Canon EOS M - can it replace my iPhone?

As a photographer, my preference in terms of equipment over the years has always been Canon. Over the years since buying my first EOS 10D dSLR, I've been steadily growing my lens collection with L glass - and now shoot professionally with a pair of full-frame Canon EOS 5D's (Mk2 & Mk 3 bodies).

While I love the image quality and capability the 5D's can produce with L lenses (and wouldn't consider moving away from the system for my professional work!), I've reached the annoying conclusion that after the 5Ds the vast majority of the rest of my photography tends to happen with an iPhone 5... primarily because I nearly always have my phone with me, whereas I don't carry a dSLR unless heading out to shoot.

Phone cameras have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, and are capable of producing some great images under good conditions. While this is fine for the odd snapshot, and a phone is obviously never going to come up to the same quality as a pro dSLR, I always find myself comparing images and ending up disapointed.

As a result, when Canon launched their contender in the mirrorless market back in October 2012, I was watching with intrigue to see whether it was any good. The Canon EOS M represented an all-new camera system from Canon - packing an APS-C 18MP sensor, fantastic touch-screen & EF-M / EF compatible lens mount (via adapter) into an ultra-compact magnesium-framed body.

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However, after reading many reviews of the camera slating it for abysmal autofocus performance & its bordering-on-dSLR price tag of £700+, it started to look somewhat less attractive. It didn't take long for me to conclude that I may as well just stick with an iPhone camera - and that's remained the case until now..

Time moves on, and following a significent price drop and major firmeware update from Canon, the EOS M has suddenly become an attractive option for a compact camera that can deliver dSLR image quality. With prices for "system" kits of an EOS M, kit telephoto lens & ultra-compact EX 90 flash for under £280 from Jessops, I've opted to hedge my bets and have just ordered an EOS M along with the generally-regarded brilliant 22mm f2 pancake lens.

Reviews of the camera after the firmware update suggest the autofocus issues have largely been sorted and there's growing collection of stunning images shot with the EOS M on Flickr. It is of course never going to match a 5DMk2 or Mk3 in terms of focus performance, but quite honestly as long as it's in the same ballpark as a phone camera I'm sure it'll be fine. Worst case is that it'll be quickly going onto eBay, but we'll see...!

I'm looking forwards to it's arrival - and having an ultra-compact camera with a great lens & dSLR image quality... that will fit into a pocket! I don't tend to write reviews of kit, but once it's here will post a few observations and photos :)


End of the line for Apple's Aperture

As you've probably heard by now if you're an active user of Apple's Aperture professional tool, its death warrant has just been signed... by Apple.

Based on a growing collection of news sources including The Loop, it seems that Apple appear to have decided to cease development of Aperture in-favour of a new consumer-orientated tool called "Photos".

“With the introduction of the new Photos app and iCloud Photo Library, enabling you to safely store all of your photos in iCloud and access them from anywhere, there will be no new development of Aperture,”

“When Photos for OS X ships next year, users will be able to migrate their existing Aperture libraries to Photos for OS X.”

[Should probably mention that development on Apple's other professional apps is apparently unaffected!!]

While this doesn't personally affect my workflows as I switched from Aperture to the fantastic Adobe Lightroom some time back, there is a huge number of photographers out there who have now been left high & dry by this move. Pro's with complex workflows tend to centre on a particular product which meets their needs - with associated image libraries, repoisitories of images with adjustments, metadata and who-knows what else all "safely" being stored & managed within the tool.

It sounds like Aperture will be getting one final update to ensure it functions with the upcomming OSX Yosemite, but after that you're on your own...

When it first burst into view, Aperture was an amazing product - bringing together fantastic RAW processing, great compatibility & non-destructive editing tools together under one roof. I'd been using Aperture for a few years before Aperture 3 appeared - and wrote a post on the subject enthusing about how great it was... Unfortunately, compared to its competitors (well, Adobe's Lightroom), Aperture all but stood still.

Adobe in comparison were rapidly evolving Lightroom, pressing forwards with new features and generally improving the product at every opportunity.

It didn't take too long for this to wear a little thin - and I ended up trialing Lightroom just after investing in a Canon EOS 5D Mk3. This camera and it's 22.3MPx sensor all but pushed Aperture over the proverbial edge in terms of performance. The tool went from being great to something that struggled to open or process RAWs from the new camera - and essentially killed off my workflow! I soon opted to trial Lightroom, and began shifting my images & workflow over to Lightroom a few days later... and never looked back!!

I was in the fortunate position at the time of not having a massive library of images & adjustments which I needed to try and preserve while switching products - which made the move somewhat easier. My images were arranged into a relatively logical folder structure on disk, and all I was really concerned about was metadata. This was embedded in my images rather than being held in Aperture, and as such was immediately and accessible to Lightroom without any further work.
I simply ran both products side by side for a few weeks until I'd finished working on things I'd started working on with Aperture, and then switched to Lightroom for anything new.

Would imagine that if you're more beholden to Aperture or have a massive library of images for which you need to preserve the adjustments / post-processing work, then switching might not be that simple.

One solution to this however is to simply avoid the problem... Keep a copy of Aperture installed on you machine if you need to go back to an old image, and use Lightroom for new work going forwards. Both tools can share a library file structure on disk; and should be able to share metadata if it's embedded in your images.

The big wins for me from switching were centered around performance. Lightroom at the time was significently quicker than Aperture when working with the same images on the same hardware. This alone shaved a healthy chunk of time off my post-production workflow - meaning I could focus on my images rather than waiting around for the tool to work. As a side benefit, the Lightroom catalogue file structures also seem to be much more efficient than Aperture's - dramatically reducing the amount of disk storage needed to index your libraries.

In summary, Aperture's termination isn't the death knell it perhaps sounded like... look on it as an opportunity to evolve your workflow, and give Lightroom a go - would imagine you too wouldn't look back.


Fun in the sun!

With a suprising burst of sunshine, the last weekend was spent running around outside with Sam and Ellie making the most of a lovely sunny sunday.

The day led to some lovely "lifestyle" photos of Sam enjoying himself, which seem to have become some of the most popular images over on my Facebook page - TimStephensonPhotography!

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If you're looking for some great family photos, or would like to book a Lifestyle shoot while the sun's here, why not ping me an email or message me on Facebook and we can get something in the diary?

The day was also Sam's first time properly discovering the idea of a swing. He's always been quite hesitent about the idea until this weekend... and now can't get enough of it!


Sam & Ellie out for a quick drive!

We popped over to my mum's for Easter Sunday, and Sam decided it'd be a fantastic idea to take his little sister Ellie for a drive.

She seemed to enjoy the idea, and I suspect there'll be a few more occasions like this to come in the future!

Video below!!


Wonderfully sunny Norfolk evening

Spotted this during a brief walk around our area this evening - a lovely, bright & sunny spring evening.

Follows on from the lovely big Norfolk sky I shot yesterday. Think I might need to start taking a proper camera out and about with me more often rather than relying just on a phone!


Norfolk always amazes me.. #BigSky

Just driving along this evening, and realised I need to keep a better camera with me than an iPhone!


House Refurb - building a raised timber deck

Following on from the last post covering the clean up & demolition of an old wooden summerhouse, this one looks at what happened next...

I should probably start by stating that I'm definitely not a builder, structural engineer, or to that matter; carpenter. Building anything out of a pile of wood, without following a plan someone else has created, isn't something I would usually do - and isn't something I'm particularly experienced in doing.

As a result, you should not use anything in this post (or others on this website!) any form of definitive guidance if attempting your own garden construction.

All of that aside, we actually made a start on the project the previous week - by ordering all the necessary timber from a fantastic online company called eDecks.co.uk. We'd first spent some time measuring the rough area which removing the summerhouse would free up for decking, and created a few rough & ready plans using a great but simple iPad / Mac drawing tool called TouchDraw.

TouchDraw is a powerful vector drawing tool which offers plenty of features to create plans for a decking build - without being overly complex and difficult to get started with. We drew up a simple plan for the decking framework intended to try and maximise the amount of available space once constructed, and then used the tool to overlay an additional layer mapping out the necessary decking boards & rails etc. With this we were able to try out a few ideas before buying any materials - and ended up being able to determine exactly how much wood we needed to buy along with establishing a good idea of what the end product should hopefully look like.

This is the structural framework that seemed about right in terms of providing support to the deck boards, and squeezing a good amount of space out of the available area:

TouchDraw decking plan - framework

This is the framework with boards overlaid - to give a good idea of the lengths we needed to purchase so that we could completely avoid needing to deal with joining boards mid-run along with optimising lengths so that many of the smaller pieces could be cut from a few longer boards. All in all, I'd highly recommend spending some time drawing out a plan in some shape or form before buying anything!

TouchDraw decking plan - deck boards

With the planning done, we ordered the timber and headed off to a local builders merchant to acquire the other key raw material... loads of rapid setting concrete (Postcrete) which would be vital for securing the structure's "legs" in the ground to give it some degree of stability.

Lots of Postcrete

It's a little daunting when everything arrives however as you end up with a large (and heavy) pile of bits of wood, without any sort of instructions.. other than the plans you quickly drew up a few days earlier. Sounds like a challenge :)

The decking kit...

Without any excuses remaining, we made a start - laying out the main beams as per the plan, and checking to see if the planned layout would actually make sense once "translated" to reality. We propped up the beams using bricks & offcuts to check everything seemed to be the right size and that the basic design was likely to work before digging holes, cutting timbers & fixing posts in place.

The garden is somewhat uneven too at the moment, making this all somewhat more challenging. As a result, the deck needed to be around 1/2 - 3/4 foot off the ground one end, and a few inches the other.

Test-fit - success so far!

On the positive, it all seemed to fit - so we made a start on digging holes for the various corner posts & cementing them firmly in place using plenty of Postcrete. If you've never used it, Postcrete is brilliant for anything you need to fix solidly into a hole in the ground - without wanting to wait around for it to set or having to spend time preparing or mixing. There's a handy guide from the manufacturer available here, or alternatively they've uploaded a video to Youtube showing its usage..

You simply dig a hole large and deep enough to accommodate your post; fill it roughly 3/4 full with water, place the post in the hole (ensuring it's vertical and wherever you want it to be positioned); and tip in enough Postcrete to use the water & fill the hole. If you end up with room left in the hole, chuck in a bit more water and Postcrete until it's full. This stuff generally sets solid in a few minutes so you need to have everything to hand, and work reasonably quickly... If there's one tip, be sure to support the post in the position you want it to end up in while the Postcrete sets - preferably getting it right on the first go! You need to use plenty of Postcrete too - we probably used the majority of a bag for each post, but your mileage will vary depending on what you're using it for and how deep the holes are.

A postcrete'd post

With the first posts concreted in we laid out the main structural beams, and swiftly realised that adding a bit more support in the form of more posts would be a sensible move before we got ourselves too committed to the structure. With these added, the next step was to bolt the main beams to our posts, forming the basic framework and then to start filling in the structure with joists.

Needless to say it's pretty important at this stage to get the main joists level - as without level joists, the deck is never going to end up true.

Structural frame taking shape

We went for the approach of adding structural joists first, which would provide a solid frame to attach others to along with ensuring we could support the structure on solid ground mid-span to reduce bounce & flex in the finished deck. Rather than concreting in more posts we used some of the paving slabs left over from the old summer house base, creating large flat and solid surfaces onto which to support the joists.
Finally, we cut and bolted in a number of "noggins" between joists. The deck boards are only going to be secured to the joists, but these help brace & secure the joists to form a reasonably rigid and structurally sound subframe.

All of this probably ended up taking about 2.5 days work in the summer heat - mainly due to a little helper who wanted to be involved at every step of the way. Without "help" it would probably have been taken about half the time, probably even less if it's something you've done before!

The hired help

With the framework all complete, work then started on laying the deck boards & securing then to the frame.
We also added additional posts at this point for the handrails - positioned dependant on the length of handrail sections available so that either end of a handrail section could be secured to a post.

Fitting the deck boards was probably the single most tedious step of the job as the boards needed screwing to each joist - with holes for the screws first being drilled, and 2 screws per joist. Lots of boards.. Lots of holes.. And lots of screws!


From this point, amazingly it didn't take that long to get into a bit of a pattern - securing the boards down & trimming to size as we went. The great thing about this kind of construction is that when you get through the first few pieces, the rest quickly takes shape.


After 3 days of building I do, however, have a newfound respect for the Li-ion batteries powering our pair of BOSCH blue cordless drill / drivers.. These seemed to last forever, and recharge quickly. Highly recommended if you're in the market for power tools. Batteries are also interchangeable between the tools so you can be using one and charging the other if you don't need both tools on the go.

With the deck now nearing completion, all that was left was constructing and installing the railings. Not always essential if the deck isn't very high, they do however finish it off nicely - especially where it looks out over the fields or edges onto the boundary hedge.

These were what can only be described as a complete pain to build, hence the lack of photos. You essentially carefully space out the newels between two pieces of handrail (one as the actual handrail, and one as a base onto which the newels are secured) - ideally using some sort of L bracket to fix the newel to post so that screws are not visible.. or some form of magic where brackets fail. We abandoned the proper approach after the first couple of newels, instead opting for a simple screw through the top or bottom of the handrail as appropriate. If there's a next time, I'll be looking to buy handrails pre-made from somewhere!

Once ready, the blocks of rails are simply screwed onto the deck surface at the appropriate position and then secured onto posts at both ends. Repeat! After battling with the handrails, and fitting a simple gate to maintain access to our oil tank from the rear of the deck, we were finished!

A busy few days work, but we're pleased with the end product. It's ideally positioned to catch the sun and provides a lovely area to sit and relax or work whenever the sun makes an appearance. We can also finally make better use of the views available from the rear of the house.

If you choose to undertake your own garden construction, please remember that none of this content should be regarded as expert advice - and good luck!!


Back To The House - Sorting out the garden

 

I should probably start by stating that I'm definitely not a builder, structural engineer, or to that matter; carpenter. Building anything out of wood, from scratch, isn't something I would usually do - and isn't something I'm particularly experienced in doing.

As a result, you should not use anything in this post (or others on this website!) any form of definitive guidance if attempting your own garden construction.

All of that said however, this seemed like a nice challenge to attempt during what was perhaps the hottest week of June 2013 and proved to be a great distraction from the need to return to bi-hourly nappy changes following the arrival of our amazing little daughter, Ellie.

Anyway, our starting point was what was probably a 20+ year old wood summer-house, stuck in the back garden that we'd inherited when buying the house. It was well and truly beyond any semblance of repair, with the majority of its structural components having either rotted away over the years or weakened through lack of maintenance.

There's a photo or two elsewhere on here of what this looked like before we started taking it apart, but here's a quick reminder taken once demolition had started

A rotten wooden summerhouse, in the midst of being demolished

As a slightly wider photo of the garden shows, the summerhouse was sat on a prime chunk of the plot - taking up far too much space for the benefit it offered; especially given that it was beyond any form of reasonable repair short of removing it and rebuilding!

Just to demonstrate the state it was in, here are a few random photos of the most knackered bits:

As you can probably imagine, demolition didn't exactly take very long to be honest... we cut through what little remained of the structure with a saw, at which point the sides lost any form of rigidity and could be pulled away.

Didn't take much longer from there to repeat the exercise with the two front uprights, cutting through and removing the door hinges as they were rusted solid and basically paving the way for the remainder of the structure to be collapsed with a couple of good pushes from the back...

A rather fragile looking summerhouse

From there, it was largely a cut and lift exercise to remove the rest one chunk at a time, leaving us with a massive pile of rotten wood, along with a huge amount of clean up to do in terms of cutting back overgrown vegetation and opening up the amazing views at the back of the house.

With the summerhouse removed, you can see the amount of ground it was taking up along with a collection of junk that had been shoved behind it over the years.

Remains of the site, before clearing up the overgrown stuff

After much clearing up, collecting of rubbish and cutting down of overgrown hedging & weeds; the garden was starting to look a little clearer.

The hedge got a bit of a trim at the same time for good measure...

With the clear up complete, the site now looks a little different to how it was when we started!

With a clear place to start, we cleaned up the ground and made a start on building the deck. Needless to say, this wasn't quite as straightforwards as it could have been thanks to the sloping ground... Read on!

Part 2: Timber decking construction - https://timstephenson.me.uk/house-refurbishment-building-raised-timber-garden-decking/


House catchup - apologies for the silence, life got a whole lot busier!

As mentioned elsewhere, this blog has recently been moved off the elderly Wordpress platform to a shiny new blogging engine called Ghost. Ghost is a brilliant new way of managing your content, and one that's simpler and faster than Wordpress. Enough about the technology though. Once I'd moved the blog over, on looking through the content I was rather shocked to realise that the last house-related post had been made a whole TWO YEARS ago - looking at how to replace a radiator valve without draining-down your heating system!

Although the post was two years back, I felt a quick update was in-order. Firstly, we've been a little distracted away from doing stuff around the house thanks to the arrival of Baby Eleanor in July 2013.

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Ok, enough of the photos - sorry; as you may be able to tell from the photos elsewhere on this site, couldn't resist.

Alongside Ellie's arrival, I'd also changed jobs mid 2012; moving on from Archant to head up IT at the UK's largest Car Sharing network, Liftshare. Go head over to LinkedIn if you want to find out more about this or Connect.

In terms of the house, the pace of change has slowed down somewhat - primarily as with Sam and Ellie and a busy day-job, there's not much in the way of time left to get anything done!
Time aside, a couple of significant changes have finally happened however - replacing the front-door which was well and truly past its prime, and removing the old garden summerhouse to make way for construction of a new raised decking area to help make the most of the sunshine.

A long-overdue new front door !

If you've been following this blog for a while, you may remember what the house used to look like from the front. If not, here's a quick reminder:
House - old front-door in the snow

The door was probably the original wooden door first fitted when the house was built in the 1970's. It's clearly not really been maintained over the years either, resulting now some 30-years down the line, in being a very long time past its best. With a rotten door-surround, leaky panels, and cracks throughout it just had to go.

We found and hired a great local tradesman to supply and fit a new composite door & engineering-plastic door surround - removing and cleaning up all the rotten bits, and fitting a door that should last for at least another 30 years!

As the old door surround was removed, the true extent of the damage & rot was quickly revealed. It's quite surprising that it had lasted as long as it has - but clearly it wasn't going to go on for much longer.

With the surround & associated mess removed, the door itself was soon removed along with the bulk of its old frame.

Meanwhile, the shiny new door was being prepared for installation...

*Skipping over the day's solid labour involved, here's the result of a new door & custom door surround installation nearing completion. *

We're delighted with the result, and in one step has completely transformed the front of the house!!

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Many thanks to David Cooper of Norfolk based Cooper Home Improvements, who fitted the door for us in May 2013 - highly recommended!

On to the back.... click the photo below for a post all about clearing up the garden, woodwork, building stuff & decking.

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Looks like Ellie likes the sun - March 2014

 

A quick photo of little Ellie, making the most of a beautifully sunny early spring day.

It would appear she likes the sun, which is perhaps no real surprise given that was born on the hottest day of 2013...

Always handy for a quick lens-flare experiment too..


Time for a new profile photo!

Hi, this is me... just thought I'd share!


Ghost 0.4.2 Released - What's New & Updating

The big news of the day is that the amazing Ghost platform has just received a long-awaited maintenance update to v0.4.2

Billed as a maintenance release, this isn't just fixing a few bugs but also introducing some major new pieces of functionality. A full list of changes can be found over at ghost.org with all the details available commit-by-commit over at Github.

When I first migrated this blog to Ghost, one of the features I was missing from Wordpress was the ability to create "tag" or category pages. Under Wordpress, these served as category homepages/landing pages - offering up easy access to all posts contained in a particular category.

Prior to v0.4.2, Ghost didn't include support for this meaning that all your posts were effectively getting displayed on the site's homepage, with a variety of clunky workarounds being implemented by themes to filter long lists of content in-browser. These worked reasonably well, but performance invariably suffered - especially as post counts increased.

Categorising content is vital for many good reasons though, and as Ghost doesn't have support for Wordpress-style category structures, the only option is to use post tags to build a logical structure for your content.

With v0.4.2, Ghost now supports tag pages - meaning that you can simply browse to /tag/your-tag-name to get a list of posts with a particlar tag. Visiting /tag/technology/ for instance on here will show you all posts tagged with "technology"; rather than needing to load in posts from every tag before filtering them in-browser.

There's also now the ability to create templates specifically for tag pages, and as such possible (should you feel the need) to use a little basic logic in the Handlebars templates to use a different layout for each sort of tag... if that sort of thing floats your boat.

Tag pages aside, 0.4.2 also bring a raft of fixes to the editor - to the point that you can now create and edit posts on touch devices. This solves one of the largest annoyances from my point of view and eliminates the need to use a 3rd party application such as CasperHQ, which I had a brief look at a week or two ago.

It's still not possible to upload images from mobile devices yet, but that's apparently coming soon. For now, it is of course possible to easily upload an image to a service such as Flickr or Smugmug and use it via embedded within a post. Images don't need to sit on the same server as the blog so while annoying, it's not really a problem.

Either way, 0.4.2 is a welcome update - and a step closer to v0.5 !

Updating Ghost on DigitalOcean

Updating Ghost was something I was was interested to check out when the opportunity arose. Coming to Ghost from Wordpress left me in two minds around updates. WP makes it very, very easy to update - but you always end up taking a bit of a leap of faith when clicking the update button for a major version. Usually, they update fine - but you do kind of wonder how much damage it might do to your sometimes delicate WP installation should something not go to plan.

As Ghost is a much simpler platform at the moment, it's vastly easier to safely back everything up before updating anything by simply copying your blog's folder.

Assuming use of the default SQLite database, it's just a file on disk - no need to run specific blog backups or database dumps... just copy the file/folder. With a little ingenuity, you can also throw the lot into some sort of source control - giving the ability to roll back by simply reverting a commit.

There's a great overview of the whole install/update process on Ghost.org, or alternatively the team at AllAboutGhost.com have written a series of detailed update guides for various popular hosting services which are well worth a read. I opted to follow their guide for DigitalOcean as it seemed to be a good starting point - and had 0.4.2 up and running in a couple of minutes.

The theme I'm currently using needed a couple of minor tweaks to improve compatibility with 0.4.2 as a few things have changed with how Ghost handles tags, but as you can clone a blog by just copying the files to another folder it's pretty simple to test out your complete end-to-end upgrade before it goes anywhere near your live blog.

All in all, Ghost just keeps on getting better!


Posting to Ghost using CasperHQ on iOS

Since moving my blog from Wordpress to the Ghost platform, the one major issue left outstanding has been an inability to create new posts from either my iPhone or iPad.

Not enough of a problem to be a deal breaker but definitely somewhat of an annoyance.

I'm currently writing this post on my phone using a newly released IOS app called
CasperHQ. It's very rough & ready at the moment, BUT does seem to work. The app runs on both iPhone and iPad, and offers a usable layout on both.

The editor supports basic Markdown for formatting (no nice previews here!), and has a valiant attempt at image support. It does seem to insist on cropping everything to fit a square though for some reason which rather limits its usefulness. Images also just get uploaded as image.jpeg or image-1.jpeg with no option to rename them.

All in, it's an interesting starting point and I'll be keen to see how it develops over the next few releases.

The Ghost team have also been discussing a variety of fixes for using the Ghost editor (and Ghost Admin tools in general) on IOS7 so I guess we'll see who comes up with a working way of posting to Ghost first...!

Update after more testing - avoid uploading images

A significant problem has come to light however which is that CasperHQ seems to downsample and heavily compress any uploaded images. The result is not great in any way, and at the moment I'd have to recommend not using it to upload images if you care about what they look like.

15 March 2014


A wonderful sunny day at the coast!

With predictions of 18C temperatures, we headed out to the lovely Norfolk coast today; via a Greater Anglia regional train to Cromer rather than the usual car.

Sam was in his absolute element as this was his first proper trip by rail - enjoying everything from carrying his camera around to playing on the beach.

Ellie - nap time

Ellie however decided it'd be great to catch up on some sleep...

All in all, a great day out was had by all and I suspect we'll be heading back as soon as more nice weather arrives :-)

Sandcastle construction 101

Sam!


Site relaunch - Ghost & NodeJS!

After thinking about it for far too long, I'd like to welcome you to my relaunched website.

As any regular visitors will have probably noticed, it hadn't been updated for some time - and was starting to look a touch dated; meaning a facelift was rather in-order.

After a fresh look at Wordpress, I've decided that the time has come for a change. We're now running on the latest release of the fantastic new Ghost blogging platform with an all-new technology stack. Ghost runs on the unbelievably fast Node.JS, and is currently "fronted" by the equally fast Nginx webserver.

The winning combination of Nginx & Node provides an extremely scalable & powerful infrastructure for hosting the modern breed of Javascript based web applications; getting away from the bloated sledgehammer of a tool that Wordpress has become and focusing on the core features needed to run a blog.

Some things are missing as Ghost is still very new, but with an active development team and a clear roadmap, I'm looking forwards to evolving this site over the coming months as new functionality becomes available.

It's a breath of fresh air in terms of blogging.

Ghost has all of the fundamental features you need, yet doesn't have any of the noise or "fluff" which a more general purpose platform such as Wordpress offers. Ghost won't suit everyone as it needs a reasonable level of technical knowledge to get up and running and doesn't offer many of the features that Wordpress provides as a standard.

That said, there's enough in Ghost right now to build something great - and the platform as a whole is incredibly lightweight for resources with a small amount of CPU & memory going a very, very long way when compared to a full-on Apache, PHP & mySQL stack.

Here's to the future... and it's looking increasingly Javascript-shaped from client to server back-end.

I, for one, won't be missing PHP.


Why I've switched from Apple Aperture to Adobe Lightroom 4.1

Let me start by saying that having used Apple's Aperture for years, I've reached the conclusion over the last few months that it's no-longer the best product for my imaging workflow.

This isn't intended to be a comparison between Aperture 3 & Lightroom 4.1 nor is it a review of either product. Both can be found in massive quantities elsewhere.

I first came across Aperture almost by accident. Having acquired an early Canon dSLR, once the volume of images I was shooting with it started to increase it didn't take me long to conclude that there really must be a better way to manage a digital workflow than relying on a collection of image downloaders, standalone RAW converters, image editors, noise reducers and image library / asset management tools. In the early days it was a case of finding the right combination of bits to suit your needs and then hoping they all worked together in some degree of consistency. Workflows tended to consist of firing up loads of individual tools, grabbing images from a memory card, filing them away somewhere by hand; using something else to review & perhaps apply metadata; using a RAW converter to process them into JPEG or TIF files; and finally cranking up Photoshop to make any finer-grained amends or tweaks that couldn't be handled through the RAW converter. In terms of image management, I never really found a solution I was happy with so ended up filing images in a fairly basic date-based archive on disk (so that I could find images by date) and using various tools to try and index the metadata.

At some point in what now seems like the distant past, I switched over to a Mac for video editing & production when the available Windows applications didn't really deal with AVCHD video particularly elegantly. At the same time I took the opportunity to reevaluate my photography workflow and it didn't take that long to realise that there must be a better option than the collection of tools.. After some research I came across Aperture, evaluated it & ended up buying a copy along with all the subsequent upgrades.

Aperture - the solution!


Aperture seemed like the solution to all of my issues at the time. It provided a fast, non-destructive way to import, manage, review/select, edit, export & manage my images; working seamlessly with Canon RAW files without any need to "process" or convert them first. The amount of time this saved me was incredible as all of a sudden I could download images from my memory cards after a shoot, and leap straight to selecting & editing - all while preserving the original image data. I was hooked!

It soon became apparent however that Aperture had a few flaws, one of which was its performance with large image libraries and another was its fairly elementary image editing tools.

Performance was something that was fixable relatively easily by keeping the "active" library's size (i.e. the library used for imports & working on your current stuff) as small as possible through relocating master RAW files out to normal folders on disk somewhere, but the image editing tools were something you were stuck with.

As Aperture was updated over the years I kept holding out hope that this would be an area Apple would work on & improve, but unfortunately while the tools & their capabilities gradually evolved over time they still left much to be desired with use of Photoshop inevitably increasing alongside Aperture. Aperture's tools could handle many basic tasks but were fairly restrictive in terms of applying changes selectively to areas of an image and its noise reduction capability left much to be desired. They did the job, but barely..

A year or so ago I finally reached the conclusion that I needed to do something different and evaluated & bought the fantastic Nik Software plugin suite for Aperture. Finally, I had a complete editing solution which could handle 99% of my image processing needs without depending on manual editing with Photoshop.

At this point, my workflow for a large shoot tended to consist of ingesting images into Aperture direct from memory cards, selecting & performing any crops or image-wide adjustments using Aperture's tools and then processing each image that needed further enhancement or special attention through the appropriate Nik plugin. I was also using Nik's noise reduction tools in place of Aperture's when required along with the excellent Silver Efex Pro for anything B&W or toned.

With the Nik plugins admirably filling a functional gap I continued using Aperture, relatively happily, but leaning heavily on Nik's tools for any more advanced image editing, sharpening or noise-reduction needs rather than using the Aperture tooling. Aperture had basically become an image management toolset handling import / cataloguing and conversion to JPG with the Nik plugins being used for colour adjustments and anything over and above simple image-wide adjustments.

The great downside to this was a dramatic increase in storage requirements. Getting images out of Aperture into the Nik tools tended to require generation of massive TIFs for each processed image. Multiple edits & use of multiple plugins quickly produced multiple copies of the TIFs. Great in terms of time saving through use of the Nik tools, but not so great in terms of disk consumption or archival storage afterwards!

Aperture's final days...


The final days for Aperture within my workflow arrived at the same time as my new Canon EOS 5D MK III camera. Aperture didn't support the new RAW file format for the 5D Mk3, meaning that the only way I could process images was to first run them though Adobe's RAW to DNG convertor (which they'd promptly released in beta containing support for 5D Mk3 RAW files, timed for the camera's launch), and import the DNGs to Aperture. At the same time as the updated converter tool was released Adobe also pushed out a beta of Lightroom with native 5D Mk3 RAW support. Score 1 for Adobe.

Being (relatively) happy with Aperture I downloaded the Lightroom (LR) beta with a view to seeing how it compared, and was plesently surprised to find a fresh, modern tool which effortlessly coped with everything I threw at it. Importing 5D Mk3 images to Lightroom seemed much easier than playing around with converting everything to DNG, and after a few tests I found myself very happy with the native output from LR4 - producing brilliantly clean images at virtually any ISO from 100 to 12,800. Obviously the 5D Mk3 helped with this but in contrast, processing the same images through Aperture produced results missing much of the detail present in those from LR.

It took a few days to properly find my way around LR, but after that point switching back to Aperture started to feel more uncomfortable every time I used it. Tasks that were effortless in LR took much more time in Aperture, and where the native tools in LR were able to handle 95% of my retouching needs I found myself relying on the Nik plugins to achieve similar results with Aperture. As a result, it wasn't long before I was working virtually exclusively with LR and actively avoiding using Aperture.

Given the functional gulf between Aperture 3 & Lightroom 4.1, I opted to delay finalising my decision to switch camps until June 2012 as Apple traditionally announce new releases of their major applications at their annual Worldwide Developer Conference. Despite massive expectations by many professional Aperture users that Apple might finally release a Lightroom-beating Aperture 4, Apple instead released a fairly minor, point release update (Aperture 3.1) rather than anything more significent. Perhaps demonstrating a change in approach for their professional imaging division, Aperture 3.1 did little to close the gap instead focusing on minor changes like an improved colour balance tool, support for Apple's fantastic new Retina display Macbook Pro and merging both Aperture and iPhoto to use a single library format. Seemingly no effort was made to resolve some of the greatest complaints about Aperture or to bring the product up to the same level as Lightroom - leaving it remaining a long way behind LR in terms of usability & functinality. I have no idea if this was deliberate on the part of Apple but they've essentially conceded the market for professional image processing tools to Adobe.

I'm sure Aperture will continue to sell plenty of copies, especially to those who are perhaps pushing the limits of IPhoto's capabilities where Aperture is a significent (and now simple) upgrade. However, for pro's at the moment it's essentially a dead-end product which Apple do not seem to be interested in growing. Many will probably start to draw parallels at this point between Aperture and Final Cut Pro X, which was seemingly refocused towards the consumer/iMovie end of the market rather than traditional professional NLE video editors.

Adobe Lightroom; Aperture's successor

The end result is that when my trial expired, buying LR was a simple decision; one made even easier by being able to acquire it as part of my Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. It's now become my primary workflow tool of choice, providing a streamlined reliable tool to manage my images across multiple storage devices into a single catalogue - providing rapid search regardless of storage along with non-destructive editing tools to rival Photoshop.

Its native editing tools are more than able to handle the vast majority of my retouching needs, and at the moment I've yet to purchase a cross-grade for my Nik plugins to use them with LR. So far, while perhaps using the Nik tools would have been slightly quicker than using LR, I've been able to do everything I've needed to without much in the way of effort. I imagine it won't be long until I do move the plugins across as I miss some of their capabilities but right now, using LR4 without them is much more preferable than Aperture!

One of my initial fears around switching to Lightroom was the process of migrating my image libraries from Aperture to LR. Despite many comments on the web about how difficult this process could be, I found it to be pretty simple. I made sure I'd relocated all of my Aperture Masters (i.e. my RAW files) out of the Aperture library to a normal folder on disk organised into a simple year/month/day & event structure, and simply pointed LR at the root of that folder structure. LR then quickly imported images into a new catalogue, and made them available nearly instantly for search or image processing. Naturally this process didn't import any of the adjustments made in Aperture, but given that I rarely need to re-process old images this does not present a problem. Should I need to use an old image for some reason, I'll simply reprocess it in LR.

While this process was running, another of Aperture's limitations was brought into stark contrast with LR. One of the greatest annoyances when it comes to manging an image library with Aperture is its inability to do more than a single task at once. Move some files around; it stops (with a progress dialogue on-screen), and you have to wait for it the move process to finish. Start a large import; it stops; update the Vault, it stops... etc. LR by contrast simply keeps working. You can run multiple imports, multiple file moves, multiple export jobs; all at the same time. Use it for a while, and you start to realise just how much difference this can make to your workflow.

In conclusion, if you find yourself sat on a fence with an established Aperture library, I would highly recommend that you move your master images out of Aperture, and give Lightroom a go. If nothing else, unlike Apple & Aperture, Adobe seem to be genuinely keen to develop the product; improving it with every release and actively engaging with the vibrant user community to help keep it moving in the direction everyone wants it to.


Review: Samba Mobile - Ad supported mobile broadband (updated)

 

Advertising-supported services for various things have been around almost as long as the advertising needed to support them has.

Over the years various companies have experimented with offering a full gamut of services from advertising-supported mobile phones through to PCs and internet access. For various reasons, many of those services are now not around any more having failed due to lack of demand, limited buy-in from users, ononerous demands in terms of the advertising content - or just not being able to balance the books.

Samba Mobile have launched recently with the focused aim of providing mobile broadband access, in exchange for watching a few minutes of ads on your phone, tablet or computer. They're using Three UK's mobile network, and as such the internet access side of their service works extremely well whenever you're in a Three coverage area. Three's network offers blazingly fast connectivity and is getting better all the time.

The only costs involved are those associated with buying a SIM card. Both standard and Micro SIMs can be provided depending on the device you want to use with their network, and can be ordered easily through www.sambamobile.com for £2.99 + P&P (Correct at time of writing).

Ordering a SIM was pain-free, and it duely arrived in the post a couple of days later. Samba don't provide any devices at this point so your SIM is simply posted to you in a jiffy bag along with a Welcome / Getting Started leaflet. With the SIM in your hands, simply pop it into your 3G dongle, iPad, laptop or MiFi and fire up your browser. No activation is required and it arrives with a little credit to get you going. For any serious usage however you'll probably want to dive straight into topping it up through watching ads.

If you're using either Chrome or Firefox on your computer SambaMobile have a plugin which provides you with a little Samba Mobile "Battery" icon within your browser. The Samba Battery provides easy access to the ad content & gives you a visual indicator of whenever you need to "recharge" by topping up your account. If however you're using IE, Safari or want to manage your account through a mobile device simply head over to http://www.sambamobile.com/ads to get going.

Watching adverts entails simply picking something (ideally) of interest and hitting play. The advert content seems to be of a high standard from mainstream advertisers, and will play unobtrusively in a window or with the sound switched off... on an iPad the ads will stop if you switch to another browser tab so if you're wanting to charge up your credit you will need to set the device aside for 5-10 minutes to play ads.

Interestingly you can view ads to charge your account from any device and any network connection - so if you live in a poor signal area for Three you can still top up your account using your home broadband connection so that it's ready for use when you're away from home.

As an alternative to watching adverts you can opt to top up your account using cash, with transactions processed by PayPal. This process is simplicity itself and will cost you £3.49 for 250Mb or £5.99 for 500Mb of data allowance, which will expire after 30 days.

Simply pick which one you want, provide your PayPal account details, and job done. Your account's then topped up with the respective amount of data and you're good to go.

Everything seems to work fine, and once you're connected internet access is indistinguishable from a standard Three connection. I assume you get some sort of reminder message when you run out of credit but haven't experienced this yet.

If there is one major barrier to adoption, it's the limited advertising content. When setting up your account you're prompted to define your interests/likes & dislikes which are presumably used to refine the adverts you see. However, after I'd played the 6 available adverts to top the account up this morning, the website informed me that I would need to come back tomorrow to top up again. If you didn't want to topup by cash and had run out of credit, I can see that this could get annoying. I suspect the limitation is imposed due to limited advertisers at this stage. Short of playing all the ads multiple times, once you watched them once any potential benefit/sales/return on the advertisers' investement would be somewhat limited.

In summary, if a Three mobile broadband connection is something that would be useful to you and you have a suitable device, I can only recommend giving Samba Mobile a try. For the price of a few minutes of advertising content you effectively get a PAYG Three SIM to do with what you want.

http://www.sambamobile.com

Updated 8th July, 2012

The major issue with Samba Mobile, like possibly all other ad-supported ventures before them is that they have yet to reach an ideal balance between the amount of credit you can earn through watching ads compared to how much data you're likely to use.

Some fairly normal browsing with a couple of connection speedtests quickly bumped my account up to 370Mb of usage over a couple of days. Watching all available adverts by contrast only allowed me to "earn" about 75Mb of data, clearly leaving somewhat of a shortfall. Once this point was reached, it seems that Samba Mobile opt to quickly suspend your account - requesting that you either watch some more ads, or buy credit to continue using the service.

Slight issue - given the small amount of data credited per ad, the only real option is to either buy credit or not use the connection for a few days until you've cleared the deficit!

Seems I'm not the only one to experience this either:

All in all, I think I'm reaching the conclusion that Samba Mobile is ideal if you need occasional or very low usage mobile broadband (and would prefer to not pay for it). Anything else, or if you need to use more than 10-40Mb of data per day - I'd have to recommend looking at "real" PAYG or contract mobile broadband from Three.


Revisited - Apple IPad Smart Case

 

After using Apple's new Smart Case on an iPad 3 for the last week, I thought I'd collect a few initial thoughts together for anyone considering buying one.

Firstly, I should say that although it's perhaps not Apple's best product ever, it's still firmly wrapped around my iPad and is highly likely to stay there until something better comes along.

Like any case or cover intended to be used with a mobile device, the Smart Case is the sum of a number of compromises. The fundamental fact is that if you want to protect your iPad, then you have to forgo some of its design goals by virtue of needing to wrap it in something which will hopefully absorb life's bumps and scratches, enduring the device inside remains in pristine condition.

The Smart Case achieves this by providing a robust case around the entire device except for it screen. Unfortunately unlike most other Apple products, it seems a little unfinished and could have perhaps benefited from more refinement before release.


For example, the solid part of the case surrounding the screen seems far too thick for what it does and is finished with a squared-off edge where the back of the case appears to be bonded to the solid surround. This just doesn't seem to be in-keeping with Apple's normally exceptionally high standards and would have been much better trimmed off & smoothed down. In use, it's not necessarily noticeable if you have the iPad resting on something or angled for typing, but it's somewhat more irritating when you're holding the device.


Aside from the edges, the case seems to be lacking Apple's attention to detail in terms of fit & finish. It's not quite as snug a fit around the iPad's sides as you might expect it to be, and the cut-outs for the volume/silence switch & dock connector are ever-so-slightly "off" in terms of size & position.

Nothing major but annoying when in daily use.

Finally, when stood upright to watch a movie or slideshow, the iPad is now angled a little more vertically than with a Smart Cover or other similar cases. Easily corrected by adjusting the position after standing it up, but again just not quite the standard you tend to expect.

In summary, the new Apple iPad Smart Case isn't a perfect product by a long margin but is very functional, seems to be sufficiently robust to survive daily usage, complements the iPad in terms of design, and looks to provide enough protection to keep your iPad safe without significantly impacting on its slim form or adding unnecessary bulk.

I'll be keeping mine, but will also be keeping an eye on the market....!


Apple iPad Smart Case - a smart option?

Alongside all the higher-profile news & products emerging during Apple's 2012 Worldwide Developer Conference was something intended to address one of the most obvious flaws with the iPad Smart Cover.

Sold in their millions to iPad owners wanting to protect their devices, it may sound slightly obvious but Smart Covers only cover the screen; leaving the back of the device unprotected. Although iPads have a metal back and are fairly robust, even light usage in a normal business setting can quickly result in a multitude of scratches in the aluminium finish. Smart Covers also leave the sides and corners of the device exposed so if a device is dropped, the screen is at greater risk of damage.

Until the launch of Smart Cases, only third party products were available that would fully protect your iPad's screen, corners, sides & back from damage. The new Smart Case is Apple's first product since the original iPad Folio case to offer this level of protection for second and third generation devices.

In the absence of a suitable accessory, most of the third party cases tended to either be fairly similar in nature; resembling a wrap-around folio case, or they took the form of a protective shell/film/etc for the back of the device & a Smart Cover style cover for the screen. Functional & effective, but often not the best option as something tended to be compromised somewhere down the line - size, protective ability, attachment, additional bulk, or perhaps just the style. None of the options really equated to the idea of an iPad with just a Smart Cover.

Apple's new Smart Case is a valiant attempt to change all of this. It's a polyurethane folio-style case, which encases your second or third generation iPad completely along with incorporating a standard Smart Cover for the screen. Due to its construction it's very lightweight and adds little to the overall weight of your iPad.


It does however add a bit of additional bulk around the sides of the device as it includes a fairly wide solid band around the perimeter of your iPad's screen. I can only assume this particular aspect of the design is intended to help offer an enhanced degree of protection to the sides/corners should the device be dropped.

I suspect I'm noticing it more at the moment due to having switched to the case in favour of just a standard Smart Cover. Hopefully over time it will just disappear into the background; much as the iPad's bezel does when your using it.

Once you've squeezed your iPad into the case (it's a fairly snug fit for the 3rd generation iPad - suspect the IPad 2 might be slightly looser), everything you could do using the standard Smart Cover will continue to work with the Smart Case. I'm finding that the screen angle is slightly steeper when the device is stood upright, but aside from that I'm not really noticing any major differences.

It's early days, but aside from the additional bulk I'm finding little reason to not to recommend this to anyone looking for a case for their iPad. The cost is much the same as a polyurthene Smart Cover, and in exchange for the bulk you get a case that works exactly the same as a Smart Cover; offers the same fit & finish as you'd expect from an Apple accessory & comes in a range of colours from primary red through slightly more muted shades of grey.


CloudFlare - Supercharge your website in five minutes?

Since its launch back in 2010, CloudFlare has been a company with an ambitious goal - help to power and protect the entire Internet.

Along the way they also accelerate your website, promising massive performance gains through use of their globally distributed servers - providing everyone with easy access a content delivery network.

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) have been used to accelerate website for many years now through means of using a network of servers dotted around the world. Requests for content on your site that doesn't change frequently (images, CSS & Javascript etc) are directed to whichever CDN server is geographically closest to each visitor - offloading the request from your own server & network, and accelerating delivery of your content.

Historically however using a CDN has been an expensive undertaking with high charges for storage of your content on their servers & of course bandwidth usage costs for the data served in support of your website. Generally speaking, most CDNs are pure cache solutions and do not provide any additional security for your website or content optimisation technologies.

CloudFlare is different; significantly different.

For a start, they provide all the services you'd expect to see offered by a traditional CDN. A globally dispersed network of servers with fast, high-capacity connectivity which you can use to accelerate delivery of your website's content. That's where the similarity ends…
Firstly, the service is available for free.

FREE.

No setup costs, no monthly costs, no storage costs, no bandwidth costs and no advertising. They offer a paid upgrade for $20 (US) / month which adds many other useful services and enhanced analytics, but that's still hardly expensive when considering the cost of traditional CDN solutions.

CDN aside, CloudFlare also provides a range of security-orientated services - their main product. These services protect your website by screening out malicious, threatening or abusive traffic; challenging anything suspicious and blocking it before it reaches your servers. Details of attacks across all sites using their network are fed back into the system to help ensure that emerging attack profiles can be tracked and blocked for all as rapidly as possible.

The end result is that only genuine traffic reaches your webservers - helping improve performance further still by preventing unwanted traffic from wasting your server's resources.

Surely setting this up is difficult?

Opting to use a traditional CDN is sometimes a difficult affair involving changes to your application code or alterations to your webserver's configuration to ensure that requests for files hosted on the CDN are routed to the CDN rather than your server. If you're using a CMS this might be as simple as installing a suitable plugin but on the other hand could involve significant development effort.

Using CloudFlare is simplicity itself, taking 5-10 minutes to setup a new website. You need to have control of your domain's Name Servers however as setup entails adding your domain to the system, and then pointing its Name Servers to CloudFlare's DNS. Once that's done, you're up and running.

Does it work?

CloudFlare was enabled a few days ago on this site, and first impressions are good. Response times were far from slow previously however as we've been running the blazing fast combination of Nginx & PHP-FPM rather than traditional Apache, but we had a number of areas we were hoping to improve in terms of compressing JS/CSS files and cache management of static files. Comment SPAM has also been getting increasingly annoying with this site seemingly being on someone's list for the link-spamming brigade.

It's obviously early days but so far it seems great. We're getting increased website performance in terms of faster page loads; everything that can be compressed or minified is now being handled as we'd like; comment spam seems to have been stopped in its tracks (probably due to the bot-nets that generate it now being blocked by CloudFlare); and stability of the CloudFlare service seems fine.
All in, for free, I'm pleased with how it seems to be working so far.

We'll be adding a few more sites to the service over the coming week or two and I'll let you know how it goes.. Definitely a case of so far, so good!