Unique Preference - Cold Nuisance & Harassment Calls

Unique Preference - Nuisance, Harassment & Phishing Calls

We’ve all received unwanted nuisance, marketing or unwanted sales calls, some probably more than others. Whether you call them cold calls, nuisance calls or in Ofcom’s language “live telesales calls”, the receiving an unwanted telephone call from someone sat in a call centre somewhere to try and sell you something seems to be a fact of life today.
Going back a few years, setting up a call centre operation to make 1000’s of outbound calls was a technically complex and very expensive task; typically involving installation of loads of telephone lines and on-site systems and needing experts from industry suppliers to help make everything work. Although challenging for those wanting to establish such an operation, for the people they were trying to call however it had the distinct advantage of requiring a reasonable degree of investment, expertise and longer term planning. As in telecoms nothing tends to happen quickly, this also tended to mean that calls tended to originate from established or legitimate organisations with a vested interest in adhering to industry guidelines, UK legislation and telecoms regulations to avoid being closed down by industry regulators.

Unfortunately, the rise of internet-based telecoms and the wide availability of affordable telephone systems and associated equipment has removed much of the cost and complexity. It’s also made it possible to call virtually anywhere in the world at exceptionally low cost and removed the geographic link between a phone number and a physical telephone line. Great if you need to setup a business phone system or want to have your New York office receive calls made to a London telephone number, but it’s also made it possible for just about anyone to setup a cheap call centre anywhere in the world and start making calls. Operations seemingly run out of countries with exceptionally low labor costs and often somewhat lax industry regulation are increasingly responsible for many calls being received in the UK.

Ofcom, the UK’s Communications Regulator, have strict guidelines around how organisations may make live telesales calls (calls made by a person rather than an automated recorded message) but it seems that companies operating outside of the country are either not obliged to follow the regulations or simply choose to ignore them.

For example, many households within the UK (including myself) choose to register with the Telephone Preference Service. Being registered is supposed to mean that you should not receive calls from companies who you have not specifically given permission to make marketing calls to you. Companies making live telesales calls are required by legislation to screen their call lists against the TPS and risk enforcement action if they make calls to individuals listed on TPS. Ofcom have some helpful information available around this on their website. TPS is no protection whatsoever however if an organisation either operates somewhere the legislation cannot reach, or simply doesn’t care… Perhaps operating a calling operation from a cheap office - which could literally be anywhere in the world with an Internet connection, yet appear (from the phone number you see when they call) to potentially be based next door. Theoretically, overseas organisations are still supposed to comply with UK legislation - but in practice it’s clear that this isn’t always the case.

Unique Preference - someone must know who they are?

I could go on about this for some time, but instead wanted to focus on one particularly irritating organisation that seems to be in operation at the moment. Calling themselves “Unique Preference”, they seem to have obtained a list of names & phone numbers from somewhere and are persistently calling people trying to extract personal information and phishing for details. They seem to be particularly persistent and appear to believe that if they call you repeatedly (15 calls per day isn’t unheard of) then you’ll eventually give in and answer their questions. The questions start off generic enough but soon seem to start on more sensitive details… How many people in your household, names, dates of birth, bank details, employment details etc.
I wouldn’t like to speculate what they’re intending to use the information for but can’t imagine it’s for anyone’s benefit other than their own!

Calls originate from a number that may look vaguely like a UK number when you glance at it (although usually starting with two extra 00’s) and typically ask for you by name. They’ll quickly reassure you that they’re not trying to sell you anything and will swiftly move on to a “survey”. They tend to hang up as soon as you challenge them, but unfortunately someone else soon calls back to try again.
Needless to say asking to be removed from their list doesn’t work and they evidently ignore TPS so threatening to report them doesn’t help either.

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Please whatever you do, do not provide real information to these people!

The numbers they use seem to be all but random in nature, and unsurprisingly don’t connect you to anything if you call them back. Occasionally they may also appear as an international call, or the number won’t be available - but for some reason they still identify themselves on the call as “Unique Preference”. Perhaps this is some sliver of attempt at being legitimate, but unfortunately nothing else they do helps that particular cause.

Here are a few examples that have called us over the last week.

    • 000199278997
    • 000237882100
    • 001020383989
    • 000138377288
  • 000203883999
  • 005808895391
  • 000208262626
  • 000239772711
  • 003201538352
  • 001662881810
  • 000117931555
  • 003201126222
  • 000153839161
  • 001255100054
  • 003201994456
  • 02068278990
  • 02382997880
  • 02837279980
  • 0001172992890
  • 01739937890
  • 01882229001
  • 01718288891
  • 0001902829981
  • 01902829981
  • 01892822991
  • 0001772820210

Searching for reports online turns up a few more:

  • http://www.tellows.co.uk/num/02379901212
  • http://www.unknownphone.com/search.php?num=01874013013

Do you have your own records of numbers? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add them to the list. It’s probably no use to anyone as they seem to use a different number each time they call but it may be a starting point.

What can we do about them?

Probably not much unfortunately.
Companies operating cold call centres outside of the UK seem to be able to do so without any of the usual safeguards or need to operate lawfully. Apparently, reporting them to the ICO online might help but given that they don’t stick to a few phone numbers, probably don’t operate as a proper business and presumably are based overseas, there’s probably not much the ICO can do.

The calls are also annoyingly difficult to block too. Short of barring any international calls or maybe implementing something sophisticated that needs any incoming call to be from a real phone number before answering, then options tend to be things like screening calls via an answering machine or just not answering.
However, if they continue behaving the same way, not answering just leads to repeated attempts to get you to answer so may make the problem worse.

Think I’ll try and keep them talking next time. Maybe if I waste enough of their time on a call without getting anything useful (or real) they’ll stop calling.. Not too hopeful though :(

Anyone got a better option? Let me know in comments and I’ll add it to the list!!


First look - CamdenGear Vivid XVI LED Bike Light

I don't usually review things, but after receiving a new Camden Gear VIVID XVI
LED Bike Light via Amazon, I thought I'd post a few first thoughts.

I've been looking around for a decent front bike light for a while having been trying to get used to the idea of commuting in the dark through winter, and recently had settled on a Cateye Volt 400 Front Light as the ideal option. The CatEye is rechargeable via USB, runs for ages, and is very bright with a nice wide beam so you can see pretty well on dark country roads.

While browsing around on the web I came across an offer for a discounted Camden Gear light, and with a view to finding a backup light or an alternative to the CatEye, thought I'd buy one.  It's supplied as a 2-light set, including a small LED rear bike light along with the main front light.

The light arrived swiftly, and first impressions are great!

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It's well packaged, and both the packaging and the product exude quality in terms of their construction.

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TSP_2234The body of the light is made from machined metal, and feels very solid and robust to the touch. The single fitting (end cap) fits well, and appears to be sealed against the elements. Always useful in this country! The LED end doesn't appear to be removable but I haven't really investigated yet.

It's described as being "Water / Shower resistant" and being able to "last through tough weather conditions", being made from "military spec" aluminium.

It's not the lightest weight light you'll ever buy but given the robustness seems a reasonable option. Depends on your bike of course but I can't see it's going to cause a problem on my commuter hybrid.

The light itself is devoid of any controls or buttons other than a single button on the end cap which appears to double up as both power button and mode switch (on full, on at lower power & rapid flash).

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The only negative point so far is that the light runs off AA batteries rather than being USB rechargeable, and given how bright it seems to be I'm not entirely sure how long it will run for at maximum brightness.

You install the batteries by unscrewing the end cap, and removing the battery holder. All the components feel robust and well-constructed - and certainly give the impression of being a quality product which will deliver plenty of use.

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The included mount seems pretty solid, and unlike many is nice and simple in terms of attaching the light. I haven't got as far as putting it on a bike yet but I get the impression that it should be able to more than adequately hold the light and keep it pointing at the road - so basics ticked off.

It's certainly nice and bright - and compared to my Cateye Volt 400, seems to be a bit bluer and brighter. Certainly looks perfectly fine for use on the roads and I'm looking forwards to giving it a go.

I am however a little concerned about battery life simply as I'm now more used to just plugging my lights in during the day to recharge - and suspect I will need to get used to the idea of carrying a couple of sets of rechargeable AAs as an insurance policy. When time permits I'll do some tests to try and establish how long it will run for as a benchmark.

TSP_2239

The included rear light seems to be equally well made, and is nice and bright. Works as expected!

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All in all, this seems a great bike light and other than not being rechargeable, comes pretty close to being an excellent option. Will update this once I've had occasion to try it out properly on my bike.

Buy yours from Amazon :)


Canon vs. Olympus vs.. wait.. hold on a minute..

Having spent the last few months getting stuck-into shooting with ultra-compact (compared to my Canon 5d Mark III's) Olympus OM-D cameras and tiny lenses such as the Panasonic-Leica Summilx 15mm, I've kind of had a bit of a rethink on the whole idea.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with Panasonic-Leica Nocticron 42.5mm

I've touched on some of the enormous advantages of the Micro Four Thirds system and Olympus cameras in general in my earlier posts, and on some occasions I also mentioned the challenges that can go with those cameras. I haven't however really gone into any great detail around why those issues present problems from a professional perspective, and more importantly whether that represents a bit of a show stopper in terms of using them.

While there are many aspects of the Olympus E-M1 cameras that I love, and some of the lenses such as the Pana-Leica Nocticron 42.5mm are simply sublime, there are other aspects of the cameras which are somewhat problematic in a professional setting.

First however, I thought it might be useful to touch on a bit of background behind why I'd even started thinking about moving away from Canon.

I've shot with Canon cameras for years. My first Digital SLR was a Canon EOS 10D, primitive as it is now, and over the years I've owned various other Canon dSLRS from consumer and professional lines - culminating in a pair of full frame EOS 5D Mark III's.

As cameras go, these are good and deliver great images day in, day out. They're well-built, reliable, and are a massive leap forwards from the previous EOS 5D Mark II with trustworthy autofocus and much lower noise levels at higher ISO levels.

However, they're also somewhat heavy, often struggle to find focus in lower light, have a relatively limited dynamic range and are exceptionally unforgiving in terms of shadow recoverability and noise.  While as a professional photographer you tend to accept that cameras are going to be heavy, when you're carrying two of them paired with fast lenses around all day, weight is important.

Give them good conditions however and they'll deliver.

OC4C4234.png
Canon EOS 5D Mk III, Sigma 85mm f1.4
Canon EOS 5D Mk III, EF 35mm 1.4L

In less than ideal conditions, when the light disappears or if you want to expose for highlights & recover shadow detail in post production rather than reaching for your lighting equipment, you're rather out of luck.  Autofocus tends to become increasingly unreliable and starts hunting for a fix rather than snapping into focus; noise creeps into everything from large areas of colour through to dark areas of the image - and if you need to push shadows for exposure, you end up with what can only really be described as an unholy mess of unrecoverable colour noise - which the best noise reduction tools on the market sometimes struggle to clean up.

As a result you tend to loose a vast amount of flexibility. You effectively have to get every single frame perfect in camera with correct exposure, and add sufficient light via either artificial lighting or reflectors etc. to sort out your exposure if additional shadow detail is needed. Shooting wedding receptions with off-camera flash or on-camera flash with various diffusers becomes normal. There often isn't an option of only shooting with ambient light simply as you probably wouldn't get the camera to focus reliably without some sort of assisting light, and if you did, unless you were happy with the shot as captured you don't have many options to adjust exposure while editing.

Fixing things in post production isn't often an option - simply as by the time you've pushed the shadows to find some detail, you need to add so much noise reduction processing that there's nothing left of the image to use!

Adding it all up, towards the end of 2015 I reached the conclusion that there really had to be a better option - and started looking for alternatives to my Canon gear. After spending far too much time researching mirrorless systems vs full frame vs crop sensors  and the likes of Olympus vs Fuji or Sony vs Canon, I eventually settled on the idea that moving to Olympus E-M1's was The Way Forwards - and swiftly acquired a pair of OMD E-M1 cameras along with some amazing prime lenses from Panasonic-Leica; the 42.5mm Nocticron  and a 15mm Summilx; roughly equivalent to the much-loved 85mm and 35mm-ish primes I've used for ages on Canon.

The Olympus cameras were like a breath of fresh air. They have an excellent stabilised sensor technology called IBIS which gives you almost magical image stabilisation for any lens, and has usable autofocus to deliver images in the majority of situations. IBIS also lets you change up how you shoot - as it's good enough to let you significantly drop your shutter speeds and ISO levels in dark conditions to get the shot.

Ellie by glowstick
Olympus OM-D E-M1, Nocticron 42.5mm f1.2

This is however just as well, as high ISO images on the E-M1's (well, anything above about ISO 1000 benefits from noise reduction and you really wouldn't want to rely on ISO 3200+) are not particularly clean - requiring either careful black & white treatment or noise reduction in excess of desirable levels.  Sure, you can end up with usable files but only really by sacrificing detail and crispness along the way. The photo above for example was shot at f1.2, 1/80 and only ISO 2000 - but as you can see, it needed a lot of noise reduction in post-production to result in a clean-ish image; clearly visible by the loss of fine detail.

I don't mind this too much for family photos or casual shots, but it's not really an acceptable position for my professional work over on Tim Stephenson Photography. I can't always predict the conditions under which I'm likely to need to shoot, but need my equipment to deliver the best possible images - preferably  without needing to rely on a ton of additional lighting equipment all the time

Don't get me wrong - IBIS is  fantastic piece of technology which I dearly wish was an industry standard. However, its main benefit in lower light is enabling you to drop your shutter speed while maintaining exposure; and therefore letting you shoot at a lower ISO setting than you perhaps would normally be able to do. If however you need to stop motion or are perhaps shooting a moving subject, then slow shutter speeds are not always a viable option - making it less of a usable alternative to solid high ISO performance.

Autofocus performance is also a little less than ideal - under good conditions it locks onto your subject and has a good go at tracking, but if you've got something moving towards or away from the camera, or not much light to play with, then it's not what could be called reliable.

I always tend to try new cameras out on my family before using them for anything important, and coming from fairly robust AF on my Canon's, tracking anything involving movement with the E-M1's (even in broad daylight) was challenging.  Sure, on the whole, AF is definitely usable and single shot AF is nice and quick, anything involving tracking is simply not in the same league as the systems available on DSLRs. Of course you can get good shots, but only if you accept that you're going to need to shoot a few frames, and perhaps work on the basis of predicting movement and relying on the S-AF speed rather than a DSLR-style approach of establishing focus lock and letting the AF system track your subject.

P1163269

So, what next?

Well, as you may be guessing by now, after shooting exclusively with OM-D E-M1's for the last few months, I'm sorry to say that I'm going to switch systems again.  I can't bring myself to go back to Canon simply as the little Olympus system has been delivering more usable images right out of the camera on many occasions - and that wouldn't solve any of my underlying annoyances with Canon around shadow detail and image quality.

With that in mind, I've taken the decision to do something I'm pretty sure I've previously said I'd never do... and switch to Nikon.

imnikon

Through the last week or so, I've been steadily selling my Olympus and remaining Canon gear and have bought a pair of Nikon D750 full-frame dSLRs along with 3 awesome prime lenses - Nikon 35mm 1.4G, 85mm 1.4G and 20mm 1.8G.

The exact quote of my first impression of handling and shooting the D750 isn't repeatable here, but it would suffice to say that I was impressed!

I then shot this, using the other body and a 35 1.4G:

DSC_0061

The image isn't anything special except for being shot in fairly poor light on a D750 with the 35mm 1.4G, at f5.0; 1/25th and ISO 12,800... Yes, that's not a typo (click the image to go to Flickr & check the EXIF if you're still not convinced..)

ISO 12,800!!!

Oh my...

All in all, I think I've finally found the camera system I want to move forwards with - and am now wondering why on earth it's taken me quite so long to get around to switching.

Goodbye Canon, Goodbye Olympus... it was nice knowing you both.

DSC_0010

A few examples...

Hello 2016. Hello Nikon.

new_logo_2015_dk_400px

2016-02-08_0007_tsp
TSP_1567

TSP_1347

DSC_0567

DSC_0545


Olympus OMD E-M1 & MFT lenses - a winning combination!

Ever since first considering the idea of moving away from my Canon 5d Mk3 dSLRs and fast glass to the new world of Olympus & Micro Four Thirds, one slight concern I've had nagging at me was finding an equivalent set of lenses capable of delivering the kind of images I love to create.

On full-frame cameras, shallow depth of field is reasonably easy to achieve. Grab an f1.4 or f1.8 prime lens or decent zoom, & fire away. It's a bit more challenging in the world of MFT, mainly due to smaller imaging sensors and lenses which do not generally use fast glass in the same league as their full-frame equivalents.  I'm not going to get into the detail here as it's an issue that's been discussed on plenty of other websites & blogs over the years - but suffice to say, it takes a bit more effort / thought, and some outstanding glass.

After exploring various options from Olympus in the form of f2.8 PRO zooms, 45mm & 17mm primes, I think I've found a solution - and it comes complete with a strong heritage from Leica, which is a Good Thing in the photographic world! Built by Panasonic with a design under licence from Leica, the Leica DG 42.5mm f1.2 Nocticron MFT lens is a masterpiece.

Olympus OMD E-M1 with Panasonic-Leica Nocticron 42.5mm

Razor sharp wide open, it delivers images packed with rich colours, gorgeous bokeh & bucket loads of contrast. It's a good equivalent to the much-loved Sigma 85 f1.4 that used to be permanently attached to one of my Canon bodies, yet remains reasonably compact despite being one of the heavier lenses available for the platform. Alongside an equally brilliant Olympus 75mm f1.8, this has rapidly become a go-to lens for my E-M1's and can be relied upon to deliver the goods every time it's bought out to play; day or night!

There's a certain look to the images which is simply not replicated by other lenses, except hopefully the Pana-Leica 15mm Summilux (waiting for one to arrive) which should share some of the Nocticron's pedigree. I've heard this described as a "Leica look", but whatever it's called I'm suitably impressed with the results.

A handful of example images are below, and I'm glad I shoot with a pair of E-M1's as this lens rarely comes off one of the bodies!

P1202185

P1201598

P1201754

PA290462

Until the 15mm Summilux arrives, my other key lens for portrait type work has to be the Olympus 75mm f1.8. Offering a 35mm equivalent focal length in much the same ballpark as the incredible Canon 135L f2.0, this lens is another jewel in the MFT line up. Again, it's sharp & contrasty with suitably fast autofocus - and there's something a little extra-special about the 135-150 focal length that can help make images "pop".

P2290796

P2290739

All in all, as MFT photographers we're somewhat spoiled by the excellent lenses available. They're all generally physically small & reasonably lightweight, yet can happily hold their own against some of the most respected glass available on other platforms.

So far, it seems to be a reasonably robust winning combination!


Canon vs Olympus - a very quick update

If you saw my previous posts around switching from Canon to Olympus cameras, or maybe my first few trial shots with a Panasonic Lumix GX7, well I have some news for you...

After a very enjoyable trial, I've all but decided to switch wholesale from shooting with Canon dSLRs to an awesome pair of Olympus OM-D EM-1 mirrorless cameras.  I've not yet parted with my Canon gear, but however none of it has  been out of the bag since my E-M1's arrived.

Unlike my Canons, the E-M1's are surprisingly lightweight and compact, yet can deliver excellent image quality through a comprehensive line up of razor sharp lenses. I already have a couple of favourite chunks of glass - an unbelievably sharp and gorgeous Panasonic-Leica 42.5mm f1.2 Nocticron, and the excellent Olympus 75mm f1.8 prime.

I'll write more soon around the awesome lenses available for Micro Four Thirds, but for now will leave you with a handful of examples... There will soon be many more E-M1 galleries over on timstephensonphotography.co.uk :)

P2290796 P2291018-Edit-Edit P2111570PA250244 PA250302 PA250311

The absolute best bit however is that the gear is so ultra compact, lightweight and superbly portable. Quite a nice change to be able to fit 2 camera bodies (with grips) along with a full lens lineup including a couple of f2.8 Pro zooms (12-40mm and 40-15mm), 17mm, 42.5mm & 75mm primes and a simple flash all in a smallish bag (ThinkTank Photo Retrospective 7) :)IMG_6819


Could this be goodbye Canon, and hello Olympus?

So, with a Lumix GX7 along for the ride for my last wedding delivering some incredible stuff, I've kind of taken a bit of a dive into the new world of Micro Four Thirds; picking up a "proper" camera for testing...

Introducing the Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus OM-D E-M1 on ice

Unlike the somewhat sedate GX7, the E-M1 is a full-on; stupendously fast professional-grade camera. Capable of shooting RAW/JPG at a machine-gun-esque 10+ fps with a buffer deep enough for 45-50 frames, it runs rings around many similar cameras - including many pro-grade DSLRs.  It's also fully weather sealed, and can be used (with the right lenses) during anything from sub-zero temperatures, to a sunny day and onto the depths of a tropical monsoon.  Olympus seem fond of advertising the camera in various positions from looking suitably drenched, through to on ice... Should be perfect for the somewhat varied conditions so often encountered while shooting during the "great British summer" then!

Specs can be found here, and I'm not planning on writing a review as the camera's been available for some time now and there are plenty of other technical reviews on the web.

I've not had much time to do anything with it yet other than a few random shots of my son & daughter (along with some Canon flash equipment I'm looking to sell), but wow..

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I'm impressed!

Most of these were shot with either an Olympus 17mm or 45mm prime, 34mm & 90mm equivalents in the full-frame world. Both are sharp & fast lenses which focus as quick as anything in Canon's lineup - yet are a fraction the size & weight.

First thoughts are that the camera looks the part, and delivers performance and image quality that's right up-there with what I'm used to getting from my 5D Mk3's.  Its raw files are clean and very flexible in terms of post-processing, with little noise until you reach higher ISOs. Even then, there's plenty of detail left in the image with loads of scope for adjustment as needed.  The camera's performance is sublime.. and it's a pleasure to use.  I have however also ordered the optional Olympus grip, as I could do with the body being a shade taller than it is.

Next steps I think are to go shoot as much as I can with the E-M1, and try and resist buying either more lenses (those 2 x Olympus f2.8 PRO zoom lenses and the super-fast 43.5mm Nocticron look particularly outstanding!) or a second body for a few days...

Oh, I need to make a decision at some point too!


Micro Four Thirds - tentative first steps with a Panasonic Lumix GX7

After years of shooting with "proper" full-frame DSLR kit such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark 3, and amassing a collection of various EF lenses tailored around my needs, I think the time might have come for a change.

Full frame cameras have traditionally represented the pinnacle of photographic equipment. Outstanding image quality, great performance in terms of shooting speed / reliable focusing systems, and sheer flexibility through enabling access to a massive collection of lenses.

In the perhaps 11 or 12+ years I've been shooting with digital SLRs, I've only ever used Canon equipment.. Not necessarily because it's been the best available, but mainly because having invested into Canon (EF) fit lenses, switching to another system would have been somewhat expensive.  If memory serves correctly, my first DSLR was a Canon EOS 10D; rocking a whole 6.3Mpx with an APS-C size sensor. From there, and after various other bodies along the way, I currently shoot with a pair of Canon EOS 5D Mk3 full-frame DSLRs.

Along the way my lens collection has continued to grow, taking advantage of the standardised EF lens mount and working on the basis that even the first lenses I bought for use with my 10D are still perfectly fine to use today with my 5D Mk3's.

ijMQgbDmLShooting full frame cameras has many advantages, but also comes with its own set of significant disadvantages. Full frame sensors are fairly large, meaning that the corresponding full frame camera bodies are necessarily reasonably big and heavy to house the sensor along with necessary other optics such as the pentaprisms & mirrors necessary to support the large viewfinders. Full frame sensors also need suitable lenses, and to get the best results I've tended to gravitate towards Canon's professional L glass - with brighter maximum apertures and fast focusing mechanisms. Unfortunately  this also means that lenses are physically large and heavy - simply because they need large diameter glass elements in-order to deliver plenty of light to the sensor while remaining sharp & bright throughout their range.

The size and weight of the equipment isn't really an issue if you only occasionally pick up a camera, but does become more of a problem when you're carrying 2 FF bodies & lenses for an all-day wedding or shooting anything which requires you to be on the move (with your equipment) for an extended period of time.  Sure, you can mitigate this using solutions like the excellent SpiderHolster belt system or any of the various dual-camera strap systems - but ultimately, you still end up very aware that you've been carrying around 2 cameras.

The net result of this also tends to be that over time, my DSLR equipment has tended to remain in its bag unless being used for work; with the majority of home & family photos being captured using my iPhone's camera.. on the basis that toting a DSLR around the house isn't something that is overly practical unless you've set out with the intention of shooting some photos.

iPhone-5-CameraAlthough phone cameras are far from terrible on the latest handsets, they obviously still leave much to be desired in terms of delivering great image quality and the gorgeous images you can only really achieve with a larger imaging sensor and fast lenses. Funnily enough, when you scale everything down to the size of a phone camera a few sacrifices & compromises have to be made along the way.

For a long time now I've been searching for a smaller and more lightweight camera system which was still capable of delivering great looking images - initially with the intention of using it for casual photography rather than my phone. Based on my collection of Canon gear, when Canon launched their first generation EOS M mirrorless body I was initially quite excited to get my hands on one - with high hopes that it was as good as claimed, delivering excellent imaging quality along with robust fast shooting performance. In all fairness, under perfect conditions, it delivered great images and shipped with a sharp & compact 22mm prime lens. However, it all fell somewhat apart when attempting to shoot something which was moving with hopeless autofocus and extremely sluggish performance in general. After getting frustrated on nearly every occasion while attempting to use it, I eventually abandoned the concept and returned to using my phone.

So, what next?

c_mft_logo_vi_01Although my abortive attempt to use Canon's mirrorless system failed spectacularly in terms of solving the problem, it had however given me a taste of what is achievable with small mirrorless cameras. As such, I refocused my efforts on looking for an alternative and after spending far too much time examining sample images & reading reviews settled on the exceptionally popular Micro Four Thirds system (MFT).

The MFT concept and platform is discussed in great depth all over the web, so I'm going to refrain from going into any detail here but suffice to explain that MFT is a specification, which sets out from the start to describe how to build a compact mirrorless camera orientated specifically for high-quality digital imaging.  The standard is also brand-agnostic - and any MFT mount lens can be used with any MFT mount body.  Canon and Nikon have their own flavours of specification based largely around scaling down their traditional full-frame mounts, but don't share MFT's goals of cross-brand compatibility & highly compact camera bodies & lenses.

To test the waters, I bought a Panasonic Lumix GX7 body along with a couple of prime lenses; a Panasonic 20mm 1.7 & Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm 1.8.  The GX7 isn't a particularly new MFT body, but is a very compact one that seems to be capable of delivering high-quality images; making it a reasonably good test case to start exploring what is and isn't possible with the system.

Having owned the camera for about 24h, I took it & the Oly 45mm with me to shoot a wedding - not necessarily with a view to capturing anything useful with it, but to give it a go under reasonably challenging conditions.

I have to admit to being exceptionally surprised at the results!  Given the GX7 isn't what could be described as a professional body, it performed admirably well - locking focus quickly even in challenging lighting, and delivering crisp clean images which could be easily manipulated in post-production. The tiny Olympus M.Zuiko 45mm is also a gem of a lens offering a 35mm equivalent focal length of 90mm. As I would normally shoot with either a 35mm or 85mm full-frame lens, 90mm is a little longer than I'm used to - but it didn't take long to get used to it. The 45mm is tack-sharp wide open, focuses at about the same speed as my expensive Canon L lenses, offers a bright maximum aperture of f1.8 (which is usable at f1.8), is ultra compact... and extremely inexpensive compared to full-frame alternatives! All in all, a good option to start experimenting with the system.

Lumix GX7

I ended up including quite a few images from the GX7 & 45mm in the finished photo galleries, and when presented in web galleries and slideshows I can't easily tell the difference between them and frames from my 5D Mk3's  Needless to say, it's opened my eyes to the potential of this format and has also opened the door to a concept I hadn't been considering... Can a MFT system replace my go-to Canon 5D Mk3's & L glass?  P1010721

Looking promising...

P1010626  I think the answer to that question could well be yes... P1030152

I'm very happy with the images this little tiny MFT setup can produce. They're packed with detail, have great dynamic range with bucket loads of colour and contrast; and what noise there is seems to be easily managed and quite pleasing to the eye.

The only downside is that I'm far from happy with the GX7 as a professional's tool. It's perfect for a casual or walkaround camera, or carrying in addition to other equipment - but unsurprisingly is not designed or intended to have the ultra-quick auto focus and crazy-fast responsiveness that I'm used to with my 5D Mk3's.  I wasn't really expecting it to be, as it's not aimed at a professional market. It's a great camera, just not quite in the right league in terms of specs.

So, what next? Well, my first stop is to find a MFT camera body that can deliver on image quality AND has the robustness / professional specs I need.

At the moment, Olympus's OM-D line of cameras stands out as potential contenders given their robust construction, high quality imaging sensors, and outstanding image stabilisers. Of these, the E-M1 looks like it might be a winner... especially with the backing of Olympus's professional-grade Service Plus support service, just in case something goes wrong and needs fixing in a hurry.

Olympus OM-D E-M1 on ice

 

 


Revisiting the EOS M - time to move on?

As may well be obvious from some of the posts on this site, I have a serious interest in photography - and run a successful professional photographic business covering wedding, lifestyle / family & commercial photography.  Going right back to my first "serious" digital camera, I've always been shooting with Canon equipment - diving in with the [awesome at the time] EOS 10D dSLR, rocking a whole 6.3Mpix.

Fortunately the world has moved on somewhat from those days, and my current equipment bag contains a pair of EOS 5DMk3 dSLRs along with a collection of Canon & Sigma glass.   However, the interesting bit here is that as both the EOS 10D & EOS 5DMk3 camera bodies share Canon's standard EF lens mount - meaning that despite upgrading cameras throughout the years, one of the first lenses I bought to shoot with the 10D (a Canon 17-40 f4 zoom) works perfectly well with the 5DMk3.

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When Canon finally managed to release what seemed to be a reasonable attempt at a compact mirrorless camera, it's was this rich ecosystem and incredible long-standing heritage which compelled me to buy into the EOS M concept; diving in with the EOS M body and a couple of the new EOS-M specific lenses.  While the camera undeniably delivered on its promises of great image quality and an ability to use the full EF lens line up through use of an EF to M mount adapter, there wasn't really any getting away from its main and somewhat fundamental shortcoming; poor camera performance and abysmal autofocus.

I essentially put up with the issues for a while, perhaps more through a set of blinkers imposed from having bought into the M system with high expectations, but after maybe 5 months found I was simply using the EOS M less and less.  Every time I tried to use the camera to shoot something which moved, I ended up getting annoyed and frustrated at its inability to focus reliably - and more often than not, reached for my iPhone rather than the M.  Inevitably the M ended up living in the back of a cupboard and in the last couple of weeks, has finally been sold.

EOS-M3-body-FRONT-650-80

As a photographer somewhat invested in Canon, I was watching with interest when Canon launched their comeback mirrorless body; an updated 24Mpx EOS M called the M3.  On paper this looks great - a decent combination of features ranging from a brilliant image sensor & articulated touchscreen through to fast shooting performance and best of all - an new generation autofocus system.   It's a nice looking camera too - sensibly positioned controls, a good size for photographers used to wielding more substantial cameras; and of course is still able to mount any EF lens in the range.

However, once burnt I was in no hurry to jump onto the M bandwagon again - and instead sat back and waited for reviews to start rolling in. Unfortunately, it didn't take too long for this to happen... with complaints starting to stack up around much the same set of issues which plagued the mk 1 M.  Early adopters are once again reporting problems with sluggish performance, slow shooting speeds, noisy images at higher ISO levels - and once again; slow and unreliable autofocus.

Autofocus on the M3 does seem to be improved from the M1, but in all honesty that wouldn't have been overly difficult to do.  That said, if you look at any of the multitude of videos shot by new M3 owners who look to be wanting to prove how "good" the M3's focus is now, it still seems to leave so much to be desired.

For example, this guy seems quite impressed by the speed the M3 manages to re-focus...

To me however, used to shooting dSLRs with properly fast & reliable focus, that still seems atrociously slow.

Yes, it's faster than the original M would have ever managed to focus on something - but it's still worlds away from any decent dSLR or perhaps more importantly, similarly priced competing mirrorless cameras (such as Panasonic's Lumix GX7).  I've yet to see a video where someone tries to get the M3 focusing on something that moves - but would imagine that would be an equally disappointing experience.

In a similar vein to what happened with the M and limited-release M2, there are long lists of issues on various forums and review sites which dive into great detail - with threads such as these popping up all over the place:

  • EOS-M3 reportedly slower with EF lenses (in relation to Auto-focus) than the EOS-M1
  • EOS-M3 wont engage the Auto Focus function with a specific Tamron lens (150-600mm). This issue has now been identified by Tamron and is subject to an investigation.
    EOS-M3 auto-focus Assist Lamp switching on all the time when an external flash is attached. The AF light is said to remain 'ON' even when turned 'OFF' in the M3 menu.
  • EOS-M3 won't work at all with the popular Yongnuo external flashes.
  • EOS-M3 won't turn off Image Stabilizer on IS Lenses... even when the camera is in "playback/review mode". Since image stabilization is known to aggressively deplete battery power, this has the secondary effect of reducing battery life on the EOS-M3.
  • EOS-M3 reported by one member to shut down repeatedly, even with a well charged battery. After shutting down and refusing to turn on again more than 5 times, the member was forced to use his DSLR to capture his shots.
  • EOS-M3 AE Lock button reportedly not working unless you use both hands and hold both the shutter down and the AE Lock button together and keep the AE Lock button depressed continuously.
  • EOS-M3 won't retain the "Magnify Feature" when using Auto-Focus. It immediately switches from "Magnify" to Wide as soon as the Shutter Button is partway depressed. (this does not occur with Manual Focus)
  • ... and many more

And, it's a great shame, to be honest.

The M line has such massive potential here - with an enormous base of Canon users globally who, like me, are looking for a great but more compact camera which delivers image quality comparable to their professional dSLR kit.  I for one would have happily bought back into the M3. I'd love to have a compact mirrorless camera in my kit bag for those occasions when I don't want to carry around my 5D Mk3's and prime glass - but do still want to be able to shoot with something better than a phone camera.

I'm now looking at other options as the need/desire for a compact but good performing camera hasn't evaporated; and have just dipped my toe into the seemingly unstoppable Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camp with a Lumix GX7.

That's going to have to be another post, but it would suffice to say that starting to use the GX7 has absolutely confirmed in my mind just how far behind the competition Canon are in the mirrorless space by launching the M3.  

I took the GX7 and a tiny 45mm f1.8 (!!) prime lens along to a recent wedding as an experiment (shooting alongside my 5DMk3's) - and am astounded at the image quality and performance delivered by the tiny little camera... to the point that I'm going to have to consider taking MFT more seriously in the future, along with taking a long hard look at the awesome Olympus OMD E-M1 & E-M5 bodies for my professional work. 


"You're on a business park in a beautiful location AND need fast internet access?"

On joining Allies Computing to head up our DevOps team, it didn't take long to realise that there's a downside to being based in a converted barn located on an attractive rural Norfolk business park: exceptionally slow internet connectivity.

As a company offering software and service solutions, having internet access is vital to the business. We obviously need all the basics such as working email, telephony and access to the web for customer support; but also need to regularly upload and download reasonably large data files along with packaged builds of our applications.   All of our customer-facing services are delivered from the Cloud, so we're not trying to host anything locally etc. but slow connectivity is a major cause of delays to many things we do.

For a bit of background, we're based on the Manor Farm Barns business park; located in the beautiful Norfolk village of Framingham Pigot around 4-5 miles outside of Norwich.  Our site is surrounded by trees and fields, and we share the grounds with the multi-award winning restaurant & wedding/event venue, Brasteds.

Typical SpeedTest.net result

The idyllic location does however come at a cost in terms of exceptionally limited available services for (affordable) fast internet connectivity. For many years now, our office's needs have been served by a single ADSL broadband line; delivering roughly 6-7Mb/s downstream and a paltry 0.7Mb/s upstream bandwidth. Although this kind of bandwidth is probably sufficient for a office with a few people browsing the web, it's far from ideal when you have a team of people trying to maintain remotely-hosted services and deliver large data files to customers. It's even more annoying when the surrounding villages have nearly all had their infrastructure upgraded to support FTTC with connections routinely delivering 35Mb/s downstream and 7-10Mb/s upstream.

One of my priorities over the last few months has been to investigate what options may or may not be open to us to solve this problem - examining everything from whether our local telephone exchange & cabinet infrastructure is ever likely to be upgraded to offer "superfast broadband" / FTTC through to bonded solutions running over multiple ADSL lines and gold-standard solutions such as commissioning a dedicated fibre-optic leased line.

Fibre to Cabinet, BasingstokePerhaps unsurprisingly, we were soon able to rule out mainstream options such as upgrading to FTTC broadband (or even ADSL2+ for that matter) for the foreseeable future as the equipment serving our location is not likely to be upgraded for a good few years.  Attention then switched to the more exotic forms of connectivity - including multi-line ADSL bonds and fibre leased lines. With previous experience of bonding ADSL connections, this wasn't really a route we wanted to go - especially as in the future we're keen to also move away from our ISDN30 telephone services; and running SIP for voice over bonded broadband connections doesn't usually tend to work particularly well.

Keeping ADSL bonding in reserve we started to investigate the costs around commissioning a fibre leased line; potentially also installing some sort of site-wide wireless network to share the line & therefore its costs between all businesses on-site.

If you've never been involved in commissioning a leased line, as an exceptionally brief primer, the cost side of these tends to be a blend of vendor-quoted service install & rental charges along with costs known as "Excess Construction Charges" (ECC's) which are quoted for after you place an order. Whereas setup fees typically incorporate the cost of any CPE network termination equipment & engineer time to connect things up,  ECC's tend to represent the true cost of physically installing your new connection - digging any necessary trenches, running ducting, pulling fibre, engineering crews, cable jointing and the like.

Essentially, the further you are away from existing network infrastructure operated by your selected vendor, the higher the ECC bill is likely to be as there will be more engineering effort involved in extending the vendor's network to your premises.

optic

The slightly bizarre concept is that it's not possible to get a complete quotation for a leased line, including setup / rental & ECCs without placing an order for the leased line. Vendors will quote all sorts of variations around monthly service rental charges & setup costs ranging wildly from £0 through to many £1000's, but none of these are really meaningful until you also have an understanding of whether your new £0 setup connection will also require £10k worth of ECCs to get it to your door.

The way this works is that on receipt of an order, a survey will be conducted to assess the required work and raise a price for the ECCs that particular connection will incur. This quote does come with a silver lining however in that customers have the right to cancel an order if ECCs would be payable but means that ordering a connection can normally be a lengthy process drawn out over several months from start to finish.

After many conversations with telecoms providers of all shapes & sizes, it soon became apparent that we were a long way away from any established infrastructure belonging to a major vendor and with ECC's anticipated in the ballpark of £80,000 on the table we were effectively back to the drawing board in terms of finding a solution.

At this point, we were basically down to three options:

  1. Stick with ADSL, eg. do nothing.
  2. Accept the downsides and implement bonded ADSL.
  3. Come up with another option!

We didn't really want to go with Option 1 as that slightly defeated the point, and also scuppered plans to adopt more cloud-hosted services and migrate away from on-premise Exchange etc.

Option 2 was likely to be an expensive way of making a bad situation a little bit better (ultimately, you need a lot of 0.7Mb/s ADSL lines to get a sensible amount of bandwidth) but is reasonably simple and easy to implement.

Which left Option 3.

This post is part 1 of several...to be continued!

 


Just finished my first ever week of commuting by bike!!

Well, that's a title I had never imagined I would have been in a position to write.

After years of avoiding getting on a bike with only occasional exceptions being made for holidays or exercising at the gym, I think I've been somewhat bitten by the proverbial cycling bug.

Starting with the purchase of my first new bike (a £200 Raleigh Edale "Hybrid") in many, many years back in April, I had a vague idea in the back of my mind that one day I might start cycling more regularly.   I didn't realise it at the time, but had already made the first mistake that would come back to bite - buying a cheap bike from Halfords.

IMG_5059

It was, however, a bike - complete with 2 wheels, pedals, saddle & handlebars; which served a purpose in terms of getting me onto 2 wheels and starting to cycle around.  In the first week I owned it, I pushed the boat out and cycled from Brooke to Poringland to pop to the local shop.  Think I managed the 6 miles in something around half an hour - not the most amazing effort by all accounts, but a start none-the-less.

After that, cycling kind of went by the wayside for a couple of weeks until we spent a week at CenterParcs, complete with bikes.  It didn't take long to establish that cycling was actually a relatively enjoyable activity - even if it did take me an hour to cover 8.3 miles of relatively flat, traffic-free roads!

2015-07-10_19-33-15

 

From there, the miles slowly started to ramp up. 4 miles the first week, 14-15 the next two, and 33 the week after that.  Unfortunately, it also cemented the realisation that if this was going to be a serious thing, I was going to need a better bike. The Raleigh Edale was woefully under-geared for anything other than sedate trundling along relatively flat roads. Add in a hill, or a desire to go a bit quicker without spinning out, and the Raleigh was just not up to the task.

After way too much time researching manufacturers, models, gears, chainsets & the relative benefits of disc brakes vs V vs whatever-else-is-available, I eventually decided upon a Scott Sportster 20 and quickly placed an order online through Wheelies.co.uk before I could change my mind again.

The Sportster is a 30-speed hybrid bike kitted out with Shimano Deore derailleurs, hydraulic disc brakes, 48x36x26 chain rings & an 11-32 cassette. It's also got a great set of Schwalbe tyres which are ideal for commuting and should hopefully be reasonably resistant to punctures.

 

ScottSportster20

What can I say.... Wow! The difference is a little like night vs day. Other than the slight shock when it was delivered in a ridiculously large box (perfectly setup & ready to ride bar adjusting saddle height & straightening the handlebars!) the bike's amazing.

It's got a decent top gear meaning I can stop spinning out and get up to some reasonable speeds, and at the other extreme the lower gear ranges mean I've now got a chance of actually getting to the top of some of the hills in our allegedly flat county of Norfolk.

The higher-end Shimano Deore components are a world apart from the bottom-rung parts on the Raleigh Edale - shifting gears is precise and reliable, and the hydraulic disc brakes have awesome braking power - regardless of whether its wet or dry.

All in all, the bike is awesome - and is the first proper bike I've owned. Definitely a case of so far, so good, and the hybrid style seems to suit both the idea of racking up the miles and comfortable, quick, commuting.

I've been working on steadily increasing my mileage each week, culminating in taking the leap into commuting to work by bike this week (after a surprisingly pleasant 20 mile ride Sunday).

2015-07-10_21-23-27

So far so good!

The week came as a bit of a shock to the legs, as although I've happily been cycling 8-20 miles each time I've been out, this is the first time I've been cycling 9 miles a day... every day.

That said, with a concerted effort to vary intensity and effort each day, and a degree of acceptance that sometimes making it up a hill may involve a lower gear & spinning (rather than speed!), I was quite astounded to find that I've made it to Friday without resorting to taking the car once.

I'm planning on taking Saturday off for a rest (and should probably check the bike over / pump tyres etc), but am hoping to find time Sunday for another 20+ mile amble.  All in all, I think I'm starting to be converted to the joys of cycling!

Haven't quite made it as far as padded chamois shorts or lycra yet however... All in good time.

If you've made it this far, congrats on sticking with it (and thanks)... and you can find out whether I'm still cycling by following me on Strava :)

Don't know what if anything I'll write about, but I've even added a quick Cycling category to the blog...!


Email scams continue - PayPal

Received a strange email from PayPal?

Might be an obvious statement if you’re comfortable with technology, but PLEASE don’t follow the instructions.

As an exercise in gathering information, we did.

It all starts with an email, claiming to be sent from PayPal. If you don’t get many PayPal emails, unfortunately these look pretty genuine and are marked up as being sent from your email address - so at first glance it looks familiar.

2015-06-06_20-13-41

The lack of any personalised information (such as your name!) is a giveaway though, as PayPal and most other large scale services usually incorporate enough personal information in emails to demonstrate that they’re genuine (and have access to your account details).

Clicking through from the email takes you to another pretty genuine looking page, but the simplest check of verifying what your browser states in its address bar would be enough to stop this scam in its tracks. Scam sites are often also littered with typos, or phrases that don't seem right - treat these as the warning signs that they are!

2015-06-06_20-11-29

An email from PayPal would normally be taking you to a PayPal website - not some other random web address such as http://usinagesm.com/processing-do-not-close-thanks-for-advance/paypal/update/

It might mention PayPal, but clearly this isn’t a PayPal.com address. It’s also not a secure site (no HTTPS or SSL) so your browser won’t be displaying a padlock icon or indicating that it’s a verified web site. Again, simple things to check that can prevent a scam from succeeding.

Putting any text with an @ symbol in the email box results in you “logging in” to an account area, which if you don’t use PayPal on a regular basis again looks relatively genuine.
2015-06-06_20-13-10

Surely by now however you’d have to be thinking something like “why do I need to enter all my details again”? If not… step away from the browser!!

Would imagine that the scammers behind this particular email are happily filling away lots of account and personal information from unsuspecting victims…

PLEASE don’t fall for it - and question anything which asks you for lots of detail that a service should really already have on file.

 


Smart watches & wearables - what's all the fuss about?

As someone who has a vested interest in technology, it may be a surprise to hear I’ve been sat firmly on the sidelines of the whole smart watch / wearable “scene” for some time now.

I’ve been watching the emergence of the current crop of Android-powered smart watches with little more than conceptual interest - primarily because I’m too committed to the iOS platform to contemplate switching to Android, and secondly because the devices have just well, not appealed.

It’s definitely been an interesting exercise though. A few friends have acquired various Android Wear-powered devices which looked briefly intriguing.. until it became apparent that they weren’t a whole lot of use unless you were otherwise bought-in to Google’s ecosystem. Devices have also generally looked like, well, devices. Early smart watches have generally taken the form of oversized, angular & featureless black boxes, with equally featureless straps. Compared to normal watches, many of them have had much more in common (visually at any rate!) with classic Casio calculator watches dating from the 1980’s or those early Seiko UC-3000 "Data Bank” watches, which you can only really consider as retro these days.

Seiko UC-3000

Perhaps somewhat ironically, I owned a UC-3000 Data Bank & its associated keyboard for a few years somewhere around 1992 and have a vague recollection of it being completely useless at anything even remotely resembling “computing” as we would know it today. It told the time, and if you were really lucky, might have been able to recall some data tediously typed into it using the tiny rubber keys on the included docking station / keyboard.

Fortunately, the world has moved on somewhat.

Today’s wearables have been steadily heading towards the point of becoming useful additions to your life. From single-purpose fitness trackers to powerful smart watches, it’s not a million miles away from normal for someone to have some sort of device sat alongside their watch or clipped onto a belt.

Smart watches, as a class of device, is where it gets really quite interesting. With one device you can monitor your fitness & track activity (eliminating a whole other class of pedometers, heart-beat trackers, GPS ride loggers / cycle computers etc); help manage the continual stream of notifications that seems to come with a busy mailbox, packed diary & social media… and tell the time.

That’s all before you get to apps. Much the same as the plethora of phone & tablet apps available now, there’s a swiftly growing volume of watch apps to explore of all shapes and sizes. Practically every category of app is represented to some degree - some more successfully than others mind. A far cry from the UC-3000 days of simple text entry and time telling! Battery life isn’t quite so good however, but that’ll improve over time.

There’s a whole separate debate to be had around whether having an app accessible on your wrist is better than needing to fish your phone out of your pocket - but I for one reckon that eliminating the need to find your phone to see what’s next in your diary or check who’s just messaged you has to be a Good Thing.

Over the months ahead, I think we’re going to see a step-change in what’s considered “acceptable” in terms of people using wearables. By this, I mean that we’re not too far away from not giving someone checking their watch to pickup an email or answer a phone call a second glance. At the moment it’s all still a bit new unless you’re part of the wearable crowd - but that’ll change. Already it’s perfectly routine to see people you might otherwise consider technophobes wearing bracelet-style fitness tracking devices - Fitbits and the like - often with data from these devices being shared with friends on Facebook or used to participate in competitions to see who can log the most steps etc.

Is it really that much of a leap to regard a smart watch as a perfectly normal timepiece, which just happens to also be able to navigate you home, unlock your car or tell you what the weather might be about to do?

screenshot-2014-09-15-14-29-49

From my point of view, the tipping point was the launch of the Apple Watch. Being bought-in to the Apple ecosystem and pretty committed to iOS through investment in apps etc, the Apple Watch is a much more interesting device to me than anything running Android Wear. They also look and feel like watches with a genuine degree of craftsmanship involved in their production - rather than being plasticky chunks of technology masquerading as a watch.

Are they perfect? Of course not.

Is that going to stop me considering using one? We’ll see…


A new dimension to website CSS?

Looking around for something new to add to one of our websites, I stumbled across a new technology being promoted by the leading address specialist, Allies Computing.

Following significant research & development throughout the last few years, Allies have just released an extension to the industry standard CSS style language which allows CSS to extend beyond the digital page.

Traditionally, Cascading Style Sheets or CSS is a web technology that is used exclusively to present content on web pages; typically applying styling to all elements of the page from text to images so that web designers & developers can build pages that look as they desire. Despite the power and flexibility of this technology however, it has historically been limited to controlling only what you are able to see on the screen.

This all changes. Today.

With Allies' launch of a new "CSS Fragrances" extension, web developers now have a beautifully simple way to add scents and smells to web pages; building on the established CSS technology to make integration exceptionally easy.

By adding nothing more than a couple of lines of code and loading the new extension, you can ensure that visitors to your website are able to experience the smells you want to accompany your webpage.

Allies Customer Experience Designer, Stephen Keable is quoted as saying "This is a huge step forward for web developers" and Allies CEO, Dan Cooper commented that "CSS Fragrances is a great project we have been working on for some time now. To be able to excite the olfactory senses of website users across the globe represents another epoch moment for Allies."

At launch, CSS Fragrances is available for free to any developer globally to use with 15 standard odours ready for use. Many more smells are under development, with Allies planning to release another 15 distinct fragrances every month throughout 2015 and beyond.

An API is also in the works apparently to enable brave developers to start creating their own smells by Autumn 2015, although this is expected to require use of some specialised sensory and aroma analysis equipment to properly break your desired target smell down into a compatible set of CSSF rules.

There's a simple set of instructions to get started with over at http://fragrances.alliescomputing.com/ - 3 steps is all it seems to take to get up and running with Fragrances!

Allies_CSSF_steps

The initial 15 scents available at launch are detailed over at Allies Fragrances and include sure-to-be-popular fragrances such as Coffee, Wine, Beer, Wet Dog, Sea Air, City Traffic, Cut Grass, Choclate, Roses & Petrol.  An interesting combination, and I'm sure you'd be able to build your own custom combinations from these basics.

Allies are also in discussion with Google about looking to hook into AromaBase, which was originally developed for the now defunct Google Nose product line prior to the meteoritic release of its companion product, Google Eye (renamed shortly after launch).

Published 1st April, 2015


Flushing your central heating system - simple & something you really should do!

If you have a gravity fed, open-vented heating system with a feed & expansion tank located in your loft, flushing the system is a simple but effective way to potentially increase its efficiency, maybe lower your running costs & improve the system's lifetime. It's also useful to flush the system if you're looking at replacing radiators or making major pipework changes - not much point in replacing dirty radiators with new if you don't clean the system.

Pressurised systems require extra steps and can be more difficult - do not use the instructions below as for a start, you won't have a F&E tank to work with.

Over time & with normal usage, all heating systems build up a degree of "sludge" (iron oxide & dirt from water), which can restrict water circulation and cause your system to become more inefficient over time. Symptoms of a sludged system can include being slow to heat up, uneven heating of radiators, black or very dirty water when bleeding radiators along with many more issues. It can also accelerate failure of key system components such as pumps; simply because they have to work harder than they should to move the water around the system's pipework.

The most heavily affected systems might require more serious intervention/treatment in the form of a "power flush" (a process which essentially force-circulates water & cleaning chemicals around the system with more force than is possible via other means) but for many other systems, a DIY flush may be sufficient to keep everything running in top condition.

There are many guides already available on the web that cover heating flushes in great detail, so I'm not going to go into much depth in this post. I have however summarised a few key steps below so that there's hopefully enough detail for you to work out if this is something you're confident to undertake and get you started.

Before you start, check that you have:

  • Access to the system's F&E tank, and the ability to control water flow into the tank.
  • Access to a foul water drain (or toilet) within hosepipe reach of the F&E tank and a convenient drain point.
  • Access to a drain point/valve on your heating system
  • Sufficient length of garden hosepipe or similar to reach from the F&E tank to the nearby drain/toilet, and from the system drain point to a drain/toilet. These won't be needed at the same time, so the same length of hose might be usable for both.

You will also need to buy:

Cleaning the system is a three step process (unless you're powerflushing), as you need to flush & fill the system with the cleaning product; leave everything to circulate for a while and then flush/refill. It can take some time to carry out each flush/fill cycle depending on the size of your system, so ensure you have plenty of time and won't need to abandon the job part-way through.
The ideal moment to start this process would be probably be if you needed to take a radiator off for any reason or otherwise needed to drain the system down - as this would effectively empty out whatever's currently in the system leaving it clear for you to introduce the cleaning products.

Assuming you're not doing any other work on the system and that it's currently full of water / working normally, we will need to drain/flush it through with clean water to clean out as much of the current sludge / dirty water as we can to start with. There's not much point adding cleaning product to system full of dirty water as this will limit the product's potential and will just mean that the process is not as efficient or as useful as it could otherwise be.

First things first - get a clean start

Before doing anything else however, go and have a look in the system's Feed & Expansion (F&E) tank. If you've never properly flushed the system or cleaned the tank, I'd imagine you'll find that it's full of sludge. This usually takes the form of brown gunk on the tank's walls, and can look like a thick layer of sand all over the tank's base.

As a quick example of what you may be looking at, I don't think our system's F&E tank has never been properly cleaned out - despite all the work and changes that have been made to our system over the years since buying the property. At a rough guess, this is what the tank can look like after 20+ years of inattention...

It's important if this is the case for your system to take the time now to clean out the F&E tank, removing the sludge BEFORE starting to drain down or flush the system. Otherwise, all you'll do is disturb the gunk in your F&E tank by the act of it automatically refilling as its water level reduces; caused of course by the now dirty water being drawn into the system while you're trying to flush it. This will just result in even more sludge entering the system, which will add to whatever's in there already and limit the benefit of any further work.

Fortunately, cleaning the F&E tank is extremely simple to do and if you've ever cleaned out a fish tank or something similar using a hosepipe syphon as a vacuum cleaner... then the same process will work a treat here.

With the system switched off (mainly to avoid any unexpected discharge of hot water from the vent pipework!), the first step is to suitably arrange your hose pipe so that the outlet end is secured into whatever drainage point you identified. This is important - as once water's flowing, you don't want to be worrying about the hose coming loose... Water from the tank is going to be dirty and full of all the gunk that's currently stuck to the tank - would be useful to dispose of it cleanly! We were using a nearby bathroom/toilet, so were able to secure the hose under the toilet seat.
The other end of the hose needs to be taken to whereever the F&E tank is located, and temporarily secured so that it's in the tank and under the surface of the water.
Next, we need to get the water flowing. There are countless ways to achieve this from using some sort of specialised suction pump through to simply getting some water into the hose (hint - try using the mains water feed into your F&E tank) and letting gravity take over to applying a vacuum or suction to the outlet end of the pipe. Take your pick! Obviously, I cannot recommend the old-fashioned approach of sucking on the hose to generate suction; the water in the F&E tank is probably filthy and you really don't want to be running even the slightest risk of ingesting any of it.

Once you've got suction going and are sure the hosepipe is secure in whatever you're using for a drain, head back up to the F&E tank and temporarily stop the mains water feed to the tank while you use the hose to start emptying out the water currently in it. You can do this by either switching off a handy valve if you have one on the feed pipework or by simply holding the ballcock valve closed while water drains out.

Once you can actually see the bottom of the tank, use the hosepipe to start removing gunk from the tank. The easiest way is to simply use your hands (with some disposable gloves on if you prefer) to slosh the water around and agitate the gunk at the bottom of the tank - sucking it up with the hosepipe. Don't let the tank empty completely as once your hose comes out of the water you'll have to start again in terms of getting things flowing.

Keep going with this until you've got the gunk off the sides and bottom of the tank, and have flushed it all through with clean water a couple of times - ending up with a clean-ish tank full of clean water!

Once you're happy with the tank (don't worry about getting it perfectly shiny & new-looking... that's not likely to happen unless you replace it), carefully take the hose out of the tank; allowing any remaining water to drain. Check that it's automatically refilled with clean water, with the ball valve operating correctly to shut off the water feed once full.

Next, find a drain point & get connected

With the preparation work completed and a clean F&E tank ready to go, switch the system on and turn up its thermostat so that the pump & boiler run and get some circulation going around the pipework.
Find a convenient drain point and connect up your hosepipe, again ensuring that the outlet end is sufficiently secured in whatever you're using as a drain as you don't want to end up with a system-full of dirty water all over the floor.

By this point, the system's hopefully warmed up a little so switch it off for now and open up the drain point's valve. If it's not been used for a while, you'll probably need to apply some force to open the valve; especially if it's been painted over a few times since last used. The valve might also leak a little - we found a small paint tray to be about the ideal size to sit under the valve & catch any drips.

With the valve open, you should hopefully now have a steady flow of warm dirty water out of the system with corresponding flow of clean water into the system from the F&E tank. You shouldn't need to open bleed valves to get water flowing (unlike if you're draining the system down to empty) as your F&E tank should be able to continue replenishing water as fast as it drains out.
Assuming the water's brown or black, leave it running until it starts to clear. Depending on the size of system (number of radiators / amount of pipework etc), this might take some time. Once the water clears, close the drain valve and fire up the system. Leave it to heat up and circulate the water for 15-20 minutes, before switching off and reopening the drain valve. With a little luck the water will still be running clear - if not, leave it to flush again until it does.

Once the water is running clear, head back up to the F&E tank and close the ball valve so that the tank begins to empty. Once it's down to about a third full, pour in your bottle of system cleaner (eg Fernox Central Heating Cleaner F3) and wait for the majority of remaining water to drain in to the system. Before the water level drops below the feed pipework to the system, re-open the ball valve and let the tank start to refill.
Quickly head back down to the drain point, and close the valve to end the flush process.

At this point, you should have a central heating system that's full of relatively clean water & cleaning chemicals.
Disconnect your hosepipe and leave the system to run as normal for a week or so, circulating the cleaning chemicals around the pipework & all your radiators.

Finally...

After a week of normal usage, repeat the process above for flushing the system - starting after the system's been able to heat up to normal temperature.
This time, you're flushing out the cleaning chemicals along with whatever sludge (suspended in the water) it's been able to dislodge and again let the water run until clear.
Once you're happy that you have clean water running out, close the F&E tank's ball valve and pour in your bottle of inhibitor (eg: Fernox Central Heating Protector F1).

With the inhibitor in the system, leave the F&E tank to refill and close your drain point's valve.

Fire everything up, and let the system heat up to temperature. Check all your radiators are hot all over, and are not cold at the top. Its worth then working your way around and quickly bleeding them after a flush just to ensure no air has been caught somewhere.

Hopefully you'll now have a heating system that's working more efficiently, heats up quicker and might even last a little longer - along with saving yourself some cash by doing the work yourself.

Obviously, if you're not confident in your ability to follow the steps above & deal with any problems should they occur, do not attempt to flush your central heating. Book a heating engineer or plumber to do it for you. I do not take any responsibility for anything that goes wrong, or right, should you choose to follow the notes above. You do so ENTIRELY at your own risk.


I (finally) think I have discovered a favourite lens

After years of shooting with my workhorse Canon L zoom lenses, towards the end of 2014 I finally rediscovered the idea of shooting with Primes.  Prior to this, I don't think a day went by where I wasn't shooting with the tried and tested combination of my Canon EF24-70 f2.8 L on one 5DMk3 body and a 70-200 f2.8 L on the other.

However... I also don't think a day went by where I wasn't annoyed or frustrated with the combination - the zooms are both heavy lenses, and while the flexibility of the 24-70 / 70-200 focal lengths is great it turned out that the vast majority of frames shot with the 24-70 were at around 35mm.

The irony here is that I've actually owned a Canon EF35mm f1.4L for a few years, but for the vast majority of that time it's sat in the camera bag and been all but shunned in favour of the 24-70 f2.8. Sacrilegious perhaps - but both lenses are brilliant, and up until now I think I've been assuming that the flexibility offered by a good zoom could outweigh the fluid uninterrupted shooting style possible with primes.

Crazy!

I had the good luck to attend an amazing workshop last year, led by one of the world's leading wedding photographers - who commented that perhaps 99% of his images are shot with 35mm or 85mm primes.  At the time, I'd left my 35mm back at home as usual instead favouring the tried and tested 24-70; and soon realised that it was time for a change!

From that point onwards, the 35mm was reunited with one of my 5DMk3 bodies and I don't think it's been removed since.

Didn't take long to fall back into love with the lens, and after that it's been firmly attached to a camera without a single break. My 24-70L and 35L have swapped places... the 24-70's in the bag (and increasingly staying at home) and the 35L's become my workhorse, teamed up most of the time with my 70-200L on another body.

It's perfect for nearly everything I shoot - from photos of the kids, to randomness...

... to being the perfect lens for weddings with beautiful bokeh and and ability to produce lovely images in ridiculously low light.

None of this is going to be a surprise to anyone already shooting with primes - but it's completely changed my shooting style, and I suspect that at some point in 2015 it will be joined by the equally fantastic 85mm L... this might be a bit of an expensive habit!!

Anyone want to buy a 24-70L ?


Managing a modern blog - Wordpress.com meet Wordpress.org?

So, during this exercise in rediscovering Wordpress I've been determined to try and make the setup & management side as simple and robust as possible.  As part of this, I've been exploring tools for managing servers & streamlining Wordpress installations along with the new breed of tools aimed at managing multiple Wordpress sites from a single dashboard.

It used to be really simple... you either downloaded Wordpress from wordpress.org and installed it on your own, hand-crafted server; or signed up at Wordpress.com and let someone else worry about all the details & mechanics involved in running a website. If that was too challenging, other tools readily filled the gap ranging from ultra-simple micro blogging services such as Tumbler through to emerging options like hosted Ghost.  Now, you can kind of get the best of both worlds - gaining the flexibility of running your own server & website while taking advantage of some amazing management tools to streamline getting started along with automating some of the management overheads; especially if you want to run multiple websites.

I've experimented with solving this problem through Wordpress Multisite before, which if you've not encountered it, is a pretty good way for managing a load of websites from one installation. You end up with one set of plugins & themes, along with one core set of Wordpress code - which can be monitored & updated from a single Wordpress dashboard.

However, Multisite can cause a number of problems with plugins as not all plugins (and themes) are written to run properly in a Multisite environment. You also end up with a system in which all sites running on your Multisite install are essentially tied together - if something breaks with the install, all the sites break. Finally, it can be a nightmare to get up and running properly - and isn't really recommended unless you know your way around PHP & mySQL!

Leaving multisite out of the picture, if you need to run multiple Wordpress websites (and want to do so on your own servers) you're basically left with maintaining a collection of separate Wordpress installations - each with its own Dashboard, plugins, themes & content. The advantages of this are that a problem with one site cannot affect another, and that each website can have its own unique set of plugins and themes along with any necessary tweaks to optimise them for the site in question. However, what's not so good is that each site then needs to be updated and maintained separately - which can produce quite an overhead as a regular maintenance task!

Unless you opt for a managed hosting provider, decide to use shared web hosting or go with a specialised Wordpress host such as http://wpengine.com then you will probably also need to build a web server on some form of VPS, and maintain it.

It is however possible to now streamline the entire process - and harness the benefits of a whole new breed of management services.  Assuming you use a good hosting provider such as DigitalOcean to create a shiny new virtual server, it's possible to use a server management platform such as ServerPilot.io to install everything you need to run PHP / mySQL websites in about 10 minutes flat. ServerPilot.io offers a simple dashboard from which you can add and build a new server by running a single setup script. Once finished, you have a fully configured and ready-for-production machine running Linux, mySQL, PHP, Apache & NGINX - all setup ready for you to install your websites & databases.

It's brilliant! 

I cannot see myself going back to manually building servers for simple web hosting unless I need something more specialised - why waste valuable time on hand-crafting the installation when you can use ServerPilot to build, configure, manage AND update it... all for free!?

Once ready, you simply create an "App" and database using ServerPilot and upload your website files. If you're migrating an existing website, then there's a fantastic Wordpress plugin available called Duplicator which can package up an existing website, resulting in a simple installation script & zip archive of everything needed to run your website. Copy across the two files, set any permissions necessary, and run... Your website is then simply unpacked and deployed complete with any associated data, files or plugins.

Once up and running, another whole new breed of services are then able to streamline managing and maintaining Wordpress. Gone are the days of managing individual Wordpress installations if you have more than one of them. Tools such as ManageWP and even Wordpress.com's own suite of services (delivered via the awesome Jetpack plugin) gather together your sites into one cohesive dashboard - resulting in a single way of updating sites, managing plugins and posting content! Simple!!

So at the moment, I'm trying the following configuration:

This seems to work pretty well, and every time I set something else up I end up more impressed by DigitalOcean & ServerPilot; think this combination will be my platform of choice for a while. Fantastic value, even better performance and rock-solid reliability!!


Migrating FROM Ghost TO Wordpress

So, after running Ghost for 8-9 months on this blog and trying to convince myself it's the right thing to do; I'm moving back to Wordpress.

I love the simplicity and sheer speed of Ghost, and am now a definite convert to writing content using Markdown. However, a continual source of frustration is the limited amount of 3rd party support available for the platform - especially in terms of themes - and the limited ability to quickly customise content; build custom lists/galleries etc, or easily re-use content you have already posted in different ways.

This is, of course, all perfectly possible if you opt to design & build your own custom theme, or write the necessary JS to pull out & present content in exactly the way you want. However, working with web technologies every day, the last thing I want to be doing on the rare occasion I actually have time to write something is needing to dive into the site's codebase to add a feature, change a menu or tweak something.
As much as it pains me to say this, I've reached the conclusion that the simplest option is to move the blog back to Wordpress for the moment. Ghost has been fun, but it just takes too much time & effort to do anything with it it other than posting articles. Creating anything other than a standard post is just too time consuming at the moment.

Wordpress isn't without its flaws of course, and most of the stuff I commented on back in this post when I first moved to Ghost still applies. It does however have a significent edge in terms of flexibility, and for all the good reasons outlined in a great post by Jeff Chandler on WPTavern I suspect WP will retain its lead for some time to come.

We'll see how it goes, and I'll endevour to keep this post updated with any more migration issues as I find them.

So, how do you migrate from Ghost to Wordpress

Unlike moving from Wordpress to Ghost, at the moment there doesn't seem to be a usable Ghost import plugin for Wordpress - whereas there are plenty of Ghost exporters for WP. So, it's a bit of a manual process, but does seem to be possible.

I'm glossing over setting up Wordpress and getting an empty website up and running into which you can import your posts. If you're reading this, and have a blog running on Ghost, I'm going to assume you can probably figure that bit out. Google might be a good starting point otherwise.

Step 0 - Install Wordpress & create a new blog / website

See above... I haven't tried importing content into an existing site. It will probably work, but my recommendation would be to try everything out on a new test site that you won't mind recreating a few times if it doesn't go perfectly right first time.

Step 1 - Export content from Ghost

Ghost does however have a built-in tool to export its content to a JSON format file. Just login to your blog's admin tool (eg. [your blog]/ghost, click Settings, Labs, and look for the Export button. This will generate and download a simple JSON file which contains all of your post text and content.

Step 2 - Convert JSON to CSV

I haven't been able to find a way to easily import the Ghost JSON file directly into WordPress, so for now convert it into a CSV file first.

I used an ex-Google tool called OpenRefine to do this, but there are of course many other possible ways to tackle this. OpenRefine runs as a local web service, and once started is accessed using your browser. If you'd like to give it a go, head over to their download page and install the release that suits whatever you intend to run it on. I opted for the Mac version, but hopefully other platforms will be similar.

Once this has been installed, start the application and then open http://127.0.0.1:3333/ using your prefered web browser.

From OpenRefine's start screen, create a new project by selecting your CSV file to upload and click "next". Once uploaded, OpenRefine will parse your JSON file and display a preview of it.
To get started, you first need to indicate what element within your JSON file contains the data items (eg. posts) that you're interested in processing. To do this, find the first "posts" entry and click just after the following "{". This should select the posts and highlight them.

For completness, I also had "Trim leading and trailing whitespace" and "Parse cell text into.." options selected. Next, click the "Update Preview" button and with a little luck you should see a grid containing your Ghost posts.
If everything looks OK, click "Create Project" to process your data and move onto the next step.

At this point you can process the data file in many ways, add additional things into the data or summarise it to your heart's content. However, all I needed to do to get the posts setup for Wordpress was convert the date fields from "Unix" or "Epoc" dates to a normal format that Wordpress can import.

To do this, scroll across the data until you find the CreatedAt or PublishedAt date columns. Click the header, select "Edit Cells" then "Transform" from the menu.

Select Jython as the Language, and paste in the code snippet below.

import time;
epochlong = int(float(value))/1000 ;

datetimestamp = time.strftime('%Y-%m-%d %H:%M:%S', time.localtime(epochlong));
return datetimestamp

This should update the preview and show normal dates alongside their equivalent Epoc/Unix datetime stamps. Click OK when you're happy with the result, and assuming you don't need to change anything else, click the Export button at the top right, and pick "Comma Separated Value" from the menu. All being well, your browser should then start downloading a copy of your post data in CSV format.

Step 3 - Import to Wordpress

First, you need to find and install a CSV import plugin for Wordpress. I opted to try "WP Ultimate CSV Importer Plugin", v3.6.75 at time of writing, which seems to do what I need it to.

With the plugin installed & activated, open it up from your Wordpress admin panel, pick "Imports" and then "Posts" from its menu. Browse & find your freshly downloaded CSV file, and click "next" to get started. The plugin should then open your CSV, and display all the fields it can find in the file for you to map them onto the most appropriate equivalents in Wordpress.

You can ignore the majority of Ghost specific data here to get going, focusing on the key information needed to create a post. For my setup, these fields were:

  • slug -> post_slug
  • html -> post_content
  • image -> featured_image
  • title -> post_title
  • status -> post_status
  • author -> post_author
  • publishedat -> postdate (you could also use created_at if that's a better option for your posts)

Once done, click Next, increase the number of rows/posts per request to maybe 5, and click "Import Now" to start the process.

If everything works as it should, your Ghost posts should now be in Wordpress as posts.

From this point, I simply needed to create new categories for posts and bulk-edit my posts to move them into the correct categories. I wasn't using Tags in URLs on Ghost, so all my post titles/slug are the same as they were - removing the need to deal with lots of redirects to preserve search engine traffic.

Depending on how you were handling images in posts on Ghost, you might now need to copy your image library over to Wordpress or check that images were imported correctly.

Next steps - finding time to do all the stuff I want to actually do with this site!


Welcome to 2015!

Happy New Year!

With a challenging end to 2014 behind us, I'm looking forwards to discovering what exciting times lie ahead for us in 2015.

It's going to be a year of change for a start - with Sam turning 4, Ellie's second birthday in the Summer and of course reaching the milestone of Sam starting school later in the year. There are also some major changes on the way which I can't talk about yet, but am looking forwards to! All will be revealed in due course.

2014 was a great year for my photographic business, shooting more weddings than previous years along with much more commercial work. I was also lucky enough to be able to take the time out to join two incredible workshops during the year - one focused squarely on improving my off-camera flash technique and the other led by an awesome Norfolk photographer (Ross Harvey), who currently holds the acolade of being recognised as one of the world's best wedding photographers. Both of these have helped to completely change how I approach many areas of my photography and I look forwards to sharing more of my images with you as the year gets underway.

2014 was also the year in which the modern age of internet connectivity finally arrived in our rural Norfolk village of Brooke. Since ADSL was first launched in the village we've been stuck with BT's ancient ADSL MAX service, offering paltry speeds of about 6Mbs download & 400Kbs upload. Barely pasable for web browsing in a household where BBC iPlayer could be regarded as an essential component of daily life; and absolutely useless when trying to upload photos to online galleries or websites. For good measure, our local exchange was then skipped over due to "limited demand" for BT's 21C network which would have bought ADSL2 and faster speeds to the village so it was well and truely time for a change...

Despite setting and missing a variety of dates for rollout plans ranging from end of 2013 through to June 2014, Openreach finally enabled our local exchange and cabinets for FTTC at the end of December - with our line being upgraded just before Christmas and leaping from 6Mb/0.4 to around 38Mbs/10Mbs. A definite improvement for all concerned.

I've also reached the conclusion that it's time for a change in terms of this blog. I've not posted much over the last few months, mainly as I've simply not had the time to give the website the focus it needs in terms of building a new theme, customising Ghost, and bolting on various other bits and pieces. As such, while I love the simplicity and sheer speed Ghost has to offer I'm planning to migrate the site back to Wordpress. Despite being a much more mature and perhaps bloated product, WP does have the massive advantage of powering around 20% of all websites currently on the Internet - and as such, has a huge ecosystem surounding it in terms of themes & plugins which Ghost simply doesn't currently have. Suspect it isn't going to be a simple migration by all accounts, but will post something on here when I get started.

Update: Here's a guide for migrating a site back to Wordpress, from Ghost.

All in all, it's been an exceptionally busy start to the year and I'm quite looking forwards to getting on with the rest of January now that the first couple of weeks are out of the way.

Here's to a great 2015!!


Loving the Canon EFM 22mm at f2.8!

I'm always a fan of shooting large-aperture lenses wide open for shallow depth of field... and for this reason, picked up Canon's EFM 22mm to go with my recently-acquired EOS M camera.

This is a tiny little lens, which is a great fit for the equally tiny EOS M camera body. Its tiny front element and lightweight construction belies the lovely images you can produce with it wide open.

It's not all perfect though, and can take a while to focus if the EOSM fails to lock on - it often seems to crank the lens element from one end of its range to the other, which isn't necessarily the fastest.

That aside, if you're a fan of shallow DoF images - you can easily forgive it and just shoot!

Moving on from my first thoughts about the EOS M system, it's still never going to replace my proper camera gear but has become my go-to camera for random stuff & photos of the kids. Its major failing is the autofocus - which is pretty hopeless compared to my 5Ds, but it's also a ridiciously small & lightweight camera system which is good enough to just grab & shoot!


Canon EOS M (18Mpx Mirrorless) - Ignore the reviews... It's great!

So, after spending the last 10 days playing around with an EOS M, I have a few conclusions to draw...

Firstly, if you're looking for a compact, mirrorless camera that offers great image quality along with interchangable lenses, good build quality, proper manual controls & good-enough performance; stop reading here and go buy one.

If however you need blazingly fast autofocus or are looking for dSLR response speeds, look elsewhere - go buy a "proper" dSLR; something full frame with a real shutter, mirror, bucket loads of pixels - maybe an EOS 5D MkIII or 1DX.

Following on from my last post, I've been looking for a small camera that could deliver dSLR style images (to essentially fill the gulf between phone cameras & my full frame 5Ds) without being a full-size camera system.

Insert

So far, the EOS M has been a brilliant surprise.

Sure, it's never going to win any awards if you compare it to a proper camera system with full frame sensors, bullet-proof multi-point AF, instant shutter releases & ridiciously high noise-free ISO capabilties.. but for a compact camera system, with reasonable performance, great image quality and surprising lenses - it's really not bad at all.

I bought the EOS M body "kit" from Jessops including the camera body, an EF-M 18-55 STM lens, EX90 flash & EF-M to EF lens adapter and picked up a new EF-M 22mm lens from eBay. Both lenses have Canon's new STM stepper motors - giving near silent autofocus, and are great for video. First impressions are positive. As soon as you unpack it, the camera, lenses & flash all feel solid and the camera's controls are immediately familiar if you're comfortable with full-size Canon cameras.

From reading reviews, I had pretty low expectations around autofocus - but so far am quite surprised with how good (and reliable) it is for most situations. It's a whole different world if you compare it to an EOS 5DMk3, but it's also a £270 camera kit compared to a £2,999 full frame dSLR body. If you work with the AF system, switching to the most appropriate mode or using its face-recognition AF and touching the screen to tell it what you want to focus on... it's fine.

Don't expect it to instantly lock-on to a moving subject or to track things moving around without issues - it's no pro multi-point AF with sophisticated tracking systems. It does work however, and if you use a bit of patience seem to be good enough for the vast majority of situations.

Little Ellie - getting very used to the idea of being on a swing!

The AF can be told what you want it to lock onto by touching the subject on the screen, or just put it into single / multi-point modes and let it use contrast detection to work out where to focus. Squeeze the shutter half way (just like the full size cameras) and see if it focuses on what you want.. if not, reframe slightly; touch the item on the screen; or try again. Chances are it'll be fine on the second attempt!

With the fantastic 22mm EF-M f2 lens, you can shoot it wide-open with lovely shallow depth of field and great low-light performace; or stop it down a little for crisp focus.

It's a cracking lens, and I'm slightly astounded that it can deliver such brilliant image performance in such a tiny package. It's quickly become my lens of choice on the M as it adds so little in terms of size or weight to the camera.

If you need something with a zoom or more reach than the 22mm, the EFM 18-55 is a great option. It has the same solid build quality as the EOS M & 22mm lens, and again is very compact in form. While it would benefit from a fixed aperture throughout its range (I suppose I'm too used to my f2.8 EF24-70 & EF70-200), the lens delivers sharp images throughout with plenty of detail & contrast. It's a great walk-around lens with enough reach to be useful, opening up to a helpful 18mm if you need something wider.

Insert

I've not yet tried the EOS M with a regular EF lens - primarily as I'm still waiting for Jessops to deliver the bundled EF-M to EF adapter...!

All in all, I'm pleased with the M. It's not perfect, and it's never going to replace my 5D Mk2 / Mk3 bodies or L lenses. It has however replaced my phone as a go-to camera for random photos - and is something you can chuck into a bag or large-ish pocket without any impact to have a fantastic camera with you whereever you go.