Wednesday, December 24, 2008

User Interface and Market Size

When cars were new, a hundred years ago, each had different arrangements for the controls. There were hand throttles, foot throttles - originality was more important than consistency. Those were the days when a European automobile executive foresaw a market for a million automobiles, since that was his estimate of the number of peasants intelligent enough to be trained as a chauffeur!

The consistent user interface observed in all cars is a prerequisite
to their omnipresence. Imagine getting into a rented or borrowed car
and needing to figure out where the controls are. In the late eighties
I remember being unable to use a friend's car, unaware you have to
push a button to turn the key. But muscle memory is even more
important. Driving on British highways is not a problem, you stay in
your lane with all the other people. But when you're going down a
narrow country lane with hedges either side, and a lorry comes around
a corner up ahead, my Canadian instincts take me the wrong way, and I
need to make myself pull to the other side to allow him to pass.

Until a couple of decades ago, motorcycles focused on creativity
rather than consistency in their user interface. It's so much easier
now, when you can get on any bike and know the left hand controls the
clutch, the right hand controls the throttle and front brake, the
right foot has the rear brake, and the left foot the gears ... one
down, four or five up. While a distinctive arrangement traps users
into sticking with the brand they know, consistency across brands
increases the market. Once someone learns to ride a bike, they can get
on any machine and go for a ride. You might stop riding for a while,
focusing on family or work or other activities, but you can come back
to it.

Similarly, consistent, well defined mechanical and electrical designs
allow for a wide range of third party accessories. At one time, some
cars had six volt batteries and some had twelve, so you had to be
careful buy the right bulbs. Imagine if you needed to get the correct
voltage GPS. Oh yeah, cell phone adapters.

Currently, camera flashes and studio lights are seen as a high markup
product which trap users in a particular brand. If you use Canon
flashes on Canon cameras, or Nikon flashes on Nikon cameras, the
camera can control the flash to get the right amount of light. With
the right brand of wireless controller, the flash can be used
off-camera, allowing more sophisticated lighting design. But the
camera companies can't be bothered to get approval in every country
for a radio device, so you're limited to lilne-of-sight, and to
moderate distances. There are wireless systems that trigger any flash
or any studio strobe. But if you want more sophisticated control, you
need the brand that goes with the strobes you have.

Why can't flash and strobe and trigger designers be creative, instead
of slavishly imitating what's been done before?

I hardly ever use my flash actually on the camera ... David Hobby
would scold me if I did! I don't need a hot shoe on a flash, but a 1/4
x 20 threaded hole would be nice. The flash might come with a post to
fit in a light stand swivel. But that swivel might be totally
unnecessary if the flash head had something to secure an umbrella

How about providing some of the flash's battery power to feed a
third party wireless trigger? It's stupid to need one set of batteries
for the flash, and a separate set for the trigger. How about providing
a small space within the flash itself where a third party trigger can
go? It only needs to be one inch by two inches by half an inch. Two
small screws, one at each end, physically secure the trigger and
provide electrical connections as well. A micro-power bluetooth
connection with a range of a few inches would provide the interface
between trigger and flash. A flexible protocol along the lines of
MIDI could provide universal requirements while allowing customization
and expansion. If a company can't be bothered to deal with the US
regulatory body, or the Canadian, or the British, someone would fill
the gap. Cameras and studio strobes could similarly allocate a small
space for a transmitter.

Imagine if you could position your lights and then control them from
the camera, to adjust levels, and perhaps other characteristics, for
key, fill, rim, hair and the Joey chin light. The camera isn't a
very convenient interface, usable if necessary, but perhaps the
Photoshop operator can double on adjusting lights, at the computer. If
you're a location kind of shooter, maybe an iPhone interface is what
you want.

It's only taken me a few minutes to conceive of a better world. If
camera and strobe manufacturers worked together to standardize a
single interface, imagine what some really creative designers might
come up with.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


We had our company holiday party recently, where I work. I set up a photo booth, to get some practice in doing studio type portraits. Lesson one: I should have taken my own backdrop, instead of using the net and painted background of the indoor driving range. I thought it would go darker and more out of focus, but not quite enough. I do like the portraits, all the same.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Happy Birthday, Paul!

Got my new Canon 5D Mark II camera, and took some pictures at a party in a dark restaurant.

ISO 6400, F/4.0, at a mix of 1/10s, 1/20s, & 1/30s, handheld, 105mm except the wide shot, 24mm. Lenses with Image Stabilization are a good thing.

The real reason people hold birthday parties:

Never leave out the party organier:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Almost Full Moon

The moon is pretty big and pretty bright tonight, and I'm supposed to practice focusing my new telescope.

ISO 100, 1/100s, and the telescope naturally provides f/8.

On the canon XTi, the 500mm lens acts like an 800mm. The camera shoots 3888x2592. This image is 1778x1778. Ignoring the wasted sky outside the central square, cropping doubled the apparent size of the moon.

Clearly, I'm not finished practicing, that focus needs to be sharper. Still, an interesting addition to the collection, especially considering the price. Of course you have to count that against the time you spend doing multiple takes, trying to get the focus right. Let's rate that at just $20/hr ... it adds up.

Monday, December 8, 2008


I came across a store selling telescopes as camera lenses. It's reflector telescope designed to be used with cameras. Doesn't have an eyepiece, doesn't attach to a tripod. Does attach to a camera, does have a focus adjustment, marked with distances.

Looks like this:

A Canon 300mm lens is $4000 US, that's f/4, IS Image Stabilization, USM focus motor. A Canon 500mm lens is $5700, an 800mm lens is $11,000. That's more than my motorcycle!

My lens cost me $135, including shipping and border fees. At that price, you sacrifice a few incidentals, such as IS Image Stabilization. You don't get a focus motor, you have to focus manually. You don't even get an aperture, to reduce the light you have neutral density filters which cut the light be 2 and 4 f-stops. No, the filters don't go on the front, you have to take the lens off the camera and fit them on the rear.

As for the focus, you have to get it dead right. At a distance of 12 feet, you get a depth-of-field of 1/2 inch. At a distance of 6 km it took several tries to get a sharp result.

I figured at 19 km, downtown Toronto would be a simple matter of racking the focus all the way to the sideways '8'. The first shot was an embarrassing blur, you coldn't even distinguish the floor of the office towers. The second was much better, just wasn't sharp. This is the best I've managed so far.

Closer to home, 11 stories down and across the street, according to the squaw on the hippopotamus being equal to the sons of the squaws on the other two hides, call it 200 feet, 65 meters, the church side door:

I guess that's why the pamphlet that came with the lens says

Therefore, it is recommended to first practice focusing with your lens before taking any serious pictures, especially in closeup photography. It is suggested that a focus magnifier be used to help determine the depth of field sharpness under such extreme conditions.