A Fight Over A Postage Stamp

Korean War Stamp_1On September 20, 2013, the U.S. Postal Service was ordered to pay well over a half-million dollars to Frank Gaylord. He is a sculptor, the artist responsible for the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which is managed by the National Park Service for the American People. (Let’s not forget: when the U.S. Postal Service writes the big check, they’re paying him with my money, and yours).

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp picturing the work,  based upon a photograph whose rights were cleared prior to the stamp’s publication.

For several years, the Postal Service and Mr. Gaylord have been caught in a legal tussle about copyright infringement. It’s interesting, confusing (as these cases tend to be), and provides a useful snapshot of U.S. Copyright Law, Fair Use, the rights of artists, questions about public property, and more.

Here’s a quick rundown on the story from Stanford University’s CIS (Center for Internet and Law):

One of the important questions the case presents is whether this stamp makes fair use of the statue that appears in it. The image you see is a photograph of a sculpture taken at dawn in a snowstorm. The sculpture itself is called The Column, and is part of the Korean War Veterans’ Memorial in Washington DC. It features nineteen larger-than-life soldiers arranged in two columns, representing a platoon of soldiers on patrol in the Korean War. The Postal Service got permission to use the photograph that appears on the stamp, but not the column depicted in it, so the sculptor sued the Postal Service for infringing his copyrights in the sculpture.

The ruling is here.

A detailed analysis prepared by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society is here, and well worth reading, especially if you’re (a) interested in the ways of copyright law, and/or (b) a creative professional whose understanding of fair use could be more complete.

The story about the ruling, and the reason why the case is suddenly in the news, is here on Digital Photography Review. DPReview does a fine job in explaining the story, so there’s no reason for me to repeat it here.

I will, however, offer a picture of the stamp. In fact, I could not find a US Postal Service image of the stamp, but I did find a picture of the stamp from the Stanford CIS site:

So here are questions in my mind at the moment:

1 – If I reprint Stanford’s picture of a U.S. stamp on this website, am I violating Stanford’s rights? Is such a clearance necessary?

2 – Did Stanford get permission from the U.S. Postal Service to show the picture of that stamp on its website? Was such a clearance necessary?

3 – If Stanford did not get permission, do I need to get permission?

4 – If you decide to forward this article, stamp included, do you need to get permission from me, or have I already granted that permission through some online agreement with WordPress that I’ve forgotten all about?

I am still wading through the articles myself. I can’t help but wonder whether the sculptor ought to  share compensation with general or specific Korean War Veterans whose images were depicted as statues or, at least, served as inspiration. And, like you, I am confused because I thought a Memorial was, somehow, public property.

Comments always welcome.

Accessories After the Fact

It was time to buy a new digital camera, and I think I’ve made a very good decision with Sony’s RX-100. This is a remarkably small, convenient, and capable product: 20 megapixels; a ring around the lens for manual focus (or other uses that I can easily set through menus); very good image quality; the ability to shoot RAW as well as JPG images; panoramic images; very good low light sensitivity with little visible grain; the list goes on. (In fact, one very good place to read about this, and other digital cameras is Digital Photography Review.

Here's an example of the level of detail offered by Digital Photography Review. Their 10+ page review of this camera is typical of their excellent work--the site is the best source of information about digital cameras on the web.

Here’s an example of the level of detail offered by Digital Photography Review. Their 10+ page review of this camera is typical of their excellent work–the site is the best source of information about digital cameras on the web.

Before I bought the camera, I studied review of the RX-100 and comparable cameras on the dpreview.com website.  I found a newer model, RX-100 II, but decided to save the extra $150 and forego the tilting rear screen and a few other interesting features.

As I started using the camera, I began to understand why this camera was so well-reviewed. And I began to understand what it was, well, missing.

First and foremost, the camera comes with a pretty crumby manual. Having spent over $500 on a camera, it seemed reasonable to assume that Sony would tell me how to use it. I poked around on the web, and found a terrific solution to my dilemma. Imagine: a 400+ page book, fully illustrated, written specifically for people who bought the Sony RX-100. Unbelievable, but true. Turns out, this is one of a product line of ebooks from a small publisher, Friedman Archives.

Friedman-bookThose who follow digital photography will note that each of Friedman’s books addresses the needs of a more sophisticated photographer: the Sony RX100 takes its place beside the Olympus E-M1, the Fuji X100S, the Sony NEX-7 and other better speciality cameras. All of these cameras are packed with features, and these books provide an extraordinary amount of information and an abundance of visual examples, written in a style that is easy to understand. There is little tech-talk in these books. In fact, there is personal advice, written, in many cases, by Gary Friedman, who manages this small publishing operation. I read the Sony RX-100 book from cover to cover, then re-read sections of it. I loved Gary’s rundown on the settings that he uses for shooting, and the variations that he suggests for special shooting situations. Take a moment to consider  this: there are dozens of available settings, and this author not only takes the time to explain how to use each KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAone, but also how and why he selects, for example, “Drive Mode: ‘Single Shooting,’ unless I’m shooting either sports or grandchildren, in which case it’s ‘Continuous’ (with a lot of image deletions afterward. For more see page 90; or “Red Eye Reduction: I hate this feature. Off. Page 205.” or “Face Priority Tracking: Do you want the camera to give priority to faces when using Tracking Focus. I keep it On because, when shooting home movies, this feature can help the camera make better decision. Page 222.” Gary is a fine teacher. I keep the book on my iPhone (most smartphones include pdf readers) so that I can take my teacher along with me on every shooting expedition. (A great comfort.)

I cannot imagine buying an RX-100, or any other high-end camera, without also buying the how-to book from Friedman Archive. (Highest possible recommendation!) Still not sold? Have a look at the (many) sample pages from this book that Gary includes on his web site.

Another necessity: a viewfinder. Problem is, this camera has no way to attach a viewfinder. Except, perhaps, the tripod screw hole at the bottom of the camera? Here’s a clever entrepreneur at work. The company and product are called ClearViewer. Basically, what you’re buying is a magnifying glass that can be held parallel to the rear LCD screen, or folded up and away when it’s not in use. I place my eye directly against the ClearViewer magnifier, and sure enough, I can see the whole rear screen in tremendous detail. This is useful for settings, for focus, for composition–well, I don’t need to sell you on the idea of a camera viewfinder. On the plus side, this is small, inexpensive (under $40) and utter transforms the process of taking pictures with a compact digital camera. I can comfortably suggest that every serious compact camera user should own one.

Clear Viewer Tripod(For cameras with a hot shoe–the place where you would insert a flash, a similar model is available. The difference: the magnifier is suspended from the top, not connected to the bottom of the camera.)

ClearViewer is a great idea, very useful, small enough to carry everywhere (without even removing it from the camera), but I sure wish there was a deluxe model, one with a better magnifying lens. Still, this is a very useful invention, and it always comes along with my camera.

But wait! There’s more!!

One of the bizarre design non-features of many digital cameras absence of a place to screw-in a filter. Why does that matter? First, when shooting outdoors, you can both deeper sky colors, eliminate glare, and generally improve the whole image by shooting through a polarizing filter. And, in case you want to shoot with increased depth-of-field, which is useful if you like blurry backgrounds or silky smooth shots of babbling brooks, you may wish to shoot through a neutral density filter. (On the RX-100, this is a near-necessity because the camera’s few wide-open f/stops are available only with the widest-angle uses of the built-in zoom).

So how do you attach a filter to a camera that doesn’t accept filters?

Sony solved the problem with an adhesive add-on ring that must be carefully placed on the front of the camera, around the lens. I looked at Sony’s solution and instead opted for a slicker version of the same idea, this one from a small company called Lensmate. This video explains how the system works in detail, but here’s the essence: a small plastic rig allows you to precisely place the adhesive ring on the front of the camera; the ring (now part of the camera) is built to accept a bayonet mount (turn and snap into place–easy!); a second ring attaches to the bayonet mount and to a 52mm filter. Quick, simple, and it works.

Here’s a look at the Sony RX-100 with the adhesive filter ring attached, ready to accept the bayonet-and-filter assembly (you will not be able to see the ring very easily–it’s quite small and unobtrusive). The video link (above) also takes you to a lot of information about this product–I love small companies because they work hard to satisfy the customer.

rx100 website-1643

Lensmate offers after-the-fact accessories for many of the same cameras that are covered in Mr. Friedman’s books. More than filter adapters, they also offer grips, thumb rests, straps, and lots of other useful stuff that might have otherwise escaped your attention.

One remarkably good idea is a grip that attaches to the front of the RX-100 and, well, allows most people a more secure sense that their small $500+ box is well-in-hand. The distinguished, popular and versatile maker of these camera grips is a man named Richard Franiec whose products are available through his own kleptography website as well.

rx100gripThere’s a good closeup look at the grip over on the left side of the camera (compare this to the grip-less version in the smaller image a paragraph or so up the page). The grip is meticulously designed, and, like the filter ring, it relies upon a super-strong, super-reliable adhesive. Once again, there is an installation video, a suggested rehearsal process before making the connection between grip and camera, and a pride in doing things right. It feels good to carry the camera with the grip, in part because it’s well-made and in part because you know that it’s the work of a man who identified the smallest possible niche within what is already a niche market, and built himself a business. It’s uncommon for grips to be reviewed, but Franiec can boast several, all quite positive. Here’s an example.

Next Spring, Near Paris

Start saving your money. Next May, go to Paris. Leave early on the morning–there’s an 820AM from Paris’s Saint-Lazare Station to Vernon, and then, there’s the taxi. The train arrives at 9:05AM at Vernon, and the cab will get you to the front entrance of Monet’s home and gardens by about 9:15AM. You want to arrive early, perhaps catch the mist rising from the water garden, perhaps take a few pictures or just gaze before the crowds populate every view. (Get there earlier, if you can; it’s always best to arrive first-in-line here.)

Sigh.

Summer is ending. There is autumn color: the purples and luminous yellows, the garish reds and the beginnings of orange trees reflected in the water. But there is nothing like spring.

In 1883, Claude Monet settled in Giverny, a village fifty miles outside paris. He rented a house with an orchard, the future Clos Normand, the flower garden at the front of the house that broke with the traditional idea of a pleasure garden.

9781419709609So begins the tale, told mostly in large, vivacious images, of Claude Monet’s extraordinary gardens (and home), told with love and with style through Jean-Pierre Gilson’s photographs, with text by Dominique Lobstein. Published by Abrams–one of the best in the world at this type of book, the visual tour begins, as it should , in the purple haze and tangled wisteria branches hanging over the famous Japanese bridge. The photograph is subdued; there are no bright colors yet. On the next two-page spread, there are brightly–colored bushes and their quiet reflections, house peeking out of the background behind some trees. Flip to the next of these several two-page spreads and it’s a riot of roses, glowing in the sun, red, pink, nearly white, braced by green leaves so dark and sometimes so nearly translucent, bold as can be. The text begins.

And on the next spread, so does spring. After the prelude, spring commences with a field of pink tulips, clean green fences and stair rails, dark green-blue leaves, and the stunning-but-simple house with its own pink facade and blue-green shutters. The effect is stunning, as if in a painting–and here, that’s precisely the effect that the master painter intended. To be at Giverny is to live inside a Monet painting, at least for a morning.

It’s not all cluttered with noisy flowers and oh-so-subtle impressionist gardening. “Monet wanted a garden that could ‘breathe’ with flowers, bushes and an open vista…” so he removed the many trees from the old orchard, and replaced them with Japanese cherry trees that yield, at least for a brief time in the spring, lighter-than-air blossoms, punctuated, here and there, as in any number of his paintings, with spots of bright color; here, red and purple tulips.

I wish I knew the name of every flower (and I wish the author’s captions included this information!). The phenomenal two-page spread showing yellow towers of flowers two stories high, dappled with pink-and-purple irises, golden yellow somethings (frustrated…), and it’s followed by several more. (I want to it to be spring today, and I want to go to Giverny tomorrow.)

And then, when your head is beginning to explode because Monet was such a genius, there’s a pair of small green rowboats, a field of happy daffodils, and in the distance, the Japanese bridge that he painted so often. Here, with a less exhausting spectrum, it’s possible to rest and reflect, and observe. The yellowy green of the locust leaves in contrast with the deep green of the background trees–with just a hint of small violet flowers to set the counterpoint.

The flighty, wavy petals of mauve tulips surprise me every time I see them. Here, they’re pictured with the famous lily pad pond in the fuzzy distance, and the sharp, sun-dappled orange wallflowers in the foreground. Another two-page spread, one of my favorite two-page spreads in the book.

Just checking–I’m not even half way through the book. Some surreal lily pad images–two look as though they were made for a science fiction film, but they are real–and then, with a page turn, there are paths of dry ochre leaves on the ground, paths with strong color of fall, not spring. The quiet beauty of barren trees and cool skies, the yellowing willow and golden hour light, it’s bittersweet. Moreso because the last set of images show the house with shutters now closed tight.

But then, we get to go inside. A row of old copper pans artfully hung in front of a blue-and-turquoise tiled wall with cabinets. A yellow dining room whose walls are filled with Japanese prints (Monet collected them, and they are a highlight of every Giverny tour, but few people spend the time to look at them as closely as the artist once did). It’s a classy old country home, less formal than most. And then, there’s a small staircase leading down to a room with Persian carpets on the floor and a whole lot of miscellaneous Monet paintings almost haphazardly scattered on the walls. It’s his studio.

The book closes with snow. Which means spring is coming again. Soon.

Lens in One Hand, Camera Phone in the Other

Earlier this week, Sony introduced a very different way to think about your cell phone as a portable camera. The DSC-QX100 is the kind of innovative product that engineers love, and marketers don’t love because it is, well, kind of hard to explain, understand, and justify in terms that makes sense to consumers.

Basically, Sony’s engineers have, quite reasonably, identified the tiny lens as the weakest part of the idea of an in-camera phone. The phone must be small, and the lens wants to be as large as possible (to allow more light to reach the sensor, allowing better image quality and greater control over depth-of-field, and more). Sony’s solution: a full-size lens that works with any smartphone.

“Works with” is the key phrase here. You can physically connect the lens with the phone so that the whole rig resembles a traditional compact camera, as below.

Sony-Cyber-shot-QX100-Premium-“Lens-style-Camera”-4-1024x768

Here, the phone’s screen becomes the camera’s viewfinder–essentially, this is the way any camera phone works, except here, there is a full-sized Zeiss lens attached. Again, I’m choosing words carefully. The lens is attached, but not connected to the camera in the traditional way. The sensor is inside the lens, and so is the memory card. The camera is used ONLY as a viewfinder.

And that introduces an interesting variation on the theme. The phone can be held in one hand, and the lens in the other.

sony-dsc-qx-100-1

In fact, there are two different models. The better one, the QX-100, contains a healthy 20 megapixel 1-inch sensor, a fast f/1.8 lens, and costs about $500. The lesser one, the QX-10, contains a lesser 2/3 of an inch sensor and offers an ordinary lens, less well-suited to low-light, and costs half as much.

How does the signal make its way from the lens to the phone? NFC if the phone offers that type of (newer) connectivity. If not NFC, then Wi-Fi (thank goodness it’s not Bluetooth).

How’s the image quality? Think in terms of the image quality that you could buy for about $600 in a compact digital camera, and that’s the QX-100. For the lesser lens/camera (or whatever these contraptions are called), think in terms of what you could buy at Best Buy for two or three hundred dollars.

So now that we both understand how these new devices work, the obvious question re-enters the room. Is this a good idea? Basically, you’re buying a lens with a built-in sensor and a slot for a memory card, but no way to actually see what you’re shooting unless you connect the thing to a smartphone. Seems kinda goofy to me, but under some circumstances, for the right people who, for reasons that are still unclear, cannot, will not or should not purchase a traditional compact digital camera.

How the heck did the marketing people get talked into this one?

The Wrong Picture

Black Children Play Outside The Ida B. Wells Homes, One Of Chicago's Oldest Housing Projects. There Are 1,652 Apartments Housing 5,920 Persons In 124 Buildings On The South Side, 05/1973

Black Children Play Outside The Ida B. Wells Homes, One Of Chicago’s Oldest Housing Projects. There Are 1,652 Apartments Housing 5,920 Persons In 124 Buildings On The South Side, 05/1973

John H. White was laid off this week. He is a photographer, or, more specifically, an out-of-work photojournalist.

He was replaced by an iPhone.

Black Muslim Women Dressed In White Applaud Elijah Muhammad During The Delivery Of His Annual Savior's Day Message In Chicago, 03/1974

Black Muslim Women Dressed In White Applaud Elijah Muhammad During The Delivery Of His Annual Savior’s Day Message In Chicago, 03/1974

As a much-deserved tribute to Mr. White, Chicago Magazine put together an online portfolio. The two images you see here are my favorite images; click on either one of them to see a portfolio of fifty superb examples of the extraordinary journalism that can be achieved by a skillful photojournalist.  The presentation of White’s work for the EPA is not as well-presented, but this site is also worth a visit.

Before moving on to the sharp point of this article, a word about the poetry of John H. White’s work. Consider the exquisite rhythm of both images, the special timing that allows the jump rope to wiggle and wave, the exquisite visual judgement Mr. White employed when filling his frame with Muslim women all in white. The sunny smile of the girl in orange and the placement of the innocent child in the background. This is photography at a high level; it is exceedingly difficult for most people, even serious amateur photographers with decades of experience, to achieve these results with the best possible equipment. (Imagine trying to achieve these results with an iPhone.)

The Chicago Sun-Times is one of America’s largest newspapers. Somehow, the management of the paper stumbled into what must have seemed like a wonderful idea at the time: teach the reporters to use an iPhone, and fire all of the photojournalists (including Mr. White). There’s been a lot of online chatter about the “difficult decision” and “the future,” but I have placed both phrases in quotation marks because both concepts are so insanely wrong-headed.

In today’s image-is-everything society, I suppose I could construct an equally compelling case for firing all of the writers on the staff of the paper, instead filling every page with photographs. Or, perhaps, establish some clever version of crowd sourcing, in which Chicago takes pictures of itself every day, and then, everyone posts captions (the most popular caption wins the top spot).

Certainly, there is a problem in the newspaper business: most papers have lost their business models, and much of their readership. And they have experienced a terrible cost-cutting decade (and more).

Firing the photojournalists may be a fine example of executive leadership discussions gone astray, but there is a larger problem here. The Chicago Sun-Times, and many other papers, aren’t sure how they should face the uncertain future. There are some answers, and, well, I sure hope the management of the Chicago Sun-Times (at one time, the largest of the 100 newspapers where my newspaper column appeared weekly), will consider them:

1. The Chicago Sun-Times is a very strong local brand. Even in a “newspaper town” like Chicago, the future of the “paper” is online.

2. Online, regardless of the platform, it’s all about multimedia: pictures, videos, infographics. Good writing matters, but anything longer than 1,000 words is too long for current use of the medium.

3. Investment in superior multimedia storytelling is the way to go. If the story makes use of video, some writing, lots of pictures, some audio, and powerful graphics, people respond.

4. If people respond, advertisers respond.

5. Focus on the best possible storytelling. Double down your previous investment in visual storytelling. Invest in more photojournalists, and teach them to become videographers if they’re willing and able. By all means, teach every writer how to shoot still images and video with their iPhones (or, go really crazy and invest in a high-quality pocketable digital camera for each of them–for far better results). Figure out how to get the crowd source journalism operating at its highest possible level, for that, too is the future.

I will steer clear of recommending that the executives who concocted this insane plan may find budget cuts in their own roles at the company, but only on the condition that they focus (a word that photographers often use, and for good reason) on the future of journalism so that the next budget cycle doesn’t require firing all of their writers.

Chi-Trib-Story

To read the Chicago Tribune story and watch the video, click on the image.

The Belanger Factor

You know this photographer’s work very well. Here’s the setup for one of his iconic images:

belanger5

 

The photographer’s name is Peter Belanger. For years, he has been making his models look absolutely stunning. Millions of us have responded to his work, and will likely continue to do. He shoots with a Canon 5D Mark III, often with 24-70mm lens. You can buy this equipment in any professional camera store, or any good online photo store. But it would be difficult to imagine the average person shooting with the kind of precision that Belanger routinely brings to his work.

Intrigued? I was, just by seeing the elaborate setup that he uses to make pictures.

To learn more, visit The Verge.

 

 

Shadow Catcher

angelineThe woman in the photograph was a poor soul, without friends, the subject of ridicule among Seattle schoolchildren. She lived in a hovel. When the growing city of Seattle cleared its native population, she remained where she was, and the city grew up around her. Kick-is-om-lo was her name, but that was difficult to pronounce, so the local folk called her Princess Angeline. In 1896, Kick-is-om-lo was paid one dollar to pose for this picture–the equivalent of what she was able to earn in a whole week–by a struggling young photographer named Edward Curtis. To say this would be the first of many such images would be a substantial understatement.

Within a short time, Mr. Curtis’s photography practice was beginning to thrive, mostly in connection with his nature photographs on nearby mountains (he was, in his way, a predecessor of Ansel Adams, but that’s not why he became famous). Instead, he began to photograph the native people who lived within traveling distance of his home. His fledgling studio became a place to buy these extraordinary portraits, these scenes of natives who were both nearby and exotic, these souls who some perceived as savages and others as victims. They were dying. The number of natives was rapidly declining. Their languages were dying out. Soon, the people who spoke those languages would be gone, too.

Curtis found opportunities to photograph native people in their own habitats. He used a camera and an early sound recorder, and he began to build a collection. Some individuals trusted him, many did not. He was “deeply affected” by a Sun Dance that lasted five days. Neglecting his family, and in time, his Seattle photography business, he followed the path that many creative professionals have since followed. He began an obsessive effort to photograph, many, and then, most of the remaining native communities. His trips began to cover areas far from home. He would stay away for a year or more. In time, he found kindred spirits, including, for a long while, former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, who, like Curtis, enjoyed a deep appreciation of America’s natural and, to a somewhat lesser extent, native history. They became friends; Curtis made formal portraits of T.R.’s children and hung around the family estate at Sagamore Hill for a good while.

To continue, and to fulfill his creative vision, Curtis required far greater resources than his local photography business would ever provide. He required an investor at a time when the philanthropic community was just beginning to take shape. He planned to:

make a complete publication, showing pictures and including text of every phase of Indian life of all tribes yet in primitive condition, taking up the type, male and female, child and adult, their home structure, their environment, their handicraft, games, ceremonies, etc…

His bodacious plan: an expensive, limited edition twenty volume set containing “fifteen hundred full-page plates”

He managed to get himself into the office of J.P. Morgan, who reviewed the proposal ($15,000 per year for 5 years to cover all expenses), told wealthy banker that he had already spent over $25,000 on the project, that he was completely out of money.

Morgan said no. Actually, what Morgan said was, “I will be unable to help you.”

But Curtis didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, Curtis reached into his portfolio and began to cover Morgan’s desk with stunning photographs of natives, the likes of which Morgan had never seen: the salmon people of Puget Sound, the picture of Chief Joseph that Teddy (sorry… the President) loved so very much… And, bless his soul, Curtis left Morgan’s office with the commitment he needed.

But that’s just the start of an even wilder adventure that eventually finds Curtis producing one of the world’s first documentaries, and, eventually, finishing the whole project, destitute, so long after this intended deadline that, well, nobody cared about the books, Edward Curtis, or natives anymore (the Depression was an important reason why). The books, the original photographs, the obsessive life, all seemed to be for naught–until they were rediscovered decades later.

Now, you can see these pictures simply by clicking here. The link takes you to the Library of Congress collection of Edward Curtis’s work. Mr. Curtis overcame all sorts of stunning setbacks, but he did what he promised to do. And, thanks to him, we can at least begin to understand a culture that our people destroyed not so very long ago.

The one caution: nearly all of these images are very, very serious. Critics point out that Curtis’s vision of the stoic native presents an extremely limited, and so, distorted view, of the real lives of the people who made America.

The book is called Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. It was written by Timothy Egan. The book was given to me as a gift. You should do the same for yourself, and for every creative soul in your life. It is a remarkable story, beautifully told, and of course, illustrated with the work of a master photographer.

One of the best ways to see the scope of Edward Curtis's work is to simply search his name on Google, and then look at the Images view. That's what I did to capture this sampling of his photographs.

One of the best ways to see the scope of Edward Curtis’s work is to simply search his name on Google, and then look at the Images view. That’s what I did to capture this sampling of his photographs.

Chipping in for Mother’s or Father’s Day

Some ideas, most of them digital:

A turntable. Yes, this may seem a bit retro, but vinyl is in the midst of a wonderful comeback. New records cost more than their CD equivalents, but it’s easy to build a terrific library of good used records by spending about $5 per disc (so you can surprise mom or dad with a whole box filled with favorites!). Assuming you still own some sort of stereo receiver and a pair of good loudspeakers–most likely as part of your home theater setup–you’ll be set. One good starter choice: Audio-Technica’s AT-LP60, which costs less than $75 including cartridge. Online research will turn up rigs costing up to a thousand times as much, but a few hundred dollars will place you on the quality path. To review good choices for several hundred dollars, visit the online store, Audio Advisor.

Apple TV. Before we bought one of these small plastic boxes for my office TV, I wasn’t completely sure what to think. Connect an Ethernet cable to your network, an HDMI cable to your TV, power up, and you can watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, movies and TV shows from iTunes, YouTube, Major League Baseball, HBO GO, and more (for some, a subscription is required). AND you can wirelessly connect your iPhone, iPad or Mac to the screen. For $99, it makes watching TV a lot more interesting.

airstashAirStash. Simple idea: load some movies on a 8GB or 16GB SD card–the ones you use in a camera that are about the size of a postage stamp–then wirelessly connect the small AirStash device to watch movies (or review documents) on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device. It costs about $125. Use it once and you’ll carry it everywhere, as I do.

A good pair of binoculars. If you’re contemplating an outdoor hobby such a birding, Bushnell’s 10×42 NatureView is a good tool to get you started; it costs about $125. In fact, you can buy binoculars specifically designed for safari, sports stadiums, theater, opera (fancy!), sailboating, marine exploration, the list goes on. For more information about binoculars than I have ever seen, visit Best Binoculars Reviews. There are digital binoculars, but optical binoculars remain far more popular than their initial counterparts.

A monopod. Yes, that’s right, the equivalent of a one-legged tripod. Not as steady as a tripod, but not as heavy either, and far more likely to be taken along. Used properly, a monopod can provide enough additional stability to allow your camera or camcorder to shoot with a bit less light, or to with a bit slower shutter speed. The best ones are made by Manfrotto, and Gitzo, and cost about $150-350, but good monopods are available from Slik, Cullman, Oben, Velbon, and other companies. A large selection of monopods and tripods are available from B&H and other online retailers.

Zoom-VideoA ZOOM Q2H2. With cameras and camcorders now built into phones, why buy a small video recorder for $199? Because the sound and the picture quality is outstanding, but the device is small. What do I mean by “outstanding?” Video: 1920×1080, 30p HD. Audio: 24 bit, 96 kHz PCM. Record the results on an SD card.

A Røde VideoMic Pro. Whether you’re using a DSLR or a camcorder to make your own home movies or independent films, this $230 investment will make at least some of your work sound a whole lot better. It mounts directly on the camera’s hot shoe, and its design won’t make your camera (or, most cameras) unbalanced or difficult to carry.

A digital drum kit.. You know you’ve always wanted one! Nowadays, you can buy a decent setup for a few hundred dollars. Yamaha’s Electronic Drum Kit DTX400K costs $500 and includes a 7.5-inch snare, three similar sized toms, a 10-inch hi-hat and other cymbals, and 169 digital voices. You can spend half as much (PylePro’s PED04M), twice as much (Roland’s TD-11K), more. Once again, B&H is a good source, but musicians may prefer Sweetwater.

DrumKit

Enjoy spring, enjoy the holidays!

Three New Quality Cameras for Spring

‘Tis the season for some new $500+ plus cameras, one from Sony, one from Panasonic, and, at about twice the price, one rumored for upcoming release from Olympus.

Panasonic LF1kPanasonic’s newcomer DMC-FL1 is sleek, black, and conveniently sized. It  comes with a 7x optical zoom and a fast 2.0 lens (at the widest angle setting). The 12 megapixel camera includes a built-in EVF (electronic viewfinder), a far better way to compose images than the LED panel found at the back of every digital camera. It’s the kind of camera that any serious photographer ought to keep in a pocket or shoulder bag, and, for convenience, it’s possible to use WiFi to export images.

For a more detailed rundown, click on the picture of the camera and read the Digital Photography Review preview of the camera.

Once again, Digital Photography Review is the best source of info about new cameras. Click on the photo to read their feature on the Sony HX50V.

Once again, Digital Photography Review is the best source of info about new cameras. Click on the photo to read their feature on the Sony HX50V.

For the same price, Sony’s newest entry in this category, model HX5oV includes a 30x digital zoom–an idea that I’ve never loved because I’d rather the camera do the optical work and that the digital magnification be done on the computer, where greater control is possible.  This camera records JPG images, but not RAW images. Taken together, the digital zoom and the lack of RAW images suggest that this camera is intended for a more of an amateur photographer who simply wants to shoot handsome images without spending much time perfecting them on a computer.

There is no electronic viewfinder, another indication of its super-amateur status. Still, this is a 20 megapixel camera that includes both WiFi image transfer and GPS. And, there’s image stabilization. On the downside, you can’t record RAW images with this camera, only JPG.

Both cameras offer some level of exposure control, and both shoot HD video. On just about any sort of a journey, either camera would be a superior companion.

Olympus_ep5_zps5b4bee21As for my personal choice, I remain a big fan of Olympus interchange lens cameras in the micro-four thirds format, and for the next month or two, the buzz in that world will be about the upcoming EP-5. It’s a retro design reminiscent of the much-loved Olympus PEN film cameras, and an update of the popular EP-3. If the rumors are accurate (and we’ll know that within the next two weeks), this will be a 16MP version with the same sensor found in Olympus’s equally well-regarded EM-5. No electronic viewfinder included as part of this model, but a new add-on viewfinder is, apparently, coming, too. Here, my favorite source of things to come is 43 Rumors (the 43 refers to the micro four thirds format, an image sensor size that’s generally now fairly common for cameras in the $500-$1,000 range). For more, and for updates on these intriguing rumors, click on the Olympus EP-5 camera from the 43 Rumors site.

Masterful Visualizing

In my last post, I recommended a book entitled The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. As a companion, I recommend another book from the same publisher, Michael Weise Productions. This one is entitled Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know. It’s written by Jennifer van Sijll. Like The Writer’s Journey, Cinematic Storytelling is useful to the one telling the story, and to the reader or audience member on the receiving end. Why does this book matter? Because we’re rapidly developing into a world of visual storytellers–smartphones and digital cameras in hand–and it would be wonderful if everyone could do their job just that much better.

CInematicStory_website_largeBasically, this book is an encyclopedia of visual storytelling techniques, but it’s fun to browse because every idea is illustrated by frames from a well-known or significant film–and each sequence is presented with the relevant bit of the screenplay along with perceptive commentary from the author.

Some are easily understood by the audience, and as a result, they must be used judiciously by the filmmaker or storyteller: the slow-motion sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull; the freeze frame that ends Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; the fast-motion sequence in the French film, Amelie; the famous flashback in the Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard; the visual match cut that transforms a bone into a spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the long dissolve between young Rose and Old Rose in Titanic.

A specialty lens was used by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane–perhaps the movie most often used as an example to illustrate a variety of techniques. Sometimes, a telephoto is the appropriate storytelling choice, and sometimes, it’s the wide angle. These are not random, on-the-fly choices; instead, they are carefully considered during the storyboard phases of film development.

In this entry featuring The Graduate, the author explains the use of a "rack-focus"--here, shifting the focal point from one character to another. The author explains, "Unseen by Elaine, who is still facing Ben, Mrs. Robinson stands in the doorway. Mrs. Robinson is out-of-focus and ghost-like. When Elaine spins around, Mrs. Robinson is pulled into focus, and Elaine is thrown out of focus (Image 4). Every line in Mrs. Robinson's defeated face now shows. After a beat, Mrs. Robinson disappears from the door. When Elaine turns back to Ben, her face remains momentarily blurred, externalizing her confusion. At the moment of recognition, her face is pulled back into focus.

In this entry featuring The Graduate, the author explains the use of a “rack-focus”–here, shifting the focal point from one character to another. The author explains, “Unseen by Elaine, who is still facing Ben, Mrs. Robinson stands in the doorway. Mrs. Robinson is out-of-focus and ghost-like. When Elaine spins around, Mrs. Robinson is pulled into focus, and Elaine is thrown out of focus (Image 4). Every line in Mrs. Robinson’s defeated face now shows. After a beat, Mrs. Robinson disappears from the door. When Elaine turns back to Ben, her face remains momentarily blurred, externalizing her confusion. At the moment of recognition, her face is pulled back into focus.

Selecting a particular point-of-view (POV) can be a critically important aspect of storytelling, as with the below-the-swimmer underwater sequence just before the first swimmer is killed by a shark in JAWS. For which scenes is a low-angle shot most appropriate (character POV for E.T. would be one example), or for which would a high-angle shot be the better creative choice? When does it make sense to use a tracking shot (the camera is mounted on a tripod that glides along tracks; some low-budget achieve similar results by employing a wheelchair)?

Lighting is another variable. In American Beauty, there’s a scene illuminated by candlelight. In E.T., the search is conducted by flashlights and car headlights that illuminate an otherwise dark nighttime landscape.

In Barton Fink, individual shots of props (hotel stationery, an old typewriter) add visual context. Wardrobe is another defining option. So, too, is the use of location as a theme, a concept so masterfully used by director David Lynch in the vaguely creepy Blue Velvet.

It’s not always about what is seen. Sometimes, the scene contains less information, and the story or theme is carried by music or sound effects. Back to Barton Fink for the eerie sense of surreal sound and its ability to paint a picture of each character’s inner world.

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