Monday, February 23, 2009

Review: Portable Battery Powered Hard Drives

Image storage while traveling is an ongoing challenge for the digital photographer. There are a number of options, each with pluses and minus.

Storage options while traveling include:
  • Multiple Memory cards
  • Portable stand alone hard drive which can directly download memory card images
  • Laptop computer with a large internal hard drive
  • Independent cd/dvd writer
  • Photo kiosks to make cds or dvds while you travel
  • Cloud computing to upload your photos on online server storage
  • VPN connection to upload your photos to your computer at your home or office
In this article, I'll be reviewing portable battery powered, stand alone hard drive options. What makes these hard drives stand alone for photography is their ability to directly plug in memory cards to them, and download your photos to the hard drive. With these hard drives you don't need to be plugged into a computer to upload your photos to them.

I've reviewed what I consider the three leading stand alone portable battery powered hard drives for your consideration: Epson Multimedia Photo Viewer, Sanho HyperDrive Colorspace UDMA, and Wolverine ESP Portable Multimedia Storage and Player.

To be considered for this review, each of the portable stand alone battery powered hard drives had to have the following features:
  • A capacity of at least 80GB, the minimum capacity I recommend to photographers.
  • A minimum 3.2" TFT color screen to display photos directly on the drive.
  • A removable battery so that spares can be readily available for extended life on long trips without access to an electric source for recharging.
  • Built-in card slots for both CF and SD memory cards.
  • Support for JPEG and RAW formatted photographs, with RAW capability for at least most of both Nikon and Canon DSLR cameras.
  • USB 2.0 interface for connection to computer.
Epson P-7000The Epson Multimedia Photo Viewer comes in 80 GB (P-6000) and 160 GB (P-7000) models. Both have 4.0" LCD 16.7 million colors displays running on Epson's Photo Fine Premia LCD technology. (There is a smaller 40GB Epson P-3000 Multimedia Storage Viewer which is not part of this review.) This is the largest screen of the three drives in this review. The display supports the Adobe RGB color space for consistent color. The screen has zoom capability to make it easy to view the details of each photo. The Epsons have built-in card slots which support CompactFlash (CF) and Secure Digital (SD) memory cards. The units measure 3.5" x 5.9" x 1.3" and weight 16.0 oz. They support video out capability. It can upload somewhat more than 20 GB's of photos on a single battery charge. The Epsons come with a Lithium-Ion Rechargeable Battery, AC adapter/charger, USB cable, hand strap, travel case, dual battery charger, viewing stand, and car adapter.

Sanho Colorspace HyperDriveThe Sanho HyperDrive Colorspace UDMA's come in 120 GB, 160 GB, 250 GB, 320 GB, and 500 GB capacities. They have 3.2" color QVGA 320 x 240 pixel TFT LCD screens, the smallest but more than capable and large enough screens of the three drives. The HyperDrives have zoom capability. They have 2 slots directly supporting 14 memory card formats including CF and SD memory cards. The units measure 5.25" x 2.95" x 1" and weigh 10.5 oz. The HyperDrives do not support video out. They are the fastest of the three downloading files from memory cards and uploading to a computer. The HyperDrives can upload about 250GB on a single battery charge. They come with a rechargable 18650 Lithium Ion battery, a universal (100-240V) voltage AC adapter, USB cable, travel case, and a 12V car charger.

The Wolverine ESP Portable Multimedia Storage and Players come in 80GB, 120GB, 160GB, and 250GB capacities. They have 3.6" Wide Angle TFT LCD screens, slight larger than the HyperDrive screens. The Wolverines have zoom capability. They have 2 slots directly supporting 8 memory card formats including CF and SD memory cards. The units measure 5.3 x 2.8 x 0.9" and weigh 10.2 oz. The Wolverines support video out. The Wolverines can upload about 20GB on a single charge. They come with a rechargable battery, an AC charger, USB cable, and travel case.

The Interface of the Epson is excellent, though some have complained about deletion. The HyperDrive interface is the best of the three, in my opinion, with the Wolverine interface capable, but the least of the three. If you have a DSLR and store your files in RAW format, please check to make sure the drives will display your camera's photos. All three generally display DSLR RAW files from Canon and Nikon cameras.

My interest in these hard drives is primarily for the RAW and JPEG capability. The minimum size hard drive which I need is 160GB's due to my basic RAW file size of about 15+ MB's per photo. The HyperDrive's storage capability of 250 GB's of photos on one battery charge is a big factor for me, and for anyone who might be traveling without access to electricity for recharging for a prolonged time, such as when white-water rafting on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.

At this time the street price of the Epson 160GB P-700 is $800. The Hyperdrive 160GB model is $315. The Wolverine 160GB model runs $380.

My first choice is the Sanho HyperDrive Colorspace UDMA for its speed, feature set and price. Actually, for me the Sanho HyperDrive Colorspace UDMA 500 GB unit at $520 is the best bet, having a capacity which will more than meet my needs at a price even below the 80 GB Epson P-6000 which has a street price of $600. For me the Wolverine units are a distant third. Their feature set is inferior to the Sanho and Epson products, and their screen is inferior as well, even though it is marginally larger than the Sanho units. It's major plus, compared to the Epson is price, but the superior Sanho is actually less expensive. The one drawback of the Sanho unit is it has no video out, however, that feature is of little consequence to me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Traveler's "must" photos - Shooting Landmarks

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, PALandmarks like Philadelphia's Independence Hall, New York's Statue of Liberty, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, The Great Wall of China and Paris' Eiffel Tower are all subjects emblematic of their locations. They are geographic icons which you must capture with your camera, if only to say, "I was there!"

The problem with so many landmark photographs is that often when travelers return home, they find their photos of some of the most incredible and famous world sights boring, flat or humdrum. Why is that?

I think it's because their photos look the same as every one else's.

It's not easy to create a unique photograph of a landmark. After all, with millions of photos already taken of them, is there an unusual or distinctive shot left? The answer is yes. Here are 8 tips for making your landmark photographs special.
  1. The Panthéon, Paris, FranceChange your perspective or angle on the subject. Take a picture from a different side. Tilt your camera. Perhaps get low to the ground and shoot upward.

    Don't just take the common "full-on" shots with people waving and smiling in front of the landmark looking toward your camera.

    Scout around for a new vantage point. Rather than just photograph the Panthéon like any ordinary building, I went inside to catch the detail of its magnificent dome.

  2. Take a photo with the landmark in the background. Landmarks are special, often embodying the spirit and history of the area in which they're located. By placing a landmark in its surroundings you add interest and context to your photograph.

  3. Use local inhabitants in your photograph to add human context and eliminate the sterility found in so many landmark photos. Not only does creatively adding people into pictures tell stories, it provides a realistic sense of the scale of the monument in contrast to the size of the people in your photograph.

    A bicycler riding past it, can add context, scale, visual interest, and the human element to the Betsy Ross House, to what would otherwise be an ordinary photo of a brick building with a flag.

  4. If you're using a DSLR, try a special lens, such as a fish-eye. With it, you can gather the surrounding area around the landmark with the unusual perspective it can lend to your photo.
  5. Shoot in low light, or near dusk or dawn for their golden tones, or even in the evening. Shooting in natural low light can add a special ambiance to your landmark shots, and by shooting your photos during "off-hours," the crowds of tourists are normally diminished, so you can get less busy shots.

    Cities have both night and day personalities. Some cities start to come alive at dusk, then seem to burst open after dark. Shooting in Las Vegas' and capturing Paris Las Vegas' Eiffel Tower at night is a more interesting photo than if taken during the day.

  6. Add visual context to your photo. We see zillions of photographs of the Statue of Liberty taken from the shores of New York Harbor, standing alone in the Harbor as a sentinel. We don't see many photos of the Lady with a ship passing by, which would give the photograph context and echo the history of many immigrants' first sight of their new country.
  7. Try processing some of your photos in "black & white" instead of color. It's rare today to see travel photographs in "black & white," but their monochromatic tones can add substantial drama and emotion to a photograph. Consider "film noir" movies and the way their cinematography enhances the drama, feel and tone of the movies.
  8. Hearst Castle; Casa Grande, San Simeon, CAFrom the above suggestions you can see that the rules of landmark photography (there aren't any) don't require you to take only full shots of the landmark. Often isolated portions of it, or close-ups of a small part of the landmark can be more interesting than the whole.

    In this photograph taken at the Hearst Castle, note that several of the hints discussed above were used. The photograph concentrates on the main entrance of the primary building in the Hearst Castle complex; Casa Grande.

    The photo was taken from an elevation well below the entrance, and framed by some of the lush vegetation of the Castle complex. The tendency of the lens to add limited "barrel distortion" to the photo was used to advantage to further frame the Castle entrance.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The DSLR Multiplier Myth Exposed

Last month, a friend asked me about purchasing a 300mm lens for wildlife photography with his Nikon D80, instead of a 500mm lens. He thought he could save some cash since the "300mm lens would give me the same magnification as a 450mm lens, wouldn't it?"

Before discussing the details, let me get the answer to his question out of the way, "It won't!"

What my friend was talking about is the "multiplier effect." Today's expensive professional level digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR) have full sized sensors, meaning their sensors have the same size as a 35mm negative. Other professional DSLR's, as well as consumer oriented DSLR cameras have smaller sensors. Nikon calls their smaller sensors, DX sensors and their full size sensors, FX. When comparing lenses mounted on a DSLR with a DX sensor to a 35mm film camera, or a DSLR with an FX sensor we "multiply" the lens' focal length by 1.5, so a 300mm lens becomes a 450mm lens, or does it?

What's really happening is the field of view is being reduced or cropped. Cropping is the process of cutting part of an image out of a photograph to make the final photo. In the case of a Nikon D80 with a DX sensor, with a 300mm lens attached, the effective field of view is that of a 450mm lens. The photo is cropped, not magnified.

Monument Valley Lens View FX-DXOn the right is a view of Monument Valley through the lens of a DSLR. Inside the white rectangle is the image picked up by a full size, FX sensor. Inside the yellow rectangle is the image picked up by a smaller, DX sensor.

Note that the DX image is a cropped portion of the FX image. The field of view has been narrowed along both axises, horizontal and vertical. There is less of the scene in the DX image than the FX image.

Look at the two resultant photos on the right, below the lens view. Both are printed to the screen at the same size. The FX image is at the top, and the DX image is on the bottom.

Monument Valley FX and DX imagesIf you examine them carefully you will find that the DX image appears more "magnified" than the FX image. That's happened because to print both photos to the same physical size, the smaller DX image was enlarged, to increase its size to the FX's image size.

This is where I believe the misunderstanding comes from, when discussing the "multiplier effect." Personally I think we would all be served better by eschewing the "multiplier" terminology and changing it to the "crop effect" and the "crop factor." If we used these terms from the beginning, I don't think anyone would think they could get more magnification from a 300mm lens than from a 400mm lens.

Now that we understand the crop (multiplier) effect, I can hear you ask, "So does the crop factor affect travel photography?" Yes it does, according to the situation. It depends on the type of photograph you're taking while traveling.
  • If you're taking portraits, wildlife or macro photos then the crop factor won't be an issue.
  • If you're taking landscape photos, or architectural photos in a crowded city, or indoor photos, the crop factor will impact your travel photography.
Often some of the most beautiful landscape photography has utilized wide-angle lenses to capture the scenery in front of the camera. As shown above, a DX based DSLR camera reduces, or crops the field of view. While a 28mm lens on an FX DSLR or 35mm film camera is considered to be a wide angle lens, it isn't on a DX DSLR camera. On a DX camera, the 28mm lens has the equivalent field of view of a 42mm lens.

This means that a landscape photographer using a DX DSLR needs to use extremely wide angle lenses to capture the same scenic panoramas as FX cameras. I use a Sigma 10mm-20mm zoom lens for my wide angle landscape photographs. It has the equivalent angle of view to a 15mm-30mm zoom lens which is a wide angle zoom lens specification in anyone's book.

If you've researched typical DSLR DX sensor based camera kits, I'm sure you've noticed that most come with a lens such as an 18mm-55mm zoom, which can provide a good angle of view for landscapes, architectural, and indoor photos. Now you know why.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Travel Photography: Geotagging, Part 2

GPS System of SatellitesIn Travel Photography: Geotagging, Part 1, I discussed what geotagging was, and why anyone taking photographs while traveling should at least consider it its use. Here in Part 2, I discuss GPS receivers and geotagging software.

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a global navigation satellite system developed by the United States Department of Defense, and maintained by the US Air Force. It uses 24 medium Earth orbit (12,500 miles above the earth) satellites, each transmitting precise microwave signals, which enable a person with a GPS receiver to determine their current location, the time, and their velocity.

The satellites circle the earth twice a day, but at any given time, it's rare to pick up even the half on any side of the earth. Fortunately, you only need 3 or 4 satellites to use a GPS receiver to navigate. The signals sent by GPS satellites are not able to reach deeply through solid objects, such as buildings, but the system works well outdoors.

Until 1983, the system was not available to the general public, but after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down that year, after straying into the USSR's prohibited airspace, President Ronald Reagan issued a directive making GPS freely available for civilian use. Since then, GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide, and a useful tool for map-making, surveying, commerce, and scientific uses, as well as geotagging.

I remember getting my first GPS receiver, plus software to turn my laptop into road navigation system, years ago. It was so much better than reading maps. It could pinpoint your position as you traveled. It's comforting to know exactly where you are, while driving in a new area. Now, when traveling, I use a portable GPS device to get around (OK, I admit I have some maps as backup, just in case.)

When I first began to experiment using GPS with my photography, there were few GPS receivers built specifically for use with Nikon or other GPS enabled DSLR cameras. The one standout at the time was from Red Hen, however, it cost more than $600. I decided to build my own. Like many, I based my system on the Garmin Geko 301 GPS receiver. I modified the Geko to mount on my camera, as well as the Nikon MC-35 GPS cable, and necessary PC serial cable. The unit worked like a charm with my Nikon D200, but was somewhat unwieldy due to the cabling requirements. Last year, I purchased the Solmeta DP-GPS N2 kit, which is small, and pulls in signals much better than my homemade setup.

Over time, GPS technology has dramatically improved. Receivers are now built with new chip sets which have more ability to receive and decode the L band microwave signals sent by the GPS satellites. When deciding which GPS receiver to purchase for your camera check for:
  • Compatibility with your camera.
  • Size and cable specifications to determine usability.
  • If the unit must be attached to the hot shoe of your camera, or if it can be held on the strap, etc. to free the hot shoe for use with your flash.
  • If the unit is plugged into a camera port which is used for other purposes, if a splitter is available for simultaneous use of the port with another device.
  • If it has it's own power supply (preferable) or uses power supplied by the camera.
  • If it has a built-in PNI Electronic Compass, as some cameras can record the direction the camera was pointed when the photograph was taken.
  • If it has an auto indoor GPS position fixed mode, so that it will allow the camera to use the last GPS position received, to store with photos taken, while the camera is used inside.
  • The sensitivity of the GPS unit to receive data, even in adverse conditions such as bad weather, among tall buildings in cities, and amid forested areas.
When I recently checked on Cnet's for geotagging software, there were 10 choices, but I know there are many other products available. Quality geotagging software can actually write raw data into each photograph's Exif data, however, for me it's more important for it to be able to pull existing Exif data from my photos and use it. After reviewing geotagging software, I purchased RoboGeo. When choosing geotagging software check for:
  • The software must be able to read your camera's Exif data directly, edit it, add new data to it, and use it for mapping purposes.
  • In order to create export files, the software must be able to pull the data directly from photos from a list of your choosing.
  • Is the software capable of stamping the photos themselves on their face, if desired, with time and GPS information?
  • Can the software use Google Earth to directly geotag photos missing GPS information?
  • Can the software geotag photos from place names, or IPTC locations?
  • The software must be able to create Google Earth KML and KMZ files to create maps of your photos on Google Earth.
  • The software must be capable of exporting geotagged photos to Google Maps, Flickr and Yahoo Maps, MapPoint, Shapefiles and create DXF files to be used in 3rd party utility programs.
  • The software should be capable of use in GPS Visualizer, an excellent personal mapping web site.
Some photo sharing web sites like are capable of making their own maps via your photographs, if they contain the correct Exif data in each photo. Here geotagging software comes in handy to edit GPS Exif data, or add data to photos with missing or incomplete GPS data. If you'd like to see what one of these wonderful maps looks like go to my photo-site NSL Photography. Navigate to the nslphotography > Cities > Philadelphia, Pennsylvania > Philadelphia Photo Walk - Society Hill / Olde City gallery. Opposite the gallery name, click on the "Map This" button. There are 39 photos which will map, so it might take a few moments. Click on one of the green balloons with a face, of a photo on the right, and see what happens.

The map sure answers the question, "Hey, exactly where is that?" doesn't it.