[CONFESSIONS OF AN APOSTATE]

A few years ago we forsook the faith of Windows and went whoring after the iGods of Jobs. It happened like this.

First we were seduced by the iPad and then the iPad with the Retina (Apple talk for high resolution) display with its accurate colours and contrast right out of the box. Then it was just a short step to the MacBook Pro, a portable computer that miraculously showed the right colours and contrast no matter the angle from which it is viewed. And before you knew it we had bought an iMac and the iHeresy was complete.

Quite simply if you are serious about using a computer for photo editing then there was no choice. Only Apple seemed to care about colour-accurate displays. Well, not any more.

The Microsoft Surface Book is a portable computer that could entice us back into the cult of Gates. We have been using the Surface Book ($2299) alongside the MacBook Pro 13” Retina ($1999) laptop and choosing which to worship is not easy.

They use the same processor, the Intel Core i5, and have similar screen sizes. Both are high definition with the Surface Book being marginally sharper and better colour balanced with a dazzling true white. Photos and videos look stunning on this display and by comparison the MacBook images look a little dull.

They both come with 128GB flash drives, with higher drive capacities and faster processors available at much higher prices. So why does the Surface Book cost more? To start with it has a touch screen that can be written on with the supplied stylus. This is of more interest than it might seem because the display section of the computer can be detached from the keyboard and used as a tablet.

What’s more the display can be folded back flat against the base of the unit to make it easier for touch and stylus operation. You could argue that the computer/tablet combination would add many hundreds to the price of the MacBook, and even then you would not get the seamless integration of laptop and tablet.

However things don’t all go the Microsoft way. The two units have similar keyboards with trackpads. The MacBook’s trackpad is a sweet thing, sensitive to the touch, easily interpreting multi-finger gestures and responding to a gentle tap to execute the command. The Surface Book touchpad is coarser and less responsive so we paired the Book with a Bluetooth mouse and then it worked flawlessly but portability is compromised.

When it comes to the Windows 10 vs MacOs El Capitan operating systems the choice is easy – go with the one you know and love. But the Mac OS does have the advantage of in-built applications that Windows doesn’t seriously try to match. For the photographer the inclusion of Photos and iMovie in the Mac system is just about a deal decider. Windows also has something called “Photos” which offers less in photo editing functions than the average smartphone can manage. The MacBook can be used for photo and video editing without any additional software and that is not possible with the Surface Book.

Windows does give access a huge array of excellent free applications, including the well-regarded Photoscape picture editor. When Photoscape and Irfanview, another free app, are installed on the Surface Pro it is as good as the MacBook. But that still leaves video editing software lacking and we have not found anything to compare with iMovie. Wondershare Filmora is an iMovie clone but it costs about $75 and doesn’t handle 4K video. Microsoft advise that the clunky old Windows Movie Maker is “not supported on Windows 10”.

The killer argument for the Microsoft Surface Book is that it could be all the computer you will ever need. Add a 1TB external hard drive (about $90) a Bluetooth mouse (ours cost $5) and an external 4K monitor and you will have an all-in-one laptop, tablet and desktop computer. Add Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements to the software and it adds up to a neat, do everything, space saving photo and video editing machine. It could be time to worship at the shrine of Gates once again.

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[REVIEW – SONY HDR-AS50 Action Cam]

PRICE: $299
Tiny and tough

THE LOWDOWN: Sony’s new action cam is small and light – 24x47x83mm and 83g – and fitted with an 18.4mm (film equivalent) f2.8 Zeiss branded lens. The 11 megapixel sensor is back illuminated. Image stabilisation is electronic “SteadyShot”. The camera comes with a detachable waterproof housing that can be used to depths of 60m and this housing also makes the unit dust and shockproof and keeps it working at -10c. Recording is on a Micro SD card and both video and stills can be captured. Video formats include both standard 1080 line high definition and 4K 2160 movies. The camera can be controlled from a smartphone using the Sony Play Memories app for iPhone or Android. Movies can be transferred to a phone for editing using the Sony Action Cam app. Shooting parameters are set using a tiny LCD on the side of the camera, so you’re not going to be making adjustments under water.

LIKE: We shot 4K video with the AS50 and the results are impressive. Our only reservation is the extreme barrel distortion. Smartphone control is brilliant with a viewfinder image on the phone plus some controls of the camera. The exposure compensation control is particularly useful.

DISLIKE: There is not much in the way of attachments in the box. Be prepared to lay out more money for doodads to attach the camera to you bike, hat or helmet.

VERDICT: This is a reasonably priced camera that will serve a diver, skier, cyclist, skate-boarder or sky diver well. Not being a daredevil our testing lacked something of the adventurous spirit but we like what the Sony AS50 did. And it scored the TIPA award for best action cam.

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[END OF THE TREND]

Right now is not a good time to be a manufacturer of digital cameras. Just ask the chaps in the Samsung camera division.

In March Samsung abandoned the digital camera business just when its new mirrorless NX1 was getting stellar reviews in every market. A good word from the critics didn’t get the cameras moving from the shops.

Perhaps the NX1 was too expensive or too heavy. Or it may have been reluctance to buy into a new system of lenses and accessories. Or perhaps when you get into the over-$2000 it’s safest to buy Canon or Nikon.

At the lower end of the compact camera market Samsung was hurt by the excellence of its own phone cameras, consistently rated at the top for image quality.

The latest camera shipment figures from CIPA (Camera Imaging and Products Association of Japan) show just how precarious the industry is becoming for those at the low end of sales volumes. Total camera shipments for the first half of 2016 are down about 47 per cent. Compact cameras have suffered the biggest decline in sales.

Ten years ago Canon reported that most of their compact sales came from people who already owned a digital camera but wanted the features of the newer models and so traded up. It was usually for more pixels or a longer zoom. Who does that anymore?

The digital camera business is a profligate one with short model life and constant updating and replacing at a pace that we didn’t see in film days. Why don’t they save themselves some R and D expense by extending model life? According to an Olympus Imaging executive, they dare not. The digital imaging technology is constantly improving. The image capturing sensors, image processing engines, auto focusing electronics and mechanics, battery and memory storage are getting better every day and no manufacturer can afford to be left behind.

The most recent sales figures for Olympus imaging show a decline in sales of 25.5%. The company says that there are “…Ongoing moves to shrink the imaging business to a scale more appropriate for a shrinking market…Despite efforts to squeeze expenses, lower sales resulted in an operating loss in the imaging business.”

The figures suggest that the DSLR business will keep Canon and Nikon in reasonable health so all eyes are on Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm to see who is next to follow Samsung out of the market.

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[STRAIGHTEN UP AND SNAP RIGHT]

An American visitor to these shores, come for the Adelaide Writers Festival in 1982, wrote: “Adelaide’s beige stone houses with white trim and long verandahs are the most beautiful domestic architecture I have ever seen, at least as nice as Danish farms and Parisian townhouses.” She’s not wrong.

South Australia is indeed a blessed and fortunate state – they missed the twentieth century entirely. There was never any economic incentive to demolish the beautiful and replace it with the vulgar, so not only in the capital but also in country towns the glories of nineteenth century stone architecture is everywhere preserved. Power poles and overhead wires have virtually disappeared and here and there old gas lamps (all right, electric gas lamps) now light the perfectly preserved streets. There is a lot to photograph.

Photographing buildings is a fraught exercise for us OCD types – we get twitchy about converging verticals, that form of perspective distortion that makes building looks as though they are falling backwards. We like our buildings standing up straight with nicely parallel walls. We ask you, is that too much to ask? Even in the olden days in the darkroom we would resort to tilting the paper frame to give as few degrees of vertical correction to the picture.

Fortunately we had chosen to take the Olympus OMD EM1 with us, fitted with the new Panasonic Leica 12mm wide angle lens. The Olympus has an inbuilt keystone correction function, meaning that you can straighten up the converging walls of a building right in the camera. Keystone Compensation is selected in the second menu level and applied with the front wheel. The effect can be seen in the viewfinder and on the LCD. We used it a lot for photographing old buildings of two or more storeys. The only caveat with the Olympus system – also in the EM5 MkII – is that the degree of correction is a tad limited.

When we used the Nexus 5X phone to take photos and to edit them before posting to Instagram we used the Transform tool in Snapseed to straighten the walls. The Vertical Perspective and the Horizontal Perspective correction sub-tools are able to fix most distortions in photos of buildings taken from the footpath with the very wide angle phone lens.

In-camera and Snapseed editing is fine for travelling light with a minimum of gear, but back home there is an even better way of squaring things up. The latest version of Lightroom for CC subscribers incorporates the ultimate in distortion correction.

In Develop mode there is a sub-palette labelled Transform where there are several tools for distortion correction. Using “Guided” the idea is to click on the top of one leaning vertical and then align the line that appears with the edge of the building. Repeat the process with the facing edge and voila! The image changes shape. The process can then be repeated for horizontal corrections.

There are also sliders for vertical and horizontal correction and an Auto button that is a good place to start because it often gets the effect right.

Photoshop has distortion correction functions in the Edit menu, labelled Perspective Warp. This is much harder to use than the new module in Lightroom but once mastered it works well enough. It will probably be replaced in future versions of Photoshop CC with the Lightroom version. And Photoshop also has a perspective correction function in Filter/Lens Correction/Custom/Transform which works when the subject building is arranged symmetrically in the frame but otherwise requires some tidying up in Edit/Transform/Distort or Perspective.

Olympus in-camera and Snapseed crop the image to the original aspect ratio after the correction is applied while Photoshop and Lightroom leave it to the user to crop out the blank areas of the frame.

Some readers may be muttering: “Why bother when you can fit your Nikon or Canon with a tilt-shift lens that will do the job perfectly on the spot?” Not all of us can afford the $2500 price for entry into the world of tilt-shift lenses. Snapseed for Android and iDevices, on the other hand, is free which is a winning argument for most of us.

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