December 2005

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Lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions right now. Something about the list at Not Guilty made me decide to do my own:

Windypundit’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2006
  1. Same as everyone else: lose weight. I lost a bunch of weight in the first half of this year and then gained a bunch of it back. I weigh less than I did a year ago, but not by as much as I’d like.
  2. Take a lot of photos with the D200, learn a lot of photography. I enjoyed it a lot with my Z3, now that I’m buying a more expensive camera, I really better enjoy it.
  3. Sort my photos more regularly. I don’t like to sort through them right after I take them because they usually aren’t as good as I imagined. But if I let them age a while, I lose my preconceptions about them, and many of them surprise me. The problem is that I’m falling behind. I have unsorted photographs going back to July.
  4. Blog more, and blog more consistently. 2005 was the year my blog begain to take off. Maybe I can make 2006 even better.
  5. Take more pictures for the eminent domain series. I think it has the potential to attract attention to this site.
  6. Launch my new website. (More on this in another post.)
  7. Port the benefits export code to .NET. (Special private resolution for one of my clients.)
  8. Get the house organized. I need to clean up and organize my office and my work area in the kitchen.
  9. Finish several home remodeling projects that have stalled. Most importantly, put the 2nd bathroom back together.
  10. Play more computer games.

Update:

  1. Write more software for fun. All of the software I write these days is work-related, but I really do enjoy software development, so I should write some fun stuff that isn’t part of my job.
  2. More catblogging. (Per spousal request.)

How come criminalizing driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%—as measured by a machine that estimates blood alcohol by measuring alcohol in a person’s breath, which it does by measuring chemical reactions in its sensor that are caused by alcohol-like compounds—is considered the law, but the constitutional presumption of innocence is considered a technicality?

Proving that a person is impaired by alcohol is a lot more work than simply proving their level of blood alcohol, so the weanies at MADD have been pressuring legislatures to criminalize driving with a 0.08% blood alcohol level, thus relieving the state of the burden of proof.

It seems a court has recently overthrown this idea in Virginia, saying that the 0.08% per se impairment law is an unconstitutional attempt to escape this burden. Lawrence Taylor compares it to making it a crime to leave your fingerprints at the scene of a burglary, relieving the prosecution of proving that the defendent actually committed burglary. That is, under current law, a jury might well decide that the prints prove the burglary, but the presence of prints themselves is not a crime.

I think this is the right idea, but it has no chance of surviving. Otherwise the reasoning behind this decision might catch on, and pretty soon prosecutors would have to start proving that drug dealers sell drugs, instead of just proving they possessed enough drugs that they must have intended to sell drugs. Soon federal prosecutors might even have to prove actual crimes instead of just proving suspicious cash transactions or lying by suspects. It’s madness I tell you, madness!

I’m posting a series of articles explaining my thinking in deciding that I want one of the new Nikon D200 cameras. I don’t know if anybody out there is interested, but photography is a new hobby for me, and I enjoy writing about new things I’ve learned.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series I explained the major technical advantages of a camera like the Nikon D200 over my point-and-shoot camera. In Part 3, I explained why I thought choosing a lens system—and therefore a brand of Camera—wasn’t as important as choosing a particular camera. Now it’s time to discuss why the particular camera I chose was the Nikon D200.

Here’s a table of every current Canon and Nikon Digital SLR camera body (without lens), sorted by price. (“Current” cameras are those listed on the manufacturer’s web site, except the D70 which is omitted because the D70s replaces it. Prices are from Adorama.)

Maker Camera Cost
Nikon D50 $570
Canon Digital Rebel XT $790
Nikon D70s $900
Canon EOS 20D $1300
Nikon D200 $1700
Canon EOS 5D $3000
Nikon D2Hs $3200
Canon EOS-1D Mark II N $4000
Nikon D2X $4400
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II $7200

The first thing to notice is that there’s a price break right in the middle, after the D200. All the cameras on the bottom half of the list are clearly professional quality and professional cost. The recently announced Canon EOS 5D is Canon’s low-cost professional camera, and it’s still more than I can afford. Also, I don’t need a lot of the high-end professional features. They mostly don’t result in better pictures, but help professional photographers with their workflow.

So, let’s consider only the under-$2000 cameras. Here are some of the interesting features of those cameras: (Specifications are from Digital Photography Review)

Camera MP Constr. FPS PC MLU Released Cost
D50 6.0 Plastic 2.5 No No Apr. 05 $570
Digital Rebel XT 8.0 Plastic 2.9 No Yes Feb. 05 $790
D70s 6.0 Plastic 3.0 No No Apr. 05 $900
EOS 20D 8.0 Metal 5.0 Yes Yes Aug 04 $1300
D200 10.0 Metal 5.0 Yes Yes Nov. 05 $1700

MP=MegaPixels, the number of millions of pixels in the image
Constr.=Construction materials
FPS=frames per second burst rate (it will slow down when the buffer fills)
PC means it has an external sync connection for studio flash systems
MLU=Mirror Lock-Up, which reduces vibration for certain exposures

The D200 is the newest, fastest, highest resolution camera on the list. It’s made of solid materials, and it has a PC connection and Mirror Lock-Up, which are important features to me. It’s the best camera I can afford. That said, this chart still gave me pause for thought. I could get a D50 for about one-third the cost of a D200. That’s a lot of money.

But there are a lot of things that chart doesn’t show. I’ve been following DSLR technology for about a year, so I have a feeling for these cameras that’s hard to capture in a chart (especially since it would be a lot of work to look up the specs for all the other cameras). The D200 is a better camera than the others in a lot of little ways, such as its large, bright viewfinder which will be helpful in low-light shots. Also, like every other new camera, its autofocus should be better and faster than all that came before.

In the forums at Digital Photography Review a lot of professional photographers are criticizing amateurs like me for buying an expensive camera we don’t need. I responded with this list, which sums it up nicely:

I am intentionally buying a camera that is way over my head. The potential to waste a lot of my money scares me a bit. I think my reasons for this purchase are fairly sound, but since my camera hasn’t been delivered yet, I’m willing to listen to reason :-)

Here’s why I’m thinking D200:

(1) It’s cool to have the hot new toy. I never bought anything for that reason before that I recall, and it’s a little exciting. I know this the wrong reason to buy a D200 but I’d be lying if I denied it, so I wanted to admit it up front. Besides, I just turned 41 so it was either this or a sports car, and this is a lot cheaper.

(2) I have more than a few casual portraits with poorly-focused subjects in front of a very crisp background. I blame this on the camera’s autofocus and the electronic viewfinder that keeps me from seeing the problem until it’s too late. It’s not that I expect the D200 to fix this—although I do—it’s that next time this happens I won’t be able to blame the camera. All technical difficulties will be user error.

(3) I’m not afraid of the switchology. I’m a computer programmer by training and vocation, and I have a science and engineering background. Learning my way around complex systems is one of my skills. The operational complexity of the user interface doesn’t bother me, and having read through the manual, I think I understand what almost everything does, but I’m pretty fuzzy on why I’d want to do some of those things. I may not know how to take great pictures, but I can sure push the buttons. Speaking of which…

(4) I like all the buttons. Maybe I’m overcompensating for all the menu navigation I have to do on my P&S—4 or 5 steps just to get to saturation and contrast, three to change white balance, and a whopping seven steps to switch from autofocus to manual (and then it’s still motor-drive!)—but I really like the idea of having all these controls out there where I can change them so easily.

(5) I want high-ISO for indoor shots of people in available light. I’d rather have noise than blur.

(6) I want the camera to be quick to use. I’m fascinated by street photography (e.g. Frank, Winogrand, Bresson) and anything that shaves off my reaction time would be good. (With my P&S I sometimes preset the manual focus to save time, and I have to use an external battery pack clipped to my belt because the camera runs out of juice too fast when I keep it from going into standby.)

(7) Again, because of the street photography, I need to have the camera with me and ready to go. It’s going to get banged around a bit, fall off the seat of the car if I stop suddenly, and so on. There’s also going to be some snow and rain that will get on the camera despite my attempts to protect it. I want something rugged.

(8) Photography is quite possibly the only serious artistic interest I’ve ever had, and I only discovered it as I entered my 40’s. I want to push this as far as it can go. If I were starting 20 years ago, my goal would be an invitation to join Magnum. For now, maybe iStockPhoto…or a photoblog.

(9) I have two power screwdrivers, two circular saws, two wireless telephone systems, two wrench sets, and two of a lot of other things around the house: The cheap one which I thought would be good enough, and the good one I bought to replace it. I have a cheap pan-tilt tripod, and I already know I’m going to have to buy a stronger one with a ball head to replace it for night shots. I want to avoid that mistake here, especially when the cheap one is $600-$900. I prefer the risk of overbuying rather than the risk of buying twice.

(10) I expect to grow into this camera. My day job is as a software consultant, so I offen have a lot of free time between projects, and this is how I want to fill that time. Also, I have a few ideas how to make a little money at this. Presumably, some of the pro features will come in hand eventually.

So, I’m pretty sure this is the camera for me. In any case, I’ve got one on order. I had been hoping to have it by Christmas, but the D200 is a very popular camera and it’s backordered. They tell me I should have it in my hands by mid-January, possibly sooner.

If it’s too much camera, then it’s always going to be enough camera.

I’ve been writing about why I want a Nikon D200 camera, but now I’m not so sure. Nikon has posted the instruction manuals for download, and they’re kind of scary.

Page ii

Viewing the sun or other strong light source through the viewfinder could cause permanent visual impairment.

Should you notice smoke or an unusual smell coming from the equipment or from the AC adapter (available separately), unplug the AC adapter and remove the battery immediately, taking care to avoid burns.

Placing the camera strap around the neck of an infant or child could result in strangulation.

Page iii

The CD-ROMs on which the software and manuals are distributed should not be played back on audio CD equipment. Playing CD-ROMs on an audio CD player could cause hearing loss or damage the equipment.

Page 16

When operating the diopter adjustment control with your eye to the viewfinder, be careful not to put your fingers or fingernails in your eye.

Clearly, these professional-quality cameras are trickier than I thought.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series I explained the major technical advantages of a camera like the Nikon D200 over my point-and-shoot camera. However, all of these advantages are common to the entire Digital SLR camera design. I haven’t yet explained why I want a D200 rather than one of the other Digital SLRs.

Before I do that, one of the comments to Part 2 makes me realize I should point out that I don’t actually have one of these cameras. This is all just my fantasy of what such a camera will do for me. I think, however, that it is a well-researched and realistic fantasy.

Anyway…

Canon and Nikon.

I don’t know enough about cameras to evaluate all the features and performance of all the DSLR camera makers. After a bit of research, however, it’s clear that Canon and Nikon are the major players in the Digital SLR market. I’m sure that many of the other camera makers—Olympus, Fujifilm, Kodak, Pentax, Konica-Minolta, Sigma—make fine cameras. The Olympus E-1 and Fujifilm Finepix, for example, both have good word-of-mouth.

What they don’t have, however, is the gigantic user base of Canon and Nikon. Whether I’m looking for advice, reviews, or third-party accessories, the enormous number of Nikon and Canon owners has attracted a very large crowd of helpful people.

Basically, I’m following the herd. I’m not a professional photographer, so I’m not going to be amassing a collection of camera bodies. This is probably the last camera I’ll buy for at least 5 years. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be good enough. Canon and Nikon may or may not offer the most technically superior choices, but they are the safest choice.

Canon or Nikon?

Conventional wisdom from the world of film cameras has it that when you choose a camera maker, you don’t do so because of its cameras, but because of its lens system. Good lenses cost more than good camera bodies, and they tend to last a lot longer. Thus, photographers buy a camera, then a bunch of lenses for the camera they have, then another camera for the lenses they have, and so on. It just saves money to stay loyal to a lens system: If they bought a different camera, they’d have to buy all different lenses.

The other important point is that the camera itself has very little to do with picture quality: It’s the lenses that form the picture and the film that records it. The camera body just holds it all together in the dark and provides a shutter to let the light in. Film matters, but all 35mm cameras can use the same film, so it doesn’t affect your brand choice. The camera doesn’t matter. An expensive film camera is faster, tougher, more convenient, and more reliable, but it doesn’t take any better pictures. That leaves only the lenses.

The digital world is different. For one thing, the digital image sensor replaces the film and is just as important to image quality. It’s also one of the most costly parts of a digital camera. In the digital world, the camera is the film, and it’s important.

The other big difference is that digital cameras, like most electronic items, become obsolete quickly. A Fuji S1 Pro sold for $4000 five years ago, but only sells on eBay for about $450 now that a Nikon D50 will take better pictures faster for $800. That trend is likely to continue. Whatever digital camera I buy today will probably be worth only a few hundred dollars in five years when I’m ready for my next one.

On the other hand, film cameras and any kinds of lenses will probably be worth almost as much as their original purchase price. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the camera and lenses sell for more than their purchase price in inflated dollars. It’s almost like renting the equipment.

What this means to me is that I’m going to take such a huge depreciation loss on the camera that I’m not too concerned about the lenses. In other words, I’m not really buying a lens system after all, so choosing a brand isn’t as important as choosing a specific camera.

Why Not Film?

If a digital camera costs so much to buy and is worth so little so soon, wouldn’t it make more economic sense to buy a film camera?

No. Not for me. I’ve taken 11,000 photos so far with my Z3 camera. That’s the equivalent of about 300 rolls of film. At $5 per roll, that’s $1500, or about half again as much as my entire camera outfit. If I take another 11,000 photos next year, that’s another $1500.

And that’s just the cost of the unexposed film. If I want to see the pictures, I have to have the film developed at a cost of another $5 per roll, essentially doubling the cost. In one year of shooting digital, I’ve saved $3000—enough to buy a complete Nikon D200 outfit, including lens, flash, and memory card.

Really?

Maybe.

Maybe more. After all, developing 35mm film doesn’t include the cost of making prints. On the other hand, I have to pay for prints of digital images too. On another hand, I can view digital prints on my computer for free. On yet one more hand, the film costs were based on cheap slide film; negatives with proof prints would push the cost of film up toward $5000.

Then again (I have so run out of hands), if I had to pay that much to take pictures, I probably wouldn’t have taken 11,000 of them. I would have been more careful. That would save some money at the cost of less experience taking pictures.

Some people would say that taking a smaller number of more careful pictures would make me a better photographer. I say that increasing the amount of work per picture and making me wait a day or more to see the results would have made me give up the hobby after the first week.

I’m not sure how to account for any of this, so I’ll just ignore it.

Now About Choosing a Nikon D200…?

I’ve managed to get so sidetracked discussing the economics of all this that I think I’ll put off the D200 specifics for another post. People who know me well probably saw that coming.

Update: Part 4 is up.

The Chicago Tribune says a bunch of folks in Barrington got sick because of carbon monoxide emissions from a defective Zamboni. I suspect that this is a story mostly because it’s kind of fun to type the word Zamboni.

One of the most annoying responses to proposals to relax the drug war is the assertion that doing so would send the wrong message to the children. Even allowing sick people to smoke marijuana has been criticized this way.

Pete Guither at Drug WarRant is asking what message are we sending by continuing the senseless war on drugs. Here are a few of my favorite responses of his and his readers:

“Lying is OK when adults are talking about drugs.”

“If you make a mistake regarding drug use, we’re going to make sure that your friends are too afraid to get help that might save you.”

“If you’re going to use drugs, we want to make sure that you get them from a criminal[…]”

“You have no rights. We can come and test your blood or your urine or search you whenever we feel like it. You’re property.”

“We use sick people as a tool for our political purposes. We don’t care whether they are in pain or die from a lack of medicine.”

“Non-violent drug posession is more serious than sexual assault or armed-robbery.” (Ben Heumann)

“If drugs are outlawed, only outlaws (and sick people and kids and casual users and drug abusers and criminals and politicians and homemakers and rock stars and the elderly and professors and steelworkers and journalists and day laborers and teens and actors) will have drugs.” (Baylen Linnekin of To the People)

“We believe there is logic in allowing an easily grown weed to sell for more than gold with only criminals making the profit from it.” (Kwix)

“It’s better to tear a family apart than to permit someone to possess a leaf. Snitch on your family and friends, it’s the right thing to do. Drugs decrease your ability to perform your job, so they should be banned. Performance-enhancing drugs increase your ability to perform your job, so they should be banned. Drugs are bad because they’re illegal, and they’re illegal because they’re bad.” (Bruce)

That last guy could work for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He’s really got their talking points down cold.

Kong!

Saw it. Loved it.

Nothing that happens in this movie happens just a little. Director Peter Jackson lets us spend a lot of time with every beautiful scene in the film. It’s a long film, but like all the Lord of the Rings movies, it never feels long.

Over in the Digital Photography Review Forums, some people are badmouthing the Nikon D200 camera because it’s not full frame. What they mean is that, like most Digital SLR cameras, the sensor isn’t as large as the standard 35mm frame size used in a film camera. I’ve only been learning about photogaphy for about a year, but I’m pretty sure that although this is true, it’s also a bit of misdirection.

What’s true is that the digital image sensor is indeed about 2/3 the size of a 35mm frame. It’s also true that if the sensor was as large as a 35mm frame, it would produce better images. A 35mm frame is 50% larger in each dimension, meaning a sensor that size could capture twice as many pixels. Or, and this would be my preference, it could have the same number of pixels, each with twice the light-gathering area, giving an extra stop of sensitivity for the same noise level. (That is, not more pixels, but better pixels.) The thing is, however, there’s nothing magically wonderful about the 35mm frame size. When it comes to the imaging quality of digital sensors, bigger is always better.

The same is true of film. In fact, 35mm film is the rock-bottom film size that is considered suitable for professional use. (If you know what APS, 110, 126, and 8x11mm films are, congratulations, but those have never been used professionally and are respectively dying, nearly dead, dead, and used only by spies.) Photographers who want really nice images don’t use 35mm, they use one of the medium format sizes built on a strip of film 6cm wide. Photographers who want better images use 4×5 inch film sheets. For even better images they can use 5×7 inch film. Or if that’s not good enough, there’s 8×10 inch film. And if that’s not good enough, there are even larger specialty film sizes.

I’ve heard that the 35mm format was chosen because the same format is used in 35mm movie film, so it was being produced in large amounts which made it cheap. Even if that’s not true, the 35mm format is simply an engineering compromise between image quality, camera size, and cost. Digital imaging sensors are designed with the same sort of tradeoffs, but being a different technology, they’ve settled around a different common size.

The point is, there’s nothing special about the 35mm film size.

Update: Well, the one thing 35mm has going for it is that every camera maker has a lot of lenses that work with 35mm. Then again, those lenses will also work with smaller formats as well, including all Digital SLR sensor sizes. Still, the 35mm format is the largest format that will work with readily available consumer lenses.

Mike has an Overcriminalization Watch posting at Crime & Federalism listing a few minor ethical lapses that could (at least in theory) be charged as federal crimes under the mail and wire fraud laws. For example, this:

using your cell phone (or sending an e-mail) to call in sick for work when you’re not really sick (it doesn’t matter that everyone else does this; you’re felons, all of you!)

In my line of business, computer programming, it’s important to analyze the effects of the business rules you build into a software system. Among other things, you try to imagine all the possible situations to which the rule could be applied. If the rule leads to perverse results in some situations, it’s a bad rule. You can try to add exceptions to the rule to cover all the special cases, or you can look for another simple rule that doesn’t have perverse results.

Too bad Congress doesn’t spend more time examining laws for such perversions before passing them.

In my previous post on this subject, I explained a few of the major design features that make DSLR cameras better than point-and-shoot cameras (even the expensive ones). These include a larger image sensor, interchangeable lenses, and a through-the-lens viewfinder.

All these features make DSLR cameras larger and more expensive than many point-and-shoot cameras, which means the camera will be marketed more towards serious photographers—amateur or professional—who want more out of a camera than most people. This change in marketing focus brings with it a lot of changes in design goals, and DSLR cameras start to have a lot of additional capabilities geared toward more serious photographers.

Most important to me is that the camera will be quick to use. With my Z3, it takes a couple of seconds to start up from power-saving mode, and then when I press the shutter there’s a bit of a lag before it takes the picture. In low light, that lag can be several seconds, which is time enough for people to turn away or cats to run out of the frame. Sometime, if the light is low enough, it will simply fail to find the focus. And when I say low light, I’m not talking about the dark of night; I have problems just in the dark corners of my living room even though the lights are on. I miss a lot of shots with that way.

A DSLR will be much faster. For one thing, the sensor is blocked by the internal mirror when you’re lining up shot, so all the imaging electronics aren’t doing anything useful and there’s nothing for the viewscreen to display. This saves a lot of power compared to a point-and-shoot camera’s constant viewscreen display. That, in turn, means that a DSLR doesn’t have to be put into power saving mode between shots. Consequently, there’s no wake-up delay, because it’s always awake during normal use.

Also, the engineers who designed the Nikon D200 (or any other DSLR) simply chose to make it faster, usually at the cost of size, weight, or…well…cost. The autofocus mechanism, for example, has better electronics and a faster motor, so it will be a lot quicker and will work a lot better in low light. In addition, the whole image pipeline from sensor to memory card is built to run at professional speeds.

The second most important advantage of DSLR cameras is that, again by design, they have better control of lighting. At the very least, they have a hot shoe that allows me to mount a big flash that you can bounce off of stuff. If you take a lot of close-up pictures of people indoors, there’s nothing you can do to improve the appearance of your photos that’s easier than bouncing the flash off the ceiling or wall. Modern through-the-lens flash metering will take care of everything for you. (To be fair, my Z3 does this too, which is why I chose it.)

Most likely (and definitely with the D200 I’m considering) you will be able to buy several flash units and remote control them all from your camera. This allows you to provide standard key-and-fill lighting and maybe some background lighting. If you want to go all-out (and I may) you can buy or rent a studio lighting system, and your DSLR will have connections (or adapters) that will allow you to control it all.

The third most important reason I want to buy a DSLR like the Nikon D200 is that—again, because of the larger size and weight—it has more buttons. This is not the same as saying it has more features than my point and shoot (although it does) but that the features aren’t all buried deep in the menu system.

For example, on my Z3 I have to push seven buttons to navigate the menus and switch from autofocus to manual focus. Then I have press buttons to run the focusing motor until I get the view I want. On the Nikon D200 (and many other DSLR cameras), on the other hand, I’ll just grab the focus ring and turn it until the image looks good.

All the features I mentioned in this article and the previous one are not specific advantages of the Nikon D200. They’re advantages common to all DSLR cameras. So why did I choose the D200? Mostly for reasons of personal preference, which I’ll explain in more detail in a future post.

Update: Part 3 is up. It’s mostly about the economics of choosing a camera.

Just spotted this example of screwed-up priorities over at The Agitator:

Federal drug agents fanned out across San Diego on Monday, clamping down on medical marijuana dispensaries that had been doling out marijuana to sick and dying patients.

I realize that even though medical marijuana is legal in the state of California, it’s still illegal under federal law. But don’t all these federal agents have something better to do? At a time when we’re still being told to give up some of our freedoms for the war on terror, this seems like a wasteful use of federal agents’ time.

At any time, it’s cruel and heartless, and it shows a remarkable lack of perspective on the part of the Department of Justice.

Liberty Bank Robber.jpg

Seen this guy before? The folks at the 7111 W. Foster branch of Liberty Bank for Savings apparently have. The FBI thinks he robbed them back on August 22nd and then again on November 28th, both Mondays.