Post-CES 2014

Sony-wideIn the old days, I used to go twice a year: once to Las Vegas in the winter and once to Chicago just before summer began. There were so much to see!

This year, CES came and went, and although I wanted to be there just for the fun of it, I was surprised because I didn’t notice the usual flood of stories and cool products that I wish I had seen for myself. I suppose there are a few reasons why: many of the products of the past were driven by their own unique hardware needs, so the physical design and functionality of so many products were unique. Now, many of these innovative ideas use the same portable computer—the smart phone or the tablet—so the form factor and the functionality is less original. Often the innovative idea is iterated as software or accessory, not a whole new thing. (On the far side of this timeline, my basement is no longer quite so full of old stuff that seemed like a great idea at the time, and so, my garage sales are less frequent and less thrilling for the neighbors).

In past articles, I’ve written about the new 4K HDTVs, and now, we’re starting to see digital cameras (including a $2,000 camcorder from Sony) that can create content for the new format. New screens are curvy, which is cool, but so far, not so useful. Still, this is among the things to come that we will own within a few years—whether as part of a phone or a living room TV set.

This was supposed to be the year of the wearable computer, and that’s going kinda slowly. Pebble updated its cool smart watch, which is now smaller, heavier (but still okay), and comes with twice the memory (4MB up to 8MB). For details about this Bluetooth device, and a taste of other wearable devices from the same company, be sure to read a very helpful article on The Verge. Their article about Razer’s Nabu wristband is also interesting, perhaps more as a trend report than a piece about something you’ll be buying this summer; ditto for the backgrounder about Nuance, which is bringing Siri-like technology to wristbands another small devices.

Sony A5000Happily, Sony is beginning to regain some of its juice. The image that tops this article is a fun piece about Sony’s CES presentation using 4K technology and a fair amount of hands-on creativity. The company will introduce a new short-throw HDTV projector this summer that will allow, for example, useful projection onto tabletops (though what I really want is the touch-screen desktop surface used on Hawaii Five-O). Sony’s still cameras (which shoot video, of course) are becoming more and more impressive—and smaller. New to the line is the A5000, but if you haven’t checked out the RX-100, I encourage you to do. It’s my favorite camera (right now, anyway).

Lots of heat re: 3D printing, which is increasingly ready for prime time. Once again, The Verge does a superior job in explaining what this technology is all about, what happened at CES, and why this may become important to you in 2014. For example:

Unsurprisingly, everyone at the CES 3D printer zone thinks that consumer-level 3D printing is on the cusp of something big. “It’s just kind of a whole ecosystem that has to be built up, and it’s kind of slowly growing out,” says Abdullah. “I don’t think we’ve hit that tipping point obviously, but I think that we will get there soon.” Chang describes 2014 as “like the year when the Apple II came out.”

Yes, TV sets will become that much larger, and digital cameras will become that much smaller. More of us will be wearing digital wristbands of some sort, no doubt communicating with one another or with some super server as we track what we eat or where we go or how thoroughly we exercise. Somehow, with each passing miracle, these seem to be less newsworthy. And yet, it’s fun to see what the latest Jawbone portable Bluetooth loudspeaker can do, or how successfully Beats is invading popular culture (now with its own music service). So we are we not all completely crazy about the potential of 3D printing or wall-sized video projections? Because we’ve got a 5MP phone in one pocket and a tablet that’s much smarter than most of NASA’s old school gear in the hand that used to tote around a MacBook Pro but doesn’t anymore because that’s just too heavy or too much of a pain to connect using the smart phone’s portable internet hub. We’ve become so sophisticated, everything exciting seems commonplace, or predictable.

Me, I think I preferred the naiveté and twice-annual festival of wonder.

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 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.

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