubscribe screen confirms that you did indeed unsubscribe and apologizes for any inconvenience caused.
Should you change your mind later on, you can always re-enable your subscription from your profile's notification settings, which holds all notifications:
(it is the last option in the list)
When can I expect my first email newsletter?
This feature has been deployed to JungleDragon, so the code is ready. However, the automatic processs still needs to be scheduled at the time of this writing. I'm working with my host on that. If I'm lucky, it will be scheduled today, after which you will receive the first newsletter this weekend, if subscribed. If the scheduling will be in place later, it means we'll have to wait another week before seeing the 1st edition.
Meanwhile, existing members (for whom it currently is not enabled) can already enable the subscription from their profile's notification settings, as described above.
Newsletters are perhaps not the most sexy feature, but I am glad that JungleDragon finally has one. It is a virtually effortless process and I hope and believe that it can provide a useful service and more revisits. Let's see whether members share this idea, time will tell :)
FERDY CHRISTANT - JUN 30, 2014 (09:54:47 PM)
The JungleDragon Summer Games are 3 contests in a row, during June, July and August. Each contest has a single prize of 100$ for the best photo, awarded by jury. Today, the winner of the June contest was announced, the image is here (not embedded as the author does not allow it):
With over a 1,000 images shared by dozens of new members, the June contest has been succesful, leading to many high quality contributions. As usual, there's also a small portion of participants not bothering to read the rules, sharing images incorrectly (offtopic, or poorly described). This is an issue addressed by moderation, but I'm also thinking of how to clarify the "proper way" better.
The summer games continue, with the July contest open as of now. If you're interested, and haven't signed up yet, you can do so here.
FERDY CHRISTANT - JUN 14, 2014 (01:11:38 PM)
FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 31, 2014 (10:25:12 PM)
At www.jungledragon.com we're organizing the Summer Games, starting today. The Summer Games are 3 monthly nature photography contests in a row, with a 100$ prize winner for the best photo each month, awarded by jury.
This contest is open to all, and entering is free. Enter here, and be sure to tell your friends!
FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 17, 2014 (02:06:56 PM)
Macro photography is one of my favorite types of photography. I never imagined to like it so much, this hobby is actually a result of the lack of wildlife in my immediate surroundings. The Netherlands has some interesting mammals and birds, yet seeing them requires very early mornings, long drives and lots of patience. As our household shares a single car and I don't have that much time on my hand, macro photography is a great way to regularly photograph in my surroundings, as it is a world on its own.
Anyways, in an earlier post I discussed the fun I was having in creative lighting, in both macro and wide angle photography. Rather than the standard heads-on flash, I was using a master slave setup to remotely fire a flash, which can be positioned anywhere, for example to create side-lighting.
The trouble with that setup, however, is that I can only use it on things that are static, for example fungi or a plant. If we're talking insects in the wild, there simply is no time to setup such a system. So for insect macro photography, which is largely what I focus on, either I use no flash, or heads-on flash. Whilst that works, it has 2 main drawbacks: it's front flash only, and the flash may miss the subject entirely if it is too close.
I had been mildy interested in macro flash kits for this reason, but for some reason never before I came across the Nikon R1C1 kit, which is pictured above. Yesterday it arrived in this home and I took a first field trip with it, so here are some early impressions.
What is it?
The R1C1 kit is a lighting kit for macro photography. It comes in a huge leather box with tons of components in it, much more than you can see from the product photo above. The essence is simple though. The kit has adapter rings for every conceivable lens. You screw on the adapter ring to your macro lens. Next, on that ring you screw on the outer ring, which is the ring to hold the flash units. The kit ships with 2 flash units, but you can buy more if you want. You can position the flash units anywhere on the ring. Once locked, you can reposition them individually, or reposition the entire ring, so that both units move.
There is no requirement to position the flash units on the ring, you can use the flash units outside of it, and the kit includes standards to position them on a flat surface. Another option would be to hold one in your hand. So you have a lot of flexibility in positioning the lighting. When the units are on the ring, you can even determine the angle in which they flash.
The other important component is the commander, this is the component which plugs into the hot shoe, where you normally have your main flash. The commander controls the 2 (or more) flash units, it does not flash itself. Strictly speaking, if you camera body already has a commander mode, this component is not needed. However, controlling the flash units with this dedicated component is a whole lot easier than using the in-camera menu.
The commander can control any compatible flash unit. For example, next to these 2 flash units, I have a pre-existing flash unit: a SB700 speedlight. It can be controlled with the same commander. No matter how many units you have, what you do is that you assign each flash unit to a group. The units that ship with the kit have a dial on it, allowing you to assign them to group A, B or C. So you assign the left unit to A, and the right unit to B. Next, using the commander's LCD screen, you can very easily define the light configuration. For example, a 1:1 configuration results in a well-lit scene from 2 angles. A 3:1 configuration will result in a side-lit scene, perhaps replicating more natural light. Together with the light balance, you can also dial in the flash exposure, to tune the strength of the flash.
Effectively, the system is so flexible that it solves the 2 problems I was facing:
- Lighting subjects that are very close to the lens
- Allowing for more creative lighting, instead of just frontal flash
The system comes with several other components. There are diffusors for the flash units, a white reflection screen, a flexible arm to hold objects, color gels for colored flash. In a way, it is a mobile studio, where you control the light. If you're doing any static photography, there is no doubt that this system will work. Examples would be product photography, plants, fungi, and even some portrait photography. Even if you have no particular skill in lighting a subject, you can simply experiment and reposition until you have something that works. It's wonderful.
That is not my main use, however. My main question was to see how this performs in the field, on living insects. We don't control the subject, have little time for an advanced lighting setup, typically no time to set up a tripod, and there is the arch enemy, wind, as well as our own undesired movement. How does this system hold up there?
To answer that question, I'm sharing two examples I captured yesterday.
The above butterfly is captured at F13, ISO 100. F13 is needed in this case to get the depth of field deep enough to have the entire subject in focus. At F13 and ISO 100, very little light hits the sensor, making handheld shooting virtually impossible, so flash is needed. Normally that would mean a heads-on flash, but such a setup can not replicate what you see above, where the light comes from the side and top, giving it a somewhat natural look.
In this case, there was actual natural light coming from the top, as you can see from the shadows. However, I aided with additional lighting using the R1C1. The right flash unit was flashing at value 3, whilst the left unit was flashing it value 1. The right value strengthens the already available light, and you can see that on the butterflies' face. Not wanting to have the beautiful wings in the shadows, the left flash unit acts as a weak fill-in flash in this case.
Regardless of what you think of the photo artistically, this is quite a succesful technical test. In a windy situation and a moving subject, operating a camera hand-held, at ISO 100 to avoid noise, we got an entire insect in focus at macro distance, whilst also controlling the light, and avoiding the pale frontal flash look.
A 2nd example:
This situation was even windier, this flower was moving significantly in the wind. Note that it is tiny, about 8mm in height. I used the same lighting balance as before, 3:1 for left and right respectively. However, I repositioned the entire ring, vertically. So now 3 is up (flashing down), and 1 is down (flashing up). The result of the heavy top flash is that the flower is illuminated to its insides, whilst also casting a shadow below its roof. Next that shadow is softened by the bottom flash.
Again, this kind of control over lighting in a hand-held, windy situation would be impossible without the kit. It works.
Now, before you think that this is the tool to solve all macro problems, let me share some other observations.
First, the kit does not solve focus problems, which is always a challenge with hand-held macro shooting. Both shots above are a picking from a series of shots, of which many had focus problems. This problem remains, as it has nothing to do with lighting, it has to do with movement, by you or the subject.
Related to the focusing problem is the flash recharge speed. My D800 is considered a relatively slow camera, at 4 photos per second, however, it is fast enough for my purposes. Still, flash cannot keep up with this speed. It may fully light up the first 2 frames in a high speed series, yet the 3rd may be half-lit, or not lit. This is a general flash problem, not specifically a problem for this set. In practice, I don't consider it a problem, it's just something to be aware about.
Another thing to learn when using this kit is the importance of focusing distance and the effect it has on flash. I've found a few shots severely underexposed due to the larger distance the flash had to bridge. This is easily solved by getting closer or by changing the flash exposure. Another thing to look out for are objects obstructing the flash units. As your new setup is quite wide, one flash may flash on a leaf, rather than the subject itself.
All of this really leads to two ways to operate this system. The first one would be the automatic one. For example, you set it at 2:1 (left, right) as you want to do a series of side-lit scenes. Next, you stop thinking about the setup and just shoot away. This approach works surprisingly well. Most shots will succeed, you just have to accept that a few will fail.
The other way is to consciously tune the lighting setup for each scene. In a field situation, that means you have to rapidly play with the following variables for a tuned lighting setup:
- The positioning of the flash units
- The light balance between unit 1 and unit 2
- The flash exposure overall
- The angle of both flash units
You only have a few seconds to decide, typically. There's no need to be intimidated by this though. The system is beginner friendly, and one overall can grow into this kind of advanced usage.
A few words on the gear itself. As said, it's a lot of gear, consisting of many different components, so you have to consider how you will be storing and carrying it, based on your bag situation. I tend to set up the system at home, and then go out with the assembled kit.
Furthermore, I've read in a lot of reviews beforehand that the system feels quite fragile and vulnerable. I can confirm that. Most components are made from plastic. Although not a problem in itself, in particular the flash units have a lot of free movement whilst attached to the ring. You don't expect that, and it makes you afraid that they will fall off at any time. It's largely a perception of vulnerability though, I've read almost all reviews of this kit, and many have been using it for years without this ever happening.
Next, batteries. Nowhere have I found on any product documentation or ecommerce site that this system does not come with batteries included. However, I figured I was smart for reading it in a review, so I ordered two of the ridiculously expensive CR123A batteries for the flash unit. Only as I was unboxing the giant kit did I find out that in fact the commander unit also needs such a battery. No problem, except for the fact that not a single electronics store in my town has them, so I had to order them online. Therefore, be prepared. I recommend that you buy 6 of such batteries, so that you have 2 sets of 3.
This kit is not cheap, in absolute terms. However, if you add up the price of the individual components (you can buy the SB200 flash units separately), it does somewhat add up and explain the price point. Still, it's a serious investment. Personally, I find it worth it. This kit effectively is as close to a photo studio lighting setup that you can get at this price point. I don't judge this price based on hardware though, the real question is whether the added flexibility and creativity this unlocks, is worth it for you. For me it is. The only critic I have on the price is that I would have expected more solid materials that 'feel' more secure.
That's it for my early impressions on the R1C1. I'm very happy with it, eagerly looking for time slots to use it more often.