Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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Review: Pixel Enterprises - Pixel Expert Wireless Live View Remote Control

Digital SLR cameras in the last few years have been slowly moving towards video. With that in mind there's also a slew of various accessories to make the job easier.

The Pixel Expert (LV-W2) positions itself to fit both the bill of a wireless remote monitor with the ability to trigger the camera. 

I received my pre-release unit from Pixel Enterprises without a manual (it's currently being written) and additional cords for various cameras. The release version will be shipped with the appropriate cables for the appropriate cameras.

As all other Pixel products, the packaging follows a similar motif and very efficiently packed. It comes with plenty of bubble wrap which for the most part was unnecessary being that the whole package came in a padded nylon case.

The padded case is a nice touch. It seems rather large at first, but it contains all the necessary cables, the transmitter and the receiver unit. The case also has a belt loop which I doubt I'll ever use, but a nice touch regardless.

Inside the case, there's several compartments that separates everything neat and tidy. The release unit will come with 2-3 cables (depending on the camera model) a transmitter and a receiver unit. 
The build quality of the Pixel Expert also follows much of the same build quality of all of their products. Compared to their now discontinued LV-W1 unit this is a refreshing change. The unit itself is much larger but they have moved away from several annoyances that made the LV-W1 a pain to use. One of the biggest issues was a proprietary micro-USB like connector for a more standard mini-USB connector. Also there are more physical switches for things like power and channel selection on both the transmitter and the receiver.

Much of the larger size of the unit is due to the fact that they also changed from a proprietary battery system to the more common double A battery.

I wish they used smaller triple A batteries just to keep the unit size down, but frankly the move away from the other batteries sits just as well with me. The transmitter is much larger than the one on the LV-W1 but seems light enough and sits well on the camera. I'm not a huge fan of the plastic hot shoe and would have liked it to be metal but I appreciate that to keep costs down that they might have taken this approach to keep the amount of functions they have added to this unit.

The power specifications are slightly better than the LV-W1 with the transmitter unit with a 100 hours on standby and 10 hours of continuous operation, and the receiver with 500 hours and 12 hours of continuous (this is the reported specs on 1.2v 2400mAh batteries). I used alkaline batteries in my tests but it's good to see those kinds of specs with rechargeable batteries.

The major functions of this combination are the following:
  • Shooting Modes of Single, Continuous and 2s Delayed
  • Image Saving: Saving the image before and after the the shutter has been pressed (more on this later)
  • Image Playback
  • Zooming in CCTV mode with 4 way direction scrolling
  • Video Output: support for video and audio output from the remote unit
The single most interesting thing about this unit isn't so much about the wireless liveview remote functions, but the new CCTV camera that is built into the transmitter. 

At first this odd ball feature threw me off but I quickly realized the benefits of having the CCTV on the transmitter which will be a nice added function to those working with multiples cameras. Being able to have multiple cameras set up, the liveview on most dSLRs will not stay on permanently (mostly due to potential overheating issues). This added feature gives you the option to monitor what is in the view of the CCTV at the time and to trigger the shutter if you see something that is in the approximate viewfinder.

The CCTV displays a rather wide view and also off axis view of your scene, however you can zoom in your CCTV mode to look at details, and decide if you want to press the trigger release to lock the image in. This function will be very handy if you're photographing an event and want to have cameras located at specific locations. However I should also point out that if you think that this is a great feature for video, think again. At least with both my Canon cameras, hitting the remote button only fires the shutter and does not activate the video mode.

However this unit can be useful for video when used as an independent reposition-able monitor. This is very useful when you want to have your monitor well in front of you when you're shooting video. There's a 1/4 thread on the monitor, so it's just a matter of mounting it onto a ball head and on some sort of armature that can be positioned anywhere.

There is a pressing question on who will find this device useful. Part of having the ability to control things remotely is being able to control more than just the shutter functions and to view this remotely. At the time of this publication, Pixel is working on other software/firmware functions to this unit, which means it is possible to extend the function of this beyond what it's currently capable. The most important thing about this unit is the improvements they did from the original LV-W1. It's far more stable and the image quality is a significant improvement over the old unit, however it comes at a cost of being much larger and with some functions that seem to be pointless (such as being able to use this unit to listen to audio wirelessly but requires quite a configuration of cords to make it useful when recording video and the ability to capture low resolution stills off of the CCTV camera). The range is much better, and the video quality is great.

The people that will likely gain the most benefit from this unit are those that use right angle finders or put their cameras in very awkward and hard to reach or position vantage points. As a macro shooter, I appreciate the ability to have the remote unit in my hand where I can view most of what is going on and adjust as I see fit. It certainly justifies the reasons why some of the consumer models of dSLRs have the articulated screens. One such benefit is to be able to set up my humming bird feeder and to have me sit in the comfort of my living room waiting for one to come visit without startling it. The results are well worth the ability to hide well away from my shy subjects to capture them on my camera.

Nectar

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

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Topaz Lens Effects - Bokeh Filter - Part 2

A short follow-up on my review of my earlier review of Topaz Lens Effects. I was asked about the effect because it seemed very subtle and it was hard to see where there is a net benefit.

I decided to do another example where you can see where the bokeh effect works very well.


In this image I was able to simulate some crazy 24mm F/.05 lens. Actually the simulation is exaggerated beyond any possible lens. I did purposely push this more than recommended, but also to demonstrate how well the selective bokeh works.

For something that is software based, it certainly does a pretty bang up job of simulating something that only more expensive lenses, a larger format camera, or only in my imagination can. For the short term, the special on $49.99 is a great deal for what this software offers.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

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To Anti-Alias or not Anti-Alias

A discussion of anti-alias (AA) filter removal comes up often and there seems to be some confusion over what advantages this gives.

Users believe the removal of such filters will improve resolution and details, but the reality on higher density sensors the resolving details are only slightly affected by the filters.

So what is the AA filter? Simply put it's a piece of crystal that offsets certain pixels onto the sensor to avoid jagged edges and most importantly moire patterns. This can be seen by photographing something with a uniform pattern. Certain cameras like Leica and Sigma (also most medium format digitals) do not have the AA filter. The claim is that they help improve details.

Alright.... so lets put this all in perspective. Here's two files taken right off of MaxMax's website:

www.maxmax.com/hot_rod_visible.htm

MaxMax is a company that provides a service to remove the AA filters from your digital cameras. The files that I've downloaded from their website is specific to the 5D.

At first when you load up the files you'll say, there is a difference, but in reality that's just not the case. The AA filter on the 5Dmk2 is weaker than the 5D and although it reduces subtle moire patterns, for the most part it does very little to affect things. These examples are from the 5D. They don't have 5Dmk2 samples and I would suspect from my findings there would be even less differences.

Couple of things before I show the crops I will explain my methodology.

  • Downloaded the CR2 files from the above link
  • Loaded them into Lightroom 3
  • Focused on a specific area that appears to have more details
  • Adjusted exposure to correct for change in light (looks like they took the shot with the same settings, but at about an hour apart from each other [this is a guess based on the shadow movement] - so not very scientific/technical analysis by MaxMax)
  • Adjusted the image with sharpness settings in LR (not unsharp mask) with a setting of 1 pixel @ 130 (approximately the same setting that an in camera JPG setting should be)

Here's the comparisons:

Area of Focus

Unmodified 5D (Exposure Corrected)

MAXMAX Hotrod Modified 5D (AA filter Removed)
You can see the moire pattern in the grill, but the detail impact seems very significant. The supposed mushiness is making itself apparent in these two comparisons.

....and now for why it's a waste of time:
Lightroom 3 adjust non-modified 5D
As you can see in both the modified and the Lightroom 3 adjusted version, there is almost no difference (I can push the sharpness more if I needed to, but kept it here to simulate what in camera JPG sharpening is set by Canon).

You can see that all the subtle details that the modified version supposedly recovered was always in the file. DPP is the worst program to try to sharpen the file as it does it's sharpening after it processed the RAW file. The sharpening approach that Lightroom 3 applies is much different than how DPP does it as it does the sharpening at the RAW file level (likely at the demosaic level much like how it does it's noise reduction) rather than after. But the big advantage with the non-modified version is that the colour moire pattern that the modified one has is not nearly as bad.

Is there any real advantage in removing the AA filter? No. If you believe it does, then you're not processing your RAW files with the right software or you're assuming that you're not to sharpen your images when you bring them into your camera.

There's a reason why JPG images initially look sharper than RAW files and Canon knows that the AA filter does affect the sharpness a touch. The in camera processing does a far better job than DPP does, but Adobe's approach (and likely DxO Optics) to sharpening is almost like having no AA filter.

Conclusion:
Save yourself the money for the conversion and the risk of future moire patterns. Spend it on Lightroom 3 or DxO Optics Pro 6.5 to process your files. There is no net gain in removing the AA file that I can tell by looking at the two RAW files from MaxMax themselves when all things are treated equal. The other thing to consider is the 'jaggies'. Although most people don't look at images at 200%, the AA filter does it's job of softening the jaggies so it doesn't look quite so digitally represented.

Now is this to say that there isn't any net benefit from removing the AA filter. Certainly it's much nicer to start with a file that doesn't have to be sharpened in post. But in my findings it doesn't really take much to compensate for the AA filter. However I suppose if you start with an image that was poorly shot without the AA filter, you might have a slight better chance of recovery from those kinds of mistakes without it. On something like the Leica M9, since there is no autofocus, focusing errors are probably more common and having no AA filter certainly helps mediocre or slightly off focused images appear to be much better than normal.

If you're shooting a modern dSLR camera with manual focus lens, then perhaps there's some advantages with removing the AA filter, but for more purposes, save yourself the money and spend it on decent RAW processing software.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

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Topaz Lens Effects - Bokeh Filter

I'm not a big fan of Photoshop filters but I thought I'd give this one a try and see how it works.

Topaz Lens Effects isn't quite a traditional filter either. Rather it's a separate application that uses the plug-in architecture to pass it to its application.

The list of features as follows:


  • Simulate realistic lens, filter & specialty camera effects
  • Emphasize focal point and minimize distracting elements
  • Enjoy having the flexibility to add in-camera effects After the Shot
  • Achieve a diverse range of effects without additional equipment - saving time and money




The only specific filter that interests me is being able to control the bokeh. Although many of my lenses are pretty fast apertures, occasionally I'm not completely happy with the subject isolation.


The interface in this version is a little kludgy. At least on my MacBook Pro, it jumps around on the screen and seems to have some issues with screen refresh. But despite this annoyance the interface is relatively simple to use:

The interface is somewhat similar to working with Lightroom so this won't seem too different to those users, but those used to Photoshop will need to get used to the split panes and application browser based menu options on the right hand side.

Testing out the specific Bokeh control was pretty easy to do. In this example I chose a subject that I wanted to get a little more isolation from the background, but also to bring a little more focus on it. Along the Left hand side, there's a few preset options to start with, much like Lightroom and its own presets. 

Painting the depth map was not very intuitive. However to be fair, I only did a cursory glance over the manual and started to just go to work with it. The options do have a few menu tip helps, but I do recommend reading the manual thoroughly to get a good understand of what each slider can do. Once I figured out things, it was pretty easy to isolate and paint my depth field map. Much like Photoshop's magic wand, Topaz Lens Effects does a pretty good job of automatically selecting areas that you're hoping to paint. It's not perfect, and it doesn't follow any standard UI rules so I spent a lot more time clicking around to get things right.

The speed of the whole application isn't too bad. I monitored my CPU and saw it chugging away and giving me a relatively snappy preview. Having the ability to paint and see the instant results is certainly important in modern day image editing software.


Overall the ability to paint my bokeh is much better than Photoshop's built in filter option. I can even control the lighting in the selected areas which is somewhat similar to some Dynamic Range Increase techniques. The fact that this can turn your more inexpensive lenses into a more expensive BOKEHish lens might be something that is worth consideration.


Until the May 27th, the filter is on sale for $49.99 (Reg. $79.99). Visit http://www.topazlabs.com/lenseffects/ to download the 30 day trial and give the other filters a try.



Before Filter
After Topaz Lens Effect