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JungleDragon Summer Games »

FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 31, 2014 (10:25:12 PM)

Dear all,

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!

Early impressions of the Nikon R1C1 Close-up kit »

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

In practice

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.

What else

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.

Gear

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.

Expensive?

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.

3 Windows tips you probably did not know about »

FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 12, 2014 (07:53:39 PM)

I know, the title sounds like click-bait. I hope you find these Windows tips useful though. I have discovered these simply by watching other people work. I've used Windows since 3.11, yet still in some rare occassions I'm finding out about new gems that I somehow missed. Let's start:

Win key + L locks your computer

When you work in an open office, you definitely must lock your PC every time you step away from it. Not just for reasons of security, also to avoid pranks. Therefore, for most people working in offices, locking their PC has become second nature. For whatever reason, I had always used the routine Ctrl + Alt + Delete + Enter (or then clicking on "Lock Computer"). 

I could have easily looked up the shortcut for this, of course, but the thing is, when you use software for such a long time, you do not really think about how you are doing repetitive tasks anymore.

You can actually copy dialog texts

Whenever you face an error in a desktop application, often it is presented in a dialog box. If you work in IT, you will often want to copy the error text in the dialog, so that perhaps you can Google on it. However, in most dialog types, such texts cannot be selected by the cursor.

I had always though that that means that I cannot copy and paste the text. And yes, I therefore did the manual copy/paste: typing it exactly as on the dialog screen. It took me many years to discover that with the dialog in focus, you can simply do Ctrl + C, even without having any text selected (since you can't select any text). That will copy the text content of the dialog, after which you can paste it anywhere.

I have a feeling many people don't know this, since it's not very obvious

Start a command prompt from any directory

Although I do not spend a lot of time in the command prompt on Windows, I occassionaly still need it. I would typically start the command prompt, and then navigate my way to the target directory where I need to do something, by a series of "cd" commands.

Recently I saw somebody do this in a far faster way though. The guy had a very deep directory structure open in Windows Explorer and needed run a command in there. Next, he went on to type "cmd" in the location box of Windows Explorer, and there you go, a command prompt, ready to go at exactly that directory level. 

Did you know about these tips, or did I simply miss them all these years? Got any more to share?

10 years of blogging! »

FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 10, 2014 (06:00:58 PM)

Today exactly 10 years ago, I started this blog. As you can read from that post, I actually started blogging 12 years ago, then stopped for a year, and came back again with a new blog. So today is a good day to break blogging rule #1: don't blog about blogging.

History

I started blogging before it was cool. Well, not exactly as a pioneer, blogging was already on the rise, yet still not very mainstream. As I was blogging mostly about my work and tech interests (at the time Lotus-related), I found myself in a small and awesome community. To this day I still have online acquaintances due to that period. Very young people may not know or remember that back then, blogging was the social network. There was a lot more buzz around it. 

During those first years, I was expanding quite rapidly in my tech knowledge, and made it a habit to regularly write in-depth technical articles on anything I came across. For those few years, this blog was running quite well, although it always has been a small blog.

In the 2nd half of this blog's life, a lot of things changed in the world. There were now millions of blogs. People no longer spend time on blogs, instead they check their timeline in a social network. And a lot of tech knowledge got commoditized.

I changed as well. I got settled, to name one. Technically, I drifted further and further away from the initial Lotus community. And finally, instead of spending time on several side projects and tech experiments, I have been commiting myself to a giant one: JungleDragon. As a result, the blog you are reading today pretty much is a JungleDragon development blog, with a very narrow audience.

Topics

Although no topic truly is out of the question, I have always seen this blog as a way to express my technical interests and side projects, showing only that dimension of me. My personal dimension I consider offtopic, even on social networks. It's my hobby blog, you can say.

That said, I have had the urge to express my thoughts on various non-tech topics, such as politics, the economy, world news, etc. My experience though is that such complicated matters cannot really be discussed online. They tend to divide people, therefore I avoid that kind of writing.

What about in-depth tech articles? I used to write a lot of them, which really is hard work. It can easily take 6-12 hours to write a solid article. The trouble nowadays is that there is about zero incentive in writing them. Somebody else has already done it, and probably far better. It's commoditized, as they say. Given that like everybody I am juggling responsibilities, spending a whole lot of time on something nobody needs seems pointless. That said, I do try to mix in "making of" stuff in my writing about JungleDragon development. 

Success?

In terms of statistics, this blog is far from a success. At its peak, it was getting 40,000 page views per day. Since that peak, traffic has only shrunk, slowly but surely. I attribute this mostly to myself: my blogging frequency is low, I write about a very small niche, and I do zero marketing or link building. On top of that are some worldwide developments, such as massive changes in what people do online.

I don't care about statistics though. The best blog advise in my book is to write for yourself, gaining readers that way (or not). In many other ways I do consider my blogging efforts successfull It's a great way to practice (english) writing, and writing is a crucial skill. Furthermore, I've made a circle of online friends, from whom i learned much. And although that circle is small, it has benefited me in some of my other initiatives, JungleDragon being a prime example. 

Software

This blog is still powered by Lotus Domino, the technology I started with. The blogging software itself is still Blogo, developed by yours truly. Other than mild CSS changes, I've hardly changed the software during those 10 years. It has stood the test of time quite well. The design looks dated, it's not ready for mobile, but for what it is, it works surprisingly well still.

Fun fact: upon launch of this software it was technically quite unique. Back then, Lotus Domino powered websites produced crappy markup, or better said, controlling it was hard. Through a myriad of hacks and workarounds, Blogo beats Lotus Domino into submission, to produce valid XHTML with full control. Hardly impressive now, but definitely a different approach back then. They even called me "Mr XHTML" for a while due to this obsession with markup purity.

What now?

So what happens next? I will definitely keep blogging, and for now it is going to be at the same frequency, about the same topics, and using the same software. Blogging has taken a back seat in my life, nevertheless this blog is here to stay.

That said, for years I have been pondering about how to upgrade this blog. I'd prefer to have a modern blog with modern blogging software, it is a commodity now after all. Whilst there are plenty of options to pick from, the thing keeping me from doing this move is the giant 10 year legacy of posts. Although in many ways that content is close to worthless today, it would be a shame to just wipe that long history. In light of more important tasks, I therefore just keep delaying it.

Here's to 10 more, my dear 3 readers :)

JungleDragon Wildlife country maps »

FERDY CHRISTANT - MAY 2, 2014 (12:07:52 PM)

Here's another improvement to JungleDragon maps. This concerns a feature that was always there, yet is now improved: country maps.

When a photo is geotagged (either in JungleDragon itself, or embedded in the photo file), the photo page will show a little map next to it with the location:

Note the button "Explore India" below the map. This button has always been there, but only for image owners. Now it is visible to all. What happened here is that JungleDragon was able to reverse geotag the coordinates, leading to a country identifier. Let's click the button:

Here we are at the wildlife map, zoomed in to the country, India in this case. If JungleDragon is able to match the geo country with the internal list of countries, it will even show the country flag in the header. 

That's it: country maps visible to more people, and better presented on screen. This scenario supports JungleDragon's main idea of having rich contextual photos: from a photo, you can further explore either the species on the photo, or the location where the photo was taken.

Continue reading...