Monday
Sep242012

Moving this blog to Squarespace 6

I’ve set up my new website on Squarespace version 6. If you were directed here from my old blog sub-domain please go to davymac.com/blog for a link to my new blog (and all the migrated posts from this one).

This Squarespace version 5 blog will be deleted soon.

Thanks.

Thursday
May032012

The triumph of the ‘Norms’

Only a few short years ago we were mostly content to allow the ‘expert’ tech Journos/Pundits/Analysts to tell us all what type of Smartphone we ought to buy. Many of the leading tech pundits in those pre-iPhone days boldly claimed that a Smartphone (and the iPhone in particular) wasn’t a Smartphone if:

  • it didn’t have a ‘real’ keyboard
  • it didn’t have GPS
  • it didn’t multi-task
  • it couldn’t edit Word docs
  • it didn’t make toast! ;-) 

…etc.

For back in the ‘Pre-iPhone Era’ handheld devices were absolutely the domain of the hardcore nerd - in fact you pretty much had to be a nerd to even attempt to use one of these devices, which were about as user-friendly as a rabid cornered pitbull.

These industry analysts were not just nerds, but Alpha-Nerds, and they did love their tech gadgets, especially gadgets stuffed with shiny new tech and an ever-expanding list of impressive specifications. Nothing less that the very bleeding edge tech would suffice, bizarrely not just for themselves, but for all users. But the problem with relying on an ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ spec-sheet philosophy is much like having a great cake recipe, without ever having actually baked one. Sure that recipe looks great, easy enough to attempt and you have the ingredients to hand, but it’s pretty meaningless until the cake is baked and you can actually taste it.

It’s fair to say now that the spec-sheet fantasies of the tech media analysts have lost out to Apple, who have successfully fulfilled the promise of a powerful, robust and easy to use device. Millions have voted for the iPhone with their hard-earned cash, which is all the more surprising considering Apple weren’t even in the smartphone business when most of the competition were considered mature products.

I’m not bashing the nerds here (and I consider myself one) but the smug attitude of the media ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’, inferring they have the insider smarts for what the public really need, that bothers me. Neither is there anything wrong with having an elite techie club (for those who are obsessed with that kind of thing). But these experts were recommending devices to the general (most definitely non-nerd) public and expecting them to put up with hideous user experiences for the sake of ticking off boxes on a spec list.

Of course, as has often been quoted by Upton Sinclair, ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it’.

I expect that this type of defensive thinking, plus perhaps some ‘creative’ and ‘promotional’ activity by some vendors, would result in the sort of recommendations and analysis that we’ve come to expect from some of these tech market analysts.

Surprisingly, and even in the face of concrete evidence, this type of Apple-bashing persists today - but at least now we can see what’s happening in the real world for ourselves. Just have a look around next time you’re in town and notice how many iPhones you see people using compared to any other types of mobile. You’ll probably be surprised how popular this sophisticated device is amongst the ‘normal’ folks.

Here’s a few gems that put it all into perspective:

Trevor Gilbert’s post on Pundits and Analysts

From Daring Fireball: Tomi Ahonen on iPhone Sales

And also: Apple should just ‘pull the plug’ on the iPhone, from John C. Dvorak

A shocking article from the Forbes site(!) by contributor Louis Bedigian knocking the newly launched iPhone 4S. Good to see that many of the commenters have really taken him to task on this.

I think [this post] (http://flyosity.com/ipad/the-ipad-is-for-everyone-but-us.php) from Mike Rundle really nails it on who Apple really has in mind for the iPad (and iPhone)

An excellent summary on how device specs have become meaningless from Drew Breunig.

Production notes: This post was written entirely on my iPad (including links and researching web pages for the quotes) using the excellent Writing Kit app for iOS. The header illustration was also created on an iPad using the iDraw vector illustration app. How far we’ve come, in so short a time.

Saturday
Dec032011

Shooting Build

Build SpeakersFor three years now Andy McMillan has been running what is widely regarded as one of the world’s best design and web industry events right here in Belfast. The conference is called Build and features five pretty intense days of educational/entertaining/social activities, culminating in a main conference day of formal presentations. Build attracts the best designers and developers in the web design industry, both for the main speakers and the attendees.

So a while ago I suggested to Andy that it would be worthwhile ‘officially’ covering Build with myself as photographer. Of course there have been some great photos taken at previous Build events (most of the creative attendees are themselves pretty handy with cameras!), but those photos are usually captured in ‘downtime’ moments by people otherwise concentrating on the actual events. In contrast my attendance at Build would be exclusively for the purpose of capturing good high-quality images from as much of the event as possible, running over the whole four days.

I knew this would be a lot of work, both in shooting the photos and in the follow-up processing, but I was happy to add my support to the impressive work that Andy and his team undertake in putting Belfast on the international design map.

Build is a really significant event and I wanted to do it justice with images that conveyed the scale, atmosphere and excitement experienced by all who attended it. If you weren’t lucky enough to get to Build this year I hope my photos give you a sense of what it was like - and whets your appetite for Build 2012.

I have posted a small gallery of images in a new Photography section here on my blog. The main body of images from Build can be seen on my Flickr and Pix.ie accounts.

Monday
Sep262011

I, Robot

Robothead2I first met Jonathan Cusick, the owner of Digital Robot Software, at one of the Belfast Xcake developer networking meetings. I recall trying to impress upon some of these nascent developers the importance of employing good design and branding in marketing their new apps. I was pleased that Jonathan seemed to 'get it' as, a short while after the meetup, he contacted me to discuss creating branding for this new software company.

Jonathan specifically wanted a fun iconic robot image incorporated into the logo, of course being an ardent Sci-Fi fan the subject of robots is close to my heart so I had a lot of fun trawling through my favourite movies, books and comics while digging up the reference material. Robot icons have always played a huge part in mainstream popular culture anyway, and never more so than in today's world, so I thought this was a good direction for the creative.

I wanted to reduce the icon to the most recognisable aspect of a character (robot or human) - the face. An image of a face is powerful and, whatever the viewer's reaction is, the connection to the image is readily made and usually memorable. I was aiming for; 'Smart and fun, with attitude' - with the intention of showing some personality in the face element of the icon. I also had some fun in 'drawing' the face using numerals from the typeface.

I chose 'ITC Avant Garde Gothic' for the typeface, trading numbers for letters in a few instances, and editing some of the letterforms further to give the complete logo a more bespoke and geometric/industrial look. For colourways a fresh green matched to a muted navy blue worked well in defining the logo elements. These strong colours also make for a good reversed-out combination, very important for the likes of website mastheads (or any implementation of the logo beyond white stationery printing).

I really enjoyed creating this logo, I was happy with it, Jonathan was happy with it - and the robot looks happy about it too!

DRS logos blogillustration

Thursday
Jul212011

Swimming against the tide?

I’ve been a long time fan of Adobe’s Creative Suite, from way back when they started binding together their various apps to slay the mighty Quark Xpress.

I’m a CS5 user myself and, despite the frequent criticisms of growing bloatware, the CS Suite is an awesome and comprehensive set of tools, in fact it covers pretty much everything a graphic designer needs. But the accelerating development path (and more particularly the expense involved) of the recent CS Suite upgrades has raised a few heckles in the Creative Industries. It’s understandable that a company of Adobe’s scale needs a certain degree of profit to sustain their considerable momentum and also that they clearly wish to be seen as catering for the ‘Pro’ market, but the entire concept of software ‘Apps’ is currently undergoing serious re-evaluation as the platforms, marketing practices and the Apps themselves continue to evolve.

There’s an increasing number of alternatives cropping up to seriously challenge Adobe’s products and, while Adobe always had competition, the nature of their competitors has changed significantly. As the Mac OS has gained in popularity (including an overlap with the booming iOS world) developer resources have grown to reflect this. The big guns of the software market have always had competition from talented independent developers, but now those independents have access to a very mature programming ecosystem - and online marketplaces on a scale that they could never have dreamed of just a few years ago.

Granted these competitors are usually stand-alone applications and no-one is producing the convenient all-in-one toolbox that Adobe offers. However, a set of well designed single-focus applications, operating to industry standard file types, can achieve similar results and often with only a little more inconvenience. But by far the most compelling reason to try any of these competing apps is that they’re only a fraction of the cost of the Adobe products, so even if you have to buy three or four apps it’s still a huge saving over the cost of the complete Adobe Suite.

In the Creative Industries, as with many others, the trend driven by ever-improving digital toolsets has been towards a low (and decreasing) cost of entry for new talent. This has helped reveal some amazing new talent in Music, Design, Video and the Arts in general. But Adobe’s pricing policies for their Creative Suite appears to go against this low-cost trend, most noticeably with the new services and extensions to their existing CS Suite, intended to encourage content development for iPad/tablet publishing.

Currently the potential of the iPad as a publishing platform is generating a lot of excitement, with some very interesting start-ups making their intentions known. For example, this post (from the Adorama blog) on the impressive work from Pushpoppress, initially for Al Gore’s ‘Our Choice’ iPad book:


A team of ex-Apple engineers have created a specialized book publishing service for iPad. Originally created for a one-off multimedia version of Al Gore’s environmental opus, Our Choice, Push Pop Press has emerged into a full-fledged development platform, which promises to bring drag-and-drop simplicity to the process of creating multimedia books. It’s an obvious competitor to Adobe’s suite of digital publishing tools for iOS, which have a prohibitive price barrier and learning curve, suited more for developers than artists and writers. Now you don’t need an engineering degree to design an attractive user experience.

Of course it has yet to be seen if they will eventually sell this software to the public - and if it really will be as easy as it appears to produce such specialised content. But, like a few others, they see the opportunity for a lightweight dedeicated authoring App and I believe their approach to this is definitely on the right track.

And this from Wired Magazine:


The 800-pound gorilla in this digital space is Adobe, whose tools are used to create some tablet periodicals (including the iPad version of WIRED magazine). But the complexity — and expense — of Adobe’s Creative Suite is an opportunity for new entrants in the self-publishing game.

Sadly I think it is very unlikely that Adobe will attempt to make their pricing more competitive, as they still appear focussed more on the established (and presumably better monied) Pro market rather than those struggling to become the next generation of that market.

So what do you think?

Are you an established Pro who can easily afford the latest and greatest from Adobe and could care less about their costs?

Or are you a design graduate trying to balance your need for quality software tools with your bank account?

Wednesday
Jun222011

Scared Sitless

Are you sitting comfortably?

...then I'll begin, but you may not like it much.

I expect many readers of this blog already know they spend way more time than is healthy sitting working at a computer. For those who are solo freelancers, like myself, there is even less reason, or even opportunity, to move from our workstations as frequently as those of us working in communal shared office spaces. The swift evolution of my computer's capabilities has been matched by it's increasing influence in my physical world. My computer is now loaded with all sorts of software and can already do pretty much everything I need to produce a huge range of work. With most of my work also delivered digitally I don’t even have to go visit any supply companies, as I used to do with print projects. Of course the more efficient my computer becomes at doing almost everything the less reasons I have for moving away from it. I'm realising the old cliché 'chained to my desk' is taking on a whole new, and very unpleasant, meaning.

The legendary Kurt Vonnegut made a great observation on our increasing reliance on the computer to 'save' us from unnecessary 'work'. When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope...

Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

And 'So it goes'

So there you are happily sitting at your desk all day, content in the knowledge that you're Getting Things Done, but, as Admiral Ackbar knows all too well: "It's a Trap!"

The Daily Mirra

It made sense to me that if so much sitting is inevitable then I'd best get a really, really good chair, and one of my first blog posts years ago was about finding the best chair to work from. Knowing I was likely to be spending an insane amount of time in my work chair I bought one of the best I could find: a Herman Millar 'Mirra' chair. It was expensive, but it was money well spent as I soon gained almost complete relief from some truly horrible back pains I suffered when using a basic cheap chair at my desk. But even the best chair in the world is still a chair and growing medical evidence reveals that sitting down, even for modest periods of time, can cause swift and significant deterioration to our health. This is not just another trendy health topic, since for a while now I've felt a gradual, but noticeable, increase in minor aches and pains due to my own sedentary habits. Of course age will play a part in this too, I'm fifty-one, but on rare days when I'm away from my desk I'm a much more mobile, ache-free and happy fifty-one. Comfortable though my chair is then, I need to ensure that I'm sitting in it as little as possible.

The inevitable Info-Graphic

Thanks to recently discovering Dan Benjamin's excellent 5 by 5 podcasts I’ve now read Robb Wolf’s book, The Paleo Solution. This book compounded a lot of nagging thoughts I'd been having recently that could be generally classified under the ‘Getting your Shit together’ category. Robb's book covers a lot of health issues in tremendous detail; diet, exercise, sleep, etc., all important components of our overall good health, but his information on the effects of sedentary behaviour was particularly well presented - and truly frightening!

And then I found this:

Sitting is Killing You
Via: Medical Billing And Coding

(Thanks for those nightmares Twitter!)

If you take a look at this graphic you'll see the health risks resulting from 6.5 hours of sitting per day - but I can easily clock up 12 hours on a typical day, how about you? I knew I had to start reversing my descent into a slothful 'Millar-Chair' potato and the obvious first step for me is to...

Stand and Deliver!

For a start I'm making some changes at my desk which will oblige me to perform more physical activity, starting with creating a standing workspace. Although my main type of work is in visual design and the creation of images (normally requiring me to be seated with careful control of my mouse or Wacom pen) I can still work on the more 'admin' and project management type of tasks while standing and using a laptop (or iPad). There is a substantial amount of admin work like this in my day so I ought to be on my feet quite a bit.

A standing workspace is a relatively easy change to effect, but it should make an immediate noticeable difference to the detrimental effects of the endurance sitting sessions. This means finding a high-level working surface for the laptop, ironically for me this turns out to be a big drawing board on a floor stand - exactly what I used to work at before the Mac irrevocably changed the design world. As an added bonus I will once again have a proper angled drawing board for sketch work and rough concepts, I haven't enjoyed one of these in a long time, having made do with spare desk space around my keyboard for basic notepad sketching. I'll not be standing all the time I'm working though, but will certainly aim to stand more than sit during the working day.

I've seen that there is a trend (particularly in the USA) for using a Treadmill while working at a laptop, but I'm not quite ready for that yet, I think actively walking and trying to concentrate on a screen would not be very efficient, for me anyway. I've seen what appears to be the ideal solution: the Geek Desk a smart move by a company who have picked up on this trend and are producing motorised variable height desks. It's a great idea, you can either sit or stand at the same desk with all your tech in it's usual place, with the desk itself changing from sitting to standing height in minutes. Geek desks are expensive but I'd say a worthwhile investment, for now though I'll see how I get on with my desk/drawing board arrangement.

I've been following some interesting discussions on Conor O'Neill's blog too as he works on creating a standing workspace.

Onwards and Appwards

As the meme says: 'There's an App for that' and I've found a few that can help break the bad habits of the endurance sitting sessions. One of my favourites is 'Time Out', a timing application that dims your Mac screen at (your choice of) pre-selected intervals. To get the best from Time Out though you really have to respect the breaks that you programme into it - if you keep hitting the snooze button and ignoring those breaks (not that I'd do that!) you're wasting your time. This app is Mac only, although I believe there is a similar app for Windows.

The Pomodoro Technique: This is a useful for helping you 'Work the Dash', meaning you work diligently for a specified time, then enjoy a short break. The combination of hard work (in short bursts) followed by the guaranteed reward of a break (in which you are recommended to do something enjoyable) is a great motivator. For the purposes of this post though the real benefit here is in the breaks rather than the 'dashes'. There are Mac Desktop and iOS versions of this app.

There is also this useful site (now in my browser bookmarks bar) detailing a few easy exercises for the desk-bound. Bonus points if you do these exercises during the breaks prompted by Time Out ;-)

Hopefully by now you are suitably shaken and stirred to take steps (literally) to get out of your chair for more regular breaks. These simple preventative measures you can take while at your desk are important in breaking unhealthy habits, but a significant part of the overall solution to the sedentary trap is a good exercise routine. Such an exercise routine is beyond the scope of this post, but I highly recommend you look into it, soon - and preferably while standing at your computer!

Wednesday
Jun012011

Not a Book

Whatever we're reading on the iPad, iPhone/Kindle/Pretender to the Throne etc., it's not a book.
I feel we need a new name for this type of media, after all we've already created a variety of names for other categories of printed matter to distinguish them from books, e.g., A Newspaper, A Magazine, A leaflet,
or A brochure.

So, apart from cultural inertia, why do we still cling to the (increasingly inaccurate) name of ‘Book’ for long-form text content we read on an iPad, or similar device?


As always: Change is the constant.

Related: Terrific article on the future of the book by @craigmod

Tuesday
Apr192011

A new icon for iThoughts

Ithoughtsicon 114Much as I love using my iPad it’s only as good as the apps that run on it and ‘good’ for official ‘business’ apps is especially important as these are not for casual entertainment. Efficiency and fit-for-purpose are the main reasons for buying business apps in the first place.

A while ago I was looking for a good mindmapping app for my iPad and, while waiting for the ‘official’ Buzan app, I discovered iThoughts HD. The Youtube demos were very impressive and it was further encouraging to read some very positive testimonials to iThoughts from a lot of folks whose opinion I respect, including one of my heroes, Steve Krug.

IThoughts HD makes great use of the iOS touchscreen, offering an intuitive and fluid experience that makes it easy to focus on the work of actually building the mindmap, rather than the tools being used to build it. I’m convinced the touch interface actually makes for much more efficient mindmapping experience than a desktop UI, there is something unique in driving data around the screen directly just using your fingers. I find this with many of the more ‘mature’ iOS touch apps, where the developers have taken full advantage of what iOS is capable of. Some tasks seem to be a natural fit for a touch-driven interface, if the apps themselves are designed well.

Most good developers will put their best into programming and coding their app, which is the right thing to do after all, but some surprisingly neglect the presentation of their app (and it's usefulness) to potential customers. Unfortunately neglecting the presentation of an app could significantly hobble the sales potential of the finished offering.

The iTunes App Store is an eye-candy battleground, with the bar already set high for quality of presentation. When faced with a row of competing and similarly featured apps a potential customer will be easily swayed by a more polished, professional and 'expected' icon for an app, rather than a weak ‘DIY’ attempt from someone who is obviously not a designer.

I have actually bought some great functioning apps that display poor branding and icons, but only after fairly exhaustive research in gaining enough trust to overcome the mis-matched branding. Unfortunately most potential customers won’t undertake that amount of work before deciding on buying an app.

So I contacted Craig Scott, the developer of iThoughts, and suggested that improvements could be made to the core icon for his app and the presentation of it via website, iTunes Store, etc. Craig was under no illusions about the quality of the existing icons for iThoughts HD and readily understood the need for improvement. Although I’m familiar with mindmapping apps I asked Craig to brief me on how he wanted iThoughts HD presented and, taking this into consideration, I proceeded to develop some concepts for a new icon style for iThoughts HD.

 

Ithoughts icons sketches

 

From the initial pencil concepts Craig chose one to take to a more polished visual treatment, he had a clear idea of the elements we should use in the icon as he primarily wanted to convey the purpose of the iThoughts HD app itself. So I worked on the concept of branched nodes, a fairly direct visualising of what a mindmap typically looks like. I particularly wanted to keep the elements strong and simple, for swift recognition and clarity at the smallest image sizes, such as document attachment icons. We both agreed on a strong contrasting colour scheme, saturated blues and a bright orange, for contrast on the finished icon. The icon works best when it is quickly identifiable, to help sales in the iTunes Store and for actual use on the iOS device itself.

Ithoughts oldnew icon

I’m pleased to have heard positive feedback from Craig that the new-look icon was well received by his customers and it’s also good to see that the presentation of the iThoughts app now more closely matches the experience of using Craig’s excellent software.

 

Ithought masthead banner

 

Craig was lucky too when iThoughts was chosen to appear as a featured app on the iTunes Store. I created a few banners for this and enjoyed seeing iThoughts displayed prominently on the storefront, for a short while.

If you’re familiar with mindmapping, and are an iOS user check out the iThoughts apps, for iPhone and iPad.

 

Monday
Nov292010

Better Photos from your iPhone Part 2

iphone-camera-icon.png

Part one of this series was the backstory for why I became interested in using the iPhone camera with more serious intent for capturing good images. In part 2 I’m getting into the nitty-gritty of the actual techniques I’ve found that have significantly improved the quality of the photos I’ve taken with my iPhone, so here we go...

GET A GRIP


With any camera it is a fundamental requirement (unless seeking a particular creative effect) to hold it as still as possible when releasing the shutter. This is particularly important with the iPhone since you have no control over the shutter speed selected, it is best to expect a slower shutter speed than you'd prefer and to hold the iPhone with two hands, if possible. It will also aid stability if you hold the iPhone as close to your body as you can, tuck your elbows into your sides will also help steady your hands, the aim here is to make your body the tripod.

Try bracing yourself against a wall or other support if available, any solid fixture is good for this - it’s not much good having a steady grip on your iPhone if your whole body is still moving, even slightly. I’ve had surprisingly good sharp photos at crazy low shutter speeds on ’regular’ cameras by bracing myself against walls, pillars, tables, lampposts etc.

Alternatively, instead of bracing your whole body, I’ve found it very effective to brace even just the iPhone, press one of the sides of the iPhone (careful of the buttons here) against a wall or tabletop - confining even one axis of movement of your iPhone may be enough to stop inadvertent camera movement and keep your images sharp.

And finally (the obvious solution) use a tripod! There are plenty of very useful and ingenious supports now available, from cheap and cheerful to insane industrial solutions for more serious photogs and budding cinematographers. A few suggestions:

Joby Gorilla tripod
Olwe Bubo (totally over the top, but tempting for serious iPhone shooters)
Glif (impressive Kick-starter project too)
Moviepeg (brilliantly simple iPhone stand)

Sellotape/Bluetack - anything that holds it still, or props it up - though you need a self-timer app for this (the Joby app is a good free one).

Remember on 3GS (and above) you also have to touch the screen to select focus too, requiring octopus-like dexterity at times when trying to steady the iPhone, shade the lens, touch-focus and then release the shutter - so a tripod may be more useful than you’d think.

Here’s a quick ’n’ dirty video I’ve made to illustrate how I grip the iPhone when shooting. Emphasis here is on holding the iPhone as steady as possible while still being able to operate the features and shield the lens in case of flare.



THE SHUTTER RELEASE


In case you haven't figured this out yet - the shutter actually takes the picture when you release your finger from it. It's important to be aware of for this, and allow for it, as timing your shot is already tricky on these types of cameras.

Also the shutter on the iPhone is known as a ‘rolling’ shutter, the sensor is actually exposed in a sweeping scan, rather than all at once. This can cause bizarre stretching or fracturing of the captured image, but usually only when the iPhone is moved significantly during exposure and along certain axis/angles of movement.

Although usually seen as a problem his can also be used to creative effect, e.g. When panning a shot to follow a moving subject.

KEEP IT CLEAN!


If you're using your iPhone without a case you'll probably find the outer element of the lens area nearly always has oil from your skin (or other materials) on it. Gross, I know!

Always wipe the outmost glass on a clean bit of fabric, or tissue (maybe even a few times) before shooting, check that your cleaning has worked too before you take the shot. When I'm about to take a photo with my iPhone I always rub the corner of the iPhone (lens side) against my shirt, or sleeve to make sure the lens is as clean as I can get it before taking my shot.

A proper optical wipe (the type you can get for glasses) is great, if you happen to have them. Like any camera you've no chance of obtaining good image quality if the lens is obscured by anything.

If you already use a case around your iPhone then you may suffer from another problem, the lens may now be recessed inside the case aperture. This can result in dust and debris from your pocket collecting inside this aperture and around the lens area. So in that case your cleaning procedure would involve blowing out the dust before shooting - I’ve a friend who recommended carrying a camera blower-brush precisely for dealing with this!

TOUCH TO FOCUS (3GS and above)


An elegant, and fitting, solution for the iPhone camera, also one that is now being copied by the more traditional camera manufacturers ~ imitation is the sincerest form of flattery indeed!

This selectable focus feature makes for a much better photo than just increasing the sensor megapixels, as it allows you to decide the area of interest in your shot for sharpness and exposure. Take care how you use this: try several areas in your frame, often a balance between extremes is needed, bracket plenty!

This tech actually does three things: sets exposure, focus and white-balance. Be aware though that this feature also affects how you hold the iPhone for the shot - and not in a good way! Whatever way you hold the iPhone you will need a finger or thumb available to tap the screen for focus, then quickly release the shutter. I say quickly because I’ve noticed that the iPhone camera will reset focus and exposure to a general centred selection within about 4 seconds or so after tapping your preference on the screen, so don’t wait long after selecting your focus point.

For maximum hilarity try doing all this while shading the lens from flare!

I’ve already dropped my iPhone once when trying to apply a convoluted series of gestures during shooting with it, so I’ve added an Ottercase and a wrist-strap (my own hack) to my nice new iPhone 4 - hate to loose the aesthetic, but hate the thought of losing the iPhone even more. You can see the Ottercase in the video.

LIGHTS CAMERA ACTION!


Mostly a great photograph needs great light, and it is most definitely one of the iPhone’s main strengths as a camera that you’re likely to always have it with you if the light suddenly changes turning the ordinary into something extraordinary. This can often happen quite fast, so if you notice the light changing watch how it’s affecting everything you see and grab your iPhone quick, as the effect may be gone again just as fast. Some of my favourite iPhone shots have been caught within a few short-lived moments of glorious light, and when it’s gone, it’s gone!


Poor lighting...


Church dull lighting

Same scene, the only thing changed is the lighting...


Church at sunset

Beware of flare when shooting towards any light-source, the glass protection over the iPhone lens is exposed and flat - catching and spreading nearly any light that falls onto it. Flare like this can ruin a photo, creating unexpected intense colour shapes and generally bleaching out colours and contrast everywhere. Luckily it is a relatively easy problem to fix, always try to shade the lens if the light source is out of frame, use your hand, or a hat, or your pal with you if possible! You’ll know when it’s working as you ought to see the shadow from your hand falling over the lens glass, be careful too in keeping your hand out of the frame when shooting.

This can make a huge difference when photographing facing into the light.

Shooting into sunlight without shielding the lens...


Lagan path backlight flare

Shooting into sunlight, this time shielding the lens...



Lagan path backlight


IN GENERAL


As with most small sensor cameras performance in low-light is not very good and, due to the iPhones auto shutter-speed, you’ll need to keep the iPhone extra-steady when shooting in poor light.

For brightly lit photos be very selective with the touch-to-focus (if you have it) and be careful of highlight burn-out in very bright areas - the small sensor has a narrow dynamic range.
If your iPhone is 3GS or lower you won’t have a flash (you’re not missing much!), but you can still modify the available light by using a reflector (anything largish and light-coloured) to bounce light back into a shadow area. You can also use almost any form of lighting to help illuminate your subject, as long as you can move it, or your subject into a better position. Be mindful of how the light actually looks, artificial lights can be harsh, diffuse it if possible.
Also avoid extreme back lighting (e.g. subject standing inside a window with daylight behind them), or foreground light (e.g. Subject brightly lit, but background very dark). This does not usually end well!

iPhone image quality is very good, for a device of it’s type, but not great when compared to ‘big’ cameras, so go for strong composition, geometric, graphic, contrast - look at the shapes on the view screen, move around, re-compose if necessary. It’s not costing you anything to shoot extra frames - so shoot plenty!

Make the most of it the big iPhone screen, it is an excellent viewfinder and what you see is what you’re getting in your shot. Of course try vertical and landscape orientations too - sometimes even an obviously vertical opportunity can benefit from a landscape composition.

The iPhone has a fixed wide-angle lens & it does not zoom (forget the digital zoom), that means your feet are the zoom!

I’ll close this part with a great quote from the inimitable Joe McNally: ‘Get your lens in a different place!’ Don’t settle for the lazy and obvious option of shooting from your typical standing posture, get low, lower, lie on the ground - get high (I mean altitude!), stand on a chair/wall/stationery bystander, climb something!

Thankfully this is somewhat easier to do with a small device like the iPhone.

We now have some great camera apps available for the iPhone, and there are many to choose from, but I have a few must-haves on my list - more on these in Part Three…

Sunday
Oct242010

MiFi Review

The short summary: Fast and easily portable mobile Internet for any WiFi enabled device.

The not-so-short full story: read on…

Some time ago I enjoyed a trial period from Three.co.uk for their MiFi device and here’s how I found it, primarily as a companion for my iPad. The iPad I’m using is the 3G version, so I was able to directly compare performance of the MiFi against the onboard access via the O2 network.

For a start I did some stats-only testing using the excellent Speedtest (iTunes link) app on my iPad. This provided me with some ‘hard science’ figures on access speeds, although what it actually means when using the browser in a ‘real world’ situation can feel quite different. Access speed depends on quite a few variables, but the figures below show an averaged ‘typical’ result for the locations I tested this at.

At Belfast Airport location:

iPad via MiFi: Upload : 1151mbs  -  Download: 1574
iPad via 3G: Upload : 350mbs  -  Download: 200mbs (Strange result, but that’s what Speedtest was showing me!).

In Lisburn town centre:

iPad via MiFi: Upload : 1625mbs  -  Download: 995mbs
iPad via 3G: Upload : 240mbs  -  Download: 600mbs

Although I was accessing both Three.co.uk and O2 via 3G the access speeds were noticeably faster for Three.co.uk in almost every test I performed, for both statistics and real browser behaviour. This makes a very convincing case for the MiFi. 

Also, as a not-very-scientific example I accessed several Wikipedia pages to see what these download figures mean in real terms when wanting to browse the web. I choose the same set of pages and forced a total refresh of the cache on iPad between reloading the pages each time.

Basically I found that fully downloading a lightweight Wikipedia page took about the same time (6 seconds) on an iPad 3G cell network connection as it did via the MiFi - but when accessing larger pages I could see a significant improvement on the MiFi. Strangely I also did some comparisons using O2 Openzone and found the MiFi still had the edge in speed. I expected Openzone would easily have delivered the fastest access, but this was not so.

The Mi-Fi unit itself is sturdily built and appears capable of withstanding a fair degree of abuse, although I did find a few minor issues with the model I was using. In some instances the buttons along the side of the MiFi were a little stiff to operate, the casing seemed to be a tiny bit too close a fit on the model I was using and this sometimes impeded the movement of the buttons. This was only an occasional and minor issue though, powering up and activating the various functions was easy enough, once I was accustomed to the startup sequence. In any case Three.co.uk have now replaced the device I was testing with a newer (and much better designed) model. I’ve seen the new version up close and it obviates the minor physical issues I had with the earlier model, the new version is pretty much a complete redesign - and very nice it is too.

I found the icons on the screen a little cryptic at first, but after a quick scan over the brief user guide all became clear.

Basically there are five status icons to show: 1)Power on/Battery 2)Network access 3) WiFi 4) High-Speed network 5) Roaming

These icon LEDs also change colour to indicate status changes for some of these features, e.g., red for ‘no cellular access’ and green > amber > red for battery status. On the current model this has all been replaced with a much simpler single LCD panel.

With regular use the status icons are understandable at a glance and a simple power-on sequence can be performed quickly, after which the MiFi can be returned to a pocket or bag and you can browse away without giving it a further thought. This is the essence of the MiFi - turn it on connect your device and off you go browsing/emailing, Twittering etc., and I must say it performs spectacularly well at this.

The WiFi network password is clearly labelled on each device, just key it into your iPad/laptop and it should connect right away. It is also possible to connect up to five devices with the MiFi, handy if you need to connect an iPhone and an iPad, or a laptop at the same time, or if you wish to share your connection with others.

Overall I found the MiFi to be a terrific device - an absolute must-have if your devices do not include SIM card features of their own - and if you find yourself bereft of a WiFi zone (which, in my part of the world, is most of the time). It really does live up to it’s promise of easy and fast mobile Internet access and makes a great companion for an iPad. Of course you are obliged to carry an extra device for mobile access but the compact size of the MiFi and it’s ability to operate from a pocket or bag makes it an easily portable choice. Battery life for the MiFi was pretty useable too, I was getting about 4 hours plus of continuous use and it will automatically time out to energy-saving mode if you forget to turn it off.

Incidentally, something else I noticed, when I accessed a Youtube video via 3G on my iPad I received the very compressed ‘3G’ lower quality version of the video, but connecting via the MiFi served the video in whatever resolutions were available - good to know that.

Please note that the model I tested has now been replaced by a much-improved updated model, which improves the already good MiFi in almost every respect, from aesthetics and ergonomics to build quality. I would definitely recommend a MiFi as an excellent mobile Internet solution for those who don’t already have SIM-enabled devices, or even for those who do and are flush/nerdy enough to afford an alternative network access. The Pay As You Go prices are modest and there are also some good deals on MiFi contracts, checkout the Three.co.uk MiFi section of the site for details.

Three.co.uk are also pretty active on Twitter, account name is: @ThreeUKLatest if you’re interested in following them.